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Bewildering Stories

Reading Around the Bend

by Don Webb

It’s hard to see how everything in this issue would be to everyone’s taste. I suspect some of us will be driven up the wall and others, around the bend. I think it’s time to tell a true story. Consider it a cautionary tale.

When I was a student, an eon or two ago, a kindly old professor was holding forth on one of Ronsard’s sonnets. Ronsard was telling his latest girlfriend, Cassandre, in effect: “Let’s go see the rose. But alas, its petals are all fallen. Beauty is like that, so pluck the roses of life while ye may.”

My summary doesn’t do the poem justice, of course; it was darn good, and I could see why every textbook and anthology included it. But to my surprise, our K.O. Prof. snorted with righteous indignation: “Humbug! Emotional blackmail! He’s saying ‘Pluck Pierre Ronsard’ while ye may, because I like you only for your looks. Naughty, naughty Pierre Ronsard, to talk to a girl like that.”

Now, I knew the professor was wrong. But I was young and didn’t know how to say it, which was probably just as well.

Well, maybe Ronsard was lusting after beauteous Cassandre; that sounds normal. But I knew very little about Ronsard, and I knew nothing at all about Cassandre. And frankly, I didn’t much care about either of them.

I did know that the poem was inspired by similar ones from the Italian Renaissance. And the Italians even had a name for the topic: carpe diem. Now, when things have Latin names, you can bet they’ve been around long enough to become commonplaces. And that’s exactly what the poem is.

While I’ve never cared why Ronsard wrote the poem, I do care about the poem itself; it expresses in a concise and beautiful way an emotion that everyone feels at one time or another. Not all the time, of course, or we’d go nuts. But occasionally; that’s normal. If the unexamined life is not worth living, then all of it is worth examining, and the feeling of carpe diem is part of it.

The same is true with some of the poems we’ve published this quarter. Some may have weaknesses and could be better written, but the topics — like Ronsard’s — are legitimate. The same will be true with more than one of the works in this issue: I would never have imagined them, I sometimes disagree with their world view, and they may even make me uncomfortable enough to raise questions. So much the better: that’s why we have The Critics’ Corner and the official Challenge.

If we read only to validate our own viewpoints, we’re wasting our time; we don’t need literature to do that: we can just crawl in a hole and pull it in after us. The value of literature — I learned from Ronsard among many — consists in looking at things through others’ eyes. They may be there when we need them, but that’s accidental; rather they’re there for when we’ll need them.

The moral of the story is: Don’t be like my K.O. Prof; that way lies fusty insularity. Be a student. Never mind whether you would have written these works or even agree with them; ask rather, are they written well enough for their own purposes? And then do as well or better in showing us how you look at things.

Copyright © 2007 by Don Webb for Bewildering Stories

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