Poetry Read-Through, Poem For the Time of Change by Archibald MacLeish

22 Nov

Happy Thanksgiving!  For this special holiday, in between checking and rechecking my turkey as it bakes, I am doing a read-through of Poem for the Time of Change by Archibald MacLeish.    I was going to choose The German Girls! The German Girls! because it sounds very thankful, but it seems a little, not in the Thanksgiving spirit of thankfulness, if you know what I mean.

For background, I had gotten this giant book of poems from Powells of Archibald MacLeish.  I’m generally against collected editions of poetry, I mean does anybody need 300 pages of poetry by anyone?  Doesn’t that just sound exhausting?  That’s why I’m cautiously hopeful about the future of poetry as written print drifts towards electric sources.  Poetry is not meant to be consumed in large quantities at once–honestly, it’s like somebody thinks that perfume would be better in 3 gallon jugs, because more equals better, right?

Rather what I want is collections of 10-15 poems, chosen specifically to fit together, in a book that can fit in my pocket, with plenty of blank pages to write what I think in them.  Maybe some discrete art as well.  I’m not picky, they can be paperbacks, written on that cardboardy paper.  And I would sell them for like five bucks apiece.  I’m just saying that one thing that keeps regular people from reading poetry is always presenting some giant bible of every word some author wrote.

Ok, now for the poem, a very short one today, we have the speaker, “There were above me three hawks.”  Keep in mind that MacLeish is writing in 1936, the heart of the Great Depression, and the poetry at the  time is very cognizant of the possibility of war.  But also considering that this is set in a season where winter is coming, the hawks are also creatures that are fully developed to survive harsh seasons, looking for prey.

Inside, it’s the season where flies walk on “the chimney stones, the kitchen ceilings.”  I take this as meaning the weather is cold enough that flies wouldn’t be alive in nature, but in the artificially heated homes, they have lived a bit longer.  However that they’re walking shows that their season is nearly over.  Combining hawks and flies in one poem is interesting, as they aren’t exactly complementary creatures–one being on top of the food chain and the other being so close to the bottom that their relationship to each other isn’t very strong (though the hawk preys on creatures that might prey on flies I suppose.)    Flies also are creatures that come out of bounty, surprisingly, they live off of rotting things–and there’s nothing sitting around rotting in lean cold times.

Keep in mind, our speaker is not seeing these flies, he’s thinking about them–he’s outside with the hawks.  He mentions three hawks again, and the weather–a “ragged and rushing sky” and the hawks “head to the wind’s violence.”    Three is a magic number of sorts, certainly the kind of number that seers and prognosticators always notice.  Three is also the number for pattern–1 could be an exception, 2 a coincidence, but 3 means it’s what is here, we have moved from the season of the fly to the season of the hawk.  Unlike most creatures, the hawks head towards winter and the wind’s violence.

We return back to the flies, who “cling and live a little til the wry/cold/kills them with their numb wings weakly folded.”  There’s a particular focus on their inability to see their own situation “in house-room groping where the vapor rises.”  A big focus on ignorance.  One thing that I can’t shake, though, is the idea that the house-flies might stand for domestic lives, the people who only live from day to day.  Does he think they will all fade?  Well, considering it was 1936, maybe that was a real concern.  If so, the speaker is neither happy nor sad about it, just noting it as a change of seasons.  In a way he was right–domestic life would take a big hit for another decade and a half or so.  The Cold standing for lean times–a time where unaware people won’t do very well.  I can’t help but look at the focus on middle class life, the picket fence and whatnot–isn’t that just an illusion?  Couldn’t it all be taken away in a very short time, and all the things we use to keep the real world far away with it?

And then the final stanza “Three hawks soared in the/rushing sky; before them/winter and its snow/sleet, the wind blowing./Three hawks soared.”

The return to the three hawks over and over again, the speaker seeing this as a sort of sign of harder times again, of cold and want.  However the hawks are soaring–there are some creatures that thrive during winters.  And there’s a sort of foreboding towards the future.

The reason why I chose this poem for Thanksgiving, however depressing it seems, is that it also has the seeds of hope in it.  Personally I found 2012 a very bitter year for our country, the politics were a bit too strong, the stories a bit too cynical, a sense of dreaming gone sour, a sense that regular people  have trouble being heard because of their demands to constantly be a numb fly-like audience.  And the hope is, the good is, that seasons change–whatever is going on right now for good or ill will eventually end and change to the next thing, and the seasons change in ways they have for generations, whatever technology we have today, people are still people.   And in the end, given enough time, amid all the politics and corporations and news media conglomerates, people always win, because of those daily lives, their children and neighbors, their homes.

All we need is for all these people to stop being numbed, and to continue to have these lives and families and homes, while really seeing the world and not be sedated until their wings are pinned behind them.  More hawk and less fly please!

Happy Thanksgiving!


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