First the poem and then the analysis of this beautiful poem by Hoagland:
“We are what is missing from the world”
Some questions have no answer.
Raised, they hang there in the mind
Like open mouths, full of something missing.
The great Portuguese poet, Pessoa,
Said that the idea of happiness
Is what makes men permanently sad.
The body, imagining the soul,
Looks ugly to itself.
A man hears a word, and the world
Becomes a place that he misunderstands.
So he climbs high into his life,
Ashamed of all he doesn’t know,
And refuses to come down.
If you could coax him out again,
You could tell him, say,
That anything can be explained.
The shape of apples, for example,
By their love of travel.
Or that the sky is blue because
It’s an easy color on the eyes.
Even the dog, chasing its tail,
Has, temporarily, a center.
Even the bird, disappearing into his hole
Knows that the world goes on without it.
And Pessoa, that eminently healthy man,
That artist, wore a blue wool hat
Even on the hottest summer days.
Simply to toss at strangers in the street.
He liked to see them catch it,
And grow immediately less strange.
My take (a work in progress, happy to hear suggestions) —
In the beginning, Tony Hoagland says, there are no answers to some questions. He is not clever not answering the questions, he is clever in not even divulging the questions.
Then he gives an example of such a question — What makes us sad? Or why do we become sad. Pessoa said it was because of the presence of the idea of happiness. That we know there is such a thing as happiness — something far from us, something we have to hope and pray for — makes us feel bad about not having it. That is why, Pessoa says we were sad.
Just like we have a body, but we desire something more — a soul — something up higher, something out in the future, something intangible. We might not be sure, but we can believe and trust, and be happy that one day we will know the soul. And we are miserable because we don’t yet know it or have it. But the question is are we really sad because of that? Do we have an answer to that question?
When a person doesn’t understand something, he “climbs high into his life” — perhaps to look for answers. We can try to coax him into coming back to this world by promising him answers to questions: like apples have the shape that they have because they like to travel, and that the sky is blue because it is an easy color to the eye. He knows these answers are wrong, so he is not convinced. He continues to want to learn. To climb higher and higher. The craziness of man continues.
I think the elusive questions that Tony Hoagland talks about in the first line are: Who are you and why are you here? The questions that philosophers and poets have asked for ages. We are crazy enough to climb high in our lives and think that the world cannot go without us, but it can. Even a bird, with less intelligence, knows that when it goes inside its nest, nothing changes in the world. Even a dog, also less intelligence than man, revolves around a center while crazily chasing its tail. But man remains eccentric. He does not know who he is, where he comes from, where he is going, what is his purpose — and he goes from one place to another, thinking he is climbing higher and higher, and you cannot bring him back by simple answers. He is unsatisfied with the answers — which are obviously wrong — but unsatisfied also with uncertainty — so he keeps climbing.
In the end Hoagland talks about strangeness — the questions that we cannot answer. Strangeness cannot completely go away, but we can make things less strange. Like we can throw hats at strangers and let them catch it. We cannot completely answer the questions, but we should be engage with people — it could make us live better with the questions we have. Perhaps in loosing the strangeness, he has accepted the strangeness as his own.
Some questions cannot be answered. The acceptance of strangeness maybe an answer.
Lets take the question of “Who am I?” What is the answer?
There are some who would say we are nothing. See Emily Dickinson’s I am nobody
I’m nobody! Who are you?Are you nobody, too?
There are some who see themselves in all — Walt Whitman’s
What is a man anyhow? what am I? what are you? …
In all people I see myself, none more and not one a barley-corn less, And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them.
I know I am solid and sound, To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow, All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means.
I know I am deathless, I know this orbit of mine cannot be swept by a carpenter’s compass, I know I shall not pass like a child’s carlacue cut with a burnt stick at night.
We are like waves and the sea
I am you, and you are me
But one of the poems that comes closest to the essence of the “question” is Bulleh Shah’s poem “Bulla ki jaana main kaun”
where he says “Who knows who I am?” Bulleh shah accepts the strangeness in the world.