The most important poem I have ever read is Carrion Comfort by Gerard Manley Hopkins. I turn to it often for comfort. But I must quickly add that it is not a greeting card message or saccharine rhyme. It may take some soul searching to discover that despair can be felt as a kind of sickening comfort to wallow in, and that we must find reasons not to do so.
Hopkins was a priest and his work is both lofty and profound. I have recently re-posted a helpful analysis (Carrion Comfort: Hopkins Wrestles with God) by a contemporary poet (Hokku).
The poem ends with one of the most enlightened devices imaginable. For those who do not think it blasphemy to say “My God,” after reading this poem you will always say it twice from now on: The first time as a secular expression of shock, and the second as a sacred expression of awe.
In the audio clip below you will hear why the poem is so important to me, as I explain it to my daughter.
We have seen in earlier postings how the 19th century British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins suffered from terrible episodes of depression, the worst aspects of which were depicted in his poem I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark.
We may see today’s poem as a mate to that other work, because it deals with the same topic, but in a slightly different way. It has the odd title Carrion Comfort.
We should first make sure we know what is meant by carrion. Put very simply, it means dead and decaying flesh. It has a strong undertone of something very unpleasant, as when we speak of vultures feeding on carrion — on dead animals. Many humans, too, eat dead animals, but tend to avoid any signs of decay in what they eat. That did not stop me from now and then remarking to meal mates, when I was…
If I didn’t have photos of this you would think I was making it up: During the depression my mother, poppa, my aunts and I went to a summer camp in Beacon, N.Y. called Camp Nitgedaiget. This was not a fancy place. In fact, it was originally founded by Communists! But what did I know? I was a kid. Here are some pictures, and to hear all about it, scroll down to play the audio where I explain it to my daughter.
Play the audio clip below to hear all about Camp Nitgedaiget…
Here’s a very old photo of Poppa in front of his tailor and dry cleaning store; this must have been in the 1930s. The store was on 77th Street between Fourth and Fifth Avenues in Bay Ridge. I remember every detail inside. There was a huge counter when you walked in. Behind it was the pressing machine, and a big wall of cabinets built by my zayde.
No sooner do we lose Tom Wolfe than Philip Roth shuffles off this mortal coil. But I never did read Philip Roth; I was too busy raising my children and reading Barbara Tuchman. You see, I don’t read fiction other than mystery stories, which are my reading-to-fall-asleep by. Even less would I read contemporary fiction, and for me, Roth was contemporary so he’s not in the pantheon.
Our street, 69th Street (aka Bay Ridge Avenue), had trolleys running in both directions. Same goes for Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn. I remember vividly how boys used to delight in placing pennies on the trolley tracks, then they would wait for the coins to be totally flattened. But this was during the depression so they only used pennies. A nickel was a real money!
At my age, one prefers photos taken from a great distance away. Here is a recent photo of me taken by my daughter. She takes after my husband who would pose me against a backdrop such as a vast landscape and tell me that I was needed “just for scale”.