April 22, 2016KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsReading

Clowns and Poetry (Part One)

Ann Arbor’s weather of late has been a bit berserk. It snowed two weeks ago; then it was eighty degrees. Today it’s gray and rainy, conditions that pass for spring-like in the Midwest. Students are taking exams and turning in portfolios; the cherry blossoms in my front yard are considering whether to bloom. It’s a transitional time: people are graduating, changing jobs, falling in love, having babies, dying. (Some of these transitions are happening all the time, regardless of the season. But bear with me.) It’s a time for the Clown’s song, from Act II, Scene 3 of Twelfth Night:

O mistress mine, where are you roaming?
O, stay and hear; your true love’s coming,
That can sing both high and low:
Trip no further, pretty sweeting;
Journeys end in lovers meeting,
Every wise man’s son doth know.

What is love? ’tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What’s to come is still unsure:
In delay there lies no plenty;
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty,
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

(It’s almost time to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday; he’ll be 452 tomorrow. And he’ll have been gone for 400 years.)

The Clown’s song mixes melancholy and mirth; it participates in the long tradition of lovers trying to seize the day (and make the sun run). As Kabir asked (at least a century before Shakespeare, and in this Robert Bly translation), “If you don’t break your ropes while you’re alive, / do you think ghosts / will do it after?”

But we were talking about life, not death; about clowns, not ghosts. Here’s a poem by Emily Dickinson that feels appropriate to this April day:

A little Madness in the Spring
Is wholesome even for the King,
But God be with the Clown—
Who ponders this tremendous scene—
This whole Experiment of Green—
As if it were his own!

It’s not his own, of course—and the experiment will ultimately collapse (only to start again, and collapse again)—but we sort of love the clown’s attempt at claiming it. The days, we know, get longer; then they get shorter. As the Clown in Twelfth Night sings before the final curtain: “A great while ago the world begun, / With hey, ho, the wind and the rain, / But that’s all one, our play is done.” Or as Richard Meyer writes in “October Closing”:

The red and yellow tents come down,
the trapeze sky turns gray,
a lagging harlequin in brown
looks back and walks away.