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Getting at something mysterious

William Meredith is one of the most elegant, humane and accessible poets of the post-World War II generation that included John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Randall Jarrell and Richard Wilbur. In an interview he gave in 1983, shortly before suffering a stroke that has left him debilitated for more than 20 years, he remarked, "The only thing the poet has to say is how he got an insight into what everybody else already knows."

This statement argues against the notion that poets are prophets or high priests, in favor of a more modest role as re-inventers of common experience.

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"Insight" is what separates poets from others, but Meredith believes that insight is available to anyone who pays close attention to the world around them. In the same interview he said: "A poem is getting at something mysterious, which no amount of staring straight-on has ever solved, something like death or love or treachery."

Death and love figure prominently in Meredith's evocative and memorable poem "Parents." The poem was based, Meredith told his interviewer, on "a Thanksgiving dinner where a couple I'm very fond of had three surviving parents. The three parents seemed to be valid, charming, interesting people, about my own age, and to their children they seemed, as parents normally do, embarrassing, stupid, tedious, albeit lovable.

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"I saw my friends suffering and I remembered such suffering. The poem essentially says, 'It is in the nature of things that one's own parents are tacky, and this should give you compassion because your children will find you tacky.' "

The poem is built on a list of universal grievances that children hold against their parents. Parents lie to protect, coddle, turn into enemies, grow old, persist in their love, and make compromises. All of which, their sons and daughters feel certain, they possess brains and self-awareness enough to avoid.

But what turns the children from grievance to self- indictment is the realization that "the worst thing,/ they all do it, is to die." Death replaces love and all its deep-seated antagonisms with inconsolable and inexplicable absence. Death is something even these children know will happen to them. At this point, the poem because less about the difficulty of loving one's parents and more about accepting one's place in the "chain" of life.

The necessity or recognition of this acceptance and the courage it takes to face it is the particular insight that William Meredith discovers in the common - one could say cliched - situation that engendered the poem.

Although William Meredith has received both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for poetry (in 1987 and 1996, respectively) and has served as consultant in poetry (the title is now U.S. poet laureate) to the Library of Congress, he deserves to be more widely read. A good place for readers to start is Effort at Speech: New and Selected Poems, from which "Parents" is reprinted.

Michael Collier is poet laureate of Maryland. Poet's Corner appears monthly in Arts & Society.

Parents

By William Meredith

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(for Vanessa Meredith and Samuel Wolf Gezari)

What it must be like to be an angel

or a squirrel, we can imagine sooner.

The last time we go to bed good,

they are there, lying about darkness.

They dandle us once too often,

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these friends who become our enemies.

Suddenly one day, their juniors

are as old as we yearn to be.

They get wrinkles where it is better

smooth, odd coughs, and smells.

It is grotesque how they go on

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loving us, we go on loving them.

The effrontery, barely imaginable,

of having caused us. And of how.

Their lives: surely

we can do better than that.

This goes on for a long time. Everything

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they do is wrong, and the worst thing,

they all do it, is to die,

taking with them the last explanation,

how we came out of the wet sea

or wherever they got us from,

taking the last link

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of that chain with them.

Father, mother, we cry, wrinkling,

to our uncomprehending children and grandchildren.

"Parents" is reprinted from Effort at Speech: New and Selected Poems by William Meredith, published by Triquarterly Books/Northwestern University Press in 1997. Copyright M-) 1997 by William Meredith. All rights reserved; used by permission of Northwestern University Press and the author.


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