Bernal Hill (pictured to the right) boasts an unobstructed view of photogenic San Francisco. So, it is unsurprising that it spawned a poem that bears its name.
The piece is by Randall Mann, an openly gay poet who often writes about life in San Francisco and who was the recipient of the prestigious Kenyon Review Prize in Poetry in 2003.
I like the poem because it is simple and it rhymes. And, anything that is simple, rhymes and works is an intentionally modest work of art.
Bernal HillSomething has to give.We stand above it all.Below, the buildings’ tallbut tiny narrative.
The water’s always near,you say. And so are you,for now. It has to do.There’s little left to fear.
A wind so cold, one mightforget that winter’s gone.The city lights are onfor us, to us, tonight.
Photo Credit: Jack French, from San Francisco, CA
Sweet poem, rooted in its place–as much as “Dover Beach,” the poem to which “Bernal Hill” is responding.
When a poem set in San Francisco begins “Something has to give,” one is made instantly aware that the ground underfoot may give at any moment. The glittering city, and especially its tall towers, is ephemeral. The buildings’ “tall but tiny narrative” might be what Howard Moss once called “money talking with nothing to say.” What also makes the narrative tiny is that it is short–these buildings will be swept away.
As in “Dover Beach,” the narrator addresses his beloved. But instead of saying “Ah, love, let us be true / To one another!,” he settles for “And so are you [near], / for now. It has to do.” The lovers stand on shaky ground. The narrator seems to understand that their love is doomed (he doesn’t say why, but all love comes to an end one way or another) and, with acceptance of that doom, “There’s little left to fear.” They suffer the sharp wind and behold an astonishing sight. In “Dover Beach,” “the world, which seems / To lie before us like a land of dreams” is really only a “darkling plain.” In “Bernal Hill,” San Francisco is actually a land of dreams, and the dream of love is the sweetest dream. It will be over soon. Let’s enjoy it while we can.
I’m not sure I agree that a rhyming poem is an intentionally modest work of art. Because this is a carpe diem poem, it fits in the (possibly) longest tradition of lyric poetry. Its modesty may lie in joining a teeming crowd. But rhyme combined, as it is here, with the poet’s easy vernacular is not a simple trick. Just read the millions of self-published poems on the Internet with their deadly forced rhymes and you’ll get a nose bleed from the pummeling. Ow, ow, ow! No, don’t do it. Trust me.
What could be called modest about the poem is that it takes the form of a man speaking to men. It doesn’t impress us with its vocabulary. It doesn’t deform the language. It doesn’t set out to puzzle us and make us aware (over and over again) that “language is unstable” and that the poet, armed with this unique knowledge, is much smarter than we are. Rather, it relates a common experience and appeals to the senses, and the result is that it conveys wisdom. There are critics who condescendingly label this kind of poem “wisdom poetry”; it is, in fact, actual poetry.
Here’s what I think: “Bernal Hill” makes it new. Ezra Pound’s dictum has been widely misunderstood as an incitement to put language through a mangle. What he meant was that, when you read a poem, you think “I have not heard it said this way before.” Because “Bernal Hill” is part of a tradition, it is not entirely new. It is recognizably a part of the great conversation. To strike out in an entirely new direction–to create an entirely new kind of poem or poetry after millennia of this stuff–is possible (e.g., write a program that generates random words in at least three languages) but is it desirable? If we already have money talking with nothing to say, is it desirable to have poets babbling like village idiots with nothing to say other than “Look! Look! Language is unstable!” The kind of truth that is found in poems like “Bernal Hill” is different from the truth of science or journalism or the even more cramped “truthiness” of politics and marketing. Nor is it exactly the wisdom of philosophy, which abdicated its role in ethics and left it to fiction.
The lyric poem makes important those things that are taken to be trivial and commonplace, for example, standing on a windy hill overlooking a city at night with one’s lover. It is successful when the poet has control of his art and trusts his readers to give the poem a sympathetic reading.
The sympathetic reading is what makes poetry a living art. As Whitman said, “To have great poets, there must be great audiences.” I think that’s what we’re losing. When I taught Freshman English at UC Santa Barbara in the early ’70s, my job was largely to teach students to read critically. We read “Dover Beach.” I don’t know if poems are read at all in introductory English classes. I fear that they have all become remedial classes, desperately trying to make students functionally literate but not culturally literate. Around eight years ago, Philip Roth, in an interview with Tina Brown, said that reading novels would become a “cult” activity in the near future. Reading poems, of course, has been a cult activity for some time. Jimmy Merrill once told me that we live in a time when more people write poetry than actually read it. Which is to say that not even poets read poetry, which means that they remain outside the tradition. Jimmy has been dead these 20 years, and things have only gotten worse.
Am I saying that not having read “Dover Beach” is a bar to a sympathetic reading of “Bernal Hill”? Maybe I am. The functional but not culturally literate reader is apt to say of “Bernal Hill” either (1) “I don’t get it” or (2) “I get it but so what?” There’s a third possibility, which I see on the Internet in the comments of poetry lovers, replete with exclamation marks, who rhapsodize over tangents: “Wouldn’t it be great to know the tall but tiny narrative of the buildings? They have so much to tell us! I feel that the narrator of the poem is sad here, because he cannot hear these tall tales because they are so far away.” These readers have been taught that a poem means whatever you want it to mean. They are the Humpty Dumpties of the Internet and they are legion and they are not the great audience that Whitman posited.
In some cultures, poets are still imprisoned and murdered, and their writing is still suppressed, and the poets are revered for speaking truth to power. In our culture, poets are “admired” and “beloved” but not actually read or understood. Democratic presidents invite them to read at their inaugurals. Rest stops on the New Jersey Turnpike are named for Walt Whitman and (oh, dear God) Joyce Kilmer. We have our poet laureate, who “promotes” poetry to school children. We have our poetry prizes that sometimes include cash, as much as $100,000, thanks to a shy, retiring heir to a pharmaceutical fortune, and who’d a thunk it?
I persist in my cult behavior because I enjoy it. I actually enjoy poems, some of them. Thank you for sharing “Bernal Hill” with us and for introducing me to Randall Mann. Life still affords some pleasant surprises.
I confess that I did not pick up the “Dover” reference. As such, I’ll have to write about it on my post tomorrow!
I remember reading the poem in high school, or someplace like that, but it didn’t come to mind when I read “Bernal.”
I guess that makes me a poor reader? Or just a contemporary one?