Saturday, May 09, 2009

The Captain and the Reader

by Jane Hirshfield

Its vision sweeps its one path
like an aged monk raking a garden,
his question long ago answered or moved on.
Far off, night-grazing horses,
breath scented with oat grass and fennel,
step through it, disappear, step through it, disappear.

The Captain and the Reader
by Andrew Christ
[submitted as partial fulfillment of the requirements of application to Warren Wilson College MFA, March 2009]

The effect of the poem “Lighthouse” by Jane Hirshfield is to create in the reader a sophisticated sense of friendship toward humanity. In this paper, I will show that, by focusing the reader's attention on the lighthouse, the poet expects the reader to figure out the extent to which the monk is similar to the lighthouse. I will also show that, by not mentioning the sea captain in the poem, the poet has deliberately attenuated the didactic tone of the poem. I will explain how the poet creates the complicated effect by asking the reader to take into account how the poet sets the scene of the poem.
With “Lighthouse,” Hirshfield puts her readers in a field with a lighthouse at night. There may be danger nearby – a cliff, a rocky coast. It is perhaps safer for the captains of the ships at sea than it is for us as we are in the dark and near the shore. The captains can benefit more easily from the lighthouse and its beam of light than we can. But this is a calm night – horses graze within sight on oats and fennel grass. The horses may be wild, but perhaps it is a domestic scene.
Hirshfield intends the poem to have an impersonal feel: it neither addresses the reader directly nor introduces a speaking “I”. The “night-grazing” horses are “far off”, but we know that their breath smells of “oat grass and fennel”. Do we know this because we have spent some time there and are familiar with the scene? Perhaps, but I don't think that's the likely interpretation. There is no person in the poem, only an imagined monk. A lighthouse, the cynosure of the poem, is built with the purpose of aiding anyone at sea in an impersonal, useful, responsible and perhaps generous way. From what we have in the poem, we don't know if any captain at sea is benefitting from the light from the lighthouse. In the last line, the poet returns the reader's attention to the light from the lighthouse. The horses “step through it, disappear, step through it, disappear.” where “it” is the light from the lighthouse. The reader is focused therefore on the lighthouse and on the light it casts out at night, not on anyone's familiarity or unfamiliarity with the scene.
Hirshfield further focues the reader's attention by using a similie to compare the lighthouse to an imagined monk. The monk is not raking in a garden near the base of the lighthouse. He is raking in a garden, and he may be at home; he is probably feeling comfortable and secure, but from what we have in the poem the monk's life doesn't have anything to do with the lighthouse mentioned in the poem. The comparison is purposeful: the reader is given to understand that a monk can be to an intelligent, imaginative reader what a lighthouse can be to a sea captain.
The extent to which the monk and the lighthouse are similar is left for readers to decide. The light – extended, constant, circling, in the dark, a guide to safety – is like an elderly monk who works in a garden with a rake, “his question long ago answered or moved on.” The monk has practiced his discipline for years. He found his question and learned how to deal with it. He sometimes works in a garden with a rake. Because Buddhist monks are known to work in gardens and to work with a rake in gardens, it is likely that the monk in this poem is a Buddhist monk. Because he is Buddhist, the monk believes in reincarnation. Buddhists speak of living life after life as a series of cyclical experiences. The Buddhist's goal however is not to adjust to the repetition of living but to attain enlightenment and thereby to stop the cycle of rebirth. To not attain enlightenment means to continue being reborn, living and dying just as the light in the lighthouse continues to beam out so reliably as it circles through its one path. Because he has accepted his life in Buddhism, the monk is committed to one way of living – of responding to experience, just as the lighthouse is fixed in its activity.
The consistency and the intensity of the beam of light is only part of what makes the lighthouse a reliable aid. If captains did not have training in navigation and failed to pay attention to the tides and other current conditions, the benefit of the lighthouse would be lost. By engaging their discipline and by using the information available from various sources including the lighthouse, the captains can avoid hazards and find instead safe harbor. Likewise the reader, to make much sense of the poem, must bring to the poem some knowledge of lighthouses, monks, Buddhism and sailing, and must pay attention to how the lighthouse and the monk are depicted.
The poem's created effect on the reader of a sophisticated sense of friendship toward humanity is achieved when one makes the inference that a reader of this poem stands in relation to a monk in the same way a sea captain stands in relation to a lighthouse. It is important that a reader not infer that one stands in relation to this poem as a captain stands in relation to a lighthouse. The poet is not saying anything like, “I am a monk.” or “Be my disciple.” Because the monk is an imagined monk who doesn't speak in the poem and because the sea captain is not mentioned in the poem, one can conclude that Hirshfield intends for the didactic tone of this poem to be an attenuated one. There is nothing like the message, “You should study with a Buddhist monk.” in these lines. Nevertheless, the poet has implied that any reader of “Lighthouse” may benefit by having a relationship with an experienced monk in which one regards the monk as a lighthouse and one regards oneself as the captain of a ship at night. To make such a deliberate and generous, if oblique, suggestion can only inspire a sense of friendship toward humanity in one who receives that suggestion.

Follow-up: The folks at Warren Wilson selected other applicants for the few seats they have for students. Subsequently, I learned that there was a problem with my FAFSA which is another requirement for application to the Warren Wilson MFA. Whether the FAFSA had anything to do with me not being selected, I don't know. Warren Wilson doesn't comment on rejections.

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