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"The Two-Headed Calf": poetry and the experience of being human.


ARTISTS USE LITERARY AND VISUAL IMAGES TO REPRESENT MUCH LARGER IDEAS. For example, if we look at traditional religious symbols--the manger and the cross, the star of David and Moses' tablets--or even at the Happy Humanist as powerful metaphors, we can see that they invite us to explore many of the dynamic themes of human experience: birth and the struggle of families, death and sacrifice, morality and behavior, identity and attitude toward life, to name a few. But the arts help us understand ourselves in ways that differ from the rational methods of science and philosophy.

Poetry is the art form that conveys aspects of human experience through a concentrated and precise use of language. As Laurence Perrine notes in his classic introductory text on poetry, Sound and Sense: "Poetry ... if it is to communicate, is directed at the whole person ... not only his intelligence but also his senses, emotions and imagination." He contends that poetry, like all of literature, "can be used as a gear for stepping up the intensity and increasing the range of our experience, and as a glass for clarifying it." Perrine doesn't dismiss scientific observation and analysis as a means of understanding the world but rather sees two complementary approaches to experience--the scientific and the literary. "It may be contended," he writes, "that the kind of understanding we get from the second is at least as valuable as the kind we get from the first."

As an example of the two complementary approaches to understanding, Perrine contrasts that which is gleaned from an encyclopedia article about eagles and the experience one gets from reading "The Eagle" Lord Alfred Tennyson's poem (published in 1851):
 He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
 Close to the sun in lonely lands,
 Ring'd with the azure world, he stands.

 The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
 He watches from his mountain walls,
 And like a thunderbolt he falls.

We certainly could learn a lot about eagles from a scientific discourse or by seeing a specimen up close, but Tennyson's poetic language brings us closer to the living eagle. Whatever connection we make to the wild creature or to the rugged setting helps us get in touch with parts of our own nature that are worth exploring further. The power of poetry opens us to realms of experience we couldn't visit otherwise (except, perhaps, through another art form such as film). And while good poetry has an immediate effect, it's also multidimensional in its ability to evoke layers of meaning beyond first impressions.

My first exposure to Laura Gilpin's poem "The Two-Headed Calf" (from her 1977 collection The Hocus-Pocus of the Universe) was a kind of "eureka" moment for me. I heard the poem recited at a public reading by one of the featured readers, a poet I knew, who cited it as one of her favorites.
The Two-Headed Calf *

 Tomorrow, when the farm boys find this
 freak of nature, they will wrap his body
 in newspaper and carry him to the museum.

 But tonight he is alive and in the north
 field with his mother. It is a perfect
 summer evening: the moon rising over
 the orchard, the wind in the grass.
 And as he stares into the sky, there
 are twice as many stars as usual.

The central image is what startled me. I had previously read of the existence of such animals and knew that they only lived a day or so. But how amazing, it seemed to me, to think of writing a poem about such a creature. I felt a tug of compassion for the calf, the beginning of life and the end of life meeting in such dose proximity in its frail body. It was interesting to me that the farm boys form an attachment to something that is young like they are and treat it carefully and with curiosity. The coolness and beauty of the summer evening seemed effectively and simply captured by the poet, especially because she had seen fit to tell us that this was the last evening of life for her subject. But most amazing to me was the thought articulated in the last line--that a vulnerable creature with such a disturbing anomaly could see the universe, in some way, as more amazing than I could.

Beyond these first impressions, what was I to understand from the poem? What insights might it provide? I could see that "The Two-Headed Calf" actually championed the two modes of human understanding outlined in Sound and Sense. The first stanza, in fact, sets up Perrine's complexity. In a kind of flash-forward, the dead body of the calf ends up, literally, in the pages of a newspaper and on its way to be examined at a museum where it will be displayed and talked about. But the second stanza is about the present, where the creature is alive, and we are asked to use our imaginations, our senses, our feelings, and our memories in order to experience what it briefly experiences. So, in a poem about a two-headed creature, the poet subtly reminds us that, for the greatest understanding, we must use two approaches. Intellectual understanding is good but limited. We must go beyond examining something dead; we must, in effect, go out to the field and spend the night.

What interested me most about the poem was the common poetic theme of how humans relate to the natural world. Consider "the north field" Such a setting is not a totally "natural" place. It's likely fenced in and planted to feed the livestock belonging to the farmer whose sons find the calf. In fact, the field here is a point of overlap between the natural and the human-made world. Now look at what we find in the field. It's an animal that's of the natural world, but is seemingly unnatural. Like the setting of the poem, it has a dual nature. For me, the great tension in the poem, and a key to its meaning, is captured in the term the poet uses for the calf--a "freak of nature." But doesn't everything produced by nature deserve to be called natural? What does it mean to call something a freak of nature?

By their appearance, freaks seem to us out of place; they defy our expectations of nature. We often find such creatures disturbing, yet fascinating, hence their exhibition in side-shows and museums. We stop and stare, or turn away from them, or both. We may feel sorry for such creatures and want to help them. At the same time we're repulsed and want to stay away. When it comes to freakishness we could be said to be of two minds.

Humans are likewise dualistic in our ability to see with more than one set of eyes. In the poem, as in life, we can see today's sights, but also what tomorrow will bring. We see with jaded eyes, but also with the fresh eyes of a newborn creature who knows nothing of tomorrow. In the figurative sense we too are two-headed creatures, distinguished by what goes on "in our heads" or, more formally, by the unique characteristics of human consciousness.

If we are freaks of nature, we must find aspects of ourselves repulsive. Indeed, we do. Many of our so-called natural, biological functions are offensive or embarrassing to us. As freaks of nature we must likewise find ourselves fascinating to look at. We stare at pictures of ourselves when we were children. We stare in the mirror to see the unpleasant effects of aging, to see how we look against an imagined ideal, to see how we look to others. We love to look at ourselves in a metaphorical sense, too. We keep journals, talk to therapists, write poems, go to confession--all in an effort to reconcile the contradictory parts of ourselves.


Perhaps the most significant aspect of our awareness is that of our own deaths. The poem first introduces us to the calf's lifeless body before we are allowed to experience what the calf experienced the night before. The calf's death, foretold to us, makes its short life that much more poignant, just as the awareness of our own deaths and the deaths of those we love can make the numbered minutes of our lives seem more precious and can make us more compassionate.

While this awareness can make our lives more meaningful, it can have the opposite effect. Death and the suffering that takes place in the natural world, especially to innocent creatures, is saddening and disquieting. We may be conscious at times of the feeling that we don't belong here, that nature itself has been corrupted, and that life is ultimately absurd. Attracted and repulsed by nature, connected yet disconnected to it, we are imbued with contradictory impulses--like two-headed creatures or freaks of nature. We must not forget this if we are to understand the totality of who we are.

Of course, the new-born calf is free of these thoughts. Strikingly, the ending of the Gilpin poem opens our eyes to its perspective. Seeing what the calf sees reminds us that we haven't completely lost our innocence. We can still look around and marvel at the world. We can find remarkable beauty in it, in other living creatures, in the stars, in ourselves. And an enterprise such as writing and reading poetry demonstrates how eager we often are to understand the world, to participate enthusiastically in it, and to work hard to create edifices that are meant to last beyond our individual lifetimes.

"The Two-headed Calf" is a mere nine lines long, which befits the briefness of the life it describes. It's as easy to speed through it as it is to drive past a hillside dotted with cows and not notice a single one of them. If we pause to reflect, however, we can feel the pulse of life in those nine lines and, at the same time, understand more about ourselves in all our complexity. Of course the creature depicted in the poem is something we can understand only up to a point. I think we are being perceptive if we say that the universe surpasses our ability to fully understand it. What this leaves us with is a strong sense of wonder, like we experience with the calf in the poems final moment.

Two-headed creatures and other freaks are of course found in forms of literature besides poetry, for example in the myths of many cultures. I don't think it serves humanists well to simply dismiss myths because they aren't, as others insist, literally true. Humans pass stories from one generation to the next that embody some insight into the dynamics of human life, which might be worth understanding.

One such story is the biblical myth of the Fall, which provides an interesting addendum to the Gilpin poem. Both works of fiction are set in an ideal pastoral landscape--the Garden of Eden and the field on a summer evening. The Bible story suggests that the dawn of human consciousness occurs with the knowledge of good and evil. I wouldn't say that such knowledge came as the result of disobedience to a deity and punishment from on high. I would say, however, that our concerns about moral choice and the consequences of our actions pose some of the most tremendous and unique burdens humans face. And I would point out that such heavy concerns exile us from the innocent, pleasant, unreflective life we might pine for in the garden of our dreams.

Now, some religions seem to promise relief from the difficulties of human consciousness: heaven or nirvana are held out as possible, ultimate destinations for our troubled souls. Likewise, non-religious utopian thinkers might say that a world of ultimate happiness is possible if we can restructure our governments and our economic systems or better raise our children. Our amazing imaginations certainly can conjure images of worlds which, on the surface, seem ideal. We need such images to guide our actions in the real world. But it may be that the blessings and the curse of being human go hand in hand. I'm suggesting that a complete sense of integration with the world is impossible. All we may finally be able to do is acknowledge the ambivalence of our natures and embrace each other in a less-than-perfect world.

And what better time to do this than on a perfect summer evening together? Whatever our individual impression of such an experience is, whether a "natural" country setting with the stars coming out or an urban corner with the streetlights coming on, the image suggests restfulness, relief from the heated activities of the day, a return to some rhythm of contentment and conviviality that renews our spirit, a song that sings to us, at least for a time, of a sense of connection to each other and to the world around us.

Barry Klassel has an undergraduate degree in psychology and a master's in theater. He has acted and directed in New York City and elsewhere, performs in educational programs for schools, is a Humanist Celebrant, and coauthored the article on ritual and ceremony in The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief.
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Author:Klassel, Barry
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2008
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