Poetry Wednesday: On Beauty and Mirrors

First, thanks to the eight people who entered the Reverse Poetry Contest! Your poems were amazing and if I could give extra points for creativity and talent and in one case for reversing birth trauma I would . . . and since it’s my contest, I guess I can. So everyone is entered twice.

The winner of the drawing will be announced Friday because I couldn’t find Sunny’s pink cowgirl hat this morning.

This is my husband’s busiest time of year. In the past eleven days, his yoga classes have doubled, if not tripled. He’s exhausted, but he doesn’t mind much.* Resolutions are good for business.

What he does mind, or will, is the inevitable drop in attendance once the mad rush towards self-improvement slows down. Yoga isn’t a quick fix, it’s a serene one, and a lot of his new clients are trying so hard to look better, they don’t notice, or care, that they might be feeling better.

The Quest for Beauty begins anew each and every January.**

But what, exactly, is the goal here?

What is beauty, anyway.

I’m pretty sure I read something somewhere about beauty being in the eye of the beholder, and considering you can’t turn around without being mugged by before-and-after photos while being told with great enthusiasm that you really do deserve to look better than you do—gosh, thanks—it appears that we’ve all letting the media get away with being the major beholder for far too long.

I know that sounds a bit hypocritical from someone who has always claimed to have a face for radio and a voice for mime,*** but I’m not against self-improvement.

It’s your body, do what you want—you’re welcome.

But I think we could all use a little less self-disgust while we’re about it.  A little less self-hatred.

A little more gilding of an already beautiful lily—or for the gentlemen among you, fresh detailing of the Jaguar^—instead of seeing ourselves as mistakes that need fixing.

Seriously—why do we do this to ourselves?

And again, what is beauty?

Let’s ask a couple—or more than a couple, got carried away, sorry—of experts who, come to think, were the media of their day.

Unfading Beauty
(Thomas Carew)

He that loves a rosy cheek,
Or a coral lip admires,
Or from star-like eyes doth seek
Fuel to maintain his fires:
As old Time makes these decay,
So his flames must waste away.

But a smooth and steadfast mind,
Gentle thoughts and calm desires,
Hearts with equal love combined,
Kindle never-dying fires.
Where these are not, I despise
Lovely cheeks or lips or eyes.

Okay, yeah, inner beauty is more important than outer beauty, no question, heard it^^—but that’s little comfort to a woman with the skin of a sixteen year old and the body of a forty year old who can’t help wishing it was the other way around.

But Carew does make good points about the transience of popular ideals of beauty—plus he’s fun when he forgets himself and gets all snarky:^^^

Ingrateful Beauty Threatened
(Thomas Carew)

Know Celia, since thou art so proud,
‘Twas I that gave thee thy renown;
Thou hadst, in the forgotten crowd
Of common beauties, liv’d unknown,
Had not my verse exhal’d thy name,
And with it imp’d the wings of fame.

That killing power is none of thine,
I gave it to thy voice, and eyes;
Thy sweets, thy graces, all are mine;
Thou art my star, shin’st in my skies;
Then dart not from thy borrow’d sphere
Lightning on him that fix’d thee there.

Tempt me with such affrights no more,
Lest what I made, I uncreate;
Let fools thy mystic forms adore,
I’ll know thee in thy mortal state;
Wise poets that wrapp’d Truth in tales,
Knew her themselves, through all her veils.

The poet giveth and the poet taketh away.  Beat that, Simon Cowell.

Lord Byron, of course, has his own ideas about what qualifies as beautiful—but even he doesn’t focus entirely on the physical, or if he does, he gives credit where credit is due for what he sees.

I know this is the Byron Standard Poem, but it’s still one of my favorites of all time, and not just because it’s one of the few I can recite by heart without visiting Wine Country:

She Walks In Beauty
(Lord Byron)

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling place.

And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!

John Keats has a couple of lines from his “Ode to a Grecian Urn” that everyone likes to trot out every once in a while to show off, and I supposed they could be helpful, if you  squint a little, and read into ‘em like a student who has three more double-spaced pages to fill:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

I’d like to see this as a statement against Spanx and liposuction . . . But that might be stretching things a bit.^^^

My apologies.  Moving on.

Walt Whitman proves that only a couple of lines are needed—no twisting (or horrible puns) required:

Beautiful Women
(Walt Whitman)

Women sit, or move to and fro—some old, some young;
The young are beautiful—but the old are more beautiful than the young.

Yawp, y’all—I have always liked that man.

But the question of beauty isn’t always that simple and the answers aren’t always what you expect. You can hear Edward Thomas—whose work I would love even if he wasn’t a librarian—getting downright cranky, until he comes to grips with the concept:

(Edward Thomas)

What does it mean? Tired, angry, and ill at ease,
No man, woman, or child alive could please
Me now. And yet I almost dare to laugh
Because I sit and frame an epitaph–
“Here lies all that no one loved of him
And that loved no one.” Then in a trice that whim
Has wearied. But, though I am like a river
At fall of evening when it seems that never
Has the sun lighted it or warmed it, while
Cross breezes cut the surface to a file,
This heart, some fraction of me, happily
Floats through a window even now to a tree
Down in the misting, dim-lit, quiet vale;
Not like a pewit that returns to wail
For something it has lost, but like a dove
That slants unanswering to its home and love.
There I find my rest, and through the dusk air
Flies what yet lives in me. Beauty is there.

Kind of puts NutriSystem in its place, doesn’t it?

This is where I was going to wrap up with a bit of the Bard, as he wrote two of the best subjective comparisons of beauty I’ve ever read° and it doesn’t matter if everyone and their English teacher has already read them, too, because it’s Shakespeare and in my opinion Shakespeare defies over-repetition.

But then . . . I found something, quite by accident.  And the tone of my search changed from ranting humor (I hope) to quiet contemplation.

Because this poem might actually hold the answer.

I don’t know how many of you remember the Rumi post I did when I first started these Wednesdays, but this poem makes me feel a lot like that one did, if for different reasons.

As with that one, this poem simply is and the feelings are, and the whisper is there, in my ear:

Beauty XXV
(Khalil Gibran)

And a poet said, “Speak to us of Beauty.”
Where shall you seek beauty, and how shall you find her unless she herself be your way and your guide?
And how shall you speak of her except she be the weaver of your speech?
The aggrieved and the injured say, “Beauty is kind and gentle.
Like a young mother half-shy of her own glory she walks among us.”
And the passionate say, “Nay, beauty is a thing of might and dread.
Like the tempest she shakes the earth beneath us and the sky above us.”
The tired and the weary say, “beauty is of soft whisperings. She speaks in our spirit.
Her voice yields to our silences like a faint light that quivers in fear of the shadow.”
But the restless say, “We have heard her shouting among the mountains,
And with her cries came the sound of hoofs, and the beating of wings and the roaring of lions.”
At night the watchmen of the city say, “Beauty shall rise with the dawn from the east.”
And at noontide the toilers and the wayfarers say, “we have seen her leaning over the earth from the windows of the sunset.”
In winter say the snow-bound, “She shall come with the spring leaping upon the hills.”
And in the summer heat the reapers say, “We have seen her dancing with the autumn leaves, and we saw a drift of snow in her hair.”
All these things have you said of beauty.
Yet in truth you spoke not of her but of needs unsatisfied,
And beauty is not a need but an ecstasy.
It is not a mouth thirsting nor an empty hand stretched forth,
But rather a heart enflamed and a soul enchanted.
It is not the image you would see nor the song you would hear,
But rather an image you see though you close your eyes and a song you hear though you shut your ears.
It is not the sap within the furrowed bark, nor a wing attached to a claw,
But rather a garden forever in bloom and a flock of angels for ever in flight.
People of Orphalese, beauty is life when life unveils her holy face.
But you are life and you are the veil.
Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror.
But you are eternity and you are the mirror.

So . . .

What say we make a different kind of quest this year, in which the goal is to see ourselves for exactly who we are.

If we don’t like what we see, we can try adjusting the mirror.

Which, as it happens, is us.

That might be all the truth about beauty we ever need to know.

And that, my friends, is poetry.

*He used to be a bank manager. January isn’t the happiest time of year for bank staff, who have to deal with clients who have no idea how they could be that overdrawn after Christmas and there must be some mistake and they weren’t told about all these fees and never received any letters or e-mails or texts or phone calls about it and they were going to bring their children into this branch so they could take a good look at the mean person who was taking away the toys that Santa gave them for Christmas.  I’m not making this up.

**And is reinforced when the swimsuits hit the stores in late March. But that’s a whole ‘nother post, which is probably better suited to an Apoplectic Saturday. Stay tuned.

*** I don’t look much like my avatar, either, in case you were wondering.

^ Slight digression here: a friend sent me a video of UK Jaguar adverts voiced-over by one Benedict Cumberbatch. I rolled my eyes—admiring the man is one thing, but compiling fourteen minutes of car commercials is entering Cumberbunny territory at some speed—but decided to listen to the first one. Fourteen minutes later . . . It’s a truly handsome piece of machinery, is what I’m saying (cough).

^^ Actually, every time I read this, Carew sounds one step closer to a scorned paparazzi or a stalker who didn’t get the expected “preplanned signal” from his favorite weather girl . . . Is it wrong that this makes him seem more interesting?

^^^ HEY-o!

° Sonnet 18, in which the poet finds his love far more beautiful than a Summer’s Day, and Sonnet 130, in which his mistress is decidedly far less beautiful than a summer’s day, or even one of the grey icky November ones, but finishes with a couplet that pays for all: “And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare / As any she belied with false compare. He obviously learned a little something writing Sonnets 19 through 129.