Dan Schneider’s (Unpublished) Poem: ‘Tis Better To Live Than To Perceive

Poetry can be about anything. The proof of such a statement comes when you flip through the whole 3000+ pages of Dan Schneider’s Collected Poetry. There is no subject that cannot be written about, nor is there any reason not to try. Yet, many people confuse this precept for superficial innovation – believing that even nonsense strings of communicatively disparate words can provide a depth of communication.

One can write about anything – and this is true in the same way that you can have a conversation with friends about any topic. But, at the very bottom of the myriad throng of things and surfaces, there are still a few human essentials that will abide, no matter what you write about.

All this sounds a bit too abstract – but all you have to do is to compare several poems from completely different poets to get a grasp of an essential movement underneath all of the hubbub. If you look at Philip Larkin’s High Windows, Wallace Stevens’ The Snow Man, Rilke’s Archaic Torso of Apollo, Du Fu’s Ballad of The Ancient Cypress, and ee cummings’ ‘I carry your heart…’ – there are movements from smaller to larger, despite all of the above poets writing in completely different styles. There is some knot that binds the ‘high windows’, the Archaic Torso, the ‘nothing that is not there’, the Ancient Cypress tree, and the ‘root of the root and the bud of the bud’. A bind that seems to encompass the widest scope of things born from the most particular things. If you take an Eastern view of life – this might be best represented by that ambiguous word The Tao. Perhaps, if some future scientist were to discover some Theory of Everything – he might find an abstract mathematical structure behind all of these poems – but such an idea is mere speculation for now.

If you look at the poems of Dan Schneider, you can see the same thread knotting together several of his poems – some of them that I’ve already analysed. For example, the image of the Mothman in The Mothman, the “no feeling I do not create” in George Schneider Plays Handball, the ‘body of perfection’ in Holy Sonnet 1, and Part 3 of Big Red. There is a clear hierarchy at work here, hiding underneath all these words – and it is not a hierarchy determined by any tangible quality or stiff aesthetic formula – but different scopes of smallness and largeness.

Okay, I’ve blathered on a bit too long on this point – so let me move into one such poem that dives into such a hierarchy. This sonnet is called ‘Tis Better to Live Than Perceive

‘TIS BETTER TO LIVE THAN PERCEIVE

My cousin never paid attention to the huge oak tree
slowly growing on France Avenue; his youth pursuing
selfish inward things, his eyes remaining dim cherubim
in the hyena dark of suburban monotony.

As the years struck by, they lunged at recognition
until one day his frail body hove back and roared
in a reptilian blood – in the colder snows,
of January winter, my cousin in worse

condition than the newfound ophidian flexion
of his mind – so he taunted, raved and clawed
at the glaring eyes of the universe

probing his own, a protozoan; under glass
he laughed, then suffocated and became
what he is. And the tree remained growing.

Disclaimer: Do not read my analysis until you’ve pondered the poem for yourself. After all, most of the fun and power comes from how you, as a person, orient yourself to the poem before conferring with other views. In the end, much of poetry’s strength comes from intuition – although explanation & analysis can help ground intuition for later readings.

This poem is copyrighted by Dan Schneider.

 

With that said – let’s break it down.

My cousin never paid attention to the huge oak tree
slowly growing on France Avenue; his youth pursuing
selfish inward things, his eyes remaining dim cherubim
in the hyena dark of suburban monotony.

When reading this poem, always keep the enigma of a title in the back of your mind – because this interplay of what it means to ‘live’ and to ‘perceive’ is a constant strand throughout the poem itself.

The very first line, despite being simple in its statement – sets up the divide. We have a cousin who cannot perceive, and a huge oak tree – possibly symbolic of ‘living’ (and the final statement of the poem fits it as such). Those of you who are more well-read in poetry might want to take note of other such poems where the symbol of the tree has been designated as something higher – like the Ancient Cypress as mentioned above, or Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus. You can compare how they choose to go about their subject matter and weigh out in your mind – who deals with the image in the widest possible manner.

But I’ve only been discussing content so far. Even in the very first line, despite the lack of punctuation, the way the statement is read can allow for a slight pause after ‘attention’ – furthering the divide.

Moving on to the next line, we return to Dan’s characteristic sly enjambments. By cutting off at ‘pursuing’, it leaves the verb hanging open, which you can cognitively map to either the ‘huge oak tree’, the ‘slowly growing’ or the ‘selfish inward things’ of the next line. Of course, the grammar of the poem links the pursuit to the lesser inward things – but the very fact that the other connections exists pose the question as to what is possible. For example, you can read the huge oak tree as representative of nature, and the fact that youth pursues that, as well as selfish inward things – can create the interpretation that ultimately, all of our selfish acts and desires are born from the same root of nature as the tree itself – and we pursue the dark roots in our own selves. But, this is merely example, and to narrow it down to this interpretation only cheapens the poem. In any case, at the bottom of it all, you can still see the hierarchy of something larger and something smaller at work.

‘Dim cherubim’ is a very interesting image – because it can link to youth & naivete, but is also slightly religious & cosmic – so it has a higher link that could be characteristic of the state that all men who lack vision fumble around in. Take the thread too far and you could even view it as a critique of religion fostering such lack of vision, but we shall not follow that because it feels too spread out from the core communication of the text. The final line of the first stanza poses a strong, kind of gothic, image for the environment that coddles the cousin in his lack of perception.

Now, realize something. If you had been keeping the title at the back of your head all this while – you would have noticed a kind of contradiction. The title poses, clearly, that perceiving is worse than living – but this first stanza seems to be a critique of a lack of perception. It seems to be attacking the cousin for fumbling around in the darkness without any deeper insight to life. With this question in the back of our mind, we can continue on to the next stanza.

As the years struck by, they lunged at recognition
until one day his frail body hove back and roared
in a reptilian blood – in the colder snows,
of January winter, my cousin in worse

The very start of this stanza provides hints of the answer to the enigma posed in the title. The strong kinetic thrust of the words – ‘struck’, ‘lunged’ – linking time to recognition. In the end, a human cannot escape its own self-awareness, as the mind will force it in times of struggle. The enjambment places recognition as perception in a general sense – but it could also be recognition of the tree, which reinforces the divide.

The next line narrows the state in which this recognition was inspired – it was created through the frailty of the body. The description of a body that ‘hove back and roared’ gives me a twisted image of an Ouroboros-like sick man turning into himself. The ‘reptilian blood’ of the next line links it to something deeper in nature – maybe even prehistoric. Perhaps, something of a comment on how consciousness – and self-perception – was born from the earliest animal’s need to perceive and engineer his environment around him to survive.

That interpretation aside – the effect of the image has multiple layers. It pulls out into the ‘coldness of insight’ (ala Stevens’ wintry view of the world in the Snow-Man), and also the wintry season of old age where we are in deterioration, or the ‘worse’. The primary movement across this stanza is a kinetic struggle turning over to a winter (whether in mind or body) state – and this has a lot of implications for how we, as humans, experience life itself.

condition than the newfound ophidian flexion
of his mind – so he taunted, raved and clawed
at the glaring eyes of the universe

The image of the snake (or Ouroboros) is reinforced through ‘ophidian’ – which, incidentally, refers to the class for snakes and other related reptiles. The enjambment here links the flexion to ‘in worse condition’ and ‘of his mind’ – which poses an interesting idea that the cousin (or his body) was in a worse condition than his mind. How many sick people are there in wards that have to suffer through the awareness of their own misery – unable to escape the dark circle that the mind creates for itself?

To follow up on this, the ‘taunted, raved and clawed’ can be linked to both ‘of his mind’ and ‘the glaring eyes of the universe’ – pointing to both the struggle within himself and the struggle against a higher cosmic force. This is the perception that is worse than life – the constant sight that we have to live under – both witnessing the good and bad things within ourselves.

probing his own, a protozoan; under glass
he laughed, then suffocated and became
what he is. And the tree remained growing.

By this point, I feel that the poem has become clearer in sight and I need not explain it to myself anymore – and I no longer merely perceive it, but it has started to live inside me. I am reminded of a moment in the Army during Field Camp – when we had to sit around in the forest and wait for the next bout of torturous training that the sergeants would inflict on us. We couldn’t bring any books, nor could we bring any phones – and so we merely had the existence of our own bodies and minds to keep us company. Most of the soldiers were engaged in chatter, and some were so tired that they were trying to rest by closing their eyes and hugging their guns. Some of them would make complaints and fling expletives to no one in particular. In such a state, I took the second option, and tried to curl up into myself.

Yet, there were the trees, and they had been there from the very start, and had probably witnessed countless batches of soldiers in such a state. If, at that point in time, I had had the vision to look up and perceive that properly – as what they were – I might have pondered the elegance of the life force inside them that allowed them to stay up in such a fashion – across the years.

Now I have the words to describe the thought. And if I had read a poem like this back in those days – I would have surely had those words on my lips, at that moment of barest life.

‘Tis better to live than perceive!

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