Thursday, October 3, 2013

Frederick Buechner and the Poetry of Understanding

This is another article originally published at The Master's Artist, which I'm reposting here.

Frederick Buechner is known for his novels, essays and sermons. Over the course of more than 60 years, he has produced some of the finest literary fiction in America, books like the Leo Bebb tetraology which established his reputation in the late 1970s. He wrote fictional accounts of two Irish saints, Godric and Brendan; Godric was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. With his novels, non-fiction, sermon collections and meditations, Buechner has published more than 30 books.

My introduction to Buechner was Brendan (1987), the 6th century Irish saint who spent a great deal of his life looking for the rumored terrestrial paradise. His search became the basis for one of the most popular medieval legends.

What I didn’t know was that Buechner wrote poetry – not a huge amount but poetry nonetheless. He had received the Irene Glascock Prize for poetry while he was at Princeton, but turned his hand in other literary directions and then to seminary.

I discovered his poetry recently while reading his 1996 memoir The Longing for Home. While the book is largely essays and mediations, one section, entitled “The Schroeders Revisited,” contains 16 poems. The Schroeder family first appeared in Buechner’s The Wizard’s Tale – a semi-autobiographical story of the impact of the Depression years on a family – told through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy.

What is intriguing about these poems – also semi-autobiographical – is that they are about the suicide of Ted Schroeder, who killed himself by carbon monoxide poisoning because he believed his life had been nothing but failure.

Buechner’s father, Ted Buechner, killed himself in the same way and for the same reason as the fictional Ted Schroeder.

These are more than just story poems. They are poems of understanding.

The 16 poems carry the title of a specific Schroeder family member. The first one is “Ted Schroeder,” but it’s told from the viewpoint of his 11-year-old son, Teddy:

On my father’s last dawn
I remember he opened the door.
I remember he closed the door.
I remember no thing he said if he said
a thing. Goodbye, boys,
Teddy and Billy, goodbye.
I am going downstairs.
I am going to turn on the car.
I am going to sit on the running board
and hold my head in my hands.
The two terrible women I love
will look after you…

Teddy “remembers no thing he said, if he said a thing,” and so imagines what his father would have said had he spoken. The poem is simple statements imagined fact – I did this, I did that, I did this, simple sentences, simple movements as a child might have imagined them.

In “Great-grandfather Ruprecht,” another Schroeder/Buechner family story becomes entangled in the suicide story. The poem is a statement of Ruprecht’s will, and what he bequeaths to each family member. And then it becomes a piece of family history. In 1849, Ruprecht took his family to California for the gold rush. This story of resolute determination to succeed, placed within this series of poems, becomes married to the idea of failure in the grandson, suggesting, for Teddy Schroeder, and Freddy Buechner, that the boy had a choice to make, the pioneering (and successful) way of the great-grandfather, or the way of failure of his father. But even this success has a haunting quality about it:

…Sometimes at meals
my temper flares. A grandson spills his milk.
A son-in-law is slow to hold my chair.
Then suddenly my fist comes down with such a crash
That I myself am thunderstruck and see
The Sheepshead dining room at Bidwell’s Bar.
My children drop their jaws and stare at me
with Mother’s frightened eyes. I strike at them
like Father with my fist for fearing me.
I strike at Father for the fear I felt
of him all washed with reverence and love like gold
and gravel in a pan. But my worst blow
is for the eleven-year-old I was, too weak
and craven to protect the broken face
that haunts me even as I walk up Fifth
and hurl my cane ahead of me, then stoop
for it, to keep in trim; or play at skat;
or smoke cigars and watch the boats. Weakness
worse than scurvy is the curse of pioneers…

The series of poems ends with Teddy as a grandfather, speaking to his grandchildren. The boy who was 11 when his father committed suicide is now 70 himself, and this stories and his family are much on his mind. His father’s suicide has weighed on him through his life, in ways small and big. But he realizes that these stories are a kind of redemption, that he has been trying to find a way to understand what happened only to discover that the telling maybe sufficient. From the final poem, “Teddy to his Grandchildren:”

Until I finished them, I didn’t see
That all these poems are yours…
I never knew
that all the while within my heart,
unknowingly, I was in search of any
way I could to bring some part
of them to life so you, their children many
times removed, might have a sense
of how alive they were when I
first knew them as a child…

Finally, in his old age, the 11-year-old Teddy understands.

Photograph by Eddie Fouse via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.


Louise Gallagher said...

Wow -- powerful poems and a powerful telling of them.

Thank you Glynn.

nance said...

so many parts to our stories
how sorry
is just the beginning
of the thread