Robert Pinsky looks back on “Cascando,” Samuel Beckett’s classic love poem.

A Classic Love Poem Wracked by Its Own Contradictions

A Classic Love Poem Wracked by Its Own Contradictions

What makes them great.
Jan. 12 2015 9:03 AM

“Always Is It Better Too Soon Than Never”

A modern love poem in conflict with both love and poetry.

Irish novelist, playwright, poet and screenwriter Samuel Beckett on the set of 'Film' a movie starring Buster Keaton in July 1964 in New York City, New York.
Samuel Beckett.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by I.C. Rapoport/Getty Images

Here is a love poem, clear-eyed yet passionate, personal and impersonal in ways I admire: “Cascando” by Samuel Beckett.

The poem’s intensity and misgivings are epitomized by the invented word at the end of its first stanza. “Wordshed,” on the model of “bloodshed,” generates associations of violent conflict; from another associated word, “woodshed,” gush other associations: drudgery, storage, punishment, and (maybe anachronistically) the jazz musician’s verb for practicing one’s art, woodshedding. And opposite to that practice-time in art, the simple meaning of shedding words: falling silent.

The poem’s erratic, doubling progress follows those conflicted energies as it oscillates, I think frantically, between the two magnetic attractions of abundance and of silence. The traditional lover’s uncertainty or agony has, in this poem, a rhetorical counterpart in the struggle between embracing traditional eloquence and rejecting it. For instance, “the grapples clawing blindly the bed of want” is a line of iambic pentameter as regular as anything in Shakespeare. The reckless, hyperbolic eloquence of the images—those eye-sockets and the “black want splashing their faces”—collides with the flatly corrosive, meaning-dispersing, adverbial “all always is it better too soon than never.”

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For me, that hovering, back-and-forth movement between passion and reservations, need and doubt, images and disavowals, creates a strong emotion. The feeling gathers force from the poem’s argument with itself. That self-exasperated, needy argument embodies my respectful disagreement with Paul Muldoon’s reference to the poem, in his review of two new collections of Beckett’s work, one of letters and one of poems:

the churn of stale words in the heart again
love love love thud of the old plunger
pestling the unalterable
whey of words

Muldoon says: “Why go to the effort of establishing the metaphorical system of churning butter and then appeal to the quite different system of ‘pestling’?” My answer is that this poem, restlessly undoing and redoing itself, decidedly does not establish metaphorical systems. The “churn of stale words” creates and sheds, rehearses and shreds, pumps away and restores, actual feeling— the product and also the antagonist of the pumping heart or churn or pestle. The mixed metaphor, if that is what it is, expresses a tormented way (or whey) of feeling, disavowing, and needing love.

I’ll add that “Cascando” is a distinctly, radically modern love poem: a 20th-century category. Muldoon aptly describes Beckett’s shortcomings as a writer of lines, in general. But I think this poem, driven by agitation, rises to belong in good company. Near the beginning of the century, William Butler Yeats begins his great “Adam’s Curse” as a conversation among three people, discussing the hard work of creating beauty, in art or life. Midway, the poet offers an ironic, apparently superior glance back in time:

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There have been lovers who thought love should be
So much compounded of high courtesy
That they would sigh and quote with learned looks
Precedents out of beautiful old books;
Yet now it seems an idle trade enough.

“We sat grown quiet at the name of love” is Yeats’ next line, with the imperfect rhyme of “enough/love” maybe working to dispel or complicate the comic tone. And a few lines later: “I had a thought for no one’s but your ears” rises out of the conversation and away from it, to introduce the memorable, devastating final lines of “Adam’s Curse”:

That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old, high way of love;
That it had all seemed happy, and yet we’d grown
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.

More passionate than dismissive, too dire and skeptical to be read at weddings, yet ardent, these poems are explicitly in conflict with writing itself, yet embrace it. Near the end of the same century, Elizabeth Bishop in her “One Art,” a modern love poem that barely mentions the word, does something similar with a self-directed, contentious, parenthetical, imperative: “(Write it!)”

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Click the arrow on the audio player below to hear Robert Pinsky read “Cascando.”

“Cascando”
by Samuel Beckett

1

why not merely the despaired of
occasion of
wordshed

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is it not better abort than be barren

the hours after you are gone are so leaden
they will always start dragging too soon
the grapples clawing blindly the bed of want
bringing up the bones the old loves
sockets filled once with eyes like yours
all always is it better too soon than never
the black want splashing their faces
saying again nine days never floated the loved
nor nine months
nor nine lives

2

saying again
if you do not teach me I shall not learn
saying again there is a last
even of last times
last times of begging
last times of loving
of knowing not knowing pretending
a last even of last times of saying
if you do not love me I shall not be loved
if I do not love you I shall not love

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the churn of stale words in the heart again
love love love thud of the old plunger
pestling the unalterable
whey of words

terrified again
of not loving
of loving and not you
of being loved and not by you
of knowing not knowing pretending
pretending

I and all the others that will love you
if they love you

3

unless they love you