"The Two-Headed Calf": Poetry and the Experience of Being Human

By Klassel, Barry | The Humanist, July-August 2008 | Go to article overview

"The Two-Headed Calf": Poetry and the Experience of Being Human


Klassel, Barry, The Humanist


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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.

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