In ethics class so many years ago
our teacher asked this question every fall:
if there were a fire in a museum
which would you save, a Rembrandt painting
or an old woman who hadn’t many
years left anyhow? Restless on hard chairs
caring little for pictures or old age
we’d opt one year for life, the next for art
and always half-heartedly. Sometimes
the woman borrowed my grandmother’s face
leaving her usual kitchen to wander
some drafty, half-imagined museum.
One year, feeling clever, I replied
why not let the woman decide herself?
Linda, the teacher would report, eschews
the burdens of responsibility.
This fall in a real museum I stand
before a real Rembrandt, old woman,
or nearly so, myself. The colors
within this frame are darker than autumn,
darker even than winter—the browns of earth,
though earth’s most radiant elements burn
through the canvas. I know now that woman
and painting and season are almost one
and all beyond saving by children.
I read "Ethics" again and again and again, desperate to understand. That's the beauty of it. Let the poem stand for itself, I will say no more on the content. But I will ask this question: who decides what is poetry, and what is prose chopped up into aesthetically appealing lines? If this poem were written as a paragraph, would it be viewed differently? Do you think it's poetry? And would it even matter as long as Pastan feels its poetry? Just take a moment... Poetry? Look again, count the syllables, seek out the meter. Does that change your opinion of whether or not it's poetry?