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I’m sure many of you read Stanley Fish’s articles on the topic What Should Colleges Teach? from a year or so ago. I came from the “great tradition” tradition, the Mortimer J. Adler mindset of reading all the great books in the Western canon. I also got my dose of composition advice, much of coming from the slightly pushy Strunk & White. Some of my professors knew Strunk & White so well that they would underline sentences and cite the pages from the revered style book that I needed to consult in order to fix my sentence. Thus I followed Strunk religiously until I read Geoffrey Pullum’s extensive bitchfest in the Chronicle of Higher Education about Strunk & White, and in recent years I have reconsidered my devotion.

First I should say that Strunk & White definitely made a difference in my writing for the better. But what has improved my writing even more has been teaching it in the last year or so. Not just teaching it to college students, but teaching it to grad school bound ESL students. Teaching ESL students made me realize that Strunk & White is aimed at native speakers, and that while ESL students could benefit from some advice in that handy little book, Strunk & White doesn’t actually help readers understand what makes prose clear and direct.

For example, I can tell a native Mandarin speaker to “avoid a loose succession of sentences,” but a Mandarin speaker doesn’t have any clue what an English speaker considers to be a “loose succession of sentences.” While I cannot speak or read Mandarin, I get the impression that almost all sentences in Mandarin would come across as a “loose succession” clauses and modifiers to an English speaker (if any Mandarin readers could enlighten me about the truth of this impression that would be fabulous). This is not a judgment on Mandarin, but a recognition that different languages consider different writing habits to be stylistically virtuous.

Take the Korean as another example. Again, I’m no expert, but from what I’ve read and been told, complex levels of cultural subtleties that would baffle the mind of most native English readers are built into the Korean language itself. Implication is always preferred; topics are spoken around. In an English essay, it is usually considered anathema to “drop in” a quote without any context or explanation. In Korean, I’m told this is preferred. You have no idea how frustrating this made me the first time I read some of the essays written by my Korean students. Thus, the wise advice of Strunk—“Use the active voice”—does not help a Korean learn how to satisfy the English desire for directness of speech and ideas. And let’s be honest, the jargon of most academics is not a good example, either.

So I switched tactics and started using Joseph William’s Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. Williams believes that writing becomes clear when we can see our sentences from the perspective of a reader. I’ve found that his principles have not only helped me as a writer, but also as a reader. Moreover, his style rules help non-native speakers understand what English speakers want when they read English.

Williams has even helped me get over my comma issues. When I was in second grade, I had a teacher that taught me to “use a comma wherever I paused in speech.” This was helpful enough until eleventh grade when I had a grammar Nazi English teacher who made me cower at the thought of a comma splice. My college professors continued to drill this into my brain to the point where I would use “Ctrl+F” to check every comma in my essays before I turned them in. So until recently, I have thought of comma placement as determined by relatively strict rules. Williams’ Style, however, helped me realize that…it’s actually both. Pauses, yes, and rules. That might upset some of you, but I’ve found it to be true. I could explain, but it’s probably worth another blog post.

Anyways, the point of this blog post was to ask readers a question: what is your preferred style book? Do you stick with Strunk? Do you like Eats, Shoots, & Leaves? None at all? Leave your thoughts in the comments box.

Poets are limited if they read nothing but their own poetry and spend the rest of their time reading novels or thrillers. Most of my beginning students have never purchased a book of poems. They wish to write poetry, but they do not wish to read it. They read fantasy fiction mostly. So the first thing I do is give them books, a couple hundred or so, none of which are fantasy, and then I tell them to send me an e mail, quote an excerpt from the book, and riff off of it. I then riff back, and, very often, my prompt for them arises from the e-mail they’ve written or the excerpt they’ve quoted. This accomplishes five goals:

1. They are now in a relationship to a book, adding a sort of ongoing marginalia to it.
2. Their reading life and their writing life are being connected, in however arbitrary a way (in point of fact, the more arbitrary the better).
3. I am revitalizing the epistolary tradition and taking e-mail out of its fearful function as a less-easy-than-text form of sending sound bytes of information.
4. I am making myself respond to a student in a class of 20 as if it were an independent study, keeping myself sharp, and, very often, I write poems back or discover a new way into a text. So it is a great way to help me remain an artist as well as a teacher.
5. I am defeating snobbery. I am treating the student as a peer who is entering into a relationship with me in terms of the text.

I do not trust tabula rasa learning, but students have often known little else. Many tend to resist any process they are not familiar with. No one is more conservative than a student, and I have found graduate students to be the worst of all in this respect, because they are already turning into teachers, and, I’m sorry, but people attracted to teaching tend to like structure way too much. I also do not trust the current fad for group learning since I believe it does not promote relational give and take but further distances the students from his or her own mind by fitting his or her personality to a group dynamic that may not do anything except allow that student to be the same old introvert/extrovert, follower/director he or she has always been. It is further proof of Durkheim’s contention that the main purpose of education is to make students “conform to a norm.”

To me, all group learning is dangerously close to corporatism. I am not against group dynamics, but I find that they reward certain students unfairly, and punish others who may be talented, but who lack certain social skills. A group dynamic is a given. Four of the 20 students are going to be doing sixty percent of their class participation and there will be a group dynamic whether you want one or not. When you put them in groups, someone will assert his or her authority, and someone will feel like a pariah, and someone will be the chief minion of the assertive group member and form this weird, almost erotic worship thing I hate to see happen. They’ll act like a couple. I have no time for couples in my class. In short, typical ape behavior 101.

I want to create an oasis for students who have never been on the good side of any power structure, and I want to create a challenge for those who use groups to maintain their power or sense of comfort. Some group dynamics just work and others, no matter how good the prompts or how inspiring the teacher, fall flat. I prefer not to let my class ride on “group dynamics.” Here’s the truth: some students will hide. Others will want to draw attention to themselves. Still others will be contrary because they like being contrary. A lot of energy is wasted and for what? So we can find out what we already know? So and so is anti-social, and this one never shuts up, and that one needs everything to be structured to the nth-degree. Well I think we have gone too far in this direction, so I create an air of informality in my class. But I’ll be damned if I preside over three or four groups that are everything I despise about human primate behavior. You might say I am against the present love of groups. Fuck the Borg. Anyway, I digress….

Suffice it to say, I don’t use a common text book. I give each student a book of poems—at random. They write in to me two or three times a week, quoting a poem or excerpt, telling me what they liked, hated, or learned from the poem. Very often I have never read the book I gave them or have only read a few poems from it—so I am likely to be responding, not from knowledge of the book, but from past experience of poetry which allows me to make leaps between texts, to suggest other poets in the same style, to come at the material in a fresh, conversational way. I am not the expert teacher here, but the experienced learner, the one who has a love for poetry and gets excited by weird things like grammatical ambiguity, or how the poet used the weather to suggest a mood. A student might give me an excerpt in which a poet is brooding and the landscape is brooding with him. I call this pastoral narcissism. I send them Thomas Hardy’s “To A Darkling Thrush.” I gush about my love for this poem. I ask a question: Did you ever get annoyed at a beautiful day because you were in a horrible mood, sad and depressed, and the sun light, the happy faces of couples strolling through a park, the blue of the sky seemed to mock your mood? I ask, how hard is it to make a beautiful sunny day the back drop for a despairing consciousness? Can it be pulled off?

So they are each reading an actual book of poems—almost always by contemporary poets—and, meanwhile, I am bringing in poems. I might use Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last by the Dooryard Bloomed” as a way to talk about how to create image patterns in a longer poem. Whitman keeps bringing back the lilacs, the mockingbird, and the drooping star in the west, and he exploits every possibility of these three figures—symbolic, metaphorical, concrete—the way composers might use motifs in a sonata. I may bring in a sonata by Beethoven and show how recapitulation is used in longer works.

This is in a work shop! Yes, I hate, hate going around and around commenting on student’s poems. I have features instead, and I do not give the class the work ahead of time. I want them to be responsive in the here and now. I give half the class a written copy of the poem, and the other half listens. You can catch things about rhythm and overall mood from listening much better than having only the physical poem before you. You can also catch things by having the text you can’t get from merely listening. I want both.

Very often, if a student likes a poem, he or she will ask the writer for a copy. This is high praise indeed, and builds artistic affinity based on something other than forced group dynamics. I will sometimes have a copy of the poem before me, and sometimes, I, too, will be only listening. I will have the student read the poem once through. Then on a second read, I will stop him or her at certain points, make a comment, then let the reader continue. If the student is a poor reader of his or her work, I will read it aloud a third time. You’d be amazed what a student learns about his or her own poem by hearing it read by someone else, by actually hearing their poems come back at them. I will tell them to write down the spoken comments on their text. As for the written comments in class, these are handed in to the student at the end of class. I tell the class to listen to how I edit a poem, because it may relate to their work as well. Every student will have two or three features before the semester is over which amounts to the same thing as a normal work shop. In the meantime, they will have read a book of poems all the way through, lived with it intimately, learned something about their own aesthetics, and the amount of writing they will have done—both poetry and prose—will be four or five times the usual amount for a class.

These are the goals I have for a beginning poet.

1. To find out if they truly like poetry, or only write it to “express” themselves.
2. Find out what their aesthetics are, the limits of their aesthetics, and how these may be expanded.
3. Learn to be responsive to language both as written and performed text.
4. Gain exposure to major poems without having to take a lecture class.
5. Have a learning experience with their own minds and with the teacher far more concentrated than is usually possible in a class that consists of lecture, papers, exam.
6. Learn to write daily, rather than waiting for the last minute. This means they are not feeling they are doing a lot of work, but are, in fact, doing far more—minus bibliography, and all that formal stuff.

A writing work shop should also return literature to the study of the text as art since so many literary courses now use the text as pretext for theories on gender, identity, and so forth. Unlike Bloom, I have no problem with that, but once in a while, it is nice to look at the artistry. My job is to teach the students to read like writers: What can I take from this poem? How can I surpass what this writer is doing?

My most mundane goal: that they will know more about poetry than they did when they entered the class, and, just as importantly, that they will have learned something about themselves as conscious artists.

NOTE: Top photo used with permission of artist. For more, see this website.

Wendell Berry recently decided to pull his personal papers from the University of Kentucky, and it got me thinking.

While I know this news story isn’t directly related to the topic of poetry (and this is–loosely–a poetry blog), I can’t help but feel it connects on some other level as we (poets) think about the relationship of our poetry to the world around us. Most of my exposure to the world of modern poetry has taken place through the university system. And while I know there are many poets writing and thriving outside the university system, it seems to me that the relationship of modern poetry is hopelessly enmeshed with our modern universities. Let’s admit it, the modern university (as well as the various foundations, titles, etc.) gives us poets the prestige we desperately desire. Would we be satisfied reading in bars the rest of our lives? Some of us would, but many of us would feel cheated. We want, as it were, to be “overheard.”

Most modern universities are “research universities.” I find even explicitly “liberal arts” universities cast their value in scientific terms. If you’ve been to a grad conference recently, you know as well as I do that academics dutifully toils away in a very narrow slices of their field, increasing knowledge (wherever that is stored…), writing books, gaining tenure. The language of conferences and academic panels has become scientific, calculated, professional. When you are asked about your studies, you must cast it in “pitch” it, so as to demonstrate the entrepreneurial value.

How much of this has seeped into the world of modern poetry?

Does the modern university ennoble (if I may use such an unfashionable word!) those of us (I’m still there!) who dwell in its halls? Consider Berry’s excoriation of the “research university”:

At a 2007 commencement address at Bellarmine University, Berry railed against “the great and the would-be-great ‘research universities.’ These gigantic institutions, increasingly formed upon the ‘industrial model,’ no longer make even the pretense of preparing their students for responsible membership in a family, a community, or a polity. … The American civilization so ardently promoted by these institutions is to be a civilization entirely determined by technology, and not encumbered by any thought of what is good or worthy or neighborly or humane.”

There is little doubt also that the modern university is, as one thinker put it, “the handmaiden of the military-government-industrial complex.” Certainly the poet can be the voice of conscience on the campus, but at what cost? Berry has the strength of his convictions (and the status to sustain them).

Then again, he also has a farm if it all goes to hell.

I was fortunate enough to have a American Literature professor who blew off the typical survey class BS and just gave us some of the best literature of the 19th century: Hawthorne, Dickinson, Melville, among others… In that class, I read Moby-Dick for the first time. I believe I read most of it over the course of a few days. The rhythms of Melville’s language carried me through.

I’ve felt the old beast calling to me again lately. I found a free audiobook copy online. So far, the reader has been fantastic. Librivox probably has the book ,as well, but their (volunteer) readers can be hit or miss.

I have also been digging through PBS and CBC video archives (soon I’ll hit C-SPAN) to fill my time with whatever goodies are stuck in there. I came across this most recent episode of The American Experience on the American whaling industry. It includes many beautiful and meditative passages from Melville, and also shows how the dependence of America on the whaling industry (and the extremes to which it was driven to meet those demands) prefigured much of the modern era of oil. Perhaps it is ironic then that our most recent oil crisis involves millions of oil being spewed into the deeps of the gulf.

My wife and I visited Melville’s home in Pittsfield (where I grew up) over our honeymoon. Earlier that day, we had climbed Mt. Greylock. While sitting on the porch of Melville’s home (I love Melville, but I am not paying 12 bucks to do a 20 minute tour of his house), we could see Greylock just over the tops of the trees. Apparently, Melville looked to the mountain during the winter (when it was white) as inspiration for his whale.

One more program worth checking out is from Studio360 on Moby-Dick. The interview with Stanley Crouch is very much worth a listen.

I want to do a bit of a meditation on the nature of voice and how the self is written into a poem.

When I first read Augustine’s Confessions, I felt I had discovered one of the hidden hinges of the modern “voice.” I was familiar with classical writing, and the coldness of the speaking voice in classical authors seemed absolutely foreign to me. Perhaps it was the fact that inflected languages do not always use a singular word to express “I.” The “I” in both Greek and Latin is snuck in by sticking an ending on the word, so grammatically the “I” stands out less.

Yet Augustine was radically different. Classicist, film scholar, and popular historian Thomas Cahill articulates it well:

Augustine is the first human being to say “I”–and to mean what we mean today….Open any collection of Great Thoughts or Great Sayings–especially one that, like Bartlett’s, goes in chronological order–and let your eye pick out the I’s. In the oldest literature their paucity and lack of force will begin to impress you. Of course, characters in Homer refer to themselves occasionally as “I.” Socrates even speaks of his daimon, his inner spirit. But personal revelation, such as we are utterly accustomed to, is nowhere to be found. Even lyric poems tend to be objective by our standards, and the exceptons stand out: a fragment (“The moon has set / and the Pleiades: / it is the middle of the night,  / and time passes, yes passes– / and I lie alone.”), attributed to Sappho, and the Psalms, attributed to King David.

When in the classical period we reach the first works to be designated as autobiographies, we can only be confounded by their impersonal tone. Marcus Aurelius, by Gibbon’s standards the most enlightened emporer and the great philosopher of Roman antiquity, speaks to us in epigrams, like Confucius and Ecclesiastes before him: “This being of mine, whatever it really is, consists of a little flesh, a little breath, and the part which governs”–he means his mind. This is as confidential as Marcus gets. Or how about this for a personal revelation? “All that is harmony for you, my Universe, is in harmony with me as well. Nothing that comes at the right time for you is too early or too late for me.” For all their ponderousness, the great emperor’s thoughts are never more personal than a Chinese fortune cookie.

It’s immediately clear why Augustine is often seen as the last classical and first medieval man. He marks the ultimate synthesis of classical rhetoric and sensibilities with the concept of self that marked the Judeo-Christian tradition. As Cahill points out, the Psalms stand out among classical literature, as exceptionally personal. Augustine, says Ronald Heine, was “the undisputed master of using the psalms to lay one’s soul bare before God in the praise and confession of prayer….The psalms permeate everything Augustine wrote.” Rowan Williams points out that the very first sentence of Confessions is a quotation from the psalms. Augustine weaves them throughout such that we hardly know when the words are his and when they are not (a modern citation nightmare).

Consider a few selections from the Greek Anthology:


Reader, here is no Priam
Slain at the altar,
here are no fine tales.
Of Medea, of weeping Niobe,
here you will find
No mention of Itys in his chamber
And never a word about nightingales in the trees.

Earlier poets have left full accounts of these matters.

I sing of Love and the Graces, I sing of Wine:
What have they in common with Tragedy’s comic scowl?

~Strato of Sardis (trans. Dudley Fitts)

And this poem, which is more personal, but even the personal impulse is mediated:


You deny me: and to what end?
There are no lovers, dear, in the under world,
No love but here: only the living know
The sweetness of Aphrodite–
but below,
But in Acheron, careful virgin, dust and ashes
Will be our only lying down together.

~Asklepiades (trans. Dudley Fitts)

One of the more consistently “personal” poets I have found in the several (meager) collections of Greek Anthology poems is Meleagros:


O Love, by Timo’s curls,
by Heliodora’s sandal,
By Demo’s myrrhdrenched threshold,
by Antikleia’s slow smile,
By the dear flowers twined in Dorotheia’s hair–
O Love, Love, I swear
Your quiver is empty:
all your shafts
Have fled unswerving to bury themselves in my heart

~Meleagros (trans. Dudley Fitts)

In addition to Augustine’s unique “I,” I believe that Augustine is relatively unique in his relationship to his audience. His audience is God, the You of Confessions, yet really, we know it’s us. Homer and Virgil invoke the Muse, yet, I don’t get the picture that the Muse is their audience. No, the Muse is there mostly to help them get started. Ultimately, they have some other audience in mind. Augustine, though, intends for us to “overhear” (in the words of John Stuart Mill that Allan Grossman is so fond of citing) his lyrical unbosoming. He wants us to eavesdrop outside the confessional booth.

There is a fascinating double movement going on here. Augustine, himself weaving, imitating, and voicing the psalms, wishes for us to hear, so that we, presumably, can sympathize, but be moved to make our very own confession. Ironically, much of western art has imitated Augustine’s confession. We have a continual chain of imitation that stretches all the way back to one of the Ur-poets of our world: King David (or whoever wrote the psalms).

Yet even the psalms themselves are not single-voiced. Traditionally, it was understood that many voices are encapsulated in the psalms. Early Christians and Jewish interpreters recognized this (though they often disagreed strenuously on who was speaking). Ronald Heine captures the sense that one has while praying through the psalms: “When I read the psalms…alone, sometimes I am instructed or exhorted by the voice of the ancient author as he relates the stories of Israel; sometimes I myself am speaking, addressing God directly in the words of the psalmist; at other times I am directly addressed by God in the words of the psalm. The conversation may move back and forth within a single psalm.” When you add to this the layer of “inspiration,” and all the accompanying debates about it, it becomes clear that any attempt to unthread the twisted ball of connections will be completely futile.

So we have before us what seems like a contradiction, a swirl of voices that somehow manages to lay bare the angst of the single person. Toward the end of my time at Hunter, coming up on what I felt was a dry period in my writing, I decided to try and rewrite various psalms. Psalm 39 was the first. When picking a psalm, one is immediately confronted with the difficulty of various voices. I was used to creating an overall emotional sense in my poems, something that was difficult with multiple voices. Psalm 39, however, was relatively uniform in its voice (or at least it seemed to me at that time).

This is how my poem came out:

Moth (Psalm 39)

Wanting to avoid your violent side, I tried to keep
my mouth shut when I saw the way you
rigged this game to destroy beauty—

and not just beauty, but the gaudy,
fast food smut that I hoard, too—
always savored by the hungry

moth. But you always hated the grudging
“Yes.” You made me broach the issue
of how you snatch away another’s beauty

in gloating silence, leave us bleached,
belly up, whales on the sand’s ecru:
Not even a bone to gnaw at when I’m hungry?

It’s either you or vanity, vanity
So, you have my yes. True,
this might have been the point: your beauty

is a bitter sponge of lye you lift up daily
to my mouth, while I am consumed
by the blows of your hand, our beauty
—yours, mine—a moth, feeding, still hungry.

As you can see, it’s a villanelle built around two ending words (rather than lines): beauty and hunger. It became clear very quickly, though, that I would not be able to encompass all the ideas in the poem. Like Augustine, I was chopping and using what I could to fit into my own voice. But such decisions are hard to make. The psalms are often so layered with meaning and reference that it feels violent to cut any part while still doing justice to the psalm as a whole. In this case, the form worked as a way that dictated what to include and what to “evict” from Psalm 39: what worked went in.

Later, at Tom Sleigh’s recommendation, I picked up Donal Davie’s To Scorch or Freeze, which, as fortune would have it, also included an adaptation of Psalm 39. Davie, you can see, is considerably less angsty.

The Thirty-ninth Psalm, Adapted
Donald Davie

I said to myself: “That’s enough.
Your life-style is no model.
Keep quiet about it, and while
you’re about it, be less overt.”

I held my tongue, I said nothing;
no, not comfortable words.
“Writing block”, it’s called;
very discomfiting.

Not that I had no feelings.
I was in a feever.
And while I seethed,
abruptly I found myself speaking:

“Lord, let me know my end,
and how long I have to live;
let me be sure
how long I have to live.

One-finger you poured me;
what does it matter to you
to know my age last birthday?
Nobody’s life has purpose.

Something is casting a shadow
on everything we do;
and in that shadow nothing,
nothing at all, comes true.

(We make a million, maybe;
and who, not nobody but
who, gets to enjoy it?)

Now, what’s left to be hoped for?
Hope has to be fixed on you.
Excuse me my comforting words
in a tabloid column for crazies.

I held my tongue, and also
I discontinued my journals.
(They accumulated; who
in any event would read them?)

Now give me a chance. I am
burned up enough at your pleasure.
It is all very well, we deserve it.
But shelved, not even with mothballs?

Hear my prayer, O Lord,
and please to consider my calling:
it commits me to squawking
and running off at the mouth.”

A Green Crab’s Shell

Not, exactly, green:
closer to bronze
preserved in kind brine,

something retrieved
from a Greco-Roman wreck,
patinated and oddly

muscular. We cannot
know what his fantastic
legs were like–

though evidence
suggests eight
complexly folded

scuttling works
of armament, crowned
by the foreclaws’

gesture of menace
and power. A gull’s
gobbled the center,

leaving this chamber
–size of a demitasse–
open to reveal

a shocking, Giotto blue.
Though it smells
of seaweed and ruin,

this little traveling case
comes with such lavish lining!
Imagine breathing

surrounded by
the brilliant rinse
of summer’s firmament.

What color is
the underside of skin?
Not so bad, to die,

if we could be opened
into this–
if the smallest chambers

of ourselves,
revealed some sky.

-Mark Doty

I’m currently in a class concerning Animal Studies in the Comparative Literature Department in which the word “anthropomorphism” is a swear word.  The argument is that anthropomorphism is anthropocentric, and thereby undermines the possibilities of the animal’s consciousness by placing the human in a superior (and dominating) role.  It should be noted that while I think this all well-argued and slightly interesting, when it comes to poetry—it’s a large load of nonsense.  We’d have to knock out some pretty significant poems in our extended canon were we to castigate anthropomorphism the way they are proposing. At least for me, and for a long trailing history of ancestor poets behind me, anthropomorphism is the stuff I (we) live for.  And if it’s a profane thing, then @#*& you, Comp Lit people. (It should also be noted I am the only poet in that class, and I am looked at at least twice during every session as if I were a really cool but leggy and crawly beetle that you’re grossed out by but can’t look away from.)

But you haven’t failed me completely, pedants.  You’ve brought into the sphere of my vocabulary a new term that I am finding far more interesting and applicable than the “horrors” of anthropomorphism: ZOOMORPHISM.  Of course it exists the other way around!  Why shouldn’t we, egotistical, dominating humans that we are, take animal traits and ZOOMORPHIZE ourselves to further some exploration of consciousness, personality, experience, etc.?  Now this—this is good.  And now that you bring it to my attention, my esteemed scholars across the way, it’s obvious that it’s zoomorphism that is the most interesting, and the poetry that has been most profoundly affecting for me is that which ventures to gain perspective by putting on another set of eyes entirely not human, kicks up the dirt with its daring hooves, flares its nostrils and doesn’t give a damn about drooling or snorting.

And then comes Mark Doty, with this genius little (enormous!) poem, which anthropomorphizes a crab shell to aid in the zoomorphism of the reader.  I mean really, the man has DONE IT.  My temptation to pass out this poem to my peers in Pedant Class as a semi-guerilla act of poetry warfare is barely tameable.  But I’ll refrain from my nerdling rebellious impulses and just be tickled by the possibilities of what once could have been in this grand ruin of a crustacean edifice that Doty has given me.  Beyond that imagining—beyond “what color is the underside of skin?”—just those remains, just that royal palace of a shell, with “such lavish lining!” is so enchanting, so incredibly enticing that I can’t help but want to go beach combing this instant and stare into a crab shell as I never have before (Wanting a reflection?  Wanting my own to make a home out of?).  This is the kind of poem that changes how you proceed in the world after you read it.  A crab shell is NEVER just a crab shell after this, nor should it ever, ever, ever be.  If you catch my (sea) drift.

If ever I was called a hermit crab by overly-social friends pressing me to leave my precious lair (and oh, it has happened!), I wish I’d rebutted with this poem. Who would ever want to leave their shell if it were anything like that shell? (Though Doty’s crab isn’t a hermit crab, probably just a common littoral crab. Still.)  Magical creature that he’s shown us!  Imagine it in life, scuttling around, clickety-clacking on shore pebbles, a little magician with electric green wands!  Sigh.  Call me crabby, call me (a) hermitic (crab), certainly call me crazy—but thank you, my dear Mark Doty: I forever welcome it all.

I. What Do People Do?

I’d caught glimpses of them before.  Maybe I’d been up very late and into the morning, taking the Brooklyn-bound train from Manhattan and had seen them standing with briefcases on platforms waiting for trains.  Maybe I woke bright and early for my hangover, craving Naked Juice and sparkling water from the corner bodega.  Maybe I had wild notions of pretending I had a nine-to-five writing schedule so that there would be an end to the thankless work.

They all walked in the same direction with a bounce in their step and cups of coffee in their hands.  Because of them, the A.M. New York and Metro New York dispensers that had been magically filled sometime during the night were depleted by noon.  Because of them, the trains in the evening were as crowded as summer hives.

Turns out, there’s this whole community of human beings who wake up in the morning, go to work, eat lunch and return home at around five o’clock.  Midday, they people-watch while they lunch, they shop and they make transactions at ATMs.  Late afternoon, they retreat to the fluorescent cocoons of their offices, and in the evening, like migratory creatures in early spring, they emerge and travel back where they came from, for a run, a shower, dinner and maybe a walk with the dog.

II. When Will It End?

My first week of full-time work, afflicted with existential motion sickness, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, and lunchtime was designated solely for weeping, as was the brief window before work, as were the hours following, until, exhausted I dropped off into an uneasy half-sleep.  On the third morning before work, caught in the murmurous haunt of commuters, I sat almost doubled over in a chair in Starbucks waiting for the barista to call out my $4 drink when a man rested his briefcase down on the bench beside mine.  I was always slightly in the way of these people who moved through space and daylight with the certainty of lethal wasps.  I made a motion to shift my tenuously held together waif of a body so as to avoid crowding the man’s hefty briefcase.  The man had on a neat tie and a friendly face and motioned to me that I was fine where I was, saying, “You just look so comfortable.”

My stomach turned and my vision blurred as my most recent anxiety attack subsided.  How I could have looked at all comfortable, I have no idea, though I suppose mild catatonia could be mistaken for deep repose.

In the window overlooking 17th Street, a mix of cold rain and sleet fell.  The wasps, who had covered themselves with parkas and umbrellas and husk-like hoods, zipped furiously by.

“When will it end?”  I heard.  The businessman was looking at me.

He was continuing the interaction we had tentatively established.  This is what people do, I thought, in the mornings before work while waiting in latte lines.  When will it end?…When will it end?…Which thing?

I looked at him.  “Which thing?”  I said.

The businessman laughed.  I made the businessman laugh.  He replied, with a shrug, “The weather, the economy, everything….”

Then I laughed.

There was a pause.  The rain and sleet had turned to only rain and was still falling.  He continued, “But we have offices on the square, so when we get depressed, we can go for a walk.”

III. Is it really that simple?

I get coffee.  I go to work.  In the afternoon, I go for a walk.

IV. But What Would Herman Melville Say?

“Again, I always go to sea as a sailor, because they make a point of paying me for my trouble, whereas they never pay passengers a single penny that I ever heard of.  On the contrary, passengers themselves must pay.  And there is all the difference in the world between paying and being paid.  The act of paying is perhaps the most uncomfortable infliction that the two orchard thieves entailed upon us.  But being paid,–what will compare with it?  The urbane activity with which a man receives money is really marvellous, considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills, and that on no account can a monied man enter heaven.  Ah! how cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition!”

V. Why Write?

MFA programs create a set of circumstances that one does not find anywhere else.  You have money (lent or granted, most of which you give away to the institution who accepted you), you have a place to live, you have people to talk to who supposedly care about what you care about.  This cushy existence might make you think, “How can anyone write—or even exist—without these circumstances granted?”  This anomalistic life can cause a web of if-then theorizing about living:  If I have a job, I won’t be able to write.  If something is expected of me, I won’t do be able to do what isn’t—and only in graduate school will writing be truly expected of you specifically (and maybe not even then).  Some programs even go so far as to hold events with titles like “Life After the MFA,” during which a panel of survivors either perpetuate or crush delusions of grandeur.

“The world is ugly, / And the people are sad,” Wallace Stevens writes.  It is ugly.  The people are sad.  How clarifying, then, to remember what the world is and then go from there, because, isn’t the condition of the world and our condition in the world why (if there is a why) any of us are trying to write in the first place?

Life consists of propositions about life.

—Wallace Stevens


A certain esteemed professor requires that those enrolled in his poetry workshop meet with him in his downtown studio apartment, right off Washington Square.

Once inside, the student hands over a few poems and watches the professor–clipboard in one hand, red pen in the other–scrutinize every word of every line of every stanza of each poem.

At the end of the hour, the student will rise from the couch, the professor will rise from his chair, a small ancient French bulldog that has since settled, drooled and snored on either available lap (usually the student’s) will remove himself begrudgingly and resituate his arthritic corporeal freight on the floor, and fall back asleep.  The student receives his or her scarred poems, exits the apartment, takes the elevator downstairs, crosses the courtyard, goes through a stone tunnel, and passes through the tall iron gate onto Waverly Place.

That is, believe me, the easy part.


Upon arrival for the appointment, the student would stand outside the gate.  He or she would locate the correct code and buzz the professor.  A corresponding buzz would sound.  But nothing happened.  The gate, unwavering, would not open.

The student would have, then, three options:

1) Buzz again, knowing that each additional buzz directly corresponded to the professors heightened annoyance level.

2) Wait for a resident of the building to pass through the gate, then sneak in behind them.

3) Run.

3a) Away.


Let me take a moment to reproduce here the beginning of Kafka’s “Before the Law”:

Before the Law stands a doorkeeper.  To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country and prays for admittance to the Law.  But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant admittance at the moment.  The man thinks it over and then asks if he will be allowed in later.  ‘It is possible,’ says the doorkeeper, ‘but not at the moment.’  Since the gate stands open, as usual, and the doorkeeper steps to one side, the man stoops to peer through the gateway into the interior.

(Let me interrupt for a moment.  This man trying to gain admittance to the Law has it easy compared to the MFA student trying to gain admittance to Poetry.  The gate to the Law is just standing there wide open!)

Observing that, the doorkeeper laughs and says: ‘If you are so drawn to it, just try to go in despite my veto.  But take note: I am powerful.  And I am only the least of the doorkeepers.  From hall to hall there is one doorkeeper after another, each more powerful than the last.  The third doorkeeper is already so terrible that even I cannot bear to look at him.’

(Ok, sure.  This guy’s situation looks a little bleaker.  But I’d hedge my bets that no doorkeeper is so terrible that a little monetary persuasion wouldn’t go a long way.)

These are difficulties the man from the country has not expected; the Law, he thinks, should surely be accessible at all times and to everyone….

(These were difficulties the MFA student from Virginia had not expected; Poetry Class, I thought, should surely be accessible at the appointed time and to me.)


I started bringing an accomplice whose function was to ensure that I enter the gate, not remain stuck outside it, crumbling to a ruin of a human being into a pool of my own tears and sweat.

This is how we’d work it:

1) Dressed in inconspicuous clothing, arrive a half hour to an hour before the appointment.

2) Wait for a resident to pass through the gate, going in or going out.

3) Student thrusts a limb between open gate and its jamb.

4) Accomplice waits outside the gate; Student waits inside the gate.

5) At the appropriate time, Accomplice buzzes Professor, impersonating student, if need be.

6) Student waits for signal–the sound of the mechanism buzzing but not unlatching.

7) Student hurries upstairs; Accomplice hurries to nearest bar.

V.  Intermission

The Gate

by Marie Howe

I had no idea that the gate I would step through
to finally enter this world
would be the space my brother’s body made. He was
a little taller than me: a young man
but grown, himself by then,
done at twenty-eight, having folded every sheet,
rinsed every glass he would ever rinse under the cold
and running water.
This is what you have been waiting for, he used to say to me.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This—holding up my cheese and mustard sandwich.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This, sort of looking around.

VI. Sentimental Ending

Time is marked, I’ve found, by eras in which a certain combination occurs–that class, that job, that boyfriend, that song, that idea, those people, that uptown train, that crosstown bus, that metaphor, that place for coffee in the mornings.  This winter, I’ve been thinking about that winter, the first winter I was finally living and writing in New York, when I felt like I was just outside the life I was trying to make for myself.  That was the winter when, once a week, I’d take the 1 train to the R to 8th Street, where I had an appointment to hear about all the things I was still doing wrong.  That was the winter when I’d meet Accomplice at the gate and we’d just stand there together, waiting.

PROFESSOR: Mary Ann, would you mind reading your poem aloud so that we can hear it in your own voice?

MARY ANN: Absolutely.  Ahem.

Who’s the black private dick
That’s a sex machine to all the chicks?
Ya damn right!

Who is the man that would risk his neck
For his brother man?
Can you dig it?

Who’s the cat that won’t cop out
When there’s danger all about?
Right On!

They say this cat Shaft is a bad mother
I’m talkin’ ’bout Shaft.

He’s a complicated man
But no one understands him but his woman

PROFESSOR: Thank you, Mary Ann.  Ok, class, let’s start with the things we like.  Then we’ll move on to the things we think could be improved.

[Long pause.]

AMERICAN STUDIES MAJOR [pensively]: I really appreciate how the poem argues with itself, even contradicts itself—“If I contradict myself,” it seems to echo Whitman, “I contradict myself.”  In fact, I find a lot of parallels between the chief persona in this poem and the Whitman/ Emerson/ Thoreau American Transcendentalist milieu, if you will.  This man, this John Shaft, I think we can all agree, would not exist without Emerson’s tenets so formidably outlined in “Self-Reliance,” am I right?  Am I right?  [Flashes a toothy white smile toward Romanticist.]

ROMANTICIST: [giggles]

[Modernist glares at Romanticist.]

SWAG (Studies in Women and Gender) MAJOR: I disagree.  I think the most provoking contradiction in this piece is when the speaker asserts that Shaft is a ‘bad mother.’  This bends all our preconceptions of male/female roles in a domestic space.  That is the main dialectic at work here, not the juxtaposition of popularity versus existential alienation.

MODERNIST: Really?  So you’re saying that one gender-bending line overshadows the obvious post-modern Prufrockian slant in the entire piece?  I mean, I think it’s pretty clear that when the speaker asserts that no one understands Shaft but his woman, the speaker is being ironic, using indirect discourse to suggest that this is what Shaft has to tell his woman to assuage her concerns regarding her insecurities as a lover.

ROMANTICIST: [gasps, incredulous]

[Modernist glares at her.]

SWAG MAJOR: Um…well, considering where the line comes in the piece…

ROMANTICIST: Well, I for one don’t think [air quotes] His Woman [air quotes] is [air quotes] insecure [air quotes] about her abilities as a [air quotes] lover [air quotes] at all!  I mean, Mary Ann says—

PROFESSOR: The speaker says….

ROMANTICIST: [air quotes] The speaker says [air quotes] that John is a bad mother—can’t we consider what this means in terms of what kind of man John really is?  Mother…mother-love…lover…bad mother/bad lover…bad mother lover…bad mother-fuc…

SWAG MAJOR [continuing]: …the line is clearly the poem’s volta—yes, I would say this is the crux of the entire poem.  And I think it’s unfair to assume that Shaft is the most secure lover just because he’s male.  I mean, if that were the case, why all the verbal overcompensation in the poem?

ROMANTICIST: Exactly.  That’s what I was [air quotes] saying [air quotes].

SYSTEMS ENGINEERING MAJOR [louder than necessary]: See, I read that line, line 13 differently; it seems to be street slang that is then cut off by the secondary voice—or voices—that bring the refrain in each quatrain, those responsible for the majusculated expostulation, “SHAFT!” and the like.  I feel quite strongly, given the way Mary Ann read her piece, that “mother” is part of a longer phrase that undergoes interruption by the voices of the refrain.  This is why it is absolutely imperative that this issue of punctuation be fixed, and the problem can be remedied quite easily by “mother” being followed by an em-dash.

CLASSICS MAJOR: I mean, I think we can all agree that it’s pretty obvious that the secondary voices interacting with the primary lyricist compose the chorus of the piece, yes?  I think Mary Ann need be praised for reinventing this age-old tradition in an entirely fresh way.

MARY ANN: Thank you.

PROFESSOR: Ok, before we move on, any last comments?

ROMANTICIST: Well, I just want to praise the quite visceral interjection we get in the end—[air quotes] “John!” [air quotes] Mary Ann—excuse me—[air quotes] the speaker [air quotes]—cries out.  [air quotes] “John Shaft!” [air quotes], as though, before, we the readers, as well as the populace of the poem, did not know this impervious persona—never really knew him—until this ultimate line, coming after the penultimate, which is also incredibly moving.  Who can possibly understand this [air quotes] “complicated man?” [air quotes]  [air quotes] “No one understands him but his woman.”  [air quotes] [Looks imploringly at Modernist.  Trembles.] No one!  [air quotes] [Weeps.]  [Flees classroom.]

[Long pause]

SLOW IRONIC HIPSTER GUY [to no one in particular]: Hey, ya know what?  I think I’ve—yeah, I’ve definitely heard this somewhere before….

Suppose you are reading Levinas, having a nice Cuban sandwich, minding your business, thinking about the self, the other, the other self, the otherness of self, the selfishness of other, etc, etc, and the sun slants across the legs of a woman you pretend to have a deep rapport with—striping them apricot. What do you do? It’s a question of ethics. She is eating half a plate of seasoned fries. The meal is over priced. The Cuban sandwich is on the wrong sort of bread—the kind of bread they put Cuban sanwiches on when they are over charging you (sour dough). It is spring, or maybe it isn’t: maybe it is fall, the last truly warm day in fall. Yes. You are sitting in the wrought-iron chair, outside, on the last warm day in fall, with Levinas in your lap, and the beautful woman has Kafka in her lap. The sun has decided to place an apricot hue over her legs, legs which have been shaped by only eating  half plates of seasoned fries, and nothing else until, later that night, when she is naked in the arms of a man who also reads Levinas, but is much better looking, she eats a canoli—the whole thing, and says something meaningful to him in French.

Ah, you know you are a fraud. Levinas is a fraud. The only truly genuine thing in this universe are her legs, and they are attached to her by reason of genetics, and attached to you by reason of desire. The man with whom she sleeps is surly. He can afford to be surly. His hip-to-waist ratio is perfect. His teeth are white, but not overly so. When he sprawls naked on a bed, he seems intelligent. She desires him. Even though she has him, she wants him—which makes her fairly stupid in his presense. He will equivocate. Those with the proper hip-to-waist ratios may equivocate. He is like Adonis, and she is Venus panting over his sprawled splendor. He is you in another alternate universe. He is the you who does not beg like a seal clapping for fish. She speaks:

“How is the Cuban sanwich? May I have a bite?”

Every time you meet her for lunch, she takes a bite of your sandwich. When shrikes seek a mate, they impale bumble bees, and little baby sparrows to locust thorns and allow the prospective partner to dine. A shrike has a special “tooth” inside it’s maw for tearing and rending frozen flesh from bone… or is that a wolverine? Shrikes are also called butcher birds. They inhabit Northern fens. They implae prey to thorns, barbed wire, various sharp protruding things: whatever may suffice as a skewer. By giving her a bite of your sandwich, you will be reduced to the level of a shrike. And worse… The shrike gets laid. You will show how inteligent you are concerning the self, the other, the other self, the selfless other, the mystery of the other, the aporia by which self, other, shrikes, and cuban sandwiches are utterly beside the point. You demur. You have never demurred before. You withold the immediate gratification of her biting into your lunch. You stand firm—in so many ways. You say:

“No. Finish your fries!”

Does she know what is on your mind? To what degree is Levinas an unsuccessful make out device? How many graduate students are sitting even now on the plains, and in the mountains of American Academia, attempting to seduce each other with the complete works of Levinas? Just last week, you realized you were being replicated. There were thousands of fractal “yous” inhabiting the various over-priced eateries of towns both large and small. What would Levinas think if he realized you were using him to show how smart you are?

Her hand, her pretty left hand, the one with the blue nail polish, is reaching for your Cuban sandwich. She has decided to ignore your firm resolve not to be a shrike, and she is going to taste your meat. This has become a question of ethics. She is using you. You are co-dependent with her eating disorder. For her sake, and for your own, for the sake of the genuine, the real, the authentic, you must not let it happen. You grab her hand. You have been wanting to grab her hand for two years. What sort of coward needs a show down? She has one grey eye, and one green one. Her long legs were crossed, but now they are planted firmly in the “I will have a bite of your sandwich” position. You realize now that Levinas is right. We can not know the other. We can not know the self. You say:


And so you do. You say no. She says: “Why are you being such a prick?” You say: “Did you ever think I might want the whole sandwich?” Her hand retreats: ice floes, thousands of years of approach and retreat. You pick up the check, leave an overly large tip. You are the wrong kind of shrike. The waiter will not like you any better for leaving him 25 percent. You are courting everyone. You keep hoping the universe notices that Levinas is in your lap. You are hoping they will say: “Oh… you read Levinas? Can I mate with you?”

Her name is Trudy. She has translated Kafka into Welsh. She has the sort of thick, dark hair that gets dented in the morning rather than messy. All she has to do is push out the dents, and she’s ready for the day. She is genuinely smart. You have a dream in which a poster of Simone Weil is attached to her naked legs. Her one flaw is her name. Who names their child Trudy? You certainly would never name a daughter Trudy. Perhaps you would name her Simone, or Clare, or Helen. You get an A on your paper concerning Levinas and the sociopathy of corporatism. You remember kissing a girl who liked Martin Buber. What happened to her? How did it all come down to this? Even now, as you walk away from the cafe, and Trudy heads for her part time job, and all is forgiven, and you give her the hug and perfunctory smooch they often give on talk shows, you feel terrified. This must not be your life. You will find the girl who liked Martin Buber, and kiss her again. She is somewhere in the world—perhaps in the far north. She lives in a little cabin, alone, thinking of you. The days pass, and Martin Buber brings back fond memories of your mouth on hers. You can see the little cabin in the woods. A light is on. It is dusk, and the bleak cry of the jay contrasts with the welcoming light.You have fire wood hosted on your shoulder. You are singing a merry tune in Canadian French: something about little loves who have dancing eyes. You are remembering the Robert Browning poem in which he rows a boat at night towards his love. Your heart is uplifted. Trudy is not the right girl for you. Who cares what Kafka sounds like in Welsh? You have fire wood, and six Cuban sandwiches stowed away in your back pack. There is recompense. There is salvation. You can throw Levinas away. You can build a fire, and discuss Martin Buber while lying naked in that sweet girl’s arms. What is her name? She was demur. She had heavy eye lids, and spoke in a vital whisper. You do not see the shrike. It is impaling a fox sparrow to a thorn. It lives in the brambles behind her cabin. You are too big for it to eat, utterly beside the point.

We begin with an Interview with David Shapiro responding to Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn and much more. (You can catch up on the conversation by checking out last week’s post which included contributions from Alfred Corn, Richard Howard, Don Share, Dara Wier, and Richard Zenith.)


That urn is cold. I find it strange that several poets and scholars speak of the beauty-truth equation as the last lines of the poem. That equation has called forth so much fuss – its bald assertiveness is immensely persuasive at first hearing, then almost instantly the mind rebels against the symmetry of identity. The equation seems like a handsome face you glimpse in the crowd—it teeters between vapidity and sublimity, depending on whether you keep on gazing or else close your eyes to retain the first impression. This very oscillation is Keats’ work, his way of bracing us for the actual conclusion of the poem: the last words the urn addresses to us, assuring us that the equation, problematic as it seems, is all we know on earth, and all we need to know.

If in fact we are the ‘ye’ –archaic second person plural familiar—spoken of twice in those last lines.

That urn is cold – ‘cold pastoral’ we have heard, the chill ring of marble. The strophes of the ode grow progressively more somber. The passions and delights pictured on the urn are sublated into eternity, which is usually a pretty chilly condition in Christendom – one doesn’t think of eternity as the prolongation of life but as the prolongation of the tomb, the marble replica of life – which this Grecian urn also is.

And the cold, marmoreal, eternal, all-encompassing time-denying Thing speaks to us, from the serene apartness of things, and says …all ye know, and … all ye need to know.

Experiment: Try hearing, just for once, the stress placed firmly on the ye. Then, with the sprezzatura so appropriate to artist and artifact alike, a creature from eternity condescends to speak to our flesh-bound mortality, whose antics the marble creature literally comprehends and (perhaps with infinite, tender subtlety) envies.

All ye know on earth – beauty, truth, these glorious abstractions, easily revered, more easily compromised. And that equation will serve people like you in your contingencies and trivial earthly need for reassurance that there is something to understand in life, and that you understand it. With the stress on the ye, I hear an insinuation that some higher, worthier form of knowing exists, whose propositions and parables far exceed the simplistic equation the urn offers us as our consolation.

Or do humankind and urn console each other? The urn consoles us for our transience and we console it for its inability to feel the kiss it holds suspended for two thousand years, unable to pursue the beloved or be pursued, unable to share in the sacrificial meal when the poor heifer is offered up to those vague and nameless deities towards which, even now, she raises her lustrous amber eyes.

I don’t think Keats meant (not that it’s important whether he did or didn’t) or believed the equation – if he had, he would have set it in his own authorial voice, which speaks with all the immense authority that found Keats in that mild May of 1819, the voice that speaks all the rest of the poem. By putting just those words in the urn’s mouth (so to speak) Keats proposes what our cronies overseas would call a rupture, a chasm in the texture of trust and sincerity we still insist on finding in poems. The urn tells us not what truth is, not what beauty is, but what we are.

—Robert Kelly, February 2010

The quotes given, except for Bridges, don’t have much range – from I.A. Richards to M.H. Abrams, we are throughout in the realm of the New Criticism, with the “Word According to Eliot” holding supreme sway.  For all that I admire them, these critics shared two limitations evident in their commentary on Keats:

  1. They’re prejudiced against Romanticism and skeptical of the philosophical underpinnings of Romantic aesthetics (Bloom called them out on this).
  2. They looked for complexity to the point that they imposed it — mostly, it would seem, as a way of satisfying their own intellectual vanity (7 types, etc.).  No one was going to out-sophisticate them!  Richards’s disdain for the gullibility of the common reader and Eliot’s mock-modest “I fail to understand it” and his  “grammatically meaningless” exemplify this tendency.  Eliot wants to prove his superiority to Keats himself (by looking down his nose at Keats’s sentimental abstraction), not just Keats’s readers – and yet Eliot’s the poet of “in my beginning is my end, in my end is my beginning,” etc. and “What the Thunder Said” – a pseudo-philosopher among poets if ever there was one.

Also, there’s the newfound aspiration to a “scientific” kind of literary criticism, modeled on empiricism and the scientific method (doubt as the vehicle of truth), most purely exemplified by Richards. Ask any real scientist – this is largely a sentimental construct in itself.

Brooks and Abrams waffle more sympathetically with their invocation of dramatic context, though frankly this poem is hardly King Lear (nor was it meant to be) and the Urn is hardly a character in the Shakespearian sense.  The Urn is an emblem and the quotes are not, cannot be, meant to denote a speaking Urn.  This bespeaks another overdone motif of mid-20th century critical orthodoxy: Persona is all.  What they really mean is much closer to Williams’s “no ideas but in things” (which Keats is one of the greatest exemplars of, as a supreme poet of the senses and of startlingly immediate   imagery) than it is to anything specifically “dramatic.”

Don’t get me wrong, I admire all these critics tremendously, love and admire Eliot’s poetry, and I believe that the New Criticism was a far cry better than most of the ideological and theoretical criticism that followed.  But I think they are all (except maybe Bridges), missing the point almost deliberately.

The context of the quote, and the thrust of the poem, is pretty straightforward, actually — and pretty run-of-the-mill for its time.  It’s the execution that makes the poem special.

The predominant philosopher for all the Romantics, from Blake to Yeats, was Plato.  Plato was the prime philosopher behind 19th century idealist philosophy, and so he was the philosopher that the 20th century empiricists (logical positivists, Popper, etc.), including the aestheticians, rejected first. Keats’s main man in this respect was Joshua Reynolds.  Joshua Reynolds’s aesthetics were influenced by Locke, but they were first and foremost Platonic, and Keats’s poem is an extraordinary expression of this most admired contemporary intellectual’s belief in the source of the power of art:  the Platonic tenets that a) the contemplation of Beauty leads to Truth and b) the highest forms of art refer to things eternal and immutable.

It’s as simple as that, but I’d add that in this context there are two moments in the poem that wonderfully presage the conclusion in this context:

  1. “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter…” == pure Platonism (out of Pythagoras).  Yeats couldn’t have said it better
  2. “Cold Pastoral!” – a great moment in the poem, and tougher and brighter and more surprising by far than the ending.  Here we’re in the realm of “the sublime” as it was defined by Longinus, then Baudelaire, and more recently by Anne Carson.  The sublime is cold, truth is cold, beauty is cold.  So much for sentimentality.  And so:

The value of Beauty cooled by Truth, hardened by truth, made honest by truth, the sense that all the pleasures of the senses are belated and second-hand: this is at the heart of what Keats (speaking through his megaphonic Urn) has to say as a “friend to man.”  This is another way of saying that we can’t really appreciate the value of beauty, or create an honest beauty, without admitting the truth of death to the equation.

One last observation, maybe too cute, but irresistible in the face of Eliot’s huffy “grammatically meaningless”:

If you read the famous statement (pace I.A.) as an equation, i.e. “Beauty = truth truth beauty” what you have is a recipe – a recipe for beauty that is not mere “beauty,” but aesthetically ideal “Beauty.”  In other words:  real Beauty = one part beauty, two parts truth.

—Bill Wadsworth

I don’t much care for flarfing, spoetry, or any of the pedantic ballyhoo and giggling that attend these “avant-garde” or rather more absurd, “post-avant-garde” little poetry-world eddies, but I am interested in the arrival of a message in my “Spam” folder that does not clearly connect to a commercial aim—text that is literary, in some sense, but displaced from its usual context in a way that makes my thoughts teeter and bend toward sublime confusion for a moment.  For example, on a whim I recently checked an email address I’d abandoned to find an inbox full of Spam messages advertising prescription drugs, West African swindles, on-line casinos, virility aids, etc., yet also the following, without any immediately transparent commercial purpose:

Says that the Russians once anchored here and hunted sea-otter before the first Yankee trader rounded the Horn, or the first Rocky Mountain trapper thirsted across the “Great American Desert” and trickled down the snowy Sierras to the sun-kissed land. No; we are not resting our horses here on Humboldt Bay. We are writing this article, gorging on abalones and mussels, digging clams, and catching record-breaking sea-trout and rock-cod in the intervals in which we are not sailing, motor-boating, and swimming in the most temperately equable climate we have ever experienced. These comfortably large counties! They are veritable empires. Take Humboldt, for instance. It is three times as large as Rhode Island, one and a half times as large as Delaware, almost as large as Connecticut, and half as large as Massachusetts. The pioneer has done his work in this north of the bay region, the foundations are laid, and all is ready for the inevitable inrush of population and adequate development of resources which so far have been no more than skimmed, and casually and carelessly skimmed at that. This region of the six counties alone will some day support a population of millions. In the meanwhile, O you home- seekers, you wealth-seekers, and, above all, you climate-seekers, now is the time to get in on the ground floor. Robert Ingersoll once said that the genial climate of California would in a fairly brief time evolve a race resembling the Mexicans, and that in two or three generations the Californians would be seen of a Sunday morning on their way to a cockfight with a rooster under each arm. Never was made a rasher generalisation, based on so absolute an ignorance of facts. It is to laugh. Here is a climate that breeds vi

This message’s subject was “, who has started to g,” and it was sent by “Allcock” <>.  A quick Googling of the first line suggests it was culled from Jack London’s story “The Human Drift,” available in ebook form at Project Gutenberg.  The attached file, which I have not opened, is probably a virally infected advertisement for something related to the moniker, “Allcock,” but we will never know, as it has been permanently deleted.

In this same scan of spam missives, I noticed that “Jerome Alford” sent me the following message, attached to an ad to get Cialis on-line without a prescription:

He had heard that before. This is a dream bridge. The orders on this are very clear. Pilar has got in trouble there. There is bound to be much firing. He put his hand on her shoulder.
But why should they bring planes? You couldn’t do it. Maria is with thy material. El Sordo did not hear them. That is for a doctor to say. No one should ask him anything. No matter what. But you can’t take them both. I’m very proud of your family.
Much more than likely. There is where the true evil lies. It irritated him a good deal. It is very simple. Daughter of the great whore of whores. Their reward was at hand. Who is ready now? Have you heard aught of this? It is not true?
Open at All Hours. That it should start. That is _really_ nonsense. Take care not to vomit. Is not this manifest? The _civiles_ looked at one another. Gredos is safer country than this. Floyd do next? Pablo for that. That is all. We go when he comes. He is very smart.

It appears to be chopped up bits of text readily available on the Internet, a collage of verb tenses, registers of diction, and so on.  Now, I’m no flarfer, no spoet, certainly not a part of any ridiculously dubbed “post-avant” or “post-avant-garde” or “avant-post” movement, but I’m fascinated by the mind’s process when facing such unconventional texts in unconventional contexts.  As opposed to the new best-selling novel, the predictable, measured sentences of a fine memoir, the easy pleasures of most poems in the New Yorker, sometimes the textual composition without commercial aim is just what I need to revive me from the narcotic effect of conventional language.  Really, is it possible that there is joy in the struggle to make meaning of language that perhaps has practically no meaning at all?  I can’t wait to check my Spam folder again in a month in order to ask myself this question again.

Friends, please post any good Spam you’ve received below, and please resist flarfing.

I probably should state right off the bat that I am not a philosopher by trade. If I mess up philosophical terms and definitions, feel free to correct me. I tend to have a more intuitive approach to philosophy, rather than a systematic one. Thus, I tend to explain things by analogy. I recognize the limits of this, but I hope, nonetheless, to contribute to real discussion. Also, I am skipping ahead in Grossman significantly, past the discussions with Halliday, about halfway into Summa Lyrica. I am doing this because last week I read the passage “‘I’ in the Lyric” and was excited by Grossman articulating something I have been trying to articulate for a long time.

In this passage it seems that Grossman is attacking the idea of “otherness.” I recognize that many philosophers and critics have used the term “other” to mean many different things. Everyone from Hegel, to Husserl, to Pope Benedict have used the term to describe entities that are not the subjective self. I am mostly familiar with this term through the work of Edward Said, whose vision of post-colonialism was heavily pushed by several professors at Binghamton University, where I did my undergraduate. I initially recognized the term “other” to be a handy way to say “not me.” It also seemed to capture the sense of alienation that can exist between the self and some other object/subject.

By my senior year, however, I was quite uncomfortable with the binary of self and other because it seemed to carry the connotation of an uncrossable gulf between persons. Now, there is undeniably a gulf in many senses: you cannot make a choice for me, for example. But does that mean that another person is inaccessible to us in a meaningful way? I tend not to think so. So, you can imagine my happiness when I read the following passage from Grossman:

Consciousness of self is only possible if experienced by contrast. I use I only when I am speaking to someone who will be a you in my address….Here we see a principle whose consequences are spread out in all directions. Language is possible only because each speaker sets himself up as a subject by referring to himself as I in his discourse. Because of this I posits another person, the one who, being, as he is, completely exterior to “me,” becomes my echo to whom I say you and who says you to me….It is a polarity [of persons], moreover, very peculiar in itself, as it offers a type of opposition whose equivalent is encountered nowhere else outside of language. This polarity does not mean either equality of symmetry: “ego” always has a position of transcendence with regard to you. Nevertheless, neither of the terms can be conceived of without the other; they are complementary, although according to an “interior/exterior” opposition, and, at the same time, they are reversible. If we seek a parallel to this, we will not find it. The condition of man in language is unique.

And so the old antinomies of “I” and “the other,” of the individual and society, fall. It is a duality which it is illegitimate and erroneous to reduce to a single primordial term…. It is in a dialectic reality that will incorporate the two terms and define them by mutual relationship that the linguistic basis of subjectivity is discovered.

In the margins I scribbled, “*** Grossman demolishes “the other” yay!!!”

In short, Grossman is positing that any concept of subject is impossible without another subject. And not only this, but this relationship is defined by a reversible I-You, not the static self-other. Admittedly, many powerful people have tried to break this I-You. I believe it was Buber who talked about I-it dialogue (in which, I think, there can be no echo, no reversibility) as opposed to I-Thou dialogue.

I guess at the end of the day, my quibble is not with the word “other” but rather with the idea that persons are opposed in such a way that they are fundamentally alienated beings. I just don’t buy that. We are relational beings, with things that inter-est (literally, it is between) us both. This relationship could not exist unless there were some fundamental assumption about that “other” person (namely, they are a person, like us). This belief, whether we admit it or not, is a fundamental assumption with every form of discourse.

I believe acknowledging this is important; I believe it frees us in important ways. We are not gripped with the anxiety that we are the only self, among alien others that we hope are selves (but are not sure). No, we are in a relationship, and therefore, discourse is possible. The solipsistic idea of discourse with an alien other denies its own terms of possibility.

It also frees us from the desire to become one with the other, I think. When we are gripped with that anxiety, like a person drowning, we grasp desperately; we are in the pit of loneliness. This, of course, is impossible and futile (and the basis of co-dependency). However, if we recognize that we are persons who are able to engage in discourse because the relationship already exists, we are much more free to explore the capacities of that relationship.

OK…so, what’s the connection with poetry? Good question. This ended up more of a rant. I do think there is something to be said about the position we speak from as poets (and artists in general). For Grossman, the lyric, the speaking mode of the subject who is “overheard,” is based in a community of discourse (not to imply other communities could be “other”). There is no sovereign speaker. We all take on some mantle (Grossman connects this with the idea of inspiration).

Incidentally, the ideas in this post might have some interesting connection with Adam’s first post on Keat’s disputed Ode. How is address to the urn possible if the urn is not a person? Is address different than discourse?

Hopefully this all adds up to something…As always, feel free to tweak, commend, denounce in the comment section. I probably need it.

Let’s begin with a recording of Ode on a Grecian Urn recited by Richard Howard, which was taken on 2/12/2010 through my iPhone.

Ode on a Grecian Urn

Thou still unravished bride of quietness,
Thou foster child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loath?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,
Pipe to the spirit dities of no tone.
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss
Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unweari-ed,
Forever piping songs forever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
Forever warm and still to be enjoyed,
Forever panting, and forever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands dressed?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity. Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

One of the most debated poems of the 20th century wasn’t written by a modernist, nor was it even penned in that century. John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn was written in May 1819, published a year later (Keats died in February 1821) alongside the other Great Odes—one of the most considerable series of poems in the entire English language, and certainly the cornerstone of Keats’ reputation as a poet.

A very helpful article over at Wikipedia includes the following information about the mass of critical scrutiny, controversy and defense the Great Poem has caused:

Poet laureate Robert Bridges sparked the debate when he argued:

The thought as enounced in the first stanza is the supremacy of ideal art over Nature, because of its unchanging expression of perfect; and this is true and beautiful; but its amplification in the poem is unprogressive, monotonous, and scattered … which gives an effect of poverty in spite of the beauty. The last stanza enters stumbling upon a pun, but its concluding lines are very fine, and make a sort of recovery with their forcible directness.[47]

Bridges believed that the final lines redeemed an otherwise bad poem. Arthur Quiller-Couch responded with a contrary view and claimed that the lines were “a vague observation – to anyone whom life has taught to face facts and define his terms, actually an uneducated conclusion, albeit most pardonable in one so young and ardent.”[47] The debate expanded when I. A. Richards, an English literary critic who analysed Keats’s poems in 1929, relied on the final lines of the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to discuss “pseudo-statements” in poetry:

On the one hand there are very many people who, if they read any poetry at all, try to take all its statements seriously – and find them silly … This may seem an absurd mistake but, alas! it is none the less common. On the other hand there are those who succeed too well, who swallow ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty …,’ as the quintessence of an aesthetic philosophy, not as the expression of a certain blend of feelings, and proceed into a complete stalemate of muddle-mindedness as a result of their linguistic naivety.[48]

Poet and critic T. S. Eliot, in his 1929 “Dante” essay, responded to Richards:

I am at first included to agree … But on re-reading the whole Ode, this line strikes me as a serious blemish on a beautiful poem, and the reason must be either that I fail to understand it, or that it is a statement which is untrue. And I suppose that Keats meant something by it, however remote his truth and his beauty may have been from these words in ordinary use. And I am sure that he would have repudiated any explanation of the line which called it a pseudo-statement … The statement of Keats seems to me meaningless: or perhaps the fact that it is grammatically meaningless conceals another meaning from me.[49]

In 1930, John Middleton Murry gave a history of these responses “to show the astonishing variety of opinion which exists at this day concerning the culmination of a poem whose beauty has been acknowledged for many years. Whether such another cause, and such another example, of critical diversity exists, I cannot say; if it does, it is unknown to me. My own opinion concerning the value of those two lines in the context of the poem itself is not very different from Mr. Eliot’s.”[50]

Cleanth Brooks defended the lines from critics in 1947 and argued:

We shall not feel that the generalization, unqualified and to be taken literally, is meant to march out of its context to compete with the scientific and philosophical generalizations which dominate our world. ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ has precisely the same status, and the same justification as Shakespeare’s ‘Ripeness is all.’ It is a speech ‘in character’ and supported by a dramatic context. To conclude thus may seem to weight the principle of dramatic propriety with more than it can bear. This would not be fair to the complexity of the problem of truth in art nor fair to Keats’s little parable. Granted; and yet the principle of dramatic propriety may take us further than would first appear. Respect for it may at least insure our dealing with the problem of truth at the level on which it is really relevant to literature.[51]

M. H. Abrams responded to Brooks’s view in 1957:

I entirely agree, then, with Professor Brooks in his explication of the Ode, that ‘Beauty is truth’ … is to be considered as a speech ‘in character’ and ‘dramatically appropriate’ to the Urn. I am uneasy, however, about his final reference to ‘the world-view …’ For the poem as a whole is equally an utterance by a dramatically presented speaker, and none of its statements is proffered for our endorsement as a philosophical generalization of unlimited scope. They are all, therefore, to be apprehended as histrionic elements which are ‘in character’ and ‘dramatically appropriate,’ for their inherent interest as stages in the evolution of an artistically ordered … experience of a credible human being.[52]

Wishing to update the debate, last week I sent the following email out to poets and critics to weigh in on the matter:

Arguably the most controversial poem of 20th century literary critical debate has been Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Since Robert Bridges, I.A. Richards and T.S. Eliot engaged the poem critically, poets and critics have taken all possible sides: defending its ending, dismissing it, even ignoring the rhetorical closing all together as an unimportant point. What I wanted to know, simply: What is your take on the ending of Keats’ famous ode? Do you find it successful or unsuccessful?

Below are their responses of how this Whole Business of Truth and Beauty struck them. I encourage you, reader, to leave your own comment—and let the conversation continue. Next week, I hope to bring in some other quotes, from Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler, among others, share some other reactions from contemporary poets and critics, and attempt to formulate my own opinion on the matter.

For now, we seem to have enough riches before us to ponder. My utmost thanks to Alfred Corn, Richard Howard, Don Share, Frances Whistler, Dara Wier and Richard Zenith for their thoughts.


I’ve certainly heard—and many times—critical statements to the effect that a given work of art failed because it had presented a scene or object or person as too beautiful (perfect, shapely, harmonious), thereby violating our consensus about the actual nature of experience, which we should acknowledge as being flawed, unshapely and dissonant. And that a proper understanding of beauty should insist on the inclusion of aspects of reality not traditionally considered pleasing or attractive. In short, it’s the aesthetic of “Beauty is Truth, Truth, Beauty.”  Given that, I wouldn’t be inclined to dismiss the Urn’s statement as silly, so absurd as to ruin a great poem. To me the puzzling thing is that, in the poem, such a statement should be attributed to the Grecian Urn. Puzzling because it doesn’t strike me that what we are told about this marble vessel of great beauty (in the traditional sense) accounts for the statement it makes.  So for me an important critical project around this poem should be to explain why an aesthetic stance at odds with the “character” of this object should be pronounced in its voice.  The tone of the conclusion suggests that the poem’s observer and speaker does not, himself, share the view expressed by the Urn.  The speaker condescends, perhaps with a certain amused tolerance, to the statement being made.  So perhaps an aesthetics of imperfection and dissonance isn’t at all what the Urn is urging.  Yes, perhaps that’s it: we’re meant to understand that the Urn is so far out of contact with reality it doesn’t even guess that the world is ever less than perfect, shapely, and harmonious. It thinks the Beautiful representation of reality is unfailingly True.   An object made of marble, its only “task” is to continue to exist as it is and display the relief sculptures on its surface. A non-functional artwork exempted from the painful struggle of fleshly existence might indeed believe the world was lovely throughout, as lovely as the scenes represented on its surface. That’s all it knows; and all it needs to know.  We, the human observers, will need to know more. We aren’t going to be allowed to remain in the unflawed cosmos of the Urn. Sad, but there is a consolation. We are not frozen in immobility. We can live and move and breathe, and even kiss our beloveds; though of course we know that to love inscribes us in the order of time, and therefore consigns us, eventually, to the order of mortality—the extinction of ourselves as perceiving, thinking subjects. The Urn will still be there, unchanged, immobile, beautiful, impervious to time and to love. I assume Keats wants us to admire the Urn, but he also shows us why we don’t want to be it.

Alfred Corn

To borrow a lovely phrase from Ian Stewart, who was writing on physics (in WHY BEAUTY IS TRUTH: A HISTORY OF SYMMETRY, Basic Books, 2007), “beauty does not automatically ensure truth, but it helps.”

Yet not all truth is beautiful; some is obviously quite ugly.

A poem should not hate itself for wanting to be beautiful.

Jessica Palmer suggests that disorder is the new beauty – but allows that it could be also dereliction.

As for Eliot, we may counterpose the spirit of Kenneth Koch: One beauty conceals another.  One truth may conceal another, too.

I have no anxiety whatsoever about the poem’s closing lines or whether they have, or ought to have, any truth-value.

As for beauty, as many have said, it’s in the language of the beholder.

Don Share

Plainly a lot hinges on who speaks the last two lines, and whether one or two speakers. I feel most comfortable with the idea that Keats knew exactly what he was about when he created “beauty is truth, truth beauty” as something both true and beautiful, and yet circular and inadequate. (This reading suggests, though it does not absolutely depend on, the idea that the urn says just these five words, leaving “that is all … need to know” being addressed by the speaker to the urn. The absolute circularity of “beauty is truth, truth beauty” so aptly mirrors that of the urn, whose depicted story has neither a start nor an end, that I incline to this reading. However, the last line and a half also expresses and continues a strong sense of circularity, so I wouldn’t be dismayed if MS evidence showed incontrovertibly that the urn speaks both final lines). Either way, the inadequacy and yet loveliness of the idea that truth and beauty are one and the same – which creates a triteness that is presumably what Eliot disliked – seems to me to be what Keats is talking about all through the poem. The paradox is that the human mind is incapable of absorbing the idea of eternity, but also unable not to be “teased” by it: the urn is a friend to man through the comfort of its unchangingness, and yet the old age of this generation and woe of the next are not to be cured by its message, although assuaged.

Frances Whistler

Beauty is Truth

An epitaph in tone

One can see it inscribed on a deathmark

A funereal inscription

On a tombstone

On an urn filled with ashes

Ashes to ashes, and all that good stuff that never ends

Another circular instance

Keats was always dying

Keats never was not

Like Stein’s a rose is a rose

As a hope, as a denial

Would be that all were circular always

Like all poetry is

Or makes it up as if it were

Dara Wier

A = B, and in case we didn’t get the point, B = A? I prefer to give Keats more credit. I don’t read “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” as a transcendental, let alone philosophical or mathematical, equation. The statement is addressed to someone, namely those of us who admire the urn but don’t entirely understand it. To me it’s about negative capability. Nothing wrong with knowledge, but we don’t need to know everything, and if we’re not able to entertain half-knowledge, we’ll miss out. Beauty is a kind of truth, and can be appreciated as such, without understanding. The converse proposition is that truth, even when not visually or feelingly beautiful, still has the beauty of being true. This isn’t immediately obvious from the second half of the verse in question, maybe I’m reading too much in two words, but I would argue that Keats’s beholders of unheard melodies and his Lovers who cannot kiss enjoy the beauty of those melodies and that love not because of Platonic ideals but because the melodies and love exist, they’re true. Ergo, truth is a kind of beauty.

Richard Zenith

I worry about graduate students. When intention, and goals, and focus outstrip the accidental, the possibility of falling into exactly what you need to trip over, you ought to take stock: what do you just allow to happen? Some students will say, “Easy for you. You have a job.” They’re right. But I never planned my lifeever, and I think anyone who knows me, knows this is true. I’m not advocating that any one be as accidental as I am, but there needs to be some carelessness. The true power of money, or fame or talent is that it gives wiggle room for carelessness. I’ve been poor most of my life—sometimes dangerously so, and what I felt most deprived of was the right not to give a rat’s ass. A writer needs carelessness to a certain degree. They need to write just for the hell of it—without the pressure of publication, or work shopping,or a grade, or because it’s “worthwhile.” No child kicking a can wonders if it’s worthwhile. Can kicking is a value in its own right. So I like to instill in my students a sense of “just for the sheer white hell of it.”

This is what Flannery O’Connor was getting at when she spoke of developing a “habit of art.” So much of the industry of poetry is about “Work.” Being goal oriented, and focused can be detrimental, if taken too far. As my grandmah always said: “A dog chasing his tail, loses the yard.”I hate work. My idea of a meaningful life would be to recieve a spell that allowed me to lie down beside a beloved in a field of timothy grass, sans the bugs, and, every so often, she would tenderly ticikle my cheek with a blade of grass, and we would make out until ourl lips were swollen, and then walk hand in hand through blue chickory and ascend to the bed room where we’d have sex for six hours, in perfect bliss, fully realizing the tantric ideal, and then there’d be a movie, and perhaps a beverage, and the last rays of the sun would fall upon our noses just so, as we lay naked and tangled in each other’s limbs in abject splendor, and angels came with rock glasses full of Jameson– perfect little ice cubes that maketh sweet melody! Oh yes! Being short, and bald, and utterly untantric, I am forced to write this, rather than live this, which brings me to the point of my rant: writing is a compensatory act—an augmentation to a life that is not lived. It is what is missing. It is a void through which the hand moves, and, when the hand moves just so, the void allows the faces and landscapes to appear. to be vivd for a moment until they fade, and are replaced by bills, and obligations, and the voice of the world telling us to keep busy. Oh busy, busy world which hath not love, nor hope, nor Jameson: what does it avail thee? My true motto: “Lighten up and despair!”

This leads me to a writing prompt called “despairing more deeply into joy. All you need to do in this writing prompt is be undignified. James Tate is never dignified. He indulges himself. That’s why he’s famous: You need a cookie for this writing prompt, or anything you might eat when you miss someone– a cookie, rice pilaf, whatever. You need to realize life is both beautiful and hopeless, that, even if you win the Pulitzer, wrinkles will come, and body parts will fail you,and you’ll become King Lear and insist utterly false people kiss your warty ass until you drop dead, and they forget you.. If you’re lucky, you’ll be hot for about 20 years, and your reign of terror will be extended. If you’re not lucky, you’ll be less than hot,and that will mean you’ll have to be really smart or very kind to all sentient creatures just to get a little taste of what hot people get by simply breathing. Yes. Life is unfair. Ho hum. You have been cheated. You were born for greater things! Why doesn’t anyone realize it? Get yourself into a state of absolute indignity.  Right now. You can begin this prompt with any of the following three lines:

“You were snow that year and fell on me at all odd hours of the morning.”

“You sat naked on my sofa, all except for your glasses, and you asked me to remove them.”

“Why is that fig in your hand, instead of me?”

When I think of snow, I think of a navy blue P coat because I once loved a girl who always wore a navy blue P coat, and, in my warped mind, a couple flakes of snow are always falling into the darkness of her coat, and disappearing. I see her sometimes in dreams, and she is wearing the coat, and a little knit ski cap, and calling me : “Booshi!” I touch her hair. It is damp and wren brown, and it makes me feel wierd, and tender, and sadder than I have ever felt in my whole fucking life. Every time I go to touch her hair, and feel the damp, and watch the snow melt into her coat, she undoes the buttons, and lets me put my hands around her waist, and then she disappears. This is easy to do, this dreaming awake. I have given up all control of what  should happen, and yet I am the only creature of what happens. Writers are often introverts who secretly want to rule the world with an iron fist. They need to stop trying to control everything, and then they will have the absolute power of a hollow pipe through which the wind blows, and little children peer to look out the other side.

Anyway, by now, you are probably wondering where the prompt is. It is in the lines: Let’s look at the first line:

“You were snow that year and fell on me at all odd hours of the morning.”

Okay, we know someone is snow (not uncommon in a poem). We know it is “that year.” We know the snow fell on the speaker of the prose poem, and it appears to happen in the morning. What’s an odd hour? Perhaps we can do without the word odd, but odd sounds nice. We shall see:

If you choose this prompt, pick a year in your life that the reader need never know: 1991, or 1967, or whatever. List three things that made that year significant : You got laid for the first time, you came to know God, your father had a heart atack in his lover’s bathroom… whatever. Anyway, list. Put the list to the side. Now, consider snow in terms of all the five senses:

Sight: how is it falling? Is it swirling? Are they fat flakes, little icy pellets? Is it lake effect snow and blowing sideways? Does it fall in a still semi-darkness of winter, 7 Am. Does it fall under the street lights? Are you noticing how vividly green and red and amber the traffic lights are during snwy days? IS the wind blowing?

Smell: wet wool perhaps, the smell of the cold (We know it has a smell. What is it), a smell of wood smoke, etc.

Taste: Is the snow salty, sooty, Icy metal? Did you suck wet wool as a child (I did)? Children are always tasting the world. They’re like catfish.

Touch: does it sting your face slightly? Does it fall on your hair, so gently yet somehow perceptible? If someone should suddenly put cold hands on your face, would it piss you off?

Sound: And has God put a mute in the trumpet of consciousness? Is the snow like a damper petal? Have you ever stood in silence on the porch, and tired to hear ne snow flake among thousands?

Now, the good news is, you don’t have to use any of this stuff. This is what I call gathering. You’re stalling. Your picking up strays. The main purpose of this is to build the thing inside you– to trust that the truth of this dream is growing.” Fell” can be aggressive: it can mean attack, or affectionate ambush, or passion, or playfulness. In this one line, you have a lot to work with. I’ve been gathering by helping you gather. I have a blue cup full of coffee to my left. My heat is working. I am ready!

Prose Poem

You were snow that year and fell on me at all odd hours of the morning. I came to rely on it, and took my blue knit ski hat off, and let you sting my ears. But tell me, if we come to rely on being ambushed, is it ambush? The snow falls now. It isn’t you. Perhaps it is someone else’s dead. Perhaps it’s become the fingers of a clumsy child, a child who can’t button her coat, and must  pretend for the rest of her life that she likes being cold. How many things since you stopped being snow have I pretended to like? I put my hands over my ears. I don’t want to hear myself. This is sad. This is always sad. I stand at the bus stop, expecting you to fall, to touch my bare neck—to give me the good pain. I say “cut it out.” In the language of sad this means: “Come here!” Look! The traffic light is more green more red, more amber than it has ever been. It is a record traffic light! I am sick with love. Terrible things happen to people, or maybe they don’t. Perhaps that’s wishful thinking because a truly terrible thing would give me full permission to cry. I need permission. Something is locked inside my scarf—something that trembles, and smells of wet wool, and doesn’t know the lock is broken. It could come out—if it wanted to. If it  was that child, I would offer to button her coat. I would kiss the dark wool where the flakes were disappearing. No wonder I lose scarves—all those prisoners inside them! I can’t bear it any longer. Whatever it is, I want out. The bus is coming. Inside, in the still semi-dark, the green yellow ancient light of the bus, and slushy foot prints, and somber morning faces. Fall on me. My hands are cold. The buttons won’t obey. I am wide open. I refuse to listen. My hands are over my ears.
What is it I am so afraid of hearing? There is nothing terrible happening—nothing anyone can see. That’s what makes it so terrible. That’s what makes it snow.

Okay, so try one of these, and give yourself permission to digress, and, if you are a busy human being, give yourself permission to digress even further. Digression is nine tenths the law. Fuck the manuscript. Fuck the curriculum vitae. We serve them bitterly. We have to work, but it isn’t our  true kingdom. It isn’t snow.