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This evening at Catholic mass, while everyone bowed their heads to pray, I asked Jesus not only to help me be good to my husband and my family, but also what he thought about my poetry. I heard a voice, perhaps in my head, or perhaps funneled out the church ceiling which said, “your poetry will touch a few hearts, but it won’t help you in heaven.” Granted, I am aware that it is a bit presumptuous to ask the son of God what he thinks of your poetry. But it had me considering the worth of poetry, and what it means in the grand scheme of things, in relation to other aspects of life, that when you weigh them for their importance, are likely more spiritually imminent. I mentioned this to my husband, the poet Joe Weil, and he said, “You were listening. That is exactly what I would expect that Christ would say.”

When we returned home, we walked to the river on the other side of our land and went fishing. We coexisted, somehow in an almost silent reverie. I listened to the cacophony of birds, noted that there was an absence of geese, and glanced once at the sky, which appeared as if it had been painted in perfect blues and whites by God himself. I thought I would write a poem about it, but then it occurred to me that there is something about experience which simply cannot be appreciated to the fullest extent when you are preoccupied with drumming up lines to illustrate the experience with some sort of fancy language and clever twist of rhetoric. The experience, without the impediment of the literary impulse and obsession stands on its own, no matter how absent the mind must seem, no matter how stupid the utterances of wonder which reference it.

My husband never catches a fish when I am with him on the riverbank. In order not to spook the fish, I walked back to the house. Twenty minutes later, he returned, ecstatic, as he had fought an enormous carp for the whole duration of my absence. There is something, I think, about pure ecstasy, about the thump in the human heart which does not ask of or require poetic language to speak for it. As poets, we need time to live. The poet Franz Wright recently told me that he was finally beginning to enjoy his life, and not drowning in his own misery just because he went a day without composing a poem.

When Joe writes a poem, it is a sacred occurrence. It happens only once or twice a week, but his poems demonstrate quality, as opposed to quantity (of which I am often culpable). I spend so much of my time writing poetry that even the stupid awe that comes from watching two sparrows fly from a tree becomes “crucial” material for poetic concerns. So what is the poetry that transcends the expertly crafted line of verse? From what I have deduced, it’s the ultimate experience of beauty that requires no documentation, and which simply IS, ontologically, existentially, what have you.

After I write a poem, there is a moment or two of the elation related to accomplishing something, but after awhile, I just want the actual experience of love, in its simplest form, the absent contemplation of gazing into a fire or burying my head against Joe’s chest. Sometimes I feel like I shouldn’t be permitted to experience this sort of contentment until I’ve done my job for the day and written a poem. Reader, I can’t tell you in words the intimacy I experience when I am writing a poem. But just listen. Joe is playing the piano. He almost caught a fish. Art is everywhere, in the air, in the buzz I feel from my third drink. Not every instance of beauty requires a literature to uphold it. For there is already a literature, hovering even in the most immaterial moment, in the acts we commit on our way to heaven.

The poet who saved my life never existed for me in his native language. He died fifteen years before I was born. His name is Miguel Hernandez, and he will never be as well known in English as Lorca, Jimenez, or Machado, but he is my poet, the one I would take with me into exile.

When I first met one of his poems I was a senior in high school and my mother had just died. She did not die prettily. I remember the good Catholic liberals in my school showed a film on how a good Catholic family should behave during a terminal illness. I sat in the class growing more and more enraged. I shouted at the teacher: “There’s no right way to behave fuck face,” and stormed out of the class. They wanted to suspend me. My father told them to go see my mother. I was let back into the school the next day, and I was not made to watch any more films on a “beautiful” death. The mouth cancer had eaten away half her face. She had a tumor in the middle of her forehead, and her lips, what was left of them, were swollen so that she could barely speak. She was not yet fifty one.

I did not know how to grieve. My aunts and uncles, who had grown up in a large Irish family, understood all the mechanics of grief. You made tea. You made funeral arrangements. You grew ever more tidy.You smoked and joked, and changed the curtains. On the first night of my mother’s wake, I refused to stay with the family at Aunt Elizabeth’s. I threw myself down on my parent’s bed, when no one was there, and wept the way you might if everything in your life has been dismantled. Sounds came out of me I did not know could exist. I buried my head in my mother’s pillow. I could smell her cancer everywhere in the house. It had become the incense of my life. I was about to turn 18.

Life is not merciful. It does not forgive a weakness in any structure, including that in the human soul, and it will tear, and peck, and hammer against this weakness until it is destroyed. I sometimes think African American “cool” and Irish humor developed out of an awareness of this truth. One must fool life into believing the structure is sound. One must put up a front against the hornets and rats who would build a nest in the flawed structure of the soul, but this “front” becomes a tomb, and I now realize most of the people who raised me, who looked after me, who hovered over my first sleep, were already buried under ten tons of well constructed shite. This is the experiential, non-verbal equivalent of form. All the formalities of our lives are meant to distance us from the merciless beak that seeks out the vulnerable, the visibly damaged. Life sends its chickens to peck the bleeding chicken to death. In a sense, literature, word, is the chief shaping ancient of what can not be shaped. And so on to Hernandez:

I was not allowed to grieve, except in private, and a part of me continued doing teen anger things: I drank, I smoked. Being a nerd, and not very good looking, I pined for a girl who had no interest in me at all. If a loss is big enough, all the little losses come through the hole, and they widen it, and in comes more big losses–an avalanche. My father developed throat cancer. He became a drunk. We lost our house and lived over a record store in Garwood, New Jersey. My family went from solidly working class and Catholic to dysfunctional mess. It was during this time, this time when I realized my Catholic faith had nothing to give me but Hallmark greeting card sentiments, when all the people we had known started to “unknow” us that I came upon the poems of Miguel Hernandez.

I still believed in the sacraments, and in Christ, but I no longer believed in his followers. They made me want to puke. Christ spoke the truth about life hating any structural weakness when he said: “To those who have, more will be given, and to those who do not have, the little they have will be taken away.” I told a priest about this, how this statement comforted me because I knew, by my experience, that it was true. The priest, being a snob ass, told me Jesus was speaking about faith. I said: “bullshit. He told us you only need the faith of a mustard seed. He was talking about the law of life. Strength seeks strength. The healthy seeks the healthy, and the week are ransacked for what ever material is left. He didn’t say it was good or bad. He just said it was true.” Nothing in my experience has changed my mind on this. In life, poetry has been the one mercy I know–poetry and music. Everything else has been a bust.

So I purchased the Hernandez book because it was bright orange on the cover, and I liked that. I didn’t know a damned thing about Spanish poetry, or most poetry for that matter. I wrote songs then, very good melodies, and terrible lyrics. As is my habit, I opened the book to a random page. It had been two months since my mother’s death. There were more deaths and losses to come and I knew it because I am intuitive, and can grasp the basic structure of things with the smallest bit of information. I am not extra sensory. Forget that. I have a brain wired to leap. This is intuition–an ability to jump to conclusions that are often absolutely true (And sometimes utterly false). I opened the book to his poem “Me Sobra El Corazon”:

Today I am. I don’t know how,
today all I am ready for is suffering,
today I have no friends,
today the only things I have is the desire
to rip out my heart by the roots
and stick it underneath a shoe.

I had found one voice that did not seem to be lying to me, and I had a meltdown in the middle of that book store, a used book store half English, half Spanish. I was fifty cents short, and when the person at the desk would not trust my promise to return with the fifty cents, I broke down in tears, and begged. An old Cuban lady gave me the fifty cents, and I bolted from the store, and sat in the park. I did not read any of the other poems for about a week. I clung to this poem because this voice was not lying to me. It was giving me back what I knew. It was not making tea, or hanging curtains, or saying “shut up.” It was telling me my wanting to die, my sadness was now my wealth, that everything else could be taken away from me, would be taken from me, but this suffering was mine:

The more I look inward the more I mourn!
Cut off this pain?–who has the scissors?

I eventually read the book, and read it a hundred times. This Spanish poet, this shepherd, this Hernandez tossed into a prison, freed, and stupid enough (wonderful enough) to go back to where he would surely be re-captured out of compassion for his family, this man who died in filth, in one of Franco’s many prisons, had spoken to me in a way only Christ had: “to those who have, more will be given, and to those who do not have, the little they have will be taken away.” Christ also said: “Anyone who is brought to nothing for my sake will discover who he is.”

My grief was not merely private. The cancer of my mother and father, the loss of our house, the descent of my family went along with what happened to the working class culture I grew up in: good factory jobs went belly up. Skilled men and women were told they were worthless. Unions were destroyed. America went from a country that actually made something to a land of “professionals.” Vague, silly people who, like all vague silly people, create great destruction from their privilege, and are, themselves, eventually, destroyed. Before they are destroyed, they will swell like supernovas, embrace health foods, and spirituality, and a cult of professionalism (they will affirm the very thing that destroys them) and they will turn mean and blame the weak. They are soft spoken, politically correct, and the deadliest people who ever walked the face of this earth, and as a poet, I look forward to their destruction because they have no equipment for suffering (which is the same as living) and, therefore, no true compassion.

A country can not sustain an entire population of Daisy and Tom Buchanans, but that’s what we’ve been doing for the last thirty years. Hernandez shaped my suffering. He also taught me that it exists on a scale beyond me, or anyone I love–that this loss is in, not of, a loss in things. In a time of great suffering, a human being might have only the consolation of his or her sentences. So be it. This is why it is important for poetry to exist: because it is beside the point, and, being beside the point, it cannot be impaled. It shapes what can never be shaped, carries what can not be carried, speaks to the dead, gives courage to those who have little else to go on. The “professionals” rule poetry militant. Jobs are gained and lost. Someone like me who has never been outside the coil of suffering will, no doubt, get clobbered. So what? I have known the impersonal machinery of management as a factory worker. I know the decorum of professionalism for what it is: a brand of benign contempt for life, and an ongoing death wish. Poetry, this scribbling, this jotting down, is no remedy, but it may shape the sickness just enough to make it portable.

I think of all the human emotions that call for the gravitas of form, loss, grief, and outrage need it most. In the case of Paul Celan, the complete break down of syntax and logical priority in his poetry was, chiefly, a formal necessity rooted in the murder of his people. He was writing in the language of the murderer, and, like the conquered Irish, and the enslaved African, this formal necessity compelled him toward re-inventing German, “mangling” it as it were, in order to achieve a true poetics of witness. What cannot be born must ever more carefully be shaped.

The handling of such overwhelming material is first and last, a question of form. Grief, loss, outrage, must be made portable. They must have their ceremony: embodiment, purgation, and, if possible, catharsis, and it is important to instill in a young poet the sense that precision, finding the right ceremony of utterance for what can not be truly expressed is paramount: the harder, the more impossible it is to render the fulll scope of loss, or grief, or outrage, the more vital form becomes. Here, I mean form as an artificiality which allows for truth. The only weapon at my disposal in the wake of all my losses and humiliations is artifice. Only the “insincerity” of form can speak for my heart. The great polyglot, Fernando Pessoa writes in his Book of Disquiet:

The most abject of all needs is to confide, to confess. It’s the soul’s need to externalize.

Go ahead and confess, but confess what you don’t feel. Go ahead and tell your secrets to get their weight off your soul, but let the secrets you tell be secrets you’ve never had.

Lie to yourself before you tell that truth. Expressing yourself is always a mistake. Be resolutely conscious: let expression, for you, be synonymous with lying.

All poets must play not with the difference between truth and lie, but with their intimacy, the way one draws forth the other. As an experiment, I have been putting all my most immediate and sincere thoughts in Facebook status updates. These have made “positive” thinkers of the most depressed poet/friends, all of whom dread my declarations that a life without the beloved is meaningless, and, yet, if I were to put the lie of form, of decoration, of verbal ceremony to these “expressions” I might do more than merely get away with them; I might be applauded. It is never the “truth” that gives a poem its value, but the ceremony of that truth, and all ceremonies are, by definition, artificial.

So let me give a young poet a couple ways “in.” The first is that most conceited of poetic conceits: apostrophic (elegiac) address. Apostrophic address is the poet speaking directly to that missing person, place, or thing, which, of course, can not speak back. It has the power of immediacy, of ancient rites of grief and drama, and yes, of madness. In many classical elegies, it does not occur until the poem reaches its climax. Suddenly, the poet, in the throes of grief or grandeur, turns toward the dead,or the absent, and speaks to him or her directly. I will use the opening four stanzas of one of my favorite Spanish poets, Miguel Hernandez’ poem, “Lullaby of The Onion.” It was inspired by his hearing while dying in one of Franco’s prisons that his wife and son had nothing to live on but bread and onions:

An onion is frost
shut in and poor.
Frost of your days
and of my nights.
Hunger and onion,
black ice and frost
huge and round.

My son is lying now
in the cradle of hunger.
The blood of an onion
is what he lives on.
But it is your blood,
with sugar on it like frost,
onion and hunger.

A dark woman
turned into moonlight
pours herself down thread
by thread over your cradle.
My son, laugh,
because you can swallow the moon
when you want to.

Lark of my house,
laugh often.
Your laugh is in your eyes
the light of the world.
Laugh so much
that my soul, hearing you,
will beat wildly in space.

Hernandez is lying to his son, to himself, but the important truth– this great poet, this loving father, locked away to die in a prison, who is helpless in every way except for his love, comes out. What a bad poem it would be if he wrote:

My son and wife have nothing but bread and onions to eat,
and I am helpless in all ways except my love.

This is what I mean by the necessity of form–whether in rhyme, or meter, or free verse. Pessoa says at a different point in his book that the personal is not the human. Always, a poem is a translation from the personal to the human that almost succeeds. The residue of its best failures is beauty. One must speak for more than just one’s self, even when the self is all one knows, or one does not speak at all. And so on to another trick:

Another way to create gravitas is distancing from the emotion either by sticking to surface details or by an indirect rumination, in order to free the ontology of the poem (its essential being) from the fetters of the merely personal (see Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died,” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”). O’Hara uses the form of causal this and that. He goes here, he goes there, Billy Holiday has died. His strategy is an indirectness so accute it makes the loss part of the daily doings and landscape of his life and ours. Elizabeth Bishop uses irony and a sort of stoic rumination on loss done in one of the most strict forms: the Villanelle. This distancing does not have the passion of Hernandez, but it gives the loss and grief a certain elan and dignity.

Here’s an exercise: read all three of these poems, consider a grief, a loss, an outrage in your life, and write on it in all three styles. Use a conceit such as apostrophic address or giving the one you love a name like “Lark of my house” (or, as in Roethke’s great Elegy, “skittery pigeon”). First practice speaking directly to the absent person, place or thing, then write all around it without mentioning it explicitly. Good luck.

After wrestling through several Latin translations of Horace and trying to come to grips with him as a poet, I decided the best way to get “into Horace’s head” would be to translate him myself. Though Mrs. Krepich, my high school Latin teacher, might have hoped otherwise, my Latin, poor to begin with, has atrophied. I am saved somewhat by my slightly better Greek, but I barely limp through the original for the most part. So I roped a local Latin professor into my venture and we’ve been meeting once a week, translating and debating the meaning of Horace. Later, with our discussion in mind, I will make a translation in hopes of “righting” whatever wrongs I feel has been done by modern translators.

I’m not really righting any wrongs, of course–just putting my own spin on things. But it’s been an interesting learning process. We were foolish enough to take on one of Horace’s most famous and translated Odes: i.5. Milton’s attempt is the most famous:

What slender Youth bedew’d with liquid odours
Courts thee on Roses in some pleasant Cave,
Pyrrha for whom bindst thou
In wreaths thy golden Hair,

Plain in thy neatness; O how oft shall he
On Faith and changèd Gods complain: and Seas
Rough with black winds and storms
Unwonted shall admire:

Who now enjoyes thee credulous, all Gold,
Who alwayes vacant alwayes amiable
Hopes thee; of flattering gales
Unmindfull. Hapless they

To whom thou untry’d seem’st fair. Me in my vow’d
Picture the sacred wall declares t’ have hung
My dank and dropping weeds
To the stern God of Sea.

Milton’s poem is famously “word for word” (as much as possible from the Latin) and captures Horace’s meaning clearly and accurately. Anthony Hecht did a more irreverent “imitation”:

What well-heeled knuckle-head, straight from the unisex
Hairstylist and bathed in “Russian Leather,”
Dallies with you these late summer days, Pyrrha,
In your expensive sublet? For whom do you
Slip into something simple by, say, Gucci?
The more fool he who has mapped out for himself
The saline latitudes of incontinent grief.
Dazzled though he be, poor dope, by the golden looks
Your locks fetched up out of a bottle of Clairol,
He will know that the wind changes, the smooth sailing
Is done for, when the breakers wallop him broadside,
When he’s rudderless, dismasted, thoroughly swamped
In that mindless rip-tide that got the best of me
Once, when I ventured on your deeps, Piranha.

“Russian Leather” aside, Hecht translates Horace with the 20th century reader in mind, but perhaps loses Horace’s steady-minded, quietly passionate tone in this poem.

Some critics have called Ode i.5 a perfect poem. It has an almost “tossed off” feel, yet upon further study reveals itself to be intricately wrought. It is quite similar to the way Bishop’s craft has made her a “poet’s poet.” This sense of the poem is captured by a Latin phrase from the poem itself: “simplex munditiis.” Milton translates it “Plain in thy neatness”; Hecht translates it much more loosely and colloquially as the “something simple” that Pyrrha slips into. David Ferry makes my favorite translation–“elegant and simple”–a phrase that also describes this poem. In this case, the highest art conceals its artifice. Pyrrha has possibly spent hours getting her hair “just so,” if only so that she can brush off a compliment with “Oh, it was nothing. I just rolled out of bed from a nap and it looked like this.” It reinforces the double illusion that 1. she looks this amazing all the time, and 2. she does not spend hours on her hair. It is the artifice of elegance: that whatever beauty exists in the object has arisen almost naturally, without contemplation, it’s very being tapped into beauty itself.

It’s often the same way with a poem. On the one hand, poetry, particularly formal poetry, draws attention to itself as poetry by its choice to act (or not act) in a way we understand to be poem-like. On the other hand, we derive a special pleasure out of coming full circle and hearing a poem that appears utterly unintentional in its formality, whose execution of the form makes us forget the constructedness of the form itself, as if it’s possible for a sonnet to occur in natural speech at almost any moment. It elevates poetry from “techne” to something divine (and thus the poet inspired–literally God-breathed!).

Then again, perhaps I’m overstating the goals of an art which conceals its artifice (nor do I necessarily believe that it’s the ideal or highest). I say all this only to emphasize that the process of translation–of this ode, at least–is hopeless from the beginning. Horace is just too good a craftsman for a translation to do him any ultimate justice. Yet I believe translators hope for a sort of “good will” that can exist between between themselves and the poet. In this sense, we need not fret about the “treasonous” act of translation, and another poet’s interpretation has the validity of a friendly presumption because of this good will. This good will gives license to the translator’s creative will and frees the translator from attempting to supplant the original (for indeed, this is what a perfectly accurate translation would do, were it possible to achieve). I think it also gives readers some criteria with which to judge a translation by, nebulous though it might be to try and discern the how a translator’s “good will” plays out in the text of the translation.

This brings me to my translation of Ode i.5. When I began this translation, Horace was very much on my mind; that is, I was trying to get into his head. The opening lines, especially, seem important because they say so much about what a translator interprets the original. Later, after certain decisions have been made, the poem becomes more “yours” as a writer. You’ve made certain stylistic choices in the beginning that sets in motion the rest of the poem’s machinery. The first step itself narrows the scope and closes off an infinite range of other poems. Here is my translation as it stands now:

What eager fellow is it now,
Pyrrha, who–in a cloud of cologne–brings
you roses and courts you in
a secret hideaway? (Do you

do your hair still with the same
simple elegance?) How often will
his sweat drip over your faithlessness
and the possibility that Aphrodite might change

her mind again? And how will he
unknowing marvel at the callous
sea and the blackening clouds?
You see he actually still enjoys

your love’s golden glow, flatters
himself that you’ll stay true and tender. He
doesn’t know that whispering breezes
change, that it’s a fool who steers

by untried stars. But me?
You’ll see I’ve hung my dripping
cloak in honor of the mighty god
that saved me from disaster
_____and the open sea.

The first choice for me was how to render “gracilis” the adjective that describes the young man (“puer”) who is currently pleasing Pyrrha. The word choice here is incredibly important because it is the first means by which Horace indicates own feelings toward the new couple. “Gracilis” generally means thin or slight; it could also mean simple, as in unadorned (but in the total opposite way that Pyrrha’s hair is “simplex”). Heather McHugh memorably translates it as “What slip of a boy,” while Ferry says “What perfumed debonair youth.” McHugh captures Horace’s derision toward the young man, while Ferry captures Horace’s jealousy. This is the primary tension in the poem: Horace is at once mocking of the youth’s inexperience while also chewing through the furniture with jealousy and lust (albeit in a totally reserved, very Roman manner). One could even say that Horace is jealous of the youth’s inexperience, jealous of the fact that the youth has the innocence that allows him to delight in the pure joy Pyrrha’s love (before things get rough, that is).

My phrase “eager fellow” leans more on the mockery side, yet, I hope, doesn’t fall into outright derision. “Eager” suggests inexperience, of course, the kind that doesn’t realize it’s a head nosing around for a guillotine. To me, the word “fellow” has always suggested the sort of foppishness that is the exact opposite of Pyrrha’s elegance, the kind that poofs it up in a “cloud of cologne.” Whatever choice is made here in rendering “gracilis,” one thing is clear: the better looking Horace portrays the young man, the more Pyrrha’s enjoyment of her time with him and thus, the greater Horace’s jealousy. On the other hand, the more biting Horace’s description of the youth, the more bitter Pyrrha’s rejection becomes for Horace: you dumped me for that dandy?

The real trick is being able to make it work both ways, which Horace does with the original. “Gracilis” could slide on the scale of meaning toward the pathetic “skinny” or the handsome “slender.” Horace wins the day by understatement. Perhaps “slim” could be close in its ambiguity, yet it lacks the suggestion of inexperience.

There are other forms of understatement in the first stanza. The verb “urget” could suggest a wide range of actions, from the innocent “court” (as in persistently calling, plying with roses) to the probably too-strong “press upon” (as in, physically presses himself upon her). James Mitchie’s translation goes all the way and says “makes hot love to you now,” leaving little room for Horace’s imagination. But isn’t it Horace’s imagination that is running wild? Isn’t this what, partially, animates the poem? Indeed, the affair is happening in some secretive grotto, and in this case, out of sight is not out of mind for Horace. I suspect the wide range of action is purposefully suggested by “urget.”

But even subtler is the arrangement of the Latin itself: “multa gracilis te puer in rosa.” Snuggled in between the adjective “slim” (gracilis) and noun “boy/young man” (puer) is the pronouned Pyrrha (te). And that verbal couple is itself among “multa…in rosa”: many a rose. While the whole situation is never stated, it’s pretty clear that Mitchie’s translation “making hot love to you” has a firm basis in the Latin. But Horace’s expression of this is almost unconscious: expressing the very thing he cannot bring himself to say.

I rendered this “courts you in / a secret hideaway” because I the other translators I’ve read rendered the phrase strongly (Ferry: “urges himself upon you / In the summer grotto”; McHugh: “pressing on you now, o Pyrrha, in / your lapping crannies, in your rosy rooms”), and I wanted to see what happened if I did not render it so strongly. I hoped that “secret hideaway” would imply the kind of intimacy that Horace fears between the new couple, that, indeed, one thing will inevitably lead to another in such a “secret” place, innocent courting or not. I also wanted the phrase “secret hideaway” to allude to Johnny Cash’s “Tear Stained Letter,” which, in my mind, parallels Horace’s poem in some ways:

I’m gonna write a tear stained letter,
I’m gonna mail it straight to you.
I’m gonna bring back to your mind,
What you said about always bein’ true.
Bout our secret hidin’ places;
Bein’ daily satisfied.

The allusion is probably a stretch, but it’s there in my mind, at least until I edit it out at some later point.

This brings me to the most difficult and revealing line in the poem, I believe: “Cui flavam religas comam // simplex munditiis?” To me the phrase “simplex munditiis” is not only a perfect expression of the whole poem’s art, but an emotional depth charge that reveals the feeling which animates the drama of the poem’s language. Despite the poem’s claim that Horace has “survived” the shipwreck of Pyrrha’s love, despite the staid language and reserved descriptions, the poet writhes underneath the poise of this poem. Pyrrha is the archetypal “saucy wench,” the “fickle woman” who fills men with passion and lust as well as self-loathing at their inability to control themselves. As an image, the singular, simple description of Pyrrha’s hair creates an emotional history that founds the whole poem. It’s the perfect example of how the choice and rendering of even a single detail can realize a whole world.

In my translation, I chose to render that line as a real question to Pyrrha (hence the parentheses, making it a sort of direct aside); the rest of the questions in the poem are merely rhetorical. I openly copped Ferry’s word choice (“For whom have you arranged / Your shining hair so elegantly and simply?”), but hoped that a more personal expression of the line would raise the latent longing in that line. I have to admit, though, that here Ferry is hard to beat. Emphasizing that line raises the profile of the detail. Yet its power as a detail is in its latency, its grudging (non-)admission.

There are other important moments that one wrestles with when translating this poem. One such place is the very end of the poem, in which a translator must decide how much to explain the final image: it was a tradition of Roman sailors who survived shipwrecks to hang their sea cloaks in the temple of Neptune with a votive tablet in order to honor him for saving their lives. You’ll see in my translation I pretty much laid that information out completely, though in truth there are places here and elsewhere in my translation where I’ve significantly departed from the Latin (partially out of creative impulse, partially out of lack of skill). As I said, the poem starts out as Horace’s and becomes more the translator’s as it continues.

I would like to comment on other translations I’ve done of Horace in the future. For those who know Latin better than I do, I’d enjoy hearing your feedback on my poems or on any versions of the poem that you enjoy. For those who don’t know Latin, I’d like to hear your feedback on the poem itself, which of the ones I’ve reproduced here seem best to you.

Just before puberty struck with the force of the furies and made me a moody kid, prone to sudden bouts of gloom and equally sudden bouts of elation, it was discovered that I had a gift for music. The mode of discovery was a cheap 20 dollar Magnus chord organ purchased for my sister at the now defunct “Two Guys” supermarket.

Two Guys wasn’t exactly a supermarket, but, rather a combination of a supermarket, clothing, and toy store–with a little bowling and pin ball area for the kids to keep them busy, and way ahead of its time (Sort of a proto-Trader Joe’s/Wegman’s). It went out of business sometime in the late 70s, I believe, but, at the time, it was known as a place with good cuts of meat and an area to keep the kids occupied while the parents shopped.

Anyway, my parents purchased the organ for my sister who, after a few preliminary forays, never touched the thing again. Of course, I was not to touch it all, just as I was not supposed to touch my brother’s accordion years before. If my mother had not been ignorant of my brother John’s ability to involve me in con games, she would have learned years sooner that I could play any tune, and, often, its chord structures, simply on hearing it. John had caught me playing his accordion by placing the straps around my shoes (I was too little to make it go in and out any other way), and touching the keys or black buttons while I pumped furiously with my legs. After beating me up, he realized that I could play the keys while he pumped the accordion, and my mother would think he was finally taking his lessons seriously. She did not disturb his genius, but would applaud from the kitchen down stairs after we had played “The Merchant of Venice” or “Ave Maria.” She never found out I was the button pusher, key man, and so we got away with it.

The organ was a different matter. It came with a few books of popular songs, and had buttons you could push for the chords which were marked–white for major, black for minor. I was old enough now to be left home when they shopped, and my brother was out somewhere. Porgy and Bess was on WPIX. They often put it on if a Yankee game was delayed on account of rain. If not Porgy and Bess, it was “Pride of the Yankees.”

Because I was home alone, I could wallow in the music. It literally made the hair stand up on my arms, and I wept when Dorothy Dandridge sang “I loves you Porgy,.” I was a weird 12 year old. I turned the television off, and approached the organ I wasn’t supposed to touch, and played “I loves you Porgy” by ear. As is my habit, I played it again, never wearing it out, and producing the same physical effect upon myself–even more so–on the 10th replay. I was filled with static electricity, and nothing in me was silent except my “feelings.”

Odd to say, but this sort of hair standing up/weeping is not a faculty of the feeling sense–of a judging function. It is not a case of you feeling something is beautiful. The best way to describe it is that you–the you of opinion and preconception–vanishes. I consider all acts of creation to be acts of mercy. Some part of us becomes better than we normally are. Watch a child on a rainy day coloring away with a box of crayons–completely absorbed, at one with the motions of his or her hand. There is no rancor or ego or pride in it. Great artists might have enormous egos, but not while they are in the process of making their art: they are at one with humility. You are dreaming awake, and, though the act be deliberate, it is still, in some way, passively “received.” It moves through you not from you. It is what is meant by true engagement in a task. I can tell a tool maker is good, or a window washer just by watching him move. I know by the level of presence–if he is merely doing the task, or also being “done” by it. I believe talent and interest causes us “to be done” while we are doing. We become what we do–not only the performer, but the performed. Some force, call it the non-judging faculties of intuition/sensing, allows us to be entered and to truly enter. Noun and verb are one. The boundary between what we do and what we are does not exist in moments of creativity. Time, which is the most disgruntling of inventions wrought by the judging functions (thought/feeling), is suspended. Space follows suit. A musician keeps time, but he is not “in” time. An artist deals with space, but is never restricted by it–not while he or she draws or paints or sculpts. It is only through intuition and sense that feeling and thought may be suspended, and, also, oddly enough, given their highest realization. Plato was afraid of poets because they did not seem either systematic or deliberate enough. They did not move through intelligence, but, rather, by a great and, as even Plato admitted, often superior folly.

So I was in the midst of such folly when my parents arrived home. I did not notice the time, and did not hear them come up the dirveway, then into the house. I didn’t hear my sister complain that I was playing her organ until she screamed it two feet from me. My mother was looking at me strangely. She said: “I had no idea.” A month later, a piano was delivered to our house.

My mother said: “Bang on that thing all you want Joseph… I love you.”

I wanted to be a composer more than I ever wanted to be a poet, but it does not really matter: the process of writing, or playing a piano are exactly the same for me when I’m alone–suspension of time and place, a sense of being in the flow. I was too old to become a concert pianist. Physically, I lack both the dexterity and fingers to be a great pianist, but I can compose at will, without thinking about it. I can get on a piano and immediately make a decent musical structure. This has little to do with my intelligence and feeling functions, and everything to do with allowing the intuitive to hold sway. Many people do not become artists not because they are stupid, but because they are incapable of suspending the thinking/feeling functions. They fail to become writers and musicians and painters because they cannot enter their highest stupidity.

I believe crayons, and coloring books, and ink and chalk, and musical instruments, and toys should be strewn all over a workshop class room. Anything that allows an adult to lean over the paper the way a child does when he or she is coloring is all to the good. We make much of “professionalism” in the arts, but that is deadly to the creative process because it is exactly the opposite of what happens when we are in the act of making things. In order to “construct” we must be decreated. We must be taken away–our snobbery, our little clique in the workshop, our worst selves must be murdered, and then we can go where we must go in order to create.
So before I write, I often play the piano for two or three hours. I just play–sometimes the same thing over and over again until I am not there. I play to erase myself. Maybe I take a walk, or I do anything that gets me out of feeling/thought. I never force myself to write. I consider playing the piano, or a long hot bath to be indistinguishable from writing. So I am a big advocate of allowing painters or musicians into a writing class. Some people are picky when it comes to sounds, so it’s best perhaps to encourage artists to come and draw and paint, rather than to let musicians play. This is for “in class” writing. Many people resist writing among others. It’s unnatural to them. So here’s a compromise:

Bring knitting or drawing or music to the class. For the sake of others, use head phones with the music. Instead of writing a poem, you have the option of jotting down words and phrases and lines that just come to you–anything except what you must consciously think or feel about. When you have gotten twenty words, or a few phrases down, go off and make something out of them. Here’s an experiment: get hold of Bach’s cello suites. Jot down the following words and phrases: “Pristine,” “dork head”, “”I love you madly with my cello,” Sop”, “tumultuous”, “Red,” “Aqua”, “Lions,” “cleats,” “copper onion skins,”” Tangier,” “somber,” “rain,” “roof,” “night fall,” “demean,” “dapper,” “alba,” “sorcery.” As you listen to the cello suites, cross out all but three of the words. Take these words and make them the origin of a poem without ever putting them in the poem. Include something about the cello suites, or refer to them in the poem. Good luck.

What does a writer need? I think, first and last, a writer needs to write. I think this is an obvious idea that, because it is obvious, often goes overlooked. Compared to this need, good teachers, free time, the approval of one’s peers, beautiful mistresses, and noble prizes, are utterly beside the point. Many writers have disappeared under the weight of those other needs. Writers who are busy writing do not commit suicide because it’s very difficult to write when you’re dead, and they are writing. Flannery O’Connor spoke of maintaining a ” habit” of art. The words art and habit might seem an odd pairing, but that’s what art is: the glamor of drudgery, and the drudgery of glamor. Picasso continued to scribble. If Sylvia Plath had been on a writing streak, she would not have committed suicide when she did. Maybe later because, for all her talent, she lacked “self-esteem,” but, in the throes of writing the poems for Ariel, suicide was on the back burner. I believe writers ought to know that the most important thing they can do is write– with no immediate purpose in mind. When a writer tells me he or she is blocked, I always run a rubric through my head as to why:

1. They like the idea of being blocked because they are fucking drama queens, and there seems to be some sort of tragic dimension to being “blocked” that daily application of thoughts to paper lacks.
2. They are having an inner sit down strike because either they hate what they’ve written, or feel no one else likes it, and they shut down to the process the way a child might shut down to a parent who has failed to show.
3. Writing isn’t really their main priority. They have penciled it in among the other activities of their day, but they are more invested in being busy, than in being busy writing.
4. They think “writing” is some sort of concrete product. It never occurs to them that, if they can’t write a poem, they could try writing a review, or a song, or an epic novel about a 19th century white woman who falls in love with a another woman from an African tribe and is raped by her empire loving and racist husband (Get Meryl Streep on the phone!) They over determine what ought to be written.
5. They are Goldilocks and are determined to say the porridge is too hot or too cold before any porridge exists. They won’t admit it, but they have an erotic relationship to the word “no.” Refusal turns them on. They are hot for the word “no” to such a degree that “just right” never shows up.
6. They need to be forced to write. They don’t want to take responsibility for writing. It’s like a rape fantasy: no one wants to be raped, but, in the dream, one need not feel ashamed when someone ravishes.

I hate when one of my friends is blocked.This is not compassion on my part, but, rather a sense of past experience that tells me a blocked writer is liable to be annoying. it’s almost as annoying as when I get dumped by a lover. “I’m blocked, I’m blocked.” Spare me! You can’t write because you won’t write. The self disgust, the ego, the anti-depressant, the children and the wife and the husband, and the groceries are all in the way, but if you sit down and neglect three of those things, and write, then you are writing! Writers must be willing to neglect almost everything except writing. How come no one thinks they are blocked from doing dishes, or fucking thier lover (well, that one often happens)? We never hear a janitor say he is blocked (God bless the janitors). It’s a job. You do it to get paid. A writer writes, and the “pay” is, first, a piece of writing. So here’s some tips for writer’s block:

1. Write anyway. Do a dry fuck. Feel miserable. Luxuriate in the ether of your own self disgust. Become an enemy of writing who is forced to pretend you “love” writing.. Learn to write when you don’t feel like it. Stop expecting it to “fulfill” you or please you. I would rather have a wild lover over me right now, her hair whipping my face, her voice wailing in throes of passion at my tender ministrations, but it takes a lot more effort to get that than it does to write–at least for me. I mean, you have to look good. You have to smell nice. You have to be attractive. You have to have a reasonably clean car.In order to write, all you have to do is press keys down with your fingers, so I write. It does not depend on any sentient being other than myself. Thank God.

2. Copy a favorite poem or story or famous phrase, and warp it, substitute a passage or sentence. Be like a virus invading the body of the text. For example: “All true stories end in death: All true stories end in liverwurst.” It does not have to be profound. LEt’s go there:

“All true stories end in liverwurst, at least mine do. I know I should be eating healthier food, but, when depressed, and I am often depressed, only liverwurst, specifically liverwurst on Russian rye with a raw onion and hot mustard, consoles me. That is how I met, Jane, my wife of thirty years. She’s dead now, and I am writing this with the aid of a liverwurst sandwich.Perhaps I should correct myself: all true stories begin in liverwurst, at least mine do. This is a true story then, and liverwurst is its catalyst.”

Ok, so this is not great writing, which brings me to my third suggestion:

3. Don’t have any standards. Write. Don’t have any “ideas” for a story, and, if you do, avoid that idea like the plague until it overwhelms you and makes you submit to it. Begin with a line as far removed from your idea as possible. For example, you have an idea for writing about your lousy relationship with your mother. Forget it. Think of something as far removed from that idea as possible:

A. I dreamed last night that roses flew through my window and began smothering me.
B. I seem to recall reading once that pigs have thirty minute orgasms.
C. IN a kingdom of unmatched shoes, I wander aimlessly.
D. Once, this town had three good pizza parlors, but now it is devoid of anything except Pizza Hut.
E. Sinks back up if too much hair goes down them.

Any one of these non-ideas can then be connected or dsconnected from the lousy relationship. You are the minor god of your writing. Act like a god: create laws, trees, surgical equipment salesman. Decide if you need twleve lines or one before you go for the idea:

A. I dreamed last night that roses flew in through the window and began smothering me. My mother always said roses were her favorite flower, but she just said that because it sounded probable. I don’t think she thought of flowers much at all, unless it seemed appropriate to the occasion, and that’s how she loved me: whenever it seemed appropriate

B. I seem to recall that pigs have thirty minute orgasms. On the day I found out my mother and my ex fiancee were moving in together, the first thought that crossed my mind were those pigs.

C. In the kingdom of unmatched shoes, I wander aimlessly, wondering how I could have been so stupid as to have packed this hurriedly. “Careless” My mother said.”I’d rather have you evil than careless. Careless people do more damage.”

D. Once this town had three good pizza parlors, but now it is devoid of anything except pizza hut, and me and my 85 year old mother, sitting here, not even pretending the pizza or our relationship matters.

E. Sinks back up if too much hair goes down them, and, after a day with my mother, I often feel like a backed up sink.

Just for fun, take one of the above and finish it. Good luck.

An aspect of poetry which tends to make me peevish is that it demands for a poet to develop a “style,” or to adhere to a particular school without deviation, simply to make their flair emblematic, or to place their stamp on it. You’ll only come across poets who traverse the landscapes of a variety of styles and schools when they attend flexible classes or workshops and are introduced to flexible teachers who provide assignments which require them not to delimit themselves or their work. One might relegate this sort of teaching philosophy to something which lacks specificity or focus, but in actuality, these experiments are necessary so as not to confine the poet to something which might prove to be limiting, inauthentic, and egregiously mimetic.

All poetry is a mimesis of sorts, according to Aristotle, but this concept should not be misconstrued as imitation of another poet’s “shtick.” Shtick can’t be imitated, especially if what a poet is imitating (or borrowing from) is the other poet’s original interpretation of nature, event, political perspective, and more especially that poet’s experience with love and romance. Aristotle meant that poetry was mimetic of all of things, independent of another poet’s unique perspective. It is not necessary that poets imitate other poets, but that they imitate life.

And I don’t mean “experiment” in terms of what is widely understood in literary circles as “experimental poetry.” The truth is that ALL poetry is experimental. Poetry, in effect, demands a “gymnastics” of language, and the poet should always “refresh” their approach to what they want to say with each new poem. Each poem should be likened to the first poem the poet has ever written.

This is not to say that poets shouldn’t study the variety of approaches, forms, and styles that they have at their disposal. And this is not to say that poets shouldn’t take from each style and include them as ingredients, so to speak, for what they might aim to be an unprecedented “recipe” for a sort of poem that no reader can categorize, claim, or relegate to a particular type, or particular package, simply for the fashion of it. Authentic poetry arises from a sort of selectivity of tropes, forms, and approaches. Otherwise, the poet can claim these, or dispose of them. What peeves me the most is that there is presently a poetry scene which necessitates that there must be an adherence to a fashion or trend, must be a reflection of a particular aesthetic, and anything which defeats or transcends this is not meant to be understood or considered with seriousness.

I long and grieve for Neruda. He was a poet of great integrity, and his poems demonstrate a complexity which few poets attempt in the current poetry scene. While most poets in all schools of poetry laud him, few actually play with what might be an approximated conflation of what we now refer to as language poetry, romantic poetry, lyrical poetry, and a very acute rendering of speculative poetry, in addition to types of poetry which are impossible to classify. Why even classify poetry to begin with? True, poets must be taught to read and attempt to understand other poets. But why subsume their poetry into something that actually spills out around that subsuming into other classifications which even remain indefinite or discontinuous? Some poetry we cannot subsume. If you are poet, and you are following a template, or writing in a stanzaic form which does not coincide with the content of the poem, then consider an alternate approach.

The approach, as I have learned, is in observation and the application of language by way of that observation. I’m often accused of appearing dissociative. The truth is, I have often entered the world that isn’t immediate to the matter at hand, or what is often understood and recognized as the matter at hand. I’m on the moon, the snow is the tears falling from the face of an angel, my husband is a superhero, and when we make love whole cities collapse from the intensity.

When I picked up Neruda, I was impressed, but only because his sentiment seemed familiar to me. When I first began writing poetry, I wrote it blindly, having read the poetry belonging to a variety of “classifications,” but intuited all of these styles and concocted an almost subliminal recipe which somehow defined my poems. I wouldn’t classify my poetry as anything, and perhaps that is my outcry and silent war. Poetry arises and from what the soul demands of the poet, not from some contrived prescription of what poetry SHOULD be.

Poetry is translation–translation of observation into any language that suffices for the experience. It is not word layered onto template, unless you are required to follow a traditional poetic form, and even then, there is room for latitude, or for adapting to something which requires innovation within the limits of syllable, ordering, or poetic rhythm. So let’s now look at Neruda’s poem, “Phantom:”

How you rise up from yesteryear, arriving,
dazzled, pale student,
as whose voice the dilated and fixed months
still beg for consolation.

Their eyes struggled like rowers
in the dead infinity
with hope of sleep and substance
of beings emerging from the sea.

From the distance where
the smell of earth is different
and the twilight comes weeping
in the shape of dark poppies.

At the height of motionless days
the insensible diurnal youth
was falling asleep in your ray of light
as if fixed upon a sword.

Meanwhile there grows in the shadow
of the long passage through oblivion
the flower of solitude, moist, extensive,
like the earth in a long winter.

Here, Neruda managed to capture the winter as something from which something is slyly moving amongst all of this fixedness. Things are lightless, unmoving, frozen, and the “pale student” is the only entity which lends herself to the momentum of winter, under all that stillness. Infinity is “dead.” And in the end, the pale student essentially becomes “the flower of solitude,” the only hope of spring, still enduring what is cold and motionless.

His poem is romantic in a sense, and plays gymnastically with language—language as vehicle for idea and image. The sentiment of Neruda’s poem cannot be imitated, simply because of its authenticity. I am abashed, for I have at once attempted to imitate Neruda’s harnessing of image through language, not by imitation of sentiment or experience with love, but by taking language and twisting it to make music. I am not Neruda, by any means, and would never claim to be.

If you are inspired by a poem or a particular poet, take what you need, and discard the rest. Let your soul fuel the gymnastic play of language in your mind. It might wind up heavy with philosophy, like Neruda’s, or it might wind a narrative love poem, or it might wind up a lyrical ballad. But remain true to something which exists outside the limitations of category, school, or attentiveness to the aspects of the poem which might render it a template, or fill in the blank form, without considering the direction in which your poem demands that you go.

Here is my poem (as you might see, it was impossible to imitate his quatrains, since the poem demanded both four line and five line stanzas, and I was required to speak for the poem without a strictness of structure. I caught my own experience, and probably wound up not sounding like Neruda in the slightest. Yet, the concept still sort of wound up echoing his, if you might be discerning enough to notice this. So mimesis, at times, is subliminal and subconscious, and we often do it unintentionally. The trick is to imitate things completely without intention. We recognize these things afterward–after the seizure of the poem is over):

Shadow of Nightingale

Caught in the delicate epilepsy of love’s casual glance,
the body captivated by imagined tremolos
sings through us, fleshy as humans, cherubic
as products of some God’s insurgency of blackbirds
in a sudden departure from the roof of a church.

Say this and claim the night, let no nightingale haunt you
or steal the bread from the work of your hands,
make me a fleeting thing of peripheral excess,
or leave you cold in its enlarged shadow,
enslaved in itself by a pooling of moonlight.

There was new snow this morning,
undisturbed by footprint or mysterious trail,
silenced by the ministry of sleep’s desertions
from the bustle and exchange of yesterday.

Make me something so holy as girl unhandled,
pulsing the bright blood of desire,
and then ravish me, ravish me, release each of my spirits
from the machinery of my bones, the drudgery
of the mind’s labored language.

Render me woman, inhabitant of the body’s swelling fire,
the womb echoing like a drum,
calling forth an unknowing
of a beginning that never stops beginning.

I tell my students that sentimentality is the appropriate emotion at the most predictable time rendered in the most obvious weather, and all of it covered with a thin scum of false compassion. But you can get away with all that, yes, even a tear falling for a dead mother on a cloudy day, if you let it be what it is, in its full poverty, if you don’t wield it like some huge club of sensitive “feeling” with which you knock the reader over the head. True feeling has the force of grace; sentimentality has the stench of morals. The word “should” and “must” cling to its fat cherubic legs. Half comprised of self regard, and the other half a mixture of cliche, the sentimental is close to the feigned regard of the funeral director: appropriate, and grave, but with one eye on the itemized bill. Hitler wept when he watched a pair of boiling lobsters, but showed no particular compassion for those he exterminated.

A mind too utilitarian and selfish, too unable to see its own contradictions, too willing to be its own hero will often have an undeveloped feeling sense. This might go a long way towards explaining why a man might cry at his spoiled brat of a daughter’s wedding (my baby, my little girl) and not even slow down to drop a quarter in the cup of a beggar. He has scenarios for his emotions: beggars are all worthless pieces of shit who cause their own troubles, but daughters getting married are video worthy–extensions of his delusion that all is right with the world, and he is a wonderful daddy. Much of what we call sensitivity is no deeper than Madame Bovary’s fantasies about being a cloistered nun. It’s horseshit.

The difficult, the ambiguous, the nuanced call for an integrity of equivocation: this does not mean we should blunt all emotions or feelings when we write. Just as some people like sappy stories, others consider any direct feeling to be a sin against their aesthetics. Both represent different species of limited. I tell my students compassion and feeling are not in the feelings themselves, but in the artistic selection of details that bring them to life. In a story where a man comes home to find his wife in bed with another man, you might create a far better feeling sense if you have him peek through the half opened door, see his wife’s clothes holding a press conference with the man’s belt and neck tie, and, instead of having the husband break in and attempt to kill the wife and lover, or having him break down in sobs, he quietly goes down stairs, and sets the tea kettle to boil, very carefully removes his eye glasses, wipes them, waits for the kettle to scream for him, a whistle that will no doubt alert the lovers that he has arrived. Good actors know that emotion can be implied through a procedural of small actions, none of which are spectacular in and of themselves, but which, cumulatively, achieve an effect of the genuine.

It is also important to remember that subtle is not always better than overt and obvious.Some writers, especially those trained in writing programs, go overboard being nuanced. I call this Chekhov syndrome. They never met an emotion they liked, and yet, their stories (or poems) can be so understated that they never show up on the page at all. This is just as god awful and boring as being maudlin, and, worse, you may even win awards for it! Others of an equally “nuanced” bent might see themselves and their values reflected in your work and consider you a “subtle” artist even when it is actually a case of you being a cold hearted snob ass. Cold hearted snob asses too often run the arts. Chekhov, unlike his followers, knew how to be openly emotional and direct. I love Chekhov better than almost any other artist, but many of his followers bore me. They almost make me want to watch “The Sound of Music” (Love Richard Rogers, hate that musical.) So what to do?

Einstein said: “Things are as simple as they are, and no simpler.” I think this applies to the feeling sense in poems and stories as well. One of the safest things you can do is teach students to “show don’t tell,” but that can lead to two errors: one, overly describing and indulging in detail for its own sake. Two, the sort of “overly nuanced” feeling sense I mentioned just a paragraph ago. I prefer: “make sure your telling shows, and your showing tells, and that the two are not so easily separated since it is the miracle of art that showing and telling be one living force, just as character and plot be one living force.

This morning, I was very happily sipping coffee, eating a hard boiled egg, and reading Nabokov’s lectures on Russian literature. These lectures are as much an aesthetic pleasure to read as a good novel. At any rate, Nabokov recognized Tolstoy as the greater artist, but Chekhov’s stories were what this great writer and, yes, snob would have taken with him if exiled to another planet. He went on in great detail about the story usually translated as “The Ravine” (Nabakov prefers “The Gully”). Nabokov’s love and admiration for Chekhov were so evident that I found myself moved to tears. I was quite pleased with my noble soul. Then I went outside to smoke a cigarette and stare at the snow swirling in thirty mile an hour gusts. Tree branches were strewn about the yard. My garbage can had made it half way down the drive way and looked as if it might hurl itself at the next available Volvo.

Still full of my artistic sensitivity, I spied a slate grey Junco hopping about near the porch. I said: “hello, Mr. Junco.” I approached it, thinking it would fly off, but the Junco only hopped rather less than frantically, and I noticed its left wing was broken. I chased that Junco half way through my yard, determined to catch it and mend it, and show how compassionate I am. He tried to escape my kindness by making a run for a Lilac bush. This exposed him to a sharp shinned hawk who swooped down and put the pretty pink billed bird out of its misery. I may have covered my eyes. I may have hated the hawk, or myself, but I watched fascinated. The grace and ferocity, and the snow swirling all about gave me a sense that this moment was memorable, that I must witness it without judgment or editorial prejudice. The Junco gave forth only one small cry of distress, and then it was dead in the talons of the hawk, and I thought of the character Lipa in Chekhov’s story, how her child is murdered by a miserable woman who throws a cup of boiling water on him. At the end of this story, long after the murder, Lipa gives a piece of buck wheat cake to the senile and cuckolded husband of the murderer, her former father-in-law. She then dissolves into the story’s end, singing a song into the evening light. I thought how mercy and ferocity might be difficult to parse out, how they might fall upon each other in such odd and frightening and glorious ways. I thought that my recent feelings of self ennoblement for being such a sensitive reader had been foolish and petty, and that the “gift” I was being given was exactly this moment in which nothing in my heart or conscience could be clearly agreed upon. This is the truth of feeling. This is where I must begin.

At the insistent behest of Joe Weil I have picked up a few Kenneth Burke books. In Joe’s opinion, Burke is one of the great American minds who has been unjustly put out of fashion. The more I read Burke, the more I agree with Joe. I’ve found that Burke’s explanations of art resonate with me as an artist. For example, Burke’s essay “The Poetic Process” (from Counter-Statement) delineates the relationship between the “emotion” that inspires writing, symbol, and technical form in an incredibly believable way.

Burke begins with dreams:

…at times we look back on the dream and are mystified at the seemingly unwarranted emotional responses which the details “aroused” in us. Trying to convey to others the emotional overtones of this dream, we laboriously recite the details, and are compelled at every turn to put in such confessions of defeat as “There was something strange about the room,” or “for some reason or other I was afraid of this boat, although there doesn’t seem any good reason now.”

This is because, as Burke says, “the details were not the cause of the emotion; the emotion, rather, dictated the selection of details…Similarly, a dreamer may awaken himself with his own hilarious laughter, and be forthwith humbled as he recalls the witty saying of his dream. For the delight in the witty saying came first (was causally prior) and the witty saying itself was merely the externalization, or individuation, of his delight.”

In what seems to be the inverse of Eliot’s “objective correlative,” the emotion directions the choice of imagery. The imagery becomes “symbol” at this point. Burke compares this to a grandparent who tries to share all the details of his or her childhood as a way to communicate the “overtones” of the experience. The grandparent wants to express themselves, their feelings.

Yet an artist does not want to express their feelings. Rather, they want to evoke emotion in the audience: “The maniac attains self-expression when he tells us that he is Napoleon; but Napoleon attained self-expression by commanding an army….transferring the analogy, the self-expression of an artist, qua artist, is not distinguished by the uttering of emotion, but by the evocation of emotion.” One of the most dreaded things I hear is somebody describing their own personal poetry as self-expression. I don’t dread it because I begrudge that person’s personal art, but usually because a request to read their work and give feedback follows. And almost always the work is terrible. Why? Because it’s solely concerned with self-expression and the would-be poet feels no obligation to anyone but his or herself. A person like that will not hear any advice; they seek affirmation. Our writing goals are not the same. As Burke puts it “If, as humans, we cry out that we are Napoleon, as artists we seek to command an army.”

This is not to say that there is no element of self-expression in poetry. There certainly is, according to Burke. But “it is inevitable that all initial feelings undergo some transformation when being converted into the mechanism of art….Art is translation, and every translation is a compromise (although, be it noted, a compromise which may have new virtues of its own, virtues not part of the original).” The private poet cannot stand to compromise on their feelings and, as a result, they often write terrible poetry. But in the poetic process, a poet realizes there is compromise. This leads to a concern about the “impersonal mechanical processes” of evocation, and, eventually, leads the artist to a place where the means of expression are an end in itself. At this moment, we are in the realm of technique.

In short, we begin with emotion, which dictates choice of symbol, for which the systematic concern thereof creates technique. Tom Sleigh once memorably asked my MFA class “do you, as a poet, logos into eros or eros into logos?” I forget what my answer was at the moment since I was stubborn and probably more concerned with subverting the question. Burke’s essay, however, has interesting parallels. (For the record, today I’d probably say, with Burke, that I eros into logos, which might account for a recent turn toward formalism in my poetry.)

Before ending, I want to note the parallel between Burke’s point and my point (via Rexroth–or, more accurately, Rexroth via me) about Tu Fu, who I described as writing in a way that suggests “that the category break [between feeling and image/symbol] is weaker than we think. The image (object) is already interpreted: ‘values are the way we see things.’” If Burke’s description of the poetic process is accurate, Tu Fu’s poem is actually winding backward toward the origin of his poetry, backwards through the linked images interpreting one another, back toward the initial thought/emotion/impulse which led to the first decision to communicate, to attempt evocation.

Oh, love. Why is it always the hardest topic for writers to talk about, yet one we want to talk about the most? We still write about it, of course, in our many oblique ways—but, like religion or politics, part of us wants to just avoid it altogether. Something with the power to make us feel both so vulnerable and so high inevitably keeps us wary of expressing our emotions. But at the same time, it’s impossible to avoid: You can’t talk about being human for very long without talking about love.

These past few months in India, I’ve found the same is true of awe. No one wants to appear childlike and vulnerable to others, but everyone (everyone who seeks out new experiences, anyway) wants to feel that way—along with love, awe is the one of the emotions people seek most deeply. And for writers, whose job is to express the inexpressible, the hidden, these two aims can feel at odds.

Or maybe they’re not, and we’ve just become too cynical and guarded to bring them together. In Mathilde Walter Clark’s latest novel, Priapus, the hero’s father reveals to his family his feet—perfect specimens in the realm of feet—and exclaims simply, bluntly, “Look! Look what God can do!” This is ironic and funny—but why can’t perfect feet (or even just interesting feet!) expand our spiritual worlds? The beauty of awe is, they can! We usually describe it the other way around, but awe is provoked by us and our state of mind, not by an external source.

One afternoon at Sangam House I went to see the Odissi dancers rehearse. These people could control their every movement—even their facial expressions—with astounding precision and strength, inhabit the roles of classical mythological characters, and, holy shit, do it in time to live music. And the musicians—every tremble in their voices, every motion of their hands on the tabla exact. And later, they’d do it all in costumes and makeup and a cloud of jasmine, in front of an auditorium of people who actually knew whether they were doing it right.

*

To my surprise, in the middle of the rehearsal I suddenly felt compelled to get up and leave, totally overwhelmed and needing to escape. Not the way you get overstimulated after walking through Times Square and should leave before you harm others or yourself—but a strange sense of both being in the place too fully and not being there at all. It was as if while watching the performance and absorbing it I had actually gone inside it and forgotten who I was. For a few moments, the membrane to the soul was completely permeable and unfiltered… or that’s what it felt like, anyway. Which all sounds really beautiful (sun shining, unicorns singing, etc.), but was actually kind of unnerving. We all want to have experiences that make us forget ourselves, but at the same time we shy away, afraid of that forgetting. If we can forget ourselves so easily, what are we really made of?

One reason (and, I think, the reason) we seek out awe (and love) so fervently—and why these emotions make us feel so small and inarticulate and intoxicated—is that they fundamentally alter our sense of self. Discovering what God can do—or what humans can do, or just what is possible in the world—enables us to discover our own potential (and limits). We simultaneously see the world expanding and ourselves growing ever smaller in proportion. Logically you’d think this would create an ego crisis, since we all need the illusion of significance to feel purposeful—but somehow, it ultimately doesn’t. In fact, just the opposite—even though we fear forgetting ourselves, or dislike feeling small, we feel greater in the end for being humbled. The possibilities in the world, however remote or vicarious, are what keep a lot of us going on this little march toward death.

Being at Sangam House wasn’t the same kind of awe as standing in front of the Taj Mahal or inside the Sistine Chapel or seeing a person herd thousands of baby ducks from a canoe. But the foreignness of being in India, and the experience of creating community with a bunch of international writers, provided a sort of mental tabula rasa where awe could grow wild. Not knowing the basic details of life, like how to get hot water out of the shower or the proper way to eat your food, is disorienting. This disorientation makes you feel stupid (childlike?) at first, but in that space between forgetting about oatmeal and feeling comfortable with idli and poha, something transforms in the brain. The slate of the old is briefly wiped clean, yet there’s no way to absorb the new quite yet. Even before the mind processes the idea of Indian breakfast and starts measuring the self against it—before questions like “Do I like this?” and “Can I eat it?” slowly turn into “Who am I?” and “Am I a person who eats Indian breakfast?”—there is a clearing. And for me, that clearing made a path for the new images and ideas—the ones I was too jet-lagged to know I was processing—to flood into poems without my knowledge or will. Suddenly, my work was like a bunch of little kids spouting phrases their parents didn’t know they understood.

What I appreciated most about being awed at Sangam House—besides its effect on my writing—was how small the “source” of that awe could be. That it didn’t require the Taj Mahal for me to say, “Look what God can do!” The environment and disorientation allowed me to fully appreciate the intrigue of other people’s feet (sorry, co-residents)—not just what was interesting about their work, but what was interesting about their lives. One writer had taught herself 10 languages. Another could samba like a madman (a Brazilian, of course). People could play instruments, start political campaigns, act or draw, or even just think me in circles. And it was easy for this awe to continue once I started traveling around India—really, that woman can carry 20 pounds of fruit on her head? That man can make a statue of Ganesh by hand, with only a chisel? The funny part is, I see amazements of this caliber every day in New York—I just don’t register them as such. Here, I did.

In the end, of course, you never really forget oatmeal. The disorientation passes, you grow accustomed to the new surroundings, and all the wonders that seemed so strange or amazing get downgraded to “impressive” or maybe even “day-to-day.” Still, I like to think that the same way love sticks with us over time (in one form or another), some awe-inspired humility and impressions sink deep enough into our consciousness to make themselves a little nest, grow, and emerge again.

*Dancer image courtesy Bala from Seattle, USA, via Wikimedia Commons

I was concerned about not knowing. Concerned about not being known. Yet I did little to be known outside of persevering with the work. The work being whatever I was doing at the time in my virtual creative space. Mind, body.  Divine intervention. Spiritual revelation. The meaning of every day was living every day as if to make it your last. Life was simple. Inevitable. We invited chaos, we invented dogma, we were what we were trying to be but its presence when achieved was fleeting as the collision of particles in an accelerator. That was yesterday.

The smoke was good, the powder okay. In good company we passed days and nights, weeks and months, then years, basking in the nexus of our personal style of aesthetic nihilism. Tomato Soup. “I’m not going to talk to you, either.” I pushed colored wax as far as it would go, canvas board after canvas board, tracing skylines and events, burnishing sunrises and sunsets, until water could not penetrate the multi-colored skin of fingers calloused as the attitudes of even the most insignificant bit player in our amateur reproduction of something someone thought  might once have been important. Our version of “Goodbye Columbus” was going under a spell.

The supernumerary muttered an utterance that seemed to bubble from a guttural froth, mimicking the personification of ghosts of Christmases Past at holiday parties for forgotten forebears, where children of badness danced on their backs in four poster beds with the eyes of the world upon them. The clatter came with exaggeration about sordid events, including tales of blood-letting and blood drinking, unfounded, unsubstantiated, untrue, but critical to the end of times as the sodden sought to crawl from their netherworld and spring themselves upon the unsuspecting. Broken nails can be so annoying.

If it looked like I was praying I might have been, an agnostic’s prayer for deliverance from the emptiness of nothing, of the blank page, the darkness behind closed eyes, the hidden scenes yet to be played out on the subterranean stage under the charging hues of hot lights in an empty theater where there was no one to scream “Fire” and the place burned down without the dreams escaping. On Long Street the barber whittled his bas reliefs while the chair sat empty. A more colorful life on Friday night was the Cat’s Meow, but the carvings ended up in museums.

The studio by the rail yards went empty, but not before poetry and prints were married by the Minister of Galleries, posted on the wailing wall of expectations lacking will to live, and distributed as Art in America. But before there was any kind of web. Those strange and sticky strands hold up today. On the red ground above Negril a small complex of clapboard sheds resting on cinderblocks overlooks the family graveyard, beginning with one killed in Kingston. It’s a deniable aphorism that time spent alone is in preparation, if for no other purpose.

At a party last Thursday night after a full day at this year’s AWP conference, I broke one of my own absolute rules – never, under any circumstances resort to quoting The Big Lebowski. Out of some mixture of awkwardness and that day’s hang over, I recited a line from my high school idol the Dude to another poet. I was simply passing a good piece of advice along, a bit of practical philosophy – some times you eat the bar, and, well, sometimes he eats you. It seemed appropriate, as she’d just finished a tirade, and we’d both lost interest in the subject. By the time I got to bar, she was speaking the line loudly, with panache. She was in on the joke, eager for me to know it, which is what I continually find so gross. At some point in the last 5 years (maybe longer?) seemingly everyone was let in on a joke that I once selfishly held as my own. In turn, The Big Lebowski stopped being the reference-pantry raided by me and my small circle of friends, the endless source of weird one-liners good for boggling those unhip to the film. It’s now become collective knowledge, and worse, quoting the movie has become a norm for so many people my age (who hit puberty mid to late 90s) who probably, I assume, have no understanding of the Cohen brothers’ meticulous talent, or worse, in fact appreciate it as deeply as I do, making it that much less special. So many voices right now across North America are attempting their best Donny or Walter, again trying to remake that initial Edenic moment when someone dropped a burrito down their T-shirt and their friend turned, laughed a little, and coughed out, this a bummer man…that’s a bummer. In that first instant—a miming of the already dramatic, immediate recognition, and thus a new context invented. Lebowski became a movie not only to buy late at night in a Wal-Mart bargain bin, to watch again and again noticing new congruencies and minutiae, but a movie to quote. And in that instant, that quotation became the thing to mimic, rather than the movie itself.

So how does one function in a post-Lebowski world? A world where the thing you loved growing up—the sense that a unique moment is possible, the comradery built around the surprise of both responding to a new joke and remembering it all at once—feels played out? Do you take it to the next extreme, attend an official Lebowski Fest donning shooting-range glasses and a canvas vest? Would you find those beloved people waiting there for you, the real fans, or would you still feel that sense of competition and frustration?

The next day was Friday, and I was prepared for a repeat—hung over, sitting through panels and readings at my first ever AWP conference, conveniently set in my home, DC. I would greet even casual acquaintances warmly, stalk my favorite publishers, push myself to try and drink in all the poetry I could stomach, given my nausea from the last night. I had avoided the conference in past years for practical reasons like money and semester workload. I’d also pictured a monster: a sea of writers confined to a single space all vying for attention. I had imagined the conference as one long stretch of feeling bad like you do when a guy by the metro asks for change and you keep walking, or when a shiny BMW full of laughing college kids pulls up by you at a red light. Pity in the first, envy in the second. Self-deprecation on both fronts. I imagined being sick of people selling me their artistic ethos and ranking it against mine.

In part, I was right. By the end of Saturday, I had a strange feeling, uncanny, some mixture of confidence and deflation, of me and not me. I felt a sense of writerly persona, but also the sense that I had to recoup something important. Some good college friends were in town for the conference, and so there was that—the long, nostalgic nights of bar hopping I so often drunk-dial demanding. There were wonderful readings by some of my favorite writers, and even better by writers I’d never heard of. And there was the realization when I first arrived on Thursday that in a moment I’d be surrounded by thousands of like-minded people, all scraped from the floor wearing similar dirt.

But there was also the feeling that somehow the nametag around my neck stood as a two-word resume, making me easier to read. People cut in line after readings to pass a card or book to a speaker, and subsequently drew out conversations while the rest waited. There were questions after panels which included mostly credentials and never actually reached a question mark. There was the too-muchness of the book fair in an endless basement of  rooms busting with people. There was an air of emptiness to so many that sprang from more than beer or jet lag. People who seemed large to me in the past now looked tiny.

The writers who convinced me to believe in writing were Kerouac and later Ginsberg. In college when I was so ready to be moved by something and directed, I found ‘On the Road,’ which preached no direction, and ‘Howl,’ which celebrated revolt. I had my first transcendent experiences walking through crowds of students who I imagined couldn’t possibly understand the world’s beauty at that moment. I read and believed in what writers do: drink and yell together, break the past, push their every limit, and sing each others’ praises. So I helped a friend edit a home-made journal and organized a reading series in the back of a bar. I read and reread Bukowski. I caroused with and debated the poetry kids. Got smashed like any college student. I took every possible poetry workshop and then applied to MFAs looking to continue in that same vein. I’ve now lived in DC for almost 3 years honing my craft, attending readings, meeting the local writers. All of this under the assumption that I’m following my love, that poetry is my creative vehicle, and that along with my few acquaintances, I’m pushing this thing forward, keeping it alive. It sounds ridiculous, but how else to go on in a medium that favors the individual, without on some level believing you’re an individual?

So this past weekend, walking into my first AWP, the conference that consistently draws a wealth of today’s talented writers and teachers of writing, what should I have expected? Culture or the mime of culture? Ginsberg first reading ‘Howl’ in 1950s Frisco while Kerouac passed cheap jugs of wine and shouted? Or that moment’s retelling in the recent film Howl with its more gorgeous Ginsberg, its less gorgeous Kerouac? Poets like so many thousands of Jeff Bridges decoys, all in matching white v-necks, pacing like lunatics, uttering the same 10 lines back and forth? I think as a poet and person, I often live too much in the imagined past, reliving memories, idolizing personas invented through literature, saving friends in my mind as they once were. But that doesn’t mean I believe the present isn’t real, and that poetry should accept its place as just a teacher’s art, though teaching is incredibly important. There is a reason so many poets are right now budding in MFA programs, and it’s not simply the push for professionalization, the economy, etc. Nor do I think, looking back on my full experience, that AWP should be cornered as some sort of backwoods, yet fancy, family reunion, rife with inbreeding, as was my initial cynicism. I did hear moments of life, feel excitement, swallow poetry and sweat it out. On Friday, Sonia Sanchez stood up during the Split this Rock panel on Langston Hughes, for which she presented. She paused to keep from crying, and said something to the effect of: You don’t understand what this is all about; you have to read Langston Hughes, I mean really go back and read him. I knew she really felt it, even if she couldn’t explain fully just then—just like any good artist really means what they make, no matter the layers of irony we’re asked to sift through. The dramatic voice, fragmentation, wrenched syntax. The CVs, business cards, mingling. Underneath, there must be sincerity, and so often there is. Most writers I meet really believe in the vitality of their craft, even if it doesn’t immediately show. Not everyone’s confident, and not everyone’s talented. The next poet will always on some level be the competition; it’s there in the edicts of contemporary art. But I think we all savor those moments we don’t have to suspect, that just happen, really happen. Those moments you can’t manufacture, which make all the bullshit tolerable. If I have the money, I’ll be in Chicago this time next year doing it all again.

What inspires us to write poetry?

I would think that the commonly accepted assumption about poets is that if one is a poet, he or she has always been a poet. The obvious question which should follow this then is “Can someone be a poet without having any knowledge of poetry?” “Are we born poets?”

Let’s begin with this:  Most primary, intermediate, and secondary schools include some study of poetry in their curriculums, and yet for the majority of these schools, this is not the primary focus, nor is it rendered a very crucial one.  I suppose my first encounter with poetry was a poem written in a photo album of my formative years by my father and mother:  “I drop, you catch,/ I cry, you fetch,/I kvetch, you kvetch” (cleverly scrawled next to a picture of me, naked, crawling along the carpet).  Of course, this isn’t Pulitzer worthy by current literary standards, but it is actually a good poem in terms of iambic dimeter and rhyme.  If I learned anything about the music and rhythm of poetry (two essential ingredients) during my first reading experiences, it was almost directly related to that three line poem I read over and over again.  In addition, there were nursery rhymes and clapping-song games that we played early on in elementary school: “Miss Susie had a steamboat/the steamboat had a bell/Miss Susie went to heaven/the steamboat went to hell–/–o operator/give me number nine…” etc.  The clever twist about the Miss Susie song was that the words at the end of every fourth line were words that became other words at the beginning of the subsequent line, simply by sound, and so we didn’t get caught singing crass words and obscenities at that young of an age.

Moving on:  In fifth grade, there was a lesson on limericks.  If we read anybody’s famous limerick, it must not have been very memorable, since I couldn’t right now recite one or provide a poet’s name to help contextualize this point.  But I did learn to write a limerick myself, and incidentally won first prize for the limerick’s address to dental hygiene and its advantages. It must have been a good poem, but my memory is foggy and I couldn’t right now recall any of the lines, except that it was handwritten on the lines inside the shape of a very big bicuspid.

In sixth grade, as a part of “The Odyssey of the Mind” competition, my team and I rewrote and parodied the words to a William Blake poem: “William Blake ate too much cake…” etc.  I turned into a wild dramatic production with me as writer/director and the four other members of my team as actors, set designers, and costumers.

I don’t know the psychology behind how people train for and develop an ear for poetry, but some of these things must have been of the essence.  In the eighth grade, my final project was an assignment to write a book of twenty poems.  At that point, I assumed, like most adolescents do that poetry was supposed to be sad.  So one of the two poems I remember from that book was a narrative about two of my friends who were very close to one another, until one of them (Betsy) was killed instantaneously when the driver of a car hit her.  I thought (at the time) that it was a fantastic poem.  I included details.  I infused the poem with emotional tropes.

The other poem I remember from that book was partially stolen from one of my parents’ inspirational book of love poems from the 1960s.  “Each line in the poem began “Love is”…(with ellipsis, and followed by some simile, and then following an anaphoric structure until the end).  So I ripped off the anaphoric structure, took some of the poet’s similes and then wrote some of my own.  I feel terrible about this.  I don’t remember the other poems, but they were all original poems written by me.  I don’t have any idea why I stole that poem.  I guess because that was the first year that I was beginning to appreciate poetry as a serious craft, and the poem inspired me enough for me to want to have been the one who wrote it.

But poetry really didn’t get me to see like a poet until my freshman year of high school: to read a poem and want to understand all the necessary complexities, paradoxes, and layers of meaning that prevail if that poem is well crafted.   I stumbled upon Rita Mae Brown’s novels that summer at the local library, and read all of them out by the swimming pool at our house.  I wasn’t a lesbian, but found myself oriented toward women.  Part of it was an adolescent phase, and must have been since I am now happily married to a man.  Anyway, Brown’s characters were typically lesbians (“Rubyfruit Jungle,” the most prominent) and the whole idea about a sexuality with which I was not familiar fascinated me, simply for the theory of it.  After devouring all of her novels, I went to the bookstore and promptly bought a book of her poems.  The poem that finally made me want to be a disciplined poet went like this:

The difference between
my little cat and I
is that I know
I am going to die.

It occurred to me after I read it that cat’s are simply not conscious of their own mortality, and that the speaker (or so it is implied) must want to be like her cat, because it is easier not to be aware of things we would rather not think about or consider.  It had me thinking that if humans just died, and had no precognition that it was one day going to happen, it might save us a lot of grief.  So the speaker was longing for this ignorance, which makes implicit a sort of inner struggle between awareness and wanting to remain unaware–wanting to be something other than herself–wanting not to know death as well as she believes she does.  There is a struggle in the forward momentum of life, the idea of further life or long life deflected by her fear of a finality and the ineluctable condition of mortality which guarantees that we are going to die.  She seems to be addressing the idea of inevitability. And the frank way that the statement is made requires that we think a bit about why the speaker would deflect or ignore the frightening details and rather turn it into a philosophical question which forces us to examine our own relationship to our mortality, while at the same time considering the curious manner in which cats exist, without, according to the speaker, the precognition that they are going to die, or the memory of having been born.

So this brief four-line poem made seriously consider writing poetry.  Through the years following my encounter with Rita Mae Brown’s poem, I’ve read nearly all of the major poets (and some minor) in the cannon.  I have made poetry a daily discipline: coffee in the morning, a banquet of words to choose from, and the assurance that my heart is beating for something cats don’t know–to live, to love, and to always have the luxury of defining and redefining a purpose for this, with poetry as the venue to let the speaker speak, because it is no less than vital and necessary.

NOTE: This is the third in a series of posts by Colie Hoffman about her experience while a writer-in-residence at Sangam House, India.

When I was in grad school, my friend Dave and I used to lift weights at the gym. The undergrad demographics at our university skewed largely male, so naturally, the weight room was populated almost exclusively by beefy, college-age boys. I was usually the only woman there, and Dave, a compact, physically efficient-looking sort of guy no taller than 5’7,” was the only man his size. Technically, we went together so we could help each other work out—but really, we went together for mutual protection. Alone, we’d get stared at. Together, neither of us had to be the only one getting stared at. Or, maybe it felt safer to get stared at together. Or, maybe we just noticed it less.

As a foreign woman in India, you get stared at almost constantly. (Though Indian women get stared at too.) Additional variables make it worse: having blond or red hair, being tall, wearing Western clothes, buying alcohol, and—my personal favorite—going running. The last time I went for a jog, two kids followed me down the path until they got to their house, where (I love this) they went inside and asked their mother to come out and look.

Sangam House and the dance village are stare-free—but the second I venture outside the gates, it’s unavoidable. So while this essay isn’t technically about either Sangam House OR writing, the experience of being stared at all the time is such an essential part of being in India that I couldn’t ignore it. And, as I prepare to leave Sangam House to travel around the country for the next six weeks, it’s going to take up even more space.

My main concerns are 1) What the hell? and 2) Why does this consume so much of my energy? Why do people do it here and not in the U.S.? Why does it feel so violating? And why does its message vary so much from one situation to another?

The Undressing Stare

This is by far the most common—and offensive—stare. Men look at you because you’re a woman, and because you’re there, and because they can. It helps if you’re white, because that adds to the novelty, but Indian women experience this all the time too. This staring, and all the inappropriate sexual behavior that can come along with it—“accidentally” brushing against you, adjusting the rearview mirror to look at your chest, lewd comments, and even just whipping it out—is why there are ladies’ sections on trains and buses. Well, theoretically there are.

The Novelty Stare

Some people—especially in rural areas where there aren’t many tourists—stare just because you are something different. With me they’re staring because I’m white (and a woman, and usually alone, which is unusual), but it’s possible they’d also stare if I were an Indian guy in a Western shirt and pants, or just anyone they’d never seen around. And when I say “stare,” I don’t mean the “stare and look away” spiel we do on the subway in New York—I mean people grasping you with their eyes until their vision is blocked by an interfering object. It’s like in the movies when the stranger comes into the small-town dive bar, the jukebox stops, and everyone gives him the narrowed eye.

It’s easy to forgive curious people for staring, the way it’s easy to forgive little kids for saying things in the grocery store line like “Why is that lady fat?” and “Mom, that guy has something on his face.” It’s still uncomfortable, but you can usually tell it’s harmless.

The Appreciation Stare

In a quest for photos of men staring (does it count as a quest if it’s easy?), my friend Mathilde (also a foreigner) and I walked the mile to the local chai shack. We got both the novelty stare (an old man at the shop) and a very efficient undressing stare (a bunch of laborers speeding by on a truck bed), but we also got a new one: the appreciation stare. A forty-something man rode by on his motorcycle, looked at us in a “you’re hot” way, and smiled. It was actually kind of nice—when you come to expect disrespectful behavior, you really appreciate it when people break the mold.

The Hostile Stare

This is the uncurious, judgmental stare women sometimes get from other women (and older men)—the one that says “why are you not following the rules.” Women (both Indian and foreign) get this for wearing clothing that more traditional women think is slutty: shorts, anything that bares the shoulders, or sometimes anything that at all shows the contours of a woman’s body (e.g., jeans). Men also give men this stare in a power struggle, just the way they would in the West.

The Mix

Lots of stares mix it up: hostility and curiosity, hostility and undressing, appreciation and curiosity, curiosity and undressing.

*

In the West, we see excessive staring as (at best) an invasion of our privacy or (at worst) a threat. According to this article in Wired, humans are programmed to stare for 3-5 seconds at anything new or unusual that doesn’t fit into the models our brains recognize. So, for example, when we see someone with a deformity, our lizard brain says “stare, determine threat and nature of object,” while our conscious mind says “don’t stare, it’s rude.” (For the sake of people with deformities, I hope we usually arrive at a non-obnoxious in-between.)

But this instinctive staring happens only once in a while, and for a very short span—and when no threat is determined, it’s over. This is not the staring of India. In India, men just gape unabashedly… forever.

At first my perspective was one of humility: Hey, maybe it’s not offensive here because people have different notions of privacy. But really, Indian women feel just as violated by it as foreigners do. Then I thought well, maybe it’s because people get married early—guys and girls can’t screw around in cars and behind the school when they’re 15, so this is what happens to all that built-up sexual curiosity. But that doesn’t make sense either: First, then women would be staring too, and second, just a couple generations ago in the U.S., people were getting married early and not allowed to screw around, and we did not have this situation.

A friend was recently telling me about being stared at and grabbed (crotch, breasts) by guys on the street when she was traveling in North India. In one incident, three boys rode by on a bicycle and one groped her. She ran after them, grabbed the offending boy by the arm, and lit into him: “What are you doing? What would you do if your mother or sister came home and told you someone did this to her?” Immediately he acted totally ashamed and was all “Sorry madam, so sorry madam.” When another man groped her on the street, she yelled at him and threw a bottleful of water on him, soaking his clothes. Everyone on the street knew exactly why. He acted ashamed, she said, but was he just publicly embarrassed or did he actually feel bad about his behavior?

So, if it’s not just natural, and men are ashamed of it when they get caught, I can’t help but draw the following conclusion: Men stare at and grope women simply because they can. Because no one will stop them. Plenty of women here face enough trouble and judgment just for being out of the house, and even more for being out of the house without a male escort. And deep down somewhere, men know their staring is an act of power: They wouldn’t dare stare at a man from their own town who was more powerful than they were.

But still: why aren’t they taught not to stare in the first place?

Polish people, pretending, wheatishness

When little kids play, they’re the best pretenders ever. But they’re notoriously unable to fake their emotions or hold back their real thoughts. In the Polish short film Anything Can Happen (Wszystko moze sie przytrafic), a father videotapes his young son riding his bike around a park where a lot of old people hang out. The boy stops and asks the old people whatever questions pop into his mind: “How old are you?” “Are you going to die soon?” And the people in the movie answer with such abandon! It’s as if they’re refreshed that someone finally said what was on his mind.

But at some point, society decides that a certain kind of pretending enables the world to function in a civilized way. We go to great (and sometimes ridiculous) lengths to restrain our impulses and to separate public from private. On a rush-hour train in New York, there might be so many people your face is smashed into some guy’s armpit, but your job is to pretend you are not looking at the armpit and definitely not looking at anyone’s face. You can stare, of course, but once that person catches you, the game is up. (Obviously I’m excluding mutual sexual attraction here.)

Or suppose you’re getting a massage: Intellectually, you know the context is therapeutic and the touch clinical. But to make the relationship work, both you and the therapist must actively pretend this clinicalness is the act’s entirety. That it is not, in fact, a stranger touching you while you’re naked and that there are no erotic implications on either side.

Imagine what might happen if we didn’t restrain these impulses and feelings—if everyone who wanted to sleep with his boss or his wife’s friend told them about it! Holy shit! At best, we face social consequences (embarrassment, divorce) for transgressing these rules. On a bigger scale, the law. Or job loss. Or, total descent into barbarism. And with good reason: It’s this grown-up pretending/restraint that lets us live with other humans with a base degree of safety and comfort.

It’s not like people in India have no sense of pretending—they definitely do. Hosts are ridiculously polite and generous to guests, as guests are expected be in return, regardless of everyone’s real feelings. If you check out the “matrimonials” section (akin to our “personals”) in any Indian newspaper, you’ll find them just as rife with euphemisms as ours—in American personals no one is fat, and here no one is darker than “wheatish.” And Indians have a mystifying inability to answer questions with “no” or “I don’t know,” so they just make up stories—a dance that can be totally entertaining when you learn to recognize it, but that really sucks when you need directions to the bus stop or, say, a real answer. I once spent half an hour in the post office with a friend who was trying to send postcards to Denmark, and rather than say “We don’t know the price and don’t know where to look it up,” the four (!) guys behind the desk insisted she bring in the cards so they could see their size. After trying to sell her some cards, of course.

How to get robbed anyway

In my previous post I talked about how much I was warned about things versus how much those things were worth being wary about. What’s paranoia, and what involves actual safety? What is it really worth my energy to avoid?

My first peace offering toward the staring was relaxation—the strategy I adopted regarding all alleged “scary things of India.” Just relax, let it happen, go with the flow. Logically, I thought, the amount of staring far surpasses the amount of unwanted physical contact. Most men stare (and if you’re a foreigner, a lot of women stare too), but how many of those people would dare touch you or even comment? Chances are higher if you’re alone and the men are in a group, or if you’re in a crowded place where it’s easy for someone to get away with something. But statistically, starers versus touchers (or masturbators, or anything else) is a laughably uneven comparison.

On the other hand, this situation is pretty different from getting malaria or stepping on a cobra. Sexual incidents (beyond staring) might be lower than the warnings advertise, but they’re not lower the way Japanese encephalitis is lower. And there’s no remedy or protection—you can’t go to the hospital because some guy showed you his penis, nor can you prevent him from doing it. But, certain precautions can help (or so they say). Thinking about it in this logical way makes me feel less anxious—but why doesn’t it make me feel better?

Here why: Because being stared at feels gross! It’s just gross to be groped, mentally undressed, commented upon, and generally feel your body become an item of public consumption—and it’s worse when no one considers the behavior inappropriate enough to combat, because you know it’s not just happening to you. (You also know that when the staring turns into concrete physical harassment, you’re out of luck unless you can do something about it yourself.) And I’m not even talking about the threat some Indian women face daily as a matter of survival, or all the ways this behavior contributes to a culture in which rape and sexual assault are trivialized and unreported—I’m just talking about feeling on guard every single minute. No, it’s not rape—but it definitely takes away from your freedom and from energy you could be spending on other things, like being alive. It’s basically like you’re guaranteed to be robbed and have to watch your stuff all the time, and then get robbed anyway.

Turn to the dead people page

Indians don’t squelch their curiosity the way we do in the West, which can be refreshing and lovely and creepy and also wildly invasive. In its first few pages, the Deccan Herald (a major daily paper) always runs a few juicy, horrifying death stories—a murder involving a multi-caste love triangle, a stampede at a religious site, drownings from a truck accident. But unlike U.S. papers, which would print sterile photos of the rescue crew at work or the accident site or yearbook photos of the dead, papers here print the photos that the dark, dirty, Law & Order-watching part of us secretly longs for—bodies in a pile near the temple, bodies being fished out of the river, bodies drooping lifelessly as a fireman carries them away.

Whatever the reason, in India people have a different sense of what’s public and what’s private. Personal space (the way we think of it) is a foreign concept here—buses and autorickshaws are packed beyond imagination, and the streets, even in small towns, are riddled with people, dogs, cars, motorbikes, cows, and pretty much everything else. Poor people often live in one-room houses where a whole family sleeps together. (How such families get made, I don’t know. And I’m not being an ass—I really don’t know how people get the privacy to have sex.)

A vision of hell

On the innocent side, this curiosity and lack of private space means total strangers don’t feel rude asking you questions like “Are you married?” “How much money do you make?” and “Do you have any children?”—and if you’re blond, just going ahead and touching your hair.

On the not-so-innocent side, a writer from Calcutta was telling me that some people there (slum-dwellers, mostly) have no private access to water, so they bathe using public taps or the Ganges. To do their business, they use public bathrooms (anyone seen Slumdog Millionaire?) or just the street. Without a bathroom, these people have no privacy, ever. If that sounds unimaginable, add to it the reality that women on the street are bathing with their saris on—and passing men, hoping to glimpse bare flesh, stare at their every move as they shift the cloth around bit by bit, washing each part of their bodies.

Along those lines: My friend was once the only woman on an eight-hour bus ride here. She’s foreign and was traveling alone, and the rest of the bus was packed with Indian men watching her every move. If she scratched her head or turned the page of a book, their eyes followed. Exasperated (and creeped out), she finally covered her head and face with a scarf to give herself the illusion of privacy. It took mere minutes for a man to pop up right in her face and ask, “Which country? Which country?” To top it off, there were no toilets along the way, so at every bathroom break all the men poured out of the bus and pissed along the side of the road. My friend, however, with no trees or bushes in sight, was not about to get out and drop her pants with 30 men watching her. She held it for eight hours, while she had a bladder infection. That… that is my vision of hell.

*

Besides the actual staring, the crazy part to me is that women here have somehow gotten used to it. They find it creepy and offensive too, but for the most part, they accept that it’s how things work—that it’s a part of daily life they can’t waste energy on. But there are people who are actively fighting against it. A friend of mine in Mumbai works with an anti-street harassment campaign called Blank Noise, which holds events where women descend in large groups on specific places in the city—spots where men usually hang around to just… stand there and stare at women. Essentially, the women take that space for themselves. The campaign also takes pictures of men in the act, advocates ways to respond, and offers general moral support.

Despite all this, there is a flip side: When men do something nice and don’t act creepy, you appreciate it infinitely more. And over time, you grow more intuitive about people’s intentions in general. A couple days ago, two women friends and I were walking on a rural road when a man driving a logging truck slowed down and offered to give us a ride to the nearest village. We weren’t going that far, but were so warmed by his honest intent, and his non-leering, that we wanted to take him up on it just to show how much we appreciated him.

So thanks, logger-truck guy. Here’s to you and all the classy Indian guys.

I don’t usually have an idea in mind when I begin to write. Today, a student looked at me and said: “you haven’t been writing lately, have you?” She was right; at least I have not written poetry. It made me angry that she was right, then oddly comforted because the jig was up and I realized that I didn’t feel much like writing. I felt like watching people catch fish on a winter pier while I wore a long camel’s hair coat and kept my hands in my pockets. I always thought that one of the few reasons I wanted to be tall was because tall people look better in camel’s hair coats. I wanted to look attractively gaunt. Seagulls hovered over head as fisherman threw their remaining bait to them. This desire to be on a fishing pier in winter first came to me as I watched a couple of herring gulls up here in Binghamton, swooping and gulling forth above the Barnes and Noble parking lot. The day was that sort of neutral gray when, if it were ten degrees colder, snow might fall. It made me lonely for the ocean. It made me want to wear a camel’s hair jacket, and dig my hands deep into my pockets, and watch gulls slash and dive for torn pieces of air born clam. How do you explain something like that. As Pessoa said, the personal is not the human. We must make a bridge.

But I don’t want to make a bridge. I don’t want a greater ontology to standing in a Barnes and Noble parking lot watching herring gulls when, if it was ten degrees colder, it might snow. I once had a camel’s hair coat, and I left it on a school visit during one of those days when the weather couldn’t make up its mind. It was cold. It was hot. In the tradition of schools, they put the heat on full blast as it warmed. I was teaching fifth graders to write poems, to play the guitar, to live large. We were making progress. I forgot my coat. I forgot my gloves. I was home getting ready for bed before I remembered that I’d left my prized coat seventy miles south on the New jersey Park way. I never went back to retrieve it. I kept thinking perhaps someone my size might find it, and start wearing it. He might take better care of it cherish it not as an idea, but as a coat. Since then, this imaginary short man haunts my consciousness. He walks out of the sea late at night, his coat perfectly dry. He has a beautiful zippo lighter and roams through the universe, lighting the cigarettes of willowy femme fatales. He speaks both French and Norwegian. He’s the complete package.

This is how my mind works. It needs to drift in order to write. It needs aimlessness, the sort of frittering away of time most people associate with sloth. Improvisation is vital to structure. Without it, structure is too “received.” Even in the purposely “received” structure of fixed forms (sonnet, sestina, that sort of thing) the thought must seem fluid, unforced. To have an “idea” for a poem is already to “receive” a structure that might make the actual poem impossible to write. So, when people tell me they have no ideas for a poem, I never believe them. They are lying. They have plenty of ideas. That’s the trouble. The idea for a poem competes with the poem. or worse, the idea of writing a poem competes with the poem. They stand frozen before the prospect of writing a poem. It stuns them into being blocked.

Sometimes better structures come to us while we are screwing around.

For example, in the fall of 2008, the stock market crashed. I was not much concerned since I have never had enough money to invest in stock. I felt terrible that venerable businesses went under. I felt worse that other firms were going to plunder what was left, get a bail out from the government, then loan the bail out money back to that same government at three percent interest. It seemed like a crime synidcate scam. I thought of a woman I once saw denied welfare because she had five dollars in a savings account. I just figured Kenneth Burke was right: in terrible times, a man ought to write decent sentences.

So I was sitting around in my bed room, looking out the window, thinking about how my mother used to take my hands and make them do patty cake. I thought of how the nun made us clap out the accents of syllables in second grade. For some reason, they were enthusiastic about the accentual qualities of English. I wrote “clap out love’s syllables. Then I wrote: Stock markets fall.” I did not know what the hell the two had to do with each other, but it was in iambic pentameter (thanks to the nuns) so I continued:

Clap out love’s syllables. Stock markets fall.
The gravity of apples and of gold
has nothing on the way our bodies sprawl
and touch the accent of what we two now hold
both tensed and tendered. Touching, we disdain
all commerce, and all wantonness seems blessed.

So I got this far, and I relaized I was going to write a love sonnet using terms from finance, old and new. “tendered” for example. I continued:

We grope and cop at leisure. We remain
stable in our instability.

To remain stable in instability seemed something devoutly to be wished for at the time, and I liked that I got nine syllables into such a short line, an acatalectic line to make up for the extra syllable of line four. It took place at the volta, the turn, so I thought things were going well. But what was I going to do next? The sentences moved against the lines, muting the rhymes somewhat. I was happy that gold and hold were a noun and verb because I heard the ghost of John Crowe Ransom telling me it is always good if one of the rhyme words is a noun and the other is a verb. I was feeling so good about it that I wrote:

And this is good, and this is good. We kiss
all nipple and thigh pleasured, we descend
to where no share, no bonding gone amiss
can cheat us of a happy dividend.

So I was having fun with the word bonding, and the word dividend. I was using banker’s language in a love poem without implying prostitution. I was being playful, but now I had to write the concluding couplet, and I always hated that part of sonnets– too much like an essay. I’m not good at sewing things up. I’d prefer for them to just scab over, but my knowledge of sonnet form told me I had to recapitulate the pertinent ideas. The main point seemed to be that things fell, but it did not interfere with the love making of the couple who, because they have “fallen” can not fall. So I went with the obvious:

Stocks fall, leaves, fall, we fall, yet, falling, praise
the fields of lust on which our bodies graze.

I should have said the “banks” of lust, but I kept changing my mind, and I’m lazy, so I left fields. I wanted lust to be a good thing. I wanted to redeem the lust for life and love from the lust that made stock markets fall. By drifting, I had stumbled upon a sonnet in which I used the words of commerce and banking to speak of love. I was happy. I later thought I chose “fields” for its relation to fall and falling– the f sounds.I looked it over and say instability at the turn did not rhyme with remain. It was accidental genius. I was in full sonnet mode and I would have rhymed, but John Donne’s ghost of oxymoron was upon me, and I said: good. It’s good that the rhyme does not pay of here.

So this is how I wrote a sonnet–by accident, but also by having read hundreds of sonnets, and by knowing the traditions of courtly word play, and by having had nuns who made us clap out syllables obsessively.

A student must learn to let his mind leap among disparate things in order to get at structure, for structure is nothing less than pattern recognition– not the grooves you pre-ordain when you have an idea, but the grooves you discover as you move through the drift of your own mind’s tendencies and trust that, if you let mind drift, then pause a bit, you’ll start to see a pattern emerge.

So I drifted at the beginning of this essay. I trusted that my loneliness for the sea, and fantasy about a camel’s hair coat would produce some sort of structure or metaphor I could hang A post on. And now I leave, pretending I am Fran Sinatra with that jacket draped over my back. A final suggestion: spend the week just jotting down random thoughts. Don’t be a control freak. All thoughts are silly, and unoriginal–including Plato’s. It’s how they are used and structured afterwards. Write them down and don’t get in their way. Then take whatever you know, and recognize patterns in the drift. Make some poems out of that.

Grammar didn’t come natural to me. The first time, when I learned there was such a thing as grammar, when we were introduced — like, “Daniel, meet grammar,” “Grammar, Daniel” — things did not go smoothly.

It was more like sliding bare-bottomed down a sandpaper hill.

I was in first grade, and we had “writing time.” The teacher was young and teaching a split, first-and-second grade class. There were too many students, and even at 6, 7, 8 and 9, we knew her control was kind of tenuous. The class was always on the edge of anarchy. As the year went on, the teacher, Miss Lane, added an increasing number of “quiet times” into her lesson plan. We had story time, where all of us were supposed to put our heads down and listen to the story. We had writing time, where you could go anywhere in the class room, sit anywhere, lay anywhere, as long as you were quiet and turned something in at the end of the hour that looked like writing.

I loved writing time. I went to the little side room where the assorted recess equipment was kept and spread out on the floor and chewed my pencil and wrote. I remember the first story was about a saber-toothed man. It was awesome. He was part superhero, part prehistoric creature, and he was walking through the woods, a saber-toothed man.

I’m pretty sure that was the whole story. My strong suit was description, not narrative arc.

I got it back about a week later. Maybe it was two weeks. Miss Lane had, in that time, very carefully murdered my story. As far as I could tell, she hadn’t paid attention to the story part of the story, which was awesome, but she had marked each and every sentence as wrong. That’s how I learned what grammar was. She’d written “GRAMMAR” on the top, in the same bleedy, red, felt-tip pen she’d used to draw angry squiggles all over my story.

I felt kind of like I’d just been criticized for walking. Or breathing. Like, this was something I felt I knew how to do. It seemed like it was just natural, I’d been doing it and everything had been fine, and now someone stops me to tell me there are rules. And I’m doing it wrong. I was walking along just fine, and now I’m getting yelled at.

“STOOOOOP! That’s NOT how you walk!”

“Wait, what?”

“Are you ignorant? Are you from a bad family? Is your family poor?”

“I don’t understand.”

“There are rules. And everyone knows them except you. It’s called GRAMMAR. Now everyone thinks you’re stupid.”

This was how I became a descriptivist. I have since learned that there are some really good reasons to be a descriptivist. At the time, though, it was purely defensive. I was a descriptivist in exactly the same way I was a put-your-arms-around-your-head-and-duck-tivist when the 6th graders yelled “faggot” and threw rocks. It wasn’t exactly a philosophical decision.
The one grammatical correction I remember, from that murdered story, was about how you shouldn’t start sentences with conjunctions.

“What’s ‘conjunctions’?” I said.

“Like ‘and,’” she said, “or ‘but.’”

“You can’t start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“It’s against the rules. It’s GRAMMAR.”

The whole idea that there were rules, out there somewhere, was a little disturbing. How was I supposed to know what they were? Who decided the rules were the rules? Also, they seemed kind of arbitrary. What was wrong with conjunctions? Was I the only one who was starting sentences with conjunctions and I just never noticed that no one else did it?

This is a little like wondering if you are retarded, and everyone’s just been too nice to tell you. Or maybe they tried to tell you, and you were just too slow to actually get what they were saying.

But wait — I wasn’t the only one who started sentences with “but” or “and.” The Bible has sentences that stat with “but” and “and,” which meant that my grammar was like the same as God’s.

I tried that defense with Miss Lane, but she said I was still wrong. She didn’t say so, but apparently she would’ve marked up God’s writing too.

Which didn’t really make me feel better. And I still didn’t like grammar.

I did learn grammar, eventually, though not from Miss Lane. A whole slew of copy editors and editors taught it to me during my time as a journalist, and I took several years of Latin in college, where I got poor grades but finally figured out what “dative” meant and what an adjective was. I figuring out how clauses worked in the middle of an Episcopalian morning prayer service, where they used the old prayer book, which has a lot of archaically-constructed sentences. I’ve actually spent a lot of time with grammar in the last few years, as I’ve been working as a grammar teacher, teaching German university students who want to study English, and as a freelance proofreader and line editor. I think about that first experience I had, though, that slide down a sandpaper hill, when I hand back papers I’ve marred with my markings.

I try to remind them and to remind myself what grammar’s good for. Besides beating people over the head, besides flaunting one’s class or excellent education, besides pedantry and dickishness, what grammar does, what grammar can do, is give one excellent control over language. I am still a descriptivist — I believe usage is paramount, that there are no rules, really, only use — so grammar is not, for me, about being right, but about breaking down the language and taking it apart, so that one can know how it works and can make it work most effectively. I try to teach it the way I would teach mechanics.

It’s like, I sometimes tell my students, I know you know how to breathe, but I want to teach you how to breathe so you can run for hours.

What grammar did for me was enable me to analyze sentences. This has made me a better writer, but also — and this is something I’ve never seen promoted in a grammar book, never heard in a grammar rules rant — it made me a better reader. I am able, now, in a way I wasn’t before, to analyze a writer’s writing by looking at the writing itself. I can dig in, on the sentence level, and see what’s happening.

Consider a few examples, just looking at how independent and dependant clauses are used. I teach clauses to my students so they’ll know how to avoid sentence fragments and comma splices in their academic writing. I want them to be able to identify simple, compound and complex sentences, and use a variety of sentences to write with a more sophisticated rhythm. Too often, beginning writers, especially those, like my students, who are writing in their second or third language, write with the rhythm of a Dick and Jane book. It’s just DUM dum dum, DUM dum dum, forever and ever. I teach it for the sake of their writing, but it’s also helped me be a better reader.

For example, Joan Didion opens her novel Democracy with a single complex sentence, followed by fragmentary rephrasings, followed by a simple sentence that’s repeated with increasing complexity, increasing specificity. It’s structured as a struggle to find the right phrase, and the altered iterations expand outwards like ripples:

“The light at dawn during those Pacific tests was something to see.

Something to behold.

Something that could almost make you think you saw God, he said.

He said to her.

Jack Lovett said to Inez Victor.

Inez Victor who was born Inez Christian.

He said: The sky was this pink … ”

Then, in crescendo, Didion lets this sentence that’s the sentence of a writer trying to write, trying to find the right words, take off and just go. It’s a description of the pink of the Pacific island sky after the blast of a test bomb and it starts with a banality and unfurls from there, a description that tells us more about the man than the sky described, and then as it almost falls apart she puts in a comma and a complete sentence — a comma splice, technically an error — as if everything should be ignored and this is the thing, the sentence has resolved with the phrase the narrator wants:

“The sky was this pink and the air was wet from the night rain, soft and wet and smelling like flowers, smelling like those flowers you used to pin in your hair when you drove out to Schofield, gardenias, the air in the morning smelled like gardenias, never mind there were not too many flowers around those shot islands.”

Her comma splice communicates this need to re-state or re-phrase, which captures both the problem of the moment of these two characters and the whole novel’s expression of an ennui that isn’t boredom but an inability to exactly say. The whole problem or project of the novel is expressed, actually, in that comma splice, which is brilliant, I think, and which I wouldn’t have known except that I’ve been focusing on clauses.

Or consider, for another example, Walt Whitman’s poem, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” Almost the whole first stanza is dependent clauses — “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking, / Out of the mocking-bird’s throat,” — cascading down in one long sentence without a subject until, finally, in the 20th line, we get the subject “I.” There’s a missing “what” for 19 lines, and an ambiguity about the subject of the poem that is sustained by the structure of the sentence.

A lot of times people talk about Whitman like he was just wild, like his free verse had all the structure of a kite-high hippie dance. If you look at it, though, if you look at the grammar of it, this is a very carefully constructed sentence that very carefully puts the “I” of the poem in a very specific relationship to the world around it. The grammar isn’t incidental to Whitman’s poem; it is the working out of a major part of Whitman’s project.

One doesn’t need grammar to read Whitman or Didion or anyone else, of course. It’s not even necessary to read them well. Part of what makes good writers good, though, is their ability to sometimes, somehow, do everything they’re trying to do with the placement of a single comma. I want to be able to read that comma, to see what’s happening when the subject of a sentence turns up in a place you wouldn’t usually find it.

I know that’s not the point of grammar, and it certainly wasn’t what Miss Lane was trying to teach me when she wrote GRAMMAR on the top of my paper, but this is the other thing that grammar’s good for.

For most of us, I think, grammar is a brutal, brutal thing. It doesn’t come natural. Most of the time, even the word signals a fear, a panic even, at being embarrassed about being wrong. There’s something about it that can evoke deep shame. We imagine our mothers’ being embarrassed for us, as embarrassed as if we’d went out in shit-stained pants. We’re afraid of grammar because “grammar” means making stupid mistakes — there, their or they’re, or something like that — and we imagine stupid mistakes being taken as evidence of our real intelligence and value. That’s too bad, though, because it doesn’t have to be that way.

Grammar can be empowering. It can be about being a better writer and a better reader. It was, eventually, for me. I now know that it can be about knowing how the language works, instead of just driving along, listening to the rattle and choke under the hood, waiting, clenched up tense inside and waiting, until the whole thing breaks down.