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Coleridge

I was sitting on the throne a few minutes ago, reading Hannah Arendt’s Vita Activa, specifically the part called “The Location of Human Activities” and, as I was reading, I realized no one suggests to students how to converse with a book while they are reading it. We “receive” the information, highlight what we think is important (which I suppose is analogous to culling the herd) and re-read what we do not understand. But there is another way to read a book, and that is by allowing other texts we have read to intrude, to interrupt the text at hand, to gather the force of our past readings, and to hold a conversation with the work before us. This is somewhat how Coleridge read, his mind leaping between texts, and thoughts, and contexts–reading as a sort of extroverted comedy of manners.

I have not read Hannah Arendt in years, and I can admit that I am most familiar with what I’ll call her “buzz” concepts: The banality of evil, and the subject of labor and action. So I did what I always do when reading a non-narrative: I opened the book at random, in media res, and trusted in the gods of chance. This is what I first read:

although the distinction between private and public coincides with the opposition of necessity and freedom, of futility and permanence, and, finally, of shame and honor, it is by no means true that only the necessary, the futile, and the shameful have their proper place in the private realm.

So I’m looking that over and I think Kenneth Burke’s scene/act ratio, the “private realm” as a “scene” with certain actions both moral and immoral, or good and evil ,appropriate to it. I write down Google Kenneth Burke’s “Scene/act ratio.” But then another thing strikes me: “necessity and freedom, futility and honor” are not exactly perfect fits where opposites are concerned. Something may be “futile,” yet “permanent.” A better oppositional pairing would be permanence and change (or flux), which is the title of a book by Kenneth Burke. But Burke’s book is not on my mind. I wonder if in the original German (I think Arendt wrote this in German) these terms were in a more standard sense oppositional (binary, dualistic, take your pick). What is the antonym for permanence in German, and what is the antonym for futility? (Look them up, I think.) If she wrote this in English, then perhaps she has a reason for not using perfectly oppositional terms. Still, they seem to be structured for opposition, with freedom, permanence, and honor wearing the white hats, and necessity, futility, and shame wearing the black. We shall see, I think.

Finally, she claims that it is by no means true that only the necessary, the futile and the shameful (those banditos) have their place in the private realm. So I continue to see if she adds something:

The most elementary meaning of the two realms indicates that there are things that need to be hidden and others that need to be displayed publicly of they are to exist at all.” So my mind leaps to the age old adage/question: “if a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?

Somehow this seems relevant to me. But she is saying something different. Because “if they are to exist at all” is tagged onto the end of the sentence, does it refer only to “things that need to be displayed,” or to both things that need to be displayed and to things that need to be hidden? If she includes both, then she is saying something strange and provocative: “Some things must be hidden in order to exist.” I think “latent,” “percipient as possible correlations of things that exist as hidden, but they are not things so much as pure abstractions of things to be, or things not yet come to light.” I think “quintessential”–all that cannot be seen, and exists, not “in spite of” but because of it being hidden. My brain is starting to race, and I leap to Kant who said that moral actions done out of fear of punishment or public censure were not as moral as moral acts done out of the motivation to do good. Of course, we cannot see a person’s “motivation” except through clues, through implications. A man giving a thousand dollars to a beggar and a man giving a dime are not showing their motivation. The one giving a thousand might be doing it to show off, while the one giving a dime might be poor and unable to give more, but he is doing it out of the bottom of his heart (e.g., the widow’s mite; actually Christ never speaks of the widow’s motivation for giving all she had to live on. She may have done it out of fear of looking cheap. She may have done it hoping to purge herself of guilt. Who knows? We only know she gave all she had to live on.)

So I can’t remember where Kant speaks of this, and before I am even done with the first paragraph, I have Burke, the German language, dialectical opposition, an age old adage in the form of a question, the parable of the widow’s mite, and Immanuel Kant all joining me in the bathroom! It’s getting crowded here.

Universities will tell you not to leap like that. It’s unsystematic. It leads to “error.” It’s digression from the task at hand. Stay focused! We are taught to see the text before us as a singular performance, and to watch it accordingly, trying to understand its meaning and actions, and highlighting what we think is “important.” This is not how Midrash or Biblical commentaries work, and it is not how the human mind truly learns. To reduce learning to uber-focus is to go directly against the grain of pontification (building a pont, a bridge between disparate thoughts, feelings and actions). The brain limited to a single focus can become narrow in either the best or worst sense. Best sense: it is sharp and can cut through the text and leave all the most important points on the table while the other material (everything in the universe, including the parts of the text that are not highlighted) on the floor.

For someone who has a methodical type of mind and limited frame of reference, this may prove the best method. It is the best method for scholarship, but not always the best for theory. They are different. Scholars must plod. Theorists must leap. Unfortunately, most schools of higher learning take a dim view of leaping. They may even punish it and say, Kant, Jesus, Burke, old adages, the widows mite are all beside the point. Stick to the point!

But points themselves are abstractions. What is the point of sticking to the point? It is a good thing for a scholar or an accountant not to be creative. The dyslogistic term for creative is nonsense and bullshit. But I am not afraid of looking foolish. After all, I am reading and thinking all this on the toilet. Am I devoid of system? Not at all, but my system of active, leaping reading is against the grain of academic learning. I can do it privately, in the silence of my mind, but God forbid I should post it on Facebook. So, I have not yet gotten through the first paragraph and I have the following list:

- Google Burke’s scene act ration.
- Google German words.
- Consider Kant on morality and motivation.
- Consider the widows mite as an act of public charity whose motivation is hidden, and can only exist if it is hidden.
- Wait for Hannah to say what may be added to necessity, futility and shame in the private realm.

Well, Hannah never tells us what may be added. At least not immediately. She goes right back to mentioning the two realms of private and public. Her main focus is location, not what might be added, but I’m a little pissed off at her. She is teasing me. Get to the point Hannah! What can be added? What can be added? I read on:

If we look at these things, regardless of where we find them in any given civilization, we shall see that each human activity points to its proper location in the world.

That’s not an easy sentence. First off, what are “these things” we are looking at? The realm of private and public? If so, then she is saying that “regardless of where we may find them in civilization” ( no matter where they are), we shall see that each human activity points its proper location in the world. So let’s assume “these things” means private and public realms. I place that where “these things” are:

If we look at the private and public realms, regardless of where we find them in any given civilization, we shall see that each human activity points to its proper location in the world.

Is each human activity to be understood as a subset of public and private realms, as an “Act” in the scene of the public and private? But if it doesn’t matter where they are in a given civilization, then how the hell can their activities point out their proper location in the world? Well, that’s tough. I like to wrestle. I’m sweating on the throne. Wrestling with half-said things that only get expanded on a hundred pages later is half the fun of theory and philosophy. A philosophy that has no loose ends allows no room for further thought. It is, itself, a closed system.

But I am a little angry here. Damn it, Hannah, are you saying that we do not know the realms of private and public except by their activities? Are you saying that only then do we know their proper location? If so, so be it. I don’t know. The jury is out. Now here I am at a loss. She is either saying that, or she has just transformed “realms” (scenes) of public and private into action/activities of public and private. That makes sense. The words scene and act are meant to be confused (look at drama). There are places where action becomes scenic (as in making the scene), and there are actions which embody certain “Scenes.” Of all the odd thoughts that come into my mind at this moment I remember a story by John Updike “A&P” in which two girls walk in from the beach, in bikinis, to buy, if I remember correctly, a can of sardines. On the beach, their wardrobe is “appropriate,” but, in the glaring light of the A&P they create a stir. So what is inappropriate? Their action? Or the scene of their action. Or are they a scene? (Think of the cliché “making a scene”). I file this odd thought away. It is tied in to attitude to a scene/act, and how one perceives a scene and the actions appropriate to it. Bikini on a beach? Appropriate. Bikini under the glaring light of a supermarket in the early sixties? Public lewdness. I think that when I bring Hannah Arndt to one of the groups in my class, I will have them read the Updike story and relate it to “the location of human activities.” So I read on:

This is true for the chief activities of the Vita Activa (Active life), labor, work, and action; but there is one, admittedly extreme, example of this phenomenon, whose advantage for illustration is that it played a considerable role in political theory.

We have reached the end of the first paragraph. Now I am waiting for two things: 1. What is added to necessity, futility, and shame? 2. What is this one example that plays a considerable role in political theory? Well, actually, I am waiting for a third: what are those things which must be hidden in order to exist?

Goodness in an absolute sense is what Hannah leads the next paragraph off with, as distinguished from the “good-for” or the “excellent” in Greek and Roman Antiquity. She says goodness in this sense became known only with the rise of Christianity. Oh my God, my digressions were intuitions. I trusted my meandering and look! I might be on to something! Is goodness the thing added to the private realm in addition to necessity, futility, and shame? I read further, and yes! So Hannah is not merely making oppositional pairs. She goes on to say that the Christian idea of goodness in an absolute sense survived the expected “last days,” the “eschatological expectations” of the coming end times. It survived the Roman empire, and the “other worldliness” on which it is based had another root (beyond waiting for the end times) perhaps more intimately related to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. She writes in the third paragraph:

The one activity taught by Jesus in word and deed is the activity of goodness, and goodness obviously harbors a tendency to hide from being seen or heard.

So necessity, futility, shame, and goodness! These things exist only by being hidden from public view. That seems to be the gist. I have part of my questions answered. She continues:

Christian hostility toward the public realm, the tendency at least of early Christians to lead a life as far removed from the public realm as possible, can also be understood as a self-evident consequence of devotion to good works, independent of all beliefs and expectations. For it is manifest that the moment a good work becomes known and public, it loses its specific character of goodness, of being done for nothing but goodness sake [I think Gratis, grace, for good alone]. When goodness appears openly, it is no longer goodness, though it may still be useful [Kant's use criteria and distinction between moral and truly moral] as organized charity or an act of solidarity. [Because I have spent my life reading the Gospels I think “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”].

She continues:

Therefore: “take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them.” Goodness can exist only when it is not perceived, not even by its author; whoever sees himself performing a good work is no longer good, but at best a useful member of society or a dutiful member of a church. Therefore: “let not thy left hand know what thy right hand is doeth.”

Bingo! I have let my mind digress to other texts while I read. I have read closely, but I have also read intuitively and through a series of digressions–of Midrash and commentary. This has lead me to anticipate Arendt’s moves before they appear on the page. It looks like magic, but it isn’t.

So here’s my break down:
- Scholarship: incremental and focused learning.
- Theory: Learning how to leap and conjecture, to be creative and risk taking.
- Pont–consciousness, the consciousness that creates bridges between disparate texts, and thereby mitigates the worst dangers of leaping, and circumvents the worst sort of incremental narrowness. It’s a hybrid of scholarship and theory.

Of course, I had read some Kant, and the story “A&P” (which I am sure Hannah will somehow make relevant at some point). I have read Burke extensively. I have not read much Kant, or much Arendt, but enough to make leaps. I have read the Bible all my life, probably the whole of it a hundred times.

But there are still some loose ends here: how can goodness be included with necessity, futility, and shame? Isn’t that odd? Arendt answers that very question in the next paragraph:

It may be this curious negative quality of goodness, the lack of out-ward phenomenal manifestation, that makes Jesus of Nazareth’s appearance in history such a profoundly paradoxical event; it certainly seems to be the reason why he thought and taught no man can be good… the same conviction finds its expression in the Talmudic story of the thirty-six righteous men, for the sake of whom God saves the world and who are also known to nobody, least of all to themselves. We are reminded of Socrates’ great insight that no man can be wise, out of which love for wisdom, or philo-sophy, was born; the whole life story of Jesus seems to testify how love for goodness arises out of the insight that no man can be good.

Before I read these third and fourth paragraphs I was ready to clobber Hannah Arndt for saying “goodness” was at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. I was going to argue that the “love of goodness” and the impossibility of goodness save through God is at the heart of his teaching. Hannah made this unnecessary.

The point of all this is to teach you an alternative way to read texts. You may say: “but Joe, I don’t know the books you do… I lack the reading to do what you do.” But there are the texts of your own life experience, of television shows, of entertainments, from which you can meet the text before you. In point of fact, we all do this. We bring whole, often conflicting worlds to a text. This is my point: trust your intuition. Do not consider your digressions unimportant. Note them, follow them up. I now could take these three paragraphs and make a reading list:

- Kant’s philosophy of morals
- Scene/act ratio in Burke, and its relation to both the story of “A&P” and the narrator’s own hidden motives, and his own hidden good that is not recognized as good, or ceases to be good the moment he becomes righteous about it.
- The relation of goodness to necessity, futility and shame in terms of the saintly practices of mortification, repentance, fasting, and persecution (St. John of the Cross).

Is Arendt right that goodness ceases to be goodness once it is public? If so, is it because its public expression then obscures its hidden motives? What about the public works and charities of churches and universities. By this schema of goodness as a hidden act, must all such public work be perceived as being suspect? What is the “good” in public works? (read The Prince, especially the part on public good works). Arendt continues to say that both wisdom and goodness cancel themselves out the moment they are aware of themselves as wisdom or goodness. What does that say about public institutions of learning or religion? Consider the word “toward” in relation to not being good or wise, but Loving and moving toward the good and wise.

I could go on. Knowing me, I will go on. This is how I read. It is always how I read. It is an alternative to the usual style of study. If I teach this work of Arendt, I will break a group of six into readings of Burke, Kant, the Gospel, the writings of St. John of The Cross, The Prince, and the story “A&P.” They will have Arendt’s work in common, but they will each read one of these separate works and then they will relate them to Arendt’s “the Location of Human Activities.” I will leave it open to them whether or not they wish to read the whole of the Vita Activa. If they do, Emma Goldman, Simone Weil’s ideas of necessity and physical labor can all be brought in. I now have a whole world of possibility out of three paragraphs, rather than reading an entire text and having no possibilities at all.

Possible papers:
- Kenneth Burke’s scene/act ratio in relation to Updike’s story “A&P” (you can throw Kant in there, too).
- Location in Hannah Arndt’s Vita Activa and how it might relate to the old saying in real estate : “Location, location, location.” (make a bridge between the tenets of real estate and its selling tactics and that of philosophy—especially Hannah Arendt).
- A study of A Doll’s House by Ibsen in relation to what Hannah Arendt says about goodness being impossible once it is a public act (the relationship between public “goodness” and keeping up appearances).
- A paper in which a poem is analyzed for its private thread of goodness.

This is one way of reading different than the usual methods. I went to the bathroom and came out with part of my course. I am often accused of lacking structure, but very complex or intuitive structures can appear to be unstructured. Chaos appears to be unstructured and yet chaotic form is only a more complex structure. It is randomness that is unstructured–not chaos. Tell me if you think what I have done here is closer to randomness or to the more complex structures of chaos? I swear that I did not read ahead. Intuition is not magic, but rather quick pattern recognition informed by educated hunches that refer back to other moments, other times. It is the ability we have to somehow know the whole or its possibility through a single piece. Intuition is not a rational function, yet it is at the heart of all scientific as well as literary creativity.

There are many poets who enjoy disliking William Carlos Williams. He wrote poems that seem distinguished only by their adherence to the tossed off. They make no major claims. They seem jotted off.

So why study the man at all? First, it is hard to see Williams because he is everywhere, in all the schools of American poetry. He took the English conversational lyric as invented by Coleridge and developed by Wordsworth and turned it toward American speech patterns: OK, sure–the sense of a self consciously casual utterance, language that was wrought from a busy life and ranged between the phatic, the cranky, the ecstatic, the overt, and the obvious.

But we must pause at the word obvious. Stating the obvious is not easy. Human beings tend to mistake mystification for intelligence. Abstractions appeal to us. We forget that even “chicken” is an abstraction. It is a word for an animal. It is not the animal. So perhaps we only believe things have meaning when they have been twice abstracted: first by word denoting thing, then by word (which is symbol) implying something else in the verbal universe (word as symbol for thing plus word as symbol for abstracted word: chicken (thing) plus word chicken-symbol–plus chicken as truth, justice, and the American way). By this process, every word becomes “and”, a conjunction, that which separates as it joins, joining and separating from the thing it denotes and the moral, emotional, intellectual, and historical meanings it connotes. In short, our language becomes a process of mystifications which have lost their original purpose, or have revealed the hidden agenda of all mystifications: power and exclusion.

All street lingo, scholastic jargon, all supposed “verbal rigor” is meant to appeal to the initiated and to exclude the uninitiated (and this includes the language of those who feel excluded). Williams was not against this nearly airtight law of verbal action. He was practicing a new, or, rather, reconstituted rigor: the rigor of the obvious, contact with words for things as things made out of words–double contact, rather than double abstraction.

Williams wanted to make contact with the thing, and then make contact with the thing made out of words. He was not just interested, as in a Haiku, with rendering a thing’s “thingness,’ but he also wanted to make contact with it as a verbal construct, as a thing in its own right. He was interested in a poem as a thing made out of words–as an object, an actual artifact, something as tangible as a chicken. Williams was interest in type–in the words as they were placed upon the page. He was interested in the spacial orientation of type–the “just so” latent within the act of typing words upon a page.

If we know this about Williams, then we can assume three things that may be important to entering into any Williams poem:

1. Rigorous attention to the obvious.
2. Rigorous attention to The placement of the obvious as a “just so” upon the page.
3. The contact with the thing, and the enactment of the thing made out of words as a thing in its own right–which is a second contact. Double contact as opposed to double abstraction.

In this system, abstraction does not disappear, but is taken as the given. Kafka wrote: “the moment you write she looked out a window, you have already begun to lie.” Kafka is not being profound here. She is doing much more than looking out a window, but the artist has selected that one particular action to render in words. Selection is a lie of omission. Even when we tell a true story, we are omitting details. We call this focusing on the significant, but it is only significant because we say it is.

We have made a judgment. Our judgment is distorted by necessity. We have a story to tell. We are never in life, but always in a narration, a process of selection, placement, and applied meaning which we call consciousness. Williams has two aesthetic tasks: one, to be rigorous about the thing at hand in such a manner that we are temporarily taken out of our narrative, and thrust into a kind of “stupidity” before the object (I use stupidity in its full sense, not as lacking intelligence, but as being stunned out of intelligence for a moment, being stupefied, disengaged from one’s usual systems of applied meanings, narratives, and assumptions); and two, to enact a ritual of placement that does not echo a received truth, but becomes its own construct–that imitates the dynamic, and kinetic force of the organic, of “nature” as opposed to merely holding a mirror up to it.

The natural breath Williams advocated was not actual speech, but the artistic placement of everyday speech rhythms and lingo into a thing called a poem. Rather than the abstract twice abstracted, Williams desired the actual twice actualized–first as something one touched through words, and then as something one made (and unmade) out of words. This double actualization has its aporia, its own deconstruction in that one makes contact with the thing not to know it, but, rather, to use it as a new energy–to “unknow” it in the most vital way possible, and to construct a thing made out of words that will contain the energy of what one has “unknown.” To “unknow” chicken as word, is to make contact again with both the thing and the thing’s essential energy used to construct a new thing made out of words. Not a chicken or a chicken as symbolic truth–but a poem that has all the life and thingness of a chicken, and must be taken as it is–beyond paraphrase, beyond mere analysis of meaning, beyond the usual apparatus of mystification.

So, armed with some knowledge of the artist’s intentions, let’s apply these intentions to an actual William Carlos Williams poem.

Iris

A burst of Iris so that
come down for
breakfast

we searched through the
rooms for
that

sweetest odor and at
first could not
find its

source then a blue as
of the sea
struck

startling us from among
those trumpeting
petals

1. Rigorous attention to the obvious. The title says “Iris.” The first line qualifies a “burst of Iris.” Things burst when their energy cannot be contained. So this is not an inactive iris. It is, in a sense, the ecstatic energy of the Iris–its “bursting.” Williams has made an event out of a flower–something we might notice as “Oh look at that–an iris, how pretty…where’s the orange juice?” Usually, we take decorative flowers for granted, especially upon awakening. He is drawing our attention to something we might take for granted. He is saying: “Look! Look! An Iris! Better yet…a burst of Iris! We have not seen it yet. We apprehend it, through the implication of smell, through its essential energy as a burst of fragrance. Here, selection creates the lie of omission in the best sense: the whole house has become alive to an iris. This is stupidity as I mean it: to be stunned out of rational priority–to make a big thing out of something we might not even notice. To be stunned into the obvious. We are told the “we” of the poem searches through all the rooms of the house. This is a lively contact with a flower indeed! Williams effusiveness over mundane and obvious things infuriates some. I find it delightful.

Next, we get “sweetest odor–”: the Iris dominates as an odor. They have yet to see the Iris, and when they do, it is not the Iris per se, but its blue: then a blue as/of the sea/struck.” So this Iris dominates the house without being seen, and when it is seen, it strikes, startles with its blue among its “trumpeting petals.” Smell becomes color becomes sound–a loud and vital awakening to the obvious!

2. A rigorous attention to the placement of the obvious as a “just so” upon the page. Well, the first line of every tercet is the longest, the second the next longest, and the last the shortest. This does not vary. It is a formal law peculiar to the poem. In addition, there is no real sentence or punctuation in the poem, yet its clarity cannot be questioned. This shape is played off against what is a sentence fragment–no sentence at all. The lack of punctuation is not sloppiness on Williams’ part here, but a vital aesthetic aid to the synasthesia and sense confusion of the poem. Everything, including the grammatical ambiguity of this poem is intentional–especially “that.” If the poem ended at “that” we would think “that” referred to the burst of Iris, but the stanzaic break adds odor at the beginning of the next stanza. Many free verse poets do stanzaic enjambment but it is too often done for neatness and symmetry rather than organic form’s sake. Williams bleeds the sense of the previous stanza into the next, but each stanza is truly its own organic moment within the body of the poem. This is true form.

3. Contact with the thing and the enactment of that contact with a thing as a thing in its own right. The whole of the poem is the contact with Iris, in all its sensual glory, as well as a mixing of the senses in an ecstatic apprehension of the flower. The poem proceeds and becomes its own thing by way of making contact with the Iris–with the artist’s apprehension of Iris. The word Iris functions then as a sort of conjunction between the thing called Iris and the poem called Iris–the thing made out of words.

Williams says what is before us–at this moment, and at this odd hour–is enough to make a vital poem, “by defective means.” And if we surrender ourselves to his intentions, we will discover a poet as deliberate in his art, and as eager to master it as any other great poet of the 20th century.

This morning, after waking up earlier than usual and drinking the gas station coffee that my husband bought for me (I love gas station coffee), I settled into the enormous chair at my desk in front of my computer.  Suddenly, I had no idea what I meant to do.  It occurred to me that if a poet or writer is to develop discipline, he or she must have some sense of assignment.  And so bereft of direction or purpose, I called downstairs to my husband and asked him to provide me with an assignment.  He said, “Write an essay on Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight,’ and enter the poem in a new way.”  It sounded interesting to me, but ultimately too huge of a project to suddenly launch into at 6:30 in the morning.

The truth is that as writers and poets, we all discover what it is that we want to write about by what presents itself to us as a deviation from an assignment, or a method of getting around an assignment in order to actually fulfill the assignment.  I needed my husband to provide me with an assignment, not because I wanted the confinement of specificity or structure, but because I needed the inspiration to begin from somewhere, even if where I began was completely unrelated to the assignment.  From where does a poem arise?  I think for each of us, our poems are born by way of our own mysterious processes.  And yet when we attempt to intentionally enter into mystery, we often don’t know where to begin, nor do we even understand the mystery.

When I am without a formal assignment or prompt, it’s like attempting to trespass on something where there is no territory to trespass.  I’ll stare out the window at the evergreen tree in our backyard and hope that the first line will somehow be infiltrated into my consciousness simply by sitting still.  This is a peculiar device which is contingent upon the premise of “waiting for something to happen.”  I’ll watch the sun spread itself on the snow, and then slip again into the shadows.  Once in awhile, our neighbor will wander through the backyard with her dog.  Yesterday, I heard two rifle shots.  And then sometimes there are divine moments when a flock of geese will fly over the river and honk out a cacophonous sound.

But sometimes, nothing happens.  I bite at my cuticles and wallow about being blocked for the rest of my life.  So here’s a trick: I’ll pick up somebody’s book of poems and read something they’ve written.  I’ll find two compelling words, or perhaps just one.  And then I’ll begin the poem with those one or two words and see if it inspires me.  After all, words implicate ideas, and if you begin sorting through all the words that pass through your mind, you’re bound to eventually come up with a phrase.  Once you have a phrase, the trick is in contextualizing it into story, concept and form.  But the other trick is, it’s probably not a good idea to write poems deliberately.  Some of the best lines and images are often not deliberate.  We arrive at them completely by accident, and that it what makes them resonant, entertaining, and unique.

Even mechanisms like enjambment and rhyme are better when they aren’t deliberate.  Once I wrote a poem all in slant rhyme and wasn’t even conscious that I was doing it.  The fantastic thing about having a husband who is both a poet and a critic is that after he reads a poem that I wrote, he exposes it as conceptually complex, as if I had determined the concept before I began to write it.  He has an uncanny knack for seeing the poet’s intentions even as the poet is unaware of them.  He sees the consciousness of the poem. I am never conscious of the poem’s concept until someone has the insight to see it as a whole and complete entity, operating in terms of oppositions, disparities, and reconciliations.  This is why I think it is the poet’s advantage not to outline or premeditate a concept before the poem actually conceptualizes itself.

So what is my assignment this morning? Oh, right “Frost at Midnight.”  So the first line (which is one of my favorites in the annals of all poetry) “The frost performs its secret ministry,/Unhelped by any wind” is Coleridge’s very perspicacious manner of identifying something in nature and personifying it so that it retains its ethereality. The irony is that the very idea of something “performing” almost implies that there would be something auditory involved—something perhaps loud and showy, and yet the frost performs in silence.  In fact, as the whole poem is somewhat of a performance of nature, all of this is performed without sound, except in two places.  First, “the film that fluttered on the grate,” (“the sole unquiet thing”).  What Coleridge achieves by emphasizing the only thing in this performance which makes any sound is the reinforcing of just how quiet everything else is.  The second place in the poem which references noise is only in the memory of the church tower, “Whose bells [are] the poor man’s only music.”  What this does is juxtapose the quiet of the present with the memory of a great influx of music, thus also reinforcing the calm and soundless moments of the poem.  The last line of the poem, “Quietly shining to the quiet moon” allows us to actually “hear” the quiet moon shining, along with contrast of the fading echo of those church bells and the almost indecipherable fluttering of film on the grate.

So, was Coleridge thinking consciously that he would juxtapose quiet with sound in order to reinforce these mysterious performances of nature?  I doubt it.  A poet never writes a poem with the intention of predetermining how any given reader will interpret it.  A poet should never say, “this is how my poem should be interpreted.”  The poem is simply an extension of the poet’s arbitrariness, and often, if the poem is good, it doesn’t even make sense to the poet.  After that, it is up for grabs and out of the poet’s hands.  No one will ever know what the poet was thinking.  But, they can conjecture and twist it into the meaning which suits the poem as a whole, whether by imposition or simply innocuous speculation.

The way I would harness this poem as inspiration for my own poem would not be to say, “I think I’ll write a poem about the way nature performs,” or “I want to juxtapose quietness and sound.”

I would take the word “ministry” and the idea of the slumbering infant, ascribe it to a present situation and begin like this:

For the time being, we will exist in separate rooms
lest we should be inattentive to the literature.
The hidden ministries of our holy languages
spin their separate webs–
allow our imaginary child to sleep without babble or fuss–
allow the morning to call itself into its order.

There is no trumpeting or wail–
no storm or fallen branch–
no love that desires itself more
than the awareness
that I can hear you drop a coin by accident
in the other room.

So for now, I think I have more or less completed a part of my husband’s assignment, and that assignment has provided me with a sense of orientation. And it was exactly that orientation I needed in order to disorient myself.  And yet, by way of that disorientation, I still managed to address the Coleridge poem.

Since I began writing this, not a thing has occurred in the backyard, except that the sun slipped into a winter shadow.  But I did hear my husband’s coin drop.  I don’t know what that really means in the context of the poem, and yet I have a vague idea that it means I can be assured with the certainty that he is there.  I didn’t say that explicitly in the poem because I was hoping that this might be implied.  But the poem is out of my hands now.  It spoke for an occasion, and the occasion has been documented.  So now I must wait for the next occasion.  After I make my husband breakfast.  :-)