Remorse for Intemperate Speech

I ranted to the knave and fool,
I acted the obscenest tool,
To transform the polls.
Fit audience I found, but Clinton rules
The voter rolls.

I sought my betters: though in each
Fine manners, liberal speech,
Turn hatred into sport.
Nothing said or done can reach
My sadistic heart.

From a penthouse have I come.
Great pride, great rooms,
Maimed me at the start.
I carry to my bronzéd tomb
A sadistic heart.

The Darkling Campaign

La Bedlam Sans Merci

“Doth Roger Ailes avail thee, Donald Trump,
Alone and madly floundering?
Your edge has withered in the race,
And no birds sing.

Yet – Roger Ailes? Art thou that
Haggard and that woe-begone?
This pig’s ignominy is full,
And the damage done.

I see a fox cub on thy brow,
Its orange fades and lies askew;
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.”


“I face a lady in debate,
Full competent in policy
Her hair is blond, her foot is light,
And she will wipe the floor with me.

I have been lullèd all asleep,
I have been dreaming — woe betide!—
And now I must ascend the stage
By cold Hill’s side.

My campaign staff it spoke to me
With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
By cold Hill’s side.

Thus desperately I turn to Ailes,
Thus sad and madly floundering,
Though the edge is withered from the race,
And no birds sing.”

The Constancy of Cruelty

Of all the denunciations of Donald Trump, UD finds most eloquent Senator Susan Collins’ set of reflections on his cruelty.

UD likes in particular one phrase Collins uses — his constant stream of cruel comments — because it is rather poetic and also quite simple. It assumes – correctly – that Collins does not need to define cruelty; it takes for granted the fact that all of us recognize cruelty when it occurs – in speech, in action – because we are all vulnerable human beings who have ourselves, in the course of our lives, suffered cruelty. We know intimately, deeply, historically, how it feels to be the object of someone else’s cruelty. That feeling never goes away.

(We have all inflicted cruelty too, and, if we are decent people, our recognition of our capacity to be cruel in the way of Donald Trump provokes things like shame, apology, and reflection on why we behaved that way.)

There is indeed something obscenely, intimately knowing in the way Trump stimulates Americans – even feeds them – with his cruelty, and makes his cruelty theirs. Commentators talk about the “nihilism” of Trump’s tea party followers, but don’t people really mean their cruelty? Trump leads them into a thrillingly disinhibited realm of communal disgust, horror, and violence – SHOOT THE BITCH – and the reason people attach “nihilism” to this is that, when you actually examine it, there’s nothing there. Nothing political. (This explains why his followers don’t mind that Trump also is a political black hole.) What’s there is inchoate inner rage, exteriorized into pleasurable cruelty by a charismatic sadist. (Pleasurable vindictive cruelty, as when Eliza Doolittle, having hurt Henry Higgins very badly, says triumphantly Ive got a little of my own back, anyhow.)


In his poem, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other,” William E. Stafford notices how easy it is for human beings to give up the struggle to understand one another:

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the
and following the wrong god home we may miss
our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break …

That nihilistic shrug says I’ve tried to understand you – really understand you – but it’s too difficult or threatening or something so I’m going to betray you and my better self by letting the fragile human intercourse between us, our tentative conversations in the direction of mutual comprehension, break. I’m going to retreat to “a pattern that others made,” to regress to whatever my parochial upbringing might have been in regard to people outside my circle.

Cruelty, the root of cruelty, says the poet, is willful blindness to the vulnerability and complexity of the human beings around you. It’s the decision to shrug off the moral imperative to be careful what you do and say with vulnerable and complex people:

… I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the

This makes me think of Trump’s “Second Amendment people’ dog whistle the other day, his knowing what was occurring but deciding not to “recognize” it as it got transmitted to a fragile and complicated social world. He shrugged and “fooled” people rather than considering the darkness into which, with his careless words, he led them.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to
the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

Yeatsian Trump

The Don

We would be ignorant as The Don
That has looked down
And called us old and ugly clowns
Fat short grotesque buffoons
We love the withered man who saw
Past our pathetic ruse
And recognized our love of self-abuse
The girls freak out when The Don comes
And calls them animals and scum
We would be ignorant as The Don
Who upright stood loosing a gob of spit upon
Our raised expectant faces
We would be — for no knowledge is worth a straw —
Ignorant and wanton as The Don

English Professors for Kaine

[Senator Tim] Kaine quotes W.B. Yeats a lot … most recently when talking about the Syrian refugee crisis where he pleaded that ISIS was the enemy not the refugees.

… “Yeats wrote [The Second Coming] after World War I, surveying the wreckage … [A]nd he expressed a real concern about the state of society at the time because what he noticed was … ‘the best lack all conviction and the worst are filled with passionate intensity.'”

Haiku. (Trumper Warning)

We haven’t seen a
personality like his.
Privileged bully.


Mark Kirk, Senator, Illinois.

Geoffrey Hill, A Poet, Has Died.

I discovered him via his memorial poem addressed to Gillian Rose, one of UD’s heroines. Hill uses her early death, her complex and botched love life, and her lifelong commitment to justice as idea and act, as a way into a restatement of his own “bleak ontology,” his lengthy depressive struggle to love a broken world and the souls that inhabit it. The long poem’s first stanza introduces you to its themes and its emotional attitude:

I have a question to ask for the form’s sake:
how that small happy boy in the seaside
photographs became the unstable man,
hobbyist of his own rage, engrafting it
on a stock of compliance, of hurt women.
You do not need to answer the question
or challenge imposture.
Whatever the protocol I should still construe.

One of the greatest challenges is to love one’s own particular soul, to figure out (but you can’t figure it out; you ask only “for the form’s sake” — not to mention that you’re asking someone not in a position to answer) your fallenness from primal joy in a fully satisfying natural world all the way down to obscure shaky neurotic rage in a world of hurt. The poet anticipates Rose telling him he’s full of shit, he’s posing the question in the wrong way (“challenge imposture”), but however she might take his opening gambit here, he intends to continue (“I should still construe.”).

There is a kind of sanity that hates weddings
but bears an intelligence of grief
in its own kind. There are achievements
that carry failure on their back, blindness
not as in Brueghel, but unfathomably

Here Hill sketches Rose’s particular sensibility, her radical rejection of traditional, constraining rituals like weddings, yet her higher “weddedness” to humanity via her compassionate understanding of our weakness and pathos. All ontologizing is bleak (“grief,” “failure,” “blindness”), but humanity’s highest seers have the capacity to carry this comprehensive failure on their backs and achieve remarkable degrees of lucidity.

You asked not to be
cheated of old age. No kidding, it is an
unlovely parley, although you
could have subdued it and set it to work,
met it without embracing. Edna
with her prosthetic jaw and nose
prevails over these exchanges.

In her last book, written as she was close to death, Rose featured brief sketches of acquaintances who had managed to survive into old age even with profound impairments. Edna was one of these — a very old woman whose face had been disfigured by disease but who still sought out a life of passion and intensity. The poet acknowledges that if Rose had been more lucky, if she had not gotten a fatal cancer in her forties, she would have found a similar way to make “unlovely” old age work for her.

Your anger against me might have been wrath
concerning the just city. Or poetry’s
assumption of rule. Or its rôle
as wicked governor. This abdication
of self-censure indeed hauls it
within your long range of contempt,

unlike metaphysics which you had time for,
re-wedded to the city, a salutation
to Pallas, goddess of all polemics,
to Phocion’s wife — who shall be nameless —
in Poussin’s painting, gathering the disgraced
ashes of her husband. As you rightly said,
not some mere infinite love, a finite act
of political justice.

Here Hill touches on the perennial poetry/philosophy tussle. It was metaphysics, Rose believed, that brought us to the clarity and courage that prompts actual real-world acts of political justice, while poetry could ventilate all it liked about “some mere infinite love,” but was always secondary to the world of polemic. She would see Hill as a complacent poet, someone who assumed the “rule” of poetry over philosophy, and she would find his attitude infuriating.

If there is a healing of broken love it is not
as dyslexia’s broken, learning to read signs.
In broken love you read the signs too late
although they are met with everywhere

Yes. See Gore Vidal on Edmund Wilson’s response to his young wife’s sudden death: ‘[T]he inevitable epitaph: “After she was dead, I loved her.” That is the story of every life — and death.’

So it continues,
the work, lurching on broken springs
or having to be dug out or jump-started
or welded together out of two wrecks
or donated to a good cause, like to the homeless

in the city that is not just, has never
known justice, except sporadically

Love’s Work was the title of Rose’s final memoir, and though I don’t recall her using Hill’s jalopy metaphor, she described an authentic life as a persistent messy headlong agon in the direction of unachievable justice, with the whiny retro business at the opening of Hill’s poem an unforgivable waste of time.

The odds are heavy-set against us all
though medics call the chances symbiosis
in their brusque insolent manner that denies
self-knowledge as the sufferer

Justice is ever in abeyance; and as for our own individual fate – the odds are heavy-set against us. When she was hit with her illness, one of Rose’s doctors told her, “You are living in symbiosis with the disease.” And Hill alludes to this comment in these lines, chiding medicine for trying to deny her her agon, her condition of higher understanding deriving precisely from lucid suffering, from a sense, if you like, of the “unjustness” of her fate.

Poetry’s its own agon that allows us
to recognize devastation as the rift
between power and powerlessness. But when I
say poetry I mean something impossible
to be described, except by adding lines
to lines that are sufficient as themselves.

Hill concludes with a pitch for his art as itself a powerful agon in its lyric measuring of our vulnerability. Yet unlike Rose’s lucid metaphysics (she attacked those she considered obscurantists, like Jacques Derrida), poetry can only enact itself endlessly, can only mysteriously elaborate itself. Like a coastal shelf.


[Trumper Warning]

Sunset and racist star,
And one last tweet for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too yuge for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the GOP
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho’ from out the bourne of our white race
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my God’s caucasian face
When I have crost the bar.

It just came to me.

The poet at Donald Trump’s inauguration will be Frederick Seidel.

A.V. Christie, a poet who died last month at age 53…

… wrote dreamy enigmatic poetry, “elliptical” poetry a fellow poet called it. A steady eye for nature and a sense of poetic and thematic history kept her work from untethered surreality, as in this poem:


I was conceived in the cruelest month
in whatever spring California could muster.
A little rain — with some more likely.
And the buckeyes were they yet on the ground?
Damn my father’s smooth stone eyes,
other prevailing enticements and what Eliot called
the female stench. Damn the oaks,
their histrionics, struggling in the fog.
Spiderwebs lay in the grass, misted
and looking like misspent galaxies.
I cry into and out of this moment.
Pound told Eliot: strike this and this.
What was weak got dropped, and the poem
stood stronger without it.


You see what she does in this brief lyric, which amounts to a brief for brief lyrics. She begins and ends with T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, a long poem but not too long, since Ezra Pound edited away “what was weak” in it. So this is first of all let’s say a comment on Christie’s own poetic philosophy, in which your slender lyric results from a “strengthening” process of winnowing down to what really matters, to only those images and observations that really carry substance.

This sounds quite positive, poetically and existentially – the strong poem emerges from principled and strategic winnowing, and the strong self emerges from a similar process of self-definition that takes place after one’s birth into undifferentiated being.

Yet the body of the poem – a series of reflections on her conception, and on her attitude toward having been given life – is darker. California’s spring is cruel because it is arid, not rainy; she herself represents, by implication, merely what her parents could “muster.” The early-blooming buckeye tree had maybe, at the time of her conception, already dropped its toxic beautiful fruit, a fruit compared to her father’s seductive toxic eyes (Damn my father’s smooth stone eyes), enticing her mother into sex. Her mother’s “female stench” – a phrase Pound successfully persuaded Eliot to drop from his poem – in turn enticed her father.

(And why was Pound against female stench? Because the entire passage of which it was a part was unsuccessfully derivative of Alexander Pope. Again the idea that poetically or existentially the imperative is to go forward – note the punning title of Christie’s poem – as a radically self-fashioned being.)

So damn him and damn her, mindlessly conceiving the poet; damn the two of them, their erotic “histrionics,” their “struggling in the fog.” Damn the death already implicit in his stone eyes and in her stench.

Stephen Dedalus, imagining his own conception, perceives the same mordant morbid fogbound struggle:

Wombed in sin darkness I was … made not begotten. By them, the man with my voice and my eyes and a ghostwoman with ashes on her breath. They clasped and sundered, did the coupler’s will.

And now the poet’s parents lie back, post-coital, still entwined, their world-projection misspent:

Spiderwebs lay in the grass, misted
and looking like misspent galaxies.
I cry into and out of this moment.

On the simplest level, the poet will ultimately cry forth from the womb out of this moment. But she is also damning the moment, crying into it, feeling herself to be, let’s say, the “misspent” product of a damnable coupling.

Pound told Eliot: strike this and this.
What was weak got dropped, and the poem
stood stronger without it.

These lines now have an uglier, better never to have been born, spin: The poet herself might well have been edited out by a “better craftsman” of the sort Pound represented.

In this reading, the brief lyric she has written amounts to an argument for, a reflection of, a brief or maybe even nonexistent life. This is Eliot’s Waste Land of rapes and abortions, stripped even of what Richard Ellmann calls the poem’s “neo-Christian hope.”

If you’re lucky enough to be in Washington during this incredible spring weather…

… come to UD‘s final lecture in her series of lectures on poetry at the Georgetown Public Library tomorrow at 2:00.

The library is steps from the cafes of Georgetown, and steps from the gardens of Dumbarton Oaks. With all of that, you could put together a really nice Saturday afternoon.

Here’s the second in my three-part series of lectures on poetry…

… given at the Georgetown Public Library. Another good turn-out today, with a terrific post-lecture discussion.


Lecture Two: Stirring dull roots with spring rain: Poetry as Life Itself April 9, 2:00 to 4:00 p.m.


Rather than begin with a summary of last Saturday’s talk, I’ll be referring to it throughout this one, reminding you of continuities if you were here last week, and laying out those continuities I hope sufficiently clearly for those of you who weren’t.

It’s April, and the world wants us to be happy.

The sun is out in a particularly thrilling way (at least it has been) – it emerges from the dark, from the overcast of rain showers. Cherry trees are animated by the wind; the world wants us to feel and see its aliveness. The morning bird chorus is like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Even the weird weather – full-on spring, then snow, then a wind storm, then spring again – is part of the thrill. Gaia – the earth as living organism – wants us to feel and hear and celebrate its aliveness – and our aliveness, as part of the living organism that is the planet. And here I’ll remind you of the quotation from the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips around which my first lecture revolved: “Everybody is dealing with how much of their own aliveness they can bear, and how much they need to anesthetize themselves.” The provocation toward aliveness is arguably most acutely felt in excitingly transitional April. October is wistfully transitional; April is excitingly transitional. Things are blooming back to life, not flaming out toward death.

I mean, that’s one way – a pagan way if you like – to put it, to put the way we and generations of poets seem to feel about the spring. Poets after all are people who put our emotional and intellectual intuitions about this season on paper. Poets duly note the feelings coursing through them as the winds exhilarate them and long drifts of tulips thrill them.

A Christian poet like Gerard Manley Hopkins (by the way, we’ll look at his most famous poem next Saturday, for my final lecture in this series) will see all of this as animated not by Gaia but by God, a God to whom we can pray and even with whom, as Hopkins says in one of his poems, we can “contend.” His poem, which I’ve distributed, called “Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend,” is an extended complaint about the disparity between the poet’s inner lack of aliveness and happiness and generativity, and the patent aliveness and happiness and generativity of the world in spring. Why should I be dead and the world alive? Everything in the world is blessed by God with vitality and delight and creativeness – everything except me.

… banks and brakes
Now, leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; birds build – but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.

It’s the same deal we discussed last week in regard to the famous opening lines of TSE’s The Waste Land – winter kept us – the dead – warm; spring now hurts us with sharp reminders of our spiritual deadness relative to a living world.

Here’s a DH Lawrence poem that makes the same move, first marveling at the spring and then concluding

And I, what fountain of fire am I among
This leaping combustion of spring? My spirit is tossed
About like a shadow buffeted in the throng
Of flames, a shadow that’s gone astray, and is lost.

Indeed there are plenty of poems that contend with spring, that actually hate the spring because it brings the “lie” of life, the myth of repleteness and generativity. Edna St Vincent Millay ends her poem “Spring” in the following way:

Life in itself
Is nothing,
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.

It is not merely that we may feel internally inert; we may have a metaphysical appraisal in play about life as nothing. We may be nihilistic, or we may have strong nihilistic tendencies. “It is not enough”; Millay wants more – and it is our too-much desire – our unsatisfiable desire always for more, for a spring and for a world and indeed for a poem that will not be nothing, that will not, after its invigorating language rouses us to something, that will not remind us with a crash that life in itself may be nothing, and any particular poem is in this all-deflating context in itself no big deal. We desire a poem that does not make us turn away in disappointment from beautiful things like the spring and like poems.

Another poet, Kim Addonizio, in “Onset,” ends her poem of spring-dread (and note that title – “onset” – like a disease) by saying

it’s spring
and it’s starting again, the longing that begins, and begins, and begins.

And never gets anywhere – a painful perpetual advent of desire, prompted by spring. Desire, Freud wrote, is always in excess; and desire in the context of spring, or in the act of reading a gorgeous vivid poem, is uncontrollably prompted to be excessive.

Or let me give you a musical example, an argument about something rather brilliant that Beethoven does in some of his late works according to Dmitri Tymockzo. Recognizing our “excessive” desires and the impossibility of any musical work fully satisfying them, the composer incorporates the idea of excess, of the impossible to reach musical apotheosis inside certain works.

One might say that Beethoven’s musical “idea”–that is, the thematic material, as originally presented in [one of his] Sonata’s exposition–is in conflict with the limitations of his instrument, as represented by the high D in the soprano voice. The music “wants” to reach a high B-flat, but it gets “stuck” on the lower note. Such conflicts between musical “ideas” and the exigencies of actual performance are typical of Beethoven’s music. Especially in his late pieces, Beethoven frequently wrote music that was difficult, if not impossible, to play: for example, the very high vocal passages in the Missa Solemnis and Ninth Symphony, or certain near-impossible leaps in the Hammerklavier Sonata, op. 106. In these passages, the musical score seems to be in conflict with the human beings who are trying to perform it.

What is unusual, even unique, about the Tempest is the way the music seems to portray its own limitations. Instead of a conflict between the music and its performers, or between the desire of the composer and the abilities of the players, the Tempest is a piece of music that is in conflict with itself… the drama of the passage is the way it symbolizes both desire–in the form of the chromatically ascending chords–and limitation, as represented by the fixed upper note. It is as if Beethoven were suggesting that, while no amount of effort on his part would enable him to leap beyond the limits of his piano, his music demands that he try–as if the world of sticks and wires, the ordinary physical realm in which pianos exist, cannot be reconciled with the world of Beethoven’s aspiration. Needless to say, this coupling of an exhortation to transcendence (here heard as an inexorable chromatic chordal ascent) with a warning about the impossibility of success (the stubborn pedal point at the top of the piano) recalls Kant’s conception of sublimity. Like the Temple of Isis, the music seems to question its own adequacy, giving with one hand what it takes away with the other.

Much poetry as well, let us say, folds its knowledge of our impossible desire and the reality of its own inadequacy into its mode of expression. That’s another reason people hate it. Recall that I began my first lecture in this series with the following quotation from the film The Big Short:

“Truth is like poetry. And most people fucking hate poetry.”

The critic Ben Lerner suggests a related reason why people hate poetry:

There are varieties of interpenetrating demands subsumed under the word ‘poetry’ – to defeat time, to still it beautifully; to express irreducible individuality in a way that can be recognised socially or, like Whitman, to achieve universality by being irreducibly social, less a person than a national technology; to propound a measure of value beyond money, to defeat the language and value of existing society etc – but one thing all these demands share is that they can’t ever be fulfilled with poems. Hating on actual poems, then, is often an ironic if sometimes unwitting way of expressing the persistence of the demand of Poetry, and the jeremiads in that regard are defences, too, protecting the urgency and purity of the poetic impulse … Poets are liars not because, as Socrates said, they can fool us with the power of their imitations, but because identifying yourself as a poet implies you might overcome the bitter logic of the poetic principle, and you can’t. You can only compose poems that, when read with perfect contempt, clear a place for the genuine Poem that never appears.

Don DeLillo, in his novel Point Omega, says something similar in a more gentle way:

“The true life is not reducible to words spoken or written, not by anyone, ever.” Poetry simply cannot encompass what our excessive desire – here, for the truth – desperately wants it to encompass. And when poetry does try to convey a truth – the truth that perhaps life is nothing, or, as John Updike wrote in a poem composed on his deathbed:

For life’s a shabby subterfuge,
And death is real, and dark, and huge.
The shock of it will register
Nowhere but where it will occur.

when poetry tells us stuff like this – we hate it.

We perhaps mind a little less philosophers pulling the rug out from under us. It’s an intellectual point, rather than an emotionally felt and beautifully – persuasively – rendered truth, when the philosopher Thomas Nagel writes:

[There is an inevitable collision] between the seriousness with which we take our lives and the perpetual possibility of regarding everything about which we are serious as arbitrary, or open to doubt.

This might be the point in my talk to remind you that April is National Poetry Month. For this universal doubt may extend to a certain sort of faith we have may in poetry itself.

While not a government initiative, NPM is celebrated by federal as well as private institutions – and the orientation of NPM activity is of course celebration. Yay, poetry! Yet the poet Richard Howard calls NPM “the worst thing that’s happened to poetry since the advent of the camera and the internal combustion engine,” while his fellow poet, August Kleinzahler asserts that – contrary to the NPM ethos – “Multivitamins are good for you. Exercise, fresh air, and sex are good for you. Fruit and vegetables are good for you. Poetry is not.” The complex and often dark interiority that serious poetry expresses has no place, these poets argue, in the typically affirmative, very public, and, they believe, inevitably trivializing NPM setting. Kleinzahler worries that the difficult and even hateful truth, if you will, that significant poetry so often conveys, is at odds not just with the ethos of NPM but with the folksy upbeat popular presentation of poetry that we get from national figures like Garrison Keillor of Prairie Home Companion.

There is also a UN-sponsored World Poetry Day (March 21), by the way, which is even more celebratory. If you go to the UNESCO WPD site, you read this:

Poetry reaffirms our common humanity by revealing to us that individuals, everywhere in the world, share the same questions and feelings.

I wouldn’t call this a revelation; I’d call it a platitude.

So is that the poetic choice for us as readers? Platitudes we hate or truths we hate?

One way to answer this question is to consider whether our experience or intuition of a certain arbitrariness or even nothingness underlying our existence has to be bitter or disappointing as we meet it poetically. Do we have to go again and again to the poet and hate her because she rouses a desire that there be something and then suggests that there may be nothing? Could it be the opposite – could poetry be one important place where we go to feel, grapple with, explore, play out, the problem of the arbitrary?

The poet John Ashbery indeed argues for a different approach to all of this; in talking about his love of Rothko and Pollack paintings, he asks:

Does their work amount to anything? There’s a possibility that it doesn’t, although I believe in it and want it to exist.

Ashbery goes on to call avant-garde art in general “reckless,” and he notes that

Most reckless things are beautiful in some way, and recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibilities that they are founded on nothing.

In other words, the possibility that life and the various – call them convictions of substance – that we bring to it are founded on nothing – that all of this is a shabby subterfuge, or a shell game, or a big short – means that positing something — faith in God, faith in beauty, faith in humanity, faith in poetry — can be seen as a kind of beautiful and bracing recklessness, a heady, blithe, risky, radical assumption of freedom. Art is one of the major places this free play plays out. Thus Ashbery invites us to enjoy the substance – the stuff that we as human beings make come into existence – even if it has or is very likely to have no substance. He invites us to expect the artist’s positing of this sort to be done in a tentative playful vague messy not quite there way – Pollack, Rothko, or take another great 20th century painter, Cy Twombly. Or take the greatest modern writer of fiction in English – James Joyce. The critic Hugh Kenner says of Joyce that he wants to capture in his prose “the haphazardly evidential quality of life.” We’re not arriving at firm conclusions; we’re gathering and narrating and witnessing the suggestive (evidential) but pretty random flow of experience. Ashbery thus invites us to expect precisely the sort of poetry he and his friend James Schuyler write – sketchy, associative, slangy, inconclusive. So let’s look at our Schuyler poem, the absurdly long Hymn to Life.


Maybe idiot babbling and flower-strewing of the sort Edna St Vincent Millay complains about at the end of her spring poem is the best a poet who doesn’t want to disappoint us – or to simply register her disappointment – can do. Maybe what our best poets can offer on the spring – on life as a felt bubbling up within us of desire, of longing – is a sort of organized babbling, if that makes any sense.

Hymn to Life – our central spring poem here – can feel like babbling – rather than the song of praise that the word “hymn” prepares us for – and this is for a number of reasons. It goes on and on and on. Its pace never changes – it’s all a collection of neat, complete non-metrical sentences – very few exciting dashes, no mysterious ellipses. No rhyme, no really beautiful or new language. No drama here. It offers no clear symbolism or indeed recurrently meaningful figurative language of any kind. It seems without structure – its words don’t gather up into some moment of truth, epiphany, climax, revelation, acceptance, wisdom. The poetic persona is quite flat – no ecstatic Wordsworth or neurotic Sylvia Plath here, just a pleasant ordinary guy calmly woolgathering. Its lines are long and conversational and rather meandering. Some of its language is strikingly, well, platitudinous – its register often dips into dippy. Dippy or obvious or obviously inadequate or vague.

If it has a discernible form, this poem is a kind of back and forth between objective immediate descriptions of things the poet sees around him as he writes – daily ordinary stuff like trucks delivering goods and dandelions coming up – and what I’d call weak existential questions. The poet doesn’t pretend to be a philosopher or to have anything new to bring to our basic inquiries having to do with being, with knowledge, and with the passage of time. Rather, he seems to want to record faithfully the way these unsettling and pretty much unanswerable questions emerge randomly, and again rather weakly, out of the ordinary moments of our lives. Those of you who know Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway might think here of Peter Walsh slowly falling asleep on a park bench while Woolf’s prose follows his faltering stream of consciousness which, like Schuyler’s, turns out to be a combination of quotidian immediate observation and the sudden odd unanswerable existential inquiry.
In short, Schuyler seems to be trying to embed our accurately rendered mental experience in its present-time natural setting; he wants to show how our questions emerge – in real time – out of our experiences. We are not monks retreating to a hermitage in order to prompt meditation; nor are we like monks in already having a transcendent belief framework within which to experience existential questions. So the tension, for instance, between Gerard Manley Hopkins and God that we saw in the poem of his that we looked at earlier – that sort of poetic drama – just isn’t there. Which means that among the risks Schuyler takes in writing a poem of this sort is simply boring you. I’ll be interested, in the discussion after my talk, in finding out how many of you were able to read this poem all the way through.

So here’s its beginning – obviously we’ll only be able to jump about in this poem by way of analysis.

The wind rests its cheek upon the ground and feels the cool damp
And lifts its head with twigs and small dead blades of grass
Pressed into it as you might at the beach rise up and brush away
The sand.

An awkward first sentence, no? A bunch of simple clauses strung together with the word AND. He begins by personifying the wind, which, catching up in its energy twigs and grass, is like a person whose cheek grazes a surface and picks up things from that surface. It’s a strange, strained equivalence – the head of a person, the movement of the wind. And the likeness becomes even more strained when he compares the wind to a very precise human movement – getting up from the beach and brushing sand away from your skin. There’s a kind of defiant silliness to this comparison, made even sillier by the next line.

The day is cool and says, “I’m just staying overnight.”

The day, like a terse house-guest, assures us that the coolness of its air will soon be replaced by something warmer… These lines seem virtual satires of what traditional poets do as they hunt out appropriate metaphors and personify the world around them. (In terms of wind, for instance, think of Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind.”) Schuyler has just taken them a bit too far – his comparison is overwrought and his personification is childishly extreme. Mr Day says I’m just staying overnight. Something from a children’s book.

Yet one of the things I think Schuyler’s trying to convey throughout this poem is the hopelessly and wonderfully human world in which we live. We can’t help humanizing everything; it’s not really childish, it’s just the way we are. We constantly project our attributes onto inanimate objects (the melancholy moon), and here the poet is simply being playful with that impulse by way of making us aware of it – by way of making us see how we actually think. Back to the poem.

The world is filled with music, and in between the music, silence
And varying the silence all sorts of sounds, natural and man made:
There goes a plane, some cars, geese that honk and, not here, but
Not so far away, a scream so rending that to hear it is to be
Never again the same. “Why, this is hell.”

Note the lack of sense (between the music?), the again rather childishly awkward and simplistic formulations (geese – that – honk), and the absurdly abrupt shift of mood – from pleasantries about our musical world to the fact of hearing a hideous (human?) scream. It must be a human scream, because we suddenly get a quotation from Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus: Mephistopheles saying that yes, he is in hell, stuck in hell. So in a few lines we have jumped from pleasant naive nature imagery to the darkest evil. Yet nothing is being brought to this strange jumble by way of a sensibility – and think of last week’s poem, The Waste Land — all of its strange juxtapositions and literary quotations there are made coherent, from the poem’s title onward, by the depressive, cynical, disgusted, and at times elegiac mood of the speaker.. But here is a poem that announces itself as a song of praise to life and in the first few lines we have the statement that we are in hell.
The lines that follow these make clear that the speaker is – among other things – remembering a childhood in Washington DC, and he’s in particular remembering April here, which means cherry blossoms and other iconic spring settings. Let’s continue with another section of the poem.

Will begin another spring. No one gets many, one at a time, like a long
Awaited letter that one day comes. But it may not say what you hoped
Or distraction robs it of what it once would have meant. Spring comes
And the winter weather, here, may hold. It is arbitrary, like the plan
Of Washington, D.C. Avenues and circles in asphalt web and no
One gets younger: which is not, for the young, true, discovering new
Freedoms at twenty, a relief not to be a teen-ager anymore.

The feel of this – and the feel of the whole poem – is laconic, mildly contemplative, with language that gestures toward the possibility of higher and clearer perceptions of things but never quite gets there. Again, this is a mind in the present-time process of thinking about things and describing things: we can’t expect non-sketchy, fully formed thoughts and arguments. Further, given what I’ve so far suggested, we shouldn’t be surprised to encounter the word arbitrary early on. Spring may well fail to satisfy our expectations of it, either romantic or weather-related, and we should accept that failure and the larger arbitrariness of reality in which it occurs – as we ourselves right here accept today that snow of all things was in today’s forecast.

The final lines of this excerpt point again to the loose free associational movement of this poem – how can he go from our city’s circles in asphalt to no one getting any younger (a platitude), after which he says – paradoxically – that actually one can get younger in the sense that the transition from teenage years to one’s twenties tends to be one of greater freedoms (i.e., you feel younger). These are the squirrelings of a real mind in real time. And a mind dealing throughout the poem with time passing, with getting older – he is now, we gather, fifty, and he’s not happy about this.

The turning of the globe is not so real to us
As the seasons turning and the days that rise out of early gray
—The world is all cut-outs then—and slip or step steadily down
The slopes of our lives where the emotions and needs sprout. “I
Need you,” tree, that dominates this yard, thick-waisted, tall
And crook branched. Its bark scales off like that which we forget:
Pain, an introduction at a party, what precisely happened umpteen
Years or days or hours ago.

Pedestrian, yes, and sort of winsomely lame or lamely winsome; yet this is the mind, it is life as it is lived and this poem is a hymn to life. Life as it is. This is the recognizable human mind, thinking true and it seems to me occasionally rather insightful things. That we can be told all our lives about earth’s rotation and never “realize” this – never feel it as any kind of reality – seems intriguing and worth thinking about, as does the fact that what we can grasp tends to be what’s closest to us, like obvious seasonal changes and of course the movement of the sun across one full day. I mean, this is the theme of our smallness, our incapacity in the face of large terrestrial and large metaphysical challenges – but the feel of the poem, again, is not one of disappointment or longing or bitterness in the face of our limitations, our parochial lameness. This is a poem that shows us how it would look not to write like the embittered spring poems I quoted from in the first part of this lecture, but rather to write poetry out of the rather unevolved apprehension of a world of “cut-outs” – a very partial and simple form of world-apprehension, but perhaps a form of world-apprehension with empirical reality, and with much to recommend it.

As this excerpt proceeds, we once again get the almost-comically childish humanization of nature. “I need you,” tree, because you’re tall and solid and permanent and I’m small and insubstantial and transient. Gazing at you, I can begin to sense the history of my own growth – what has remained in place, what has scaled off – what is important, what is unimportant. Gazing at you I can strengthen my sense of both the sameness of my life and my impermanence, and maybe come to some sort of peace with these things.

Time brings us into bloom and we wait, busy, but wait
For the unforced flow of words and intercourse and sleep and dreams
In which the past seems to portend a future which is just more
Daily life.

The life that Hymn to Life is celebrating and praising is – let’s argue – the very unforced flow of its own language, the life of one human being’s forward poetic energy. This is why Michael Hofman calls this poem “a long, tangent-driven poem-fleuve.” It is a long babbling river of words, exhilaratingly (or maybe boringly) unforced. In this passage, Schuyler rightly notes that all our lives, even as we’re busy making a life, we wait for a moment, we idealize a moment, when everything will fit and flow together with ease and naturalness. We dream of a time when we’re not anxious about time, not weighed down by the business of desiring a certain future for ourselves, but instead freed to think of the passage of time as a calm “just more of the same” sort of thing. Schuyler’s poem I think wants to exemplify this perhaps better way to live – a long unforced freeing of consciousness in which we are able to perceive that we should – uh – go with the flow.

Quote from Aeschylus: I forget. All, all is forgotten gradually and
One wonders if these ideas that seem handed down are truly what they were?
An idea may mutate like a plant, and what was once held basic truth
Become an idle thought. like, “Shall we plant some periwinkles there
By that bush? They’re so to be depended on.”

Note how the movement of this excerpt is toward the more and more trivial, the more and more minute, as we “slope” down from Aeschylus to a vague invocation of “ideas” to the degradation of basic truths over time to little more than idle daily pragmatic thoughts. This is clearly a poem distrustful of ideas and great thinkers — they are to be forgotten.


To conclude: I have, in this lecture, offered you two models of spring poems, which is to say poems about the recovery of aliveness, felt seasonally and – as a personal possibility – internally. One model of poem – inaugurated for our time by Eliot’s The Waste Land, but as I hope my examples showed, succeeded – and to some extent preceded – by countless other similar poems – one model is essentially a complaint having to do with the disparity between one’s sense of one’s own meager inner sources and supplies of aliveness and the profuse aliveness of the natural world around you in spring. Lord, send my roots rain.

I don’t deny that there are other poems – some of them by Hopkins himself – which are straightforward celebrations of the advent of spring and of the sense of one’s own aliveness returning in the spring. I am arguing that the complaint mode tends to dominate in our time as we become oppressed by our sense that the sources of meaning and value that have traditionally kept human beings reasonably buoyant whatever the season are perhaps in modernity and postmodernity no longer there, whether these sources were pagan (we are part of nature and therefore as subject to its recurrences and exhilarations as nature itself; and by the way if you want a version of cutesy modern paganism, I’ve included in your handouts e e cummings’ poem, in just spring) or religious (the spring is a gift to us from God, and to be celebrated as such).
I have also suggested that a certain sort of twentieth century poem represents a rather intelligent and workable alternative to the complaint mode, and that James Schuyler’s Hymn to Life is a strong example of that kind of poem. Rather than note the spring-inspired recurrence of desire, longing, aliveness in oneself and then – recall our poetic examples – shake your fist at nature for having stirred atavistic energies within oneself that will never be allowed to run as free as the wind — or let us suggest along with Adam Phillips that you will never allow them to run free — rather than doing that, perhaps you could, like Schuyler, stop fretting that “life in itself is nothing” (quoting Millay) or contending with God for having unjustly singled you out for nothingness, and instead perhaps you could adopt the rather more fun ‘acrobatics’ of John Asbery, who, you will recall, says this:

Most reckless things are beautiful in some way, and recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibilities that they are founded on nothing.

Here we simply fly above the possible nothingness; yet more, we find beautiful our own recklessness – our artists’ recklessness – in doing that. A poem like Hymn to Life could be understood as endless flight above the abyss, with the poet’s endless words a way of staying aloft not by finding sources of support like religion and other forms of steadying, transcendent belief, but simply by maintaining verbal altitude. In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce’s hero Stephen Dedalus says that as a writer he’s going to “fly by those nets” – he’s going to soar above the nets of religion, nationality, and all the other inherited foundational beliefs that have oppressed him. But that’s a different model; in our time the nets have been folded away; they can no longer save – or entrap – you. Our artists fly above an abyss.

Asked why one writes, the critic Harold Bloom responds:

One writes to keep going, to keep oneself from going mad. One writes to be able to write the next piece of criticism or to live through the next day or two. Maybe it’s an apotropaic gesture, maybe one writes to ward off death. I’m not sure. But I think in some sense that’s what poets do. They write their poems to ward off dying.

Dying here can be understood not merely as physical death but the spiritual, affective, drying out, the personal enervation, the inability to be adequate to the life of the world, about which so many of the poets of our time write. The ongoingness we noted in Schuyler’s poem – our sense that what moves it forward is not a myth, an organization of symbols, a narrative, a sensibility, or even much of a point – turns out to be life itself, the poet’s reckless pouring out of song which is his life, his particular mode of being an individual in the world at a particular time, with a certain unresolvable set of memories, confusions, regrets, and so forth and so forth and so forth, all of which being a poet, he turns into poetry. Such a poem will end anywhere and anyhow; it will begin anywhere and anyhow; one can excerpt from it anywhere and anyhow. It is the ongoingness that life is, life understood as the sort of thing that doesn’t work over time toward great moments of insight and acceptance and reconciliation and triumph and vindication and utter collapse and whatever you’re hoping and dreading it works toward.

It’s like that great poem by Philip Larkin – arguably England’s greatest mid-twentieth century poet – called I Remember, I Remember, when he thinks back on the town in which he grew up. Here’s part of it:

Our garden, first: where I did not invent
Blinding theologies of flowers and fruits,
And wasn’t spoken to by an old hat.
And here we have that splendid family
I never ran to when I got depressed,
The boys all biceps and the girls all chest,
Their comic Ford, their farm where I could be
‘Really myself’. I’ll show you, come to that,
The bracken where I never trembling sat,
Determined to go through with it; where she
Lay back, and ‘all became a burning mist’…

No, apparently the lives of most of us don’t work that way.

But they do! I hear you protest.

Well, maybe. But how about the possibility that we project narrative neatness – rising action, climax, denouement – on lives that actually look more like Schuyler’s poem? That we secure our foundations via plot points? Let me quote again from Adam Phillips.

Analysis should do two things that are linked together. It should be about the recovery of appetite, and the need not to know yourself… Symptoms are forms of self-knowledge. When you think, I’m agoraphobic, I’m a shy person, whatever it may be, these are forms of self-knowledge. What psychoanalysis, at its best, does is cure you of your self-knowledge. And of your wish to know yourself in that coherent, narrative way. You can only recover your appetite, and appetites, if you can allow yourself to be unknown to yourself. Because the point of knowing oneself is to contain one’s anxieties about appetite. It’s only worth knowing about the things that make one’s life worth living, and whether there are in fact things that make it worth living.

If Phillips is right (and maybe he’s not, but let’s go with this), then one function of a certain sort of art – poetry, painting, music – would be to accustom us to the suspension of this baleful project of self-knowing, to pleasure us into the sort of acrobatics that would do away with whatever coherent, narrative, foundational sources of knowledge – self-knowledge, world-knowledge – are tying us down and starving us.

This is not know-nothingism. As Phillips says, the project of knowing now would become one in which we try to know not who we are in some coherent plotted sense, but “about the things that make one’s life worth living, and whether there are in fact things that make it worth living.” By “things,” I don’t think Phillips means ideologies and philosophies and shared transcendent convictions. I think he means, more or less, personal projects, activities, relationships, conversations, forms of inquiry, that you for one reason or another happen to find engrossing. This model of life might imply, as it seems to do in Schuyler’s poem, a modest, reasonably selfless, present-time orientation toward questions of value. What do I see right now as I look around me? What among the things of the world I’m looking at compels in me particular? Yet this “appetitive” model of a life, as I understand it, as Phillips evokes it, doesn’t have to be particularly moral, or at least conventionally moral — what makes your life worth living might be wasting time, or being ruthlessly ambitious. The point is that whatever you’re engrossed by you’re not hastily, impatiently, even bitterly, insisting on some larger fulfillment, some larger structure, within which the thing that engrosses you, the thing that excites your appetite has a larger payoff than things in the sort of world we now inhabit tend to have.

If I can conclude with a return to the problem with things like National Poetry Months and International Poetry Days. The objection that quite a lot of poets have with a day or a month all for them (you’d think they’d be grateful) is precisely the pre-formed, socially affirmative, morally uplifting, publicly acceptable, character of poetry under the sign of on-command-inspirational large-group events. Public poetry in our time tends to be exactly what Phillips is objecting to – a statement of who I am, an affirmation of my roots, my story. Perhaps we should fly above those very unreliable nets.

Tomorrow is UD’s Second Lecture at the Georgetown Public Library.

If you’re in the vicinity, a perfect day would begin with a stroll around Dumbarton Oaks, a very short walk from there to the library for UD‘s talk (see details here), and then a walk down the steps in the library’s back garden.

At the bottom of the steps, you’ll find Georgetown, full of spectacular cafes.

So come to UD‘s talk!

UD’s First of Three Poetry Lectures at the Georgetown Public Library.

A good crowd showed up yesterday for the first lecture in UD‘s three-lecture series at Georgetown Public Library. Friends, former students, people from the community around the library. She was thrilled.

The library is steps away from Dumbarton Oaks, a place with two claims on UD: Her mother, and her mother’s mentor, Wilhelmina Jaschemski, spent a lot of research and conference time there; and UD has all her life been visiting its gardens. So after her talk she and Mr UD and UD‘s sister walked through the gardens.

It was a good day.


Poetry, and Being Too Much for Ourselves

When you think of the apparent general appraisal of poetry in this country today, it’s maybe amazing that anyone is in this room.

Some of you may have seen the recent film, The Big Short, about the 2008 financial collapse. In that film, which reflects on the fraudulent nature of our capital markets, and the propensity of people to blind themselves to what’s going on in those markets – either because they’re fraudsters themselves profiting from the system, or because they’re dupes who think they’re going to profit from it – in that film, a person says the following: “Truth is like poetry. And most people fucking hate poetry.”

No wonder the government had to designate National Poetry Month. Is there a National Fiction Month?

So there’s one definition of poetry or one approach to a definition of poetry, with which we can begin. Americans don’t want to hear the truth; they’re more comfortable in their soft, bogus, self-deceiving world, a world that English majors learn to call “simulacral,” and poetry expresses the truth. Poetry is the hated truth-teller in the land of affluent comfortable swaddled reality-averse people: the Cassandra, the Tiresias who sees the difficult truth of present and future but perhaps precisely for that reason is disbelieved, disrespected, hated. Poetry tells you that the seeming returns of life are too good to be true. You’re in Madoff-world.

But here’s the first paradox I’d like to introduce in this talk about poetry and paradox: Huge numbers of people in this country will tell you they love poetry, respond to poetry.

Or is it poetry, really, that they love? Maybe they love pleasant verse, happy rhymed sentiments. Pretty metrical lies. The sort of thing, I suspect, we’ll be hearing a lot during National Poetry Month. Do we want to call that poetry? Do we intend that sort of thing in our definition of poetry?

Remember what Mario Cuomo once said, in a much-quoted line: “You campaign in poetry and you govern in prose.” Well, if you campaign in poetry, this cannot mean that everyone hates it, since you’d like to get elected and you want to talk to the largest number of people in a way that will help make that happen. So here Cuomo indeed must have in mind the idea of poetry as the complete opposite of the sort of stuff the library has kindly copied and collated for you today. He must have in mind easily understood, inspirational (rather than truth-bearing) language, aspirational language. We couldn’t be farther, it seems, from poetry as understood in the first statement, from the film.

Don’t people often mean by poetry elevated, rousing, in some sense “fraudulent” or at least unreal language? And in campaigning one appeals to grand and encouraging sentiments – love of country, love of party, love for one another, yes we can – after which, having used this language to whomp up voters in order to get elected, you turn to the pragmatic, grubby, prosaic, no we can’t reality of governing. Poetry is not the antidote, the truth serum, against our con-man, Ponzi world. It is itself one more Ponzi scheme. We invest our emotions in it and then we stand there like idiots, waiting to get our investment back.

We might want to say at this point that we’ve got very roughly speaking two senses of poetry in play: There’s what you might call serious private “hated” poetry which can be said to be truth-bearing (although just how poetry conveys the truth of existence to us will be at the core of my arguments about the genre poetry in this series); and there’s unserious public poetry which conveys the lies or half lies or unlikelihoods we all like to hear, triggers the sentiments we all like to feel.

I’ll be arguing in this series of talks that though most of us are suckers for the easy, affirmative, flattering, shared emotions of “campaign” poetry, to take on poetry with any seriousness, poetry as a meaningful, complex, and beautiful human utterance, surely means taking on the more “hateful,” truth-bearing writing we’re looking at today. One of my favorite descriptions of poetry has it that Poetry is the tunnel at the end of the light. The poet Maxine Kumin said: “All poems are elegies at their core.” So sure most people hate poetry.

Campaign Poetry

Before we look at these poems, poems about snow and our relationship to the natural world, let me say one more thing about campaign poetry.

A strange thing is happening in the current presidential campaign cycle, on the Republican side. If these candidates are campaigning in poetry, they are channeling Allen Ginsberg. Spontaneous, unscreened, rageful, deeply self-revealing, even obscene – this is hardly the language of poetic campaigning that Cuomo had in mind. Postmodern American culture has generated two presidential primary finalists whose edgy unvarnished bizarre emotional figurative utterances look a lot like avant-garde poetry, with a special emphasis on the surrealists.

Ted Cruz for example has recited – I assume he wrote – a modern 17-syllable haiku, in the rat haiku tradition. There are lots of haikus about rats. Cruz didn’t break it up into short lines adding up to seventeen syllables – I did that. But his utterance does have the right number of syllables and the feel and the characteristics of a haiku.

Here’s a rat haiku – not Cruz’s:

Rat feet on wood floor

Thunder running left to right–

Small things make big noise.

Here’s the Ted Cruz haiku:

Trump may be a rat

But I have no desire to

Copulate with him.

Again, this cannot be what Cuomo had in mind by campaign poetry, yet it does sound something like poetic utterance, in the tradition of Baudelaire and Rimbaud as well as Ginsberg, with their enigma, sexual darkness and unhinged bitterness and aggression.

Indeed, isn’t this all too much? Aren’t many of us unsettled by this campaign because of its scorched earth, barnstorming, desublimation? When Anderson Cooper castigates a presidential frontrunner for talking “like a five-year-old,” he makes explicit the uncontrolled escape of the id from the clutches of the ego at the highest levels of public discourse in our time. Indeed, the other night, Hillary Clinton called Donald Trump “an id with hair.”

Trump reminds us of a truth that the British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips expresses in this way:

[E]verybody is dealing with how much of their own aliveness they can bear and how much they need to anesthetize themselves… We all have self-cures for strong feeling. Then the self-cure becomes a problem, in the obvious sense that the problem of the alcoholic is not alcohol but sobriety. Drinking becomes a problem, but actually the problem is what’s being cured by the alcohol. By the time we’re adults, we’ve all become alcoholics. That’s to say, we’ve all evolved ways of deadening certain feelings and thoughts. One of the reasons we admire or like art, if we do, is that it reopens us in some sense — as Kafka wrote in a letter, art breaks the sea that’s frozen inside us. It reminds us of sensitivities that we might have lost at some cost. Freud gets at this in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. It’s as though one is struggling to be as inert as possible — and struggling against one’s inertia.

So there you have another paradox, the sort of paradox poetic language may be supremely suited to express and explore: struggling to be as inert as possible and struggling against one’s inertia.

What does this have to do with out of control presidential candidates?

The Republican front-runners are showing us what it looks like when nothing’s too much, when you let it rip. This makes us embarrassed for them, and anxious about the intensities in the general population that they may be stirring up.

Most of us, after all, tend to be appalled when we act too-muchly. A character in Saul Bellow’s novel Herzog, an ordinary Chicago lawyer, gets so enraged by his life-frustrations that he routinely shatters glasses in his kitchen and then “[weeps] with anger. And also at himself, that he should have such emotions.” That we should have such emotions! That we should harbor such intensity of feeling!

For most people, the problem with their intense emotional capacities is how effectively they’ve repressed them, as Phillips suggests. Perhaps they have repressed them too much – another too-muchness in response to a too-muchness – or in disastrous ways.

Along the same lines, the poet Kenneth Rexroth says this about poetry and other arts:

People are by and large routinized in their lives. A great many of our responses to experience are necessarily dulled. If to a certain extent they weren’t, we’d all suffer from nervous breakdowns and die of high blood pressure at the age of twenty. The organism has to protect itself. It cannot be completely raw.

What the arts do, and particularly what the most highly organized art of speech does, is to develop and refine this very rawness and make it selective. Poetry increases and guides our awareness to immediate experience and to the generalizations which can be made from immediate experience. It organizes sensibility so that it is not wasted.

Poetry then can be understood as among other things a modulation of our aliveness; poetry helps us be not too alive and not too dead, but just right. This aliveness may take place within the “safe” aestheticized concision of the short intense lyric poem; but precisely because it is “housed” in this way, controlled and “organized,” as Rexroth says, we feel we can give expression to that aliveness. And perhaps that aesthetically induced and controlled aliveness can be an opening onto more actual real-world aliveness.

I find this an intriguing idea, especially from the point of view of the poet him or her self. We’ve so far been talking about why one might read poetry (not forgetting that there are plenty of other reasons – love of beautiful language, etc. – why one might read poetry); but why does one write poetry? What does it mean to write poetry? Here’s what Ted Hughes said about this:

Almost all art is an attempt by someone unusually badly hit (but almost everybody is badly hit), who is also unusually ill-equipped to defend themselves internally against the wound, to improvise some sort of modus vivendi… in other words, all art is trying to become an anaesthetic and at the same time a healing session. [inert and not inert] [Poetry is] nothing more than a facility… for expressing that complicated process in which we locate, and attempt to heal, affliction… [T]he physical body, so to speak, of poetry is the treatment by which the poet tries to reconcile that pain with the world.

For the poet, Hughes suggests, the written poem is what you do with your unacceptably intense emotions, your deep and persistent wounds (Delmore Schwartz refers in one of his poems to “the wound of consciousness”). The successful poem allows for the dulling or suspension of pain, to be sure; but its capacity to clarify also becomes “a healing session” which helps you avoid the destructive deadness that Phillips describes when he talks about our all in some sense running the risk of becoming “alcoholics” as we look for ways to dull ourselves, to be inert, to anesthetize.

When one speaks of the experience of catharsis in art (an observation with roots in Aristotle’s Poetics), one typically has in mind an experience of intellectual as well as emotional clarity. Watching a tragedy onstage brings you to such a peak of pity and terror as to illuminate in a cathartic moment the truth of human existence, and this experience ultimately helps reconcile you to the human condition.

For in yet another paradox, we are clearly both truth-evading and truth-hungry beings, and serious poems have a capacity to bring us to the truth in one of the few ways we can stand to be brought there. “We have art,” Nietzsche wrote, “in order not to perish of the truth.” Art gives us truth aestheticized, fictionalized – not in your face, but embroidered, mythicized, so that – yet another paradox – even as we willingly enter into a safely “other” world of truth, we are in fact consorting with our truths through that fiction. This I think is the healing session Hughes has in mind – a kind of constant reiteration for the poet writing and the reader reading of elegiac truths that we can somehow both see and accept.

The Irish poet John Montague has said, “The urge to comprehend is so deep. It would make little sense to live a life if you didn’t understand what you had done.” And, once again in his novel Herzog, Bellow has his emotionally overwhelmed hero say to himself:

[He wanted] to live in an inspired condition, to know truth, to be free, to love another, to consummate existence, to abide with death in clarity of consciousness – without which, racing and conniving to evade death, the spirit holds its breath and hopes to be immortal because it does not live…

This is Herzog trying to figure out how much of his own aliveness he can bear, trying to articulate what it would mean to live under the snow holding his breath and trying to evade death by not living. And trying to articulate the too-muchness of his desire to avoid human limitations by freely and fully and with clarity consummating existence.

This deep urge to comprehend reminds me of a comment a woman who left an extremely orthodox sect of Judaism made to an interviewer recently. The interviewer first notes that “Ironically, [the woman] misses the very religious life that pushed her away.” Here is what she says:

“I miss the faith. Having faith like that is very empowering — the feeling that you think you know the code of life.”

Poetry at its best will never give you the code, the key, all the answers (and note that all the answers as given are almost always redemptive) to all the questions. It will set out all the difficult paradoxes beautifully and fully and with intellectual and emotional honesty.

Winter Kept Us Warm

With this idea of too much, and what poetry does with it, the way poetry acknowledges, expresses, and somehow modulates inner excess in a non-destructive way, I’d like now to turn to the too-much snow we recently had in Washington, to remind you of the great blizzard last January – an event which, if you’re like me, you’ve already pretty much forgotten as the plants in your garden that you thought would never survive the onslaught now burst with bloom.

So to begin with The Waste Land by TS Eliot, I want to concentrate on his famous opening lines:

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

Winter kept us warm, covering

Earth in forgetful snow, feeding

A little life with dried tubers.

So here again is poetic paradox: winter kept us warm. Winter was the kind month, not springtime’s April. We had modulated our intensity in such a way as to procure for ourselves “a little life,” sufficient “heat” to survive, and this was bearable, serviceable; it shielded us from our past (memory) and any future (desire); and the blanket of snow was exactly the appropriate corresponding natural world for our existential condition: “forgetful snow” (here Eliot projects a human attribute – the capacity to forget – onto a non-human object – snow – another way of saying that during the winter the world “cooperated” sympathetically with our need to bury our aliveness) suspended our painful and emotionally provoking memories; snow allowed our “roots” to dull and dry and eke out just enough sustenance for us to get by.

And yes, there are historical peculiarities to Eliot’s post World War One Waste Land despair; yet if you read the poems of one of America’s most important living poets – Charles Wright, a recent poet laureate – they are full of similar images of shrunken nature – he’s particularly fond, for instance, of his “dwarf orchard” and of myriad other symbols of a reduced post-Romantic, world. John Asbery’s work shows the same sorts of miniaturized images throughout. So the spiritual/psychological condition of dryness, confusion, withdrawal, and fear that dominates Eliot’s poem is there also in plenty of much later poems (think, in England, of Philip Larkin).

Those lilacs – the flowers symbolize love, and they bloom around Easter, so they cruelly provoke thoughts not merely about the possibility of new life, but the possibility of new passion. The hectic riot of spring blooms, the colors, the warmth, the flowing life-giving water, the intensity of life reasserting itself in a world that had been quiet and manageable and half-dead, is actually felt as cruelty when one feels that intensity as impossibly threatening, when one wants to keep one’s vivacity tamped down because it will end in incomprehension and betrayal and wounding, as in that line from Eliot’s equally famous poem, The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, when Prufrock dreads the possibility that if he finally tells the woman he loves what is truly in his heart, she will turn out never to have wanted his intimacy or confidences:

“That is not what I meant at all; / That is not it, at all.”

It is easy to cite other examples, in the art of our time, of characters shrinking from the challenge to be adequate to the world at its most beautiful and temperate and intense. Recall the 1987 film White Mischief, where a woman living in luxury in Kenya after WW2 sits on the terrace of her beautiful house, looks up at a gorgeous African sunrise and groans: “Oh God! Not another fucking beautiful day!”

Or think of the narrator of Bellow’s Ravelstein, sitting in Paris, on a perfect June morning, on the balcony of a grand hotel, with a view of the most stunning part of the city.

The gloss the sun puts on the surroundings – the triumph of life, so to speak, the flourishing of everything makes me despair. I’ll never be able to keep up with all the massed hours of life-triumphant.

There is a keenly felt disparity, in other words, between our inner life and this outer world; we experience ourselves as depressingly inadequate to the provocations and seductions of a fully alive reality. Better the blanketed blizzarded-in world where, relieved of the need to attend to a busy, animate setting, we can at least be provoked to thought – although typically, in this setting, it is the thought of nothingness, as in the final lines of Wallace Stevens’ poem The Snow Man, which describe a listener

who listens in the snow,

And, nothing himself, beholds

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

In reducing the world to zero, the snow allows abstract thought – there is nothing to distract us from elemental questions of being and nothingness.

Robert Frost finds the woods “lovely, dark and deep,” and you can feel his attraction to their morbid nothingness as he drags himself back to a world where he has “promises to keep.” The eighteenth century poet James Thompson found that the “wild dazzling waste, that buries wide / The works of man .. exalt[s] the soul to solemn thought.” And it is the “strange / And extreme silentness” of frost at midnight that provokes Coleridge to meditation. To grappling with the “hated” truth.

The Curtain

In the second poem I’ve included for today – Hayden Carruth’s The Curtain, we see this process of enclosure by the snow and provocation to thought very clearly. Interestingly, this provoked thought will be thought about our evasion of thought, evasion of the truth.

Just over the horizon a great machine of death is roaring and rearing.

We can hear it always. Earthquake, starvation, the ever-renewing sump of corpse-flesh.

But in this valley the snow falls silently all day, and out our window

We see the curtain of it shifting and folding, hiding us away in our little house,

We see earth smoothened and beautified, made like a fantasy, the snow-clad trees

So graceful. In our new bed, which is big enough to seem like the north pasture almost

With our two cats, Cooker and Smudgins, lying undisturbed in the southeastern and southwestern corners,

We lie loving and warm, looking out from time to time. “Snowbound,” we say. We speak of the poet

Who lived with his young housekeeper long ago in the mountains of the western province, the kingdom

Of cruelty, where heads fell like wilted flowers and snow fell for many months

Across the pass and drifted deep in the vale. In our kitchen the maple-fire murmurs

In our stove. We eat cheese and new-made bread and jumbo Spanish olives

Which have been steeped in our special brine of jalapeños and garlic and dill and thyme.

We have a nip or two from the small inexpensive cognac that makes us smile and sigh.

For a while we close the immense index of images that is our lives—for instance,

The child on the Mescalero reservation in New Mexico sitting naked in 1966 outside his family’s hut,

Covered with sores, unable to speak. But of course we see the child every day,

We hold out our hands, we touch him shyly, we make offerings to his implacability.

No, the index cannot close. And how shall we survive? We don’t and cannot and will never

Know. Beyond the horizon a great unceasing noise is undeniable. The machine,

Like an immense clanking vibrating shuddering unnameable contraption as big as a house, as big as the whole town,

May break through and lurch into our valley at any moment, at any moment.

Cheers, baby. Here’s to us. See how the curtain of snow wavers and then falls back.

This brings us back to that affluent oblivious world I evoked at the beginning of these remarks. Snow is keeping the poet warm and cozy in his wonderful cat-warmed bed; “the curtain of snow” keeps hidden from him a world of “implacable” cruelty and atrocity, and he reckons, in this poem, with his morally unconscionable position of comfortable immunity from it all – or, at best, a passive, spectatorial relationship to it. Like the snow, it comes over you in mysterious, overwhelming drifts.

And how shall we survive? We don’t and cannot and will never


How does one not only survive a world of profound human suffering but even thrive inside one’s own wood-stove-warmed domesticity? Well – another poetic paradox – one doesn’t and can’t but one does. It’s morally unsustainable and morally sustainable. Again we see the reduced world – the manageable world – in which the poet makes himself snug: “our small inexpensive cognac,” the cutesy cat names – versus the “immense index of images that is our lives.” It is all – yes – “too much” for us – we index it away in a file of images which we allow to haunt us; we evoke the memory of the child covered with sores; we aestheticize it and hope this dignifies and immortalizes it and gives it meaning and on some level lets us off the hook for living our unconscionable beautiful lives while it never stops happening. The snow falls in symbiosis with us, just as it falls in sympathy with the speaker of The Waste Land, a natural extension of our impulse to shrink into a small removed life, a delicate helpful shielding gesture from the nature world.

A war photographer in Don DeLillo’s novel Mao II stops doing that form of photography because, she says: “No matter what I shot, how much horror, reality, misery, ruined bodies, bloody faces, it was all so fucking pretty in the end.” We can index it all, aestheticize it largely away; and hated poetry is there to tell you that you do that, and to invite you to hate yourself because you do. When the poet, in the final lines of The Curtain, turns to his lover with a toast, it’s a sardonic, ugly toast:

Cheers, baby. Here’s to us. See how the curtain of snow wavers and then falls back.


But let’s end on an up note. Here’s our final poem, Louis MacNeice’s “Snow.”

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was

Spawning snow and pink roses against it

Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:

World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,

Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion

A tangerine and spit the pips and feel

The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world

Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes –

On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one’s hands –

There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

Well, it’s a mad riot of paradox, and it’s a nice way to prepare for the poem I’ll be talking about next week, Hymn to Life by James Schuyler. Fire bubbles like water, things are both collateral and incompatible. And it’s madly affirmative, a drunken rush of delight in the face of a world full of magic and richness. Only one word in the poem spoils the fun – spiteful. (Spiteful picks up nicely on, somehow extends, spit.) That fire – it can burn spitefully, but its flames also move about gaily, beautifully.

The situation here is not that different from the situation in Carruth’s poem: the poet sits inside a nice house with roses and bay windows and looks at the snow raging outside. Unlike Carruth, however, who is prompted to recriminate against himself because the snow comes to symbolize his unconscionable immunity from the reality of suffering, MacNeice regards the snow as part of the amazing thrilling paradoxical show the world sometimes puts on. How can there be in the midst of winter huge roses? He watches the foreground of the roses against the background of the snow and marvels at the “rich,” “plural,” “various” nature of earthly existence, an earth which on special occasions tosses up these amazingly beautiful and really almost impossible dualities – huge pink roses, so delicate, and at the same time the massive whirling snow.

Of course the windows are keeping the roses from destruction by the snow – the roses enjoy the same interior immunity from threat as the speakers of all three of today’s poems are – but MacNeice is going to go somewhere very different from the huddled guilty paltry warmth-making of Eliot and Carruth – the scene will instead prompt thoughts of the extraordinary, humanly incomprehensible, magical, astonishing, richness of the natural world. There’s so much more in it than we could possibly see:

There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

What worlds of particles and insects and God knows what swarm invisibly within what I can see – the glass, the snow, the roses! This is an expansive, Whitmanesque sentiment – sheer ecstasy at the sheer overflow of stuff — the — okay — the too-muchness of the world. And of course that too-muchness is really our own too-muchness — our capacity for feeling ourselves to be brimming over with vivacity, excitement. This is William Blake: The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

Next Saturday we’ll look at a ridiculously excessive poem full of MacNiece’s sentiments and ask whether that’s true – whether excess leads to wisdom.


Meanwhile, to end with a return to campaign poetry: If Donald Trump is our next president, I think we will at least have to say that the road of excess leads to the White House. And – being meaning-seeking creatures – we will want to grapple with that fact. We will want to grapple with the paradox that this desublimated public poet, this troubadour of our time, is both madly popular and the most hated politician in modern history.

It’s worth noting that Mario Cuomo, to return to another very public man not above using “campaign poetry,” also was able to describe life in this way:

“You go from stone to stone across the morass.”

This is pure undistilled Samuel Beckett, and while The Big Short fraudsters might hate its elegiac sadness, people who take poetry seriously are liable to appreciate it – not only its compelling imagery, but its approach to important truths.

Poetry is one art form that allows us to experience simultaneously ecstatic communion with an over-generous world, and stony despair. It tempers our too-muchness – organizes our sensibility – so that we can remain in excess and in the truth.

UD’s Poetry Lecture is TODAY.

Join her at the Georgetown Public Library this afternoon.


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