The piece this comes from is a bit treacly, but the sentence itself deserves a closer look.

Mainly because of the word cerebral. Great poetry has to have an idea.

It also has to have a sensibility.

And it has to be written well.

I think the hardest of these three to accomplish, actually, is sensibility. The consciousness the poem expresses has somehow to be strikingly original. Strange, original, but also immediately recognizable as true — as like our own, as possibly our own, as a form of consciousness we, influenced by the reading of a certain poet’s body of work, might even in some sense make our own.

See, I think superficial readers of poetry (like the writer I talk about in a recent post titled Nothing’s More Reactionary than Mental Confusion) are getting excited about a sensibility. They pick up on the liberation in the loose lines of Ginsberg, and they like that feeling of freedom; but they don’t really get the cerebral part, let alone the intricacies of style. They don’t pick up on the study and suffering and seriousness that gets you to where Ginsberg’s consciousness has gotten. If readers like this aren’t careful, they end up fans of bad poets like Charles Bernstein, without ideas and without interesting language, but loose-limbed.

The most notorious recent bad poem, the Obama inaugural poem, lacked all sensibility; and though its language was also dull and its ideas shopworn, it might have succeeded had it been able to infuse its language and ideas with sensibility.


The most recent winner of the Bollingen Prize, Allen Grossman, shows you how it’s done.


In thy springs, O Zion, are the water wheels
Of my mind! The wheels beat the shining stream.
Whack. Dying. And then death. Whack. Learning. Learned.
Whack. Breathing. And breath. Whack. Gone with the wind.

I am old. The direction of time is plain:
As the daylight, never without direction,
Rises in a direction, east to west,
And sets in a direction, west to east,

Walking backwards all night long, underground;
So, this bright water is bent on its purpose—
To find the meadow path to the shore and then
The star (“Sleepless”) by which the helmsman winds

And turns. Zion of mind! This is the way:
Towards nightfall the winds shifts offshore, north by
Northwest, closing the harbor to sail
And it stiffens, raising the metal water

In the roads. The low sun darkens and freezes.
The water shines. In the raking light is
Towed the great ship home, upwind, everything
Furled. And, behind the great ship, I am carried,

A castaway, in the body alone,
Under the gates of Erebus—the meeting
Place of daylight underground and night wind
Shrieking in wires, the halliards knocking and

Ravelled banners streaming to the south-east
Like thought drawn out, wracked and torn, when the wind
Shifts and rises and the light fails in the long
School room of the setting sun. What is left

To mind but remembrances of the world?
The people of the road, in tears, sit down
At the road-side and tell stories of the world
Then they rise again in tears and go up.

The mill sits in the springs. Water wheels whack
Round: Alive, whack. Dying, whack. Dead whack. Nothing.
How, then, to do things with tears?—Deliver us,
Zion, from mist. Kill us in the light.


… Hokay. I’m gonna tell you what the hell all that’s about, but I’m busy gchatting with my old ‘thesdan playmate, David. Hold on. Next post.

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