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.

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4 Responses to “UD’s First of Three Poetry Lectures at the Georgetown Public Library.”

  1. theprofessor Says:

    One of those poems moved me deeply, UD–to pain and revulsion.

    “…With our two cats, Cooker and Smudgins, lying undisturbed in the southeastern and southwestern corners….”

    I’m heading over to the science building to look for an eyewash station!

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    tp: LOL.

  3. Profane Says:

    motto of Basho:
    ‘Learn the rules and then forget’
    if it suits you

  4. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Profane: Yes.

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