The Don DeLillo Death

This blog periodically notes echt-DeLillo deaths in this country, deaths that often involve that icon of affluent leisure, the golf ball. Read the opening pages of Players, or note the many pages of White Noise and other novels of his that mark the untimely death of someone while at play, or the mix of fatal violence and golf.

This is a very Don DeLillo photograph.


If you doubt the cultural centrality of golf balls in America, read this front-page article in the New York Times, which ominously reports that errant golf balls breaking windows in retirement communities is “an increasingly prominent problem.”


So a recent alleged murder at an expensive neighborhood in Atlanta seems to feature an attorney so incensed that someone threw a golf ball at his $60,000 Mercedes CLS 550 (no damage to the car was found, so it’s not clear anything was in fact thrown) that he took his massive car and ran down and killed a guy (a real estate investor) he thought threw it.

Scripted by DeLillo.


UPDATE: A reader reminds me that DeLillo was far from the first. Many of us will recall this amazing little poem by Sarah Norcliffe Cleghorn:

The golf links lie so near the mill
That almost every day 
The laboring children can look out
And see the men at play.

The Don DeLillo-esque Death

A small airplane crashed Monday night on the TPC Scottsdale Champions Course and police confirmed there were multiple fatalities…

[Versace] King got about 100 yards and began recording video of the fiery crash. He said emergency crews were on the scene several minutes later. He added the weather was “perfect” at the time.

…The Champions course is one of two golf courses at the TPC Scottsdale. It is just east of the TPC Stadium Course, where the annual Waste Management Phoenix Open is held.

Wisconsin Death Trip

As we wind down toward December, this year’s fraternity-death totals are coming in, and they’re – as usual – awesome. Nothing kills eighteen year old American men in search of friendship and a college education faster than a night with the Sweethearts of Sigma Chi, professional sadists who have, over the long storied years of their chapter, perfected the art of murder by forced alcohol intake. Nothing bonds brothers like working together over many hours to make sure someone who’d like to join their club chokes to death on his vomit – unless it’s the scary manslaughter case that follows, a shared experience of adversity that brings together the boys, their adoring parents, and their supportive community, in another one of life’s tests of blood loyalty and the Greek way.

After a century packed with dead pledges, everyone agrees there’s not really anything our country can do about the Geertzian “deep play” of massive insane drunken football staging area universities like Penn State as they stagger from serial child rapist coaches, to post-game riots, to jock-on-jock homicide in the frat houses. The whole wild synergy put Penn State’s last president in jail, but this seems to have been viewed as the ultimate test of the school’s commitment to destroying the life of everyone who studies or works there without regard to status.

There are scads of universities like Penn State. There are scads of universities that make Penn State their role model.


Because the blood and the violence in these football/frat cultures are beautiful. Remember what Professor Murray Siskind, a character in White Noise who teaches a seminar on car crashes in the movies, says about these ever more violent collisions. He is talking to one of his colleagues.

“All that blood and glass, that screeching rubber. What about the sheer waste, the sense of a civilization in a state of decay?”

… “I tell [my students] it’s not decay they are seeing but innocence. The movie breaks away from complicated human passions to show us something elemental, something fiery and loud and head-on. It’s a conservative wish-fulfillment, a yearning for naivete. We want to be artless again. We want to reverse the flow of experience, of worldliness and its responsibilities. My students say, ‘Look at the crushed bodies, the severed limbs. What kind of innocence is this?'”

“What do you say to that?”

“I tell them they can’t think of a car crash in a movie as a violent act. It’s a celebration. A reaffirmation of traditional values and beliefs. I connect car crashes to holidays like Thanksgiving and the Fourth. We don’t mourn the dead or rejoice in miracles. These are days of secular optimism, of self-celebration. We will improve, prosper, perfect ourselves. Watch any car crash in any American movie. It is a high-spirited moment like old-fashioned stunt flying, walking on wings. The people who stage these crashes are able to capture a lightheartedness, a carefree enjoyment that car crashes in foreign movies can never approach.”

“Look past the violence.”

“Exactly. Look past the violence, Jack. There is a wonderful brimming spirit of innocence and fun.”

Look past the teenager on life-support to the high-spirited innocent fun of the postmodern American campus, where advances in recording technology and a booming liquor industry promise Americans years of morbid viewing pleasure.


For those who consider this a “problem,” which must be “solved,” UD says: Wisconsin. Concentrate the behavior in one state. Designate one American state whose universities may, with impunity, pick off their freshman males.

Why Wisconsin? It is well-located, right in the middle of the country, for ease of access. The state has a long glorious tradition of drunkenness, and is full of jock-centric state university campuses. All universities outside of Wisconsin would shutter their Greek houses, and they would make life so difficult for the remaining illegal off-campus fraternities that the lure of Wisconsin would become irresistible.

The American Way of Death Revisited

The image of an important American politician crawling in agony across a baseball field, trying to limit himself to just one semiautomatic bullet, comes right out of the novels of this nation’s most celebrated contemporary writer, Don DeLillo.

Anyone who has read White Noise or Players knows that postmodern death and near-death à la DeLillo typically involve some combination of playtime activities, guns, and videotape. In DeLillo, death has lost the majesty, the redemptive possibilities, it had as late as, say Tolstoy’s famous story, “The Death of Ivan Ilych.” Now it’s a sudden violent event that happens while adults are playing miniature golf; and someone’s usually around to film them expiring on the little fake putting green.


In Players, affluent American death occurs on a grownup golf course on a bright shiny day, with middle-class men, dressed in crayola colors, engaged in “that anal round of scrupulous caution and petty griefs.”

The golfers on this sweet green morning attend to their game. Together again momentarily on a particular fairway they appear almost to be posing in massed corporate glory before a distant flag. It is now that the vigilant hidden thing, the special consciousness implicit in a long lens, is made to show itself.

A man, his back to the camera, rises from the underbrush in the immediate foreground, about two hundred yards from the golfers. When he turns to signal someone, it’s evident he has a weapon in his right hand, a semiautomatic rifle. After signaling he doesn’t reassume his crouch. One of the golfers selects an iron.

This leisure-time massacre is actually part of a film being shown first-class passengers on a WhisperJet. None of them watches with much attention; they’re in an alcoholic/anxious haze.

The audience’s emotional distance from the bloody mess on the screen is deepened by the fact that they’re in an in-flight piano bar, with a performer who uses his instrument to comment in a campy way on what he’s seeing — on the irony of simultaneous golf and terrorism.

Watching golfers being massacred, to trills and other ornaments, seems to strike those in the piano bar … as an occasion for sardonic delight.

Not all postmodern deaths involve bullets, but virtually all, as presented in the work of DeLillo, involve playtime. In White Noise, set in a university, Professor Dimitri Costakis is “lost in the surf off Malibu. During the term break.” The school’s dean, who once “serve[d] as adviser to Nixon, Ford and Carter,” has recently met “his death on a ski lift in Austria.” Death in America is something that happens when you’re having fun. The ski lift dumps you out; the surf engulfs you; men with guns interrupt your game.


A blimp flying over the U.S. Open went down Thursday just beyond a rim of trees surrounding Erin Hills. The pilot, the blimp’s only occupant, was airlifted from the scene of the crash but was reported as alert and conscious, according to police.

Fan video caught the deflated blimp as it floated to the ground.

That one happened on the same day as the baseball game. It’s hard not to laugh at some of these misadventures, hard not to greet them sardonically. The disparity between the triviality (“petty griefs”) of blimpish voyeuristic activity, and the deflation and airlifting is just funny. It’s just so graphic an illustration of our superficiality, our childish spectatorial lives, so utterly unprepared for seriousness, reality, the crash, the spray of bullets.

In his fine early novel, Great Jones Street, Don DeLillo gives a vicious little domestic terror group the name Happy Valley Farm Commune….

… one of a number such acid jokes in his chronicle of a rock star’s withdrawal from the madness of postmodern culture.

UD was reminded of the Happy Valley Farm Commune when she saw the name of the University of Nebraska fraternity whose members gifted a freshman with the alcohol that killed him (blood alcohol content .365).

The name of the place? FarmHouse Fraternity. Sweet.


Interesting to see UNL keeping up the traditions of their big hero, Richie Incognito.

UD’s beloved DeLillo…

… wins the PEN Saul Bellow Award.

Excerpts from a PEN interview with him:

I still have my old paperback copy of Herzog (Fawcett Crest, $0.95), a novel I recall reading with great pleasure. It wasn’t the first Bellow novel I encountered—that was The Victim, whose opening sentence (“On some nights New York is as hot as Bangkok.”) seemed a novel in itself…

The theme that seems to have evolved in my work during the past decade concerns time—time and loss. This was not a plan; the novels have simply tended to edge in that direction. Some years ago I had the briefest of exchanges with a professor of philosophy. I raised the subject of time. He said simply, “Time is too difficult.” Yes, time is a mystery and perhaps best examined (or experienced by my characters) in a concise and somewhat enigmatic manner…


So…. maybe we make a little mixed cocktail? A little Bellow, a little Mitchell Heisman, author of Suicide Note [details here].

In Herzog (UD‘s got the same old Fawcett Crest edition DeLillo’s got, and she’s been pawing through it), our seriously fucked up hero, Moses Herzog (his name taken, as you may already know, from a very minor character in James Joyce’s Ulysses) is visiting his seriously fucked up friend Luke, a University of Chicago scientist who can’t deal with people at all, but who so loved his recently deceased monkey that as the monkey was dying he gave it mouth to mouth resuscitation.

Since the monkey’s death Luke has been deeply, dangerously depressed.

“It really threw me into a spin. I thought that palling around with Rocco was a gag. I didn’t realize how much he meant to me. But the truth is, I realized that no other death in the world could have affected me so much. I had to ask myself whether the death of my brother would have shook me up half as much. I think not. We’re all some kind of nut or other, I realize. But…”

He finds a psychotherapist who tells him to imagine himself dead, in a coffin, with all the people who meant something to him in his life passing by his body. He’s supposed to think of what he wanted to tell them in life, what the real truth was between them, within him, etc.

But it doesn’t work. All he can think about are memories of farcical events involving fat aunts and cornfed showgirls from his urban youth…

Herzog says to him:

A man may say, ‘From now on I’m going to speak the truth.’ But the truth hears him and runs away and hides before he’s even speaking. There is something funny about the human condition, and civilized intelligence makes fun of its own ideas…

Human life is far subtler than any of its models. …

Do you have to think yourself into a coffin and perform these exercises with death? As soon as thought begins to deepen it reaches death, first thing. … I really believe that brotherhood is what makes a man human…. When the preachers of dread tell you that others only distract you from metaphysical freedom then you must turn away from them. The real and essential question is one of our employment by other human beings and their employment by us. Without this true employment, you never dread death, you cultivate it. And consciousness when it doesn’t truly understand what to live for, what to die for, can only abuse and ridicule itself.

“[E]very country contains mentally ill and potentially violent people. Only America arms them.”

Another DeLillo Death (others here) at the neighborhood golf club.

“[It’s] the absence of surprise to life that harrows the head of everybody American you know…”

Thomas Pynchon was very big on boredom, very big on the idea that postmodern Americans are just really bored, and that a lot of their behavior can be understood as a reaction to boredom.

UD’s favorite pomo novelist, Don DeLillo, features, in several of his novels – but especially White Noisepostmodern American deaths, which typically occur when someone is having expensive, boredom-suspending, fun: surfing in Hawaii, skiing in Austria. Many such deaths, in DeLillo, add high tech to the fun: In Players, well-heeled golfers are suddenly mowed down by a group of terrorists who use sophisticated weaponry against them. Visual technology also may make an appearance in these scenarios — they may be filmed, and go viral to tens of millions of bored voyeurs. Pomo death headlines are like Malfunction at Dreamworld. Explosion at the Gender Reveal Party. Superbowl Blimp Goes Down.


Think back to the congressional baseball game interrupted by a madman with a rifle who almost killed the majority whip. That had all the DeLilloesque elements: a sudden assault with lots of techno-weaponry (SKS rifle, 9mm Smith & Wesson handgun) while affluent, high-profile Americans are out having fun …and of course someone with a camera to film it all for Youtube.

In the news today appears another variant on the postmodern American way of death. This one has many pertinent elements: Boredom, affluence, cutting edge technology, videotape. I have in mind the wealthy Texas doctor who, at 11:30 on a Saturday night, decided to drive his $80,000 Tesla onto a private road in his gated community, take a seat in the back, rev it up to a million mph or whatever, and see how its driverless feature functioned.

At least that’s the speculation – he was found burned to death (along with a friend in the front seat), and no one was in the driver’s seat. Witnesses report they’d barely gotten out of his driveway, going at high speed, when the car drove straight into a tree and burst into flames. Rescue squads were unable to get anywhere near the car because (another high-tech pomo ingredient) the Tesla’s state of the art battery kept reigniting.

The Runaway “Bride” Meme

Everyone calls the Isettes “brides” – jihadi brides, ISIS brides, I.S. brides… Sheer sexism, mes petites; a way of cutesying them and why? Everyone knows it’s Always a terrorist; never a bride; everyone gets that it’s like the first page of DeLillo’s cult classic (if you will) Mao II, which describes a mass Moonie wedding in Yankee Stadium: “grouped in twos, eternal boy-girl.”

Anonymous commandeered fuck-couplings (‘Ms Begum said her only role in the caliphate was to “make babies”) don’t really strike UD as very bridey…

Maybe you’re different. Maybe when you think of a filthy tenth century setting in which brainless degenerates deposit sperm after getting themselves sexually excited by watching beheadings you picture a dewy girl in a gown, catching her breath before saying I do… Ms Begum spent her nights fucking men she was directed to fuck and her sweltering days swaddled in black – you can call this way of life many things, but the adjective “bridal” doesn’t pop to mind.

You know why everyone cutesies them. Despite everything, people only want to think of men as criminals. If Marsha Edwards had been Mark Edwards, would he have shared a funeral with the children he shot to death, a pretty photo of him up on stage next to pretty photos of the people he killed?

Marsha gets to be not a murderer. She gets to be Mom.

As the debate over repatriating some of the most dangerous people in the world proceeds, UD hopes that the press will gradually phase out the whole bride thing.


Ahem. Mes petites.

We have arrived at that point in the Jeffrey Epstein story where barely conceivable plausibility goes leaping out of the window, marooning us in the fictional world of Don DeLillo’s Zero K, in which a cryogenics-obsessed billionaire sets up his own vast body-freezing laboratory and gets to work being immortal.

Like all great artists, DeLillo has his finger pressed firmly on the pulse of the future – in particular, the way, in America, unimaginable personal wealth, staggeringly sophisticated technology, and an entirely unmitigated death-fear (see also, among DeLillo’s other novels, Cosmopolis) is generating people like Jeffrey Epstein, at once the toast of the world’s greatest, most celebrated scientists, and out of their fucking minds.

Yes, trailed by Stephen Hawking, Lawrence Krauss (hm), Steven Pinker, Stephen Jay Gould… trailed by all of them as they sniffed out his beyond-big research bucks and enjoyed his private island, Epstein made it clear to anyone who’d listen that he had a bag of Caligulagenic I am a god tricks up his sleeve.

He hoped to seed the human race with his DNA by impregnating women at his vast New Mexico ranch…

He told one scientist that he was bankrolling efforts to identify a mysterious particle that might trigger the feeling that someone is watching you.

At one session at Harvard, Mr. Epstein criticized efforts to reduce starvation and provide health care to the poor because doing so increased the risk of overpopulation, said Mr. Pinker, who was there. Mr. Pinker said he had rebutted the argument, citing research showing that high rates of infant mortality simply caused people to have more children. Mr. Epstein seemed annoyed, and a Harvard colleague later told Mr. Pinker that he had been “voted off the island” and was no longer welcome at Mr. Epstein’s gatherings.

Then there was Mr. Epstein’s interest in eugenics.

On multiple occasions starting in the early 2000s, Mr. Epstein told scientists and businessmen about his ambitions to use his New Mexico ranch as a base where women would be inseminated with his sperm and would give birth to his babies, according to two award-winning scientists and an adviser to large companies and wealthy individuals, all of whom Mr. Epstein told about it… Mr. Epstein’s goal was to have 20 women at a time impregnated at his 33,000-square-foot Zorro Ranch in a tiny town outside Santa Fe.

[He was also interested in] cryonics, an unproven science in which people’s bodies are frozen to be brought back to life in the future. Mr. Epstein told [one] person that he wanted his head and penis to be frozen.


A sweet and amusing 1940 short story, “Inflexible Logic,” features a very rich dilettante, Mr Bainbridge, with an interest in ideas who, overhearing mathematicians talking about the infinite monkey theorem, decides to fill his house with monkeys and typewriters and see how long it might take for one of them to write a Shakespeare play or whatever. As it happens, all of the monkeys immediately start producing, without a single error, the world’s great literature.

Mr. Bainbridge led Professor Mallard downstairs, along a corridor, through a disused music room, and into a large conservatory. The middle of the floor had been cleared of plants and was occupied by a row of six typewriter tables, each one supporting a hooded machine. At the left of each typewriter was a neat stack of yellow copy paper. Empty wastebaskets were under each table. The chairs were the unpadded, spring-backed kind favored by experienced stenographers. A large bunch of ripe bananas was hanging in one corner, and in another stood a Great Bear water-cooler and a rack of Lily cups. Six piles of typescript, each about a foot high, were ranged along the wall on an improvised shelf. Mr. Bainbridge picked up one of the piles, which he could just conveniently lift, and set it on a table before Professor Mallard. “The output to date of Chimpanzee A, known as Bill,” he said simply.

“‘”Oliver Twist,” by Charles Dickens,’ ” Professor Mallard read out. He read the first and second pages of the manuscript, then feverishly leafed through to the end. “You mean to tell me,” he said, “that this chimpanzee has written–“

“Word for word and comma for comma,” said Mr. Bainbridge. “Young, my butler, and I took turns comparing it with the edition I own. Having finished ‘Oliver Twist,’ Bill is, as you see, starting the sociological works of Vilfredo Pareto, in Italian. At the rate he has been going, it should keep him busy for the rest of the month.”

“And all the chimpanzees”–Professor Mallard was pale, and enunciated with difficulty–“they aren’t all–“

“Oh, yes, all writing books which I have every reason to believe are in the British Museum. The prose of John Donne, some Anatole France, Conan Doyle, Galen, the collected plays of Somerset Maugham, Marcel Proust, the memoirs of the late Marie of Rumania, and a monograph by a Dr. Wiley on the marsh grasses of Maine and Massachusetts. I can sum it up for you, Mallard, by telling you that since I started this experiment, four weeks and some days ago, none of the chimpanzees has spoiled a single sheet of paper.”

Innocent days, huh? Daft, obsessed billionaires concocted harmless (well, the story does end in a bloodbath…) experiments then; but coming up on 2020, we’re in DeLilloland, and things have taken a rather insidious turn.

Can we still laugh at Jeffrey Epstein and his buddies like Alan Dershowitz, with their own demented grandiosity?

Of course we can. Nothing is funnier than a good Kafka short story, and that’s what we’ve got unfolding in front of us – Kafkan absurdity with a postmodern twist. To be sure, the insidious thing is absolutely there – as in, you probably don’t want to be a woman around Dersh or Ep. But Dersh is going down in flames, and Ep, well…





UD has long wondered whether she’s got what it takes to write for the tabloids. She was reminded of this when she saw the quick cheap way some woman who works at a university in Fresno just got herself MUCHO publicity by calling Barbara Bush a racist.


Don DeLillo says

Everything we need that is not food or love is in the tabloid racks. The tales of the supernatural and the extra-terrestrial. The miracle vitamins, the cures for cancer, the remedies for obesity, the cults of the famous and the dead.

My Bush/Daniels shocker – whose fundamental idea derives from simply conjoining two big names in the news – goes in one of several directions.

1. Supernatural: Stormy Daniels is inhabited by the ghost of Barbara Bush; she now shamefully repudiates her adult industry past.

2. Religion: It can now be revealed that in her last days Barbara Bush reached out to Stormy Daniels and converted her to the true faith.

3. Illegitimate Child: Stormy Daniels is the wayward child Barbara and George Bush were never able to acknowledge: UNTIL NOW.

4. Lesbian Affair: George Bush the Elder privately resented the powerful and possibly consummated attraction between these two famous women.

5. Political Conspiracy: Barbara Bush was put to death by the same man who threatened Stormy Daniels because both represented forces threatening the political and financial empire of the Trump family.

New Year’s Resolutions.

1. Resolved: There are no holidays.

Our text this evening is “Holiday,” a short story by Katherine Anne Porter (she began writing it in the 1920’s but put it aside for decades until finally publishing it in 1960). We will follow this story closely as we gather into this uncharacteristically lengthy post the wisdom of the ages.

Yes. UD now shares with you, on this long drunken night, the truths of being, all of which are handily packed into this obscure little tale. “Holiday” is a meandering narrative, the sort of thing hyper-connected millennials have trouble reading, because in order to read “Holiday,” you have to settle into a very very slow cud-chewing state of mind, or mindfulness, or mindlessness, as if you were seated on a thin cushion in a room in which someone is taking their sweet time with a dharma talk. Porter’s stories “read as if they were composed at one sitting, and they have the spontaneity of a running stream,” writes an admirer, and indeed “Holiday” flows real and true, but you have to stay afloat, you have to keep faith with it and nothing else, or you’ll drift over to familiar dry banks.

So relax and work with me here as we start with the title. In this story, an unnamed young woman, tense and exhausted by unspecified personal problems, takes a one-month holiday to the Texas countryside, where she rents a room in the house of a large hard-working prosperous German-American farming family. She thinks it will be therapeutic to get away from herself, but – as the saying goes – wherever you go, there you are. And this is the first great truth with which the narrator begins: “[W]e do not run from the troubles and dangers which are truly ours, and it is better to learn what they are earlier than later…” Porter had a very settled sense of our entrapment, each of us, in our particular nature – the form of being which is truly ours – and she regarded a meaningful life as one in which you come to know, to face, to accept, the contours as well as the inescapability of your particular being. In an interview, she recalls a friend of hers who “was not able to take care of herself, because she was not able to face her own nature and was afraid of everything.”

So although this may sound like a counsel of despair – sink into the hopeless business of being who you hopelessly are – it’s not that at all. Once you’ve assumed the intellectual and emotional burden of your radically limited identity, once you’ve “walked the length of your mind,” as Philip Larkin put it, you are free to embark on the courageous project of – in Porter’s words – taking care of yourself.

2. Resolved: “Human life itself is almost pure chaos.”

The narrative begins and ends with a farcical wagon ride. The family member who picks the woman up at the train station to take her to the farm has brought an old rickety vehicle for the journey:

The wheels themselves spun not dully around and around in the way of common wheels, but elliptically, being loosened at the hubs, so that we proceeded with a drunken, hilarious swagger, like the rolling motion of a small boat on a choppy sea.

At the end of the story she herself ineptly drives a similarly ridiculous wagon:

We careened down the road at a grudging trot, the pony jolting like a churn, the wheels spinning elliptically in a truly broad comedy swagger.

Where are you getting in this narrative? You started on a set of vaudevillian wheels and you’re ending on the same. If you insist on the payoff of satisfyingly rounded events – resolutions, if you like – instead of the ridiculously elliptical stuff real life throws at you, you’re not going to get anywhere actual. You’ll stay on the evasive holiday everyone tries to stay on.

And Porter really pours on the chaos. The main family member with whom her unnamed heroine interacts, Ottilie, seems to suffer from severe cerebral palsy.

Her face was so bowed over it was almost hidden, and her whole body was maimed in some painful, mysterious way, probably congenital, I supposed, though she seemed wiry and tough. Her knotted hands shook continually, her wagging head kept pace with her restless elbows.

The wheels are really falling off the world of “Holiday.” Even the seemingly well-ordered routines of the family’s all-consuming maintenance of the farm – “the repose, the almost mystical inertia of their minds in the midst of [their] muscular life” – is a facade about to be torn apart by a violently destructive storm, and by the sudden death of their beloved mother.

3. Resolved: And yet, and yet.

We struggle, strangers to ourselves amid a world in turmoil. Yet (see Resolution #2) it’s only “almost” pure chaos. The wheels don’t actually fall off, and, grudgingly, they get us there. Ottilie’s physical chaos seems complete, yet she turns out to be perhaps the most ordered and essential mainstay of the family, since she is capable of cooking and serving excellent meals. She sustains them all.

Her muteness seemed nearly absolute; she had no coherent language of signs. Yet three times a day she spread that enormous table with solid food, freshly baked bread, huge platters of vegetables, immoderate roasts of meat, extravagant tarts, strudels, pies — enough for twenty people. If neighbors came in for an afternoon on some holiday, Ottilie would stumble into the big north room, the parlor, with its golden oak melodeon, a harsh-green Brussels carpet, Nottingham lace curtains, crocheted lace antimacassars on the chair backs, to serve them coffee with cream and sugar and thick slices of yellow cake.

… Her face was a brown smudge of anxiety, her eyes were wide and dazed. Her uncertain hands rattled among the pans, but nothing could make her seem real, or in any way connected with the life around her. Yet when I set my pitcher on the stove, she lifted the heavy kettle and poured the scalding water into it without spilling a drop.

Strangers to ourselves, we perceive others as equally strange. Untouchable, unreachable. Nothing can make them seem real. Yet in time the chaos that seems to reign in ourselves and others begins to hint of an underlying order. The wheels get us there; the heavy kettle gets held and the scalding water poured.

4. Resolved: Greet the world’s overtures, especially the ones that scare you, because they may reveal the truth.

Ottilie shows our heroine a photograph of herself, taken before she became misshapen.

The bit of cardboard connected her at once somehow to the world of human beings I knew; for an instant some filament lighter than cobweb spun itself out between that living center in her and in me, a filament from some center that held us all bound to our unescapable common source, so that her life and mine were kin, even a part of each other, and the painfulness and strangeness of her vanished. She knew well that she had been Ottilie, with those steady legs and watching eyes, and she was Ottilie still within herself. For a moment, being alive, she knew she suffered…

There’s a strikingly similar scene in Don DeLillo’s early novel, Great Jones Street, when a handsome, charismatic rock star who is undergoing some sort of nervous breakdown encounters a physically misshapen boy:

I must have seemed a shadow to him, thin liquid, incidental to the block of light he lived in. For the first time I began to note his embryonic beauty. The blank eyes ticked. The mouth opened slightly, closing on loomed mucus. I’d thought the fear of being peeled to this limp circumstance had caused my panic, the astonishment of blood pausing in the body. But maybe it was something else as well, the possibility that such a circumstance concludes in beauty. There was a lure to the boy, an unsettling lunar pull, and I moved my hand over the moist surface of his face. Beauty is dangerous in narrow times, a knife in the slender neck of the rational man, and only those who live between the layers of these strange days can know its name and shape. When I took my hand from his face, the head resumed its metronomic roll. I was still afraid of him, more than ever in fact, but willing now to breathe his air, to smell the bland gases coming off him, to work myself into his consciousness, whatever there was of that. It would have been better (and even cheering) to think of him as some kind of super-crustacean or diabolic boiled vegetable. But he was too human for that, adhering to me as though by suction or sticky filaments.

The truth is human, all too human, and UD figures it’s pretty clear in these sorts of encounters that what’s being met with is one’s sense of one’s own impossible twistedness, one’s own frightening unworkability. This is reality; this ain’t no holiday. Both characters are in fact drawn to these badly damaged, seemingly alien creatures, even as they’re frightened by them. They sense that here lies the felt truth of human suffering, and they won’t get anywhere with themselves until they get up close and personal with it. For this is precisely the graphic entrapment in one’s own peculiar nature Porter was talking about, and until one perceives both its reality and the possibility of somewhat transcending that reality, one’s self won’t be very workable. Recall that both the DeLillo and the Porter plots are propelled by the close-to-nervous breakdown of the main character.

5. Resolved: Anyway, most of life will remain incomprehension – of oneself and others… But! If you are willing to keep risking being ridiculous and uncomprehending (if the fool would persist in his folly…), you will experience certain incredibly important rewards. Certain meanings will begin to glimmer; other people’s humanity may cease to feel so alien and frightening to you; and out of the felt, shared, burden/joke of everyone’s suffering may come – curiously – a nourishing sense of the delight of existence itself.

The family has gone off to the mother’s funeral, leaving Ottilie, who after all is a member of the family, behind. Our heroine hears her crying and assumes she’s in despair at having been left at home.

[S]he howled with a great wrench of her body, an upward reach of the neck, without tears. At sight of me she got up and came over to me and laid her head on my breast, and her hands dangled forward a moment. Shuddering, she babbled and howled and waved her arms in a frenzy through the open window over the stripped branches of the orchard toward the lane where the [funeral] procession had straightened out into formal order.

And so our heroine decides to take the creaky old wagon that’s left in the barn, place (with great difficulty) Ottilie in it, and take her to the funeral. And this is what happens.

Ottilie, now silent, was doubled upon herself, slipping loosely on the edge of the seat. I caught hold of her stout belt with my free hand, and my fingers slipped between her clothes and bare flesh, ribbed and gaunt and dry against my knuckles. My sense of her realness, her humanity, this shattered being that was a woman, was so shocking to me that a howl as doglike and despairing as her own rose in me unuttered and died again, to be a perpetual ghost. Ottilie slanted her eyes and peered at me, and I gazed back. The knotted wrinkles of her face were grotesquely changed, she gave a choked little whimper, and suddenly she laughed out, a kind of yelp but unmistakably laughter, and clapped her hands for joy, the grinning mouth and suffering eyes turned to the sky. Her head nodded and wagged with the clownish humor of our trundling lurching progress. The feel of the hot sun on her back, the bright air, the jolly senseless staggering of the wheels, the peacock green of the heavens: something of these had reached her. She was happy and gay, and she gurgled and rocked in her seat, leaning upon me and waving loosely around her as if to show me what wonders she saw.

Drawing the pony to a standstill, I studied her face for a while and pondered my ironical mistake. There was nothing I could do for Ottilie, selfishly as I wished to ease my heart of her; she was beyond my reach as well as any other human reach, and yet, had I not come nearer to her than I had to anyone else in my attempt to deny and bridge the distance between us, or rather, her distance from me? Well, we were both equally the fools of life, equally fellow fugitives from death. We had escaped for one day more at least. We would celebrate our good luck, we would have a little stolen holiday, a breath of spring air and freedom on this lovely, festive afternoon.

Malfunction at Dreamworld

As Don DeLillo pointed out in his most famous novel, White Noise, death while having fun is the quintessentially postmodern death.

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.

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.

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