I have been an avid fan of G. K Chesterton for a number of years. I have read numerous biographies, perused through his essays, novels, short stories, and poems, and found them all bright and useful. I had no complaints with the biographies—until now. Enter Nancy Carpentier Brown’s The Woman Who Was Chesterton (2015). Suddenly, I realized that my knowledge of Chesterton was lacking, and in a big way: I didn’t know much about his wife, Frances.Read More
Filtering by Category: Issues & Authors
The trouble with T.S Eliot’s reputation, many writers have said, is that his early work has been explored (think “The Wasteland”) while the later has been ignored. This has changed somewhat lately, but it’s still fairly pervasive. For example, in many poetry anthologies – the place where students get their first taste of poetry – it will be the younger, non-believing rather nihilistic Eliot they are introduced to. It’s not too often that something like the Four Quartets will be provided. Nope, the concluding sentiment received will be, likely, from “The Hollow Men”:
“This is the way the world ends (x3)
Not with a bang but a whimper.”
For a long while—years—an exceedingly good friend pestered me to read Graham Greene, specifically The Power and The Glory. When I finally made the right choice, I had a sense of loss—grief that had I read the work earlier, I may have been a more replete and insightful person. I now personally know why he has been called one of the better writers (and a Catholic to boot) of the century.Read More
George Moses Horton wrote poems, and for a very long time he attempted to sell these poems to purchase his freedom from slavery.Read More
Fast advice to new writers who bemoan the intensity of the discipline sometimes includes throwing around that Hemingway quote about the typewriter and the bleeding. It’s pithy and ironic and makes the more seasoned writer quoting it sound like they know something Hemingway did. It also inspires hilarious imagery: to each writer, his or her own brand of macabre.Read More
It’s been said that Cheez Whiz is one molecule away from being plastic, and I actually don’t like it at all, but the song is catchy right?
Cheez Whiz has nothing to do with the Inklings because I am certain none of them would have deigned to touch it with a ten-foot pole.Read More
It usually doesn’t happen until about mid-journey. Up till that point, the sun has been up, and you can see where you’re going. You’ve never been in this kind of car before, and you like some of the buttons and the scenery outside your window—old barns or even the edges of industrial wastes—and just the experience of being in the passenger seat and wondering where it is you’re going. The driver has a hypnotic voice and quirks that are fascinating; a tattoo runs down the side of his neck—“R-A-” something.
Then, the fog or night closes down around you and the quirky driver puts on his blinker, and you think, now this is going to get good. Then, in a few moments there goes the blinker again. Pretty soon it’s all blinkers and turns and you’re getting carsick and thinking, “Where can this be going?” Now you know that you’re just turning to turn, the driver has no idea where he’s going but is having a ball and assumes you are too simply because you’re with him and he’s a master driver.
Finally, you pull into a gas station that only sells bad coffee and outdated gum. “We’re here,” the driver announces, blowing a kazoo, “wasn’t that amazing?” He scratches his neck and you realize the tattoo stops right there, that the A of the R-A- isn’t even finished, that it’s part of the outfit and probably only temporary.
There’s something about “writing as journey through the fog” that drives me crazy. Yes, you can make the whole journey just by what you see in the headlights, but you can also drive pointlessly to nowhere.
This may simply be fiction envy on my part. I’m told that often good characters are the ones who take the wheel. Bless all the fiction writers who give up the keys like this. I myself literally cannot do it.
In writing memoir, the unknown functions a bit differently. You know where you’re going. You even know all—or almost all—the different roads you might take to get there. This takes things like suspense almost completely out of play, and it means you depend on having a clear day, because in writing memoir you don’t focus on the headlights—you look out the side window and what you see there had better be crystalline. It might be warped and full of grotesqueries, but they have to be clear grotesqueries.
Perhaps a better metaphor for writing memoir is gardening. Tilling and re-tilling the earth of memoir can feel redundant. Are you really going to go back to the same patch of earth again this spring? But it’s in the tilling you find things. It’s in the seasoning of earth that new richness emerges: a pepper plant with nuanced flavors springs right from that same old re-tilled patch.
I’d written about my name, Howard, dozens of times; then, in a writing exercise I stumbled on the word “anachronism.” Recently, the name became a millstone that drags me back through the waters of time to the big white sink and drain board where my mother is thawing meat. That sink screams 1950s to me, which is the decade when my dad’s brother died in Korea, bequeathing me the name.
Not much perhaps, just some soil where pepper seeds may or may not take.
But for me, this soil of discovery is the delight of writing memoir, Frost’s hallmark, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”
It is not often that we speak of authors this way. But Merwin is no usual writer. In a time of self-promotion, Merwin's a poet of deep relation, committed to putting life back into a world hell-bent on destruction.
Pollution, war, the extinction of language and species, the cruelty of mankind, the confusion of desire with natural or divine right—all have been exposed in the light of Merwin's poetry and prose.
In 1975, four years after channeling the money from his first Pulitzer Prize to those whose consciences would not allow themselves to kill other human beings in Vietnam, Merwin traveled to Maui, where he came upon a plantation that had been ruined by short-sighted industrial interest. The land had been classified as waste; it was irredeemable. He's lived there ever since, where, for the past forty-one years, he and his wife, Paula, have revived a rainforest. Eight hundred species of wild palm have flourished by his hand, including some—carefully carried from Brazil, Borneo, and Madagascar—that had been given to extinction.
"On the last day of the world," Merwin wrote nearly thirty years ago, "I would want to plant a tree."
His new book, published in September, is called Garden Time. Blind now, reciting his poems to his beloved wife, gardening in the dark by touch and smell and taste and ear and by intuition born of careful attention, the eighty-nine-year-old Merwin continues to live in deep relation with the world. His poems are not "hopeful," for they concern themselves only with the present moment (which, like soil, is made wholly of what's come before). But because they are so made, because they enact an awareness of how the past informs our sense of presence, because they live according to moral commitments, and because they are so fully alive, reading Merwin is to become one with the conditions we hope for:
Ripe Seeds Falling
Ever had one of those cool moments when, after reading about a favorite person, you suddenly receive this flash of insight? You feel one part shame for not seeing it before, but three parts satisfaction for at least coming to it eventually? Well, I should have seen this with G.K. Chesterton quite some time ago, but I didn't. The surprising insight was that he was, like, actually, friendly.
I was introduced to a Chesterton who was so cool a cat that he could trounce any erroneous and ill-conceived ideology: political or religious or anything else which might stand in the way of orthodoxy. This Chesterton destroyed the proud scientific triumphalism of H.G. Wells and Huxley (think eugenics), the utopian dreams of Shaw, and other secular humanists of his time. This giant, mentally and otherwise, trounced the materialists and atheists with blasting wit and withering humour. To be truthful, I originally read the man in the following way: I searched for a topic that I disliked and then would try to find an essay on which Chesterton criticized it. (This is a wretchedly shameful thing, and I have since repented heartily.) Of course, generally if you look for a thing, you can find it. But it’s just not the right way to go about it. But everybody knows this, so I will move on.
I suppose I might have seen Chesterton as the Crusader—sword of truth in hand, gleefully excited to bloodily slay the perfidious untruth—in light of him being introduced to me as an apologist. This is one of the troubles with some Christian apologetics: it seems that often the desire to be correct is more important than that the apologist demonstrates a loving alternative to an error in reason, however, that's another topic. Anyway, I read how Chesterton had, with short shrift, dealt with the heretics of his day. To make matters worse, I read some of his more popular works (Orthodoxy, Heretics, What’s Wrong with the World and others) through that lens: tinted with impatience, brute force and pomposity. And of course, sometimes when having a crusader mentality, that seems pretty cool!
Yet, having read more of the man, I see that my early assumptions were about as far out to lunch as ... well, I don't know what. I was just really wrong. Chesterton was actually hugely humble, rarely took to an uncharitable offensive—according to most who knew him and all the biographers—and was exceedingly gracious. He also took the time to understand thoroughly the arguments of his opponents—a thing that Thomas Aquinas would approve—and tried to always gain some type of common ground with an opponent.
Moreover, unlike debaters of our own time, Chesterton was actually friends with many of his opponents. Yes, he actually was. I mean no disrespect towards to apologists like William Lane Craig for instance, but I doubt very much that if Mr. Craig died, Hitchens (if he were alive today) or Dawkins or Sam Harris etc., etc., would offer the widow financial assistance! Yet after Gilbert Keith Chesterton had passed away, this is exactly what Shaw did. During his lifetime, his opponents were truly his friends. And I wonder if this is why he was so persuasive in his life: because he was not wrestling against a person but rather an ideology. He loved people, and because his actions followed suit, people listened to him.
I wonder if today many of the apologist types—all of us—need to worry more about initiating conversation and friendship than in just being right.
When Geoffrey Hill died at the end of June, a friend and I were in the midst of trying to break into the agate of one of his poems. Back and forth, over the span of days, we emailed etymologies and conjectures, trying to work our way into bright allusive seams and necessary recesses where meanings crystallized.
In a word, Geoffrey Hill wrote work that's fraught. But as I can begin to attest, the sense of vitality that comes of arduously attending to Hill's work is profound. It's akin to the extension of consciousness William James describes in an essay on the state we call mystical. The expanse of awareness, he writes, is like seeing an expanse of shore "at the ebb of a spring tide." Hidden forms of life and history that lend the constant sea its shape and character are suddenly, and at once, utterly visible. Reading Hill is to enter such a state, but (at least for me) slowly, as gradually as light raises water.
To be sure, Geoffrey Hill could be--what is the word?--bombastic in public. I once heard a recording of him introducing a poem: "You don't ENJOY poetry!" His voice pounded the air as his hand pounded the podium (the sound was unmistakable). "You try to enjoy a poem and the poem says, 'BUGGER OFF!'"
But bombastic, of course, is precisely not the word, a fact I could have obtained through the the execution of the merest of modern efforts: highlighting, right-clicking, choosing "look up 'bombastic.'" The fact that I did not do so, but instead carelessly relied upon some vague notion of aggressive intensity I imbibed from some source I cannot name, is one of the very issues Hill's work is inclined to rectify.
As he told an interviewer last April, "Our contemporary ignorance results from methods of communication and education which have destroyed memory and dissipated attention."
Bombast once referred to cotton wadding: it was used to inflate the finery of the vainly rich. By Shakespeare's day, one's speech could be described as thus inflated, regardless of one's wealth: to speak with bombast was (and is) to speak in order to seem, to speak pompously, vacuously. Imagine saying seriously of Geoffrey Hill that his words are empty, or composed to puff himself up.
Words change, to be sure. But to regard such change—and language itself—as passively as one might absorb a slogan, with no specific thought as to resonance or history, no felt sense of perspective, no exacting efforts of attention that serve to alienate just enough to ensure a measure of freedom, is to lose both private self and public history. It is to lose what makes us human.
Hill insisted on setting things right, word by word. Even if those words are not yet understood by me, even if some of what's right is incomprehensible and may remain so for the rest of my life, Hill's concentrated efforts evoke a desire in me to be so concentrated, and a belief that such concentration matters.
It’s summer, the sky’s a hazy blue and the clouds are piling up like ice cream scoops in a bowl. All motion rendered lazy by the humidity allows my mind to wander. I wonder how many poems there are about ice cream. I know one by Wallace Stevens, “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.” But I stop my languid search as soon as I find Charles Bukowski’s “The Icecream People.” Thinking about the differences between the lives and writing styles of these two poets is as delicious as sampling dulche de leche ice cream and rocky road.
At first, I didn’t see similarities, except that they cohabited the same blue Earth for about 35 years. Wallace was a Modernist poet, breaking with the pre-modern forms of rhyme and the usual subjects of nature and religion to explore ideas about reality being a confluence of imagination and perception. He writes in elegant language with a well-varied vocabulary. Bukowski is also a modern writer who carved a new niche for himself sometimes called “dirty realism.” His poems, short stories, and novels chase a hard, fast line of drinking and women and running riot.
The two poets’ upbringings were very different. Stevens was from a wealthy family and benefitted from his father’s guidance regarding his education and career. Bukowski, who emigrated as a child from Germany to the U.S., was from a poor family. Bukowski’s father’s guidance came on the end of a leather strap that he used to consistently beat him.
Stevens’ education led through Harvard and then New York Law School. He eventually became an insurance executive with The Hartford, and lived a comfortable lifestyle in Connecticut. Bukowski dropped out of Los Angeles City College after two years, and moved to New York to begin a career as a writer. After receiving more rejections than his psyche could tolerate, Bukowski took off across the country on a ten year bender that nearly killed him. Once back in Los Angeles, he began to write again, and began to be published, at first by small publications.
Their book titles alone are interesting contrasts, and give us a vision of at least some of their personality layers. Stevens used elegant titles: Harmonium; Ideas of Order; The Auroras of Autumn. Bukowski’s titles took a different slant: Flower, Fist, and Bestial Wail; Poems Written Before Jumping Out of an 8 Story Window; and Love is a Dog from Hell.
Their language and imagery is wildly different. In the two ice cream poems alone, we come across words and phrases like these in Bukowski: pecker, leper, “nary a potential suicide,” jails, hangovers. In Stevens’ poem we see: concupiscent, “let be be the finale of seem,” “embroidered fantails,” “lamp affix its beam.” Stevens’ thoughts are more abstract, and he dresses them up. As Robert Frost complained, “it purports to make me think.” Bukowski’s ideas are clear, as John William Corrington says, his poetic world is one “in which meditation and analysis have little part.” Bukowski doesn’t dress up his ideas, he strips them naked.
Once his poems are naked, Bukowski speaks of a quasi virility, for example, like this in “The Icecream People”:
the lady has me temporarily off the bottle and now the pecker stands up better.
While Stevens expresses the loss of the same in “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle” like this:
We hang like warty squashes, streaked and rayed, The laughing sky will see the two of us Washed into rinds by rotting winter rains.
While their lifestyles and writing styles are polar opposites, the two men have commonalities. One is a vulnerability to pain. We’ve already seen how Bukowski spent formative years beaten by his father. He said this experience benefitted his writing because through it “he came to understand undeserved pain.” Once on his own, Bukowski lived life running across broken glass—chasing women, gambling, and drinking excessively. Stevens had his miseries too. He married his wife, Elsie, against his father’s wishes. When no one in the family attended his wedding, he never saw or spoke with his father again. In later years, Elsie became mentally ill, showing signs of paranoia about neighbors and the couple’s daughter’s childhood friends. In a review, Helen Vendler calls Stevens’ poem “The Snow Man” his saddest poem, “in which a man realizes that he must make something of a permanently wintry world of ice, snow, evergreens and wind, attempting to see ‘nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.’”
Perhaps it was his sorrow over Elsie that led him into confrontations we’d expect more from Bukowski. Stevens argued on two separate occasions in Key West with Robert Frost (they had strong feelings about their own ideas of poetry), and said things he shouldn’t have said about Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway afterwards started a fist fight over it and Stevens returned home to Connecticut with a puffy eye and broken hand.
Stevens and Bukowski, despite their differences, had another important characteristic in common. They had to write. As one Stevens biography puts it, he saw poetry as “the supreme fusion of the creative imagination and objective reality.” His poem “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” puts it this way:
This endlessly elaborating poem Displays the theory of poetry, As the life of poetry. A more severe,
More harassing master would extemporize Subtler, more urgent proof that the theory Of poetry is the theory of life,
As it is, in the intricate evasions of as, In things seen and unseen, created from nothingness, The heavens, the hells, the worlds, the longed-for lands.
Bukowski talked about the need to write poetry this way:
unless it comes out of your soul like a rocket, unless being still would drive you to madness or suicide or murder, don't do it.
Considering the differences and (maybe) surprising similarities between these two poets, which flavor would refresh your summer day?
It happened in the closing days of an expansive week and a half in Scotland seeing the awe inspiring ruins, breathing the thick Celtic air, rambling on the highlands and feasting on their startlingly fresh strawberries and unbeatable spuds. Settling into my early morning flight to London, I saw a ghastly image that has never quite left me: a spiny, mustard-yellow man whose grizzled body displayed with such shocking translucence the clawing effects of a life-sucking illness that the look at his decaying body arrested me with a terror so sudden and thorough that all human compassion was replaced with a gripping horror. I sat debilitated, crushingly ashamed and utterly terrified.
Searching the caches of memories filed under “comfort,” I inwardly regenerated the likeness of Great Great Grandmother from George MacDonald’s Princess stories. Reassured by the gentle crooning that all worthy rockers make under the noble weight of maternal figures, I pictured Great-Great Grandmother sitting in her attic spinning: the splendour of her luxurious silver hair softening the sharper angles of her shoulders, her rich sparkling eyes evidencing shimmering wells of compassion and strength. At that moment, as I stood in the doorway to Great Great Grandmother’s attic, I knew she would welcome me to her side, despite, perhaps even because, of the weight of my shame and fear. She, MacDonald’s illustrious depiction of the feminine side of God, would call me to her warmth and envelop me with strength and courage.
The Princess stories were my introduction to MacDonald, and the image of Great Great Grandmother has been significant in my spiritual development. My head and heart have had a thorough plunging into the world of George MacDonald of recent. MacDonald's letters, unspoken sermons, essays, fiction, poems and biographies are in the process of burrowing into my heart and soul, much like a tick into the damp fleshy parts of a mammal.
This absorption evidences itself in several ways, I sometimes catch myself three bumpy lines into a sentence, hoping against hope to smooth out the rough waters of miss mashed consonants and commas, semi-colons and symbols all fighting for prominence. When this happens, my groan is swiftly followed with an optimistic sigh; I am pleased that MacDonald’s influence is consciously and unconsciously making its way into my inner workings. Although I don’t necessarily agree with the entirety of his world view, now that I know more about it, he has illustrated a more compassionate, gracious and loving approach to life. And, as such, philosophy, theology, personality and penmanship, when I see bits of it eeking out in my own work? Well, I couldn’t be more thrilled.
The habit-forming pain, Mismanagement and grief: We must suffer them all again.
These words were written by a gay man—a man who had recently met the love of his life, a man who did not feel safe to speak openly about this love, a man under threat of incarceration and violence because of this love. These words were written by a man facing news of tragedy—a horror caused by politicians’ greed and stupidity and inability to live in peace, a horror which he’d been through before, a horror which seemed to be repeating itself in a nightmarish, unstoppable cycle.
These words are W.H. Auden’s. They are from his poem “September 1, 1939,” written on the eve of World War II.
America loves this poem. We turn to it in moments of national mourning. It was ubiquitous after the 9/11 attacks. Politicians quoted it. Newspapers reprinted it. I myself have shared it with students and on social media during each of the recent mass shootings.
When we reach for the comfort of this poem, we don’t usually leave time to discuss Auden’s sexuality. We don’t pause to decode the poem’s references to the struggle of being queer in the 1930s. In fact, in some versions reprinted after September 11th, 2001, all sections that hinted at this were snipped out.
These references are obscure, so they probably just seemed confusing and off-topic. (Remember Auden, as a British citizen, lived under threat of criminal prosecution for sodomy—references to his homosexuality had to be coded. This was more than a stylistic choice.)
Nothing hateful was meant by the shortening of the poem, right? It just seems pointless to bring up Auden’s queer identity, right? Pointless to acknowledge that the first line, “I sit in one of the dives /on Fifty-second Street” is most likely a reference to a gay bar. What good would it do, bringing that up? After 9/11, it probably seemed like an irrelevant detail. In the wake of the Orlando shooting at Pulse nightclub, it seems less so.
You can posit that an author’s sexual orientation is nobody’s business, or claim we shouldn’t bring biography into art. But we live in a society where straight is default, so to say nothing is to imply heterosexuality.
So with a writer like Auden (or Whitman or Dickinson or Shakespeare or Woolf or Cather or Bowie or St. Vincent Millay or Oliver or Cohen or Ocean or Jónsi), to say nothing is to be complicit in a lie of omission.
This lie is convenient, as most lies tend to be. It lets readers absorb all the beauty and comfort and strength of a poem without ever even knowing that they’ve been identifying—on a personal, emotional level—with a queer writer. Many Americans who drew strength from Auden’s poem in 2001 never had the opportunity to grapple with the fact that its author was queer, simply because they didn’t know.
When we read, we are in someone else’s head for a minute. Through this mind-boggling miracle that is literature, we learn to listen to voices other than our own. We develop empathy.
Some might say, oh, let me just enjoy the beauty of this art without worrying about its context. Nope. You don’t get that luxury. Our country has an empathy deficiency. Does that sound dramatic? Consider the conservative churches who wondered “how to respond” to the mass murder at Pulse, or worse, responded with hate. Consider that threats toward the Muslim community in Orlando have already begun.
Queer voices are already included on required reading lists in nearly every high school. These could be a powerful weapon against hate and ignorance, but we can’t activate that power unless we acknowledge the sexuality of the authors we teach. (And of course, we need to drastically increase the diversity of those reading lists, too.)
If you’re familiar with “September 1, 1939,” you’ve probably heard that Auden later disowned his poem. The line he hated most was “we must love one another or die” because, he said, “we die anyway.”
Here’s the stanza in its original form:
All I have is a voice To undo the folded lie, The romantic lie in the brain Of the sensual man-in-the-street And the lie of Authority Whose buildings grope the sky: There is no such thing as the State And no one exists alone; Hunger allows no choice To the citizen or the police; We must love one another or die.
I can see why Auden would write off that last line. After the war, it must have seemed so naïve. And the famous image in the poem’s final stanza—lights dotting a dark horizon—can feel a little pat in the face of so much tragedy.
The poem has value, though. Maybe not so much to comfort, but to challenge. When I read the line “all I have is a voice / to undo the folded lie,” I think of the many “folded lies” we face today: the NRA’s bizarre grip on our legislation, bigotry thinly disguised as patriotism, religion being twisted to justify both hate crimes and hateful responses. And the folded lie of heteronormativity that continues to be told through the censorship and casual omission of queer voices, both in literature and in life.
So many lies, folded up so tightly. It is overwhelming. That’s probably why Auden wrote (and why most of us still like) that comforting-if-slightly-illogical line about love.
We can’t undo all the lies at once. But we can honor Auden’s voice. Re-read “September 1, 1939,”—all of it—and remember it was written in a gay bar; read it in remembrance of the 50 beautiful lives cut horrifically short on a Sunday morning in a gay bar. And when you finish the poem, spend some time reading the stories of the victims. Find yourself in these stories, even if—especially if—they are different from your own. Mourn for each lost voice. Mourn for all of us.
The world of written personal correspondence can be a tremulous one. I discovered this while in the preliminary stages of a questing romantic relationship. I was, not unkindly, told that the “real life me” was quite pleasantly different than the more opaque “me in letters.”
Now, this judgement had nothing to do with how or in what light I presented myself, but the way I presented myself. In print, it was gently suggested, it seemed I may have felt the urge to prove prowess and hide true meanings in complex language and ideologies—trying to demonstrate ability rather than authenticity. In my letters, it seemed to my correspondent, I took pains to veil myself: to create complexities of meaning that, in real life, were an illegitimate representation of the real time me. This suggestion, though not intended to hurt, did indeed cause much troubling self-doubt and questioning of my abilities and motivations as a communicator. In truth, I was not trying to flex an amateur writing muscle, and I was tender that the attempt to bare my soul and thoughts in letters was interpreted as mere posturing. Many maturing persons learn to cultivate the painful experience of being misunderstood into fodder for genuine flourishing: leaning with greater trust into the true self and the Person from whom it has been forged. Perhaps it wasn’t the complete misunderstanding that I had earlier hoped, though. In this case, I have wondered for years if those letters belied an unconscious belief about what the important stuff is: the stuff which deserves to be written about.
There are limitations to words on a page, of course. We all know what these are: turns of words and phrases shorn of tone, facial expression or body language. It seems in this age of communicative technology we have aids to visual transparency—though if our relationships are richer for it I am in great doubt. But this is not a diatribe on the dying art of penmanship; it is a meditation on what I learned of George MacDonald the man through his letters.
I started out expecting to learn some behind the scenes information about his theology, approach to composition, relationships and outlook on life in general. And while I did get some glimpses into these issues, what I really gained was perspective on MacDonald as a human being. A man who started a great deal of his letters with phrases like “I am ashamed to see by the date of your note how long I have delayed my answer” or “I am dreadfully busy, and carry a conscience oppressed with letters unwritten.” MacDonald the sufferer: a man often afflicted at various stages of his life with lumbago, back aches, abscesses, asthma, pleurisy, bronchitis, sleep disturbances, poverty and loss. MacDonald the requester: the hopeful often asking for help, whether monetary, materially or for a recommendation from a person of influence. MacDonald the friend: the writer of hope filled birthday wishes and heart filled condolences, gratitude rich thank you notes and pain soaked news of personal loss.
Perhaps, unconsciously, I was hoping to discover a hidden artifact or a little known nugget of knowledge that would help me piece together his vision: instead what I saw was evidence of the merit he placed in the daily-ness of life. George MacDonald the man of personal correspondence was just that: a man. Of course, as a human saturated and consummated in the vast breadth of Love, these themes pervade his letters, but the letters themselves are not necessarily about them. The near ordinariness of his topics is compelling. I should, of course, not be surprised by this because he did not reject the stuff our days are made of. He knew that no person is ordinary and no life is humdrum: we are children of “a live heart at the center of the lovely order of the Universe—a heart to which all the rest is but a clothing form—a heart that bears every truthful thought, every help-needing cry of each of its children.”
Poems move us through space of one kind or another. Since so many words began their lives in some action or image (the Latin source of “redundant,” for example, contains the image of overflowing waves), even abstract poetry creates a sense of navigation. In poetry filled with overtly concrete imagery, of course, this movement’s easier to feel, and the shapes described in the movement through the space can be revealing.
Consider these two poems, one by the late Seamus Heaney, an Irishman who taught in America, the other by the late Galway Kinnell, the American son of an Irish immigrant. A dozen years separated their births, and a decade divided the writing of these poems: Heaney’s “Digging” appeared in 1966; Kinnell’s “St. Francis and the Sow” in 1976. In both poems, the shape the speaker’s attention makes—determined by the sequence of imagery in space—describes a figure central to the meaning of the poem.
Heaney’s poem “Digging” begins as an elegy for the life he cannot lead—the farmer’s way of his father and his father’s father—then becomes the very means of uncovering a sense of kinship between that way and his own, a knowledge that gives his life meaning and purpose. As he makes this discovery, his attention drops and rises, dips and returns. It falls from his window to the ground, where it unearths the sustenance he needs: a precisely felt awareness of his place, his people, his history. The fruit of his attention he carries back up to his room, where the gripped pen readies to fall again and again to the work at hand. Digging.
Between my finger and my thumb The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound When the spade sinks into gravelly ground: My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds Bends low, comes up twenty years away Stooping in rhythm through potato drills Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft Against the inside knee was levered firmly. He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep To scatter new potatoes that we picked, Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade. Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day Than any other man on Toner’s bog. Once I carried him milk in a bottle Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up To drink it, then fell to right away Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods Over his shoulder, going down and down For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge Through living roots awaken in my head. But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb The squat pen rests. I’ll dig with it.
“St. Francis and The Sow” is a song sung in praise of the flesh, especially that which might be called filthy, ugly, broken, stained, beneath the notice of the upright. St. Francis loved each creature equally. He found the imprint of God’s love within every made thing. And so it is no surprise to find the figure of the cross embedded in the description of the animal at the end of the poem, when the speaker leads us in a litany of imagery, from the snout to the tail, then from “the hard spininess spiked out from the spine” down to the “fourteen teats” that nourish the animal’s young. Unmixed attention is prayer, Simone Weil once wrote. Here, our attention to the least among us traces a cross inherent in living flesh, even as our attention’s direction describes the action of a blessing.
Saint Francis and the Sow
The bud stands for all things, even for those things that don’t flower, for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing; though sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness, to put a hand on its brow of the flower and retell it in words and in touch it is lovely until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing; as Saint Francis put his hand on the creased forehead of the sow, and told her in words and in touch blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow began remembering all down her thick length, from the earthen snout all the way through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail, from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine down through the great broken heart to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them: the long, perfect loveliness of sow.
Naomi Shihab Nye describes poetry as “a conversation with the world, a conversation with those words on the page allowing them to speak back to you—a conversation with yourself.”A few weeks ago, at AWP, I heard Nye speak on a poetry-activism panel with Luis Rodriguez and Rachel Eliza Griffiths. Griffiths’ photography and poetry gives voice to the grief and rage she feels at the police brutality in America. Rodriguez, the Poet Laureate of Los Angeles, has seen poetry unite his diverse, complicated city. All three poets spoke with a beautiful urgency, reminding us of the power in our art.
This seemed to be the theme of AWP. Claudia Rankine was the keynote speaker. Her book, Citizen, is the perfect example of revolution-inciting poetry.
In fact, every session and panel seemed to be built on this same idea. Throughout the conference, I kept thinking of the last line of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” After contemplating the beauty and power of the statue, the speaker feels an edict: “You must change your life.”
The Monday after the conference, I drove to work in a bit of a funk. I missed the urgency and energy and buzz of the conference. Then the story of Dagmar and Wali came on NPR and reminded me that returning to regular life was the whole point.
The story concerns a very odd couple: Dagmar Nordberg is a 60-year-old Swedish museum director. Wali Hafiz is a 23-year-old Afghani engineer and refugee. Wali was brutally beaten and left for dead by the Taliban after he refused to support their efforts. He was forced to leave his wife and young daughter and flee to Sweden. This excerpt from the NPR transcript describes Wali and Dagmar’s first encounter:
They met on a train platform in a nearby village on a freezing cold day last November.
"He was standing there in a T-shirt, with his jeans and his cotton shoes," Nordberg recalls. "And I thought he was just one of these boys playing computer games all day long. And I've come to that age where I can say things, so I just passed him by and I said, 'It's winter!' "
Hafiz says he had so many problems he couldn't think about the weather. And besides, he didn't own a jacket. Nordberg remembers he was so stressed that he was sweating, but he replied politely.
"He said, 'I know, ma'am,'" she says. "That was the first time I heard Wali's voice."
Nordberg says she understood then that he was a lost refugee and she could either go on with her life or help him. "I just knew I had this choice here and now, and whatever I do will have consequences," she says.
So she took him in, taught him English, and secured him an apprenticeship. If you play the story to the end, you’ll hear them laughing together at her kitchen table…two unlikely kindred spirits.
I’m sure Dagmar, as a museum director, would have liked what Nye, Rodriguez, Griffiths and Rankin had to say at AWP, if she’d been able to hear it. I’m sure that when she curates the art in her museum, she looks for works that challenge and inspire change.
What amazes me is the way she altered her life in one moment, because of one encounter. Her story reminds me that it isn’t enough to listen to great speakers or to feel moved by great art. We must also be willing to take action.
I can’t get over that line she called out over the train platform— “It’s winter.”
Those words did what Nye says all poems should do. They connected strangers and moved them from hostility to understanding. They began a conversation. And ultimately, they transformed.
Printed out on a page, separated from their story, they might not look like much.
Still, that’s the best poem I’ve heard in years.
One morning in her thirty-ninth year, in her father’s house where she lived as a near-invalid from a respiratory ailment that had plagued her since childhood, Elizabeth Barrett received a fan letter from a struggling poet six years her junior. "I love your poems," the missive began.
Over the next twenty months, Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett exchanged 574 letters, culminating in a telegram from Robert: “I love your poems—and I love you.” The lovers had yet to meet in the flesh.
When they did, two months later, they eloped, sailing to Italy, where Barrett’s health bloomed and where they welcomed the birth of a son, whom they nicknamed Pen.
Three years into their marriage, Barrett presented Browning with a ribbon-bound packet. It was made of forty-four love poems, many written when the two had known each other through words alone.
Robert urged Elizabeth to share the poems with the world. "I dared not reserve to myself the finest sonnets written in any language since Shakespeare's," he later wrote.
Barrett finally agreed to publish the intensely private works, but only under the guise that she’d discovered them in a foreign tongue and rendered them into the one that she and her husband held in common.
The poems appeared in her next book, in 1850: “Sonnets from the Portuguese.”
My letters! all dead paper, mute and white! And yet they seem alive and quivering Against my tremulous hands which loose the string And let them drop down on my knee to-night. This said,—he wished to have me in his sight Once, as a friend: this fixed a day in spring To come and touch my hand . . . a simple thing, Yet I wept for it!—this, . . . the paper’s light . . . Said, Dear I love thee; and I sank and quailed As if God’s future thundered on my past. This said, I am thine—and so its ink has paled With lying at my heart that beat too fast. And this . . . O Love, thy words have ill availed If, what this said, I dared repeat at last!
Words long for flesh. The textured pages Browning impressed with his pen were folded by his hands, carried, hand by hand, to the reaching hand of his beloved. His words lived with her before he could. They lay in her lap, in her hands, against her breast. They burned and paled. Every curve of Browning’s ink was as distinctive as the shape of breath that whispered it to life.
Am I speaking from mere nostalgia when I ask what the lovers of our age will have to hold? Will a touchable screen of scrollable text suffice? Will words composed of pixels that must recombine into the next desired object, words displayed in a uniform face that may be swapped for another at will, each indistinguishable from the face of some other utterance—a slogan, say—none of them able to be traced by hand in hopes of discerning the character of the heart that wrote them, none of them able to be worn by touch: will this give an apt accounting of the love? Perhaps this is, in part, why Barrett did not want her sonnets set into type. What is lost when words cannot bear the alterations made by the passion of their use? What will love consist of when the words that compose its expression are diffused into ether?
Fifteen years after her love was made flesh by the quickening of ink, Elizabeth Barrett died, in her husband’s arms.
Sometimes, when I’m burnt out, I look to Rilke. Not his Letters to a Young Poet, or his masterpiece, Duino Elegies, but to his very first collection, Wegwarten. It was self-published, and he handed it out on street corners. One version of the story even claims he did this while “dressed in the black habit of an abbé with long curly hair.”
I really hate feeling foolish. I think, perhaps, it’s my deepest fear. I know, I know….my deepest fear ought to be something more lofty or noble, but honestly, embarrassment terrifies me.
I teach junior highers, so basically, I spend my days with 130 walking manifestations of this fear. They are never still—always tucking, brushing, fixing, sweating, lip-glossing, whispering, watching. They are little machines of anxious, self-protective energy.
When I think back on my own junior high years, I remember how intensely I wanting to blend in—to disappear, be it through diets, trends, or the right hedge of friends who would shield me from the blinding glare of individuality.
Even as a writer, even all grown up, I struggle with this. I obsess over how to write what I think editors want to read. How to snuggle into a writing community in which my voice will be welcomed and lauded. I skip certain contests and journal submissions, just to avoid the embarrassment of unrealistic expectations.
Of course I also fear writing forgettable poems, yet my pride steers me away from topics that would fuel really memorable poetry—family dysfunction, social justice, feminism, sex. Topics with the potential for embarrassingly spectacular failure.
In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury writes,
You're afraid of making mistakes. Don't be. Mistakes can be profited by. Man, when I was young I shoved my ignorance in people's faces. They beat me with sticks. By the time I was forty my blunt instrument had been honed to a fine cutting point for me. If you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you and you'll never learn.
As I write this, I am a few days away from working The AWP Conference & Bookfair, and I know my first instinct will be to try to blend in with the crowd. But I’m going to try to shake off that fear. I’m making it my goal to embarrass myself early and often, for the sake of celebrating writing. To strike up a conversation with the writers I really admire, or share poems with fellow attendees, or hit up an open mic. Knowing me, it probably won’t go 100% smoothly. I’ll probably suffer at least a slight scrape to my pride.
After the sting fades, I’ll remember Rilke handing out his poetry on the street. Wegwarten was universally panned. In that moment, Rilke looked pretty foolish. But you know what? It worked out okay for him.
Your reader is right there on the other side of the table, politely and patiently listening to you. —The Poetry Home Repair Manual
Dear Mr. Kooser,
I guess I’d say I’m a struggling young poet. Struggling in the sense that I’m still trying to figure out how to write poems. Young in the sense that I don’t have a book, yet. A poet in the way people call themselves poets until they’ve got a book, after which they generally just call themselves writers. I’m also a Midwestern boy, like yourself. Maybe that’s why your work has been resonating with me, lately. Or with a part of me.
I’ve seen the truck in “So This is Nebraska,” though I grew up in the burbs. Every once in a while we had cause to drive a little out beyond the clutter of the Northwest Highway to where, not very far away, there were still patches of wheat and corn and soy fields among the trees, with a two-story farmhouse nearby with some old metal chairs, a picnic table, and often as not a tire swing out front. Get a little farther away from the highway and you see the fields where someone left a tractor, or a plough, or, indeed, an old Ford pickup truck that has come to belong there as much as the oaks and the prairie grass.
But I was a kid who played on the giant slide. I never much liked my hometown. I always wanted to get away to “the city,” by which I meant not New York or LA or even Chicago but just a medium-sized city.
I wound up in Grand Rapids, then Portland, Oregon, then the little college town that butts up against Chicago but has its own inner life. I’ve been content to read about the big, dark cities in Superman and Batman comics, which, I know, only present certain mythic visions of the city, perhaps like you present a mythic vision of the country.
Is there such a myth of the suburbs? Should there be? The poetry of the suburbs can be often entertaining, often even profound, but rarely, I think, mythic without descending to satire.
Where am I going with all this? You see how your kindly, wise voice makes me reflect upon myself, makes me want to circle back to the things that make me me? That’s why I’m writing to you, because you seem like a decent poet, by which I do not mean to damn with faint praise but to praise with faint words. I see so little decency anywhere. I mean not just online or in the news or in politics, but in our television dramas and comedies, in our novels or poems or memoirs. I see people trying to be decent in specific parts of their lives, but few of them trying to be altogether good and decent.
You describe writing a poem as a conversation with an audience whose time and perspective one ought to respect. It’s so decent of you. When I was in school, that was considered a rather naïve way to read or write, though I believed in it. I still do, I think.
I hope a decent poet is also a decent man, but at least the man must have decency in him to write with decency. You aren’t actually naïve. You know the world changes, you know people do violence to one another. You just don’t get overly vexed about your inability to control how the world adapts to your presence in it; you don’t even seem to expect it to.
You’re like John Ames in Gilead, loving the world because you feel your tenuous relationship to it. Maybe Robinson had read your work before she started writing that quiet, beautiful, celebratory book. Probably not, but it’s a pleasant thought to me, because you’re a writer worthy of such a book.
To a Midwestern suburban boy like me, a decent man can’t quite be compared either to a mountain or a monument or to the dense mass of a bull in a field, though they all suggest themselves. Rather, reading you makes me think of the water tower at the top of the hill behind my house. We could see that water tower sometimes from a mile or two away if we got up high enough, and it always told us where home was relative to where our adventuring had taken us. It wasn’t the prettiest water tower, or the biggest, but it was ours, and it stood sentry over much of my childhood. They also serve who only stand and wait—or write.
Thank you, Mr. Kooser.
“Look for contrast, look for repetition—you’ll find your melody.” —Larry Sayler, violin teacher, Northfield School of the Liberal Arts (2005-2009)
My former colleague Larry Sayler said the words above to a sixth-grader during morning convocation at my school in 2008. His topic was the sonata form. He'd just played a particularly tricky one—a late example, perhaps by Mahler—on his beloved instrument. The boy’s hand went up. He was having trouble, he said, figuring out what exactly he should listen for inside of what seemed a jumble of noises. Where was the melody? He knew it was there, for he had learned that from Mr. Sayler already. But how could he tune his ears to hear it?
Mr. Sayler’s response immediately spoke beyond the subject at hand, and has become central to the way that I teach, for it resonates with the metacognitive process that underlies the understanding of every subject at hand: the progression the ancients called the trivium.
Grammar (broadly speaking, the defining and assembling of the basic units of any subject), logic (the practice of discerning how such units interrelate), and rhetoric (the communication of what’s being discovered) is central to any search for meaning. In this way, to discern import within a given work of literature (and perhaps within any given life?), one must
—distinguish and define individual “grammatical units” within the work itself (in the language of music, these take the form of notes and measures, key signatures, tempo; in literature, we speak of diction and syntax, etymology and connotation, images and meters, alliteration and personification)
—in order to find patterns within and among those grammatical units (what sounds are repeated? what images? what words? which words are dissonant? what images? which sounds?)
—so that we may arrive at an articulation of a theme, a meaning, that’s at play within the work (The etymology of “salvage” on the first page of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf contains the tension between the pagan and Christian world views that defines the Anglo-Saxon work as a whole)
Thus, whether reading The Tempest or Native American myths, The Divine Comedy or A Christmas Carol, a book-length poem in medieval literature or a back-page print advertisement in capstone rhetoric, we look for patterns of congruence and antithesis in order to arrive at meaning, the integrity of which we test in class discussion and essay-writing.
And, once we learn to discern themes playing within a given work—once we learn to distinguish meaningful patterns within a work—that book or poem or essay itself becomes, in essence, a unit of grammar, one that can be compared and contrasted with other works within its time, or with contemporaneous historical or scientific events that have become “grammatical units” to the students via their other classes. (In what ways is Macbeth lodged against—and within—the forces that gave rise to the Gunpowder Plot, and the cultural forces at work in its aftermath? How did the ideas of physicist Niels Bohr find passage into the poetic consciousness of one of his dinner companions at Amherst College in 1923, Robert Frost?)
What’s more, these larger grammatical units—these poems and plays and novels—though rooted in time, can be compared and contrasted with other grammatical works across space and time. (What lines of thought and feeling connect the Elizabethan Dr. Faustus with the Romantic Dr. Frankenstein? How does Plato’s Allegory of the Cave intersect with Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation”? Why does the rhythm and syntax of a line in Annie Dillard’s A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek echo those of a line of William Wordsworth’s, written two and a half centuries before, and an entire ocean away?)
To read literature is to enter what Sven Birkerts calls “deep time,” a contemplative space where one can discern “the shadow of import alongside the body of fact.” In our classroom, the trivium’s three roads lead us into that space .
We read slowly. We read aloud. We talk about what we’ve read. We write about it. We strive to be people, as Henry James once wrote, upon whom nothing is lost. We want to hear the music.