I watched and heard my students say these lines, and so many more, one day in January. They were embodying poems they'd learned by heart, each one saying two: one of 25 lines or fewer, and one composed before the twentieth century was. We were following the rules of Poetry Out Loud, the national poetry recitation contest sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts.Read More
Filtering by Tag: William Coleman
I’ve been mentoring a student in a senior project on poetics. Recently we read this wrenching instance of the sestina, a form that calls for the same six words, in differing orders, to end the lines of six consecutive stanzas, then for the sudden yoking of those words into a three-line envoy.Read More
In the winter of 1959, Richard Wilbur was told that a word in a poem he'd submitted to The New Yorker had to be changed. It possessed the "wrong connotation" for the magazine, the interim poetry editor wrote, relaying the wishes of editors higher up on the masthead, including, presumably, William Shawn himself.Read More
The Latin word condere means to found, to make, or to bury. It also means to strike such that the instrument is plunged in what is struck. Virgil sets the multivalent word to work at once in his Aeneid, tuning it to sing the praise of Roman making. ("tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem" ; "So great a task it was to found the Roman race.")
But when we meet the word again at story's end, there is a shudder, as a circuit we did not know was being fashioned, line by line, is made complete: Aeneus sinks his blade into the side of Turnus, an issuing of violence that in turn gives birth to Rome. Destined rage, destined mercilessness, destined empire: we're made to think again of all that came before, and all that came of that.
My wife, figuring another circuit, describes such linguistic pairs as knots at the ends of the tailor's thread. One allows the stitch to happen, the other's made to stem the seam that's stitched. The kindred knots, sharing a nature, are separated by the union they helped to fashion.
Thus in Denmark, Grendel slaughters thirty men, and the hero, stepping ashore two hundred and fifty lines later, is said to have "the strength of thirty" in his grip.
Thus the troubled prince of Denmark calls his love "nymph"--nymph, the water-bride; nymph, the water-called--and in the span of an act, Ophelia's drawn into the brook.
Thus Macbeth, drenched in guilt, turns to his wife:
It will have blood; they say, blood will have blood: Stones have been known to move and trees to speak; Augurs and understood relations have By magot-pies and choughs and rooks brought forth The secret'st man of blood. What is the night?
And his wife responds,
Almost at odds with morning, which is which.
Shakespeare sets her line at the play's dead center (act III, scene iv): midnight in the drama's time, midnight in the staged running of that time, midnight in the realm of the usurping king's soul. How apt, then, how terrifyingly apt, that Lady Macbeth unconsciously (that is to say, homophonically) reminds him (and herself?) of the force that set the dark in motion ("which is which"). The stitch.
What's more, because the work at hand cannot exist without us, the circuit's made complete within us. The stitch's loop depends on our awareness. We feel a sudden tautness ripple the warp and weft of our material. Cinched more tightly to the act of creation, we feel an intimation of immortality; we feel the final meaning of condere: completion.
In 1983, W.S. Merwin wrote a poem called “Late Wonders.” It's a poem I return to, especially when given to wonder myself, about why poetry matters.
Though the work's over three decades old, its import—in terms of what pollutes our air and discourse, the ways in which the realm of critical and compassionate imagination has been annexed by the overweening need to be entertained—remains potent.
In Los Angeles the cars are flowing through the white air and the news of bombings
you can ride through an avalanche if you have never ridden through an avalanche
with your ticket you can ride on a trolley before which the Red Sea parts just the way it did for Moses
you can see Los Angeles destroyed hourly you can watch the avenue named for somewhere else the one on which you know you are crumple and vanish incandescent with a terrible cry all around you rising from the houses and families of everyone you have seen all day driving shopping talking eating
it's only a movie it's only a beam of light
The poem is a dark appraisal of what happens when destruction is treated as an occasion for consumption, when what's considered real is only that which operates under our control, when our neighbors become figures in a spectacle we've worked to pay for, and when we are automated to pass, untroubled, through waves of air bearing knowledge that would move a mind to horror. When we lose compassion and awe, the very provinces of poetry, we lose what makes us human.
The indictment could not be more complete. And yet when I read it, I feel something more akin to invigoration than defeat. I want to read it again and again, and to teach it to whomever will listen, beginning with me.
I think I feel this way because the poem itself is an act of resolution. A living, present man set it down on paper. He wrote it, and then, by God, he rewrote it. He crafted of his outrage a poem, summoned on its behalf all of his meaning-deepening and connection-finding energies. And then he mailed it across an ocean from his home in Hawaii, asking that it be published, first in a periodical, and then in a collection he called Opening the Hand, and then in his latest volume of selected poems, Migration. He worked a poem awake and sent it into our lives because in poetry, there are no lost causes. Within the integrity of poetic vision, nothing is forgotten, nothing can be cast away. Even us. For our limitations are rendered in the means of our rehabilitation: paradox and metaphor and imagery, complex ironies and rich ambiguities—the means of acts of life-sustaining attention.
Merwin's poem shows us that to exist without poetic consciousness is to be a tourist in a given world; it is to believe that all was fashioned to bring pleasure, that people exist to facilitate the satisfaction of desire, and that what happens, even when it happens right before our eyes—especially then—is not real, because nowhere feels like home. And it is to pay no mind to the condition in which we leave it.
Outside the room in which I teach is a postcard holding this quote by Christian Wiman, the former editor of Poetry Magazine:
Let us remember…that in the end we go to poetry for one reason, so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both.
These are words I believe Merwin would affirm, for his work embodies them. They recall to me why poetry matters, why teaching poetry matters, and why writing and reading poems—even those that, in their subject matter, dispraise—is an act of urgency and hope.
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.
Womp, brio, alembic, the Albigensian Crusade. Each of these terms was lost on me recently as I tried to read. Each propelled me back to the surface of the page against my will, where I bobbed helplessly, far from reference, cursing my ignorance, the younger self that chose the appearance of intelligence over the disciplined work of reading. How many books did I pretend to read in high school, how many did I skim to glean the keys that might unlock a grade, or the impressed nod of a teacher? Close to thirty years later, I am still paying for those adolescent sins of omission. It was with a jolt, therefore, that the next day I heard my colleague Noah say the following in a faculty meeting at the high school where I work: "The desire to seem is the only thing that's lessened me in the presence of truth." He was recalling Camus, he told us. "Love is the opposite of seeming: in it, we reveal ourselves, not to seem, but to give." We'd been talking about our identity as a school. What was it, we wondered together, that defined our place? Words were offered and considered: service, rigor, hospitality, community. We discussed the term "classical school"— what did that mean, exactly? What about "Christian"?
Our headmaster and Latin teacher, a man who begins our every school day with a prayer that we may "learn to be more selfless and less selfish," praised our words thus far, and posited another: humility. Our math teacher said we teach discernment; she said we seek to see the human heart so we may see the need for redemption.
“The pyramid served one man," Noah said. "The power, the rule system, was vertical. All served the Pharaoh. But the Great Conversation occurs in a different space." We were sitting around the giant oak table in the parlor of the Victorian House that served as one-half of our campus (the other half being the house next door). "We look at each another: we talk, we share ideas. And behind us—"here, we became aware of the bookshelves lining every wall—"are ghosts, and they're speaking too." I recalled the days when Noah was a student in my class, seated at this very table—how much I learned from his deep reading in so many of the books that now were at our backs. "In this place, we may not end up agreeing, but we will end up seeing," he said.
It is difficult, even terrifying, to see and to be seen. It requires strength and faith to hazard an adventure into the unknown, to try to posit a wayward thought, to do the work required to speak with precision and authority, to trust that those who are looking back at you (fellow students, teachers; George Eliot,Flannery O'Connor) are themselves honest, fellow seekers. It's not easy, but its end is to end all seeming, which is to say it participates in the condition of love. They are gifts, these people, these ideas, these words we cannot yet understand. To look up alembic is an act of love.
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.
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.
“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.
Jack White found the pulse of “Seven Nation Army” at a sound check in Australia. "What do you think of this?" he said to a friend who was passing by, before launching into what would become one of the most famous guitar riffs in history. ("It feels less like someone wrote it than it was unearthed. It's something that's always been there," Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine told the BBC in 2014, a decade after the song's release). The song that, in time, was to come of that riff has been blasted from stadium loudspeakers across the world, has stood atop Billboard's rock chart, and now holds a place in Rolling Stone's Top 500 Songs of All Time. "It's all right," White's friend said.
“It’s almost great when people say that,” White continued, "because it makes you get defensive in your brain and think, no, there’s something to this. You don't see it yet. It's gonna get there. You gotta have some imagination, you tell yourself."
White’s story, recounted in the documentary It Might Get Loud, brought to mind a passage from In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing, by Walter Murch, in which the Oscar-winning editor of Apocalypse Now and The English Patient likens the dynamics at play between a director and his editor to those found within a certain kind of dream therapy:
“In dream therapy there is a technique that pairs the patient—the dreamer, in this case—with someone who is there to listen to the dream. As soon as possible after waking, the dreamer gets together with his listener to review the dreams of the previous night. Frequently there is nothing, or just a single disappointing image, but this is usually enough to begin the process.
“Once the image is described, the listener’s job is to propose an imaginary sequence of events based on that fragment. An airplane, for instance, is all that is remembered. The listener immediately proposes that it must have been an airliner flying over Tahiti filled with golf balls for a tournament in Indonesia. No sooner has this description been offered than the dreamer finds himself protesting: ‘No, it was a bi-plane, flying over the battlefields of France, and Hannibal was shooting arrows at it from his legion of elephants.’
“In other words, the dream itself, hidden in the memory, rises to its own defense when it hears itself being challenged by an alternate version, and so reveals itself. This revelation about bi-planes and elephants can in turn prompt the listener to elaborate another improvisation, which will coax out another aspect of the hidden dream, and so on, until as much of the dream is revealed as possible.”
“We are mysteries to ourselves,”poet Geoffrey Hill found himself saying when questioned by The Paris Review. What could be more true? If we knew ourselves as God is said to know us, we’d have no need of art. Negotiating resistant distance is central to the creative act.
When a poet like John Keats is composing, for example, as literary critic Sven Birkerts once observed, “it is not a case of the poet’s inventing lines, but rather of his finding sounds and rhythms in accordance with the promptings of the deeper psyche. The poet does not rest with a line until he has released a specific inner pressure.”
And perhaps because it is born of resistance, art can engender meaningful resistance in others. “Tyranny requires simplification,” Geoffrey Hill says in the same interview. “[A]ny complexity of language, any ambiguity, any ambivalence implies intelligence. Maybe an intelligence under threat, maybe an intelligence that is afraid of consequences, but nonetheless an intelligence working in qualifications and revelations . . . resisting, therefore, tyrannical simplification.”
In 2011, White’s song became an anthem of the Arab Spring; it was featured on a Democracy Now! broadcast after Egyptian-born writer Mona Eltahawy opened an influential column this way:
“As the people of my homeland, Egypt, stage a popular uprising against the 30-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, the White Stripes keep singing in my head: ‘I’m gonna fight ’em off /A seven-nation army couldn’t hold me back!’
“I don’t know if Jack and Meg of the White Stripes are watching the breathtaking developments taking place in my country. However, their thumping, pumping ‘Seven Nation Army’ is a perfect anthem for the defiance and adrenaline-fueled determination that must be propelling the tens of thousands of courageous, protesting Egyptians.”
In It Might Get Loud, White is telling his story to Jimmy Page and The Edge. He was thankful for his friend’s resistance. It helped him find his song.
“I kept at it,” he said.
Flannery O’Connor said her fiction was concerned with “the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil,” and that “violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace” and that “[a]ll human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.” So it can be nothing like news—though it is thrilling—to discover, as several of my high school students did in tandem during class discussions in September, that the color of bruising marks O'Connor's “Revelation,” the story of the essential humbling of a certain Mrs. Turpin.
As they led me to see, the acne borne by the young vessel of truth, Mary Grace, is “blue,” betraying the deepest of influence. Mary's coloring becomes the bruise above Mrs. Turpin’s eye (born of Mary Grace's thrown book) as slowly she is made ready for alteration, her suffering come to render her sensitive to the conditions of others.
Just before she's given the revelation of a divine ladder (a vision that appears within a field of blue-black sky), upon which Turpin sees her self-satisfied kind at the very end of a procession that's triumphantly led by the very “niggers” and “white trash” she’d labeled and categorized--just before that vision, she finds herself watching her husband drive the African-American farm workers home. For "five or six minutes," she stands in anxious stillness, watching the "tiny truck" ("it looked like a child's toy") make its slow way along a darkening road, a road lined on either side by lavender. Only when she is certain that all are safe can she move, "a monumental statue coming to life."
It felt like a revelation in itself to be led to follow this circle of painful coloring in the story. I love O’Connor's work. I know change can feel like breakage. I know resistance to change can feel as powerful as the force that can cleave the earth in two. But I know too that grace need not feel like imposition. Sometimes it falls as gently as a hand slipping silently into another’s.
It was Thursday morning. I was rushing to dump my half-drunk coffee into the travel mug; I was worried about papers I’d failed to grade the night before; I was worried about the car and about health insurance, which is to say that I was worried about money; and I was worried about being late. One of my former students was coming to speak that morning at convocation. I needed to greet her at the door; what kind of host would I be if I didn't? And I needed to think about my introduction. And I needed--
A hand. My wife’s. Without a word, without one sound, but with a smile, my beloved towed me through the kitchen, through the dining room, across the corner of the living room, through the French doors of the little library, across the rug her friend had given us, and stopped to stand beside me at the window set within the eastern wall. There I saw the crimson sky, spread upon the bare branches of the oak.
I arrived at school in plenty of time to talk to Alexis, who had already made her way to the converted garage that served as our convocation hall. She was not, in the least, put out that I had not been waiting for her on the front porch of our schoolhouse. She didn’t mind the time to herself, she said. Then she told me that she had decided to talk about mindfulness.
Her first year away at college had been difficult, she said to us that morning. Then one Sunday, she was talking to her brother on the phone.
“Are you enjoying your coffee?” he asked her.
“Of course!” she told him. “I have to caffeinate to power through the day.”
“No,” he said. “Are you enjoying your coffee?”
"It seemed the simplest thing," she told us. "Silly almost. Until I tried it." She looked up from her notes. "It is hard to sit for five minutes without an agenda,” she said. “But those are the moments when life can rush in."
“I want you to write a review for the magazine,” said Greg Wolfe, publisher and editor of Image. It was my first week on the job as managing editor. “Choose a couple books you love.”
I chose Effort at Speech by William Meredith, and Laura Fargas’s An Animal of the Sixth Day (which included “October-Struck,” the poem my fiancée, Sanda, and I had recently chosen for the cover of our wedding invitations).
I read and read. I plumped the margins with ink. And then I wrote my words, the best ones I could imagine.
Seventeen hours later, I had my pages back, accompanied by a single-spaced, laser-printed letter nearly as long as the piece I’d handed in. Wolfe praised what deserved to be praised, and took the rest—which was nearly everything—apart: sentences that wandered from native intent, phrases that hoped to make their way on charm alone, images that, if they knew any ideas at all, knew them only in passing.
I was, to say the least, upset. Every teacher since I’d been ten had praised my prose! Why, one professor in college even said…
I vented. Sanda commiserated. And then I got to work. I considered every query that was posed, and thus was led to more precise attendance to the turns of phrase and thought within my work. Slowly, painstakingly, and at long last, I began to see my words not as tender nerves composing precious me, but as the matter of the medium within which I lived and worked—out there, in here—to be formed in accordance with reality I’d perceived.
Greg had spent a good deal of a day tending to my words, hours he could have fruitfully spent elsewhere. It was an act of caring, this critique, and an act of faith.
A month later, my piece was put into print. I held the issue again and again, reviewing the now-familiar table of contents, turning to the memorized page. It was the best thing I’d ever written.
That was seventeen years ago. The same age as some of my students.
“This is where we’ll talk in an essential way,” I say to them when I hand back their first essays of the year, about their writing and about my snaking comments that inevitably encircle the whole of each page’s rectangles of text. “The amount I write is a measure of my engagement with your writing,” I tell them. "My teacher made me a better writer because he paid attention to what I wrote."
My daughter has been reading each night from The Meditations, the journal Marcus Aurelius kept as he commanded the largest army the Roman empire had ever assembled on its frontier. For a decade, he wrote with disciplined regularity as battles raged and as the plague that would one day bear his family name, The Antonine, destroyed the lives of citizens and barbarians alike—2,000 each day at the height of the epidemic. By 180 A.D., five million people had been killed, including Aurelius himself.
Aurelius’ work was spiritual exercise, a received way for the Emperor to accord his thoughts and actions with forces larger than himself, a method of allowing the abstractions of stoic philosophy to enter his consciousness so deeply that they could “dye his soul” such that his decisions and subsequent actions could move in natural sympathy with virtue. He sought to view the hardships of his days with the eyes of eternity: all is vanity, dust returning to dust.
At the same time that Madeleine reads Aurelius, I have been reading Going Clear, Lawrence Wright’s unsettling study of L. Ron Hubbard’s mind—and of the enduring paranoia that was engendered there. The book includes excerpts from The Affirmations, a diary Hubbard kept before he hit upon Dianetics and the larger system he called Scientology. The entries of this journal “constitute a kind of self-therapy,” Scientology lawyers once admitted in the course of a civil suit, before they began denying Hubbard’s authorship of the documents altogether.
And so, as Madeleine reads, “Reverence that which is best in the universe, and this is that which makes use of all things and directs all things”; “Think of the universal substance, of which thou hast a very small portion”; “Do not be carried along inconsiderately by the appearance of things"; and "Be not ashamed to be helped," I learn:
"Material things are yours for the asking. Men are your slaves"; and "You have no fear if they conceive. What if they do? You do not care. Pour it into them and let fate decide"; and "Your psychology is advanced and true and wonderful. It hypnotizes people. It predicts their emotions, for you are their ruler."
What we tell ourselves has consequences, particularly in times of dire need. What we say, though, is shaped by the perspective to which we are able to appeal when coming to terms. Aurelius had the luxury of knowing, and being able to practice within, a rich, rigorous tradition that emphasized humility; Hubbard—rootless, image-conscious, desperate for fame in twentieth-century America—could seek only the glorification of the self.
What researchers term self-talk is a powerful practice, one that demonstrably increases our willpower and motivation, much more so than does talking to ourselves (in our minds or on our pages) in first-person.
But who is it that is talking to us? Who is the first person in our second-person address: a godlike version of ourselves, come to bless our desires, or figures from a tradition that emerged long before us, come to temper the self, orient it toward others and toward eternal concerns?
Not long after the towers fell, poems began appearing. “People in New York taped poems on windows, wheatpasted them on posts, and shared them by hand,” Philip Metres wrote in an essay for The Poetry Foundation a decade after 9/11. “Outside the immediate radius of what became known as ‘Ground Zero,’ aided by email, list serves, websites, and, later, blogs, thousands of people also shared poems they loved, and poems they had written.”
One such poem, set at the center of the back page of The New Yorker a week after the devastation, is called “Try to Praise the Mutilated World”:
Try to praise the mutilated world. Remember June's long days, and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew. The nettles that methodically overgrow the abandoned homesteads of exiles. You must praise the mutilated world. You watched the stylish yachts and ships; one of them had a long trip ahead of it, while salty oblivion awaited others. You've seen the refugees heading nowhere, you've heard the executioners sing joyfully. You should praise the mutilated world. Remember the moments when we were together in a white room and the curtain fluttered. Return in thought to the concert where music flared. You gathered acorns in the park in autumn and leaves eddied over the earth's scars. Praise the mutilated world and the gray feather a thrush lost, and the gentle light that strays and vanishes and returns.
The work was written a year and a half before the planes that felled the towers were compelled toward destruction; it was composed by Adam Zagajewski in a language foreign to most American ears, Polish, and later translated into English by Clare Cavanagh. The images recall a trip the poet and his father took within a part of their homeland that now falls within the Ukraine—villages emptied of people when Stalin’s dream of supreme rationality held sway. One of those villages, Lvov, was the Zagajewski family home for centuries.
“I remember how this poem was passed around from person to person during 9/11,” Mary Oliver later reflected. “It was profoundly moving and apt (it still is), and I remember how thankful I was that poetry exists (I still am).”
In a state given to uncertainty, in a time when meaning’s occluded by ash, we long for the “felt change of consciousness” poetry provides. The term belongs to Owen Barfield, the “first and last Inkling” who in Poetic Diction likens the act of reading poetry to wire coil passing through magnetic space: we are charged with a change of state, ordered at our most elemental levels. His metaphor is decidedly materialist (for such was the philosophy the young Barfield, witness to World War I, was forged within), but it is one that reinvests the phenomenal world with a sense of wonder, refigures awe toward invisible forces whose work, by such poetic accounts, is aimed at making us feel a sense of integrity beneath surface fissures, a sense of connectedness with a fundamental order we cannot otherwise perceive.
Once we were one with the given world, Barfield continues. Our language (what he calls a fossil record of consciousness) is evidence of such a union. In ancient days, single words denoted what now we describe as distinct phenomena: pneuma in Greek, for example (the same is true for spiritus in Latin) conveyed, at once, wind and breath and spirit—a vestige of a prior consciousness in which mankind participated directly (and seamlessly) with reality: mortal coil charged with the grandeur of God.
And so, when we come upon the leaves eddying over the earth’s scars in Zagajewski’s poem and imagine water and air in one instant, or when we envision the nettles in single perception as both a means of imprisonment and a method of protection from further coercive incursions, we are participating in a rich ambiguity which allows us once again to feel the pulse and pull of integral life.
Upon inspection, of course, such ambiguity is not a comfort. An executioner sings. Pleasure boats are drowned. But such ambivalence is also the means by which the revivifying power of poetry can find passage to our loss- and doubt-ravaged consciousness, minds grown accustomed to an often stupefying awareness of multiplicity (of motives and actions). A feather lost presumes—however dimly—the existence of the rest of that thrush, the one the despairing Thomas Hardy found on the eve of the twentieth century, the one participating directly with “some blessed hope,” and which almost exactly a century later, arrived to Zagajewski, and then to us. And those gathered acorns—they may well come to nothing; the ones that remain, sheltered without question by fallen leaves, will largely come to the same dead end. Such hope, surely, is negligible. But it is no less real for our negligence, and no less real for being, for the time, beyond our sight, and able to emerge only through a scarred and breaking surface.
The British newspaper The Guardian recently invited a handful of writers to discuss the words that they cherish the most. “One of my favorites is the Cumbrian word glisky,” wrote novelist Sarah Hall, “meaning a kind of bright flashing light that you get after it has rained, when all the surfaces are wet and reflecting.”
Aminatta Forna, a Scottish-born writer, described an Orkney word: “Plitter: to play about in water, to make a watery mess.”
Clot, claret, nesh, thrawn, slipe, whiffle-whaffle: all were extolled. (Will Self lovingly recalled a compound word that formed a complete thought: “Pipe-down!,” one of his father’s “interwar slang expressions that are long departed from the common lexicon.”)
The chance to luxuriate in the materials of one’s craft is irresistible; reviewing The Guardian’s feature, New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead could not help but tender a richly branching sentence concerning a word she holds dear:
I cannot say the word ‘procrastinate’—a useful word for a writer—without hearing embedded therein 'cras,' the Latin word for 'tomorrow,' which, St. Augustine noted, sounded like the croaking cry of the dilatory raven that was sent from the ark and never came back.
My wife, a writer, could not even let me finish describing The Guardian’s assignment. “Luscious!” she exclaimed. And then, slowly, “luminous.” And finally, “Frangelica. It’s fun to say.”
According to the compendium Favorite Words of Famous People, the first word the exuberant stylist Nicholson Baker loved to say was broom. From there, the list evidently grew so quickly and lavishly, it required the most exquisite attention:
Of abstract nouns containing the letter l, my favorites are 'reluctance' and 'revulsion.' The ‘luct’ in 'reluctance' functions as an oral brake or clutch ('clutch' and 'luct' being sonic kin), making the word seem politely hesitant, tactful, circumspect—willing to let the hired tongue have its fun before completing its meaning.
Ocean is one of the words I love most. I love the surging sounds it makes: from the slow, enfolding swell in Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf, when the forlorn men watch Shield Sheafson’s funeral pyre disappear “far on out into the ocean’s sway,” to the menacing rush that occurs when the word, amassing an extra syllable in the mouth of Henry V, overtakes the bounds of our modern ears:
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more, Or close the wall up with our English dead! In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man As modest stillness and humility, But when the blast of war blows in our ears, Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, Disguise fair nature with hard-favored rage, Then lend the eye a terrible aspect, Let pry through the portage of the head Like the brass cannon, let the brow o'erwhelm it As fearfully as doth a gallèd rock O'erhang and jutty his confounded base, Swilled with the wild and wasteful ocean.
There’s no telling what Shakespeare himself would have written in response to The Guardian’s query. But if frequency of contact is an indication of affection, it is worth noting, as Brad Leithauser did in a 2013 New Yorker piece, that sweet and its kin appear in The Complete Works close to a thousand times. A search of the Shakespeare concordance on OpenSource Shakespeare reveals a word that arrives with nearly the exact same frequency: time. Joining that pair is think. Good arrives three times as often, as do thou and shall. Death (918) and life (890) are separated merely. And all are surpassed by the forms of love.
One autumn in the seventeenth century, the haiku master Basho was walking near a pond with a student. Observing dragonflies in the tall grass, the young man was seized by the surge of perception, composed a poem, and eagerly recited it to his master:
Red dragonflies! Take off their wings, and they are pepper pods!
Basho was not pleased. He shook his head. (Some accounts even have the man who made “Deep autumn— / my neighbor, / how does he live, I wonder?” flare with indignation.)
There is nothing of haiku in that, he said. To make haiku, you must say instead,
Red pepper pods! Add wings to them, and they are dragonflies!
Descent and ascension; destruction and the elevation of life. The samurai wear the dragonfly on their swords and arrows in hopes their weapons’ flight will be as swift as the insects that rose to the mind of the land’s first divine emperor, Jimmu Tenno, when he reached a mountain’s summit: “The shape of my country is like two dragonflies mating,” he said in one version of the story that gave Japan its ancient name, Akitsu-shimu—Dragonfly Island. Twice in the thirteenth century, it is said, dragonflies were heralds of divine victory, arriving just before the kamikazes that wrecked the Mongols’ fleets. On the evening of the summer feast for the dead, souls ride the dragonflies’ backs, returning to their beloveds. Each of its four gauzy wings has a life of its own: a mature dragonfly can hover for a full minute, dart in six directions, and then skim the tips of vegetation at a rate of one-hundred body lengths per second. Its vision is panoramic; its eyes comprise 30,000 lenses.
And for all this, they enter our sight when their lives are nearly spent. For years, they struggle beneath the water’s surface. One in ten survives to climb a shaft of grass at dawn and cling for half a day, waiting for wings.
Art is a measure of compassion. How often I have been that student—seduced by my own eyes, in love with perceptions because they’re mine, indifferent to life beyond the flush of pride that comes of my imagining. How often I’ve clipped the wings of the present moment.
“You must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself,” says Basho. “Learn about pines from the pine. Learn about bamboo from bamboo.”
Cruelty, I see now, is a failure of imagination.
At the same time, however, I’d been teaching improvisation, and the first rule of improv is to say yes.
And so, though I felt panicked, I said yes, and the moment I did, an extraordinary thing happened. I felt like some Midwestern Robert Burns, composing a tune: “My way is: I consider the poetic Sentiment, correspondent to my idea of the musical expression; then chuse my theme … [and] I walk out, sit down now and then, look out for objects in Nature around me that are in unison or harmony with the cogitations of my fancy and workings of my bosom…”
With the theme I’d been given playing always in the background, I experienced the world differently. The news of the day, the way my daughter turned a phrase, the words of a student’s essay: everything felt charged with meaning with which I wanted to connect. I extended every conversation with my wife. I read more. I took walks.
I was seeking what T.S. Eliot sought: “When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work,” he writes in “The Metaphysical Poets." "[I]t is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.”
I started to feel what Wordsworth longed for us to feel: a sense of a consciousness that experiences the world and its inhabitants not as commodities to be gained and spent but as possible occasions for the marvelous:
Great God! I'd rather be A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn; So might I, standing on this pleasant lea, Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea; Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.
And when some unforeseen experience—receiving W.S. Merwin’s Migration as a Christmas present from my wife and daughter, or hearing a young couple in a coffee shop discussing Kierkegaard’s sense of irony—chimed with what I was trying to discover, I felt the jolt David Kirby felt when composing “Get Up, Please,” one of his witty poetic fugues:
“Anybody can stitch a bunch of parts together to make a creature—the secret is to know when to apply the current. In this case, the limbs and torso of my poem were just lying there when a stranger slipped them the juice.”
Throughout the Christmas holiday and well into the New Year, I grew more attentive, and so my relationships flourished. Because I was compelled by the rules of play to say yes to writing, I came to love the world more. I came to love life more.
“So here’s to music, poetry, and chance encounters that give you exactly what you need,” Kirby continues, “especially when you don’t know it’s coming your way.”
For years I’ve held my hat in hand after reading “The Road Not Taken” aloud to my eleventh-grade American literature students. Giving voice to a poem made wholly of ambiguity, I tell them, whose mazy lines mocked Frost’s indecisive friend Edward Thomas into war, forces interpretation. I must utter the final stanza’s sigh with something akin to regret, or bewilderment, or sorrow, or satisfaction. I must incline the final line down the path of ruefulness, or complaint, or self-deception, or self-motivation—or even triumph.
The same poem-limiting phenomenon occurs when I utter "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" and follow its hypnotic beauty—"the only other sound's the sweep / of easy wind and downy flake"—until I find myself saying the final two lines as though tranced, captured by a drowsy globe, lulled toward dangerous sleep.
I am doing injustice to the poem, I tell my students, by saying it out loud. But what else, I’m quick to add, can I do? It’s impossible to say a poem while admitting two mutually exclusive interpretations of its tone. An actor, in one breath, cannot play rue and self-conceit.
But, of course, as is the case when anyone tries to say anything definitive about Frost (or about acting, for that matter), I was misguided. There are, at least (I think), two ways.
The first was found by contemporary poet Dana Gioia. In this recording, made for the participants of Poetry Out Loud—an annual recitation contest for high school students—Gioia, a gregarious former advertising executive whose reading of his own work is mellifluous and expressive, shuts off personality altogether. He presents the poem as though narrating historical events in an educational filmstrip from the 1950s.
The method is ingenious, but takes the risk of troubling the air by withholding what the air most desires from poetry, what Frost’s poem possesses in pure abundance: unabashed musicality.
That is why Robert Frost’s own method of expressing the poem publicly is so extraordinary, nearly as worthy of admiration as the poem itself. I’m shamed to confess that his recitations used to baffle me. I’d cite them when shaking my head about poets who, for reasons I could not fathom, were unable to read their own work well. So devoid of emotion! It’s as through he’s singing a tuneless song!
As it turns out, I was right, without knowing the reason—and have been apologizing to my students for the wrong reason. Reading Frost’s work aloud diminishes it only if one reads it aloud the way I do, demanding self-expression. It’s not how Frost does it.
The tone and tenor of Robert Frost’s best poems is ambiguous; their music goes beyond and beneath personality. What else can he do, to do them justice? He chants.
The whole of my school sat within the nave of an Orthodox cathedral, learning the language of icons. Think of the way language works, our guide, Joshua, said. We experience far more than we can express. Our words are the tips of icebergs.
I looked again at the painted dome a hundred feet above us: Christ the Pantocrator, within a circle of light blue. Think about the metaphor, he said. Our words are not detached from the reality we hope to convey. They’re part of it. They’re the surface of the known and the unknown.
His own words ebbed; morning prayer had begun. We rose. The priest was coming down the aisle. He stopped before the twin doors that stood before us, the threshold between our place and the space where the altar lay. Small beneath the surging interior, the priest willed himself smaller, bowing as the cantor chanted, “Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.”
The rapid words nearly lost their meaning, nearly dissolved into the substance that gave them rise—the human thrum of pure and urgent need—but they did not dissolve; somehow, they grew more integral. I was aware of the words’ surface meanings, even as I felt the unseen gravity in which those meanings participated; in no time, I was consciously outside this ritual’s import and helplessly within its radiant compression.
And I was not alone. As Seamus Heaney puts it in The Cure at Troy, his version of Philoctetes, such space in choric:
[…] my part is the chorus, and the chorus Is more or less a borderline between The you and the me and the it of it Between the gods’ and human beings' sense of things. And that’s the borderline that poetry Operates on too, always in between What you would like to happen and what will-- Whether you like it or not.
The chorus of Ancient Greece entered and exited like curtains, moved and had their say in a circle of space between the audience and the players, fluidly entering and exiting the drama, becoming one person, returning to twelve. They shared in the action and were outside it. And the hilltop rose around them, row upon row.
When the moment had passed, the students, my fellow faculty, and I made our way to the conference we’d come to see. I watched as learned men dissected and diagnosed the secular age, derided the destruction of mystery by the forces of science; I watched a man return again and again to the subject of same-sex marriage as though trying to come to terms with a blight. His parting words, the end of an answer to a curious member of our assembled body, were “And that is why I am not hopeful about the future.” The theme of the conference was wonder.
“How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick.” The words, of course, are Whitman's, but they were my words, too. All morning, they arrived to fill the space other words left empty. Sitting in the fellowship hall, I longed for awe, for the choric space Whitman found: “[R]ising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself/In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,/Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.”
Small wonder my thoughts floated back to the nave.