Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Kay Ryan, “Why We Must Struggle”

Why We Must Struggle (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

If we have not struggled
as hard as we can
at our strongest
how will we sense
the shape of our losses
or know what sustains
us longest or name
what change costs us
saying how strange
it is that one sector
of the self can step in
for another in trouble
how loss activates
a latent double how
we can feed
as upon nectar
upon need?


Why must we struggle? Why put forth the effort, struggle “as hard as we can at our strongest?” Plenty of good reasons for quitting while ahead – heck, plenty for not even trying in the first place. On that note, I heartily recommend Sheila Heti’s “Why Go Out?”, which begins with this outstanding passage:

I wonder why I am up here on this stage when I’d rather be at home, when being at home would be so much more comforting. And I wonder why all of you are sitting there in the audience, when so many of you would also be happier at home.

At home, you can wear your pyjamas. No one is going to snub you or disappoint you. At Trampoline Hall, you could be snubbed, or disappointed. The scotch is not cheap. It is less depressing to think the same thoughts you thought yesterday, than to have the same conversation you had last week. Few of us will get laid. Why did we go out? My father never goes out. His emotional life is absolutely even keel. He is a deeply rational person. He doesn’t see the advantages.

I will not blame you for abandoning this post and reading Sheila’s whole lecture. Still, I gotta finish up here. Without struggle, we cannot “sense the shape of our losses,” “know what sustains us longest,” or “name what change costs us.” Sense (losses), know (stamina), name (cost): it looks like we struggle to become ourselves.

From losses sensed, one might move to knowing sustenance. But therein lies a trap. Life isn’t just a pile of good, an unstoppable progress for us. Life does want to kill us. To that end, we choose struggles, “name what change costs us.” One good is lost for another good; some suffering, some loss, is had for merely identifying what change we might prefer.

“Name what change costs us,” then, embraces struggle as an attempt to embrace what is good for us. Which presents a problem, as it feels like the title has merely been repeated. The inner necessity of struggle has not fully emerged yet.

The musing must continue:

how strange
it is that one sector
of the self can step in
for another in trouble

Trouble brings forth previously unknown sectors of the self. “Sector of the self” is a bit misleading. Yes, a sector is a part of us, but each sector stems from the implication that there is an entirely different person inside us, one capable of saving us or remaking us entirely. This is well beyond sensing losses, knowing sustenance, or naming the cost of change. Unknown selves within us become actual and we realize, about our own self, what is possible.

That actual self which steps in, a “latent double,” arises from need and in a way is the true substance of need. It is not something directly good for us, but something that promises a good:

how loss activates
a latent double how
we can feed
as upon nectar
upon need?

The promise of a good constitutes a sort of substance. Need and loss push the self to reproduce and fragment itself. The result is our becoming twins, each one of us, and perhaps one can even say we’re cannibals. Different iterations of the self come and go, stemming from loss. It’s like something has been created, and when struggle ceases, maybe something actually has.

Plato, “Lovers”

for Nathaniel Cochran & Christopher Kirk


Or Rivals, or On Philosophy. This short dialogue probably found disrepute because of its unabashed frankness about Socrates’ life. Two boys debate the theories of Anaxagoras and Oinopides while at school; their young adult lovers attend them. Socrates finds this scene attractive, to say the least, immediately sowing discord. He expresses awe to one of the lovers, a wrestling jock, ostensibly because of the seriousness of the discussion. The jock responds the way most defenders of Division I athletics, i.e. the city, would:

“What do you mean [they are speaking of things] ‘great and noble’! They are babbling about the heavenly things, and they are talking nonsense, philosophizing.” (132b)

His abuse prompts the other lover, a musician, to try to impress the boys. The musician says that such a response should be expected from the wrestler: he can only answer that philosophy is shameful.

So far, we readers have borne witness to mere ad hominem attacks. Is it possible for a serious discussion to emerge? Given Socrates’ own purposes, probably not. He does make it look like one can start, though. The musician is asked “whether it seems… noble or not to philosophize.” The nobility or ignobility of philosophy may be a philosophic query. It certainly appears serious enough. However, Socrates proves too cunning for our higher, theoretical, desires. He asks that question of the musician with such emphasis so as to get exactly what he wants, the attention of the boys:

[Socrates:] Now, just as we were saying these things, the two boys, who had overheard us, became silent, and they themselves ceased from their dispute and became our listeners. I don’t know what the lovers felt, but as for myself, I was stricken wild. For I’m always stricken wild by the young and beautiful. Anyway it seemed to me that the other as well was no less in agony than I. (133a)

Socrates gets the attention of the boys and, um, something else (“stricken wild,” “agony;” cf. Charmides, 155d). It is gross; our sensibilities are rightly offended; for Plato, it is comic. Socrates himself narrates the dialogue. He is exaggerating the account to a sympathizer, one comfortable with his enormous eros and the directions it leads. That sympathizer must be familiar with both Anaxagoras and Oinopides (Bruell 92, fn. 1). This story is told for his sake, but it does not serve as a straightforward defense of the sciences (aka natural philosophy), as we shall see.

The complicating factors have been set forth at the outset. They have less to do with Socrates’ eros and more to do with the boys. Asking whether it was noble or not to philosophize drew their attention. They don’t just want knowledge, they want to be loved, and thus they most certainly desire a high reputation. They want philosophy to be noble.

At the very opening of the dialogue, however, Socrates noted two things which provoke me to wonder. First, the boys were “those of the young who are reputed to be most remarkable for their looks” (132a). “Looks” is the same word Plato uses elsewhere for “forms” (Leake 80, fn. 2). Further, while debating, “they appeared to be describing circles and were imitating certain ecliptics with their hands” (133b). One might say the boys are simply debating the heavenly things, cautioning against over-reading. I believe that in some sense, Socrates sees the boys as the forms themselves.


Though in “agony,” the musician, according to Socrates, “answered in a manner that showed his great love of honor” (133a-b):

“Now Socrates,” he said, “if ever I should consider it shameful to philosophize, I would not even hold myself to be a human being, nor would I anyone else so disposed.” (133b)

Continuing his attack on the wrestler, his attempt to seduce the boys, the musician makes, however accidentally, a serious claim about philosophy. Without philosophy, one could not even consider oneself a human being. Socrates, the very person who claims that the unexamined life is not worth living, characterizes this position as honorable. In the Gorgias, Callicles vehemently dismisses philosophy’s significance: still, for him, some philosophy, some speculation, constitutes a grace in one’s younger days (Gorgias 484c-d). I wonder if Plato’s world more or less had two minds about philosophy. As a kind of New Agey self-reflection that could not threaten law and order, it had something to do with learning in general and could be accepted. As an attempt to clarify or replace heavenly objects, it was evil and dangerous.

Socrates pushes the musician to tell what philosophy is so it can be found noble or shameful. This results in the musician saying that philosophy is much learning, but having to take it back since learning without moderation may not be good (133-134e). Another attempt follows where he tries to define philosophy as noble, befitting a free man and conferring a reputation for wisdom. A philosopher knows the arts and can practice them, but remains more concerned with his reputation of being free. This fails because a philosopher who is like a pentathlete, a second-best expert at a number of things, is strictly speaking useless compared to other artisans and specialists. As he is useless, he is good for nothing (135a-136e).

In both attempts to define philosophy, the problem lies not with philosophy’s supposed nobility, but rather with how it can be useful. This is a strange critique of philosophy. Socrates in Aristophanes’ Clouds taught the unjust speech, which was most useful and highly ignoble. Here, the boys already are immersed in and eager to do philosophy; this does not constitute the majority of Athens, who are addicted to drama and spectacle. In fact, the setting is specifically the schoolhouse of Dionysus. A Dionysus was said to have been the teacher of Plato (Leake 80, fn. 1).

The way most people understand the virtuous or noble focuses on whether it is good for them or not. Moralistic fables where the virtuous are rewarded abound. It is possible to believe that self-sacrifice constitutes such an honor that one thinks it the only good worth having. The wrestler’s complaint about the debate, though, shows that a demonstration of utility with an implied reverence for the city and its gods will suffice for him.

Socrates agrees with the musician that philosophy is both noble and good (137a). I think this is to further a specific defense of philosophy. What remains would be to prove it useful, consistent with nobility. If one admits philosophy is simply much learning, or that a philosopher could easily be a busybody preoccupied with too many fields of inquiry, one concedes the nobility of philosophy, even if it shows itself to be the most necessary thing, the attempt to know what must be known first.


Somehow, the precise circumstances of the dialogue have receded. A dirty old man competes with two younger lovers for the attention of some boys. What happened to eros?

To be sure, love of wisdom, a desire for much learning, was dismissed as an adequate definition of philosophy (Gk. “love of wisdom”). Only the moderate amount would be good; the musician wants philosophy to be noble and good; eros has been verbally replaced by the noble and good.

Still, the competition for the boys continues. Socrates must show philosophy useful in such a way as to make its nobility self-evident. He must counter the athlete’s denunciation of the boys’ debate.

So of course the dialogue veers into a cryptic, obscure final movement. Out of nowhere, Socrates asks about the punishment and betterment of animals. One art, apparently, correctly punishes, making animals better, distinguishing good from evil (137b-d).

If something about this sounds ludicrous, it is. Is a disobedient, wild horse really evil? Only in light of human purposes for the horse. The art of rule exists relative to our purposes, but the art appears to be one, eternal, part of a rationality which we strive to attain. “Good” and “evil” imply that there are well-ordered souls who could rule well in any given situation. That some such souls for practical purposes exist – typically, they know their limits – reinforces the myth.

The musician, who does not seem stupid, sees betterment, punishment, and distinguishing good and evil fitting together perfectly. His assumption is natural. Rulers can know better and make us better. Thus, justice in the cities, “the science that correctly punishes the unrestrained and lawbreakers,” seems to work the same way as breaking animals (137d). Socrates adduces to this end that an art applicable to one also applies to many (and vice versa); further, that one who knows good and evil or whether oneself is good and evil must be able to punish correctly. If one finds oneself tempted even for a moment to take this proof seriously, consider fully this part of the premises:

[Socrates:] “And if one were an ox and were ignorant of the wicked and good ones [oxen], would one also be ignorant of himself, of what sort one is?”

“Yes,” he said.

“And so too if one were a dog?”

He agreed.

“What then? When one who is a human being is ignorant of the good and evil human beings, isn’t he ignorant of himself, as to whether he is good or evil, since he is himself also a human being?”

He conceded this. (137c-138a)

Yes, Socrates says that an animal is bad because it lacks self-knowledge. Specifically, horses, oxen, and dogs may fail to understand what constitutes good and evil in their species. Thus, they fail to understand themselves and fail in ruling themselves, becoming bad. Oh, and the same applies for humans.


Again, we seem to be a far distance from philosophy or eros. In a little more than a few lines of dialogue, Socrates pulls the musician to contemplate politics. In a way, this makes sense: nobility only makes sense when considered with politics, and both Socrates and the musician have declared philosophy noble. However, the feeling one has when reading the dialogue is of being lost in the most ridiculous place.

In rapid-fire succession, Socrates establishes that self-knowledge (above, the art of rule) is moderation (138a), that moderation and justice are the same thing, that a well-managed city is where the unjust are punished and this is the political art (138b). This political art is held by tyrants, kings, household managers, those who own slaves. It is, um, justice and moderation (138c). A philosopher should be ashamed if he is is neither able to follow nor contribute to such an important art (138d).

In fact, the philosopher must be the most knowledgeable practitioner of the political art. He cannot be “second best,” as the musician claimed was noble for him relative to other artisans. He must be able to manage his own household, judging and punishing correctly himself (138e). (Apparently Socrates’ never being home, not ever, counts as management.) The philosopher should be prepared to be the best ruler if so compelled (139a, cf. Republic 346e-347d).

We’ve gone a very roundabout way to tell the musician he was wrong about philosophy, since it has to rule: “Therefore, you best one [the musician], to philosophize is far from being much learning and preoccupation with the arts” (139a). I confess I am at a loss to properly understand the picture of politics presented, the one which allows for this statement. On the one hand, it is ridiculous. Men cannot be governed as animals; justice and moderation may be the same, but both are probably not as contingent on self-knowledge as Socrates says (138a). Moreover, the “political art” of being a good slaveowner is nothing but a cruel joke (138c).

On the other hand: if there is a political science, a science of rule, it must hold across species. If rule depends on certain virtues (i.e. justice and moderation), then some branch of knowledge (i.e. self-knowledge) must enable these virtues. Finally, if there is a political science, all regimes must share in it. What Socrates has been doing is showing philosophy as noble, as the creator of an art of rule. Suffice to say that real philosophers can see the inhumanity of the project and rightly be cynical of ideas that attempt to establish an essence of rule.


After declaring finally that philosophy as noble “is far from much learning and preoccupation with the arts,” Socrates ends his narration and the dialogue:

“On my saying these things, the wise one, who was ashamed at what he said earlier, was silent, but the ignorant one said that it was so, and the others praised what had been said.” (139a)

I do not think Socrates, despite besting the musician, is sarcastic in calling him “wise.” Philosophers must be willing to be wrong, and to speak the truth of how contemptible political life can be is anyway dangerous. Socrates certainly means the wrestler, the one proclaiming that the philosopher must rule if he is not to be shamed, is an ignoramus.

Which leaves us with the boys: they praise what was said. Did they realize how problematic the nobility of politics was? That the musician, in being shamed, was shamed by a far higher standard than what is conventional? I don’t know. One can know and debate the most complicated cosmological issues and not have the slightest sensitivity to one’s own assumptions. I tend to think they were seduced by Socrates making the claim that the philosopher must rule. What differentiates them from the athlete is that they may, at some point, recall a problematic point in the conversation and change their judgement.

All the same, the boys were implicitly introduced to us by Socrates as the forms themselves, the foundation of reality. On that level, there’s nothing perverted about love for them: it is strictly Platonic. As wisdom itself, they are brought to earth by the possibility that love of wisdom can rule. In their debate, in their visible inconclusiveness, they are the future which can only be made noble in one way through the society in which they reside. Socrates’ defense of philosophy keeps them free. In one sense, the dirty old man never thought of imposing on or seducing the boys. He gave them the space to be.


Bruell, Christopher. “On the Original Meaning of Political Philosophy: An Interpretation of Plato’s Lovers.” In The Roots of Political Philosophy: Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues, ed. Thomas Pangle, 91-110.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.

Plato, “Lovers.” tr. James Leake. In The Roots of Political Philosophy: Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues, ed. Thomas Pangle, 80-90.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.

Emily Dickinson, “We do not play on Graves” (467)

“We do not play on Graves” (467)
Emily Dickinson

We do not play on Graves —
Because there isn’t Room —
Besides — it isn’t even — it slants
And People come —

And put a Flower on it —
And hang their faces so —
We’re fearing that their Hearts will drop —
And crush our pretty play —

And so we move as far
As Enemies — away —
Just looking round to see how far
It is — Occasionally —


“We do not play on Graves:” well, that’s reassuring. “Because there isn’t Room:” wait, it sounds like you did play on graves at least once, or have far too thoroughly considered doing so. “Besides — it isn’t even — it slants /
And People come:” I’ll take this as an admission of guilt, thank you very much.

This first stanza is most questionable. Why does anyone want to play on graves? They are narrow and uneven. Moving upon them invites the earth to move, pushing us in.

The childlike narration of this scene continues in the second stanza:

And put a Flower on it —
And hang their faces so —
We’re fearing that their Hearts will drop —
And crush our pretty play —

If you play on a grave, people may come to pay their respects. They probably will find your actions distasteful. Dickinson’s narrator identifies a movement from external, conventional signs of grief to shock and heartbreak. A flower is placed, a face falls, and then when a heart breaks, there lingers no possibility of “pretty play.”

In one way, though, we always play on graves. “The earth belongs to the living” in the most literal, savage way of standing upon the dead. But the dead are not merely defined by death. They lived and are remembered by us. Memory of them defines our lives. How that consciousness turns into respect, though, is an open question.

The poem makes it easy to see the conventional respect of a miffed visitor to a grave. However, can we really deem the childish innocence which doesn’t want to break a heart as leaving the dead to their own devices?

I suspect Dickinson is wondering about a certain absorption with the dead. One that would never let a flower grow naturally if it failed to acknowledge the horror and finality of death, the necessity of grief. A joy that could attend the living, by contrast, has this to say:

And so we move as far
As Enemies — away —
Just looking round to see how far
It is — Occasionally —

Grief and its attendant conventions can be a trap, making us enemies of our own happiness, turning the dead into a perpetual imposition while turning life – including the lives they lived – into an occasion. Often I’ll feel guilty toward those I’ve lost, thinking I didn’t visit or call or support enough in this life. It’s a guilt that dissipates as soon as I resolve to learn more and pay it forward. Gifts can only be given or received with joy, with no sense of obligation attached.

Suji Kwock Kim, “Rice-Field Road at Dusk”

Rice-Field Road at Dusk (from Poetry)
Suji Kwock Kim

After Ko Un

In the village it’s the season of dried grass,
the smell of burned dirt,
gaslight glinting through blackened stubble.
I walk home across the rice-fields,
brushing insects away from my face,
remembering old Namdong who was buried yesterday.
What does death ask of us?
I must change whatever it was I was
when the old man was alive.
I keep looking at the rice-fields, glinting in the dark.
Blasted by mildew, more withered than last year —
how much work and love it must have taken.
In autumn, no matter how bad the harvest,
how big the debts —
no thought of leaving here, no thought of rest.
As life goes on, time isn’t the largest thing to think of,
it’s the smallest.
Growing, going
in drought or monsoon, mold or blight —
what is the rice if not alive?


Autumn tastes bitter (“smell of burned dirt”), appearing both burned (“blackened stubble”) and bright (“gaslight”). The scene consists of a certain poverty, but our narrator welcomes every detail, even the distraction of brushing insects away from his face. He wants to remember old Namdong, buried yesterday. His walk away is a walk toward, prompting this reflection:

What does death ask of us?
I must change whatever it was I was
when the old man was alive.

On the one hand, changing oneself because of the death of another makes perfect sense. The only true tribute to another involves a radical rededication of one’s life. On the other hand, this is insane. The dead took no pleasure in who we were when alive? Is the present nothing but obedience to the past?

No resolution exists to this dilemma; our narrator meditates on the work in the fields. “Glinting in the dark,” the fields are the strange mixture of good/bad, valued/worthless, beautiful/ugly, soul/body which is life and living. They are attacked by nature (“blasted by mildew”), nurtured by what is thought natural in man (“how much work and love it must have taken”). What is thought natural is indefatigable: no bad results alone break us (“bad…harvest,” “debts”). We make and uphold our way of life. We make our lives with our lives. This shrinks time – maybe a change has to be made, maybe it doesn’t. What ultimately matters is a kinship with the rice. In taking care of each other, bound by love to the land, there is endurance.

Ted Kooser, “Snow Fence”

Snow Fence (from Sure Signs)
Ted Kooser

The red fence
takes the cold trail
north; no meat
on its ribs,
but neither has it
much to carry.


Decay can be an object all its own, but is most recognizable with a bold, sturdy object as its victim (“red fence”). The red fence marks the landscape – shows a trail, a way, even. Still, it is worn, thinned by snow and water and cold.

Which begs the question: how can snow, water, cold be so injurious a burden? A fence stands in all sorts of other weather. How does an emaciated fence come about? On a parallel note, why do we punish ourselves over seemingly insignificant things? How do we allow ice to form, why are we weathered by its melting?

Emily Dickinson, “Life, and Death, and Giants” (706)

“Life, and Death, and Giants” (706)
Emily Dickinson

Life, and Death, and Giants —
Such as These — are still —
Minor — Apparatus — Hopper of the Mill —
Beetle at the Candle —
Or a Fife’s Fame —
Maintain — by Accident that they proclaim —


“Life,” “Death,” and “Giants” are motionless? Dickinson proclaims “Such as these – are still.” They are concepts, larger than the everyday life we wake into, move about in, die. “Giants” provide additional color to “Life” and “Death.” These are each literary concepts, essential to our myth-making and self-reflection, and they are purposely inflated. “Giants” implies that they are not the only inflated thing.

What is not inflated involves movement:

Minor — Apparatus — Hopper of the Mill —
Beetle at the Candle —
Or a Fife’s Fame —

Only the “Beetle at the Candle” is a living organism. A hopper is a minor apparatus, an inverted cone which reduces grain. A “fife’s fame” are musical notes which disappear as soon as they’re sounded. Dickinson brings our attention to the most significant problem with life, death, and giants: their attempt to be bigger than time itself. What’s left of the past has been processed like grain. Grasping the present is like being a beetle both enchanted and wary of a flame. The future, like music, depends on remembrance. Every further note depends on the consciousness of what came before.

These three things “maintain by accident that they proclaim.” Time itself, unlike the constructs life, death, and giants, does not proclaim anything. It does not always allow more serious events and personages to speak. Yet, some of them do, and a thinker more attentive to things in time, a writer who has purposefully made herself small, maintains an actual grasp on living. Whereas to sound off on the largest things without any sense of experience is to tell a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.

Basho, “Seek on high bare trails…”

Seek on high bare trails…
Basho (tr. Kenneth Yasuda)

Seek on high bare trails
sky-reflecting violets…
mountain-top jewels


Wandering constantly, sometimes aimlessly and exhausted, one begins to resemble the landscape (“high bare trails”). Balding, in thinner air, one pushes oneself to move upward (“seek”).

For what should you yearn on those “high bare trails?” “Sky-reflecting violets… mountain-top jewels.” The violets must reflect the sky, as there is nothing else there. Moreover, the violets are jewels because of where they are; violets in a field may not have the same significance. These considerations imply the relative character of wisdom for our lives. If one wanders seeking some higher truth, meaning, useful principle which makes life better or reconciles one to it, this is what one gets. To be sure, Basho is not cynical about the journey, the effort, the “mountain-top jewels.” Those violets still reflect the sky. A wiser life is a blessed life; the violets reflect the sky’s purity.

Seamus Heaney, Autobiography, and the Themes of Political Philosophy

for L.

1. I hate titles like these, as they pinpoint one an academic and are of no interest to anyone who is a real person. Yes, that means if you chose to read this because of the title, you need to get a life. Here’s a helpful link to get you started.

Nonetheless, I am in a terrible position to accuse anyone. I am an awful writer because I think I know what I am doing. This awful title, I guess, means to serve a purpose beyond keyword search.

By contrast, Seamus Heaney is a very good writer who certainly knows what he is doing. His command of every syllable lends itself to a style I can only render “solid.” Few or no passive verbs, let alone verbs of being. Nouns which resound with earthiness, with specificity. To know life is to know individuals, to see things.

That last sentence requires some elaboration. Appropriately, let us turn to Heaney’s Seeing Things, an autobiographical selection of poems. “1.1.87” sets the tone:

Dangerous pavements.
But I face the ice this year
With my father’s stick.

Like all normal people, I do not want to think about my parents dying. I expect to be sobbing uncontrollably for 20-30 years if such a thing should happen. Yet, here’s a statement that great grief can become resolve, that someone’s legacy can guide in life as you forge ahead. It is hard to imagine a more fitting, natural tribute to one’s father. Heaney dwells upon the weightiest objects, ones which can break us in an eye-blink. That the past can be harnessed for the future can only be known, I suspect, through certain people.

2. However, the harnessing of the past for power is the heart of political life. The oldest is the best; such an appeal unites God and country in our minds as it has for all those who have come before. Whether we defend or attack a specific convention, we do so in the name of a great authority, the true founder of our society or morals. I realize I am speaking in an airy, remote manner. More concretely: to preserve convention the Greeks assembled to take Troy. The conditions at sea were rough, and they could not set out unless the gods were placated. Agamemnon sacrificed his own daughter to start the expedition and make war. To make war is to throw away the next generation, to declare the present more important than the future. Heaney sees this clearly reflecting on the soldiers being driven around Northern Ireland in “Squarings,” xxvi:

Only to come up, year after year, behind
Those open-ended, canvas-covered trucks
Full of soldiers sitting cramped and staunch,

Their hands round gun-barrels, their gaze abroad
In dreams out of the body-heated metal.
Silent, time-proofed, keeping an even distance

Beyond the windscreen glass, carried ahead
On the phantasmal flow-back of the road,
They still mean business in the here and now.

So draw no attention, steer and concentrate
On the space that flees between like a speeded-up
Meltdown of souls from the straw-flecked ice of hell.

On the one hand, there’s the flimsiness of human making on those trucks holding the soldiers: “open-ended, canvas-covered.” Amazing any kind of spiritual comfort attends the soldiers, for the trucks cannot even provide physical comfort. They sit there “cramped and staunch.”

Yet conventionality is so thorough it dictates to most what courage is. It protects us from vulnerability, giving incredible power, turning flesh into metal, founding an island of the “here and now” against the flux of time:

Their hands round gun-barrels, their gaze abroad
In dreams out of the body-heated metal.
Silent, time-proofed, keeping an even distance

Beyond the windscreen glass, carried ahead
On the phantasmal flow-back of the road,
They still mean business in the here and now.

Heaney reacts to being behind this truck instinctually, fear and anger mixed:

So draw no attention, steer and concentrate
On the space that flees between like a speeded-up
Meltdown of souls from the straw-flecked ice of hell.

No true separation exists between him and the violence, as the space between them is violence itself. If one tries to pride oneself on not being a soldier, then one proclaims oneself more human than the mass of humanity, humanity itself. “Arms and the man” is a truth Virgil himself sung and resented.

3. Autobiography makes itself manifestly necessary in regard to political things. This is not to restate the banality that good citizens can articulate their own interest. Nor do autobiographical accounts merely serve as anecdotes to so-called “higher” debates. One such debate was outlined by Christopher Bruell when discussing the original meaning of political philosophy. Nowadays, most scholars hold that political science cannot “provide rational guidance as to what is good and just in politics.” Some, however, hold out hope for “normative political guidance” while deferring to “science as the only unquestioned authority of our age” (Bruell 91). Autobiography neatly sidesteps the question of how powerful or limited reason in general is. It embraces limits in order to simply express experience. That alone, it turns out, is task enough.

The space between his car and the truck of the soldiers echoes another space. Heaney, toward the end of the “Squarings” sequence, meditates on how others have been captivated by lands beyond. They had a definition for simply looking out into nothingness. “Squarings,” xlvii:

The visible sea at a distance from the shore
Or beyond the anchoring grounds
Was called the offing.

“Offing” feels where you can only see, never stand. Perpetual frontier, exploration, freedom. For our speaker, and perhaps for all those who previously forged ahead, the “offing” either attracts through its emptiness, or lures even more powerfully through its mere possibility:

The emptier it stood, the more compelled
The eye that scanned it.
But once you turned your back on it, your back

Was suddenly all eyes like Argus’s.

The possibility of possibility lures, but to what? What do we want? He sees soldiers again, the flicker of angelic order:

Then, when you’d look again, the offing felt
Untrespassed still, and yet somehow vacated

As if a lambent troop that exercised
On the borders of your vision had withdrawn
Behind the skyline to manoeuvre and regroup.

What I would expect, looking out at the offing, would be a patch of greenness, or maybe a number of flickering, momentary spirits. Heaney imagines nothing less than the cherubim, the perpetual loss of Eden. Those are hopes out there, and because they are hopes, they are losses all the same.

The offing brings us back to ideas with which one might be familiar in political philosophy. The martial imagery cannot be excised, but it can be transcended. The world may always be at war, but one can be at peace. This sounds like a rejection of the world, but is in fact a return to it. “Squarings,” xlviii:

Strange how things in the offing, once they’re sensed,
Convert to things foreknown;
And how what’s come upon is manifest

Only in light of what has been gone through.
Seventh heaven may be
The whole truth of a sixth sense come to pass.

At any rate, when light breaks over me
The way it did on the road beyond Coleraine
Where wind got saltier, the sky more hurried

And silver lamé shivered on the Bann
Out in mid-channel between the painted poles,
That day I’ll be in step with what escaped me.

No immediate solution to human ills resides in the offing. The conversion “to things foreknown” is the sense of knowing one’s own age and destiny. “What’s come upon is manifest only in light of what has been gone through.” That sense does not constitute a reversal of course, necessarily. It is a vision which allows sight of how one’s life does or doesn’t make sense. The examined life, examined in the terms others meant, gives us back a natural way. One takes a solitary walk, but no one would say the above narrator is lonely. Man as a social, speaking animal can be thought a hypothesis, or someone worth working toward.


Bruell, Christopher. “On the Original Meaning of Political Philosophy: An Interpretation of Plato’s Lovers.” In The Roots of Political Philosophy: Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues, ed. Thomas Pangle, 91-110. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.

Heaney, Seamus. Seeing Things. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991.

Yosa Buson, “The old fisherman”

The old fisherman
Yosa Buson (tr. Kenneth Yasuda)

The old fisherman
unalterably intent…
cold evening rain


An aged, withered fisherman, his desire turned into habit into obsessive, otherworldly focus, is image enough. “Unalterably intent” describes the fisherman’s gaze and behavior perfectly. Why bother with “cold evening rain?” After all, it threatens to make the image comically pathetic. What if he catches no fish? Or struggles to respond to a bite?

But Buson is himself out in the cold, evening rain. To observe and think and reflect are fishing in the dark, too. Only, if the fisherman gets a fish, he has food or money or an actual good. Prior to poetry, attentiveness to being human produces nothing, and a few beautifully wrought syllables are a questionable good.

Which brings us back to the combination of intensity and depression characterizing the fisherman. It sounds like a lot of times we’d rather forget. Pining over someone pointlessly, lingering in memory over one’s own story being more cause than effect. I wonder if Buson is wondering whether we have to become a bit embittered as we grow older. Bitter, more precisely, because we hope to mean something.

Seamus Heaney, “The annals say…” (Squarings: Lightenings viii)

triptych, central panel

“The annals say…” (Squarings: Lightenings viii, in Poetry)
Seamus Heaney

The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.

The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,

A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’

The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.


A supernatural happening. Monks in prayer, visited by a ship flying, but for an anchor. The crewman sailing it wishes to be free. The monks obediently release him, told by their abbot he will otherwise drown.

Grief tells what is necessary. Fear almost acts the same, showing at least the destructive power of the imagination. Hope must exist, if only for the fact that a world drowning in sorrow may not always be so. The monks hope for a vision, a revelation. A ship appears, wondrous to them, the fulfillment of their longings?

The ship seems to have one crewman, normally floating above. The ship is the poetic imagination. I hasten to add that this is not a slap at belief. A divine order must translate into images; the anchor is the distance from us and those images. We could not believe without that distance.

What exactly is the value of belief? Here, its gentleness, its willingness to admit it is not knowledge. The abbot sees exactly what is happening. To make belief the literal fact of our world is to render it unintelligible, to destroy its value for everyone. What is marvellous for one sailing among truer images, perhaps a realm where all is revealed, is a realm where we can admit, perhaps even know, our ignorance.

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