Paul Muldoon, “Apple Slump”

Associations slump upon each other like apples about to waste.

Even in reading, decisions must be made or a sense—perhaps a feeling—is lost.

My anxiety lies in counting the associations, attempting to hold each as if it were the pearl in the field (Matthew 13:46). You make one, then another, then still another as you wander through words. The danger is not achieving wisdom as much as forgetting one’s own thoughts from a moment ago. Perhaps this suffices to restate the bounty-threat of snow in October:

Apple Slump (from Poetry)
Paul Muldoon

The bounty-threat of snow
in October. Our apple-mound,
some boxer fallen foul
of a right swing

waiting for his second to throw—
the sound, turn up the sound—
that mean little towel
into the ring.

The bounty-threat of snow in October—snow doesn’t only threaten the apples, for it is a “bounty-threat.” It threatens some good, and thus the poem personifies snow. Snow is a raider, a thief, ready to do you an injustice.

A slight frost falls on our apple-mound. The mound is red, flecked with white, half-buried in earth—an ugly bruise of ill omen. It looks like the face of some boxer fallen foul of a right swing.

Already too many associations, too many apples. Snow a thief, taking out of season; an apple-mound like a bruise a boxer receives during a match; the apples, tokens of an understanding not yet achieved. Three themes emerge. You don’t have to connect them if you don’t want to. There’s injustice (snow steals), perishability (apples rotting), pain (the boxer is in a lot of this). Those three associations recall a pretty specific fruit, one from the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

I can’t stress enough that the convergence of these themes is a mere convenience for us readers. No such clarity exists for, say, the boxer, who has been hit hard and whose mind is a cloud. He reverts to habit, waiting for his second to throw. Maybe he wants to throw that mean little towel into the ring and surrender. More than likely, some other entity—his corner, the referee, the bell—does it for him. Only faintly—the sound, turn up the sound—does he hear a bell ring as he waits to throw… something, probably a punch.

Muldoon seems to be wondering about how moral reasoning is possible. You’ve been wronged to the point of trauma, your instinct is to hit back. Something in you knows to “do no harm,” that violence only begets more violence. That something might help hold you back. But it is not a product of your thinking exclusively, because to speak simply, you weren’t thinking. One might say that Christian morality explicitly excludes actions committed on account of ignorance from being sin. This is a cute theoretical position to hold, as people go to war because of the trauma inflicted upon them; they act out because. Speaking of redress of grievances or trying to assess the emotions involved or find the exact right course of action—these are all concerns after the fact.

“But if you just hit back, you’re an animal!” —Yes, and that’s no slight on one’s humanity.— The Edenic counterfactual, where man can weigh the consequences of immortality versus the possibility of real knowledge, is incredibly problematic to say the least. It underlies so many sentiments and thoughts in this time regarding right and wrong; it speaks too clearly to a privileged few who do not want. At its core, it assumes a set of conditions that are as mythical as a lost immortal garden protected by a sword of flame. Try walking through how you reached the wisdom you feel comfortable passing to another person. I guarantee you’ll have something of the same process as me. I’ve had to throw away much of my pride about the things I did right because I did them without really knowing what I was doing.

Sappho, “Standing by my bed”

Sappho can and will speak frankly about sex. In the famous Fragment 31, she’s open about her jealousy of a man “equal to the gods,” one who commands the laughter and delight of a woman she desires. And below “Dawn,” standing by her bed in gold sandals, could be thought a lover about to leave:

Standing by my bed
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

Standing by my bed

In gold sandals
Dawn that very
moment awoke me

I’m chuckling to myself, thinking about a sentence of Maureen McLane’s. She was talking about the idealism of the young and said something to the effect of “teenagers actually enjoy sex.” Insecurity cascades unceasingly when one tries to believe oneself desirable, but regrets about not going to the gym or taking care of one’s skin are minor when compared to looking in the mirror and staring down one’s genetic inheritance. Wondering if one was actually made to be loved.

I’m not chuckling anymore.

For a moment, though, we can imagine being gently awoken by the light of dawn, quietly surprised. There are erotic overtones, sure, but they serve the idea that someone or something, maybe the whole of nature, sees you as beautiful. That you are not to be disturbed, that only the slightest feeling, in warm, bright degrees, should give you cause to stir.

From some random papyrus, we are given this thoughtless, gross misogyny about Sappho: “She was accused by some writers of being irregular in her way of life and a woman-lover. In appearance she seems to have been contemptible and ugly” (Papyri Oxyrhynchus 1800 frag. 1). Sappho’s own contemporary on Lesbos, Alkaios, addresses her thus: “O violet-haired, holy, honeysmiling Sappho” (Barnstone 209). For a moment, we know that it doesn’t matter at all how Sappho looked, but it certainly matters how she was treated.

A thought, perhaps not unrelated. If there is only natural light in the room, dawn being visitor enough, then this is a reflection on waking. Beginning to be in the world, active within. Natural light and being loved do tie together, and this is always a sudden revelation. I submit this has to do with understanding oneself as lovable, knowing oneself, but you will note that carries one away from more conventional needs.


Barnstone, Willis. Sweetbitter Love: Poems of Sappho. Boston: Shambhala, 2006.

Sappho, “We shall enjoy it”

Years ago, at a Half-Price Books, I had been browsing for a little while. It was evening, the store was about to close, and for some reason I reflected I should not just make a purchase out of politeness, but to make the time spent count for more.

I wasn’t writing regularly except in my personal journal, and I was ashamed of what I was writing there. I didn’t bother to document my experience—what I sensed, who I encountered, where I went—in any way. I didn’t believe crafting scenes about how I actually lived had any use. All I did was angrily rant and list things on which I should have been working. However, some part of me remembered an interview with Kay Ryan where she said she challenged herself to write a poem each day about a card she pulled in a tarot deck.

So I picked up a copy of Sappho’s poetry for $2, with the intent of challenging myself to write on each fragment. The first fragment—Tell everyone / Now, today, I shall / sing beautifully for / my friends’ pleasure—I used as an excuse to declare I wanted a clean slate. I wanted to sing beautifully for my friends, as opposed to doing whatever I had been doing up until then.

That fragment, though, has a funny twist. Why “tell everyone” that “I shall sing beautifully for my friends’ pleasure?” Sappho throws a party, and the party is the invitation itself. That invitation—her fragment—already excludes (only the friends will hear her beautiful singing), makes everyone who hears it an unwitting propagandist for her, and is the poem/song itself. It includes everyone at the same time it excludes many.

I can’t help but think now that my anxiety about craft received comment from no less than Sappho. Did I want to tell as many people as possible to shout my name across the earth, to proclaim how awesome I was? I didn’t think so at the time. I felt I wanted to be a better writer. But a writer that’s scared of sharing her own experience is not truly trying to write. Something else, like acceptance, or wanting to be known as accepted, may be at stake. And that something else entails its own set of complications.

What is below, I imagine, follows up on the first fragment. We shall enjoy it—yes, friends, here is your beautiful song, which you are pledged to like because you like me. But as for him who finds fault

We shall enjoy it
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

We shall enjoy it

As for him who finds
fault, may silliness
and sorrow take him!

As for him who finds / fault, may silliness / and sorrow take him!—my company is desired, so I shall write an edict. Not only will “we” enjoy (I have become multitudes), but “silliness” and “sorrow” will seize any naysayer. In a few words, themselves almost lost, Sappho hits on the sheer ridiculousness of composition. She creates a poem that automatically criticizes anyone who would find it disagreeable. She’s acutely aware that if her words are sung, shared, and preserved, she has literally been blown out of proportion, and it is so strange anyone’s self-esteem or desire should depend on this.

She’s acutely aware herself of how much “silliness” and “sorrow” sting. It seems the least punishment you would wish on someone, yet one feels it continuously when trying to make something or be someone. It can be, in the wrong circumstances, the most exacting trial.

On that note, why do I want to turn an “I” into a “We?” Because a “we” has little possibility of self-doubt, as it’s much easier to tell yourself that others believe in you.

Years ago, I did not know or think any of this. But I was seized with “silliness” and “sorrow,” and only some vague, silly ideas about creativity have proved profitable.

Ada Limón, “Little Day”

More than ever, I have been writing. Writing, you will note, is not really a craft. It’s something—I’m not sure what exactly—which shapes how you see anything.

Recently, it’s been shaping what I see. I’m drawn to other literary critics who dwell in poetry (one more chapter to go in Maureen McLane’s My Poets); I spend time trying to twist clichés into original statements; I wonder what may endanger sumptuous prose, rendering it vacuous; I want to know how to earn the force and power of my best thoughts.

All of these high-sounding notions correspond with feelings of inadequacy. When I stumbled upon Ada Limón’s “Little Day,” where she places herself on a park bench, always writing, my mind took the fact that I’m typically indoors and alone and put on repeat YOU CAN’T POSSIBLY BE A SERIOUS WRITER for a good few days. I found myself at a coffee shop with a large patio area confronting this poem in my journal, trying to figure out why this is what it comes down to:

Little Day (from Lucky Wreck; h/t @ArianeBeeston)
Ada Limón

This is what it comes down to:
Me on a park bench, always writing,
This is what it comes down to.

“What have I accomplished today?” could be rewritten “little day,” a day in brief. This is not to reduce experience to a few words, but to find a few words for opening and reopening experiences. This is what it comes down to thus has to perform two functions which are in tension. First, it has to give us something small we can work with and remember. For a writer, this can be a tactic so precise it could pull one away from the emotional presence we need to actually live life. Advice I got from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird which I use, in my own way: index cards. Have a bunch of index cards and as things happen or come to mind, get a brief note down. Later, take that note or notes and expand.

I can easily imagine myself using this tactic as a form of building artificial distance from things. Jot down a brief note, pretend like I don’t have to respond to something immediately. In order to not slip into denial, I have to remember the second function of this is what it comes down to. It must form an entrance to a moment that is its own world. It demands emotional honesty, command of detail, and evolving reflection. Me on a park bench, always writing—to be in sunlight, aware, ready to engage nature and others, working alone but also exposed—this has to be an imagined condition. It literally isn’t possible in certain places and times.

This is what it comes down to serves as a most elegant conclusion to this meditation. It places us on the park bench, ready to write ourselves. It invites us there through simplification—get to this imagined spot and you’ve found yourself. Moving outward, as a matter of consequence, a luxurious necessity.

Emily Dickinson, “Good to hide, and hear ’em hunt!” (842)

Good to hide, and hear ’em hunt—immediately, I hear fear within adrenaline. A declaration of “good” that’s scared but tries to project bravery, presenting us with a peculiar darkness. Like a kid playing hide and seek who’s hid too well, proud of his cleverness but risking that his friends stop looking.

I think one has to recognize this darkness while noting that Dickinson’s first stanza does seem to go in a more playful direction. Better, to be found, / If one care to, that is, / The Fox fits the Hound. “If one care to [be found]” and “The Fox fits the Hound” steer the poem away from the terror of being hunted and torn apart, the feeling that this is the only way you could have value. Both lines allow you to think you have control (you can make it so you are found) and you are needed for more than bullying (“fits”).

What, then, to do with my initial impression? This poem moves from “Good” to “Better” to “Best” too easily, as if it were hiding something itself. Good to know, and not tell:

Good to hide, and hear 'em hunt! (842)
Emily Dickinson

Good to hide, and hear 'em hunt!
Better, to be found,
If one care to, that is,
The Fox fits the Hound —

Good to know, and not tell,
Best, to know and tell,
Can one find the rare Ear
Not too dull — 

The second stanza, with Best, to know and tell, indulges a temptation: maybe this poem is exclusively about writing. When I first saw the poem, I thought it a statement of esoteric practice. Hide your true teaching for those who hunt, but make sure it can be found. Let the “Hound,” the hunter, be completed by your teaching, the “Fox.” Test your reader, find the rare Ear / Not too dull, and you can convert the hunter to your ends.

I now feel that’s too facile a read. What’s important about writing—what makes consideration of esoteric practice so interesting—is the struggle to communicate behind every word, every attempt. It’s both good to hide and hear them hunt and good to know and not tell. You could say these are obviously the same thing: your not-telling precipitates the hunting. But they’re not the same thing—hunting means you’ve left clues, pointed a certain direction. You’ve pointed to yourself. To simply not tell is to make a decision about what is completely off-limits, at least for a time.

The conflict between leaving clues and not telling a soul anything are the fundamental struggle at the heart of being a writer. It’s true there are technical considerations, like making sure your scenes have life, that you don’t use cliches, avoid adverbs where you can tell a story, etc. Ultimately, though, everything is about what you want to try to say. No wonder it is “better to be found”—without some indication of what you are trying to say reflected back at you, you have no idea if you’re communicating or not. “Best, to know and tell, / Can one find the rare Ear / Not too dull” is less about testing a reader and more about a reader testing themselves. There are readers who want to hear you for who you are. They’re going to hunt, and in a way, no matter what, you are hidden. Even your most direct comments about yourself don’t quite mean what you think they mean. Esotericism, from this vantage, has the potential of being a radical version of this problem. A writer has to write in order to know what she’s saying. A writer has to write in order to know what he’s saying. Building an elaborate hidden teaching could be an attempt to give process and form to overwhelming emotions, observations, and convictions.