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Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Robert Creeley, “The Language”

The Language (from Poetry)
Robert Creeley

Locate I
love you
some-
where in

teeth and
eyes, bite
it but

take care not
to hurt, you
want so

much so
little. Words
say everything.

I
love you

again,

then what
is emptiness
for. To

fill, fill.
I heard words
and words full

of holes
aching. Speech
is a mouth.

Comment:

I love you, from nowhere. We’re trying to locate it, bite it, watch out for ourselves (“take care”). Maybe it is coming from a beloved who loves us back. We’ll find the nose, between “teeth and eyes,” what’s central to a face. And maybe something more sensual will ensue (“bite”), and the paradox of our desire, “so much so little,” will remain an abstract problem for a short while.

However, I love you, strictly speaking, came from nowhere. While Creeley captures the tense giddiness of loving and being loved, he’s not doing it to celebrate that which can celebrate itself well enough. What about those of us who, alone, are trying to love? We unfortunate souls start by finding our nose. The smell of another means they exist for us in some concrete way, not possessed but not entirely distant from us. Our longing is our nutrition, and yet too much longing is no love at all. Real love respects, as “you want so much so little.” There’s no insistence, no power game, no craziness. Just hope and a lot of self-doubt.

“Words say everything” – that’s just it, that’s the problem. We consider love beyond mere syllables. Two who love each other don’t need words. They have everything. Speech and action couldn’t be further apart. One is merely imaginary, the other seems to be the reality of the situation. One can almost feel this question underlying the first half of the poem: does love only exist when two people share it?

In beginning the second half, I love you comes from nowhere. This second time confronts the doubt, the emptiness. Somehow, I know I’m in love. I know I can enjoy it, be hurt, be patient, let go. Greater virtue may be exercised in the service of loneliness than for another person. Love, in truth, is potential: “then what is emptiness for. To fill, fill.” It is an emptiness, the same thing causing doubt and fear in those who do love and are loved back. It is a language, shared by those who are loved and those longing alike. Through it, I can hear things – sometimes, things coming only from myself – and I understand the needs conveyed. Only with those needs in mind do I have a mouth. Love gives the capacity to voice love, and strange as it sounds to say, to actually love.

Emily Dickinson, “A Bird came down the Walk” (328)

A Bird came down the Walk (328)
Emily Dickinson

A Bird came down the Walk —
He did not know I saw —
He bit an Angleworm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,

And then he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass —
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass —

He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all around —
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought —
He stirred his Velvet Head

Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home —

Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam —
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon
Leap, plashless as they swim.

Comment:

Human and animal souls correspond, perhaps too closely. The bird is encountered much like another person would be, coming down the walk. In what he regards as his privacy, he does something grotesque and horrible. He finishes his meal with the nearest drink, then shows either fear or politeness to a passing bug. So far, this bird sounds like a better dining companion than most people. We can relate to him, at least.

Of course, now that he’s done his meal, he glances rapidly around, his eyes acting like “frightened Beads.” Is he aware he’s being watched? Or is he really bored with this date?

Our speaker steps forth at this point. She feels like she’s in danger; she does not want to lose or aggravate this bird. Cautiously, she offers a crumb to him, and he flies away. Dickinson devotes a stanza and a half to the departure:

And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home —

Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam —
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon
Leap, plashless as they swim.

Not an abrupt, scared motion, but an unrolling of feathers, a rowing softly home. It is as if the bird was made for this moment; it journeys with an elegance we aspire to have when we travel. The anthropomorphizing brings out the felt, primal unity. As we row to an unknown land that is our ultimate home, the bird also rows. Only, there is this difference. However the bird travels is peculiar to it. It does not disturb nature in the slightest, whether nature is related to the chaos prior to Creation (“Ocean / Too silver for a seam”) or seamless, perfectly adapted change (“Butterflies… leap, plashless”).

Recognition of the correspondence almost yields a primal unity. However, it may not be the most important thing to say we’re alienated from the bird or the Nature of which it is part. What struck me on a first reading was how we can so easily anthropomorphize the bird’s actions to make too much sense, as if the bird were going through a morning routine much like ours. Just as easily, we could deny that the bird’s actions make any real sense, that even if it is going through a morning routine, it is nothing but appetite and whim. In the latter case, how different is the bird from any of us? One does not really want to compare human and animal souls. At best, “rational” only describes “animal.” The bird knows that much better than we do, and accordingly leaves.

Seth Benardete, “A. E. Housman”

For Nathaniel Cochran

Seth Benardete, “A. E. Housman”

Benardete begins by telling us Housman was a great scholar. So great he had a specific wish for how he wanted to be remembered. In his field, with two other scholars, he would compose “the triumvirate of textual emendation.” Inasmuch he advanced knowledge, he would provide a good, and justly acquire a noble reputation on his terms. There are shades of being no less than a philosopher, as Benardete tells it. Housman’s “probity and love of truth” were so fundamental they created the appearance of generosity. His vices, perhaps, stemmed from his intellect and erudite aspirations. A “just estimation of himself and others was always combined with a cutting nastiness that seems to be a superfluous display of wit and… bitterness.” Truth can be bitter, and someone who is just simply because he knows better, we expect, would have no time or concern for social graces. (1)

“Textual emendation” initially appears a narrow, too-specialized problem. Most people don’t read, still fewer engage classics. Of the few, only a select hang on every word, seeking design if there is any. Making matters more complicated is the lack of certainty in merely rooting out corruption from a text. “Whatever solution it [textual criticism] arrives at is meant to satisfy only the immediately surrounding area where the corruption is found; it is not designed to handle the larger question which of two or more possible readings the author in fact chose, for the author had the design of the whole in mind and the critic is forbidden by the rules of his craft to take the whole into consideration.” The critic’s tools isolate a part, rather than grapple with the whole. Shouldn’t this commonsense assumption – nay, method – grant us access to the past?

Housman took that assumption and ran with it. Benardete says as much: he did not acknowledge “that emendation necessarily has to be understood as a probe and not as a tool of certainty.” Rather, he thought “certainty could be gained through a thorough understanding of an author’s style; “poetry [for Housman] was primarily a question of diction and not of fiction.” What strikes me, in this critique, is his purported lack of imagination in bringing the imagination of the past to light.

It is beyond my competence to do more than paraphrase Benardete’s experience with Housman’s editions and those of other classical editors. Notes which inform the reader of history concerning the work, other classical texts which may be related, and difficulties well-known to classicists are not present in Housman’s editions. In their place are witty comments on other editors, “a deep grammatical understanding of passages,” and his own Latin, “clear and Ciceronian as Lambinus’.” Housman is a brilliant combination of artist and scholar. He can further our understanding by keeping our focus on the text, not on the manuscript tradition and other concerns.

Or maybe not. Benardete’s last words are biting: “All the careful exactness of Housman goes along with a pettiness of spirit that at least at times is out of control and expresses a contempt for whatever he does not understand.” Why such a harsh judgment? I think because of the attempt to render historical considerations, the opinions of other scholars, moot by declaring oneself a better reader. (2) The attempt’s arrogance is not readily apparent, as it can present itself in a more democratic guise. Anyone can read well, if they simply pay careful attention. It goes without saying that disagreement with those who said you can read well by paying attention can be a pretty painful process. They have certain biases; Benardete notes Housman’s preference for almost childish sentimentality.

Not that such sentimentality is wrong, but maybe scholarship is the search for something better. Benardete cites with approval Lessing’s “Laocoön,” and I remember some passages in “The Homeric Hero,” Benardete’s dissertation, where he was quoted. Lessing said the barbarity of the Trojans meant Priam could not risk them publicly weeping for their dead. Their high-spiritedness implies the weeping would get out of hand and they would be unable to fight. By contrast, the Greeks were allowed to weep; they could be trusted to show order and courage as well as mourn. Lessing is approving, saying the Greek way is that of civilization. Benardete praises Lessing’s depth of insight, but the grounds for a critique are elsewhere in the dissertation. The Trojans are more natural, not artificially put together like the “well-greaved Acheans.” Their virtue is akin to civic virtue, not the military virtue driving Greek conquest and plunder. The Greek heroes getting their way, attempting immortal status, has at least this irony: in more than one way, they throw away their humanity.

Notes

1. Benardete does not depict Housman’s problem as generally as I do. I say openly that someone who really loved truth might be terribly obnoxious. Benardete goes the route of depicting Housman as singular in his love of truth.

2. I do not think there is any hidden criticism of Leo Strauss here. An open mind is a paradox. At the same time I stay open to esoteric interpretations, I have to keep in mind the historical record that other scholars have worked to establish. The only people I will criticize are those who think there are easy answers, as if habits of mind or one specific method of scholarship could magically fix problems with interpretation that have puzzled people for thousands of years. Or, better yet, people who think they can rebuild a country because of their interpretations of certain books.

Ted Kooser, “The Blind Always Come as Such a Surprise”

The Blind Always Come as Such a Surprise (from danagioia.net)
Ted Kooser

The blind always come as such a surprise,
suddenly filling an elevator
with a great white porcupine of canes,
or coming down upon us in a noisy crowd
like the eye of a hurricane.
The dashboards of cars stopped at crosswalks
and the shoes of commuters on trains
are covered with sentences
struck down in mid-flight by the canes of the blind.
Each of them changes our lives,
tapping across the bright circles of our ambitions
like cracks traversing the favorite china.

Comment:

Many and relentless are the blind. They fill elevators “with a great white porcupine of canes,” perhaps provoking defensiveness from us. One could think them a “noisy crowd,” storming everywhere, giving only temporary respite to those who see.

Kooser conflates the singularity of a blind person with a wondrous, nearly terrible-sounding plurality. One blind person surprises, stopping cars, making mass transit awkward. The first sentence of this poem concerns a blind person pushing into our space. In the second sentence, she uses public things, much like we do, striking down our speech.

We don’t really see. Our conventional notions work for us and they work for the disabled. But they work so differently for the disabled that anyone with half a brain should wonder how they succeed. Our everyday, our normalcy, assumes moral purpose in surviving, being independent, making society work for us. The blind achieve that and much, much more – it’s the difference between a saint and an agnostic. The difference between us and them is qualitative, not quantitative.

One is many, one is the flood. Everything we think must change. Our higher goals, again, tend to assume a specific notion of well-being. They are a luxury for those who have had something so indispensable to most of us taken away. Somehow, our ambitions need to account for how incredible it can be to simply survive. Not to say that higher goals are a waste – they’re certainly not – but that a proper appreciation of the human spirit should pervade everything we do. Kooser says the blind “always” surprise us, and I think he means that we can choose to do something with our reaction or not. We are truly blind, but perhaps able to receive sight from those only blind in their eyes.

Billy Collins, “Winter”

Winter (from Poetry)
Billy Collins

A little heat in the iron radiator,
the dog breathing at the foot of the bed,

and the windows shut tight,
encrusted with hexagons of frost.

I can barely hear the geese
complaining in the vast sky,

flying over the living and the dead,
schools and prisons, and the whitened fields.

Comment:

The world is breath and structure. Breath within (“heat in the iron radiator”), next to (“at the foot of the bed”), against (“windows… encrusted with hexagons”). On that last point, breath forms structure upon structure. The cold weights breath, making it felt, visible.

We are presented this speculation by one tightly pulling covers over himself. Only remotely does he hear geese, who attempt to fly beyond the cold, perhaps beyond what he now feels. It might be thought a futile attempt, not least because of the evident ironies. But the geese represent more than an escape to warmth. Together, they are free, as they fly over “schools and prisons.” On the one hand, they move through an unreal realm, “over the living and the dead.” On the other, they bear witness to a blanketed world, to the cocoon in which our speaker resides.

D. Nurkse, “Psalm to Be Read with Closed Eyes”

With thanks to Benjamin Roman; read his commentary on the same poem

Psalm to Be Read with Closed Eyes (from Poetry)
D. Nurkse

Ignorance will carry me through the last days,
the blistering cities, over briny rivers
swarming with jellyfish, as once my father
carried me from the car up the tacked carpet
to the white bed, and if I woke, I never knew it.

Comment:

The line between our being good or bad is razor thin. The same conventionality which molds and preserves also traps and manipulates, pushing us to fatal ends. It’s hard for anyone who gives a damn not to be consumed by rage. The people who have transformed our world for the better have almost always been told they’re wrong every step of the way, denied just treatment, precisely because they were right.

If one must deal with what feels like a relentless lack of respect, one needs a sort of ignorance. It’s an ignorance that might be the heart of faith, a childlike innocence seeking refuge in simply being. But it has overtones of knowledge of ignorance. To try and reason about the whole – why is the world ending? What did/can I do? – is to attempt creating a cosmology and understanding its significance precisely. To avoid that trap is not childlike faith. It’s a maturity about what human intelligence can and cannot achieve.

That, I think,  addresses why we’re reading this poem. One might wonder about its setting. Blistering cities, briny rivers: there’s a Biblical flood with overtones of global warming, i.e. it is entirely man-made. Death and justice are firmly linked in this rendering. That, I have learned, is questionable. Linking death and justice is an event in Greek thought about religion. It occurs at least in Homer, Hesiod, and Plato. Homer might be the best example: the gods in the Iliad reside in a world without law, as only their machinations and their taking bribes rule it. Those same gods worry about being honored and the achievements of man surpassing their own. Regarding man, there is fear of death, but no strict connection between death, justice, and an afterlife. The gods do not govern a moral order. Any sort of glory will do for enjoying this life and being remembered later. Odysseus’ achievement in the Odyssey is to bring knowledge and fear of Hades to people who do not know him. He creates a connection between death and justice, bringing about morality as we understand it.

Yes, there is something horribly conventional about automatically connecting death with how one will be remembered, or what life might be like in an unknown realm. Yet there’s something natural about it, too. What’s natural is understanding that, to some degree, whatever judges our life does stand outside of us. We’ll watch the world end, knowing it is and isn’t the product of a million different injustices. Our judgment can only go so far when cities boil and rivers rise. We can remember being treated with love, carried in what seems now too structured, too pure (“tacked,” “white”). We were happy once, though, and in placing hope beyond, we hope at this moment to be graceful.

Robert Hass, “To a Reader”

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With thanks to Triin P.

To a Reader
Robert Hass

I’ve watched memory wound you.
I felt nothing but envy.
Having slept in wet meadows,
I was not through desiring.
Imagine January and the beach,
a bleached sky, gulls. And
look seaward: what is not there
is there, isn’t it, the huge
bird of the first light
arched above first waters
beyond our touching or intention
or the reasonable shore.

Comment:

Don’t know how long I’ve thought of my scribbles as messages in bottles. It’s hard to come to terms with what truly underlies a certain disappointment, a certain longing, but Hass has done an admirable job in this poem.

The first four lines situate our speaker in what looks like a broken relationship. “I’ve watched memory wound you. / I felt nothing but envy” reads like the all-too-personal drama which can’t be understood from outside the relationship, much less within it. There’s nothing but envy, the thought that someone is doing well without you while you can’t do without them. To a degree, watching them hurt is all that’s left of love. Hass adds a curious wrinkle to this portrait: “Having slept in wet meadows / I was not through desiring.” The speaker is homeless, rootless, lost in nature. But that indicates something is natural about his being soaked in desire, in what might seem initially his artificial and awful expectations.

Imperatives lead the way to the speaker’s realization. First, “imagine January and the beach, a bleached sky, gulls.” The scene is stark; winter does not necessarily herald the beginning of spring. Instead of growth or joy, the feeling is that of a drained sky populated by scavengers. Yet we also recognize a beauty in this scene. That brings about the second imperative: “And look seaward: what is not there is there, isn’t it, the huge bird of the first light arched above first waters…”

The two imperatives are really one. Going elsewhere and looking, trying to see beyond one’s own pain, is a matter of survival. It’s easy to romanticize the power of stepping forth in this small way. “The huge bird of the first light arched above first waters” vaguely recalls Creation, a world born from divine love. We might be tempted to say the speaker has realized his place in the cosmos and is humbled. It’s not quite that simple, though. He knows himself to be resentful, but the outstanding question is why he was petty and angry in the first place.

Love means something can be lost. It means there are things at stake, that things may not work out. It means there are expectations and longings, and there always have been expectations and longings. “What is not there is there, isn’t it” is the speaker talking to his particular audience, trying to show her what he sees. I don’t think he’s doing this for the sake of attempting to repair a broken relationship. It didn’t work out not because “it wasn’t meant to be,” but precisely because it could have been. Our seemingly petty pains come from a very real sense of loss, from our attempting to create a better world for ourselves and others.

Thus a gull in the early morning, when the water is calm, appears momentous. We hurt and try and create for difficult reasons. We let go because difficulties can become insurmountable. To let go doesn’t always have to be angry, obsessed with the justice of one’s cause. When you realize we’re each trying to create something for ourselves, the world is a blank slate with something bittersweet and hopeful about it. A desire flies away, beyond touch, beyond any specific intent, beyond our reason but glimpsed by our reason, to be possibly understood later.

Robert Creeley, “Water Music”

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With thanks to Sophie Johnson

Water Music (from poets.org)
Robert Creeley

The words are a beautiful music.
The words bounce like in water.

Water music,
loud in the clearing

off the boats,
birds, leaves.

They look for a place
to sit and eat—

no meaning,
no point.

Comment:

The words are a beautiful music. This is not a matter of debate or speculation. It is a statement of being.

But that which is – those which are – also move. Words bounce, and their motion cannot be described so directly. They bounce “like in water.”

Creeley combines the form of words with the image of their movement. “Water music.” Words are music, they are a medium. That means they do not just move, but contain motion itself. In their movement, they are “loud in the clearing,” ricocheting off boats, birds, leaves. But “loud in the clearing?” Loud in nothing? That’s the clue words are substantial, allowing boats to float, witnessing the flight of birds, weighting the falling of leaves.

It is a curious substantiality, to be sure. All of life is comprehended, and none of it. The motion of words does not quite square with words holding motion within themselves. As words have form, they materialize, not unlike the noises of the insects near the lake. “They look for a place to sit and eat” – words, with a life of their own, want to be a part of our world just as we are. This means, quite literally, they have no meaning, no point. Nothing is eternally set for them. “Water music” points to dance, if it is not dance itself.

Emily Dickinson, “Count not that far that can be had” (1074)

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“Count not that far that can be had” (1074)
Emily Dickinson

Count not that far that can be had,
Though sunset lie between —
Nor that adjacent, that beside,
Is further than the sun.

Comment:

Given an imperative, “count not,” we wonder: Is this advice? A warning?

“Count not that far that can be had” – there is a “far” that can be had? Dickinson clarifies in her peculiar way. Between the “far” and “us,” sunset lies between. Whatever “far” we can possess has something to do with night. I suspect she’s talking about love. The stars are beautiful, distant, uncountable. But in a way, we can have them. We possess them by beholding them.

The first two lines, on my reading, bring together hopes, loves, and heartbreak. “Count not” is a warning. Something about love has to stay mysterious; in the most ardent longing, there is an element of moderation. The poem hints that this might have to do with our beholding the stars. We possess them at the same time we do not possess them. Just as we love, we make them what they are because we see, not touch.

So what if we want to touch? What about the “adjacent,” the “beside?” Dickinson contrasts these with “far” through her use of “that:” “that far,” “that adjacent,” “that beside.” That far can be had, can be possessed. Why is what is “adjacent,” “beside,” further than the sun?  (I am reading the last two lines as “Nor that adjacent, that beside, [which] is further than the sun.”)

I guess that could be read as a simple warning against sensuality as fulfillment, but that’s not true. The first two lines introduced a very sensual love. The issue, again, is counting. Try to count what is earthly, what is right next to you, and you’ll find yourself going crazy. It’s not the amount of distance that’s the problem, it’s the fact of any distance. The funny thing is that we try to count that which we don’t really want to count. Our end is something else, to be sure.

Because this is America, Roger Goodell will probably continue to make $30 million a year for being a national disgrace

Update: Here’s a petition you can sign, if you so choose.

Dear President Obama:

Please be blunt about Roger Goodell. Just say something like, “If I were in the NFL, and I knew that man handled domestic violence incidents that way, I would feel disgusted near him and couldn’t stand the thought of him as my boss.”

I realize we are in a strange world when it comes to the bully pulpit. The rhetorical power of the Presidency has been abused for years. A fragmented, too-partisan America for which we are all to blame means that your speaking can make some problems worse.

I know you won’t make this problem worse, but my thought requires some extended commentary. The more complicated problems you face stem from an American public that doesn’t really understand prudence. I don’t say this to be snobby – this open letter attests that I am way too moralistic, rambling, and idealistic. I fully grant that I can’t appreciate my own critique, if I’m right.

It just seems to me that we don’t want to accept the mistakes and messy situations that result from trying to be prudent. This is perennial, to be sure. I’ve got a few friends who think the very first Gulf War was launched because George H.W. Bush was going to make bazillions off of oil. Oil is obviously a factor in why we get involved in such things, but worries about global stability after the Cold War seems a reasonable explanation, at the least.

We’d rather embrace the more reductive explanation, because we’re the true believers. If we act rightly, pray rightly, think rightly, we will be rewarded in this life. War is obviously a bad thing; the justice of one’s cause can never be pure. While we might not know a thing about policy or the trade-offs that everyday life requires, we know war is bad. We know we’re jeopardizing our future if we go to it willingly.

Again, all of us believe in this trifecta: right thinking, right action, right result. It animates the utopian anti-war Left and some of the worst lecturers about poverty on the Right, but they are only the most visible believers. The rest of America thinks this way, too, and the funny thing is that it has made us less moral. We’re not sensitive to the concerns of others; we don’t pay attention when others cry for help; we’re cynical about moral rhetoric generally; we pick our echo chambers and stay there. Our lack of unity is no accident. Since many of us are not in the best economic condition – that “right result” is lacking – right thinking and right action must be in short supply with everyone else. To be sure, we beat ourselves up a lot. It’s a lot harder to be confident when one doesn’t feel one can produce anything.

That’s the climate you’re working with. It indirectly leads, as it did today, to two people I know privately reinforcing each other’s idea that “this Ray Rice thing is none of our business. She’s still with him.” Right, a woman getting knocked unconscious in an elevator is none of our business. That makes perfect sense, in hell. We’re not allowed to talk about moral issues because no one has moral authority. People beating the hell out of each other is totally fine as long as we make money and take what we’re given. The “right result” (here: “right” with no sense of “justice”) dictates right action and thinking, as people actually getting what is good for them is in short supply, and people feeling they’re getting lectured at is in large supply.

This is a stupid, awful climate, but it can be confronted directly. There are some things which are beyond debate, like domestic violence. If confronted, those who feel lectured at have to actually defend the lowest form of life on Earth, and if you call them out, they have to do this on larger platforms than Facebook.

Shame is a powerful tool which we don’t use enough nowadays. The funny thing about shame is that it works best when one doesn’t really have to argue for it. Pretty much everyone knows Roger Goodell is a national disgrace. If you call him out on it, you’re fine and you’ll get the right result, one that is actually just. We can work our way back to the more complicated moral issues, the ones dividing us, from that starting point. But it is important we start somewhere.

AK

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