Walt Whitman, “The Runner”

The Runner
Walt Whitman

ON a flat road runs the well-train’d runner;
He is lean and sinewy, with muscular legs;
He is thinly clothed—he leans forward as he runs,
With lightly closed fists, and arms partially rais’d.


For the most part, I think our political leaders eloquent, but eloquence differs from what it was before. Nowadays, in order to speak of democracy, you have to start with the basics and build slowly. For example, you might explain how change works. You start by showing that the largest, grandest changes are impossible all at once, and instead emphasize the smaller deeds and realizations which did and did not turn out to be something more. Or you speak of values under assault. Instead of speaking in the abstract of moral decline, that regimes decay necessarily because of temporal distance from their founding, you speak of how values inform a people, sustain them, create a certain person we can look up to and continue looking up to. It can feel very elementary, and one might complain that it makes our leaders sound paternalistic, talking down to us a bit like parents or teachers must.

I don’t think anyone involved in this process lacks intelligence or expertise. Most people are very well-educated, and those who aren’t still show professionalism, earnestness, and a willingness to listen. What has collapsed is not an obvious failing of politicians or peoples; it’s a more subtle problem. In truth, the situation nowadays is what a lack of studying rhetoric, a lack of concentrated attention in education to public life does to a people. We have barely spent any time reflecting on how our society works before we’re confronted with people yelling at us to take a side. Our educational institutions justify themselves almost exclusively through success, the gain of an immediate practical good. When we do speak of governance, we speak of protecting and using our rights, which can sometimes create the trap that nothing else about politics need be known, practiced, or discovered. Without realizing what has happened, we’ve more vulnerable to the crudest sort of sophistry, the sort that promises free stuff by calling everyone else a thief.

Politics in one sense really is an art, a science: it requires a lot of knowledge to figure out how to compromise with people you don’t know and with whom you have to build trust. It requires at least as much knowledge when trust is lacking and you have to make a determination about relative strength, letting that inform your words and actions. The idea that anyone at any time and with any degree of skill could do this, that their simply being right is good enough, is insane. You have to commit to a role and decide that you’re going to grow in it. Maybe I’m just on twitter too often, but it feels a wonder that the republic has lasted as long as it has.

Whitman speaks democracy. He’s from another world where classics were the heart of education, where the study of rhetoric was central and everyone saw America as an exceptional experiment in self-governance. But even in his time, a higher consciousness of public things did not stop this country from tearing itself in two and shooting each other. His America had to relearn how it all works.

Maybe “The Runner” indicates the lessons were once somewhat subtler. “On a flat road runs the well-train’d runner,” opens the poem. It took me a little while to realize that the most important word in this line is “flat.” The runner, another human being, is neither above nor below the speaker. He is “well-train’d,” but at what? Simply moving, an action more fundamental than wrestling or running timing routes.

Whitman marks subtly contradictory things in the figure of the runner. “He is lean and sinewy, with muscular legs” indicates built-up legs and a thinner torso. “Sinewy” on the whole, but not entirely proportional. His legs are far more powerful than the rest of his body. The effect, I feel, is that moving forward becomes slightly more important than an insistence on rational faculties. When Oedipus answers the riddle of the Sphinx, man standing upright, seeing ahead, makes the answer remarkable. An infant and old man do not quite have the same vision, the same grasp on their affairs.

This is not to say the runner is irrational, just that he’s more of a doer. His is a most natural doing, a consistency in a world complicated to the point of confusion. Working through “He is thinly clothed—he leans forward as he runs,” I take “thinly clothed” to refer to his almost being naked, hence my comment about being natural. Leaning forward as you run means throwing yourself wholly toward your object, not wasting momentum. Again, Whitman draws our attention to what the runner represents through conflicting elements; “thinly clothed” caught my eye as peculiar.

Those contradictions of a sort reach a peak in the final line: “With lightly closed fists, and arms partially rais’d.” In many other contexts, “lightly closed fists” does not represent strength. In a fight, it’s a great way to break your hand. “Arms partially rais’d” makes it sound like this natural, complete motion is incomplete. Of course, it is incomplete. The runner makes progress, and that very progress embodies itself in what we can term the “not quite.” He is not quite proportional, nor clothed, nor entirely powerful in legs and fists. And he cannot declare victory, i.e. raise his arms, just yet. His striving is what marks him as democratic man.

Fanny Howe, “Yellow Goblins”

Yellow Goblins (from Poetry)
Fanny Howe

Yellow goblins
and a god I can swallow:

Eyes in the evergreens
under ice.

Interior monologue
and some voice.

Weary fears, the
usual trials and

a place to surmise


1. At Half Price Books, at a small table littered with books, I struggled for an hour with Fanny Howe’s slim volume Second Childhood. An hour is nothing for serious writing. People ask why I read any poetry at all and I just stare at them blankly. Yeah, there are some bad poets, trivial verses, people looking to make a name rather than truly write. But why wouldn’t you want to read something where a person put everything on the line? Good poems are remembered, and I have to believe that an individual is reconceived along with them.

Howe’s verse is strikingly personal, but my encounter with Second Childhood frustrated me. Far too terse in places, verse connecting to memories I’m struggling to imagine. Name dropping – Dante, etc. – that doesn’t introduce me to what themes or ideas she’s attempting to engage. And then, like a meteor streaking across the sky on an overheated summer night, maybe the most original and well-crafted imagery I’ve ever seen. To wit, from “The Garden:”

Black winter gardens
engraved at night
keep soft frost
on them to read the veins
of our inner illustrator’s
hand internally light
with infant etching.

Most poets would mention with some sort of flair that frost covered the garden at night and move to another image or scene. I don’t think even the best would do what Howe does here. She gives us the whole of a winter garden at night as nothing but an engraving. All is dark; the soft frost are the lines etched into what is otherwise black slate. The frost defines, as it lightens the veins of the branches, leaves, grass, flowers, and stems, letting them be read. Hers is a powerful reflection on art: she sees the art, the etching upon an engraving, in what is already a design. Maybe more importantly, that design, the garden with frost upon them, reads her. It’s an all too subtle encounter with divinity and self-realization, and maybe “our inner illustrator’s hand internally light with infant etching” is overwrought. I don’t think it is, though.

2. This poem, “Yellow Goblins,” introduces Second Childhood. It too seems to be a memory set in winter, as she tells of “eyes in the evergreens under ice.” While she’s peering outdoors, there’s a moment of introspection where fear and trembling resolve into calm:

Interior monologue
and some voice.

Weary fears, the
usual trials and

a place to surmise

And you can throw away all my attempts to demonstrate what the details mean, because the most important ones open the poem, and what on earth:

Yellow goblins
and a god I can swallow:

What do we do with “yellow goblins,” “a god I can swallow?” These sound monstrous, crude, childlike. The completion of this sentence is the setting: “eyes in the evergreens under ice.” It’s not hard to imagine her as a child taking some steps outdoors, loving the snow and ice for a few minutes, then feeling horribly alone, watched only by woodland creatures of all shapes and sizes and dangers. “A god I can swallow” might be rendered thus: fear as a visceral reaction makes one far more receptive to redemption.

3. What does she get from the experience? Instead of a vision of a sacred flame, instead of the miraculous and the imaginative, there’s “interior monologue and some voice.” “Some voice” is so finely understated, as the speaker of the poem confesses to then and there becoming articulate. In a few words, “weary fears, the usual trials and a place to surmise blessedness.” She talks herself into courage, into calm, into life.

On that note, what strikes me most about this poem is its full realization of what exactly a second childhood is. The fragments of a life before are realized as an adult, and it is all too easy to declare that they are transcended to create a new life. That’s not really true: on a vulgar level, most of us haven’t left high school. All my pretensions to maturity haven’t made me more mature. In truth, adulthood is a second childhood. Those fears, real and imagined, are still there, and we still need to find our voice to confront them. The only difference – maybe the reason why kids ever bother looking up to adults – is that we may have some better notion of what “blessedness” is.

Any idiot can be right: Blog in Review, 7/23/16

Too much Trump, too much election nonsense. Still, though we’re weary, there’s incredible writing about the individuals involved. I recommend Julia Ioffe’s depiction of an Indian-American gentleman hyped for the convention & Laurie Penny’s essay about her time with Milo and the “alt-right.” There’s a lot more than these which are worthwhile, but those two pieces got me thinking.

This blog, for what it’s worth, has taken to editorializing of late: witness July 4th, 2016, For Leonard Durso, For Raj Luthra. While I frequently use “we” to refer to more common opinions, reflections, and questions, I’m uncomfortable with being a bullhorn, as if I’m fighting with everyone else to prove myself right once and for all. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s this: any idiot can be right. The biggest idiots want to be right about everything, just for the sake of being “right,” with no concern for how one gets there.

Still, there’s a value to being direct. A few of you asked what I thought about Trump, and I thought I’d write about what I saw: a sad, pathetic, old man with a polite but hopelessly shallow family. I hope I’ve been just as direct in outlining a few of the complications attending any notion of leadership or how many of us have styled ourselves prophets.

Against this, the value of poetry should be clearer. Sappho always provides the challenge of having to imagine an alien scene, explainable only in terms of history almost entirely lost. Rae Armantrout’s “Anti-Short Story” and Kay Ryan’s “Dry Things” also push the use of one’s imagination, but in the service of reconstructing a speaker. Who would speak this way to another person, and why?

I stand proudest of the reflections on Kay Ryan’s “Venice.” I don’t know that I got the wording at the end exactly right. I do know that it is tough to bring together graduate school, the other poems I’ve read, actually visiting Venice, and where I stand in life now. That commentary might be dry or lacking or off in places, but if you see the materials brought to it, you’ll understand why I consider this an achievement of sorts.

Tu Fu & Judah al-Harizi are poets I’ve only discovered recently. If you haven’t seen their poems yet, the ones featured here are short.

As always, please do consider subscribing to Rethink, liking the Facebook page, adding me on Twitter. Feedback is appreciated. Ciao!

For Raj Luthra

Watching Trump bluster about, making America sound like a post-apocalyptic wasteland run by deluded, spineless bureaucrats, evokes something like pity. There’s no doubt his rhetoric is deadly, totalitarian and irresponsible. His whole campaign: America will be better served by insisting on respect first, in any and all situations; free trade is a scam; allies are waste of money; his chief political opponent should be jailed; teeming brown masses, whether in the inner city or streaming across the border, steal jobs and kill innocent people; respect for women is PC garbage; crime is out of control and the police are powerless; the last administration has done nothing but lose.

On the one hand, this is racist, hateful, a complete disregard of the truth, a lack of respect for authority, expertise, competence, divisive to the point of making neo-Nazis a major player in American political life. On the other hand, this is crazy uncle talk, the kind of thing you roll your eyes at, coming from a huckster who would cheat a homeless man out of a dollar. Donald Trump is a pathetic, sad human being, and I’m actually not saying that to be mean. A large part of his appeal is that he’s goofy, unpolished, a loser who has to insist he’s a winner, and for too many of us, seemingly harmless when he’s vindictive. By far his most effective line on the campaign trail was the “greedy” line:

“Now, I’ll tell you, I’m good at that – so, you know, I’ve always taken in money,” he said at a rally in Iowa. “I like money. I’m very greedy. I’m a greedy person. I shouldn’t tell you that, I’m a greedy – I’ve always been greedy. I love money, right?

“But, you know what? I want to be greedy for our country. I want to be greedy. I want to be so greedy for our country. I want to take back money,” he added.

It doesn’t hurt that formally, this sounds like testimony. No wonder evangelicals and the GOP base are flocking towards him. Some people probably think underneath the bluster, he’s asking for redemption. He is natural, all too human; while it’s part of his con, it’s more fundamental than his con.

And then he gets up there with his family, and they’re running the show, and I’ve got to wonder. They’re polished, accomplished, too versed in the family business. They speak like CEO’s, being presidents and vice presidents of various ventures. They make deals: Donald Jr. offered Kasich the chance to be “the most powerful VP in history;” Ivanka was the driving force for getting rid of Lewandowski, his previous campaign manager. They don’t seem like bad people, even though they just engineered the takeover of a major political party and are utterly clueless just how much they’ve bitten off, how much harm this whole undertaking has already caused.

If the Trumps got on a plane and moved to Australia right now, the country is still the mess they helped foment. You’ve got people proudly showing their swastikas to African-Americans; the “alt-right” throws as much hate as they can when they can, knowing activity finds followers; life is being made hell for Muslims, who are being persecuted for their religion; life is being made hell for Latinos, who somehow have to answer for every “crime” Facebook feeds claim an undocumented immigrant did. There’s so much more to add, but I’ll add this. Two years ago, it looked like America was making serious progress on criminal justice reform. It was widely acknowledged that the drug war had failed, that we had the world’s highest incarceration rate because our laws were insane and racism was systematic. Many Americans were correctly worried about police militarization, drones, domestic surveillance. Now you can pass a “Blue Lives Matter” law in a state that is known for overwhelming racism, meet peaceful protestors with full body armor, rifles, and armored trucks, and come out as beyond question for a significant number of people even before a self-proclaimed “Sovereign Citizen” committed a heinous, terrible crime against the police.

Look, I can’t stand the arrogance of liberal elitism. I hate how I get on Twitter and there’s this bubble of opinion within which the professional class dwell. Bush was wrong about everything, guns are always bad, change starts with retweeting this meme, etc. I know better now, though. We know better. We’re watching neighbors turn on neighbors, communities upon communities, the majority claiming the right to be more fearful than anyone else, the creation of a situation where no one can be willing to let go of that “right” for a second. And what’s funny about this, what’s funny about what looks no less than the origins of totalitarianism, is that it isn’t happening because there’s a master manipulator with the demagogic skills of Adolf Hitler. No, there’s a broken, two-bit huckster who can’t get his reality show back, and a family that can only understand the value of their brand, thinking complicated problems can be solved simply by hiring the right people at the right time. I never for once imagined, after years of reading books and writing badly, that I’d be qualified to lead, but in one way I am. I know what not to do, what not to get involved in, because it is far beyond my competence.

Judah al-Harizi, “The Sun”

The Sun (from A Book of Luminous Things, ed. Milosz)
Judah al-Harizi (tr. T. Carmi)

Look: the sun has spread its wings
over the earth to dispel the darkness.

Like a great tree, with its roots in heaven,
and its branches reaching down to the earth.


Brevity brings strangeness into immediate confrontation. “Look,” someone tells us. The sun is a bird! The sun has spread its wings over the earth to dispel the darkness.

The same person continues, changing images entirely. Now the sun is likened to a tree, but upside down, branching towards the earth. Like a great tree, with its roots in heaven, and its branches reaching down to the earth.

Milosz cites this as being one of al-Harizi’s “slightly jocular quatrains.” Maybe that’s true, but my interpretation begins from a different place. Both speaker and audience have not been in the best mood, as the earth is covered with darkness. It’s not just night, about to become day. However, the speaker begins the poem thinking he’s found joy, and he’s eager to share.

Hence, the sun is a bird. Not a ball of fire, not a heavenly body that moves in fixed ways, but a free, living creature which has chosen to grace us, giving light. That’s what the sun is, but it is another consideration what it is like. The effect of the sun, that which we experience but is not the thing itself, is like that of a great tree. In heaven, it has roots. Thus, the cause of joy is beyond us, mysterious, remote, glorious, bright. The tree also has “branches reaching down to earth.” The poem could have said that the branches are all across the face of the earth, illuminating it. I suspect “reaching down” reinforces that joy is chosen. The sun is a bird, dispelling darkness. Inasmuch you are a living creature, will you not glorify Creation yourself?