Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Category: poetry (page 1 of 46)

Kay Ryan, “Thin”

Thin (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

How anything
is known
is so thin —
a skin of ice
over a pond
only birds might
confidently walk
upon. A bird’s
worth of weight
or one bird-weight
of Wordsworth.


Control breath, focus. Only time to get more oxygen, avoid a blow, respond with training when possible. A professional fighter knows he knows when he can act properly. Indeed, for one educated so, it might be said that he can act at all is entirely a matter of knowledge. The method taught, the body molded, the assumed scenarios: maybe sports are so unintellectual at times because the thinking has already been done.

“How anything is known is so thin” – when discussing this with S., she talked about the unfathomable. Her initial read of the poem: birds which walk upon the ice also reach into a sky we can never truly know. Ice covers a watery depth also not home for us. Knowing, in a way, always stands beyond us. If you know how you know, you are incredibly wise. If you know how you know how you know, you’re insane or nearly god.

S.’s is a brilliant and correct thought. I do think the poem leans another direction. To know is to engage a thinness like “a skin of ice over a pond only birds might confidently walk upon.” The image isn’t exactly clear. Maybe those birds look fearless, or at least nonchalant. I tend to think of birds upon the ground as having abbreviated, mechanical motions. That if people moved like they did, they would look nervous. In any case, there is no confidence shown by us humans upon the ice. The problem is that our knowledge does not directly inform our experience. We doubt our knowing, we doubt ourselves; we’re in the way of our confidently, prudently acting.

There are attempts to deny the problem. If you really knew, you would do it and do it well. Sorry, but you can know how to dismantle a nuclear bomb and someone can shoot you in the face while you’re trying to do it. A failure of result does not indicate a failure to know. Self-actualization involves a denial of the self; the self is the obstacle to true knowledge. This misunderstands priority. How we come to know is a subject worthy of discussion. Genuine communication is not a pseudoscience.

The last sentence of the poem indicates acceptance of the problem. “A bird’s worth of weight or one bird-weight of Wordsworth.” You could say the birds do fine on the ice because they tread so lightly. If we use knowledge in the most refined, elegant ways, maybe we will avoid undermining ourselves. Ryan’s speaker refuses to go this direction, as she does not posit a know-how in order to properly use each thing known. “A bird’s worth of weight” is an impossibility for us. We carry more, much more. What we need is “one bird-weight of Wordsworth.” The best words are light and carried with us. They enable us to grasp images better, but perhaps not reality. Not know-how, but why exactly we wanted to know in the first place.

Kay Ryan, “Backward Miracle”

Backward Miracle (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

Every once in a while
we need a
backward miracle
that will strip language,
make it hold for
a minute: just the
vessel with the
wine in it –
a sacramental
refusal to multiply,
reclaiming the
single loaf
and the single
fish thereby.


Once, after a particularly bad day, this poem made perfect sense. Put down on account of few or no wrongs, saw no escape from present miseries, thought how things could get worse, as is always possible. No reason to complain, every right to do so.

What I needed was a “backward miracle.” This sort of miracle strips language, taking something away so language itself can “hold for a minute.” That means “just the vessel with the wine in it,” which on a lighter note might be thought a glass of Sauvignon Blanc after work.

Ryan does not quite justify our going that direction, though. The vessel with the wine in it occurs because of “a sacramental refusal to multiply.” I am not going to multiply my pains, but I am also not going to ask for the world to be remade. The vessel and the wine refuse transformation, and I stand apart from both with my sacramental refusal.

Not transformed, there is instead the choice to ingest the wine. Moreover, the reality of what is in front asserts itself: a “single loaf” and a “single fish” have been reclaimed. What prevented us from seeing what actually is, well, is our hope for miracles. We load reality with our expectations. Our ambitions and our sense of justice, our very dignity, depend on our expectations. Many times, we could use events that are in effect miracles to meet them. Some of us are more fortunate than others and can take these events for granted. Others are thankful for a parking space near their job’s entrance so they don’t have to dash out of the car.

To strip language of our expectations is to rediscover the power of the everyday. We don’t have much, but what we do have can sustain, and we might even do something more. In terms of really bad days, note well: everyone is loading us with their ridiculous expectations. Why do we have to play along, when we simply know better?

Emily Rosko, “Aubade”

Aubade (from Poetry)
Emily Rosko

There’s loneliness and there’s this—
an unfrequented song, a startling voice
across years. A shifting position, hymn
from the hard bench, sharp something in
there, glass-glinted. If the movement
of trees in the weather front were enough.
If the notes were off-pitch but piercing
(which they are) as birdcall across
the stirring hour. In the woods,
a rustling of creatures we have no
idea of. Outcrops of limestone, wet leaves
lush and deadly. There’s a time for killing,
some tell us, in the corner
of the who-knows-whereabouts. Everywhere,
the roadside lilies in thick morning
dew open orange and in numbers, one
after the other. Sun so strange it’s as
though our looking, for a time, is first.


There’s loneliness, and then there’s being together, whatever that is. An aubade is a love song, sung in the morning. This one seems to concern the essence of being together. It is “unfrequented,” as everyday life is an occupation all its own. It possesses a “startling voice,” one which hearkens to an initial romance and the reality expectations meet.

Rosko’s imagery unpacks what startles, the darkness and beauty of a life together. What drew me to write on this poem was its ability to speak of what is nearly unspeakable so gently. To illustrate: we start with the wedding at the church, the porch in front of the house (“hymn from the hard bench”). In both cases, there’s a slight discomfort, a tune throughout, a beautiful but sharp spark. We glance trees moving to that tune, too, but what do they communicate? There are notes, but they feel alien. If they were piercing enough, they might stir us instinctually.

None of these ideas suggest we are dealing with a broken relationship where no one understands the other and anger resides in every look or syllable. What’s discomforting and wondrous is that the tune isn’t known. You don’t know everything about your partner, you don’t know how things will turn out. No less than Dickinson sees that as amazing. Lest I wax romantic about this, I should note some couples have seen their love turn to hate. Some people are toxic and can whittle away at anyone’s sanity. Being together can be an awful, cruel trap.

Again, Rosko’s musing hints at this, how ugliness does not constitute an insignificant part of love. Those closest to us do drive us crazy. Just dig a bit more into that fragmented, haunting, sharp melody the woods whistle. What’s in there?

In the woods,
a rustling of creatures we have no
idea of. Outcrops of limestone, wet leaves
lush and deadly. There’s a time for killing,
some tell us, in the corner
of the who-knows-whereabouts.

In the woods, we find home again – the homes of creatures to whom we’ve been blind. It is easy to slip out there, in here. Everything we’ve built a life around is deadly. And maybe we’ve even killed and don’t want to remember it.

Again, I don’t think the poem is talking about a couple inspiring Memento 2. But it is true some people are in years of therapy because of people they love who love them. Our lives together center around elaborate rituals whose importance we’re not even aware of. Sometimes, the fight over the dishes is just silly. Sometimes, it harbors the anger of one who feels they’re doing everything and are being exploited. It is easy to slip. It is easy to do things one should regret.

Yet, in large part, we don’t do those things, even though we are in a position to hurt worst those we love most. Some of our most egregious and unforgivable wrongs do find forgiveness, if only for utility’s sake. This is a love poem, and it manages to end appropriately, if ambiguously. We moved from the porch to the woods, now I imagine we’re circling back to the path. All along it, these lovely orange lilies, bunched together. A strange sun above, looking at us, that together we look back and marvel at.

Jane Kenyon, “Who”

Who (from Otherwise)
Jane Kenyon

These lines are written
by an animal, an angel,
a stranger sitting in my chair;
by someone who already knows
how to live without trouble
among books, and pots and pans….

Who is it who asks me to find
language for the sound
a sheep’s hoof makes when it strikes
a stone? And who speaks
the words which are my food?


Admittedly, locating the Muse is difficult. Authors like Homer and Virgil seem divinely inspired. If we knew what moved them so, we might have access to divine status ourselves.

Kenyon’s speaker starts with what looks a more humble proposition. In attempting to write, in coming to language, she has to wonder who she is and what is within her. “These lines are written by an animal, an angel, a stranger sitting in my chair:” she’s at once all three and none at all. She is lowly, supernatural, and alienated from her own self. Despite the overtones of religious rhetoric, she has depicted the central puzzle of trying to be rational. One works to apprehend the truth, understand it fully, and apply it to one’s own life. Needless to say, these are three separate tasks with massive ironies lying in wait for those who think knowledge of one thing alone allows mastery over one’s own life. (1)

To be sure, the puzzle of trying to be rational leads back to the issue of divine status. If one could live “without trouble among books, and pots and pans,” one would be self-sufficient, ready to receive and use enlightenment. It almost seems only a god can truly know and use knowledge in the way we wish. It feels like the rest of us are confined to miserable ironies every time we make a pretension to knowledge. (2)

Kenyon, in the face of this, just wants to make her question clearer. “Who is it who asks me to find language for the sound a sheep’s hoof makes when it strikes a stone?” The desire to convey experience to another comes from wanting to be a part of the human species. All the same, the religious image is unmistakable. It sounds like a lost sheep is spoken about here, a sheep trying to climb something it probably shouldn’t attempt. I posit she still wonders, specifically, what drives her. Who needs to feel part of humanity, who wants to describe our motions, both those sustainable and those imperfect? What does it mean to follow blindly and be satisfied, to be lost and perhaps saved?

Finally, what of an intellectual necessity? “The words which are my food” are spoken by the speaker who does not understand what she says. She’s articulated her ignorance, her attempt to have knowledge where she might collapse into belief. Ultimately, the poem’s progression turns life on its head. In order to understand the alienation one feels as a writer, one had to assume oneself a writer. This means that daily life, even with troubles regarding books and pots and pans, takes care of itself to a degree. To find the words that accurately find one a mere sheep is to find a truth that does not mean what we think it means. We are not, in a sense, mere sheep. Yet we are, because we needed those words, our own.


1) Xenophon, Memorabilia III.9.10 – “[Socrates said] kings and rulers are not those who hold the scepters, nor those elected by just anybody, nor those who obtain office by lot, nor those who have used violence, nor those who have used deceit, but those who understand how to rule.” Leaving aside the problem that Xenophon’s Socrates has completely dismissed political legitimacy in any recognizable sense, and in fact makes himself guilty of the charges by saying such a thing, we have an endorsement of a view opposite to mine by no less than Socrates. Can’t we say that true knowledge is mastery? Doesn’t knowledge enable perfect practice? The quick answer: Socrates’ rhetoric is excellent. Better than dynastic claims, currying the favor of voters, getting randomly elected, or any tyrannical attempts at rule is actually knowing what you’re doing. Knowledge is superior to the typical practice of politics, and even to a degree to law itself, when things have to get done. I don’t know that the scope of this rhetoric should be extended to individual lives without qualification.

2) There are people who have made it their mission to take poetic musings and use them as hard limits on what one is allowed to question and know. In this sense, and perhaps only this sense, are philosophy and poetry distinct.

Sappho, “Sleep, darling…”

“Sleep, darling…” (tr. Mary Barnard)

Sleep, darling

I have a small
daughter called
Cleis, who is

like a golden 

      I wouldn't
take all Croesus'
kingdom with love
thrown in, for her


Turning to us while putting her daughter to sleep, she’s so excited about her she’s bashful, self-conscious, about it.

This is itself no small wonder. Excitement overflows, demanding rational explanation. You want to convey your joy to others. You want to convey it to yourself, because you don’t want to forget a single moment.

Maybe that’s why the image ultimately presented is hopelessly inadequate. No one would consider trading their children if they could help it. Trying to think through a hierarchy of goods, with “having a child” at the top, leads to having nothing to compare. All Sappho can do is introduce another set of circumstances involving giddy excitement, like winning the lottery (“Croesus’ kingdom with love thrown in”).

Sappho compares Cleis to a “golden flower,” mixing the height of convention with the heights of nature. Wealth, beauty, and growth can only hint at how Cleis stands to her mother. Her uniqueness is her most precious aspect; an assumed unreality of the “golden flower” hints at it. Croesus famously asked if he was the happiest of men, on account of his wealth and empire. His happiness stands as generic as Sappho’s purposefully throwaway phrase, “with love thrown in.” There’s no love like nursing this small daughter. To be perfectly clear, there’s no love, no happiness, otherwise.

Robert Creeley, “The Language”

The Language (from Poetry)
Robert Creeley

Locate I
love you
where in

teeth and
eyes, bite
it but

take care not
to hurt, you
want so

much so
little. Words
say everything.

love you


then what
is emptiness
for. To

fill, fill.
I heard words
and words full

of holes
aching. Speech
is a mouth.


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 eventually 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. (1) 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 again 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.


1. “Somewhere in teeth and eyes” – one can say there is no nose being sought. Rather, “I love you” emerged directly from somewhere in the teeth, somewhere in the eyes. But what more does one hope to find within teeth and eyes? “Somewhere in teeth and eyes” can speak to the combination that is a face.

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.


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.

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

The Blind Always Come as Such a Surprise (from
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.


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.


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.


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.

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