Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Category: poetry (page 1 of 41)

Hannah Stephenson, “Weeding” & Emily Dickinson, “What I can do – I will” (361)

Weeding (from The Storialist)
Hannah Stephenson

The gardener shows the seeds
that they are embers

There is a flowerflame sleeping inside them

All things being equal
which they are not

All things which come from the same thing
and are also distinct

A large part of the gardener’s work
is also to discourage growing
without remorse


The gardener, in weeding, discourages growing without remorse. But before we are presented with that conclusion, we are shown growth a curious way. The flower that grows toward the sun is also a flame rising. That flame, which reaches upward and can be thought spiritual power, will by implication also consume the flower. This description, which concerns how striving, beauty, and decay link, is then put aside to reconsider the problem from what seems to be the gardener’s vantage. Things are not equal. Unequal things are distinct, regardless of origin. We end on a note which strongly suggests that the fact of difference means some things must perish. “Difference,” then, is not an abstract logical category: it comes from directly from our changeable world.

But even before the gardener’s mind speaks about “all things,” the seeds are “embers” holding a sleeping “flowerflame.” The seeds are personified, as they are shown something by the gardener. Perhaps what is most important: seeds and flowers are completely independent of the gardener, free to live and die, be defective or perfect, on their own. Their spirit in asserting themselves mirrors his in cutting them down. This leads us to wonder how the spirit of both gardener and garden can be “the same thing” which is “also distinct.” Is our willfulness just another part of an overarching differentiation and decay?

One might think this line of questioning a bit overblown. It could be said to be kind of “reasoning” that is more a trap than anything else. I’ve certainly been moody recently and finding it difficult to weed out negative, despairing thoughts from ones that are genuine insights. I do ultimately think the problem which Stephenson presents serious. It has a precedent in Xenophon. Isn’t a horse’s spirit comparable to that of a man? (cf. “Art of Horsemanship”) To elaborate a bit more, Anthony Masterson and I revisited Dickinson’s poem 361 yesterday:

What I can do — I will —
Though it be little as a Daffodil —
That I cannot — must be
Unknown to possibility —

Dickinson, on our reading, was playing a game of the following sort. She does so little, so little as a daffodil, that she cannot be possibly said to fail. Growth looks like the only way of truly accounting for her doing, but growth contains a dark irony of its own. The more one commits to saying “I’m growing” as opposed to “I’m doing something of note,” the more “cannot” must be “unknown to possibility.” In other words, when we think we’re growing, we as a matter of course discount failure.

So there is some kind of link between a natural growth, a natural spirit, and our pretensions. And that link causes us to act in ironic ways and see less even as we’re doing more or less. The weird thing about wanting self-knowledge is that there has to be a self that is knowable. How exactly one gets that self may not be the most pleasant, insightful, or meaningful process.

Emily Dickinson, “Whoever disenchants a single human soul” (1451)

Whoever disenchants a single human soul (1451)
Emily Dickinson

Whoever disenchants
A single Human soul
By failure of irreverence
Is guilty of the whole.

As guileless as a Bird
As graphic as a star
Till the suggestion sinister
Things are not what they are —


I’ve been dealing with a lot of people who might as well be gurus recently. I know, pot-kettle, but still – this gets annoying fast. There was the crazy lady who thought that corporations can screw us however they want (true, but…), and therefore people are moving from the U.S. to Russia all the time, as there’s more equality and opportunity there (um). I used up my “getting into a really stupid argument” card on her because I was moody. Then there’s a number of people giving me practical advice, 99% of whom are absolute gems. I am doing whatever they say pretty much without question, because I’m grateful for the support and the concern. However, a few are thinking that success must result, and the proof I did things wrong is a lack of success. Again, I’m not sure how in a world where great civilizations rise and fall, where saints are martyred, where the best people can die before they’re even born – I’m not sure how success is the metric for things done right. And I’m not sure how an obsession over certain details creates success. I guess America is the land where everyone is a self-help guru, whether they know it or not.

And then there’s something else I’m dealing with. Almost ready to go is an essay on lack of acknowledgement, because I’m wondering why it hits like a truck. People who don’t want to deal with you are the ultimate gurus: they teach you your place.

This poem got me to crack a smile. I don’t know why it’s felt rough the last week or so, but it has felt rough. Still, I can acknowledge being guilty of the sin of the first stanza. I’ve got my vision of the “whole” and I take it too seriously (“failure of irreverence”). I don’t think I’ve pushed so far as to disenchant someone, i.e. turn them away from wonder, or just a lighter approach to life. Some of the best people I know are receptive to intellectual things because they’re trying to lead graceful lives. They’re too good to take me seriously.

On that note, it’s really amazing how far a little cheerfulness, a little reaching out to someone, a little of pretending life makes sense goes in that direction. I don’t want to say a good thinker can’t be serious or moody or cheerless. Sometimes truth is hard, sometimes we have to deal with awful situations. But I can’t say there’s absolutely no link between how one approaches knowledge and one’s character or attitude.

It’s that link which provokes some people, including myself, to “failure of irreverence.” The link is sketchy, but that doesn’t stop some people from thinking that there are intellectual failures which are the worst sins, or that there is a thought or series of thoughts which produce a virtuous life. I remarked to Nathaniel how right he was about Xenophon’s insistence that knowing something is not the same as doing it. We like to say that if you really know, you’ll do it, but that’s crazy for the most part (though: it implies a heroism where one can be as good as one’s word). I think we agree that Xenophon insists knowing isn’t the same as doing with regard to virtue precisely to guard against the notion that there is some perfect thought alone which makes us perfectly whole, or variants of that.

Instead of placing all the weight on the unity of our understanding, we must turn to experience, the practice of living. Dickinson’s poem, after condemning one who may be “guilty of the whole,” starts describing someone. Is that someone “disenchanted,” a victim of a dogmatic accounting? Or is that someone the disenchanter? Either way, here’s the description:

As guileless as a Bird
As graphic as a star
Till the suggestion sinister
Things are not what they are —

This can easily describe the “disenchanted soul.” Presumably they were naive, “guileless.” They stood out like a star, determined by position. And for them, yes, “things are not what they are” is not life, like it is for most of us, but a “sinister” suggestion, that they have to rollback a lot of dogma they bought into.

But this could grammatically link with “whoever,” the disenchanter. He too is guileless, but agile and soaring above. “As graphic as a star” is a spectacular comparison. Not merely standing out, not just determined by position, but a power which demonstrates the laws of the cosmos. Removed from humanity, but with purpose writ large. What could possibly be the suggestion sinister for such a one?

It can’t be that he starts waking up and seeing the world as is. That’s not how powerful cognitive biases work, and truth be told, we’re all dogmatic to a degree. Seeing the world as it actually is would require us to be God. Perhaps Dickinson plays with a sly and wishful humanism here. “Things are not what they are” is a dramatic climax. Birds don’t consistently recognize human beings, and stars of course never do. To realize you’ve been treating other people as things, if not objects, would indeed be quite an awakening. And yes, from my vantage, wishful thinking.

William Carlos Williams, “This Is Just To Say”

With thanks to Michael Tinawi. For Emory Rowland.

This Is Just To Say (from
William Carlos Williams

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold


At least twice people I’ve known have sat around making fun of this poem at length. This poem was their excuse for avoiding poetry entirely. Quite honestly, given some of the attitudes displayed, I think poetry won by not having their readership. I wasn’t a sharp enough reader myself to defend this poem, but knowing how capable Williams is – “Complete Destruction” stands out for me – I knew I’d be returning to this someday.

A good way of approaching any given poem is through reconstruction of the drama. “This Is Just To Say,” the title, implies that something more important hasn’t been said. The poem itself seems trivial, as the speaker apologizes for eating some plums in an icebox. A few details stand out, though. “I” in the first stanza is strictly separated from “you” in the second. The plums were eaten before breakfast, as if the speaker left before joining a breakfast he and the addressee should have had. The speaker pathetically begs forgiveness; “saving” and “Forgive me” give what is probably a goodbye note solemn, nearly religious overtones.

One can say all of this is a stretch. But like Jim Gordon says in TDKR, “You’re a detective – you’re not allowed to believe in coincidences.” Good poems make every syllable count. Knowing that, we should not be afraid to explore themes and symbols. The plums are described sensually, and “delicious,” “sweet,” and “cold” might describe the progress and demise of an intense but superficial relationship. I wonder if Williams meant for us to see this poem as laughable. Tragedy doesn’t occur in obvious, easy to digest ways. Watching your life fall apart isn’t something anyone else sees but you.

Emily Dickinson, “Your thoughts don’t have words every day” (1452)

Thanks to Adam Cooper – would not have seen this otherwise

Your thoughts don’t have words every day (1452)
Emily Dickinson

Your thoughts don’t have words every day
They come a single time
Like signal esoteric sips
Of the communion Wine
Which while you taste so native seems
So easy so to be
You cannot comprehend its price
Nor its infrequency


“Your thoughts don’t have words every day” lends itself to two readings because of the very next sentence, “They come a single time.” What comes a single time? Thoughts which have words accompanying them? A plausible reading, as it initially seems rare thoughts so easily find appropriate words.

Thoughts with precise wording are “like signal esoteric sips of the communion wine.” They are singular but holding something secretive. Divine, they do not stay external to us. Brought inside, they make another manifest. It is like truly hearing the Word. One’s life can be transformed in an instant.

All is well and good, no? Thoughts with words are rare but beautiful occurrences, if not only one occurrence. They feel “native,” making life “so easy so to be.” The “price” and “infrequency” of such an experience should be self-evident.

Yet Dickinson’s speaker insists that it is not self-evident. It is, in fact, beyond our comprehension. Thoughts which have the right words may contain a mystery, but are a still larger mystery themselves. They may point to the price of revelation. To be blessed with an immediately useable thought is a divine burden; one’s life finds itself subject to it.

However, the question on my mind: are immediately articulated thoughts actually a product of thinking?

Let’s start over again. This time, “your thoughts don’t have words every day” refers to that which is not yet or can’t be properly spoken. Maybe there are inchoate thoughts, more intuition and emotion than proposition. Maybe there are thoughts, on the other end of the spectrum, which are fully formed, transcending us, leaving us with only partial comprehension. Either way, such thoughts fuel something eventually more articulate, and the interesting thing is their singularity prior to our verbiage. Most days we have too many words in our head. To really think, to struggle with thinking, is unique. Given the emphasis on this happening once, I wonder if Dickinson is speaking of thinking itself as rebirth.

On my second reading, the poem stays radical. “Like signal esoteric sips / Of the communion Wine” – before, thoughts had words and the only problem was within the words. Now the problem is that of the self. We are talking about thoughts which stand on their own, prior or beyond words. To “sip” of them, to be in communion with them, is to try to ingest the self to understand it. It’s a grotesque image, but not coincidentally the problem of self-knowledge. You try to know yourself and all you get are images of yourself, images that might be best realized in other people. It looks like, on this reading, the overtones of divinity are emblematic of a power beyond us, within us, and not at all purposive. If anything, we’re pulling ourselves apart in different directions.

How does this feel “native,” though? How could it be “so easy so to be?” I don’t think we have to throw this reading out because there isn’t enough of a struggle on the speaker’s part. Nor do we have to say, in the tritest of fashions, that some struggles are perfectly natural.  Rather, the emphasis falls to “while you taste” – our deepest struggle is, for a time, like a drug. Contemplating images of yourself could lend itself to thinking you relate to everybody when you really relate to nobody. The feeling of having a serious thought apart from speaking is not characteristic of true thinking. One does have to assert oneself and face the consequences of that self-assertion.

Whether we speak of thoughts that find articulation immediately or thoughts which stand apart from speech, there is a price and rarity attached to both. That price and rarity is beyond our comprehension either because of revelation, or because our truest thinking exists in a vacuum where it cannot properly be called thinking. I should go further at this point and say this: Dickinson is not really talking about God with “communion wine.” She simply means the instances where we think we’ve had our “Eureka!” moment, where we can explain ourselves perfectly. With that in mind, the problem of “revelation” should actually merge with that of pre-verbal thinking.

Something I’m playing with: you can’t merge the problem of speaking properly (i.e. “I know how we can always be articulate and truthful”) with the problem of thinking prior to speech (i.e. “I have a theory about how we form our thoughts and how they come to be spoken”). United, we’re talking about human reason. It looks like there should be merger: reason can articulate things! Thinking happens, and it makes itself manifest in speech! – That’s about all the unity one can get. The obstacle to any greater unity is that thoughts don’t have words every day. What they are in essence is unclear, and thus they have a radical character in our everyday lives. They’re almost not of this world. -

Paul Celan, “I hear the axe has flowered”

I hear the axe has flowered (from Guernica)
Paul Celan (tr. Ian Fairley)

I hear the axe has flowered,
I hear the place can’t be named,
I hear the bread that looks on him
heals the hanged man,
the bread his wife baked him,
I hear they call life
the only refuge.


Why am I bringing this bleak little poem forth? It gives two images which almost sound surreal, a flowering axe and bread that looks upon a hanged man. The more one thinks about them, though, the more they make a grim sense.

“Axe has flowered” is the easier image to decipher. Along with “the place can’t be named,” it refers to how the injustices we commit against the Earth and each other, including the killing of millions, wash away with time. Actually, it’s worse than that. If the axe is an executioner’s tool, then it can refer to even our justice washing away with time, too. This is Providence of a kind, weirdly enough. Perhaps we’ve messed up human history such that we don’t have anything substantial to bequeath. Maybe we should be put gently aside, as opposed to flooded away.

Four times in the poem we are told “I hear.” How the speaker hears anything is an open question. This must be hearing in the sense of rumor, as flowering makes no sound and “the place” cannot be named. Ultimately, that means the lack of hearing is hearing. “I hear the bread that looks on him heals the hanged man, the bread his wife baked him.” There are overtones of Holy Communion in the love constituting the bread. But the bread merely “looks” on the hanged man; it does not feed him and stays separate. How it heals is most strange, as we do not hear that the man resurrects.

The bread is remembrance; the past is heard. The hanged man is whole and healed in the past. But the past is just as much forgetting as it is remembrance. The problem of the flowering axe and places that can’t be named remains. Just or unjust, remembered or not, it doesn’t seem to matter. What stands out from the bread looking at the hanged man is a third dualism, distance and lack of distance. On the one hand, that bread does not even touch the corpse points to how our memories are separate from the person or object remembered. On the other, the bread was given by a mourning lover.

Not remembrance, but the will to remembrance. That they call life the only refuge is both a truth and a half-truth. It’s a half-truth in the sense we go to the past, we try to make love define time. We struggle against the idea of life as the only refuge. And yet we’re here, doing what we can.

Seventh Reflection: Sappho, “I took my lyre and said”

For Torrey Livenick

I took my lyre and said
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

I took my lyre and said:

Come now, my heavenly
tortoise shell: become
a speaking instrument


The Muse speaks, revealing herself a heavenly beauty that dazzles and blinds us physically. She takes away seeing this world for the truth of this world. One’s mind’s eye receives a strength unknown to others.

Maybe that’s how poetry works, giving us great deeds and hearts. But maybe we also sing to ourselves without grand purpose. We could just want a soothing tune, the leisure to practice speaking ourselves. If that’s the case, such a desire is grounded, of the earth. We pray our thoughts and feelings into song, then collected speech.

Terza riflessione: Saffo LXVIII (translator Laura Garofalo)

Note:  One thing I’ve learned about myself as a writer – I have no idea where to find my audience. Laura very graciously offered to translate some of my blog entries into Italian. She needed the practice and thought my writing might be worth sharing.

I can’t tell you how amazing this feels. I can only hope Laura gets famous in Italy for being the best translator of American English poetry commentaries written in Dallas and New Jersey around 2014 ever. Below is Laura’s translation, and she does welcome corrections and comments from those of you who know Italian:

Pubblicato il 15 febbraio 2014, da Ashok nella sezione “poesia”

Or ora l’aurora dai sandali d’oro
(Tradotto da Ilaria Dagnini)


A man mano che leggo più frammenti di Saffo mi accorgo dell’esistenza di un certo collegamento tra l’atto dello scrivere e l’eros. Si è tentati di vedere in queste poche parole qualcosa di più erotico di quanto ci sia effettivamente, eppure non voglio negare completamente tali sfumature.

Al contrario, ciò che colpisce è l’immagine che silenziosamente risulta spontanea, personificata. Essere svegliati dalla luce dell’alba è la più dolce delle azioni. C’è qualcosa di erotico in esso, certo, ma è parte dell’idea che qualcuno, forse l’intera natura, ti vede nella tua bellezza; che non devi essere disturbato, e che persino la minima sensazione, con un certo grado di calore e luminosità, dovrebbe portarti ad aprire gli occhi.

L’eros della scrittura, se allargo questa idea, è la rivelazione dell’individuo e quindi del parlante stesso. Nonostante ciò in questo momento non posso fare a meno di pensare che ieri sera al mio appuntamento avrei avuto certamente delle cose molto romantiche da dire.

Sixth Reflection: Sappho, “At noontime / When the earth is bright with flaming heat”

At noontime / When the earth is bright with flaming heat
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

At noontime

When the earth is
bright with flaming
heat falling straight down

the cricket sets
up a high-pitched
singing in his wings


Some days are not even close to the best. Thing is, a lot of us are striving for consistency, for security. And to strive for consistency and security is just that. There’s a lot of turbulence by definition. Some of it we’re trying to escape, some of it is self-caused.

It’s easy to feel caught in a web of guilt, thinking one has made the wrong decisions. Especially when nature looks like clockwork. Regularly at noon, a fire descends, causing a reciprocal sound from the cricket. A powerful but not fatal heat seems to set the cricket in motion; its noise and flight are one and the same.

Why are we so inconsistent? The cricket’s passion looks caused by a natural occurrence. This timeliness is a divine order: the cricket finds its mood and fate tied to what illumines the earth, no more. It didn’t stop and think about, say, how much Monday sucks.

In this fragment, there’s an imagined beauty and orderliness. An imagined consistency. We’re the ones who feel secure in thinking the cricket is set in motion so simply.The freedom of human beings entails learning to make the right choices. It’s a responsibility where things going awry isn’t always the worst thing. What’s really scary are the circumstances where freedom and responsibility don’t really exist, where necessities and the contrivances of others dictate everything and we aren’t even aware. The cricket, by this reasoning, is completely in a world of its own.

A.E. Stallings, “The Companions of Odysseus in Hades”

The Companions of Odysseus in Hades (from Poetry)
A.E. Stallings

After Seferis

Since we still had a little
Of the rusk left, what fools
To eat, against the rules,
The Sun’s slow-moving cattle,

Each ox huge as a tank —
A wall you’d have to siege
For forty years to reach
A star, a hero’s rank.

We starved on the back of the earth,
But when we’d stuffed ourselves,
We tumbled to these delves,
Numbskulls, fed up with dearth.


It is difficult to pinpoint the nature of even one of the injustices our society features. Inequality is a problem, but it doesn’t always concern wealth. Do we really allow people to have dignity, or give them proper opportunities to earn respect? It feels like we’re always looking to tear down others because of spite, neglect, or the very security of our own standing.

It’s like we’d throw someone onto the high seas and then tell them to prove themselves by rowing back. But some of this problem exists within manliness/nobility/heroism itself. Even with a reputation for heroic deeds, even with the knowledge we are capable of more, we get desperate. You can’t eat a reputation. When left with virtually nothing, “a little of the rusk,” you not only respond to the lack of necessities, but the injustice of the situation. The same thing that marked you as a “better” human turns against you.

It gets worse. As someone who has been honored, who has conquered, you understand the “rules.” You know all about how powerful pride is, how sensitive it makes the most powerful. At one stroke you throw away all your experience established: the preparation, striving, victory as well as the determination, confidence, honors. To destroy one of the “slow-moving cattle” is no less than the war against Troy.

Are the companions heroes? Strictly speaking, not in Homer. But in this poem, very much so. They don’t speak of justice, but of “rules” and “dearth.” Like heroes, having or not-having is the end, and discipline and strength are the means. And yet what they obviously want is justice. They’re fools for killing the Sun’s cattle, but not wrong. They would be completely in the right if the rusk were used up. Justice is always messy. If I told you about all the crap I’m going through, it’s a he-said/she-said type game, except without a “she.” To be completely in the right is impossible. But the injustice is demonstrable though, just as it is above. One claim of right matters more than another.

Only a hero would be obtuse enough to think that the claim of might established right, that their heroism means nothing compared to a god. Through might, through victory, they reason they became stars. Like the light of stars, they “starved on the back of the earth.” It wasn’t good enough to be a star, it wasn’t good enough to be a hero. This is not hubris. This is that life can be hell for anyone. To actually want what you need brings you crashing down to earth and then some. “We tumbled to these delves, / Numbskulls, fed up with dearth.” Again, only a hero would bet on consistently outsmarting necessity, as if this alone was the foundation of the good life.

Fifth Reflection: Sappho, “I confess / I love that which caresses me”

I confess / I love that which caresses me
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

I confess

I love that
which caresses
me. I believe

Love has his
share in the
Sun’s brilliance
and virtue.


There’s that love which “hard to get” works so well at manipulating. It’s a pious, noble, virtuous love, where objects are kept at a distance and we are reproached for approaching. You don’t become a god by forcibly taking over a temple. Nor do you become a hero by stealing Batman’s costume. And, most of all, you don’t become beloved by forcing your attentions on someone. In each case, what we worship, admire, or adore changes us through the distance it sets. Gods make us reverent and obedient. Heroes embolden us in our everyday lives. And would-be lovers become different things to win the beloved.

I tend to think the heart of Plato is understanding that this noble sort of love is a special case of something more fundamental, namely eros. We should love that which caresses us, not just stays away from us. And that caressing should produce good things for us, just as the Sun does. (Obviously, I am not talking about creepers or stalkers being lovers here.) Its brilliance allows us to see and enjoy the day. And its virtue – is this excellence? or something else? – may be its steadfastness. No changes necessary to it, whereas a beloved must change in some way to accept a lover.

Which brings up this question. Why is this a confession? Why does the speaker believe that Love has only a share in the Sun? We feel guilty in having a love that is good for us and to us; we don’t see the whole of love in being loved well. We want to feel like we’ve learned to love or discovered love. Not the worst feeling, but maybe not always the best.

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