Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Category: poetry (page 1 of 47)

Kay Ryan, “Insult”

Insult (from Persimmon Tree)
Kay Ryan

Insult is injury
taken personally,
saying, This is not
a random fracture
that would have happened
to any leg out there;
this was a conscious unkindness.

We need insult to remind us
that we aren’t always just hurt,
that there are some sources —
even in the self — parts of which
tread on other parts with such boldness
that we must say, You must stop this.


“Insult is injury:” alone, a strong claim. Our emotional and mental well-being, perhaps our pride, is just as important as our physical well-being.

Immediately, a qualification. “Insult is injury / taken personally” introduces the more typical problem. What if we didn’t take injuries personally? Would we lessen our hurt in life, would we be stronger?

The poem begins to address those issues:

…saying, This is not
a random fracture
that would have happened
to any leg out there;
this was a conscious unkindness.

Ryan’s “Insult” speaks, and speaks weirdly. Not unjustifiably, we assume other people insult us. But other people may not be speaking these words. Perhaps they do think our specific legs deserved to break, which on one level is “insult,” sure. If such an idea rankles us, though, it does so because we are trapped in a cruel, bigoted climate where people can honestly believe their god hates others.

Maybe all insult, in a way, presupposes such a climate. “Insult,” speaking impersonally, is our perception, our reaction. One feels the universe against them, for in at least one case it empowered someone or something to cause harm to them alone.

These musings approach conspiracy theory. However, Ryan’s speaker realizes just how dangerous it is to posit that insult “is all in your head,” or some other dismissive tripe. If there is no insult, there is nothing capable of being insulted. That means we’re either gods, or we don’t exist:

We need insult to remind us
that we don’t always just hurt…

Insult reminds us that we’re real. We are not moral abstractions who cannot be injured. Degrees of hurt matter; that hurt can come from ourselves, another, or some part of society.

But what most questions our own reality, our own significance, is ourselves:

…there are some sources —
even in the self — parts of which
tread on other parts with such boldness
that we must say, You must stop this.

It’s not just in our head, but it’s up to us to stop it. That means in all cases making a decision, asserting ourselves against a part that wants to shut down or get obsessively angry. Maybe that means acting against the source of the insult external to ourselves. Still, first things first: we must show ourselves respect.

Basho, “Such utter silence!”

“Such utter silence!”
Basho (tr. Kenneth Yasuda)

Such utter silence!
Even the crickets’ singing…
muffled by hot rocks


Right now, in Dallas: everything is wet, everything is cold, the whole place is a slushy mess of yuck. My disgust with the weather makes me insensitive to a number of other annoyances.

Basho speaks of oppressive weather. In his case, it’s the extreme heat of summer. Unlike me, he notes his awareness of it in a subtle, refined way. He might be actively listening for the crickets, finding that the heat has hunted them down. Or he might be more like me, wondering if the season has dulled his own senses.

I am tempted to think his senses have been dulled. “Even the cricket’s singing…” invites the question of what else has been affected by the heat. “Hot rocks” indicates how thoroughly it has permeated the world. If stone burns, what must the effect be on mere flesh?

Even indoors, one is only slightly more comfortable. My apartment has been drafty, forcing me to use the heater more. The result has been dry air, no fun for an asthmatic to breathe. I imagine Basho in a much more severe situation. He’s sweating, trying to get to sleep. And then he notices that crickets which usually irritate him aren’t doing so. He’s tired, he’s not quite himself, but his observation shows something. His faculties have responded to the situation. He has become more aware, he has an articulate thought.

What, then, to make of the “utter silence” that stirs him? On the one hand, it is surprise at how powerful mere temperature can be. Everything changes, and everything can change to completely disorient one and even the world in which one resides.

Still, the undertones of that situation are less dark and more comic. So on the other hand, there’s the fact he responded to the heat, that he takes note of his condition. “Utter silence” results in the truest speech. Not that the crickets are noise, but that he understands what is around him, however absurd it may be, just a bit better. Maybe he can even get a good night’s sleep, somehow.

Seamus Heaney, “The Rescue”

The Rescue
Seamus Heaney

In drifts of sleep I came upon you
Buried to your waist in snow.
You reached your arms out: I came to
Like water in a dream of thaw.


Perhaps so-called higher ambition is meaningless. We need to produce food, so why bother going, say, to outer space? It does not help that many who profess higher callings make no attempt to justify themselves. They’re not curious about their own motivations or their own selves. If they were, they could embrace what should be an alien nature, at times standing aside for others who inspire. They would try to appreciate a different language of emotion or inquiry, instead of asserting themselves at every juncture.

“In drifts of sleep” presents a dreamlike, suspended state. Strangely awake, strangely alive, as the random contents of one’s mind are a void. From that void “I came upon you / Buried to your waist in snow.” Coldness, death, the indistinct are all associated with the buried memory of someone familiar. Our narrator has a certain boldness; he can see himself in difficult places, ready to rescue if need be. A hero of sorts, certainly a venturer. There is no such thing as everyday life without a beloved in the background; there is no such thing as exploration without the discovery of some hidden desire.

This poem functions not only as a love poem, but also as an expression of surprise at one’s subconscious curiosity. I hesitate to call it longing. The object of desire reaches out to our speaker, causing him to melt. The power of this image is most unexpected. “You reached your arms out: I came to / Like water in a dream of thaw.” Before, a somewhat unknown object, a hidden one. In my limited experience, those who long do so for another daydream, imagining all too precisely being loved back, forcing an epiphany. Pining loads expectations.

A narrator who remembers his dream with clarity, ascribing to himself an original purpose, finds himself newly wakeful. His quest has been transformed precisely because he undertook it. Most fascinating is his likening himself to water. Not just melting in the face of love, but becoming freer and freeing. Everything has changed because of this new knowledge.

Basho, “Here, where a thousand captains swore”

“Here, where a thousand captains swore”
Basho (tr. unknown)

Here, where a thousand
captains swore grand conquest…
tall grass their monument


Mocking the irony of wanting to conquer others for fame and fortune – that’s easy. Our narrator looks out at a battlefield and sees what is: tall grass covering the bodies of the ambitious. Unless one was insane, one could not miss how a combination of planning and spirit – nearly the sum total of our so-called higher faculties, what makes us distinctly human – buried itself.

Any serious reflection starts not with casting aside figures like Napoleon or Genghis Khan, but understanding that all of us want to best others. Admirers of conquerors and tyrants exist always, and as problematic as they are, they can’t be faulted for dishonesty. A thousand captains, leaders of men, each made credible in the eyes of many through honors, virtues, and stories shared then and now. These captains gathered together and swore fealty in order to procure a greater victory. All those honors, virtues, and stories of each were united in loyalty, in combined strength.

Basho’s reflection is impersonal. A little imagination reveals that some of the people we most admire may be subject to the same critique. Attacking our own selves, strangely enough, is the easy part. Basho wants our attention to turn to our virtues and ideals. Conquerors and tyrants loom large in the imagination of some because they impose their will on the world. To what degree is virtue an imposition of will on the world?

There is no small solace in the fact that many do not mind tall grass as a monument. People sacrifice for each other every day. They sacrifice for causes they think will bring about a greater good. The funny thing is how the zeal of those most admirable entails moderation of a sort. Not entirely virtue, not entirely what is good for all, in order to sacrifice well. Whereas either to die for virtue purely, or for one’s own aggrandizement, seem to be two sides of the same coin. The reality of tall grass as a monument is the reality of the earthly.

Basho, “Lady Butterfly”

“Lady Butterfly…”
Basho (tr. unknown)

Lady Butterfly
perfumes her wings
by floating over this orchid


All that happens: a butterfly floats for a moment above an orchid. Our narrator sets forth a few details of his choosing. The butterfly’s wings are infused with scent from the flower; it hovers over it, remaining some distance away; the flower is specifically an orchid. There are other translations of this poem which do not see the butterfly’s gender as an issue.

Whether or not we are dealing with “Lady Butterfly,” the personification remains an open question. One can say the butterfly is personified in the pleasure it takes from beautification. It lingers in the scent, taking on the property of another object in order to beautify itself and receive pleasure. Perhaps this is the most human of behaviors, as it becomes confident not through grasping the object itself but through imitating an aspect of it. I wonder, on this line of thought, if “orchid” is meant to be much more specific than “butterfly.” Does the butterfly remotely understand the flower from which it takes?

But personification may be a narrative imposition. It could be the case that butterflies are genuinely pleased by the scent of the orchid itself, wanting it for pleasures specific to themselves. The Greek kosmos not only means “universe,” but also “ornament.” Wearing what is appropriate for oneself speaks one’s precise place. To that end, the gentleness of the exchange might be the heart of the poem. The orchid gives off a scent, the butterfly embraces it. It will spread that scent with its own power. Both orchid and butterfly will be united, yet in this image, neither will have even touched the other.

Kobayashi Issa, “Yellow Autumn Moon”

Yellow Autumn Moon
Kobayashi Issa (tr. unknown)

Yellow autumn moon…
unimpressed the scarecrow stands
simply looking bored


The bright moon faintly illumines the changed hues of trees, the subtle outlines of clouds, the slight motion of water. Under it bores like me are simply sleeping, lovers exchange knowing glances, the reverent still pray, the lustful enter dens of iniquity.

The fullness of life stretches toward night; the moon witnesses this, making it just visible enough. Yet Issa has us imagine a scarecrow in a field, bored with that moon, maybe sourly looking on it all.

I’m tempted to imagine the scarecrow as a specific example of the headline “old man yells at cloud.” People who mutter to themselves things like “caught in that sensual music all neglect / monuments of unaging intellect” are more interested in being permanent and useful than enjoying life themselves. Scarecrows are certainly both, as they merely mimic the human to protect crops. It is easy to hold in contempt what one might most want to protect.

The translator’s word for describing the scarecrow’s gaze is “bored.” What makes the moon majestic is its softly lighting a living world. The scarecrow finds itself “unimpressed” with humanity, which needs a point at rest, a celestial witness, to imbue its activity with a touch of divinity. He does not blame the moon for this, but cannot give it any credit either. The scarecrow is at work, always.

Rae Armantrout, “The Difficulty”

The Difficulty (from Poetry)
Rae Armantrout

This film, like many others,
claims we’ll enjoy life
now that we’ve come through

difficulties, dangers
so incredibly condensed
that they must be over.

If the hardship
was undergone by others,
we identified with them

and, if the danger was survived
by simpler life forms,
they’re included in this moment

when the credits roll
and we don’t know
where to stand


Not only film, but nearly all literature, all myth, promise happiness for enduring obstacles “so incredibly condensed that they must be over.” A sense of who we are, who we ought to be, comes to us through stories which of their very nature cannot possibly encompass the whole of our experience. We believe that if we truly become virtuous or moral, we will never stray nor do wrong, despite knowing there are situations where the only possible choices are justly characterized as desperate. We’ll be happy because we’ve overcome and learned everything from such experience – as if things still couldn’t collapse.

That, at any rate, is what I get from Armantrout’s first two stanzas, which establish the setting. The singular difficulty of her title has not been revealed yet. She lets the film continue with its claim: dangers and difficulties have been overcome, thus we are in a better position to enjoy life. My comment above speaks to the problem of actually being part of heroic stories. However, it may be the case we can learn a pleasant, beneficial truth by merely being the audience of such a tale.

In many cases, we identify with those who’ve undergone hardship. Sometimes, we’re watching “film” of ourselves in our head, but Armantrout puts that discussion aside for now. She instead switches focus to a strange detail:

if the danger was survived
by simpler life forms,
they’re included in this moment

“Simpler life forms” jars. They survived the danger as much as we did or those with whom we identified. But do they matter in the same way “we” do? Children and animals do not have our intellectual framework; they cannot understand what we learned! That’s just the problem, though: what we learned stemmed directly from the result. Not just that there were difficulties, not just that they were dealt with well or badly, but that they in the end fell away.

We don’t know where to stand when the credits roll because the result dictated whatever we learned. We were children, we are animals, after all. The difficulty is this: if we say we have truly learned from experience, that we can be happy in the final analysis, we are more than human and still couldn’t stand in the picture. Happiness is contingent unless one could completely deny human desire, avoid the consequences of bad relationships, be totally self-sufficient. The happiest human life is rational, but that is meant in a comparative sense. A rational human being probably wouldn’t need to be inspired by every movie he saw (*gulp*).

Kay Ryan, “The Obsoletion of a Language”

The Obsoletion of a Language (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

We knew it
would happen,
one of the laws.
And that it
would be this
sudden. Words
become a chewing
action of the jaws
and mouth, unheard
by the only other
citizen there was
on earth.


We knew it would happen, we knew a language would become useless. Perhaps it was one of the unspoken laws between us.

Still, knowledge did not prepare us for its suddenness. “Words become a chewing:” our appetites continue, but we’re eating our words, and they’re unsatisfying. “Chewing action of the jaws and mouth” attests to this. Our words mean to communicate, and there is one other who could hear them, but they fall on deaf ears.

Two lovers constructed their own realm, as all lovers do. When love ceased to be, the rituals of love were not preserved in the language of that place. Rather, distrust and skepticism filled what was taken with the best of intentions before. Two things stand out for me: first, this poem is more puzzling than heartbreaking. This is one of the things lovers leave us with, whether we were the ones who broke off the relationship or not. Why don’t certain words work anymore? Did we somehow change?

Second, something formal remains. “After great pain, a formal feeling comes.” The laws, perhaps unsaid, make one wonder if they were in the language of the lovers. My thought is they actually are, as a painful truth could have been communicated, although not adequately understood, during the relationship. To be sure, there is no magic language of romance that can bring ex-lovers back. But there is a way to more objectively understand the history of what was, of who we were and are.

Sappho, “Tomorrow you had better…”

Note: Apologies for the lack of posting. I’m going to try to post every other day, at least. I had forgotten that, whether I like it or not, I’m in the business of producing media.

“Tomorrow you had better…”

Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

Tomorrow you had better

Use your soft hands,
Dica, to tear off
dill shoots, to cap
your lovely curls

She who wears flowers
attracts the happy
Graces: they turn
back from a bare head


A peculiar harshness attends the making of beauty. Dica, with her “soft hands” and “lovely curls,” probably possesses a pleasant mien already.

Yet a strong admonishment begins this fragment. Dica “had better” tear off dill shoots and wear them on her bare head. The motherly commands nothing less than pious force. If flowers are not worn, “the happy Graces” do not come. Dica, in the narrator’s eyes, is not beautiful enough. It is very easy in this translation to see why people fight with their parents over matters of tone. The gravest insults are only a few words away.

Still, even “mom” recognizes Dica’s natural beauty. Dill shoots, strictly speaking, are rather plain. If we are speaking of the flowers of fennel and thyme, those are very delicate, fine flowers. Dica is easily seen for who she is. The happy Graces do not want her to tremble in fear, but to rejoice in her being part of greater beauty. Perhaps they even see her as one of them.

Emily Dickinson, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” (1129)

for Paula Gardner

Tell all the truth but tell it slant (1129)
Emily Dickinson

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —


Cats jumping wildly at a moving laser-pointer: that’s how we are when we first learn to read. It’s so much fun to see that the little squiggles on the page can be said aloud. We’re announcing loudly what’s on signs the car passes by, or priding ourselves on the medal for going through more books than anyone else in class. Later, we make notes on larger texts and difficult essays, trying to remember what they say for the test. Rarely, we may try to relate to a character or interpret a book as a whole. Those few attempts might be a major part of our lives – think of how many people say they wish they had the loyalty of Ruth in the Bible, or are devastated for Anna Karenina – and yet we could have no serious conception of how or why we read. We extract meaning from stories upon which we build our lives while having no clue what we’re doing.

To be sure, there are more conscientious readers of literature. They work to understand the issues an author explores and connect the dots. They put authors and their works in dialogue with one another. Tolstoy’s spirituality can be contrasted with Dostoyevsky’s orthodoxy; Graham Greene’s moral complexity cannot exist in the world of hobbits, elves, and dwarves Tolkien inhabits. This is all well and good, but there is a trap. One tends to reconstruct voices which fail utterly at challenging one. We read into authors ideas we’re comfortable with. “We knowers are unknown to ourselves,” someone once said.

A peculiar phenomenon limited to a small set of texts brings forth a similar situation. It may be the case in less liberal ages – ages far more restrictive of speech – one had to hide one’s more radical opinions. For example, if you endorsed a more secular, representative government against notions of kingship, you might place the word “God” every other sentence when crafting your political writings. Or if you thought the future was a republic of scientists, you might write a strange, apparently incomplete work of fiction where sailors come upon a New Atlantis which wants them to witness their technological marvels and curious religious pluralism. Political esotericism makes perfect sense, now that we have the benefit of hindsight. There are always going to be scholars who doubt its existence, but one does not hide messages for consensus. The goal was to reach the minds who would create the future.

What is much, much stranger is another sort of esoteric writing, a subset of the group above. Jonathan Swift once noted that modern esotericism was like the spider: from the foulest was spun the most beautiful. That characterizes thinkers like Locke and Bacon, who dwell on the reality of power so as to arrange orders where we can live and think freely. Ancient esotericism, though, was like the bee: from the sweetness of flowers flowed ever so much more sweetness. Both Xenophon and Plutarch declare at times that they will not speak of unpleasant things when writing. It’s up to us to imagine those things for ourselves, to reconstruct the pleasures and pains of another world.


I cannot say with certainty that Dickinson has a project which encompasses all of her poetry. I do think her themes, her verse, and her life itself are radical enough.  At times, it looks like she has something she wants to say which will force us to reconsider everything. In “This is my letter to the World” (J441), she hints at this larger something:

This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me —
The simple News that Nature told —
With tender Majesty

Her Message is committed
To Hands I cannot see —
For love of Her — Sweet — countrymen —
Judge tenderly — of Me

“The simple News that Nature told” is what the speaker has put in a letter to the world. This is quite stunning: Nature, which mankind has witnessed and investigated for thousands of years, has news? The speaker continues pleading with her countrymen, whom she obviously distrusts. She hopes they judge tenderly, she implores them to be sweet. But they have not been sweet. They have never written, and their distance from the “tender Majesty” of Nature could not be clearer.

I have not finished reading all of Dickinson, but I suspect her larger concern starts with a proposition such as this: Perhaps the world is eros. That desire and beauty, as Yeats says, put “the young in one another’s arms” – that’s the easy problem, the easy confrontation. More complex is when desire and beauty involve religion, where “safe in their alabaster chambers… sleep the meek members of the resurrection” (J216). Some pride themselves on the afterlife, thinking they have devoted all their desires to earning it. In the end, they can be said to have a portion of eternity in this life, as all else moves and eventually perishes while they sleep. The irony lies in how what happens while they are in the grave too literally is the Biblical promise. Their entombment has meaning when contrasted with dropping Diadems and surrendering Doges; their coffins are just as royal, with “rafter of satin.” However, the wisdom of justice as we understand it, the justice we pray for, does not impress the natural, perhaps created, world: “Pipe the Sweet Birds in ignorant cadence — Ah, what sagacity perished here!”

One might counter Dickinson’s suggestiveness by saying that eternity is not had in the grave, but only after the Second Coming. One might go further and argue that justice as we understand it cannot be the issue, only justice as God understands it. In any case, it seems to me that Dickinson is concerned with the orientation and intensity of our desires. The world is erotic in her telling, but she is alone. Her loneliness emerges emphatically in her poetry, over and over. I have yet to fix my interpretation of “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” (J288), but I always took it to be the speaker talking to herself.

At least in my own thinking, I hold that for Dickinson this question remains most prominent: What does it mean to be alone in a completely erotic world?


“Tell all the truth but tell it slant:” Christ Himself says to be wise as serpents, but surely this command of Dickinson’s cannot be applied to preaching the Gospel. What, exactly, is “all the truth?” Dickinson avoids answering this, continuing instead with geometric imagery. The “slant” we are to tell is completed by “Success in Circuit.” If we are careful in telling the truth, if we avoid hammering at certain issues, we will communicate truly without offense. Our audience might even consider something differently.

“Slant” and “Circuit” turn from geometric shapes into nothing less than the sun. The allusion is as Platonic as one could possibly get: “Too bright for our infirm Delight / The Truth’s superb surprise.” Dickinson herself says she has read widely in English poetry, but I cannot tell if she has spent much time with Plato’s Republic. Still, the idea there is this: there are unseen forms which are the truth of our world. “The form of red” is the truth of red, the answer to “what is red?”, in the same way that mathematics determines its objects. The quest for the forms is undertaken by the philosopher, who in the story immediately following the introduction of forms, ascends from a cave of artificial light and shadow puppetry to the surface, where the sun makes things visible.

Whatever the truth is, it has a “superb surprise.” One is telling “all the truth” in order to do some good, not to hurt anyone. Whatever that surprise is, it is “too bright for our infirm Delight.” “Infirm” is key: we’re inflexible. We’ve made a decision on what makes us happy. We want to work with the illusions that are useful and sometimes meaningful. The whole history of ideas, as I see it, is taking care to respect other people’s opinions about justice while bringing them to realize something more. “Infirm” carries a darkness upon which the truth all too easily focuses. To be a completely conventional human being is to be dictated completely by the dead.


“All the truth” remains the fundamental issue. It is our liberation from opinions we hold as true simply because they are old. But that liberation does not imply having the absolute truth oneself. If one knows that the Sun does not orbit the Earth, one does not necessarily know it happens to be precisely the opposite unless one knows a lot about physics and astronomy. There may be universal laws of which we remain purposefully ignorant, but to be more knowledgeable does not entail realizing those laws.

So in one sense, “all the truth” isn’t really “all the truth.” It’s the truth about oneself – it’s self-knowledge – which we want others to have. This brings about a further complication. Is it actually knowledge to know how many ways we can delude ourselves, or what rhetoric can entrance us? Is knowledge of our lack of self-knowledge a science? In Plato’s Gorgias, where Gorgias declares that rhetoric enables men to rule and makes them free, Socrates ends up calling rhetoric a pseudoscience, the false art of punitive justice. To put it cynically, self-knowledge can consist somewhat in our declaring ourselves not to be something while spewing hate toward that something. Xenophon understands the figure of Socrates by comparing and contrasting him with the figures of the best political leader (Cyrus), the gentleman (Ischomachus), and the purely ambitious (Xenophon himself).

There is a deeper sort of self-knowledge, where others’ choices do not have to punished for one’s own sake. The “truth’s superb surprise,” on this reading, consists precisely in telling the truth slant and completing the circuit. The risk is that even such subtlety will be too bright:

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

One must treat one’s audience like children scared of lightning. It seems pretty awful to imply people do not have the moral maturity to hear what they consider blasphemy. To be fair, I never thought books that hide a message to be terribly elitist, nor do I think this poem such. The problem is the risk of making “every man” blind.

That risk comes about this way. On an individual level, we can correct each other. We can be hurt and forgive and improve, or choose to walk away entirely. Moral communication occurs at a personal level, and it is risky there, but the stakes need not be life or death. When we’re talking about works that will reach a mass audience, there cannot be that sort of communication visibly. What results on a mass scale is a reaction, and crowds will be provoked one way or another, because there are certain things we must believe in, or civilization is doomed. It sounds almost like conspiracy theory, if it weren’t for the fact that mobs have existed and still exist, and that the power of the mob comes directly from the power of conventionality. Once something is declared “our way,” a perceived attack on it is an attack on us. This cannot be discarded as easily as one would like. Without a sense of a larger identity, without knowing who are friends or who are enemies, no one can fight on behalf of another.

It still is remarkable, in my opinion, that so many have been able to contribute to this indefinite, indeterminate thing called “humanity” over the years. Oftentimes, they don’t do it by fighting, but through sacrifice, even the sacrifice of measured speech. The hope is that the truth will dazzle gradually, whatever it is. “Whatever,” to be sure, is the wrong word. For “all the truth,” in the last analysis, is simply “all.” To speak carefully is to stress one’s own voice, one’s own sensitivity. Personal knowledge is the only knowledge we have.

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