Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

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Teaching Writing When You Yourself Don’t Know How to Write

1. Supposedly, Thomas Mann said that writing is more difficult for writers than other people. I wouldn’t know, as I can’t find the essay where the quote resides. What I have depends on hearsay, and my response to such an idea, my attempt to test its truth, depends on my attempt to make something.

Writers talk a lot about craft, their depictions seeming almost whimsical when one considers how technical good writing is. Good poems feature a number of literary devices to bring about rhythmic, musical sounds while preserving a puzzle, a sense of mystery, that makes one want to revisit the speaker’s perspective. Nowadays, many people consider poetry artsy nonsense that isn’t demanding enough. Journalism and essays are thought to have stricter standards in terms of organization, facts, analysis, and even authorial credentials. But when a journalist says they retype their sentences to “get into a rhythm,” and a renowned poet talks about using Tarot cards for an exercise, I wonder where exactly our sense that writing is an intricate machine with various, necessary parts comes from.

2. I could teach her with make a claim, defend it. Rinse and repeat. If you say Lincoln has a different rhetorical basis for American democracy than Jefferson, for example, you cite the Gettysburg Address as significant. You propose that there, he comments on the Declaration of Independence, changing the status of “all men are created equal” from “self-evident truth” to a “proposition” in order to reflect the fact that American democracy may not survive. What is needed is the rededication of the American people, a real concern for equality, and thus nothing less than a “new birth of freedom.” A claim leads to further claims which can be proved. You go through the words you put on paper, identify what claims you want or have to make, order and defend them accordingly.

It goes without saying this is not writing. It is not even thinking. Learning to write in terms of “here’s a thesis, here’s what defends the thesis, order accordingly” held me back in terms of my thought for years. It put a premium on organization and a certain kind of argumentation that limited what I saw and said. It was helpful for assignments, but what I needed was to learn to write badly. Really badly.

There’s a lot on this blog that’s incomprehensible. I’d start putting words down, get obsessed with a detail or two, completely lose focus on what I intended to say. Or I’d start with a bunch of suspect observations and work myself into a tangle. Other times I’d lose my place or forget to summarize what I had covered adequately, or I’d have an inconsistent tone that makes it unclear what I really meant to argue. Finally, there’s the problem of writing too much, of losing focus just because I’m straining myself, trying too much too sloppily, hoping effort justifies.

That hard work can be counterproductive is more than a tough lesson. There are people – indeed, I’ve had “teachers” who’ve told me and others this – who urge quitting in the face of it. Why try, why fail? I’m not making sense to others, I’m not making sense to myself. If writing doesn’t communicate, what good is it?

3. One has to arrive gradually at an answer. You can read into my words above, you can see the shape of a response, but to accept and embrace any such supposition does not begin to comprehend the power of real writing. What makes Lincoln awesome is the power within his themes and questions. Rightly he centers on the problem of equality and liberty, seeing it fundamental to how we conceive democracy. You could say a number of thinkers say the same, that he didn’t really free the slaves, that he prosecuted a terrible war, that his literary legacy is miniscule, that he destroyed the Constitution. None of this gets at why his words matter, why he’s a human being of the first rank. It isn’t the eloquence, it isn’t the history, it isn’t even his position. It’s the attempt: his sense of justice courses through every word of the Address.

Oftentimes, “finding your voice” stands a sad trope in writerly circles. Learning to be sensitive to the voices of others, to give life to voices other than your own, becomes a lost cause. And even for those with more interesting, nuanced voices, “finding your voice” becomes the impetus for self-indulgence rather than thoughtful concern.

I propose that it is knowing how our words fail us that is the heart of any truth in finding one’s voice. It’s easy to look at amazing, successful examples of writing and be starstruck. We want to imitate or find our own path, enjoying fame or moving others. But our goals, whether noble or ignoble, whether just or unjust, can point away from the more refined understanding of justice in self-expression itself. Polonius may have been a fool, but “to thine own self be true” is what we’re reaching for.

4. Of course, continually failing at writing does not lend itself to being a productive, useful writer. At some point, a student has to craft prose that conveys knowledge and relevance.

That prose, I suspect, has to accept its incompleteness. We do tell a lot of stories nowadays that at first glance seem limited. To take the most serious example, the news comes fragmented. However, as a whole, it is united by the theme of “our world” and characterized by cyclical repetition.

In a way, pre-Socratic madness was more honest. Why not compose a poem that will disclose the truth of Being? Are all things one and unchanging simply because they are? Or is everything composed of water? Or wind? Or fire? We have assumptions that color how we receive or convey anything. To engage and confront the craziest ideas can remind of what generates everything from cosmologies to laws to manners and mores.

Suffice to say my failures as a writer can be cured by pushing a delete button. In my teaching right now, I’m trying to get students to be honest about how they think or don’t think about their assignments. It isn’t enough for them to write a solid argument or express an insight. What matters is how they got there, where the resistance made itself felt.

Kay Ryan, “In Case of Complete Reversal”

In Case of Complete Reversal (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

Born into each seed
is a small anti-seed
useful in case of some
complete reversal:
a tiny but powerful
kit for adapting it
to the unimaginable.
If we could crack the
fineness of the shell
we’d see the
bundled minuses
stacked as in a safe,
ready for use
if things don’t
go well.


Each seed has an anti-seed within it, ready for a reversal. The anti-seed is “useful,” it enables a seed to adapt to the “unimaginable.” If we could break the beautiful, smooth, protective exterior, we’d see a stack that could be in a safe, one apparently not in use at the moment.

Often, I think about pride as a defense mechanism. So many times over the years I’ve had to get arrogant, had to pick fights, had to keep away from people because to let certain statements, behaviors, or structures stand was to invite becoming the one doormat to rule them all. Nowadays, I try hard to keep my judgments about people in rough circumstances clear. They can’t be expected to be perfectly humble. They have to have cynicism and breaking points, as well as be respected for their limits, because they’re in positions where they can be taken advantage of easily. While it’s true behaving the way most of us think is right can make life easier for them, they are in situations where trust is hard to come by. To insist, as many of us do, that it is simple for them to change or that it would be completely beneficial if they took all our advice and live exactly the way we do, is to miss how the world is structured for them. Oftentimes, we’ll insist they give up their rights – their claims to justice – so they can get something we see as clearly good for them. I don’t think I need to spell out how fundamentally evil this is. I will add that I think it’s where the “tyranny of the majority” is worst nowadays.

When Ryan brought forth in her last sentence the idea of “minuses stacked as in a safe,” I don’t know I saw pride. I might have, as all of us keep a highlight reel of those times we’ve failed and been failed. It’s a combination of guilt and righteous anger that sometimes whips our spirit up. We’re ready to be better and do better for ourselves.

So what is there exactly, in that safe? We’re talking about an “anti-seed” born into a “seed.” It’s a relentlessly natural image that almost lets one forget that there is nothing natural about an anti-seed. A “complete reversal” threatens the natural with the unnatural, if one thinks of nature as having a certain direction.

That small anti-seed is “useful,” “a tiny but powerful kit for adapting it to the unimaginable.” Not natural, but mechanical. What couldn’t be conceived is countered by a set of tools, a potential change of direction.

How strange to talk about a thing that isn’t, a direction that could be! The fact of the seed, not even its proper growth, leads to both. We can conclude from this something even more preposterous: the anti-seed is the seed. The seed does not actually grow because of any positives. There are no necessary positives, no substance or direction that a seed must go. Everything is ruined from its inception.

I don’t know that I’m looking at pride, in the end. I’m looking at something prior, a sheer willfulness, something that makes matter out of all the slights and obstacles thrown at it. “In Case of Complete Reversal:” even Jesus talks about the plants that choke other plants.

Kay Ryan, “All Your Horses”

All Your Horses (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

Say when rain
cannot make
you more wet
or a certain
thought can’t
deepen and yet
you think it again:
you have lost
count. A larger
amount is
no longer a
larger amount.
There has been
a collapse; perhaps
in the night.
Like a rupture
in water (which
can’t rupture
of course). All
your horses
broken out with
all your horses.


Always a certain thought can’t deepen, yet we think it. Most thoughts we have nag at us, pushing us to do the same unto others. Our lives are soaked with this idiocy, which is a major reason why you are here at this site, reading this commentary. You’re hoping something different might emerge. Anything different.

In creation, though, the same problem resides. A major reason you haven’t gotten blog entries for months is that I’ve felt miserable. When I’m miserable, the same thing hammers away in my brain, and yeah, I’d like to get rid of it. The issue is that to write something meaningful for you involves writing something meaningful for myself. You may not see that as a problem, and certainly lots of writers, including some minds we respect greatly, could care less about what things mean for them. They have talent and craft; all that’s left is attention.

The poem starts with being pointlessly oversoaked, then tells us we’ve lost count. What we’ve been attempting is depth of a sort. Depth is not just a risk, but a series of risks. For myself, I don’t mind being soaked. But losing count? Counting is everything – to lose this is not to be able to function practically. It is the highest theoretical failure, not because human reason applied to human problems has mathematical certainty, but because overlooking the obvious will destroy any attempted union of cleverness and profundity.

As reasonable creatures, we count and organize. That’s it.  So to fail to see “A larger amount is no longer a larger amount” might indicate we have to start over, hit the reset button on the construction of our minds. Obviously, that’s not an option, but again, we got into this situation hoping for depth. We visited this on ourselves, hoping that more attempts to probe for depth would yield more, not narrow us.

Ryan gives us three images with which to grapple in understanding this strange chaos of water and numbers. First, it is like a house falling apart, or the startle we get at night when we think the roof is caving: “There has been a collapse; perhaps in the night.” Not only do we not know magnitude, we don’t know proximity. Heck, the biggest problem we face is that we don’t know if our problem affects us.

That sounds too clever to say. Of course a thought hammering in our head is our own problem! But wait: how many times have you seen someone else act better or worse, and change yourself accordingly? How many times has that happened even with regard to your deeper woes? The funny thing about the artists who look to talent, craft, and attention is that they have something right about the need for dispassion. There’s a weirdness in insisting everything be heartfelt and generating nothing at all. Communication is not just me to you. It is my constructing an image, convincing to me and hopefully to you, that speaks to you. In turn, you construct images and continue a cycle.

Images have limits. This brings us to Ryan’s second one. The collapse in the night is like “Like a rupture in water (which can’t rupture of course).” We see ourselves as soaked or ready to be shattered, but is this correct? Wanting depth, we lost count, but we were plumbing ourselves. If we are water, we are more malleable and perhaps stronger than we thought ourselves.

Finally, a return to spirit. “All your horses broken out with all your horses.” You could say the water floods, the horses are loose, everything is ruined. And maybe that’s true. But it’s also true that my mind hasn’t stopped repeating itself and yet I’m finding something genuinely different to say.  Creation comes from the same point of origin as failure. It’s a scary thought, but it seems to be Ryan’s comment on Yeats’ “The Fascination of What’s Difficult.” To be free is to embrace the risk, the possibility of overcoming it, the possibility of simply seeing what happens.

Emily Dickinson, “Unto the Whole — how add?” (1341)

Unto the Whole — how add? (1341)
Emily Dickinson

Unto the Whole — how add?
Has “All” a further realm —
Or Utmost an Ulterior?
Oh, Subsidy of Balm!


This strange little poem seems to make sense in its first two lines, then starts to lose me. The first line – “Unto the Whole — how add?” – proposes adding something to the whole of everything. This sounds rather odd, if not impossible (“Has “All” a further realm [?]“), and it probably is impossible. I can only fathom the first two lines make any sense at all because they express a cryptic wish. We want something that, in essence, is like trying to add to the Whole. Perhaps this is like loving someone whom we think perfect. What need do they have of us, by our own accounting?

A quick Google search of “unto the whole” shows that it is in the KJV. Exodus 16, to be precise, where Aaron is trying to address the whole of Israel. They end up looking into the wild and seeing God in a nearby cloud.  That appearance of the glory of the Lord is prior to the appearance and gathering of manna. Is Dickinson making a snide comment about faith? Saying something to the effect of “if faith is so complete, why do the faithful require bread?”

At the very least, Dickinson is too cunning for that sort of maneuver. For myself, I think there is a comment on the limits of faith, but it has to do with belief and self-confidence generally. We link faith and self-sufficiency because of our sentiments prior to religion. We do believe if we can conceive ourselves and what we want rightly – if we understand how we are a whole being – we can get what we want. Continence and moderation are means to ends for us.

In that spirit, the speaker is seeing the ridiculousness of her project. “All” should not have a further realm, but “Utmost” certainly involves ulterior motives, aspirations, and hidden consequences. We’re looking to our limit to try and transcend that limit, all the while proclaiming ourselves moderate. (We knowers are unknown to ourselves, someone once said.)

Only at the end of the poem do we get a hint of what started this musing. The speaker cries “Oh, Subsidy of Balm!” – you know, something no one would ever say, because they would confuse themselves saying it aloud. I’m almost tempted to say this is a bad line of Dickinson’s, but it may advance the drama of the poem. A subsidy is a form of assistance, a balm heals. The speaker almost repeats herself in the last line, realizing that this musing started from another want, another immoderate but necessary wish.

She was pained, and like all pained, sensible people, wanted healing and the strength to preserve herself. That means she wanted a “subsidy,” wanted to be the recipient of assistance. And that means she actually needed specific assistance, a “balm.” The redundancy of how aid works points to the flaw in trying to be Whole. The self-sufficient being cannot admit they ever needed help, for that would mean the faculties to be self-sufficient can fail. To be self-sufficient, you need to be minded so (you never take a subsidy), and you need the means (balms are useless, as you do not want to be hurt in the first place). If self-sufficiency is conditional, then it may not really exist. The “Whole,” then, points to a further realm, from where “All” can be seen, where the “Utmost” is the limit of one thing but not of another. Something does add to the Whole, but it is not something that stems from our completeness.

D. Nurkse, “Venus”

With thanks to Benjamin Roman

Venus (from Poetry)
D. Nurkse

Death is coming
and you must build a starship
to take you to Venus.

Make it from a catsup bottle,
a flashlight coil,
a penny, the cat’s bell,
Mom’s charm bracelet.

They say that planet is torment,
whipped by circular wind,
choked in vitriol clouds.

But no. When you get there
it is a light in the sky
and I am with you.

If you find nothing else,
borrow the pleated wing
of a winter moth,
lighter than dust.


About the afterlife, much has been said. Jesus describes the justice of it as a graceful equality. The laborers who come later are given the same as those who worked before. Socrates says in the Apology he will either be completely unconscious or asking lots of questions of people he hasn’t met. In the Phaedo, he speaks of a realm where red is really red – a realm of predicates, not objects.  A realm where everything is separated, where nothing strictly speaking is, where analysis – a breaking-down – reigns. The Weakerthans in “Night Windows” sing how our fragmented memories of the dead weave in and out of our existence, appearing and disappearing like ghosts.

In this poem, we build a starship from nostalgia of our childhood, a carefree imagination enabled by being unconditionally loved. We’re going to Venus to satisfy that deepest desire, that eros not separable from familial love but not only that. We do love and have been loved.

Having felt called, the potential for disaster – “torment” – exists. The goal could very easily be an illusion. Even if we’re right about the voice calling us, it’s just an image, part of a past that cannot be recovered. Venus is uninhabitable.

The image has more to say. We will get there, as we are there (“it is a light in the sky”). Our memories of those we love may be garbled, but we cannot sit with them trying to imagine them perfectly. There are those we actually loved, and they lived, leaving behind memories and much more. They did call to us when they were here, often.

This is the world they made. To find them, we unfold it. Venus is uninhabitable; there is no perfect reconciliation with the dead. There is only the dust, which flies, understood by us as almost animate.

Fifteenth Reflection: Sappho, “You are the herdsman of evening”

You are the herdsman of evening
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

You are the herdsman of evening

Hesperus, you herd
homeward whatever
Dawn’s light dispersed

You herd sheep – herd
goats – herd children
home to their mothers


We’re so used to thinking of Night as separate from familial love that it is hard to see how Day scatters us. Night for us isn’t a herding homeward, but excitement, searching, anxiety. Even for those who do have families they cherish, night means time apart from them. We read alone in rooms, sneak in conversations with others. Night is where our true selves emerge; Day is where we merely present a public face.

But we do feel that public face we present daily is ours, and Night where our desires and incompleteness make themselves most manifest. I’m interested in the implied Day of this fragment. Dawn’s light disperses, allowing for movement, growth, productivity. That much the mention of sheep and goats evidences. The sheep and goats need to return home in order for the cycle to continue, for them to keep being good. Does children scattering during day, returning to mothers at night, work the same way? In one sense, yes, as there is a cycle that must take place for them to grow. They must be nurtured and loved even as they venture out. In another sense, Hesperus governs nothing less than death.

William Stafford, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other”

With thanks to T.D. For the dedicated.

A Ritual to Read to Each Other (from
William Stafford

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider–
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give–yes, no, or maybe–
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.


We – you and I – don’t know each other. While this looms ominously over our gestures and conversation at the cafe, I don’t know that it makes us accidental conformists (“a pattern that others made may prevail in the world”). We need to know each other to find our uniqueness? That’s a pick-up line I haven’t tried yet.

Stafford’s second stanza cryptically explains the reasoning behind his cryptic claim. There “is many a small betrayal in the mind.” It first makes itself manifest in a shrug rather than weeping or gnashing of teeth. That failure to will brings back the worst sort of nostalgia; indifference leads to paralysis. Stafford, to be sure, is in command of powerful, interesting imagery. The shrug lets a “fragile sequence break,” where the “shouts [of] the horrible errors of childhood” storm “out to play through the broken dyke.” One might think this stanza overblown, but I thought it was just right. Our childhood fears do not typically reside in psychosis, marking us off from everyone else. Instead, they’re manifest in our everyday lives. We’ve shaped ourselves entirely based on what we fear.

Stafford lets this image play out. Individuals form society, conforming through their fears just as elephants parade. For a while, our fears link us, allowing us to be led. But who is leading the way? Becoming lost is inevitable. The really funny thing is how some self-knowledge is in play throughout this awful process. We do know ourselves to a degree. We can recognize how we’ve shaped our experience. Yet this only serves to underline how little control we actually have: “I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty / to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.”

There has to be a solution to the problem posed. Maybe Stafford isn’t entirely in control of everything in the poem, but this does feel like an accurate summation of modern society, of our being individuals in a world continually united by fear of others.

He appeals to a a “voice, to something shadowy, / a remote important region in all who talk.” Not words simply, but something shadowy in a remote place. Not the clarity of reason, but the darkness of reason. The sense that there is something more when we speak, the sometimes artificial weighting of another’s words. This does not constitute an unambiguous good: “we could fool each other” might be better rendered something like “we may fool ourselves overthinking the other.” Still, since we are elephants on parade, we must consider. We may have to lead even though we have no idea how to lead.

In the last stanza, the sense beyond the literal sense has another imperative and complication. We must keep ourselves awake, we whose task is wakefulness itself. Fine, but this means, weirdly enough, that there is less to be wondered at. We have to try for clear signals, not forcing those we address to wander. But what we fashion clear signals from is peculiar. Stafford tells us clear signals are “yes, no, or maybe,” making one wonder if there was any wisdom at all in this poem.

He ends saying “the darkness around us is deep,” and we know now just how far that extends. To try to see clearly into the other is to work with more darkness. The only thing we can really signal, in the end, is how difficult it is to appreciate another for who they are. That alone breaks the conformity, creates the possibility of a star.

Introduction to the Study of American Government

(Not counting chickens.)

It is impossible to memorize facts about institutions, assess current events, or recount history in the service of learning about government nowadays. This is the country where we live, and what happens presses us, affecting us in ways we do and do not perceive. Right now, a convincing case can be made that we are falling apart one way or another. Maybe alliances between corporations and government, militarized police, a refusal to let market forces do their work, and a lack of faith and values conspire to oppress the many at the expense of the few. But it could also be the case that we’re more racist, sexist, and hostile to minorities and immigrants than ever before. That in some quarters, unspeakable hatred and fear of others persists, poisoning our whole way of life from the inside out. Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice.

All this is to say that if I ask you to explain the powers of the Senate, or research a topic like gun control, or tell you to read a letter of Jefferson’s, I’m in danger of substituting a crude caricature that concerns American politics for the real thing. American life, the life you live, is deeply intertwined with politics. That our partisanship is so revoltingly dogmatic proves that. Liberals and conservatives can’t date each other. Awful, generalized statements that demean humanity, like saying “everyone on food stamps is jobless and commits fraud,” abound. Things that are probably not good policy, such as letting Syria destroy itself and then wondering where ISIS came from, are sanctioned by simplistic sentiments left unchallenged.

That you’re put off by what you see of politics, then, is a good thing. You shouldn’t want to participate when the way issues are framed is infantile. But at the same time, politics is not merely a part of your life. We are reminded daily that it can be a matter of oppression, missed opportunities, survival and death. It is almost unfathomable how anyone could be disinterested in it.

Almost. The thing is, you have ambitions, you have moral concerns. You have things you want to accomplish and be good at. I could say this is fantastic, but that’s redundant. What isn’t redundant is shifting perspective a bit and noting that there is an implicit gratitude for what politics can produce. Some relative stability and the promise of opportunity are motivating you to get more out of life. You want to make music everyone listens to or dominate on the football field. You want friends and lovers and family to be healthy and well. You want finances and a job that help you and those you care about, and maybe even do some good for people you don’t know and don’t necessarily care about. These private concerns are not inimical to politics. Indeed, they’re the blood pumping through the veins of political life. Yet politics in the news seems to have nothing to do with what we love or strive for.

I’ll suggest this, and if it is a worthwhile starting point, we’ll be returning to it. What excites all of us is the prospect of freedom and what can be done with it. The funny thing is how that desire to be genuinely virtuous, to be a good human being, creates a more or less exclusive focus on the individual. It shouldn’t be a problem, as we’re supposed to be living in a system which allows individual freedom to flourish. In a weird way, though, it blinds us to public necessities and responsibilities, and I mean really blinds. We say “not my problem” regarding larger issues, as if we were actually exercising responsibility regarding them. After all, we’re not bringing our lack of information or interest to them.

Plato builds to a similar scenario in the fourth book of his Republic. The ideal city, structured into classes expert in their various practices, is just because each class minds its own business. There is no need for justice in the perfectly just city. The best regime, for Aristotle, is where private virtue and public virtue exactly coincide. But there is no best regime. All political systems involve a tension between the individual and the political order.

To go further, that tension does not necessarily occur because a political order is arbitrary or abstract. The problems exist because many political orders are legitimate in the deepest sense. They do provide goods, they do provide a basis for unity, they do manage conflicts. In other words: they are products of what we want as individuals. We are reflected in them, and like all images, we are distorted in them. It’d be easy to say “well, we should go back to being more simple, more natural,” so as to reduce the possibility anything could be distorted, and forget how alone we would become in doing so.

That you love, that you want satisfaction and happiness, shows the scope of political phenomena is far greater than readily conceived. For example, creeps on internet dating sites who show no restraint with their personal problems are not a private issue that gets easily ignored. They raise the question immediately of what is expected of people, how identity and gender are constructed. They raise the question of right, and how self-expression can be preserved while making sure the law points to the good of all.

They raise the question of us, how “we” comes from “I.” I would be stupid to tell you there are easy answers to this sort of question. Oftentimes in my field, a colleague will receive what he thinks is a burst of enlightenment. He’s realized that society is nothing more than conventional expectation, that all philosophy and wondering about things like “love” and “freedom” are moralistic constructs with no scientific, empirical basis. The humanities and social sciences stem from what we make up, and they’re totally artificial. Our problems are all self-constructed, so any prolonged musing on them is worthless.

He does not realize that it is precisely how complications arise that is the problem, that the complications are worth studying, focus, and reflection. That if an implied answer to all human problems were so easy, everyone would have done it by now. We’re not all the same, and it is frightening how pronouns keep that truth clear and distinct while we can’t.

Fourteenth Reflection: Sappho, “When I saw Eros”

When I saw Eros
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

When I saw Eros

On his way down
from heaven, he

wore a soldier’s
cloak dyed purple


Not a cherub with a bow and arrow, nor a bored teen cynical about his own ability to love. Here, Eros is a man in uniform, straight out of 300 or Gladiator. He’s ready to sacrifice in battle but do some push-ups and glisten with sweat first. Whatever he says will be terse and direct, with the profundity and power of being honorable. Then he’ll start doing pull-ups and make sure his cloak is ready for inspection.

There’s no doubt the gentleman in question is an amazing sight. Either people want to bed him or be him. Obviously, I’m tempted to dwell on how ridiculous this all is, how the things worth fighting for are appreciated by a diversity of people, how heroes and heroines act daily to preempt evils from happening in the first place.

But it cannot be doubted that this is still impressive. A number of cultures worry about an end to “manliness,” the embrace of a softness that makes us weaker, unconcerned with virtue and tradition, unwilling to make sacrifices and hard choices. ISIS probably does not think of itself as a bunch of resentful nihilist tyrannical assholes. It probably sees itself as the only way to preserve and fulfill a number of moral dictates. It’s funny how much this fragment of Sappho’s alludes to death. The soldier has already descended once, and he wears the colors he bleeds.




Issac Rosenberg, “August 1914″

With thanks to Benjamin Roman

August 1914 (from Poetry)
Issac Rosenberg

What in our lives is burnt
In the fire of this?
The heart’s dear granary?
The much we shall miss?

Three lives hath one life—
Iron, honey, gold.
The gold, the honey gone—
Left is the hard and cold.

Iron are our lives
Molten right through our youth.
A burnt space through ripe fields,
A fair mouth’s broken tooth.


Kay Ryan had this to say in a charming little meditation entitled “Sweet Talk:”

Too little is made of the agreeability of patently, triumphantly, idle conversation. Much presses us toward substance — wars, prizes going to the wrong people. We feel obliged to refer to these topical evils, but it is only aggravating, usually; no real depth and no real lightness.

I haven’t really had time to think about “the agreeability of patently, triumphantly, idle conversation,” because I’ve been focused on another sort of idleness. In the Oeconomicus, much is made of a sailor who talks about how everything on his ship is clearly and distinctly arranged. The utility of the arrangement of things is always present, but most helpful in an emergency (VIII: 11-18). Having a supremely well-ordered life, being ready for anything, sounds amazing until you realize you’re at war all the damn time. In a store, for example, you’re competing against other stores. Against your fellow employees. In a way, against your customers and your managers, because you don’t just need their praise, you need them to concede to you in some way. Stores are a great example of the sailor’s logic – everything ordered to the end of selling, most attractive items in front and plentiful, the back stocked and ready for more sales if need be – as no one would regard living in a store the way human beings ought to live.

It’s a thought conceived in idleness that human life is only the conquest of necessity. We deal with what is necessary. To let such things define us is to lose something unique to us. But then comes the problem Ryan poses. Don’t the larger issues, like freedom, dignity, and justice, demand to be spoken about? How can we be natural or authentic, not forcing ourselves to see the bigger problems when we’re not really concerned with them?

At first I tried imagining what idle conversation that is a joy to have sounds like. Being a pretentious gasbag, I ended up reading about ISIS and trying to imagine what sound American policy in Iraq would be like, playing the role of “expert” by reading a few news stories. That serious things frequently are treated trivially by us, without us even knowing what we’re doing – I get that. But it doesn’t even begin to help us conceive what truly pleasant, idle chatter is like.

Maybe Rosenberg’s poem offers a solution. Written during the Great War, it pulls no punches. It reminds me of Blake, who with the deftest, darkest touch could make evil come to life and force us to realize just how awful the idols we create are:

What in our lives is burnt
In the fire of this?
The heart’s dear granary?
The much we shall miss?

“What in our lives is burnt / In the fire of this?”war is a forge, destroying, purifying, molding. It is desire, it is life, it is death. Yeah, this means my little thought above concerning the inhumanity of trying to prepare for an emergency all the time needs to be qualified, for now. Rosenberg’s question is very specific: something in our lives is burnt in a fire. The answer is lot less clear. “What” is burnt could be the same as “the fire of this.” “The heart’s dear granary” implies that much, as a granary is meant to be consumed. “The much we shall miss” is not just our experiences or loves, but our capacities and potential.

Something essential to us wants war.  Rosenberg has to grapple with what seems most fluid, any consideration of essence. He does this by embracing the fluidity, letting human nature depict itself:

Three lives hath one life—
Iron, honey, gold.
The gold, the honey gone—
Left is the hard and cold.

The golden color of honey disappears as the honey becomes iron-like. Iron is fundamental; gold was beautiful and most temporal. The ordering of the second line in this second stanza is nothing short of brilliant. Rosenberg has given us a false end in “gold,” letting the misery of the images we chase sting. Yet the central element, “honey,” stands out. There are sweet things, and iron preserves a memory of them, weirdly enough.

He works in the third stanza to undermine any sweetness tempting us. Iron is molten, flowing like honey, breeding the ravages of war:

Iron are our lives
Molten right through our youth.
A burnt space through ripe fields,
A fair mouth’s broken tooth.

Iron does not just cut down youth on the battlefield. It’s their desire, what they were born into. The everyday necessities that could involve a fire on farmland, the decay that is aging, and the violence we do to each other are all one. There’s no real logic to this; it’s the way it is, and it confronts us. There was more logic in the second stanza, which suggested that something sweeter could be had.

Maybe that’s the answer I’m looking for. We use our reason to chase images, and that’s not always the worst thing. If one can chatter away about small things and find it involving and pleasant, that’s not delusional or a waste of time. It is, in a strange way, authentically pious. You’re using what might be a higher power to appreciate something small. It’s easy to see how such a life would be blessed or divine without any New Age notions of self-actualization. There’s a kind of governance involved which some thinkers, once upon a time, thought could translate into leadership. The truly great comes from the small. Only a few know what is worth sacrificing for.

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