Kay Ryan, “Dry Things”

Dry Things (from VQR)
Kay Ryan

The water level
comes up when
you throw in
stones, bricks,
anything that
sinks. It’s a
miracle when
that works,
don’t you think?
Dry things
letting us


Why read poetry? This short poem ends with a “miracle” we should consider, “dry things letting us drink.” I can hear the collective groans now. Some of us hold we know of greater miracles, and don’t want that word trivialized. Still others see a really lame joke: How can what is dry aid what is moist? That lame joke almost seems matter for pre-Socratic philosophers, ones employing opposing elements such as air, earth, fire, water. Thus, for a third group of people, poetry’s intellectual scope is limited to 3000 BC or something equally remote and backward.

This poem puts me in the awkward position of showing that “dry things letting us drink” can rightfully be considered a miracle. Alright then. “The water level comes up when you throw in stones, bricks, anything that sinks.” At the well needing water, this is close to a desperate situation. We want to drink. Hearing a splash, we know some water is down there. In fact, we’re very sure quite a lot is down there.

So should digging commence? There’s already a hole with water, found naturally. Thinking through it, finding the best solution, keeps as much as possible intact. Thought is rearrangement. It’s not easy truly thinking, to be sure. In order for the water level to rise, we have to throw things in such a way that the water is not simply covered up. We need the earth to rise evenly, without cracks that let it all slip away. And this needs to be done quickly, so we can actually drink.

It’s possible all this can happen. “It’s a miracle when that works.” Thought led to an ideal plan, one which could be executed well, and one which was executed well. The oppositions of language governing all this – the heavy sinks, the light rises, water is wet, containers dry – are oppositions of our own mind. They’re useful for grasping parts of the situation and can give us control. But they can be traps unto themselves. It’s only as a whole that they come to define, establish, initiate optimism.

Rae Armantrout, “Anti-Short Story”

Anti-Short Story (from Poetry)
Rae Armantrout

A girl is running. Don’t tell me
“She’s running for her bus.”

All that aside!


Minimalism can be off-putting, sure. I stared at this for a while and had a few thoughts which felt like they couldn’t be further developed. And then I had what seemed to me an epiphany, but what good is an epiphany if there is barely any text to walk through?

My request to you is to withhold judgment for a second, if you’re inclined to think this poem too slight, too clever by half. Let’s focus on how much happens, as there’s a lot. The image that sets the scene: “A girl is running.” This our speaker and audience can presumably agree on. Suddenly, out of nowhere, we’re snapped at. “Don’t tell me she’s running for her bus.” The anger toward the girl is directed at us; it’s a maternal anger, an authoritative anger. We’re not allowed to treat the scene as innocent. That girl should be doing better for herself, as her being late to the bus is a show of half-hearted effort about her own life.

“All that aside!” The girl could be throwing away her education, or not showing enough concern for work, or running away from home. Given the anger of the speaker, we know exactly what the girl wants to run away from.

“Anti-Short Story,” then, really is too clever by half, a powerful drama and a mischievous title. The title might mislead a bit, as at first, I was tempted to think the girl was running late to school, that she was genuinely anti-education, literally anti-short story. That’s not a wrong reading, but an incomplete one, and a reading that has a tendency to stay incomplete. Armantrout, by making us reconstruct the circumstances of the anger we see in our parents, cuts right to the heart of the delusion, the stories our parents want to tell. Sometimes, they want us to fit into their narrative all too easily. In presumably knowing better, they can make their child’s life a short story of sorts. The complexities of growing up and becoming aware and responsible are treated like something that magically happens because a set of rules are followed. If you want real growth, real perspective, you need to cultivate an attitude that is anti-short story. This minimalism holds a certain promise: that we can take on our own bad opinions, one at a time.

Sappho, “In the spring twilight”

In the spring twilight
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

In the spring twilight

The full moon is shining:
Girls take their places
as though around an altar


Outside, the moon brightened everyone with its silver; the whole town became a park of sorts. It felt the most sacred of moments. Couples outlined with its gentle light, girlfriends and wives in porches making idle chatter. Even children past their bedtime were quiet and busy, treading carefully lest they gain the notice of their parents.

The self-discipline of the children almost entirely enraptured me as I took my walk. Only one thing stood out more: the other women my age, walking about, murmuring to themselves.

N.B. My fan-fiction above is what it is. Obviously, Sappho likely describes the intensity of a cultic ritual, but I felt this fragment opened itself another way. More relevant to any discussion of the above: people claim that in antiquity, this was an especially prized verse. From sacred-texts.org: One Hephaestion cited it as an “example of the metre known as the Ionic a majore trimeter brachycatalectic.” I really like the translation of Edwin Marion Cox, again from sacred-texts.org:

The moon rose full, and as around an altar, stood the women.

Now rose the moon, full and argentine,
While round stood the maidens, as at a shrine.

Clunky, Clumsy, Upfront: Blog in Review, 6/29/16

1. What is the value of blogging? Three times I’ve had to think about this question the past few weeks. The first time was when a friend launched a blog. For him, the value lies in creating a portfolio of his writing, showing that he can use social media professionally and skillfully, building an audience and a network. – Not too shabby, all things considered. – The second time another friend, experienced in developing web properties, wondered what to do with an old blog not getting much traffic despite holding thousands of articles. The answers there are tougher: they center around monetization, building a community around a niche, crafting a brand.

The third time I asked this question, I was wondering how this blog can be more useful for all of you. Other blogs show how to do things, i.e. taking good photographs, writing marketable content. Still others give expert perspective or present the results of research. I don’t want to waste your time. For right now, I want poems or quotes or art in your hands because I know your days are busy. You deserve thoughtful conversation about a variety of topics, not just the news. In the not too distant future, I hope to be blogging about philosophy in more detail, trying to get at better questions, not saying the same thing over and over.

A few housekeeping notes: I’ve been pretty active on twitter and you can feel free to add me there. If you’re new here, welcome – I’m Ashok, I’m trying to blog daily, and I’d appreciate if you subscribed to this blog via e-mail. There’s a facebook page for the blog, and I will start updating it soon. At the moment, I just want to feel like I’m updating the blog itself often enough.

2. Alright, it’s ICYMI time. I’m not a good writer, much less a good sportswriter, and sportswriting is a demanding craft with incredible practitioners nowadays. Please do take a look at my two cents on J.R. Smith breaking down after the Finals, though. It’s clunky and clumsy and — I hope — upfront.

I wrote on poems of Kay Ryan, Eugene Ostashevsky, & Rae Armantrout. If you’re really pressed for time and can only pick one thing to read, make sure you read Ostashevsky’s “The Proof of the Axiom” in full. It’s a very charming poem: I discovered it while browsing books, laughed out loud, then spent the next hour absorbed in the rest of his work.

Two short commentaries on Sappho have convinced me, for now, that “fan-fiction” is the way to go when talking about extant fragments. See: “We put the urn aboard ship” & “Cyprian, in my dream.” Finally, I don’t really need to introduce Juan Ramón Jiménez to all of you. Some poets can cast a spell with the fewest words.

Rae Armantrout, “And”

And (from Poetry)
Rae Armantrout


Tense and tenuous
grow from the same root

as does tender
in its several guises:

the sour grass flower;
the yellow moth.


I would not confuse
the bogus
with the spurious.

The bogus
is a sore thumb

while the spurious
pours forth

as fish and circuses.


Break-ups, tough moments, rejection: a few times I needed to walk away, numb with rage and disappointment. Stretched, I was tense and tenuous, I myself the root of both. Every nerve in my body tense, waiting for worse. The mind unanchored, lost in how tenuous it all seemed.

Walking outside allowed me to witness the several guises of tender. Unlike the speaker, I didn’t quite appreciate that nature mirrored my situation. The sour grass flower, considered a weed in the New World, not only stretches above its peers but shows itself relentless in trying to survive. Just last night, I watched a moth continually get too close to an electric light.

Everything stretches, moving through nervousness and hypersensitivity to… somewhere tender, I guess.

Still, tense, tenuous, and tender are all only one-half of a conjunction. The other half:

I would not confuse
the bogus
with the spurious.

The bogus
is a sore thumb

while the spurious
pours forth

as fish and circuses.

I would like “tender” to be an end, to leave this poem alone after just the first half. For some reason, I have to consider the bogus and the spurious, as Armantrout claims an inability to confuse the two. “The bogus is a sore thumb, while the spurious pours forth as fish and circuses.” That seems clear enough: the bogus is more or less accidental fakery, whereas the spurious involves lying on a godlike scale. One might be tempted to consider it an appropriate finale for a poem entitled “And,” as it neatly distinguishes between the mistakes we do not mean to make and the delusions in which we immerse ourselves. If I can make such distinctions in my life, the tense and the tenuous should drop away, as I can govern myself better.

However, the poet did invite us to look at the roots of tense and tenuous. Why not do the same for the second half of the poem? “Bogus,” upon closer inspection, does not have accidental connotations. The word primarily describes counterfeit money. Bogus and spurious are pretty much the same word: there is no term for our genuine mistakes, only the stresses and stretching we endure. No one really recognizes the difficulties we try to overcome. Only we, as individuals, can know a sore thumb from the fraud of bread and circuses. We know our limits, and it makes us tense, and we hope it will one day make us tender, perhaps more in control, certainly more appreciative.