ACTC Conference Paper on Seamus Heaney

In Atlanta, thinking a lot about presentation, being clear, letting the depth of the things I read speak for itself. Not being in the way of the text is the most difficult thing, as it ironically requires one to step forth and be clear about what one understands and doesn’t understand.

Here’s the link to the paper I’m presenting:

Your feedback is welcome. I hope I haven’t been too convoluted, and I certainly hope my remarks are not too much of a stretch. My hope is to add more poems to the framework, while sourcing more, letting this become a richer and richer tapestry. Right now I think of it less a tapestry and more like a shower mat.

Kay Ryan, “New Rooms”

New Rooms (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

The mind must
set itself up
wherever it goes
and it would be
most convenient
to impose its
old rooms — just
tack them up
like an interior
tent. Oh but
the new holes
aren’t where
the windows


I’d like to think myself open-minded. Not a mind that “must set itself up wherever it goes,” but one that receives the world, works for the truth, matches the universal and particular accordingly. To say “the mind must set itself up” already feels like one imposes on situations, one declares oneself because one can.

Contrary to my egoistic idealism, this poem goes a different direction. Again, the mind sets itself up “wherever it goes,” implying that it gets bounced around a bit more than it would like. Responding in the spirit of convenience at times, it imposes “its old rooms.” Going right up to the limits of wherever, the mind tacks those old rooms up “like an interior tent.” Ryan ends the poem with one simple detail, one lament, after the old rooms are imposed upon the new location: “Oh but the new holes aren’t where the windows went.”

I’ve got a million questions at this point. I want to learn more about what sort of inquiry we’re talking about, where we tack up an old interior inside a new one, where mind feels bounded no matter what. I want to understand the idea of nature hinted at in this poem. “Windows” prioritizes a link to the outside, even though there is so much interior talk.

But mainly, I need to know who is speaking. The poem does not shy away from conceptual metaphors, ones which seem far too abstract, potentially denying coherence. Still, each metaphor taken by itself sheds light on the central problem. “The mind must set itself up wherever it goes” gives us the image of a wandering nomad. In the name of freedom, of not being bound to a specific piece of land, she has to embrace necessity. This is at times more a burden than a willed way of life.

The next metaphor, “it would be most convenient to impose its old rooms — just tack them up like an interior tent,” contains some consistency with the previous one. I can’t help but think of yurts, those portable tents used by Mongols. Still, these verses taken on their own constitute a decisive break with what has come before. The mind must impose “old rooms” like an “interior tent” because in some sense, mind cannot possibly be completely open. It has a structure, it has limits, it is an interior itself. Those limits can be relative to the situation, of course, and that’s what we’re talking about in this poem. Whatever situation our speaker/wanderer/nomad faces, it’s forcing her mind to be different, to see differently, confusing her completely. So why not put up the old rooms, use the conceptual framework previous? The limits of the new situation, the rules that must be mastered, can simply be covered up. Just tack up those walls already.

“Oh but the new holes aren’t where the windows went,” cries the speaker in an all too personal way. It’s really funny how the mind is an interior, yet one can’t just shape it however one likes. You can’t just graft old rooms onto the new, because then you block the outside. You block the possibility of enlightenment, of seeing nature. It’s strange how that possibility is entirely contingent on an internal arrangement, as if rationality were a moral endeavor or a miracle. As if you had to believe you can know.

Who is our speaker? Probably not someone as overtly concerned with rationality or enlightenment. I know the times I use the old rooms to cover the new. I didn’t want to face being wrong then, I certainly don’t want to face it now. Those friendships and relationships broke apart for every reason other than me; I changed where I live to simply be me elsewhere. It only takes a few moments to realize how deep the delusion goes. I can’t see out the window, indeed.

Annabel Banks, “Literature to Kill Wasps”

Literature to Kill Wasps (from Yes, Poetry)
Annabel Banks

is all I shall carry from now on
chapters to crush unthorned
antlers searching for a sting
I use my fist, pounding pages
as characters look up to say
“come in” at wrong moments
wasp jam to stain the page
where finally we learn the voice
unreliable as pound-shop repellent
and consider all that’s gone before
in new colours, black words
across hi-vis yellow vests
with danger and authority


Reading is dangerous, especially if you’re a wasp. According to the poem, we wasps have to worry about frustrated literati using books to crush us. A record of kills is even maintained through splattered yellow upon the pages.

Maybe reading is dangerous for more than wasps, though. What is reading, anyway? The poem begins by declaring “Literature to kill wasps is all I shall carry from now on.” Our speaker doesn’t say she plans to do any reading. Her resolution makes me wonder if there is such a thing as reading in some pure sense, whether it is possible to do anything with literature other than kill wasps. To be clear, I think many of us have an idealized image of a reader, one who sits for hours in dialogue with the author of a work, carefully teasing out her logic, appreciating her art, bringing as much knowledge as we can to her work. We have that image, and then we have real life: a million and one distractions attend us, distractions like wasps.

If we follow this line of thought, what exactly is dangerous about reading? The image of the ideal reader? Wasps and wasp-like distractions? Something else entirely? The wasps have their “unthorned antlers searching for a sting,” but chapters in conjunction with fists crush them. Killing wasps, who are not presented to us as terribly dangerous, distorts the text of the book at the very moment the book comes alive. Characters say “come in,” inviting the reader, inviting the wasp, only to have wasp jam smeared all over their speeches and doings. You can see why I’m playing with the idea that wasps are distractions. They literally are, and they are invaluable to reading. It’s like there is no such thing as focus. There’s only being distracted in a way that you’re aware you’re distracted, or being completely unaware that you’re not even remotely on task.

So it seems what’s dangerous about reading is that it kills us wasps. We’re only as good as our distractions, our efforts to read. We started with our fists, crushing wasps between pages, then noticed that we were throwing splattered bugs upon defined, innocent characters. Reading should be dangerous. This, for lack of a better word, “process” brings us to a voice we learn, “unreliable as pound-shop repellent,” yet necessary for life. That voice is part of our considering “all that’s gone before in new colors.” Reading is distracted, fragmented, perspectival. The black words of literature still show through the yellow – there’s a basis for a more common understanding – but the “danger and authority” of those words lies in our bug smashing escapade. We overcome our distractions and upon reflection find them weirdly defining.

Wislawa Szymborska, “Example”

for Monika

Example (from The Drugstore Notebook)
Wislawa Szymborska (tr. Clare Cavanagh & Stanislaw Baranczak)

A gale
stripped all the leaves from the trees last night
except for one leaf
to sway solo on a naked branch.

With this example
Violence demonstrates
that yes of course –
it likes its little joke from time to time.


– Ridiculous! How uncharmingly oversentimental. I fail to shudder at the gale which left one leaf swinging solo on a branch. What kind of person finds herself transfixed by a lonely leaf? –

It’s my loss if I fail to shudder. Overstatement weaves together with understatement all throughout the poem, but especially in the first stanza, the stanza introducing the gale. Szymborska explicitly states the wind’s destruction of the trees, as it “stripped all the leaves from the trees last night / except for one leaf.” She leaves the rest to our imagination. We’re forced to ask what the gale did to the rest of the landscape, what it did to the speaker’s own house, whether it horrified her, giving her a restless, sleepless night. The state of the “one leaf” provides the answer. “Left to sway solo on a naked branch,” it stands for the speaker herself, alone, tormented by violence, and the difficulty of communicating the effects of that violence.

That difficulty lies in the seeming. One’s pain can always seem ridiculous and trivial to others, no matter how deeply it cuts. The second stanza elaborates this, again with a mixture of overstatement and understatement. First, the overstatement: the gale wrecking the trees is no less than an “example,” perhaps the example of a godlike Violence. He uses leaves and people and whatever else to chuckle to himself. Violence is alone, too, and this nearly marks him a superior being, as he stands immune to his own power.

The overstatement undoes itself. Violence, depicted as a cruel, laughing god who uses the world to demonstrate his power, might breed in some a cynical attitude toward the speaker. How dare she take her private, quiet pains and compare them with the savagery of natural disasters or war? Ah, but the moment one asks that question, the speaker’s point is proved. Hiding in our repulsion at the carnage of battle or thousands left homeless after a storm can be a bit of a nasty sentiment. Pains matter more if they concern us, as we overvalue the public perception of pain. That public perception has embedded itself deeply in our expectations, our more informed opinions, our traditions.

Which brings us to why this poem was written at all. To recap: alone, despairing, justifiably scared, she identifies with a lonely leaf on a branch after a storm. It seems ridiculous to us to dwell on being torn apart by some random action of the universe. After all, bravery depends on the reasonable expectation that one can continue as oneself for some time. The poem does not deny any of this. It quietly asserts that it is at least as ridiculous to fail to see how many lives are neglected, cast aside, isolated, as if Violence was the only government.

Alison Croggon, “I will stop writing”

for Nadia

I will stop writing (from Lost Poems of Croggon)
Alison Croggon

I will stop writing and walk out, and in the clamour of commerce I will consider the value of truth.

When I return, the evening light will be yellow and the bird that whistled all day will have fallen silent.

Once again I will discover that I have nothing to say. Perhaps a bright instrument may flash then, in my empty hands.


1. Nadia kindly asked me about techniques for staying focused. She meant well, as not so long ago, I was reading, note-taking, and writing regularly. Sure, much of the writing may have been worse than useless, but the immediate result isn’t always terribly important.

That seems counterintuitive, I grant. What good is production if nothing important, beautiful, or thoughtful emerges? There’s plenty of incoherence, messiness, and narcissistic ranting in this world. Shouldn’t art in general afford a bit of clarity? Shouldn’t a writer, at the least, force herself to be clear, if only to understand her own thoughts?

My one technique for staying focused, for making organization in anything one does a priority, follows from this advice Rilke gave a young writer:

This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must”, then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.

Regarding writing, Rilke says to ask yourself nothing less than “Must I write?” If you answer “yes,” then you build your life, your whole life, “in accordance with this necessity.” This may initially feel overwrought and far too dramatic to be serious advice. I do encourage reading Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, though, where the above quote comes from. Rilke does a masterful job of instructing the young poet – I wish I could be a hundredth of the teacher Rilke is – and the poem the young poet eventually produces speaks for itself.

Ultimately, I do think focus is pretty much a matter of priority. The things we consider most important we work at relentlessly, finding how we can be efficient at them. I should be clear that I am not trying to make some obnoxious grand pronouncement of the “no one needs techniques to be focused” sort. On the contrary, I need post-it notes, a calendar, to-do lists, e-mails, texts, phone calls, and people reminding me verbally and with violent, angry gestures what I need to do any given day. My best days at work I come in with a game plan, where I write down the larger goals I want to achieve (i.e. “keep things positive, keep people motivated, show generosity works”) and break them down into smaller goals before I’ve even entered the building.

There are worthwhile techniques for staying focused. The reason why I’m saying “staying focused is a matter of priority” is because it’s the truth. Like all truths, it involves deep ironies and contradictory consequences. Alison Croggon’s meditation on not writing, on leaving pen and paper behind for a time to experience the world, introduces those problems.

2. “I will stop writing and walk out, and in the clamour of commerce I will consider the value of truth.” A writer can be frustrated in many ways, but one of the worst involves wondering whether one does any justice to the truth, whether one’s own words meet the measure of their intrinsic worth. Walking away, into the world, moves one from the realm of words and ideals into something prior, messy, and real. The “clamour of commerce” begs to be articulate, creating a space for one to feel, think, consider.

Still, “the value of truth” continues to place a high burden on the writer. The struggle is to find the nerve to find focus again, to write again. Of necessity, our narrator returns home. The “clamour of commerce” has withdrawn, and her observations concern the natural: “When I return, the evening light will be yellow and the bird that whistled all day will have fallen silent.” There’s a brightness, mellowness, and quiet marking the end of the day which might tempt us into thinking it a panacea for all times we confront frustration. I think it worth noting that this had to follow the “clamour of commerce:” nothing has been written yet.

3. In fact, it is unclear if anything can be written. “Once again I will discover that I have nothing to say,” the poem announces. Frustration and losing focus aren’t simply obstacles to be overcome. There is nothing easy about truth; the link between knowledge and utility deceives at least as much as it enables. To be clear, the narrator has stepped away from writing in order to see the world again. She’s paid attention to nature and described it as welcoming of her voice. Yet despite both these things, saying something is still difficult. The very fact that our focus requires having a sense of priority points to the objects of art being beyond us. Heck, something about our own selves is beyond us.

Importance lies in the preparation. One stops writing in order to cast a spell, in order to invoke a power nearly magical: “Perhaps a bright instrument may flash then, in my empty hands.” It sounds ludicrous, like a facile, cynical conclusion. But it speaks most directly to the importance of writing, as well as the irony of focusing on anything. The things that must be done well are also worth not doing, ironically enough. The drive that pushes one to pay close attention and produce something also pushes away from production. Lacking nerve and hesitating come from knowledge as much as they do from cowardice. It’s strange knowledge can put one in situations where one might not be able to know more, but that’s what it means for most of us to live in this world. The only appropriate response: one’s writing is a form of magic. One embraces the frustration, taking ordinary, incongruous elements, mixing them together, testing whether one has any power or not.