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Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Lost, Love

I've written a bunch of sonnets in my life, none of which I've thought was any good. I was reading Hass's "Little Book on Form" last night and thought I'd give the form another chance. What if a sonnet recapitulated the history of the form, however vaguely? Quatrain on forbidden love; quatrain on God, post-volta resolution of the two as the form itself slowly dissolves.

If it is true that we should not have kissed
Because we know how sad life is and cruel
If I should never’ve pressed my fingers to your breast
My silent, protest rage, beloved, well, then to be a fool—
Who could not help but hope God dropped a sign,
Before, befuddlededly, he wandered off,
Forgetfulness, read upon your skin,
Or momentary blindness,—then such a sin
Is just the entrance fee. Love does not last—
We slid into our clothes and closed the door,
Turned on the light, resumed the souls we’d been.
We must have known we would. And yet we were surprised
Like thirsty hikers lost on foreign hills
Who despair to find a stream—and there it is.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

A Clever Observation on a Trivial Fact Followed by an Enigmatic Image that Might Be Profound

For Billy Collins

At 60 my mother was no spring chicken
But then a spring chicken is something no one ever is
Not even spring chickens.
It’s only something you can not be
Like so many other things, even things for which we have certain names,
Like certain.
They say he has a certain charm,
By which we indicate that we don’t know what that charm is
Which makes it anything but certain.

I like the idea that we can now throw shade.
Years ago we could only cast it, as we cast a fly rod
Which provides very little shade. Now we can throw it
Like a baseball, which has more surface area,
Though now that I think of it, perhaps we should learn to unfurl shade.

Which brings me back to my mother, in her rocking chair,
Reading this poem
With a certain enigmatic expression.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

River God

Those long ago laborers hauling fish
From the Nile, the Euphrates, the Huang Se,
Cursing and trembling by turns when the river
Over which the sun set
Offered no fish for their nets,
They thought the river was a god
Because It rose and fell, grew angry or lay peaceful,
Because of the blessings it bestowed and its curses,
Because it sought revenge and gave love by turns,
Because it mirrored the universe.
And does it matter whether the river is a god
Or a metaphor fished from the other shore
By those who had no notion of metaphor?

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

I Should Probably Get Back to the Poems of David Kirby

The poems are really great
If you concentrate
And take in every word
And the meaning of every word
And the sound of every word
And the rhythm of every word
And if you connect every word to every other word
And all the lines to the other lines and listen
To the play of the lines against the sentences and the play
Of the lines and the sentences against the stanzas
Which are like fences with surprising holes in them
Through which you can watch the Babe hit one of his 714 or one of his 60
For absolutely nothing and be one of the silent spectators of a genuine moment of history
And if you pause at the pauses and run with the alliterations and skid with the
Enjambments around the sudden turns without losing your braces. Otherwise—
If you let your mind wander if you just meander through the thing
Like it’s a joke or a corn maze (a maize maze, amazing, amazing maize maze, amusing,
An amusing amazing maize maze—where was I?) that you’ll eventually wander out of
Whether you put any effort or interest in it or not, like a homework assignment
In a class you didn’t really want to take in the first place—well then,
Whose problem is that?

Friday, June 9, 2017

What is Left to Say

By Lisel Mueller
(1924 - )

The self steps out of the circle;
it stops wanting to be
the farmer, the wife, and the child.

It stops trying to please
by learning everyone's dialect;
it finds it can live, after all,
in a world of strangers.

It sends itself fewer flowers;
it stops preserving its tears in amber.

How splendidly arrogant it was
when it believed the gold-filled tomb
of language awaited its raids!
Now it frequents the junkyards
knowing all words are secondhand.

It has not chosen its poverty,
this new frugality.
It did not want to fall out of love
with itself. Young,
it celebrated itself
and richly sang itself,
seeing only itself
in the mirror of the world.

It cannot return. It assumes
its place in the universe of stars
that do not see it. Even the dead
no longer need it to be at peace.
Its function is to applaud.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

On Winning or Losing in Battle

We like to say that battles are lost or won. Even our best respected historians provide the final score whenever they can. Some battles are ties; some have ambiguous outcomes. Most are won or lost. We have ways of determining such things. We like neat dichotomies, binary oppositions. It’s in the language, but it’s in the language because it’s in the being, our being. Win and lose are easy to understand.

The borderlines we put on battles are not arbitrary. But they’re not real either. They are conceptual. They could be put in other places, both the starting point then the first shot is fired and the end point when the last effective shot is fired are placed there for convenience, so we will be able to give a name to when the thing started and ended. The name is everything. It’s the folder that allows us to catalog the battle, that allows us to have had a battle at all. There is no knowledge without the name on the folder. But we all know too that the battle started long before the fighting and continued long after and may never have ended. We all know that the most decisive victories are provisional and momentary. Many conquered people have eventually won the war—or anyway have had moment in which the victory had shifted their way, had conquered the conqueror from beneath.

The Unconscious Is More than That

Freud was interested in the ego/id/superego trinity of the unconscious to the exclusion of anything else that might have been happening in the mind that the mind was unaware of. With great verbal dexterity he made sure that all facts could be hung on this increasingly articulated model. Girard does the same thing with his model of mimesis. Both systems are brilliant, and certainly contain some important correspondence to reality. But they are also cautionary tales about trying too hard to make a single insight conquer the whole territory.

Being animals human beings are always attempting to organize themselves into the “proper” social structure for human beings. Mapped in the genes (as it were) of all animals is the way that those animals are supposed to be organized. This is why middle school students are so notoriously hard to teach. Their bodies are telling them to form themselves into a nation. The kings are trying to emerge. Everyone is trying to align themselves with power, not the foreign invasive power of the teacher-class, but the real structure of the student-class. Rivalries emerge. School is contrary to nature.

Monday, May 29, 2017

"How about We Just Give Trump a Chance?"

As for “giving Trump a chance,” there are as far as I can see only two possible justifications for doing so. The first is that he has personally earned a chance. I think that whatever your stance on the man’s policies or positions, someone who spent the last eight years trying, without a shred of evidence, to undermine the legitimacy of his predecessor by claiming he was a Muslim from Africa, has not personally earned the chance. Personally he’s earned scorn and derision and the constant whining of Trump and his supporters about how “unfairly” he’s been treated deserves nothing better than maniacal laughter. Despite his claim of “great surety” that no politician in history has been treated worse or more unfairly, in fact no one is seriously denying the legitimacy of his victory. He hasn’t been treated worse than he himself treated President Obama.

The second reason to “give him a chance” is that it would be for the good of the country. That claim has a little more weight. Even Obama himself—a man infinitely more gracious, patriotic, and civil minded than the current president, said we should wish Trump success. It sounds good. One should, if possible, set aside the well-earned scorn Trump has worked so hard for and wish him well if not doing so is harmful to the country. However hard it may be to swallow the anger and let this man off the hook for his myriad sins against pretty much everything an American should hold dear, we should let him off the hook indeed if that serves the greater good.

But what does it actually mean to do so? Does it mean sitting back quietly while he tries to implement policies that go against one’s values? Does it mean staying silent when he delegitimizes the press (and therefore the Constitution)? Should we shush ourselves when he insults the world’s billion Muslims? Does it mean giving him no opposition when he tries to funnel more and more of the nation’s wealth away from the poor and middle class up to his billionaire cronies? If that’s what it means to “give him a chance,” then no. No American should for one moment let him off the hook. We could forgive or at least ignore for now the lying, divisive, bullying, ignorant, hate-filled rise to the presidency if doing so would be good for the country. But—and this is not exactly surprising—the perverse values of the disgusting campaign that led this disgusting lard ass to the job are the same values that guide his presidency. If he ever deserved a chance, he’s already warn that deserving out. He wore it out the moment he first tried to ban all Muslims from the country. And he’s shown again and again since how little he deserves a chance and how dangerous it would be act in any way other than in the strictest opposition.

Sunday, May 28, 2017


It turns out that Plato was almost right when (was it in the Timeaus?) he had Socrates condemn writing for the inevitable ruin of memory it boded. But the problem is not that it made remembering unnecessary. The problem was that it made forgetting impossible. We’ve been collectively accumulating memories, and at an ever increasing rate, since that first stylus scored that first clay tablet. Now, every day, more memories are uploaded to Youtube than an individual could view in a lifetime. We're overburdened by memory. By Shakespeare's time it had become the goal of writers and the nobility to become immortalized in print. We turned away from the world when we turned to the tablet. Many great things have come from writing. But in the end, we will die because of writing. Global Warming is likely to do it. So far we've escaped nuclear holocaust, but that threat is still out there. These things could never have happened without writing. True, writing could save us from a world-ending asteroid. That would be good. But it's more likely to be the first step in a chain many thousands of years long that will terminate us. How much better it would have been if we had not figured out writing until we were ready for it. But then again, how without writing could we ever have become ready for it? And now we are in the territory of tragedy.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Beyond Dualisms

Words like “skepticism” pose such obvious problems. Skeptics are always so sure of themselves. They have to be. How could you be a skeptic if you doubted your skepticism? There’s then no point in deconstructing them. Nor can you fall back on the old saw—the logical impasse of contradiction—to take them apart. You must be able to know something if you know your ignorance. And if you can know that why can’t you know other things?

Because you can’t. And this is why….

And then the skeptic like Finnegan goes back to the riverrun and starts over.

Only in time is time overcome. Fortunately, we are only in time. So if I have one belief left, I suppose it is this, and it is as much a religious as a philosophical (which is to say logical conclusion) belief, which is to say something I understand intuitively as true as well as logically as valid, insofar as it can be logically validated: set aside all conclusions. I suppose it’s a mildly Hegelian position. Setting aside all that math or the scientific method can attain (I don’t want to get into the absurdity of an earth that is other than metaphorically flat), in areas that actually matter, where science and math are of negligible service, come to whatever conclusions you will, and then set them aside. Don’t fail to arrive at these conclusions, which we could just as easily call propositions because we are at the place where language’s fundamental dualism betrays us (that statement too will have to be taken in, then set aside).

This matters most where most is at stake. Starting with God, God who is absolute otherness and absolute presence. Unattainable, incomprehensible, but also here, and inescapable, the radiance of love. It’s all true and therefore all not-true. And the biggest sin is to think you have it. And the other biggest sin is to proclaim that you don’t. Did I say Hegelian-ish? Also Hinduish. Sufish. Part of all mysticisms, secular or religious, but only where mysticism marries the dull quotidian, where secular and religious don’t signify different realms.

Sign Language

My students tell me all poems are open
for interpretation.
I tell them I do not dispute that statement,
adding just that this not only doesn’t define,
it doesn’t even distinguish
poems from any other deployment
of words. Not from these
You’re now reading (did you really
think this was a poem?) but neither
from the most carefully crafted contracts
or laws, nor from your mother’s
hello, your uncle’s be careful, or your fumbling
attempt to go out with a girl
or to lure her to bed.

Signs are signs
even when they stand high above the parking lot
of the store
that was never built.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Fixing the Rose

He knows the beauty of the rose
Painfully intense as it can be
Is not enough.
And so he fixes it
on canvas sacrificing
nearly every part of it
to give it what it lacks:
It gets to stay.
It gets to be what it appears to be--
As though the lack of permanence were not what made it
Beautiful. Beautiful
to begin with.
Sine qua non.

And so the painting calms the rose
But does not fix it.

Let's begin.

Monday, May 8, 2017

On Childhood

It's not that we lost something in childhood that drives us back in search, but that we were waiting for something that never came.

Monday, April 17, 2017

On the Evil of Religion

Over the past few years—probably because I’ve been paying closer attention and not because it’s happening more often—I’ve been hearing more and more voices crying out against religion—against all religion, from the likes of Bill Maher to the intellect of Richard Dawkins. Religion is bad. It’s bad for us. We’d be better off without it. Belief in God brings misery. Spreading the word is just about the most anti-human of all acts. So much misery has been done in the name of religion that religion is a viral cancer. ISIS. Trump voters. The Westboro Baptists. Colonialism, Imperialism, Zionism. If anything good comes of religion that good is small and private and could never match the evil religion does.
It’s a pretty strong case.

But does that critique actually make sense? I don’t think it does. And this is why: religion is neither good nor bad. I’m not going to offer any heart-felt defense of religion. Nor am I willing to condemn it. People are good and people are bad. Bad people use whatever means is at their disposal to effect their bad ends. Religion has no power at all to stop them, nor does it have any power to promote their hate; it has power neither to effect nor resist the evil ends of the people that use it. This is an essential point. The haters of religion have their heads on sideways when it comes to religion. They think if they would only get rid of religion things would get better. At least a little better.

Things would not get better. In fact things would get worse, though I don’t credit religion thereby. Nazism was not a religious movement. Communism is even less religious than Nazism. Pol Pot did not answer to any god. Nor have any of the leaders of North Korea. Donald Trump is not religious. People don’t need religion to inspire them in their hatred. They have nationalism and racism and sexism and plain old paranoia. The number of insignificant differences among humans available to exploit as though they were meaningful is as large the human imagination. Evil people will always have ways to appeal to hatred and desire to coerce their fellow humans into mass murder. There’s no more destructive force on earth at this moment than Capitalism. Capitalism doesn’t give a shit about God.

People are good, and people are evil. And they’ll use religion if it’s available. And they’ll use something else if it’s not available. Do people fight more recklessly or more viciously or with less fear when they fight for God? Some may. Some almost certainly do. Not many. And on the other hand the number of people whose lives are enriched by their spiritual practice—whether or not they are theists—is almost beyond number. That doesn’t make religion good. People practice religion to become good. Religion isn’t by any means the only path to goodness. There are plenty of good atheists out there. Better a good atheist than a jihadists or a klansman.

Those who point to Osama Bin Laden or Pat Robertson and yell, “evil,” also have to point to the Dali Lama or Desmond Tutu. Religion didn’t make the former evil or the latter good. (The good ones humbly tell us there is good and evil in all of us.)

Evil people quote their scriptures to justify their evil. Good people quote those same scriptures to refute the evil people. The scriptures are not good or evil. People use the scriptures for good or evil.

The people who decry religion as evil always reason in the most shallow way. They assume the subject does not have to be taken seriously. Bill Maher dismisses Islam with a pinky wave by counting how many Muslims believe hateful things. That’s guilt by association. That’s correlation as causation. That’s a willful unwillingness to look into the real, historical causes of hatred. You can’t even ask the question of whether religion is good or evil without doing your homework. What is Islam? What is Christianity? These are not simple questions. They can only be answered by drawing circles around certain populations, circles that could be drawn with equal validity around different populations, based on beliefs or practices chosen by the one who’s drawing the circles. And your not-quite-arbitrary-but-absolutely-not-necessary circle will answer your question for you. Are Christians those who “believe the Bible” (whatever that means)? Are they the ones who accept the Bible as “the Word of God” (whatever that means)? Are they the ones who interpret the Bible correctly (as though there were such a thing, as though there were a single interpretation that covered such a vast literature)? And who decides which encircled group of religious folk do that when even those who call themselves “Christians” can’t? The one who makes that decision, the one who draws the circle, is the one who wants to approve or condemn Christianity and who will draw his circle around those people that enforce that interpretation to justify his condemnation or praise. It’s all done in the worst bad faith possible.

Is religion doctrine or is religion practice? And which doctrines and which practices count? And how do you know? How will you decide? On what basis will you draw your circles? There is no such thing as “religion”—not in the sense in which it would have to exist to be condemned or approved as such. It lacks the ontological or epistemological center and body it would need to have to support the statement that “religion is destructive” or “religion is good.” People use religion to destroy and people use religion to build. And if you are convinced that more destruction is done in the name of religion than construction—you may be right. I don’t know. That only means that in the on-going struggle of humanity over itself, goodness is losing. It means we are a species more bent on our destruction than our improvement or one whose destructive tendencies are more effective than its goodness. I'm not saying that's true. It’s easy to blow up a building. It’s hard to build a plane. Or a community. It’s easy to hate. It’s hard to love. Religion does not teach anyone to hate. Hateful people use religion to spread hate. Loving people use religion to spread love. The hate would get along just fine without religion. As for love, I’m not so sure.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Meaning of Life (draft, part 1)

We can believe that the world is a text whose meaning the discerning reader understands and which all discerning readers understand in the same way and that all who fail to understand it thus (properly) are misguided for any one of a number of definable reasons from a lack of fundamental perspicacity (they’re too stupid to get it) to an accidental or nefarious being-led-astray (someone or something has tricked and deceived them). Or we can see the world as not a text in the first place but as something which simply is, which therefore is not put in front of us as something to be understand.
We can proclaim that the very notion of “understanding” is a problem, particularly when the thing to be understood is not a text. Language is the tool of understanding. And language runs into problems when it attempts to understand—to come to terms with, to bring into language—that which is not language.

We can represent the world with words. But there is no one, single, right way to do that. There is no full or final way to do that. We cannot bring the world to presence again which has never been present as such the first time. We can represent the world as a way of talking about the world. (If we could do this properly in words, we would not need music or painting.) But when we talk about our representation we are not talking about the world anymore. And the representation itself wasn’t exclusively about the world and didn’t represent it in its totality and didn’t get it quite right.

Even if we could get the world right in representing it, we’d also have to get the representation right by representing it—a rererepresentation. Let me get this right. Well I’ll let you, but you won’t manage it. My permission has never been lacking. And it was never what you needed.

We’ll never get over the inadequacies of language. And even if we could get a perfect language, we’ll never get over the inadequacies of perspective. The implication, however, is not that you stop trying. An imperfect representation is not a wholly false representation. An interested and partly blind interpretation is still work making. If there is no right perspective, no perfect or absolute perspective, there can still be valid or viable or useful perspectives. There can still be good perspectives. There can still be good language. Good for what?

Set you values and argue for them. Life is a value. No one deserves a life and no one deserves happiness. But we can decide that life and the greatest quality of life not for the greatest number but for everyone is the value. Everyone means everyone.

The first value has to be the earth itself. There is no place else for us to live. So earth must be as healthy as possible. The health of the earth should not be compromised. The question to ask is not “will this create jobs and thereby increase the quality of life for some people?” but “will this harm the earth? Will it lead to or contribute to the kind of destabilization that compromises the stability of the planet, its ability to sustain healthy live throughout its complex ecology?”

Right now we’re destabilizing the earth—with misguided fossil fuel use and exploration—not even for the sake of those jobs, which are just a corporate smoke screen, but for the profits of megaconglomerates, for the pockets of those who already have far more than they need. For greed. For power. For the basest animal out there. 

Friday, March 17, 2017

Further Speculations on Time and Eternity (unedited)

One of the most persistent facts about human beings as that they believe they have enough information to make accurate determinations about the state of being. We know enough about “the universe” or “being” or whatever we wish to call “it” to say what it is. The four elements and the four humors and the function of organs and the Linnaean catalogs and the crystalline spheres and human nature and the unconscious mind and the great chain of being and Oxfordian authorship have—along with endless other reapings—been asserted with such unquestioned certainty that it seems that intellectual hubris may be the fundamental condition of the human brain. Nothing’s ever tentative. Revelation, reason, and observation held the stool firm and level—until one of them rotted away. But even the loss of revelation has not been a problem. The stool seems still to be miraculously sound. There’s still nothing we don’t know—or if there is, it’s such a small bit it can safely be ignored. It’s just detail. We’ll get there. The grand unified theory, once we get it, will be the puzzle piece that reveals what’s at the end of that stick that guy is holding. Dark matter, dark energy—we may never know what they are, but it will be enough if we can measure their effects on the stuff with proper names. The puzzle is already essentially complete.
We’ve never not thought that the puzzle was essentially complete. We’ve never been right about this, but that’s never worried us much. We’re always right now.
Evidence suggests that this is a foolish position to take. Evidence suggests that we accept the fact of our lack of sufficient understanding of being—I’ll call it being. We know a lot beyond dispute. We can trust science to tell us what happens if we pump too much CO2 into the atmosphere. But the big picture we don’t have. We don’t have the first idea what reality itself is, what it looks like. In fact our best understanding is that “understanding” is itself a problem. Seeing, modeling, representing—everything is second hand, derivative. And there’s no way around that, not even with math.
We need the best models. But we need to understand that they are models, that the story always has a narrator, and the narrator is always part of the story.
So let’s speculate about time—which we know almost nothing about, despite Einstein’s advancement on Augustine. Does the past exist? If so, in what sense? Science has come up with some elaborate ways in which it would be, in theory, possible to get there. They are not practical ways, of course. We can’t actually do it. They involve things like the expenditure of massive amounts of energy in the field of black holes. But if the past does not exist, or does not exist like a room on the other side of the wall, then our trip back into would come up against unforeseen obstacles even if it were practical. To ask the question another way, is there such a thing as “now”? If there is, we know we’re not all in it, or quite in it or perfectly in it. And yet at the same time, in apparent contradiction, there be no way for anyone or anything to ever not be in it. Everything we see is in the past, however fractionally. We see what was. But we see it now. We’re behind a little. But the fact that the trace of the past exists doesn’t necessarily mean that the past itself exists. We see from earth distant stars that if we were in the vicinity of we’d know they aren’t there. But the trace of the past isn’t the past. We know that time passes at different rates under different conditions. But that doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as now. The twin in his speeding rocket ship goes out into the universe and comes back to find his brother is twenty years older than he. But how is that slowing of time to be understood in relation to “now”? Is it a short cut? Time passes at different rates under different conditions. But “now” is always now. Or is it? Do we know? Is there any way to know? Do we have to live with contradictory vocabularies due to the limitations of our evolved minds?
Or does the past actually exist? Nietzsche thought of time as a line in his myth of eternal return. (How seriously he believed in eternal return is disputed, but that doesn’t matter.) In infinite time and infinite space, the same conditions must repeat forever (he surmised). But he was still thinking of time as a line. If the past exists then eternity returns eternally not in a line but as a static fact, like a movie that’s always playing.

But how much like a movie then is it? The Purple Rose of Cairo. Is there any way to know that the past is set? If Einstein is right and we could go back into it if it were only practical, then we could change it. Then it can change. Then we should not say “the past has happened,” but “the past is happening.” If the past is a wave, we can change now, from the future, if we can alter the wave. Is there any way to know that we don’t? Is there any way to know in fact that this is not something done routinely, at every instant? Changing the past changes the future. But there’s no way to know that we are not constantly changing and being changed. The persistent sci-fi belief is that you don’t want to change the time line. But there’s no way to know that the time line isn’t in constant flux. And there’s no reason to believe there is a proper timeline. (The imperative to maintain the timeline is never fully thought out.) It’s not unreasonable to believe that every life exists for one fleeting moment, less time that it has taken me to type a single word, and that at the same time, every life is eternal.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Full Weight of the Word

On Language: 
Jabberwocky vs. Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town: 
How we process sentences: Sound, syntax, "meaning."

My poetry students rarely have trouble with Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.” They have a lot more trouble with E.E. Cummings’ “Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town.” The former includes a large number of nonsense words, words which, in the dictionary sense, have no meaning. The latter has no nonsense words. But it does use words in unusual ways, both against the expected meaning (in the dictionary sense) or against the expected part of speech. Both poems tell a story.
My poetry students generally have little trouble paraphrasing the Carroll poem but a great deal of trouble with the E.E. Cummings. There is more than one way to explain this, but I think no matter how much weight we give to the fact that some of Carroll’s nonsense words have made it to the dictionary or to the fact that the students may have been exposed to the poem in one way or another in their youth, students would still always find Carroll easier to understand than Cummings. Virtually anyone whose virgin exposure to the two poems occurred simultaneously would find Carroll’s story easier to follow.

Why is this? Or to ask it another way, how is meaning processed? How do you “get” nonsense? Strictly speaking both poems should be nonsense. The dictionary won’t help you over your troubles with either poem.

Three factors seem to be at play here: sound, syntax, and “meaning” (narrowly defined as “dictionary meaning,” which I’ll distinguish from the more general sense of meaning by the quotation marks).
Carroll’s poem gives the student familiar syntax and suggestive sounds but strictly no meaning at crucial points. “Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun The frumious Bandersnatch!” We don’t know what kind of bird a Jubjub is, what a Bandersnatch is or what makes a Bandersnatch frumious. But we do have a sense of what kind of bird a Jubjub bird would be, what kind of monster a Bandersnatch would be and what would make it frumious. “Snatch” helps. And the sense we each have is probably pretty similar. The sounds themselves and the positions of the nonsense in the sentence create meaning despite a complete lack of “meaning.”

Cummings’ poem presents us with both overlapping and different problems: “someones married their everyones laughed their cryings and did their dance (sleep wake hope and then)they said their nevers they slept their dream.” It’s not hard for an experienced reader to take meaning from this sentence. But it’s nonetheless more challenging than it is with Carroll’s nonsense, harder still for students new to the study of poetry. Despite the lack of dictionary support for “Laughed their cryings” each word is familiar. And the familiarity it seems to me actually blocks the student trying to render the sense. But there is no such block in Carroll. And so the meaning flows out almost familiarly.

I doubt that any of this will meet much resistance from English teachers. Why it matters is this: What we processors of language do with Jabberwocky is what we do with language in general. Learning to read poetry is just learning to read period. Poetry often blocks new or inexperienced readers for at least two reasons worth thinking about: because the words are familiar and because the words are all presented with something like their full weight. In everyday language the looseness of usage and the ease of head nodding or shaking comes from the way that meanings are processed with an acceptable level of vagueness, the “you know what I mean” deployment. We can get away with not quite knowing what we want to say because our interlocutors are perfectly happy with processing as much or as little as they want, picking up on sounds and syntax and not really bothering so much with “meaning.” The trick with poetry, and a practical value of poetry for life, is that it trains readers to pay close attention to “meaning” in the production of meaning. 

When we're dealing not just with students but with anyone at any time, we're dealing with someone whose strategy for processing language may be more on the Jabberwocky level than the Cummings. They may be after a sense rather than a meaning. And people who go through life demanding nothing more than a sense from language do just fine, at least in conventional terms. They do well in school--particularly if their degree isn't strongly language centered, but often even if it is, since there are tricks to pretending to knowledge so successful that even the student thinks he's actually learning. They get good jobs. (They may become president.) They have as much chance at "success" as anyone. A lot of it comes down to luck and social supports, but you can't pick them out of the crowd. They are the crowd. But they struggle in the most important ways people can struggle. 

Friday, March 10, 2017

From Fear to Blood without Return

Irrational fear leads to
Irrational hate.
Irrational hate leads to projection.
(I don’t hate them. I’m the good guy. They’re the ones that hate me.)
Projection leads to imitation.
Imitation leads to hate projected back.
Hate leads to more hate.
Mutual hatred leads to violence.
Violence needs to more violence.
Once started violence is very hard to quell
And impossible to extinguish.
However cold it seems, all it needs to burst back into heat is

The match of irrational fear. 

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Thursday, March 2, 2017


At 55 I have a ready excuse I did not have at 20
For not managing to score the goal from the odd angle
on the penalty. Though I couldn’t do it then either.
If anything my chances now are probably better.
I haven’t lost anything in accuracy or stamina—just speed.
And I’ve had 35 years of practice. But they’ve seen me play
And so it does not surprise me when I put the ball down
And I hear a teammate say, “don’t try to shoot it.”
No it doesn’t surprise me, it just pisses me off.
So I shoot it. I was probably going to do that anyway.
It passes by the heads of three stupified defenders
And it’s already by the keeper and in the goal before he realizes
He should get ready to defend it. I have twenty missed shots
I know between now and the next time I manage this feat again
Plenty of time for the whole team wonder,
Why are we letting him do this? (For the record,
They’re not letting me. I got the ball. I put it down
And they’re too polite in this rec league of aging men
To do any more than mumble.) Yes, I’ll miss badly the next
Time I try this and many times after that. But for now,
Fuck you, I scored.