Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Stiff-Necked Race

Fire sirens in the valley.
At a scarlet inflorescence

bees cluster in the beard
of a spittle-bug's froth.

There may be balm in Gilead,
but here plastic bottles buzz

unpleasantly of want and emptiness;
of sunscreen gathering sand.

The skin of your throat has turned to glass
that will shatter if you nod.

You are a stiff necked race
and full of contumely, says God:

I made you hard so you would snap
with a satisfying sound.

In response to this Morning Porch post.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Silver Tint

Why I love the interwebs (and Brenda.)


Sun-gall some fifteen degrees to the right of the sun, this morning, which meant, since the sun rises north of east these days, that the gall hung due east. The solar system dreaming of a tidy house with no eccentricities, I suppose: of all its planets' axes neatly perpendicular to their orbits.

House hunting. Many observers would find it comical that we discuss the trees as one of the two or three major features of the house. The disappointment of finding that the lovely tree out back is a tree of heaven – ailanthus altissima, a pain-in-the-neck invasive that does not age gracefully – is equivalent to finding out that a basement is perpetually wet. We want real trees, big trees that will comfortably outlive us. As we pull up in front of a house, in one of our scouting expeditions, we're often craning our necks to see if that maple in back is on the sale property or on the neighbor's. (Can't trust neighbors, you know: they cut trees down, for any reason or none.)

Paradoxically, this one of the main reasons we want to live in the city. To live out in the countryside, in western Oregon, is to live in the shambles. People are slaughtering trees left and right. The depression has slowed the pace of development, but not stopped it. To live out somewhere where there were woods and fields would almost certainly be to live in a place that was being steadily plundered and destroyed. Neither of us is a good enough Buddhist to face that prospect with equanimity.

Archeology of depression: “I was seeing how there are all these houses built from the turn of the century into the twenties,” said Martha, “and then all these houses from the forties and fifties, but nothing built in the thirties, that's odd... and then I went, 'Oh. Duh.'”

Wondering how long the free-market zealots are going to hold sway: how long we're going to be solemnly told that the only way we can compete with the highly unfree, market-interventionist, planned economies of the Far East is to give capital here at home a free hand to be just as irresponsible, short-sighted, and self-destructive as it likes. In the long run I don't believe American governments that supinely accept ten percent unemployment, declining wages, and worsening job benefits will survive: but whether we'll veer to the left or to the right remains to be seen. A massive jobs program is the solution, but the only massive jobs program that the Right will support is some huge war, like the one that lifted us out of the last depression. We came out of that huge government intervention into the economy with 40% of the world's GDP – since we were building our industrial and manufacturing capacity at a fever pitch, while the rest of the industrialized world was just as feverishly destroying its own – but it's not likely to happen that way again. Neither Europe nor the Far East seems inclined to play along, this time.

And that's not the solution I want, anyway. I want an egalitarian country, in which the very richest people have maybe ten or twenty times what the poorest people have, not a million times. I want an economy that's stable and dependable, not wildly fluctuating. I'd like to see a country that's simply and sustainably prosperous and unafraid. One in which military expenditure bears some rational relationship to the real risks of the world. (Which are – whatever the Left may say – considerable, but nothing like a justification for maintaining perpetual world-war levels.) One in which everyone willing to work could find a decent job.

We could do all this. We have the economic wherewithal. We may have, for a generation or two, anyway, an environment and economy that has not been irretrievably wrecked. We just don't have the will, and I don't know where we're going to find it.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


Unknown to science, a glasslike filament
works its way from the prostate (“guardian,”
or “one who stands before”) up through the tough
but flexible hinge between the stomach muscles:
it follows the xiphoid process, and runs inlaid
like enameling up the sternum, and ends at last,
glistening, ice blue, at the trachea
and the tongue.

No one knows what it is for, what
sublimate may rush through its canal,
what impulsive electrons may skate
its slippery ice. All we know is that mine
is broken, and may never mend.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

History of English Poetry, Chapter Seven: Burgling the Hoard

"I'm sure it reflects great credit on your grandfather, but you cannot pretend you ever made the vast extent of his wealth clear to me. I should want hundreds of years to bring it all up, if I was fifty times as big, and Smaug as tame as a rabbit."

So this post is really what this silly business of “A History of English Poetry” was aiming at.

Literature, and especially poetry, has been (in the West at least) a nationalist project, a government-funded attempt to replace Classical literature with a great-power vernacular literature. Building a prestigious canon is what the powers that funded poetry cared about. The carrot dangled in front of the poets was eternal fame, “Fame that all seek after in their lives,” as Shakespeare matter-of-factly said, so sure of his proposition that he saw no need to argue it. So people contend for the top slots, and after a few centuries of this, people get lulled into thinking this is normal, this is the way it will be forever. This is natural. You always want to back up and make sure you've got a spare ammo clip when people think something is natural. It usually means they're willing to kill about it.

I've heard that there are more people alive now than dead. Not sure if I believe that, but I'm quite sure there are more living English writers and readers alive today than all the dead English writers and readers that ever lived. And – as I've argued before – at a certain point, numbers really matter. The game changes.

It's one thing to think about stuffing a few more lyrics into the Norton Anthology. It's quite another to think about doubling it in size. You can't double it in size – it's already too big for undergraduates to master. You've got to throw half of it away, and replace it with new stuff. We're not talking now about trimming a poem of Gray's here and an essay of Emerson's there. We're talking about dropping major poets. Leaving out, say, Herrick and Marlowe and Whitman, and replacing them, with – Oh, I don't know. Dick Jones and Luisa Igloria and Gjertrud Schnackenberg. Whoever. Put your own favorites in there. Hell, put me in there, I'd love to sit there in the Norton Anthology, preening my feathers.

But the thing is: it doesn't make sense. It doesn't make sense for the undergraduates, it doesn't make sense for English poetry, and it doesn't make sense for us. It's all come apart.

This is emphatically not because there is not poetry as good as Herrick's being written. It's largely because the present anthology is already good enough. Nobody's going to write love lyrics that are better than Herrick's. They're just not. They may write ones that you happen to like better. I, for instance, think Stephen Dunn has some killer love lyrics, they do more for me than Herrick ever will. But I'm not about to tear Herrick out and install Dunn. I know that this is a local, intimate connection between two turn-of-the-millenium mixed-up men. And for Christ's sake, aren't there already enough white male adulterers musing their way through the canon?

Further, there is no sieve of centuries to screen all the poetry that's been written in the past hundred years, and it's hard to imagine that there ever will be. Who would do it, and why? I'm reasonably confident that I've read every extant 14th Century poet worth reading. But that's because 14th Century literary England was a tiny, tiny place. No sensible person will ever be confident that she's read every 20th Century poet worth reading: the idea's preposterous. And the flood of poetry that has been made public on the internet in the 21st Century probably already dwarfs everything that made it into print in the 20th. If you think all that stuff is bad, you haven't looked very carefully. There are brilliant poems pouring into the public domain, every day.

To put it bluntly – great English poetry has now no scarcity value whatsoever. Schemes to assign it an artificial scarcity value will fare in the market as such schemes always do. Canute had a better chance of success.

So back up. Scarcity value isn't the only kind of value. And was it ever really such a grand thing to aspire to, to be the lapdog of kings and the ornament of empires? To lord it over the mute illiterate mob, and end your career as a marble bust over a library door?

Maybe it's time we grew up. Maybe it's time we accepted that we're going to die, that our nations are going to die, that our beloved English language is going to die, and that our poetry is going to die. Maybe it's time to love poetry because it's mortal, written by mortals: maybe it's time to stop adoring movie stars and love the girl next door instead.

About a year ago, I took on the project of reading poetry in English after Yeats. I asked my blog readers for suggestions, to name off a few of their favorite 20th and 21st Century poets. The names rolled in, inexorably: some I'd heard of, some I hadn't. It wasn't long before I had a reading list that would have kept me busy for several centuries. I am not easily daunted, as a reader, but that daunted me. Even if I had Dave Bonta's iron stomach, munching a poetry book every day for poetry month – and I don't – it was a reading list that no fifty-something man with a living to make could ever expect to take sizable bite out of. And if that wasn't bad enough, being a statistically-minded man, I understood what the scarcity of repeated names meant. It meant that there were plenty more out there where those came from. My counterpart blogger in South Carolina or the South Island, whom I've never met, could have polled his poetry-minded readers and come up with a list just as big, and composed mostly of different names. Sure, I dove in and took up some of the oft-repeated names. And they're terrific poets, ones you could easily spend years reading and studying. But I knew, within a week or two, that my idea that I could get a handle on contemporary poetry was pure delusion, even if I'd been willing never to read anything but contemporary English poetry ever again. Which I'm not. I know several languages, and I'd like to know something about what those folks are writing too. I like to read a novel every once in a while. And there are other arts.

So how am I going to read contemporary English poetry? It does, after all, have a special place in my heart. A poet who grew up in the same world I grew up in has a special connection with me. My blogging community has made me into a reader of contemporary poetry, for which I'm very grateful. It's even turned me into a occasional writer of poetry, which may or may not be a good thing: I'm not really sure if my gifts lie that way. But anyway, I've got the bug now. I'm not going to stop. But how am I going to read? How do I choose? I'm like Bilbo tasked with burgling the hoard of Thror.

The answer to impossible questions is given by time, not by thinking. I know what I'm going to do, now. I'm going to read my friends, and their friends. I'm going to start with the shiniest treasure within reach, just because it is within reach. I'm not going to try to master this hoard, or even survey it. There's no way, there's no time, and there's no need.

I have friends who write marvelous poetry and who have wonderful taste. One treasure will lead to another. And anyway Smaug is not as tame as a rabbit. Great poetry doesn't leave you unmolested. I will have to write answers, or live answers, to everything I read. Even assuming I run over my three score and ten, that really gives me plenty to do.

Friday, June 24, 2011


Ruby throat rising like the sun:
beat, beat, beat, darling one!

Sliver-tongue, sliver-tongue, sliver-tongue,
tremble your way to the flower cup,

into the sheath of sweetness,
into the shell where the syrup runs.

Sweet tongue, lithe tongue, flickering wish:
Still as drumsticks, quick as fish.

Crow family groups often include a yearling, a sort of apprentice nest builder, who brings all kinds of stuff. The nesting pair pick out what's useful and show the yearling what to do with it. Every once in a while I still dash off a poem in response to the Morning Porch: I'm always so chuffed when Luisa re-uses some of the materials I've brought.

Thursday, June 23, 2011


Some are born to sweet delight
Some are born to sweet delight
Some are born to endless night.

What makes the difference? The slant of the light coming through the leaves, I guess. I keep wondering. When you lay your hand on someone's sternum, and wait for the in-breath to lift it, what exactly are you waiting for?

At twilight I walk through the bare spaces of the darkened house. Kiki prances towards me, sideways, in a mock invitation to combat. I twitch and say "cha!" and she flashes past me and up the stairs. Later I'll find her curled into an oblate spheroid on the sewing chair, her nose tucked into her abdomen, her ribs rising and falling.

I think of Jonquil, who brought her to us, with sudden dread at the hazards of the wide world, thinking how the twine frays and the connections are lost. The house darkens. I think of holding her head, of holding yours, of the pulse in my wrist meeting the pulse behind your ear, of my fingers laid over your forehead, of all the threads meeting, binding, separating. Ahab wanted to strike through the mask, poor man. Not knowing the mask was exactly what he was searching for, exactly what he needed: a face threaded over his face, a light threaded over his light.

You speak, and the mask begins to speak, and the listening takes fire. Somewhere. I'm helpless to say where, or how. But that's how it works.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Sirens on 39th – that is, on César E. Chávez Boulevard. Across the street, yellow lights flicker and flash on a city cherrypicker. Leaves stir restlessly. A walk signal counts down numbers to a red hand. A sign that I can't read dangles from a stake, swinging feebly, like an injured weather vane.

“Everybody's talkin' at me...”

Even people's clothes want a word with me. “Represent PDX,” say the white splotched letters on the black shirt of the kid mumbling his toast in the next booth. His bill cap just says “NFL.” A booth further down, that guy's shirt, I can't read it. Bion Arat... something. nope.

I friend a woman on Facebook that I've admired for months, because someone linked to a terrific essay she wrote about Facebook, saying that real friendship happens there too, just like fake friendship and vanity happen in real life. But I wobble along in doubt. Facebook disturbs me. I spend more time there than I really want to. The hit of instant responses to my hopefully clever phrases is more intoxicating than it ought to be. And it's always there, like a familiar tavern on the route of an alcoholic's walk home from work. That's its real drawback. You never have to arrange a date with your Facebook friends. You never say, “hey, I'll be on Facebook around 4 tomorrow, drop by!”

Something lifts, and my mind courses backwards. The distressed abdominals and serrati and QL of a woman I'm fond of under my hands. Her coarse hair twined with my fingers. I worry about her, I worry about established medicine ignoring her and I worry about alternative medicine jerking her around. I worry about the insurance that determines what sort of care she gets when. I worry about whether I'm doing my best for her. We all talk big and none of us know squat.

And beyond that, backwards and upwards. Hiding in our car, up the block, while potential buyers go through our house for the second time. “This is the only place I've ever lived where I felt safe,” you say. We know and trust everyone on our end of the block. And soon we'll leave, and drop into a new pond, like frogs bailing out of an airplane. Who knows?

Backwards and upwards. My own left serratus posterior is threatening to clamp. I breath into it, move around a little to give it a break. A wash of cloudlight; the memory of the smell of your skin rushing in and bewildering me. A quick and unidentifiable memory of the juniper taste of gin. Dancer and dance. You have to start somewhere.

I rise into the thin sky, evaporating as I go. All that bewildering love: all that anxiety. I pray, neither to nor for. “Oh, the jewel in the lotus!” – the most honest prayer I know: full of supplication but knowing that we don't even know who to ask, or what to ask for.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Some values for N

People who think their chronic discomfort is due to their posture being bad, and that they could improve it by (sitting up straighter, doing Pilates, taking yoga classes, generally being a better person): N = nearly everybody. People who have ever changed their posture by any method: N = practically nobody. (People who have thereby eased their chronic discomfort: N approaches zero.)

People who think they can turn a key, or a doorknob, that someone else is struggling with: N = practically everybody. People who can turn a key or a doorknob that someone else has failed to turn: N = practically nobody.

People who think that if everyone was like them and their friends, the world's problems would go away: N = practically everybody. People who are like themselves and their friends: N = everybody. Problems remaining: N = all of them.

Often we lay down some organizing categories, and build up elaborate networks of thought on them. When we go to explain our thoughts – which are in fact important, or at least interesting – we realize you can't understand them without understanding the categories as we use them. If we're not very very careful we will then take the categories to be profound in and of themselves (since they're the key to understanding all out profound thoughts!) and make pests of ourselves by trying to get other people to use them as we do. People who are likely to adopt our categories and use them as they think we do: N = 3. People who will use them, as we see it, properly: N = 0.5. Probability that those we perceive to use them properly are people with whom we are enjoying good sexual relations: 1.0.

Monday, June 20, 2011

History of English Poetry, Chapter Six: Shakespeare

Oh yeah. I got carried away and forgot to mention a fairly important poet who comes in between Chaucer and Wordsworth.

All I really have to say about Shakespeare, at the moment, is that he set out, deliberately and with great ambition, to become the English Seneca and the English Terence.

What he succeeded in, almost accidentally, was becoming the greatest English poet and the greatest dramatic poet in the world. That was mostly the result of a strange magic between him and his audiences, I guess. He shot much higher than he aimed.

I know. We say, he wanted to be the English who? Who gives a damn about Seneca and Terence?

It just goes to show – something. I'm not sure what.


This is amazing:

Here we are in the leaves / of grass again, flying toward our griefs.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

History of English Poetry, Chapter Five: Wordsworth

Oh, I hated him. “LIES,” is scrawled in large letters across the my college copy of The Prelude. The letters scored the paper deeply: they almost tore it.

I loved the other English romantics: Coleridge and Shelley and above all Blake. And here was tedious, complacent William Wordsworth, who betrayed all of our revolutionary ideals: who slowly, slowly deliquesced over a couple of generations into a feeble imitator of himself and a lickspittle lackey of the state, still lionized. I couldn't understand it.

Shelley drowned in Italy in his twenties. Coleridge sank helplessly into his opium addiction, fuddled by German philosophy and by his enormous capacity for love. Blake howled in the wilderness. William Wordsworth had busts of himself set up in libraries, and his daffodil poems were quoted in Hallmark cards.

What set the seal on it was the devotion of his immediate circle. Coleridge adored him, was in awe of him all his life. His sister Dorothy Wordsworth, whose nature writing I always thought much finer than William's, devoted her life to making him comfortable. His French mistress never made any detectable fuss. William could do no wrong. It was maddening. No young man wants to see that sort of devotion accorded to some other man.

It took me a long time to figure out the sequence of things, and to realize that Wordsworth, in fact, deserved all that devotion. That he invented modern English poetry, and made what all of us do possible.

The problem was that I read, in my steamroller way, straight through the Norton anthology, and Blake, who is chronologically the first of the romantics, came first. William Blake, I thought then, and still think, is the greatest modern English poet. No one touches him, certainly not Wordsworth. It was to Blake that I gave the credit. Screw rebuilding the temple in English stone. Screw the Roman poets. Screw decorum. There are people starving in the goddamn streets, there are visions of Jesus haunting us, there's the human body in all its glory and all its suffering. There's six year old boys deliberately starved so they stay small enough to crawl naked through the chimneys, cleaning them, collecting poisonous soot on their genitals so as to die of testicular cancer in their teens; there are twelve year old girls pimped on the street spreading syphilis. Write a goddamn poem about that. What's wanted is not a comely English version of the works of Seneca. What's wanted is a prophet.

Well. It was true then, and it's true now. But no one was listening to poor old Blake. It was Wordsworth who made them hear.

Whenever Wordsworth tried to explain what he was doing – or let Coleridge try for him – it came out muddled and confusing. But essentially he was trying to do two things, both radically new. First, he was trying to draw exactly what he saw around him, like a naturalist – poor people, women, and idiots included – and to do it in everyday language. And second, he was trying to describe his own mind. He was the first explicitly psychological poet. Other English poets, of course, Donne and Herbert and Vaughan and Crashaw, had written about the movements of the spirit. But this was somewhat different. In Wordsworth, God, Judge, and Jury were nowhere to be seen. Wordsworth calmly sat down to write a book about his own mind. Nobody had ever really done that before. Now it sometimes seems that no poet does anything else. We're hampered in seeing Wordsworth's radicalism by his own radical success: everybody's a Wordsworth now.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

History of English Poetry, Chapter Four: Building the Temple in English Stone

So how did Chaucer make a living? He was a servant of the crown: he worked in customs (his family were established and important wine-importers) and in what you might call public works. He was attached to at least one important diplomatic mission. He had family connections above his status, which are still a little murky. He was, for a medieval person, remarkably “class-mobile.” A hard man to place. But he held a good position under Richard II, and, when Richard was deposed and murdered, held exactly the same place under the usurper, Henry IV. (You can read all about this in Shakespeare, by the way, if you don't care about getting the details quite right.)

You can argue all day – in fact, for several scholarly lifetimes – about whether he wrote poems “to order” for, say, Richard or John a Gaunt. I'm inclined to think so, but we'll never know. But in any case, one thing he did not do, and which would never have occurred to him in a million years, was hawk his poems on the street. For one thing, there was no one on the street who could afford to buy a book of poems: in the days before printing, the making of books required not only expensive materials – parchment is not cheap, and vellum is downright expensive – but weeks of painstaking work, by a literate person with writing materials, to produce a single copy. The resulting object sold for (I'm making a number up, because these equivalencies are always impossible to nail down, but I'm confident I'm in the ball park) something like $500 in modern American money. A book of poems, in other words, was a luxury item, like a sculpture or a painting. Ordinary people didn't have them. Chaucer's library of almost 300 volumes represented a small fortune, and must have consumed most of his disposable income.

So a poet before the advent of printing was nothing remotely like a modern novelist, writing to please a faceless public. Chaucer and his ilk composed for an audience of a few wealthy patrons, or really, often, an audience of one. Written poetry used to be a very intimate art. We tend to assume that this was a bad thing, and to picture crass lords making the sensitive poets write interminably about fox-hunts and tournaments, but I think often it was very fruitful. So quirky and personal a poem as the Book of the Duchess would never have been written for a mass audience.

And what of Richard II and Henry IV? What were their motives, in this relationship? Chaucer seems to have been an able man, useful to have around – he supervised the construction of a grand tournament arena, among other things – but most likely for them he was primarily a prestige object. It was like having Michelangelo or Leonardo on the payroll, for an Italian prince. England was beginning to come out of the eclipse that followed the Conquest, and its Norman upper class was abandoning French and coming to a new identity. They wanted a national literature of their own. The English, like the Romans before them, were playing catch-up. They were, often quite self-consciously, working to build up a canon, based on what they knew of Classical literature. There would have to be epics and tragedies and comedies and satires, they knew that. They would have to find verse-forms that could rival the Latin hexameters in power and flexibility. There would have to be an English Virgil, an English Seneca, an English Terence, an English Horace. (One of the odd things about this emulation, for us, is that we no longer admire some of these poets very much. But the rediscovery of Greek literature was still to come: all the medieval poets had to look to was the – to our minds often lackluster – imitations of the Romans.)

Up until the shattering advent of Wordsworth, this was the game English poets were playing. It became somewhat more complex as time went by, as other European literatures made claims – never undisputed – to have achieved classical status, and as Greek literature was recovered and translated. But few people seem to have doubted the project. The basic plan of the temple of literature had been laid down in classical times, and the job of English poets was to build it again in English (and Christian) stone.

Friday, June 17, 2011


Ah Sadcoat, Sadcoat, you fall, backwards you fall,
and all the unkissed kisses gather beneath the wall,
day after iron-hinged day burning the throated will;
the dust of your wings on our fingers glittering still.

Sour mantle of unripe fruits, torn out before the frost,
hesitation's truer accountant, recking the final cost,
you fluttering curtain of black, settling over the cast --
your breath on my lips, and the salt of your eyes, at last.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


You come to sit here with me, on the half-heartedly upholstered bench. Roll cigarettes so that, later, your fingers will taste of leaf, and so I can watch your tongue tease the cigarette paper. Let the lurches of the bus roll us into momentary intimacies. Your hair, which escapes all attempts at discipline, always floating, an aureole of glints and guessed lines. Against the feeble gray light of the bus window they're curves drawn by the finest Rapidograph: the expanding ripples of the splash of your ear, its curls and infoldings barely visible.

Everyone has a signature story, the one they have to tell you before they can imagine you know them. It's the one they tell you after a silence has settled, and they're not sure you're awake any more, but the bus keeps going and the impulse to be known can't be resisted any more. It's always a story of misunderstanding and disappointment. Often enough trivial, the gift of a trinket declined or a promise to meet for coffee broken, but it becomes the frame for a life.

I wake from these bus rides into a hollow house, and lie a while in the dark, looking at the shapes my hands make silhouetted against the skylight, listening to your breathing. Outside, the sidewalks are shrinking in the coolness night, and the braids of caulk loosen between their slabs, and small creatures run over their surfaces, searching. I try, but fail, to imagine their urgency, to imagine needing so much. I need nothing. I am a sea anemone: it all comes to me.

Only, like all intertidal creatures, no matter how soft and pulpy and flowery you look, you have to be able to sink, twice a day, into that dark, and bear the enormous weight of the tide, and the suck of currents trying to drag you off the rock. That's the real trial. And in those hours there's no one on the bus beside you, no story to distract you. You hold and you wait, that's all.

It's the breathing of the ocean in the dark, I suppose. Its own dreams must be dreams of gathering, of pulling the things that are too tired to hold on any more into the deeper, colder spaces of its heart.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Constraints of Space

Sometimes I think the teeth of my gears
have chipped off, one by one. I am a bare axle:
I spin, but I turn nothing.

I used to be an atheist, and a communist, and once
I was a Buddhist, and now I am just a man
with a paunch and a bicycle.

When painting a sash window, I hold the brush
like a pen, and shiver the long whiskers
down the slope of the woodwork

just shy of the glass, laying down the paint
like Michelangelo on a good day, lying on his back
and feathering an angel;

and I clean my brushes as soon as I'm done.
This morning I made the beds and thought
confusedly of ships:

someone told me once that sailors come home
neat and tidy ever after, because they've lived
under such constraints of space.

It only just occurred to me today
that nobody could know if that was true.

A History of English Poetry, Chapter Three: The Big Battalions

On Facebook, in a comment thread about my last post, Miguel Arboleda wrote:
I think the thinking is a bit skewed here... none of the literature above were the "beginnings" of anything. The language and culture already existed and this literature was the >outcome< of that language and culture, not the other way around. Sometimes I think professors and poets think a little bit too highly of themselves!
I do take a “great poet” approach to literary history. I dislike “great man” theories of political or cultural history generally. I read Tolstoy at a tender age, and I've thought ever since that his picture of how history worked, with the great names simply chips thrown up momentarily to the top of the surf, was basically right, if a little exaggerated. And of course if you're a settled enemy to sexism and racism it makes you feel unhappy, or downright mutinous, to follow the “big battalions” of Western literary history, which is a long roll call of comfortable white guys in cultural capitals. Nevertheless, I think the most rewarding way to absorb a literature is to read its “greats” in roughly historical order. It makes most sense as a conversation, and there are touchstone works that everyone returns to over and over. You have to know those, they're the backdrop to everything else going on. Without them you're lost.

It's not fair. The Gawain-Poet, or Pearl-Poet, if you prefer – we don't know his or her name -- deserves on his or her own merits at least as much attention as Chaucer. But if I was writing a world literature syllabus, and I could put in only the Gawain-Poet or Chaucer, I would put in Chaucer without a moment's hesitation. Practically all the English poets of note who came after him read him, and practically nobody read the Gawain-Poet until scholars unearthed him or her in the 19th Century. You just get more understanding, more grounding in English and World literature, you get smarter about it faster, if you read Chaucer first.

And the fact is, that you can only shoehorn so many poets into any syllabus, or into any reading life. There seems amongst modern academics a curious inability to grasp this. Everything you push into a syllabus pushes something else out. It's that simple.

At this point I can hear Miguel interposing that it's not all about schools and syllabuses. And again this is a place where I run counter to form. I hate schools and certifications, I hate them as nests of self-satisfied authoritarianism. I think they waste huge amounts of kids' time. I cut my teeth on Ivan Illich (Deschooling Society). My anarchist leanings are pronounced.

Nevertheless – most people here first learn poetry in school – they first learn good poetry in school – and the things they learn in school stay with them the rest of their lives. And that's been true in the West for a very long time. Poetry in the West is very much something that incubates and is transmitted in schools. And that's not going to change any time soon.

And finally, a lifetime's assiduous reading has convinced me that actually literature is composed of “greats”: it's as true of literature as it is false of history, that it's mostly made by a few people who are much better at it than the people around them. Chaucer is not half-again as good as Gower. He's not twice as good as Gower. He's immeasurably better than Gower. His failures are far more interesting than Gower's successes. We're not on a linear scale, we're on an exponential one.

I don't have an argument for this. I don't even know how to start arguing it. But I think many people who read a lot, and read intensely, would agree with me. This is not to say that there isn't a huge amount of stuff worth reading, there is: and there's as much brilliant stuff moldering away unread as there is brilliant stuff that's recognized, especially in modern times. But still, to take a nearby instance, it's much more worth your while to read Emily Dickinson's poems than to read mine. Even after you've read Dickinson carefully for the first time, it's still more worth your while to read her again than to read me for the first time. And it's still true for the third, fourth, maybe fifth reading. Memorize her stuff. It's better, that's all. I'm not saying my stuff is worthless: I wouldn't inflict it on you if I thought that. But I know my place.

I say all this, because I'm about to unsay it in my next chapter. Stay tuned.

Monday, June 13, 2011


Find some poems, she said. I've lost all mine.

Remember, I said, they don't look like poems
when they're seeding. They look like trouble.

O wide and dribbling skies,
featureless and leaking,
saturated with the light of June
as we know it, the sun stirred
into a wobbly pot of milk
until well whipped and smooth --

Slop, O slop on me
your lumens and your love,
shed your mist of light,
drizzle on my bald spot,
prickle in my nose, give me
a cold of poetry: make me sneeze.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A History of English Poetry, Chapter Two: The Big Lie

Histories of English literature generally begin with a whopping lie. They say that English literature begins in the 7th Century, or thereabouts, it flowers in the great Old English elegiac poems – The Wanderer, The Seafarer – and culminates in Beowulf, the great national epic, the first masterwork of English. Or maybe it flowers with Beowulf and culminates in the elegies -- people still quarrel about the dates of these things. But that's the general idea.

The only trouble with this is that it is wholly untrue. There is no linguist in the world who would identify Old English as the same language as English, if she met them without knowing their historical relationship. Old English is no more English than Latin is French. The two languages are not mutually intelligible. You could make a much stronger case for Dutch being the same language as English than you can for Old English: its grammar and vocabulary are much closer.

Well, giving up that position, you could retreat to this: it may not be the same language, exactly, but it's the same literature. Middle English literature grew out of Old English literature: there's an organic relationship between the two.

But in fact there is no literary relationship. The Middle English poets, so far as we know, were utterly ignorant of Old English. There is no evidence in the whole corpus of Middle English literature of a single reference to Beowulf or any other Old English poem. Old English literature did not grow into Middle English literature. It was completely destroyed by the Norman conquest. It was as dead, by the year 1300, as Hittite or Akkadian. The first important English poet who could read any Old English – and he certainly didn't read Beowulf – was Milton, in the 17th Century. You could speculate that there was a living ballad tradition, which both the sophisticated Old English poets, with their utterly different metrics, and the Middle English poets, with their French verse-forms, were familiar, although the Old English poets never mentioned it and Chaucer mocks the ballads with devastating parodies – but we could speculate all kinds of things. Perhaps they all studied message-in-a-bottle Chinese poetry too, without ever mentioning it. This is not the stuff of literary history.

There is a historical linguistic relationship. The West Saxon dialect of Beowulf is a sort of linguistic uncle (not father) to the Middle English of Chaucer's London. Old English did grow into Middle English, and if you believe that a literature mystically transmits its national soul, by way of the blood of language – and people after all have believed much sillier things -- then you can say that Beowulf begot the Canterbury Tales. But that's the only demonstrable relationship there is. The only thing they have in common beyond that is that they were written on the same island.

The truth of the matter is that the tradition of English poetry begins in the 14th Century, with Chaucer and Gower. And their mentors were not the Beowulf-poet and his ilk: they were above all the Latin poets that they studied in school. Chaucer himself lists them off in the envoy to Troilus – his greatest work, in his own estimation and mine, and the one on which he staked his reputation:
Go, litel book, go litel myn tragedie,
Ther god thy maker yet, er that he dye,
So sende might to make in som comedie!
But litel book, no making thou nenvye,
But subgit be to alle poesye;
And kis the steppes, wher-as thou seest pace
Virgile, Ovyde, Omer, Lucan, and Stace.
Virgil, Ovid, Homer, Lucan, and Statius. Now, if you've had a modern literary education, you go along just fine with Virgil, Ovid, and Homer. Sure. We read 'em too. But at the end of the line we get a little shaky. Lucan? Maybe we've heard of him. Wrote about the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey, right? Fell afoul of Nero? Right, got it. Not that we've read him, but at least we have him placed. But Stace? Who's Stace? Someone who was just brought in because his name rhymed with pace?

No, Stace in fact is Statius, who wrote the Latin silver-age epic, the Thebaid. Chaucer refers to him a lot, in fact; he clearly read him closely and thought highly of him. We have never heard of him, and rightly so: his poetic merits are meager. But he was in Chaucer's pantheon of poets. Chaucer was daring to hope to rank with him.

This passage is just as interesting for the people it doesn't mention. (You will notice not a peep about any balladeer or Old English poet). Chaucer was fluent in French as well as Latin. He translated a fair amount of French poetry, and in fact adopted most of his English verse-forms from it. He may or may not have known Italian, but he knew either the originals or translations of Dante and Boccaccio: he probably borrowed more from Boccaccio than from any other writer. But he declines to mention any of them. He knows them, he's willing to use them, but he has no intention of kissing their footsteps. Earlier on he's mentioned precisely one English poet – his friend and contemporary Gower. The two of them intend, together, to put English poetry on the map.*

For all the apparent humility of this stanza, the gist is not humble at all. His tragedy, he's asserting, is on the same staircase as the great poems of antiquity. Chaucer is well known for his charming self-deprecation, poking fun at his waistline and his bumbling in love, but as a poet he takes himself dead seriously. He knows how good he is. And he knows that he is creating a new national literature. If you read the Hous of Fame and the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women you can see him hammering it out. But this is really the clearest statement. He's written a great tragedy, and now he must write a great comedy. He was to spend the last years of his career taking running starts at a great comedy, groping this way and that in the Canterbury Tales, not quite grasping that it was precisely the mismatchedness, the out-of-control-ness, the centrifugal force of the Tales that would be his lasting contribution to world literature. No sooner did he mount a narrator than the narrator ran away with him: and those runaway narratives, those careening voices, are what we really read Chaucer for: the drunken Miller interrupting the Knight, the wife of Bath justifying her marital strategies, the Pardoner explaining his cons. Chaucer never finished it, and he even tried to take it back, but actually he'd succeeded beyond his dreams.

* Yes, I've read Langland. No, I don't think his poetry is important, either in itself or as part of the English tradition.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

A History of English Poetry, Chapter One: The Hexameter Sputnik

Once upon a time, there was a restless and inventive people living in scattered city-states on the shores of the northeastern Mediterranean, and these people were mad about poetry. They loved it. They had a founding poet they revered almost as a god: young men learned his epic poetry by heart in school, to form their moral character. Their chief religious festivals had, as centerpieces, dramatic poetry contests. We call these productions “plays,” but they were more like stylized poetry readings than like modern drama. The playwrights who consistently won were not just celebrities for life: they were celebrities for ever.

Enter another people, with a talent for military organization and administration, semi-literate but hugely ambitious. They admired the Greeks, as the inventors of the phalanx and as the people who, improbably enough, had driven the enormous armies of the Persian Empire back into Asia. The Greeks, they thought, had everything but the one essential virtue: an overriding sense of duty to the State. This new people – the Romans -- determined that they would excel at everything the Greeks did. There would be Roman sculpture, Roman philosophy, Roman architecture. And there would be Roman poetry.

From the start it was a top-down enterprise, and a game of catch-up. It was like the American response to Sputnik. The Romans had their own doggerel, jogtrot rhyming poetry, stuff that makes, say, Hiawatha look like the height of taste. They ditched it. They were going to do elegant hexameters too. They were going to have great poets and a great national literature, just like the Greeks.

Eventually they found their man in Publius Vergilius Maro, a brilliant poet, who did write an epic for them, although it questioned Roman duty and subtly undermined the whole culture it was supposedly celebrating. He had nothing of Homer's simplicity, and nothing really of the epic poet about him. He was a love-poet, an endlessly inventive patterner, full of baroque and grotesque figures of speech and tricks of poesy: a poet's poet. Roman boys were set to learn his poetry in school, but they must have wondered what on earth they were doing. Twelve centuries later, Virgil would have a starring role in Dante's hit comedy, Mr Poetry Goes to Hell. It would be the belated vindication of Octavian's imperial ambitions for Latin poetry. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

For now, notice the pattern: a latecomer state scrambles to create a corpus of poetry commensurate with its sense of its place in the world, and does so by sponsoring poets it does not quite understand or trust. It's a pattern we will see again.

Sunday, June 05, 2011


I turned off the lights, not wanting to wake anyone -- it was precisely 4:00 a.m. -- and then remembered to get something out of the massage room. So I turned my netbook around and used it as a flashlight. As my eyes adjusted, I found that it easily illuminated the room, with a bluish, smearing light that picked out the whites and left the darks in a grainy confusion. It seemed to me that if I were smarter, or less tired, I would understand something hugely significant implied by us all sitting so often in pools of light that we can't ordinarily see.

I slept a couple hours, spent an hour staining the back deck in my pajamas, then came here to Tom's. Forgot my glasses and had to drive back home for them, in something of a temper. Came back and settled in and finally have my coffee.

Very much a working day for me: I have a slew of gifts to enter at the Foundation, and I'm anxious to get the rest of the deck stained. The sky is looking pretty ominous again. Fortunately the two enterprises can serve as vacations from each other, they're so unlike.

A young friend of mine was deeply troubled by the assassination of a Brazilian couple, ecological activists -- I hadn't heard of them: I suspect their murder was grisly, and she was sparing me details that my aged ears were too tender to hear -- but she told me how the scarlet tanagers had arrived, as if they were messengers, such wonderful birds, coming from that part of the world! They were going to do, oh, something! in response. She'd never seen the tanagers before, and they were so amazing, and they came here after wintering in that part of the world.

Of course they were western tanagers, not scarlet -- we don't get scarlet tanagers here -- and they winter nowhere near so far south as Brazil. They are extraordinarily beautiful birds: maybe the loveliest that ever come to the Willamette Valley. I didn't say anything: I didn't see the point of damaging a healing story.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Gift or Curse

Mother, every day is still / a gift or curse. (Igloria, "The Clear Bones")

I drizzle a little fine pale sand into the paint for the stair treads. It sinks and disperses in the creamy red of the paint, drowning silently. Feels wrong to deliberately put grit into paint. But the idea is that the steps will be less slippery for the folks who live here after us.

It all circles back: stir-sticks, thin crescents of paint printed on last week's newspapers. Yesterday at twilight I came to a stop sign in a deserted suburban neighborhood, coming home from doing a massage, and saw the thin edge of a crescent moon over the roofs, between the trees. I put my hands together and bowed my head. The thud of my pulse was suddenly loud in my ears. That poem in Qarrtsiluni about the octopus comes into my mind: a hand gesturing in the water, the light sinking like heavy oil through the sea water.

Jesse comes in, sleepy and tousled. I worry about her: I don't think she gets enough sleep. She wears silly things, sometimes. Today she's wearing a long beadwork necklace, an inch wide, like the "Indian" beadwork things we used to make on those little mail order looms -- a clumsy, slightly garish, rumpled thing. Like Luna Lovegood wearing her necklace of butterbeer tops. She's always set a little obliquely to the workaday world. Never again has she disclosed to me anything like reading Elizabeth Bishop aloud with her brother. I begin to think I imagined it.

Perhaps I floated across a river of warnings into the afterworld,
only to be returned for my desires. Everything I want is still

at arm's length, a current of blue swirling with
the hint of silver. Shackle and oar, what stains the water?

Friday, June 03, 2011

Girl Glimpsed in Prayer

Her hands cupped together at her breast, her head bowed,
while the wind lifts her curls to the sun. Of course not.
She's shielding the screen of her cell phone. Such reverence
no modest girl would ever show the street.

Still, her thumbs work prayerfully
telling the beads of her keyboard over, and over,
what she has said before but as it seems to her
no one, no one ever really really hears.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

The Greyhound to Olympia

Even at that turn -- the sway of the bus
nudging your head onto my shoulder,
and your hair spilling, spilling on my collar,
the dime of your nipple printing on my ribs,
the sleepy push of your denimed thigh on mine,
the turnoff to Port Angeles snaking into darkness,
the flares of light streaking forward, while the lit sign
vanished behind us -- even then I knew
that this moment of intolerable sadness
would rise in an accusing shape: that some day
a poem or a painting or a gesture would
revise or revisit, confuse or erase
the tickle of your breath's fingers in my beard,
the unformed sound, the catch in the throat
lost to the ear in the rumbling judder of tires
on cracked pavement, but felt in
the tuning fork of the sternum. Even
as I longed to be home, I longed for time
to surrender, just this once, to fold back
that night-time rush onto itself;
I longed for this poem never to be born.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Raised Atheist

I'm one of the very few people I know who was raised atheist. Atheists are plentiful, even in America: they make up, depending on how you count, about 5% to 10% of the population. But far fewer than 5% of children in America are actually raised atheist, with a sort of atheist catechism, as I was: when faced with questions about death or the reality of Santa Claus from their kids, most atheists tend to mumble incoherently, go to the kitchen for a drink, and let someone else do the talking. So kids of American atheists generally grow up with a sort of double vision: the emotionally reliable but stupid people believe in God; the people who are smart, but who can't be counted to give a straight answer, don't. But my Dad could always be counted on. He answered questions firmly and clearly. God was a made-up story. You die quite dead and stop being a person. I could deal with that. It made sense.

As most people do, I rolled along pretty contentedly with my parents' story until I hit ten years old or so, and then I began to have doubts. The God of fundamentalists, who ran the whole show from beginning to end, who created people bad and then punished them for being so -- he never appealed to me, then or ever. The world appears to me, quite obviously, to be out of control. Nobody remotely like me designed this place or runs it. If someone with a sense of right and wrong is directing this play, their sense of right and wrong is so different from mine that I find the idea more frightening than comforting.

So my doubts never ran in that direction. No, the doubts seeped in, in a quite different way. There was a whole realm of experience that my materialist world-view didn't equip me to talk or think about, but which seemed to me to encompass the most fundamental and important parts of life. I was irritated -- I still am, and always will be -- by religious people, but there was no one else to talk to. There are moments of transcendence, of absolutely overwhelming beauty that can bring me to my knees, or at least to standing stock still on a sidewalk, gazing at a water-droplet on an iron railing. It can be an intellectual experience: the moment when I first got differential calculus was the same kind of joy. It can be -- most often is, for me -- an erotic experience, like Dante's glimpse of Beatrice. A woman's presence, whom other people may think quite ordinary, will unseat the world, will resonate in me as though a vast gong, unheard by anyone else, had been rung right beside me. And the materialists have never really had a word to say about any of it. If I wanted to understand these things, if I wanted, more to the point, to cultivate or integrate these experiences, I had to talk to religious people. I was sorry to betray my childhood faith, but these things were too important to ignore.

There are other, lesser things that drew me to religion. Dead people whisper to me sometimes. Other presences make themselves felt, vast nonhuman intelligences going to and fro. These are interesting to me, but not really compelling. I'm perfectly happy entertaining the hypothesis that I “just make them up,” although the capacity, the propensity, for doing so is surprising and interesting. But in any case, materialist and religious alike advise me to not to take these things at face value, and I don't.

And very late, as a direct result of practicing the Buddhism that eventually became my religion, I realized that my basic political and environmental views were based on an inchoate but very deep sense of the sacredness of living things and of places. The reverence that came so irresistibly to me in the case of water droplets or calculus or beautiful women was actually the proper response to nearly everything: it could be the response to nearly everything, if you really learned to see. Or maybe, who knows? -- to everything. So, at least, I'm told. I don't know. But a world-view that doesn't admit this sacredness seems to me to veer ineluctably to into perceiving an Ayn-Rand-ish world, in which the few excellent, noble, just-like-me people are stymied at every turn by the worthless flotsam of the crowd. And under that perception, in turn, is despair: because if anyone is worthless, then we may be worthless; we're certainly on our way to being worthless. And if we become worthless the moment we're dead, aren't we worthless a tenth of a second before we're dead? Or maybe even an hour, or a month, or a decade? It takes you rapidly into deep waters, but the Buddhist concept of which I was initially most skeptical, “basic goodness,” now seems to me the only conceptual structure that makes placing any value on any life sane.

At the same time, the idea that my life began with my birth and ended with my death -- that it was bounded in time -- and that my self extended to the last millimeter of my epidermis and stopped short -- that it was bounded in space -- made less and less sense to me. As I worked my way forward in the Buddhist project of deconstructing the solidity of the self, I saw it less and less as a mystical idea and more and more as the hard-nosed fact. Biologically we express the DNA given us; psychologically, we absorb the culture we're born in. Moreover, our bodies are hosts to a huge array of cells that aren't technically ours at all -- all kinds stuff grows in any human body, and a human body can't live even for moments severed from these "foreign" cells, nor from its environment of pressurized air. Interdependence is not just some religious idea: it's the facts of the case. The very mitochondria that keeps all of our cells chugging along may have been, in origin, an alien virus. Similarly, almost all of the ideas and phrases floating about in my mind I got from someone or other, whether I know it or not: ghosts of Plato and Emily Dickinson flit in and out. The more I learn, the more I discover that my exciting new ideas actually came from other people: I may never have had an original thought in my life. I find this a wonderfully liberating idea: that I don't own any of this stuff, neither my body nor my thoughts: that my "self" is a haphazard, highly-filtered collection of illegitimate reifications. I don't have to be me, this idea whispers to me. I don't have to be anybody. I didn't pop magically into existence and I won't vanish magically out of it. I have nothing to prove and nothing to fear.

There are people who will say that I'm not, even now, “religious,” and that “atheist” is still the correct word for me. Maybe so: I don't really care. For many years my response to someone asking me if I believe in God has been a cautious: “well, you tell me what you mean by God, and I'll tell you if I believe in it at the moment.” But in general, with a few exceptions, the people who self-identify as “atheists” are the people I find most difficult to converse with. There are just so many taboos to observe -- so many experiences you're not supposed to admit to, so many feelings you're supposed to dismiss -- to stay in good standing with the atheist club. I can't manage it.