Why this?

The occasional piece of my own and a generous helping of others' creations I find inspiring. Site is named for a beloved book by one of my favorite writers, Italo Calvino, whose fanciful work lights--and delights--my soul.

Thursday, August 16, 2012


[Wrote this poem a while back; thought I'd post as our move-date approaches and NYC recedes.]

A man on the C train said
every fellow needs a girlfriend
and one guy rolled his eyes.

The man, still chattering, said
fellows, love your lady often
or your car will stop running;
it will be headed for the junkyard.
One guy, surprise in his eyes,
may have rethought
“that problem with the cooling system”;
though probably not.
Others looked put upon.

The man, far from done
(off-key Christmas carols would follow), said
love your lady often and you will have
nice flowers growing on your table.
The whole train appeared to soften.


Inside Out: A Culture Clash

[Wrote this poem a while back; thought I'd post as our move-date approaches and NYC recedes.] 

East Village, Manhattan

“For some reason, a lot of Norwegians
are coming in to the shop these days.”

The saleswoman speaks slowly,
articulating for the non-native couple
perusing her spring collection.

This husband and wife—
pale, middle aged, well coiffed—
volunteer a few tidy tips
for the saleswoman’s upcoming trip
to their homeland, and I smile to myself,
recalling a trip of my own.
That nice time in Oslo.

Later, I spot the same couple
on the sidewalk. They’re gawking
at one of my city’s estimable mounds
of stuffed black trash bags.
A taxi whizzes past,
its driver wags and shouts.
The woman braces herself:
they’re all so out.


Finding Myrtle

[Wrote this poem years ago; thought I'd post as our move-date approaches and NYC recedes.] 

When I first saw you, you were shuffling
down the aisle of a crowded train,
pausing every few seats to check in—
“How do I get to Myrtle?”
“How do I get to Myrtle?”
“How do I…”

I’ll admit to feeling a prick of annoyance
(Not another one),
but it passed on realizing
your compromised condition—
a slight allover tremor, eyes milky with age.

You were lost, and without assistance.
When you got to where I was, it was time
to step out. Thinking fast—Myrtle…
Myrtle Avenue?—I said I could help you;
I reached for your arm, and you gave it to me.

As we stood together on the platform,
I asked you for more, for anything.
But all you could give was “Myrtle,”
plus a few extras like “want” and “need,”
conjuring an image of Myrtle not as place,
but as woman pined for.

I consulted a subway map anyway,
a matrix of colored strings to confuse
the spriest  of us. Pointing out
various neighborhoods Myrtle Avenue traverses,
I looked for signs—an affirming nod,
flicker of recognition: home.

None came. Instead, a new word,
faint but there: “Lewis, Lewis and Myrtle.”
Energized, I trailed a finger, inching east,
and… Lewis. Lewis Avenue: a mere
three complicated train transfers away.

Daunted on your behalf, I did my best to explain
the complexity of what awaited
should you attempt again the train,
next asking softly if you had money
for a cab home.

You were keeping up well enough,
Because you pulled out a billfold,
which you opened and held open for me,
revealing a brave sad emptiness.

I told you it was okay, I could pay for your ride,
and you followed me silently, slowly
up the stairs and out into the circus
that is downtown Brooklyn at rush hour.

As you waited somewhere at my back,
I watched cab after cab clear the intersection,
every last one taken.
An irrational desperation crept steadily in,
erasing relationship woes, that problem at work,
until the only thing left to care about
was getting you out of all this.

I chanced a quick look behind—your face,
that impossible read—and a second later
a yellow car was slowing at the curb.
I filled in the driver, paying in advance,
in approximate, and he gave you a kind smile,
understanding. “We’ll getcha there.”

You took some time getting situated,
organizing your tired bones in that backseat,
and I stood there wondering about so much…
Your solemn “thank you,” eye-sharp,
caught me unawares, struck deep,
though I don’t believe it changed
anything important.

Years out, certain evenings
when I’m feeling lost, lived up,
I take to Brooklyn’s quieter streets
and think of you and our exchange.
I hope you made it home alright,
home to your Myrtle.


Tuesday, August 14, 2012


"Remember that everyone you meet is afraid of something, loves something, and has lost something." --H. Jackson Brown Jr.

No despair so absolute

"There is no despair so absolute as that which comes with the first moments of our first great sorrow, when we have not yet known what it is to have suffered and be healed, to have despaired and recovered hope." --George Eliot

All the props

"It's a good thing to have all the props pulled out from under us occasionally. It gives us some sense of what is rock under our feet, and what is sand." --Madeleine L'Engle

When Men Stopped Wearing Hats, When Women Stopped Wearing Gloves

Little impulse, little nod,
a little sweat drying on the brow. 
A woman's fingers strain
to run through his hair like shy deer.
He leans forward while she caresses
the little coves where the hair recedes.
Cells glide over cells,
and all the other cells roar their approval.
What more have they hoped for than this
little dance, a little naked grace
beyond the tug and bind of our stitches?
All this for us, that we may sit close in moonlight,
restless as two strangers, exchanging 
our wild gifts, my head in your hands.

--Richard Newman

Friday, August 10, 2012

Elegy for Smoking

It's not the drug I miss
but all those minutes
we used to steal
outside the library,
under restaurant awnings,
out on porches, by the quiet fields.

And how kind it used to make us
when we'd laugh
and throw our heads back
and watch the dragon's breath
float from our mouths,
all ravenous and doomed.

Which is why I quit, of course,
like almost everyone,
and stay inside these days
staring at my phone,
chewing toothpicks
and figuring the bill,

while out the window,
the smokers gather
in their same old constellations,
like memories of ourselves.

Or like the remnants 
of some decimated tribe,
come down out of the hills
to tell their stories
in the lightly-falling rain--

to be, for a moment, simply there
and nowhere else,
their faces glowing
each time someone lifts,
like a gift, the little flame.


A slight implies
if not an insult
(real or imagined)

at least something

a slight cold,
a slight headache.

No one ever says:
"You make me slightly happy."

Although this, in fact,
is often the case.

--Elaine Equi

Count That Day Lost

If you sit down at set of sun
And count the acts that you have done,
And, counting, find
One self-denying deed, one word
That eased the heart of him who heard,
One glance most kind
That fell like sunshine where it went—
Then you may count that day well spent.

But if, through all the livelong day,
You've cheered no heart, by yea or nay—
If, through it all
You've nothing done that you can trace
That brought the sunshine to one face—
No act most small
That helped some soul and nothing cost—
Then count that day as worse than lost.

Pass the Toll Gate Skidding

I looked in the motel mirror and felt a rind on my face,
my own face a stranger, furtive, my eyes
blackened with fatigue from the pounding thruway,
sick lines in the forehead, cheekbones showing
like death. I looked at the vile black coffee
streaming beside me at the counter, like a cup
set down by another driver, myself, ages ago before he dropped
a dime in the phone booth and listened to
something in the cosmos that answered croaking
before it dropped the phone.
You'll not make it, a voice estimated inside my head.
The speeds are eighty and the cops are faster.
It's too long, I tell you,
without sleep. Whereupon 
the fish spoke sideways from my mouth:
"We made it to here, we made it
crawling on fins that frayed out into feet,
made it
while cool wet scales
turned black and shriveled
in the desert air; this planet
is something you make or don't make. Quit dropping
dimes in the instrument,
nothing you hear there, no address
will be pleasant or give you
the road ahead. Keep going, you just
might make it," the fish said.
I flapped the ends of my fins and left
a tip on the counter.
Ichthyostega, the old fish, has made it this far,
maybe he even knows
a way by the cops at the toll booth,
maybe he has a word
from the squawking phone.
Maybe he knows, but I don't.
I drive with fins on poisoned air through the night.
I drive with claws on the wheel I don't dare look at.
I drive hearing that voice in the engine, hearing
the background noise of the thruway
bucking the cosmos into shattered glass. 
I drive with fins, but why, why? I've forgotten.
We've made it this far
to the steaming coffee on the all-night counter.
Don't touch the phone again,
don't look in the mirror, no one will see
what glove is drawn over your wrists.
If the fish doesn't know
the cops for sure don't.
Drive till you feel
this mind, this engine
go out of control.
Whoever said it had any,
not in three hundred million years.
Drive with fins, claws, hands, anything,
but drive and don't listen to the phone or the sirens.
Pass the toll gate skidding
years from the dial.
Count one million,
count two million,
Gulp your coffee, man, get going, get lost.

--Loren Eiseley

The Birdhouse

For M.C., 1840-1918

Grandfather Corey in his dying years
ruled a small room where braided sweet-corn hung
among the rafters, seed that he husbanded
and planted in the lot beside our house.
Old master carpenter, on this own at twelve,
was brimful with a Viking rage that fell
on all around him, hated children--
they tracked the garden, I was one of them--
hated the jerry-built poor housing that came in
during the First World War, loved only steel 
in planes and drawshaves made to fabricate
ornate wall carvings that now came from factories
and had not known the touch and care of hands.
Hands, he had hands I have not seen again--
so gnarled with weather, splinters, two-by-fours.
They were men's hands from another century,
sailors', woodworkers' hands, concerned with knots,
ropes, logs that had to be dragged and shaped
by men and not machines. He took snuff
from Copenhagen, sneezed into bandanna handkerchiefs,
ate cod bought dried in boxes from the East,
cursed if I stole his blackberries, cursed anyhow
at all his dying world, mustachioed, blue-eyed, as if helmed
with auroch horns upon a grounded ship.
I was so scared I tiptoed by his door; in rages he
smashed crockery, swept tables clean if food
displeased him, challenged, challenged with that cold
fighting stare
that embraced all the world, grandchild, his kin.
It was all one to him who had known open roads,
mining towns, paths that led on. I hated him, he me,
save once, and that made up for all the rest.

Grandmother asked him if he would make a house,
a birdhouse for my birthday. He rumbled like cyclone weather,
spent two days considering, went at last below
to his own bench, sawed, measured, planed and pounded
for two more days, came up with a Victorian home,
windows, porticoes and all. Placed it in my hands gruffly,
turned away. God help me, it is gone with all my childhood now.

I look at Burchfield paintings, stop my car
before old houses lost in mining towns.
I was too young to know his was the last
Victorian house, the last grandfather ever built,
the last time that the chest of tools was opened. 

"Take it," he said, thus giving me his life
inarticulate, tangled with ropes and saws,
violence of carpentering and old saloons.
In hard times he had sold my mother's pictures there.
"Take it," he said, and turned away, creative fire
unquenchable, making me marvel, voiceless. 
Today I turn old books, live in a century not my own,
try now to tell how Milo Corey lived and built, 
what rage surged in him and what tenderness,
find it all useless, snap my pencils with
blunt hands arthritic, lift them in the night,
clasp them in pain as he did, have no way to give
in frustrate fury sunsets or houses to my kind.
Grandfather Corey, I am wordless, too. 
I cannot make one birdhouse speak as you.

--Loren Eiseley

Writing Lives

For Leon Edel

Out of a life it is done
and without ever knowing
how things will turn out

or what a life is for that matter
any life at all
the leaf in the sunlight the voice in the day
the author in the words

and the invisible 
words themselves 
in whose lives we appear
and learn to speak
until what is said seems
to be almost everything
that can be known

one way with the words is to tell
the lives of others
using the distance as a lens

and another way
is when there is no distance 
so that water 
is looking at water

as when on a winter morning
as early as you can remember
while the plains were whitening
in the light before dawn
you saw your uncle--was it
your uncle?--reach
from the shadow and wash his face

to us it is clear
that if a single moment could be seen
complete it would disclose the whole

there is still that light in the water
before sunrise 
the untold day

Thursday, August 9, 2012

More "War"

From The Authentic Self:
Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.

It we were born to paint, it's our job to become a painter.

If we were born to raise and nurture children, it's our job to become a mother.

If we were born to overthrow the order of ignorance and injustice of the world, it's our job to realize it and get down to business.

The Hierarchical Orientation:
Most of us define ourselves hierarchically and don't even know it. It's hard not to. School, advertising, the entire materialist culture drills us from birth to define ourselves by others' opinions. Drink this beer, get this job, look this way and everyone will love you.

What is a hierarchy, anyway?

Hollywood is a hierarchy. So are Washington, Wall Street, and the Daughters of the American Revolution.

High school is the ultimate hierarchy. And it works; in a pond that small, the hierarchical orientation succeeds. The cheerleader knows where she fits, as does the dweeb in the Chess Club. Each has found a niche. The system works. 

There's a problem with the hierarchical orientation, though. When the numbers get too big, the thing breaks down. A pecking order can hold only so many chickens. In Massepequa High, you can find your place. Move to Manhattan, and the trick no longer works. New York City is too big to function as a hierarchy. So is IBM. So is Michigan State. The individual in multitudes this vast feels overwhelmed, anonymous. He is submerged in the mass. He's lost.

We humans seem to have been wired by our evolutionary past to function most comfortably in a tribe of twenty to, say, eight hundred. We can push it maybe to a few thousand, even to five figures. But at some point in maxes out. Our brains can't file that many faces. We thrash around, flashing our badges of status (Hey, how do you like my Lincoln Navigator?) and wondering why nobody gives a shit.

We have entered Mass Society. The hierarchy is too big. It doesn't work anymore. 

The Artist and the Hierarchy:
The artist cannot look to others to validate his efforts or his calling. If you don't believe me, ask Van Gogh, who produced masterpiece after masterpiece and never found a buyer in his whole life.

The artist must operate territorially. He must do his work for its own sake.

The Difference Between Territory and Hierarchy:
Of any activity you do, ask yourself: If I were the last person on earth, would I still do it?

If you're all alone on the planet, a hierarchical orientation makes no sense. There's no one to impress. So, if you'd still pursue that activity, congratulations. You're doing it territorially. 

If Arnold Schwarzenegger were the last man on earth, he'd still go to the gym. Stevie Wonder would still pound the piano. The sustenance they get comes from the act itself, not from the impression it makes on others. I have a friend who's nuts for clothes. If she were the last woman on earth, she would shoot straight to Givenchy or St. Laurent, smash her way in, and start pillaging. In her case, it wouldn't be to impress others. She just loves clothes. That's her territory.

The Fruits of Our Labor:
Every breath we take, every heartbeat, every evolution of every cell comes from God and is sustained by God every second, just as every creation, invention, every bar of music or line of verse, every thought, vision, fantasy, every dumb-ass flop and stroke of genius comes from that infinite intelligence that created us and the universe in all its dimensions, out of the Void, the field of infinite potential, primal chaos, the Muse. To acknowledge that reality, to efface all ego, to let the work come through us and give it back freely to its source, that, in my opinion, is as true to reality as it gets.

Aaand... The Artist's Life:
Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It's a gift to the world and every being in it. Don't cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you've got.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The War of Art

Oh my god this book. This. Book. I wish it/its contents on every human in existence. 

From an early chapter, The Unlived Life:
Have you ever brought home a treadmill and let it gather dust in the attic? Ever quit a diet, a course of yoga, a meditation practice? Have you ever bailed out on a call to embark upon a spiritual practice, dedicate yourself to a humanitarian calling, commit your life to the service of others? Have you ever wanted to be a mother, a doctor, and advocate for the weak and helpless; to run for office, crusade for the planet, campaign for world peace, or to preserve the environment? Late at night have you experienced a vision of the person you might become, the work you could accomplish, the realized being you were meant to be? Are you a writer who doesn’t write, a painter who doesn’t paint, an entrepreneur who never starts a venture? Then you know what Resistance is. ... 

You know, Hitler wanted to be an artist. At eighteen he took his inheritance, seven hundred kronen, and moved to Vienna to live and study. He applied to the Academy of Fine Arts and later to the School of Architecture. Ever see one of his paintings? Neither have I. Resistance beat him. Call it overstatement but I'll say it anyway: it was easier for Hitler to start World War II than it was for him to face a blank square of canvas.

From Resistance Recruits Allies:
Resistance by definition is self-sabotage. But there's a parallel peril that must also be guarded against: sabotage by others. 

When a writer begins to overcome her Resistance--in other words, when she actually starts to write--she may find that those close to her begin acting strange. They may become moody or sullen, they may get sick; they may accuse the awakening writer of "changing," of "not being the person she was." The closer these people are to the awakening writer, the more bizarrely they will act and the more emotion they will put behind their actions.

They are trying to sabotage her.

The reason is that they are struggling, consciously or unconsciously, against their own Resistance. The awakening writer's success becomes a reproach to them. If she can beat these demons, why can't they?

Resistance and Self-Dramatization:
Creating soap opera in our lives is a symptom of Resistance. Why put in years of work designing a new software interface when you can get just as much attention by bringing home a boyfriend with a prison record? 

Sometimes entire families participate unconsciously in a culture of self-dramatization. The kids fuel the tanks, the grownups arm the phasers, the whole starship lurches from one spine-tingling episode to another. And the crew knows how to keep it going. If the level of drama drops below a certain threshold, someone jumps in to amp it up. Dad gets drunk, Mom gets sick, Janie shows up for church with an Oakland Raiders tattoo. It's more fun than a movie. And it works: Nobody gets a damn thing done.

Resistance and This Book:
When I began this book, Resistance almost beat me. This is the form it took. It told me (the voice in my head) that I was a writer of fiction, not nonfiction, and that I shouldn't be exposing these concepts of Resistance literally and overtly; rather, I should incorporate them metaphorically into a novel. That's a pretty damn subtle and convincing argument. The rationalization Resistance presented me with was that I should write, say, a war piece in which the principles of Resistance were expressed as the fear a warrior feels.

Resistance also told me I shouldn't seek to instruct, or put myself forward as a purveyor of wisdom; that this was vain, egotistical, possibly even corrupt, and that it would work harm to me in the end. That scared me. It made a lot of sense.

What finally convinced me to go ahead was simply that I was so unhappy not going ahead. I was developing symptoms. As soon as I sat down and began, I was okay.

Resistance and Criticism:
If you find yourself criticizing other people, you're probably doing it out of Resistance. When we see others beginning to live their authentic selves, it drives us crazy if we have not lived out our own.

Individuals who are realized in their own lives almost never criticize others. If they speak at all, it is to offer encouragement. Watch yourself. of all the manifestations of Resistance, most only harm ourselves. Criticism and cruelty harm others as well.

Resistance and Self-Doubt:
Self-doubt can be an ally. This is because it serves as an indicator of aspiration. It reflects love, love of something we dream of doing, and desire, desire to do it. If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), "Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?" chances are you are.

The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.

Resistance and Being a Star:
Grandiose fantasies are a symptom of Resistance. They're the sign of an amateur. The professional has learned that success, like happiness, comes as a by-product of work. The professional concentrates on the work and allows rewards to come or not come, whatever they like.

Resistance and Healing:
Don't get me wrong. I've got nothing against true healing. We all need it. But it has nothing to do with doing our work and it can be a colossal exercise in Resistance. Resistance loves "healing." Resistance knows that the more psychic energy we expend dredging and re-dredging the tired, boring injustices of our personal lives, the less juice we have to do our work.

A Professional Is Patient:
Resistance outwits the amateur with the oldest trick in the book: It uses his own enthusiasm against him. Resistance gets us to plunge into a project with an overambitious and unrealistic timetable for its completion. It knows we can't sustain that level of intensity. We will hit the wall. We will crash.

The professional, on the other hand, understands delayed gratification. He is the ant, not the grasshopper; the tortoise, not the hare. Have you heard the legend of Sylvester Stallone staying up three nights straight to churn out the screenplay for Rocky? I don't know, it may even be true. But it's the most pernicious species of myth to set before the awakening writer, because it seduces him into believing he can pull off the big score without pain and without persistence.

A Professional Demystifies:
A pro views her work as craft, not art. Not because she believes art is devoid of a mystical dimension. On the contrary. She understands that all creative endeavor is holy, but she doesn't dwell on it. She knows if she thinks about that too much, it will paralyze her. So she concentrates on technique. The professional masters how, and leaves what and why to the gods. Like Somerset Maugham she doesn't wait for inspiration, she acts in the anticipation of its apparition. The professional is acutely aware of the intangibles that go into inspiration. Out of respect for them, she lets them work. She grants them their sphere while she concentrates on hers. 

The sign of the amateur is overglorification of and preoccupation with the mystery. 

The professional shuts up. She doesn't talk about it. She does her work.

A Professional Acts in the Face of Fear:
The amateur believes he must first overcome his fear; then he can do his work. The professional knows that fear can never be overcome. He knows there is no such thing as a fearless warrior or a dread-free artist. 

What Henry Fonda does, after puking into the toilet in his dressing room, is to clean up and march out onstage. He's still terrified but he forces himself forward in spite of his terror. He knows that once he gets out into the action, his fear will recede and he'll be okay.

A Professional Distances Herself from Her Instrument:
The pro stands at one remove from her instrument--meaning her person, her body, her voice, her talent; the physical, mental, emotional, and psychological being she uses in her work. She does not identify with this instrument. It is simply what God gave her, what she has to work with. She assesses it coolly, impersonally, objectively. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

Quite simply

… quite simply, I was in love with New York. I do not mean “love” in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and never love anyone quite that way again. I remember walking across Sixty-second Street one twilight that first spring, or the second spring, they were all alike for a while. I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and knew that I had come out of the West and reached the mirage. I could taste the peach and feel the soft air blowing from a subway grate on my legs and I could smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfume and I knew that it would cost something sooner or late--because I did not belong there, did not come from there--but when you are twenty-two or twenty-three, you figure that later you will have a high emotional balance, and be able to pay whatever it costs. I still believed in possibilities then, still had the sense, so peculiar to New York, that something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month.

--Joan Didion

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Always fooling with something

On week ends in summer the town empties. I visit my office on a Saturday afternoon. No phone rings, no one feeds the hungry in-baskets, no one disturbs the papers; it is a building of the dead, a time of awesome suspension. The whole city is honeycombed  with abandoned cells--a jail that has been effectively broken. Occasionally from somewhere in the building a night bell rings, summoning the elevator--a special fire-alarm rings. This is the pit of loneliness, in an office on a summer Saturday. I stand at the window and look down at the batteries and batteries of offices across the way, recalling how the thing looks in winter twilight when everything is going full blast, every cell lighted, and how you can see in pantomine the puppets fumbling with their slips of paper (but you don't hear the rustle), see them pick up their phone (but you don't hear the ring), see the noiseless, ceaseless moving about of so many passers of pieces of paper: New York, the capital of memoranda, in touch with Calcutta, in touch with Reykjavik, and always fooling with something.

--E. B. White

A sort of perpetual muddling through

Mass hysteria is a terrible force, yet New Yorkers seem always to escape it by some tiny margin: they sit in stalled subways without claustrophobia, they extricate themselves from panic situations by some lucky wisecrack, they meet confusion and congestion with patience and grit--a sort of perpetual muddling through. Every facility is inadequate--the hospitals and schools and playgrounds are overcrowded, the express highways are feverish, the unimproved highways and bridges are bottlenecks; there is not enough air and not enough light, and there is usually either too much heat or too little. But the city makes up for its hazards and its deficiencies by supplying its citizens with massive doses of a supplementary vitamin--the sense of belonging to something unique, cosmopolitan, mighty and unparalleled.

--E. B. White

The accompaniment of internal engines

A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.

--E. B. White

Enormous, violent, wonderful

New York blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation; and better than most dense communities it succeeds in insulating the individual (if he wants it, and almost everybody wants or needs it) against all enormous and violent and wonderful events that are taking place every minute.

--E. B. White 

The gift of loneliness and of privacy

On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy. It is this largess that accounts for the presence within the city's walls of a considerable section of the population; for the residents of Manhattan are to a large extent strangers who have pulled up stakes somewhere and come to town, seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or less grail. The capacity to make such dubious gifts is a mysterious quality of New York. It can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck. No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.

--E. B. White

Because it is winter and everything in the world is hungry

Williams Creek


What lay on the road was no mere handful of snake. It was 
the copperhead at last, golden under the street lamp. I hope 
to see everything in this world before I die. I knelt on the 
road and stared. Its head was wedge-shaped and fell back to 
the unexpected slimness of neck. The body itself was thick, 
tense, electric. Clearly this wasn¹t black snake looking down 
from the limbs of a tree, or green snake, or the garter, whiz-
zing over the rocks. Where these had, oh, such shyness, this 
one had none. When I moved a little, it turned and clamped 
its eyes on mine; then it jerked toward me. I jumped back 
and watched as it flowed on across the road and down into 
the dark. My heart was pounding. I stood a while, listening 
to the small sounds of the woods and looking at the stars. 
After excitement we are so restful. When the thumb of fear 
lifts, we are so alive.

--Mary Oliver

To be uninhibitedly mean

It's significant that ugly-truth-tellers are much more common in our fiction than our poetry. Much of our mainstream poetry is constrained by an ethic of sincerity and the unstated wish to be admired (if not admired, liked; if not liked, sympathized with). American poetry still largely believes, as romantics have for a few hundred years, that a poem is straightforward autobiographical testimony to, among other things, the decency of the speaker. And, for all the freedom and "opening up" engendered by Confessionalism, to be uninhibitedly mean, we all know, is itself prohibited. Welcome to Poetry City: hurt someone's feelings--go to jail.

The problem with such civility is that it excludes all kinds of subject matter that cannot be handled without contamination of the handler. American poetry of the last few decades has specialized in empathy, and many extraordinary poems have been written in that spirit--but all that warmth has banished the cold eye of the prosecutor. To some extent, the decay of fierce analytical thinking in our poetry has been an outgrowth of the culture of Nice-ism. 

--Tony Hoagland

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Out of the speedy, buzzing fog

Modern consciousness may indeed be splintered, but it is one function of poetry in our time to fasten it back together--which does not mean to deny its complexity. When poetry can name the parts and position them, when it brings us out of the speedy, buzzing fog that is selfhood and modern life, our sense of being alive is heightened and intensified. How strange it is what when I read a particular poem, which brings the world into focus for me, that I can feel my own self come into focus. I was already part of that world, I know--but the unifying, clarifying impact of the poem delivers me to a deeper, and more conscious state of being-in-the-world. Deeper and better than before, when I was only lost in it. 

--Tony Hoagland

Mysterious not-knowing

"Profession" has always seemed like a misleading, even laughable word for poetry--not just because it suggests that the economy has a Poetry Sector, but also because it suggests that poetry is masterable, that poetry itself is stable, that some persons possess poetry, and that others don't. Though a skilled craftsperson can create a facsimile of a real poem, a skilled reader can spot the counterfeit in a minute, and the word that reader might use to describe the counterfeit might be "professional." The making of poems is so mysteriously tried up with not-knowing that in some sense the poet is a perpetual amateur, a stranger to the art, subject to ineptitude, failure, falsity, mediocrity, and repetitiveness. Even to remember what a poem IS seems impossible for a poet--one suspects that professors, or professionals, rarely have that problem.

--Tony Hoagland