What a Piece of Work

“You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”


The Beatles


Charlie Chaplin

Tony Bennett

“Song for Athene”

John Tavener

Stephen Cleobury & King’s College Choir, Camboridge

“In My Life”


The Beatles

“The Tyger”

John Tavener

Harry Christophers & the Sixteen

“Will the Circle Be Unbroken

A. P. Carter

Gregg Allman


What a Piece of Work


Picture of a woman smoking a cigarette

Publicity photo of Marlene Dietrich for the film Shanghai Express (1932)

Don English; Paramount Pictures



The songs run us through a gamut of human emotions, the fear we often have of showing our feelings, the ability to find bits of joy and happiness in the face of suffering or adversity, the impulse to worship, if not a deity, works of nature or the marvels of the cosmos, the need to reflect on and contemplate our lives and how they are lived, feelings of fear and anxiety, and the desire for community, for friends and family and the need to keep them close even after death by preserving memories and traditions. Part of preserving that community also involves earning and keeping respect. We want those who are close to us to not just like us, but to at some level admire something about us. And this is more than an egotistical desire it is a part of how we earn our place in that community and though that place need not necessarily be earned in the eyes of the community, it does need to be earned in our own eyes. In this sense this admiration is a kind of affirmation.

Portraits are often revealing, like the songs they too capture a gamut of emotions. The portrait of Marlene Dietrich is suggestive. I have not seen the film so I do not know the context of the emotions that are portrayed in the photograph, but there seems to be in her eyes and expression a longing and a yearning. She looks like someone who is troubled and alone. But whatever the context, as a portrait it reveals an inner life, an inner consciousness. Hamlet in one of his madder moments says, “What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!” Is this list of qualities the product of madness or is there reason and method to it? What would his portrait reveal if it were painted at this moment? Many of the characters in this play are at their most profound when they are at their most unreliable. Polonius tells his son, “This above all to thine own self be true.” This from a man who has probably not been true to himself at any moment in the play. He knows how to speak wisely, but he does not know how to act wisely. And those who speak a wisdom they cannot perform are seen as foolish and pompous, and a bit absurd. 


Photograph of a man resting his chin on his arm looking intently

Self Portrait Created for an article for wikipedia on window light photography

Hari Bhagirath



Of course, if we are honest with ourselves we are all of us too much of the time a bit like poor Polonius. Wisdom, like so many things of value, is more easily pronounced than performed. Polonius is also representative of an important office of literature in that it confronts us with a choice. We can sit in judgment on Polonius, and we probably should, or we can take our reading or viewing of the play a step further and reflect on the “Polonius” in ourselves. Reading well often involves personalizing what we read, measuring ourselves against characters, events, and choices that are made. This is not seeing ourselves in the characters but measuring ourselves by the same yardstick we measure these characters. The Guardian is publishing a series of articles by Robert McCrum on the hundred best novels in English (it begins with, “The 100 best novels: No 1 – The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan (1678)” and he is now up to twelve, “The 100 best novels: No 12 – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)“). He at one point in the process stops and asks himself and us, how he/we should go about forming this list (“How to choose the 100 Best novels”). As an English teacher I find the lists and short articles interesting. There is an arbitrary quality to this list, McCrum tells us, for example, that authors like Walter Scott have been left out not because they have been found wanting, but because his knowledge of their work is wanting and he does not feel competent to judge them (which is very likely true of everyone who compiles such lists). But the books he has chosen are varied and interesting and they all raise a number of issues that are meaningful to me as a reader. They are books I have read and continue to read not because they are good for me, they are of course, but that is not why I read them, but because they move me and provoke in me powerful emotions, powerful questions, and important issues. They often confront me with goodness and with its absence.


Portrait of Chinese Chan Buddhist monk

Portrait of Chinese Chan-Buddhist monk Wuzhun Shifan

Chinese artist in the year 1238



An article in the New York Review of Books asks “What Is a Good Life”? I misread the title when I first saw it and thought it was asking, “What is the good life?” A very different question in many ways. The article is about a study that followed a number of Harvard graduates from the classes of 1939 through 1944. The study is the longest running study that has ever been done, or is being done, as it is still in progress. It’s followed 268 graduates from graduation to the present and will continue until the last participant dies, or so the article suggests. Along the way it has incorporated into itself participants from a number of other studies following folks from very different backgrounds. The study has problems but what it wanted to discover is what makes a happy life. The assumptions at the time the study began were that a happy life was defined in terms of prosperity, comfort, success, and leisure. It consisted of a good job, a good marriage, and well behaved children who grew to have good jobs and good marriages as well. One conclusion that was drawn was that those with a modest intelligence (the Harvard folks had better than modest intelligence, but others blended into the study at a later date were of a more modest intelligence, at least according to the tests that measure such things) and a good education (who went to college) were more likely to find jobs with comfortable incomes and in the end were more likely to be happy. They were also more likely to be healthier and to live longer.

The article raises many questions about the studies findings, largely because the study lacked a clear focus at the beginning and changed its focus as it progressed. But the question still remains, is leading a good life the same as leading the good life. Do we define a good life in terms of how happy and content we are or do we define it in other ways. Can we have a good life and at the same time be bad people? Does it matter? What does it mean to be “good” and what does it mean to be “bad?” These are questions the study does not seem to consider, though aspects of the study looked at what factors might lead to a life of crime. But what if in order to be fully human or to be fully content as humans we need to know what it means to be good and how goodness is best achieved? How important is an education to living the good life, as opposed to a good life? 


Photograph of men playing cards

Photo – Black and White – Augusto De Luca photographer

Augusto De Luca



Does literature and its study offer us insight into this, does it answer these questions. Lee Siegel thinks, “Fictions lack of practical usefulness is what gives it its special freedom.” (“Should Literature Be Useful”) He says of literature’s ability to arouse and develop empathy, “Yet even if empathy were always the benign, beneficent, socially productive trait it is celebrated as, the argument that producing empathy is literature’s cardinal virtue is a narrowing of literary art, not an exciting new expansion of it.” Though I believe empathy is something we learn from literature, even if we are not particularly good readers, it is not the only thing or even the most important thing to be gotten from reading literature. The freedom that reading can give us is often freedom from our circumstances; it offers us an opportunity to escape, not so that we can avoid the world, but so that we can have time away from it in order to renew our strength and recover the energy we need to confront the challenges it puts in our way. Sometimes we need to leave the world in order to experience what the world ought to be and to reacquaint ourselves with a good and a just society. On the other hand, it can show us what real injustice and tyranny are and in so doing suggest to us that things in our world may not be as bad as we were inclined to believe, stories often rekindle hope and optimism. But as Siegel says, it does many things and no catalog can capture all of them. 


Photograph of a man with a goatee wearing a fedora hat, turtleneck, and an outdoor jacket

Self Portrait

Edward S. Curtis



Charlotte Higgins in an article on The Odyssey The Odyssey: a soldier’s road home,” examines ways that reading can bring healing, in that it suggests that others before us have experienced what we are experiencing and we can than learn from that experience. It is often suggested that old books have little to teach us, that they are boring, uninteresting, and tedious, among other things; but more often they are true and perhaps the greater problem with reading books in school is that students do not have the knowledge or experience that enables them to see that truth. Students often like The Odyssey because it is an adventure and so many strange and unusual things take place. They are carried away by the story without identifying overly much with Odysseus or his struggles on his long voyage home. But, according to Higgins, many soldiers returning from combat have struggled with emotions not unlike those that Odysseus struggles with in the course of his story. There are truths to which we are born with a certain understanding or acquire that understanding early in life. There are other truths we grow into, not that these truths weren’t true before we grew into them, they just were not a conscious part of our lives and experience.


Painting of a young man with a hat

Self Portrait




Edward Short in an article on Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Agony of Spirit,” suggests that there is an ecstasy of language that stimulates the poet in the writing of his poetry and the reader in the reading of it. Hopkins has always fascinated me because no matter what he did he always managed to put himself at odds with those around him. He became a Catholic in a country, England, that did not care much for Catholics, and he not only became a Catholic, but he became a Jesuit, which was the order within the Catholic Church the English liked least. When the Catholic Church sent him to Ireland to teach he supported the English monarchy in a country that was trying to rid itself of the monarch. His poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland”, a poem in which he took great pride, was totally incomprehensible to those within his order who discarded it (the poem is an elegy on the deaths a group of nuns in a shipwreck and was submitted to a Catholic journal for publication). Robert Bridges published Hopkins’ poems as a tribute to his friend who had died, but he did not fully understand the poems or their significance. The article suggests that the poems were Hopkins’ way of studying and learning patience. Poets of many stripes have struggled with their art and the societies in which they lived and the poems are often the working out of this struggle (“The Sedgwick brothers’ top ten facts about William Blake,” “Last Words,” “The Imaginative Man,” “Enigmatic Dickinson Revealed Online,” and “What can WH Auden do for you?”). Hopkins and the poets in these articles captured the struggles of their times in their poems and through their poems we often find the tools we need to confront the troubles of our times and perhaps the inspiration to do for our times what they did for theirs. But so much of life involves struggle and in seeing the struggles of others depicted with such eloquence we often find strength to confront our own. 


Painting of an Asian man with mustache and goatee

Portrait of late Ming scholar-official Ho Bun

Unknonw, perhaps late Ming portrait painter



Reading also brings comfort. Sometimes we read just to nourish the soul and the spirit. Tim Hanningan, “Comfort Reads: Kim by Rudyard Kipling,” writes about how he takes the novel Kim with him wherever he goes and he talks of taking great comfort from this book. He points out others who have taken comfort from this book as well, in particular a prisoner of war during World War II who trusted an informant solely because his name was Kim and that name evoked for the prisoner the novel that meant so much to him. This, obviously, did not work to his advantage but it does suggest the power the written word can have over us. 

Graham Greene in a scene from his novel The Human Factor has his central character, Maurice Castle, use a novel by Anthony Trollope for a “book code.” The character is a double agent within the British Secret Service and Trollope is a novelist whose books could be taken anywhere without arousing suspicion. In describing this scene the narrator tells us that during the Second World War Trollope’s books enjoyed a resurgence of popularity because they captured so well an earlier more peaceful time that the people yearned for in the midst of war. The novels were a kind of “comfort food” for the spirit. Books do not change our reality, the problems still exist, they do not go away, but for a time, in our imaginations, we can go away, our imaginations enable us to recapture a tranquility our circumstances may not permit us to enjoy.

From It’s a Wonderful Life

Frank Capra

Liberty Pictures/RKO Radio Pictures


The film clip gives us a snapshot of George Bailey, an insight into his character. He is waiting to leave a job he did not want to pursue something he has from a very young age yearned to do, to travel, explore, and achieve “great things.” In the scene he is going over with his uncle Billy what he plans to do after his brother, Harry, gets off the train to take over the running of the family business, which will free George to pursue his dreams. He learns, though, that Harry is not going to take over the firm. He will take over the firm if George insists on it, but it is clear that Harry has other plans. As George Baily walks from the train to where his brother’s new bride is waiting we see the inner struggle and as he approaches his brother’s bride we see a hint of a smile and realize he has made his choice, he will stay and let his brother go. It is this kinetic portraiture, the visual images, that communicate this decision, not a word is spoken. Does he make the right choice? In the context of the film he does, but why is this the right choice? Why, in some situations, is the right thing giving up our dream to let others pursue theirs? What makes George Bailey’s decision the right decision? Would we as viewers of the film believing that to be the right decision, make a similar choice if we found ourselves in a similar circumstance? 

Jim tells Huck in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that most “signs” point to bad things that are going to happen so that we can prepare ourselves for the troubles that are approaching, but that we do not need signs to tell us about the good things, they do not require much in the way of preparation, we just need to be able to enjoy our good fortune. Perhaps sacrifice is a bit like this as well. Stories can prepare us for times when sacrifice is required so that when the time comes we are ready for it, we have thought about our responsibilities and made our decisions before we are actually called upon to make those decisions. But the question still remains, why must I sacrifice? It would not be immoral if George said to his brother “I put in my time, now it’s your turn.” I do not think he would be criticized overly much if he did say so, in fact we might see this outcome as just and fair. But if George had behaved in this way, I think he would have lost stature in our eyes. That is the way with heroes, they do not demand justice for themselves, they do what is the right thing in the unique light of the current circumstances. We look at them and wonder if we share their heroism. We probably want to see ourselves as heroic, but are willing to pay the cost?


Painting of a man contemplating at a table with flowers

Portrait of Dr. Gachet

Vincent Van Gogh



Jeanette Winterson in an article on the fairy tales of Oscar Wilde, “Why we need fairytales: Jeanette Winterson on Oscar Wilde,” sees fairy tales as preparing us for the future. They create for children, and for the adults that read them to children, examples of “reversals of fortune” where characters who have had much suddenly find themselves with very little. They are often the story of Job told in a language that is more accessible to children. Hansel and Gretel lose their mother and with this loss they lose everything else as well. The story ends well for Hansel and Gretel, at least it does in the versions we are most familiar with, though I do not think this is true for all versions. For Winterson, Wilde in these stories “prophesied” his coming hardships. But fairy tales often foretell all of our hardships. The world is not fair, God has given the evil one permission for a season to do us harm and we have to come to grips with why has this been permitted to happen. We all have moments when we feel terribly alone when we have not only not done wrong; we have made all the right choices.”  (Another article on children’s stories, “How Children’s Books Thrived Under Stalin,” addresses a more subversive aspect of children’s literature.)


Painting of blacksmith posing in front of his forge

Pat Lyon at the Forge

John Nagle



Reading fills an important role in our lives. As Siegel says often the only role we need to give our attention to is literature’s ability to offer us a kind of freedom. If we approach stories for the liberty they offer, we will get all the rest they have to offer for taking the journey. As a teacher I often struggle on the one hand, with the importance of students reading anything at all for the opportunities the reading gives to young readers. On the other I struggle with the need to help students learn to unravel difficult language so they can explore the depths of what they read and grow in their appreciation of the majesty of language and all of which it is capable. It is also impossible to find stories that every student will enjoy as every student’s tastes, as are every teacher’s, are different. I know most of my students read; I see them with books they are reading (often reading these books when they should be reading other things in class). 


Painting of a man in a tuxedo gesticulating next to a man in an Asian costume shooting an arrow into the sky

Vsevolod Meyerhold

Boris Grigoriev



Neil Gaiman in a recent article, “Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming,” discusses the importance of libraries and the reading they foster. He talks of being asked to attend a science fiction conference in China. He is puzzled by this because the government had in the past done all they could to discourage the reading of science fiction. He was told when he asked about this, that they found though their engineers were very good at building things others designed, they were not very good at designing. So they asked all those folks that did the designing in America about what inspired them. The Chinese found that every one of them began by reading science fiction and continued to read science fiction. So the Chinese thought there might be something to this and changed their position. 

We live in an age that does not attribute much value to literature, to art, or to music, or the Humanities in general. But they do teach us important things the more practical disciplines like math and science, cannot. It is easy in this environment for students to dismiss literature that demands a lot from them without, on the surface of things as they understand them, promising much in return. But if a goal of our education is to grow in maturity and judgment, there needs to be some focus on what the Humanities can teach us in this regard. The practical arts can teach us how to make a lot of money, but they cannot teach us why making money is important or if it is important. 

Too many are not interested in a good education, they are interested in a good paycheck and they see a good education as a route to a good paycheck. It is not the education they want it is the money, and who can blame them; it is money that gets us what we value, it is money that is the surest way to prosperity, power and comfort. An education that makes us thoughtful and reflective, that reinforces values of love of neighbor and community, of liberty and justice often stands in the way of accumulating wealth. Those for whom the object of a good education is a measure of wisdom are often at a disadvantage in the pursuit of success, as it is understood by the world at large. But, perhaps, also, if that measure of wisdom has been attained the pursuit of that kind of success losses its savor.


Painting of a ballerina dancing

Swan Princess (Portrait of Nadezhda Zabela-Vrubel)

Mikhail Vrubel




Don McLean

Country Life

Delaney and Bonnie




Portrait of a man with a hat with hands clasped together

Portrait of Patience Escalier

Vincent van Gogh



There were a number of articles recently on poets. This is perhaps not surprising considering that April is National Poetry Month. There were articles on well known poets, W. H, Auden, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and John Keats (“National Poetry Month: W. H. Auden,” “Working Girl,” and “Poet of Loss”) The Auden article was really a weeklong celebration of the poet’s work. There were also articles on less well known poets, Edward Thomas and R. S. Thomas (“Chapter and Verse: The Unknown Prose of a Great Poet” and “RS Thomas: Serial Obsessive by M Wynn Thomas – review”). These poets, with the possible exception of Auden and Millay, were known largely for their poems on nature and on those that worked in the natural world. One of R. S. Thomas’ early poems focuses on a farmer (or perhaps a fictionalized accumulation of a number of local farmers) from the rural parish he served as an Anglican priest:

A Peasant

Iago Prytherch his name, though, be it allowed,

Just an ordinary man of the bald Welsh hills,

Who pens a few sheep in a gap of cloud.

Docking mangels, chipping the green skin

From the yellow bones with a half-witted grin

Of satisfaction, or churning the crude earth

To a stiff sea of clods that glint in the wind—

So are his days spent, his spittled mirth

Rarer than the sun that cracks the cheeks

Of the gaunt sky perhaps once in a week.

And then at night see him fixed in his chair

Motionless, except when he leans to gob in the fire.

There is something frightening in the vacancy of his mind.

His clothes, sour with years of sweat

And animal contact, shock the refined,

But affected, sense with their stark naturalness.

Yet this is your prototype, who, season by season

Against siege of rain and the wind’s attrition,

Preserves his stock, an impregnable fortress

Not to be stormed, even in death’s confusion.

Remember him, then, for he, too, is a winner of wars,

Enduring like a tree under the curious stars.

The poem celebrates the simplicity of the peasant’s life. It also celebrates those that work the land and live in communion with the land. The painting by Van Gogh captures a French peasant (a gardener and shepherd) who, according to Wikipedia, Van Gogh painted because the farmer’s features resembled those of his father. There is a similarity of feeling between the landscapes of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters like Van Gogh and the poems of poets whose lyrics revolve around the natural world, the woods and the wilds, like R. S. Thomas’. 

Just as the paintings capture the painters’ impressions of the land rather than a photographic representation of the land, so also do these poets capture the impressions the land makes upon them more than the actual appearance of the land. The song by Don McLean celebrates these features, this Romantic view of nature, in the paintings of Vincent van Gogh. The song by Delaney and Bonnie captures also captures a romantic view of nature and life in the country, though perhaps this romanticized view is some distance from the reality as captured in the R. S. Thomas poem. 


Painting of a landscaape with river and trees and mountains and an archway

A wooded river landscape with a man and his dog by a waterfall, ruins beyond

George Barrett, Sr.



The paintings above and below are Romantic era paintings (or just before) that, though they are more realistic than those of the Impressionists, capture the wilderness in ways that evoke the poets of that era. In the painting above the ruin is evocative of Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey.” The ruin in the painting suggests Nature’s power and its ability to reclaim its own as that which man has built is slowly broken down into its natural elements. What is often overlooked in these poems and paintings are the more dangerous aspects of this power nature has over us and the world in which we live. Aside from what may lurk in these woods there is also the dangers of the terrain itself. And though the likelihood of getting lost in the woods has diminished over time, other dangers such as bogs and rough water are still a threat. Wordsworth in one section of The Prelude addresses this ambivalence between nature’s beauty and nature’s dangerous power:

I fixed my view

Upon the summit of a craggy ridge,

The horizon’s utmost boundary; for above

Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.

She was an elfin pinnace;’ lustily

I dipped my oars into the silent lake,

And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat 

Went heaving through the water like a swan; 

When, from behind that craggy steep till then 

The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge, 

As if with voluntary power instinct 

Upreared its bead. I struck and struck again, 

And growing still in stature the grim shape 

Towered up between me and the stars, and still, 

For so it seemed, with purpose of its own 

And measured motion like a living thing, 

Strode after me.  

What at first, in its beauty, filled the young poet with awe (he is describing a childhood experience) suddenly fills him with fear. It is for Wordsworth a transformational experience. In reflecting on this event he begins to form an attitude towards nature that recognizes both its sublime beauty and its great power. 

Where the painting above hints at the power of nature that Wordsworth suggests, the painting below by Gainsborough captures the more benign aspects of nature, its pleasant beauty and the rustics going about their business. The gathering clouds may suggest the ability of nature to interrupt our plans for leisure and recreation, but it is in the distance and far removed and more of an inconvenience than a threat.


A painting of a road by a bluff with water and cattle

Landscape with the Village Cornard

Thomas Gainsborough



Unlike the Impressionists, the “impressions” in these paintings come through the choice of subject and not as much in the style in which that subject is painted. Gainsborough and Barrett are realistic painters, they are trying to capture a more “photographic” kind of image, but the subjects of these paintings communicate attitudes, “impressions” of the natural world. It may even be that the scenes themselves never existed as they are painted but that they were largely composed in the imagination of the painters. Where the Impressionists painted what they saw but did not paint what they saw as they saw it, these painters paint what they do not see, but paint it as it would look if they had seen it. 


Painting of a mill during the day time

The Old Mill

Vincent van Gogh



The paintings above and below are both of “old mills.” Both painters are Dutchmen separated by about two hundred years of history. Both paintings capture an attitude toward the natural world. The brush strokes in the Van Gogh painting seem to suggest that nature is in motion, that it is visibly alive. In the Rembrandt painting the dirt, the stones, and the trees are sedentary and firmly planted in place, but the clouds and the water also suggest a world in motion. Both paintings depict people going about their business. Van Gogh’s mill looks to be a different kind of mill from Rembrandt’s and it may be from a different country as well. Van Gogh’s mill may be like the one Edward Thomas writes of in his poem “The Mill Water:”


The Mill-Water

ONLY the sound remains

Of the old mill;

Gone is the wheel;

On the prone roof and walls the nettle reigns.


Water that toils no more

Dangles white locks

And, falling, mocks

The music of the mill-wheel’s busy roar.


Pretty to see, by day

Its sound is naught

Compared with thought

And talk and noise of labour and of play.


Night makes the difference.

In calm moonlight,

Gloom infinite,

The sound comes surging in upon the sense:


Solitude, company,–

When it is night,–

Grief or delight

By it must haunted or concluded be.


Often the silentness

Has but this one


Wherever one creeps in the other is:


Sometimes a thought is drowned

By it, sometimes

Out of it climbs;

All thoughts begin or end upon this sound,


Only the idle foam

Of water falling

Changelessly calling,

Where once men had a work-place and a home.

The poem meditates on an old mill as a ruin, a building that no longer serves the purpose for which it was created and the natural world, Nature, mocks the building as the sound of the rushing water draws our attention to the silence of the old mill’s machinery. Nature lives on and is slowly dismantling that which man has created; Nature is still at work while man’s machinery is silent and, in the words of Coleridge, “the sole unbusy thing.” 


Painting of a mill on a bluff by water at night time

The Mill

Rembrandt van Rijn



Edward Taylor began as a writer of prose, and was best known in his lifetime for his books and essays on the English landscape. After reading some of Taylor’s prose Robert Frost encouraged Taylor to write poetry (Taylor dedicated his first book of poems to Frost). Today Taylor is better known for his poetry than he is for his prose, but he said that much of his poetry was adapted from his prose depictions of the English landscape. I do not know if the “The Mill Water” began as a prose piece or not, but it is not difficult to imagine that it might have. Thomas, like other poets of his generation, was killed in the First World War. Unlike the other war poets, though, none of his poems are about the war; they focus on the natural world, most often, ironically, on the peace and serenity of the natural world.\


Open space with trees and deer at sunset

The Park at Petworth House

J. M. W. Turner



The painting by Turner is of the deer park attached to a country manor house, Petworth House. It captures the world of the deer park in its natural beauty at sunset (it might be sunrise, but to me it “feels” like I am looking west, though of course it could just as easily be east). Though the focus of the painting is on a man made landscape there is nothing in the painting to identify it as man made and it could easily be mistaken for a “picturesque” scene from nature. Ben Jonson in his poem “To Penshurst” on the other hand focuses on the relationship between the natural world and the world that man has created:


Thou art not, Penshurst, built to envious show,

Of touch or marble; nor canst boast a row

Of polished pillars, or a roof of gold;

Thou hast no lantern, whereof tales are told,

Or stair, or courts; but stand’st an ancient pile,

And, these grudged at, art reverenced the while.

Thou joy’st in better marks, of soil, of air,

Of wood, of water; therein thou art fair.

Thou hast thy walks for health, as well as sport;

Thy mount, to which the dryads do resort,

Where Pan and Bacchus their high feasts have made,

Beneath the broad beech and the chestnut shade;

That taller tree, which of a nut was set

At his great birth where all the Muses met.

There in the writhèd bark are cut the names

Of many a sylvan, taken with his flames;

And thence the ruddy satyrs oft provoke

The lighter fauns to reach thy Lady’s Oak.

Thy copse too, named of Gamage, thou hast there,

That never fails to serve thee seasoned deer

When thou wouldst feast or exercise thy friends.

The lower land, that to the river bends,

Thy sheep, thy bullocks, kine, and calves do feed;

The middle grounds thy mares and horses breed.

There is the “ancient pile” and the “walks for health, as well as sport.” But there is also the deer, sheep, and the river, though there is the suggestion that the natural world has been made to conform to the will of man. In Turner’s painting the opposite seems to be suggested, that the world of man has been made to conform to the will of Nature. Jonson is a part of the Renaissance world, in Turner, on the other hand, we see early hints of what would become the Impressionist style of painting and the influence of the Romantic poets.


Painting of a bridge over a river

Wakefield Bridge and Chantry Chapel

Philip Reinagle



The Romantic poets did not concern themselves, though, entirely with the wilderness. Wordsworth in one of his best known sonnets, “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802” captures the beauty of an urban landscape:


Earth has not anything to show more fair:

Dull would he be of soul who could pass by

A sight so touching in its majesty:

This City now doth, like a garment, wear

The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,

Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie

Open unto the fields, and to the sky;

All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

Never did sun more beautifully steep

In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;

Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

The river glideth at his own sweet will:

Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;

And all that mighty heart is lying still!

The poem juxtaposes the beauty of the wilderness with the beauty of the city. It may just be me, but I think I detect a bit of “tongue in cheek” in the line “All bright and glittering in the smokeless air,” perhaps a nod to the polluted air of what is becoming the industrialized world. On this morning the smoke is not present, but the word “smokeless” suggests this might not be the air’s normal condition. That said, the poem does capture the beauty that can be found in that which humans create; there is the suggestion that we crave beauty and make our structures not just functional but pleasant to look at with a sublimity all their own. In Barrett’s painting above there can be seen in the ruin the outline of what was once a beautiful structure. In the battle between man and nature, nature may ultimately win, but that does not mean that man’s creations do not have a beauty of their own.


Painting of a busy water way with a bridge

Westminster Hall and Bridge

Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Charles Pugin



Suggested in all this is how we come to know and understand the natural world. There is not much (perhaps no) science in these paintings and poems, nothing to suggest how the natural world works and how it “manufactures” beauty. That which humans construct, the buildings, bridges, and other structures are designed and their construction overseen by architects who understand the laws of the natural world that their structures must contend with and, hopefully conquer, but also they have to have an “eye” for the beautiful, for the sublime. The paintings of the two bridges and the surrounding landscapes reveal not just a functional cityscape, but an attempt to create a cityscape that is pleasurable to look at. The buildings are not just boxes and the bridges do more than just span the water. 

The trees that have been planted around the buildings suggest a desire common to most of us to be surrounded not just by our own creations, but by the natural world as well. As human beings we have a desire to reconcile the natural world to our own world, the world we create to live in, that brings elements of the natural environment together with what we have built in a way that fosters community and cooperation. This is perhaps a bit idealized in that there are many within this community that are motivated solely by the products of trade, wealth and its generation, and the exploitation of labor perhaps to make the products of trade more personally profitable. But be that as it may, what we build, and what many of those “industrialists” build, are more than just functional. To be truly “happy,” truly at peace with the world, we desire the presence of the beautiful. This suggests that beauty and its presence in our lives may not always make us better people, but perhaps in contemplating beauty we are confronted with forces larger than ourselves and in ignoring these larger forces we become complicit in our moral deterioration. 


  The Philosophical Breakfast Club

Laura Snyder

TED Talk


The video begins by describing a meeting between two worlds, the world of the poet and the world of the scientist, it in fact tells us how the word “scientist” came to be invented. Where the world of the poet is more philosophical (or so Coleridge thought) and less concerned with the nuts and bolts of how nature works, the scientist is concerned with the running of the natural world. The video suggests that the poet, the philosopher, and the scientist all have the best interest of the human race at heart. It suggests they are all in their own way attracted to the natural world and to natural beauty. The members of the “Philosophical Breakfast Club” believed that science should make the world more understandable and that scientists should not profit from their own corner of the intellectual market place, but that their findings should be made public and available to all for free. Those, like harbor masters, that profited from their specialized knowledge were looked upon with disfavor. The public interest, not to mention public safety, was best served by making this information public and readily available. Then as well as now, there was much talk about who actually pays for this information that serves so well the public interest. The workman is worthy of his hire, and the work must be paid for by someone, and than, like now, the role of the public and private sectors in funding this work that serves the public good was an issue.

Of course poets, philosophers, and painters are not just concerned with the natural world, or only that part of the natural world occupied by rivers, woods, and animals. They also contemplate the human heart and much of the best poetry, art, and philosophy revolves around relationships. Shakespeare in his Sonnet XXIII writes about love, as is expected of a sonnet:


As an unperfect actor on the stage,

Who with his fear is put beside his part,

Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,

Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart;

So I, for fear of trust, forget to say

The perfect ceremony of love’s rite,

And in mine own love’s strength seem to decay,

O’ercharged with burthen of mine own love’s might.

O! let my looks be then the eloquence

And dumb presagers of my speaking breast,

Who plead for love, and look for recompense,

More than that tongue that more hath more express’d.

O! learn to read what silent love hath writ:

To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.

One thing that initially struck me about this sonnet is that it begins with an observation from Shakespeare’s world, the world of the theater. He gives us a picture of a poorly prepared actor struggling with his lack of preparation and with “stage fright.” Anyone who has spent time in the theater is familiar with this sensation. Shakespeare than observes that strong emotions, like rage, when given free reign over us, weaken us. He then speaks of love and how his intense love has made him distrustful of his words and asks his eyes and the silence to speak for him. Poetry, whether it is focused on the natural world or the natural man, gives voice to our emotions, to our insights into the world and into ourselves. Its eloquence proceeds from passion, but as Wordsworth observed, passion that is under the poet’s control. Poetry, and the other arts, gives voice to our passions, but it only succeeds when we are not controlled by our passions. It is perhaps, the most intensely felt and, when done well, the most intensely disciplined acts of human expression.


Painting of  houses on a sandy hill top



Anna King


Still Life with Words

From Under Milkwood

Dylan Thomas


Still Life with Words


Painting of sars and city lights reflected on water

Starry Night over the Rhone

Vincent Van Gogh



There was an article in the Chronicle for Higher Education, “Poetry Makes You Weird,” suggesting that reading poetry affects us in strange ways; it causes us not only to see things in ways we had not considered before, but through these odd ways of looking reveals what is real or some hidden truth about the thing. Poetry opens our eyes to aspects of the world around us that are not easy to see or, perhaps, are just taken for granted and are not consciously seen or heard though they are right in front of us. There is a sense that this is true about all Literature and is part of what makes the study of Literature valuable. 

There were a series of articles recently in The Guardian about “darkness” in literature that illustrates this point. One of these articles, “Darkness in literature: Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas,” looked at the opening lines to Dylan Thomas’ play for voices Under Milk Wood. I have enjoyed this play from the first time I read it (not least because the name of the mythical Welsh town where the play takes place, Llareggub, is “buggerall” spelled backwards, an expression my father was wont to use on comic occasions). The opening lines describe the dark of night in the early hours of the morning.

It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea.

These lines describe the “blackness” in four different ways, “bible-black,” “sloeblack,” “slow, black,” and “crowblack.” Each of the descriptions evokes a different quality of the darkness or gives it a different connotation. The first, “bible-black,” uses the cover color of most Bibles (this may not be as true today as it was in the 1950’s) to suggest to the reader that there is a holy or sacred quality to the darkness. Thomas’ short story “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” concludes, “I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept” that give to the night this same sacred quality. The black leather covers of many family Bibles might also be contained in this image suggesting there is a leathery, dimpled texture to the look and feel of the night and that it has a rough, tactile quality; that the surface of the night is not a smooth surface. 

The second description, “sloeblack,” suggests the darkness of the sea at night has the quality of “sloe” the fruit of the blackthorn bush, a shinny, shimmering blackness, not unlike, perhaps, the color of the water in the painting below. This image also works in conjunction with the third description of darkness, “slow, black.” When spoken from the stage the two sound alike, “sloeblack” and “slow, black” would be almost indistinguishable if it were not for the comma separating “slow” and “black.” So while these descriptions used together suggest on the one hand very different things about the darkness of the sea, the homophonic quality of the sounds of the description lends emphasis to the slowness with which the tides move the water. Of course it is not the water’s blackness that is “slow” but the motion of the water itself, and the slowness of the motion probably contributes to the shimmering quality of the water that is suggested by the color of the fruit. 


Paintnig of a very dark night with the moon behind a cloud, over a river

Moonlit Night on the Dniepr

Arkhip Kuindzhi



The final description, “crowblack,” adds a disturbing quality to the night and to the sea. The crow is probably among the blackest of black birds and so it evokes well the color of the sea in the night. But the crow is also a carrion bird and associated with dead things and evokes death, or more properly in context of the play, foreshadows the role death plays in the play. But there is another quality to the crow, though I do not know if Thomas was aware of this. In many New England folk paintings the crow is a common feature and its connotations in the paintings in which it appears often seem to be positive, though I am at a loss to explain why this is or what the crow represents in these paintings. There are also children’s rhymes in which the crow is good or bad depending on how many crows appear, one for example is bad news, but two mean mirth and five mean riches. 

The “crow” in “crowblack” might also suggest the crowing of the rooster that signifies the break of day, in which case the image might also foreshadow the coming of day. The Encyclopedia of Folk Art mentions the popularity of a crowing rooster as a tattoo among sailors. The Angel Gabriel according to legend heard the cock’s crow as the word of God and the tattoo of the crowing rooster was seen as a way of invoking God’s protection. 

The point of all this, though, is that words are suggestive and poets use words with many of their connotations in mind because they are so suggestive and can take the reader in so many directions at once. As the article referenced above suggests, reading poetry makes us weird because it causes us to see the world in ways that seem strange or even nonsensical to those that do not read poetry or whose eyes are closed to what the poetry suggests. But for those that grasp the insights the world becomes more magical, more mysterious, more wonderful.


Still life painting with a skull on books with watch and quill

Vanitas Still Life

Pieter Claesz



The images in the painting above suggest that this quirky way of looking at life and the way it is lived is not restricted to poetry, but is part of what makes great art great, part of what leads to think and reflect as a result of our encounters with the sublime and the beautiful. In this instance the painting evokes the poetry of Ecclesiastes, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity,” Eurozine published recently a discussion, “Proust Is Important for Everyone,” between Mario Vargas Llosa and Giles Lipovetsky about “High Culture,” the art, literature, and music we learn about in school and pop art, or the “society of the spectacle.” On the one hand high culture is seen as part of what defines a culture and a people, it reveals to us a bit of who we are as members of a certain society or nation. On the other it has often been used by totalitarian regimes as a vehicle to further their attempts at world conquest and the worst kinds of oppression, especially of people who are not a part of the “high culture” in question. But Llosa and Lipovetsky also agree that Literature, books like those that Proust wrote, help define and promulgate democracy, that one reason dictators often begin by burning books is because they want to silence these books and limit their influence. They also agree that the “society of the spectacle” often packages these ideas in ways that are more accessible to the general population. 

So there is a place for enjoying the culture of the day while continuing to be enriched by the culture that has been handed down to us. But with that said, there is a more universal quality to “High Culture” a quality that causes it to outlive its own time and speak through time. That there is value to taking the time to learn how to appreciate and understand this culture because it has proven itself to be durable and that long after the culture of the day has been forgotten this other culture that has followed us through time will continue to wield its influence. Of course it is also difficult to say which aspects of popular culture will be woven into the “High Culture.” Dickens was a popular novelist before he was cultural icon.


Painting of a houses across the street from an open field

Cityscape I

Richard Diebenkorn



Paintings often open up the world in ways similar to poetry. This is often more true of impressionistic and expressionistic paintings in that they often suggest aspects to what is seen that realistic depictions do not, just as the odd and quirky images in poetry open the things they describe in unusual ways. The painting above is of a city; at least that is what the title suggests. But where on one side of the street we see the houses closely packed, as we would expect to see them in the city, on the other we see open fields and suggestions of cultivation and farming. The two sides of the street seem at odds with one another and perhaps they are. Or perhaps something along the lines of Wordsworth’s poem “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802” is being suggested, where the beauty of a London morning is juxtaposed with an English countryside:

Never did sun more beautifully steep

In his first splendor, valley, rock, or hill;

Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

The river glideth at his own sweet will:

Dear God! The very houses seem asleep;

And all that mighty heart is lying still!

The sleeping city is compared to a serene countryside. Just as in the poem, in the painting the two images are on the one hand a stark contrast, but on the other the image of each cause us to see the other differently. The city, usually associated with noise and hurry, is given the tranquility of a quiet pasture, field, or wood. Of course, in the painting something more sinister may be suggested. The shadows cast by the houses fall upon the open field foreshadowing, perhaps, the coming urban sprawl. Wordsworth’s poem describes the city in the morning, but the shadows in the painting, seeming to spread eastward, would suggest the light is coming from a westward, setting sun, evoking the evening, the ending, perhaps, of an era.


Painintg of a ship sailing down a waterway as the sun rises

Chichester Canal

J. M. W. Turner



Paintings that are more realistic in their representations often offer equally revealing insights. In the painting above we see also town and country juxtaposed, though the town is in the distance far from the quiet of the canal. Though, the large ship in the background also evokes the presence of the city, as ships carry cargo from one major world port city to another and the small boat in the foreground is a more pastoral vessel. The painting may suggest that the product of the work done in the quiet countryside finds its way into the hold of the larger more “urban” vessel and that town and country not only touch each other but depend on each other as well. The purpose of a canal was to provide, before trucks, planes, and railroads, a means for transporting goods from one town to the next. There is also a “ghostly” quality to the ship that is shrouded a bit by mist that may suggest the city “haunts” the countryside. Of course it may not be the purpose of the painting to suggest anything, but only to capture a snapshot of a moment, everything else being just the products of the viewers imagination and far from the painters original intent. 

There was an article in Aeon, “The Great Swindle,” that suggests contemporary artists and their art, as well as the critic that give these artists their audience, have betrayed the arts. Roger Scruton, the author of the article, believes these artists and critics are not frauds, but have deceived themselves as effectively as they are deceiving others. He suggests the critics use language in convoluted ways, using many words to say very little; that the language is unnecessarily opaque and that it depends on this opaqueness to give itself the appearance of intellect and depth. As long as this art and criticism is confined to academic circles, the article contends, it does not do much harm as the real work of culture takes place where it is produced in literature, art, and music. The problem for Scruton is that libraries and museum that should know better are being taken in as well; that these academic critics deceive themselves first and then go on to deceive others. He does not see malice in any of this, just poor judgment and bad art, or kitsch. The artists and critics he identifies make “fakeness” the content of their art, that they are not “kitsch” so much as representations of the “kitschiness” of modern culture. It is difficult to know how far this argument can be taken. I agree with Scruton in that I think much in modern art and literature is shallow and “kitschy.” 

But I also know that when I was younger and was first exposed to the contemporary art of my youth it struck me as ugly or offensive, certainly as inartistic. As I have grown and looked at some of this art from my youth I have discovered more to it than I originally thought; Schoenberg and Klee no longer appear as inelegant and artless as I once thought. Some of what appears to us as shallow or lacking art is just the result of our not having trained ourselves to read and listen and observe according to the demands of the work. Scruton addresses this in his article saying there is a difference between the likes of Arnold Schoenberg and the likes of John Cage. This may be true, but I still wonder if the problem isn’t to some degree with me as well; that I need to learn new ways of hearing, reading, and seeing if I am to appreciate that which I do not appreciate at present. Still, Rebecca West in an article written many years ago for The New Republic, “The Duty of Harsh Criticism,” talks about the importance of making critical judgments about the cultural work a nation’s artists produce. That part of keeping a culture alive is the maintaining of a cultural standard.


Please Don’t Take My Air Jordans

Lemon Anderson

TED Talk


The video clip captures the way in which a young poet matured into a young poet. Whatever one thinks of his poetry (I found it moving and disturbing as good poetry often is), what Lemon Anderson has to say about language and the poet’s ability to make words sing is at the heart of poetry and is its lifeblood. He also captures that aspect of poetry that comes alive in performance. Not all poets are as successful at bringing their poems to life as others, but there is a quality to good poetry that depends upon hearing the words spoken and how the spoken words sound together. M. A. Abrams in a recent book, Fourth Dimension of a Poem, addresses this quality in poetry. He names a number of poets he has heard read their work, from T. S. Eliot to Dylan Thomas, who all read very differently but who all brought to life aspects of their poems that are lost when they are read quietly off the page. Eliot is much more subdued in the reading of his poetry than is Thomas. But even though Eliot’s reading does not have the passionate intensity of Thomas’, hearing the words spoken brings them to life and the life of the words infect the reading and gives it life as well. 

Poetry touches me at an emotional level before I begin to understand what it means intellectually. This to me captures the importance of teaching poetry, and all literature works this way to a certain degree. Literature is inherently reflective, it turns us inward, it makes us consider things, at least it does if we read well. Paul Krugman in an article for The Guardian, “Paul Krugman: Asimov’s Foundation novels grounded my economics,” writes about how he was inspired by Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy to study economics. Granted, Asimov is not “High Culture” but it is imaginative literature and it stirred more than the escapist desires that often provoke the consumption of much of popular culture. Neal Stephenson has also written about how the science fiction of the 1930’s to 1950’s inspired many of those that went on to design the rockets and technology that put a man on the moon. Reading literature, even the simplest kinds of stories, teaches the imagination to see what does not yet exist and helps to shape the future.

We use the same skill to read the newspaper that we use to read a poem by Emily Dickinson. We use the same skill to read an instruction manual or a memo at work that we use to read Proust. There is a sense that this is as it should be, because Proust is an instruction manual for life, Proust is a memo to our imagination calling it to wake up and get to work. Dickinson is a newspaper for the soul and spirit; she wakes up what is often dormant inside of us, or affirms it if it is awake. But we only have to learn to read words to read a memo or a manual or a newspaper, we have to learn to read our hearts and spirits and imaginations to read Proust or Dickinson (in addition to growing our vocabularies a bit). 

Reading the newspaper and its cousins makes us knowledgeable, teaches us facts we need to know, so it is important to read such things. But there is more to life than this; there are much more important things in life than this. Knowledge is only as important or as valuable as the work our imaginations give it to do. Both file clerks and poets share a knowledge of the alphabet, but what separates one from the other is what their imaginations can do with what they know.


Man sitting in a boat on the banks of a river contemplating nature

Zhou Maoshu Appreciating Lotuses

Kano Masanobu


A Word or Two, Metaphorically Speaking

Doctor Atomic: “Batter My Heart”

John Adams

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Gerald Finley & Edward Gardner

Rave on John Donne

Van Morrison


A Word or Two, Metaphorically Speaking


Portrait of young man

Self Portrait

Anthony Van Dyck



In the Guardian recently were the first two in a series of articles on the poet John Donne, “John Donne, priest and poet, part 1: love, conscience and martyrdom” and “John Donne, priest and poet, part 2: theologian who played with poetic form.” The articles focus on the intensity of his thought and how seriously he pursued life and the choices life placed in his way. The second of the articles addresses Ben Jonson’s criticism of Donne, that “for not keeping of accent, (he) deserved hanging.” Roz Kaveney, the author of the articles, thinks there is a purpose to this failure, that Donne demonstrated the ability to keep accent very well when he wanted to, but that some things were so serious that the subject had to take precedence over the mechanics and that there is a very deliberate message in this. This message may not have been appreciated as much in his own time as it is in ours and in the time immediately preceding ours, the time of Eliot and the moderns. His poetry was largely ignored for a very long time, but fortunately it was not lost. I remembered finding, shortly after finishing graduate school, a copy of the Grierson edition of Donne’s poetry that preserved the spelling and orthography. I had used this edition when writing my masters thesis on Donne, and I loved the blue bindings and the thick pages of the Oxford edition. Packaging is important.

The music suggests that Donne’s influence is still felt. It blends together two songs, one from an Opera, Dr. Atomic, By John Adams and a folk-rock song by Van Morrison. The Morrison song is not just about Donne, but about poetry, poets, and their influence on the world and how the world changes. Still, these songs suggest the depth and breadth of Donne’s influence. The opera is about the making of the atomic bomb and Adam’s puts the words of Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV into the mouth of Oppenheimer, who oversaw the bomb’s creation. It is a kind of plea for forgiveness. The Morrison song connects Donne to the nuclear age as well, suggesting that, even if he did not foresee this awesomely destructive weapon, he understood what it was in the human heart that could imagine its creation and bring it into the world. The Guardian published another article recently about poetry and contemporary music, “I will show you Arcade Fire in a handful of dust: why pop music loves T. S. Eliot.” This article, too, addresses popular culture and the influence of poetry, T. S. Eliot’s poetry specifically, on contemporary music. For all that is said about the waning influences of “high” culture on “popular” culture there is evidence that the two have more than a passing acquaintance.

The painting above was painted by a contemporary of John Donne’s, Anthony Van Dyck. What intrigues me about the painting is that it almost suggests a style that will not come into fashion for a couple of more centuries. This may just be because it is an early painting by a young artist who has not yet found his true “style.” But when I look at it, the painting, for reason that may not be entirely clear, reminds me of Augustus John’s painting below of Dylan Thomas. There is something in the eyes and hair and, perhaps, the look that seem similar to me. But what I like about it is what I like about Augustus John’s painting, it is not entirely realistic, it is an impression. The painters are treating their subjects in much the same way poets treat theirs. They remind me of the lines from Wallace Stevens’ poem “Man with the Blue Guitar:”

They said, “You have a blue guitar,

You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things as they are

Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

This suggest to me that artists, poets, painters, or whatever the case may be, use the “tools” of their craft to present “reality” in ways that are unique to their vision. Stevens seems to suggest it is not his fault but the fault of “the blue guitar,” the typewriter, pencil, whatever the implement used to shape the work of art may be. Who knows where inspiration comes from, how the words, or the colors, or the shapes find their way from the artists imagination to the canvas, the page, whatever the medium may be. Stevens seems to suggest that he certainly does not understand where it comes from and that the audience will just have to take it, the poem, the song, the painting, on its own terms.


Portrait of a young man with a blue scarf

Dylan Thomas

Augustus John



I think that poets are like painters in that they are not bound to reality, to things as they appear. They both present impressions, abstractions, expressions that capture more than the things themselves. A professor of mine once aid that a lyric poem, unlike a story, does not progress, but circles its object and looks at it from many different angles. Where a story must move on a poem can linger. Often it is with a poem, as with a painting, its ability to capture the common place and imbue with something unusual, something very uncommon, that makes it so appealing. D. H. Lawrence wrote a short poem “The Third Thing:”

Water is H20, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one,

But there is also a third thing, that makes it water

And nobody knows what that is.

The atom locks up two energies

But it is a third thing present which makes it an atom.

There is in most things no matter how common a “third thing” that makes it what it is and that thing is magical, it is mysterious, and it is this third thing that poetry often captures.


A painting of different colored squares on a field of various shades of green and yellow

The Gate

Hans Hofmann



There was a talk given by Will Self, “A Point of View: In Defense of Obscure Words,” about how modern culture is being oversimplified, that we, as a culture, pursue what is quick, what is easy, we are “risk averse” whether that risk is a physical or a mental risk. Stories, poems, paintings, music, any of the arts that reward often require time and energy spent learning how to understand them. The painting is called The Gate but it is not a painting of a gate that we are familiar with, though once we see title we sort of understand the picture a little better. But we have to spend time with it. It may reward this investment of time, it may not, part of this depends on taste, but the meaning is not explicit and it must, like a Wallace Stevens poem, be considered and thought about. Self is concerned because he sees a society that thinks that because something is difficult to understand we need not try to understand it. He tells the story of a teacher who gives away the ending to the novel Great Expectations because knowing the summary of the story is enough and there is no need to bother with the whole of this “indigestible” novel. When I look at where I am asked to go, as a teacher of English, in order to comply with new state standards, it seems that this trivialization of literature and of art has now been legislated.


Impressionist painting of a road with two people walking with stars and a cypress tree

Road with Cypress and Star

Vincent Van Gogh



When I look at a painting like the one above I wonder what people see in it. I see something that is very moving, that touches my emotions in a very real and physical way, it is almost a pain, but a pleasant pain. But is this experience common to all viewers, or many viewers? The colors that are used are “pretty” colors. The people and the landscape have a “cartoonish” quality to them. Is this all that resonates, is this all that people see? I think there is something inherent in the beautiful that is true, that runs deep and that affects people in ways they may not understand. But the truth of the art is real and that even if it is trivialized to sell insurance (I remember an ad put out by Pacific Life where a painted whale morphs through the styles of Van Gogh, Monet, Seurat, Calder, and Picasso, it was an effective ad, but it was selling insurance not art) its truth cannot be suppressed. I think that no matter what is done to marginalize art as long as it is present it will speak to those that experience it. I do not think it is always necessary for my students to enjoy Dickens, Austen, Chaucer, Baldwin, add whatever name works for you, it is only necessary for them to be exposed to these books. The stories will haunt them, they will “not go gentle into that good night” they will “rage, rage, against the dying of the light.” They will live and they will resonate in the unconscious if they are put there. For some the response will be immediate, but for others, the response will come much later. Maybe for some, the art will remain forever silent, but I would like to think that is not so. I do not think it is my job to make others see the light, only to keep the light lit so that when the time comes it can be seen.


Paintinf of a town with buildings and a church steeple

St. Mary’s with Houses and Chimney (Bonn)

August Macke



In this painting we see the modern, chimneys and apartment buildings living side by side with the ancient, the church steeples. The old is forever with us, it does not go away. It is there to remind us that every generation leaves its mark and those that come after have to make their mark in a way that acknowledges what came before. Notice the decorative carving at the top of the chimney that in some ways mirror details in the church spires. Art can remind us that objects can be beautiful and functional at the same time, that there is no reason why the tools we make, the buildings we live in, the cars we drive, cannot do their very necessary jobs and be esthetically pleasing at the same time. If you ever visit Edward Gorey’s house, you will notice he was intrigued with different kinds of pliers and they are sprinkled throughout the house like little alligators watching over things. There was something about their form that was beautiful to Gorey. We are not better people because we develop artistic sensibilities, because we appreciate what is beautiful and desire to fill our world with beauty, but as Kaveney says of Donne, whether we share his beliefs, his faith, it is important to wrestle with the issues he wrestles with, and that something beautiful can come from this engagement. Whatever else may or may not be true, people in ugly surroundings are often depressed and people in beautiful surroundings, though they may not be made happy by these surroundings, find solace in them.


Metaphorically Speaking

James Geary

TED Talk


The film clip discusses the importance of metaphor in our lives. At their heart metaphors are basically poetic, they are impressionist paintings that do not show what something is but what something is like. Often a thing’s name does not tell us much. A hammer is a tool that can be useful or cause harm, depending on how it is used. When the hammer is used metaphorically it is used to reveal something that is true about something else that we cannot see when we look at that something else. Romeo calls Juliet “the sun” because, in the words of a popular song she “lights up” Romeo’s life. But one thing that is often true of metaphors is that the object used for comparison has many facets and often they are not always positive or always negative. The same literal sun that lights up Romeo’s life can burn if he stays to long in its presence, it can be dangerous. So also can love and the beloved. In the play it kills him and her. Often when we think metaphorically we focus on a particular connotation. Romeo is oblivious to the dangers of love; he only sees its light, its beauty (even though he has had recent experience with its unpleasant side). But though Romeo is unaware of the dark side of his metaphor, the audience, perhaps is not, and almost certainly Shakespeare was not.

The value of metaphorical, poetic thought is that it is complex, that it does make demands on our emotions, our thoughts, and our imaginations. That is why we develop our metaphor making skills. All allusions have a metaphoric side to them. When Adams places Donne’s sonnet in his opera he is expecting the audience to recognize the source of the aria, and to, perhaps, be reminded of other sonnets in this cycle, like, perhaps, “Death be not proud.” The audience may also be familiar with other things Donne wrote that the quoted passage may evoke, like “No man is an island” and “Send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee,” from Donne’s “Meditation 17” which is all about how we are all involved in the lives of our neighbors. To think metaphorically is a skill, a skill that must be trained and developed. It is a skill that enables us to see beneath the surface of things. They require an educated mind; a curious mind. In the jargon of the day, they require “critical thinking skills.” And nothing brings about the death of something important more quickly than by making it into a “catch phrase” used unthoughtfully day by day.

As a literature teacher it is important to me that students experience the exasperation, frustration, and trauma that comes from trying to make sense of complex and layered language; language that does not say explicitly what it has to say, but requires us to explore the caverns that lie beneath its surface. Like many things that are unpleasant, that are frustrating, that are confusing when we first encounter them, literature, poetry, stories, essays, that begin by tormenting us end by healing us, by revealing ourselves to ourselves if we will only mine their depths.


Portrait of young man wearing a dark coat and light blue shirt

W. B. yeats

Augustus John


Whan That Aprill with His Verses Soote

Hubert Parry
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Whan That Aprill with His Verses Soote

Preface to Milton
William Blake

April is National Poetry Month. For students across America made to study poetry (or at least certain poems) against their will this might also make April the cruelest month. Of course for poetry to be properly appreciated it needs to be not so much studied as contemplated, reflected upon in the context of our lives and how they are lived. In studying poetry the focus often shifts from the passions that were aroused in the poet and which the poet is in turn trying to arouse in the reader to more academic concerns that, though they are important and should be considered, are beside the point. There was a recent article by Sven Birkerts in Lapham’s Quarterly on “idleness, “The Mother of Possibility”, in which he says,

“On a similar track, I wonder about childhood itself. I worry that in our zeal to plan out and fill up our children’s lives with lessons, play dates, CV-building activities we are stripping them of the chance to experience untrammeled idleness. The mind alert but not shunted along a set track, the impulses not pegged to any productivity. The motionless bobber, the hand trailing in the water, the shifting shapes of the clouds overhead. Idleness is the mother of possibility, which is as much as necessity the mother of inventiveness. Now that our technologies so adeptly bridge the old divide between industriousness and relaxation, work and play, either through oscillation or else a kind of merging, everything being merely digits put to different uses, we ought to ask if we aren’t selling off the site of our greatest possible happiness. ‘In wildness is the preservation of the world,’ wrote Thoreau. In idleness, the corollary maxim might run, is the salvaging of the inner life.”

There is a sense in which poetry was created to feed idleness. It will not be understood quickly and does not make many concessions to multi-tasking. It wants our undivided attention; it wants to force upon us a “Sabbath rest” that invigorates and nourishes our consciousness. What well written poetry does more often than it does anything else is change the way we see things; it enables us to see more clearly and deeply its object.

The song that began this is a poem by William Blake set to music. The illustration at the top of the page is Blake’s engraving designed as a visual accompaniment to the poem’s language. The song and the engraving underscore both the musicality of the poem’s language and vividness of its imagery and what is true of this poem is true of many, perhaps most poems; to be fully appreciated they should be heard and allowed to paint their pictures in the hearers imagination. Poems are more than words on a page. And where it is true that all written language is more than words on a page, poetry often becomes more incomprehensible the more it is reduced to the words that form the sum of its parts. Where a novel or an essay is using language to tell a story or communicate an idea, poetry is often using language to evoke, suggest, or point to something beyond itself and in this sense paying too much attention to the words themselves obscures what the words are trying to do.

Buttermere Lake, with Park of Cromackwater, Cumberland, a Shower
J. M. W. Turner

In many ways poetry and painting are alike. The painting above is an impressionist landscape by J. M. W. Turner. It creates an image of water, mountains, rocks, vegetation, and sky. There is a boat in the water and one or two people in the boat. It provokes in the viewer an emotional response to the natural world and to its beauty and wildness. The images in the painting are not unlike those found in the opening lines of William Wordsworth’s poem “Tintern Abbey”

Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a sweet inland murmur
. — Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
Which on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky
The day is come when I again repose
Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which, at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Among the woods and copses lose themselves,
Nor, with their green and simple hue, disturb
The wild green landscape. Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild; these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door; and wreathes of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees,
With some uncertain notice, as might seem,
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
Or of some hermit’s cave, where by his fire
The hermit sits alone.

There is not a one to one correlation; not everything in the painting is in the poem and not everything in the poem is in the painting but they both evoke a similar landscape and arouse similar emotions. The language of the poem is familiar and transparent; its meanings are not hidden.

The Magpie
Claude Monet

Not all poetry, though, is as easy to follow. The painting evokes the winter landscape and the emotions winter often brings. The poem “the Snow Man” by Wallace Stevens evokes similar emotions, though the language is less transparent and not so easily understood.

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

There is found in both the painting and the poem frost and the boughs of trees and snow to surround the listener. But there are meanings to the poem beyond what the eye can see and the ear can hear. The language of the poem conceals meanings beneath the snow it captures that the painting does not. Or perhaps it does, perhaps it takes a mind of winter and an ear attuned to the sounds of winter to appreciate the painting as fully as Monet would wish.

Oscar Wilde said, “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.” I am not sure what Wilde meant by this, but it suggests to me that first impressions, those impressions that attract us to something are taken in through the senses. There is something I can see in the poem and the painting that attracts my attention even though I do not fully understand what I see. There is a mystery to be unraveled but the mystery is suggested by what appears on the surface of the canvas and the surface of the language. The first impression is “superficial” but it need not be “shallow.” The depth of that impression is determined by how deeply I pursue the mysteries the surfaces of the canvas and the language evoke.

Rogier Van Der Heide
TED Talk

The video clip suggests another aspect of this mystery of first impressions, of the play of light upon surfaces to create beauty. Using terms like “light” and “darkness” often suggests to us metaphorically “good” and “evil.” But that is not necessarily what is being suggested so much as the need for contrast in order for any surface to be fully appreciated. Robert Browning suggests this in the closing lines of his poem “Home Thoughts from Abroad,” when he says, “And though the fields look rough with hoary dew, / All will be gay when noontide wakes anew / The buttercups, the little children’s dower / – Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!” He is contrasting England’s less sunny landscape with the overly bright “gaudy” landscape of Italy. As is seen in the video when Van Der Heide compares brightly, uniformly lit spaces with those that are less uniformly lit. And even in his examples of cityscapes and of the planet viewed at night from space there is beauty, even though the light is not being used efficiently, in these images that contrast light and dark.

It might be argued that the beauty in a typical Ansel Adams photograph, or any black and white photograph, is created entirely by the contrasting of light colors with dark colors. But more importantly for me and what I am trying to say is what this suggests about poetry. The poems that often resonate the most, touch the reader the most are those that contrast effectively the expected with the unexpected; “the nothing that is not there” with “the nothing that is.” The line is a surprise and it delights us and it delights itself in keeping its secrets close.

The Tyger
William Blake

This element of surprise is also seen in the poem “The Tyger” by William Blake. The surprise begins with the engraving Blake made to illustrate the poem, especially the engraving of the “tyger.” The tyger in the poem is a terrifying creature and though we may not be entirely sure what Blake means in this poem we are entirely sure we would not like to meet this tyger. The poem evokes something more akin to the tiger in the painting below than the “stuffed animal” suggested by Blake’s illustration. And that is part of the surprise. We see from the contrast of the tyger with the lamb a suggestion that this wilder beast is a being equated with the devil as it is contrasted with that tamer beast “the lamb of God.” Perhaps what Blake means to suggest is that evil resides only in our minds and that the world exists in contrasts of light and dark and that neither is “bad” and that both are necessary; that, as Pope suggests in his “Essay on Man” “whatever is, is right.” Or perhaps Blake is suggesting something far more subtle, that evil often appears to us in the guise of innocence and that because we expect the face of evil to terrify us, we do not recognize it when it makes us smile.

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies,
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare sieze the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!)
Henri Rousseau

How necessary is poetry to life? Can we get along without it? Plato seemed to think so and would have banished poets, he suggests that they lie, distort, and create discontent within a society. His pupil Aristotle felt otherwise. Many avoid poets, not for the reasons Plato suggests but because poetry has gotten a reputation for being difficult to understand requiring too much work to offer any real pleasure. But to those that read poetry and enjoy it the pleasure lies in working things out grappling with the meanings the poems often conceal. But this is often true with life in general. What is easy is often boring; what comes without effort rarely satisfies. There is something in the poem that enchants us and it is this sublime enchantment that the reader and the writer of poetry seek. I think it is this enchantment that we all seek.


Life in Miniature, or Making Much of Very Little

From Light Over Water: Part III
John Adams

Life in Miniature, or Making Much of Very Little

Paris Metro sign Image
Photograph by ChrisO

The music of John Adams has always aspired, or so it seems to me, to do a lot with very little. There is not much variety in its instrumentation or in its use of the musical scale, but the music has succeeded over many years to draw listeners into the worlds that it creates. I will sometimes give my students an exercise where I ask them to write me a three or four page paper on the Ezra Pound poem “In a Station of the Metro.” The poem is short:

THE apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

It is an imagist poem intended to suggest a Japanese haiku. I suppose a student could manage a page and a half or so on background information concerning the imagist movement in poetry and the haiku as a poetic form. And that is the point of the exercise; in order to write a lot about a poem this short it is necessary to say something about background and influences. But there are other things that could be done as well. What is suggested by the word “apparition”? What is the “Metro” and why make the metro station the subject of the poem? What does the last line suggest? The Wikipedia article on this poem suggests that Pound is playing with the sonnet because the first line has eight words and the second line has six, mirroring the sonnet form of fourteen lines with a turn between the first eight lines and the final six lines. The point of the exercise is that often quite a lot of meaningful stuff can be said about a poem of two lines and a mere fourteen words.

The Paris Metro itself is something of a story in “smallness” or at least short distances. Every building, or so the Paris promotional blurb suggests, is 500 meters from a metro station, meaning that everyone in Paris is within walking distance of a subway station. Being such a convenient rapid transit system it has always attracted a large ridership. And perhaps these riders are the “petals” on the “black bough” and the ghosts that haunt the Metro. The Metro signs, as seen in the photograph above and other aspects of the stations are done in the “Art Deco” style of the time in which it was built. Perhaps this too was something Pound found attractive.

The Shaikh al-Islam Discoursing to an Audience: Page from a dispersed Divan of Mahmud cAbd al-Baki, 1590–95; OttomanIraq (Baghdad)Ink, colors, and gold on paperH. 10 1/4 in. (26 cm), W. 6 in. (15.2 cm)
Gift of George D. Pratt, 1925 (25.83.9)

The painting above and the carving in ivory below point out other ways in which smallness can be beautiful and deeply evocative. Each of these works is rich in symbolism, and imagery. They both tell stories that the viewer can follow even if they do not have access to a written text. Many of the miniatures painted by Christian artists to fill books of hours, early prayer books, told the story of the accompanying text. The paintings often served a purpose not unlike the illustrations that make up comic books or graphic novels, to tell visually the story that is told in the written text, though in comics and graphic novels the text and the images share the narrative burden as opposed to each telling the same story in a different medium, as is the case with a conventional book of hours. But what I find attractive is how so much meaning is gotten into such a condensed space.

The painting above is an Islamic miniature, a style of painting popular in Persia in the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries. What is intriguing about these paintings, at least to me, is that they come from a culture that eschews representational art, seeing it as being a bit idolatrous. The artwork found in a Mosque, for example, is non-representational and of a highly geometric quality. In fact, if we look at the interior decorating that is captured in the painting we notice that it is geometric and conforms to our cultural expectations. But then art should surprise us and do the unexpected.

Panel with the Evangelist Mark and His Symbol, carved 1000–1100Ottonian (probably Cologne, Germany)
IvoryOverall 5 1/2 x 4 1/4 x 5/16 in. (13.9 x 10.8 x 0.8 cm)
Inscribed in Latin: [I am] the voice of one crying [in the wilderness] (Mark 1:3)
Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917 (17.190.36)

It is often the little things that matter most in our daily interactions with one another. It is often enough to be kind and courteous which comes at no real cost to us, though they may not be in practice “little” things. There was a review of a number of books on etiquette, “Can’t We All Just Get Along?”, in this week’s Washington Post. The reviewer did not really like any of the books that he looked at and came to the conclusion that those most in need of reading them were the least likely to give them a look. This is no doubt true. Courtesy requires a bit of selflessness, a conscious awareness of those around us and their worth as fellow human beings. Discourtesy is, among other things, a sign of self-absorption, though it may just be a temporary lapse due to a poor night’s sleep or something. Those that are insolent in their treatment of their neighbors probably approach their neighbors, at best, with indifference. Sometimes the little things require more than some people are capable of giving.

My Dinner with Andre
Louis Malle
Saga Productions

The film is a “small” film in the sense that all the action takes place around a dinner table in a restaurant. The two characters in the film are two New York writer/actors Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory. The movie is a conversation about the world and where it is heading. This part of the film focuses on boredom and its consequences. Boredom puts us into a stupor where we will agree to most anything, especially if it promises momentary relief from the boredom. In some ways it seems prophetic, the film was made in the early 1980’s, though it may just be rehashing old ideas in a new medium.

There is much in the film that gives a sophisticated spin to aspects of the “hippie” philosophy and much that is probably a bit naïve. But it is certainly true that the film is difficult to enjoy for a person who is not excited by ideas even if the ideas are beginning to show their age a bit. There is no spectacle, there are not really any raised voices or raised fists. The two men are friends and they are enjoying each other’s company and the conversation, though there may be an undercurrent of competition, an effort on the part of each to dominate the conversation, as Andre Gregory does in this brief clip. But it is a friendly competition and each can be seen to be taking the other very seriously.

Rosary Bead, early 16th century
South Netherlandish (Brabant)
Diam. 2 1/16 in. (5.2 cm)
Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917 (17.190.475)


Spectacle can overwhelm us with the power of its images and the force with which it assails the senses. Miniatures surprise by how much is crammed into a small space; it is spectacle of a different kind. The rosary bead above is only two and a half inches in diameter and yet it contains the heavens and the earth. In a world of super sizes the miniature may fail to impress, many may not take the time necessary to see the detail that is present in the carving. Impressed or not, there is much that can be said about this little bead and all the images and symbols that it contains. The bead is part of a string of beads that are intended to aid in prayer. And prayer, if nothing else, takes us out of ourselves and reminds us that there are forces that are greater than we, they may be impersonal forces like those that work in nature to produce evolutionary change or they may be something more powerful and personal, that, of course, depends on the beliefs of each individual looking at the bead.

Watch, ca. 1680
Movement probably by Nicolas Gribelin (French, 1637-1719)
Case: painted enamel on gold; Dial: painted enamel with champlevé gold chapter ring; Movement: gilded brass, steel, partly blued, and silver; Diam. of case 2 3/8 in. (6 cm); Diam of back plate 1 15/16 in. (4.8 cm)
Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917 (17.190.1559)

The workings of a watch must be small and delicate by definition because the watch must be able to fit into a small place, a pocket or a person’s wrist. The details of the watch are intriguing in their design but the wonder of the watch is in the work it does. When manufactured well and maintained well it keeps accurate time as time passes, it was, after all, a watch that enabled European sailors to find latitude at sea precisely because it kept precise time over a great expanse of time. It is usually the little things that separate a great work from a mediocre one. It is the ability to see nuance and subtlety in a poem or a laboratory experiment that separates the true scholar from the dilettante. To see subtlety and nuance, though, the eye and the mind that operates it must be observant and take some delight in its ability to observe the littlest of things.

Chapters and Verses

“Fern Hill”
Dylan Thomas

Chapters and Verses

Dylan Thomas

Augustus John


My first memory of college is of a professor who when he found out I liked poetry took me to the audio-visual center of the college and set me up with a record player and a two disk recording of Dylan Thomas reading his poetry. The poem, “Fern Hill”, that opened things up was on this recording; in fact the record included most of Thomas’ known recordings to that date. I went out afterwards and bought my own copy of the record. It was produced by Caedmon Records, a company that specialized in spoken word recordings.

Years later when I went to England I rode my bicycle from London to Swansea, Wales on a kind of pilgrimage to Thomas’s hometown. I was nearly run over by a student driver in Windsor and had a horrendous climb up a mountain in a coal mining section of South Wales just above Cardiff (I was told later that I should have visited the north of Wales, that the north was much more beautiful). It was an arduous uphill climb but the ride down the other side was a pleasant coast much of the way. But I finally made it to Swansea and the seashore. I went into the local bookshop and bought a copy of Thomas’s poetry so that I would have an edition that came from his hometown.

T. S. Eliot

Wyndham Lewis


This same professor later checked out recordings of T. S. Eliot reading his poetry and he also gave me my first copy of Eliot’s poetry, a paperback book with a yellow cover that included most of Eliot’s major poems. The critic Edmund Wilson was quoted on the cover of the record as saying no one read poetry better than Eliot. After listening to the recording I thought Edmund Wilson could not have listened to many poets. In any event the recording did not impress me, though I have always enjoyed Eliot’s poetry. What did impressed me was the time the professor took with me and how he cultivated and fed my interest in poetry. I still have the yellow paperback copy of the poems.

I remember the first poem that I read that captured me. I do not know if it is a very good poem, it is often anthologized and it was in my twelfth grade English textbook. It is John Masefield’s “Sea Fever”. I still teach it when I get a class of seniors and I tell them that it is Masefield’s fault I devote as much time to poetry as I do in the classes I teach. I also tell them that I am often moved by poems I do not understand, that the poem makes me feel something but it is difficult to pin down why it makes me feel as it does. I often cannot point to specific passages and explain the meaning of the words in a way that clarifies the feelings evoked by the poem. This is not always a bad thing.

So what is it about poetry that moves people? It never sells as well as fiction, but it does maintain an audience over the years. Bookstores still set aside a section for poetry. People still write poetry. Most of it may come to us through other channels like radio and popular music, but it is always present. And even when it is not highly valued there seems to be an aura about it that leads some to cultivate the “image” of being a poet. There are some that say Yeats wanted to be thought of as a poet before he worked seriously at becoming a poet.

W. B. Yeats

Augustus John


Yeats also represents the power that poetry can wield over a culture. His poems captured the turmoil that produced the emergence of an Irish state. But he did it in a way that speaks to cultures in tumult to this day. He also speaks to those trying to age gracefully and to those who are in love, as well as to the mythology of his culture and of others cultures and what that mythology has to say us about how to live our lives. This is what poets do. In his poem “Lapis Lazuli” he talks about the poets capacity for gaiety. He speaks of Hamlet and of Lear who suffered greatly but whose suffering was transfigured by the gaiety of the poems they recite in their few hours upon the stage.

All perform their tragic play,
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That’s Ophelia, that Cordelia;
Yet they, should the last scene be there,
The great stage curtain about to drop,
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep.
They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.
All men have aimed at, found and lost;
Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:
Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.
Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages,
And all the drop-scenes drop at once
Upon a hundred thousand stages,
It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce. (lines 9-24)

Even when the poet is sad there is a celebration somewhere in the language that they use. No matter how tragic the scene, the tragedies growth is stunted by something the poet brings to the event.

Poetry often does not translate well because there is in it a marriage of a specific language to a specific cultural or human experience that often gets lost in translation. The music of the poems is in the words that are used and it is in part the music that awakens the emotions. The ideas that are contained in a poem are often easily captured in translation but the ways the words talk to each other in the poem are often difficult to capture. There was an article in the New York Times Review of Books a few weeks back that looked at how different translators put the words of the Greek tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides into English. It was a review of a translation of A House of Atreus done by the poet Anne Carson.

In comparing Carson’s translation with that of other poets and translators there is a discussion of translation and how it is most effectively done. The translators of these plays struggled with the language employed by the original and the language that would most effectively reach a 21st century English speaking audience. All versions had their strengths and shortcomings and none fully succeeds. Perhaps the poetry is a bit like an incantation and it is not enough to get the meanings right but for the spell to work the charm must be spoken in its original language. It is not the ideas that awaken the spirits but something that sings from within the original words.

The Death of Chatterton
Henry Wallis

This image of Thomas Chatterton is the stereotype that many carry of the Romantic poet, a bit of tragedy and a noble gesture in the face of a world that does not understand. But one of 20th century America’s finest poets was an insurance salesman, as was one of its finest composers. In the poems of Wallace Stevens it is impossible to read for meaning the way we read an essay or a story. There are images of snowmen, of boats in a harbor in Key West, of cigar rollers and emperors of ice cream. It is very difficult to read the words and find a meaning. But often a poem moves us long before we understand it.

I was moved by The Waste Land the first time I read it, but to this day I do not know precisely what it means. I know mostly how it makes me feel and how the images and symbols and other tricks of language help to shape that emotion. But it is not like “The Gettysburg Address” where a word can be seen to mean a specific thing and to contribute a specific idea to an overarching argument. The mind plays a part in untangling the mystery in a poem but in most cases the mind must listen to the heart if it is to find meaning.

“Night Driving”
Ad by Volkswagen
Richard Burton reading from Dylan Thomas’ play for voices Under Milkwood

That poetry can move people to do things that they would not do if they were thinking clearly is attested to by this ad. It uses the poetry of Dylan Thomas to sell automobiles. I do not know how successful the ad campaign was, but the ad itself has a beauty to it that is enhanced by the power of Dylan Thomas’ language. Poetry often wins people over and the poet has a power. The skaldic poet Egil Skallagrimsson wrote a poem in praise of a king he despised in order to escape execution. The poem was so finely done the king had no choice but to let Egil go. Once free Egil created a different kind of poem, a curse, that expressed his actual feelings.

This week’s New York Times Review of Books, no doubt because April is poetry month, ran an article on memorizing poetry. The article is titled “Got Poetry” and was written by Jim Holt. At the end of the day the only reason to memorize poetry, according to the author, is because of how it changes the memorizer and brings the poetry to life inside the mind. Reciting a poem from memory is vastly different from reading it off the page. He mentions the suffering that English teachers of his generation inflicted upon students by requiring them to memorize large chunks of poems the students did not really understand. This sort of memorization is rarely fruitful and is often no more successful than requiring students to memorize words for a vocabulary test, once the exercise is finished the memory begins to go blank.

For a poem to live in the imagination it does not really need to be understood, but it needs to be valued and attention needs to be paid to how the poem is working on the imagination. Poetry ought to be an essential part of any curriculum, or so I believe. I think poetry trains the mind and the imagination to work in ways that prose fiction or non-fiction cannot. There are many English teachers who do not agree; that think studying a poem kills the poem. There is truth to this, but it is a statement that is equally true when applied to the teaching of any text and there are some that think the English classroom should focus only on writing and leave the teaching of literature to others.

I think that poetry touches us in ways that other writing does not. Whether the magic resides in the rhythms and meters, in the rhyme, or in the sound of the words themselves I do not know, it probably involves all these things. I think this love of poetry, though, is a relationship that needs to be cultivated; it does not happen of itself. There need to be introductions, a period of liking and friendship and getting acquainted, and then perhaps a betrothal. It is very like a courtship.