thought, speech, writing

A continual negotiation was going on between thought, speech and writing, thought having as a rule the worst of it. Speech was humble and creeping, but wanted too many fine shades and could never come to a satisfactory end. Writing was lordly and regardless. Thought went on in the twilight, and wished the other two might come to terms for ever. But maybe they did not and never will, and perhaps, they never do.

— Edward Thomas, “How I Began” (1913)

all hat, no cattle

T. S. Eliot and his sister Marion, during Eliot’s 1958 visit to the U.S. with his new wife Valerie. At one point in the trip they visited Dallas, where Eliot was named an honorary sherriff and received both a badge and the Stetson he’s sporting here.

John Fuller

This is a really lovely profile of the poet and critic John Fuller, whom I admire greatly in both of his roles, on the occasion of his eightieth birthday. When I was working on my critical edition of Auden’s poem The Age of Anxiety, I of course heavily consulted Fuller’s magisterial commentary on Auden — and then when I was working through the Auden manuscripts at the Harry Ransom Humanities Center at the University of Texas, I would sometimes find in the folders and notebooks small handwritten notes by Fuller, correcting some mistaken attribution or pointing out some further piece of information. When working in those archives he had taken the time and trouble to make things easier for those who would come after him — an extraordinary act of scholarly generosity.

And then, when the edition came out, I received a gracious letter from Fuller. In a gently apologetic tone, he explained that, though he had been asked to review the book, he could not, as he had retired from reviewing. But he wanted me to know that he thought I had done an excellent job and that he had learned a good bit about the poem from my introduction and notes. For a few days I was quite swollen with pride about that.

The profile concludes with these lovely lines from Fuller’s new book:

Lucent the points of burning air. To sit
On terraces is to not want to go
So long as the flames glow. No, not one bit.
Reluctance is a struggle: burning slow,
Or hoping to be suddenly relit
Like those renewing birthday candles. Though
Birthdays have been and gone, and few will come
Again, still, think of this: there may be some.

There may be some, indeed; and I hope for Mr. Fuller more than a few. He is a gentleman and a scholar and, of course, a poet.


It has been the fate of many poets to find that the world is at once too much and not enough, to be driven to suicide and madness, or to the creation of hermetic works or mythologies, secondary worlds that overlay or displace the unaccommodating original. We might say that Murray’s Catholic faith serves as a mythology whose scope he sees as requiring no adjustment. What we definitely can say is that the world Murray renders is close at hand even for the remotest reader. It is completely lived in. It is handled, worked, scented, mapped, celebrated, lamented, and its people honoured in both presence and memory. Murray’s way is not the only way, but it is a wonderful achievement.

— Sean O’Brien. My review of Murray’s New Selected Poems is here.

Nietzsche saw art, and Lady Philosophy, as a benign illusion that sustains us in the face of the awful truth, which would cause our eyeballs to protrude from their sockets. My understanding of poetry’s consolatory powers has more in common with the concept of psychoanalysis as a way of fortifying the self through the acceptance of perpetual unrest. Our wills and fates do so contrary run that even our wills are not under our control. I wouldn’t be the first to see psychoanalysis in this sense as a trope for poetry (or vice versa). In Adam Phillips’s psychoanalytical version of Bloom’s pragmatism, a text answers the question “what can it get you out of?” One thing it can get you out of is the false hope that you can escape unrest.  

“No one here gets out alive” is the best case scenario. Consolation is not false comfort. Poetry’s a prophylactic, not a vaccine. One way poetry helps you to accept perpetual unrest, to arm yourself to confront perplexities, is by reminding you that you’re not alone (a not coincidentally common refrain in popular song). This just in: everyone you love will be extinguished, and so will you. But this can be said of every person in the universe. You’re not special. Men and women have been living and dying for a long time, and some of them have left records. Those records won’t eliminate your fears; they might help you to live with them. They might help you raise an army.

Auden was harsh on what he considered attention-seeking. Once when a friend referred to a public occasion when Robert Frost had forgotten his lines, Auden was satirical: Frost hadn’t forgotten his lines — he was just trying to steal the scene. Auden said to me, ‘If you’ve only just written a poem, you don’t forget the lines.’

A voice of his own. The occasion was JFK’s inaugural, where Frost did not exactly forget his lines but seemed to have trouble reading what he had written (though if he needed to read them then he had indeed forgotten a poem he had just composed). He proceeded to recite, instead of his inaugural poem, “The Gift Outright.”

I’m inclined to think that Auden was right, though. Maybe Frost disliked the new poem and preferred the old one. Maybe he liked playing the visually compromised old poet. In any case, the moment provoked a wonderful poem by Richard Wilbur which I’ll post here if I can find it.

Another contentious area for Hill is religion. Much of his verse dramatises a passionate wrestling with faith. Is he a Christian poet? “Well, it’s a tag, isn’t it?” says Hill. “They tag you with a convenient epithet.” He pauses. “I’m reasonably au fait with the Christian documentation. I’m quite able to use theological terms.” He turns to the Rev Alice Goodman: “Can I say that I dislike the Church of England in so many ways without harming you?” he asks. The former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has written appreciatively on the following lines from Canaan: “I say it is not faithless / to stand without faith, keeping open / vigil at the site.” One reason why Williams and other members of the clergy love Hill, Goodman claims, is “because he expresses the things about the Church and about the faith that they felt but could not in their position articulate”. Yet she reminds him he has written sensitively on Vaughan’s and Donne’s work. “Yes,” he replies, “because it’s excellent and fascinating. Not because I suddenly feel that Vaughan is a brother in the faith or that reading Donne converted me to a love of Christ.”

Goodman points out that he kneels at the Church altar on Sundays. Her husband, she says, is “communicant but resentful”.

“When did I say that?” says Hill.

“You didn’t, I just said it now.”

“It sounds like me.”

“I’ve been married to you for some years,” she says drily.

Gjertrud Schnackenberg, “Supernatural Love”

My father at the dictionary stand
Touches the page to fully understand
The lamplit answer, tilting in his hand

His slowly scanning magnifying lens,
A blurry, glistening circle he suspends
Above the word ‘Carnation’. Then he bends

So near his eyes are magnified and blurred,
One finger on the miniature word,
As if he touched a single key and heard

A distant, plucked, infinitesimal string,
“The obligation due to every thing
That’ s smaller than the universe.” I bring

My sewing needle close enough that I
Can watch my father through the needle’s eye,
As through a lens ground for a butterfly

Who peers down flower-hallways toward a room
Shadowed and fathomed as this study’s gloom
Where, as a scholar bends above a tomb

To read what’s buried there, he bends to pore
Over the Latin blossom. I am four,
I spill my pins and needles on the floor

Trying to stitch “Beloved” X by X.
My dangerous, bright needle’s point connects
Myself illiterate to this perfect text

I cannot read. My father puzzles why
It is my habit to identify
Carnations as “Christ’s flowers,” knowing I

Can give no explanation but “Because.”
Word-roots blossom in speechless messages
The way the thread behind my sampler does

Where following each X, I awkward move
My needle through the word whose root is love.
He reads, “A pink variety of Clove,

Carnatio, the Latin, meaning flesh.”
As if the bud’s essential oils brush
Christ’s fragrance through the room, the iron-fresh

Odor carnations have floats up to me,
A drifted, secret, bitter ecstasy,
The stems squeak in my scissors, Child, it’s me,

He turns the page to “Clove” and reads aloud:
“The clove, a spice, dried from a flower-bud.”
Then twice, as if he hasn’t understood,

He reads, “From French, for clou, meaning a nail.”
He gazes, motionless,”Meaning a nail.”
The incarnation blossoms, flesh and nail,

I twist my threads like stems into a knot
And smooth “Beloved”, but my needle caught
Within the threads, Thy blood so dearly bought,

The needle strikes my finger to the bone.
I lift my hand, it is myself I’ve sewn,
The flesh laid bare, the threads of blood my own,

I lift my hand in startled agony
And call upon his name, “Daddy Daddy” —
My father’s hand touches the injury

As lightly as he touched the page before,
Where incarnation bloomed from roots that bore
The flowers I called Christ’s when I was four.

hidden imagery in handwriting

In handwriting the brain is mediated by the drawing hand, in typewriting by the fingers hitting the keyboard, in dictation by the idea of a vocal style, in word processing by touching the keyboard and by the screen’s feedback. The fact seems to be that each of these methods produces a different syntactic result from the same brain. Maybe the crucial element in handwriting is that the hand is simultaneously drawing. I know I’m very conscious of hidden imagery in handwriting—a subtext of a rudimentary picture language. Perhaps that tends to enforce more cooperation from the other side of the brain. And perhaps that extra load of right brain suggestions prompts a different succession of words and ideas.

I would guess that if you hired a left-brainiac economist to analyze “the present situation of poetry,” he or she would find that the dynamics of the system match those of an economy with overwhelming quantities of counterfeit money in it. People have given up accepting the tender. There is real value being created, but it is in the gray market, so to speak, in the barter economy of coteries and sometime hermits. It is no one’s fault—America in its wisdom has figured out how to get lots of poems, things that are nominally poems, printed. Recognizing this is important, as I wouldn’t want to ascribe to general venality and the Decline of the West what may just be contingencies in the means of production. Why are the shows on HBO awesome and Hollywood movies terrible, when they are made by the same class of people—the same people, sometimes—in the same place, using the same processes and techniques? Maybe it is that one sells subscriptions to affluent households and the other fishes for fourteen-year olds’ pocket money, that is, one is in a long-term relationship with its audience and the other is not. It may be that vaguely analogous impersonal factors—parameters of our media industries, of our patronage systems, and so on—have pushed our dispensation into a place where it is better at producing Halo 4 than lyric poetry. For the time being.

Every poet, consciously or unconsciously, holds the following absolute presuppositions, as the dogmas of his art:

(1) A historical world exists, a world of unique events and unique persons, related by analogy, not identity. The number of events and analogical relations is potentially infinite. The existence of such a world is a good, and every addition to the number of events, persons and relations is an additional good.

(2) The historical world is a fallen world, i.e. though it is good that it exists, the way in which it exists is evil, being full of unfreedom and disorder.

(3) The historical world is a redeemable world. The unfreedom and disorder of the past can be reconciled in the future.

It follows from the first presupposition that the poet’s activity in creating a poem is analogous to God’s activity in creating man after his own image. It is not an imitation, for were it so, the poet would be able to create like God ex nihilo; instead, he requires pre-existing occasions of feeling and a pre-existing language out of which to create. It is analogous in that the poet creates not necessarily according to a law of nature but voluntarily according to provocation.

— W. H. Auden, from The Dyer’s Hand

In my daydream College for Bards, the curriculum would be as follows:

(1) In addition to English, at least one ancient language, probably Greek or hebrew, and two modern languages would be required.

(2) Thousands of lines of poetry in these languages would be learned by heart.

(3) The library would contain no books of literary criticism, and the only critical exercise required of students would be the writing of parodies.

(4) Courses in prosody, rhetoric and comparative philology would be required of all students, and every student would have to select three courses out of courses in mathematics, natural history, geology, meteorology, archaeology, mythology, liturgics, cooking.

(5) every student would be required to look after a domestic animal and cultivate a garden plot.

A poet has not only to educate himself as a poet, he has also to consider how he is going to earn his living. Ideally, he should have a job which does not in any way involve the manipulation of words. At one time, children training to become rabbis were also taught some skilled manual trade, and if only they knew their child was going to become a poet, the best thing parents could do would be to get him at an early age into some Craft Trades Union. Unfortunately, they cannot know this in advance, and, except in very rare cases, by the time he is twenty-one, the only nonliterary job for which a poet-to-be is qualified is unskilled manual labor. In earning his living, the average poet has to choose between being a translator, a teacher, a literary journalist or a writer of advertising copy and, of these, all but the first can be directly detrimental to his poetry, and even translation does not free him from leading a too exclusively literary life.

— W. H. Auden, from The Dyer’s Hand

The old pre-industrial community and culture are gone and cannot be brought back. Nor is it desirable that they should be. They were too unjust, too squalid, and too custom-bound. Virtues which were once nursed unconsciously by the forces of nature must now be recovered and fostered by a deliberate effort of the will and the intelligence. In the future, societies will not grow of themselves. They will be either made consciously or decay. A democracy in which each citizen is as fully conscious and capable of making a rational choice, as in the past has been possible only for the wealthier few, is the only kind of society which in the future is likely to survive for long.

In such a society, and in such alone, will it be possible for the poet, without sacrificing any of his subtleties of sensibility or his integrity, to write poetry which is simple, clear, and gay.

For poetry which is at the same time light and adult can only be written in a society which is both integrated and free.

— W. H. Auden, Introduction to The Oxford Book of Light Verse (1938)

We have three minds, I reckon, one of which is the body, while the other two are forms of mentation: daylight consciousness and dreaming consciousness. If one of these is absent from a work, it isn’t complete; and if one or two of them are suppressed, kept out of sight, then the whole thing—whatever it is you’ve created—is in bad faith. Thinking in a fusion of our three minds is how humans do naturally think, at any level above the trivial. The questions to ask of any creation are: What’s the dream dimension in this? How good is the forebrain thinking, but also how good is the dream here? Where’s the dance in it, and how good is that? How well integrated are all three; or if there is dissonance, is that productive? And, finally, what larger poem is this one in? Who or what does it honor? Who does it want to kill?

Readers would be rightly insulted if they felt I’d assumed they were less smart or less sophisticated than I am. That would be unbearably condescending. And anyway they like some puzzlement, some baroque, perhaps, and certainly some material that doesn’t release all its savor at a first lick. Really, writers and readers alike, as you know, we work beyond our own intelligence; necessarily so. That’s the raison d’etre, the road to the trance that art exists to provide. The significances in a poem ought to be latent as well as patent: You find them as a matter of pleasure as you are reading; you don’t need a critic to tell them to you.

Perhaps you were expecting a purely historical account as one might give of the battle of Waterloo, whereas I was trying to treat it as a religious event which eternally recurs every time it is accepted. Thus the historical fact that the shepherds were shepherds is religiously accidental — the religious fact is that they were the poor and humble of this world for whom at this moment the historical expression is the city-proletariat, and so on with all the other figures. What we know of Herod, for instance, is that he was a Hellenised-Jew and a political ruler. Accordingly I have made him express the intellectual’s eternal objection to Christianity — that it replaces objectivity with subjectivity — and the politician’s eternal objection that it regards the state as having only a negative role. (See Marcus Aurelius.) …

I am not the first to treat the Christian data in this way, until the 18th Cent. it was always done, in the Mystery Plays for instance or any Italian paintings. It is only in the last two centuries that religion has been “humanized,” and therefore treated historically as something that happened a long time ago, hence the nursery prayer of Jesus in a nightgown and a Parsifal beard.

If a return to the older method now seems startling it is partly because of the acceleration in the rate of historical change due to industrialization — there is a far greater difference between the accidents of life in 1600 AD and in 1942 than between those of 30 AD and 1600.

From a letter W. H. Auden wrote to his father in October of 1942, explaining his decision to use a largely contemporary setting for his long poem For the Time Being: a Christmas Oratorio. I’m working on a critical edition of that poem for Princeton University Press, and goodness, it’s fun.

Les Murray, “Poetry and Religion”

Religions are poems. They concert
our daylight and dreaming mind, our
emotions, instinct, breath and native gesture

into the only whole thinking: poetry.
Nothing’s said till it’s dreamed out in words
and nothing’s true that figures in words only.

A poem, compared with an arrayed religion,
may be like a soldier’s one short marriage night
to die and live by. But that is a small religion.

Full religion is the large poem in loving repetition;
like any poem, it must be inexhaustible and complete
with turns where we ask Now why did the poet do that?

You can’t pray a lie, said Huckleberry Finn;
you can’t poe one either. It is the same mirror:
mobile, glancing, we call it poetry,

fixed centrally, we call it a religion,
and God is the poetry caught in any religion,
caught, not imprisoned. Caught as in a mirror

that he attracted, being in the world as poetry
is in the poem, a law against its closure.
There’ll always be religion around while there is poetry

or a lack of it. Both are given, and intermittent,
as the action of those birds — crested pigeon, rosella parrot —
who fly with wings shut, then beating, and again shut.

Les Murray on writing a poem

It’s wonderful, there’s nothing else like it, you write in a trance. And the trance is completely addictive, you love it, you want more of it. Once you’ve written the poem and had the trance, polished it and so on, you can go back to the poem and have a trace of that trance, have the shadow of it, but you can’t have it fully again. It seemed to be a knack I discovered as I went along. It’s an integration of the body-mind and the dreaming-mind and the daylight-conscious-mind. All three are firing at once, they’re all in concert. You can be sitting there but inwardly dancing, and the breath and the weight and everything else are involved, you’re fully alive. It takes a while to get into it. You have to have some key, like say a phrase or a few phrases or a subject matter or maybe even a tune to get you started going towards it, and it starts to accumulate. Sometimes it starts without your knowing that you’re getting there, and it builds in your mind like a pressure. I once described it as being like a painless headache, and you know there’s a poem in there, but you have to wait until the words form.


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