Thursday, October 22, 2015



Living without reference,
Why should I now prefer
Being one thing rather than
Something else?  I feel no
Preference.  My embryo
Was inscribed with long
Life and great strength,

But why should anyone care
Now?  I pick up a deck of
Cards and deal one winning
Hand after the other. I draw
My gun and hit the ten ring
Time after time.  Why is it
Then that the target I aimed

At with the greatest care
Should now be missed?  I
Can’t distinguish it from 
Cottonwood trees crows
Fly up from forcing
Me to look and watch
Clouds obscure whatever

Will follow.  I look
Down at Ben and
Duffy.  They know.
One third of a year.
One half of lifetime
Gone.  They stop me
From missing too.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Harold Bloom’s self-disclosures

The Daemon Knows, Literary Greatness and the American Sublime.  Bloom wrote this in 2014 and 2015.  I begin to doubt he’ll write another.  Here he is on pages 136-137:

“. . . I reread and teach Moby-Dick to uncover and appreciate the sublimity and the danger of American Promethean heroism.  But several prolonged times when close to death, I have recited Whitman to myself as medicine.  I hardly recommend my personal praxis to students or readers because what works for me may not do much for another.  Unable to rise out of bed for months, desperate for self-help, chanting much out of Whitman, particularly Song of Myself and Sea-Drift and Lilacs elegies, has given me more than the illusion of consolidation and recovery.  Walt calls this ‘retrievements out of the night’ and persuades me that for once the poet is the man and I have become his poem.  Then I recall how often from 1863 through 1867 Whitman labored in the Civil War hospitals, dressing wounds, reading and writing letters, bearing little gifts, holding the maimed and sick as they died in his arms.  In itself that was secular sainthood, and Walt was a kind of American Christ.  Yet it is at one with the human and aesthetic power of his greatest poems.  If finally I value Whitman more than Melville or Emerson, Dickinson or Henry James, Wallace Stevens or Hart Crane, it must be because he has healed me and goes on helping me to get through many sleepless nights of anxiety and pain.”

Somewhere recently I read the title of an essay something to the effect of “politicians are becoming more and more open about their personal lives.  They should quit it.”  That advice should not be applied to the poet, but should it be applied to the critic?  Why does Bloom include these comments in his discussion of Walt Whitman and Herman Melville?   Perhaps because Bloom has spent so much time reading poetry, and many poets feel free to use themselves in their poetry, that he sees no reason not to as well.  Whitman is America’s great poet, Bloom argues.  He marshals his arguments, and one of them is that Whitman is a sort-of American Christ who has healed Bloom when he has (sort-of) prayed to him.  Students and readers he tells us might want to pray to someone else on Bloom’s list of great American writers.   He questions himself.  Perhaps he prefers Whitman because he has prayed to him and been healed.  Perhaps someone else might prefer praying to Melville.  Bloom doesn’t deny his Jewish heritage.  He mentions it several times, but he prays to Walt Whitman. 

I haven’t memorized any poems for fear they would interfere with my writing and so couldn’t pray to a poet even if I were inclined to.  Neither have I suffered on beds of pain, but I have felt a certain sort of anxiety – undefined, with jumbled thoughts overwhelming coherent thinking.  In my case I pick up a tablet and write.  The “working out,” the “process” is what calms me.  Whether that would work if I ever ended up on a bed of pain like Bloom’s, I don’t know – perhaps not.  Pain might drive out coherent thinking even more effectively than jumbled thoughts. 

Old man sleeping


Ahead of me in the aisle
An old man sat in one of
The store’s electric carts
Looking down at the box of
Cereal in his hand.  As I
Neared I saw he was asleep.
The box dropped to the floor.

His eyes opened and he looked
Down.  His expression didn’t
Change as he reached for it.
A store-clerk rushed to pick
It up and put it back in his hand.
At home I looked from shelf to
Shelf, pulling out a book, putting

It back.  Fearing the empty tablet
On my desk, I’d no Satan to
Portray nor white whale to spear.
Going down to the garage I lifted
Weights until my head hurt.  My
Grip was stronger than it seemed,
But she still slipped away.  I thought

Of her less and less.  I taped her
Photo in my tablet but she still
Dwindled.  The house hummed
Not unlike she did during her
Last hours, breathing out the
Air one sigh at a time.  Picking
Up my tablet I sighed and sighed.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

A short history of time


In our time they knew no cure.
I looked in at her waking.
We had to drive fifty
Miles to her appointment.
In an earlier time it wouldn’t
Have been so far but would
She have lived as long?

I helped her into her car,
Covered her, gave her dark
Glasses and drove her slowly
On.  By then she wasn’t
Interested in the world. Her
Eyes closed and only
Opened when she needed

To see me. Earlier
We sat in Jo Jo’s drinking
Coffee and talking of
Everything and it was all
Delightful, full of our lives
Which lacked nothing
To keep us happy save

The arresting of time. 
Surgeons then stripped
Her away till they had
Done, telling us they could
Do no more, telling her to
Choose an ending.  When
We began we chose

To hike up above the tree
Line in order to look
Down at the long way
We had come, drinking
A bit from my thermos,
Not worrying if the sun set.
Last night lightning crackled

The dogs trembled,
Cowering near me.
Tonight clouds billow,
Thunderstorms threaten.
It is not as I wished or wanted.
Why after all this would the
Sun still wish to rise?

Monday, October 12, 2015

Should the UK welcome an EU superstate?


The first point in Cameron's list of needed agreements is the most important IMO.  I find the idea of an EU superstate alarming.  I concede that my alarm isn't entirely rational since I don't feel that same concern about Japan.  Many in China and elsewhere in Southeast Asia however do.  But I am happy to see Japan modify its constitution so that it can shoulder some responsibilities that the US would otherwise have to shoulder by itself.  Japan was able to rebuild its economy, much as Europe did because the US was willing to take military responsibility for their safety.  Not that they appreciated that any more than the European nations did, but they haven't as Habermas and others have urged, engaged in anti-Americanism.  Many in Western Europe have.

It isn't fear that an EU superstate might one day declare war on the US.  They can't even protect weaker border states against Russian incursions.  And in the recent past they've shown themselves unable to deal with a Civil War.   But is there not an incipient longing after the good-old days when Germany was the most powerful nation in the world and France was its ally?  Officially no.  Every nation repudiates fascism officially, but can official repudiation alter good feelings associated with tradition?

Heidegger urged that Germany hark back to its cultural traditions and lead Western Europe benignly (at least that is the way he explained it after WWII was over) into its rightful place as leader of the world.   Germany had everything going for it, the best minds and workers in the world.  Its friends and allies, would benefit from German leadership and the resulting coalition would be wonderful.

I read enough of Heidegger at one time to believe he was (mostly) sincere.  Others at the time disagreed, but if we take cultural tradition as having any weight -- a sort of nature as opposed to nurture position, then we shouldn't be (and the Tories aren't) anxious to see a European superstate with Germany the logical leader anytime soon.  There are still people alive who remember what it was like in Germany's prewar and war heyday -- heady stuff.

I don't believe that cultural tradition is fixed for all time.  Don't the people living in Italy today trace their decent from ancient Rome and can one see any of that Rome in them today?  The same can be asked about Greece.  Time erodes cultural traditions, but it doesn't do it quickly.  It seems too soon to welcome a European superstate.

Friday, October 9, 2015



She pursued good deeds
With fine sympathy.
I stood off to one side watching.
They responded, smiling again
And again.  I needed no more
At my age.  She hummed
Her hymns and read

Her stories and devotions
Which I brought in abundance
Fearing she wouldn’t last so
Very long, and I needed to do my
Uttermost for her peace of mind.
Easing now away from many
Of those conclusions (Maimonides

Long ago declaring me able to
Pursue whatever intrigued) with
My books piled high opposing
Untoward capitulations.
The wind howled then
And now through my trees.
I’ve read with my own eyes

And heard with my
Ears frenzied sights and
Sounds whenever I
Wake or sleep, all
About me now,
Carefully watching
To catch me falling.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Mayakovsky and the Ballad of Reading Gaol


        "About This" is a long poem by Mayakovsky.  It appears in Herbert Marshall's 1965 book Mayakovsky.  Marshall was a committed Communist but like so many others he couldn't stomach Stalinism.  In his "Notes on About This" Marshall writes "The introduction to the poem states the theme . . .  This theme -- love -- was considered 'personal and petty' both in the early days of the Revolution and indeed right up to this death.  It was considered a 'petty-bourgeois hangover' and not a theme for poetry of social significance.  But despite Mayakovsky's own sincere attempts to 'crush under foot the throat of his very own lyrics, this theme kept hammering at his brow, however much he tried to repress it out of Party discipline.

One year later, in [his poem] "Lenin," he said:

    About this, and that I'll write in its hour,
    But now's no time for a lover and his lass
    All my ringing poetic power
    I give to you, attacking class

A major portion of "About This" is subtitled "The Ballad of Reading Gaol."  Mayakovsky was only self-imprisoned -- nothing at all like Oscar Wilde's two-years in Reading Gaol, but Marshall writes, "The editors of the 1940 edition of the Collected Works give this note to the section headed 'Ballad of Reading Gaol':  'This work of Oscar Wilde, written in prison, was taken for its association with the external conditions in which Maykovsky found himself at the time.'"

I'm not so sure about that.  Mayakovsky had his party-hack critics but he was not physically persecuted.  And no one told him he couldn't write whatever he liked.  Lenin disapproved of one of Mayakovsky's writings and said the person who published it ought to be whipped, but he never said Mayakovsky should be.

I stopped and reread Oscar Wilde's ballad.  Wilde's emphasis isn't upon his own incarceration -- well to some extent it is when he writes about the conditions and rules, but he is caught up with and catches us up in the situation of an inmate who is to be hanged.  The events leading up to as well as the actual hanging and subsequent burial have a great effect on the rest of the prisoners, but especially on Wilde, and apparently on Mayakovsky who couldn't read English but had access to, according to Marshall, an excellent translation.

Marshall quotes the two lines ending section three of Wilde's poem,

    For he who lives more lives than one,
    more deaths than one must die

Perhaps I didn't read Wilde's poem carefully enough because I didn't understand what multiple lives the condemned man lived or Wilde either for that matter.  He had a somewhat hidden life as a homosexual, but he wasn't executed for it.  The condemned man killed his wife but how was that a double life?  In regard to Mayakovsky, however, Marshall said he lived a double life in the sense of being a lover in the extreme sense -- think of Somerset Maugham's By Love Possessed -- while at the same time being a committed Communist wanting to do his best for the revolution.  Suicide is mentioned more than once in "About This," which makes no sense to me.  If Mayakovsky was feeling guilty about his excessive attraction to Lily Brik, suicide was even more objectionable in Communist terms.  That is, if a prominent Communist committed suicide it was taken as a criticism of the Revolution.  Writing poems about Love were merely hangovers of bourgeois thinking and something to be disapproved of but not condemned to the same extent that suicide was.  After all, one must doubt that Mayakovsky was the only Communist to fall in love; so there was probably an underlying sympathy for him in the party.

I couldn't help but notice that Wilde's Ballad can be read as a condemnation of prison as an acceptable alternative to execution.  The condemned man accepts his fate with equanimity.  He deserves to be executed for murdering his wife and accepts it.  The rest of the prisoner of Reading Gaol are another matter.  They are overwhelmed and tormented by what is happening.  Their suffering, according to the poem, is much worse.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Harold Bloom’s–not a simple philosophy

I had modest desires when I ordered this book by Bloom: to read his opinions about poets and poems many of which I don't care for as much as Bloom does.  Perhaps like Helen Vendler, I thought, Bloom will change my mind -- about Hart Crane especially, a poet I have never liked.  I didn't mind starting with Whitman.  I liked him when I was young but "outgrew him" or so I thought.  Perhaps Bloom would disclose beauties that would have me reading him again.  But Bloom here is demonstrating Oscar Wilde's comment to Walt Whitman that "criticism is the only civilized form of autobiography -- ending with a rather shocking bit of self-disclosure.

On page 47 of The Daemon Knows, Bloom quotes six lines from Whitman's When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd,

    In the dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the white-wash'd palings
    Stands the lilac-bush tall-growing with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
    With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
    With every leaf a miracle -- and from this bush in the dooryard,
    With delicate-color'd blossoms and heart-shaped laves of rich green
    A sprig with its flower I break.

Bloom then writes, "Six lines of what might be termed 'plain radiance' finds their only transitive verb in the very last word: 'break.'  Walt breaks the tally, his defining synecdoche, in the sprig of lilac he will throw upon Lincoln's funeral cortege as it slowly departs Union Station in Washington, D.C., to begin a long journey through many cities to rest at last in Springfield, Illinois.
    "Inevitable phrasing -- my criterion for the highest poetry -- is a difficult matter for criticism to expound upon, since 'inevitable' here is itself a trope dependent on aesthetic experience.  In old age, doubtless still infused by Nietzsche-as-geneaologist, I begin to believe in what might be called his poetics of pain.  He taught that memorability was heightened by suffering: a hard doctrine, but akin to Shelley's notion that the sublime persuades us to abandon easier pleasures for more difficult engagements.  In this severe vision the slavery of pleasure yields to what lies beyond the pleasure principle  Is then the inevitability -- for me, anyway -- of Walt's dooryard fronting an old farmhouse and the lilac bush so commonly growing there more of a difficult pleasure than it seems  Is my opinion that this is so an act of knowledge, and in what sense of knowing?
    "Is becoming wise an act of knowledge?  For Nietzsche, the greatest thoughts were the the greatest actions.  Thinking in and through metaphors, Shakespeare gives us persons who act with titanic self-destructiveness, incarnate sublimity:  Lear and Macbeth, Hamlet and Othello, Antony and Coriolanus.  Whitman's metaphors include what John Hollander called his 'hard ordinary words,' terms that are charged by Whitman with an accent entirely his own: among them 'drift,' 'passing,' 'vistas,' 'lilac,' leaf,' 'grass,' 'sea,' 'star,' and many more Keats, Nightingale and Shelley's skylark are not more tropological than Whitman's mockingbird and his hermit thrush.  A poet who equates his soul with the fourfold metaphor of night, death,  the mother, and the sea is thinking figuratively as fiercely as did the Hermeticists and the Kabbalists.
    "Meaning, to be human, starts as memory of a fecund variety of pain.  To inaugurate meaning, rather than merely to repeat it, you cultivate an illness that is oxymoronic, a pathos that is already play.  Falstaff and Walt meet in this arena and find words for that is alive in their hearts.  Against trauma we need Falstaff and Whitman, solar vitalists abounding in desire.  Better than Nietzsche's Zarathustra, they realize a fresh dimension to the primordial poem of mankind, because each creates a fiction of the self that becomes a poem in our eyes.  Meaning is voicing and images we voice become tropes of knowing.  'We can know only what we ourselves made made,' proclaimed Giambattista Vico, the eighteenth-century Neapolitan philosopher, and Falstaff and Walt know the selves they have forged.
    "I recall writing, long ago, that any new poem is rather like a little child who has been stationed with a large group of other small children in a playroom, where there a limited number of toys and no adult supervision whatsoever.  Those toys are the tricks, turns, and tropes of poetic language, Oscar Wilde's 'beautiful untrue things' that save the imagination from falling into 'careless habits of accuracy.'  Oscar, who worshiped and twice visited Walt during an American tour, charmingly termed criticism 'the only civilized form of autobiography.'  I have aged not, alas, into Wilde's wit but into a firm conviction that true criticism recognizes itself as a mode of memoir.
    "Poets and critics alike seek to convert opinion into knowledge, but this means opinion in the legal and not the public sense.  What is it you know when you recognize a voice?  Hart Crane's extraordinary images of voice, whether a broken tower or a vaulting bridge, undo my expectations, even after more than seventy years of reading and knowing him.  At eighty-four I lie awake at night, after  first sleep, and murmur Crane, Whitman, and Shakespeare to myself, seeking comfort through continuity, as grand voices somehow hold off the permanent darkness that gathers through it does not fall.  Frequently, I modulate to Stevens:
    'Likewise to say of the evening star,
    The most ancient light in the most ancient sky,
    That it is wholly an inner light, that it shines
    From the sleepy bosom of the real, re-creates,
    Searches a possible for its possibleness.'"

Comment:  I don't believe I've ever found comfort murmuring other poet's poetry to myself as I tried to sleep.   If poetic thoughts come to me I'll usually get up and write something -- get it out there so it isn't hounding me.  But Bloom is a critic and not a poet so he is different.  I was here reminded of a book I read ages ago, could have been a Dutch novel, about a wealthy aesthete who titillated himself with newer and more provocative pleasures, perfumes for example that he would flood his room with.  But in his case each pleasure grew old and tiresome so he would have to seek something new.  Bloom isn't like that.  He has his favorite poets and poems which he meditates on as he goes to sleep.  Perhaps when he was younger he wanted to read them all, as he seems to have done before writing the The Western Canon, published in 1994.  Now here he is 20 years later settling down with his favorites poets and poems: These that inspire in Bloom admiration for their grandeur and beauty -- and, because Bloom is more than a little bit of a philosopher, their sublimity.

Thursday, October 1, 2015



That thing I heard and turned
To tell before remembering,
What then?  She would
Have been delighted
Hearing but what now?  I
Cannot throw it out,
Cast it away as being

Of no consequence.
It would have been,
And I longed to tell her.
Did Mayakovski seek some
One he longed for as he
Rushed off before

Did Ahab keep on in the sea
Till all enrapt he told the
Great white whale all that
Burdened him?  I haven’t
Such resolve, listen merely
From time to time whispering
As though she hears me after all.