Sunday, June 3, 2012


Existence is plagiarism. ~ Emile Cioran


A hesitant knock on the door.
I look out, then down.
The neighbors’ little boy,
I think his name is

Christian, stands staring at his
tennis shoes, faded T-shirt ripped
at the neck. He holds a cup tilted
at a forlorn angle, stammers,

I don’t remember
what my mother sent me for.

Standing at the blue door
of a long life,
my cup only half full,
I can’t remember either.

What did I come for?
What was it I wanted?

~ Una Hynum © 2012

I’ve used this wonderful poem before, in the post THE BURDEN OF CHOICE; I’m pleased to use it again. A masterpiece does not get “used up”: a great poem has the power to leave us in hushed awe time after time. (This may not be true of Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium”; in my view, that’s because, after the first three gorgeous stanzas and the perfect closure of “gather me / into the artifice of eternity,” the last stanza is relatively weak and the last two lines are flat.)

Una’s poem has a very effective, hush-producing ending. But readers also love the line that says “standing at the blue door.” Yes, that’s the final door. In life we pass through so many doors, literal and metaphoric. As we are about to pass through the last one, it is our final chance to ask ourselves what we came for and what we wanted. I think Ray Carver was among the lucky few: he managed to answer at least the second question. Dying of lung cancer at only fifty, he wrote this:


And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

           ~ Ray Carver (1938-1988)

If we suddenly had to leave this plane” (as we say in California), most of us, I am afraid, would not say that we got what we wanted. But then we’d have to confess that we didn’t really know what we wanted. Or perhaps we knew it at an early age, had no courage to reach for it, and remembered that summons from destiny only when the clock of life said: Too late.

And how interesting that Carver, a successful writer (I also enjoy his poems), chose not fame, but being able to "call myself beloved, to feel myself / beloved on the earth." My chief desire has been to be on the right path in terms of work. It's when I feel I am on the right path that I feel myself beloved. And no, it has nothing to do with fame. Interesting, I keep saying to myself, interesting. Just to be doing what feels I should be doing. 

I did not have this clarity even a few years ago, so I am all in favor of saying: let us not be so hard on ourselves. To know what we want in life is perhaps the most difficult thing of all. A trivial foreshadowing of this “not knowing” is the near-universal phenomenon of walking into a room wanting something, except we can’t remember what it was.

Why can’t we remember? One reason is too many doors. The most fascinating article I found last week was “Doorways Cause Forgetting”:

It happens to all of us. It’s not the beginning of dementia. It turns out that “doorway-caused forgetting” is part of normal brain function. That’s why it’s so common for people to walk into a room and there blank, with no idea of what they came for.

 “Walking through doorways empties your mind,” the author explains.  This was shown in experiments where people had to walk through doorways as opposed to continuing in space with no doorways. “When we enter a new environment, we construct a new situational model, which erases the old model.” And the old model included the information about the momentary previous self that needed to get something.

This confirms the fragmentary nature of our perception: the brain does not have a complete picture of “reality.” It has just dots to get by: the brain improvises by connecting the dots and filling in the gaps. A new environment, such as a different room, can easily erase our vague memory of what it was we needed in the other room.

One remedy, I’ve discovered, is to name the object you need, and then repeat that name as you keep walking (e.g. “masking tape, masking tape”). This little triumph of language as memory can spare you many useless trips, especially if you need to climb the stairs. I suspect it’s not only doorways that cause forgetting; step by step, stairways are even worse. The self at the top of the stairs is not the same as the clueless self at the bottom. Regardless, repetition is the mother of memory. Carrying a word is like carrying a holy icon: it can work miracles.


After all this self-help, let’s have more poetry – and what is poetry, real poetry, if not a kind of holy icon that keeps us in touch with our innermost reality?

Mad Girl's Love Song

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my lids and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,
And arbitrary blackness gallops in:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed
And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

God topples from the sky, hell's fires fade:
Exit seraphim and Satan's men:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you'd return the way you said,
But I grow old and I forget your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

I should have loved a thunderbird instead;
At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

~ Sylvia Plath, 1951; published in Mademoiselle, August 1953.


The first two lines are actually quite right on, and remind me of Bishop Berkeley’s precept that “to be is to be perceived” (esse est percipi). This poem could also serve to illustrate the meaning of solipsism (solus – alone; ipse – self): one can’t be sure of the existence of anything outside one’s own mind. Are other people “really real”?

I love the rhyme – I’ve always been crazy about rhyme, though now it’s forbidden and even slant rhyme mustn’t be too obvious. And of course I love the heaven and hell references: “God topples from the sky, hell's fires fade.” The fall of god extinguishes the fires of hell: the screaming and moaning cease at last, after so many centuries (though only decades in an individual’s life – still a horror). (Although it’s possible that the only way to reach paradise, in this life, includes a willingness to enter hell.)

Note that here the speaker controls the life and death of the world. She is above nature – she can make the world live, or die, simply by opening and closing her eyes. Call it solipsism or call it a keen insight: the world lives in us. We make it up in our head. 

“I should have loved a thunderbird instead” adds a touch of humor for me.

I should have loved a thunderbird instead;
At least when spring comes they roar back again.

The mythological thunderbird becomes more real than the lover (who may indeed be imaginary – or so rarely seen in flesh that he becomes more fantasy than a real man).

But ultimately any lover is, to a shocking degree, someone that we make up inside our head. We can experience another person only so far and no further. We can’t get inside their mind and see the world through their eyes. That’s where we come up against the “otherness of the other.”

Something that Yeats said applies here: The tragedy of sexual intercourse is the perpetual virginity of the soul.

“Mad Girl’s Love Song” is a villanelle; while in college Plath wrote a lot of villanelles and other poems in form. (I first said “young Plath” — but she never got past being “young”; she was only thirty when she died; yet we can say “early Plath” versus “mature Plath”.) I love the music of this one. It shows that Plath had an astonishing mastery of craft even before The Colossus. This poem reminds me how extraordinary Plath can be — even the early Plath.

It’s possible that the only way to reach paradise, in this life, includes a willingness to enter hell, a willingness to make sacrifices for one’s vocation and take risks, such as a love relationship with an exceptional person, that may lead to a disaster.

Yet Plath held poetry close to her heart, like one of Dostoyevski’s heroines who jumps out the window hugging a holy icon to her chest. Poetry can be that icon, connecting us to the inner life —almost always, of course, in the service of life, not death — of enduring.


Extraordinary – I don’t use the word lightly. And again I want to quote that crucial passage from James Hillman’s The Soul’s Code:

Extraordinary people display calling most evidently. Perhaps that’s why they fascinate. Perhaps, too, they are extraordinary because their calling comes through so clearly and they are so loyal to it . . .  They seem to have no other choice . . . Extraordinary people are not a different category; the workings of this engine in them are simply more transparent. (p. 28-29)

“Extraordinary people are not a different category”; it’s just that they have clarity about their vocation and a great loyalty to it. And this brings me to another article:

The title is misleading. By “quitters,” the author, Nick Tasler, means people who can commit oneself to one option and eliminate the rest. To use an extreme example (mine, not his), Frank Lloyd Wright also loved music. But he didn’t try to be both an architect and a piano virtuoso. He chose his path early and persisted. Architecture is a kind of frozen music – but we don’t need to go that far. He made his choice, and became extraordinary.

Here we come back to the finding that less choice is better, and no choice may be best (depending on the matter at hand). REDUCE OR ELIMINATE CHOICE. Keeping options open is not only stressful, but virtually guarantees failure.

But how can we know if option 1 is the best if option 2 looks yummy also, and option 3 has its seductive angles as well? If the pull of a single option is not that distinct, we have to make a leap of faith. I hate to confess how many times I simply tossed a coin . . .  but even that is better than sitting half-dressed at the edge of a bed, like a woman in a painting by Edward Hopper. Should she put on the red dress or the blue one? (Do I hear someone say, “But Oriana, she is trying to decide if life is worth living!” – Listen, I know what it means to be a woman. She can’t make up her mind about what to wear. The problem is that it all looks good. It’s the cumulative microtrauma of trivial choices that makes women so exhausted.)

Decisiveness: the ability to choose one thing, one course of action, while “quitting” others. Eliminating the stress of choice. To quote from the article:

The inability to make what Harvard ethics professor, Joseph Badaracco, calls “right vs. right” decisions can be a fatal strategic flaw. An otherwise talented manager who can’t bring himself to focus on one customer segment at the expense of others (but what if they want to buy, too!?!) winds up taking his team in circles, and his career into a rut.  

At the heart of strategic thinking is the ability to focus on one strategy while consciously quitting the pursuit of others. Choosing what we want to do is easy. It's choosing what else we want to do that we are nonetheless going to quit doing that is the hard part—to build the school by stripping funding from the hospital; to develop this product while shutting down production of that one. As David Packard (of Hewlett-Packard fame) once said “more companies die from overeating than starvation.” The same truth applies to our careers and personal lives.


I’m not sure if I agree with the statement “choosing what we want to do is easy.” For some people it is, for others it isn’t. Perhaps the author should have said: “choosing what we most want to do.” But even then . . . Try asking someone, “What’s the most important thing in your life?” People I know would sooner discuss their sex lives (or lack of them).

I do agree, though, that paying the price of focusing – sacrificing other attractive things and activities – may be even harder. Not particularly for me – once I have clarity, it’s relatively easy for me to be single-minded. But I’ve known people so immersed in a dozen attractive activities that they are always in a rush, frantic, unable to do anything at the level of excellence.

We live in a manic, multi-tasking, short-attention span culture. My most important motto is DO LESS. The less you do (but the more thoroughly you do it, and the more you enjoy doing it), the more you will accomplish.

Why? For one thing, you’ll be eliminating a lot of choice-making, possibly the primary source of stress in modern life. The future belongs to the decisive – the “quitters,” those who quit doing too many things.

Plath had the advantage of one huge blessing: she found her calling early in life. Call me Scorpio Rising: I love “Mad Girl’s Love Song.” With a wisdom uncanny for someone so young, Plath exposes the solipsism of being in love. It seems to us that that’s exactly when we are the least self-centered, being so connected to the Beloved. But is the Beloved mostly someone we made up, a holy icon we carry in our heads, driving with that image in our mind all the way to Canada? Even so, it’s a state of grace.

A state of grace as long as it inspires rather than interferes with our accomplishing something in the world. Remember Longfellow (I harbor a secret fondness for Longfellow):

Life is earnest, life is real,
and the grave is not its goal.

Not the grave, but accomplishing something – which could be writing poems that connect us with that mysterious Otherworld which is in this world. Or it could be having loving relationships and “gracious living.” It could be volunteering for a charity. There is enough potential “meaning in life” to fit anyone’s talents and personality. The only problem is that we “can’t have it all.” Once we accept that, the rest is . . . well, not exactly easy, but doable. As one visual artist told me, “When you concentrate on one small thing, something huge begins to unfold.”    



A neat blog.  Reading it, I realized the key word here is "KNOW." Do we ever know what we want enough to make a conscious choice? It seems more fate or luck. And everyday we wake to pass through the door of a new day and forget, if we ever knew, what we came for.


I love your prose poem about passing “through the door of a new day and forgetting, if we ever knew, what we came for.” Yes, each day brings such an avalanche of new challenges, sometimes I wonder how anything gets done as planned. No wonder there is a small book for “Women Who Do Too Much,” and the main idea is: “Today I’ve done (fill in the blank), AND THAT IS ENOUGH.” It’s an attempt to gain control by doing LESS. Another key word in this blog is LESS – the need for less, so we can give more attention to what is MEANINGFUL, what brings us closer to our perceived purpose.

I want to sidestep the eternal and non-resolvable debate over free will versus determinism by saying that yes, all cognitive processing is unconscious, and yet, and yet . . .  The very fact that some of it does get communicated to those brain regions that generate consciousness must have some significance. Maybe this conscious knowing, or the illusion that we know, helps us to “hold the course,” the way repeating a word virtually guarantees that we will remember what it was we wanted from another room – unless we encounter something startling on the way, and that of course has the power to erase our small and temporary “holy icon.”

And if we remember an idea – for instance, that by doing less we will accomplish more – if we keep repeating that, and offer conscious resistance against the onslaught of competing demands – then there is some hope for not being merely a straw carried by a flood.

There is also this: making a leap of faith, closing other options, and working in a full-hearted way – but also being very sensitive to feedback from all directions. A friend of a friend said he “listens to what the universe says in response to his decision.” Usually there are pretty clear signals if we are on the right or wrong track. An athlete’s training schedule may seem pretty grueling to the rest of us, but to the athlete it’s ecstasy because it has a MEANING. An athlete KNOWS what he wants: to get faster and/or stronger, to win the race, the game.

There is a power to knowing, because it’s a power of having a meaning, a purpose. Alas, self-help books tend to ask: write down ten things you want in your life. No: write down ONE thing, the one you want most. But wait: is the word WANT the right one? Should we perhaps say: the one you LOVE most?

When I look at what I loved most at the age of 12, 22, 32, 42 and on, I get an instant answer: reading interesting books. Learning. Writing is secondary to my being a learner; it grows out of it. But that’s getting into another infinity.


Your blog raised, as always, thought provoking issues, and with coffee by my side I will attempt to add to your excellent musings. I would be very reluctant to leave all my choices; I have, we all really do, so many. Birds, whaling, poetry, history, college football, coffee, travel and just so many others too numerous to list have been my joy and passion for so long I just don't see how I could possibly choose.

Poetry is a relative latecomer, only in the last few years has it risen to a true passion. I loved your thought on poetry as a “holy icon”– the best poetry is very akin to that. I think of how poorer my life would be today had I not discovered poetry after 40...and your blog I might add. I have written over the years so many scraps of outlines for stories, poems and other writing projects, they fill a drawer – and even a large coffee mug my daughter brought back from London: my cup truly 'overfloweth'! And the vast, vast majority have never seen completion and I sometimes take myself to task for that. But then I guessed it....a favorite quote:
 For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity. God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!” ~ Herman Melville, Moby Dick. 

Plath is such a tragedy: what talent and promise! It's a common refrain, I know, but why are so many poets victims of this melancholia. I ache for these “Odysseuses of the arts” who sacrifice so much for our enjoyment of their gifts. 

I have been reading a lot of Tennyson of late. He too was often distressed and anxious over his life and was renowned and lauded in his lifetime, unlike Melville. I prefer the Tolkien life, full of family, friends and a grand project that consumed him all his life. And even though his Lord of the Rings masterpiece did indeed consume him, he also found time to be a poet, artist, translator, wrote several children's book and taught at Oxford for decades. Throw in his happy home life of a wife and children who went on to have successful careers of their own.

Contrast that with Tolstoy who had fame, money and title, and for years was absolutely miserable...I'll take the Hobbit life in the Shire with food and drink with loved ones. Plath's intellect, upbringing and talent are a prime example that having good looks and brains and talent does not guarantee happiness. Plath was a fan of Moby Dick, and I came across this great quote:

I am rereading Moby Dick in preparation for the exam deluge tomorrow—am whelmed and wondrous at the swimming Biblical & craggy Shakespearean cadences, the rich & lustrous & fragrant recreation of spermaceti, ambergris—miracle, marvel, the ton-thunderous leviathan. One of my few wishes: to be (safe, coward that I am) aboard a whale ship through the process of turning a monster to light and heat. ~ Sylvia Plath, Journals, pg. 370

I wish that last line too!


Thank you for that magnificent quotation from Plath’s journals. Spermaceti, ambergris – I can imagine how much she loved those words. (“Ambergris” is one of my favorite poems by Jorie Graham: “We must be unforgettable or not at all.”)

I hope I didn’t create the impression that a writer should have no particular interests, and indeed even wide interests. The whole beauty of being a writer, and especially an essay writer, is that you can use practically anything that comes your way.  You learn alchemy: how to transform even the whale of the mundane into light and heat.

My point was rather that once you are aware of what is most important to you, and dedicate yourself to it, the other interests are made to serve the calling; they are subjugated. Those that seriously compete for your time will drop away. So the sacrifice is of that of other potential callings, not of activities that feed what you sense is your true calling.

But I speak as a “born writer,” or however we may want to call it. Some people might want to put a derogatory label on it, such as “workaholic.” They think great achievement is due strictly to “talent,” something one is born with; then they read the famous person’s biography, and discover a “workaholic” – which should be a source of inspiration rather than dejection – but it’s a rare person who wants true achievement.

I do, even if my accomplishment is bound to be modest. It’s not about fame; for me it’s about enjoying my life, being able to shape and release my thoughts. In the morning I can’t wait to read something good, and then to get to the keyboard.

Now I can hardly believe that I went through periods – years – and not long ago, but even quite recently – when I felt I had no venue for my gifts and intelligence; no one wanted what I had to offer. It took enormous labor to get a handful of people to attend a poetry workshop – no matter how much praise I received for my innovative workshops. Poetry was so marginal for others, while it was central to my life. As a poet in a family-centered community – after having developed within the Los Angeles poetry scene, not so permeated by the idolatry of the family – I felt I was truly “from another planet.” From that kind of isolation it’s only a step to suicidal depression. You can imagine how blessed I feel now.

I’ve discovered that a sense of calling is a great source of strength. Now, whatever life throws at me, I can transmute into writing. (Ideally, that holds true for poetry also, but poetry is a hundred times more difficult than prose.) What a difference from being constantly devastated (and over time it took less and less adversity and rejection to feel more and more devastated). All this fortunate change because now I can say, “I am a writer.” I confess I am astonished.

Note also that prose writers don’t have the startling suicide rate that poets do. A poet is at the mercy of inspiration; a non-fiction prose writer can find inspiration in anything – what joy! 

Plath is a tragedy, but also a triumph. Look, we are reading her words . . . her brain children live . . . her stars continue to waltz out in red and blue.            


The early Plath poem is extraordinary – glorious! and so is your post, particularly the bit actually about doorways causing forgetting. I am not sure I agree about the stairs, but the passing through doorways – it's a small felt shift, a flash of satori, every time, and one I never noticed. We forget what we wanted and who we are and it feels – well to me it feels good. So while knowing what you want and getting it before the final doorway is of vital importance in life, at the same time the second we are through that doorway it is not going to matter at all.

This brings me into a discussion I was having with a colleague yesterday about choice and self and how intertwined they are, and how the illusions of and attachments to both can be dropped, leaving us with actually a more solid existence.


Plath’s villanelle is indeed glorious, and deserves to be better known. It’s very odd, given its importance in Plath’s life (the Mademoiselle award that led to Plath’s experiences in New York, and later to The Bell Jar), that Ted Hughes somehow “forgot” to include it in The Collected Poems.  

When I think of the dreadful waste of my chronic depression, I see that one of my central problems was getting stuck on both self and choice. I thought that I, a definable self, made a terrible choice, the fount of all the disasters that followed. Eventually I realized that, given the circumstances, my inexperienced and quite forgivable early self really had no choice. It wasn’t even about forgiving myself so much as understanding that there was no need to forgive. The choice had been illusory. The solution was to embrace my circumstances and make the best of “fate.” When I found myself making the best of it, I came to see the obvious: I love my quiet life. What a privilege! How crazy that just several years ago I was having crying fits because my life was what it was, quiet rather than exciting.

To the Buddhist saying, “No self, no problem,” I’d like to add: “No choice, no problem.” That’s what the second article, “Why Quitters Win,” keeps affirming. Commit yourself and close the other options. “When standing, stand; when sitting, sit. Above all, don’t wobble.” 

I also need to correct myself about stairs and forgetting. In my experience, as I go downstairs, I often forget what it was that my upstairs self wanted from the kitchen or the dinette; but as I ascend, I begin to remember what it was downstairs that I forgot to bring with me (and yes, to get to the stairs I pass through a doorway; the piece of paper on which I scribbled some morning insight remains a part of the “dinette context,” instead of being envisioned near the computer). I admire the wisdom of grandmothers: never go upstairs empty-handed.


Love the first image.

Love Cioran’s quote, “Existence is plagiarism.”

Thank you for explaining why I forget so often when walking into a room.

Love it that you are still on the topic of God.

Speaking of forgetting going from room to room, in a Jewish home the Mezuzah is put on the doorpost of every room to remind people of Divine energy and the oneness of the universe. Not exactly what you are talking about but an interesting aside.


Yes, the Mezuzah is an interesting example of a “reminder.” As you walk into the house, the transient outdoors self is discarded, and now you are reminded of religion. It was interesting to read that the parchment in the Mezuzah often contains the name Shaddai, or the letter shin meant to stand for El Shaddai. There are various names of god used in the Hebrew scriptures that are essentially lost in translation. The serene, generous Elohim in the first chapter of Genesis does not seem the same deity as the lying, vengeful Yahweh. “Shaddai” is probably “god of the mountain,” but it’s interesting that a female biblical scholar suggested an association with Shadayim, “breasts,” implying nurturing. In the future there will no doubt be other interpretation, according to the spirit of the times. With more female scholars, will there be a renewed interest in Asherah, the Hebrew equivalent of Ishtar? It’s impossible to predict.

Jack Miles, in his award-winning “God: A Biography,” writes: "The God whom ancient Israel worshiped arose as a fusion of a number of the gods whom a nomadic nation had met in its wanderings” (p. 20).


  1. I'm a big fan of Plath's music in her poems so that's what I look at first. As Oriana said, this is a villanelle -- and she was a master in that poetic form, writing quite a few in her early years (I prefer "early years" to "Juvenalia," as in THE COLLECTED POEMS, as a describer of Plath's poetry before 1956.)
    In this poem her use of alliteration and assonance is unpretentious and understated, as in the second line with its Ls (lift, lids and all), short i sounds (Lift, lids, is) and and the a sounds in "and" and "again." Nothing astounding. An almost modest use of these poetic devices.

    There's a small literary footnote I discovered when I didn't print the poem out and went to THE COLLECTED POEMS to find it. No mention of the poem, either in printed version in the "Juvenalia" or in the list of her poems written before 1956.

    Digging around, I found out that THE COLLECTED POEMS was finally published in the Fall of 1981 in both American and British edition (Both are the same in content.). Although critic's praised Plath's poetry, they brought up questions about the editor's (Ted Hughes, Plath's husband) shortcomings in putting the collection together. The reviewer in the New York Times Book Review, Denis Donoghue, blasted the sloppy way it was put together and pointed out missing poems, like "Mad Girl's Love Song," which had been published in Mademoiselle magazine in 1953.

  2. Thank you, Lenny. I first turned to Collected Poems in my search for "Mad Girl's Love Song," which gets mentioned in all of Plath's bios since it won the Mademoiselle college contest, setting off the chain of events that eventually led to "The Bell Jar" -- an amazing novel, both in content and language. Thus, arguably, this is the most important of Plath's early poems, and its omission by Ted Hughes is puzzling.

    Fortunately the text was available online.

    Of the three poems by Plath that I sent to the Salon, this one stood out. To my surprise, I liked it better than The Disquieting Muses or Crossing the Water -- and I wasn't the only one with this preference. This villanelle is a minor masterpiece; it's dazzle and daring (God topples from his sky), and it also has a beguiling surface simplicity. The Native American reference and the American flag reference make it all the more interesting.