Wednesday, September 19, 2012


Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Lilith, 1868



She died in beauty, -- like a rose
  Blown from its parent stem;
She died in beauty, -- like a pearl
  Dropped from some diadem.

She died in beauty, -- like a lay
  Along a moonlit lake;
She died in beauty,-- like the song
  On birds amid the brake.

She died in beauty, -- like the snow
  On flowers dissolved away;
She died in beauty; -- like a star
  Lost on the brow of day.

She lives in glory, -- like night’s gems
  Set round the silver moon;
She lives in glory,-- like the sun
  Amid the blue of June.

~ Charles Doyne Sillery (1807-1837)

The moon/June rhyme came as if to say: here is the essence of 19th century poetry. Poets like Sillery (I wonder about that last name: too good to be true?) wanted to sound oh so pretty, no matter how fake the result.

The problem here is not only clichés. The main problem is the non-stop sweetness. A poem needs the tension of opposites (or, to use the standard term of literary criticism, “dramatic tension”). It shouldn’t be all sweet or all despairing. In that sense, poetry is not all that different from fiction: we don't want a story where all is sweetness and light, and the hero is never challenged, simply going from success to success. Into each life some rain must fall -- we'll return to this later. 

Rossetti: The Blessed Damozel, 1878

How did this poem ever survive to reach me in a century that treasures non-fiction, “what really happened”? We want to know specific details, however unpretty. Imagine, after the sometimes brutal realism of modern poetry, coming across “She Died in Beauty.” Enough anthology editors must have thought it a treasure, so here it was, in another anthology. We moderns seem to have a hunger for reality that is startling after so many centuries where the main function of poetry was the same as that of religion: consolation, never mind the truth.

And the odd thing is, all those "blessed damozels" were dead. I think Poe was right when he said that the best subject for poetry is the death of a beautiful woman. Or at least it's the best subject for the kind of poetry favored in the 19th century.


John Everett Millais: Ophelia, 1851

Sillery also wrote “Eldred of Erin” and “The Rose of Cashmere, an Oriental Opera.” For a quick contrast, let us move on to a poem by Sharon Olds:


When I heard that my mother had stood up after her near
death of toxic shock, at first
I could not get that supine figure in my
mind’s eye to rise, she had been so
flat,  her face shiny as the ironing board’s
gray asbestos cover. Once my
father had gone horizontal, he did
not lift up, again, until he was
fire. But my mother put her fine legs
over the side, got her soles
on the floor, slowly poured her body from the
mattress into the vertical, she
stood between nurse and husband, and they let
go, for a second -- alive, upright,
my primate! When I’d last seen her, she was silver
and semi-liquid, like something ladled
onto the sheet, early form
of shimmering life, amoeba or dazzle of
jism, and she’d tried to speak, like matter
trying to speak. Now she stands by the bed,
gaunt, slightly luminous, the
hospital gown hanging in blue
folds, like the picture of Jesus-come-back
in my choir books. She seemed to feel close to Jesus,
she loved the way he did not give up,
nothing could stop his love, he stood there
teetering beside the stone bed and he
folded his grave-clothes.

~ Sharon Olds, One Secret Thing, 2008

The ending makes me wonder: if Jesus folded his grave clothes (a parallel to swaddling clothes), did he then stand naked? This is a modern inquiry; I don’t expect it to raise any eyebrows (much less start riots in the streets; only now I realize what a blessing it is to live in a country where religious fanatics are too few to inflict serious damage). 

This is not one of Olds’s masterpieces. I chose it because it’s typical of her recent work, and fairly typical as contemporary poems go: the main requirement is specific, realistic details. For an interweave with the transcendent we get the mother’s spirit of a survivor against the background of evolution. She stands up: “My primate!” And, in a surprising turn, we get the Resurrection, but in a new light: Jesus “teetering beside the stone bed” and then folding his shroud (how would he even disentangle himself from it?) The mother’s recovery from near-death is compared to the Resurrection, not in order to elevate and enlarge the subject of mother’s recovery, but in order to makes us think of the risen Jesus in a new, realistic light.

And who doesn’t love that ending? Talk about a fresh perspective:

Now she stands by the bed,
gaunt, slightly luminous, the
hospital gown hanging in blue
folds, like the picture of Jesus-come-back
in my choir books. She seemed to feel close to Jesus,
she loved the way he did not give up,
nothing could stop his love, he stood there
teetering beside the stone bed and he
folded his grave-clothes.

Piero della Francesca: Resurrection, 1463

It’s startling that we get realism in painting as early as the Renaissance, but have to wait so long for realism in poetry -- practically until the twentieth century. 

And even in painting, we get a sudden swerve into the decorative: I’m thinking of the Pre-Raphaelites, who can be thought of as a visual parallel to 19th century poetry -- though they are more interesting by far than most of that poetry. There is a boldness to them, in all that retro. Nobody reads Tennyson’s Arthurian tales any more; but a museum show of Pre-Raphaelite art will draw a crowd and be enjoyable, no matter the damsels, the bosoms, the robes slipping off, the relentless prettiness. 


Rossetti: The Salutation of Beatrice, 1869


Her neck is about three inches too long. It was just too difficult to fix. The colors are great. 


There is eroticism in Pre-Raphaelite painting, a sensuality of flesh and color that will indeed always draw a crowd. A typical 19th century poem is not erotic, in spite of the frequent use of the word “bosom.” Sure, Whitman, yes; but I mean typical.

John Guzlowski:

Ian Watt wrote a great book called The Rise of the Novel in which he talks about realism and how it couldn't have existed before 1700--much of what he says about the fiction can also be applied to poetry.  If I'm remembering correctly, his main argument was that there really wasn't a sense of the deep self in individuals before that--mankind needed to get beyond a survival level of existence (more free time to think and brood) before we could turn inward and before literature could follow us there.



And enough people had to become literate before a novel-reading public could exist. From the start most readers of novels were women (today it’s 80%). In fact the majority of novel writers in the 18th century were women. I think that must have been an influence: women are interested not only in romance, but also, and perhaps primarily, in the psychology of the characters, in their inner lives.

But poetry remained archaic both in terms of language and subject, heavily relying on myth and tales of people of “noble birth.” Wordsworth tried to revolutionize poetry by making the language more simple and writing about  characters such as the leech gatherer. But even his language remained archaic, and later even he shifted to a more “exalted” subject matter. What makes poetry so obstinately old-fashioned until fairly recently is its ELEVATED TONE.

But there are surprises. One of them awaited me in an article on late Victorian poetry

Those poems were often Gothic, full of ghosts. This is my favorite passage in the article:

Sometimes, one must disengage with reality in order to better understand its workings, upon return. To wit: Stephen Phillips’s “The Apparition” (1896), which begins with a flatly expressed statement, as though nothing were amiss. And yet, natural order has been upended:

My dead Love came to me, and said:
     “God gives me one hour’s rest,
To spend upon the earth with thee:
     How shall we spend it best?”

If you’re able to look past the ghoulish conceit, this is very humdrum; she might as well be asking him what he’d like for tea. And then we get a well-turned joke of domestic discord, further emphasized by an off rhyme:

“Why as of old,” I said, and so
     We quarreled as of old.



A sudden touch of realism creeps in, making all the difference. Now I’m amused (in a sad way) and interested.


Frederick Leighton: Flaming June, 1879


The one thing or actually there are many but the one thing I didn’t like about the Victorian age is the flowery poetry. Some of the literature was great, but poetry?


There is a fake feeling about much of Romantic and Victorian poetry, that exalted and archaic language so in contrast with the often-shocking realism of Dickens and Hardy. Maybe the realist prose writers had to prepare the ground for modern poetry. They had to shock the public first; then truth became acceptable in poetry as well.

The best of Browning escapes the fakiness (my spell-checker changed it to "famines"). Browning found a way to deal with the non-consoling aspects of reality, and was criticized--Oscar Wilde: "Mr. Browning uses poetry as a medium for writing prose." His wife's poems were more popular by far during Browning's lifetime.

The poet's clinging to archaic diction and"poetic" imagery has something of the "dying religion" about it. As people could find less and less comfort in religion (Ruskin complained that he heard the clink of a geologist's hammer at the end of each bible verse), as the human animal became perceived as  truly an animal, some people turned to fake ghost-filled poetry for escape.

True, a handful of Victorian poems are justly considered masterpieces, but even those, for all their wisdom, seem to lack freshness. It's mainly the old-fashioned language, I think.

The ghostliness may be related to the fact that even not so long ago people used to be a lot more familiar with death and dying than they are now, and poetry reflected that. Sure, poetry is about mortality regardless of period, but . . . the burials used to be more frequent and burial customs were much more elaborate than these days, when we scatter the ashes (“cremains,” in the lingo of the funeral industry). 



Oriana, I like what you say about the dying religion--a lot of the poetry does sound like that.  But it's not limited to the Brits.  There's so little American poetry from the 19th century that remains.  Whitman, Dickinson?  And who else?  Thoreau, Emerson, Longfellow?  I don't think so.  When I teach 20th century poetry, I use Longfellow's “Rainy Day” to talk about everything that's wrong with the typical 19th century American poem, clichéd language, thought, prosody.

Rainy Day

The day is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the mouldering wall,
But at every gust the dead leaves fall,
And the day is dark and dreary.

My life is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
My thoughts still cling to the mouldering Past,
But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast,
And the days are dark and dreary.

Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.

Longfellow is the priest of a dying religion--telling us the truths are still the truths, even though he knows they're not.



“Into each life some rain must fall” -- I had no idea that this comes from Longfellow! I suspect very few people do, though the expression lives on as a kind of proverb or “folk wisdom.” If any of our words survive, even anonymously, that’s amazing. So before I go on to agree with John, let me say a little thank you to poor Longfellow, now indeed an example of how not to write.

Note that this is the poetry of consolation, especially in that closing stanza.

Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;

~ apparently this is what the poetry audience wanted: uplift, soothing thoughts, the calm that comes with certain soothing, familiar words and familiar verbal music. Old songs used to deliver it too. Today, greeting cards still deliver it. We need certain words to reconcile us with the way life is. In the past, life was more difficult -- a lot of disease, a lot of dying at a young age--the need for consolation was greater. 

Now, those two lines are pretty bad. But "into each life some rain must fall" works for me as consolation. It works for me better than Buddha's "Life is suffering" or Scott Peck's "Life is difficult." That's the power of imagery, the power of metaphor. 

Parenthetically, the lines

My thoughts still cling to the mouldering Past,
But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast,
And the days are dark and dreary.

~ happen to describe depression with great economy. 

Bad art can console. It can save lives! And I think poets are also trying to console themselves too -- or maybe even primarily. Christian Wiman, the current editor of Poetry magazine and the author of Poetry and Ambition, said something interesting: that poets write out of a sense of wrongness. Here are Wiman’s words:

Poetry arises out of absence, a deep internal sense of wrongness, out of a mind that feels itself to be in some way cracked. An original poem is a descent into and expression of this insufficiency. 

I’m reminded of Baudelaire’s “The Cracked Bell,” in which he states “My soul is cracked.” It seems true that poets write out of “wrongness,” and seek to console themselves for this wrongness. (I used to call it “the gap, the size of Grand Canyon, between the life I wish for and my actual life”). It’s just that modern poets write a different kind of comfort poem than old-time poets, whose typically wrote like this (I quote Wiman again):

   O leaves, O leaves that find no voice
   In the white silence of the snows,
   To bid the crimson woods rejoice,
   Or wake the wonder of the rose!

That kind of emoting is now taboo, but not consolation in a new, less effusive mode. Jack Gilbert comes to mind, consoling himself all the time. But at his best, he tells us “we must risk delight” and that a moment of beauty -- hearing the splash of an oar in the dark -- is worth all the sorrow that is yet to come. Is it? Some find this “consolation” rather bleak and unconvincing, but that’s all we have left now -- the beauty of nature and the affection of others, if we are fortunate enough to have those “affectionate others.” Sharon Olds also writes a lot of poems in which she is consoling herself in her own way. Louise Glück in fact complained that women are always expected to be "in the service of the life force."

Interesting, the evolution of poetry. I do remember a poem by Longfellow that I liked--something about a Jewish cemetery that had some degree of genuine observation in it, an unexpected word here and there . . .  but I know what you mean in general. The two 19th century poets whose work survives are not just  untypical; they are EXTREMELY untypical. Their work survives because they dared to be different, to go against their century’s hunger for consolation. Dickinson’s “I heard a fly buzz when I died” is the true shocking contrast with Sillery’s “She Died in Beauty.”

The modern breakthrough to more genuine writing, away from consolation  and toward truthfulness, is pretty astonishing. The heroic, rhetorical mode has disappeared; in both fiction and poetry, we write about the ordinary. The didactic mode? It has to be more subtle, couched in clever humor, the way Tony Hoagland does it, for example. It’s not that we lost our need to be consoled; still, we insist on “real life.” And today’s poems deliver a lot of realistic vignettes. How ironic that there used to be a large general audience for the kind of poetry that today we regard as terrible, and now, in this country at least, only poets read contemporary poetry, some of it excellent but doomed to oblivion for lack of sufficient audience.

As for my use of pre-Raphaelite paintings for this post, Pre-Raphaelites strike me as wonderfully escapist. And it’s legitimate, I think, to have some escapist art, some respite from reality. Who wants paintings of the Satanic mills? (of Manchester, I suppose, with Engels in charge of one, and supporting Karl Marx)


I really like your image of alternative Victorian poetry (anti-pre-raphaelist) about the Satanic mills with marxist overtones. Imagine! Oscar Wilde or George Elliot doing for poetry what Dickens did for the novel! But I guess it was impossible. Even Hardy, the guy you'd think would have been a natural, a British sort of Philip Levine, wasn't capable of it. It had to wait for Philip Larkin. And where did he come from? I look around and wonder where a poem like This Be the Verse came from.  With Levine you know, but Larkin's a mystery as great as why 19th century poetry in England is so much posing and masks.

Have you heard Larkin reading the poem?

It's not what you expect.

It's not this reading--with it's working class voice: 


Blake not only mentions the “dark Satanic mills,” but also laments the fate of children exploited as chimney sweeps and the prostitutes spreading venereal disease (“the youthful harlot’s curse / . . . blight with plague the marriage hearse”). But the need for the poetry of consolation prevailed, and Blake remained without successors until the modern era. In America, only Whitman showed an even greater fearlessness. The nineteenth century was simply too early, I suspect: readers wanted consolation and uplift from poetry, even if it meant sacrificing truth to beauty.

(I don’t know how to classify the late Yeats: he certainly moved from Victorian melancholy and Celtic Twilight to the more honest modern vision in poems such as “Among School Children.”)

Consolation is not entirely the business of the poetry of past centuries. Among my contemporaries, especially women, I see a lot of striving for a positive ending, be it at the price of losing authenticity. Even Sharon Olds, for all her scrupulous realism, tries to draw a life-affirming moral from her stories and vignettes. 

This is truly not meant as a negative comment on Olds’s work, who’s uneven but manages to come across as truthful and interesting as long as she stays close to reality without far-fetched similes. The hunger for consolation is real, and is more likely to be satisfied by bad art, which goes straight for affirmation, without dwelling in darkness. But dwell in darkness we must, the better to appreciate a glimpse of light later.

I’ll never forget the personal essay workshop when an older woman protested a portrayal of an abusive mother by saying, “Your mother didn’t really mean what she said. She wouldn’t want to hurt you that way.” The rest of the class and the instructor were upset by the woman’s denial of reality and her attempt to invalidate a young student’s story. But thanks to the media, most of the population is not in denial about abusive mothers. We are not innocent about the “dark side” of anything that used to be idealized: romantic love, marriage, motherhood, patriotism, religion, warfare. We have awakened to the betrayal that sooner or later awaits us. That we can proceed in spite of that foreknowledge sometimes astonishes me.

In fact, the media may have gone too far in presenting evil. I have noticed how famished young college students are for positive portrayals of love and work -- life in general.

Thanks for the videos. I especially loved hearing Larkin do the reading himself. His being single and “child-free” probably helped him honestly say what he thought. (On the good side, I’ve noticed (and studies confirm) that child rearing is not as abusive as it used to be. It may be the “dignitarian revolution.” Human rights are finally being applied to children.

In poetry, it was a huge leap from King Arthur to ordinary people living ordinary lives. In novelistic prose it happened much sooner, but poetry kept clinging to the elevated tone and subject matter for a long, long time. It took WWI, for one thing, to make people more honest about admitting the dark side. Less religiosity probably helped too.

And here is a little treat -- thanks to John's bringing up that poem by Longfellow:


Yes. In fact I want to end with a poem that seems to work precisely in that way: Victoria White’s “Elephant Grave”:


After an elephant dies,

the herd may carry its bones for miles.

Did you know that? Hefting them over

the flatland ebb and flow, as

years ago we trekked

the backwoods of late November,

New England burned out like candlewick.

White light parted maples then,

found me chasing your footsteps

as you led us home.

Last fall the hills blazed red— 

I wonder if you tasted smoke, oceans away

as the first shells hit and
you couldn’t run.

Did you think of the leaves

we used to bring home and tape up,

the way they all withered in the end?

Even the best, the brightest

come to nothing, I learned,

because there wasn’t a body

even though you promised to come back.

I broke when I heard you were lying

alone in scrub grass,

no one to lift you up, knowing

you were precious.

Brother, I would have carried you

on my shoulders ’til the horizon bent for us

and our forest dawned along its edge.

Imagine, and the maples stoop to greet you,

saying welcome back,

welcome home.

~ Victoria White, The Kenyon Review


Here we have death in a war (I can’t help it if what immediately comes to my mind is “When will they ever learn?”). The soldier’s sister mourns his death. What hurts is its anonymity:

I broke when I heard you were lying

alone in scrub grass,
no one to lift you up, knowing

you were precious.

And she imagines undoing the damage:

Brother, I would have carried you

on my shoulders ’til the horizon bent for us

and our forest dawned along its edge.

Imagine, and the maples stoop to greet you,

saying welcome back,

welcome home.


This is lovely without sacrificing truth to beauty. We know it’s only a compensating fantasy, this grieving sister carrying her dead brother all the way home, where he dreamed to be. And the knowledge that this is only a fantasy makes it all the more poignant. There is no glorious afterlife mentioned here, but the glory of human love illumines the lines. 


Melville indeed would have found much to discuss in your last two postings as faith and poetry were two of his great passions. It's been often remarked by scholars of 'Moby Dick' how the novel was steeped in Melville's grappling with belief; between Ishmael's soliloquies on philosophy to mate Starbuck's simple Quaker faith, the whole work is full of Biblical and moral ponderings. For us here in the 21st century it is no less a issue; how I wish some Quaker, Sufi and Zen leaders could meet in Jerusalem and hash all this current Middle East turmoil out! I am sure I have mentioned this before but it's struck me how many British, Australian, New Zealand and American poets were Catholic converts and how their faith changed their lives and verse and how many found great comfort in it. I'm sure as one brought up in Catholicism it must be hard to fathom how such men with no background in the faith could come to embrace it so wholeheartedly. I'm struck too by Tolkien( a writer who, like Melville, was a good poet but could have been a great one had he devoted more energy to it; his 'Voyage of Earendel' is incredibly good) and how his Catholic faith colored all he did; he truly had a happier home than Tolstoy or Melville, both who suffered with coming to a sure belief. I know most all thinking people must struggle at one time or another with matters of faith, belief and a deity; poets perhaps more than most.


Thank you, Scott, for bringing up this important point: great literature is indeed full of what one might call the “struggle with god.” But a writer typically develops his own version of whatever religion they might profess in public. Tolstoy, Dostoyevski, Milosz -- they were all “heretics” who grappled with doubt. Milosz explicitly stated that a thinking man must indeed be a heretic. Blind faith, without questioning, without an individual emphasis, is not possible for a real writer (who is per se a “real thinker,” never mind the church’s anti-rational stance).

Just this morning I was wondering how my life would be different if I were to return to Catholicism. My first thought was that it would be a “living death.” For me Catholicism meant being hobbled with fear of hell, especially with my despair over my sinful thoughts. And fear of hell is already hell.

But I also know that intuition can deceive us, and I may be overly given to the dramatic. But then a lukewarm belief is not possible for me; I’m afraid I’d tilt from atheism into religious fanaticism with no middle ground. There is a pejorative word in Polish, devotka, to denote a woman who spends a lot of time in church, on her knees, praying the rosary rather than engaging with others, with life. Not even acts of charity have an attraction for her; she wants to commune with her imaginary beloved.

Now we say’d about such a woman: “She has no life.” Her various “devotions” (let’s not forget favorite saints) become an outlet for the love that is otherwise lacking. Rilke’s mother was a devotka, who forced her little boy to kiss Christ’s wounds on the crucifix.

Writers do have a life, and that makes all the difference. Any faith can provide a useful system of life philosophy and metaphors. Catholicism in particular has a beautiful liturgical vocabulary. Being brought up in a religion and then leaving it is also useful to a writer, especially if one grapples with the tradition and forges one’s own non-toxic, life-affirming philosophy -- something I am trying to accomplish.

This morning I wondered if I’d be a kinder person with the encouragement of faith, so to speak. I remember performing “good deeds” as a child, earning my entries on the right side of the great ledger of sins and good deeds, the balance of which would decide eternal bliss versus eternal suffering. I truly believed this at an age where the brain isn’t developed enough to forge one’s own version of religion (I think every adult has his own version, his own god, toxic or supportive). I was counting my “good deeds” and didn’t yet know the pleasure of generosity, of giving. There is no need of religion for anyone to perform acts of kindness. It’s more pure to help someone without counting on a reward in heaven.

On the other hand, if someone gets guidance from pondering “what would Jesus do?” and does something kind as a result, that’s great! Whatever works. What I am against is toxic religion, the kind of destroys self-esteem and peace of mind. I’ve come to see the banal truth that what counts is conduct. How I wish the church taught me that, instead of all the talk about “sinning in thought” and eternal punishment.

To make matters worse, the sin of despair was the “sin against the Holy Ghost,” and that was the one sin which would not be forgiven. You could commit murder, then go to confession and be absolved; but if you despaired, seeing yourself as a wretched sinner doomed to hellfire, that was the sin that would not be forgiven. This was a trap from which I saw no escape. As someone said, all religions are about guilt, just with different holidays. 


I think that Moby Dick is in many ways a novel of consolation. Ishmael's befriending of Queequeg, a stranger from another culture, speaks volumes of his compassion and acceptance. The numerous outright funny episodes, the stalwartness of Starbuck, whom Primo Levi (and I concur) thought the true hero of the novel, and the deep philosophical probings all point to 'a mind awake'. Even Ahab, we are told, 'has his humanities.'

And the ending is not “the end”; do we not all one day end this voyage? Ishmael survives and returns home a better person for the voyage; look at all he's learned. The novel shows us the fate of those who are obsessed with revenge; the kindness of cannibals; and again, the purity and frankness of Starbuck. I am one who is not all dismayed by the book's ending. I am much like Sylvia Plath: “my one wish (coward that I am): to see a monster turned to heat and light.” Of course, I don't consider whales monsters nor would I wish to see them hunted and killed today -- but as Hoagland's poem “Reading Moby Dick at 30,000 feet” ends:

Oh Captain, Captain!
Where are we going now?


Yes, fiction too can be a source of consolation. I think masterpieces tend to be affirmative in the end, though in a complex way, with much darkness woven in.

I love that poem by Toni Hoagland. It laments a passionless, rushed, distracted life that modern culture often thrusts on people. Let me quote the ending of the poem at greater length:

Better to be on board the Pequod,
with a mad one-legged captain
living for revenge.

Better to feel the salt wind
spitting in your face,
to hold your sharpened weapon high,

to see the glisten
of the beast beneath the waves.
What a relief it would be

to hear someone in the crew
cry out like a gull,
Oh Captain, Captain!
Where are we going now?



Cannot wait to get this book by that obscure Dutch poet, Slauerhoff, and his book on Camoes, The Forbidden Kingdom. The first chapter mentions Camoes reading a copy of the Odyssey, a gift from his father. He is told by him to stay at home and work on his poetry as “voyages only show that the world is the same everywhere.” That brings to mind a passage from Moby Dick where Ishmael says to the Quaker owners that he wants to see the world. “Can't ye see the world where you stand?” one replies. And another passage from Moby Dick is akin to it: “It's a wicked world in all meridians.” Slauerhoff appears to have been your classic poète maudit. He stated My poems are my only home.


This hits close to home, since the dream underlying my coming to America was “I want to see the world.” And I became so exhausted from seeing America, and so spoiled by the beauty of California, that the dream ceased to be -- also because of health problems. If I couldn’t roam through the streets of an unknown city, getting delightfully lost, then finding my church tower like a compass again -- if I couldn’t roam but only sit in the tour bus, then the mystery was lost.

Once I said to Hyacinth: "Poetry is my homeland." But eventually poetry ceased to provide that sense of home. After a period of great "lostness," I have found a new and more vast homeland in literature in general, in any good writing. That’s the country of the mind. Ideas need to be embodied in everyday details, which become mysterious when slowed down to the speed of writing.


I agree with the philosophy in Scott's comment about the world is right where we are standing. Isn't that Zen like? My philosophy prof said the only part of the world you can change is your own, and I think that's true of everything-- this is all we really have and so much is tucked into every moment if we are aware. I loved traveling to other places and seeing other cultures but as Lucille Clifton said we are more alike than we are different.


To anyone who wonders about traveling: If you have the health and money to travel, by all means do! It’s always an adventure, especially if you go abroad. There is a price in stress, and young people do a lot better. If only I had had money in my youth, when I still had my health . . .  Well, we don’t get everything we want, it gets to be too late, and I live with that. I’ve been lucky in other ways. And I console myself thinking of Emily Dickinson and her non-traveling -- except in books and her wonderful mind.


    If at times you feel you want to cry
    And life seems such a trial
    Above the clouds there's a bright blue sky
    So make your tears a smile.
    As you travel on life's way
    With its many ups and downs
    Remember its quite true to say
    One smile is worth a dozen frowns.
    Among the worlds expensive things
    A smile is very cheap
    And when you give a smile away,
    You get one back to keep.
    Happiness comes at times to all
    But sadness comes unbidden
    And sometimes a few tears must fall
    Among the laughter hidden.
    So when friends have sadness on their face
    And troubles round them piled
    The world will seem a better place
    And all because you smiled.

  2. Now there's an answer to Longfellow's "Into each life some rain must fall"!! Thank you. I agree: a smile is a wonderful gift -- and it makes the person who does the smiling feel better too.