What might poetry give us?

Photographer Peter Iredale. Remains of a sailing vessel that ran ashore on the Oregon coast.

sometimes I forget what country I’m in
I could write poems in bed
I think
have some Americans
look at your awful mov-
ie to tell you when
you’re wrong
& just racist. I got this bug bite
that could be anything.
— the opening lines of Dissolution, by Eileen Myles[1]


The August 24 New Yorker included two poems that— Well, people with whom I have discussed these poems have had their complaints. I have my complaints, too, as well as kind words to say about the poems. But, above all, something about the conjunction of the two of them one August week: it touched on a feeling I had been getting, as from the wind, about contemporary poetry. The conjunction foregrounded interesting aspects of and challenges for contemporary poetry.

“ . . . every / age or century for a day is,” the poet Susan Howe has written, and a wise friend of mine has suggested similarly that “contemporary poetry” is a rather empty designation, referring only to a moment in time, and this a moment in which all sorts of poets are doing all sorts of things. In one corner we find renewed enthusiasm for ekphrastic poetry (poetry about art works); in another corner there is “language poetry,” in which—and as the present piece shall explore again in its conclusion—it is assumed that language dictates meaning rather than meaning language.[2] In the corner, then, that the wind has blown my way I have found poets, or poetry publishers, re-embracing one of lyric poetry’s most traditional themes: the hopes and dismay of intimate, romantic relationships. (A theme that might seem to have been commandeered by the poetry of pop music.)

Both Myles’s “Dissolution,” quoted from above, and Ellen Bass’s “The Small Country,” which is quoted from below, has an intimate, romantic relationship at its core, and the latter poem includes a sex scene, another common feature of the poetry in my corner.[3] As regards form, Myles’s and Bass’s poems remind us of a basic and not surprising idea—and yet it is an idea that, in the twentieth century and earlier still in the United States, we were honoring through rejection and disconnection (dissolution?) and in our desperate faith in the new. The idea: poems and poets—like philosophers—cannot help but be in dialogue with their predecessors.

By contrast, in his essay “The Poet” (1844), Emerson wrote:

For it is not metres, but metre-making argument, that makes a poem, – a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing. The thought and the form are equal in the order of time, but in the order of genesis the thought is prior to the form. . . . [T]he experience of each new age requires a new confession, . . .

And of course we can think of poems and poets that fit this vision. Whitman’s Leaves of Grass first and foremost, and “Dissolution” has this thought-governing-architecture quality. But this is to ignore, not only that all poetry is, ineluctably, in dialogue, however restless or scornful, with the meters and ideas both of its predecessors and of its times, but also that this dialogue, including its tension, is what inspires us. (Without the Old World at his back, Emerson would have had nothing to say and his words would make no sense.)


Myles uses the line breaks of “Dissolution” to convey (and have fun with) its meaning. Lines isolate statements such as “I think,” “you’re wrong,” and, later, “My coloring book,” a line that is then reprised two more times. The form quickly tells of disconnection, shouting, and regression, as do, with an additional recklessness, the words broken in the middle: “mov- / ie” “cray- / ony.” It may be enough to simply enjoy (or be non-plussed by) Myles’s cleverness—e.g. the simultaneous silent rumination, simple description, and pleading with or yelling at another person in these lines—

How did a mosquito
get under these sheets. Knocking
against my calf. They
stop when I stop

To me, this is a pleasure to read; it brings a smile to my face—“mov- / ie [i.e.] to tell you when”. But I am also pleased to be reminded of any number of past poems (Lewis Carroll’s “The Mouse’s Tale”) that have used line length to convey meaning and played cleverly with form. And I am intrigued that the closest example to the use of form in “Dissolution” has appeared to me to be e.e. cummings’s “l(a” about a falling leaf and loneliness, while Bass’s sex stanza (including “wholly curious to discover each particular / fold and hollow”) brought to mind cummings’s “i like my body when it is with your body” (“It is so quite new a thing. . . .  i like its hows”).

These leaps to cummings may be just in my own head, but I do think they reflect youthful feelings that can be found in both “Dissolution” and “The Small Country,” and notwithstanding that the poems were written by poets past middle age. I have mentioned already the sense of regression, in the midst of dissolution, in Myles’s poem. In Bass’s case, I have particularly in mind the adolescent feeling of “Last night you told me you liked my eyebrows. / You said you never really noticed them before.”

Among other things, all this serves as a reminder that poetry was once (as pop music has become) a great occupation of youth, of youthful writers, readers, listeners. And Myles’s and Bass’s work has helped me recognize, too, a childishness in our age, in what I am tempted to call our reaction to the Industrial Revolution and consumer capitalism. There is a sense in which, like the orphaned, we wonder:

Is there a term in any tongue for choosing to be happy? [Bass]

And bear witness:

The book
that was my very
private thing
is gone. [Myles]

 Highways under water: photographer Mario Tama, Getty Images. Scene from Vicksburg, Mississippi, 2011. From a TIME feature entitled "Photos from Inside the Flood Zone."

As regards its form, “The Small Country” is, as compared to “Dissolution,” yet more mainstream and more in dialogue with the past, insofar as it may be read as a modified Shakespearean sonnet, complete with a closing “couplet,” arranged in three lines, but still playing the traditional concluding, refuting, epiphanic role. It may seem unfair to Bass to put her up against Shakespeare, and against one of his best wrought poems no less; although, as regards the pairing below, an aging reader such as myself might, on first glance, find less in Shakespeare’s reminder of how love can take over our minds than in Bass’s point about the seemingly small distance that languages trick us into thinking we can span.

“What sort of space is that which separates a man from his fellows and makes him solitary?” Thoreau asks in the Walden chapter on solitude. “I have found that no exertion of legs can bring two minds much nearer to one another.” And no bed and no words either, Bass might add.

The pairing below may also emphasize how contemporary poetry often (not always) embraces plain-speaking, even pedestrian speaking.[4] (As if we would have our poetry be done with poetry—Just the facts, ma’am? And Bass’s poem illustrates how plain-spoken ideas can, rightly or wrongly, seem pedestrian. And perhaps this helps put us in touch, in our supersonic age, with the pedestrian nature of human thought more generally?)

The first four lines and closing couplet of Shakespeare’s sonnet 113:

Since I left you, mine eye is in my mind,
And that which governs me to go about
Doth part his function, and is partly blind,
Seems seeing, but effectively is out; . . .

Incapable of more, replete with you,
My most true mind thus makes mine untrue.

The first four lines and closing three-line couplet of Bass’s The Small Country:”[5]

Unique, I think, is the Scottish tartle, that hesitation
when introducing someone whose name you’ve forgotten.
And what could capture cafuné, the Brazilian Portuguese way to say
running your fingers, tenderly, through someone’s hair? . . . [6]
And how even touch itself cannot mean the same to both of us,
even in this small country of our bed,
even in this language with only two native speakers.

Before a last section on challenges contemporary poets face, I want to do a little more anchoring. First, I note that Bass is hardly the only contemporary poet writing thinly disguised sonnets. Another example from among the many: Andrew Grace’s “For the Silo Boys,” a modified Petrarchan sonnet, which I wrote about in Zeteo last year. I will not be the first to propose that there is something about the sonnet form that reflects how the modern, self-conscious Western mind thinks things through, and thus it seems only natural that, in trying to express ourselves, we keep coming back to the sonnet form.[7]

And if we think of a sonnet as a mind working through a feeling or thought, we can see that Bass begins, as many of us do, in a kind of intellectualized leftfield, or leftfields—the meanings of Scottish and Brazilian words. And is her opening cleverness or cutesiness (peaking in the sixth line’s “block of ice we pack in the sawdust of our hearts”)—is this not also a familiar exercise, as the poet or the I of the poem or any of our I’s summon the courage to address our lovers and our relationships, and to bring ourselves as close as we are willing or able to get to what our hearts wish they could say?[8]

Secondly, from a Platonic perspective, though not a Wittgensteinian one, the examination of specific poems should bring us not only to consider other poems, but also to use such considering as an approach to higher questions: What do we mean by “poetry”? What is poetry ideally? I am perverting, or plain-speaking, this demand in converting it to What might poetry give us? From a Wittgensteinian perspective such questions are absurd, disconnected from any possible answering, or continually provisionally answered as a river flows, as we continue to create and encounter collocations of words that go by the name of poems and as we continue to come to conclusions about these things.

And so, sifting and fondling sands, which I now seem to have found not in a corner but in a delta, I propose, as for evanescent discussion, an answer to what lyric poetry might give us. In footnotes I will offer bits of poetry that may—in addition to recalling what a wonderful gift poetry is to our species!—illustrate and test each of my points, and suggest to readers, as to myself, ways that the following list could be amended. Or dispensed with on the grounds that poetry is rarely discrete; it offers many things at once. To include:

  • Orderings of disparate (voire chaotic) phenomena.[9]
  • Memorable phrases, images, and ideas to hold on to—like rungs of a ladder. And we are pleased when they are within our reach.[10]
  • Diverting songs, or music to wrap ourselves in.[11] (Emily Dickinson: “I sing, as the Boy does by the Burying Ground — because I am afraid.”[12])
  • New life and the renewing pleasures of language reanimated, freshly stretched and juxtaposed.[13] And, with this, some hope that we might change the world (or the fact and specter of mortality anyway.[14])
  • Something to do with revelation, with divine, or at least not personal, inspiration.[15] We want our poets not only to scour their hearts and minds and wrestle with language and form, but also to be unusually open and ready to hear, value, and record phenomena and conjunctions that otherwise go ignored. As Emerson once noted of reading Thoreau’s Journal, “’Tis as if I went into a gymnasium & saw youths leap, climb & swing with a force unapproachable”.[16]

I would take this a step further, or turn it inside out:

  • Not only glimpses of ourselves; poetry may, however briefly, take us outside and beyond ourselves.[17]

Fountain—in South Carolina?

Now returning—wiser?—to Myles and Bass and to speak about some of the challenges their poems suggest (and trying not to get lost in CAPITALISM). While “Dissolution” focuses on one dissolving relationship and its particular unhappiness, it is also about dissolution more generally, and at least in two senses.

On the one hand the poem is a reminder—hardly the first!—of the dissolution of poetic form, and, in this case, one may sense a connection between the “creative destruction” of old forms and the dissolution of intimate relationships. When human beings are breaking up and “alles Ständische und Stehende verdampft” (all that is solid melts into air), we become yet more than usually self-centered—obnoxiously self-centered or disappearing into our shells, or simply flailing.[18] Be this sullenly, stoically, or with a wafer-thin gleefulness, we turn our backs on others and on hope and on our pasts.

Again, I am trying not to get lost in CAPITALISM, so let me just note that if a poet is no longer attached to or has lost faith in the traditional forms, and this even as she may admire and wish to recall them, . . . We find ourselves left with little but our own present resources; we are, as Sartre proposed, condemned to freedom. A poet such as Myles makes a decision about the length of every line she writes. Playing off, yet unchannelled by the demands of rhythm or rhyme, she must choose—or blow off choosing—each of “her” words from the universe of language as it has come down to, or onto, her.[19] (More about this soon.)

Writing poetry today, I am tempted to say, is as difficult as learning to live by oneself. Cf., W.H. Auden: “I think very few people can manage free verse. You need an infallible ear, like D.H. Lawrence, to determine where the lines should end.”[20] I would say something similar about single parenting.

On the other hand, Myles’s poem reflects the loosening—in our postmodern age and amid the breakdown of likely never wonderful commitments: of employers, citizens, lovers, and parents—the loosening of our slim grasp on a sense of purpose and on a hierarchy of values. As regards “Dissolution,” I have in mind how large political concerns get half a line—“& just racist”—while the mosquito gets at least two, and “my coloring book” half a dozen or more.

At the outset of this essay I noted how the form and content of Myles’s and Bass’s work can remind us that the past remains with us. Now I note that “Dissolution” and “The Small Country” can both take us back to a specific moment: the First World War. That is, nostalgically we might think of this as the last time when, in the West at least, there was poetic consensus. Poets and readers agreed that poetry was important and about what its important subjects were. Less nostalgically, we may, after Yeats, observe that in the muddy, bombarded trenches and slaughter of the First World War things fell apart; the falcon could no longer hear the falconer; innocence drowned.[21]


I would come back briefly to the burden that is placed on a poet—or on an essayist—continuing to write in our postmodern or otherwise dissolute and Verdampften, boiling away, times. “Because everything has become problematic, everything is also somehow a matter of indifference,” one of our popular philosophers, Peter Sloterdijk, has proposed.[22] If one can but faintly claim that anything—except perhaps, but not really, ME!—is more important than anything else, if each person by his, or her, own actions plows his own truths in land fertile or barren, she little knows, . . . Line lengths may be the easy part. How is a poet—or human being—to decide what deserves attention and what to ignore?

I have admired Myles’s craft, and I admire those many of us who seek to keep exercising and developing our own crafts, however leaky or vast, using whatever fragments of the wreckage we find near at hand. But friends and colleagues—other readers of “Dissolution”—have found that, in the end, it does not come to much. Or, we might—as might Myles’s characters (in another poem)—shout: “It is not enough!” “It does not feel like enough!”

The wreck of the Costa Concordia, Giglio, Italy, 2012, as photographed from a satellite by Digital Globe.
In closing, a few last words, dissimilar and similar, about “The Small Country.” We might say that it is based on a currently popular conceit, that each of us has her or his own language or languages—spoken, gestural, physiologic, erotic, spiritual. And thus it can appear that the problems of interpersonal and cross-cultural communication lie in the fact that we are not, or not quite, speaking the same languages.

This view is belied or overwhelmed by the LANGUAGES OF SELLING AND POLITICS which never stop invading all of us, no matter who or where we are, and putting the same emptinesses on all of our tongues. Reading Wittgenstein has allowed me to tiptoe around this fact to another, more dispassionate and broader perspective. Not only commercial and political language, but all our languages are social constructs that are imposed upon us from our earliest infancy and, before that, in the womb. (And, before that, there is the language of DNA.) In being taught, for example, the various ways in which sensations (be they pains or pleasures) can be communicated and responded to in our particular culture, we are being taught, too, what it is possible to feel and what the language (or languages) of feeling is. And this comes to be the only possible language we can feel.

Of course there are differences between the bibles we read, between the gurus on whom we lean, between the clips and shows we watch; all our different playlists (and wishes for poetry), the different ways we have been parented and schooled. But these differences can appear to pale next to this overwhelming fact: language is imposed on us; we are colonized by language.

Many writers have written about how the colonized end up with only the colonizers’ words and grammar to express the oppression. The previously quoted Shakespeare sonnet (“replete with you / My most true mind thus makes mine untrue”) speaks with less displeasure about another kind of colonization: not by propaganda, by love. In “The Small Country,” and particularly at its outset, the problem seems the inverse: how—given the poverty, or poverties, of our language—can we love? What I am proposing is that we are all, and be we in love or not, colonized by an other and by the accretions of many others, and this when we, like a ship water, take on language. Pushing the analogy toward its breaking point, we might say that we have lots of words for love and loving, for poetry, products, and politics, but they are all water-logged.

The two lovers of “The Small Country” may very well feel that they cannot know one another. A commonplace that has been imposed on heterosexuals is that men are from Mars, women from Venus. In Bass’s poem a vast distance remains even between the closest and most similar. And yet looming over all this is how our knowledge is defined by a social construct—language—that we have, largely unconsciously, absorbed (like a ship water). As passionately as Bass’s two lovers may both be wrestling with words, these very words stand opposed to the possibility of any me being more, or less, than a product of language. To put this in another, simpler way: we human beings are social animals, and if we are at present enamored of our individuality and impressed by its burdens and limitations (and great pleasures!), herein lies a confusion, one of the smallnesses of our state.

That was the “dissimilar” thing I had to say. The similar one, the point that again connects “Dissolution” and “The Small Country,” has to do with the latter poem being a sonnet. I should note that this is my imposition upon, or colonization of, Bass’s work. For all I know she has never thought of her poem as a sonnet and would reject the connection. But the point I would still make—or the question I would raise—is this: What would have happened if Bass had tried to make her poem conform more closely to the social convention of the metrical and rhyme patterns of traditional sonnets?

What I would propose is that Bass’s hold over her material would have had to give some ground as the demands of the form channeled and even directed some of her word choices. I recall a French painter once proposing that there comes a point at which you have to complete the painting that the painting itself wants to be. This can be frustrating, certainly. You can feel what you thought was your material, your vision, your ideas, your work getting away from you. This other—either a specific “child” to whom you have given birth or the form in which you have chosen to work—begins to impose itself, to talk more loudly than you are able to. But wonderful things can happen in this process, too, and this both when you fight against it and when you, perhaps enthusiastically, succumb, renouncing the centrality of your ego. The collective product, the result of what might be called teamwork or love, can become something greater than what an I alone can produce.[23] (And, to return briefly to my list of wishes for poetry, through this ceding of absolute control, the poet may be able to better hear the language of the spheres and help us get beyond ourselves.)

I have noted that fellow readers of Myles’s and Bass’s poems had had some complaints, that these readers said they did not find as much as they would have wished in the poems. One colleague e-mailed me, “There are phrases within each of these pieces that I wish could be less contrived, . . . and others that I wish could be more refreshing, as well.” We touch here, I am proposing, on limitations of our times.

— Wm. Eaton, Zeteo Editor


Credits & Pdf

Top image is by photographer Peter Iredale. It is of the remains of a sailing vessel that ran ashore on the Oregon coast.

Highways under water: photographer Mario Tama, Getty Images. Scene from Vicksburg, Mississippi, 2011. From a TIME feature entitled “Photos from Inside the Flood Zone.”

The wreck of the Costa Concordia, Giglio, Italy, 2012, as photographed from a satellite by Digital Globe.

Fountain—in South Carolina?—and blue bucket over river: photographers unidentified.
river, with blue seat


[1] Eileen Myles was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1949 and moved to New York City in 1974 to be a poet. She gave her first reading at CBGB’s, and then gravitated to the St. Mark’s Church, where she studied with Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley, and Bill Zavatsky. She has published more than a dozen volumes of poetry and fiction. From poetryfoundation.org/bio/eileen-myles. See New Yorker site for correct formatting of the lines of Dissolution.

[2] An early example of ekphrastic poetry, from The Iliad, “The Shield of Achilles,” in Robert Fagles’s translation:

And first Hephaestus makes a great and massive shield,
blazoning well-wrought emblems all across its surface,
raising a rim around it, glittering, triple-ply
with a silver shield-strap run from edge to edge
and five layers of metal to build the shield itself, . . .

An example of language poetry; four stanzas from amid Susan Howe’s ThatThis (which concludes with the words “every / age or century for a day is” quoted earlier):

The way music is formed of
cloud and fire once actually

concrete now accidental as
half truth or as whole truth

Is light anything like this
stray pencil commonplace

copy as to one aberrant
onward-gliding mystery

[3] A contemporary “sex” example: Olena Kaltyiak Davis’s The Lyric ‘I’ Drives to Pick up Her Children from School: A Poem in the Postconfessional Mode. A favorite relationship-with-sex example, quite similar to “The Small Country” in its concerns, though not in its approach: Carol Jane Bangs, Touching Each Other’s Surfaces.

Sex, of course, is not a discovery of contemporary poets. We have, for example, John Donne’s “There in a creek where chosen pearls do swell, / The remora, her cleaving tongue doth dwell.” And Emily Dickinson’s “in the Isles of Spice — / The subtle Cargoes — lie.” But, if lovers used to be scented and bejeweled, now our erotic poems expose us. From Ariana Reines’s “Trying to see the proportional relation”:

            . . . When Sinan
Fucks me, we lose our individuality
So severely it’s like we’re both
Gasping after an animal that’s his
Cock that is beyond us and I lose
All sense of the world. His cock’s
Not even him, and he’s not him either
And we aren’t anything.

[4] Used as an adjective “pedestrian” is often pejorative; as a noun, neutral or complimentary. An example of plain-speaking poetry, from Louise Glück’s “The Empty Glass”:

Well, it all makes for interesting conjecture.
And it occurs to me that what is crucial is to believe
in effort, to believe some good will come of simply trying,
a good completely untainted by the corrupt initiating impulse
to persuade or seduce—

And from the opening of Judith Ortiz Cofer’s “The Changeling”:

                        As a young girl
vying for my father’s attention,
I invented a game that made him look up
from his reading and shake his head
as if both baffled and amused.

Such plain-speaking is, however, counter-weighted—or, at times, it seems, cancelled out—by both language poetry and what I am tempted to call big-dictionary poetry. For example, a nicely alliterative, musical example, the second stanza of Karen Volkman’s “[Show me the body that brides its quest]”:

the sluice and swooning of her semblant rest—
the river ruptures, the weeds branch blue—
day’s jaune eyes (wide lucencies) bleed new
hollow spaces where the breathings nest, . . .

[5] Ellen Bass was born in 1947 and grew up in New Jersey. At Boston University she studied with Anne Sexton. Bass has written several books of poetry and helped edit the feminist anthology No More Masks! An Anthology of Poems by Women (1973). She has also written, with Laura Davis, two self-help books for people who were sexually abused in childhood. She teaches in the MFA program at Pacific University. From: poetryfoundation.org/bio/ellen-bass.

[6] I cannot resist noting that the Brazilian word cafuné is rooted in an African word for an action we associate with monkeys: picking lice out of one another’s hair. A nod toward a point to come: we are social animals.

[7] The sonnet is “the first lyric of self-consciousness, or of the self in conflict” — Paul Oppenheimer, The Birth of the Modern Mind: Self, Consciousness, and the Invention of the Sonnet (Oxford University Press, 1989). “If the shape of the Petrarchan sonnet, with its two slightly unbalanced sections devoted to pressure and release, seems to accord with the dynamics of much emotional [or sexual?] experience, the shape of the Shakespearean, with its smaller units and its ‘commentary’ couplet, seems to accord with the modes of the intellectual, analytic, and even satiric operations of the human sensibility.” — Paul Fussell, Poetic Meter & Poetic Form (Random House, 1979).

[8] The “I” of “Dissolution” might well be at some distance, to include in age, from the poet herself. Because the author of “The Small Country” has a female name and because of the phrase “the mirror of my own body,” we are confident that, in this case, we are in the seemingly quite small country of a woman (a female poet) making love to a woman, but this is all the more reason to not lose sight of the fact that the “I” of a poem is never quite the poet. And better: we can see that these two poems, no matter how autobiographical, are less about individual lives than about ideas—about language and intimacy, about the state of dissolution.

[9] George Meredith, “Modern Love,” XXX, opening lines:

What are we first? First, animals; and next
Intelligences at a leap; on whom
Pale lies the distant shadow of the tomb,
And all that draweth on the tomb for text.
Into which state comes Love, the crowning sun:
Beneath whose light the shadow loses form.

Myles, from “Dissolution”:

The ripple
of experience is the
only beauty here.

[10] Rita Dove, from “Fifth Grade Autobiography”:

. . . sun through the trees
printing her dress with soft
luminous paws.

Matthew Arnold (in 1869, a Freudian avant la lettre):

Below the surface-stream, shallow and light,
Of what we say we feel — below the stream,
As light, of what we think we feel — there flows
With noiseless current strong, obscure and deep,
The central stream of what we feel indeed.

[11] Samuel Coleridge, from “Christabel”:

The one red leaf, the last of its clan,
That dances as often as dance it can,
Hanging so light, and hanging so high,
On the topmost twig that looks up at the sky.

Claude McKay, opening lines of “The Harlem Dancer”:

Applauding youths laughed with young prostitutes
And watched her perfect, half-clothed body sway;
Her voice was like the sound of blended flutes
Blown by black players upon a picnic day.

[12] Letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, April 1861.

[13] Thanks here are due to my Zeteo colleague Ed Mooney and the opening section of his essay on “Grounding Poetry,” chapter 14 of his Excursions with Thoreau (Bloomsbury, 2015). I might note also Helen Vendler’s plain-speaking introduction to lyric poetry in Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology (Bedford Books, 1997):

Many people, writers and nonwriters alike, see the world imaginatively: to accompany such people to a party or an exhibition of a play is to see the event more keenly and more vividly than one might have done alone. The world takes on my more color; things are seen from a new slant; events are freshly interpreted and highlighted; a vivacity of response is summoned up.

An example of language reanimated from The Bath by Gary Snyder:

Sweating and panting in the stove-steam hot-stone
cedar-planking wooden bucket water-splashing
kerosene lantern-flicker wind-in-the-pines-out
sierra forest ridges night—

See Poetry Foundation site for correct formatting of the lines.

[14] In the Introduction to his All What Jazz: A Record Diary, Philip Larkin suggested that poetry should help us “enjoy” and “endure.”

[15] From Thomas Hardy’s “On a Fine Morning”:

Thus do I this heydey, holding
Shadows but as lights unfolding

And lines from Austen Rosenfeld’s “Natural Disaster” (as published in Agni 80):

What could they deduce from the rubble? . . .

The whole city had a tint like an underwater kingdom

Wasn’t this what they always wanted?
Wasn’t this some private wish fulfilled?

[16] Emerson’s Journal, June 24, 1863.

[17] Ecclesiastes 12:5-6, in the King James translation:

Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets:

Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.

Wallace Stevens, opening lines of “The Man with the Blue Guitar”:

The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.

They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

[18] German is from Marx and Engels, Manifest der kommunistischen Partei. English rendition is from Samuel Moore’s influential 1888 translation (The Communist Manifesto). Verdampften: to vaporize, evaporate, boil away.

[19] Similarly, Bass’s freedom to play off traditional sonnet form is one part luxury, one part burden.

[20]W. H. Auden, The Art of Poetry No. 17,” interviewed by Michael Newman, The Paris Review.

[21] Yeats, The Second Coming, 1919. There have been many versions of the poem. These lines are from the version published in Michael Robartes and the Dancer:

. . . The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, . . .

Another example: the opening of To Germany, a sonnet by Charles Hamilton Sorley, a young Englishman, who, in 1915, before the poem’s publication, was shot in the head by a sniper and killed.

You are blind like us. Your hurt no man designed,
And no man claimed the conquest of your land.
But gropers both through fields of thought confined
We stumble and we do not understand.
You only saw your future bigly planned,
And we, the tapering paths of our own mind,
And in each other’s dearest ways we stand,
And hiss and hate. And the blind fight the blind.

[22] Peter Sloterdijk, Kritik der zynischen Vernunft (1983), here as translated by Michael Eldred, Critique of Cynical Reason (University of Minnesota Press, 1988).

[23] The present essay began as an e-mail, and generous responses to that e-mail from friends and colleagues—from Stuart, Daniel, Heather, and Walter—not only led me to specific ideas, they gave me an energy, the energy that comes from feeling in dialogue. “This is my letter to the world, / That never wrote to me,” Emily Dickinson wrote, beautifully expressing her isolation and the isolation of an American mind. But it is also the case that many, many of her poems were mailed to specific people. Her interlocutors and what she had to say to them were such that the dialogue was quickly derailed, but in the beginning there was, let us say, not just a word, but also a hope for dialogue, a hope undying, if ever frustrated.

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What might poetry give us.

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