Saturday, April 7, 2012


I had it in mind to work from today's letter, E, by writing a poem. But then I thought, wait, you've already done that. Then I got thinking about other possible E words. I thought about "engagement" and "excellence" and, of course, "education." But that trio felt intimidatingly large individually, much less taken together. I don't want this 26-day challenge to turn into a marathon that leaves me wiped out at the end. I wanted something with three defining characteristics, first that it would be different from what I've already done, second that it might be thought-provoking with involving a lot of brainbending word work, and third that it would fit in with or reinforce both the abecedarian architecture of this series of posts and its educational focus.

So then I thought some more about the (capital) letter "E," and its particular architecture: a vertical line on the left, and three horizontal branches to the right. It looks a little like graphic organizer for an essay. Or a blog post.

I had already thought about simply presenting a poem, as opposed to writing one. At the end of yesterday's post I was speculating on the universal impulse for escape (a good "e" word), the desire to be somewhere else, and even as I was thinking about Derek Walcott's poem "Elsewhere" as a likely candidate.

So today I went over to my office and rifled through my files to find "Elsewhere." And as I was doing so I also ran across two other "E" poems. Throughout my teaching career I've generally made a practice of asking students to read poems in clusters, on the theory that the choices a writer makes in one poem often call attention other choices made in other poems being read together. And so then I figured, what the heck, why not just present these three poems as a group, with the poems individually being the branches, so to speak, and the post as a whole sharing an architecture with "E."

Then there was the question of sequence, what order to put them in, and worked that out. So here they are:

The Elusive Something

Was it in the smell of freshly baked bread
That came out to meet me in the street?
The face of a girl carrying a white dress
From the cleaners with her eyes half closed?

The sight of a building blackened by fire
Where once I went to look for work?
The toothless old man passing out leaflets
For a clothing store going out of business?

Or was it the woman pushing a baby carriage
About to turn the corner? I ran after,
As if the little one lying in it was known to me,
And found myself alone on a busy street

I didn't recognize, feeling like someone
Out for the first time after a long illness,
Who sees the world with his heart,
Then hurries home to forget how it felt.

Charles Simic, from Master of Disguises,
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Simple enough, right? The speaker, out on the street, senses… something. But since he doesn't know what it is or where it's coming from, he can only interrogate it, which is why the poem begins with five questions. The act of asking the questions, trying to figure it out, leads him into unfamiliar territory. Pretty much the entire last stanza is an extended simile, which makes the attempt to describe how the speaker feels, "alone on a busy street I didn't recognize," by comparing himself to another entirely hypothetical someone who might be lost in a similar way, and whose response is to go back home and erase the whole experience from his mind.

Maybe not so simple after all? That's been my experience with reading Simic. His poems are often short narratives using ordinary language to tell about what seem to be ordinary occurrences, but upon examination they begin to open up in unexpected ways. Why does the guy in the example want to forget? Is it too hard, too painful, to see the world with your whole heart? Is that something to be cultivated? Or to be avoided at all costs. Given the presence of an "elusive something," how can we get at it? Do we really want to? Should we? Discuss.

It's hard for me not to read this poem as an oblique, or maybe not so oblique, commentary on being a writer in the first place. As Lia Purpura has it, "A word is a way to speak about something that really, in truth, no word can touch."


(For Stephen Spender)

Somewhere a white horse gallops with its mane
plunging round a field whose sticks
are ringed with barbed wire, and men
break stones or bind straw into ricks.

Somewhere women tire of the shawled sea's
weeping, for the fishermen's dories
still go out. It is blue as peace.
Somewhere they're tired of torture stories.

That somewhere there was an arrest.
Somewhere there was a small harvest
of bodies in the truck. Soldiers rest
somewhere by a road, or smoke in a forest.

Somewhere there is the conference rage
at an outrage. Somewhere a page
is torn out, and somehow the foliage
no longer looks like leaves but camouflage.

Somewhere there is a comrade,
a writer lying with his eyes wide open
on mattress ticking, who will not read
this, or write. How to make a pen?

And here we are free for a while, but
elsewhere, in one-third, or one-seventh
of this planet, a summary rifle butt
breaks a skull into the idea of a heaven

where nothing is free, where blue air
is paper-frail, and whatever we write
will be stamped twice, a blue letter,
its throat slit by the paper knife of the state.

Through these black bars
hollowed faces stare. Fingers
grip the cross bars of these stanzas
and it is here, because somewhere else

their stares fog into oblivion
thinly, like the faceless numbers
that bewilder you in your telephone
diary. Like last year's massacres.

The world is blameless. The darker crime
is to make a career of conscience,
to feel through our own nerves the silent scream
of winter branches, wonders read as signs.

- Derek Walcott, from The Arkansas Testament, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1987)

This poem takes a broader view than Simic's. It's longer, more ambitious, and certainly more explicitly political than the Simic poem. It's similar in terms of its stanza form and the density of its imagery, although Walcott makes a point of rhyming. Initially. (The fact that the rhyme pattern breaks down as the poem goes on is anything but accidental.) There's an explicit attempt to contrast the "here where we are free for a while" (that one line an island of exceptionalism, and even that qualified by the rather chilling "for a while") with all of the other somewheres. What links this poem to the Dylan imagery I wrote about yesterday is the longing for freedom, the desire to be somewhere else, but here Dylan's solipsistic individual yearning is inverted and politicized: rather than wishing to be somewhere free, the speaker, who is in fact in a free place, temporary and vulnerable as it may be, is thinking of all of the other souls on this planet who could only wish to be as fortunate as he is now. The ethical question underlying the whole enterprise is what should be, what can be, an adequate response to the plight of those who are suffering while we are not. Even the act of writing itself is, comparatively, a luxury. Walcott evokes the comrade who cannot write, not having the means to make a pen; later he explicitly connects the lines of the poem to the bars of a prison: "Through these black bars hollowed faces stare." The last stanza inverts the whole question of blame and responsibility again: Walcott in writing this poem, and in inviting us into it, could be said to be "making a career of conscience," but in his own words, that is even a "darker crime" than absolving yourself of responsibility. True? False? Discuss.

E= MC2

Someday, perhaps, some alien eye or eyes,
Blood red in cold and polished horny lids,
Set in a chitinous face
Will sweep the arch of some dark, distant sky
And see a nova flare,
A flick of light, no more,
A pin-point on a photographic plate,
A footnote in an alien chart of stars
Forgotten soon on miles of dusty shelves
Where alien beetles feed.
A meal for worms,
Sole epitaph
To mark the curious end of restless man,
Who for a second of galactic time
Floated upon a speck of cosmic dust
Around a minor sun.

- Rosser Reeves

Since this is a post about the letter "E," I could not very well resist the temptation to include this poem, which supplies us with one of that letter's most influential and powerful (pun perhaps intended) definitions. I first was introduced to this poem forty years ago. At the time, I had not heard of Rosser Reeves and was unable, in the pre-internet era, to find out anything about him. I did not know until today, when I ran across this poem and decided to Google him, what an interesting life he had as an ad executive, nor that the character of Mad Men's Don Draper was apparently modeled at least in part on his life. (Although Don Draper, as far as I know, does not have a hidden life as a novelist and poet.)

In any case, this third poem in our little series takes the broadest view of all. If Simic is about the street, and Walcott is about the planet, Reeves is about, well, the universe. From the point of view of galactic space and time, nothing we do or don't do, in the short or the long term (relatively speaking), for better or for worse, makes a hell of a lot of difference. That seems to be the meta-message underlying all that we human beings have learned from our investigation of the world we've lived in these few thousand years. How does that make you feel? Liberated? Oppressed? Depressed? Discuss.

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