Posts Tagged ‘literature’

Wallace Stevens: Adorning the Rock

May 5, 2019


This is the longest piece I ever wrote. I published it on extrasimile in four parts. it also appeared (and still appears, though it difficult to find) on00 You will be forgiven if you don’t read it, but it is something of f an Ars Poetica for me.




Donald Hall goes right to the point: I see no reason to spend your life writing poems unless your goal is to write great poems. Steven Spender is equally succinct: I think continually of those who were truly great./ Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history.

Great Poetry is Difficult Poetry, but…

It seems an unimpeachable point. Maybe we could quibble over this ‘soul’s history’ stuff, but who wants to write a mediocre poem? Who, indeed, takes pencil and paper in hand with the intention of writing something merely passable? No one’s forcing you to do this, pal. You can be a commonplace anything. Why write poetry? You’d be better off practicing guitar chords or working on your jump shot.

I won’t get cute here. We all know the evil answer to this question lurks in Hall’s ‘your goal’. We all know there is a great gulf between trying to write a great poem and writing a great poem.

Substitute the word ‘difficult’ for ‘great’ in both Donald Hall’s and Steven Spender’s sentences and you will find an interesting shift in meaning. Let’s face it, if you go through life aspiring to be difficult, all you accomplish is that you’ll stop getting invited to parties. As a goal for your poems, being merely difficult does not seem sufficient-whereas being great does. Still, we do think a great poem is a difficult poem, do we not? Difficulty suggests complexity of vision, insightfulness, a penetration of subject matter, an attempt to wring something from our quotidian lives that makes those lives worth living. A difficult poem attempts to tell us something we don’t want to hear. A difficult poem at least has the potential to be great that an ‘easy’ poem does not. Name one poem that’s great and easy. While they are clearly not identical, if we are going to understand the great poem there is a good chance we are going to have to get there through the door of the difficult poem. Besides, anybody can write a difficult poem.

Why are you doing this to yourself?

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This Jolly Rogue (A Dream Language)

March 23, 2019

Just as sleep can become a rock, only
A jolly rogue can become a dream language
large enough for what a nightmare stands for.
For what are dreams if not the ground
We stand and fight for, eh Horatio?\
And what a stone is, is what a rock can be
When divided too many times—pebbles, sand,
Infinity’s poundage, even a sea of waves—
To make no man a man, or at least to make
A man ground, porous and abiding.

 Horatio, our voyage is poised by the sea.
Its purpose is to provide a resting place

For me (that is, as secure as Claudius’ wife.)
We shall not be allowed a whip or whale
For a while…Besides it’s only pirates who can
Save us both from the pirated souls of
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. So, stand
Abaft the stern, Horatio. This Jolly Rogue
Will sink all of Denmark; it will let me bury and\
redream a kingdom yet to come. 


The Songs of Innocence and Experience

June 20, 2018

For John Looker

June 10, 2018

An empty space left
to occupy a meadow:
Hey, bouquet, let’s play.

The Little Ones

June 17, 2017

I have been thinking of unearthing some of my old prose pieces that I wrote when Extrasimile was a mere babe in my arms. Though some of the material is dated, most is not. Or it is dated in a good way: it will help by providing a perspective on our current situation. Much of Extrasimile was written during the internet explosion. And when I was teaching at City College. I remember asking a teaching assistant I had had he ever heard of the Wikipedia. He shook his head. No, what is it?

I will start with a short story. It name when first published was A Thanksgiving Tale; that is still a good name, but I like The Little Ones better.

When he read it John Looker (then John Stevens)  wrote:
I thought I’d save it for later but read as far as: “the enormous faux pas of inviting Friedrich Nietzsche for Thanksgiving dinner” and was immediately hooked. What a hilarious idea!
It’s several decades since I read a bit of Nietzsche in my efforts to manage a youthful transition from faith to unfaith. I remember thinking that he created such an appallingly bleak vision of a godless universe that it strapped crampons on my feet before I slipped all the way down into nihilism.
Then I reached your bit: “There is a kind of parallel between the idea, held in such contradiction to the facts, and the believer who thanks God for His blessing, even as this God (who must be responsible for the bad as well as the good) rains down adversity.” So by now I was hooked on the ideas in your story and not just the humour. Where would you take us?
Then at the end you gave us the phone call from Jocelyn, the gasp, and an explanation for that early reference to the hospital that had been left hanging in the air.
A clever tale and woven very tightly. Not very comforting, but then why should it be? We have to find a way to cope. Perhaps May in the story in right (along with many millions) but that way simply won’t work for many of us. It didn’t work for FN either but he didn’t offer much of an alternative unless you find comfort in the thought of eternal rebirth in an arbitrary existence.
Perhaps Voltaire had a point: keep digging the garden? Raise turkeys. Enjoy your turkey today Jim and happy Thanksgiving.

John is a good reader of my stuff; his comments are introduction enough,

“Look, he practically begged me to invite him. He’s alone, he’s lonely, but in truth, he’s a nice guy, we shoot the breeze now and then, he’s very smart. Once you get past the silly mustache…

“Yes, I did know he can be contentious…

“Yes, I did know he can be overbearing…”

“And he brought those horrid sausages.”

Well, yes.

“And that beer….”

Okay, yes.

“…which incidentally had everybody so blitzed there was no one to drive me to the hospital.”

Yes, true, but…


A short segment of a very long conversation I had with my sister after I committed the enormous faux pas of inviting Friedrich Nietzsche for Thanksgiving dinner.

Yes, I should have told her I was inviting a stranger, but it was a last minute thing. The man’s a famous philosopher, after all. Okay, a philologist. I still think it was more about turkey gravy in his mustache, then about what probably is a stupid idea—that which does not destroy me, makes me stronger. Sure, everybody had a little too much to drink, but that whole ‘grace thing’ my cousin May does every Thanksgiving set him off. It doesn’t mean that much to me. May wants to pray; I’m cool. But Friedrich Nietzsche…it’s obviously… you know, he’s made a name for himself, Mr. Anti-Christian.

“Father Sprit, blessed Jesus, Lord of the land, sea and air—please bless this table and those who sit in common communion at its portals…”

“This ‘Father Spirit’, liebchen, what does it signify…?”

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April 5, 2016

I have begun with thyme again. I did not start it from seed this time; it seemed unpropitious. I got some cuttings from my greengrocer and started them in some sort of growing medium, I’m not sure what, mica chips or something. Anyway, here they are. Come spring I shall plant them in the old garden, well-tended by my Aunt Breath until she died, in the hope that not only will this be the beginnings of thyme but the reimagining of the garden as well. Next year I shall add some roses and maybe mint. I like a good mint tea.

Now it is reasonable to ask, what do I think I’m doing here, planting anything in my dear aunt’s garden? I don’t own the land. It was sold soon after her death at age 87, two years ago, to a nice family with two nice kids.

So, I won’t be able to tend it. I won’t be able to watch it grow. Or sit in the evening and smell its fragrance. Or anything. I repeat: what do I think I’m doing here?

Here’s my answer: I shall enter the garden invisibly. Like the philosopher John Wisdom in his essay Gods does; who simply posits the existence of a gardener and lets the curious try to find him. I will let the new owner try to find me. There will be no one that curious. The thyme will simply appear one morning, as if someone planted it, someone invisible. As I return each night I shall become harder to see.


We get up early in the hospital. The bright lights come on at 5:00 am. The lights are never off, only dimmed. Breakfast comes hours later, after the doctors have made their rounds. This morning I am waiting for the surgeon. The brain surgeon. He’s a tough man to pin down. He’s tough to figure out. Sometimes he’s the first one to arrive; sometimes he doesn’t come at all.

While I wait, I tend to my thyme clippings, examining all the roots as if they were flowers. They are  white filament-like structures that specialize in getting nutrients from the moisture of the soil.   Just the opposite of flowers. A hydrotrope, not heliotrope.

In my room I have a copy of the Philosophical Investigations, by Ludwig Wittgenstein—a second hand copy, handed down from Aunt Breath. I find I have an annotation right next to the opening paragraph, the one from Augustine’s Confessions, that reads ‘Don’t think, look!’ which is all right insofar as it goes, but it goes not far enough. The argument as I understand it runs like this.

Though Augustine has thought out his little picture what language is, he has not studied language. He has not looked at it. He was lead therefore to a dangerous picture of language, that nouns were the whole story, that language connected to t Read the rest of this entry »

A Luxury of Knowledge

January 31, 2013

How intriguing. Aunt Gracie’s final words,
her epitaph against the sky, has revealed
an audience for poetry, strangers,
come from the funeral, awaiting tea.

Her parlor looks like an empty parking lot
after a summer’s baseball game.
The kids have all gone home, of course,
half winners, half losers. Outside

the beast moans as if he finds
our tableaux-vivant insipid.
The beast moans again. It’s his tea,
after all, so we sip it.

Equidistant from his desire
and from our eyes, is this sentence:
If poetry is the luxury of knowledge,
pity the poor sky…

So be it, Aunt Grace, tea and poetry.
One hundred and seven years on the planet,
and now you’re dead, so much like
a final poem left in an empty valise.