Monthly Archives: January 2008

Monday’s Verse 1-21-08

Dear Readers,

In December I read a review of a new book by Michael O’Brien, some New York type cat I’d never ever heard of. The review claimed that “O’Brien is primarily an observer rather than a debater, and the poems here are heavy on isolated images, dream logic, bits of overheard conversation (typically urban conversation) and memories, with larger themes emerging through juxtapositions and repetitions.” Sounded good, yet I’ve found the poems were even dreamier than I’d expected, with less of the rhythm of city life or the hardness of concrete fact and detail. The following description, from the same review, is accurate: “Reading the best work here is like watching watercolors blur across wet paper, gradually mingling to produce soft yet definite shapes. It’s writing more interesting to sink into than to parse.” So maybe I won’t fully parse the selection below, which in any case stands up for itself and “tells a little story” more than most of the other poems from “Sleeping and Waking” do. I loved this one. No, it’s not an epigraph to the movie of the same name, but I think its spirit is not wholly inconsistent. -ed.


on the street she
yawns, her jeans
yawn, her knees 
rhyme with her eyes

helpless, half-suppressed
smile of the
girl in the
Bleecker Street subway,
trying hard not to 
beam across at her sweetie

work against correspondence, the
world is not a
book, everything is
not something else, you
could look it up


Monday’s Verse 1-21-08

Dear Friends,

One of my all-time faves today, one that’s been featured here at least once before. It’s finally getting cold in New York (note that I do not mention this as a good thing), so we revisit Wallace Stevens‘ “The Snow Man.” I can remember reading this the first time–I was at an outdoor T stop in Boston. I don’t know if it was cold out but it gave me the shivers–something about the skillful and dramatic use of repetition, I think. Also the observant solitude in so many WS (1879-1955) poems gets me in the heart every time. There’s a wonderful radio piece from NPR here

where commentator Jay Keyser calls the poem “a recipe for seeing things as they really are.” I think we’d have to add imagery and repetition to his reading, which focuses on conjunctions and balance, to get a deep analysis of the poem, but his take is great for the purposes of our group. It’s only about 3 minutes long; I’d recommend looking at the printed page while listening, if possible. Stay warm! -ed.

The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is. 

–from Harmonium, 1923

Monday’s Verse 1-14-08

And we’re BAAACK! (pronounced à la Jimmy Fallon‘s a-hole, cheezball, FM DJ in an SNL skit).

Well I’m sorry that break was so long but it was, from my own personal point of view, quite necessary. I wish all a happy 2008.

A couple weeks ago Stanley Fish wrote a column in the Times about the uses of the humanities as a discipline. He actually defended the occupation for its LACK of a practical justification. His column got a huge response, and he’s continued it with a sequel this week–which begins with the poetry analysis quoted here. If you want to check out the whole article, then check out:

I include it not for its overall argument, but because in a couple paragraphs he lays out the kind of thing I should be doing each week with the poems we read. I will try better. Of course Fish can, and likely does, do this in his sleep. I actually have to think about it, and the farther away I’ve gotten from coursework in literature, the harder it’s been. But I think he explains the basic GOAL succinctly. Poem* first, then analysis. And yes, Dr. Fish does end with an open question…


*(Remember George Herbert, 1593-1633, Welshman, member of Parliament, Anglican priest, poet? Sure you do.)


I cannot ope mine eyes,

But thou art ready there to catch

My morning-soul and sacrifice:

Then we must needs for that day make a match.


My God, what is a heart?

Silver, or gold, or precious stone,

Or star, or rainbow, or a part

Of all these things, or all of them in one?


My God, what is a heart?

That thou should it so eye and woo,

Pouring upon it all they art,

As if that thou hadst nothing else to do?


Indeed, man’s whole estate

Amounts (and richly) to serve thee:

He did not heaven and earth create,

Yet studies them, not him by whom they be.


Teach me thy love to know;

That this new light, which now I see

May both the w rk and workman show:

Then by a sunbeam I will climb to thee.

In a poem titled “Matins,” the 17th century Anglican poet George Herbert says to God, If you will “teach me thy love to know . . . Then by a sunbeam I will climb to thee.” But the dynamics of the proffered bargain – if you do X, I’ll do Y – are undercut by the line that proposes it, and especially by the double pun in “sunbeam.”

“Sun” is a standard pun on Son; it refers to Jesus Christ; “beam” means not only ray of light, but a piece of wood large enough to support a structure; it refers to the cross on which a crucified Christ by dying takes upon himself and redeems (pays the price for) the sins of those who believe in him. So while “by a sunbeam” seems to specify the means by which the poem’s speaker will perform a certain act – “I will climb to thee” – the phrase undercut his claim to be able to do so by reminding us (not him) that Christ has already done the climbing and thereby prevented (in the sense of anticipating) any positive act man mistakenly thinks to be his own. If the speaker climbs to God, he does so by means of God, and cannot take any personal credit for what he “does.” If he truly knows God’s love, he will know that as an unconditional and all-sufficing gift it has disabled him as an agent.