Monthly Archives: December 2008

Monday’s Verse, December 29/08

No inspiration today. So I reached out to Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac, and remembered one I’d heard him read at some point during my finals week. My housemate Jayna was at the table working, my housemate Erin was on her way out the door to meet some dreadful clinic, I was arriving home, starving. We all froze and listened while this one was read.

Looking at it now, it’s a perfect use of “formalized” free verse–I mean, it is a sonnet, but not in any of the rhyme-stanza schemes we’re most familiar
with. Instead it breaks stanzas using sense, plays with expectation through punctuation and line breaks, and skillfully mixes slant rhyme, end rhyme, internal rhyme, and assonance–all hallmarks of free verse. At first I chafed with the closing question (it struck me as sort of coyly rhetorical) but then re-considered that it’s kind of a cool alternative to the neat, rhymed, wrapping-up couplet of the Shakespearean model. Anyway, this is pretty, huh? That was really my first, and lasting response. Happy New Year ever’body! -ed.

by Patrick Phillips

Touched by your goodness, I am like
that grand piano we found one night on Willoughby
that someone had smashed and somehow
heaved through an open window.

And you might think by this I mean I’m broken
or abandoned, or unloved. Truth is, I don’t
know exactly what I am, any more
than the wreckage in the alley knows
it’s a piano, filling with trash and yellow leaves.

Maybe I’m all that’s left of what I was.
But touching me, I know, you are the good
breeze blowing across its rusted strings.

What would you call that feeling when the wood,
even with its cracked harp, starts to sing?


Monday’s Verse, Dec. 15, 2008

Hi all, as you know I am lazy and, genuinely, I’m quite busy today trying to figure out ways not to do this darn labor take-home exam, so we’ll look at the comments of our mystery medievalist, who saw fit to chime in on the pleasures of Milton–and, along the way, provide a plain language break-down of what was happening in that “sonnet.” -ed.

Gabriel, thou hadst in Heav’n th’ esteem of wise,
And such I held thee; but this question askt
Puts me in doubt. Lives ther who loves his pain?
Who would not, finding way, break loose from Hell,
Though thither doomd? Thou wouldst thyself, no doubt,
And boldly venture to whatever place
Farthest from pain, where thou mightst hope to change
Torment with ease, and; soonest recompence
Dole with delight, which in this place I sought;
To thee no reason; who knowst only good,
But evil hast not tri’d: and wilt object
His will who bound us? let him surer barr
His Iron Gates, if he intends our stay
In that dark durance: thus much what was askt.


hi there,

okay, so i didn’t have time to even read last week’s submission, and when i read this week’s i was intrigued and i went back and read last week’s.  and since nobody responded to poor ol’ jm, i’ll submit this response, and if you think it’s worth sharing go ahead and send it out.

since i’ve started teaching the brit lit survey part I (which here at UNO gets not only english majors but also counts as a gen ed requirement so i’ve had prelaw, math, bio, philosophy, theatre, history, criminal justice, and just about any other major you can think of), i’ve discovered that ‘paradise lost’ is one of the big hits of every semester…apparently quite a remarkable feat given that somebody’s decided that it needs to be translated from english to english for the poor doltish students of this day and age to even begin to appreciate.  now, matthew, you know that i’m not a poetry girl, and so i can’t spend a whole bunch of time talkin’ technically about the problematics of translating poetry, but i can say this:  the whole bloody point of the ‘convoluted blank verse’ is, as you so ably point out, to invoke the elevated language of high epic as well as the word of the divinity, which is for believers (as milton most certainly was) the language of the bible.  even the most obtuse ‘non-lit’ students become enthralled with milton’s ‘difficult’ use of language and get why he’s chosen to write his self-proclaimed greatest english epic ever in such a fashion.

but do they get what’s going on?  abso-frickin-lutely.  now, being an anglo-saxonist i am compelled to point out that milton is not the first poet to give us the sexy rock-star satan–that honor goes to the anonymous creator of the satan in the c. 10th century biblical epic ‘genesis b’ from the junius 11 manuscript.  that said, the lines that you chose for last week’s monday verse are actually some of the students’ (and my) very favorites.  first, satan flatters gabriel as being the most wise of god’s angels, and even says that he himself believed gabriel to be so.  but then satan turns his flattery into insult by suggesting that gabriel’s question about ‘why leave hell?’ shows him to be, well, maybe not the shiniest halo in heaven after all.  satan then quite reasonably explains that *anybody* with a bloody *clue* wants to put pain and suffering as far behind himself as possible.  he finishes off his insult to gabriel by suggesting that satan now sees that he can’t really expect gabriel to see reason–or even have the mental capacity to be reasonable–because gabriel has never really thought for himself anyway:  ‘who knowst only good but evil has not tri’d’ and voicing what would be gabriel’s obvious objection: that it’s god’s will that satan be in hell and one just shouldn’t go against god’s will.  then, with a final flourish of hellish reason, satan declares that if god really wanted his will to be done and followed, then he should’ve put heavier locks on the doors since obviously if satan defied god’s will once, he surely will do so again.  in other words, gabriel and god, are unthinking morons and no match for satan’s cunning and nefarious planning capabilities.

so then the question is, what are the flaws in satan’s logic?  what’s he forgetting in his cleverly articulated insult?  to answer those questions, though, the reader must think like a believer; and sometimes that can be difficult because the reader needs to read PL from within milton’s accepted view of the universe’s power hierarchy.  that said, milton’s ability to render the obvious villain of this piece as smart, capable, and likeable because he’s such a snarky s.o.b. is obviously one of milton’s greatest achievements insofar as PL is meant to illuminate the readers’ own fissures regarding faith and their relationship with the proper hero of the piece, the tripartite god.

anyway, that’s what i think about last week’s selection.

Monday’s Verse, Dec. 8, 2008

Greetings, poetry lovers. Or toleraters.

You know, it’s so fun when we really get down to business and tussle with the workings of a poem, debate over diction and meanings, uncover a new use for old poetic devices. But, I mean, I can’t blame anybody for not wanting to parse Milton of a Monday afternoon. That said, we’re all learning!

I was too busy yesterday to send anything on time, and too busy today to provide any sort of piercing commentary, but I did find an interdisciplinary way to present today’s piece. I found myself listening to Gil Scott-Heron for the first time in ages this morning, and given what I recently read in the paper, found myself stuck on “Pieces of a Man.” Lotta people are being laid off right now, and I’m afraid a lot more are going to be right into 2009. Think about it. Here’s a transcription of the lyrics, a news article, and the song itself. [Note: I tried to upload this file and I’m having issues.]

Be well. -ed.


Jagged jigsaw pieces
Tossed about the room
I saw my grandma sweeping
With her old straw broom
But she didn’t what she was doing
She could hardly understand
That she was really sweeping up..
Pieces of a man

I saw my daddy greet the mailman
And I heard the mailman say
“Now don’t you take this letter to heart now Jimmy
Cause they’ve laid off nine others today”
But he didn’t know what he was saying
He could hardly understand
That he was only talking to
Pieces of a man

I saw the thunder and heard the lightning!
And felt the burden of his shame
And for some unknown reason
He never turned my way

Pieces of that letter
Were tossed about that room
And now I hear the sound of sirens
Come knifing through the gloom
But they don’t know what they are doing
They could hardly understand
That they’re only arresting
Pieces of a man

I saw him go to pieces
I saw him go to pieces
He was always such a good man
He was always such a strong man
Yeah, I saw him go to pieces
I saw him go to pieces

Monday’s Verse, Dec. 1, 2008

Dear readers,

A new “translation” of Paradise Lost has been published. Translation, you ask? Into what language, sir? Well–English, of course. It is a prose translation, meant to disencumber the modern reader from the “linguistic obscurity” of Milton’s unrhymed iambic pentameter, aka blank verse. This is an understandable aim. Unlike, say, Chaucer, Milton wrote in modern English, but his sentences are very long, his syntax wacked-out, his vocabulary monstrous. Or as Stanley Fish says, “Milton’s language is not like Chaucer’s — a dialect modern readers must learn; it is our language structured into a syntax more convoluted than the syntax of ordinary speech, but less convoluted or cryptic than the syntax of modern poets like Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery.” Fish also makes the excellent point that the effect of Milton’s words was archaic and obscure in its own time: PL was supposed to sound something like the Bible, Greek epic, and a scientific treatise, all wrapped into a moral poem of the highest art.

Actually, I don’t think Stevens’s or Ashbery’s syntax is all that tough–I think their subjects are tough! But in any case, today we’re going to read Paradise Lost. Kidding! People, it’s 12 books of something like 1000 lines each. And yet, and yet… his techniques are not totally foreign to our typical format. PL is actually a bit of a hodge-podge, containing within its epic structure elements of novel, prose-poem, lyric poetry, and, particularly, renaissance drama. One example is the plenitude of potentially stand-alone sonnets embedded within the books.

Consider lines 886-899 of Book IV. One way to analyze this poem would be to ask one brave reader to do the work that Dennis Danielson has just done with his new book, and “translate” it for us. Another intrepid soul might offer his/her thoughts about what is lost, what is gained, in the explanatory process. This is a scene after Satan has escaped from Hell and is making his way to earth to wreak havoc on Adam and Eve, God’s new favorites. Gabriel, guarding the gates of the earthly paradise, asks him, Yo, you were locked up in hell as punishment for disobeying God’s will. Why’d you hafta go and escape? Satan replies:

Gabriel, thou hadst in Heav’n th’ esteem of wise,
And such I held thee; but this question askt
Puts me in doubt. Lives ther who loves his pain?
Who would not, finding way, break loose from Hell,
Though thither doomd? Thou wouldst thyself, no doubt,
And boldly venture to whatever place
Farthest from pain, where thou mightst hope to change
Torment with ease, and; soonest recompence
Dole with delight, which in this place I sought;
To thee no reason; who knowst only good,
But evil hast not tri’d: and wilt object
His will who bound us? let him surer barr
His Iron Gates, if he intends our stay
In that dark durance: thus much what was askt.