Tuesday, November 20, 2012


November 20, 2012:

          My birthday tomorrow. Since it's also the day before Thanksgiving, it will be a busy day. Every day is busy, in a way, because my mind is the classic Buddhist monkey mind, flitting from subject to subject, seldom quiet, never empty enough for what Buddhists regard as enlightenment to find room. Crossword puzzles, reading, writing, more reading, errands, an occasional walk, meals in and the cooking thereof, meals out and the time they take, seeing friends, avoiding enemies, garden work, connecting with people on FB and via email, worrying about money, driving hither and yon, the movies, TV: thus my days get frittered away. Right now I'm writing a long contemplated book about Rome, started more than a decade ago, now returned to, with no prospect of publication but necessary to that feeling we all need that one's life has not been entirely wasted.

          And then, once in a while, I take the time away from all this bother and to-do to write something that's purely for fun. Poetry is one such pastime. And recently, inspired by a contest in a local paper, I've started to write short stories of 25 words or less. Here's my second try, in its entirety:

"Oh, hi" [that's the title]

She was very pretty before the accident.

He dated her twice more, to be kind.

Now he has trouble recalling her name.

The first such mini-tale went to the newspaper, where it will appear soon, I'm told. 

          It's a real discipline, to get something that, a, makes sense, and b, has some bite, into such a short frame. Hemingway did it with six words: "For sale: baby shoes, never used." That's a classic. I'm going to keep on doing it, because it's such a pleasure to work with the language just for its own sake. Poetry is that way for me, too. I decided after publishing some poems many years ago to forsake it as a career and write it strictly for myself. I couldn't make a living at it; to do that you have to teach, and I didn't want to teach, didn't think I would be good at it. That same impatient mind, mentioned above. I did teach for a year. Felt like a failure. Couldn't suffer the discipline of the hour, would let my students go when I was done, not when the hour was done. Very sloppy of me. No, not just sloppy: arrogant. I was arrogant when I was young.

          And then the poems. Here's one, published in TLS as long ago as 1968:

The French Revolution

At night in my garret room a crowd gathers
and you speak to them and sway them
until what they know and what they don't know
are the same thing, if it is you.
speak: to them it is falling in love.
What is it to you? You are walking
on the surface, on the backs of crocodiles;
you are air, or airy; you are a Queen.

One way they hold their heads up is on pikes.

          Here's another, published in the old, not the new, New York Quarterly:

Airplanes at Dusk

The jets take off from Newark,
Boeings more beautiful than mathematics,
and turn west.
                       Angels could not seem
more single-minded, climbing the heavens.

Beneath them, turning east, and blue,
vast stretches of the imagination
lie quiet, mooning, unoccupied.

And there you go. Because they've been published they have an air of authority about them, the cachet of some editor's approval, but in both the first and the last analysis it is you yourself you have to satisfy, and I have about thirty of them that make that grade, maybe six or seven of which have been published, the rest not. (Anybody out there want to print a chapbook?) And sometimes I think, not much for a life's work. But I know poets who survive on the strength of a single poem. The anonymous poet who wrote this, for example:

O westron wind, when wilt thou blow?
The small rain down doth rain.
Christ if my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again.

It dates from about the 14th century, "small" in this case means "thin," nobody knows who the author was, and the first time I heard it was in R. P. Blackmur's poetry class at Princeton. Blackmur was a great critic and he read it with such feeling that I have never forgotten the moment. Who would not give a life to have written so great a poem? I spent years, off and on, in my spare time, translating just four lines of Rilke that I thought were as perfect as poetry gets. Here they are, from a poem of his called "Liebeslied," which means "Love Song":

A stroke of the bow
draws one voice from the two strings.
Whose violin are we stretched out upon?
What virtuoso has us in his hands?

This is my final version, and I'm satisfied with it.

          Rilke survives in a whole body of work, prose as well as poetry, but there are other poets whose work survives in a single poem. Tichborne, for example, who wrote a poem in the Tower of London the night before he was beheaded, or was it hanged? for some political crime. It's unforgettable; I keep my anthology of Elizabethan literature specifically to have access to that poem. Or there's Thomas Nashe, whose collected work fills four volumes but who is remembered mostly for a song he wrote in one of his plays whose refrain runs, "Brightness falls from the air / Queens have died young and fair / I am sick, I must die / Lord, have mercy upon me."

          Can you feel it? The language takes flight in such words. What we write about, Roland Barthes once said, boils down to just a few emotions--love, hatred, despair, sorrow, guilt, fear; and what great writing aspires to is to evoke them in such a way as to say something meaningful about life and death. What I love about poetry is that it aspires to do this in the most condensed, intense way, so that the words explode in your mind, like a sip of great wine on your tongue. To make that happen is the most challenging task a writer will ever face. All writers want to be famous, very few achieve it, but for me, I would be satisfied if just one poem, written in my spare time, endures somehow. Maybe this one, which has never been published:

The Fast

In the evening the light flattens
against the walls, but it is empty
of meaning or expression. The darkness
that follows is empty in itself,
like a long absence. If you have
a soul it grows thin waiting.

Friday, November 9, 2012


November 9, 2012:

          I occasionally write a piece for MILITARY HISTORY in a series they call "What We Learned," which describes major battles and then talks briefly about what we learned from them. The last one was on Gallipoli, a remarkable example of incompetence, ignorance, arrogance, and other "--ences" and "---ances" in World War I in which British and French forces attacked the Dardanelles in an attempt to seize Istanbul and drive the Ottoman Empire out of the war, and were very badly beaten. I've been thinking of it while reading the many analyses of the election this Tuesday in which the Republicans were badly beaten trying to attack deeply entrenched forces in the electorate, about which they were poorly informed, to which they took superior attitudes, and against which they demonstrated remarkable levels of incompetence. The parallels seem striking. Even more striking is the fact that the British and French learned very little from their defeat; and from what I can tell so far, neither have the Republicans.

          This is not good news. I come from a Republican family, but none of my forebears would recognize the party now. It was run then by wealthy people who had a social conscience and a sense of noblesse oblige, who were deeply interested in foreign policy, wrote about it intelligently, and did not start wars irresponsibly, or at all. I left the party after college, largely thanks to what I learned in college about what the two major parties stood for. My parents never said anything but I'm sure they weren't pleased. But in any case I understood Republicans; I knew my parents, my grandparents, my uncles and what they stood for and it wasn't what the current party stands for. These were decent people, decent inside as well as polite and well-behaved outside. They did not harbor undisguised antipathies for immigrants, for women, for the poor, for minorities. They themselves had been poor once; they were the sons and daughters of immigrants; they had worked their way up. They were still close to their roots. They were not college graduates; but that doesn't mean they were unintelligent. And I could see where they were coming from.

          I no longer understand Republicans. I have been trying for some time now to figure out how they can possibly take the stands they take, what has led them into the impenetrable plastic bubble they have made their home, what makes them impervious to argument, unwilling to engage in any sort of dialogue, what has happened to their social conscience. The more hysterical types, exemplified by the Limbaughs, the Hannitys, the Coulters, have managed to demonize anything and everything outside their bubble, delivering diatribes about "parasites," who seem to make up 47 percent of the population, about "socialism," and so on. We have all seen it. It seems more than a little crazy. And it's sad.

          It's more than that, it's dangerous. Their only political strategy now seems to be to obstruct whatever Democrats propose in the way of legislation. That is no longer a two-party system; that is war--and to the death. But it won't work; it will, on the contrary, do enormous damage to the country, and they will lose, for the simple reason that they have refused to recognize, to accommodate to, or even to understand what is happening right under their noses. The United State is no longer a country in which rich white men control everything. In the Federal government, state governments, everywhere, more and more women, blacks, Latinos and Asian-Americans are taking part and taking office. Did you look at the make-up of the crowd in Chicago last Tuesday night celebrating Obama's victory? You saw everybody: white men, white women, blacks, Latinos, all the minorities, waving American flags, dancing, clapping, singing. And at Romney headquarters in Boston? With very few exceptions it was all white, and it was mostly male.

          I'm not saying anything that original here, but the more voices that are raised the better. We need a two-party system, we need dialogue, not war. Modern day conservatism at its best dates from Edmund Burke, and if you read Burke, he makes a lot of sense. Institutions are indeed important, and it is important that they keep faith with the people, and that people in return keep faith with them. I am not a religious person but I would hate to see churches disappear. Tradition, too, is important. I never bought entirely into the 1960s; I could see that it was going to destroy things that were valuable, as well as reform things that were not. I also understood that most Americans want the same things, whatever their politics: a decent job, a chance to advance, family life with all its pleasures and pains, a nice house in a good community, or a nice apartment in a lively city. The left tends toward the utopian. I don't believe in utopias, or the perfectibility of man.

          But I recognize hardly a trace of traditional conservatism in the current Republican Party. I recognize only a worship of wealth, and an absolute determination to keep it to themselves. The Party is living in the past, in a bubble of its own making. Their astonishment at their losses on Tuesday is revealing. Reality has destroyed their myths, and it is very difficult to detach yourselves from your myths. But they must, if they are to survive. Otherwise they will go the way of the Whigs, once a dominant party in American politics, now a memory. Facts cannot be wished away. Reality inevitably sneaks up on you. To continue to believe that we are the most enlightened, the best educated people in the world, that we offer the most opportunity in the world, when none of this is true, when it has been demonstrated clearly and convincingly not to be true, is inevitably to lose your way.

          "Know thyself," it read on the entrance to the cave of the Delphic Oracle in Greece. Until you do, until you face the reality of who you are--in this case, a minority--and how ill your attitudes and beliefs accord with the world at large, there is not much hope for you.