“Napsugarak zúgása, amit hallok”


Over a year ago, before coming to Hungary, I began reading, thinking about, and learning Endre Ady poem “Köszönöm, köszönöm, köszönöm.” Last night I woke up in the middle of the night and finished memorizing it at last. This was possible partly because I understood its grammar and words much better than when I had begun. But there was another reason that it came together at this point: yesterday afternoon I attended a lecture on Ady’s poetry by the writer János Térey (poet, playwright, screenwriter, author of prose), who visited our school. The lecture did not touch on this poem; he focused on Ady’s Christmas-related poems, such as “Harang csendül“–but as I listened, I started to assemble things in my mind. Even with my limited Hungarian, I came out of the lecture with a different understanding and with new poems I wanted to read (new for me, that is). From there, it took only a few minutes to finish memorizing the poem.

This makes sense to me. Memorizing involves interpretation; to know what comes next in a poem, you must understand its structure, motion, rhythm, tones, meanings; to do that, you must think about each word and the relationships between them. A lecture, by offering an interpretation, gives your mind a working structure; even if it’s on a slightly different topic, it helps you with the structure at hand. If it’s on an interesting subject, by someone with exceptional insight, it does even more. Beyond that, I concentrate so hard when listening to Hungarian that the focus persists afterward. In any case, I now can carry “Köszönöm, köszönöm, köszönöm” and traces of other Ady poems in my mind. It is the third Hungarian poem that I have memorized, and I hope for many more. Each book opens up to more places, and the memorizing is just the beginning.

Memorizing a poem in another language can also open up aspects of one’s own. The Ady poem has the lines “Köszönöm a kétséget, a hitet, / A csókot és a betegséget.” (roughly, “I thank You for the doubt, the belief, / The kisses and the infirmity”). The word “kétség” means “doubt” but could literally be translated as “twoness” or “being of two minds” (since “két” means “two,” and the suffix –ség turns the word into an abstract noun). I began to suspect that “doubt” also had something to do with “two,” and so it does, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary:

c. 1200, douten, duten, “to dread, fear, be afraid” (a sense now obsolete), from Old French doter“doubt, be doubtful; be afraid,” from Latin dubitare “to doubt, question, hesitate, waver in opinion” (related to dubius “uncertain”), from duo “two” (from PIE root *dwo- “two”), with a sense of “of two minds, undecided between two things.” Compare dubious. Etymologically, “to have to choose between two things.”

Learning a poem makes me more alert to such things. Learn a book of such poems inside out, and you come close to learning a language. You start to hear the language from the inside.

Speaking of books, mine comes out in three days. I will have a reading in Budapest, at Massolit Books & Cafe, on November 18; I hope to have one in Szolnok too, possibly at the library, which I visited for the first time yesterday when I went to hear János Térey read from his own work. It’s a beautiful library, and I hope to visit often, whether for events or for reading.


I took the photo after a concert in September. Also, I made some additions and revisions to this piece after posting it.

Update: Here is a short video of János Térey‘s visit to our school. Thanks to Gyula Jenei for posting the link–and to Gyula and everyone else who made these events possible.

Something to Sit Up For

gazing-catsI know a few people who write both poetry and nonfiction (more or less concurrently), and while they involve different kinds of imagination, they still have a good deal in common. In both, you are looking and listening not only for the right words, but the right combination of sounds, the right allusions, the right departures from the known and expected.

Recently I have been writing much more nonfiction than poetry, but the poems still come now and then, and some of them hold up over time. This one (an unrhymed sonnet from 2009 or so) is one of my favorites. It appears on the dedication page of Republic of Noise; Stella Schindler quotes it in full at the beginning of her review in Humanum. Reading it now, I still hear something like the offbeat clanging of a bell (in the preposition “for,” which occurs at the end of three consecutive phrases with two enjambments). But of course my ear is slanted. (So is the picture I took yesterday morning of the cats and sunrise.)

The Speech

From far away I heard you speak today,
the way we hear bells in a slant of sun,
knowing they ring at five—the calendar
itself makes words, the very rays make chords.

A teacher must have rushed there after school,
arrived breathless, flopped in a seat, arranged
her coat and hair, leaned into heed, and found
a rampart in the very listening.

Something to sit up for, something to hold
one’s head up for, a time to put aside
one’s foibles for, even a distant time,
this came my way today, a reckoning.
I grasped that there was loneliness in gold
and gold in air, and debt in everything.

On Listening to Poetry in Unfamiliar Languages

I have some upcoming posts about TED and what it could do to improve. My TEDx talk may appear on YouTube any day now, so I speak from an inside-like place. (TED refers to TEDx events as “TED-like,” so I suppose the inside of a TEDx event is “inside-like.”)

But right now I have something different on my mind: poetry in unfamiliar languages. Last night I went to the wonderful Uncle Vanya Cafe (quiet, cozy atmosphere, delicious food) to hear three poets: Tomas Venclova (whose poetry I have translated), Valzhyna Mort, and Vasyl Makhno. All three were superb in my ears. Mort and Makhno read some of their poems in Belarusian and Ukrainian, respectively; although I do not know those languages, I enjoyed listening as carefully as I could, picking up not only on familiar words (that is, words that had similar-sounding counterparts in Russian), but on cadences, repetitions, rhythms.

In some strange way it is possible, when listening to a poem in an unfamiliar language, to tell whether it is good. You can sense a mastery of orchestration. Something about the momentum and structure will come across strongly. For this reason and others, I love the exercise. Also, when you listen with that intensity, you remember the poem later.

Two of Mort’s poems stand out in my memory. One was titled “Psalm 18” (I think). She read it in Belarusian and English. There was a magnificent passage with curtains opening and closing, opening and closing. I can’t find it online, but I hope to track it down.

Another one, “Belarusian I” (which she read only in Belarusian, I think) had a progression that I immediately grasped. I didn’t understand the words at the very end, but I understood what led up to them. You can read the poem in Belarusian and English, listen to an audio recording, and watch a video here. (For the first four minutes of the video, she speaks about her work and background; then she reads the poem.)

In the video, she explains that she came to poetry through music. In childhood, she studied music with the intention of becoming a professional musician. When she started writing poetry, she thought of it as music too; she used words she didn’t understand, just for the sound of them. Something of this quality has stayed in her poetry; this partly explains why I could listen with such involvement. Her  poetry, reaching the listeners, returns in some way to its beginnings. At the same time, I need to take time with it to understand it better. Someone who understands nothing in a poem may still understand something (nonverbally); someone who understands something, a little more, and so on. Understanding a poem is a long and layered feat.


Note: I made some minor changes to this piece after posting it.


“The Remedy Is the Poem Itself”

First, a happy 2015 to everyone! This promises to be a glorious year for CONTRARIWISE. It is also the year of the Class of 2015. At my school, many members of this class have been involved with CONTRARIWISE, philosophy roundtables, and honors projects in philosophy, so I will be both sad and proud to see them move on. Some have already been admitted to colleges (Columbia, MIT, Johns Hopkins, Smith, SUNY Binghamton, and elsewhere); others have a few months of waiting in store. Those months will go by quickly, though, and CONTRARIWISE will come out in the meantime!

The year has also started out with great sadness; one of my former students lives in Shanghai, so when I read the news of the stampede, it was not remote as such news often can be. (I trust that she is unharmed—but she must have been affected in any case.)

I am returning today to an uncomfortable idea from yesterday: that the “successful” teacher is one who looks inward. What bothers me is not the idea of looking inward, but rather the subordination of this to some kind of success on the job. Inner life should not and cannot be mandated; it requires its own terms. It certainly may take place on the job and may have benefits for the job—but ultimately it is not for the job. Soul-searching as a job requirement will be stultified. To have meaning, it must be at liberty to go beyond others’ demands. It will find more of a home in poetry than in any teacher manual (since poetry by nature goes beyond others’ expectations).

When listening to a recorded lecture this morning, I was introduced to a passage from The Principles of Art by Robin George Collingwood:

The artist must prophesy not in the sense that he foretells things to come, but in the sense that he tells his audience, at risk of their displeasure, the secrets of their own hearts. His business as an artist is to speak out, to make a clean breast. But what he has to utter is not, as the individualistic theory of art would have us think, his own secrets. As spokesman of his community, the secrets he must utter are theirs. The reason why they need them is that no community knows its own heart; and by failing in this knowledge a community altogether deceives itself on the one subject concerning which ignorance means death. For the evils which come from that ignorance the poet as prophet suggests no remedy, because he has already given one. The remedy is the poem itself. Art is the community’s medicine for the worst disease of mind, the corruption of consciousness.

There is a lot to interpret in this passage, but I will focus on these two statements: “no community knows its own heart” and “the remedy is the poem itself.” Why does no community know its own heart? Well, it is virtually impossible to have heart as a group. Yes, there are approximations, but they are often galvanized by one person’s action—in this case, a poem. Why is the poem the remedy? It’s not that it makes us feel better. Rather, it offers full life and a release from compromises, lies, half-measures, and what Collingwood calls “the corruption of consciousness.”

To prophesy,  then, is to tell not the future, but the present; to tell it as no one else is telling it. Wordsworth’s “The Idiot Boy” (which I read after being moved by David Bromwich’s description in Moral Imagination) has prophetic momentum; we go with Betty on a journey that we ourselves take but do not always recognize. It is the story of a mother searching high and low for her “idiot boy,” whom she has sent off in the night for medicine for their neighbor, who is very sick. Her hope and worry and near-despair are so great that even nature seems to come to a stop (except for the owls):

She listens, but she cannot hear
The foot of horse, the voice of man;
The streams with softest sound are flowing,
The grass you almost hear it growing,
You hear it now, if e’er you can.

The owlets through the long blue night
Are shouting to each other still:
Fond lovers! yet not quite hob nob,
They lengthen out the tremulous sob,
That echoes far from hill to hill.

It would be difficult to read this poem without some soul-searching (where the soul itself goes searching). But this is not the kind that bends to any job. It goes beyond employment. A job, no matter how important or meaningful, must not be confused with a life. No book on pedagogy comes close to “the tremulous sob, / That echoes far from hill to hill.” Unless Wordsworth is included in the curriculum, few will see the poem as relevant to anything at school. But in a sense it is relevant to everything: it is a poem of life and death, sanity and insanity, health and illness, childhood and adulthood, humans and nature—all of this in chillingly beautiful verse. It is worth living beyond the job, even for this poem alone.


I made a few edits to this piece long after posting it.

Dylan Thomas and Deuteronomy

I have been thinking that Dylan Thomas’s “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” may have echoes of Deuteronomy. If I am not imagining things, these echoes affect the meaning of the last line, “After the first death, there is no other.”

In particular, the last line draws on the possible meanings of Deuteronomy 4:39, in the Dhouay-Rheims translation, “Know therefore this day, and think in thy heart that the Lord he is God in heaven above, and in the earth beneath, and there is no other.” In Hebrew, the final phrase, “there is no other,” consists of two words, “ein od,” אֵין, עוֹד. The meanings of this phrase could easily make a book.

But let us backtrack. What is going on in this poem? The syntax may be puzzling at first, but then it comes clear: its  main clause (“Never … shall I let pray the shadow of a sound…”) envelops a long subordinate clause “until the mankind making…”

Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness

And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn

The majesty and burning of the child’s death.

The subordinate clause is about the end of the world, where God “tells with silence the last light breaking” etc., and the speaker must again cross into the Promised Land, “the round / Zion of the water bead / And the synagogue of the ear of corn.”

The main clause is about the refusal to mourn: “Never … Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound / Or sow my salt seed / In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn / The majesty and burning of the child’s death.

In Deuteronomy, Moses gives his last speeches to the Israelites, who are to enter the Promised Land without him. He reminds them of their history and of the commandments, warns them against idolatry, promises them restoration if they repent, and dies at the end of the book.

Thomas’s poem continues:

I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.

Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.

This reference to blasphemy echoes Moses’ warning in Deuteronomy 4:15: “Keep therefore your souls carefully. You saw not any similitude in the day that the Lord God spoke to you in Horeb from the midst of the fire.” And then in verses 16-19:

16 Lest perhaps being deceived you might make you a graven similitude, or image of male or female,
17 The similitude of any beasts, that are upon the earth, or of birds, that fly under heaven, 
18 Or of creeping things, that move on the earth, or of fishes, that abide in the waters under the earth: 

19 Lest perhaps lifting up thy eyes to heaven, thou see the sun and the moon, and all the stars of heaven, and being deceived by error thou adore and serve them, which the Lord thy God created for the service of all the nations, that are under heaven.

To mourn anyone other than the first is similar to serving anyone other than God; but why is this, and who is the first? It could be the first of all mortals, but it could also be that first death, that first profound loss, that any of us encounters in our life. Not the first that we see, necessarily, but rather the first that we know. It may be “sorrow’s springs” in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall.”

Why is that first loss sacred? It is the ancestor; every other loss joins it. The lineage is in the brilliant lines, “Robed in the long friends, / The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,”

Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,

To mourn a later loss–as though it were the first–is to prop up a false god, to become vulgar, to kill. It is blasphemy and bad poetry. The true mourning lies in the respect.

I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.

Then we arrive at the last three lines (which follow “the dark veins of her mother”):

Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.

Like the inscrutable God, the first death holds all death; nothing can compare to it.

What does this mean? I have only skated over the surface–but the last line seems to echo two verses of Deuteronomy: 4:39 (quoted earlier) and 34:10, “And there arose no more a prophet in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face….”

Back to the two Hebrew words, “ein od,” אֵין, עוֹד. They can mean “There is no other” or “There is nothing else.” In Deuteronomy, they describe God: there is no other God, or everything is God. (There is also a sense in which it applies to Moses; as 34:10 makes clear, there never would be another.) In the poem, the meaning is also double, triple, or more: there is no other death comparable to the first, and that death is all of humanity.

Or, even more simply: a loss is incomparable and unredeemable; it is the first because it has no copies, and in that sense it is also the last. It is and can only be “deep with the first dead.”

Any death at all, any death taken to heart, is the first. No death after it is death. There is hope in this–after all, death comes only once–but there is also unmitigable grief. The first is the only one, and there is nothing beside it.

But joy is in here too, in the singularity. I refuse to mourn a girl crassly, I refuse the pomp of multiple elegies–because there is only one death, and with it only one mourning.

Note: If there is a previous analysis of a relation between this poem and Deuteronomy, I would be interested in reading it.

Two Kinds of Writers

In 1920, the humorist and actor Robert Benchley wrote in Vanity Fair,

There may be said to be two classes of people in the world; those who constantly divide the people of the world into two classes, and those who do not. Both classes are extremely unpleasant to meet socially, leaving practically no one in the world whom one cares very much to know.

In the spirit of this quote, I hope there are not two kinds of writers: those who like to discuss the writing process and those who do not. Both kinds, in my view, would be rather irritating, though I’d be a little more receptive to the second. There’s a time and place for discussing the writing process, and an eternity for not doing so.

Problems with discussing the writing process? There’s so much variety that one cannot draw any conclusions about a “right” way. What’s more, the “process” discussions tend to ignore substance. There are writers who revise constantly and those whose first draft is almost always their last. There are those who adhere to a strict routine and those who write whenever the ideas strike them. There are those who suffer terribly from writer’s block and those who have never known it. There are those who insist on writing in pen, or with the trusty Remington, or through dictation. In the end, I don’t care what they do, if the writing is good.

Yet staying mum is problematic too. There are writers who hold themselves above describing what they actually do; they insinuate that their work is mystical and untouchable, and that any mention of process is the mark of a lesser talent. Or they refrain from discussing it lest they expose a weakness–an embarrassing first draft, for instance, or an abundance of unfinished work. Silence is golden, but gold can be the ornament of a snob.

The ideal would be to talk about it sometimes but not all the time. Just how much would depend on the person’s judgment and circumstances. If you have been invited to speak to young people about your writing process, and have agreed to do so, then a secretive attitude is out of place. However, if you are at a tea party where people are going on about how they love “workshopping” their work (and you don’t particularly love doing that), then you have every right to maintain a happy hush.

I revise a lot. One thing I enjoy about having a blog is that I can come back and change things later. (When I do, I indicate this in a note at the end of the post, unless the changes are too minor to mention.) I rethink things continually; months or years later, I may see a better way of putting them. This is true for my nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. This morning I made some revisions to an old poem, “Jackrabbit.” It’s one of my favorites (of my older pieces), but the original version and even a later version had some strained parts. The current version will rest as is.


This land has never been painted properly.
Mix clumps of juniper with moonbeam blue,
Throw in a bit of tooth, a bit of song,
to fill the silhouette with bite and tongue.

This is a real dirt road with imagined doubts,
senses, untasted dangers, destinations.
Headlights sweeping the long floor of the wild
pan a jackrabbit back and forth in time.

Caught in the blank emergency of beams,
he dodges his dilemma with a brisk
“what if, what if” that dances him to death.
He could not find a way out of the way.

Earlier that day I was on the phone,
missing all your relevant advice.
A wire had got caught up in my throat,
an answer-dodger. It distracted me.

It trembled so fast that it numbed my tongue.
It did this while you were trying to talk.
I couldn’t listen well because the dance
had blurred all trace of consonant and sense.

I think now that this may have been a crash
of my old givens against your offerings:
new junipers, or ways of seeing them,
new countries, or ways of getting there.

When I hung up, there was no wire or word.
The moon was gone, the road a long fur coat
on some unwitting wearer, blissed and hushed.
I forgot all about it until years later.

You had said: “You can go left or right.”
Take me straight! I shouted. Straight to the remedy.
Gallop like the nineteenth century
down to the police station or cemetery.

Striding answerless, a station incarnate,
a cop ticketed me for not listening.
Now I can bear the rabbits and the wires.
I inch through forks and roadkill, listening.

Note: I changed three words (and fixed a formatting glitch) after the initial posting.

“Goe, and catche a falling starre….”

The summer after eighth grade, I read most of a poetry anthology for my required summer reading. I was supposed to pick out a few favorites; I remember choosing John Donne’s “Song: Goe, and catche a falling starre.” I didn’t understand much of it, but it beguiled me. Today it is still one of my favorite poems, and it still beguiles me, though I understand it much better. I will comment a little on it now. This isn’t a thorough analysis, just a look at a few things that fascinate me.

Why not start with the most peculiar moment in the poem: the first four lines of the final stanza? The poem is presumably “about” the impossibility of finding a woman who is both “true, and faire.” But what a strange twist!

If thou findst one, let mee know,
aaSuch a Pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet doe not, I would not goe,
aaThough at next doore wee might meet,

In other words, “If you find such a woman, let me know… then again, don’t bother to tell me; it isn’t worth your trouble or mine.” There’s something mischievous about this change of mind, and humorous, too, despite the bitters. What role does it play in the rest of the poem? Let’s look at the first stanza.

Goe, and catche a falling starre,
aaGet with child a mandrake roote,
Tell me, where all past yeares are,
aaOr who cleft the Divels foot,
Teach me to heare Mermaides singing,
aaOr to keep off envies stinging,
aaaaAnd finde
aaaaWhat winde
Serves to advance an honest minde.

Much has been said about the assemblage of images and suggestions here. They seem like a rather arbitrary collection of impossibilities, until one looks closer and sees how well orchestrated they are. Each impossibility is of a different kind: physical, sexual, philosophical, theological, mythological, emotional, or, finally, intellectual and spiritual. (These are rough characterizations; each impossibility holds more, of course.) The elusive last three lines, with their playfulness and prolonged trope, make one wonder what kind of “winde” is at stake. Is it a wind that propels sails? Is it false knowledge, false rumor? Is the implication that an honest mind needs something other than wind for advancement (something more substantial), or is it that an honest mind cannot advance, because of the ways of the world?

The second stanza seems to answer the implicit question: it proposes that someone “borne to strange sights” take a voyage until old age and then return with a verdict.

If thou beest borne to strange sights,
aaThings invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand daies and nights,
aaTill age snow white haires on thee,
Thou, when thou retorn’st, wilt tell mee
All strange wonders that befell thee,
aaaaAnd sweare
aaaaNo where
Lives a woman true, and faire.

This voyage appears as a complement to the impossible marvels of the first stanza. The traveler may “ride ten thousand daies and nights,” see “strange wonders,” and yet come back with snow-white hairs to tell of nothing: there is no “true and faire” woman to be found. The parallel with the “winde” and the “honest minde” of the first stanza suggests that the travel itself will bring no advancement of mind. In other words, the juxtaposition of “And finde / What winde / Serves to advance an honest minde” with “And sweare / No where / Lives a woman true, and faire” leads one to associate the “winde” with the travel, and the speaker’s own “honest minde” with the outcome. The “honest minde” cannot move forward because there is nothing simultaneously enticing and trustworthy–in particular, no woman with both beauty and truth.

Or is something else keeping the “honest minde” in its place? Now we come to those four lines that I quoted at the outset. Is it possible that the world-weary mind keeps itself from advancing–because as soon as it considers a possibility, it turns back on itself? Is this gesture “Yet doe not” the crux of the poem?

If thou findst one, let mee know,
aaSuch a Pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet doe not, I would not goe,
aaThough at next doore wee might meet.

It seems so, as the speaker sees through the illusion that deceives the traveler (and for that reason, he won’t even go next door). The traveler may think he has found a woman “true, and faire”–but the speaker knows better.

Though shee were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
aaaaYet shee
aaaaWill bee
False, ere I come, to two, or three.

Look at the play of “true” and “false” and the numbers one, two, three (and the implicit zero). There’s also a hidden “first” in the combination of “last” and “false”; so one can also hear “first, next, last” in jumbled order (though “last” appears here in the sense of “endure”). This, and the play of true and false in this and the previous stanza, gives a sense of card-and-number tricks (not entirely unlike those in Alexander Pushkin’s “Queen of Spades“).

What does all of this mean? I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the “honest minde” isn’t honest at all–that its act of turning back on itself is a sign of falsity. That doesn’t seem to be Donne’s intent, nor would I go so far beyond his intent. No, this mind is honest but reduced to itself, set against the falsity of woman (and, in a larger sense, the world and its wonders). It need not venture out; after all, if it does, it knows what it will find. Still it conveys this in an adventurous way.

The implicit conundrum is this: to advance, a mind must be somewhat naive, for the mind that considers things rightly has already made its voyages. Yet it goes ahead and sings of them, thus voyaging anyway.

Note: I made some edits to this piece after its initial posting.

Accuracy of Imagination: Part 1


Catarrhally clogged and dizzy, I am enjoying the slowness of these first few days of break. Yesterday I read William Duff’s Essay on Original Genius (1767) with excitement. I was drawn to it by David Bromwich’s book A Choice of Inheritance: Self and Community from Edmund Burke to Robert Frost (1989). I will not discuss the latter at length, as I would not do it justice. Duff’s essay I will discuss today.

In the second chapter of A Choice of Inheritance, Bromwich examines the changing meanings of “genius” over the centuries—from Edward Young’s conception of genius as complete and natural originality, to Wordsworth and Darwin’s intertwining of genius with interpretation and history, to a more specialized sense of the word, and then back to a sense of genius as something mysterious, separate, and natural. Despite this seeming reversion, what matters is the “displacement of the idea of nature by an idea of history” (24).

Bromwich devotes an intriguing paragraph to Duff, drawing attention his phrase “accuracy of imagination.” According to Bromwich, Duff retains some of Young’s idea of original genius but stops short of denying genius’s link with tradition. Duff perceives “accuracy of imagination” (a phrase he appears to have invented) as the gift of philosophical genius; Bromwich sees this as a “hint of a convergence between the ideas of genius in science and in art.”

The idea of “accuracy of imagination” interested me so much that I wanted to find out what Duff meant by it. His essay consists of two parts; each part, of five sections. The first part examines the ingredients, indications, and modes of genius; the second focuses on original genius and its various manifestations—in poetry, art, music, oratory, architecture, and philosophical science. Genius, according to Duff, need not be wholly original; yet the most sublime genius, poetic genius, is marked by originality.

At the outset, Duff associates genius unequivocally with invention: “To explore unbeaten tracks, and make new discoveries in the regions of Science; to invent the designs, and perfect the productions of Art, is the province of Genius alone” (5). Yet, as we find out later, such invention can take many forms.

Genius, according to Duff, has three ingredients: imagination, judgment, and taste. They exist in different proportions, according to the nature of the work, but imagination assumes primacy, and none of the three can be absent. If genius were to consist of imagination alone, then “there is scarce any means left us of distinguishing betwixt the flights of Genius and the reveries of a lunatic” (23-24).

In poetry, according to Duff, imagination comes first, then taste and judgment; in philosophical science, imagination still comes first, but judgment follows as a close second. Because imagination, judgment, and taste influence each other, the philosophical imagination is different in nature from the poetic imagination. The former is distinguished by “regularity, clearness, and accuracy”; the second, by “irregularity, vehemence, and enthusiasm.”  They need not always be separate, though; Duff regards Plato as both philosopher and poet (104):

Of all the Philosophers of antiquity, Plato possessed the most copious and exuberant imagination, which, joined to a certain contemplative turn of mind, qualified him for the successful pursuit of philosophical studies, and enabled him to acquire an extraordinary eminence in those various branches of Science, to which he applied his divine Genius. He is the only prose writer, who in Philosophy has dared to emulate the sublime majesty of the Mœonian Bard. He was indeed animated with all that ardor and enthusiasm of Imagination which distinguishes the Poet; and it is impossible for a person, possessed of any degree of sensibility, to read his Writings without catching somewhat of the enthusiasm.

This is indeed what has drawn me to Plato over the years—the combination of exuberance and reason. One might also find a combination of poetic and philosophical imagination in the poetry of John Donne (whom Duff does not mention) and the philosophy of John Stuart Mill.

When it comes to “accuracy of imagination,” Duff has two contrasting things to say. On the one hand, as mentioned before, he regards it as the gift of philosophical genius. On the other hand, he concurs with Longinus, who maintains that sublimity is inconsistent with accuracy of imagination—that (in Duff’s words) “native grandeur of sentiment which disclaims all restraint, is subject to no certain rule, and is therefore various and unequal” (164). It is not only that genius must risk error in order to rise high; it is that the very freedom of genius brings inconsistency. (I will comment more on this in a later post.)

But Duff makes ample room for genius that is not original, or not entirely original. For one thing, even poetic geniuses begin by imitating their predecessors: “one who is born with a Genius for Poetry, will discover a peculiar relish and love for it in his earliest years” and “will be naturally led to imitate the productions he admires” (37). The other arts definitely rely on predecessors: “There never arose an eminent Painter, Orator, Musician, Architect or Philosopher, in any age, completely self-taught, without being indebted to his predecessors in the art or science he professed” (263). Thus original genius in these fields is not independent of the past. Poets, by contrast, are better off, according to Duff, if they don’t have much of a past; he gives reasons for this toward the end. (This, to me, is the least convincing part of the essay, though parts of it make sense.)

Duff allows, likewise, for genius that is not so much inventive as interpretive or even imitative. Here, on p. 74–75, is one of the most striking passages of the essay:

We may farther observe, that Genius may, in a very considerable though much less proportion, be displayed in the illustration of those truths, or the imitation of those models, which it was incapable originally to discover or invent. To comprehend and explain the one, or to express a just resemblance of the other, supposes and requires no contemptible degree of Genius in the Author or Artist who succeeds in the attempt. Thus we allow Maclaurin, who has explained the Principles of Newton’s Philosophy, and Strange, who has copied the Cartoons of Raphael, to have been both of them men of Genius in their respective professions, though not men of original Genius; for the former did not possess that COMPASS of IMAGINATION, and that DEPTH of DISCERNMENT, which Were necessary to discover the doctrines of the Newtonian System; nor the latter that fertility and FORCE of Imagination, that were requisite to invent the design, and express the dignity, grace and energy, displayed in the originals of the Italian Painter.

Duff goes on to say that genius can be found in the mechanical arts—that a watchmaker and carpenter show genius when they bring special elegance into their work. “So diversified are the forms of Genius,” says Duff, “and so various its modes of exertion” (75).

What I find remarkable is that Duff allows for many kinds of genius without treating them as equivalent. He does not say that everyone is a genius; genius, no matter what form it takes, stands apart from ordinary life and production. Even so, he makes fundamental distinctions between various kinds and degrees of genius. These distinctions are not absolute; “original” genius often relies on tradition, and the acts of interpretation and imitation may involve genius.

There’s a hidden paradox in Duff’s argument: this very diversity of genius may encumber it and bring it down. At the end of the essay, Duff argues that the poetic genius (in particular) fared best in ancient society, where it was unfettered by manners, criticism, distractions, tradition, and so forth. He admits that he has no proof for this, yet he offers Homer and Ossian as evidence. If this is so, then the great abundance and multiplicity of genius may trample down certain kinds of genius. Ah, well, some may say, but new kinds may come forth. Yet if the highest form of genius suffers (and Duff appears to regard poetry as the highest), what happens to genius as a whole?

I will leave that question aside for now and return to the phrase that first drew me to Duff: “accuracy of imagination.” What is it? Duff perceives it as a requirement of philosophical science, where “allocations of ideas will be perfectly just and exact” and “no extraneous ones will be admitted; it will assemble all that are necessary to a distinct conception and illustration of the subject it contemplates, and discard such as are no way conducive to those purposes” (33–34).

I would say that such “accuracy of imagination” has a place in poetry as well, though there it’s a different kind of accuracy, or rather, an illusion of accuracy. (I return here to Bromwich’s idea of a “hint of a convergence between the ideas of genius in science and in art.”) When reading a poem, one wants to sense that it could only be that way, that nothing in it is makeshift, extraneous, or compromised. In my next post, I will discuss that kind of “accuracy of imagination” in Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day.

A Few Thoughts About Thomas Hardy’s “The Going”

All week I have been thinking about “The Going,” and so I will walk through it now. This will be neither a thorough analysis nor (I hope) a ghastly “think-aloud.” It is just a preliminary gesture, but one that I put together in my mind.

The poem has to do with a woman (his estranged wife, Emma) who left suddenly through death. The speaker laments not only her loss, but the loss of the moment when he might have known she was leaving. Because he did not know she was leaving, he was not allowed the moment’s significance or sorrow.

I have been drawn to Hardy’s poetry lately (by which I mean over the past few years, and stretching back farther). They have the ghostliness of loss. They hint at something of Donne (in my ear) and anticipate something of Auden—but they have an idiosyncratic mixture of song-like cadence and stark individual expression. As I read them over and over, I find myself taken into certain words and phrases.

In  this poem, the verse is accentual, with alternating stanza patterns. The first, third, and fifth stanzas begin with the question “Why” and follow the pattern (of stress counts per line): 4 4 4 4 2 2 4. The even-numbered stanzas give no answer, but instead reflect on something that the question brought up. Their stress count pattern is 3 3 4 4 2 2 4. Both stanza types have the same rhyme scheme: ABABCCB. The “Why” stanzas are somewhat stylized; the reflective stanzas, while close in form, contain a more private and unusual language. The rule does not always hold but describes the overall gist.

Here is the first stanza:

Why did you give no hint that night
That quickly after the morrow’s dawn,
And calmly, as if indifferent quite,
You would close your term here, up and be gone
aaaaaWhere I could not follow
aaaaaWith wing of swallow
To gain one glimpse of you ever anon!

The word “quite” may sound, to the modern ear, a little stilted after the adjective “indifferent,” but that’s due to our tone-deafness, not any enhanced modern sensibility. I will discuss “quite” more at the end; it has rich meaning and was still used after the adjective in Hardy’s time. It’s use in that position was already somewhat archaic (it seems) but still had meaning and resonance.

But look at the second and third lines of “The Going”: “That quickly after the morrow’s dawn, / And calmly, as if indifferent quite….” The words “quickly” and “quite” form the outer ends of a series of symmetrical alliterations and assonances. “Dawn” and “calmly” contain the same vowel sound (and prominently so); “dawn” and “indifferent” punctuate the “d” sound. The sounds of these lines suggest something enclosed, wrapped up—the one who departed, or the one left behind, or the closed-up “term” itself.

Now the second stanza:

aaaaaNever to bid good-bye
aaaaaOr lip me the softest call,
Or utter a wish for a word, while I
Saw morning harden upon the wall,
aaaaaUnmoved, unknowing
aaaaaThat your great going
Had place that moment, and altered all.

There are the stunning lines “while I /  Saw morning harden upon the wall,” and “That your great going / Had place that moment, and altered all.” I pause over “That your great going / Had place that moment, and altered all,” which suggests time, place, and motion all in one—a moment that physically exists and is gone, and in going takes something great away, but without the speaker’s knowledge. He saw “morning harden on the wall” (also a unity of thing, time, and motion) and was oblivious to the greater and more terrible unity.

The third stanza cries:

Why do you make me leave the house
And think for a breath it is you I see
At the end of the alley of bending boughs
Where so often at dusk you used to be;
aaaaaTill in darkening dankness
aaaaaThe yawning blankness
Of the perspective sickens me!

What a contrast—between the “end of the alley of bending boughs” and “The yawning blankness / Of the perspective.” It is a contrast not only between the memory and the loss, not only between the hope and the disappointment, but also between a lilting, lyrical language and something vacant and strange. Without knowing it, the speaker is emerging into his own life, which to him seems desolate but rings fiercely.

The next stanza evokes memories of the departed one, who used to ride horseback “Along the beetling Beeny Crest” and would “rein” near the speaker (not “reign”—I believe the homophone is significant) and “muse and eye” him “While Life unrolled us its very best.”

aaaaaYou were she who abode
aaaaaBy those red-veined rocks far West,
You were the swan-necked one who rode
Along the beetling Beeny Crest,
aaaaaAnd, reining nigh me,
aaaaaWould muse and eye me,
While Life unrolled us its very best.

Now, “to beetle” in this context is “to project or overhang threateningly”; “Beeny Crest” is a cliff in Cornwall that overlooks the sea (cf. Hardy’s “Beeny Cliff”). Thus the “very best” of life already has something foreboding in it—a precipice and a woman who only “reins” nigh him but does not stay. It’s the “red-veined rocks” and the “swan-necked one” and the “musing” and “eying” that make up this good Life unrolling. Now life is unrolling again (as we see in the final stanza), but in a different way, and with different lyric.

The next stanza is to me the saddest:

Why, then, latterly did we not speak,
Did we not think of those days long dead,
And ere your vanishing strive to seek
That time’s renewal?  We might have said,
aaaaa“In this bright spring weather
aaaaaWe’ll visit together
Those places that once we visited.”

The plea seems already an admission of defeat; the speaker knows that there would have been no new places to visit, that the best they could have done would have been to “visit together / Those places that once we visited.” And yet, isn’t that what long-term spouses do? Does it really suggest an end to love? That frail hope that something might be renewed through revisiting—is it really that frail? But here the speaker recognizes, for the first time, that the failing was not only the woman’s, but his as well. “Why didn’t we think of doing that? It would have been so simple,” the stanza suggests. There’s a poignancy and a gentleness in the last three lines, the words that could have been uttered by either one but were not: “In this bright spring weather / We’ll visit together / Those places that once we visited.”

This seems to point toward a reconciliation, which the final stanza only partly provides. Yes, it seems that the speaker has accepted the state of things—but this does not prevent or ease his final cry.

aaaaaWell, well!  All’s past amend,
aaaaaUnchangeable.  It must go.
I seem but a dead man held on end
To sink down soon. … O you could not know
aaaaaThat such swift fleeing
aaaaaNo soul foreseeing—
Not even I—would undo me so!

There is the matter-of-fact “Well, well! All’s past amend, / Unchangeable. It must go.” It sounds like someone shaking his head and getting on with his day. But that isn’t quite the point; it’s his own life that seems about to go; he seems “but a dead man held on end / To sink down soon.” Then comes the brilliant unraveling of the final lines, which have a complex grammatical structure. “You” here is the subject, “know” the main verb; then, the subordinate clause “such swift fleeing … would undo me so” has the participial phrase “No soul foreseeing,” which modifies the “fleeing”—and then the phrase “Not even I,” which in turn modifies “No soul foreseeing.”

Thus the speaker is included among all souls, none of whom foresaw the swift fleeing, which in turn has undone the speaker—an event that the one addressed could not have foreseen. There are two levels of foreseeing: foreseeing the fleeing itself, and foreseeing how it would undo the speaker.

Now back to the word “quite.” One finds it in Shakespeare where rhyme does not require it, for instance, in Henry VI, Part 1:

Lords, view these letters full of bad mischance.
France is revolted from the English quite,
Except some petty towns of no import:

“Quite” derives from the adverbial form of the Middle English “quit, quite,” which meant “free, clear.” It originally meant “thoroughly” but came to mean “somewhat.” It is related to “quit” and “quiet” and even to “while”; it derives from the Proto-Indo-European root *qwi- “rest.” One can hear all of those tinges of meaning in Hardy’s “quite” in the first stanza. It is about quitting, quiet, utter removal, and thoroughness, all of which come up in the final stanza again.

I have read no criticism of this poem, so I don’t know to what extent these observations overlap with what has been said before. I like to think about poems on my own before reading what others have to say, unless the criticism is especially compelling in itself (in that case, it takes nothing away from my own thinking, but instead spurs thoughts). I was looking forward to laying down these thoughts all week, and know that they are just a beginning.

More Pushkin: “The day’s luminary has died out….”

I enjoyed recording and commenting on Alexander Pushkin’s poem “To the Poet” yesterday, so I will do the same with another favorite, “The day’s luminary has died out.” Recording it was a bit like Living in Oblivion; again and again, something went wrong, and I thought I might end up retaking it into infinity. I was on the verge of completing a good recording when my cat jumped on the desk and started playing noisily with paper clips. Finally I recorded it from start to finish.

Pushkin wrote this poem in 1820, when traveling by ship across the Black Sea. It is full of sea and memory; it has to do with seeing a shore in the distance and recalling past friends, sensual encounters, betrayals, vices, wounds. The speaker calls on the sail and the sea–for the sake of voyage, then for the sake of memory, and finally in order to forget.

I could not find an acceptable translation online, so I translated it literally for the purposes of this post. Unfortunately, I have not found a way to preserve the indentation in WordPress (I can do it in HTML, but it disappears here), so the English translation will appear without indentation. For the Russian, I scanned the text as an image so that I could display it properly.

When looking for a translation, I came upon Andrew Kahn’s commentary on the poem: “Pushkin wished to inject enough personal detail to satisfy the demand for autobiographical disclosure that travels with the Romantic persona. With the familiar topoi of premature ageing”–

Stop right there! With all due respect to Kahn, I find this interpretation limiting. I heard this kind of thing in graduate school. It has been fashionable to view Pushkin as a self-fashioner, acutely aware of the poetic trends and capable of playing with them cleverly. There’s an element of truth to this, but as a dominant interpretation, it misses something. Yes, Pushkin is aware of Romantic tendencies; yes, he plays with them, and cleverly, too. But he also makes them come to life. How does he do this?

Look at the poem. Its shape suggests the ocean, with shorter and taller waves, and irregular lapses between them. There is a refrain–“Rumble, rumble, obedient sail, / Morose ocean, stir up under me” (“Shumi, shumi, poslushnoe vetrilo, / Volnuisia podo mnoi, ugriumyi okean”)–that occurs three times and changes meaning profoundly with the repetitions. The first time, it is literal, as the speaker is sailing over the sea. The second time, the “stirring up” is the excitement of old memory and emotion, a mixture of excitement and regret. The final time, this “stirring up” is the rumbling needed to bury the old pain. I hear those last two lines as something close to a hush.

In poetry, refrains should change meaning, however subtly, with the repetition, or they become tedious–but the changes in this particular poem stand apart. The “stirring up” seems to go deeper down into the water (and into the soul) each time. The first time, it is on the surface, or close; the second time, somewhere in the middle; and the third time, so far down that it can barely be felt.

Also, this refrain is built on word-play. The refrain’s first line, “Шуми, шуми, послушное ветрило” (“Make noise, make noise, obedient sail”) has the word “poslushnoe,” “obedient,” which has the root “slukh-” (“hearing” or “ear”; “slushat'” is “to listen”). Thus in the noise of the sail there is also a sense of listening. In the second line, “Волнуйся подо мной, угрюмый океан” (“Stir up beneath me, sullen ocean”), the word “volnuisia” (“stir up”) suggests “volna,” “wave.” Thus in telling the ocean to stir up, the speaker is telling it to make waves, or, rather, to be itself. All of this gives the sense of an internal conversation.

I will not comment any more on the poem. Here is the Russian (as a picture, with formatting preserved), and here is my recording (in MP3 format).

And here’s my rough English translation (unperfected, just intended to give readers a sense of the poem):

The day’s luminary has fallen into dark;
An evening fog has spread across the sea.
Rumble, rumble, obedient sail,
Morose ocean, stir up under me.
I see a shore from far away,
Enchanted vistas of the land of noon;
With agitation and yearning I strive toward it,
Intoxicated with memory…
And now I feel: the tears are born again;
The soul boils up and then subsides;
A familiar dream flies around me;
I remember the mad love of past years,
And everything I suffered, and all things I hold dear,
The wearying deception of desires and hopes…
Rumble, rumble, obedient sail,
Morose ocean, stir up under me.
Fly, ship, take me to the distant limits
By the stormy whim of the deceptive seas,
Only not to the sorrowful shores
Of my foggy native land,
The country, where with passion’s flame
Feelings for the first time burst in fire,
Where tender muses slipped me secret smiles,
Where, early on, my lost youth
Wilted away in violent wind and rain,
Where light-winged joy showed me its other face
And my cold heart committed itself to pain.
A seeker of new sights and sounds,
I ran from you, paternal lands,
I ran from you who drink the milk of pleasures,
Unlasting friends of my unlasting youth;
And you, mistresses of depraved delusion,
To whom I lovelessly devoted all,
My peace, my fame, my freedom and my soul,
You too have left my mind, unfaithful dames,
Secret intimates of my golden spring,
You too have left my mind… But the old wounds of the heart,
The deep wounds of love, nothing has ever healed…
Rumble, rumble, obedient sail,
Morose ocean, stir up under me.

(August 1820)

Note: I made some minor improvements to the translation since the initial posting, but it is still rough.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • TEDx Talk

    Delivered at TEDx Upper West Side, April 26, 2016.



    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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