Reading and Thinking – Consequent Amazements

I have currently undertaken two superficially antithetical parallel reading pursuits: re-savoring Thoreau’s WALDEN and re-assaulting the difficult, luminous, thorny works of William Gass (once my mentor at a writers conference).

I suppose one is the antidote to the other and so I am in a way “safe” from being carried away by the passions of either.

And yet only today did the mutually neutralizing nature of my parallel endeavor strike me, and did I become aware of my almost unconscious caution in taking on both of these wise acres at the same time. What on earth does this mean?  How can one adore both of these literary lions and carry their thoughts around, alive and squirming, simultaneously in one’s head?

Then I recalled Keats’ “objective correlative,” (though today Eliot  gets the credit for popularizing it), which attempted to label just that sort of thing.  He coined the phrase to describe a capacity in someone so far beyond me I will not  even mention his name.

But perhaps, after all, these are precisely the benefits of “reading wide and reading deep.”

Of course, haha, this can also make you a mumbling idiot.  Steady as she goes.  Careful now…. (wink wink).

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“I will drink life to the lees” – Tennyson’s “Ulysses”

Poor Tennyson, like so many of the Victorians today, he can come across as pompous, grandiose, even corny.  Or, worse, quaint.

That is our loss, I think, and a result of our own myopia and a contraction of our brains and senses.

Today we live in a age of reduced expectations, an age of minimalist cynicism, though nevertheless, a fat and flaccid time of carping, of quibbling and twittering about essentially nothing. We bitch, we moan, we “friend” and beg online for others to “friend” us.

For a great poet today to approach great themes, to try to scale them, and apply all of his or her considerable talent, skill and personal insight/experience to them, is almost embarrassing to many, if not most.

For some reason, this poem of Tennyson’s came to mind today, particularly the line, “I will drink life to the lees.”  The line states baldly that the speaker intends to drain the whole damn wine glass of life, bottoms up, and swallow even the grainy dregs.

What today would we make such a grand assertion by a contemporary poet?

And yet I know in my bones we all harbor that universal urge to know, to feel and to understand and experience all things to “the max.”  To live our lives fully with no reservations, no holds barred and embrace risk instead of fleeing it. How sad it is so few of us are able to admit this to ourselves and instead ridicule it in others who have the nerve to declaim and embrace it.

The following poem is a dramatic monologue, a favorite verse form of the great Victorian poets, and in the voice of Odysseus (Ulysses to the Roman world).  He has finally returned home, almost miraculously and with the assist of the goddess Athena at critical junctures along the way, many years after the Trojan War, Helen, Achilles and all of that, and only after risking his life, limb and sanity.  He is finally safely back to hearth and the comforts of home. While he was away a-warring, a lifetime surely it seems,  his loyal, patient long-suffering wife Penelope kept the home fires burning in the palace while deftly repelling and fending off the courtship of a host warring contending suitors, fierce young men on the make who would claim the hand of the widowed queen and thus rule the realm.

And you know what? Finally home at last and safe and sound?  He is bored.

The thrill of risk, of daring and striving to achieve great things, Tennyson seems to be saying, is incomparable to anything life has to offer for it ratchets up life to a fever point, and then and only then we truly are alive and aware.

Whatever your tastes and predilections in poetry, if you’ve read and studied the Iliad and the Odyssey, this cannot fail to move you. A great poet writing at the height of his powers.


By Alfred, Lord Tennyson

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.


This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,—
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.


There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me—
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.





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Is Digital Reading Eroding Our Ability to Think and Reason?

“READING IS A BRIDGE TO THOUGHT” –  close reading, that is….

This is a very interesting article from the New Yorker that validates an intuition and suspicion I’ve had for a while, and it’s something that’s been needling me for some time.

I’m nostalgic these days for paper and pen, real physical books I can hold, cradle, hug and love–and letters from friends and relatives in their own hand.  I often lament the absence of the lovely sound of a real human voice over the phone in the constant text messages I receive all day.

As all things go digital or online, we are becoming too distant from life, and other lives, the sense and sensuality of it, I think.  We are sentient beings and as such this is real a loss for us, I fear.

EXCERPT From the New Yorker, “How to Be a Better Online Reader”

[These] concerns go far beyond simple comprehension. Wolf [author of this piece] fears that as we turn to digital formats, we may see a negative effect on the process that she calls deep reading. Deep reading isn’t how we approach looking for news or information, or trying to get the gist of something. It’s the ‘sophisticated comprehension processes,’ as Wolf calls it ….  ‘Reading is a bridge to thought,’ she says. ‘And it’s that process that I think is the real endangered aspect of reading…'”

Read the whole thing here:


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Word Crimes – “The Movie” Cute, Clever!

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Perilous Times for Books and Those Who Love Them

AMAZON-master495Publishers, authors and readers who have any sense need to turn around, tell Amazon to take a hike, and figure out what really makes sense. This doesn’t as presently configured.

FEED THE BEAST (OR ELSE) New York Times, July 13, 2014

“Among the buttons Amazon could push: raise the price, recommend something cheaper, make the book disappear from promotional lists.”

Guys, first the bookstores went down one by one, big and small, the beloved neighborhood bookstores, a staple of American life for centuries–just–disappeared.

[I'd had an independent bookstore for 13 years a long time ago, and watching this broke my heart. They were more than just places to sell and buy books.  They were community resources, friendly places .Welcoming settings, browseable, and where one was likely to have the opportunity to engage in a lively, interesting conversation with neighbors and friends,]

Then the relentless amassing, coalescing of leverage and power by online retailers continued, and the weaklings among them were weeded out.

And then and then and then:  the victor, emerged, Amazon, which forthwith, to make up for past losses to achieve the “mountaintop,” started squeezing everyone hard, publishers and authors, all “vendors,” and anyway they could. Margins! Their shakey stock price had to be buttressed, Margins! They have to improve them somehow, some way.

So what we are left with? Who is really viable as a purveyor of books in America, who is left standing? Amazon.

Read the article, please. [Link above] For Amazon, it’s about margins.  For the rest of us, it’s about something far more important. Books. Choices. Access. The best books, uncensored by “margin” considerations.

Publishers, authors and readers have other things uppermost in their minds. Books. Access.

[take a peek at comments below ;)]



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Into the Silver Dawn -“All in green went my love riding” – e.e. cummings

medieval deer hunt


I’m on a poetry trip here lately, and not that I go looking for trouble, or even that I am actually reading poetry (that’s a trap and routine buster for me, to tell the truth, everything inconsequential – not poetry – vanishes from my radar. Very dangerous activity for me.)

So anyway, these great old poems, they just find me, (cf., Stevens’ poems, just posted) they just jump out of nowhere, out of the shadows of memory, and accost me. Like highway men, they stand in the middle of the frantic four lane interstate of my life and thoughts,
and I slam on the brakes and . . . . something sudden like this happens and I hear ….

All in green went my love riding

on a great horse of gold

into the silver dawn.


four lean hounds crouched low and smiling

the merry deer ran before.


fleeter be they than dappled dreams

the swift sweet deer

the red rare deer.


four red roebuck at a white water

the cruel bugle sang before.


horn at hip went my love riding

riding the echo down

into the silver dawn.


four lean hounds crouched low and smiling

the level meadows ran before.


softer be they than slippered sleep

the lean lithe deer

the fleet flown deer.


Four fleet does at a gold valley

the famished arrow sang before ….


e.e. cummings (1894-1963)


[The poem is still protected by copyright, so I have to stop there.

But truly the first stanza is enough to stop me in my tracks, looping and winding over and over again in my mind with something elemental, fundamental and so ancient that it rings again and again in the ear as some kind of beautiful and otherwise inexpressible melodic truth. Ah, poets, poetry. Who needs it, eh? ;) ]






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“And whence they come and wither they shall go/the dew upon their feet shall manifest” – Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning”

matisse[ I referred/alluded to this essential Stevens poem, a poem that is really key to understanding the rest of his work, in my previous post. I felt I should post it here for your convenience and reference. I believe I posted it once before a few years ago. Oh, well. What the hay? It's that good and perdurable ;)


Sunday Morning

Wallace Stevens, 18791955

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair, 
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice. 
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe, 
As a calm darkens among water-lights. 
The pungent oranges and bright, green wings
Seem things in some procession of the dead,
Winding across wide water, without sound.
The day is like wide water, without sound,
Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet
Over the seas, to silent Palestine, 
Dominion of the blood and sepulchre.


Why should she give her bounty to the dead?
What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun, 
In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth, 
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
Divinity must live within herself: 
Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;
Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued
Elations when the forest blooms; gusty
Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights; 
All pleasures and all pains, remembering 
The bough of summer and the winter branch. 
These are the measures destined for her soul. 


Jove in the clouds had his inhuman birth. 
No mother suckled him, no sweet land gave
Large-mannered motions to his mythy mind
He moved among us, as a muttering king,
Magnificent, would move among his hinds, 
Until our blood, commingling, virginal, 
With heaven, brought such requital to desire
The very hinds discerned it, in a star. 
Shall our blood fail? Or shall it come to be 
The blood of paradise? And shall the earth
Seem all of paradise that we shall know?
The sky will be much friendlier then than now, 
A part of labor and a part of pain, 
And next in glory to enduring love, 
Not this dividing and indifferent blue.


She says, “I am content when wakened birds,
Before they fly, test the reality
Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings;
But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields
Return no more, where, then, is paradise?”
There is not any haunt of prophecy, 
Nor any old chimera of the grave, 
Neither the golden underground, nor isle
Melodious, where spirits gat them home, 
Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm
Remote on heaven’s hill, that has endured
As April’s green endures; or will endure
Like her remembrance of awakened birds, 
Or her desire for June and evening, tipped
By the consummation of the swallow’s wings.


She says, “But in contentment I still feel
The need of some imperishable bliss.”
Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her, 
Alone, shall come fulfilment to our dreams
And our desires. Although she strews the leaves
Of sure obliteration on our paths, 
The path sick sorrow took, the many paths
Where triumph rang its brassy phrase, or love
Whispered a little out of tenderness, 
She makes the willow shiver in the sun
For maidens who were wont to sit and gaze
Upon the grass, relinquished to their feet.
She causes boys to pile new plums and pears
On disregarded plate. The maidens taste
And stray impassioned in the littering leaves.


Is there no change of death in paradise?
Does ripe fruit never fall? Or do the boughs
Hang always heavy in that perfect sky, 
Unchanging, yet so like our perishing earth, 
With rivers like our own that seek for seas
They never find, the same receding shores
That never touch with inarticulate pang?
Why set the pear upon those river-banks
Or spice the shores with odors of the plum?
Alas, that they should wear our colors there, 
The silken weavings of our afternoons, 
And pick the strings of our insipid lutes!
Death is the mother of beauty, mystical, 
Within whose burning bosom we devise
Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly.


Supple and turbulent, a ring of men
Shall chant in orgy on a summer morn
Their boisterous devotion to the sun,
Not as a god, but as a god might be, 
Naked among them, like a savage source.
Their chant shall be a chant of paradise, 
Out of their blood, returning to the sky;
And in their chant shall enter, voice by voice, 
The windy lake wherein their lord delights, 
The trees, like serafin, and echoing hills, 
That choir among themselves long afterward.
They shall know well the heavenly fellowship
Of men that perish and of summer morn.
And whence they came and whither they shall go
The dew upon their feet shall manifest.


She hears, upon that water without sound, 
A voice that cries, “The tomb in Palestine
Is not the porch of spirits lingering. 
It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay.”
We live in an old chaos of the sun, 
Or old dependency of day and night, 
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free, 
Of that wide water, inescapable. 
Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail 
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky, 
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink, 
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.
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