Mark Twain for President – 1879

A Presidential Candidate
twain mark-twain-mark-twain-9192207-1109-1377
I have pretty much made up my mind to run for President.
What the country wants is a candidate who cannot be injured
by investigation of his past history, so that the enemies of the
party will be unable to rake up anything against him that
nobody ever heard of before. If you know the worst about
a candidate, to begin with, every attempt to spring things
on him will be checkmated. Now I am going to enter the
field with an open record.
I am going to own up in advance to all the wickedness I have done, and if any Congressional committee is disposed to prowl around my biography in the
hope of discovering any dark and deadly deed that I have
secreted, why—let it prowl.
In the first place, I admit that I treed a rheumatic grand­father of mine in the winter of 1850. He was old and inexpert in climbing trees, but with the heartless brutality that is
characteristic of me, I ran him out of the front door in his night­
shirt at the point of a shotgun, and caused him to bowl up a
maple tree, where he remained all night, while I emptied shot
into his legs. I did this because he snored. I will do it again if I
ever have another grandfather. I am as inhuman now as I was
in 1850.
I candidly acknowledge that I ran away at the battle
of Gettysburg. My friends have tried to smooth over this fact
by asserting that I did so for the purpose of imitating Washington,
who went into the woods at Valley Forge for the
purpose of saying his prayers. It was a miserable subterfuge.
I struck out in a straight line for the Tropic of Cancer because
I was scared. I wanted my country saved, but I preferred to
have somebody else save it. I entertain that preference yet. If
the bubble reputation can be obtained only at the cannon’s
mouth, I am willing to go there for it, provided the cannon
is empty. If it is loaded, my immortal and inflexible purpose
is to get over the fence and go home. My invariable practice
in war has been to bring out of every fight two-­thirds more
men than when I went in. This seems to me to be Napoleonic
in its grandeur.
My financial views are of the most decided character, but
they are not likely, perhaps, to increase my popularity with
the advocates of inflation. I do not insist upon the special
supremacy of rag money or hard money. The great fundamental principle
of my life is to take any kind I can get.
The rumor that I buried a dead aunt under my grapevine
was correct. The vine needed fertilizing, my aunt had to
be buried, and I dedicated her to this high purpose. Does

that unfit me for the Presidency? The Constitution of our  country does not say so.

No other citizen was ever considered unworthy of this office because he enriched his grapevines with his dead relatives. Why should I be selected as the first victim of an absurd prejudice?

I admit also that I am not a friend of the poor man. I regard
the poor man, in his present condition, as so much wasted
raw material. Cut up and properly canned, he might be
made useful to fatten the natives of the cannibal islands and
to improve our export trade with that region. I shall recommend legislation upon the subject in my first message. My campaign cry will be: “Desiccate the poor workingman; stuff him into sausages.”
These are about the worst parts of my record. On them I
come before the country. If my country don’t want me, I will
go back again. But I recommend myself as a safe man—a man
who starts from the basis of total depravity and proposes to
be fiendish to the last.
The above screed was lifted reverently and verbatim from the multi-volume definitive text of THE COMPLETE WORKS OF MARK TWAIN published by The Library of America.
This link is very enlightening. Garfield won the  electoral college, but less than 2000 in the popular vote separated him from Hancock.  We are still struggling with many of the same issues.





Posted in American Literature, American Literature, Literary Lions, Literature, Mark Twain, Politics, Rants, writers, writing | 6 Comments

Ben Lerner’s ‘The Hatred of Poetry’ Revels in Paradox

Heads up, Poets. This review in Flavorwire (6/9/16) of Ben Lerner’s recent book-length essay on the disappointments and shortcomings of poetry is worth reading.

Says reviewer Jonathan Sturgeon, “The Hatred of Poetry is an important essay because it doubles as a self-conscious ars poetica from a major American writer, one who is not uncommonly cast in an Adamic light. (Few other writers are compared to Whitman by major critics, or hailed as “the future.”).”

Hmmm. I don’t know if all that’s hot air or not.  Check back in a hundred years or so.  But the points Lerner makes in his book about the process of writing poetry as experienced by the poet–the dynamic interplay of the poet’s mind, imagination and emotions–ring a bell.

If you have ever experienced that vague unease and sense of inadequacy that often afflicts poets after they have given a poem their best shot and revised it half to death, and then suddenly feel deflated, all the wind gone out of their sails, you will instantly get what Lerner is after here.  Marianne Moore‘s oft quoted poem “Poetry” that begins, “I, too, dislike it,” is the launching pad for this bottle rocket reverie on the false hopes for transcendence that beguile poets in the full flush of early inspiration. The ideas are nothing new but worth re-examining.

Here is an excerpt:


Poetry arises from the desire to get beyond the finite and the historical — the human world of violence and difference — and to reach the transcendent or divine. You’re moved to write a poem, you feel called upon to sing, because of that transcendent impulse. But as soon as you move from that impulse to the actual poem, the song of the infinite is compromised by the finitude of its terms. In a dream your verses can defeat time, your words can shake off the history of their usage, you can represent what can’t be represented (e.g. the creation of representation itself), but when you wake, when you rejoin your friends around the fire, you’re back in the human world with its inflexible laws and logic.

Posted in American Literature, literary theory, Literature, poetry, poets | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Abhorrent Grammar Mistakes #1

scool marmThis is a public service announcement and (maybe) the first in an erratic series of fusillades fired in the direction of blithely ignorant practitioners of faulty grammar. Not that it’ll make any difference, but 1) this exercise will make me feel better and 2) at least I can say I made an effort.

These offenses are not in any order of criminality, but will appear as they offend my ears.

Abhorrent Grammar Mistakes #1


Exhibit #1 “Between you and I”


Because “between” is a preposition and so requires personal pronouns that follow it (as part of a “prepositional phrase”) to be in the objective case.

“I” is in the nominative case.

good grammar

As we all know, though some of us have forgotten, personal pronouns have three cases.  Ahem.  Nominative, objective, and possessive. There is a ton of simple easy to remember information about this (“about” is yet another preposition!) available online, so I won’t belabor this or bore you any further than to suggest you avoid embarrassing yourself and others who know better by uttering the above travesty against our mother tongue and always say instead . . .


Exhibit #2 “Between you and me”

“Me” (ahem) is in the grammatically correct case (in this case), the objective case.

Now, many will object that it “doesn’t sound right,” but that will only betray the kind of company they have been keeping.  Today “between you and I” is widely and incorrectly used, yet those who know the difference are still the people who make a difference, so watch out.

Between you and me, it’s important.

punctuation saves lives






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Too Many Books?


One of my favorite literary websites is LitHub. It’s smart, clever and full of important, insightful book news, very often news you can use.  The editors at LitHub aggregate current interesting pieces from other important sites as well as create their own original bookish journalism, criticism and writing advice.

I want to share a recent piece from the site that is heartrending for any book lover: an essay on the difficulty of reducing the size of one’s personal library.  We’ve all been there, stymied by the threat of books completely overwhelming our very living space.  Such a situation always requires painful decisions and soul searching.  Our love for books has become out-sized, perhaps even an addiction or a type of hoarding. Oh my. So periodically we have  tortured days of reckoning in our book rich lives.

On the Heartbreaking Difficulty of Getting Rid of Books

Summer Brennan Attempts Marie Kondo’s Approach to Tidying Up Her Library

Like a lot of avid readers, I enjoyed Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up but bristled when it came to the section about books. The gist of her now-famous method is this: go through all your possessions by category, touch everything, keep only that which “sparks joy,” and watch as your world is transformed. It seems simple enough, but Kondo gives minimalism the hard sell when it comes to books, urging readers to ditch as many of them as they can. You may think that a book sparks joy, she argues, but you’re probably wrong and should get rid of it, especially if you haven’t read it yet.

Paring down one’s wardrobe is one thing, but what kind of degenerate only wants to own 30 books (or fewer) at a time on purpose? What sort of psychopath rips out pages from their favorite books and throws away the rest so they can, as Kondo puts it, “keep only the words they like?”

For those of us for whom even the word “book” sparks joy, this constitutes a serious disconnect. Still, as the weather gets warmer, many readers will tackle their spring cleaning with The Life-Changing Magic in hand.

I wondered, can Kondo’s Spartan methods be adapted for someone who feels about books the way the National Rifle Association feels about guns, invoking the phrase “cold dead hands”? I decided to give it a try.

Following her instructions, I herded all of my books into one room and put them on the floor. There were more than 500, ranging from books I’d been given as a small child to advance review copies of novels I’d received within the last week. Somehow they did not appear as numerous as one would expect. They looked vulnerable and exposed when stacked up in this way, out of context, like when the TSA zips open your suitcase at the airport. But that is the point of the KonMari method—to force us to see our possessions under the fluorescent light of disorientation.

Oh, I thought, scanning tattered paperbacks and long-forgotten class-assigned texts.

Oh. …. [Read the rest here]

Posted in books, Literature, personal library, reading | Tagged , , , , , , | 12 Comments

A Votive Light for Nabokov



Ambushed, waylaid, ravished by an unexpected encounter tonight with Pale Fire, Nabokov’s powerful daemonic masterpiece. An oddity of a novel told in four cantos, 999 lines of seductive, sensuous verse.  A virtuoso piece, a showcase for the author’s extraordinary talent and intellectual fire power; a linguistic fireworks display built upon the slightest pretext for a novel. Literary satire, insider wit.  Published in 1962, it is on most lists of the 100 most important works of literature of the 20th Century.  Vladimir Nabokov, Russian emigre, sheer genius. Poetic mountebank, myth-maker, verbal  alchemist, spellbinding caster of spells, synesthete, lepidopterist, chess expert.

Takes your breath away. Monarch_butterfly 2


I was the shadow of the waxwing slain

By the false azure in the windowpane;

I was the smudge of ashen fluff–and I

Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky . . .

. . .

Uncurtaining the night, I’d let dark glass

Hang all the furniture above the grass . . .

Retake the falling snow: each drifting flake

Shapeless and slow, unsteady and opaque,

A dull dark white against the day’s pale white

And abstract larches in the neutral light.

And then the gradual and dual blue

As night unites the viewer and the view . . . .

I’m just at a loss for words in such company.  Hardly fair one person should be so richly gifted. Are we sure he was actually human and not a smirking Parnassus sojourner in disguise having a little prankster fun with us?

Posted in fiction, Literary Classics, Literary Lions, Literature, poetry | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Whitman, Democracy’s Bard

Walt Whitman popped into my thoughts unannounced yesterday as I was listening to a nasty political discussion on NPR. Honestly, it’s hard to avoid the contentious, angry political noise in the air these days that’s camouflaged as debate and dialogue. People everywhere are irate and sounding off, often obnoxiously.


Granted, politics have always been rough, tough and bruising, and in this country, if you know history, you know there never was a golden age of political pablum or balmy rectitude when we were better, “nicer” people in choosing our elected officials.  It’s amazing how consistently rife with personal insult, libel, defamation and even threats of physical harm (think assassination) all of our presidential campaigns have been.  And candidates’ family members, including most of all wives, have always been fair game for pillory. Cf. Old Hickory, Andrew Jackson’s wife, viciously maligned on the basis of a mere rumor that she was a divorcee’.

Ho hum.  The more things change …vitriol

And yet when we recall Whitman’s joyful celebratory poetry, his shameless praise and pride in the American people, their apparent innate goodness, and the as yet untested Idea of America as a democracy vastly rich in values and an honest belief in liberty and justice for all, we are transported to a more innocent, kindlier era quite unlike the moral wasteland of our selfish, self-centered, asphalt present.

the beautiful dreams of a beautifully innocent people . . .

Whitman’s expansive, incantatory and hugely optimistic Leaves of Grass was first published (self-published, actually) in 1855. It subsequently was heavily revised and enlarged upon many times and became Whitman’s lifework, ringing the depth and breadth of the beautiful dreams of a beautifully innocent people.  Today it stands as a powerful witness and testimony of a better time and place, America’s Eden.

Though yet to make a big splash as a nation in international affairs, America at the time was young and full of itself.  The nation took seriously the ideals codified in the Constitution and drew strength and social cohesion from this shared credo.  Its people were  astounded daily by new discoveries on the as yet unexplored western frontier and the seemingly endless bounty of our natural resources.

What a time and place to be alive.  The newspapers, magazines, personal letters and diaries of the day attest to a zest, a joie de vivre, in the air for the simple thrills, chills and joys of living. An unquestioned rock solid faith in the future fueled a steely universal respect for effort, sacrifice and the work ethic. The sky was the limit; upward mobility everywhere in evidence. Human decency was reckoned an essential quality in everyone’s character and attainable; common courtesy was, well, common, a given and expected.  Good manners mattered. Progress had yet to become a dirty word and our natural abundance seemed inexhaustible, infinite.

We were equipped for and capable of anything, we believed. And all eyes were on us in our unapologetic brashness.  The rest of the civilized world was watching us with a raised eyebrow and a jaded jaundiced eye, expecting what history predicted (if past is indeed prologue), a fall from grace.  Never had Democracy been attempted on a scale so grand by a country so grandly endowed. The myth became our reality. We embraced it as scriptural truth.  We were confident of our ability to make most things right, both for our own people and, by example, for rest of The World.


Alexis de Toqueville, Democracy in America, 1835

No other American poet than Walt Whitman has so ably and consistently given voice to the heady optimistic public spirit prevalent in the  United States in the Nineteenth Century.  We were bold, boastful, proud and hell-bent on making equal opportunity for all a reality.

Oh, the good old days. Today Whitman’s eloquent magnum opus whispers accusations of national malfeasance from memory’s rafters and roof beams; from the shadows of our subsequent common past, for our sins of omission and commission, of our grasping, greedy, me-first failures to realize the promises we made to ourselves and to rest of The (big bad) World.


An obsessive-compulsive, meticulous cataloger and compiler, Whitman was encyclopedic in his efforts to capture and render in his poetry the enormous bounty of the country and the energy and verve of the American people. A sweet sampling follows …


I Hear America Singing

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,

Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.


Source: Selected Poems (1991)

Below, note the crucial difference between Whitman’s sense of “self” and our contemporary  lapse into the hubris of “Me-ism.”  The “self”  that Whitman refers to  corresponds to all “selves,” not separate lives, superior or inferior. It is a unifying idiom/concept, not a separation of one from others.  “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

That is, it is no “selfie.”  The very practice and attitude behind it would have scandalized the Nineteenth Century American mind.

“The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag . . .”

from Song of Myself (1892 version)

By Walt Whitman

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,

I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,

Hoping to cease not till death.

Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,

Nature without check with original energy.

Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowded with perfumes,
I breathe the fragrance myself and know it and like it,

The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.

The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation, it is odorless,
It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it,
I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,

I am mad for it to be in contact with me.

The smoke of my own breath,
Echoes, ripples, buzz’d whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch and vine,
My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood and air through my lungs,
The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and dark-color’d sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn,
The sound of the belch’d words of my voice loos’d to the eddies of the wind,
A few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms,
The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag,
The delight alone or in the rush of the streets, or along the fields and hill-sides,

The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun.

Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d the earth much?
Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?

Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,

You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self. . . . .

[Click to read the rest of Song of Myself ]

For all his tireless inspired work, Whitman received little critical acclaim (other than the prescient endorsement of Ralph Waldo Emerson in a letter which he came to treasure) and scanty public appreciation in his lifetime, which was an archetype for the miserable lack of appreciation and dismal financial fate of most of our major literary figures of that era (Poe, Melville, Dickinson, etc.). In fact, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was reviled in certain quarters as pornographic (Emily Dickinson said in a letter that she heard he was “indecent”) and such misunderstandings of his poetry more than once got him fired from positions he very much needed to survive.

Even so, it’s clear from his verse that he had a wonderful life and, wherever he was in his constant traipsing back and forth over the unspoiled continent, even on a battlefield strewn with corpses of young American men during  the darkest bloodiest days of our Civil War, he always fully explored and embraced  the sundry nuances and delectations of his circumstances,  savoring both good and bad, and immortalizing for anyone who might care that vanished golden moment of our history.

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Of Poets and Poetasters: National Poetry Month

So what’s a poetaster? Most people are pretty sure they know what a poet is, but poetaster, first used by Ben Jonson in 1600, has fallen into disuse.

Poetaster_Sml-300x300Well, fact is, though we throw the word poet around with flippant abandon, there is little widespread agreement on the meaning of this noun.  It all depends on where you’re coming from and how you define poetry.

Since the earlier 20th century and the rise of literary modernism, poetry in a sense has been usurped by academia (and literary snobs and exclusive arts organizations whose members are all MFAs) and its definition in those circles has increasingly narrowed over the years.

Lacking any other distinction, such as being gainfully employed or crusading for an important charitable cause, some of these metaphorical folks comfort themselves with their memberships in exclusive artsy societies and occasional publication in highbrow mags, considering them badges of honor and  proof positive of superiority.

Hey, I’ve been called out as highbrow fairly often, but usually derisively. I admit I have certain credentials and a bit of a bibliography, but I don’t think these are things  to brag about or stake your life on. My family certainly isn’t impressed.  Few people would be, actually. For me, it’s sort of an embarrassing private vice, something indicative of a potentially dangerous lack of practicality. Not one of my siblings has ever taken the time to (haha) read a word I’ve published anywhere in spite of my efforts to bowl them over by ranting about the New York Times, Baltimore Sun etcetera yadda yadda. It’s a big So What in their book. But at least they’ve stopped asking when I’m going to get a real job.

I learned from this a long time ago that in all things, whatever your station,  a little humility goes a long way. We all, whoever we are, put our pants on one leg at a time (without the benefit of imagery, meter and rhyme). And have you noticed that the really great lions of literature have always been ignored, misunderstood, if not reviled, in their lifetime?  They’re “strange, odd, peculiar …” Not that those qualities are necessarily symptoms of literary genius ….

But I thank God Poetry is bigger than all that blab and blah-blah and has always survived the depredations and abuse carried on in its name.

[Below: Original manuscript of a “strange, odd, peculiar” poet.  Emily Dickinson’s poem “The way Hope builds his House” on back of envelope, c. 1863]


Anyway … the point!  What sent me off on this frenzied tangent and reckless reverie was a quotation I stumbled on at the Poetry Magazine website.  It was folded into the body of a longer piece purportedly devoted to the celebration of April as “National Poetry Month.” It stood out from the other quotes in the smorgasbord of academic smugness because of its honesty and implicit democratic view of poetry and its unbounded, often surprising origins and sources. [I took the liberty of adding bold type and breaks in the quote for the sake of readability.] Here you go:

This past fall, for the culminating reading of a poetry class at a Miami elementary school, we tried to order pizza from a major commercial 
chain. They told us that they didn’t deliver to that particular neighborhood, despite it being technically inside their delivery zone. Their refusal was blatantly discriminatory (the neighborhood has “a bad reputation”), and we were frustrated. We wanted pizza and were willing to pay for it; why wouldn’t they just bring it to us?

I relate this story because sometimes I think the poetry world, for all of its good intentions, behaves like that pizza shop. We make decisions 
about who does and doesn’t receive poetry, about where poetry should exist, and about who should be writing it. Much of poetry advocacy would be better defined as poet advocacy and comes packaged with unspoken rules about who is and who isn’t a poet. It says: if and when poetry receives more attention (insert: money, fame, etc.), here is who should benefit. This advocacy becomes a frail mouthpiece for a fringe sector of society. If we want poetry to have a more central place in our culture, we have to let go of our personal investment in its growth. We have to admit that we don’t fully understand how poetry exists in the lives of people who don’t have MFAs, who don’t take workshops, who have no idea what AWP stands for, and we have to admit that those people have far more to teach to us than we have to teach to them.

Poetry isn’t pizza. It doesn’t need to be delivered. It’s already in our communities, and by listening to those communities, we might learn that poetry’s power is far greater than we had ever envisioned.

— P. Scott Cunningham, Director, O, Miami Poetry Festival

This guy was onto something (as the great novelist Walker Percy liked to say). I want to remember that and maybe so should you:  “Poetry isn’t pizza.”

Posted in American Literature, Literature, poetry | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments