We already have a perfectly inadequate language for talking about ourselves.
At the wedding, Pete's father, a prominent cardiologist who rarely spoke more than three or four words at a time, took me aside. He had a bashful, gentle smile. He was always preoccupied, and almost always dressed in his hospital greens, sometimes with his surgical mask around his neck. He'd come home, get a half-gallon box of ice cream from the freezer, grab a spoon, and head into the living room. He'd turn on the TV and recline in his big chair. He'd nod at us. "Pete, Mark." An hour later the box of ice cream would be empty on the floor and he'd be asleep, the TV on. He was a big supporter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, but I doubted he believed in much but his work and the grounds around his house. When he took me aside at the wedding and asked what I was doing, I told him. He thought about it for a minute, and then said: "If you want to write, you have to be educated. That means you have to travel. Go to Africa, northern Africa especially."
It pays to pace yourself to your listener's pace, but not much.
Juke box at the Corner Pub, Denver, Colorado, June 17, 1986: Dave Mason, "Only You Know and I Know"; Danny O'Keefe, "Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues"; Pure Prairie League, "Amy"; Sly and the Family Stone, "Hot Fun in the Summertime"; Simon and Garfunkel, "Cecelia"; Strawberry Alarm Clock, "Incense and Peppermints"; The Association, "Everything That Touches You"; Rolling Stones, "Jumpin Jack Flash"; Doobie Brothers, "Listen to the Music"; Jethro Tull, "Sweet Dream"; Bob Dylan, "I Want You"; The Guess Who, "American Woman"; The Eagles, "Lyin Eyes"; Roger Daltry, "Say It Aint So"; Jerry Jeff Walker, "Don't It Make You Wanna Dance"; Cream, "Crossroads"; Dave Mason, "Shouldnta Took More Than You Gave"; Van Morrison, "Brown Eyed Girl"; The Allman Brothers, "Blue Sky," "Aint Wastin Time No More"; Bread, "I Wanna Make It With You"; The Who, "I Can See For Miles,"; The Chambers Brothers, "Time Has Come Today"; Janis Joplin, "Down On Me," "Bye, Bye Baby."
"By your lonesome," my mother would say. "All by your lonesome you went out to play?"
For William James, in any case, the thunder came first, then the lightning.
A poet's first poems usually get printed in the back of the last book, the posthumous one.
One of T. S. Eliot's voices says, "I gotta use words when I talk to you." One of mine says, "I gotta talk to you when I use words."
Did Emerson ever take questions from the audience?
Hic jacet in precepio. Englished: My jacket's getting wet.
Without books, there'd be very few writers.
There are more distemporaries in any given period than contemporaries, and in literary history there is no contemporary like a distemporary. T.S. Eliot couldn't get over Dante or the Jacobean dramatists. Petrarch lived among the dead, denying the gulf between himself and Cicero, as Dante denied that between himself and Virgil. Eliot taught this distemporaneousness again, and his readers found the experience more direct than any direct experience they were having. Samuel Johnson in his "Life of Addison" said what Eliot says in "Tradition and the Individual Talent": the dead are what we know. Without Addison, says Johnson, you can't attack Addison. And way back before Johnson, Themistocles: "I had been undone, had I not been undone."
Most writers don't know when to take the horn out of their mouth.
We don't say, "Show me the gossip." Reading is gossip. It's seeing, too, maybe, but not through the eye.
Let's break the cycle of poetry.
"I took one look and I was fractured," says Doc Pomus. Love at first sight doesn't fix or complete anything.
Writers often feel that there's nothing they can think or feel or say that hasn't already been thought, felt, or said. That sense isn't unique to writers, but most non-writers are only too happy to repeat others and themselves.
It's surprising how many people believe that poets have 'deeper feelings' and are 'more creative' than they themselves have and are. Imagine how that makes me feel.
Thoughts, if believed in, if prejudiced enough, become actions. They must partly fail as actions, and partly survive by actions. As actions, they become perishable, local, conventional. A book is such an action. The act of writing fails the thought, but the book results, and becomes a resource, a reminder, a remainder.
A writer's desperation is seldom quiet.
The fact that someone else writes poetry affects the person who finds it out. Of course, that person will then say that he or she once wrote, or would like to write, a poem, but is now or was then hindered by one of two things: not being good with words, or not being prone to deep feelings. The latter is less often admitted than the former, but some way is found to say it. The poet addressed must then discount deep feeling as a hindrance without marking up diction as an advantage. But if the poet addressed has deep feelings and a way with words, he or she will be at a loss to encourage a dull talker.
As William James noted, as is as important a word as any.
Even Jesus Christ, Erasmus points out, used the insanity plea to get his people off the hook: "They know not what they do."
From William James, who got it from his wife, who got it from reading Kipling, who got it from Thucydides: civil order and the amenities of social life have for their ultimate sanction nothing but force. But I need only ask my neighbor to get his dog to stop barking to see that for myself.
The "internal evidence" of a text is our estimate of ourselves in reading it.
An essay should be a small-claims court: no lawyers allowed.
"I'm gonna tell on you." All writing has that form—a telling, a hearing, and a you. The reader wants to be told on, but can shut the book at any time.
I'm trying to perform in all these formulas.
Emerson is a superficial writer. "In skating over thin ice," he says, "our safety is in our speed." "We live amid surfaces, and the art of life is to skate well on them." This is the foundation of transcendentalism: that Emerson liked to watch boys skate on the Concord River.
The religion of Emerson's age is the literary entertainment of ours. There's Harold Bloom at one extreme and John Updike at the other. Bloom thinks he is Emerson; Updike thinks he's beyond Emerson.
Why did William James hate poetry and read Whitman? James didn't like fluency. Known for his image (which Alexander Bain had used twenty years before) of the stream of consciousness, James nevertheless preferred the zig-zag, the transition, the perch, the flight, the interruptedness, the torn-to-pieces-hood, of thought.
William Ewart Gladstone's card read: "Wild Agitator, Means Well."
When Dylan Thomas sent "How Shall My Animal" to Henry Treece, he covered it with a note: "I hold a beast, an angel, and a madman in me, and my enquiry is as to their working, and my problem is their subjugation and victory, downthrow and upheaval, and my effort is their self-expression." That's nearly perfect for William James, if not for Thomas, and for me. For anyone.
Poetry. Buy some, read some, weep.
People wonder how to start a poem. I wonder how to start a business, a family, a day.
Everything, Emerson said, is engaged in writing its history. So we'd better say what we think, because somebody else is going to and we'll hear about it.
Think of an author as on top of a mountain in a ski area. The slopes are cut. Some are more graded than others. There are the most difficult runs, the more difficult, the easy; there are places off-limits; there is timber to bash; there are cliffs to jump, there are trails to avoid.
According to Virgil, "Men must not turn bees, animasque in vulnere ponunt"—and leave their lives behind them in the wound.
There are poets who read aloud, and what you hear in their reading is their wanting, their wanting desperately, to be poets. Their diction is thesauric. No wave runs through it. Its upper lip doesn't move. Its tongue is stiff. It heads into music, into singing, into England, into the tone that says, "Thank you for coming. This is my craft."
Poets who cry at their own poems are worse than comedians who laugh at their own jokes.
I begin to think poets have about as much relation to their local environment as the members of the Houston Symphony have to Houston.
Good poems have friction coefficients and wave functions, whatever they are.
"Woman gotta have it, where she wants it, when she wants it," said Bobby Womack. So said William James of the pragmatist.
"You're always cursing and you're always praying and you're always making love." That's what Carlos Santana says about playing guitar.
Aldous Huxley begins his novel Eyeless in Gaza by quoting from Ovid: "Five words sum up every biography. Video meliora proboque; deteriora sequor. Like all other human beings, I know what I ought to do, but continue to do what I know I oughtn't to do." I might translate it thus: "I see the better way, take the worse."
I can be one of four combinations, according to Frost: common in writing, common in experience; uncommon in writing, uncommon in experience; uncommon in writing, common in experience; common in writing, uncommon in experience. Doesn't that about cover it?
Once: took a voice lesson, searched for Whitman manuscripts, snorted heroin, pulled boats across the Rock River, picked up windfall apples, sacked potatoes, shot a .44 magnum, parasailed. The list goes on and on.
With Frost, the principle of motion counter to the source is the principle of composition.
Emerson says somewhere that if Shakespeare's Folio had been published a few years earlier, we may not have had Plymouth Rock. On the other hand, I imagine Emerson staging a production of Hamlet in Concord—and nobody comes. Even Thoreau stays in his cabin.
The only way out is through, said Frost; the nearest way is the foulest, said Bacon.
How can you tell a pragmatist? By sentence openers: "It is nevertheless true that"; "The fact is"; "The truth is"; "It isn't true to say"; "Clearly"; "For my purposes here"; "Not"; "Of course"; "Obviously." Etcetera. In other words, anyone who talks is a pragmatist.
Philosophers get their best material from the uninitiated.
We're a long way from Quintilian's definition of grammar as "the art of speaking correctly, and the interpretation of the poets." And from Sidney, who could court Stella in his sixty-third sonnet by suggesting that she couldn't possibly say no to grammar: it was conception, conjunction, conjugation.
What is this wanting to be a poet, this college girl or boy wanting to be a poet? Who thought that up, in this business civilization? The best damned poet in the business did.
Who said, "Teach as if you taught them not/Things proposed as things forgot"? Franklin or Pope. Columbo teaches in that fashion too, doesn't he? A poet detects occult sympathies. But you never see in movies or TV dramas poets going through rooms detecting things, noticing things—as in Columbo, where we learn that nothing was lost on the detective. And the only writers we're shown on TV are perps, confessing in pencil on legal pads.
What the author put in, we want out; what the author left out, we want in.
William James spent so much time writing the philosophy of moral holidays that he never took one.
There's the notion, as Charlie Rose would say, that a good writer must be a bad person. There's the notion that, if you're a good person, you can't be a good writer. There are other notions. Allen Ginsberg, asked if he was an "icon," said, "I'm only a poet, a coward and a jerk, like everyone else."
Do poems have to be followed through on?
John Jay Chapman's whole impulse, even in his insane advocacy of sacrifice, is to kill silence, to demolish the pressures against the mouth, the lungs, the throat; to make the ear be full of hearing.
If Emerson doesn't disappoint you, you weren't born to be disappointed.
A look at the bibliography at the end of a monograph ought to be enough to convince anyone that one author didn't write the book.
Academic, he said. You know what that means: consequential, practical, useful, productive, important. But not yet.
The two roads that fork in the wood—no two roads have done more harm than good.
The number of possible sentences may be "countably infinite," but there are not that many ways to say things and not that many not to.
Frost's insistence on grief relates directly to Emerson's insouciance about it. Emerson was the event, Frost the response. Expect long delays.
There ought to be a book called The Mean Spirit, and there is.
"The Look of Love," "Don't Make Me Over," "Promises, Promises," "Close To You," "Walk On By."
One of the reasons we don't read and write is that we listen to music (and watch movies). We see Ferlinghetti come on and do his thing in The Last Waltz and realize that poetry can't hold a candle to Van Morrison, The Band, Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond. Poetry's important, but music's exciting, important and fun.
What is the condition of music to which all art, Pater said, aspires?