Category Archives: notes on poems

The Cliff-Top Monastery by A.B. Jackson

If you want a 20-line respite from the fascinating train wreck of American politics (on which my eyes are riveted, like everyone else’s), I recommend A.B. Jackson’s “The Cliff-Top Monasteryin the May issue of Poetry Magazine. A whole short story unfolds in five stanzas. At first, the characters seem to be on a cruise in the modern Aegean, jumping off a yacht, perhaps, to “doggy-swim ashore / and surf the scree slopes in buoyant uproar.” But it would have been wise to notice the epigraph: “The Voyage of Saint Brendan.” These men must be medieval Irish monks on a northern sea. The story quickly turns holy–and then spooky.

As far as I can tell, Jackson’s sources are chapters XII and XV of the Voyage of St. Brendan (written down ca. 900), which relate the saint’s discovery of the Island of St. Ailbe and his return there after numerous adventures. (The raven, however, is spliced in from other Brendan legends.) The original text is fairly didactic, encompassing sermons or lectures by the abbot of the Cliff-Top Monastery. Jackson has extracted the spooky (pagan?) core of the story and made the island a place to flee in haste.

(See also the scholar and his dogSeamus Heaney’s Beowulf. )

Derek Walcott becomes the volcano

(Orlando, FL) I’ve settled on a poem with which to express homage to the late Derek Walcott: his “Volcano” (1976)

Joyce was afraid of thunder
but lions roared at his funeral
from the Zurich zoo.
Was it Trieste or Zurich?
No matter. These are legends, as much
as the death of Joyce is a legend,
or the strong rumour that Conrad
is dead, and that Victory is ironic.
On the edge of the night-horizon
from this beach house on the cliffs
there are now, till dawn,
two glares from the miles-out-
at-sea derricks; they are like
the glow of the cigar
and the glow of the volcano
at Victory‘s end.
One could abandon writing
for the slow-burning signals
of the great, to be, instead,
their ideal reader, ruminative,
voracious, making the love of masterpieces
superior to attempting
to repeat or outdo them,
and be the greatest reader in the world.
At least it requires awe,
which has been lost to our time;
so many people have seen everything,
so many people can predict,
so many refuse to enter the silence
of victory, the indolence
that burns at the core,
so many are no more than
erect ash, like the cigar,
so many take thunder for granted.
How common is the lightning,
how lost the leviathans
we no longer look for!
There were giants in those days.
In those days they made good cigars.
I must read more carefully.

Two of “the great” are named in this poem: Joyce and Conrad. Joyce is a foil for Walcott: an exiled former subject of the British Empire who wrote Ulysses, to which Walcott, from a different Atlantic island, replied with Omeros. It turns out that lions did roar at Joyce’s funeral, and one can risk the pathetic fallacy that they roared for the master’s passing.

I don’t know Conrad’s novel Victoria, but Wikipedia suggests why Walcott might like it (as long as it can be read as “ironic”). Apparently, it describes yet another colonial island-outpost, this one in the Pacific, from European and subaltern perspectives–offering that double vision that fascinates Walcott. And according to Walcott, it ends with two lights shining on the ocean horizon, one a cigar and one a volcano. Seeing a similar pair of lights on the sea off his Caribbean home, Walcott imagines them as messages from Conrad, who is only “rumored” to be dead because his words still speak.

Walcott, the future Nobelist, has every right to place himself in these men’s company. He strives to write great works, to make his own mark. The poem relates a moment, however, when he considers whether it might be better to devote himself to reading: in fact, to become the “ideal reader.” That is a ruminative life, more modest, quieter, although Walcott’s character still compels him to be the “greatest reader in the world.”

“Volcano” adopts a rhetoric of decline. “Awe … has been lost in our time”; “so many take thunder for granted.” But I think the narrator pokes a little fun at himself for that mood when he says, “In those days they made good cigars.” It’s not really that culture has declined and all the great ones have passed. That’s simply what a person feels when he or she pledges, “I must read more carefully.”

With Walcott gone now, I’d like to think of him as a light from far offshore, sending his slow-burning signals for a long time to come. Best to enjoy them, not try to outdo them, because they really don’t make writers like Derek Walcott any more.

Walter de la Mare, Fare Well

Derek Walcott says that he always “cherished” the poem “Fare Well” by Walter de la Mare “because of its melody and its plaintiveness.” I think Walcott proceeds to recite it from memory rather than read it, because his spoken rendition differs in very minor respects from the printed versions that I have found online (“or” instead of “nor”, “dost” instead of “wouldst”). Walcott’s recommendation is enough for me, so I offer de la Mare’s text below:

Fare Well

When I lie where shades of darkness
Shall no more assail mine eyes,
Nor the rain make lamentation
When the wind sighs;
How will fare the world whose wonder
Was the very proof of me?
Memory fades, must the remembered
Perishing be?

Oh, when this my dust surrenders
Hand, foot, lip, to dust again,
May these loved and loving faces
Please other men!
May the rusting harvest hedgerow
Still the Traveller’s Joy entwine,
And as happy children gather
Posies once mine.

Look thy last on all things lovely,
Every hour. Let no night
Seal thy sense in deathly slumber
Till to delight
Thou have paid thy utmost blessing;
Since that all things thou wouldst praise
Beauty took from those who loved them
In other days.

It’s quite straightforward, but I’ll add a few notes.

  • The “melody” that Walcott admires could be parsed as six rhyming couplets (AA, BB, CC) with 15 syllables before each rhyming word, arranged in in a pattern of trochee, trochee, trochee, spondee [line break], trochee, trochee, anapest [line break], trochee, spondee. It could be easily set to music.
  • De la Mare introduces some surprises. You would think that once you’re dead and buried, what you’ll miss is light. The narrator says instead that you will no longer see “shades of darkness,” which is true enough. A.E. Hausman Housman read the poem in a version with a misprint: “rustling” instead of “rusting harvest hedgerow.” Housman knew right away that the original must have read “rusting,” because the sound of wind in leaves is a cliché and unrelated to the poem’s theme, whereas “rusting” evokes autumnal colors and an imminent fall.
  •  “Wonder” is “the proof of” the narrator. Does “proof” mean a test that the narrator faced, or evidence that the narrator lived?
  • I take it the “thou” addressed in the third stanza is a reader after the narrator has died. We are to appreciate the beauty of the world as if it were about to pass and remember that those who have passed appreciated it before us.

aphorisms, proverbs, maxims, and the purpose of this blog

If you search the Internet for “aphorisms,” you’ll find a mix of authors, from Lao Tze to Jean Baudrillard.

Some are literary figures who are eminently quotable–good at writing short, memorable passages that stand on their own even if they were originally composed for longer poems or continuous narratives. Oscar Wilde, Dorthy Parker, and Emerson are just a few examples of people called “aphorists” because they are pithy and witty.

Other books of aphorisms are lists of sentences or very short passages that are intended to be serious and wise. The biblical books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, the Greek collections of accumulated sayings attributed to Pythagoras and the Delphic Oracle, and the sutras of the Hindu tradition are examples. When these statements take the form of imperative sentences (“Enter not into the path of the wicked, and go not in the way of evil men”), they can be called maxims. When they sound more like generalizations about the world (“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven”), they are better named proverbs.

A philosophy professor friend of mine once disclosed his profession to the person sitting next to him on an airplane. “Oh, you are a philosopher,” the neighbor said. “What are your sayings?” He was thinking of traditions in which philosophy means explicit wisdom, and wisdom is succinct and quotable. Needless to say, that is not what professional philosophy is today.

Once collections of short, pithy sayings are treasured as wisdom (a thesaurus means a “treasury”), it becomes possible to write collections that look like proverbs but are more idiosyncratic, personal, and perhaps ironic or subversive. La Rochefoucauld exploits the subversive potential of the genre when he writes in the format of the biblical Book of Proverbs but gives advice like, “If we had no faults we should not take so much pleasure in noting those of others.”  Erasmus collects real wisdom in some of his books (Adagia, Apophthegmata), but he puts strings of quotable falsehoods in the mouth of the Fool in the Praise of Folly. It is never clear where the author stands. James Geary collects current examples of aphoristic writers in this tradition.

By the way, the root of “aphorism” is the Greek verb for dividing, defining, or setting limits (ultimately from horos, boundary). In the New Testament, the verb aphorizo is used for dividing the damned from the saved and for excommunicating sinners. I think “aphorism” means division because each one is disconnected from the next (not because their content is necessarily about distinctions). In contrast, the Sanskrit word sutra means “string” or “thread.” Both traditions refer to distinct fragments of text that are loosely strung together without explicit transitions. The Greek word emphasizes the distinction among these items; the Sanskrit stresses their connectedness.

Francis Bacon and Friedrich Nietzsche epitomize a different tradition. They are highly critical empiricists who use the aphoristic form to shake their readers’ assumptions and demand their readers’ creative attention.

Bacon begins his book Novum Organum (“or, true suggestions for the interpretation of nature”) by decrying two categories of thinkers. On one hand, some have “presumed to dogmatize on Nature,” inventing or borrowing a theory, trying to explain everything in terms of that theory, and “bringing others to their [preconceived] opinion.” On the other hand, some have succumbed to the “despair of skepticism” and are known only for their “complaints and indignation at the difficulty of inquiry.” The third course is to observe and experiment with nature, one piece at a time, striving always to challenge our prior assumptions. Having proposed that course, Bacon then offers a series of numbered “Aphorisms on the Interpretation of Nature and the Empire of Man.”

Why aphorisms? Arguably, because Bacon is highly suspicious of grand theories that organize everything neatly and prevent us from noticing what is actually happening. So he is suspicious of the logical connective tissue that would turn individual propositions into larger arguments. He prefers to list specific propositions and encourage the reader to consider each one on its merits and to put them together only tentatively. We must stop to think about the logical relationship, if any, among Bacon’s thoughts. The form thus befits its substance.

Nietzsche’s earliest works are essays distinguished by their highly quotable passages yet also connected into rhetorically powerful wholes, with beginnings, transitions, and conclusions. With Human All Too Human (1878) Nietzsche shifts to a new genre that then occupies almost all of his energy for the rest of his life: collections of aphorisms. Like all his later books except ZarathustraHuman All Too Human is a set of numbered passages that range from a single sentence to a few pages in length.

Although Nietzsche’s style is influenced by aphoristic authors after Bacon (La Rochefoucauld, whom he cites in aphorism #35; Pascal; Lichtenberg, and others), the opening of Human, All Too Human takes us back to Bacon. Nietzsche, too, wants to shake his readers out of their “habitual opinions and approved customs.” He too is fascinated by people’s cognitive biases and limitations and suspicious of generalizations. In the very first aphorism of his first aphoristic volume, Nietzsche writes: “in fact, I myself do not believe that anybody ever looked into the world with a distrust as deep as mine.” I think he is hinting why his book will not offer a connected argument. A string of distinct ideas avoids the pretentiousness or naïveté implied by a larger whole.

Here Nietzsche almost sounds like one of the skeptics whom Bacon decries for dropping the effort to understand nature because they understand our limits all too well. But they are just complainers. Nietzsche, echoing the distinctions of Novum Organum, insists that he takes “pleasure in externals, superficialities, the near, the accessible, in all things possessed of color, skin and seeming.” That is not the same as Bacon’s path–striving to understand the phenomena–but Nietzsche sees it as the next step. He is moving beyond Baconian empirical science into his own “gay science.” (And in Ecce Homo, Nietzsche insists, “We do not know half enough about Lord Bacon—the first realist in all the highest sense of the word—to know what he did, what he willed and what he experienced in his inmost soul.”)

A final tradition consists of authors who have left collections of numbered and loosely connected passages–string-like sutras–because death or some other contingency prevented them from pulling these fragments into more coherent works. An inspiration for Bacon may have been Hippocrates, the ancient physician who called for close observation. Hippocrates’ writings (other than the Hippocratic Oath) read like aphorisms for a contingent reason: he didn’t write them. They are collections of fragmentary Greek texts about medicine wrongly attributed to him.

I am not sure to what degree Novalis wanted to write connected arguments, but we have his fragmentary notes in the condition that he left them when he died of consumption; both his tragic youthful death and his aphoristic style seem to match the content of his thought. A century later, Kafka also died of TB, leaving 109 aphorisms on philosophical topics.

And then there’s Wittgenstein, all of whose major works consist of short numbered passages without explicit connections. After he died, Elizabeth Anscombe and Georg Henrik von Wright published

a collection of fragments made by Wittgenstein himself and left by him in a box-file. They were for the most part cut from extensive typescripts of his, other copes of which still exist …

Often fragments on the same topic were clipped together; but there were also a large number lying loose in the box. …

We … came to the the conclusion that this box contained remarks which Wittgenstein regarded as particularly useful and intended to weave into finished work if places for them should appear. Now we know that his method of composition was in part to make an arrangement of such short, almost independent pieces as, in the enormous quantity that he wrote, he was fairly satisfied with.

They published this book under the title Zettel, which I think it an unpretentious work for snippet or cutting. But a cutting is also what an aphorism is. A clipped-together packet of snippings from typescript also bears a distant resemblance to a string of beads, a sutra. 

The word “cutting” could also have a more organic sense. In his 1948 poem “Cuttings,” Theodore Roethke evokes their generative potential:

Sticks-in-a-drowse over sugary loam,
Their intricate stem-fur dries;
But still the delicate slips keep coaxing up water;
The small cells bulge;

One nub of growth
Nudges a sand-crumb loose,
Pokes through a musty sheath
Its pale tendrilous horn.

To be sure, Roethke wrote a much darker second poem with the same title, emphasizing the pain of growth and rebirth. April is the cruelest month, and all. But I’d like to stress the latent promise of things that are clipped and piled together in conditions favorable to regeneration. In fact, that hope explains why I have been moved to write 3,123 posts on this blog (which is yet another word to compare with aphorism, sutra, maxim, and the others cited here). If I believe anything, it’s that we are too strongly influenced by grand conceptions that simplify and block our progress, yet we do need ambitious ideas. So let’s let them emerge from close, responsive, joyful engagement with people and their creations, taken one at a time.

game theory, naval warfare, and Derek Walcott

I am in Washington, DC but remembering our winter vacation in Les Saintes, near Guadeloupe, because I am reading Derek Walcott’s astoundingly good epic, Omeros.

In the channel with three islets christened “Les Saintes”
in a mild sunrise the ninth ship of the French line
flashed fire at The Marlborough, but swift pennants

from Rodney’s flagship resignalled his set design
to break from the classic pattern … (XV)

Walcott is referring here to a major naval battle in 1782. When we saw the dioramas of the battle in the local history museum, I wondered why the “classic pattern” was for enemy fleets to form neat parallel lines and blast away at each other.


Was this some kind of courtly custom of the Baroque era? (Walcott writes, “the young midshipman … thought there was no war  /as courtly as a sea-battle.”) I think game theory offers a better explanation. The opposing players chose the best available strategies, each on the assumption that his opponent would make the best choice for him–which is what game theorists call a Nash Equilibrium.

Recall that sailing vessels cannot maneuver with perfect control because they are driven by the wind. Most of their lethal fire is directed from their sides. If they independently choose their own courses during a battle, they can easily get in each others’ way. In principle, each could be given complex directions from some central point, but inter-ship communication was badly limited before radio. It therefore made the most sense to set one simple rule that would guarantee coordination. The inflexible rule of the Royal Navy was to form a line of evenly spaced vessels.

Lord Howe’s Explanatory Instructions (1799) explained, “The chief purposes for which a fleet is formed in line of battle are: that the ships may be able to assist and support each other in action; that they may not be exposed to the fire of the enemy’s ships greater in number than themselves; and that every ship may be able to fire on the enemy without risk of firing into the ships of her own fleet.”

If one fleet had a good reason to form a line of evenly spaced ships, so did its opponent. Both wanted to sail in front of the other’s line, or “cross the T,” so as to be able to rake the enemy’s ships without receiving fire in return. But if two fleets are both trying to cross in front of each other, what you get is a pair of parallel lines.

The result of such a battle was pretty predictable, a function of the number of guns on each side. That meant that a clearly smaller fleet had a strong incentive to avoid battle or, if forced into it, to break the line and take a chance at prevailing in a chaotic melee. A melee could also develop by accident as a result of weather conditions, geographical obstacles, or sheer chaos. At the Battle of the Saintes (1782), the lines got mixed up. Walcott says this was Admiral Rodney’s plan, his “set design.” Wikipedia says the reason was a gusty wind that broke up the lines. Whether by chance or design, the Royal Navy ended up killing 8,000 French to their own losses of just 243 men.

Trafalgar (1805) was another famous counterexample. Nelson deliberately swooped in to break the enemy line, despite the grave risk of being raked by their broadsides, because he had a much greater incentive than the Franco-Spanish fleet to achieve a decisive result that day and was willing to take his chances. Nelson played the chicken game and didn’t swerve, for which he paid with his life but gets to stand on top of a huge column in central London to this day.

In 1913, when he was First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill faced the accusation that he had impugned the traditions of the Royal Navy. He replied: “And what are they? Rum, sodomy and the lash.” Maybe he should have said, ” … and the Nash.”

See also the gift economy of Beowulf and some thoughts about game theory.