Tuesday, August 25, 2009


When a graduate student teaching junior/senior seminars, I submitted a department proposal for a course that would trace the development of empiricism in literature and painting from the seventeenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, as I explained to the department committee. The course title, “Things,” reflected a breeziness in my proposal. I was offering it as a kind of throwaway joke. What I really wished to teach was a look at heroism in the early nineteenth century, a topic I was working up for my dissertation. When I opened the course assignments for the year, I found to my surprise that I was assigned to teach “Things.” In retrospect, the committee’s choice was inevitable; only a rare university junior or senior could possibly find an examination of 19th-century heroism interesting. I scrambled to get “Things” together.

Although an empirical bent winds its way through American culture, how writers and artists approached this urge, I would find as the course proceeded, became a bit complicated. In the twentieth century, however, two poets gave the tendency straightforward expression: William Carlo Williams and Robert Frost. It was from Williams’ poem “A Sort of Song” that I took my course title.

Let the snake wait under
his weed
and the writing
be of words, slow and quick, sharp
to strike, quiet to wait,
---through metaphor to reconcile
the people and the stones.
Compose. (No ideas
but in things) Invent!
Saxifrage is my flower that splits
the rocks.

But I found my touchstone in Frost’s poetry. In “Mowing,” the speaker attempts to understand a truth that Nature seems to be telling him.

There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound—
And that was why it whispered and did not speak.
It was no dream of the gift of idle hours.
Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:
Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak
To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows,
Not without feeble-pointed spike of flowers
(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.
The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.

If the meaning of the whisper remains unknown, the source of the whisper, and so the possibility of truth (”anything more than truth would have seemed too weak”), is clear. The speaker will not receive truth as a gift nor achieve it through idleness or dreams. It must be worked for by engaging with stuff—facts.

The literary critic Richard Poirier, who died last week, sub-titled his book on Frost “The Work of Knowing.” “Poetry is not life,” Poirier observes of Frost, “but the performance in the writing of it can be an image of the proper conduct of life. The exercise of the will in poetry, the writing of a poem, is analogous to any attempted exercise of will in whatever one tries to do.” And, going on, Poirier gets to the core. “This position is not asserted, since the whole point, after all, is that nothing can be carried merely by assertion.” Writing is not reportage of a found truth, but the work of finding truth, as Richard Poirier himself showed us with his illuminating literary criticism.

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