Utterances of the Heart

grecoIn the rabbinical tradition at times of calamity and great suffering, Jews are advised to read three books:

The fact that the most important passages of these books was written in poetry is no accident. For it is poetry, and poetry alone, that can truly give voice to the utterances of our hearts.

“How lonely sits the city
that was full of people!
How like a widow has she become,
She that was great among the nations!”
(Lamentations 1:1)

“The old men have quit the city gate,
the young men their music.
The joy of our hearts has ceased;
our dancing has been turned to
(Lamentations 5:14-15)

Poetry operates in the realm of emotions and feelings. It is the language of love, and longing, and grief, and fear, and wonder. When someone says they do not “understand” poetry what they mean is that their way of approaching poetry is not letting them “feel” poems.

The way poetry is taught… that a poem is a puzzle to be riddled out… is part of the problem. The larger problem, though, is a spiritual one. As we become more secular as a culture, poetry becomes more and more difficult to approach and appreciate.

On Re-writing Poems

W.B. Yeats reading
W.B. Yeats reading

Years ago I remember reading that Yeats would constantly re-write and re-work even his most famous published poems. At the time I read that, it sounded like the most insane thing I had ever heard. Why go to all the work to make a poem, to get it right, have it set into type and published only to go back and shake it all up again? How could you progress, I thought, or grow, if you kept returning to earlier things and re-doing them?

That is what I thought at age 23 or 24. Now that I am more than 25 years further down the road I understand why he did it.

I have re-written and re-worked poems for years and decades. That is probably one of the many reasons that I have been so reluctant over the years to send out what I have written to be considered for publication. At the most basic level, I do not think of any of my poems as truly finished.

It would be easy I suppose to say that it is because none of my poems are really good enough to be considered finished. Often in my most melancholy of moments– and I have many of those– I have interpreted my compulsion to re-visit and re-work in just that way. But that does not explain why a poet as great as Yeats would do the same thing to poems that were already beautiful.

Yeats understood that each poem he wrote changed him as a poet. The new poet looked at his old poems and said: “now it will be what is should be.” We re-write and re-work because each thing we write changes us…. and being changed, we return to old poems with new perspectives and new ideas.

On Re-Reading Auden

Auden-collectedFor a couple of summers in my early 20s, I worked for the United States Forest Service. In the summer of 1983, I worked on a trail crew in the Anaconda Pintler Wilderness in southwestern Montana. At night, long after my fellow crew members were asleep, I would lie in my sleeping bag reading W.H. Auden’sSelected Poems by flashlight.

I still have the volume. It has browned with time and is as dog-eared as you would expect a volume to be that had been tied to a mule and hauled along the Continental Divide Trail.

Flipping through it now 27 years later (!), I read lines I underlined all those nights ago. Memories of the mountains and my youth mingle with Auden’s words.

Sometimes I will read a line I underlined or boldly starred and wonder, why did I think so much of that line? this other one is clearly the better?

That is the nature of art. Just as we can never step into the same river twice, we can never re-approach a work of art exactly the same. We are different each time we read a poem, stand in front of a painting, listen to a song. We are different because we have been changed by time, experience, and by the work of art itself, and all the other works of art we have encountered and been changed by.

I read Auden differently now because I have read Auden.

St. Eligius Pray for Us…

In one of my favorite chess quotes, writer Edward Lasker (not to be confused with chess great Emanuel Lasker) once said, “It has been said that man is distinguished from animal in that he buys more books than he can read. I should like to suggest that the inclusion of a few chess books would help to make the distinction unmistakable.”

Anyone who loves books inevitably buys more books than they can possibly read. If you live alone or have unlimited space, that may not be a problem. But if you live with other people (and I do), your valued collection quickly become someone else’s clutter.

At heart I am a collector: sports cards, bookmarks, stamps, but most of all books. If I find an author or sub-genre I like, I soon want to “fill out” my collection: shelves of Cormac McCarthy and Elmer Kelton; a pile of prematurely abandoned and unfinished post-apocalyptic paperbacks in a corner of a room; small blocks of books on fly fishing and chess scattered about the house; the list goes on, and on, and on….

This weekend I am going through books, trying to decide which ones need to find a new home. If you are a fellow collector, you know how painful this process can be.

There is not, I was surprised to learn, a patron saint for book collectors. It seems like a group in obvious need of intercession, if there ever was one. In my investigation, I did find two who may be able to help, though. Saint Francis de Sales, patron saint of writers and booksellers, is an obvious choice. But I am also including Saint Eligius, patron saint of coin collectors, precisely because I am certain that coin collectors share the same mental conditions that book collectors do. So this weekend I am calling on both Saints Francis and Eligius to watch over me and all book collectors. Wish us luck!

Of Books and Love

dyers-handThe best quote I know about the fickle nature of affection comes from W.B. Yeats. Quoting his father, who may very well have been quoting Balzac, Yeats wrote: “A man does not love a woman because he thinks her clever or because he admires her, but because he likes the way she has of scratching her head.”

We all have books we love for reasons that we could never explain to another, let alone to ourselves. There are books we love because of where we were when we read them. Others we esteem because of how we think they changed us.

The bridge that art creates between the world and ourselves is important enough to make time for, even during the busiest of days. A few pages from a book of poetry or a good novel or a few minutes with our iPods listening to a Coltrane session are as necessary to our spiritual life as prayer, another thing we too often neglect.

We know that humans are spiritual as well as physical beings. Those things that nourish us spiritually– religion, art, love and friendship– are easy to overlook, to push to the end of the to do list, to save for the weekend when time is not so valuable.

When we are young, I think we manage this balance a little better. Age and responsibilities, though, conspire against us. This is one of the reasons that the books and songs of our youth can still bring so much pleasure, can seem so much like a tonic at times.

In his prologue to Dyers Hand, W.H. Auden lists 6 characteristics of a critic. It is my hope that this blog, MontanaWriter, will grow to live up to Auden’s list.

1) Introduce me to authors or works of art of which I was hitherto unaware.
2) Convince me that I have undervalued an author or a work because I had not read them carefully enough.
3) Show me relations between works of different ages and cultures which I could never have seen for myself because I do not know enough and never shall.
4) Give a “reading” of a work which increases my understanding of it.
5) Throw light upon the process of artistic “Making.”
6) Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc.


The Book of Genesis contains two creation stories. Some biblical literalist would no doubt have preferred that there be just the one. But those ancient redactors who put the bible together knew that beginnings are always messy affairs.

I have seen sketch drafts of poems that W.B. Yeats wrote. The finished product often-times bears little resemblance to the sketched idea. In one of his final poems, “Cuchalain Comforted,” written just a few weeks before his death, for example, the note “A shade recently arrived went through a valley in the country of the dead,” became:

A man that had six mortal wounds, a man
Violent and famous, strode among the dead;
Eyes stared out of the branches and were gone.

Then certain Shrouds that muttered head to head
Came and were gone.  He leant upon a tree
As though to meditate on wounds and blood.

A Shroud that seemed to have authority
Among those bird-like things came, and let fall
A bundle of linen.  Shrouds by two and three

Came creeping up because the man was still.
And thereupon that linen-carrier said:
“Your life can grow much sweeter if you will

“Obey our ancient rule and make a shroud;
Mainly because of what we only know
The rattle of those arms makes us afraid.

“We thread the needles’ eyes, and all we do
All must together do.’ That done, the man
Took up the nearest and began to sew.

“Now must we sing and sing the best we can,
But first you must be told our character:
Convicted cowards all, by kindred slain

“Or driven from home and left to die in fear.’
They sang, but had nor human tunes nor words,
Though all was done in common as before;

They had changed their throats and had the throats of

The simple dictated sketch, like the  bird-like things, needed to be fully fleshed out. And so Yeats did… with 70 years of poetic skill, language, and symbolism.

Beginnings are where outlines are made, plans and schemes laid out. The finished product, however, remains far  down the road.

That I choose a poem about death to talk about beginnings is not a mistake, any more than when the redactors of the Bible chose to include the creation story of Adam and Eve and sin and death. Beginnings and endings are not two ends of a sequential line but, as we learn in our messy lives, two birds that always travel together.

And so we begin…