truest poetry is the most feigning

For L.F.

And for j.n., because you asked for poetry, and because poetry is never only itself.

Wet winter branches. California. Author photo.

In his works, Plato makes an argument that the poets should be banished from the Republic.* Actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that, as Plato’s opinions on the subject of poetry and poets seem to be a mixture of admiration and damnation, apprehension and abandonment. It may be better for readers to consult Plato themselves rather than read some incomplete and cursory summary here. Still, part of the problem, as Touchstone tells us in the title quote from As You Like It, is that poetry often misleads or lends a false appearance. It misrepresents. It lies.

TOUCHSTONE:  When a man’s verses cannot be understood,
nor a man’s good wit seconded with the
forward child, understanding, it strikes a man more
dead than a great reckoning in a little room. Truly, I
would the gods had made thee poetical.
AUDREY:  I do not know what “poetical” is. Is it honest
in deed and word? Is it a true thing?
TOUCHSTONE:  No, truly, for the truest poetry is the most
feigning, and lovers are given to poetry, and what
they swear in poetry may be said as lovers they do

As You Like It 3.3.11-21

Touchstone claims that poetry is not honest in deed or word. It is a scarecrow, not of the law, but of truth. Feigning.

Scarecrow outstanding in his field. Warwickshire. Author photo.

Yet. . .yet. Yet, although poetry may be argued to misrepresent ‘reality’, in another sense it becomes difficult to imagine anything representing the multifaceted nature of human existence and understanding so completely. Here’s Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who passed away this week at the age of 101:

Constantly Risking Absurdity (#15)

by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Constantly risking absurdity
                                             and death
            whenever he performs
                                        above the heads
                                                            of his audience
   the poet like an acrobat
                                 climbs on rime
                                          to a high wire of his own making
and balancing on eyebeams
                                     above a sea of faces
             paces his way
                               to the other side of day
    performing entrechats
                               and sleight-of-foot tricks
and other high theatrics
                               and all without mistaking
                     any thing
                               for what it may not be

       For he’s the super realist
                                     who must perforce perceive
                   taut truth
                                 before the taking of each stance or step
in his supposed advance
                                  toward that still higher perch
where Beauty stands and waits
                                     with gravity
                                                to start her death-defying leap

      And he
             a little charleychaplin man
                                           who may or may not catch
               her fair eternal form
                                     spreadeagled in the empty air
                  of existence

Ferlinghetti, Lawrence. “Constantly Risking Absurdity (#15)”. A Coney Island of the Mind, poems. New York: New Directions, 1958.

Mourning angel. Cemetery in Lurs, France. Author photo.

Poetry constantly risks absurdity. But what is such a risk in an absurd world? Here’s a poem we have discussed at length:


by Seamus Heaney

Between my finger and my thumb   
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound   
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:   
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds   
Bends low, comes up twenty years away   
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills   
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft   
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.   
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

Heaney, Seamus. “Digging”. Death of a Naturalist. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux (Macmillan), 1966.

Poetry, both loss and creation speaks beyond condition. Past margin, circumscription, and weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable uses. Rather, poetry is a calculus of language, embracing and encompassing arcs, curves, movements, and triumphs. Blushing and hemmering which tongue, hearing, and understanding might never otherwise comprehend. Without it, we were barren, empty, ragged saw grass ranging over the dry erosions of our being.

It helps us come to terms with passages and passings, the hard grit at the bottom of life’s seams. Seems. Bending words to make sense of the senseless, in that way representing the real beyond the words. Digging graves, memories, words. Angels of creation sprung from turned earth, from inklines traced across paper, across the skin. Within. Outside.

Moments. My remarkable mother in law passing away:

Here is rain.

Multitudinous waters, snow, thunder, the cat, Frankie, 

crying for water or for food.

Cold in, cold out.  Spring days

Summer days spliced

with long icicle cold snaps. 

Flowers trees Canada geese confused, 

flying every which way.

She died the way some of us 

might have wanted

to go ourselves:

Champion dancer bending 

gracefully beneath a lightning stroke.

Bringing the family together once more

in the hospitality part of the hospital

hospice room, so they could meet

and talk, while she walked 

deeper into the coma forest.

Nurses hush hush soft smile

unobtrusive turning, testing, 

checking, pastor stopping,

T—- with his guitar,

dealing in his way.

Helping us all.

Singing her beautifully

Out of this existence.

Narratives shape my life too,

now bended on another arc

in some or other curve 

to who knows where what when.

For AJN. Poem by the author.

Gloaming. Author photo.

Poetry is memory and expectation fused together. It’s Eliot’s April, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Shall I? So many summer days I remember. Summer days in profusion. Lilacs overflowing the edges of an improvised bowl.

We long for more. We long for things to stay, not to recede. We long to keep the loves we have, not lose them. Perfect heroes paddling rafts against the stormy waters off the beach. Perfect artists, poets. Perfect meals and meetings. Lamberts. Oxford. Across the South, the North, and over the fetching prairies of our own bygone Middle West. Saker. The Awful House. Gum, iced tea, and kicking things to pieces–the gold of personal history poured over our existence. Christmas in the Florida pine flats. Dragons. Tolkein by the lake. Fishing. The Old Thatch Tavern.

The Old Thatch Tavern. Stratford upon Avon. Photo from

We call for more. Cheeses. Travels. More coming home. We dream of days yet to be. If we must speak in poetry, as we must, let roads keep us healthy until we meet again.

The Pass of the Roaring

by Norman MacCaig

Such comfortless places comfort me.

Not my body but I am fed by these ravens

And I’m nourished by the drib-dab waters

That fingerling through the harsh deer grass.

The tall cliffs unstun my mind

Thank God for a place where no history passes.

Is this ghoulish? Is it the vampire me

Or grandfathers and greatgrandfathers

Specklessly flowing my veins that bury

A hummingbird tongue in these gulfs of space

And suck from limestone with delicate greed

A delicate vintage, the blood of grace?

Books vaporize in my lightning mind.

Pennies and pounds become a tribal

Memory. Hours assert their rightness,

Escaping like doves through their cotes of clocks

And lame philosophies founder in bogs

The stink of summer in the armpit of rockfolds.

There’s always a returning. A cottage glows

By a dim sea and there I’ll slump by the fireside –

And another grace will gather, from human

Intercommunications, a grace

Not to be distinguished from the one that broods

In fingerling waters and gulfs of space.

MacCaig, Norman. “The Pass of the Roaring”. The Poems of Norman MacCaig. Edinburgh: Polygon, 2009.

Returning. Warwickshire sunset. Author photo.

We request. We ask for more. Another summer. Truth. Holy vindication. Sometimes yes. Sometimes no. As Basho notes:

The fifteenth, just as innkeeper predicted, it rains,

here’s the harvest moon

good old Hokkoku weather

don’t depend on it.

Basho. Haiku from chapter 51. Back Roads to Far Towns. Trans. Cid Corman and Kamaike Susumu. Buffalo: White Pine Press, 2004.

Harvest moon over trees. Author photo.

No depending on the weather, on tomorrow. Against the greater currents of the cosmos, we bend like reeds. Sometimes we break. Still we hope against hope, against our doubts, against our fears. With all the powers of love, we hope to weather this storm too.

Urging always: open hands. Let pursuing demons go. Darkness enough in one life’s range of night. Let these others fall away. We do not need them. There are always more. Dharma will remain what it is. A rat. A luminosity:

“Enlightenment is like the moon reflected in the water. The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken. Although its light is wide and great, the moon is refleced even a puddle a inch wide. The whole moon and the entire sky are reflected in dewdrops on the grass, or even in one drop of water. Enlightenment does not divide you, just as the moon does not break the water. You cannot hinder enlightenment, just as a drop of water does not hinder the moon in the sky. The depth of the drop is the height of the moon. Each reflection, however long or short its duration, manifests the vastness of the dewdrop and realizes the limitlessness of the moonlight in the sky. We gain enlightenment like the moon reflecting in the water. The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken.”

Dogen. “Genjo Koan” fragment. Trans. Shunryu Suzuki. Dōgen’s Genjo Koan: Three Commentaries. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2011.

Dōgen’s moon. Author photo.

Here is what I’ve said already, said again. Our childhoods, dreams, crowns and sceptres, snakes and ladders, all may not return to us. Ryōkan wrote:

Calling out to me

As they return home:

wild geese at night.

Ryōkan. Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf. Trans. John Stevens. Boston: Shambala, 2004.

Geese go home. Things go home. Bright and brief, experience remains a nightsound. A cricket at the end of summer. Margins of memory are old coats hallway closets with winters not what they used to be. Still, revelation waits in every step:

At night, deep in the mountains,

I sit in meditation.

The affairs of men never reach here:

Everything is quiet and empty,

All the incense has been swallowed up by the endless night.

My robe has become a garment of dew.

Unable to sleep, I walk out into the woods —

Suddenly, above the highest peak, the full moon appears.

Ryōkan. Ibid.

Shakespeare writes of how memory’s pageant dissolves. As here:

Truth may seem but cannot be;
Beauty brag but ’tis not she;
Truth and beauty buried be.

Shakespeare, William. “The Phoenix and the Turtle”, lines 62-4.

That old life tapestry. Unicorns. Poetic fabric. Dust. Grecian urns.

We have spoken in verses for so long, I have forgotten whole languages. How are tongues supposed to swim? I know few other ways to speak. Few ways to ask. Feeding rage and silence, pulsing stillness of the dharma underneath. All the ways boil down to this.

Here again is this:

Iggy Pop (quoting Dylan Thomas). Free. Caroline International/Loma Vista. 2019.**

You’ve heard it. You know it. One more autumn. More if we can manage, but at the very least one more. So many variances within the clew when the line’s drawn taut. Airfoil. From form to form, and tumbling down life’s hills. As this:

Sonnet 18

by William Shakespeare

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st;
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Yorkshire. Author photo.

Take that life giving sonnet and tumble it a bit. Knock its rough edges off with the other rocks of the world. It may come out like this:

Incandescent War Sonnet Poem

by Bernadette Mayer

Even before I saw the chambered nautilus
I wanted to sail not in the us navy
Tonight I’m waiting for you, your letter
At the same time his letter, the view of you
By him and then by me in the park, no rhymes
I saw you, this is in prose, no it’s not
Sitting with the molluscs & anemones in an
Empty autumn enterprise baby you look pretty
With your long eventual hair, is love king?
What’s this? A sonnet? Love’s a babe we know that
I’m coming up, I’m coming, Shakespeare only stuck
To one subject but I’ll mention nobody said
You have to get young Americans some ice cream
In the artificial light in which she woke

Mayer, Bernadette. “Incandescent War Poem Sonnet” from A Bernadette Mayer Reader. New York: New Directions, 1992.

For who will find these forms? Others, in the burning world will find their own. Not ours. Not what we have yet to find. Dribble castles on next summer’s beach. Destroyed in the very making.

First Tango in Lisbon

Sienna is red dirt, some men just want the fight,

gunpowder, tea, revelry after war. Hours, water &

salt. Where we go to bed is never really sorted.

All for some of the old letters. Dead alphabet

ghosts keep popping up asking for a softer place

& they keep haunting because they keep things 

alive. Hunting something else not to eat, to plant.

Dried flowers & lost seeds, & then the calendula.

Kingdom shadows when the suns start going down

as geese’ feathers brush new moons by eyelashes

in old worlds, old freedoms & gadflys & scales.

Weight of small fucking world’s like those born of 

large orb fairs. Careful of that Old Magic. It isn’t as

brittle as one may think. Watch those porcelain faces, 

They are watching Us. They’ve seen everything trade

their visions between like a shell game. Don’t play,

or be able to laugh generations away. Like an errant

thumb holding a cheap valentine smudging the

gallantry into night on the margins of the message.

Really it’s just about better sleep, warmer blood, 

almost peace, wash it, crawl into it & go home. 

Nichols, Josh. Private correspondence. 2021. Reprinted with the author’s permission.

Douglas castle remains. Lanarkshire, Scotland. Author photo.

Better sleep. Time and old magic, when destroyed, passes into ruin. Into sleep. Into finding.

Let poetry lie. Like all feigning, it lends us the orb and sceptre of truth, making us kings and queens of the world. Regal, commanding, full of grace, impoverished, throneless, wandering. Sense and hit the nerves. Carpal tunnel fishes thimmering freely in the cords of our arms. Old trout in a mountain pool or beneath a village bridge. Aching. Ageing. Seen it all. Seen nothing yet.

*Have a look especially at Republic II, 377-83, Republic III, 386-404, Sophist, 234-7, and Laws II, 658-63, Laws VII, 800-12, and Laws VIII, 829.

**Thomas, Dylan. “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Goodnight”. The Poems of Dylan Thomas. New York: New Directions, 1952.

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