Category Archives: poetry

“The ‘Divine Comedy’ was written by Dante Alighieri during his lifetime.”

I suppose this should not have taken me quite so aback as it did, because the student who presented me with this revelation was in my World Literature I survey. We read selections from the Hebrew Bible, written by writers claimed to have been divinely inspired; we also read selections from the Qur’an, according to the book itself dictated by Allah to Mohammed. So perhaps my student felt it necessary to make a distinction between those texts written by (or dictated or revealed to) entities who did not actually have a “lifetime,” and those written by flesh-and-blood creatures while they still walked the earth.

Dante’s masterpiece describes an extensive journey the narrator/poet makes through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise in the company of the Roman poet Virgil. Where did he get the ideas he portrays by way of this allegorical trek? He doesn’t say: unlike Coleridge explaining “Kublai Khan,” he makes no claims of an interrupted opium dream; unlike Julian of Norwich, he doesn’t attribute his interpretation of God’s will to visits from Jesus during an illness; unlike John Bunyan, he doesn’t even say the story came to him in a regular dream. Simply, the narrator finds himself midway on the road of life, lost in a gloomy wood; Virgil comes along, and they go on their adventure. Out-of-body experience?

Wherever he got his ideas, we can be pretty sure Dante wrote them down while still alive.

I probably asked for this. When they write commentaries on passages from assigned readings in their Journals, my students are required to note title, author, culture, and when written. This student doesn’t seem to have spent any time with the textbook’s introductory materials at all. Culture from which this text comes? He says Roman. Okay, now, Virgil was in fact Roman. And Dante lived in Italy. But Dante was a Florentine, not a Roman; and he certainly did not live during the Roman Empire, which is what we generally mean when we refer to the Roman culture. Given this sketchy notion of “where,” why should I have been surprised by a sketchy notion of “when”? Why look up the date? In fact The Comedy was written during his political exile from Florence; by 1317 “Inferno” had been published. When the other pieces of the poem were written is uncertain, but “Paradiso” was probably published after his death in 1321 at age 56.

Perhaps my student actually did take a look at the introduction and got the notion that Dante did some of his writing after death too. But if so, he confidently asserts that The Divine Comedy was not among those writings.

And I have to say I’m glad. The idea of literature coming to us from beyond the grave is unsettling, to say the least.

But since we’re fairly certain that every writer who wrote did so while alive (even those who were writing from spiritual direction), we generally don’t take the time to note the fact. My student’s taking the trouble to do so suggests that he felt it worthy of remark. That’s almost as unsettling as ghostly composition—composing while decomposing, as it were…

The great Gustav Dore depicts Dante and Virgil in Hell: "I had not thought death had undone so many." And probably none of them was doing any writing anymore, either.

The great Gustav Dore depicts Dante and Virgil in Hell: “I had not thought death had undone so many.” And probably none of them was doing any writing anymore, either.


“There are many images in the poem that depict strong and easy images to visualize…”

I love an image that depicts an image, especially an image that depicts a strong image. This poem, I am told, has many of those.

Most often when we use the term “image” we’re referring to something that is visual. Literature depends for much of its impact on the skillful deployment of images; the reader’s emotional and intellectual experience is created by the pictures evoked in the mind that create or give depth to the events and emotions presented by the writer. The image affects the “mind’s eye,” or sometimes the mind’s ear or nose or fingers. So it’s fortunate that the poem my student is describing has a lot of images—or, rather, that it has a lot of images that depict strong images—and that they’re easy to visualize: that is, they are clear and accessible to the reader.

(She does say the images are “strong and easy,” where she actually meant “strong images that are easy to visualize,” but we will assume her intentions rather than her sentence structure and say Yes, good, lots of strong images that are easy to visualize, glad you commented on that!)

Here’s the whole sentence, though:

“There are many images in the poem that depict strong and easy images to visualize, such as ‘you walk by faith in the darkness.'”

She is being conscientious here, following her general statement with a clarifying example.

Except that the example does not offer clarification, beyond the clarification that she’s really not sure what an image is, or what visualizing involves. “Faith” isn’t an image, although I guess if it had been capitalized the reader might imagine “you” walking alongside a friend named Faith… Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” comes to mind… but here the word “faith” is an abstract term for a whole range of ideas and absolutely no pictures.

And I guess I can visualize darkness—actually, visualizing darkness is a component of a get-to-sleep exercise I sometimes engage in—but most writers would try to present an actual image to help the reader imagine the quality or character of that darkness, not merely say “darkness,”: I don’t know, “black as the pit from pole to pole” springs to mind, thanks to William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus,” memorized back in the eighth grade. See, now, that’s an image, and largely for that reason the line lingers in the mind.

Student writers often try to pump up an idea or a reading beyond what it deserves or can bear. Such was the case here, where my student had chosen for her analysis essay a poem by a sincere beginner, a poem that was a poem by virtue of its short lines, not the experience offered to the reader, and the poet a beginner who had not yet learned that poetry is much more about showing than telling. This poem spoke throughout in terms like “generosity,” “courage,” “sacrifice,” “love”… the only actual image in the whole poem was “trembling hand,” and that was meant literally. But the assignment asked that the analysis include a discussion of the poem’s use of imagery, and so my student did her best to engage in such a discussion, rather than comment that this poem actually lacked imagery, instead leaving the reader to give substance to a list of abstractions through his or her own experience or insight.

So I, as the reader of her essay, am left with this image, a picture of someone walking by faith in the darkness:

Image of darkness


“Heavenly wealth is not measured by precious materials, but by the overall feeling of safety from the angels…”

My student is discussing heaven as described by Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet. Heavenly wealth is not measured by streets of gold or gates of pearl, “precious materials,” but by something else.

“The overall feeling of safety from the angels” is an ambiguous phrase, though. Presumably he meant that in heaven one has an “overall feeling of safety” because of angelic protection, or perhaps because the angels emanate a feeling of safety; but “safety from the angels” says to me that “the angels” are dangerous but in heaven one is safe from them. Well, yes, we see plenty of dangerous angels in the Old Testament; they are generally dangerous to those who disobey God, though, and in heaven the disobeyers are likely to be in short supply anyway, if the example of Lucifer is anything to go by.

Well, we can take a look at the passage in its entirety:

“Heavenly wealth is not measured by precious materials, but by the overall feeling of safety from the angels and the overall feeling that someone has when they are in the Citi.”

Oh my. What do we learn here? Besides the overall feeling of safety, one has another “overall feeling” my student cannot describe, save to say it’s felt by residents of heaven—or at least, people who are in the Citi. If he has not yet been there—nor had Bradstreet at the time she wrote the poem, by the way, but poets are visionaries—we cannot demand a more specific description.

(I hope you notice how restrained I am, that I am not mentioning the disagreeable “someone” and “they.” No disagreement in the Citi.)

But I’m here to tell you that I am “in the Citi,” and the overall feeling I have can’t really be described as a kind of heavenly wealth. CitiMortgage has me in its clutches, and will for twenty more years (if I live that long), every month implacably demanding wealth I used to have before the investment banks and their cronies crashed the stock market….Actually, their demands tie me forever to the earthly bliss (but most certainly not wealth) of correcting student papers until my crabbed fingers can no longer clutch a pen and my bleary eyes no longer see….

Did Autocorrect helpfully change “City” (capitalized to betoken the Celestial City) to “Citi” (the only city that is not only capitalized but actually capitalized) when its computerly sensors sensed the capital letter? Or is it possible that my student believes “city” is spelled with two is?

The overall feeling that I have when I’m in the Citi is not safety, but angst (which has nothing to do with angels). But at least I’m safe from the angels. No sign of them anywhere, in fact.

This is most emphatically not what Bradstreet had in mind when she thought about heaven!

“Pilgrims in Sight of the Celestial City,” by Henry Dawson (1854).
Painted well after Bradstreet wrote (late 1600s), but obviously full of overall feelings!
Image from http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings.


“Nature possesses the ability to be seen in a multitude of perspectives.”

My students live in a panpsychist world.

How else explain the neediness of abstract or nonanimate things? Punishment needs to be dealt out. Merit needs to be rewarded. Attention needs to be paid.

With (reportedly first-remarker) Pythagoras, Spinoza, William James, and others, my students believe “everything is sentient.”

Here we have Nature, possessing the ability to be seen. She is visible! She is visible, in fact, “in” a variety of perspectives. This phrase evokes Andrew Marvell’s charming poem “The Picture of Little T.C. in a Prospect of Flowers.” It ends:

But O young beauty of the Woods,
Whom Nature courts with fruits and flow’rs,
Gather the Flow’rs, but spare the Buds;
Lest Flora angry at thy crime,
To kill her Infants in their prime,
Do quickly make th’ Example Yours;
And, ere we see,
Nip in the blossome all our hopes and Thee.

Little T.C. is “in” a prospect of flowers because she is “in” the picture, and the picture shows a prospect. I guess Nature could be seen “in” perspectives in the same sense.

But I believe my student meant that Nature can be seen from a multitude (why not “variety,” which is more to the point perhaps?) of perspectives: hence poetry.

Now, “can” might also imply sentience, or capability, on the part of Nature; acceptable usage lets that one slide. “Possesses the ability to” cannot be grandfathered in, though.

Well, on Thanksgiving Day, with a pie in the oven, one should not carp.

One should look up from one’s plate and gaze upon the variety (and, if you’re lucky, multitude) of faces looking back. One should consider the seemingly infinite variety of Nature, of which those dear faces are examples. One should be grateful not only that such variety—and such loveliness—exist, but also that they are visible. Whether everything is sentient or not, WE are sentient. Celebrate it.

Today, give thanks for everything. Tomorrow, the red pen. Tomorrow, gather the blossoms. Root out the weeds, by the way! But try even then to spare the buds. Mantra for a writing teacher?


“Three animals hunted by the lord in ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ were…”

No power at home since Monday evening, thanks to Sandy. I’m snatching a moment from office hours at my (inland) school to do a post that really needs no comment.

This is one student’s answer to a little 3-point gimmee on the Midterm Exam (well, I thought it was a gimmee…).

“Three animals hunted by the lord in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were a rooster, a fox, and a wild bore.”

Okay, a brief comment. The lord hunted, in order, a deer, a boar, and a fox. I think the rooster sneaked into this student’s memory by way of Chaucer’s “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” which featured a rooster and a fox. The boar should have gotten into the answer, and might have if the student had been a close reader instead of primarily an in-class listener.

As for the wild bore… well, I hope the lord got ‘im.


“This poem was written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the ladder part of his career.”

Of course I knew what she meant: she meant “the latter part of his career,” when in fact Chaucer did write The Canterbury Tales, or as much as he managed to finish before his death. Pretty clearly, she knows the meaning of “latter”; she just doesn’t know it’s a word.

This kind of problem is not limited to student writers. All of us mis-hear words and phrases: when the mis-hearing makes a new kind of sense we can call it a mondegreen, if we’re so inclined.

Sometimes we’re mis-hearing words we actually know, but confuse because of sound. I certainly know the words “bad,” “moon,” and “rise,” but when Creedence Clearwater Revival sang it, I (and evidently a lot of other people, if Google is to be believed) heard “There’s a bathroom on the right” instead of “There’s a bad moon on the rise.” For years I wondered why someone would put directions to a lavatory into a popular song….

Sometimes the confusion arises because we hear a word that is not familiar, but it sounds sufficiently like one we know that we assume it’s the one intended: “We know he’s Jewish because his grandson had a brisk,” for example. And we blithely go on to use the word we think we heard. As long as we’re just speaking, we might get away with it; but when we have to commit it to paper, we reveal our confusion to others, if not to ourselves.

And that’s all that happened here.

For me, of course, the sentence suggests Chaucer climbing to the heights of literary celebrity or achievement. But such a “ladder” part of his career would have predated The Canterbury Tales. The Book of the Duchess was probably the first real rung, an elegy commissioned by John of Gaunt for his dead wife. And up he went, with Parlement of Foules, The Legend of Good Women, and Troilus and Criseyde, among other works. The ladder part. Top rung: The Canterbury Tales. If he had lived longer, he would have needed a taller ladder.

Chaucer prepares to climb his career ladder.
Chaucer image: the Ellesmere manuscript.


“The Wife of Bath has had multiple husbands, one after the other…”

Since my student must have known the Wife of Bath was an Englishwoman (the course was British Literature I), he should also have known he didn’t need to specify “one after the other” about the husbands: polyandry was not practiced in England, at least as far back as we have literature or legends.

He may have meant that as soon as one husband died she was on to the next, which is true—in fact she had #5 lined up at the time of the funeral of #4. So I’m not really going to quibble over whether the “one after the other” was necessary to the sentence.

One of the most colorful and memorable characters in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, the Wife is a great combination of lustiness and propriety, passion and calculation, sincerity and mischief, romance and cynicism. She debates biblical passages with some of the clerical pilgrims, arguing eloquently—if not fully in keeping with Church doctrine—that God intended human beings to engage in sexual activity, and to do so for pleasure as well as procreation, and that therefore chastity may be admirable but isn’t appropriate for the non-perfect and is furthermore a waste of the organs of generation. She is confident that multiple marriages are acceptable with God, citing the many wives of Solomon and Abraham; but she complains that the Bible isn’t clear about exactly how many husbands a woman may have, since Jesus scolds the Samaritan woman at the well for having five husbands but doesn’t say she shouldn’t have had four. (The 5-husband question is her misreading of the biblical story, but let that go.)

At any rate, my student wasn’t going to stop his statement before providing an explanation. Here’s the whole sentence:

“The Wife of Bath has had multiple husbands, one after the other, in order to have consistent sex in life.”

Now, first of all, I can say with certainty that that “in life” is unnecessary: Chaucer makes no hint of necrophilia or heavenly copulation.

I also generally try to discourage students from writing “in order to” when a simple “to” will do, and this is one of those cases.

But the real gem in the sentence necklace is that “consistent.”

Yes, the Wife enjoys sex, and her sex drive is one of the impelling agents in those marches up the aisle. But if we look at her husbands one by one, as she invites us to do in her Prologue, we learn that the first three husbands were quite old (and rich), and in those marriages she withheld or awarded sex to get what she wanted from each: personal liberty, nice things, and the upper hand. Husbands 4 and 5 were young men, 5 the youngest. But #4 kept a mistress and could only be managed by making him believe his Wife was also sleeping around, and #5—whom she married for love—lectured her about holiness in women and then beat her. She finally tamed him by accusing him of trying to murder her for her money (ah, that money that she had married her way into…).

Tell me, is this “consistent” sex? He probably meant that she wanted nonstop access to sex and therefore had to keep a husband in her bed; but by her own report she deployed her sexuality strategically, and that would at least imply an ability to tolerate dry spells. “Consistent”  is most commonly used to mean “free from irregularity, variation, or contradiction,” and hardly applies to the quintuple Husbands of Bath.

I wish my student had been content to write “The Wife of Bath had five husbands” and then go on to comment on her general sex drive (she was, Chaucer reports, gap-toothed, a sure sign of lecherousness!) and her ability to manipulate men by way of it. He would have been more efficient, more clear, and more accurate.

Of course he would have deprived me of some delicious moments picturing a conveyor belt leading to the Wife of Bath’s bed, and on that conveyor belt five rampant gentlemen, as alike as gingerbread boys, being carried to her for her consistent pleasure.


“Achilleus is pist.”

This statement antedates spellcheck, or at least the spellcheck feature that underlines dubious words. The writer is clearly oblivious not only to his spelling error but also to his error of diction, or tone.

With great energy, simplicity, and confidence, my student is writing about The Iliad, that stately epic poem about war, glory, and loss. Together with The Odyssey, it defines the epic—not only its form and subject but also its stature. Heroic, that’s what an epic is supposed to be, in every dimension.

So my student reads about the rage of Achilleus that follows on Agamemnon’s autocratic and self-centered distribution of the spoils of war—and of Achilleus’ “prize” woman in particular. This anger is so great that despite his hunger for glory in battle, and despite his supposed loyalty to the Greek confederation that has come to Troy to take back Helen, the kidnapped wife of Menelaus, Achilleus sits stubborn in his tent and refuses to join the battle even when the tide turns against the Greeks and everyone pleads with him.

Admirers of Achilleus and those sympathetic with his need for respect would say he’s in high dudgeon, or in a towering rage. Those readers who prefer Hektor’s brand of heroism (of which I am one) would say Achilleus is throwing an heroic temper tantrum, or having a big sulk.

My student makes a different choice. Is it some perverse delicacy of mind that keeps him from spelling out “pissed,” or does he think there are two different words depending on whether there is urine involved or only spleen—or does he actually think that’s how the (single) word is spelled?

At any rate, even “royally pissed” would have more dignity than my student has allowed this “hero”: he has managed to trivialize Achilleus, or infantilize him, or unclass him, in a single stroke. All that might be epic is piddled away.

Next time you’re feeling pissed, picture my student’s word. Tell yourself you’re pist. It will probably tickle you so that you cheer right up.

On this amphora, posted at http://www.miscellanies.org/eng3993/weeknine/bookone.html, you can see the pist Achilleus at center, next to the hanging helmet.


“John the carpenter has had a fool made out of him.”

This is a reference to the gullible and jealous husband in Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale.” My student is right: the point of the Tale is the cleverness with which his young wife Alisoun and Alisoun’s inamorato, “hende [clever, courteous] Nicholas,” trick John into not only ignoring but also actually facilitating their tryst. There’s a lot more to the tale, some comic moments that amaze modern students (who assume scatological jokes were invented shortly after their own birth), but the subplots involve making fools out of others—the vain and randy cleric Absolom and then Nicholas himself.

If you haven’t read “The Miller’s Tale” lately, you should. If Middle English scares you, just read it with a German accent and you’ll understand almost every word. Otherwise, there are numerous modern-English translations online of this great and witty tale.

Anyway, the meaning of my student’s sentence is accurate.

But some verbs play better in the active voice: to make a fool of would be one of those. And the intrusion of “out” into the proper phrase “to make a fool of” makes the sentence even odder, because when you make something out of something else you are usually constructing it using something else that already exists. My student’s sentence would then imply that John isn’t actually a fool: Alisoun used John as raw material to make something new, a fool, out of.

Okay, to begin: Alisoun made a fool of John. But my student says Alisoun made a fool out of John.

So, similarly, thus: I am making a braided rug out of old blue jeans.

The blanket was made out of yarn she spun out of her dog’s shed undercoat.

Scarlett O’Hara made an impressive visiting gown out of the old velvet drapes.

He’s trying to make something out of nothing.

Now, if we grant my student permission to use the “out” and make John into something else, we run into more problems, because the other sentences above, similarly constructed, really cannot be made passive:

The old blue jeans have had a braided rug made out of them.

The dog’s shed undercoat has had yarn spun out of it, and the yarn has had a blanket made out of it.

The old velvet drapes have had an impressive visiting gown made out of them by Scarlett O’Hara.

Nothing has been tried to be made something out of.

These sentences are absurd because, for one thing, the raw material has no agency. A sentence such as “I have had a rug made for me out of old blue jeans” works because when I had this done, I had it done by somebody at my behest. John was made a fool of by somebody, but not at his behest, and so the “has had” works in a completely different manner because “has” means something else.

The only way my student’s statement can stand, I’m afraid, is if it means that John the carpenter hired someone to make a fool using him as raw material.

But, dupe though he was, facilitator though he proved, it was all without his intent; in fact, it was completely contrary to his intent, the jealous old cuckold.

Alisoun and Nicholas made a fool of him, sure enough. But my student has made a fool of himself with a sentence that should have adjusted its garb before venturing into the light of day.


“His father committed suicide six months before he was born…”

All I have to offer today is a little problem of pronoun reference.

I knew what my student meant, and so did my student; but the pronoun ambiguity made the sentence memorable nevertheless.

Someone who commits suicide six months before he is born must be a self-aborting fetus, an embryo with a death wish, an humunculus who knows it’s a jungle out there and wants no part of it. That this same someone can already be a father is quite a feat; maybe he feels there’s nothing more to do with his life?

The sentence is a bit longer, and a bit funnier:

“His father committed suicide six months before he was born, which had a large influence on his writing.”

So, this paternal zygote is already a writer? Or perhaps he would have been a writer had he actually been born and then, um, learned to write. Death would put quite a crimp in an authorial career, to be sure: all his future writing would be, of necessity, non-writing.

Of course this cold-hearted and irreverent fantasy is all in the mind of the reader. My student was writing about the poet Stanley Kunitz, whose life was haunted by the suicide, in a public park, of his father some six months before Stanley’s birth and his mother’s subsequent implacable grief. His life, some months more than a century long, wasn’t easy, but he rose to importance and fame, and made a significant impact on American poetry both with his writing and with his nurturing attention to other writers. His poem “The Portrait” speaks of the suicide:

My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time
and in a public park,
that spring
when I was waiting to be born.
She locked his name
in her deepest cabinet
and would not let him out,
though I could hear him thumping.
When I came down from the attic
with the pastel portrait in my hand
of a long-lipped stranger
with a brave moustache
and deep brown level eyes,
she ripped it into shreds
without a single word
and slapped me hard.
In my sixty-fourth year
I can feel my cheek 
still burning.

This kind of quiet pain is what my student was trying to talk about. A case of poor pronoun reference was the instrument of her undoing.