Fernando Pessoa & Literary Children


I am lazily wending my way through Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet and finding a like-minded soul: a quiet man, a homebody, a literary enthusiast.

Most interesting to me is this passage about children and their “literary” way of thinking (as opposed to those conformists in the mirror we know as “adults”). For me, this brought to mind the video of Naomi Shihab Nye quoting William Stafford about how we are all poets as children and just have to readopt the facility if we want to write poetry as adults.

Here’s the quote from Pessoa:

“Children are particularly literary, for they say what they feel and not what someone has taught them to feel. Once I heard a child, who wished to say that he was on the verge of tears, say not ‘I feel like crying,’ which is what an adult, i.e. an idiot, would say, but rather, ‘I feel like tears.’ And this phrase — so literary it would seem affected in a well-known poet, if he could ever invent it — decisively refers to the warm presence of tears about to burst from eyelids that feel the liquid bitterness. ‘I feel like tears!’ That small child aptly defined his spiral.

“To say! To know how to say! To know how to exist via the written voice and the intellectual image! This is all that matters in life; the rest is men and women, imagined loves and factitious vanities, the wiles of our digestion and forgetfulness, people squirming — like worms when a rock is lifted — under the huge abstract boulder of the meaningless blue sky.”

This is the gospel according to St. Fernando (thanks be to the writing gods)….

Dignity for the Aging, the Sick, the Dead


My wife and I are of such an age where we are rapidly losing friends and family members who grew up in the generation before us. Likewise, we spend much time visiting members of this generation in declining health, some in assisted living, some in nursing homes, some in hospitals.

It is a sad truth of life that proud and private people have no choice but to surrender their pride and their privacy once they are in some way debilitated and in need of full-time medical attention. Sometimes the professional help is just that–professional, caring, wonderful. And other times, sadly, it’s just a job.

As my last send-off post to Zbigniew Herbert, whose Collected Poems 1956-1998 (translator Alissa Valles) I finished today, I’ll share a tender poem he wrote on just that subject. It is called “Shame,” and in it, Herbert links his love for the ancient Greeks (Antigone) with the basic humanity and respect for the body she symbolizes:



When I was very ill shame abandoned me
willingly I bared for alien hands surrendered to alien eyes
the poor mystery of my body

They invaded me brutally increasing the humiliation

My professor of forensic medicine the old Mancewicz
fishing a suicide’s remains from a pool of formaldehyde
bent over him as if he wished to ask him for his pardon
then with a deft movement he opened the proud thorax
the basilica of the breath fell silent

delicately almost tenderly

So–faithful to the dead respectful of ash–I understand
the wrath of the Greek princess her stubborn resistance
she was right–a brother deserved a dignified burial

a shroud of earth carefully drawn
over the eyes


Advice for a Poetry Reading


Inside of two weeks before my first poetry reading, I often solicit advice from experienced poets who have read many times at many venues. Part of me asks about myself and the poems I should choose. The other part asks about the crowd. Or maybe “the crowd” (accent on quotation marks). What I’ve heard so far:

  1. It’s possible no one will show up. (Do you read to no one if “it” arrives and fills the assembled seats with its nothingness? Does a tree in a forest primeval make a sound if it falls beyond human ears? Discuss. At the mic. Or possibly the mike.)
  2. Crowds can be fidgety. Remember that as you decide on poems for the reading.
  3. Have fun.
  4. Start and end with stronger poems.
  5. Mix types of poems–funny, sad, long, short, reflective, assertive. Repeat and contrast, repeat and contrast.
  6. Introduce each poem with a brief anecdote. Accent on brief.
  7. Have fun.
  8. Don’t read too fast. In fact, you should think you’re reading a bit too slow. That will be about the right pace.
  9. Project and enunciate.
  10. Practice reading your poems beforehand. Not a little. A lot. Especially if you’re a tyro.
  11. Have fun.
  12. If you sell copies of your book (or even a single copy of your book) afterwards, give thanks. It’s gravy. Don’t expect dozens of listeners to beat a path to your signing table.
  13. If you’re featured with another reader, give her/him the option of going first or second.
  14. If your fellow featured reader is the hottest poet since the King James Bible writers, call in sick.
  15. Are we having fun yet?

Indifference–a Most Unexpected Angle


In my last post, I shared a Czeslaw Milosz poem that seems to have echoes in many other works by many other poets. Anyone who has studied or simply read deeply of literature and mythology knows that writers’ fascination with life and death leads to thoughts of the world’s curious indifference to us.

Yes, we are subjective animals, especially when it comes to our favorite topic–ourselves. The world, however, is an objective entity. It rolls on. Whether we are sick or healthy, sad or happy, dead or alive, means nothing to it.

How, the subjective and reflective human asks, can something so beautiful (the world) remain so indifferent (uncaring), especially to someone as sensitive and thoughtful as me, myself, and I?

The theme of indifference not only preoccupied a set of poems I wrote, it also led me to unexpected places, one being a man I knew little (OK, nothing) about–a 16th-century Spanish soldier fascinated with courtly love and tales of brave knights (Don Quixote, anyone?). This Don became famous for other reasons. He became a saint in the Roman Catholic Church, a man called St. Ignatius of Loyola, now famous for founding the Jesuits.

The quixotic Ignatius turned the word “indifference” on its uncaring head. He saw it as a noble trait, one we all should seek.

What, you ask? Why be uncaring sorts when we’ve been taught otherwise since childhood? Because Ignatius meant that we should be “indifferent to all created things.” Good and bad, lovely and horrid, admirable and reprehensible.” Steel yourself and accept, in other words. This is your objective world in all its horror and glory.

This new interpretation of the word fascinates because it goes to our human weak point. Our subjectivity. Our love of self. Its precept is simple: We shouldn’t care if we are healthy or sick, enjoying ourselves or suffering, because whatever occurs is God’s will.

If you distrust matters religious, you can simply see it as fate or a case of Doris Day-like que sera sera. In which case, indifference looks almost like the Stoic’s shield. You are admired because you are indifferent to what life brings to you. You do not for a minute consider yourself special or deserving or the exception to everyone else’s rules.

In that case, being labeled “indifferent” becomes a red badge of courage. It is the defeat of selfishness and ego. And you thought word denotations were simple and well-behaved!

Have an indifferent day. If you dare.



Czeslaw Milosz on the Indifferent World

indexMany words–even simple ones–hold multiple meanings. Add connotative undertones to their pedigree and they grow even more fascinating. The word “indifferent” is such a word. Seemingly simple, there’s more to it than meets the eye as I’ll show in this post and the next. That’s one reason why I chose to name my book The Indifferent World and placed the word itself in many of the collection’s poems.

First, a more conventional look at the word’s meaning, as seen through a beautiful poem written and translated (with the help of Robert Haas) by Czeslaw Milosz. This poem appeared in my copy of All of Us: The Collected Poems by Raymond Carver. It gains momentum and strength as you read it–a trait I admire in poems.


Return to Kraków in 1880
Czeslaw Milosz

So I returned here from the big capitals,
To a town in a narrow valley under the cathedral hill
With royal tombs. To a square under the tower
And the shrill trumpet sounding noon, breaking
Its note in half because of the Tartar arrow
Has once again struck the trumpeter.
And pigeons. And the garish kerchiefs of women selling flowers.
And groups chattering under the Gothic portico of the church.
My trunk of books arrived, this time for good.
What I know of my laborious life: it was lived.
Faces are paler in memory than on daguerreotypes.
I don’t need to write memos and letters every morning.
Others will take over, always with the same hope,
The one we know is senseless and devote our lives to.
My country will remain what it is, the backyard of empires,
Nursing its humiliation with provincial daydreams.
I leave for a morning walk tapping with my cane:
The places of old people are taken by new old people
And where the girls once strolled in their rustling skirts,
New ones are strolling, proud of their beauty.
And children trundle hoops for more than half a century.
In a basement a cobbler looks up from his bench,
A hunchback passes by with his inner lament,
Then a fashionable lady, a fat image of the deadly sins.
So the Earth endures, in every petty matter
And in the lives of men, irreversible.
And it seems a relief. To win? To lose?
What for, if the world will forget us anyway.