Here we go again, charging into cascades of thought and examples and ...exposition re: what I find as I consider and explore and work at coherence. An adventure I enjoy, brought almost weekly in the form of a Question. Maureen poses this one:

We might discuss the joys and challenges of writing,
our favorite poets,
the power of words,

The O'Donahue poems Maureen offers were, on first reading, pretty much opaque to me. Brian's oh-so-timely contribution of a link to Krista Tippett's interview with John O'Donahue will I hope dispel that deficiency.

Poetry I've been largely immune to, with occasional surprised exceptions and perhaps with some forms of poetry, like song lyrics (which I sometimes savor) and the artful condensations of haiku/senryu. My lifetime of poetry is dominated by the whimsical (like Ogden Nash), and the clever/ironic (like e.e. cummings), and the sound-oriented (like Edith Sitwell). Poetry takes time and concentration, in the making and in the reading. Only sometimes can I put myself into that slow mode.

On the other hand, the flow of mind onto paper that is MY experience of writing takes the form of prose, and of the crafting of discursive narrative out of fragments. And I do that a lot.

So this Question gives me a LOT to try to unpack and badger into coherence.


A first thought was to a YouTube video I happened upon this last week, casting me back into a time when ORAL presentation was much more important than (and prior to) written versions:

The first 50 lines of Homer's Iliad, read in ancient Greek by Thomas Whichello

and even older, the Epic of Gilgamesh:

These take us into territory visited last week in the Tibetan Book of the Dead
and the labors of Walter Evans-Wentz in managing its translation and (in 1927) publication
(see the bottom of that page for background on Evans-Wentz).


I got to thinking about what I especially like (seek out, try to emulate) in writing:

multifaceted readings
to be surprised by the unanticipated
to find novelty in expression
inventive juxtaposition
lexical games
...and probably others...

Of course ALL of those are not just present in poetry, they seem the very essence...
So where's my problem with poetry?

There are poets in my library (indeed, one of my very first books [5th birthday, 1948], gift of the author, was Gladys Adshead's An Inheritance of Poetry; and the thousand-odd onionskin page The Home Book of Poetry was on the shelves at home), but overwhelmingly my collections are prose, and I generally skip over poems in the New Yorker and Atlantic and Harper's... unthinkingly, I realize. So not an idiom I have deep familiarity with, poetry.

But of course I've played at poetry myself, who hasn't?

haiku from AT 2002

Fragments found while cleaning the desk

try capsaicin next

Boat-namer's hubris

spring snowstorm

and back to 2008-2009: Start anywhere and what should I wonder now?

A set of 5, reflecting on the significance of haiku:

well, I could explain
each cast has clear origin
in mind, eye and ear

would explaining help?
these are what I saw, and said
puzzles to others

others may puzzle
sometimes struck by an image
sometimes too Delphic

petite enigmas
and personal imagery
rarely public: good

read multiple ways
some perhaps not intended
lexical prisms
and two from more recently:

counting calories
probably a fool's errand
I will lick the bowl


all ensōs are alike no two maple leaves the same draw and photograph


says my friend Jan Broek in response:
Jan Broek prepares to read a poem

Enso circadian....
the flimsy potentiality of a casual gesture
that enlivens this moment with elusive veracity
—most of all the perpetual mouse and cat game
of word and image/image and word
Ensos everywhere, uroboric resonances
begendings and beginnings
inbreaths and outbreaths

So where's my problem with poetry?


To a considerable extent, my writing is self-indulgence: I write to hear myself, subvocalizing what then appears on the page; flashes of phrase pinioned before they take flight, knowing when it's just right, le mot juste.

Thinking of myself as a writer didn't occur until after my undergraduate years, and I don't have many items of college writing (my course notebooks are simply unintelligible). I did write quite a bit while we were in Sarawak, a lot of it epistolary (and I have carbon copies of lots of those letters), and I always had a notebook to write down new words and bits that needed remembering.

Once at Stanford I began keeping track in file folders and 5x8 cards, and there's some material of interest in my class notebooks, but the next big step in my evolution as a writer came about when our friends Kent & Shel left for Bolivia in 1970. Through the next year of campus disturbances and young parenthood I wrote long single-space dispatches to Kent & Shel, ostensibly to keep them up with what seemed such important transformations of American society. Some of what I wrote would surely be cringeworthy to read now.

A lot of my graduate student writing had to do with working out Sarawak observations, and (once my attention turned from Borneo to Northeastern North America) then figuring out how to approach fieldwork in Nova Scotia. Much of that writing would seem turgid and didactic to me now. I should have been keeping a journal, but it just hadn't occurred to me to be that reflective, or that my life was 24-7 fieldwork. I collected field notes in a succession of notebooks, which I mined to write my dissertation.

Another significant writing shift came as I began to teach, Fall 1973. I wrote out what to say in my lectures, and then improvised from that —not reading out loud what I'd written, but dependent on the writing in preparation. Alas, I discarded that material, and shifted over to large bound books to gather material for teaching, augmented with file folders to contain notes and other fragments. 4 or 5 file drawers in the barn hold the remains of 18 Acadia years, and the large notebooks are interesting to leaf through, remembering...

In 1979, as we were leaving for the sabbatical year at Stanford, I began daily journal entries in dedicated volumes, which still continue —more daybook than analytical or confessional journal. And by 1990, at the end of the Acadia years, I was always writing on folded paper while I walked, catching stream-of-consciousness thoughts as they whizzed by, trying to work out what to DO with my life, a process which eventually produced the ?microcomputers in libraries? question that moved me into library school. Walk-and-write became a habit, and I walked a lot in Boston and Cambridge.

For me, hypertext changed the writing landscape completely, conferring the possibility of outward-bound links and ready (global) distributability. That unfolded in the first few years at W&L, and continues today (Always and Everywhere: What is This?)

At W&L I had a long succession of spiral-bound notebooks (from the office supply closet), and I wrote a lot on the computer (texts and email, and html once that became possible) and I tried to get faculty and students to work with the new technologies of the WWW. I wasn't very successful in enticing others to explore the frontiers. I wrote all sorts of schemes and plans for transformations of liberal education. They were long on the hortatory and the innovative and 'disruptive', and mostly fell on deaf ears, or so I thought. But I went on, in the hypertext mode especially, so they're all ...out there... and retrievable.

In 2004 I got the oook.info domain, started oook blog, and by the time I retired in 2005 I had moved all my W&L digital presence to my own space.

My backup drives hold thousands of texts and pdfs and image files and sound files, less orderly than I wish but always waiting to be mined for inclusion in new documents... like this one.

Around 2013 I started carrying Moleskines everywhere I went. In 2015 I started writing Blurb books to distribute photographic projects, a dozen so far. And by 2018 I was using the notorious yellow pads, and collecting Convivium texts at oook.info/Conviv/. What's next?


(recovered while looking through txt files from 2007, a text I've often recited)

The Great Panjandrum

So she went into the garden
to cut a cabbage-leaf
to make an apple-pie;
and at the same time
a great she-bear, coming down the street,
pops its head into the shop.
What! no soap?

So he died,
and she very imprudently married the Barber
and there were present
the Picninnies,
and the Joblillies,
and the Garyulies,
and the great Panjandrum himself,
with the little round button at top;
and they all fell to playing the game of catch-as-catch-can,
till the gunpowder ran out at the heels of their boots.

-- Samuel Foote

(Composed by Foote in 1755 to test the memory of the actor Charles Macklin, who had claimed he could read any paragraph once through and then recite it verbatim. It is not recorded whether or not Macklin was, in fact, able to memorize the passage at first reading, but he apparently took great pleasure in reciting both the anecdote and the passage in later life).


The above was gathered on Monday. On Tuesday things took a different tack, and (as folks used to say in the late 60s-early 70s) "put me through changes" and challenged what I thought I knew. Here's how it went down:

In search of the why of my resistance to and incomprehension of poetry, I reflected that I'm especially drawn to word play, to the snarky, the over-clever, the ungenerous, the ironic, the sardonic, the witty, the cynical... and those proclivities are incompatible with a lot of what poetry is after capturing. So Dorothy Parker, Agnes Bernelle, lexical acrobats like Alan Ginsberg...

And along came the uncomfortable realization that I mostly don't make space to listen outside the conversations in my own head (and on my own paper/screen). I'm not very good at giving attention to others, being too much in my own head, and engaged in my own pleasures and tastes and identity. I recognize a well-developed SELF-ishness, and think perhaps that's a part of what seems an in-susceptibility to poetry.

Betsy pointed out to me that it's important to hear poetry, and I thought of the record of Dylan Thomas reading that I heard in the 1950s, and went looking for more...

...which reminded me of the time I coached my high school classmate Paul Kaufman (who fancied himself an Actor) through a reading of Robert Browning's "My last duchess"

So I went back to John O'Donohue, trying to work out why I bounced, uncomprehending, off the two poems Maureen included with the Question. I came across a talk by him, "On Imagination" and had my life and perceptions changed in the recognition that I was hearing Poetry in his words:

A few bits that I copied out from the YouTube transcript:

...the world that you inhabit and see is shaped by the way you see it, and the way you see is shaped by the way you think, so if you really want to change your life, the best way is to change the way you think... if you change some of the furniture in your inner world, in your mind, then you really change your life...

...take out an empty white page —it's the best mirror ever— and ask yourself what are the seven thoughts that shaped my life...

...we heard about the Will of God and people have crucified themselves and hammered their beautiful awkwardness into submission trying to do what someone else thought was the Will of God for them, and to be honest I don't think the Will of God is that interesting, whereas I think the Imagination of God is absolutely fascinating...

...an awful lot of what passes for conversation in our culture is merely intersecting monologues, and there's no real conversation because in real conversation you can be taken to places you never expected; you can overhear things from yourself that you never knew you had in you, and you can absolutely change in a great conversation. It's like pure nourishment for yourself...

...your identity is infinitely more complex, nuanced, sophisticated, and mysterious than your biography or than anything that could ever unfold in your biography...

And he closes the remarkable, world-altering 20 minute talk with this tiny poem:

I would love to live like a river flows,
carried by the surprise of its own unfolding

Shubenacadie sediment


As for the power of words: I've been a collector and consulter of word books for a long time, acutely aware of the sheer delight of novel locutions and lexical excursions. In March 2020 I did a bunch of blog posts about some of my trove: The joys of Anglo-Indian Englishes * Indo-European and Germanic *Greek and Latin * Foreign kickshaws * Polyglot's Lexicon * Words in time * Words in time and place * Collateral language * 15,000 useful phrases * Merton and Barber on Serendipity ... and only scratched the surface of what's on the shelves. Maybe I'll take that project up again.


And first thing on Wednesday morning, this absolutely wonderful 7 minutes with Mary Oliver, perfectly tuned to what we're talking about:



Other material I'd like to include, once I figure out how to fit it in:


And in the end, there's Semiotics waiting to bushwhack us:

...aaaand here's what it's all headed toward, just in from Gwynna Forgham-Thrift at McSweeney's:

Thanks for sending this along. I left my comments in the Google Doc.

You don't see my comments? You're looking at the old document. I copied your Google Doc and made a new Google Doc called "Proposal v2 - Comments." Once you have my comments, put everything together in "Proposal v3 FINAL." Then, if you don't mind copy-pasting your new document link into the spreadsheet where we keep track of all the document links, that would be perfect. And, of course, make sure you're in the most current spreadsheet (Copy of Spreadsheet COPY_01).

You still don't see the link? It's right there on the bottom of the Slack thread from yesterday about which shared drive folders link to Dropbox folders that contain all the shared PDFs. Oh, my mistake; it's actually at the bottom of a thread about what everyone had for lunch yesterday. Here I'll send it to you again. I just replied to an email to Jeff with the link and asked him to forward it to you. The subject line is "Email."

The document won't open? I'm not sure how I could make this any easier. Okay, I reset the document permissions, but you'll need to sign into the email document_view@busycompany.org via the password I texted you via iMessage. Once you sign into the email, it'll ask you to create a Microsoft Teams account. You'll find the link to the document in the Teams channel called "NO DOCUMENTS LINKS!!!" From there, you'll find a link to a couple of WeTransfers of the current .docs. Every WeTransfer link is expired. To find the non-expired link, you'll have to look through the email thread I forwarded you saying, "FYI." It should be 110-120 emails deep in the thread.

Once you find a link, you'll download the 17 GB PowerPoint file, which is password-protected. You'll need the password from our company password document. This should be in the shared Z:// drive that was set up in 2002, and to open the Excel sheet, you'll need to make sure your computer is running on Windows 98. From there, you'll use the password to open the company's orientation PowerPoint and find the link to the main Dropbox folder. The Dropbox contains all the links to the Box folders, which contain all the links to the Google Drive folders, which nobody can see, hear, or touch. This is where things get tricky. The Google Drive folder is, admittedly, a tad disorganized, so you'll need to click on thirty-seven different documents with names that have nothing to do with what's in the document. You'll need to read most of the document to infer who wrote it and what year. You're looking for the document I wrote yesterday. The comments should be right in there.

Jesus. Do you just want me to fax these things to you?! Look, to make things easier, I started a thirty-day free trial of Asana. I also set up trials of Monday, Airtable, Jira, Workday, Loom, Boom, Flunt, Pringo, Viver, Blabby, Tired, Burbble, Ü, and Bungle apps, and signed you up for each. Then I posted the document in the comments section of the posting for your job on Indeed.com. Just kidding, you're not fired. But please do reapply by sending a résumé and cover letter to gain access to Google Drive.

You know what? Should I just walk over to your desk, and we can go through them out loud?


Here's what I wrote just before Convivium:


It's been such fun to explore writing,
to rediscover my dormant interests in poetry,
to review my own evolution as a person who writes,
and to play on the verges of the lifelong love of words.

This is some of my favorite territory,
where I sport and play every day,
perfectly happy to be doing it for myself,
perfectly happy to give it away
to anybody who might enjoy.

Writing is exploration. Writing is a sort of performance,
trapeze or high-wire act, or clown car, or head in the lion's mouth,
or the magician's assistant, sawed in half but unharmed,
the ringmaster commanding all, or the dude who picks up
after the elephants have lumbered past.

Watch Mirrormask again and again.
Read Neil Gaiman over and over, in all his guises.
HEAR the words, LISTEN to how they are spoken.
Savor the subtle and the sonorous.
Be delighted with new discoveries.
Grant second and third chances to books you've put down.
Make maps of the territories traversed.
Share what you find.