Seeing Poetry, Looking Away

I think I first became familiar with the work of Stanley Fish in a literature seminar at Yale taught by the late Lana Schwebel.  The course, which focused on the work of John Milton, was cross-listed at the Div School, where I was a student, and the English department. 

One of the other students had just come from Chicago and could not stop talking about Stanley Fish.  Strangely, this student didn’t seem at all familiar with Leo Strauss.  He couldn’t seem to accept that someone had, perhaps, influenced his own academic hero.

Stanley Fish has a very popular piece I like to share from time to time called “How to Recognize a Poem When You See One.”  I haven’t returned to it lately, but, as what Milton called the “winter wild” draws near, and this “the month, and this the happy morn” with it, I think I will add it to my short list of recommended re-reading.

There are few things more frustrating than a poetic image that won’t fully reveal itself to a writer, or one that reveals itself too easily to a reader.  There’s a Milton-inspired poem sitting in another tab on my browser that I just can’t seem to finish.  I love it.  I hate it.  It’s brilliant.  It’s awful.  Maybe it’s not a poem at all.  I wish I could re-see it.  I wish I could un-see (undo) the reasons it exists.  I wish I could delete it.  I know I never will.  It’s terrible.  It’s awful.  It has one or two good images.  It’s intensely personal.  It’s too personal to mean anything to anyone.  It’s too sentimental to mean very much to me.  But there it sits.  There it stays. Maybe it’s a poem. Maybe it’s an epitaph.  Maybe it’s a tombstone.  Maybe some things can just be what they are.  

My Dog Can Read (Stanley Fish and Leo Strauss)

I’ve been writing and workshopping a story about a group of people living on a block of rowhomes and the glimpses they get of each other in passing. To the right you’ll find an excerpt.  Who wouldn’t want a dog like this?

Earlier this morning, I came home from a jaunt outside to find my own dog clearly wanting a walk.  It’s icy and raining here.  My coat and shoes were off.  Then I took a look at what he’d brought me immediately after sensing this thing might not go his way.  It was a typed of piece paper.  The final line of the page?

My dog is smarter than your dog.

I haven’t worked on that story in a while.  I couldn’t even tell you where the manuscript was if I needed to. I’ not saying (I’m just saying.)  He got the walk, of course.  He earned it.

Another of his literary adventures, here.



(Update: The excerpted piece is collected in What Other People Heard When I Taught Myself to Speak.)