Category Archives: Literary puzzles and arguments

Purity, blankness, innocence, guilt, and knowledge–An attempt at philosophy in “The Blank Slate”

Occasionally, I make an attempt at a philosophical/rhetorical poem, though sad to say, it’s difficult to make it a truly “poetic” poem at the same time, at least for me.  But I hope, at least, that what this poem loses in meter, or rhyme, or word play (though there are a few paradoxes here and there), it gains in comprehensive, overall clarity in covering the subject.  I think the subject of purity is still a riddle for most of us, since we leave the safe confines of total ignorance and innocence from the moment we are born and steadily accumulating impressions and knowledge.  At any rate, here is an attempt to comment on the subject of purity from an adult’s perspective, after the fact:

The Blank Slate

Scholars, people of learning
Have spilled oceans of ink
Have typed, have dictated,
Have processed, have created
Countless words
About the tabula rasa.
Yet none were so innocent
As to simply shrug
Or keep silent.
And none of their words
Were so guilty
As to tell the real truth.
Purity, of a sort,
Is like their ignorance.

Purity’s feet stink
Because an honest person sweats;
Purity cries out
Because an injured person
Grieves aloud;
Purity is like that.
Purity stares at you, uncertain
What you mean
And waiting for you to explain.
Purity is like that.

Purity, like yin or yang
Paradoxically
Has an element of knowledge in it
Some slight awareness of the other
Or else how would you know
What to compare it to?

Purity
Gets tripped up easily
By its opposite,
Maybe knowing there’s something
To avoid,
But not sure of what, how, or why.
It is too unschooled.
Purity is like that.

Purity and existence are at odds most often–
Just as Sartre claimed we all have dirty hands,
And “existence precedes essence,”
So we always have to ask ourselves,
“What price purity?”
If someone is pure, who made them so?
Who kept them in the dark
About starving hordes, and ticks,
And malevolence?
What makes them so special,
That they are allowed to be ignorant
Of what hurts?
Yet, we are still wistful
For the days when we too were somewhat blank,
Even if guilty by birth.

Purity, in sum,
Is something that,
Whether we ever had it or not–
We had in our mind’s most fervent imagination
From the first time we were asked,
“Who did this?”
And we were able genuinely to answer,
“Not I.”
Yes, purity is like that.

©by Victoria L. Bennett, 8/10/18

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Literary puzzles and arguments, Poetry and its forms and meanings, What is literature for?

Yet another poem on the commonplace of “the vanity of human wishes”–“The Department of Crossed Wires”

Perhaps you have heard an English instructor or professor use the expression “commonplace” in referring to an idea or topic for a poem.  This is not a casual usage of the term “commonplace,” such as occurs when we are speaking of the notions used in casual conversation with our friends; instead, it is an actual technical term in English and literary studies, referring to a topic or subject written on traditionally many, many times by different writers and poets, each of whom has his or her own “take” on it.  The particular commonplace known as “the vanity of human wishes” is in fact the subject of a poem by Samuel Johnson by the same title, “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” which in turn was based upon Juvenal’s Tenth Satire.

Not to be too grand, but I’ve come up with a little, less austere and more playful variety of a poem on the commonplace of “the vanity of human wishes.”  It’s called “The Department of Crossed Wires.”  One word of warning about a possible caveat–a beta reader pointed out that in stanza five, the impression is produced that a cow was conceived and brought to birth by a man, a double impossibility.  My response to that is that the main intent was to suggest the ridiculousness of what fate sometimes deals us out, such as having a farmer needing to get rid of his three-legged cow to another farmer.  But I willingly accept the other possible interpretation as well, being as it’s the sort of story which usually turns up in cheap tabloids such as The National Enquirer, wherein stories as fantastic as the one suggested regularly appear.  I still recall a story about a cross between a rabbit and a cat being born, a story that I allowed my bemused glance to fall across while on a train once, picking up someone else’s discarded reading material.  Anyway, here we go:

The Department of Crossed Wires

Somewhere in the universe
There is that special department,
That lone mountain,
That strange star
Of crossed wires.

There reside a little old man
And a little old woman
By his side,
Busy with so many things,
So many, many things,
That they constantly
Cross the wires
Of human wishes and desires.

It’s not their intention
To be difficult,
Rather, they are more offended
And frustrated themselves
By their shortcomings
Than anyone else, they think,
Could be,
For it disturbs their few moments
Of tranquility.

I love you, but you don’t love me,
She wants to go to college,
But her folks want her to work
right away, and show earning potential.
He is married to a woman who doesn’t
value him, while his son still looks up to him
And he fears
That it won’t be long now before
His son weeps for him, and shares his tears.

“Tsk!Tsk!” says the little old man, then,
Relinquishing his model of himself in his mind,
“Damn it all to hell!” he exclaims,
“Why won’t these things come right!”
“Dear, if you have to swear, then do it
On your own time, for we’re behind now,”
The little old woman preaches,
Meanwhile wondering how
To find a farmer who will take
A three-legged cow
Which she couldn’t prevent from being born
To a man in Lucknow.

They have to believe, the little old man and woman,
That even they, somewhere, have an arbiter
Of their destinies,
A Fate for them, the minor Fates,
Something to blame, someone to believe in,
Even a godling to hate.
Or is it all circular?
Does the lowest worm, deep in the ground,
In the circuits of its digestive system,
Determine the why and how
Of what will become of the crossed-up
Little man and woman
And the ruminant from Lucknow?

©by Victoria L. Bennett, 7/28/18

Leave a comment

Filed under commonplace "the vanity of human wishes", Literary puzzles and arguments, Poetry and its forms and meanings

The old-fashioned tendency to use a poem “to point a moral”–“Aggregates”

Sometimes, it’s fun to unearth an old-fashioned poetry book, one which has a lot of good poems, vital and essential and award-winning poems, but which in addition has a number of more average attempts to charm or woo our interests.  And among these more average poems, there are always a number of poems, even by major authors, which “point a moral and adorn a tale,” to quote a phrase.  They are collected as a form of offering comfort in addition to presuming to give guidance, because many people find reassurance in the mere fact that someone else thinks it possible to give guidance at all, with our poets (and poetasters, sometimes) becoming our spiritual parents, teachers, leaders.  So, with appreciation for all those poems I was forced to read in childhood by my teachers, poems which were usually of this ilk, and which reinforced their ideas with rhymes and other poetic devices, I offer this poem of my own, which came along as most poems do, mysteriously to some degree, deliberately to some degree:

Aggregates

Little pebbles gathered up
Make a mighty mountain

Little waters borne together
Gush a fulsome fountain

Little kisses, little hugs
Raise our expectations

Little lies and little slights
Douse our speculations.

Little moments, little days
Bear us slowly deathward

Little glories, little rays
Show our sun at westward.

Little hopes and little fears
Sum up our claim on heaven

Little sins and little graces
Weigh our scales down even.

When we must, we add things up
As well as we are able

So let us live by careful sums
Here ends my counting fable.

©6/21/18 by Victoria Leigh Bennett

2 Comments

Filed under Literary puzzles and arguments, Poetry and its forms and meanings, What is literature for?

“Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel”–Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s “There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself”

As the French playwright and thinker Jean Racine once claimed, “Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel.”  Horace Walpole echoed the sentiment, but put the two clauses in the reverse order.  Whatever the order, the sentiment is one that often applies to the way fiction, not to mention drama, works.  The unique thing about the work of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is that it produces both feelings at the same time in those who read it, not the usual sense of tragicomedy, but a studied blankness of effect and affect both at the end of each of her short stories in this book, which bears the subtitle “Love Stories.”  And this is not a case in which one can blame the translation, which those who know Russian claim is an adept one (by the translator Anna Summers, who has translated others of Petrushevskaya’s works as well).

I say that there is a “studied blankness of effect and affect both” because there is:  the blankness of effect is contained in the continual twist which takes place at the end of each short story, where one is expecting a sense of resolution.  There is in each case a sense of nothing really being resolved, but a sense of reality, of truth to real life and to the way thing actually happen, of the oftentimes inconclusive result even of big events in life.  Just because so many other fictions proceed by well-worn formulas, this lack of final effect produces its own sense of surprise and shock, and often a rueful chuckle at one’s own expectations.  The blankness of affect relates to the marked restraint of feeling in the narrator’s exposition of her characters and their situations:  she doesn’t feel sorry for them in the conventional sense, doesn’t play sad little violin solos on her creative instrument, and doesn’t encourage the reader to feel sorry for them either.

And yet, one does feel for these characters, when all is said and done.  It’s the author’s own sense of balance and discipline in dealing with the sorrowful facts of these character’s lives, with their strange and funny solutions to their predicaments, with their often unmerited suffering and undeserved rewards, which make this book the book it is.  It’s as if the author took a whiny, mournful, disgruntled little series of events, and removed the vital connections of characters’ trajectories up and down in feeling and action, and instead put a laugh here, and a poignant remark there, in places where they weren’t before expected.  And she doesn’t pull her punches, or bestow or waste any sympathy on her characters; such sympathy as they deserve, they may or may not get from the other characters (and in a final way from the reader, at the end of each story), but they don’t get it from the narrative voice, which is calm and full of detail and fact, but which only supplies these and insists that the reader come to his or her own conclusions.  Yet, from this restrained puppeteering, there is tenderness, coming from who can say where?  All one knows when reading is that Petrushevskaya is like a canny and watchful parent, who without apparent doting or pride harshly pushes her progeny forth, in such a way that she cunningly wins that doting for them from the audience, who feels for them that they have such a dragon of a progenitor that they surely deserve to be lauded and made much of by their auditors.

Even the title of this book is one which bestows that strict tone of restraint on events:  the major events of that story, “there once lived a girl who seduced her sister’s husband, and he hanged himself,” are ones which are taken away from the reader who hopes to follow the path of major events.  The title instead insists that there is something else of importance, and it is thus that the reader must enter the story and supply the feeling, the startlement, the connections between event and feeling.  This is a book which rewards curiosity and investigation well, and which gives the reader sated by ordinary fictional motifs and sallies the charge of a lifetime.  I hope you will read it soon, and discover just how original a talent Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is.

2 Comments

Filed under Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments

“Irony, Solipsism, and the Conceptual Slant”–an attempt at a philosophy

Though it’s sort of cheating to cap off a philosophical poem with a rhyme when the rest of it basically hasn’t rhymed, as if that answered the question and said it all (which it doesn’t, really), there’s irony even in the final couplet, for those who prefer their philosophy tough and mean.

Irony, Solipsism, and the Conceptual Slant

At the heart of the matter
Is humanity’s love of the absurd
We laugh together
At what makes us cry alone
In the silence of the night
For the absurdity
Of only feeling real oneself
When confronted
With another soul
Groping, seeking the light,
It is as if we were perpetually
Self-seeking, and needed a reflection
But that the reflection
Could not look like us,
But must look like another
To set us straight.
We are full of doublenesses,
And parleys with the other,
But really we ask ourselves
“Are we touching infinity
When we reach another mind,
Can it be that we make contact
With all that is grand and noble
In humankind
When we seek with what we call
Our inner selves,
Or is it all shadow play,
In front of an audience of one
From behind a white curtain
Put there by some overlord we don’t yet know?”
And as yet, there is no answer.
At the present time, we’ve more or less
Had it with the overlord idea,
So, we guess and think and pause
Still inept to fight off the notion
Of solipsism
Just because someone suggested it
Who had the same right to comment
As we do,
A license to deflect our attempts
To touch minds with him.
So it may be that philosopher
Was only talking to himself, too
But we can at least overhear him,
And can comment in turn
On his ranting speech,
As if he were a penny actor
Whom everyone could afford.
And if after all my thoughts
Are sitting there on the conceptual slant
Where you can lift them from their box,
And your thoughts likewise
I can avail myself of,
Then, don’t we have some consensus,
Though it’s boring not to revert
To our first, fine humane notions
That we spoke mind to mind,
Whispered thought to thought,
Felt heart to heart?
I write a poem,
You write a treatise,
I read aloud,
You mutter your clauses in an undertone,
Both testing them out
To see if they pass muster,
Each having that “ideal reader”
In mind whom so much ink has been spilled about.
Well, my friend, to paraphrase an old, silly catch-phrase,
If you read me and I read you,
No solipsist can part us two.
Two ideals obsessed with ideals we’ll be,
Of tone and temper bold and free.

©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 9/27/17

Leave a comment

Filed under Literary puzzles and arguments, Poetry and its forms and meanings, What is literature for?

An Ironic Look at the Process of Inspiration–“The Formula”

It’s been a little more than a week now since I’ve had the opportunity to put up another poem of my own, and while I understand that one can’t always be inspired to work on specific things or in specific ways, there’s still that sense of frustration that arises when a “dry spell” occurs.  So, I decided to write a poem about that; one gets one’s topics where one can, after all!

The Formula

"Sit and think for a bit,
It'll come to you;
It always has before,
Why should now be any different?"
And yet, now is now
And then was then,
And poetry
Is not made to order.
Unresponsive to logic
Even in its most rhetorical form,
It follows a line and melody
All its own,
Declines to be summoned
Except with most respect;
Stays only to hear
Its own self speak,
Though it insists on
Not being thought
A pompous twit, a prig,
But a voice from a heavenly aether,
Or a cloud.
What a put-up job!
Attributing itself
To a series of unknowables
Or unmeasurables, in the course of things,
Like muses, twilit nights, the moon,
Sorrows, radiant sunshine,
Genius or capacity for self-deception,
Anyway--
Really, what has ever been
More uncompromising than poetry?
More querulous, hard to please,
Stubborn, self-dramatic,
Quick to anger,
Slow to compromise,
And all-in-all
Difficult to compose
And call one's own?
Yet, I suppose
If I wait for just a bit,
Give it a chance to seem humble
As if dropping in on me unawares,
Uninvited and unheralded,
Then I won't have to threaten it
With becoming prosy,
With writing a short story instead.

©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 2/28/17

Who knows if I will be able to continue poetry posts in the near future?  Yet I couldn’t resist sharing this wry expression of frustration at an at least mild case of writer’s block.  Shadowoperator

3 Comments

Filed under Literary puzzles and arguments, Poetry and its forms and meanings, What is literature for?

Working again at the sonnet form–this time, on the genuine article: “A Sonnet After Shakespeare”

Yesterday or the day before, I published a sonnet which was not a real sonnet, in the sense that it did not have a rhyme scheme at all, which sonnets have in one pattern or another.  Tonight, I decided to try my hand at something I hadn’t had practice in for a long time, and do an English sonnet.  Of course, though it’s “after Shakespeare” in the sense of being modelled on Shakespeare’s (while not nearly as perfect), it’s also after Shakespeare in the historic sense, which will have to account for its use of several contractions and a more various examination of money relations (in the extended metaphor using love as the tenor and finances as the vehicle), whereas Shakespeare’s extended metaphors were even “tighter” than this and stuck together better, for want of another way of putting it.  But barring the chutzpah of calling it by the title I’ve given it, I hope you will be able to enjoy it.

 A Sonnet After Shakespeare

You say you love me not, yet I have love
To pay your debt to me of equal sum
Though you'll no debt acknowledge, and you prove
In each account of holdings perforce dumb.

I can't both creditor and debtor be,
To this amount of love sworn to repay
Except by love's froward accountancy
That holds both my heart and my head in sway.

For heart, be owed the gentle passion still,
For head, do calculate the rueful cost.
I must desist, and yet present the bill,
By way of stating what's already lost.

But let my books become two sets in one,
And I'll cheat for you, though I won't have done.

©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 1/12/17

That’s all for tonight.  Sleep well.  Shadowoperator

Leave a comment

Filed under Full of literary ambitions!, Literary puzzles and arguments, Poetry and its forms and meanings