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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


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

“Having a Clear-Out (to Katia Gregor’s eloquence on the same subject)”

Back on October 9, 2016, on Katherine (Katia) Gregor’s site Scribe Doll’s Musings, she dealt ferociously  and fiercely (and eloquently!) with a subject that has always been a weak area for me, the subject of having a good clearing-out.  So I suppose it was no wonder that recently, faced with a clearing-out need of my own, I decided to write about it, and to dedicate the poem I wrote to her previous writing on the topic.  I’m only hoping that once I finish the preliminaries and get through the grubby bits, that I will be able to get the new bag on the old, tired vacuum cleaner for a clean sweep (a challenge at which I do not excel, usually managing to fill the engine with gunk instead of getting the bag on straight).  Here’s my effort, which I dedicate to Katia:

Having a Clear-Out
(To Katia Gregor's eloquence on the same subject)

Throw out the old holey socks.
Hang all the sweaters and tops
In the appropriate part of the closet.
Do likewise
With the pants and skirts.
The paperwork is enormous,
What to shred, what to save,
Better leave it until the end,
The cocktail party confetti of all the chances you missed
While you were busy playing with papers.
Remember to buy more clothes pins;
There aren't enough.
Fold blankets
And put all but one
You're alone here now,
And have only yourself
To keep warm,
At least until better days
Come along.
The cat's box is clean,
She under the bed
In her accustomed place
For the day.
She wonders,
But will get her curiosity prowl
This evening,
When it's time to make
Her usual appearance.
Throw away old tissues
  and wrappers
That have accumulated
Around the bedside table;
Reading in bed is said
To be a bad habit,
But one that's lifelong,
So why stop now?
Just remove the clutter and evidence
And no one who might be here by chance
Will care.
One must of course suppose an audience
For most of this to make sense,
As why's one stray hole in a sock
The more or less
Important just for you?
The books, no doubt, are a labor of love,
But they never get sorted and reshelved
Satisfactorily anyway,
So let them stay where you can find them,
The next time there's no clearing-out
To take up an idle day.
For, somehow,
You thought it'd take longer,
The ordering of a whole life to date;
Is there really that little,
You ask yourself,
Or have I already disposed
Of that much before?
Did I throw out anything
That I might need?
A moment's anxiety,
A moment's thrill
At the unexpected danger;
And now that there's room,
Who knows what next
Will step over the doorsill?

©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 1/22/17

There is a difference, of course, at least one, in Katia’s creative post on clearing out and mine:  hers and mine were occasioned by different things, and went in somewhat different directions.  Still, I wanted to dedicate this poem to her because I thought of her when I was clearing out and also when I was writing this poem.  Katia, you make good things happen!  Shadowoperator


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

A Poem About Pedagogy–“The Rookie”

Though I have only taught college and never high school, I have often thought of the years I spent in contact with junior high (middle school) and high school teachers, and I remember how devoted some of them were to their jobs, and how big the challenges sometimes were.  This poem, though, goes out to all teachers, and I hope as well to their audiences.

The Rookie

"Now folks, I want you to reach down deep inside for this one," 
  says the well-meaning, who only missed professorial degree by two years,
And who now musters her high school forces to face English and American

Her soldiers, however, armed only with adoration in some cases, disrespect
  in others, and indifference for the rest, all laugh alike
When Tucker Boyle lets out a deep belch,
And incants, aloud, to no one and all,
"That was from deep down; honest!"

She allows them their laugh, being enlightened rather than professional
And thereby the despair of her older colleagues.
"You've got to control your students!" they say.
"They have to learn respect; God knows, they don't learn it at home."

She only laughs lightly.  She doesn't want them to be afraid of her, she says.
"But they don't look up to you either!" insists the most senior of her fellows.
She smiles and says nothing.  They little guess how the jibes and jests
  of Tucker Boyle and Co. have frayed her nerves and loosened her sinews,
As she stays in nights to plan her deep campaigns
Instead of going out for her usual run.

Determined that Tucker, of whom her deepest reproach is to call him primly
  "Mr. Boyle," as if meeting him at a church soirée, where he would never be--
Determined that he will read Walt Whitman and cease
To make lewd noises about the other, real soldiers and Walt,
When he understands the biographical details clearly
(That a miracle in itself, given his obtuseness!)--
She recites, she pounds the desk, she shows them passion.

They, for whom the word "passion" means only sex from True Romance
  and Penthouse magazines scarfed from their mothers and fathers.
They eye her doubtfully, uncomprehending:  Can she be going the way
  of the Social Studies teacher a year or two ago,
Who blamed them, and blasphemed their parents' God, and then
  blew her brains out with an old family shotgun thought to be unloaded?
Even Tucker Boyle is silent; though he grins, and touches his finger
  to his forehead:  she won't be here long.

How funny fate is, sometimes!  How apt the measures meted out,
  To those who see them clearly, yet how overdone, how harsh it seems
  to her now--
For Tucker Boyle, tired of poetry,
Joined the Marines, bulked up,
Played his way through a few minor battles,
With honors and all that,
And then came home in a body bag.
And she?  Of all the few who went to his funeral,
She alone wept streaming tears,
Tears that his parents, shy people afraid of their son's proclivities
  to harass,
Feared must be about something betwixt her and him.
But wasn't she one of his teachers?
Didn't she threaten to flunk him, his last semester,
Relenting to a "D+" when the Marines were mentioned?

Later, the tears that she cried were at least partly for herself,
Or even mainly for herself, and not him:
For who can tell who Tucker Boyle might have been
If she could have made Walt Whitman live for him?

©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 1/18/17

Nota bene:  This poem is not meant to deny the feelings of those who feel that it’s an honor to die for one’s country (or as it is put classically, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”–“Sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s homeland.”)  Rather, it is meant as a comment upon the senselessness and waste of war in general, though it may oftentimes be deemed necessary in order for a country to survive with its freedoms intact.  In this connection, Walt Whitman is a key figure in this poem.

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Filed under Full of literary ambitions!, 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

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

The Portrait of a Discontented British Artist in Canada–Damian Tarnopolsky’s “Goya’s Dog”

A gifted novel about a Wyndham Lewis-like painter visiting Canada from his native Britain during WW II, Damian Tarnopolsky’s Goya’s Dog was a nominee for the 2009 Amazon.ca First Novel Award, formerly Books in Canada First Novel Award.  The book transitions from an initial state of what my mother used to call “cross questions and silly answers,” a state in which people are talking at usually unintentionally comic cross-purposes, through a series of vignettes in which the main character, the artist Edward Dacres, gradually realizes that he is a guest artist because he has been mistaken for someone else, to a finally quasi-tragic, quasi-uplifting ending.

From the first moment when I encountered the angry, frustrated, almost savage eye turned on Canadians and Canadian society by the main character Edward Dacres, as he repeatedly tries to make the best of his situation through amusing himself at their expense if nothing else, I was struck with his resemblance to another comic character of the early part of the twentieth century.  Though I cannot claim that Tarnopolsky in fact had P.G. Wodehouse in mind when he wrote Dacres, Dacres reads very like an avatar, sadder, more cynical, more anarchic and down-at-heels, of the Bertie Wooster “man-about-town” comic creation.  I say this with the proviso that I am not considering Edward Dacres’s indifference to the WW II effort as similar by design to P. G. Wodehouse’s own suspected collaboration with the Germans while in a European internment camp (a charge which was later fully investigated by MI5 in 1999 or 2000 and found to be baseless except for Wodehouse’s basic naïveté).  Tarnopolsky’s farcical characters (farcical as seen by the main character, that is) jump into and out of relation with each other with nearly the same alacrity as Wodehouse’s, but with a deeper seriousness lurking beneath their interactions:  for, Bertie Wooster’s pockets are well-lined; Edward Dacres’s are moth-eaten.  It is only their desperation, their comic clutching at weak straws, which for a time makes them alike.  We cannot imagine Tarnopolsky repeating his comic creation from book to book in different characters (as Wodehouse did, like a vaudeville performer with a “sure thing” of an act), or being called “a performing flea” as Wodehouse once was, though certainly unfairly.  This is to say that while the satirical lyricism flows with the same easy pace as did the elder author’s, with his background in the libretti of musicals, the stakes and consequences are those tied to far more serious issues, such as the real issues of cowardice (Bertie Wooster only “funks it” in a humorous way), misanthropy, and the role of art in wartime.  If forced to account for my sense of the elder comic genius lurking, I would have to say that the early sections dealing with women in general or one in particular (the main current romantic interest of the book, Darly Burner) have “comic turns” particularly situated around these relationships which are reminiscent of the earlier writer’s work.  Dacres finds a woman attractive, with the woman playing the role (as in Wodehouse) of “straight man” who also finds him desirable, while Edward Dacres is the desperate eiron who is deceiving her or himself about something to do with his state, his prospects, his intentions, etc.  The difference is that Dacres has a genuine tragedy in his background, the death of his own young wife of their happy mésalliance years before, in a car crash which he caused.  This is the “problem” which I would liken to some neurosis that might emerge in psychoanalysis, like a squid from its sea of ink, only slowly.  Though I have spent a lot of time on this authorial comparison, I don’t mean to overemphasize it, for this masterly and serious novel does not move as quickly as Wodehouse’s do almost from punchline to punchline.  But the manner in which Tarnopolsky deals with the women’s other claimants, such as fathers, suitors, relatives, and social acquaintances, smacks of the older author quite strenuously.

I’ve said this is a serious novel, and part of the source of the sombreness and the sense of tragedy which looms over Goya’s Dog, instituting from the frenetic pace rather a tense agony mimetically on the reader’s part, is the forced wait to find out if the artist will ever be able to make himself paint again.  There is the fact, for Dacres, that he simply cannot repeat the past, recreating one muse with another, and so the bittersweet ending is as much a victory and vindication as it might initially seem a defeat.  There is the sense, at the end, that he will be able to return to work, though when and how exactly is left undecided.  It does seem, however, that he is finally on his own tick, and will not be playing any more fool’s games with fate.

The sources of this novel are in fact far more complicated than I have given my reader to believe, up to this point, but I have emphasized the particular comic influence (which may or may not have been intentional) because it is what I am myself most familiar with.  To quote from Tarnopolsky’s own words in his “Acknowledgments” (the whole of which I call to the reader’s attention), “The painter and writer Wyndham Lewis spent an unhappy wartime exile in Toronto, and his novel Self-Condemned, along with his letters and the comments of his biographers, suggested much of what happens to Dacres in the first half of Goya’s Dog–together with the Polish writer Winold Gombrowicz’s simultaneous, similar experiences in Buenos Aires, recorded in his amazing Diary.  Dacres shares some attitudes with these men and uses some of their expressions, but he is not a portrait of either of them.  I should note that the “suicide” scene comes from Chamfort, and I think it was Fr. Rolfe who was ferried out of his hotel room in bed; Ovid grumbled definitively about the natives in his letters from Pontus.  And so on–“.  Thus, I have named only one possible influence, which moreover is not one named by Tarnopolsky, for the quite excellent and humorous portions of his important novel, and have had to quote from his own words to explain that and the other parts, which makes me perhaps a less adept reviewer, but certainly makes him no less a creative genius on this, his first novel.  There is in fact a great deal more to say, but I leave it to you, his other potential readers, to help bring about the conversation:  this is such a fine novel that to call it a “fine first novel” is already to be reductive of its worth and importance in the related worlds of fiction and painting.  Do give it a read soon:  you will be amused by a character’s dilemmas, confronted by his demons, and finally, in reluctant agreement with what he does to save his own soul.


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