Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Consider Helping Fund the new Homegrown Welcome Table Press anthology?

There's less of a DIY/homegrown culture in the essay than in, say, the contemporary poetry publishing world. I'll reserve my thoughts on that for another post, though I'm open to conversation in the comments. In the meantime, perhaps you might check out and consider helping to fund the new project of Welcome Table Press, whose indieagogo campaign has 6 days left on it. See here, a note from essayist and impresario Kim Dana Kupperman:
As Rebecca McClanahan says, "Make a messay." If you love essays--writing or reading them--or know someone whose inner essayist is begging to emerge, here's an opportunity to contribute to a nonprofit indie press (that's smaller than a grain of sand) that makes essays available for free and at low cost (see Please help keep the welcome table set and consider making a donation to our Indiegogo campaign:
& consider joining their forces.

Stephen Corey: “Essay . . . the Verb”

I find myself beginning today where I left off in 2002 with my introductory remarks for The Georgia Review’s double-issue retrospective look at essays from the journal’s first fifty years (1947-1996): “Please keep in mind that the dictionary—or at least The Georgia Review’s dictionary of record—lists essay only secondarily as a noun. It is first a verb, ‘to test the nature or quality of; try out; attempt.’” Next, I turn to relevant section of the Review’s published guidelines for contributors: “We are seeking informed essays that attempt to place their subjects against a broad perspective. The ideal essay for The Georgia Review is a provocative, thesis-oriented work that can engage both the intelligent general reader and the specialist.”

With no disrespect aimed toward memoir and only a little toward “creative nonfiction” (more on that snipe before I’m done), two currents of prose that have run midstream during the past twenty-five years, I’ll note that neither of them tends to essay (definition one). Still, most people producing such work seem to think, if their cover letters can be believed, that they are writing essays.

Does such hairsplitting matter? Two answers: (1) no; (2) of course.

Why “no”? Because great writing can come from any angle of approach a great writer takes, and nobody has the right to tell a writer what he should write about, or what form or style he should deploy.

Why “of course”? Because civilization has always stood in need—and stands more in need now than ever before—of writing minds able to step away from the gravitational pull of ego to examine the wider world with as much acumen as possible.

Don’t mistake my meaning here. A highly private—even intimate—piece of nonfiction can aspire to and achieve “essay-ness”; indeed, one of the most effective and memorable routes to a strong argumentative position can be through the heart of one or more autobiographical illustrations. For example, Martha G. Wiseman’s “In Rehearsal” (The Georgia Review, Winter 2009) explores the exclusively human, ubiquitous quality of will—recognition/admission of, shaping of, exertion of, failure of, and more. She speaks particularly of artists—actors, dancers, singers, writers—and more particularly of her artist-filled family, which both encouraged and stifled her own artistic urges: her stage-and-film actor father Joseph Wiseman, her operatic mother, her stepmother the professional dancer—and her namesake godmother, the world-renowned choreographer Martha Graham.

Martha Wiseman understands the crucial distinction between essay and autobiography/ memoir, and she knows how to create a successful hybrid by blending the analytical and argumentative with the reminiscent and reportorial.  She knows that a well-told personal anecdote, whether about the present or the past, does not an essay make. Too many writers of nonfiction, especially in recent times, seem not to know this.

More strictly essaying essayists have been a fading breed over the past twenty years, so we at The Georgia Review are more pleased that ever when their works come our way. One of the most reliable essayists we’ve worked with is David Bosworth, whose grand and ongoing critiques of American culture have appeared in our pages more than a half-dozen times. Bosworth is not patently against showing up as a figure in his essays. For instance, “The Cult of the Adolescent: CommercialIndoctrination and the Collapse of Civic Virtue” (Fall 1996) opens with Bosworth’s recollection of his essay’s birth in a graduate class he was teaching: one day he offhandedly said something to his students about being middle-aged, and he was—to his amazement—a bombarded by a range of protestations designed to deny and/or save him from this dastardly fate.         

However, nearly all of Bosworth’s writings are effectively (and blessedly, to my mind) focused on a wide range of other figures as he pursues his understanding of the complexities, strengths, and numerous weaknesses of modern and contemporary America. To make my point, I need only list a few titles from among the Bosworths we have printed over the past twenty-plus years: “Conscientious Thinking: Fundamental Nihilism, and the Problem of Value During the Demise of the Scientific Worldview” (Fall/Winter 2006); “Two Sides of a Tortoise: Melville, Dickens, and the Eclipse of the West’s Moral Imagination” (Winter 2004); “The Most Precious Square of Sense: In Praise of Shakespeare’s Politics” (Fall 2001); “Idiot Savant: Henry Ford as Proto-Postmodern Man” (Spring 2000).

Essays as I am speaking of them here are not better than nonfiction based in strictly or loosely rendered and narratively based personal experience, just different from. That The Georgia Review much prefers essays (but does not categorically close out memoir) speaks to the predilections of its editors, not to any Apollo-given judgment of relative value. Still, said editors would be pleased, and writers well served, if the latter group would understand and heed this preference when deciding what work to show the former.

I will conclude by returning to my paragraph two jab at the term creative nonfiction, which has always struck me—I’ve said as much elsewhere—as an unfortunate misnomer for an interesting concept. Intentionally or not—think of “creative poetry” or “creative fiction”—this designation does not (as it seems to me to claim) just attempt to mark off a space for fact-based writing that borrows some of the devices from fiction’s arsenal. The descriptor creative immediately and unavoidably conjures thoughts of its opposite—“not creative,” “lacking creativity,” “mundane,” and so on, and thus asks, a priori, for superior status. All good writing is creative in the ways appropriate to whatever genre or cross-genre work one might be discussing, and so the coopting of such a central term is . . . well . . . bothersome at the least.  

The Georgia Review does not discriminate against prose manuscripts that come in with cover letters designating them as creative nonfiction; we read the work, and if we find it to be excellent at doing whatever we believe it to be doing, we publish it.

The only so-called proof of whether we have made the right choices, have identified the right excellences, comes from our readers. They are essaying, as are we.


Stephen Corey, editor of The Georgia Review, has been with the journal in various capacities since 1983; he is the longest-serving staff member in the history of the Review, which was founded at the University of Georgia in 1947. Corey has published ten poetry collections, most recently There Is No Finished World (White Pine Press, 2003), and his poems and essays have appeared in dozens of periodicals and anthologies since the mid-1970s.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Eric Walrond

Time for a New Essay -- Eric Walrond's "On Being Black"

Let’s do some retrieval this morning. Let’s talk about an essay I suspect you don’t know – Eric Walrond’s “On Being Black,” which appeared originally in the November 1, 1922 issue of The New Republic. I’ll introduce you a bit to this essay, but because it’s in the public domain you can read it for yourself (I’ll link to it here) so mostly I’ll talk about why you may not have heard about it already.
“On Being Black” is an innovative and important example of a kind of African-American essay that focuses on shocking, awakening and yet seemingly small instances of racial injustice. These Jim Crow moments instructed the author and are meant to instruct readers, especially white readers, about how racism works.  Other, better known examples of this kind of essay are “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” by Walrond’s good friend Zora Neale Hurston, and Richard Wright’s “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow.”
Walrond’s version of this kind of essay is especially efficient. It consists of three numbered scenes, each depicting a racial slight. These anecdotes share the same narrator (identified only as “I” and “Mr. –”) and are all written in present tense. The opening section describes an experience the narrator has as a customer in an optician’s shop; the second focuses on an unsuccessful job interview; the last chronicles a frustrating attempt to buy a ticket for a cruise to Jamaica.  The narrator is wry and educated, a genteel black man who has lived and worked in Latin America.
But why was this essay lost in the first place? One reason it disappeared was because Walrond disappeared. When he wrote “On Being Black,” he was just twenty-three, a recent immigrant to New York from the Caribbean who was working as an editor for Marcus Garvey’s The Negro World, a weekly paper which at the time had a circulation of over 200,000. Garvey, a Jamaican immigrant, advocated Black self-reliance and a return to Africa. Soon after the piece was published, Walrond broke from Garvey, began working for Opportunity magazine, and became a leading member of the younger generation within the Harlem Renaissance. In 1926, he published a widely acclaimed short-story collection, Tropic Death. It would be his only book but would win him a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation to write a history of the Panama Canal, tentatively entitled The Big Ditch. Guggenheim in hand, Walrond left for Europe to write the book, but it never appeared. Countee Cullen visited him in France for a couple of months in 1929, but that seems to have been his last contact with his friends from Harlem. He stayed in Europe, did a little freelance work, and settled into obscurity, dying in London in 1966. 
“On Being Black” was also lost for other reasons, reasons that have to do with how the essay canon is constructed in the first place. Race and nationality undoubtedly contributed to the reason the essay isn’t more widely known. Literary canons are largely national constructs, but Walrond was transnational, a global citizen, and not identified with any one nation or its literature. He was born in British Guyana and raised in Barbados and Panama before moving to the United States and then on to Europe. He wrote everything from short stories to travel pieces, and his multinational, multi-genre career may have kept him from fitting the criteria of nationalist canon formation.
Compounding this is the fact that American essay canon is in many ways narrow to begin with. It is, as Lynn Bloom has pointed out, a teaching canon, built largely of the short, accessible, easily taught essays that fill our first-year writing anthologies. And yet, “On Being Black” is short and accessible, and well known to critics of African- and Carribean-American literature. Since the 1960s, when the student and Civil Rights movements called for a democratization of our culture, the American literary canon has become more inclusive, though the broadening of the essay canon has proceeded more slowly. Gerald Early did include “On Being Black” in his indispensible two-volume anthology, Speech and Power: The African American Essay and Its Cultural Content from Polemics to Pulpit (New York: Ecco, 1989), but the essay remains largely unknown, hence this morning’s intervention.
I believe another reason Walrond’s essay has been overlooked has to do with the fact that is there has not been agreement that Walrond’s narrative piece is even an essay, though again Early called it that, as did Charles Egleston in a history of Boni & Liveright, Walrond’s publisher, that he edited. More often, however, critics and editors have called it a short story, though others have carefully reserved judgment. Cora Agatucci, for instance, referred to it as a “vivid, impressionistic collage.” The pre-eminent Walrond scholar Louis Parascandola has been most explicit about the uncertainty surrounding the piece. Like Agatucci, he has opted for middle-ground terms—calling it a “sketch” and a “series of three vignettes”—but he has also gone on to point out that “On Being Black” represents a period during Walrond’s apprenticeship when he was experimenting “with the permeable boundaries between journalism and fiction.”
That this founding text of the Harlem Renaissance was a product of such experimentation and has come to inhabit what Doug Hesse has called “the boundary zone” between “first-person short stories and narrative essays” raises several questions: Why might Walrond have decided to work at the intersection of these two genres? What exactly is the difference between a narrative essay and a short story? And why have critics and anthologists scooted it one way or the other on the spectrum of genres?
Post-modernism, David Shields’ Reality Hunger, the James Frey episode, John D’Agata and Jim Fingal’s Life Span of a Fact, and the re-branding of the personal essay as “creative” nonfiction might lead us to think that the blurring of genres and the confusing of realms are new phenomena. They are not. When “On Being Black” first appeared in The New Republic, the magazine referred to it a “general article” in its table of contents. Just a few weeks later, William Ferris, who worked with Walrond at The Negro World, challenged that label. In an article subtitled “The Short Story as Propaganda,” Ferris declared:
Mr. Walrond does not contribute an article after the customary manner of dealing with the race question as a sociological, political or racial problem, but he tells three short stories showing the psychic reactions of an intelligent colored man who has been discriminated against.
This angling by Ferris was part of a debate within the New Negro movement about the role that art and literature should play in the world.
In December 1921, Walrond himself had taken the standard Garveyite position on the question. In an article (or is it an essay?) called “Art and Propaganda,” that also appeared in The Negro World, he criticized the renowned African-American poet, lawyer, diplomat, and educator James Weldon Johnson.  Walrond took Johnson to task for, as he put it, saying that the Negro writer “must first purge himself of the feelings and suffering and emotions of an outraged being, and think and write along colorless sectionless lines.” To do such a thing, said Walrond, was impossible. The Negro writer will remain a Negro “for centuries to come,” an “underdog in revolt” whose “music” must be not “half-hearted” and “wishy washy” but “a piercing, yelping cry against his cruel enslavement.” He associated art with an avoidance of racial difference and propaganda with a needed, indeed Garveyite, militance.
That the 23-year old Walrond would gravitate toward Garvey’s militant separatism and take such an audacious position is not all that surprising given the times in which he was living and who he was. As a citizen of the Caribbean, Walrond had grown up in cities and towns that were overwhelmingly black, places where racism and political repression, while hardly extinct, were less rampant and overt than in the United States. In the four years since he had arrived in New York, 365,000 steel workers and 400,000 coal miners had gone out on strike; a black person was lynched somewhere in the United States every six days; riots and attacks by white mobs in 26 communities during the “red summer” of 1919 had left hundreds of Black people dead and another 1,000 wounded; and in a few days at the end of 1919 and beginning of 1920 U. S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and his young assistant J. Edgar Hoover had, with the help of local authorities, raided homes, union halls, and newspaper offices, arresting over 10,000 people, many of them immigrants, that these officials considered subversive.
In May 1922, less than five months after his “Art and Propaganda” piece appeared, Walrond changed his position. In an article in Henry Ford’s The Dearborn Independent, he argued that writers should not “desert…folk-life for propagandism.” He singled out Charles Chestnutt and W. E. B. Du Bois as writers who had done just that. Chestnutt, said Walrond, had a terrific ear for dialect and “the language of the cotton fields,” but he had opted to become “a purpose novelist, a propagandist.” Du Bois, said Walrond, was “one of the most brilliant prose writers in America,” but should “stop writing history and sociology and stick to the art of fiction!” He also criticized “educated Negroes” such as Du Bois for “objecting strenuously to stories that do not depict the ‘Higher Form’ of Negro life.”
Walrond was facing a crisis. He was trying to decide what he should write, what he should write about, and what he thought of Garvey. He was caught between extreme positions, trying to find a new position of his own. He did not agree with the Harvard-educated Du Bois’s genteel, best-foot-forward approach and still respected Garvey’s popularity among working-class Blacks, but he was growing disenchanted with Garvey himself, whose militant separatism and business ventures were proving to be anything but strategic. That spring, The Negro World was banned in Africa, Garvey was arrested for mail fraud, his Black Star shipping line went bankrupt, and then, in June, Garvey met with the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan in Atlanta, separatist to separatist, to explore common ground. Like most of Blacks in America, Walrond was shocked and disillusioned. Garvey had been his employer, publisher, and mentor. Suddenly and figuratively adrift, Walrond decided to actually go to sea. He shipped out on a freighter to the Antilles and South America as a cook’s helper to think about his future. Immediately upon his return, he signed with a prominent New York literary agent and began shopping pieces to a wide range of magazines. He soon published stories, essays, articles, and book reviews in The Saturday Review of Literature, The New York Herald Tribune, H. L. Mencken’s Smart Set, Du Bois’s The Crisis, and even Chandler Owen and A. Phillip Randolph’s The Messenger, which had spearheaded a “Garvey Must Go” campaign.
W. E. B. Du Bois

            But the appearance that November of “On Being Black” in The New Republic was Walrond’s first publication in a white mainstream magazine. It was also a direct answer to Du Bois, who had published an essay with the same title in the same magazine in February 1920 (available here). A comparison of the two is revealing.

Du Bois’s essay was an excerpt from his book, Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil, which came out shortly after and was an attack on the supposedly scientific racism of Lothrop Stoddard. Du Bois’s title was an ironic jab at Stoddard’s recent tirade, The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy.  Here is how Du Bois’s essay opens:
My friend, who is pale and positive, said to me yesterday, as the tired sun was nodding: “You are too sensitive.”
            I admit, I am—sensitive.  I am artificial. I cringe or am bumptious or immobile. I am intellectually dishonest, art-blind, and I lack humor.
            “Why don’t you stop all this?” she retorts triumphantly.
            You will not let us.
            The narrator and his white female friend continue arguing, but while her comments are always in quotation marks, his are not and so we don’t know if what he is saying is said aloud or are thoughts that he wishes he could or had say aloud. The white woman to whom he talks is a kind of surrogate, standing in for the New Republic’s predominant white readers. A difference, however, is that she is from Atlanta and “positive” in both senses of the word—that is, optimistic and sure of herself, intent on talking her Black friend out of his gloomy color-blinded view of the world. The argument continues with the narrator giving evidence of how he is regularly treated by white people. Restaurants refuse to serve him, policemen are “truculent,” he is forced to sit in the smoking balcony at the movie theater. Then, addressing her (or is it us?) and asks (though still not in quotation marks), “Did you ever see a Jim Crow waiting room?” Knowing the answer will be no, he takes us on an extended tour of such a waiting room in all its squalor and humiliation. Then, he turns to himself and discourses on the Souls of White Folks and how Europe is, at least in part, great because it was built on foundations provided by Asia and Africa, foundations laid by colored people such as Mohammed, Rameses, Confucius, Buddha, and even Jesus Christ.
            It is an impressive disquisition, spiraling out from a single parlor conversation into all of human history, but to Walrond, it was also a grandiose. Darkwater, Walrond allowed, was “a beautiful book, but it reveals the soul of a man who is sorry and ashamed he is not white.” Walrond felt Du Bois was too focused on the “Talented Tenth” of the Black population and on proving that they could hold their own in an argument with a white person in the white person’s parlor. So, when he wrote his own “On Being Black” for The New Republic he chose to depict racism in three everyday situations instead of dramatizing a large and sweeping argument. First, his narrator goes to buy some eyeglasses, but at the optician’s shop the salesman assumes he is a chauffeur there to buy driving goggles. Next, he arrives for a job interview, hoping to be hired as a secretary, but it quickly becomes clear that the agency did not realize from his letter of application that he was Black. A female supervisor is summonsed to deal with this problem, this Negro applicant. Before she has said a word, the narrator tells us, “She is from Ohio, I can see that.” This All-American female supervisor who must send him away does it in a kindly but paternalistic way, feigning interest in his resumé before explaining that he is not quite right for this job, but that there is another she knows of that he is “just the man for.”  It is uptown on Lenox Avenue in Harlem.  The woman doesn't know it, but the contact for this second job is one of the narrator's former students and he would be humiliated to apply.
             In the third and final section the narrator tells of the difficulties he encounters when he attempts to buy some tickets on a Caribbean cruise for his wife, who is feeling poorly and needs a vacation.  He thinks “the beauty of Montego Bay” might cheer her spirits and he tries to take advantage of an advertised special, but during the course of a run-around he finds out that this deal is not available to him.  The ship’s Jim Crow rules require him to buy tickets in a shared berth at a higher cost.  His goose chase begins when he calls about the special and is asked, “White or colored?”  He replies, “Colored,” and is told after a delay while the clerk consults with his supervisor that he must come to the office in person, but he will have to get there by five o’clock. He rushes over:
It is three minutes to five.  The clerks, tall, lean, light-haired youths are ready to go home.  As I enter a dozen pairs of eyes are fastened upon me.  Murmuring.  Only a nigger.  Again the wheels of life grind on.  Lots are cast—I am not speaking metaphorically.  The joke is on the Latin.  Down in Panama he is a government clerk.  Over in Caracas, a tinterillo, and in Mexico, a scientifico [sic].  I know the type.  Coming to New York, he shuns the society of Spanish Americans.  On the subway at night he reads the New York Journal instead of La Prensa.  And on wintry evenings, you can always find him around Seventy-second and Broadway. 
The events and at least some of the analysis are reminiscent of Du Bois.  In his essay, Du Bois also had to pay extra for inferior tickets (in his case to the movies). And in his essay, Du Bois dreamt of Montego Bay, a getaway to natural beauty in a Black majority country, and he too included the racial epithet “nigger” by way of free indirect discourse.
But there are differences as well. By merely dramatizing the situation instead of pitting his narrator against the clerk in open argument, Walrond is able to show, more effectively I think, how racism dehumanizes everyone – first the optician’s clerk who is oblivious, then the kind but paternalistic lady from the Midwest, and now the Latin clerk, whose impossible desire for assimilation has him haunting the old Italian neighborhood around Verdi Square, hoping to pass for Italian and rub shoulders with the up-and-comers who are gentrifying that neighborhood. The Latin clerk has abandoned his heritage and better job opportunities at home for the American Dream, only to end up in a dead end job and charged with the task of waiting on (and putting off) black customers.

            Maybe an essay like Walrond’s is old-fashioned. Maybe the election of a Black president has ushered in a post-racial society where all such slights are a thing of the past. Maybe our essay canon is complete. Maybe there is no need to add work by authors such as Walrond and Du Bois to that canon. But I don't think so.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

JOSE MARTI, Warrior of Words

JOSÉ MARTÍ, WARRIOR OF WORDS                                                                              Magda Montiel Davis

 Step into a Cuban classroom of this century, of two centuries past, and a child stands, her back to the blackboard, reciting the works of José Martí, 19th-century revolutionary hero and literary icon of my island homeland.
Martí’s passion for the written word sprung hand-in-hand with his quest for Cuba’s freedom from Spanish colonial rule. At the age of fifteen, on the day after a massacre of unarmed protesters at a Havana theatre, he published a play in a newspaper he had founded about an adolescent boy in a fictional country who dies defending the homeland from foreign attack. This, and a letter he sent to a classmate chastising him for joining the Spanish volunteer militia, prompted his arrest for treason. At sixteen, he was sentenced by a Spanish military tribunal to six years of hard labor. Waist and leg shackles that he was made to wear during the length of his incarceration left life-long stigmata where the iron dug into his flesh.
Wounded and sick, he was deported—repatriated, the Spanish called it—to Spain to renew his loyalty to the mother country. He enrolled in law school pursuant to dispensation by the Spanish authorities. But there, he made more revolution, engaging the press, finding other Cuban deportees with whom to join forces and publishing several essays, some reprinted in New York’s La República, some about the threat of U.S. expansionism into Cuba. The ones against colonialism, he sent to the Spanish Prime Minister. Evading national surveillance, he left for Paris, where he met and translated Mes Fils for Victor Hugo. Still under order of deportation, and risking return to prison, he sneaked into Cuba using his middle and maternal surname, Julián Pérez. He traveled to Mexico and Guatemala to raise support for Cuban independence but then  returned to Cuba. It was during this second stay that he was once again deported to Spain. He fled across the Pyrenees, destination: New York. It was in the Catskill Mountains, where U.S. doctors sent him to recuperate from what may have been tuberculosis, that he wrote Versos sencillos.
Although taking the conventional form of poetry, Martí’s highly acclaimed work is a mosaic of essays. Using the first-person narrative, he moves from the particular—the autobiographical—that he is, after all, part of a larger group, that is to say, humanity. The son of a Spanish soldier who had immigrated to Cuba, he eulogizes his father in Verse XLI:  Upon receipt of the news of the honor bestowed upon me, I thought not of Rosa nor of Blanca, but of the gunman, my father; the soldier, my father—the worker, silent in his deserted tomb.
He writes where indignation propels him; a ship tosses from its doors black men by the hundreds; slaves naked, bound in chains, hanged from a tree; a little boy trembling at the sight, crying at their feet, and swearing retribution. (XXX).
With affective connection to memory, he gets past places he otherwise couldn’t go. Of his future wife, he writes in XVIII, XX, XXXV, XXXVII, but read about “la niña de Guatemala,” and you see a man torn, a man anguished, a man who left the woman he loved to fulfill his promise to marry his future wife. (IX).
Los versos sencillos was published by Louis Weiss & Co of New York in 1891. Because Martí wrote and published most of his books in the U.S., it could be argued that he is part of the U.S. literary tradition, although you’d be hard-pressed to find his works in most U.S. bookstores or libraries. The same year that Los versos sencillos was published, he determined that the right conditions existed to bring “necessary war,” to secure independence and also to halt U.S. expansionism into Cuba. He united the exile community in Key West, founded the Cuban Revolutionary Party, and drafted its mission: “…the establishment of a republic where every citizen, Cuban or Spaniard, white or black, American or European, may enjoy in work and peace the full rights of man.”
 A poet, essayist, journalist, philosopher, professor, publisher, revolutionary. And now, he would be a soldier. He sailed for the Dominican Republic to join General Máximo Gómez, a black Dominican who had led the struggle of the Ten Years’ War and was now Commander-in-chief of Cuba’s Independence War. Against Máximo Gómez’s advice— Martí was a man of letters, not a man of war—he prepared for warfare. Cultivo una rosa blanca, Martí had written, the first verse most Cuban children are taught in school and one of the most anthologized in Latin America. I cultivate a white rose/ in July as in January/ for the friend who extends a sincere hand. And to the cruel who rips the heart from which I live/ for him too I cultivate a white rose. (XXXIX).
He arrived on the island by rowboat with Gómez and five others. For one of the first planned attacks, Martí donned a black cape and mounted an all-white horse—sure to be seen by the Spanish. Gómez ordered his men to retreat; the Spanish had a vantage point between the palm trees. But Martí rode removed, and alone. He was killed as he prophesied in XXIII: I want to leave the world/through its natural door/in a cart of green leaves. Do not put me in the dark/to die like a traitor. I will die/ with my face to the sun. A wordsmith, a warrior of ideas, he was. But a gunman, like his father, he was not.
Step into a Cuban classroom and a child stands, her back to the blackboard, reciting Jose Martí: I cultivate a white rose/ in July as in January.
My poetry will grow and I too will grow under the grass.

Writing and Work: The Lowell Offering as example

Before I got into graduate school, I worked at a glass factory. Pint glasses, beer mugs, wine goblets, coffee cups—we made everything.  It was tough work that kept you moving. And at the end of the day, your body ached so that when you got home, you craved simple comforts: a hoppy beer, a plate of cheese fries, a hot bath.
I did not like this job.  Two things (other than the money) kept me coming back. 1. It was temporary. 2. It required little brain space. The work was not mindless, no, I don’t mean that.  What I mean is that once you got into a rhythm, a groove, it became rote: you could execute the tasks with minimal thought. This meant you could think. About writing, about stories, imagined or real. And at lunch you could read: that stack of neglected New Yorkers, whatever short story collection you’d plucked from the library. Reading and thinking (and not the academic, scholarly kind thinking, but the fantastic, imaginary sort of thinking) were luxuries I valued immensely.
At the factory I worked in Northern Kansas, not many people read. Not just at work, in the break room, as I did, but at all. The stack of books I hauled around was an anomaly. So when people saw me reading my tattered paperback of “Cannery Row” at lunchtime, they commented.
“Why are you reading? School project?”
This is not to say that the people I worked with were illiterate. No, they were not that. They were smart. They were smart but when they thought of reading they thought of school work, of paper work, of something they didn’t have to do anymore.  This is not surprising. A fourth of the country fails to read a book a year. And most Americans read on average four books a year. And so it goes.
Sometimes it’s hard to imagine another America. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, an America where factory workers read voraciously. It’s hard to imagine an America where factory workers organize improvement circles and literary societies where women talk about poetry and write essays on weather, friendship, life and work. I’m talking about the Industrial Revolution. In particular, I’m talking about Lowell Massachusetts: The City of Spindles.
In 1840, American factory life produced an odd thing: the Lowell Offering, a quasi literary magazine that published poetry and prose written by workers, all of them women. According to its own tagline, the Lowell Offering was “a repository of original articles written by females employed in the mills.”
The women writers—the stitchers, doffers, spinners, spoolers and weavers ages 10 to 35—did not imagine themselves as great writers, or even, sometimes, competent ones. But they wrote nonetheless, sometimes peppering their prose with defense statements, such as the one Betsey Chamberlain gives us in her article “A Letter About Old Maids:” 
I shall care little what opinions are entertained or expressed in relation to the style of the composition, if the moral be remembered and regarded.”  But careful perusal of the publication shows us that the style of the composition was thoughtfully rendered: precise word choice, skillful cadence.  In an essay on the evolution of the Offering, one of its writers, Harriet Farley, speaks of her own admiration of the journal—“They appeared to us as good as anybody’s writings. They sounded as if written by people who had never worked at all,” she writes. And what strikes me about the sentence is the mere assumption, perhaps a national lingering one, that workers and writers are two different things. That those who write only do so because their hands are free to pick up the pen.
Every writer dreams of getting away, of finally having time. Time to write, to think, to read, to dream, to rewrite. But this assumption that you have to step out of life in order to write well is a fallacious one.  It ignores the fact that it’s out of life that art emerges.
One must isolate to produce art, yes, but this isolation mustn’t be prolonged. I think of Kafka, who kept a job throughout his literary career. At times the job diminished the frequency of his literary productions, but I can’t help but think it also fueled and shaped them in meaningful ways. Examples abound: Borges was a librarian; Joseph Heller, wrote promotional copy for an ad agency, penning the first chapter of “Catch 22” during downtime at work; William Carlos Williams worked as a doctor and his best short story (essay), “The Use of Force” is about his job.
I do not mean to glorify work or glamorize life at Lowell.  Factory standards were not ideal, I know: Women worked 12 hour days, more than 70 hours a week with meager living conditions. And even the “Lowell Offering” was not a purely harmless product; factory owners recognized its potential as a PR tool, inspiring such articles as “The Pleasures of Factory Life.” But it’s an interesting artifact nonetheless. It’s notable for the portrait it paints of America during the Industrial Revolution, and for the window it gives us into the blossoming of feminist thought. But it also provides a valuable glimpse into the lives of a group of workers who found the time to write.
I think some of our best writing emerges from a place of yearning. And sometimes that yearning is a product of wishing you were somewhere else. I think of “A Merrimack Reverie,” a short burst of an essay that printed in volume two of the Lowell Offering. In “Reverie” the narrator falls asleep at work and dreams of turning into a mermaid—“I began to sail up the stream,” she writes. The journey takes her into Lake Winnipisseogo, where she admires the beauty of the water and the shores and the bay and harbors. After time, she knows she must return to work, to the City of Spindles. She begins to “leisurely retrace (her) course.” We get the sense that the narrator doesn’t want to return.
Knowing she must, the narrator thrusts all of her energy into a meditation on the ocean: “…We see the whole human race embarked on the restless stream of time, driving with rapid current towards the vast ocean of eternity—now tossed by the billows of passion and folly which threaten every moment to dash them against the rocks of contention and strife, or to swallow them in the whirlpool of vice and dissipation.”   

The excitement of the essay tamps down once the narrator realizes she’s at work. The prose loses steam. Everything becomes peaceful. The narrator had imagined the entire reverie while at work, her location has not changed, but her imagination is no longer aloft.  Her head fills with the sounds of the factory, which she tells herself are pleasant noises—“the machinery in our room rattling away merrily as ever.”  But the reader knows to distrust this: it was the machinery and its “merrily” rattling that had sent her into fantasy, into thought, about writing, about stories, imagined and real. 

Chansi Long is a former journalist who spent a stint working at a glass factory. She's an MFA candidate studying at the University of Iowa. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Dinty W. Moore: #Brevity

Hello Essay Daily!  My name is Dinty W. Moore and I started Brevity, the journal of concise literary nonfiction in 1997, on pure whim, with just five contributors and – counting myself – as many as six readers.

Sixteen years a later, we average 10,000 visitors a month, or roughly 40,000 pairs of eyeballs for each issue, and given that we are online, geography is no limit: we’ve accepted submissions from India, Egypt, Ireland, Spain, Malaysia, and Japan, and our readership is similarly international.

Still, though, I wake up certain days and wonder, why am I doing all of this?  Thanks to a few dedicated volunteers, Brevity is no longer a one-man show, but we still have a very tiny budget.  For reasons outlined here, we adopted a small reading fee a few years back, and thankfully that means we now pay our writers.  I wish we could pay our editors as well, but life is tough out here in the literary magazine world.

What are we looking for? I’ve adjusted my standard answer a few times over the years, as brilliant writers show me how much can be done in 750 words or fewer, but here is what hasn’t changed – we are looking for absolutely crisp prose and tight sentences, and a strong sense of voice.  I want to feel the author’s presence, know the author’s quirks and idiosyncrasies, as well as her experience or memory.

One of my recent favorites – it is hard to pick favorites, of course, since nothing gets published unless we love it – is Jill Talbot’s “Stranded.”  Notice how much is at play in the very first sentence: “This night like a photograph neither one of us can make out when I call you fifteen years later to ask if you remember the gun, the men, the comet.”  Notice how mood is set through crisp description: “You are standing behind me, a gun in your hand. We’re both wearing our long-sleeved flannel shirts, khaki shorts, flip-flops. The truck that pulled up behind us is dark, quiet, and we can’t see the men who got out of it. The back right tire of my car is flat.”  Notice how it seems to be about one thing – the men in the truck – but is actually about another: “(I read a) postcard. Neat handwriting fills the rectangle: ‘Half my days I cannot bear not to touch you. The rest of the time I feel it doesn’t matter if I ever see you again.’ ... And then I stopped, the lines too close to the things we were doing back in Lubbock. You with that one man. Me with that other. The two of us taking turns driving out of the state to change our state of mind.”  And all of this embedded in a phone call, fifteen years after the fact. A tale of survival.

Sejal Shah’s “Thank You is markedly different, but similarly urgent.  You will never know me,” it begins, “will never know your father once professed ... to love me, will not know the first time we made love you were in your bedroom next door sleeping, and we paused to listen when we heard you ... call out in sleep.” All of the pain of a broken love affair is revealed through direct address to a child the author never met, and through intimate details such as these: “Your father showed me pictures of you in pale pink leotard and translucent white skirt, a series capturing your curly hair and sparkly eyes, and assured me you’d love me. But you will never meet me now, and I will never meet you, though I heard months of stories about you and gave you two books, both of which I heard you loved.”

But the truth is, what gets me most excited in the submission queue is an essay that does not resemble other Brevity essays, something new in both form and content.  That’s hard to do, I know, but thank goodness there are so many writers who are willing to keep on trying.


Dinty W. Moore is author of numerous books, including The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life, Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction, and the memoir Between Panic & Desire, winner of the Grub Street Nonfiction Book Prize. He recently edited THE ROSE METAL PRESS FIELD GUIDE TO WRITING FLASH NONFICTION: Advice and Essential Exercises from Respected Writers, Editors, and Teachers.

Antonio Pigafetta's First Voyage Around the World: A Travelogue

On September 8, 1522, the crew of the Victoria cast anchor in the waters off of Seville, Spain, having just completed the first circumnavigation of the world. On board was Antonio Pigafetta, a young Italian nobleman who had joined the expedition three years before, and served as an assistant to Ferdinand Magellan en route to the Molucca Islands. Magellan was dead. The rest of the fleet was gone: the Santiago shipwrecked, the San Antonio overtaken, the Concepcion burned and the Trinidad abandoned. Of the 237 sailors who departed from Seville, eighteen returned on the Victoria. Pigafetta had managed to survive, along with his journal—notes that detailed the discovery of the western route to the Moluccas. And along the way, new land, new peoples: on the far side of the Pacific, the fleet had stumbled across the Marianas archipelago, and some three hundred leagues further west, the Philippines.

Pigafetta’s journal became the basis for his 1525 travelogue, The First Voyage Around the World. According to scholar Theodore Cachey Jr., the travelogue represented “the literary epitome of its genre” and achieved an international reputation (Cachey, xii-xiii). One of Pigafetta’s patrons, Francesco Chiericati, called the journal “a divine thing” (xl), and Shakespeare himself seems to have been inspired by work: Setebos, a deity invoked in Pigafetta’s text by men of Patagonia, makes an appearance in The Tempest (x-xi).

First Voyage, Cachey points out, is intent on marveling at what it encounters—and therein lies much of its appeal. It is a work that is intent on wonder. On astonishment. In travel writing, one often must recreate the first moment of newness, that fresh sense of awe, on the page for the reader; Pigafetta does it again and again, by reveling in odd and odder bits of detail. We watch Pigafetta wonder at trees in Borneo whose leaves appear to walk around once shed, leaves that "have no blood, but if one touches them they run away. I kept one of them for nine days in a box. When I opened the box, that leaf went round and round it. I believe those leaves live on nothing but air.” (Pigafetta, 76). We marvel, in the Philippines, at sea snails capable of felling whales, by feeding on their hearts once ingested (48). On a stop in Brazil, we see an infinite number of parrots, monkeys that look like lions, and "swine that have their navels on their backs, and large birds with beaks like spoons and no tongues" (10).

And yet, the very newness that can give travel writing so much of its power creates problems of its own. For the travel writer there is, on the one hand, the authority of his or her observational eye, and on the other, the call for humility in confronting the unknown. Pigafetta, encountering a new people, tries to earn his authority through a barrage of detail. He attempts to reconstruct their world for us--what they look like, where they live, what they eat, what they say--he gives us pages and pages of words, from Patagonia, from Cebu, from Tidore. But there is little humility, and one can hardly expect there to be so, not early in sixteenth century, a few decades after the Pope had divided the unchartered world between Spain and Portugal,and certainly not on this expedition, where Magellan and his partners have been promised, in a contract agreement with the Spanish monarchy, the titles of Lieutenants and Governors over the lands they discover, for themselves and their heirs, in perpetuity. And cash sums. And 1/20th of the profits from those lands.

In First Voyage is great gulf between what Pigafetta sees and what Pigafetta knows. I grew up, in the Marianas, hearing about this gulf. It is part of why travel writing can be so fraught for me now. On reaching the Marianas after nearly four months at sea with no new provisions,"The captain-general wished to stop at the large island and get some fresh food, but he was unable to do so because the inhabitants of that island entered the ships and stole whatever they could lay their hands on, in such a manner that we could not defend ourselves." (27). The sailors did not understand that this was custom, that for the islanders, property was communal and visitors were expected to share what they had.

So in that first moment of contact, Magellan and his starving crew retaliated. They went ashore and burned, by Pigafetta's account, forty to fifty houses. They killed seven men. Mutual astonishment at the new and the wondrous took a dark turn:

“When we wounded any of those people with our crossbow shafts, which passed completely through their loins from one side to the other, they, looking at it, pulled on the shaft now on this and now on that side, and then drew it out, with great astonishment, and so died; others who were wounded in the breast did the same, which moved us to great compassion. [...] We saw some women in their boats who were crying out and tearing their hair, for love, I believe, of their dead.”(27)

Magellan named the archipelago Islas de los Ladrones, the Islands of Thieves. The name would stick for the next three hundred years, long after the islands were absorbed into the Spanish empire. The name, the bold, condemnatory stroke of it, has long been anchored to my past, to those old history lessons. There is no feeling in it but rage. So I was surprised to see, in Pigafetta's text, the sailors moved to compassion. They seem to understand, in that moment of astonishment, that the islanders are defenseless against the unknown.

From the Marianas, the fleet moved on to the Philippines. They linger there, exploring the land, exchanging gifts with the chiefs, observing the people. And I know what's coming for the people; I know that we're seeing, through Pigafetta, the hush of a world just before it changes, wholly and entirely. And there is Pigafetta, marveling, at the coconuts and the bananas and the naked, beautiful people. It's happening even now in the text, as the Filipino pilots are captured to direct the way to the Moluccas, the way to the spices. There is Pigafetta, roaming and cataloging and recording, caught up in the first flush of a new world, and as I read I can start to hear my father describing his country, wondering at it, my father traveling as a young man up and down Luzon, across the sea to the Visayas, across the sea to Mindanao. I can hear the ardor and the sadness and the terror and the delight. I can hear the wonder. I can feel the pulse to move.

I suppose this is what great travel writing gives us: a way to wholly enter a moment, a feeling, a body. A way to be changed. I can be my father, marveling at his country, our country, transformed by its vast expanse. I can be Pigafetta, on the deck of the Trinidad, moved to write from shock and wonder. And I can be the woman on a boat in the Marianas, crying out of love for the dead.


Pigafetta, Antonio. The First Voyage Around the World, 1519-1522: An Account of Magellan’s Expedition. Ed. Theodore J. Cachey, Jr. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007.

History of Micronesia: A Collection of Source Documents. Ed. Rodrigue Levesque. vol. 1: European Discovery, 1521-1560. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1994.

Rogers, Robert. Destiny’s Landfall: A History of Guam. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1995.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Jose Rizal and the Essay as Letter to Home

In the wake of typhoon Haiyan’s destruction in the Philippines, I am finding it more and more difficult to think of home. When one is faced with pictures of whole communities flattened by wind and waves, dead bodies left for dead on the streets, the ravages of the living, one wonders whether one considers oneself lucky or unlucky to be away from one’s country. One is left, for the most part, watching news footage, following friend and family’s status messages on facebook as they desperately wait for news from loved ones, wondering whether everyone is safe. One is left with no choice but to watch and wait.

In the past few months, every time I would start missing home, I would ready a copy of Reminiscences and Travels of Jose Rizal. Jose Rizal (1861-1896) is considered the national hero of the Philippines and was a writer and a revolutionary. He is most well known as the author of novels that shaped the Philippines revolution: Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, and for which he would be executed. His novels are standard reading when I was in high school, but he was also a writer of essays: journalistic articles, scholarly papers, diary entries, letters. The letters I have been reading are from a  collection of Rizal’s diaries and letters called Reminiscences and Travels of Jose Rizal published in 1961. Translated from the original Spanish into English, the lette are from his travels around Europe and the US between 1882 and 1892. I had never read these letters before and I have found a serendipitous affinity with the Rizal that I find in these letters.

Letters have always seemed to me to be proto-essays, displaying many of the qualities to be found and loved in the personal essay form: digression, the mix of formality and informality, a simultaneous focus and  waywardness. When Rizal, for example, combines messages of well-wishing for his parents, descriptions of streets in Barcelona, and complaints of his trip, they read like a mix of memoir, travelogue and social critique. By virtue of being private documents, they bear the intimacy of eavesdropping on secrets being told. But their public nature also document the interaction between peoples and cultures. They reveal the tenor of the times. Jose Rizal, for example, in one letter assures his cousin that he has tried his best to get him a job promotion but pleads patience, patience. Colonial bureaucracy  merges with family gossip and reading the published letters more than a century from when they were written one can’t help but relish in the transgression of boundaries of time and space: a transgression I’ve always associated with reading personal essays.

Rizal’s letters, however, are also important because they present a counterpoint to the tradition of travel writing. The latter half of the nineteenth century saw a number of Filipino mestizos, ilustrados, traveling to Spain to study. This led to many correspondences between homesick Filipinos and their parents. These letters have been of interest because they document the birth of the idea of nationhood to these Filipinos who would later be involved in the revolution. But they also document the intimate encounter of Filipinos with a foreign country. When travel essays are dominated by accounts of Western travel to the East, the letters of Rizal and compatriots reveal a return of this gaze. Their accounts reveal an expected appropriation of the genre and an inherently radical revision of it. What did the West look like in the eyes of my brown brother Jose?

Mostly praise and awe. He is a fan of eating dates. In a Barcelona zoo he exlciams. “they were some [monkeys] that resembled human beings, extending their hands to you as if asking about your health.” In Paris: “the Hotel Dieu has magnificent verandas!” and “Here there are water closets on the streets where for 15 centimes one can use them and they even provide on with soap. There is excessive cleanliness!”

Rizal interestingly dons the lens of European anthropology and turns back this Western gaze on its own inhabitants. “The Basque type is tall, masculine, ordinarily the face shaven, long rather than oval; small eyes, aquiline nose, and the general aspect reflects honesty, ruggedness, and frank affability.” (Paris, June 21 1883) To his eyes, they are exotic as he probably appears to the people around him.

Rizal’s observations, of course, are not all complimentary. He hates Madrid. “The streets were filled with dirty and thick mud, the ground was slippery and between the holes in the old and worn-out pavement were pools of water and little marches. Afterwards, a cold that penetrates through the marrow of the bones and nothing more can be asked. How ugly was Madrid!” In Paris, he whines about not having enough to go sightseeing. Many years later, on a trip to the United States, he, to no surprise, complains: “Ill not advise anyone to make this trip to America, for here they are crazy about quarantine, they have severe customs inspection, imposing on any thing duties upon duties that are enormous, enormous.” This may very well have been said in 2013!

Another common complaint of Rizal is the invisibility of the Filipino traveller. He is often mistaken for a Japanese. He complains how a display of Filipino dresses in a show is mistaken for being Russian or Canadian. In Barcelona, he relates: “ I strolled through those wide and clean streets, paved like those in Manila and full of people, attracting the attention of everybody who called me Chinese, Japanese, American, etc, but no one called me Filipino!” He is both hypervisible and invisible: a specter, an amalgamation of multiple visions and identities. He is unnamable.

My favorite letter of Rizal’s is the first one that’s published in the collection. It is written in June 7, 1882 when he is traveling from Aden in Yemen through the Suez Canal. Not only is this moment rife with symbolic significance (a Filipino entering past the gateway into the west), but it is a letter that is characteristic of many of the letters that follow and that displays Rizal’s unique perspective regarding both Europe and the Philippines. In describing the Suez Canal, Rizal falls back on the memory of the mother country: “Two beautiful tunnels one of which is as long as the distance from Capitana Danday’s house until that of my brother-in-law Mariano”. This is a letter addressed to his parents, and is predicated on the fact that any letter to home is really a testament to two landscapes – the one that has just been discovered and the one that’s been left behind, which he must imagine surrounds his mother and his father as they read his letter. His letters trace as much the cartography of the foreign, the West, as the familiar, the Philippine landscape. What is discovered (re-discovered?) is what he has known all along.

In the end, I find it interesting that it is this view of the nation from afar that will eventually shape Rizal’s perspective and then the rest of the country. It is a vision shaped by distance and dislocation, as if an archipelago of 7,107 islands could only be conceived as unified only if seen from the vantage of first looking away and then looking back. Or do I only think this because Rizal the traveler mirrors my own predicament right now. I think of Rizal’s statues that stand in public schools all over the Philippines dressed in winter coat that he would never wear under the tropical sun. He shivers from a cold we are taught to imagine. He is in many ways a kind of mirage: a vision from somewhere else, an overlapping of two places, not too different from what he describes in his letters from the Suez Canal: “Here I have tasted cherries, apricots and green almonds. We have seen the curious spectacle of a mirage which is the reflection on the desert of seas and islands that do not exist at all.”  It is the mirage that is home.

When typhoon Haiyan cut down major communication lines and isolated whole cities from the rest of the world, many scrambled to find out whether their loved ones were still alive. Many had to wait five grueling days, a week, before they found out. Some are still waiting.

A journalist who had been covering the typhoon in Leyte collected messages written on paper from the survivors. Most of these letters bore the barest of messages: “Alive.” “Ok”. Some just bore names: the shortest way to signify survival. Isn’t that what every letter, every essay says anyway? “We are, in writing this, alive.”

Lawrence Ypil is from the Philippines and is the author of The Highest Hiding Place: Poems (2009) He is an MFA Candidate in the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa.

Something Understood: On George Herbert's "Prayer"

Flannery O'Connor's Prayer Journal, new out from FSG, is a gorgeous little volume – the book includes facsimiled pages in O'Connor's longhand – made all the more remarkable for the vulnerability and breadth of spiritual expression in the prayers.

Composed while O'Connor was a student at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, the journal entries are aggrieved, contrite, confused, prolix, playful, sincere, self-obsessed, self-obliterating, nit-picky, breezy, complex, severe. "[O'Connor's] mind is examined, faith questioned, weakness confessed, powers tried as they might not have been under the eye of any human observer," wrote Marilynne Robinson in a recent review.

Indeed, for those of us who might relate prayerfulness to quiet meditation, mindless incantation, or the pat recital of traditional forms, O'Connor's philosophically discursive, emotionally bracing brand of hand-scripted devotion, even if a fount of consolation, can hit as something of a shock.

But the young writer's prayers would not have surprised the 17th century British poet George Herbert. Herbert's "Prayer," a sonnet included in the posthumous collection The Temple, remains one of the great essays on the spiritual discipline in English. The poem makes for an interesting abstract to O'Connor's journal. I might have printed it on the first page.

I call Herbert's poem an essay cautiously but not without intention. To my mind "Prayer," much like Herbert's entire poetic enterprise, has that sense of mental peregrination – that feel of a deliberate thrust in a general direction, that overture at discovery – that we associate with the essayistic mode.

"Prayer," in particular, seems far less concerned with lyrical derring-do (of which it has plenty) or thematic prognostication (Herbert, after all, was a preacher for the last three years of his life) than with the experience of mapping the trajectory of an idea.

In other words, the surrender to content, more than the wielding of craft, is what gives weight, and a certain clairvoyance, to Herbert's verse. "These poems," said T.S. Eliot of The Temple, "form a record of spiritual struggle which should touch the feeling and enlarge the understanding of those readers also who hold no religious belief and find themselves unmoved by religious emotion."

The Scottish novelist George MacDonald: "It will be found impossible to separate the music of [Herbert's] words from the music of the thought which takes shape in their sound."

Spiritual struggle is everywhere present in "Prayer," as is the "music of [Herbert's] thought." At first we think he may be angling toward a conventional definition. The sonnet begins: 

Prayer the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage

Prayer, at least in this opening salvo, is ancient and angelic, akin to a victory feast, a life-giving exercise that engages the lungs, the heart, the soul. But the glorious appraisal is quickly complicated. The descriptive catalogue continues with a snarl:

Engine against th' Almightie, sinners towre,
            Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear

The banquet, once so satisfying, has become a griping session. The pilgrim has grown homesick and sore. No sooner does he bless than he questions and tests, raging against the numinous with murder in his heart. And this, too, for better, for worse, according to Herbert, and in accord with lived experience, is part of the heavenly tête-à-tête. Prayer occasions praise; prayer occasions repentance. The failure to concede as much makes prayer into a kind of prayerlessness.

The turns in the poem, of which the above is only the most dramatic, have the effect of shifting our perception of Herbert's aims. We feel the poet reaching to find expression for something deeper and more inchoate, not for a definition per se but rather towards an essence. Seamus Heaney, in his Oxford lecture on Herbert, called the poet's method an "impulsive straining towards felicity."

The phrases accumulate, the contradictions accrete, the scope widens ("the milkie way") and contracts ("man well drest") until we arrive at what Eliot called one of the most "magical" couplets in English literature, a pair of lines that W.H. Auden said foreshadowed the syntactical experiments of later poets such as Mallarmé and which Auden himself seemed to have channelled for his description of poetry ("it survives, / a way of happening, a mouth") in the second stanza of his elegy for Yeats. "Church-bels," writes Herbert:

               beyond the starres heard, the souls bloud,
The land of spices; something understood.

What began with the vaunted language of feasts and seraphs has come round, has been been boiled down to the prosaic and yet infinitely more mysterious "something understood." In two lines we have moved from deafening music to deafening silence, from the outskirts of the universe to the marrow of the spirit, from awe to some sort of comprehension, from the shake of the head to the nod of the head.

The coda does not elide the preceding phrases. No, in "something understood" we hear the alliterative echoes of "souls bloud," even "Churchs banquet." We get the feeling that we would never have reached these quiet waters without weathering the preceding rapids. The tension in the lines, the meandering nature of the composition, the mix of highbrow and lowbrow diction, the sense of change and arrival  here the poem seems to engage the very exercise it essays. With prayer, as with writing, Herbert suggests, the experience, the wily half-discipline of it all, often supplies its own solution.

"Prayer," Flannery O'Connor wrote in her journal, "should be composed I understand of adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, and supplication and I would like to see what I can do with each without an exegesis.”

She wrote: "I want to be a fine writer. Any success will tend to swell my head—unconsciously even.”

And: “My attention is always very fugitive. This way I have it every instant. I can feel a warmth of love heating me when I think & write this to You.”

We can almost hear Herbert say "Amen."

Drew Bratcher is a writer and editor who divides his time between Iowa City and Washington, DC.