Author: Ben

A Poem to Cyclists by David Byrne

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I don’t think this qualifies as a poem, but it’s interesting that David Byrne does.

Does poetry have to be written? I think it does, but I think I can see David Byrne’s argument, that poetry is more of a feeling and less of a set of rules. Elements that once defined poetry, like meter and rhyme, now define only categories within the subject of poetry. Maybe, as we keep moving away from paper, the definition of poetry will extend to include digital media that explore poetic ideas.

So, maybe David Byrne is predicting the future, and poetry will not always be something you can put on paper. I’m not saying he’s right, but he’s got an interesting point.

More reasons why “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” is psychedelic

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Let me further explain what I meant in class when I called “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” psychedelic. I’m not talking about hallucinations of shimmering bright colors, although there are arguments to be made that the poem is psychedelic in that sense too (“glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings”).

I’m thinking more about line 9:

“The simple, compact, well-join’d scheme, myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated yet part of the same scheme,”

Tom Bissell’s NYT review of Michael Pollan’s “How to Change Your Mind” describes a similar concept: “Many LSD or psilocybin trips — even good trips — begin with an ordeal that can feel scarily similar to dissolving.”

Similarly, the poem begins by recognizing “myself disintegrated.” This awareness of the individual in relation to universal oneness is a particularly stereotypical psychedelic thought.

The review continues, “the part of the brain that governs the ego and most values coherence — the default mode network, it’s called — drops away. An older, more primitive part of the brain emerges, one that’s analogous to a child’s mind, in which feelings of individuality are fuzzier and a capacity for awe and wonder is stronger.”

This all lines up very well with the poem. Although we certainly have a sense of Whitman’s individuality, he spends much less time talking about himself than he does talking about being awed by the passage of time, the creations of both man and nature, and the strange beauty of everything.

The review goes even further to say that “Near-death experiences, meditation and fasting can get you there [to a psychedelic experience], too.”

This is right in line with Whitman’s experience on the ferry; he wasn’t on psychedelic drugs, but he was overwhelmed with the beauty and interconnection of all things, which is basically what psychedelic drugs make you feel.

As an aside, this feeling is not in conflict with Whitman’s support of the temperance movement. According to Bissell’s review, “LSD showed such promise in treating alcoholism that the A.A. founder Bill Wilson considered including LSD treatment in his program.”

This is a pretty long post, and I still don’t think I’ve convinced anyone of anything. As the book review puts it, psychedelics are “hard to talk about without sounding like an aspiring guru or credulous dolt.” I think I’m coming off pretty strongly in the latter camp.

If you’re at all interested, read the review I keep referencing:

A poem I wrote

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I didn’t share my sonnet on here when everyone else did, so I’ll share a poem that I just wrote for another class that has a few sonnet-esque qualities:


A Hot Dog Vendor to his Regular Customer

For decades, my cart has been here on this street.
I’m savvy, I’m seasoned, as much as my meat.
I’m quick when I grip ‘round the squeeze bottle’s neck.
I do not take Amex, please pay cash or check.

But sometimes the workday is shitty and sour,
Whenever the city is smoky and dour,
And all of the people just bustle on by,
Like roaches, they scurry and scuttle and fly
And they’d certainly never look me in the eye.

So whenever I manage to catch a stray gaze,
Through the car exhaust mixed with my griddle’s gray haze,
I make sure I say this, with my grill still ablaze:

“Nine dollar franks! Nine dollar dogs!
Line up and buy them, you rank, slimy hogs!”


I came up with the final couplet while free writing over the summer, and although I didn’t initially intend for it to end up in a poem, it was a good jumping-off point.

A few times in class people have brought up the idea that good poetry is “putting the best words in the best order,” but I don’t think that’s enough. Poetry frequently centers on a short list of topics: love, nature, poetry itself, etc. I have a hard time writing decent poetry about any one of these topics; even if I could put it in better words, I’ve already heard too much about that topic from other poetry for it to interest me. Instead of writing from sources of inspiration, I find it easier to begin from something about which I have no strong feelings, and developing opinions and tone as I write.

To be clear, I’m not giving advice, just sharing what helps me write. It’s a lot easier to get a fencing scholarship than a football scholarship; why compete with all the other love poets when you don’t have to?

When the city gets clean, it gets dirty.

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Swift, in “A Description of a City Shower,” describes London in a rainstorm. The poem peers into the life of London through vignettes that emphasize pain, gore, and disgust. Although the poem briefly touches on how the storm brings Londoners together, it does so mockingly. The Whigs and Tories who are able to set aside their differences in line 42 are doing so by cowering in a shed from a storm that poses no threat to them. Swift’s mentioning of the London’s upper-class inhabitants in these lines reminds us that even the lives of the glamorous are spattered with mud. The poem’s closing lines, describing the flow of organic waste that runs across Holborn Bridge, are super fun to read, if gratuitously grotesque. By cleaning out the streets, the shower brings to the surface the vile reality of life in the city. Similarly, by making mention of London’s repulsiveness, Swift brings the common perception of the upper class back down to earth.


It is worth noting that today, Holborn Bridge is one of the entrances to London’s independent financial district, called the City of London (it’s really complicated). The River Fleet, which ran under the bridge, is now completely underground, so the trash that Swift referenced is no longer visible.

Death, be not proud (but I’m afraid of you)

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I didn’t fully understand the importance of reading poetry aloud until the other Ben read this. His performance really sounded like a performance, with plenty of drama and volume. (Ben, if you’re reading this, you did a great job. Your performance really had that Shakespearean, dramatized, rehearsed style that no one would mistake for reality.) Once I heard Donne’s Sonnet 10 performed, it struck me that the poem is, itself, a performance; the speaker must be afraid of death because he speaks to death so confrontationally. If the speaker weren’t afraid of death, he wouldn’t need to say “mighty and dreadful…thou art not so,” or “thou art slave to fate.” Ben argued that the poem brings death down to the human level; I argue that by bringing death down to our level, the speaker is acknowledging that death is above us.

Someone brought up the point that this sonnet might be incorporated into a sermon, and serves not to reassure the speaker, but an audience. The fact that an audience would need to be reassured that death is not powerful confirms once again that death is powerful. If people truly believed that they would live after death, they wouldn’t need to be constantly reassured of it.

I don’t think this point was Donne’s intent. It seems unlikely that he would call into question the existence of the afterlife. Perhaps, however, this uncertainty is baked into all sermons; if the message of religion were self-evident, we wouldn’t need to hear it every Sunday.

Astrophil and Stella 39

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In sonnet 39, Astrophil begs Sleep for sleep from Sleep himself. He begins with a series of several metaphors, praising sleep for bringing peace, recovery, and sanctuary, then launches into a hypothetical bargain in which he offers Sleep his bed, a silent, dark, room, and a garland of roses. The couplet describes that, in the event that Sleep does not accept his gifts, Astrophil will offer to it “Stella’s image,” which he implies is clearer in his mind than anywhere else.

Sonnet 39 adheres to the standard formula for sonnets, and adhering to a formula doesn’t generally lend itself to originality. It’s riddled with metaphors, and features perfect rhyme and iambic pentameter. Sonnet 39 even matches the stylistic conventions of Italian sonnets, with a turn after the eighth line. Worse, the couplet is sickly-sweet. Because of its abundance of figurative language and traditional poetic stylings, Astrophil doesn’t sound like the speaker; Sidney does.

In my opinion, Sonnet 39 from Astrophil and Stella, like many of the sonnets we’ve read, bleeds insincerity because of its strict adherence to the rules. There’s a case to be made that these sonnets aren’t supposed to be sincere. Maybe, Astrophil and Stella is nothing more than a tool for Sidney to impress his readers, and they shouldn’t feel anything for its characters.

I’m critical of sonnets because art is not about following the rules. When computers can write poetry, they’ll probably start with sonnets.

Are William and Margret in love?

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True love, in its modern usage, is scarce; we desire “soul mates” who understand our complexities and share our viewpoints like no one else can. It arrives at the end of a long journey. It requires us to impress each other without putting on a performance. We are told that true love is impervious to erosion by time, or distance, or any of the impediments to our other relationships, and that any love that falls apart with time must not have been “true love.”

“The Douglas Tragedy” presents love differently. The love that Margret and William share isn’t rare at all; Margret admits this in line 27, stating, “True loves I can get many a ane.” Their love hasn’t been nurtured tenderly; the poem gives us the impression that William and Margret are recently acquainted. Maybe William courted her, and made a show of his status as a lord. Ultimately, their true love is severed, not only by their deaths, but by Margret’s father, Lord Douglas, who uproots William’s briar. This “true love” is a fleeting force that drives William to murder and embitters Lord Douglas. Maybe this is because lives were more uncertain when “The Douglas Tragedy” was written, and time couldn’t be wasted rooting around for the perfect match. Whatever the reason, it would be a stretch to call the relationship between Margret and William “true love” in the modern sense of the phrase.

Modern depictions of true love portray it as an eternal force, evident in Simon & Garfunkel’s adaptation of the Scottish ballad “Barbara Allen,” entitled “Barbriallen.” Like “The Douglas Tragedy,” “Barbriallen” features a rose and a briar sprouted from lovers’ graves, entwined in a “true love’s knot,” but it does not include a character like Lord Douglas, and implies that the protagonists’ love persists beyond the grave.

Modern ballads, like “Barbriallen,” solve their conflicts, and feature a love that cannot be broken, but there’s an argument to be made that real love is somewhere between “Barbriallen” and “The Douglas Tragedy.” Dismissing all fleeting loves as “untrue,” is a No true Scotsman situation.