Rebecca's CW

I was born the year Yeats died. He was 73 and I’m now 76.

That’s important for me as the reward for the effort I put in everyday is the strength to go on even with so little encouragement, a strength which is also a certain softness that inspires and protects me.

My wife Homprang often asks me how someone with so many degrees can be so stupid, and I always reply the same way, that unlike me she’s a genius. Which she really is — because reading and writing so little has given her a distinct advantage over me when it comes to sharpness and sanity. Because of course she can see ghosts and things like that which is a great advantage because they terrify her and make her refrain from doing or saying anything stupid or risky.

And I’m just the opposite, of course — I’m a bit soft in the head from reading and writing too much. It’s my rarefied education that has made me so fearless as well as foolish, a fact that makes Homprang even more impatient — because just imagine what she might have done had she had an education like mine instead of leaving school at eleven? I mean, she could have made up ghosts and spirits like I do instead of being careful never to look in their direction what is more to mention their names.

On the other hand, isn’t it also a certain softness in the head which makes us love and admire a great poet like William Butler Yeats so much, that he could have worshiped Maud Gunn like that for so long, for example, and then proposed to Iseult? Or sat up and read what his very young wife George wrote down restless beside him on their honeymoon, as if she were Ishtar or the Angel Gabriel descended on the Ashdown Forest Hotel? And never even to have suspected — as in a sense she didn’t either, both of them being in the softness way over their heads? And to have actually believed in “The Circus Animal’s Desertion” too even when he was always so nicely put up in Anglo-Irish country houses right to the end, an emperor with a mechanical bird for eternity in a gilded cage?

Or Eliot in his own foul rag and bone shop of the heart down-and-out in Harvard and Paris?

…………………………………Between the conception
…………………………………And the creation
…………………………………Between the emotion
…………………………………And the response
…………………………………Falls the Shadow.

And how we love the really great ones for being soft in the head like that, neurasthenic even, connecting nothing with nothing. How they expose us and redeem us, and make us whole.…………………………………<…………………………………In an Emergency.


I lived for 10 years in Coleman’s Hatch on the Ashdown Forest just down the road from the Pooh Bridge in one direction and the cottage where Pound wintered with Yeats in 1913 in the other, and I walked by the Ashdown Forest Hotel everyday on my way to teach school with my children, and drank at the Hatch in the evening. That was back in the ’70s.


What’s important is something way out there, that’s the point, and I mean having the courage to do whatever it is all by yourself regardless and always in a sense upstairs alone in your room late at night. Because there’s no other activity that counts one iota but being alone with a loaded gun and a delicate body.

…………………..Much Madness is divinest Sense —
…………………..To a discerning Eye —
…………………..Much sense — the starkest Madness —
…………………..’Tis the Majority
…………………..In this, as all, prevail –
…………………..Assent – and you are sane –
…………………..Demur – you’re straightway dangerous –
…………………..And handled with a Chain –

And that’s how bad the devil is, not knowing your place in the grown-up world, not just lying down and being quiet like the big dog Sam. Being soft in the head is like being Eve in God’s grown-up Garden, I’d say, like not only rejecting Heaven but being in cahoots with the Devil in a serious effort to rewrite Paradise. “Unless we become as Rogues we cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven,” Emily Dickinson wrote to a friend at age 50, and I’d say courage like that coupled with a delicate body and a diamond mind is heroic!

Speaking as a poet I say that, because in fact I know almost nothing about “diamond minds” or “heroic” but just what I write.

Which is why I write as well, as if my desk were underground in Lascaux — as if the hunt depended on my depiction of the beauty and grace of the animals as well as my reverence for them. And even the sun rising.


Emily Dickinson’s named her huge black and white Newfoundland ‘Carlo’ after St John River’s old pointer and not after Mr Rochester’s huge black and white Newfoundland called ‘Pilot.’

With that in mind, can you imagine Emily Dickinson out for a walk on the treacherous, ice-bound cart-road to Hay being rescued and steadied by Jane Eyre as if she were the one who was mounted? The clatter of the hooves and the crash? The neat little boots and the hot breath of the gytrash on your neck? And is that why you name your dog ‘Carlo’ instead, to reject the tall, perfect, god-like ‘Master’ on the straight and narrow path? For the Rogue himself do you name him, tumbling on the causeway at your feet?

And can you see then how the truth is more important than the facts? Can you imagine what ‘Pilot’ was like before the Wright brothers put that neat blue-serge suit on him and made him a captain at 35,000 feet? Can you rather hear the crash of the sea as the earlier ‘Pilot’ guides you over the bar to land-locked Florence and on up the hillside to La Gioiella? Can you go somewhere you can never be but you have to arrive at — where everything that has ever happened happens to you for the first time alone in your room upstairs?

Here’s how I say that upstairs alone in my own delicate body.

…………………..“Yet still it moves!” the old beard raves,
…………………..The moon girdling a softer quarter —
…………………..The impossible return,
…………………..Ocean fins quickening the landlocked water.

………………………………………..from GALILEO’S SECRET: Two Decades
………………………………………………..of Poems Under House Arrest

Christopher Woodman



Mantegna 466

At the very end of his life, Andrea Mantegna inscribed the answer to the question on the tree in this delicate cameo-painting of Delilah snipping away at Samson’s hair — as if the fountain next to the tree weren’t clarification enough.

If it’s hard to read the words on the tree, you can click on the tree itself to read them more easily — and if that’s still not enough you can click yet again on the bigger picture. Then it’s a piece of cake — that is, the riddle’s a piece of cake, not the beautiful, dignified, introspective young woman trimming the hair of her grizzled, old, pumped-up and psyched-out lover, the act that reduces all men to the divine fools they are destined to be. Because the Divine Fool is the true message of the Samson story, it seems to me, that is if you read the details of the story very carefully — or, alternatively, if you carefully and exhaustively read your own life, or even read me if you know where to look — which is why I am writing what follows, to find out.

I’m going to leave some space on that now, for reflection.


My reflections on Mantegna’s dictum, foemina diabolo tribus assibus est mala peior, are developed day by day in the Comments below, and if you are interested in such things I hope you will be able to read them with as much hope for an answer as I posted them. On the other hand, if you’re impatient you can skip ahead to a specific discussion of HOW BAD IS THE DEVIL IN THE END.  But fasten your seat belts as you scroll down, because jumping ahead is going to make for a very fast ride!

And those of you who start at the beginning, be warned as well: the discussion that follows thrives on hair-pins and other sticky corners, and very often paints itself into untenable places as well — I do hope you’ll be charitable and forgive me for all the dead-ends. I’m an Old Father William, and all I can tell you is that this is how it goes. Indeed, that’s part of the riddle of knowing where you are in the space you inhabit, and it doesn’t much matter whether it’s on earth, in space, buried in your own person or in some other idea or dimension, or perhaps even suited up in a New Age space-vehicle transitting infinity to arrive where you actually are, like in Carl Sagan’s Contact.

Wrapped up in your own cocoon like Eve, in other words, even if you’re a man and not yet ready to be that beautiful, powerful, and fey. Or a snake with your own tail in your mouth like Satan in the Garden of Eden — indeed, you may even be impatient enough to want to go straight to the discussion for men and women who are no longer inhabitants of the Garden of Eden but would like to know what really happened back then.


Or if, like most of my friends, you’re more interested in my own demise as a soi-disant angel and poet yet again you can begin at that end:


Or if you’re really impatient and just want to know what happens at the various ends:


And finally, if you don’t want to begin at any end but just keep on fooling around like Old Father William:


Christopher Woodman,
Chiang Mai, March 3rd, 2016




Billy Collins: So this poet walks into a poem…

To read Best American Poetry 2006, when Billy Collins was the judge, is to be struck by the ‘stand-up comedy’ style of its poetry.

Reading over the clever, flamboyant, frank poems in BAP 2006 with more care than they perhaps deserve, we notice the “voice” in these poems tends to be humorous and idiosyncratic—but not quite ‘comedy club’ humorous.  And yet, this seems to be, by default, the target audience.   There’s some success and some charm which follows from this style, but it’s also problematic, since it ultimately doesn’t work as poetry,  and yet it doesn’t work as comedy either; it flounders in a never-never land, between the two genres.

I like to laugh as much as the next person, and when I’m laughing, I don’t care whether what I’m reading is supposed to be poetry, or not.   But what if the material isn’t really funny?  What if that’s the intent, but, in reality, it’s finally just weird? There’s a desire to repeat a good joke, but the merely odd tends to be forgotten.  This is what happens to all contemporary poetry, it seems.

The following is from Billy Collins’ guest-editor BAP 2006 introduction:  Notice how Collins says that meter and rhyme in poetry have been replaced by a “voice” that the reader can “trust.”  When Collins tries to say how the “voice” feels like something he can “trust,” he gets into  trouble.   When you ask a poem—which is a fiction—to be “honest,” as Collins does, you move  into tricky territory.

Once Walt Whitman demonstrated that poetry in English could get along without standard meter and end-rhyme, poetry began to lose the familiar gait and musical jauntiness that listeners and readers had come to identify with it. But poetry also lost something more: a trust system that had bound poet and reader together through the reliable recurring of similar sounds and a steady dependable beat.  Whatever emotional or intellectual demands a poem placed on the reader, at least the reader could put trust in the poet’s implicit promise to keep up a tempo and maintain a sound pattern.  It’s the same promise that is made to the listeners of popular songs.   What has come to replace this system of trust, if anything?  However vague a substitute, the answer is probably tone of voice.  As a reader, I come to trust or distrust the authority of the poem after reading just a few lines.  Do I hear a voice that is making reasonable claims itself–usually a first person voice speaking fallibly but honestly–or does the poem begin with a grandiose pronouncement, a riddle, or an intimate confession foisted on me by a stranger?

–Billy Collins, Introduction to BAP 2006, David Lehman series editor

How does Collins expect the reader to figure out that the poem he happens to be reading is not by a “stranger?” The Collins criteria have no merit: “fallibly but honestly?”   Should we trust a poem that begins: Goo goo ga ga goo goo. Fallible?  Yes. Honest? Yes.

But Collins says:  Nothing “grandiose.”  No “riddles.”  Nothing “foisted.”

Let’s be honest, here.  Collins isn’t really talking about a ” voice” that he can “trust.”   That’s just the professor in him talking.   What he’s really looking for are comic bits.    Here, chosen at random, are the opening lines of some poems in BAP 2006:

“Into every life a little ax must fall.”   —Kim Addonizio

“I just found out that my new husband/May have never married me at all.”  —Laura Cronk

“When a sentence is composed of two independent /clauses, the second being weaker than the first/it is called One-Legged Man Standing. If it/purposefully obscures meaning, it’s called Ring/Dropped In Muddy Creek, or if elegantly composed, Wasp Fucking Orchid.”Tom Christopher

“At the Miro exhibit in the Centre Pompidou,/I hear a guy say to his girlfriend…”   —David Kirby

“I’ve been smoking so much pot lately”  —Jennifer Knox

“Nose out of joint, City Slicker?/Blown a gasket, Hot Shot?/Fit to be tied, Arty Farty?/Going through the roof, Curtain Raiser?”  —Mark Pawlak

“I’ve never loved anyone more than I love you, he said,/which meant what exactly?”   —Liz Rosenberg

“Because we know our lives will end/Let the vagina host a huge party, and let the penis come.”   —Charles Harper Webb

It’s just a hunch, but we think Collins is a better poet for not being able to articulate a thing about poetry.

“I can’t understand these chaps who go round American universities explaining how they write poems,” Philip Larkin once said. “It’s like going round explaining how you sleep with your wife.”