Nov. 28, 2014

An Apology for Using the Word 'Heart' in Too Many Poems

by Hayden Carruth

What does it mean? Lord knows; least of all I.
        Faced with it, schoolboys are shy,
And grown-ups speak it at moments of excess
        Which later seem more or less
Unfeasible. It is equivocal, sentimental,
        Debatable, really a sort of lentil—
Neither pea nor bean. Sometimes it's a muscle,
        Sometimes courage or at least hustle,
Sometimes a core or center, but mostly it's
        A sound that slushily fits
The meters of popular songwriters without
        Meaning anything. It is stout,
Leonine, chicken, great, hot, warm, cold,
        Broken, whole, tender, bold,
Stony, soft, green, blue, red, white,
        Faint, true, heavy, light,
Open, down, shallow, etc. No wonder
        Our superiors thunder
Against it. And yet in spite of a million abuses
        The word survives; its uses
Are such that it remains virtually indispensable
        And, I think, defensible.
The Freudian terminology is awkward or worse,
        And suggests so many perverse
Etiologies that it is useless; but "heart" covers
        The whole business, lovers
To monks, i.e., the capacity to love in the fullest
        Sense. Not even the dullest
Reader misapprehends it, although locating
        It is a matter awaiting
Someone more ingenious than I. But given
        This definition, driven
Though it is out of a poet's necessity, isn't
        The word needed at present
As much as ever, if it is well written and said,
        With the heart and the head?

"An Apology for Using the Word 'Heart' in Too Many Poems" by Hayden Carruth, from Collected Shorter Poems. © Copper Canyon Press, 1991. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of novelist, biographer, and essayist Nancy Mitford (1904) (books by this author), born in London. She was unapologetically aristocratic, but that didn't stop her from satirizing her own class. Her parents were illiterate, and anti-education; she and her five younger sisters called their father "Old Subhuman." Mitford wrote: "I grew up as ignorant as an owl, came out in London and went to a great many balls. ... Here I met various people who were not ignorant at all — I made friends with the sort of people which included Messrs. Evelyn Waugh, John Betjeman, Sir Maurice Bowra and the brilliant Lord Berners. Very soon I became an intellectual snob. I tried to educate myself, read enormously and wrote a few indifferent novels." She published her first novel, Highland Fling, in 1931.

She also wrote four biographies, and served as a regular columnist for the Sunday Times. She wrote a controversial essay on upper- and non-upper-class grammar called "The English Aristocracy" (1954). She intended the essay on "U and non-U English" to be a light-hearted tease, but it served to cement her reputation as a snob.

She wrote to a friend, "If one can't be happy, one must be amused, don't you agree?"

It's the birthday of writer and physicist Alan Lightman (books by this author), born in Memphis, Tennessee (1948). His first novel, Einstein's Dreams (1993), was a short book made up of 30 dreams that Lightman imagined Albert Einstein might have had during the months of 1905 when he was working on his theory of special relativity. Einstein's Dreams became an international best-seller.

His other novels include Good Benito (1995), The Diagnosis (2000), and most recently, Mr g (2012), in which the main character is God.

It's the birthday of poet William Blake (books by this author), born in London (1757). He started seeing visions when he was a young boy — God in the window, angels in trees. He apprenticed to an engraver, and spent his life as a little-known printmaker and poet.

In 1809, Blake opened an exhibition of his art on the first floor of his brother's hosiery shop. He called the show "Poetical and Historical Inventions." He left the show up for a year, but not many people attended, and not a single piece of art was sold. There was only one review of the show, by an art critic named Robert Hunt, who described Blake as an "unfortunate lunatic" in his review.

Blake died in poverty in 1827, at the age of 69. In the 30 years after publishing Songs of Innocence and of Experience, fewer than 20 copies had sold. Three years after his death, he was mentioned in a popular six-volume encyclopedia of British artists. The real breakthrough came when Alexander Gilchrist, a young admirer of Blake, set out to write his biography. Gilchrist died before it was finished, but his wife, Anne, took over the task. In 1863, Life of William Blake was published — it was subtitled Pictor Ignotus, or "unknown artist," because Blake was so obscure. Besides telling Blake's life story and claiming that he was not, in fact, insane, Gilchrist quoted many of Blake's poems, and included his illustrations. The Life of William Blake was hugely popular, and for the first time, Blake was considered a major English poet.

William Blake said, "The imagination is not a state: it is the human existence itself."

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