Interpretation & finesse

A few months back, I heard from an editor who rejected a poem I had submitted. He said that the editors really liked the work, but that the journal generally did not publish “poems about poetry.” The critique was especially surprising to me because I didn’t realize that my poem was about poetry; the editors’ interpretation of my text was different from my own!

It is interesting to re-read one’s own work from the viewpoint of a reader who is not oneself. Actually, that’s an impossible task, but I tried. My interpretation of my poem is that it is a somewhat speculative, perhaps philosophical piece concerning the re-envisioning of the commonplace. Nonetheless, it is not an abstract poem on the surface. My poetry inclines toward physical imagery, often nature-based (no surprise to readers of this blog…). When I distanced myself a bit and tried to imagine what another reader might make of the poem, I could see that there would be a way to interpret the piece metaphorically as a reflection on the writing process.

That’s not what I thought I was writing, but the interpretation works just fine. Who knows, maybe I was kind of writing about writing, and it took a thoughtful critique by some editors to figure that out!


Which brings me to the whole topic of interpretation. I am not teaching poetry class this semester, but that does not mean I am not trying to impart to my students an understanding of what it means to interpret a text. The aim of any composition & rhetoric course is to assist students in learning how to express their original thoughts about a topic–any topic–and to ground those thoughts in evidence: in other words, to validate the student’s interpretation.

That process involves analysis, argument, inference, sometimes research, and composition whether the text the student responds to is literary, persuasive, commercial, visual, auditory, performatory, or digital. Critical thinking requires inference and metacognition. These tasks are harder than they seem; most students do not develop those abilities overnight and need a bit of coaching.

Then there are students who are capable of thinking analytical thoughts but are at a loss for how to express them on paper (or on word-processing software). That ability also requires a bit of coaching.

It can be difficult to ascertain whether a student I am tutoring needs help with the thinking or help with the expressing. Too often, early in my career as a writing tutor, I have inferred incorrectly about a student’s difficulties with the written word. Coaching takes finesse. Finesse takes awhile to develop.

Come to think of it, interpretation requires finesse as well. When a critic bludgeons a poem to pieces, the interpretation gets lost in the analysis (and critics can even bludgeon poems that they love).

I am glad that the above-mentioned editor read my poem with considerable care and finesse. He may have decided not to publish it, and he may have interpreted it differently that I would have myself, but he took the time to interpret. It is encouraging to know that my work has been read with such care.




Perspective & aesthetics

Officially autumn now–and my lawn litter consists mostly of oak leaves, though other leaves will shortly follow. The showy blossoms of late summer, such as zinnia and tithonia, have begun to fade. Even the tall, bright-yellow, wild goldenrod’s going to seed, turning the meadow into a mass of beige and fading green. Asters and chrysanthemums take their places, drawing the garden visitor’s eyes a bit closer to the ground.

We move toward yin, the earth…which is where I happened to notice that just above the sprawling petunias–still blossoming, though getting a bit peaked–an iris is in bloom, too. This particular iris would not be all that commendable a flower in late spring or early summer when most irises are efflorescing. Its stature is medium, its color a rather wan yellow, its petals unremarkable.

autumn iris

Nonetheless, it’s an iris. In autumn! Apparently, my perspective on flowers changes once the days get shorter. My aesthetic expectations evolve: any rose becomes a wonder, any iris an almost magical surprise amid the mums and ornamental kale. That’s an important observation I try to keep in mind for myself and to teach to my students: perspective alters everything.


There are nice hybridization developments on late-blooming or, more accurately, re-blooming irises (this link from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden offers some useful information). I transplanted my rebloomer from an older garden that a long-ago homeowner planted; so I don’t know its heritage, though it somewhat resembles the cultivar “Baby Blessed.”

In the process of trying to track down the variety, I learned a new botanical word: remontant. Remontancy is that quality in a plant that makes it capable of blooming more than once in a season or year. There’s something generous and buoyant in that word, from the French “coming up again.” If hope does not spring eternal, may it at least be remontant. And may my perspective be flexible enough to appreciate seasonal transitions and small, un-flashy irises in autumn.


Another sign of autumn: the gleaners in the fields.

A break

I took a break from weeding and lay in the hammock awhile. Cloudless, breezy, equinoctial day–in no time, acorns and oak leaves hastened down to join me (nothing quite like having a large acorn ping on the forehead to remind one of the force of gravity and the inevitability of seasonal change). Hammock time is being pared away by the longer nights.

When I can be out of doors, I keep an eye out for migratory dragonflies, monarchs, flocks of robins, assemblages of chipping sparrows. Yesterday, I spied a kestrel in flight, zooming pointedly, clearly on the hunt. Today, we heard the weirdly rasping, short-stopped honks of herons, a stately pair of whom were being followed by an oddly-silent flock of crows.

smallcornsThis brief post is likewise a break for me. Post-weeding and post-hammock, I have student papers to grade and a busy work week ahead. Well, that’s what happens in the fall! I may as well be ready for it.

In the meantime, specific observations from the hammock or the back porch may act as feeder streams for future poems.

Painfully conscious

I’ve just finished reading Melanie Thernstrom’s 2011 book The Pain Chronicles, a journalist’s inquiry into the concepts that “define” pain and the medical discoveries concerning chronic pain, in addition to a bit of memoir as a narrative device. Although I have experience with chronic pain myself, the part of the text that most interested me comes in her concluding chapters, in which she gathers the variously-disciplined evidence of her enterprise to suggest that pain is the ultimate test of the mind-body problem (thank you, René Descartes). The experts Thernstrom interviews disagree on how much we do know or can know about the human brain and how it processes anything, let alone such a complicated psycho-physiological event as pain. Some of them believe human beings will make enormous technological discoveries to unlock our brains’ workings, but the majority seem to have learned from research that each “a-ha!” leads only to further complications. Discussing the outlook for future fMRI scanning in brain research, Dr. John Keltner tells the author:

[N]obody has come up with a rich and complicated enough model to analyze the complexity of the distributed patterns of neural  networks and deduce anything like underlying rules…We’re literally grappling with the fundamental aspects of human beings. We naively believed that pain is simple–it hurts or it doesn’t hurt–so there should be a single brain state we could see every time someone is in pain. But what we’ve stumbled into is the discovery that there’s a relative universe of hurt–that hurting is an immense, rich, and varied human experience associated with an unknown number of possible brain states.

I find some of these analogies, and some of this language, appealing–I can think of poems that express “a universe of hurt.” I embrace the idea that hurting is immense, rich, varied, and human–we are aware (conscious) that we hurt, that others hurt, that hurt can be painful even when it is not caused by a toothache but through loss of a friend or lover…the beloved other, the pain in ourselves. Isn’t compassion born of this awareness? Does art have a place here, too? I wonder.

Thernstrom concludes with the agreement of several expert researchers: “pain and suffering are properties of the mind” [my italics]. That means pain is, at least in part, a property of that elusive thing we generally call consciousness. Scott Fishman of UC Davis explains that “[t]he mind is like a virtual organ–it doesn’t  have a physical address that we know of.” Consciousness, these researchers imply, is not merely the sum of firing neurons, a process that can be considered on some level mechanical. Thernstrom asks, “Do we need to understand consciousness itself in order to understand pain?”

If so, that is a tall order, one the author posits is analogous to understanding aesthetics (what is beauty?). But though the task appears daunting, the discoveries en route make the trek valuable.

Even if we never understand the answer.

neural matrix fiber topography, Johns Hopkins University

neural matrix fiber topography, Johns Hopkins University

Swarms of dragonflies

September pretty much ushers in the season of southward migrations. I have already noticed some gathering and flocking action among birds in my region. Certain insects, short-lived though they are, also migrate. Studies show that, like monarch butterflies, several species of dragonflies also fly south in fall, north in spring (here’s a link to a brief National Geographic post on the phenomenon). The Dragonfly Woman is one of several entomologists tracking dragonfly swarms. I recommend her site; I’ve learned a great deal about my own back yard (the insects in it) from her blog.

I just witnessed a dragonfly swarm. Probably green darners, as they were large and as darners are one of the species known to swarm and to migrate.

© 2009-2015 C. L. Goforth

© 2009-2015 C. L. Goforth

This evening, around six, I watered the remaining tomato and cucumber plants; we have had not one drop of rain in three weeks, and daytime temperatures have been consistently above 85º F. The earth beneath my feet feels like cobblestone. I try to conserve water, but there are still a few fruits on those vines and I’d love to harvest them. So I was out with the hose, enjoying the slow movement toward twilight and listening to birds and brown crickets while dousing the roots of the vegetables.

In June and July, barn swallows liked to dip in and around the sprinkler at the evening garden shower. I haven’t seen them for a few weeks–perhaps they are early migrators. This evening, I looked up at a cloudless sky and saw: dragonflies, at least two dozen of them, high above the rooftop of the house and darting in wide circles over the garden and lawn.

I was curious whether they’d be attracted to the water, so I directed the hose upward. I couldn’t reach them with the spray, of course, but I wondered if they would notice the droplets and be attracted to them–they are aquatic insects, after all. And due to this region’s lack of recent rain, many of the little streams and smaller ponds have dried up. Mostly I just watched them, their fast-moving, translucent wings fanning either side of their dark, elegant bodies. I tried counting them, but they’re small and quick and additional ones kept appearing from the treeline.

A darner dived toward me and passed through the sprinkles, and some of its fellow migrants moved closer, tightening the circle around the vegetable garden. A spiral of fliers–some of them a smaller species–flew down and up again, playing with the stream of water. Okay, I know I’m anthropomorphizing an insect; but it was pretty startling. My husband thought so, too–he was observing the action from our back porch. The…group? flock? gathering? swarm, I guess…stayed in our back yard for about 20 minutes, then vanished.

I have observed swarms like this once or twice before in my region, but the only time I witnessed a huge swarm of dragonflies was when I was a child in southern New Jersey. That time, there were hundreds, and the experience was almost frightening–awesome in the truest sense of the word.

Rest & reading

It’s been a busy week, and I am exhausted mentally and physically; I am taking the three-day weekend as relaxation time–which means: reading, mostly. Currently, my “difficult books” concentration is Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, though I am not finding it as challenging as I expected, because Maimonides is a good teacher! I am not among his target audience, however, as I am a woman. He was quite forward-thinking for a 12th century Talmudic scholar with an Aristotelian bent, but women were not considered qualified to study the deep mysteries of metaphysics. [Alas, I read without repentance for my heresy.]

My reading also means catching up with blogs I follow. Here’s the link to Theodora Goss’s latest musings on aesthetics and beauty–a lovely blog-essay. I hope you will read it.

ann e michael


Altercation, alliteration, & assonance

Recently, while driving to a restaurant just at rush hour, we witnessed a near-accident. The offending vehicles were blocking an intersection but had just managed to avoid collision, and the driver of one car was shouting from his rolled-down window–shouting words that it is a good thing my 90-year-old mother-in-law was too deaf to hear, I might add.

After scooting around to the shoulder and proceeding along our route, my son commented on the driver’s use of the epithet “douche canoe.” It’s one I was not familiar with. “What does that even mean?” I asked, unable to process it either literally or by metaphor; yet I grant there is something appealing about the phrase, for sound reasons (I am making a pun! I admit it!).

Not the insult variety of canoe
Not the insult variety of canoe


Poets tend to be enamored of the way language sounds, even those who “write for the page.” We can imagine the sounds, “see” them, as we write. Performative poems rely on sound and continue the ancient oral foundations of poetry in song and chant. Many American students encounter the Beowulf saga in high school; kenning appears on the curriculum, and it is the one aspect of the saga my students always seem to recall. says of “kenning”:

a conventional poetic phrase used for or in addition to the usual name of a person or thing, especially in Icelandic and Anglo-Saxon verse, as ‘a wave traveler’ for ‘a boat.’

Poets deepened these modifiers, using kenning to evoke allusions to well-known myths, for example, or doing tricky wordplay such as puns and alliteration…or all of the above.

Moving away from kenning and into the general field of poetic wordplay, poets and others who are facile with language can move with ease to the sarcastic, the suggestive, and the downright vile (a classic example is Catullus–here’s a link to a biography from the Poetry Foundation that includes commentary on some of his well-known insult poems). A quick Google search on Shakespearean insults yields dozens of results from the bard of Avon. One of my favorite strings of poetic invective is from King Lear: “lily-liver’d, action-taking, whoreson, glass-gazing, superserviceable, finical rogue.” Note the alliteration and the meter. Touché.

Closer to “douche canoe” in terms of era is playing the dozens, exemplified for boxing fans through the boasts and challenges of Muhammed Ali–here, crowing over a bout with Sonny Liston:

“The crowd did not dream when they laid down their money
that they would see a total eclipse of the Sonny.”

Elijah Wald has a scholarly book on the tradition of playing the dozens. These rhymes are intended to challenge, provoke, and amuse. The evolution into rap is easy to credit.


Despite the aural appeal of “douche canoe” with its long, repeated vowels, I doubt the phrase will enter my personal lexicon. It did remind me, however, of an alliterative insult I heard fairly frequently from my uncles when one of us kids was acting particularly balky:

“Don’t be such a horse’s hind end!”