Category Archives: the language

He made comely poems.

I was so sorry to hear a couple of weeks after the event that the poet Richard Wilbur had fallen asleep in death. It’s interesting to read about the ambivalence within the community of literary critics regarding his work throughout his career and now at his passing.

The New York Times quotes its own reviewer David Orr who mused that “Mr. Wilbur had ‘spent most of his career being alternately praised and condemned for the same three things’ — for his formal virtuosity; for his being, ‘depending on your preference, courtly or cautious, civilized or old-fashioned, reasonable or kind of dull’; and finally for his resisting a tendency in American poetry toward ‘conspicuous self-dramatization.’”

Might it be that one’s opinion about Wilbur’s poetry has something to do with whether you appreciate his perspective on things? If when you read his poems you find they quicken your own love for life and the cosmos? In another quote from the New York Times: “’I feel that the universe is full of glorious energy,’ he said in an interview with The Paris Review, ‘that the energy tends to take pattern and shape, and that the ultimate character of things is comely and good.'” My favorite not-so-recent article on Wilbur draws attention to his Christian vision and is found in First Things.

Over the life of my blog many of Wilbur’s poems have shown up here — which you might find by putting his name in the search box on the right —  and I’ve been wanting to post his poem “Worlds” for a year or more now. I first read it when David Bentley Hart’s book The Experience of God was fresher in my mind, and I had some brilliant idea that linked the two philosophers… that thought has dimmed to the vanishing point. Now I offer the poem as a picture of two ways of looking at the world, represented by Alexander the Great and Isaac Newton. If Richard Wilbur imagined himself in this poem, I’m sure he would hope to be found serenely playing alongside Newton, another man of faith and great vision. May God grant him the Kingdom.


For Alexander there was no Far East,
because he thought the Asian continent
ended with India.
Free Cathay at least
did not contribute to his discontent.

But Newton, who had grasped all space, was more serene.
To him it seemed that he’d but played
With a few shells and pebbles on the shore
Of that profundity he had not made.

– Richard Wilbur


Words have skins like amber.

“Ralph Waldo Emerson once declared that language is fossil poetry. Many words that we use carelessly have, embedded within their amber-like exterior, the remnants of long lost perceptions and intuitions. When received thoughtfully and with some delicacy, words have the capacity to allow us to travel back in time, to imagine how and what the world meant to our ancestors. But unlike the insects, or dinosaur DNA fixed in amber, the meanings within words are changing, evolving, as human perceptions change.”

-Ken Myers on Mars Hill Audio Journal, introducing his interview of John Durham Peters about his new book, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media.

I listened to this interview and have ordered the book, though I fear it will be above my head, like clouds. The author was not hard to understand when he was talking, and he spoke of so many things that I would like to “hear” him discuss further, after I get the book and can read the words on paper, and flip back and forth and underline a phrase here and there of his meaningful prose. How can I resist a book that contains all together in its title the words Marvelous, Philosophy, and Clouds?

Only to a degree expressible.

I’ve shared four poems by W.S. Merwin on my blog over the years. He is a poet who doesn’t use punctuation in his poems. I recently read an interview with him, given five years ago. Here I’m posting a short excerpt in which he talks about his eschewing punctuation, and about the uses and challenges of poetry generally.W.S. Merwin_NewBioImage

If you stop using punctuation, that’s a kind of formality. I mean you have to be very conscious of the grammar and the syntax and how the sentence is put together; otherwise it’ll be just so ambiguous and confusing you just won’t be able to read it. The other thing I think it does is to make the separation between poetry and prose. I thought, punctuation is very convenient, but it was really invented in the seventeenth century for prose. Not for poetry at all. The punctuation of Shakespeare texts is whatever seemed convenient. There weren’t any particular rules that he was following that I can see. I mean it changed in the course of the plays. But above all, I thought that having no punctuation made you listen to the poem. That’s the important thing.
Poetry, like the imagination itself, must be limitless. And there must be other ways of expressing the inexpressible, which is what—poetry is just that. Prose is about what can be said and what is known and so on. Poetry is about what cannot be expressed. I mean, terrible grief, or intense erotic feeling, or even unspeakable anger are all inexpressible. You can’t put them in words and that’s why you try to put them in words. Because that’s all you’ve got. That’s another reason why I think that poetry is as ancient as language itself, because I think language must come out of an urge for which there was no expression, no way of doing it. I mean grief or fear or rage or whatever it was. It goes from one roar or one scream or one terrible sound of pain to starting to articulate it. It’s the articulating that becomes poetry. But it doesn’t become information at that point. It’s closer to translation. It’s translating something that’s there, that is only to a degree expressible.

-W.S. Merwin in Guernica magazine interview

Minding your itses and it’ses.

This article from Stan Carey at the Sentence First blog,  Its, it’s: It’s a problem should help you clear up any hesitation or confusion you have about when to put an apostrophe in its. It’s the most thorough treatment of the problem I have read, with 40 ! surprising and cringeworthy examples of misuse photographed from original documents or screens, even in the edited prose of such publications as The New York Times and The Economist. Using it’s when its is called for is the most way these two are mixed up — I think even more so now than when he wrote this article. Anits 2d still wrong.

To be fair I should mention that Mr. Carey is generally in the descriptive linguistic camp, but he says this issue is a pet peeve of his. He admits that the scale of the its-it’s problem is not cosmic, “But careful readers will notice the mistake and consider it a sign of inattention, sloppiness, ignorance, or even illiteracy – especially if it’s repeated. So if you value good communication, it’s a distinction you ought to make, and make consistently.”

If you don’t want to read any of his article, here is a key point to remember, which alone may correct the tendency to follow the maddening crowds: It’s always, always is a contraction for it is or it has. If you start to type it’s, ask yourself if you could say one of those phrases instead. No? Then leave out the apostrophe.

Another thing that helps is to keep a list in your mind of all the possessive pronouns (noting that its is one of them), none of which have apostrophes: my, yours, his, hers, its, theirs, etc. See, even the ones ending in s do not have apostrophes. Its behaves like its's 2

But I hope you will at least scan the article – it’s fun to take instruction from examples of professional writers goofing up, and it will freshen and reinforce your language skills so that no one will think you are sloppy or illiterate — at least not over this little word.