Still by A. R. Ammons 1912-2001

This seems like a fine poem for the Christmas season. Everything is magnificent with being. Archie Ammons was a man of rural and religious roots who became an essential American poet.


I said I will find what is lowly
and put the roots of my identity
down there:
each day I’ll wake up
and find the lowly nearby,
a handy focus and reminder,
a ready measure of my significance,
the voice by which I would be heard,
the wills, the kinds of selfishness
I could
freely adopt as my own:

but though I have looked everywhere,
I can find nothing
to give myself to:
everything is

magnificent with existence, is in
surfeit of glory:
nothing is diminished,
nothing has been diminished for me:

I said what is more lowly than the grass:
ah, underneath,
a ground-crust of dry-burnt moss:
I looked at it closely
and said this can be my habitat: but
nestling in I
below the brown exterior
green mechanisms beyond the intellect
awaiting resurrection in rain: so I got up

and ran saying there is nothing lowly in the universe:
I found a beggar:
he had stumps for legs: nobody was paying
him any attention: everybody went on by:
I nestled in and found his life:
there, love shook his body like a devastation:
I said
though I have looked everywhere
I can find nothing lowly
in the universe:

I whirled through transfigurations up and down,
transfigurations of size and shape and place:

at one sudden point came still,
stood in wonder:
moss, beggar, weed, tick, pine, self, magnificent
with being!

Product Details

Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig

Product Details

A major figure of the twentieth century, there is a lot to tell about Muhammed Ali, as evidenced in this 640-page brick of a biography. A black athlete from Louisville, with so much wit and charisma that the whole world, not only boxing fans, knew his name and recognized his face. Born for television, Ali bullied and baited opponents with rhymes. He enraged people–mostly white people–with bravado and arrogance. Courageous, ambitious and adaptable, he fought too long. His last matches seemed like exhibitions of survival, or self-sacrifice. Leaning back against the ropes to cushion punches from younger, stronger fighters, he covered himself with his arms and gloves in a strategy he called rope-a-dope, a term that was one-half word play and one-half insult of dimmer opponents. A few years after his last fight, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

For resisting the Vietnam draft, Ali lost three years of his boxing career. He became a symbol of opposition to authority for many young people, and a hero. He explored spiritual and racial matters through the Nation of Islam. He was a celebrity athlete and cultural icon whose renown was rivaled, in his time, by only a few most popular musicians and movie stars. My review of Ali: A Life will be published in The Christian Century.

Institute of Contemporary Art Boston

Exhibits at the ICA in Boston move from the disorder of daily life, to the artificial ordering of scientific collections, to the stark and heart-breaking beauty of a simple, tragic  life-story.

Dana Schutz’s big paintings show jumbles of objects out of order, and depictions of circumstances out of sequence: life, emotionally colorful and out of control.

Mark Dion’s Misadventures of a 20th Century Naturalist display some of the things that science finds and preserves and categorizes and organizes in hierarchies and groupings that make sense, until sense fails and nonsense or art take over.

Grenadian Steve McQueen’s film shows two films on either side of a free-standing screen. One side shows a young Grenadian, Ashes, on his boat on the open ocean, under a bright sun. He balances, riding the waves, happy to be seen and filmed in his strength and health. On the other side,  monument masons work silently, creating a stone marker for Ashes’ body as the story of the young man’s killing by drug dealers is narrated. The wet slap of cement trowels smoothing the tomb, and the sweep of brushes whitewashing the finish coat, recall the lap of the waves under Ashes’ boat.

Pumpkin Pie by John Greenleaf Whittier 1807-1892

Part of a poem by a New England poet, on this New England holiday.

Ah! on Thanksgiving day, when from East and from West,
From North and from South comes the pilgrim and guest;
When the gray-haired New Englander sees round his board
The old broken links of affection restored,
When the care-wearied man seeks his mother once more,
And the worn matron smiles where the girl smiled before,
What moistens the lip and what brightens the eye?
What calls back the past, like the rich Pumpkin pie?

Oh, fruit loved of boyhood! the old days recalling,
When wood-grapes were purpling and brown nuts were falling!
When wild, ugly faces we carved in its skin,
Glaring out through the dark with a candle within!
When we laughed round the corn-heap, with hearts all in tune,
Our chair a broad pumpkin,—our lantern the moon,
Telling tales of the fairy who travelled like steam
In a pumpkin-shell coach, with two rats for her team!

Then thanks for thy present! none sweeter or better
E’er smoked from an oven or circled a platter!
Fairer hands never wrought at a pastry more fine,
Brighter eyes never watched o’er its baking, than thine!
And the prayer, which my mouth is too full to express,
Swells my heart that thy shadow may never be less,
That the days of thy lot may be lengthened below,
And the fame of thy worth like a pumpkin-vine grow,
And thy life be as sweet, and its last sunset sky
Golden-tinted and fair as thy own Pumpkin pie!

Richard Ford remembers his parents

Richard Ford writes that without faith there is only literature and other peoples’ stories to keep us company, or something to that effect. An only child (like John Updike and Richard Wilbur, of the previous post), Ford remembers his parents in this two-part memoir. The book is a quiet, beautiful, understated eulogy of the author’s childhood family of three.

Ford paints a picture of an absent, traveling-salesman father who did his son no harm. He paints a fuller, still stylized, picture of his mother: a woman who loved her husband, and who entered into a partnership of mutual respect and love with her son after his father died young, of a heart attack.

Without siblings to contradict him, and without children of his own to blur childhood memories, Ford frames consistent and finely veiled profiles of his parents.

Memories of the dead–washed, preserved and blessed– are recorded to keep the author’s family of three together and famous. Ford writes to tell this story of his life with his parents to us, his admiring readers, but mainly he must have written this book to keep memories alive for himself. Readers will be persuaded by the memory-presentation, weighted as it is to framed parental love, the memory of which can save a lonely child from the cruel carelessness of time.

To write a memoir and to consider the importance of another human being is to try to credit what might otherwise go unremarked-partly by acknowledging that mysteries lie within us all, and by identifying within those mysteries, virtues. p. 51

I can recognize now that life is short and has inadequacies that once again it requires crucial avoidances as fillings-in to be acceptable. Most everything but love goes away. p. 66

There was a life full of small events. I have remembered more than I do now. I’ve written down memories, disguised salient events into novels, told stories again and again to keep them within my reach. But pieces stand for the whole well enough. Though each must make a difference to me or I wouldn’t remember them so well.  p. 108

Richard Wilbur 1921-2017

The title of this blog is from a line of a poem by Richard Wilbur. In the night sky of writers above me, Wilbur was not the north star, but he was in the constellation of the big dipper. Updike is dead, and now Wilbur, the novelist, and now the poet.

Richard Wilbur’s light will shine for generations. Learned, elegant, earthy, a lonely only child, he began writing poems when he was in the service “to put his world in order” when it was coming apart. He went all the way to the top floor of American literature, through Harvard, to two Pulitzer prizes. Poet Laureate of the United States in 1987.  He dug into it–the world and its words–with grace. His poems exhibit the calm authority of a master.

It was not until World War II took me to Cassino, Anzio, and the Siegried Line that I began to versify in earnest. One does not use poetry for its major purposes, as a means of organizing oneself and the world, until one’s world somehow gets out of hand.
–Richard Wilbur

                             The Writer

In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

MIT Museum


The MIT Museum on Mass Ave in Cambridge captures a bit of the genius, goodness, humane intentions, and playfulness of MIT. In addition to exhibits on ocean engineering, holography and robotics, there is a display of blown-glass objects and examples of the engineering creations of Arthur Ganson.


Structural engineering art by Arthur Ganson has been exhibited at the MIT Museum since 1995.

A note on the exhibit says that Gannon uses the principles of mechanics to create “gestures”–physical actions that express feelings and ideas. But he wants viewers to make their own meanings. “With all of these pieces,” he says, you don’t have to know anything. Everything you feel about them is true–for you.”

Tom Petty End of the Line

Don Williams 1939-2017 Good Ol’ Boys

Of all his quiet, thoughtful country-pop songs, this is my favorite. The place that formed you never leaves you. Anybody who writes about wind in the trees, and names the trees–even with an inconvenient spacing word to make the line right–is alright with me.

Those Williams boys, they still mean a lot to me, Hank and Tennessee.  Every time I hear that line it makes me smile.

The radio light by his bed, John R from Nashville and Wolfman Jack from Chicago keeping him company, Thomas Wolfe whispering in his head.

A literate little boy who made a living and became famous writing and singing evening songs.



The Wisdom of Money by Pascal Bruckner

French philosopher Pascal Bruckner’s essay on money wends around through the roots of weath and our complex and often contradictory relationship with it. Bruckner shows us personal and cultural attitudes about the value and danger of money. The section on gift-giving and Christmas reminds me of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Gifts essay.

Money implies, first of all, confidence…It is not only a unit of exchange and receptacle of value, but above all a barometer of our desires…To talk about money is always to talk about ourselves. p. 3

In France, one has to seem humble to avoid arousing the envy of the disadvantaged. In the United States, wealth is flaunted…In America, the taboo on sex is predominant, in France it is the taboo on money. These two countries, incarnate in a chemically pure state, would be diametrically opposed archetypes. p. 42

America is in danger of reliving, in the capitalist mode, Europe’s experience of feudalism, the financial barons being the new aristocrats, without manners or blue blood…the American educational and health-care systems, which are expensive and easily accessible only to the wealthiest, and the incestuous proximity of Wall Street to Congress and the White House constitute a scandal and an enigma. p. 70

Giving should be taught like table manners and politeness. A gift has nothing to do with its price; it consists entirely in the intention and beauty of the act of giving it. No matter how humble it may be, it is like an emissary from the giver and bears his imprint on it.  p. 217

The genius of a great culture is primarily and above all the development of beauty, the feeling of an endless exuberance from which we cannot escape without suffering grave damage. That is the secret of a good life: Never run out of things to wonder at.
p. 134