Sonnet on Mirth

Well, friends, first-timers, and regular bleaders, I didn’t know what I was going to say today.  Busy may have its own roots, as a word, but for me it is a swarm of bzzzing bees.  I need rather a lion at the moment.  I have two kids, a two year old girl star of my life and a four year old boy man of the world in preschool, husband chases them around and does editing jobs from home when he can, I teach part time, and am rewriting a book proposal to give to a new agent I have not yet found.  Scary because coffers are low.   The key is, don’t panic, don’t rush.  The lock is that my inclination is to freak.  But we all have our inclinations to bear.  I’m feeling pretty happy and optimistic despite the slings and arrows of outrageous lack of fortune.  Hen y whey, do any of you have a high paying job you for which you need a poet-historian-philosopher?  Let me know.  Or maybe you are a patron manque?

So I didn’t know what I was going to say today but Violi’s poem inspired me.  I love those red lipped girls he gave us!  Tellers indeed.  So here’s one of my own.  This is from Funny, in which all the poems have old jokes in them, except for a handful of introductory sonnets, and this is one of those.

“The preacher” in it is another name for Koheleth who wrote Ecclesiastes, which is where the “better to live in the house of mourning than the house of mirth” line comes from, as well as many other brilliancies.  I think I can count on this audience to know who the Bard is.

Here’s yer pome.

Sonnet on Mirth

Of mirth the poets counsel little after

that present it be loved for present laughter.

Also that fool hearts, alone, let themselves belong in

the house of it; the wise, the house of mourning.

Why such divergent answers from such teachers?

Life seemed cruelly short to bard; cruelly long to preacher.

Yet true times run as rivers flow or candles burn,

long in the stretches, short on the turns,

and mirth with bitter herbs is better taken

than meals of mirth alone or years of it forsaken.

Does sweet improve when mixed with strain

or is it that the acrid in that blend begins to fade?

Much endures while youth slips away like a thief,

mirth is a wine well pressed in the house of grief.


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Life, friends, is either difficult or boring. Right now, mine isn’t boring. On Dickinson.


Miserable?  Feel like you are falling out of a plane?  I know I am.  The parachute is empathy. Let’s take a moment and feel for Emily Dickinson, who was weeping long before you were born.  This was written around 1862.  She was about 32.

I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, Eyes –
I wonder if It weighs like Mine –
Or has an Easier size.

I wonder if They bore it long –
Or did it just begin –
I could not tell the Date of Mine –
It feels so old a pain –

I wonder if it hurts to live –
And if They have to try –
And whether – could They choose between –
It would not be – to die –

She wonders for a few stanzas whether time ever cures anyone, or if even with a thousand years, only a bit of a smile would return to the sad faces she sees.  Then she makes sure that we know that grief is a complicated word.  It always means, first and foremost, the harrowing trauma of the death of a loved one.  All other meanings seem to be metaphor.

But all other meanings of the word grief are not metaphor.  The reason there are so many awful people is that grief fills them from some real loss, but because it is not the loss of a loved one, no one tells them they have the right to grieve, so they don’t.  The grief stays in them, in their bodies, and it calcifies, it stops growth, it causes pain.  Dickinson uses her thrilling language to mean many things at once: loneliness, disappointment, rejection, human and profound.  Here’s how she puts it:

The Grieved – are many – I am told –
There is the various Cause –
Death – is but one – and comes but once –
And only nails the eyes –

There’s Grief of Want – and grief of Cold –
A sort they call “Despair” –
There’s Banishment from native Eyes –
In Sight of Native Air –

We don’t just feel bad, we can see feeling okay, right over there.  We are just banished from it. Dickinson closes the poem thinking of the death of Jesus and how each of us has to drag our cross around, and how for her there is a “piercing comfort” available.

And though I may not guess the kind –
Correctly – yet to me
A piercing Comfort it affords
In passing Calvary –

To note the fashions – of the Cross –
And how they’re mostly worn –
Still fascinated to presume
That Some – are like My Own –

The piercing comfort is in seeing other people, and seeing their grief. The comfort is in noting how people bear their load, how they wear their burden.  What is more, the speaker of this poem, dead-hearted through previous stanzas, now finds fascination.  She doesn’t know anything about anyone else’s grief, but it fascinates her to presume, to guess with expectation of being right, that some of the grief she sees is like the most mysterious thing she has ever encountered: her own grief.   Empathy is the hook back in. Why can’t you try to measure every grief you meet, and even speak to it?  It isn’t normal, but it is a lot better than being miserable alone.
Here is a fun quick interview at Neuronarrative (sorry I just fixed this link).

Also this is very nice. So why can’t I choose between the proposals I’ve written and commit and sell one finally? It’s freaking difficult to make choices sometimes. Too much pressure maybe. No money, terrible economy. Anyway, this link has nothing to do with that, I just felt like confessing.


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Getting into Trouble as an Atheist Poet and a Poetic Atheist

Perhaps my true religion is tintinnabulation.  Before I knew what the world was, I wanted to chime rhymes. Before I wanted to be any of the other things that I am, I wanted to be a poet. Poetry was what rang my bell and I wanted to ring bells too. Life as a ride on the clacker. When I really got into history and philosophy, or rather when I really started writing history and philosophy, I found glory in that too.  Yet I still believe that poetry is a path to truth that is unrivaled.

But it is strange, where life takes you.  My second history book  Doubt: A History was a history of religious and philosophical doubt all over the world, through all history.  One of the consequences of its success is that I am regularly asked to give talks at colleges, secularist and skeptic meetings, and lately, churches and temples.  Never in my life have I spent so much time in houses of worship.  Why do they invite me you ask?  They read the book or hear me talking about Doubt on the radio or something and they like the poetry of my approach.

Doing all this talking radicalized me. At first I didn’t want to say I am an atheist, as such, because I was inviting other people to think with me and worried that it might not help to alienate many of them with a single moniker.  Now I do say it, and count on my arguments and my charm to make up the difference.   At a certain point I started to believe it was important to try to say just what I mean, even if it is shocking and difficult, and even if it causes me some distress.

Bleaders and hardware, I write to and on you today in a mood of a cocked gun, or a head-cocked cocker spaniel.  I have always worried that being an out unbeliever might keep some people away from my poetry, or change how it was reviewed, or how received.  I decided it was a matter worth losses, even losses for poetry.  That really does make me pause, but if I have learned something from reading thousands of historical lives, it is that you have to do the right thing when it is in front of you to do, because if you try to avoid it, it comes back at you anyway.

Yet the real point of this increasingly pointy-headed post is that now I’m a controversy within the secularist movement, because I champion poetry above science.  Isn’t that funny?  An interview I did with Point of Inquiry came out this week and I’m getting intense responses by email (via my website I guess).  Especially the thing about suicide, at the end.  (intense and positive about the suicide thing, sparks fly like a rock thrown at a fire on poetry versus science). So I thought, huh, I wonder what the poets would think of all this.

So?  What say you?


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Thanksgiving and Black Friday

So in September of 2006 I got an email from an editor at the New York Times saying they wanted to publish a poem of mine.  Huzzah, right?  Right.  Except, they wanted it to be a poem for Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving that has become a holiday because so many people start their holiday shopping that day.  One’s first thought is, Do I already have such a poem?  One’s second thought, in my case at least, was no, no, nope.  Nothing of the sort.  The Times editor had said that this would be a full op ed page of poetry, he was inviting a few other poets, all to write specifically about Black Friday — lots of good subject choice he said: the bloat, or guilt from eating so much the day before, the shopping, the coming of xmass and the new year.  Would he tell me who the other poets were?  Nope.  He said that one year the poets, knowing who the other poets were, almost ruined the whole thing: two of them showed up at the same bar and apparently got in a fist fight about it.  Say what?  Yes, some kind of jealous brouhaha erupted.  I am at a loss to imagine the dialog that led up to this, but I suppose it could have been as simple as, “When everyone sees our poems together, then we’ll know who is the baddest New York Times Op-Ed special occasion poet in these United States.”

Of course, when a poem you have not written is going to be in the New York Times, you feel a little pressure.  I had other things going on at the time.  It was my first semester teaching at the New School (in the Graduate Writing Program, which I adore, after having taught at Nassau Community College for over a decade, I was a tenured member of the History Dept.).  Aside from a new job (and a new subject matter), I had a two year old boy and a 6 month old girl.  And I was doing promotional stuff for my book The Happiness Myth which had just come out with HarperCollins — radio and running around the country, too.   Still, a part of my brain cleaved off at the moment I learned of the assignment and got to work on the poem.  I gave it a lot of full attention too.  Oh and there was birthday matters to think of too, my husband’s and mine are near each other in late November — that year mine was on Thanksgiving, this year, 2008, his is.

There were times that I had versions of the poem laid out all over the living room rug and I stood over them, babe in arms, and made decisions.  My husband took pictures, but who knows where, and were I to find them, who knows what I was wearing?  So, we’ll let that go.  Anyways, when the day came the other poets turned out to be Billy Collins, Philip Levine, Mary Ruefle, and James McMichael.  Pretty great company to be in.  I was a tiny bit disappointed that the other poems weren’t really about Black Friday, in fact, I’m looking them over now and none of them is even about Thanksgiving.  The are all just poems that took place in fall, and had some family-gathering feel to them, mostly with a melancholy feel.  I have never had an opportunity to ask them, but I would love to know if the other poets had tried to stick to the assignment, or if they had always known they’d use a prewritten poem. Just curious.

Anyway, bleaders, here, for your entertainment, is mine.  I post on Wednesdays here at BAP, so if you want, you read this now, and maybe think of it on Friday.  I’ll drink a toast to you all tomorrow, as I baste my bird.  Hurrah for the beasts and the feasts.

xox jmh

Black Friday Reverie

Thanksgiving was my birthday this year
and I find two holidays in one is not
efficient.  In fact, barely anything gets
done; neither the bird nor the passage
of the year is digested.  Luckily, Black
Friday offers new pleasures while remaining
a stolen day; a day after.  There is shopping,
the streets, or the hilarious malls, but I will
stay home with the leftovers and use

the time to rethink, turkey leg in hand like
a king.  Pumpkin pie, solid soup of
pummeled end-of-summer. Chestnuts and
sausage chunks from stuffing plucked
regally, like an ape leisurely denuding
a blueberry bush of its fruit.  Maybe I mean
Cleopatra’s teeth accepting red grapes from
a solicitous lunk of nubility.  Same image.
The hand feeds, the mouth gets fed.  You

too?  Mother ate turkey in the maternity?
Imagine, you not-born in late Novembers,
if every few years a bird adjoined your
candles. Think, too, who comes to eat
that bird.  Those whose faces look like
yours; those nearly-yous and knew you
whens; those have your same ill eases.  
How’s the sciatica? Fine, how’s yours?

The world is old.  Cleopatra might

have liked Black Friday.  It’s as engaging
as a barge with a fast gold sofa.  She also
might have liked aging. At least preferred
it to the asp.  Yellow leaf patterned
sunlight dazzles the wall with its dapple.
It’s all happening now, as I write. This is
journalism.  No part of the memoir
is untrue.  Though I probably will
go to the mall, if everyone else goes.

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Cures for Boredom and Melancholy


To the Marianne Moore poem, “Poetry,” which begins, “I, too, dislike it,” I always respond, “That’s too bad, it always speaks so well of you.”

I like this response for all confessions of distaste, especially in cases where it makes no sense, as for example, “I hate this cold weather.” I always dreaded winter, but I think my body has changed its mind. In winter you see more of the sky. Perhaps time is a wraith who spins the globe of the earth by pulling on the leafless trees, always reaching out to pull down whatever part of the planet is in autumn. April is the cruelest month, as we have been told, and for the right reason, it breeds lilacs from the dead.

Imagine the energy it would take to sprout a flower. Better we should essen a little turnip root and stay under the red rock. Wear your trousers rolled? Not in this weather baby. If we figure out how to do brain transplants and grow brainless donor bodies from stem cells, how young a body would you angle for? Being small in a big world, with big memories, might be too frustrating. Still, go back far enough so you feel like you could sprout a lilac. Do you find life difficult? I do. I’ve tried all the cures: gargantuan, infinitesimal, pandering, Teutonic, arboreal. The only thing that ever worked was thinking aorticly: take it one heartbeat at a time. Also, lathe-ily, when wracked by lack of decision (should I be at my desk, or with people?) by making the day into a pile of sawdust representing desk, and another pile of sawdust representing people, and then I blow both days away and wait to see which one my shadow rushes to save. Yesterday I told a friend largely confined to bed rest to try to underdo it. But it is difficult. Similarly, I have often thought that there are few ne’r-do-wells, compared to the copious rare-do-wells. Ne’r say ne’r.

Here is a pared down depiction of one of the great prose poems, Hysteria, by TSE.

“She laughed I was aware of becoming involved 
in her laughter and being part of it… drawn in by short gasps,
inhaled at each momentary recovery, … An elderly waiter with trembling hands was hurriedly spreading 
a … cloth over the rusty
green iron table, saying: “If the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden…” I decided that if the shaking of her breasts could be stopped, some of 
the fragments of the afternoon might be collected, 
and I concentrated my attention with careful subtlety to this end.”

Can I call blog readers “bleaders”? Yes. Bleaders, the point is not the best thing you can come to, yet it is always good to do so, eventually. As I have discussed in previous posts, meaning is a carcass full of bees, dripping syrups. But, the goal is to doubt. Debunk. Or did you want the bunk? No. Out with bunk. I know that the goal is to doubt, and yet I doubt the goal. Our only choice, it seems to me, is to pick one particular symptom of one particular hysteria and concentrate on the alleviation of it, with careful subtlety.

I have written a book on the history of religious and philosophical doubt and disbelief all over the world through all history. Doubt: A History My next book was an equally aggressive, if less universal, sally at the windmill of science. The Happiness Myth. What remains is poetry and psychoanalysis. As I’m always telling people, you may love the Renaissance, but you don’t want to use their toilet paper. Or go to their doctors, or use their childrearing techniques or take on their science as your own, or follow their religious worship. But the art holds up.


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Autumn Bramble

The shapes are pleasing but the influence is melancholy.  What rises from the heart and gathers to the eyes when looking at the happy autumn fields?  Idle tears.  I think of this poem this time of year.  It drives me crazy of course, because the style is so purple, and the subject so ochre.   Also because Tennyson says he knows not what they mean, but he guesses emphatically that the tears mean he is thinking of days that are no more.  Do you cry for days that are no more?  I cry for jam that is no more.  I really like jam.

I don’t mind autumn’s exhaustive references to death, I like the color death turns things, but I do find the seeds a bit much.  The seeds seem every year to bite off more than the earth can chew.  Dormancy.  Fecund pressure.   Farms plant in spring, but an autumn untended is all seeds slowly bursting forth and seed spreaders scurrying fast.

I don’t miss days that are no more, not enough to bust out crying just from looking at a field.  It is not the remembered kisses after death but the too abundant opportunity for redemption.  Think of all the people who haven’t yet died to whom we could blow a kiss today, if we just got started early and didn’t break for lunch.  We could just have one of those shakes.   It is not ideal, but it wouldn’t kill us.

I’m not helping myself by bringing pods into the house and strewing my desk with them.  Still, each pod has seeds and each seed works its way out of the pod and eventually ends up between my thumb and forefinger with me saying Thus the amber fields of grain?  Are you freeking kidding me?   That the mighty oak falls doesn’t weird me out if I’m not in too gravitational a mood (very grave), but the acorn gets me, not the size of it, but the number.   Were there only one seed in the world, think how precious it would be.  The implication is that morality responds much too precisely to quantity.

Well, ah, look.  (My impression of the prezelect.) Maybe autumn and Tennyson and my inner lizard brain all just keep acting like Socrates when the guards took the chains off his legs, and he rubbed his ankle and said: Even to the end, pleasure follows pain.  So often together those two.

There’s something awful in the straight shots of words like sad, strange, and wild, and phrases like, “O Death in Life,” but none of this is any more obvious or overdone than the natural world in autumn, which is cornucopic and given the later destruction of so much of it, obscene.   Enjoy!

Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.

Fresh as the first beam glittering on a sail,
That brings our friends up from the underworld,
Sad as the last which reddens over one
That sinks with all we love below the verge;
So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more.

Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns
The earliest pipe of half-awakened birds
To dying ears, when unto dying eyes
The casement slowly grows a glimmering square;
So sad, so strange, the days that are no more.

Dear as remembered kisses after death,
And sweet as those by hopeless fancy feigned
On lips that are for others, deep as love,
Deep as first love, and wild with all regret;
O Death in Life, the days that are no more.

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Oh It’s a Good Day


Ah.  After so much Bar-O-metric pressure, if you see what I’ve done here, punning on the prezelect’s gorgeous name, after so much, I see my facebook friends facebonking their new worries.  I say Not Yet.  I say Take a moment, a day, a heyday and let us let a little open hope-ism into our choked throats.  I say we sing.  I screamed, I hope you screamed, let’s we all keep singing.  Sing the mind solar.  Sing the heart gas and oil.  Sing the body too.  Electric.  I say give a holler and hold it.  Raise up, and say, “Ho, Oh, Oh shit, dude, we overcame.”  Say, “I had a dream, and when I woke up, there it was, true as blue.  The sky looks blue because of particles up there, and the way they dash the various wave frequencies around, the oceans are blue in reflection of the sky.  So blue is as true as anything, true, but not true.  Doing the best it can.  My friend, my friend (imagine me a foreign acquaintance, racing up to you, from behind, with this question), my friend, you have been alive long enough to know, so tell me, “Is the world good?”   I’d like a Woody Allen impersonation here, a repetition of the hypothesis with raised eyebrows, a shrug, and emphasis on the final word, “Uh, well, I don’t know about good.”

Here’s what Arthur (Schopenhauer) says of our search for hints that the world is good.   He says, “Instead of this we see only momentary gratification, fleeting pleasure conditioned by wants, much and long suffering, constant struggle, bellum omnium, everything a hunter and everything hunted, pressure, want, need and anxiety, shrieking and howling; and this goes on…until once again the crust of the planet breaks.”   And in the other volume of that same book he says that for him optimism “seems to me to be not merely an absurd, but also a really wicked way of thinking, a bitter mockery of the unspeakable sufferings of mankind.”

I hear that.  Yet, today I steer my ear to the world’s equal cacophony of birth, joy, and satisfaction, a day of taking the cloth of humble and ground-down, and rip what you have sewn, and racing out to autumn’s grown-lamb bleats and bursting stamens to, yeah I said it, to reap what you have sown, and what your grandfather plowed and your grandmother broadcast as seed in that wide arm gesture of dreams of fair days coming.  Drink the honey of the hive right now, no more conservation of this little treat.  Eat.

Of course, nothing ever changes, but on the other hand, the one thing you can count on is that everything changes.  I remember again what has happened.  I grin and tear up.  Oh you city on a hill.  (pronounced as if a woman has been given an apple pie of diamonds by a guy named Sitti Honah-Ell).  I bat my eyes at thee.  Things change slow until they change fast, but as Harry Klittis said, “You can’t step in the East River twice.”

The tar pits on the other foot (seemed kinder), are the kind of shiver you can step in once. As the Ned the insurance salesman said to Phil at the street puddle in Groundhog Day, “First steps a doozey.”   So big red mastadon: Gowan down to the river, lay you down to sleep.

Surely, I’ve said too much and not enough, but I gave myself til noon to croon at you, and to be turned into a pumpkin in this season is no idle matter.  And as my children might report, no idyll mater.

Have I lost my lyrical little mind?  Yes, and along with bed rest and fiscal redress, that is what I generally today prescribe.  My friends, my countrymen, and all the girls I’ve loved before, it is a good day for blowing a fuse, and chasing the blues, and good news, good news.

For notes on the Schope, it’s all in my book Doubt: A History.  (I should have to type in German twice?)

Until next Wednesday.
-Hecht out.


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