Attack of the Metaphors

I have a masters in literature and that means I can read anything and find the “hidden meaning.” I was trained for that task and for a long time I thought it was a valuable skill.

Now I don’t. A friend recently looked at my little painting of the storm coming over the mountains and pronounced it a painting of “Melancholy.” I love her, but I wanted to slap her. It’s not a painting of melancholy. It’s a painting of a storm coming over the mountains. I HATE that gratuitous reading into works of art, especially mine. I have a “thing” about letting something be what it is.

Not that I’ll ever be superficial. That ship sailed a long time ago, but I have found as I’ve grown up, read more books and seen more art that the last thing that interests me is “philosophy” or “criticism,” but damn if I’m not stuck with poetry.

Back in grad school, in a seminar on William Butler Yeats, I disgusted my classmates, pleased my boyfriend-like-thing, and impressed my professor by recognizing, from the words (an IMAGE) in a poem, that the subject of the poem was riding a horse. I no longer remember the poem, but I remember being taken to task outside by a couple of classmates for “making things up.” I wasn’t making anything up. The poem was “about” a parade and Yeats said something about a thigh passing by. No mystery there, as far as I could see.

Sorry I can’t remember the poem. I’ve searched, but no luck.

After many many many years teaching Critical Thinking which asks (relentlessly) the fundamental question, “What’s real?” I stand by the fact that the thigh of a guy on a horse, passing by on a parade, is at eye level. It’s brilliant description of actual reality, not hidden meaning.

The true poem is life.

Reality is beautiful. Sometimes it hits me with the full force of its awful power. Years ago, in Denver, I helped a blind guy get to his bus. When he got up the bus’ steps he turned and said, “See you!”

I was lacerated. He would NEVER see me. We passed on the street several times after that and he never knew.

It happened again yesterday.

Bear and I have a new friend, a little boy of 5 or 6 who lives on the corner where we pass on our walk. Bear and he shared a moment yesterday (their second). We had a little conversation about the weather then Bear was ready to go on our walk. As we turned away, the boy said, “See you tomorrow!”

Bear and I went off to evaluate the snow on the golf course and safe in the moment (where all dog’s live) I didn’t appreciate the metaphor until later in the evening.

I’m 67. The little neighbor boy’s “tomorrow” will not have me in it. There’s every possibility (and I hope for the realization of this possibility) that someday HE will be 67 and some young kid will say, “See you tomorrow!” I hope my little neighbor doesn’t end up with my training and the habit of finding metaphors.


To write this post, I went into the spare bedroom and got my big book, Poems of W.B. Yeats. I really hoped to find the poem with the thigh and the parade, but no luck. Instead, as I thumbed through the pages, I was struck by the fact that this is the birthday of a great friend — now dead — who loved Yeats, too. We hung around together, sometimes in used bookstores, where we read poetry to each other and laughed at each other. Denis had a PhD from Notre Dame so he could do the poetry interpretation thing with way more flash than I could.

Denis died at 49, two days before his 50th birthday. That’s now a pretty long time ago.

“He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly…”

William Butler Yeats, from “Easter, 1916”

If I have the time, I will try to rhyme

There are people in this world who, though very gifted — brilliant, even — in useful ways, still want to be poets. My dad — a gifted mathematician — wanted to be a poet. I knew this about him, but until I cleaned out the garage this past spring, I didn’t realize how MUCH he wanted to be a poet.

There was a lot of (bad) poetry. Great poetry because my dad wrote it, but… One of his treasures was a rhyming dictionary. I treasured it for years and years and years — since I was 10 and he discovered I might be a REAL poet someday. My dad sometimes lectured me on vers libre, poetry with no rhyme or rhythm (often no rhyme or reason) and he wrote poetry in this style.

I did really want to be a poet. I personally (and somewhat secretly) love poetry. Poetry can make my emotions catch their breath. Last fall I was in Taos with a friend and met Pierre DeLattre, a painter and writer. It was an intense encounter because it involved paintings (beautiful paintings!) and Yeats.

Though the study of it enhanced my ability to love it, studying literature and loving poetry are not always the same thing. In my Critical Writing class (a great class with a fine professor) as an undergraduate we were tasked to write 10 different essays about ONE poem by Yeats. I learned more about academic writing in that class than any other I took. The poem I chose was “The Double-Vision of Michael Robartes” which honestly made no sense to me at all until I began writing about it and then it became more than just a poem (“just” a poem?) It does rhyme. The rhymes are somewhat agonized at times, but it all works to a beautiful effect at the end where the final rhyme is broken; close, but not quite there.

These days rhyme often gets a bad rap ( ha ha ). In my opinion, rhyme is a pretty cool thing. It helps people remember. It creates music, something often missing from my dad’s beloved vers libre. End rhymes and rhythm are part of nature. Inside each seed is the coded destination of the flower and the fruit.

For what but eye and ear silence the mind
With the minute particulars of mankind?

“The Double Vision of Michael Robartes” William Butler Yeats


Taos is almost a cliché for unusual — even spiritual — experiences. I haven’t been there in a long time — not since 1980! — but today I went with a friend who’s a talented fiber artist. She has work in a boutique in downtown Taos and she was taking some of it out to sell in a festival this coming weekend.

We went into one very lovely gallery — beautiful paintings, and my friend was excited about the technique and I was excited about the scenes; landscapes but out of the ordinary, done with lots of paint, one of the two artists using a knife, the other a huge brush.

Then we went into another gallery, smaller, less “chic,” but filled with art. The owner was there — introduced the gallery as he and his wife, saying it was a family gallery. “These abstract works are by my wife; my work is toward the back.”

I walked into the back room and saw several paintings and framed prints I thought were beautiful. One in particular caught my eye and then I looked at the title. I saw took its name from one of my favorite poems, “The Song of the Wandering Aengus” by William Butler Yeats.

The owner followed us back and somehow we began talking of it and he said, “I like to paint poetry. That’s a poem by Yeats. I can recite it if you want.”

I did want. He did recite it and very beautifully. I was moved; the poem, the painting and the recitation were very intense for me.

I said, “The Song of the Wandering Aengus.”

“That’s what I recited.”

“I know,” I said. “I love that poem.” I was crying, and my mind was a muddle. The poem is one that matters to me even without the numerous associations it has, and the last person in my life who’d recited Yeats was a precious friend who’s been dead 10 years. I felt as if he were in the room.

My friend said, “Look, she’s crying.”

“Oh my dear,” said the man, kissing me on top of the head.

There are several other poems by Yeats I love, but I couldn’t summon even a line.

“I have another painting of Yeats’ poetry back here.” We walked to the far back room and there was a canvas with two different paintings. The first was “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” which he recited. By then I was falling into a very deep stated of stunnedness.

“That’s another poem,” he said, pointing to the other side. “Sailing to Byzantium.”

That poem is profoundly significant to me for many reasons, many important connections throughout my life. “I can recite it,” he said, “but I will have to spin in a circle, if you don’t mind that.”

“I don’t mind.”

He began to spin counter-clockwise and out of him came a perfect recitation of the poem.

I explained how the poem had long ago given me access to Venice, a city I couldn’t understand, buildings too grand and foreign for me to even begin to know what I was looking at, and I offered him some lines from “Byzantium,” another poem that described for me what I saw in the Basilica San Marco. He answered with the lines that furthered the painting done by the poem.

It was a little much for my friend who, by then, really wanted out of there.

So we left. Back on the sidewalk, I realized I was intoxicated, and then I thought of Baudelaire, of “Enivrez Vous,” where he writes that the only way to bear the terrible burden of time is to be intoxicated with wine, with poetry, with virtue, whatever you choose. I returned to the shop and told this to the man who answered me with the whole poem, in French.


The artist’s name is Pierre Delattre and the studio is 115 Bent Street in Taos.

Green Like Me

St. Patrick’s Day was always a big deal for me and my other Irish friends. One year at the college where we both taught my friend and colleague, Denis Joseph Francis Callahan made a special presentation on the white slavery of the Irish. He had an ulterior, political motive at that college in which most of the students were Hispanic, Filipino or Black, and that was the un-PC point of, “Shut yer gob. We’ve all had a rough go.” America’s tradition of white slavery is  a bit of history that many white nationalities have experienced coming to the new world and which is never — OK, very very seldom — taught in history classes. Many people were shocked. I do not think the lesson stuck, but at least it was out there.

There were other celebrations, too, particularly the reading of Irish literature at D. G. Wills bookstore in La Jolla where Irish books took prominence on the shelves.

In my family, too, Kennedy, dontcha’ know, there was the eating of the corned beef and cabbage, the buying of soda bread at the store, whatever else there was Irish that we could do. Sad to say, the parents weren’t whiskey drinkers. Me mum drank Bourbon and me da was after a finger or two of Scotch. The beer in my house was Schlitz. For meself, my favorite poet is an Irishman, William Butler Yeats, and ’tis of no importance that he was a Northern Irishman, he was Irish, still.

As for me, I’ve passed for Irish so well that in an Irish pub in San Diego, accompanied by a friend from Ireland, a pub patronized by ex-pats (see what I did there?) a foine young man, a few sheets to the wind, asked me when I’d last been “home.”

And now? All my research has shown me that in me blood, I have but a drop of the ould sod.

The British Celtic races from which I’m descended came from the Scottish highlands (see picture above). Looks like I’m more Indigenous American than Irish. So here I am this St. Patrick’s Day, feeling nostalgia not for me ancestral homelands of the Green Isle, but feeling nostalgia for the time when I believed I was Irish.

The truth can be a hard thing.


Erin go Bragh!  anyway and here’s my favorite Yeats’ poem, the “Song of the Happy Shepherd.”

The woods of Arcady are dead,
And over is their antique joy;
Of old the world on dreaming fed;
Grey Truth is now her painted toy;
Yet still she turns her restless head:
But O, sick children of the world,
Of all the many changing things
In dreary dancing past us whirled,
To the cracked tune that Chronos sings,
Words alone are certain good.
Where are now the warring kings,
Word be-mockers? — By the Rood
Where are now the warring kings?
An idle word is now their glory,
By the stammering schoolboy said,
Reading some entangled story:
The kings of the old time are dead;
The wandering earth herself may be
Only a sudden flaming word,
In clanging space a moment heard,
Troubling the endless reverie.
Then nowise worship dusty deeds,
Nor seek, for this is also sooth,
To hunger fiercely after truth,
Lest all thy toiling only breeds
New dreams, new dreams; there is no truth
Saving in thine own heart. Seek, then,
No learning from the starry men,
Who follow with the optic glass
The whirling ways of stars that pass —
Seek, then, for this is also sooth,
No word of theirs — the cold star-bane
Has cloven and rent their hearts in twain,
And dead is all their human truth.
Go gather by the humming sea
Some twisted, echo-harbouring shell,
And to its lips thy story tell,
And they thy comforters will be,
Rewarding in melodious guile
Thy fretful words a little while,
Till they shall singing fade in ruth
And die a pearly brotherhood;
For words alone are certain good:
Sing, then, for this is also sooth.
I must be gone: there is a grave
Where daffodil and lily wave,
And I would please the hapless faun,
Buried under the sleepy ground,
With mirthful songs before the dawn.
His shouting days with mirth were crowned;
And still I dream he treads the lawn,
Walking ghostly in the dew,
Pierced by my glad singing through,
My songs of old earth’s dreamy youth:
But ah! she dreams not now; dream thou!
For fair are poppies on the brow:
Dream, dream, for this is also sooth.

“But Martha, I YEARN!”

Denis (with his PhD in Literature from Notre Dame and his dissertation on Samuel Beckett and his [subtly] dyed hair) and I wandered around the campus one damp morning. I was in love with Denis. Denis was infatuated with Rebecca. Rebecca was NOT interested in Denis. By then, I had had my heart broken and was pulling away. I would fall out of love with Denis (for good) and a great friendship would grow out of the rubble. I’d fallen in love with him from liking him. The liking wouldn’t stop just because of Rebecca — whom I recognized as the Dave Matthews Band to Denis’ Beatles. It wasn’t going to happen.

That day all this had not happened yet. Denis had just said, “But Martha. I YEARN.”

Half a dozen years later Denis fell in love with me, but when he said, “I love you,” I didn’t hear anything I didn’t already know. Of course we loved each other. We were friends.

Longing. Yearning. This boy, that boy, this man, that man, this dream, that dream, ideal followed on ideal, romantic smokescreen and illusion. A shadow show.

One Sunday morning we were walking on the beach from Pacific to Mission Beach, and Denis said, “I went to a therapist for a while. He said, ‘It’s going to be difficult for you to find love, I’m afraid. It’s never easy for very intelligent people’. What do you think, Gus? You’re also a very intelligent person. It hasn’t been easy for you.” (Gus was my nickname.)

I thought about it for a little bit. It was an interesting question and one I hadn’t thought of, ever. The whole “luv” thing had never gone well for me. Was this partly WHY?

“Maybe,” I said. “Maybe we’ve just read too much poetry.”

What I meant was perhaps Denis and I were both in love with longing, the unattainable beauty in the high tower. Perhaps, to us, this poem was too beautiful, and evoked too much of what we truly wanted, whatever we told ourselves, whatever we told each other.

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

William Butler Yeats


Poem a Day, 14 / Yeats

The Song of Wandering Aengus

by W. B. Yeats

I went out to the hazel wood,   
Because a fire was in my head,   
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,   
And hooked a berry to a thread;   
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,   
I dropped the berry in a stream   
And caught a little silver trout.   

When I had laid it on the floor   
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,   
And someone called me by my name:   
It had become a glimmering girl   
With apple blossom in her hair   
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.   

Though I am old with wandering   
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,   
I will find out where she has gone,   
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,   
And pluck till time and times are done,   
The silver apples of the moon,   
The golden apples of the sun.

– See more at:

Full on school starts tomorrow, so a bit of beauty to end the winter break.

Poem a Day 9/ Yeats (Who has chosen the Island)

The Lake Isle of Innisfree


I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.