On VP Meeting Madison Arling, and His Sonnet xxi

Varjak Paul met Madison Arling underneath the old, giant oak in the center of Hopecliff Woods, just outside his hometown of Pencilbrook.

Any native of Pencilbrook, Ohio will tell you the same story: the old oak in the woods is older than anyone knows. Most would even say God Himself planted it. Why God would do this is another matter altogether, one not generally agreed upon. There are some who say the oak tree serves as a reminder of God’s eternal qualities. Others claim the oak tree is a reminder of our own mortality. Since the life of Varjak Paul fell into the lap of Pencilbrook, however, a new purpose for the oak tree has developed. It is now commonly asserted that the tree was planted as the perfect place for an eventual meeting between Paul and Madison Arling, who would become his wife.

The old oak tree is said to be the oldest living thing in the state. According to local legend, having a piece of the tree fall into your possession without provocation would increase your lot of wisdom, but to take a piece forcibly would lessen it. Stories have been told and retold about pieces of the tree coming into Varjak’s possession in his youth, however most are likely apocryphal in nature. Varjak did claim to have received a piece of the tree, but he never specified how, and no proof other than his literary achievements was ever offered.

As a preteen and teenager, Varjak spent a fair amount of time writing underneath the giant oak. Given Varjak’s general silence on the subject, there is no way of knowing if any of his more famous works were written under the old oak or whether the majority of work written there consisted mainly of experimentation and journaling. Varjak maintained very little of his professional output was thus inspired underneath the oak, leaving scholars and readers alike to speculate endlessly. However, it is perhaps important to point out that a tree similar to the one in Hopecliff Woods plays a somewhat integral part in the convergence of characters in the Madison epic. In any event, all are left to wonder as to any possible correlation between the meeting between Varjak Paul and the real-life Madison Arling, and the events in the Madison epic.

As Varjak told it, on the day he met Madison, he was nestled comfortably under the giant oak and writing poetry. He claimed the poetry he was writing that day was trivial and remained unpublished, but some scholars argue that Varjak’s 21st sonnet, published posthumously, must have been written on the very day of their first meeting, citing dubious literary “clues.”

It is generally agreed upon that when Varjak met Madison, he was already romantically involved with another young woman. The nature of the involvement is unclear, and cannot be historically traced. Scholars arguing for this poem’s status as having been written on the day Varjak met Madison point to the harshness of the poem’s first meeting/parting as parallel to the end of the relationship with the other woman. The apparent surprise upon discovering the owner of the footsteps in line 12 indicates that a different person had approached, and some say must have been Varjak’s retelling of the first time he saw Madison Arling.

However, the reaction (“’You...?!’”) by the narrator to the identity of his second guest would seem to demonstrate that he had in fact come in contact with the person before. Based upon this observation, most scholars conclude that C wrote the poem more with symbolism than reality in mind. The first meeting can then been seen as meant to display the end, however, harsh, to Varjak’s romantic life before he met Madison. The second meeting, and the second individual, represents not so much Madison herself, as the phase Varjak’s life was about to enter. That the narrator had apparently met the second individual before the poem’s events took place can likewise be seen as an indication of previous knowledge of this new phase, and the final line’s break with the previous relationships of the past displays a willingness to embrace whatever lies ahead.

Whether or not Varjak Paul’s Sonnet xxi was written on the day he met Madison Arling, it remains a standard poetic example of how we all might better respond to newness. If the parallels to Paul’s life are taken as true, the lesson is clear: the past can provide fruitful insight, but embracing the present and entering the future with open arms is considerably more important. As history tells us, Varjak wrote considerably less about romantic involvement before he met Madison; after the two came together, his literary production, especially romantic, hit the ground running. He had found his muse.

Sonnet xxi

this canopy of green envelopes those
who long for solace, stillness, or who, in
prayer, request the smallest things, like a rose
in bloom, or this great tree, or just less sin.

this tree, then, and this canopy, are but
the eyes and ears of God, and saw you walk-
ing, heard me calling, watched as our eyes met,
listened in, and smiled with joy as we talked

briefly. briefly, and you left me to think,
and be alone. after i cried a tear
or briefly, two, i set my soul in ink
some more, but what?–whose are those steps i hear?

i braced for your return, looked up, and–“You...?!

A moment, please,” i’ve other things to do.


Ten Questions about Poetry

1. What is the first poem you ever loved? Why?

Two poems by E. E. Cummings come to mind: “what of a much of a which of a wind,” and “somewhere i have never traveled, gladly beyond.” I seem to recall both poems striking me as beautiful and important (at least, to my understanding of the possible range of “poetry”) for roughly the same reason: that is, you can do things with words that make sense in ways you do not learn alongside grammar and syntax. Visually, phonetically, etc., Cummings’ poems were, to me, like a crack in a painted window just large enough to see through, and through which I discovered a ridiculously wider expanse of possibilities.

2. What is something/someone non-“literary” you read which may surprise your peers/colleagues? Why do you read it/them?

I have received Sports Illustrated for some time, now, and love it more than ever. I hesitated to mention it, however, because the writing contained therein is, week in and week out, of an almost comically “literary” quality.

I am an avid reader of Calvin & Hobbes. Hardly a week goes by when I do not pick up one of the collections I own and lose myself for some time therein.

(I doubt if either SI or Calvin & Hobbes would be surprising to those who know me, though a stranger reading my poetry might be hard-pressed to guess either one.)

3. How important is philosophy to your writing? Why?

I believe that poetry is, at its core, beautiful words that mean beautiful things. I believe also that beauty and truth are intertwined in an interesting way: that is, while not all beauty is expressive of (capital-T) Truth, all Truth is beautiful. Philosophy is, at its core, the search for capital-T Truth. If I can say, then, that anything I have written was aimed at capital-T Truth, and actually hit its mark, it was necessarily also beautiful. I like to think that I do no try to make my words beautiful, but that Truth performs that work for me.

4. Who are some of your favorite non-Anglo-American writers? Why?

Kafka: who would not love such a tortured soul?

Ayn Rand: I do not agree, in large, with her philosophies, but I admire beyond my ability to describe, her efforts to couch her philosophical ideals in literary form. While it can be said that all literature is philosophical by nature, there is something different about Rand. She appears unashamed to be more philosophical than literary (if that is fair to say)

5. Do you read a lot of poetry? If so, how important is it to your writing?

I don’t read enough poetry, as it is, but the poetry I do read is certainly important to my writing, in that I use the poetry to which I am exposed to broaded my poetic awareness. That is to say, I use the poetry I read as inspiration, as a reminder that other people have written exactly what they wanted to, rules and assumptions be damned–or embraced–and so can I.

6. What is something which your peers/colleagues may assume you’ve read but haven’t? Why haven’t you?

T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. I suppose the main reason I haven’t read it is that it is a very intimidating poem, and I have yet to work up the courage or learn the necessary languages.

7. How would you explain what a poem is to my seven year old?

A poem is what you get when you put words together so they sound good and mean honest, beautiful things; the best poems are the most True.

8. Do you believe in a Role for the Poet? If so, how does it differ from the Role of the Citizen?

The poet’s role, so far as I understand it this moment, is largely the same as the role of the citizen, with two adendums: 1) the poet has chosen to make his life as a citizen an example, focusing his experiences, as much as possible, through a single voice, in the hope that some universal truths may be gained, that others may learn and grow just as he has. And 2) the poet has chosen the written word, privately perfected and perfectly presented, so far as he is able, as the primary vehicle of exemplification. The poet feels words swirling constantly within him as the pianist feels notes, as the artist feels color.

9. Word associations (the first word which comes to mind; be honest):

lemon - ice

chiseled - steel

I – me, mine

of - dissention

form - free

10. What is the relationship between the text and the body in your writing?

Burke has pointed out that there can be no action without motion. The body, then, moved to motion for the purposes of acting is foundational, and thus achieves a certain brilliance of stature. That is, while the sheer motion of pencil on paper, as moved by me, brings me no closer the apprehension of truth, the aesthetic appeal of said motion does serve as a reminder that beauty exists in many forms.

Varjak Paul on Inspiration

Varjak Paul, in his --th year, wrote in his journal:

“My writing is not entirely mine; it cannot be. Part and parcel of all my words, the surroundings and experiences from which the words germinated are not things for which I may rightly take credit. I have come to think, as a sort of saving grace in moments of megalomania, that I have stolen from everyone and everything with whom I have come in contact. My words, my ideas, my creations are all little more than the dreams of a child, assembled from the events of his days.”

In what some have viewed as a startling contradiction to the above passage, Paul maintained an outspoken belief in the Muse. To Paul, the Muse was a being every bit as real as his wife. His journal entries detail particular incidents, supposedly face-to-face interaction with the muse, and portray her as a kind of understanding older sister, consistently and gently pushing the Paul toward new truths. During his lifetime, Paul countered such arguments regarding the seemingly contradictory nature of his belief in the Muse and his belief that all creative activity is a product of environment and experience, albeit briefly and subtly, in the form of poetic commentary. The poem “asleep, and asleep” (serves as possibly the best example:

‘neath panes of moon
panes of blue and greyellow
small smiling child blinks
dreamily swimmingly)
of dangers from the schoolyard
foes friends created
not blinking so
and narrated by songs from the radio
on landscapes sculpted from
bits of cheese, or perhaps dessert

‘neath panes of truth
panes of untruth and doubt
small smiling someone drinks in
knowingly unknowingly)
as the styling One sneaks
in, “there’s treasure
and out again.

asleep, and asleep
‘neath panes of moonblue
and greyellow
small smiling child blinks
dreamily, swimmingly)

Most scholars interpret this poem as pointing toward the “styling One,” or the Muse, as the organizing force exerted upon our reflections on experience. Paul was attempting to show that while a paradox may exist here, it is one of organizing value. The Muse, for him, focused his understanding of experience such that it could be re-presented in words. To paraphrase an idea from Paul’s Daylily, the Muse and our experience, as inspirational sources, are at once at odds and in perfect harmony, they present both conflict and resolution. This notion, that the universe is ordered on twin foundations of paradox and harmony, remains both the key and a barrier to understanding many of Varjak Paul’s ideas.


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Overrated Things

Installment #3

7. Red-State/Blue-State. Honestly, this peculiarly arbitrary manifestation of the polarization of American political thought needs to go away. It is weak, in its powers of naming, and it’s just plain silly. For example: I am a left-leaning Red-Stater (though Ohio only recently gained Red-State status by the hair on its chinny-chin-chin) living in a Blue-State, so what exactly does that make me? I suppose I’m a Purple-Stater, or something.

In any event, I urge all red (or blue-) blooded Americans, in keeping with Jon Stewart’s recent suggestion, to “take to the streets and scream, ‘Be reasonable!”

8. The Papacy. As a Protestant myself, this may be a bit unfair. Nevertheless, the Biblical textual basis for the position seems, as I was taught, a little shaky, and it occurs to me that some sort of rule-by-committee might be somewhat less prone to elevation, in the eyes of the common faithful, beyond mere humanity to the quasi-divinity now realized in the Papacy.

All that said, I must profess great admiration for the unity of the Catholic church, under the Pope, for it is something we Protestants are not likely ever to achieve.

9. HBO. Seriously, people pay extra money for this?