Joel Sumner Smith

Product Manager @Gatsby focused on developer experience.
Analogical thinker in an analytical world.

Letters

Marginalia and exposition on literary and human themes.

Sonnet LXXVII

A translation of my favorite Neruda sonnet

Show, Don’t Tell

The word show is a slippery fish. It’s a term of abuse for those whose action seem to be a pretense: He’s just being showy. It’s also a noun for an intentional pretense: That was an excellent show…

Finding Consolation

On the Nobel Prize website, one can find an enchanting, one-minute video of the St. Lucian poet laureate, Derek Walcott, reading a poem, “Sea Grapes”, in his gravelly, Caribbean accent. The poem…

On Working

I was pretty stupid when I first read Walcott’s poem. I might have been only 21 or 22, but regardless of my naivety, these particular lines really struck. They struck me so hard that I couldn’t…

Why Whitman might have read Walcott’s Omeros

The want for something finished completed and technically beautiful will certainly not be supplied by this writer, as it is by existing esthetic works. For the best poems both the old ones and later ones now accepted as first class are polished, rhymed regular, with all the elegance of fine conceits, carefully elaborated, showing under […]

Review of Adam Kirsch’s The Modern Element

The Modern Element in Poetry: Essays on Contemporary Poetry Adam Kirsch W.W. Norton & Company $18.47 at Amazon Among the few books of general literary criticism that I have read in the last five years, none has compared with Adam Kirsch’s The Modern Element: Essays in Contemporary Poetry. Kirsch, a true modern man of letters, […]

Milosz Poem

Veni Creator Come, Holy Spirit, bending or not bending the grasses, appearing or not above our heads in a tongue of flame, at hay harvest or when they plough in the orchards or when snow covers crippled firs in the Sierra Nevada. I am only a man: I need visible signs. I tire easily, building […]

A Lyric Virtue

Despite a volley of rhetoric over the last three centuries, our lives still stretch into dark places. What I mean to say is that our lives are still shrouded in mystery, that the demands of living as a human—as opposed to say a mere animal or thing—cannot be reduced to mere calculus. Reductive descriptions of […]

The Base of All Metaphysics

And now gentlemen, A word I give to remain in your memories and minds, As base and finale too for all metaphysics. (So to the students the old professor, At the close of his crowded course.) Having studied the new and antique, the Greek and Germanic systems, Kant having studied and stated, Fichte and Schelling […]

An Introduction that Got Away

Often times, I attempt to condense the world onto the head of a pin. The following is such an endeavor: …fill the element with signatures of your own frequency, echo-surroundings, searches, probes, allurements, elver gleams in the dark of the whole sea. Seamus Heaney “Station Island” XII Each poet provides, whether explicitly or implicitly,  a […]

Another Treasure

While dealing with Yeats’s enigmatic question (and importantly the trail of experience leading up to it) Cleanth Brooks makes the following synthesis between “Among School Children” and Wordsworth’s “Intimations Ode”: The mature man can see the harmony, the unity of being, possessed by the tree or the lamb or the child; but the price of […]

Buoyancy

It seems strange that an encounter with a mind through poetry can both deflate the spirit but then lead it to a subliminal acceptance or at least a kind self-awareness, however bitter and mysterious. From over a month ago in my reading of Walcott: Rain will keep hammering the grass blades into the ground. I […]

Two Short Excerpts

Most people enjoy contemplating the sufferings of tragic heroes, but they do not wish to be called upon for heroism themselves. Not caring deeply; looking at everything with irony, as a mere spectacle; and pursuing superficial pleasures: these are clever ways of evading or thwarting tragedy–in love, but also in every department of life. The […]

Reflections on the Eve of Our Anniversary

This morning I was finishing up a professional WordPress page, and I wrote the following as part of my brief biography. In the past year, and in the years to come, my own “raid on the inarticulate” has taken on a very particular task—namely loving my wife. Marriage, in the most beautiful of metaphors, can be likened to the […]

How One Might Mean

Then Ben wailed again, hopeless and prolonged. It was nothing. Just sound. I might have been all time and injustice and sorrow become vocal for an instant by a conjunction of planets.                                                        The Sound and the Fury, p. 359

The Newest Additions to my Library

Thanks to my mother, I had the opportunity to go, as one might say, hog wild in the Half-Price Books on Northwest Highway. When the dust settled and I arrived at home, I found the following books in my arms:     Yeats: The Man and the Masks, Richard Emwell     Collected Poems, Allen Tate     Dreamtigers, Jorge Luis […]

Every now and again

Every now and again I come across a poem which gives delight in its clarity (this last prepositional phrase being the distinctive.) Here’s one from a book I recently was priviliged to buy. Anthropos apteros for days Walked whistling round and round the Maze, Relying happily upon His temperament for getting on. The hundredth time […]

Two ways one might live without Paradise

Joyfully, I spent a lackadaisical Friday afternoon reading the first few hundred lines of Wordsworth’s Prelude. In a way I was decompressing from Greek, in another I was indulgding myself. The true justification for such a reading perhaps is one of pursuing knowledge: I, by nature, reach out to read poetry (which my professors will […]

A Reading Note

I’m tucked away in the library, studying on my spring break (is it bad that I should enjoy this?) when lo and behold, what gem of wisdom should I come across? Dangling below the title to a book’s first chapter I find the following: ‘For those who wish to find answers, it is a real step […]

New wine in old wineskins

No two created beings are exactly alike. And their individuality is no imperfection. On the contrary, the perfection of each created thing is not merely in its conformity to an abstract type but in its own individual identity within itself. This particular tree will give glory to God by spreading out its roots in the […]

Another Conclusion

The end of a sentence, it seems, always achieves a kind of empahsis. Ends have this way gripping the reader, disposing him at last. The end of poems have gripped me lately, and this particular conclusion has gripped me since I read it last spring. Its potency has not changed; an action still occurs in […]

Two excerpts from Berry

After finishing The Country of Marriage after dinner, I’ve decided another excerpt is necessary for it demonstrates one of Berry’s most important ideas (I will save you the citation from Standing by Words.) This lengthy passage comes from the poem entitled “A Country Funeral”: But our memory of ourselves, hard earned, is one of the land’s […]

In Memoriam

ἐν τῆ ποίεσει ὡς τῶ βίω Ah, the hyphen of unfinished things, the unachieved like that shaft of light in the fading sky, the lance of a brush crossing the canvas! O, loss, that believed in Time and its talent! The racing shadows advance. (Walcott Tiepolo’s Hound) In the midst of life, we are in death. (Book […]

Wittgenstein on the limitations of philosophy

Though I understand just a portion of the whole book, I found the following passage quite enlightening in many respects. Not least of all, I find its implications for an honest theology to be of huge importance: Imagine we had to arrange the books of a library. When we begin the books lie higgledy-piggledy on the […]

Wordsworth and Whitman: Two Thoughts(?) About Nature

Excerpt from Whitman’s “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life” I perceive I have not really understood any thing, not a single object, and that no man ever can, Nature here in sight of the sea taking advantage of me to dart upon me and sting me, Because I have dared to open my […]

from Preface to Leaves of Grass

“Who troubles himself about his ornaments or fluency is lost. This is what you shall do: Love the earth and the sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and the crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, […]

Commentary on an Elementary Poem

Today, I’m dealing with Robert Frost, perhaps one of my favorite poets.   Whose woods these are I think I know, His house is in the village though; He will not see me stopping here To watch his woods fill up with snow. My little horse must think it queer To stop without a farmhouse […]

Sea Grapes

That sail which leans on light, tired of islands, a schooner beating up the Caribbean for home, could be Odysseus, home-bound on the Aegean; that father and husband’s longing, under gnarled sour grapes, is like the adulterer hearing Nausicaa’s name in every gull’s outcry. This brings nobody peace. The ancient war between obsession and responsibility […]

An Unwritten Elegy

A day is not a dream or a poem, but perhaps a well placed palm   pressed against a rising wall at dusk; the sweeping scythe with hushed   tones: gathering, spreading the wheat; walking interminable furrows to meet   the wilting day, the growing dawn, both the moment of unborn thought   when wounds […]

Why not start off on the right foot?

The real value of art and life are perhaps best defined and felt in the tension between them. The effort to perfect the work rises out of, and communes with and in turn informs, the effort to perfect life… Wendell Berry Standing by Words p. 22 I have begun to understand Berry in a new […]

© 2020, Joel Sumner Smith