(for Muriel Rukeyser)

Look hard at the world, they said --
generously, if you can
manage that, but hard. To see
the extraordinary data, you
have to distance yourself a
little, utterly. Learn the
right words for the umpteen kinds
of trouble that you'll see,
avoiding elevated
generics like misery,
wretchedness. And find yourself
a like spectrum of exact
terms for joy, some of them
archaic, but all useful.
Sometimes when they spoke to me I
could feel their own purposes
gathering. Language, the dark-
haired woman said once, is like
water-color, it blots easily,
you've got to know what you're
after, and get it on quickly.
Everything gets watered
sooner or later with tears,
she said, your own or other
people's. The contrasts want to
run together and must not be
allowed to. They're what you
see with. Keep your word-hoard dry.

William Meredith, right, with W.H. Auden.

(To W. H. Auden)

for poetry makes nothing happen
What it makes happen is small things,
sometimes, to some, in an area
already pretty well taken
care of by the senses. Thus, to
the eye, spruce needles fix the tufts
of new snow to the twigs so the
wind cannot dislodge them. They hold--
a metaphor. And in the ear,
the open, talking shapes, jet black,
in a snow-bound brook, croon about
cold. And snow-foliage on the
high slopes dupe the ear, and you think:
catkins, maybe, in February
or you think: whirring of doves' wings.
And ice underfoot is mica--
correspondences a man will
find, to his slight alteration,
always, where he pays attention--
on a walk after powder-snow,
in a poem. As you well know.
Looked at carefully, nothing is sullen
but an inattentive creature.
Disorderly things praise order.
The exact details of our plight
in your poems, order revealed
by the closest looking, are things
I'm changed by and had never seen,
might never have seen, but for them.
Poetry makes such things happen
sometimes, as certain people do
at the right juncture of our lives.
Don't knock it, it has called across
the enchanted chasm of love
resemblances like rescue gear.
It is like finding on your tongue
right words to call across the floe
of arrogance to the wise dead,
of health to sickness, old to young.
Across this debt, we tell you so.

Two oaks on Meredith's property.

The two oaks lean apart for light.
They aren't as strong as lone oaks
but in a wind they give each other lee.
Daily since I cleared them I can see
them, tempting to chain saw and ax--
two hard-woods, leaning like that for light.
A hurricane tore through the state one night,
picking up roof and hen-house, boat and dock.
Those two stood: leafless, twigless, giving lee.
Last summer ugly slugs unleafed the trees.
Environmental kids wrote Gypsy Moths Suck
The V of naked oaks leaned to the light
for a few weeks, then put out slight
second leaves, scar-tissue pale as bracts,
bandaged comrades, lending each other lee.
How perilous in one another's V
our lives are, yoked in this yoke:
two men, leaning apart for light,
but in a wind who give each other lee.

A Tract for Michael, Katherine, and Robert
Ideally, you should be in your own
when you read this. Think of it as an oddity--
the one indoor space where living
is deliberately pursued, as in others
we transact dining, sleeping, bathing,
perhaps TV or children. Wherever there are two,
one should be kitchen. For the rich,
rooms can be spun out indefinitely:
drawing-, dressing-, morning-, and special
chambers called library, pantry, nursery.
Many still house their cats.

Most people inhabit shelters too small
to partition off with words, and always
some people have none. Is it better
to feel at fault for this, or not
to feel at fault? The meagerest American house
is a gross Hilton compared to where most people
take shelter on the inclement world.
To start with, feel fortunate.

You have made the effort to dress yourself
in character, probably well beyond the requirement
of mere covering--you have already risked
that much misunderstanding. Then comes
this second habiliment, no matter how
reluctant or minimal a statement,
a room which gives you away: with the things
you've acquired at cost, the things you've been given
and kept, the things you choose to exhibit.
The accumulation seems to have been only partly voluntary.
Yet no one you'd want to know could stay
for a month, in a rented room in Asia, without
this tell-tale silt beginning to settle.
When people die, their children have to come dig
for them like Winckelmanns, among many false Troys.

Prisons recognize the need to arrest
this form of identity. Cells
are deliberately ill-fitted uniforms
which you are issued to wear over
the deliberately ill-fitted cloth ones. You
are put there to forego living.
Military quarters may appear more permissive,
yet the space for personal effects is limited
and subject to unscheduled inspection. Nobody
is encouraged to bring along a two-volume dictionary,
a Hopi mask, a valuable paperweight, to a war
or to the interminable rehearsals of camp and shipboard.

The room we're in now is like something you've said,
whether off-hand or considered. It's in a dialect
that marks you for a twentieth-century person
(enthusiastic about this? dragging your feet?),
rich or poor or--more commonly--a little of both;
belong to a nation and an eclectic culture.
The room risks absurdity, as you risked that again
when you put your clothes on this morning,
but because it is capable of being judged
apart from you, in your absence, the risk is greater.
Why has he got and kept this, and only this?
anyone can ask. Why so much? To others
this room is what your scent is to a dog.
You can't know it or help it.

With us in America, a person who has a printed poem
is likely to have a living-room (thought not always--
there will always be some to whom poetry is not an amenity).
For reasons of its own, poetry has come to this,
with us. It has somehow gone along
with the privileges of the nation
it intends to change, to dispossess of material demons.
Admittedly, this is part of its present difficulty.
For the moment, though, you are holding this poem.
Its aim is that of any artifact: to ingratiate.
It would like nothing better
than to be added to the dear clutter here.

"What I Remember The Writers Telling Me When I Was Young," "Talking Back," "A Couple of Trees," "The American Living Room" reprinted from Effort at Speech: New and Selected Poems by William Meredith, published by TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press in 1997. Copyright © 1997 by William Meredith. All rights reserved; used by permission of Northwestern University Press and the author.

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