Author Archives: John

Another Improvisation

In my writing group the other night, we had 15 minutes to write something beginning with this line from Auden: “About suffering they were never wrong.” Here’s what I came up with.

About suffering they were never wrong.
They had scoped our pains with surveyor’s eye
And spanned a compass o’er travails long
That ran from dawn to lights that die.
All humanity’s woes and cares
Were catalogued as sundry snares.
There’s grief, there’s woe, there’s dark despair,
And lust and loss without compare.
And when the survey was mapped out neat
They took the chart and tacked it high
And aiming darts did then compete
To see which pains on souls should lie.
Thus the Fates do now compete
Leaving shears aside as dated,
So when you suffer, sore, complete,
Know your pain was struck, ill-fated.

(I can’t type this without wanted to revise it (e.g., do now contend), but that’s beyond the scope of a 15-minute exercise.)


A few nights ago, I was asked to write something, either prose or poetry, using as many of the following words as possible: palimpsest, raven, gnosis, anticipation, rebirth, sapphire, and gravel. Muddy might also have been on the list.

The time limit was 10 minutes, but I ended up having only about five. Here’s what I came up with.

A palimpsest in raven ink
Commands a scholar’s study
In anticipation of a semantic link
Deciphered from those muddy
Letters set upon each other
Close as gravel, or clutter’d sink—
From this confused compounding,
A rebirth of sense—I think.

Thomas Jefferson on Grammar

“Where strictness of grammar does not weaken expression, it should be attended to in complaisance to the purists of New England. But where by small grammatical negligences the energy of an idea is condensed, or a word stands for a sentence, I hold grammatical rigor in contempt.”

—Thomas Jefferson,
   quoted in American Sphinx (p. 229)
   by Joseph B. Ellis

“Caravaggio was to painting what Galileo was to physics”

From Alvaro Enrigue’s novel Sudden Death, which recounts an imaginary tennis match between Francisco de Quevedo and Caravaggio:

Anyone who believes that earthly objects are all composed of the same group of substances, and that transformations are accomplished only through mechanical means, will naturally perceive the voice of God in the filthy fingernails—nails that are of this world, a part of history—of Caravaggio’s saints and virgins. The voice of a god more brilliant than capricious; a god unlike God, remote and uninterested in revealing himself in miracles beyond combustion or the balance of forces; a trust god for everyone: the poor, the wicked, the politicians, the rent boys, and the millionaires.

Caravaggio was to painting what Galileo was to physics: someone who took a second look and said what he was seeing; someone who discovered that forms in space aren’t allegories of anything but themselves, and that’s enough; someone who understood that the true mystery of the forces that control how we inhabit the earth is not how lofty they are, but how elemental. (p. 89)