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Happy 92nd Birthday, William H. Gass!


On the occasion of William H. Gass’s birthday, I’ve cherry-picked sentences from all of his books: a publishing career spanning five decades. This was no easy task, since his fictions and essays and interviews are troves of meticulously rendered, seemingly sculpted, sentences, each one a delight to the eye, music to the ear. I’ve chosen ninety-two in honor of his birthday, but I could easily have chosen a hundred more. Thanks, Magister Gass!

Before the selection of sentences proper begins, here are a few more of Gass’s sentences, for good luck:

“So I am still the obscure man who wrote these words, and if someone were to ask me once again of the circumstances of my birth, I think I should answer finally that I was born somewhere in the middle of my first book; that life, so far, has not been extensive; that my native state is Anger, a place nowhere on the continent but rather somewhere at the bottom of my belly; that I presently dwell in the Sicily of the soul, the Mexico of the mind, the tower at Duino, the garden house in Rye; and that I shall be happy to rent, sell, or give away these stories, which I would have furnished far more richly if I could have borne the cost, to anyone who might want to visit them, or—hallelujah—reside. In lieu of that unlikelihood, however, I am fashioning a reader for these fictions…of what kind, you ask? well, skilled and generous with attention, for one thing, patient with longeurs, forgiving of every error and the author’s self-indulgence, avid for details…ah, and a lover of lists, a twiddler of lines. Shall this reader be given occasionally to mouthing a word aloud or wanting to read to a companion in a piercing library whisper? yes; and shall this reader be one whose heartbeat alters with the tenses of the verbs? that would be nice; and shall every allusion be caught like a cold? no, eaten like a fish, whole, fins and skin; and shall there be a wide brow wrinkled with wonder at the rhetoric? sharp intakes of breath? and the thoughts found profound and the sentiments felt to be of the best kind? yes, and the patterns applauded…but we won’t need to put hair or nose upon our reader, or any other opening or lure…not a muscle need be imagined…it is a body quite indifferent to time, to diet…it’s only eyes…what? oh, it will be a kind of slowpoke on the page, a sipper of sentences, full of reflective pauses, thus a finger for holding its place should be appointed; a mover of lips, then? just so, yes, large soft moist ones, naturally red, naturally supple, but made only for shaping syllables, you understand, for singing…singing. And shall this reader, as the book is opened, shadow the page like a palm? yes, perhaps that would be best (mind the strain on the spirit, though, no glasses correct that); and shall this reader sink into the paper? become the print? and blossom on the other side with pleasure and sensation…from the touch of mind, and the love that lasts in language? yes. Let’s imagine such a being, then. And begin. And then begin.”

Preface to In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968)

 Omensetter’s Luck (1966)

“It was better, he felt, touching them this way, than all the ways he had imagined would bring on rapture if he had only dared to reach out to employ them, boldly to stare or boldly speak, harshly to grasp and greedily to seize: that knee, for instance, for which he’d known such bitter regret, he might have moistened with his lips while delicately socketed accompanist pretended that his passion was merely pity for her suffering and gently tangled her hands in his hair—how he might have made an altar, how he might have worshiped there!—or the crisp green girl who’d called one day like an eminent Cleveland lady to carry on such a sweet and holy conversation with him he felt licked clean and wished gratefully to embrace her; or all those times, his nose in the weeds, he had lain at the fence, watching the croquet, unable to ask if he might play; for fatty Ruth, or the plump girl on the train whom only his shadow had petered; or any of the thousand simple impulses that hurled themselves against the walls of his heart: to finger the lobe of a strange hear or sniff on hands and knees a patched of something wet, make bawdy verses up and sing them loudly, leap in the air, chew on the thumb of a leather glove, play soccer in the street…any sudden gesture of joy or love…but who could know, when he heard his heart, what the beating was? and who could be expected to understand these gestures, so out of character, so threatening, for weren’t they the same moves that went with rage, with lust, with any molesting? well, no matter, it was all a dream, this rapture of touch; you’d taste the knees rough cover with your tongue; the little girl would squeak and click her eyes; your sweetheart would wet on your hand; yes, words were superior; they maintained a superior control; they touched without your touching; they were at once the bait, the hook, the line, the pole, and the water in between.”

“Look: if a bird were to rub its beak on a limb, you’d hear it—sure—and if a piece of water were to move an unaccustomed way, you’d feel it—that’s right—and if a fox were to steal a hen, you’d see-you’d see it—even in the middle of the night; but, heaven help you, if a friend a friend—god—were to slit your throat with his—his love—hoh, you’d bleed a week to notice it.”

“But Furber hung like a drapery demonstrating him, his hollow—all could see it, billowing thinly, the wall gauze, and God’s laws flickering.”

“There was Mrs. Henry Pimber, her untidy hair, dull eyes, her fallen breasts and shoulders, exclaiming grief and guilt at his demise, while every gesture was a figure in a tableau of desire; there was the Reverend Jethro Furber, a blackening flame, and Mrs. Valient Hatstat, rings spotted on her fingers, a small white scar like an unwired white of egg lying in the corner of her mouth; there was Doctor Truxton Orcutt of the rotting teeth and juice-stained beard, who looked like a house with a rusting eave; there was Mrs. Rosa Knox, sofa-fleshed and fountain-spoken, with an intermittent titter that shook her breasts, and also Israbestis Tott, together beggar, hurdy-gurdy, cup, chain, monkey; and there was Mrs. Gladys Chamlay, the scratched rod, nose like a jungle-bird’s, teeth like a beast’s; Miss Samantha Tott, so tall she had to stoop in the sun she thought; and all those others, with their husbands or their brothers, invisible, behind them, making sounds to celebrate the death of tea-weak Henry Pimber; while Mr. Matthew Watson, neither praying, speaking, crying, or exclaiming, uncomfortable in a corner, surreptitiously scratched a rash through his trousers.”

“Firm flesh refines itself to fearful fumes by water.”

“Men, in my experience, are the worst disease, he said.”

“Just lies upon lies on the cooling paper, the faint, faint odor of leather, the darkened heart behind his eyes…envy and envy and envy and anger…envy and anger and aching desire…here—here—I shall raffle my penis as a prize…no, let me tell you what I’ve heard: tree roots have been known to vessel the grimmest granite—that’s virtue versus vice in one brief homily…oh go home, go home and strike at one another—each so well deserving…I don’t know myself, what to do, where to go…I lie in the crack of a book for my comfort…it’s what the world offers…please leave me alone to dream as I fancy.”

In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968)

“Of course there is enough to stir our wonder anywhere; there’s enough to love, anywhere, if one is strong enough, if one is diligent enough, if one is perceptive, patient, kind enough—whatever it takes.”

—“In the Heart of the Heart of the Country”

“I suspect if we were as familiar with our bones as with our skin, we’d never bury the dead but shrine them in their rooms, arranged as we might like to find them on a visit; and our enemies, if we could steal their bodies from the battle sites, would be museumed as they died, the steel still eloquent in their sides, their metal hats askew, the protective toes of their shoes unworn, and friend and enemy would be so wondrously historical that in a hundred years we’d find the jaws still hung for the same speech and all the parts we spent our life with tilted as they always were—rib cage, collar, skull—still repetitious, still defiant, angel light, still worthy of memorial and affection.”

—“Order of Insects”

“Never alive, they came with punctures; their bodies formed from little whorls of copperish dust which in the downstairs darkness I couldn’t possibly have seen; and they were dead and upside down when they materialized, for it was in that moment that our cat, herself darkly invisible, leaped and brought her paws together on the true soul of the roach; a soul so static and intense, so immortally arranged, I felt, while I lay shell-like in our bed, turned inside out, driving my mind away, it was the same as the dark soul of the world itself—and it was this beautiful and terrifying feeling that took possession of me finally, stiffened me like a rod beside my husband, played caesar to my dreams.”

—“Order of Insects”

“He’d gone off this way yet there was nothing now to show he’d gone; nothing like a bump of black in a trough or an arm or leg sticking out of the side of a bank like a branch had blown down or a horse’s head uncovered like a rock; nowhere Pedersen’s fences had kept bare he might be lying huddled with the shadows shrinking while I watched to take for something hard and not of snow and once alive.”

—“The Pedersen Kid”

“Once, when dust rolled up from the road and the fields were high with heavy-handled wheat and the leaves of every tree were gray and curled up and hung head down, I went in the meadow with an old broom like a gun, where the dandelions had begun to seed and the low ground was cracked, and I flushed grasshoppers from the goldenrod in whirring clouds like quail and shot them down.”

—“The Pedersen Kid”

“The same gray sky lay on the ground, day after day, gray as industrial smoke, and in the sky the ground floated like a street that’s been salted, and his closets were cold, holes wore through his pockets, and he was lonely, indoors and out, with a loneliness like the loneliness of overshoes or someone else’s cough.”


“Sports, politics, and religion are the three passions of the badly educated.”

—“In the Heart of the Heart of the Country”

Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife (1968)

“I’m only a string of noises, after all—nothing more really—an arrangement, a column of air moving up and down, a queer growth like a gall on a tree, a mimic of movement in silent readers maybe, a brief beating of wings and cooing of a peaceful kind, an empty swing still warm from young bloomers…ummm…imagine the imagination imagining…and surely neither male nor female—there’s nothing female about a column of air, a gall on a tree—surely both, like bloomers on the swing’s seat…so I’m a spiky bush at least, I like to think, knotty and low-growing, scratchy though flowering, a hawthorne would suit me.”

“In language, there’s no imagination without music, because music is the movement of imagination.”

“Well then: there’s the speech of science and good sense—daily greetings, reminscences and news, and all those kind directions how-to; there’s the speech of the ultimate mind, abstract, soldierly, efficient, and precise; and then there’s mine, for when you use me, when you speak in my tongue—the language of imagination—you speak of fact and feeling, order and spontaneity, suddenness and long decision, desire and reservation—all at once.”

Fiction and the Figures of Life (1970)

“Works of art are meant to be lived with and loved, and if we try to understand them, we should try to understand them as we try to understand anyone—in order to know them better, not in order to know something else.”

—“The Artist and Society”

“The purpose of a literary work is the capture of consciousness, and the consequent creation, in you, of an imagined sensibility, so that while you read you are that patient pool or cataract of concepts which the author has constructed; and though at first it might seem as if the richness of life had been replaced by something less so—senseless noises, abstract meanings, mere shadows of worldly employment—yet the new self with which fine fiction and good poetry should provide you is as wide as the mind is, and musicked deep with feeling.”

—“The Medium of Fiction”

“Naturally the artist is an enemy of the state.”

—“The Artist and Society”

On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry (1976)

 “It’s not the word made flesh we want in writing, in poetry and fiction, but the flesh made word.”

So sentences are copied, constructed, or created; they are uttered, mentioned, or used; each says, means, implies, reveals, connects; each titillates, invites, conceals, suggests; and each is eventually either consumed or conserved; nevertheless, the lines in Stevens or the sentences of Joyce or James, pressed by one another into being as though the words before and the words after were those reverent hands both Rilke and Rodin have celebrated, clay calling to clay like mating birds, concept responding to concept the way passionate flesh congests, every note a nipple on the breast, at once a triumphant pinnacle and perfect conclusion, like pelted water, I think I said, yet at the same time only another anonymous cell, and selfless in its service to the shaping skin as lost forgotten matter is in all walls; these lines, these sentences, are not quite uttered, not quite mentioned, peculiarly employed, strangely listed, oddly used, as though a shadow were the leaves, limbs, trunk of a new tree, and the shade itself were thrust like a dark torch into the grassy air in the same slow and forceful way as its own roots, entering the earth, roughen the darkness there till all its freshly shattered facets shine against themselves as teeth do in the clenched jaw; for Rabelais was wrong, blue is the color of the mind in borrow of the body; it is the color consciousness becomes when caressed; it is the dark inside of sentences, sentences which follow their own turnings inward out of sight like the whorls of a shell, and which we follow warily, as Alice after that rabbit, nervous and white, till suddenly—there! climbing down clauses and passing through ‘and’ as it opens—there—there—we’re here!…in time for tea and tantrums; such are the sentences we should like to love—the ones which love us and themselves as well—incestuous sentences—sentences which make an imaginary speaker speak the imagination loudly to the reading eye; that have a kind of orality transmogrified: not the tongue touching the genital tip, but the idea of the tongue, the thought of the tongue, word-wet to part-wet, public mouth to private, seed to speech, and speech…ah! after exclamations, groans, with order gone, disorder on the way, we subside through sentences like these, the risk of senselessness like this, to float like leaves on the restful surface of that world of words to come, and there, in peace, patiently to dream of the sensuous, and mindful Sublime.”

“It is not simple, not a matter for amateurs, making sentences sexual; it is not easy to structure the consciousness of the reader with the real thing, to use one wonder to speak of another, until in the place of the voyeur who reads we have fashioned the reader who sings; but the secret lies in seeing sentences as containers of consciousness, as constructions whose purpose it is to create conceptual perceptions – blue in every area and range: emotion moving through the space of the imagination, the mind at gleeful hop and scotch, qualities, through the arrangement of relations, which seem alive within the limits they pale and redden like spanked cheeks, and thus the bodies, objects, happenings, they essentially define.”

“BLUE pencils, blue noses, blue movies, laws, blue legs and stockings, the language of birds, bees, and flowers as sung by longshoremen, that lead-like look the skin has when affected by cold, contusion, sickness, fear; the rotten rum or gin they call blue ruin and the blue devils of its delirium; Russian cats and oysters, a withheld or imprisoned breath, the blue they say that diamonds have, deep holes in the ocean and the blazers which English athletes earn that gentlemen may wear; afflictions of the spirit—dumps, mopes, Mondays—all that’s dismal—low-down gloomy music, Nova Scotians, cyanosis, hair rinse, bluing, bleach; the rare blue dahlia like that blue moon shrewd things happen only once in, or the call for trumps in whist (but who remembers whist or what the death of unplayed games is like?), and correspondingly the flag, Blue Peter, which is our signal for getting under way; a swift pitch, Confederate money, the shaded slopes of clouds and mountains, and so the constantly increasing absentness of Heaven (ins Blaue hinein, the Germans say), consequently the color of everything that’s empty: blue bottles, bank accounts, and compliments, for instance, or, when the sky’s turned turtle, the blue-green bleat of ocean (both the same), and, when in Hell, its neatly landscaped rows of concrete huts and gas-blue flames; social registers, examination booklets, blue bloods, balls, and bonnets, beards, coats, collars, chips, and cheese . . . the pedantic, indecent and censorious . . . watered twilight, sour sea: through a scrambling of accidents, blue has become their color, just as it’s stood for fidelity.”

“As Rilke observed, love requires a progressive shortening of the senses: I can see you for miles; I can hear you for blocks, I can smell you, maybe, for a few feet, but I can only touch on contact, taste as I devour.”

“So to the wretched writer I should like to say that there’s one body only whose request for your caresses is not vulgar, is not unchaste, untoward, or impolite: the body of your work itself; for you must remember that your attentions will not merely celebrate a beauty but create one; that yours is love that brings its own birth with it, just as Plato has declared, and that you should therefore give up the blue things of this world in favor of the words which say them: blue pencils, blue noses, blue movies, laws, blue legs and stockings, the language of birds, bees, and flowers as sung by longshoremen, that lead-like look the skin has when affected by cold, contusion, sickness, fear…chant and pray, since the day may begin badly, in a soggy light that moistens the soul before consciousness has cracked so every thought is damp as an anxious forehead, desire won’t spark, and the morning prick is limp…consequently speak and praise, for the fall of the spirit, descending like a diver toward the floor of the ocean, is marked by increasing darkness, green giving way to navy, then a hair-wide range of hues which come to rest, among snowing fish and plants pale as paper, in a sightless night; and our lines are long when under water, loose and weedy, turning back upon themselves like the legs of a dying spider; we grow slack of feature in our melancholy, and the blue which marks the change is heavy, thick as ooze…so shout and celebrate before the shade conceals the window: blue bloods, balls, and bonnets, beards, coats, collars, chips, and cheese…while there is time and you are able because when blue has left the edges of its objects as if the world were bleached of it, when the wide blue eye has shut down for the season, when there’s nothing left but language…watered twilight, sour sea…don’t find yourself clergy’d out of choir and chorus…sing and say…despite the belly ache and the loneliness, new bumpled fat and flaking skin and drunkenness and helpless rage, despite dumps, mopes, Mondays, sheets like dirty plates, tomorrow falling toward you like a tower, lie in wait for that miraculous moment when in your mouth teeth turn into dragons and you do against the odds what Demosthenes did by the Aegean: shape pebbles into syllables and make stones sound; thus cautioned and encouraged, commanded, warned, persist…even though the mattress where you mourn’s been tipped and those corners where the nickels roll slide open like a slot to swallow them, clocks slow, and there’s been perhaps a pouring rain, or factory smoke, an aging wind and winter air, and everything is gray.”

The World within the Word (1978)

“We must take our sentences seriously, which means we must understand them philosophically, and the odd thing is that the few who do, who take them with utter sober seriousness, the utter sober seriousness of right-wing parsons and political saviors, the owners of Pomeranians, are the liars who want to be believed, the novelists and poets, who know that the creatures they imagine have no other being than the sounding syllables which the reader will speak into his own weary and distracted head.”

—“The Ontology of the Sentence”

Habitations of the Word (1984)

“Language without rhythm, without physicality, without the undertow of that sea which once covered everything and from which the land first arose like a cautious toe—levelless language, in short, voiceless type, pissless prose—can never be artistically complete.”

—“The Soul Inside the Sentence”

Sentences which run on without a body have no soul.”

—“The Soul Inside the Sentence”

“As far as the writing itself goes, although that section of the soul which makes the money, makes the love, or makes the garden grow may remain relatively unaffected, a fine writer must accomplish five fundamental psychological tasks: (1) he must replace his present editorial staff, as far as possible, with a single, rich yet precise, wide though discriminating sense of taste, drawn from all his reading but preferably from the most inclusive tradition of excellence he can assimilate; a sense to which he gives the power of a parent; (2) yet he must not give up in the face of the parrot who will speak to his muse: “Not good enough, not good enough, awk! not good enough”; but gain its eventual approval for his own individual transformations; (3) he must displace, in so doing, the reality principle from world to word, so that with words and their formal structures he can (4) over the intense destructive urges which are the basis for his desperate creative activities; for superlative writing is love lavished on the word in order to repair a world which revengeful fantasy has destroyed, as well as persuade its agreeable aspects to remain unchanged, because if they indicate a desire to depart, they will be savagely attacked too, bombed into oblivion; and (5) he must compose his work in such a way that the full features of infantile life are brought up to date without the sacrifices of expression demanded by his former bosses: the complete child must come forth in the whole man or woman who invests and shapes a successful style, in a manner exactly contrary to the situation I described earlier in which an angry teasing child reduces the adult to another angry teasing threatening child, and this use of the earliest urges by the most sophisticated can be achieved only if the powers that be can be persuaded to pull back, approve and praise, because only then can forgiveness be received in the peace and blessing of the great lines; only then will the psyche believe that its impulses aren’t satanic, that all is not lost, that the self has not been left alone amid the debris of its own demolishment, the ashes of its anger.”

—“The Soul Inside the Sentence”

“At least one important theory of art has concluded that, though the world be without purpose, or justice, or meaning (as far as reason can confidently ascertain), the unified objects which art makes of these spoiling fragments renders things finally as they ought to be, for even if every actor suffered and then died during an Elizabethan tragedy (and sometimes that nearly happened), and the motives of men were mercilessly laid open like an ox that’s been flayed so we might see the blood they had their baths in, the effect is not one of gloom or dismay, but of energy, wholeness, perfection, joy.”

—“The Soul Inside the Sentence”

“The poet wanders among the animals and flowers, in landscapes finds his freedom, amid luminous skies lets his soul soar like a kestrel; for what is the way I want the world? wholly in my power; and the more powerless I may have found myself, as in growing up we all find ourselves, the more completely, as a writer, will I rest within the word, because as difficult as its management is: listen! I speak and these friendly syllables surround me; they have never done me any harm, for even when I ascribe them to my enemies, make up villains in a tale to torment victims I have also fabricated, the words they speak are mine, the sentiments indeed are mine, coming from every corner, the villainies as well…ah, yes, those especially.”

—“The Soul Inside the Sentence”

In Sir Thomas Browne’s day death came early, often in the morning of a life, before the hair was combed; then the image in the shaving mirror often grinned like a skull, though its owner wasn’t grinning; and the spirit which only one day past had moved the body so vigorously through its braggadocios, its fucking, its sighs and singing, its drunkenness and piggery, might suddenly seem lost and wan in the new sun, so that the world which might be clean of mist by noon might also be free of both this pale glass shadow and its affrighted soul; consequently, the Elizabethan interest in death, or rather, their concern about the fragility of life, is scarcely surprising; and yet while Sir Thomas Browne tells us how futile it is to preserve our bodies, bones, or ashes; how brief and inarticulate the speech of these stones which like jawless teeth irrupt the lawns of our cemeteries, what is he quietly doing but fashioning a monument for his psyche which heaven will not have matter for or space or skill to build? because, in so saying what he’s said, he becomes immortal as may be, and comes as near to realizing the one real wish of us all as other wills and wishes will allow—no more is permitted; and which one of us would be unwilling to lie down among such sentences as though they were boughs for our burning? because Browne, and all those like him, did not merely bring these books of his, these eloquent passages, their memorable lines, into being; he brought himself into existence on the page, as it were through a hole in the world; although, as he would require us to observe, what are these urns which have lasted a thousand years when we measure them up the leg of eternity? do they extend so far as the knee, the cuff? do they reach the lace of the shoe, the tongue? possibly as far as that?—no—but if we have an everlong life, perhaps we can create a soul, within some substance elsewhere and other than ourselves, which it would be a crime on the world’s part to let die.”

—“The Soul Inside the Sentence”


then God went away to other delights, “an Riez und Kraft,” leaving us with our days and nights and other downfalls, our sites and lists and querulous designs and petty plans, our sentiments and insatiables and dreamlands, with the problem of other minds, with the spirit’s unhappy household in the body, with all those divisions among things which ‘and’ has abridged and rivered, with essences and accidents and linear implications, with all those bilious and libelous tongues, pissing angels, withheld rewards, broken promises, all those opportunities for good and evil, sex, marriage, world wars, work, and worship—and with ‘and’ itself—’and’ a sword which cleaves things as it cleaves them.”


“A sentence is a length of awareness.”

—“Culture, Self, and Style”

“But it is not only the books which we pile about us like a building, or the papers we painfully compose, the exams or letters we write, the calculations we come to by means of mystic diagrams, mathematical symbols, astrological charts or other ill- or well-drawn maps of the mind; it is not simply our habit of lining the streets with wheedling, hectoring, threatening signs, writing warnings on the sides of little jars and boxes, or with cajoling smoke defacing the sky, or turning on the radio to bruise with entreaty every ear, or the TV which illustrates it lies with clowns and color; it is not alone the languages we learn to mispronounce, the lists, the arguments and rhymes, we get by heart; it is not even our tendency to turn what is unwritten into writing with a mere look, so that rocks will suddenly say their age and origin and activity, or what is numb flesh and exposed bone will cry out that cotton candy killed it, or cancer, or canoodling, the letter C like a cut across an artery; no, it is not the undeniable importance of these things which leads me to lay such weight upon the word; it is rather our interior self I’m concerned with, and therefore with the language which springs out of the most retiring and inmost parts of us, and is the image of its parent like a child: the words we use to convey our love to one another, or to cope with anxiety, for instance; the words which will convince, persuade, which will show us clearly, or make the many one; the words I listen to when I wait out a speech at a dinner party; words which can comfort and assuage, damage and delight, amuse and dismay; but, above all, the words which one burns like a beacon against the darkness, and which together comprise the society of the silently speaking self; because all these words are but humble echoes of the words the poet uses when she speaks of passion, or the historian when he drives his nails through time, or when the psychoanalyst divines our desires as through tea leaves left at the bottoms of our dreams.”

—“On Talking to Oneself”

“The sentence, then, if it is to have a soul, rather than merely be a sign of the existence somewhere of one, must be composed by our innermost being, finding in its drive and rhythm, if not in its subject, the verbal equivalent of instinct; in its sound and repetitions, too, its equivalent feeling; and then perceive its thought as Eliot and Donne did, as immediately as the odor of a rose—fully, the way we see ships at anchor rise and fall as though they lay on a breathing chest.”

—“The Soul Inside the Sentence”

The Tunnel (1995)

Sing of disappointments more repeated than the batter of the sea, of lives embittered by resentments so ubiquitous the ocean’s salt seems thinly shaken, of letdowns local as the sofa where I copped my freshman’s feel, of failures as frequent as first love, first nights, last stands; do not warble of arms or adventurous deeds or shepherds playing on their private fifes, or of civil war or monarchies at swords; consider rather the slightly squinkered clerk, the soul which has become as shabby and soiled in its seat as worn-out underwear, a life lit like a lonely room and run like a laddered stocking.”

“A single fat tear will run quickly across her cheek as though a blister had broken; and we shall only that moment have crawled awkwardly from our cab, the front door of the house will still be standing open, bags beneath my hands like movie props, powder will be lying in the creases of my mother’s face like snow, her voice wet and wandering, blurry as her gaze, Marty’s eyes will ice, and I shall be . . . I shall be in a rage.”

“His voice was rather high, always precise, very measured and penetrating, never sweet, at its worst hard and shrill as a metal whistle, and initially his repetitive declamatory style was annoying, with its tendency to accelerate and to wind itself up like a mechanical spring; but later one realized that speaking without notes as he did, as if spilling his heart, simply spilling his heart like a tipped cup, he could not have formed his sentences so surely, involved as they sometimes were, or deepened his thought as rivers were a channel, if he had not composed in the manner of Homer, chanting an earlier formula while his mind flew over the flood ahead, wound like a hawk to its tower, searching for a bit of land to cry, and anything alive.”

“The eyes are black, right enough, whatever their normal color is; they are black because their perception is condensed to a coal, because the touch and taste and perfume of the lover, the outcry of a dirty word, a welcome river, have been reduced in the heat of passion to a black ash, and this unburnt residue of oxidation, this calyx, replaces the pupil so it no longer receives but sends, and every hair is on end, though perhaps only outspread on a pillow, and the nostrils are flared, mouth agape, cheeks sucked so the whole face seems as squeezed as a juiced fruit; I know, for once Lou went into that wildness while we were absorbing one another, trying to kiss, not merely forcefully, not the skull of our skeleton, but the skull and all the bones on which the essential self is hung, kiss so the shape of the soul is stirred too, that’s what is called the ultimate French, the furtherest fuck, when a cock makes a concept cry out and climax; I know, for more than once, though not often, I shuddered into that other region, when a mouth drew me through its generosity into the realm of unravel, and every sensation lay extended as a lake, every tie was loosed, and the glue of things dissolved.”

“The greatest gift you can give another human being is to let them warm you till, in passing beyond pleasure, your defenses fall, your ego surrenders, its structure melts, its towers topple, lies, fancies, vanities, blow away in no wind, and you return, not to the clay you came from—the unfired vessel—but to the original moment of inspiration, when you were the unabbreviated breath of God.”

“If you want to think about something really funny, kiddo, consider the fact that our favorite modern bad guys became villains by serving as heroes first—to millions.”

“Time cannot do to ordinary things what we timelessly do to one another.”

“Birthdays, like weddings, anniversaries, baptisms, bar mitzvahs, wakes, are occasions to retie family ties, renew family feuds, restore family feeling, add to family lore, tribalize the psyche, generate guilt, exercise power, wave a foreign flag, talk in tongues, exchange lies, remember dates and the old days, to be fond of how it was, be angry at what it should be, and weep at why it isn’t.”

“If we had the true and complete history of one man—which would be the history of his head—we would sign the warrants and end ourselves forever, not because of the wickedness we would find within that man, no, but because of the meagerness of feeling, the miniaturization of meaning, the pettiness of ambition, the vulgarities, the vanities, the diminution of intelligence, the endless trivia we’d encounter, the ever present dust.”

“It was always my intention, and my conceit, to use up, in the town’s construction, every toy I possessed: my electronic train, of course, the Lincoln Logs, old kindergarten blocks—their deeply incised letters always a problem—the Erector set, every lead soldier that would stand (broken ones were sent to the hospital), my impressive array of cars, motorcycles, tanks, and trucks—some with trailers, some transporting gas, some tows, some dumps—and my squadrons of planes, my fleet of ships, my big and little guns, an undersized group of parachute people (looking as if one should always imagine them high in the sky, hanging from threads), my silversided submarines, along with assorted RR signs, poles bearing flags, prefab houses with faces pasted in their windows, small boxes of a dozen variously useful kinds, strips of blue cloth for streams and rivers, and glass jars for town water towers, or, in a pinch, jails.”

“In time, the armies, the citizens, even the streets would divide: loyalties, friendships, certainties, would be undermined, the city would be shaken by strife; and marbles would rain down from formerly friendly planes, steeples would topple onto cars, and shellfire would soon throw aggie holes through homes, soldiers would die accompanied by my groans, and ragged bands of refugees would flee toward mountain caves and other chairs and tables.”

“Furthermore, the initial page, always crucial, passed every test, with its promises and divisions, its portentous opening paragraph like the great door of a church, its exotic setting and strange names, the rolling orchestration of its prose.”

“There’s no easy way out of this life, and I do not look forward to the day they put those tubes up my nose, and a catheter shows my pee the way out like some well-trained servant.”

“I saw how my father’s body broke his spirit like a match; and I saw how my mother’s broken spirit took her body under the way a ship stinks after being disemboweled by an errant bag of ice.”

“I’d like to look below my eyes and see not language staring back at me, not sentences or single words or awkward pen lines, but a surface clear and burnished as glass.”

“We were late among the living, and by the time God got to us ice was already slipping from the poles as if from an imperfectly decorated cake.”

Finding a Form: Essays (1997)

“So even if you hope to find some lasting security inside language, and believe that your powers are at their peak there, if nowhere else, despair and disappointment will dog you still; for neither you nor your weaknesses, nor the world and its villains, will have been banished just because, now, it is in syllables and sentences where they hide, since, oddly enough, while you can confront and denounce a colleague or a spouse, run from an angry dog, or jump bail and flee your country, you can’t argue with an image; in as much as a badly made sentence is a judgment pronounced upon its perpetrator, and even one poor paragraph indelibly stains the soul.”

—“Finding a Form”

“The details of the disappointment will differ; the site of the defeat will shift; the resistance to one’s fate or one’s readiness to accept it will vary in their strength; but the pattern is plain enough, its commonness is common indeed, its dangers real.”

—“Robert Walser”

“But it is easier now to follow the inner flow beneath these scraps of language, to appreciate the simple clarity of the sentences he has constructed, to recognize that these meditations (for they have never been anything else) move not in the manner of events or in the manner of a river or in the manner, either, of thought, or in the ‘happy hour’ fashion of the told tale (each brought so beautifully together in ‘Boat Trip,’ one of the triumphs of Walser’s art), but in the way of an almost inarticulate metaphysical feeling; a response to the moves and meanings of both human life and nature, which is purged of every local note and self-interested particularity and which achieves, like the purest poetry, an understanding mix of longing, appreciation, and despair, as if they were the pigments composing a color to lay down upon the surface of something passing—sweetly regretful—like the fall of light upon a bit of lost water, or a gleam caught in a fold of twilit snow, as if it were going to remain there forever.”

—“Robert Walser”

“Still, Belgrade is gray by custom and habit: grimy skies and grimy gray walls, wet gray streets, faces worn as the stones, and so forth, hence an absence of flash; gutters gray with slow gray water, and the rain faint, almost not there, light as fog, and so forth, hence a glitterless atmosphere; gray caps and collars coming down the damp street, gray coats, damp too, soot becoming a moisty gray paste, bomb dust still in the wet air, too wet to drift, soon a drizzle of dust, and so forth; this parade of gray is the novel capturing the world in words, as if that were enough, as if that were all there was to it.”

—“The Language of Being and Dying”

“It is healthy, even desirable, to mix genres in order to escape the confinements of outworn conventions, or to break molds in order to create new shapes; but to introduce fiction into history on purpose (as opposed to being inadvertently mistaken) can only be to circumvent its aim, the truth, either because one wants to lie, or now thinks lying doesn’t matter and carelessness is a new virtue, or because one scorns scrupulosity as a wasted effort, a futile concern, since everything is inherently corrupt, or because an enlivened life will sell better than a straightforward one, so let’s have a little decoration, or because ‘What is truth?” is only a sardonic rhetorical question which regularly precedes the ritual washing of hands.”


“Life itself is exile, and its inevitability does not lessen our grief or alter the fact.”


“But if your language is intended to be the medium of an art if you, its user, are an artist and not a reporter, a persuader, a raconteur; if you aren’t writing principally to get praise or pay, but wish to avoid the busy avenues of entertainment, to traffic in the tragic maybe, dig down to the deeply serious; then (although there are a few exceptional and contrary cases) you will understand right away how blessed you are by the language you were born with, the language you began to master in the moment you also started to learn about life, to read the lines on faces, the light in the window which meant milk, the door which deprived you of mother, the half-songs sung by that someone who loaned you the breast you suckled—the breast you claimed as more than kin.”


“Yet no prose can pretend to greatness if its music is not also great; if it does not, indeed, construct a surround of sound to house its meaning the way flesh was once felt to embody the soul, at least till the dismal day of the soul’s eviction and the flesh’s decay.”

—“The Music of Prose”

“For prose has a pace; it is dotted with stops and pauses, frequent rests, inflections rise and fall like a low range of hills; certain tones are prolonged; there are patterns of stress and harmonious measures; there is a proper method of pronunciation, even if it is rarely observed; alliteration will trouble the tongue, consonance ease its sound out, so that any mouth making that music will feel its performance even to the back of the teeth and to the glottal’s stop; mellifluousness is not impossible, and harshness is easy; drum roll and clangor can be confidently called for–lisp, slur, and growl; so there will be a syllabic beat in imitation of the heart, while rhyme will recall a word we passed perhaps too indifferently; vowels will open and consonants close like blooming plants; repetitive schemes will act as refrains, and there will be phrases–little motifs–to return to, like the tonic; clauses will be balanced by other clauses the way a waiter carries trays; parallel lines will nevertheless meet in their common subject; clots of concepts will dissolve and then recombine, so we shall find endless variations on the same theme; a central idea, along with its many modifications, like soloist and chorus, will take their turns until, suddenly, all sing at once the same sound.”

—“The Music of Prose”

“It remains for the reader to realize the text, not only by reachieving the consciousness some works create (since not all books are bent on that result), but by appreciating the unity of book/body and book/mind that the best books bring about; by singing to themselves the large, round lines they find, at the same time as they applaud their placement on the page, their rich surroundings, and everywhere the show of taste and care and good custom – what a cultivated life is supposed to provide; for if my meal is mistakenly scraped into the garbage, it becomes garbage, and if garbage is served to me on a platter of gold by hands in gloves, it merely results in a sardonic reminder of how little gold can do to rescue ruck when ruck can ruin whatever it rubs against; but if candlelight and glass go well together, and the linens please the eye as though it were a palate, and one’s wit does not water the wine, if one’s dinner companions are pleasing, if the centerpiece does not block the view and its flowers are discreet about their scent, then whatever fine food is placed before us, on an equally completed plate, will be enhanced, will be, in such a context, only another successful element in the making of a satisfactory whole; inasmuch as there is nothing in life better able to justify its follies, its inequities, and its pains (though there may be many its equal) than in getting, at once, a number of fine things right; and when we read, too, with our temper entirely tuned to the text, we become—our heads—we become the best book of all, where the words are now played, and we are the page where they rest, and we are the hall where they are heard, and we are, by god, Blake, and our mind is moving in that moment as Sir Thomas Browne’s about an urn, or Yeats’s spaded grave; and death can’t be so wrong, to be feared or sent away, the loss of love wept over, or our tragic acts continuously regretted, not when they prompt such lines, not when our rendering of them brings us together in a rare community of joy.”

—“The Book As a Container of Consciousness”

“How reluctantly, in the United States, have we come to recognize that civilization is refinement; that it requires leisure, judgment, taste, skill, and the patient work of a solitary mind passing itself, as though it were both a cleaner and a cleansing cloth, back and forth across an idea, back and forth until the substance of it—wood or marble or music, in syllables seeking their place in some song—back and forth until the matter of it begins to gleam deeply from its buried center, deeply where thought and thing are one, and therefore not solely from its surface, where a glitter may sometimes be glibly emitted, a glitter that comes just after a bit of light has struck, a glitter, a glit, before the beam has bounded off—a glitter, a glit—a spark, after which there will be only the light that has gone.”



Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellas (1998)

“But inside that misplaced secretary there were all those books, each compressing hundreds of pages into something as simple as a brick, while upon those pages lines of words were layered the way beneath a quilt there was a blanket, beneath the blanket, an embroidered sheet; and the words were several sounds as leaves and blooms and maybe a boat upon a bond were threaded together, making better environments for one another; thus with the cabinet shut, book covers closed, you couldn’t hear any talking going on, the shouting and the singing, yes, quiet as a reading room, though in each reading head there’d be a booming world: that was why his empire was so wide and full, both few and many, near and far.”

—“Bed and Breakfast”

“Now I am the ex of ist I am the am I always should have been.”

—“Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop’s”

“Now I am the hiss this thin this brisk I’m rich in vital signs, in lists I in my time could not make, the life I missed because I was afraid, the hawk’s eye, owl’s too, weasel’s greed, the banter of boys, bang, bleeding paper blown into a bush, now I urinate like them against the world’s spray-canned designs and feel relief know pride puff up for their circle jerk fellowship and spit on spiders step on ants pull apart peel back brag grope, since it is easy for me now, like sailing boats, making pies, my hair hearing through the ring the rumble of coastal water, rock torn, far from any Iowa window, now I am an ab, a dis, pre’s fix, hop’s line.”

—“Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop’s”

“The snow sidled out of a gray sky, and fell like ash, that slowly, that lightly, and lay on the cold grass, the limbs of trees, while the woods went hush and her quiet place grew quieter, as peaceful as dust; and soon everything was changed, black trunks became blacker, a dump of leaves disappeared, the roof of the shed was afloat in the air, the pump stuck up out of nowhere and its faint-handled shadow seemed the only thing the snow couldn’t cover.”

—“Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop’s”

“It was a part of the inherent poetry of names: lady’s slipper, sundew, jack-in-the-pulpit, forget-me-not, goldthread, buttercup, buttonbush, goldenrod, moonshine, honeysuckle, star grass, jewelweed, milkwort, butter-and-eggs, lion’s heart, Solomon’s seal, Venus’s looking-glass, with some names based on likeness, plant character, or human attitude, such as virgin’s bower, crowfoot, Queen Anne’s lace, Quaker lady, wake-robin, love vine, bellwort, moneywort, richweed, moccasin flower, snakemouth, ladies’ tresses, blue curls, lizard’s tail, goosefoot, ragged robin, hairy beardtongue, turtlehead, Dutchman’s-breeches, calico, thimbleweed, and finally bishop’s cap; or because they were critter-connected much as mad-dog was, hog peanut, gopher-berry, goose tansy, butterfly weed, bee balm, moth mullen, cowwheat, deer vine, flea bane, horseheal, goat’s rue, dogberry; or were based on location and function and friendliness like clammy ground cherry, water willow, stone clover, swamp candle, shinleaf, seedbox, eyebright, bedstraw, firewood, stonecrop, Indian physic, heal all, pitcher plant, purple boneset, agueweed, pleurisy root, toothwort, feverfew; or were simply borrowed from their fruiting season like the mayapple, or taken from root or stem or stalk or fruit or bloom or leaf, like arrowhead, spiderwort, seven-angled pipewort, foamflower, liverleaf, shrubby five-finger, bloodroot; while sometimes they gained their name principally through their growth habit, as the staggerbush did, the sidesaddle flower, prostrate tick trefoil, loosestrife, spatterdock, steeplebush, Jacob’s ladder; although often the names served as warnings about a plant’s hostility or shyness the way poison ivy or touch-me-not did, wild sensitive pea, lambkill, adder’s tongue, poison flagroot, tearthumb, king devil, needlegrass, skunk cabbage, scorpion grass, viper’s bugloss, bitter nightshade, and lance-leaved tickseed; or they were meant to be sarcastic and cutting like New Jersey tea, bastard toadflax, false vervain, mouse-eared chickweed, swamp lousewort, monkeyflower, corpse plant, pickerelweed, Indiana poke, and the parasitic naked broom rape, or, finally, gall-of-the-earth—few of which Emma knew personally, since her father had made edibility a necessary condition for growth in the family garden, and had stepped upon her nasturtium although she’d argued for its use in salads.”

—“Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop’s”

Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation (1999)

“The poet himself is as close to me as any human being has ever been; not because he allowed himself—now a shade—at last to be loved; and not because I have been able to obey the stern command from his archaic torso of Apollo to change my life, nor because his person was always so admirable it had to be imitated; but because his work has taught me what real art ought to be; how it can matter to a life through its lifetime; how commitment can course like blood through the body of your words until the writing stirs, rises, opens its eyes; and, finally, because his work allows me to measure what we call achievement: how tall his is, how small mine.”

“Every line of fine literature forms a secure, seemingly serene, yet unquiet community.”

“When the line is a good one, there is a musical movement to its meaning which binds the line together as if it were one word, yet at the same time articulating, weighing, and apportioning the line’s particular parts the way syllables and their sounds and stresses spell a noun or verb, while throwing down a pattern of rhythm and meaning like a path to be pursued deeper into the stanza, and resonating with what has preceded it, if anything has.”

“As the Elegies argue: the beauty of perfection, when we are granted the doubtful good fortune to grasp it, announces the reappearance of our fearful conviction that we are, in both the soul and body of our being, so much less.”

“As Borges has taught us, all the books in the library are contemporary.”

Tests of Time (2002)

“Sure, there are good things, lots, sure, blow jobs, chocolate mousse, winning streaks, the warm fire in your enemy’s house, good book, hunk of cheese, flagon of ale, office raise, championship ring, the misfortunes of others, sure, good things, beyond count, queens, kings, old clocks, comfy clothes, lots, innumerable items in stock, baseball cards and bingo buttons, pot-au-feu, listen, we could go on and on like a long speech, sure it’s a great world, sights to see, canyons full of canyon, corn on the cob, the eroded great pyramids, contaminated towns, eroded hillsides, deleafed trees, those whitened limbs stark and noble in the evening light, geeeez, what gobs of good things, no shit, service elevators, what would we do without, and all the inventions of man, Krazy Glue and food fights, girls wrestling amid mounds of Jell-O, drafts of dark beer, no end of blue sea, formerly full of fish, eroded hopes, eruptions of joy, because we’re winning, have won, won, won what? the . . . the Title.”

—“Were There Anything in the World Worth Worship”

“So if a society were to want writers, it would encourage reading of the right sort, the sort that would teach quality not quantity, innovation not convention, subtlety not glibness, contemplation not instruction, challenge not amusement, permanence not the nonce, reality not its representation.”

—“Quotations from Chairman Flaubert”


A Temple of Texts (2006)

“The world is not simply good and bad on different weekends like an inconsistent pitcher; we devour what we savor and what sustains us; out of ruins more ruins will later, in their polished towers, rise; lust is the muscle of love; its strength, its coarseness, its brutality; the heart beats and is beaten by its beating; not a shadow falls without the sun’s shine and the sun sears what it saves.”

—“Humors of Blood & Skin”

“The sentence, seeking its form, must pass through the belly and bowel without irritation, as though it belonged in that dim hallway, as though it was — as though it were — on skis, on rails, on call, on a mission.”

—“The Sentence Seeks Its Form”

“The true alchemists do not change lead into gold; they change the world into words.”

—“Fifty Literary Pillars”

“Yes, we call it recursive, the act of reading, of looping the loop, of continually returning to an earlier group of words, behaving like Penelope by moving our mind back and forth, forth and back, reweaving what’s unwoven, undoing what’s been done; and language, which regularly returns us to its origin, which starts us off again on the same journey, older, altered, Columbus one more time, but better prepared each later voyage, knowing a bit more, ready for more, equal to a greater range of tasks, calmer, confident—after all, we’ve come this way before, have habits that help, and a favoring wind—language like that is the language which takes us inside, inside the sentence—inside—inside the mind—inside—inside, where meanings meet and are modified, reviewed and revised, where no perception, no need, no feeling or thought need be scanted or shunted aside.”

—“A Defense of the Book”

“If death itself were to die, would it have a ghost, and would the ghost of death visit the dead in the guise of someone alive, if only to fright them from any temptation to return?”

—“Rilke and the Requiem”

Life Sentences (2012)

“I have taught philosophy, in one or other of its many modes, for fifty years—Plato my honey in every one of them—yet many of those years had to pass before I began to realize that evil actually was ignorance—ignorance chosen and cultivated—as he and Socrates had so passionately taught; that most beliefs were bunkum, and that the removal of bad belief was as important to a mind as a cancer’s excision was to the body it imperiled.”


Middle C (2013)

“We would live in ice like a little bit of lost light.”

“He scissored when he spotted superstitions singing like sirens or when he caught stupidity fleeing the scene of one of its debacles, stupidity that especially embodied willful blindness or was an instance of greed or one of the other deadly sins overcoming weak reason again.”

“That barren patch grew like a scratched rash.”

“Joseph thought he knew the plants that had sought out the twitterers, and those that had risen for the wren, or a fern that turned, not to the sun, but toward the chatter of the chickadee, so quick were the petals of its song, so sharp so plentiful so light, so showy in their symmetry, so suddenly in shade.”


Eyes (2015)

“Nevertheless, it is the lucency of the low light, the line of the sail’s spar, which meets on one side a shoreline, on the other a small inlet-edging fence, which holds the image still; it is the way the mast runs on into its reflection, and the long low haze stretched across the entire background at the point where the earth and air blend, where the soft slightly clouded sky rises; it is the relation of all these dear tones to one another that creates a serenity which seeks the sublime, because it is so complete.”

—“In Camera”

“Surrounded by the sweetest vagueness, the tree rose from the walk on its own wet and wavy shadow as though that dripping shadow were a root, easing toward its dim thin upper limbs, which were dotted with brief new leaves and one perched bird, to faintly foliate away in indistinctness, though there were hints that tall buildings might block you if you entered the background, as well as shimmers that signified some moving vehicles, and the loom of a large ornamental urn—was it?—the viewer could not be sure.”

—“In Camera”

“Lover: that was right, because who, Mr. Stu surmised, had looked at them as though they were gray lace, who had weighed a shadow against a substance, a dark line against a pale space, the curvature of a street’s recession against the forefrontal block of a building, so as to feel the quality of judgement in every placement, the rightness of every relation, and how these subtle measures made the picture dance with the ideal gaiety of an ideal life.”

—“In Camera”


“Writing by hand, mouthing by mouth: in each case you get a very strong physical sense of the emergence of language—squeezed out like a well-formed stool—what satisfaction! what bliss!”

The Paris Review

“Try to remember that artists in these catastrophic times, along with the serious scientists, are the only salvation for us, if there is to be any.”

—“5 Writing Tips,” Publishers Weekly

“Be happy because no one is seeing what you do, no one is listening to you, no one really cares what may be achieved, but sometimes accidents happen and beauty is born.”

—“5 Writing Tips,” Publishers Weekly

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