Do dialogue-let’s say-between a hobo and a high-class hooker, then between an am­bulance chaser and a guy who sells scorecards at the ballpark-let’s say-about the meaning of money. Between pints, get the arch of the dart down pat. Shoot foul shots day in and rim out. Pick a sentence at random from a randomly selected book, and another from another volume also chosen by chance; then write a paragraph which will be a reasonable bridge between them. And it does get easier to do what you have done, sing what you’ve so often sung; it gets so easy, sometimes, that what was once a challenge passes over into thoughtless routine. So the bar must be raised a few notches, one’s handicap increased, the stakes trebled, tie both hands behind your back. Refuse the blindfold, refuse the final cigarette, refuse the proffered pizza. Do dialogue in dialect: a Welshman and a Scot arguing about an onion. Hardest of all: start over.



~ Originally published by Drawn & Quarterly in 1990(!) in their self-titled anthology.  Later reprinted in my collection Black Cat Crossing.  


Need relief from all Christmassy stuff?  Need some extra chills (and thrills) this season?  Consider The Chuckling Whatsit ~ an ideal gift for yourself (or equally spooky loved one)!

Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know of grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object being photographed. Many people know about camera angles now, but not so many know about sentences. The arrangement of words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in you mind. The picture dictates the arrangement. The picture dictates whether this will be a sentence with or without clauses, a sentence that ends hard or a dying-fall sentence, long or short, active or passive. The picture tells you how to arrange words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture. Nota bene.*

It tells you.

You don’t tell it.


*“Note well.”

Other parts of Again to Carthage offer a bit of marathon training advice: focus on building endurance, stamina, and speed by targeted workouts, not arbitrary long runs. And perhaps most movingly, there’s the observation that what really counts is not the climax, the Big Event — it’s all the work to get there. From Chapter 36:

“What I mean is that someone sees a race, and they think that’s what you do. They sort of know you had to train, but they weren’t watching then, so they don’t understand how incredibly much of it there is. But to us, it’s almost the whole thing. Racing is just this little tiny ritual we go through after everything else has been done. It’s a hood ornament.”

And then the hero and his trainer-coach-friend agree that, whatever happens, “Everything else is icing now. It’ll be okay. I’ll be okay.” — echoing some of elite ultra runner Eric Clifton’s remarks. The treasure is there, every moment.

In an essay written last year for the SMiLE tour booklet, Van Dyke professes still not to know what “Over and over … ” means. That’s indeed a respectable position for a poet to take. John Ashbery, whom many readers would consider the greatest living American poet, has said that he has no idea what it is he’s doing when he writes. The work of making and the work of noticing and explaining are two different things. I tend to distrust poets who are willing to explicate their work, and I cringe a little when someone asks “What did you mean by that?” It’s for the reader to make something of what he or she reads, and that’s what I’ve been doing here.