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Past Dense: ‘Subtle ironies that touch and inform the human heart’ and other stuff

by Robb Hibbard Modified: April 18, 2013 at 1:45 pm •  Published: April 17, 2013

One question asked of me last week: Do you get paid to write this stuff?

Answer 1: Not nearly as much as you should be paid to read it.

Answer 2: Yes, apparently so. Do you find that as morally objectionable as I do? If not, you might need to re-appraise your values.

Answer 3: How much will you pay me not to write it?

Answer 4: Documenting the “subtle ironies that touch and inform the human heart” is: a. Not what I do; b. best left to polemicists.


Doesn’t any narrative assume the existence of a deity whose skill set includes the ability to understand same? If not, then to whom is the narrative addressed? People whose own life experiences, ideals, etc., preclude all but, at best, the possibility of misprision; of misreading, reading what they wish to read, and not what is meant in the text? Can any text at all actually contain an inherent meaning?

Why do prayers sometimes go unanswered?

Why don’t the coaches of various high school and college sports teams seek to inspire their student-athletes via energetic recitations of T.S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton”?

Why is the answer to some prayers, “No?”

Perhaps those are questions best left to polemicists.


Back in early 1995 I used to hang out every Wednesday night or so at this place in The Paseo in Oklahoma City. Can’t recall the name. Had nice furniture, good heat and a working toilet, three factors that marked it as an improvement over the apartment I lived in at the time. But I wanted to smoke cigarettes and drink strong coffee and read weak poetry in front of a like-minded peer group for some reason. And by read I mean mumble. And by weak poetry I mean texts mostly comprised of scatological passages transposed with passages of reportage compiled from local free periodicals. These texts were, although slightly popular, full of content unmentionable here; and, to be honest, I’d find them contemptible today.

I took some Christmas money — what I hadn’t yet spent on cigarettes and strong coffee — and bought “The Best American Poetry 1994.” I was an English major, but had no idea what sort of contemporary texts passed for poetry. A few poems within the anthology were written by a Tom Andrews. I’ve often thought about those poems, especially the following:

“Cinema Verite: The Death of Alfred, Lord Tennyson”

The camera pans a gorgeous snow-filled landscape: rolling hills, large black trees, a frozen river. The snow falls and falls. The camera stops to find Tennyson, in an armchair, in the middle of a snowy field.

It’s snowing. The snow is like…the snow is like crushed aspirin,
like bits of paper…no, it’s like gauze bandages, clean teeth, shoelaces, headlights…no,
I’m getting too old for this, it’s like a huge T-shirt that’s been chewed on by a dog,
it’s like semen, confetti, chalk, sea shells, woodsmoke, ash, soap, trillium, solitude, daydreaming…Oh hell, you can see for yourself! That’s what I hate about film!

He dies.

Later on that year, I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about poetry, or being clever, or any of that.

He dies.

Why does he die? The narrative gives no answer.

Is that unanswered question, implied by the poem’s conclusion, why “Cinema Verite: The Death of Alfred, Lord Tennyson” is considered poetry?

Perhaps those questions are best left to those capable of documenting the “subtle ironies that touch and inform the human heart.”

by Robb Hibbard
Senior Online Editor
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