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Different interpretations come from reading poetry


After Experience Taught Me: background and reading
WD Snodgrass Poet
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This is a poem that goes way back in… in my history to the time when I was in the Navy during World War II. And one morning, a man took about 50 of us out and gave us a lesson in how… how you can kill a man with your bare hands, after having blinded him. And I cared an awful lot about that voice. I tried again and again to write poems about it, but I usually got it up into some kind of disguise or some kind of mythological getup of some sort and it never seemed to work. Finally, I just decided, no, I'm going to just write a poem in which he will just say what he said to us. It's a little shortened and so forth. But it doesn't happen here by itself. There's another voice that comes into the poem, and that's a voice I discovered at the same time. And that's the voice of the great Jewish philosopher, Baruch Spinoza. And he too is saying things that he said in two… two different places in his works. And you hear two lines from the… the combat instructor, two lines from Spinoza, two lines from the instructor, two lines from Spinoza, and so forth, back and back… back and forth. And insofar as I… in… insofar as I understand why this collision is… why I'm causing this, it isn't just that I… I did encounter them at the same time. It's that in terms of idea, they are saying the same thing. And this is very frightening to me. In… in terms of idea, they are saying whatever you do to save your own life is justified. But that means something very different when… when it comes from the voice of a man like Spinoza, who was one of the kindest and most gentlest and decent and also very brave men that ever existed, and… and this other man who… who probably is one of the least humane of humans. And… or at least, he wants you to think he is. And he wants you to become that… that way too. So that… well, I don't think you'll have much trouble telling which… which speaker's speaking. And… and the ultimate meaning, the real meaning of these things is… is tremendously different from… from these two different men. But… but in terms of abstraction, they're saying the same thing. Then there's a third voice, and that's the voice of the man into whose… in whose head these things have collected and… and collided. And he's trying to understand…. make some kind of sense out of that. And it goes just by its first title, which is out of Spinoza, After Experience Taught Me...


After experience taught me that all the ordinary
Surroundings of social life are futile and vain;

I'm going to show you something very
Ugly: someday, it might save your life.

Seeing that none of the things I feared contain
In themselves anything either good or bad

What if you get caught without a knife;
Nothing — even a loop of piano wire;

Excepting only in the effect they had
Upon my mind, I resolved to inquire

Take the first two fingers of this hand;
Fork them out — kind of a "V for Victory" —

Whether there might be something whose discovery
Would grant me supreme, unending happiness.

And jam them into the eyes of your enemy.
You have to do this hard. Very hard. Then press

No virtue can be thought to have priority
Over this endeavour to preserve one's being.

Both fingers down around the cheekbone
And setting your foot high into the chest

No man can desire to act rightly, to be blessed,
to live rightly, without simultaneously

You must call up every strength you own
And you can rip off the whole facial mask.

Wishing to be, to act, to live. He must ask
First, in other words, to actually exist.

             And you, whiner, who wastes your time
                 Dawdling over the remorseless earth,
             What evil, what unspeakable crime
                 Have you made your life worth?


American poet WD Snodgrass, entered the world of poetry with a bang winning several awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, for his first collection of poetry, Heart's Needle. A backlash followed his controversial fifth anthology “The Fuehrer Bunker”, but in recent years these poems have been reassessed and their importance recognised.

Listeners: William B. Patrick

William B. Patrick is a writer and poet who lives in Troy, New York. Among his work are the poetry volumes "We Didn't Come Here for This" and "These Upraised Hands", the novel "Roxa: Voices of the Culver Family" and the plays "Rescue" and "Rachel's Dinner". His most recent work is the non-fiction book "Saving Troy", based on the year he spent following the Troy Fire Department.

Mr. Patrick has been Writer-in-Residence at the New York State Writers Institute and has taught at Old Dominion University, Onondaga Community College, and Salem State College, and workshops in Screenwriting and Playwriting at the Blue Ridge Writers Conference in Roanoke, Virginia. He has received grants from the Academy of American Poets, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, and the Virginia Commission for the Arts.

Tags: After Experience Taught Me…, United States Navy, World War II, Baruch Spinoza

Duration: 5 minutes, 28 seconds

Date story recorded: August 2004

Date story went live: 29 September 2010