An Exercise in Esthetics: write about a battlefield, a crusade, a jihad

In this exercise we attempt what Oliver Wendell Holmes did to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life.” We take the essence of something beloved by another for other reasons and twist it to our own ends.

Find a piece of literature that disturbs you. Explore the web for something controversial or cute. Take anything, a passage of scripture, or some haunting modern verse like The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry. You might look for works that inspire terrorism, like Tarek Mehanna’s “A Drone Over the Skies of Madinah,” or escapism like Philip Britts’ “Down the Years.”

Consider the esthetics of whatever piece you find, its meter, its rhyme, even the way its words look on the screen or in print. What makes it powerful? Why did it move you?

Respond to the piece that you find by free writing for awhile. Gather your thoughts, and explore your own story or opinions. Find some specific imagery, some scene, some scent, some memory or metaphor, and expand on it. Free write for 10 minutes or an hour. Just meditate on why you chose the piece of literature you chose, and what you have to say about it.

Try not to revise at this point, just plow ahead past any nonsense. It’s often useful to free write on a piece of paper you plan to throw out later.

Read through what you’ve written. Consider the esthetics of your thoughts. Focus on specific things, sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures. Think about how you might craft what you’ve written into a response to whatever piece of literature you chose to write about. Now revise it, rewrite it, make it sing.

After reading great works, our words can seem so puny and worthless in the grand scheme, like we’re contributing to “The Library of Babel” (Jorge Luis Borges). There’s nothing wrong with spewing language in the spirit of Jack Kerouac or Lamont Coleman, but there’s no reason to expect perfection in the initial meanderings of your mind.

Even if you do think what you’ve already written is perfect, and ready to publish, again consider its esthetic. Think about how you want this piece to appear. Look at its meter and rhyme. There’s no need to exactly duplicate verse for verse the piece that inspired this response, but try to match or parody its style in some aspect.

Maybe you’re crafting an essay about a poem, or a short story inspired by whatever piece of literature you chose. Still, consider the esthetic, think about how your writing looks and sounds. Read it aloud. Record it. Listen back. Revise. How might your thoughts best present? Remember, our goal is to create texts to revisit, again, and again. “Art is long, and time is fleeting.”

Whether your response takes the form of prose or poetry, think about the rhythm and flow of your words. Let’s not just write and be content with a first draft. This exercise is for practice, after all. As Mary Oliver says, “True ease in writing comes from art not chance.”

As a further guide post, the theme for this exercise is “battle.” Just keep the word “battle” in mind as you research and respond here. See where it leads.


A Psalm of Life



What The Heart Of The Young Man Said To The Psalmist.


Tell me not, in mournful numbers, 

   Life is but an empty dream! 

For the soul is dead that slumbers, 

   And things are not what they seem. 


Life is real! Life is earnest! 

   And the grave is not its goal; 

Dust thou art, to dust returnest, 

   Was not spoken of the soul. 


Not enjoyment, and not sorrow, 

   Is our destined end or way; 

But to act, that each to-morrow 

   Find us farther than to-day. 


Art is long, and Time is fleeting, 

   And our hearts, though stout and brave, 

Still, like muffled drums, are beating 

   Funeral marches to the grave. 


In the world’s broad field of battle, 

   In the bivouac of Life, 

Be not like dumb, driven cattle! 

   Be a hero in the strife! 


Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant! 

   Let the dead Past bury its dead! 

Act,— act in the living Present! 

   Heart within, and God o’erhead! 


Lives of great men all remind us 

   We can make our lives sublime, 

And, departing, leave behind us 

   Footprints on the sands of time; 


Footprints, that perhaps another, 

   Sailing o’er life’s solemn main, 

A forlorn and shipwrecked brother, 

   Seeing, shall take heart again. 


Let us, then, be up and doing, 

   With a heart for any fate; 

Still achieving, still pursuing, 

   Learn to labor and to wait.




A Parody On “a Psalm Of Life”

Poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes


Life is real, life is earnest, 
And the shell is not its pen –
“Egg thou art, and egg remainest”
Was not spoken of the hen.

Art is long and Time is fleeting, 
Be our bills then sharpened well, 
And not like muffled drums be beating
On the inside of the shell.

In the world’s broad field of battle, 
In the great barnyard of life, 
Be not like those lazy cattle! 
Be a rooster in the strife! 

Lives of roosters all remind us, 
We can make our lives sublime, 
And when roasted, leave behind us, 
Hen tracks on the sands of time.

Hen tracks that perhaps another
Chicken drooping in the rain, 
Some forlorn and henpecked brother, 
When he sees, shall crow again.