(To Walker Evans.

This week I’ll post poems by other folks as well as some from myself time and again, along with other normal stuff maybe if I feel like it. Today’s poem is by James Agee and comes from the excellent book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. My manifesto also comes from that book:

“Isn’t every human being both a scientist and an artist; and in writing of human experience, isn’t there a good deal to be said for recognizing that fact and for using both methods?”


(To Walker Evans.

Against time and the damages of the brain
Sharpen and calibrate. Not yet in full,
Yet in some arbitrated part
Order the façade of the listless summer.
Spies, moving delicately among the enemy,
The younger sons, the fools,
Set somewhat aside the dialects and the stained skins of feigned
    madness,
Ambiguously signal, baffle, the eluded sentinel.
Edgar, weeping for pity, to the shelf of that sick bluff,
Bring your blind father, and describe a little;
Behold him, part wakened, fallen among field flowers shallow
But undisclosed, withdraw.
Not yet that naked hour when armed,
Disguise flung flat, squarely we challenge the fiend.
Still, comrade, the running of beasts and the ruining of heaven
Still captive the old wild king.

Comments and conversations on this post

  1. Harvey, I liked the cadence but I did not understand the meaning. It reminded me a bit of Rimbaud’s Le dormeur du Val”. Was it about war?

  2. It might be about a kind of war. This poem serves as the frontispiece for Let us Now Praise Famous Men, which is a very strange and powerful work of documentary journalism. James Agee was a very self-hating kind of guy, but also very objective when necessary. I think this poem is his way of explaining to Walker Evans the difficulty he has reconciling [what he might have felt was] the exploitation of the sharecroppers he was documenting and the ultimate inability to tell the full story [still captive the old wild king].

    For me this poem serves as a reminder that nothing I create will be as perfect as my desire or idea.

  3. Well said. It makes it much clearer given your explanation. Perfection is sometimes a motivator but for many people it creates the fear to even try because they might fail. You obviously use it in a much more positive way and we all gain from it.