article slapdown: “a” vs. “the”

…the noun articulated by a “the” has a history: it comes again, and was foreseen; it doesn’t just occur, but re- and precurs. When “the bear comes out of the woods,” he’d been known or mentioned before; when “a bear comes out of the woods,” it’s somewhat more alarming, less expected—he has not appeared before, and the hearer starts a little (or a lot, depending on whether she is learning this fact in a field or in a reading chair). Articles thus operate as time signs: they cast their light ahead, onto their subsequent nouns, but cast a different light upon appearance (“a bear”) than upon reappearance (“the bear”). The “the” presumes something already there; it reacknowledges it. But an “a” makes its noun crop up on the spot: with an “a,” the unforeseen (and, by extension, the disappearing) is articulated.


If the “the” tells something about the recursive past (in which its noun existed before), and the “a” tells something about the precursive future (an unforeseenness about to befall), then a poet can administer such articles for their cursive and discursive powers, savoring the time relations they incur.

Heather McHugh “A Genuine Article”

The Bull Sea Lion

this poem just goes on evolving and evolving. Here’s the fourth draft of the third revision/reinventing of it:


The Bull Sea Lion

Ocean-skinned in neoprene, bug-faced,
web-footed, descending, cold

compressed gasping at my sudden shadow,
all looming black lithe ton of him.

Muscles scream flee in the face
of his face, of his mass, but

mammal flesh draws mammal flesh. Yearning,
a fear unfelt, I reach to him with my human hand.

What he could do he does not; he considers
me, he says I knew your mother once, surges

and dives. The shape of his bulk
becomes a churn of bubbles, each

an egg sac bursting empty, each
my selkie child unconceived.

the thing is, poetry just goes on speaking to us

if it captures some true thing about our odd little human lives. I just found this in Heather McHugh’s essay “Broken English,” from the ancient Greek poet Archilochus

to engage with an insatiable girl
ramming belly against belly,
Thigh riding against thigh

All poetry is fragment

All poetry is fragment: it is shaped by its breakages, at every turn. It is the very art of turnings, toward the white frame of the page, toward the unsung, toward the vacancy made visible, that wordlessness in which our words are couched. Its lines insistently defy their own medium by averting themselves from the space available, affording the absent its say, not only at the poem’s outset and end by at each line’s outset and end. Richard Howard’s deft maxim (“prose proceeds, verse reverses”) catches the shifts in directionality implicit in the advertencies of verse. It means to aim at (as its means are) the untoward.

A composed verse is a record of the meeting of the line and sentence, the advertent and the inadvertent: a succession of good turns done. The poem is not only a piece, like other pieces of art; it is a piece full of pieces.

Heather McHugh Broken English