Versecraft

"The Sponge" by Joshua Mehigan

September 05, 2023 Elijah Perseus Blumov Season 4 Episode 7
Versecraft
"The Sponge" by Joshua Mehigan
Show Notes Transcript

Text of poem here

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Topics discussed in this episode include:

 

-Matthew's new book, Midlife

-Joshua Mehigan and his books, The Optimist and Accepting the Disaster

-Josh's interview on SLEERICKETS

-American Naturalism

-Josh's poem Down In the Valley

-Sponges 101

-Parapraxis, aka "The Freudian slip"

-Venice by Herman Melville 

-The gang and I talk The Pathetic Fallacy on SLEERICKETS

-Monism, Pantheism, Mysticism, oh my!

-Zen and the art of microbe filtration

-Everything is connected, man! 

-Learning how to be and not to be mortal.

-The Hindu Asrama system

-Accepting our disaster

 

 

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My favorite poetry podcasts for:
Sharp thoughts and cutting truths (Matthew): Sleerickets
Lovely introspection and sensitive reflection (Alice): Poetry Says
The landscape of Ohioan poetry (Jeremy): Poetry Spotlight

Supported in part by The Ohio Poetry Association
Art by David Anthony Klug

List of the most common metrical feet:
Iamb: weak-STRONG (u /)
Trochee: STRONG-weak (/ u)
Anapest: weak-weak-STRONG (u u /)
Amphibrach: weak-STRONG-weak (u / u)
Dactyl: STRONG-weak-weak (/ u u)
Cretic: STRONG-weak-STRONG (/ u /)
Pyrrhic: weak-weak (u u)
Spondee: STRONG-STRONG (/ /)

Versecraft 3-7 “The Sponge” by Joshua Mehigan

 

Welcome back or to the show everyone! It is a sultry September in Cleveland, and now that we’re in the ninth month of the year, you know what that means: all the literary magazines are opening back up for submissions. If you’re a poet or writer, I wish you bon chance in this year’s hunting season. 

Before we begin today, I would be remiss not to mention a lovely letter I received from the fabulous poet, classicist, former Versecraft feature, and current Oxford Professor of Poetry Alicia Stallings. She wrote in with some very kind words about my Amy Clampitt episode, but also to offer a correction: “Parthenon” does not, as I assumed, mean “temple of the virgin,” but rather “temple of the virgins,” plural. A small detail, but one that considerably lessens the Marian resonance. 

I’d also like to congratulate my good friend Matthew Buckley Smith, whose long-awaited second collection, Midlife, winner of the 2021 Richard Wilbur Award, is due to be published by Measure Press later this year. The bias of friendship aside, and with the full force of my artistic integrity, I say that this is a phenomenal book, and anyone who loves poetry and marvels at the human condition will find something to enjoy and be moved by in it. Please see my show notes for details. 

Now is also the perfect time to tell you about the many wonderful ways that, if you like picking up what I’m putting down here on Versecraft, you can show your support for the loving but unpaid labor it takes to put this podcast together. At my buymeacoffee page, link in the show notes, you can leave me a one-time tip or become a paying subscriber, with various tiers of dollar amounts. I also have a spanking new merch store, where you can pick up a Versecraft t-shirt, sweatshirt, or hoodie in a variety of colors. I can tell you from experience that the shirts are super comfortable and well done, and everyone who’s ordered one loves them, so check it out!  

If you love what I do here on Versecraft but are interested in some personalized time one on one to develop your own craft, or understanding of craft, I’m also pleased to announce that I’m now taking private students! I already have three lined up, but I have room for two more slots for anyone who might be interested. Please send me a note at versecraftpodcast@gmail.com for more details. 

Today’s poet, Joshua Mehigan, is someone I’m very excited to feature not only because he’s one of the greatest practitioners of metrical lyric writing today, but also because I’m going to get to meet him in just a couple weeks at his home in Brooklyn, New York. Something I discovered today, to my intense frustration and wonder, was that Josh actually taught English at Brooklyn College, my alma mater, while I was a junior there. It’s entirely possible that we walked past each other several times, none the wiser of one another. Of course, at the time, I was much more interested in philosophy than poetry, and wouldn’t have been able to appreciate Josh’s knowledge, artistry, and talent nearly to the degree that I do now. 

Joshua is also, in an indirect way, the person who brought Matthew, Alice, and me together. It was through taking a poetry class with Josh that Alice discovered Matthew and Sleerickets, and it was also through listening to Matthew’s immensely entertaining interview with Josh that I got hooked listening to his show. My life would’ve been very different this past year without those events, and for them I’ve very grateful. 

Joshua Mehigan was born in 1969 in Johnstown, New York, a small town in the foothills of the Adirondacks. I think it’s probably safe to say that, after feminist icon Elizabeth Cady Stanton, he is the town’s most famous native. He attended Purchase College for his undergraduate degree, which, like mine, was in philosophy. Afterwards, also like me, he decided to direct his future academic efforts to poetry. Upon graduating, he was at once accepted into the prestigious MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College. There, like me in my MFA program, he became exasperated and demoralized by the simultaneous pretentiousness and mediocrity of his peers, yet this only drove him to more passionately pursue his vocation and hone his craft. 

The next decade, however, proved to be a rough one. Mehigan had moved to Brooklyn, where he has lived ever since. To support his New York rent and his writing, he took grueling, menial jobs in education, writing, and the service industry, and toiled, largely unsuccessfully, to make a name for himself. Finally, in the February of 2004, at the age of 34, fresh off of an apartment eviction and a bitter break-up, thoroughly frustrated, he broke down, and vowed to give up poetry entirely. That very day, he received word that he had won the Hollis Summer Prize in poetry, and that the Ohio University Press would be publishing his first book, The Optimist. A slew of accolades, prestigious publications, and glowing reviews followed, and Mehigan has since come to be considered one of the most outstanding voices in contemporary poetry. His second book, Accepting the Disaster, came out in 2014, and only further cemented his reputation as a master craftsman with a mordant eye for the pathos and cruelty of daily life. Mehigan takes his time with his work, and, like my friend Matthew, also a master craftsman, seems to publish a collection once every decade or so. One can only hope that more good things are on the way. 

Mehigan has taught courses in American literary realism and naturalism, and expressed admiration for figures like Theodore Dreiser and Stephen Crane, Richard Yates and Raymond Carver. These names are primarily known as prose writers, not poets, but to my mind Mehigan’s work falls very much in their tradition, if also in the traditions of Robinson and Larkin. He shares with all these writers a taste and talent for creating brutally realistic, acutely rendered scenes of pettiness and misery, absurdity and disillusionment, madness and cruelty, determinism and calamity, ideological condemnation and social critique. What is uncannily beautiful about much of his work is how he is able to take such dark subjects and articulate them in such elegant, lovely, musical verse. Consider the short poem “Down In The Valley,” one of his most gorgeous and devastating: 

 

It was her first time coming home from college.

She headed downtown for a drink or two.

Her girlfriend went home early. That was Christmas.

Now, under sapling pine trees in the clearing,

snowdrops are coming back to their old places.

They had been gone a lifetime. Now they stand,

poised like a choir on the verge of singing:

Nature is just. There’s nothing left to fear.

The worst thing that can happen happened here.

 

            The simultaneous economy and poignancy of this is breathtaking, and Mehigan’s lambent, spiritually charged imagery paradoxically both redeems the poem from complete darkness and deepens its pathos and cynicism. In other poems, like “The Optimist,” a bleak reality is tempered by the dignity of the sufferer, and some, like “Promenade,” demonstrate the poet attuned more purely to the glory and joy of mundane human life. Joshua once remarked of his work: “I’m often trying to approach beauty, humanity, and love through their antitheses. Sometimes I don’t reach my destination.”

            Today’s poem, “The Sponge,” is a bit of an outlier in Mehigan’s oeuvre. Like the Wilbur poem from a couple weeks ago, “Trolling For Blues,” it uses the subject of a sea creature to meditate upon the origin and nature of life, with complex, arguably mystical, arguably ominous results. Such poems which take a sharp perception of the physical world and use it to explore metaphysical themes are particular favorites of mine. The poem goes like this:

 

The Sponge

 

None of us understands our story better

than this nonentity, unconscious slip

of nature, nonetheless our common parent

dilating at the bottom of the sea.

 

The parent, too, of octopus and pony,

of reefs and villages, once it was strange

simply for being not a rock itself—

not rock, but a blank sleep on a rock shelf.

 

And, deeply sympathetic to the rock,

to sea and sea-dust washing through its skin,

it knows, although it doesn’t know it knows,

that minds and their milieux are all one thing.

 

Some see its way of thinking; most, not yet.

Still, one day, just by living, all will find

reason enough within themselves to think

the single thought forever in its mind.

 

 

At first glance, the form here appears unremarkable: four quatrains of mostly blank iambic pentameter, with a rhyming couplet in the second stanza, and a concluding rhyme in lines fourteen and sixteen. If we take a second glance, however, and observe the structural functions fulfilled by these carefully chosen rhymes, we will notice something interesting. The concluding couplet in the second quatrain marks a decisive sonic break between the first half of the poem and the second half of the poem. This break comes at line 8, the place we would typically find the break in an Italian sonnet. Sure enough, the third stanza begins with a shift in thought, a movement from wide-eyed meditation to philosophical pronouncement. The poem also ends in a sonnet-like manner, with a snappy concluding thought and a rhyme producing the effect of a click of a box. Though this poem is not a sonnet, it functions very much like one, and we might go so far as to say that this sixteen line poem is a balancing out of the sonnet’s stanzaically uneven fourteen line form. 

            The meter of the poem is fairly regular, though in each quatrain save the third there is a stand-out rhythm in one of the lines which might give us pause. The first line: “None of us understands our story better,” appears to be completely un-iambic, consisting of a dactyl followed by four trochees. The fact of the matter however, as we have seen many times before, is that a sequence of trochees can be scanned as a sequence of iambs with a syllable’s shift in starting point. In order to accommodate this line to the iambic scheme we must therefore shift the reference point, and it is most appropriate that we read this line as acephalous: by placing an imaginary unaccented syllable at the beginning, we end up with a much less heterodox result: an acephalous feminine iambic line with a second foot anapestic substitution. It sounds like a joke, but that actually is much better. 

            In line 8, we have: “not rock, but a blank sleep on a rock shelf,” we have an interesting combination of metrical substitution with rhythmic modulation. This line alternates between iambs and trochees: not ROCK, BUT a, blank SLEEP, ON a, rock SHELF. This would be funky enough, and helps to account for the ruggedness of the line, but we must also account for why the line sounds so percussive: “not rock, but a blank sleep on a rock shelf.” One way to create a percussive feeling in a line is to have an abundance of plosive sounds, and we do have a strong “p” in “sleep,” and three strong “k”s: “rock,” “blank,” “rock.” This however is not the primary reason why the line sounds percussive. It sounds percussive because, in addition to the two punchy trochees, two out of the three iambs are very heavy iambs: “blank sleep,” and “rock shelf.” This gives the line an abundance of stresses which makes it very forceful when spoken. 

            Finally, line 14 can be scanned as a regular iambic line, but the rhythmic modulation in the first foot is so strong that we might easily misread it: “Still, one day, just by living, all will find.” The adverb “still,” set in isolation by the comma after it, seems to be a standalone stress. It is easy to scan it as an accent, and then scan “one day” as a trochee. If we do this, however, we end up with six accents for the whole line—a line of hexameter— and this would be an error. Lines of hexameter do occasionally show up in iambic pentameter poems, but this is not one of those cases. For one thing, the line does not sound longer than the lines next to it, and for another, scanning “still” as a standalone accent would necessitate scanning the rest of the line as a string of trochees— that’s a good sign that the reading is incorrect. Here, the correct reading involves recognizing that the word “still,” strong as it is, plays second fiddle to an even stronger stress: the word “one” in the phrase “one day.” “Still” is undoubtedly a speech stress, but in the iambic scheme, it is an unaccented syllable when put beside the syllable “one.” 

            Now let’s go back and read the first half of the poem again: 

 

 

None of us understands our story better

than this nonentity, unconscious slip

of nature, nonetheless our common parent

dilating at the bottom of the sea.

 

The parent, too, of octopus and pony,

of reefs and villages, once it was strange

simply for being not a rock itself—

not rock, but a blank sleep on a rock shelf.

 

            To get our bearings in this poem, it is necessary that we understand a fascinating fact, which Mehigan attempts to make clear in the phrase, “common parent.” Evidence suggests that sea sponges were the very first organisms to fulfill the criteria of being animals. It is also the scientific consensus that all animal life, indeed, all life as we know it, can be traced back to a common ancestor. As such, all animals can trace their lineage back to the sea sponge. When you examine the basal clades, the fundamental groupings of zoological relations, there are the sponges, Porifera, and then there’s everything else: all other animals fall under the clade Eumetazoa. Sponges, which first evolved around 800 million years ago, are life at its most primeval: they have no tissues and no organs, and, like plants, they are sessile, i.e. immobile. Unlike plants, they do not photosynthesize, but instead rely on ocean currents to bring them their prey: plankton, algae, bacteria, and other microorganisms. They are essentially living filters that digest ocean detritus. The most basic plants actually require more sophisticated structures than the most basic animals in order to operate their more energy-efficient fueling process. The first plants likely did not evolve until hundreds of millions of years after the sponge. It’s funny to consider that there is a creature, the most ancient creature in existence, the father of us all, sleeping at the bottom of the sea, a creature capable of living for thousands upon thousands of years. It is not Cthulhu. It is the humble sponge. 

            Mehigan claims that none of us—us being the animal kingdom— understands our story better than the sponge. This is of course rhetorical—sponges do not have the capacity to understand anything. They are, as Mehigan admits, unconscious non-entities—as non-sentient creatures, it is doubtful that they can be said to have any sort of independent existence at all. What Mehigan means though is not that the sponge has some of comprehensive knowledge of evolutionary biology, but that, because it is the closest thing to the source of life, it has some fundamental, primal awareness of pure life that we more sophisticated creatures lack.

            Mehigan describes the sponge ingeniously as an “unconscious slip of nature.” As we have already said, the sponge is literally unconscious. It’s a bit of a stretch, but due to its tubular structure, a casing of cells around an unliving mass of collagen, one might argue that a sponge is a kind of physical slip-case, and of course the sponge itself can be rather slippery. More to the point however, the phrase “unconscious slip” also has Freudian overtones—a so-called “Freudian slip,” more officially known as parapraxis, is a term used in psychoanalysis for when someone makes an error in speech, memory, or action that reveals hidden or repressed desires, desires often buried in the unconscious mind. By saying that the sponge is an “unconscious slip of nature,” Mehigan is personifying nature as a creator who made the first animal by mistake, though this supposed “mistake” actually revealed one of nature’s true desires. Mehigan thus manages to make a theological rumination in the disguise of a psychoanalytic joke. 

            In the second stanza, Mehigan illustrates the wondrous diversity of evolution: given world enough and time, a sponge can produce octopuses, ponies, reefs, and even human civilization. This passage reminds me of an amazing short poem by Herman Melville, called “Venice,” that I think Josh may have had in mind. It goes like this:

 

With Pantheist energy of will
 The little craftsman of the Coral Sea
 Strenuous in the blue abyss,
 Up-builds his marvellous gallery
     And long arcade,
 Erections freaked with many a fringe
     Of marble garlandry,
 Evincing what a worm can do.

 

Laborious in a shallower wave,
     Advanced in kindred art,
 A prouder agent proved Pan’s might
 When Venice rose in reefs of palaces.

 

 

Mehigan goes on to point out that when sponges first arose, life itself was a novelty—they were strange simply for not being rocks. He then concludes this half of the poem with a shrewd couplet that musically sums up this juxtaposition: existence has gone from being inorganic shelves of rock, to being selves, living things. Again, sponges don’t actually possess what we would call consciousness, much less self-consciousness, but the point is well taken. 

Let’s now go back and read the poem again, this time all the way through:

 

 

None of us understands our story better

than this nonentity, unconscious slip

of nature, nonetheless our common parent

dilating at the bottom of the sea.

 

The parent, too, of octopus and pony,

of reefs and villages, once it was strange

simply for being not a rock itself—

not rock, but a blank sleep on a rock shelf.

 

And, deeply sympathetic to the rock,

to sea and sea-dust washing through its skin,

it knows, although it doesn’t know it knows,

that minds and their milieux are all one thing.

 

Some see its way of thinking; most, not yet.

Still, one day, just by living, all will find

reason enough within themselves to think

the single thought forever in its mind.

 

 

            

In the third quatrain, we have, as I mentioned earlier, the shift into a philosophical discourse. One might argue that by assigning sympathy and knowledge to a sponge, Mehigan is committing the pathetic fallacy— projecting intelligent capacities onto non-intelligent things. For more on this idea, please see the Sleerickets episode in the show notes. Again, however, it’s clear that Mehigan is being knowingly rhetorical, and it’s easy to see what he actually has in mind: a sponge is “sympathetic” to a rock and other inorganic material in the sense that it is like them: it too is inert and non-sentient, more of a feature than a creature. 

At the same time, it is alive, and therefore, in some unimaginably primitive sense, has awareness of itself and its environment. It is as if a rock were awoken from its lithic slumber—it is as close to base reality as experience can allow, without the complicating machinery of a highly developed subjective architecture. It is this primitive experience, this sense of raw, pure being, that Mehigan finds fascinating and seeks to understand. He describes this non-sentient awareness as the sponge “knowing, but not knowing that it knows,” acknowledging its almost paradoxically simple status as a life form. As far as the sponge is concerned, it is just existing, but Mehigan ascribes to this existence, from the perspective of human intelligence, a metaphysical insight: “minds and their milieux are all one thing.” That is, mind and matter, which is to say all aspects of reality, are ultimately one substance—the perception of difference is merely due to the fact that this single substance can take on different shapes and modes of being. This is a philosophical view known as Monism, a view often associated with its sister belief, Pantheism, that God is everything, and everything is God. These two beliefs are in turn often viewed as the chief insights of many mystical traditions, such as Advaita Vedanta Hinduism and certain forms of Sufism, Taoism, and Kabbalah. Mehigan seems to be saying that this profound insight which human beings struggle for years to understand is one that comes naturally to the barely alive sponge. Zen masters spend decades trying to become one with existence by emptying their minds—meanwhile, the sponge hardly had a mind to begin with. It is the living embodiment of ego-death.

The sponge is also particularly suited to possess the insight that “minds and their milieux are all one thing” because of its nature as a filter—it is literally filled with its environment all the time. The ocean passes through it constantly, and the tides determine its movements. You could not be more in tune with the Tao if you tried. 

In the fourth stanza, Mehigan says something very interesting and perplexing. It is probably best just to quote it once again:

 

Some see its way of thinking; most, not yet.

Still, one day, just by living, all will find

reason enough within themselves to think

the single thought forever in its mind.

 

In what sense is it inevitable that all people will be convinced that the wisdom of the sponge is true? Does Mehigan envision a utopian future full of mystics? I doubt it. There is only one thing that is inevitable in life, and that is death. The most likely scenario is that he is referring to the fact that, at some point, we will all, unless we are killed instantly and without warning, have to face our mortality. When we do, we must come to grips with the fact that mind and body are interdependent—when the body dies, the mind as we know it will disappear. Minds and their milieux are all one thing. However, we may also cling to this idea for consolation: unless we are solipsists, none of us believe that the entire world dies when we die. If we learn to identify ourselves not with our egos, but with existence itself, our common parent, we may come to embrace the idea that, because we are the world, we cannot truly die. As New Agers love to glibly point out: “you are not a person having an experience of the universe; you are the universe having the experience of a person.” I personally have some reservations about this idea, but it is certainly true that if one can become convinced of it, one is far better prepared to embrace their own demise. 

In traditional Hinduism, there are said to be four stages of life: the life of the student, the life of the householder, the life of the retiree, and the life of the ascetic. Upon attaining sufficient age, it is expected that a person will retreat to the forest and spend their days preparing themselves for death, attempting, through meditation, to let go of their egos and embrace oblivion. Perhaps it is something like this very reasonable progression that Mehigan has in mind.

On the other hand, he may simply be pointing out the fact that there will be a point for all of us, when we are on the brink of death, or perhaps due to sheer senility, when our conscious minds will leave us, but we will still be alive— we will enter a vegetative state, or, perhaps more appropriately, a sponge-like state. This bleaker interpretation honestly seems more in line with what I would expect from one of Josh’s poems. I am prevented from wholly subscribing to it however by the phrase “find reason enough,” which implies that embracing sponge philosophy is a conscious decision. 

Regardless, one thing is indubitably true: our minds will fail, and because they will, it is good for us to try to reconcile ourselves to the fact ahead of time. We must, as the title of the book from which this poem comes urges us, “Accept the Disaster.” 

With all that we’ve learned and explored, let’s go back and read this poem one last time, as an old friend:

 

The Sponge

 

None of us understands our story better

than this nonentity, unconscious slip

of nature, nonetheless our common parent

dilating at the bottom of the sea.

 

The parent, too, of octopus and pony,

of reefs and villages, once it was strange

simply for being not a rock itself—

not rock, but a blank sleep on a rock shelf.

 

And, deeply sympathetic to the rock,

to sea and sea-dust washing through its skin,

it knows, although it doesn’t know it knows,

that minds and their milieux are all one thing.

 

Some see its way of thinking; most, not yet.

Still, one day, just by living, all will find

reason enough within themselves to think

the single thought forever in its mind.