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Stephen Dobyns' "How to Like It" and Jones Very’s “Soul-Sickness”

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Stephen Dobyns

Stephen Dobyns

Introduction and Text of “How to Like It”

In the melancholy first days of autumn, a man and his dog take a journey. The trip serves as the backdrop for the man's questioning life with its many vicissitudes, trials, and tribulations. His musing stands out as both comic and tragic.

The talking dog adds both spice and fantasy enough to allow readers to understand the oddity of a man putting certain thoughts into the head (and mouth) of his dog-friend.

How to Like It

These are the first days of fall. The wind
at evening smells of roads still to be traveled,
while the sound of leaves blowing across the lawns
is like an unsettled feeling in the blood,
the desire to get in a car and just keep driving.
A man and a dog descend their front steps.
The dog says, Let’s go downtown and get crazy drunk.
Let’s tip over all the trash cans we can find.
This is how dogs deal with the prospect of change.
But in his sense of the season, the man is struck
by the oppressiveness of his past, how his memories
which were shifting and fluid have grown more solid
until it seems he can see remembered faces
caught up among the dark places in the trees.
The dog says, Let’s pick up some girls and just
rip off their clothes. Let’s dig holes everywhere.
Above his house, the man notices wisps of cloud
crossing the face of the moon. Like in a movie,
he says to himself, a movie about a person
leaving on a journey. He looks down the street
to the hills outside of town and finds the cut
where the road heads north. He thinks of driving
on that road and the dusty smell of the car
heater, which hasn’t been used since last winter.
The dog says, Let’s go down to the diner and sniff
people’s legs. Let’s stuff ourselves on burgers.
In the man’s mind, the road is empty and dark.
Pine trees press down to the edge of the shoulder,
where the eyes of animals, fixed in his headlights,
shine like small cautions against the night.
Sometimes a passing truck makes his whole car shake.
The dog says, Let’s go to sleep. Let’s lie down
by the fire and put our tails over our noses.
But the man wants to drive all night, crossing
one state line after another, and never stop
until the sun creeps into his rearview mirror.
Then he’ll pull over and rest awhile before
starting again, and at dusk he’ll crest a hill
and there, filling a valley, will be the lights
of a city entirely new to him.
But the dog says, Let’s just go back inside.
Let’s not do anything tonight. So they
walk back up the sidewalk to the front steps.
How is it possible to want so many things
and still want nothing? The man wants to sleep
and wants to hit his head again and again
against a wall. Why is it all so difficult?
But the dog says, Let’s go make a sandwich.
Let’s make the tallest sandwich anyone’s ever seen.
And that’s what they do and that’s where the man’s
wife finds him, staring into the refrigerator
as if into the place where the answers are kept—
the ones telling why you get up in the morning
and how it is possible to sleep at night,
answers to what comes next and how to like it.

Dobyns’ Reading “How to Like it” With an Intro by Thomas Lux

Reading of "How to Like It" by Michael Branch

Commentary on Stephen Dobyns’ "How to Like It"

Stephen Dobyns' poem, "How to Like It," dramatizes the mental process of an aging man whose doubts and concerns translate into many questions, including, "Why is it all so difficult?"

First Movement: The Melancholy of Autumn

These are the first days of fall. The wind
at evening smells of roads still to be traveled,
while the sound of leaves blowing across the lawns
is like an unsettled feeling in the blood,
the desire to get in a car and just keep driving.

Stephen Dobyns' "How to Like It" is set in the melancholy of the first days of fall, the waning of the year, symbolizing the waning of a man's own life. The autumn-of-life texture is furthered by the fact that the time of day is evening, when "smells of roads still to be traveled" come born by "[t]he wind."

The sound of remaining stationary is signified by "the sound of leaves blowing across the lawns." These implications herald restlessness, making the individual want to jump in his car and keep on driving.

Second Movement: Two Main Characters

A man and a dog descend their front steps.
The dog says, Let's go downtown and get crazy drunk.
Let's tip over all the trash cans we can find.
This is how dogs deal with the prospect of change.
But in his sense of the season, the man is struck
by the oppressiveness of his past, how his memories
which were shifting and fluid have grown more solid
until it seems he can see remembered faces
caught up among the dark places in the trees.
The dog says, Let's pick up some girls and just
rip off their clothes. Let's dig holes everywhere.

The omniscient speaker then introduces the two main actors in his little drama, a man and a dog; the dog speaks, "Let's go downtown and get crazy drunk. / Let's tip over all the trash cans we can find." The speaker confides that this is a dog's way of "deal[ing] with the prospect of change."

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The fascinating and masterful strategy of this poem employs the personification technique of a talking dog in order to dramatize the man's baser instincts inculcated in the physical body.

The man never speaks, but through his silence as the dog speaks, the man's thoughts are made clear while being represented in a most colorful manner.

The dog expresses the wish to get "crazy drunk." Alongside that base wish, the man "is struck / by the oppressiveness of his past." Memories from the man's past have become as lodged in his memory hole as he is settled in a neighborhood with a wife—and a dog.

The man feels that he is able to "see faces / caught up among the dark places in the trees." As the man ruminates on his seemingly solid memory images, the dog with animal certitude pipes up: "Let's pick up some girls and just / rip off their clothes. Let's dig holes everywhere."

Third Movement: Reminded of a Movie

Above his house, the man notices wisps of cloud
crossing the face of the moon. Like in a movie,
he says to himself, a movie about a person
leaving on a journey. He looks down the street
to the hills outside of town and finds the cut
where the road heads north. He thinks of driving
on that road and the dusty smell of the car
heater, which hasn't been used since last winter.
The dog says, Let's go down to the diner and sniff
people's legs. Let's stuff ourselves on burgers.
In the man's mind, the road is empty and dark.

The man glimpsing the clouds rushing across the moon thinks of a movie in which someone is "leaving on a journey." Noticing the road heading north from his neighborhood, he thinks of driving his car and the dusty smell of the heater after being unused all summer.

Even in his mind, he wavers about what he would actually prefer to do, while the dog suggests they "go down to the diner and sniff / peoples legs. Let's stuff ourselves on burgers." But the man just thinks of the emptiness and darkness of the road.

Even if he decided to take that journey, he suspects that he would not find what he is looking for.

Fourth Movement: A Journey

Pine trees press down to the edge of the shoulder,
where the eyes of animals, fixed in his headlights,
shine like small cautions against the night.
Sometimes a passing truck makes his whole car shake.
The dog says, Let's go to sleep. Let's lie down
by the fire and put our tails over our noses.
But the man wants to drive all night, crossing
one state line after another, and never stop
until the sun creeps into his rearview mirror.

Still, in his mind the man continues on with that journey but notices, "the eyes of animals, fixed in his headlights, / shine like small cautions against the night."

By now, the dog just wants to lie down and sleep with his tail over his nose. But the man insists that he wants to continue driving, "crossing / one state line after another, and never stop / until the sun creeps into his rearview mirror."

Fifth Movement: New City

Then he'll pull over and rest awhile before
starting again, and at dusk he'll crest a hill
and there, filling a valley, will be the lights
of a city entirely new to him.
But the dog says, Let's just go back inside.
Let's not do anything tonight. So they
walk back up the sidewalk to the front steps.
How is it possible to want so many things
and still want nothing? The man wants to sleep
and wants to hit his head again and again
against a wall. Why is it all so difficult?

The man thinks that after a short rest from driving, he will continue and by sundown be rewarded by arriving at a city entirely new to him. But the dog, dog-tired by now with all the traveling fantasy, urges the man to go into their house and not do anything tonight, and that is what they do.

But the man still wonders, "How is it possible to want so many things / and still want nothing?" Because of his frustration with his inability to answer his own questions, he just wants to go to sleep and also repeatedly bang his head into the wall, as he wonders, "Why is it all so difficult?"

Sixth Movement: What the Dog Wants

But the dog says, Let's go make a sandwich.
Let's make the tallest sandwich anyone's ever seen.
And that's what they do and that's where the man's
wife finds him, staring into the refrigerator
as if into the place where the answers are kept—
the ones telling why you get up in the morning
and how it is possible to sleep at night,
answers to what comes next and how to like it.

The dog wants to "make the tallest sandwich anyone’s ever seen." As the man gathers his tall-sandwich fixins, his wife discovers him with his head stuck in the refrigerator just blindly staring.

But he's not just looking for food; he is peering as if he could discover satisfactory answers to his nagging questions—answers that might reveal to him, "why you get up in the morning / and how it is possible to sleep at night, / answers to what comes next and how to like it."

He will continue to struggle for those answers, but the last phrase, "how to like it"—that is, how to find attractive and even look forward to that struggle from which there is no escape will continue to evade him. He is fairly certain of that much.

Jones Very’s “Soul-Sickness”

Jones Very's dedication to delving into the spiritual level of being was intense and at times landed him in trouble with his peers.

Introduction and Text of "Soul-Sickness"

Jones Very's dedication to pluming the spiritual level of being was intense and at times landed him in trouble with his peers, but that intensity guided him to write his spiritual masterpieces. He remains an under-appreciated poet.

Jones Very's poem, "Soul-Sickness," is an Elizabethan (Shakespearean or English) sonnet, featuring the traditional quatrains and couple along with the traditional rime-scheme that frame all Shakespearean sonnets: ABAB CECE EFEF GG.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Soul-Sickness

How many of the body's health complain,
When they some deeper malady conceal;
Some unrest of the soul, some secret pain,
Which thus its presence doth to them reveal.

Vain would we seek, by the physician's aid,
A name for this soul-sickness e'er to find;
A remedy for health and strength decayed,
Whose cause and cure are wholly of the mind

To higher nature is the soul allied,
And restless seeks its being's Source to know;
Finding not health nor strength in aught beside;
How often vainly sought in things below,

Whether in sunny clime, or sacred stream,
Or plant of wondrous powers of which we dream!

Commentary on "Soul-Sickness

Jones Very possessed an intense interest and longing to explore the nature of God, the human soul, and divine understanding.

First Quatrain: Deeper Than the Physical Encasement

How many of the body's health complain,
When they some deeper malady conceal;
Some unrest of the soul, some secret pain,
Which thus its presence doth to them reveal.

The speaker observes that humanity continues to grumble about its physical well-being, when in reality the problem is psychological, not physical. A restive soul suffers from "some secret pain" of which even the sufferer is unaware.

By targeting the problem, the speaker seeks to then search for the remedy. He assumes that he may better be able to heal whatever he can isolate and possible name.

Second Quatrain: When It's All In Your Head

Vain would we seek, by the physician's aid,
A name for this soul-sickness e'er to find;
A remedy for health and strength decayed,
Whose cause and cure are wholly of the mind

The speaker then plainly avers that despite seeking help from a physician, the human sufferer will find that he trouble that resides in the mind and thus because the root cause of that difficulty and its eventual "cure" reside solely in the mind, any physical remedy will not cure the sufferer.

Third Quatrain: The Vain Search for Soul Awareness

To higher nature is the soul allied,
And restless seeks its being's Source to know;
Finding not health nor strength in aught beside;
How often vainly sought in things below,

The speaker reveals that the soul is, in fact, bound to the human beings' "higher nature"; and that means that nothing on the earth, physical plane can assuage its pain. One looks in vain for soul satisfaction on the material level of being.

The physical body remains just a vehicle or an outer garment that the soul wears temporarily. And when the mind grows weary of its outer garment, it search for it more permanent nature.

Couplet: Only Cure Is the Sacred

Whether in sunny clime, or sacred stream,
Or plant of wondrous powers of which we dream!

The dreams of humanity amount to little whether one carts one's physical encasement around from a sunny climate to an arid environment or whether one merely wishes for medicinal improvement.

The speaker has clearly staked his claim on divine healing for the body, mind, heart, and soul. He reports that only the "sacred stream" holds to cure for all levels of malady which each human being must face on a flawed and dangerous material level of being.

Brief Life Sketch of Jones Very

On August 28, 1813, Jones very was born in Salem, Massachusetts, to Captain Jones Very and Lydia Very, two first cousins who never married. As a poet, Very has received scant attention, yet his poetry is now becoming widely anthologized.

His works do deserve attention and appreciation for their spiritual value as well as for the finely crafted skill they demonstrate.

Very's father, Captain Very, spent little time with his family, but when the younger Very was nine years old, the sea captain did take his son on a voyage to Kronborg Castle, on which Shakespeare modeled the castle of Elsinore in The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

This voyage greatly influenced the young Jones Very, who later in his life would write many sonnets that are obviously inspired by the Shakespeare sonnets.

Harvard Graduate despite Poverty

Despite growing up in poverty, Jones Very was a good student and was accepted by Harvard, from which he graduated second in his class. He decided to become a Unitarian minister/poet and became engrossed in his studies.

He read with great interest the poetry of the Romantics both British and German, and he became totally enthralled by the works of that great bard known as William Shakespeare.

Very enjoyed Lord Byron but for a short while, later rejecting Byron as he grew deeper in his faith. His mother had embraced atheism, a stance which Very vehemently rejected, and he could not abide even the questioning of a divine force, as he had found happening in the works of Byron.

Spiritual Transformation

Before he graduated from Harvard, Very underwent a transformation that has been variously labeled crazy and eccentric, and biographer Edwin Gittleman explains Very’s state of mind this way:

During this period he purchased his ticket to the ascetic train which was to carry him to the end of the line, the eventual obliteration of self and immersion in the will of God.

Very became so entrenched in his claims of holiness that he alienated many of those who had been his admirers. Emerson felt he had taken the basic ideals of Transcendentalism too far, and Reverend Upham had Very committed to McLean Hospital in Charlestown.

He was soon released because the hospital administrators realized they could not change him, and they also insisted that he was not dangerous to himself or others.

Very and Emerson

As Walt Whitman had done, Jones Very sought assistance from Ralph Waldo Emerson, the transcendentalist master, who appreciated Very's unique abilities. Very enlisted Emerson's help in editing his collection of essays and poem to ready them for publication.

Although Very was reluctant to adhere to Emerson's suggestions, Emerson did, in fact, do his part in aiding the budding writer to complete his volume, which appeared under the title, Essays and Poems by Jones Very.

The volume includes Very's essays, “Shakespeare” and “Hamlet.” Emerson reviewed the collection in the Dial, but it received little attention.

Sources for Brief Life Sketch of Jones Very

  • Bryan Hileman. "Jones Very." American Transcendentalism Web. Accessed August 16, 2022.
  • Editors. "Jones Very." Academy of American Poets. Accessed August 16, 2022.
  • Editors. "Jones Very." Poetry Foundation. Accessed August 16, 2022.

Jordan Harling Reads Jones Very’s "The Clouded Morning"

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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