As Annie Dillard notes in the introduction to Mornings Like This, most books of poetry do not need explanation, primarily because the reader assumes that they are original poems, written by a poet, for an audience that expects creativity and originality. While the audience’s expectations are fulfilled after reading the nearly forty poems in this collection, the fulfillment does not come from reading original poems written by a poet. Except for some titles and subtitles, Dillard did not write a word ofMornings Like This. Rather, she has “found” poems from a variety of other sources: letters by Vincent van Gogh, passages from a medical text, observations by a natural historian, first lines from a poetry anthology, instructions from a painting manual.
Like the artists Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp, who “found” art in ordinary objects such as soup cans and bicycles, poets have frequently appropriated texts from advertising copy, song lyrics, and menus for their poetry. Unlike those kinds of found poems, however, Dillard’s do not present whole texts as “found.” Instead, Dillard opts for a unique approach to found poems insofar as she selects bits of broken text and invents their themes and orderings. As she admits, she has “lifted” the sentences, sometimes dropping certain words but not adding any words. The result is a collection that amuses, delights, provokes—a collection that fulfills the expectations of readers who turn to poetry for epiphanies that are induced by the creativity and originality of a poet, in this case a poet who recycles the work of others.
Some of the sources for Dillard’s poems contribute multiple inspirations, the richest source being Max Picard, whose 1948 book The World of Silence inspires three poems in this collection. The title of Picard’s book suggests a motif that connects this trio of poems—silence—but the title of each poem demonstrates how Dillard has added her own creativity to Picard’s text: “The Child in Spring,” “Attempt to Move,” “Pastoral.” In the first poem, she paints a portrait of a youngster who “is like a little hill of silence,” while the second poem chooses geographical locations, all silent, to paint a village, a roadside, a house, a cityscape, a seascape. The last poem, aptly titled to suggest a pastoral canvas, paints a picture of a peasant plowing ground with his oxen, the animals “carrying silence” with them. Read together, these found poems paint visual pictures of an auditory sensation.
Another source of multiple inspiration is the painter Vincent van Gogh, whose letters inspire Dillard to assemble the poems entitled “I Am Trying to Get at Something Utterly Heartbroken” and “A Letter to Theo.” The former, which is the longer of the two, is especially poignant for its questions that strike at the heart of both van Gogh’s and others’ malaise:
If we do not learn from this, then from what shall we learn?
We who try our best to live, why do we not live more?
If we are tired, isn’t it then because
We have already walked a long way?
In a similarly questioning mood, the poem addressed to van Gogh’s brother Theo ponders important issues, relating questions about art to questions about life:
What is drawing? How does one learn it?
To better my life—don’t you think I eagerly desire it?
Cannot I serve some purpose and be of any good?
Do you think we too shall be at the evening of our life?
In this lyric, as in the former one, Dillard, finding not only a poem but also the heart of van Gogh’s torment, assembles the artist’s words about torment in a way that touches the universal experience of uncertainty and fragility.
Assembling the words of an...
(The entire section is 1609 words.)