“After Experience Taught Me ...”

By W. D. Snodgrass 1926–2009
After experience taught me that all the ordinary   
Surroundings of social life are futile and vain;

         I’m going to show you something very   
         Ugly: someday, it might save your life.

Seeing that none of the things I feared contain   
In themselves anything either good or bad

         What if you get caught without a knife;   
         Nothing—even a loop of piano wire;

Excepting only in the effect they had   
Upon my mind, I resolved to inquire

         Take the first two fingers of this hand;
         Fork them out—kind of a “V for Victory”—

Whether there might be something whose discovery   
Would grant me supreme, unending happiness.

         And jam them into the eyes of your enemy.   
         You have to do this hard. Very hard. Then press

No virtue can be thought to have priority   
Over this endeavor to preserve one’s being.

         Both fingers down around the cheekbone   
         And setting your foot high into the chest

No man can desire to act rightly, to be blessed,   
To live rightly, without simultaneously

         You must call up every strength you own   
         And you can rip off the whole facial mask.

Wishing to be, to act, to live. He must ask   
First, in other words, to actually exist.


                           And you, whiner, who wastes your time
                              Dawdling over the remorseless earth,   
                           What evil, what unspeakable crime
                              Have you made your life worth?

W. D. Snodgrass, “‘After Experience Taught Me ...’” from Selected Poems, 1957-1987 (New York: Soho Press, 1987). Copyright © 1987 by W. D. Snodgrass. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Source: Selected Poems 1957-1987 (1987)

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