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)