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  #1  
Unread 09-17-2019, 02:21 AM
John Isbell John Isbell is offline
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Default Ice Cream and Talmud

Ice Cream and Talmud: Version II

If only I could get you to eat this ice cream;
sometimes simple tasks are the hardest, and I’ve lived through that.
But the heart must have a reason. Every one of us
is like a universe
, says the Talmud, and when we die,

that universe goes lost
. Now to my mind, this is accurate,
based on everything I’ve come to know of people –
which is all anyone can go on, don’t you think?
We are all afloat on our own tiny oceans.

To get back to the ice cream. I’ve been trying to reconcile
you and this ice cream, and it hasn’t happened.
I’ve laid out for you
the ways this world would be a better place

if only you would follow my advice.
Because I grieve to see you
not happy. And just now it dawns on me –
perhaps a little late – that my desire

to see you happy may not be what you
most want. Perhaps you want something quite different.
Perhaps you don’t know what you want. Your heart
says no to ice cream, and you just trust that.


Ice Cream and Talmud: Version I

If only I could get you to eat this ice cream.
Sometimes simple tasks are the hardest, and I’ve lived through that.
There are so many things to consider. Mostly the heart,
with its million reasons. Every one of us

is like a universe
, says the Talmud, and when we die,
that universe is lost.
I happen to believe
this is accurate, based on what I know of people –
which is all anyone can go on, after all.

To get back to the ice cream. I’ve been trying to reconcile
you and this ice cream, and it hasn’t happened.
I’ve laid out for you
the ways this world would be a better place

if only you would follow my advice
and enjoy yourself. Because I grieve to see
you unhappy. And it dawns on me –
perhaps a little late – that my desire

to see you happy may not be what you
most want. Perhaps you want something quite different.
Perhaps you don’t know what you want, but your
heart says no to ice cream, and you trust that.

Last edited by John Isbell; 09-22-2019 at 08:17 PM.
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  #2  
Unread 09-17-2019, 11:18 AM
Mark McDonnell Mark McDonnell is offline
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Hi John,

The poem seems to be about the speaker's efforts to get someone ('you') to eat ice-cream. It's not made explicit why 'you' doesn't want the ice-cream, but there's a suggestion they might be depressed, and the speaker hopes this small embrace of simple pleasures might snap them out of it, or at least be a step in the right direction. The speaker then realises that a person can't be forced to be happy to please another, but has to find out what they want for themselves.

It's a nice idea, but it feels like there's a lot of fat in the middle, a lot of pseudo-profundity and non sequiturs delivered in a tone that veers from very earnest to matter-of-fact folksy, in order to get to this point.


If only I could get you to eat this ice cream.
Sometimes simple tasks are the hardest, and I’ve lived through that.
There are so many things to consider. Mostly the heart,
with its million reasons.


I'm not sure what 'and I've lived through that' means when added to 'Sometimes simple tasks are the hardest'. Lived through what? The knowledge that sometimes simple tasks are hard? It feels both grammatically confusing and perhaps redundant as a phrase.

Then I'm not sure about


There are so many things to consider. Mostly the heart,
with its million reasons.


To consider in relation to what? The completion of simple tasks? In what way is the 'heart, with its million reasons' connected to whether the poem's 'you' will eat ice-cream. The language of the individual statements is very flat and simple but also, it seems to me, unnecessarily gnomic, as if to disguise a lack of actual content.

Poem continues with:


Every one of us

is like a universe
, says the Talmud, and when we die,
that universe is lost.
I happen to believe
this is accurate, based on what I know of people –
which is all anyone can go on, after all.


I don't quite get what this stanza is doing or saying. The quote seems to say no more than 'people are complex then we die and that's it'. After some decent googling, I can't find this quote anywhere. Is it really in the Talmud? It links back to the 'million reasons' idea of complexity, I suppose. But why does the poem need to invoke the Talmud, particularly, for this truism? Again, it seems like an attempt at forced profundity. The last sentence here doesn't add much for me. Why else would the speaker quote the thing if he didn't believe it to be true? It feels like 2 and a half lines just to demonstrate the poem's casual, insouciant voice. As does the beginning of the next stanza


To get back to the ice cream. I’ve been trying to reconcile
you and this ice cream, and it hasn’t happened.


For me, the heart of the poem is this:



If only I could get you to eat this ice cream.
Sometimes simple tasks are the hardest.
I’ve laid out for you
the ways this world would be a better place

if only you would follow my advice
and enjoy yourself. Because I grieve to see
you unhappy. And it dawns on me –
perhaps a little late – that my desire

to see you happy may not be what you
most want. Perhaps you want something quite different.
Perhaps you don’t know what you want, but your
heart says no to ice cream, and you trust that.


I realise this messes up the title (of a collection, too?) and the whole religion theme, but to me they feel kind of tacked on anyway. I do like the sentiment of the ending. The shrug of the voice works there, I think.

Perhaps I'm missing something and others might disagree.

Mark
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  #3  
Unread 09-17-2019, 10:22 PM
John Isbell John Isbell is offline
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Good evening Mark,

I'm sorry that your googling failed to locate my Talmud reference for you. On the other hand, you gave me a profitable hour leafing through Talmud and Kabbalah, which I've not done in some time, so thank you for that. Here, since you seem interested, is Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 in full:

How are the witnesses intimidated [not to testify falsely] in capital cases? They would bring them in and intimidate them, viz.: Can it be that you are testifying (illegally) by conjecture or through hearsay, "witness from witness" (and not from direct observation), or (even) from a reliable person? Can it be that you do not know that we are going to cross-examine you thoroughly? Know that capital cases are not like monetary litigations. In monetary litigations, [where one testifies falsely to make another financially liable], he makes financial restitution and he is forgiven; but in capital cases, his (victim's) blood and the blood of his (unborn) descendants are on his head until the end of time. For thus do we find with Cain, who killed his brother, viz. (Genesis 4:10): "The voice of your brother's bloods cries out to Me": It is not written "your brother's blood," but "your brother's bloods" — his blood and the blood of his children. (Another interpretation: "your brother's bloods" — his blood was bespattered on trees and stones). It is for this reason that man was created singly [to show that the entire world proceeded from one man] — in order to teach that if one causes a single Jewish soul to go lost, Scripture accounts it to him as if had caused an entire world to go lost; and if one sustains a single Jewish soul, Scripture accounts it to him as if he had sustained an entire world. And (man was created singly) for the fostering of peace, that one not say to his neighbor: "My father (i.e., my original ancestor) was greater than yours," and that the heretics not say: "There are many deities in heaven," [each creating man in its own image], and to declare the greatness of the Holy One Blessed be He; for man mints many coins from one die, and they are all the same, but the King of kings, the Holy One Blessed be He, mints every man from the die of the first man, and none of them is the same as his neighbor — for which reason every man must say: "For my sake was the world created!" And lest you (the witnesses) say: "What need have we of this trouble!" [to enter into this worry (by testifying) even truthfully] — Is it not already written (Leviticus 5:1): "And he is a witness, or saw, or knew — if he does not tell, then he shall bear his sin!" [so that you must testify to what you have seen.] And lest you say: "Why have this one's (the defendant's) blood on our head?" [i.e., It is better to stand in (violation of) "if he does not tell"] — it is already written (Proverbs 11:10): "In the destruction of the wicked is joy," [so that if he is wicked, there is no sin (in testifying against him) at all.]

I am, in closing, unsure of what exactly you mean by pseudo-profundity, beyond the attaching of pseudo to the noun you've chosen. It reminds me a bit of the word factoid I run into occasionally on the Sphere, which seems to mean fact, as far as I can tell.

Regards,
John

Oh - let me add that the same thought shows up in Sura 5 of the Quran.

Last edited by John Isbell; 09-17-2019 at 10:32 PM.
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  #4  
Unread 09-18-2019, 03:28 AM
Mark McDonnell Mark McDonnell is offline
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Well, pseudo-profundity just means speech or writing that attempts to sound profound but really isn’t particularly profound. A key component is that earnest attempt, via one or more stylistic tricks, ranging from tone of voice, to gnomic utterances designed to give the impression that a wealth of wisdom is hidden below their surface, to the shoehorning in of scriptural or literary/classical quotations to give a situation an easy but unwarranted spiritual or intellectual gloss. I suppose one person’s pseudo-profundity is another’s actual profundity, true. It’s a fine line and, like taste or sense of humour, ultimately subjective. I might be entirely wrong in seeing these things in the poem, but I can only give my honest take. For me, for the reasons I gave above and in my previous post, the lines below come across as somewhat pseudo-profound and, especially given how much of the poem they take up, relatively empty. Others may disagree, as I said. With these lines cut, I quite like much of what's left. So this is what I'd cut:


and I’ve lived through that.
There are so many things to consider. Mostly the heart,
with its million reasons. Every one of us

is like a universe,
says the Talmud, and when we die,
that universe is lost.
I happen to believe
this is accurate, based on what I know of people –
which is all anyone can go on, after all.

To get back to the ice cream. I’ve been trying to reconcile
you and this ice cream, and it hasn’t happened.


John, if you’d rather I didn’t crit your poems just let me know.
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  #5  
Unread 09-18-2019, 06:42 AM
John Isbell John Isbell is offline
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Good morning Mark,

Hmm. Well you are right in suggesting that much of the passage you refer to, and would prefer to excise, is built on quotation. I've indicated the Talmudic reference you had been unable to google; necessarily I don't know how other poets or scholars operate, but when I indicate a reference in a poem, it's generally because I am citing that reference. In these same lines, I also have in mind the 17th-century French polymath and mystic Blaise Pascal, who rather beautifully, to my mind, wrote "Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait point," The heart has its reasons which the reason does not know. Readers are welcome to make what they will of the profundity of these sources or their lack of it. I just quote the stuff. Let's leave that to one side and look at the other ideas here. There's not a lot else.

"Sometimes simple tasks are the hardest, and Ive lived through that.
There are so many things to consider. Mostly the heart,
with its million reasons. Every one of us

is like a universe, says the Talmud, and when we die,
that universe is lost. I happen to believe
this is accurate, based on what I know of people
which is all anyone can go on, after all."

Every reader of course has their own life experiences. I think it's fair to say that sometimes, simple tasks are the hardest; this is not a desirable life experience, but it's one some have lived through. I'm suggesting that is the situation of the poem's addressee, and that the N has shared that same experience. Perhaps that is pseudo-profound. It's life, and not everyone has in fact lived that. The N rather glibly assumes this gives them a direct line to the addressee. But as the poem later notes - "perhaps a little late" - perhaps they are being a tad de haut en bas, and perhaps the addressee is really rather uninterested in their wisdom. I go on to say there are many things to consider; that's my lead-in to the Pascalian claim that all these data or factors are all well and good - maybe the ice cream is tasty, maybe it's incredibly cheap - but really, the addressee is in a mental universe where essentially none of these outside data points is going to reach them. "Why this is Hell, nor am I out of it," says Mephistophilis in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus. People live, the poem argues, in their own universe. I close in noting my reaction to the Talmud's somewhat mystical and somewhat sweeping claim: "I happen to believe / this is accurate, based on what I know of people / which is all anyone can go on, after all." So yes, I am saying, everyone is indeed their own universe; and you in your universe are unlikely to hear me in mine. That is why what we know of people is all anyone can go on. There's no absolute knowledge source available, we're all afloat in our tiny oceans. Of course, every word the N writes happens while meanwhile, the addressee is choosing not to eat the ice cream. This rather saps the value of the N's pronouncements, as the N registers toward the poem's end - "perhaps a little late." Now, yes, I believe that on this basis, we can address your question of pseudo-profundity. As I've said, I'm not here to argue for Pascal or the Talmud, they are what they are, I'm just here to quote the stuff. However, the lines I've added to my citations are, I believe, of a piece with what I've quoted. They refer to things I've not read in books, FWIW, but lived through - life is a combination of the two - and there is to my mind nothing pseudo about those lived hours and minutes. They in fact occurred. And finally, the entire section is, to my mind, systematically undercut and relativized by the fact that the addressee doesn't get a word in; they just sit there and prefer not to eat the ice cream. The poem is not a dialogue, it is a dramatic monologue, like Browning's "My Last Duchess."
Make of it what you will. One man's pseudo-profundity is another man's lived experience. I can only indicate to you some aspects of the thinking here that you may have missed, just as your googling missed the Talmud reference. I do though suggest that you hesitate before proposing, with Google to hand, that someone's named source has been invented out of whole cloth. Perhaps they have in fact, as they suggest, read the very source they are referring to.
Our discussion here has become a little sidelined. I think you would agree that you had some things you wanted to say here, and I did too. For my part, I think they're said now, and I can go back and review the rest of your comment to see what might need revision in the piece I've posted. I'd like to think that my track record on the Sphere indicates some openness to editing my postings in light of readers' feedback. I look forward to finding details in your comments that will work to improve my art, since otherwise, posting on the Sphere would be a fairly pointless activity. I've seen you make more than one good suggestion to a poster, and look forward, to address your final thought, to seeing you make more of those on my own postings in days to come.

Regards,
John
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  #6  
Unread 09-18-2019, 10:53 AM
Mark McDonnell Mark McDonnell is offline
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Hey John,

When I said 'Is it really in the Talmud?' it wasn't meant as an insult, it was a genuine question. I googled and googled and couldn't find it, so was baffled and thought maybe you'd invented the quote, which you are at perfect artistic liberty to do. Who's going to sue you, Yahweh? You have to admit that the original

"It is for this reason that man was created singly [to show that the entire world proceeded from one man] — in order to teach that if one causes a single Jewish soul to go lost, Scripture accounts it to him as if had caused an entire world to go lost; and if one sustains a single Jewish soul, Scripture accounts it to him as if he had sustained an entire world."

is a little different to your

"Every one of us is like a universe...and when we die, that universe is lost."

So you can see where I had trouble.

I see more of the reasoning and rationale behind all these lines now you explain them, and the references to Pascal that I missed etc, but for me all that doesn't make them amount to poetry and they lie fairly dead on the page. My criticism of the way they come across remains. I don't see the need for the Talmud here, other than as spiritual or intellectual gloss. It distances me from, rather than draws me into, the human situation. I like my revised version better, but do as you will.

Shalom

Mark
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  #7  
Unread 09-18-2019, 11:30 AM
John Isbell John Isbell is offline
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Hi Mark,

And thanks for coming back. I find this argument of yours more compelling than your initial one, and will certainly ponder it:

"I can see your reasoning and rationale behind all these lines now you explain them, and the references to Pascal that I missed etc, but for me all that doesn't make them amount to poetry and they lie fairly dead on the page. My criticism of the way they come across remains. I don't see the need for the Talmud here, other than as spiritual or intellectual gloss. It distances me from, rather than draws me into, the human situation."

Maybe I'll end up cutting a chunk here, as you suggest. I'm reluctant for various reasons, not least that the MS. has been called Ice Cream and Talmud for some years now and a variety of different readers have said how much they like the title.
For me personally, truth is an ethical position, and that goes for my poems as for my conversation. I think you'll often run into this view among scholars, and that's my background. In the US these days, terms like "alternative facts" get thrown around. People take a stand where it feels right to them, and I take a stand on not simply making s**t up, as the saying goes. As you suggest, plenty of people feel differently. I appreciate you explaining that your remark indicated honest confusion, and was not a bid to impugn my work ethic, my honesty, and my scholarship. We agree on the idea of to each, his own, I think, when it comes to values and priorities. It's perhaps worth knowing that this particular topic is a thing I feel strongly about, as is perhaps apparent.

Regards,
John
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Unread 09-18-2019, 11:41 AM
Matt Q Matt Q is offline
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Hi John,

I'm with Mark that this is a little padded. I quite like the Talmud paraphrase, because you add something to it that I don't see in the original, and it suggests that the N is speaking to someone who is suicidal. The Pascal strikes me as a little cliche, it's a familiar phrase, and a borrowing from someone else. Overall, though, I'd say lose both. The mood of the person being addressed can be deduced without the Talmud paraphrase. I find myself a lot more interested in the N than who the N can quote.

When I look at what's left, I like the rather flat style. It has a seemingly heartfelt directness and a simplicity that seems appropriate to who the N is addressing and what he has to say.

I really like the close: "but your heart says no to ice cream and you trust that". Though I'd break on 'heart' rather than 'your'. 'heart' seems a stronger word, and a word worth emphasising. Plus you get assonant end-rhymes of "heart" and "that", which seems to strengthen the close.

Anyhow, losing Pascal and the Talmud also leaves a poem that's unified around the ice cream metaphor.

"Sometimes the simple tasks are the hardest" strikes me as somewhat of a platitude. And the task of persuading someone to happy, to help them our depression, is not simple by any means. (Though I guess eating an ice cream could be considered a simple task). "To get back to the ice cream" seems to be unnecessary, since we can see that we've gotten back to it, and would be more so minus Pascal and the Talmud.

With, "if only you would follow my advice / and enjoy yourself", the latter part, "and enjoy yourself" also seems redundant; given the rest of the poem, it's clear what the advice is.

What's left would be something like this:

I’ve been trying to reconcile you
and this ice cream, and it hasn’t happened.
I’ve laid out for you
the ways this world would be a better place
if only you would follow my advice. Because I grieve
to see you unhappy. And it dawns on me –
perhaps a little late – that my desire
to see you happy may not
be what you most want. Perhaps
you want something different.
Perhaps you don’t know
what you want, but your heart
says no to ice cream, and you trust that.

And maybe just call it "Ice cream"? If you need the Talmud for the collection, maybe there's a way to make it an epigraph?

best,

Matt

Last edited by Matt Q; 09-18-2019 at 12:14 PM.
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  #9  
Unread 09-18-2019, 12:12 PM
Sergio F Lima Sergio F Lima is offline
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Hi John.

I love the conceit and the Talmud quote. I believe you when you say that the quote was not yours. But I wouldn't mind if it were. I had to read some of the lines more than once. Maybe the poem would profit from a bit more of conciseness. But this may be just my short attention span.

Thank you for posting, and regards:

Sergio
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Unread 09-18-2019, 12:31 PM
John Isbell John Isbell is offline
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Hi Mark, hi Matt,

And thank you both for your visits. I've just posted a moderately thorough revision of the poem, addressing some of your concerns directly and some by knock-on effect.
Let me go through my choices with you, if I may. And to begin with, quatrains and rhythm matter to me here, as some choices indicate.

If only I could get you to eat this ice cream.
Sometimes simple tasks are the hardest – I’ve lived through that.
And the heart may have its reasons; Every one of us
is like a universe,
says the Talmud, and when we die,

So, it's fundamental to my conception of this piece that the N is both helpless, at the end of the day, well-intentioned, and rather self-important. He is at root blind to what is going on; as I've noted, the piece is a dramatic monologue, like "My Last Duchess." This is why I'm keeping Pascal and Talmud. The N, being self-important, is proud of his knowledge and wants to lay some on the addressee, who just wants not to eat the ice cream. The N is caught up in his words - TTT, they call it in my milieu, teacher talking time. The addressee clearly could care less. As you note, Matt, the addressee may very well be coming out of a suicide attempt. Their mind - and this the N does perceive - is quite elsewhere, they are not being reached. My new layout of sentences does some work, I think, to show the N trying out Fact A, then Fact B, both to reach the addressee and to flatter their own ego. Maybe they have lived through simple tasks being hard. The A obviously doesn't care. Oh and yes, the simple task to me is eating the ice cream, not persuading someone to live. Why after all would the N start telling the A that it's hard getting them to not commit suicide? That would seem ill-advised. It's also a reason I now end S1 on the word "die."

that universe goes lost. To my mind, this is accurate –
based on what I've come to know of people,
which is all anyone can go on, after all.
We are all afloat on our own tiny oceans.

I think I've tightened the language a bit, here and in S1, and also made the quotes closer to their sources (Google should find them better now). These were concerns of you both. I added a last line to this stanza borrowed from my dialogue with Mark. it's a bit fancy, but I think that's OK given the plot, and it ties the collection of truisms together a bit as well. A purple passage from our N.

To get back to the ice cream. I’ve been trying to reconcile
you and this ice cream, and it hasn’t happened.
I’ve laid out for you
the ways this world would be a better place

I want "To get back to the ice cream." I think it's funny; it's the N's first realization that they are not on topic, they are lost in their own noodling. It's also time for the ice cream to return. Then the N, instead of looking for compassion, gets a bit pompous, which is obviously going to convince the client that death is a bad idea.

if only you would follow my advice.
Because I grieve to see you
not happy. And just now it dawns on me –
perhaps a little late – that my desire

I've added just now. I think it's key for readers to get that the well-intentioned N has finally grasped a basic and unspoken point: the A doesn't want the ice cream. I'm not sure that was clear enough before. "I grieve" was a key moment here, the first real moment of compassion in the N's entire long monologue.

to see you happy may not be what you
most want. Perhaps you want something quite different.
Perhaps you don’t know what you want. Your heart
says no to ice cream, and your mind trusts that.

Here I've tweaked for rhythm, after your fine suggestion, Matt, of ending the line on heart, and thus adding a heart-mind contrast to close that I have mixed feelings about, but which may be OK. What do you think?
In any case. Thank you both for pushing me to tighten this.

Cheers,
John

Oh - I should add that to me, the whole piece is both rather poignant and rather funny, in a dark sort of way. It could be a training video in how not to address a suicidal client.
Oh - just deleted "mind" in the last line and changed the S1 closing line to "The heart, too, may have its reasons ..."

Last edited by John Isbell; 09-18-2019 at 12:51 PM.
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