Keep Up with the Essay One Paragraph at a Time

A New Feature (Almost) Every Friday

August 12, 2022



“Homeless Heart”

in The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem: from Baudelaire to Anne Carson

by John Ashbery

When the work is finished the writer’s heart has lost its home. The kite escapes its box.



The poet John Ashbery died in September 2017. The prose poem, “Homeless Heart,” published near the end of his life, brought some of him back for me, but only some, which is implied in the poem. It is our paragraph of the week. I found it in The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem edited by Jeremy Noel-Todd.

The Paragraph of the Week


Homeless Heart


When I think of finishing the work, when I think of the finished work, a great sadness overtakes me, a sadness paradoxically like joy. The circumstances of doing put away, the being of it takes possession, like a tenant in a rented house. Where are you now, homeless heart? Caught in a hinge, or secreted behind drywall, like your nameless predecessors now that they have been given names? Best not to dwell on our situation; but to dwell in it is deeply refreshing. Like a sideboard covered with decanters and fruit. As a box kite is to a kite. The inside of stumbling. The way to breath. The caricature on the blackboard.


—John Ashbery



When the work is finished the writer’s heart has lost its home. The kite escapes its box. The self may hang up in the hinge and haunt the drywall, but is otherwise gone. The sadness feels like joy, the joy like sadness. But when the writer is gone—as John Ashbery has gone from us—what then? It is true that the work of famous poets like him live on in readers, an endless string of tenants, which is a renewable source of joy. Even little-known writers no doubt harbor the notion that the work, separate from them at last, will blossom with a second life like the opus of Emily Dickinson, no longer encumbered by shyness and unmarketability. Yes, even they may be found under the bootsoles of future readers. If so, the heart is still there with its borrowed joy, but a heart has gone out of it, and for the famous and the unknown alike that is a sadness worth noting.



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Announcement: The Beloved Republic


I am pleased to announce that my fourth collection of personal essays called The Beloved Republic won the Wandering Aengus Press nonfiction award and will be published early in 2023. Thanks to the Press for this honor.

What is the Beloved Republic? E. M. Forster, who coined the phrase, called it “an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky” who “have the power to endure” and “can take a joke.” Pitted against authoritarianism, the Beloved Republic is the peaceful and fragile confederacy of kind, benevolent, and creative people in a world of tyrants, thugs, and loud-mouthed bullies. Taking Forster’s phrase for its title, my book can be read as dispatches from that besieged land.

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The Beloved Republic front cover.jpg

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Folly Beach 

Folly Beach, my most recent book publication, is a personal essay about easing fears of mortality and loss through creativity, certainly a message for our frightening times. It never loses sight of the inevitable losses that life brings, but doesn't let loss have the last word.  In the face of the grim, Folly Beach holds up the human capacity to create as our sufficient joy.


In a world of loss, creativity is the best revenge.

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You can learn more about the recent work of Steven Harvey at his author's page here.

THE Mission

We at The Humble Essayist are in love with the paragraph, that lowliest of literary techniques.  A sentence stands out as a noble thing: a complete thought.  But what is a paragraph?  And what, in particular, is a good one?  You know it when you read it--that is our article of faith.  So on Friday of each week, beginning on Independence Day 2014, the very day 169 years earlier that Henry Thoreau moved to Walden Pond, we will select a single paragraph from an essay or a reflective memoir and print it here along with a paragraph of commentary.   We will choose paragraphs that are surprising, beautifully written, and, above all, thematic--illuminating the author's comment on life.  Each paragraph of the week is, in short, a concise review of the writer's work.  We hope that this page will introduce you to many exciting authors and their ideas.


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