Friday, July 25, 2014

A cool morning. Two days ago I tore out my exhausted peavines, and this morning I will replant the beds with a fall crop of kale and turnips. Finally, the garden is showing signs of richness: the potatoes are flowering, the corn is shoulder-high, and my beautiful bean plants are covered with long purple string beans. These are by far the loveliest bean plants I've ever grown: not only are the beans themselves a deep purple, but the flowers are lavender and the green leaves are veined with purple.

I've been reading Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, and thinking about how similar the central character Catherine is to Elizabeth Bowen's Portia in The Death of the Heart. Both girls are questioning innocents dropped into the world of adult machination. But Catherine is lucky enough to find friends who guide her through these confusions, whereas Portia drowns in a sea of double-entendre and spite.

An acquaintance posed a Facebook question yesterday: "How soon do you show your drafts to other readers?" Almost everyone who answered declared that they shared work very soon after beginning it. I was the only person who said that I rarely showed any poems to anyone until they had reached submission or publication stage. With essays I can be more forthcoming, but on the whole I feel very uneasy about sharing poetry in its infantile stage. And I was surprised, even a bit shocked, at how free and easy all these other writers are about showing their stuff to other people. I can name a handful of people who have ever seen my recent poems in embryo, and my family members are not any of those readers. (I am not counting poetry workshops, where one is required to bring along unfinished work. This may account for why I have taken relatively few poetry workshops.) Why would I burden my loved ones with such trouble? And infant art is trouble: unformed, awkward, ugly, self-satisfied, noisy. Better to let it grow up with me before I let it out into the world.

Of course this is a highly personal reaction. When I was studying with Baron (and he has seen more of my student work than anyone else has), I found the process tremendously painful. I trusted him and I wanted his help, but I also hated publicizing my struggles. As I've become a more self-confident reviser, I've also become far cagier about sharing first drafts. I wonder how other poets feel about this. So many people seem to thrive on the writing-group model. Does this imply that I am an anomaly?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

More Remarks on Rilke: Letters 5 and 6

Please feel free to keep commenting on yesterday's post, but I'm going wander off into my own response here.

First, I have to say: Carlene, you've been a working on a full-length essay over the past few weeks! You have responded so densely and cogently to these letters, and I am touched by not only your devotion to the project but the complexity of your responses. And second: Keith, bringing in Wordsworth was brilliant. Like both of you, I've been grappling with Rilke's thoughts about vocation versus soul-destroying jobs, and I've had similar reactions. On the one hand, how would he know anything at all about the real definition of soul-destroying job? On the other hand, why did everything he say feel right to me?

Interestingly, this brings me back to a conversation that Keith and I had at the Frost Place. At one point, Keith wistfully congratulated me, saying that Tom and I had made the right decision for ourselves as artists and human beings by sidestepping paychecks and careers and moving to the woods. My heart seized up in a knot at those words; and when I got home, I told Tom what Keith had said. He looked at me and sighed, and I looked at him and sighed, and that was that. But what I felt, and what I imagine that Tom also felt, was the weight of the money panic, of watching Tom substitute soul-sucking white-collar work for soul-sucking physical labor, of having no colleagues, of my perpetual perception of being a drag on my marital partnership because I don't earn my keep. Poetry doesn't fence out those wolves. And yet to someone who isn't writing or reading in the ways he longs to write and read, my life may seem ideal.

So despite Rilke's more comfortable financial circumstances, I have to believe, from the depth of his response, that he, too, dealt every day with the ugliness and drudgery of existence. It may not have been roofing a house or digging a ditch or milking fifty head of cattle or managing a classroom of 25 noisy, unimpressed students with no interest in schoolwork, but it was its own pressure and distraction. This brings me back to Wordsworth: "I could wish my days to be / Bound each to each by natural piety." Doesn't I could wish seem to be the twist in those lines?

A couple of weeks ago, I was teaching a workshop for a group of women at a local domestic-violence shelter. I'd dictated a poem, "Magic Words," a translation of an Inuit verse, and then we went through a "what's the most important word?" activity. One woman said, very hesitantly, "Could, maybe?--because something could happen, even if it doesn't really happen?" Yes. Sometimes could is the only lifeline available. "I could wish my days to be" what they will never, in actuality, ever be. Then again: sometimes, as for Melville, as for Rilke, that's where the art is hiding.

Re letters 7 and 8: Let's aim for next Wednesday.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Rilke's "Letters to a Young Poet": Letters 5 and 6

I sit here alone, in my early-morning kitchen, reading Rilke writing to Kappus about solitude and dead-end jobs and the elusive beauty of Rome, and I am wondering about all of those questions he asked his young correspondent. The second half of letter 6 is filled with questions, but were they rhetorical or did he want an answer? He did truly seem to want to read more of Kappus's poetry, and now I am feeling, in these two letters, that Rilke had suddenly become more invested in this correspondence. He was not writing only because Kappus required an answer, but because he himself needed to share what he was experiencing.

The description, in letter 5, of his uneasiness in Rome, how "one learns slowly to recognize the very few things in which the eternal endures that one can love," felt extraordinarily close to my own relationship with certain poets--Milton, Donne. But it did not seem at all relevant to my own experience in Rome, which was far more like being swept into a mad love affair with a glorious stranger. Then again, I am a gawky provincial, and Rilke--emphatically--was not.

What were your reactions to these letters? I am curious, in particular, about letter 6, in which Rilke talks about solitude and our general entrapment in "paltry" jobs and preoccupations. Did that ring true to you?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Thus far, my success of the day is figuring out why our house is filled with mosquitoes. (Answer: Ruckus the cat's window-screen vandalism.) Although the hour is still early, the weather is sultry. A robin is singing furiously, and a cicada is emitting that long buzz-burring, Doppler-effect, midsummer rattle that I can't figure out how to describe in words. Bread is rising; towels are laundering; Tom is orchestrating power-tool noises in his shop. A log truck rumbles down the road.

I sat at a soccer game yesterday evening and read May Swenson's "Snow in New York" while deerflies circled my head and my son's team reenacted the Brazil side of the Brazil-Germany World Cup game. Swenson wrote,
I went to Riker's to blow my nose
in a napkin and drink coffee for its steam. Two rows
of belts came and went from the kitchen, modeling scrambled
eggs, corn muffins, bleeding triangles of pie.
Tubs of dirty dishes slid by.
Outside the fogged window black bulking people stumbled
cursing the good-for-nothing whiteness. I thought 
of Rilke, having read how he wrote
to Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis, saying, "The idea haunts me--
it keeps on calling--I must make a poem for Nijinski
that could be, so to say, swallowed and then danced."
and I thought about Rilke, who was writing yet another letter: did he do nothing but write letters? And then I thought about what Swenson also thought about--the name Nijinksi, "that odd name with three dots / over the iji"--which reminded me of an interview I listened to in the car the other day, while I was driving to Skowhegan to pick up my new glasses. It was an interview with painter Jamie Wyeth, who was talking about how often he had painted Nureyev. At first the dancer hadn't wanted to bother letting this callow youth paint him, but eventually he figured out that the callow youth was a Wyeth and changed his mind. Yet as he sat in Warhol's Factory and allowed himself to be replicated, he would occasionally glance over at the young painter's work and remark, "My foot is far more beautiful than that."

"Je suit chat avec le coeur," wrote Nijinsky, "Coeur mon coeur mon coeur est chat." He was mad but the syllables sang. He wrote, I think, more beautifully than Gertrude Stein, but he had no irony.

"Snow in New York," wrote Swenson, "is like poetry, or clothes made of roses. / Who needs it, what can you build with snow, who can you feed?"

Monday, July 21, 2014

In early September I'll be teaching on Star Island, off the coast of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, at an annual retreat called Writers in the Round. The retreat has a double focus--poetry and songwriting--and I will be this year's poet. I thought I'd mention it today because I know at least a few of you readers are musicians who might enjoy a songwriting workshop on an island, especially during bird migration season.

On another note: if any of you feels like reviewing Same Old Story, or interviewing me about it, or bringing me in to talk to your students or friends about it, or anything of the sort, I'd really appreciate it.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

I woke up on Peaks Island on Friday and read the news of the Malaysian airplane disaster. I was sitting in a crazy old rattletrap lodge, listening to the sea splash on granite, staring out at the island across the cove, my eyes resting on the peaceful remnants of a fortification, built during the War of 1812 and now masked sweetly by trees and gulls.

I woke up on Peaks Island and read the news of the disaster, and then I read it again. Innocence does not entirely die. I could not stop myself from thinking, "How can I be here, in this place? And how could they be there?"

Innocence does not entirely die, though it may be mistaken for selfishness or stupidity. Innocence does not entirely die, until our bodies do.

The bodies fell into a field of sunflowers. Yesterday I was stung by a hornet. The sunflowers in my own garden are not blooming yet. I killed the hornet, and then I destroyed her nest. She lived with her family in a hole in the grass. The bodies fell into a field of clover. The hornet's poison spread up my leg, and my leg ached for hours. It still aches. 

My friend David sent me a poem by Czeslaw Milosz. I read it but could not talk about it. Perhaps you have more fortitude. You may have noticed that I have not yet mentioned those murdered children in Gaza.
from Preparation by Czeslaw Milosz 
No, it won’t happen tomorrow. In five or ten years.
I still think too much about the mothers
And ask what is man born of woman.
He curls himself up and protects his head
While he is kicked by heavy boots; on fire and running
He burns with bright flame; a bulldozer sweeps him into a clay pit.
Her child. Embracing a teddy bear. Conceived in ecstasy.
Last Tuesday, after I had finished my writing workshop at the shelter, a participant stopped me. She was a young woman, larger than me, with a round open demeanor and an expression that reminded me of the Little Princess's face in War and Peace as she is dying in childbirth. Tolstoy describes that look as "How could this have happened to me? I have done no harm."

All through the workshop, the young woman's entire body had been vibrating slightly--a ceaseless shiver. She stopped me as I was leaving and looked at me anxiously. "I don't want you to think I wasn't paying attention," she said. I assured her that I wasn't worried. "I had a lot of trauma last night," she said. The borrowed word trauma hung in the air between us like a curtain. 
from Preparation by Czeslaw Milosz 
I haven’t learned yet to speak as I should, calmly.
With not-quite truth
and not-quite art
and not-quite law
and not-quite science

Saturday, July 19, 2014

More Talk about Rilke

"I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be." David quoted Joan Didion in his comments on the July 16 Rilke post, and somehow that sentence helped me pull together my thoughts about letters 3 and 4. By thoughts I mean patience more than ideas. I had become impatient with Rilke, but perhaps I hadn't thought enough about the position that Kappus had put him into. Imagine that you're a moderately well known writer who suddenly begins receiving letter after anxious letter from a younger man who badgers you for advice. What tone would your letters take? I mean, really, Kappus is asking for the pontificating, in a way that (to borrow Jean's mention) Henry Thoreau's readers never did. That's because Thoreau's writings were based on his own journal meditations: he wasn't working to respond to the specific worries of a specific correspondent. And Kappus was a stranger to Rilke. These letters weren't Bishop-Lowell-old-pal meanderings.

In short, I think Carlene has nailed something in her comments that I did not address in mine: "I like when things click." Yes, these two letters contain a certain amount of palaver, but they also contain much that does click. Some of those places are self-contradictions (as I pointed out in my initial reactions), but isn't self-contradiction a poet's canvas? If I approach these letters as the beginnings of thought, I feel much better about them. As Teresa noted, the poet is constantly "challenge[d] to find the balance between listening to self and listening to others. . . . the two forces are always there." When she adds, "I'm speaking as both a writer and as a reader," I feel she is reminding me to "keep on nodding terms" with with my reader's tendency to react and second-guess myself and change my mind.