Saturday, February 13, 2016

According to the underside of the 70s-era brown shag living-room carpet that Tom is ripping up, the name of its color is Breathless Drambuie. Clearly this must be a porn name; that rug was born to be Norma Jean Schlock.

Believe it or not, by this time next week we will have a freshly painted living room with a shiny oak floor. After two decades with Norma Jean, I can barely comprehend this amazing development.

Outside the temperature has finally risen to zero, and a thin snow is falling. Paul is on a school bus heading to the state track meet. I'll be playing music tonight at Stutzmans' Cafe. Then the violin will go into the repair shop, Paul and I will transport to New York City for a few days, Tom will urethane the magical new floor, and Breathless Drambuie will be mourned only by the dog.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Shakespeare's plays are not in the rigorous and critical sense either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind; exhibiting that real state of sublunary nature, which partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety of proportion and innumerable modes of combination; and expressing the course of the world, in which the loss of one is the gain of another; in which, at the same time, the reveler is hastening to his wine, and the mourner burying his friend.

--from Samuel Johnson, "Preface to Shakespeare" (1765)

* * *

Longfellow's soul was not an ocean. It was a lake, clear, calm and cool. The great storms of the sea never reached it. And yet this lake had its depths. Buried cities lay under its surface. One saw the towers and domes through the quiet water; one even seemed to catch the sound of church-bells ringing like the bells of the city of Is. Transparent as this mind was, there were profundities of moral feeling beneath the forms through which it found expression, the fruits of an old tradition of Puritan culture, and, behind this culture, all that was noble in the Northern races. If Longfellow's poetic feeling had had the depth of his moral feeling, he would have been one of the major poets, instead of the "chief minor poet of the English language."

--from Van Wyck Brooks, The Flowering of New England, 1815-1865 (1940)

* * *


Dawn Potter

To bring in the cows he hurtles over
stubble on his mountain bike, coat spread
open to the wind. Last bike he had
got trampled by a bull not happy with him
so close to the ladies. Bulls are that way.

His wife tells about the one that took off
after her, baby playing in the sandbox
right in the line of fire. No harm done.
The boys took care of him damn quick,
though she remembers how it felt to run.

--from Boy Land & Other Poems (2004)

Thursday, February 11, 2016

A couple of things:

* A friend who teaches in Vermont inquired about whether or not "Magic Words," my upcoming free workshop at the University of Maine at Augusta, is open to out-of-state participants. I checked with the coordinator and the answer is yes. So if you're interested, please let me know and I will share her contact information with you.

* Applications are now open for the 2016 Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching. Please contact me if you have any questions about the program, and remember: we are open to teachers at all levels and in all contexts (schools, social services, workshops). Several of our regular participants are not teachers in the traditional sense but are community or workplace advocates for poetry. My goal is to make this program as inclusive and open-ended as possible. I hope that some of you whom I've never met but who have become friends via this blog might consider attending the conference this summer. You would fit in beautifully.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Failure and Glory

Yesterday's post was terrible to write and also, most likely, a failure of expression. It is so hard for me to describe my experience of doing something very well without the need for study or instruction. The greatest burden is my attempt to simultaneously transmit the sensation itself, a meta-awareness of that sensation, and an honest acknowledgment of the porous boundary between vainglory and confidence.

You might suggest that such difficulties exemplify the continuing power of Puritanism. More cynically, you might detect a scent of Uriah Heep in the way in which I squirm away from my own declarations. In either case, the difficulties remain.

And a fact remains: a person who is naturally good at a particular skill isn't necessarily good at putting that skill to more complex use. I may not have to wrestle with the sound aspect of poetry, but I struggle endlessly (for instance) with negative capability--Keats's term for the way in which a poet learns to stand outside herself as she writes . . . her ability to write a poem that is both intimate and universal. Every poem I write is another trial at figuring this out; and like most experiments, nearly every attempt fails.

How does one avoid reducing a draft to an anecdote while creating a persona and a voice that are vulnerable and accessible? How does one grapple with ambiguities and conundrums--with, say, unanswerable questions about God and myth and the linked torments and ecstasies of men and women--without sounding like a pedant or a peeping Tom?

Once I thought copying out all of Paradise Lost would give me the answers to those questions. Instead, I learned that Milton couldn't figure them out either. What he did manage to do was construct images, lines, sentences that glow like rubies in the darkness. What he did manage to do was invent a glorious, sinister, irresistible, brilliant character and name him Satan.

My one small constant: I can hear the sound of a poem before it exists. But I can't weave a tapestry with a single bright thread, and the rest of my threads are filled with knots.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Arrogance of Sound

Snow again.

Night slips away. Branches, a roof, a truck, a field . . .  shimmering, blue-white, in the not quite darkness.

The windows gaze at still air. In the stove, the ghost of a tree shifts, crackles, splits, sighs. A teakettle boils. A chair scrapes across the linoleum.

Footsteps. A pause. Then footsteps and the jangle of a dog's collar.

A pause. Then footsteps.

* * *

When I play the violin, I am driven by the exactitudes of pitch. I feel pain, real physical pain, a violence in my skull, when sounds misalign.

When I write, my obsession with pitch transmogrifies into expectation. I am entirely confident. My ear is arrogant. It is always right.

When I was studying poetry with Baron, he would not let me rest. Always, he jostled me further: don't stop, keep looking, dance, dig, shriek, kill. But he never questioned my ear. We hardly spoke of it. There was nothing to say.

Once, many years later, he asked me, "Do you even like music?" I looked at him. Finally I said, "I don't know."

Music controls the workings of my mind. I would not be myself without it. I possess this thing . . . this ear, this awareness. It is like being an oracle. I am unhappy about revealing such powers. Immodesty is a sin.

A blank page. My ear cranes for sounds: a syllable, a pace, a pause. My hands fit a word, two words, a phrase into those sounds. The words accrue. They assume a meaning. My thoughts follow, discard, follow. My ear reaches for a sound. My hands suggest a word. My eyes imagine. The words accrue.

My ear is my genius, but great poems are larger than sound.

I spend my life failing to write them.

Monday, February 8, 2016

The house is cold, the sky promises snow, the pets and I are draped around the wood stove, and I am attempting, without much success, to concentrate on words. By 8 a.m. this morning I had already driven 60 miles back and forth to the high school; and as a result, I'm having a difficult time settling down to my work.

I thought of talking about music this morning, but I'm not sure I'm in the right frame of mind. What I will note is a conversation about high school sports that my son and I had at the gas station a couple of hours ago.
Son: Swimmers are like wrestlers. They're all grumpy. 
Mother: Grumpy? 
Son: They're tired of being good at sports they've stopped having fun at. Plus, colleges are recruiting them for sports they don't want to do anymore but probably have to keep doing so they can get scholarships. Everybody looks at them and says great swimmer or great wrestler, and their teams depend on them. They feel guilty about not having fun, so they pretend they are. But mostly they're grumpy. 
Mother: Ah. Sounds like how I felt about playing the violin when I was in high school. Grumpy.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Today the three of us are going to a rare showing of Satyajit Ray’s 1959 film The World of Apu. Tom has been longing to see Ray's films for years; and the boy, who has been reading Crime and Punishment and watching Bergman's The Seventh Seal in his AP English class, has unearthed a sudden enthusiasm for classic cinema. Surely our experiences with Ray's film will be a perplexing/fascinating segue into vegetarian family Superbowl night. I even still remember which teams are playing.
Vegetarian Superbowl menu: fresh pita, garbanzo and black-eyed-pea falafel, yogurt sauce, tomatoes, avocados; baby lettuce with roasted brussels sprouts; possibly strawberry shortcake.
To keep my cultural chaos fermenting, I plan to read Ivy Compton-Burnett's The Last and the First during the dull parts of the game. Here's how the novel opens, and take my word for it: the flaying just gets worse.
"What an unbecoming light this is!" said Eliza Heriot, looking from the globe above the table to the faces round it. 
"Are we expected to agree?" said her son, as the light fell on her own face. "Or is it moment for silence?" 
"The effect is worse with every day. I hardly dare look at any of you." 
"You have found the courage," said her daughter, "and it is fair that you should show it. You appointed the breakfast hour yourself." 
Lady Heriot did not suggest that anyone else should appoint it.
* * *

Perhaps, on Monday, I will return to my autobiographical musings; or perhaps not. I might be done with them. You might be done with them. Still, something remains to be said about music.

* * *

Tu Fu readers: Comments are accruing about the most recent readings. Please join in and respond to one another, if you are so moved. I'm not at all interested in controlling the conversation and hope that you will feel comfortable talking with each other about what you're seeing. Also, let me know if you're ready to move on to the next set of poems.