Wednesday, April 16, 2014

After a day of drenching rain, I woke this morning to a yard that is now a snow-frosted marsh dotted with ice mountains. The crocuses have vanished; schools are delayed because of impassible roads. Still, there are compensating reasons for living here. Comedy is one of them.

Yesterday, for instance, as I sat at the gas station waiting for the guys to ream the mud out of the axles of my car, I listened to the owner and his friend muse about the weather.
Owner: Will it be like the flood of '87 tomorrow? 
Friend: Mmm. I remember getting that call from Earle, his wife was stuck there at the farmhouse where the stream had flooded, could I get her out? he wanted to know. 
Owner: Mmm? 
Friend: You know [pause]. She's a big woman [pause]. Hard to carry through that lake. 
Owner: Mmm. 
Friend: [pause]. And then I shut her foot in the car door.

That friend wandered off, and another friend wandered in.

Other Friend: I'm off to Wal-Mart. Need anything? 
Owner: I can't think of anything. 
Other Friend: I'm gonna buy a new belt. 
Owner: [looks closely at Other Friend's belt]. You can't get another five years out of that one?

Later in the day, on my way north to pick up my son at school, I stopped to run a few errands. First, I went to the feed store to buy some new work gloves. While Clerk 1 was ringing up my purchase, Clerk 2 bustled over and started bossing him around.
Clerk 2: Time for you to go do [something unexplained in another part of the store]. 
Clerk 1: It's been a long time since I done that. 
Clerk 2: It ain't hard, go on and do it. 
Clerk 1: But first I'm gonna go outside for a minute. 
Clerk 2: Take a phone with you. Which phone you gonna take? 
Clerk 1: I'll bring number 6. 
Clerk 2: [darkly]. Ah. You're taking The Aggravator.
After buying my gloves, I walked next door to the grocery store. There, in front of the entrance, was the woman who grooms my dog. She was just standing there, going nowhere, holding the leash of a young springer spaniel.
Me: Hi, Sue! What are you doing? 
Sue: I'm teaching him to meet people! 
Young Springer Spaniel: [bounce, leap, bounce, leap, bounce, leap, bounce, leap].
I'd like to say that this was the same day I saw the Amish family purchasing (1) a package of lunch meat, (2) a box of factory-farmed eggs, and (3) a jumbo-sized bag of Cheerios, but that was last week.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Prose Sentences versus Poetic Sentences: Looking at Whitman

[The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Deerbook Editions, summer 2014).]

When we think about sentences, most of us tend to think about prose. What’s the difference between a sentence in prose and a sentence in poetry? As a way to begin thinking about this question, let’s look at some samples from Walt Whitman’s writing. First, here’s a prose extract from his preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass:


Who knows the curious mystery of the eyesight? The other senses corroborate themselves, but this is removed from any proof but its own and foreruns the identities of the spiritual world. A single glance of it mocks all the investigations of man and all the instruments and books of the earth and all reasoning. What is marvelous? what is unlikely? what is impossible or baseless or vague? after you have once just opened the space of a peachpit and given audience to far and near and to the sunset and had all things enter with electric swiftness softly and duly without confusion or jostling or jam.

            On the surface, the language in this excerpt is almost stereotypically poetic. Whitman’s word choice is varied and memorable; the sentences float smoothly off the tongue; he uses rhetorical devices such as the repetition of questions to intensify the musicality of the passage. So let’s try breaking the sentences into the long, dense lines typical of a Whitman poem. What has changed in your reaction to this passage now that I’ve transformed it from a block of prose into a series of sentences in lines?

Who knows the curious mystery of the eyesight?
The other senses corroborate themselves, but this is removed from any proof
     but its own and foreruns the identities of the spiritual world.
A single glance of it mocks all the investigations of man and all the instruments
     and books of the earth and all reasoning.
What is marvelous? what is unlikely? what is impossible or baseless or vague?
     after you have once just opened the space of a peachpit and given audience
     to far and near and to the sunset and had all things enter with electric
     swiftness softly and duly without confusion or jostling or jam.

While you’re still thinking about the previous sentence experiment, let’s look at a passage from an actual Whitman poem and start drawing some comparisons. Here’s the opening of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”:

Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face!
Clouds of the west—sun there half an hour high—I see you also face to face.

Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious
     you are to me!
On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home,
     are more curious to me than you suppose,
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me,
     and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.

One difference that I’m noticing is the place in which the repetitions tend to appear in the sentences. In the prose excerpt, Whitman repeats “what is?” to begin a series of internal mini-sentences: “What is marvelous? what is unlikely? what is impossible or baseless or vague?” In the poetry excerpt, his repetitions appear at the ends of sentences. “I see you face to face!” is followed by “I see you also face to face.” “How curious you are to me!” is followed by “are more curious to me than you suppose,” which is followed by “more in meditations, than you might suppose.” Notably, those sentence endings are not exact matches but variations on a phrase. The initial phrase is always the most concise, whereas the repetitions add or replace words and substitute new punctuation marks.
There are other differences as well. The sentences in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” are shorter and airier than most of the sentences in the prose extract. I never think of Whitman as a poet who writes in compact sentences, but his prose seems to be much denser than his poetry. Yet the opening question of that prose extract is so evocative! What would have happened if he had used that sentence to open a poem? 

Monday, April 14, 2014


We still have plenty of snow, but the driveway ice has melted, and bare ground is expanding outward from the warm roots of trees.


The crocuses have taken immediate advantage of the situation: they've sprouted and budded within the space of 24 damp hours.

This weekend I started rereading Jane Eyre for the thousandth time. Perhaps you recall the very beginning of the novel, when Charlotte Bronte describes the child Jane's reaction to pictures "of the bleak shores of Lapland, Siberia, Spitzbergen, Nova Zembla, Iceland, Greenland. . . . Of these death-white realms I formed an idea of my own: shadowy, like all the half-comprehended notions that float dim through children's brains, but strangely impressive. The words in these introductory pages connected themselves with the succeeding vignettes, and gave significance to the rock standing up alone in a sea of billow and spray; to the broken boat stranded on a desolate coast; to the cold and ghastly moon glancing through bars of cloud at a wreck just sinking."

You might assume that those words drew me because of their wintry imagery, but no: what I thought about immediately was Nabokov and his novel Pale Fire, for which he created Zembla, "a distant northern land." Not surprisingly, Nabokov's Zembla feels distinctly Eastern European, but Bronte's Nova Zembla is a real place in arctic Canada; and now I am wondering how Nabokov's process of invention worked. Did he deliberately scan maps in search of an eloquent name? Did he come across the name by accident? Did he read Jane Eyre?

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A really good day yesterday. I spent a chunk of it participating in a lively and interesting panel on poetry and education, and then I got to hang out with a handful of Maine teacher- and poet-friends whom I like a whole lot. Then I drove home through the sunshine and the wind, and then Tom and I drove north to our son's high school for the International Students Dinner and accompanying high school rock show.

Basically this was a day that reminded me of why I love teenagers so much. I spent the morning with teachers who are devoted to them, and then I stood around in a sloppy school gym spooning up tepid miso soup and listening to kids perform covers of Guns and Roses hits, and everyone was so happy! All the performers' friends danced and swayed and cheered and climbed on each others shoulders and waved their phones in the air. The singers bounced here and there, imitating rock-star posturing with 15-year-old insouciance and joy. My son, beaming, was sharp and accurate and dramatic in his debut as a drummer. He even snapped a drumstick in the middle of a song, which for some reason thrilled him to no end. ("Mom! I'm keeping this broken stick forever!") The sound system was a terrible muffled mess. Tom and I laughed and laughed and cheered and cheered. We had the best time watching all this goofiness, and so did the teachers and the janitors and the lunch ladies and the other parents. What a lovely, silly evening.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

From this week's correspondence:

One friend sent me a note about the first day of spring in central Maine:
I had an ice cream cone in Newport before coming home.
Everyone was out. The weary old interstate stop felt like a festival.
The young guys with loud mufflers and sunglasses smoking cigarettes
with their arms hanging out the windows. The dirty snow, the pot holes,
all of it beautiful in the light of spring.
We survived . . . again.
Another friend sent me this quotation in response to Fulke Greville's poem about Sir Philip Sidney, which I posted earlier this week. (Zutphen is the battle where Sidney was killed.)
You might say that Greville was a Sidneuis Dimidiatus, or half-Sydney. That half, living on through the long years after Zutphen by itself, would easily become the Greville of the Treaties, the man who said, "I know the world and believe in God." But the commonplace words are in his mouth terrible: for they primarily mean the perpetual consciousness of an absolute gulf between the two, the incurable "oddes between the earth and skie."

        --C. S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century
A third friend sent me this note about my poem "Last Game" (in How the Crimes Happened).
I think I'm going to read it to my class to show them what parenting can feel like. They're 14, so they won't get it, but we're in the middle of reading Frankenstein, and the creature is just at the point where he's asking Victor to act even the slightest bit like a father (let alone like a god, whom he perhaps resembles a bit more closely . . . but that's my cynical side speaking). And 14 though they are, I'm sure that they won't be able to escape noticing the gap between the Harmony parents' instinct to "circle the wagons" and Victor's urge to flee. Thanks for that poem, and for your news from the north posts, and all that.
"The young guys with loud mufflers and sunglasses smoking cigarettes / with their arms hanging out the windows." "The incurable 'oddes between the earth and skie.'" The creature and Victor. "They're 14, so they won't get it." Such a glorious elegy in this richness--so many characters, readers, celebrants, and mourners: and all from two short emails and a quick Facebook message.

Yesterday evening, after dinner, I sat on the couch with the New York Review of Books and read Leo Carey's review of The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal, the grandmother of Edmund de Waal, who wrote The Hare with Amber Eyes, "a best-selling history of his Jewish banking family, and of the art they collected and lost to the Nazis." Like her grandson, Elisabeth was also a writer, a novelist with two books that were never published during her lifetime. One of them, The Exiles Return, has now been released; and while Carey writes sensitively about it, he concludes, regretfully, that it is severely flawed, not merely through "technical incompetence" but because of "a deeper confusion": for instance, among other struggles, she "cannot decide which viewpoint to inhabit."

I have not read the actual novel, only its review, so I have no way of knowing whether or not Carey's conclusions are accurate. But he does quote de Waal's own heartrending words about her failure as a writer:
I have always written, all my life, and have always striven to do so, and have always faltered on the way and hardly ever succeeded in getting published. . . . But I think I write in a rarefied atmosphere. I lack the common touch, it is all too finely distilled. I deal in essences the taste of which is too subtle to register on the tongue. It is the quintessence of experiences, not the experiences themselves.
I cannot decide whether her words are arrogant or blind or clear-eyed or humble. But no matter how I read the statement, they are extraordinarily sad. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

I spent much of yesterday working on Frost Place business: writing letters to faculty, letters to teacher-consultants. We are doing very well with applications so far (roughly twice as many as we had last year at this time), and the office hasn't even begun its full-fledged marketing push. So I am very pleased and excited.

Some of you international readers have spoken to me in the past about whether or not you should apply, and I want to encourage you again: yes, please do join us. I daresay most American teachers know almost nothing about the place of poetry in other national education systems, let alone humans' everyday relationship with it around the globe. We already have one non-U.S. applicant, and the presence of more of you would be an enormous gift to all of the faculty and participants. So if you want to speak to me privately about the logistics of applying, email me at ironduke at tdstelme dot net.

When you go to the Frost Place website, you'll note that the sidebar now includes a poll on "teachable Frost poems." This was the brain child of one of our teacher-consultants, who hopes it will be a way to draw more teachers into the conversation. If you're so inclined, take part in the poll and/or share it with your colleagues.

And by the way, remember that our participants aren't simply K-12 teachers. Some are, yes. Others teach at the community-college or university level; others are teachers-in-training. But many participants aren't teachers in any traditional sense. They work in government offices or in social-service settings. Some are volunteers. Some are simply individuals who love poetry, or worry about poetry, or wonder why it matters. The Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching is the only major teaching conference in the United States that welcomes such a broad array of applicants, and we've been thriving with this approach for more than a decade. So please consider joining us. And if you are looking for references or reviews of the program, I would be happy to put you in touch with previous participants. Just let me know.

Tomorrow I'll be participating in a panel discussion on poetry and education, a feature of this year's Plunkett Poetry Festival at the University of Maine at Augusta. In March, I spent two days at Hall-Dale High School in Farmingdale, a visit sponsored by the festival, and I'll probably be answering a few questions about that visit as well as more general questions about the topic. Though I won't be reading any of my own work, I will bring along copies of Same Old Story and A Poet's Sourcebook in case you're interested in acquiring either one. If you want one of the older books, just let me know before tomorrow morning.

In other news: believe it or not, I saw a robin in my yard.


Thursday, April 10, 2014

What is a friend? This is what I've been asking myself this morning. It's a silly question, on one level; an impossible one, on another. There are people I call friends and people who call me a friend. Sometimes these roles overlap, but sometimes they do not. There are self-proclaimed friends who flatter and coddle me, and self-proclaimed friends who enjoy pointing out my failings. Sometimes these friends overlap, but sometimes they do not. There are friends with whom I maintain a distant, almost ascetic collegiality; and there are friends who say, "I love you!" every time we speak, whether in person or on the phone or by note. There are friends who say we are friends but who behave like enemies, and there are friends who say we are strangers but behave like lovers. There are friends who used to be lovers, and friends who used to be the lovers of those lovers, and friends who betrayed me and friends whom I betrayed. There are friends who hate the word lovers. There are friends who are Friends, which is to say Quakers, and there are Friends who are me, who was raised as a Friend. There are Facebook friends, a kettle of fish that you can stir yourself. There are friends who are relations, and there are relations who are friends, and there are relations who are not friends and there are friends who are not relations, and sometimes these links involve blood ties and sometimes they do not. There are friends who bring out the worst in me, and friends who bring out the best, and there are friends who are dead but speak to me in dreams. There are friends who make me jealous because I worry that they love other friends better than they love me. There are friends who want more love from me than I can give them. There are friends who used to be friends but have now forgotten me, or given me up as a bad job, or disappeared into their own crowded histories. There are friends who never answer letters and friends who answer every letter and friends who only telephone me when they're blind drunk. There are friends who hate poetry and love music or hate music and love dogs or hate dogs and love cooking or only contact me when the Red Sox are winning and/or losing. There are friends who love me because they can cry in front of me, and friends who offer to do my clothes shopping, and friends who want to hike up a mountain with me and talk about the bands of our youth, and friends who disagree with every single thing I say, and friends who try to make me read books I don't want to read. There are friends who embarrass me in public and friends whom I embarrass in public. There are friends who don't know they are my friends, and friends that are tree frogs or lilies, and friends that are the sound of Bach over a crackling car radio, and friends that are a high gale in the white pines.

Elegy for Philip Sidney

Fulke Greville

Silence augmenteth grief, writing increaseth rage,
Staled are my thoughts, which loved and lost the wonder of our age;
Yet quickened now with fire, though dead with frost ere now,
Enraged I write I know not what; dead, quick, I know not how.

Hard-hearted minds relent and rigor's tears abound,
And envy strangely rues his end, in whom no fault was found.
Knowledge her light hath lost, valor hath slain her knight,
Sidney is dead, dead is my friend, dead is the world's delight.

Place, pensive, wails his fall whose presence was her pride;
Time crieth out, My ebb is come; his life was my spring tide.
Fame mourns in that she lost the ground of her reports;
Each living wight laments his lack, and all in sundry sorts.

He was (woe worth that word!) to each well-thinking mind
A spotless friend, a matchless man, whose virtue ever shined;
Declaring in his thoughts, his life, and that he writ,
Highest conceits, longest foresights, and deepest works of wit.

He, only like himself, was second unto none,
Whose death (though life) we rue, and wrong, and all in vain do moan;
Their loss, not him, wail they that fill the world with cries,
Death slew not him, but he made death his ladder to the skies.

Now sink of sorrow I who live—the more the wrong!
Who wishing death, whom death denies, whose thread is all too long;
Who tied to wretched life, who looks for no relief,
Must spend my ever dying days in never ending grief.

Farewell to you, my hopes, my wonted waking dreams,
Farewell, sometimes enjoyëd joy, eclipsëd are thy beams.
Farewell, self-pleasing thoughts which quietness brings forth,
And farewell, friendship's sacred league, uniting minds of worth.

And farewell, merry heart, the gift of guiltless minds,
And all sports which for life's restore variety assigns;
Let all that sweet is, void; in me no mirth may dwell:
Philip, the cause of all this woe, my life's content, farewell!

Now rhyme, the son of rage, which art no kin to skill,
And endless grief, which deads my life, yet knows not how to kill,
Go, seek that hapless tomb, which if ye hap to find
Salute the stones that keep the limbs that held so good a mind.