Friday, October 31, 2008

from the Aeneid
Virgil, trans. Robert Fagles

[describing a boat race]

Mnestheus riding high, the higher for his success--
oars at a racing stroke, wind at his beck and call--
shoots into open water, homing down the coast.
Swift as a dove, flushed in fear from a cave
where it nests its darling chicks in crannies,
a sudden burst of wings and out its home it flies,
terrified, off into open fields and next it skims
through the bright, quiet air and never beats a wing.
So Mnestheus, so his Dragon speeds ahead, cleaving
on her own forward drive.

I think the sudden shift from the boat race to the dove comparison is breathtaking. Virgil makes these same exquisite shifts in his Eclogues as well, although they are very different poems--pastorals rather than epic narratives. The Aeneid is a remarkable poem, however; and what particularly strikes me at this reading is the poet's skill at relaying the timeless emotions and behaviors of men and women caught in faltering love affairs. When it comes to histrionic agony, Anne Sexton has nothing on Dido, queen of Carthage . . . and this emotional continuity makes me stop and think about what "confessional poetry" really is. Certainly it is not merely a late-twentieth-century self-absorption: the mere existence of Dido shows us that poets have long been consumed by the drama of self-absorption. What Virgil does is remove himself from the scene rather than make himself the centerpiece. Nonetheless, he clearly had deep knowledge of those feelings, an issue I have already taken up with Milton in one of the chapters of my memoir about reading Paradise Lost. Third-person omniscience doesn't necessarily equal detachment. Otherwise, how would a writer be able to imagine a particular emotion so intensely?

And Aeneas that jerk: so focused on his mission to found a new nation that, with only a passing twinge, he single-mindedly leaves his lover in the lurch. Dido throws herself at his feet, begging for love, in the way of passionate, infatuated young women since the beginning of time (you have Dido in one of your classes; I know you do), and what does Aeneas say?

He ventured a few words: "I . . . you have done me
so many kindnesses, and you could count them all.
I shall never deny what you deserve, my queen,
never regret my memories of Dido. . . .
[But not] once did I extend a bridegroom's torch
or enter into a marriage pact with you."

It's the old "Honey, it was fun, but I never said I loved you" line, written somewhere around 19 B.C.

Ugh. You have Aeneas in one of your classes too. He probably plays basketball.

Dinner tonight: grilled-cheese sandwiches and candy.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Dinner tonight (my son's annual birthday choice--it's the same every year): lobster, artichokes, lime ice, sugar cookies. Apparently he likes prickly food.

As an extra-special birthday treat, my friend Linda (the boys' ex-babysitter) just showed up with twelve homemade whoopie pies. Are these a local Maine phenomenon? I never had homemade whoopie pies when I was a kid. My western Pennsylvania great-aunts were devotees of Chex party mix and jello-and-cream-cheese-and-canned-pineapple-and-little-colorful-marshmallow desserts. It was the follow-up to heavy Polish food served from slow cookers and the precursor of penny-ante poker and cans of Miller or Cherokee Red cherry soda, depending on your age and sex. (I never saw a lady with a can of Miller. Ladies drank a lot of weak coffee and talked about their bunions and their ancestors and what they wore to get married in. Only tough-minded ladies like my great-aunt Esther took part in the poker games. But then she had, as a middle-aged, heavy-smoking, gravel-voiced divorcee, taken the brave step of marrying my great-uncle John, who used a lot of Brylcreem and showed up with a big new car every six months and wanted to teach me me how to bet at the dog races: unfortunately my mother put her foot down. . . .)

My son has spent much of his pre-lobster-eating evening wearing his Cardinal de Medici costume and singing along with the Ramones' Rocket to Russia while reading a biography of Jackie Robinson. What could be more festive?

Eleven years ago this very night I was home from the hospital thinking, Oh my God, what made me think that two boys was a good idea?

Monday, October 27, 2008

I have just finished copying out the last of Shakespeare's sonnets; and while I of course learned a great deal from this project--for instance, about the poet's subtle and complex use of repetition--I also learned that some of his sonnets aren't really all that good. It's natural, I suppose, for a reader such as myself, steeped in legends of past literary glory, to assume that everything Shakespeare wrote must possess a special quality of greatness; but after all, he was just a man, and sometimes he, too, wrote a dull poem.

Does that make me feel better or worse about my own work?

I need to quit poking that metaphorical stick into my eye and go wrap birthday presents and finish making bread. Don't tell my son, but I bought him this great Cardinal de Medici costume at the Goodwill. It even came with a mitre.

Dinner tonight: moros y cristianos (otherwise known as Cuban black beans and rice), sourdough bread, spinach and arugula salad, apple flan.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

from Tao of the Weightlifter
Joe Bolton

Musculature as a way of life.
Breaking it down to build it.
Up. A burning in my shoulders.

Low-level professional wrestlers don't have much to do with Bolton's weightlifter aesthestic. My theory is that they specially train in order to maintain excess stomach flab. Last night's show in the Harmony Elementary School was comic, embarrassing, depressing, riveting, and boring in the style of most third-rate circus acts, birthday-party magicians, and Maine humorists who specialize in "Ayuh" as a punch line.

My younger son, however, thought it was great. After spending five dollars on a signed Doink the Wrestling Clown poster, he enthusiastically cheered and catcalled, with his favorite enemy being the Skunk, a remarkably revolting man in his fifties with a mohawk and a skunk-like cape, and a really big naked beer belly, who stage-whispered to the crowd that he was having a secret affair with Sarah Palin. Since he was the prepackaged bad guy of the match, he possibly thought that such a revelation would rile the crowd; but interestingly most spectators seemed to be indifferent to this news . . . possibly because ten-year-old boys were the only ones who cared about the "fight," and probably none of them were exactly sure who Sarah Palin was or what an affair with the Skunk might entail.

Bad wrestling does offer the crowd an opportunity to see how all the fake beatings really work: those tricky foot stompings that simulate loud punching and how one fat man can jump on top of another fat man without actually touching him and exactly where you can slap belly fat to make a big noise without causing damage.

The next big Harmony event is the haunted house at the grange. People are trying to talk me into dressing up as a witch and playing scary music on a very out-of-tune piano. So today I'm going to try to learn the chords to "I Put a Spell on You." I'll keep you posted on my progress. The piano is not my natural metier; perhaps they'll go for witchy fiddle instead. (I suppose that means "The Devil Went down to Georgia," doesn't it?)

Saturday, October 25, 2008

So, say, just hypothetically, that your kid comes home from school and tells you that Charles Dickens's Great Expectations is the next book up on the syllabus and that his teacher has introduced that novel to the class by announcing, "You won't like it."

And, say, just hypothetically, that you're not only the kid's parent but a person who's madly in love with Great Expectations, which you first read in high school and have read twenty or thirty times since.

Well, as that great pedagogue Wackford Squeers so convincingly explains, "Subdue your appetites, my dears, and you've conquered human natur"; and sometimes an overly well read mother does best to keep her mouth shut.  Nonetheless, although this particular hypothetical parent understands that it is her hypothetical kid's dearest wish that his mother not schedule a berate-the-teacher meeting, she is not above bouncing into the kitchen and throwing up her hands melodramatically and forcing her long-suffering family to submit to windy complaints and perorations about English teachers who are apparently striving to teach their students to hate English literature.

But I mean, really: what's going on here?

Thank goodness there's professional wrestling tonight to take my mind off these inanities.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Aphorism for the day, from Iris Murdoch's The Philosopher's Pupil:

It is a feature of marriages, including happy ones, that two people who live together may have quite false ideas of each other. This does not at all necessarily lead to disaster or even inconvenience.

Now that I've finished the Murdoch novel, I somehow feel that a refreshing re-immersion in the Aeneid is the obvious next step. My reading patterns are random and often repetitive, yet they seem to have a trajectory of sorts. Classical narrative poetry and Iris Murdoch's melodramatic, hyper-plotted, philosophical farces share a center-stage certainty as well as a formal elegance of tone and dialogue. Nobody really talks like a Murdoch character; nobody really talks like a Virgilian character either. But that's okay with me. My almost-eleven-year-old son, who is also a writer, is worried because his stories aren't funny. When I assured him that he was presently working in the high-serious mode and would probably be funny at some other stage, he beamed and immediately took my point. But then he likes the Aeneid too.

Guess what? Tomorrow night pro wrestling is coming to Harmony! Combined with Saturday afternoon's birthday-party home invasion, this weekend promises to be scintillating.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Today's activities: editing someone else's book, mooning over my Phaeton poem, shopping for apples, husking scavenged corn, washing very dirty boy clothes, driving a kid to a piano lesson, trying to set up a slaughter date for my chickens, agreeing to bake brownies for a Halloween party, and reading Iris Murdoch's novel The Philosopher's Pupil.  I really, really like Murdoch, but I have the hardest time writing anything coherent about her novels. I reread them and reread them, and still they are over my head in some hard-to-identify way. But I guess the situation is an illustration of why you don't have to understand a work of art to love it anyway.

Tonight's possible activities: reading the Aeneid, taking a bath, drinking hot cider, playing cribbage, listening to game 1 of the World Series on the radio even though the Red Sox aren't in it, nagging my children to do their homework pack their lunches fold their laundry fill the woodbox feed the animals stop dropping crumbs on the new couch etc., watching a Buster Keaton movie, listening to Dusty in Memphis, which is a very odd recording that I can't decide if I like or not--it's sort of Muzak and sort of Aretha and she looks like Tammy Wynette and she comes from England and her voice is breathy and romantic and her song choice is wacky and the date is 1969 and it's an Atlantic hi-fi special chock full of Memphis horns-n-strings and you should listen to it yourself and see what you think.

Dinner: buckwheat and corn blinis with parsley butter; kale with garlic; diced apples with olive oil, lemon juice, and lots of black pepper (apples are excellent with pepper, surprisingly); ice cream and plum sauce.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Western wind, when wilt thou blow,
The small rain down can rain?
Christ! If my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again.

I suppose this is an overquoted poem, though if ever a poem deserved to be overquoted, this is it, sweet little anonymous long-ago lyric. I'm sure I have a version with more accurate antiquated spelling somewhere in the house; but this is how I first learned the poem when I was in high school, and this is the spelling that's been pasted into my memory.

I was beetling away at Phaeton-poem revisions this morning, and suddenly "Western wind, when wilt thou blow" leapt to my lips. I have no idea why, except that it's a poem that tends to come to me when I'm smitten with a diffused, nameless, melancholy longing; and my Phaeton poem does make me sad, partly because it's tragic, partly because it's finished and now I'm not writing anymore. Really, finishing a poem makes me more than sad. I get scared . . turning off my imagination like a tap, not knowing what I'll do next. What if I never write anything ever again?

So We'll Go No More a-Roving
George Gordon, Lord Byron

So we'll go no more a-roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.

For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.

Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we'll go no more a-roving
By the light of the moon.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Sunday evening. One of my sons is downstairs practicing "Danny Boy" on the piano; the other is dream-shopping for iPods. My husband is washing dishes. It's early still--only 6:30--but already the sky is nearly black. There's a fire going in the woodstove. I spent all day in my pajamas and I'm feeling very happy to be at home and warm and well fed. A catlike vision of heaven, I suppose, except I'm not craving an endless supply of fat moles.

I finished the first draft of the Phaeton poem today. Ten pages long, but I haven't yet decided whether or not I need to cut it, though I know I will keep revising for a while. There's something to be said for letting a narrative take the writer and (one hopes) the reader to some new place, for not jumping directly into the exciting part but gradually unwrapping a structure and its characters.

As Coleridge says,

The Wedding-Guest he beat his breast,
Yet he cannot choose but hear;
And thus spake on that ancient man,
The bright-eyed Mariner.

Mariner, c'est moi? Well, I've always wanted to hear someone holler, "Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!" after reading one of my poems, though I admit such a reaction seems unlikely.

All day yesterday I dealt with apples apples apples apples. Two apple pies, a lot of apple sauce, apples cut up to dry over the woodstove, and I still have half a bushel left to deal with in some as yet unknown fashion. I also made grape butter, which turned out to be surprisingly delicious even though it does smell exactly like Welch's grape jelly. (The texture and flavor are much better, however.)

Dinner tonight: fetuccine with chicken, tomato sauce, and wild sheep's head mushrooms (direct from the mountains of Appalachia, thanks to my friend Angela's father); salad with various cold-hardy greens, the last house-ripened tomatoes, kohlrabi, mozzarella, and carrots from the store; apple pie, I'm sure you're surprised to hear.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Hey, I just found out that, Patricia Smith, one of our upcoming faculty members at this summer's Frost Place teaching conference, has been nominated for a National Book Award.

What other news can I offer?

1. I went to the Bangor Goodwill the other day and acquired a first edition of Naked Lunch for $1.99.

2. My son went to his first Red Sox game on Tuesday and watched his heroes get trampled into the dust yet managed to have fun anyway. When half the fans leave in a huff, all the peons in the "cheap" seats get to move up to those expensive empty seats next to the field and cheer on the towel guys running back and forth among the relief pitchers.

3. I discovered another poem to add to my bad-tempered poetry collection, although perhaps "gloomy self-pity" is the more accurate descriptor. Why is Tudor spelling so enjoyable? Apparently, the poet did spend some time in prison--one time for brawling, one time for being Anne Boleyn's "neighbor and admirer" (in the circumspect words of the Cambridge Guide to English Literature).

Poem 168, from the Minor Manuscripts
Sir Thomas Wyatt

Syghes ar my foode, drynke are my teares;
Clynking of fetters suche musycke wolde crave;
Stynke and close ayer away my lyf wears:
Innocencie is all the hope I have.
Rayne, wynde, or wether I iudge by myne eares.
Mallice assaulted that rightiousnes should have:
Sure I am, Brian, this wounde shall heale agayne,
But yet, alas, the scarre shall styll remayne.

 I don't know why, but I'm guessing this is the hangover poem written after the bar fight. ("Dear Brian, I didn't start anything. It was all your fault. . . .")

Monday, October 13, 2008

I spent last night trying to write a dream song that began with the words "The melancholy bluebird." I remember dream-singing the phrase over and over but never did figure out what verb should come next. To the best of my recollection, the tune was a 1920s-style "Red, Red Robin" kind of ditty, only gloomier.

Today my house is overrun with boys. I am hiding upstairs and they are chasing each other around with handcuffs and fake bloody knives and evil garden gnomes, etc. Every once in a while they take a break and eat Cheez-Its.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

If you're on the hunt for examples of bad-tempered poetry, look no further. 

from The Emigrant [Winter in Lower Canada]

Standish O'Grady (1793-1841)

Thou barren waste; unprofitable strand
Where hemlocks brood on unproductive land,
Whose frozen air on one bleak winter's night
Can metamorphose dark brown hares to white!

Here forests crowd, unprofitable lumber,
O'er fruitless lands indefinite as number;
Where birds scarce light, and with the north winds veer
On wings of wind, and quickly disappear,
Here the rough Bear subsists his winter year,
And licks his paw and finds no better fare . . . .

The lank Canadian eager trims his fire,
And all around their simpering stoves retire;
With fur clad friends their progenies abound,
And thus regale their buffaloes around. . . .
Perchance they revel; still around they creep,
And talk, and smoke, and spit, and drink, and sleep!

Of course, some would argue with this point of view, preferring the robust optimism of Robert Hayman (c. 1575-1629), author of "The Pleasant Life in Newfoundland":

You say that you would live in Newfound-land,
Did not this one thing your conceit withstand;
You fear the Winters cold, sharp, piercing ayre.
They love it beste, that have once wintered there.
Winter is there, short, wholesome, constant, cleare,
Not thicke, unwholesome, shuffling, as 'tis here.

Both poems appear in The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse in English, edited by Margaret Atwood, an excellent anthology containing a wide variety of poems about snow, logging, slugs, crazy women, Bible reading, and other subjects common to cold lonely places.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

I have a friend who is terribly ill, who called me yesterday from the hospital and said, "I haven't eaten for nine days, and now I keep having fantasies about all the different kinds of wonderful food I could be eating." And then she laughed and told me nurses were peeking around the corner at her. She's so sick and at the same time she's so funny and alive; and today, while I was raking leaves and the sun was shining and my husband was splitting firewood and the wind was messing with my leaf piles, I kept thinking, "I'm alive, I'm alive." That sounds sappy, but it didn't feel that way. It was more like the feeling that rises up through the soles of my feet when I'm clinging to a pole on a moving subway train. Like "Here I am." 

from Soon

Joe Bolton

And no one will remember what it was
To try to live and love and make love live
In these times we belong to but call ours,
Near the end of what looked like forever.
And if you don't know the poems of Joe Bolton, you should.

Dinner tonight: hamburgers, homemade buns, refrigerator pickles, caramelized onions, autumn lettuce, red and yellow tomatoes, beer.

P.S. The soccer team lost its last game. My son cried, but he cheered up considerably when he opened his Red Sox ticket surprise. My older son and I are trying to decide what to do back here in central Maine while the others are off living the Fenway high life. Any thoughts? Going bowling and eating truck-stop corned beef hash are our best ideas so far.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Like most poets, I can't make a living as a poet, so I have a handful of other jobs, one of which is working as a freelance copyeditor for university presses. This entails hours of untangling passive voice constructions, soothing ruffled haters of semicolons, and deleting and deleting and deleting repetition (a particular problem with ex-dissertations). It's not a thrilling job but not a terrible one either--rather analogous, I suppose, to being a composer who also spends a lot of time playing scales. What I mean is that editing other people's books may not be creative or intellectually stimulating; but it does require grammatical expertise, a focus on petty detail, and a sentence-reviser's musical ear. And unlike my own writing, editing allows me to stay detached. I have no particular stake in the matter other than wanting to do a good clean job that keeps the author feeling comfortable and secure and the press feeling satisfied enough to hire me again.

Sometimes I fret about having a job that doesn't demand my soul, but then again I've found myself engaged in such a variety of unpaid soul-sucking ventures that I think a few part-time, undemanding, middlebrow, hourly-wage editing projects don't necessarily mitigate against my ability to keep up a heavy schedule of falling off metaphorical Empire State Buildings.

Encouraging quote for the day: "The giant and the conjurer now knew that their wicked course was at an end, and they stood biting their thumbs and shaking with fear. Jack, with his sword of sharpness, soon killed the giant, and the magician was then carried away by a whirlwind; and every knight and beautiful lady who had been changed into birds and beasts returned to their proper shape."

--from "A History of Jack the Giant-Killer," collected in The Blue Fairy Book, edited by Andrew Lang (1889)

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

So today is my 44th birthday, and I am "celebrating" by kicking my online heels in the Boston Red Sox Virtual Waiting Room, where I am trying to buy ALCS tickets for my son. I have been waiting for so long that probably they are all sold out and I will be relieved I never said anything to him about it. Outside of this boring interlude I am having a pleasant birthday. It's a lovely northern New England autumn afternoon, I haven't written one word of the Phaeton poem, I deposited a paycheck in the bank (not an everyday occurrence), and I'm almost finished with the Robertson Davies novel I've been working on. Now if only I could escape from this Red Sox red tape.

Later I will go to Harmony's last soccer game of the season (though I am not forgetting tomorrow's thrilling parent-student debacle) and hope that the heroes will add a triumphant flourish to their so-far perfect season.

Too much sports talk in this entry, but you know how parents get trapped.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Information of possible interest to 2008 Frost Place teaching conference participants: Remember that poem "Occurrence on Washburn Avenue" by Regan Huff . . . the one about Alice who bowls a perfect game? Ted Kooser wants to feature it on American Life in Poetry. Alice will be famous! By the way the poem appears in the current Beloit Poetry Journal, if you want to take another look at it.
Ah, rejection letters. I sometimes wonder which is worse: preprinted form letters or cursory personal responses written by readers who show no sign of having asked themselves, "What's going on in this poem? What is the writer trying to do?" I have had poems castigated for being "too encoded" (what?) and "too self-absorbed" (about a piece that was obviously narrative fiction) and have even been told "don't be embarrassed to submit your work" (what?). Naturally I'd prefer to have readers like my poems and want to publish them. But I've submitted poems that I've later decided were bad or unfinished, and I understand that journal editors may have tastes that diverge from mine. So rejection per se is fine. What annoys me is rejection that only pretends to deal with the work at hand.

I'm on the editorial board of a poetry journal, so I have sympathy with editors. It's absolutely impossible to read a gargantuan stack of submissions with perfect care and sympathy. But resorting to these idiotic "personal" notes is useless and, for a self-doubting writer, downright destructive and cruel.

So when you're reading a student's creative work, ask those questions: "What's going on in this poem [or story or nonfiction piece]? What is the writer trying to do?" By and large, beginning writers aren't very cognizant of writing as a purposeful foray. The words just accrue on the page. By asking those initial questions, you open a door to a civil discourse about the piece. Now you can begin asking those great "what if" questions that can deal with anything from structural missteps to character development to punctuation and usage. The student is still in charge of the work, but you are offering insight into possibilities.

If a student is serious about wanting to be writer, she's going to get one of those stupid rejection letters some day. So teach her how to be a careful, considerate, focused critic of her own work. That way she has someone to depend on.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

I've been in the zone this week, which is my friend Baron's term for those days when the words just keep coming and coming and coming. Fortunately I've also been unemployed so I really have spent five long, uninterrupted schooldays writing, wandering around the house, rolling out pie dough, writing some more, reading, eating cheese and crackers, walking in the woods with the dog, reading, writing some more, etc. It's the perfect schedule and tenable if one undertakes a career as a kept woman, but that is a job I have been able to swing only part time.

Today, if it stops being cloudy and raw, I will plant garlic and transplant kale into the greenhouse. Possibly I will write some more. I'm at a scary part of the Phaeton poem, when the boy loses control of the Sun's chariot, and it's easy to find something less fraught to do than detail a celestial car accident. This sounds flippant, but in fact immersing myself into these situations is very unpleasant. I can do it, I want to do it, I have to do it, I'm in the zone, but I don't like it. This is why writing is not therapy.

Dinner tonight: variety small pizzas decorated with various garden gleanings; spinach and lettuce salad; ice cream from the store because I'm just not in the mood to make another pie.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Rather accidentally I started reading aloud the opening lines of the Aeneid to my ten-year-old, and after two lines he was transfixed. This is a child who adores hero stories and spends considerable time wallowing in Greek and Norse mythology, so neither the story nor the characters were entirely new. But watching him reel back at the physical impact of the language, watching the story leap off the page and attack him . . . that was a heart-wrenching miracle.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

In memoriam: Hayden Carruth

Though I never met, spoke, or wrote to Hayden Carruth--though he had, I'm sure, no inkling of my existence--I have had, in these years of fumbling my way into poetry, an attachment to him that has felt like love, like conversation, like an epistolary friendship. For me, he has been a living link with the true history of poetry--his yearnings and errors and delights and observations; the music of his lines and his language; his intensely personal engagement with literature; his swift comprehension of the wild beauty within our daily ugliness. His poems were magnificent risks. Sometimes they failed spectacularly. But at their best, they were songs that Keats, that Shakespeare, that Homer, that the Chinese poets might have understood.

from Late Sonnet
Hayden Carruth

And that I knew
that beautiful hot old man Sidney Bechet
and heard his music often but not what he
was saying, that tone, phrasing, and free play
of feeling mean more than originality,
those being the actual qualities of song.
Nor is it essential to be young.