Saturday, February 28, 2009

One of my sons is downstairs blasting Guns 'n Roses and making chocolate-chip cookies; the other has turned the living room into an elaborate stage set for few hundred plastic knights, horses, alligators, squirrels, and pirates; I am sitting at my desk drinking beer; and altogether we are cheerful and contented. Tonight we will eat bacon and eggs for dinner and then watch the Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., version of Robin Hood. (I may possess the only 11-year-old child now in existence who thinks that Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., is a great actor.) Mid-movie, my husband will walk into the house after having spent a long dull Saturday driving to Boston and back; and the poodle will bark and then be embarrassed, and my sons will bounce off the couch and demand a full accounting of his day. And eventually we will all go to bed, except for the poodle, who will sneak onto the couch. And meanwhile, owls will kill field mice, and the stars will shine; but we won't know anything about those happenings because we will be dreaming strange dreams about canoes on wheels, and dead grandmothers returned to life, and old boyfriends whom we discover we have accidentally married, and cats that cannot be caught no matter how many stairs we climb.

So that is the story of life at 199 Wellington Road in Harmony, Maine, on this last day of February in the year of our Lord 2009 (as Samuel Pepys might have it). I hope that matters are equally dull and contented at your house. There's much to be said for plain, everyday happiness.
My long-ago senior prom date (ah, the prom: also the day I crashed my parents' car on the way to pick up my date's boutonniere) unearthed this hilarious explication of the serial comma. See, in particular, the sections on ambiguity and resolving ambiguity.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Frost Place scholarship news:

Note that the scholarships cover attendees who are "geographically challenged."

Through the Town of Franconia, The Frost Place has gratefully received a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a "Challenge America: Reaching Every Community Fast-Track Review Grant." This is the first grant of its kind made by the NEA in the state of New Hampshire during the past four years.•The NEA offers this type of support primarily to small and mid-sized organizations for projects that extend the reach of the arts to underserved populations -- those whose opportunities to experience the arts are limited by geography, ethnicity, economics, or disability. The grant provides support for the Frost Place poetry conferences in general, and in addition, funds four scholarships for qualified conference attendees.

Applicants for the NEA scholarships will first need to apply for admittance into one of the Frost Place conferences. On your application, please indicate if you would like to be considered for scholarship assistance. Upon acceptance, please send an email letter citing need and qualifications to the attention of Deming Holleran, at . You will then be informed whether you qualify for this or one of the other Frost Place scholarships.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

I'm feeling melancholy about the demise of carefully written prose. So maybe someone with inside academic knowledge can answer my questions: Do students study grammar, syntax, and style in writing programs? Do they examine it as music students examine keyboard theory--as an explication of the underpinnings of the art? I fear not.

Grammar is language logic, which is not a right-or-wrong rationality but a guide to understanding what a sentence actually says as opposed to what the author meant the sentence to say. It also allows the writer to extend "Did I say what I intended to say?" to "Did I say something that surprised me?" or, more painfully, to "Did my grammatical contortions allow me to avoid saying something that is difficult but important to say?" All of these questions are indispensable to the tasks of creation and revision.

I am in no way asserting the primacy of "good" English over slang, experimental constructions, dialect, and so on. But if a writer uses a comma splice or a run-on sentence or a fragment, she should do so intentionally, not accidentally. When revising, she ought to notice that she has written a sentence with a dangling modifier and should understand why such a construction turns her sentence into an absurdity.

I feel like such a crank for making these pronouncements. But I love English. It's a gorgeous, flexible medium; and it's my medium; and I care about it, right down to its least little "and." Lately, however, I've been reading a number of essays by fairly well known writers and teachers of writing, and I'm saddened at how inexact some of these pieces are. Many are filled with misplaced or dangling modifiers, commas without musical or syntactic purpose, pronouns without antecedents, subjects and predicates that do not agree. And for the most part these infelicities seemed to be accidental, as if the writers were either ignorant or indifferent to the language-logic problems in their essays. In other words, the writers' grammar revealed that they were essentially inattentive to the trajectory of their own thoughts, feelings, and ideas. 

So why do they write? Does the primacy of subject matter--say, a writer's focus on political or social ills--trump her responsibility to attend to the medium itself? Is language just a cog in the polemical or narrative machine? Can you wonder why I feel melancholy?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

from "Writing," in The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays

W. H. Auden

The degree of excitement which a writer feels during the process of composition is as much an indication of the value of the final result as the excitement felt by a worshiper is an indication of the value of his devotions, that is to say, very little indication.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Browsing through Whitman, I came across this poem that everyone knows. So I read it again and decided that this really is the sort of poem that everyone should know. And maybe you would like to read it again also.

When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer

Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn'd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide,
          and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause
          in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.

Dinner tonight: beef noodle soup, cole slaw, chocolate ice-cream sundaes.
I've been having DSL connection problems, plus (at least on my computer but I hope not on yours) my blog postings keep mysteriously vanishing--although if you click on the archive, they will reappear. So I apologize for whatever's going on in the aether.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Two feet of snow forecast for tonight; but now the sun is shining, the birds are singing, and the soil is thawing in my greenhouse. Spring is Maine's weirdest season.

I managed to write two lines of my poem this morning, in between loads of laundry and firewood, so perhaps Babbitt and my Footnote Week are wearing off. And I've started reading Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters, already an excellent remedy for Sinclair Lewis. Plus, it has one of the sweetest opening paragraphs ever written:

To begin with the old rigmarole of childhood. In a country there was a shire, and in that shire there was a town, and in that town there was a house, and that house there was a room, and in that room there was a bed, and in that bed there lay a little girl; wide awake and longing to get up, but not daring to do so for fear of the unseen power in the next room; a certain Betty, whose slumbers must not be disturbed until six o'clock struck, when she wakened of herself "as sure as clockwork," and left the household very little peace afterwards. It was a June morning, and early as it was, the room was full of sunny warmth and light.

Dinner tonight: porkchops and sauerkraut, garlic mashed potatoes, tomato salad.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Watched High School Confidential last night, which contains the funniest hip-poetry-reading scene I've ever witnessed (the only hip-poetry-reading scene I've ever witnessed?). Plus, Jerry Lee Lewis sings at all the teen events, and much of the script was written in semi-intelligible hipster slang, and the women wear those kind of traffic-cone undergarments, and the happy ending ensues when the cute girl gives up smoking pot and confines herself to regular cigarettes and the hero escapes from an immoral liaison with his aunt to a moral one with his nice upstanding teacher. I guess high school was more fun in the 50s. . . .

Thursday, February 19, 2009

I've finally finished a long and knotty editing project, with great relief. It seemed to go on forever. This past week, which I mostly spent correcting endless pages of voluminous misnumbered footnotes, felt like the Death-Knell of the Imagination. Probably reading Babbitt concurrently has not helped matters. Also, it's school vacation week, meaning that my house has been overrun with loud hungry boys, and now my older son is running a science-fair experiment that involves a homemade hovercraft and a vacuum cleaner. 

from Letter to Jane, a collection of Hayden Carruth's letters to Jane Kenyon, written during the year she was dying of leukemia.

I have been reading nothing but novels of crime and espionage, drug-store books, what we used to call "cheap-screw fiction." And I can't remember most of the time what was on the previous page as I'm reading. It doesn't matter any more. Reading is not for information but for the flow of language and the old associations in my head.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

James Baldwin doesn't often make me laugh, which is maybe why I like this scene from his story "The Outing" so much:

"Last year Sister McCandless had held an impromptu service in the unbelieving subway car she played the tambourine and sang and exhorted sinners and passed through the train distributing tracts. Not everyone had found this admirable, to some [in the church] it seemed that Sister McCandless was being a little ostentatious. 'I praise my Redeemer wherever I go,' she retorted defiantly. 'Holy Ghost don't leave me when I leave the church. I got a every day religion.'"

But of course, to a timid grammatical conservative such as myself, Baldwin's fast-and-loose sentence construction seems so reckless--first, a run-on; then a comma splice. Ack. I have to spend days talking myself into a misplaced comma.

But it's working for him, as it works (differently) for Iris Murdoch, another famous comma splicer. And I do love the subtle dialogue control of "a every day religion." Amazing how simply dropping an "n" and splitting a compound word can create a living, breathing, pain-in-the-ass human voice.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

I have not stopped reading Babbitt, but I don't know why because the book isn't getting any better. Perhaps it will come in useful when I need to write an essay about second-rate novels. It may even come in useful in this Daphne du Maurier piece I'm working on, although I don't quite know how.

Until today I'd been feeling frustrated about the du Maurier essay, but all of a sudden it seems to be coming together. Of course, I had to eliminate three-quarters of what I'd written and drink a lot of coffee before I discovered where I'd gone wrong, but oh well.

Yesterday I started watering in my greenhouse. There is nothing like the perfume of wet, thawing soil, especially when you're looking out the window at 2 feet of snow on the ground. I bet people will start tapping maple trees soon. The light is changing, the chickadees are singing, the driveway is coated in ice, and in two months the snow will melt. It's almost like thinking about spring.

Dinner tonight: minestrone, and it already smells good.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt is a very irritating book, and I'm not sure I'll be able to finish it. It's one of those books that I know was very important at its time of writing, but its prose and style of sarcasm has aged so badly that I find it painful to read. Take this passage, for instance, a so-called off-the-cuff remark that Babbitt emits at the breakfast table:

"Now you look here! The first thing you got to understand is that all this uplift and flipflop and settlement-work and recreation is nothing in God's world by the entering wedge for socialism. The sooner a man learns he isn't going to be coddled, and he needn't expect a lot of free grub and, uh, all these free classes and flipflop and doodads for his kids unless he earns 'em, why, the sooner he'll get on the job and produce--produce--produce! That's what the country needs, and not all this fancy stuff that just enfeebles the will-power of the working man and gives his kids a lot of notions above their class!"

Of course, I'm not arguing against the validity of the satire, which is still pertinent. But the quoted remark is not a breakfast-table conversation; it's manufactured polemic clumsily disguised as breakfast-table conversation. And the whole book appears to be cast in this mold, and it's making me tired.

Friday, February 13, 2009

I have been rereading Updike's Rabbit, Run this week. Have I mentioned that I've reread the three other Rabbit books numerous times but this one only once? My reason for not rereading this book has nothing to do with liking or disliking it. In fact, as I'm now rediscovering, the novel is wonderful. My trouble is the scene in which Harry's wife accidentally lets her infant drown in the bathtub. For some reason, I find that scene so harrowing that I can hardly even think about it. When I first read the novel, I was the mother of an infant; so I chalked up my fear to my sense of being too close to the issue. But this time through, as I got closer and closer to that passage, I became more and more nervous. I did, eventually, skim the scene, but I cannot say that I actually managed to read those four or five pages.

I'm curious about other readers' visceral fears. Or is this just me?

Dinner tonight: cream of mushroom soup from Julia Child's first cookbook. (Finally my children have gotten over their mushroom-hating habits, so finally I can make this beautiful soup again. It is one of the best foods I know.) And I'm making chocolate cake for my Valentines.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Ugh. I have such a bad cold. On the bright side, my new baritone voice makes me sound like Lauren Bacall, but unfortunately I do not feel that I am also looking the part. It is very, very hard to be sexy with a cold. I bet even Lauren couldn't have done it.

So in honor of my cold, I will post a poem about being an invalid. It also happens to be my very first attempt at writing a poem using a male narrator. I imagine him as being rather like poor tubercular Robert Louis Stevenson.


 Dawn Potter

Bright morning in a garden chair

on the esplanade, mummified, half-prone,

amid shawls and thick rugs,

pleased to watch the steady wavelets


chink among the stones of the shingle,

the rain-dark weed; couples sprinkled

athwart the plage in rational pairings,

small ones crouched at the margin


of the tongued sea, white-frocked mothers

paused above them, parasols bowing

under the clean wind like cormorants.

And we helpless, not unhappy ones


also take the air—infants, fragile parents,

consumptive collectors of nature—

our rôle in the seaside schema clear

as looking-glass to any novelist


or digging child: we are the audience,

safely tucked beyond a cavernous

proscenium: no change, no dénouement;

our part mere endless, watchful pause.


Even I could pencil volumes in the room

of this eternal morning, placid time arrested,

every actor idle now, except my wife.

Fifty paces lonely, down the gravel walk,


she ducks the crown of her hat

gravely into wind—so thin, so spare,

yet she presses forward and away,

eager ship bound for passage,


fruit of the Indies sweet as her mind’s eye,

though her only voyage is this solitary

foray to the jetty, servant of wind and salt,

gull-compass, adrift in the northern sea.


How simply she recedes.

A gust lifts the hem of her dress: and half

my heart cries desolation,

half croons its own brief hymn to solitude.

Even ardent sentinels require space

for love, a narrowed lens,

each elastic link of habit tense

and re-invigoured by our loneliness.


Tide splinters over pebbles, a rampant gust

seizes heedless gulls; the mothers on the beach

cling to parasols; and on the esplanade,

we invalids rustle in our chairs,


alarmed by autumn’s deadly kiss.

Far down the jetty, my doll-wife pauses,

then turns, landward, hands to her hat,

brim bent, dark ribbons flying.


Now is the season of departure,

rich kick of wings into the east wind,

an avian ecstasy of sinew and speed.

Nothing seems less likely than return,


and yet her lips shape a query.

What rights have the earthbound

to answer nay? I raise my book aloft,

air drums between us like a harp-string,


and she begins to laugh, one glove

clutching her hat, the other

her fluttered skirt: the wind tears

at her hair; and laughing still,


she flings up both hands to me,

to the gull-current, sky

awash with ribbons, with silk;

and she runs.

[first published in the Connecticut Review]

Dinner tonight: bay scallops with lemon and white wine and parsley and butter, and maybe I'll make spatzle as well.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Here's a poem guaranteed to piss off all the women of your acquaintance.

Song. That Women Are But Men's Shadows

Ben Jonson

Follow a shadow, it still flies you;
Seem to fly it, it will pursue:
So court a mistress, she denies you;
Let her alone, she will court you.
Say, are not women truly, then,
Styled but the shadows of us men?
At morn, and even, shades are longest;
At noon, they are or short, or none:
So men at weakest, they are strongest,
But grant us perfect, they're not known.
Say, are not women truly then,
Styled but the shadows of us men?

Well, I haven't written anything of my own yet today, but there's still time. Funny how winning a time-to-write grant doesn't magically remove all the work I still have left to do for other people. And at the moment I'm slightly afraid to look at my poem-under-construction, mostly because I wrote yesterday's section with a burgeoning head cold of the sort that seems to lessen one's IQ by several points. So I'm afraid the poem might be stupid, which would make me sad. Maybe it will have to be a take-a-nap-and-then-write-sturdy-prose afternoon. Still, this irritating Jonson lyric does cheer me up. Sometimes it can be vivifying to take a sudden intense dislike to a famous author.

Parent-student basketball game this afternoon. I shall absolutely refuse to participate but will sit on the bleachers with my bag of cough drops. The trick to getting out of these local-sports dilemmas is to wear entirely unsuitable shoes. It's also important to remember that workboots don't count as unsuitable.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Spent some time today working on someone else's book, then some time on my current poem-under-construction, and finally started my du Maurier essay before I threw up my hands and went snowshoeing.

The poem is so absorbing that I'm having a hard time leaving it alone. I keep running upstairs to stare at the manuscript lying on my desk--not to read it, just to see it. It's a new angle for me, this poem. With the Phaeton poem I wrote earlier this winter, I experimented with retelling an existing myth. But here I'm taking an existing fairy tale and reconfiguring it as a weight-of-marriage poem--trying to deal with the central character's erotic discovery and disappointment and also the internal difficulties she faces in leaving one home in order to create another. What's more, I'm making use of an intrusive authorial voice alongside a more general omniscience, something I admire very much in, say, the novels of George Eliot but that can be cloying in a second-rate Anthony Trollope potboiler (not that I don't love a good Trollope novel, but they're exceedingly variable). So I'm a little worried.

Still, it's very interesting to be engaged with these kinds of characterization and structural details while trying to maintain a poem's linguistic and imaginative intensity. It also feels good to take my own emotions off the front burner but nonetheless to remain emotionally overwrought about what I'm writing, which for me at least seems to be an essential element of the process of writing poetry. I have to feel slightly sick, like I've spent the day crying--yet another example (as if you needed another one) of why writing is nothing at all like therapy.

And now I'm off to drive a kid to a piano lesson. He's learning a Kanye West song, and he's so excited about it. If I'd asked my violin teacher to let me learn a song off the radio, he would have gnashed his teeth and cursed me in unintelligible Polish, and just possibly he would have bitten me. Some things do change for the better.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

My friend cried today and said, "I asked the Assistant Principal how we could teach a work ethic to kids who had never been loved, kids who no one got up for. I can rise out of my bed because someone rose out of theirs."

I don't know what to tell her. But I will say that the child, who as a first grader inspired me to write this poem (which is not at all factual but merely a teacher's composite of sadness), today ran past his cheering teammates onto the floor of the Madison High School basketball court: an eighth grader at Harmony Elementary School, a starter in the tournament game; and his eyes were bright and his head was high and we Harmony fans in the audience--the parents of his teammates, his teachers, his aides--we clapped and roared and shouted his name. And you know, I think, for a few seconds, this clumsy world of ours was maybe just a little corner of heaven.


at school is against the rules,

so when a spike-haired


first grader in need

butts up against your hip,


don’t you wrap your arms

round his skinny bones, don’t you


cup his skull in your palms,

smooth a knuckle up his baby cheek:


he’s got lice, he’s got AIDS;

you kiss him, you die,


or worse: late nights, he’ll hunch up small,

stare into some laugh show


and whisper what no half-pissed dad

cares to hear from his wife’s


kid at the end of a long day

of nothing, when sleep


is the only country,

anywhere else, terror:


a father you’ve marked

before, slouching into parent night,


two hands trembling

along his thighs like birds


shot down,

black eyes wary as a bull’s:


he blinks at the butcher,

you smile, you fold


your unheld hands;

what roils in his wake is the one


you won’t teach

to beg an answer from love.

[first published in the Beloit Poetry Journal; a PDF is available on the journal's website]

Friday, February 6, 2009

A Few of the Things I Did Today

1. Wore a Carhartt insulated suit. Broke ice out of water buckets. Carried firewood. Tripped over the dog.

2. Wrote 33 lines of a poem. Can't stop thinking about them.

3. Spent time with a teacher who told me that he works with kids because adults are too unreasonable.

4. Ate ice cream in the middle of the afternoon.

5. Considered some ways in which Daphne du Maurier's stories differ from James Baldwin's stories. Procrastinated about actually writing down any of my ideas.

6. Read the introduction to Gregg Shorthand (1916), which tells me that I should think of commercial shorthand "as the highest form of writing."

7. Learned how to write "purchasing department" and "I am in receipt of your esteemed letter" in shorthand. Quickly lost interest in shorthand.

Dinner tonight: black beans and rice, sourdough bread, salad.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

from "Pure English" [a review in the Times Literary Supplement, 15 July 1920]

          Virginia Woolf

Although readers seldom admit it, an irrational element enters into their liking and disliking for books as certainly as it enters into their feelings for people. It would never do for a professional aesthete to leave it at that. It scarcely does for a private person. No sooner have we recovered from the shock of feeling anything than we find good reasons for having felt it. Nevertheless, at any rate where the ordinary reader is concerned, it is his feeling, and not the reasons he gives for his feeling, that is of interest. That is genuine; that is the root and motive of the greater part of our reading, the sap which causes books to go on budding from the tree.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

From the forthcoming How the Crimes Happened. This, in a nutshell, is how they happened.

Radio Song

            Dawn Potter

Clumsy bones, sweet stumbled heart,

            wail your crack-brained tears,

                        hunt me in the dark,


shake me blue, crush me in your wire fingers,

kiss my jagged mouth,

open me wide,


shove heartbreak through my hundred

            stubborn veins, play me for a fool, I’m so,

                        I’m so


unsatisfied, oh clutch my throat,

cry for me, over and over,

            I bite fingers, I lick salt.

[first published in the Cafe Review]

Dinner tonight: pork chops, shiitake mushrooms, pilaf, salad; and please, please, no sick children.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Yet another reason to feel discouraged about the wisdom of writing about Paradise Lost.

from On Mr Milton's 'Paradise Lost'

          Andrew Marvell (of "To His Coy Mistress" fame)

          Pardon me, Mighty Poet, nor despise
My causeless, yet not impious surmise.
But I am now convinced that none will dare
Within thy labors to pretend a share.
Thou hast not missed one thought that could be fit,
And all that was improper dost omit:
So that no room is here for writers left,
But to detect their ignorance or theft.

I've starting working on a new poem, which looks to be a narrative retelling of the fairy tale "East of the Sun and West of the Moon." I'm not sure why my recent poems have been narrative retellings of old stories. Last winter's spate of sonnet writing seems to have dissipated. This time I wondered if I might actually be writing prose fiction; but when I deleted the lineation and set up the tale in paragraphs, it looked and sounded terrible. Ah, the mysteries of verse.

I'm also girding my loins for another essay--this one an actual assignment: to review Daphne du Maurier's story collection Don't Look Now. Apparently, my embryo Adam Bede project will have to wait, which is actually okay because I was beginning to feel shy about approaching George Eliot and I don't feel at all shy about approaching du Maurier.

Activities that have nothing to do with writing: The weather's finally warmed up here, so I managed to get out of the house for a snowshoe this morning. I had planned to go out yesterday, but I had to superintend the making of a chocolate Super Bowl cake and chicken curry for a special Super Bowl dinner. I have no interest in football. Nonetheless, along with the two other members of my family who share my feelings about football, I sat around with the youngest member (the one who insisted on all this celebratory dining and who had previously affixed a homemade Super Bowl poster to the refrigerator, luridly decorated the cake, and dressed up in an imitation Arizona Cardinals outfit) and watched the Super Bowl on a dysfunctional digital-TV connection. Then we had to deal with the fan's hysterics when his team blew it. But at least I got to see Clarence Clemons dressed up like Sun Ra during the halftime show.