Monday, November 30, 2009

Information about the 2010 Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching is now up on the Frost Place website. Conference director Baron Wormser tells me that his trip to the NCTE convention in Philly was successful, although the teeny-tiny Frost Place table was comically dwarfed by the textbook-hawking ogres who surrounded him.

Today I'm once again alone in the house, after an intense week of baking a different dessert every night. As a pleasant change, I plan to bake nothing. Instead, I will first mail off a completed editing project and then go back to writing the opening chapter of my rereading memoir.

As you can see, I've once again come to terms with my lack of critical acumen. And because I am striving to be true to that self, I will do what I rarely allow myself do: I'm posting a first-draft scribble from the chapter. Feel free to criticize.

from The Vagabond's Bookshelf: A Memoir of Rereading [a temporary title; do you hate it?]

Dawn Potter
My kind may exist only in books. At least, books are the only place where we seem to meet. We are more than merely readers; we are obsessive readers. And we go further yet: we are obsessive rereaders--not because we are scholars or teachers but because the book itself has become necessary to us, like a cigarette habit.

And like a cigarette habit, our obsession with certain books can be a public sign that some aspect of life has slipped from our control. We are in the clutch of books and, at moments of stress or need, we behave badly about them. Rising from the page, my fellows speak to me ruefully about their adoration; like me, they are the first to wince at their own behavior. Coleridge, for instance, recalling his early passion for a handful of books, allows his small self no quarter.

My father was very fond of me, and I was my mother’s darling: in consequence I was very miserable. . . . So I became fretful and timorous, and a tell-tale; and . . . read incessantly. My father’s sister kept an everything shop at Crediton, and there I read through all the gilt-covered little books that could be had at that time, and likewise all the uncovered tales of Tom Hickathrift, Jack the Giant-killer, etc., etc., etc., etc. And I used to lie by the wall and mope, and my spirits used to come upon me suddenly; and in a flood of them I was accustomed to race up and down the churchyard, and act over all I had been reading, on the docks, the nettles, and the rank grass. At six years old I remember to have read Belisarius, Robinson Crusoe, and Philip Quarles; and then I found the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, one tale of which (the tale of a man who was compelled to seek for a pure virgin) made so deep an impression on me (I had read it in the evening while my mother was mending stockings), that I was haunted by specters, whenever I was in the dark: and I distinctly remember the anxious and fearful eagerness with which I used to watch the window in which the books lay, and whenever the sun lay upon them, I would seize it, carry it by the wall, and bask and read. My father found out the effect which these books had produced, and burnt them. [letter to Thomas Poole, October 9, 1797]

Such loving, hopeful parents! Confronted by an incorrigible rereader, what else could they have done? I say this with only slight irony. Even I, an obsessive reader myself, am constantly frustrated by the readers around me. When I ask my twelve-year-old son to help me rake leaves, and he, in response, glances up from his book, smiles sweetly, and tells me, “But Mom, I’m yearning for knowledge,” I feel that pricking, eye-narrowing frustration that must have eventually driven Coleridge’s father to hurl his son’s fairy stories into the fire. Parents dream of raising strong, lithe children who hit home runs and race across green meadows, not pallid hunchbacks coiled speechlessly over a page. The image of little blacking-factory Dickens huddled in an unheated garret and poring over Roderick Random is not charming. It’s pathetic. And if we can barely stand to recall ourselves as pathetic, how can we wish it for our children?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Portrait of the artist as she shores up her self-doubts. It never ceases to comfort me that VW was just as anxious as I am.

from "The Common Reader"

Virginia Woolf

Hasty, inaccurate, and superficial, snatching now at this poem, now that scrap of old furniture, without caring where he finds it or of what nature it may be so long as it serves his purpose and rounds out his structure, his deficiencies as a critic are too obvious to be pointed out; but if he has, as Dr. Johnson maintained, some say in the final distribution of poetic honours, then, perhaps, it may be worth while to write down a few of the ideas and opinions which, insignificant in themselves, yet contribute to so mighty a result.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Nicelle Davis has started an online book club and has been kind enough to feature Tracing Paradise as a current reading choice. If you've already read the book and would be interested in jump-starting discussions for her, I'm sure she'd appreciate it. 
Here is a review of Tracing Paradise that is not necessarily unfavorable, but it does push the critic-scholar button that I have been dreading and that I knew was inevitable. The reviewer is clearly more educated than I am: I don't know what the blog's name means, and I haven't yet looked it up. I don't know what the "hermetical tradition" might be, though that apparently is this person's specialty.

I didn't copy out Paradise Lost with the intent of commenting on it critically. I didn't intend to copy it out at all. Nonetheless, the review finds my lack of interest in critiquing the poem to be a disappointment. Of course, I have been, all my reading life, disappointed with this very lack in myself. It is exactly why I have avoided writing about the books I read: because whatever I write is all about the flotsam that happens to be drifting idly around my own head. This is not only unprofessional but self-focused in a way that undoubtedly irritates real students of literature. As it should, I'm sure.

That doesn't stop me from feeling glum and cast down, however . . . and very unsure about the wisdom of trying to publish a second reading memoir.
7:15, yet morning is barely able to seep through the rainclouds. Almost daylight seems to be rising from the ground rather than descending from the sky. And it's windy. Already, the power has flickered on and off, on and off. But the woodstove did blaze up with the first match, despite the gusts choking the draught; and the power is on, at least temporarily, meaning that I can grind coffee. So here I sit, warmish, next to an itchy dog, listening to the comfortable sounds of crackling poplar logs and a functioning refrigerator. It's fine, it's okay, it's being alive, even with a few modern conveniences. It's also like being a character in a fairy tale, here in my cottage in the wild wood, with the north wind beating on my door. But I am too old to be the wet wandering princess tapping at the window or the quick-witted woodcutter's daughter who invites her in. It's hard not to be a little sad about that.


Dawn Potter

All the long day, rain

pours quicksilver

down the blurred glass.

gardens succumb to forest,


half-ripe tomatoes cling

hopelessly to yellow vines,

cabbages crumple and split,

but who cares?


Let summer vanish,

let the tired year

shrink to the width

of a cow path,


soppy hens straggle

in their narrow yard,

and every last leaf

on the maples redden,


shrivel, and die.

Nothing needs me,

today, but you,

sweet hand,


cupping the bones

of my skull.  Alas,

poor Yorick, picked clean

as an egg.


How rich we grow,

bright sinew and blood,

my eyes open, yours


[forthcoming in How the Crimes Happened (CavanKerry Press, 2010)].

Friday, November 27, 2009

Another quick and jagged post before I return to my hostessing duties.

I have begun writing an opening chapter for my obsessive-rereading memoir. I will add nothing to it today because I will be doing something or other with my parents: probably drinking coffee will be a major activity, and I can safely say we will not be bowling.

Still working my way through Byatt's A Children's Book, which I hope to talk about here eventually.

But what I am really doing now is, per usual, sitting at the kitchen table and procrastinating about starting animal chores. Outside it's barely raining. Hunters are shooting at deer, the rooster is crowing, and I am writing this letter to you. I don't seem to have very much to say, yet I write it anyway. The words trickle out, like a faucet with a drip. 

Anyway, I am thinking of you, and hoping that you are having a day that involves no shopping malls, unless you are the sort of person who likes malls or looks forward to composing an entertaining anthropological treatise on your experience there.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The all-food post
When I cook, I try to use as much local or homegrown food as I can, not so much for the politics of the matter but because I like to cook with good ingredients, and fresh and untraveled is always better. Eventually, seeing as this is Maine, fresh produce becomes impossible. But I'm happy that I have at least made it till Thanksgiving. So here, forthwith, is tonight's dinner menu, with sources.

* A brace of chickens, casserole-roasted with my own garlic, parsley, and rosemary. The chickens are unfortunately from Vermont, but they are organically raised and I did buy them through our coop. I do have chickens of my own in the freezer, but they aren't meat birds per se, so they don't have much breast meat, which is what my mother prefers.

* Brussels sprouts, picked today from my garden: a joyful feeling.

* Yorkshire pudding, made with local milk and our own eggs.

* Cranberry relish, with local cranberries and apples.

* Baby greens from the greenhouse.

* Oatmeal rolls, brushed with egg and olive oil.

* Apple-ginger-lime pie, with local apples.

* Homemade eggnog for the boys, also with local milk and our eggs.

Naturally, the citrus and the flour and the olive oil and the spices aren't local. (Nor is the wine my parents have plentifully provided.) But it still makes me happy to see a spread like this on my little Formica table.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Poet Lori May has posted a Q&A with me on her blog.
Just another Wednesday morning listening to the dog bark. Yet soon everything will change: within a mere couple of hours my parents will arrive, the Thanksgiving Marathon will be under way, and I am unlikely to have much time to chatter here.

Tonight's meal:  sorrel soup with sorrel from the garden, buckwheat baguettes and sourdough boules from the batches I've been baking all week, baby lettuce salad from the greenhouse. Dessert will probably be my mother's concord grape pie.

Just one writerly thought before I go: last week Charlotte Gordon was talking to me about the daily worry of feeling that her scatterbrained writer persona is self-invention and therefore fraudulent. But then, one day, she accidentally burnt out the bottom of her tea kettle because she was writing so furiously. The incident gave her a "hey, I really am a crazy writer" sense of pride, as if she had finally proven to herself that she was not a fake.

I had to laugh because this is so typical of how I feel most of the time: as if I am watching myself from the outside and the inside simultaneously. Like Charlotte, I had a weird sensation of pride--and relief--when I, too, could prove that I was a genuine flaky writer, not just a self-invented one: in my case, by accidentally driving past my exit (twice!) because I was too engrossed in thinking about Paradise Lost.

Isn't this stupid? And yet we do waste sleep on these worries. We cannot seem to help ourselves.

from Tracing Paradise, chapter 11: "Killing Ruthie"

The artistic imagination--in this case, the simultaneous ability to experience grief and aesthetically reconfigure it--is both a marvelous distraction and a guilty torment, and one of Milton's great triumphs in his delineation of Satan is the way in which he guides the reader through the Fiend's coiling artistic intellect. In the final moments before Satan, in serpent guise, accosts Eve and cajoles her into betraying God's word and eating from the Tree of Knowledge, he meditates on his mind's vivid powers, the way in which his intellect detaches itself from the event and examines it clinically, aesthetically, with a ruthless clarity.

         Thoughts, whither have ye led me, with what sweet
Compulsion thus transported to forget
What hither brought us. . . .

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

My current favorite off-the-cuff lines from emails or Facebook statuses. People are such good writers! It cheers me up all the time.

"Best wishes from a treacherously windy Old England."

"The things I do because I live in a town and have children."

"P.S. I'm now thinking of getting a t-shirt made: 'Blame Fyodor [Dostoevsky].'"

"Getting ready to dye pasta for a preschool teaching project. (Yes, I'm sure the Native Americans used rigatoni for wampum.)"

"Many are called but few are chosen. So maybe we all want to be like the Clash--but few of us are really like the Clash."

Monday, November 23, 2009

I am presently being interviewed for an online journal of poetry reviews and interviews; and although the journal is based in the United States, my interviewer is British. His approach, thus far, has been to email me one question, wait for my answer, and then email me a response question. It seems to be working fairly well, except that, per usual, I can't stop talking. Also, I keep quoting from Tracing Paradise, and quoting myself feels very strange, rather like possessing a split personality. One of me is steady and reliable, with predictable commentary; one of me is flighty and confused and keeps contradicting herself.

And now I must stop writing and go deal out hay and grain to those goats and chickens, and poke a few more pieces of crushed clementine box into the woodstove to revive the flame, and start this morning's batch of bread, which I'll be baking every day this week in order to stuff it down the insatiable maw of boys and dinner guests. "Insatiable maw" sounds rude but isn't meant to be. I like to feed dragons.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Perhaps you remember my telling you, a couple of weeks ago, that a journal had rejected my Milly Jourdain essay with the friendly caveat that the editors liked my writing better than hers. Well, an odd thing happened yesterday: I received an email from one of the editors saying that they'd changed their mind; that in fact they couldn't stop thinking about the resurrection of Milly (though they weren't necessarily prepared to admit her into the real-poet club); and could they publish the essay after all?

This hemming-and-hawing exactly parallels my own attraction to Milly. I read Hilary Spurling's biography of Ivy Compton-Burnett; I stumbled over the excerpts from Milly's work; I thought, "Hmm. These aren't bad"; I finished the book and stuck it back onto the bookshelf. But days later, I couldn't quite forget Milly's words, so I took the book back off the shelf and read them again. I cannot argue that her poems are great literature, yet there is something about them--something mysterious and sad, and very fragile--that lingers in the mind. And it seems that this lingering is true for other readers as well.

The story doesn't yet have a happy ending: by the time I'd heard again from the editor, I'd already submitted the essay to a different journal, and I need to wait for that response. But it does seem that, in one venue or another, Milly's story will eventually have a larger readership than this blog.

So in celebration of her small voice, here is today's poem:

Unseen Beauty

Milly Jourdain

I hear the distant sound of birds
All singing in the dusk of spring
Until the air is tremulous,
And mists about the river cling.

It makes me sad to think of all
The beauty that is still unknown,
The flowers budding in the night,
The open fields where winds have blown.

The air grows cold, the birds are still,
And only, in the fading light,
Along the streets a shivering wind
Blows from the unseen quiet night.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Charlotte tells me that the Haverford raison d'etre article won't load on her computer, so I'm posting it here. It think it works as a teaching mantra as well as an explication of at least one sort of academic underachievement.

P.S. I know that "etre" should have a circumflex, but I have no idea how to make that happen. HTML ignorance is like enforced bad spelling, and I'm embarrassed.
Woke up this morning to discover that I had been composing an introductory chapter to my book about being an obsessive rereader, a book that I may indeed finish someday. This morning, however, I did not leap out of bed and attempt to transcribe my dream introduction. It seemed better to blink at the leafless maple framed in my window than to throw a Kubla Khan wrench into my manuscript. Prose, unlike poetry, usually doesn't vanish during hiatus . . . another odd difference in the forms' creative impetus and in the brain's (at least my brain's) storage interests. In fact, it often seems better to hold off on the prose, to let it brew in my head. Otherwise, I start getting flippant, and anyone who reads this blog already knows I have more of that weakness than is really ideal.

But I know why I'm dreaming about the obsessive-rereader manuscript: I am at the point of taking the large, unknown step of talking to an agent about it. I have never talked to an agent before, or sent anything to an agent before, or had anything to do with an agent before, except to occasionally listen to other people wail about (1) not having one or (2) having one. Only recently have I heard (3) "my agent is fabulous and you should talk to her." As of now I am not talking to this agent, merely dreaming about her, but that is a first step. My general pattern, when faced with the scary unknown, is to wince and procrastinate and then, suddenly, with furious energy, to whip together a proposal in the space of an hour and hurl it into the post office. This is a more successful strategy than you might guess, if only because it saves the angst step until after the envelope has irretrievably passed through the mail slot. When the angst step appears before the mail-slot step, bad things tend to happen.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Back to copyediting today, and then a weekend spent cleaning barns and hauling hay and stacking firewood, and then we're on the downward slide to Thanksgiving. I will be casserole-roasting chickens because I couldn't find a decent local turkey. But that's okay. My parents, who are driving up for the holiday, don't even like meat that much, so the missing turkey matters only to my younger son, who once asked why a turkey couldn't have four drumbones instead of two. In contrast, my older son was the sort of bright-eyed three-year-old who would repetitively inquire, "Does the turkey like to be eaten?," generally when both he and his conversational victim had their mouths full of food.

Perhaps you've noticed from the sidebar that I am actually reading a recently released novel: A. S. Byatt's The Children's Book, which so far I am liking very much. The jacket copy suggests quite a Harlequin flavor--e.g., "the passions, betrayals, and secrets that tear apart the people she loves"; "their personal struggles, their hidden desires"; "at once sweeping and intimate"--but in fact it so far seems to be an exemplary instance of what Byatt does best: mix her considerable historical and literary knowledge into a well-plotted narrative that reveals, hides, and untangles the complicated relationships among family members and friends. Sometimes I think Byatt's instructive academics can become heavy-handed, but thus far in this novel (and I'm only up to page 89) I'm happy to have her explanations, which seem to suit the style of the times (pre-World War I) and the characters (most of them Fabians, freethinkers, anarchists, storytellers . . . and, of course, their ominous children).

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Here's an update for all of you 2009 Frost Place Conference participants: Charlotte Gordon is just as smart, charming, and full of vim as you remember (but what is "vim"?). Also, she has a sixth-grade boy in her house, which made my stay very homey. With 2 minutes to spare before schooltime, I found his coat, his book, and his pencil box, all of which were invisibly and conveniently located next to his feet. I was glad that my special training in this field functioned as a handy hostess gift.

I did have to drive for a hundred years in order to get home last night, but everything worked out well enough, even though I was forced into playing horrible radio music to keep myself awake. There is nothing like singing along with Foreigner's "Hot-Blooded" on the black back roads of Skowhegan, Maine. It is equivalent to swallowing a pint of day-old coffee grounds and then chewing up the paper filter, but it keeps you from plowing into trees and running over people's cats.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Okay. Got through Charlotte's very quiet class by talking a lot and waving my arms around. Am hoping this went over well. 

In other news, the sun is shining and I have nothing to do till 3:30 except to find an outlet so this computer doesn't sink into a coma.

I have not read one word of Adrienne Rich since yesterday. As a quick substitute, I will quote from "The Endicott Observer," which someone has abandoned on the table next to my chair: 

When I first started writing this column I was worried I wouldn't be able to come up with a topic every couple weeks. I mean I get annoyed a lot I thought but not enough to fill up a whole year's worth of columns.

More anon.


And anon has arrived. 

Having discovered an outlet and a bathroom, I feel that I have now adequately prepared myself for Adrienne Rich. The first poem I turn to is "The Ninth Symphony of Beethoven Understood at Last As a Sexual Message," dated 1972 and published in Diving into the Wreck.

Instantly, my reaction is: time to administer a poll. Therefore, go read this poem and then tell me if it resonates as Truth in a "maybe this didn't really happen but my heart believes it anyhow" kind of way. If you want to send me an email or a Facebook message instead of leaving an answer on the comment form, please do. I want all the answers I can get because don't you think it will be interesting to ponder the statistics? 


Noon, and the prerecorded bells of Endicott College are ringing out a muted and despairing version of "Stars and Stripes Forever." Meanwhile, I copy Adrienne Rich poems amid a gaggle of skinny blondes who are checking their cell phones. For some reason, the scene is beginning to feel sinister. Possibly I am gaining more sympathy for the word political as applied to poetry.  In any case, the poem I'm engaged on seems to have some good lines:

from Waking in the Dark

The thing that arrests me is
         how we are composed of molecules

        (he showed me the figure in the paving stones)

        arranged without our knowledge and consent

                    like the wirephoto composed
                    of millions of dots

         in which the man from Bangladesh
         walks starving

                                            on the front page
                                            knowing nothing about it

          which is his presence for the world

Have just been accosted by the librarian as if I were an honored guest. This is very flattering, and I hope I don't have any avocado sandwich fragments stuck in my teeth. He happened to accost me just as I was perusing the pamphlet I'd pulled out from between the cushions of my chair: "Getting What You Want from Relationships." By the way, "Your relationships can get better when you practice your relationship skills." 

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

I'm heading south this afternoon, first to Charlotte Gordon's house, then tagging along this evening to a book group, then tomorrow morning to one of her classes at Endicott College, and finally a reading at the Endicott library in the afternoon. Between the 9 a.m. class and the 4 p.m. reading, I have time to kill. Salem wax museum? Scenic Gloucester fishing boats? Falling asleep in my car? I have no idea what will ensue, but I'll let you know.

Meanwhile, here's a taste of Adrienne Rich, plucked from the anthology at random.

from Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law

she shaves her legs until they gleam
like petrified mammoth-tusk

Oh dear. I see this immersion in Adrienne Rich's poetry will be a difficult undertaking.

Monday, November 16, 2009

I am trying to invent this post while simultaneously making fried rice, so bear with my flightiness. But I want to at least mention the book I quoted from yesterday, the one I never look into but opened at random. It's a Norton critical edition of Adrienne Rich's poetry, and I should say at the outset that Rich is a poet I have never cared a speck about. This is not to imply that I actively dislike her work, just that I've never craved it, or puzzled over it, or felt the need to reread even a single poem. My detachment from Rich is odd, I think, because she is often bracketed with the generation of women poets that includes Sexton and Plath: poets who have mattered to me greatly at certain points in my life. These women are (or would have been) roughly my mother's age, and I have watched them with the sort of intensity that a daughter gives to eavesdropping on her mother, learning, in bits and pieces, fits and starts, what she thinks might be the Real Story.

Plath and Sexton have given me all kinds of angles onto the Real Story. Rich has never given me a one. But I don't necessarily blame that on either of us so much as I do on the word political, which critics are always using as a label for Rich's work and which, as soon as I hear it ascribed to a poet, makes me want to walk straight out the door. The term leads me suspect I'll be reading a Gloria Steinem or Betty Friedan polemic instead of poetry; and frankly, I don't go to poems for feminist reassurance or camaraderie or outrage, even though I may well vote on those platforms. This is not to say that politics should be separated from poetry. What is Hayden Carruth's poem about Eichmann if not political? Yet he comes to the politics backwards, as it were, through the window of himself.

And maybe Rich is doing that as well, so I think I owe her the chance to show me what she does. In other words, expect some blat about Adrienne Rich this week. I'll bring her along to my Massachusetts gig, and we'll see what happens.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Feeling melancholy, and lonely, and useless, as one does, often enough, I opened at random a book I never look into and found this.

from This Woman's Movement (1975)

Nancy Milford

Believe me when I tell you that there have been so few women who wrote and who continued to write and did not fall silent. . . .
         Still, lists don't mean much. It is only that there have been so few women who wrote well. And why is it that among them there are certain limits of range--or at least recognizable types whose critical reputations seem to me to exceed either their abilities or their voices? . . .
          Where is that woman in the prime of her life, telling us what she sees and feels and dreams of? She who has has found her own voice and permits us to witness not only the finding as an act in itself--within the poems--but gives up to us what she has found?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

With regret, I have rewritten the "Autobiography" on the sidebar of this blog so that it makes me sound more like a careerist and less like a philosopher. Yesterday, as I was setting up the Milly Jourdain archive, I realized I needed to make the author of that commentary appear to be at least somewhat professionally qualified; and changing the profile on one blog changes it on all of them. Nonetheless, I feel bound to reiterate to you that neither my job title nor my publication record has much to do with the essential burden of art--and that itself is a stuck-up way of saying that what I really am is a middle-aged woman sitting at an elderly Formica kitchen table, drinking strong coffee with milk and waiting for the woodstove to light. Upstairs her husband is coughing. Down here the dog is scratching and the parakeet is biting the bars of his cage. This woman, bundled up in her white bathrobe, is not reading because the thought of opening a Henry James novel at 7:30 on a Saturday morning makes her want to go back to bed. She is not feeding her livestock because her boots are too cold to put on. She is not doing anything yet except to pay attention to herself not doing anything because writers are solipsists and her material is meager. More it's as if the words need to come out, and once they're on the page they turn into something, assume the shape of their own swimming life. Poetry as a pond full of tadpoles: today's arty metaphor. And with that she stops writing.

Friday, November 13, 2009

First blurbs are available for my new poetry collection, How the Crimes Happened. So odd to think it will soon be a solid object.

Also, I have just set up a separate blog archive called "The Milly Jourdain Project." Gradually I hope to copy all my commentary about Milly into that archive, although I will continue to post my pieces here first. If you have other suggestions or care to jump onto the research bandwagon, please let me know. There is, for instance, Milly's semi-fictional memoir, A Childhood, which is waiting somewhere in limbo, perhaps hoping that you will be the one to find it. . . .

Above is my experiment in scanning a detail of Milly's cover--imperfect but I tried.
I've spent some time this week with the poetry of Ted Hughes--specifically, several poems from his collection Moortown Diary, written in the early to mid-1970s and set in what I assume is rural Yorkshire. They are, as the title suggests, "factual" poems: that is, they work to capture a specific scene as completely and realistically as possible. This is not always Hughes's approach; he wrote an entire collection around a totemic character named Crow, and throughout his career he was seduced by mythical-mystical themes. Yet he he was just as often seduced by the physical world, particularly farm life, and those are the poems I like best. Perhaps they aren't better than than the mystical ones, but they speak to me personally. And frankly, isn't that why most people love the literature they love?

Hayden Carruth also wrote persistently and eloquently about rural life, but his poems are quite different from Hughes's. What I notice in particular is the way each poet used sound. The music in Carruth's poems are line-based: at least to my ear, the metrical rise and fall of each line are more important that the sounds of individual words. Here are a couple of examples. You might try reading them out loud; then maybe you'll see what I mean.

from The Sociology of Toyotas and Jade Chrysanthemums

Listen here, sistren and brethren, I am goddamn tired
of hearing you tell me how them poor folk especially
black, have always got a Cadillac parked in the front
yard, along with the flux of faded plastic and tin.

from Loneliness: An Outburst of Hexasyllables

At home the fire has died,
the stove is cold, I touch
the estranging metal.
I pour tea, cold and dark,
in a cup. The clock strikes,
but I forget, until
too late, to count the hours.
I sit by the cold stove
in a stillness broken
by the clock ticking there
in the other room, by
clapboards creaking, and I
begin to shiver, cold
at home in my own house.

Hughes, on the other hand, was all about the words themselves, which shine like hard stones. They seem to take over the line, the tale; they become larger, more vivid than the tale. "Ravens," for instance, tells the story of a man and a small child, who walk out into a field to look at the newborn lambs and discover a dead lamb half-eaten by ravens. The poem is detailed and linear; the narrative is easy to understand. Yet what matters, in the end, is the word choice. Almost the images seem to become the words rather than vice versa. Here are a few snatches, first from "Ravens" and then from another poem in the collection, "Rain."

from Ravens

A raven bundled itself into air from midfield
And slid away under hard glistenings, low and guilty.

* * *
                                       . . . And there is another,
Just born, all black, splaying its tripod, inching its new points
Towards its mother, and testing the note
It finds in its mouth. But you have eyes now
Only for the tattered bundle of throwaway lamb.
"Did it cry?" you keep asking, in a three-year-old field-wide
Piercing persistence. "Oh yes" I say "it cried.

from Rain

Toads hop across rain-hammered roads. Every mutilated leaf there
Looks like a frog or a rained-out mouse. Cattle
Wait under blackened backs. We drive post-holes.

* * *
                                                              . . . Cows roar
Then hang their noses to the mud.
Snipe go over, invisible in the dusk,
With their squelching cries.

I'm thinking that Hughes's diction and Carruth's music are what make me feel so glum about the Jourdain poem I posted yesterday, with its sickly push-button meter and timid word choice. Milly did do better in other poems, but she was never a great artist. Meanwhile, Carruth and Hughes: yes, both of them were artists, and sometimes I think recklessness is the dividing line between decent work and stunning work. These men jumped off the cliff. They fucked up their lives and everyone else's too. But they also wrote the poems.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

I have not posted a Milly Jourdain poem for a while, so this morning I turned to the next page in her book. And alas, it is a bad one. No matter how much slack I want to cut this poem, "smarmy" is the kindest descriptor I can dredge up. Oh well. She was an unformed poet with occasional, accidental, flashes of beauty. I recently received a very kind rejection of the review I wrote about her book Unfulfilment, telling me that the editors liked my writing but not hers. Flattering yet depressing. Maybe I want poor Milly to be better than she is.

If you're a new blog reader, you may not know that I have sort of resurrected this poet, who in 1924 published one now-forgotten book. You can search the blog for the history of the project; and in fact, I'm wondering if I should collect those posts into a separate linked blog. What do you think?

In any case, here's today's not very exciting submission. Tomorrow I plan to talk about Ted Hughes and perhaps do a bit of language comparison.

A Day in February

Joan Arden [Milly Jourdain]

When winter frost has come and gone,
          And spring-like days are near;
I hear the sweetest noise on earth,
          The bird-songs everywhere.

For all day long the thrushes sing,
          Though little green we see,
And roads are damp, and air is soft,
          And streams flow happily.

And still we feel the hidden strength
          Of winter frost and snow,
That makes the earth all pure and fresh
          For heavenly seeds to grow.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veterans Day, meaning that the boys are home and sound asleep, of course. Tom went to work, so only the poodle and I are rattling around the place. Nearly all the leaves have fallen off the trees now, but the tamaracks glow in the grey morning light. They are dry and golden, like toast, but one of these days, quite soon, quite suddenly, they will slough off all their needles at once and become as dim as the rest of the world.

It's deer season, so I hear shots all day long. I used to worry about being shot; now I don't think about it much. Funny how fears can come and go. And funny how every time I think of deer, I think of Sir Thomas Wyatt's sonnet, which I know I've posted here before but which I love so much that I'm not embarrassed to post it again. It's not even really about deer but about sex, and maybe that's just the story of life anyway.

Wyatt was, among other things, Henry VIII's ambassador to Spain; and even though he was allied first with Anne Boleyn and later with Thomas Cromwell, he managed to die a natural death, which must say something about his personal charms.

I'll post the poem with the original spellings and then with modernized ones. Maybe you already know that the Latin phrase noli me tangere translates as "don't touch me." The words appear often in literature because supposedly they are what Christ said to Mary Magdalene when she recognized him after his resurrection. Interesting that he came back to life speaking Latin, don't you think?


Sir Thomas Wyatt

Who so list to hount, I knowe where is an hynde,
          But as for me, helas, I may no more:
          The vayne travaill hath weried me so sore.
          I ame of theim that farthest commeth behinde;
Yet may I by no meanes my weried mynde
          Drawe from the Diere: but as she fleeth afore,
Faynting I folowe. I leve of therefore,
          Sins in a nett I seke to hold the wynde.
Who list her hount, I put him owte of dowbte,
          As well as I may spend his tyme in vain:
          And, graven with Diamonds, in letters plain
There is written her faier neck rounde abowte:
          Noli me tangere, for Cesars I ame;
          And wylde for to hold, though I seme tame.


Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, alas, I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind.
Yet may I, by no means, my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore,
Fainting I follow. I leave off, therefore,
Since in a net, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I, may spend his time in vain.
And graven with diamonds in letters plain
There is written, her fair neck round about,
"Noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame."

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Well, I've managed to make it to page 251 of Henry James's The Ambassadors, though I'm not quite sure how. I feel as if I never manage to concentrate on this book for more than 3 minutes at a stretch. Nonetheless, I seem to have advanced into the heart of the plot . . . and even to almost understand what's going on, possibly by osmosis.

One thing I'm getting tired of is the sophisticated-dangerous-woman-in-midlife-versus-delicate-toylike-teenage-ingenue scenario that keeps turning up in HJ novels. Maybe, having reached the ranks of dangerous woman in midlife, I'm beginning to think he gives us too much credit for sophistication. Frankly, if one defines the word as "a naive female," I'll be an ingenue till I die.

Still, I keep reading. Maybe sometimes that's easier with a book that doesn't matter to me so much. I had to stop rereading George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss because I didn't, for the 20th time, want to suffer through watching poor, hapless Maggie Tulliver lose her reputation and drown. I have a friend who re-watches movies like that: he shows up at the cinema, sits through the part he wants to see again, and then leaves before the film's over. This method also works well with biographies that I reread often. I just find it too distressing to watch Dickens or Keats or Woolf die over and over again. It's a sentimental reaction, but oh well. When I love a writer, and care about how his or her mind works, I can hardly bear to watch it stagger to a halt.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Trying to squeeze in a tiny post between taking the dog to the groomer and taking a phone call about editorial work. So here's bit more Carruth, and perhaps later I'll get a chance to talk about Henry James again. Or perhaps I will be too overwhelmed by today's parent-teacher conference at the Harmony School and will only be able to mope and/or sigh gustily.

from Gods

Hayden Carruth

Sometimes it occurs to me in the moonlit
stillness of the summer night that Dionysus
will come and take you from me.

I tell you: poets will worry about anything. Clearly, that is one thing we all have in common.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

In response to yesterday's post, Dana Brand expressed interest in my longish baseball poem "Cornville," so here it is. The poem will appear in How the Crimes Happened, due out from CavanKerry Press in March 2010, and I've gone back and forth about how happy it makes me. It's one of those poems that seems to read aloud better than it looks on the page, which disturbs me somewhat. I always spend a great deal of revision time on line and stanza breaks and line music, but for some reason the poem still doesn't visually match its sound. I've tried to come to terms with that, but I can't say that I've entirely succeeded.

Anyway, enough of this hand wringing. . . .


 Dawn Potter

Let us discuss why poetry has lost the power of making men brave.

                                                            --E. M. Forster

In front of every third house is a for-sale lineup

not of corn but of flat-bellied pumpkins and warty

hubbards tinted that improbable robin’s-egg blue,

also butternuts, tediously beige, and turk’s-heads

that look like Turk’s heads, though the sales clincher


among these hopeful come-hithers is surely the “PUM

PKINS” sign, a squat two-line exhortation spray-painted

onto a square board and stabbed into a scruff of weeds.

But Jill’s son won’t let her stop the car, not even for pum

pkins; he claims this cheerful roadside merchandise


“might not be good enough,” though he refuses to elaborate

because he’s concentrating on Joe Castiglione, Voice

of the Boston Red Sox, who’s executing a thrilling on-air

play-by-play fit over the alacritous mouse careening

across his shoes in the Tropicana Field press box;


yet even in mid-fluster the intrepid Voice manages

to recount a few pertinent clubhouse-mouse anecdotes,

for who can forget (intones the Voice) the great Phil Rizzuto,

whose severe mouse hate occasionally tempted a bored

Yankee to park a dead rodent in his fielder’s glove?


Her son, alert and unamazed, sucks up this radio tumult

like oxygen; and if he’s more exercised by Rizzuto’s

shortstop stats than by the image of a long-suffering

Trop Field janitor stowing a poised and baited trap

between the Voice’s jittery feet, it’s merely a symptom


of his ascetic attention, the rich curiosities of discipline

he’s imposed on his brain, where details of mouse fear

are mere decorative flourishes in the noble history

of baseball—this unfurling seasonal pageant of power

and beauty and earnest fidelity among a pack of heroes

who can’t possibly blow their seven-game lead,

can they? Another pumpkin stage-set flashes past Jill

on this Cornville road where, come to think of it,

there was corn once, and not so many days ago either:

acres of it, bobbing green and ostrich-like over these mild foothills,


but now shaved close, row upon row of dun-colored stubble

fading to dirt, the harvest’s backward march to blankness,

an oracular patriarch reverting to beardless boy—

mouse heaven, no doubt, but not a modern paradise

the like of Tropicana Field, vast echoing hall of crumbs,


home of Cracker Jack galore and brisk secret scrambles

among an eternity of folding chairs. That poor radio

adventurer scampering over the Voice’s shiny feet:

he’s a goner, no question about it, bound to be trap-snapped,

maybe this at-bat or the next, for the Voice will not forebear,


no extra innings for rodents, and Jill herself cannot abide mice,

those Sisyphean wretches shoving rocks back and forth, back

and forth, all night above her bedroom ceiling; she lies awake,

rigid and furious, wishing them dead. The roadside unrolls

like a backdrop; Jill’s car swallows tarmac, smoothly, greedily;


yes, Cinderella’s godmother magicked pumpkins into coaches,

mice into footmen; but can a princess trust a mouse-man

not to steal her shiny slippers and stuff them under a garret

floorboard? Or does she lie in bed, night after night,

listening to the Voice chatter and complain on the prince’s


kitchen radio, to the mouse-man scuffle and creak

above her head? Is she wishing him dead?

Jill’s son, like any prince, is indifferent to the mouse,

though also magnanimous, though also ruthless.

The mouse doesn’t gnaw at him. A princess


is different—touchier, guiltier. Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater,

had a wife but couldn’t keep her, and no wonder—

they fret so, these wives and princesses, not like the Voice,

who takes a break from his mouse to sell a few Volvo safety tips

and discuss the fine backyard sheds available for purchase

at Home Depot. In the backseat Jill’s son chortles lustily

alongside a Kubota jingle . . . Put her in a pumpkin shell

and there he kept her very well, and what on earth

is that supposed to mean? These nursery rhymes:

they’re like the Good Book—nothing but hint, trickery, or truth.


Jill glances up at the Harley swelling into rear mirror view

and thinks about ire and anti-Peter feminists and pulpit-pounding

preachers and screaming Big Papi fans, and sighs,

not because she’s necessarily immune to energetic belief, or even

energetic hope: but it’s tiresome, this inability to gracefully


tolerate a riddle. We forget the Sphinx and gape at Oedipus;

nothing consoles our lost honor.  If the Red Sox

blow the series, her son will weep noisily into his banner,

betrayed, aghast—not exactly implying that Beowulf

died in battle so why shouldn’t Manny Ramirez


brain himself with a bat instead of shrugging “Better luck

next time,” but really: what does brave require?

Not falling on your sword after losing to the Devil Rays

but maybe not “if a bully bothers you on the playground,

just walk on by,” even if the second version comforts


those son-loving mothers who aren’t Grendel’s:

though it would be easy enough to be Grendel’s mother,

Jill thinks suddenly, grieving and vengeful, loping savagely

from her hole in the fens, wretched, livid, desperately hungry

for Danes; and she’s startled at the vision, for it can be strangely


tonic to picture oneself as a monster, especially at moments

of maternal docility, child strapped safely in the backseat

of a well-airbagged automobile, robust squash glinting in the autumn

sunlight, sky as clean and blue as a morning-glory, a sedate

Harley-with-sidecar tooling up behind her. Properly blinking,


the bike passes her; and as it rumbles by her window,

she catches sight of the oversized Rottweiler

wedged into the sidecar. He looks like Stonehenge

on the run, head thick as a brick, little ears aflutter,

yawp gaping with delight and solidly drooling


into the wind. He looks, come to think of it,

like Big Papi heading home for lobster after a cheerful

ball-chasing afternoon, a man who (according to her son)

named his kid after a sub shop, surely a Rottweiler

token of happiness, for there’s a certain plain bravery in joy;


and imagine those golden-haired Geats, shields glinting,

splashing up the stony beach—late-day sun, a sea of spears

and shadows; even a mouse owns the courage

of his enchantments; and how the Voice loves his voice,

the quick syllables, the straining verbs, the fervor of the tale—


“He crushed that pitch,” exclaims the Voice; and meanwhile,

a mouse considers a peanut-laced trap; meanwhile, Jill’s car

trails a disappearing fat dog down a twisting Cornville avenue;

meanwhile, her son suddenly falls asleep against his window,

his mind blossoming with heroes, except that all of them


are himself, everything, yes, everything, depends on his quick

and powerful blow, and how these bright standards

fly in the wind as the men gather in the broad meadow,

a host of warriors, raising their heavy goblets

to salute the king.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

I am fond of baseball and of ratty old baseball parks, so when I was looking for something to read during my son's piano lesson (somehow, Henry James didn't seem to fit the ticket), I settled on Michael Kimmelman's "At the Bad New Ballparks," his review of Dana Brand's The Last Days of Shea: Delight and Despair, which appears in the New York Review of Books that's been kicking around on my coffee table for the past week. I frequently forget to read periodicals, so I was lucky to stumble over this piece.

And I should say, as a disclaimer, that I have never been to Shea Stadium. Merely I have driven past it on the expressway, but I've admired its squatty toadlike construction, pointed it out to my fractious sons as a sign that the car trip is almost over, and pondered what it would be like to get off at this mysterious exit and wander around Queens, that unknown land. In a way, just driving past old Shea Stadium has fulfilled a certain baseball satisfaction: the slow, mysterious mind-wandering that makes up 90 percent of every baseball game.

My favorite way to experience baseball is during a Sunday afternoon day game in late summer, when I'm canning or pickling. I turn on the kitchen radio and spend several hours in the company of bushels of vegetables and Red Sox radio announcers Joe and Dave, who in between play-by-plays discuss the fielding prowess of the fans at various parks, recall taxi rides they have taken, reveal that the Dominican players are usually victorious at dugout dominoes tournaments, and so on. I find all this to be vital information and frequently forget to pay attention to the score. 

According to the Kimmelman article, Dana Brand is the "Proust of Mets bloggers," which is an exciting title to be sure. I, too, would like to be the Proust of something. The title evokes a pleasant wordy sadness, which is probably exactly the right state of mind for a Mets blogger, seeing as the Mets are so often dreadful. But also Proust allows his attention to wander in and around his subject, and that is a fitting attitude for a watcher of baseball. Kimmelman says:

Baseball doesn't take up all of your mental space as you watch it. It takes up a degree of it, and you're free, the rest of the time, to experiment with thoughts you might not ordinarily have. Brand writes well about this. He mentions in an earlier book called Mets Fans the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, who described how he decided to become a novelist while sitting in the stands of a game between the Yakult Swallows and the Hiroshima Carp. Someone hit a double and Murakami thought, I should be a writer. The non sequitur of that decision conveys the state of associative openness--akin, as Brand notes, to what we may experience while traveling--that baseball inspires.

A major problem with these "Bad New Ballparks," however, is that they apply a facade of quaintness over what is really the goal of time-killing consumption: buy this, eat this, buy this, eat this, react to this loud preprogrammed crowd noise, buy this, eat this. . . . There is precious little chance to decide to become a writer.

But I wish I could watch a slow game between the Yakult Swallows and the Hiroshima Carp. Something good would be bound to happen.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Today is my mother's 70th birthday; tomorrow is my father's 69th. And to think I remember the day my mother turned 30 and my 29-year-old father teased her about being old.

Anyway, even though they're unlikely to be reading this blog, I'm posting this poem from Boy Land for them, with much love.


Dawn Potter

It was darker then, in the nights when the cars
came sliding around the traffic circle, when the headlights
speckled with rain traveled the bedroom walls
and vanished; when the typewriter, the squeaking chair,
the slow voice of the radio stirred the night air like a fan.
Of course, the ones we loved were beautiful--
slim, dark-haired, intent on their books.
The rain came swishing against the lamp-lit windows.
The cat purred in his chair. A clock sang,
and we lay nearly asleep, almost dreaming,
almost alone, nearly gone--the days fly so;
and the nights, like sleep, disappear without memory.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Teachers: here's a link to information about the National Endowment for the Humanities "Letters about Literature" competition, which encourages students to write thoughtful letters explaining why a particular work of literature matters to them.

Also, I offer a link to the Sewanee Review's interview with Sam Pickering. I've never met Sam; but as a peer reviewer, he offered very helpful advice on Tracing Paradise. He also convinced UMass Press to publish it, so naturally I love him. Sam was the model for Robin Williams's character in Dead Poets Society, a movie I've never seen but maybe you have. 

Finally, don't forget that Baron Wormser, director of the Frost Place Conference on Poetry & Teaching, will be manning the first-ever Frost Place table at the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) annual meeting in Philadelphia, November 18-22. If you or your colleagues are attending, please stop by and visit. And if you have teaching acquaintances in the Philly area, encourage them to visit as well. (
Reading a Henry James novel is akin to bushwacking in a state park. Somewhere, I feel, there are smooth gravel paths, interpretive signs, and pristine views. Occasionally, I even glimpse them.  So how is it that I keep getting entangled in this uncharted undergrowth? I mean, consider this sentence from The Ambassadors:

But it was in spite of this definite to him that Chad had had a way that was wonderful: a fact carrying with it an implication that, as one might imagine it, he knew, he had learned, how.

By this point, I have read that sentence at least 10 times, and I still have no idea what it actually means. The words make no sense together, and the harder I look, the more confusing the syntax gets. Nonetheless, when I stand back, I sort of have kind of an idea about what James is saying; and I'm starting to think that, really, that's the only way to read this novel. I need to allow it to smother me like a magnificent haze, which every once in a while opens into clarity. This makes the novel less than ideal as bedtime fodder, and I'm also glad I'm not reading it on a bus. But it does work reasonably well at about 10:30 in the morning, as I sit in a patch of sunlight drinking tea and eating the last slice of banana tart.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Not a good day to be a Mainer: gay marriage was repealed, thanks to my own neighbors. According to the Bangor Daily News, 75 percent of Harmony voters voted for repeal, and I'm so irked that I can't even think of a synonym that would help me avoid writing "voters voted." But though I may be distressed, I am not surprised. Conservative Christianity is a powerhouse in northern rural Maine, and I knew my town would vote for repeal. I did believe, however, that progressive southern Maine would override that faction. Apparently not.

Therefore, it seems only right to quote from the Book, and this is what I have accidentally put my finger on. Amazing. No wonder anyone can see anything he wants to see in the Bible. But hell, if he can do it, so can I.

from Psalm 73

If I had said, "I will speak thus,"
I would have been untrue to the generations of thy children.
But when I thought how to understand this,
it seemed to me a wearisome task,
until I went into the sanctuary of God;
then I perceived their end.
Truly thou dost set them in slippery places;
thou dost make them fall to ruin.
How they are destroyed in a moment,
swept away utterly by terrors!
They are like a dream when one awakes,
on awaking you despise their phantoms.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

One thing that has always intrigued me about Hayden Carruth is the way in which he so skillfully uses form as a container for chaos. I know I've mentioned his poem "Adolf Eichmann" before (sorry: I can't find a link to it anywhere), but I can't stop thinking of it as an exemplar of this technique. For the poem is not only written in terza rima (rhyme scheme ABA, BCB, etc.) but also repeats exact words rather than simply using rhymes:





One might guess that this method would come across as heavy-handed and oppressive, but the effect is in fact breathtaking; for the poem is about obsession and hate . . .  not simply Eichmann's but the speaker's growing awareness of his own evil. Without its suffocating form, the piece would be unremarkable. As it is, "Adolf Eichmann" is one of the scariest poems I've ever read. 

If you're interested in seeing the poem as a whole, email me and I'll send it to you.

Dinner tonight: Venetian meatballs, Brussels sprouts from the garden, arugula salad with feta and our own pullet eggs. To think I possess children who adore Brussels sprouts! But of course homegrown sprouts are divine. The meatballs are a recipe from one of Marcella Hazan's cookbooks. They're time-consuming to make, but everyone here loves them, so they're a good choice when we're missing a family member for dinner. It's a safe bet he's eating better food than we are anyway. . . .

Monday, November 2, 2009

This morning, I opened Hayden Carruth's Collected Shorter Poems, 1946-1991 and lighted upon a poem titled "Concerning Necessity." And as happens so often to me, the accidental words I read seemed to have been composed precisely for my state of mind, precisely for any answer I might attempt to dredge up about my so-called lifestyle, precisely as explanation for why ugliness and discomfort and boredom don't necessarily add up to misery. And in a way, it's a response to Charlotte's comment on yesterday's post: because, dearest, if I weren't idling over chickens and laundry, I would have nothing at all to write to you about. Literature is not enough of a subject; it requires, at least in my life, a balance of grunt work. Otherwise, it recedes away from my hands. Like the items for sale in the sheep's shop (which you may remember if you've read Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass), the more I try to pinpoint it, the more it eludes me.

Possibly this makes no sense, however.

In other news, Tom is leaving for New York this morning, and I'm preparing to be a single parent for a week. Good thing my older son is adept at using power tools, setting mouse traps, etc. For as my younger son once cheerfully told me, "You and I, we don't know how to do anything."

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Look! I actually managed to post a photograph! This is my son Paul in his elegant Halloween mobster get-up. The gun is concealed in the violin case, of course. My older son James, who is 15, declined to dress for the occasion but did devise a method of combining lit jack o'lanterns with leftover Fourth of July sparklers that made me very nervous.

Random quotation from Henry James's The Ambassadors, a book I'm actually reading for the FIRST TIME EVER, believe it or not:

"Oh he's all right for me!" Strether laughed. "Anyone's good enough for me."

Hmm. Take from that what you will.