Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Monday, March 29, 2010
Manifesto: What Dawn Wants from a Poem, As of March 29, 2009I want grace of language and syntax, along with deliberate, sinuous grammar.I want music.I want images that matter to one another and to the thematic arc of the poem. I do not want a list of fractured visual details.I want dramatic progression: of action, thought, and emotional discovery.I want a moral commitment to revelation, to saying what is nearly unbearable to say. This does not mean that I require victim narrative, sexual innuendo, hallucination, or war crimes, though of course any one of those topics could be the basis of a good poem. It means that I want the poet to put his heart into my hands. That metaphor sounds both nasty and banal. But there you have it. I want the heart.
Sunday, March 28, 2010
Friday, March 26, 2010
Thursday, March 25, 2010
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
They all sat waiting in the tidy shanty. Mary was busily knitting to finish warm stockings for Carrie before the cold weather. Laura was sewing two long breadths of muslin together to make a sheet. She pinned the edges together carefully and fastened them with a pin to her dress at the knee. Carefully holding the edges even, she whipped them together with even, tiny stitches.The stitches must be close and small and firm and they must be deep enough but not too deep, for the sheet must lie smooth, with not the tiniest ridge down its middle. And all the stitches must be so exactly alike that you could not tell them apart, because that was the way to sew.Mary had liked such work, but now she was blind and could not do it. Sewing made Laura feel like flying to pieces. She wanted to scream. The back of her neck ached and the thread twisted and knotted. She had to pick out almost as many stitches as she put in.
Monday, March 22, 2010
The awful shadow of some unseen PowerFloats tho' unseen amongst us.
Sunday, March 21, 2010
Saturday, March 20, 2010
I'm in love with a girl,Finest girl in the world.I didn't knowThis could happen to me.
Friday, March 19, 2010
Thursday, March 18, 2010
ReliefMilly JourdainIn the sweet quiet of the early springWhen winds are blowing chill,I wander, hearing all the songs of the birdsWhich once were nearly still.For then the dull pain had filled my mind, but nowThe difference unseen!The sweet sounds of the birds are sweeter forThe silence that has been.Randomly chosen passage from The Autobiography of Malcolm XIf you've ever lindy-hopped, you'll know what I'm talking about. With most girls, you kind of work opposite them, circling, side-stepping, leading. Whichever arm you lead with is half-bent out there, your hands are giving that little pull, touching her waist, her shoulders, her arms, She's in, out, turning, whirling, wherever you guide her. With poor partners, you feel their weight. They're slow and heavy. But with really good partners, all you need is just the push-pull suggestion. They guide nearly effortlessly, even off the floor and into the air, and your little solo maneuver is done on the floor before they land, when they join you, whirling, right in step.
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Monday, March 15, 2010
Sunday, March 14, 2010
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, choosing to visit the same volume ten, twenty, fifty times—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. The poet Samuel Taylor 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.
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 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 lonely little Charles Dickens huddled for hours 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?
For there is a weakness about us—an inability to break away from a nonexistent world, from our passion for patterns and repetition. The desire to reread is so engrained among my literary habits that I sometimes panic at the thought of beginning an unknown book. Instead of immediately cracking open a birthday-gift volume, I’m as likely to drop the bright new paperback into my lap and stare down at its golden “Pulitzer Prize Winner” label, overwhelmed by a kind of horror. There’s no rational explanation for this reaction; it’s perfectly possible that I might actually like the book, and in fact I often do. More, I have a sense of being invaded from the outside, as if I risk toppling the wall I’ve constructed around myself and my familiars. For here we go again, wandering down the pages of our same old story: yes, it’s Lizzie Hexam who rows me down the blackened Thames, Kitty and Levin who skate past me at the rink, the March girls who act The Pickwick Papers in my chilly attic. I know these characters, these settings, these writers as well as I know myself.
Yet what is knowing myself? The question hangs in the air, spectral, among these flitting literary ghosts—Heathcliff and Gabriel Oak, Dorothea Brooke and the Cheshire Cat. Like Isabel Archer, heroine of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, I’ve spent my hours pondering the vague permutations of self-knowledge, the soft borders between self and the imagined self. I don’t make much headway, and neither does Isabel; indeed, we mislead ourselves constantly. Yet suddenly, one day, it occurs to Isabel “that her mind was a good deal of a vagabond, and she had spent much ingenuity in training it to a military step, and teaching it to advance, to halt, to retread, to perform ever more complicated manoeuvres, at the word of command.” And as soon as I read this sentence, I realize: “Isabel is thinking for me.” The moment feels like a miracle.
Clearly, this is, from one point of view, a baldly unsophisticated reaction to a work of literature. Isabel is the invention of her author, brought to me by means of an invented narrative persona. Yet from another point of view, this is exactly the magic of literature. Isabel lives inside my imagination; therefore, she is indeed myself. So when she puzzles over her vagabond brain, the free-thinking, unpredictable intelligence that she has so cleverly fettered and restricted, she puzzles over mine as well.
Why then, on my previous dozen readings of the novel, have I never noticed this thought? Perhaps the answer is that I don’t notice it till I need to notice it. Perhaps such accidental collusions are a version of that changeable, many-colored cloak we call self-knowledge. And for me, at least, such flashes of insight—those moments when my vagabond mind sees itself as itself—arise most often as I reread a book I’ve already read countless times, a book I may believe I nearly know by heart.
Yet even as I acknowledge the gifts of rereading, I discount myself. What a dolt I am to keep returning to the same predictable tales—Nicholas Nickleby and Persuasion and Barchester Towers and their staid cohort. Get with the times; read the new books; surely a story must wear itself out eventually. And I’m not alone in self-deprecation: even Coleridge, even Samuel Johnson seemed embarrassed by their lifelong pleasure in certain books. According to Bishop Percy,
when a boy [Johnson] was immoderately fond of reading romances of chivalry, and he retained his fondness for them through life, so that . . . spending part of a summer at my parsonage-house in the country [this was when Johnson was fifty-four] he chose for his regular reading the old Spanish romance of Felixmarte of Hircania, in folio, which he read through. Yet I have heard him attribute to these extravagant fictions, that unsettled turn of mind which prevented his ever fixing in any profession.
Oh, I could make the same claim for my own scrappy, indefinite career. But just the same, I find myself, in a half-idle hour, propped over Dr. Johnson’s well-thumbed biography, imagining him, porpoise-like in his garden chair, balancing that folio on his knee. A robin hops over the sheep-cropped grass; a squirrel shrills in the hedgerow. The doctor lifts his eyes to the band of sunlight trimming the portico. He sighs. He drops his tired eyes back to the story, the same old story, blundering down its dear familiar road.
And then a line leaps forth, and it speaks to him.
The novels and stories I write about in this memoir are not, by any means, the only books I regularly reread; but all have triggered my need, sometimes a desperation, to offer up an articulate response—to converse with their authors, their characters, their words. Early into the project, I began jotting down a shortlist of the novels that mattered most to me. Making that list was easy enough, yet once I began purposefully rereading them for the tenth or thirtieth time, I found I could not predict which ones I would actually be able to write about. A few—for instance, George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss—had, over the course of many readings, begun to evoke so much sadness from me that I could not manage to speak cogently about them. Though I continue to reread the novel, I find I can no longer finish it because I cannot bear to keep facing Maggie’s doomed and accidental romance, which leads so inexorably to her death by drowning. Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is a similar case: in many ways I love it more than War and Peace, but watching Anna abandon her bewildered son for that idiot Vronsky, only to end up throwing herself under a train, has gotten to be too much for me.
Other novels posed different problems. Iris Murdoch’s, for instance, have consistently eluded my pen. First, I couldn’t settle on a favorite; then I couldn’t seem find anything to say. I was intimidated by her philosophizing, which I didn’t know how to penetrate; yet I found that I had nothing very interesting to posit about her handling of melodrama, which is, for me, the primary attraction of her novels. Apparently, despite my long affection for Murdoch’s books, I have not yet figured out how to talk to them.
My glibness of speech was another unpredictable variable. As I wrote about the novels that have ended up in this memoir, a few chapters—for instance, the one on War and Peace—almost seemed to invent themselves. As soon as I opened my laptop, words would leap from my fingertips, sentences transform into paragraphs, paragraphs metamorphose into pages. The voyage from first word to final draft lasted an incandescent two days, and afterward I felt purged and weak, as if I were recovering from brain fever (which, as any devoted Victorian-novel reader knows, is a mysterious illness that temporarily incapacitates heroines while making them more beautiful than before). In contrast, the chapter on Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day took me five years to write. I started draft after draft, deleted draft after draft, despaired, reread the novel, began again. Unlike my Iris Murdoch trouble, my difficulties with Bowen’s novel never stemmed from philosophical vagueness or any uncertainty about which book to choose. Rather, I could not seem to zero in on the essence of my bond with it. But in retrospect, I think that, despite my long acquaintance with the novel, I needed those five years to educate myself, to become more aware of Bowen’s language and my own, more attuned to our shared and divided subtleties of grammar and syntax. She required a sophistication, a technical severity; she forced me to search myself for a grown-up reaction. I could not, as I did with War and Peace, ride the wind of my emotional attachments.
In other words, writing this memoir has not been at all equivalent to rereading the books. Like Isabel Archer, and Coleridge, and Dr. Johnson, my mind is “a good deal of a vagabond,” accustomed to wander its byways, to bask along the riverbanks, to nod fleetingly at its familiars. Rereading a well-loved novel suits this “unsettled turn of mind” because I can dip in and out of the world of the book without fretting overmuch about my destination. I know the plot, I know the characters, so what takes me by surprise is now most often myself. The sensation is comparable to living on the same five acres of land for fifteen years and then suddenly spotting an oak tree you’d swear you’d never seen before. Noticing the tree doesn’t change the landscape, but it does adjust your relationship to that landscape. Moreover, it adjusts your conception of yourself. “Why didn’t I see that tree?” you wonder. “What was I looking at instead?”
As a rereader, I often advance no further than to note the existence of such questions, but writing this memoir has pressed me to hunt for answers—as Isabel would say, “to advance, to halt, to retread, to perform ever more complicated manoeuvres, at the word of command.” This is a fairly alarming undertaking for a vagabond mind, yet I have discovered that the simple act of talking back to my books has become, curiously enough, its own version of an answer. As writer Wendy Lesser notes, “nothing demonstrates how personal reading is more clearly than rereading does.” These novels I love—these public fora, these open dollhouses—are the story of my own most private life: a world so hidden that my rereading self unwraps it only word by word, line by line, year by year by year. In talking to my books, in writing about my books, I am forced to collect these scraps, to position them on the page, to link one perception to the other. I stand back, then, and discover that the books have drawn a portrait of me.
Saturday, March 13, 2010
Friday, March 12, 2010
On the last day of the season, in a game against the Giants, who are in first place by only half a game, the Kid kindles the Dodgers' hitting attack, and in the bottom of the fourteenth . . . he makes the final game-saving play, a running catch smack up against the right center-field wall. That tremendous daredevil feat sends the Dodgers into the World Series and leaves him "writhing in agony on the green turf of deep right center." Tunis concludes like this: "Dusk descended upon a mass of players, on a huge crowd pouring onto the field, on a couple of men carrying an inert form through the mob on a stretcher. . . . There was a clap of thunder. Rain descended upon the Polo Grounds." Descended, descended, a clap of thunder, and thus ends the boys' Book of Job.I was ten and I had never read anything like it. The cruelty of life. The injustice of it. I could not believe it. The reprehensible member of the Dodgers is Razzle Nugent, a great pitcher but a drunk and a hothead, a violent bully fiercely jealous of the Kid. And yet it is not Razzle carried off "inert" on a stretcher but the best of them all, the farm orphan called the Kid, modest, serious, chaste, loyal, naive, undiscourageable, hard-working, soft-spoken, courageous, a brilliant athlete, a beautiful, austere boy.
Thou, whose exterior semblance doth belieThy soul's immensity.
Thursday, March 11, 2010
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Tuesday, March 9, 2010
But on Coleridge lies the whole weight of the sad reflection that has since come into the world, with which for us the air is full, which "the children in the marketplace" repeat to each other.
Monday, March 8, 2010
Sunday, March 7, 2010
Saturday, March 6, 2010
Friday, March 5, 2010
Thursday, March 4, 2010
First, let me tell you about Ruth. I met her last summer at the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching. But she isn't a high school English teacher: she teaches fifth grade, and has taught elementary school for many, many years. Ruth is old enough to retire, but it's hard to imagine that she's ready to do so. She is one of the most excited and committed teachers I've ever met; and she does funny things, like invite bikers to her classroom and then ride off with them on a motorcycle as a way to open her students' eyes to the varieties of interesting people in this world. Ruth is also a singer, with an otherworldly voice reminiscent of Sacred Harp singers or the Carter Family. As a reader, her intensity and curiosity is infectious: she is so eager to be infatuated with words. Her students must love her.And now let me tell you about Paul. Paul is my 12-year-old son. He is a 6th grader at Harmony Elementary School and loves history and fantasy novels and sports and playing keyboard in a rock band. You might think that, since he's my son, I must have browbeat him into keeping up with this project. But no: in addition to his other devotions, he loves Shakespeare. We frequently watch DVDs of various plays, and he is always excited by them. Meanwhile, my other son could care less. Reading A Winter's Tale has thrilled Paul. On weekends, he's liable to stick his head around a corner and say to me in a come-hither voice, "Time for Shakespeare?" It is an honor to be his mother.
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
Tuesday, March 2, 2010
Tell me, how may I know him, how adore,From whom I have that thus I move and live,And feel that I am happier than I know.
Even here in central Maine—country of junked trailers and gravel pits, tattoo parlors and poisoned rivers; this “conflagrant mass” blotting the white man’s biography of success—I live in an Eden of sorts. Perhaps it’s true that “some Blood more precious must be paid for Man,” but my neighbors and I nonetheless believe that no one will chop off our hands at dawn or disembowel our babies before our eyes. Never in memory has our town succumbed to smallpox or plague; and though our wells sometimes go dry in August, they always replenish in the autumn rains. “In mean estate [we] live moderate.” We possess, according to the lessons of history, happy lives.
Yet if one assumes happiness to imply a quiescent awareness of felicity and contentment, none of us is particularly happy. I’m not the only person who plans ahead for a wonderful Christmas—baking brandy-laced fruitcakes, decorating the piano with miniature snowy houses, purchasing magic tricks and fake mustaches for my sons—but spends the holiday shuffling from window to window, staring into the bleached landscape of a bare-ground December, burdened with that heavy, napless brooding common to a day without purpose. I don’t know what I want, but I know I don’t have it.
Myself I then perus’d, and Limb by Limb
Survey’d, and sometimes went, and sometimes ran
With supple joints, as lively vigor led;
But who I was, or where, or from what cause,
Discontent: it’s one more stupid, obstinate failing of humanity, as anyone who’s read Madame Bovary or “Dear Abby” can verify. But for the most part, stories of other people’s unhappiness are strikingly useless paths to self-improvement. How many readers become happier and more contented after spending an evening with Heathcliff or the Ancient Mariner? Not one, I daresay. Yet I don’t think that transmitting effective lessons in self-improvement mattered much to either Brontë or Coleridge, who wrote to explicate their own internal hells rather than to save humankind. The man who concocted Paradise Lost had a more suasive string of fish to fry.
“To speak I tri’d, and forthwith spake.” Milton, that tireless student of the human condition, surely recognized by middle age that exhorting people to be happy or good or obedient was like spitting into a stiff wind. But as a missionary poet, he nonetheless found himself wading into the noxious puddles of pedantic argument, a class of writing I’ve always found difficult to stomach. I can’t imagine that aligning himself with such “hideous gabble” was good for his temper. As he himself once complained, “what pleasure can there possibly be in the petty disputations of sour old men. . . . Many a time, when the duties of tracing out these petty subtleties for a while has been laid upon me, when my mind has been dulled and my sight blurred by continued reading . . . how often have I wished that instead of having these fooleries forced upon me, I had been set to clean out the stable of Augeas again.”
“But the voice of God/To mortal ear is dreadful”; and though I agree that mucking out a barn can often seem more instructive, and certainly more refreshing, than combing through “the petty disputations” of this particular sour old man, I sympathize with Milton nonetheless, mostly because his hope that a giant bossy poem might repair the errors of human nature seems so brave and loony.
O goodness infinite, goodness immense!
That all this good of evil shall produce,
And evil turn to good; more wonderful
Than that which by creation first brought forth
Light out of darkness! full of doubt I stand,
Whether I should repent me now of sin
By mee done and occasion’d, or rejoice
Much more, that much more good thereof shall spring,
To God more glory, more good to Men
From God, and over wrath grace shall abound.