Thursday, July 31, 2014

Last night, on the way home from a soccer game, my car overheated and was eventually dragged away by the owner of Right Hook Towing, who turned out to be a one-armed man wearing Tevas. Ask my son: I am not making this up. Meanwhile, small children on bicycles circled up and down their driveway, delighted with the spectacle, and Paul and I stood on the side of the road in the growing dark, hoping that Tom would be able to find us in the gloom.

All of this is preface to the fact that, this morning, I don't feel particularly Rilke-esque, so anything I say about your comments on yesterday's post is liable to be clunky and obvious. I will remark, however, that, like Amy, I spent a great deal of time with his idea of difficult. As a person whose life has, in large part, been stitched together with solitude, I felt a kinship with him in these passages. Solitude is not easy or fun or even productive. It is difficult, but at the same time that loneliness forces me into converse with myself, and that's where the poems come from.

If I were writing any poems. If I hadn't been awake all night worrying about car repairs and a job interview. If I hadn't been leading my Kappus life. Therein lies the rub.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Rilke: "Letters to a Young Poet," letters 7 and 8

"Why do you want to shut out of your life any agitation, any pain, any melancholy, since you really do not know what these states are working on you?"

Questions such as this one, from letter 8, reflect my lifelong discomfort with self-help enthusiasms: "Give rid of the negative in your life!" "You can be anything you want to be!" No, you can't. You will be sad because sadness is part of our deepest essence. You will fail because achieving the impossible is, without a Faustian covenant, impossible. The question, as Rilke knew, is "What are sadness and failure working on you? How are they intensifying your inner life and your comprehension of the world around you?"

Clearly poor Kappus was enduring some sort of love crisis. It was good to read his jolty little sonnet. Rilke's sweetness in copying it out reminds me, every time I read that description, of our own experiences with dictation at the Frost Place: a room full of quiet people, concentrating their love on each word, on each comma.

Now it's your turn to talk.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

After a day of thunder and torrent, the air is calm. Fingers of sunshine creep through the water-weighted fir branches. A cloud of green droplets blurs the asparagus bed. Roof drip splatters a hummingbird as she inspects the feeder.

I am reading A. S. Byatt's Elementals, a fairy-tale book, and remembering the sensation of writing my own fairy tales for Same Old Story, and feeling elegiac and a little melancholy. I am not writing much of anything at the moment, except for these blog posts. Mostly I have been patient about that gap. I have written so much over the past few years, and I am tired; I know I am tired. As always, I am still reading without cease. Suddenly, though, reading a fairy tale has reminded me of writing a fairy tale . . . picking my way through solidity and invention, following the expected track into unexpected glens. . . . Spinning a tale is real work; it is metaphor; it is memory and wish. Nouns summon their adjectives. Verbs slide, burrow, prevaricate; they march sturdily into the future. Summer is waning and I, without warning, feel the prickle of need. I imagine writing a fairy tale.


Yesterday, I received a 5-page letter in the mail, much of which the writer has also posted online. His response to Same Old Story is amazingly complex . . . though I am bewildered by the Auden referent. I never thought of Auden at all.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Today is my son James's twentieth birthday, and above is a detail from his birthday cake, which I decorated to look like Stonehenge. Notice the gummy bear druids wandering among the Jolly Rancher stones. The actual cake was orange-flavored, with a chocolate ricotta filling. It was much better than the decorations indicate. The Jolly Ranchers, under refrigeration, developed a luminous layer of slime, as if Stonehenge had begun dissolving into its radioactive essence. Nobody had any interest in eating them, though the gummy druids vanished quickly.

Twenty years I've known James! What luck! He's funny and sweet, and he sets mousetraps for me when I get squeamish. He reads Henry James on the bus, buys comical shirts at the Goodwill, goes camping in the rain, likes it when his hair sticks straight up, and invents things for the cat to say. He drinks more coffee than anyone else in the house. He asks, "What can I do to help?" and drives his brother to piano lessons and leaves Outkast in my car stereo turned up to 11. When his best friend buys a used 80s-era moped, they take it to the park, photograph it in various odd positions, and then compose captions pretending that it's a dog. Twenty years I've known James! And still the same light-up smile, same comedic mashup of brains and fiddly fix-it obsessions. Tom recently found a photo he'd taken of a "What I Want for Christmas" list James had composed when he was eight or nine: Nails! Wood glue! Rain gauge! Ship in a bottle! Next to it was Paul's kindergartner version, in carefully carved-out, mostly unreadable words--RODOT. TEVNO.--as if Klingon had been his first language.

Oh my dear boys, how funny you have been your whole lives . . . funny and charming; and angry, too, when anger is called for; and brokenhearted, when that is the only possible choice. I never imagined, when I was a new mother, that my child would become a friend for life. And now, twenty years I've known James! What would I be without him?

Sunday, July 27, 2014

I thought of writing about how angry I am at the National Football League

I thought of writing about how angry I am at the National Football League, which issued Baltimore Ravens's star Ray Rice a two-game suspension after he beat his girlfriend unconscious in an elevator. If he'd been caught with marijuana, he'd have been suspended for twice as long. But this case, as his coach said, "is not a big deal. It's just part of the process. We said from the beginning that the circumstances would determine the consequences. There are consequences when you make a mistake like that. I stand behind Ray. He's a heck of a guy. He's done everything right since. He makes a mistake. He's going to have to pay a consequence."

I thought of writing about how angry I am at the National Football League, but I've decided instead to write about how proud I am of my sixteen-year-old son, who burst out of his room to tell me about this story. He was irate. "Can you believe this, Mom? Can you believe this? What's wrong with these people? How can that guy [ex-football-coach-now-sports-analyst Tony Dungy] call Michael Sam a distraction in the locker room just for being gay? Why is that a distraction, but beating up someone you supposedly love is 'not a big deal'"?

I thought of writing about how angry I am at the National Football League,  but I guess my son and I just don't understand why repeatedly getting embroiled in accusations of sexual coercion (Ben Roethlisberger), or accidentally shooting yourself because you went clubbing with a loaded unholstered Glock in your waistband (Plaxico Burress), or being indicted for murdering a guy in a deserted industrial park (Aaron Hernandez) don't count as distractions.

I thought of writing about how angry I am at the National Football League, but what's the point? Football has become a training ground for bullies, and we live in a world in which people smoothly accept that a bully can be "a heck of a nice guy" . . . especially if he plays for a winning team.

I thought of writing about how angry I am at the National Football League, but I am the daughter of a man who was captain of his high school football team. He told me one time about a friend who was so good that he began playing semi-pro football after high school. But he quit because the game at that level was no longer fun. He told my dad that he was being trained to hurt people, and to hurt himself. The people who could do the best hurting were the people who went to the NFL. Of course this was in the 1950s and 60s. Players were only beginning to get interested in steroids.

I thought of writing about how angry I am at the National Football League, but now I am thinking about Michael Sam. Just because he's gay doesn't mean he's hasn't been trained to hurt. It's conceivable that he will be a distraction, in the same old football way.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

New comments are still appearing on this week's Rilke posts; so if you're taking part in the reading project, don't forget to check them out and add your own response.


I spent yesterday evening sitting alongside a soccer field in Corinna, Maine. In the interstices of play, I was reading The Great Gatsby, which seems to me to be almost perfectly constructed, not only structurally but in the balance of its sentences, in Nick's perceptions, in the interplay of setting and dialogue, in the shifts of comedy and tragedy, and so on, and so on.
As for Tom, the fact that he "had some woman in New York" was really less surprising than that he had been depressed by a book. Something was making him nibble at the edge of stale ideas as if his sturdy physical egotism no longer nourished his peremptory heart.
Oddly, even though I admire this novel enormously, I would never think to include it in my "favorite books of all time" list . . . not that I exactly know what I'd include there either, but I do think that most of my favorites are a lot messier than Gatsby is. (I'd make an exception for Austen, of course.) Even my modernist loves (Woolf, Bowen, Green) seem to bleed structurally in a way that Gatsby does not. Still, despite the fact that I have read it roughly one hundred times over the course of my life, I am always delighted by its cleanness and its clarity. Reading Gatsby is like eating an oyster.

Friday, July 25, 2014

A cool morning. Two days ago I tore out my exhausted peavines, and this morning I will replant the beds with a fall crop of kale and turnips. Finally, the garden is showing signs of richness: the potatoes are flowering, the corn is shoulder-high, and my beautiful bean plants are covered with long purple string beans. These are by far the loveliest bean plants I've ever grown: not only are the beans themselves a deep purple, but the flowers are lavender and the green leaves are veined with purple.

I've been reading Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, and thinking about how similar the central character Catherine is to Elizabeth Bowen's Portia in The Death of the Heart. Both girls are questioning innocents dropped into the world of adult machination. But Catherine is lucky enough to find friends who guide her through these confusions, whereas Portia drowns in a sea of double-entendre and spite.

An acquaintance posed a Facebook question yesterday: "How soon do you show your drafts to other readers?" Almost everyone who answered declared that they shared work very soon after beginning it. I was the only person who said that I rarely showed any poems to anyone until they had reached submission or publication stage. With essays I can be more forthcoming, but on the whole I feel very uneasy about sharing poetry in its infantile stage. And I was surprised, even a bit shocked, at how free and easy all these other writers are about showing their stuff to other people. I can name a handful of people who have ever seen my recent poems in embryo, and my family members are not any of those readers. (I am not counting poetry workshops, where one is required to bring along unfinished work. This may account for why I have taken relatively few poetry workshops.) Why would I burden my loved ones with such trouble? And infant art is trouble: unformed, awkward, ugly, self-satisfied, noisy. Better to let it grow up with me before I let it out into the world.

Of course this is a highly personal reaction. When I was studying with Baron (and he has seen more of my student work than anyone else has), I found the process tremendously painful. I trusted him and I wanted his help, but I also hated publicizing my struggles. As I've become a more self-confident reviser, I've also become far cagier about sharing first drafts. I wonder how other poets feel about this. So many people seem to thrive on the writing-group model. Does this imply that I am an anomaly?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

More Remarks on Rilke: Letters 5 and 6

Please feel free to keep commenting on yesterday's post, but I'm going wander off into my own response here.

First, I have to say: Carlene, you've been a working on a full-length essay over the past few weeks! You have responded so densely and cogently to these letters, and I am touched by not only your devotion to the project but the complexity of your responses. And second: Keith, bringing in Wordsworth was brilliant. Like both of you, I've been grappling with Rilke's thoughts about vocation versus soul-destroying jobs, and I've had similar reactions. On the one hand, how would he know anything at all about the real definition of soul-destroying job? On the other hand, why did everything he say feel right to me?

Interestingly, this brings me back to a conversation that Keith and I had at the Frost Place. At one point, Keith wistfully congratulated me, saying that Tom and I had made the right decision for ourselves as artists and human beings by sidestepping paychecks and careers and moving to the woods. My heart seized up in a knot at those words; and when I got home, I told Tom what Keith had said. He looked at me and sighed, and I looked at him and sighed, and that was that. But what I felt, and what I imagine that Tom also felt, was the weight of the money panic, of watching Tom substitute soul-sucking white-collar work for soul-sucking physical labor, of having no colleagues, of my perpetual perception of being a drag on my marital partnership because I don't earn my keep. Poetry doesn't fence out those wolves. And yet to someone who isn't writing or reading in the ways he longs to write and read, my life may seem ideal.

So despite Rilke's more comfortable financial circumstances, I have to believe, from the depth of his response, that he, too, dealt every day with the ugliness and drudgery of existence. It may not have been roofing a house or digging a ditch or milking fifty head of cattle or managing a classroom of 25 noisy, unimpressed students with no interest in schoolwork, but it was its own pressure and distraction. This brings me back to Wordsworth: "I could wish my days to be / Bound each to each by natural piety." Doesn't I could wish seem to be the twist in those lines?

A couple of weeks ago, I was teaching a workshop for a group of women at a local domestic-violence shelter. I'd dictated a poem, "Magic Words," a translation of an Inuit verse, and then we went through a "what's the most important word?" activity. One woman said, very hesitantly, "Could, maybe?--because something could happen, even if it doesn't really happen?" Yes. Sometimes could is the only lifeline available. "I could wish my days to be" what they will never, in actuality, ever be. Then again: sometimes, as for Melville, as for Rilke, that's where the art is hiding.

Re letters 7 and 8: Let's aim for next Wednesday.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Rilke's "Letters to a Young Poet": Letters 5 and 6

I sit here alone, in my early-morning kitchen, reading Rilke writing to Kappus about solitude and dead-end jobs and the elusive beauty of Rome, and I am wondering about all of those questions he asked his young correspondent. The second half of letter 6 is filled with questions, but were they rhetorical or did he want an answer? He did truly seem to want to read more of Kappus's poetry, and now I am feeling, in these two letters, that Rilke had suddenly become more invested in this correspondence. He was not writing only because Kappus required an answer, but because he himself needed to share what he was experiencing.

The description, in letter 5, of his uneasiness in Rome, how "one learns slowly to recognize the very few things in which the eternal endures that one can love," felt extraordinarily close to my own relationship with certain poets--Milton, Donne. But it did not seem at all relevant to my own experience in Rome, which was far more like being swept into a mad love affair with a glorious stranger. Then again, I am a gawky provincial, and Rilke--emphatically--was not.

What were your reactions to these letters? I am curious, in particular, about letter 6, in which Rilke talks about solitude and our general entrapment in "paltry" jobs and preoccupations. Did that ring true to you?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Thus far, my success of the day is figuring out why our house is filled with mosquitoes. (Answer: Ruckus the cat's window-screen vandalism.) Although the hour is still early, the weather is sultry. A robin is singing furiously, and a cicada is emitting that long buzz-burring, Doppler-effect, midsummer rattle that I can't figure out how to describe in words. Bread is rising; towels are laundering; Tom is orchestrating power-tool noises in his shop. A log truck rumbles down the road.

I sat at a soccer game yesterday evening and read May Swenson's "Snow in New York" while deerflies circled my head and my son's team reenacted the Brazil side of the Brazil-Germany World Cup game. Swenson wrote,
I went to Riker's to blow my nose
in a napkin and drink coffee for its steam. Two rows
of belts came and went from the kitchen, modeling scrambled
eggs, corn muffins, bleeding triangles of pie.
Tubs of dirty dishes slid by.
Outside the fogged window black bulking people stumbled
cursing the good-for-nothing whiteness. I thought 
of Rilke, having read how he wrote
to Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis, saying, "The idea haunts me--
it keeps on calling--I must make a poem for Nijinski
that could be, so to say, swallowed and then danced."
and I thought about Rilke, who was writing yet another letter: did he do nothing but write letters? And then I thought about what Swenson also thought about--the name Nijinksi, "that odd name with three dots / over the iji"--which reminded me of an interview I listened to in the car the other day, while I was driving to Skowhegan to pick up my new glasses. It was an interview with painter Jamie Wyeth, who was talking about how often he had painted Nureyev. At first the dancer hadn't wanted to bother letting this callow youth paint him, but eventually he figured out that the callow youth was a Wyeth and changed his mind. Yet as he sat in Warhol's Factory and allowed himself to be replicated, he would occasionally glance over at the young painter's work and remark, "My foot is far more beautiful than that."

"Je suit chat avec le coeur," wrote Nijinsky, "Coeur mon coeur mon coeur est chat." He was mad but the syllables sang. He wrote, I think, more beautifully than Gertrude Stein, but he had no irony.

"Snow in New York," wrote Swenson, "is like poetry, or clothes made of roses. / Who needs it, what can you build with snow, who can you feed?"

Monday, July 21, 2014

In early September I'll be teaching on Star Island, off the coast of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, at an annual retreat called Writers in the Round. The retreat has a double focus--poetry and songwriting--and I will be this year's poet. I thought I'd mention it today because I know at least a few of you readers are musicians who might enjoy a songwriting workshop on an island, especially during bird migration season.

On another note: if any of you feels like reviewing Same Old Story, or interviewing me about it, or bringing me in to talk to your students or friends about it, or anything of the sort, I'd really appreciate it.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

I woke up on Peaks Island on Friday and read the news of the Malaysian airplane disaster. I was sitting in a crazy old rattletrap lodge, listening to the sea splash on granite, staring out at the island across the cove, my eyes resting on the peaceful remnants of a fortification, built during the War of 1812 and now masked sweetly by trees and gulls.

I woke up on Peaks Island and read the news of the disaster, and then I read it again. Innocence does not entirely die. I could not stop myself from thinking, "How can I be here, in this place? And how could they be there?"

Innocence does not entirely die, though it may be mistaken for selfishness or stupidity. Innocence does not entirely die, until our bodies do.

The bodies fell into a field of sunflowers. Yesterday I was stung by a hornet. The sunflowers in my own garden are not blooming yet. I killed the hornet, and then I destroyed her nest. She lived with her family in a hole in the grass. The bodies fell into a field of clover. The hornet's poison spread up my leg, and my leg ached for hours. It still aches. 

My friend David sent me a poem by Czeslaw Milosz. I read it but could not talk about it. Perhaps you have more fortitude. You may have noticed that I have not yet mentioned those murdered children in Gaza.
from Preparation by Czeslaw Milosz 
No, it won’t happen tomorrow. In five or ten years.
I still think too much about the mothers
And ask what is man born of woman.
He curls himself up and protects his head
While he is kicked by heavy boots; on fire and running
He burns with bright flame; a bulldozer sweeps him into a clay pit.
Her child. Embracing a teddy bear. Conceived in ecstasy.
Last Tuesday, after I had finished my writing workshop at the shelter, a participant stopped me. She was a young woman, larger than me, with a round open demeanor and an expression that reminded me of the Little Princess's face in War and Peace as she is dying in childbirth. Tolstoy describes that look as "How could this have happened to me? I have done no harm."

All through the workshop, the young woman's entire body had been vibrating slightly--a ceaseless shiver. She stopped me as I was leaving and looked at me anxiously. "I don't want you to think I wasn't paying attention," she said. I assured her that I wasn't worried. "I had a lot of trauma last night," she said. The borrowed word trauma hung in the air between us like a curtain. 
from Preparation by Czeslaw Milosz 
I haven’t learned yet to speak as I should, calmly.
With not-quite truth
and not-quite art
and not-quite law
and not-quite science

Saturday, July 19, 2014

More Talk about Rilke

"I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be." David quoted Joan Didion in his comments on the July 16 Rilke post, and somehow that sentence helped me pull together my thoughts about letters 3 and 4. By thoughts I mean patience more than ideas. I had become impatient with Rilke, but perhaps I hadn't thought enough about the position that Kappus had put him into. Imagine that you're a moderately well known writer who suddenly begins receiving letter after anxious letter from a younger man who badgers you for advice. What tone would your letters take? I mean, really, Kappus is asking for the pontificating, in a way that (to borrow Jean's mention) Henry Thoreau's readers never did. That's because Thoreau's writings were based on his own journal meditations: he wasn't working to respond to the specific worries of a specific correspondent. And Kappus was a stranger to Rilke. These letters weren't Bishop-Lowell-old-pal meanderings.

In short, I think Carlene has nailed something in her comments that I did not address in mine: "I like when things click." Yes, these two letters contain a certain amount of palaver, but they also contain much that does click. Some of those places are self-contradictions (as I pointed out in my initial reactions), but isn't self-contradiction a poet's canvas? If I approach these letters as the beginnings of thought, I feel much better about them. As Teresa noted, the poet is constantly "challenge[d] to find the balance between listening to self and listening to others. . . . the two forces are always there." When she adds, "I'm speaking as both a writer and as a reader," I feel she is reminding me to "keep on nodding terms" with with my reader's tendency to react and second-guess myself and change my mind.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Tom and I are heading south today, for an overnight in Portland. Tom will be showing work samples to a curator who's putting together a photo show, and I will be wandering around by myself having fun. We'll be staying on Peaks Island in a Victorian-era hotel built by the Eighth Maine, a Civil War regiment that met every year on the island for its reunion. Apparently, at one point, the soldiers decided they needed a hotel to house the wives and children. Conveniently, the general of the regiment then won the Louisiana State Lottery, and the hotel was born. (Needless to say, it does not have wifi, so you may not be hearing from me till Saturday.)

In the meantime, add your comments to yesterday's post. Teresa's entry reminded me of how scary it can be to disagree with a poet whose work I respect so much. And I do love so many of Rilke's poems. I taught "The Panther" on Tuesday, when I was leading that workshop for the domestic-violence support group. The women were overwhelmed by it . . .  as I am, every time I read it.

In other news, the Haverford College alumni magazine has just published a small feature on Same Old Story, if you feel like taking a look.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Rilke's "Letters to a Young Poet": Letters 2 and 3

There's almost too much digest in these two letters--not least, my curiosity about what on earth Kappus wrote in his own letter that prompted Rilke to launch into such a disquisition about sex. I found those paeans rather tedious, but that may simply be my own predisposition to dislike the way in which men love to imagine that they understand what it's like to live in a woman's body . . . which is to say: although his idealistic ecstasy about human intimacy is not necessarily a fault, it's also not very attractive to me personally.

I'm more interested in certain passages that I find extremely alluring but that I'm convinced are not entirely true. This one, for example:
And let me promptly make a request: read as little as possible of aesthetic criticism--such things are either partisan views, petrified and grown senseless in their lifeless induration, or they are clever quibblings in which today one view wins and tomorrow the opposite. Works of art are of an infinite loneliness and with nothing so little to be reached as with criticism.
So much of the passage seems exactly right. Yes, criticism is often "petrified and grown senseless," often nothing more than "clever quibbling." Yes, yes yes, "works of art are of an infinite loneliness." But what about a poet's urge to draw together the "partisan views" that she has gathered from her own intense engagement with literature? What about this very letter that Rilke is writing to Kappus, in which he is telling the young man how to think about poetry and books and sexual desire? It seems to me that Rilke is writing exactly the sort of prose that he is warning Kappus not to read.

But I will stop talking now. What attracted or repelled you about these two letters?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Years

Dawn Potter

            Dreamy as Tarzan, the years murmur
their old tune as we stride away from them

into our spotlit lives. Like fathers, they armor
themselves against loss, hawking phlegm

into coffee cans, scratching their scaly pates,
though a Nehi odor lingers in their cough,

faint as sour cream. Behind their rusty agate
stare slides a slow-rolling map of sloughed-

off days along the river. Scabby grapevines
grip the porch rails, courting light. A peahen

chitters in the weeds, and on the clothesline
the half-yellowed shirts of sweating men

sag like idle hands. The years hum our quavered names.
We clench our fists: panicked, ruthless, dumb, ashamed.

[from Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2014)]


Baron Wormser tells me that he is planning to use "The Years" as a prompt poem in a workshop, and I keep wondering exactly what his writing prompt will be. I know he'd tell me if I asked, but for the moment I'm enjoying the curious sensation of pretending that I'm an outside observer of my own poem. What would you take as a writing prompt from this sonnet? I am having trouble thinking of anything at all . . . mostly because all I can focus on is what prompted me to write it in the first place: reading Woolf's The Years, reading Ford's The Sportswriter, copying out all of Shakespeare's sonnets, remembering my great uncles sitting in the grass on a Pennsylvania hill in the twilight, meditatively spitting chaw juice into old dog-food cans. . . .

Monday, July 14, 2014

Thank you all for your sweet and generous responses to yesterday's post.

I also noticed new comments on the Rilke's letters; so if you're keeping up with that conversation, you might want to check in.

Today I'll be prepping for a workshop I'm team-teaching tomorrow afternoon: a writing session with a local domestic-violence support group. I'll be working with a social worker who is is also one of my dearest friends in the world; but we've never taught together before, so everything will be new. I'm excited, though, to get my visiting-writer shtick out of the English classroom, and anyone who's followed this blog for a few years knows I myself been grappling with the fallout of a particularly loathsome household murder that destroyed the family of an old friend . .  the very friend whom I am meeting this morning: to walk together up a dirt road in the humid fog; to watch woodchucks and partridges scuttle ditch to ditch; to listen to the distant rumble of logging machinery in the forest; to talk in circles around what remains of her ragged, damaged heart.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Sometimes, out of the blue, people write to me about my books. It always, always feels like a miracle. And when the letter is like this one . . . well, I don't even know how to respond. Every time I try to speak, my eyes fill with tears.
Finally, this weekend, I received my copy of Same Old Story and finished it last night. Truth in advertising, Dawn, because this ain't the Same Old Story at all. This strikes me as a real departure for you, a real act of bravery, a real willingness to forego the earlier virtues and write very new Dawn Potter poems. There seems to be twists and turns in the language and in the push of the poem that you would not have made, or dared to make, before. I could give you lots of examples, but the individual cases are not to the point, it is the whole way of working and talking that I believe you are shifting. And change in and of itself is not great shakes, but these changes are changes in authority, in vision, in the desire to make language a different tool and they work remarkably well. 
I love the sheer balls of White Bear and the fact that it is in the same book as Spring on Ripley Road. I love the assertion and counterassertion of Ugly Town, the poem that absolutely undercuts itself as the light undercuts the ugliness of the town. There is a daring here and then an execution that is really remarkable. 
You were a remarkable poet, Dawn, before but you are reaching and pulling down new things that are very, very powerful. I admire this book and your enterprise in it very deeply.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

It's already midsummer, and I've yet to post anything about food. To remedy that error, I will describe yesterday's impromptu romantic meal. Halfway through the morning, Tom and I realized that no boys would be home for dinner. Golly, what should we do with ourselves? Eat seafood was the obvious answer, so I drove to the fish market in Skowhegan to see what I could find. What I brought home was a dozen Taunton Bay oysters, which Tom shucked and served on the comical enameled tin pie plate that my Great-Aunt Joan once mailed me for reasons that still seem unclear. However, as you can see from the table setting, it goes charmingly with the 50s-era diner table that we found in a garage as well as the red-striped drinking glasses from the Goodwill and the pale blue plates that my grandmother bought in the early 60s on piece-by-piece special from a New Jersey grocery store.

After we ate the oysters and finished listening to a Stevie Wonder record, I made scallop ceviche. I quartered the scallops (a pound of big fat fresh ones from New Bedford, Massachusetts, via the Skowhegan fish market) and mixed them with a pint of halved cherry tomatoes, three minced garlic scapes, a handful of chopped infant leeks, a sprinkle of cayenne, and a half cup of freshly squeezed lime juice. I let all of that sit in the refrigerator for 45 minutes, stirring it occasionally as I emptied the dishwasher, cooked Indian black-pepper rice (recipe available on request), listened to a Charlie Parker record, and giggled at Tom, who was in a silly and insouciant mood all evening. Just before serving the ceviche, I added a diced avocado, salt and pepper, and a handful of finely chopped mixed herbs: parsley, cilantro, and basil. And voila.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Rilke's "Letters to a Young Poet": More Responses and a Reading Schedule

I am overwhelmed by the beauty of what you all wrote in response to yesterday's post. Everything you said made so much sense to me, but Teresa's comment seemed to come from inside my own heart. That conundrum--doing the writing versus living the life--lies at the heart of my anxiety. Without living fully in my world, what material will I have? What morality will I have? Without stepping away from that world, what poems will I have? The sensation is perpetually distressing, and reading Rilke's letters does not make me feel any better. What I have to remember is that Rilke's world and my world are not identical. Neither is our poetry identical. A poet's life intersects with her writing: one feeds the other, and the key is learning to balance the needs of each. Easier said than done, of course. Jean says that "young writers typically dismiss their own experiences as not exciting enough," but I would argue that we all do this, at least to some extent. Why can't I be Shakespeare? Why do I just have to be me?

Carlene's response to the letters also moved me--in particular, the way in which she shifted so seamlessly from her teacher mind into her reader mind. That gives me so much hope for all of us: that no matter what we need to do for others, we have this fount of literature--of deep and engaged reading--to sustain and strengthen us. Carlene made this point much better than I am doing, but I think it goes back to another Frost Place conversation. Our students, co-workers, and family members have to put up with us, no matter what. So why not give them the "best us" we can? In other words, spending time on our own inner lives is not a waste of time, for either ourselves or our compatriots.

Ruth's recollection of some of the writing advice she received at the conference is also pertinent to these letters. "Gentleness of response" does not mean that the reader is shying away from acuity of perception or intensity of demand. Nicholas, I know you thrive on the vigorous language of revision, but in the mouths of many teachers, that flaying word choice works to manipulate and destroy rather than lead an apprentice poet to notice and construct. (You were very fortunate to have the teachers you worked with in your graduate program, but others are not so lucky. There are too many careless, self-aggrandizing, power-hungry teachers in the poetry world.) Anxiety is a blinder: when a student is cringing, she's not all that likely to be able to open herself to new ways of entering her own work. She may manage to follow what she perceives as teacher or classmate instructions, but that's not really useful in the long run. It seems to me that a good teacher's goal is to teach herself out of a job: that is, to bring the student to a sense of confidence in his own ability to make decisions about his poems. That's what I hear in Rilke's tone in these first two letters.

Both Nicholas and Maureen zero in on the way in which Rilke reveals his humanity as well as the challenge he makes to himself as an artist. Nicholas notes that "Rilke bleeds his heart right down onto the page." Maureen identifies "the great test" of Rilke's words: "what we are willing to forgo, give up, neglect, to write." This all goes back to what Teresa said about the tensions between writing and living. Rilke gives so much to Kappus, but what does he retain for himself? Is the unspoken also a lesson for us as teachers, mentors, compatriots, and solitary strivers?

Feel free to keep commenting on yesterday's post and to add your thoughts to today's, but let's also set a schedule for the next letters. How about letters 3 and 4 by Wednesday, July 17? If you all prefer to move more quickly (or more slowly), let me know.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Rilke's "Letters to a Young Poet": Intro and Letters 1 and 2

One thing that struck me about these opening letters was Rilke's complete disinterest in sugarcoating the flaws of apprentice writing. "Your verses have no individual style, although they do show quiet and hidden beginnings of something personal." Off the top of my head, I can think of several people who, if I wrote such words to them about their poems, would flare into name-calling fury or collapse into a swamp of depression. Yet, of course, Rilke's words are simply honest. So my first curiosity is about the kind of person who is able to receive such words, accept them, and continue to strive as a student and a human being. What was it like to be Kappus, a man who thought he wanted to be a poet but never became one?

I'm also struck by sentences in these letters that seem to recall our conversations at the Frost Place this year. For instance: "If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place." This seems like a more a beautiful version of "you've got to use your stuff," and I find the instruction both very comforting and very demanding.

What did you notice in these first two letters? What were your reactions to Kappus's introduction? Did anything seem pertinent to your own life as a writer or a reader? Did anything worry or puzzle you? Leave your thoughts in the comments or, if you prefer, email them to me or share them as a Facebook message and I will post them for you.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Last night was a beastly night for sleeping, in more ways than one. Not only was the weather intensely humid, not only did hairy, hot Ruckus the Cat insist on curling up next to my head, not only did the bedroom fan sound like a small but powerful mid-twentieth-century aeroplane, but I had two highly annoying items stuck in my head: first, the lyrics to Peter, Paul, and Mary's "I Dig Rock-and-Roll Music," which has to be one of the worst songs ever written, possibly even rivaling the Eagles' "Hotel California" in my pantheon of loathing; and, second, Edward Shevardnadze's name, which my brain kept spelling out to itself: "S-H-E-V-A-R-D? . . . is D right? . . . D-N-A . . . " Ugh.

Thank goodness it's all over now (except for the humidity) and I am awake and boiling water for coffee and not thinking about how to spell anything. If I've left any typos in this post, be assured that I don't care.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Here in Harmony, the air is freighted with wet. The sky, gray as a wing, hovers twenty feet over the green and sodden earth. The humidity is so intense that my skin has difficulty telling if the weather is chilly or torrid. In the woods an unknown bird chatters: chewka, chewka, chewka, pause; chewka, chewka, chewka, pause. In the house the refrigerator grumbles and sweats. This is the sort of weather that tempts tomato plants to grow a foot taller every night. Meanwhile, slugs consume rows of lettuce, and bullfrogs bubble and grunt in the vernal pools.

I have started reading a book I bought in Brooklyn: James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. It is a very odd book; imagine a mishmash of Walter Scott, Jonathan Edwards, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Laurence Sterne. Here is Hogg's bio, which may give you a sense of his oddity.
James Hogg (1770-1835) was born in the Ettrick Valley in the Scottish Borders. When he was seven, his father, a sheep farmer, went bankrupt and Hogg left school hardly able to read; he could only shape letters "nearly an inch in length," he wrote later in his autobiography. For many years, he worked as a cowherd and later as a shepherd. His mother, however, steeped him in ballads and folklore, and his grandfather was apparently the last man to talk with the fairies. Only in his twenties, when Hogg was exposed to books once more, did he begin to write, his first creations being "songs and ballads made up for the lassies to sing in chorus." At forty, he set out for Edinburgh and, after starting the short-lived satirical magazine The Spy, he wrote poems and stories for Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, first published in 1824, has long been considered his masterpiece.

He was also an ancestor of Alice Munro's, and she writes about him in The View from Castle Rock.

I wish my grandfather had been "the last man to talk with the fairies."

Monday, July 7, 2014

A poignant half-hour at Coney Island:

I'm sitting on a curb in the shade beneath the boardwalk with my friend Steve, who is recovering from a sudden dizzy fit, while the rest of the boys hie off to the Wonder Wheel. We're talking in a desultory way. Above us, on the boardwalk, the people of Coney Island trudge and trundle by: women in summer dresses, women in bikinis, men with tattoos, men in wheelchairs, women in cargo shorts, men in work pants, children in flippers, children in flipflops, children in carriages, children in tears, drunken soccer fans, sober soccer fans, teenagers eating fried clams, teenagers shrieking in fake terror, teenagers pushing strollers, teenagers embracing, teenagers flipping each other the bird.

Beside us, in our shady hideaway, which reeks of urine and seawater and carnival grease and the detritus of Nathan's Famous Hotdogs, sits a grandmother. She is a tiny, tiny grandmother, dressed neatly in a go-to-church dress and saggy stockings and sensible go-to-church shoes, and she is sitting in a tiny, tiny folding chair, the kind of chair made for four-year-olds, but it fits her because she is so extremely little. The grandmother is surrounded by beach bags and blankets and playthings; clearly she has been left to watch the belongings while the rest of her family has rushed off to ride the rides. She sits up very straight in her tiny, tiny chair and looks intently into the crowd, longing for some member of her family to come back and see how she is doing.

For most of the half-hour that Steve and I sit on the curb, no one comes back to check on her. So she sits there, still and silent and attentive, surrounded by bags and playthings, doing everything she can to retain her reserve and her dignity. And this is difficult, because on the other side of her sits a man in the throes of an opium dream. He laughs and orates; he lifts his arms regally toward the boardwalk; he speak in tongues to invisible listeners. Occasionally he returns to this small corner of Coney Island. When a beach ball bounces against his leg, he tosses it neatly to a running child. He opens a bag and pours a small amount of soda into a paper cup. But such moments are brief: he sinks back almost immediately into his dream; he smiles at his invisible acquaintance; he brandishes his hands like a Shakespearean actor; "Yes, yes!" he cries. "Actually, yes!"

The tiny, tiny grandmother refuses to turn her head in his direction, though he is no more than six feet away from her. She refuses to turn her head in my direction, though I am sitting no more than six feet away on her other side. She sits alone, her back as straight as a fencepost, her tiny hands clasped in her lap, and stares into the crowd, waiting, waiting, for her family to come back to her.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

More snapshots from Brooklyn and its Manhattan suburbs:

We spent the Fourth of July in that bastion of capitalism, the Morgan Library, during which time we embraced our democratic freedom to speak scornfully of an emperor of finance while simultaneously gawking at his loot.

Here, for instance, is an original manuscript showing how 17-year-old Mozart revised the first bars of one of his symphonies.

And here is a manuscript of a Whitman poem.

As a change of pace, here is the label of an extremely fine bottle of French hard cider, served ice cold, with excellent Vermont cheese.

And this morning, I saw these two patriotic cats, snoring on an awning after an exciting holiday evening. 

Friday, July 4, 2014

Snapshot from Brooklyn

9 a.m., Gowanus Canal, quiet warehouses, greasy water, vines and metal piles, small snuffly dogs, leafy street, record store that also sells excellent coffee, Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, me singing to myself, laughing with Tom at the cover of Jethro Tull: A Passion Play, sidewalk shrine for a smiling faded dead man, metal doors clattering up, subway roaring over the 9th Street bridge, smoking woman still smoking outside the hotel, boys still sleeping, air conditioner rumbling. No hurricane yet.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

from The Way of Life according to Laotzu [born c. 640 B.C.], translated by Witter Bynner

The less a leader does and says
The happier his people,
The more a leader struts and brags
The sorrier his people.
Often what appears to be unhappiness is happiness
And what appears to be happiness is unhappiness.
Who can see what leads to what
When happiness appears and yet is not,
When what should be is nothing but a mask
Disguising what should not be? Who can but ask
An end to such a stupid plot!
Therefore a sound man shall so square the circle
And circle the square as not to injure, not to impede:
The glow of his life shall not daze,
It shall lead.

I am thinking that this is as good a definition as any of the way in which I try to guide the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching. Of course I often fail, sometimes miserably. But I keep trying.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Such heat here in Harmony, Maine! Last winter, I never thought we'd see summer again, and now we're enveloped in dense humidity, 90-degree temperatures, sweating drink glasses, warm ponds. . . . All my blog posts will be late because early morning is my only chance to work or exercise outside. On Sunday Tom and I got up at dawn and went canoeing on the lake here in town: watched the mists rise from still waters, listened to loons, floated among reeds and water lilies, ate a picnic breakfast on a granite island, capsized the canoe, had a run-in with said granite island (right leg is now quite ugly in a non-medical-emergency sort of way), laughed, drove home, and fell asleep for much of the afternoon. Yesterday morning I reamed out a vetch-infested iris bed; this morning I weeded, transplanted sunflowers, and mowed around the gardens. Tomorrow I turn my attention to the vegetable garden, and Thursday we're off to New York for a bacchanal wedding party. And next week, at long last, my life retreats to the pedestrian.

In the meantime, I am reading Iris Murdoch and Rilke, wearing linen, drinking unsweetened ice tea made with Twinings Lady Grey teabags (a fine and delicate flavor: recommended), eating Indian black-pepper rice (a lovely cold side dish: recommended), watching World Cup soccer (a waste of time but sort of recommended), and arguing with the cat (not recommended).