Thursday, April 30, 2015

This week's activities: solidifying a syllabus for an upcoming school visit, editing a book about writers and their mentors, rehearsing for a weekend band gig, copying out more of Beowulf, considering how I might invent the story of the unnamed women in Beowulf, pruning raspberry canes in the cold rain, digging up garden soil in the cold rain, baking bread, hanging laundry, writing introductions for visiting poets at the Frost Place, helping my overwrought son memorize his giant part in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, cleaning up after the aged dog, reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, reading Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, reading the poems of Auden, talking with a young and anxious poet about how he might think about organizing his manuscript, driving multiple 60-mile round trips to fetch overwrought children from school, judging a large regional poetry contest, hauling firewood in the cold rain, revising poems, preparing numerous sit-down meals, wondering why the washing machine seems to be leaking, cheating on a crossword puzzle, attending a high school track meet in the cold rain, harvesting dandelion greens in the cold rain, and helping my overwrought son parse out his distress about the situation in Baltimore.

Yesterday I noticed that my husband had written on a form: "Dawn works 10 hours per week."

I am trying not to think too hard about this.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Fragments: The Bonds of Art and War

Eastward, across the Atlantic, the warlords were piling up weaponry and preparing for a conflict whose slaughter would make the little massacres of the plains and mountains seem as nothing. What are the eighty men killed in the Fetterman massacre, or the losses at the Alamo, the Little Bighorn, Wounded Knee compared to the tens of thousands killed on the first day of the battle of the Somme? In the American West the agony was sharp but short: twenty minutes for the Fetterman massacre, perhaps an hour for the Little Bighorn, only thirteen days for the siege of the Alamo. It was left to the military strategists of the older societies to devise conflicts that, in duration and detail, paralleled the long works of Proust, Dickens, Tolstoy. Think of Verdun, Gallipoli, the siege of Leningrad.

[Larry McMurtry, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen]


[Either Captain Myles Keogh] or Major Alfred Gibbs suggested that the Seventh have its own band. Whoever came up with the idea, Custer approved--personally contributing $50 toward the cost of instruments--and it was either Keogh or Custer who proposed "Garry Owen" as a marching tune.

"Garry Owen " is an old Irish quick-step that has been traced back to about 1800 and is known to have been used by several Irish regiments, including the Fifth Royal Lancers whose members regarded it as a suitable drinking song. . . .

The last tune played by the regimental band for Custer's benefit was "Garry Owen." Excepting the indispensable buglers, all Seventh Cavalry musicians stayed at the Powder River Depot. They were posted on a knoll and when their comrades marched off to destiny they struck up that inspiring tune, which brought a hearty cheer, said Pvt. Goldin: "its notes were still ringing in our ears as we left the river bottom and the band was lost to sight. . . . "

Keogh is remembered these days not because of a musical contribution, not for his gallantry, not for his sex appeal, but because of his horse Comanche, reputed to be the only survivor of Little Bighorn.

[Evan S. Connell, Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn]


The war chief who rallied the Indians and turned back [Major Marcus] Reno's attack [at Little Bighorn] was a muscular, full-chested, thirty-six-year-old Hunkpapa named Pizi, or Gall. Gall had grown up in the tribe as an orphan. While still a young man he distinguished himself as a hunter and warrior, and Sitting Bull adopted him as a younger brother. Some years before, while the commissioners were attempting to persuade the Sioux to take up farming as a part of the treaty of 1868, Gall went to Fort Rice to speak for the Hunkpapas. "We were born naked," he said, "and have been taught to hunt and live on the game. You tell us that we must learn to farm, live in one house, and take on your ways. Suppose the people living beyond the great sea should come and tell you that you must stop farming and kill your cattle, and take your houses and lands, what would you do?" . . .

Reno's first onrush caught several women and children in the open, and the cavalry's flying bullets virtually wiped out Gall's family. "It made my heart bad," he told a newspaperman some years later. "After that I killed all my enemies with the hatchet."

[Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West]


The Fate of Captain Fetterman’s Command

Dawn Potter


At first light we saw our enemies
on the bluff
silver flashing in their hair

a glory of sun as they rode away laden
with tunics saddles boots arrows
still piercing the cracked boots

piercing our silent comrades
and just visible in the dawn
we saw wolves and coyotes

skulking along the verge
crows buzzards eagles circling
the sun-spattered meadow

but not one white body was disturbed
for we hear that salt permeates
the whole system of our race

which protects us from the wild
to some degree but it was strange
that nothing had eaten the horses either

except for flies which swarmed in thick
like the stench
all day we waited

till the doctor finished his report then
they told us to pack our friends
into the ammunition wagons

this was our job they said to retch
to stumble into the field to grasp
at wrists at ankles dissolving to pulp

under our grip to vomit to weep
to stare at masks pounded bloody with stones
bloated crawling with flies who were they

this was our job but we could not sort
cavalry from infantry all stripped
naked slashed skulls crushed

with war clubs ears noses legs
hacked off and some had
crosses cut on their breasts

faces to the sky
we walked on their hearts
but did not know it in the high grass

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


According to the Custer Battlefield Museum, "University of Kansas naturalist Lewis Lindsay Dyche prepared Comanche for exhibition at the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893. Following the fair, Comanche was returned to the KU Natural History Museum. Following a major restoration and conservation effort in 2004, the museum began exhibiting Comanche in a new exhibit, where the horse remains today as a popular attraction."

Tuesday, April 28, 2015


I stand here at my desk, looking south into the brown daylight, my eyes flickering over the sopping laundry on the clothesline, the empty shabby chicken house, the orange wheelbarrow parked beside the wet garden. The day is quiet, except for the birds--hundreds of them, perhaps, concealed in the trees that ring our clearing--shrilling and banging and peeping and hollering. The day is quiet, except for the chainsaw. Almost always in this town, someone, somewhere, is running a chainsaw.

Meanwhile, in Baltimore, in Nepal, in a thousand other places, fury stalks the streets and stones.

In May 1985, the Philadelphia police fire-bombed a houseful of MOVE activists, killing eleven people and destroying more than sixty homes. I was a junior at Haverford College, a few miles down the road, an elite school tucked into the rich safe suburbs. That night a few of my friends and I climbed onto the roof of a classroom building and watched Osage Avenue burn. The sight was horrible. I cried and shivered and cried--useless, terrified--a witness, an impotent storyteller.

"Who am I, to be here and not there?" I kept thinking.

This is a question with too many answers, with not enough answers. And while I waste time asking it, the fire keeps burning and the earth keeps shaking, and the chainsaw growls, and the birds in the trees continue their customary shrieks and chatter, an uproar of blood and instinct, neither pretty nor placid.

I suppose there's an eloquence in all this. There's eloquence in silence too. The problem is figuring out how to respond. The cat's answer is to kill as many birds as he can. I try not to put my hands over my ears.

Monday, April 27, 2015

"What distinguishes the novel from all other forms of prose literature is that it neither comes from oral tradition nor goes into it. The birthplace of the novel is the solitary individual, who is no longer able to express himself by giving examples of his more important concerns, is himself uncounselled, and cannot counsel others." Thus Walter Benjamin again, making sure that no one confuses a novelist with a storyteller. The question I want to investigate is how someone like myself, growing up in a place that had just been settled, and a place, moreover, in which nothing of cultural or historical consequence had ever happened, became a novelist instead of being content to worry over an old woman who had been traded for skunk hides, or a dairy farmer who had given way to despair. Does mere human memory, the soil that nourishes storytelling, still have any use at all? What, in this age when we are all so oversupplied with information, does a given human need to remember, other than, perhaps, the names of his or her spouse (if any) and children?

--Larry McMurtry, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen


Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark,
nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him
to hear the din of the loud banquet
every day in the hall, the harp being struck
and the clear song of a skilled poet
telling with mastery of man's beginnings.

--Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney


Things standing thus unknown, shall live  behind me!
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story.

--William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Strips of sunlight are filtering through the white pines. Though the thermometer now stands at 28 degrees, I did pick a bouquet of budding daffodils yesterday. I also planted peas, cleaned out my herb garden, and hung a load of laundry on the outside lines. Mid-afternoon, a few peepers croaked plaintively, and I watched a pileated woodpecker sample the telephone pole beside the driveway. The weather was not warm at all, but the animals and I tried to pretend otherwise.

In other household news: because I accidentally followed a recipe for a double crust rather than a single one, I made two pies for dinner. One was a quiche with sauteed grated carrots, garlic, jarlsberg cheese, and freshly cut chives; the other was a galette with a heap of sauteed onions, sliced tomatoes, goat cheese, and the ubiquitous chives. Then I tossed baby kale with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, spread the salad out on the dinner plates, and served slices of pie on top. The texture variations were lovely, and now I am always going to make two pies for dinner.

Today, if it doesn't snow, I plan to dig up a batch of dandelion greens. I haven't yet decided how to serve them, but something will occur to me.
[Sylvia] did not sleep, thinking of the little goat, whose appearance out of the fog seemed to her more and more magical. She wondered if, possibly, Leon [her dead husband, a famous poet] could have had something to do with it. If she was a poet she would write a poem about something like this. But in her experience the subjects that she thought a poet could write about did not appeal to Leon. 
--from "Runaway" by Alice Munro

Friday, April 24, 2015

It's conceivable that I could plant something today. The garden is finally clear of snow and beginning to dry out. But the air is stiff and gray and raw . . . March air, not a hint of spring softness. There is nothing sweet in this air, nothing to make a seed want to grow.

I spent a bit of time with Beowulf yesterday. The Geats have "duly arrived [at the Danes' mead hall] / in their grim war-graith and gear"
and, weary from the sea, stacked wide shields
of the toughest hardwood against the wall,
then collapsed on the benches; battle-dress
and weapons clashed.
Yes, for many thousands of years, boys have been stomping into houses, and dropping all of their heavy stuff in a big noisy clatter, and clunking down onto chairs and benches. The next thing these Geats will do is fidget during the old-guy speeches and then eat a ridiculous amount of food.

Why would anyone suggest that this poem is too hard for teenagers? This poem is about teenagers.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Tom is out in the shop hysterically building picture frames for his upcoming photo show, Paul is pacing around the living room hysterically memorizing lines for his upcoming performance, but I am calmly sitting at the kitchen table thinking about fresh chive pesto, pileated woodpeckers, and what kinds of writers I'd hunt for if I ran a publishing company.

I made no progress on Beowulf yesterday because I spent all of my free hours being Rosencrantz to Paul's Guildenstern. However, nobody expects me to be helpful with picture frames.

It's still raining here in Harmony. According to Tom, the peepers were out last night, but I slept straight through them. I was too busy dreaming about chasing the cat through crowded city streets and forgetting to feed a baby for two or three days. Oy.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Yesterday I began copying out Heaney's translation of Beowulf. It is, of course, glorious but also exceedingly simple, a lesson in beauty and accuracy. For instance, writing of the moment when the Danes buried their king, Shield Sheafson, at sea, the anonymous poet tells us that "they shouldered him out to the sea's flood." The sentence is filled with images of pallbearers, strength, waves, the weight of the corpse, ritual, yet the poet (via Heaney) chose none of those specifics to describe the scene. I would like to think like the Beowulf poet, at least now and again.

Recently I read a poem written by the sixth-grade daughter of a friend. She, too, was eloquent in her simplicity--reaching for the plain verb, the plain noun, but putting them together in ways that were exciting and surprising. "String the stems of the flowers." "Push the clouds higher in the sky." "Sing with all the footsteps." Beowulf is a poem in this tradition--a plain story of men and monsters, yet it also presses us to see violence, terror, and retribution as versions of beauty. It's a very distressing poem, and perhaps, because I am a woman, I am also unable to avoid reading it as a closed door. My story is not in this poem.
[Beouw] was four times a father, this fighter prince:
one by one they entered the world,
Heorogar, Hrothgar, the good Halga
and a daughter, I have heard, who was Onela's queen,
a balm in bed to the battle-scarred Swede.
Has anyone written the tale of this daughter?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The rain is pouring down, falling in sheets from the eaves, transforming mudholes into ponds, swelling the buds on the lilacs. The air quivers.

On Sunday, when I was digging, I found a snake, tiny and cold, red-edged, curled into a tendril like a pea shoot. But today there will be no digging.

Yesterday I dusted my desk, shelved books, stacked papers. Today I begin a new project. I wonder if it might involve the Aeneid. That poem is calling to me, calling me back, calling me to look again. I wonder if I could copy out the entire epic or if I would die first?

In the meantime, here I sit, gazing at the rain dripping from the fir trees, watching the small songbirds cluster at the feeder, listening to the dog groan  and the woodstove sigh and the gutters leak and the clock tick.

I have the sensation of being no one in particular.

The rain is pouring down, and down.

Monday, April 20, 2015

My poem, "After Twenty Years," appeared in yesterday's Portland Press Herald. I wonder what people thought of it. The poem is sad, and perhaps people prefer not to feel sad on the most beautiful day of the spring. 

Yet sometimes the habits of care do become a way of not speaking. Familiar silence is both a comfort and a mask. There is so much we do not know about the ones we have known for so long.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Last night Tom and our 17-year-old went to Portland to see a rock show and had an excellent time together. One of the loveliest adjustments in parent-child relations has been our generations' ability to interact over popular music. My parents would never have taken me to a rock show. They barely knew what pop music entailed. In fact, it didn't occur to them to buy me a radio until I left home for college.

I did not go to the show but stayed home convalescently on the couch and watched Houseboat, a terrible movie starring Cary Grant, a young thin Sophia Loren, and a trio of annoying child actors. For some reason I did not fall asleep but watched the entire dreadful thing. The only constructive thing I learned is that Sophia Loren became much sexier as she aged. Let us always take comfort from the fact that some people really do look better when they're not young and thin.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Slowly, slowly, I am returning to human form. It is amazing how even a minor illness can skew a person's ability to negotiate among the simple matters of daily life. Nothing made sense this past week, I was confused about everything, so forgive me for whatever dimwit thing I might have said to you.

Anyway, here I am--still not exactly healthy, but optimistic. The sun is shining and the snow is melting and I am fidgeting with a poem revision and reading the stories of Alice Munro. Today looks to be the sort of day when Tom might take down the storm windows and the cat will try to climb the ladder and the dog will joyously discover the old flat mole she buried last fall. And I am thinking about digging in the garden patches near the house, hauling away branches and bark, repairing plow-damaged sod, pruning roses. I am probably not well enough to follow through on most of those plans, but at least I am interested in the idea of working hard.

Now let's talk about food. For dinner last night, we had our first taste of spring: diced parsnips roasted in olive oil. Yesterday I saw chive and hop shoots thrusting through the gray leaf litter. Perhaps today I will uncover garlic or rhubarb or trace signs of the nettles that grow in the forest verge behind the chicken house.

Thin pizza dough topped with olive oil, fried garlic, chopped blanched nettles, parmesan, and red-pepper flakes. Dinner of the spring gods.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Signs of Spring in Harmony, Maine

 Ruckus and his shadow stalk through a patch of flattened leaves.

Somewhere under that snow is my garden spot.

Anna poses attractively on the snowpile where she stores her favorite disgusting bone.

 Believe or not, these flowers are actually blooming in my yard. They are not plastic facsimiles.

The woodshed peeks out from behind the remnant of a giant snowpile.

Portrait of a bad driving decision

Thursday, April 16, 2015

I have been very sick ever since returning from AWP. What started off as a plain old cold began to blossom into something close to pneumonia, and I was kind of scared last night. This morning, however, I feel like I am finally returning to plain-old-cold status. Three cheers for a scratchy throat and clear lungs.

Although spring has arrived in Harmony, my eyes have been sensitive to light and I haven't been able to spend any time outside in the sunshine. Perhaps today I will be able sit on the stoop, maybe even prune a few scraggly roses or scratch around a little among the daffodil shoots. Maybe I'll be able to take some pictures of our mud and snowpiles and crocuses and Ruckus whizzing among the derisive squirrels.

I am still rereading Adam Bede, slowly and sadly. Bad things are about to happen to all of the characters.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Introducing Jean Kanzinger: 2015 Teaching Fellow at the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching

In 2014, I added an experimental new position to the staff at the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching: the Frost Place teaching fellow. The person in this role would be an experienced educator and a past conference participant who would work as a liaison between the teaching philosophies of the faculty poets and the hands-on goals and responsibilities of teachers in the classroom.

Alyssa Kelly, our 2014 teaching fellow, brought so much intelligence, patience, and fun to the role that we immediately realized that we needed to continue the experiment. So I'm delighted to introduce Jean Kanzinger, the 2015 teaching fellow at the Conference on Poetry and Teaching, who will not only continue to help me hone the definitions of the position but also inspire both faculty and participants as we work to become the best teachers we can be.

Jean currently teaches English at Chagrin Falls High School in northeast Ohio. She attended the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching in both 2010 and 2013 and has since served as a teacher consultant to the program. She says that, for her, the conference has been an endless source of inspiration and comraderie as she works to bring poetry more fully into the classroom. Jean is a National Writing Project teacher consultant and serves as a member of the Teaching Consultant Council for the National Writing Project site at Kent State University. She has taught poetry to K-12 students and has conducted workshops for language arts teachers on poetry instruction. Jean writes a quarterly education post for the CavanKerry Press blog, and later this year the Academy of American Poets will begin featuring samples of her poetry curricula at

I feel so fortunate to have Jean on this year's conference staff, along with associate director Teresa Carson and visiting poets Gibson Fay-LeBlanc and Marcus Jackson. Not only are they all outstanding teachers, but all share a mission to bring poetry into everyday lives both in and outside the classroom. The Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching has a unique mission, uniting colleagues from both K-12 settings and those who work in higher education, independent workshops, social services, administration, government, and lifelong learning programs. I do hope you will join us on the porch.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Sports and Radiance: A Tribute to Eduardo Galeano

The Uruguyan writer Eduardo Galeano died this week. Though he wrote many books, I know him best as the author of Soccer in Sun and Shadow, one of the most beautiful works of sportswriting I have ever read.
The history of soccer is a sad voyage from beauty to duty. . . . Nobody earns a thing from that crazy feeling that for a moment turns a man into a child playing with a balloon, like a cat with a ball of yarn; a ballet dancer who romps with a ball as light as a balloon or a ball of yarn, playing without even knowing he's playing, with no purpose or clock or referee.
I was thinking about Galeano's book as I listened to the Boston Red Sox play their home opener yesterday. In the top of the first inning, a rookie center fielder named Mookie Betts leaped at the wall and caught what could have easily been a two-run homer. In the bottom of the first, he worked a walk and then stole two bases on the same play. In the bottom of the second, he hit a three-run homer.
The ball seeks him out, knows him, needs him. She rests and rocks on the top of his foot. He caresses her and makes her speak, and in that tête-à-tête millions of mutes converse.
Galeano wrote about soccer, but his words transcend the game. Sports, for all their corruption, falsity, and gilded pointlessness, allow us to adore, for a few hours, a few moments, "the carnal delight of embracing the forbidden adventure of freedom."
When the game is over, the fan, who has not moved from the stands, celebrates his victory: "What a goal we scored," "What a beating we gave them." Or he cries over his defeat: "They swindled us again," "Thief of a referee." And then the sun goes down and so does the fan. Shadows fall over the emptying stadium. On the concrete terracing, a few fleeting bonfires burn, while the lights and voices fade. The stadium is left alone and the fan, too, returns to his solitude: to the I who had been we.
By chance, my father was in the stands in Pittsburgh, in 1960, at the seventh game of the World Series, when Bill Mazeroski launched a spectacular ninth-inning home run and the Pirates beat the Yankees 10 to 9. What else in a life can compare with that instant? And yet my father had nothing to do with Mazeroski's action. He merely watched it happen.

The ball laughs, radiant, in the air. He brings her down, puts her to sleep, showers her with compliments, dances with her, and seeing such things never before seen, his admirers pity their unborn grandchildren who will never see them.

Monday, April 13, 2015

I got home at 1 a.m., fell asleep with the suddenness of a pebble kicked off a cliff, and then woke up at 5:30 a.m. because it was Monday and I needed to see my son before he went to school. So here I am, awake but still sleep-deprived, even though I have already cleaned up after the dog, dealt with an incident of credit-card fraud, and squealed with joy at the sight of daffodil spikes in a patch of bare ground. I hope to speak to you tomorrow in the guise of a person who has actually gotten a full night's sleep. In the meantime, read these words by George Eliot, the queen of loving kindness:
There are [those] who die poor, and never put off the workman's coat on week-days; they have not had the art of getting rich; but they are men of trust, and when they die before the work is all out of them, it is as if some main screw had got loose in a machine; the master who employed them says: "Where shall I find their like?" 
[from Adam Bede, 1859]

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Well, it seems that the famous poet who showed me photos of her cats has also given me her cold. Ah, well.

I've had insomnia for the entire course of my visit to Minneapolis. I do have some hope of sleeping tonight, though I won't be sleeping any time soon because my flight doesn't get into Bangor until midnight and then I have to drive another hour to get home.

Good things that happened in Minneapolis: I met several people who are exciting possibilities for future Frost Place faculty poets. I spent a fair amount of time with staff members of the Academy of American Poets, cogitating about ways to link our education missions. I hung out for days with three new friends: CavanKerry poets Loren Graham and Brent Newsom and the press's managing editor, Starr Troup. Together, we sold almost every book on the press table.

Best thing that happened in Minneapolis: I had dinner with a man I had not seen since we were 21 years old. It was a miracle, and now we can be friends forever.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Questions about AWP from My Son
Do you all just hang around in a big room? 
Answer: Yes.

Things I Have Seen at AWP
An anthology titled Fuck Poems, and a girl from Green Bay who said if you want to see a Packer, hang out at Buffalo Wild Wings.
Oddly Enough . . .
I have sold a lot of books, and a famous poet showed me pictures of her cat. 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Notes from AWP

1. Young literary women pack many changes of clothes.

2. People who promote their self-published books by aggressively pressing them on publishers of entirely different kinds of books seem confused about their audience.

3. Waxed handlebar mustaches look even worse up close.

4. The woman in the bathroom stall next to me was the one who accidentally tore the giant toilet paper holder off the wall and flung it pell-mell under the partition and then had to drag it back to herself by the stream of unrolled toilet paper.

5. The woman in front of me was the one who tipped over the strip of metal walk-this-way guideposts and made the giant clanging noise.

6. If I'm beside you, you might embarrass yourself.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Why Keep Teaching the Poetry of the Past?

Yesterday a teacher friend drew my attention to an article written by an extremely well known poet, in which he suggests that middle and high schools should no longer attempt to teach canonical poetry. Instead, he says, they should focus on contemporary poems, which he feels would be more fun and relevant for both teacher and student. He believes they should relegate the old stuff (his example is Beowulf) to college.

Now, I'm not trying to start an argument with either this poet or his fans. It seems to me that he is probably more comfortable teaching contemporary poetry and that he gets good reactions from teachers and students when he does so. That's great. But poets, teachers, and students are a large and varied group, with different talents, affections, and needs. I would not be a poet if I had never read Pope or Milton or Shakespeare or Chaucer or Hopkins as a young, impressionable, romantic, yearning adolescent. I am not the only contemporary poet with this strong creative bond to the poetry of the past. But looking beyond my own case, I think that limiting young readers' interactions with the poetry of the past is a horrible, horrible idea.

1. Imagine never introducing young people to any element of American history before 1990. Why would you restrict their knowledge of literature in the same way?

2. If you limit the "hard stuff" to college classes, then what message are you sending to students who don't have the option of going to college? A glance through The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass or the letters of Emily Dickinson will remind you of the impact of these kinds of assumptions.

3. So many young people adore formal poetry. An attraction to rhyme and meter is a natural human urge. They also love the feeling of complex language in their mouths. I teach Shakespeare and Coleridge to kindergartners. Of course they can't manage an entire poem, so I give them phrases, lines, stanzas--two words in Chaucer's Middle English to experiment with, to treasure. I believe that if we encourage curiosity about language at an early age, students will become more comfortable with mystery and more adventurous in their own reading choices.

4. The stories and the emotions of the past are the stories and the emotions of the present. Dido's heartbreak is a teenager's heartbreak. Keats's peak in Darien belongs to anyone who has made a breathtaking discovery. Don't limit a young person's story to the present tense.

5. College is already a difficult transition for many students. Reducing their exposure to classic literature gives them less experience with complex writing, concentrated reading, critical comparisons, etc., etc. Why would we want our students to enter college with fewer advanced reading and writing skills?

6. Again and again, I have watched master teachers create vivid connections between poems such as Beowulf and students' familiar amusements: video games, YouTube projects, sporting events, mixtapes, and on and on. Great literature offers classes so many opportunities to play!

6. You can't tell from looking at students what works of literature will resonate with them. Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen was obsessed with the nineteenth-century English romantics. The way to reach the largest number of students is to give them as much variety as you can: poems from around the world, spanning time and place and people and ideas; poems that offer language as comfort but also as challenge.

7.  Denise Levertov's "The Secret" opens with these lines:
Two girls discover
the secret of life
in a sudden line of
But as she reminds us later in the poem,
a thousand times, till death
finds them, they may
discover it again, in other

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Snow again. Yesterday's bare muddy ground has returned to white, mirror of the pale sky that hovers among the muffled trees.

For the past several days I have been working doggedly on a new poem . . . and copying out Carruth's collection Brothers, I Love You All, and shuttling between George Eliot's Adam Bede and Ivy Compton-Burnett's Manservant and Maidservant, and pondering a friend's novel, and listening to the Red Sox trounce the Phillies, and eating leftover hot-cross buns, and wondering, "Who reads Spenser's The Faerie Queene on an airplane and maybe I should be the first." I expect, in the end, I'll decide against it.

Once, several years ago, I sat in LaGuardia copying out Paradise Lost and feeling like the strangest person on the planet. Some of that reaction was vanity, and some was dismay, but most of it was prayer. Save me, oh, save me, muse of poetry.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Introducing Teresa Carson: 2015 Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching Faculty

Since 2012, when I took over directorship of the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching, the program's associate director, Teresa Carson, has been my stay and my support. On the surface, we are complete opposites: tall, short; rural, urban; excited about bears, not excited about bears. But in so many other ways we are symbiotic. Like me, Teresa is passionate about the long historical conversation of poetry--Melville, Emerson, Dickinson, Keats--but she grounds that dialogue in a present-tense engagement with her own particulars and those of the world around her. At the Frost Place, we work with so many teachers who are charged with exactly this task--that is, of finding ways to pull the literature of the past into active interaction with their students' growing minds. Thus, Teresa's acute sensitivity to this connection has been invaluable, not only to me personally but also to conference participants and the trajectory of the program.

In addition to serving as the conference's associate director, Teresa is associate publisher at CavanKerry Press. She is the author of two collections of poetry, Elegy for the Floater (CavanKerry Press, 2008) and (CavanKerry Press, 2014). Her third collection, The Congress of Human Oddities, is forthcoming from Deerbrook Editions in 2015. She holds two MFAs--one in poetry, the other in theater, both from Sarah Lawrence College.

For more about Teresa, visit her website. And here's a beautiful example of her work, as featured by the Academy of American Poets.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

In Memoriam (Easter, 1915)

Edward Thomas

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Passionate Shepherd to His Love

Christopher Marlowe

Come live with me, and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That hills and valleys, dales and fields,
And all the craggy mountains yields.

And we will sit upon the rocks,
Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks
By shallow rivers, to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.

And I will make thee beds of roses,
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers and a kirtle
Embroider’d all with leaves of myrtle.

A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty lambs we pull,
Fair linéd slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold;

A belt of straw and ivy-buds,
With coral clasps and amber studs,
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me, and be my love.

Thy silver dishes for thy meat,
As precious as the gods do eat,
Shall on an ivory table be
Prepar’d each day for thee and me.

The shepherd swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May-morning;
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me, and be my love.


Once upon a time I taught this poem to a high school class. A roomful of girls complained about the obnoxious unreliable narrator, and then the only boy in the class spoke up: "I think it's beautiful." He blushed. All of the girls fell silent and then, in one motion, turned toward him as if the scales had just fallen from their eyes and they suddenly, for a moment, saw him as the romantic hero of his dreams. It was a very odd situation to sit through, as an observer.

The Marlowe poem reminds me of the Carruth excerpt I posted yesterday: two versions of the voice of the coaxing male. Some readers will find them charming, and some will find them unpleasant. But a boy's gotta ask, doesn't he? It's possible I didn't ponder so much about that conundrum before I was the mother of sons.

Friday, April 3, 2015

from Green Mountain Idyl by Hayden Carruth

I’d mulch your strawberries & cultivate
            your potato patch
all summer long
            & then in winter
come thirty below & the steel-busting weather
            I’d tune your distributor & adjust
your carburetor
            if me & you was together

be it sunshine be it gloom
            summer or the mean mud season
honey I’d kiss you
            every morningtime
& evenings I’d hurry
            to get shut of the barn chores early
& then in the dark of the night
            I’d stand at the top of the stairs & hold the light
for you                        for you
           if you’d sleep in my room

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Students Stand Up for Their Right to Learn

A few days ago I shared a rant about standardized testing--specifically the way in which the new Smarter Balanced assessment was being implemented in my son's high school. In the meantime, there have been developments. In essence, members of the junior class took matters into their own hands. Because many students were upset about the way in which the test schedule would have damaged their ability to keep up with their schoolwork (they would have missed their first- and second-period classes for most of a week), they threatened a mass opt-out. And after a few scrambles and missteps, the administration apologized for its error in judgment and rescheduled the test, compressing it so that all students and teachers will miss as little class time as possible.

Now, in the big picture, things may not look very different. The kids still have to take this giant dumb test. In the small picture, however, the students are ecstatic. As my son crowed in the email he sent me yesterday, "The revolution was (semi)successful!!!!" Students took a stand in favor of their right to an education, and the powers-that-be conceded to them. For kids who have spent most of their lives as bottom feeders in the top-down world of educational control, this was a huge victory.

As the students were skirmishing, I was writing a letter to the administration in support of my son's decision to opt out of the test. Now I no longer need to send that letter: having accomplished his goal, he is willing to meet the administration halfway and take the test. This is his decision, and I told him that I would support him either way. Nonetheless, I think the points in my letter are still valid, so I'll share a few excerpts.
When my son comes home from school and says to me, "All I want to do is just be able to go to class!" then I know that something is deeply wrong with the testing scenario. Our family did not make the decision to opt out lightly. But as a parent I have the responsibility to support my son's best interests, which, in the case of this test schedule, are also his teachers' best interests. 
While I regret that these actions have made the administration's job more difficult, I think that you, too, are aware that the state's approach to testing is misguided. It is abhorrent that policymakers continue to use these kinds of assessments as political tools for shaming schools and educators. Perhaps our children, in their eagerness to stand up for their right to learn, are taking a first step toward change.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Today, on the first of April, my yard is still covered with snow, though slivers of ground are beginning to appear around trees and foundations. I see no sign that anything is growing, but the sun is shining. Laundry dries on the glassed-in porch. Grocery-store daffodils bloom on my kitchen table. High schoolers run on the snow-packed track, crows flap past with nesting twigs in their beaks, and I've stopped automatically pulling on snow pants every time I step outside.

This morning I had to come up with a paragraph about my poem "Home," from Same Old Story, which will be reprinted later this year in the Portland Press-Herald. I said:
This poem is from a series of diary sonnets that I wrote after spending intense time with Shakespeare's sonnets. The subject is the worst house I ever lived in: a falling-down farmhouse where everything went wrong . . . no water, no insulation, a plague of flies. The situation was frustrating and miserable, but also comic and even romantic. There we were, two people, alone together in a dank and ugly hovel, trying to pretend that we were making a home. And we were.
It's spring. Two friends who think they don't write poems have each just written the first draft of one. Another friend who thinks he is terrified of poetry has started listening to Robert Frost poems while he boils down sap. I had nothing to do with any of this. Something new is in the air.

Spring. It may not be beautiful, or kind. But it's alive, and it's what I wrote about in "Home."
When we left, a flat sunrise was threatening snow.
But the frost heaves were deep. We had to drive slow.