Thursday, August 28, 2008

Lately I've been reading both George Eliot's Felix Holt, the Radical and Coleridge's "Christabel." I've read both these works before--Felix Holt, several times before--but still they feel new to me, still mysterious. For me, this ambiguity is part of the lure of nineteenth-century literature: it's extraordinarily familiar, yet it's also remote. And both of the works I am currently reading are particularly evocative in this way. Eliot sets her novel (as she does most of her novels) in a remembered rural past; always in her writing there is a feeling of loss, a sense of the sadness of history and time. And "Christabel" is a romance in the troubadour tradition set in an unreal chivalric past. Coleridge works his way through the contradictions of legend and individuality, with varying amounts of success. Yet certain sections of the poem are a remarkable synthesis of nostalgia and disillusion, without being cynical. 

It's a great loss in our contemporary writing, I think: that nineteenth-century ability to ask questions without being cynical, without losing an avowed tenderness. The flip side was the age's proliferating sentimentality. But maybe that's an acceptable fault, if the other extreme is cold-blooded irony.

Here's my current favorite bit from Felix Holt:
"Behind all Esther's thoughts, like an unacknowledged yet constraining presence, there was the sense, that if Felix Holt were to love her, her life would be exalted into something quite new--into a sort of difficult blessedness, such as one may imagine in beings who are conscious of painfully growing into the possession of higher powers."

"Difficult blessedness": is there a better way to describe those moments when we imagine the sensation of becoming better than we really are?

And here's the last section of "Christabel." Talk about messing with our sentimental expectations. . . .

from Christabel

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

A little child, a limber elf,
Singing, dancing to itself,
A fairy thing with red round cheeks,
That always finds, and never seeks,
Makes such a vision to the sight
As fills a father's eyes with light;
And pleasures flow in so thick and fast
Upon his heart, that he at last
Must needs express his love's excess
With words of unmeant bitterness.
Perhaps 'tis pretty to force together
Thoughts so all unlike each other;
To mutter and mock a broken charm,
To dally with wrong that does no harm.
Perhaps 'tis tender too and pretty
At each wild word to feel within
A sweet recoil of love and pity.
And what, if in a world of sin
(O sorrow and shame should this be true!)
Such giddiness of heart and brain
Comes seldom save from rage and pain,
So talks as it's most used to do.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

So my son came home from school with his first ninth-grade English assignment: to begin reading the Odyssey. And then he showed me the copy he was given. It's a 1940s prose translation by E. V. Rieu, published as a "Penguin Classic."

When my husband (who is not a poet and does not read much poetry) sat down to compare the prose Odyssey with the recent much-lauded Robert Fagles's verse translation, he discovered that the narratives match extremely well and that the Fagles translation IS A MUCH MORE EXCITING READ.

So if the prose translation is (1) more boring than the verse translation and (2) far less beautiful and compelling than poetry, why are high schools continuing to teach Homer as prose? Because they don't want to buy new books--or can't afford to do so? Or do teachers assume that budding students of English literature don't need to know that the Odyssey is actually a poem?

I find this situation very disturbing. Is my son's high school unusual, or are other schools also teaching epic poetry as prose?

Monday, August 25, 2008

Today my older son begins his first real day of high school, and meanwhile I have just read this passage from George Eliot's Felix Holt, the Radical. Writers are always strewing my path with mysterious clues and messages. I might not even be on the lookout for them, but there they are, waiting for me to stumble over them and fall down and get a big bruise.

from Chapter 8 of Felix Holt, the Radical (1866)
George Eliot

It is a fact perhaps kept a little too much in the background, that mothers have a self larger than their maternity, and that when their sons have become taller than themselves, and are gone from them to college or into the world, there are wide spaces of their time which are not filled with praying for their boys, reading old letters, and envying yet blessing those who are attending to their shirt buttons.

Today, almost 150 years later, doesn't making such a statement still seem very brave, and very risky--as if a mother might bring misfortune to herself and her sons if she were actually to admit that she doesn't think about her children every single moment they're away from her?

But then, what is the line between thinking of myself and thinking of the ones I love? Maybe that's why I can't stop writing about boys.

Dinner: I finally made sourdough bread that rose without any extra boost from packaged yeast. This is an important kitchen event because I have to tell you: there is hardly anything more dispiriting than spending an entire day nursing a batch of bread dough and then having to feed it to the chickens (not to mention having to swallow my pride and be seen in public purchasing Shur-Fine English muffins as emergency rations for the Horde).

Saturday, August 23, 2008

My forthcoming book, Tracing Paradise, is what I've come to think of as  a "reader's memoir" because it deals primarily with my mutable and very individual relationship with a work of literature: John Milton's Paradise Lost. Though I had read the poem at various times in high school, college, and thereafter, I had never liked it--had never felt that it had any personal relevance to my life or mind. I think this happens often: sometimes, for whatever reason, we're just not ready for a book. I recently had a conversation with a friend who is a senior in high school and an excellent student and, for her age, a sophisticated reader. But she just can't stomach the Odyssey and feels guilty about it. I had the same sensation about Paradise Lost.

My attempt at expiation was to copy out the poem word for word. This took nearly two years and was revelatory in many, many ways, as I've tried to pinpoint in the memoir (which I'm hoping will be available in spring 2009). But beyond the specifics of this project, copying out other people's poems has been a tremendous influence on my life as both a poet and a teacher. It's as close as I can get to being inside another writer's head; sometimes I feel as if I'm writing the poem alongside the poet. This is technically instructive, of course; but it also requires me to focus my intellect and my emotions with an intensity that mere reading does not require from me. I can't get away from any part of the poem, not even from a comma, not even from "the" or "in." Among other gifts, copying another poet's work pushes me to comprehend grammar not only as a tool but as a pathway to thought and discovery--not something necessarily evident in a high school grammar lesson but an invaluable aid in my cycles of reading, writing, and revising.

Here's a bit from Tracing Paradise. The quotations are all from Milton's Paradise Lost.

from Chapter 12: Dust

Curs’d is the ground for thy sake, thou in sorrow

Shalt eat thereof all the days of thy Life;

Thorns also and Thistles it shall bring thee forth

Unbid, and thou shalt eat th’ Herb of the Field,

In the sweat of thy Face shalt thou eat Bread,

Till thou return unto the ground, for thou

Out of the ground wast taken, know thy Birth,

For dust thou art, and shalt to dust return.

Over the course of this self-imposed reading assignment, I’ve spent a good deal of time not liking Adam and Eve, or their tame forest, or their smarmy heavenly protectors. I’ve complained about them and ridiculed them and heaved gusty sighs of despair. In large part, I haven’t wanted to care about them. I’ve wanted to ignore them, refigure them, tart them up. I’ve wanted to tear them out of the coloring book and lose them under the couch cushions. I have indeed wanted to discover and argue with and possess Milton and all of his crazy greatness. But I haven’t wanted to love this stilted, static pair.

            Nonetheless I do love them, though in this case the connotations of love are imprecise and difficult to negotiate. I can’t love them like parents or objects of desire, despite Milton’s relentless encouragement. Nor can I disguise myself in their personae, as I might with Huck Finn or Elizabeth Bennet. Nor can I exactly admire them as fractured reflections of a familiar world, as I do Chaucer’s pilgrims to Canterbury or Dickens’s Aged Parent.

My feelings about Adam and Eve bear more resemblance to the love I once  felt for my large and shabby collection of dolls and stuffed bears: a general helpless, anxious, immersed affection blent with indifference; a superstitious physical attachment; a periodic ferocious, godlike control over these button-eyed companions, whom I riotously embraced for a season and then forgot for the rest of my life. Like battered rag dolls, Eve and Adam are emblems of the grief and ruthlessness of time.

            Of course, in truth I have no control over these characters. Come innocence or sorrow, they wend their augured way, “hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow.” The inevitability of myth is a well-oiled yet melancholy trap. Like the life stories of the noble dead, a myth is both stately and inexorable. Again, and once more again, Virginia Woolf wades into the river with her sweater pockets full of stones, John Keats sails hopelessly to Italy, Pandora unlocks her forbidden casket.

And so Adam and Eve’s lost paradise is also my lost paradise, not because I ever glimpsed it or even had faith in its existence but because the tale of their loss dwells with me, as legends do, in the shadowy margins between knowledge and invention. A prodigious experiment, this devouring of myth, a willing obedience to the delights and tragedies of belief. If story helps us rationalize mystery, it also absorbs us into sensibility’s bosky underworld. We become the sadness we know.

This is why myth, for all its implausibility, seems so much like lived experience. There is nothing real about Prometheus chained to the rock or Orpheus looking back for Eurydice. They could not have existed. And yet they have always existed, even in Harmony, Maine, in the autumn of the year, where webworm nests swing triumphantly in the chokecherries and my nine-year-old son tosses long, wobbly football spirals, his trajectory a slow-motion wiggle into the weeds.

O Parent, these are thy magnific deeds,

Thy Trophies, which thou view’st as not thine own,

Thou art thir Author and prime Architect.

This is the key to myth—that I stand inside and outside it simultaneously. I taste Eve’s apple and I believe the serpent’s words with all my laden heart, which “by a secret harmony / Still moves with thine,” my “Author and prime Architect,” as my son’s football blunders into the weeds, as a hen squawks irritably, as Sin and Death await Satan at the foot of the “portentous Bridge” they have built over the gates of Hell.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The problem with Shakespeare is that he always seems to be right.

Sonnet 76

William Shakespeare

Why is my verse so barren of new pride?
So far from variation or quick change?
Why with time do I not glance aside
To new-found methods and to compounds strange?
Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keep invention in a noted weed,
That every word doth almost tell my name,
Showing their birth, and where they did proceed?
O, know, sweet love, I always write of you,
And you and love are still my argument;
So all my best is dressing old words new,
Spending again what is already spent:
For as the sun is daily new and old,
So is my love still telling what is told.

And just to prove he's always right, here is yet another of my poems about boys, love, and music. I was reading a lot of George Herbert at the time--an odd instance of how sound and form can override subject matter in one's musical memory. Believe it or not, this poem appears in the teacher's guide of a how-to-teach-English textbook. I wonder how well it's working.

Heavy Metal

With what care you compromise your righteous taste
for noise in service to your rampant sons;
linger like a pirate over Goodwill bins, the waste
of wretched yard sales, sifting one by one

the halt, the lame; then slip into the kitchen
after dark, kiss my shoulder, unload groceries,
pour a second beer, and, offhand, think to mention
you've just purchased our first-ever AC DC

record. You!--dear secret and embarrassed owner
of Boston, Wings, and K-Tel disco albums,
derider of Pete Seeger and the Weavers, stalwart hater
of the Beach Boys, despiser of dull stoner jams--

you closet Modern Lover, not forgetting that a young
boy needs to shake his ravished parents all night long.

Dinner, a this-and-that-from-the-garden meal: likely to be basmati rice with black pepper, lime, and the last few filet green beans; chard leaves with olive oil; chard stems baked with butter and parmesan; maybe the rest of the loaf of dill bread my sons haven't quite polished off.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

I like to read books, not magazines, so I'm generally not too good at keeping up with periodicals. But I have managed to finish an article in the most recent Harper's. Written by Jeremy Miller, the piece is called "Tyranny of the Test: One Year As a Kaplan Coach in the Public Schools"; and as I read, I kept thinking I was missing something, somehow, somewhere. But now I think maybe the article itself is not forthcoming in any of the ways that seem important to me. Where's the human connection? The author vaguely introduces us to himself, to a few students and teachers, to the Kaplan corporation. But what's the point? Who or what matters here? The tone seems detached, as if the whole problem of school and test culture and struggling teachers and students is a kind of standing-outside-the-zoo-cage-looking-in matter. Where's the anger about the Kaplan tyranny? The article seems more or less like a shrug. But I'd be interested to hear someone else's thoughts.

Lately I've been reading poems from an anthology I found on the giveaway shelf at the Harmony post office. The name of the book is Introduction to French Poetry, and the question of who in this town might have owned it is a tantalizing mystery, this not being an enclave of French-poetry readers. (And still isn't, seeing as the mystery owner or her heirs left it in the free box along with an outdated stack of AARP magazines.) I'd copy one out here except that I can't figure out how to use this post editor to add accent marks to any of the words.

Dinner: 4 more loaves of bread on the way and a standing rib roast and a bunch of as yet unnamed vegetables. Trying to clean out the freezer before the next side of beef arrives.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A couple of canning days: refrigerator dills and bread-and-butter pickles and also apple butter, which the boys show every signs of demolishing by the end of the week. Why did I bother to put it into jars?

This is my current favorite poem at the moment. I haven't stopped to analyze why. Sound mostly, I think, and also it's so sad, and it has the most beautiful first line of any sonnet I know. I might change my mind about all this by next week.


Sir Thomas Wyatt

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

Monday, August 18, 2008

Dinner: baked ham and chanterelles and little purple-and-white-and-yellow ears of corn and cucumbers and maybe something else that I'm just not remembering at the moment.

Today I've decided to dredge up a speech I gave a couple of years ago--a kind of manifesto, I suppose; maybe even a call to arms. It still seems pertinent.

Teaching Poetry: A Manifesto of Sorts

            condensed from a speech I gave in 2005 to the Maine Council for English Language Arts

As visiting poet, I work with students of all ages, from kindergarteners to adults. And as you can imagine from the condition of your own local school budgets, it’s a hand-to-mouth job: not many school principals are standing in line to hire a traveling poet. So like most teachers, I’m not in the job for the money. Also, believe it or not, I’m not very fascinated by testing; and I suspect I’m not alone: most of us don’t become teachers because we have a big interest in SAT scores. I believe most of us choose to be teachers because we have ideals—because we love learning, we love books; and because we feel a moral imperative to share our passion; because helping even one child open her heart and mind is a great and irreplaceable gift.

I teach poetry because I love words—I love reading them in books, writing them on paper, playing games with them, arranging them on the page, trying them out on my tongue. I teach because reading and writing and human connection are my life raft, my one true thing. I teach because I’m passionate about my vocation and because I think sharing our passions, whatever they might be, matters enormously.

            Unfortunately, school administrators and policymakers at every level overwhelmingly conceive of education as career training rather than a search for individual vocation.  So instead of sharing our intellectual and creative passions, we teachers find ourselves pressed to emphasize formula over discovery, grades over scholarship, rules over self-discipline, obedience over engagement. One SAD superintendent told a friend of mine that teachers must follow these kinds of premade patterns of curriculum and assessment; otherwise, they might only teach what they love! And this is horrifying to me.

            I’m sure Mr. Superintendent would be happy to explain all the institutional reasons for this trend. But he won’t convince me. As I have seen in school after school, most students, by their late elementary years, have no curricular opportunity to trust their own links among images, words, ideas, sounds, experiences; to cut their own paths of discovery among poems and other art forms. Language arts textbooks and assessments routinely require students to find “meaning” in poems, as if “meaning” were a finite, two-word answer the poet withholds from the reader but writes down in the teacher’s manual. And when textbook assignments ask students to write poetry, those poems often involve gimmicky patterns or prompts rather than emerge as a child’s natural response to reading and experience.

            Poetry is not the only form of creativity that suffers from this sort of fenced-in, quantifiable education. But it’s certainly a vital form for English teachers—and not only because it shows up on standardized tests. More important, poetry affects both the inner lives of our children and their confident handling of their native language.

In a lot of ways it just seems easier to skip a poetry unit in favor of routine grammar and punctuation lessons. But consider this idea: that grammar and punctuation are poetic tools—that you can teach students to care about commas if you lead them to care about what commas do. Then ask yourself the same questions about plot structure, adjectives, point of view, use of capital letters, dependent clauses . . . and a hundred other goals listed in your language-arts curriculum. This is exactly the role that poetry can play in education: it can teach children to synthesize basic tools of communication into precise and compelling forms and at the same time require open-ended, complex, personal engagement with the subject matter.

            But really, it’s just as important that we teachers are teaching subjects that excite us—because, for the most part, our students believe in us as experts, as models. So if you flame up about the novels of Dickens, or contemporary short stories, or journalism, or whatever it was that led you to become an English teacher, your students are far more likely to ignite creatively and academically. Granted, it’s very difficult to reveal your passions to students and then watch the kids ridicule them, and that does happen; we all suffer through it. But dealing with that kind of pain is part of the risk of letting students know that we love what we do.  It’s part of our job, to put our passions on the line.

            John Keats, the nineteenth-century English poet, was also a great letter writer and spent a good deal of time trying to explain, mostly to his brothers, what it was like to be a poet-in-training. He was very young, hardly older than a high school student, when he wrote the following lines: “I myself am pursueing the same instinctive course as the veriest human animal you can think of—I am however young writing at random—straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness—without knowing the bearing of any one assertion of any one opinion. Yet may I not in this be free from sin?”

            You, as teachers, are the gatekeepers of this imaginative yearning. Right now some student is sitting in your classroom “young writing at random—straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness—without knowing the bearing of any one assertion of any one opinion.” Trust your own love, your own vocation, and don’t close those gates on the inner voice.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Dinner: so far, yet another 4-loaf batch of bread. My boys eat a ridiculous amount of bread. On the horizon, haddock chowder and roasted green bean salad, if I can manage to pick beans before it starts pouring again.

I'm working on a series of essays about my relationship to my favorite books. Following is an excerpt from one of those essays, "Self-Portrait, with War and Peace." You can find the rest of the piece in the current (summer 08) issue of the Threepenny Review.

I’m forty-three years old, and to date I’ve read War and Peace eight or ten times. I’ve worn out one cheap paperback copy and am now working on wearing out an elderly Modern Library hardback I unearthed at a yard sale. My guess is that I’ll reread the novel a few more times before I die, though how many more times is impossible to calculate. As Arlo Guthrie says, “I’ll wait till it comes round on the gui-tar”—till I’m browsing along my bookshelves and am suddenly smitten with longing for the sight of Natasha dancing in Uncle’s hut, for fat Pierre innocently disrupting a fancy tea party, for Petya shyly asking a Cossack to sharpen his sword, for Nikolay stomping in to rescue Princess Marya from her confused serfs. One doesn’t plan ahead for infatuation; though after thirty years spent with the novel, I’m no longer surprised that it keeps appearing in my lineup.

On its simplest level, rereading books is a childish habit, like biting my nails or agreeing to play Monopoly only if I can be the dog. But children understand there’s satisfaction in familiarity. When I reread a book, I already know the characters and what they will do. I’m prepared for all sudden deaths and thwarted romances. The “shock of the new” is not, to me, a literary recommendation. It’s not that I dislike discovering unknown books. I just like reading them again better. Sometimes my desire to reread a well-loved book erupts twice in one year, sometimes once in a decade. Often I reread books I only sort of enjoyed the first time through, and fairly often I reread books that actively annoy me but that I hope will have a medicinal effect on my character or my brain. I’ve been known to reread books that have no good qualities whatsoever, just for old times’ sake.

Yet this clingy, childish attachment to books—this cozy insularity, this familiar pacifier—constructs its own lived history. That is particularly true of my inner circle of favored works, primarily novels, which have come to constitute an alternate lineage of near-equal reality. Among backward-looking literary types, it’s a common-enough list, including, among other works, most of the novels of Dickens, Eliot, Austen, and the elder Brontë sisters; several Gaskell, Bowen, Woolf, and Murdoch novels; and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and War and Peace. Probably the only unusual factor is that I’ve reread each of these books ten or fifteen separate times without any intention of teaching them in an English class.

Lately I’ve learned that a new translation of War and Peace has been published, and by all accounts it’s a far better effort than the old Constance Garnett standby: more accurate to the rhythm of Tolstoy’s sentences, so the experts report, more attuned to the nuance of class-inflected language. The reviewers’ explications make good bedtime reading; and flipping languorously through the pages of the New York Review of Books, I’ve enjoyed various compare-and-contrast-the-translation extracts, easily convinced that the new edition would be a shiny addition to a bookshelf.

I’m relieved, however, that no one thought to give it to me for Christmas. For when it comes to my inner circle of books, I’m not all that interested in accuracy, or readability, or accessible notes, or pertinent introductions, or any of the typical reasons that drive a serious reader to purchase a new edition of a classic work. I do prefer to read a book that doesn’t fall apart in the bathtub; and since I’ve read many of my favored books to rags, I’ll occasionally acquire sturdier copies if I run across them at the Goodwill. But the idea of reading a new translation of a book I know intimately makes me anxious. I haven’t yet gotten used to the idea that Anna’s last name now translates as “Karenin,” not “Karenina,” or that the English title for Proust’s linked novels is no longer Remembrance of Things Past but In Search of Lost Time. What if a new translation of War and Peace spells Prince Andrey’s name in a new way? The thought is distressing in the way that any rupture in a comforting routine is upsetting. It opens a scary door. If Prince Andrey’s name has changed, will he be different from the man I love?

Friday, August 15, 2008

Dinner: unfortunately tacos, but at least we had local beef, real spices, garden cilantro, and beer.  Call it almost-not-fast-food.

And in honor of looming Labor Day weekend and the Harmony Fair, a poem from Boy Land:

The Skillet Toss

Harmony Fair, September 2002

A loose, laughing huddle of women

gathers alongside a swath of packed dirt,

hot children milling underfoot

clutching half-empty cans of soda;

and now husbands drift over, and we

arrive, who don’t throw skillets,


ready to cheer on our friend Tina,

who baby-sits our kids and doesn’t take shit.

Ask the contestants what they’re aiming at

this year, they’ll all say husbands.

Men are proud to have a wife who can

fracture skulls, if she thinks it’s worth her while.


They watch, amused but unsurprised—

married too long to doubt the plain lack

of vanity a high school sweetheart

acquires by forty. Tina practices her swing,

all knees and elbows under the sun;

the crowd watches, relaxed


and easy-tempered in the heat,

last hurrah of a Maine summer:

such weather can’t last; frost on the way:

in this town we never forget January;

so oh, the pleasure now of watching

sweat run down a brown arm,


first arc of a skillet in the heavy air

and the slow rise of dust when it lands:

Applause, laughter; Tina wipes

her forehead and takes aim for the next,

all eyes on her target: invisible Everyman

in the haze, asking for it, his voice


a low grumble of content, like oxen

flicking their tails in the barn—

and just fool enough to turn his back,

bare elbows propped on the fence,

watching a couple of ponies drag

their burden of concrete across the ring.