Monday, September 29, 2008

A friend of mine who teaches high school English lately had a small meltdown over a school administrator who, among other ineptitudes, insists on peppering curricular meetings with demands for "brain-based research."

Run into much non-brain-based research out there? How's it working for you?

I knew Samuel Johnson could toss a cogent remark into this conversation, and here he is, orating to us from The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749). When it comes to smart-ass, unanswerable commentary, nothing beats an eighteenth-century rhymed couplet (except maybe a Mark Twain diatribe).

Must helpless man, in ignorance sedate,
Roll darkling down the torrent of his fate?
Yes, he must.

Dinner tonight: Pot-au-feu, sourdough bread, mixed-lettuce salad with (if they fattened up during the "hurricane") diced kohlrabi, pear flan, cheap Portuguese wine, followed by a Netflix screening of Olivia de Havilland descending into histrionic madness in The Snakepit (unless I fall asleep on the couch, in which case she'll descend tomorrow night).

Friday, September 26, 2008

Harmony Huskies 6, Upper Kennebec Valley Cavaliers 0. My rookie fifth-grade son scored his first goal; ran into the middle of the field waving his arms in triumph; and engaged in a comic TV-style moment with his brother's best friend (fullback sweeper, team captain, and a good foot and half taller than my son), who loped up the field in dramatic slow motion to instigate a proud high-five. Only the swelling noble background music was missing.

Hero-wonder. The sensation is so sad and so sweet and reminds me of Tennyson, who, for all his muddy Victorianism, understood its melancholy loveliness. Here's a bit from his late poem "Merlin and the Gleam." The notion is sentimental to be sure, but what's wrong with a touch of sentiment on a waning autumn afternoon, the sun radiating low over a green field, lighting up scrubby knees and babies on blankets and forgotten bicycles and grandmothers in lawn chairs and singing little sisters and high school kids smacking each other with empty Coke bottles and log trucks roaring by and a blue jay shooting toward the river and my little son and his big friend saluting the grave beauty of a moment of glory?

Not of the sunlight,
Not of the moonlight,
Not of the starlight!
O young Mariner,
Down to the haven,
Call your companions,
Launch your vessel
And crowd your canvas,
And, ere it vanishes
Over the margin,
After it, follow it,
Follow the Gleam.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

I have received some excellent news from the Ethan Frome and Macbeth teacher. In true central-Mainer style, one student, misled by local usage of the term sled, wrote a paper intimating that Ethan and Mattie had tried to commit suicide on a snowmobile. (Now this leads to the question: would Lady Mac be more likely to ride a sled or a snowmobile? I think one could make an argument for either version, though I really cannot picture her in snowmobile suit and goggles in the style of an Alaskan governor. I think she requires flying black robes and trailing blood-red capes and streaming hair and a ridiculous amount of eyeliner and such.)

At the moment I am working on a poem about the myth of Phaeton. It's making me happy thus far but is going to be arduous.

Dinner tonight: shepherd's pie, which oddly enough my children love and is actually interesting and delicious when made with fall garden vegetables and good beef.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Everyone is no doubt waiting breathlessly for Harmony soccer news; and yes, it's true: they have won their third game, a 5-4 squeaker over the always-challenging Highview Christian Knights.

My head cold is abating, so I have felt competent enough to start a new Roman-literature reading project . . . in translation, however, as my Latin skills have rotted away. "Nauta navigat" is about all I can remember. But it is a fine sturdy sentence and I'm sure will be useful to me someday.

I have just heard from a teacher who is teaching Macbeth and Ethan Frome concurrently. I think that is very brave. Imagine the melodramatic emanations. It must be like a room full of glue fumes. (And now I find myself picturing Lady Macbeth on a sled. . . . )

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Just for the record, and to clear up any misapprehensions about my character, I hate the Common Ground Fair. (To get a reasonably accurate picture of what this fair entails, non-Mainers need only to know that that it is the pet moneymaking project of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. No genetically modified corndogs. No rides. No coffee.)

As a political liberal with strong interests in gardening, local food, and humane animal husbandry, you'd think I'd love this fair. But the atmosphere is so goddamn preachy and we're-more-moral-than-you-regular-provincial-hicks that it makes me want to kick someone . . . although Tom and the boys and I did spend an enjoyable half-hour sitting beside the veggie tempura booth inventing inappropriate T-shirt slogans. Our best effort was "So Many Folk Singers, So Few Recipes," but we had many other good ones as well.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Managed to copy out two Shakespeare sonnets today and to string up a new clothesline. Perhaps I am on the mend.

Soccer score update: Harmony Huskies 4, Carrabec Cobras 1. As my friend Sue noted in disbelief, we've never seen our team score four goals before. We speculated that these might not actually be our children but zombie replicas from other, better sports teams.

Aggravating literary quote of the day (from Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd):
She was of the stuff of which great men's mothers are made. She was indispensable to high generation, hated at tea parties, feared in shops, and loved at crises.
What would happen if you assigned that excerpt as a high school essay starter? Would something interesting arise? Or would you be sorry afterward?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

I have a head cold and I cut my finger making plum preserves. On the bright side, having a head cold makes me worry less about not being a great artist. Also, everyone will be pleased to hear that the Harmony Elementary School soccer team won its first season opener in twenty years. (That grand-lapse-of-years claim came to me by way of exaggerating children, but certainly the team hasn't won a season opener in the five years I've been patronizing these events. It's hardly won any games at all. Winning makes Harmony parents lightheaded. We're not used to these things. [For a peroration on parental attitudes toward children who play on losing elementary school teams, see my basketball poem, "First Game," in roger, issue 2.])

Myself, I haven't read a poem all day. And I'm okay with that.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Reading Shakespeare today as a strange warm wind whipped through my yard. I took a break to mow grass, which in the wind was almost enjoyable.

This sonnet might be the funniest love poem I've ever read. Who else but W.S. could get away with a line like the one that ends with "reeks"?

Sonnet 130
William Shakespeare
My mistress's eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks,
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
Dinner tonight: tomato soup, with either basil and cream or onion and cilantro salsa; popovers; spinach and apple salad

Sunday, September 14, 2008

I'm happy to announce that my mother, Janice Miller Potter, is releasing a poetry chapbook with Finishing Line Press. Titled Psalms in Time, it deals in large part with her childhood in Appalachia. Following is some information from the press release:

About Psalms in Time

“These poems balance on poetry’s elemental fulcrum—the lyric impulse to praise what is and the probing, meditative steadfastness of second thoughts.” —Baron Wormser, past Poet Laureate of Maine, author of Mulroney and Others, Scattered Chapters, The Road Washes Out in Spring and others.

“Beginning with a year of monthly psalms that are as committed to the wondering ‘How’ as to the prayerful ‘O’. . . . —Jeanne Marie Beaumont, author of Curious Conduct.

“Take one look at this rich collection of poetry, and surely you will look at it again and again.—Suzanne Cleary, author of Keeping Time and Trick Pear. 

How to order

ONLINE: and click on “New Releases and Forthcoming Titles.”  Scroll down to Psalms in Time by Janice Miller Potter.


I read in the NY Times this morning that David Foster Wallace has killed himself. I remember reading his Harper's essay about going on a Caribbean cruise and being strangely impressed. It was like reliving the clever, self-referential sarcasm of my college friends but distilled into intelligent prose. I liked it but I didn't like it. In myself I call this attitude "the sin of snottiness," and I hate it even more than "the sin of clingy distress," though both are hard to suppress.

And now his writing style seems dreadfully like a preview for hopelessness. How could he have set up his wife to find him hanging?

The Holy Ghost

John Donne

O Holy Ghost, whose temple I
Am, but of mudde walls, and condensed dust,
And being sacrilegiously
Halfe wasted with youths fires, of pride and lust,
Must with new stormes be weatherbeat;
Double in my heart thy flame,
Which let devout sad teares intend; and let
(Though this glasse lanthorne, flesh, do suffer maime)
Fire, Sacrifice, Priest, Altar be the same.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Driving around today, running errands with my ten-year-old son. Along the way we picked apples, we listened to Apples in Stereo, we looked at pictures of hurricane damage on my Apple iBook.  Such strange coincidences. . . .

I've been bumbling up against melancholy lately, for no particular reason. The boys are back in school and I'm home alone for many hours of the day feeling like I should be writing better than I am. I keep cranking out the words, but they're clumsy and I don't care about them. It's hard to keep battering away, but writing is sort of like practicing scales: you just need to do it and do it and do it, and then one day you accidentally make music. Or that's what I keep telling myself.

I've been reading Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd, a book I've always liked very much, and am discovering I don't like it as much this time through. Hardy has an odd generalizing "you know how women are" tone that is starting to irritate me. I mean, maybe we are like that, but on this reading I'm not in the mood to take his word for it. 

Dinner tonight: shark. (Remember, I was shopping with a ten-year-old boy.)

Monday, September 8, 2008

This is an excerpt from something called "Montanus Sonnet" by S.E.D, included in England's Helicon, an anthology first published in 1600. A number of the poems in this collection are very funny and mopey and sentimental and beautiful, all at the same time.

When the dogge
Full of rage
With his irefull eyes
Frownes amidst the skies:
The Sheepheard to asswage
The furie of the heate,
Him self dooth safely seat
By a Fount
Full of faire,
Where a gentle breath
Mounting from beneath,
tempereth the ayre.
I suppose the "dogge" is supposed to be the sun. But I do rather enjoy imagining a giant cranky dog in the sky. It would be interesting to teach this excerpt and see what students make of that image.

England's Helicon has some silly poems, but it also includes one of my favorite poems of all time:

The passionate Sheepheard to his love
Christopher Marlowe

Come live with mee, and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove,
That Vallies, groves, hills and fieldes,
Woods, or steeple mountaine yeeldes.

And wee will sit upon the Rocks,
Seeing the Sheepheards feede theyre flocks,
By shallow Rivers, to whose falls,
Melodious byrds sing Madrigalls.

And I will make thee beds of Roses,
And a thousand fragrant poesies,
A cap of flowers and a kirtle,
Imbroydred all with leaves of Mirtle.

A gowne made of the finest wooll,
Which from our pretty Lambes we pull,
Fayre lined slippers for the cold:
With buckles of the purest gold.

A belt of straw, and Ivie buds,
With Corall clasps and Amber studs,
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with mee, and be my love.

The Sheepheards Swaines shall daunce & sing,
For thy delight each May-morning,
If these delights thy minde may move;
Then live with mee, and be my love.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

On August 26 I posted a complaint about high schools that teach the Odyssey as prose and received a pair of very thoughtful comments in response, in case anybody wants to scroll down and read them.

Of course, whether students read Homer's epic as prose or poetry, they deal with the work in translation, not in its original language. Even more egregious, as Mr. Hill notes in his comment, is that some schools are teaching Shakespeare in translation--as if Shakespearean English isn't really English. Laura's comment asks us to question the wisdom of this simplification. Why are schools teaching the Cliff Notes versions of the classics instead of the real thing? Is this to make students' lives easier--or the teachers'? Is anyone gaining anything?

A couple of years ago I led a Shakespeare project with second and third graders. One session started off with eight lines, written on chart paper:

Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made:
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark now I hear them: ding-dong bell.
Once we read the passage together and talked about what was going on language- and story-wise, a number of squabbles erupted over whose turn it was to get up in front of the class and say the speech. We must have heard this passage read aloud fifteen times in a row. The kids could have spent the entire class just repeating the lines over and over to each other. And it wasn't the sense they loved: it was the sound, the feeling of the words in their mouths. 

How do you get that from the Cliff Notes version?

Friday, September 5, 2008

After I hang laundry today, I'm going to the apple orchard, where I'll walk to the top of the hill and stare out over the western mountains. My own yard is surrounded by a wall of trees, so a view is always a surprise and a refreshment. Now that the boys are back in school, I have to talk myself into doing things like this by myself--going for walks alone, reading almost as much as I want to, tinkering with two words in a poem instead of nagging someone to practice the piano. 

There's a certain guilty laziness to solitary work. 

I haven't written many poems during the past few months--too many prose and editing and kid obligations, but also I haven't been lazy and lonely enough. Now I'm revising a poem that I'm not sure I like, but then again I'm not sure I don't like it. Until 2:30 this afternoon, nobody but me is asking me to do anything else, so maybe I'll make some progress on figuring out what I think.

Perhaps part of the problem of teaching revision in the schools is the fact that classrooms are never the place where we learn the pleasures and demands of lingering.
Dinner: fried green tomatoes. Finally. I've been waiting for this moment all year.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

I have spent the past four days immersed in the intense and exhausting task of managing the home and garden exhibit tent at the Harmony Labor Day Fair. I have held this position for the past seven years or so, and every year something or other goes wrong. This year turned out to surpass even Big Flood Year, when I was up all night dealing with the thunderstorm-fed river that was carrying away giant zucchinis and cardboard 4-H displays of how to teach a dog to sit, etc.

This particular fair weekend will live in memory, I believe, as Big Wind Year: the year when huge iron tent stakes tore out of the ground and the walls kept collapsing and folding tables full of prize-winning tomatoes blew over and smashed into pulp and all the baked goods and cute little hand-knit caps were smeared with thick layers of dirt and piles of blue ribbons and name tags blew under the stage and into the prize-ticket booth, never to be seen again.

Yet despite this excitement, the fair was not all bad. In fact much of it was good. One of my sons received Best in Show for his strawberry jam; the other took third place in the pie-eating contest. They spent the entire weekend on a bracing french fry and hot dog diet. They experimented with the construction of fake ride bracelets. Their rock band semi-wowed the crowd at the talent show. I myself was called upon to help draft a plaque-presentation speech and heard much memorable and intriguing local gossip.

I did not, however, get much reading done, though I'm thinking about writing a poem in honor of the volunteer ambulance guys. Bless their hearts: when they get an emergency call, those fat men can really run.

Dinner tonight: not hot dogs.