Thursday, April 30, 2009

Agonizing this morning over whether or not to advertise the Milton memoir to Milton scholars. The idea makes me nervous, but then what other subpopulation is more likely to pick up a book with "Milton" in the title?

I'm trying to do a thousand garden, house, and editing tasks today because I'll be away all weekend at a Beloit Poetry Journal board meeting . . . sitting on a couch in Farmington reading poems and poems and poems and poems. Here's one by Garth Greenwell from the current issue. See what you think.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, from a letter to Tom Wedgwood, September 16, 1803:

For 5 months past my mind has been strangely shut up. I have taken the paper with the intention to write to you many times; but it has been all one blank Feeling, one blank idealess Feeling. I had nothing to say, I could say nothing. How dearly I love you, my very Dreams make known to me. I will not trouble you with the gloomy Tale of my Health. While I am awake, by patience, employment, effort of mind, and walking I can keep the fiend at Arm's length; but the Night is my Hell, Sleep my tormenting Angel. Three nights out of four I fall asleep, struggling to lie awake--and my frequent Night-screams have almost made me a nuisance in my own House. Dreams with me are no Shadows, but the very Substances and foot-thick Calamities of my Life. Beddoes, who has been to me ever a very kind man, suspects that my stomach "brews vinegar." . . . I myself fully believe it to be either atonic, hypochondriacal Gout, or a scrophulous affection of the Glands. In the hope of drawing the Gout, if Gout it should be, into my feet, I walked, previously to my getting into the Coach at Perth, 263 miles in eight Days, with no unpleasant fatigue: and if I could do you any service by coming to town, and there were no Coaches, I would undertake to be with you, on foot, in 7 days. I must have strength somewhere; my head is indefatigably strong; my limbs too are strong; but acid or not acid, Gout or Scrofula, something there is [in] my stomach or Guts that transubstantiates my Bread and Wine into the Body and Blood of the Devil.

Poor man. And yet his words are so so clean and clear.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Went on a romantic outing to Bangor, one that involved peculiar car trouble, a walk in the woods, 200 feet of garden hose, and Indian food, but also resulted in a particularly fine haul from the Goodwill and Lippincott's, a lovely used bookstore. The prices are better at the Goodwill, of course, but Lippincott's has a cat.

The Hawk in the Rain, Ted Hughes's first collection, in an early edition, which I'm giving to my mother for Mother's Day. It has a very mod dust cover.

Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, by Richard Powers, whom I've never read but whom the NY Review of Books adores. I frequently disagree with its fiction reviewers, however, so I may hate this book. But it cost $1.99.

Night Light, by Donald Justice, first published in 1967, although this is a revised edition from 1981. I've only read Justice's work in anthologies and look forward to his own arrangement. Will you be surprised to learn that 99 cents is all that the Goodwill felt these poems were worth?

The Siege of Krishnapur, by J. G. Farrell. It won the Booker in 1973, and I read it in a borrowed copy about 10 years ago and have never forgotten it. It didn't have a happy ending.

Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art, by James Hall. Now I will understand all the secrets of art.

The Life of Ivy Compton-Burnett, by Hilary Spurling. Ivy was one of the weirdest novelists ever. I can't wait to find out why.

The Book and the Brotherhood, by Iris Murdoch. I read every Murdoch novel I can find.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

My friend Laura put me on to this scathing critique of Elizabeth Gaskell's biography of Charlotte Bronte. Of course, I fully believe that Charlotte was an ambitious, ego-ridden pain in the ass; and while I have never visited her house in Haworth, I have been to enough laudatory museums to recognize the irritable streak that arises in a reader who is confronted by too many "I Heart Charlotte" totebags, etc. But Charlotte doth always protest too much, and I bet she polished up a certain poor-me persona for Mrs. Gaskell's benefit . . . not to mention that Mrs. G was a shrewd reader of character, even if she was the well-behaved wife of a Unitarian minister. Read her novel Wives and Daughters, and you'll have no doubts.

Coincidentally, I'm fruitlessly trying to interest journal publishers in a recent essay I've written about Charlotte's persona invention. So if you're interested in taking a look as it languishes in limbo, let me know.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

This morning I've been writing a capsule description of my presentation at the Woolf Conference in June, which, in my case, entails figuring out what to say at the conference in the process of writing about what I want to say at the conference. (Do other people function this way, or do you invent your ideas before you start writing them down?)

In any case, this is what I ended up saying: "Dawn Potter will read and discuss excerpts from her poem 'Peter Walsh,' which borrows the name of a character from Mrs. Dalloway but otherwise has no plot link to the novel. Dawn will talk about how Woolf's grammar and syntax, particularly as they reveal the fluidity of thought, impelled the creation of her poem but also led to various structural and narrative snags that reared up along the way."

I suddenly thought, as I was writing this description, that it might be interesting to hear someone talk about the mistakes that arise during creation: how you can write yourself into a tangle, even when you're writing really well. This poem, "Peter Walsh," is a case in point. I was immensely under the influence of Woolf's sentences, which I found very effective as a way to shift  time, memory, and perception back and forth between the poem's two characters. But the larger narrative structure--the big chunks of time--became snarled. In fact, it took outside readers--the editors at the Beloit Poetry Journal, which eventually published the poem--to solve those problems. The Woolf influence had pressed me so closely to the language that I was not able, alone, to stand away from it, to look at it from above, as it were.

I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Woolf herself had similar problems. The density of her writing makes dispassionate revision--even dispassionate evaluation--very difficult.

Friday, April 24, 2009

I am going to stop editing and go outside and dig up the vegetable plot and clean out flowerbeds and just possibly plant something or other. I tried to consult The Golden Bough on some appropriate planting ceremonies, but nothing came to hand quickly--especially once I got distracted by the custom "at Braunrode, in the Harz Mountains, . . . to burn squirrels in the Easter bonfire." So I will merely leave you with this ambiguous remark:

When a Catholic priest remonstrated with the Indians of the Oronoco on allowing their women to sow the fields in the blazing sun, with infants at their breasts, the men answered, "Father, you don't understand these things, and that is why they vex you."

Meanwhile, one of my sons and his best friend are in the kitchen mixing up a batch of fake blood, while the other son is sound asleep on the couch after one of those all-night carouses known as a sleepover. In other news, I'm still reading The Good Soldier and still on writing hiatus as I try to finish this editing project. Small heaps of dirty snow linger in dim corners of my yard, but the first daffodils are blooming, the white forsythia is opening, the frogs are singing in the pond, and tomorrow it's supposed to be 75 degrees. Blackflies are sure to follow: nothing beautiful can last.

Dinner tonight: I don't exactly know, but dandelion greens, chives, and roasted onions will surely be involved.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Having been assured by numerous people that the Sewanee interview sounds just like me, I will shelve my heebie-jeebies and instead congratulate the interviewer for managing that feat.

By the way, when I asked my fourteen-year-old to choose which word in the dictionary he couldn't live without (one of the interview questions), he immediately said, "Aardvark." What's your snap decision? 

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

An interview with the Sewanee Review. I feel like I sound kind of dumb, but oh well. Maybe reading your own interview is akin to the depressing sensation of hearing your own tape-recorded voice. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Last Day

 Dawn Potter

In mourning the parakeet props his blue wings

awry, sourly fluffs his feathers; with a sort

of Willy Loman resignation he hunches his short

neck, his frail shoulders. Days past, he would sing


backup to any tune—the smoke alarm, the White

            Stripes, erupt into an avian scat solo, wild child

of cool, jazz messenger from the bestiary side.

            Now anyone can tell he’ll be dead before night


sifts down through these overripe maples, this sweet

            mosquito gloaming: slit eye plunging fathoms

through an empty sea, pale breast a shallow cavern

            of farewell, each tiny gasp a plummet


into dark; yet how long he takes to die!—death

killing pity even as it covets his brief, failing breath.

[forthcoming in How the Crimes Happened (CavanKerry Press, 2010)]

Monday, April 20, 2009

I haven't read anything other than the Providence Journal for 24 hours now. I have, however, listened to most of a Boston Red Sox game and part of a New York Yankees game and will spend this afternoon freezing at a Pawtucket Red Sox game. One of my sons is sick and will spend the afternoon reclining on the couch watching Laurel and Hardy with his grandmother. The other is the instigator of this all-baseball diet I'm presently subsisting on. Good thing it's temporary, or I might find myself reduced to copying out "Casey at the Bat" for you.

Snatching the first book at hand in this guest room that used to be my sister's childhood bedroom, I randomly give you a small sample from Edward Lear's "The Akond of Swat:"

Does he like new cream, and hate mince pies?
When he looks at the sun does he wink his eyes?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

A few reading invitations are beginning to trickle in, which is exciting. I've haven't done more than one or two readings over the course of the past couple of years, having been deep in the writing hole; so I'm looking forward to at least a small shift into performance mode.

I like to read my work in public, and I strive to make both my poems and prose effective in the air, not just on the page. Conversely, I don't want to limit the pieces to performances but want them to continue to function in solitary rereadings. This may sound like an obvious goal; but I do know of a number of excellent readers whose poems dry out on the page as well as many extraordinary poets who ruin their work by reading it aloud. I'm sure I fidget over this divergence because of the intense ear training I underwent as a child violinist: read, listen, play; read, listen, play. In classical pedagogy, the eye and the ear learn to become partners. One mode of perception does not consistently dominate over the other; rather, as a trained team, they advance a musician's ability to attend to minute variations in pitch, rhythm, dynamics, and phrasing. I don't play the violin much these days, but the ear-eye partnership has become second nature.

Anyway, check out the "Upcoming Events" on this blog. I hope I get a chance to read for at least a few of you this spring and summer. And if there's anything you'd like to hear at one of those readings--any of the Boy Land poems, for instance, or anything else you've heard me read in the past--please let me know.

Dinner tonight: sauteed chicken thighs with vermouth and fresh lovage, arborio rice, cucumbers and cherry tomatoes from the store (isn't that a shame?) but decorated with bits of wild greens from the yard.

Friday, April 17, 2009

If you read the New York Review of Books, check out W. S. Merwin's poem "Why Some People Do Not Read Poetry." I am not, on the whole, a Merwin devotee; yet I think this poem hits the mark.

I am very much enjoying my current foray through Ford's The Good Soldier, particularly its accumulating physical details: what people wear, how they comb their hair, how many suitcases they own, what they keep in those cases. Ford introduces these items so slyly yet relentlessly that I hardly realize how manipulative he's being. Yet before I know it, I'm the shallow observer who judges people on their exterior appearance. It's an extraordinarily clever handling of unreliable first-person narration.

Off to eat lunch, hang laundry, and dig dig dig. With any luck I'll be setting up pea fence and planting radishes and spinach before the day is done. On Sunday we're on our way to Massachusetts for a couple of school-vacation days in the bustling southland, where very possibly my mother has daffodils in bloom. I look forward to finding out.

Dinner tonight: baked ziti, wild greens.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

I have to edit, I have to wash the floors, I have to dig up garden, I have to hang laundry and take down laundry and make dinner and pick up a kid at baseball practice and go to a wretched school consolidation meeting. Clearly I am not doing any of those things at the moment. Instead I've been eating a peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich and reading Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier and Forster's Aspects of the Novel. I'd forgotten Forster doesn't much care for Dickens. He does, however--and somewhat reluctantly, I might add--appreciate Tolstoy. My feeling is that Forster doesn't like a mess. Myself, I love a mess, at least in literature and actually sort of in real life too, now that I think about it.

E. M. Forster, writing about Tolstoy's War and Peace in Aspects of the Novel:

Such an untidy book. Yet, as we read it, do not great chords begin to sound behind us, and when we have finished does not every item--even the catalogue of strategies--lead a larger existence than was possible at the time?

Dinner tonight: classic 1950s-style meatloaf-with-ketchup. I wish I could say that the ketchup is homemade, but my shady northern garden can't grow enough tomatoes. It takes an extraordinary number of tomatoes to make a pint of ketchup. Which, now that this paragraph has traveled several lines away from from the word meatloaf, I will begin spelling as catsup. Meatloaf-n-catsup just looks silly.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

My wrists are covered with rosebush scratches. Roses are such mean bushes, and I don't really know anything about pruning them except to cut the canes far-enough back so that they don't rip out my hair while I'm digging in the garden, which I will be doing for the next several weeks. Once I borrowed a tiller, but it was loud and lurching and smelled bad; so I decided I'd rather hand-dig everything. I find it soothing to dig, actually--to wander out into the garden at dusk and turn over a few neat black rows. The robins sing. The evening sky recedes into that beautiful deep blue, like the ink on a Blake print. 

I'm reading here and there in Thomas Carlyle's Essay on Burns; and this is what Carlyle says about poets:

A true Poet, a man in whose heart resides some effluence of Wisdom, some tone of the "Eternal Melodies," is the most precious gift that can be bestowed on a generation: we see in him a freer, purer development of whatever is noblest in ourselves; his life is a rich lesson to us; and we mourn his death as that of a benefactor who loved and taught us.

On the one hand, this statement could read as ridiculous hyperbole, given Carlyle's reputation as a cynical, sour-faced crank. On the other hand, I think it's immensely touching to watch a cynical, sour-faced crank suddenly drop that pose so entirely. Whatever the truth or merits of his claims about poets, I believe the writer's vulnerable, innocent trust in the ideal of the poet, even if that innocence is only temporary, does matter enormously. I'm not sure why I think this, but I suspect such trust is rather like real, deep religious belief, which I don't have but which I respect. We risk a great deal to believe in anything so profoundly, be it God or words.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A poem sent to me by my friend David, in response to yesterday's post and maybe today's earlier one as well:


John Clare

In the cowslip pips I lie, 
Hidden from the buzzing fly, 
While green grass beneath me lies, 
Pearled with dew like fishes' eyes, 
Here I lie, a clock-o'-clay, 
Waiting for the time o' day.

While the forest quakes surprise, 
And the wild wind sobs and sighs, 
My home rocks as like to fall, 
On its pillar green and tall; 
When the pattering rain drives by 
Clock-o'-clay keeps warm and dry.

Day by day and night by night, 
All the week I hide from sight; 
In the cowslip pips I lie, 
In the rain still warm and dry; 
Day and night and night and day, 
Red, black-spotted clock-o'-clay.

My home shakes in wind and showers, 
Pale green pillar topped with flowers, 
Bending at the wild wind's breath, 
Till I touch the grass beneath; 
Here I live, lone clock-o'-clay, 
Watching for the time of day.

I haven't done any writing for close to a week now. Mostly that's okay. My body is happy to be outside and away from my desk; and if my writing mind is less happy, well, I'm sure it's healthy for my writing mind not to get everything it desires.

I've been reading Mary Karr's memoir Cherry about growing up as a sex- and drugs- and literature-crazed girl in East Texas in the early 70s. The first time I read it, I liked it a lot; but this time the main character seems so dreadfully self-absorbed that I'm beginning to question the entire premise of autobiography and memoir. Why do writers feel compelled to inflict the minutiae of our obsessions on other people? Of course, I understand that's a specious question. What about Samuel Pepys, king of the self-obsessive, not to mention Updike's novels, which seem to arise from compulsive self-examination, as well as most contemporary poetry and a fair amount of canonical poetry--Keats, for instance?

We humans are so taken up with being human. But then beetles are very taken up with being beetles. Beetles, however, don't try to write about it. Not like itchy, insomniac S. Pepys--

from his diary, September 3, 1664

I have had a bad night's rest to-night, not sleeping well, as my wife observed, and I thought myself to be mightily bit with fleas, and in the morning she chid her mayds for not looking the fleas a-days. But, when I rose, I found that it is only the change of the weather from hot to cold, which, as I was two years ago, do stop my pores, and so my blood tingles and itches all day all over my body, but sweating cured me then, and I hope, and am told, will this also.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Wind and sun and a bright yellow tablecloth snapping and kicking on the clothesline. Dog watching a hen watching a black beetle. Two feather-frayed robins hopping into a gust. Even their beaks look blown back. Me on my wet knees, hacking brush and deadwood out of a flowerbed that has no flowers yet but that just possibly might have flowers someday. It's that sort of hopeful afternoon.

from Christabel

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

'Tis a month before the month of May,
And the Spring comes slowly up this way.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

I'm taking a brief break from my Easter obligations, which primarily entail (1) purchasing comic Easter items for the amusement of my children (i.e., bizarre blow-up dragons and Windex-blue sugar bunnies); (2) watching my husband photograph the bizarre blow-up dragon arranged on a treasure heap of orange circus peanuts; (3) cooking. I do also think about the resurrection, and I thought of writing out George Herbert's poem "Easter-Wings." But it's a shape poem, and I fear the shape may be distorted by blog formatting; so I will give you Hopkins instead.

Today's breakfast: hot-cross buns, fresh pineapple, colored eggs.

Today's dinner: roast beef, hollandaise sauce, potato and caper salad, sauted cherry tomatoes with garlic, green salad, strawberry tart.


Gerard Manley Hopkins

When will you ever, Peace, wild wooddove, shy wings shut,
Your round me roaming end, and under be my boughs?
When, when, Peace, will you, Peace? I'll not play hypocrite

To own my heart: I yield you do come sometimes; but
That piecemeal peace is poor peace. What pure peace allows
Alarms of wars, the daunting wars, the death of it?

O surely, reaving Peace, my Lord should leave in lieu
Some good! And so he does leave Patience exquisite,
That plumes to Peace thereafter. And when Peace here does
He comes with work to do, he does not come to coo,
                                       He comes to brood and sit.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Cat-thought of the day, discovered as I idled through Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece when I was supposed to be working:

Yet, foul night-waking cat, he doth but dally,
While in his hold-fast foot the weak mouse panteth.

I was oppressed, for a number of years, by that identical "foul night-waking cat." He belonged to a roommate, who moved out and subsequently "forgot" to come back for him. He was malice incarnate--extremely large and wild-eyed, and vindictively clever. I was sure he would live forever. After he died, I missed him, which shows how stupid people can be, because he really was an awful cat. He used to push heavy things onto my head in the night, like War and Peace and glasses of water. He bit the landlord. He methodically ate every wicker laundry basket in the house. The vet's office labeled his file with a red sticker that said, "Dangerous." Once my in-laws baby-sat him for a summer. They were living in Emily Dickinson's house at the time. I don't think he did any permanent damage to the collection. But they might have been too nice to mention it.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Started a new editing project today, which is okay by me. I've been writing so much that I'm starting to feel like a giant, oversensitive bruise. Too much feeling. Too much trying to put feeling into words. So today I'm cheerfully hacking at someone else's prose, a task that is far easier and less transcendent than writing my own words but that still keeps me in the word zone. And in a little while I'm going to go clean the chicken house, a nasty wet job that will kick me into the world instead of letting me wander around inside my head. Which will also be okay.

Dinner tonight: Minestrone because my older son thinks it is divine. And brownies because my younger son gets cranky if too many days go by without homemade dessert. You might call this the dark side of refusing to buy Girl Scout cookies.
I visited my friend Scott Hill's blog this morning and saw that he'd posted photos of his English classroom--a very Romantic-looking setup (note the capital "R") that made me all faux-nostalgiac for what might have been . . . that is to say, what wasn't in existence when I was in high school: a room that made a student excited to be a student.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

I don't know if you follow my reading list, but I've lately added two books to it without having posted a thing about them. I know I ought to dredge up a few words, and now I will.

William Trevor's Death in Summer is the only Trevor novel I've read; and though this isn't my first time through the book, I don't believe I've read it more than twice, and those rereadings have been neither recent nor intensive--by which I mean I didn't find myself drawn to read the novel again within a year or so of my previous reading.  As a result, when I took the book off the shelf this time, I found that I had a surface memory of the plot but not much more. I remembered almost nothing about the characters or their motivations; basically, I felt like I'd never opened the novel before. I did enjoy the book this time, and I did find myself considering the main character, Thaddeus Davenant, more deeply than I had done before. But I wonder how long he will cling in my memory, and how soon I will read the book again.

Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises is a different story. When I was in my 20s and 30s, I read this book four or five times in fairly close succession. Yet for the following 10 years or so, I never took it off the shelf. And what I've found on this reading is that I've retained a very detailed and emotional memory of the characters but almost no memory of the plot. I feel as if Jake and Brett have been sitting next to me, invisibly, for all these years . . . that they have never become strangers; that their mysteries are the mysteries of longevity, like those of husbands and sisters and fathers.

I think these variations in reading memory are very interesting, partly because they are also rather disturbing (I mean, the Hemingway plot shouldn't be hard to remember since nothing much happens except drinking and hanging out and wanting what you can't have); partly because they reinforce my feeling that characterization, not plot, is the hallmark of great fiction. I doubt I would list Hemingway among my top-ten favorite novelists, yet I think he's a great novelist nonetheless, and for reasons that have nothing to do with personal attraction to his work. For he not only makes his characters live; he seems to make them live forever. And while the Trevor novel contains much to admire, I have less confidence in his characters, who feel more like temporary acquaintances.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

I thought I'd post a poem written under the influence of Paradise Lost. It first appeared in the journal Salamander and, along with three other Fiend poems, will be reprinted in my forthcoming collection How the Crimes Happened, scheduled to be published by CavanKerry Press next April.


A green taloned hedge, so massive

a dove could not flutter over, so dense

an armored snake could not slip beneath—

This was the obstacle

between the Fiend and earthly delight!

Thin-hipped, high-shouldered,

chin in hand, he studied the situation.

            Of course, far on the other side

of the Garden, due east, there was a gate,

if he chose to hike the border and rap

on the front door.  What the Fiend

puzzled over, at the moment,

was not the trouble of getting in,

which for an angel was minimal,

but this curious pretense of a barricade—

Why make it so fraught yet convenient

to break into a park that, no matter how

buxom, was merely a dull facsimile of bliss?

This was the kind of setup that had always

irritated him—the King’s cunning

propensity for dramatic ambiguity, “free will”

with a catch, not to mention

these ridiculous processional formalities.

“Ugh,” muttered the Fiend;

and with a contemptuous snap of his wings

at one slight bound he leaped over the hedge,

landing on his feet as briskly as a cat

dropping through a hen-house window

into a huddle of fat chicks.

Then up he flew, up to the middle tree,

the highest that grew in the yard, and perched,

kneecaps tucked to his ears,

black as a cormorant in the frilled branches;

and there he devised his next really good idea.

I talked to Baron Wormser yesterday, and he tells me that the Frost Place Conference on Poetry & Teaching is rapidly filling. So far 18 teachers have signed up, and our limit is 24. I'm really happy about this interest, having had my doubts, in our epoch of economic gloom, about whether or not teachers (and their school budgets) would see any value in a poetry conference. But apparently they do, and I'm excited to meet this summer's participants.

Baron and I will be tweaking last summer's approach, particularly the writing-revision component; so if you have thoughts, suggestions, or worries, don't hesitate to let me know. And if you've been thinking about attending this summer's conference, please apply soon or you may end up being wait-listed, which is far less enjoyable than not being wait-listed.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Three small poems in two days, and here I was thinking I'd never write anything short again. But I still can't figure out what influences a shift in genre: why at some times I can only write prose, at other times only poems. And now I'm noting this shift in subgenre, from long narrative to short lyric. As far as I can tell, I'm reading the same sorts of things--novels and poetry, with a few signs and advertisements sucked in along the way. Nobody has made any suggestions to me about style or substance. Merely my brain has changed gears. Or perhaps lyric poems are a sign of spring.

Here's a poem that is full of repetition; and since my days are full of patterns, and the rain, too, repeats and repeats, I will copy it down for you, and perhaps it will drive you crazy, or perhaps you will like it.

Poem 160 from the Devonshire Manuscript

Sir Thomas Wyatt

I abide and abide and better abide,
          And after the olde prouerbe, the happie daye;
          And ever my ladye to me dothe saye:
          "Let me alone and I will prouyde."
I abide and abide and tarrye the tide,
         And with abiding spede well ye maye:
         Thus do I abide I wott allwaye,
         Nother obtayning nor yet denied.
Aye me! this long abidying
          Semithe to me as who sayethe
          A prolonging of a dieng dethe
Or a refusing of a desyred thing.
          Moche ware it bettre for to be playne
          Then to saye "abide" and yet shall not obtayne.

Dinner tonight: casserole-roasted pork, first dry-marinated in sage, salt, and green peppercorns; spoonbread; cucumber salad; plum flan.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The commentary of William Hazlitt, stumbled over in my random perusal of Barlett's Familiar Quotations (1939 edition):

Persons without education certainly do not want either acuteness or strength of mind in what concerns themselves, or in things immediately within their observations; but they have no power of abstraction, no general standard of taste, or scale of opinion. They see their objects always near, and never in the horizon. Hence arises that egotism which has been remarked as the characteristic of self-taught men. (from The Round Table)

It is better to be able neither to read nor write than to be able to do nothing else. (from On the Ignorance of the Learned)

We are not hypocrites in our sleep. (from On Dreams)

Saturday, April 4, 2009

A lovely foggy wet melting Saturday morning, with the occasional pickup hissing past the driveway on its way to the dump; with Nigel the blue parakeet cracking seeds in his cage, and Anna the large messy poodle licking her feet, and the old clock ticking like a leaky faucet.

As I was making dinner last night, a poem came to me--all compact, beginning to end, a little lyric. I've been so engaged in my giant narrative poem that I was shocked to feel a lyric rise up in me. It needs detail work, of course, but I have the shape, the sensation, the movement. It was sweet to feel it come forth, that little song.

Tom has a photo-show opening this afternoon at the Maine Center for Contemporary Art in Rockport, if you care to drop by and eat cheese cubes with us.

Friday, April 3, 2009

I have spent all morning trying, in consultation with my husband, to construct a gifted-and-talented battle plan for one of my sons. Although he has been formally identified as gifted, his school has neither money, nor resources--nor, apparently, the will--to implement an individual plan for his education.

This is, of course, a touchy subject in a poor town. I don't know where we rank on the "number of kids identified with special needs" charts, but I'm sure you won't find many residents who believe that a bright, self-motivated kid ought to require any extra support. The state says he does; but as far as I can tell, the state doesn't enforce its mandate or offer financial assistance. So the problem is, in large part, unsolvable--that is, unless I decide to home-school him myself. But why would I want to take a shy, temperamental, high-strung kid out of a social milieu in which he has developed a strong sense of comfort and competence? Anyone can tell you that smart kids aren't always socially gifted. I don't believe that taking my son away from daily interaction with his peers would be a good move at all.

And then there's the bigger question: what about all those smart kids without advocates? What happens to them in this life?

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Reached page 12 on my poem today, and all of sudden I lost control of my grammar--always a sign that my imagination has begun to fog. Still, the poem continues to move forward, slowly, slowly; and I'm finding that frequently the parts I like best on a second reading were written at moments when I wasn't feeling especially transported into realms of gold but rather like an unromantic sentence-constructor slogging through her workaday mire.

In a February post I quoted Auden, who said, "The degree of excitement which a writer feels during the process of composition is as much an indication of the value of the final result as the excitement felt by a worshiper is an indication of the value of his devotions, that is to say, very little indication." I wonder how he would rate "degree of discomfort" as a side-effect of accomplishment. Really, getting very good at anything seems to involve not just discomfort but self-destruction--whether physically as an athlete or mentally as a writer (which sometimes involves physical discomfort too: all this required sitting can be a drag). Still, what else would I be good for if I couldn't do this? I can imagine Auden asking himself the same question. 

Here's one stanza from my new poem, which, as I'm sure I must have mentioned, is called "The White Bear" and loosely reworks the fairy tale "East of the Sun and West of the Moon." It's written entirely in 11-line, alternate-indent stanzas; and the lines are long, a style choice that will come back to haunt me if anyone tries to typeset the thing (and also explains why I've copied it here in such a small point size).

The girl took to wandering away of an afternoon, far down the forest track,
          merely for the chance to lie among the broken remnants
of last year's bracken ferns and whisper the bear's name. Her parents,
          puzzled and sad, watched her disappear into the woods;
yet they were not more puzzled than their daughter, nor more sad.
          She did not think to ponder, "So what, after all, does home mean?"
as she lay in her damp cot and watched the finches, garbed in their winter drab,
          flicker from bough to bough; but the question nonetheless
dangled before her in the listless air; and when finally she sat up, stiff with cold,
          and gathered strength for her mother's too cheerful greeting,
her father's anxious frown, she had advanced not a step toward contentment.

Dinner tonight: marinated London broil grilled rare over a wood fire (first firepit meal of the season!), garlic mashed potatoes, roasted white carrots with green apples and radicchio, sourdough boule, and maybe sugar cookies if I remember to soften the butter.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

In The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James is so skilled in his revelation of the minutiae of unhappiness that sometimes I have to read passages twice before I can believe they're really written language rather than undifferentiated thought. Here, for instance, is a discourse on the miseries of Isabel's marriage to Osmond--from Isabel's point of view, to be sure, yet at the same time a universal description of existential loneliness. And it does make me so sad.

"[Isabel] knew of no wrong that [her husband] had done; he was not violent, he was not cruel; she simply believed that he hated her. That was all she accused him of, and the miserable part of it was precisely that it was not a crime, for against a crime she might have found redress. He had discovered that she was so different, that she was not what he had believed she would prove herself to be. He had thought at first he could change her, and she had done her best to be what he would like. But she was, after all, herself--she couldn't help that; and now there was no use pretending, playing a part, for he knew her and had made up his mind."