Thursday, December 31, 2009

A friend sent me a link to this article by William Chace in the American Scholar, which laments what he sees as the gradual disintegration of English as a field of study. Certainly he's a conservative, yet I think he has a point. Also, interestingly (though maybe only to me), he's a Haverford graduate: 30 years before my time, it's true; but still, what he says about the vigor of that college's English department rings true to me . . . though decay was seeping in by the mid-1980s.

If nothing else, his article reminds me to be grateful that, as an undergraduate, I read great books and talked about them. Maybe I escaped from formal education just in time.

Update: I also posted this link on the Facebook page of the Frost Place Conference on Poetry & Teaching. It's garnered a fair number of comments, some of them quite detailed, most from English and language arts teachers. If you have Facebook access, you might want to take a look.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A friend reminds me that I haven't talked much about food this holiday season. That's because I haven't been responsible for the food. I spent Christmas week eating my mother-in-law's excellent cooking and then returned home to regular fare spiked with leftover Christmas gifts: toast with black-olive tapenade, followed by strawberry Pop Rocks; that sort of thing. On New Year's Eve, however, I will be hosting a small un-fancy party, which will feature my friend Steve's kielbasa and sauerkraut.

If you've read Tracing Paradise, you've met Steve and know that he might conceivably have killed this kielbasa himself. But for Thursday's occasion he hasn't: this will be genuine from-the-store sausage, just like the kielbasa of my childhood, half of which took place in the same region as Steve's childhood: western Pennsylvania. This regional bond is, among other things, why I love Steve and his wife so much. There is something comforting about being with people who have mucked around in the hills and cricks of one's childhood.

Also, they know about the food. At the turn of the twentieth century, the southwest corner of Pennsylvania was invaded by a swarm of immigrants, many from eastern Europe, some from Italy, even some from Syria. These newcomers settled among the resident Scotch-Irish and Germans, and their food was quickly absorbed into the generalized Appalachian diet known as trashy. When I was a child, my Polish great-aunts served kielbasa and pierogi alongside Chex party mix and that green-Jello-with-marshmallows dish they called "salad." As far as I knew, everything on the menu was more or less the same kind of food: that is, the kind of food my mother allowed us to eat only when we were in Pennsylvania. At home in Rhode Island, we were brown-rice vegetarians. In the summer, at my grandparents', we ate kielbasa and powdered doughnuts; and for my sister and me, this dietary switch was a prime charm of our three months in Westmoreland County.

One peculiarity of kielbasa was the pronunciation of the word. Although my mother was a native Appalachian, she had carefully erased the mountain accent from her speech, except for a few isolated words. This was one of them. Like her parents and aunts and uncles, she called this food "kah-BOSSY." I have no idea if this pronunciation bears any relation to the original Polish or if it's a mountain-ism. All I know is that, if you want to buy this meat in Maine, you have to ask the store clerk for "keel-BAHSS-a."

Another peculiarity was how much my mother herself loved our summer dietary switch to trash food. At the time it didn't occur to me how difficult it must have been for her to be a half-year brown-rice vegetarian. As with her speech, she had purposefully erased her food habits. But the kielbasa still, now and then, on a summer night, managed to sneak through.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

It's barely dawn here, and last night's snowfall coats the branches and roofs with a vague, phosphorescent layer of light. Tom's truck is pulling out of the driveway, the boys are still asleep, the house is warm, and I am drinking coffee and reading about Walt Whitman and Malcolm X. Eventually I will get back to talking about all these men in my life, but for the moment I'm letting them sleep or drive away. I think I will talk about you instead, because the year's end is approaching, a moment for taking traditional stock of one's blessings, and this, after all, is a letter to you.

When I was a child, I thought that being a published writer might feel like being a queen. As it turns out, being a writer feels extremely non-queenly. But having readers is a strange and wonderful pleasure . . . nerve-wracking, too, of course, though that, in its own way, is a good deal of the pleasure. You make me think; you catch me up, kindly, on my errors and unfair assumptions. You remind me that words are conversation and that intellectual engagement can also be friendship. The emails you send, the comments you post are constant reminders of the web of thinking minds and hearts that books can create. And yes, I do realize that "hearts" is one of those words that poetry workshoppers eschew, words like "angels" and "love" and "beauty"--words that are too easily sentimental. But, you know, hearts do exist, and so do love and beauty; and for all I know, now and again angels exist as well. Milton says they do.

So thank you for being here, reading this letter and sending your words and thoughts and puzzlements back to me. Happy old year, happy new year. Take care, and I'm thinking of you.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Here I am, home again, yet I also managed to leave the power cord for my laptop at my in-laws, so I must borrow computer privileges from obliging family members until the cord arrives in the mail. Ah well. We always manage to forget something, and it could have been pants.

I arrived home to find a charming Christmas card from a blog-and-Tracing-Paradise reader whom I've never met. But while she appears to enjoy most of what's going on here, she is not a Milly Jourdain fan. I think you fans-versus-non-fans may divide right down the middle . . . and as non-fans I include people who don't get my interest in her: she just doesn't seem exciting enough to like or dislike. Be assured that I barely get my interest in her. But since my reading life has always been guided by un-thought-out motivations, I am obliged to follow my trajectory here. Something will turn up; really, a few things have already turned up. They don't transform Milly into a great artist, but they do make her valuable to me.

1. On the whole, I intensely dislike self-monickered nature poets. Mary Oliver, for instance, makes me itch. Probably I will lose a whole lot of readers by admitting this, but really I think she is a tremendously annoying poet. Milly Jourdain could be easily labeled as a genteel lady nature poet. Why, then, do I continue to copy out her work? I don't have the answer yet, but I suspect that the unabashed human presence in her visualized world may be part of why I believe in her.

2. A large variety of people read this blog, running the gamut from professional writers to people with relatively little education and reading experience. I love this. And when I get messages from one of these less experienced readers that a Milly poem mattered to her--along with a brave venture into why it mattered to her--I feel as if poetry as a genre and a practice is doing its work. This particular reader noted the clarity of Milly's words. I agree: they are clear, and that is a beautiful thing. She is a non-ironic writer, usually unsentimental, with a sharp eye and a perceptive ear. Her dramatic control is flawed, her metaphors and diction can be trivial, but her articulated vision is as clear and forthright as a brook over stones.

3. Which leads me to my next point. Unfulfilment was published in the mid-1920s. The world of poetry was changing, shifting from the nineteenth century's decorative wordiness to the twentieth century's imagist brevity and Poundian academicizing and Eliot-like irony. Milly may not have been a guiding light in that shift, but (as my friend Lucy the historian noted during our walk across some scary ice the other day) neither was she an uneducated milkmaid. She belonged to an educated family; was linked through her elder sister to Ivy Compton-Burnett, one of the craziest new novelists out there; and her work is perforce influenced by her knowledge of the changing styles of verse. I think her poems are an interesting acknowledgment of the power of the "show, don't tell" doctrine of contemporary verse. She has plain diction and an objective eye. Yet she is still, like her nineteenth-century predecessors, a non-cynical devotee of Beauty. This disconnect doesn't necessarily turn her poems into art; but at least to me, it does make her more interesting as a thinking human being. She is not jumping wholeheartedly onto the modernist bandwagon; she is looking back over her shoulder at Rossetti and Tennyson and Coleridge and Bronte and Keats, those devotees of Beauty whose books no doubt sat on her shelves. They sit on my shelf too, and they're considerably less dusty than my Pound and Eliot collections. Yet I, too, write as a poet of my times, one who has been influenced by my centuries and their art. I recognize Milly in myself. I also recognize my good fortune. Milly died at age 44 after a long and debilitating illness, but here I am at 45, full of beans. I've had some luck that she didn't have.

4. Reading Milly's work is a way to thank life for my luck, a way to remind me that flawed work is not garbage, a way to shock myself into noticing the power of delicacy, a way to see why poems must be dramas in order to work as complete entities. How can this not be useful to me as writer and a person? The question, in a public forum such as this one, is whether or not it's useful to you as well. I'm sorry if she bores you, but at the very least perhaps she presses you to do your own thinking.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

My son Paul drew these four portraits for me as a Christmas gift. I'm pleased to see that weird yet recognizable hair is a requirement for famous writers. Paul says that, in every case, he started by drawing the hair, and then the rest of the picture seemed to come naturally. But he also tells me he tried to draw Dickens, whose curly whiskers overwhelmed his skills. Once again, Dickens defeats the common man.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Spending much of my visit thus far assuaging the fears of our angelically behaved yet somewhat alarmed poodle, who gets disturbed when anyone leaves the room. Otherwise, leading a regular daughter-in-law life. So far I have not read one word of anything besides The Hampshire Gazette.

On today's docket: shopping at the strip mall.

I decided not to bring along Malcolm X and opted for Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography instead. My younger son has lately gone Civil War crazy, so I've already been forcibly immersed in mid-19th-century America. (Would you like me to name you all the generals of the Army of the Potomac? . . . . Want to discuss some Chancellorsville tactical errors? . . . . ) Plus, let's not forget the Millbank essay lurking here on my desktop. At the moment Walt Whitman's America seems like the America for me. I'll get back to Malcolm X's America shortly.

Fish chowder tonight, or so I hear. And for tomorrow, crown roast of pork. Walt would be enthusiastic about both of these meals. Malcolm certainly would not be.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

This may be my last post for a few days. Tomorrow we leave for Amherst, Massachusetts, Land of Dickinson . . . although the local poet that we tourists think about most these days is Robert Francis. My in-laws live next door to Fort Juniper, the tiny house that Francis built in the 1930s or 40s and where he apparently once kept a chicken named Gladys in the fireplace. Now the house is a poets' retreat, owned, I think, by Mount Holyoke College, and I enjoy standing around with my coffee in the morning speculating about the resident poet's inner turmoil as I watch him shovel out his car. (And why do they all seem to be male? Isn't Mount Holyoke a women's college?)

As far as I can tell, these visiting poets do not keep up with Francis's habits. I have seen no chickens. And according to Donald Hall, who memorialized the poet in the essay "Bluejeans and Robert Francis," "all his life he loved to lie naked in the sun. . . . When he was old he sat naked in a chair behind a clump of trees. The year he died he still sunbathed, wearing only shoes and, on occasion, a hat." The new residents appear to have given up this habit, though possibly they discreetly return to it in the summer months.

I like RF's poems. Hall calls them "beautiful exact renderings of the creation he observed, touched, and celebrated. This creation includes baseball, which Francis wrote about as well as anyone . . . though he never cared for the game." This is a lesson for all of us: why only write about things we care about? Why not just look around and see what there is to see? Here, for instance, is "The Base Stealer," which demonstrates Francis's skill at concisely portraying action. I like it a lot. (But of course I also like baseball. What if he'd been writing about football? It's possible I wouldn't be interested in this poem at all. So really, how did Francis manage to write so well about a game "he never cared for"? And why is this parenthetical comment going on for so long?)

In short (to quote Dickens's Mr. Micawber, a fellow parenthetical rambler), I will be spending Christmas next door to Robert Francis's little fort, in a neighborhood that once housed Dickinson and Frost and their regular neighbors, and that still houses those regular neighbors, and driveways, and Christmas trees, and bawling babies, and itchy dogs. On Christmas Day I will take a walk up to the reservoir with my own itchy dog, and no one will know I am a poet. Which is just as well. It is often good not to be a poet.

Here's hoping you'll have a walk on Christmas Day too.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Lately, when I've been reading Milly Jourdain's poems, I find myself wanting to cry, or shake her, or do something abrasive, which I realize is not a kind response to the yearnings of a fragile invalid. But these poems keep rising to loveliness and then, one after another, nose-dive into a snap-the-suitcase-shut ending. It's starting to drive me crazy. Sometimes I think she is doing what many apprentice poets do: she is concluding the poem too early, generally when it has started getting very hard to write. At other times I think she is purposely pulling down the shades to keep me at bay. In any case these bland and/or hack endings are an unfortunate footnote to some beautiful internal lines.

Here are two Milly poems.

The Wind

Milly Jourdain

The wind blows wild across the gray river,
Against those dusky walls, and through the trees,
Along the level streets.

With the same voice it blows across the sea,
Across those grassy fields and shadowed vales,
And down the grey village.

And yet again when I am nearing sleep,
I hear it softly blowing through the fields
And waving grass of youth.


Milly Jourdain

I know a place where winds blow over wide
Wet downs, and where the yellow sheep
Like stars are crowded on a steep hill side;

Where palest primroses shine down the lane
And blue-bells follow after faintly sweet,
And often all the land is blurred with rain;

And when the little trees are cold and bare,
The lambs do cry like children in the mist,
And there's no other sound in the damp air.

In the dark night, when I lie on my bed
In this old town of water and gray towers,
The wandering sheep-bells tinkle in my head.

Do you see why I'm getting so frustrated? Because "And when the little trees are cold and bare,/The lambs do cry like children in the mist" is stunning, while "The wandering sheep-bells tinkle in my head" is not stunning.

Argh. I don't know why I take her unevenness to heart, but I do.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Reading Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale

My friend Donna, who has bravely gone back to school after a lifetime spent taking care of other people, just finished up this semester's classes and told me how sad she felt about no longer having anything difficult to concentrate on. For the first time ever, she had read a Shakespeare play; and while it was challenging, it was also exhilarating. I knew what she meant: something about saying, "I'm reading Shakespeare," never ceases to make me feel like I'm doing real work in this world.

So I told Donna, "Why don't we read a play together?" We don't live in the same town anymore, but I knew we could work out a way to talk to each other. She chose A Winter's Tale, just because she had never heard of it before. And then I, because I was overexcited about the idea, chattered on my Facebook page about what she and I were planning to do. More than a dozen people immediately said they wanted to read it too.

I was amazed: these friends run the gamut from experienced English teachers to a crime novelist to a pair of enthusiastic 12-year-olds. It brings tears to my eyes--it really does--to think of a world teeming with people who need, at least now and then, to touch the hem of Shakespeare's garment.

So anyway, this is what I'm thinking. After the new year, I will mention this project again. At that point anyone who is interested will, I hope, have dug out a Complete Shakespeare from under the birdcage or borrowed it from the library. We'll go slowly--scene by scene--maybe just a scene a week. Enthusiastic 12-year-olds may have a great deal of hubris about their abilities, yet Shakespeare's language is exhausting. And all of us have other demands.

At the end of each reading period, I'll open up this blog for comments. People who prefer to email me privately can do so and, with their permission, I'll share their comments anonymously. But commenting is important: it's the only way we have to discuss and gripe and ask questions about weird speeches we don't understand. Having a community of readers is exhilarating. Words are conversation, and Shakespeare is the emperor of words. It is a lovely thing to know that someone out there is listening for those words in your mouth, and your hands, and your head.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A small sampling of the many, many things I've copied out over the years. These three almost go together, but I didn't copy them out at the same time.

Prayer (I)

George Herbert

Prayer the Churches banquet, Angels age,

Gods breath in man returning to his birth,

The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,

The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;

Engine against th’ Almightie, sinners towre,

Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,

The six-daies world-transposing in an houre,

A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear;

Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,

Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,

Heaven in ordinarie, Man well drest,

The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,

Church-bels beyond the starres heard, the souls bloud,

The land of spices; something understood.

“The Strange Elizabethans,” from The Second Common Reader

Virginia Woolf

And if, in their hopes for the future and their sensitiveness to the opinion of older civilisations, the Elizabethans show much the same susceptibility that sometimes puzzles us among the younger countries today, the sense that broods over them of what is about to happen, of an undiscovered land on which they are about to set foot, is much like the excitement that science stirs in the minds of imaginative English writers of our own time. Yet . . . it has to be admitted that to read [Gabriel] Harvey’s pages methodically is almost beyond the limits of human patience. The words seem to run redhot, molten, hither and thither, until we cry out in anguish for the boon of some meaning to sent its stamp on them. He takes the same idea and repeats it over and over again:

In the sovereign workmanship of Nature herself, what garden of flowers without weeds? what orchard of trees without worms? what field of corn without cockle? what pond of fishes without frogs? what sky of light without darkness? what mirror of knowledge without ignorance? what man of earth without frailty? what commodity of the world without discommodity?

It is interminable. As we go round and round like a horse in a mill, we perceive that we are thus clogged with sound because we are reading what we should be hearing. The amplifications and the repetitions, the emphasis like that of a fist pounding the edge of a pulpit, are for the benefit of the slow and sensual ear which loves to dally over sense and luxuriate in sound—the ear which brings in, along with the spoken word, the look of the speaker and his gestures, which gives a dramatic value to what he says and adds to the crest of an extravagance some modulation which makes the word wing its way to the precise spot aimed at in the hearer’s heart.

Lord Randall

Anonymous (earliest printed date 1787, but no doubt much older)

“O where hae ye been, Lord Randal, my son?

O where hae ye been, my handsome young man?”

“I hae been to the wild wood; mother, make my bed soon,

For I’m weary wi’ hunting, and fain wald lie down.”

“Where gat ye your dinner, Lord Randal, my son?

Where gat ye your dinner, my handsome young man?”

“I din’d wi’ my true-love; mother, make my bed soon,

For I’m weary wi’ hunting, and fain wald lie down.”

“What gat ye to your dinner, Lord Randal, my son?

What gat ye to your dinner, my handsome young man?”

“I gat eels boil’d in broo; mother, make my bed soon,

For I’m weary wi’ hunting, and fain wald lie down.”

“What became of your bloodhounds, Lord Randal, my son?”

What became of your bloodhounds, my handsome young man?”

“O they swell’d and they died; mother, make my bed soon,

For I’m weary wi’ hunting, and fain wald like down.”

“O I fear ye are poison’d, Lord Randal, my son!

I fear ye are poison’d, my handsome young man!”

“O yes! I am poison’d; mother, make my bed soon,

For I’m sick at the heart, and I fain wald lie down.”

Friday, December 18, 2009

Once again, the National Book Foundation is sponsoring its Innovations in Reading Award, directed at individuals and institutions that support a lifelong commitment to reading and literacy. They are asking you to nominate that individual or institution, and I hope you will. Many of you are teachers, and all of you are readers: who is better qualified to decide what person or place deserves this kind of recognition?

It's still cold cold cold here, and I am recovering from a dreadful headache which seems to have sapped all my intelligence. But I'd better hurry up and get something done because today is the boys' last day of school before vacation. Santa is bringing Dunkin Donuts to the high school. Sadly, as far as we know, he isn't doing anything for the sixth graders. Maybe they'll have an uprising.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Here's some information about the upcoming North Shore Young Writers Conference. The organizer is J. D. Scrimgeour of Salem State College, who was a 2008 visiting poet at the Frost Place Conference. And the featured presenter is Charlotte Gordon, a 2009 visiting poet at the Frost Place Conference. Yet the Frost Place has nothing to do with this program. Isn't that odd?
Minus 2 degrees this morning, with a stiff wind, which is practically balmy, according to my friend in Alberta, but was still cold enough to convince the poodle to beg to go back into the house halfway through morning chores. This says a lot about the misery of that wind because bossing chickens is the poodle's favorite hobby, and she also is a devoted acolyte of compost. Three out of five new-laid eggs were frozen, I had to jump up and down on the water buckets, and two pairs of gloves were about as warm as bare skin. It is not yet cold enough to make my eyeballs start to ice over, but the season's early.

And now back to the luxurious pleasures of wood heat. I do like an 80-degree living room on a minus-2-degree day. This morning I will begin an editing project for CavanKerry Press, which is publishing my next poetry collection and has since asked me to take on its copyediting load. Today's book is Jack Wiler's forthcoming collection, which is a particular honor. Jack was a CKP author who died this past fall after a long battle with AIDS, and the press wants to expedite this second book in hopes of having it ready by the anniversary of his death. Although I never met Jack, I did correspond with him and he was a close friend of my close friends. He worked often in the schools and was a visiting poet at the Frost Place Conference on Poetry & Teaching. His first CKP book, Fun Being Me, definitely belongs on the shelf labeled "eye openers for disaffected high school boys who think they hate poetry."

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Yesterday I received notice that a weird little autobiographical piece had been accepted by the South Loop Review. This was a surprise because (1) the review specializes in experimental forms of nonfiction and (2) I had written an experimental form of nonfiction.

Anyone who knows anything about my writing tastes also knows that I am devoted to serious, heartfelt, old-fashioned prose judiciously salted with slang and comic relief. But here I went and did this shocking thing and wrote something eclectic. (Oh, how I hate that word.) It's a memoir piece in the form of an unsolvable algebraic word problem. I was really bad at high school algebra, which makes the form even more eclectic.

In other news, the dog is barking and the dishwasher soap smells strange. And by the way, in her 1960 edition of Etiquette, Emily Post announces that drapes is an "inexcusable vulgarism" for curtains. Am I the only person who didn't know this? I feel so vulgar.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Downstairs the dog is barking at snowplows on the road. Upstairs Malcolm X is glowering at me. In terms of "author attitude to reader," he is even meaner than Charlotte Bronte. I can see exactly how an essay about the Autobiography would fit into the rest of my reading memoir. But writing it will be torture. No doubt, like Charlotte, that's exactly what he'd prefer.

I do know I should make some attempt to write about my urge to reread unpleasant books, and certainly the Autobiography is an exemplar. I accept unpleasantness as Malcolm's point, and also as punishment for being who I am . . . except that he's not always as right as he thinks he is, particularly about women. In fact, he's shockingly obnoxious about women. Nonetheless, his argument, from beginning to end, is designed to convince white readers, no matter who we are, that we deserve what we get from him. In large part, his argument works on me: yes, I'm humiliated by the crimes of my race. Yet what do I do with a sentence such as "All women, by their nature, are fragile and weak"? Or "while a man must at all times respect his woman, at the same time he needs to understand that he must control her if he expects to get her respect." Such blank-faced statements are woven throughout this book, and they are starting to appall me. How can a man so sensitive to the injuries inflicted by history be so ignorant of the injuries inflicted by history?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Presently I am trying to write about a trashy 19th-century dime novel while rereading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. This is not easy. I may go insane.

In other bad news, I have to go Christmas shopping again because my last attempt was a bust. However, I am grateful that the house is warm and I have a lot of good strong coffee. Also, I'm glad to have a funny picture of Roy Orbison that makes him look like Red Riding Hood's grandma dressed up as Buddy Holly.

What would Walt Whitman say about my state of mind? Let's find out:

from A Song of Joys

(O something pernicious and dread!
Something far away from a puny and pious life!
Something unproved! something in a trance!
Something escaped from anchorage and driving free.)

Thank you, Fortune Cookie Walt. I knew I could count on you to come up with something loud, exhilarating, ambiguous, and applicable to all circumstances.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Here's a writing prize that, according to the instructions, you have some control over. You, the reader, can nominate a nonfiction piece published in 2009 that you feel best delineates the writing life or the writing-teacher life. As far as I can tell, you are free to nominate a stand-alone essay or an excerpt from a book: the only caveat is that it needs to have been published in 09.

Here are the specs as I received them from the coordinator. (Do not ask me to explain why the line breaks insist on being permanently weird.)


The Special Interest Group on Creative Nonfiction (a subsidiary
group of the National Council of Teachers of English’s Conference
on College Composition and Communication) solicits nominations for
the 2009 DONALD MURRAY PRIZE. This prize will go to the author of
the best essay/work of creative nonfiction on the subjects of
teaching and/or writing published in the year.

The Donald Murray Prize is generously sponsored by Wadsworth, a
part of Cengage Learning, who will provide an honorarium of
$500.00 to the winner. The judge of this year’s contest will be
Mike Steinberg.

Authors, editors, and readers are asked to nominate
essays/creative nonfiction on writing and/or teaching that were
published between January 1, 2009 and December 31, 2009. Send two
copies of each work to The Donald Murray Prize, University Writing
Program, One Shields Avenue, UC Davis, Davis CA 95616. Also
provide publication information, including the date of publication.

The deadline for submissions to arrive is January 15, 2010. The
winner will be announced in March 2010, at the CCCC convention in

Now, off into the 2-degree morning to feed animals and haul firewood; and then to roust the boys into Christmas-present-making frenzy. Time to whip up those gifts for Grandma. . . .

Saturday, December 12, 2009

We're up before dawn on a Saturday morning because today is Jackman Day--that is, the day of the  Harmony Elementary School basketball teams' annual trek to Jackman, where they will be squashed like bugs by the always tall, strong, and fast Forest Hills Elementary School teams. Apparently kids grow bigger on the frontier. Two hours north of Harmony, the town is on the Quebec border, and there is nothing much up there but a main street stocked with bars and advertisements for hunting guides. From Jackman, a shopping trip to Wal-Mart takes all day. Could that be the modern definition of frontier?

Although many Harmony parents also drive to Jackman to watch their children get squashed like bugs, I prefer not to. Frankly I would rather vacuum. I can see my child get squashed without wasting an entire day on the project; for as of now, the Harmony boys' team is the worst in the league--although it does have the prettiest coach, which is some consolation.

Good thing I have written a basketball poem in honor of big losers. I know some of you have already read it, but here is "First Game" again, if you care to relive the moment.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Yesterday's "best winter poem in English" post garnered a number of alternative suggestions, including poems by Frost, Pound, and O'Hara. And if nothing else, the yawning gap between the era of Shakespeare and the era of F, P, and O'H gives me pause. Aren't there any great 17th-, 18th-, or 19th-century winter poems?

When I grab my Portable Romantics and do a quick index search, all I come up with is Ralph Waldo Emerson's "The Snow-Storm." Not a great poem, but not awful, and blessedly short.

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and driving o'er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven.

Now I'm checking The Making of a Sonnet, the most recent Norton anthology of the form, which includes poems from the 16th century to the present. This is the only obvious "cold," "snow," or "winter" item that surfaces in the index (other than "Yvor Winters," of course):

Cold Are the Crabs

Edward Lear

Cold are the crabs that crawl on yonder hills,
Colder the cucumbers that grow beneath,
And colder still the brazen chops that wreathe
          The tedious gloom of philosophic pills!
For when the tardy film of nectar fills
The ample bowls of demons and of men,
There lurks the feeble mouse, the homely hen,
          And there the porcupine with all her quills.
Yet much remains--to weave a solemn strain
That lingering sadly--slowly dies away,
Daily departing with departing day.
A pea-green gamut on a distant plain
When wily walruses in congress meet--
          Such such is life--

I'm not sure I've ever read a more sarcastic take on the ponderous Tennysonian form. The grammar and syntax are exquisite--all that subtle rhetorical repetition, etc. Lear merely substitutes ridiculous words for serious ones. The sonnet may be less insouciant than a Lewis Carroll verse, but diction-wise it's even cleverer. Carroll mocks bad poets. Lear mocks good ones.

And now off to "the snowy and the blowy, the blowy and the snowy," as Mr. Biswas would say. (I love Naipaul's A House for Mr. Biswas, which is certainly on my shortlist of sad-yet-funny books. Don't ask me what other books are on that list because I haven't thought of them yet.)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Another snowy sunrise spent wondering when the plow guy will show up. From the looks of it, we got 8 or 10 inches last night, yet the boys insisted on wearing their sneakers to the bus stop. Gone are the days of the parental boot-and-snowpants ultimatum. These boys would rather have pneumonia than be seen on a school bus in winter boots. I try to be understanding, for I recall my own parallel issues with a woolly hat, not to mention long underwear, which my mother believed was obligatory from October through April. Myself, I would have rather have been knifed through the heart.

And here is a most excellent poem for the season--a poem that John Frederick Nims says "may be the best winter poem in English." (Nims makes this claim in Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry, which is an fine anthology/technical guide . . . and I say this as a person who kind of hates both anthologies and technical guides.)

Winter,  from Love's Labour's Lost

William Shakespeare

When icicles hang by the wall,
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail;
When blood is nipped and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
To-whit to-who, a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

When all aloud the wind doth blow,
And coughing drowns the parson's saw,
And birds sit brooding in the snow,
And Marion's nose looks red and raw;
And roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
To-whit to-who, a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

You will enjoy the NY Times's 1871 review of Millbank. I am still laughing at the last line.
Our first big snowstorm is forecast, and I will be cooking black beans and rice, sourdough bread, and gingerbread squirrels. My boy-shaped cookie cutters are broken, so squirrels seem like the next-best option. Everyone likes to eat a squirrel.

I've almost finished rereading Millbank, and at the moment I am most excited by the blatant parallels to Jane Eyre's "hidden madwoman" plot device . . . except that Mary Holmes is much kinder about madness than Charlotte Bronte is--so much so that I'm starting to wonder if Holmes was dealing with her own real-life attic madwoman. I rather doubt that the Internet will give me any helpful information about this, but I'll start looking, and writing.

Meanwhile, the snow will be falling, and the dog will be snoring, and the not-quite-dry-enough firewood will be popping and sizzling, and the Christmas tree lights will falter out when we lose our power, and Tom will fall asleep on the couch alongside the dog, and it will be a lovely quiet day for documenting my unsubstantiated speculations about a nineteenth-century bestselling melodrama.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Yesterday, after I'd finished hammering and denting my rereading memoir-in-progress into the rough facsimile of a book, I swallowed hard and sent a sample chapter to an agent. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I've never had any dealings with agents; and at the moment the experience feels a bit like used-car shopping--a mixed sensation of optimism and doom.

Speaking of shopping, today I have to go Christmas shopping again. Blah. But I can't put it off because snow is forecast for the rest of the week. Maybe I'll also manage to get started on my Millbank essay. Unlike my Elizabeth Bowen piece, which took me 5 years to write, I think this essay will be one of those "pour itself onto the page" situations. How cerebral can one get about a horrible yet adhesive novel? I foresee an all-emotion-all-the-time compositional experience.

In the meantime, here's the quotation I think I'll be using as the memoir's epigraph. Surely you won't be surprised to learn that it's from DC.

When I think of it, the picture always arises in my mind of a summer evening, the boys at play in the churchyard, and I sitting on my bed, reading as if for life.

                                                   --Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

Monday, December 7, 2009

Home again, after a brief trip to Acadia, and attempting to reignite the home fires. This is the biggest downside to heating with wood: how long it takes to get the house warm again. Even after a mere 24 hours, the floors, the beds, the chairs have absorbed a dull chill. The pipes are nowhere close to freezing; merely, the atmosphere is unpleasant and makes everyone feel grouchy and put-upon.

Nonetheless, my older son managed to hike into the forest after dark, cut down a lovely Christmas tree, and drag it into the house. Meanwhile, the younger son bashed out a few Christmas carols on the piano, just to add to the put-upon festive cheer. Then both boys decorated the tree (twice, because after they finished the first pass, they realized the trunk wasn't touching the water in the stand and they had to take the whole thing apart and cut off more branches) as Tom and I pressed ourselves fitfully against the wood stove and admired their gritty seasonal perseverance.

And today I have to steel myself to go Christmas shopping. You might not be surprised to learn that I dislike shopping. The only good thing is that the store will probably be warmer than my house.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Here is today's Milly Jourdain poem, though I'm not sure all this sensitive springtime stuff is good for us at this waning time of the year.

A Purple Crocus

A purple crocus like a precious cup
Shining as silver in the cold grey light,
Has pushed its way above the winter grass.

Hidden, and waiting in it shadowed depths
Until the sun shall touch the purple brim,
There is a tender tongue of burning fire.

Now the harsh wind has blown the flower down;
Its eyes are closed, broken its milk-white stem;
But here, inside my room, it lives again.
There's no doubt that she's got a few too many word bundles (see my Olive Kitteridge post for more about this): "shadowed depths, "burning fire." The "lives again" ending is rather saccharine. But the first stanza is delicate and lovely; "tender tongue" is also beautiful. If you ran a literary magazine, would you accept this poem? I'm not sure what I would do. Probably I wouldn't. I think I would read it twice, though.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Hah! Even after all these years, Millbank continues to entertain me.

Yesterday I said to my fifteen-year-old son, "Want to hear some bad writing?"

He said, "Sure!"

I read him the following sentence:

With a low, suppressed scream, Roger bounded to Hester's side.

Immediately he undertook a dramatic reenactment. First, he worked on the "low, suppressed scream," which, as it turns out, is practically impossible to implement. Screams apparently need to be high. Otherwise, they sound like growls. The "bounded to Hester's side" can be replicated, but instead of looking anxious and excited, the bounder merely looks clompy, rather like a sloshed kangaroo. Moreover, bounding wakes up the dog, who also starts bounding.

In short, thanks to Millbank, for a few minutes yesterday evening, my kitchen in the woods was an exciting place to be, what with all the bounding and low, suppressed screams and ironic teenage-boy commentary. If you had been there, you would have enjoyed it, except when the dog happened to bound into your wine-holding arm.

Tomorrow we are headed to Southwest Harbor for a quick overnight visit with our friend, photographer Curtis Wells, who has a show opening at the Southwest Harbor Library. Curtis amuses my children because he wears a pin that says, "Old Fart." He amuses me (and makes me proud, of course) because he refers to my children as "righteous young men." He owns a windup James Brown doll that sings "I Feel Good," and he takes lovely black-and-white photos with an ancient Leica. And his wife is one of my dearest writing friends, and they live in a permanently half-finished house by the sea, and spending time with them is always an unqualified pleasure. Maybe you should come to this opening too.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

I know I shouldn't say this, but I am ridiculously pleased that this blog has been added to the list of author sites associated with The Reader. The Reader Organisation is based in Liverpool, and in the spring its print journal will be publishing "On Junk and the Common Reader," one of the essays that I am molding into a chapter for my new memoir. The editors of the journal have been remarkably friendly, and I am excited about being published in England, given the supremacy of English literature in my life. And now I've been added to an author list that includes writers such as A. S. Byatt and Philip Pullman. Not to mention that I've been alphabetized next to Doris Lessing. Forgive me my pleasure in this. I can't help myself.
Yesterday, during Paul's piano lesson, I read Neal Acherson's very favorable review of Byatt's The Children's Book in the NY Review of Books. I think his take on the novel is accurate (which is not always something I'd say about this journal's fiction reviews), and he also offers a good deal of background information about the period in which it's been set. So if you're not sure you want to read the novel but do want to know what's going on it, this may be the review for you.

And today, on this rainy Thursday, I will continue my organizational foray into the new memoir. Presently I am poring over all my extant rereading essays and thinking about how they talk to each other. I want them to function as chapters, not as stand-alone pieces, and the funny thing is that they really do. Poetry collections are the same way: you think you've spent five years writing a hundred individual poems, and then you discover you've been circling around a handful of themes and styles that cohere into a state of mind. 

Also, I am beginning to reread what may be the linch-pin of my reading life: Mary J. Holmes's Millbank. This is a book that I can safely assume you've never heard of. I found it in my grandfather's farmhouse when I was ten years old and proceeded to read it during every summer visit, until it finally occurred to me that he wouldn't care if I brought it home and kept it. Millbank is ladies' pulp fiction, published (I'm guessing; I have to do some research here) in the late 1800s, and it's all about lost babies, confused identities, star-crossed lovers, misplaced wills, noble manses on the Hudson, beautiful orphans, etc. It's quite a dreadful book, yet I adore it and have never grown out of it. Therefore, it belongs in my memoir, even amid the august company of Austen and Tolstoy.

I would like to know which books you haven't grown out of, and if you think of them fondly or wincingly, or perhaps with a mixture of contentment and embarrassment. What is it about the hold these shabby volumes have over us?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Sorry about the late post, but first I had to load three goats into a trailer, and then I had to take a shower, and then I got distracted by a good idea I had for expanding my nascent memoir introduction. I did leave a quick teaser in the comments for yesterday's post, just in case you were breathlessly waiting for more bile about the popular novel.

I do, however, feel less bilious today (and if that's not really the adjective form of bile, it ought to be). Olive Kitteridge did improve somewhat as I advanced toward the ending, though I am loath to say that it ever became excellent. Mostly I think it was the accretion of time spent with the characters, not the writing itself, that made me feel more kindly about it. And there's no doubt that interest in the characters is a sign that something good is percolating.

But let us return to yesterday's three random passages. First, the Byatt:
from The Children's Book
Tom was not only sunny, he was sunburned. Everywhere exposed to the sun had been painted a ruddy-tanned colour, with paler hairs gleaming on it. The V of his shirt-neck, the bracelet of colour-change on his upper arms, various zebra-gradations of gold on his calves and thighs.
This passage is all about color and patterns, and it's characteristic of Byatt that she forces the reader to look, look, look, look. As soon as you think she's said everything she needs to say, she says more. If Elizabeth Strout had been describing Tom, we may never have advanced past the first sentence, let alone to the third, let alone to that final clause and those "various zebra-changes of gold on his calves and thighs." One understands that this writer has been reading Milton, who overstimulates the reader's imagination in  just the same way. Check out his description of the angel Raphael in book 5 of Paradise Lost, and you'll see what I mean:
A Seraph wing'd; six wings he wore, to shade
His lineaments Divine; the pair that clad
Each shoulder broad, came mantling o'er his breast
With regal Ornament; the middle pair
Girt like a Starry Zone his waist, and round
Skirted his loins and thighs with downy Gold
And colors dipt in Heav'n; the third his feet. . . . 
[etc., etc., and it does go on for a while]
In contrast, the passage from Strout's Olive Kitteridge is nothing at all like Milton. This is not a bad thing (I am the first to agree that this world can have too much Milton), but the excerpt does employ, to a tiresome degree, what Charlotte Gordon calls word bundles--those convenient prepackaged word combinations that are so predictable that we almost overlook their descriptive capabilities: "lovely woman," "perfect skin," "quite thin."
from Olive Kitteridge
Angie, in her youth, had been a lovely woman to look at, with her wavy red hair and perfect skin, and in many ways this was still the case. But now she was into her fifties, and her hair, pinned back loosely with combs, was dyed a color you might consider just a little too red, and her figure, while still graceful, had a thickening of its middle, the more noticeable, perhaps, because she was otherwise quite thin.
It's not that we don't see this woman; it's more that the writer doesn't allow our visual imagination to concentrate on her. This style of writing has its place in a novel; and if Strout wants her readers' attention to glide indeterminantly over Angie, she's done a good job here. The problem is that much of the book incorporates this style, which is why it makes me feel as if I've been smothered in a blanket.

The Updike excerpt is quite different from both the Byatt and the Strout.
from Rabbit Is Rich
Harry realizes why Nelson's short haircut troubles him: it reminds him of how the boy looked back in grade school, before all that late Sixties business soured everything. He didn't know how short he was going to be then, and wanted to become a baseball pitcher like Jim Bunning, and wore a cap all summer that pressed his hair in even tighter to his skull, that bony freckled unsmiling face. Now his necktie and suit seem like that baseball cap to be the costume of doomed hopes.
Now, I know plenty of people who dislike Updike's writing, but I have never heard any one of them fault the vigor of his prose. He may sometimes overload us with information, but he is masterful at controlling time; in this brief passage he takes the reader from the present to the past to the present, as he also physically describes Nelson, as he also emotionally describes Nelson, as he also hints at Harry's fraught relationship with Nelson. Three sentences! Plus exact details!

I often wish I could write like Updike, and I often wish I could write like Byatt, but I have to say that I have no interest in writing invisible prose like Strout's. I'd rather overdo it than underdo it, any day of the year. At least as far as writing mistakes go, a sunlit voyage over a cliff is a far better fate than a neat hole in the grass.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

During the past week or so, I have been working my way through two recently published novels that I have never read before: A. S. Byatt's The Children's Book, which I purchased myself; and Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge, which was a gift. Other than the odd coincidence that both feature a major female character named Olive, these books have almost nothing in common, including my enthusiasm about reading them. 

I would not call Byatt my favorite living fiction writer (that would have to be Alice Munro), but she may be my favorite novelist. This doesn't mean that I wholeheartedly love her work, but I am always impressed and challenged by it. She is so curious; and even when that curiosity clutters up her narratives with a junkshop of cultural facts or balloons into irritatingly academic meta-excursions through her characters' brains, she keeps me edgy and jangled and eager for more. I love the way her best novels overflow with characters, and colors of trees, and textures of dresses, and strange observations about pottery, and arcane plays-within-plays. They are so vigorous and ambitious, her novels. She wants to say everything.

This is not true of Strout's Olive Kitteridge, which tells, by means of a series of linked stories, the story of an annoying, obnoxious, sometimes cruel, yet good-enough woman who lives a plain life in a small Maine town. One might think that this is exactly the sort of book that would appeal to me, seeing as I am also a woman of mixed motives who lives a plain life in a small Maine town. But this is such a bland novel, and I cannot understand why it has been so lauded. Although the observations about human emotion and motivation are plausible and the story plots are concise and believable, the prose makes me feel as if I've been smothered in a blanket. True, one might argue that the prose is intended to match the dimness of the setting and the characters, but I think such an argument is fallacious. John Updike's Rabbit novels were about a dull, not-too-smart man living a tedious life, but the story itself sparkled.

Anne Tyler is another very popular writer of self-effacing prose, and clearly, given their tendency to win prizes, etc., such novelists have a following. They are comfortable writers to read, I suppose, as Billy Collins is a comfortable poet to read. And it's not that I don't take a certain pleasure in the modesty of their voices. After all, I'm the person who is resurrecting Milly Jourdain's poetry. But I would never give Milly a Pulitzer. 

Just as an example, I'll open up the books I've mentioned and give you a few haphazard sentences. I always love the way randomly chosen passages can illuminate one another.

from Byatt's The Children's Book

Tom was not only sunny, he was sunburned. Everywhere exposed to the sun had been painted a ruddy-tanned colour, with paler hairs gleaming on it. The V of his shirt-neck, the bracelet of colour-change on his upper arms, various zebra-gradations of gold on his calves and thighs.

from Strout's Olive Kitteridge

Angie, in her youth, had been a lovely woman to look at, with her wavy red hair and perfect skin, and in many ways this was still the case. But now she was into her fifties, and her hair, pinned back loosely with combs, was dyed a color you might consider just a little too red, and her figure, while still graceful, had a thickening of its middle, the more noticeable, perhaps, because she was otherwise quite thin.

from Updike's Rabbit Is Rich

Harry realizes why Nelson's short haircut troubles him: it reminds him of how the boy looked back in grade school, before all that late Sixties business soured everything. He didn't know how short he was going to be then, and wanted to become a baseball pitcher like Jim Bunning, and wore a cap all summer that pressed his hair in even tighter to his skull, that bony freckled unsmiling face. Now his necktie and suit seem like that baseball cap to be the costume of doomed hopes.

I really ought to quit writing this letter now and go feed the animals. So maybe I'll save my thoughts about these passages until tomorrow. But I do think there is significant variation in diction, word choice, use of details, and control of past and present. If you have thoughts of your own in the meantime, I'd love to hear them.