Sunday, February 28, 2010

I accidentally found out yesterday that the magazine Maine Home & Design has named Tom one of Maine's 60 Most Collectable Artists. I'm presuming that the magazine is referring to his work, although a friend wonders if the magazine is planning to release collectable bobbleheads of each artist. Ah, if only this were so. But let us return to the word accidentally.

Tom has not only known about this collectable thing for a week, but he would probably not have gotten around to telling me about it at all if I hadn't noticed that he had a self-portrait lying on his desk. Having never known him to waste time taking good photographs of himself (let alone a photograph that, in my opinion, does make him look rather collectable), I asked, "Why?" And thus the tale leaked out. He wasn't hiding it; he just rarely thinks of mentioning anything.

In the early 90s, when we were living together in Providence and he was finishing his degree at the Rhode Island School of Design, he had a work study job for an entire year and never got around to telling me. All I can say is that anyone who knows Tom would not be amazed at this story.

1. Back to Maine Home & Design: the issue will be out in April, and I will post a link because he certainly won't.

2. Winter's Tale readers: I will post a comment prompt later today. By the way, this current scene contains literature's most amusing stage direction. Paul has made me promise to let him be the one who reads it out loud.

3. Pork roast for dinner tonight, prepared to the music of Amplitude, my boys' band, which will be rehearsing in the living room. Then we plan to watch some 8-millimeter home movies, circa 1962, that Tom bought at a yard sale. We are especially looking forward to the one labeled "Nothing Important Here."

4. Blake is coming along as well as can be expected. I've finished Raymond Chandler and don't know what to read next, so I am perusing a review of Zadie Smith's essays in the New York Review of Books. I've never read anything by her, and this article, though it praises her highly, isn't necessarily convincing me that I should. What do you think? I tend to be allergic to Booker Prize Winners. But have you read these essays? Or any of her novels? Also, why can she get away with publishing something called an "essay collection" when the rest of us can't? Publishers hate "essay collections." Except for hers, apparently.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Finally, yesterday, I finished the first stage of the enormous editing project that has been consuming all my writing time. The book will come back to me after the authors look at the changes, but the next editing stage should be considerably less arduous. So that's all good, and on another bright side, I will get paid. Nonetheless, I've woken up on this grim Saturday sleet-morning feeling like my head is full of fluff, and that none of this fluff is intelligent.

Last week I read my friend Meg Kearney's new poetry collection Home by Now, and I wrote to her immediately in my excitement because I could feel her doing in her poems what I have tried, always, to do in mine: "to narrate the knife-edge of emotion. And I mean 'narrate' because your poems are dramas; they move the reader in and out of the tale, in and out of sensation. They press me to the point I'm always trying to press myself into and run away from at the same time: that kind of dreadful clarity of too-much feeling. This all sounds intensely inarticulate. But I hope you know what I mean. What I mean is that I know how much that excoriates and exhilarates at the same time. I love that you and your poems make me know you're here, alongside me, in my same old leaky boat."

But on mornings like today, I'm close to believing that I may never recognize that knife-edge again. It's a bad thought, and I hope it goes away.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Yesterday I received page proofs for my poetry collection How the Crimes Happened . . . so it looks as if it really will be in print soon. I'm excited, not only about holding my own book in my hands but about being a CavanKerry author. The press publishes a number of writers I admire greatly: writers who tend to be quietly committed to their art rather than flashy marquee names but who work at a high technical and what one might call a high moral level: they ask those questions that are difficult to ask. My friend and mentor Baron Wormser is one of these writers; so are Robert Cording and Gray Jacobik, whose most recent manuscripts are sitting on my desk, waiting to be copyedited. It's an abiding pleasure, and a lesson, to be in their company.

So here I sit in a warm house on a sleety February morning, listening to plow trucks and to my children fretting about whether or not they have a two-hour school delay. In the shadowy lamplight, the spines of the books on my shelves glow--slivers of red, green, gold, black. I want to run my fingers over them; I want to read them all with my fingers--but I don't. I just look and them; I just pretend; I just make up these little stories. And then I tell them to you.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

To foil heavyweight, humorless William Blake, who would like to exert bossy mind control and take over my life, I have started reading Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye. When I took the book off the shelf, I was under the impression that I'd already read it; but oddly enough, I think I've only seen the movie . . . that Elliot Gould 70s version, the one costarring a cat. I've read Chandler's The Big Sleep often enough, so I can't figure out why I haven't read this one as well. But anyway, the result is that I keep bursting into laughter. This is a very funny book--and the humor is almost entirely the result of Chandler's slangy, cynical, epigrammatic writing style, which just amuses me to no end. For instance:

"The [TV] commercials would have sickened a goat raised on barbed wire and broken beer bottles."

"At three A.M. I was walking the floor and listening to Khachaturyan working in a tractor factory. He called it a violin concerto. I called it a loose fan belt and the hell with it."

"He was a guy who talked with commas, like a heavy novel."

"All tough guys are monotonous."

But my favorite parts are when he starts throwing out a bon mot and then gets carried away and can't stop--as when he considers the general subject of blondes. This extract I'm giving you is from the middle of a two-page digression on the topic:

There is the soft and willing and alcoholic blonde who doesn't care what she wears as long as it is mink or where she goes as long as it is the Starlight Roof and there is plenty of dry champagne. There is the small perky blonde who is a little pal and wants to pay her own way and is full of sunshine and common sense and knows judo from the ground up and can toss a truck driver over her shoulder without missing more than one sentence out of the editorial in the Saturday Review. There is the pale, pale blonde with anemia of some non-fatal but incurable type. She is very languid and very shadowy and she speaks softly out of nowhere and you can't lay a finger on her because in the first place you don't want to and in the second place she is reading The Waste Land or Dante in the original, or Kakfa or Kierkegaard or studying Provencal. She adores music and when the New York Philharmonic is playing Hindemith she can tell you which of the six bass viols came in a quarter of a beat too late. I hear Toscanini can also. That makes two of them.

If nothing else, this passage reinforces my joy in the power of and. When I was interviewed for the Sewanee Review, one question was "What's your favorite word?" I said and. And this is why: because it pushes me to keep writing, piling on those details, rushing down blind alleys and secret passageways, into slimy underground caverns or stuffy palace corridors. And never lets me sit on my preconceptions. It makes me keep imagining the next thing, and the next thing, and the next.

But the other element I like about Chandler's blonde passage is the way in which he jerks that rhythmic door shut. And keeps us running. But then he slaps on a little declarative sentence. And then an even smaller fragment. It's like Richard Pryor with a nasty punchline or maybe like a jazz improvisation with a stiletto ending. And it feels so particularly American. Dickens could run for miles with an and, but he never ended a paragraph so that you felt like he'd ground a cigarette into your face.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Just so you know:

This blog has recently gotten a lot more traffic--which is both good and bad. So here's the comment deal:

If you leave a comment in a language I can't read, I will delete it.

If you advertise your paid services, even via a link, I will delete it.

If your comment has nothing to do with the post but is mere foolishness or self-promotion, I will delete it.

If your comment is cruel or abusive, I will delete it.

I will not delete comments simply because the writer disagrees with me or dislikes my work. But I expect you to be civil in your disagreement.
I'm feeling somewhat less overwhelmed this morning, for no particular reason, except that hours have passed and I'm still alive. Instead of going straight to work yesterday, I wasted time writing a little piece about my son's fourth-grade reaction to Huck Finn. Yet rather than making me feel worse about my workplace skills, digging those pages out of the air made me feel better, as if time wasting is my purpose on this planet.

So William Blake and I will advance on into our day together. Blake might dislike my frivolity nearly as much as Milton would have, but too bad for him. One uplifting thing about copying out the work of famous serious men is that they have no choice in the matter. As I said to Milton in Tracing Paradise,

With all due respect, J.M., you're not in charge of every story. "In some glade/Obscur'd, where highest Woods impenetrable/To Star or Sun-light, spread thir umbrage broad," there's a woman sitting alone at her desk. She's not sweeping a floor or instructing her sons or collecting eggs or hauling firewood or embracing her husband. She does all of those things every day, and she'll get back to them eventually, but right now she doesn't have time for them.

She's busy reading your book.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

from America: A Prophecy

William Blake

The stern Bard ceas’d, asham’d of his own song; enrag’d he swung

His harp aloft sounding, then dash’d its shining frame against

A ruin’d pillar in glittring fragments; silent he turn’d away,

And wander’d down the vales of Kent in sick & drear lamentings.

I have received my first-ever commission: the Blake Journal has asked me to write an essay that imagines how William Blake would respond to one of my own poems. As I told the editor, this is both a dream assignment and a nightmare--just as Blake would prefer it to be, no doubt.

So as of today, I am beginning a new copying project: William Blake's long poem "America." But God knows how I will get anything of the sort accomplished. I still have a pile of editing to finish, plus numerous gigs waiting in the wings, plus housework, plus I am gloomy about yet another of my idiotic money errors. It's very disheartening to be so irredeemably stupid about money, though I'm aware it's even more disheartening to be my husband.

Monday, February 22, 2010

I have started watering the ground soil in my greenhouse, and my bedroom windows are arrayed with hopeful flats of dirt and seeds--onions, broccoli, cabbage, lettuce. Planting season has begun, always an optimistic moment. And the doves are singing, and the cars are racing down the road; school vacation is over, and I am home alone in my turret.

Here's a Milly Jourdain poem for the last week of February.

Before the Break of Day

Milly Jourdain

The silence of these hours before the dawn
Is like a world beneath the sea
Waiting in a dim, enchanted light
For morning's new felicity.

At last there comes a distant breathless sound
Of bird songs, growing still more near,
Until the air is full of thrilling notes,
The sweetest music men can hear.

But now the rain has washed it all away,
The silent world beneath the sea,
And all the plants are drinking deep of hope
And love of life's immensity.

Another mixed bag, quality-wise. But the underwater comparison is lovely.

P.S. Check the comments on the Feb. 17 Winter's Tale prompt. Lucy's remark about Mamillius makes me want to cry. She's right about him, I think.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

No thanks to me, Tracing Paradise has been selected as a winner in the Association of American University Presses' book design competition. Just so you know, the University of Massachusetts Press's editing and design staff members are not only good at their jobs but delightful human beings as well.
Home again, in a dark kitchen, drinking strong coffee while the kindling in the woodstove snaps in the flame. I'm noticing that, since I've been gone, the dog has managed to nose-smear all the windows. Now she's outside, erupting into sudden unexplainable barks, no doubt at harmless nuthatches. Meanwhile, the rooster, still locked up with the hens in the chicken house, belts out a muffled crow. I should go outside and feed them all. But I am drinking strong coffee in a dark kitchen and thinking, again, about Dickens; thinking, again, about almost nothing; listening to the dog rush through the door and scrabble in her dish; glancing up at the vague snow that has begun to drift down from the flat sky. Moments like this one, I begin to wonder how I ever learned to be a writer even as I realize that these layered comprehensions, these quick, plain intakes of attention, are the root of my work--making the question shift from "how did I ever learn?" to "how did I manage to turn a glance into a sentence?"

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Please don't forget to add your comments to the Feb. 17 Winter's Tale prompt. Remember you can email them to me if you prefer. Of course, Paul and I will keep reading the play ourselves, but we'd like it better if we knew you were out there too.
I'm driving back to Maine today with my boys and my dear friend Angela. According to Paul, Angela is the talkiest person he's ever traveled with. She retorts that 5 hours is nothing; she could talk like that for 10 hours.

Yesterday the boys and I went to Boston with my mother. We went to the art museum and we ate cannoli and we dropped powdered sugar down the fronts of our coats. Then we came home and watched an Errol Flynn movie with my father and listened to the dog snore.

As you can see, all my news is un-literary, and most of my sentences are declarative. Massachusetts seems to have that effect on me.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

I am sitting here in Massachusetts, in my sister's old bedroom, digesting several quarts of coffee and thinking about Dickens. A garbage truck is growling in the distance; downstairs my mother is chattering with my older son. My younger son is still asleep, recovering from last night's onslaught of thrilling Olympic television. I have no idea what we will be doing today, except that it's liable to involve money and stores since there is not a lot do around here that involves anything else.

So I will open my collected Hayden Carruth at random and see what he has to say about the matter. And here is the line:

"So many poems about the deaths of animals."

Amazing, isn't it, how well this "find a random line" approach works?--that is, if one believes that poetry should be responsible for making us wince. Which I do.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Winter's Tale, Act 3, Scenes 1 & 2

"Apollo's angry, and the heavens themselves
Do strike at my injustice."

In the space of a single sentence, Leontes sees his error. Does that fit what you already know of his character, or are you shocked?

Hey, this is Paul. A few questions for everyone.
1) Did Mamillius's death surprise you? Or did you expect it to happen beforehand?
2)What do you think is the strangest thing you learned in this reading?

For next week: Scene 3.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Remember that essay-review I told you about? The one that journals keep losing or forgetting or otherwise ignoring without ever rejecting it? Well, today it came back unread because the journal wanted to wait before considering anything else from me. That's a rational response. Nonetheless, as promised, I have now formally pulled this review off the market and am forthwith publishing it here. Where possible, I've included links to poems I've mentioned; but sometimes you will need to scroll down the linked page to find them. I apologize for the peculiar format anomalies that I can't seem to fix.

Some Thoughts about Sonnets

Dawn Potter

For about a month last winter I forced myself to keep a diary in sonnets. I had no preconceptions about subject matter: whatever passing recollection or present-tense preoccupation might flicker through my mind was good-enough fodder for the exercise. My only requirements were the bare bones of the form: fourteen lines and a Shakespearean rhyme scheme. I limited myself to the Shakespearean pattern because I was concurrently copying out all of William Shakespeare’s sonnets, with big ideas about mastering the craft at the master’s knee.

Easier said than done, of course. Though I learned a few things from this project, how to write as well as Shakespeare was not one of them. The exercise did reinforce, however, that many of the complications of the sonnet stem from its apparent simplicity. For anyone who is even passably facile with words, the form is alluringly effortless to hammer out. Compared to the repetitive exigencies of a villanelle or the crossword-puzzle distractions of a sestina, a sonnet’s rhyme scheme is undemanding, its metrical requirements flexibly iambic, its fourteen-line frame a convenient fenced-in yard. It tempts writers with a structural security that is both well defined and uncomplicated. No wonder the table of contents alone fills more than twenty pages of Edward Hirsch and Eavan Boland’s 2008 anthology, The Making of a Sonnet. Everyone, apparently—even Edward Lear, even John Quincy Adams—has taken a stab at writing a sonnet.

Why has the form attracted practitioners of all stripes, from clever high school students to elderly politicians, and at the same time regularly been dismissed as dead or dying? A quick Internet search reveals that a good many people are still chewing over answers to this question, spitting out varieties of logical-rational analyses and cranky dismissives with about equal frequency. Where sonnets are concerned, there’s a lot of fretting going on.

In individual introductions to their anthology, Hirsch and Boland illustrate personally how readers and poets can find themselves falling spontaneously into pro- and anti-sonnet camps. Boland, for instance, had strong first reactions against the form: “At seventeen . . . I wanted to belong to Irish poetry; I wanted Irish poetry to belong to me. The sonnet, I believed, could have no role in that. I had read it at school and resisted writing it. I was sure it was un-Irish, un-local, too courtly for a new republic; too finished to ever find a new beginning in the literature I was trying to understand.” Hirsch, on the other hand, recalls, “My own acquaintance with the sonnet came to me in a round-about way. The form snuck up on me without my knowing it—a stealth music—and insinuated itself inside of me: a little sound, a little song. It carried me away.” Their variant responses sum up a discomfort with the form that seems to rub generation after generation: Why should this old pattern matter to me, here in the midst of my modern life? And why does this old pattern keep lingering in my brain?

These issues have relevance beyond the sonnet, of course. They extend to all the arts; to our cogitations on history and religion; to our fumbling sense of what it means, and has meant, to be human. But for poets and readers of poetry brought up in the western tradition, the sonnet seems to have become, over the course of centuries, an emblem of our Sisyphean struggle to make words speak the wordless.

So where does the trouble lie? Why is composing a mediocre sonnet so easy, a good sonnet so difficult? Speak, I think, is a key element of the struggle; for poetry is a version of drama, and a poet must manage a poem’s dramatic arc, its speaking shape, whether she works in strict form or a looser invention. And it’s here that sonnets, with their fourteen-line compressions, their subtle interwoven patterns of formal rhyme and the meter of oral language, peel off their genial wordplay masks and reveal themselves as obdurate stone. For a poet’s primary tool for dramatic control is grammar; and in a sonnet, issues of grammar can begin to override every other consideration. Slough off rhyme and regular meter; slough off, as E. E. Cummings does, syntactical sense; and what’s left is a fourteen-line grammatical progression, sinewy or floundering, peaceful or polemical, and sometimes the knottiest, most unforgiving sentence or two that a sweating poet has ever managed to sculpt.

So how does the magic happen: how does a sonnet metamorphose from a grammatical construction into the singular revelation that a reader recognizes as art? And who are the magicians who have managed this feat? In both the instructional essays that open each section of The Making of a Sonnet and in their choice and organization of representative poems, Hirsch and Boland tinker with these questions. The subject being poetry, however, I shouldn’t be surprised that their explanations and examples often only complicate the mystery.


Any book subtitled A Norton Anthology exudes authority. As a canon-besotted undergraduate, I never once considered that real living people actually had to sit down in the same room and sort through likely candidates for inclusion, that they ever had to complain or argue or compromise, that they were ever ultimately dissatisfied with the tome they had constructed. I assumed that such anthologies more or less leaped from college-bookstore shelves fully formed—bristling with intellect, crowned with laurels. And even now that I know better, it’s still tempting to believe that A Norton Anthology of anything is beyond review. These must be the important poems; these must be the poems to study and honor.

So as I waded into the first sections of The Making of a Sonnet, I anxiously tried to juggle a reviewer’s dispassion with an acolyte’s deep, uncritical affection for the great English sonnet writers of the past—Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats . . . those old Norton Anthology standbys that for me, as a young reader, first deified poetry. And what I found, immediately, is that, woven as they are among the hundreds of sonnets the editors chose to publish in this collection, these great familiar poems still glow like rubies. William Wordsworth may be generally unpopular today, but “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802,” still sends me reeling, just as it did when I first collided with it in a circa-1982 high school textbook.

Earth has not any thing to show more fair:

Dull would he be of soul who could pass by

A sight so touching in its majesty:

This city now doth like a garment wear

The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,

Ships, towers, domes, theaters, and temples lie

Open unto the fields, and to the sky;

All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

Never did sun more beautifully steep

In his first splendor valley, rock, or hill;

Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

The river glideth at his own sweet will:

Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;

And all that mighty heart is lying still!

“Dear God!”—those two plain words and their exclamation point are the emotional equivalent of the sestet in John Keats’s “On first looking into Chapman’s Homer”:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken;

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes

He stared at the Pacific—and all his men

Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

This, I think, is the miracle of a great sonnet—how its myriad ingredients suddenly cohere, transforming mundane quarrels into the nobility of legend, as Patrick Kavanagh does in “Epic”; blunt violence into ecstasy, a John Donne specialty in his Holy Sonnets; even prim mourning into deep and abiding grief, as John Milton managed in “Methought I saw my late espousèd saint.”

Of the several poems I’ve mentioned thus far, only Kavanagh’s (whose powerful shift from local dispute to “an exuberant claim about the origins of art” Boland very helpfully dissects in her introduction) was, for me, a new discovery. Yet by the time I’d reached this point in the anthology, I’d read more than a hundred pages of sonnets, nearly all of them older than the nineteenth century. And nearly all of these poems are unmemorable. Even when I make allowances for readers’ varied tastes, attention spans, and sophistication, how can I account for the number of dull sonnets included in the collection?

Clearly, the editors wanted their anthology to serve as a chronicle as well as a showcase; so they felt obliged, understandably, to include certain poems for reasons of historical interest. (James I’s ponderous “Epitaph on Sir Philip Sidney” is an example.) Similarly, their cluster of mediocre eighteenth-century sonnets proves a point raised in the section introduction: “the Augustan age that enshrined the routine simulation of wit in the rhyming couplet also honored regulation and reason—not especial purposes or strengths of the sonnet.” But anomalies remain. For instance, why, in a set of poems already labeled as inferior, did Hirsch and Boland decide to include four sonnets by Charlotte Smith, compared to three by William Cowper and one by Thomas Gray? None of these poems is great. Really, the best that the editors can say about any of the eighteenth-century sonnets is that “the gains made in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were not lost; they just had to wait for a later age to become applicable.” In “Sonnet to William Wilberforce, Esquire,” Cowper reaches back toward poems such as Milton’s hortatory “To the Lord General Cromwell, May 1652,” but cannot transmit any sense of real, ardent, personal zeal. Both Gray and Smith work out their sonnets in traditional pastoral style but end up wallowing self-consciously in nature and loss rather than delicately probing their links. Quality-wise, there’s no reason to feature one of these poets over another.

I suppose it’s possible that Cowper wrote only three sonnets and Gray only one. But my suspicion is that Smith’s mediocre sonnets are reprinted in quantity because she is a representative woman poet, a reasonable rationale until I recall Cowper’s broad influence on the thought and achievement of women in the early to mid-nineteenth century—notably, Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters. Whether or not he was a good poet, these women read his poetry avidly as they themselves became great writers; and in this light, the historical value of Smith’s sonnets begins to seem muddier.

But A Norton Anthology needs to please a swath of potential purchasers—most importantly, those who mold or uphold an institutional program’s curricular bents and fashions—and an introductory textbook serves as a kind of tasting menu for novice readers. Professors assign a little of this, a little of that; certain teachers may focus on poems that buttress their own critical specialties rather than rise to the heights of great art. The rare curious student may venture to taste a few unassigned sonnets on his own. But in truth, learning how to get drunk on poems requires considerable stretches of unregulated reading, muttering, and staring into space—an unlikely organizational strategy in an “introduction to the sonnet” unit. Sitting behind me in a movie theater, a college student explained to his companion, “I never reread anything. Who has time for that?” For all I know, he was a creative-writing major.

What is the point, then, of including four Charlotte Smith sonnets? Or three Frederick Goddard Tuckerman sonnets sandwiched between a single Walt Whitman poem and a single Matthew Arnold poem? Why, in an introductory textbook purporting to celebrate the form’s power throughout history, include so many nicely constructed but infinitely forgettable examples?

Much of the editors’ dilemma over which sonnets to anthologize must have stemmed from poets’ split expectations of the form, an issue as old as the sonnet itself. In their introduction to sonnets in the sixteenth century, Hirsch and Boland bring forward two early sonneteers: Sir Thomas Wyatt, whom they describe as the form’s first practitioner in English, and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, “a more gifted stylist but a lesser poet.”

“Wait. What does that mean?” I asked when I arrived at this claim. I scanned the section for clarification and learned only that both men had revised the Petrarchan rhyme scheme and that “Wyatt’s metrics were awkward, distinctive,” as in this, possibly his most famous, sonnet:

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,

But as for me, alas, I may no more.

The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,

I am of them that farthest cometh behind.

Yet may I, by no means, my wearied mind

Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore,

Fainting I follow. I leave off, therefore,

Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.

Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,

As well as I, may spend his time in vain.

And graven with diamonds in letters plain

There is written, her fair neck round about,

Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,

And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.

Compared to Wyatt’s, Surrey’s sonnets are indisputably tidier:

Love, that doth reign and live within my thought,

And built his seat within my captive breast,

Clad in the arms wherein with me he fought,

Oft in my face he doth his banner rest.

But she that taught me love and suffer pain,

My doubtful hope and eke my hot desire

With shamefast look to shadow and refrain,

Her smiling grace converteth straight to ire.

And coward Love then to the heart apace

Taketh his flight, where he doth lurk and plain,

His purpose lost, and dare not show his face.

For my lord’s guilt thus faultless bide I pain,

Yet from my lord shall not my foot remove:

Sweet is the death that taketh end by love.

Yet who can deny that Wyatt is by far the greater poet? His sonnet rings and recurs in the ear’s memory while Surrey’s blurs into a generalized sixteenth-century pop song.

Given Surrey’s historical and prosodic relevance, Hirsch and Boland could hardly have chosen to leave him out of their anthology. But when “being a more gifted stylist” becomes its own raison d’être, we risk simplifying our expectations of poetry, of reducing it from urgent revelation to clever wordplay. I suppose this makes a sonnet easier to parse in a college class; but in a climate that is already antithetical to deep engagement with great poetry, what kinds of readers and writers are we training?

As The Making of a Sonnet progresses through the centuries, the poet-versus-style conundrum becomes ever more fraught. There are moments—say, in certain sonnets of Gerard Manley Hopkins—when it is clear that poets have been able to seize the standard of Wyatt’s “awkward, distinctive” metrics, pressing the form into unfamiliar patterns that leap beyond cleverness, coalescing into urgency or revelation. Yet as Hirsch and Boland acknowledge, the form itself, rather than the poetry arising from the form, has more often than not become the sonnet’s contemporary proving ground. “In the twentieth century, . . . tradition had to be summed up, authorized, challenged, and reinvigorated. [The sonnet] is a touchstone and a rallying cry. The form has been lit and shadowed by modernism and postmodernism. It is a stay against confusion . . . and an opportunity for innovation.”

But as far as I can tell, the major innovation in contemporary sonnet writing has been poets’ almost universal tendency to focus on contemporary life, whether they etiolate the form or celebrate its lush traditions. No more timeless Arcadian pastorals or convoluted religious-erotic metaphysics. Now we have Mary Jo Salter’s “Half a Double Sonnet” about a toddler who is coping with double vision, which concludes with the final mock-triumphant couplet “Victory! Even when he went to pee,/he was seconded in his virility.” We have Alice Notley’s prosy “Sonnet” about the waning years of Gracie Allen and George Burns. There are exceptions, of course. R. F. Brissenden writes about Samuel Johnson; Anne Sexton writes about Icarus. The language of Sylvia Plath’s “Conversation Among the Ruins” harkens back to the vigorous sixteenth century; the sonnets of Seamus Heaney recall the preoccupations of Keats and John Clare. But on the whole, sonnets—at least those written in English—have become simply another venue for the anecdote, if they are not an ironic logic-illogic game or a rhymed summary of modern social disintegration.

I don’t see it as a flaw, this need to frame our present-tense lives within the strictures of formal verse. But as, in the case of Surrey and Wyatt, facile technique may overshadow the intensities of true poetry, so may a witty or cogent summary of the here-and-now appear to be an adequate substitute for transformative vision. The issue is not tragedy versus comedy, high-flown philosophy versus grubby details, contemporary culture versus an idealized past. The issue is, Does the sonnet constructer strive to use her materials to build something greater than the sum of its parts?

Consider, for instance, two sonnets with roughly the same theme: W. H. Auden's Sonnet XII from "Sonnets from China" and Julia Alvarez's sonnet from "33," which begins "Let’s make a modern primer for our kids:/A is for Auschwitz; B for Biafra" and continues in alphabetical horror to "An X to name the countless disappeared/when they are dust in Yemen or Zaire." Auden manipulates sound, subject, language, and emotion so subtly and precisely that his sonnet transcends his tools. The final couplet, with its inevitable and horrifying rhyme, its shrinking syllable count, slams the poem shut as I imagine the gates of hell might slam shut. Alvarez, on the other hand, limits herself to filling in the alphabetical blanks; essentially her poem is a list of evocative names arranged in sonnet form. Clearly, as human beings, both writers are deeply anxious about humanity, injustice, cruelty, ignorance; yet if Auden’s sonnet, first published in 1939, is for the ages, Alvarez’s 1996 poem already shows signs of wear.

How often, then, is a sonnet simply a fourteen-line suitcase stuffed with words? And can a poem, sonnet or not, continue to matter if it has never been designed to soar beyond its details? When I opened Greg Williamson’s 2008 A Most Marvelous Piece of Luck, I had hopes that a single contemporary poet’s collection of related sonnets might help me answer these questions. For no matter how artfully chosen and arranged an anthology might be, the end result is piecemeal; the book belongs to its editors, not to its poets. And having lately spent so much time transcribing Shakespeare’s sonnets, I missed the progressive curiosities that arise from time spent with a poet’s own ordered collection, where themes and word choice and pacing modulate or repeat; where one sonnet may illuminate or obscure the poems that surround it. Moreover, Williamson’s generation (which is also my own) is entirely unrepresented in Hirsch and Boland’s anthology, whose youngest poet was born in 1956. Given that I was born in 1964, write sonnets, and am now in my forties, this means that at least two generations of contemporary sonnet writers remain undocumented in a book intended for widespread classroom use.

As a series, Williamson’s sonnet collection is indeed striking, most obviously because of the poet’s strict adherence to a preconceived game plan.

* The rhyme scheme is abab cdcd efgefg. (The only exception uses a blues phrase written in guitar tablature to stand in for a rhymed line.)

* Every third stanza begins with the word “Until,” which then triggers the volta, or rhetorical turn, between the two-stanza octave and the one-stanza sestet.

* The poem titles are all single nouns or modifier-and-noun phrases, such as “Earth,” “Sex,” or “Hubble Constant.”

* Each sonnet defines or delineates or rants about the title in a Mad Magazine encyclopedia-entry sort of way.

* With one exception, Williamson breaks the last line of every sonnet into two parts and drops the poem’s final phrase into flush-right position on line 14½. (In the one exception, he adds a stanza break between lines 13 and 14.)

* The title and the poem’s last words are identical.

* Meter is the primary technical variant: despite the sonnets’ rigid exterior frame, the poet allows himself free rein to use whatever interior sonic devices he pleases.

Here's the first stanza of "Marriage":

With more spouse farms, shrink rap, and psychosprawl

Than you can shake a “stick it” at, you’d say

The All-American marriages are all

Uniquely bad in exactly the same way,

For copyright reasons I can't reprint the entire sonnet here, and I can't find links to any of them on the web. Suffice it to say that A Most Marvelous Piece of Luck includes sixty-eight sonnets, and all of them are more or less identical. Williamson’s tune is cynical irony; his tools are glib cultural referents, witty word choice, and hectic TV-advertisement narrative compression. Probably his structural tricks are even slyer than I’ve noted, but I got tired of tracking them down. For beyond the superficiality of his anecdotes and his casually reprised stereotypes of human nature, even beyond the speaker’s essentially heartless comprehension of the world, these poems are boring. The “Untils” and the title/last word repetitions are particularly galling, with the cumulative bloating effect of making me feel like I’ve read too many Shel Silverstein poems at one sitting.

I have hopes for my generation of poets, and it makes me sad to dislike this collection. Yet I think these poems flow all too easily into the common slough of artifice-driven sonnets. The form is no longer, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote, “a small poem, in which some lonely feeling is developed,” but, in Mona Van Duyn’s words, the one “most available to poets for deconstruction.” And in my view, when structure, with all its ploys and flourishes, tramples on what William Hazlitt described as “a sigh uttered from the fulness of the heart, an involuntary aspiration born and dying in the same moment,” then something in the art of poetry has gone terribly awry.

In a section of The Making of a Sonnet titled “The Sonnet Under the Lamp: A History of Comments on the Form,” Hirsch and Boland reprint all of these melancholy quotations and more. But they also reprint an extract from Sidney’s An Apology for Poetry, which declares, “Truly many of such writings as come under the banner of irresistible love; if I were a Mistress, would never persuade me they were in love; so coldly they apply fiery speeches, as men that had rather read lovers’ writings . . . than in truth they feel those passions.” In so doing, Sidney argues, they “miss the right use of the material point of Poesy.”

And there are, thankfully, twentieth- and twenty-first-century sonneteers who have transcended cunning structure and clever byplay, writers who have created sonnets that are also enduring poems. In Hirsch and Boland’s anthology, I reread, with familiar and pleasurable sadness, a Stephen Tapscott translation of one of Pablo Neruda’s glorious “Cien sonetos de amor.” I reread Assia Gutmann’s translation of Yehuda Amichai’s “A Pity. We Were Such a Good Invention,” so moving in its awkward, surrealistic, understated grief. I read, for the first time, Denis Johnson’s beautiful “Passengers,” proof that everyday, present-tense American life can indeed be the stuff of poetry. And I read Hayden Carruth’s “Late Sonnet,” which is perhaps as good a depiction as any I have encountered of how poets struggle—and ought to struggle—within and against the boundaries of the sonnet form in their quest to make “right use of the material point of Poesy.”

And that I knew

that beautiful hot old man Sidney Bechet

and heard his music often but not what he

was saying, that tone, phrasing, and free play

of feeling mean more than originality,

these being the actual qualities of song.

Nor is it essential to be young.

The Writer's Almanac exposure has had many unexpected results. Strangers have telephoned my house. Old friends have sent emails. And now a press wants to anthologize some of my poems. "Nostalgia" (from Boy Land) and "Why I Didn't Finish Reading David Copperfield" and "Eclogue 2" (from How the Crimes Happened) will be reprinted in The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, 2nd edition, scheduled for publication in spring 2011. The link here is to the first edition; I don't know who else will be included in the new one.

By the way, Sima Rabinowitz at NewPages has rave-reviewed the winter issue of the Beloit Poetry Journal. Read it and see if you agree. (Full disclosure: I'm on Beloit's editorial board but feel as if I function mostly as its disagreeable black sheep.)

Monday, February 15, 2010

Tom drove two fifteen-year-olds to Portland to see their first rock show. I stayed home with a fifth- and sixth-grader who ate pizza and chortled over a Jack Black movie. To avoid that, I went upstairs and watched Flying Down to Rio on my computer, which is Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers's first movie together. They're not even the stars but merely peppy sidekicks. The movie was made before the Hollywood prude laws were enacted, so the outfits are see-through and the banter is risque. The star is Dolores del Rio, who is supposed to be irresistible but resembles a frozen-dessert treat in a diaphanous blouse. The best part of the movie involves strapping about fifty showgirls to the wings of several small planes. As the "sky" tilts back and forth precipitously and the wind machine blows up their skirts, they wave their legs and arms around, and meanwhile Fred sings a song. For some reason they didn't strap him to a plane, although they did strap on Ginger, who sits astride it like Dr. Strangelove on the Bomb. As I hope I've made clear, this was a very odd movie.

After getting home at 2 a.m., Tom, poor man, has stumbled out of bed and gone to work. Now the house is filled with comatose boys. Who knows what time I will see them again? But I'm told that the concert-going boys got patted down by security guards and asked if they were carrying any knives. What a thrill.

So I'm off to do animal chores, and print out some edited manuscript so I can send it to the authors, and maybe read some Dickens. I can tell you right now that Paul and I will not be getting to A Winter's Tale until much later in the day. Look for a prompt post this evening or tomorrow. It's school vacation week, which means that everything will be running off schedule here. Boys rule the roost . . . even more than usual.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Yesterday I took my sons to a funeral. Then I went grocery shopping. I shoveled out the barn. I made lentil soup and cheese wafers and listened to loud Bruce Springsteen songs and drank red wine and watched a ridiculous Jackie Chan movie. I read Our Mutual Friend. In between times I thought about being alive; and thought about how predictable and sentimental a reaction that is, after one has come home from a funeral; and thought also about how I had cried when the son of the woman who had died read a poem he had written for her. It was undoubtedly the first poem he'd ever written, and it was clumsy. Nonetheless, it did the work of poetry. It reached toward the terror of feeling, and it touched that terror, and it touched that feeling.

How is it that even bad poems can have such power? There is so much mystery to this art.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Don't be shocked, but there's another of my poems on Saturday's The Writer's Almanac. I mean, I'm shocked, but you don't have to be.
As I was driving home from Portland this morning, all I could find to listen to on the radio were songs like "Freebird" and the Cars' "You're Just What I Needed"--and why are these songs still on the radio? Will they be there forever, always available to remind us of slow dancing in limp Gunne Sax prom dresses and pale-blue tuxes?--until I accidentally tuned to public radio and ended up in the middle of the cadenza of Mendelssohn's violin concerto.

I avoid listening to violin pieces I used to play. But here I was, trapped in the car with the cadenza, and I knew every pitch, every rest, every ritardando. I felt like I was playing the piece, even though I haven't played it seriously since I was 21. There are some things you can't lose, no matter how hard you try. Muscle memory as emotional memory. It's a strange phenomenon.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Today I'm off to Biddeford, in southern Maine, for the Poetry Out Loud southern regionals. I'll stay overnight in Portland, which means not only dinner with my friend Martha but also shopping at Micucci's Italian Grocery on Friday morning. Micucci's is one of those tiny stores where you have to wait in line at the deli counter for twenty-five minutes until finally you get accosted by a brusque clerk in a Yankees cap, but it's okay and even sort of enjoyable because you know that the salami will make everything worthwhile.

Yesterday I managed to formulate a small poem, so that was a change from my uncreative ways. It's an unhappy poem, and writing is never refreshing or therapeutic; but at least using the third person shunts me away from self-pitying dolor, which I hate. At least I found myself pulled into the words under my fingers and how they spoke to one another.

Hayden Carruth once said, "I have always been aware that the Universe is sad; everything in it, animate or inanimate, the wild creatures, the stones, the stars."

Galway Kinnell, talking of Carruth's work, noted, "Writing poetry is a form of concentrated listening."

It is.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A sad day here in Harmony: a longtime staff member at the school died suddenly yesterday, and all the children, preschool through college, are distressed and bewildered. This a such a small town. Sometimes it feels as if every single person is indispensable, that every single person leaves a hole.

Substitute Teacher

Dawn Potter

--after Elizabeth Bowen

You look at places

you are leaving,

thinking: What

did I hope to find?—

a ten-year-old

fat girl alight

in the fluorescent

shimmer of Monday

fear, blank field

beyond a window

gray as a mitten,

a stack of syllables

against your tongue,

savage and unkempt—

here, in the emptiest

room on this round

earth: a slew of eyes,

blackbird bright,

and your thin

hands, mouthing air—

a single note,

ticking, ticking . . .

a vast alarm

of silence.

(from How the Crimes Happened [CavanKerry Press, 2010]).

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Winter's Tale comments for this week are starting to trickle in. Read them under the February 7 post, and keep them coming. If sixth-graders can invent both a prompt and a response, the rest of us should be able to put together at least a couple of words.

Today I'm submitting a long essay-review of The Art of the Sonnet: A Norton Anthology to a journal. This essay has been in existence since 2008. I have submitted it to several journals and have received from all of them the identical response: NOTHING. Not even a rejection. Not even a peep when I query. It's been very strange, and I'm getting sick of it. So if (when?) that happens again, I'm publishing the essay here. (But perhaps as soon as I hit the "publish post" button, it will become invisible. Anyway, be forewarned.)

Dinner tonight: homemade sausage, sauerkraut, potato salad, cucumbers, chocolate pudding.

Monday, February 8, 2010

I've started rereading Dickens's Our Mutual Friend (which is wonderful) because, as I was rereading Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd (also wonderful), I was struck by two sets of character resemblances: D's Bella Wilfer and H's Bathsheba Everdene (both of them adorable, charming, difficult, obnoxious, capricious, clever, and ignorant) and D's Bradley Headstone and H's Farmer Boldwood (both of them repressed, passionate, obsessive, manipulative, and doomed). Originally I'd been intending to write about Hardy's depiction of the countryside and its people and not to write about Dickens at all, but I can see that, once again, my books are starting to slap me around.

In the meantime, last week I ordered the only bio of Elizabeth Barrett Browning I could get my hands on--Rosalie Mander's slim Mrs. Browning: The Story of Elizabeth Barrett. Now I've started reading it, and thus far it is very annoying, mostly because as soon as the author says something interesting she drops the subject, leaving me to complain, "Hey, wait a minute! I want to know more about that!" For example, this is the opening paragraph of the biography:

Hope End, the house in sight of the Malvern Hills where Elizabeth was brought up, was in complete contrast to the character of her father who had had it built. Edward Barrett Moulton-Barrett was an austere man with puritanical standards, while Hope End looked like a "Kubla Khan" pleasure dome. It had minarets in concrete, turrets in cast iron, and a vast glass dome over the central hall where there was an organ, rich furnishings and stained glass in the windows.

And that's the last we hear about the contrast between stiff, proper Mr. Barrett and his crazy house. What could be more aggravating?

Moreover, the author is prone to both peculiar generalizations and prissy diction:

That Elizabeth with her intelligence and independence of mind should have submitted for so long to the doctrine of paternal omnipotence is surprising to a later generation, but it must be remembered that she was very fond of Papa and that she had the innocence often found in intellectuals.

So far I'm only up to page 10; and as you can see, I'm already maddened.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

A Winter's Tale, Act 2, Scene 3

Paul and I just finished reading this scene, and this is the question we are both asking: Leontes is pissed off at Paulina, at Antigonus, at Hermione, at the baby. He rails and shouts and threatens to kill them all. But he doesn't. Being the king, he's perfectly able to kill anyone he pleases. And he's certainly angry enough. But no one, in fact, dies (although we do learn that Mamillius is ominously ill). Why does Leontes, who seems to have no limit to his jealousy and rage, restrain himself from taking the final step?

For next week: Act 3, scenes 1 and 2.
I plan to post the Winter's Tale prompt later today, though possibly not until tomorrow. First, I have to shoehorn Paul out of bed. Then I have to sit down with him and act out the parts of scene 3. The first task is far, far, far more difficult--so difficult that it may encroach on the time we have available, between homework and teeth brushing, to act out the parts.

When we're reading this play, Paul likes to use special voices for the characters. He prefers to play the males, of course, but does not care for Leontes. He would rather be Hermione. I think this is not because the king's words are mean but because his speeches are long, tiring, and confusing--just like Leontes. Paul rather likes Antigonus because he is bossy and decisive. It's interesting, listening to my son read these lines, how much the sound of a speech, even in the mouth of a 12-year-old, reflects the character who is speaking. Sentence length, syntactical confusions, fancy metaphors: all of them add up to a person. This sounds both obvious and incredible. However did Shakespeare manage to do this in play after play?

Dinner tonight: Believe it or not, I am going to a Superbowl party. I didn't even know it was Superbowl weekend until I was invited to this party. I sort of knew which teams were playing, in an unconscious-news-absorbing way. My friend Angela is making Cajun food, which indicates her team preference. But what would we eat if she had to make Indianapolis food?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way--

Do many people still automatically know who wrote that passage, I wonder?

Have you ever seen such extravagant comma splices?

Don't you think that's a brave and biblical opening for a novel?

Doesn't it feel exactly like your life right at this moment?

Friday, February 5, 2010

1. Captain Nemo's was excellent. They have a free pool table and the world's largest beer glasses. You can watch Nascar or artist reality shows, or you can listen to Tom Petty, or you can admire my friend Curtis. Curtis is amazing. When confronted with a person who is arguing the merits of Sarah Palin, Curtis can murmur, "You're full of shit," in such a way that the arguing person replies, with complete sincerity, "I think you're the politest person I know."

2. Going out to breakfast with my friend Donna was also excellent. I forget what the food was like, but Donna is so chattery and lovable and full of comedy and tears that I could have stayed in that booth all day long.

3. And then I came home and held paws with the dog, and Tom told me a funny story about our son's necktie anxiety, and I told him a funny story about the Poetry Out Loud entertainment, and altogether I am feeling extraordinarily happy to have hovered among so many sweet and affectionate people over the course of the past 24 hours.

But now . . . I must attend the final elementary basketball debacle. Things were bound to go downhill eventually.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Well, here I am again, heading off to the first of several Poetry Out Loud gigs. Today, next Thursday, and then finally on March 5, I will be part of the judging team for the northern, southern, and state championships. Today's extravaganza is the northern regional competition, held in Ellsworth, not too far from Acadia National Park. If you don't know what Poetry Out Loud is, you can check the national website for details. Suffice it to say that the event involves poetry, stage recitation, hired entre-acte entertainment, scoring rubrics, high school students, and government agencies. Tom thinks I should watch some American Idol first so that I can hone an appropriate judge persona.

Fortunately, after this wearying event, I will be taking my friends Weslea and Curtis out to dinner at a remarkable dive called Captain Nemo's. It is a shack with a lighthouse, fishing boats parked in the yard, and Budweiser signs in the the low-slung windows. I have been dying to go there ever since I first laid eyes on it. I'm sure that it will make my dalliance with government agencies entirely worthwhile.

Here's a verse about drinking. I doubt this is what Captain Nemo's will be like, but you never know. This poet did once kill an actor in a duel, so things could easily get out of hand. The name "Lyaeus" in the poem refers to Dionysus, Greek god of wine and wild parties.

from The Poetaster

Ben Jonson

Swell me a bowl with lusty wine,
Till I may see the plump Lyaeus swim
Above the brim:
I drink as I would write,
In flowing measure filled with fame and sprite.

I almost typed "spite," which would have worked even better for Jonson, I think. For in the words of The Cambridge Guide to English Literature, "it may be that we are . . . too far removed from Jacobean England and we find it difficult to appreciate Jonson's virtuosity in holding a mirror to his contemporaries. More important, perhaps, is Jonson's lack of kindness; there is not a single character in the whole of his work that we remember with affection."

God save me from such an epitaph. But in truth, Jonson's poems are not always so cold as his plays, as this little piece about the death of his seven-year-old son will prove. I think this is one of the most heartbreaking poems I've ever read; and every time I read it, I pray I will never have cause to write my own version.

On My First Son

Ben Jonson

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy,
Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I lose all father, now. For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon 'scaped world's, and flesh's rage,
And, if no other misery, yet age!
Rest in soft peace, and, asked, say here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.
For whose sake, henceforth, all his vows be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Last fall, Rory Waterman, a British writer, interviewed me for Poets' Quarterly, and the issue has just come out. Since we are separated by time and the Atlantic, he sensibly decided to conduct the interview by email rather than telephone. His method was to ask me a question, wait for my answer, and then ask me another question based on my previous response. The result was a conversation that, to me, seems both natural and considered. I think it's my favorite interview yet.

Phone and recorded interviews make me nervous because I know I have a tendency to burst into flibbertigibbet enthusiasm and to make snap pronouncements that I regret later. Also, transcription errors can be a problem. The Sewanee Review interview, for instance, says that I chop wood. I don't chop wood. My husband and now my older son split firewood. I split kindling and carry firewood. The difference might seem small if you're not firewood-dependent, but for those of us who are, it's a traditional male-female division of labor that I find disturbing in a feminist kind of way yet reassuring in a "one more thing I don't have to do" kind of way. Sometimes I think that's how these labor divisions arose in the first place: maybe they were a predictable way of divvying up the jobs and thus avoiding a " but I thought YOU were going to do it" catastrophe.

Anyway, off to another day of editing and bread baking. I hope you are warm and that no one has forgotten to split your firewood.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Talking Up My Writing Friends

1. I know I've mentioned this essay before, but you should really read Thomas Rayfiel's piece about Ivy Compton-Burnett in the Threepenny Review. Tom is also a novelist, and he says he's going to send me his new one when it comes out. I can't wait. As I've started work on my own Dame Ivy piece, I've been rereading his and wishing that I'd written that one instead of the one I am writing. His essay captures so exactly the experience of reading those difficult, unpleasant, meanly funny novels. Like trying to "eat pebbles," he says. Like "freezer burn." Ain't it the truth.

2. Charlotte Gordon is featured in a recent interview on New Dimensions, a nationally syndicated Public Radio program. The thing about Charlotte is that, while she's an excellent, intelligent, and engaging writer, she's 100 times better than that in person. She is what my great-aunts might have called "a piece of work." Anyone who attended last summer's Frost Place Teaching Conference can attest to her rare combination of high intellect and mesmerizing joie de vivre. This interview will give you a chance to experience some of those qualities.

3. My dear friend and mentor Baron Wormser has a new collection of poems forthcoming from CavanKerry Press, which I had the honor of copyediting last week. "Honor" and "copyediting" are not words that I generally use in the same sentence. Baron's website has a sample from that collection as well as links to recent essays, including "The Wire and the Wasteland," which, among other things, imagines T. S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" as an HBO series.

4. Another friend, Meg Kearney, has a new collection of poems, Home by Now, that is now available from Four Way Books. Meg wrote a blurb for my own forthcoming collection, took me cross-country skiing for the first time ever, and, most importantly (in the eyes of my children), owns a three-legged dog. She also directs the Solstice MFA program at Pine Manor College, used to work at the National Book Foundation, is almost exactly my age, writes very good poems, and is pretty.

5. This sounds like self-promotion, and it sort of is, but Weslea Sidon has just reviewed Tracing Paradise for Wolf Moon Journal, a Maine-based online magazine. Weslea is the person who owns the cottage by the sea that I periodically visit. She is also a poet, a classical guitarist, and an excellent poetry critic. Weslea is exactly the sort of person whom you want to meet in a poetry workshop: she embodies a rare combination of generosity and acuity, and I'm very grateful for her review. Here's a little poem of hers called "Coffee."

Monday, February 1, 2010

I've just learned that the U.K. journal the Reader will publish my essay "The Poems of Milly Jourdain." As far as I can tell, this will be the first printed review of her work ever. I'm sorry it took almost 100 years to appear, but I hope Milly would be pleased that finally someone has written about her book. And I'm particularly glad that a British journal will be publishing the piece. To me, Milly seems quintessentially English, a writer who is devoted, Hardy-like, to her familiar landscapes. She belongs to her own country, not to mine, and I hope she would have overlooked my coarse American enthusiasms. As Henry James makes clear in his novels, our disconnects are, in the end, really all for the best. (If you're a new visitor who has no idea who Milly Jourdain might be, you might want to visit my companion blog, which archives all my posts about Milly and her poetry.)

So here's a Milly poem for a snowy Monday morning in the harsh New World. It's called "Fritillaries," which, according to Webster, can be either butterflies or flowers. Regarding the flower, Webster says that fritillaria are "any of a genus . . . of bulbous herbs of the lily family with mottled or checkered flowers." I can't remember ever having seen a checkered flower, but maybe things are different in England.


Milly Jourdain

In a flower-seller's basket,
Bunches of fritillaries,
Purple and mysterious
With green and twisted stalks, are lying.

How they wish they still were living
In the wet and open spaces
Where the river winds are blowing,
Far beyond the old, grey city.

Though they stand among some blue-bells,
Still they hold themselves aloofly,
Drooping, with their darkened faces,
Lonely in their secret wildness.

I think this is a beautiful poem. It does bring into question, however, a point-of-view issue that I've long been questioning. According to several poetry-journal editors, some of whom I've spoken to personally, this particular "error" makes a poem unpublishable.

(Have you guessed what it might be yet? Reread the poem, and see if you can identify the murderer.)

Well, I'll tell you: it's anthropomorphism. Yes, apparently inventing a situation in which a human speaker pretends that a non-human object has human characteristics is a shocking faux pas in a contemporary poem. I've never heard anyone satisfactorily explain why, other than offer a general mutter about "failure of imagination." But let me go on the record as saying that's crap. It's a different kind of imagination, a very human way of linking the speaker's imagination with the outside world, of making sense of that world. What else were the ancient gods if not an anthropomorphic explanation of nature? Sure, you can have bad anthropomorphic writing, but in my opinion Milly's works beautifully here. I love that second stanza, when the speaker moves suddenly from the looking at the flowers to internalizing them as characters. It's not unusual, and it's not dramatic, but it's swift and lovely and very believable. "How they wish they still were living/In the wet and open spaces." How I wish they were living there too.