Monday, May 31, 2010

So, postpartum depression.

I think most writers probably suffer from it, but I didn't know that in 2004, when I published my first collection of poems. And it is possible that poets are particularly vulnerable to such melancholy. When you've worked as hard as you can to create something valuable yet you publish in a genre that has so few sales, so few reviews, so few readers, you're probably guaranteed a spate of after-publication sadness.

At least now, after three books, I'm experienced enough to expect gloom. But like a mother with a new baby, I still feel terribly guilty about it. Look! Here I am with a new book! Everyone wants to get published, and I've done it three times! Look at his beautiful fingers and toes! How lucky I am!

That sort of cheerleading doesn't help much with either a wailing, inconsolable infant or a box of unread poems. However, yesterday I did receive a note from my friend Angela. This is what it said:

“Yo, Shakespeare. Write an essay about unrequited love, false promises, fake IDs, blown head gaskets, radio late at night, sex with the same man after twenty-five years . . . you know.”

This seems like a good idea. I think I will.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

One thing that persistently moves me about the Bate biography of Keats is the way in which the author deals forthrightly with the topic of ambition . . . not for prize or position, not for any exterior sign of success, which today seems to be the term's general connotation, but ambition for greatness, ambition to sit alongside Shakespeare and Milton.

Yet Bate doesn't perceive this ambition as hubris so much as an entirely sympathetic and even modest yearning. To a great extent this attitude has to do with the fact that he's writing about Keats, who really did have reason to yearn for greatness. But he also offers me latitude to acknowledge my own yearnings and fears. Why shouldn't I wish to be the poet that Milton was? That Keats was? Very probably I'm not. But why shouldn't I hope, and write like one who hopes?

from John Keats: A Biography

W. Jackson Bate

Whether we want it or not, the massive legacy of past literature is ours. We cannot give it away. Moreover, it increases with each generation. Inevitably, we must work from it, and often by means of it. But even if we resist paralysis and do try to work from and by means of it, the question at once arises, does the habitual (and almost sole) nourishment of the imagination by the great literature of the past lead to the creation of more poetry of equal value? . . . Keats . . . was to feel such apprehensions only too keenly. For the moment, we are only stressing that, much as Keats might wish to face common experience imaginatively and vividly throughout the next three years, his principal impetus, like that of most poets of the past century, was literary; and that still--with all the liabilities that this self-consciousness might imply--he managed to make headway, and at a sure pace. The magnetic appeal of Keats to every later poet is that somehow the dilemma is constructively put to use.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Yesterday I spent the morning teaching poetry at a central Maine middle school. For at least a decade the school's librarian has valiantly organized an annual Celebration of Reading, and for a few years I've been a regular presenter. It's a local gig, and only a half-day of work, and this year I had the pleasure of team-teaching with fiction writer Patrick Shawn Bagley. Yet despite those advantages, this is consistently one of the hardest gigs I do.

It's easy enough to run a good workshop when students and teachers are excited and involved. But year after year, the students in this school are quiet, stifled, repressed. By the end of the hour-long session, they begin to loosen up, but getting to the end of that hour can feel like the hardest work I've ever done. Meanwhile, the teachers, the students, my co-teacher watch me snarling myself into a mess. It's a bad feeling, but instructive . . . not just as a demonstration of the perils of the classroom but also as a reminder of the immensity of imaginative loss that can afflict an entire population. It's heartbreaking, really--a school, stocked with perfectly nice teachers and a decent building, that nonetheless year after year turns out students who don't know how to let their minds wander.

Having Patrick alongside me was good, for a number of reasons. He is a serious writer and reader in a genre that isn't mine, so we share a similar mission and mindset about the work but have disparate goals. He's also interested in being the kind of writing teacher whose focus is connecting the vocation with the human being--which is not a usual approach among people who are working with kids. Most importantly, though, his daughter attends this school. And he worries and cares, because this is his town, and her town. And despite all the ways in which we might love and respect the inarticulate difficulties of being citizens in Somerset County, when they begin to weigh down our own shining, curious, questing children, we are afraid.

Last week a correspondent from the Waterville Morning Sentinel sat at my kitchen table and interviewed me for a forthcoming article in the paper. Among other topics, she introduced activism: "Your work doesn't seem obviously activist," she said, and I felt surprised, and a little embarrassed about how insular my writing can be. No, I don't talk much about wars or oil spills or poisonous anti-intellectualism or human rights, though I'm distressed about them all, though I vote the straight bleeding-heart-liberal ticket. But as the reporter and I talked, I began to realize that, in fact, if I am an activist about anything, it's about these school writing workshops. When I have students who ask me, in all perplexed honesty, "Is it okay if I make this up?" . . . when I have parents who tell me, "I had no idea my daughter had so many feelings," I do see that the writing matters, that thinking matters, that the adventure of imagination matters.

So even though I kind of hate this middle school gig, I'll do it every year I'm asked: because if Patrick and I don't stand up in the middle of that room of silent children and say, "Hey, kids! Telling lies matters!" I fear that no one else will ever let them know.

Friday, May 28, 2010

from John Keats: A Biography

W. Jackson Bate

For a century and a half we have prated of folklore, tried to resurrect it, moaned the loss of its simplicities, and condemned our own lives as humdrum in comparison. We have praised the psychological clairvoyance of the traditional myth, and appeared to rejoice over its complex use, and reuse, in fiction, while, for all our talk, we have not seriously appeared to match it in real life; and indeed, if we do encounter it there, we may even feel embarrassed for a moment unless we can put it at arm's length while we get our bearings: we ourselves are genuinely moved, but fear that others will think us simple. Dickens, whose own early life is something of a counterpart to that of Keats, understood our divided natures. The affectations by which we complicate life for ourselves and others, feel that we ought to shun the familiar, and mince (in our approach either to art or social life) into what Johnson calls "the habitual cultivation of the powers of dislike," and "elegance refined into impatience," all appear on the large comic stage of Dickens. Against this plays the simple motif of the orphan of folklore, and we respond to it.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

I'm reading a biography of Anne Sexton that I'm not certain I feel like reading anymore. This will be the third or fourth time I've read it, and I do like it: I do think the biographer is a broad and thorough writer, and I do care very much about Anne and her poetry, as well as my feeling, in general, about her generation of women poets--that they explicate my life as a daughter.

But I'm tired of the psychiatric overlay; I'm tired of the medical angle of poetry. And when I say I'm tired, I don't imply that I disbelieve in its necessity, or disbelieve in her illness, or disbelieve in the illness and distress of many people, writers and otherwise, myself and otherwise.

But somehow, that wasn't what I was searching for when I took the book off the shelf. Somehow, I wanted a vision of the ignited spark that isn't illness, that isn't therapy, that isn't erudition.

I suppose I wanted, in twentieth-century female form, what Keats knew how to say, but I look everywhere, and I don't know where to find it.

As to the poetical Character itself, . . . it is not itself--it has no self--it is everything and nothing--It has no character--it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated--It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosop[h]er, delights the camelion Poet. It does no harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than from its taste for the bright one; because they both end in speculation. A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity--he is continually in for--and filling some other Body--The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute--the poet has none; no identity--he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God's Creatures. . . . When I am in a room with People if I ever an free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then not myself goes home to myself: but the identity of every one in the room begins to press upon me [so] that I am in a very little time annihilated--not only among Men; it would be the same in a Nursery of children.

[letter to Richard Woodhouse, October 27, 1818]

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The weather here is like July in New York City--scorching days, sticky nights. My spinach plants are horrified, but the tomato seedlings are already in blossom.

Yesterday, for dinner, I invented cold carrot soup, topped with a salsa of hot pepper, cilantro, parsley, scallion, and lime. It was outstanding, should you ever want to try it yourself. The soup base contained peeled chunks of potato and carrot, plus some small chopped leeks, cooked in a light chicken broth (I'd poached chicken the night before, in water with bay leaf, thyme, and dried hot pepper) and seasoned with about a tablespoon of salt. Then I ran the cooked soup through a food mill and stuck it in the refrigerator for 6 hours or so. Just before serving I dropped a dollop of salsa into each soup plate. It was beautiful as well as delicious, and I was very pleased with myself.

Cooking has always been something I've taken to heart, though I have not always been a good cook and I still make notable mistakes--as with Saturday night's way-too-salty Asian noodles. It's interesting, though, how rarely I mention cooking in my poems and essays. Laundry tends to come up far more often. I wonder why.

After consulting my old 1937 Bartlett's, however, I discovered that other writers have not been averse to inventing epigrammatic opinions about cooks and cookery. According to Robert Burton (1577-1640), author of that gloomy tome The Anatomy of Melancholy, "Cookery is become an art, a noble science; cooks are gentlemen." But John Taylor (1580-1625), known for some reason as "The Water Poet," disagrees. He claims that "God sends meat, and the Devil sends cooks." Two centuries later, Edward Robert Bulwer Lytton (1831-1891), Earl of Lytton and Pal of Dickens, composed a remarkably wretched lyric on the matter:

We may live without poetry, music and art;
We may live without conscience and live without heart;
We may live without friends; we may live without books;
But civilized man can not live without cooks.
He may live without books,--what is knowledge but grieving?
He may live without hope,--what is hope but deceiving?
He may live without love,--what is passion but pining?
But where is the man that can live without dining?

Oy. I feel a certain Alexander Pope-style virulence coming over me, but I'll attempt to quell it. No one needs a thousand lines' worth of "The Cook's Rebuttal."

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A Winter's Tale, Act 4, Lines 594-the End

Finally Paul and I have finished Act 4. It seemed to go on forever. Oh, those rude mechanicals, and how I hate that Clown (though possibly that's because Paul insists on reading his lines in a horrible loud flat nasal voice that makes him sound like Jerry Lewis). Autolycus, on the other hand, I do rather like. His speeches are fun to read and, interestingly, are among the few in this play (maybe the only?) that are set as prose rather than poetry. His tricky snideness is very enjoyable, as in this snappy comeback:

Clown: We are but plain fellows, sir.
Aut.: A lie: you are rough and hairy. Let me have no lying. It becomes none but tradesmen.

Also, he dearly loves flaunting his classy Florizel disguise: "Whether it like me or no, I am a courtier. Seest not the air of the court in these enfoldings? Hath not my gait in it the measure of the court? Receives not thy nose court-odor from me?"

Nonetheless, it will be a relief to escape from this shepherding and get ourselves back to Leontes' house in act 5.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The forecast is for 90-degree heat today. The lilacs will be amazed.

Today I begin my reimmersion in Robert Frost's notebooks. Last year these were a key piece of the work that Baron and I did at the Frost Place conference . . . or what I should say is: a week before the conference, Baron sent me his copy and said, "Invent something to do with this every morning before classes begin." After silently cursing him, I began randomly reading snatches of the notebooks and copying down pertinent comments. And as of course Baron expected, it took me about an hour to find more than enough in this volume to talk about for a week.

So today, as a first offering, I give you this Frostian scribble:

"I had these higher thoughts long before I had to have them as a refuge in trouble."

If you're looking for a bathroom book or a middle-of-the-night distraction, these notebooks are almost as good as Fraser's The Golden Bough or Samuel Pepys's diary.

Dinner tonight: couscous salad with chicken, kalamatas, baby leeks, and baby arugula. Cold cheap beer. Popsicles.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

There's nothing like starting off a beautiful day with an insomnia poem.


Dawn Potter

I flaunt my silk underwear,
one more slit-eyed bitch
clogging your cracked headlights.
Any old hag is the girl of your dreams,

and I
am only halfway down the road to rot,
thumb-bone flagging your sleek

Dust blunders at loose ends,
tornado blue, thick as brains.
I slouch ditch-side,
time's cynic.

Driver, don't make me wait.
Just hit,
hit, and run.

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

Saturday, May 22, 2010

A glorious bright day here already, even at seven a.m. Not a speck of haze against the blue, the mourning doves are peacefully mourning, and I will be planting beans.

Yesterday evening Paul attended the elementary school semiformal dance. He spent much time preparing, and eventually emerged from his room decked out like a svelte gangster in a black suit and pinstriped fedora. He wanted a boutonniere, so I invented a little one out of white lilac and fern. But three hours later, when he returned home, his shirt tail was yanked out, his hair was rumpled, his face was flushed, his flower was limp, and he looked like a sixth-grade boy who'd been shooting hoops all afternoon in church clothes. I'm assuming this meant that he had fun, though I would be the last person to hear about any actual dancing-with-girls.

And now, on this glorious morning, my tiny house is filled with sleeping boys, and only I am awake, drinking all the coffee, and thinking about Wordsworth, though I am not doing anything about him. I am letting him sit over there on his shelf and sleep too. I might wake him up; but then again, if I did he might be more trouble than he's worth . . . at least at the moment. All I'm saying is that I bet he was the kind of man who didn't make his own breakfast. And I have nothing against making his breakfast, but it's only fair that he should have to wait around till I feel like slicing the bread.

Friday, May 21, 2010

In the course of our conversation about chickens yesterday, I discovered that my doctor had once been the owner of a beloved rooster named Shaft. Myself, I own a rooster named Long John Silver, though he does have both of his legs and, to tell the truth, Paul gave him that name when he thought the rooster was a hen. Paul, however, is a famously adventurous namer. For instance, once, when he was toddler, he named every chicken in the flock Butter, except for one, which he called Butterscotch, and another, which he said was Money.

At age 6, James wanted to name a goat Dumptruck, but I did veto that idea, pointing out that she didn't look at all like heavy equipment. He agreed, and so he changed his mind and named her Lulu, after his friend Lucy. The goat doesn't look like Lucy either, but oh well. In the past I've had goats named Tess (of the d'Urbervilles), Julian (of Norwich), Dora (after David Copperfield's dopey wife), Celia (from a poem by Ben Jonson), Ruth (from the Bible), Esther (after a great-aunt who was good at poker), and Eleanor of Aquitaine (in honor of my friend Jilline, because we shared an affection for loudmouthed medieval queens). Undoubtedly, Dumptruck would have been a good name for a pig, but we'd already named our pigs Miss Tanque and Shufflenose.

After watching Spinal Tap, the boys collaborated on naming the parakeet Nigel Tufnel. Though our Nigel, like his namesake, is not much of a musician, our previous parakeet was a remarkable jazz singer. His name was Marcel, after Proust.

I also own a great pyrenees dog named Mathilde, after Eleanor of Aquitaine's mother-in-law. And my poodle is Anna, which would have been the name of the girl child I never had, so I decided to use it on a puppy instead. When the boys were younger, they used to pretend to be Anna's brothers. Their dog names were Arnold and Arfold.

My most recent cat was Miss Frankenstein (the poodle treed a kitten on Halloween and then begged to bring her home), and once I had a cat named Dinah, after Alice's cat in Through the Looking Glass. But as a relief from this referential list, you might also like to know that my mother's favorite cat of all time was named Twerp.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Yesterday evening I received an email from the agent who was considering my memoir-in-progress, the one I'm calling The Vagabond's Bookshelf. In the nicest possible way she said that she and her colleagues were declining it.

The strange thing is that I feel so relieved, like a weight has slipped its chain. Her response made me realize how much I'd been worrying about this step: about moving my work into a commercial market: of dealing with invasive editorial control, and publicists, and all of those infamous mainstream publishing manipulations. My friends with agents seem so anxious, so harried: as if they are no longer in possession of their own writing soul. Of course, I'm sure this isn't true of every writer and every agent, and I'm sure also that some writers thrive on such pressure, though I don't think I would be one of them.

It seems that, for many people, success as a writer does not require exquisite literary achievement so much as the ability to fulfill a market demand, whether that demand is for predictability, or shock, or some variant of political or social capital. But please believe me: really, truly, I am not feeling pissy and taking out my grumpiness on a perceived publishing conspiracy against me. Nor am I equating my own work with "exquisite literary achievement." I have a long way to go--like, the rest of my life--before I'll be content with what I've written. I'm just telling you that not having an agent has turned out to be, on the whole, rather pleasant.

So here I am, settling back into my niche as Minor Regional Poet. It's not a bad place to be. I kind of like it.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

I've been working on my magazine piece about the South Solon Meeting House, which is advancing more quickly and coherently than I'd expected. When I visited the building last weekend, I somehow managed to take decent notes--rapid scratchings about noises, scents, quality of light, quick visual oddities. I didn't make any pretense of possessing artistic or architectural acumen. I'm beginning to discover, as a writer, that it's better to be up front about such gaps in my knowledge . . . which isn't to say I can't research something in order to learn more about it but that this new information may conveniently fill the chinks while not becoming the structure itself. The cloudy light filtering into stillness; the recollection of noisy children clattering upstairs to a choir loft; an imaginary Puritan thundering in the pulpit--these are what I kept thinking about when I was sitting in my pew last Friday. The 1950s-era frescoes that riot over the walls and ceilings are, on the surface, what make a visit to this 1842 meetinghouse so odd. Yet to me they seemed less resilient, less present than the building and its sensory surround, though, as Tom's photographs will show, the artwork is nonetheless omnipresent and visually overwhelming. I wish I had one of his pictures to include here; but since they're contracted to the magazine, I suppose you will have to wait for publication.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Today, for whatever reason, I'm wishing I owned a biography of Byron. Otherwise, I'm not wishing for very much that I don't already have because yesterday (1) my third book officially entered the world and (2) I got a haircut. Of course if I concentrate I can start fretting about the current state of my writing, which has indeed been frettable, but even that seems to be improving slightly. My cabbage and broccoli seedlings are wishing for warm nights and a drenching summer rain, and the poodle is wishing for the pork bone that I gave to the old great pyrenees in the barnyard. James is wishing to pass his driver's-ed test today, and Paul is wishing to hit a homerun. Tom is wishing to be finished with the renovation project that never ends, and, to be honest, I now find myself wishing that I'd used sour cream instead of yogurt in the cheesecake I made yesterday. See how quickly the dissatisfactions return? How can we help ourselves?

So I hope you'll pardon that silly paragraph, and meanwhile I'll remember to notice that the bluejays are screaming, the haze is beginning to lift, chickens are cackling in the henhouse, and a goat is standing at the barnyard gate staring reproachfully at the house. The world is sending me a thousand messages, and some of them need answers, or at least a question, or at least a nod, or at least a handful of grain. What was it that Dryden said? "For mankind is ever the same and nothing is lost out of nature, though everything is altered." That is a remark that suits every single day of my life.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Poodle barked. UPS man arrived. Very heavy box emerged. And yes, it is, it really is, finally, here in my hands: How the Crimes Happened, my second poetry collection. It feels so fat! I can't believe I managed to fill up so many pages.

P.S. Anyone who wants a review copy of Crimes should contact Florenz Eisman at CavanKerry Press ( If you have any difficulties, let me know because I do now possess a boxful.

Summer Readings and Workshops
I'm attempting to arrange my jaunt to Washington, D.C., in June, which feels like corralling that herd of proverbial cats and seems to be turning into a "How Many Places Can We Visit in Three Days" family vacation. I haven't been to D.C. for 20 years, and I barely remember anything about the city except the pandas. And even though I will probably have to visit them again, the real reason I am going is not panda tourism but the fact that I won a fellowship from the Writers' Center in Bethesda and will be reading from Tracing Paradise and then teaching a follow-up workshop on what copying out literature can do for you. I have my doubts about whether anyone will sign up for a workshop that sounds so boring, but I assure you: copying out literature is far more engaging than it sounds, teaches you a great deal about craft, and is an excellent way to use writer's block productively. So don't be tricked by the idea of boringness: sign up for my workshop because Who Knows? I may never be in D.C. again.

But I will certainly be in Franconia, New Hampshire, again. This will be my third summer at the Frost Place teaching conference, my second as associate director, and I'm still excited and I still love it and I still can't wait to go back. Don't forget that that the evening readings in Robert Frost's barn are free and open to the public and that after the readings we can sit together on Bob's front porch, drinking beer, slapping mosquitoes, and watching the bats fly above the darkening mountain range. Here's our schedule, and I'm told that all of the readings begin at 7:30 p.m.

June 27: Dawn Potter and Baron Wormser
June 28: Leslea Newman
June 29: Neil Shepard
June 30: Sharon Bryan and student participants

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Occupational update
1. Desk/couch/kitchen table: reading Wordsworth's Prelude and Murdoch's Black Prince; finishing my review of Carruth's 2006 new and selected poems for the Beloit Poetry Journal and beginning a magazine piece about the South Solon meeting house, which is a strange little combination of New England Puritan architecture and 1950s modern-art frescoes located not far from my own nowhere.

2. Garden: planting cabbage, dealing with an annoying hose problem, digging sod out of flowerbeds, pruning raspberries, cleaning the chicken house, mowing grass, etc.

3. House: baking bread, removing dog noseprints from windows, removing boy noseprints from windows, etc.

4. Car: driving to Skowhegan to buy grain and groceries, listening to loud music of one sort or another, observing the progression of lilac bloom within this brief 20-mile span, wishing someone else would drive to Skowhegan to buy grain and groceries.

One fact about being underemployed is that there is never enough time to do all the things that a person without a job should have time to do. I can't decide whether to feel happy or sad about this.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Sorry about this very late post, but my computer left home at 5:45 a.m., in the company of my jangled son, and they are spending the day together at the University of Maine demonstrating 3-D technology to harassed state science fair judges.

But that's okay: I don't need to write anyway: because yesterday I learned that the Maine Arts Commission is giving me a grant to read books [in grant parlance, I'm "researching"] . . . so yes, lying on the couch with Alice Munro's short stories now counts as working! Hah! I knew I was employable!

Friday, May 14, 2010

I've been rereading Iris Murdoch's 1973 novel The Black Prince, whose protagonist and narrator, Bradley Pearson, a writer and retired tax man in his late fifties, is enmeshed in Murdoch's typical and entertaining mishmash of farcical melodrama and Big Questions--in his case, questions about art and truth in his writing life. Bradley makes just about every stupid mistake possible in his personal affairs, a pattern that gradually leads the reader to mistrust any of his pronouncements about anything. Yet at the same time, many of his opinions sound perfectly reasonable and accurate, not to mention deceptively epigrammatic, as in:

It is sometimes curiously difficult to name the emotion from which one suffers.

One of the many respects, dear friend, in which life is unlike art is this: characters in art can have unassailable dignity, whereas characters in life have none. Yet of course life, in this respect as in others, pathetically and continually aspires to the condition of art.

I think women, perhaps unconsciously, convey to female children a deep sense of their own discontent.

Such statements practically beg to be copied down in a commonplace book, even though the character who speaks them seems to become more and more idiotic as the novel advances. This sort of trickery is one of the great charms of Murdoch's work, though I rarely feel that I've ever quite grasped their philosophical and intellectual underpinnings. Still, I don't know of any other novelist who consistently combines comic wife swapping with Socratic dialogues. For that alone, she is a pleasure.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

After all this time, Tracing Paradise has received its first Amazon review . . . and, what's more, by a reader I don't know. Once again, I'm humbled: which I know sounds like a faux-reaction to praise; but it is, in truth, how I feel. My life is so dull: the small birds creak their repetitions into a chill wind: venturing to write about this obscure and clumsy world feels both hubristic and laughable . . . and then to hurl John Milton into the midst! Humbled is the only word I feel confident about using.

So thank you, unknown reader, for liking my book. Thank you.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Poetaster is a strange word, which looks like it should be pronounced "POE-taster" but is actually pronounced "PO-uh-tass-ter." It also possesses a confusing dictionary definition (see yesterday's post) that mentions the word's Latin roots but neglects to say that the English term was coined by playwright and mean-spirited author Ben Jonson, whose 1601 play The Poetaster (a "comicall satyre") allegorically skewered his theatrical rivals Dekker and Marston. Jonson's particular anathema was pompous, logorrheic diction, but Little Oed makes no mention of pomposity. Rather, the dictionary definition suggests that a poetaster is a meek and harmless writer of doggerel, not an overbearing monster, a linguistic tyrant, a threat to the sanity and livelihood of "real poets."

But to be honest, these days we don't seem to wrestle much with verbose poetic windbags. Mediocre verse tends to fall on the Milly Jourdain side of the equation: a little too delicate, a little too sentimental, a little too nice. Who out there is composing thundering yet metrically flawed Latinate verse? I can't think of anyone. So perhaps the Little Oed definition is promoting a more contemporary connotation, trying to give us some backbone, which, in an era of supportive niceness, we do often seem to lack.

Of course, there are plenty of skewering reviewers; the Internet is rife with cruelty and one-upsmanship. But what about the other problem: those writers who think of poetry as "healing," who assert that "anything can be a poem," who discuss each other's work "positively"? I comprehend the humane urge behind this approach, but it also makes me want to chew nails. Milton risked damnation to create his great work. Damnation! What do healing and positive thinking have to do with the possibility that a poet might burn in eternal torment for daring to write a poem? Whether or not one shares Milton's Puritan beliefs, the absurdity is clear.

So back to poetaster. It's a mean word, invented by a mean man for a mean play. But it does honest work. It asserts that, yes, there is bad poetry out there; yes, there are people striving diligently toward bathos; yes, there are versifiers who are content to be tone-deaf, unadventurous, self-satisfied, and imitative. As I write these words, I truly have no particular individual or group of individuals in mind. And be assured that I don't exempt myself from the crime of mediocrity. All I'm saying is that maybe we need to take the risk of casting our plastic laurels into the dust. Of admitting that we are poetasters. Of trying again, and once again, to shove that rock back up the mountain. Of trying, no matter how hopeless the task might be, to write like a poet who dangles over hellfire. So what if we fail miserably? As Milton reminds us, there are worse fates.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

I have a teaching gig today, so this is a rush-around morning for me. Nevertheless:

1. First things first: Even though the temperature was hovering at frostbite level and two of the team's best players weren't playing, the Harmony Huskies baseball team beat the Dexter Tigers 20 to 4. This is shocking news to those of us who, each season, must once again comfort ourselves with the mantra: "Oh well. I guess it's just a learning year." (I hear it was Dexter's B team they beat, but we celebrators are trying to overlook that fact.)

2. In tomorrow's blog I plan to discuss the word poetaster. So for a taste of what's to come, you might like to ponder the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary definition (a source that Tom and I like to call Little Oed, as in Oedipa: see Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 if you don't get the joke).

poetaster n. & v. L16. [mod.L (Erasmus), f. L poeta POET: see -ASTER.] A n. A paltry or inferior poet; a writer of poor or trashy verse. L16. B v.i. = POETAST. Chiefly as poetastering ppl. a. & vbl. n. L17.

Mystifying typography, ambiguous abbreviations, and unexplained suffixes are not my fault.

Monday, May 10, 2010

I copied out some of Wordsworth's Prelude today, and this is what he told me. Kind of sums up that oh-so-familiar feeling of longing to write but not being able to get anything worthwhile onto the paper, don't you think?

I spare to tell of what ensued, the life

In common things—the endless store of things,

Rare, or at least so seeming, every day

Found all about me in one neighborhood—

The self-congratulation, and, from morn

To night, unbroken cheerfulness serene.

But speedily an earnest longing rose

To brace myself to some determined aim,

Reading or thinking; either to lay up

New stores, or rescue from decay the old

By timely interference: and therewith

Came hopes still higher, that with outward life

I might endue some airy phantasies

That had been floating loose about for years,

And to such beings temperately deal forth

The many feelings that oppressed my heart.

That hope hath been discouraged; welcome light

Dawns from the east, but dawns to disappear

And mock me with a sky that ripens not

Into a steady morning: if my mind,

Remembering the bold promise of the past,

Would gladly grapple with some noble theme,

Vain is her wish; where’er she turns she finds

Impediments from day to day renewed.

A Winter's Tale, Act 4, Scene 4, Lines 324-594

As we read this section, Paul and I were both struck by the re-ascendancy of Camillo, who, once again, finds himself forced to deal with the impossible expectations of an unreasonable king. It seems to me that this would be an interesting and rather difficult role to act (though what do I know? I've never acted on stage since I played the Ghost of Christmas Past in fifth grade). Camillo is both honest and underhanded, both loyal and disloyal. He is, as Florizel says, "the medicine of our house." I think that's a remarkable description of the character and yet another example of the precision of Shakespeare's language--a phrase that conjures up complexity and solidity . . . rather like Camillo himself.

Anyway, those are my thoughts about the section. What are yours?

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Today seems like a good day for another installment of Milly Jourdain. Early spring lasts a long time in Maine: sometimes late spring retreats back to early; sometimes early retreats to winter. And Milly wrote a great deal about these advances and retreats, though she lived all her life in temperate genteel England.

The Long Night

Milly Jourdain

Sometimes when still the night is dark,
My thoughts go slipping with no will
Like water running down a hill,
Sometimes when still the night is dark.

And when the sky is shining faint
With hope, I listen for that bird
Whose song the earth has always heard
When now the sky is shining faint.

Over the grey fields of dawn
I lie and hear the small birds sing
With rapture in the early spring,
Over the grey fields of dawn.

One thing that interests me is the title of this poem, especially since the poem itself deals primarily with the end of night. It's a rather delicate framing device for insomniac misery. So even though Milly uses the irritating poetess word rapture along with clumsy sentimentalized syntax such as "when still the night is dark," I appreciate the understatement behind the title-poem link. And I also like the image-meter combination of "My thoughts go slipping with no will / Like water running down a hill." Those lines feel plain and exact and, to an insomniac, very recognizable.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Raining again, and I'll be picking fiddleheads in the rain again; for blackflies dislike rain, but the thrush that lives by our stream does not. She sings and sings, or he does--a long, liquid, melancholy strain, that sounds like spring downpours or summer twilight. Fiddlehead season is nearly past; most of the shoots are uncurling into bracken ferns. Now the stream bank is thick with sturdy green and, among that green, tiny wildflowers: wood violets, wild oats, trout lilies.

And now for some chat that is not so Mary-Oliverish: Tom came home from Portland yesterday, having suddenly sold two prints to a magazine and been promised a photo essay inside . . . and it sounds like they may ask me to write text for it. This would be our first public collaboration, and we're both feeling a certain comic bewilderment about being treated like Artists. But this magazine pays, which is a treat; and fortunately the editors also told him they don't require journalism from me. Thank God. I couldn't possibly write anything that involved research and a cool eye.

Dinner last night: a beautiful trout that Paul caught during a school fishing program and jubilantly carried home for me on the school bus. And yes, I managed to gut it. And yes, we all wished he'd caught two.

Friday, May 7, 2010

We lost power again yesterday, for the third time in a week. You all must be thinking I live in the middle of nowhere or something. Fortunately this time we were candle-lit for a mere 4 hours as opposed to 19. And today: so far, so good--sunny and cool, with only a vague breeze stirring the autumn-olive hedge outside my window. I will be spending this blissful morning cleaning the goat barn, though I also plan to be thinking about meter because, along with being sweaty and pungent, barn cleaning is rhythm and repetition.

I often find myself counting as I pitchfork a load into the wheelbarrow, rather as if I were counting rests during an orchestra rehearsal: you know, during those 50-bar rests that a section sometimes has: say, when the woodwinds have taken over a strain, and the violinists are sitting quietly with their instruments on their knees, ostensibly relaxed. But what they're really doing is counting.

I count a lot: as I carry water buckets, as I mow grass, as I vacuum. I don't mean to count; I just do; and sometimes this embarrases me. It seems silly and mindless, this half-unconscious litany of numbers. But I think, really, that the habit must simply be my ear doing its idle work: practicing its scales and exercises, listening to the metronome of sweat, the clock of staying alive.

So anyway, this morning, I'll be counting and shoveling shit, which is the sort of poem that Hayden Carruth excelled at writing and is one of the reasons I love him so. And meanwhile the grass will grow and the apple blossoms will open; and meanwhile . . . well, you know. You can picture it all for yourself.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

This weekend my friend Donna is graduating with honors from the University of Maine. Donna and I have been friends for at least a decade, a happenstance event instigated by housewife boredom and toddler play group. When she moved to Bangor with her family, I assumed we would gradually lose touch; it seemed so unlikely that we would be able to maintain a friendship without, what seemed to me, the "larger" connections: reading the same books, for instance; sharing parallel ambitions. That was a childish assumption; for if there's one thing that Donna and middle age have taught me, it's the tenacity of a friendship that is based on simple, transparent, overflowing affection. Who cares about books, who cares about poetry, when my friend Donna sends me a one-line email that says "I love you so much"? And she does send me that note, and it arrives exactly when I need it.

So I'm sending her in return this poem: a way to keep reminding ourselves that life goes on no matter what--that people share memories without ever having been in the same place at the same time. These may be platitudes, but they are also fragments of our common humanity: our stuff, as another dear friend, Baron Wormser, would say. The poem is from Meg Kearney's new collection Home by Now--Meg being yet another of my beloved attachments even though we sometimes barely say two words to each other in six months. (And by the way, according to Meg, the German phrase in the poem translates as "work makes [one] free" and was a slogan that appeared at the entrances of several Nazi concentration camps.)

Congratulations, Donna. I love you so much.


Meg Kearney

When I got my head stuck between the porch rails
I didn't know enough yet to hate my body, but I knew
a thing or two about smoking my father's cigars
with Patrick Dunn under the pines behind his house,

and puking while my brother rolled joints and stacked
45s on the record player in his room. My sister
turned me on to Carole King and JT, swore her friends
would die in Vietnam because her peace medallion

was flammable. She tried to teach me to dance, but
I was never graceful--it wasn't a surprise,
me wedged in that railing. How did they get me out?
Nixon was president; Martin Luther King

was dead. The whole country was in a fix,
my father said, though he never said a word
about the cigars. His heart was a shooting star;
I thought he could fix everything. My mother

believed she could fix his failing heart with home-
made tomato sauce and a Manhattan on the rocks.
My mother rose with the fish; she was unable to
cry; she put her hand to my father's cheek, then went

back to work. Uncle Frank called her a good German:
Arbeit Macht Frei, he said, and she nearly kicked him
in the shins. I loved Uncle Frank, but I don't want to
talk about him. Uncle Frank's dead. But let's say I do

remember how they got my head out of that railing.
It took a crowbar--took what seemed forever
because the adults had their loads on by then. That
night my best friend and I took turns wearing the wig

and high heels: we were knobby-knee glamorous, we
were nothing like our parents. Uncle Frank leaned
in the doorframe as we preened, fluttered, eyed
the dapper men, toasted each other with empty glasses.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

CavanKerry Press has released my new poetry collection, How the Crimes Happened! If, by any chance, you're interested in ordering a copy (which naturally I'm kind of hoping you might be), you can now go ahead and do so: the distributor should have books in the warehouse by early next week.

Alternatively, if you're thinking about publicly commenting on the collection and would like to obtain a review copy, please contact the press's managing editor, Florenz Eisman.

Now I must rush off and feed animals and transplant lettuce and dig up a flowerbed. If I wait too long, the blackflies will wake up and consume me, and I'll have to receive my Maine Literary Award posthumously. That event is tonight, by the way. I hope maybe I'll get to see a few of you there.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Yesterday, after a dreadful bloodthirsty blackfly morning, we had such a lovely sudden wind gust at around four o'clock . . . and, as a result, have been without electricity for nineteen hours. Which, as another result, means that, instead of writing to you, I now have to scrub many, many sticky dirty dishes.

Nonetheless, I'll waste a few more precious dishwashing moments here so that I can share two good quotations from John Fowles's 1977 novel Daniel Martin:

Extract 1
So much prevarication, so much standing on dignity, on the assumption that the younger generation can never understand older ones; almost as if children were brought into the world only in order that their parents might have secrets from them--

Extract 2
To hell with cultural fashion; to hell with elitist guilt; to hell with existentialist nausea; and above all, to hell with the imagined that does not say, not only in, but behind the images, the real.

Monday, May 3, 2010

For the first time in two weeks, I am home alone. I am also presently unemployed, so this morning my horizons are masquerading as a glorious stretch of wasted time. I do, in truth, have thousands of home and garden tasks, but I also have Wordsworth and maybe even, by chance, a word or two of my own to unearth. But then again, maybe not. Today I don't feel particularly anxious about literary accomplishment. More, I feel like I'm lying between clean, air-dried sheets. No thinking necessary. The present tense is too sweet.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

So much laundry to wash, so many seeds to plant, so much grass to mow. But who cares? Last night we had a giant bowl of our own lettuce and a mess of fiddleheads that James and I picked by the stream. A thrush was singing, the poodle was splashing in the shallows, the blackflies were buzzing impolitely. . . yes, it truly is spring here, and my spirits are high, even as my brain reels and my shoulders ache. If only the Red Sox pitchers could learn to pitch, the season would be just like the postcards.

Do not think I have forgotten A Winter's Tale. Paul and I were practicing for our North Haven musical debut last week, plus we naturally had to spend all our free time clambering on rocks and stuffing our pockets with urchin shells. Not to mention the real source of time wasting, ESPN. At least I made Paul wait till after dark before he was allowed to turn on the TV. But now we are back to the Land of No TV Reception, and Shakespeare will resume his ascendancy.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Once, when I did a reading in Vermont, I was paid in maple syrup; and I was sure that gift was the poetry barter that couldn't be beat . . . until yesterday, when the North Haven Community School presented me with 2 dozen local oysters. How popular I was when I got home!

And what a week away we had, Paul and I. To begin with, this was the first time I've had my own child along on a teaching gig, and this was the first time he's ever been a student in another school. He was extraordinarily lucky because NHCS may be the closest to perfection of any school I've ever taught in: a new, airy, relaxed, and beautifully designed facility; easygoing and attentive staff members; tiny class sizes; a curriculum that focuses on portfolios, presentations, student-triggered learning, the arts, K-12 French immersion, and the environment . . . and, mind you, this is a public school for local children: the children of oyster growers and gardeners and sheep farmers and electricians. These are regular kids with regular families, not, on the whole, the children of intellectuals or professionals.

I taught K-12 classes every day, and not once--NOT ONCE--did a teacher sit in the back of the room correcting papers or drop off a class of kids and vanish until the end of the period. Every single teacher worked with me as a colleague, participated in discussions and classroom management, and shared ideas for the next day's session. It was a miracle.

For Paul, the week was similarly miraculous. Students were allowed to move freely around classrooms. They had three recesses a day. They could look forward to building plant boxes in the greenhouse or working on an alternative-energy engine or participating in a wilderness expedition to Mount Katahdin. Students were informally grouped and regrouped by ability levels. For instance, without fuss, Paul was moved into the 7th grade for math, while other students, at other levels, were grouped differently. Yet the children still had a strong sense of identity as a grade 5-6 class.

Of course, there's a bittersweet backstory to all this goodness. North Haven has a very wealthy summer population, and and the school was built largely with private rather than state funds. The Arts and Enrichment account that paid for my visit is similarly funded. The island's unusual combination of resources makes many of these wonderful school programs possible, experiences that would be impossible in my own poverty-stricken Somerset County.

Yet not everything good about NCHS would be impossible in Harmony. A few more recesses, for instance--say, in the morning, instead of "bus duty," which is another term for "sit in your seats till school starts." For a town that is fighting lethargy and childhood obesity, this, to me, seems like a pretty obvious move. Moreover, the school could make much better use of the resources it has. For example, here I am telling you about the week I spent in North Haven, at a K-12 school that hired me to bring poetry to its students. I've offered many times to do this same job for free in K-8 Harmony. Has anyone from the school called me this year, even once, to ask me to share my skills? Does anyone even care that other school systems believe that I really do have national expertise in a field that is directly related to our children's English and language-arts goals? I think you can guess the answer to that question.

When my kids were younger, the elementary teachers were relatively open to my classroom participation. But now that the boys are older, I hear nothing. Although I repeatedly assure people that I don't want to limit my participation to volunteering only in my sons' classes, that I feel a commitment to our community of students, no one contacts me.

It's a bizarre situation that I've more or less come to terms with--as, perhaps, an example of the surrealistic self-destruction that is inevitable in our schools, large and small. So the North Haven children are luckier than they know--not because they had me as a visitor, but because they have administrators, teachers, and townspeople who take risks with the concept of education: who themselves are curious and excited and ambitious, and who therefore believe that their students are curious and excited and ambitious. Whether or not your school has money, we need to remember that curiosity and excitement and ambition don't cost a dime.