Monday, January 31, 2011

I'd like to nominate Shelley as the next poet laureate of Maine. Unfortunately he is not a legal resident.

from A Defence of Poetry

Percy Bysshe Shelley

The most unfailing herald, companion, and follower of the awakening of a great people to work a beneficial change in opinion or institution, is poetry. At such periods there is an accumulation of the power of communicating and receiving intense and impassioned conceptions respecting man and nature. The persons in whom this power resides, may often, as far as regards many portions of their nature, have little apparent correspondence with that spirit of good of which they are the ministers. But even whilst they deny and abjure, they are yet compelled to serve, the power which is seated on the throne of their own soul. It is impossible to read the compositions of the most celebrated writers of the present day without their words. They measure the circumference and sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all-penetrating spirit, and they are themselves perhaps the most sincerely astonished at its manifestations; for it is less their spirit than the spirit of the age. Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Carl Little, poet and art critic, has reviewed Crimes. I'm overjoyed to have a reader with his eye and acumen.
1. Teachers: Baron asked me to forward you this link to the current issue of Learning Landscapes, which is all about teaching poetry and includes an excellent article on revision by Baron's co-author David Capella.

2. You may be surprised to learn that I was in Walmart at 9 o'clock last night, where I was waiting for my son to buy a 10-dollar cellphone and killing time by reading The Strategy of Satan. Apparently it is all Satan's fault when I get distracted from the domestic sphere. At this very moment Satan could be making me type this satirical comment. Also, news flash: wifely "subjection" to her husband is not the same as "subjugation." I did not quite comprehend the exact difference in meaning, but perhaps I was distracted by the barrage of fluorescent light. Or maybe Satan is interfering with my study skills.

3. I hate Walmart. But Walmart has cornered the market in rural America. It is hard to never go there when there is nowhere else to go.

4. Before we went to Walmart, we went to the Strand theater in Skowhegan and watched True Grit. This movie is much, much better than Walmart.

5. Even though I had previously listened to a Fresh Air radio segment in which the Coen brothers explained to Terry Gross about animal protection laws for moviemakers and exactly how they had managed to make the horses in this film look injured when they were not, I still started to weep when Little Blackie failed and had to be shot. But even as I was crying, I wondered why I was. Apparently, sentiment is a complicated thing.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Saturday morning, ten balmy degrees above zero, with a nearly invisible snow shower speckling the air. A chickadee is rooting fruitlessly in the window feeder. I am sitting at the kitchen table, drinking mediocre coffee and eyeing the ugly cover of a Fitzgerald novel: a line-drawing pastiche of badly rendered liquor bottles and society magazines, on a puce background. The Penguin colophon is the only good thing about this cover. I've always liked that Penguin.

I see my prose is grinding to a halt here. Really, I feel so dull . . . not, at the moment, to myself (I'm perfectly content to be watching that chickadee optimist, though I wish the coffee and the book cover were of higher quality) but as the Voice of This Letter. Therefore, I'll offer you a peek at the lives of two people who have had more thrilling experiences lately. Say thank you to Facebook for creating the capsule-summary style known as the status line.

Friend 1: "Awesome fan mail from a cranky old man. He forwarded my essay to his two nieces, 'who are heavily tattooed and go through boys like toilet paper.' I anticipate a lovely correspondence with him."

Friend 2: "Yesterday, a frail older woman, with very thick glasses and hearing aids, moved her walker toward me and asked for my assistance. We were near the register at a local book store. Her weak voice trembled as she said 'Excuse me, young man, would you please look at these buttons and tell me if there is one that says "Ask me if I give a shit" ?'"

Friday, January 28, 2011

This is a short post because I have to run a dog errand, but perhaps more anon.

Here's a link to the Maine Arts Commission's call for poet laureate nominations. This is a call to the public--to you--so don't be shy.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

I've spent all week waiting for a giant editing project to appear on my stoop. Every morning I've woken up thinking, "Today is the day I stop having time to write," and every day UPS does not show up in my driveway with an oversized box. So I've been in the position of having to make the most of these unexpectedly empty days. Meanwhile, I've been struggling with anti-inspiration, with being out of the zone. The process of writing feels chunky, slow, laborious. I might as well be a plumber.

That sensation doesn't necessarily mean that I'm writing badly. What it means is that I've lost my rose-colored glasses behind the couch. What it means is that writing feels like breaking rocks in the hot sun: bashing out one word after another, after another, after another, instead of floating glibly in a blue-green, image-laden sea.

Still, I made a poem that stares back at me: sharp and hard and glinting. I invented a character who assumed her own whirlwind being for eleven stanzas. Next week I might I feel differently about her and her poem. For now, I'm feeling like Sisyphus, on the morning he thinks he's found a little dip in the mountainside that just might keep his stone from rolling.

This week, as I've been wrestling with my own poem, I received my friend Anne Britting Oleson's chapbook The Beauty of It in the mail. I have no idea how she wrote these poems--in blue-green sea or in hot sun. That's the thing: when it comes to the final product--once it's been carved out, planed, and sanded; once the nail holes are filled, the varnish spread--you can't tell how hard or easy the piece was to write. What you have, in this case, is a small, deceptively plain, deceptively clear-eyed recounting of a situation. What you have is a sentence-driven poem speckled with dull little words at the ends of the lines: "And." "Much." "The." "In." What I hear, when I say the poem aloud, is that those line breaks were not accidents . . . not at all, not in the least. They might even be more important than "tumbling" and "desperately" in the final stanza. They might be the real story.


Anne Britting Oleson

A year since I've seen you, and
two men I know make
offers in the same day. One wheedles:
nobody needs to know. No,
I answer, everyone always finds out.

The other suggests sex
will liven up the friendship.
Or kill it, I can't help reply.

They are both too short. And
married. But this emptiness
warns it wouldn't take much
to change my mind, to tip the
scales in either's direction,

and I'd be back, as I've
been too often, tumbling in
the grass, on a back seat,
somewhere, anywhere, wanting
desperately for it to be you.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Sometimes life really is like a John Updike novel.

from The Diary of Samuel Pepys

January 12, 1668

This evening I observed my wife mighty dull, and I myself was not mighty fond, because of some hard words she did give me at noon, out of a jealousy at my being abroad this morning, which, God knows, it was upon the business of the Office unexpectedly: but I to bed, not thinking but she would come after me. But waking by and by out of a slumber, which I usually fall into presently after my coming into the bed, I found she did not prepare to come to bed, but got fresh candles, and more wood for her fire, it being mighty cold, too. At this being troubled, I after a while prayed her to come to bed; so, after an hour or two, she silent, and I now and then praying her to come to bed, she fell out into a fury, that I was a rogue, and false to her. I did, as I might truly, deny it, and was mightily troubled, but all would not serve. At last, about one o'clock, she came to my side of the bed, and drew my curtaine open, and with the tongs red hot at the ends, made as if she did design to pinch me with them, at which, in dismay, I rose up, and with a few words she laid them down; and did by little and little, very sillily, let all the discourse fall; and about two, but with much seeming difficulty, came to bed, and there lay well all night, and long in bed talking together, with much pleasure, it being, I know, nothing but her doubt of my going out yesterday, without telling her of my going, which did vex her, poor wretch! last night, and I cannot blame her jealousy, though it do vex me to the heart.

[P.S. He really "was a rogue, and false to her," though not, apparently, on this particular occasion.]

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Two days ago I began composing a poem, which immediately asked me to arrange its as-yet-unwritten lines into rhymed quatrains. Then late yesterday morning, when I was seven stanzas into the first draft, the poem announced that it wanted to assume the persona of a mysterious character named Mrs. Dickinson, who, since she is sitting in a cold automobile, cannot possibly be the mother of the Miss Dickinson of Amherst fame. Nonetheless, she has already mentioned that she has a daughter, so who know what will pan out here?

As Laurie Anderson remarks in her song "Baby Doll," brains can be very bossy.

Monday, January 24, 2011

I Am Not Going to AWP . . .

. . . I have never gone to AWP . . . and it seems entirely possible that I never will go to AWP.

For those not in the know, let me explain that AWP is shorthand for the annual Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference, which this year takes place in Washington, D.C. And every year at about this time, the writers who are going to AWP start chattering wildly about it, listing off all the book signings they've arranged, the parties they're planning to attend, the pals they can't wait to go drinking with, the panels they'll be hosting, the choral readings they'll be giving, etc., etc. I might imagine, from these accounts, that AWP is a heaven on earth for lonely novelists and poets, an Elysian Field dotted with like-minded readers and word-players, all of whom already adore my poems.

Alas, I fear this is not the case. Like any academic conference, the real AWP is no doubt packed with anxious seekers who are desperate to sell books, tout manuscripts, have their photos taken with famous people, and find jobs. Yet, as in years past, numbers of attendees will come back overflowing with Facebook joy about the experience. Something good, or something disguised as good, seems to take place at these events. I'll probably never know what that something is.

The reason I don't go to AWP is because I can't afford to. With neither a full-time job, nor academic backing, nor a publisher who can pay my expenses, I cannot justify spending a chunk of the family budget on the more or less vain hope of selling my books, touting my manuscripts, and shaking hands with famous people. And really, I'm not complaining. For the most part I've come to terms with the parameters of my writing life, and I'm more than happy to sacrifice an annual AWP binge for the far larger gift of having the time, space, will, and stamina to read and to write.

Nonetheless, the thought of AWP can occasionally rankle. Closeted up here in the subzero hinterlands of the north, I often feel like the only serious poet in America who won't be gaily packing her dancing shoes for the ball. Moreover, this year, for the first time, I was actually invited to attend the conference: to take part in my own book signing, at my own publisher's table, alongside poets who are also my friends. The idea had its intoxications, and I toyed with saying yes. But in the end I said no.

I still have pangs, small pangs, about that decision and the sense that I've sealed my fate as a nobody. That may or may not be true in the factual scheme of things, but symbolically the conference equals professionalism and I?--well, I'm the woman who trudges through the barnyard at minus-12 degrees, with the goal of beating frozen chicken shit out of a water dish. No dancing shoes required.

But, then again, writing a poem doesn't require dancing shoes either.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

It's a mere minus-2 here this morning, but this nip in the air is forecast to herald minus-20 tonight. Weather like this is hard to manage and, with farm animals, becomes even more worrisome. I end up being outside way too often--carrying out extra hot water and meals, mostly--and at such low temperatures can feel my eyes begin to freeze up if I'm out there for longer than 5 minutes.

Anyway the house stays warmish, though we circle the wood stove like sharks. And we've never had a water pipe break. Not yet.

Here is another bit from Joe Bolton's "Aubade." These are the last few lines of the poem, and they are just like the dawn I am looking at from my own frosted window.

It is the old story,

But the old story suffices when it’s all there is:

Birds starting and the first light

Coming on—

Coming on like a minor chord struck and held,

Shaping something out of the silence

Even as it fades away.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Yesterday I received one of those aforementioned lovely typewritten notes from George Core, editor of the Sewanee Review, in which he accepted my essay "Not Writing the Poem" for the journal. I seem to remember talking to you during the composition of this essay, which deals with inspiration and the lack thereof. Among other topics, I consider a writer's determination to soldier on even when the job of writing feels about as thrilling as sorting through old clothes for the Goodwill. But I also talk about the importance, sometimes, of just accepting that one is not writing. Merely putting down words on the page doesn't make those words valuable. There is, after all, much to be said for silence.

Here's the opening to Joe Bolton's poem "Aubade." Which means dawn, as you know. Which means I have to take it seriously.

Somehow they're never quite what we meant them to be,
Our lives and the little music
We make of them.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Thanks to the comments on yesterday's post and the emails I've received about it, not to mention the unexpected news that a class of college students in California loves my poem "Touching," I'm beginning to feel better. I've been in such a weird funk, for no particular reason . . . and not just about writing but about life in general. I'd like to blame it on our horrible new governor, but honestly not everything is his fault.

I went to a Harmony basketball game last night and watched our boys get trampled by a pack of Jackman-ites who looked and played as if they were at least juniors in high school instead of 12- and 13-year-olds. But the funny thing is that, once again, the Harmony parents came together and loved, loved, loved their hapless calves out there on the floor. And then my own skinny hapless calf, who played incredibly hard against these leviathans, fell asleep in the car on the way home and never woke up again till this morning. Fortunately for him, this morning turned out to be a snow day, so here we all are, sociably trapped together in our little house. And I'm feeling more forgiving about myself and my days.

Here's what I read in Moby-Dick yesterday. Those of you who have finished the book: did you get a little weepy when you read this, or was that just me?

But far beneath this wondrous world upon the surface, another and still stranger world met our eyes as we gazed over the side. For, suspended in those watery vaults, floated the forms of the nursing mothers of the whales, and those that by their enormous girth seemed shortly to be mothers. The lake . . . was to a considerable depth exceedingly transparent; and as human infants when suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at the time; and while yet drawing mortal nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence;--even so did the young of these whales seem looking up towards us, but not at us, as if we were but a bit of Gulf-weed in their new-born sight.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

There are mornings when I can scarcely bring myself to begin writing to you . . . not because of you but because of the cloud of why-bother that settles on me like gloom or bees. I think this sensation is an epistolary given, that it's not a contemporary ailment peculiar to electronic communication. Some of Keats's letters read as if he produced them with great difficulty; many of Woolf's do as well. As much as one wants, one needs, to reach into lonely space for a friend's invisible hand, there's a heaviness to the obligations of letter writing.

But of course, this blog note is different from the letters that Keats and Woolf wrote: it's not for your eyes only. Anyone can open this envelope, though I think not many people do. Nonetheless, here the letter sits, with the world's address on it.

When I glance at other literary blogs, my why-bother cloud often thickens. So often they seem to function as public slates for early-draft work, or diatribes against writers whom the blog owner dislikes, or self-promotion, or repetitive musings on the politics of success . . . and God knows I have done every one of these things myself--except for posting early-draft work, an approach to publication that I find unbearable, but only because I am so private about raw, tender, new pieces.

None of these tendencies is necessarily bad, or wrong, or foolish: really, they may, as a trend, be good insofar as they staunch a kind of communal loneliness, as they battle against the futility under which every artist labors in the back rooms of her own mind. I know about that battle against futility. As a serious writer who is also nearly invisible, I often undergo frantic surges of anxiety about marketing myself, about making myself look like a "real writer," as if real has any definition at all.

So today, in my why-bother state, I'm trying to remember that what does have definition is my daily interaction with this word, and now this word, and now this word, which I am typing out to you on my silver lapdesk, which hums on the scratched cherry table in my bedroom, which fills the attic space of my little red house in the snow-ridden woods. This is a terrible approach to self-marketing, and not even very interesting as prose, which is why the why-bother mood overcomes me, but, like all block-headed obsessives, I keep trundling along.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

I did write yesterday, and finished a poem under such conditions of concentration that I forgot to go to Paul's band-class open house. But it was snowing hard, and he forgot about the invitation too and wants to quit playing the trumpet anyway. So apparently there was no parental harm done.

Paul might be lackadaisical about trumpeting, but he does continue to love the piano. And speaking of the piano, last weekend Tom and I cleaned out some closets, and in the process I rediscovered a stack of ancient sheet music--some from my mother's 1940s music lessons, some even older, from the 1920s: a sample of the many, many things that occupied the Pennsylvania farmhouse-with-stuffing that my grandfather bought in the 1960s. (My essay about one of the books from this farmhouse is forthcoming from the Southern Review this spring.) Among those 1920s songs are "Roll 'Em, Girls," a ditty about flappers who roll down their stockings, and "Barney Google," which my sister and I used to make our mother play for us because we thought it was the silliest song we'd ever heard. But what has been occupying me in the snowy evenings is the collection of Irving Berlin waltzes, copyright 1925, which I've been slowly picking out, chord by chord.

Though I'm a fairly good violinist, I'm a self-taught pianist who practices only in fits and spurts. I get lost when I try to read music off a double piano staff, and I don't really understand the hand positions for chord progressions. So my performance of "Always" does sound as if it's being played underwater. Nonetheless, there's something very gratifying about producing that 1920s Broadway sound from my own fingertips. Also, it goes quite well with a reading of Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night.

Speaking of Fitzgerald, I should make it clear that I in no way meant to be strident about him in yesterday's post. Writers are products of their times. Unless they happen to be George Eliot, they're no smarter about human relations than anybody else is. And even George Eliot had man trouble.

Good writers are good because they write well, not because they're socially prescient. Dickens dealt clumsily with his Jewish characters. Malcolm X was blind about women. Trollope had rude things to say about "sooty complexions." Etcetera, etcetera. Nonetheless, when one is personally struck in the face, it hurts, even 90 years after the fact. And when one is more subtly injured, one can almost begin to believe that the writer is correct. For instance, of the three most attractive women characters in Tender Is the Night, Fitzgerald says:

Their point of resemblance to each other, and their difference from so many American women, lay in the fact that they were all happy to exist in a man's world--they preserved their individuality through men and not by opposition to them. They would all three have made alternatively good courtesans or good wives, not by the accident of birth but through the greater accident of finding their man or not finding him.

The more I think about that passage, the less comfortable I become about myself. I'm not sure if this a good reaction or a bad one, but it's a true one, and it disturbs me. Then again, if one task of literature is to make us uneasy about our assumptions, then Fitzgerald has done his job.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Cold, cold here, with a grim sky.

I'll be writing today, and waiting for snow.

First line of my unwritten draft: "Sometimes I fear I'm losing my ability to imagine."

Yesterday, as I was reading Tender Is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald told me, "Like most women, she liked to be told how to feel."

I wonder if he ever figured out how much that sentence hurts.

Monday, January 17, 2011

I ran into another poet at the hockey game. A poet with season tickets.

The game was exciting but the rules remain mysterious. Apparently you're allowed to put an opponent in a headlock, but you get sent to the penalty box if you "embellish."

Downsides: Expect fat men to overflow onto your knees for large portions of the game. The Coke at the concession stand is really Diet Coke.

But enough with the hockey. Let's move on to copyediting. Today is the day I have to undergo the ordeal of checking the editorial markup on an essay that is scheduled to appear in a journal this spring. You will not be surprised to learn that I, the copyeditor, loathe being copyedited, though I'm always grateful to typo catchers. This is not to say that I haven't had smart, incisive, delicate copyeditors. But I've also had trolls. They stomp and ravage. They trample on punctuation and gnaw witlessly on dependent clauses. They are tone deaf to sentence music and devour adverbs on sight.

The most terrible troll is the one who adds dangling modifiers. I have no reason to believe that such a troll works for this particular journal. But now that I've encountered one, I can't overlook the possibility that his ugly brother is still lurking out there.

Update: I rescind all my worries. There was no troll under the desk. I have faced the copyeditor, and she was perfect . . . which is to say: she unearthed the mistakes and killed them. She was even merciful.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Today we are going to the mall. Tonight, if you can believe it, we are going to a hockey game. Thus, I offer you a hockey episode: a taste of Lewis Robinson's very funny story "Puckheads," from his collection Officer Friendly. It's about two high school players who get kicked off the team for brawling and are forced to join the Drama Club cast of Oliver! The scene I'm excerpting explains why they were suspended:
On the power play, one of the Dom's kids streaked up the left boards, took a slap shot from twenty-five feet. Kovach flashed his glove up and caught it. The whistle blew. Kovach stood up from his crouch, calmly removed his glove, took the puck in his sweaty hand, then turned and gunned it into the stands, hitting a black-haired boy in the forehead, knocking him back. He fell from the top row of the bleachers. The benches emptied. Kids clambered over the Plexiglas. The St. Dom's scorekeeper--a man my father's age--jumped on my back, and I pried his hands apart and shook him off, then swung my stick at him to keep him away. I had to get to Kovach, who was in a pile of bodies in front of the net. . . . Those who hadn't joined us on the ice were on their feet, cheering us on, crazed. When I got to Kovach, he was holding a cheerleader in a tight headlock--she was using both elbows to jab him in the stomach--and I could tell he'd broken his nose again.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Returning to the opening-paragraph discussion I began earlier this week, I offer the following commentary. Please take into consideration that, as I write this, I am (1) freezing and (2) mildly concussed.

Sample 1

In the spring of 1917, when Doctor Richard Diver first arrived in Zurich, he was twenty-six years old, a fine age for a man, indeed the very acme of bachelorhood. Even in war-time days it was a fine age for Dick, who was already too valuable, too much of a capital investment to be shot off in a gun. Years later it seemed to him that even in this sanctuary he did not escape lightly, but about that he never fully made up his mind--in 1917 he laughed at the idea, saying apologetically that the war didn't touch him at all. Instructions from his local board were that he was to complete his studies in Zurich and take a degree as he had planned.

According to Malcolm Cowley's introduction to my very ragged copy of Tender Is the Night, Fitzgerald believed that the novel was the best thing he had written and expected it to be a smash hit. So he was shocked and depressed when the public did not feel likewise. The book was originally released in 1934, but after its tepid welcome, the writer continued to fiddle with it. Becoming convinced that some structural error was responsible for its failure, he took voluminous notes about his plans to reorganize it. Nonetheless, despite all his best efforts, the novel was not republished before his death. My edition follows Fitzgerald's revision plans, and one of the largest of those revisions was the beginning: instead of opening with the fine and mysterious Rosemary Hoyt scene on the Riviera, he begins chronologically by introducing us to his main character, doomed Dick Diver. Now, I have just reached the Riviera scene so can say right now (and as far as I can remember I've never read this novel before so I have no idea why the copy is so beat up) that it's a far more compelling scene visually and emotionally than the opening above. But as I understand Cowley, Fitzgerald worried that it led the reader into misunderstanding the centrality of Dick's decay. So he created this bildungsroman sort of beginning as a way to defuse those misapprehensions. Did it work? Well, I haven't finished the novel, but I can tell you that Gatsby it ain't. One of the beauties of Gatsby--maybe its greatest beauty--is the sense I have that the tale is told in one rushing breath. There is an illusion of seamlessness, a narrative and imagistic fluidity that Tender does not have in the least. Gatbsy feels like magic. This novel feels like a book that a man hammered out on a typewriter.
Sample 2

November 2
I've been cordially invited to join the visceral realists. I accepted, of course. There was no initiation ceremony. It was better that way.

By the end of the first line you can tell that Roberto Bolano's novel The Savage Detectives is going to imitate either a diary or a series of letters. In other words, you expect choppiness and limited vision and a singular voice, which is exactly what you get, at least for the first half of the book. This is the sort of novel that millions of people who aren't me laud as great. Those people include my husband as well as many other people whom I not only respect but who seem cooler and smarter than I am. So I am loath to reveal my essential lack of hipness by making any kind of remark at all about this book. I will say that all of its clever choppiness and confusing character introductions and the name dropping of invented surrealists and the accumulations of sexy, mean-spirited women and the fact that nothing ever happens unless you count waiting around in cafes for poets who don't show up became, in combination with the strangely parallel distractions of Moby-Dick, almost impossible to bear. I spent a lot of time at the kitchen table with both novels arranged in front of me and doing everything possible to avoid opening either one of them. The Savage Detectives started winning the battle, but only because its pages weren't falling out. Yet I wanted Moby-Dick to win, so I stuck the Bolano back on the shelf, at which point my husband said, "Didn't finish that book, did you." Notice his lack of question mark.

Sample 3

"Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen."

The daily recital of the Rosary was over. For half an hour the steady voice of the Prince had recalled the Sorrowful and the Glorious Mysteries; for half an hour other voices had interwoven a lilting hum from which, now and again, would chime some unlikely word; love, virginity, death; and during that hum the whole aspect of the rococo drawing-room seemed to change; even the parrots spreading iridescent wings over the silken walls appeared abashed; even the Magdalen between the two windows looked a penitent and not just a handsome blonde lost in some dubious daydream as she usually was.

The Prince of Lampedusa never knew that his novel Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) would become one of the greatest and most popular works ever published in Italian. He never knew it would be published at all, and in fact had received yet another rejection letter just before his death. Lampedusa spent his life as a reader, as a rememberer, as the last scion of an ancient noble family; and he created the world of The Leopard from stories of his own ancestors and from the 18th-century palaces that he himself grew up in during the early part of the 20th century and that were destroyed during World War II in the Allied bombing of Sicily. E. M. Forster said of The Leopard, "This is one of the great lonely books." I think that remark is exact, and much of that quality derives from the part that the palaces play in the novel. This is not to overlook the fact that Lampedusa's central character, the Prince of Salina, is one of the great figures of literature. But the houses! They are very nearly living things themselves, as this opening paragraph makes so clear. The paintings and the tapestries are as sensitive to change as the man who recites the Sorrowful and the Glorious Mysteries. How I wish I were wandering among the hundred rooms of this palace. How love this lonely book.

Friday, January 14, 2011

So, let's talk about the PSAT. For you non-American readers, the acronym stands for Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), and the SAT is the giant stupid standardized test that all high schoolers have to endure, supposedly so they can get into college, even though many top colleges don't even look at the results. (Does this fit the definition of scam?)

Yesterday James came home with his PSAT results, which were handily accompanied by the booklet so that his parents could sit on the couch and ask each other test questions. I can't say we were thrilled with what we discovered.

Unfortunately, the Educational Testing Service prohibits "unauthorized reproduction," so I cannot reprint section 1, question 2 verbatim. All I can say is that Tom and I were both dying to check (B). But no. The answer was nice, straightforward (C). That's because the PSAT doesn't test a student's comprehension of satire, or double meanings, or ambiguity, even though anyone who hangs around high schoolers knows that a supple grasp of these particular literary elements is a key indicator of Smart Kid.


Sometimes I just hate school.

[The PSAT has distracted me from what I intended to talk about today, which was my response to yesterday's post of opening paragraphs. But since I have to take the dog to get her rabies shot this morning, I do not have time to mull over that subject today. Therefore, stay tuned for tomorrow's thoughts, and in the meantime add your own to the comments.]

Thursday, January 13, 2011

I'm interested in whether or not the power of an opening matters in the long run to the power of a piece of literature. Consider, for instance, Shakespeare: the openings of many of his plays are not only tedious but confusing, yet the plays as a whole are masterpieces. Numerous 19th-century novels are slow-goers that transform into page-turners: Trollope's come to mind as an example. But then there's Moby-Dick: what could be snappier than "Call me Ishmael"? And snappy is not a word that describes anything else about that book.

So here are three openings of three novels. Basing your choice merely on the strength of these extracts, which would lure you into reading further into the novel? I'm sure many of you recognize these samples, but try to pretend you don't.

Sample 1

In the spring of 1917, when Doctor Richard Diver first arrived in Zurich, he was twenty-six years old, a fine age for a man, indeed the very acme of bachelorhood. Even in war-time days it was a fine age for Dick, who was already too valuable, too much of a capital investment to be shot off in a gun. Years later it seemed to him that even in this sanctuary he did not escape lightly, but about that he never fully made up his mind--in 1917 he laughed at the idea, saying apologetically that the war didn't touch him at all. Instructions from his local board were that he was to complete his studies in Zurich and take a degree as he had planned.

Sample 2

November 2
I've been cordially invited to join the visceral realists. I accepted, of course. There was no initiation ceremony. It was better that way.

Sample 3

"Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen."

The daily recital of the Rosary was over. For half an hour the steady voice of the Prince had recalled the Sorrowful and the Glorious Mysteries; for half an hour other voices had interwoven a lilting hum from which, now and again, would chime some unlikely word; love, virginity, death; and during that hum the whole aspect of the rococo drawing-room seemed to change; even the parrots spreading iridescent wings over the silken walls appeared abashed; even the Magdalen between the two windows looked a penitent and not just a handsome blonde lost in some dubious daydream as she usually was.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Nary a flake of snow yet, but school has already been canceled, and there is much jubilation in my household. Today was supposed to be the poodle's Day of Beauty, but apparently she gets a reprieve-from-the-groomer snow day as well. We'll see how the piano lesson transpires. I suspect it, too, will be canned, and from beginning to end this will be a hanging-around-the-house-eating-Tom's-leftover-birthday-cake festival of sloth--at least among the younger set.

Meanwhile, I will be editing, and Tom will be in the shop making frames. No snow days for the self-employed.

[Looking back at this letter, I see that I have used an unconscionable number of hyphens, but I've decided not to care.]

Here's a snow poem, a very old poem . . . dedicated to the two little boys who metamorphosed into the gangly, incipiently mustached, sloppy-haired darlings who will be hogging the couches today. Nonetheless, we all still seem to be lingering on the brink of the same dark winter hill.

Night Sledding

Dawn Potter

Stealthy as an owl, and more silent,
the trail kneels before us, our mystery.
Now we are the breath of the world,

the moving life. Our boots skirl
a brave cry. Around us, vague
snow feathers the black air, a whisper,

a sweet, uncertain kiss.
The trees of the forest tender their bare hands.
And beyond them, the white hill opens,

magic lantern of night.
Shouting, you run forward
and hurl yourselves onto your sleds:

two thumps, the hiss of flight: and you are gone.
A swift weight presses on the earth.
I feel the prickings of fear.

In the pines, a small wind quivers.
The owl shakes out her soft wings.

[from Boy Land & Other Poems (Deerbrook Editions, 2004)]

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Sewanee Review is firmly a print journal. In fact, the editor-in-chief still uses a typewriter for all of his correspondence, and it is pleasant to receive one of his letters. Nonetheless, the journal does participate in Project Muse, a subscription downloading service for scholars and libraries. According to the journal, "hundreds of articles from the SR are used for research purposes around the country and the world. Apart from a strong presence among the Ivy League—University of Pennsylvania, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia—the SR is often used at NYU, UC–Berkeley, Penn State, Indiana University, Texas A&M, U. Chicago, the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor, Washington and Lee, UCLA, Notre Dame, Stanford, and Vanderbilt. What is more the SR can be found among readers academic and general at Cambridge, the University of Toronto, University of Sydney, Durham University, Freie Universit├Ąt Berlin, and Amsterdam University."

Given this readership, then, you may find it humorous to learn that the SR has announced that my essay "In Defense of Dullness, or Why Fanny Price Is My Favorite Austen Heroine" is among the journal's most frequently downloaded pieces. Do they mean to tell me that "readers academic and general" are taking notes on this maundering? Good Lord. Anyone who would cite my essay as Austen scholarship must be bonkers.

As Sylvia P. remarks,

The word of a snail on the plate of a leaf?
It is not mine. Do not accept it.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Today is Tom's birthday, and he will be celebrating by paying bills and going to the lumberyard. Meanwhile, I'll be making this cake.

For whatever reason I am presently feeling tongue-tied, but at least I don't have a bullet through the brain. Yesterday Tom and I spent all afternoon cleaning out our attic closet, a dusty trip through history that one could not call fun, yet I kept being relieved that here we were, together and mostly unscathed, sorting through ancient camping equipment and wondering why we'd kept all these useless toddler toys.

Here's chapter 4, from Tracing Paradise: Two Years in Harmony with John Milton, because I can't stop thinking about the fact that I've known Tom since we were 19, and that's starting to seem like forever.


The Undefiled Bed

Hail wedded Love, mysterious Law, true source

Of human offspring, sole propriety

In Paradise of all things common else.

Though by now we’ve been married for nearly sixteen years, more than once Tom and I have announced over a beer that we’d never do it again. As far as I can tell, neither one of us is hinting at divorce. And as far as I can tell, our declaration isn’t one of those conversational ice chunks that occasionally float up from the marital iceberg: those double-edged couple-ish remarks like “She doesn’t eat parsnips, so I don’t cook parsnips” or “I’ve always left the decorating up to you” or “He’s never enjoyed talking on the phone.” We in fact have an easygoing friendship, don’t argue about child raising, admire each other’s artwork, and can stack hay without quarrelling. So on the surface, it’s strange that we’ve come to this conclusion about what appears to be a flourishing partnership.

I think one source of our antipathy is getting married. This, in itself, is odd because I (and even Tom—though being the skinny, silent type, he winces at the prospect of all overwrought public gatherings) actually enjoy attending weddings. My cousin celebrated his marriage to a remarkably large-breasted girl in a New Jersey firehouse, and that was very fun. My generally self-contained mother drank cheap wine and danced recklessly to “Love Shack.” The bride’s satin skirt ripped out at the waistband during “YMCA” and had to be safety-pinned with much fuss and flurry, while the bride was screeching at Tom, crouched in a corner with his camera, “Hey! Are you taking any good photos of this?” The Presbyterian groom’s family was confused by the ziti and sauce (“Who eats macaroni at a wedding?”), which the bride’s Italian family insisted was de rigueur (“Everybody eats macaroni at a wedding!”).

A wedding is one of the few celebrations in which people of all ages dress up in fancy outfits, consume ridiculous food, pace solemnly up and down aisles, cry in public, sing comic songs, hold hands with their fathers, and do the limbo. What can be wrong with an occasion that jumbles together high ceremony and cheerful absurdity to celebrate a new bond? It seems, in some ways, an ideal amalgam of human social relations.

Yet when I’m chipping away at Paradise Lost and happen across lines like these, where Adam and Eve are getting ready for bed, I feel a twinge of regret:

Other Rites

Observing none, but adoration pure

Which God likes best, into thir inmost bower

Handed they went; and eas’d the putting off

These troublesome disguises which wee wear,

Straight side by side were laid.

For a poet so addicted to syntactic contortion and celestial formality (especially in matters of battle: how he loves a stately clash), Milton’s thoughts about marriage are notably modest, even austere. To begin with, he equates lapsarian marriage with clothes, and he cannot stand “these troublesome disguises.” He’s so vehement, in so many places, about how awful they are that I frivolously begin to wonder if he had a wool allergy, or maybe a mole on the back of his neck that chafed against his collar, or perhaps was married to an inept seamstress. Trivializing is unfair, however, because his diatribes against clothing are, beneath their bluster, some of the most poignant passages in the poem. For to Milton, in our naked glory, humanity most nearly replicates the beauty of the angels:

Two of far nobler shape erect and tall,

Godlike erect, with native Honor clad

In naked Majesty seem’d Lords of all,

And worthy seem’d, for in thir looks Divine

The image of thir glorious Maker shone,

Truth, Wisdom, Sanctitude severe and pure.

In our fallen world, this vision of humanity is not only patently false but even embarrassing. The rare beautiful bodies among us are more renowned for stupidity than for “Truth, Wisdom, Sanctitude severe and pure.” As for the rest of us aging grunts, our flabby, bony, pasty shells seem evidence of both physical and metaphorical ineptitude—a frail, imploding carapace, a monstrous rhinoceros suit, a winding sheet.

Milton’s vision of human beauty charms me, and makes me sad, because unlike our present conceptions of beauty, which are so often narcissistic and self-flagellating and victimized and mob-controlled, his depends on a shared, equivalent gaze. “Straight side by side were laid” may be the starkest description of a marriage bed I’ve ever read, an image more akin to a double funeral than a honeymoon suite. But its starkness is also simplicity, and innocence, and, perhaps most movingly, concentration. Look only at me, my love, and I will look only at you.

Marriage is indeed a concentration: both an unswerving attention to another human being and the distillation, day by day, year by year, of what matters in a shared life. Since a wedding is a sloppy froth of cousins, ribbons, parents, pomp, cake, bad photos, and mishap, it seems like a silly way to begin such an enterprise. But I don’t have anything against silliness, though clearly Milton didn’t care to picture our noble First Parents as gigglers. What I hate is the idea of being looked at by all those wedding guests.

A wedding is a story with lots of characters. A marriage is a story with two. No matter how tightly it intersects with other family divisions—children, parents, cousins, ancestors—marriage itself is a separate world, remote as an island. Scanning the crowd of couples at a local basketball game, I note strange alliances and ponder unanswerable questions: “What does she see in that jerk?” or “How does it feel to wake up every morning next to such an enormous woman?” But I’ll never know. Even children, those greedy observers, never in all their lives understand the secret links and fissures in their parents’ union.

“Straight side by side were laid.” This is what it feels like, marriage, on fine days and on bad days. Lately I tried to have a conversation with Tom on this very subject, as we paused together in the kitchen. The kettle hissed on the woodstove, and he was holding a wet dishtowel. I had propped a basket of folded shirts against my hip. Our sons had shot off into their own orbits, sorting through Legos or listening to Lone Ranger episodes or folding paper airplanes. It was a regular winter evening, cold and dark, and we were pleased to be together, though not talking about it. And then I tried to talk about it and found there was nothing to say. “Of course weddings are nothing like being married,” he said.

“But that’s what I’m trying to write about,” I explained.

“But weddings are nothing like being married,” he said.

I went up to bed feeling confused and disappointed. Had I expected some clarification, some revelation? Was I trying to articulate something too obvious to mention? Or was I misunderstanding some larger, more vital conceit? And then, unexpectedly, Tom followed me to bed almost as soon as I’d gone up—Tom, who likes to haunt the house late and alone: and that was a surprise and a pleasure; for we rarely have a chance to lie awake together, feeling the night chill seep through the window at the foot of the bed, feeling our own warmth seep from one quiet body to the next. And though I still had no clarification, no revelation, what I did have was comfort, the dozy, inarticulate comfort of contiguity, which has nothing to do with passion or epiphany but is a good end to a regular day.

Being fond of both Tom and the conjugal ideal, I find it easy to shuffle among such sentimental snapshots and pretend they render an honest portrait of marriage. Milton wasn’t such a fool. Consider the tale of Sin, the “Portress of Hell Gate,” who is Satan’s daughter, born Athena-like from his head, and also mother of his monstrous son, Death:

I pleas’d, and with attractive graces won

The most averse, thee chiefly, who full oft

Thyself in me thy perfect image viewing

Becam’st enamor’d, and such joy thou took’st

With me in secret, that my womb conceiv’d

A growing burden.

I think Milton intends the amours of Sin and Satan to work as a lewd parody of Eve and Adam’s “bed . . . undefil’d.” But how different is the pure, absorbed, human gaze from Satan and Sin’s “Thyself in me thy perfect image viewing”? As a lapsarian wife, I find the distinction difficult to untangle, though I do see one other significant difference: modest Eve has plenty of unencumbered recreational sex, and flirty Sin instantly gets pregnant, after which everything goes downhill for her.

God intended Eve to be “our general Mother”; and in theory, Milton is all for babies: “Our Maker bids increase, who bids abstain/But our Destroyer, foe to God and Man?” But the poet is squeamish. After Sin gets knocked up, Satan instantly deserts her, and I suspect Milton doesn’t necessarily fault him for sidestepping the mess.

Pensive here I sat

Alone, but long I sat not, till my womb

Pregnant by thee, and now excessive grown

Prodigious motion felt and rueful throes.

At last this odious offspring whom thou seest

Thine own begotten, breaking violent way

Tore through my entrails, that with fear and pain

Distorted, all my nether shape grew

Transform’d: but he my inbred enemy

Forth issu’d, brandishing his fatal Dart

Made to destroy: I fled, and cri’d out Death.

Death proceeds to rape his mother and beget a pack of “yelling Monsters,” and the original unity of two dissolves into pain and chaos and misery.

Is this hell? Or is it family life?

I didn’t fall in love with Tom because I thought he’d make an excellent father of sons. I fell in love with the way the backs of his knees looked as he walked away from me down a dormitory corridor, the way his hair stuck straight up from his forehead in the mornings, the way he never bossed me around or made me play softball, the way he entered into the private lives of housepets, the way he stared up at the sky.

So loading children into a love affair’s two-person rowboat is indeed a kind of hell. The boat rocks dangerously; it runs up against rocks and is menaced by sea serpents. Though I treasure my sons (and got pregnant on purpose), it took me all the years of their babyhood to reconcile myself to their random, interrupting confusions, to their demands and distractions, to how they sucked away my inner life and my married life. Given his high respect for both the unity of two and the fruits of his own imagination, Milton must have found the proximity of a wailing two-year-old in the kitchen nearly unbearable—as indeed, indeed, it is. I have knelt on that kitchen floor myself, wailing alongside that child. With diapers to pin and tantrums to strangle, who has time or space to “Sleep on,/Blest pair”?

If, in my marriage, I’m grateful for our wordless moments of delight, I’m equally irritated and put-upon and distracted, willing to injure and be injured, to bitch when Tom doesn’t wipe the kitchen counters after he’s been roofing all day, to fight jealousy and feed its fires, to lie in bed and hope he’ll be the one who gets up to deal with an unhappy child or a barking dog. Every day, I’m dissatisfied with my lot—sick of sweeping up the mud our boots have dropped, sick of washing the sheets our bodies have crumpled, sick of nurturing the sons we prize.

One day I told Tom I was glad to be married to him, and he said, “If you hadn’t married me, you would have married someone else.” Can you blame me when I cringe at the thought of enduring another wedding? For yes, he’s right. I wanted a husband, and I have one. Therefore, I love him. Such an admission doesn’t do much for my credibility as a well-read woman with feminist proclivities. But how more ambiguous than politics is marriage, “mysterious Law,” “shot forth [with] peculiar graces”—a strange land, a faraway town, a garden, a shelter, a bed.

For all of Milton’s talk about male dominance and female subjection—how Adam’s “fair large Front and Eye sublime declar’d/Absolute rule,” how Eve’s “wanton ringlets . . . impli’d/Subjection”—he knew he had to deal with the biblical facts of the story: Eve talked Adam into eating the apple. “Subjection” may be “impli’d” and “Absolute rule” “declar’d”; yet even in the most autocratic of marriages, the power balance tips and sways, and a covert gesture can topple a fortress. Blame the Fall on Satan if you like, but Adam was already predisposed to please his wife. How could paradise be otherwise? Their perfect marriage was its own undoing.

Here Love his golden shafts imploys, here lights

His constant Lamp, and waves his purple wings,

Reigns here and revels; not in the bought smile

Of Harlots, loveless, joyless, unindear’d,

Casual fruition, nor in Court Amours,

Mixt Dance, and wanton Mask, or Midnight Ball,

Or Serenate, which the starv’d Lover sings

To his proud fair, best quitted with disdain.

These lull’d by Nightingales imbracing slept,

And on thir naked limbs the flow’ry roof

Show’rd Roses, which the Morn repair’d.

Even though I know better, when I read this passage, I want to believe it can be true for Tom and me, despite our lapses and angers. I’ll happily attend your next “Mixt Dance, and wanton Mask, or Midnight Ball,” but more than anything I want to be “lull’d by Nightingales” in my own narrow bed, listening to the vague thump of Tom’s stereo in the darkroom, hoping he’ll remember to stoke the woodstove before he comes up and knowing that, when he does, he’ll embrace me, even though I might be too sound asleep to notice.

To me, the saddest word in the passage is “unindear’d.” The tragedy it implies cuts me to the heart. For it’s endearment, not romance or passion (lovely as both can be), that makes marriage a solace. On a late winter afternoon I sit on the school bleachers with my fidgety son Paul, watching the Harmony boys win their first basketball game of the season, waiting for the fourth period, when the coach will finally let my crabby, benchwarming son James snag two minutes of play. If Tom gets home from work soon enough, if he has time to change his filthy clothes and wash the sheetrock dust out of his sticking-up hair, he’ll drop in; and sure enough, there he is now in the doorway—at forty, still thin and wary as a boy—paying his one dollar, pausing to let the players rush to the other side of the court; and now he’s walking along the edge of the floor, scanning the bleachers, looking for me; and when he catches my eye, he hurries his step; he has a goal, an intention; he scoots up quickly to get out of the players’ path and sits down behind me; I lean back into his knee, and he says, settling his knee against my spine, “You shoveled out my truck.”

And I say, “I did.”

And he says, “They’re winning.”

And I say, “They are.”

“Perpetual Fountain of Domestic sweets.” Why waste all that money on a wedding when this is what you get?

[Published by the University of Massachusetts Press, 2009. An early version of this chapter appeared in the Southwest Review 92, no. 4.]

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Allison, another of our Moby-Dick readers, has finished the novel, and this is what she has to say about the ordeal:

I'm so glad to have finally finished Moby Dick. I really had to keep forcing myself to go back to it from time to time in spite of really wanting to put it down forever. I think it was all the long digressions that turned me off. I would just start feeling involved in the story, and then we would have to spend a couple of chapters on, for example, "The Sperm Whale's Head-- Contrasted View" and "The Right Whale's Head-- Contrasted View," and I would despair again of ever making it through. In spite of all that, though, I think Ahab is an amazing character, and I was always drawn in by scenes involving him and his hunt. I loved his incredible and mysterious charisma and watching Starbuck and Stubbs struggle with how to deal with him and whether to submit to him. In fact, I might try to go back and read all of the scenes with Ahab again, either now or at some point in the future, though I think I might just have to always skip chapters like "Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales."

I, of course, am still slogging my way through the novel, with many distractions from Lampedusa and Plath. And like you, I'm sad this morning about the bloodbath in Arizona. I hate the way everyone has hysterically, and publicly, started blaming everyone else for it. I hate picturing that bewildered, messed-up boy in his jail cell. I hate imagining the families of all the victims. I hate the knowledge that I myself have to walk into a grocery-store parking lot today.

As a small distraction, I offer you this video link to the extraordinarily low-budget remake of Godzilla that Paul and Tom directed last weekend.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The sky is indecisive. Perhaps it will snow here today. Perhaps not. It's quiet in this house, in the way houses can be quiet even in the midst of sound. A radio is muttering in Paul's room, and somewhere downstairs James is excitedly confabulating with his father about how best to word the application for his driver's test.

It will be a housework kind of day, a going-to-the-dump kind of day. Also, I am girding my loins and shipping out my prose manuscript to a second publisher. I still have not heard back from the first, but six months later I'm beginning to wonder if I ever will. The gloom of indecision is weighing heavily; and let's call it double gloom, really, because my poetry manuscript languishes in a parallel limbo.

But enough of this repining. Today I will scrub the bathtub, and water my beautiful rosemary plant, and laugh at the woodpecker who has taken to banging his head on the telephone pole, and reread Lampedusa's glorious brief memoir of his childhood in Sicily, and drink lemon-ginger tea, and wish I were in Sicily wandering around the mysterious dusty rooms of an eighteenth-century palace, and begin planning the menu for Tom's Monday-evening birthday feast.

I'll leave you with this stanza from Sylvia Plath's "Night Dances"--a small stanza, and very simple, yet now that I've read it, I don't feel like I'll ever need to read anything else . . . or at least not for an hour or two:

The comets
Have such a space to cross,

Friday, January 7, 2011

First things first--Anyone who has read this poem will understand how exciting my news is: last night, the Harmony boys' basketball team beat the Athens's boys' basketball team in a nail-biter of an away game. As one of our 6th-graders said when he walked out into a lobby full of triumphant mothers waiting to drive their kids home, "This is like walking into a Hall of Fame!"

Second things second--Recently my sister and I learned that we both have oddly shaped optic nerves, which can be a sign of incipient glaucoma. And since glaucoma runs in families and our great-grandfather went blind from it, we have both been undergoing a battery of eye tests. Yesterday I finished my tests and was told so far, so good: in other words, no need to worry about turning into Milton yet. I'm sure all my amanuensi will be relieved to hear about this diagnosis.

And now, back to the books. . . .

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The 2011 Frost Place programs have been announced, and I hope you'll visit the website and take a look at what's going on in Robert Frost's barn this summer. As all you regulars know, I am associate director of the Conference on Poetry and Teaching; and in response to participant request, director Baron Wormser and I have spent this off-season tweaking the conference schedule. Basically, and yes, flatteringly, the teachers asked for more of us, so instead of having three visiting poets, we will now have two: Teresa Carson and Martha Carlson-Bradley. This change means that, on the last full day, Baron and I can return to the folding chairs at the front of the room and focus the day's session on ways to evaluate student poems and run a classroom writing workshop.

Already I have learned that several previous participants are planning to return this year. That's wonderful; and if you, too, are a previous participant, I hope you will consider attending again. Your presence and experience are enormously valuable to your colleagues. Moreover, each year's visiting poets offer new and individual approaches to poetry and the teaching process, and our workshop and evaluation component is evolving into a major element of the conference, which it had not been in the past.

If you have never attended and have questions, please do contact me, either here or through the Frost Place site. I'm sure many past participants would also be glad to get in touch with you and share their thoughts.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

I've been spending time with Sylvia Plath lately. Fairly often I find myself rereading her collection Ariel, usually at moments when I feel as if I'm teetering on the knife-edge of an as yet unwritten poem. When it comes to poetry creation, I frequently have to endure the aura of "about to write." The sensation is not so different from an incipient migraine: something inarticulate is about to require language, yet I do not have a subject, not even a sound. I merely have an almost-imagined pressure, a near-invisible frame, a flickering. This might seem ridiculous, but so do the premonitions of illness seem petty; so do the signs of sudden, mutual, physical desire.

For me, reading Plath can be a way of shifting an embryo poem from its cavern into the articulated air. Between the terrible furor of her imagination and the stiletto precision of her language there remains, always, a palpable, vibrating cord. It is alive; its tremors are frightening. Here, for instance, is a stanza from "The Arrival of the Bee Box":

I lay my ear to furious Latin.
I am not a Caesar.
I have simply ordered a box of maniacs.
They can be sent back.
They can die, I need feed them nothing, I am the owner.

"Furious Latin." "Box of maniacs." "Simply." Here is a poet who comprehends the infinitesimal powers of her grammatical elements. Without using a single unusual verb, she nonetheless composes a stanza that is crammed with frustrated energy. Reading Plath is, if nothing else, a lesson in the subtle ancient art of the modifier.

So this week I copied out Plath poem after Plath poem. I avoided all the famous hysterical ones: "Lady Lazarus," "Daddy," etc.--those pieces in which topic overshadows linguistic substance. I didn't want the tabloid Plath; I wanted the poet. They are, of course, the same woman; but her legend often leads readers to cloak the drama of words with the drama of anecdote . . . as if the words themselves aren't her true sword and blood.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Yesterday was about as perfect a writing day as one could ask for: I read books, I copied poems, and then I spent hours and hours writing and revising a poem. And then, out of the blue, I received a royalty check in the mail: a very small check to be sure, but nonetheless proof that someone, somewhere, has actually purchased copies of my poetry collection.

And now here's an invitation from the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance--a response to our governor-elect's decision to cancel the poetry reading at tomorrow's inauguration. I live too far away so won't be able to attend, but maybe you can go to Portland and celebrate the power of poetry. Feel free to copy and send this to anyone else you know in Maine. Yes, the hearts are silly. But so what?

Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance invites you to
“I ♥ Maine Poetry”

Yes, this event is happening at the exact same time as the gubernatorial inauguration in Augusta: Wednesday, January 5 at 12PM.

Yes, this is a celebration not a protest.

Yes, we’ll be holding this event at one of the most obvious places in Maine to celebrate poetry: in front of the statue of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Longfellow Square, at the intersection of Congress Street and State Street in Portland.

Yes, there will be stickers.

Yes, we’d love for you to bring and read some of your favorite Maine poems, especially those by legends such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Louise Bogan. But please bring any poetry you’d like to!

Yes, we’d like you to forward this invitation to everyone you know. Now.

I ♥ Maine Poetry
Wednesday, January 5 at 12PM
Longfellow Square
(intersection of Congress Street and State Street in Portland)
Because we owe the poets. Really.
FMI or 207-228-8263

Monday, January 3, 2011

First new post of a new school week:
Insomnia, followed by a 5:30 alarm and strong coffee. Boys up and out, almost eagerly. Tom unloading a laundry basket, cleaning ashes out of the woodstove, brewing the strong coffee, listening sardonically to NPR, and now quietly cutting photo mats. Me: reading the poems of Milly Jourdain; resulting mood-ring-like response: hopelessness punctuated by positive thinking. As Melville says: "Well, boys, here's the ark!"

Today's activities include drinking more coffee; hauling a few 50-pound bags of feed out of the car, heaving them onto my shoulders, and lugging them gingerly over black ice to their destinations; copying out some of Wordsworth's Prelude because I'm dutiful; copying out several as-yet-unchosen Plath poems because I lay awake on the couch last night thinking about her dramatic control of the lyric; reading Moby-Dick because I'm actually in the mood for it; writing a few words of my Milton lecture; waiting for paying work to arrive in the mail; feeling guilty because it hasn't arrived even though I have no reason to feel guilty; watering houseplants; laundering sheets; writing a poem.

Here's today's Milly Jourdain poem, which is not at all like the poem I plan to write:

The Blackbird's Song

Milly Jourdain

Among the mists of dawn the blackbird sings
Of rivers running through the fields
And all the fresh young smell of growing things.

He tells of primroses in copses bare
Or clustered on the lonely banks
Breathing a finer fragrance in the air;

Of lilac blossom falling on the ground,
Of little winds and heavenly rain,
And summer nights whose breathing is a sound.

And when the light is spreading down below
He flies away from listeners,
Whose hearts he touched with what they do not know.

I plan to write a poem more like this one:

from The Pleasant Life in Newfoundland (1628)

Robert Hayman

To a worthy Friend, who often objects [to] the coldnesse of the Winter in Newfound-Land, and may serve for all those who have the like conceit.

You say that you would live in Newfound-land,
Did not this one thing your conceit withstand;
You feare the Winters cold, sharp, piercing ayre.
They love it best, that have once wintered there.
Winter is there, short, wholesome, constant, cleare,
Not thicke, unwholesome, shuffling, as 'tis here.

One of my favorite things about this poem is the variety of spellings of Newfoundland: in other sections it appears as "New-found-land" and, best of all, "Newfoundland-land." And if you follow the link to Hayman's biography, you can also read his "Reasons for the taking of Tobacco," which is an odd little discussion about the fine upstanding people who "drinke" it.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

One good and/or bad thing about email is that it, unlike the U.S. Postal Service, recognizes no delivery holidays. Nonetheless, I was still rather surprised to receive an acceptance letter on New Year's Day. Happy, mind you. But surprised. Solstice is going to publish two poems, one of which I thought might be unpublishable, so that is particularly gratifying.

In other news, Tom, Paul, and I spent all afternoon filming a super-low-budget version of Godzilla. I started rereading Lampedusa's The Leopard. I made a chocolate cake (Julia Child's reine de saba); Tom made lasagna noodles; I made sauce. All day long we ate leftover meatballs from New Year's Eve. I snowshoed in melting snow. James spent the day holed up in his room like a real teenager, until the rest of us started watching a Marx Brothers' movie.

Dinner tonight: some sort of concoction involving red beans, leftover ham, and ancho peppers.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

First sounds heard in 2011: simultaneous chorus of woodpecker, pulp truck, Tom's breathing, and refrigerator.

First Robert Louis Stevenson essay read in 2011: "On the Enjoyment of Unpleasant Places." Already this is in the running for best title of the year.

First beverages of 2011: icy well water followed by scalding French-pressed French roast.

First procrastination of 2011: doing barn chores and reading Moby-Dick. Some things never change.

First big question of 2011: Can I get this damp firewood to light? [Answer: yes.]

First regret of 2011: Oddly enough, I can't think of one yet. [Soon--very, very soon--this will change.]

First angry thought of 2011: Paul LePage, our governor-elect, has decided to nix the traditional inaugural poetry reading for "something a little more interesting." All right: to be honest I was mad about this yesterday in 2010. But I'm still mad.

First random quotation of 2011: From Jean Genet's Our Lady of the Flowers: "I'm getting old. Soon I'll be thirty."


First writing project of 2011: A lecture on Milton for the Frost Place Advanced Poetry Seminar. Apparently, 2011 is the new 2009, at least in subject matter.

First wish for you in 2011: I think yesterday's "scattered details" wish is still as good as anything I else could hope for you. May they be plentiful and unexpected.