Monday, February 28, 2011

First Monday after school vacation, plus no hoped-for snow day, plus physics homework not finished till 1 a.m., equals two crabby boys to shoehorn onto the bus, but one is crabbier than than the other.

"And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel / And shining morning face, creeping like a snail / Unwillingly to school." Shakespeare, As You Like It.

How is it that WS can be right about every little thing there is? And how is it that the more I read his work, the more right he gets?

Sunday, February 27, 2011

I fixed the Clark Gallery and Frost Place links below. I don't know why they weren't working, but now they are.
Next Saturday, March 5, Tom's photo show opens at Clark Gallery in Lincoln, Massachusetts. He is one of only two artists featured in this large show, so please do stand around and eat cheese cubes with us if you can.

Baron tells me that applications are coming in for this summer's Frost Place Conference on Poetry & Teaching and that it looks as if numerous alumni have already registered for the session. How entertaining it will be to see you all again! In the meantime, I've been spending a lot of time with visiting poet Teresa Carson's newest manuscript. I can tell you right now: if you're coming to her reading, you are in for a wondrous surprise.

As you can see, my list of upcoming events is starting to swell. If you live near any of those venues, and you have bright ideas about other places in your area that might host a reading, a book talk, or a classroom visit, please do let me know. It would be good to make full use of that tank of gas.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

A bright blue Saturday morning, with much snow waiting to be shoveled.

Downstairs the dishwasher is peacefully churning soapy water among the soiled plates, the washing machine is thumping a clot of towels, the refrigerator is cooling the eggs my hens have laid, and in the cellar my canned tomatoes show every sign of holding out till spring. It is a housewife's dream.

I might even plant some onion seeds this weekend. That's how blue this sky is, and how not blue it is making me feel. First, however, there is that shoveling chore to conquer and a co-shoveling chore-boy to rouse from his squalor of blankets. And first, I have to share these lines from Woolf's The Years, which are the kinds of lines that I have spent my whole life trying to write.

The cold winter's night was almost black. It was like looking into the hollow of a dark-blue stone.

Dinner tonight: A romantic two-person meal: bacon from a Harmony pig alongside scrambled eggs from my own noisy hens. Consumed while sitting on the couch watching a hockey game with a 13-year-old boy. He'll probably suggest an old Star Trek episode for dessert.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The dawn is gray, overcast, heavy. At any moment flakes will begin to sift down onto the icy driveway, the exhausted trees, my filthy car. And then it will snow and keep snowing and have been snowing all the rest of the long day.

Yesterday I made chicken soup and watched three kinds of television with Teenage Head Cold Monster until he finally fell asleep on the couch. Today I will edit, and stare aimlessly out the window at the snow, and worry about the sheaf of rejection letters I've just received, and then forget about them, and wonder who in the world is thinking of me, which may sound like a plea for a comment from you but isn't really. It's more like: do I exist or not? do you exist or not? are we chainsawed stumps in a mangled forest that is slowly vanishing under the snow? or will those sharp crocus leaves poke up through the frozen slush after all? Just the usual dreamy late-winter rhetoric. You know.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A few days ago I mentioned Virginia Woolf's novel The Years, which I said I was not reading. Naturally, however, I couldn't resist taking it up again, and it's been my headache-fighting partner for the past several days.

Last night I reached my very favorite part of the book, which is too long to quote for you. Anyway, quoting is beside the point. I don't return to this scene for its language but merely for its existence. Late in the evening, the character Kitty, now middle-aged and married to a lord, leaves her London house after a dull dinner party and catches an overnight train alone to her husband's estate in the north. She is so joyous about her solitude, so pleased about every step of the trip . . . and what I love most is the image of her in bed on the train, feeling the sleeping compartment move, absorbing the sensation of rushing forward into the unseen darkness yet having no responsibility for the motion.

When I was a child, I had a series of bedtime imaginings. I would get into bed and choose which place to be: perhaps a horse-drawn wagon slowly moving across a plain, or a barge on a river, or a sleeping car on a train. This was well before I was reading Woolf novels, and I had never spent the night in any of these places. They were pure invention. But when, on my first pass through The Years, I reached this scene with Kitty, I tripped headlong into the deep, deep pleasure that Woolf describes--the sweetness of falling asleep in motion--and I never get tired, never will get tired, of rereading the scene because the moment will always seem to belong to me.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Yesterday, despite the guerilla headache, was a happy day for me. As I said in my blip-post, after months of nail biting, I learned that CavanKerry Press has decided to publish my next poetry manuscript. I can't tell you how honored and relieved I am. I like this press so much, for so many reasons: its focus on beauty and design, the company of its authors, the kindness of its staff. But CK doesn't automatically take an author's second book; plenty of press authors have needed to look elsewhere for publication, so I've spent these many months steeling myself for disappointment. Finally, I can allow myself to relax.

It's strange how such anxieties never seem to ease. When Deerbrook Editions accepted my first book, I thought I was knocking on heaven's door. If I never wrote another word, at least I would have a book, a real book, with my name on the cover and my lines on the pages. But I didn't stop writing, of course: suddenly I had a sheaf of new work that I thought was better than my old work, and. . . . Well, you can see how the cycle advances. Meanwhile, once the book appears in print, there it sits on the warehouse shelf, another unread poetry collection among aisles of unread poetry collections. A poet's melancholy is never dead.

Still, do not think I am repining. I plan to be dizzy-happy all day, even if the headache leaps out from behind its rock again.

Dinner tonight: Chicken legs stewed with home-canned tomatoes and fresh rosemary from the plant hanging in my cellar window. Roasted fingerling potatoes. Grated carrots with lemon and olive oil.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

I am so happy to tell you that CavanKerry Press has decided to publish my third poetry collection, called Same Old Story.
For the past couple of days I've been enduring a cold whose major symptom is a guerilla sinus headache that leaps out from behind big rocks shouting, "Ah-hah!" and smacks me with a cudgel. As a result, I have been an unproductive worker and a slow thinker, poor at counting the cards in my hand and reading recipes. On the other hand, bad television programs are more soothing than usual, and falling asleep on the couch feels like a stroke of genius.

As Virginia Woolf says in her essay "On Being Ill,"

Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to light . . . it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature. Novels, one would have thought, would have been devoted to influenza; epic poems to typhoid; odes to pneumonia, lyrics to toothache. But no; . . . literature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear.

This is an essay that I don't actually own, so I've only read quoted bits and pieces. I wish I owned it, though. Then I could lie on the couch today and read it, before drifting into my next stroke of unconscious genius.

[P.S. My friend Dave Morrison is featured on today's Writer's Almanac. Dave has just released a new book of rock-and-roll poems, and he and I will reading together in April.]

Monday, February 21, 2011

I'm really pleased to read the varieties of comments on my February 18 post. Clearly, there are so many different sorts of readers, such a richness of knowledge and experience. There are million things I don't know about my own art form.

Braininess is a state of mind. Today it's not mine.

According to the great pitcher Satchel Paige, in order to stay young, you have "keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move." Take him seriously: when he was 59 years old, he pitched three scoreless innings against the Red Sox.

Current writing projects: (1) a solicited article about the experience of writing the Milton book--specifically, the poetry-prose conundrum; (2) a poem about a mourning dove with a grisly foot injury.

Foolish things I have done lately: (1) watch the movie Convoy; (2) fall down on ice skates in front of a lot of kids; (3) decide to take up chess, which is a recipe for loss and disillusionment.

Unexpectedly lovely things I have done lately: (1) ice-skate around and around in an aimless circle with the wind howling at my back; (2) stand in the back of a church and listen to my 13-year-old son play the opening measures of Bach's "Toccata" on a pipe organ; (3) win at chess.

Dinner tonight: venison stew, homemade noodles, local carrots, salad greens, and possibly cream puffs if I ever stop writing this post and start doing my editing work.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

from The White Bear, a long narrative poem linked to the Scandinavian fairy tale "East of the Sun and West of the Moon." Portions of the poem have appeared in the Green Mountains Review.

Dawn Potter

She has forgotten the room, forgotten the firelight, forgotten

the cool ironed sham beneath her cheek,

forgotten the shadows under the bed, forgotten the wind at the window,

the stars burning, an owl snatching a wayward rabbit,

the rabbit’s shriek; she has forgotten her mother, her father,

her cottage under moonlight; forgotten the rain,

forgotten the brook that wept like a river.

Only now only now only now.

For dreaming and the act of love are mirrors;

and tonight the girl knows also; but where is her breath,

where is the tender shivering flesh below the ridge of her shoulder?

Where? For she has lost herself, she has lost the white bear,

who is not a bear, but what has he become?

What has she become? Both have cast off their skins, both

grown larger than giants, and each new and solitary cell

undergoes its ruthless joy. Who is the bear, who the woman;

who the air, who the fire; who the knife,

who the wound? How terrible they are;

how near to hate and dreaming is love,

its fury of nail and claw; and how time

narrows and slows, till now there is only

yes and no and yes.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Winter carnival day here in Harmony, so I cannot waste time on writing but must mix up a week's worth of bread dough and then crawl around in the back of my closet looking for my ice skates.

In the meantime, here's an email I got from my friend David, in response to yesterday's post. Isn't it lovely how the wandering mind works its magic?

Good question is right. Your response that somehow art matters generally is also, for whatever reason, good to hear you say.

And, mind indulging me a moment? This morning I read a Kipling letter excerpt that for no special reason other than it was Kipling made me think of that verse in his "Baa Baa Black Sheep", from an old grandfather:

"And then up came the lovely Rose,
The Philemon her fire ship closed,
And the littler Brisk was sore exposed
That day at Navarino."

I came across it a few years ago in a little anthology, and its rhythm and cadence still give that little vibration inside. (And I love the "littler", somehow so much better than "little".) But more importantly, it's the past tense, the remembering part of it that is a lot of what gives it that special, well, something, I guess. That day at Navarino. Almost a touch of melancholy. And it occurred to me it's the very same in that opening to All The King's Men: "…To get there you follow Highway 10 going northeast out of the city, and it is a good highway and new. Or was new that day we went up it." Or was new that day we went up it. That touch of something past and gone. In this perfectly balanced little couple of sentences. More than wistful, like a profound sadness, but barely present, just in the background. Remarkable.

Friday, February 18, 2011

I spent yesterday afternoon at Central High School in East Corinth, Maine--first with a small creative writing class and then in the library with a larger group of students who had dropped in to hear a poetry reading.

One thing that continues to intrigue me is the number of high school boys who publicly admit to being attracted to poetry. According to my nonscientific observations, most of the schools I visit seem to have more boys than girls in their writing classes, and I definitely get more private "will you read my poems?" requests from boys. The Vida statistics show that men dominate submissions, acceptances, and reviews; yet the adult writing workshops I've attended and taught are uniformly dominated by women. At the Frost Place teaching conference, we're beginning to see a shift toward a more even gender split; but Baron and I still marvel at the sight of male teachers who admit to caring about poetry. The disparities here are puzzling.

Yesterday's class was a joy: a handful of smiling, chattery, bright-eyed teenagers dressed in AC/DC shirts (they were pretending to be Beats; you figure it out) who talked easily with the adults in the room and asked interesting questions. One thing I love, love, love about teaching poetry is the way that a pattern of regular group discussions about poems can extend beyond intellectual discourse. It can be a way of teaching students the skills of civil engagement: with friends, with teachers, with strangers, with adversaries.

Most of the students asked personal questions about my writing history, what's bad about being a writer, stuff like that. And then, toward the end of the period, one boy mumbled, "I have kind of a stupid question." It turns out that this was his question . . . and I paraphrase because I didn't write it down at the time, though I wish I had: "Novels are so big and full of stuff and have overarching themes, so why do poems matter if they can't compete with a novel that includes everything?"

This is such a huge question--a worry that constantly preoccupies me, as a contemporary poet who is staring down the tunnel of western literature. Poetry used to be the genre that told the big story: the Iliad, Paradise Lost. But since the rise of the novel in the 19th century, poetry has stepped back, reinvented itself, rarefied itself. Poets are no longer striving to be Homers and Miltons.

So there's no clear answer to a question like his. What I ended up saying to the students was that poems can touch us quickly and swiftly in ways that novels cannot: comparable, perhaps, to the way a song moves us. I know that this is a facile answer. It doesn't take into account the many varieties of poems, the many varieties of readers, the many varieties of moments. But that's why this question shook me up: because there is no good clear explanation as to why a poem matters, to why any art form matters. Yet, of course, it does.

The student who asked this question was not challenging me for proof; no one was trying to make me defend poetry in any way. It was just a question, and the students seemed to comprehend what I was trying to say in my stammered reply. The song analogy particularly touched them because teenagers understand the powers of music--how a song, for no obvious reason, penetrates to the heart's core. But I wish I could have articulated--for them, for myself--some kind of solid reasoning, if only because the ambiguities of art are what put it at risk for annihilation. If I can't list 10 rational explanations for why a poem matters, how can I convince a school principal not to cancel a writing program? And yet those 10 rational explanations have nothing, in the end, to do with why reading a poem can change a life.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Today I'll be visiting Anne Britting Oleson's high school creative writing class and also reading with her at the school library. Apparently the kids are going to do a Q&A about the business of writing, and I look forward to finding out what that is.

As far as reading choices go: any suggestions for what you'd like to hear if you were a high school student? I'm planning to choose at least few poems that I can chatter about beforehand: "how this poem was constructed," "what other poem inspired this poem," that sort of thing. I'll be home till 11:30 or so, if you feel like commenting.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Brief Autobiography via Other People's Lives

from William Blake's letter to William Hayley, October 7, 1803, which he happened to write 161 years before my birthday on October 7, 1964.

How is it possible that a Man almost 50 Years of Age, who has not lost any of his life since he was five years old without incessant labour & study, how is it possible that such a one with ordinary common sense can be inferior to a boy of twenty, who scarcely has taken or deigns to take a pencil in hand, but who rides about the Parks or Saunters about the Playhouses, who Eats & drinks for business not for need, how is it possible that such a fop can be superior to the studious lover of Art can scarcely be imagind. Yet such is somewhat like my fate & such it is likely to remain. Yet I laugh & sing, for if on Earth neglected I am in heaven a Prince among Princes, & even on Earth beloved by the Good as a Good Man; this I should be contented with, but a[t] certain periods a blaze of reputation arises round me in which I am considerd as one distinguishd by some mental perfection, but the flame soon dies again & I am left stupefied and astonish'd. O that I could live as others do in a regular succession of Employment.

from Flannery O'Connor's letter to Ted R. Spivey, May 1959, which is probably about the time that my father decided to balance an ashtray on my mother's head during a college assembly, in hopes that she would turn around and notice him.

Week before last I went to Wesleyan and read "A Good Man is Hard to Find." After it I went to one of the classes where I was asked questions. There were a couple of young teachers there, and one of them, an earnest type, started asking the questions. "Miss O'Connor," he said, "why is The Misfit's hat black?" I said most countrymen in Georgia wore black hats. Then he said, "Miss O'Connor, The Misfit represents Christ, does he not?" "He does not," I said. He looked crushed. "Well, Miss O'Connor," he said, "what is the significance of The Misfit's hat?" I said it was to cover his head, and after that he left me alone.

Entry in Sonny Bono's diary, November 11, 1972, when I was 8 years old and in third grade, which was also the year my English teacher informed my parents that I had "not one spark of imagination."

I guess I should write something just for the hell of it so I'll have something to read later on.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Any time spent with your child is partly a damn sad time, the sadness of life a-going, bright, vivid, each time a last. A loss. A glimpse into what could've been. It can be corrupting.

That passage is from Richard Ford's Independence Day, the second of three novels that center on the character Frank Bascombe, a not wholly likable short-story writer turned sportswriter turned real estate agent, who is supremely skilled at disguising himself from himself. Coincidentally, yesterday, as I was skimming an article called "On Bad Reviews," I learned that "Richard Ford once responded to a negative review by taking one of the reviewer’s novels outside and shooting a hole through it." That sounds like something Frank Bascombe might have done, which interests me because I had never thought of Frank as being much like his creator. I don't really know anything at all about his creator except by way of his author photos. Also, he lives somewhere on the Maine coast, or used to live there, or lives there part time, or something. In a state like Maine, it's not difficult to get noticed as a writer; so I've always assumed that Ford prefers an indistinct public persona. But shooting a hole through a reviewer's novel is not at all indistinct, so clearly I've been missing something.

Anyway, I like these novels, even though I don't much like Frank; and one thing I particularly like is the precision of their settings. New Jersey, not Frank, is my favorite character.

By the way, I've been thinking about yesterday's post, which mentioned the Vida statistics et al., and one thing I want to make clear is that I have also had the good fortune to work with journal and book editors, both male and female, who like my writing style and have asked to see more of it. I expect that several of those publishers would not test at all well on Vida's gender exam. But to me, as an individual female writer, they have been both encouraging and demanding, and who, really, could ask for more?

Change is incremental; and no doubt, in the larger scheme, this particular gender change is too incremental. On the other hand, these editors didn't know a thing about me, and nonetheless they read my nonscholarly, unmasculine, unfashionable work and chose to publish it. I could be a fluke. But I hope I won't always be.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Slowly wheeling, like the rays of a searchlight, the days, the weeks, the years passed one after another across the sky.

That line is from Virginia Woolf's 1939 novel The Years, which I am not presently reading but which I've been thinking about intermittently for the past several days. It's been lying on my desk among the other splayed-open books that I've been working among--Shelley's Defence of Poetry, Wordsworth's Prelude, Bolton's Last Nostalgia, Melville's Moby-Dick, Ford's The Sportswriter, Roget's Thesaurus. "What a crew of white men," as stalwart observers of disparity might declare. Typically, though, I hadn't really noticed that till now.

I'm never sure if my reading patterns make me complicit in my own oppression or able to override it. But have you read the Vida statistics about the male-female publication ratio? They have been infiltrating the news lately, with responses from all over the literary map--including one extraordinarily rude one from Peter Stothard of the Times Literary Supplement. They are disheartening but not surprising, and certainly fit with what more than one publisher has told me to my face: that my writing has too feminine a flavor. This despite the desk covered with the works of famous white men.

My first response to such a remark is to feel guilty, not angry. My second response is obliviousness: to go back to reading the books I was reading anyway and to write about whatever I feel like writing about. I really don't know what else to do.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

I'll be spending this romantically sunny morning scrubbing the bathroom and practicing fiddle licks for an afternoon rehearsal. I feel slightly edgy about the rehearsal as it's the first time in several years that I've sat in with a group of serious working musicians. Mostly I tend to play with kids or informally with my friend Dave, when I play at all. I can go for months without taking the violin out of its case. But the muscle memory comes back. I can't do all the fancy audition-on-Boston's-Symphony-Hall stage stuff I used to do as kid, but you know? . . . I don't miss that high-wire act in the least. I could care less, really.

Here are two violin poems. You can see that the instrument and I have not had an easy relationship.

Violin Lesson

Dawn Potter

When you are eighteen,
Mr. Kowalski straddles the piano bench
you will marry my son
in this shrouded house under rain.
and we will drink cognac together
Cars hiss by on the street.
and you will win the competitions,
I did not practice the Sevcik, Hrimaly, or Dont,
so you must forget this laziness.
but fingered silent thirds like nightmares.
Your work is terrible.
The violins on the piano tremble. The room
You shame yourself.
smells of sad people, counting the minutes till freedom,
How can we continue
wasting our talent on sleep and tears.
if you do not love your work?

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

Violin Recital

Dawn Potter

Humming box of echoes, satin
frame twitching under the child's grasp
like a docile rabbit,
quivering, alive; taut

silver purling call-and-response,
torqued gut and ebony potent
as storm, more
secret than air,

primed innocence, parting
naked lips for the coloratura
oath dragged forth
bow and scrape, a terrible

roar toward glory--
reckless, infant--weltering under a high-
wire apogee, gypsy fingers
crowding the steep,

hunger quaking, prowling through floorboards,
knees, through nervous hips,
hands slick with sweat, pricked ear
canny as a bitten fox.

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

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Hard to read this catalog copy, I know. But if you manage to squint at a few of the names, you'll see why I was so excited to be invited into this company.
"With Unbeclouded Eyes."

On these September days of softer light,
When reddened leaves are dropping from the walls,
And in the distant sky are sounds of birds,
And all is wet with dew--
Then I perceive a little of that land,
That land which human voices sometimes fill
With sudden sound; or in the hush of spring,
Or on some summer morning's early peace,
I hear its distant murmur.

And although I strive so hard to hear and see,
All, all is gone like fragments of a dream
Leaving behind a trail of coloured mist
And dim forgetfulness.

A poem such as this one is a reason for wading through the swath of Milly Jourdain's mediocre efforts. Admittedly, stanza 2 is a letdown, but stanza 1's "Then I perceive a little of that land, / That land which human voices sometimes fill / With sudden sound" is beautiful. I love the delicate repetitions, the line break between"sometimes fill" and "With sudden sound," the odd yet bracing focus on "land" rather than its details.

Downstairs Tom is making waffles, musing with James about parallel parking, and playing Miles Davis on the stereo. Paul is asleep on the couch after a painful team loss at yesterday's basketball tournament, in which, to add even more suffering to the occasion, he fouled out in the 3rd quarter. It is hard to be heroic when you foul out of your last game of the season.

Me, I am feeling melancholy but striving not to be, though melancholy is a usual and perfectly acceptable February state of mind, and often a good foundation for slow writing, clumsy snowshoeing, and absent-minded creme Anglaise stirring.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Another cold, cold morning in Maine. The three pairs of gloves I wore didn't feel much warmer than bare skin, especially after one of the gloves froze to the hens' water dish.

Today is a good day to hope that somebody else will trudge out to fetch the mail.

It's also a good day to drink more coffee, which I haven't done yet because I have been busy being cold. When the temperature is this far below zero, a half hour outside feels like a full day's labor.

Hayden Carruth wrote in "If It Were Not for You":

The night winds reach
like the blind breath of the world
in a rhythm without mind, gusting and beating
as if to destroy us, battering our poverty
and all the land's flat and cold and dark
under iron snow

This is not exactly how I feel this morning. The sun is shining; the chickadees are quarreling. The air ripples with cold, but there is no real wind. Nonetheless, I recognize Carruth's sense of despair in the face of intense winter. There is nothing to do but endure. Yet that very experience of endurance brings one close to a comprehension of death.

Now I will go make that coffee I've been wishing for.

Stay warm, and don't forget to stoke the stove.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

In her essay "The Nature and Aim of Fiction," Flannery O'Connor wrote:

One of the most common and saddest spectacles is that of a person of really fine sensibility and acute psychological perception trying to write fiction by using these qualities alone. This type of writer will put down one intensely emotional or keenly perceptive sentence after the other, and the result will be complete dullness. The fact is that the materials of the fiction writer are the humblest. Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn't try to write fiction. It's not a grand enough job for you.

My assumption is that O'Connor was speaking about prose fiction here; but of course other art forms can also be fiction, which is why I dislike the fact that this word has become a synonym for "short story or novel." I think it reinforces a misapprehension, common even among writers themselves, that narrative first-person poetry is basically a hepped-up diary entry, a compressed personal memoir, an anecdotal musing.

No. Great poems are lies. Like "fiction," they strive to lie in service of Truth. But they are dramatic inventions; they are exaggerations and unreliable narrations. They cobble together events that never happened simultaneously; they kill off members of the poet's family because their names have too many syllables for the line; they ruthlessly darken shadows and sharpen ambiguities. Being a poet really is a terrible vocation . . . and I'm using the word terrible in the sense of "terrible monster." Meanwhile, as O'Connor pointed out, we are choking in our own dust.

Which brings me back to Sir Philip Sidney's sonnet:
My true love hath my heart, and I have his,
By just exchange, one for the other giv'n.
I hold his dear, and mine he cannot miss:
There never was a better bargain driv'n.

His heart in me, keeps me and him in one,
My heart in him, his thoughts and senses guides.
He loves my heart, for once it was his own:
I cherish his, because in me it bides.

His heart his wound received from my sight;
My heart was wounded, with his wounded heart,
For as from me on him his hurt did light,
So still methought in me his hurt did smart;
Both equal hurt, in this change sought our bliss:
My true love hath my heart, and I have his.

This sonnet, which yesterday read like a cynical bargain, today, in my present state of mind, almost seems like an ars poetica: an attempt to describe the way in which life wounds the poet and the poet wounds life . . . "both equal hurt, and in this change sought our bliss," for when the poem is made, those cruelties become elements of transfiguration. "My true love hath my heart, and I have his."

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Our DSL connection just sprang to life after being comatose for 12 hours, which accounts for this tardy letter. Meanwhile, I spent my disconnected morning changing a comma to a colon and a two-syllable word to a one-syllable word, reminding myself that The Years might be my favorite Virginia Woolf novel, making Earl Grey tea for a boy with a sore throat, ditching my car at the garage for an oil change, and trying to figure out if the towels in the dryer are dry and cold or wet and cold.

But now that I have returned to you, I can continue the Sidney poem I started yesterday. Here are the first two quatrains:

My true love hath my heart, and I have his,
By just exchange, one for the other giv'n.
I hold his dear, and mine he cannot miss:
There never was a better bargain driv'n.

His heart in me, keeps me and him in one,
My heart in him, his thoughts and senses guides.
He loves my heart, for once it was his own:
I cherish his, because in me it bides.

Tomorrow I'll add the final quatrain and couplet. For now, you and I can both wallow in the sinking sensation that "perfect love" equals "perfect business deal." How poetic.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Yesterday's aggravating sonnet is slowly pulling its threads together. It always amazes me how difficult it can be to write a 14-line poem with a simple rhyme and meter scheme. But sonnets are strange beasts, as I've said before (and if you want to hear more of my thoughts about them, you can read my long review of the most recent Norton Anthology, which I posted on this blog last February).

Outside it is snowing mildly. The mute trees, weighed down in white, shimmer in the flat morning light. Downstairs the radio drones the news: names and trouble, names and trouble. Coincidentally, "names" is one of the end rhymes in my sonnet's final couplet, a word that I have half-rhymed with "ashamed." None of this has anything to do with the news, except that it feels as if it does.

My true love hath my heart, and I have his,
By just exchange, one for the other giv'n.
I hold his dear, and mine he cannot miss:
There never was a better bargain driv'n.

That's Sir Philip Sidney talking, and this week I am in love with his sonnets: though you may not be . . . but humor me: say it aloud to yourself . . . just this quatrain . . . and tomorrow I will give you the next one.

Monday, February 7, 2011

I'm working on a sonnet that I'm not very happy with. I suppose it's possible that the lines will knit themselves into a poem, but at the moment the piece resembles a nicely articulated skeleton more than a dramatic force. I hate it when my poems are dead.

Lately I've been reading Shelley, Sidney, Wordsworth, Bolton, Melville, Plath, Richard Ford, and the dictionary. My dead sonnet begins with a phrase from Ford's The Sportswriter ("Dreamy as Tarzan"), but probably it started turning into a sonnet because I'd been reading so many of Bolton's, though the form is Shakespearean, which most of his are not. Literary influence is not always easy to nail down. Nor is the urge to write in form. Mostly I don't, but sometimes the sounds in my head demand it.

Which reminds me: what did you think of that Sidney poem I posted on Saturday? I love his opening conceit: "My sheep are thoughts." It's so much better than "My thoughts are sheep." At least a million times better. That's what I want: that kind of solid confidence in my imagination.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Insomnia plus shoveling plus shoveling plus shoveling plus breadbaking plus wonky Internet connection equals no Sunday morning letter from me.

I do have some puttery thoughts about my current rereading of Richard Ford's The Sportswriter, but I think that both you and my thoughts would be better served by an actual night's sleep.

I admit that I did sleep a little last night; but when I did, I repetitively dream-fingered the fiddle part of a song that I don't even like.

There ought to be a special word for that kind of nonsleeping sleep.

Now I must go and pretend to care about the Superbowl. Not that anyone will be fooled. Not that anyone else in this house cares about the Superbowl except for Paul, who is indifferent to this particular sport except during moments of televised pomp and splendor. He is a sucker for the noble music that accompanies championship games. He also seems to feel the need to make a Superbowl cake, which also means that I'll have to step in as Coach, which also means that I won't be taking a nap anytime soon.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

from The Old Arcadia

Sir Philip Sidney

My sheep are thoughts, which I both guide and serve;
Their pasture is fair hills of fruitless love;
On barren sweets they feed, and feeding starve;
I wail their lot, but will not other prove.
My sheephook is wanhope, which all upholds;
My weeds, desire, cut out in endless folds.
What wool my sheep shall bear, while thus they live,
In you it is, you must the judgment give.

In the old days, when unscrupulous politicians, mercenary soldiers, and great poets were less easy to distinguish from one another, there lived a young man named Philip Sidney. He was, according the Cambridge Guide to English Literature, from a family "most exalted." Born in 1554, he became "one of the brighter ornaments of Elizabeth's court," not only as a diplomat but also as a poet and a composer of masques (short but formal dramatic entertainments--not quite plays, not quite poems--written for private performance). He was knighted in 1582, the same year he was married. In 1585, he was appointed governor of Flushing, in the Netherlands; and a year later "his thigh was smashed by musket shot" during an attack on the Spanish forces in Zutphen. He died of his injuries, at age 32.

None of Sidney's poetry was published during his lifetime; but as was common during the period, his manuscripts circulated widely among his acquaintance. His "appearance in English poetry is sudden, brilliant, and brief." As C. S. Lewis said, he "rises out of the contemporary Drab almost as a rocket rises."

The poem above is from The Old Arcadia, completed in 1580 when he was 26 years old, and written for his sister Mary, Countess of Pembroke. An early attempt at prose fiction, it is a somewhat confusing pastoral romance interspersed with poems and songs; and Sidney referred to it as "This idle work of mine, this child which I am loth to father."

Friday, February 4, 2011

House thermometer reads -10. Car thermometer reads -19. Shall I choose stoicism or exaggeration as this morning's weather philosophy? According to Melville, "A Loose-Fish is fair game for anybody who can soonest catch it." But then again, "what to the ostentatious smuggling verbalists are the thoughts of thinkers but Loose-Fish?" With such advice, I've decided to settle for merely being cold.

Speaking of difficult-to-understand commentary, my friend Thom just mailed me Bret Lott's article "Humble Flannery," which appeared in a recent Writer's Chronicle. I haven't yet made my way into very much of it, but already Flannery is full of vim and ire. For instance:

The idea of being a writer attracts a good many shiftless people, those who are merely burdened by poetic feelings or afflicted with sensibility.

A comment like that is the aspiring writer's version of dropping your glove into a barnyard water bucket when the temperature is 19 degrees below zero. It's possible that those words might make you a tougher, stronger writer. More likely, you'll freeze to death where you stand.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

I was lying in bed last night reading Richard Ford's The Sportswriter, and suddenly I realized why I can't write novels: because as I read, I can't imagine writing what I'm reading.

Poems, even great ones, even glorious ones, even ones I don't understand--I can still imagine writing them. I read a few lines from Milton's Paradise Lost or Pound's Cantos or Plath's Ariel, and somehow I'm standing alongside that writer, as if I am a word, or a peculiar sound, or an image.

I don't even like Pound's Cantos, but I can still feel that way when I read them.

But novels? Somehow I'm always outside looking in. I can see how the writer is doing the job, but I'm never in there doing the job with him.

Meanwhile, I love the novel form, and I read fiction constantly, whereas I read poetry only sporadically.

I think this is all very strange, and requires more thought.

Dessert tonight: Ricotta cheesecake with strawberry sauce. Plans for dinner are far more hazy, but I suppose I'll eventually have decide on something.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

On his blog, my friend Adam posted what is sort of a response to my post yesterday about rhetoric, Cotton Mather, et al. Because Adam does in fact write sermons, I'm quite interested in what he has to say about the importance of sound in that task.

Meanwhile, let's get back to talking about the weather. Yes, it's snowing here, too, with a foot or two predicted by nightfall. And yes, we've had a goodly amount of snow this winter. But Maine is supposed to have snow, so no one is hysterical. A better word would be resigned. Also, bemused, which I cannot help feeling as I scan various overwrought NYTimes articles about the Horrors of the Storm. I imagine that my reactions to this snowy winter are analogous to those a resident of the Canadian plains might have when he reads about a cold snap in Paris. I mean, there's cold and there's COLD. And when you're COLD, cold sounds like a fine time to undertake a pleasant stroll along the Seine.

Before I leave you, I want to share this passage from Robert Gottlieb's NYReview of Books article about "Houdini: Art and Magic," an exhibition that is currently at the Jewish Museum in NYC. I have not actually read this review myself, but Tom has; and as I was striding through the living room en route to the washing machine, he stopped me and read this passage out loud:

[Houdini] had almost no schooling, and although he was to write a great deal--books on magic, biography, autobiography, short stories, screenplays, articles and books on Spiritualism, and thousands of letters--he never mastered spelling or punctuation, or editorial restraint.

The dark implications of that final clause made both of us happy.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Although I'm still waiting for the giant editorial project to arrive, I started filling the gap yesterday with a manuscript critique I've been asked to undertake. My job here is somewhat unusual: rather than commenting on the overall effectiveness of the piece as art or doing a picky line-by-line copyeditor cleanup, I'm undertaking a kind of meta-editing: I'm closely examining existing pieces of factual prose, thinking about questions of voice and style, revising the sentences accordingly, and then leaving detailed comments that explicate my rationale for each tweak. My goal is to help this very capable and intelligent writer begin to latch onto subtle ways of controlling tone and style.

This turns out to be slow work, but it's also rather interesting to watch myself explaining my rhetorical reasoning. I write by ear--that is, in both my prose and my poetry, I hear the unarticulated sound of a line or a sentence and then choose words that match that metrical pattern. The sound may be formally distinct or looser and more conversational, but in either case sound comes before sense. Nonetheless, as soon as I begin to explain my reasons, I discover that I do, indeed, have a leg to stand on. Like music, so much great writing depends on repetition, dynamic control, theme and variations. These are all rhetorical devices, as any great preacher can instantly prove. For instance, a few years ago, as I was immersed in some very strange writings by Cotton Mather, I suddenly realized that his gorgeous style was the key to his believable claims about Satan and witchcraft. To wit:

The New-Englanders are a People of God settled in those, which were once the Devil's Territories; and it may easily supposed that the Devil was exceedingly disturbed, when he perceived such a People here accomplishing the Promise of old made unto our Blessed Jesus, That He should have the Utmost parts of the Earth for his Possession.

Try saying that out loud. It sounds very convincing in the air--much more convincing than The Strategy of Satan, which I was reading in Walmart on Saturday night. And therein lies the serpent.

[I apologize, but I could not help myself. At least I didn't write "And therein lies the Serpent."]

[P.S. The Mather quotation is from The Wonders of the Invisible World (1692), which Dover has reprinted as On Witchcraft. If you like to (1) write sermons or (2) scare yourself, it's worth reading.]