Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Steady rain and a warm southwest wind. Despite the bleak winter dark, the hour feels like April. I have been reading the letters of William Blake. He says to his friend:

I have a thousand & ten thousand things to say to you. My heart is full of futurity. I percieve that the sore travel which has been given me these three years leads to Glory & Honour. I rejoice & I tremble “I am fearfully & wonderfully made”. I had been reading the cxxxix Psalm a little before your Letter arrived. I take your advice. I see the face of my Heavenly Father he lays his Hand upon my Head & gives a blessing to all my works why should I be troubled why should my heart & flesh cry out. I will go on in the Strength of the Lord through Hell will I sing forth his Praises. that the Dragons of the Deep may praise him & that those who dwell in darkness & on the Sea coasts may be gatherd into his Kingdom. Excuse my perhaps too great Enthusiasm.

Rain and rain and rain. All the colors have been washed from the sky, the trees, the roofs, but the grass glows like a bed of emeralds in the misty half-light. My heart is full of futurity. Excuse my perhaps too great Enthusiasm. A car flies by, hissing, invisible beyond the trees. The sky is a clouded mirror. The grass swallows rain. I have a thousand & ten thousand things to say to you, but I cannot say any of them.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

This afternoon I'll be leading my first school workshops of the season: two 9th-grade classes at a local high school. I've decided to take the classic Baron Wormser approach (dictation) and to work with Czeslaw Milosz's poem "Encounter," which is an interesting case: a poem written in Polish but translated into English by the poet. One of the classes has been memorizing Frost poems, so I thought I'd take up the subject of Frost's crabbiness about free versifiers by making the students copy out a free verse poem. Unfortunately both classes are very short, so we won't have much time to write; but I'm hoping that in at least one of them I'll get a chance to use this prompt, based on the Milosz stanzas:

Think back to something that happened yesterday.

Now write a 4-stanza poem.

Stanza 1: Say what you are doing.

Stanza 2: Say what you see.

Stanza 3: Say what you remember.

Stanza 4: Ask a question.

You have 5 minutes to write.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Yes, yes, yes, I am still alive. Merely I have been driving and driving and talking and driving and eating and driving and washing dishes and driving. But finally I am alone in my house and back at my desk.

When I got home last night, I discovered that yet another journal, Hawk and Handsaw, had accepted every single western Pennsylvania poem I'd submitted. Moreover, the editor asked for more. I can't tell you how pleased I am to see that these poems do, in fact, seem to make sense to their readers. The style and approach are so new to me, and I've also been suffering under a sense of imminent divorce . . . which is to say that I've had to consciously force myself not to work on the series because of looming editorial and anthology deadlines. With poems, as with love affairs, "too busy" can lead to "never again." So knowing that two journals plan to take a total of eight or ten Chestnut Ridge poems is heartening.

Now, however, I ought to be addressing those looming editorial and anthology deadlines.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Don't worry: I haven't vanished, merely been too surrounded by people to write. I will offer the following words, however, and you can fill in the blanks:

African violets.

Pileated woodpecker holes.





Ice skates.


Grace Kelly.


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Snow snow snow, and we are going nowhere fast. It's actually quite lovely. Last night, insomnia released its hold over me, and I slept from 11 to 7 without waking up even once. And now here I sit, while the boys loll in their blankets and the snow falls and falls. Tomorrow we'll drive to Vermont; today we'll sit beside the fire and drink coffee and, eventually, discuss the thorny issue of college applications. But for the moment, the washing machine is doing all the work.

I want to thank you for the comments you sent me about the poem draft I posted a few days ago. They were helpful, but they also uniformly agreed with what I had already guessed would probably need to happen, which is both reassuring and, paradoxically, why I rarely ask anyone anything about work in progress. I've never belonged to a writers' group, and I don't go to workshops anymore because they so often become competitions, excoriations, back patting, praise parties, or hand holding, none of which I want. During the two years I worked with Baron Wormser as a private student, I relied heavily on his suggestions; but one of the wonders of Baron's teaching is his ability to wean his students from dependency on advice. He taught me, as much anything, how to use my own resources to become my own teacher.

This isn't to say that my poems can't benefit from an outside eye, but, after all, the work must come from me, from beginning to end. Regarding the draft you saw, there are elements I don't care to excise but that require excision. Probably those excisions will lead to additions. The piece will change, perhaps radically. What I like best about the draft is, I think, the tone; and I believe that undertaking a faux-translation allowed me to ride the fluidity of that voice as I composed the narrative. Probably the Italian has done its work. I should imagine it as a bread casing, the sort that one makes to envelope a ham for baking but that is not intended to be eaten. Why does all the food need to go into the same mouths? It's not a waste to feed the scraps to the hens.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Along with everyone else in the northeast, I am wasting my coffee hour trying to reconfigure our Thanksgiving plans. Suddenly we are facing 11 inches of snow for tomorrow-- not ideal weather for driving across both the White Mountains and the Green Mountains. This, combined with kennel reservations an hour north and a dog-stitch-removal appointment a half-hour south, is accumulating into a headache. I hope we can drive on Thanksgiving Day, but perhaps we will end up spending the holiday here, watching the snow fall while eating four pounds of cranberry relish.

In the meantime, I'll be doing 100 pounds of laundry and reading something or other.

Monday, November 21, 2011

I forgot to remind you that it's time to make Emily Dickinson's Black Cake. I'll be glad to forward the recipe, if you're interested. I also forgot to tell you that, one of these days, both the recipe and my chatter about its history will appear in a Tupelo Press poets' cookbook edited by Kurt Brown. I wonder what else will be in there. All I got was an email from Kurt, whom I've never met, asking me to submit a recipe. Naturally Black Cake came to mind, but I also started thinking about other poet-cooks.

In Her Husband, biographer Diane Middlebrook wrote about how Sylvia Plath obstinately worked her way through The Joy of Cooking during the early months of her marriage to Ted Hughes. If I remember correctly, they were living in a hut (in Spain, perhaps?), and meanwhile Sylvia wrestled with lemon meringue pie and other 1950s American delights. I found the tale disturbing, touching, and characteristic. Also familiar.

I cook; therefore I am.


I cook; therefore I am ________ .




[worth staying married to]

Sunday, November 20, 2011

I've worn out my need to discuss Helen Vendler, and no doubt you are relieved. I really don't know what came over me. For the most part I just let these poetry disputes drip off my rain hood and back into the oily pond from whence they came. Also, I would say too many stupid things. For instance, if I were being honest, I'd have to admit that I've never heard of a single one of the writers who won this year's National Book Award.

How can that be? What am I doing on this earth? Well, what I have been doing on this earth lately is reading William Blake's letters and washing kitchen cupboards and making a grocery list and stoking the wood stove and dosing the stitched-together dog. William Blake's letters are remarkable, the other occupations less so. It's possible that those book award winners would have livened things up for me, yet somehow they never walked into the room. Where were they? Where was I?

Oh, well. Fourth River just accepted four of my western Pennsylvania poems--which is to say every single poem that I sent them--so that's a happy surprise. The journal is based in Pittsburgh and publishes nature and environmental writing; and because my poems all deal with the history of the Fayette County coal seam, I'm very, very pleased that a regional publication decided to take so many of them. Like most things I write, the poems are character- rather than image-driven, so I wasn't exactly sure how naturelike they'd appear to a journal editor. They're not very Mary Oliverish, that's for sure.

So now I'm going to do something I've never done here before. If you're interested, I'm going to share a draft of a western Pennsylvania poem that's been bothering me, and maybe you can give me your opinion about what I should do with it. The poem is, basically, a riff on the sound of Dante's lines rather than the meaning. (I do not speak Italian.) The idea sprang from a friend's family story: of a miner relative, an Italian immigrant, who knew a great deal of Dante by heart. Hers was a sad story: he came to a lonely and alcoholic end; but my version doesn't mimic facts, only atmospherics and time period. One large issue, as I discussed in a previous post, is the challenge of including immigrant voices in this project without resorting to dialect. So this was my experiment. And here is my question: are the lines from the Inferno important to the poem, or should I drop them? Certainly they were important to its construction, but perhaps they're merely distracting here.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

So, back to Helen Vendler's review of Rita Dove's Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry--

One thing I haven't talked about is how much V dislikes D's introduction, "with its uneasy mix of potted history . . . and peculiar judgments." But she doesn't limit her dislike to subject matter: she also complains about D's metaphors ("cartoonish") and descriptive vagaries ("Can Dove think that a poet of Merrill's depth can be confined to the putative space of a vague 'poetry establishment,' or that placing poets on one side of another of such an assumed 'establishment' says anything about their abilities?")

Basically, Vendler has no patience with either Dove's prose style or her historical summaries:

The simplest thing to say about Dove's introduction is that she is writing in a genre not her own; she is a poet, not an essayist, and, uncomfortable in the essayist's role, she strains for effects (alliteration the favorite) on the one hand and, on the other, falls into mere boilerplate. . . . Dove offers stereotypes and cliches as she lifts the curtain.

V then proceeds to prove her point in six dense columns of excoriating detail. The review is quite remarkably unforgiving; and if this were my book under study, I would crawl into bed and weep.

Yet as far as I can tell, D's prose really is alarming. Even if I set aside the personal judgments (Frost's "Acquainted with the Night" is "blunt and somewhat smug"?), the examples V quotes remind me of the stuff I read in Paul's middle school social studies textbook: history as brisk, colorful pap. This particular pap is flavored with hip twentieth-century poets rather than unhip eighteenth-century generals, but the summarizing grinder has nonetheless reduced them to a familiar, digestible mush, as in D's portrait of 1950s America:

It's hard to imagine what a jolt Ginsberg's Howl gave to the self-satisfied fifties, with broadcast series like Father Knows Best crooning peace and prosperity while GIs died in Korea and McCarthyism mocked the forefathers' democratic ideals.

Of course, the middle school textbook questions for such a sentence could be fun to invent--perhaps "Pretend you are a GI in Korea. Write a letter home to a friend or family member. It should contain a description of the Korean landscape and three questions about Howl." But seriously, if an anthology's primary use is instructional and the book has been designed specifically as a historical survey, what are the editor's obligations to that history? If we value open-ended ambiguity in poems, why can't we help students understand that poetry's relationship to political and social history has a parallel ambiguity, that political and social histories are themselves Argus-eyed and ambiguous?

I suppose, in the end, this is what worries me: not that an anthology might include poems I don't admire or find challenging or personally vital but that it would choose to tuck all this pain and joy and struggle and error into tidy boxes. Why cheerfully announce that the poets of the Harlem Renaissance "felt empowered to explore all aspects of their humanity"?--as if anyone, at any time, has ever been able to do such a thing.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Revision strategy 3

Because a few of you still seem interested in my college-essay patter, I'll take a break from Helen Vendler and share step 3 of my give-the-boy-some-structure-but-make-him-do-the-thinking revision suggestions. If you're wondering how I got to this stage, you may want to look back at strategies 1 and 2.

Okay, boy: after two thorough revisions, you've now built a decent organizational framework and found a fairly consistent authorial tone. So in this revision, you're going to move to sentence level. Sit down with your current draft, and read each sentence carefully.

*Are your nouns, verbs, and modifiers interesting? I don't necessarily mean fancy but accurate and vigorous.

*Do you notice any phrases that you repeat too often? (For example, in my own work, I often use too many "kind of" and "sort of" phrases; so when I rewrite, I have to make sure I go back and delete or reword them.)

*Are your examples eye-catching, compelling, and maybe a little unusual? (For example, how are you describing particular physical objects such as clothing or hair? If you're mentioning brand names or pop culture items, are they run-of-the-mill or intriguing?)

*Are your imagined or remembered events slightly exaggerated for dramatic effect? (For example, how can you tweak your mention of a second-grade teacher or a hip hop star so that it becomes more memorable?)

*Is there any imagined example that you feel, in your heart, is an unfair dramatization? For example, are you carelessly blackballing a particular aunt, school principal, garbage collector, or lawyer even though you don't actually believe said person deserves such carelessness? Who, in fact, does deserve your censure? Or is the censure inappropriate in this context?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

As one might have expected, people are angry about the Vendler review. Teresa just sent me a copy of what she calls "the opening salvo" from the Women's Poetry Listserv, which I used to get but don't any longer because I couldn't figure out how to keep its hundreds of comments from clotting up my email every day. I haven't yet read the responses to this salvo, although I presume they're supportive.

But here's the thing:

1. I have little interest in many of the poets that Helen Vendler loves: e.g., Jorie Graham, James Merrill, Wallace Stevens, etc., etc. I've always presumed that, as with any art, different styles and schools of poetry appeal to different readers. Some people like Pollack; some people like Grandma Moses. Myself, I don't care for either, but I do like Rothko and Vermeer.

2. I have been greatly influenced by the poetry of canonized white men. I don't know why this is so, but there you have it. However, I am not a canonized white man myself.

3. Helen Vendler is a woman. Other women are angry at her. Will they soon begin making those kinds of cruel personal remarks that politically liberal women made about Margaret Thatcher? I didn't like Margaret Thatcher either, but the remarks made me nervous, even when I was seventeen and as ignorant as a biscuit.

4. The subject or theme of a piece of writing may speak to the political, social, or sexual concerns of a particular group of people, yet it may still be a mediocre work of art. Also, people with bad politics or limited points of view can be great artists. I am not dissing anyone in particular here.

5. Poetry as breezy anecdote bores me. Poetry as a bland stack of images bores me. Poetry as a screech or a whine bores me. Poetry as cynical wordplay bores me. I don't care who writes this stuff--man or woman, Latino or white, Elizabethan or modernist. I don't want to read it.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Another late post because of yet another dog emergency . . . this time involving poor Anna the poodle, who is now at the vet's office getting a big leg laceration stitched up. Given the season, my first fear was that she'd been grazed by a stray bullet, but the vet thinks it might be a bad wild-animal scratch. What it looks like to me is a barbed-wire tear, but we don't have any such thing on our property, and Anna isn't a wanderer. Ah well. I always wanted vet bills for Christmas, and now I have them.

I am, however, relieved about the bullet decision. The idea of stray bullets flying through my backyard does not make me happy.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

It is a dark, strangely warm morning. I am washing sheets and thinking about last night's dreams, which were all about grocery shopping. I was pushing a cart through one of those enormous supermarkets, with aisles as wide as living rooms and ceilings as high as cathedrals. In the only vignette I can recall at all clearly, I was in the produce section, navigating among spotlit faux-crates of round beige food: honeydew melons, perhaps, or giant parched grapefruits, or waxy rutabagas? I don't think I had anything at all in my cart. Mostly I remember the lighting. It was like stage lighting, dramatic and portentous but not at all secretive. It was also like bad fluorescent lighting in seminar classrooms, the kind of brilliance that does everyone a bad turn. Yet I wouldn't call this an anxiety dream. I didn't worry about cereal boxes falling on me, nor was I pursued by villains on a mart-cart, nor did I discover I'd forgotten to get dressed before going to the store, nor did I have to navigate any motorized vehicles by means of a string. No doubt, my subconscious was up to something disreputable, but my only memory is garishly lit tedium.

Fortunately, when I woke up, I remembered that in real life Teresa had sent me another note: "How as poets we are all in the business of re-inventing seems much more important than whether we are 'finely educated' or 'accessible' or where we live or how we earn money (or don't)."

The business of re-inventing. How can that phrase not lift your spirits?

Monday, November 14, 2011

Monday morning, and a quiet house, again. I am sitting here at the kitchen table, boiling hamburger and rice for the old barn dog's breakfast, listening to the laundry click and thump in the dryer, listening to the wood stove sigh, listening to the milk tanker rumble down the road to the Trafton farm. Already I have received a phone call: the school secretary asked if I would change my parent-teacher time "because you're easy." This was funny and we both laughed.

I got a note yesterday from my friend Teresa Carson. I'd asked her what she thought of the Vendler review, and without reading any of my blog posts she said, among many other smart things, "while [V's] comment that 'all poets who wield language powerfully are exquisitely well educated' makes me a bit uneasy, her further comment that 'just because someone describes a “hardscrabble Appalachia” doesn’t make one a hardscrabble Appalachian' hits home for me. Take, for example, Phil Levine’s anointment as the voice of the working class poet. While I have no doubt he worked for some short amount of time in the auto factories, he didn’t get stuck there. (MFA from Iowa is about as far away from manual labor as you can get.) As someone who worked many years in a union job and then more years in a low level management job I can tell you many of his poems about work are tainted by a sentimentality that’s only possible for someone who got out fast."

So, here's another take on "exquisitely well educated"--that it's a dangerous phrase, in some way, and that it influences the kind of blue-collar posturing that all of us who live on the class line find ourselves doing. Teresa and Phil Levine and I don't negotiate the identical demarcation--not by any means. But I'm a housewife in a remote, conservative, north-country town. Teresa spent her career working for the phone company in urban New Jersey. Levine worked for a while in the Detroit factories. We've all found modes of escape that are also modes of comprehension. We've all used poetry to reconfigure ourselves and dramatize the world we both live in and stand outside of. Meanwhile, we teach at Iowa or copy out all of Paradise Lost or compose talks about Keats or whatever. The definition of "exquisitely well educated" becomes no clearer.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Today I might learn how to use a chainsaw; I might not. I don't really want to learn, mostly because I hate chores that involve loud motors: i.e., vacuuming, lawn mowing, power wood splitting. I would much rather split wood by hand and sweep with a broom, not so much for reasons of reactionary purity but because I hate noise. That said, I find the smell of bar-and-chain oil on a man who's been cutting trees all afternoon exceedingly attractive. (I also like the smell of a man who's been working with cows all day. But Axe and Old Spice? Ick.)

As you can see, today's letter is shaping up to be far less cerebral than my last few have been; and I've been trying all morning to use this brisk non-cerebral feeling to convince myself to submit a few poems to a few editors. I have a stack of poems to submit to journals, but I haven't been able to bring myself to send anything out. I wish (as we all wish) that someone would just write to me and say, "Dawn, do you have a stack of poems to send me?" And then I would send that kind person the stack, and he or she would choose some and/or reject some, and that would be that. I am tired of writing hopeful letters to editors I don't know and who don't know me. Nothing against the editors, but I'm just tired of being a cheerful sales clerk.

And if you happen to know of anyone who might like to look at--and not lose--a manuscript about obsessive rereading, let me know.


But don't worry: I'm really not in a despairing mood. I'm just in some kind of submission coma.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Wearily, I find myself, once again, required to say something about MFA degrees. I don't want to talk about them; but as your comments over the past few days have shown, they're on your minds. That's understandable: almost any contemporary conversation about poetic education seems to circle back to them.

You all know that I don't have a master's degree, but that was my own choice. I could have entered an MFA program; and if I had, I might be holding down a real job now. Here's what I think: If you have a degree, and earning that degree changed your artistic life for the better, then it was worth getting. If you don't have a degree and have, as a self-taught student of the art, changed your artistic life for the better, then earning a degree was unnecessary.

My gut feeling is that getting a teaching job should not depend on whether or not one has an MFA. Poetry training is not the same as teacher training. But then again, a Ph.D. isn't a teaching degree either; it's a sign that one has supposedly accumulated a certain amount of knowledge. Nonetheless, for all practical purposes, it equals a teaching degree. We all know that some college professors are stunning teachers and that others are horrible. So the problem isn't with the advanced degree per se; it's the difficulty of proving that someone is a good teacher and deciding whether or not good teaching abilities should trump research or scholarship credentials. And don't tell me that requiring all these poets and scholars to get education certificates will solve the teaching problem, because it won't.

Anyway, I'm going to stop talking about this now. I want to reiterate that my comments about education had nothing to do with degrees but with Vendler's remark that "one must, after all, face the fact that all poets who wield language powerfully are exquisitely well educated, even if they have had to educate themselves, as Whitman and Dickinson and Crane did." I think it's an interesting statement. Was John Keats a better poet than John Clare because he was better able to educate himself through reading? Was Keats a better poet than Clare because he was better able to make use of his life experiences? Was Keats really a better poet than Clare? Even if those questions are unanswerable, I still think they're interesting.

Friday, November 11, 2011

I thought I was going to continue talking today about Helen Vendler's review of The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century Poetry, but your comments about yesterday's post seemed to suggest that we were all veering off into other concerns. Perhaps I could sum them up as "what is the definition of an educated poet?" and "is there any value in a poet's detachment from her subject matter?" and "why do so many poems seem so unnecessary?"

Really, it would absurd for me to invent generalized answers to these questions. All of our explanations would be different and would probably escalate into bad-tempered confrontation or self-excoriation. But I think it is occasionally important to consider the private import of such questions. That may sound narcissistic, but for the most part artistic creation emanates from the individual outward into the world. Artistic influence, on the other hand, is drawn from the world into the individual. So these questions matter to each of us, though our answers will all be different.

After reading yesterday's post, a friend remarked to me, "I just read The Collected Poems of Jane Kenyon. At first, really responding to the early stuff, I thought, 'I'll bet Dawn likes her.' Then, as the collection leveled out or tailed off, I began to grow irritated. Yes she's all rural and rustic but not in your 'I have to go and feed the cows now' way. Rather, she comes across as a walker through a pastoral landscape counting on it to poetically stimulate her. When not writing poetry, her real job, mentioned exactly once, would seem to be that of a teacher. But there's no confronting the problems and emotions teaching raises."

His comment moved me for several reasons. First, as I know well, it is difficult to decide whether growing indifference to a book is the reader's fault or the writer's. As my friend said later in his note to me, the poems felt "un-needed," and that is a something no writer wants to imagine hearing about her work. Second, there's the issue of detachment--in this case, the sense that an artist is "walking through" a place but somehow not participating in it herself. This is something that photographers do constantly, so why is it more difficult to bear in a poet? Or is it? After all, Kenyon's primary theme is not the countryside but her own melancholia; and the poems do accrue into a sort of poetic Prozacian amble that, in fact, does quite accurately mirror how depressed acquaintances describe the action of medication. Finally, though, there's the question of "what does this poet do?" How does she actually engage with the world? Does she teach kindergartners? Does she train circus dogs? Does she rob banks? What life does she vigorously live? Where, in other words, does the impetus to write come from?

This is the self-education question, from the other side. What must one know if one is to be, in Vendler's words, "exquisitely well educated"? Is Shakespeare enough? Or do we also need to know how to clean a chicken?

As I said, I am not going to begin to offer any snappy answers to these questions. But I'm thinking about them.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

I'm by no means an acolyte of poetry critic Helen Vendler; but when I noticed "Are These the Poems to Remember?"--her review in the NY Review of Books of The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, edited by Rita Dove--I thought I ought to read it. As you know, I'm in the midst of assembling my own poetry-themed anthology, so I've acquired a certain professional interest in how other editors make and defend their choices and how those choices and attitudes might influence a reader. One of the primary discoveries I've made as an anthologist is that, without purposefully narrowing one's scope to a specific time, place, or subgroup of writers, it's nigh on impossible to avoid creating a book full of canonical white male poets if one is honestly working to include the best, most influential writers. The reasons are clear: thousands of years of illiterate or undereducated women, oral as opposed to written traditions, a dearth of translations and transcriptions, not to mention a lack of leisure. Even if they were literate, slaves and serfs didn't have, to put it mildly, the liberty of unstructured time. Moreover, people haven't always had access to a variety of books. The canonical writers became our cultural foundation partly because their volumes were sitting on our bookshelves. If we wanted to better ourselves, whether we were Charlotte Bronte or Frederick Douglass, we took Shakespeare off the shelf.

According to Vendler, Dove's anthology attempts to "shift the balance." Of course she is working solely within the twentieth century, so she has more material at hand, yet Vendler still has reservations:

Multicultural inclusiveness prevails: some 175 poets are represented. No century in the evolution of poetry in English ever had 175 poets worth reading, so why are we being asked to sample so many poets of little or no lasting value? Anthologists may now be extending a too general welcome. Selectivity has been condemned as "elitism," and a hundred flowers are invited to bloom. People who wouldn't be able to take on the long-term commitment of writing a novel find a longed-for release in writing a poem. And it seems rude to denigrate the heartfelt lines of people moved to verse. It is popular to say (and it is in part true) that in literary matters tastes differ, and that every literary critic can be wrong. But there is a certain objectivity bestowed by the mere passage of time and its sifting of wheat from chaff: Which of Dove's 175 poets will have staying power, and which will seep back into the archives of sociology?

I think this is a fair question. And I also think that Vendler's later comment about education is worth considering:

One must, after all, face the fact that all poets who wield language powerfully are exquisitely well educated, even if they have had to educate themselves, as Whitman and Dickinson and Crane did. Just because one describes a "hardscrabble Appalachia" doesn't make one a hardscrabble Appalachian. . . .

Pegging poets to their origins doesn't change the fact that they leave those origins behind and live the "elite" life of the educated, even when, like Whitman, they live in poverty.

I have to go feed animals now, or else I'd talk more about Vendler's reactions to Dove's commentary on the history of twentieth-century poetry and what V sees as D's discomfort "in the essayist's role." But if you've read the review, I'd love to hear your comments. I'd also love to hear what you think about this education-elitism conundrum.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Revision strategy 2

Last week I shared the opening move in my long-term plot of guiding my son toward ways of revising his college-application essay so that it sounds like his own honest, coherent, personal statement. This morning I'm delighted to say that the revision he returned to me was a marked improvement on the first draft. And because several people asked me to continue annotating my strategy, here, forthwith, is my second move:

Reread the essay and choose the paragraph that you think is most interesting: i.e., the least boring, the wackiest, the funniest; the one that includes the best descriptions or the strangest details--however you, personally, in the depths of your heart or ironic mind, define most interesting.

Move that paragraph to the top of the page and use it as your opener. Reorganize the remaining information to follow that paragraph, hacking out anything which now seems useless and adding new material as necessary. (Remember to keep avoiding the generalized "we" statements you replaced in your first revision.) Then send your new draft to me.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

I am wondering why I am never satisfied to be doing whatever it is I'm doing. If I'm outside splitting wood, I think I ought to be inside working on my copyediting project. If I'm working on the copyediting project, I think I ought to be writing poems. If I'm writing poems, I think I ought to be sorting laundry. If I'm sorting laundry, I think I ought to be researching pieces for the anthology. Practically the only time I don't think I ought to be doing something other than what I'm actually doing is when I'm driving. And I don't even like to drive.

Pardon my slight crankiness this morning, but I've reached yet another impasse with my apparently unpublishable essay manuscript--this time involving a careless rejection letter that lumped my ms into a submission category I didn't even apply under. What is going on here? I am bewildered by the number of times this ms has been lost, forgotten, or misfiled. Probably I should just give up and let the poor thing retire to the dusty back corner of my bookshelf, where its shreddable paper and delicious ink can entertain a few generations of mice.

Monday, November 7, 2011

In the garden the thyme glitters with rime, each tiny leaf outlined in frost. Yesterday I dug up my remaining leeks before the ground freezes hard. But for now the days are still warming. In the afternoons I split wood in shirtsleeves while the sociable dogs sit around and watch, and in the evenings my bare hands aren't too cold to cut brussels sprouts or kale for dinner. Last week's heavy snow flattened the garden lettuce beyond resurrection, but in the greenhouse I've still got a few lettuce and spinach plants, plus a batch of kale to make me feel better when the deer invade my garden and eat the rest of what's out there.

For dinner last night, we had turkey hash, a plain yet sublime food--chopped dark meat mixed with leftover mashed potatoes; a mixture of sauteed leeks, carrots, and sourdough bread cubes; and some of the turkey stock that had been simmering all day--which Tom pan-fried on a buttered griddle. Using the food processor, I ground together cranberries, apples, and an orange, which requires only 3/4 of a cup of sugar to become a fine, fresh, and very quick-to-prepare relish. And for our salad we ate tiny roasted brussels sprouts mixed with frost-sweetened spinach leaves, radish sprouts, and grated kohlrabi.

Today, however, I am back at my desk: copyediting and anthologizing and still thinking about the Stan Musial poem that is beginning to assume an amoeba shape in my mind. I hope the poem will declare itself soon. But of course these things cannot be rushed.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

As I sit here at home, recovering from the flurry of last night's benefit turkey dinner and girding my loins to deal with half a leftover turkey, a batch of bread, and a washing machine full of dirty dish towels, I must say that one of the sweetest things that has ever happened to me in this small town, where I will always and forever be "from away," was listening to the citizens try to outbid each other for the pleasure of bringing home one of my pies. The people of Harmony could care less about my poems, but pie is a different story. And that's okay. Sometimes pie is better than poetry. It's good for poetry to remember that.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Perhaps we should resurrect this particular use of poetry:

The "nith-song" or "drum-song" is the Eskimo's way of replacing a law court by a public poetry contest. . . .

The background of the nith-song (from the Norwegian nith, meaning "contention"), observed as early as 1746, has been described as follows: "When a Greenlander considers himself injured in any way by another person, he composes about him a satirical song, which he rehearses with the help of his intimates. He then challenges the offending one to a duel of song. One after another the two disputants sing at each other their wisdom, wit, and satire, supported by their partisans, until at last one is at his wit's end, when the audience, who are the jury, make known their decision. The matter is now settled for good, and the contestants must be friends again and not recall the matter which was in dispute."

[from A. Grove Day, The Sky Clears: Poetry of the American Indians (1951)]

Friday, November 4, 2011

Today is crazy pie-baking day. I will start with apple and then move on to pumpkin. Five or six of these pies are reserved for tomorrow's 8th-grade benefit dinner, but at least a couple of them must stay in the house. Otherwise, my family would be sad. Then, in the late afternoon, I begin part 2 of my day: carpooling two hours north to Lincoln to watch Paul and a few other middle-school Harmonians perform in the district music festival. Paul's pretty excited about this, mostly because he'll get to sing in Latin. Meanwhile, James will be home constructing a robot costume for the high school's masquerade ball, and Tom, I hope, will be recovering from his long construction-worker week by lying on the couch watching French New Wave films.

So let's talk about pie. I was raised on margarine-and-Crisco crusts; but once I moved into my own apartment, I saw the light and switched to all-butter crusts. Although a lard crust does have a lovely flaky texture, I prefer the flavor of butter. I also think that a buttery crust means that the filling can be less sweet.

My favorite local orchard donated a bushel of utility Macintosh apples for the purposes of this pie caper. I do not usually use Macs in pies, but these are big firm good-looking ones. They do tend to cook down into sauce rather than hold their shape, and I prefer chunks of apple in my pies. (Macouns and Cortlands are nice and chunky, while early yellow apples such as Ginger Golds are an excellent base for a ginger-lime apple pie.) However, in this instance, a bushel of free apples is a good thing, and I will make due.

Flavoring the filling: I use 2/3rds of a cup of natural cane sugar (such as turbinado or Demerara) per apple pie, adding more sugar if the apples are very tart--not the case with Macs. Even though these sugar crystals are coarse, I like the slight caramel taste of a brown cane sugar, and it melts nicely into syrup during baking. I do not add flour; apples have plenty of thickening power on their own. Often I use nutmeg rather than cinnamon, but with the Macs I'll probably stick with cinnamon. I grate lemon peel into the mixture and mix in 1 to 3 tablespoons of butter, depending on how rich a syrup I want. (Probably I'll use the lesser amount for the pie caper, just to save costs.)

Usually I don't sugar or egg-wash my top crusts. They're pretty that way, but sometimes they get tough.

Okay: that's apple. Because I am running out of time, I will merely remark that, even for this pie caper, I could not bring myself to buy canned pumpkin for the pumpkin pies. So yesterday afternoon involved a fair amount of squash baking, seed scraping, and food-mill grinding. Fortunately Paul helped me pass the time by reading off all the names of this year's baseball free agents, and we enjoyed a sweet shared pipe dream in which Oswalt and Wilson were trotting onto the field as Red Sox starting pitchers. . . .

Thursday, November 3, 2011

I've been working steadily on my forthcoming anthology for Autumn House Press. Mostly I've been researching and compiling a table of contents, but I've also begun extracting and proofreading the pieces themselves as well as writing brief introductions for each. Although these intros offer a soupcon of biographical information, they also mention the writer's or subject's influence on other writers and offer a quick explanation as to why I think the extracted piece may be valuable to poets. I don't want to tell readers what to think about the piece, but I do want to open a door into it.

Mostly this task has gone swiftly and smoothly. Still, as I've been writing these intros, I've also discovered a disturbing tic. While I easily mention male poets by last name, I constantly make the mistake of calling Anne Bradstreet "Anne" instead of "Bradstreet," Emily Bronte "Emily" instead of "Bronte"--though it would never occur to me to call John Milton "John." This is problematic behavior on a couple of obvious levels: the first involving an embarrassing sexist disparity, the second revealing a copyeditor's blind spot.

In a way, I'm more troubled by the editing inconsistency than by the sexist implications--but that's probably because I'm also ready to make excuses for myself. I might claim, for instance, to feel closer to the women poets, more akin to them as both a writer and a human being. Thus, I might conclude, it's easier for me to use their names more informally.

This explanation is a crock of lies. In truth, I do not feel closer to Anne Bradstreet than to John Milton. I know a whole lot more about Milton than I do about Bradstreet, and I have lived with his poetry as I have not lived with hers. Nonetheless, she is "Anne" to me, and he will never be "John." There's something sad about this, on so many fronts. And possibly the saddest truth is that I would like him to be John to me. But he says no.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Revision strategy 1

Yesterday the boy finally broke down and admitted that perhaps I could give him a few helpful tips about how to revise his college-application essay. I have been patient, very patient, about allowing him and his father to pretend they know what they're doing with this thing, so let's hope all this sitting on my hands has paid off. In the meantime, I will share my opening revision strategy with you, in case you, too, have found yourself in the position of having to help a kid figure out how to write in his or her own voice.

What I noticed in J's case is what I notice in the first drafts of many students who are accustomed to writing for teachers rather than themselves: his pronouns slip unwittingly from "I" to "we." This immediately allows him to make generalizations rather than personal remarks. So Revision Instruction Number 1 goes like this: "Go in and change all the we's to I's. Then reread and decide if used-to-be we is saying something that sounds like something I would say. If not, substitute a remark that I really would make."

This approach can be helpful in a couple of ways. First, it allows the student to think of revision as a concrete activity: "I change one word to another." Second, the simple pronoun switch also immediately forces the student to accept responsibility for everything that "I" now says. When "I" was "we," "we" could easily fork out a lot of pompous, un-[your student's name here]-like stuff. But now that "we" is "I," [your student's name here] will start to think twice about such undigested tripe.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The dog drank water on her own yesterday and even licked dog food off her paws. But our six inches of snow have not melted, and the pile of unsplit logs is snarling at me. I have a million desserts to bake for an eighth-grade fundraiser and an eighth grader who is mad at me because I took away his computer privileges. At least the other two family members are still more or less congenial, and we have electricity and running water, and I didn't forget to bake bread yesterday, and the poodle loves me, and we have plenty of coffee, and I get to read Milton's Areopagitica today. Talk about crabby: even Paul can't beat Milton.

P.S. Regarding Carleen's request for the cake recipe: I doubled a basic marble-cake recipe, but instead of mixing the chocolate and vanilla in each pan, I made 2 pans of vanilla, 2 pans of chocolate. I alternated the layer colors, frosting them with a cooked fudge frosting that I lightened and extended with some confectioners' sugar. Then I pressed M&M patterns all over the outside. I hope it tasted good, but I'll never know because I was at the vet with a giant floppy depressed dog.