Friday, December 30, 2011

Today I'll be proofreading Wordsworth's Preface to the Second Edition of "Lyrical Ballads" (1800), which I haven't read carefully since college--if I read it carefully then, which is doubtful. I was not an ideal college student: far too prone to wallow in unassigned Dickens instead of poring over assigned Ruskin, still struggling to decode syntax and contemporary plot devices. (Virginia Woolf was hard for me to manage, and Thomas Pynchon was almost unreadable.) I was such a rube then that I found it hard to understand why any college might have wanted me. Yet now that I'm helping J apply to schools, I have finally realized that all 17-year-olds are rubes, which, after all these years, still turns out to be a comfort . . . for both his sake and mine.

Anyway, I'll keep you posted about the Preface. I expect it will be far more interesting than I remember. However, after yesterday's immersion in wacky William Blake, I'll require some time to adjust to rational explanation and predictable punctuation.

Here's my new theory: Blake's punctuation and capitalization (or lack thereof) are directly related to the way in which his visionary and workaday lives intersected. For instance:

But none can know the Spiritual Acts of my three years Slumber on the banks of the Ocean unless he has seen them in the Spirit or unless he should read My long Poem descriptive of those Acts for I have in these three years composed an immense number of verses on One Grand Theme Similar to Homers Iliad or Miltons Paradise Lost the Persons & Machinery intirely new to the Inhabitants of Earth (some of the Persons Excepted) I have written lines at a time without Premeditation & even against my Will. the Time it has taken in writing was thus rendered Non Existent. & an immense Poem Exists which seems to be the Labour of a long Life all produced without Labour or Study. I mention this to shew you what I think the Grand Reason of my being brought down here

Now go ahead: write your doctoral thesis on this idea because I will never be able to.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The wind is blowing cold and hard. Pine needles are sifting onto the carpet. When I walk across the kitchen, James's dusty garland decorations keep snatching at the top of my head. I'm trying to parcel out the pittance I have available for donations to worthy causes, to figure out which causes are more worthy than which other causes, to find stamps, to convince the wood stove to stay lit, to remember what time to fetch Paul back from his sleepover. And so on and so on.

I'm also fretting over my anthology's table of contents, imminently due to the publisher, and concomitantly fretting over the vagaries of interlibrary loan, which is a wonderful idea transformed into an aggravating reality. Really, it should not be all that difficult for a librarian to locate the selected essays of Gary Snyder somewhere in the state of Maine. And yet she cannot. Moreover, she tells me that Garcia Lorca's essays are entirely unavailable, which can't possibly be true since it took me about 2 seconds to order them online. The entire system, at least as practiced in central Maine, seems to depend on hand-scrawled instructions sprinkled here and there in a shabby spiral notebook crammed with loose pages. Probably your library functions differently.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Sorry I've been away so long, but I'm home again now, with a thousand pounds of laundry, a stack of books, three different kinds of tea, bright red gloves, and a desk calendar composed of pictures taken by my 17-year-old son, which has got to be one of the nicest gifts I have ever received.

In the interstices of holiday cheer, I have been rereading Dickens's Nicholas Nickelby, which you may or may not have read yourself. It is early-ish Dickens, with a floppy picaresque plot and a particularly saccharine ending. But it also includes this delightful letter, written by Fanny Squeers to Nicholas's evil Uncle Ralph. Fanny is the twenty-three-year-old daughter of the horrible Yorkshire schoolmaster, Wackford Squeers, whom Nicholas has just nobly trounced. Am I wrong, or is this one of the funniest letters ever written?

My pa requests me to write to you, the doctors considering it doubtful whether he will ever recuvver the use of his legs which prevents his holding a pen.
We are in a state of mind beyond everything, and my pa is one mask of brooses both blue and green likewise two forms [school desks] are steepled in his Goar. We were kimpelled to have him carried down into the kitchen where he now lays. You will judge from this that he has been brought very low.
When your nevew that you recommended for a teacher had done this to my pa and jumped upon his body with his feet and also langwedge which I will not pollewt my pen with describing, he assaulted my ma with dreadful violence, dashed her to the earth, and drove her back comb several inches into her head. A very little more and it must have entered her skull. We have a medical certifikit that if it had, the tortershell would have affected the brain.
Me and my brother were then the victims of his feury since which we have suffered very much which leads us to the arrowing belief that we have received some injury in our insides, especially as no marks of violence are visible externally. I am screaming out loud all the time I write and so is my brother which takes off my attention rather and I hope will excuse mistakes.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Once the snow stops snowing and the mail finishes mailing, we'll be heading south into the land of commerce, colleges, liberal politics, and large grey squirrels, with a quick detour along the way for Vietnamese noodles and whatever emergency poodle pit-stops become necessary. As I drop all literary activities to assume my holiday sous-chef duties, my notes to you will no doubt become sporadic incomplete sentences packed with nouns and ambiguous import. But you will be too busy to miss them, which is just the way things should be. Have a lovely holiday.

Thursday, December 22, 2011


Every Christmas I make eggnog, and every year it has turned out slightly less delightful than I'd hoped it would. This once-a-season schedule slows my tinkering abilities, so improvement is perforce incremental. But finally, this year, I have succeeded in making what, to me, tastes like the best eggnog on earth. And I say this as a person recovering from stomach flu, so you know I must mean it.

1 quart whole milk
1/2 c. natural cane sugar (turbinado works well)
1/2 t. ground cinnamon
1/2 t. ground mace or nutmeg
3 fresh eggs
1 T. flavoring (see below)

In the top of a double boiler, whisk together milk, sugar, and spices over simmering water. Stirring frequently, heat this mixture to the boiling point.

In a separate heat-proof bowl, beat the eggs. Continuing to beat constantly, slowly drizzle in a cup of hot milk. Then stir this egg-milk mixture into the remaining hot milk. Cook, stirring constantly, for 3 or 4 minutes or until the mixture becomes smooth, shiny, and slightly thickened.

Remove from heat and gently stir in your flavoring of choice. Vanilla works, as do rum and brandy. I used bourbon. You can increase the amount of liquor now or at serving time, but remember that it will thin out the final product. And as far as I'm concerned, a velvety texture trumps the extra booze.

Let the mixture cool on the counter for about 15 minutes. Then pour it through a strainer into a pitcher. Chill until ready to serve.

P.S. Feel free to substitute some other kind of sugar, but don't try to use lowfat milk. You'll be sorry.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Robert Frost's earliest known correspondence: notes passed during school. This one was written in 1886, when he would have been 11 or 12.

Ah, middle school. Some things never change.

To Sabra Peabody 
Dear Sabe,
I will answer your letter to let you know that I am well and hope you are the same. About me liking Lida [Storer] better than you you are all wrong because I like you twice as much as I do her and always have thought more of you than any other girl I know of. I thought you were going to the entertainment the other night but I didn't see you there. I saw Eva Hattie and your mother there. There is no fun in getting mad every so [often so] lets see if we cant keep friends Im sure I am willing. I know I have not treated you as I ought to sometimes and sometimes I don't know wheather you are mad or not and we have gotten mad and then we would get friends again ever since Westons party when I first came here. There are not many girls that I like but when I like them I fall dead in love with them and there are not many I like just because I can have some fun with them like I can Lida but I like you because I cant help myself and when I get mad at you I feel mad at myself to.
From your loveing Rob

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Things that make me happy this morning

1. Running up and down the cellar stairs with a basket of laundry instead of lying on the couch wondering if I'll always feel pointless.

2. Receiving an unexpected present in the mail: the novel Split-Levels, written by my friend Thomas Rayfiel and inscribed "To the country mouse from the city mouse."

3. Having two 20-year-old girls in bright lipstick whirl into my kitchen and enfold me in hugs.

4. Watching the Drama King lose his fourth straight basketball game and still smile at his teammates.

5. While selling slices of pizza at the same basketball game, figuring out how to make change for a 20-dollar bill without humiliating myself.

6. Almost finishing my anthology's table of contents.

7. Enjoying the slim sensation of post-flu belt tightening.

8. Eating cranberry relish for dinner; really, eating anything for dinner.

9. Getting hired for two paying gigs in two days, neither of which I applied for.

10. Starting Nicholas Nickelby again, for the 100th time.

11. Reading the Facebook status of a friend who teaches 5th grade: "Just when she wonders if anything has been accomplished . . . she overhears 2 boys discussing where the line breaks go in a poem one of them is writing. 'Well, I hear you stop here, so maybe that's where you should put the line break.'"

12. Looking at Baby under my Christmas twig, which I never thought would make me happy . . . and doesn't really make me happy but does make me undergo a sort of formal acknowledgment of mourning and redemption.

13. Getting an email from my friend Baron that says, "A poet has the right to her rage." Because she does.

Monday, December 19, 2011

I still feel relatively awful, as if taking a shower equals doing a full day's work. But I am somewhat better than I was yesterday, when I passed many dull convalescent hours on the couch reading a Barbara Pym novel and at one point even watching football, which was a new low for me. Yet even in the midst of flu, reading synchronicity can strike. Here are a few lines from Pym's A Few Green Leaves:

The silence induced by the thought of libraries was broken into by Miss Lee and Magdalen Raven, obviously in a state of agitation.

"It's Miss Grundy--something rather upsetting--she's had a kind of turn. . . . " 
"It must be the heat," said Tom. "I was rather afraid something like this might happen. I blame myself," he added. It was so much easier to take the blame, almost expected of him. 
"Oh, it's not that," said Miss Lee impatiently, "not that kind of turn--more like an experience--she says she's seen something, some person from the past." 
"A ghost?" Emma suggested. "Or something like Miss Moberly and Miss Jourdain at Versailles?"

Yes, this Miss Jourdain is the elder sister of Milly Jourdain the poet, decorative arts historian Margaret Jourdain (and companion of Ivy Compton-Burnett), and mathematician Philip Jourdain. And here's a retelling of the "incident at Versailles."

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sick all night and recuperating today. Will write more when I don't feel like I've been flattened by a paver.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Finished a poem yesterday . . . one of those delirious two-day writes, as if a ghoul had risen from hell and infested my tongue, fingers, heart, eyes. In this case the ghoul was that horrible psychological autopsy of the Lake murders, and the poem is constructed around the myriad voices of people who saw what could happen while also seeing nothing. It is one of those poems that drives the poet into sickness and brutality and could be an advertisement for why being a writer doesn't make anyone feel better about anything. Nonetheless, I think it's a real poem, though it will give no one any pleasure to read. 

And now I will turn my attention to cole slaw and a Christmas party. Thanks for being my friends.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Sonnet 7

from Sonnets Written in the Orillia Woods

Charles Sangster

Our life is like a forest, where the sun
Glints down upon us through the throbbing leaves;
The full light rarely finds us. One by one,
Deep rooted in our souls, there springeth up
Dark groves of human passion, rich in gloom,
At first no bigger than an acorn-cup.
Hope threads the tangled labyrinth, but grives
Till all our sins have rotted in their tomb,
And made the rich loam of each yearning heart
To bring forth fruits and flowers to new life.
We feel the dew from heaven, and there start
From some deep fountain little rills whose strife
Is drowned in music. Thus in light and shade
We live, and move, and die, through all this earthly glade.

I read this intensely beautiful poem for the first time yesterday. The poet, Charles Sangster (1822-93), was born in Kingston, Ontario, and began his working life making ordnance for the navy. Although he later became a newspaper editor and a postal employee, he was generally unhappy and overworked. He married three times, and two of his wives died young. He had a passel of kids and a nervous breakdown; and although when younger he had published his work to acclaim, his output eventually dwindled to almost nothing. In a letter to a friend he wrote: "When I went down to Ottawa [to the post office job] . . . I took a pile of M.S. of a third volume with me, as I thought 'ready for the press,' but in all the 18 years I remained there I did little more than correct. . . . When they get a man into the Civil Service, their first duty is to crush him flat, and if he is a fool of a Poet, or dares to think of any nonsense of that kind, draw him through a Knot or a gimlet hole a few times, pile [him] with agony of toil, toil, toil until his nerves are flattened out, all the rebound knocked out of him, and then–superannuate him . . . and tell him he should be thankful."

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Yesterday evening I spent some time reading a document that I have been avoiding: the so-called "psychological autopsy" of the Lake family's murders and suicide--a long, detailed report on the case and various hindsight indicators of imminent violence. The thing is both dull and horrendous, and it's available online if, for some reason, you want to look at it. The authors are a group of ex-cops who asked the families if they could conduct this autopsy as a way to help families, law enforcement, and the judicial system improve their response to domestic violence. As you can imagine, it took a great deal of bravery for the families to participate in this process; and Linda has still not brought herself to read the final report.

I don't know why, but certain bits of the text struck me as particularly strange and disturbing. The following statement, for instance, gave me sudden pause: "Intimate relationships are increasingly complex and potentially dangerous in direct proportion to the degree that spouses or partners are not 'soul mates.' Soul mates are relationally fulfilled by an individual intimate partner and tend to have very few or in some cases no disagreements . . . what we refer to as 'a low coefficient of friction.'"

This has got to be the most depressing definition of soul mate that I have ever heard; as Tom said, apparently, for a cop, all one has to do to be a soul mate is to not fight with your partner. None of this "twin minds/twin hearts/intellectual and erotic equals" stuff so beloved of the poets. It makes me very sad to think that safe boredom might be equated with happiness. And yet, of course, in Amy's case it would have been.

For here's the other passage that struck me cold: "According to our sources, Steven owned either 20 or 21 firearms and had purchased 7 or 8 pellet guns for Coty as a child. It was stated that Steven would use plastic pellets in those guns to occasionally shoot Christmas tree ornaments hanging from the tree in the family living room in Wellington, including heirloom ornaments. Steven was described to us, however, by many of our sources as 'mouthy, but I did not think dangerous.'"

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Yesterday I watched the Harmony boys' basketball team play possibly the worst game I've ever seen, with a score along the lines of 60 to 7. Meanwhile, I got to spend an hour in the stands wincing at my own personal 8th-grade Drama King's flounces and groans. Sometimes it's just better not to watch one's children play sports.

On the bright side, James went to school with a fake mustache in his pocket, which he plans to don "at the perfect moment." He also spent some poker-faced time this morning earnestly explaining to me that I would be a better mother if I cooked more bacon. In addition, we had a long conversation about what we would say if we were talking stuffed monkeys with pull strings. Clearly he's in a good mood about something.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Unbeknownst to one another, my friend Baron and I have both been writing about the Dove-Vendler debacle. Here's a link to what he has to say about it. As one might expect, he's brilliant.

What I ended up doing yesterday was writing a teaching statement for the Frost Place. Here it is, in case you're interested. And thank you to the teachers who gave me the opportunity to see these particular students in action:

In November 2011, I visited a high school in rural Maine. Many of the students I worked with that morning were general-level ninth graders, most of them boys, all of them either resigned to boredom or openly scornful of academics. As one of their teachers told me, the school is so focused on making sure that these kids are barraged with "the basics" that there is almost no available class time for anything personal or creative. And yet, she said, so many of them long for the freedom and focus to express themselves.

This longing was evident to me and to all the staff members present that morning, even though our interactions were limited to the space of an hour-long workshop. These students, most of whom had few academic expectations, not only could write well but wanted to write well. They wanted to figure out what was going on in the work of poets such as Robert Francis and Richard Wilbur. They wanted to focus hard on subjects that mattered to them and that they knew a great deal about. They wanted to use exactly the right word for the situation they were imagining in their heads. They wanted to read each others' drafts and comment on them. They wanted to keep writing, even after our hour was up.

More than a decade ago, Baron Wormser founded the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching because of such students and their devoted, questioning, yet struggling teachers. Today the conference continues to build connections and confidence among educators who understand the value--the necessity--of creative independence and who believe that poetry is a way both to teach academic focus and to open locked windows. Poetry matters enormously--and not just to high-achieving or arts-oriented students. All children need the opportunity to wield the tools of language, to discover the power of speaking for oneself. It's entirely possible that those students I saw in November may never again get the chance to read a Frank O'Connor poem and to figure out for themselves how sentence structure can influence narrative and emotion because they, like O'Connor, got the chance to use sentence structure to influence narrative and emotion. Perhaps this will be the last poem these fourteen-year-olds ever write. Meanwhile, they have a life to endure, with all of its joys and tragedies. Surely, one duty of our schools is to give our children at least a handful of ways to articulate that endurance.

Monday, December 12, 2011

I have turned in my editing project. The library is closed on Mondays, so I can't go pick up my interlibrary loan order of anthology possibilities. The house will be quiet and empty until 2:30. Therefore, I just might write something today. I have been mulling over an essay, tentatively titled "Why I Don't Write about Cooking." Or I could go back to the western Pennsylvania poems. Or I could impose a few revisions on the forthcoming CavanKerry collection. I don't know. It's 8:15 a.m. and no one in the world expects me to do anything in particular for at least 6 hours. I may end up staring out the window at the apple tree that's collapsed into my garden, which would probably be fine too.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Finally, a quiet morning. No incipient 8th-grade craft fair or turkey dinner; no monitoring of arguments over who used up all the hot water in the shower. Merely a cold kitchen and strong coffee--a great improvement.

Yesterday, while Paul and I were craft-fair hosting, Tom and James went out into the woods and cut down a Christmas tree. It may be the ugliest tree we've ever featured in our home, although the competition has always been stiff. Living as we do on a 40-acre woodlot packed with conifers, we find it difficult to justify the idea of purchasing a pine tree, no matter how plump and shapely it might be. This particular tree is, in James's words, "skimpy." I'd say that's a kindly description of what is more or less an oversized twig. However, festooned with an inordinate number of lights, anything can look charming, and the twig looks quite cheerful in its tight corner.

I'm trying to concentrate on this cheerfulness; for while I was sitting beside the craft-fair's soup table, shell-shocked from playing Christmas carols for 6 hours, my friend Linda came over and put her arms around me and said, "Guess what? I found Baby."

Maybe you remember last summer's murders? Maybe you remember my telling you about Linda, whose daughter and grandchildren were killed by her son-in-law? Maybe you remember that I mentioned her dead grandson's rag doll, who used to be mine? That's Baby. On Tuesday morning I am going over to Linda's house and she will present me with Baby. And then we'll both cry. And then Baby will live somewhere in my house for the rest of my life. I feel terrible.

Friday, December 9, 2011

1. Today is December 9. I live in central Maine. The 45th parallel runs through my living room. Johnny-jump-ups are blooming in my garden. Something is wrong here.

2. College essay update: In what I hope will be the penultimate pass through J's essay, I finally laid a finger on the piece, which is to say I marked it up with queries without actually correcting anything myself. The queries ranged from typo notation, to grammatical inquiries, to questions about specific details. As with the other revisions, I emailed it to him, but this time he asked me to sit down with him and discuss each point of contention. In one or two places he was adamant and/or crabbily defensive about his original wording. His father, who was washing dishes and also hates having his writing marked up, chimed in on my side of the debate, which was a surprise. This made J slightly less defensive but still fairly crabby. Having reached this impasse, we closed up our computers, and he immediately fell into 12 hours of coma-like slumber. Last night he claimed to have revised the essay and emailed it to me; but as of this moment, no email has actually appeared. Thus, I cannot reveal his final decision. Whatever the case, the time has come for us all to let this piece go and make the best of imperfection. Here's hoping the admissions officers do as well. There are numerous interesting tidbits in the essay, he's seventeen years old, and how much delight can they honestly expect?

3. A soupcon of Milly Jourdain: Because I have to play Christmas carols for hours and hours tomorrow, I may have no available fingers for typing a blog post. So I'll give you the next two Milly poems. As the only living experts on her oeuvre, what do you think?

Beacon Hill

Milly Jourdain

I hear the deep sea sounding through the pines,
I breathe the wash of air, all cold and clear
And know the peace that lives among the stones
With nothing near.

And then I try to see my little life,
The huge and quiet earth around me spread,
And blue hills far away, that make me feel
Without a dread.

The freshness of this scene is with me still
--In Memory's freshness that can never wane--
And all the music of the many pines
I hear again.

A Phantom Sea

Milly Jourdain

We saw from dull suburban streets
A sudden space of light--
A level line of misty hills
And shiny spots of white.

O how it made me long to feel
The sea was really there
The sharp wind blowing on my face
And sea-sounds in the air!

The hills are like my shadowed life
Where only I can sea
The waves and white sailed ships that float
On its immensity.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Here's "Hated by Literature," another essay from my well published yet unpublishable manuscript, The Vagabond's Bookshelf. I'm grateful to the editors of Solstice because this was the one chapter from the manuscript that was difficult to place. I might draw the conclusion that most journals don't care to publish ambivalencies about Malcolm X, especially when a white woman writes them.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

In the course of my anthology research, I've been learning about a Australian poet named Oodgeroo Noonaccul (formerly known as Kath Walker), who was a prominent Aboriginal activist as well as a poet and a painter. In 1974, as she was returning from a conference in Nigeria, her plane was hijacked on the tarmac at Dubai's airport. The tale is amazing and awful, and the University of Queensland's Fryer Library site tells it better than I can. Suffice it to say that Noonaccul is the author of "Australia's only literary work created on a sickbag at the point of a gun."

I had a wonderful morning teaching 9th and 10th graders yesterday, with the only downside being a room clock set to the wrong time. And I thought I'd been pacing myself so well.

In other news, on Saturday I will be providing live entertainment at the Harmony craft fair. Yes, you can drop by and listen to me sing and play carols with my friend Dave as my son Paul hawks brownies and whoopie pies to the crowd. Also, you can criticize my cooking: I will be responsible for a vat of corn chowder and several dozen rolls. According to my 3 a.m. subconscious, something will go wrong with them, though my 9 a.m. conscious can't remember what.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Dickens the Novelist: A Love Letter

Dawn Potter

[first published in the Sewanee Review (summer 2011)]

This Christmas, I did what I have not done since childhood, in those years when I annually swiped my sister’s highly desirable Arthur Rackham-decorated hardback and holed myself up in a corner with Scrooge and a box of Cheez-its: I prepared for the holiday by rereading Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

A Christmas Carol is a snug, well-organized, moralizing fairy tale; and I enjoyed it this season, as I always enjoy it; but I had to conclude, regretfully, that I didn’t adore it. Though I have a high tolerance for Victorian sentiment, even I became tired of festive holly branches and oversized Christmas geese and kindly dancing warehouse owners and jolly kissing games and pathetic but cheery invalids and that endless parade of pedagogical phantoms. Unlike Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend and Little Dorrit and so many of Dickens’s other novels, A Christmas Carol is an aphorism, a holiday card, a cheerful handshake. It celebrates and instructs; but it refuses to branch and spin and leap, to overflow history and reinvent memory, to skewer and mourn and laugh and hopelessly, restlessly yearn. I’ve spent most of a lifetime alongside Dickens’s novels; and to me, the imaginative risk and intelligence of these brilliant structural and physical adventures are the essence of this writer’s greatness. They are what make him, as F. R. and Q. D. Leavis declare in a joint preface to their series of critical essays collected as Dickens the Novelist, such a “profound, serious and wonderfully resourceful practising novelist, a master of [his art].”

Nonetheless, Dickens, even in his lesser moments, always manages to stun me; and on this year’s reading of A Christmas Carol, he did it again by page 13:

Marley’s face. It was not in impenetrable shadow as the other objects in the yard were, but had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar. It was not angry or ferocious, but looked at Scrooge as Marley used to look: with ghostly spectacles turned up upon its ghostly forehead. The hair was curiously stirred, as if by breath or hot-air; and though the eyes were wide open, they were perfectly motionless. That, and its livid colour, made it horrible; but its horror seemed to be, in spite of the face and beyond its control, rather than a part of its own expression.

Copying out this passage, I begin to realize how closely my own rhetorical style resembles Dickens’s. Having read his novels so intensely for so many years, I’m not altogether surprised at my mimicry, though I hadn’t really recognized the extent of my grammatical imitations. Like him, I have a tendency to build my clauses on principles of repetition and opposition: “It was not . . . but. . . . It was not . . . but. . . . ” Those rhetorical repetitions also infiltrate our descriptive imagery (“with ghostly spectacles turned up upon its ghostly forehead’) and the words we choose to shift readers from one independent clause to another (“That, and its livid colour, made it horrible; but its horror seemed to be, in spite of the face and beyond its control”). I, too, have an old-fashioned reliance on the subtle rhythmic and emotive powers of a judiciously placed adverb, as in Dickens’s “curiously stirred.” (Do not get me started on the ignorant adverb-hating tendencies proselytized by contemporary self-help writing manuals.) I also pay close attention to punctuation as sentence drama, in particular the vast theatrical differences between a comma and a semicolon (another much-maligned grammatical tool). But all of this, while technically intriguing, really only spotlights what Dickens and nobody else can do: to conjure up, in a handful of words, a situation or a character who feels incredibly, three-dimensionally, clumsy and dirty and smelly and real while being as impossible and as far-fetched as Aladdin or Ali Baba. (Well, maybe Shakespeare can do it too, in his own way.)

Consider, for instance, the two sentences that open the quoted paragraph: “Marley’s face. It was not in impenetrable shadow as the other objects in the yard were, but had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar.” Now, I myself have never seen a bad lobster in a dark cellar. Nor I can I think of anyone else who might have. Possibly I could find a bad lobster in a supermarket dumpster, but would the parking lot’s high-powered security lights negate the corpse’s dismal glow? Time and dumpsters being what they are, I have scant hope of verifying the accuracy of Dickens’s unsavory simile. Yet I don’t care. Without a scrap of forensic evidence or zoological insight, I can see the putrid, phosphorescent gleam of Marley’s dreadful face on the blackened door. At the same time, in true Dickens style, the simile may be horrible, but it’s also ridiculous, a product of the writer’s inimitable blend of gothic melodrama and comic-strip farce. One almost expects the bad lobster to undertake a speaking role.

What Dickens does so blithely and with such off-handed charm in A Christmas Carol—to ignite a distinct physical reality by means of an outlandish, even silly, comparison—becomes, in his major novels, a sleight-of-hand so deft and miraculous and sensitive that words fail me. Even in a relatively minor, transitory scene, such as this one from Great Expectations, his descriptions caper and glitter and dive like a gorgeous, gaudy, high-wire circus act:

It was a rimy morning, and very damp. I had seen the damp lying on the outside of my little window, as if some goblin had been crying there all night, and using the window for a pocket-handkerchief. Now I saw the damp lying on the bare hedges and spare grass, like a coarser sort of spiders’ webs, hanging itself from twig to twig and blade to blade. On every rail and gate, wet lay clammy, and the marsh-mist was so thick that the wooden finger on the post directing people to our village—a direction which they never accepted, for they never came there—was invisible to me until I was quite close under it. Then, as I looked up at it, while it dripped, it seemed to my oppressed conscience like a phantom devoting me to the Hulks.

The mist was heavier yet when I got out upon the marshes, so that instead of my running at everything, everything seemed to run at me. This was very disagreeable to a guilty mind. The gates and dikes and banks came bursting at me through the mist, as if they cried as plainly as could be, “A boy with somebody else’s pork pie! Stop him!” The cattle came upon me with like suddenness, staring out of their eyes, and steaming out of their nostrils, “Halloa, young thief!” One black ox, with a white cravat on—who even had to my awakened conscience something of a clerical air—fixed me so obstinately with his eyes, and moved his blunt head round in such an accusatory manner as I moved round, that I blubbered out to him, “I couldn’t help it, sir! It wasn’t for myself I took it!”

I could blunder my way back through those two paragraphs, with the goal of mumbling something to you about figurative comparisons and grammatical inversions and personification. But who cares? I might as well be a cross-eyed medical student attempting to dissect an eyeball with a dull axe. This, I think, is why I have such trouble writing about Dickens. I become so painfully aware of the limits of my imagination, so humbled by his shining mind, that I can barely speak. At the same time, however, he is unquestionably the root of my rereading obsession: I return to his novels more often than to any others, and I go to them for the same reason that I make mashed potatoes when I’m sad—because they are a familiar comfort, a stay during times of chaos, a predictable and nourishing satisfaction. They take care of me.

I love Great Expectations and Bleak House, Nicholas Nickleby and Little Dorrit, Dombey and Son and Our Mutual Friend. But above all the wondrous others, I love David Copperfield. Though I’m loath to commit myself on paper, this may in fact be my favorite book in the world. And just yesterday, I joyfully learned that it was also one of Tolstoy’s favorite books. What could be more cheering? According to Mrs. Leavis, “we know from numerous independent sources of Tolstoy’s conversation throughout his long life, as well as from his own written tributes, that David Copperfield was a serious and indeed fundamental influence on his work as a novelist.” In Tolstoy’s words, “Dickens was a genius such as is met with but once in a century.” And apparently, among all of Dickens’s novels, David Copperfield headed the list; for the Russian reread it many times over the course of his long life, even struggling, at least once, with the original English. “If you sift the world’s prose literature,” he said to his family, “Dickens will remain; sift Dickens, David Copperfield will remain.”

Mrs. Leavis records that “in 1905 he told [his friend and physician Dushan Petrovich] Makovitsky: ‘How good Dickens is! I should have liked to write about him!’” She quickly points out, however, that “he never seems to have done so directly.” I wonder why not. Surely Tolstoy, of all novelists, couldn’t have suffered from anything comparable to my own tongue-tied lumpishness. Mrs. Leavis, for her part, gives no credence to any such reaction, announcing in her standard imperious manner that “Tolstoy’s consistently high valuation of David Copperfield must mean that Dickens’s intentions and achievements there, in some fundamental way . . . , were perceived by Tolstoy to have an immediate relevance to his own creative problems, in helping him to formulate what he, through Dickens’s eyes, saw as the essential difficulties of living that pressed on him.”

Oh, those essential difficulties of living that press upon us. At this point I immediately become distracted and close the volume. All I want to do now is to climb into bed and read David Copperfield cover to cover and then War and Peace cover to cover, and to hell with Mrs. L’s bossy arguments and explanations in their favor. I know this is unbecoming and anti-intellectual and that it only reinforces my provincial self-absorption. And believe me, I give Mrs. Leavis grateful credit for writing such an evocative line about the difficulties of living, even though it did make me lose interest in her critique. But I suppose my problem is one of priorities—and maybe this was Tolstoy’s problem as well: why should we bother to read or write about David Copperfield when we could just reread David Copperfield?

I’m painting myself into a sticky corner here, I know. Of course, I have learned a great deal from other people’s musings about literature. Of course, I am gratified when other people choose to read my own musings. Of course, I am engaged in just such musings at this very moment. Yet the book itself stands at the center: erect and irreplaceable; in glory, in shadow; invulnerable and always alone—though a reader can have a hard time believing that a work she loves does not require her protection. I know I have taken this tack myself when I’ve written in defense of particular characters or ways of seeing, and the Leavises have a similar protective mission in Dickens the Novelist: “to register specific protests against the trend of American criticism . . . as being in general wrong-headed, ill-informed . . . , and essentially ignorant and misdirecting.”

No doubt, there are excellent reasons to crush what the pair balefully refers to as “self-indulgent vapourings [that] give no satisfaction to anyone but their perpetrators.” But in truth, David Copperfield remains indifferent. So why am I driven to write about the novel? Better, perhaps, to ask why I am driven to write at all; better to call these jottings a love letter, not an essay: for dear David Copperfield, I am writing to say that you—word by word, sentence after sentence, reading upon reading upon reading—you, David Copperfield, have invented my vision of the world.

I might begin, perhaps, with this image—“the touch of Peggotty’s forefinger as she used to hold it out to me, and of its being roughened by needlework, like a pocket nutmeg-grater.” I have always believed so wholeheartedly in that grater-like finger, though, until I was in my twenties, I knew nutmeg only as a sandy, scentless powder stored in an aged A&P tin. And then, as a Christmas gift, the dairy farmer I was working for gave me, of all things, a pocket nutmeg grater, which was so exactly like my existing image of the maidservant Peggotty’s forefinger that I nearly cried. I can’t tell you why it mattered so much, why I was so happy to have her finger in my hands. But still, twenty years later, whenever I take that grater out of the spice cupboard, always Peggotty is my first thought, not custard pie or spinach soufflĂ©.

And then there’s David, neither an ass like Pip of Great Expectations nor a good little cipher like Oliver Twist but the child that I have always wished myself to be: curious and watchful, especially of the flawed and various adults who surround him; innocent, trusting, well intentioned but also clumsy and imperfect; comical, wistful, gentle, and babyishly in love with love:

When we had exhausted the subject of the stars, . . . little Em’ly and I made a cloak of an old wrapper, and sat under it for rest of the journey. Ah, how I loved her! What happiness (I thought) if we were married, and were going away anywhere to live among the trees and in the fields, never growing older, never growing wiser, children ever, rambling hand in hand through sunshine and among flowery meadows, laying down our heads on moss at night, in a sweet sleep of purity and peace, and buried by the birds when we were dead! Some such picture, with no real world in it, bright with the light of our innocence, and vague as the stars afar off, was in my mind all the way.

In many tales, maybe even in most, such a passage would be embarrassing; but in David Copperfield the sentiments are not only funny and sweet but somehow profoundly real, as if the novel’s imaginative heart were fueling a larger, common body of hope and yearning and dear affection.

I suppose that Tolstoy must have had some parallel reaction to David’s character, who seems to reappear, at times and in altered and more sophisticated form, in Anna Karenina’s Levin and War and Peace’s Natasha and Pierre. Without question, both Dickens and Tolstoy were acutely conscious of the oxymoronic ambiguities of joy and pain, how one entwines with and supports the other; but in their rendering of these four great characters, neither writer allowed himself to veer toward the masochistic ironies of, say, Lucy Snow, heroine of Charlotte BrontĂ«’s Villette. Rather, each of the four, and David most especially, is able to release himself to himself, to exist earnestly and seriously, even at moments of great fear or deep unhappiness, even in recollection of such moments:

As I walked to and fro daily between Southwark and Blackfriars, and lounged about at meal-times in obscure streets, the stones of which may, for anything I know, be worn at this moment by my childish feet, I wonder how many of these people were wanting in the crowd that used to come filing before me in review again. . . ! When my thoughts go back now, to that slow agony of my youth, I wonder how much of the histories I invented for such people hangs like a mist of fancy over well-remembered facts! When I tread the old ground, I do not wonder that I seem to see and pity, going on before me, an innocent romantic boy, making his imaginative world out of such strange experiences and sordid things.

Several years ago I wrote a poem titled “Why I Didn’t Finish Reading David Copperfield,” a first-person fictional narrative in the voice of a high school girl who wants desperately to be in love. When I wrote the poem, I was operating under the influence of the David voice—its sweetness, its sad longing—and I tried to create a character who shared both his comic wistfulness and his earnest yearning to become love. But the influence of his voice on my writing had an unfortunate and self-perpetuating side-effect: readers and listeners consistently believed that the poem was autobiographical, that I had once been the girl riding the school bus who could not finish reading a Dickens novel. Even the journal editor who first published the poem went so far as to assure me that she, too, has always disliked Dickens.

As you might imagine, I’m unhappy about such mistakes. With so many allusions to David Copperfield woven into the fabric of the poem, shouldn’t it be self-evident that, in order to write the piece, I must have known the novel intimately? Apparently not, though the reasons, I suppose, may vary. By and large, people don’t read David Copperfield for pleasure anymore, so how could I possibly have expected them to identify my plot references, let alone the influence of David’s voice? But on the other hand, that voice is so appealing, so convincing, that it does indeed seem real. Among readers and critics who remain familiar with the novel, many continue to confound David with David’s inventor—“insinuating, through critical stupidity,” as the Leavises bitterly aver, “false assumptions about the subject’s art, character, personality, and history.”

The Leavises are cranky, but they are evidently right. In his own preface to a reprint edition of David Copperfield, Dickens showed that he did indeed draw a distinct line between himself and his creation: “Of all my books, I like this the best. It will be easily believed that I am a fond parent to every child of my fancy, and that no one can ever love that family as dearly as I love them. But, like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is David Copperfield.”

In other words, Dickens’s well-loved child was not David Copperfield but David Copperfield. Notwithstanding any borrowings from the author’s own history or personality, David the character was merely a single imaginative element within a larger creation. The novel itself was the favorite child of the writer’s fancy, this tale that he coaxed from a disconnected mass of words, molding Peggotty’s rough forefinger and David’s tender commentary and his stepfather Mr. Murdstone’s “old, double look, . . . his eye darkened with a frown,” and ramshackle Mrs. Micawber’s perpetual suckling infant and Dora’s baby-doll flirtations and Uriah Heep’s clammy machinations and the swift similes and rhetorical pauses and flourishes that rush me from one drama into the next.

I love David Copperfield so much that I can hardly bear the idea of taking it apart to critically examine its insides. I really don’t care how or why it works. All I want is to keep rereading it forever. As David says about his friend the Micawbers, “I had grown so accustomed to [them], and had been so intimate with them in their distresses, and was so utterly friendless without them, that the prospect of being thrown upon some new shift for a lodging, and going once more among unknown people, was like being that moment turned adrift into my present life.”

Monday, December 5, 2011

Busy today trying to be an exemplary employee of myself. Among my other tasks is inventing a teaching syllabus for a high school workshop tomorrow. Here it is, in case you care to disguise yourself as a 9th grader and try it out.

Quick write: A 6-line draft in 3 minutes. I prompt each line with a word: "The," "Of," "We," "Was," "Asking," "Who" (a fast and fun method of prompting that I learned from the inimitable Charlotte Gordon, one of our visiting poets at the Frost Place teaching conference).

Share drafts

Read: I read aloud Richard Wilbur's “The Barred Owl.” The students eventually figure out that the first words of RW's first stanza are the first words of their own drafts. This is an interesting way to look at a poem in form--via the first words of the lines. It tends to help readers see that formal poetry isn't all about plugging in the end rhymes.


Dictate: Line by line, I dictate Robert Francis’s “The Base Stealer,” and the students copy it down.

Longer write: 10 minutes.

1. Choose a physical activity: football, white-water rafting, splitting firewood, dancing, fighting—something you’ve done yourself or watched someone else do.

Now imagine a moment of the action, and freeze that moment in your head, like a stopped instant replay. Hold onto that picture.

Prompt, lines 1 and 2: What are the arms doing? Focus on action, movement, shape, where they are in space. Are the arms working together? Does each arm have a separate action?

Prompt, lines 3 and 4: What are the fingers doing? What are they touching? How are they moving? Does their movement remind you of anything else? What could you compare it to?

Prompt, lines 5 and 6: What are the feet doing? Where are they in space? Do they shift from one space to another? What exactly are they doing at this very moment?

Prompt, line 7: Now unfreeze that picture you've been holding in your head. What does the person’s body do as soon as the video starts rolling?

Share drafts


On iPads: Students will have copies of Frank O’Hara’s “Poem” [Lana Turner]. Taking turns, they'll read it line by line. Probably we'll hear it at least twice so that all students will get a chance to read aloud.

Free-ish write: 5 minutes

Write a poem. It has to be at least 5 lines long. Here's the rule: it has to be all in one sentence . . . no punctuation, no stopping, hurry hurry hurry

Here’s your first line, gleaned from the current edition of the Weekly World News: "FACEBOOK WILL END ON MARCH 15th, 2012!"


Sunday, December 4, 2011

I need to spend some time today figuring out how to get from Nowhere, Maine, to Somewhere, Connecticut, via our half-assed public transportation system. Toward the end of January I'll be doing a workshop and a reading at Westover School, which will be lovely, not only for itself but also because I'll get to go to New York City, and I could use an urban interlude. All this wood splitting and water hauling is healthful and intense, but sometimes I forget that such a thing as a sidewalk exists.

A bus trip from Waterville, Maine, to NYC takes roughly 10 hours and then somehow I'll need to snake my way back into Connecticut via Amtrak or commuter train. I'll also need to acquire a suitcase with a functional handle. Still there is nothing like leaving cold grey Maine before dawn and emerging, after dark, from the bowels of Port Authority onto gaudy 42nd Street. It's like kind of like getting trapped in a delayed Star Trek transport between the barren rocky planet overrun by giant wigged cavemen brandishing styrofoam clubs onto that vacation planet where Harry Mudd is shacked up with a plethora of cloned babes in hot pants and go-go boots. I always lose some molecules along the way.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

My copy of the latest New York Review of Books arrived yesterday, so I finally got a chance to read the Dove-Vendler letters to the editor. As a result, I am so melancholy I can barely speak.

Poetry is the only thing in my life that has made me feel close to being born again. This isn't to say that I conflate art with religious faith, which I do not. But it is my vocation; I believe in it seriously and without irony, with fervor and conviction, with struggle and also with all the innocence and honesty I can muster. I think this is why I am so sad about the haughtiness, the shrillness, the cruel rejoinders, the one-upsmanship, the put-downs. I do understand that one can speak critically--that is, one can examine and consider and weigh points of view. I have done so myself on this blog. I have opinions. I don't love most of the poems I read, nor do I love most of what's written about poetry. But the meanness: I hate that so much. And I do not feel that Dove's letter made anything better on that count.

Friday, December 2, 2011

I've been rereading Iris Murdoch's The Green Knight, which is now making me wish I were rereading Thucydides.

Sefton, lying on the floor in her little bedroom, was reading Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. She lay flat on her front, propped up by her elbows, her bare feet, protruding from her corduroy trousers, crossed. Of course she had read this work many times before, but there were certain parts to which she passionately returned: so cool, so elegant, so beautiful, so terrible. As she read tears began to stream down her face.

"When the day came Nicias led his army forward, but the Syracusans and their allies kept attacking in the same fashion, hurling missiles and striking them down with javelins on all sides. The Athenians pushed on to the river Assinarus, partly because they thought, hard pressed as they were on all sides by the attack of numerous horsemen and of the miscellaneous troops, that they would be somewhat better off if they crossed the river, and partly by reason of their weariness and desire for water. And when they had crossed it they rushed in, no longer preserving order, but everyone eager to be himself the first to cross, and at the same time the pressure of the enemy now made the crossing difficult. For since they were obliged to move in a dense mass they fell upon and trod one another down, and some perished at once, run through by their own spears, while others became entangled in their trappings and were carried away by the current. The Syracusans stood along the other bank of the river, which was steep, and hurled missiles down upon the Athenians, most of whom were drinking greedily and were all huddled in confusion in the hollow bed of the river. Moreover, the Peloponnesians went down to the river's edge and butchered them, especially those in the river. The water at once became foul, but was drunk all the same although muddy and dyed with blood, and indeed was fought for by most of them. At length when the dead now lay in heaps one upon the other in the river and the army had perished utterly, part in the river and part--if any got safely across--at the hands of the cavalry, Nicias surrendered himself to Gylippus."

There is great patience in the retelling of this scene, a formal yet inexorable patience, which to me is why it is, all at once, "so cool, so elegant, so beautiful, so terrible." It is like Picasso's Guernica or Civil War photographer Matthew Brady's portraits of death . . . which, even though they are neither physically nor artistically similar to this passage, share its horrible, eloquent, patient narrative of destruction.

The translator was Charles Forster Smith (1852-1931), who published his first versions of Thucydides in 1886. As I've discovered in my anthology research, many of these nineteenth-century classicists were extraordinary translators, perhaps because they adopted the rhetoric of the nineteenth-century novel: the enfolded clauses, the balanced repetitions, the metrical pacing of fine prose. There is, in a way, something of George Eliot's all-seeing eye in this passage. It is so clear and forgiving and ruthless.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Yesterday I submitted a preliminary table of contents to the publisher of my forthcoming anthology. It's still got holes, but the bulk of it exists. Yet I fear (as most anthologists do?) that I am the only person who will follow the trajectory of these selections. The problem, I'm realizing, is that a collection's editor must focus on the book as a whole whereas the reader doesn't feel required to read the volume from beginning to end. So I feel oddly disconnected from whomever will choose, or be assigned, to read this book . . . as if all my carefully knotted threads and tangents are, in the end, beside the point.

Oh, well. We write the poem we can write, and we anthologize the book we anthologize. The more I think about Rita Dove's new Penguin anthology, the more sympathy I have for her struggles. Should an editor choose works that others have overlooked? Works she is personally compelled to read? Works that other people honor but that she can't bring herself to love? And if she decides to follow all those routes, how does she balance them? How does she create a collection that is her book, as her poetry collections are her book, but that can also surprise and satisfy a reader who is nothing at all like her, neither in education nor politics nor poetic vision nor gender nor culture nor age nor place of residence on earth? The job is basically impossible.