Monday, December 31, 2012

It is the last day of the year. In time, I am forty-eight years old. In accomplishment, I have lived with the same man since I was twenty-one, have somehow managed to raise a son to adulthood, another to callow-youthhood, and within the past decade have written six books and part of a seventh, along with myriad uncollected bits and pieces of essays and poems. In space, I am a denizen of le grand bois du nord. Crows fly overhead. The firs creak and sway in the cold morning air. In the mirror, I am blue-eyed. In my dream, I lie in the berth of a rocking train, swiftly pulling me into the horizon. In song, he done me wrong. In truth, no and yes and I also and what difference does it make? Happy new year to all of you.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Another year draws to a close, and I sit here, drinking the same coffee, at the same old Formica table, in the same small red house, in the same clearing, in the same forest, under the same snowfall, avoiding the same chores. Something must change. Clearly something has already changed. One son is gone; the other is large. The dog's eyes have become cloudy, and my hair has become grayer. I consider a future in which I might possess the only key to a door. I consider waking up in a two-room flat at the top of a windy hill. I consider dinner for two, night after night; dinner for one, night after night. I consider never canning another tomato again. Which joke, which embrace, will be the last?

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Snapshots from "A Poet's Sourcebook" (12)

This is my final snapshot from A Poet's Sourcebook, which will be released on January 1, 2013. All of the poets and readers featured in this section are young accomplished writers from around the world, and the final entrant was only ten years when he wrote his remarks.

from Mike Walker
Often, the very reasons we write are tied to the stressors that nearly prohibit our writing.

from Autumn McClintock
Allow me to say this: the idea that time heals wounds and allows us to get over someone's death is bullshit.

from Garth Greenwell
So many of the moments that seem most constitutive of who I have become, as important as my encounters with poems or with men I have genuinely loved, have been passed in these cramped, ill-lit, often unclean spaces.

from Rory Waterman
At least part of finding out must be in the writing, surely--or, as E. M. Forster put it, "How can I know what I think till I see what I say?"

from Mthabisi Phili
no there is no poetry these days
no meat no food--even water goes on vacation

from Ethan Richard
Poetry is like a very well read 3 year old, it uses terrific words, but uses them so strangely and it always spouts the truth you don't want other people to hear in public.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Snowbound in Vermont. Three dogs snore as the wind whips around the house. It is a glorious day in which to shelve our plans to steer a two-wheel-drive car over the White Mountains.

Though I have time and solitude, I am finding it difficult to settle down to reading or writing, and "no private space in which some male family member isn't sleeping" is more or less of an excuse as I have been known to write poems in airports. So instead I'll quote James Baldwin:
The only useful definition of the word "majority" does not refer to numbers, and it does not refer to power. It refers to influence. Someone said, and said it very accurately, that what is honored in a country is cultivated there. If we apply this touchstone to American life we can scarcely fail to arrive at a very grim view of it. But I think we have to look grim facts in the face because if we don't, we can never hope to change them.
Nevertheless, here I sit in a chair by the window, snowbound in Vermont.

The quiet truth, the hideous truth. Consorting in combination, these two are an analogue for many a Frost and a Dickinson poem. That is not a news flash, I know. But I am sitting here in my chair consorting again with those truths and those dark ancestors.

Says Frost, "All out-of-doors looked darkly in at him / Through the thin frost, almost in separate stars."

And Dickinson replies, "This World is not Conclusion."

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Today we forge west over the mountains for Christmas with my family. No doubt, my posts will become spotty and distracted over the next few days; so while I still have the chance, I want to wish you a peaceable yet comic holiday in which you are able to set aside all petty disputes with your loved ones while enjoying faux-bloodcurdling competitive card games or fireside chats about dogs you have known.

Much love to you all--

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Another New Convulsion: Americans, Intellect, and Bad Faith

In his 1959 essay "Nobody Knows My Name: Letter from the South," James Baldwin wrote, "The South . . . was now undergoing a new convulsion over whether black children had the same rights, or capacities, for education as did the children of white people. This is a criminally frivolous dispute, absolutely unworthy of this nation; and it is being carried on, in complete bad faith, by completely uneducated people. (We do not trust educated people and rarely, alas, produce them, for we do not trust the independence of mind which alone makes a genuine education possible.)"

A half-century after Baldwin wrote those words, I lay in bed reading his essay. I'd spent a week weeping over the schoolhouse slaughter in Connecticut, and now I was fuming over the subsequent "not our fault" press conference of that ass Wayne LaPierre, spokesmodel for the neanderthal organization known as the National Rifle Association. And Baldwin's words leaped from their context into mine--for yes: this, too, "is a criminally frivolous dispute, absolutely unworthy of this nation; and it is being carried on in complete bad faith, by completely uneducated people."

Any member of my household would be the first to confirm that I am irrational, illogical, and unscientific in my approach to living. I'll do almost anything to avoid a world that involves formulae. I am a devotee of wishful thinking; I cling to the old ways; I fall apart in arguments. But despite my failings as a rationalist, I have always believed in the scientific method as a reliable pattern of discovery. When trained and careful scientists, one after the other, explain the causes and effects of global warming, I tend to believe them. Likewise, when trained and careful researchers explain that the simple equation more guns = more deaths is exactly accurate, I also tend to believe them. Why do I tend to believe these people whom I don't know personally, whose endeavors are mysterious to me? Because they are intellectuals--that is, people who actually think. I believe in the workings of the intelligent brain.

On the other hand, I have spent most of my adult life in a section of rural America that worships guns, hunting, and traditional definitions of manliness; that devalues education and art and independent thought. In Tracing Paradise I wrote extensively about why and how I live in this place, even to the point of including a long chapter on why I purposely asked a friend to shoot a goat. I may not own a gun, but I understand their utility--in this case, as a way to quickly and humanely kill a large sick animal. It was a relief, and a gift, to have a friend who was willing to do this for me, and to do it not only respectfully but with full cognizance of his, and my, moral ambiguities in the matter.

I love my homeland, and I respect my neighbors for reasons that have nothing to do with education or politics. Simple contiguity has, over the years, pressed us to cross such divides, and this necessity has--and I feel this deeply in my heart--allowed both of us, on both sides of the chasm, to learn to love one another and value one another as individuals rather than stereotypes. Nonetheless, I fear--I know--that many of these individuals, whom I can embrace with genuine affection over the bed of a sick child, also automatically accepted the idiocies that LaPierre spewed in his press conference. These are the same people who suffered with me through the horrors of the murders in Dexter a year and half ago; they are, for all I know, the parents of the murdered woman. I would not be surprised, not at all, to learn that most of her family and friends assume that LaPierre's claims are facts.

I am frustrated, and sickened, and terrified by such perpetuated blindness. I have no idea what can be done to change it.

Friday, December 21, 2012

It's been snowing here for days; and though accumulations are light, the air shimmers day and night with clusters of flakes, and even the tiniest twigs are coated with new white. Our yard looks like a snow globe. In the meantime the cars are falling apart. Already this week I have had a rear brake failure on one vehicle and a windshield-washer pump failure on another, and this morning I have to deal with a dead headlight. Add to these crappy cars and messy roads an intense need for fresh baking supplies, not to mention dog food and toilet paper, and you can guess how I will be unjoyfully spending a few of my morning hours.

As the flurries and I drove home together from band practice last night, I was listening to Boston's Handel and Haydn Society perform their annual rendition of The Messiah at Symphony Hall. I lustily sang along with the counter-tenor (he sounding like butter, me sounding like some demented ugly frog princess) and imagined how lovely it would be to spend an evening listening to The Messiah at Symphony Hall and then walk home among the perpetually falling snowflakes with no broken-down car or slick pavement to distract me from my holiday cheer (as if twenty massacred babies hadn't already pretty seriously distracted me). And then I imagined how difficult it would be not to sing along with the counter-tenor like a demented ugly frog princess but have to sit nicely in my plush seat for a million hours till the program was over, and then it became hard to decide which option was better: the real or the transmitted, the walking sweetly or the driving unsweetly. In theory I am all for live music. In truth I am a terrible fidgeter.

But back to the counter-tenor. My familiar version of The Messiah is the recording my parents had when I was small and which I still own. This is one of those thick four-disk sets that forces a listener to flip the record every ten minutes, and it stars, as bass soloist, the guy who sang "Old Man River" in Showboat. It's very likely that, in 1962 or whenever this was recorded, no one in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir had ever heard of a counter-tenor. (Perhaps they still haven't.) So instead the recording features a contralto, and I have to say it took me all of yesterday's ride home to come to terms with this counter-tenor "interloper," who I understand was no doubt more faithful to Handel's intentions but who rolled his r's distractingly and added a touch of coyness to "He Was Despised," a part that I had always taken for granted as "big lady singing a sad song." In real life I am quite fond of the sound of a counter-tenor, but I know that I am also the last person to warm up to change. Call me a reactionary, but The Messiah is its own version of Tolstoyan familiarity. Just don't give me a new version of War and Peace in which Prince Andrey shows up as Prince Andrew. That's all I ask.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Snapshots from "A Poet's Sourcebook" (11)

from Naomi Shihab Nye
She knew what I meant. That was a wing to fly on all the way home, or for the rest of a life.

from Rita Dove
And when someone tells you your poem is bad, it doesn't mean that your heart is bad.

from Sam Watson
In November 1974, a BOAC aircraft was hijacked in Dubai by Palestinian terrorists. The aircraft was flown to Tunisia and held on the tarmac for three days. [Indigenous Australian poet] Kath Walker, member of the Steering Committee for the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, was on that plane. Walker pleaded with the hijackers on behalf of the passengers, particularly a German banker who had been targeted for execution.

from Lynda Hull
Gone to seed, ailanthus, the poverty
     tree. Take a phrase, then
fracture it, the pods' gaudy nectarine shades
          ripening to parrots taking flight, all crest
and tall feathers.
                                       A musical idea.

from Teresa Carson
I admit that, in some ways, it would be hard to find two poets more different in personal or poetic style. It might be easy to elevate Keats as a "true poet" and dismiss Jack [Wiler] as a "loud poseur." Keats was Apollo; Jack was Lear's Fool. Keats lived on Mount Helicon; Jack lived in Jersey City. Keats was a prophet; Jack, by his own admission, was "the jibbering monkey." One imagines Keats standing in a Greek amphitheater, intoning "Ode to a Nightingale" to hushed acolytes. One imagines Jack commanding a makeshift stage in Starr's Bar, shouting "How to Succeed in Pest Control" to heckling drunks.

from Dawn Potter
Great art grows from the intensity of an artist's interaction with her own life. I don't mean to imply that her life has to be dramatic or even all that interesting. But the artist must make long acquaintance with her days--days that are rarely trancelike but that plod through the seasons: that strip the beds and ream out the barns and trudge through the snow to the insurance office.

from Honoree Fanonne Jeffers
After all, we had not studied
the masters' poesy, we knew
nothing about central metaphors,
conceits, literary vehicles.

from Brenda Shaughnessy
Sometimes dangerous girls meet each other and it's almost as if they are time-travelers.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

from James Baldwin, "What It Means to Be an American"

Of course, the reason for Europe's comparative clarity concerning the different functions of men in society is that European society has always been divided into classes in a way that American society never has been. A European writer considers himself to be part of an old and honorable tradition--of intellectual activity, of letters--and his choice of a vocation does not cause him any uneasy wonder as to whether or not it will cost him all his friends. But this tradition does not exist in America.

On the contrary, we have a very deep-seated distrust of real intellectual effort (probably because we suspect that it will destroy, as I hope it does, the myth of America to which we cling so desperately). An American writer fights his way to one of the lowest rungs on the American social ladder by means of pure bull-headedness and an indescribable series of odd jobs. He probably has been a "regular fellow" for much of his adult life, and it is not easy for him to step out of that lukewarm bath.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Teaching project: week 8

After a three-week gap created by another job and a snow day, I finally limped back to school, bumbling my way north as the slush fell thickly from the sky and the old Subaru's windshield-washer pump gasped and died. Originally the classroom teachers and I had planned to run a little performance contest; but given the events in Newtown and the generalized shell shock that all of us who work in schools are fighting, the teachers weren't exactly in the mood for the sort of hyper-management this would require, which was a good thing, because neither was I.

So before we got started on a low-key version of a public reading, I sat down and reminded the students of the Dexter murders, a local horror that lives vividly in all of our minds, and told them I had written a poem about the event a year before it had even happened. And I said, This is a hard thing for me to keep facing. But poetry is what people turn to when they can't make sense out of anything.

And then I read them this poem, "Rain," by Naomi Shihab Nye.

And then for the rest of the class, I sat in a corner and let them read their own work.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Snapshots from "A Poet's Sourcebook" (10)

from an interview with Toi Derricotte (the interviewers were eighth graders)
Ms. Derricotte: I used to hang out with groups of people who were what they called "beatniks." And beatniks were like people in the fifties, who were really intellectuals. They liked to read, they liked to talk about ideas, play chess, they like jazz. People like that. What are people like that called now? 
Joseph: Old-timers?
from Galsan Tschinag
Defence of poetry thus means: defence of humanity, defence of authenticity, it means defence of the stone against plaster, defence of wood against plastic, defence of the word of the mother tongue against the foreign word, the technical jargon, defence of feeling against hypocrisy and finally defence of everything real and true against the fashion of the day and intentional lies.

from Yusef Komunyakaa
Emotional texture is drawn from the aesthetics of insinuation and nuance. But to do this well the poet has to have a sense of history.

from Baron Wormser
If T. S. Eliot's weirdly magisterial poem The Waste Land were cast into the form of a television show, what would it look like?

from Bei Dao
an alien voice sneaking into the dictionary
a dissident
perhaps a form of distance from the world

from Elizabeth McElrea
On the subject of drugs Auden speaks from experience. His criticisms of marijuana use are that it reduces coherence, inflates egos, and for the young especially, prevents one from discovering his own identity. Artistically, he found the experience uncommunicatable and hence useless. With LSD, "nothing happened."

from Charles Bernstein
My poetry doesn't convey what I know, it explores the conditions of how I know it.

from Jack Wiler
This is high school. 
And since it's high school every fucking one of them has to pretend that nothing happens outside their door. They have to act like mommy and daddy are nice and the kids are okay and it's a good idea to invade various small countries and the best way to get along is go along and so we can't have any fucking, queer, poet, shithead going around saying cunt in front of the kids because god knows where that would lead.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

I have received one of the nicest Christmas presents ever. My college boy, home for the holiday, remarked to me in the car, "You know, all that work you made me do on my college essays really helped me out. And this year, when a friend asked me to look at her essays, I used what you taught me as way to get her to fix up her writing." And then he said, "One thing I'm finding out is that writing is a way to figure out new ways to think about what you don't know, and understanding grammar and parts of speech and stuff is really, really helpful when I'm trying to do that."

Oh, the torment of last year's college essays! He was so grumpy and defensive and procrastinatey, and I was forced to be the nag queen, and it was all so unpleasant. So I couldn't have been more surprised, and more delighted, to receive this unexpected thanks and to know that he continues to find what I taught him useful and compelling.

If you're interested in reliving my three-part emergency college essay intervention strategies, check out these links from last year.

Revision strategy 1
Revision strategy 2
Revision strategy 3

Of course, I tailored these strategies, particularly the third one, to address specific weak points in my son's drafts; but as I reread them again after a year of not thinking about them, I believe they do cohere as a valid, layered approach to guiding a writer structurally while not damaging her voice or point of view. In real life, I also required a fourth step, which for some reason I didn't document: the proofreading stage, in which the writer hunts down the final typos and mechanical errors. With kids I often find the best way to get them to focus on these picky details, especially missing words, noun-verb agreement problems, etc., is to have someone else read the essay aloud, slowly, while the writer follows along on his own copy and circles or highlights the mistakes as he hears them. Then, on the final pass-through, he can focus on caps and punctuation without being distracted by the typo issue.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Yesterday's slaughter of the innocents has distressed me more than I can coherently say. I love my own children so much; I spend so much time working as a poet in so many different schools; I am so committed to the teachers who invite me into their lives; and my heart breaks so much for those lonely young men whom I don't know how to reach in even the most rudimentary of ways. It seems as if every character in this morality play has wound itself into my vocation . . . as I've both succeeded and failed in it.

But here is a glimmer of light. Adults will lay down their lives for children, even at moments of unspeakable terror. This is not sentiment but an instinct of our humanity.

Here is another glimmer. When I cry, "I love you," you cry in return, "I know. I love you too." And this, too, is not sentiment but an instinct of our humanity.

Friday, December 14, 2012

My memoir-essay, "The Cumulative Shrinking Effect of Explanation," is out today in the current issue of Solstice Literary Magazine.
The last sentence of Dickens's Little Dorrit may be my favorite last sentence in all of the books I have ever read. When I finished the novel (again) last night, all I could do was close the cover and lay both hands on it and let the tears prickle behind my eyelids. I felt as if I were listening to the one line of a song that, no matter where I am in this life, comes back to me and back to me, the one line that tells the story of every song and every listener, now and forever.
They went quietly down into the roaring streets, inseparable and blessed; and as they passed along in sunshine and shade, the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the froward and the vain, fretted, and chafed, and made their usual uproar.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Snapshots from "A Poet's Sourcebook" (9)

from Hayden Carruth
Once the poet was our spokesman and not our oracle, our advocate and not our secret agent, or at least he was as much the one as the other; and if he did not speak for us, all of us, fully and warmly, if his poems lacked the larger vision of humanity, we said he was deficient in one of the qualities that, virtually by definition, make a poet.

from Philip Larkin
It is fatal to decide, intellectually, what good poetry is because you are then in honour bound to try to write it, instead of the poems that only you can write.

from Denise Levertov
And in a dream these things danced together and reassembled.

from John Berger
One can say anything to language. This is why it is a listener, closer to us than any silence or any god.

from Philip Levine
What Lorca gave me as no other poet had was a validation of my own emotions, which meant a validation of what I was trying and failing to write.

from Adrienne Rich
My swirling wants. Your frozen lips.
The grammar turned and attacked me.
Themes, written under duress.
Emptiness of the notations.

from Gregory Corso
When I got the proofs I felt both good and sad, good because there are some very good poems in book, and sad because there aren't any poems that bespeak my dream my idea my lyric, God knows what, but I definitely feel the book lacks the dessert of my poetry.

from Gary Snyder
You cannot communicate with the forces of nature in a laboratory.

from Audre Lorde
The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

My mom, Janice Miller Potter, has just released her collection Meanwell, a series of 24 poems told from the imagined point of view of Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet's servant. I read it for the first time myself yesterday, and it really is a lovely and tragic tale of the history of women's speech and silence.

In other news, the freezer-delivery men arrive this morning, and Little Dorrit's father has just died in Rome. Also, to add a surreal note to these mundanities, my vet has told me that my poodle is addicted to water. Who knew such a thing could happen to a perfectly nice middle-class dog?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A dark morning, glimmering with snow. I can hear the town plow trucks beeping and clanking at the sand pile, the tires of cars grating over the pebbled slush on the road. I expected to be on my way to high school this morning, primed to teach another poetry class; but yesterday's snow day has thrown off the weekly schedule, so instead I am sitting here in my pink flannel bathrobe listening to the downstairs burble of headlines, to the trucks at the sand pile, to the hum of a refrigerator busily recharging its ice after an overnight without electricity.

I've been reading Little Dorrit--more like swallowing Little Dorrit in greedy chunks, forgetting to chew, and occasionally choking on it. What is it about Dickens that transforms me into such a sloppy reader? I've been filling out crossword puzzles, filling out Christmas cards, reading recipes, editing manuscripts, circling and circling my own work like a bemused shark. I can't seem to stop inventing mixed metaphors or scrolling through car-radio stations. What am I hoping to find there? My choices are (1) Rush Limbaugh, (2) Rod Stewart, (3) Taylor Swift, (3) football announcers, (4) public radio news yack, none of which fits my bill, whatever that bill might be. And all of this scanning is foolish, considering that my husband has the largest record collection in the western hemisphere. I could listen to Lionel Hampton all day long. But for now all I listen to are sand trucks and squirrels and my own accidental hiccups and murmurs.

Give me a reason for living, plead the radio voices . . . even Rush. How he must suffer under the weight of that hideous soul. Beyond a film of trees, a school bus rumbles over the gritty pavement. My thoughts are mundane. I cannot disguise my ordinary eye. I read Little Dorrit like a schoolgirl reads Twilight. Sometimes I think, All I have to share is pity.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Snapshots from "A Poet's Sourcebook" (8)

from Edward Thomas
Possibly at nineteen Herrick really believed that in the country all was "purling springs, groves, birds, and well-weav'd bowers, with fields enamelled with flowers"; that there were none of those "desperate cares th' industrious merchant has"; that men there ate only "to cool, not cocker appetite," and "content makes all ambrosia"--"boiled nettles" and all. But it is more likely that Herrick got it all from books.

from Wallace Stevens
For my own part I like to live in a classic atmosphere, full of my own gods and to be true to them until I have some better authority than merely a contrary opinion for not being true to them.

from Lytton Strachey
[Thomas Lovell Beddoes's] tragedy, like Hamlet's, was the tragedy of an overpowerful will--a will so strong as to recoil upon itself, and fall into indecision.

from Virginia Woolf
They were boastful, triumphant; it seemed to both that they had read every book in the world; known every sin, passion, and joy.

from Ezra Pound
Obviously, it is not easy to be a great poet. If it were, many more people would have done so.

from T. S. Eliot
No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.

from Vladimir Nabokov
The kind of poem I produced in those days was hardly anything more than a sign I made of being alive, of passing or having passed, or hoping to pass, through certain intense human emotions.

from Theodore Roethke
You know how things get from too much laundering: the rubber in the various intimate equipment disintegrates, the string would bust in my sweat pants; there'd be a hole in my racket. Well, do you get the analogy: that's me and free verse.

from Czeslaw Milosz
For we all who are here, both the speaker and you who listen, are no more than links between the past and future.

A Keresan Poet
I refuse to tell it.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Today's activities. More cookie baking, more wood splitting, more throwing pieces of bark for the poodle to chase, more pots of strong coffee, more jokes about the ineptitude of the poodle in finding the bark that was thrown for her, more wood splitting, more wood splitting (sigh), more trying to wake up the teenager, more cookie eating, more picking burs out of the poodle's curls after she hunts fruitlessly for the bark in a pricker patch. Etc.

But regarding the photo above, what do you think: does that rhino look cute or as if he's suffering from a skin disease?

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Snapshots from "A Poet's Sourcebook" (7)

from 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.

from Matthew Arnold
The grand power of poetry is its interpretive power; by which I mean, not a power of drawing out in black and white an explanation of the mystery of the universe, but the power of so dealing with things as to awaken in us a wonderfully full, new, and intimate sense of them, and of our relations with them.

from Thomas Wentworth Higginson
The war brought to some of us, besides its direct experiences, many a strange fulfilment of dreams of other days.

from Walter Pater
Well! that is because any writer worth translating at all has winnowed and searched through his vocabulary, is conscious of the words he would select in systematic reading of a dictionary, and still more of the words he would reject were the dictionary other than Johnson's; and doing this with his peculiar sense of the world ever in view, in search of an instrument for the adequate expression of that, he begets a vocabulary faithful to the colouring of his own spirit, and in the strictest sense original.

from Emily Dickinson
Mr. Higginson,--are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?
from Paul Verlaine
The tune is everything--
     so prefer the the irregular
          line that dissolves in the air,
to the stodginess of "meaning."

from Gerard Manley Hopkins
What you look at seems to look hard at you.

from William Butler Yeats
I am persuaded that our intellects at twenty contain all the truths we shall ever find, but as yet we do not know truths that belong to us from opinions caught up in casual irritation or momentary phantasy.

from Robert Frost
I slumbered with your poems on my breast.

from Rainer Maria Rilke
Irony: Do not let yourself be governed by it, especially not in uncreative moments.

Friday, December 7, 2012

I'm going to talk about food today. It is always a notable shift for me--these dark evenings of the waning year, when I begin to forsake the garden for preserved food. I have harvested the last of my brussels sprouts and nearly all of my kale; already I have made a sizable dent in my prideful display of canned tomatoes, and I'm back to buying grocery store lettuce. Still, the freezer and the cupboard are not bare yet, and I've made a couple of meals recently that remind me that stored or preserved foodstuffs do not imply any lessening of quality. To wit:

December Risotto

Broth base: 1 quart clam liquor (left over from a summer steamer feast, then strained and frozen) thawed and heated along with 3 cups of plain water to reduce the saltiness

Minced and then sauteed together: 1 small onion (from the grocery store because my onion crop was a big failure), a small handful of wild honey mushrooms (picked in October, dried over the wood stove, then soaked in warm water for half an hour, rinsed, and squeezed dry), a tablespoon of red pepper flakes (from my own hot peppers strung up to dry in the kitchen and then scissored into the pan), 3 tablespoons of olive oil (you'll be surprised to hear this, but for some reason I can't seem to grow olives in Maine).

Add 2 cups of white arborio rice, stirring until the grains are thoroughly oiled.

Slowly, over the course of 20 minutes or so, ladle in the broth, stirring more or less constantly as the rice absorbs the liquid, although it's fine to take breaks to replenish your wine glass or to turn the page of the Dickens novel you're reading while you're standing at the stove.

When the rice has absorbed all the liquid and is no longer crunchy, stir in a pat of butter and a spoonful of minced parsley (which several months ago I emulsified in the food processor with a touch of bland oil, which helps the leaves keep their color, then froze in small containers and now thaw as needed). Finally, stir in a half-cup of grated good-quality parmesan (purchased along with the aforementioned wine at Miccucci's Grocery in Portland, Maine, during a foray into civilization).

Set the table, light the little angel chime candles, and serve with a salad: organic baby arugula from the grocery store combined with split brussels sprouts quickly pan-roasted with olive oil and garlic from the stash under the sink (fortunately my garlic plants thrived, unlike those stupid onions); add a splash of balsamic vinegar and a soupcon of salt and pepper, and you're done.

For two or three people, this lovely simple supper does not require any other additions: there's plenty of rice available for seconds. That's not say that a warm baguette wouldn't be nice too, if you had one.

If you do end up with leftovers, heat some peanut or grapeseed oil in a skillet, form the risotto into patties, and fry them up. Tom eats these for breakfast. They also make a good layer under the next day's sauced chicken thighs or marinated pork chops.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Snapshots from "A Poet's Sourcebook" (5)

from Thomas Carlyle
Let a man but speak forth with genuine earnestness the thought, the emotion, the actual condition of his own heart; and other men, so strangely are we all knit together by the tie of sympathy, must and will give heed to him.

from Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Deal with us nobly, women though we be,
And honour us with truth, if not with praise.

from Edgar Allan Poe
A very short poem, while now and then producing a brilliant or vivid, never produces a profound or enduring effect.

from Mikhail Yurievich Lermontov
I am not Byron--yet I am
One fore-elected, yet one more
Unknown, world-hunted wanderer,
A Russian in my mood and mind.

from Henry David Thoreau
Here is a small reddish-topped rush (is it the Juncus effusus, common or soft rush?), now a foot high, in the meadow with the cowslip. It is the greatest growth of the grass form I have seen. The butterflies are now more numerous, red and blue-black or dark velvety. The art of life, of a poet's life, is, not having anything to do, to do something.

from Frederick Douglass
In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both.

from Emily Bronte
The kitchin is in a very untidy state. Anne and I have not done our music exercise which consists of b major. Tab[b]y said on my putting a pen in her face, "Ya pitter pottering there instead of pilling a potate." I answered, "O Dear, O Dear, O dear, I will directly."

from Walt Whitman
The poet shall not spend his time in unneeded work. He shall know that the ground is always ready plowed and manured.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

I'm on the road again today--a quick trip to southern New Hampshire, where I'll be working with a  group of eighth graders as well as few assorted parents and teachers in an after-school writing consortium. And then (except for my local high school project), my teaching travels are over for the season. Thanks to the Schafer family, who funded the grants that have allowed me to take the Frost Place on the road, I've had an unusually busy autumn. Still, I am looking forward to a snowy month or two at home. I seem to be on the cusp of another bout of writing, and it would be  a relief to have time and space for that seizure. I continue to slowly copy out Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters, and I've finished another western Pennsylvania poem. But I also have a sense of emotional immanence, a kind of migraine aura without the physical pain, that so often presages my most productive periods. And I am beginning to reread my old childhood novels--Alcott, Dickens--those books I crave before I start my own writing. They are like a longing for mashed potatoes and hot vanilla pudding--a rich, predictable, invalid reading diet. They tell me, I hope, that I am getting ready for the work.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Snapshots from "A Poet's Sourcebook" (4)

from William Blake
I have a thousand & ten thousand things to say to you. My heart is full of futurity.

from William Wordsworth
They who have been accustomed to the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers, if they persist in reading this book to its conclusion, will, no doubt, frequently have to struggle with feelings of strangeness and awkwardness.

from Dorothy Wordsworth
We were glad to leave Dumfries, which is no agreeable place to them who do not love the bustle of a town that seems to be rising up to wealth. We could think of little else but poor Burns, and his moving about on that unpoetic ground.

from Samuel Taylor Coleridge
What is poetry? is so nearly the same question with, what is a poet? that the answer to one is involved in the solution of the other.

from George Gordon Byron
Ye, who aspire to "build the lofty rhyme,"
Believe not all who laud your false "sublime."

from Percy Bysshe Shelley
The poetry of Dante may be considered as the bridge thrown over the stream of time, which unites the modern and ancient world.

from Johann von Goethe, as transcribed by Johann Peter Eckermann
If a poet would work politically, he must give himself up to a party; and as soon as he does that, he is lost as a poet; he must bid farewell to his free spirit, his unbiased view, and draw over his ears the cap of bigotry and blind hatred.

from John Keats
A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity--he is continually in for--and filling some other Body--

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Saturday Night in Sangerville

Dawn Potter

Because, across a crowded table,
the man you have loved for twenty-five years
catches your eye and breaks into a smile
so bright it could light up the Yukon;

because, as you smile back through the candle flame,
your lanky fifteen-year-old leans all his wiry,
vibrating weight against your shoulder,
and your chair shudders and your neighbors laugh;

because when you put your arms around your boy
and press your cheek into his bristly hair,
he reaches for your hand and holds it against his own cheek
and doesn’t let you go;

because the man on the tiny stage dances
over the guitar strings as if his fat hands
are as fragile as the snowflakes
that sift slowly from the unseen sky;

because the crowd breathes alongside you
in easy patience, in careful, quiet joy;
because even time has paused
to shift its flanks and listen,

you say to yourself:
I will remember this.
I will remember this forever.
I will.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Snapshots from "A Poet's Sourcebook" (3)

from Jan Kochanowski
Dear little Slavic Sappho, we had thought
Hearing thy songs so sweetly, deftly wrought,
That thou shouldst have an heritage one day
Beyond thy father's lands: his lute to play.

from Sir Philip Sidney
Now therein of all Sciences . . . is our Poet the Monarch. For hee doth not onely shew the way, but giveth so sweete a prospect into the way, as will entice anie man to enter into it.

from William Shakespeare
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to aery nothing
A local habitation and a name.

from John Milton
For Books are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are.

from Anne Bradstreet
I wash'd thy face, but more defects saw,
And rubbing off a spot, still made a flaw.

from Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz
But, lady, as women, what wisdom may be ours if not the philosophies of the kitchen? Lupercio Leonardo spoke well when he said: how well one may philosophize when preparing dinner. And I often say, when observing these trivial details: had Aristotle prepared victuals, he would have written more.

from Samuel Johnson
But whatever be the advantage of rhyme, I cannot prevail on myself to wish that Milton had been a rhymer; for I cannot wish his work to be other than it is; yet, like other heroes, he is to be admired rather than imitated.

from David Crantz
If a Greenlander thinks himself aggrieved by another, he discovers no symptom of revengeful designs, anger, or vexation, but he composes a satirical poem.

from Phillis Wheatley
           Imagination! Who can sing thy force?
Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?