Tuesday, April 30, 2013

1. So it seems as if this blog is going to acquire a broader readership: the publisher of Autumn House Press has invited me to join the blog staff of the Coal Hill Review. In essence this means I'll do nothing more than keep writing for my own blog, but now some of what I post will also periodically appear on the review's site. But my eight faithful readers: you know that no one will ever replace you in my heart.

2. The Frost Place has announced a 10% discount on all of its summer poetry programs. Sign up, sign up, sign up! Tell your friends to sign up! Important note: you do not have to be a classroom teacher to attend the Conference on Poetry and Teaching. If you work with other readers and writers as a mentor, in a book group, as a workshop facilitator--even if you are only thinking about doing these things--the conference is for you.

3. String Field Theory will be playing a short set on Saturday night at the East Sangerville Grange. The Facebook site has a few awkward videos, including one in which the video tripod falls over, but this one isn't too bad.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Yesterday I dug dirt, hung laundry, went for a long walk with a friend, planted myrtle, harvested dandelions, listened to the Red Sox win their fifth in a row, invented goat cheese biscuits, rolled in the grass with the dog, read the stories of Alice Munro, raked up wood chips, mowed a patch of lawn, picked daffodils, crawled under the deck with a leaking garden hose, and swapped stories about wild turkeys.

Today I will finish up my Hopkins-punctuation chapter and possibly begin my Amy Lowell-detail chapter. It's just possible I might even write a poem, which I haven't done since February.

Speaking of punctuation and Hopkins, this is what he happened to remark in a letter to his friend Robert Bridges:
About punctuation my mind is clear: I can give a rule for everything I write myself, and even for other people, though they might not agree with me perhaps.
And this is what Elizabeth Bishop happened to remark about Hopkins:
His poetry comes up from the pages like sudden storms. A single short stanza can be as full of, aflame with, motion as one of Van Gogh’s cedar trees.
Just look at those commas.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Miner Who Loved Dante (1924)

Dawn Potter

But after I had reached a mountain’s foot,
At that point where the valley terminated,
Which had with consternation pierced my heart,

Upward I looked, and I beheld its shoulders,
Vested already with that planet’s rays
Which leadeth others right by every road.
            --Dante, the inferno, translated by H. W. Longfellow

I haven’t wandered your way lately, Nell,
            not since the police clapped me up
            and I lost my shift at Number 2.

But I remember the porch of our borrowed house
            and the pigeons that fluttered up from the roof
            when the old lady banged her pail.

And Sue . . .  remember Sue, who sang alto to your mezzo?
            In those ragged evenings, how stillness would sift
            over the men, old and young, listening from their steps

or squatting outside the canteen, half-full bottles of wine
            balanced on the ground between their knees.
            Night opened her arms to us like a favorite aunt,

like Lena—plump, smiling, one hand at rest on my damp hair
            as a hundred pigeons dipped over the river.
            And all the while, Nell, you and Sue sang

of hearts, of summer, of fleeting secrets,
            and we listeners believed that the songs were ours.
            For no one, no one in the world, was as alive then as we were.

[from Chestnut Ridge, a verse-history-in-progress of southwestern Pennsylvania]

Saturday, April 27, 2013

In response to Christopher's comment on yesterday's post:

Yes. There are plenty of published poets out there who (1) don't understand the grammatical logic of punctuation and (2) pretend to invent new uses when they really just don't want to have to think about the ramifications of what they are doing.

After I posted yesterday's excerpt, I received an email from a poet who is also a freelance editor and a university teacher: "Loved your recent essay on punctuation in poetry. I'm going to recommend it to my creative writing students. So many of them think that punctuation is inherently 'unpoetic.' It doesn't 'flow.' I actually forbade them from using the word 'flow' in class--it became a catch-all phrase for everything from rhythm to transitions--to lack of punctuation."

Here is one teacher who is bravely fighting such laziness. (Also, look at her interesting, unconventional use of the dash.) I fear, however, that plenty of other teachers overlook or even encourage it. As I hope my excerpt made clear, I--unlike Philip Larkin--am no enemy of strange new uses. I tend to be grammatically conservative in my own work, but that's just me.

My book is not intended to be a complaint about the state of modern poetry. I could write one of those, but I'm not terribly interested in coming across as "a faceless whiner who wishes she were more famous than her work deserves," which is the sort of answer I'd get from the sort of poets I'd be complaining about.

Friday, April 26, 2013

What's the Most Important Punctuation?

Dawn Potter
It’s so easy to overlook punctuation. Our eyes are trained to glide past it, automatically registering the marks as pauses or sentence endings but not otherwise lingering over them. As Baron Wormser and David Cappella note in Teaching the Art of Poetry, “punctuation makes necessary distinctions so that things don’t blur and tangle and confuse.” This is why its absence obscurely distresses us. “Punctuation seems ironclad. There had better be a period at the end of each sentence. It’s the law—and poets flout it.”
Well, some poets flout it. In an interview for The Paris Review, Philip Larkin grumbled:

A well-known publisher asked me how one punctuated poetry, and looked flabbergasted when I said, The same as prose. By which I mean that I write, or wrote, as everyone did till the mad lads started, using words and syntax in the normal way to describe recognizable experiences as memorably as possible. That doesn’t seem to me a tradition. The other stuff, the mad stuff, is more an aberration.

And it’s true that some poems seem to taunt us with willful misuse. In “th wundrfulness uv th mountees our secret police,” bill bissett not only ignores punctuation and capitalization but misspells words, creating a narrative that is also a sort of manipulative graffiti:

they opn our mail            petulantly
they burn down barns they cant
bug            they listn to our politikul
ledrs phone conversashuns            what
cud b less inspiring to ovrheer

Sonia Sanchez takes a different tack in her “Song No. 3 (for 2nd and 3rd grade sisters).” Though she, too, ignores capitalization, she does make use of traditional punctuation. Nonetheless, she doesn’t end every sentence with a period, only the last line of the stanza. Her choice affects how we imagine the speaker’s voice and supports our absorption of the poem’s blunt, childish, yet very clear pain.

cain’t nobody tell me any different
i’m ugly and you know it too
you just smiling to make me feel better
but i see how you stare when nobody’s watching you.

            Even as many poets experiment with deleting punctuation, others put traditional marks to new uses. For instance, rather than linking images with grammar, Melissa Stein’s “So deeply that it is not heard at all, but” links them with punctuation:

sister: the violin is blue. it plays stars, there was a field—
sister: that swelling in your belly will be a milkweed, a duty, a friend—
sister: goldenrod blossom: stippled ancillary: nonplussed bird—

            Russell Edson, on the other hand, gives us long grammatically complex sentences filled with traditional punctuation that, instead of clarifying the situation, contribute to the poem’s ambiguity, as in this dense line from “Out of Whack”:

Too late, too late, because I am wearing the king’s crown: and, in that we are married, and, in that the wearer of the king’s crown is automatically the king, you are now my queen, who broke her crown like a typically silly woman, who doesn’t quite realize the value of things, screamed the queen.

            But even when a poet follows less raucous patterns of punctuation, she chooses each comma, each period, each dash, precisely and deliberately. Punctuation marks, as Wormser and Cappella have said, add clarity; but they also are important elements of sound, affecting a line’s cadence and tonality. The silence implied by a dash is longer than the silence implied by a comma. A question mark indicates a lift in tonal pitch, whereas a period indicates a drop. Even a hyphen or its absence has a subtle influence: the pacing of fire truck is different from fire-truck is different from firetruck.
            Punctuation marks can also be stylistic tics, as the dash was for Emily Dickinson. They can even be stylistic anathemas. Richard Hugo, for instance, hated semicolons. In his essay “Nuts and Bolts,” he flatly declared, “No semicolons. Semicolons indicate relationships that only idiots need defined by punctuation. Besides, they are ugly.” Derek Walcott, among many other poets, would disagree passionately with that pronouncement. He uses semicolons throughout his book-length poem The Prodigal, often inserting them at line endings to indicate a pause of recognition or comprehension:

Then through the thinned trees I saw a wraith
of smoke, which I believed came from the house,
but every smoker carries his own wreath;
then I saw that this moving wreath was yours.

           In short, punctuation is both a flexible tool for experimentation and a formal structural element with rules and predictable patterns. Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose sonnet "The Soldier" will be the centerpiece of this chapter under construction, was well aware of this duality, and he took advantage of both tradition and strangeness in the way in which he handled punctuation in his poems. 

[And, no, I can't explain why the Blog Djinn insists that this last paragraph should be single-spaced; and, yes, this post is a draft excerpt from my forthcoming book The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Autumn House Press, 2014).]

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching: It Changes Lives

Dear teachers and poetry lovers and poetry questioners--

Are you looking for summer enrichment possibilities? Do you want to visit one of the most beautiful hillsides in all of New England? Do you want to spend a week developing close, collegial connections with poets, teachers, and readers from around the United States? Do you want to stand on the dais in Robert Frost's New Hampshire barn and share your own writing with the most supportive audience on earth? Do you want to sit on Frost's front porch and watch the sun set over Lafayette Mountain?

One teacher calls the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching "the best professional development class [she's] ever taken." Many participants return year after year to reexperience the conference's rare atmosphere of inspiration, sympathy, and common sense.

Our visiting faculty regularly includes some of the best-known poet-teachers in the nation. This year we are honored to have the amazing Terry Blackhawk and Jeff Kass, two Michigan teachers who have changed the face of poetry education in Detroit and Ann Arbor--even as they struggle against a very hostile political climate. Director emeritus Baron Wormser is offering a special day-and-a-half workshop devoted entirely to participants' own writing, and new associate director Teresa Carson will share her wealth of experience in poetry, drama, and publishing as well as her skills at teaching writing in the workplace.

Please consider applying to this year's conference. And if you cannot attend yourself, please spread the word among your friends and acquaintances. The Frost Place runs on a shoe string: we are always in danger of slipping into oblivion. But believe me: the conference has changed my life, and the lives of many others. Our goal is to keep poetry alive in our own hearts and, especially, in the hearts of the young people who come after us. I hope to see you in Franconia this summer.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

I spent much of yesterday working on a chapter about punctuation. My focus is Gerard Manley Hopkins's poem "The Soldier," but I barely managed to get past my introductory section, which features snippets from bill bissett, Sonia Sanchez, Russell Edson, Derek Walcott, Robert Frost, The Elements of Style, and probably something else I've forgotten to mention. Still, that's seven pages' worth of first draft, so I'm feeling productive enough. Writing about punctuation sounds prissy and pedantic, and certainly there is a pettiness about it. But it's necessary. Whether in absence (as in bissett's poems) or abundance (as in Hopkins's poems), punctuation is a powerful notation of sound and sense--as well as confusion and ambiguity.

But enough of this subject. What you really want to hear about are the two turkey vultures that swept over the hood of my car and down into the greening roadside culvert; and the tiny blue scilla flowers that have mysteriously migrated into the grass and across the stone wall, far from where I planted the bulbs; and the busy black poodle breaded in sawdust and dead leaves; and Richard Hugo's hatred of semicolons ("No semicolons. Semicolons indicate relationships that only idiots need defined by punctuation. Besides, they are ugly."); and the robin caroling before daylight; and the beautifully made yet unbecoming red-knit hat I've been wearing while jumping rope in the frigid dawn; and by the way, I hope you've noticed all of the semicolons I've been using in this so-called sentence just to spite Richard Hugo; take that, Richard, some of us like them, so there, you'll have to lump it, I'll even use a boatload of comma splices if I feel like it; and the first word of Hopkins's poem "The Soldier" is


which sets me back on my heels every time I read it. The period after "Yes" is a shock and a stroke of courage, as if punctuating a word is unsheathing a sword. Yes.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Presently I'm reading a book I picked up at the Portland Public Library's book sale. It's called Governess: The Life and Times of the Real Jane Eyres, and it reads like the diet version of an actual history book. Nonetheless, it has its moments. The author, Ruth Brandon, makes some cogent points about the way in which the governess's household predicament was a middle-class mashup of gentility, poverty, lack of education, and feminine dependence, with employers' nouveau-riche aspirations tossed into the mix. It's no wonder, as Brandon points out, that governesses made such excellent novel-fodder, even though there are relatively few extant primary sources. (Apparently nobody had much interest in preserving the journals and letters of a spinster governess.) The author also remarks that "it is unsurprising that by the mid-nineteenth century, governesses, along with maids-of-all-work, constituted 'by far the largest classes of insane women in asylums.'" As we have always suspected, the first and second Mrs. Rochesters were not so far apart.

Monday, April 22, 2013

I spent all of yesterday morning outside in a cold, bright breeze--digging, ripping out, replanting, edging--and this morning my herb garden looks beautifully ascetic: tight-cornered, grey-brown, with neat sawdust paths and the tonic spikes of chives, scallions, and sorrel. Harsh spring is a favorite season of mine. The weeds lie low; abundance is kept in check. The small splashes of color matter enormously. I cannot tell you how much comfort a single daffodil can offer, on a day of 40-degree wind.

Then I spent the afternoon baking sourdough bread for us, baking gingersnaps for my college boy, baking two kinds of invented quiche for dinner: one with garlic, sorrel, and spinach; the other with bacon, mushrooms, and dandelion greens. It was a way to celebrate the first tiny edibles from my yard.

Today I am back to editing, and perhaps back to working on The Conversation. (Gerard Manley Hopkins and punctuation are next in line.) School vacation was a time-suck, not to mention the Boston anxieties. But on Friday afternoon I sat in a darkened Bangor movie theater watching Jackie Robinson break the baseball color barrier, and, yes, the movie was sentimental. But I tell you: my boy and I were mightily relieved to be there, soaking up the self-evident moral rightness and the excellent costuming. It was a hell of a week.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Elegy for a One-Night Stand

Dawn Potter

What I remember about you
is that you were too good for me;
so it’s easy to recall, these decades since,
that I never believed that you would love me—

you, with your rich-boy clothes,
and the way you knew exactly what you were up to
when you let your palm slip down the small of my back.
But I think I’m right in recollecting we were happy

for the hour or two we borrowed that night,
and I want to claim that it was raining
and that the streetlight outside our grimy window
filtered a shimmer edge along your shoulders,

that your fingers read the bones of my face
as if they really did long to imagine what I longed for.
Now, after twenty years spent forgetting
anything we’d once learned about the other,

I begin to summon up the urgency that lured us there,
to someone else’s street-lit bed, a room,
you claim, that glowed a baby-aspirin pink,
a shade I can’t recall, though I think

I may have memorized your shadow-tilted head,
cocked as if to warn me: don’t believe a word he says.
Don’t fret. I didn’t.
You never broke my heart; I grant you that achievement,

not easy to accomplish with a china heart like mine,
so liable to be chipped. You tell me now,
you throw yourself too much into your men.
Well, yes.

But what’s the point of love that doesn’t shatter?
It’s the vice I’ve clung to; I never do get over anyone—
even you, my not-heartbreaker,
with the softest lips I’ve ever kissed, and then

that quickened breath against my throat,
those tender hands,
as weighted and exact as birds, and how my eyes
forgot their blue and, startled, turned to yours.

[forthcoming in Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2014)]

Friday, April 19, 2013

I am hating what's going on in Boston. I am afraid for my son, who blithely spent last night at a punk show in New Haven, who goes to school two hours away from Cambridge. He is not in danger. His is fortunate enough to attend a campus full of peaceniks and potheads. Nonetheless, I am afraid for him, and for my friends who live in the Boston area, and for my own past, when I lived there. All of this is foolish. But, oh, those little damaged children. . . .

This is a dumb post, but there you have it.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

New Members of the Minor Poets Club

from “American Literature” by John M. Muste, in The American Annual, 1970 (48th edition of the Encyclopedia Americana's yearbook). Found on the free table outside a bookstore in Hallowell, Maine.

“In 1969, Robert Lowell, long known for the variety and looseness of form of his poetry, turned to the unrhymed sonnet . . . in Notebooks 1967-1968. While the unvarying verse form makes the poems seem somewhat repetitious, Lowell’s tone and imagery provide variety, and he has a number of interesting and unconventional observations to make about the tempestuous modern era. The book will do no harm to Lowell’s wide reputation.
            “Two retrospective collections were of special interest. The Complete Poems of Randall Jarrell demonstrates that this poet had a rather narrow range and his imaginative power was not great. A few of his poems have lasting value, but the body of his work, while large, is not as impressive as has generally been believed. The Complete Poems of Elizabeth Bishop, on the other hand, displays the steady craftmanship of a distinguished minor poet.”

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

I'm heading down to Portland this morning to read at the library. And then what will I do with myself? I might go eat lunch at the Asian noodle place. I might go to the Italian grocery and buy cannoli and wine to bring home. I might walk along the docks in my new pink dress. I might just get back into the car and drive home slowly and prudently, eyes alert for every passing deer and texter. To tell the truth, I am not altogether sure that my car is actually fixed. So the central question should not be "What should I do after my reading?" It should be "Do I drive my car, with its strange intermittent shake that the garage guys cannot duplicate, though they have checked and checked again the brakes, the front end, the tie rods, the tires, the ball joints, and have found everything to be tight and safe and have hemmed and hawed to me at friendly interminable length, in voices full of male concern, about all the futzing around they have done? Or do I drive Tom's pickup, which has a strange rattle that might be the muffler or might be the catalytic converter and that would require me to undergo severe backing-up and parallel-parking anxiety? Plus, I can't understand the buttons on his radio." You see my dilemma.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Here's a link to the Writers' Almanac archive of my poem "Lullaby," from my first book Boy Land & Other Poems. You can read the poem; you can listen to Garrison Keillor read it; you can cry a little more about what we're all crying about . . . the insistent, ruthless attack on joy. The Boston Marathon debacle is our current American version, but you, in your country, have your own.

Today I will do what I often do in these situations: I will read the work of the Polish poets--Milosz, Szymborska, Herbert. They knew how to put the words together. I could read Amichai also. He knew.

I don't really know, but then again I am only an American. Our stupid, forgetful, gung-ho optimism gets in the way.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Perhaps Odin and Thor have finally stomped off into someone else's yard. Yesterday afternoon I found a patch of dry land, and dug it up, and it was black and thawed and full of earthworms. My heart is lifting. The boy's track shorts are drying fitfully on the line. The joyous poodle skips through the puddles. The wheelbarrow is full of last year's sticks and stems. The green onions and chives are thrusting through the soil; dandelions are lurking among the stones. My garden proper is still covered with snow, but a robin is striding across the driveway, and the pileated woodpeckers are shouting romantically in the dead trees.

Here's a String Field Theory cover of a Richard Thompson song, "1952 Vincent Black Lightning."   We don't do too many covers, but this one is my favorite.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

It is good to hear your voices. I think my favorite reaction came in an an email from a friend who said, "Only because you ask: I prefer the mundane narration of your life. It's like checking in on the progress of some interminable three-decker Victorian novel."

How I love those novels myself. Tedium combined with melodrama: what could be more lifelike?

The draft chapter on Shelley is more or less finished, and I'll need to go back to editing tomorrow morning. (Though will that even be possible? It's April school vacation, so I'll also need to spend every day next week sitting in a parking lot waiting for my son's track practice to end.)

I'm reading in Portland on Wednesday at noon. (And my car is fixed: I didn't even tell you about my car, did I? The one that became undrivable last week, as I was heading down to Portland for my previously scheduled reading. If you were there, I hope it was good, because I wasn't.)

I'd like to think I'll be digging up a little garden soil this week. (Hah. Thank you, Norse gods, for canceling spring this year.)

And today I am going to do my damndest to reconfigure my thoughts about employment. How can I do what I do and actually get paid for it? (If any of you know anything about setting up a nonprofit literary outreach program, contact me immediately. It would also help if you could add and subtract because I can't.)

Saturday, April 13, 2013

I can't decide whether I should keep posting excerpts from the new book here or not. Are they interesting? Are they tedious?

Likewise, I can't decide whether I should post poems. It's difficult to know who is reading what I write here. As far as I can tell, more people are interested in recipes and rants than in poetry, which is understandable.

However, this blog takes up a lot of time; and if it isn't something you care to read, you should tell me. I composed two different posts this morning, and erased them both, as they seemed kind of pointless. I'm sure you don't need to hear me grousing about the snow, and clearly you're not highly excited by Shelley's "To a Skylark," and I don't have anything more to say about the North Pond hermit, not that you seemed to be highly excited by him either.

I don't want you to think that I'm feeling grouchy or moody (no more than snow in mid-April would make a normal person, anyway). But writing these posts into the void is more tiring than you might think--like sending missive after missive into the dead-letter repository. If I'm going to keep this up, I might as well talk about something you care about.

Friday, April 12, 2013

This week, the big news around here is the North Pond hermit. You can read all about him in the papers, but the essence of the tale is this: 27 years ago a recent high school graduate vanished from his home in central Maine. His family thought he'd gone to New York City, but no one ever heard from him again.

Meanwhile, along the shores of North Pond, twenty or so miles to the west, owners of camps and vacation cabins began to report odd break-ins. Now and again, this and that would disappear: foodstuffs, clothing, supplies. It's not like they were being cleaned out; more like the burglar was a borrower, which if you've ever read Mary Norton's 1952 children's book by the same name, you'll know is a euphemism for subsistance thievery. A legend began to grow: the culprit was the North Pond hermit. But he was a legend; no one had laid eyes on him or had any evidence that he actually existed--other than the fact that a person was regularly taking their stuff.

Finally someone set up a hidden camera, the first step in breaking the case. And this week, wardens discovered a well-hidden encampment along the shore . . . so well hidden it had been there for 27 years. The North Pond hermit was not a myth. He was a real man, who had lived alone in this place for nearly three decades. He never farmed, fished, or hunted. He spent his days sitting on a plastic bucket watching eagles fly overhead and reading whatever books he'd stolen from the camps. At night he would go out to "borrow" what he needed. He never lit a fire. Once the snows started, he stayed in his camp so that no one ever saw his tracks. He kept warm in layers of sleeping bags.

Now he is in jail, and the wardens have dismantled his home. He doesn't seem sorry. He says he was getting weary of the business. He is clean and neat and quiet, as he was when he arrived.

Everyone I have spoken to is mesmerized by this story. Even the guys on the local sports radio station can't stop talking about it. There is a huge outrush of admiration and even a tinge of envy for him. He did not become homeless because he had no other choice. He simply went into the woods. To most people, his thievery has become immaterial.

Like everyone else, I'm fascinated by the North Pond hermit. But as much as anything, I'm intrigued by the way we all want to turn him into literature. Already I've referred to the case as a tale. When I first read the news article, I immediately thought, "This should be a ballad." An acquaintance thought "novel." My older son, after he read the link I'd sent him, wrote back and said, "Fairy tale." In yesterday's paper I saw that someone had already composed a folk song about him. And of course the comparisons to Thoreau are rife.

I've been pondering this. Why do we all want to transform what were undoubtedly 27 slow years of silence and tedium into dramatic narrative? I'm sure, eventually, people will start saying, "HBO movie!" or "Northwoods Law!" Maybe they already are. But the initial reactions I've heard, even from my tech-soaked son, have reached back to the roots of the oral-written tradition. The North Pond hermit has turned some mysterious key in us.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

You are so young, so before all beginning, and I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

[from Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, trans. M. D. Herter Norton]

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

What's the Most Important Stanza?

Dawn Potter
In Italian the word stanza means “room.” For a poet who is working out the structure of a poem, that image is a compelling one. Room implies both enclosure and space, and stanzas in poetry entail a similar commitment to constriction and freedom. This is particularly evident in formal poems, where stanzas often frame the pattern of the form—for instance, rhymed couplets or rhymed quatrains. Even as these rigid patterns restrict a poet’s word choice, they may also push her to invent images or details that radically alter the trajectory of the poem.
Like the verse of a song, a stanza controls cadence, sound, and pacing. A poet  in progress often clusters and reclusters lines, searching for the combination that will propel the work into completion. As he wrote the 117 poems that make up his Sonnets for Chris, John Berryman shifted among stanza styles, most often settling on two per poem but frequently choosing one and occasionally even four. His choices had a significant effect on the dramatic movement of the individual poems, even though they all share the same form and subject matter.
 Consider Gwendolyn Brooks’s sonnet “The Rites for Cousin Vit,” which she chose to arrange as a single stanza rather than break into multiple sections. The accumulating density of the last five lines seems to mirror the crowded, vigorous details of the character’s life:
Even now she does the snake-hips with a hiss,
Slops the bad wine across her shantung, talks
Of pregnancy, guitars and bridgework, walks
In parks or alleys, comes haply on the verge
Of happiness, haply hysterics. Is.

In contrast, the final five lines of Berryman’s Sonnet 54 convey a barrenness, which the stanza break enhances and illuminates:
Sprinting my ribbon down the world of green . .
Shadow to shadow, under tropical day . .

Flat country, slow, alone. So in my pocket
Your snapshot nightmares where (cloth, flesh between)
My heart was, before I gave it away.

The tension between constriction and freedom is equally important in free verse, where stanzas are not bound by form. In “The Grass on the Mountain,” Mary Austin demonstrates that carefully designed free-verse stanzas wield visual as well as sonic power. By varying the length of both her stanzas and the lines within them, she replicates the physical impact of silence and spaciousness:
Oh, long, long
The snow has possessed the mountains.

The deer have come down and the big-horn,
They have followed the Sun to the south
To feed on the mesquite pods and the bunch grass.
Loud are the thunder drums
In the tents of the mountains.

According to W. H. Auden, “the poet who writes ‘free’ verse is like Robinson Crusoe on his desert island: he must do all his cooking, laundry and darning for himself.” That is, a free-verse poet must invent her own version of structural coherence. The aim (in Auden’s acid terms) is to create “something original and impressive” instead of “squalor—dirty sheets on the unmade bed and empty bottles on the unswept floor.”
Yet Auden knew that formal poetry also carries risks. “In verse, as the Alka-Seltzer advertisements testify, the didactic message loses half its immodesty.” Without “the exposition of ideas,” even the most perfectly tuned terza rima ode becomes a radio jingle. Thus, like paragraphs of prose, stanzas must also function as units of thought.
Whether they are working in form or in free verse, poets frequently use stanzas to outline an argument or advance a dramatic situation. For instance, in Aphra Behn’s three-stanza poem “The Willing Mistress,”  the stanzas control the pace of a basic narrative trajectory. The first stanza creates the setting:
Amyntas led me to a grove
            Where all the trees did shade us;
The sun itself though it had strove
            It could not have betrayed us.
The place secured from human eyes
            No other fear allows,
But when the winds that gently rise
            Do kiss the yielding boughs.

The second stanza introduces the action of the situation:
Down there we sat upon the moss,
            And did begin to play
A thousand amorous tricks, to pass
            The heat of all the day.
A many kisses he did give,
            And I returned the same,
Which made me willing to receive
            That which I dare not name.

Finally, the third stanza leads the reader to an inevitable conclusion:
His charming eyes no aid required
            To tell their softening tale;
On her that was already fired
            ’Twas easy to prevail.
He did but kiss and clasp me round,
            Whilst those his thoughts exprest;
And laid me gently on the ground:
            Ah, who can guess the rest?

[This has been another installment from the draft of The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet, currently under heavy construction and forthcoming in 2014 from Autumn House Press.]

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Three different Raymond Chandler characters from two different novels:
She looked playful and eager, but not quite sure of herself, like a new kitten in a house where they don't care much about kittens. 
I looked back at her from the elevators. She was staring after me with an expression she probably would have said was thoughtful. 
She smelled the way the Taj Mahal looks by moonlight.

If you want a lesson in creating brand-new, never-before-seen stereotypes from weird material, study Ray's work. And nobody does a simile better. Trying to picture Raymond Chandler's similes is like ordering a quinine sandwich from an over-the-hill doll with rueful cigarette poked into the dregs of her jaded lipstick.

Monday, April 8, 2013

April Events

Tomorrow evening, April 9, at 7 p.m. I'll be reading at the University of Southern Maine bookstore, along with Annie Finch, Betsy Sholl, Shana Youngdahl, and Kay Alicia Fisher. The bookstore is located at 97 Falmouth Street, right across the road from the university's big Glickman Family Library. With so many readers, none of us will have an enormous amount of time. So I'll probably read a bit from A Poet's Sourcebook and then, perhaps, a single poem. I'm thinking of "Mr. Kowalski," but I may very well change my mind.

Next Wednesday, April 17, at 12 noon, I'm the featured reader in the Brown Bag Lecture Series at the Portland Public Library, which is downtown at 5 Monument Square. I'm going to focus on A Poet's Sourcebook: talking about the process of putting together an anthology and reading widely from throughout the book.

If you can, please do come keep me company. And if you feel like riding down to Portland with me, that would be lovely too.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Letter from the 142nd Pennsylvania Infantry

Dawn Potter


I received the sad intelligence
Of Juliet’s demise.
That sweet good girl now peaceful sleeps,
At rest in Paradise.

We lay last night in Snickers Gap,
Endured a foul brass band.
Midst sharps and flats, I wrote to Jane;
My friends and I shook hands.

We hope that we shall meet again
As victors on the field.
Without a faith in God above
What thorns this life would yield.

Our cavalcade has halted
In a meadow by a stream.
Two drovers work to drown a mule.
We listen to it scream.

[from Chestnut Ridge, a verse history]

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Ideas for Writing

Dawn Potter

Lines are movable elements in a poem under revision. As a poet writes, she often shifts her lines around, and each new position offers her new imaginative options. A line that begins the poem may now end a poem, or it may start a new stanza, or it may suddenly break into two lines.
            Dickinson herself offers an example in two versions of a poem numbered “494” in The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (both dated circa 1862), in which she demonstrates that even subtle revisions greatly influence the impact of a  poem. Here’s a section of version 1’s final stanza:
What could it hinder so—to say?
Tell Him—just how she sealed you—Cautious!
But—if He ask where you are hid
Until tomorrow—Happy letter!
Gesture Coquette—and shake your Head!

Compare it with the same section in version 2:
What could—it hinder so—to say?
Tell Her—just how she sealed—you—Cautious!
But—if she ask “where you are hid”—until the evening—
Ah! Be bashful!
Gesture Coquette—
And shake your Head!

The revisions in the lines don’t, at a quick glance, seem earth-shattering. The poet has swapped one pronoun for another, added a dash and some quotation marks, broken one line into two, deleted some words, added a short new line. Yet something has happened. Even though the second poem looks rather similar to the first, it now sounds significantly different—not to mention that the pronoun switch has entirely reconfigured the piece’s impact on the reader.
            One of the simplest ways to experience the power of line in your own writing is to push yourself to experiment with line placement. Take out a poem you’ve already written—perhaps a draft of the exercise I suggested in chapter 1, in which each line begins with the first word of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 81. Then try out some or all of these revision exercises.
1. Take the last line of your first draft and use it as the first line of an entirely new poem.
2. Turn the first draft inside out: now the original last line is the first line, and the original first line is the last line. Rewrite the middle lines to link the new beginning to the new ending.
3. Turn the middle line of your first draft into a question. Rewrite the other lines as necessary so that they lead toward and then away from that new central question.
4. Break every line of your first draft into two lines, rewriting as necessary.
5. Delete three lines entirely from your first draft, rewriting as necessary.
6. Make each of your original lines twice as long, either by adding new words or white space or by combining existing lines.
7. Choose your favorite line from the original poem. Now rewrite it, adding a syllable to one of the words. Now rewrite it again, taking away a different syllable. Keep repeating and experimenting, adding and subtracting syllables throughout the line.
These suggestions are akin to an athlete’s stretches or a musician’s scale practice. Even if the result of the activity isn’t a finished poem, you’ll be pressed as a writer to think more flexibly about line. For instance, you may find yourself asking specific questions about the kinds of words that begin and end your new lines. Are they transitions? Descriptors? Actions? Do they break, or enjamb, the syntactic flow of the sentence, or do they preserve the phrases in natural groupings? Which of these new words seems particularly compelling to you? Which ones seem almost invisible? How does the sense of a line change when you add and subtract syllables? What new cadence patterns are you noticing?
All of these experiments and discussions work equally well as student assignments, and they are a good way to help students break the stigma of the word revision. For most of us, the term probably still conjures up the excruciating boredom of the high school research paper. Yet for a poet—for any creative writer—revision is the center of the endeavor. We try something out; then we try it in different way; then we try it yet again. The task is not only necessary: it’s also interesting.
So if you’re a teacher, you will only gain from leading your students through revision exercises that emphasize experimentation and independence (rather than tedious research protocols) but that also offer structural parameters that are easy for both you and the class to assess. Did X add a syllable or didn’t he? Did Y turn the sentence into a question or didn’t she? You want your students to express their inner lives, but you also want them to understand that poetry is an intellectual activity, not just words thrown onto a page.
These exercises also give you and your students ways to talk productively about a poem in process. It can be scary to proffer a personal remark about another human being’s creative work. It can be even more terrifying to wait for comments on a new raw piece you’ve just produced. These kinds of revision activities circumvent that fear because they give both you and your students specific tasks and assessment criteria, even as they allow bottomless freedom of expression.

[This has been another installment from the draft of The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet, currently under heavy construction and forthcoming in 2014 from Autumn House Press.]

Friday, April 5, 2013

What's the Most Important Line?

Dawn Potter
Line is, at its most obvious level, a visual cue on the page: it announces, “This is a poem you’re about to read!” But historically it is more closely tied to sound than to sight. Line is poetry’s direct link to song. In the words of Baron Wormser and David Cappella, it is “the bearer of rhythm” in which “accents, sounds and pauses all consort within the propulsive line that moves steadily forward in time.” While this musical heritage is clearest in formal poems, with their steady metrical pulse and their often-predictable rhyme schemes, it remains fundamentally important in the speech-driven cadences of much contemporary free verse.
Walt Whitman, the great stylistic innovator of the nineteenth century, “recognized that the loose structure of his poetry had precedent in a wide variety of cultural styles between which he was trying to negotiate”—sermons, everyday conversation, dime novels, minstrel shows, newspaper articles, as well as the eloquence of poets such as Shakespeare, many of whose plays he knew by heart. His long, flexible lines incorporate the crowded immediacy of his century yet retain a dense rhythmic power that recalls the bard-like incantations of the world’s most ancient poetry.
            Whitman’s contemporary, Emily Dickinson, was in certain ways his mirror opposite: small where he was large, secretive where he was expansive. Yet her poems, like his, forever changed our understanding of line. In the poem “Amherst,” Amy Clampitt sought to pinpoint Dickinson’s idiosyncratic, hinting manipulations; the clutching grip of her ironies:
stoppered prodigies, compressions and
devastations within the atom—all this
world contains: his face—the civil
wars of just one stanza.

“Behind these poems lurks a terrible question that has no answer,” wrote Federico García Lorca. Though his subject was Andalusian traditional music, he might have been speaking of Dickinson’s work. What is it about her lines that makes them both so compelling and so difficult? There is something essentially unpredictable about their syntax; their cadence; their prim, implacable, often ghoulish word choice; their stuttering gaps of silence. When I ask myself, “What’s the most important line?” in a Dickinson poem, I feel I am attempting to untangle a mystery, not by teasing out the poem’s meanings but by looking at the way in which it was constructed. Why is this poem so simple yet so strange? Which lines seem most crucial to the poet’s transmission of pervading, unnerving, sly peculiarity? “What’s the most important line?” could be rephrased as “What’s the weirdest line?”
A sense of puzzlement is often hard for us to admit. If we’re teachers, we feel vulnerable about revealing our ignorance to our students. If we’re students, we worry that the teacher is mocking our stupidity. If we’re alone with a poem, we imagine that we’re the only reader in the world who’s ever been confused and bewildered by it. But you should always feel entitled to announce that you’re mystified. As Lorca’s remark reminds us, great art doesn’t have answers. What it does is push us to ask questions—to examine a piece curiously, to measure it against our own evolving emotions and experiences. If the poem were a mysterious piece of wood, you’d turn it end over end between your hands; you’d rub its roughness with your fingers; you’d let your eyes track the shifting stripes of the grain. You’d make your sense of puzzlement the centerpiece of your exploration. That approach works just as well with poetry.

[This has been another installment from the draft of The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet, currently under heavy construction and forthcoming in 2014 from Autumn House Press.]

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The most recent New York Review of Books contains a brief but excellent essay by conductor Daniel Barenboim. The writing style is slightly awkward--perhaps blunt is a better description, which is to say that it doesn't include such niceties as limpid paragraph transitions--but it's nonetheless a startlingly clear discussion of Beethoven's music. When I read the following excerpt to Paul, who's fifteen, a singer and a piano player but no classical devotee, his response was "Well, that's exactly true." The passage clarified for me why I've found it nearly impossible to write about music, which, alongside literature, has been the central artistic expression of my life.
Although the focus of this essay will indeed be Beethoven's music, it must be understood that one cannot explain the nature or the message of music through words. Music means different things to different people and sometimes even different things to the same person at different moments of his life. It might be poetic, philosophical, sensual, or mathematical, but in any case it must, in my view, have something to do with the soul of the human being. Hence it is metaphysical; but the means of expression is purely and exclusively physical: sound. I believe it is precisely this permanent coexistence of metaphysical message through physical means that is the strength of music. It is also the reason why when we try to describe music with words, all we can do is articulate our reactions to it, and not grasp music itself.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

I'm healthier and slightly more intelligent this morning, though I'm not sure why, having spent what felt like most of the night in the idiot stage of worry-wort haplessness: "Does the dog have enough water in her bowl? Am I thirsty? Is it raining? Did I pass that high school math test?"  But even in the throes of a head cold I managed to finish yesterday's editorial assignment, so I earned the reward of spending all of today writing about Dickinson's "He put the Belt around my life," the featured poem in chapter 2 of The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet. For copyright reasons I can't reprint that poem here, but I can share one of the five anthologized poems that will end this chapter. The question under discussion will be "What's the most important line?" What's your answer as regards the Byron lyric?

So We’ll Go No More a Roving 
            George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824) 
So we’ll go no more a roving
            So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
            And the moon be still as bright.

For the sword outwears the sheath,
            And the soul outwears the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
            and Love itself have rest.

Though the night was made for loving,
            And the day returns too soon,
Yet we’ll go no more a roving
            By the light of the moon.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

I have a cold, and I feel too stupid to write much today. But here's a link to the Frost Place's weekly newsletter, which features one of my poems as well as a few thoughts on teaching. And here's a photo from Saturday's gig, in which the band members look tiny and far away, as if we're toy musicians arranged in a shoebox diorama.

And now I'm off to drink more tea. . . .

Monday, April 1, 2013

Blake the Terrible

Dawn Potter
[first published in New Walk, autumn/winter 2011]

This morning, very early, as Monday light insinuated itself among the reddening maples and dour pines that imprison my yard, I took down my frayed Norton edition of William Blake’s poetry and opened it at random. For the past several days, I had been toying with writing about Blake, which was strange because I had not lately been reading his poems or even consciously thinking about them. Merely the idea of Blake had begun to rise in my imagination, rather as recalcitrant bread dough rises in a chilly room: irresistibly yet with a laborious pessimism.
When I opened my Blake anthology this morning, the words I happened upon did not ease my ambivalence about the undertaking, for I immediately tumbled into a section of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell innocuously titled, as many of the sections are, “A Memorable Fancy.” Memorable indeed. Blake writes: “As I was walking among the fires of hell, delighted with the enjoyments of Genius, which to Angels look like torment and insanity, I collected some of their Proverbs: thinking that as the sayings used in a nation mark its character, so the Proverbs of Hell shew the nature of Infernal wisdom better than any description of buildings or garments.” Following in short order are the “Proverbs of Hell,” two pages of aphorisms that fill me with dread. I understand, when I read these proverbs, that Blake is messing with me, but I don’t always know why, and I don’t always know how.
For instance, here is the first proverb: “In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.” What makes this proverb hellish? Though didactic, it otherwise seems harmless enough, and I feel my sons may once have owned a picture book on the subject, perhaps one of those tales that feature friendly mice industriously collecting kernels in the autumn and tuning their fiddles by the fireside in the winter.
But Blake doesn’t allow me to waste time pondering the harvest proverb; he instantly undercuts it with a second one: “Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.” At this point I stop reading and put my head down on the desk.

I think I never knew what a poem was until my father read Blake to me. I was very young, barely a reader myself. My literary mother, of course, read aloud very often, so I knew a good deal about nursery rhymes. But no one dignified them with the word poem. A poem, I now began to gather, was different. It was far graver, far more formal. It should not be read cozily in a lap but was rather like the Bible, requiring a deep voice and special, hushed family attention. The implication was “Sit up straight. You are learning something here.”
            My father, who was not a subtle scholar, chose first to read “The Lamb” from Songs of Innocence.
            Little Lamb who made thee?
            Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life & bid thee feed
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice:
            Little Lamb who made thee?
            Dost thou know who made thee?

            Little Lamb I’ll tell thee,
            Little Lamb I’ll tell thee:
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
            Little Lamb God bless thee.
            Little Lamb God bless thee.

I discovered instantly that, for a well-loved child, this is a very embarrassing poem. My father’s seriousness of presentation interacted almost chemically with the verse’s sugary diction. It was all too obvious that my father was peering at Blake’s lyric through his own caretaker eyeglass and that the tender-voiced, “wooly bright” lamb was a stand-in for my little sister and myself. I may not have been clear about what exactly God-as-lamb was up to in the final stanza, but unquestionably “meek and mild” equaled “little child” equaled “blessed lamb” equaled me.
            Like most children, I was perfectly aware that I was not at all meek but a bastion of wickedness. I picked my nose and bit my nails and told lies. I hated cooked carrots and washing my hair. I didn’t put away the doll town that was taking over the living room until my father threatened to throw it out, and I told my sister she was fat even though she wasn’t. Clearly “The Lamb” had nothing to do with me. What’s more, being the granddaughter of farmers, I knew “The Lamb” had nothing to with real lambs, who as a class were loud, muddy, and dimwitted. My father, the farmer’s son, also knew about real lambs and presumably about real children too since on most days he found himself yelling at me about something or other.
            In short, there was nothing I could call truth in “The Lamb,” except for the way in which it revealed my father’s vast and painfully abiding love for his daughters. But this was truth in the way a boil in the armpit is truth—a throbbing rawness that no one should be allowed to see. I certainly didn’t want any part of this weighted, embarrassing knowledge. I wanted my father to “act regular,” by which I meant serene and briskly self-confident. I wanted to walk down the street chattering and swinging from his hand. I did not want to know that he needed me desperately, that he was using his daughters to fill a hole in his heart.
But I begin to think now that the boil’s exposure was more Blake’s fault than my father’s. Even the collection’s title, Songs of Innocence, is a setup, as if Blake had chosen it for the sole purpose of pasting wool over my father’s innocent spectacles. For though he had unaccountably grown up to be a college professor, my father remained, in his clothes, his eating habits, and his comprehension of art, nearly as unsophisticated as the Presbyterian farm boy he once was. How could he know he wasn’t supposed to take “The Lamb” at face value? It appears to be a tender, sentimental, spiritual lyric, childlike in execution and intent. It paints a Sunday-school picture, using Sunday-school language. My father therefore took it to be a Sunday-school poem.
Whether or not he believed that his love for his daughters was equivalently childlike, I cannot say. The poem took the words out of his mouth.

As I sat at my desk this autumn morning trying to figure out “The Lamb,” I found myself writing, “I would not call it a lie, but it is, and very deliberately, I think, a manipulation.” Yet as soon as I hemmed and hawed my way into that tenuous assertion, I wondered if I might be misreading the situation. Blake, like Robert Frost, chooses to assume an innocuous demeanor, and often enough readers enjoy falling for it. Maybe there’s some truth in that persona. Why shouldn’t a masked man occasionally be reliable?
Floundering, I turned for advice to Peter Ackroyd’s Blake: A Biography. And I discovered that, as regards Songs of Innocence, Ackroyd and I share a similar suspicion. The poems are not to be trusted.
These are often poems with an argumentative or satirical intent, and they are emphatically not expressions of lyrical feeling or the spontaneous overflowing of emotion in the conventional “romantic” mode. That is why the Songs aspire to be as formal and as impersonal as the folk ballads and nursery rhymes from which Blake borrowed; he could thereby dramatise the spiritual significance, as well as the possible deficiencies, of “Innocence” itself.
Ackroyd is right: there is precious little spontaneous overflow in “The Lamb.” It sits primly on its page, as tidily awkward as a paint-by-number. Exhibit 1: fake sheep. Exhibit 2: fake child. Do they naturally lead to Exhibit 3: fake savior? I’m not so sure. For when I reread the second verse, the sentences throw me into confusion. Who is Blake talking about? Who is the child? The infant Jesus? Humankind as the collective child of God? Who is the lamb versus the Lamb? Does the final repeated line, “Little Lamb God bless thee,” imply that God is blessing himself? Faced with my questions, the smug little verse coils up around itself, defeating syntactic logic. Somehow, despite the poem’s lack of spontaneous overflow, ambiguity manages to rise like floodwater.
Yet I’m surprised, when I recall my docility to instruction, that I didn’t resign myself to accepting “The Lamb” as truth. I was a young female accustomed to assuming that her father’s opinions were universal: in that regard, I could have stepped out of a Victorian bandbox. My distaste for the poem might have centered on the mealy-mouthed falsity of the characters, but I was also a devotee of fairy tales, which overflow with falsity. It was the emotional fraudulence of the poem that distressed me, but how did I know enough at age six or seven to recognize its presence?
I think I knew because “The Lamb” wasn’t the only Blake poem that my father read aloud that evening. He chose also to read that other standby, “The Tyger.”
Tyger, Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? What the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger, Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Since the moment in which I first heard this poem, on that faraway winter evening under the lamplight, the tyger has glittered behind my eyes, always changing but never eroding. The poet’s tyger is no more a real tiger than the lamb is a real lamb, but my thoughts never carp at this as they do at the priggish lamb. For the tyger is sensation; he is seducing and dangerous; he has dragged me into his lair and I will not try to escape . . . though, in truth, there is no escape. And Blake did not escape either. “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” Who can doubt that “The Tyger” is a Song of Experience because the poet capitulated to his own invention?
But why would the tyger’s inventor choose to write a poem as cloying as “The Lamb”?

Innocence connotes a milk-white purity; yet it is also inexperience, also naïvété, also ignorance. If experience tarnishes us, it enriches us as well, not least because it forces us to confront the fact of our immorality. It may prove that a tyger will indeed tear apart a lamb, but it also presses us to admit that perhaps we don’t care overmuch about the lamb’s bloody fate.
According to Peter Ackroyd, poems such as “The Lamb” allowed Blake “to dramatise . . . the possible deficiencies” of innocence. And in this particular case, I begin to see that the poet created his drama by way of a speaking persona who is both parson and sugar-tongued serpent. Try reading the poem with that voice in your head, and the malevolence becomes breathtaking. Because now it seems clear that the poem really doesn’t make any sense. One sentence doesn’t lead to the next, to the next, to the next. Merely “The Lamb” is a stack of well-worn phrases and images, a homily designed to stupefy, not illuminate.
“For he calls himself a Lamb.” How easily a poet can employ words as bait; how sleekly he borrows from his own experience to prey upon a reader’s innocence. Such revelation chills both reader-victim and poet-predator, for what lover of art cares to acknowledge that she’s been gulled? Worse, what bard wants to admit the pleasures of inflicting damage? And there may be a third party in unwitting collusion: the listener. I was that listener, unsophisticated in the ways of poets but with a child’s alarmed antennae attuned to any shift in her father’s mood. In a voice thick with love, he read aloud “The Lamb,” but “The Lamb” did not return his love. It stood apart from him, it mocked him, and I winced. Nearly forty years later, I undergo that identical twinge of guilt, that prick of serpent knowledge, each time I reread the poem.

Poetry can be a cruel art, and Blake is its most pitiless practitioner. In the “Proverbs of Hell,” he tells me:
Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion.
The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.
The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.
The nakedness of woman is the work of God.
Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps.
The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea and the destructive sword, are portions of eternity too great for the eye of man.
The fox condemns the trap, not himself.
Joys impregnate. Sorrows bring forth.

I sit at my desk reading a sheaf of printed words, but all the while Blake the terrible puppet master jerks the strings. This time he does not allow me the predatory pleasures of the tyger. I cannot leap into the heavens alongside him, seizing the fire, twisting the sinews. Again, and yet again, he requires me to document my unveiled ignorance. For I cannot dredge up anything coherent to say about these proverbs—except that they frighten me. They seem to exist in order prove that I am a trapped animal, a doomed beast, a burden of dust, who knows nothing, nothing at all, of death or life, good or evil, hell or paradise.
 “Where man is not nature is barren,” Blake declares. Outside my window, a small wind clatters among the dry leaves and raps against the pane. Tomorrow is my forty-fifth birthday, and all have I learned about myself is to keep reading. I look down at my book, and Blake says, “He who has suffered you to impose on him knows you.” For a moment the wind quiets, and now a single car sifts past, tires sighing on the damp tarmac. I don’t know what the poet wants from me. But if nothing else, I can be sure he intends no comfort.