Thursday, May 16, 2013

I told you my story turned into a poem, and here's why. As I wrote the story, I became more and more detached from my characters. They started to feel like participants in a farce. All my dialogue was one-liners, which is something I recognize from past forays into the genre. The thing is: even though I like to write funny poems, I rarely feel as if I'm limiting myself to farce in them. And in this case I realized that the section of the draft I kept rereading was the least funny part of the story. What my mind wanted to do was linger on a portrait, not make something else happen. So yesterday and this morning I lingered on that portrait, and now I have a poem.

A new used book arrived in the mail yesterday: Van Wyck Brooks's 1936 The Flowering of New England, 1815-1865. It is a fine solid library edition, with an ascetic workman-like binding, vintage 1963. According to the library card, no one has ever borrowed it.

In the preface Brooks says, "My subject is the New England mind, as it has found expression in the lives and works of writers," and here's the opening of the first chapter:
At the time of the Peace of Ghent, which brought to a close the War of 1812, Gilbert Stuart, the portrait-painter, was an old inhabitant of Boston. He had lived in the town,--for it was still a town, not to become a city for almost a decade,--nine good years. The son of a Rhode Island snuff-grinder, he had made his way up in the world of art until nobody questioned his eminence. He was famous in London and Dublin, where he had been a rival of Lawrence and Beechey. In all American circles, his word was law. No one dared to praise an American poet until the Edinburgh Review had done so, but Stuart was the arbiter in painting. In his careless way, he had neglected to answer the letter from the Academy of Florence asking for a portrait of himself. He did not need these testimonials. In the capital of New England, whither he had come to live and die, everyone praised and admired him. Even John Adams, the patriarch of Quincy, who said he would not give sixpence for a Raphael, yielded to the spell of the genial artist. The old man had rejoiced, with a Puritan's fervour, that the age of painting and sculpture had not arrived to corrupt his beloved country. But Gilbert Stuart's witty anecdotes charmed away his prejudices. After his first sitting, he exclaimed that he would be glad to sit to Stuart from one year's end to another.
"The son of a Rhode Island snuff-grinder." "Not give sixpence for a Raphael." I can tell I'm going to enjoy this book.


Ruth said...

"My subject is the New England mind, as it has found expression in the lives and works of writers,". My how apt, given the lively discussion of several post back, concerning modesty about one's work and Carlene's observations about the Puritan mindset.

Dawn Potter said...

That's what I thought too, Ruth. Such a fine coincidence! And I remembered that I was interested in this book, when I came across the title in an Alice Munro story: it was a book that the main character thought she'd never get around to reading.

Ruth said...

Apparently not getting around to reading this book is its fate in the library too!!

Carlene said...

O now I want to read it.