Sunday, June 30, 2013

What the Week Was Like

I'm sitting here in the kitchen watching the kitten climb into the dog's food dish as the dog lovingly tries to squash him flat, and just the fact that I can translate this scene into words is proof that I'm feeling more rested. At the Frost Place so much of my energy is channeled into listening and reading and talking and writing that the interstices become mute. Every year the power of this week seems impossible to describe, and this year was no exception. Sixteen teachers found their way to a plain brown barn in the mountains of New Hampshire: they came from Dallas and New Orleans, from Indiana and Maine; they came from prep schools and vocational schools, an Ivy League university and a fifth-grade science class. And we read and wrote together, cracked jokes, ate really great cake, played music together in the mosquito darkness. Some of us wept.

These were our catchwords, which arose without forethought and circled among us throughout the week:
what if?
We spoke of Donald Justice, of the psalms, of Shakespeare and Frost, of Kunitz and Wiler and Keats, of Milton and Herbert and Clifton and Gilbert, of more, of many more. We talked about bears and the bands we loved and admired each others' shoes. We listened to Baron Wormser read his poem "Jerry Lee Lewis at Nuremberg," with these lines:

It’s about not being human and enjoying not being human
It’s inhuman and that’s the last thing that’s on Jerry Lee’s mind,
Which always has a naked woman and a right hand going
Crazy on a keyboard in it, which is what a mind should hold,
So that when Göring starts in with his witty repartee
Jerry Lee says, “You are one sad motherfucker.”

And Baron felt like one of the elect, and we, too, felt like the elect because we trusted him and trusted ourselves and each other and this mousy damp barn, and no one, not one single person, ever upstaged another. And I went home with a love note in my hand that was a love note from the place and the moment and our own vulnerable hearts.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

I'm home, I'm exhausted, and I'm very, very happy. The conference participants were wonderful, the weather was manageable, the guest faculty members were both practical and inspiring, and my directorial partner Teresa Carson was a boundless source of intelligence, enthusiasm, and wisecracks. At the moment I feel like something the cat found under a snowbank, thanks to a week of sleep deprivation and the intense pressures of attention. But I'm so happy, and perhaps tomorrow I will also find more interesting words to explain what the week was like. In the meantime, here's a link to guest faculty member Terry Blackhawk's article on the Huffington Post blog.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

What I was doing last night.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Robert Frost's Internet connection is broken, so that's why you never hear from me. The weather feels like 105 degrees, but at least we had this view from the front porch:

Plenty of fresh strawberries, the ladies at Polly's Pancake Parlor remember me, and the participants are devoted, enthusiastic, and hilarious.

Wish you were here.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Got back from New Jersey at six o'clock last evening; leaving for New Hampshire this morning.

Things I noticed:

The horrible coffee at the Holiday Inn Express in Hightstown
Two callow youths discussing noise philosophy on the commuter train platform
The sandy red earth of central New Jersey
The fact that the graveyard in Cream Ridge is overflowing with not only my ancestors but also Imlays (i.e., descendants of Gilbert Imlay, adventurer and philanderer, father of Mary Wollstonecraft's older daughter, and namesake of Imlaystown, New Jersey)
That it's an odd feeling to live in a town where many of the places are named after families who aren't mine
That it's a similarly odd feeling to visit a town where many of the places are named after families who are mine
For example, at the Allentown Presbyterian Church, you have to walk through the Potter Room to get to the bathroom
That my son is the world's best grandson, evincing patience beyond measure with the sighs and distractions of his elders
That reading Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking during a week of family mourning was either a mistake or not a mistake

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

I'm baking pies at the cafe today, flying to Jersey for a funeral tomorrow, flying home Friday, and driving to the Frost Place on Saturday. My presence here for the next ten days will be scrappy, but I will do my best to check in when I can.

The gleam in this highly stressful schedule is that I'm flying to Jersey with James who is (1) extraordinarily competent and (2) extremely entertaining. Since we managed to have fun even when he was critically ill in the hospital, I am optimistic that on this occasion we will also find something to laugh about, despite the tears.

Here is a very small sample of James's thinking, circa 1998, when he would have been four years old. Though he's almost nineteen, the bright certitude persists--
James denies the reality of death, November 1998 
It’s true that nobody dies.
Just wonderful ants crawl up from the earth
and make us live again.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Is it wrong to admit that I lost interest in The Diary of Anne Frank? Not in the book's terror or poignancy, of course, nor in the details of daily life in hiding, nor in the sweetness of her character. But the "no one understands me!" refrain is wearing me down, and I'm sure this is because the "no one understands me!" refrain is ringing from my own rafters. Such is the burden of being the parent of an adolescent who is full of feelings.

So now I'm at loose ends. Shall I read Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking? Shall I read a history of the crusades? Should I ignore my "recent finds at the Goodwill" shelf and go back to a nineteenth-century comrade? I'm not feeling at all decisive, partly because my week is already in such an uproar. Will I be going to a funeral in New Jersey? Will I be baking pies at the cafe? Will I be typing out my Frost Place notes? Will I be toting children to drivers' ed class? Will I be editing or writing or applying for grants, or will I be nauseous in an airplane? Will I ever remember how to use the word nauseous correctly?

Sunday, June 16, 2013

My uncle Bob died yesterday after a long illness. His death was not a shock but it is a great sadness. He was the first member of my parents' generation to die since his brother-in-law (my father's brother Paul) was killed in Vietnam. So this is a terribly sad Father's Day for my four cousins and for my aunt Connie.

When we six cousins were teenagers, we were pall bearers for my grandmother's coffin. We met again around my grandfather's coffin. And now there will be another meeting. Between times we rarely speak, but when we are together again, we are as we always were. Six cousins--bumptious and reserved, a wordless pack.

Here's an ancient poem, dedicated to my uncle Paul, which I wrote after my grandfather's funeral. But the house in the poem is Bob and Connie's and the landscape is central New Jersey, where Bob spent his entire life as a farmer.

For Uncle Paul

Dawn Potter

It is what you might expect,
the day the next generation
crowds your father’s big coffin
into tight quarters,
all of us staggering around
in the wrong shoes,
crying about this and that.

Big and bald,
with sprouting grey hairs
and children and sorrows—
we loom, yes, every one of us,
casting shadows where they fall
over this land of exits and septic tanks.
There’s nothing to remember

except your sister’s house,
rearing up from a winter field,
blank-eyed cupola
scanning the painted sky
for the lost ones, sailing alone
this weary time
on the wide wide sea.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Yesterday I took a notion to look at The Diary of Anne Frank, which, as a child, I must have read at least fifty times. I have no idea when or why I stopped, but suddenly, all these years later, I wanted to read it again. So I took the paperback off the shelf and opened it, and there, on the inside front cover, was an inscription:
To Dawn
Oct. 7, 1974
It seems that I was ten years old when I received this book for my birthday . . . younger than Anne, who was thirteen when she received a diary notebook for her birthday. Ten was a surprise; I would have guessed I'd been slightly older when I first read the book. Still, given my voracious book consumption (in those years before the outburst of YA literature), I know my mother was already vigorously hunting for complex yet child-based reading material. Anne Frank seemed to fit the bill.

The odd thing, however, was that the birthday inscription is in my own handwriting--a careful schoolgirl cursive decorated with fancy capital letters, the whole dedication sloping downhill like an inadequate cake. My parents often gave me books for holiday gifts, and many are dated inside with my mother's beautiful clear penmanship. I can track a certain version of my life by way of her inscriptions inside my Laura Ingalls Wilder hardbacks. So why didn't she write inside this one? And why did I? Was I infected by the self-consciousness of Anne's prose? Did I feel some need to replicate the diarist's determined documentation? Or was I just trying to imitate (unsuccessfully) my mother's copperplate?

This is a small affair, but it's puzzling, and when I showed the inscription to my husband and my son, they, too, were amused but puzzled. What was going on inside my ten-year-old head in 1974? It's a mystery.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Memories and Anticipation: The Frost Place Conference on Poetry & Teaching

Next weekend, I'll be heading back to Franconia, New Hampshire, for the sixth or seventh year in a row, where I'll argue with rain and slugs and deerflies and woodchucks and mice for the privilege of sitting on a hard chair in Robert Frost's beautiful, austere barn and watching a circle of teachers and poets become devoted colleagues and friends.

This will be my first summer in charge of the Frost Place Conference on Poetry & Teaching, if one can use a bossy term like in charge for such an egalitarian event. And even though I am a little nervous about taking the reins into my own hands, I can't imagine the conference becoming anything other than what it has always been: life-changing, vocation-affirming, fear-reducing, yet demanding and invigorating. If you think I'm promoting some kind of New Age squashiness, think again. The entire conference is based around intellectual attention combined with a kind of communal patience. It is a miraculous combination--not least because it is both predictably comforting and unexpectedly exciting. Every year I learn new approaches to teaching, new rationales for idealism, new ways to read a poem, new secrets about balancing quotidian life with the rigors of art. I come away exhausted but refreshed, time and time again.

We have a lively contingent of teachers slated to arrive next weekend, and they're coming from all over the United States. Some teach in vocational schools, some in prep schools; some are elementary teachers while others are college professors. Some have been teaching for decades; others are just beginning to think of themselves as teachers. If you've got a last-minute hankering to join us, let me know right away. Our definition of teacher is broad--encompassing actual classroom teachers, people who run writing or humanities workshops, people who don't currently teach but imagine the possibility of doing so, people who love poetry, people who dread poetry, etc., etc.

If you find yourself in the Franconia area, you are welcome to attend any of our readings, which are always free and open to the public. All begin at 7:30 p.m. and are held in the Henry Holt Barn at the Frost Place Museum. Here's our schedule:
June 23: Teresa Carson
June 24: Terry Blackhawk
June 25: Jeff Kass
June 26: Dawn Potter and conference participants
June 27: George Drew and Baron Wormser
I look forward to sitting on the front porch with you and watching the stars glitter and the bats wheel over the blue shadow of the mountains.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

After a long morning spent on the road and on the radio, I have returned home feeling overwhelmed, anxious, and inadequate, all of which means I should immediately go outside and muck out the barn or mow the tall grass or otherwise reconfigure myself and my landscape. I hate the way these demons boss me around. To quote Joe Bolton, the king of melancholy, "if poetry is a bond between / two hearts, it is a bond too frail," and this is true even when both of the two hearts are mine.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Rain and rain, a troubled child, and a small new kitten, peony blossoms shattering into the tall grass, rain and rain, and tiny corn plants raising tiny hands away from the sodden earth, a handful of scarlet petals, rivulets among stones and roots, and a mother grouse with her frightened chicks, the smell of wet dog, and a troubled child, a small new kitten, squirrel-small and sharp-tailed, and rain, and rain, and rain.

And oh, yes, before I forget: tomorrow morning (Thursday, June 13 at 10 a.m.) I'll be a featured writer on WERU's The Writers' Forum. Other guests will be Valerie Lawson and Penny Guisinger, and we'll be reading from our work and talking about our favorite writers' conferences, including my own particular baby, the Frost Place Conference on Poetry & Teaching. You can listen to a live stream at, and I believe the program will also be archived

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

On Revision

The following quotations all appear in A Poet's Sourcebook (Autumn House, 2013), which includes complete versions of the Corso letter and my essay.

Suetonius, from The Life of Virgil

When Virgil was writing the Georgics, it is said to have been his custom to dictate each day a large number of verses which he had composed in the morning and then to spend the rest of the day in reducing them to a very small number, wittily remarking that he fashioned his poem after the manner of a she-bear, and gradually licked it into shape. In the case of the Aeneid, after writing a first draft in prose and dividing it into twelve books, he proceeded to turn into verse one part after another, taking them up just as he fancied, in no particular order. And that he might not check the flow of his thought, he left some things unfinished and, so to speak, bolstered others up with very slight words, which, as he jocosely used to say, were put in like props, to support the structure until the solid columns should arrive.

The Author to her Book

Anne Bradstreet

Thou ill-form’d offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth did’st by my side remain,
Till snatcht from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad expos’d to public view,
Made thee in rags, halting to th’ press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judge).
At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call.
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
Thy Visage was so irksome in my sight,
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could.
I wash’d thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot, still made a flaw.
I stretcht thy joints to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run’st more hobbling than is meet.
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save home-spun Cloth, i’ th’ house I find.
In this array, ’mongst Vulgars mayst thou roam.
In Critics’ hands, beware thou dost not come,
And take thy way where yet thou art not known.
If for thy Father askt, say, thou hadst none;
And for thy Mother, she alas is poor,
Which caus’d her thus to send thee out of door. 

Emily Dickinson, Letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, 1862

Mr. Higginson,—Your kindness claimed earlier gratitude, but I was ill, and write to-day from my pillow. 
Thank you for the surgery; it was not so painful as I supposed. I bring you others, as you ask, though they might not differ. While my thought is undressed, I can make the distinction; but when I put them in the gown, they look alike and numb.

You asked how old I was? I made no verse, but one or two, until this winter, sir.
I had a terror since September, I could tell to none; and so I sing, as the boy does of the burying ground, because I am afraid.

You inquire my books. For poets, I have Keats, and Mr. and Mrs. Browning. For prose, Mr. Ruskin, Sir Thomas Browne, and the Revelations. I went to school, but in your manner of the phrase had no education. When a little girl, I had a friend who taught me Immortality; but venturing too near, himself, he never returned. Soon after my tutor died, and for several years my lexicon was my only companion. Then I found one more, but he was not contented I be his scholar, so he left the land.

You ask my companions, Hills, sir, and the sundown, and a dog large as myself that my father bought me. They are better than beings because they know but do not tell; and the noise in the pool at noon excels my piano.

I have a brother and sister; my mother does not care for thought, and father, too busy with his briefs to notice what we do. He buys me many books, but begs me not to read them, because he fears they joggle the mind. They are religious, except me, and address an eclipse, every morning, whom they call their “Father.”

But I fear my story fatigues you. I would like to learn. Could you tell me how to grow, or is it unconveyed, like melody or witchcraft?

You speak of Mr. Whitman, I never read his book, but was told that it was disgraceful.

I read Miss Prescott’s Circumstance, but it followed me in the dark, so I avoided her.

Two editors of journals came to my father’s house this winter, and asked me for my mind, and when I asked them “why” they said I was penurious, and they would use it for the world.

I could not weigh myself, myself. My size felt small to me. I read your chapters in the “Atlantic,” and experienced honor for you. I was sure you would not reject a confiding question.

Is this, sir, what you asked me to tell you?

Your friend,
E. Dickinson. 

Gregory Corso, from Letter to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 1957
Let me know as soon as you get this, don’t keep me waiting, please, and when do you think book will finally get out? I mean this is the most I have to do with book, it’s all up to you now, Ode To Coit Tower as you can see is very inspired poem. God, but I always hated Dream and Poem On Death Again and H and Written 1956, they are such bad writings. I didn’t realize I sent them to you, you asked for everything, and remember I was bugged when I sent them to you, I didn’t care then, but I do care now, I live my life for poetry, and I’m willing to die for it, therefore I deserve only to have good poems published. Them fucking traditionalists ain’t gonna die for poetry so let them publish bad poems.

Dawn Potter, from Not Writing the Poem
Being in the zone is rather like writing under the influence of a writing-specific drug: every step of the task vibrates with meaning, and the work seems to take charge of itself. [John] Fowles said, “I know when I am writing well that I am writing with more than the sum of my acquired knowledge, skill, and experience; with something from outside myself.” When I’m in the zone, I still produce words and revise, produce words and revise; but somehow my decision making feels sharper and more incisive. I don’t plod through time, dragging at words like I’m yanking an obstinate goat up a mountain path. Weightless, I fly.
Yet being in the zone does not guarantee that what I produce is any good. As Auden pointed out, poets “cannot claim oracular immunity.” The writing trance may be an intoxication, but the art that results is not dependable. Auden’s example was Coleridge’s famous fragment “Kubla Khan,” composed, according to the author, during an opium dream in a “lonely farm-house.”
The Author continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses, during which he has the most vivid confidence, that he could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines; if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort.
Despite historical precedent, one is not required to take laudanum or drink whiskey for breakfast in order to work in the writing zone. But drugs do add their own je ne sais quoi to the situation; and thus Coleridge’s opium-induced zone cannot really parallel my own non-opium-induced haze. Yet his description of the experience is nonetheless familiar. “All the images rose up before him as things”—yes, I, too, recognize those moments, breathtaking, yet also as simple as water, when the abstractions of thought assume a swift and automatic solidity.  “With a parallel production of the correspondent expressions,” the words for those images appear under my fingers—easily, exactly, “without any sensation or consciousness of effort.”
            But trouble always looms. Waking from his dream, Coleridge “instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At that moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock . . . and all the rest [of the dream poem] passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast.”
            Oh, that aggravating person from Porlock! How well I know him. He has been sitting on the other side of my desk for about six months now, kicking the table leg, snapping his gum, and trying to interest me in political candidates and asphalt shingles. He is the anti-zone, and he interrupts every single word I write. Sometimes I manage to soldier on in spite of him, but sometimes I just give up and take him out for coffee. Coleridge, however, was unable to persevere against distraction. Daily life intruded on the trance, and “Kubla Khan” remains unfinished and unrevised. Though the author did publish the fragment, he did so only “at the request of a poet of great and deserved celebrity [Lord Byron], and, as far as the Author’s own opinions are concerned, rather as a psychological curiosity, than on the ground of any supposed poetic merits.”

            Despite the poet’s disclaimer, the fragment is, in truth, a wondrous piece of work; yet as Auden noted, “Coleridge was not being falsely modest. He saw, I think, as a reader can see, that even the fragment that exists is disjointed and would have had to be worked on if he ever completed the poem, and his critical conscience felt on its honor to admit this.” In other words, “Kubla Khan” is a lovely scrap, but it could have been a polished work of art if the poet had been able to step outside the trance zone into the lumpish everyday world of banging words together and taking them apart, banging words together and taking them apart—a quotidian job that is rather like trying to assemble a mechanical device that seems to be missing various indispensable gears. There’s nothing particularly joyous or intoxicating about the project, but it’s the job that gets the work done—and a job that Coleridge knew very well he had once been able to do.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Poems, Waiting Rooms, and Coincidence

Here is an email I received yesterday from one of my best friends in the world, who lives in Wellington, Maine, the next town over from Harmony:
[We] got a letter from a friend of ours . . . in NJ. He is a builder of canoes, among many other things, and has been treating for cancer these last 20 years!! He was in his doc's office and came across a book that had your poem Eclogue 2 in it. It reminded him of Steve and me so he copied it and sent it in the mail!!! What a coincidence! Now, I want you to imagine a very sick man sitting in a suburban NJ clinic waiting for his top gun doc to see him. He picks up a book (???) and reads your poetry. It moves him so much that he copies it and sends along to us.
The book the man was reading in the doctor's office was The Waiting Room Reader II, a CavanKerry Press anthology specifically designed for medical waiting rooms, with the idea that people in such stressful situations might like to read something better than Sports Illustrated or Better Homes and Gardens. Rachel Hadas, the editor, chose my poem, Eclogue 2, to include in the anthology. Then, after she had made her choices, the manuscript came back to me because I am CavanKerry's regular copyeditor.

So picture this: The raw manuscript files come up to Harmony from New Jersey. I work on them and send them back to New Jersey, where they are designed, typeset, printed, and locally distributed to waiting rooms throughout the state. A man who builds canoes sits in one of those waiting rooms and flips through the anthology. He reads my poem, which is set in Harmony, though nothing in the poem reveals anything specific about the town. Nonetheless, it reminds him of his friend, another canoe builder, who happens to live in Wellington (next door to Harmony). He copies the poem and emails it to his friend. His friend realizes that the poet is me.

What a spiderweb this world is.

Eclogue 2 
Dawn Potter 
A marriage worth of minutes we’ve stood
side by side, staring into the hooded depths
of your 1984 Dodge Ram pickup truck,
watching the engine chitter and die
for no apparent reason. I feel a crazy,
ignorant joy: here we go again, sweetheart,
struggling in harness over yet another
crappy mystery. Do you? I can’t say I’ll ever
know one way or the other what your thoughts
will do, though twenty years ago I made you cry
when I dumped you for the jerk down the hall,
and I’ll never get over it, the sight of you,
cool autocrat, in tears for a dumb girl
who happened to be me.

Now I’m the one who cries all the time,
you’re the one not walking away from me
down the hall.  Just the same, you imagine
walking away, I’m sure of it; maybe when you’re
dragging another snow-sopped log to the chainsaw
pile, or we’re curled in bed waiting for a barred owl
to stammer in the pines, the barn dog shouting back
like a madwoman. It’s not that being here
is misery; it’s more like marriage is too much
and not enough at the same time: the trees crowd us
like children, our bodies betray a fatal longing.
What’s left for us, at forty, but dismay
till labor shakes us back into our yoke.

Work, work, that puritan duty—yet
how beautiful the set of your shoulders
when you heave a scrap of metal siding
into the trash heap. Our bodies linger
this side of lovely, like flowers under glass.
We drive ourselves to endure; on my knees
in the hay mow, stifled and panting,
I plant bale after bale in place: you toss,
you toss, I shove, I shove. We keep pace,
patient and wordless; the goats in their pen
blat irritably. In the yard our sons quarrel.
Mourning doves groan in the eaves.
Long hours ahead, till our job is done
and another begins.

Hunting scattered chickens in the bug-infested dew:
I watch you crouch along the scrubby poplar edge,
then circle back between the apple trees,
white hen skittering ahead, luminescent in the shabby
dark. Suddenly she drops her head and sits,
submissive as a girl. You’ve got her now; tuck up her feet
and carry her back home, then squat to mend the ragged fence.
A breath of sweat rises from your sunburnt neck,
salt and sweet. My love. Marry me, I say. You cast
an eye askance and shrug, I did. How odd it seems
that this is where we’ve landed: chasing chickens
through the woods at twilight, humid thunder rumpling
the summer sky, dishes washed, a slice of berry pie left
cooling on the counter. I’ve been saving it for you. 
[from How the Crimes Happened (CavanKerry Press, 2010)]

Sunday, June 9, 2013

On yesterday's poem

I am of course so honored by your pleasure in the poem. Thank you, everyone.

Carlene, I've spent many an hour, over the years (and many of them with our mutual friend Baron), mulling this glowering Puritan cloud. Still, I'm not convinced that it's not salutary in some way . . . and as the contorted negative in my sentence indicates, my thoughts about the need to seek joy or to accept preordained failures are thorny and require many mixed metaphors. That's where the poems come in, apparently: articulations without answers.

Mary, the curve was so interesting to me! The poem demanded a rhyme scheme, but I could not keep it within the bounds of a regular line cadence. The lines seemed to push themselves forward as the poem's emotions intensified. So then I started experimenting with the shape, and that's when the rhymes and lines fell into place. To me it looks a bit like a drawing of plot action. But it might also imitate a curved road.

Jen and Christopher, I'm curious about your reactions to the narrative voice. You write "put us there with you" and "women in tired cars," but the poem itself says, "You, not man enough . . . " and plays with prince imagery. My question is: am I being unclear? My intent was to imply that the "you" is male. But if that isn't coming through, I need to do more work.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Accident Report

Dawn Potter

You know how it is:
tires devouring the coiled road,
one hand on the wheel, bending left,
bending right, slick as a seal; one of those
dawns when grains of fog spatter your windshield
like handfuls of sand, when a monstrous owl drifts

from the invisible forest with a rat writhing in his claws;
when a half-grown buck, leaf-drunk, vaults across the sopping
tarmac like a prince under enchantment; and “Whoso list to hunt,
I know where is an hind!” you cry, but silently, of course, because . . .
because you’re ashamed to mouth a greater poet’s borrowed trappings;
you, with no rights in the matter, mere remote control in fog, ambivalent,

wishful, and cold as well; for all the heat’s in words you were afraid to sing
in earshot of these phantoms—Wyatt, Milton—floating in the vinyl shade,
ready to taunt your match-struck quavering flame. You, not man enough
to warble to an empty car; they, so long dead, still young: still flashing
their brash “So help me God, an immortality of fame.” They played
their necessary cards: not only intellect and drudgery and grief,

wordy sleight-of-hand and rage and loving, probing curiosity,
but plain obnoxious gall. A poem, a stiletto in the back.
And you, alone and lonely, in your blundering car,
afraid of some fool prince with the temerity
to leap into your high-beam’s timid dark.
As if that murky light could be his star.

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

Friday, June 7, 2013

Like Carlene, I was intrigued by preponderance of plain verbs in all of yesterday's examples. Given that most contemporary creative writing manuals celebrate vivid verbs and deride adjectives and adverbs, I think these five women novelists prove that so-called writing "rules" are often nothing more than fashion instructions.

In this same vein, note that both Woolf and Spark turn to passive-voice constructions. Such constructions essentially invert subject-predicate sentence order. A sentence in active voice reads "The dog bit the mail carrier," whereas one in passive voice reads "The mail carrier was bitten by the dog." Most academic publishers specifically instruct their copyeditors to delete as many passive-voice constructions as possible. The reasoning is that (1) passive voice is unnecessarily wordy and (2) it allows the sentence's "doer" to avoid taking responsibility for the act.

In academic prose, which has an unfortunate bent toward jargon, pomposity, and clotted repetition, these preferences make sense. In art, however, the passive voice is a very useful and, I think, overlooked tool. It can (1) quietly highlight or shade certain actors and actions, (2) transmit tonal irony or narrative detachment, (3) intensify the beauty of a sentence cadence, and so on and so on.

Now tell me what you think of those stacked prepositional phrases . . . or the lack thereof.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Following is a simple grammatical summary of the openings I tossed out yesterday. I don't go into jargony detail; all I'm doing is laying out the patterns.

(1) This is the beginning of Christina Stead's The Little Hotel:
If you knew what happens in the hotel every day! Not a day passes but something happens. Yesterday afternoon a woman rang me up from Geneva and told me her daughter-in-law died. The woman stayed here twice. We became very friendly, though I always felt there was something she was keeping to herself.
Exclamatory fragment. Subject-predicate, two independent clauses, funky inverted negative. Adverb phrase, subject-compound predicate. Subject-predicate. Subject-predicate, dependent clause. Sentences are relatively brief. Word choice is clear and basic. Author uses few descriptors. Verbs are plain. Tone is cheerful, optimistic, straightforward.

(2) This is the beginning of Muriel Spark's The Ballad of Peckham Rye:
"Get away from here, you dirty swine," she said. 
"There's a dirty swine in every man," he said. 
"Showing your face round here again," she said. 
"Now, Mavis, now, Mavis," he said. 
She was seen to slam the door in his face, and he to press the bell, and she to open the door.
Imperative statement, epithet, plain dialogue tag with pronoun. Defining statement, plain dialogue tag with pronoun. Fragment, plain dialogue tag with pronoun. Repeated fragments, name, plain dialogue tag with pronoun. Dialogue ends. Passive-voice construction linked by conjunctions. Word choice is casual. Author repeats her only notable descriptor ("dirty") twice in two sentences. Verbs are plain. Tone is bad-tempered.

(3) This is the beginning of Virginia Woolf's The Years:
It was an uncertain spring. The weather, perpetually changing, sent clouds of blue and of purple flying over the land. In the country farmers, looking at the fields, were apprehensive; in London umbrellas were opened and then shut by people looking up at the sky. But in April such weather was to be expected.
Definition statement. Subject, modifying phrase, predicate, participle phrase. Prepositional phrase, subject, modifying phrase, predicate, semicolon, prepositional phrase, passive-voice construction with compound verb and prepositional phrase. Transitional conjunction, passive-voice construction. Word choice varies between simple and more complex. Author uses many descriptors. Verbs are plain. Tone is neutral.

(3) This is the beginning of Ivy Compton-Burnett's The Last and the First:
"What an unbecoming light this is!" said Eliza Heriot, looking from the globe above the table to the faces round it. 
"Are we expected to agree?" said her son, as the light fell on her own face. "Or is it a moment for silence?" 
"The effect is worse with every day. I hardly dare look at any of you." 
"You have found the courage," said her daughter, "and it is fair that you should show it. You appointed the breakfast hour yourself." 
Lady Heriot did not suggest that anyone else should appoint it.
Exclamation, plain dialogue tag with name, participial phrase with stacked prepositional phrases. Question, plain dialogue tag with relationship noun, adverb phrase with prepositional phrase. Second question by the same speaker. Two sentences of dialogue, without dialogue tag: (a) Subject, predicate, adverb phrase. (b) Subject, predicate, prepositional phrase.  Subject, predicate, dialogue tag with relationship noun, coordinating conjunction, subject, predicate, dependent clause. Second sentence by the same speaker: Subject, predicate. Dialogue ends. Subject, predicate with negative, dependent clause. Author uses few descriptors. Verbs are usually plain, with the exception of the repeated "appoint." Tone is ominous.

(4) This is the opening of Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood:

Hazel Motes sat at a forward angle on the green plush train seat, looking one minute at the window as if he might want to jump out of it, and the next down the aisle at the other end of the car. The train was racing through tree tops that fell away at intervals and showed the sun standing,  very red, on the edge of the furthest woods. Nearer, the plowed fields curved and faded and the few hogs nosing in the furrows looked like large spotted stones.
Subject, predicate, stacked prepositional phrases, participial phrase, prepositional phrase, parenthetical adverb phrase, continuing participial phrase, stacked prepositional phrases. Subject, predicate, prepositional phrase, dependent clause, participial phrase, parenthetical modifier, prepositional phrase. Adverb phrase, subject, compound predicate, coordinating conjunction, subject, participial phrase, predicate, adverb phrase. Author uses many descriptors. Verbs are plain. Tone is neutral.


Well, that took forever, and now I have to go do real work. Tomorrow I will continue on with the project. For now, I will simple toss out a couple of questions:

Did you expect O'Connor to use more descriptors than Woolf? 

Did you expect Compton-Burnett and O'Connor to share a predilection for prepositional phrases?

If you've got sentence-related observations of your own, leave them in the comments. Then tomorrow we can mull them over. (But do try to stick with sentence-related rather than meaning-related.)

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Not long ago, as I browsed the shelves of the Goodwill, I found Christina Stead's novel The Little Hotel buried among paperback Harlequins and a large number of pristine Lance Armstrong autobiographies. Stead, as you may know, is one of those twentieth-century novelists admired by other twentieth-century novelists but not so familiar to most other readers. Yet according to critic Clifton Fadiman, "[she was] the most extraordinary woman novelist produced by the English-speaking race since Virginia Woolf." Now I realize that I'm not a twentieth-century novelist, but even if I ignore Fadiman's what-the-hell category of English-speaking race (I mean, really, come on, Cliff), his most extraordinary woman novelist . . . since Virginia Woolf makes me itchy and uncomfortable. Yes, Stead's The Little Hotel was an entertaining read; but unless her most famous novel, The Man Who Loved Children, is completely different, I'd compare her style to Muriel Spark rather than Woolf. And Spark, while eminently readable and entertaining, is not a great novelist, though she's very good at being a mean novelist. (I could argue that Ivy Compton-Burnett and Flannery Connor combine great with mean, but now I'm getting off the subject. Still, note the proliferation of women in this digressive chatter. Interesting.)

Let us compare opening gambits. This is the beginning of Stead's The Little Hotel:
If you knew what happens in the hotel every day! Not a day passes but something happens. Yesterday afternoon a woman rang me up from Geneva and told me her daughter-in-law died. The woman stayed here twice. We became very friendly, though I always felt there was something she was keeping to herself.
This is the beginning of Spark's The Ballad of Peckham Rye:
"Get away from here, you dirty swine," she said. 
"There's a dirty swine in every man," he said. 
"Showing your face round here again," she said. 
"Now, Mavis, now, Mavis," he said. 
She was seen to slam the door in his face, and he to press the bell, and she to open the door.
Now here is the beginning of Woolf's The Years:
It was an uncertain spring. The weather, perpetually changing, sent clouds of blue and of purple flying over the land. In the country farmers, looking at the fields, were apprehensive; in London umbrellas were opened and then shut by people looking up at the sky. But in April such weather was to be expected.
And let's go ahead and absorb my digression into the conversation. Here's the beginning of Compton-Burnett's The Last and the First:
"What an unbecoming light this is !" said Eliza Heriot, looking from the globe above the table to the faces round it. 
"Are we expected to agree?" said her son, as the light fell on her own face. "Or is it a moment for silence?" 
"The effect is worse with every day. I hardly dare look at any of you." 
"You have found the courage," said her daughter, "and it is fair that you should show it. You appointed the breakfast hour yourself." 
Lady Heriot did not suggest that anyone else should appoint it.
Finally, here's the opening of O'Connor's Wise Blood:
Hazel Motes sat at a forward angle on the green plush train seat, looking one minute at the window as if he might want to jump out of it, and the next down the aisle at the other end of the car. The train was racing through tree tops that fell away at intervals and showed the sun standing,  very red, on the edge of the furthest woods. Nearer, the plowed fields curved and faded and the few hogs nosing in the furrows looked like large spotted stones.
I understand that one ought not to make pronouncements about a writer's entire body of work based on a reaction to a handful of opening sentences, especially when they're spoken in the voice of a created character. Nevertheless, I'm going to make a pronouncement, which you should feel free to tear to pieces. Here it is: Woolf, Compton-Burnett, and O'Connor construct their sentences with more subtlety than Stead and Spark do. Perhaps tomorrow I will talk a bit more about my reasons for thinking this, but I can't now because I have to go feed the goat and hang sheets on the line. In the meantime, you can mull over all your reasons for disagreeing with me.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Sorry about yesterday's missed post. On Sunday evening wild thunderstorms swept into our environs---tornado warnings, trees down everywhere (except for, by some sleight of hand, my yard), power lines broken, etc. We lost electricity for 24 hours, although, thankfully, yesterday afternoon a friend loaned us a generator so that I could rescue my refrigerator and freezer.

Power outages in the winter are far less troublesome. We can melt snow for the toilet, dishwashing, and animal water buckets; we can keep our cold stuff cold; we have a gas stove and wood heat. These summer outages are much dicier, what with refrigeration and water worries. However, my boys, as experienced wilderness campers, are resourceful. On a regular day they are as technologically addicted as any other teenagers. But when the grid lets us down, they calmly prepare to dig latrines and take cold-water baths in the stream.

Nonetheless, I'm glad to have the power back. What I miss most, I realize, is running water. I hate not being able to clean up the kitchen. That counter covered with filthy pots and pans oppressed me all day long.

But since I wasn't able to do laundry, work on the computer, bake bread, or mow grass (due to a parallel, exasperating, but unrelated mechanical breakdown), I did get a lot of reading done. A day spent with Virginia Woolf's The Years is never a waste. The more often I reread that book, the more it amazes me. Perhaps I will write more about it tomorrow.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

I know plenty of parents whose most intense moments of existence are lived vicariously through their children's sports teams. I also know a few parents who consistently dismiss sports as a stupid waste of time. I lie somewhere in the murky middle. My older son took little interest in sports, so I took little interest. My younger son took great interest in sports, so I took great interest in his interest. I myself never played on a team as a child, being always too booked up with violin responsibilities. Plus, my mom is a physically timid person who didn't have the wherewithal to encourage me to overcome my own physical timidity. My sister, who is very athletic, forged her way without as much parental oversight as she would have liked, which has created a mixed legacy as regards her anxieties about her own children's activities. My point here is not to diss the various parents I've mentioned but to say that the answer to "how can I be a good parent?" is not particularly obvious.

Maine's state track-and-field championships were held yesterday, and conveniently enough, Paul's high school hosted the class C (small schools) event. By 9 a.m. the temperature was already 90 degrees, and the edges of the football field were covered in bright tents and milling people. It looked like a medieval jousting field, except for the missing chargers and armor and pointy damsel hats.

Paul ran off to join his team, and I spent some time searching for shade and standing in the bathroom line and eventually hanging around with a friend who was cooking hamburgers for the snack stand. Then, out of the crowd, Paul materialized. He strode up, threw his arms around me, and began to weep into the top of my head. After a while he managed to tell me that he'd been bumped from the relay. We stood there for a long time in the hot sun--this giant sad almost 16-year-old crying on his mother, his mother filled with the familiar admixture of heavyhearted love and plain old public embarrassment which this child has inflicted on her in sporting event after sporting event over the years.

I managed to coax him into walking around the perimeter of the track with me. As he wailed, I interjected what I hoped were calming words. But even as I tried to make the best of the sad moment, I couldn't help but be perplexed by the situation. The relay team was in no way competitive at the state level. They were seeded fifth in the first (i.e., slow) heat, and the kids weren't expecting to score team points in the event. The replacement runner was more of a sprinter than Paul is, but he wasn't experienced with this particular distance. I suspect the bumping had been last-minute coaching jitters, which I can completely understand, but nonetheless it had left me with a mess on my hands.

As we walked, I convinced Paul that we should watch his teammates run, and then, by good fortune, he caught sight of a friend in the stands and he zoomed off to her. I stood by myself at the fence, sweltering. By this point (10:30 a.m.) the heat had become ridiculous. None of these Maine kids had been training in such weather, and they were suffering. The relay team competed as well as could be expected; but by the time the 4 x 800 ended, and I was watching one of Paul's teammates vomit into a trash can, I was frankly relieved that my child had been bumped from the race. Even he admitted that he was slightly relieved. He was ready to shed his broken heart. But before we left, I made him go into the track shed and congratulate his friends and see what he could do to help out the sick one. Sometimes I feel as if my life with this boy is a constantly running instructional video. "Disc 5: Learning to Exhibit Good Sportsmanship under Adverse Situations."

Anyway, we went home and ate watermelon and popsicles, and later we sat on the couch and watched a hockey game, and then Paul learned that his school had in fact won the state championship. He was as joyous as if he hadn't been bumped.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

French roast coffee in a French press coffeepot, sunshine already and thick humid air and really loud birds, humming refrigerator, car swishing past on the road, dark kitchen, three bunches of lily-of-the-valley in tiny glass medicine bottles on my kitchen table, lilac blooms fading on the bushes, iris in bud, hummingbird fights at the feeder, grumpy goat complaining in the barn, three ripe bananas and an avocado sitting on the counter, deerflies, blackflies, mosquitoes, bats upside down and asleep in their secret hiding places, state track meet later this morning along with hot sun, crowds of school buses, milling screeching excited nervous laughing nonchalant sweaty teenagers, the smell of sunscreen, straw hat and sandals and a summer dress, the Milk Carton Kids song that's been stuck in my head for three days, thinking about poems thinking about pie thinking about the excellent rhubarb-cranberry-orange-liqueur combination I made yesterday that boiled over into the unreachable bowels of the oven, trying to think about poems without conflating them with stupid stuff like burnt pie filling, but to no avail because everything airy and transported in my writing life always seems to be lassoed to something bumpy and solid and scratched up and probably bald and certainly it needs a shave and it's about ten pounds overweight and it goes fishing in the rain but never catches anything and snores all night and is not affected by the cuteness of kittens though it does have a weakness for barbecue potato chips, diet Pepsi mixed with cheap Canadian whiskey, and sweet four-part harmony.