Saturday, August 31, 2013

Since I was 23 years old, I have built my daily schedule around morning and evening barn chores. And now my barn is empty. I went out yesterday morning, and Lulu had died in the night. I spent a few hours digging a grave and hauling a body and cleaning out the barn. And today it is all over. There is no need for me to feed or water or clean or worry over anything outside the walls of my own house. It is a very, very strange feeling.

To distract myself, I decided to enter something in the Harmony Fair's farm and garden show. I chose two kinds of cut flowers--dahlias and nasturtiums--as well as a mixed-herb arrangement. But I am most optimistic about my green beans. I think they're the most beautiful beans I've ever grown.

Friday, August 30, 2013

The Harmony Fair opens today, and this evening I will, as usual, be tearing my hair out in the Exhibition Hall--floundering in a sea of giant cucumbers and canned tomatoes and cute knitted booties and crayon renditions of Sponge Bob and wood-burned welcome-to-our-house signs with the apostrophe misused . . . and . . . and. . . . But otherwise my obligations this year are light. On Sunday evening my band performs, but (as far as I know) I don't have to manage two dozen middle schoolers, or cover for distracted vegetable judges, or taste questionable baked goods. Anything could change, however.

The same goes for my goat situation. As of last night, Lulu was still hanging onto life, but who knows what I will find this morning when I go out to the barn?

I hear that Seamus Heaney has died. My mother met him once, long ago, at some sort of event that I can't remember anything about. She says they discovered that they were born in the same year, which disturbed him, because the year they were born was the year that Yeats died, and Heaney liked to imagine that the Yeatsian flame had transferred directly to him. He had to make sure that he was born earlier in the year than my mother was. Then he felt better.

I find this anecdote silly but also touching, not to mention peculiar. I mean, what if my mom really did just miss out on the Yeatsian flame?

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Lately, amid my many other desk-projects, I've been reviewing Alan Jenkins's poetry collection Revenants for the U.K. journal New Walk. Jenkins is an extremely well known English poet who as far as I can tell is almost unread in the United States. I think that's usual, but it's still odd. Americans are remarkably self-centered in almost everything they do, yet there's a respect for poetry in translation (especially if it's from an exciting war-torn place) that for some reason doesn't transfer to new work from other English-speaking countries.

I'm as guilty as anyone else in this matter . . . guiltier, even, because I don't read much new American work either, which may be why I'm particularly puzzled by the disconnect between contemporary British and American poets. Canonical British literature is not only the foundation of American literature instruction but also the centerpiece of my own reading life. And it's true that Americans do seem to read contemporary British prose writers: Zadie Smith, Hilary Mantel, A. S. Byatt, et al. So why aren't the poets reading the poets?

Anyway, back to Alan Jenkins. Revenants is a very good collection, and I wish I could give you more details about why I think so. However, we both have to wait till the review comes out. In the meantime, you can check out some of his work here.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Lulu is still with us, even managing to walk into the barnyard and accept a handful of dandelion leaves. She looks frail and terrible, but she still glowers at me.

Today is Paul's last day of summer vacation: tomorrow we return to our beastly get-out-of-bed-at-5:30-a.m. routine. To me, who's been driving him back and forth for soccer all summer, it feels as if he's never stopped going to school. He feels differently, however. And watching him cram his summer reading assignment into the last week of summer vacation reminds me that I never told you about my fabulous haul at the Blue Hill Library's book sale, which Tom and I bounced into as we made our way home from Stonington last Saturday.

* Two giant volumes of V. S. Pritchett: Complete Stories and Complete Essays. (You may know Pritchett as a master of the short-story form, but he also wrote excellent literary essays on practically every famous pre-1950 writer you can think of. [By the way, unlike some editorial pedants, I'm not against ending an informal sentence with a preposition.])

* A sweet, teeny-tiny edition of Thomas Love Peacock's novels Nightmare Abbey and Crotchet Castle. (Tom R., you told me to read these and now I can! [I'm torn about whether or not to insert a comma after these. Technically, it belongs there. Chatterbox-wise, it does not.])

* A crappy old paperback of Coleridge's Writings on Shakespeare. (I've been needing this book for years, and now I own a copy that will shed all of its pages in a single dramatic molting. [When dealing with the metaphysics of literary-linguistic self-destruction, I believe that no grammatical commentary is necessary.])

* A slim, hardbacked, second edition of Robert Francis's 1943 collection The Sound I Listened For. (When I opened the book, I immediately stumbled into the poem "Juniper," which describes the exact place on earth where my in-laws' house now sits. It's crazy how books are always leaping off shelves and biting me.)

From where I live, from windows on four sides
I see four common kinds of evergreen:
White pine, pitch pine, cedar, and juniper.
The last is less than any tree. It hugs the ground.
It would be the last for any wind to break
If wind could break the others. Pines would go first
As some of them have gone, and cedars next,
Though where is wind to blow a cedar down?
To overthrow a juniper a wind
Would have to blow the ground away beneath it.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

My old goat Lulu is failing. Although she's been thin and shabby all summer, her appetite has remained voracious, until the past couple of days. Now she has taken to sitting in a corner and ignoring her grain. Her spine is sharp, her attitude indifferent. She has never been a cuddler: she's always hated to be petted, so there's nothing much I can do to make her final days more cheerful. I am useless, as she has never failed to remind me during all the years of her life.

Lulu does not have a charming personality, but she is the last goat I will ever own, so I am sad, both for the sake of our flawed relationship and in the knowledge that my years as a livestock farmer are drawing to a close. Sad does not mean broken-hearted: I am also ready to imagine a freer life for Tom and myself. I do wish, though, that this goat and I had forged a friendship. She's unusual in her reticence; goats in general are lively and sociable. But like humans, there are always a few who turn away, and Lulu is one.

Ah, well. We take what we get, do we not? I will go outside this morning and offer Lulu water and grain and hay, and she will most likely ignore me. Or she will be dead, and I will have to dig a hole. Or she will have revived temporarily and be standing beside her feeder glowering at me. I'd better get to it.

Monday, August 26, 2013

"For the Eye altering alters all"

Dawn Potter

[This essay first appeared in the Sewanee Review. I'll be reprinting it as part of a chapter on William Blake in The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Autumn House Press, 2014).]

When a Blake scholar asked me to speculate on how William Blake might have responded to one of my own poems, I knew immediately that I had stumbled into an assignment that would be both a nightmare and a joy. More to the point, however, no matter how I felt, be it burdened or excited, I knew this essay would be hard to write. Even the simple step of allowing myself to visualize crazy, ardent, single-minded Blake leaning a shoulder against the casement of his small window, the better to cast a scorching eye over my work, is an arduous one. The image seems both absurdly arrogant and deeply humiliating; and whenever I picture that scene, my strongest impulse is to run away. Yet as I write these words, I’m angry at my craven reaction. “Turn around!” I want to shout. “Sit  down! Keep still and listen to the man!” For I recognize that my fears—these public revelations of my weakness and my vanity, of the gaps in my art and my goodness—are exactly what Blake demands from me. He is a terrifying, unrelenting master. And yet: he is a master.
            So I chose a poem for Blake to read.

The Fate of Captain Fetterman’s Command

            December 21, 1866

At first light we saw our enemies
on the bluff
silver flashing in their hair

a glory of sun as they rode away laden
with tunics saddles boots arrows
still piercing the cracked boots

piercing our silent comrades
and just visible in the dawn
we saw wolves and coyotes

skulking along the verge
crows buzzards eagles circling
the sun-spattered meadow

but not one white body was disturbed
for we hear that salt permeates
the whole system of our race

which protects us from the wild
to some degree but it was strange
that nothing had eaten the horses either

except for flies which swarmed in thick
like the stench
all day we waited

till the doctor finished his report then
they told us to pack our friends
into the ammunition wagons

this was our job they said to retch
to stumble into the field to grasp
at wrists at ankles dissolving to pulp

under our grip to vomit to weep
to stare at masks pounded bloody with stones
bloated crawling with flies who were they

this was our job but we could not sort
cavalry from infantry all stripped
naked slashed skulls crushed

with war clubs ears noses legs
hacked off and some had
crosses cut on their breasts

faces to the sky
we walked on their hearts
but did not know it in the high grass

As I steel myself to picture Blake at his window, scowling over this poem, my first thought is to wonder what he would think of its mechanics: punctuation, for instance. I am, in general, priggish about punctuation . . . not like William, who appreciates ampersands but otherwise could care less. In this poem, however, I’ve dropped my usual sentence tidiers—my commas and periods, my predictable capitalization—a choice that has forced the lines and stanza breaks to shoulder the poem’s metric and syntactic load. That technical decision feels brave to me, but it’s a bravery that Blake would probably never notice. Nonetheless, he would certainly notice that the poem doesn’t rhyme or thrust itself into the rhythms of blank verse; and my guess is that he wouldn’t much like the quavering sonic result. But to tell the truth, I don’t much like the sounds of his lines either, neither his pedantic little melodies nor his prosy ranting. We would quarrel. Possibly he would find something cutting to say about literary women, and I would throw up my hands and spill his ink bottle. I wouldn’t mean to spill his ink, but I wouldn’t be altogether sorry I’d done it either.
Yet if I can manage to mop up the ink and he can manage to laugh (he does claim to “love laughing”), we may find our way into a common space. For I do think that, as poets and as human beings, Blake and I share at least two traits. We both have energy, and we both believe that “Severity of judgment is a great virtue.”
These qualities were crucial to my invention of “The Fate of Captain Fetterman’s Command,” which is, by the way, unquestionably the most violent poem I have ever written. Its impetus was my immersion in Son of the Morning Star, Evan S. Connell’s account of the bloody war between the U.S. Army and the plains tribes in the years after the American Civil War. While General George Custer is the book’s central focus, Connell also relies on innumerable primary-source accounts from soldiers, officers, tribal warriors, merchants, and bureaucrats, not to mention their wives, children, and servants. By combining these many one-sided accounts, Connell was able to create both a panorama and a general thesis about the cruelty and wrongheadedness of the U.S. government. But my poem doesn’t do that work. It remains a one-sided account—fictional yet arising in both spirit and dramatic arc from the journal entries of soldiers involved in a specific incident: the 1866 slaughter known as the Fetterman Massacre, when the captain and seventy-nine of his men were ambushed and killed by Sioux warriors.
To Blake, this narrowed vision might well be the most unattractive characteristic of my poem. His gift was his ability—his urgent need—to take every side and to castigate every side. Even the small poems are massive in scope and complication. “The Little Vagabond,” for instance, has always struck me as one of the most subversive poems I have ever read.
But if at the Church they would give us some Ale,
And a pleasant fire, our souls to regale:
We’d sing and we’d pray, all the live-long day,
Nor ever once wish from the Church to stray.

Who but Blake would ever suggest that churches should be more like bars? Who but Blake would then slam on an ending like this one?
And God like a father rejoicing to see
His children as pleasant and happy as he;
Would have no more quarrel with the Devil or the Barrel,
But kiss him & give him both drink and apparel.

At once cynical and idealistic, scornful and hopeful, rigid and chaotic, humane and poisonous, the poem is a pipe bomb wrapped up in a blanket of prim singsong.
            Blake never seemed to fear the possibility of supporting the wrong political or moral or religious issue. This isn’t to say that he never erred. Rather, I think he believed that speaking was more important than not speaking. Moreover, speaking vehemently was more important than speaking timidly. “Active Evil is better than passive Good,” he scrawled recklessly in the margin of Johann Caspar Lavater’s 1788 Aphorisms on Man. If questioned, I doubt he would have stood up for that statement. What really mattered, I think, was the word active—the reckless resolve to declare to any listener, “What a contemptible Fool is This [Francis] Bacon”; to paint an image of the evening sky so dense and green and tumultuous that the inks soak through the paper and stain the table beneath.
But as Blake also knew, vehemence doesn’t necessarily draw in readers. And in my own case, I’m fairly sure that it explains, at least in part, why the poem has been so difficult to publish. The issue has been, I believe, more a problem of politics than of quality of work. For by calling the Sioux “the enemies,” by limiting itself to the viewpoint of the soldiers, the poem seems to be taking the Wrong Side.
Somehow we are no longer allowed to admit publicly that native Americans have ever behaved badly. Yes, the government took away their land, their culture, and in too many cases their future. But I’m not talking about the big story here: I’m talking about the smaller, messier stories of brutality. And neither side is exempt from that brutality. As Blake writes in America: A Prophecy, when honesty “trembles . . . and like a murder . . . seeks refuge from the frowns of his immortal station,” then the pestilence of violence and dissent can spread to all involved. It no longer matters who is right and who is wrong. Using the American Revolution as his metaphor, he writes,
The plagues creep on the burning winds, driven by the flames of Orc,
And by the fierce Americans rushing together in the night;
Driven o’er the Guardians of Ireland and Scotland and Wales,
They spotted with plagues, forsook the frontiers; & their banners seard
With fires of hell, deform their ancient heavens with shame & woe.

In other words, everyone, on every side, is tainted by injustice.
            Simultaneously, however, everyone, on every side, clings to the shreds of his humanity. Blake, by way of “Boston’s Angel,” may seem to support the colonial revolutionaries, but he doesn’t exult over the defeat of “the thirteen Governors that England sent”:
                                                 They rouze, they cry,
Shaking their mental chains; they rush in fury to the sea
To quench their anguish; at the feet of Washington down fall’n
They grovel on the sand and writhing lie, while all
The British soldiers thro’ the thirteen states set up a howl
Of anguish: threw their swords & muskets to the earth & ran
From their encampments & dark castles seeking where to hide
From the grim flames.

This is the pity that I felt for those men under Captain Fetterman’s command. They may have been agents of government evil, but they were also men. No, really they were mostly boys: graceful, curious, impetuous, clumsy, pimple-faced, shock-haired, laughing, screaming. The same could be said for the Sioux warriors. I just didn’t happen to find myself writing that poem.
            To a certain degree, we are trapped by our own history. Those slaughtered white men were my ancestors. The Sioux who were slaughtered in other battles were not. I don’t see the white soldiers as better than the Sioux, but I know them better; I recognize the details of their cowardice and their bravery. The situation is analogous to, say, the question among American animal-rights activists of reintroducing wolves into domesticated territory. Yes, the wolves have the right of primogeniture. Yes, farmers stole the wolves’ homeland and murdered them in great numbers simply because the animals were following their predatory instincts. I know this history, and I share the guilt of my species. But when a predator invades my henhouse and kills my fat chicks, I still cry, and I’m still angry.
            In the eyes of Blake’s “Bard of Albion,” the plagues that revolution unleashes “deform [the Angels’] ancient heavens with shame & woe.” Woe is what drew me to the story of the Fetterman Massacre, a woe that I, for whatever reason, was able not only to share but to imagine—its violence and ineptitude, its scavenging beasts, its tall grass. Meanwhile, the Sioux “on their magic seats . . . sat perturb’d.” They remained distant, mythological. It is my flaw that, in this moment of the poem, I could not imagine them otherwise. Yet perhaps Blake would forgive me my limits, so long as I refuse to forgive myself. Like Milton before him, his mission was to reveal the minute and infinite coilings of human immorality; but neither poet ever exempted himself from sin. “The grandest Poetry is Immoral,” claimed Blake; “the Poet is Independent & Wicked[;] the Philosopher is Dependent & Good.” And God knows I am no philosopher.

“Severity of judgment is a great virtue.” And yet “Some cannot tell what they can write tho they dare.” It seems to me that, as a writer, as a living being, I negotiate day and night between these instructions—now bowing to the impossible demands of clarity and culpability, now recklessly chronicling my ignorance. I think that Blake, standing at his window, frowning over my lines, would give that desperation its due, even as he pounces on my timidity of vision. At least I hope he would. “We walked on their hearts/but did not know it in the high grass” are the words I chose to circle this painful beauty, this hideous despair. His words, as usual, are starker:
And none can touch that frowning form,
Except it be a Woman Old;
She nails him down upon the Rock,
And all is done as I have told.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

In Stonington audiences come to poetry readings and laugh and sigh and cheer and pay attention. Later local people stand on stage and read the poems they love. After the event they buy a lot of books. Then they throw a party and offer the visiting poet a two-night vacation in an airy house overlooking the harbor. So, yes, this weekend may even beat the time I got paid in a gallon of maple syrup or the two dozen oysters I received as an honorarium.

Tom and I spent our vacation day on Isle au Haut with friends. We took an hour-and-a-half mail boat ride into Penobscot Bay. We hiked up granite outcroppings, through blueberry bushes, across cobbled beaches. We carried beautiful blue stones in our pockets. We ate bread and cheese and watched the schooners. We talked about Joe Strummer and the exasperations of home ownership and little black ducks that dive for fish. On the path we worried over a juvenal wren that was trying to learn how to fly.

And now I am home again, trying to remember how to manage the exasperations of home ownership. Tomorrow J leaves for his second year of college, and later in the week P starts his sophomore year of high school, and then the Harmony Fair opens, and autumn is creeping in, creeping in.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

You may not hear from me for a few days because I have no idea if I'll have Internet access by the sea. So I suggest you enjoy your Dawn vacation by doing things I never do and telling me about them afterward. For instance, you might watch Good Morning, America or American Idol or a zombie movie; play time-sucking online games, none of whose names I know; take up country line dancing or judo or the accordion; run 10 miles or swim in a quarry; wear shorts when people can see you; shop at the Dollar Store or Auto Zone or Victoria's Secret; eat limburger or scrapple or two pecan pies; pet an alligator; read the novels of Nick Hornby or Doris Lessing; plant artichokes in your garden; mash turnips into your potatoes; dye your hair or apply nail polish; develop a crush on Pete Rose, Tom Cruise, or Cornel West; sing along to the music of Kenny G; worry about being too short; tell jokes in a Balkan language; drink diet soda or chocolate martinis or decaf coffee; dream that Governor Paul LePage is your stepfather (wait, I already did that last night); sign your kid up for Vacation Bible School; marry your shrink; incorporate the word shrink into the screenplay of a 1970s-style wife-swapping comedy; write a ghazal, a novel, a cookbook, a verse drama, a scientific research paper, or a fan letter to Lassie; cut down a tree with a chain saw; wear chaps; or ride a mule.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Overcast, cool, with a promise of heat. I am very tired as I was turning and tossing, freezing and burning all night. Meanwhile, the Irrepressible spent the entire episode trying to sit on my chest and wash his feet, and the full moon shone a semblance of day all night long.

Now, at daybreak, midnight's wispy clouds have locked into lowering grey, and the sublunary world is dim and pedestrian. The Irrepressible has given up on his feet and vanished into the poison-ivy patch. Clutching cans of breakfast Mountain Dew, bleary employees coast past in their rusted pickups and clattering minivans. The poodle circles three times on my study rug, lies down, sighs, and instantly falls asleep. Crickets sing in the invisible forest.

I want to tell you, "This is important, this is all important," but it may be nothing, it may be worse than nothing. It may simply be two comma splices and a repeated pronoun with an unclear antecedent. Indiscriminate, I reach for books. Anne Sexton writes, "She pricked a baked potato"; Christina Rossetti writes, "Snail paced in a hurry"; Edmund Spenser writes, "The man was much abashed at his boast." Every lie is the truest story in the world. The crickets are singing.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Sorry for not posting anything yesterday, but overwhelmed is just how it is around here. Naturally I'm glad to be working, but being a freelance editor can feel like being a schizophrenic alarm clock, and I have five separate jobs to juggle, a book review to write, plus a giant unfinished manuscript of my own with a looming deadline. To add to the frenzy, yesterday was the first day of preseason soccer, meaning that I have to spend a chunk of every day driving the boy 140 miles back and forth and back and forth to school and/or cooling my heels in a parking lot as his coach spontaneously decides to run an extra-long practice.

[Some clich├ęs are better than others. I love that phrase cooling my heels.]

I'm also beginning to plan for the 2014 Conference on Poetry and Teaching. I'm delighted to say that the Frost Place administration has decided to dedicate extra resources to marketing and promoting our program, but this also means that Teresa and I have numbers of rapid decisions to make. Do not think I am complaining; I adore this conference. But those rapid decisions are pressing, and some of them involve sorting through research loaded with educational jargon, and you know how I feel about educational jargon.

[Implementation. Modalities. You see my dilemma?]

Anyway, at the end of this week I go on vacation for two days . . . even though one of those so-called vacation days does involve a big reading that I still haven't finished organizing. Gah. I need a helpmeet.

[Helpmeet is a smarmy, eye-rolling, Patient-Griselda word; but even though John Milton and I argue about it constantly, we could both use one today. We just don't want to be one. He thinks that's fine, and I think that's morally incontinent, and our arguments always devolve into grouchy one-liners, and that's why I don't spend Christmas with him.]

Sunday, August 18, 2013

After Twenty Years

Dawn Potter

It is possible
that no husband really loves his wife.

Too easy it is to mistake
their scheduled arrivals and departures, their constancy,
for something greater than the dim outcroppings
of loneliness.

When, entrapped again
in the fervent throes of habit,
we cry, “Do you love me?”
they answer yes.

Their manners
are faultless, restrained.
They sleep deeply,
and, in the morning, scraping ashes from the stove,

only rarely do they forget to speak.

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

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Things appear to be moving along with my next poetry collection. I just received a few sample cover designs, and I think we'll be using something along the lines of this one.

The photo is Tom's, of course, and the clothespin horse is James's. He built it when he was very young, probably four or five years old, apropos of nothing in particular. He just picked up a handful of clothespins and instantly created a beautiful expressive horse.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Next Thursday, August 22, I'll be the featured reader at the Stonington Opera House. This is quite exciting for me as I have never been the featured reader at an opera house before. Of course the Stonington Opera House is not the Met, but the location is equivalently exciting. Imagine crashing waves and big sharp rocks and lobster boats and seagulls, plus summer people and shops, and you have Stonington in August. As a perk, the opera house people are giving me a two-night vacation in town, and Tom and I are planning a ferry excursion to Isle au Haut, which is part of Acadia National Park. This will be our first outing together all summer, and we do love the sea.

The theme of the evening will be "Home." It shouldn't be too difficult for me to dredge up a 30-minute show on this topic, but if you know my work, feel free to make suggestions. Or you could just come to Stonington for the reading.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

A good day yesterday. The people in my workshop seemed so pleased to be tangling with the old. It lifts my heart to know that I'm not the only reader who is invigorated by this. We studied two pieces about villains; we talked about the varying nature of villainy . . . how a poet manipulates language to create that character . . . Richard III versus the Duke of Ferrara . . . and, yes, RIII won the "more sympathetic villain" award. That duke is bad.

Why am I using all these ellipses? I hope this is not going to be my next new annoying tic.

And now I'm off to blueberry- and blackberry-pick with Son Number 2, who is so anxious to go that he actually got out of bed at 8:30 in the morning. Somehow I managed to raise kids who love berry bushes. It's a comfort to know that they'll always be able to make a living as migrant workers.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

I'm on the road today, heading down to the Ocean Park Writers Conference to teach an afternoon session on the dramatic monologue. Ocean Park is a Chautauqua community founded in 1881, a sweet little collection of summer cottages and meeting rooms tucked into an elbow of hurdy-gurdy Old Orchard Beach. This will be a day mostly spent driving: I'll be in the car twice as long as I'll be in the workshop. Ah, well.

I've decided to focus on two monologues: the opening speech in Shakespeare's Richard III and Browning's My Last Duchess. Last year Teresa Carson and I team-taught a session on the Browning poem, and I'll be missing her today. But I've never taught the Richard III excerpt before; and because my plan is to use both of these poems as anchors in a two-day poetry/prose workshop in November, today will be good practice for that immersion.

Have you read the Shakespeare speech lately? Maybe you ought to.

from the Tragedy of Richard the Third

William Shakespeare

act i, scene i

Enter Richard, Duke of Gloucester, solus.

[Gloucester].            Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York;
And all the clouds that low’r’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths,
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments,
Our stern alarums chang’d to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visag’d War hath smooth’d his wrinkled front;
And now, in stead of mounting barbed steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I, that am not shape’d for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them—
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to see my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity.
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Introduction to "Two Chapters from 'Tracing Paradise: Two Years in Harmony with John Milton'"

Dawn Potter
“Every poem can be considered in two ways—as what the poet has to say, and as a thing which he makes. From the one point of view it is an expression of opinions and emotions; from the other, it is an organization of words which exist to produce a particular kind of patterned experience in the readers.”
C. S. Lewis was the author of those sentences, and he happened to include them in a book he wrote about John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. I like his remark and am pleased to have to discovered it. But even though I, too, have published a book about Paradise Lost, I didn’t come across Lewis’s book until last week. In fact, I had no idea he’d ever written about the poem.
Many, many people have written about Paradise Lost, and I am probably the most ignorant of the bunch. I have read almost no Milton scholarship. You might wonder how I had the gall to write a book about Paradise Lost without paying any attention to what the experts had to say about it. But my purposeful avoidance wasn’t an offshoot of either laziness or arrogance. Rather, it was a way to circumvent my tongue-tied humility.
How does a not very religious American woman who lives in the woods and writes poems talk to a seventeenth-century urban Puritan firebrand and canonized epic poet? My initial reaction was to avoid talking to him at all. I had never really liked Paradise Lost, and I had no confidence in my ability to interact with it. Yet at the same time I was in need of a challenge. I wanted to expand myself as a poet. I wanted to learn from difficult work, from poems that made me uncomfortable, even angry.
Timidly I decided to copy out a few pages of the poem. As I discuss in the introduction to this book, copying out poems is the best way I know to get inside the head of another poet, to undergo word for word, comma by comma, what the poet experienced as he worked on the poem. But in this case my little copying experiment snowballed, and I ended up transcribing every single word of Paradise Lost. In the afterword of my memoir of that project, I talk about the strange, absorbing, unexpected task:
In early December 2007 I finished copying out the final lines of Paradise Lost. Accomplishing the job had occupied me for more than two years. Some weeks I copied out page after page. Some weeks I managed only a few lines. Some hours my fingers chased each other fluidly over the keyboard like Rogers and Astaire sparkling in easy tandem across a spotlit stage. Some hours I mangled every word, stuttering through typos and flawd punctuation, misunderstood verbs and unanticipated line breaks—an epic chore narrowed to “backspace and try again, backspace and try again.”
Copying was a hard job, and not just because typing is dull and Milton is a mountain. Living with myself as copyist was equivalently hard. When I undertook the task, I thought of myself as a poet, not a memoirist. But I was anxious about my worth as a poet: I needed to do something important, something improving. Transcribing Milton’s masterpiece seemed to be a quick solution and a weighty preoccupation, yet I couldn’t define why it might be improving or important. Even though I saw the job as special, even glamorous, I couldn’t take myself seriously. That I may have been the only person on the planet who imagined copying out all of Paradise Lost to be glamorous increased both my absurdity and my conceit. And once I began to write about the project, my sense of inadequacy grew. As hard as I pressed myself intellectually, I could not, in the end, truly understand Paradise Lost. The poem was too large for me.
Although I say “the poem was too large for me,” I don’t mean that I gained nothing from the experience. The most important lesson was how vital it can be to build an unmediated relationship with a work of art. My discoveries about Paradise Lost may have been pedestrian, but they were my discoveries. I had only myself to depend on as I made my way through this immense and thorny poem. The undertaking was vast and daunting, but I learned to think, to question, to argue, to weigh my opinions, to change my mind. There are times when research and scholarly analysis are necessary ingredients of art and the study of art. But there are also times when the exercise of one’s own mind is the stimulant. 

[from a draft chapter of The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Autumn House Press, 2014).]

Monday, August 12, 2013

Today I begin my Milton chapter for The Conversation. It will be odd to work on Milton again after all this time and space has come between us. To be honest, I should say that a chunk of the chapter will reprint material from Tracing Paradise, but I still need to write an introduction that focuses on some of my routes into writing the memoir, and this will feel strange.

The cucumbers are beginning to pile up, and I foresee pickling in my future, but I don't know when that will happen. Today and tomorrow I have various boy obligations, and on Wednesday I'll be driving to southern Maine to teach a workshop on dramatic monologues. Who knows what monstrosities I'll find on the vines if I have to wait till Thursday?

The C. S. Lewis book I quoted from yesterday is an interesting and old-fashioned work of scholarship. I would use the word cozy if one could imagine such a term in the company of Milton the Un-Cozy. My friend Nate found a copy in a used bookstore and sent it to me long after I'd finished the memoir, so my discoveries in it are fresh. This cheers me up: I'd hate to think that all I'm doing now is recycling old material. On the other hand, this second section of The Conversation is a respite from the first. Cogitating those eight language-element chapters was an exhaustion.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

See, this kind of stuff is what drives me crazy about T. S. Eliot. Such snobbery. Ugh.
from A Preface to Paradise Lost by C. S. Lewis 
A recent remark of Mr. Eliot's poses for us at the outset the fundamental question whether we (mere critics) have any right to talk about Milton at all. Mr. Eliot says bluntly and frankly that the best contemporary practising poets are the only "jury of judgement" whose verdict on his own views of Paradise Lost he will accept. And Mr. Eliot is here simply rendering explicit a notion that has become increasingly prevalent for about a hundred years--the notion that poets are the only judges of poetry.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

My cousins are visiting today, so I am off to cook them a giant breakfast. To fill the gap, I'll share a band photo and a menu.

Cornmeal pancakes, fried ham, raspberries, Maine maple syrup, coffee, coffee, coffee.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Dreamed all night the cat was biting me. Woke up and the cat was biting me. The dream also involved parrots and celestial-blue wall-to-wall carpeting and a smiling elderly lady with a tight perm. You'll have to invent the plot yourself as I have no idea what it entailed, other than my peregrinations up and down a country road. I had to carry the cat with me everywhere, and it bit me the whole time.

Now the cat is taking a break, by which I mean not biting me either in real or REM life. Outside rain is clattering from the eaves, and the air smells of thunder. And here comes the lightning and now our Internet connection has evaporated, so who knows when you will receive this missive?

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Introduction to "Two Essays about Blake"

Dawn Potter

It took me a long time to learn how to write prose about poetry. In large part this was because, like many of you, I had grown up in an education system that encouraged me to think of literature as something separate from myself rather than something that I could engage with personally and idiosyncratically. I knew as a reader that poetry could change me as a human being, but the English papers I wrote in high school and college ignored that inner knowledge. Instead, I worked to convince myself that cool objectivity and critical analysis were my true nature and that my passion for literature was sober and precise rather than mutable and intoxicating.
I have come to understand that writing essays about poetry is a way to articulate links among reading, reaction, inspiration, and daily life. Essays don’t need to be analytical pieces written to impress a teacher with the breadth of my knowledge. Rather, they can help me clarify and expand my personal relationship to the art.
In the two essays anthologized in this chapter, I write about a single poet, William Blake, yet the pieces cover different ground. In the first, “For the Eye altering alters all,” I imagine how Blake might have responded to one of my own poems. This was a nerve-wracking assignment: it is always difficult to give myself permission to speak to a great poet as a colleague. But it also pushed me to look closely at the similarities and differences between our styles, to consider what I trusted and did not trust in the work we were doing as poets. Unlike my discussions in part 1 of this book, which focused on elements of language, the essay takes up broader questions of morality and responsibility, referring specifically to the central Blake poem in this chapter, America: A Prophecy.

The second essay, “Blake the Terrible,” considers the two best-known Blake poems in the canon, “The Lamb” and “The Tyger,” in the context of my own life history. For me it’s been important to articulate the power of personal reactions to literature. Like scholarly analysis, this is a form of critical thinking: a route to discovery, a forum for asking questions and drawing conclusions. Likewise, I think it’s important to engage with literary stereotypes. I know both of these Blake poems so well that I found it challenging to look at them with new wonder. But when I pressed myself to do so, I also found that I was reexamining my own perceptions and motivations.

[from a draft chapter of The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Autumn House Press, 2014)

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

I've got a new poem out in the Solstice Literary Journal, which also includes work by Frost Place friend George Drew and Maine writer Penny Guisinger.

I wrote this poem in response to a question on a job application. Should I have sent it in instead of the sober, well-behaved answer that didn't get me the job?

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

I've finished the first draft of part 1 of The Conversation, "Watching a Poet Make a Poem." Now I move on to to part 2, "Writing about a Poet and a Poem." This stage should move along faster because I'll be incorporating two previously written pieces into the book: an essay about William Blake that appeared in The Sewanee Review and an essay about John Milton that was included in my reader's memoir Tracing Paradise. I'll be creating a certain amount of new material, of course, as well as writing activities for S. T. Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Brigit Pegeen Kelly's "Pale Rider." The focus of this section is writing prose about poetry, and I'll be using either long poems or, in the case of Milton, a chapter from Paradise Lost as the material under study.

In the meantime I've come to the realization that I'm very, very tired. Physically I'm perfectly well, but my brain feels like a faucet drip. The West Wind should sweep me up in his arms and carry me off to Brooklyn.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Another summer Monday. Cucumbers are swelling on the vines, corn is coming into tassel, and my flower garden overflows with phlox and dahlias and black-eyed susans. Lil Ruckus is sitting on my lap, where he is peacefully digesting his half of the dog's breakfast. All the yard work I meant to finish over the weekend did not get done. As soon as I thought about mucking out the barn, thunder would roar and rain would fall. It was clear that Odin had other ideas for me--for instance, taking a nap and baking raspberry pie two days in a row.

And now today: more Donne, along with a passel of someone else's academic footnotes to clean up. I'm toying with making gazpacho but I'm not sure I have quite enough tomatoes or that it's really quite hot enough outside. Is it gauche to serve gazpacho on a 50-degree evening? My favorite gazpacho recipe is an old M.F.K Fisher transcription from her book How to Cook a Wolf. The premise of this book is learning to deal with wartime food shortages and the subsequent rash of weird processed food that began appearing during 1940s and 50s food rationing. As M.F.K. says:
It is all a question of weeding out what you yourself like best to do, so that you can live most agreeably in a world full of an increasing number of disagreeable surprises. Some of them are merely funny, like the carefully sealed cans filled with milk-solids, nitrous-oxide gas, and suchlike, which spit out a "dessert topping" vaguely reminiscent of whipped cream when held correctly downwards, and a fine social catastrophe when sprayed, heedlessly upright, about the room.
Her gazpacho recipe (which she spells "gaspacho") is delightfully free of nitrous oxide and also requires no food ration cards or expensive meat byproducts, though it does assume that your victory garden is thriving.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Off to play brunch music this morning at Stutzmans' cafe in Sangerville. I'll be playing with Sid, not with the whole band, and I have no idea what we'll be doing because Sid and I never play alone together. Fresh tomato and sausage strata, wild blueberry pancakes, blueberry puddings, roasted red potatoes, bacon, and eggs are the brunch features this morning, so if you're around, come eat a lot of food and puzzle over what I'm doing.

In the meantime, I leave you with this poem from the western Pennsylvania project:

Abandoned Country Song (1972) 
Dawn Potter 
My darling has left for the city,
And my heart is as bleak as a barn.
Now I blink at the pattern
Of dust that once mattered
And can’t tell which memory I mourn.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

In his comment on yesterday's post, David brings up an important point about the punctuation choices that appear in published versions of Donne's poetry. Here's what Charles M. Coffin, editor of The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne (Modern Library, 1952) has to say about the matter:
Donne's place in the twentieth century owes a great deal to the careful work of his editors. The establishment of a good text, of the poems especially, has been difficult, not only because Donne is not an easy poet, but also because of the considerable variation among the numerous manuscript copies and among the early printed editions. Except for the 1611 edition of the First Anniversary, which Donne probably saw through the press, he had no hand in the publication of any of his poems: they circulated in manuscript, subject to the vicissitudes which are inevitable to frequent transcription, and there was no collected edition until after his death. Professor Grierson was the first to surmount most of the difficulties presented by this situation, and his edition (1912) has become the foundation for all subsequent editorial work.
I ran into an even worse situation when I was trying to write about Milton's Paradise Lost. Not only does PL have the usual manuscript issues, but Milton didn't even do his own original writing. Can we trust the accuracy of an exasperated daughter who is boringly forced to transcribe her crabby father's oratory? Probably not.

I am unable to tell you exactly which difficulties Professor Grierson managed to surmount, though I daresay his wife simultaneously coped with decades of irascible muttering. Nonetheless, here we are, all these hundreds of years later, faced with a poem on a page. In a certain way, we have to "suspend our disbelief," as Coleridge said in an entirely different literary context. The Donne on the page of my book is not an exact replica of the Donne who sneezed onto his sermon in the autumn of 1611. But he's as close as I am able to get. Someone, at some point, thought there should be a comma at the end of "But not of such as pleases when 'tis read,"--and was it the sneezing Donne? Was it Donne's semi-educated curate? Was it the admiring Catholic lady who lived down the street? Was it a dogsbody clerk who was suffering from the first symptoms of plague? Was it Professor Grierson's ironic teenage daughter, who one night sneaked into his study and made a little change that no one ever noticed but me?

Friday, August 2, 2013

Because I can't seem to get Donne off my desk, I'll give you a few more wanderings from my chapter on sentences.

At six lines long, the final sentence of John Donne's “The Triple Foole” accounts for nearly a quarter of the poem.

To Love, and Griefe tribute of Verse belongs,
But not of such as pleases when ’tis read,
            Both are increased by such songs:
For both their triumphs so are published,
And I, which was two fooles, do so grow three;
Who are a little wise, the best fooles bee.

Despite its length, the sentence seems to visually comply with traditional sentence expectations. It begins with a capital letter and ends with a period. It is composed of linked clauses, several of which begin with coordinating conjunctions such as but, and, and for. These kinds of conjunctions tend to make a reader feel rhetorically safe. They hint at a balanced argument, a weighing of options. They imply logical progress from one idea to the next. But is logical progress really what’s happening in this sentence? When I look more closely at the punctuation, I begin to feel uneasy.
Lines 1 and 2 open smoothly enough. In fact, “To Love, and Griefe tribute of Verse belongs, / But not of such as pleases when ’tis read,” reads like a sentence unto itself. Though the order is archaic and convoluted, the lines have a subject (“tribute of Verse”) and an accompanying verb (“belongs”) with an attached prepositional phrase (“To Love, and Griefe”). The second line is a dependent clause that explains the qualities of this particular “tribute of Verse” (it’s not pleasant when read). So far, so clear.
But line 2 ends with a comma, indicating that the sentence isn’t over yet. So why, when I read line 3, do I feel as if I am now in a completely different sentence? The simplest response is because Donne has relied on a comma splice. That is, instead of inserting a period or a semicolon after line 2, he has used a comma to link an independent clause (“Both are increased by such songs:”) to what was already a complete sentence.
You may be a person with a hot, hot hate for so-called bad grammar. You may revile its versus it’s errors and snarl about dangling modifiers and split infinitives. But for now I want you to stop spitting and snarling. I also want you forget the fact that seventeenth-century punctuation styles don’t follow the rules of twenty-first-century grammar manuals. Simply I want you to reread these three lines and ask yourself, Why did Donne use a comma here?
In my previous chapter about punctuation, I thought about some of the ways in which Hopkins chose to punctuate his poem “The Soldier.” To me, many of those choices seemed to relate to sound. In this case,  however, I am less sure about the influence of sound. Does the sound of “The Triple Foole” change radically if I insert a strong end-stopped pause rather than a lighter comma pause? Yes, each reading does create a different effect in my voice and on my ear. But more than the echo of music I hear the echo of thought.
In lines 1 and 2, Donne states that verse can be a tribute to either love or grief, and he tells us that such tributes aren’t necessarily a pleasure to read about. Then in line 3 he rushes into his next idea: such tributes aren’t pleasant because verse intensifies both love and grief. Is he making logical sense? Not necessarily. I might argue that an increase in love can be pleasurable, even that an increase in grief can have its self-absorbed allurements. But I think it’s important to remember that thought isn’t logic. Thought is exploration. To my mind, Donne’s comma splice is somewhat analogous to the light bulb that appears over a cartoon character’s head. “Idea!” it shouts.
Let's keep pushing into the sentence. Line 3 ends with a colon. Here again, we have a situation that might be called a sentence break. Why did Donne choose to break his thought with a long exhale rather than an actual stop?
Read further down into line 5, which ends with a semicolon. In modern English grammar, a semicolon links two independent clauses. In other words, it functions as a kind of hybrid period/comma. But this isn’t a case of two independent clauses. Line 6 is a straightforward dependent clause—a place I might have expected to see a comma. Why didn’t Donne choose to use one here?
How do these punctuation choices--a colon, then a semicolon--affect your sense that the poet is working, in the OED's terms, with "a series of words complete in itself as the expression of a thought"? I’m not going to answer such questions for you, although I hope you take the time to puzzle over them yourself. As I’ve already said, my goal in this chapter is to show you how to open doors in the poem, not to explicate it for you. By paying attention to sentence structure, sentence punctuation, and sentence position, you will be using the solid elements of language as touchstones for your own curiosity. You can analyze for meaning; you can focus on dramatic movement; you can bask in the cadence of the language. There are many ways to read a poem, and there are moments in your life when one type of reading will be more vital than another. But the poet’s language choices always remain at the root of those readings.

[from a draft chapter of The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Autumn House Press, 2014)]

Thursday, August 1, 2013

I don't know what I'll be writing to you this morning because the kitten (whose current name is Lil Ruckus) is trying to take control of the keyboard while also pulling the stone out of the ring on my left typing hand. Yes, he's about to step on a key . . . and, aha!  is what he decided you needed to know. Think of it as a metaphor. Or a warning.

Anyway the sun is shining and the air is cool and dry. It is a lovely morning to be eaten by a cat. My plans for today are much like my plans for yesterday, with the addition of barn cleaning and grocery shopping. Band practice was canceled yesterday because the guitar player's hay baler broke. I dare you to parse that sentence for logic, yet at the time it seemed perfectly rational.

I read another article wailing about conceptualist poetry. Conceptualist angst seems to be all the rage these days. As far as I can tell, the poems in question are just dumb and and the poets in question are semi-charlatans masked as marketing whizzes. The tedium overwhelms, but I can't take this stuff seriously. Clearly I've got to stop reading these articles. Sometimes it's better to be ignorant.

But tell me: why are words such as charlatan and chicanery so beautiful?