Monday, June 30, 2014

Letters to a Young Poet: Prelude

At the teaching conference, my friend Carlene was the voice that first suggested we might all read Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet together. Here's what she has to say about the matter:
I first read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, oh, maybe fifteen years ago. I worked my way through it slowly, patiently, and underlined a whole lot of passages. But I felt a bit lost: I wanted so desperately to talk about the book with someone, to piece out and think about some of the parts which begged conversation. Sadly, few people I knew at the time had even read it once, and rest assured, no one was willing to re-read it or read it for the first time in order to engage in deep thinking and discussion. So, unfortunately, Rilke and I have a nodding acquaintance, and that’s about it. 
Recently I attended the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching, and the subject of Rilke’s book came up.  Almost upon a wish, several people expressed an interest in reading or re-reading Letters, to carry on our deep, contemplative conversations well past our week of camaraderie and companionship. I hope that this can happen; I think that many of us do feel a bit adrift, even among our professional colleagues. Our “tribe” at the conference gets it: we understand each other, and it would be both invigorating and comforting to know that we can carry forth what we’ve created there in our sanctuary, the barn with all the friendly ghosts and voices that keep us grounded.
Of course there are others of you who have never attended the conference who also get it, as Carlene writes, and of course you, too, are welcome to join the conversation. Unless one of you has a better plan, I will follow the pattern of our previous communal blog readings (Moby-Dick, The Winter's Tale, etc.). I'll "assign" chapters and a due date, and you will chime in if these seem untenable. On or around the due date, I'll drop in a few conversation starters, and you will use the comment section to respond, expand, electrify. Please remember that I am not the expert or the teacher or anything of the sort. However, because I am the blog administrator, I do have responsibility for maintaining a general structure of participation. My remarks will, I hope, simply be impetus to your own thoughts.

So, for our first foray, let's tackle the introduction (written by Franz Kappus, the young poet), followed by letters 1 and 2. And for a due date, let's aim for July 10 or so. Remember, nothing goes better with fireworks and barbecue than the ramblings of a sensitive German aesthete.

By the way, my edition is the M. D. Herter Norton translation, but I'm sure others do exist. Do not fret if we are reading different versions: the variations are likely to make our discussions even richer.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

A Few Thoughts about the 2014 Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching

In her 1958 novel The Bell, Iris Murdoch wrote:
Work, as it now is, . . . can rarely offer satisfaction to the half-contemplative. A few professions, such as teaching and nursing, remain such that they can be readily invested with a spiritual significance. But although it is possible, and indeed demanded of us, that all and any occupation be given a sacramental meaning, this is now, for the majority of people, almost intolerably difficult.
Murdoch published those words more than a half-century ago; today's situation feels even more dire. While I can't speak for nursing, the teaching profession is, for most people, no haven of "spiritual significance." The human spirit, the divine spirit, the spirit of intellect and art, however one wants to latch onto that metaphor: none has much to do with the daily interactions of teachers, students, colleagues, administrators, parents, let alone any pursuit of knowledge and self-discovery.

But every summer at the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching, I watch the spirit arise from the ashes. Though I direct the conference, this rebirth doesn't have much to do with me personally. I am not the participants' instructor. In many ways, I am more like the housekeeper or perhaps the gardener, and I use those words in their richest, least pejorative sense. It's my metaphorical job to make sure the windows are washed and the plants are watered, to hang the sheets outside on a sunny windy clothesline, to turn over soil dense with compost and earthworms. Then I step aside and watch what happens.

What happens is that people are happy, in a way they rarely have access to in their daily lives. They wear their hearts on their sleeves: which is to say they talk to one another with vulnerability and delight. They ask questions of poetry, of themselves, of each other; they become excited, enchanted, deliriously overwhelmed, by thought.

Tomorrow I'm going to talk here about an idea that came up during the conference: a possibility that we might use this blog, as I have in the past, as the clearinghouse for a communal reading project. The suggested book was Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, and of course anyone, conference participant or not, would be welcome to participate. But today I'm not in the state of mind to embark on any kind of structural conversation. I'd rather linger a few hours longer in the residual pleasures of the world you conference participants created this week . . . a five-day utopia, in its own way. You are, and have been, and will always be among the great blessings of my life.

Here's a link to some comments by a first-time participant.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Sun over Lafayette Mountain, sky clear as seaglass, a barn filled with ghosts and the living, the miracle of silence and companionship and thought and laughter and discovery, the view from my bedroom window, the bedroom where Frost's children slept.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Well, I'm off to Franconia tomorrow morning, home next Friday evening, possibly incommunicado in the meantime, but possibly not. Every year I'm told "the Frost Place has Internet now," and every year the ghost of RF severs the wires with his axe. Who knows what he's up to this year?

I've been reading contemporary fiction lately--Zadie Smith's White Teeth, Jhumpa Lahiri's The Interpreter of Maladies--and I have some thoughts I'd like to share when I'm back on Harmony time. In the meantime, if any of you have read either of these books, I'd be interested in hearing your opinions.,

And for those of you I'll be seeing on Sunday: I'm so happy we'll be spending time together. It will be a beautiful week.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

from "A Talk to Teachers" by James Baldwin, an October 1963 speech originally titled "The Negro Child--His Self-Image"

Since I am talking to schoolteachers and I am not a teacher myself, and in some ways am fairly easily intimidated, I beg you to let me leave that and go back to what I think to be the entire purpose of education in the first place.  It would seem to me that when a child is born, if I’m the child’s parent, it is my obligation and my high duty to civilize that child.  Man is a social animal.  He cannot exist without a society.  A society, in turn, depends on certain things which everyone within that society takes for granted.  Now the crucial paradox which confronts us here is that the whole process of education occurs within a social framework and is designed to perpetuate the aims of society.  Thus, for example, the boys and girls who were born during the era of the Third Reich, when educated to the purposes of the Third Reich, became barbarians.  The paradox of education is precisely this--that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.  The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not.  To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity.  But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around.  What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society.  If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish.  The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it-–at no matter what risk.  This is the only hope society has.  This is the only way societies change.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Poetic Sentence: Thoughts about John Donne’s “The Triple Foole”

Dawn Potter

[This essay reworks material that will appear in The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Deerbrook Editions, 2014). I recently received a rejection letter from a prominent teachers' journal (not for this piece but for work that will appear elsewhere in the book), which remarked that "your manuscript sounds a bit stilted to me. Try reading it out loud to yourself. Then have a friend read it out loud to you." While this strikes me as (1) hysterically funny, (2) bizarrely patronizing, and (3) possibly written by someone who doesn't read much Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, Hayden Carruth, John Berryman, Michel de Montaigne, or James Baldwin, I'm willing to take your advice on the matter, should you feel like reading this essay aloud to yourself.]

Theodore Roethke wrote that “the poem . . . means an entity, a unity has been achieved that transcends by far the organization of the lecture, the essay, even the great speech.” The sentence is key to reaching such poetic unity. It’s a blueprint for working out what and how the poet thinks and feels. It’s a conduit for curiosity, a path into mystery.
But sentences in poetry are not simply blocks of meaning; they also exist as patterns of sound. A sentence is supple and musical and physical, and more than one poet can recall a childhood moment in which she experienced that viscerality. In her essay “The Province of Radical Solitude,” Carolyn Forché writes:
The world hummed, and my own speech rose above the humming and was measured by it. I didn’t know what metered verse was, but I remember knowing that language rose and fell, and that it occurred most pleasurably in utterances of similar length. One could recite for hours the flow of language in patterns. My early musical and rhythmic training derived from the Latin liturgy, most especially from litany recitations and Gregorian plainsong. Rhythm, however, is of the body, and it was during walks in childhood that I first sensed the relation between breath, phrase, and heart. I spoke to the pounding.
            How does a poet write the kinds of sentences that create a response like Forché’s? The answer is more flexible than you might imagine. Because grammar books tend to treat sentences as recipes requiring precise ingredients, many students think of a sentence as correct or incorrect, not as a personal exploration. In contrast, The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition focuses on the individuality of articulation rather than the rules of the game: “[a sentence is] a series of words complete in itself as the expression of a thought, containing or implying a subject and predicate, and conveying a statement, question, exclamation, or command.”
In other words, sentences comprise a large variety of language patterns, many of which don’t follow official grammar-book prescriptions. So when I talk about sentences in poetry, I’m not celebrating tidy subject-predicate combos and snarling about fragments and comma splices. Rather, I’m thinking about the way in which a poet arranges words to express a thought. In an effective sentence, the arrangement of words is “complete in itself.” That is, the articulation has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In addition, an effective sentence displays a particular pattern of language: “a statement, question, exclamation, or command.”
The variations are as individual as the poets who invent them. For instance, sentences may be identical to lines of poetry, as they are in Jeanne Marie Beaumont’s “Afraid So”:

Is it starting to rain?
Did the check bounce?
Are we out of coffee?
Is this going to hurt?

A sentence can fill up an entire stanza, as it does in Maxine Kumin’s “Rehearsing for the Final Reckoning in Boston”:

During the Berlioz Requiem in Symphony Hall
which takes even longer than extra innings
in big league baseball, this restless Jewish agnostic
waits to be pounced on, jarred by the massive fanfare
of trombones and trumpets assembling now in the second
balcony, left side, right side, and at the rear.

A sentence may cross stanzas, as it does in Alexander Pope’s “Ode on Solitude”:

Blest, who can unconcern’dly find
            Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
                        Quiet by day,

Sound sleep by night; study and ease,
            Together mixt; sweet recreation;
And Innocence, which most does please
                        With meditation.

Sentence boundaries may be ambiguous, as they are in Lynn Emmanuel’s “Dressing the Parts”:

So, here we are,
I am a kind of diction

Despite their many differences, all of these examples maintain allegiance to what Forché has called “the flow of language in patterns.” Robert Frost named this flow the “sentence-sound,” defining a sentence as “a sound in itself on which other sounds called words may be strung.” By this, he didn’t mean any random clump of words. “You may string words together without a sentence-sound to string them on just as you may tie clothes together by the sleeves and stretch them without a clothes-line between two trees but—it is bad for the clothes.” Thus, dog buttermilk the in is not a sentence-sound. But rearrange the words as dog in the buttermilk and suddenly “the sound of sense” is “apprehended by the ear.”
Let’s consider the maze of sentences that cohere into John Donne’s “The Triple Foole.”

The Triple Foole
John Donne
I am two fooles, I know,
For loving, and for saying so
            In whining Poëtry;
But where’s that wiseman, that would not be I,
            If she would not deny?
Then as th’earths inward narrow crooked lanes
Do purge sea waters fretfull salt away,
            I thought, if I could draw my paines,
Through Rimes vexation, I should them allay.
Griefe brought to numbers cannot be so fierce,
For, he tames it, that fetters it in verse.
            But when I have done so,
Some man, his art and voice to show,
            Doth Set and sing my paine,
And, by delighting many frees againe
            Griefe, which verse did restraine.
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.

Lucille Clifton’s poem “sorrows” opens with “who would believe them winged,” an unpunctuated, uncapitalized line that is a clear, straightforward question. Her sentence doesn’t require punctuation or capitalization to convey what Frost called “the sound of sense.” In contrast, John Donne relies on ornate, heavy-handed punctuation to demarcate the sentences in “The Triple Foole.” Nevertheless, at first reading I’m not always convinced that what Donne has marked out as a sentence is, in the OED’s terms, “complete in itself as the expression of a thought.”
But what is “the expression of a thought”? My own thoughts are frequently clotted, unclear, and ambiguous; and it seems that Donne may have felt the same about his, for not much in “The Triple Foole” can be called straightforward. Let’s look at the opening sentence and track how the speaker moves grammatically through his own perplexity.

I am two fooles, I know,
For loving, and for saying so
            In whining Poëtry;
But where’s that wiseman, that would not be I,
            If she would not deny?

            The sentence breaks neatly into halves. The first section, which ends at the semicolon, lays out a claim (“I am two fooles, I know”) and follows with supporting reasons. Foole 1 is foolish “For loving,” and Foole 2 is foolish “for saying so / In whining Poëtry.” Thus far, the sentence seems to express a coherent thought “complete in itself.”
            But after the semicolon, things get stranger. As the sentence shifts from a statement to a question, the speaker lays out a series of linked but incongruous phrases. “But where’s that wiseman,” he asks. Immediately he undercuts the question with the self-deprecating “that would not be I.” Or should I read this as an excuse rather than as modesty? Suddenly I find myself not entirely trusting this speaker. What is he trying to evade? The sentence continues, deepening my confusion. “If she would not deny?” Deny what? Are words missing here? The sentence feels as if it’s been chopped off mid-phrase. Typically, “deny” would be followed by a noun phrase or a dependent clause: for instance, deny my love, deny that I am a foole. As it is, the question leaves me hanging. I don’t understand what’s going on. All I know is that I am confused, suspicious of the speaker, and curious about this enigmatic “she,” this mysterious “deny.”
            “The Triple Foole” is an early seventeenth-century poem. No doubt there’s a scholarly edition that would translate its archaic sentences into contemporary English, lifting my spirits and erasing my puzzlement. But even though I honor such scholarship, I want to argue for the value of coming to a poem as it exists, unadorned, on the page. I think it’s important to meet a difficult poem on your own ground, to rely on your own wits and reactions as you wrestle with it.
Are my reactions to this sentence “correct”? If I were faced with a multiple-choice question about “The Triple Foole,” I’d probably get the answer wrong. But when I ask myself what I’ve learned, I see that I’ve made an important discovery. Pushing myself to look closely at the structure of the sentence has also pushed me look closely at the structure of a thought. And what I’ve learned is that, for some poets, sentences really do seem to mirror thoughts. Clear or confused, simple or complex, Donne’s thoughts unwind as his sentences unwind. When I read his lines, I feel as if I am wandering along the pathways of his brain, at one moment basking in his rational neatness, at another drowning in his tortuous evasions. “Donne felt his thought as immediately as the odour of a rose,” writes A. S. Byatt. Now I know what she means.

“The Triple Foole” is composed of five sentences. Four of those sentences are constructed as intricate stacks of clauses that fill between four and six lines. But the fifth sentence is notably different:

Griefe brought to numbers cannot be so fierce,
For, he tames it, that fetters it in verse.

At only two lines long, it is much shorter than every other sentence in the poem. This brevity might not have surprised me if it had shown up in some other place. For instance, if the poem had begun with a short sentence and then gradually accrued into denser and denser sentences, I might have speculated about the way in which the sentence structure was mirroring the speaker’s increasing emotional turmoil. If the poem had ended with a short sentence, I might have seen it as an epigrammatic conclusion, a succinct comment analogous to the moral at the end of a fable.
            But Donne’s short sentence appears in the middle of the poem. Two long sentences precede it; two more follow it. So I begin to mull over visual and structural associations: fulcrum, keystone, waist, hourglass, heart. Does anything within this sentence support these associations?
            Most of you have done enough close reading in college English courses to follow up on that question yourself. My point here isn’t to give you answers about meaning but to show you that a sentence’s style and its position in a poem can trigger a curiosity that leads toward literary analysis. Sometimes scholarship and craft can feel like two different roads into reading a difficult poem. If you teach, you might find yourself focusing on analysis skills rather than creative writing skills, or vice versa, as if the two are entirely unrelated. By bringing them together, you allow both yourself and your students to think of complex canonical literature, such as Donne’s poetry, as work that a real person actually constructed from movable materials.

At six lines long, the final sentence of “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 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 is there a comma here?
When I think about how a poet such as Gerard Manley Hopkins chose to punctuate his poems, I often link many of those choices to his manipulation of sound. In Donne’s 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 here is to show you how to open doors into 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.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014


Dawn Potter

Like a flour smudge on an old blue apron,
A lunchtime moon thumbprints the sun-plowed,
Snow-scrabbled heavens of Harmony, Maine.
Last night three cops shot Danny McDowell
On South Road, down by the shack you and I rented
That hard winter when the northern lights glowed
And the washing machine froze and I got pregnant.
I built a five-inch snowboy for our half-inch embryo.
You took a picture of it cradled in my mittens.
But today, too late, too late, I see I forgot to worry
About this moon, this ominous rock waxing half-bitten
Over our clueless sentimental history.
            Picture it falling. A white egg, neat and slow.
            It doubles. Redoubles. Till all we see is shadow.

"Astrolabe" is one of several sonnets scattered throughout my new collection, Same Old StoryIf you have been meaning to acquire a copy of the book, now might be a good time to do so. CavanKerry Press has just announced a special deal on its spring 2014 titles. For a limited time, friends, family, and acquaintances can order Same Old Story directly from the press instead of going through the distributor. The collection will sell for 15 percent off the list price with free shipping to anywhere in the United States.

Place orders by contacting managing editor Starr Troup at

And thank you for your friendship and your support of my work.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Only five days till I leave for Franconia, and this cold had better be gone by then. Ugh.

I'd like to tell you all about my trip to New York, if only I could remember how to organize words into sentences.

At least the sun is shining. At least I have a white cat and a black dog napping on green grass. At least I have a son who wants to give away all of his pocket money to beggars on the subway.

Now I am going to go drink lemon-ginger tea and eat something or other for breakfast that I won't be able to taste. And then I am going to attempt to start editing a new manuscript. It's possible that this will be a very bad idea.

CavanKerry Press just told me that it has entered Same Old Story in this year's National Book Awards competition. This is extraordinarily kind of the publisher because the required submission fee is exorbitant. I find it depressing that only publishers who can pony up $135 per book have any chance of being considered for major awards such as the NBA and the Pulitzer. As a result, the judges don't really get to debate about the best book of the year; they can only choose from the handful that have paid the price. A big publisher can afford to enter numerous books, but I daresay that most small presses choose one book, or none. Of course I don't have any sort of solution for this problem. Judges, organizations, authors need to get paid, and where would the money come from otherwise? Plus, I have a cold, so I have no coherent solutions to any problems in any realm. Nonetheless, while I am pleased to be in the running, I'm also sad about all of the poets who are not.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

I am home, but unfortunately have brought along with me a horrible metropolitan head cold. So, because my head feels like a plateful of pierogi, I will refrain from writing anything more to you today. Instead I will go mow grass. Or at least that's my plan. The head cold may have turned me too stupid to figure out how to monkey with the choke. Talk to you tomorrow.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The world moves so quickly here. Even as I sit quietly in this basement living room, listening to the small sounds--fat raindrops bouncing off the walkway, the creak of wet leaves beside the back door--even as I sit here quietly, the buses, ambulances, trucks, cabs, subways, airplanes are rushing, hissing, groaning, shrieking. Yesterday, in Bryant Park, I read a section of "The White Bear," and meanwhile all around me jugglers were juggling and men were sleeping at tables and women were chasing toddlers and hula hoopers were prancing through the grass and construction machines were banging and horns were honking, and meanwhile the poem coiled through a secret wet forest where animals spoke and parents wept and the water well was lined with gold.

my life held precariously in the seeing
hands of others, their and my impossibilities.

     --Frank O'Hara, "Poem," 1956

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

And here I am in leafy, humid, dog-barky, police-sireny Brooklyn. Per usual when I am visiting here, I exist in a state of perpetual faux jet lag.  In Harmony I usually go to bed at 9 p.m., but in Brooklyn getting into bed by 2 a.m. equals an early night. So here I sit: drinking black coffee and pretending to be well rested.

The bus trip from Maine to New York was very long, and Bobby, our driver on the Boston-to-Port-Authority leg, was very odd. Somewhere in the middle of Connecticut, he suddenly pulled the bus onto the shoulder and went off to take a leak. Clearly he'd left the keys in the ignition because the air conditioning was still blasting. It was a prime opportunity for a spoof-mass-kidnapping-movie-in-real-life, but no one took advantage of the moment. I admit to being slightly disappointed. Then Bobby reappeared, smelling strongly of hand sanitizer, only to pull into a mini-mart parking lot 20 minutes later and get out for a smoke. This time half the passengers disembarked to join him. From the window I could see him derisively gesticulating with his cigarette and complaining about something or other. Judging from his previous patter, I would guess he was continuing his extensive and detailed diatribe about the way in which rampant cell phone use has destroyed what was once a  beautiful Greyhound bus experience.  Eventually we did get to Manhattan, despite Bobby's muttered/microphoned comments, which shifted from cell phones to the route's nefarious traffic. (Example: [dripping with irony and/or ire]: "Route 95 is a very special place.")

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Leaving this morning via bus for NYC, meaning "Who knows whether or not I'll have Internet access for the next 10 hours?" I'll certainly be overwhelmed with extra time for writing to you. So stay tuned.

Monday, June 9, 2014

It is by no means easy to enjoy the beauties of American scenery.

     --Frances Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans, 1832

drinking coffee paying bills baking banana bread choosing poems washing clothes feeding pets watering plants mowing grass going to band practice packing for New York trying on dresses to see if they make me look fat making macaroni salad reading novels eating popsicles driving to high school admonishing one son about grades telephoning other son in Paris writing list of chores for husband choosing poems reading novels complaining about Red Sox trying not to forget tickets choosing poems reading novels reading novels reading novels hunting down Dramamine for the bus trip eating cherries listening to robins sing refilling hummingbird feeder letting cat in letting cat out letting dog in tripping over dog weeding lettuce making clever remarks about cats dogs art and popular music with husband not necessarily in this order running down forest trails but not tripping on a root and bashing up my knee again splashing my face with cold water

So home and late at the office, and then home, . . . and we sat chatting a great while, talking of witches and spirits.

     --Samuel Pepys, diary, August 21, 1666

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Now Close the Windows

Robert Frost

Now close the windows and hush the fields:
       If the trees must, let them silently toss;
No bird is singing now, and if there is,
       Be it my loss.

It will be long ere the marshes resume,
       It will be long ere the earliest bird:
So close the windows and not hear the wind,
       But see all wind-stirred.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Chariot

Dawn Potter

Hooves pounding on bronze; a long, wild, whinnying chorus,
and the horses were airborne, eight enormous wings
beating, swishing, beating. Without warning, wind
crammed a fist into Phaeton’s mouth, jabbed knives
into his nose, his ears. Legs churning, wings flailing,
the steeds cut through cloud, through hissing vapors
that melted under their fiery breath. The driver, careening
from side to side in the clattering chariot, clung to the reins.

His father’s instructions flashed through his mind:
“Hold back the horses.” Phaeton dragged at the reins,
but his wrists were unsteady, his weight was light;
he was a fly compared to the god; and the giddy horses,
unchecked by any master, lunged and galloped.
Traces tangled with reins, the yoke twisted,
a sharp hoof sliced a flank, a spray of bloody foam
whipped Phaeton’s parched eyes.

In a panic, the child threw the whole weight of his rigid body
against the reins, jerking them left, then right,
trying to find the middle road, to guide the plunging horses
into their familiar wheel tracks. But he had no clear idea
of where the road might lie. Beyond the horses’ flaming breath,
he glimpsed cloud and rippled patches of sky, of Dawn
hastily folding her lustrous cloak, and now, to his horror,
bright-zoned Orion leaping away from the hurtling chariot.

Phaeton no longer knew if he gripped the reins.
Terrified of the reeling heavens, of the Crab scuttling crazily
toward the Archer, of the wakened Bear, snarling, furious,
he looked down, far down, at puddle lakes, groves of grass blades,
tine-scratched fields no bigger than eggs.
The heat . . . this unrelenting glare . . .
His fiery crown oppressed him, his knees gave way:
Oh, why had he wished for such a father?

Now his birth seemed worse than nothing.
If only he had been the son of Vulcan,
contentedly chipping nymphs from stone,
mapping Ocean with a chisel, patiently mopping
a mild sweat from his uncrowned brow.
If only that happy boy chasing goats
away from his mother’s grapevine
had never stared into the sky and desired the Sun.

Dazzled, stricken, Phaeton cowered against the chariot floor.
The reins slipped from his fingers and slid away,
falling loosely over the horses’ backs. Now wholly free,
they bolted ahead, then veered to the side, then galloped forward again,
the chariot crashing and buckling in their wake.
High, higher, they raced into the scattering stars and then plunged
wildly toward Earth, and whatever they touched, they destroyed.
Clouds scorched and withered; great Parnassus burst into flame,

and on the mountaintops, snow dissolved to rivers of steam.
In a moment entire forests burned like tinder.
A house, a loom, a woman. Gone.
Cities vanished in walls of fire; even Ocean gaped.
Trapped in a hot waste of sand, the sea nymphs screamed;
Neptune, lifting his trident to heaven, bellowed for aid,
the winds were choked with ash; Earth burned, burned;
and on Olympus Zeus stood watching, in silence.

[from Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2014)]

Friday, June 6, 2014

I've been sleeping badly, with night sweats and disturbing dreams. In one, I was wandering through a carnival cradling a sleeping infant whose name I'd forgotten, though I knew I'd chosen one for him. The incident sounds like nothing important, but in the dream I was distressed and embarrassed. And meanwhile, all around me, the rides flashed and churned.

I've been working hard this week, preparing for the teaching conference: rereading last year's conference notes and composing this year's, reacquainting myself with our featured Frost poem, conferring with faculty and staff, compiling lists, writing letters to participants, writing introductions for faculty readings, and so on and so on. In the interstices, I've been overwhelmed with end-of-year-high-school-boy-who-signs-up-for-everything-but-doesn't-know-how-to-drive activities, not to mention all of my regular spring homestead obligations. I'm leaving for New York on Tuesday, returning on Saturday; leaving on the following Saturday for Franconia, returning on Friday; then leaving for New York again on Thursday (this time for a wedding celebration) and returning on Sunday. It's a ridiculous schedule and I'm looking forward to all of it. Nonetheless, worries about forgetfulness and neglect do seem to be infiltrating my dreams.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Life. Poodle, asleep on the stoop, suddenly erupts into hysterical barking and begs to be let into the house. Assuming that she's once again detected an invasion of invisible evil spirits, I glance outside and see a yearling moose standing in the verge of the forest. Though she is only a hundred feet away from me and framed in bright green shrubbery, she remains shadowy and mysterious, a sort of shimmering, fading Rorschach blotch. In the house, the poodle barks and barks. I linger on the stoop, and the moose watches me, with mild interest. Eventually she turns and steps away. I hear a crackle of hoof steps. Then she vanishes.

Death. Last week, around ten or eleven at night, I lay in bed reading. Through the open window I heard a crack and a pop. I assumed that someone somewhere had shot off a firecracker, but my older son, whose bedroom window faces the road, thought otherwise. He barreled out of his room shouting, "Car accident!" and then he and Tom took off down the driveway into the darkness. The night fell back into silence. I got out of bed and came downstairs, and my younger son came out of his room. We looked at each other apprehensively.

Time passed. Finally the responders returned and told us what had happened. A young man had been driving toward town when a doe had leaped out of our woods into his car. His only damage was a broken headlight, but the doe had been killed. "And," said my son reluctantly, "she was pregnant with twins. Who weren't dead."

My husband broke in. "They are now." There was a pause.

My son said, "I don't think you want to hear the details."

"Maybe not," I said.

There was a pause.

My son said, "If the driver hadn't taken care of them, I would have. I don't know how. But I would have. Somebody had to.

He and my husband looked at each other and then looked away. My younger son and I looked at each other and then looked away.

In the morning, there was no trace of death on the road.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Another slice from the draft of my essay about education and the creative-writing academy:

I’ve been thinking about what one might call the Dickinson-Woolf path to creative education. Although both writers have been canonized as artists, their approach to self-education has essentially become obsolete—which is odd, because who among us would pass up the opportunity to become writers of their caliber? For a certain sort of mind, self-education is indeed an opportunity, though of course for both Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf it came with costs that a male self-educator such as Whitman was never required to pay. On the other hand, unlike Whitman, Dickinson and Woolf were born into families with enough money to support unpaid literary hopefuls. That doesn’t mean, however, that their educational opportunities paralleled their brothers’. Hermione Lee, Woolf’s biographer, noted the novelist’s “practical resentment of the irrational meanness which not only made [her father, Leslie Stephen,] a tyrant of the housekeeping books but prevented him from paying for her education as he paid for his sons. ‘He spent perhaps £100 on my education.’”
Lee carefully avoids heaping blame on Woolf’s father:

It was very unusual at this time for daughters as well as sons to go to school and university. Perhaps, too, Leslie did not think Cambridge a possibility for Virginia because of her illnesses and her nervousness. Arguably—as she sometimes argued herself—he gave her a better education from his study than she would have had at school or college. And certainly she would not have been the writer she was, with the subjects she chose, if she had had a formal education. But, with all these provisos, the fact remains that she was uneducated because he did not want to spend the money on her. She would come to resent bitterly the condition of her mind in her late teens, which, like Rachel’s in [her novel] The Voyage Out, was “in the state of an intelligent man’s in the beginning of the reign of Queen Elizabeth: she would believe practically anything she was told, invent reasons for anything she said.” 

Unlike Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson did go to school, first to Amherst Academy and then to Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Nonetheless, in a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, she wrote, “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.” Your manner of the phrase implies Dickinson’s distinct awareness of the chasm between a polite female education and the rigorous schooling of her brother Austin, who graduated from both Amherst College and Harvard Law School. Yet her dry remark is not quite humble.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

It's a cool morning in Harmony, with the promise of heat--the sort of day that tourist bureaus advertise as "typically Maine" (plus blackflies, minus waves and lobster boats). I am celebrating this typically Maine day by hanging several loads of laundry on my new clotheslines and replanting the corn and sunflower seeds that rotted into the ground during frigid, rainy May. 

The birds are loud. I hear a thrush, a bluejay, a rose-breasted grosbeak, a small woodpecker, a chickadee, and others that I can't identify by sound. A slight breeze shifts the clothes on the line, and the air is scented with lilacs.

The essay I am writing is coming along very slowly. I wonder what my theme will turn out to be. It's such a shame that high school English teachers generally don't have the option of teaching students to write-to-discover. Regular school essays are mostly "think of a topic sentence; make everything else you write fit around it." But in the world of true exploratory essays, this is ass-backwards.

When I consulted the index of my 1939 edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations (edited by Christopher Morley, famous fellow Haverford College grad), I found these pithy remarks about essays and essayists. [Pithy is one of my least favorite words; it feels like a hair in the mouth.]

Authors--essayist, atheist, novelist, realist, rhymester, play your part,
Paint the mortal shame of nature with the living hues of art. 
[This is Tennyson, from Lockesley Hall Sixty Years After, and I take umbrage at "the mortal shame of nature." Victorians can be so exasperating. But I am intrigued by the inclusion of atheist in the subcategory of authors.
Whenever we encounter the typical essayist, he is found to be a tatler, a spectator, a rambler, a lounger, and, in the best sense, a citizen of the world. 
[This is a fellow named Charles Townsend Copeland, born in 1860 and still alive in 1939, who published something titled The Copeland Reader and included said pithy remark in his introduction. At the moment, I don't have time to research him more thoroughly, though I like his comment much better than Tennyson's.] 
ESSAY--A loose sally of the mind; an irregular indigested piece; not a regular and orderly composition. 
[Nicely defined, Samuel Johnson.] 
There is no room for the impurities of literature in an essay. 
[Virginia Woolf, "The Modern Essay," in The Common Reader. I am now waiting for the Woolf-Johnson smackdown.] 
All the more pretentious American authors try to write chastely and elegantly; the typical literary product of the country is still a refined essay in the Atlantic Monthly, perhaps gently jocose but never rough--by Emerson, so to speak, out of Charles Lamb. 
[This is the snark of H. L. Mencken, from The American Language, published in 1919. It would be interesting to know which specific 1919 essayists he was deriding: perhaps Charles Townsend Copeland? P.S. Say all the mean stuff you like about Emerson; he can take it. But you'd better be kind to my Charles Lamb.]

Monday, June 2, 2014

And on this mild June morning, I offer a late-autumn Milly Jourdain poem for the archive--
November in Dorset 
Milly Jourdain 
The yellow sunshine lying on the ground
Is making golden light on trees and hills
And shining on the dew-drops in the hedge
And purple bramble-leaves.
I turn and leave this sleeping rain-soaked land
With all its memories of summer days;
And then among the lonely fields I hear
The lonely cries of lambs.
I like this poem. I like the metrical surprise of the short fourth line. I like the careful, patient images. I like the repetition of lonely in the last two lines. I like that it doesn't go out of its way to emote, or juggle big ideas, or draw connections, or build to a meaning-filled conclusion. Yet it nonetheless opens a window within me so that I do experience emotions and ponder ideas, connections, and conclusions. This poem, it seems to me, is a lesson in Keats's concept of negative capability, "when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason." Still, the clarity of the language, the flexible confidence of the two sentences that comprise this poem, are the solidity that frames those "uncertainties, mysteries, doubts." The poem is the frame of the mystery, and that mystery is visible and physical and fleeting and evanescent. 

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Sunday morning. One boy is in Paris; the other is spending the night at a friend's house. So Tom and I had the evening to ourselves, which is still an unusual state of affairs. We ate chicken sauteed with a big sweet onion, handfuls of fresh sage (from my garden), and the juice of a lemon; black rice, which tastes like a combination of arborio and wild rice; and oven-roasted asparagus (from my garden) with sliced tomatoes, garlic, balsamic vinegar, and teeny-tiny radishes (from my garden). Then we sat on the couch under a blanket and happily watched the Red Sox trounce the Rays and ate angel-food cake topped with pear-lime syrup.

Plus we have a new driveway! I'm sure you recall my winter groanings about ice, impassibility, ruts, holes, etcetera. So we girded our loins and asked a neighbor with machinery and a gravel pit to repair the damage. All afternoon he came back and forth with dumptruck loads of gravel, which he then bulldozed into the holes. The scent of diesel wafted among the lilacs, and the poodle was convinced that Evil had conquered her dominions. But at the end of the day, after seven or eight loads of gravel and hours of work, our neighbor scratched his head and said, looking up into the sky, that he supposed the bill would "come to, I don't know, round about 360 dollars."

In related news, my sister tells me that Dean and DeLuca in NYC has been selling fiddleheads at 20 dollars a pound.

Money is different up here.