Monday, February 29, 2016

from Family Matters

Dawn Potter

Even well-loved, well-matched partners, friends, parents, children carry the burden of one another’s art. Writing to [his friend] Jane Kenyon, Hayden Carruth mused, “Meanwhile, the rain falls beautifully. The murmur on the roof is musical and variable. I am in the bedroom so I can hear it, and Joe-Anne has finally stumbled out of bed and gone to work. She’ll be back in a couple of hours. We—all of us—are burdened by history, no doubt of that, but the burden is not so great that we can’t respond to the same events when they recur in the present, the rain, the sunset, the opening of the day lilies. And I suppose that’s a boon.”

Kenyon’s husband, Donald Hall, who watched her die of leukemia, later spoke of how he and his wife had learned to exist together. “Each member of a couple is separate,” he said; “the two come together in double attention. Lovemaking is not a third thing but two-in-one. John Keats can be a third thing, or the Boston Symphony Orchestra, or Dutch interiors, or Monopoly. For many couples, children are a third thing.” For these two poets, poetry was naturally a third thing, but of necessity it could not be the only one.

[The complete essay appears in the winter 2016 issue of the Sewanee Review]

Sunday, February 28, 2016

March Goings-On

Tu Fu readers: I posted a couple of discussion questions below. If you don't feel like answering them, propose a better question in the comments. Though my terrible cold is finally starting to dissipate, I'm still stupider than usual, so I welcome all intelligent assistance.

Teachers: On March 7, 8 p.m., I'll be the featured guest on NCTE's poetry Twitter chat. Please come talk to me and each other. Also, teach me how to stop hating Twitter.

Central Mainers: I'll be (1) reading poems at Common Street Arts in Waterville on March 17, 5:30 p.m.; (2) leading a day-long professional development workshop at Harmony Elementary School on March 18; and (3) playing music at the motor lodge in Dexter on March 19, 7-10 p.m.  In other words, in the space of three days, I'll be wearing all of the hats. I hope I don't get them mixed up. You could stop by to make sure.


Quick thoughts:

1. The narrator of these poems often presents himself as a wastrel and a drunk. How does Tu Fu manage to make readers who are not wastrels and drunks identify with a persona they might otherwise disparage or pity?

2. Tu Fu often mentions colors, but he (or the translator) tends to choose very basic words to indicate them. Why? How do you delineate color in your own writing? Are your choices similar to or different from Tu Fu's?

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Poetry and Rebirth

A few days ago I received a email from an old friend. "Call me," it said.

I'd first met this friend at the Frost Place; she was a New Hampshire public school teacher who'd been coming to the conference longer than I had. But a few years ago she suffered a brain aneurysm; and though she was fortunate to survive, she had endured considerable brain damage. At first I'd tried to keep up with my friend's progress through news from her daughter, but as time went by I heard less and less. I did not know how my friend was healing . . . if she was healing. It seemed likely that she might not even remember our friendship.

Yet a few days ago I received an email from her. "Call me."

So I called her, and there she was . . . the same bubbly voice, slightly distorted but wholly recognizable; the same intense joyous optimism that I remembered. "I have written a poem!" she laughed. She talked and talked, telling me of her struggles with short-term memory, voice problems, dependence. But for some reason, she said, her memories of the Frost Place had remained bright. We chattered for a long time--an hour, maybe--not just about the past but also about her eagerness to take charge of her present. I wondered aloud if continuing to write poems might be a way to help her hold on to those details from her present that keep dissolving away from her. And she was so joyful to be thinking about that possibility: "I have all the time in the world!" she laughed.

Later in the day she sent me an email: "You inspired me--I played the piano for the last hour." I'm not sure how I inspired her as we did not talk about music at all. Perhaps she was her own inspiration; perhaps the opportunity to talk about creating poems, about reading books, about learning to thrive in the present and the future triggered her physical need to make music.

Our conversation was so sweet and unexpected. Think of it!--what we do at the Frost Place has stayed alive in the deep recesses of my friend's injured brain! I know nothing about the science of memory and brain function, but I do know that an intense relationship with art may have unintended consequences. It seems that a tenderness for poetry may be helping my friend reclaim her life. If that's not a miracle, I don't know what is.

Friday, February 26, 2016

It is 4:15 a.m. on a dark, wet morning, and I am massively congested--a walking, talking headache disguised as a dim-witted yeti, who bursts a few more brain cells with every galumphing sneeze.

If I had been feeling better yesterday, I would have written a longer post, one that began unpicking the knotty connections between Garth Greenwell's novelistic and Walt Whitman's poetic personae. I may do that eventually; I may do it with Garth himself if I end up interviewing him later this year. But really I'm sure you can see those knots for yourself, without my intervention. Garth, like many of my favorite writers, cannot keep himself out of the books he reads . . . and by himself I mean his questing imagination, for his narrator is not an autobiographical clone but an exploration of "the same old role, the role that is what we make it, as great as we like, / Or as small as we like, or both great and small." This character is a sensitive and civilized young teacher who regularly cruises public bathrooms and dark walkways in search of sex. Yet the damage he does to himself and others does not accrue because he takes these risks of the body. Rather, he will not take equivalent leaps of the heart, clinging instead to "a life lived almost always beneath the pitch of poetry, a life of inhibition and missed chances, perhaps, but also a bearable life, a life that to some extent [he] had chosen and continued to choose."

I won't go further with these thoughts now, lest they suddenly disintegrate into a viscous puddle. My goal today is to become healthy enough to sit in the audience of my son's high school play. Medicine, do your work.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

from Garth Greenwell's novel, What Belongs to You

There were lines in Whitman's poems that had always struck me as exaggerated in their enthusiasm, their unhinged eroticism; they embarrassed me a little, though my students loved them, greeting them each year with laughter. It was these lines that came to me as I stood on that path in Blagoevgrad, watching seeds come down like snow, that defined and enriched that moment. What were those seeds if not the wind's soft-tickling genitals, the world's procreant urge, and I realized I had always read them poorly, the lines I had failed to understand: they weren't exaggerated at all, they were exact, and for a moment I understood his desire to be naked before the world, his madness, as he says, to be in contact with it. I even felt something of that desire myself, though it was nothing like madness for me, in my life lived almost always beneath the pitch of poetry, a life of inhibition and missed chances, perhaps, but also a bearable life, a life that to some extent I had chosen and continued to choose.

* * *

from Walt Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry"

It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,
The dark threw its patches down upon me also,
The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious,
My great thoughts as I supposed them, were they not in reality meagre?
Nor is it you alone who know what it is to be evil,
I am he who knew what it was to be evil,
I too knitted the old knot of contrariety,
Blabb’d, blush’d, resented, lied, stole, grudg’d,
Had guile, anger, lust, hot wishes I dared not speak,
Was wayward, vain, greedy, shallow, sly, cowardly, malignant,
The wolf, the snake, the hog, not wanting in me,
The cheating look, the frivolous word, the adulterous wish, not wanting,
Refusals, hates, postponements, meanness, laziness, none of these wanting,
Was one with the rest, the days and haps of the rest,
Was call’d by my nighest name by clear loud voices of young men as they saw me approaching or passing,
Felt their arms on my neck as I stood, or the negligent leaning of their flesh against me as I sat,
Saw many I loved in the street or ferry-boat or public assembly, yet never told them a word,
Lived the same life with the rest, the same old laughing, gnawing, sleeping,
Play’d the part that still looks back on the actor and actress,
The same old role, the role that is what we make it, as great as we like,
Or as small as we like, or both great and small.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

I had the unexpected pleasure of waking up the boy to tell him that school's been canceled. While our forecast does call for sleet snow rain freezing rain sleet rain sleet freezing rain, there's nothing precipitating at the moment, and canceling school before a storm begins is not the Maine Way. Perhaps the headmaster is in some kind of Florida mood. Anyway, it looks as if I won't be driving to Bangor to fetch my repaired violin and thus won't be going to band practice tonight, which is just as well, given the frog-like state of my singing voice.

As I was drinking my coffee this morning, I glanced at another literary blog, which among other topics mentioned Keats's poem "La Belle Dame sans Merci." Immediately I was seized with a longing to read it, and you can find it here and read it too, if you are so inclined.

The first thing I noticed were the echoes of Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner"--voice, character, mood. I have no idea if this was purposeful or accidental, and it doesn't matter anyhow. But I felt the ripples between the two poems.

The second thing I noticed was the gloomy teenage-boy narrator, palely loitering around the school lockers while the belle dame made another conquest in her elfin grot . . . "oh, she treats me mean, she treats me cruel."

Please don't bustle over to tell me that the poem is much greater and more subtle than my callow response might indicate. I know, I know, and truly I love it and believe it in it in ways that transcend that schoolboy reenactment. On the other hand, our adolescent selves never die. The hurt and glory and self-pity of those days thrum beneath our aging carapaces. We are damaged goods, and Keats makes sure I don't forget the old familiar clumsiness and pain, even as he urges me, and himself, beyond them.
I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

I'm still sick, but I am managing to stay upright, mostly, and even remain relatively useful, in a dumb sort of way . . . though I'm not sure that Tom would be wise to trust my color suggestions for his paint-the-kitchen project.

It's cold here this morning, below zero again after an interval of slush. Nonetheless, the angle of sunlight has shifted and chickadees are singing their spring songs. Yesterday I bought a bunch of daffodils at the grocery store, and the living room is bright with fresh blue paint and a glossy new floor. Without the dreadful carpeting, the acoustics of this house have improved dramatically. I've discovered that the songs of Sam Cook and Patsy Cline are particularly pleasant to sing in that room.

By the way, I have taken note of your preferences about the Tu Fu reading project. It sounds as if several of you would like to continue, so we will. Let's move on to a new set of poems, XXII through XXVIII, and in a few days I'll ask for your thoughts.

Despite my head cold I'm feeling peaceful this morning, even patient, even affectionate and comical. "There is a time after what comes after / being young, a time after that, he thinks / happily as he walks through the winter woods." That's Jack Gilbert talking, in a brief poem that also mentions a woodpecker, two continents, the Han dynasty, a thousand years, and concrete.

Last week I wrote a two-line poem . . . a poem so frail that I could never consider sending it out into the world on its own. So I will tuck it in here, quietly, to keep company with these paragraphs.

Before Music
How clean the mind! Scrubbed
like a turnip at the fair—

[from a collection in progress, currently titled Song Book]


Monday, February 22, 2016

I have returned from my Brooklyn odyssey to admire an echoing, urethane-scented living room that seems too pretty to belong to me; also to discover that Tom fell on the ice while we were gone and sliced up his face; and now, it seems, to learn that I am sick with a sore throat, just in time to go back to work today.

Things I did in New York: slept till 9 a.m., drank beer in a revolving dining room, went backstage at a Broadway show, ate carrot meringue pie, walked on the High Line, spotted snowdrops in bloom, watched my son's joy.

Yesterday, in between dusting and laundry, etc., I read nearly all of Alice Munro's latest story collection, Too Much Happiness, which I bought in Brooklyn, along with a collection of Jack Gilbert's poetry.

Why does Munro's writing move me so? It never fails, never fails.

* * *

Pardon this small note; I really am not feeling very well. More tomorrow, I hope.

Friday, February 19, 2016

For the moment I am sitting quietly at someone else's kitchen table. Outside, there is an undifferentiated growl of traffic. An ambulance wails and dies away. The voices of foot passengers are muffled by bursts of sparrow chatter in the tiny front garden. Grey daylight filters through white curtains, and an upstairs neighbor treads back and forth over a squeaky floor. Cats meow in the stairwell.

Paul Eluard writes, "The clear mirror of the human body makes of it all a banquet."

Yehuda Amichai writes, "Motor car, bomb, God."

The tug of old and new, strange and familiar. Streetlamp swallowing darkness. A rat, in silhouette, scuttling across a sidewalk and vanishing down a grate. Merle Haggard pleading in a French bakery.

"Two nights and two days he floundered in massive seas," mourns Homer.

Buses blur and sigh. The room trembles, lightly, lightly, over the catacombs yawning below. A bouquet of rosebuds rots in a vase. Ashtrays, empty, reveal the moral of the story. Outside, on the street, a furious toddler screams and is carried off by eagles.

"O fold me away between blankets," wails Mario de Sa Carneiro, "And leave me alone."

Or rise, rise, and walk into the river of walkers.

[All extracts translated by Ted Hughes, or Ted Hughes and Assia Gutman]

Thursday, February 18, 2016

So far the best thing I've seen in New York City has been an 11-month-old baby girl named Arden.

Yesterday's Coney Island-bound F train was packed with briefcase clutchers, double-bass haulers, suitcase draggers, and the like. Clinging to a pole in our midst was a small-boned young mother with a blond baby in a front pack. This baby was having the time of her life. She was thrilled by the crowd, and she would lean out of her pack to pat our sleeves and to flash us the most brilliant two-toothed smile you have ever seen. Every one of us in that circle was enthralled. She was like a queen with her court, and her mother was so loving and so engaged with her child and so proud of her happiness, though not at all shy about letting strangers interact with her. It was a glorious moment of connection among strangers--mostly wordless, mostly transmitted by eye contact; no irony, no discomfort, just an intense communal pleasure in the light of this little girl.

The scene made me feel so hopeful about humanity's possibilities for joy. Dear little Arden, thank you for that smile.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Tomorrow, very early, Paul and I will catch the bus for New York, so you will hear from me sporadically for a few days. I'm not sure what we'll be doing while we're there, other than going to see the show Fun Home. Paul might visit some friends; I might go to the Museum of Modern Art. If the weather is decent, I'd like to walk on the High Line.  If the weather is terrible, maybe I will stay in Brooklyn and cook something extravagant. In either case, we could have a cup of coffee, if you've got an empty moment on Thursday or Friday.

* * *

I went to Bangor yesterday to drop my violin off at the violin hospital and to get Paul a haircut. I also ended up having a bonanza day in the Goodwill's book section, which was strangely crowded . . .  a man with dreads buying homeschooling manuals, and a down-at-heels couple crowing over the plethora of available James Patterson novels, and a young mother in a posh suede coat scanning the nonfiction while the child in her shopping cart contentedly broke the wheels off a plastic truck. Fortunately none of them seemed to be hunting for these books:
* A first American edition of Ted Hughes's Selected Translations (2006), which covers an astonishing range of poets, from the anonymous voices of The Tibetan Book of the Dead through Euripides, Pushkin, Macedo, Racine, Ovid. . . . This book is definitely coming on the bus with me. 
* A first edition of Jane Kenyon's Collected Poems (2005). Earlier this year I bought this same collection new, in paperbook. So if you are in need of a copy of Kenyon's poems, please let me know and I will mail it to you or perhaps hand it to you over a cup of coffee in Brooklyn. 
* An early American edition of Kate O'Brien's The Last of Summer (1943). Kate O'Brien was an Irish novelist, not very well known, but an exquisite delineator of the tragic interplay between sexual desire and family or public duty, especially in a Catholic context. Her most famous books are That Lady (set in Philip II's Spain) and The Land of Spices (set in a Irish convent before World War I). I didn't even know this particular novel existed, so I am all of a flutter.
* * *

Finally, I haven't heard from anyone about whether we should continue the Tu Fu reading project or shelve it again. Is there a consensus? I know all of you are busy with your quotidian lives, as am I, but I'm certainly willing to carve out space to continue this project . . . if I can be sure that others are also carving out space. While I'm happy to host the project and to toss out discussion starters, I'm not willing to be the major talker. My hope is that participants will respond to one another's comments rather than depend on me to do all of the segue work. If that doesn't seem possible right now, then I think we ought to sideline the project. But if a few of you can commit to responding in a timely manner to each other's comments about the readings, then I'm willing to keep going.

Monday, February 15, 2016

I am sitting at the kitchen table writing to you and Tom is getting ready to put a second coat of paint on the living room walls and the cat is playing with the bathtub drain and the dog is curled up on the square of Breathless Drambuie that Tom cut out for her before he dragged the rest of the brown rug to the dump.

The subflooring is littered with ancient baby and pet stains, and paint specks, and smears of spackle, but the walls are now a lovely shade of watery blue-green. The yellow chairs are pulled up around the hearth like stumps around a campfire.

The temperature outside is 10 below zero. I am thinking of the poems of Cavafy.
He didn’t know, King Kleomenis, he didn’t dare—
he just didn’t know how to tell his mother
a thing like that: Ptolemy’s demand,
to guarantee their treaty, that she too go to Egypt
and be held there as a hostage—
a very humiliating, indecorous thing.
And he would be about to speak yet always hesitate,
would start to tell her yet always stop.
--from "In Sparta," trans. E. Keeley and P. Sherrard
Boys and their mothers, boys and their mothers.

Her response? "She laughed, saying of course she’d go, / happy even that in her old age / she could be useful to Sparta still."

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Twelve below zero this morning, with a brutal wind. Last night, running across a dark lane in a black gale, violin case careening in my hand, shards of snow pelting my face, I thought, I have never been so cold. Then my body instantly remembered a moment, 25 years earlier, when I was working as a farm manager in Vermont . . . early morning in the sheep barn, 15 below zero, sliding open the back door, and the wind sweeping up from the valley and slamming me full in the face. I have, in fact, been much colder here in Maine--40 below and more--but that sheep-barn moment still lives inside my bones.

Tom and I were both out of bed several times last night to stoke the wood stove. But despite roaring lustily all night, its circle of heat is small this morning. Usually this single stove is adequate for heating the entire house, but fighting 12 below zero is difficult; and with no furniture or rug, the living-room-under-construction, tiny as it is, feels cavernous. But the coffee in my cup is hot and strong, and my bathrobe is thick and red, and my knees are parked in front of a dancing flame, and there are no animals in my barn anymore . . . no shivering livestock, no frozen water buckets, no hysterical me, running back and forth, back and forth between house and barn, trying to keep the animals warm enough to stay alive.

This must be the definition of the lap of luxury.

* * *

Books in the Mail

My friend, the novelist Tom Rayfiel, has sent me his most recent book, Genius. I've written on this blog about his previous novel, In Pinelight, which struck me at the time as one of the most interesting new works of fiction I'd come across for years, so I'm pretty excited about this new book. Tom is also a brilliant reader of both poetry and fiction. Sometimes I think he and I are Ivy Compton-Burnett's entire contemporary fan club, and he has also introduced me to a new passion, the novels of Penelope Fitzgerald, a gift I will never be able to repay.

In addition, I've just acquired Garth Greenwell's What Belongs to You, which is receiving considerable adulation in the New Yorker, the NY Times, the LA Times, etc.--which is to say, Garth is a young lion living the dream. I first became acquainted with him as a poet when I was working for the Beloit Poetry Journal; and later, when I was compiling my anthology, A Poet's Sourcebook, I contacted him for permission to reprint an essay. Since then, we have been friendly, and even had breakfast together in Minneapolis last spring. I've read an early version of What Belongs to You, a short novella called Mitko, so I'm looking forward to finding out how Garth has reworked that strong but flawed kernel into a full-length novel. The two of us are planning to have a longer conversation this summer about his shift from poetry to prose, which I'm thinking I might be able to work into an essay for a journal that's been asking for contributions. We'll see what transpires.

Finally, another long-distance friend, who teaches and writes in Hawaii, has spontaneously decided to send me a collection of Paul Celan's poetry in translation--her response to some of the recent autobiographical musings on this blog. In short, I'm feeling warm in the affections of the bookish, and I will have plenty to read on the bus to New York City on Wednesday.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

According to the underside of the 70s-era brown shag living-room carpet that Tom is ripping up, the name of its color is Breathless Drambuie. Clearly this must be a porn name; that rug was born to be Norma Jean Schlock.

Believe it or not, by this time next week we will have a freshly painted living room with a shiny oak floor. After two decades with Norma Jean, I can barely comprehend this amazing development.

Outside the temperature has finally risen to zero, and a thin snow is falling. Paul is on a school bus heading to the state track meet. I'll be playing music tonight at Stutzmans' Cafe. Then the violin will go into the repair shop, Paul and I will transport to New York City for a few days, Tom will urethane the magical new floor, and Breathless Drambuie will be mourned only by the dog.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Shakespeare's plays are not in the rigorous and critical sense either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind; exhibiting that real state of sublunary nature, which partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety of proportion and innumerable modes of combination; and expressing the course of the world, in which the loss of one is the gain of another; in which, at the same time, the reveler is hastening to his wine, and the mourner burying his friend.

--from Samuel Johnson, "Preface to Shakespeare" (1765)

* * *

Longfellow's soul was not an ocean. It was a lake, clear, calm and cool. The great storms of the sea never reached it. And yet this lake had its depths. Buried cities lay under its surface. One saw the towers and domes through the quiet water; one even seemed to catch the sound of church-bells ringing like the bells of the city of Is. Transparent as this mind was, there were profundities of moral feeling beneath the forms through which it found expression, the fruits of an old tradition of Puritan culture, and, behind this culture, all that was noble in the Northern races. If Longfellow's poetic feeling had had the depth of his moral feeling, he would have been one of the major poets, instead of the "chief minor poet of the English language."

--from Van Wyck Brooks, The Flowering of New England, 1815-1865 (1940)

* * *


Dawn Potter

To bring in the cows he hurtles over
stubble on his mountain bike, coat spread
open to the wind. Last bike he had
got trampled by a bull not happy with him
so close to the ladies. Bulls are that way.

His wife tells about the one that took off
after her, baby playing in the sandbox
right in the line of fire. No harm done.
The boys took care of him damn quick,
though she remembers how it felt to run.

--from Boy Land & Other Poems (2004)

Thursday, February 11, 2016

A couple of things:

* A friend who teaches in Vermont inquired about whether or not "Magic Words," my upcoming free workshop at the University of Maine at Augusta, is open to out-of-state participants. I checked with the coordinator and the answer is yes. So if you're interested, please let me know and I will share her contact information with you.

* Applications are now open for the 2016 Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching. Please contact me if you have any questions about the program, and remember: we are open to teachers at all levels and in all contexts (schools, social services, workshops). Several of our regular participants are not teachers in the traditional sense but are community or workplace advocates for poetry. My goal is to make this program as inclusive and open-ended as possible. I hope that some of you whom I've never met but who have become friends via this blog might consider attending the conference this summer. You would fit in beautifully.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Failure and Glory

Yesterday's post was terrible to write and also, most likely, a failure of expression. It is so hard for me to describe my experience of doing something very well without the need for study or instruction. The greatest burden is my attempt to simultaneously transmit the sensation itself, a meta-awareness of that sensation, and an honest acknowledgment of the porous boundary between vainglory and confidence.

You might suggest that such difficulties exemplify the continuing power of Puritanism. More cynically, you might detect a scent of Uriah Heep in the way in which I squirm away from my own declarations. In either case, the difficulties remain.

And a fact remains: a person who is naturally good at a particular skill isn't necessarily good at putting that skill to more complex use. I may not have to wrestle with the sound aspect of poetry, but I struggle endlessly (for instance) with negative capability--Keats's term for the way in which a poet learns to stand outside herself as she writes . . . her ability to write a poem that is both intimate and universal. Every poem I write is another trial at figuring this out; and like most experiments, nearly every attempt fails.

How does one avoid reducing a draft to an anecdote while creating a persona and a voice that are vulnerable and accessible? How does one grapple with ambiguities and conundrums--with, say, unanswerable questions about God and myth and the linked torments and ecstasies of men and women--without sounding like a pedant or a peeping Tom?

Once I thought copying out all of Paradise Lost would give me the answers to those questions. Instead, I learned that Milton couldn't figure them out either. What he did manage to do was construct images, lines, sentences that glow like rubies in the darkness. What he did manage to do was invent a glorious, sinister, irresistible, brilliant character and name him Satan.

My one small constant: I can hear the sound of a poem before it exists. But I can't weave a tapestry with a single bright thread, and the rest of my threads are filled with knots.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Arrogance of Sound

Snow again.

Night slips away. Branches, a roof, a truck, a field . . .  shimmering, blue-white, in the not quite darkness.

The windows gaze at still air. In the stove, the ghost of a tree shifts, crackles, splits, sighs. A teakettle boils. A chair scrapes across the linoleum.

Footsteps. A pause. Then footsteps and the jangle of a dog's collar.

A pause. Then footsteps.

* * *

When I play the violin, I am driven by the exactitudes of pitch. I feel pain, real physical pain, a violence in my skull, when sounds misalign.

When I write, my obsession with pitch transmogrifies into expectation. I am entirely confident. My ear is arrogant. It is always right.

When I was studying poetry with Baron, he would not let me rest. Always, he jostled me further: don't stop, keep looking, dance, dig, shriek, kill. But he never questioned my ear. We hardly spoke of it. There was nothing to say.

Once, many years later, he asked me, "Do you even like music?" I looked at him. Finally I said, "I don't know."

Music controls the workings of my mind. I would not be myself without it. I possess this thing . . . this ear, this awareness. It is like being an oracle. I am unhappy about revealing such powers. Immodesty is a sin.

A blank page. My ear cranes for sounds: a syllable, a pace, a pause. My hands fit a word, two words, a phrase into those sounds. The words accrue. They assume a meaning. My thoughts follow, discard, follow. My ear reaches for a sound. My hands suggest a word. My eyes imagine. The words accrue.

My ear is my genius, but great poems are larger than sound.

I spend my life failing to write them.

Monday, February 8, 2016

The house is cold, the sky promises snow, the pets and I are draped around the wood stove, and I am attempting, without much success, to concentrate on words. By 8 a.m. this morning I had already driven 60 miles back and forth to the high school; and as a result, I'm having a difficult time settling down to my work.

I thought of talking about music this morning, but I'm not sure I'm in the right frame of mind. What I will note is a conversation about high school sports that my son and I had at the gas station a couple of hours ago.
Son: Swimmers are like wrestlers. They're all grumpy. 
Mother: Grumpy? 
Son: They're tired of being good at sports they've stopped having fun at. Plus, colleges are recruiting them for sports they don't want to do anymore but probably have to keep doing so they can get scholarships. Everybody looks at them and says great swimmer or great wrestler, and their teams depend on them. They feel guilty about not having fun, so they pretend they are. But mostly they're grumpy. 
Mother: Ah. Sounds like how I felt about playing the violin when I was in high school. Grumpy.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Today the three of us are going to a rare showing of Satyajit Ray’s 1959 film The World of Apu. Tom has been longing to see Ray's films for years; and the boy, who has been reading Crime and Punishment and watching Bergman's The Seventh Seal in his AP English class, has unearthed a sudden enthusiasm for classic cinema. Surely our experiences with Ray's film will be a perplexing/fascinating segue into vegetarian family Superbowl night. I even still remember which teams are playing.
Vegetarian Superbowl menu: fresh pita, garbanzo and black-eyed-pea falafel, yogurt sauce, tomatoes, avocados; baby lettuce with roasted brussels sprouts; possibly strawberry shortcake.
To keep my cultural chaos fermenting, I plan to read Ivy Compton-Burnett's The Last and the First during the dull parts of the game. Here's how the novel opens, and take my word for it: the flaying just gets worse.
"What an unbecoming light this is!" said Eliza Heriot, looking from the globe above the table to the faces round it. 
"Are we expected to agree?" said her son, as the light fell on her own face. "Or is it moment for silence?" 
"The effect is worse with every day. I hardly dare look at any of you." 
"You have found the courage," said her daughter, "and it is fair that you should show it. You appointed the breakfast hour yourself." 
Lady Heriot did not suggest that anyone else should appoint it.
* * *

Perhaps, on Monday, I will return to my autobiographical musings; or perhaps not. I might be done with them. You might be done with them. Still, something remains to be said about music.

* * *

Tu Fu readers: Comments are accruing about the most recent readings. Please join in and respond to one another, if you are so moved. I'm not at all interested in controlling the conversation and hope that you will feel comfortable talking with each other about what you're seeing. Also, let me know if you're ready to move on to the next set of poems.

Saturday, February 6, 2016


I was born in 1964. The Cold War was going strong. A new band called the Beatles had been invited to perform on The Ed Sullivan Show, and a kid named Bob Dylan released The Times They Are a-Changin'. Philip Larkin published The Whitsun Weddings, and Saul Bellow published Herzog. Rachel Carson and Flannery O'Connor died. Jean-Paul Sartre refused to accept the Nobel Prize for Literature. Barry Goldwater ran for president, Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston, Malcolm X was suspended from the Nation of Islam, and the Italian government announced that the Leaning Tower of Pisa was likely to topple. Richard Burton and Liz Taylor married for the first time.

I lay in my crib and watched the shadows on the ceiling.

* * *

I'm not sure why I've been moved to write the self-examinations that have appeared here over the course of the past week or so. I suspect the impulse may be related to my feelings about the various interviews I've undergone in recent months--situations in which I never quite feel as if I am answering the questions, never quite feel as if I know what is being asked. I wonder what a stranger might want to figure out about me, what I might want to figure out about myself, what questions exist that no one has asked.

Lately I've been rereading the early chapters of Hilary Spurling's biography of the novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett, and I've been thinking about the childhoods of artists. One constant characteristic seems to be an awareness of isolation, of difference, of not fitting into or understanding the workings of the social stream. Yet is this really an artistic commonality? I suspect that most people, artists or not, share a sense of difference, of loneliness, which they have have learned to conceal or nurture, or simply continue to stumble over, throughout the course of their lives. The legacy of individualism manipulates us all.

I grew up with loving but socially paranoid parents, who valued the trappings of intellect--books, music, art--though they had not grown up with those trappings themselves. I had one younger sister, very close in age, who quickly became taller and stronger and more athletic, and who also assumed, in many ways, the functions of the stereotypical elder sibling. She was practical, driven, organized, responsible. I, while bossy about certain things (for instance, I always controlled the games we invented), was messy, lazy, dreamy, and distracted. And yet I was the eldest child, the one who had to cross all of the exterior boundaries first. Always, I struggled with a conviction of error: I was badly dressed and physically awkward, I loved Dickens instead of Kiss, I didn't practice the violin enough, I was afraid to tell the truth.

Perhaps it's the details of a child's loneliness that predict her future. A childhood defined by books and loneliness may lead to art. A childhood defined by chaos and loneliness may lead to disaster. The operative word is may. Childhood is not, on the whole, a time for learning to do the work of art. Work is an adult skill, whereas a child is a sponge, a dabbler, a watcher. She is not aware of controlling much, if anything, in her life. She lives within the walls that others have built. She experiments with the materials around her--materials of class, of geography, of race, of temperament--but she doesn't yet choose her own materials. She doesn't know what she will need. She doesn't know what she must jettison.

Friday, February 5, 2016

New Writing

This morning I've been rereading my sheaf of new poems. Many are very brief, which, at this point in my life, is unusual for me. When I first began writing seriously, I tended to compose elegant little formal lyrics, until Baron told me, "Stop spending all of your time trying to be beautiful and avoiding what you really need to say." After wailing and weeping over the hopelessness of being a real poet, I then blew my nose and tried to follow his advice. The result was a shift toward much longer, sometimes very long, poems. Few were purely lyrical; I found myself concentrating on narrative and dramatic arc, the elements of mythic storytelling.

Baron is a great teacher because he never tells anyone how to write. What he does is help his students begin to search for the wonders they're not unwrapping, the doors they haven't kicked down. The poems in Boy Land, Crimes, and Same Old Story, while different from one another, were primarily driven by a need to explore the range of my inner voice, though that voice became increasingly fictionalized in the later books. But when I was working on the historical-fiction poems in Chestnut Ridge, I began using a variety of forms as containers in which the trigger materials could expand into invention. Sometimes I followed traditional rhyme and rhythm patterns; sometimes I created visual-sonic mashups. Some poems fell into patterns that imitated aspects of their trigger sources: newspaper columns, prison cells, highway exits, tables at a whist party.

These new pieces are doing something different yet again. I haven't abandoned dramatic narrative, but the frame has tightened. I feel as if I'm one of Shakespeare's rude mechanicals, the one who plays the chink in the wall in A Midsummer Night's Dream. The poems are glimpses; and, as in Chestnut Ridge, forms are arising to guide me. "John Doe's Threnody" is a series of sentence fragments, unpunctuated, unlineated, squared to the margins--an accruing list of excuses, blame, strife, dependence, love, guilt, shame. "Your Fate," to my joy, is a rap solo that might be performed by the witches in Macbeth. "A Tale from the Old Country" is composed of three unrhymed quatrains that borrow syntax and imagery from an early twentieth-century English-to-Esperanto grammar book.

I can't reprint the poems here because they're under consideration at various journals. But if you're interested in taking a private look at what I'm trying to work out in these pieces, send me an email.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Temperaments and Generations

In his New Yorker article "Design for Living," Adam Kirsch revisits a possibly apocryphal story:
Goethe and Beethoven . . . were together at a spa resort when they unexpectedly met a party of German royalty on the street. Goethe deferentially stood aside and removed his hat, while Beethoven kept his hat firmly on his head and plowed through the royal group, forcing them to make way--which they did, while offering the composer friendly greetings. Here was a contrast of temperaments, but also of generations. Goethe belonged to the courtly past, when artists were the clients of princes, while Beethoven represented the Romantic future, when princes would clamor to associate with artists. Historians dispute about whether the incident actually took place, but if it didn't the story is arguably even more revealing; the event became famous because it symbolized the way people thought about Goethe and his values.
Beethoven's Eroica symphony has been a touchstone in my life, yet I have read very little Goethe. As I wrote in yesterday's post, that distance, it seems, is not entirely my fault. I don't read German, and many English translations of his poetry are clumsy. What I have read, however, are the writings of the English Victorians who adored Goethe--for instance, young Mary Ann Evans, who later became George Eliot. Her biographer, Gordon Haight, writes:
[At twenty-five] Mary Ann was reading everything that came to hand. Though no list is available, casual references show the spread of her interests: Milton, Wordsworth, Dickens, Thackeray, Sir Charles Grandison ("I had no idea Richardson was worth so much"), Carlyle, Goethe, Frederika Bremer, St. Simon, Lamartine, Disraeli.
She was not alone in her passion for the poet. In his article, Kirsch notes:
Victorian intellectuals revered Goethe as the venerable Sage of Weimar. Thomas Carlyle implored the reading public to "close thy Byron, open thy Goethe"--which was as much as to say, "Grow up!" Matthew Arnold saw Goethe as a kind of healer and liberator, calling him the "physician of the Iron Age," who "read each wound, each weakness" of the suffering human race. For these writers, Goethe seemed to possess something the modern world lacked: wisdom, the ability to understand life and how it should be lived.
Perhaps, then, it is not surprising to learn that George Eliot returned to Goethe's works again and again throughout her life, both as a reader and as a translator. For her own great writings--Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda, Adam Bede--also speak eloquently to the necessity of "read[ing] each wound, each weakness," and thereby learning "to understand life and how it should be lived."

Yet perceptions change and, as Kirsch writes, "it was this very quality that led to [Goethe's] fall from favor in the post-Victorian age. . . T. S. Eliot wrote that 'there is something artificial and even priggish about Goethe's healthiness.'" Perhaps that's why I, inheritor of both the Victorians and the modernists, am able to smile at the image of Beethoven, hat firmly on head, elbowing his way through a crowd of nobles. Does self-confidence, or artistic distraction, or plebeian solidarity, or hubris drive his rudeness? Or is his behavior simply childish? Goethe's modest civility (or toadyism, or repression?) are something else altogether. Is encountering Goethe, as Kirsch writes, "an encounter with a way of thinking and feeling that has grown foreign to us"?

I mull these shifts in myself, these travels from childhood into a more patient watchfulness. Nonetheless, the first movement of Beethoven's Eroica still drives me to extremes. I can barely contain myself during a certain, brief, repeated passage . . .  when, for an endless second, my ear believes that this rising dissonance will swell and deepen and bite and scream and never be resolved. Listening to it is like cutting myself with a knife, for pleasure.

One might well ask, as Goethe did,
Why confer on us, O fate, the feeling
Each can plumb the other's very heart? 
--from "To Charlotte von Stein," translated by John Frederick Nims

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Story of My Books

A friend tells me he has been reading my first book, Boy Land & Other Poems. It is a difficult book for me to reread, not because I dislike the poems but because thinking about them transports me back to a difficult time, the decade of my thirties, when I was perpetually driven and exhausted, responsible for too many farm animals, overwhelmed by the exigencies of very young children, desperate to negotiate a private life, clinging to the spar of poetry. If my word choice here seems ridiculously purple, that's because most things in my life seemed ridiculously purple. I cried about everything. I gritted my teeth and barged ahead. I picked fights and carried silly issues to extremes. The crazy-young-woman hormones had me at their mercy, though I did not recognize that then.

I spent ten years learning to write the poems in Boy Land; and by the time it was published, in 2004, I was moving into a different realm. I was forty years old, both of my children were now in school, and I was beginning to feel more confident as both a poet and a prose writer. My memoir, Tracing Paradise, eventually published in 2009, is a link between that earlier world and the new one I was beginning to explore--one in which my reactions to what I was reading were pushing me beyond emotional response into an amalgam of emotion, thought, and history. As I was writing Tracing Paradise, I was also writing the poems that became How the Crimes Happened, released in 2010. In a way, the two books work in partnership: a single era in a life, two versions of expressing that moment.

Throughout my forties, I wrote numerous essays about what I was reading (or, mostly, rereading), and chronologically that prose collection, The Vagabond's Bookshelf, should have appeared in print just after Crimes. But publisher after publisher rejected it as "too well written" (I am not making this up) and thus unmarketable. That collection will finally come out this spring, with a 2016 copyright, but it is not a new book and it will be uncomfortable to pretend that it is.

Meanwhile, in 2012 and 2013 I was invited to write two books that I would otherwise never have considered constructing: the anthology A Poet's Sourcebook (published in 2013) and the teaching text The Conversation (2015). As I worked on those books, I released a third poetry collection, Same Old Story, in 2014. Overlapping my work on those three projects was a fourth poetry collection, the heavily researched verse-history Chestnut Ridge, which has yet to find a publisher. As of early 2016, I am writing and revising new poems and fine-tuning a prose manuscript tentatively titled The Language of Love, a combination of belle-lettrist and personal essays.

In short, I spent the decade of my thirties writing the poems for a single book. I spent the decade of my forties writing six books, most of them simultaneously. The contrast is very odd, and I cannot possibly predict what the decade of my fifties will look like. It interests me, though, that I did not write anything worth saving when I was in my twenties. When I did try to write, which wasn't often, I focused on fiction, and all of it was lazy and unfocused. Basically what I wanted to do was read books while avoiding a commitment to a real job or a graduate education. At the time I seemed to be wasting my life, though now, of course, I can see that I was feeding the furnace. Yet my family has not necessarily benefited from my selfishness. And there's no way I can avoid calling such behavior selfish. It may be necessary for art, but it does damage.

Last night I was reading a New Yorker article about Goethe. In it, the author, Adam Kirsch, explained "the concept of Bildung--a word that means learning and education but also implies a cultivation of the self and of maturity."
[The concept] was central to Goethe's thought, and he, in turn, made it central to German culture. For Thomas Mann, whose admiration of Goethe took the form of spiritual imitation, Goethe was above all an educator, but one who had first to learn, through experience, the wisdom he taught. Mann wrote that a "vocation towards educating others does not spring from inner harmony, but rather from inner uncertainties, disharmony, difficulty--from the difficulty of knowing one's own self."
Mann's idea of educator does not imply that Goethe went into the classroom and instructed students. Rather, Goethe's writings delineated the pattern of his own difficult search for self-knowledge, and Mann learned from Goethe because he traced the path of that search. It makes me sad to hear, as Kirsch tells me, that "the very simplicity of Goethe's language makes his poetry untranslatable." I would like to learn from him too.

I'm not sure why I felt the need this morning to lay out a rough sketch of my own pattern. I think imagining my friend reading Boy Land triggered a kind of pity for my harried self. I wish I had been there: to change a few diapers for her, to milk a few goats for her, to bring her another cup of tea and stroke her hair. Poor child. She made so many mistakes, but she did the best she could.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Jesuit and the Callow Youth

From Gerard Manley Hopkins, letter to Coventry Patmore, November 7, 1886

There is a young Mr. Yeats who has written in a Trinity College publication some striking verses. . . . I called on his . . . father by desire lately; he is a painter; and with some emphasis of manner he presented me with Mosada: a Dramatic Poem by W. B. Yeats, with a portrait of the author by J. B. Yeats, himself; the young man having finely cut intellectual features and his father being a fine draughtsman. For a young man's pamphlet this was something too much; but you will understand a father's feeling. Now this Mosada I cannot think highly of, but I was happily not required then to praise what presumably I had not then read, and I had read and could praise another piece. It was a strained and unworkable allegory about a young man and a sphinx on a rock in the sea (how did they get there? what did they eat? and so on: people think such criticisms very prosaic; but commonsense is never out of place anywhere . . . ) but still containing fine lines and vivid imagery.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Thinking about Tu Fu, Poems XVIII-XXI

This morning I revisited poems XVIII-XXI without any pre-vision of what sort of discussion starter I might toss out to those of you who are participating in our Read the Poems of Tu Fu Book Club. But as I read, I immediately noticed how differently the poet (or translator) manages his sentences in each poem. The differences involve not only the styles of individual sentences (e.g., simple subject-predicates, more elaborate combinations of dependent and independent clauses, complete sentences, fragments, etc.) but also the ways in which those individual sentences stack, one after the other, to guide a reader through the poem. Thus, the position of line breaks comes into play, as does a shift back and forth among sentence styles in the course of a single poem, as does straight repetition of similar sentence styles, as does fattening or paring down the density of sentences (e.g., a simple subject versus a more complex subject, adding or avoiding prepositional phrases, etc.).

In my book The Conversation, I wrote:
The Oxford English Dictionary's definition [of sentence] 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 thinking about the way in which a poet arranges words to express a thought.

Of course, whenever I even mention the word grammar, I immediately call forth certain readers' recalcitrance and defensiveness. Grammar has a bad rap. Too many people believe the term is limited to a punitive focus on correct or incorrect. But poetry is not interested in prissy constructs of correct or incorrect. It is interested in conversation. How does the structure of a sentence contribute to or detract from the conversation that the poet ideally hopes to spark?

So I'm asking you to look at the grammar of these four sentence-constructed poems and respond emotionally, intellectually, sonically to what you notice. You can respond in the comments or send me an email, if you prefer.