Monday, December 31, 2018

Here on this dark Monday on the last day of the year, I am sitting alone, as so often, listening to sounds of sleep and waking.

It is the moment to wonder what I accomplished over the course of the past year. And now I look back and think, Not very much.

I planted a garden. I wrote some poems.

If I were younger I would despair. Even as I am, I feel a bit deflated. I should have figured things out better.

Of course if you were to say to me, "I planted a garden. I wrote some poems," I would cheer and celebrate, and I would mean it too. How wonderful! A garden! Poems!

But the self is graceless to itself.

Still, there is nothing to be done but trudge forward. And I love being alive. And I love words and weather. Tomorrow, when I pull on my stained cloak and set forth into the wild wood, there they'll be, tucked into my willow basket.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Another blip of quiet here at Alcott House: the college boy and some friends went up north to see a show and spend an overnight in the homeland, so Tom and I reverted to usual form and became sleepy on the couch while watching large televised fish perambulate the ocean deep. I used up stale bread and leftover milk in a bread pudding. I put together a beef stew. I began making travel arrangements: to NYC in a couple of weeks; to Chicago in March. If Boy Land can't be with us, we will be with Boy Land.

Editing and syllabus-organizing hover scimitar-like over my head, but I'm also fighting an incipient cold and trying to reorient myself after the Christmas bonanza. So I'm purposely lazing: taking naps during the day, not rushing around, not trying to get everything done at once. I feel as if I need to husband my strength.

The boy will be back later today, and then tomorrow his college friend will arrive for an overnight here, and then, before dawn on New Year's Day, the boy will take off for his New York theater adventure and Tom and I will subside into our regular lives.

I might even start reading books again.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Richard III: Assignment (Act III, Scene 7)

Welcome back to the Richard III reading project. This week we're going to focus on a single scene: the long ending to Act III in which Gloucester assumes the mantle of king of England. Your assignment, after reading the scene, is to write a poem about evil--in your own language idiom, not as an imitation of Shakespeare's. Your poem can directly address material in the play, relate the play to current events, focus on your private relationship to evil, invent an anecdotal situation, etc. However, you may borrow only one metaphor from scene 7 for use in your poem. It can be either a centerpiece for your thoughts or a supporting image. But limit yourself to this single borrowing; don't string multiple Shakespearean metaphors into your draft.

My purpose in creating these constraints is to encourage you explore how reading a powerfully inventive work can trigger your own powers of invention . . . not as a reiterator or a mimic but as a creative force in your own right.

Let's aim to share these drafts next Saturday.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Yesterday I drove our Chicago young people to the ocean, and then we drank cider and mead flights at a local fermentory, and then they bought falafel at the Iraqi bakery, and then we played cards, and then I drove them to the bus station and we all cried.

I was still so tearful when I got home that Tom and Paul agreed that we should spend the evening sitting under couch blankets, eating pizza, and watching The Big Lebowski. It was a salve of sorts, but I still feel the twanging emotion of last night: hearts on our sleeve, time passing, falling in love, moving toward death.

On Christmas Day, sitting in my kitchen, my mother recalled a Viking metaphor for life: a sparrow flying in through one door of a mead hall, flying through the room, flying out through another door.

A life. A sparrow. Two doors in a long room.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Well, day 3 of party-hosting is now in the books. Mid-afternoon, as I was vacuuming and cleaning toilets and folding dinner napkins and longing for a nap, I wondered if I'd made a terrible mistake in imagining that we could pull off yet another party without fainting. But then the Harmony folks started showing up in our Portland kitchen, and all of the tears rose up into my heart. Such enormous hugs and smiles and hand-holding! Some of us went for a long walk. Some of us burned things in the oven and made the smoke alarm scream. Some of us sat around the fire and talked, with great seriousness and love, about the complications of being an insider/outsider in a place like central Maine. Some of us told jokes about the fun of being a Beverly Hillbilly everywhere we go. Some of us discussed weird home repair. Some of us arrived late because we had to thaw out a washing machine we were delivering. The night was extraordinarily sweet--a beautiful coda to the family parties, a salve for homesickness.

This evening, my two Chicago children will fly back to their lives. On New Year's Day my college boy will begin his New York City adventure. Tom and I will return to rattling around like two split peas in our little cottage. But it has been a beautiful holiday . . . a real holiday: a week of sweetness and overt joy. I am very grateful.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

. . . and so Christmas Day has come and gone, and the pie crust stuck to the tart pan, and card games were lost and won, and many, many loads of dishes were washed . . .

Today will offer a small hiatus, between saying goodbye to our Vermont family in the morning and welcoming our Harmony friends in the evening. I will be vacuuming up Christmas tree needles and washing table linens and--I do hope--sitting in the corner of a couch doing nothing at all. Food-wise, I am passing the torch to the children.

But how lovely it is to have them here, our three bright faces. To have a young woman hanging around cozily in the kitchen and voluntarily telling me how much she loves my son! To have that beloved son bustling around making coffee for his grandmother, playing with balsa wood airplanes with his young cousins, trash-talking his grandfather over games! To have his big bearded equally beloved brother come up behind me and hug me ten times a day! Oh, these dear ones. I've made so many dumb mistakes as their mother. How did I get so lucky anyway?

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Christmas morning. Here in the land of twenty-somethings, there is no rising at the crack of dawn . . . except for me and the cat. We are sitting quite happily in front of a blazing wood fire and a shiny tree, resting before the exertions begin again. Yesterday was Tom's feast: homemade ravioli filled with ricotta salata and homegrown chard, grated fennel and carrot salads, and then plates full of the cookies we'd all made over the course of a month. My sister's children have become especially adept at holiday baking (and eating).

Today I am in the kitchen: squash rolls, whole-wheat rolls, Julia Child's casserole-roasted pork loin, Canadian salmon pie, my mother's baked beans, a big salad of beets and brussels sprouts and watermelon radish and almonds, and then cranberry curd tart and Emily D's black cake. We managed to arrange the dining room so that everyone could eat sort of comfortably. I had enough forks. It all worked just as we'd hoped it would.

Last night, after the Vermonters went back to their rental house, Tom and I and our three young people strolled out into the pale flurries and looked at neighborhood Christmas lights and chattered and made comments and laughed over silly things. It was a sweet evening. I'm wishing you one of your own, whether you are quiet or noisy in your celebrations. Merry Christmas. Peace and good will. Some giggling over card games, if that seems appropriate. An unhurried walk into the air. A moon. A few bright stars.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Greetings from breathless Maine, where families survive on hot chocolate and specialty cheeses and I accidentally discover I have a poem about an eight-track player in the Sunday newspaper. Here it is, and I think I'll let it speak for itself because I don't know if I otherwise have the wherewithal to pen anything clever.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Sunrise through the east windows. Moonset through the west.

The darkened air is still, cold, with a thin taste of sea.

Today the wild rumpus begins. Tom will be making mountains of homemade ravioli for Christmas Eve dinner. I will be vacuuming, tidying, cleaning bathrooms, washing down extra tables and chairs, prepping a pie. Our three kids will breeze in from their Massachusetts jaunt. My parents will appear, wan and frazzled from their first long drive since my dad's illness. My sister's family will tumble, long-legged and sinus-infected, from their overpacked car. We'll get dressed up in our holiday finery and troop down to the pier for a giant fish dinner.

For the moment, though, the little house is exceedingly peaceful, and I have time to share this helpful [?] definition with you:
Edmund Burke, in his famous essay on the sublime (1757) . . . , lists the qualities of the sublime as Astonishment, Terror, Obscurity, Power, Privation (Vacuity, Darkness, Solitude and Science), Vastness, Infinity, Succession and Uniformity, Magnificence, Light, Colour, Magnitude in Building and Difficulty. (from Johnson's The Birth of the Modern)
I guess that covers it.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

. . . and here we are, in the quiet. The young people have flitted south till Sunday, and now Tom and I have a day to borrow dining-room chairs, acquire many dozens of bagels, pick up the branches that blew down in the rainstorm, count dessert plates, wash the dust off the gravy boat, and accomplish other such party-management tasks.

I've hardly been able to read a book. Scrabble, crossword puzzles, and grocery lists are my sole wordplay. Yesterday, after the kids left, I meant to go upstairs and edit. But what I did was fall asleep on the couch with the cat. Oh well. Party planning requires much stamina.

Friday, December 21, 2018

The rain quietly taps on vent hood and windowpane. Young people sleep behind freshly painted doors. The cat is plumped on the couch like a fat white loaf. Upstairs Tom's coffee cup clinks against a saucer. The Christmas tree glows in the murky daylight. In the distance an ambulance wails. I am, despite my pleasure in this moment, fretted and disturbed about Syria, about Mattis, about the fearful instability of Trump. I cannot banish my worries; they sift down, down, like coal ash in bad air. And yet: my children. Here they are. My thoughts shape a prayer.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Six a.m., and the washing machine is already churning. Today is crazy housework day, plus some errand-running, mostly to the Goodwill to find some drinking glasses, since we apparently only possess four.

Tom installed our new window blinds yesterday, so now, amazingly, we no longer have rooms curtained with worn-out kitchen towels. This is a big step up the fancy-ladder. And yesterday I baked and froze squash-and-black-pepper rolls, made and froze a hazelnut crust for a forthcoming cranberry curd pie, won twice/lost once at Scrabble (my mojo is reviving), bought every damn thing at the grocery store, cooked Julia Child's parmesan-crusted chicken breasts, listened to the boy consider how he might adapt Flannery O'Connor's "Everything That Rises Must Converge" for the stage, and probably also did a bunch of other things that have since become a blur.

This afternoon our other two best-beloved young people will arrive. My cup runneth over.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

After much travail involving Ruckus and the irresistible lure of Christmas presents, I finally thought to wrap up his catnip mouse in tissue paper and tie it with a large amount of shiny dangly ribbon. Problem solved, at least temporarily. Ruckus has already unwrapped his present twice, with joy, and he is now staring at it lovingly and considering a third attempt.

I had a chance to get back to the Inferno . . . not a long visit, but long enough to breath in some words. I started prepping for my 24PearlStreet class. I finished editing the extremely interesting intro of a poetry collection, another in the series of Portuguese writers-in-translation I've been copyediting. I made some cookies in the shape of squirrels. I vacuumed up a lot of paint chips. I lost at Scrabble--again!--and went for a long walk in the cold wind. I spent the evening talking about poems and eating too many crackers.

Tomorrow, my older son and his partner will arrive. The next day the kids will borrow my car and leave to visit their grandparents. Tom and I will slip temporarily back into our dyad. And then, on Sunday, the kids will return, the Vermonters will appear, and little Alcott House will become a zoo. Thus, today will involve pre-party housework, a lot of laundry, the making of long grocery lists, and possibly another small visit with Dante. I like to imagine so, anyway.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Yesterday I edited in the morning, shoveled snow at noon, spent the afternoon Christmas-shopping with my kid, came home and got a brisket into the oven, and lost two Scrabble games in a row to the boy (an exciting development; I feel like one of those old lions toppled from my throne by the brash young up-and-comer). Christmas-shopping, while not painless, was certainly improved by actually having a place to Christmas-shop that isn't the trifecta of Amazon, Walmart, and the Bangor Mall. The whole "buy local" thing is a pretty specious idea in Harmony. I could buy everyone bar-and-chain oil for their chainsaw. Or a can of baked beans. Or some windshield wipers. But when you live in a quaint seaside city, you can actually stroll down a street and locate a used bookstore, a fine vintage clothing shop, a well-stocked kitchen store, an Italian market, and seafood, plus a place to eat lunch that isn't Pizzeria Uno. It's weird. Paul and I found it strangely pleasant, and we both hate shopping.

I will point out that, despite its decorated tugboats and cute caviar stores, Portland has a distressing problem with homelessness. There are many, many people sleeping in doorways in this cold town. "Buying local" also means walking among misery and not giving away all of your money to people who need it. That is a bad feeling.

Anyway, today: More editing. Cookie baking. A meeting of my poetry group. I have no idea which poem to bring tonight. There are too many choices.

Monday, December 17, 2018

. . . and here is the tree, looking in this peculiar light, as if it's set against the sepia backdrop of a photographer's studio in a Robert Altman version of a western. Despite the misleading color, the tree is fat and magnificent and by far the fanciest we've ever owned. Fortunately, Tom did manage to infuse a little old-fashioned Harmony flavor into the experience by chainsaw-carving the trunk so that it could fit into the stand.

I slept horribly last night because my brain would not stop ticking away at the list of all of things I have to get done. On Thursday the next batch of family arrives, then the remainder on Sunday, and meanwhile: editing and painting and baking and housework and menu planning and finding enough chairs for everyone and driving around the boy to do his shopping. Why my brain thinks that it ought to waste my dear sleeping time endlessly reciting this list to itself is beyond me.

But at least it's snowing--a lovely light flutter--and that makes me happy. And the house is warm and the lights are bright and a son is sleeping in the back room and the cat is blinking sweetly and my friendly neighbor brought us a loaf of cranberry bread and we're not packing boxes or loading a moving truck.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

One boy home, another to come in five days! The cat is thrilled and the house echoes with loud playlists . . . well, I exaggerate, because currently the boy and the cat are fast asleep together. But in a few hours, they'll be up and loud again.

In the meantime, I will fight my head cold and try to raise myself from the malaise of yesterday's poets' reception, which was crowded and full of people I didn't know. Thus, through no fault of its own, it instantly triggered all of my deer-in-headlights-must-run-now social anxieties and I skedaddled before our governor-elect, Janet Mills, unexpectedly arrived to speak on the importance of poetry and women's words. Imagine: a governor of Maine who loves poetry, and who attends this sort of reception because she thinks that poets are important constituents! This is not what we've been used to in Maine for the past eight years, to say the least.

But I'll get over my malaise, if not my head cold. Today is go-buy-a-tree day . . . the first Christmas tree we've purchased in decades. It will be full and pretty and well balanced and not at all what we're used to. Paul suggested we cut out every other branch and chop the top off, just to make it feel more like our scatty Harmony trees. For some reason, they always looked perfect in the woods. Then, as soon as we got them into the house, they revealed their pitiful scrawniness, weak-branched and pathetically sagging. Not that we didn't love them, but only because no one else could.

I think I'll also make eggnog today, from the recipe I honed a few years ago. Here's a link to it, in case you are decorating your own scatty or elegant tree today.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Tina the Subaru has new rear brakes, the house is clean from stem to stern (if one assumes that the basement, in this metaphor, is the grimy harbor water), the giant Portuguese novel I've been editing is off my desk, and the college boy is coming home today.

This morning I'll be wrapping presents. This afternoon I'll be at a reception at Space Gallery for the poets in Balancing Act 2: An Anthology of 50 Maine Women Poets. This evening I'll be buying bluefish and brussels sprouts for dinner.

For now, I'm drinking black coffee in the dark, reading about Beethoven in The Birth of the Modern, listening to the furnace grind out hot air, and imagining writing poems again.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Seven degrees above zero on this black morning, the coldest so far this season in Portland . . . and one of us inadvertently bumped the thermostat yesterday evening and thereby turned off the heat all night. As a result, waking up in Portland was like waking up in Harmony: frigid floors, ice-cold woodstove, cups of coffee as hand-thawers. Fixing the problem, however, was quicker than it was up north.

I got the good news yesterday that people are actually signing up for my 24PearlStreet essay class! This is thrilling because I was prepared for disappointment, being a faculty newcomer and all. Instead, I'm delighted to say that it will definitely run. Along with that class, I'll be teaching at least three times a week in southern Maine, late January through early March, with more to come as spring arrives. It's almost as if I'm impersonating an adjunct.

Today, I hope to finish the first pass through the novel I'm editing. It's on an extraordinarily tight publishing schedule, so I've had to grind it out at a rattling pace. In the interstices I've been immersed in Johnson's The Birth of the Modern, which is packed with one fascinating anecdote after another. I keep wanting to copy them all out for you. This one alone demonstrates the breathtaking richness of the age:
[When Napoleon Bonaparte escaped from Elba in 1815], he took a peaceful Europe by surprise. Byron had got married . . . and was already repenting at leisure. . . . Jane Austen was writing the final chapters of Emma. . . . Shelley had just deserted his wife and run off with William Godwin's daughter, Mary. J. M. W. Turner was painting his sun-filled arcadian canvas, Crossing the Brook. Gioacchino Rossini was writing The Barber of Seville and Ludwig van Beethoven his piano sonata Opus 101. Humphry Davy was working on the first miner's safety lamp.
And meanwhile Goya. And Hegel. And the death of Tecumseh. And Waterloo on the horizon.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Yesterday was extremely busy: so much editing, and then Frost Place planning and, yes, the squeal came back and Tina the Subaru was diagnosed with worn rear brake pads and will have her procedure on Friday morning. She has become famous at the mechanic's. Open-mouthed stare: "Is this the car that had three transmission replacements in a month?" Modestly down-turned eyes: "Why yes! [slight giggle]." Today, will be much the same, without the car-repair patter, and plus a trip to mall land to find a rug to cover up the plywood that covers up the hole in the bathroom floor. [This would make an excellent boring song along the lines of "There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly."] If these sentences sound hectic, then I'm doing my job.

Anyway: Richard III folks: I need to hear from you. Do you want to take a break till after Christmas? Or do you want to plow ahead into the play? I am at your service, either way.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Today: more editing and editing and editing, plus some Frost Place business, and maybe a car-to-the-car-shop if the weird noise comes back. This is the last week before our holiday storm begins, and Tom is fixing so many things. The upstairs bathroom now has a door, a doorknob, a working sink, a piece of plywood over the hole in its floor, and painted trim around the doorway. Soon my study will also have a door and window blinds so that it can morph into an overflow guest bedroom (though only for sturdy young people who like to sleep on the floor). We now have an outside light so that guests and homeowners won't fall off the steps into the dark. Likewise, we have a banister, so no one will tumble down the stairs and have to go to the emergency room on Christmas Day. Tom has repaired the kitchen faucet surround so that the faucet is no longer sinking into the plywood "countertop" like a listing Titanic. [Aren't you glad the previous sentence doesn't include "so that"? You must have been getting tired of that phrase.] He has dug out items belonging to the boys at younger stages of their life and is plotting where to display them to best comic effect. Compared to him, I have done nothing (unless you count shopping for eleven people, baking black cake and assorted batches of cookies, and hand-sewing half a dozen teeny-tiny pillows while watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show).

I wish I had a poem to sum all this up. But alas, I was too busy unpicking a seam to write one.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Richard III responses are are slowly rolling in on last Monday's post, so I'm going to hold off a day or so before moving further into the play. I know this is a hectic time of year for everyone, so it seems better to be patient with ourselves.

Yesterday I made thumbprint cookies, finished my sewing project, painted some trim, wrote out Christmas cards. Today--and the rest of this week--I will be editing editing editing. If at all possible, I want to get this book off my desk before the holiday . . . but even for me a 500-page novel is not a speedy read.

This time next week, the first wave of boys will be in the house! Eating! Sleeping! Cooking! Talking about sports! Showing me cute cow videos! Chattering about Euripides! Taking control of the stereo soundtrack! I can't wait.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Sunday at dawn: cold and still: chimneys silhouetted like blunt paper dolls against the flat sky: bare grassy earth like iron: fringes of ice along the sidewalks: blank windows: a single gull flicking its long pinions, sailing low over the roofs: and now an invisible cacophony of crows: power lines crisscrossing the street like cat's-cradle string: streetlamp a tight ball of light: the slam, somewhere, of a car door: and now a motor cranking, catching, roaring, vanishing: and now silence: now the cold closes its fist: and the day hesitates:

Saturday, December 8, 2018

A cold morning, promising to be bright. I've been awake most of the night, falling asleep only to dream about car crashes, so I'd just as soon turn my thoughts to sunshine. I've got packages to mail, cards to write, trim to paint, a novel to edit. Here's hoping that all of it makes me very tired by the time 1 a.m. comes around again.

I'm still splashing and wallowing in The Birth of the Modern. I love a big messy history-of-everything, and this is a classic . . . one excellent anecdote after another. Here, for instance, is some fake news, 1814-style:

"[Robert] Fulton's battleship carried thirty 32-lb guns firing red-hot shot and was also equipped to fire 100-lb projectiles below the waterline. With its 120 horsepower developing a speed of up to 5mph and independent of the wind, it theoretically outclassed any vessel in the British fleet. Stories of this terrifying monster, which was launched on the East River on 29 June 1814, reached Britain and grew in the telling. The Edinburgh Evening Courant doubled the ship's size and credited her with 44 guns, including four giant 100-pounders. The newspaper added: "To annoy an enemy attempting to board it can discharge 100 gallons of boiling water a minute and, by mechanism, brandishing 300 cutlasses with the utmost regularity over her gunwales and works also an equal number of heavy iron pikes of great length, darting them from her sides with prodigious force." [Weird grammar in the original]

If any of you care to make a scale model of this, I'd be glad to see it.

Friday, December 7, 2018

This morning I'll be heading south for a planning meeting for a high school writing residency . . . step 1 in my forthcoming extreme teaching schedule. This particular job is going to involve a long commute, which does not delight me, though when I think back to my Harmony car life, I don't know why I'm complaining. I drove the better part of two hours every day to pick up my kid at school. But it's been easy to lapse into no-driving, and that is doubtless why Tina the Subaru required a visit from AAA's battery guy yesterday.

One thing about having all my books around me again: I can't stop taking them off the shelf and diving into them. So I've decided to let that approach run rampant. I spent a few days with the Bate bio of Keats, and now I'm swimming in Paul Johnson's The Birth of the Modern: World Society, 1815-1830, a wonderful messy tome that stews together war, poetry, typhus, colonial expansion, music, the uses of horses, obstetrical medicine, et al., into a giant pot of historical minestrone. [What a silly metaphor.]

Anyway, here's a couple of quotations you might enjoy . . . and find disturbingly familiar:

"One of [Andrew Jackson's] early biographers, James Parton, wrote that his 'ignorance of . . . everything which he who governs a country ought to know, was extreme. . . . His ignorance was a wall around him, high, impenetrable. He was imprisoned in his ignorance, and sometimes raged round his little, dim enclosure like a tiger in his den." A powerful image, but perhaps misleading. Jackson, like Cecil Rhodes at the end of the century, lacked schooling, but, as with Rhodes, a powerful intelligence and an even stronger will gave a strange force to his writing and still more to his speech. Throughout his life, it helped to inspire dread in his opponents, racial and political." [Unfortunately, we now have a so-called president who fits that description far better than Jackson did . . . and without any caveats about "powerful intelligence."]

"[Jackson] was an orphan at fifteen. Two years later he turned to a life in the law, which was in practice a blend of land grabbing, wheeler-dealing, office seeking and dueling, and perhaps could not have occurred in precisely this combination at any other time or place." [Maybe things were different in 1991, when Johnson publishing the book, but this description of lawyer seems to describe Cohen and Avenatti and Giuliani and their ilk pretty well . . . sans the dueling. Would more lawyer dueling mean less trouble for the American people?]

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Poetry-writing season is over for me, at least for the moment. I have now fallen back down the editing rabbit hole, where I'm frantically copyediting a 500-page translated novel on an extremely short deadline. It's a good thing I've had so much practice reading giant novels.

Meanwhile, I'm sewing and mixing up cookie batter and trying to keep my plans pulled together for the forthcoming family onslaught. And poor Tom does nothing but fix things--all day long for other people, all evening long for us.
But in darkness the Christmas lights glow; the candles flicker in the windows; the fire purrs in its little stove. In daylight, the northern sun washes over the blue walls of my tiny study. I am glad to be here . . . glad without reservation, these days.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

The living room is dim, except for the glowing string of Christmas lights wrapping the stair balusters. On the street, a few cars slide past. In the sky, bright Venus nods at a shallow bowl of moon. My white cup and saucer are phosphorescent in the gloom. The kitchen clock ticks. Upstairs, Tom stirs among the sheets.

I'm thinking of poems, and of this passage in Bate's biography of Keats, and wondering if it's true:
For most beginning poets, the fashionable models--at least among their own contemporaries--have usually been no better than those followed by Keats, however different they might be in kind.
I am no longer a beginning poet, but when I was, I was in love with Keats. I knew so little about contemporary poetry. And now I am a contemporary poet. The situation is ironic, but also confusing to me. Am I now one of the poets "no better than those followed by Keats"? What happens when the eager apprentice becomes the imperfect model?

Monday, December 3, 2018

Richard III: Conversation (Act III, Scenes 5 & 6)

"Whether we want it or not, the massive legacy of past literature is ours. We cannot give it away. Moreover, it increases with each generation. Inevitably, we must work from it, and often by means of it. But even if we resist paralysis and do try to work from and by means of it, the question at once arises, does the habitual (and almost always sole) nourishment of the imagination by the great literature of the past lead to the creation of more poetry of equal value?"

--from John Keats, by Walter Jackson Bate

* * *

Perhaps the above quotation is not strictly relevant to our Richard III assignment (which addresses your thoughts about Hastings's life and death within the play, your thoughts about the meaning of liberty), but I think it does capture some of the difficulties that I at least have struggled with over the course of my entire reading life. How do I--the diffident I, the ambitious I, the fearful I--"resist paralysis" and "try to work from and by means of" this "massive legacy of past literature"? For Keats, Shakespeare was a significant element of the quandary. And here we are, two hundred years later, struggling with the same legacy . . . plus the weight of the two centuries that have passed in the interim.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

We will have eleven people celebrating Christmas at our little Alcott House, and Tom is engaged in an intense holiday countdown. Yesterday he finished cutting various found/scavenged/broken pieces of slate and marble into temporary countertop covers. He put a last coat of paint on the door to the unfinished upstairs bathroom and scavenged a beautiful porcelain doorknob from the hardware box at work. He bought plumbing supplies so that he can hook up the bathroom sink, which means, believe it or not, visitors will actually be able to close the door and wash their hands. He ordered window shades for the bedroom and the guest quarters--no more kitchen towels as curtains! He is putting up a banister and an outside light. In the midst of all this, he is making Christmas cards.

I've been sewing Christmas presents and trying to limit my shopping to mostly locally based small gifts. The focus is on meals, comfort, and nobody falling down the stairs. So yesterday I replaced the couch pillows, bought a new bathmat, fidgeted about candles and lighting, unpacked the nativity set my Aunt Rose made in her ceramics class in the 1980s and the styrofoam gingerbread boys my parents bought for one of their first holidays together in the early 1960s. Today I'll put a second coat of paint on some trim Tom has repaired.

We both seem to be equally committed to the project of making our house at least passably welcoming, which is good but also kind of whirlwindy and overwhelming. There's still so much unfinished business: no doors on the cellar, the upstairs rooms, the dining room closet; no trim in the kitchen; no grout on the kitchen tiles; no cupboard doors or real countertop. But when I consider what a mess things were last year, as we were getting ready to move into this place, I'm astonished.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

"Though so much is known of Keats from the time he was seventeen or eighteen until his death, comparatively little can be discovered about his very earliest years, and especially about his parents and their origin. Yet the life of no writer of the last hundred and fifty years has been more carefully combed for details. The reason for that close study is the always heartening union of achievement with the familiar. We have a natural hunger to learn what qualities of mind or character, and what incidents in a man's life, encourage--or at least permit--an achievement so compelling when, at the same time, so little is apparently given at the start. This same appeal explains the fascination with which the life of Lincoln, to jump to a superficially different realm, still continues to be scanned and reinterpreted. Whatever our usual preoccupations, in approaching such figures we become more open to what [Samuel] Johnson thought the first aim of biography--to find what can be 'put to use.' That direct interest, so broad in its appeal, continues just as strongly for the professional writer who, like the poets of Keats's own day, has wrestled darkly with the fear that there is little left for the poet to do--little that will permit the large scope or power of the poetry of more confident, less self-conscious eras in the past. He may not wish to divulge that anxiety; but it is very much on his mind. Hence, despite the most radical changes in taste during the last hundred years, no English or American poet (however widely he may swing away from any of his other predecessors since the death of Shakespeare) fails to drop the usual querulousness over poetic idiom or other details when he comes to Keats, and to look quietly, closely, and perhaps with a suspended secret hope."

--from John Keats by Walter Jackson Bate (1963)

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I get flustered whenever anyone ask me to name my favorite book. There are so many, and I yearn for different ones at different times. But Bate's biography of Keats is certainly be in the top five. Very early in my poetic apprenticeship, Baron Wormser handed me his copy of the biography and told me I should read it. So I did, and I was stunned. I still have never read anything else like it: this loving, precise venture into the mind of a quiet man who is becoming a poet. Reading Bate's book is like existing inside the arc of poetic discovery.