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Thursday, February 27, 2014

Don't follow your bliss--

William Blake, "The Genius of Shakespeare"
The idea of "following your bliss" seems to have successfully invaded all precincts of our world. I seem to meet it everywhere online, but I don't approve of its sentimentality, smarminess, and false illusions. No doubt I have mentioned it before. But my mentioning it hasn't stopped the flood of bliss-advocators. I'm like the little boy with his thumb in the dike, except that I'm not going to freeze to death (unless I go and stand in my Yankee back yard for an hour or so and tell the birds about the need to ignore the popular version of Joseph Campbell. But since they're making music with joy without any worry, I probably don't need to make that sacrifice.) Here are some stray quotes celebrated by friends and snitched from social media:
Find your passion, say 'no' to anything that is a waste of time and keep on going. Focus on what you love. --Rebeca Plantier 
If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Wherever you are—if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time. --Joseph Campbell 
I have quite mixed thoughts about this sort of recommendation. On one hand, I had an overweening, intense passion to read and then read and write as a child--fine, I've followed it, made lots of large sacrifices because of it. I gave up achieved tenure and promotion, dropped out of the helpful-to-a-writer academic machine, and in general slept less and had less of what people call fun than others because I wanted to pursue the glimmering goal of art. And I don't regret any of that because I still have a fire to make stories and poems. That's my kind of fun, a deeper and more curious pleasure than most. I'm grateful that I've been able to have so much of it, thanks to my own obsessive nature and a husband who likes to cook.

Did a black swan land on my head as a result of my fire to create? No. Do I expect to hear the whirring of wings at my back? No, not unless it's the whirring of Marvell's "time's wingèd chariot." Yes, that could be what I hear... Would I be glad if a black swan dropped in for a visit? Sure. I love readers, and a work is completed each time it is read.

(Missed the black swan theory? In the words of Wikipedia, "The black swan theory or theory of black swan events is a metaphor that describes an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight." A theory laid out by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, it was picked up and refined for writers by the Grumpy Old Bookman, whose writings on the scalding truth about the role of luck in the writing world had been an inspiration to Taleb. In literary terms, what happens when a book is anointed as lead book by a publisher and then shoved into the public's face is a bit of a black swan. The amazing success that overtook Jo Rowling's Potter books is a gigantic, morbidly-obese black swan. Black swan literary success, then, comes as a surprise, may have a huge effect, and is rationalized by people afterward.)

I know a lot of people who just don't fit that popularized, overly-sweet image of the hero following his bliss. (Here I should note that I have found Campbell's ideas about the hero's journey to be interesting, particularly when I am thinking about stories, which have a lot to say about human life but are not the same. If they were, they would be human life.) Some of the people who don't fit the pattern are people without a passion. And some of them are people who did or do have a passion.

Take the people I know who did not have a passion, who fell into something and became very good at it. I don't think that's a problem. In fact, I think it's great. We don't all have to chase a muse through hollow lands and hilly lands. I believe that becoming very good at something is plain old satisfying. A simple goal of becoming good at something is a better goal for a lot of people. It's not a little goal, either; it's a large, worthy one. The satisfaction that comes from slow accomplishment and a degree of mastery is highly underrated.

Here's a dramatic example: I have a friend who was a successful concert pianist, touring nationally. At some point, he felt that he would never be of the very highest rank, and that he simply didn't like the loneliness of the life. He dropped out and went back to school and eventually became a physician at a teaching hospital, where he is a different, more familiar sort of success and has plenty of people contact that eliminates the solitude of the single life. A smart man, he had been following his bliss and doing quite well in worldly terms. But bliss turned out to be less satisfying than the original advertisement. It didn't fit his life well. So he went through new training and became good at something else, something very different. I admire the strength of mind that made him quit one pursuit and set out on another path--a path that was not his bliss.

The popular "follow your bliss" goal is a sentimental mirage that has harmed others I know, particularly in the arts. The concept is supposed to lead the hero upward to heroic success. It's intended to be more than an internal journey. Anyway, people tend to be unsatisfied by being Hawthorne's secret artist of the beautiful. It's that pesky old human nature, never content! I know people who were unable to handle their lack of worldly success in the whimsical world of the arts, unable to come to terms with the way of the world and accept that there's an awful lot of luck in what happens, and that black swans don't plop down on most people's heads. Even though lack of success diminished and in some cases spoiled their affection for a pursuit, they were unable to change course and find another goal. I'm not sure what the answer would have been for these people, aside from an earlier understanding of the ways of the world (hard in an era that forces self-esteem down children's throats) and a clue that "follow your bliss" is an often-delusional path that may lead to a place that does not satisfy a desire to have one's art be known.

Despite what I've said, I don't happen to think that a life in the arts that isn't rewarded with huge success is a disaster, or even a major problem. And I don't say that because many of the writers and artists I admire for various reasons failed to have the kind of success the world admires and never met up with a black swan until after death, when it was a bit too late to enjoy the sound of those beating wings. I say it in part because I think being a part of the building-up of culture is a noble thing. It's a selfless thing, far away from the "self-esteem" school movement of recent years, far away from the me-focus of "follow your bliss" as it is commonly understood. We ought to admire it, though I don't think we do, at least in this country. Without the lives of the sea's tiniest residents, how can there be great whales? Without mice, how can we have eagles?

Entirely aside from success, the process of making art has its own rewards and pleasures, even if the artist is a Dickinson who knows few others involved in the arts or a Herbert, immured in the countryside, or a Melville, forgotten in old age but still not letting go of the thread of narrative. But what is a problem is this pernicious, me-focused "follow your bliss" myth that trips up so many, in and out of the arts. So don't think about following bliss. Think about becoming good at something . . .

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Madness and blue roses

How to order hardcover or paperback from anywhere? Go here.
Phoenicia Publishing of Montreal, 2012:
Book design by Elizabeth Adams,
The marvelous interior and exterior art by Clive Hicks-Jenkins of Wales.

Here's the merest snip of dangerous weather on the lake from Thaliad . . .  . Because I am dreaming of hot weather and a thunderstorm over Lake Otsego instead of ice and ice and blebs and icicles and rimed crystals and simple prisms and stellar or sectored plates and dendrite crystals and triangulars and plate crystals and fernlike stellar dendrites and bullet rosettes and crystal needles and hollow or capped columns and double plates or split plates and snow and snow and did I say ice and snow? Ah, the alien, barely inhabitable realm of Yankee winter with its radiating dendrites--so strange, so insane, so cold-and-virus laden, so ingenious in its complex miseries, so full of barkings like a seal, so many-kleenexed, so white, so starry, so shivery, so interminable, so Narnian, so White Witchian.

See that white woman on the jacket of Thaliad? She's cold, isn't she? And she's dreaming about leaves and birds and fruit. But she's white as snow! Give that poor child some leafy frolic, will you?

Excuse me, y'all, while I go out into the back yard and howl my no-doubt temporary madness caused by accumulated stars and my nigh-complete despair of spring, letting the echoes (in a Southern accent) reverberate from the ice of Otsego bloody Lake. Thank you for your kind understanding.

And now for a moment of heat, excessive heat . . .

The roses blossomed on heat’s lattices
In blues no earthly rose could conjure up—
Great cabbage roses, bruising cumulus
With pearly dew that sluiced the prickled stems
And, sliding on cold streams within the air,
Vaulted from a moveable precipice
To slam from heights on wind-lashed surfaces
As lightning’s forests sprouted upside down.
Somewhere impossible to breathe and be,
Where cataracts are ring-tailed roarers seized
And then let go, where hail is grown from dust
Like instant pearls to rattle in the sky.
A power struck war hammers on the rose
And rock of anvil-clouds: the rain obscured,
Erased the land, ascended as a mist.

Of course, any time we get some good old burning heat up here, it's going to transform into something ridiculous like a violent hailstorm. Because that's just how it is on the edge of a deep, mysterious Yankee lake with its own castle and fjordish serpent.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Man-weevils and A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage

early 20th-century poster
Chapter 3 begins...

     The spang! of insect cries, fused into a single vibrating note, soared into the sky where Pip thought perhaps he could see its shrillness when he looked straight into the burning sun—and saw something like a rope made of gold, its frizzled threads on fire. The sound and the light jabbed at his eyes, and he ducked his head.
     For three days now he had understood nothing except that confession gripped the glances of men. On the farm he had known it for the first time. When taken into town to make a deposition, he had seen it again. From one cast stone of wrong, the circles ran outward forever, widening to hold the world, which was itself like a single blue eye decked with green and set in a socket of darkness.
   What could a boy do about such evil? Pip thought about the chain of days, spaced through the summer, daybreak to sunset spent in mopping cotton to kill cotton-worms and boll weevils. At dawn his right arm had been powdered white from lead salt, what the feed store men called arsenic of lead. For weeks in early summer, he and Otto had trailed down the rows, smearing molasses laced with lead on the stalks with cloth-tipped sticks. Later on it was the young blossoms and then the bolls that needed mopping. Gangs of honeybees and wasps and what seemed a thousand different insects clouded the air behind them, pursuing sweetness, bumbling into ears and lashes as if the boys might be molded from sugar. In the morning they would have to scrape flies and wasps from their overalls. At the end of each round of poison when the work was entirely done, Miss Versie would plunge the children’s clothes, coated with sticky residue, into her boiling pot, skimming dead bees from the water with a ladle. Mopping cotton was a job that sickened Pip, with his hatred of sweet odors, but it had to be done. The bucket was too heavy for Otto, so it was Pip who had to heft and swing its weight, the stink of hot molasses in his nose. At least it was not as cloying as the smell of hedge.
     Was there a medicine good against a man-worm, against the weevil at his core? What a job it would be to mop every boy in the world, dabbing poison on his arms and head so that he could grow right without that look of fire in his eyes.

Monday, February 24, 2014

A Child at the Tropic Pavilions


The smolderings of Pele’s hair
    Are her delight, with fires
Of eucalyptus in the rain
    And coral’s glowing spires.

A  braided crown of palm adorns
    Her buoyant curls, and leis
Of frangipani scent her throat:
    She has no need of praise,

For sea’s auroral whisperings
    Aren’t secrets to her ear--
Her counselors with gaudy wings
    Suddenly appear

To sing of castles made of sand
    And childish dignity
That takes the throne in Chinese silk,
    With parrots on each knee.

                        for Rebecca Beatrice Miller

Friday, February 21, 2014

Dear passers-by and keen readers,

Courtesy of + magstefan of Graz, Austria
Due to the Yankee Bug of Doom and the need to finish edits for the upcoming novel, I will be off-blog (aside from answering the occasional stray comment) for a few days. Please send chocolates (absolutely no wax, must be at very least Dove-level or else the cat gets them), citrus fruit suitable for juicing (dreaming of blood oranges), and ridiculous stories of havoc and good cheer. Love you all, or at least Bilbo's “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve." Too hard to parse... I'll just stick with "love one another."

Please scroll down for older posts--I've been surprised (nay, shocked, I say!) at how many people have found recent posts on the Matelli sculpture fracas, winter's spell (thanks to Prufrock News), and defining a poem to be worth a visit. Gives me hope for the arts in this time of Babel, obfuscation, and unrest... (And, of course, there's that Potter-post, heading toward 2K. I suppose that weighing in on the Potter weddings absurdity and the nature of books was fated to be popular.)

Now I'm just hoping to be surprised by how many of you desire to own one of my in-print books... In other less-impertinent news, I have seen the front jacket of Glimmerglass, and it is the cheerful bee's knees and the dragon's tongue! Thank you to Clive Hicks-Jenkins, who has given me the most beautiful books in this or any other hemisphere. More art coming soon, too.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Making a list

preparatory sketch, Clive Hicks-Jenkins forGlimmerglass
If you are a blogger or a Goodreads-Amazon-Powell's-etc. reviewer who likes to write about books and would like to be on the mailing list to receive a press release for Glimmerglass before it appears in early fall, please leave me a note. If you've already said elsewhere that you would like to be on a list, thank you again; I have your name.

If you review for an established venue, print or online, and are interested in seeing the book, please let me know.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Define "poem"--

Image courtesy of and Ann-Kathrin Rehse of Germany.

Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting. -Frost

Thanks to various friends in various places online who have expressed interest in the memory palace posts. Perhaps I'll do a few more... This little post is in response to a comment, and is a 5-minute stab at defining the word poem. (It might have been longer, but I have only just now decided not to expire from my hideous cold, and don't expect to process thought for longer than five minutes at a go.) Feel free to invent your own definition and leave in the post comments (preferably before you read mine), or to argue with mine (after you read it, that is!) I don't imagine that my quick definition is anything like the last word, given how tricky the job is.
Made by its maker, a poet, out of syllables and pauses, a poem is a vessel that: contains language that to some degree (more or less) approaches music via play with pause and the sounds of vowels and consonants (and may include rhyme, meter, and rhetorical figures of sound) and yet is not music; pours out the truth while insisting on retaining mystery and strangeness; depends on lineation and insists that every element of the poem (line break and end words, stanza break, alliteration, word choice, punctuation, etc.) must express the will of the poem. If it does not do these things, the vessel will not hold water.

The poem also has a duty not to bore the reader. It achieves that aim by surprising the writer.
Admission: The above definition does leave out some artifacts that are commonly called poems. It is in direct opposition to certain Duchampian creations and plagiarisms of texts that are called poems, for example.

Second admission: The above post is entirely too parenthetical. (Sorry!)

Third admission: I am well aware that I left out feeling. Still thinking about that one, and how it functions with certain poets not much read now like Pope and Johnson.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Memory palace, no. 4

Courtesy of and Fran Priestly of the U. S.  That's a photograph
of her sister reading poetry--it could have been Yeats she read,
but, no, she is reading Tennyson. Of course, Yeats read Tennyson...

I've been busy with Glimmerglass edits, The Book of the Red King final polishes (long delayed), the always-tedious author questionnaire, and a bothersome cold, but today I am going to memorize another poem. This one is by Yeats; it's a lyric from The Wind Among the Reeds. I've heard "The Song of Wandering Aengus" sung many times, so it shouldn't be too difficult. And every time I've heard it read aloud with another poem by another writer, Yeats has managed to put the other poem to shame, despite or because of its simplicity of narrative.

Despite that simplicity, one can talk endlessly of elements like Aengus Óg and Caer, or Aengus Óg and hazel wands and faeries, and the meaning of solar and lunar or roundness and wholeness. But I've never thought that any of those explications, however charming and fanciful, did any more for the poem than the clear image of the poet with the fire to make the beautiful and true burning in his head, leading him on (though he may be never satisfied with his efforts to snare the uncatchable) to a mystical goal uniting all things--poet and muse, fire-to-create and transcendental fulfillment, male and female, sun and moon, gold and silver.

The poet gives his life and grows "old with wandering" until he, like Nathaniel Hawthorne's artist of the beautiful, "catches a far other butterfly" and is transformed. As Hawthorne puts it, "When the artist rose high enough to achieve the beautiful, the symbol by which he made it perceptible to mortal senses became of little value in his eyes while his spirit possessed itself in the enjoyment of the reality."

I love the opening of the poem and how Yeats brings together in one easy motion the realms of earth, air, fire, and water:

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

I'm finding that I already know that stanza, probably from hearing and reading the poem so often. The only part I had any trouble remembering was "out to," which has a slight awkwardness, so that I kept wanting to alter it. Probably Thoreau was in my head as well, the man who says, "I went to the woods because," and his because is that he wants to live life deliberately, to suck out its marrow, and not find later that he has not lived. It's not so different from Aengus, called by fire and giving over all of life to a ruling pursuit. Thoreau, too, wonderfully mixes up stream and stars and time and fish: "Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars."

I'm fooling with the second stanza now, and finding that my mind does not expect or want to remember a duplicate end word in floor:

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire aflame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And some one called me by my name:

I just realized that there's a line in one of my Fool poems from The Book of the Red King that conjures this stanza of the poem for me, yoking fire and rustling: "When Fool walked in the rustling fire."

It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

I keep wanting to change "apple blossom" to "apple blossoms" to be a little more earthy and less poetique. Still, I love this poem, and it is, through and through, drenched in the romance of Celtic twilight. So "apple blossom" it is.

When I tried the last stanza without taking a peek, it turned out that I knew it, aside from one line, which my mind skipped over entirely, as if it were not essential to the narrative: "And walk among long dappled grass." I'm having a tiny bit of trouble with "among." Among grass? Metrically, yes, but...

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

I'm beginning to think that perhaps a poet should memorize each poem before concluding it is done. I don't imagine that I ever had much in the way of a negative thought about this poem before. (However, experience says that just because one publishes doesn't mean that a poem is polished to high gloss. I hate to admit it, but I've published poems online or in magazines that I later decided were simply not finished. And of course I felt mortified to think I had once thought them done. Time tells.) But Yeats is one of my heroes, and I rarely think of him as having less than a perfect finish.

Once I know the poem by heart and no longer pause to remember, I expect that I'll be back to my former happy state, not questioning these little decisions. But noticing tiny, almost-invisible snags is another interesting aspect to memorization.

Friday, February 14, 2014


Please hop here to see the start of my page for Glimmerglass.

The novel is forthcoming in the fall from Mercer University Press, with art by Clive Hicks-Jenkins of Wales and design by Burt and Burt.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014


Portal detail from a sculpture, WCU North Carolina Glass
2012--alas, not sure which one this was...

Cheery, agile little bug of a bulldozer starts jingling outside my bedroom window around 6 a.m., cutting down snow walls and thrusting them up-up-up into a dump truck. This is the way of the No'th. I object, but the unremitting cheerfulness continues.

The pyramid glowing in the fireplace resembles a heap of brilliant orange topaz and immediately sets flame to any new spar of wood. It emits heat and sleep. It appears perfect and alien.

Stars. Crystal. Snow snatches at my foot, slips it away. I flail at the air, become buoyant, do not fall. Yet.

There has been snow and will be more snow. Occasionally the windows are so blind with falling flakes that for a moment it feels like the end of the world. I read the news, which seems strangely upside down and inside out. A fatwa against polio vaccination, selfies with the president, wranglings over the existence of global warming, macaques who have learned to steal coins and use vending machines, a teen in a banana costume with a rifle... A boy murders a girl, wishing to sell his soul to the devil. The group Reporters without Borders demotes the country to 46th in press freedom, and the Founding Fathers rotate like factory spindles in the grave. The sky blues and brightens and now begins very slowly, imperceptibly, to gather cloud for tomorrow's snow. "For destruction ice / Is also great."

Bunches. Little bunches. Sparrows, juncos, chickadees, titmouses, the bright exclamation of a cardinal. Stabs at the bowl. Hammerings of a seed against the lilac. The temperature has risen to -5, and the brave little birds flit from the rose canes to the feeder to the lilac and then puff themselves up in the sun. For the first time this winter, I see a goldfinch at the feeder--and now the first purple finch of the year! Perhaps there is hope for another spring.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The man in whitey-tighties--

Source: WHDH, New York Daily News


Let's talk some more about the man in whitey-tighties on the Wellesley campus. Because I somehow don't think that we've been talking about the right things when we talk about that man, created by Tony Matelli, maker of hyper-realistic sculptures.

You know, I'm glad when people are talking about art in any of its forms, but sometimes that conversation leads into the strangest places. I won't get into that--what's the use? I read the news this morning, all the time thinking about Orwell and Solzhenitsyn, and so I know quite well there is no use in arguing with some of the absurd things said about the sculpture.

Instead, I want to think about the sculpture and see what it is without being influenced by what has been said about the piece and without even having a notion that politically correct thought still rules our world and tells us what to say. I want to think my own thoughts and come to my own conclusions without one jot of influence from the outer world.

In fact, I will look at the sculpture from several different angles. In all of these, I'll try not to be reductive. The chiding comments I've seen about the piece tend toward a not-very-rigorous feminist, academic response and reduce the sculpture to something very narrow, and they certainly don't show art can be myriad in its implications. They attempt to deprive the sculpture of any mystery or strangeness.

What does it mean to show someone walking in sleep?

Here is a sleepwalker. In my head is a great deal on the subject from a man who insisted on living on his own terms, Henry  David Thoreau. I like him, prickly fellow though he is. He's one of my many soul mates in the arts, even though he wouldn't particularly want me to feel so. "Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me," he says. We need "infinite expectation of the dawn," lest we be like most people, the "sleepers" of the rail bed that modernity and industrialization race over:
If we do not get out sleepers, and forge rails, and devote days and nights to the work, but go to tinkering upon our lives to improve them, who will build railroads? And if railroads are not built, how shall we get to heaven in season? But if we stay at home and mind our business, who will want railroads? We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man, an Irishman, or a Yankee man. The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them. They are sound sleepers, I assure you. And every few years a new lot is laid down and run over; so that, if some have the pleasure of riding on a rail, others have the misfortune to be ridden upon. And when they run over a man that is walking in his sleep, a supernumerary sleeper in the wrong position, and wake him up, they suddenly stop the cars, and make a hue and cry about it, as if this were an exception. I am glad to know that it takes a gang of men for every five miles to keep the sleepers down and level in their beds as it is, for this is a sign that they may sometime get up again.
So we have a sculpture of a man, and he is asleep but helpless, hands out. Well, "sleepwalking through life" is a familiar idea. Sleepwalkers have long been an image of a kind of lost shamble through the days that is not uncommon but sad; sometimes sleepwalking can describe a passage in life in which one feels lost and uncertain. The sculpture portrays a man who is, indeed, sleepwalking through the busy--and, we hope, awake--life going on around him, as well as sleepwalking through his own life. Thinking of Thoreau, we can hope that he is struggling to walk, to get somewhere, to wake up!

If I consider the idea of sleepwalking, I tend to see that the figure is, in fact, a pitiable figure, one of those people Thoreau wished to wake. But that's not the only way of looking at the sculpture.

Side note on Thoreau and young women

Interestingly, Thoreau found that young women were among the very few who "improved their time" in the woods and found something worth the search. They were not biased; they were free and curious and could enjoy surprise, even if it was the small beauty of a colored leaf. Why do I mention it? Because there has been a radical gap between those on campus who react whimsically to the statue and those who are outraged, and that is . . . interesting.

Zombies side note

I notice that journalists can't help comparing the figure to a zombie. I suppose this is a natural enough result of the stance, but it's silly to let zombie fashion get in the way of your eyesight and your brain, which has not yet been eaten. I'm not a fan of the way journalists have shaped the story and don't think it has done much good for Wellesley women or for art.

What does his physical appearance say?

Details of the figure's appearance just might have something to say to us. The Matelli sculpture is a bit paunchy, isn't he? No washboard abs here. The man's not fashionably shaven-headed but a victim (everybody's a victim of something these days) of male pattern baldness. Despite what has been said by those who peer through the lens of political correctness, he is not a frightening shape but a more pathetic one, vulnerable and naked. He wears whitey-tighties and so is clearly out of fashion, even when he goes bed. It's hard to determine his exact age in many photographs because his face is slack with sleep, but he appears to be in the zone of middle-age. His hands look older than the rest of him and are a more accurate gauge.

More than simply a target as "white male," he's an Everyman groping his way, betrayed to our gaze in his semi-nakedness.

Unfashionable side note 

So why is the unfashionable so threatening to the young women of Wellesley--the fashionable, the trendy, the young and hip, the cutting edge, the future of our world? What any answer implies is that the unfashionable stands for things that are directly opposed to the fashionable. Different values. Different virtues. Differences. A gap.

How does the sculpture relate to its world?

Another way of seeing depends on context (although it relates to the idea of the unfashionable.) I'm thinking about where the artist chose to place him and what that choice might mean.

Set in the context of a women's college campus, who is he most like? Not the young women. Nor, I would hope, like their professors, though not every teacher is awake. No doubt one or two (I hope no more!) are sleepwalking.

But the Matelli man invokes one thing more than anything else. Parents. He is most like the average, unfashionable, mildly paunchy, balding everyman called Daddy, the man who climbs on the treadmill of labor every day and struggles along with his wife to pay a child's daunting bills for annual tuition and room and board at a private American college in A. D. 2014. (Sure, parents are varied in class and race, and some students are on scholarship. Yet he's still Everyman, exposed in all his and our mortal vulnerability.) For some daughter he may even be a nemesis like Plath's "marble-heavy" Daddy, "ghastly statue with one gray toe." But it's no surprise that he's a shock, an abomination, a trigger: he's our very own.

Myriad-minded art

A piece of art is, or should be, suggestible. In whatever form it appears (and whether you like it or not), art is not a thing to tame, to tie down, to reduce. Allow the work to have as much wildness and as much myriad-minded meaning as it can win for itself--the amount will vary, depending on the artist.

Matelli notes that students are "misconstruing" his work. Misunderstandings about art occur daily, hourly, constantly, though they don't usually make the national news. This curious instance reminds me that Yeats asked of university students protesting against literature in his own country, "Where, where but here have Pride and Truth, / That long to give themselves for wage, / To shake their wicked sides at youth / Restraining reckless middle-age?" Where? Here.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Memory Palace, no. 3

Image courtesy of Michaela Kobyakov of Leonding,
Austria and
I find your project to memorize poetry and then write about it intellectually stimulating, lovely, and touching. You may be right about only poets wanting to read about poetry, but a huge percentage of people are poets who just don't write poetry. If they have the ability to be moved, they can and do love poetry. --Philip Lee Williams
What do you think about that lovely summation? Is it true?

Perhaps I'll continue writing notes about the poems I memorize; perhaps not. At any rate, I am learning and feeling things about poems that one can't learn in any other way. A memorized, delivered poem (in the mind or outloud) seems to engage the whole person, and the importance of pauses increases. One is not longer juggling words and doing a degree of study about how to read the poem when the poem flows forth, memorized. I find that the longer one repeats a poem, the more subtle variation in in pause and emphasis becomes evident. A memorized poem partakes of a natural out-springing like a stream from earth and rocks.

The second poem I memorized was this one by Shakespeare (no. 98), not one of the best known of his sonnets. I memorized it once in college for an exam, but had forgotten much of it over the years.
From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April dress'd in all his trim
Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing,
That heavy Saturn laugh'd and leap'd with him.
Yet nor the lays of birds nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odour and in hue
Could make me any summer's story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew;
Nor did I wonder at the lily's white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
   Yet seem'd it winter still, and, you away,
   As with your shadow I with these did play.
This one does not want to stay lodged in my head, and though I have it now, I fear that I'll have to work to keep it from tumbling out again (rather like the two knotty lines in the Hopkins poem I memorized first.) Some of the difficulty may be due to inversion of syntax, but while memorizing it I noticed other things as stumbling points. "Nor the sweet smell / Of different flowers in odour and in hue" always feels a little redundant to me, so I kept thinking that I had the lines wrong. The stop in the third quatrain gives a bit of trouble because the quatrain splits into related parts, and the jump from the rose and lily to the "figures of delight" (which seem to work both as images and as rhetorical figures) drawn after the red and white complexion trope beloved of Renaissance writers made me go blank a few times.

Also, the turns in thought that mark the Shakespearean sonnet happen remarkably early, and so I didn't expect a shift in the fifth line. In fact, the whole poem with its yets and nors becomes turn, turn, turn, long before the closing couplet and the closing turn from summer to winter, from bright to dark.

Courtesy of Istvan Benedek of Budapest, Hungary and

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Memory Palace, no. 2

Photo courtesy of Micha Sankowski of Warsaw, Poland

Wrestling tournaments and minor disasters have temporarily delayed my poems-by-heart project. So I've decided to shift to one a week, reciting all I've learned so far every day to review. The first poem I learned was this one, an old favorite by Gerard Manley Hopkins. I knew it fairly well already...

Spring and Fall

  to a young child

Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

I found this one quite easy to memorize aside from the compression of "Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed / What heart heard of, ghost guessed." And the way that I managed that was to remember to move from "springs" to "mouth" (as of a spring.) Then I had a little trouble wanting to swap "mind" and "heart," but alliteration is a great help there, as "mouth" and "mind" are bracketed together by sound, as well as "heart heard."

There are some things I like especially well about this poem: the strong, sonnet-like ending, the Anglo-Saxon influence on alliterative line structure and words that resemble kennings (wanwood, leafmeal, Goldengrove); the constriction and knottiness of syntax that comes at the same time that revelation approaches; the many meanings circling spring/springs and leaving/leaves. I like the way that the poem questions and doubts language, showing us that the word death, say, doesn't matter because all sorrows have the same springs--in fact, heart and spirit are quick to know more than mind and its words.

* * *

Addendum: Still wondering whether this sort of post is desirable--the internet makes me grasp how few non-poets care about poetry in English these days. Although I note that Iris the "interactive semi-conscious AI" seems to like Wallace Stevens. If you have an opinion, please say so!

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Memory Palace frolics--

Courtesy of Eva Schuster
of Dresden, Germany
and"vaults in
colour from the palace
Alcazar in Seville."
I've decided to work my brain a little harder, now that I've had such a big birthday and am arrowing toward twilight on planet Earth. After all, when I'm writing, I'm having the sheer mad joy of making things up, and when I'm reading--when lucky in my choices--I am reveling in somebody else's words. It doesn't feel much like work, as for good or ill I'm not one of the sorts of writers who sweats blood at the keyboard. Maybe that only works with typewriters. I tend to enjoy it even more when things get knotty, and I like taking a machete and slashing away at what I've made. So neither writing nor revising nor reading is sufficiently unpleasant as to seem like brain exercise (perhaps I should read theory? abstruse alchemical texts? Kierrkegaard?)

So I'm going to re-memorize poems I once knew--should be fairly easy--and memorize new ones--less easy. I just started with Hopkins, "Spring and Fall" and Shakespeare's sonnet 98, "From you have I been absent in the spring." Both of those I knew long ago.

Once I took a seminar from critic Mark Spilka. We all had to deliver a paper, and mine included seven Frost poems. (I don't even remember which ones, now, except that "After Apple-Picking" was harder to learn than the others.) As the course went on, I noticed that our professor never looked at the students when they were reading their papers. I memorized all seven of the poems in my essay and practiced them well, and I remember feeling it a signal victory that we stared each other in the eyes during the recitation portions.

What a funny young woman I must have been!

Anyway, I'm now bad at remembering poems and would like to be good at it once again. So I'm planning on using these methods:
  • paying extra attention to the first and last words of each line
  • paying attention to meter 
  • attention to sensation and color in the poem
  • adding extreme mental images where needed (staff music above Shakespeare's birds, cartoon wiggly lines for fragrance above flowers, etc.)
  • paying extra attention to the words that start stanzas and suggest structure (As, in 98, I'm focusing on "From, Yet nor, Nor, Yet," a succession that is a little confusing, especially since "nor" comes in for quite a bit of use in the poem.)
  • focusing on repeating the lines that are particularly odd in syntax (Hopkins's "Nor mouth had, no nor mind expressed," for example)
  • using buildings that mean something to me as memory palaces when needed--as, my rickety federal house in Cooperstown and the also-rickety arts-and-crafts/Tudor house in Greenville, the Queen Anne house and the primitive house where I spent part of my summers as a child
Just call me Loci-loki, mischief-maker!

Sunday, February 02, 2014

The cupboard child

One of the M. S. Corley designs
for the Potter books--see more here.
In which a mid-list writer and mother of three explains to the bestselling J. K. Rowling why she is wrong to go around disturbing the laws of books and re-marrying her hapless characters in retrospect . . . and why she was right in the first place.

Dear J. K. Rowling,

I happen to be rather weak on popular culture except where it intersects with one of my three children. The Potter books intersected with all three. I have listened to Harry Potter on CD and tape with three children in the car. I have watched the movies. And I have read the entire series aloud 1.5 times to my youngest because he wanted me to read until he fell asleep but then the next night would beg me to backbackback up to the point where he could clearly remember. This backing-up business was sometimes a bit of a trial, but I did it out of maternal love and possibly a smidge of desperation. Sleep is good.

So I have a piece of helpful news for you, fellow writer, now that you've violated the integrity of the books and declared that you really should have married Hermione to Harry. You are in luck because I happen to know that you are wrong.

Oh, I see exactly what you mean. Sure, Ron and Hermione might not appear like a workable choice at first glance. They were, as John Granger says, a fit pair for "the quarreling couple" of alchemy. In real life, if they jumped over the broomstick together, they might break up in a few years. They might never have made it to marriage because once they got over the intensity of mutual attraction, there might not have been enough beyond shared experience to hold them together. Most teens do, in fact, break up in our world and even in that weird reflection-world of wizardry.

Yes, marrying Hermione to Ron looks at first like a bit of a mistake. I expect some people would say that Hermione would be better off with a clever Ravenclaw boy who wouldn't stop her from becoming headmistress of Hogwarts, say. What's in favor of them as a couple? Well, be sure to remember that Ron is brighter, more funny, and quicker to help in the books than in the movies, and that major shared experience and mutual understanding are no small things. But that's not why they end up together.

No doubt Harry + Hermione is a fetching idea--world's most famous wizard and the brightest witch of the age! That wedding sounds just about right for a romantic daydream. No doubt it might have crossed their quick, imaginative minds . . . and no doubt there would be that odd bond between them that comes from could-have-been combined with the sharing of major experiences.

But a Harry and Hermione marriage is not what happened.

What happens in a book happens in a closed world and doesn't change. You married off Ron and Hermione. You linked up Harry and Ginny. That's done.

Why did you do it? I'll tell you.

Remember how Lupin says Harry's instincts are good and nearly always right? Why are you mistrusting him at this late juncture? In fact, Harry gains infinitely more by choosing Ginevra Weasley over Hermione Granger.

Ginny brings with her the bright, abundant dowry of the things he always wanted in life and never had. He gains a wide wizarding family, full of people he already admires and loves--and even the requisite family priss-pot, somebody about whom everybody else can complain. What does Hermione offer in the way of family? A pair of nice . . . dentists. A future that means a tiny nuclear group. In the expansive Weasley clan, Harry will be an uncle many times over as well as a father. There, he has a second pair of parents who already care about him. He has big brothers. He possesses a resonant history with them all, and he is attached to the memory of their dead. We can even say that Harry becomes a kind of fraternal twin to make up for the dead Weasley twin, Fred, for he and Ron are the same age and share boyish passion for broomsticks and quidditch. His best friend becomes his brother.

Now then, what about Hermione, his other best friend? (Let's note here that the books press onward toward the restoration of Harry's broken world, and that Hermione and others help in that restoration. If you accept that idea, you accept that the thrust of story is not about Hermione--it's not even about romance or who ends up with whom.) In the context of a Harry-Ginny union, having Hermione marry Ron becomes an added bonus for Harry--she too becomes his family when she marries Ron and becomes his sister. In this way, Harry becomes related to all the living people he loves most. And this is the only way they can all be related, the only way that nobody is left out of the circle of Harry's deepest loves.

You see? Harry wins. He takes home all the toys. The cupboard child who was last is now first.

Still feeling a bit disappointed at the way you restored Harry's world, broken when he was still a baby? Listen, who's going to be the most thrilling choice for Harry? He's not all that bookish, you know. There's not much library paste holding him down. Who's going to fly off with Harry on a wild broomstick ride at midnight and frolic in the treetops? It's not going to be Hermione, who doesn't even like brooms. It'll be tomboy Ginevra, the little red-haired girl who snitched her brothers' broomsticks out of the shed at the Burrow and taught herself to fly. It'll be Ginny Weasley, quidditch star.

So let's quit talking about what might have been--a book is a shaped thing, a microcosm. What happens in it is what happens, and nothing more!

Mischief managed--