Friday, April 30, 2004

Pump Up the Volume

Here it is the last day of April, the last day of National Poetry Month, and I have done a poor job of discussing poetry on any kind of a regular basis. I have, however been reading and thinking about poetry more than I have in some time, so at least for me there has been a benefit. Going forward I plan on reading more poetry and then, of course, tell all of you about it. On that note, this final April post will be a about a CD my Bookman gave me for my birthday at the beginning of the month. The CD is Louder. No it's not a new rock band with the amps turned up to 11. It's Marge Piercy reading her political poems. Who is Marge Piercy? Some may know her as the author of such novels as Gone to Soldiers, Woman on the Edge of Time and He, She and It. She was born in working class Detroit and was the first of her family to go to college. An activist in the Anti-War, Civil Rights and Feminist Movements, she writes both fiction and poetry with a political dimension. Not all of her poems are politically inclined. She writes about love, gardening, being Jewish and cats too. Louder is a good sampling of her political poetry. Two of the poems are newer and have yet to be included in a book. The other 24 are selected from 8 of her published books. I have never heard Piercy speak before. After reading so much of her poetry, many of her novels, her memoir and her book about writing co-authored with her husband Ira Wood, I had imagined what she sounded like. Of course her voice sounded very much like the voice in my head (no, I don't hear voices but I hear the words in my head when I read). I don't know why I was surprised when I pushed play on my CD player and heard her real voice. She doesn't have a bad voice, but because of my internal voice being her voice for so long, the real Marge Piercy took some getting used to. The CD is is a little over 60 minutes long. The words are not included except for the two new poems. "Choices" is the poem Piercy wrote when she was invited to the White House by Laura Bush for a reading with several other poets. It begins:

Would you rather have health insurance you can actually afford or occupy Iraq? Would you rather have enough inspectors to keep your kids from getting poisoned by bad hamburgers, or occupy Iraq? Would you rather breathe clean air and drink water free from pesticides and upriver shit, or occupy Iraq?
I wonder what Laura thought of that one? The other new poem is called "Sneak and Peek" and is about the Patriot Act and government surveillance and spying on its own people. Here's an excerpt:
Are you patriotic? Do you submit lists of what you read to the F.B.I. without waiting to be asked? Do you spy on your neighbors checking if they play Middle Eastern music if they smoke other than tobacco if they read the wrong books all u.s. right thinking people know what they are. If they have too much sex of the wrong kind--all u.s. right thinking people know exactly what we mean. Do you believe in the separation of Church and Hate?
Poets having their own CD is a newer thing. I have a cassette tape of Adrienne Rich reading her book Midnight Salvage and a CD called Voice of the Poet. Now I have Marge Piercy. I hope the CD becomes a more common "publication." I think reading the poems myself is great, but hearing the poet herself read them with all the emphasis and pauses in the right places is an enlightening experience.

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Fuel for Paranoia

I know this isn't exactly book related or even remotely literary, but our glorious U.S. Intelligence agencies don't have enough things to keep them busy so they are going to start tracking blogs:

some analysts say U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials might be starting to track blogs for important bits of information. This interest is a sign of how far Web media such as blogs have come in reshaping the data-collection habits of intelligence professionals and others, even with the knowledge that the accuracy of what's reported in some blogs is questionable.
Meanwhile the Chinese government has already gotten its act together and is tracking blogs. They have, according to the article, already shut down two blogging services and banned access to blogs to all Chinese citizens. Not sure how they've managed to achieve the ban, seems to me like it would be impossible.

Sign Here Please

Lawrence Block writes about the perils of authorship: book signings.

Item: James Ellroy signed the entire first printing of My Dark Places, some 65,000 books in all. He wrote two words, James and Ellroy, 65,000 times each. That's 130,000 words, which is more than he took to write the whole damn book. Why, I sometimes wonder, does anybody want a book signed? I have a whole wall of books by friends, and it never occurs to me to ask them to sign them. My wife, who has an abiding passion for hagiography—we have a surprising number of editions of Lives of the Saints, not one of them signed—has her own theory. As she explains it, a book signed by its author is a second-degree relic, not as precious as a finger bone, but on a par with a pair of cast-off sandals. I like the explanation, but how long before the bastards start wanting the damned books signed in blood?

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Excellent Women AKA Busy Bodies and Spinsters

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym is blurbed as being "Written with the wit and style of a twentieth-century Jane Austen." It is not only this book but her other novels as well that are compared to Austen. I love Jane Austen and from experience I know that when modern authors are compared with "classic" authors the modern story usually doesn't hold up. I have lost count of how many books I've seen advertised as "Dickensian." There is also, of course, "in the manner of," "in the style of," and "in the tradition of." If I see such a tag line on a book I generally steer clear. That's why it took me so long to get around to reading Barbara Pym. But when the praise accumulated from different sources over the course of several months, then I decided I had to pay attention. Pym began publishing in the 1950s, took a break for most of the 60s and 70s, then published a few more books before she died in 1980. She is a Brit whom Philip Larkin declared "the most underrated writer of the century." So with all of the praise, the question becomes, is it true? My answer is yes and no. Excellent Women is supposedly the most famous of Pym's novels. Except for the dreadful typeface, I enjoyed it very much. I can understand somewhat how she can be compared with Austen. Austen after all wrote about women and domestic and social goings on. Pym does too. That's the only connection I could find and if that's all it takes to be compared to Jane Austen then the people doing the comparing haven't read Emma or Persuasion or even Pride and Prejudice. Mildred Lathbury, the main character in Excellent Women, is no Elizabeth Bennet. But let's move away from the whole Austen comparison and take the book for what it is, an enjoyable comedy of manners. An excellent woman is an unmarried woman over the age of 30 who gets involved in other people's business whether by design or accident. Mildred Lathbury is one such woman. She is a devout church goer and do gooder who seems to always find herself thrust into others' affairs through no real effort on her part. She is the kind of dependable person who is always around and never says no. She is the kind of person to whom everyone goes to for sympathy and help solving their problems. And, of course, she never gets the man. Or does she? The book didn't make me think much beyond the story except for a few places where I thought, "gosh, I'm glad for the feminist movement." Pym may not have turned out to be like Jane Austen, but I liked Excellent Women enough that I'll give some of her other books a try. And if you are looking for a fun vacation read or something for a lazy day in the hammock, consider giving Barbara Pym a read.

Monday, April 26, 2004

Long Live the Book!

Unless you've been living under a rock you've probably been hearing for years that books as we know them are obsolete, that ebooks will take over our paper books, and won't it be great to have 1,000 books stored on a disc instead of on a shelf? Don't sound the death knell yet. As the Boston Globe reports (via bookninja):

Today, many would-be replacements of books have vanished, while conventional print marches on. The Association of American Publishers recently reported a 36 percent increase in book sales since 1997 -- modest performance by the standards of DVDs and videogames, but bubble-proof.
Declaring the death of the book is not new. Folks were doing it back in 1895 when Thomas Edison's phonograph became a success. The Globe asks if books were supposed to disappear, why haven't they? What went right? Their speculations:
First, books have multiplied partly because they have become less and less important as information storage technologies. As our dependence on them has shrunk, their number and variety has increased, and their status has been if anything enhanced by the attention that the Web has showered on them through online bookselling and discussion groups. Second, books have flourished because despite massive increases in computing power, electronic media often were less efficient than they appeared. The CD-ROM seemed the medium of the future by the early 1990s. But beyond reference publishing and specialized offerings, the CD-ROM let the publishing industry down. Without standardized user interfaces or convenient authoring tools, they were time-consuming both to produce and to use and not readily browsed in retail stores. (When did you last see one in a bookshop, except embedded in a thick technical tome?) Third, and most surprisingly, books survive because technology has made it much easier to write and publish them. Beginning in the 1980s, even the simplest word-processing programs enabled part-time writers to compose and especially to revise without fretting over white-out fluid, scissors, and rubber cement. And publishers started to accept authors' word processing disks, ultimately reducing composition costs despite initial glitches.
So all you doomsayers out there can just keep the dire predictions to yourselves. Besides, we bibliophiles are too busy propping up our sagging shelves and trying to squeeze in just-one-more-book to listen to you anyway.

Sunday, April 25, 2004

Happy in Death

"You should always await a man's last day: before his death and last funeral rites, no one should be called happy," Montaigne quotes Ovid and thus begins his essay "That We Should Not Be Deemed Happy Till After Our Death." I believe this is a Stoic philosophy which Montaigne in his essay endorses. Apparently you can live a fortuitous life, have wealth and family and all anyone could ever want but you cannot be called happy until you die. It's not you who gets to decide if you have led a happy life, but those who are left behind. Because things could be going great and then a week before you die your business could burn to the ground and your house too and you may end up with nothing and the tragic last week of your life will negate all the goodness of the 80 years prior to it. Conversely, your entire life may suck but if a month before you die you win the lottery your life was, in the end, a happy one. On top of all that, you must die well. When you die you must die with dignity and grace. You are not allowed to complain about pain or bemoan your fate. You are not allowed to cry and whine and do the woe-is-me act. Acceptance and stoicism, a stiff upper lip and kind words for those are still alive. "When judging another's life I always look to see how its end was borne: and one of my main concerns for my own is that it be borne well--that is, in a quiet and muted manner," says Montaigne at the end of his essay. Here's an idea to perk up a funeral. Give all who attend black markers and a blank card. Ask them on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the highest, to judge the life of the deceased. When the casket is being lowered into the ground, the service officiator will ask everyone to hold up their scorecard. Imagine the write up for the newspaper, "John Doe, who thought so highly of himself in life, received a dismal average score of 4.5 from those who attended the funeral." I don't know about you, but I think I'll be the one to decide whether or not my life is happy, thank you very much. While our society still places a heavy emphasis on appearances, I think we've come a long way from Montaigne's philosophy in this instance. I suppose after I'm dead I won't care how other people judge my life, but back then when family reputation was everything, it mattered. Thank goodness we can separate ourselves from our families these days. My family is no better or worse than the next one, but I wouldn't want to go through my life being equated with them. It's a matter of individuality and self-identity. Who gets to determine your life, you or your family and the people judging you? Enough of that. It's been a while since I've mentioned what is going on with the weekly Montaigne essay. In case you've join this hopping party of one late, I am working my way through Michel De Montainge's essays in no particular order. The book I am using is the Penguin Classics Edition, The Complete Essays translated by M.A. Screech. I try to read and review one essay each week. I think I have managed it every week so far but one. Not too shabby. Next week's essay will be "On the Custom of Wearing Clothing."

Saturday, April 24, 2004

The $100 Million Question

What do you do when someone like Ruth Lilly the pharmaceutical heiress leaves your organtization $100 million in her will? That's what the Poetry Foundation is trying to figure out. They have selected John W. Barr, former investment banker and published poet, as president of the Foundation to, one hopes, spend the money wisely. The gift apparently caused quite the hubbub for the organization:

Ms. Lilly's huge gift threw the organization first into ecstasy and then into confusion. In a move that stunned the tight-knit community of American poets, the magazine's longtime editor, Joseph Parisi, resigned last summer. Some took his departure as a signal that corporate auditors were pushing aside true lovers of literature. But, sitting in his Chicago office, Mr. Barr insisted that there would be no conflict between his commitment to good management and his love of poetry. He said Stevens and Eliot "broke a lot of ice for us all" by combining careers in business and poetry. "In both of these fields you use creativity to find order in a chaotic experience," he said. "Business does that in the external world. Poetry does it internally by way of articulation." "To me this is a historic opportunity in American poetry," Mr. Barr said. "Poetry helps us live better, helps us understand the human experience. It is with us at the heights and depths of that experience. Our goal is to get it in front of people whose lives it can change for the better. But I'm also very excited about the management opportunities.
There is talk of grants to poets, sponsoring public events, publishing their own books and creating poetry courses for high school and college. If you ask me, which no one has, a good portion of the funds would be well spent in enlarging the poetry reading audience. People need to be shown that poetry is relevant to their lives and to do that you have to bring poetry to people. What about commericals in the line of the anti-drug campaign, young people, interesting visuals and a short piece of poetry? Or like they do in Britain on the underground, signs on the sides of buses and trains with bits of poems. And I think it might have been Robert Pinsky when he was Poet Laureate of the U. S. who came up with the idea of putting little books of poetry in the glove compartments of new VW Bugs. I'd love to buy a car and find a new book of poetry in it or some other lower priced item like cookies. Instead of fortune cookies we could have poetry cookies. It appears that Mr. Barr might be thinking in creative ways,
He said that much of what the foundation did with its new wealth would be aimed at expanding the audience for poetry in the United States, especially among young people. The Eminem film "8 Mile" was "full of poetry," Mr. Barr said. "I know we can find ways to reach out to people who enjoy that kind of thing."
I'm not sure what "that kind of thing" is, but I'll go with it for now. Just don't forget people over 30 Mr. Barr, we need poetry too.

Friday, April 23, 2004

Bardic Musing

Happy birthday to William Shakespeare! The Bard turns 440 today. He doesn't look a day over 300. But seriously... It being Shakespeare's birthday today and Poetry Month, I thought I'd take a moment to remember that the man was more than a brilliant playwright, he wrote some darn fine poetry too. I love his plays, particularly the histories Richard III and Henry IV, but when it comes to the sonnets, I like the romantic ones best. The sonnets were first published in 1609 but no one is certain that they were published in the correct order. What is evident, apparently, is that all of the sonnets belong together and suggest a story, however vague it may seem. I confess I haven't read all 154 sonnets, maybe someday I will. For now I will enjoy the ones I have read and am familiar with. And of those here are my two favorites. Be sure to read them out loud, there is something about the way these words feel in the mouth and the iambic pentameter that is wholly satisfying.

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate: Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, And summer's lease hath all to short a date: Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines And often is his gold complexion dimmed; And every fair from fair sometimes declines, By chance or nature's changing course untrimmed; But thy eternal summer shall not fade, Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st, Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade, When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st. So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun; Coral is far more red than her lips' red; If snow is white, why then her breasts are dun; If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head. I have seen roses damasked, red and white, But no such roses see I in her cheeks; And in some perfumes is there more delight Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks. I love to hear her speak, yet well I know That music hath a far more pleasing sound; I grant I never saw a goddess go; My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground. And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare As any she belied with false compare.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

A.S. Byatt's Little Black Book

Prior to the A.S. Byatt lecture I went to Saturday night, I availed myself of her newest book, Little Black Book of Stories. I've read three of her novels, one of her nonfiction books and none of her short stories. If this book is any indication of what her short stories are like, I prefer the novels. The book has five stories two of which I liked (A Stone Woman, Raw Material), one of which I intensely disliked (Body Art), and two of which were just okay (The Thing in the Forest, The Pink Ribbon). Several of the stories had a fantastical element in them which I haven't run across in Byatt before. I wonder if it is something new she is trying? The fantastical element is particularly strong in "A Stone Woman," a story about a woman who begins to slowly turn into stone after the death of her mother. Rather than her stone body becoming a prison, it sets her free. Anyone who has ever been to a writing seminar will like "Raw Material." It is about a burnt out bestselling author who is teaching writing to perpetual students who can't write but believe that they can. When someone with real talent shows up the class is decidedly against her. The story I didn't like at all is well written, but it has a not unsubtle anti-abortion message alongside another message that says babies make everything okay. I couldn't bear the heavy handedness. By all means, if you are a Byatt fan, read the book. If you have never read Byatt before, start with something else, I wouldn't want this to put you off. It's not that the book is bad, it just isn't the best she's done. At least I got to go to a good lecture. There is an online chat with A.S. Byatt tomorrow at 1 ET. (via Maude Newton)

It's No Mystery for Mystery Lovers

I am not much of a mystery reader myself but my mom is. One of her favorite writers is Sara Paretsky. In These Times has an article/review of Paretsky's most recent book Blacklist. They make it sound so interesting I might just have to give it a perusal:

In previous books, her characters confronted the Holocaust, homelessness and corruption in the prison system. And although she didn’t set out to write an overtly political book this time, her latest novel, Blacklist, takes place soon after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Paretsky originally intended to write about a crime committed during the McCarthy era but was pulled toward the overwhelming parallels between that time and the current political climate. With America still reeling from 9/11, in Blacklist Warshawski confronts the USA Patriot Act, hides a young fugitive accused of terrorism and ducks the FBI. “I started writing it right about the time of the attack on the World Trade Center,” Paretsky explains. “I was pretty much like everyone else in the country, in a state of shock and numbness and having a hard time getting moving. So I started a story that would let me retreat a little from the present … but as I was working on the novel, of course, the events of the day were not remote.” During the last half of the novel, Warshawski contends with the state threatening her constitutional rights—searching her home, tapping her phone and following her car, all without a warrant. As the P.I. evades the FBI, readers are confronted with the ways the government can invade one’s privacy—as much in fiction as in real life.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Something Stinks

Finally to Montaigne's essay, "On Smells." I was hoping on a little insight. You see, I work at a nonprofit social services agency that serves mainly women. But due to some recent changes in programs and funding we are now serving some men and several boys. Since we didn't serve males before we had the pleasure of not one, but two women's restrooms. Now one of those restrooms is a men's room used throughout the day by a handful of men. Meanwhile the women's room is used by upwards of 100 people on some days. Need I say more on smells? Montaigne's essay disappointed me. No observations on smells, no insights. Just three pages of smelly prose. Given that Montaigne wrote in odoriferous times, the late 1500s, one would think he'd have more to say than if you smell sweetly you probably stink because you had to perfume yourself to cover up an odor. He does credit himself with a good sniffer though and claims that his thick moustache is both a blessing--pleasant smells linger longer--and a curse--the bad ones do too. He also credits his moustache with being a great germ filter because he never gets sick like other people do. Other than briefly mentioning that smells can be used to affect certain states, like incense in church inspiring contemplation, that's the essay. I guess every one of them can't be a home run. Some days even the great Montaigne stinks. Next time's reading: "That We Should Not Be Deemed Happy Till After Our Death"

Monday, April 19, 2004

On the Lecture

I feel like I'm falling behind. I didn't get to Montaigne over the weekend and I took the day off from all things computer yesterday. My repetitive tendonitis is flairing up again, between spending all day on a computer at my paying job and then coming home and continuing to use a computer for writing and blogging, well, my body is beginning to protest. I've begun my strengthening exercises that I should have been doing all along. The only thing left is to wear my wrist brace for extra support and not spend so much time on the computer. So goes the trials and travails of this modern world. On the upside, taking the day off from the computer yesterday allowed me to write my Grandma a long letter. I also got in some good spring cleaning and reading time. So I guess I can't complain too much. But the big deal of my weekend was Saturday night. My Bookman and I went to the University of Minnesota for a free lecture by A.S. Byatt. Yes, that A.S. Byatt, author most notably of Possession. A large crowd of about 500 turned out to see her. It was a tweedy bunch, filled with English professors of a certain age, English majors required to attend, snobby overdressed literary types and snobby underdressed literary types, and the rest of us who just like to read a well written book. We had to sit through a speech by the Head of the university English department. He had to explain why the lecture was free (an endowment) and how deeply and eternally grateful the English department is for the endowment. You'd think the woman who had created the endowment wasn't dead and the Head was kissing up, hoping for an additional infusion of funds. Then he introduced not A.S. Byatt, but the Associate Chair of the English department whose job it is to make sure the best students get the best education. At first I thought I didn't hear that correctly, but my beloved confirmed it. We hoped he didn't mean what he said. But he is the Head of the department, someone who is careful with words, so it makes me wonder. Anywho, we then had to sit through the Associate Chair's babbling about what an amazing writer Byatt is. Well, duh! That's why we were all there wasn't it? And then came his not very brief analysis of Byatt's work. Finally, Byatt took the stage. Now I've seen her face on book dust jackets but just her face. She is a short woman, about 5 foot two. She is also plump. My beloved said she looked cuddly and he wanted to run up and give her a squeeze. Thankfully he didn't. She had her sensible black purse on her shoulder and set it down on the lectern and proceeded to dig through it for her glasses which she then put on, took off and then never wore the rest of the evening. She lectured for about an hour and a half in her upper crust British accent. The lecture, "On Ghosts and Documents," was about historical fiction, particularly her historical fiction. She declared she decided to write historical fiction for three reasons:

  1. She wanted to write complicated sentences with dependent clauses.
  2. She gets to write about exciting things we don't know. For instance, George Eliot writes a note to a friend that she'd meet her for tea on Thursday. Presumably she did. What happened? A biographer couldn't say but since Byatt is a fiction writer, she can make it up.
  3. She has a desire to correct modern preoccupations. In other words, she gets to remind us that there were other things going on in the 50s than James Dean.
Besides, she told us, when she tried to write modern fiction she ended up writing in iambic pentameter and couldn't stop. Byatt didn't talk much about specific books of hers, but she did take time toward the end to talk briefly about Possession and The Biographer's Tale. One of the interesting highlights was a story she told about a comment from a reader of Possession who told her that the book makes a clear declaration that you cannot completely understand an author's work unless you have biographical information. Byatt was surprised by this. She said she realized then that she had inadvertently made such a statement with the book. Thus, The Biographer's Tale was born as an answer to her accidental statement. Lecture done and the audience of about 500 clapping in appreciation, Byatt gathered her papers into a folder, hiked her purse up on her arm, turned to leave the stage and forgot that since she is short she was standing on a 4 inch high platform. She tripped, but didn't fall. Her papers spilled across the stage. The audience stopped clapping and collectively gasped and sat in silence, watching the poor woman. The English department Head came scurrying from backstage and helped Byatt pick up her papers, took her arm, at which point the audience began clapping again, and escorted her from the stage. She'll probably never come back to Minnesota again.

Saturday, April 17, 2004

To See Clearly

Most people know Margaret Atwood for her fiction, Surfacing, Cat's Eye, The Handmaid's Tale, Alias Grace, Oryx and Crake and others, enough to keep you busy reading for months. But did you know Atwood also writes poetry? Her poetry is as interesting and varied as her fiction and as thought-provoking. She is often political but rarely confessional. Her poems are not soft and lyrical, they are firm and solid. She takes subjects like feminism, war, or concern for the environment and brings them from the abstract concept to an everyday experience and understanding, a concrete vision and feeling. Take, for example, the poem "Against Still Life" from the book The Circle Game. The narrator is sitting at the kitchen table eating an orange, her lover sits across from her in silence

and you, man, orange afternoon lover, wherever you sit across from me (tables, trains, buses) if I watch quietly enough and long enough
at last, you will say (maybe without speaking)
(there are mountains inside your skull garden and chaos, ocean and hurricane; certain corners of rooms, portraits of great-grandmothers, curtains of a particular shade; your deserts; your private dinosaurs; the first woman)
all I need to know: tell me everything just as it was from the beginning.
Atwood frequently uses history, myth, literature and art as the jumping off place for a poem as in "Speeches for Dr. Frankenstein," "The Reincarnation of Captain Cook," the poem cycle "Circe/Mud Poems," "Marrying the Hangman" and "Letter from Persephone." You don't often find humor in Atwood's poems, so perhaps that is why of all of these types of poems I am partial to "Manet's Olympia" (picture here) from Morning in the Burned House:
She reclines, more or less. Try that posture, it's hardly languor. Her right arm sharp angles. With her left she conceals her ambush. Shoes but not stockings, how sinister. The flower behind her ear is naturally not real, of a piece with the sofa's drapery. The windows (if any) are shut. This is indoor sin. Above the head of the (clothed) maid is an invisible voice balloon: Slut.
But. Consider the body, unfragile, defiant, the pale nipples staring you right in the bull's-eye. Consider also the black ribbon around the neck. What's under it? A fine red threadline, where the head was taken off and glued back on. The body's on offer, but the neck's as far as it goes. This is no morsel. Put clothes on her and you'd have a schoolteacher, the kind with the brittle whiphand.
There's someone else in the room. You, Monsieur Voyeur. As for that object of yours she's seen those before, and better.
I, the head, am the only subject of this picture. You, Sir, are furniture. Get stuffed.
As a poet she is also concerned with words and language, whose language, whose words:
Translation was never possible. Instead there was always only conquest, the influx of the language of hard nouns, the language of metal, the language of either/or, the one language that has eaten all the others. ("Marsh Languages" from Morning in the Burned House)
She is concerned with how the words frame the world and make us who we are. She is concerned about the power of words and how we use them:
Our leader is a man of water with tinfoil skin.
He has two voices, therefore two heads, four eyes, two sets of genitals, eight arms and legs and forty toes and fingers. Our leader is a spider,
he traps words. They shrivel in his mouth, he leaves the skins.
Most leaders speak for themselves, then for the people.
Who does our leader speak for? How can you use two languages and mean what you say in both?
No wonder our leader skuttles sideways, melts in hot weather, corrodes in the sea, reflects light like a mirror, splits our faces, our wishes, is bitter.
Our leader is a monster sewn from dead soldiers, a Siamese twin.
Why should we complain? He is ours and us, we made him. ("Two-Headed Poems, vii" from Two-Headed Poems)
Margaret Atwood's poems sometimes move me to rage and move me to tears. Sometimes after I finish one I see the world a little differently. I think part five of "Notes Toward a Poem That Can Never Be Written" (True Stories) sums up the core of her poetic outpouring and maybe even her body of work, and is, I think, part of what makes her one of our best living writers:
The facts of this world seen clearly are seen through tears; why tell me then there is something wrong with my eyes?
To see clearly and without flinching, without turning away, this is agony, the eyes taped open two inches from the sun.
What is it you see then? Is it a bad dream, a hallucination? Is it a vision? What is it you hear?
The razor across the eyeball is a detail from an old film. It is also a truth. Witness is what you must bear.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

On Book Groups

It was book group night last night so no post. I was busy. My Bookman, tinLizzy and her gal, and I were going to meet at a new cafe in Minneapolis called Wilde Roast. None of us had been there before but it looks like a nifty place and, well, there was the literary connection. We noticed at the last minute that the cafe had jazz night last night, so we had to make a quick change of plans and ended up at a favorite and cozy place, Anodyne Cafe. It wasn't that busy so we got to sit on the couches. Woo-hoo! We discussed Wicked by Gregory Maguire, which I have already mentioned here. It was generally agreed that the book had much potential but none of the interesting bits went anywhere. All of us agreed the ending was anticlimactic and didn't match the rest of the book. So much for the Wicked Witch of the West. Our next book is Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories. None of us have read her before. Since I suggested the book, I hope she lives up up to her reputation of being a phenomenal short story writer. We didn't set a date to meet next, we never do. We always aim for a month but often go over that time frame to make sure everyone has been able to finish. A kind and flexible group are we. The benefit of such a plan is that we all have finished the book and there is no night before cramming. The down side is that sometimes it could be months until we meet and the book becomes a fuzzy memory. But that's okay because it's always pleasant to get together with friends. When I lived in the burbs, I used to go every month to a book group at the public library. None of us knew each other outside of the group and we always met the first Wednesday of the month with a break in December. The group size ranged from 5-10 depending on the book and what month it was and what the weather was (fewer people in the summer and on snowy winter nights, fewer people if the book was obscure or "hard"). When we met there was frequently a few people who had not finished the book. They would come anyway and that was fine, but these people tended to be the ones who hogged the conversation. And to top that off, the rest of the group believed niceness was important and tip-toed around the ending of the book so as not to give away what happens for the people who hadn't finished. The end result was an hour's discussion on the first half of the book. When everyone had finished the book and it had a mixed review from the group we sometimes talked until we were kicked out by the librarian. That was rare, but when it happened it was magical. My sister used to belong to a book group that was highly organized. They had a reading list put together for the entire year and met twice each month. They had a meeting leader who had prepared background information about the reading and the author and who had also prepared questions to facilitate discussion. The leader rotated each meeting so no one got the power and no one got stuck with all the extra work. They also had a rule, if you didn't finish the book you were welcome to go to the meeting but you weren't allowed to talk. I went to one of her groups once when I was visiting her. I had finished the reading and was prepared for discussion. It was lively and intense, too much like school for my taste. I suppose every group has its own dynamics. I am pleased with my current one where discussion is casual and the conversation meanders. We are a group of friends who have read the same book and we do what friends do, talk.


I know, I didn't do a Montaigne essay last week. I'd like to blame Easter and family dinners, but my family lives on the west coast and I am in the midwest and I don't celebrate Easter. Perhaps it was just a needed break? Yeah, that's it. Have no fear, however! This week I will be reading the essay "On Smells." I have my reasons. I'll find out what Montaigne's were and then we'll see what sort of mayhem ensues. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Just Us Chickens

I first heard about Stephen Dobyns from my Bookman who read, and liked, his novel The Church of the Dead Girls. It sounded like a good book but there was no room on my book list at the time. Then memory--or lack thereof--took over and it dropped out of consciousness. Then about a year ago I was reading something, I can't remember what, and the author mentioned Dobyns as a wonderful poet and excerpted a few lines. Good stuff! I accosted my beloved, "Why didn't you tell me Stephen Dobyns wrote poetry?" He wasn't sure what to say, so then I tossed out, "I'd like to read Cemetery Nights." "You would?" he asked. I nodded. Then he strode downstairs to the library and came back moments later holding the very book in his hand. I began reading almost the next day. I read the entire thing in one sitting. Dobyns it turns out is a fantastic poet. Cemetery Nights is his sixth book of poetry. The poems in this book tend to start with an unexceptional scene--a woman traveling to Brazil for plastic surgery, a man flying on a plane between New York and Denver, a family having a party--and somewhere in the middle they take a turn to a place you wouldn't expect. I think this is what made his poems most interesting to me. I began a poem knowing that something unexpected would likely happen and when it did, I was delighted. Some of the turns are just startling, others are disturbing and still others are just sort of weird. The poems are straightforward and deceptively simple. And whether they make you laugh or cry or scratch your head, they are well worth your time. Here is one of my favorite poems from the book:

Spiritual Chickens
A man eats a chicken every day for lunch, and each day the ghost of another chicken joins the crowd in the dining room. If he could only see them! Hundreds and hundreds of spiritual chickens, sitting on chairs, tables, covering the floor, jammed shoulder to shoulder. At last there is no more space and one of the chickens is popped back across the spiritual plain to the earthly. The man is in the process of picking his teeth. Suddenly there's a chicken at the end of the table, strutting back and forth, not looking at the man but knowing he is there, as is the way with chickens. The man makes a grab for the chicken but his hand passes right through her. He tries to hit the chicken with a chair and the chair passes through her. He calls in his wife but she can see nothing. This is his own private chicken, even if he fails to recognize her. How is he to know this is a chicken he ate seven years ago on a hot and steamy Wednesday in July, with a little tarragon, a little sour cream? The man grows afraid. He runs out of the house flapping his arms and making peculiar hops until the authorities take him away for a cure. Faced with the choice between something odd in the world or something broken in his head, he opts for the broken head. Certainly, this is safer than putting his opinions in jeopardy. Much better to think he had imagined it, that he had made it happen. Meanwhile, the chicken struts back and forth at the end of the table. Here she was, jammed in with the ghosts of six thousand dead hens, when suddenly she has the whole place to herself. Even the nervous man has disappeared. If she had a brain, she would think she had caused it. She would grow vain, egotistical, she would look for someone to fight, but being a chicken she can just enjoy it and make little squawks, silent to all except the man who ate her, who is far off banging his head against a wall like someone trying to repair a leaky vessel, making certain that nothing unpleasant gets in or nothing of value falls out. How happy he would have been to be born a chicken, to be of good use to his fellow creatures and rich in companionship after death. As it is he is constantly being squeezed between the world and his idea of the world. Better to have a broken head--why surrender his corner on truth?--better just to go crazy.

Monday, April 12, 2004

Reading Plan

I finally broke down Saturday when I was at Half Price Books and bought The New Lifetime Reading Plan, Fourth Edition, by Clifton Fadiman and John S. Major. I had seen it sitting there in virtually the same spot on the shelf for the last three months. I have very mixed feelings about books like this. I hate it when someone tells me I have to read "___." It takes me back to when I was a kid and my mom or dad is towering over me telling me "Because I said so." I immediately shift to rebellious child mode, turn off any interest I might have had in the book and immediately decide that it's not worth my time. But I am also a recovering English major and I have a bad case of the shoulds: I haven't read James Joyce's Ulysses, I should read that. The shoulds can be excruciating, the more firmly a book is entrenched as a classic and the less I know anything about it, the bigger and pointier the should becomes until I either give in or am covered in Band-Aids and am too embarrassed to show my face in any reputable literary establishment (bookstores not included). I don't know why I decided to buy The New Lifetime Reading Plan. I mean, it isn't as if I needed to be told what classics I hadn't read. I know, believe me, I know. While some people's deep dark secrets might be an affair or a felony, mine is my list of classics I haven't read. I expected the book to be Harold Bloom-ish--extolling the virtues of the canon and brow beating the reader into submission. I was pleasantly surprised. I had never bothered to actually open the book and look at it until I had brought it home. While there are books and authors you would expect, Homer, Plato, Milton, Freud, there are those that surprised me, The Ramayana, Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book, Basho, Chinua Achebe. And what surprised me most was the list of authors in the "Going Further" section of 100 additional 20th century authors, Margaret Atwood, Italo Calvino, Rachel Carson, Barbara Pym. There is not much in the way of poetry (and I have been doing a bad job of bringing you poetry here this month), and I could say there are some important authors missing, but over all, I think it is a well rounded book of suggested reading. The main portion of the book is not a list, but series of short introductions to the author and the works suggested. The authors and texts are presented in chronological order and the author will sometimes explain why he chose one work over another. At the back of the book is an extended bibliography listing the different editions or translations of a work and suggesting further reading about the author and critical writing about the work and times of the author. I don't plan on following their suggestions. I do expect to be using it as a sort of minor resource, a supplement to my own choice of reading material. I've been thinking lately about reading more "classics." I am a wanna be novelist and one of the best ways to get ideas and inspiration and see how good it's done is to read good writing. If a book is considered classic or the writer thought to be important, then it's a good bet that the book will be worthwhile whether or not I like it. Perhaps it was a combination of these thoughts, the purchase of The New Lifetime Reading Plan and a minor case of the shoulds, that helped me go crazy Sunday at Barnes and Noble and buy Anna Karenina, Candide, Ethan Frome and Selected Stories and The Metamorphosis and Other Stories. The new editions of the Barnes and Noble classics are pleasant looking and cheap so how could I go wrong? Now I just have to read them. That's one thing the authors don't offer suggestions on in the Reading Plan, how to make the time to read all these books. I guess that plan is up to me.

Friday, April 09, 2004

Meditation on Books

I have completed the first of my birthday books, So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance by Gabriel Zaid and translated from Spanish by Natasha Wimmer. Published in 2003, the book is a meditation on the state of publishing and reading in the world. The cover of the book is amazing, a circular tower of books with a staircase of books winding up its side. It is hard to tell how tall or how wide this tower is, but it looks huge. I used most of my page points while reading this book. I can't and won't excerpt all of them here, just a few choice ones. The basis of Zaid's meditation is centered on the idea

Culture is conversation. Writing, reading, editing, printing, distributing, cataloguing, reviewing, can be fuel for that conversation, ways of keeping it lively. It could even be said that to publish a book is to insert it into the middle of a conversation, that to establish a publishing house, bookstore, or library is to start a conversation--a conversation that springs, as it should, from local debate, but opens up, as it should, to all places and times.
The problem these days is that there are more books published than there are readers. Everyone wants to write and publish a book it seems. And
if all those who wanted to read would actually read, there would be an unprecedented boom, because never have so many millions of people dreamed of being published. But the hardly pleasant narcissism of "read me and I'll read you" has degenerated into a narcissism that isn't even reciprocal: Don't ask me to pay attention to you; pay attention to me.
One solution to this problem, Zaid suggests, might be to establish a regulatory board where those who wanted to publish a new book or poem or article would have to prove she has read a certain number of books, poems or articles. A fair solution I think since I read recently that most manuscripts received by literary magazines are from writers who don't even subscribe to or read the magazine. Publishing has also become a standard part of establishing a career or reputation. "Publish or perish" as the saying goes. But most of these books are read by few people and published only so the writer can list them on his resume. The fact that there are books published that are so specialized that few will read them is only one barrier in evening out the ratio of books to readers. There are two other much more major barriers, knowing how to read, and having the time to read. Zaid laments
...average book reading is low, even in developed countries. Reading is not the act of spelling out words, or the effort of dragging oneself across the surface of a mural that will never be viewed in its entirety. Beyond the alphabet, the paragraph, and the short article which may still be taken in all at once, there are functional illiteracies of the book. The great barrier to the free circulation of books is the mass of privileged citizens who have college degrees but never learned to read properly...
I don't know that the college educated are the greatest barrier, but they certainly don't help. These are the people you would expect to be readers. The fact that they aren't is likely a reflection of why people go to college in the first place these days. Most go so they can get a good job. College has become a means to an end and the end frequently does not include knowing how to read with depth. If that isn't enough, there is the growing problem of having time to read. Especially here in the U.S., time is money. So even though an actual book is fairly cheap, the time it takes to read it is expensive.
In a wealthy economy, time is worth more than things, and it is easier to buy things than to find the time to enjoy them. To purchase books that one will never read is understandable: we think we might read them one day, and in the meantime, they can be shown off to visitors or mentioned in conversation [or blog]. As students become young executives with overcrowded schedules, and as their salaries rise, reading (if it is not required) becomes a luxury for them too.
There are days I don't have time to read, but overall I make time because reading is important to me. When people tell me they don't have time to read I am baffled. Somehow I think if you want to read you'll make the time. One of the best things about a book is its portability and ease of use. You can pick it up and put it down, read a chapter, a paragraph, a sentence at a time at your own pace. How can a person not have time even one day a week? In the end however,
What does it matter how cultivated and up-to-date we are, or how many thousands of books we've read? What matters is how we feel, how we see, what we do after reading; whether the street and the clouds and the existence of others mean anything to us; whether reading makes us, physically, more alive.
The number and diversity of books is amazing. It means there is something for everyone and every interest. It means we have a lot to learn. It means there is an abundance of fuel for conversation.

Thursday, April 08, 2004


Haiku poems are deceptively simple. It is a 17-syllable verse consisting of three lines with the first having 5 syllables, the second 7 and the third 5. It is a form of poetry that began in Japan. I remember learning about Haiku in third grade and everyone having to write poems to put up on the wall. We never read "real" haiku and it's because of this experience I never considered Haiku to be "real" poetry. That is until a tiny book called Haiku Harvest published in 1962 came into my life. That's when I discovered Basho. Basho is considered to be one of the best Japanese haiku poets. He could be melodic and meditative or mischievous and funny. In my translation, the poems aren't always translated to match the syllables, but they are marvelous little poems nonetheless. Here are a few:

Wandering, dreaming, in fever Dreaming that dreams Forever wander - - - Without my hat! Bah! Why does this rain Have to plop on my pate! Oh Well! - - - The Best I have to offer you Is the small size Of the Mosquitoes.
There are also women haiku poets. I have a little book called Women Poets of Japan edited and translated by Kenneth Rexroth and Ikuko Atsumi and published in 1977. Here are a few:
Cats making love in the temple But people would blame A man and wife for mating in such a place. --by Kawai Chigetsu-Ni (1632-1736) - - - On the road through the clouds Is there a short cut To the summer moon? --by Den Sute-Jo (1633-1698) - - - The fireflies' light. How easily it goes on How easily it goes out again. --Chine-Jo (Late 17th Century)
I am always amazed at how so much can be said with so few words. I think we do a disservice to haiku by teaching it to grade school children and not giving them any context for it. Instead of being an art, it turns into an exercise in syllables. If you are interested in reading more haiku you could do worse than start with Classic Haiku: An Anthology of Poems by Basho and His Followers published in 2002 and translated by Asataro Miyamori. Before you go on your way, be sure to read From Psalms to Seuss - What Poetry Can Do For You (via Bookninja). I found it inspiring, I hope you do too.

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

The Children's Crusade

On February 7th I linked to an interview with Kurt Vonnegut and mentioned that he was the author of Slaughterhouse-Five. From the brief mention tinLizzy checked out the audio book from the library and gave it a "read." I have never read the book but have always meant to, and inspired by tinLizzy's reading, I checked it out from my library in book form. And I read. And I liked. Slaughterhouse-Five is an anti-war book, a good book to read considering the state of world affairs. And for an anti-war book it is frequently funny. The humor stems from the main character, Billy Pilgrim, and his mental illness, a result of being a prisoner of war during World War II. This is not to say that mental illness is funny, but in this case it is meant to provide relief from the horror of war. But the humor is also tinged with sadness because the reader is sane and knows exactly what it happening. Billy's mental illness takes the form of time traveling as he calls it. One minute he is at a party in 1960 and the next he is one of one hundred Americans held in slaughterhouse-five in the city of Dresden, 1945. Billy also believes that he was taken by the Tralfamadorians to their planet and kept for years on display in a zoo there. The reason no one ever realized he was gone is because the Tralfamadorians know how to time travel and they were able to return him to Earth seemingly seconds from when he left. Billy was a chaplain's assistant during WW II and shortly after he arrived for the war, he found himself behind German lines, lost and in company with three others who had survived the onslaught. It is during their wandering through the woods trying to avoid the enemy, that Billy first began time traveling. Eventually he is caught, ends up in Dresden, and is one of the few who survive the fire bombing of that city. The book's subtitle, The Children's Crusade a Duty-Dance with Death, is a reminder of who it is that fights wars: "We had forgotten that wars are fought by babies. When I saw those freshly shaved faces, it was a shock. 'My God, my God--' I said to myself, 'It's the Children's Crusade.'" It is no surprise that eighteen year-old Billy learns how to time travel during the war. Any other place would be better than there, even a zoo on Tralfamadore. The wonder here is that more people don't end up like Billy after experiencing war. While on Tralfamadore, Billy assumes that they have figured life out and have evolved beyond war, tells his keeper what a peaceful planet they have. The Tralfamadorian replies:

"Today we do. On other days we have wars as horrible as any you've ever seen or read about. There isn't anything we can do about them, so we simply don't look at them. We ignore them. We spend eternity looking at pleasant moments--like today at the zoo. Isn't this a nice moment?" "Yes." "That's one thing Earthlings might learn to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones." "Um," said Billy Pilgrim.
Of course it is easy to ignore a war if you aren't the one fighting it, or if your child or brother or sister is not being shot at. As long as the fighting stays far away, in a country across the ocean and no one we know personally is fighting in it, it is easy to look at the pleasant moments. It is also very easy to say there is nothing that can be done to stop the war or to have kept the war from happening in the first place. It becomes clear after a while that in spite of the Tralfamadorians being from another planet, they are not so alien after all. On a funny side note in the book, Billy decides at one point that he has to tell people about the Tralfamadorians. He manages to get himself on a radio show with several literary critics for one of which he was mistaken. The discussion was whether or not the novel was dead. Here's an excerpt:
One of them said that it would be a nice time to bury the novel, now that a Virginian, one hundred years after Appomattox, had written Uncle Tom's Cabin. Another one said that people couldn't read well enough anymore to turn print into exciting situations in their skulls, so that authors had to do what Norman Mailer did, which was to perform in public what he had written. The master of ceremonies asked people to say what they thought the function of the novel might be in modern society, and one critic said, "To provide touches of color in rooms with all-white walls." Another one said, "To describe blow-jobs artistically." Another one said, "To teach wives of junior executives what to buy next and how to act in a French restaurant."
And, if I may be so bold to say, to provide a mirror for ourselves and to help us remember.

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

I Eat Men Like Air

In honor of National Poetry Month and because I like Sylvia Plath and because we thought it would be a good movie, my Bookman and I rented the movie Sylvia. It was a horrible movie. If you haven't seen it yet, don't bother. The only thing that was good about it was one snippet where Plath (Gwenyth Paltrow) and Hughes are in a boat and Plath stands up and starts reciting Chaucer's Wife of Bath from The Canterbury Tales. She recites the lines is lovely middle English. If I could give that bit to you, I would, the rest of the movie belongs in the trash. One of the biggest problems I had with the film, beside it being extremely shallow, was that it makes it seem like she killed herself because of Ted Hughes' infidelity. I don't think we know why she killed herself but since she had tried a couple times before Ted came along, I'm going to venture the suicide was not entirely because of their ruined marriage. Plath was a complex person and I imagine her suicide was due to many factors, not least of which was mental illness. I did appreciate, however, that the movie at least gave a nod to the fact that Plath was the one expected to take care of the children and how this imposed on her writing time. But since it has been a long time since I have read Sylvia Plath, I ventured downstairs to my basement library and pulled one of her books from the shelf. The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath is a tome that comtains all of the poems she wrote after 1956. Plath was posthumously awarded the Pultizer Prize for the book in 1982. She commited suicide in 1963. Granted, the collected poems weren't published until 1981, but couldn't they have given her the prize for one of her books when she was still alive? I know it isn't poetry, but I recommend The Bell Jar her only novel. The book is a terrifying look at what standard mental health therapy used to be like and can sometimes still be. The Atlantic Online has a review article about Plath and some recently published books regarding her life and her poetry. For poems by Plath and others, check out The Plagiarist. And here now, is one of Plath's poems:

Lady Lazarus I have done it again. One year in every ten I manage it-- A sort of walking miracle, my skin Bright as a Nazi lampshade, My right foot A paperweight, My face a featureless, fine Jew linen. Peel off the napkin O my enemy. Do I terrify?-- The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth? The sour breath Will vanish in a day. Soon, soon the flesh The grave cave ate will be At home on me And I am a smiling woman. I am only thirty. And like the cat I have nine times to die. This is Number Three. What a trash To annihilate each decade. What a million filaments. The peanut-crunching crowd Shoves in to see Them unwrap me hand and foot-- The big strip tease. Gentlemen, ladies These are my hands My knees. I may be skin and bone, Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman. The first time it happened I was ten. It was an accident. The second time I meant To last it out and not come back at all. I rocked shut As a seashell. They had to call and call And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls. Dying Is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well. I do it so it feels like hell. I do it so it feels real. I guess you could say I've a call. It's easy enough to do it in a cell. It's easy enough to do it and stay put. It's the theatrical Comeback in broad day To the same place, the same face, the same brute Amused shout: 'A miracle!' That knocks me out. There is a charge For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge For the hearing of my heart-- It really goes. And there is a charge, a very large charge For a word or a touch Or a bit of blood Or a piece of my hair or my clothes. So, so, Herr Doktor. So, Herr Enemy. I am your opus, I am your valuable, The oure gold baby That melts to a shriek. I turn and burn. Do not think I underestimate your great concern. Ash, ash-- You poke and stir. Flesh, bone, there is nothing there-- A cake of soap, A wedding ring, A gold filling. Herr God, Herr Lucifer Beware Beware. Out of the ash I rise with my red hair And I eat men like air.

Sunday, April 04, 2004

My Precious

So those book shaped presents were indeed books! I am sitting here caressing them, oohing and aahing. I feel like Golem and the One Ring, "Mine. My Precious. Yesssss." I can't say that I was worried that those book shaped packages were anything other than books, but I have learned one lesson in life and that is that one should not assume. When my Mom asked me what I wanted for my birthday a few weeks ago and I told her I'd make it easy on her and she could just send me a Barnes and Noble gift card she sniffed at me and said she would just send a check, it was easier. But then she shot out, "And you are not to spend it all on books!" "I'd never do that," I told her. I tried to make light of it but I had been warned. She was going to ask me what I bought with the check and since, as I've mentioned, I'm not good at lying, I had better spend at least half of the check on something else. That was a sad thought for me because that meant I wouldn't be able to get as many books. But my Bookman came through! And it's a good thing too since I spent most of Mom's check at Nordstrom Rack and I still need sandals. One would think that the 16, yes, 16, books that my beloved gave me would be enough, and don't get me wrong, they are satiating, but I'm still looking forward to a trip to his store to spend the check Grandma sent me and the gift card from my MIL. Birthdays are the best! I'm beginning to sound like a little materialist piggy here, but those who know me know that I am not a shopper except when it comes to books. I can't help myself. As shoes are to some women, books are to me. Besides, I hate shoes (in spite of my above stated need for sandals), I never wear them at home and would wear slippers to work if I could get away with it. So I am flying high here, but before I float too far out of orbit, allow me to share with you some of the gifties from my man. In no particular order,

There are a few more books and they are just as good. If you are really interested in knowing, I'll list the rest, but that's it for now. I have to go play with my books. "Mine, all mine! Precious, my Precious."

The Rarest Kind of Death

Since today is my birthday, I thought I'd celebrate by reading Montaigne's essay "On the Length of Life." Okay, maybe "celebrate" isn't the right word, maybe "honor" is better. So in honor of my birthday I read this short essay, and what a depressing essay it was. There were no bookish reveries, no penises or farts or any such fun surprises. No, Montaigne here declares "What madness it is to expect to die of that failing of our powers brought on by extreme old age and to make that the target for our life to reach when it is the least usual, the rarest kind of death." He goes on to say that we only call dying of old age a natural death as if it is unnatural to to "find a man breaking his neck in a fall, engulfed in a shipwreck, surprised by plague or pleurisy, and as though our normal condition did not expose us to all of those harms." I'll admit, he has a point on that one. And perhaps even today we don't hear much of people dying of old age. It is still more common for people to die of something--an accident, cancer, heart attack--than it is to die from being old. Unlike Montaigne, however, I don't see any madness in making death from age a goal. Why not? Maybe mine is an American attitude, that democratic can do frontier spirit. Or maybe I'm still young enough that I can yet believe it is possible. Still, Montaigne goes on to argue that sending 55-60 year-olds into inactivity is too soon, that their vocations and employments should be extended as far as possible. And as for the young, they should be put to work sooner. By age 20 a person's "natural qualities and capacities reveal whatever beauty or vigour they possess" and if you don't see the qualities by then, well, you aren't going to see them at all. So I guess the second career I had planned as a famous mathematician isn't going to happen, math still not magically making any sense. I mean, I get the concept, but what do you need all those numbers for? Perhaps the most depressing part of Montaigne's essay is his conviction that 30 is the peak of life and everything else is downhill from there. Even if you live a good life and manage after the age of 30 to continue to gain knowledge and experience, "vitality, quickness, firmness and other qualities which are more truly our own, and more important, more our by their essence, droop and fade." To that I say, "speak for yourself mister!" I will admit that at 36 some things aren't as easy as they used to be, but I'm not ready to be tossed into the dustbin yet! There, now that I have made the obligatory birthday musings on the progression of time, I can get on with the party!

Saturday, April 03, 2004

In Xanadu

The poet, described in ideal perfection, brings the whole soul of man into activity, with the subordination of its faculties to each other, according to their relative worth and dignity. He diffuses a tone and spirit of unity, that blends, and (as it were) fuses, each into each by that synthetic and magical power, to which we have exclusively appropriated the name of imagination. This power, first out in action by the will and understanding, and retained under their irremissive, though gentle and unnoticed, controul (laxis effertur habenis) reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness, with difference; of general, with the concrete; the idea, with the image; the individual, with the representative; the sense of novelty and freshnes, with old and familiar objects; a more than usual state of emotion, with more than usual order; judgement ever awake and steady self-possession, with enthusiasm and feeling profound and vehement; and while it blends and harmonizes the natural and the artificial, still subordinates art to nature; the manner, to the matter; and our admiration of the poet to our sympathy with the poetry.
So says Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Biographia Literaria Coleridge (1772-1834) was a man of many interests. Not only was he a poet, but also literary critic, philosopher, theologian, political scientist, amateur chemist and physician and voracious reader. He was famous among his friends for his marginalia, notes and comments he'd write in the margins of books. In fact, his marginalia was so popular, friends would send him their books just so he could write in them. William Wordsworth was a good friend and it is suggested that Coleridge helped shape Wordworth's ideas about poetry. Coleridge was chronically ill and addicted to opium. He despaired of being the kind of poet he hoped to become. In 1801 he wrote in a letter to William Godwin, "The Poet is dead in me!" This didn't keep him from writing, however, since Dejection: An Ode and To William Wordsworth were both written after this declaration. As was this little scrap:
What Is Life? Resembles life what once was deem'd of light, Too ample in itself for human sight? An absolute self--an element ungrounded-- All that we see, all colours of all shade By encroach of darkness made?-- Is very life by consciousness unbounded? And all the thoughts, pains, joys of mortal breath, A war-embrace of wrestling life and death?
During Coleridge's life it was believed that to be a major poet you had to write a sustained work in verse. Coleridge never managed such a work. Most of what he left are short pieces and "fragments," longish poems he meant to add to like Cristabel. But Coleridge endures for us today in the metaphor "the albatross around my neck" which comes from Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Of all of Coleridge's poems my favorite by far is Kubla Khan. There is some question as to the veracity of the myth perpetuated by the author, that he had dreamed the entire poem of 200-300 lines, woke from sleeping and began to write furiously, was interrupted and then forgot the rest. We do know, however, from a note on the manuscript in Coleridge's hand, that the poem was composed "at a farmhouse between Porlock and Linton" while he was "in a sort of reverie brought on by two grains of opium, taken to check dysentery." For your enjoyment, here is the poem:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure-dome decree: Where Alph, the sacred river, ran Through caverns measureless to man Down to a sunless sea. So twice five miles of fertile ground With walls and towers were girdled round: And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills, Where blossomed man an incense-bearing tree; And here were forests ancient as the hills, Enfolding sunny spots of greenery. But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover! A savage place! as holy and enchanted As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted By woman wailing for her demon-lover! And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething, As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing, A mighty fountain momently was forced: Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail, Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail: And 'mid these dancing rocks at once and ever It flung up momently the sacred river. Five miles meandering with a mazy motion Through wood and dale the sacred river ran, Then reached the caverns measureless to man, And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean: And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from far Ancestral voices prophesying war! The shadow of the dome of pleasure Floated midway on the waves; Where was heard the mingled measure From the fountain and the caves. It was a miracle of rare device, A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice! A damsel with a dulcimer In a vision once I saw: It was an Abyssinian maid, And on her dulcimer she played, Singing of Mount Abora. Could I revive within me Her symphony and song, To such deep delight 'twould win me, That with music loud and long, I would build that dome in air, That sunny dome! those caves of ice! And all who heard should see them there, And all should cry, Beware! Beware! His flashing eyes, his floating hair! Weave a circle round him thrice, And close your eyes with holy dread, For he on honey-dew hath fed, And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Friday, April 02, 2004

A Volcano Life

The first poet of the month is Emily Dickinson. I thought about doing Chaucer, a little Canterbury Tales, but when I took down my Norton Anthology (mine is the 5th edition) and began reading:

Whan that April with his showres soote The droughte of March hath perced to the roote, And bathed every veine in swich licour, Of which vertu engendred is the flowr
I realized there would need to be some translating going on and I'm not so good at that. Still, I managed to give you a little Chaucer anyway. And let me just say when I read him in college, the professor knew how to read Middle English and it was beautiful, lilting and sweet. Emily Dickinson's verse while beautiful, is not lilting but tends to be broken with its short lines and unusual punctuation. I think her verse feels contemporary and modern. Dickinson's verse was never published while she was alive. When she was 31 she entered into a correspondence with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a professional man of letters. Dickinson was prompted to write him after she read one of his essays in the Atlantic Monthly. She sent him four poems. He wrote back judging the poems not for publication, but asking for more verse. Though she never published, Dickinson kept writing in her own style. When she died in 1886 her sister, Lavinia, while going through her effects, discovered a small box containing about 900 poems. It was Lavinia who found a publisher, and with the help of Higginson, selected 115 poems. Unfortunately Higginson took it upon himself to make the poems more acceptable to the public by smoothing out the rhymes, regularizing the meter, changing words and metaphors. The 1890 publication was a success and more poems were selected for another edition. It wasn't until Dickinson's estate was transferred to Harvard University in 1950 that anyone decided to publish Dickinson's poems as she wrote them. The 1955 variorum edition was the first time the reading public was able to read Dickinson's poems without anything but a minimum of editorial tinkering. Hers is an amazing story. It is a testament to her will and creativity that she continued to write even when told her poetry was unpublishable. And we are fortunate that Lavinia did not decide the poetry was worthless when she found the box. I first read Dickinson when I was in high school and didn't understand her. But after a few years had gone by and I had to read her in college, a light bulb went on. I have since read from cover to cover The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson edited by Thomas H. Johnson and reproduced from the 1955 variorum edition. I plan on some day reading it from cover to cover again, but in the mean time it is a great book to dip into when I need a poetic moment. And here, for your reading pleasure, are a couple of my favorites.
254 "Hope" is the thing with feathers-- That perches in the soul-- And sings the tune without the words-- And never stops--at all-- And sweetest--in the Gale--is heard-- And sore must be the storm-- That could abash the little Bird That kept so many warm-- I've heard it in the chillest land-- And on the strangest Sea-- Yet, never, in Extremity, It asked a crumb--of Me. 435 Much Madness is divinest Sense-- To a discerning Eye-- Much Sense--the starkest Madness-- 'Tis the Majority In this, as All, prevail-- Assent--and you are sane-- Demur--you're straightway dangerous-- And handled with a Chain-- 601 A still--Volcano--Life-- That flickered in the night-- When it was dark enough to do Without erasing sight-- A quiet--Earthquake Style-- Too subtle to suspect By natures this side Naples-- The North cannot detect The Solemn--Torrid--Symbol-- The lips that never lie-- Whose hissing Corals part--and shut-- And Cities--ooze away--
I could go on and on. Since I can't post all of her poems here, get thee to a book!

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Celebrate Poetry

Happy April and happy National Poetry Month. I love April, it has a lot going for it. April Fool's Day, my birthday, spring break, the Easter Bunny, spring. The Easter Bunny doesn't leave me a basket of candy anymore and since I'm not in school I don't get spring break. And, okay, I'm not very good at playing practical jokes but I like to laugh with those who do. So that leaves my birthday and spring and we have National Poetry Month too. I have mixed feelings about Poetry Month. On the one hand I think it's great to have an entire month in which to focus on and celebrate poetry. On the other hand, I am bothered that poetry is ghettoized to only one month and pretty much forgotten about the rest of the year. And I am sitting here planning to take part in the ghettoization by spending much time this month talking here about poetry. But perhaps I can use the month as a springboard to continue the poetry conversation throughout the year. How did we reach the point of squishing poetry into one month? I'm sure there are reasons I don't know about, but from my perspective as a reader I can offer some thoughts from my own experience. It seems to me that when we are children we are floating in a language bubble. We are learning new words all the time and the books we read are full of rhyme and rhythm and joy--nursery rhymes and songs and Dr. Seuss. We get Shel Silverstein

Colors My skin is kind of sort of brownish Pinkish yellowish white. My eyes are greyish blueish green, But I'm told they look orange in the night. My hair is reddish blondish brown, But it's silver when it's wet. And all the colors I am inside Have not been invented yet.
Early bird Oh, if you're a bird, be an early bird And catch the worm for your breakfast plate. If you're a bird, be an early early bird-- But if you're a worm, sleep late.
We are encouraged to write poems in school, to play with words and language And we do. And we have fun.
The World The world goes round, we live on its ground, A place for living, and loving and sharing, Try as we might, the bass don't bite, Although I love, pickled herring.
By me, age 12, Friday June 13, 1980. And I have more too, written in a cramped hand with ballpoint pen in a Mickey Mouse memo notebook all titled and signed and dated and sprinkled liberally with bad rhymes and commas. Then high school happens and our love of poetry is broken. We leave playful verse and are given serious, important verse and asked what it means. We move from loving poetry for the way it sounds and feels so good in our mouths to pouring over the lines with a furrowed brow trying to find the hidden clues that will crack open the metaphor and reveal the Truth of the poem to us. Reading poetry becomes a search and destroy mission. I sat in class on poetry days trying to be invisible so the teacher wouldn't call on me. I still loved the sound and feel of words, I loved reading and I clung to my shattered ideas of what poetry was, hoarding a line here and a stanza there that made some sort of sense to me. I know many people finished high school hating poetry. When I was in grad school and taught freshman expository writing I tried to help the 17 and 18 year-olds in my class to get over their fear of poetry. I failed at that just as I often failed to get them to talk with any engagement about the essays we read for class. I think the way we teach literature needs to be reevaluated, but that's a topic for another time. College wasn't much better than high school, at least at first. Since I was an English major and took different literature classes than the usual general ed ones, I can't speak for that experience. I avoided poetry as much as I could. It couldn't be avoided entirely, but I did a pretty good job of it. Then I got to my senior year and had to take a senior seminar class. Of course, all the "good ones" were already filled and I had to take a class that focused the entire semester on poetry. And not only that, it was on one poet whom I had never heard of. I dreaded it. And it turned out to be one of the best classes I ever had and now Adrienne Rich is my favorite poet. I got turned on to poetry, and when I went to grad school I took several poetry classes and wrote my master's thesis on the poetry of Adrienne Rich. I can't point to a specific aha! moment, but I think it had much to do with the fabulous professor and the poet herself. For the first time in a long time I was reading poetry that made sense to me. It was about thoughts and feelings I had experienced and situations I understood. I think it also helped that I spent the whole semester studying one poet, her images and sound became comfortable and easy and familiar. The professor never asked what a poem meant because a poem, just like a novel or a story, doesn't mean just one thing. Instead we talked about the images and the metaphors, where they came from and how they fit together or created tension and what the resulting understanding was. If I hadn't been fortunate enough to have that senior seminar I would probably still not like poetry much. I think most people aren't as lucky and don't get to an aha! poetry moment. And so we have reached the current state of poetry where hardly anyone reads it except the poets themselves and it becomes more and more insular. And thus we have National Poetry Month, a month where poets celebrate one another and the rest of us say, "Oh yeah, poetry. I don't like it," and then go one about our business. I don't read as much poetry as often as I'd like to. It's work to read a poem. Poems are short and I have to pay attention. It is so much easier to read a novel where if I blank out on the chapter I just finished I can generally continue and figure it out. So this month I'd like to share with you some of my favorite poets. I've been making a list and there are more poets on it than there are days in the month. Some I've read a lot of. Some I've read a little of. Some I haven't read in a long time. But I hope by the end of the month we will both be inspired to spend more time with poetry. To start you off, try visiting Graywolf Press for their poem of the week, the Copper Canyon Press and The Borzoi Reader, an online publication of Knopf publishing which will email you a poem every day for the month of April.

This Week's Montaigne Essay

Given that my birthday is on Sunday and I will be turning 36, I thought Montaigne's essay "On the Length of Life" might be appropriate. Any sadness on my part about "getting old" is being mitigated by the growing pile of book shaped presents appearing in the living room. Stay tuned.