Tuesday, November 30, 2010

on my to-read list

Click here for Janet Maslin's New York Times review.

Monday, November 29, 2010


I wonder if I'm the only one out there who will sit at my desk at the end of the day reading my poetry volume of Sound & Sense, long after the bell rings. Today I read for 45 minutes, and here I am again reading poems out of it. Look what I found...


To claim the poem as mine would be to tell
only that half-truth that's worse than a lie.
The other, the missing half, which is true as well,
is the poem's claim on me: I know how I

was lured, held for a brief spell in a rapture.
I wasn't myself, but a vessel, a plain tin cup
filled and then suddenly emptied, and cannot recapture
the dazzle of those droplets. I look up

from the poem and can't remember, or only barely,
what it felt like, and what I have lost. What you
approve the most is what afflicts most sorely,
not being me but something I went through

and want not to resent. Enlivened by birds
migrating south, the sky they wheeled upon
is emptier for their passing. These spates of words
leave similar vacancies when they've gone.

~David Slavitt

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

my morning brew

Thank you, Frank Bruni, for coming out of the closet about your Mr. Coffee habit. And in The New York Times, no less. I have been through the same ritual: fancy stainless steel contraption, then on to French press, now back to Mr. Coffee. I love him and he is brewing up as I type this! No fuss. It's nice to find a food critic who also feels the love:

"Loving Coffee Without Being a Drip"

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

For the Sake of the Poem

For the sake of the poem
the bed remains disheveled all day,

the dishes loll in the sink
like adolescents. For the sake

of the poem a forest is cut down
to appease my appetite for paper.

A lover is betrayed in print;
hot tea and desire must

cool their heels,
for the sake of the poem.

I am an addict who needs
her daily fix of language.

Children are left uncombed;
unwatered, plants languish.

For the sake of the poem
old age is put on hold.

What wouldn’t I do
for the sake of the poem?

~Linda Pastan

Friday, November 19, 2010

Poetry: A Minority Sport

I loved reading Billy Collins's interview with Margaret Renkl in The Nashville Scene. Collins was in town last weekend to receive a Nashville Public Library Award.

As poet laureate, you launched the Poetry 180 initiative, in which you urged schoolteachers to read the poems to students without discussing them or assigning work related to the readings. What was your thinking behind that project?

Boys and girls often have the natural pleasures of poetry beaten out of them by the time they get out of high school. Two reasons why: forceful emphasis on interpretation, and using poems that are very dated — poems that were written a hundred years ago. The poems in Poetry 180 are funny and they're clever and they can pretty much be gotten in one hearing.

You recently told an audience at Cornell that "the trouble with poetry is its availability: You can pick up a 29-cent pen and express yourself. Self-expression is overrated. If I were Emperor of Poetry, I would make everyone learn to play the trumpet before they could write poetry, just to make it difficult."

What I meant in the comment at Cornell was the means of writing poetry are too accessible. In other words, if you were to play the cello, you'd have to obviously go to school and buy a cello and practice. Even oil painting or ballet requires lessons; you wouldn't just get up there and start jumping around in a tutu. And you wouldn't just pick up the trumpet and just blare into it. But [with] poetry, people think you just pick up a pen and start writing down how sad you are in the middle of the night, and add some autumn leaves and you've got a poem. The training in poetry is reading. Reading, reading, reading. Reading from Chaucer on. Reading the Spanish poets. Reading John Donne. Reading, reading, reading. Memorizing 10 Emily Dickinson poems. That's the training.

Entertainment Weekly once called you "the best buggy-whip maker of the 21st century." Any response to the accusation that you're really good at an art that's now completely irrelevant?

[Poetry is] a minority sport. It's not something that everybody plays. And the irony is that poetry really tries to talk to everybody, because poetry does deal with these very basic human emotions, and because poetry values subjectivity. It lights up inner parts of you — your appreciation of nature, your conscience, your desire for love. All these areas of your interior are being sparked by a poem, and so one might say, "Why doesn't everybody read it? It sounds pretty good." But most people don't. It doesn't play any part in most people's lives. All you have to do is say to somebody next to you on an airplane that you're a poet. You get some pretty strange reactions.

Readers coming to your work for the first time might be surprised to encounter so much wit, and even outright humor, in your poems. Do you ever find that people in your audiences, especially when you read to students, are shy about laughing at the funny parts?

They are at first, but they're relieved to be able to. And then for some people it's like giggling in church.

To read an uncut version of this interview — and more local book coverage — please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.

Friday, November 12, 2010

As imperceptibly as Grief

Surely this is where it turns, summer into fall. 77 and sunny in Nashville can't really last much longer. Not in November. I have a hunch that today is the day.

As imperceptibly as Grief
The Summer lapsed away -
Too imperceptible at last
To seem like Perfidy -
A Quietness distilled
As Twilight long begun,
Or Nature spending with herself
Sequestered Afternoon -
The Dusk drew earlier in -
The Morning foreign shone -
As courteous, yet harrowing Grace,
As Guest, that would be gone -
And thus, without a Wing
Or service of a Keel
Our Summer made her light escape
Into the Beautiful.

~Emily Dickinson

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Romantic comedy

What is it about these American Romantics...no one ever tells you how funny they are. I laughed my way through pages of Moby Dick, and here I am now, howling, tears running down my face, as I read Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Maybe I've gone bananas, but I think his descriptions of Puritan children are hilarious. The kids won't play with Pearl, Hester Prynne's child, because of her illegitimacy, but Pearl is looking pretty good compared to these "sombre little urchins" (Hawthorne's words, not mine):

"[Pearl] saw the children of the settlement, on the grassy margin of the street, or at the domestic thresholds, disporting themselves in such grim fashion as the Puritanic nurture would permit; playing at going to church, perchance; or at scourging Quakers; or taking scalps in a sham-fight with the Indians; or scaring one another with freaks of imitative witchcraft."

Later, when Hester and Pearl pass the urchins, the urchins take note:

"Behold, verily, there is the woman of the scarlet letter; and, of a truth, moreover, there is the likeness of the scarlet letter running along by her side! Come, therefore, and let us fling mud at them!"

Comic genius, that Hawthorne. My days of complaining about teaching this novel are over.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


by Carl Sandburg

THE fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

Monday, November 8, 2010

a lovely idea

The New York Times devoted the back page of Week in Review to poems about Daylight Savings this Sunday. Unfortunately, the poems were practically illegible thanks to the fancy double font in which they were printed. I had a bit of a rant about this: some people will never see or read another Mary Oliver poem again. Why did the Times choose such a difficult font? Let's find another way to discourage readers of poetry! Oh well. Here are a few of the gems below. Legible this time.

Falling Back: Poems for Fall


I was always thinking about her even when I wasn’t thinking. Days went by when I did little else. She had left me one night as a complete surprise. I didn’t know where she went. I didn’t know if she was ever coming back. I searched her dresser and closet for any clues. There wasn’t anything there, nothing. No lotions or creams in the bathroom. She had really cleaned out. I thought back on our years together. They seemed happy to me. Summers on the beach, winters in the mountains skiing. What more could she want? We had friends, dinner parties. I walked around thinking, maybe she didn’t love me all that time. I felt so alone without her. I hated dinners alone, I hated going to bed without her. I thought she might at least call, so I was never very far from the phone. Weeks went by, months. It was strange how time flew by when you had nothing to remember it by. My friends never mentioned her. Why can’t they say something? I thought. I remembered every tiny gesture of her hand, every smile, every grimace. Birthdays, anniversaries — I never forgot. But then something strange started to happen. I started doubting every memory. Even her face began to fade. The trip to Majorca, was it something I read in a book? The jolly dinner parties, were they a dream? I didn’t trust anything any longer. I searched the house for any trace of her. Nothing. I started asking my friends if they remembered anything about her. They looked at me as if I were crazy. I sat at home and began to cheer up. What if none of this happened? I thought. What if there was nothing to be sad about?

— JAMES TATE, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and author, most recently, of “The Ghost Soldiers”

Lines Written in the Days of Growing Darkness

Every year we have been
witness to it: how the
world descends
into a rich mash, in order that
it may resume.
And therefore
who would cry out

to the petals on the ground
to stay,
knowing, as we must,
how the vivacity of what was is married

to the vitality of what will be?
I don’t say
it’s easy, but
what else will do

if the love one claims to have for the world
be true?
So let us go on

though the sun be swinging east,
and the ponds be cold and black,
and the sweets of the year be doomed.

— MARY OLIVER, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and author, most recently, of "Swan: Poems and Prose Poems"

How It Happens

The sky said I am watching
to see what you
can make out of nothing
I was looking up and I said
I thought you
were supposed to be doing that
the sky said Many
are clinging to that
I am giving you a chance
I was looking up and I said
I am the only chance I have
then the sky did not answer
and here we are
with our names for the days
the vast days that do not listen to us

— W.S. MERWIN, poet laureate of the United States and author, most recently, of “The Shadow of Sirius,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2009

Thursday, November 4, 2010


"The Armful" by Robert Frost

For every parcel I stoop down to seize
I lose some other off my arms and knees,
And the whole pile is slipping, bottles, buns -
Extremes too hard to comprehend at once,
Yet nothing I should care to leave behind.
With all I have to hold with, hand and mind,
And heart, if need be, I will do my best
To keep their building balanced at my breast.
I crouch down to prevent them as they fall;
Then sit down in the middle of them all.
I had to drop the armful in the road
And try to stack them in a better load.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

teaching "Dover Beach" again. and again.

I am wrapping up Fahrenheit 451 with my freshmen this week, and we've spent some time talking about the scene when Montag reads a snippet of Arnold's "Dover Beach" to his wife's vapid friends. Having lived in a society deprived of poetry, beauty, and intimacy (can you imagine??), one of the women begins to sob uncontrollably at his words. My students want to know: is she grateful? disturbed? overwhelmed? furious? Maybe all of these. At any rate, I thought about the fact that "Dover Beach" is the poem I teach continually. I'm always referencing it. When I was prepping for Fahrenheit I had decided to whip out this poem, and I hadn't even reached the part where Montag actually reads it. Hemingway, Wharton, Bowles, Shakespeare - they all address its central conflict, the danger in and the hopefulness of its resolution.

So here it is, my back-pocket poem.


By Matthew Arnold

The sea is calm tonight,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night air!

Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Agean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.