Thursday, March 28, 2013

excerpt (slightly abridged) from my book with Fleda Brown

Wistful : The Yellow House

We moved in that April of 1968, the prior winter’s back broken, and no sons or daughters yet to keep out of the considerable mud that lay all around us, as we learned to do later. More than once, that mud bogged my trail-worn Ford Fairlane up to its hubs, but I rarely had to call a wrecker; some kind neighbor would pass the house in his big farm truck or tractor and yank me out.

For my part, I felt I had gone to heaven. Oh, there were a few problems with the antique boiler, but I learned how to tweak it just so and get it up and running again– most of the time.  I discovered likewise how to fiddle with the air volume control on the equally ancient water pump, so as to make it kick in again too. I was not only undismayed by these little chores; I rather savored them as part of life in the north country.

Come May, I set about cutting enough wood to get us through the winter. I was young and strong, and there was ample timber to be had from a neighbor’s lot that he wanted thinned. So I decided to be more than safe, even to get a little ahead for the second winter we’d live there, so I cut and split and stacked ten full cord.

Well, ten cord turned out not to be sufficient to keep our stoves blazing through the first winter. The one in the living room was a Round Oak, all filigree and finial, with actual mica in the door, through which a cozy gleam seeped into the living room. But the thing was as archaic as everything else in the building, loose and leaky, its firebox mere sheet metal, which at times glowed so red that I dared not turn my back on it, for fear the whole thing might simply melt away and burn the house to the ground.

One weekend night, I grew impatient.  Unwilling to wait until the stove stopped showing that alarming scarlet, I shoveled some sand in to put the damned blaze out. I hadn’t imagined there’d be enough remnant moisture in that sand for a steam explosion to blow the isinglass right out of the door, and that I’d be stamping live coals on the wide spruce boards of our floor. The charring would still be there when at long last the marriage collapsed and we sold the house.

I likewise remember a certain spot under the kitchen counter, which simply could not be adequately heated to prevent the sink’s pipes from bursting whenever the mercury dropped below negative twenty. I tried my amateur hand at all manner of insulation. I even wrapped the pipes with electrical heating tape; but in time I read of one too many houses that had been incinerated by malfunction of such a device. I hired local contractor Wayne Pike to work on the problem, but highly competent as he was, none of his measures worked either.

We had another stove in the kitchen, but there was no cellar under that room, the result being that one could feel warm as toast there –except from about mid-shin down. So cold did it get along that floor, with its fake-brick linoleum cover, that whenever those pipes did burst, the water would turn to instant, crackling ice beneath our feet.

My older son arrived in 1971, and in his second year he took to peeling the plaster on his bedroom wall.  At length he created a head-sized hole there. To look into the hole was to discover what the house had for insulation: corncobs, old newspapers (one of which headlined the sinking of the Lusitania), and here and there a bit of sawdust, though that was likely the product of rodents, who trod within those walks so freely that they tamped all this ancient insulation down to about knee level.

Cold wind, especially from the northwest, would send small gales through electrical sockets and nail-holes all through the house. And although I cut as much wood every year as many a lumberjack did in his trade, we always wanted to wear our felt-lined Sorel boots indoors, along with at least a wool vest, sometimes a parka.

As I say, the marriage guttered, but not before the arrival of yet another child, a wondrous daughter. Both these children are parents now, and they are so good at that crucial role that I sometimes blink in astonishment.

I moved into a new house, married another extraordinary woman, and three more children arrived. Then we all moved once more, again to a new house. Like any, it has its own occasional problems, but in the thirty-odd years since abandoning the yellow one, I have encountered nothing on the scale that old firetrap presented.

This house –the last, I pray, that I’ll inhabit– sits on a piece of land even more beckoning than that first plot: from a small knoll behind us, we can survey five miles of the Connecticut River, farm fields and barns spread along it, and, on a clear day, we can see deep into the White Mountains on the New Hampshire side. Rather than a tiny fire pond, we have a seven-acre one that attracts all sorts of waterfowl, otters, mink, muskrats, deer, moose.

It seems strange, then, that I am occasionally wistful for that rickety first house, with its rat-trodden insulation and boreal indoor winds, with its damnable bursting pipe, its cranky boiler and pump. I still cut wood for heat, but now four cord will do for a winter, and sometimes less, the weather rarely turning as frigid as it did when I was in my twenties and thirties. The roof is of standing seam metal, so I needn’t climb on top to shovel off the snow, an enterprise at once so burdensome and risky that I’m glad it’s well behind me, though to be sure, the snow doesn’t pile up the way it used to, either.

Early on in this collaboration, Fleda asked,
Don’t we all start in on elegy—writers or not—at about age 13, when the gap begins to reveal itself to us, the sense of having an irretrievable past—our childhood—as well as a present, which holds what’s already coming into being? 

Yes, of course. Of course it’s not really the house I’m nostalgic about. It’s a season of life, especially right at the start, when I felt up to anything, when my whole world struck me as so sharp, so new, and when those older children –long since grown and gone– were no more than dreams of the future.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

ordering info for new book

Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives, from Autumn House Books,  is now out on Kindle, $9.99, or FREE FOR NOW WITH AMAZON PRIME!
Go to Amazon, type in the title.  You’ll find this book of essays, a back-and-forth between Sydney Lea (current poet laureate of VT) and me (former poet laureate of DE), a comforting collection of geezerly thoughts about poetry today, about what’s happened to books, to reading, to sex, to our wilderness places, and what matters to us as poets, as poet-people, and as great friends.
Please, if you have a moment, write a brief review, even one line, even “I liked this a lot!”  Amazon places its books according to the number of reviews. Give us a boost at the beginning! Thanks.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

so this is" diversity"

Not long ago I went to Boston for the annual conference of the Associated Writing Programs, a conclave I’ve disliked for years now (on which more directly). AWP comprises almost all the creative writing programs, graduate and undergraduate, in the U.S. and Canada.

I’d be a hypocrite, of course, to rail against such programs after all my years in one or another, but on noting that there were eleven thousand attendees, I asked myself if there were that many serious literary artists in the two nations, or if the age of Creeping MFAism has begun to engender something else.

It would be hard, if one could judge only by the conference schedule, to conclude that “creative writing” faculty and students meant first and foremost to be artists, because that schedule was about ninety percent devoted not to literary arts but to how one might get an academic job somehow related to them. There seemed, that is, a whole lot of talk about poetry and fiction from a professional perspective, sadly little from an aesthetic. Thus, passersby would check my name badge, quickly comparing it, in terms of career potential, with nearby others’, and would stop or move on accordingly.

Now I shouldn’t present myself as being pure as the driven snow: I showed up myself, after all, and have often shown up at AWP if, as was the case this year, I had a new book to sign or, ditto, if some friend had asked me to take part in a reading or panel. But having felt a bit soiled every time I attend, never more so than in 2013, even that sort of inducement won’t get me there again, cross my heart.

This set of thoughts segues, I hope, into another issue, though my reader may have to strain some to follow the free-floating logic. In any case, upon running into a conferee whom I rather like, and whose poetry I generally favor, I asked him to catch me up on what he’d been doing in the half-decade since we’d seen each other. He answered, with something of a weary sigh, that he now chaired the graduate writing program at a certain northern New England university. Another member of the group asked him how that was going, and he allowed it was a decent job, but added, with a bit of a smirk, “I live in Cambridge, thank God.”

Now I’m one who thanks his own God that he does not live in the likes of Cambridge, but also one who’d as soon avoid contention. So I held my tongue as he rambled along, and rightly, about the opportunities for theater, film, music, and so on in his neighborhood. His chief pleasure, however, was apparently that he lived in a place that exemplified diversity.

Diversity. Like closure, or appropriate, this is one of those contemporary words that are so over-used as, frankly, to tire me out a bit. Diversity, we are told, is a virtue, and it’s not that I have the slightest doubt of the claim, so long as the word is used with some respect for its meaning. Without resorting to blanket judgments myself, in light of that meaning, it strikes me that the Cantabrigians with whom my friend hangs out, to judge by his own description and my own past observations, live in just about as non-diverse a world as I can imagine. Yes, there may be greater ethnic and racial variety in that friend’s neighborhood than in mine, but I’d bet my hat that, in his back-and-forth between university and the environs of Harvard Yard, he scarcely shares a word or an opinion with friends and colleagues (including racially or ethnically divergent ones) that they don’t themselves embrace without reservation. If you know what one of them thinks, for example, about gun laws, you can safely extrapolate not only his but also his companions’ opinions on abortion, foreign policy, religion, and on and on. All their kids have gone, or will go, to college– like their parents. These folks share musical and culinary tastes, and seem even to dress rather alike.

This is diversity, you see.

Things are otherwise in my small upcountry town. In that allegedly homogeneous community, I must not only tolerate but also listen carefully to attitudes that are, well, diverse. I have friends whose politics don’t just differ from, but actually offend my own, but who are nonetheless dear friends. I come into constant contact with my beloved, 90-year-old neighbor, for example, who’s retired from a long, hardworking life installing siding. My favorite hunting companions have long been an auto mechanic, a carpenter, an architect, and a fly fishing instructor, only one of whom holds a B.A.. My church congregation includes several farm families, a couple who ran an insurance firm, an oil delivery man, a retired state cop, just to cite a few. We constitute a small but very caring and close-knit group.

My wife and I have a circle of particularly close companions, which includes a public high school teacher, the CEO of his own organic fertilizer company, a bank vice-president, a woman with an upholstery business and skilled in home restoration, another who has devoted her life to care of house and family, and an elementary school teacher. Farther afield, for another instance, though none of these is my bosom pal, I always look forward to conversation with my barber, with whom I have had a cordial, respectful, longstanding relationship, and with whom I share a handful of common interests; same with the local garage-man; the couple who run the general store; the neighborhood bank tellers; the librarian; the gifted heavy equipment artist who lives just across the river; the rare book vendor; the lawyer; and so on. I am always interested in what they have on their minds.

Let me circle back, if I can, to my impressions of that writers’ convention. As I played mouse-in-the-corner, it seemed I heard the same language all around me. Virtually all the participants had more or less identical career objectives; they shared social views; they found hipness in the same quarters; and so on. Theirs appeared to me, in short, a guild mentality, or maybe more accurately, a sort of over-populated cabal, in which the, er,  diverse people I just catalogued would likely find little footing.

That is a sad fact for a poet to contemplate. It’s no wonder that the Common Reader (as Virginia Woolf called him/her) is more and more a fiction. “Literary” authors spend the better part of their time in the academy and their self-styled hip community, which is to say in each other’s company. To that extent, their opinions are rarely challenged or asked to justify themselves, and theirs becomes, to an alarming degree, an insiders’ idiom, available enough to those who speak it, bizarre or just off-putting to those who don’t. Too many of them (with, of course, noble exceptions like Ted Kooser or Mary Oliver) converse with their like-minded peers so exclusively that they mistake their groupthink for originality and  their own preoccupations and convictions for those of a wider, and, again, a more diverse society. I fear, too, that often this strange elitism sneaks, or even bolts, into their written output.

H.L. Mencken once suggested that Henry James needed a good whiff of the Chicago stockyards so as to get a little life into his novels. I don’t want to go that far, believing as I do that James was a great novelist; nor would I ever, absurdly, strike a pose as some proletarian spokesman. Still, I think you catch my drift....

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Growing Old in Poetry

My friend Fleda Brown, former Delaware poet laureate, and I have just published an e-book, Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives. This is a collection of essays in dialogue: Fleda has writen one, say, on clothes, and I have written my own; I have written one on sports, she a response; and so on. The topics are various and at times, it might appear, a bit arbitrary, but we two trust that our takes on various aspects of daily life all conspire to suggest, as the final essays have it, what is involved, humanly, aesthetically, and socially in "Becoming a Poet."

The link below will take you to the book, which can be "borrowed," cost-free, for the first three months.

We both hope you will find something to like in our effort; if you find half the pleasure we did in putting it together, that will be more than enough to satisfy us.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Ms. Jean Connor

Not enough people in her and my Vermont (not to speak of elsewhere) know that a miracle dwells among them. I am referring to a profoundly gifted and –the adjective seems inevitable– spiritual poet named Jean Connor.  Ms. Connor is 94 years old, and it was not until her 86th year that her first book, A Cartography of Peace, was published by Passager Press, which has the commendable mission of publishing poets who are emerging after their 50th birthdays.

I have only met the woman once, when she did me the exquisite honor of attending a presentation I gave to Champlain Union High School students in Hyde Park, Vermont. I look forward to spending more time with her when I visit Wake Robin retirement community in Shelburne, where Jean now lives.

Jean received an undergraduate degree from Middlebury and a graduate one from Columbia. Thereafter, she worked as a librarian for more than three decades in New York State. It was after her retirement that she began vigorously to write poetry.   But although I speak of her vigor, which is a subtle one, in fact her deep strength as a poet resides to no small degree in her quietness, her gift for contemplation, her utter lack of presumption. Hers is not a poetry of razzmatazz. It may be refreshingly accessible on first reading, but in order to capture its full resonance, the reader must take on the quietude of mind that is a hallmark of her work.

This is not an easy attitude to strike; one must have the patience that she herself exhibits in seeing a wide world in what is simply, and often all but imperceptibly, right in front of our noses. As my friend, the Pulitzer poet Stephen Dunn has said, “She has the rare gift of being able to startle us with equipoise..."


                                    Of Some Renown
                                          For some time now, I have
                                          lived anonymously. No one
                                          appears to think it odd.
                                          They think the old are,
                                          well, what they seem. Yet
                                          see that great egret

                                          at the marsh's edge, solitary,
                                          still? Mere pretense
                                          that stillness. His silence is
                                          a lie. In his own pond he is
                                          of some renown, a stalker,
                                    a catcher of fish. Watch him.

So many of us –poets no less than the hardest-striving captains of finance or industry or academe– seem bent on being as unanonymous as we can be. “Of Some Renown” reminds us of the opportunity that lies in relative anonymity, which in this poem’s case is all but identical with humility. Connor knows it’s wrong of so many to dismiss the old, for example, as “well, what they seem.”  Notice, however, that she does not rail against such cavalier and shallow judgment; rather she turns for ratification, characteristically, to something outside herself, something that will subtly illustrate the uniqueness of everyone and –thing, and not just aged human beings. Her refusal to rant and rave, in my opinion, is what makes her terse commandment at the end of this lovely piece of writing reverberate as vividly as it does: “Watch him.”

Jean Connor is –if we will let her, if we don’t make the egregious mistake of confusing her deliberate inconspicuousness with any sort of blandness– a supreme watcher herself, and, whether we are aspirant writers or not, a supremely endowed teacher of how to watch. As she herself has said, "There is a sense of dedication. Writing is part of my effort to become fully myself, to understand myself and my world more deeply. Poetry for me is less stating a truth I already know, than finding a truth I want to share."

One can’t help noticing that the wonderful mixture of modesty and brilliance in Jean’s work, so patently connected to that very quality of dedication, has something to do with her spiritual convictions. Whether we share them in any doctrinal way or not, that Jean Connor is somehow lit from within, that she has both experienced and exemplified what her fellow Christians call grace, is everywhere evident:

                                    When the Time Comes

                                    My epitaph should read
                                    I was surprised by grace.
                                    It bore no face,
                                    only radiance and joy.
                                    Incise the words on stone,
                                    or better, in your heart,
                                    and, to please me, sketch
                                    two birds to sit within the text.
                                    Please write this down. "I never
                                    expected such song. It was,
                                    but it was not, orioles singing
                                    in the orchard of His grace."

I can’t of course speak for anyone but myself, but Ms. Connor –here and in many other places– has incised her words in my heart.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

apology and reflection

It has been pointed out to me by several respondents (and by that same daughter who came home to visit) that Chris Brown is not a rapper (even if Wikipedia lists that as one of his genres -- what do I know? I don't listen to him much, let alone following his whole oeuvre). He is, apparently, a soul singer or R&B artist. I went and heard him out on a couple of songs: the lyrics remain awful, I would contend, and if he is an R&B artist, then Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, Bobby Bland, Aretha Franklin, Etta James -- well, they must be R&B gods. "I would Rather Go Blind," say, by Etta, is just in another category, vocally, lyrically, musically, etc.

But there I go. Face it, I was wrong. Not surprising.  I spoke of my post as "Some Ignorant Words...," etc.

Meanwhile, and not all that irrelevantly in this regard, I am mourning the recent death of my wonderful mother in law, Margaret Barone. She was a woman who taught with good will and dedication for more than three decades in as tough an inner-city school as you can imagine. That she  would simply not give up even on those students whom her colleagues  -- and in many cases the law -- wrote off as worthless makes her a hero in my eyes, and an exemplar, because, as my condemnation of Chris Brown, and even of Jay-Z may have made clear, the withholding of rash judgment is not something that comes to me, as it seems to have to the dear, late Marty, all that easily.

I have been out of town for eight days, out in the woods and, rather mercifully, away from the cyber-world meanwhile. I'll get back on track soon.

Friday, March 8, 2013

New book of poems now available.

My eleventh collection of poetry, I Was Thinking of Beauty, is now available. My web site has information on how to purchase it online, from the publisher, or signed by me at no added cost for postage.

Here is a poem from the collection:

Ars Vitae
                                                                                                              --   for Ted Leeson

All I’ve said I made it up, including the Things that Really Happened. 
Outside my window now, above the autumn pond I’ve conjured, 
two dapper kingfishers start to flit as I dream them, 

and in morning fog the trees of October show bright because just now I’ve imagined
a sun so sharp it could make you bleed.   Once  –think of  the number!  
seven lithe otters led me and my brother

downstream as we two fished the mighty Missouri.  That’s a memory of  Montana,
which is “not a place,” as I’m reminded by a favorite western writer,
“but the name  of a place.”  There are dogs I’ve treasured, quick

and lost, and horses and songs, and people, living and gone, although in  fact
they may only be concocted from a life full of talk.  And yet whatever
I’ve talked about is fact.  It must be true

or else I only had some maps, I had no place.  Nor did I know
old woodsmen or their stories,  to choose an example, but only read
a book or two.  I had nothing.  I never knew

a soul, a thing.  I made up the eagle I saw today as he stooped to the neck
of a Canada goose.  I made up the goose, which collapsed at the river’s edge,
which I also devised.  She fell close by, as dead 

as if  I’d shot her myself as I paddled.  I intended to stop and watch that eagle, 
whose tail still showed dark stripes, which means I’d made him into a young one:   
I’d stop with an eye to beholding another dive

from a blighted elm that leaned at what I’d construed as just the proper angle.   
But I kept on moving northward, fabricating the umber and mauve
leaves that floated upriver, counter to reason,

beside my gliding wisp of canoe.  I invented the leaves so I could conceive
that backwash of eddy, and feel it move me like many of my visions,
including those of Things that Really Happened

as if my up were down, and my progress that fluent, easy, at least for moments.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Who am I? Why am I here?

Some while back now, prior to the so-called presidential debates, the network I had tuned in broadcast several clips from past debates, ones that chronicled gaffes, bad body language, shifty eyes, and so on. The one that caught my attention showed the much mocked Admiral James Stockdale, Ross Perot’s running mate in 1992, who prefaced his debate by asking “Who am I? Why am I here?”

Like most, I suspect, I didn’t know twenty years ago that the admiral was one of the most highly decorated naval officers of our time, that he had founded an organization on behalf of POWs in Vietnam. He deserved far better than we gave him. But that’s not what I want to talk about here. Though maybe I should have been paying more direct attention (which frankly, however, seemed irrelevant, because I already knew who had my vote), mine is a poet’s mind, meaning among other things that it rarely proceeds in a consecutive manner. So the admiral’s question, strangely, got me thinking about who I am, why I am here. Not that these, strictly speaking, were philosophical issues for me. Rather, I was trying to get a sense of my own personality and character as they reveal themselves via my poetry, which is the only way for many out there to evaluate my make-up.

And yet this is not a one-way matter. In order for me to reveal something genuine about myself or my concerns, I have to imagine something about you. I used to tell my students that they ought to do the same: that is, they should dream up or remember or consider the reader they have in mind for a given poem, that people encountering their poetry would learn a lot about it by noting the sort of audience its author sought to reach.

Now there are as many possibilities in this regard as there are poets. I recall the words of a brilliant poet, the late Anthony Hecht, who said that he counted on his reader to know the classics and all the major works of Shakespeare. When I replied that he thereby excluded a huge portion of any potential audience, he rightly answered, “None of us can reach everyone out there. These are the readers who let me write what I write.”

I and my dear friend Fleda Brown, formerly poet laureate of Delaware, have lately collaborated on a book called Growing Old in Poetry. It will appear –in e-book format only– next month. Let me quote Fleda on the theme I am following:

I ask myself why I’m committing to writing to you, dear reader, as regularly as if you were the ideal mother back when I should have written home and didn’t. This arrogance is what keeps most of us writing, either that, or the fear that we only exist if we keep bringing attention to ourselves.

I’ll immediately defend Fleda against her own accusation: she is anything but arrogant. But she is surely onto something here. In my own case, I like to imagine my reader as our nearest neighbor Tink, scion of a five-generation Vermont family, a man of ninety years. Now Tink is a reader, one especially fond of Louis Lamour, but he’s not, so far as I’ve ever known, a reader of anyone’s poetry, including my own, though we are real friends. No, my supposition makes no sense whatever. And yet it is an enabling fiction; it allows me to write what I write, to feel that I am a man saying something to another person, one whose wisdom and wit I admire, one with whom I would want to share personal information.

And if I speak to Tink in my head, I am reminded that he is not one for obfuscation or beating around the bush. If you address him, you need to be clear about what you mean.
Conversely, I often found among my students, even the most talented, a tendency, in the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, to “muddy their waters to make them appear deep.” They wrongly worry that if they just say things directly, they’ll show a self that is boring, non-“poetic,” and thus they too often leave out essential information about their implied characters, not least of all the one named I. The result, I believe, may well be that we can’t really care. If some non-specific voice is speaking about non-specific psychological or emotional issues to some non-specific listener, we –or at least I– are inclined to find some other conversation. The willfully obscure writer leaves us listeners out as he or she proceeds. That writer may seek mystery, but such a quality is in fact only possible if surface clarity is available to us. (Think of such a matter with regard to a genius like P.D. James.)

To give the impression that you, mere reader, must possess some arcane knowledge in order to “get” what is going on behind my smokescreen strikes me, to use the term that Fleda Brown misapplies to herself– well, it strikes me as arrogant.