Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Notes on "Causal Mythology": Berkeley Poetry Conference, July 1965

A page from my notes on Charles Olson's lecture, "Causal Mythology," at the Berkeley Poetry Conference in July '65. This isn't the legendary talk later in the week (although I have notes of a sort on that as well), but an earlier, more intimate moment in a classroom.

Eight lines down, the giddy, 17 year-old exclamation “GINSBERG JUST BORROWED 2 PIECES OF PAPER FROM HERE -->," with an arrow toward the spiral binding.

Understand that Ginsberg and Olson were people I had been reading before I arrived -- so to see them walk out of those pages was eye-popping.

The indented parts were my attempt to represent what Olson was writing on a blackboard or tablet at the front of the room (can't recall which).

More to come in some form later. . . .

Click to enlarge image

Monday, August 16, 2010

Rebecca Harding Davis: Lost and Found in Family Pictures

The picture on the right is Rebecca Harding Davis. Is the picture on the left the same woman?
(Click to enlarge image)

Recently the pictures above came to light in the collection of an older family member (who scanned them), and we're trying to identify the woman on the left.

We know that the picture on the right is American writer Rebecca Harding Davis (my great grandmother's sister) -- or certainly identified as such, since it appears on the covers of at least two books and elsewhere.

One friend says, "I do see a resemblance, a strong one, in the curls, shape of head, and the facial configuration right below the lower lip."

That would be my impression as well. What do you think, dear reader? Is there a science to this kind of informed guessing? Are there people who specialize in it?

If scholars have seen this picture before, I would be very interested to hear.

The originals are in Connecticut and I'll be there in late October (after my reading with Jerome Sala at the Poetry Project in New York on the 27th). I will of course be eager to examine them, looking for clues of any kind. There are, apparently, others of interest, including a group photo taken (according to writing on the back, or so I'm told) by L. Clarke Davis, Rebecca's husband.

But these, and some intriguing others, are unidentified. Lesson: label your pictures immediately (she said to herself).

One thing that's beyond eerie for me is the arresting resemblance between the well-known picture and my own mother. That could be Cynthia, as easily as Rebecca, looking out at us from some strange remove.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Fudd-Lieberman Ticket: Elmer Meets Joe in a Paroxysm of Delight

Self-love conquers all, even that wascally congwess and that unpwesent pwesident.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Giant (from Kate Greenstreet)

I was knocked out by this extraordinary little movie. It's a piece of one of the short films from the DVD that'll come with Kate Greenstreet's new book, The Last 4 Things, when it's published in September by Ahsahta Press.

If there's a better poetry clip anywhere, please send me a pointer. (Seriously. I'm interested in this stuff.)

ut it seems to me we could all go to school on this one. Even more astonishing to the technically-challenged among us, she made it herself.

At the moment, I can't even remember how to blog.

Monday, July 20, 2009

I Am Not a Crook's Head

Courtesy of Daniel Bouchard: micro cartoon-clips of Tricky on the march!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Poet, Burning His Own Work

Carl Spitzweg, "The Poor Poet" (1839)

"The poet writes while huddling under his bedcovers and wearing a tattered coat and nightcap. The writer has been burning some of his own work - most likely volumes I and II since volumes III and IV remain in bundles on the floor. The fire in the room has obviously gone out since the poet rests his hat on the cold stovepipe and no live coals are visible in the stove. Indeed this cold stove is the darkest part of the picture and symbolizes the writer's sorry state of affairs."

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Paavo Haavikko, "A Flower Song"

Paavo Haavikko, 1966

A Flower Song

The fir-trees at play;
comes raining down
O you, the wood-cutter's
steep as the mountains,
as gruff and as gorgeous,
if you never loved, if I
never loved (your
bitterest words
when we parted), O listen —
the cones, raining down upon you
abundantly, ceaselessly,
without mercy.

— tr. by Anselm Hollo

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Paavo Haavikko (1931-2008)

Life being short, poverty and wealth
     are final verdicts, in that
poverty and life are of equal duration
     and wealth and cold indifference
are perennial and hereditary, like diseases.

(from May, Eternal, 1988, tr. by Anselm Hollo)

And, briefly:
The old part (1754-1762) is known as
The Winter Palace.
Accordingly everything,
Floor, ceiling, walls
Is covered with these exalted beings:
Venus, Jupiter, many ladies
Of a full-bodied vintage.
You can still see how many a man
Lost head and hat
By the Berezhina River,
You can see that Borodino
Was a victory;

Of such
I'm talking, here,
Under the roof
Thatched by my hair.

(from The Winter Palace, 1959, tr. by Anselm Hollo)

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Where Metaphor Comes From

That place where you throw sand in the air and get to call it rain.

Hello, Blackheath NSW and Cleveland OH --

didn't mean to worry anybody. . .

Monday, January 28, 2008

Goodbye to All That

Weldon Kees

Wonder whether I'm the only person whose first thought on being wheeled into an ambulance was "I have to stop blogging." My guess is no.

Anyway it may have been my second thought because, as you can imagine, things at this point were running together a bit. My first thought was maybe more like "This is incredibly weird."

But there I was with Joe, a sturdy, bear-like human being, and he was cheerfully slapping electrodes under my clothes and we were making a sort of psychedelic small talk.

In any case I'm okay — I just fainted for the first time in my life and had a small seizure (apparently fairly normal when the brain's deprived of oxygen) and scared my husband half to death.

This all happened in a restaurant and he had to shout "Help!" at a certain point and this is not something that Finns (a very reserved people) are wont to do, unless forced to the greatest extremity.

So the whole thing has taken a lot out of both of us and I just thought I'd keep you (faithful reader) in the loop.

Will I stop blogging? Probably not entirely, at least for now — but I do have to change the way I do it and the way I do a lot of other things, or these tangled ganglia are going to assassinate me.

So (speaking of tangled ganglia) here's one of the finest poems of the last century, for my money — one that, as usual, seems strangely apropos.


"Wondrous life!" cried Marvell at Appleton House.
Renan admired Jesus Christ "wholeheartedly."
But here dried ferns keep falling to the floor,
And something inside my head
Flaps like a worn-out blind. Royal Cortissoz is dead,
A blow to the Herald-Tribune. A closet mouse
Rattles the wrapper on the breakfast food. Renan
Admired Jesus Christ "wholeheartedly."

Flaps like a worn-out blind. Cezanne
Would break out in the quiet streets of Aix
And shout, "Le monde, c'est terrible!" Royal
Cortissoz is dead. And something inside my head
Flaps like a worn-out blind. The soil
In which the ferns are dying needs more Vigoro.
There is no twilight on the moon, no mist or rain,
No hail or snow, no life. Here in this house

Dried ferns keep falling to the floor, a mouse
Rattles the wrapper on the breakfast food. Cezanne
Would break out in the quiet streets and scream. Renan
Admired Jesus Christ "wholeheartedly." And something inside my head
Flaps like a worn-out blind. Royal Cortissoz is dead.
There is no twilight on the moon, no hail or snow.
One notes fresh desecration of the portico.
"Wondrous life!" cried Marvell at Appleton House.

— Weldon Kees

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Radical Stupidity

The phrase "radical stupidity" popped into my head the other day and I'm not sure whether it appeared in order to describe this Ukrainian army recruiting video (which I had not yet seen) or as a promising name for a new school of poetry.

I prefer the latter but we can confidently build the church of radical stupidity upon this rock. Because the clip (which is apparently quite real) effortlessly attains sublime heights of cheesiness that Sacha Baron Cohen can only dream of.

No translation necessary (as you'll see) but here's somebody's stab at it:

girl 1: would u take us for a ride on your BMW?
BMW driver: even to the end of the world!
soldier: hey, i’d like to drown some vodka, girls!
girl 1: just a second!
girl 2: where do you live?
soldier: right here - daytime at work, and at night in the clubs!
girl 1: which work???
soldier: contract of course!
blonde girl: contract?? marriage contract or what?
girl 3: army contract, stupid!
BMW driver: hey, don’t you wanna ride in my car?
girls: forget it, take yourself for a ride!
narrator: it’s about time for new heroes! with contract based service in ukrainian armed forces!

Friday, January 18, 2008

Self Portrait of Sylvia Plath as Wittgenstein

My copies of Court Green 5 arrived, featuring a Sylvia Plath Dossier. Just starting to read it but this jumped out at me, from Jason Schneiderman's five-part "Anachronistic Fair Use Self Portraits of 20th Century Sylvia Plath (with 'Daddy' Fixation)":

Self Portrait of Sylvia Plath as Wittgenstein

1. There is a Daddy
1.1. The Daddy is the case
1.2 The Daddy does not do
1.3 The Daddy does not do
1.4 The Daddy does not do anymore
1.5 The Daddy is like a shoe
2. There is a daughter
2.1 She lives in the shoe-like father
2.1.2 The daughter is foot like
2.2 The daughter is poor
2.3 The daughter is white
2.4 The daughter has foot-like lived in the father shoe-like for thirty years
2.5 She barely dares to breathe
2.6 She barely dares to achoo

The whole series is a lot of fun, especially (for my money) "Self Portrait of Sylvia Plath as F.T. Marinetti" and "Self Portrait of Sylvia Plath as Tristan Tzara."

Reminds me that I left Longfellow and Wittgenstein hanging last year when things tightened up (not that Henry and Ludwig noticed). Intend to knit those loose ends back together in due time.

Also in the dossier and the rest of the issue, as edited by Lisa Fishman, Arielle Greenberg, Tony Trigilio, and David Trinidad:

Dossier: Sylvia Plath

Amy Gerstler • Amanda Auchter • Terrance Hayes • Anne Shaw • Jane Satterfield • Kristi Maxwell • Tim Dlugos • Jeanne Marie Beaumont • Baron Wormser • Ron Koertge • Judith Harris • Rachel Loden • Ivy Alvarez • Amy Newman • Rebecca Laroche • Sara Burge • Sarah Murphy • Amy Lemmon • Angela Veronica Wong • Susen James • Leanne Averbach • Kathleen Ossip • Patricia Spears Jones • Robyn Ewing • Peter Davis • Michael Broder • James Brock • Robert Siek • Jim Klein • Nicholas Grider • Meg Barboza • Jean Valentine • Maxine Scates • Diane di Prima • Muriel Rukeyser • Lee Ann Brown • Sylvia Plath • Laura Mullen • Wayne Koestenbaum • Jan Beatty • Jason Schneiderman • Debora Kuan • Mary Jo Bang • Susie Timmons • Jenny Mueller • Judith Kroll • Catherine Bowman • Lee Anne Sittler • Scott Keeney


Jan Beatty • Susan Briante • Sarah Blackman • Daniel Khalastchi • Noelle Kocot • Michael Montlack • Chip Livingston • Kristin Abraham • Kevin Carollo • Susan Cataldo • Chelsey Minnis • Ross Middleton • Brian Young • Daneen Wardrop • Margaret Brady • Ron Koertge • J. G. Brister • Neil de la Flor • Maureen Seaton • Amanda Nadelberg • Jeffrey Bahr • Karen Garthe • Mark Yakich • Jenny Mueller • Sharon Dolin • Dorine Preston • Kristi Maxwell • Zach Savich • Kathleen McGookey • Aaron Anstett • Jason Labbe • Grace Ocasio • Noah Eli Gordon • Joseph Campana • Julie Carr • Mary Ann Samyn • Jack Anderson • Jordan Davis • Denise Duhamel • Steven D. Schroeder • Kathleen Rooney • Brent Goodman • Nathan Hoks • Roberto Harrison • Suzanne Rhodenbaugh • Andrea Rexilius • Stephanie Strickland • Nancy Kuhl • Todd Fredson • John Azrak • Kerry James Evans • Sara Michas-Martin • Terita Heath-WIaz • Allison Campbell • Michelle Taransky • Anne Heide • Ron Drummond • Sarah Vap • Jason Schneiderman • Pat Nolan • Jim Klein • Emmy Hunter • Tom Christopher • Ian Harris • Adam Clay • William C. Olsen • Caroline Morrell • Chad Paries • Alice Notley

Ordering information here.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Nixon Vets the Candidates

Dick thinks Susan could have been a little more tactful about his White House years in the comment box over the weekend. But he's grudgingly consented to give us the benefit of his counsel on some of his old enemies and new bêtes noire:


Another rich boy who thinks he has it coming to him, like Kennedy. He'll probably fold, like his candy-ass father after he talked a big game.


Dumb as hell but friendly, as I said when he was my mole on the Watergate committee. Sam Dash ran rings around him, and he's even dimmer today.


Used to think I saw a bit of myself in him in his better moments. But of course they're not like us. They smell different. Plus the bastard compared me to Bernie Kerik.


Growing on me, especially after he appointed Fred Malek (who counted Jews for me in '71) as his national finance co-chair. Even calls Malek "an inspiring public servant who has served our nation well." Credit where credit is due.


Best instincts of this bunch of clowns by far, even if he does look like Gomer Pyle. What's in the water in Dogpatch, Ark.?


Whatever it was, she didn't drink it. Now Bill loved the lucidity of my mind, like Gergen said: he got me.

But I always say that if the wife comes through as being too strong and too intelligent, it makes the husband look like a wimp. I mean Pat is spinning in her grave, for Christ's sake. And she never had to lock up the interns.


We don't owe the blacks a damn thing. Especially one who thinks he's better than we are.

What's Segretti up to these days? We need someone working full-time on that middle name.


Did his best to screw us with the Pentagon Papers, back in the day. Now everybody laughs at him, which is perfect.


Elmer Gantry in a $5,000 suit. All that poor-mouthing about his father the millworker: what a load of crap. I know what it means to have nothing, but we're Republicans. We don't talk about it.


Are you shitting me?

The guy I don't understand is the other Dick. Why isn't he fighting for it? Did he set his own office on fire?

I'm pinning my hopes on a brokered convention — which could happen if the voters never settle on any of these pygmies.

So if they deadlock in the Twin Cities, I'll be there before you can yell Milhous. I'm just saying.

Monday, January 07, 2008

A Poem for Primaries

The above tricksy dicksiness, of course, from the great Pat Oliphant (born in Adelaide, Australia — who knew), a greeting card in my collection since MCMLXXXII. "Of tendentious or tangential topicality, tickling the turbid, turgid, turbulent twitwits of our tempestuous times," it says on the back.

My own recent disappearance owed as much to a medical mystery tour as to my mother's death, fresh as that peck of dirt may be. We were at a cardiologist's office at the height of the recent violent gale and it drove me back to Julius Caesar's tempests dropping fire, my first WS ever on the page and to passages like this:

Now could I, Casca, name to thee a man
Most like this dreadful night,
That thunders, lightens, opens graves, and roars
As doth the lion in the Capitol,
A man no mightier than thyself or me
In personal action, yet prodigious grown
And fearful as these strange eruptions are.

And those eruptions and passages — given the just-concluded Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary tomorrow— put me in mind of my own WS (but this time Wallace Stevens) spoof, written right after the capture of Saddam Hussein:


A cold cellar-hole at the end of the day,
When faithless pretenders cover the sun
And nothing is left but my candidacy—

There was dead Checkers with her list of slights,
Slow tongue, green bile, black list, white mind
And April, cruel as rumors of my demise.

To be, on the lawns, where no helicopter lands,
Without that preening statuette of dog,
That dog surrendered to the moon;

And to feel that the light is a Key Biscayne light
In which everything is lofted up to the elect
And no returns need be tallied;

Then there is no use in counting. It comes of itself;
All the blue votes turning a brilliant red,
Even in Chicago. The wind moves on the lawns

And moves in myself. The last Iowa sweetcorn
Is for me, the snows of New Hampshire drift up
Into an empire of self that knows no boundaries,

I become an empire that fills the oleaginous pipelines
Of the earth. The bitch is still yapping
By gravestone-light and I am whipped high, whipped

Up, sculpted higher and higher, cool as a sphinx—
I sit with my head like a Rushmore in space
And the scrofulous hound smelling blood on my wings.

From The Richard Nixon Snow Globe, Wild Honey Press

Is Christmas over? A good thing, perhaps, to judge from my sleepy progeny:

But they're still playing the holly-jolly muzak in the doctors' offices, for which (at the very least) someone should be ritually disemboweled.

Too many wake-up calls of late, as if we needed them, but I'll be here as time and vicissitudes permit, with love (real and true) and poesy for all.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Moist Lotus Open Along Acheron

photo by Timo Ketonen

A whelming if not overwhelming time. You'd think I would like a drug called Versed, but I didn't. When they pump you full of Versed and Fentanyl and then (later) tell you to go home and not make any major decisions, you have to wonder what they're imagining.

As somebody else must have said (please come forward mysterious personage), I'll cross that bridge when I jump off of it.

But things are fine: one is just rather tired of death and tubes and Versed. Flames shooting out the windows of the Old Executive Office Building, as though even the vice-president's walls were longing for release.

Goodbye, goodbye no more water, the fire next time. Or Mayakovsky: "In the church of my heart the choir is on fire!"

Indeed. Only a couple of weeks ago the title of an Alan Williamson poem had sent me spinning into the dictionaries: I had heard of psychopomps before, but somehow I had never been besotted with them.

Now I was, since the OED said they were "conductor[s] of souls to the place of the dead. Also, the spiritual guide[s] of a (living) person's soul; a person who acts as a guide of the soul."

And there was this, too, in the OED, from a letter of Rupert Brooke: "I, Hermes-like, am coming to fetch you psychopompically to Hell." Even if "the handsomest young man in England" (as Yeats called him) has not been kissed by time, this is a missive I'd dearly love to finish.

Because wasn't this what I was trying to be for Richard Nixon: his Charon, so that he might see (in Sappho's words, tr. Mary Barnard) "the moist lotus open / along Acheron"?

Surely I could not be as cruel as she was:

Rich as you are

Death will finish
you: afterwards no
one will remember

or want you: you
had no share in
the Pierian roses

You will flitter
invisible among
the indistinct dead

in Hell's palace
darting fitfully

I should be more cheerful by New Year's! Bah humbug, fellow curmudgeons.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Important Looking Men (with a Note from Mairéad Byrne)

Late one October night I read all of Mairéad Byrne's Talk Poetry in one addictive sitting, greedily, as if it were a plate of hot onion and cauliflower pakoras, which it was.

I asked her to say a few words about her poem "The Important Looking Men," her crisp and spirited book or anything else that struck her fancy, and her comments follow the poem.

The Important Looking Men

The important looking men are not always the important looking men. Sometimes the important looking men are women. Sometimes the important looking men are the woman with the brown helmet of hair, head tilted attentively. Sometimes the important looking men are not the important looking men but visitors from out-of-town where they are not important either. The tortured artist is not always the tortured artist. The tortured artist is not always the guy in the thin cardigan smoking a cigarette outside the studio. That might be the electrician. The tortured artist is sometimes the small priest who stands in the corner of the salon balancing his cup of tea. Or the woman nobody sees. The lover is not always the lover. The lover can be a liar, refracting images of himself back into infinity. The lover might be this beagle, this couch, this slipper, this child who shouts out to me this morning late for school tumbling from his father's car & again from the side-walk Clio's Mom! Or this other child, this evening, alone, walking home, who tosses his glorious hello across Camp Street to land at my feet.


Mairéad Byrne writes:

This poem was originally called "Appearances." You can see that's what it's about. Usually, poems begin with titles for me; this one oscillated between two titles. Ultimately, "The Important Looking Men" was irresistible.

Flat statement is very much part of Talk Poetry, even flat contradictory statement, as this early poem on my blog indicates:

Wednesday, October 05, 2005


I write every day.
But not really.
But really.
This is a new way of speaking.
Talk poetry.

Except for "the important looking men," who are generic, the images in the poem are all very specific for me. "The woman with the brown helmet of hair, head tilted attentively," or "solicitously," as it once was, is a colleague. "The tortured artist" is glimpsed on my way to work. The small priest is Gerard Manley Hopkins, isolated at a soirée hosted by John Butler Yeats, when William was about 17, the star of the show. I guess the woman nobody sees is Emily Dickinson, although she was seen by many she loved. And that's how the poem goes. I didn't always find love where I looked for it but it sprung up around me nonetheless. The child tumbling from his father's car is a boy I know. When I taught poetry in my daughter Clio's third grade class, the children wrote list poems beginning "I wish." He wrote "I wish Clio was my friend." He wrote more than any of the other children. He had a lot of heart and was not afraid to show it. His father was sick at the time I wrote the poem. He was a single parent, his three boys lived with him. He died this year. The second child who shouts out to me in the poem is also a boy. A valiant, friendly boy.

The public schools in Providence and in all American cities probably are very poor. It really grieves me. The children are made grey. But I have faith that they are untarnishable.

Sunday, December 09, 2007


Woody Allen on the WGA strike, via the union web site.

Have been a bit speechless myself, for different reasons. It's amazing how sick you can get when you put your mind to it.

Actually overdosing on the vitamins and so on but would much rather be out on the picket line.

"What say you / soldiers of the lyre, we wait / for some o’clock and then stop / singing? Oh I would stop, oh yes / and let the feckless meadow fill / with xylophones and snow, the striped / tail of the muse slap in her burrow."

(from "Poetry and Sorrow in a 'Right-to-Sing' State")

Monday, December 03, 2007

Rose, Oh Pure Contradiction

photo by Timo Ketonen

Season of faxed cremation papers, which one shouldn't read, one really shouldn't.

But here's arguably the best blurb ever:

Since Knox favors premise over conclusion, her poems simply speak — they do not explain. In this way they are not entirely unlike scripture. The part that is unlike scripture is the one that’s like “Wait, I was reading these poems and laughing but my hearing aid fell out and then my face just kind of blew off in a beautiful rainbow spray of bullshit-dissolving napalm.”

This from Sarah Manguso, writing about Jennifer L. Knox's Drunk by Noon. I'm looking forward to the book, and perhaps (with a virulent head cold) living up to its title.

But what else might one expect from someone capable of writing these lines, as Manguso did in her book Siste Viator (wait for the last rim shot):

My great-grandmother's lamp is mine now. It is made of rose quartz — that is, it is made of poetry.

More poetry: A coin you dropped when you took your pants off is still on the floor. Please come back and pick it up.

More: The scar on my hand I got cleaning the house for you has outlasted you. In this way you are indelible, but only as long as I have my hand.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The More Things Change Dept.

"Practically everyone is a manic depressive of sorts with his up moments and his down moments, and you certainly don’t have to be a humorist to taste the sadness of situation and mood. But there is often a rather fine line between laughing and crying, and if a humorous piece of writing brings a person to the point where his emotional responses are untrustworthy and seem likely to break over into the opposite realm, it is because humor, like poetry, has an extra content."

"The world likes humor, but it treats it patronizingly. It decorates its serious artists with laurel, and its wags with Brussels sprouts. It feels that if a thing is funny it can be presumed to be something less than great, because if it were truly great it would be wholly serious. Writers know this, and those who take their literary selves with great seriousness are at considerable pains never to associate their name with anything funny or flippant or nonsensical or 'light.' They suspect it would hurt their reputation, and they are right. Many a poet writing today signs his real name to his serious verse and a pseudonym to his comical verse, being unwilling to have the public discover him in any but a pensive and heavy moment. It is a wise precaution. (It is often a bad poet, too.)"

"I think the stature of humor must vary some with the times. The court fool in Shakespeare's day had no social standing and was no better than a lackey, but he did have some artistic standing and was listened to with considerable attention, there being a well-founded belief that he had the truth hidden somewhere about his person. Artistically he stood probably higher than the humorist of today, who has gained social position but not the ear of the mighty. (Think of the trouble the world would save itself if it would pay some attention to nonsense!) A narrative poet at court, singing of great deeds, enjoyed a higher standing than the fool and was allowed to wear fine clothes; yet I suspect that the ballad singer was more often than not a second-rate stooge, flattering his monarch lyrically, while the fool must often have been a first-rate character, giving his monarch good advice in bad puns."

All excerpts from "Some Remarks on Humor," adapted by E.B. White from his preface to A Subtreasury of American Humor, Coward-McCann, 1941.

But of a piece with pretty much everything the Humpolonians had to say in 2007, and most likely of a piece with the compleynts and sorrows of the fools of 1257 or 1384.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Susan Sontag, An Argument about Beauty

(photo: Timo Ketonen)

Taken in the Finnish autumn afternoon, about a week ago.

Found Susan Sontag's At The Same Time: Essays And Speeches on the new book shelf at the local library and remembered what a tonic "Notes on Camp" had been for my teenaged soul.

I mean, a girl intellectual, and a particularly shameless, even arrogant one. Imagine. I'd been feeling like a freak, sinking down in my seat when the grade curve was outlined on the blackboard, trying to disappear.

Not that that feeling evaporated after reading "Notes" in the Westport, Connecticut, public library
far from it, I spent years and years thinking that it was somehow weird to want to be both Orpheus and Eurydice. Could one possibly be both singer and beloved?

These were serious questions decades ago, believe it or not, and perhaps they're still serious questions for girls now. It's certainly depressing getting random toy and tot catalogues in the mail: there's the pink, flouncy, gauzy section, and then there are army fatigues for four year-olds.

It's tempting to feel like Rip Van Winkle: did the sixties and seventies and eighties and nineties even happen? It's 1957 and Eisenhower's on the golf course.

But Sontag (at least in that first blush) was one thrilling, transgressive blow against the idiocracy and I'm still grateful for it, and for her.

From my favorite piece in the new book:

When that notorious beauty-lover Oscar Wilde announced in The Decay of Lying, "Nobody of any real culture . . . ever talks nowadays about the beauty of a sunset. Sunsets are quite old-fashioned," sunsets reeled under the blow, then recovered. Les beaux arts, when summoned to a similar call to be up to date, did not. The subtraction of beauty as a standard for art hardly signals a decline of the authority of beauty. Rather, it testifies to a decline in the belief that there is something called art.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Concord in the Sixties

The Wayside, Hawthorne's home 1852-1864

The 1860s, that is.

Since I'm in no condition to blog I thought I'd turn things over again to someone who shares my mitochondrial (a.k.a. matrilineal) DNA, my great-grandmother's sister Rebecca Harding Davis. My first excerpt from her memoir, Bits of Gossip, which Houghton Mifflin published in 1904 , is here. That chunk, which I called "A Walk with Nathaniel Hawthorne," is preceded by a bit of background which I won't repeat.

This shorter clip includes a hilarious dining moment-of-truth with Bronson Alcott, as seen in part through the eyes of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Also RHD's musings on the Concord circle as a whole its moral and philosophical airs and impracticalities, especially as contrasted with the actual Civil War, which she had observed firsthand and a first encounter with Alcott's daughter Louisa, later of course of Little Women fame.

Note: a "second girl" was "a household domestic in a subordinate position," according to The Rebecca Harding Davis Reader (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995).

I wish I could summon these memorable ghosts before you as I saw them then and afterward. To the eyes of an observer, belonging to the commonplace world, they did not appear precisely as they do in the portraits drawn of them for posterity by their companions, the other Areopagites, who walked and talked with them apart always apart from humanity.

That was the first peculiarity which struck an outsider in Emerson, Hawthorne, and the other members of the "Atlantic" coterie; that while they thought they were guiding the real world, they stood quite outside of it, and never would see it as it was.

For instance, during the Civil War, they had much to say of it, and all used the same strained high note of exaltation. It was to them "only the shining track," as Lowell calls it, where

. . . "heroes mustered in a gleaming row,

Beautiful evermore, and with the rays

Of morn on their white shields of expectation."

These heroes were their bravest and their best, gone to die for the slave or for their country. They were "the army" to them.

I remember listening during one long summer morning to Louisa Alcott's father as he chanted paeans to the war, the "armed angel which was wakening the nation to a lofty life unknown before."

We were in the little parlor of the Wayside, Mr. Hawthorne's house in Concord. Mr. Alcott stood in front of the fireplace, his long gray hair streaming over his collar, his pale eyes turning quickly from one listener to another to hold them quiet, his hands waving to keep time with rotund sentences which had a stale, familiar ring as if often repeated before. Mr. Emerson stood listening, his head sunk on his breast, with profound submissive attention, but Hawthorne sat astride of a chair, his arms folded on the back, his chin dropped on them, and his laughing, sagacious eyes watching us, full of mockery.

I had just come up from the border where I had seen the actual war; the filthy spewings of it; the political jobbery in Union and Confederate camps; the malignant personal hatreds wearing patriotic masks, and glutted by burning homes and outraged women; the chances in it, well improved on both sides, for brutish men to grow more brutish, and for honorable gentlemen to degenerate into thieves and sots. War may be an armed angel with a mission, but she has the personal habits of the slums. This would-be seer who was talking of it, and the real seer who listened, knew no more of war as it was, than I had done in my cherry-tree when I dreamed of bannered legions of crusaders debouching in the misty fields.

Mr. Hawthorne at last gathered himself up lazily to his feet, and said quietly: "We cannot see that thing at so long a range. Let us go to dinner," and Mr. Alcott suddenly checked the droning flow of his prophecy and quickly led the way to the dining-room.

Early that morning when his lank, gray figure had first appeared at the gate, Mr. Hawthorne said: "Here comes the Sage of Concord. He is anxious to know what kind of human beings come up from the back hills in Virginia. Now I will tell you," his eyes gleaming with fun, "what he will talk to you about. Pears. Yes. You may begin at Plato or the day's news, and he will come around to pears. He is now convinced that a vegetable diet affects both the body and soul, and that pears exercise a more direct and ennobling influence on us than any other vegetable or fruit. Wait. You'll hear presently."

When we went in to dinner, therefore, I was surprised to see the sage eat heartily of the fine sirloin of beef set before us. But with the dessert he began to advocate a vegetable diet and at last announced the spiritual influence of pears, to the great delight of his host, who laughed like a boy and was humored like one by the gentle old man.

Whether Alcott, Emerson, and their disciples discussed pears or the war, their views gave you the same sense of unreality, of having been taken, as Hawthorne said, at too long a range. You heard much sound philosophy and many sublime guesses at the eternal verities; in fact, never were the eternal verities so dissected and pawed over and turned inside out as they were about that time, in Boston, by Margaret Fuller and her successors. But the discussion left you with a vague, uneasy sense that something was lacking, some back-bone of fact. Their theories were like beautiful bubbles blown from a child's pipe, floating overhead, with queer reflections on them of sky and earth and human beings, all in a glow of fairy color and all a little distorted.

Mr. Alcott once showed me an arbor which he had built with great pains and skill for Mr. Emerson to "do his thinking in." It was made of unbarked saplings and boughs, a tiny round temple, two storied, with chambers in which were seats, a desk, etc., all very artistic and complete, except that he had forgotten to make any door. You could look at it and admire it, but nobody could go in or use it. It seemed to me a fitting symbol for this guild of prophets and their scheme of life.

Mr. Alcott at that time was their oracle, appointed and held in authority by Emerson alone. His faith in the old man was so sincere and simple that it was almost painful to see it.

He once told me, "I asked Alcott the other day what he would do when he came to the gate, and St. Peter demanded his ticket. 'What have you to show to justify your right to live?' I said. 'Where is your book, your picture? You have done nothing in the world.' 'No,' he said, 'but somewhere on a hill up there will be Plato and Paul and Socrates talking, and they will say: 'Send Alcott over here, we want him with us.'" "And," said Emerson, gravely shaking his head, "he was right! Alcott was right."

Mr. Alcott was a tall, awkward, kindly old man, absolutely ignorant of the world, but with an obstinate faith in himself which would have befitted a pagan god. Hearing that I was from Virginia, he told me that he owed his education wholly to Virginia planters. He had traveled in his youth as a peddler through the State, and finding how eager he was to learn they would keep him for days in their houses, turning him loose in their libraries.

His own library was full of folios of his manuscripts. He had covered miles of paper with his inspirations, but when I first knew him no publisher had ever put a line of them into print. His house was bleak and bitter cold with poverty, his wife had always worked hard to feed him and his children. In any other town he would have been more respected if he had tried to put his poor carpentering skill to use to support them. But the homelier virtues were not, apparently, in vogue in Concord.

During my first visit to Boston in 1862, I saw at an evening reception a tall, thin young woman standing alone in a corner. She was plainly dressed, and had that watchful, defiant air with which the woman whose youth is slipping away is apt to face the world which has offered no place to her. Presently she came up to me.

"These people may say pleasant things to you," she said abruptly; "but not one of them would have gone to Concord and back to see you, as I did to-day. I went for this gown. It's the only decent one I have. I'm very poor;" and in the next breath she contrived to tell me that she had once taken a place as "second girl." "My name," she added, "is Louisa Alcott."

Now, although we had never met, Louisa Alcott had shown me great kindness in the winter just past, sacrificing a whole day to a tedious work which was to give me pleasure at a time when every hour counted largely to her in her desperate struggle to keep her family from want. The little act was so considerate and fine, that I am still grateful for it, now when I am an old woman, and Louisa Alcott has long been dead. It was as natural for her to do such things as for a pomegranate-tree to bear fruit.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Paul Robeson in Prague

My brother just called me up and sang this song to me, which (given any expectation I ever had of him) was pretty extraordinary.

Our mother liked to sing it to us on Deakin Street in Berkeley, thousands of years ago, and she learned it from this guy.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

On an Age-old Anvil Wince and Sing

Cynthia Ulrich Edelson

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind. . . .

G.M. Hopkins of course. I seem for the nonce to be almost out of words.

Many thanks to all who sent notes, etheric or otherwise (Susan, Ange, Linh, sweet backchannelers and thought-streamers).

That sort of kindness gets recorded pretty deeply, at a time like this

more soon, as things start to make sense.

If they ever entirely do again. . . .

Monday, November 05, 2007


My mother fell this morning and then had a heart attack, so I'm going to have to put this blog on ice for a few days.

Be well, all of you.

See you later....

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Theory of Heartbreak

If, as David Bromige says, poetry is the theory of heartbreak, when do we begin to theorize?

The person I'm thinking about has never had a problem with separations, barely glancing at his parents as they go out the door. But when he wakes up after a night away from them, a night (one can assume) full of dreams and confusions, surf's up in the feelings department.

This time, however, for the first time, he had a word to say, the germ of a theory about this unsatisfactory situation. He let my husband pick him up out of his crib but then (from this high perch) took a long, disappointed look at us and turned away. "Mama," he said, heartbrokenly, and let his body shake with sobs.

It started me musing. I came to poetry in my teens after losing both my parents, my father to divorce (when I was close to this guy's age) and then my mother to madness.

And poetry kept me alive. At ten, living for a year in Los Angeles, I'd decided I wanted to be a singer but that was actively opposed (while my mother was still relatively well). I wanted lessons but kept singing anyway, especially when everybody was out of the house. Still, as a dream, as a vocation, it seemed absurd and out of reach.

Poetry, though, when I stumbled on it, was just the solution. Who could take it away from me? One didn't need materials other than those one already had for school. It made no noise. It wasn't part of that feared and hated entity, show business (my father's first career path, before blacklist and economic reality set in). I could even take it along when, later that same year, my mother entered a mental institution and I was sent to live with a foster family.

I could be a poet and nobody would be the wiser. And so I was, really, for decades. Maybe that's why I've always remembered what John Logan said of Bill Knott's poems (on the cover of his Naomi Poems: Corpse and Beans): that they "give asylum to the orphan in each of us." I'm sure that's also why I was so taken with the work of John Wieners, poet-waif of poet-waifs:

Rain today and rain in the self. Reign. Return
to the place of imprisonment. Reign of life, how many
years left to bury the old heart and give birth to the new?
Reign of years, with each day a marking place of what
happens in the universe, what comes into ken,
of the stars and their turning. What one does not know.
Will never know. The desire to pierce space and
be up on the moon. Doomed as fellow men to
walk this place with sweat on our forehead.
         That we are not given enough, must find
the means to fulfill our existence. That we are
given enough, too much as a distraction to pene-
trate the essential core of our being. And what is
that but a hollow place? No radiant outpouring
as stars of light. We have eaten away our basic
substance, fed it to the drugs, of days
when there was nothing to do. Too many on the calendar.
         And yet this is substance, this despair.
         To walk with it as a beloved companion, or
friend. See that as the broken leg we try to mend.
Cripples with no crutch, looking for the broken tree
to fashion into a stump.
         And yet this is not the true condition. There
are comedies and comedians. Flowers in blossom.
The same old dirge. Age-old. The curse of
"Adam" that each man is heir to, and equipped
for — interrupted by the doctor coming down the
hall — that each man is heir, and for which each
is equipped.

(from "A Series," Ace of Pentacles)

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A Fresh Face, Somebody Who Understands

Nixon and Rumsfeld, circa 1971

"Rumsfeld flees France fearing arrest," reads the story, still unconfirmed. "Former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld fled France today fearing arrest over charges of 'ordering and authorizing' torture of detainees at both the American-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the US military’s detainment facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, unconfirmed reports coming from Paris suggest."

What we know for certain, according to the New York Times, is that "several human rights organizations
based in the United States and Europe have filed a complaint in a Paris court accusing former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld of responsibility for torture."

Monsieur le Procureur, begins the text of the document, after twenty-four pages summing up:

Il résulte des éléments ci-dessus et des documents annexés à la présente plainte que la responsabilité pénale personnelle de Monsieur DONALD RUMSFELD dans les faits de torture et de mauvais traitements, constitutifs également de crimes de guerre, est absolument indiscutable.

(It follows from the above elements and documents annexed to this complaint that the personal criminal responsibility of Mr. DONALD RUMSFELD in the facts of torture and ill-treatment, also constitute war crimes, absolutely indisputable.)

If this isn't exactly justice at least not yet it is still a physical relief to read.

And it reminded me of this 1971 conversation between Nixon and Rumsfeld: the then-president, in almost avuncular mentoring mode, and his shiny young underling looking for work commensurate with his talents:

PRESIDENT NIXON: I have an idea. I have an idea. There might be, even at this time-- you're not, you're not too sensitive about, I trust you're not about where you sit at the table. You really ought to be, you really ought to be in foreign affairs. I wish I had any position. The question ...(inaudible) assistant secretary or something like that. ...(inaudible) That's where the action is. That's where it is.

RUMSFELD: And five years from now, that would give me a--

PRESIDENT NIXON: Oh, enormous.

RUMSFELD: --a credential, a background in terms of running for the Senate in Illinois, or in terms of being involved in the world. It's just a much--it seemed to--it struck me that it may be something say, your ...(inaudible) at this point.

PRESIDENT NIXON: Well, let's look at the transcript.

RUMSFELD: Of course, those service secretaries are--

PRESIDENT NIXON: Well, they're just ...(inaudible). I like them all as individuals. But the poor guys, they do, they must do important things. ...(inaudible), if Henry weren't such a difficult person, god knows he needs somebody else ...(inaudible). He needs a fresh face, somebody that understands.

Monday, October 29, 2007

My Wicked Caddywumpus Ways

Welcome to my world, this week anyway. This surely can't be a "good" picture, technically speaking, though my half-mad subject makes me want to figure out how to take one. But I'm happy in any case with its small capture of wild unraveling frenzy.

The personage involved is (seemingly overnight) exploding with language cracker, money, airplane, baby it's intoxicating to listen while it all suddenly manifests in this realm.

Grateful to find Nada Gordon's anti-rules of poetry blogging, each of which I have been breaking (and will no doubt continue to break) constantly. Still, they're liberating.

I keep thinking that these posts ought to be notes on something (rather than attempting to be something) or like Wile E. Coyote I am going to end up one day dangling in mid-air.

Followed by a very uncartoonish fall from grace. Till then I will continue in my merry (or should it be my wicked or at least my daffy) caddywumpus way.

This morning that means splurging on cups of green Lung Ching Dragon Well tea and thinking about a blurb for somebody. Reading Marianne Moore's dust jacket copy, which Wayne Koestenbaum recommends here as "fanatical exercise[s] of a personality sculpted in the privacy of the bedroom/atelier." That sounds about right.

Noticing a word strewn through them, over and over, and not of course accidentally: verity. Verity! So quaint.

A foot-wrong that would be expunged from any self-respecting bit of puffery today.

Friday, October 26, 2007

A Page from the Dangerfield Playbook

This makes perfect sense. The strumpet proposes a new model for literary prizes and Stephen Colbert immediately takes advantage of it. Evidence: his book I Am America (And So Can You!) has just taken the first coveted Stephen T. Colbert Award for Literary Excellence. Somebody's slapped a silver seal announcing this honor right on the book jacket, so it looks like the Newbery Medal or something:

I wouldn't want to claim that Colbert reads this blog, although that would have an air of truthiness. But what is clear is that ideas of this order cannot be contained in the poetic blogosphere and so loft like pixie dust over circus tents and television studios alike, finally taking purchase in the brains of well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiots* like Colbert.

What's even lovelier is that apparently the book contains a raft of silver stickers like the one on the cover, so that each of us may win the Colbert Award in turn.

Who said prizes are for children? Stickers may be for children but surely these beauties should be kept out of their hands at least till they are older and have developed the requisite level of narcissism.

When we launched the conversation that became The Dangerfield Conundrum: A Roundtable on Humor and Poetry on the same day as The Colbert Report on Comedy Central, it seemed like a happy oddity but obviously it was a signal that larger forces were at work, and only poets who are content with their station can afford to ignore them.

* Colbert's own description of his character.