Archive for March, 2008

And hear the thrushes singing

March 18, 2008

Witch song

Why ride a broom with a long, hard handle?
I’ll ride the wind tonight.
As it rushes high and higher
I’ll rise in a lazy, hazy spire
like the smoke of a blown out candle.

If I want the feel of wood, I’ll light
in a living, breathing tree,
an April tree with buds still new
and seed pods streaming wet with dew,
and rock in the wind all night.

This came from my week’s reading: I came across several witch poems that seemed content to talk about gnarled old women on besoms, and after them, I wasn’t.

Clear, soft, supple lines. A beat, and a beat, and a beat again. Rhythm and rhyme so natural they look easy. They’re not easy. I’ve been reading children’s poetry, these last two weeks. The last hundred years have seen many good children’s poems. And I’ve been finding out how many of them are out of print.

Everything I know about poetry began with my giant Child’s Garden of Verses illustrated by Gyo Fujikawa. I still have it, taped together, with two book plates in the front and my name in crayon. The first poem I learned by heart came from it: In winter I get up at night and dress by yellow candlelight….

Stevenson’s poems sound as simple as talking. They have a child’s sense of time and space — the excitement of waiting for the lamp lighter, a city child’s dizzy, rare glimpse of the night sky. A dark hallway goes on forever. A toad stool holds off the rain. A city winds over the rug and jungles grow behind the sofa. These are poems of games and transformations, the feeling of more to find out, the slow time and endless curiosity of a child’s days.

They are simple, but they are not easy, and they tell stories. A good children’s poem reminds me how it feels to stand up to my ankles in mud, to hold a violet against my cheek, to see everything closely. A good children’s poem has other places and times and echoes in it. It knows change will come. It looks at crickets and neighbors and tigers with a sturdy equality.

A good children’s poem is one a child can read. It’s one a child can play with and hold onto and kick around like a tooth-marked rubber ball. That doesn’t mean it has to be nonsense, or plasticene, or tapioca. It can have meanings the child may not puzzle out for years. But it has to speak and let the child talk back.

A year ago, Sharon Ruth Gill wrote that children’s poetry collections now nearly always go back to the classics — How do I love thee and Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day, illustrated in bright watercolors. Some scholars have actually argued that children should only encounter poems by “the masters”.

An illustrated book of sonnets can be beautiful, and if you want to paint one, I’d love to see it. But please, please, don’t try to teach children poetry by making them afraid of it. Don’t tell them only God-fearing geniuses are allowed to write it. Don’t shut it up in glass fronted bookcases behind wing chairs.

Give me instead the woman from NH who brings a program on children’s books into the schools and encourages children to write and illustrate their own. She talks with them about different stories and different words and pictures — what do you like about them, and what do they mean? She lets the kids play with them and flip them like pennies.

Gill has a list of poets she likes, poets who write for children. I’ve been going through it and looking through the local library for writers— Roger McGough, Aileen Fisher. X. J. Kennedy has a collection with some new voices: Talking Like the Rain. Isak Dinesen opens it, telling about an evening she began talking in Swahili verse in a muddy field. The people she spoke to loved the sound. “As they had become used to the idea of poetry,” she said, “they begged: ‘Speak again. Speak like the rain.'”


Why I love New Hampshire (a companion piece)

March 6, 2008

My Eagle Pond post I meant, but thinking back now, the tone has a touch of New Hampshire curmudgeonly in it. In Hall’s dozenth essay, he’s asked to write about “why he hates Vermont”, and the essay is finally published under the title “Why I Love New Hampshire”. He felt curmudgeonly too.

So here, to go with my last wrestle with his book, is another response to it — here’s what I love about the state we’ve both lived in. Some of it is also what I love about western Massachusetts, and some of it is not. New Hampshire, even in the fast-growing coastal region where I lived, can feel farther from anywhere except Quebec than the Berkshires ever do.

When I woke in New Hampshire, I could look backwards out the window, up the undersides of white pines. Hemlocks grew all along my street, protected somehow from the southern blight. My landlord played the piano one floor up. He also tuned up the snow blower every fall and cleared the driveway all winter; he is in his eighties.

When he moved there, and Orchard Drive still grew an orchard, his children got to choose a special Christmas gift. They got moccasins and taught themselves to walk silently over all the stone walls. Coming into town, you drive by the stable to get to the University visitors’ center. They have one of the earliest agricultural schools in the country. When the wind sets right, you can smell the dairy barn, or the sea.

It has bizarre and beautiful kinds of open-heartedness. It is the only state I know of whose second language is French. Its coastal living history museum contains glassware from a brothel. Its sugar houses hold music jams to mark the start of maple season. I know a farm with a log cabin sauna, a church that held a group ceremony after Civil Unions came into effect, a community where people get together to paint each other’s houses.

I love the individual stubbornness of New Hampshire. People do things by hand, there. People repair old things and craft new ones. Ordinary people play the fiddles their grandparents’ left them: often fiddles their grandparents made. In the city on the coast, the houses have close set clapboards low down, as though the walls were sliding into themselves; they stand up against the weight of snow.

People don’t forget anything, there. The best people I know there are the kind of people you want with you when things fall apart. Hall, and a close friend of mind from grad school, call it a high tolerance for eccentricity. I would call it the kindness of people who have seen everything go wrong, deeply wrong, and don’t pretend about it. People who know what grief is, and don’t confuse it with anything less, and have gotten through it somehow… they aren’t afraid of someone else who is facing it.

People work hard. College freshmen from mountain towns may not know how to read a syllabus or take notes, and their parents may not know why they are trying, but they try hard. College may be only a practical step on the way to a job. Or not. For people with jobs, hours a week or health insurance may not matter. The people involved may matter, or the work that gets done, inside the day job or out of it.

New Hampshire doesn’t compromise well. New Hampshire values everything — including land — by its current use. New Hampshire has more young orchards than young people. People pick 50 pounds of peaches at a time and preserve them. New Hampshire was the first place outside New York to circulate the Moosewood Cookbook, when the Moosewood was xeroxed and even more outspoken than it is now. The vegan restaurant on route 4 serves locally grown kale 365 days a year. The college students run their own organic garden and sell five kinds of basil down by the science buildings.

It’s as hard to explain love for a place as for a person. I spent nearly four years there, eating its icecream and crossing its wide spans of bridges over the bay, admiring the conductors’ brass buttons in the old railway station, and learning to write in landscape dimensions, and playing its music. It will always be the place where I learned to write a novel, and to play dance tunes by ear. I like who I was when I was with New Hampshire. And some days I miss it powerful much.

The need of being versed in country things

March 3, 2008

I’ve just reread Donald Hall’s Here at Eagle Pond. I’ve been reading a series of books lately that have their feet on the ground. My novel has land at its heart — acres and roots and mud puddles — and Hall loves a New England that moves me too, the hay drying in the sun, the people who remember who lived in that 1800’s saltbox when it was built, the people who work with their hands.

It always surprises me how much I disagree with him. I care about so many of the same things. Rereading him now, when I have lived in New Hampshire and left it again, I often felt homesick. His New Hampshire is a stubborn back country — the winter is cold, families work or starve, and the names on the civil war monuments are the same ones on the mail boxes.

Yes, I know these people, and this spirit. I know people who live within a mile of the place where they grew up. I know people who seek out their elders for their stories and memories, play music with them, tell stories of the Shaker sisters who taught them to cook. I know people who live on odd jobs, a man who has walked across frozen lakes with six-inch nails in his pockets, to haul himself out if the ice gave way. When Hall says his community lives where it lives because it wants to, and that it rejects commercialism and migration, he is partly right.

I love the independence and obstinacy that keeps contradance music alive. And Hall recognizes some of its costs, in rusted trailers and a lack of zoning laws. But he does not recognize all of them. And in upholding their strengths, he limits the meaning of country.

He says, simply, that his counry was created by Protestant Americans after the civil war. He brings into his understanding of country life a set of values, what he calls the country of the church dinner — a value for hard work, for family, for place. But many of these values, otherwise applied, have grown industries and cities. A love for land and an ability to live on it takes many shapes. And 18th century farming clearcut the whole state of Massachusetts.

Reading him raises a vital question for me: what does it mean to live in the country, to live with the land. How can a community be rural and vital at the same time? Country matters vitally: country Hall wants to keep hold of. At the heart of these essays, in his return home to his grandparents’ farm, he is trying to preserve a place he loves, in the face of a world he feels does not value it.

And reading him frustrates me because his definitions keep him from answering fully enough to help me. He doesn’t need to persuade me to hold onto the country. I want to know how. He doesn’t answer because he doesn’t want change of any kind. He wants country to be exactly as it is on the one-family dairy farm. He can be disingenuous in its defense — New Hampshire has a wide tolerance for eccentricity, but it is not, as he claims, diverse. It is also not young. A vital past is a fine, rich thing, but without a vital future, it’s a Shaker museum.

I want to live in the country, and I want to feel alive doing it. I want to know how to help other active, intelligent people live where they love. I don’t want to change old milltowns into mid-town Manhattan to do it: I want the country to be country, wild and fertile and animal and uncut. I don’t think intelligence, a desire for useful work I can do well, and a need for earth under my feet are incompatible.

Those of us who love the country and love to think should stick together; I agree with Donald Hall that we need each other, because others who do not love what we love can so easly take it away and not even know they have. If we are going to keep the country alive, I think we need to see it as here and alive already and kindle it slowly and steadily. The only ways I know how to do this are slow, one light at a time.

One thing we will have to do, and he does: we will have to want it. We will have to teach people its value and hold on to others who want it as much as we do.

Hall actually says the opposite, and this I do not understand at all: “It turns out that the fulfilment of desire is to stop desiring” (18). He’s quoting Sam Johnson, whether he knows it or not, and I’ve written a whole thesis proving him wrong. He proves himself wrong, in the same essay. He loves his place achingly.

He desires it ardently in every page: that’s why he’s writing. The fulfilment of a desire increases desire, deepens it and roots it until it takes over — and delights in it, laughs in it. You ask any couple who have grown into love over time, and not out of it. And when you have realized a desire, when you have held it long enough to believe it is yours — then you will fight for it.

I began these thoughts the last time I reread Eagle Pond; here, for anyone who likes circles, is the beginning of the thread.