Archive for the ‘Writers’ Category

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.'”


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.


Armed with poetry

February 8, 2008

Last weekend, I spent a day with the AWP.

Friday afternoon, I drove through sleet and farm country to a train station smaller than the train —six feet of baking heat behind glass, four wet benches, a patch of parking, and long lines of mountains. And I got on the train and got off in Grand Central.

My sister gave me most of the floor in her dorm room to sleep on, and half a sandwich at her favorite café, and a ticket to Rock and Roll, the new Stoppard play. It’s Czechoslovakia in the 1960’s right after the tanks went through. The narrative feels like a playlist deliberately at times, a series of short, scored scenes. Music tells the story and moves the plot; people betray for it, risk arrest for it, talk with it, learn indifference from it and let it move them to protective kindness and courage and passion.

And the play feels feels — contemporary. The hippies are outgunned and scared. Communism is not always unsympathetic, but it is inefficient and cold. And the narrative follows two stories in two places, among a crowd of people, across two generations. One actress plays a wife in act one and her grown daughter in act two. How many novels can you name that use that structure, a crowd of characters and a hundred years? Middlesex; Little, Big; A Hundred Years of Solitude….

I have a theory about the modern passion for writing novels across generations. Most novels want some kind of hope of continuity or union — most novels have both comic and tragic structure, things falling apart and things coming together. The early novelists had humanism and heaven and clan kinship and the family name, kinds of continuity that America manages to deny a lot of the time. But we do still have children.

I started out to write this post about poetry. A lot of Stoppard qualifies, at that. I’ll never forget the night I saw Indian InkLike Radha, most beautiful of the herdswomen, undressed for love in an empty house. But I did also, on this Saturday, hear poetry and prose beautifully read. Here’s a sampling.

This “all” feeling

November 6, 2007

You must often have felt it, lying on the grass on a warm summer’s day. Your legs seem to send out shoots into the earth. Your hair feels like leaves upon your head. This is the all feeling.

Herman Melville wrote this postscript in a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, June 1851, at the height of haying season. Melville’s “Whale” would go to press in a few months. He was in the grip of a blue devil and half turned away from the idea of this blending into the touch of growing things, but he turned back again to explain it further. I have felt it too, and I’ve been trying, tonight, to figure out how to explain it to someone who has not.

I have only ever found two of Melville’s letters to Hawthorne, in the Berkshire Reader, and they make me wish for more. I love to think of one grown man saying to another, after a fourteen hour day of labor, “you know what it’s like when you lie on your back on the lawn….” It’s an open pleasure, like jumping into leaf piles and whistling on acorn caps, a child’s game in the woods.

Of course, Melville had just spent all day, and all the days and weeks before, pitching cut alfalfa and clover into a pine board wagon and stacking it in a barn, to keep his horse alive through the winter. No wonder he had grass on his mind. (Don’t laugh.) But if he had written this passage as carefree as a boy, or as a farm hand after a long day, I would not have remembered it today, four years after I first read it, and felt drawn to pull it off the shelf again. It means as much as it does because he wrote it as a man, with a nagging soreness in him like toothache, and still he remembered.