Never Enough Libraries

November 20, 2010 § 1 Comment

books at The Morgan Library

Today we went to the Morgan Library, and saw some Degas drawings, photos taken in France just after WWI, and Pierpont’s interior library, now restored to its former glory. The Degas didn’t hold my attention, which was admittedly frantic and NYC jittery; I kept exclaiming to Charles, “I’m so sorry for all the people around me!” as I talked too loud, plowed into others attempting to use the same bit of ground, and was generally unable to comport myself among genteel multitudes.

The library calmed me. The ceiling is so high and fresco’d, the low settees so velvety red, the bookshelves full of so many editions of Dickens, Balzac, Thackeray and Zola, as well as The Lives of British Admirals and Biographical Memoirs of George Washington. There were also beloved favorites such as The Peterkin Papers, A Child’s Garden of Verses, The Life and Adventures of a Fly, and The Funny Old Woman Who Went to The Moon. Actually, I haven’t read the last two, but I’m sure they’d be worth the trouble. I tried to find them for you, but only managed to uncover scholarly references in academic journals, which required subscriptions. So you will have to write your own versions. Send me copies.

I also enjoyed his collection of ancient seals, my favorite being the Griffin Fighting Griffin Demon with A Dagger over Small Calf Below. I love that having dreamt up a griffin, they then went on to imagine a griffin demon (distinguishable by his tail and the dagger he wields); was this a griffin who’d strayed into unholy arrangements, or just the natural corollary of the griffin, all beings having a demonic counterpart?

Which brings me to the photographs of France after WWI, commissioned by Anne Morgan, Pierpont’s daughter, who organized relief efforts. The photos are haunting: indomitable old women among ruins; children playing store in the rubble; old men living in quarries; toddlers being bathed and fed by brisk young volunteers. No able-bodied men. And in the film footage, when the traveling library truck comes to town, all the children in their worn black boots run after it, leaping into the air in excitement.

Charles said, “You can see how they might think, the next time the Germans invaded, that it would be better to just give up than have to go through that level of destruction again.” Indeed. First the griffin and then the griffin demon. Not that I should malign griffins…

*Morgan was one of a group of bankers who rescued the government in the panic of 1893, supplying the Treasury with $65,000,000 in gold. One could argue that the 2008 bailout was payback; one could also argue that it’s the banks’ place to have mountains of ready cash. That was what they were invented for. But, like the rest of our cultural institutions, they’ve been failing regularly since the beginning. Just not regularly enough to plan for.

The Land of Storybooks

At evening when the lamp is lit,
Around the fire my parents sit;
They sit at home and talk and sing,
And do not play at anything.

Now, with my little gun, I crawl
All in the dark along the wall,
And follow round the forest track
Away behind the sofa back.

There, in the night, where none can spy,
All in my hunter’s camp I lie,
And play at books that I have read
Till it is time to go to bed.

These are the hills, these are the woods,
These are my starry solitudes;
And there the river by whose brink
The roaring lions come to drink.

I see the others far away
As if in firelit camp they lay,
And I, like to an Indian scout,
Around their party prowled about.

So, when my nurse comes in for me,
Home I return across the sea,
And go to bed with backward looks
At my dear land of Story-books.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Wild Thing

November 20, 2010 § 2 Comments

Gary Snyder

I went to the new Poets House on the river to hear Gary Snyder. It was a small gathering, for members only: 80-100 people. Everyone had that poet look which stands out so much in New York City: softer, hair mussed, a little distracted, bohemian in a don’t-look-at-me way. I know very well how caustic poets can be but when I’m in a room of them, I’m reminded of a postcard I used to have, a painting of two sheep sitting next to each other, knitting sweaters from their own wool.

Snyder is a short man, white haired and sinewy, with a deeply wrinkled, canny face and an air of recalcitrant—not to mention rude—health. He looks like a Ken Kesey character who wandered into a Tolkien book and then quickly exited.

He read some poems, then sat down for a conversation with Jonathan Skinner, editor of Ecopoetics. Snyder was in New York promoting a documentary called The Practice of the Wild. Given that obvious hook, not to mention Snyder’s reputation, Skinner steered the conversation to the environment. He asked what wildness is. Gary said, “Well, wildness, nature—let me say what nature is. Nature is the whole phenomenal universe, everything that exists, other than the supernatural, if you believe in the supernatural, although in India, this is interesting, they believe that the supernatural, gods, demons, are all part of nature, just a part that’s invisible to us.” (He went on about India for quite a while but I forget the rest.) Then he said, “Wildness is process. The kind of process where human self-conscious agency is not involved. The intellect is not wild, but the body is wild. Language is wild. The mind takes care of language the way the body takes care of digestion, without your having to think about it.”

He talked about how children acquire language—and the precocious thing his 2 year old granddaughter said—and explained how differently language is learned in English, where the alphabet is random in relation to sound, while in India children learn sounds in order from the front of the mouth, the sounds lips make, to the sounds of teeth and tongue, and the back of the mouth, the throat, etc. He discussed his background in linguistics and the six languages of China, as different as the romance languages of Europe but all written exactly the same, so everyone in China can read the same newspaper. I’ve read about this, but don’t really understand it, so if you want to know more, go look it up.

Skinner, asking his next question, referred to Gary as an encyclopedia and Snyder interrupted him to say that these were necessary answers. The cranky old man took the stage more fully when Skinner mentioned that Snyder hadn’t read any nature poems. “I already explained what nature is,” said Gary. “I could read some outdoor poems, if you want.” And then digressed to tell us that Koreans have the most intelligent writing system in the world. (You can look that up too.)

Don’t imagine I wasn’t enjoying this. I love to listen to the deeply erudite, especially when they make dazzling leaps. But he was cranky. He talked about the language of feeling being monosyllabic—in reference to where speech started—and Skinner said, treading cautiously now, “You make it new by going back.”

“I’d just as soon make it old,” Gary retorted. I started to think about age; how some poets, reasonably famous in their later youth and middle age, but marginalized, as poets are in our culture, become fetishized in their eighth or ninth decade as we realize they are leaving us, leaving us with all their memories of how things used to be, in that bygone golden age we used to shrug off as our parents’ youth. They’re leaving and we didn’t treasure them enough, we took them for granted, and now we want them more than ever…anyway, I’ve seen it before, and it’s both heady and annoying for the poet. Or so it seems. But I know that Creeley died and I never knew him; that Ginsberg died and I never heard him read; that Pound died and I never dared to be an intrepid 20 year American girl in Italy charming her way past the wife…

Finally Skinner, trying to steer this unwieldy craft back to Climate Change, which is what I at least was somewhat anxious to hear Snyder talk about, ended up expostulating, “Where do you get your optimism?” This, perhaps, in reference to Gary’s earlier remark that his grandchildren would be able to live in the deep woods and have village buses pull up in the morning to take them to market, where they’d buy and sell handmade goods, swap gossip, then write a poem or two waiting for the homebound bus, which I imagined as something between a yellow school bus and the Merry Pranksters’ vehicle, paint a little faded…when in fact we all know our grandchildren will live in Brooklyn and sell cloned body parts to the superrich.

“I’m not optimistic,” answered Snyder. “I’m good-natured. The world is going to hell in a hand basket. If there’s anything to say for optimism, it’s that nature always bats last.”

I think he meant wild nature, not the whole phenomenal world. And anyway, we all know that. Those who worry about the planets are idiots. People will suffer; animals will go extinct; things will change beyond all recognition. But the planet? She’ll be fine. She’ll be just like me, when things go badly for awhile, eager to get started again, to invent again, glad the past was ripped away with all its constraints…

The earth is mortal, but not in any way we can understand. Mourn our culture, if you like. Mourn the tiger and the songbird, the polar bear with his thinning bones, the insects you’ve never thought about, the plants living and dying quietly far from our murderous hands. But not the planet. The planet endures. It bats last (in our terms; I won’t mention the paltry lifetime of the sun) and knocks us out of the park. It was a spectacular game while it lasted. And the afternoon is still sunny—never mind that chill—that heat—that odd gasping sound of the world’s fresh water drying up. Bless the rain and rivers. Bless your youth, or if you’re still young, bless books.

Axe Handles

One afternoon the last week in April
Showing Kai how to throw a hatchet
One-half turn and it sticks in a stump.
He recalls the hatchet head
Without a handle, in the shop,
And go gets it, and wants it for his own.
A broken off axe handle behind the door
Is long enough for a hatchet.
We cut it to length and take it
With the hatchet head,
And working hatchet, to the wood block.
There I begin to shape the old handle
With the hatchet, and the phrase
First learned from Ezra Pound
Rings in my ears!
“When making an axe handle, the pattern is not fair off.”
And I say this to Kai
“Look: we’ll shape the handle
By checking the handle
Of the axe we cut with—“
And he sees. And I hear it again:
It’s in Lu Ji’s Wen Fu, fourth century
A.D. “Essay of literature”—in the
Preface: “In making the handle
Of an axe
By cutting wood with an axe
The model is indeed near at hand.”
My teacher Shih Hsiang Chen
Translated that and saw it years ago
And I see: Pound was an axe,
Chen was an axe, I am an axe
And my son a handle, soon
To be shaping again, model
And tool, craft of culture,
How we go on.

Gary Snyder

Me Again/November 12

November 13, 2010 § Leave a comment

I’ve been on a number of anti-depressants in the last decade and lately on several at once. I added a low dose of Zoloft a few years ago when my rage and pain re my romantic life became unbearable. A week ago, I quit—ran out and didn’t feel like calling the Dr. for a new script. For a few days I felt nothing, then felt sluggish and zingy in the head, and finally, today, feel connected to my own feelings in a way I haven’t for many months. Months, not years, because the problem is not Zoloft removing the emotions but rather stashing them somewhere so they build up and breed and eventually start wafting out toxic dust….okay, this may not fit the current neuroscience paradigm but it’s a sketchy paradigm at best.

It hit this morning as I was writing a diary entry about some of the usual suspects. That material will be saved for fiction or the shredder, depending; what I want to write about here is the astonishment of being myself again, tears and all, not that distant facsimile of Margaret, listening as people say things like, “What do you mean you don’t have a brain?” Yes, I’ve had a brain all along, and was able to wield it in a more-or-less intelligent fashion, but I didn’t have my brain. It was a brittle replica.

Emotion feeds reason. We know this intuitively and scientists are now crowing about it as if they just discovered air, but it’s so vivid to me today. The hurt, the tears, and the love—feeling very loving toward my family recently—are like red blood rushing up to that gray eminence which is, in fact, not as spry as it once was, not as snappy, but all I’ve got. Yes, I’ll write fiction about the convoluted weirdness that is my life. My arms twitch as if longing to grip a steering wheel, aim into racing, six-lane traffic.

On the other hand (I have extras), right this second some synapse fires, the tides shift, and what I feel, the emotional load, reminds me of a crippled, whining, 70 pound dog I have to carry…smelly, too…yeah, I took the pills because often I want to ditch this dog, but to follow the metaphor to its logical conclusion, it’s got a nose far superior to mine.

Dogs Are Shakespearean, Children Are Strangers

Dogs are Shakespearean, children are strangers.
Let Freud and Wordsworth discuss the child,
Angels and Platonists shall judge the dog,
The running dog, who paused, distending nostrils,
Then barked and wailed; the boy who pinched his sister,
The little girl who sang the song from Twelfth Night,
As if she understood the wind and rain,
The dog who moaned, hearing the violins in concert.
—O I am sad when I see dogs or children!
For they are strangers, they are Shakespearean.

Tell us, Freud, can it be that lovely children
Have merely ugly dreams of natural functions?
And you, too, Wordsworth, are children truly
Clouded with glory, learned in dark Nature?
The dog in humble inquiry along the ground,
The child who credits dreams and fears the dark,
Know more and less than you: they know full well
Nor dream nor childhood answer questions well:
You too are strangers, children are Shakespearean.

Regard the child, regard the animal,
Welcome strangers, but study daily things,
Knowing that heaven and hell surround us,
But this, this which we say before we’re sorry,
This which we live behind our unseen faces,
Is neither dream, nor childhood, neither
Myth, nor landscape, final, nor finished,
For we are incomplete and know no future,
And we are howling or dancing out our souls
In beating syllables before the curtain:
We are Shakespearean, we are strangers.

–Delmore Schwartz

Amazing poem, isn’t it? And I like that he uses “who” rather than “that” when he writes “The dog who moaned…”

Ars Longa

November 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

Lascaux cave painting

I was reading an article in techdirt by a musician who copes with music piracy by selling “attractive physical objects.” I’m not going to tackle the problem of artistic piracy, though as a writer—one offering my words for free at the moment—it is one I worry about a lot. What struck me was that he said, “In the broad historical perspective music is frivolous non-work and we are lucky to have time to make it at all.”

His historical perspective is not nearly broad enough. Certainly it’s always been true that not every person who so desires can make a living, or any recompense at all, by being a musician or artist; even in the caveman days, there must have been those who were told to stop drawing on the walls. But this is true of any craft or profession. Not everyone can dig ditches either.

There are interesting arguments to be made about certain kinds of activity being inherently frivolous—the froth and foam of the financial sector springs to mind—but music, art, poetry, etc, do not fall into this category. Without them we would have no culture at all; no “attractive physical objects” nor even any unattractive ones (not counting the sticks monkeys use to pull termites from their nests).

Art makes culture. It’s a frightening time when even artists have forgotten this. When pundits call on Obama to “bring back the poetry,” poets may cringe at that use of the word, but it is a very telling one. Poetry and language are indissoluble. One can say poetry evolved from language, but many believe it was the other way around; that the first language was the creation (discovery) of poetry: words as names, raw as flesh, full of all that cannot be said, teaching the pleasure of verbal rhythm. Only slowly was language teased and flattened into performing other functions.

This is true of all the arts. Material goods and shelter, trade agreements, legal and political systems, religion: all these elements of culture depend on the original creation of culture through art, the continuing maintenance of culture through art, and most important for the point I’m making, popular respect for art. To imagine we can have a prosperous nation without this maintenance and respect is like the Chinese believing they could become a powerful nation by severing bonds of family, community and faith (not to mention art). Only when they quietly abandoned those practices did China start fulfilling its potential. In this country we’re taking a more erratic path. That sentence I quoted above haunts me. “In the broad historical perspective…” Being well into middle age, it’s my turn to say, “What on earth are they teaching kids these days?”


Struck a pair of stones to start off. Left behind
ten men curled like scythes round the fire.
Left behind the bracing moon. Passed a pack
of ibex, passed the mammoth. Left the carious
canines before the rath, left the scapula—
freed space for petal dyes, for fixatives.
Passed (in a dream) Chauvet. Alsace. Lorraine.
Past the scree, past the wolf standing sentinel, her
mouth. Struck two stones to hearten the blaze,
sped up; pulled from the sack the manganese, the gilt
mixture of ochre and ore, the animal fat,
the deer bristle. The hare I speared fresh
for better reds. Mash of berries in a rolled frond.
Looked back—still breathing, still lone, set
bone to the bare wall: summoned up the aurochs
in a dervish turn, flank hot with lashes, all hot with dying and kneeling
down. Then nothing. Then the quiet
credit of our kind.

-Joseph Spece

Sylvia, we hardly knew ye

November 7, 2010 § 1 Comment

Arthur Rackham, illustration from The Tempest (Ariel)

As I walked around the Cathedral during the sound check for the Celebration of Sylvia Plath, I realized again how much I love this building when it’s nearly empty: the huge columns like ancient trees escaping Zeus’s attentions by becoming stone, the vaulted ceiling far above, and mostly the delicious space, something my indoor life is sorely short of.

The past doesn’t seize my imagination here, as in European Cathedrals, but the gothic ribs and stone rosettes, the burnished wood of the choir far behind me and the great bronze doors coming closer usher me into that state of calm happiness I most desire. I was walking to the front to get a copy of the brochure (about the American Poets’ Corner) that I’d written, but mostly just to walk. After a morning of depression, an afternoon at the gynecologist—a new one, and I somehow managed to get locked in a vestibule for a few moments—then dinner with Deborah and meeting a few of the evening’s participants, it was nice to gather all the threads of the day together, to feel my depression fled and my body eagerly eating up distance. (Not much distance, true, but I’d been sitting a lot.)

The Dean opened the program, talking about how he’d had to overcome the feeling shared by many young men of his generation—a feeling he didn’t quite specify but we can guess—and learn to hear her voice. It reminded me of college; I studied many contemporary poets in class, but not Plath. The male teachers either didn’t appreciate her work or didn’t know how to teach her. Things have changed. It was very satisfying.

Karen Kukil, the archivist of the Plath papers at Smith, spoke about Plath’s life and work. Her talk was titled, The Hot, Steamy Drench of the Day—a phrase from Plath’s journals. She reminded us that though Plath was admittedly obsessed with death, she also ”lived every moment with her pores wide open.” That struck a nerve. I can tell the difference, reading her journals, between how she threw herself at life in her early 20’s and my own retreat from it. Perhaps I saved myself by hiding. I don’t know.

After Kukil, the louderArts poets (Marie-Elizabeth Mali, Lynne Procope, Corrina Bain, Elana Bell and Sean Patrick Conlon) took turns reading the poems. It took me awhile to settle into the spell, but then it was mesmerizing. The only time I ever heard Plath read was in a scratchy recording of her on the radio, and that was not her late, best work. Spoken in different voices and dramatic styles (sometimes duets) by a group of young poets, the poems seemed much airier and colorful, more exuberant than I had imagined they would. I’ve read—and written—about the dependence of poetry on the body and breath, but in fact I’ve communed with it mostly in silence.

The poet/scholar Annie Finch spoke about Plath’s meter and music. She got into a little technical talk about anapests and dactyls and I felt like a baby bird opening its beak wide demanding more food. Later I mentioned to someone that people never talk about the technical side of Plath’s work and she disagreed. Of course, I haven’t kept up. I was embarrassed but mostly just wanted to hear more. It makes me angry that there’s not a more mainstream place for poetry in our society—not as mainstream as, say, nude mud wrestling, but at least a place in the intellectual mainstream. Instead it feels like a poor relation, an old crone given lip service to as the 10,000-year-old mother of all literature, but shunted off the pages of any publication not solely devoted to poetry and short fiction.

Toward the end of the program, when special guest Paul Muldoon was reading “Daddy” in a very quiet manner that at first I thought wrong, and then immensely right, as he unlocked all the wit and tenderness in that poem (much more than you think), I felt that Plath’s spirit was somehow at rest, that she was complete. I didn’t feel my usual tantalizing…if only… I was talking to Plath’s brother afterward and I tried to explain this, because he was being so open, telling stories of their childhood, how Sylvia used to make her own paper dolls and all their dresses. I said; “There will never be enough of her, but after tonight it’s a little bit more enough. “Yes,” he said slowly. “A little bit more.” I wanted to say that I knew what it’s like to lose a sibling too young, but didn’t presume.

Sylvia is honored, as she should be, for her work. But I miss my brother, who would also have been great. Was great. He’s famous to me.


It struck me every day
The lightning was as new
As if the cloud that instant slit
And let the fire through.

It burned me in the night,
It blistered in my dream;
It sickened fresh upon my sight
With every morning’s beam.

I thought that storm was brief,–
The maddest, quickest by;
But Nature lost the date of this,
And left it in the sky.

Emily Dickinson

Sylvia Plath

November 2, 2010 § Leave a comment

The Cathedral of St John the Divine (Amsterdam Avenue at 112th street, New York City) inducted Sylvia Plath into its American Poets’ Corner in November, 2010.

I helped put together the program of readings and talks, and learned more about this poet I admired when I was very young, didn’t think about very much for years, and now, in middle age, admire again differently. Lately I’ve been reading Her Husband by Diane Middlebrook and found myself pulled in again to that passionate, sad story. This is the kind of life you find in literature all the time, less so next door, but which I think happen to ordinary people much more often than one thinks. Agony moves us. The inner agony of the extremely gifted and privileged moves us very differently: the waste (as if the work of one artist matters more than a million anonymous lives), the selfishness (as if we have any idea how others suffer)! But more powerful, and the reason people read Plath, is because she can articulate that agony in a way that makes it seem not a waste and not selfish.

Reading her work and her diary is transformative because of the qualities many find repulsive: her relentless focus on herself and her rage. When I was in my 20’s, such naked expression of female ambition and anger were still new and thrilling. She wasn’t a feminist in the strict sense—she was ferociously competitive with other women and didn’t leave much trace of her political views. What she did was kick the ideal of woman as all-forgiving Madonna in the teeth. “The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary,” she writes in The Moon and the Yew Tree. She started out wanting to be a perfect wife and mother as well as a great poet and realized, as most women do, that this is impossible, and beyond that, absurd.

Many of the famous women writers before Plath grew up in circumstances, or with sensibilities, that did not put them in such conflict with the role of domestic goddess. They were either artist/bohemians from the start, or else in a productive harmony with their domestic side or obligations. Virginia Woolf may have written A Room of One’s Own but she also grew up in a family and milieu of artists, and had servants.

For most of history, art was created by people of means, or people willing to live very simply. Living simply is harder when you have children, and “La Vie Boheme” became far more expensive in the latter decades of the 20th century. Certainly the way Sylvia and Ted managed to live—poor but able to buy a house, eat and feed their children without working at a regular job or teaching—couldn’t be done today. The circumstances she faced only got more drastic.

Plath probably would have detested many of the people who came to consider her their icon. Her suicide wasn’t a political act against male hegemony. It was an expression of hopelessness and defiance–the two so intertwined they can’t be separated—and maybe (probably) revenge. suicide appeals to people suffering from depression, and infuriates those who don’t understand, precisely because it is so uncompromising and powerful. It renders visible the idea of unbearable pain occurring in ordinary circumstances, shameful desires for attention at any cost; it tells the world what grief is, which is something most of us try very hard to forget.

None of this means that it’s wrong to read the poems from a feminist or any other standpoint. Poems belong to the world. But if you want to know why she wrote them—and I don’t mean why she wrote poetry, she was born to do that, but wrote these poems in particular, you need a long acquaintanceship with pain.

If Plath had lived, she would be less known to those who don’t read poetry, but far more known to those who do. She was developing so fast, and had such prodigious energy and ambition, there is no doubt in my mind that her work would have only gotten better. She was working on a second novel when she died, and the thought of her living to write more fiction is almost as exciting as thinking of the poetry she might have written. She was a wicked satirist.

The Arrival of the Bee Box

I ordered this, clean wood box
Square as a chair and almost too heavy to lift.
I would say it was the coffin of a midget
Or a square baby
Were there not such a din in it.

The box is locked, it is dangerous.
I have to live with it overnight
And I can’t keep away from it.
There are no windows, so I can’t see what is in there.
There is only a little grid, no exit.

I put my eye to the grid.
It is dark, dark,
With the swarmy feeling of African hands
Minute and shrunk for export,
Black on black, angrily clambering.

How can I let them out?
It is the noise that appalls me most of all,
The unintelligible syllables.
It is like a Roman mob,
Small, taken one by one, but my god, together!

I lay my ear to furious Latin.
I am not a Caesar.
I have simply ordered a box of maniacs.
They can be sent back.
They can die, I need feed them nothing, I am the owner.

I wonder how hungry they are.
I wonder if they would forget me
If I just undid the locks and stood back and turned into a tree.
There is the laburnum, its blond colonnades,
And the petticoats of the cherry.

They might ignore me immediately
In my moon suit and funeral veil.
I am no source of honey
So why should they turn on me?
Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free.

The box is only temporary.

Sylvia Plath

Where Am I?

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