a book trail

I have Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God to hand. It’s been on my shelf for a few years now. What I want to write about is not it, particularly, but I’ll do that quickly and move on.

Much interesting about Rilke’s attitude to God at this period. In paraphrase: – You are not where or what I have thought you to be. I create you. You need me as much as I need you. And oh, what will you do when I am gone? You are my heir, my protégé.

He writes, and this strikes one as  signature:

I feel it now: there’s power in me
to grasp and give shape to my world.

I know that nothing has ever been real
without my beholding it.
All becoming has needed me.
my looking ripens things
and they come toward me, to meet and be met.

Who knows what would have happened if I had read this at the right time? Which would have been, would it not, the time I bought it. But I almost never (that bad fairy at my christening) buy a book and read it. The burst of light and eagerness in which I buy, and that in which I read, always seem far removed from each in other in color, in quality, in intensity. With my books I have to squint hard – very hard, sometimes – to remember that first light, how first acquisition felt. So, puzzling over the presence of Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God in my bookcase, I have thought a bit, squinted a bit, and reconstructed the book trail, the thought/feel trail, that led me to it. As follows:

In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden.

Story of a high-powered female executive in the very early 20th century who throws it all in to join a Benedictine monastery, she becomes a Benedictine nun. This is where I first focused on the beauty of the Divine Office, in concept and execution, and on the Liturgy of the Hours, the eight of them: -Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline.

Then China Court also by Rumer Godden.

A story about a story about a story of a strained, impoverished country house and a fabulously valuable Book of Hours.

Then (or before, or during?) – the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, that of a sudden sprang out of worn mumbo-jumbo meaningless back-groundness into clean bristling gleaming language. Suddenly, just like that.

Followed by The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark.

About many things, including and especially that language. The steadying, rallying bone-clean language of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

And so to Rilke.

But, once again, the light in which I bought is not the light in which I read. I read it as rather thin,  now, and disappointing. Its appeal very intellectual. One is constantly presented with broad literal (if that is not a contradiction in terms) abstractions –  love, blindness, peace, wretchedness, loneliness, silence. As a reader you are asked to do a great deal of filling-in (fill in lonely, loving, wretched sensation here), but not in a bracing challenging way, just in wearying  draining way, at the end of the day.

Much spiritual shorthand, requiring the sort of brainwork that would be (one can easily tell) easier and more joyful and much more resonant were one in the proper spiritual place.

Which one isn’t at the moment, but, oh well.

Update: Thinking about it and realizing that St. John of the Cross and On A Dark Night should be in there too, somewhere. George Herbert and Henry Vaughan too, probably, if one were going to be properly accurate. I haven’t ever tried to map a book trail before. Better luck next time.

Are you a mom or a fresh pancake?

If you weren’t a mom, you’d be a fresh pancake.

So my six-year-old son informs me this evening. The same one who sings: A+A=B! and D+M=4! The same one who has memorized my cell phone number and calls me at work to tell me his name is Alan. (Which it isn’t. Even remotely.)

I think he’s channeling Plath. I think she snuck growling into the house through the attic (or through Ariel, which is as good as any attic) and slunk invisibly down the loft ladder and possessed him while I was cooking.


The Pope’s Penis

by Sharon Olds

It hangs deep in his robes, a delicate
clapper at the center of a bell.
It moves when he moves, a ghostly fish in a
halo of silver seaweed, the hair
swaying in the dark and the heat — and at night
while his eyes sleep, it stands up
in praise of God.


I’ve been reading Sharon Olds’ Strike Sparks – selected poems from 1980-2002. If you’ve been reading Sylvia Plath (as I have), you should definitely read Sharon Olds next, if only to rest your brain and unkink it a bit after all that mental squinting. Another confessional poet, just as diamond hard, but far less allusive and with much much less of that fevered thick Amazon rainforest with so much bright and brilliant going on that in the end you just want a blindfold.

Everything you read about Olds talks about how she uses frank, direct, sometimes shocking language etc in dealing with the body and with sexuality. I don’t know, I think those must have been pretty old people writing those reviews. (Although, that said, I put The Pope’s Penis on here because at some level I’m betting that my blog will explode in the night with this on it, and I’m not even Catholic.) She’s not so much shocking as just very capable and disinclined to take long cuts where a short one will do. She tells a very very good story, a lot of her work is like snapping micro-fiction. Killer images…your/eyes filling with a terrible liquid like/balls of mercury from a broken thermometer/skidding on the floor. I love her linebreaks – I love the way she constantly breaks on the and and and but and all those really bad words to break on. And the way they really work.

She’s good on family, really good on family, and does what poets are maybe meant to do, which is make you look again at your own experiences, look at them in carefulness, in a picky, dissatisfied, but good sort of way.

So go read some Olds.

Trouble with feeds

I’m just letting some of you know that your Bloglines feeds are having problems. If you click on my Bloglines feeds list, you will notice that several of the listed blogs have a red exclamation mark by them. All of these blogs were frozen in time on November 16, 2006.

Were you all at some drunken, drug-ruled, blank-inducing party together that night, or what?

I’ve unsubscribed, re-subscribed, shut down, shut off, restarted, re-booted, etc etc, a dozen times, and I can’t fix your Bloglines feeds. Luckily, through yet another heroic act of technology subduance, I have found actual direct RSS feeds for some of you (that would be Rob, Julie, Twitches and Poet Mom). So NOW I now what you have been up to for the last two weeks.

But don’t blame me if the rest of the world is thinking, gee, I wonder what’s up with Rob, Julie, Twitches and Poet Mom? I haven’t heard a peep out of them since November 16.

All this feeds stuff is great, though. It’s making nonsense of blogstats and counters and comments-as-a-way-of-proving-I’m-reading-your-blog-so-you-better-darn-well-be-reading-mine-and-where’s-your-comment.

A new generation already, and I only just found out about the old.

Moving house

   Welcome to the new site. Please update your links and bookmarks to reflect our new address. Getting to be very mobile in cyberspace. Tired of fuming about the limitations of LiveJournal, tired of watching my blog over there get bigger and bigger while I dither and fret. Livejournal is HISTORY. By a superhuman feat of technology subduance, I managed to get my LJ posts transferred over here in toto. The casualties were the comments, very sad in many cases, so please add lots of pithy new ones over here.

   Will this be the place I settle?  Will WordPress do what Livejournal failed to do? (Which would be, make me happy.  Heh.) This is the new skin I have chosen from the WordPress bouquet for the moment. It’s called Quentin.  “An older feeling and dignified theme,” says its blurb. Good. I can think of nothing better than being regarded as old and dignified, so kindly take your cue from Quentin.


Can someone explain to me why Sylvia Plath is not listed in the poets directory at the Poetry Foundation?  Can that be a mistake?

The next thing on my Chain Reading poetry page list was her Ariel, and I am very much annoyed to find that the version I have been reading is the 1965 version put together by her evil (not that I’m biased on the basis of sketchy internet-provided and unsubstantiated-lore-of-the-years evidence, or anything) husband, Ted Hughes – who both added and subtracted a bunch to her original sketch of the manuscript. The real thing, her intended version, was republished in 2004. Oh well.

What did I think of it? Diamond-hard, caustic, over-wrought, hectic. Exhausting. Brilliant. Obscure. Obscure personal code, one thought, frequently. Everything desperate and tense, and zero-sum. And distinctive, distinctive as hell. The ones that best suited me, and which I keep going back to, are the more accessible, less hectic ones, like The Moon and the Yew TreeThe Rival and The Bee Meeting.

Couple of interesting pieces on her: Erica Jong in the New Yorker on the 2004 edition of Ariel that I have not got; and a fairly detailed biography here, at neuroticspoets.com. Sounds like she and Ted Hughes had a high old time making each other thoroughly miserable. Something to go back to, more than more than once.

chain reading and e e cummings

My Chain Reading poetry reading project has been stalled lately and I blame e e cummings. I have been trying to get through his Collected Poems 1922-1938 for a while now. I have owned it since 1996 (I see from the flyleaf) and until now have dipped into and out of it over the years as the fancy took me. This is most definitely the way to handle a collection this size, and possibly just to handle e e cummings. I have managed to get rather tired of him over the past couple of weeks, I must say – a lot of magic, a great deal, and lines and lines to kill and die for, but slipperiness too, and some nearly Ogden Nash-ish facileness sometimes. He seems to be schizophrenic about women – sometimes he gets into an insolent unpleasant channeling-Henry-Miller mode; at other times he&apos;s a lyrical courtly cross between Orpheus and Sir Galahad, just gallant and plain enchanting. And boy, does he love spring. That weird punctuation thing he has has always vaguely irritated me, and now it frankly enrages me. What’s so damn meaningful about not putting a space between parentheses and the letters immediately preceding and following them, I ask you? All that said, when I edit my Best Poems Ever, he will definitely have more than one in that collection. Final word – he’s cool, but in small, select doses only.

value of a poem?

I don’t think anyone does it (i.e. write poems) for the money and I never thought about how much poetry might earn for me, except possibly to think that it couldn’t possibly earn anything much. Yes, I know I’m a know-nothing, but somehow, focusing this afternoon for the first time, I am simultaneously disturbed and comforted to see (for random example) that the The Stick Man Review pays $10 a poem. With a maximum of $20 per author. (Per issue?) I mean, what does this mean, exactly? A million questions spring to mind, among them: do I have to pay taxes on the $10? and WTF?!  Surely it makes more sense to offer nothing than it does to offer $10 in the case of poetry….?

on poetry criticism

Check this out. A long article on poetry criticism (lamenting the state of) by Kristin Prevallet, from the April 2000 issue of Jacket Magazine, entitled: Why Poetry Criticism Sucks. It’s very long and presents a lot that needs thinking about (for me, anyway), but I extract the following four points, which she offers as her personal “two cents” about poetry criticism:

1) poetry reviews are seldom poetry criticism. They are usually fondling acknowledgments demonstrating likeability, and serve the absolutely essential purpose of keeping us sane. I write them, and will continue to do so, with pleasure.

2) criticism rarely gets written among people who know each other personally; as a rule of thumb, critics do not socialize with those they critique. The fact of the matter is that poetry has very few actual critics who are not poets, or who are not interested in socializing with poets. This is of course a problem, and means essentially that poetry criticism needs to be defined separately than ordinary criticism because it serves a very different function.

3) Poetry bantering and the inevitable personal repercussions are not poetry criticism. The poetic exchange is critical, but is not necessarily criticism; poetry criticism is a critique that takes into account the larger contexts – theoretical, social, cultural – that led to the production of poetry. The issue of whether poetry or a particular poet does or does not function within a particular scene is merely anecdotal; the real question is where does poetry intersect with larger contexts? Are poets willing or interested in forging that bridge?

4) It is very difficult to write poetry criticism and not have poets feel personally maimed (ask Jarrell). For some reason poetry criticism does not advance the formal, intellectual, or contextual parameters of poetry. It always gets confused with the personal. Just ask anyone who has been in the ring of fire: even the grandest provocateurs of the EP&apos;s – people like Dale Smith, Brian Kim Stefans, Alan Gilbert, Henry Gould, Ben Friedlander, Dodie Bellamy, Juliana Spahr, and a host of others, including myself, who are opinionated when they write about poetry – can testify to feeling the pain of critique. Friedlander finally went underground, writing his reviews under a pseudonym. Gould launched such an assault on the poetics list that he was ultimately kicked off. Smith’s mocking sense of humor gets taken so painfully literally. Ultimately the general feeling among poets that I hear over and over again in conversations is the same: poets who make waves are annoying.

The Aeneid

Robert Fagles translates The Aeneid. Hot dog! I can’t remember at what period of my life I listened to his Odyssey and Iliad on Books on Tape (must be a while ago, because, as I recall, they were tapes, rather than CDs) but I do recall getting really really sucked into them. Another item for the list, O Buyers of Christmas Presents for Me. You know who you are. (CDs are OK, OK?) The actual book would work, too. Heh.