Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Dear Angel of Stud

(And you know who you are!)

Did you notice that there's a piece about Louis Zukofsky in the February Writer's Chronicle (40.4, February, 2008), pp. 24-29: "Louis Zukofsky's Vision of Natural Beauty in 80 Flowers," by Leon Lewis.

A certain book on LZ and the Poetry of Knowledge, by "the leading Zukofsky scholar," is mentioned in paragraph four, albeit as having perhaps offered a "counter-productive warning" to potential readers, "rather than an acceptance of manageable difficulties."

The times, they have a-changed, old friend.

Next! Next!

Finished the NEH application--it's in at the Office of Sponsored Programs to be reviewed, etc.

A stack of papers from the Jewish lit class now to grade, an essay to finish, poems to think through.

I need a good title for a project on romance fiction and American culture. "Perfect Unions and Others"? Not quite right. Something snappy, memorable. When the project was about romance and the academy I had a great title in mind, but now will have to save it for another day. Any suggestions?


Dear Dr. Laura,

Did you know that there's an odious, arch-conservative American advice columnist who shares your name? Can I call you Dr. V? Dr. L? Ooh, I like that: L for love, L for literature, L for life, L for all sorts of lovely things. But V gives me life in French, and is a fine allusion to the work of James Merrill, a favorite poet who writes of art as "V-work" (vie-work; victory-work; as in victory over entropy; the work of the numerological 5 in a system he's constructed).

Then of course Nathaniel Mackey has an epistolary novel comprised of letters to the "Angel of Dust." "Dear Angel of Dust": such a fine opening gesture. Hmmmm...

In any case, I took out two of the mandolins on Monday and started to play. It was awkward at first; Whiskey Girl, my oldest, pouted and wouldn't stay in tune as we worked through a page or two of sight-reading. Yesterday Two Shafts, the bluegrass F-style, shrugged things off more easily; we played for a half-hour or so while we watched the Obama / Clinton debate. Good times, and more to come.

You mention optimism--and I've been thinking about it for my next romance paper, as you know. I re-read Anyone But You on Monday night, and was struck how deeply the subplot about Charity, the author, fits my hunches about romance as a genre that models optimism for its readers. I've added it to my upcoming syllabus, which I'll post about on TMT as soon as I can.

Is there a poetry of optimism, too? Musing on that last night, as I drove home from work, I thought of the last two sections of "Ode to the West Wind." Allen Ginsberg told me, the one time that I met him, that these final stanzas were a magic spell of sorts--as you chanted them aloud, you'd find yourself heartened, transported, transformed.

(If you're a teacher, and have read this far--and these are public letters, after all, I tell my students to go first to these stanzas when they read the poem, since they house the heart, the emotional core, the instigation of the piece. Then you can double back and read the rest: the set-up, the hedgings, and finally the payoff.)

If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share

The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O uncontrollable! If even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be

The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
Scarce seem'd a vision; I would ne'er have striven

As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

A heavy weight of hours has chain'd and bow'd
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like wither'd leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguish'd hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken'd earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
But enough of these fine thoughts! Back to work! Next!

Monday, February 25, 2008

Letters to Friends

Dear Dr. Laura,

I see what you mean about my singling out the doumbek. I'd muse on that awhile here, but want to get a minute or two of music in today, so this will be the briefest of notes. Can I play for half an hour a night now? No. Can I play for ten minutes? Five minutes? One minute? Perhaps if I set my sights low enough--say, one song on one of them every day, no matter how briefly or badly--we'll reconcile, the instruments and I.

Nothing but good times ahead,


Dear Mark,

Just a joy to see you in Louisville! It sounds like you had a grand time on Sunday, after I left--post those pictures over at your blog for me, and I'll swing by for a look. Since you're here, let me make good on that promise to introduce you to Flight of the Conchords, New Zealand's fourth most popular folk-parody duo. To most of the conference they were very old news; I'm glad I'm slightly ahead of someone, even if I haven't heard any Radiohead (yet).

Here's one song, just to whet your appetite. You can swing over to YouTube and find more, but it might be more fun to let me post them here, and mediate the introduction. (That way, when in doubt, I'll have something to post, no?)

So, without further ado, it's Business Time:

Love to P, D, & J,

Sunday, February 24, 2008

I Think They Hate Me

My instruments, that is.

The oud, the two guitars, the mandolins, even the doumbeks.

I moved them upstairs to safety last weekend, tucked in their cases, for fear that the toddlers visiting would do them harm, but they know they haven't been played in a month. Not a lick, a doum, a bek, or a kah.

Whenever I think about moving them home to the living room, they say, "But are you going to play us again? If you're not, just leave us here. Really. It's OK."

Papers to grade, an essay to write, a grant proposal to file. How will I ever get back to them before they hate me forever?


Back yesterday afternoon from the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900: an odd event, as the title suggests, and perhaps as many conferences in one as the Popular Culture Association / American Culture Association shindig I'll be going to in March. My one point of comparison, that: I've been off the circuit for nearly a decade. Much talk, in L'ville, of middle age--when last I went, then too to speak of Ronald Johnson, I was 36 and coming up for tenure. Now I'm 44, and unlike my friend Mark, biographer and sage, I have no book to show for all those years. Even the Ron John collection is still "forthcoming," although we're counting down to lift off on it. (Three weeks to the index--huzzah!)


Feeling oddly free of angst.
Settled, busy, happy.


Much talk, at the conference, about my love of popular romance fiction. I need to write up a "conversion kit" for fellow academics, clearly, especially the male ones. (More talking with men at this conference than I've done in many a year. A different dynamic, somehow. I have a female colleague who said to me, recently, honestly surprised, "You really like dealing with women, don't you?" Or was it "working with women"? Anyway, she found this surprising. Am I so rare in this?)


I write this while walking: a new twist, compositionally, and somewhat hard to manage at first. Perhaps if I go slower? Yes--there we go. Came home to find R had set up a treadmill for me in the study, with the laptop balanced on a desk across the handlebars. It's the stand-up desk I'd wanted all fall plus the chance to put in some hours of exercise while clicking, surfing, and (yes) writing. Will it change my prose? Let me think more clearly? "When you go walking, Bob does the talking," saith the Sub-Genius book of my youth--Bob the Sales God and surrogate deity of this system, he of the pipe and grin. We'll see if there are any changes; for now, I simply know that I've clocked an hour or more of walking so far today without even noticing it. Sweet!


"More soon": my favorite sign-off, learned from someone (Stephen Yenser?) who learned it from James Merrill. More work on the horizon, but I'll try to keep this up, too.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Poetry Workshops

Tonight's meeting of my poetry workshop for middle-school teachers will be sparsely attended, it seems. A number of emails already to cancel, and I've just learned that we're due for six inches of snow tonight--in fact (checks window) it's already begun to fall.

A pity! Tonight's guest is an amazing teacher, here to talk about bringing the Poetry Out Loud model of teaching poetry through recitation--teaching everything about it, close-reading style--to the middle school arena. (POL is a high school program.)

I will not be discouraged. This is a wonderful program, and if the logistics have turned out to be more complicated than I'd expected, I'll just do them differently next time. (In retrospect, maybe a week or two in the summer would have been better than monthly meetings all year long. But I can't do this in the summer of '08, or '09, and I won't wait until '10 to do it again. So I'll need a new model. School visits? A ten-week "course"?)

If you have ideas, I'd love to hear them! In the mean time, I'm off to learn, to teach, and to enjoy a few poems while the woods (and streets) fill up with snow.

April showers bring May flowers; what do February snows bring?

Why, the waters of March!

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Good Poetry News!

Not fish news, but heck--there's more to life than pets (and kids, and lessons in mortality, etc.)--

I just got word that A Surge of Language: Teaching Poetry Day by Day, by Baron Wormser and David Capella, has gone into a third printing. There are a number of good books about poetry out there, but none quite as inspiring as this, and precious few as chock-a-block with lessons and approaches. Not a textbook, it's the fictional journal of a grade-school English teacher who has put poetry at the center of his classroom practice.

"What if we said to any educator," the authors ask near the start,
that he or she had a resource within his or her grasp that would improve reading skills, verbal skills, and writing skills; that would require no additional outlays of money; that would make students better performers on standardized tests; that would provide daily inspiration in their lives; that would increase their self-esteem; that would help them enormously with the nuts and bolts of literacy, such as spelling, punctuation, and grammar; that would connect them with the multi-ethnic nature of democracy; that would improve vocabulary in meaningful and enjoyable ways; that would dramatically improve their listening skills; that would honor the integrity of their feelings; and that would be a solace and joy they could carry through their whole lives? Chances are any educator would say, Where do I sign?
If you're a teacher--in school, or at home--you should know this book.

But wait! There's more!

You can also study poetry and how to teach it with Wormser and other top faculty this summer, from June 30 to July 4, at the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching. I've seen Wormser and Capella in action--they kicked off my own NEH program for middle school teachers last August--and I can testify that it was a remarkable, transforming experience, not to be missed.

Good news all around.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008


My son's lizard hangs on, but tonight one of my daughter's fish--the newest one, a few days in our care--was lying on the floor of the tank, dead, when she came upstairs to bed. Was the tank too dirty? Probably, which makes it our fault, at least in part, which makes it harder.
"Man is in love and loves what vanishes,
What more is there to say?"

A hard night ahead of her, poor dear, and a long day tomorrow.

On Sitting Down to Read Myself Again

Spent the last hour re-reading my old piece (nearly 5 years old, now) on Jorie Graham, from Parnassus (24.1).

Heck of a piece, Brownie.

Seriously, I could have turned it into a book, if events hadn't intervened. (What events? Damned if I can remember.) Maybe I still could.

Anyway, I was reading it to get fired up about my new piece, the one on Larry Joseph, but I was particularly taken with this quote in it, from the poet Alice Fulton:
“Write about the pleasures of attainment, having, holding,” Fulton dares herself in a passage from The Poet’s Notebook. “A poetry that doesn’t desire but delivers. Satiation being part of what it offers. […] A poem praising the boundless intensity of attainment (rather than longing).”
No wonder I ended up working on Romance Fiction. (Was I already? I can't remember...maybe a bit, just for fun?)

This, for old times' sake:

Now back to work.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008


On the drive in, this thought: since today is Super Tuesday, why not have the students practice scansion and writing in meter by working with the candidates' names? They know the names and how they should be pronounced, and if we use the names to fill in parts of metrical lines, the rest of the line might fall into place more easily.

Possible complication: I'll need to explain that three syllable words w/ the accent on the first syllable (i.e. "HI-lla-ry") can also take an accent on the final syllable, if the meter demands it (i.e., "I think that I shall never see / A candidate like Hi-lla-ry").

Is there a handy list of rules-of-thumb about prosody anywhere on line?

A quick search turns up these, from the remarkable Interactive Tutorial on Rhythm Analysis at Reed:
  • Syntactically speaking, words are either content words or function words. "Content words are words which operate with a certain degree of independence, conveying a full meaning by themselves. They are nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. Most of the words in the dictionary are content words. Function words are words that depend on other words for their meaning, usually indicating some kind of relation. They include prepositions, articles, demonstratives, conjunctions, pronouns, and auxiliaries" (PR 27-28).

  • Most monosyllabic content words have a stress (e.g., clock, red, run).

  • Simple polysyllabic words may have only one stress, e.g., rabbit, but more complicated words may have more than one stress.
    1. This is particularly the case when they have four or more syllables, like "polysyllabic," or when the meter of the poem "promotes" the final syllable of a three-syllable word whose usual accent comes at the beginning of the word: yesterday can also be yesterday, if the meter demands it. ("I don't know why you pout that way. / I said 'I love you' yesterday!"

  • Monosyllabic function words like "a," "the," "but" or "and" are generally unstressed.

  • Polysyllabic function words have relatively stronger and weaker stresses within them, for instance in such prepositions as "before," "after," and "against."
The site also offers this advice about scanning phrases and lines:
  • In English, there is a strong preference for alternating stressed and unstressed syllables. We tend to avoid both too many unstressed syllables in a row and consecutively stressed syllables. We are more likely, for example, to say "a free and easy manner" rather than "an easy and free manner" or "bright and shining eyes" rather than "shining and bright eyes" (Attridge, REP 71). In both of the preferred forms of these phrases, stressed and unstressed syllables alternate. In the non-standard forms, the double unstressed syllables followed by double stressed syllables feels awkward to our mouths and ears.
  • Indeed, as we say whole phrases we will often unconsciously shift how we accent words in order to produce this alternation.
  • For instance, "Tennessee" normally has its strongest stress on the last syllable. But in the phrase, "Tennessee walking horse," the strongest stress in "Tennessee" retracts to the front of the word to produce an alternating pattern.

  • Other examples of this pattern can be seen by comparing the differences between "thirteen" and "thirteen blackbirds" or "unknown" and "unknown soldier" (Attridge, PR 39).
Now, how can we put those to use? Hmmm...

I think I'll have them write some lines in the meters of poems we read--just couplets, rhyming, to start. First we'll scan the candidates' names--some first and last, some just last) and then have them available to plug in to our lines.

Hillary Clinton (dactyl, trochee)

Barrack Obama (iamb, amphibrach--although the BBC insists on calling him "BA-rrack," a trochee, instead)

McCain (iamb)

Romney (trochee)

Huckabee (dactyl)

Ron Paul (spondee)

In the right metrical context, Hillary and Huckabee could have their final syllables "promoted": "Both Hillary and Huckabee despise / The pundits who repeat their pretty lies." (Sorry--not much of a heroic couplet, but you get the idea.)

I'll let you know how it goes!

Cruelest Months Dept.

In the next three weeks: one major essay to finish (on Lawrence Joseph); one conference paper (on Ronald Johnson); and one NEH seminar application.

If things slow down here at little, that would be why. I'll try to keep the short bursts coming, though.

Off to vote, then teach. 18th Century today: Swift, Pope, Finch, Gray, Montague. Only part of The Rape of the Lock--let them finish it on their own, for pleasure, once I've given them the first three cantos in class. (That's the theory, anyway.) Much on prosody again; I'll dip into the Essay on Criticism during lecture, but I didn't have them read it themselves; time better spent on mock-epic & satire.

Do you all know Sophie Gee's novel, Scandal of the Season? If not, go and learn. More on it anon.

Saturday, February 02, 2008


Two examples, before I log off for the day, it being the Sabbath & all.

First, this, from Robert Creeley: the watchwords of my faith, and a perfect poem.
The Way

My love's manners in bed
are not to be discussed by me,
as mine by her
I would not credit comment upon gracefully.

Yet I ride by the margin of that lake in
the wood, the castle,
and the excitement of strongholds;
and have a small boy's notion of doing good.

Oh well, I will say here,
knowing each man,
let you find a good wife too,
and love her as hard as you can.
And this, from Richard and Linda Thompson, back before the flood. (Don't ask about the winter gear--I don't know why, either.) Enjoy, and I'll see you tomorrow.

Friday, February 01, 2008


Big storm today, which meant a morning shoveling: first my driveway and walk, and then my neighbor's. She's 90, and lives alone four months out of the year; her daughter and son-in-law hightail it to Florida, leaving her to her own devices. One of which, alas, is a loud but feeble snowblower, which she insists on our using when we dig her out. Easier to do it by hand, which I do--but I have to do it early, before she wakes up, otherwise it's a big debate over what tool I should use, by which point I could have been done already.

Did I say "Oy" yet? No? Oy.

Anyway, as I shoveled this morning another neighbor, one house down, cranked up his snowblower and met me halfway. The two of us did a fine job, if I may say so, and the whole time, I kept thinking of this little piece by Frost. The season's not right, but who cares? A lovely poem, a little "all 'rounder," meant to be quoted as needed:
The Tuft of Flowers

I went to turn the grass once after one
Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.

The dew was gone that made his blade so keen
Before I came to view the levelled scene.

I looked for him behind an isle of trees;
I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.

But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,
And I must be, as he had been,—alone,

As all must be,' I said within my heart,
Whether they work together or apart.'

But as I said it, swift there passed me by
On noiseless wing a 'wildered butterfly,

Seeking with memories grown dim o'er night
Some resting flower of yesterday's delight.

And once I marked his flight go round and round,
As where some flower lay withering on the ground.

And then he flew as far as eye could see,
And then on tremulous wing came back to me.

I thought of questions that have no reply,
And would have turned to toss the grass to dry;

But he turned first, and led my eye to look
At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook,

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.

I left my place to know them by their name,
Finding them butterfly weed when I came.

The mower in the dew had loved them thus,
By leaving them to flourish, not for us,

Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him.
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.

The butterfly and I had lit upon,
Nevertheless, a message from the dawn,

That made me hear the wakening birds around,
And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground,

And feel a spirit kindred to my own;
So that henceforth I worked no more alone;

But glad with him, I worked as with his aid,
And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;

And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech
With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.

'Men work together,' I told him from the heart,
'Whether they work together or apart.'