Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

How to make a poem

July 26th, 2017

In John Williams’ novel Augustus, one of the Emperor’s oldest friends, a poet named Gaius Cilnius Maecenas, quotes the poet Horace on how to make a poem.  It is the best thing I have read on the subject.  According to Maecenas, Horace said, “I decide to make a poem when I am compelled by some strong feeling to do so – but I wait until the feeling hardens into a resolve; then I concede an end, as simple as I can make it, toward which that feeling might progress, though often I cannot see how it will do so.  And then I compose my poem, using whatever means are at my command.  I borrow from others if I have to – no matter.  I invent if I have to – no matter.  I use that language that I know, and I work within its  limits.  But the point is this: the end that I discover at last is not the end that I conceived at first.  For every solution entails new choices, and every choice made poses new problems to which solutions must be found, and so on and on.  Deep in his heart, the poet is always surprised at where his poem has gone.”

Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings

May 1st, 2016

I’m reading Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, a recent book of poetry by Joy Harjo. I think it may be a great book. It certainly inspires thought and feeling. One of the things I find myself thinking about is the dilemma confronting anyone who wants to write criticism of lyric poetry. If a volume of lyric poetry is working the way poetry can work, it is extremely difficult and maybe impossible to articulate an “argument” or even a “point of view” that the volume expresses, from which criticism can proceed. That is because what poetry points at is a preverbal or nonverbal set of truths. In this it shares something with the visual arts. Who was it who said, “If I could write about it I wouldn’t need to paint it?” Poets, and especially lyric poets, could make a similar statement, except of course they are writing about “it.” So that doesn’t leave the literary critic much to work with. The critic can do the Helen Vendler thing and focus on the technical means whereby the critic thinks the poet has achieved the poem’s effects. Or, as more often seems to happen, the critic can do the Dan Chiasson thing of throwing out a lot of fuzzy impressionistic verbiage in a hopeless attempt to communicate the poem’s effects – hopeless of course because that could be done only by reproducing the poem itself. As you may be able to tell, I don’t much care for either of these approaches. The Vendler approach leads to the response, “So what? Who cares?” If I’m a good poet, she’s not telling me anything I don’t already know, and if I’m not a good poet, knowing what she’s telling me will be useless. The Chiasson approach lands us square in the middle of “I don’t get it, and I don’t see why I should.” So I will content myself, for the present, by saying that Joy Harjo, line after line and page after page, evokes fundamental human realities. Her subject matter appears to be the product of a modern day Native American woman’s meditation on the past six hundred years of European and North American history.  If you’re interested in that, check out this book.


October 18th, 2015

My dear friend Susan Weiss died this summer after fending off breast cancer for several decades.  Susan was a difficult, courageous, charming, immensely talented and creative, warm, caring, smart, wacky, alert, profound, perceptive, sensitive, funny, principled person.  She and I got together regularly for years to talk about writing and about our families.  Susan wrote novels, one of which, My God What Have We Done, was published and is highly worth your while to seek out.  The publisher is Fomite Press of Burlington, Vermont.  One feature of Susan’s writing was her penchant for meaningfully juxtaposing pairs of subjects that one would think had little if anything to do with each other.  The effect was kind of like if you tinkled one of those little tibetan meditation bowls that you see in gift shops, and out of it came the clangorous reverberations of a great church bell.  In My God What Have we Done a failing marriage is juxtaposed with the Manhattan Project.   In the last book she completed before she died, Susan wrote about a mother seeking relationship with her children, and a murder of crows.  Here is a poem I wrote after visiting Susan in the respite house where she spent her last month or so (with insincere apologies to Dylan Thomas):

I know you’re tired,

too tired to sleep well.

You could rage against the

dying of the light, but the

night doesn’t care.

I can imagine you

wasting breath on that, but

not too much.

Or you could go gently.

Whatever.  Really, I see you

stroking the tiny throat

feathers of that crow

sitting on your shoulder, its

strong beak poised at your

ear, asking it to

let you tell its story.

It’s Spread to Europe!

October 27th, 2013

harp guyI am thrilled to announce that To Join the Lost now is available at Shakespeare and Company, the wonderful English-language bookstore in Paris.  Yes, that Paris.  They accepted a few copies on consignment when I was there last week.  It was a rainy afternoon.  I sat outside under the awning for about forty-five minutes afterwards, waiting for the drizzle to subside and basking in the thrill of having my book on those bookshelves.  There also was a pretty good view of a chunk of Notre Dame.

Shakespeare and Company is a place steeped in literary history.  Well, sort of.  A bookstore by that name opened in 1919 on the Left Bank.  Through the 1920s, expatriate American and British literati hung out there: Ernest Hemingway, Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein. Its owner, Sylvia Beach, published Joyce’s Ulysses.  The original store closed in 1940, during the German occupation.  It never reopened, but a second store was opened in 1951 (the year before I was born) by George Whitman and it bears the same name; its current owner, Sylvia Beach Whitman, was named for the original store’s founder, and she has worked hard to maintain the same spirit and commitment to writing and writers that made the first store legendary.

I didn’t really expect my book to find a place there, and I am thrilled that it did.  But now I find myself in a bit of a quandary.  It is there on consignment.  That means, if it doesn’t sell out in the next six months (unlikely as that may seem) I need to retrieve the copies.  I don’t think I will be able to go back there so soon, although I dearly would love to do so.  There are items on the menu of Au Bascou that I haven’t tried yet.  I need a contact in Paris who can handle that for me (the book, not the restaurant) next April, if necessary.  Volunteers?

A Liberal Profession

March 16th, 2013

Lawyer's Wig (Coprinus comatus)

Having devoted my professional career to the practice of law, I have naturally enough developed a certain ambivalence about the value of the legal profession to society.  The law itself, of course, represents one of the great advances in humanity’s development; law as such is a fairly unambiguous good, at least until we collectively develop a sufficient sense of emapthy for and responsibility to each other that we can safely dispense with the use of rules to govern our conduct.  But the legal profession is another thing.  I recently found my doubts about it crystallized in a speech by Stephen Maturin, the fictional nineteenth century physician at the center, with his friend Captain Jack Aubrey, of Patrick O’Brian’s marvelous series of novels.  In The Reverse of the Medal, Maturin tries to shake Jack’s naive faith in the infallibility of the English legal system:

‘As for Gibbon, now’, said Stephen when they were settled by the fire again, ‘I do remember the first lines.  They ran “It is dangerous to entrust the conduct of nations to men who have learned from their profession to consider reason as the instrument of dispute, and to interpret the law according to the dictates of private interest; and the mischief has been felt, even in countries where the practice of the bar may deserve to be considered as a liberal occupation.”  He thought – and he was a very intelligent man, of prodigious reading – that the fall of the Empire was caused at least in part by the prevalence of lawyers.  Men who are accustomed over a long series of years to supposing that whatever can somehow be squared with the law is right – or if not right then allowable – are not useful members of society; and when they reach positions of power in the state they are noxious.  They are people for whom ethics can be summed up by the collected statutes.  Tully, for example, thought himself a good man, though he openly boasted of having deceived the jury in the case of Cluentius; and he was quite as willing to defend Catiline in the first place as he was to attack him in the second.  It is all of a piece throughout; they are men who tend to resign their own conscience to another’s keeping, or to disregard it entirely.  To the question “What are your sentiments when you are asked to defend a man you know to be guilty?” many will reply “I do not know him to be guilty until the judge, who has heard both sides, states that he is guilty.”  This miserable sophistry, which disregards not only epistemology but also the intuitive perception that informs all daily intercourse, is sometimes merely formular, yet I have known men who have so prostituted their intelligence that they believe it.’


March 1st, 2013

It’s always a mistake to get too attached to anything one is writing; a mistake similar to that of naming farm animals.  Just as it might be difficult to turn Miss Lulu into hams and bacon, it might be difficult when that couplet you fell in love with meets the knife of revision.  Nevertheless, sometimes the music and rhythm come together and I can’t help a certain fondness overcoming me.  I’m closing in on the end of Canto XXXII of Volume Two – only one more canto to go! the bottle of champagne is already in the fridge – and I am quite taken with these two lines describing the activity of blowflies on a corpse:

Finding refreshment in fluids exuded from

broken-down cells, they busily scrimmage for space.

Say it five times out loud and you’ll see what I mean.


January 29th, 2013

To all of you who have bought a copy of To Join the Lost, I am sorry to report an error.  Page 178, line 1 should read “Archimedes” not “Aristotle.”  Can’t imagine how I let that slip through!  To all of you who have not bought a copy, what are you waiting for?  You can order one right here.

He’s Baa-aaack

December 11th, 2011

Evil Kenyan Socialist Muslims, Beware This Man!

Long-time readers of this blog will know of my affection for Charles Dickens, class warrior extraordinaire and the greatest wielder of snark and outrage the English language has ever known.  Often, reading Dickens, I am struck by the feeling that except for the funny costumes he is talking directly about contemporary America.  Apparently the wonderful blogger Lance Mannion feels much the same way, likening New Gingrich to the evil schoolmaster Wackford Squeers from Nicholas Nickleby.  I would quibble with only one thing.  Nobody named “Lance Mannion” has any business making fun of “Newt Gingrich” as a moniker Dickens might have invented.

In this same vein, and with a nod to Newt’s claim that whereas most people think in terms of relatively short periods of time, he himself habitually contemplates vistas of 500 years, I would like to direct your attention to a fairly recently published book, one of whose themes is the unvarying nature of malevolence over the centuries.

Pledge Break

July 9th, 2011

If you like what you read on this blog, let me tell you, the book behind the blog is even better!  It’s the world’s only up-to-date authoritative guide to the sights, sounds and smells of hell!  Over seven hundred years in the making!  Our staff has visited the places we tell you about, not once, but twice!  Information you can’t get anywhere else! Thirty-four fact-and-description-packed cantos!  If you read only one canto a day, it works out to less then what you spend every morning for a cup of coffee!  Show your support for locally produced, free range, grass fed, organically grown, no antibiotics literature!  Buy it, you’ll like it!

Next week we will return to our regular blogging, whether or not we meet our goal of 100 new volumes sold.  But we certainly will blog in a perkier manner if we do!

The Sage of Bahia Mar

June 29th, 2011

John D. MacDonald

I have been revisiting Travis McGee, one of the great serial novel characters of the last century (the others are Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin).  John D. MacDonald wrote 21 books about Mcgee, and I have been reading them seriatim, following not only the character’s development and maturation but also that of the author.  McGee was a self-described “boat bum”, living aboard a fifty-two foot houseboat named The Busted Flush at Slip F-18, Bahia Mar marina, Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  He fought in the Korean War, so by now, if he lived this long, he would be in his eighties, although it’s hard to imagine him doddering around a retirement community, plaid pants pulled up to his navel.  He’d be one of those trim, energetic octogenarians doomed to outlive everyone he loves.  He made his living as a “salvage consultant.”  If someone had something taken from them – money; reputation; valuable artifacts – in such a way that the law couldn’t recover it, McGee would try to get it back.  If he was successful, he would take his expenses off the top, then split the recovery down the middle, on the theory that half of something is better than nothing. 

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