Monthly Archives: March 2006

The coolest poem I know about moles

Here a poem for Poetry Friday, by Mary Oliver, from her book American Primitive:


Under the leaves, under
the first loose
levels of earth
they’re there — quick
as beetles, blind
as bats, but seen
less than these —
among the pale girders
of appleroot,
rockshelf, nests
of insects and black
pastures of bulbs
peppery and packed full
of the sweetest food:
spring flowers.
Field after field
you can see the traceries
of their long
lonely walks, then
the rains blur
even this frail
hint of them —
so excitable,
so plush,
so willing to continue
generation after generation
accomplishing nothing
but their brief physical lives
as they live and die,
pushing and shoving
with their stubborn muzzles against
the whole earth,
finding it

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Not a lot about me

As you will see if you look around, I’m not revealing a whole lot about myself here. Obviously, I’m using “you” in that sentence mostly to refer to future readers who will avidly read through my archives (I say with naive optimism), since I have no readers now. Even so, even without readers, I’m uncertain about giving out details about myself. (So why am I writing a blog, you might ask. Good question.) Here are a few facts: I’m an academic. I work as a college instructor and an academic administrator. I just earned an advanced grad degree.

I’m not interested in having an academic blog, however, although I read some of them and like reading them. What got me interested in blogging were those litblogs written by non-academics, like So Many Books and Book World, which are so enthusiastic about books it’s infectious. Reading academic blogs feels just a little bit masochistic. I spend plenty of time thinking about academic issues as it is (and often that time is plenty painful). Of course, the categories aren’t clear — a blog doesn’t have to be clearly “academic” or a “book blog,” it can be both. And I’m sure I’ll write about my students occasionally or other academic matters. But I want to bring some of the pleasure and excitement about books I see in many of the book blogs into my own writing. I’m not an amateur (I labeled myself an academic over at Metaxu Cafe), but can I pretend?

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Our novels are thinking

There’s some interesting discussion over at The Valve of Nancy Armstrong’s new book, How Novels Think, a book on the novel and the “modern subject.” I read parts of her book Desire and Domestic Fiction, which I liked quite a bit, and this new one is on my list of things to read. The posts, however, aren’t increasing my interest – I feel like I’m getting the gist of her argument from the discussion, and, while the book’s details might be interesting, I would read it for the larger argument in the hopes that it would surprise me. The surprise is ruined.

And the argument seems a bit like what I read in Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking At the Novel: see this. I’m sure Armstrong is more nuanced and better researched, but they both seem to be arguing that novels have a particular way of describing the world, and, even more so, of shaping the world, through the kinds of people and behavior they include and exclude. Smiley was always talking about how novels work to create the idea of the individual and then set individuals in conflict with their community and in so doing shape our ideas of acceptable relationships between the individual and group. Now, probably Armstrong is much more complex. But I’m thinking that, at heart, the idea is quite similar to Smiley’s. But … maybe I should read the book before I say anything more about it.

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On blogging

I’ve been reading quite a bit about blogging — the blog as genre, how to attract readers to your blog, the “rules” of blogging. I stumbled across two things, only one of which I’ll discuss today: a scholarly article on blogs and diaries (I’ll save that one), and the forums on MetaxuCafe, a site for “litbloggers” (I joined recently, and you can see the link over on the left). In their forum on “Blogging issues and ideas,” they have a thread on the question, “What is normal activity for a blog?” The posts discuss how to get readers and how to get people to comment; one person recommended being controverial now and then, not too often, or you will get a reputation for having knee-jerk responses, but enough to get people reading. The group wisdom seems to be that you need a big, popular blog to link to you, and then your readership will skyrocket. But some people report slow but steady increases in readers.

Someone else mentioned the “three pillars of blog traffic: focus, short posts, and the pop/gossip/controversy factor.” This is the sort of thing that intrigues me. Blogs are so new, and there are already rules for them! But people are breaking those rules! I read lots of blogs with long posts, and, if the writing is good, I come back to them all the time. I like unfocused blogs that discuss anything and everything — as long as the writer is interesting.

We (writers, readers) craft rules of genre so fast, so that almost instantaneously we have some rules to break. Every blog has the blogroll, the links, the personal information (or noticeable avoidance of personal information), the archives. Before creating my own blog, you can bet I spent some time checking out what other people have done and thinking about what things I want to steal and what others I’d like to adapt. So far, I’ve shaped my blog based on the book blogs I’ve read and liked. So I’ll include the occasional book review, the posts on reading itself, the experience of buying books.

It’s fun to think about what the “blog genre” is, how the medium shapes it (those three pillars are perfect for the what we have come to expect from the internet), and how individual bloggers are contributing to the genre as a whole.

So, to follow one of the suggestions for attracting comments, I’ll end with a question: how much is a blog like or unlike a diary?

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Poetry and prose

Here’s Michael Symmons Roberts’s top 10 list of “verse novels.” I’ve never read a “verse novel,” except for portions of Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Roberts asks, trying to distinguish verse novels from epic poems:

“So how does it differ from an epic poem? Something about the scale and complexity of the story which pushes it into novel territory? Something about intent? You could argue that a verse novel can only be written in conscious awareness of the novel as a form, which counts out Beowulf and Paradise Lost, despite their scale and richness of story and character.”

I suppose so. I wonder what would draw a writer to write a verse novel. If you have a story to tell, why not choose full-on prose, or write lyrical prose that’s prose nonetheless? Now that I re-read Roberts’s two paragraphs or so on the genre, I see that most of his analysis is negative, listing all the ways the verse novel can go wrong:

“The verse novel (like the rock opera or the sound sculpture) is the awkward child of successful parents, destined to disappoint both of them. The pitfalls are many. Verse novels can be full of bad poetry: essential but dull building blocks to get from A to B. Or they can be strong on music but light on narrative. Reading a bad verse novel is very hard work with little reward. You think it must be good for you; you just can’t work out how.

This must be a big part of the draw then: the challenge. What can I write that is highly likely to fail and that nobody will read? This is the sort of thing that makes me feel like a lazy reader. I would like to read Eugene Onegin, first on his list, but I doubt I will any time soon.

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On marriage and bike races

First, Virginia Woolf, on marriage:

“But I was glad to come home, & feel my real life coming back again — I mean life here with L. Solitary is not quite the right word; one’s personality seems to echo out across space, when he’s not there to enclose all one’s vibrations. This is not very intelligibly written; but the feeling itself is a strange one — as if marriage were a completing of the instrument, & the sound of one alone penetrates as if it were a violin robbed of its orchestra or piano.”

Next, me, on bike races:

After a morning spent out in the cold, either racing or watching other races, I am thrilled to be indoors for the afternoon, cozy in my study, to read and write a bit. I rode in a men’s category 5 criterium (women can ride in certain men’s races), and stayed with the pack longer this week than last. That’s good enough. What I was mainly worried about was being the woman who caused a crash. Being a lone woman riding with the guys is fun at times because I get all kinds of attention the other dime-a-dozen men don’t (this is because not many women race, which is a bad thing, but extra attention and encouragement is the good side of the bad situation), but I don’t want people paying attention to me because I caused them to slide across the pavement.

A big part of going to bike races is talking to strangers who also go to bike races. I like the fact that you can tell very little about other people’s non-cycling lives (maybe you can tell something from the way they talk) and so I have conversations with people I might not normally. That turns out to be a whole lot of men in their 50s. I hear a lot of talk about bike gear (about which I know little) and a lot of blaming of things like “getting boxed in.” Hmmm. Not sure what I think about that.

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I am reading Virginia Woolf’s diary, Vol. 1, a bit at a time. I expect to move through it slowly. So far I am enjoying it, although the last stretch I read was mostly very short summaries of days spent walking and reading (if I didn’t know a little about what her mental life was like I’d be jealous), and not terribly interesting. But she has some great observations sprinkled in here and there, and I like to know what she is reading, and what she thinks about it. She was reading Pope in the first part of the diary and liking him a lot. Are there two writers whose differences are greater? As someone who claims some expertise in eighteenth-century literature, I should know him better than I do.

I’ve been a sporadic journal keeper myself; I kept one more consistently when I was younger. These days I mostly keep track of what I’m reading with a few thoughts about it and what kind of riding I’m doing. That is, until this blog. So Woolf’s diary is very appropriate reading for me now. I haven’t been a big diary reader (with the exception of … well, see my blogger name), but maybe that will change.

I returned Smiley to the library; there really is no point in reading through all her discussions of individual works. I’m fascinated by the idea of reading through a long list of novels (she spent three years on it) and am a sucker for long, involved projects, and I wish she’d said more about what the experience was like (did she get bored? did she long for nonfiction after a while?).

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