Monthly Archives: October 2006

Best novel of the last 25 years?

You’ve probably heard about the Observer’s poll to find the best British, Irish, or Commonwealth novel from the last 25 years. Like the American version of a while back, they asked a bunch of famous literary people to vote and came up with a list. I didn’t like the American list at all, and got quite annoyed at the whole enterprise, but I’m not having that reaction this time. I’m guessing that’s because I don’t feel any “ownership” or any stake in this because it’s not “my” country — but as you can tell from my scare quotes, I don’t particularly like feeling that way. Why feel any ownership over American literature? I’m someone who’s spent an awful lot of time studying British literature anyway! A bad list is a bad list.

But I don’t really know if the Observer’s list is a bad one or not largely because I haven’t read much on it. That probably explains my non-reaction. When I saw the list I immediately bookmarked it as a source of future reading suggestions, while the American list did not inspire me in that way at all.

In case you’re too lazy to click over here are the top winners:

First place

Disgrace (1999)JM Coetzee

Second place

Money (1984)Martin Amis

Joint third place

Earthly Powers (1980)Anthony Burgess

Atonement (2001)Ian McEwan

The Blue Flower (1995)Penelope Fitzgerald

The Unconsoled (1995)Kazuo Ishiguro

Midnight’s Children (1981)Salman Rushdie

Joint eighth place

The Remains of the Day (1989)Kazuo Ishiguro

Amongst Women (1990)John McGahern

That They May Face the Rising Sun (2001)John McGahern


Of these, I’ve read only The Remains of the Day and Midnight’s Children, and I’ve listened to Atonement on CD. All these books I loved, especially the Ishiguro and McEwan. I’ve read other books by Martin Amis, but no Coetzee (although I’ve been considering it for a while), no Burgess (I haven’t been interested, but maybe I should be?), no Fitzgerald (I’m guessing I’m missing out here), and no McGahern (no idea about this one).

There’s a longer list of other nominations, which you’ll have to click over to read; I am familiar with most of the names but some are completely new to me.

What do you think — am I more interested in this list than the American one because it’s a better list, or because I don’t know enough about it to be disappointed in it?

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Virginia Woolf’s “Kew Gardens”

In a way, I’m hesitant to talk about Virginia Woolf’s “Kew Gardens” as a story, since it shares so little with other short stories I’m familiar with. In what sense is this a story? In a lot of ways, it seems more accurate to call it a sketch, or maybe a prose poem. It consists of a description of a flower bed in Kew Gardens and a snail slowly making its way between the plants and around the leaves. It describes the colors and the light in minute details. We read of small groups of people who walk by the flower bed; we catch little bits of their conversations, enough to begin to piece together a story, but really only fragments before they move on and we lose sight of them.

What tempts me to call the work a prose poem is not so much the beautiful description, although there is plenty of that, but more the way it creates a mood, the people and the natural world together, so that the point is not what happens but how we feel as we read it. I’m also tempted to call it a prose poem because it gives us little glimpses of stories that we have to work to put together, in the way a poem will sometimes hint at a situation without fleshing it out, and focus on the feeling of that situation more than the events, even though the events are often implicit.What we get from the vignettes are images, as we might find in poems, as when the first man thinks of 15 years previously when he sat in the gardens with Lily and asked her to marry him and she refused:

We sat somewhere over there by a lake and I begged her to marry me all through the hot afternoon. How the dragonfly kept circling round us: how clearly I see the dragonfly and her shoe with the square silver buckle at the toe. All the time I spoke I saw her shoe and when it moved impatiently I knew without looking up what she was going to say: the whole of her seemed to be in her shoe.


We picture the man staring at the Lily’s shoe and watching its impatient movements and understanding his fate, and we also picture that same man 15 year later walking through the gardens with his wife and children and remembering Lily’s rejection with relief and with regret.We see an old man walking with a younger one:

The elder man had a curiously uneven and shaky method of walking, jerking his hand forward and throwing up his head abruptly, rather in the manner of an impatient carriage horse tired of waiting outside a house; but in the man these gestures were irresolute and pointless.

He talks incessantly to the younger man about spirits who are speaking to him of heaven, and the younger man’s “look of stoical patience [grows] slowly deeper and deeper.” With the older man’s jerky movements and the younger man’s strained calm, we put together the story of failing mental powers on the one hand and youthful health and energy on the other. Woolf gives these hints of story through the images themselves; they are vibrant because they are brief and sharply focused.Woolf spends as much time describing the flower bed and the snail as she does the people; in fact, since there are four groups of people who walk by, the snail gets much more attention than any particular person does. The human stories are not privileged; the snail’s decision whether to crawl around or over or under the leaf is just as important as whether Lily said yes or no. With Woolf’s careful description of the flowers and the sunlight, she creates a feeling that the natural world, even though it is made up of individual parts that are fleeting, as a whole is more real and long-lasting than the human world.

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Footnotes on footnotes

As Nicholson Baker nears the end of his novel The Mezzanine, his narrator begins talking about Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. We learn he has begun to read this book because of “a glowing mention in William Edward Hartpole Lecky’s History of European Morals (which I had been attracted to, browsing in the library one Saturday, by the ambitious title and the luxurious incidentalism of the footnotes).” And here Baker inserts a footnote. This footnote starts off with anecdotes from Lecky’s book and modulates into a discussion of footnotes themselves. This is the sentence with which the footnote ends:

Footnotes are the finer-suckered surfaces that allow tentacular paragraphs to hold fast to the wider reality of the library.


I’m not entirely sure if that’s a brilliant sentence or a terrible one. Maybe it’s brilliant in its awfulness. But I love the idea that footnotes connect the book to the rest of the library, to a wider reality.

But back to the beginning — Baker’s narrator repeats a couple of the anecdotes from Lecky’s book, one of which tells us that Spinoza “liked to entertain himself by dropping flies into spiders’ webs, enjoying the resultant battle so much that he occasionally burst out laughing.” The narrator considers why such side notes, such digressions are so much fun, and in doing so, he quotes Boswell on Samuel Johnson:

Upon this tour, when journeying, he [Johnson] wore boots, and a very wide brown cloth great coat, with pockets which might have almost held the two volumes of his folio dictionary; and he carried in his hand a large English oak stick. Let me not be censured for mentioning such minute particulars. Everything relative to so great a man is worth observing.


The narrator goes on, and here we get to the heart of his footnote on footnotes:

Boswell, like Lecky (to get back to the point of this footnote), and Gibbon before him, loved footnotes. They knew that the outer surface of truth is not smooth, welling and gathering from paragraph to shapely paragraph, but is encrusted with a tough protective bark of citations, quotation marks, italics, and foreign languages, a whole variorum crust of “ibid.s’s” and “compare’s” and “see’s” that are the shield for the pure flow of argument as it lives for a moment in one’s mind. They knew the anticipatory pleasure of sensing with peripheral vision, as they turned the page, a gray silt of further example and qualification waiting in tiny type at the bottom.


At the risk of boring you, here’s a bit more:

Digression — a movement away from the gradus, or upward escalation, of the argument — is sometimes the only way to be thorough, and footnotes are the only form of graphic digression sanctioned by centuries of typesetters. And yet the MLA Style Sheet I owned in college warned against lengthy, “essay-like” footnotes. Were they nuts? Where is scholarship going? (They have removed this blemish in later editions.)

This whole book is an illustration of what Baker means by “luxurious incidentalism”; we find this in his footnotes, but we also find it in the text itself, which wanders from topic to topic as the narrator’s mind wanders on his lunch break. I begin to wonder, not how Baker could write 135 pages about one morning, but how he could capture the whole morning in a mere 135 pages.

Footnotes on one’s own thinking interest me. How does one decide what belongs in the main text and what belongs in a footnote, especially when the main text is itself already very digressive? To footnote someone else’s text I understand, and to footnote one’s own scholarly work with further details and explanations and documentations I understand, but to footnote a record of one’s own thoughts, a record that is by no means smooth and sequential to begin with and is already full of footnote-like digressions — that shows just how complicated it is to try to capture what goes on in a mind. If the “outer surface of truth is not smooth, welling and gathering from paragraph to shapely paragraph,” then neither is the “outer surface” of the mind.

I’m curious about this because the book ends with two endings, two climaxes, one in the main text and one in a footnote. The ending in the main text is quite simple: the narrator makes it to the top of the escalator. The footnote ending is about the resolution of the shoelace dilemma (what, exactly, wears them down and causes them to snap?) After researching the question exhaustively, the narrator finds a 1984 volume of World Textile Abstracts, with the following entry by the Polish researcher Z. Czaplicki:

Two mechanical devices for testing the abrasion resistance and knot slippage performance of shoe laces are described and investigated. Polish standards are discussed.


Here is the narrator’s response:

I let out a small cry and slapped by hand down on the page. The joy I felt maybe difficult for some to understand. Here was a man, Z. Czaplicki, who had to know! He was not going to abandon the problem with some sigh about complexity and human limitation after a minute’s thought, as I had, and go to lunch — he was going to make the problem his life’s work … A great man! I left the library relieved. Progress was being made. Someone was looking into the problem. Mr. Czaplicki, in Poland, would take it from there.


He doesn’t discover what makes shoelaces wear out, but there is somebody out there just as fascinated by the question as he is. The footnote ending shadows the main text ending, but in a way it is more important than the main text ending. The footnote ending points the reader out of the novel, out of the narrator’s mind, out to the world; it is an example of those “finer-suckered surfaces that allow tentacular paragraphs to hold fast to the wider reality of the library.”

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Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine

I finished The Mezzanine last night and loved it. If you’ve ever been tempted to read Nicholson Baker but haven’t yet, or even if you’ve never been tempted, I’d say give him a try. This is one sort of book I love very much — a non-traditional narrative that’s more about thoughts and ideas than about plot. It’s the kind of book where the narrator’s personality makes or breaks it; it’s all about voice. If the voice is good, it doesn’t matter what the subject is. It’s a novel that’s closer to the essay than it is to more traditional novels.

The subject of this book, that I say doesn’t matter so much? Let’s see. The main events include riding an escalator, contemplating why the two shoelaces on a pair of shoes snapped within a short time of each other, shopping at CVS, eating a cookie and milk, talking to work colleagues, and visiting the bathroom. The book describes the escalator ride from the vantage point of a few years afterward, and it moves backward from the escalator ride to describe the morning at work which precedes it and the lunch break which the ride brings to an end.

But these things aren’t really the subjects of the book. The real subjects are the way the narrator’s mind works and his enthusiasm for the little details of modern life. This enthusiasm is boundless. When the second shoelace snaps shortly after the first one did, the narrator sets off on a quest to discover how shoelaces wear out. Is it because of the stress caused by pulling the laces tight when he ties them? Or is it the wear on the laces caused by the slight friction of lace against shoe every time he takes a step?

Now that I think about it, I realize that there are a number of more traditional narratives and genres that the book plays with, one being the quest narrative. While a quest to discover why shoelaces wear and break might seem small, what this narrator is really after is knowledge of those details that shape our day-to-day lives that most of us don’t even notice, much less understand. He’s showing that those details matter — they are our lives, after all. We are surrounded by things we don’t understand, things we use without knowing where they came from or how they got to us, or how they function and why they break. He wants to dig those details out and examine them and understand them.

He also wants to understand the way the mind works. In one passage, he considers the “periodicity of regularly returning thoughts,” the number of times he thinks of a particular thing a year. If he can study and chart this, he can understand his mental life much better; without this study, he has only a vague impression of what thoughts he actually devotes his energy to. He realizes how complicated such an endeavor would be, but he makes a chart with his best estimates, a chart that occupies a couple pages of text, and tells us that he thought about how “people are very dissimilar” about 16 times a year, and about how “people are very similar” about 12 times a year. And he thinks about staplers 7 times a year and escalator invention 12 times.

This sounds rather Proustian, doesn’t it?

Some of these thoughts are inspired by Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, a book the narrator carries with him on his lunch break. Here is another traditional form Baker draws on, for his own book could be called meditations — meditations on the world the narrator has found himself in. He never reads very much of Aurelius’s Meditations, but he has it with him because he fell in love with one line he came across by chance while looking at the book in the bookstore. Here’s the line:

Manifestly, no condition of life could be so well adapted for the practice of philosophy as this in which chance finds you today!


The narrator’s response to the line is this:

Wo! I loved the slight awkwardness and archaism of the sentence, full of phrases that never come naturally to people’s lips now but once had: “condition of life,” “so well adapted for,” “chance finds you,” as well as the unexpected but apt rush to an exclamation point at the end. But mainly I thought that the statement was extraordinarily true and that if I bought that book and learned how to act upon that single sentence I would be led into elaborate realms of understanding, even as I continued to do, outwardly, exactly as I had done, going to work, going to lunch, going home, talking to L. on the phone or having her over for the night.


And that, you could say, is the book in a nutshell, from the enthusiasm in that opening “Wo!” to the list of things that make up an ordinary day at the passage’s end, to the idea in the passage’s middle that one can live an ordinary life profoundly.

And lest you think this book is all seriousness, let me say it’s hilariously funny, and I often laughed out loud as I read. The bathroom scene — generally I’m not big on bathroom humor, but that bathroom scene — ah, just read it.

I haven’t even gotten to the footnotes yet, but perhaps I’ll come back to them tomorrow. I must talk about the footnote on footnotes and the footnotes on the resolution of the shoelace conundrum. It’s a very moving passage, something I never thought I’d say about a passage on shoelaces.

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On teaching

So I signed up for a workshop at my job that teaches instructional skills; it’s called, logically enough, an Instructional Skills Workshop, or ISW. The workshop involves four Fridays this October. We met yesterday for four hours, and we’ll meet the next three Fridays for seven hours and learn about things like creating effective lesson plans, formulating learning outcomes, assessing student learning, and encouraging student participation in class.

On the one hand, all that sounds kind of boring and bureaucratic. Say the words “outcomes” and “assessment” to average academics and they will roll their eyes. On the other hand, though, today’s workshop was fun, and I think I’ll learn a lot. It’s very practical, so what I’m learning will be directly usable in class. I’m guessing it’s kind of like coursework you might do for a degree in elementary or secondary education — where they actually teach you how to teach — shortened into four days. And that sounds like a very good idea to me, since many, many college instructors don’t get formal training in pedagogy. I got some training in how to teach writing, but very little in how to manage a classroom. My problem is that while I know some things about good teaching, my knowledge is kind of vague and nebulous, and this sort of workshop will help me be more consistent and systematic about doing the things good teachers do.

This kind of workshop works for me, since I’m more of a planner than a spontaneous teacher, and this way I’ll learn better ways to plan. The things we’re learning don’t preclude some spontaneity anyway. This is one way the Hobgoblin and I are quite different; he’s got a post on more spontaneous forms of teaching, which sound great but just aren’t my style. I think I’m learning ways to play to my strengths as a teacher rather than trying to be a kind of teacher I’m not (the kind who can wing it successfully).

The main part of the workshop is a series of mini-lessons all the participants have to do: one a week for the next three weeks. I’m supposed to do a 10-minute lesson on whatever I want next Friday, so I’m wracking my brains for what I can teach. The workshop leaders recommend teaching something out of one’s discipline — a hobby or non-academic skill one has, for example. So I might teach something related to cycling. I’d thought about doing a lesson on how to watch a bike race; i.e. how to make sense of what’s happening. But the lesson is supposed to be interactive in some way, and I’m not sure how to teach that lesson interactively. Then I thought of teaching the concept of the pace line — what it is and why cyclists use them. I can be interactive with this lesson easily — I can make everyone form a line and pretend we’re riding and act out the paceline’s movements.

Anything about cycling anybody out there has always wanted to know? I don’t think anyone else in the group knows much about it, so I can get away with teaching the basics.

We’ll get videotaped as we teach, but, thank God, we’re not forced to watch ourselves. We’ll get feedback on our teaching, which will be fine, but I can’t handle the thought of watching myself on tape. And I don’t even own a VCR, so I have no easy way to watch the tape anyway. What a relief.

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Reading notes

Diana has a post on how she’s storing up for the winter in various ways, including stocking up on books, and that’s what I appear to be doing too, although there’s no need for me to panic about running out of reading material, since I can walk to four used bookstores in town. But I have the urge to acquire and accumulate also, and I haven’t resisted it. I haven’t really even tried. Recent acquisitions include:

  • Geraldine Brooks’s novel Year of Wonders, about the plague — which makes two books I own about the plague, the other being the nonfiction book The Great Mortality. Some fun winter reading!
  • The Time Traveler’s Wife, which everyone I know who has read it (which includes quite a lot of people) says I should read and will like. Looking forward to it.
  • James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which is quite a wonderful title. I heard about this from Jane Smiley’s book on the novel.
  • Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters. I’ve read one book by Gaskell, North and South, and liked it and am looking forward to another. I love 19C novels, and I’m happy that Gaskell has written quite a number of novels I haven’t read. I like all the potential that means.
  • Colette’s Cheri and The Last of Cheri, because, of course, since I’m reading the biography of Colette, I have to read more of her own writing as well. And this is the one Litlove recommended to me.
  • Virginia Woolf’s Moments of Being, uncollected autobiographical writings, because I can never get enough of Woolf. Thanks to Diana, who is sending me the book!
  • Finally (for now), Carolyn Heilbrun’s Hamlet’s Mother and Other Women, because I read about it on some blog, and I can’t remember which, and it sounded really cool.

Plenty of good choices here, I know, and plenty more on the TBR shelves that have been there for a while. I should be okay this winter.

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Proust and Joyce

There’s a review (not available online) in the 10/19 New York Review of Books of a new book on Proust, Proust at the Majestic: The Last Days of the Author Whose book Changed Paris by Richard Davenport-Hines. The book tells the story of an exclusive supper party hosted by Violet and Sydney Schiff, who held the party in order to introduce Proust and James Joyce. Here’s the reviewer’s account:

The Schiffs behaved like zoo-keepers coaxing two rare and skittish beasts into the same cage and hoping that something magical would come of their brief union — a bon mot, a fascinating discussion, a lasting friendship. The scene was set for one of the great meetings of Modernist minds. The food had already been cleared away when a shabby, drunken man blundered in, sat down next to Sydney Schiff, and, according to the art critic Clive Bell, “remained speechless with his head in his hands and a glass of champagne in front of him.” Later, he was heard to snore. This was the author of Ulysses. Then, between two and three o’clock in the morning, a small, dapper figure wrapped in a fur coat slipped into the dining room. If Clive Bell’s description is accurate, he looked somewhat like a rat: “sleek and dank and plastered.” This was the author of A la recherche du temps perdu.

Joyce and Proust failed to live up to the historic occasion. There was no sparkling conversation and the two writers never met again. This did not prevent gossips and writers of memoirs from inventing the dialogue later on. Davenport-Hines quotes six different versions, the most interestingly boring of which is the version Joyce himself gave to Frank Budgen:

“Our talk consisted solely of the word ‘no.’ Proust asked me if I knew the duc de so-and-so. I said, ‘No.’ Our hostess asked Proust if he had read such and such a piece of Ulysses. Proust said, ‘no.’ And so on. Of course the situation was impossible.”

Something about this pleases me. Why should two great writers perform for these people after all? It would feel like an obvious set-up, like two single people at a dinner party who are clearly supposed to meet and fall in love. It would make me want to rebel and act badly.

The review also describes Proust’s apartment, his last home, on the Rue Hamelin, and sheds some light on “involuntary memory.” Objects in the apartment:

were not ornaments but the apparatus of experiments in progress. Sydney Schiff noticed that a particular object — a jug, a coffee cup, or a half-emptied beer glass that had caught the sun in a particularly way — would be left where it was. “Sometimes he insisted on it remaining indefinitely, because he wanted to renew the sensation it had given him.” In A la recherche du temps perdu, these apparently trivial sensations occur only by chance. They bring about the epiphanic moments when the narrator grasps the whole “edifice of memory” and can begin to transform “lost time” into a work of art. In Proust’s apartment, those sensations were continually on tap. The apartment in the Rue Hamelin was a novelist’s laboratory in which involuntary memories could be generated at will.


So — is it involuntary memory or not? I’m not sure what to make of the real-life difference from the novel. I like the idea of the artist’s apartment as a laboratory, but it makes the ideas about memory in the novel seem artificial. As I’m reading Proust, I tend to think of it as reflecting reality — as Proust’s ideas about what life and the mind are really like — but of course, it’s fiction and there’s no reason to think the narrator’s ideas are necessarily Proust’s. He’s just so good at making you think that the narrator is Proust and that we’re getting Proust’s thoughts, when really, that’s not how it works. I know that’s not how it works, but the experience of reading makes me forget.

I learned another interesting thing from the review:

A man who subjects himself to a steady diet of caffeine, opiates, barbiturates, amyl nitrate, and pure adrenalin is unlikely to remain oblivious to the functioning of his brain. The quantity and variety of drugs that went into the writing of A la recherche du temps perdu are probably unparalleled in French literature. Proust urged his critics not to trace facile patterns of cause and effect when analyzing the process of literary creation, but it is probably reasonable to suppose that the vivid, hallucinatory memories that the narrator of his novel enjoys at intervals of several years were more common occurences for the author, and that they were produced by substances less innocuous than a madeleine dipped in a cup of herbal tea.


Quite interesting, yes?

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A mad King George III chases Frances Burney in Kew Garden

So I just read this extraordinary passage in Frances Burney’s Journals and Letters that I’ll give you some excerpts from; this is from February 1789 and King George III is suffering from a bout of insanity. Burney has a position as “Second Keeper of the Robes” to Queen Charlotte, so she’s a part of court life, but she’s trying to stay away from the king because he’s rather unpredictable. She fails:

I strolled into the Garden; I had proceeded, in my quick way, nearly half the round, when I suddenly perceived, through some Trees, two or three figures … I concluded them to be workmen, and Gardeners;–yet tried to look sharp, — and in so doing, as they were less shaded, I thought I saw the Person of his Majesty!

Alarmed past all possible expression, I waited not to know more, but turning back, ran off with all my might — But what was my terror to hear myself pursued! — to hear the voice of the King himself, loudly and hoarsely calling after me “Miss Burney! Miss Burney!–”

I protest I was ready to die; I knew not in what state he might be at the time; I only knew the orders to keep out of his way were universal; that the Queen would highly disapprove any unauthorised meeting, and that the very action of my running away might deeply, in his present irritable state, offend him.

Heavens how I ran! — I do not think I should have felt the hot Lava from Vesuvius, — at least not the hot Cinders, had I so ran during its Eruption. My feet were not sensible that they even touched the Ground.


He chases her for a while, along with some attendants who are trying to get her to stop. She refuses and keeps running out of terror. Finally she stops when the attendants tell her it hurts the king to run:

When they were within a few yards of me, the King called out “Why did you run away?–“

Shocked at a question impossible to answer, yet a little assured by the mild tone of his voice, I instantly forced myself forward, to meet him — though the internal sensation which satisfied me this was a step the most proper, to appease his suspicions and displeasure, was so violently combatted by the tremor of my nerves, that I fairly think I may reckon it the greatest effort of personal courage I have ever made.

The effort answered, — I looked up, and met all his wonted benignity of Countenance, though something still of wildness in his Eyes. Think, however, of my surprise, to feel him put both his hands round my two shoulders, and then kiss my Cheek! I wonder I did not really sink, so exquisite was my affright when I saw him spread out his arms! — Involuntarily, I concluded he meant to crush me; — but the Willis’s, who have never seen him till the fatal illness, not knowing how very extraordinary an action this was from him, simply smiled and looked pleased, supposing, perhaps, it was his customary salutation!

I have reason, however, to believe it was but the joy of a Heart unbridled now, by the forms and proprieties of established customs, and sober Reason …

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What is a poem?

I wrote about poetry reading generally yesterday, so today I thought I’d write about how my current poetry read is going, Jane Kenyon’s Otherwise. I’m liking it, although I don’t think I’ve quite figured it out yet. I’ve read maybe 40 pages out of 200 or so, so I still have time. I’m not quite sure what I mean when I say I haven’t figured it out yet, except that I’m thinking as I read about what it is that makes the poems poetry, what unites them, if anything, what Kenyon’s style is, what makes her a great poet, if she is indeed a great poet.

Although I’ve sort of read poetry for a while, mostly in my capacity as a teacher, I’ve taken up more serious and steady poetry reading purely for pleasure once again after a long, long break without reading it much. So as I read, I’m figuring out what it is I like in a poem and what kind of poetry draws me. So far I’ve been very pleased with my choices; I’ve read Mary Oliver’s American Primitive and Jane Hirschfield’s Given Sugar, Given Salt and was blown away by them both. I think I loved them both so much because their poems were beautiful and they were wise. Kenyon’s are those things too, but I’m still figuring out how.

I’m realizing that poetry may do something substantially different for me than fiction does. I try to be widely read in fiction — I try to read from different cultures and different time periods and I try to read different novel types. With poetry, I’m less interested in that kind of coverage. I read poetry very slowly — these days I’m reading only a handful of poems a week so it will take me forever to get through a book — and so will never read all that widely. And with poetry, I’m more likely to go for what I think will be a comfort read. In fiction I might try an author I’m afraid I won’t like; in poetry I wouldn’t do that.

Jane Kenyon’s Otherwise is made up of “new and selected” poems; it makes me wish I had full, individual volumes of her work instead of selections from the different books, as I wonder how much each book has a central theme, and how much I might be missing reading poems outside the context of the original book. I’m reading selected poems from her book From Room to Room right now, and many of the poems seem to be about visiting or living with her husband’s family, about visits to elderly relatives, about funerals and mourning. And I wonder if there’s a story behind the book or a theme that runs through the book that I’m not getting. In that case, the poems would be discrete units in and of themselves, but they would also together form a whole as a book.

Here’s an example of a poem from the book:

Cleaning the Closet

This must be the suit you wore
to your father’s funeral:
the jacket
dusty, after nine years,
and hanger marks on the shoulders,
sloping like the lines
on a woman’s stomach, after
having a baby, or like the down-
turned corners
of your mouth, as you watch me
fumble to put the suit
back where it was.

So what makes that a poem? It’s got images in it — the hanger marks slope like lines on a woman’s stomach or like the corners of the man’s, probably her husband’s, mouth. It creates a mood and captures a moment – the husband seems unhappy, frowning at being reminded of his father’s funeral. The dust and hanger marks make the passing time vivid, and yet the emotion is still there. You’ve got the death and life theme, with the reference to having a baby, and cleaning out the closet makes one think of renewal.

The situation is rather complex, really, as the speaker is speaking directly to the man, who seems to frown at what is happening – not liking to be reminded of the funeral or unhappy that the speaker has taken the suit out, and the speaker fumbles to put the suit back, as though she has done something wrong, invaded some space she shouldn’t have. Watching the woman clean out the closet is too painful for the man, I suppose, so the speaker tries to make up for evoking hard memories by returning the suit to its original place, as though she could undo her original action. Maybe she doesn’t even know for sure that that’s the suit her husband wore to the funeral but can gauge it by her husband’s reaction. Cleaning out the closet brings too much into the daylight.

There’s probably more going on there, that I haven’t gotten to?

Okay – one thing I can say about what makes a poem a poem, is that a poem says more in a few words than I can say in a lot of them in prose!

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On poetry

David Orr has a very interesting article on poetry in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review; he’s reviewing a new book by Stephen Fry called The Ode Less Travelled, which, though it’s a terrible title, sounds like a great book, and I liked the review because Orr writes very sensibly about what it takes to understand poetry and why many people are a bit afraid of it. I’m guessing I’ll never read Fry’s book about poetry, but the review is good enough I’m tempted. Orr talks about how people come to poetry with unreasonable expectations; they expect “either to be awed by excellence or overwhelmed by the Raw Passion of It All” and instead are disappointed:

only rarely do lay readers experience poems as a cross between an orgasm and a heart attack; usually, the response is closer to “What?” or “Eh” or at best “Hm.” This doesn’t mean that other reactions aren’t possible; but such reactions generally come from learning what exactly is going on.

He goes on to say, “You learn what’s going on by reading carefully, questioning your own assumptions and sticking with things even when you’re confused or nervous.”

Orr is particularly good on what he calls The Fear — the anguished or icy reaction teachers get from students when asked to respond to poetry in class. General readers too often see poetry as unapproachable, difficult, impossible for the average person to get. And so they stay away from it or resent it.

I like Orr’s point that understanding poetry takes time and practice — I agree, at least once you get beyond the most immediately accessible stuff — and it takes an interest and curiosity and a certain self-confidence. Many students don’t have these things, and so give up before they’ve really tried and poetry remains off in its own world they’ll never willing venture into.

I’m not sure what a teacher should do about this, except maybe try to get students to build some confidence by rewarding their interpretive efforts even when they are a bit lacking. I’ve entertained some pretty unlikely interpretations in class simply because I don’t want to crush a student’s excitement at having begun to figure things out. I think, though, that students are alert to any hint of the idea that poetry can mean whatever you want it to, and they jump at the opportunity that idea offers to say whatever they want, but at the same time they despise the wishy-washiness of that stance.

I’ve known a lot of students who like to write poetry, but once they hear about poetry’s technical details, they disconnect from their personal experience with poetry and begin to feel The Fear. That’s too bad because if they could take their personal interest in writing poetry, no matter how bad that poetry might be, and use that energy to tackle the kind of poems they read in class, they’d learn a lot.

Orr says that Fry’s goal is to:

demystify the art without deadening it; to make it seem as open to the interested amateur as “carpentry and bridge and wine and knitting and brass-rubbing and line-dancing and the hundreds of other activities that enrich and enliven the daily toil of getting and spending.”

I like that attitude. Poetry does not require mystical insight or super-human intelligence; rather, while it requires experience and skill to grasp, those things are within the reach of anyone.

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Reading update

I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed. Not at the moment actually, but when I look forward to the next month, I’m overwhelmed; when I look forward to Monday, I’m overwhelmed. And that means the familiar feeling that there’s so much I’d like to read right now that I just can’t is worse than usual. I won’t post another picture of my TBR shelves (yet), but they are getting worse. I keep mooching books at Book Mooch even though I have no idea when I’ll read them. I’ve got The Time Traveler’s Wife on the way, and Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story, a book litlove wrote on a while back. The latest to arrive is Mary Gaitskill’s novel Veronica, and I’ve requested Geraldine Brooks’s novel Year of Wonders and Moments of Being, a collection of autobiographical writings by Virginia Woolf. This last one is coming from Diana — thank you!

This last book reminds me of this cool new reading group I can’t join: Woolf for Dummies. They are reading The Voyage Out and Lyndall Gordan’s biography at the moment. I’d love to read both, but I just can’t add another reading group right now. Sigh. I’m also jealous of another group, Our Coffee Rings, which is reading Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women right now. What a marvelous book! I’d love to re-read it.

And bloggers have been writing about so many great books I want to read immediately. Sandra has reminded me how much I want to read Anita Brookner, and Danielle’s post on Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, as well as the posts of many other bloggers on that novella, has made me want to re-read that book. I’ve been saying that in the comments section in many, many blogs, I believe. And Danielle and others have raved about Lewis Buzbee’s The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, which I need to get my hands on. And Jenny had a post up awhile ago about Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love that convinced me I need to read it.

I’m enjoying my current books very much, but that doesn’t stop me from looking ahead and hoping to be able to pick up new books soon. It’s nice having my unread books on shelves up in my study across the room from my reading chair, so I can see them easily, but having them right there makes me want to pick them up immediately.

Let me leave you with a footnote, this one from The Mezzanine. The narrator contemplates a sandwich labeled, “cream cheese and sliced olive,” and this is how he footnotes his own contemplations:

I was especially interested that the food service had inserted “sliced” in the title of their sandwich, perhaps on the model of “sliced egg sandwich.” You don’t have to say “tuna and sliced celery,” or even “tuna and celery”; the reason we flag the existence of olives is that while the tuna is tan and crumbly and therefore aggregative, cream cheese is a unitary scrim, and the olives inset into it demand an equal billing. In truth, the question is less subtle than this: olives are a more powerful taste in a bed of cream cheese than celery is within the tangy disorder of tuna: celery is often used simply as an extender, texturing and adding a cheap chew-interest, while olives are more expensive ounce for ounce than cream cheese, and therefore demonstrate higher yearnings, nobler intentions. What can freshen and brighten that blandness? the food scientist asked himself, assigned the task of making a simple cream cheese sandwich appetizing. Mushrooms? Chives? Paprika? And then — he sliced one olive, worth maybe two cents wholesale, into six pieces, spaced them evenly in their white medium, and suddenly all the squinting, cackling, cocktail-wickedness of a narrow gourmet jar of Spanish olives in the door shelf of your refrigerator inhabited the cheapest, most innocent, most childlike sandwich you can make.

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