In an Utterly Unprecedented Move

I’m going to blog instead of refreshing my e-mail in box.  And what, you might be asking, is SHE going to write about?   Does she even read books, the  ostensible purpose for this entire blog?  How could she possibly find the time, so busy is she obsessing over why no one is e-mailing her editing suggestions for her book, or giving her news of her stories!??

But it turns out, dear readers, that I do indeed read, and what a pleasure it is to have that to hold up as a shield against anxiety.  I gave my camera to a child to take on a trip, so I can’t actually document the book I’m reading, but I’ll just tell you here and now that I picked up E.B. White’s Letters (with a very nice introduction by John Updike) at Moe’s Books in Berkeley yesterday and I am in the happiest of reading experiences:  thumbing through the personal papers of someone I admire.

Ever since I received my first letter from an author (come to think of it, it was my only letter and was written in response to my gushing fan mail), which was from Noel Streatfield, the author of Ballet Shoes, I have lusted after the casual writing of people I admire — writers mostly.   The only thing I learned about Noel Streatfield from that letter was that she used a fountain pen to write her name in that proper up and down English writing, which is not at all the same as the kind of cursive you learn in the United States in the third grade, because it is far SMARTER, but well, that was good enough for me.

It’s a weird kind of nosiness, this snooping around in the letters, diaries and notebooks of writers.  I think I do it  because I want to know who these people are, and how they managed to get so  much real life down in a story.  But until today, when I began to refresh my inbox for the six millionth time, and decided instead it would be better to write about what I’m reading, I have never really given much thought to the charm of the diary, the letter, the notebook.

I’m pretty sure what gets me about these kinds of things is the possibility that you’ll edge closer to the magic in fiction, that by knowing something true about the person who created it, you will somehow be invested with that magic yourself.  But most of  the time what you discover isn’t magic, exactly, but more that the person who wrote something you loved was sort of weird, or very funny, or even more anxious than you are.   And that is just as good as the whole magic thing.

Here are some discoveries I’ve made reading letters and diaries, because that is what this blog post is about to become:  a compendium of my favorite bits from the letters, diaries and notebooks I’ve read over the years.

Well, first, there’s Rilke, whose Letters to a Young Poet is not really a book of letters, of course, but more a guide to the writer he probably once was.  But the tone of it is so confidential and kind, that even though the young poet isn’t a real person, which means these aren’t really letters, any more than Plato is talking to actual students in those dialogues, it’s still a great book.  My favorite thing in it?  The news that good things are difficult.  I cannot tell you how many times I have repeated this information — usually to my children, but to myself also.  And I aso rely heavily on its reverse:  if it’s difficult, that’s probably a sign that you’re working on something worth doing.   (Except of course, if what you’re trying to do is turn a nozzle ON by turning it in the direction that turns it off.  THAT is difficult because you are being stupid.  It’s important to know the difference.)

Let’s see.  Who else?  Oh.  Wallace Stevens’s notebooks are collected in a very cool facsimile edition called Sur Plusieurs Beaux Sujects: Wallace Stevens’ Commonplace Book.  Have I mentioned how much I like to look at the handwriting of great writers?  And how sad I am that my generation is the last to actually write things down and not type them?  (And most of us don’t even do that.)  Anyway, this book is full of things Stevens copied down about other writers, because he was sort of nosy too and liked to read things artists said about doing their jobs.  I am particularly fond of this, which is actually something Henry James said in a letter to H.G. Wells, back when letters were written down in ink:

It is art which makes life, makes interest, makes importance . . . and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.

And then there is Henry James, himself, whose notebooks I have been reading in no particular order.  One thing I love about them is how James would sketch out the plots of entire short stories, as though he was describing the story to someone, and in fact, you realize that people told Henry James weird and interesting stories all the time, and then he’d steal them and make something really terrific of them.  Which makes me understand how it can be that people would sue someone like JK Rowling, because they too once thought it would be cool to set a story about some underage wizards in an English boarding school and maybe they were talking about it in some cafe in Edinburgh and a woman with a baby in a stroller who was sitting next to them was scribbling in anotebook the whole time they were talking and well. ..  The thing is, you have to be Henry James (or JK Rowling) to really make that work; those stories you hear from people aren’t fiction until you apply some magic to them.

And although there is much, much more, I see that this is where I can put my favorite thing from Virginia Woolf”s Diaries, which are very long and have a lot of great things in them, but this is one of the best and most beautiful of all those things and a good place to end this post, which has done two things:  made me realize how much I love books and kept me from that obsessive inbox refreshing thing, which is not refreshing at all:

to suppress oneself and run freely out in joy — such is the perfectly infallible and simple prescription.  And to use one’s hands and eyes; to talk to people; to be a straw on the river, now and then — passive, not striving to say this is this.  If one does not lie back and sum up and say to the moment, this very moment,  Stay you are so fair, what will be one’s gain, dying?  No:  stay, this moment.  No one ever says that enough.

Totally Free

In honor of California Furlough Day, which sounds suspiciously like an event in which the felon population of California is set free, but is actually the day when state workers stay home because the state cannot pay them, I am going to make a list of things you can do on your day off that do not cost a single cent, and might actually do you some good.

Why am I doing this?  Because I think that one of the few silver linings in this cloud of economic bad news is that many of us now have more time than we used to have.  We have less money, but we all know that the best things in life are…, well, you get the idea. 

This list contains only two items, but they are my two favorite free things, so I’m going with them.

1. This is something I cannot actually believe is free.  You do have to have access to a computer, and it is helpful if you have something on which you can download it, but then you probably do, because during the period of huge economic expansion, fueled largely by the purchase of houses too big for the people who lived in them and the ipods they discovered they needed to keep them sane during their lengthy commutes, you probably still have, at least, the ipod, even though you might have had to turn the house back  in. 

This free thing I am alluding to is a series of monthly short fiction podcasts moderated by the New Yorker’s fiction editor, Deborah Triesman.  They can be found on itunes and at the New Yorker’s snazzy website.  In these podcasts, a person who has published fiction in the New Yorker chooses a piece of short fiction they love.  And then they read it.  Fiction writers turn out to be remarkably good readers — I think it has to do with their enthusiasm for fiction.  After the reading, there is a short discussion about the piece.  These discussions are fun and interesting. 

The great thing is that these podcasts have been going on for several years, so there are a lot to choose from.  One of my favorites is Aleksandar Hemon reading Bernard Malamud’s “A Summer’s Reading.”  It’s a great story, and he’s a wonderful reader. 

2.  Get out there and go for a walk.  I cannot emphasize enough how good it is to get outside and take a walk.  If you have a dog, all the better.  Obviously, a walk is good for the body, but it also does hugely good things for the soul.  In fact, one of my favorite writers, Wallace Stevens, a man who was no stranger to snow and ice, walked every day from his office in downtown Hartford to his house in a neighborhood about two miles away.  (Here is a link to that route.)  In fact, if you happen to live in or near Hartford, you can follow his walk, and read the thirteen markers that give you all the ways you can look at a blackbird.  (True, they might be covered with snow, but brush them off, okay?)  Stevens composed poems while he walked, one of which, Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction reflects the distance you can cover when you are on a walk:

The truth depends on a walk around a lake,

A composing as the body tires, a stop
To see hepatica, a stop to watch
A definition growing certain and

A wait within that certainty, a rest
In the swags of pine-trees bordering the lake.
Perhaps there are times of inherent excellence

As a man and woman meet and love forthwith.
Perhaps there are moments of awakening,
Extreme, fortuitous, personal, in which

We more than awaken, sit on the edge of sleep,
As on an elevation, and behold
The academies like structures in a mist.

So happy furlough day, whether you are in California or not.  I wish you moments of awakening and times of inherent excellence and the experience of beauty — all without spending a single cent.

Is Eros All?


Having been here in London for a total of three days, I have come to the conclusion that if a play isn’t about sex, it isn’t going to show up on the London stage. Okay, I’ll amend that a little: if a play is about finding the perfect nanny, or battling orcs, it might sell a couple of tickets, although god knows why anyone would still be buying tickets to The Lord of the Rings. (Over the summer I went to see it with my two boys and it was bad, bad, bad. The only bad thing I’ve ever seen in London. Perhaps that is because it wasn’t about sex.)

But sex is clearly all. This occurred to me early, as well as often, beginning Saturday night, a few hours after my arrival, when I was directed to exit the Picadilly Circus underground station via the statue of Eros. Naturally, I was on my way to see The Country Wife, a restoration comedy about…. YES! Sex. What is there to say about The Country Wife? Let’s see. Wycherley has a low opinion of enduring married love. A low opinion of women’s fidelity. A really low opinion of what motivates men. (Do you really want me to tell you what motivates men? YES! Sex.) It was very funny, very cynical, and featured the guy I saw over the summer in a Harold Pinter play called Betrayal, Toby Stephens, as the rake who decides he will have better access to the women of the town if he lets a rumor go about that he is impotent. This is a plot device I wouldn’t have thought could work but, it turns out, this rumor gives him unfettered access to women, all of whom fall in his lap, as it were. I will say this — he was charming. I think he might have been wearing the exact same pair of jeans he wore in Betrayal. And yes, when I wasn’t laughing, I was wondering if they were his favorite jeans.

Last night I saw The History Boys, which was pretty great. You’d think that this play would be mostly about education, and how we learn, or at least that’s what I thought. In fact, it is mostly about the link between education and seduction. Its tragic turn naturally comes about because of misplaced passion.

It’s pouring here, and indeed it is pouring plays about sex. Tonight, I am going to see Shadowlands, which is about… what else? C.S. Lewis’s late in life marriage. Pouring it on, tomorrow, I will be seeing not one but TWO Harold Pinter plays and, no, they are not about finding the perfect nanny or battling orcs. And then, Thursday, best of all, I am going to see Much Ado About Nothing, which I am reading right now, and really enjoying for its depiction of a woman and man determined not to love. Shakespeare would agree that eros matters much, particularly in the comedies, where the failure to love properly is the focus of much of the action.

Which brings me to Wallace Stevens and Jane Austen, for whom the sex is all formulation was a bit complicated. I give these insights to you free of charge, particulary to those who are getting here via google because you have a paper due in English class tomorrow and you would love to be able to talk about Stevens and Austen and sex in the same breath. Let it never be said that I do not have sympathy for those who (a) procrastinate and (b) try to do everything.

Stevens seldom wrote directly about love and sex. And when he did, he observed not that sex is all, but that sex is not all that: “If sex were all, then every trembling hand/Could make us squeak, like dolls, the wished-for words.” My conclusion is that this had much to do with his complicated and not very satisfying relationship with his wife Elsie, who seems to have entered a sort of spinster-ish old age very early in their marriage. There is something bitter about these two lines, which makes me think that if he is expressing something he believes to be true, then he is being less than honest with himself. And that is because sexual desire is very hard to deny, and cannot be dismissed so easily. When you do try to deny it, it just crops up in other places. I haven’t thought a lot about it (this is, after all, a blog), but I’m going to guess that Stevens simply transformed sexual desire into other sorts of passion — for some communion of word and life, for beauty, and for a hearty embrace of good food.

As for Austen, after reading Claire Tomalin’s terrific (and short) biography, I’m inclined to think that Austen and her sister Cassandra (neither of whom ever married) also answer, in their choices and lives, the question of where eros goes when it cannot find direct expression in one’s life. For Cassandra, as for Elsie Stevens, eros is tamped down by going early into old age. (And I’d question whether old age is truly a place where eros doesn’t live. Look at Harold and Maude.) For Jane Austen, who seems to have loved once, and been unable to marry the man she loved, and then refused to marry anyone else, eros lives in a series of remarkable novels, novels which explore how we love well and how we love badly.

In The History Boys, one of the students, the sexually precocious Dakin, says, “The more you read, though, the more you’ll see that literature is actually about losers . . . It’s consolation. All literature is consolation.” If literature is about losers, then we are all losers, of course, because we are all concerned with the great issues literature takes on, particularly the question of how to love well. And the things we learn about love in literature, whether it is that sometimes we have to bury our desires to survive them, and sometimes we love so badly we cannot continue, and sometimes we are lucky and learn to love properly, are the best sorts of consolations, because they show us that we are not alone in our struggle with this most important of all questions. That is a consolation I would not want to have to do without, and, fortunately, here in London, will not have to do without, as long as the statue of Eros is pointing the way to the theater.

This was a Poet —

Many readers grow stone cold when they see lines arranged on the page in the form of a poem. This might be because so few of us have had the experience of reading poetry with pleasure. And that is why Cam’s recent questions about poetry, questions answered just a day or so ago by litlove, make me think about what creates a poetry lover rather than a person who breaks out in hives at the first line break. I do like poetry, and as you’ll see from these questions, I think it’s because I was pretty much kept in ignorance of it for so long that, by the time I got to it, I felt like it belonged to me and wasn’t brussells sprouts I was forced to eat by some earnest parental person who just knew they’d be good for me.

1. The first poem I remember reading/hearing/reacting to was :

Before college, I had almost no exposure to poetry beyond nursery rhymes. Which isn’t as bad as it sounds, because no one ruined it for me by telling me it was good for me. Oh, there is something. Just this moment I realized that when I was about thirteen, I sat through six and a half showings of Romeo and Juliet (the Zefferelli movie). And then I went out and bought the play, and pored endlessly over the balcony scene where Juliet (who was actually Olivia Hussey, which is a nice name for a Juliet) says to Romeo (who was unfortunately named Leonard Whiting) “my bounty is as boundless as the sea…” At thirteen, I found that pretty racy, but it had to come with costumes and nice looking boys and a little bit of soft focus making out to really work.

The first poem that really reached me both intellectually and emotionally was Wallace Stevens’s Tea at the Palaz of Hoon, which ends: “I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw/Or heard or felt came not but from myself;/And there I found myself more truly and more strange.” 

At the time, and still, this seems like as good a description of the poet as you could want.

2. I was forced to memorize (name of poem) in school and…….. The schools I went to as a child didn’t force you to do anything, which might be why I was woefully unprepared when I arrived at college and blissfully unaware that I wasn’t actually the smartest person on the planet. In college, I was required to memorize the prologue to the Canterbury Tales, which I loved, and part of Milton’s Lycidas, which I also loved. I don’t think I ever minded being asked to memorize anything poetic. But then I never had to memorize anything really stupid.

3. I read poetry because…. its power is different from anything else created with words. A good poem can get to you in a very short amount of time. Put another way, poetry is to prose as vodka is to wine.

4. A poem I’m likely to think about when asked about a favorite poem is ……. Wallace Stevens’s Sunday Morning.

5. I write/don’t write poetry, but………….. I haven’t written a poem in about two years. But when I was writing poetry, for a few years, I wrote a poem about polar exploration that I’m pretty fond of and one about cigars, which I also rather like. One thing I liked about writing poems was getting down a sensation, or an idea, or a moment using poetry as the medium.

6. My experience with reading poetry differs from my experience with reading other types of literature….. poetry is both easier and more difficult to read than other types of literature. It is easier only because a good poem reaches you more quickly than a novel. It is harder because I often can’t read more than a few poems at a time. Poetry is relentless in a way prose is not in much the same way that vodka kicks you in the gut a lot sooner than wine does.

7. I find poetry….. in Poetry magazine, in my writing workshop, in all the books I saved from college and graduate school, and the many more I’ve acquired since then, in the New Yorker, on advertising panels on the bus, and sometimes in my head.

8. The last time I heard poetry…. was at my Thursday writing workshop where there are several really talented poets.

9. I think poetry is like…. well, the alcohol thing has been made quite clear, I think. But here’s another good description, which also relies on the distillation metaphor, but perfume (not booze) is the end product of all that distilling. That’s because the metaphor belongs to Emily Dickinson, who probably wouldn’t have been drinking vodka. With anybody. Ever.

This was a Poet–It is That
Distills amazing sense
From ordinary Meanings–
And Attar so immense

From the familiar species
That perished by the Door–
We wonder it was not Ourselves
Arrested it–before–

Of Pictures, the Discloser–
The Poet–it is He–
Entitles Us–by Contrast–
To ceaseless Poverty–

Of Portion –so unconscious–
The Robbing–could not harm–
Himself–to Him–a Fortune–
Exterior–to Time–

One last thing:  I think these are very interesting questions, and ones that are helpful in thinking about how an understanding of poetry evolves (or doesn’t).  If you are listed over to the right —— or you are reading this post (you know who you are!) and want to post about it, or leave a comment about your own experience, it would be lovely to hear your thoughts.

This Morning the Writing Cafe is Serving

Wallace Stevens’s lovely poem, Sea Surface Full of Clouds. I haven’t thought of this poem in a very long time, but I was reminded of it recently by this terrific writer.

I guess my affection for Stevens is clear. He was the first poet I felt like I understood  — maybe because the poems I first read were the accessible ones and so gave me the illusion of mastering a difficult poet:   Sunday Morning, The Snow Man, and Tea at the Palaz of Hoon.

Stevens was a lawyer. He wrote his poems while he walked to work through Elizabeth Park in Hartford and then he had his secretary type them up. He kept his life as a poet and his life at the insurance company pretty much separate. He loved France and the French. He also really liked good food, and he loved Key West, and he wasn’t above asking people to send him parcels of interesting objects from places like Ceylon and Japan. He didn’t travel, not physically anyway. The next book I write (after I finish radiation therapy and get done with the elusive last few chapters of The Secret War) will be about him.

Here’s the poem:
Sea Surface Full Of Clouds, Wallace Stevens


In that November off Tehuantepec,
The slopping of the sea grew still one night
And in the morning summer hued the deck

And made one think of rosy chocolate
And gilt umbrellas. Paradisal green
Gave suavity to the perplexed machine

Of ocean, which like limpid water lay.
Who, then, in that ambrosial latitude
Out of the light evolved the morning blooms,

Who, then, evolved the sea-blooms from the clouds
Diffusing balm in that Pacific calm?
C’était mon enfant, mon bijou, mon âme.

The sea-clouds whitened far below the calm
And moved, as blooms move, in the swimming green
And in its watery radiance, while the hue

Of heaven in an antique reflection rolled
Round those flotillas. And sometimes the sea
Poured brilliant iris on the glistening blue.


In that November off Tehuantepec
The slopping of the sea grew still one night.
At breakfast jelly yellow streaked the deck

And made one think of chop-house chocolate
And sham umbrellas. And a sham-like green
Capped summer-seeming on the tense machine

Of ocean, which in sinister flatness lay.
Who, then, beheld the rising of the clouds
That strode submerged in that malevolent sheen,

Who saw the mortal massives of the blooms
Of water moving on the water-floor?
C’était mon frère du ciel, ma vie, mon or.

The gongs rang loudly as the windy booms
Hoo-hooed it in the darkened ocean-blooms.
The gongs grew still. And then blue heaven spread

Its crystalline pendentives on the sea
And the macabre of the water-glooms
In an enormous undulation fled.


In that November off Tehuantepec,
The slopping of the sea grew still one night
And a pale silver patterned on the deck

And made one think of porcelain chocolate
And pied umbrellas. An uncertain green,
Piano-polished, held the tranced machine

Of ocean, as a prelude holds and holds,
Who, seeing silver petals of white blooms
Unfolding in the water, feeling sure

Of the milk within the saltiest spurge, heard, then,
The sea unfolding in the sunken clouds?
Oh! C’était mon extase et mon amour.

So deeply sunken were they that the shrouds,
The shrouding shadows, made the petals black
Until the rolling heaven made them blue,

A blue beyond the rainy hyacinth,
And smiting the crevasses of the leaves
Deluged the ocean with a sapphire blue.


In that November off Tehuantepec
The night-long slopping of the sea grew still.
A mallow morning dozed upon the deck

And made one think of musky chocolate
And frail umbrellas. A too-fluent green
Suggested malice in the dry machine

Of ocean, pondering dank stratagem.
Who then beheld the figures of the clouds
Like blooms secluded in the thick marine?

Like blooms? Like damasks that were shaken off
From the loosed girdles in the spangling must.
C’était ma foi, la nonchalance divine.

The nakedness would rise and suddenly turn
Salt masks of beard and mouths of bellowing,
Would—But more suddenly the heaven rolled

Its bluest sea-clouds in the thinking green,
And the nakedness became the broadest blooms,
Mile-mallows that a mallow sun cajoled.


In that November off Tehuantepec
Night stilled the slopping of the sea.
The day came, bowing and voluble, upon the deck,

Good clown… One thought of Chinese chocolate
And large umbrellas. And a motley green
Followed the drift of the obese machine

Of ocean, perfected in indolence.
What pistache one, ingenious and droll,
Beheld the sovereign clouds as jugglery

And the sea as turquoise-turbaned Sambo, neat
At tossing saucers—cloudy-conjuring sea?
C’était mon esprit bâtard, l’ignominie.

The sovereign clouds came clustering. The conch
Of loyal conjuration trumped. The wind
Of green blooms turning crisped the motley hue

To clearing opalescence. Then the sea
And heaven rolled as one and from the two
Came fresh transfigurings of freshest blue.

The photograph at the top of the post is San Francisco City Hall a few days ago. There were so many clouds, dark clouds, and under them a kind of saturated blue you only see in the fall.

Tonight, the Writing Cafe is Serving

something cold. For those of us in the northern hemisphere who are VERY HOT right now.

The Snow Man, Wallace Stevens

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

(photo from Christine Breslin’s Elizabeth Park Series; Elizabeth Park being where Wallace Stevens often walked, composing poems on the way to work)

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

I often see titles borrowed from this poem, most recently Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. (I have actually come across more than one law review article called Thirteen Ways of Looking at [insert legal topic here].) The works that follow seldom have much to do with the poem. And so for a reason no more complicated than that we’ve just thrown fourteen ways of looking at the French out there for your pleasure, I thought it would be a good thing to let Wallace Stevens speak for himself, for once.  You’ll find it below the fold —

Continue reading “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”