Tuesday, May 31, 2011

May 31, 2011

The first waterlily is deep pink. This is a singular blessedness. Yellow and deep purple hollyhocks. The first blooms of acanthus, after years of trying.

Excellent workout at the Y. My lethargy is cured.

Maybe because of the heat today I thought of something I forgot to mention about the flight home from Italy. Far off the coast of Labrador we saw icebergs, several of them immense. It’s hard to get perspective when something is floating in the middle of the sea, but I would say one was the size of Manhattan. There were many icebergs, and then there was a coast all ice and stone, beautiful, inhospitable.

Florence has become the city of dreams. I don’t think one night this week has gone by without a dream set in it, and today I finished a painting where it is a city seen in dreams. Logan remarked that they survive in the glassblowing workshop only by each having a fan aimed up their pant leg.

As to sin, they invented it, to implement domination.
Ezra Pound

Someone is singing on the street in the giant darkness.
May 30, 2011

Memorial Day. Sweet summer. Everything in the garden is as tall as I. The scarlet poppies bloom at my nipples. Two wonderful surprises at morning inspection: first, that the expensive Japanese cobra lily did indeed germinate and now puts forth a cup of creamy white; and second, that the angel’s trumpet did reseed itself. There’s a tangle of infants at the rim of the terrace, which I have not yet developed the cold-bloodedness to thin.

Picnic and J & L’s, with the usual suspects. Mild yet inexplicable panic sitting there among durable friends. What was with that? Part of it was M, of whom I was weary unto death, who seemed to have gone away but never quite goes away. Those you love pass through for a season and disappear. Those you endure, endure.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

May 27, 2011

Slow morning rain. This helps me because it narrows the possible activities of the day. It also rejoices my garden, which has entered the phase of giganticism: a huge patch of pale heal-all gobbles the end of the sidewalk; hollyhock and foxglove and, especially, great mullein aim skyward, already taller than me. Mint, mallow, anemone and cobra-lily extend their several empires. Whenever Carolyn has certain guests (her family, I think), they whoop on the walk and shriek “poison!”–by which they indicate poison ivy-- and lament that they will probably come away with cases of it, the leaves having jumped out and engaged them at distance. She in fact has no “poison.” What they are shrieking about is Virginia creeper. Somehow this infuriates me.

The five singing birds on the wires above the front yard is actually one mockingbird, effusing, overflowing.

Senior exit interviews. I’m indicated by name only once, to accuse me of being inflexible and therefore a tribulation to non-traditional students who have work and lives outside of class. Had I been writing my own critique, I would have lamented exactly the opposite, that my standards seem to dissolve before each petition, each excuse. The oddest thing to me is the cry for us to teach them what they could learn better on their own. I was always grateful to have a field of study in which I was the vanguard, and my professors could follow or not, as they pleased.

Two of my paintings will hang at a show Upstairs in Tryon. They are both very strange, and I thought I would win the prize for strangeness, until I saw some of the other included works, farther off the edge and deeper into the abyss than mine.

Ended the day at Steve DeGhelder’s review Prime Ribbing at the new Altamont Theater. I think it may have been inaugural night for the whole enterprise, but it was certainly opening night for the play. It’s a satiric review, genuinely witty and funny and professional all through. S’s encyclopedic knowledge of musical theater gave him the perfect vector every time. The Altamont, which I haven’t seen since it was a gutted shell, turned out elegantly. The theater part is small, but they seem to have found a style (cabaret) which will suit it.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

May 25, 2011

Fine summer day before summer. Acquired a copy of The Correspondence of Robert Bridges and W.B. Yeats edited by Finneran, which includes a photograph of Yeats published in 1904, taken during the hour when he must have been the handsomest man in Ireland.

Attended dress rehearsal of Reynolds High’s Phantom of the Opera. Saw the show twice in New York, and I’m not sure but that the Reynolds version was more pleasing. Unlimited resources do make a difference in a production, but not totally the difference people think. Sometimes they leave you thinking, “with so much money, it should have been perfect.” No one expected perfection at Reynolds, so every approach to it was a happy surprise. The voices and the vocal preparation were terrific. The acting was sometimes high-schoolish but in ways that could have been fixed by a decent director in five minutes. Those with good natural instincts did fine, but those who needed a little coaching were left hanging. Uneven in that sense, but touching, and marvelous good fun. Some breathtaking voices. The second act is a disaster, but that’s the composer’s fault. It’s no better on Broadway, and the reasons for its lameness less honestly apparent. Webber writes pretty songs but gets tired of plot after a few promising scenes, and is totally indifferent to character.

Monday, May 23, 2011

May 23, 2011

Misty dawn and sharp calling of birds over my wet garden. The Florentine adventure is, for the moment, over. Slept badly last night. My internal clock was off, and in an extended, restless dream, it seemed I had six or seven wives and each was trying to conjure us a house in Florence under a different set of magical codes. I was awake at 2. Chatted with MA on Facebook, after he had been working on his novel all the night.

Next days after homecoming are awful. The brain is in the wrong zone, and that final leg of the journey, the hour from Atlanta or Charlotte to here, is given over to blasting the airlines for their multifarious idiocies. May mayhem take Charles de Gaulle. All was in order here upon return. The garden in a week is woodier and bloomier, with the pale foxgloves finally looking like the foxgloves in the Saint John’s gardens. My little jasmine vines bloom low to the ground. I tell them stories of their luxuriant kindred in Florence, to encourage them upward in glory.

DJ had been falling hard and frequently toward the end of the trip. There was always a flock of Samaritans to help him to his feet, but I worried that sometime he would fall and not be able to get up, despite me, despite the kindhearted Florentines. One does not always know what to do nor when to do it. I am not the world’s best caretaker.

The Indian-named guy from AWP congratulates my manuscript on reaching the final judge. The judge wants an electronic copy of Riding Funhouse. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I read half of it this morning before sending. No major errors or problems, but it doesn’t really sound like me. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I meant it not to sound like me, but one analyzes one’s choices into mush. Dos Passos Review wants two stories. An agent whose name I will remind myself of in moments want to see The Falls of the Wyona. Absence was profitable for me this week. Il mia coppa trabocca.

Went to the studio almost as an afterthought, but painted mightily once there. To say that Florence influenced my approach is an understatement.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Florence 5

May 21, 2011

The days continue blazing azzura, a Tuscan summer arrived early and in full glory. This morning it was the Brancacci Chapel. It is hard to know under what conditions what makes such judgments, but the Massacchio frescoes were as revolutionary as the David, fully recognizable in their humanity, luminous and present despite time and ruin. They do not have, or need, the defiance of the David. Their maker was as brilliant as and more at peace than was Michelangelo. The beautiful film they made about the chapel and its artists suggests that Massacchio was notoriously indifferent to worldly things. Perhaps that was the difference. Four towering cypresses in the Brancacci courtyard. Sparrows nibble away at the sample gelato cones in the café where we had our coffee.

The rest of the day we lolled about in the sunlight, drinking too much and seeing what passed in front of us. Last night I bought an Italian The Hobbit and there was music and dancing on the Piazza de Republica. DJ has done research, and is able to tell me who did what panel in which fresco, and the history of that church we are too tired to cross over and look at directly. Both Rome and Florence turn out to be far more intimate and lived-in than one expects them, from the history books, to be.

Evening into night: we sat in the Piazza de Santa Croce and watched the passing show, which included a couple of hundred people arranged in red, white, and green tT-shirts (representing the Italian flag) reciting chorally some long piece in Italian. The patriotic show was punctuated by gangs of bridesmaids leading their brides in merry humiliation through the streets. Herons flew above the swirling clouds of swallows, making their way up river for the night.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Florence 4

May 20, 2011

The one sure thing is that I will have to return to Florence to know exactly what it is I’m seeing. It passes by like a walk down the library aisle, fingers trailing longingly over the unreadable books. Today it was the Pitti Palace, with (I think) the hugest collection yet, a maelstrom, a cloudburst, a glut, a treasure chest of which, if there is a bottom, it was not delved by me. The Medici lived like no one in the world never has. Boboli Gardens afterwards, though DJ’s immobility limited our travels there. The Boboli was Paradiso degli uccelli, the bright beings flitting and singing in the emerald dapple. You could see them when they left the trees and came down to drink at the fountains. If I had awakened in the Boboli, I would have known it was not the US, from the strange callings of the birds, more complex, somehow, than the forests of Carolina, if only because less familiar.. We lunched at the Pitti café, where a bold sparrow ate from our fingers.

Email informed me that Riding Funhouse is a finalist in the AWP competition. The joy of even that still-distant happenstance made the day light for me, made every outcome acceptable.

One really doesn’t need to enter a museum, such is the beauty of the Italians themselves.

Tremendous blast on thunder on the street late in the afternoon. Jove is so evident on the walls and pedestals that I was able to think for a moment it was really he.

La pazzia dei grandi non va lasciata incustodita

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Florence 3

May 19, 2011

Morning saw us at the Bargello, upon which we can spit from the roof of the hotel. The light-filled central court was thronged with wheeling, musical swallows, and I thought that if any residence in the world could be delivered to me for my home, it might be the Bargello. It was full of beautiful things by artists such as Giambologna and Ammannati, whose work I had seen but whose names I had never heard. The Renaissance was a threat to Christian civilization because for a moment meekness and subjugation ceased to be the cardinal virtues. Except for a few individual– and most of those adapted pagans– Christian heroes did not do, but were done to, They suffered the energies of others but did not have particular energies of their own. They said “Thy will be done,” and they thought they were talking to God, but it was the Church which heard them. The golden halos and lapis robes were rewards for allowing themselves to be run down by the juggernaut of their own faith. What did people think when Bacchus and Herakles and Oceanus and seductive sensuous David began creeping back onto the pedestals? Nothing has made “Christendom” more disgusting to me than to wander in its capitols. It was a gilded rot, a conspiracy against the heroic energies of man, almost forgivable because of the glory of art heaped upon it, as jewels across the swollen bodice of some insatiable hag.

Leland and Jack went on to Venice, and DJ and I went to the Orsanmichele, a square church that had, evidently, been a granary and a church in alternation, and which was very beautiful and holy to me, It was like being inside a jewel box. Off to Saint Lawrence, the Medici Church, where I sat and wrote under a Fillipo Lippi Annunciation. Much gold, much gleam of metal and crystal in the dimness. In the gloom the gold gathers the gleam against it. The Chapel of the Princes, the Michelangelo tomb sculptures, a glut of riches. We ate at the Hedgehog outside St. Lawrence, and that was the first time we had a sighting of the stars of the TV show Jersey Shore, which, interestingly enough, we had seen for the first time on the TV in this very room, though the images are inescapable in the contemporary media. We saw them again in the Piazza del Duomo, where a man whispered to me from his shop, “Jersey Shore,” in what was clearly meant to me an American accent. The boys are smaller than you expect, and really quite unexpectedly beautiful. The girls are bigger than you expect and, though beautiful in a way, hard and cruel, like queens in fairy tales.

Finally–in what was for me a haze of sweat and exhaustion–the beautiful, cool church SS Annunziata at the Ospital degli Innocenti. A priest rattled a collection basket and sang at the door. In two places, Annunziata and St Lawrence, I put my coin in the slot and lit candles, praying for what I will not reveal.

We went to a concert at the Teatro Verdi, La Orchestra della Toscana in works of Bruno Maderna, Manuel De Fall, Mahler, Schubert. Stopped at a bar on the way where we met Mario and. . . well, I forget her name, , , from Edmonton. Alberta. Despite his name, he was a Canadian such as they used to make fun of on the TV. We loved them instantly.

Florence 2

May 18, 2011

Traveling in a group leaves me with less time to record than I give myself with myself. DJ and I found our suite and visited the Baptistry before meeting with Jack and Leland. The Baptistry is delightfully, fancifully decorated. DJ remarked that it seems different from the other buildings of Florence because it was built when churches were meant to exude holiness rather than the pride of their founders in their wealth. Everything was then, and continues to be, brilliant with spring light, the blue of the sky exactly what was meant by the blue the painters put on Mary’s gown. When J and L arrived we walked the city for a time–everything was closed– and then we climbed the roof of the Grand Cavour and sat in the roof garden, drinking until we were quite incapacitated. A better view is inconceivable. The whole red roof of the reddish city spread out around us, the moon rising over Santa Croce. Met a couple from Toronto and a couple from Bury St. Edmunds. I was afraid we had disturbed their own rooftop experience, but they seemed to find us amusing, and we chatted merrily. The English couple tried not to say where they were from–assuming it too obscure for anyone to know-- but when I got it out of them, I was able to say not only had I been there last year, but that I am taking my students there this summer.

Deep, deep sleep, lullayed by the humming air shaft.

Rose in the azure morning and scampered into the line for the Uffizi. As ever, seeing that many works of art in the flesh which you had known from pictures was gratifying, enlightening, exhausting. The Bronzino Holy Family, Botticelli and Ghirlandaio were what stuck–and stick now–in my mind. The Renaissance was not afraid of silliness or absurdity, and was able to render them both as a conceptual necessity, like a scherzo in a symphony. Recovered from the Uffizi and pilgrimaged to Santa Croce. Before the ravages of time, flood, and ecclesiastical vandalism, when all the walls were covered by Giotto and Agnolo Gaudi, I believe this must have been the most beautifully decorated church in the world. It’s still the remnant of the most beautifully decorated church in the world, and, before the attendants hurried us out with more then necessary brusqueness, we venerated. We saw Galileo and Michelangelo where they lie in sleep forever. The cloisters are as beautiful as the church, with their harmony of flowers and sky. I think they should throw the Cimabue crucifix on a sacred bonfire and allow it to rest in peace, it being too horrible, too emblematic of mutability, to look upon.

In the evening we crossed the Arno on the Ponte Vecchio, where I bought a leather borsa and Leland lusted after a diamond ring. The whole bridge is a line of jewelry shops. We had been stopping to eat and drink, and I was so drunk I can’t be absolutely sure of what went on. Wandered the nighttime vastness of Palazzo Vecchio, came home, where I was copiously, if briefly, sick.

This morning it was the Academia, in line before a throng of incredibly well-behaved Swiss school kids. The paintings in the Academia are more harmonious with each other than those in the Uffizi, and the experience was somehow more digestible. What one must mention at last is the original David, replaced in the piazza by a noble copy. However noble the copy, it doesn’t prepare one for the original. Whatever has been said of the work falls short. Its impact is metaphysical, and not explicable from any combination of technique and subject matter. It is overpowering, brutal, annihilating. David has the aspect of a god, except no god could muster that arrogance. I could not take my eyes away. I walked around and around. I stood where he could not see me. The statue is not perfect. The head is too big. The hands are monstrously too big. The legs are the legs of a bicycle messenger. He is better than perfect. His imperfections are triumphs unforeseeable by the vision of perfection. This is difficult to explain unless you are standing before him. He is quite the most disturbing and challenging work of art I have ever seen. Also, in a city and in a country drowning in Christian art, he is the most un-Christian testament imaginable. He is far less Christian than Neptune standing in naked splendor before the Palazzo Vecchio. There is nothing of humility in him, none of the cowering self-effacement given to the saints as a sign of their sanctity. The whole ecclesiastical panoply makes you sick after you have a glimpse of him. When I said un-Christian I meant, of course, unlike the church as it became. Had this figure dared to be called “Christ,” the world would be changed.

Il Duomo was immense but not especially beautiful inside, except for containing that wonderful painting of Dante surrounded by his three worlds. DJ remarked that the kind of awe it was built to illicit is not religious. Three of us decided to climbed the 400 plus steps into the dome. There was a line for this, and behind us in line was a man and two daughters from Limerick. It was a joy to hear their voices. I have to say that I am waiting for the rigors of the clime to be equal to the reward in satisfaction. I needed to have been in training for a while before attempting it. Nevertheless, I did reach the top, and the view was spectacular. Florence is a city of red roofs punctured by graceful soaring towers, nestled in a gentle wall of green hills– not unlike Asheville, one might observe, at least in situation. The blazing clarity of the day made it an experience up to expectation in every way. The climb down was yet more harrowing, for my knee was giving out and the shadows were such that one could not see the next narrow stone step on the winding stair. But we are all on solid ground now, where I mean to remain for a while.

In the evening we taxied to the Piazza Michelangelo, from which an equally marvelous few is to be had, with less rigor of achievement. Arno flowed silver beneath his many bridges, and the whole of Florence spread out north and south. The piazza was lively and merry. We had a bite to eat before we came down, and then ate copiously when we did come down. I suppose it’s inevitable that one in every party will be more insistent in his desires than others, and we discovered that it was not profitable to do things other than the ones and the ways that individual had selected. That understood, it was a lovely evening, with photographs at the Piazza di Signori and ending at a fine pizzeria near our hotel, where my practice Italian was received with patience and approval.


May 17, 2011

Grand Cavour Hotel, Via Del Proconsolo. The suite is large and stylish, though the window opens onto a ventilating shaft, which has its airs and moods like a living thing. We quote Forester to one another concerning the lack of a view, but it is not enough for us to ask for another room. The flights were uneventful but tedious. London is as far as I can go in one flight without getting restless. The aged couple beside me on the trans-Atlantic had to go to the toilet seven times during the flight from Atlanta, and each time she needed to move me from my slumber, the female tapped on my arm with many timid bunny taps, which infuriated me. Charles De Gaulle in Paris is now tied with Philadelphia in the chronicles of bile for the worst airport in the world. It sprawls and revels in the kind of inefficiency a certain level of bureaucrat uses to show the intricacy of his power. At one point the airport lobby was invaded by soldiers with impressive rifles, pushing people back and blocking exits in what was apparently an exercise to remind themselves that they could. There was no explanation. The foreigners glared while the French trundled knowingly away.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

May 14, 2011

Took beautiful pictures of my garden on my Canon SLR, had them put on a disk by Walgreen’s, to discover that they are un-shareable, useless, imprisoned. Every attempt to save or use is thwarted by one program or another. The levels of intricacy are time-devouring and pointless. I’m like a child looking for somewhere to throw a tantrum.

The purple shrubby flower that I bought as Persian hollyhock blooms profusely, as I remember it doing all over Rome. I think if it bloomed under the Caesars it would be more often mentioned.

Tried again to see Marco, was yet again shrugged off because he was busy. He called later to say that he had a window of half an hour, forty minutes maybe if I wanted to get coffee. It is well that I didn’t answer the call. I might agree his time was that precious if he had anything to show for it. I’m done with that.

I fear sometimes that I’m a bad friend, but only when I compare myself to the friends I imagine, not to those I actually have.

Florence tomorrow, and all I can conjure is a bad mood. A little painting. A few errands. A whole lot of wrestling with electronics. Sleeping, too, as though I had climbed mountains.

Friday, May 13, 2011

May 12, 2011

Ethernet blasted by the storm. Surprising how helpless I feel with the accustomed access to the outside world. Replacement was an ordeal of unplugging this and plugging that in the exact esoteric order. The tower of rage over my head punctured the roof.

The blue house up the street lost at least a corner to the falling of a tree. The offenders seem to be pines, that a stiff wind will haul up by the roots. I eye my two huge and one little pine suspiciously. One leans over DJ’s roof as if picking its moment.

Threw a few pieces of past-its-prime fried chicken into the yard for the crows. One piece anyway the crows did not get; a squirrel did. It was disturbing to watch a squirrel with a chicken leg in its jaws, nibbling away. Maybe we catch the squirrels at a juncture in their evolution, some clinging to the paths of nuts and berries, others veering off into the life of hunters. For anyone with a suburban yard the idea of squirrels in every niche is not a stretch.

Close evening, between rain and not rain.

My Netflix selections lately have been Hollywood musicals with Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Mickey Rooney, and the like. It was Babes in Arms last night. The night before DJ and I had gone to the movies to see Thor. Thor and Babes in Arms are essentially the same movie, filling the same role in the lives of their audiences, equally preposterous, equally escapist, their imaginative extravagances very telling of their times. The Garland-Rooney musical assumes a conspiracy of government and circumstance which can be overcome by strengths drawn from within the characters themselves. When all goes to hell, do a show, and your will that it should will make everything turn out all right. Thor assumes a conspiracy of government and circumstance which must be overcome by a super-powered outsider, one somehow free of the constraints that weigh down other men. I suppose that makes us sadder than Judy’s public, with a learned helplessness and sense of despair at injustices which can be overcome only by a god.

Mickey and Judy’s backyard production is a minstrel show, with everyone in blackface. I suppose it was more innocent in vaudeville times. Judy’s in Aunt Jemima blackface, too, except for a later scene when she returns with subtler makeup, so that she looks like an actual black person, even Lena Horne, which, in the allusive and name dropping mood of things, might have been intentional. Everyone else was still in coon blackface but that one woman, darkened up Judy, who looked natural and beautiful. I suppose this was part of a kind of code now lost, from a time whose understanding of color was more public and more subtle. But even considering one movie was about the gods of Asgard, Judy made up as a natural black person amid the actors in blackface was the single strangest thing I had seen in two nights at the movies.
May 11, 2011

Waking in a world that may take some getting used to once the sun comes up. Last night came a tremendous thunderstorm. I heard a sound like a machine, like an engine, but it was generalized across the whole sky, and when it hit the trees I realized it was wind. Rushing about closing windows, I lost track of the sounds. One noise may have been a lightning bolt, for I saw a fire, and the utility pole outside Zach and Kelly’s was enveloped in flame. I called the fire department, and they came, and what their lights revealed was that a huge pine had come down across Lakeshore, blocking the street, and bringing part of an old maple down with it. I had seen a car backing up on the street, but didn’t know until then why. I watched the firemen clearing the trees. Behind them lightning flashed and flashed on the horizon, and for a while the rain was harder than I have ever seen it before. They had to stop and huddle in the truck until the air was again more air than water, continuous silver wires shivering and attached to the sky. The firemen were heroic and diligent, and I watched them as long as I could before exhaustion got me. Whether it was lightning or wind that downed the trees, the electricity is back on now. Birds are singing in the darkness.

R asks me to critique his show. It is a book of art and poems. A disinterested critic would not have much positive to note and yet all is imbued with such sincere and lovely spirit that a friend doesn’t know exactly what to say. R is a saint, and sanctity does not necessarily express itself in art–perhaps never expresses itself in art-- but rather in grace of action, which he has abundantly. We spent an evening at the Curve– where I had not been before, and which I like– and I was happier in his presence than I have been in a long time. His grace of spirit is matched by beauty of person, and one thanks one’s luck at being near him.

Already set a lovely rhythm for the summer. I recall this rhythm from last summer and from the sabbatical, early waking, exercise and work, so much time to do it in that every moment is a delicacy. I wonder how I let it get shattered. It should be possible to work school or anything else into it, but somehow it got superceded by fret and exhaustion. The days aren’t different, but my mind is. Western man is genetrally vulnerable to the power of the Outside, and I am more than most.

Another thunderstorm passes over even as I write.
May 7, 2011

Bach on the CD. The car keys in my pocket, from the three time I half set out, stood directionless in the backyard, returned to this spot.

Commencement without incident this morning, in the cool, blinding sun. I was at the far edge where I could study Italian as it went on.

The front garden a Persian rug, a cartoon, a parody of spring colors.

Steph’s directorial debut at 35 Below last night. I was infinitely relieved that I could write well of it. Drinks and gumbo at Sazerac afterwards. I couldn’t finish even one drink. Why was that?

Gold birds and vermillion birds at the feeder. The mockingbird hysterical with singing from the wires.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

A Syllabus for Poetry

I discovered something important about poetry while thinking of something else, which is, I suppose, pretty much how it’s done. In a lull in a Humanities class–perhaps I was giving an exam, I don’t remember-- I had a moment to think about the half-forgotten pioneers, heroes and strivers who changed the world and have for their reward obscurity, or even contempt, the kind of contempt the young have for those who made mistakes which their making saved us from, and who remain unforgiven and misunderstood. The theme of the revery was Sacrifice for the Common Good, even at the expense of self. I’d no sooner articulated this concept than I realized I was thinking at the same time about one of the things closest to my heart, also sacrificial, unforgiven, and fully misunderstood, poetry.

(Oh, poetry, forever going on about itself and the world, forever trying to find its place in the world. Well, isn’t that what you’d do if you were a prince in exile, with dim but indelible memories of better things?)

I believe Shelley that poetry was the first and remains the most enduring and necessary creation of man, antedating and necessary to the creation of gods and sciences, yet I see also how little apparent power it has in the world today. It is like the heroes and pioneers in my vision while looking out the window in Humanities class. In ages before this one, it gave its power away for the good of all. It gave information to journalism, discovery to science, worship to religion, governance to politics, scorn to comedians, and is like many a good mother held in contempt by all its offspring. It has watched its own garden grow barren for the sake of wide fields it first seeded. To change the metaphor, poetry is like a seer who has shown a people the way to the Promised Land, but who has been left behind in their haste to arrive, and who, because he is cryptic and difficult and lies at the beginnings and the ends of things rather than in the middle, languishes forgotten until the beauties of the land pass away, and the people again seek for a voice to lead them again. Poetry is like a great but mysterious father who gives his children so much that they think they have enough and can remove themselves from him, not understanding how deep his wealth is, how bountifully he would pay it out if they just turned and asked. Poetry is the voice God gave us to answer Him back, but that conversation has been interrupted.

Shelley speaks of this when in “Ode to the West Wind” he imagines his words employing their own annihilation and dissemination as a power seeding and fertilizing the world. But the loving sacrifice turns to tragedy when the energy is always outward and away and tradition is obscured and new poets do not know how to come into being. Most poets in 2008, when I write, have not learned how to be poets, though certainly a good number of us, by definition, write verses. I remember myself saying on several occasions, “being a poet means writing poetry. Period.” I think I was using that as a weapon against all the girls and boys around me then who called themselves poets without really making any poetry, a stolen identity, a chameleon’s vocation, and insofar as I meant that, well and good. But for anything beyond, I think I was wrong. Writing a poem has no more to do with being a poet, necessarily, than taking an aspirin does with being a physician.

Being a poet. I have been striving for this one thing since I was fifteen, and have no idea whether I have achieved it, for there is no one to tell me. My typical audience does not discriminate between the good and the bad, but only between the recognizable and the elusive. The audience I really trusted was the one I had during my brief tenure as a slam poet, and what a slam audience loves is so mingled with the quality of performance that I didn’t know whether I was being complimented (or hissed) as an actor or a writer. Commercial publishers certainly make few thoughtful discriminations, but select new volumes like a man groping around in a barrel in the dark. Since we are taught that poetry is for an unforthcoming elite, trying to make judgments about it on our own seems futile or, worse, itself elitist. Might as well publish your girlfriend or another edition of Rumi with another cloying introduction by the guru of the hour. Literary or independent publishers do better, or at least try harder, but it takes a publisher of genius to lighten the obscurity into which poetry has fallen, where the good and the bad, the momentary and the eternal, are mixed up together like motes in a whirlwind. There are ways of telling them all apart, but even those with an intuitive grasp of these things must occasionally doubt themselves in the face of epidemic public indifference.

Where does one learn? My teachers either encouraged or discouraged, but neither of those is teaching. I myself go–or for a long time went–into the classroom feeling confident to tell a young poet whether her poem was good or bad, but--whatever sallies I might make into the unknown-- my confidence stopped there. I could improve the poem but I could not show a straighter road to the source of poetry.

I am making excuses for the fact that the stature of poetry is partially to be laid at the door of poets. Few of us have considered it a holy task. Few of us are worth the paper we take up on the remainder shelves. This truth is complicated by the fact that very many of us– hundreds, I would say– are quite good writers, witty and skillful and full of the richness of learning that makes for good literature.

Plus, we mean well. Although we all know individuals who go at the trade of poetry for what thin wisps of renown it can still offer– a café full of rapt faces at a reading, an invitation to an important conference, with your way paid and the drinks free–most of us are self-defined by our sincerity. I wonder if the concept of sincerity every crossed the mind of Milton or Yeats. It is the cornerstone of the self-awareness of the contemporary poet, and there are certainly worse things to build an art upon. Yet if I walked into a gallery and called a painting “sincere” or “heartfelt” or even “deeply felt,” most people would read that as polite damnation.

The prophetic voice is gone. In truth, I don’t know what it would prophesy, but here I am, an instance of my own complaint. I think of Blake’s two poets, one at the opening of “Songs of Innocence” and the other at the opening of “Songs of Experience.” Among us is neither the happy singer of paradise who plucks a pen from the grasses and writes that every child may laugh to hear, nor the thunderous bard crying on the watery shore against God and all dark angels. There are a whole bunch of us writing about how are daddy’s didn’t spend enough time with us and how an owl hooted into our window in the dead of night, and I love that, but it is a pleasant (or at least a familiar) vale between vast forests and towering mountains which remain unexplored.

When asked what I do for a living I almost never answer, except in very specific circumstances, “poet.” My passport says “college teacher,” and though that is true, it is hardly the whole, or the central, story. Two decades back I began turning seriously to playwriting as a mode of expression. I liked it. I felt I was good at it. Furthermore, there was no lack of people telling you how to do it, in workshops and development sessions and chamber performances of newborn works. And these people were not content to dicker with a few words here and there; there was no hesitancy about sending you back to the basics, about demanding that you really listen for the nuance of human voice, really get a grip for the mechanics of the stage, really separate your will from the will of the play. That the advice was often bad didn’t matter so much as the fact that it was important to those who gave it. I learned that I had an audience to please, and my task was to please it without smirking and without groveling. I learned that I had a message to communicate, and that I had to communicate it without shooting it over my audience’s head or driving them out of the theater with confusion or revulsion. There was no assumption that individual vision was sacrosanct without being tested for honesty in the human voice. There was no temptation to assume that every neophyte playwright had something to say simply because he had the will to say it.

I did not turn to playwriting because of a change of interests. I wanted to learn how, as a poet, to speak with a language not so immersed in my own consciousness, delicious as that might be to me. I wanted an expression not so colored with my thought and redolent of my smells that I would never be able to know if it told the truth. I needed to hear my words in another’s voice. I had to be able to judge if my vision was good for everybody, or just a bit of self-indulgence to enshrine me in my own private Poets’ Corner. It is a shock for a poet to hear someone else reading our poem or quoting our line. It is a shock because it is our stage suddenly lit by a different light than we intended, and that is a moment of danger. In theater, there is nothing else. I picked up playwriting because every line, every scene has several voices speaking in it, and one of them is mine, and if the music sound false, it is at least possible that it’s my fault. We have forgotten that poetry was once a public art and subject to exactly this public oversight. I don’t mean that we should all go roaring our poems in the street or declaiming them from theater stages, but I would like to see a time when we actually could. I would like to see a time when we bellow and cajole and lore-pass and our hearers would take it as information, or affront, or love-making, or assault, and not just that tiny precious moment saved for the visiting poet.

When I last taught my poetry workshop, I handed my students a syllabus which they found, for once, worth comment:

I’ve made a mistake in the past by assuming that poetry is, for this century, the record--albeit in heightened expression-- of everyday life. I bought, if only partially, into the dogma that the materials of poetry are unavoidably mundane, and that the inspired, the particular, the sacred are somehow effete or fantastical or against the solid American grain. This semester I am going to try an experiment, with you as my partners and co-conspirators. The experiment is to see if perhaps Shelley and Keats and Milton and Blake and Whitman and Yeats were right that poetry is not merely heightened craft, but heightened perception as well, even a finer tone in the living of life. I am going to ask you not only to write poetry, but to live like poets. We will talk in class about what that could possibly mean. There are a few things I am sure of at the outset:

1) I am going to ask you not to watch television.

2) I am going to ask you not to read the newspaper, or any publication which aims primarily at excitable 7th graders.

3) I am going to ask you to choose a poet from before 1950 as your guide and mentor. Any language, any nationality. Read him. Know him. Understand what he meant poetry to be.

4) If drugs or alcohol or cigarettes are a problem to you, if you think about them more than a few minutes a day, I’m going to ask you to give them up. You cannot serve two masters. Some have told you that chemicals aid or enable the creative process. In one case in a thousand this might be true. You are not the one.
I am going to ask you to impose on yourself a discipline. Milton said an epic poet must live simply and drink water out of a wooden bowl. Yeats recommended fly fishing. But reach into your soul and see what you need, what you are capable of, and choose a discipline you can be loyal to. Examples? Become a vegetarian. Do not eat after 3 PM. Meditate nightly. Fast two days a week. Give up drugs and alcohol. Run three miles a day No Matter What. Become the best friend of the kid in the hall whom you really, really hate. Walk the streets of a night and do not come home until you’ve done a good deed. Learn every plant or tree you encounter in the Botanical Garden, and not only the ones with signs on them. Learn yoga REALLY. Learn how to give your devotion to Shiva (Jesus, Buddha, Ahura-Mazda, the Great Mother) and do it. The discipline you choose can be anything. It can be arbitrary. It can relate intimately to your history and life goals. You may share your discipline with anybody, but you MUST share it with your workshop partner (see below) so you can keep each other on the straight and narrow.

I wrote this syllabus because I wanted to see if it were true that fully preparing for poetry, that being a poet, was something different from writing the occasional poem. I wanted them to love poetry enough either to dedicate themselves to it, inconveniently, sacrificially, or else go about some other business. I was not haunting their dorm rooms. I don’t know to what degree they really carried out this program. Some confided in me and some did not, and public disclosure was never part of the plan. But what can be said is that I received the best poems I ever had. They seemed different in kind as well as in quality, bolder, less familiar, sometimes more awkward than earlier pieces I had seen from the same people, but with the awkwardness of new, bold growth. I didn’t add “keep in touch with me through the years” to the syllabus. I wish I had, to know of something caught, an ember that could smoulder a long time, or set a whole self aflame.
May 6, 2011

One night I caught myself sleepwalking, or at least moving about in a state not fully conscious. I was convinced that I had jaundice (because my urine was clear and the city lights seemed green to me) I peered into the bathroom mirror to see if my eyeballs were yellow. The dilemma was that I couldn’t see them without my glasses, but I was afraid the glasses affected the observation. Then everything went black. If I had jaundice it was a lightning case.

Painted again yesterday, happy. A rode up on his motorcycle, he all clad in leather, looking ravishing.

Magnetic Field last night to see a preview of Lucia’s play.

Low curve of moon over the railroad tracks.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

May 4, 2011

Glenn Gould muttering on the CD.

Though it’s barely evening and one hates to tempt the gods, today has been wonderful. Excellent workout at the Y in the dark of the morning, studying Italian on the cross-trainer, then a chit-chat with TD over coffee. Went to the studio and painted, painted, painted, for the first time in weeks. I was filthy and happy. Stopped by Jesse Israel’s and bought roses and put them into the ground. Rains have brought the garden to riot, all the nine-colored iris and all the red and pink and white peonies, all the roses (I mean all) including the wild bramble in the backyard that has been struggling in the shade three or four years, now a bridal veil of white. His flowers are small, but have the most excellent scent, I think today, of all things, sweet and bracing at once, like the air off a fleeting god. Pulling runners of Virginia creeper out of the ground, thick as thumbs and twenty feet long. Meant to be cold tonight, but not cold enough to ruin everything. Even the holly puts forth goldy-greeny blossom. I hesitated to read my e-mail, lest there be something sour there to spoil the savor, but I did, and there was nothing.

JD the composer hallelujahs his approval of my work from New York. Waiting for the next step of that . . . .

The children murdered at Kent State would be old now. Exactly as old as I.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

May 2, 2011

The Internet says Osama bin Laden is dead. Be it so. I hope the West doesn’t hand-wring too much about means and method. Hypocrisy is unbecoming. Half the earth is glad he’s dead. The other half should be ashamed of itself.

It was G flat this morning. Diving for the profundities.

Bill likes the Vance script– ecstatic about it, I might say, meekly. We suggested cast to each other. So that is one worry off my neck. I have an idea of whether it is good or bad but I have no idea how it will be received. Even some of the history wonks on the Board may have sharp words, for whenever there was a clash between history and art, art won. I falsified nothing; I invented much. Production of Vance is the worry that comes after Cambridge, but it is not, for the most part, my worry.

Even before I heard about Bin Laden I was fountaining forth poetry for the composers in New York who wanted a 9/11 poem. I must have felt it coming.

Strange feeling of suspension during the day, of lying half between two worlds, two duties. Nobody in England was answering their phones.

Monday, May 2, 2011

May 1, 2011

Woke and discovered my range, at the froggy first of the morning, contained the lowest G on the keyboard. Not much use for it except for showing off.

Cantaria at the UU in Hendersonville better than we deserved to be. The concert was rapturously received, which is the point, mauger quality. The baritones were awry without Barry. Two of our tenors came in faun costumes with little pointy horns glued to their heads, having come from May Day revels. Fetching, really.

Planted in a day when I did not go to church, and wrote my commission for the 9/11 piece, tears streaming down my cheeks.