Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added)
is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers.

--John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture

Monday, May 02, 2016

Another thing I liked--

a Pegasus for poetry
If you write poetry or love to read poetry, you might like to read this Paris Review interview with the late Peter Levi (1931-2000), poet and writer and classics scholar, a Jesuit priest for 29 years, and one of those lucky souls elected Oxford Professor of Poetry. I read it last night (hat tip to A. M. Juster) and then again this morning. It is long and crammed with interesting talk about his life and poetry, and it's opinionated enough that a reader finds points of disagreement--that's part of what makes it so interesting. Now I think that I would like to read something of his. (Via twitter, editor John Wilson tells me that the Brigid Allen biography of Peter Levi is quite good.) Here are a few samples that by no means exhaust what is curious or compelling in the interview (The Art of Poetry, no. 24):


George Seferis in a diary speaks of life, without writing poems, as a disorder. I remember thinking when I read that first, it’s the opposite. Poems are a disorder. However necessary and desirable, however protecting the survival of the brute life of childhood, a disorder. But now after a long time of not writing poems, I see he’s right. Without writing one just piles up like heaps of leaves. One doesn’t know what is happening or who one is. And soon one will not dare ask, perhaps, any honest question. Or worse, one may stumble unguarded on some honest answer. Because there is no way of knowing the implications of feeling, except of precise feeling, of something quite exact, as happens in a poem. It is as if poetry were a continual whale spouting or breathing. And yet this is not why one writes poetry. One writes it because of the things themselves, and the words themselves, and the people themselves.


He makes a kind of compelling noise, doesn’t he? He’s the ancient mariner all right. Yeats worked from notes too. One of the most impressive things that I know about him comes from his notebooks. He writes out in prose several times, beginnings for a poem. He starts out by saying: “I have often taken off my clothes, both fast and slowly, for this or that woman.” He goes on in that boring, silly old man’s way. Very embarrassing. And then, do you know what the first lines of that poem are?

That is no country for old men. The young 
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees

It makes me cry it’s so beautiful. If you’re a poet, when you start to write, then you are serious. Or you’d better be. None of us can be serious all the time. To be serious in that sense requires a lot of things, such as being relaxed beforehand, things like love and generosity, and discipline, and a sufficient degree of venom. Self-hatred, love of others, hatred of others . . . all these things you need . . . whatever is the right mixture for you.


You can drive out bad writing by good writing only because the public reads your works and not the other works. Therefore it’s the readers who do it, not the writer. Language lives in the mouth.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Maze of Blood - reader voting

Two of the unluckiest things that have happened in my life happened on a May 20th, so I'm hesitant to mention this, as it closes on that date. I tend to dive through that date on the calendar in hopes that nothing bad happens.

But if you are a fan of Maze of Blood, you have the chance to vote on the book for a new readers' award. The book is currently a finalist for the Foreword indie awards in the literary fiction category--as were Glimmerglass and A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage, the latter of which won the Silver prize for fiction. Here is the page for my book.

Evidently voting is done by leaving a comment plus hashtag #INDIEFABFAVE; if you're a Facebook member and check the box, it'll also post a notice to Facebook. If not a Facebook member, I think that you have to create a Foreword Reviews account, an easy thing to make, in order to vote. Foreword says, "The book with the most reader endorsements will be named the INDIEFAB Reader’s Choice Winner." And that's the story. Thanks to any kind souls who fly that way and vote.
And it's a two-post day; see below....

X, with squirrels

Yeats, Poems, 1899
Design by Althea Gyles
A memory of a famous author just floated by. I'll call him "X." He had come to visit a poetry workshop of grad students and undergrads. I was there, and curious; I knew that X was sometimes mentioned as headed for a Nobel.

The first thing he did was to shred a poem by a freshman into something else entirely: burning fire slaw, perhaps, or poisonous confetti. She was a pleasant young woman, and she had written a poem about a squirrel. The subject met disapproval. No doubt the poem needed shredding, and perhaps there are instances when a fine, fierce shredding can be salutary. I fear this one was not. It seemed a rather loveless incident. I couldn't help imagining or discerning (which?) that there was a desire to obliterate the young woman--a girl still, she seems, a child in memory. I can dimly conjure her face, and some of the grad students smirking and exchanging glances in what must have been satisfaction. I doubt that such pleasure is good for human beings of either sex. Their poems were, in fact, better--they were young men who, after all, were four to ten years older than she was--and received a modicum of praise.

What surprises me in the memory is my attitude. I was a sophomore and didn't have a poem in the batch being considered that night. While sympathetic to the plight of the unfortunate, upset freshman, I remember wishing hard that a poem of mine had been up for consideration. It seemed to me that I would not be easily torn to pieces. And if ripped and my limbs scattered, I would be quite able to put myself back together. Or so I believed.

I feel a little strange, recalling the young person who was me, so secretly confident and determined. Perhaps one needs to be so inwardly bold in order to pursue the craft of words in our time. But I can't remember if I thought of "To a Squirrel at Kyle-na-gno" from The Wild Swans at Coole, and how a squirrel runs "through the shaking tree." Did I recall "An Appointment," which finds Yeats turning from the being "out of heart" with government to the leapings and delight of a squirrel (Responsibilities and Other Poems.) Did I volunteer that Yeats, whose poems I loved, had not been too grand and proud to write a poem about a squirrel, and not only once?

I hope so.

Kyle-na-gno is one of the seven woods of Coole... Yeats names them in the dedication to Lady Gregory in The Shadowy Waters:
Shan-walla, where a willow-bordered pond
Gathers the wild duck from the winter dawn;
Shady Kyle-dortha; sunnier Kyle-na-gno,
Where many hundred squirrels are as happy
As though they had been hidden by green boughs,
Where old age cannot find them; Pairc-na-lea,
Where hazel and ash and privet blind the paths;
Dim Pairc-na-carraig, where the wild bees fling
Their sudden fragrances on the green air;
Dim Pairc-na-tarav, where enchanted eyes
Have seen immortal, mild, proud shadows walk;
Dim Inchy wood, that hides badger and fox
And marten-cat, and borders that old wood
Wise Biddy Early called the wicked wood:
Seven odours, seven murmurs, seven woods.
We move from shade to sun, from Kyle-dortha to Kyle-na-gno. There's a poet watching, but no chance of a workshop. Kyle-na-gno means "the nut wood" or "the hazel wood." No wonder so many squirrels are happy there in a flourishing green, hid from death and change. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Dreaming back

Making Manuscripts from the Getty Museum.
Well worth watching...

I'm surprised by how many times the medieval world has crept into my books (perhaps most obviously in The Foliate Head, Val / Orson, and The Book of the Red King, but elsewhere as well) and into many of my blog posts. Perhaps I really am living in the wrong century, though I would not have lived long in the medieval world and am grateful to modern medicine's influence in matters of bad bacteria and childbirth.

My own possibly-quirky explanation of why green men invaded European churches here.

Druidic verse from Amargin, and a link to Yeats here.

"The Annunciation Carved in a Medieval Prayer-nut" here (and in the print edition.) And no, you're not missing anything; it ends with "stumbles--"

And here's one where ├ża middangeard crept in. "Vermont Kingdom."

And a bit of The Book of the Red King here or here. Some of these will be a little altered when the book appears.

A favorite medieval-mad website: Jeff Sypeck, Quid plura? Here are his medieval-inflected posts.

And here is Jeff's Beallsville Calendar, now in progress, inspired by medieval calendar poems.

Christmas at Camelot from Clive Hicks-Jenkins
Clive's posts on Gawain and the Green Knight are here
Information on ordering the Gawain prints (more to come) at The Penfold Press

The medieval world is still with us. I just went to the door for mail and found a box of wine and New Selected Poems by Les Murray. Looking up an interview, I see him talking about influences: "Various Scottish and Irish medieval poets too, Dunbar and the poet of that mighty anonymous hymn from Ireland, "Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart," hymn 31 in John de Luca's Australian Parish Hymn Book" (Image Journal.) And here's this, a comment I might have made, from another interview: "the deadliest inertia is to conform to your times" (The Paris Review.)

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Austen and transformation

Watercolor of Austen
Rohan Maitzen asks the question of whether Jane Austen is a romance novelist. I, not being in want of an opinion, answer....

Austen's landscape has always seemed to be far more treacherous and dangerous for a young woman than seems apt for a "romance novel" label. A young woman may fall very far, may plunge entirely out of her world. The stakes are far higher in Austen's books than any of our contemporary romances can attain, given the mainstream beliefs of our society.

Likewise, the meaning of the marriage plot in Austen is much grander than "romance novel" can convey. The pressing human question of how to live is, I find, often answered in Austen, and it is presented in the framework of the desire of men and women to become "one flesh." How strange that wish must often appear today, so unfashionable, so spiritual in nature! Yet clearly many, many people are still drawn by Austen.

With a sometimes-satiric pen, Austen offers a range of unions, from shattered or quietly failed to perfect, but a young woman (and her somewhat-less-young man) only makes it to perfect union by making mistakes and learning from them. On the way to her perfect marriage, Elizabeth Bennett turns down both an offer of pedantry and silliness and an offer of wealth and increased reputation; she learns about her own errors of discernment, and she changes, as does her future husband, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, each one schooled by the other and by the painful results of mistaken ideas.

In the course of events, both Lizzie and Darcy are forced to contemplate what it means for a life to hold truth and virtue, and by the time they do marry, the reader is quite sure that both have increased in understanding. They have each become more generous and more clear-eyed about what is true beauty and goodness. They come together without anger, without scorn for the one of less wealth and standing or the one who is less socially adept, without conceit, without impediments of conventional thought. Each sees the other clearly. They are at last ready for a marriage.

Austen's books possess heroines who are coming to wholeness and seizing the great transcendentals of truth and goodness within a certain societal framework--one that is relentless in its demands and sometimes cruel--the need of genteel (though lively) Christian gentlewomen to marry and so find a safe place in the world. The novels are alchemical vessels of transformation and coming to knowledge. Their heroines are learning how to live and contemplating the promise of becoming one with another human being, their struggles set in a world where most unions don't work, and most people don't know how to live.

Monday, April 18, 2016

In Limerick Town

public domain, Wikipedia
Here are four after-dinner limericks, written while drinking a wee glass of Seven Kingdoms, part of the Game of Thrones series, product of one of our local breweries. Ommegang calls it a “hoppy wheat ale,” and it’s pretty good for an accompaniment to limericks. One would like a bit of hoppiness with a limerick.

I dare you to write a few of your own, with or without a Seven Kingdoms. Go on!

* * *

First up. No cartoonist can resist this subject, and neither can somebody daydreaming a limerick of the political persuasion:

Copious Poof

There once was a brash billionaire
Who was blessed with abundance of hair—
Like a sweet guinea pig.
Or a polyester wig,
Or a billow of very hot air.

My natural bent tends to be apolitical, and I have to force myself to take “an interest” in the current slate of candidates. Luckily for cobbled-up interest, a traditional limerick should be a bit scurrilous….

Game of Thrones

Just imagine the spunk it would take
To be on the political make,
Always ready to hump,
To grind and to bump,
Like a frenzied, concupiscent snake.

Although I am not particularly a fan of politics, I am a fan of Emily Dickinson. Also frogs in bogs. And of fancy words in humble limericks. Dive in!

Dinner with the Stars 
After Dickinson

How delicious to be a Candidate,
And to gasconade, guzzle, and prate
Like an eminent frog
In a notable bog,
For one hundred thousand a plate.

Perhaps 100K is a bit inexpensive these days? And here's a little bit about the jumble of promises abroad in the world in election year....

The Bait of Siren Songs

So you promise us borderland walls
And a passport to ivory halls
And no taxes, and we
Are to have health for free:
Like a Siren's, your come-on appalls.

Now it's your turn. Pay a visit to Limerick Town--it's a quick anapestic jaunt!

With forays into politics, always end on cake, if possible. So here's something sweet to end on: yesterday's pear cheesecake, made for Michael's birthday by our middle child. Was it good? Yes, it was!

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Elizabeth Adams on printmaking and more

Pulling a print for the Annunciation anthology

Elizabeth Adams, artist, writer, designer, singer, publisher at Phoenicia Publishing in Montreal: what an interesting woman she is! Here's an interesting, down-to-earth interview with her on the subject of printmaking and making art over time:
  Part 1 

She is not yet old enough to include in the posts on "elder artists," but here's a great quote from her that applies to the topic of making art and growing older:
Printmaking always carries technical challenges, and I continue to improve my skills and experiment with new materials and techniques. There's no substitute for experience. In all of the arts, we face the challenge of not becoming discouraged, and the risk of "failure," whatever that means to each of us. We need to continually push ourselves in new directions, and not get stuck in repetition. I'm happiest when I am learning new things and pushing myself, so I try to remember that. I'm over 60 now so I've been at this a pretty long time, and hope to be a creative person until my last breath!
Beth is a great publisher / designer (my book with her press is the gorgeously-produced Thaliad with art by Clive Hicks-Jenkins) who is very particular about projects she takes on--that they "fit" her sensibility and vision for Phoenicia. She is also just a wonderful person to know.

Another one from Annunciation