Friday, September 28, 2007

Mother Tongue (2 & 3)

Mothers, I have heard, are the preservers of good grammar. My hobby is correcting my son's habit of with making himself an object and putting himself first: "Me and Caleb are going to play computer games." Argh! I wonder if I'm raising him wrong, making him feel like an object and making him feel underappreciated to the point he has to validate himself with lingual self-focus.

I think back on what my mother called me on. It was only one thing: the use of the word yeah for yes. I believe she felt it was sloppy talk. What did that say about what she valued, and what I lacked? Perhaps definitiveness and energy. . . Ah, which I lack right now.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A Conceit about a Cliche (or, Humble Pie)

My neighbor Vi is the consummate country cook. Tonight she gifted us with another one of her apple pies, overall excellent but exceptional in the crust. I think crust is the essence of any pie, as of any life--what we are at bottom, what our boundaries are like (and who sets them--are they pre-made or of our own composing?), and whether kids enjoy us for what we are at the first point of contact (that outermost being that they suffer every day) rather than our intentions.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Uttered and Examined Lives

There is something terribly beguiling about the instant gratification of a vacuumed floor, a sink without dishes, clean bed sheets and doorknobs that are not sticky. So we clean house rather than write.

The more we attend to the house and those who live in it (our rawest "others"), the more we examine our lives-- and so feel the lives more worth living and so live more of them and so write less of them.

Ah, to both live and utter the lives!

Friday, September 21, 2007


Naps of sleeping spot the days.
Naps of waking spot the nights.
We still dream and boast
that we can sleep with our eyes shut.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

let's not be conceited

distended metaphors

D.C. Berry, another of my best poetry tutors, warned against extended metaphors. He said they become a distraction as the establishment and keeping up of one-to-one correspondences draws attention to itself.

The extended metaphors (e.g., life as battleground or "all the world's a stage"), on which we may base at least some part of our lives can also distract from authentic experiences, just as dependence on cliché does. We all live by words and comparisons, so we must choose them with care.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

sound pleases, sense sustains

A Kindergarten competency that states a child should be able to recite the alphabet without singing it seems a bit unnatural. Why take the music out of language? It's the sound of things and not just the sense. I remember thirteen years ago reading John Berryman's Dream Songs and not worrying about my lack of comprehension because Berryman's sounds satisfied me.

That said, there is an ethical danger in "only listening to the tune"--what's more insidious than stirring music with hateful lyrics? George Orwell's contention applies: " . . . even the best wall in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration camp."

Tuesday, September 18, 2007


A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
--Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Lose something every day.
--Elizabeth Bishop

In third grade on a sheet of fifty (?) subtraction problems I got the first one right and the rest were wrong. Reason: the first did not require me to borrow; the rest did. My mom sat me to the kitchen table in my usual seat, gave me a cup of grape punch, and had me rework each wrong problem.

My mother has always had strong cautions against borrowing, the fear being that one will ruin, or be accused of ruining, the borrowed item. Maybe she was thinking of Polonius's advice. Is that why I had trouble borrowing in math? I'm being ironic, and not so ironic. My mother-ego influenced me so that her preferences had moral value attached.

At school Mrs. Stull had a problem with borrowing, too. I have memory of her semantic dogmatism: I was REGROUPING, not borrowing. This did not make a palpable difference in how I did subtraction, but she must have thought it would help: say the right words and the right things will happen.

Back to my mother, whose consolation was that unlike addition in which numbers could be stacked like pancakes and one would be required to add them, one would never be required to subtract more than two numbers at once. Plus, one could always check a subtraction problem by adding; in adding, the only check was to rework the problem.

And here I am now, trying to master that "easy" art of losing, not on worksheets but in the works of love. If I call things by their right names, will the right things can happen? Borrowing is something that creates a sense of or a real debt; borrowing requires something outside of one's domain. Regrouping suggest everything one needs is within one's domain and possession; it requires no asking. It is difference making and difference resolution, always between two things at a time and not more: the other and the self, with a built-in self-check.

Monday, September 17, 2007

we can't not take the pressure

Rouchefoucauld: "We all have strength enough to endure the troubles of others."

Zossima's brother: " . . . Everyone is really responsible to all men for all men and for everything. . . .And how is it we went on then living, getting angry and not knowing?"

I believe it was in high school, in Mr. Richter's science class, that I watched a video of a deep sea craft named Alvin. Alvin's crew collected a sample of something that resembled a yellow chrysanthemum. When the specimen jar was opened on the surface, the animal--I am sure it was sentient--had disintegrated with the change in pressure and resembled a pot of yellow spaetzle.

This image comes to me now as metaphor of necessary pressure. Is it possible that one is more likely to break apart under lack of pressure than too much pressure? Perhaps, especially if it is the pressure of bearing and bearing with the other. Humans are designed to live--or at least capable of living--under their mutual weight. To declare oneself free from responsibility to the other endangers integrity.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

People, the Neighborhood

A neighborhood is a place, a collection of houses. Brotherhood, sisterhood, fatherhood, motherhood--these are people and conditions, but also collections of mobile strongholds. Primarily and ultimately the houses and hopes of our bodies are the only shelter we have to give each other.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Transformational Grammar and the Mother Tongue

I was looking at student work for a composition class when my daughter brought a sanitized Cinderella and sat beside me in the recliner for a reading. When a child comes with a book request, it takes precedence, for here is English hunger and English learning: exposure to edited writing with good syntax, correct spelling, grammar, and mechanics. Here's a text that takes a reader satisfyingly from beginning to end. And it's a good story, too. Beyond that, there is the human connection of live people experiencing writing together--and even synchronously.

But here's what I wonder after this reading: how did the mice feel to become mice again after being horses? Cursed with a longing for power that would not be restored because they could not produce the magic horse-shoes as proof that they were the thoroughbreds all had desired? Or relieved, that they were no longer geldings with harnesses and insatiable hunger?

Friday, September 14, 2007

Outside Samsara

Could we liberate a truth bound in a cliché by redefining "the box?" Suppose the box is a pinewood box, or metal and satin--in a word, a casket, metonymic for death.

Considerations outside of confining death in turn liberate us from other cliches, such as, paradoxically, carpe diem.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

A Fairer House than Prose

Insight, image, and intellect in themselves can be a cluster of highly-taxed houses in a cul de sac of poetry which readers pay, not the mortgage to live in, but an entrance fee to
view--much as one would at a parade of homes or a Natchez pilgrimage. Self-interest creates poetry that is more suitable for cable television on a channel people watch to covet, mock, or get ideas for a lifestyle and living space.

When people take to remodeling, improving, or adding on to their lives, how much of other people's poetry will serve them well?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

For Victory

Yesterday I saw geese flying in their V. Somehow it didn't stir my archetypal heart the way the same V in later winter would. But why shouldn't I long for the coming of fall/winter the way in winter I long for the coming of spring? It's a rather selfish perspective, I suppose.

At least one woman in the southern hemisphere desires spring the way I do. I should be happy it's her turn.

Picture Book Pleasure and Scholarship

Reading to a two-year-old is a recursive activity. I want to go through a book linearly, but we progress only so far before my daughter wants to go back pages and repeat. And when we do get to the end of a story, it's regularly time to read it again. It's like 1001 Nights or something; one is caught in a literary loop.

The do-list ("let's get this over with") and suspense ("let's see what happens next") paradigms both favor linear reading. Scholarship favors recursiveness, and just may begin with a two-year-old's instinctual randomness.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Ein Feste Burg

The first listener-request selection of the morning on what was then PRM (Public Radio in Mississippi) on Friday 9/14/01 was an organ solo of "A Mighty Fortress." This song for me will always be associated with September 11th as a response and a declaration of faith.

9/11/01 was words. That morning on NPR a radio essay critiqued George W. Bush's lingual blunders. The contrast between the flaming earnestness in the predawn and the silence of the skies within hours becomes a test of language: if what is said is irrelevant in times of crisis, it is of questionable value in times of order.

The more precious we find language and the other, the less we will waste words and waste others with them.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Only Connect (2)

Poets are technicians who lay cable and make connections. While they may speak through their own lines, self-communication is not their primary goal.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Paddington Bear and the Great Plagiarism Adventure

For two texts on plagiarism, I first recommend Jon Olson’s “Plagiarism Might Go Away if We Don’t Talk about It” (in Skorczewksi and Parfitt’s Conflicts and Crises in the Composition Classroom—and What Instructors Can Do About Them).

The second recommendation: Michael Bond's Paddington Bear and the Busy Bee Carnival-- a didactic story about words that begin with B and not being a cheater. In this picture book, the earnest Paddington goes on a treasure hunt to locate words that begin with the letter B, shadowed throughout the story by a boy sneaking along with his own pad of paper and an evil look, copying everything that Paddington finds. When at the end of the hunt it appears that a prize cannot be awarded because of this foul play, Paddington realizes that he is a bear, adds that to his list of B words, and comes out one ahead of the dishonest boy. Paddington wins.

Readers may wonder why the boy didn't find himself, a boy, and add that to his list of B words. Herein is the message about plagiarism. In doing one's own work, in writing about the world in our own words (or at least not wantonly/thoughtlessly using other's words because it seems much easier), we discover ourselves and our relationship to the things we are exploring with words.

Perhaps plagiarism's biggest theft is the taking of a unique, fresh, verbal perspective. Plagiarism robs the self of its own voice and others of the self's voice, too.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Love and Be Silent (2)

Saying one will not say anything is saying it anyhow, only more damningly.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Tower of Clay

There's a baby baking
and the oven bricks need baking, too.
This little loaf will be done before me.


No words fail their speakers like angry cliches. Apt, then, that one of the most violent ones is politely called the F- word.

When Words Fail Us

Thou shoulds't not have been old till thou hadst been wise
--King Lear

As children receiving a gift, our mothers were quick to fill the characteristic silence with "What do you say?" Prompted, we remembered: Thank you.

When we age (but don't necessarily mature) and happenings leave us speechless, could it be that we have just received a gift, and that the right response is "Thank you"?

Thursday, September 06, 2007

As If

If there is "much virtue in an if," there is even more in an "as if."

Scarcity creates anxious appreciation. When the toothpaste is almost out, we press, roll, squeeze with extra force, bending back the nozzle end the way we pull back the chin on a CPR mannequin. When the shampoo is almost out we add water, shake, and feel gratified by the dilute lather in our hair. The cotton swab container is empty and tossed, but we look about under the electric shaver, combs and such hoping to find one swab, and if there's only a single attracted hair on the tip, we pull it off and consider ourselves lucky. Such are all vanity items. More seriously, be on an unfamiliar highway in January at six degrees with less than an eighth of a tank and our bodies feel sympathetically empty: the fuel goes out of our arms and torsos, until only the driver's right foot, light on the pedal, seems to have substance.

Be replenished and relief changes to indifference. Toothpaste squirts are long, shampoo blobs large, there's at least one swab for each ear, and no thoughts for fuel.

It seems so with words. The abundance of a keyboard, prefab phrases, and the limitless lexicon give the illusion of "inexhaustible voice." Yet poets massage, rinse out, search out, and press just lightly so that a line of almost empty words produces abundantly.

Appreciation is counting the infinite on one hand, holding the timeless as ephemeral, and being grateful not that things are as we wish them, but that they are.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007


Turn or coin?

To turn a phrase--is it like turning a breech baby, artfully from the outside so she comes out right? Or is it like turning lathe work: revolution, edge, pressure and sanding to make shape? Or is it that to turn, turn, will be our delight?

To coin a phrase--is that what we meant/mint? A two year old coins words: macaroni is money; panties are monies. A girl hears scarecrow for scherzo; a boy says Dark Elevator for Darth Vader.

To hear differently and speak the difference is the beginning of poetry.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007


Do two-year-olds have a corporeal memory of the first trimester when their bodies were the scroll of a violin or the tip of a growing fern? Do they have an archetypal longing to be mermaids? Something explains why in dressing that two legs often prefer to go into one pant leg.


Once a man made reference to a story of depraved violence.

I said, ready-made, "I can imagine!"
He said "No, you can't."

This humbling exchange has reshaped my way of responding to such reports of suffering: "I can't imagine." It comes to this: if I must resort to cliché, at least I can be honest.

Monday, September 03, 2007

I'll sweep with this

If my mother swept a floor, she had a larger pile of crumbs and dirt than I did. If she wrung out a rag, it was always drier than when I did. Her thoroughness, vision, and strength exceeded mine as a child, so that given the same tools and the same situation, her yields were greater. I suspect that even today she would best me at the poetics of cleaning.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

September 1, 2007

The question of how to write poetry that sustains has to be more than one of rhythm, intellect, and image; craft alone does not make credible.

Auden's poem "September 1, 1939" is historical, with one line beyond time. How can "We must love one another or die"--all one, two syllable words--all household words-- be so true? How can a dichotomy work so well? (To kick against it is to kick against a crown of thorns.)