Loaded with mysterious cargo and about to launch

Mad sleepingAt first she slept in a bassinet by our bed, keeping us awake with weird barnyard noises: grunts, squawks, clicks, snorts. After a couple of weeks we started pushing the bassinet across the room, and even into the hall outside our door, just so we could catch a little rest between feedings. Our tiny baby, after all, was quickly growing fat and happy—newborn jaundice fading into a golden Buddha sweetness. Five weeks after the birth, somewhere in late April 1997, we pushed that bassinet right into her own bedroom and all three of us, relieved by the peace, slept our first seven-and-a-half hour stretch. A talented sleeper, Madeleine dreamed through the night from then on in.

And now she’s been accepted early-decision to Wesleyan.

We’re sad at the prospect of pushing the bassinet all the way to Connecticut in late August 2015, but it’s what you’re working for all along, right? One minute she’s playing school with stuffed animals, then she’s challenging the ridiculously early bedtime you got away with imposing for a surprisingly long time, then it’s boyfriends and a school trip to Italy and AP Physics and boom, you’re ordering college sweatshirts for Christmas.Mad and me

After a fall season of application-essay-writing, sleeplessness, and intense suspense, we’re pretty happy here. Madeleine has recommitted herself to watching as many shows and movies directed by Wesleyan alum Joss Whedon as possible between massive homework sessions. Chris is reading over a book contract from Iowa University Press for a prehistory of superheroes based on his blog. My workload for exam week is ridiculous, and grading is the least of it; there’s a ton of department-head-work to do as well as miscellaneous meetings. Some of them are tiresome, like weighing in on new registration software; some are hard but important, like search committee work; some are even kind of fun, like meeting with the head of Special Collections about resources for my winter African-American Poetry course, and presenting on a panel in honor of a new essay collection, Forging a Rewarding Career in the Humanities (that’s 8:30 this Thursday morning in Hillel 101, if you’re local).

But you mind the busy-ness less when your family is cheerful and your fall 2015 sabbatical has advanced one term closer. Here’s hoping peace is contagious this season. The poem below will be in my next collection, Radioland. Warm thanks to The Southeast Review for publishing it early this year.

Cells All Ringing

It was not the sick shudder of a small plane, windshield
scratched, scenery blurred, or the snarl of a finger sliding
beneath an envelope flap. It was more like waking up
after a doze on a plastic raft, noticing the shore is far off
and the sky deep plum—not terrifying yet, just enough time
to paddle in, pack up blankets and slowly rusting chairs,
children who are no longer small. Or it was like not
hearing a toddler babble about toy sharks beyond
a half-closed door, realizing you’ve been not hearing her
for a few minutes now. She suddenly became fourteen
and it’s dinner and she’s describing the pregnant girl in Earth
Science as she doesn’t eat her page of cod, scribbled with herbs
and strips of wine-poached pepper. I sort of admire
her, she says. She’s getting really fat now. You correct her,
stupidly: Not fat. A seven-month-belly is hard and full
of baby. And then rising tones behind her fully-closed
door. Daughter and friend emerge to ask, How far along
until you start to show? It turns out to be another
teenager, not your sensible girl whose slender left hip buzzes
with texts until stars vibrate in a perfectly dark,
dry night sky like messages, like fish in deep
water or the unnecessarily frightened passengers
on a small plane about to land. A shell’s secretive
murmur reminds you of the sea but is really your own
blood echoing through nearby coils. Sound reflected,
not by a mirror. By the whorls of your daughter,
loaded with mysterious cargo and about to launch.

Poetry and injustice

I don’t have anything wise and insightful to say about our epidemic  losses of African-Americans to police violence. At the “Black Lives Matter” rally at Washington & Lee on Friday—yes, a rally here, and the crowd was big!—I didn’t speak. African-American undergrads, law students, and community members bore witness to fear and humiliation that are offensively common in their lives: being pulled over without cause, followed around department stores by security guards, challenged in their right to walk their own neighborhood streets. Their testimony was more moving and convincing than anything I could contribute.

I don’t know how much of my slowness to chime in is my scholarly training (don’t speak unless you’ve read EVERYTHING) versus an ethics of carefulness or just personal insecurity—but I tend to keep my strong political opinions on the quiet side. When you speak, you risk being stupid, wrong, even hurtful. I have certainly said my share of seriously dumb things over the years. Not speaking, though, has a huge social cost. The difficulty/ urgency of speaking for others has been a contentious topic in my mid-century U.S. poetry seminar lately, as one of my students reflects in a recent blog post for Shenandoah. I’ve been attracted to Adrienne Rich’s work for decades—I wrote my undergraduate honors thesis partly on her work—because of poems like “Frame,” in which she negotiates between her responsibility to bear witness and the dangers of using others’ trauma as material. Many privileged poets don’t get the balance right, in my opinion, or if they do, they don’t manage to transform the balancing act into poetry. On the whole, though, it seems better to try and fail than not to try at all.

There’s also the perennial question of what poetry can do to help in any case. So many people are talking and writing, and yet so little changes. I am deeply moved by Gwendolyn Brooks’ strategies in “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon.” She imagines the white woman with whom Emmett Till was supposed to have flirted changing her mind—recognizing the links between the brutalities white women and African-Americans of all genders endure. Brooks had such a generous imagination and such amazing skill at inspiring others, but we still live in a world where African-American boys are murdered without legal consequence. When I read Danez Smith’s recent and much more fiery call to arms, and to song, I remember: art is a powerful answer to the stupidity of the world. Poets see. It gives me hope, as heated classroom debates give me hope. Hope is small and personal, though, and while it does save lives, violence and suffering still rages in the world around the reader.

“How can a person make poems out of anger?” a student poet asked me recently. He’s hurt and furious and he craves practical advice on how to turn his experience into something positive. I don’t know, I said, but practicing compassion helps me, because it generates complicated language to match a complicated world. When I think compassionately, I know children of any race are seldom loved well enough and may grow up broken; our schools and communities are full of damaging injustice and rarely teach us how difficult it is to be good, how much hard thinking it requires; our biggest decisions are often made in the blink of an eye but can have terrifyingly wide implications; and intensely hierarchical institutions bring out the worst in people.

Recognizing how those forces may act on police officers as well as kids on the street doesn’t mean the abusers shouldn’t be held responsible. I think even fierce, polarizing language can have positive uses. Ultimately, though, I’m on the side of breaking down “us” and “them” into messy complexity. The fact that nothing is simple, though, is cause for another kind of sadness. When the causes are so manifold, where do you start?

So, it was a hard week. I’m grieving, too, for my long-ago colleague Claudia Emerson, killed by cancer. One poison in the early years of that friendship was an institutional one: I had the privilege of being tenure-track while she was hired year-to-year as an “adjunct” professor, a disparity that definitely did not map onto merit, even though in those early days her greatest accomplishments were still ahead of her. She was one of the most important role models in my poetic and teaching life, but our relationship suffered strains because of systemic injustice. Several people told me last week that W&L treated her badly. I know individuals did, and I’m sure in my own panicky obliviousness I missed a lot, but W&L’s badness, if you can describe it that way, is common and persistent. She was undervalued as other contingent professors, here and elsewhere, remain undervalued. W&L hasn’t risen above the deeply unfair system that permeates U.S. academia, but our version is not unique or especially egregious. Even twenty years later, as a department head, I can’t see any fix except to keep saying “the system isn’t right and it damages all of us.” I have an essay to write, I think, but I’m trying not to get too far in until I have time to reread Claudia’s first book, Pharaoh, Pharaoh—the one she finished in an office downstairs from me, with fewer resources than those I enjoyed.

Really, I don’t have to try very hard as far as not-writing is concerned! This will be the last week of classes, followed by a week of exams and meetings, and my schedule is chock-full of student conferences and other obligations like reading job applications and oh, maybe decorating a tree or two. This Wednesday my class will put on a Haiku Death Match in the Elrod Commons Living Room at 11:15 a.m.—if you’re local, stop by. I don’t expect any of the students’ little poems to rock the world, but there will be coffee and good cheer. Poetry is a good church in which to worship, even if when you step out again, the streets are as messed-up as ever.

Forgiveness, gratitude, and other things I suck at

Thanksgiving is a complicated holiday—historically, emotionally, even logistically. (Reason #647 to be grateful: I don’t have to get on the highway this year.) And yet I love all the rituals leading up to the feast. Last weekend, I made stock and baked pumpkin bread to freeze. This Saturday I scribbled out long lists and laid in ingredients. Now homemade cranberry sauce is chilling in the fridge and cranberry-orange bread is perfuming the kitchen. Wednesday is for pies; Thursday morning I embark on an elaborate plan that will theoretically get all the food hot in time for dinner with Chris’ brother and his family. This orderly sequence—a crazy amount of work for one meal, but carved into small steps doable over time—seems all the more beautiful because I know it will have to change before too long. My daughter goes to college next year, and who knows how our traditions will need to alter as our children’s lives expand?

thxA sense of loss, prospective and retrospective, permeates the rituals. I scored some challah bread at the market because two decades ago, my friend Gayle taught me that it makes the best stuffing—but I haven’t seen Gayle for ages. Some of the recipes, like a maple-glazed sweet potato and apple dish, are from sticky old copies of Bon Appetit, to which I subscribed in the early nineties when I was a grad student learning how to cook. Those first attempts at domesticity are hazy in my memory now. The pumpkin bread recipe was transcribed in a neat hand around the turn of the century by my departmental partner in crime, Suzanne, whom I see much less of since she moved to the dean’s office, although she emails me generous notes of praise after I submit departmental reports. The cranberry bread instructions are scrawled less precisely on a soft green index card given to me by another now-distant friend. She broke off contact with me in long-nursed anger over something I’d said years before. I apologized but couldn’t remember making the harsh remark, or even secretly holding that opinion; I suspected misunderstanding. Not surprisingly, my apology didn’t help either of us—another friendship faded out.

And people near to me are managing much harder losses. I’m giving a poetry reading the week after Thanksgiving at VMI and only belatedly realized the date coincides with a terrible car accident at W&L last year. Over the mountain, the University of Virginia is in the news after the murder of a young woman earlier this fall and more a recent Rolling Stone article about gang rape in its fraternities. In class we’ve been discussing anger in poems and essays by Amiri Baraka, Adrienne Rich, and others—how rage can liberate, how it can harm. This is in the context of our own campus troubles with assault. You want a university to be a place where everyone can discuss their differences passionately yet respectfully, where good arguments can change minds, where everyone is safe to pursue their intellectual curiosities. But it is very, very difficult to cultivate and maintain even a temporary bubble of safety around one seminar or workshop, much less a college that has a million points of intersection with a dangerous world.

What I am truly most grateful for is that my spouse and children are safe and well, that my son can whine about his World History project and Chris can get so obsessed with his works cited list that, after shopping, he leaves the groceries in the car overnight (at least it’s cold). But my relief is so small it feels almost mean-spirited. I always want to hedge my thanks, too. I do feel very lucky, for instance, to teach great students in this lovely college town, but I want to add “where the campus culture can be toxic and good morale is fragile despite splendid resources.” Not very gracious, am I?

And forgiveness! I was so moved by my colleague Deborah Miranda’s reading from Bad Indians last week. She excerpted a passage about her dad coming home from San Quentin—a honeymoon of cooking and woodwork and gardening—but then segued into their alienation and his death. Deborah’s childhood was vastly different from mine, but my father was also an alcoholic and unpredictably mean, so as I listened I resonated like a bell. She finished on a passage about holding in her mind an image of her father as a child, still innocent, and feeling a wave of cool forgiveness wash over her. I’ve been meaning to ask her since: did the wave ebb, or does it stay with you? I have forgiven my father many times. The feeling seeps away, floods in, seeps away again. That night I sat down opposite a baby picture of my father I’d put up shortly after his death. The frame suddenly smashed face-down, though the room was still and the shelf unjostled. That’s how I feel: peaceful most of the time, but subject to sudden crashes of refusal.

Since I’m an unforgiving obscenely lucky ingrate, you’ll know it must be genuine when I say that I’m recently able to feel a little less angry about something that has chewed me up for years. About a month ago I responded to a small-potatoes bit of bullying in my department—by a guy whose previous behavior added up to gangantuan, ugly, poisonous potatoes that still lurk around campus unacknowledged—by publically saying cut it out. (You’ll forgive that potatoes metaphor, I hope, for getting so mashed up.) A tiny act of self-expression has made a big difference in my sense of well-being. I’ll try to make a habit of it.

I’m also feeling unhedged gratitude to have Deborah and other friends around, giving me recipes for sustenance. Thanks to a long-distance poet-friend, too, Jeannine Hall Gailey, for a shout-out last week on her blog. Thanks to Gordon Ball, soon retiring from VMI, for asking me to read there (Weds. 12/3, 7:45 pm in Preston Library). A generous writer from Ghana contacted me out of the blue a few weeks ago to interview me for his blog, Geosi Reads–I talk about anger and forgiveness there, too. And thanks to magazine editors who recently turned on their personal amplifiers on my behalf: the people at Crazyhorse, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and Gettysburg Review, as well as guest editor Anny Ballardini at Truck. Tahoma Literary Review just nominated a forthcoming poem of mine for a Pushcart, too. Does that sound like trivial po-biz stuff? It’s not. All my poems are love-letters, solitary broadcasts, petitions for human connection. I am so grateful to feel heard.

Thrushes, worms, and bibliomemoir

What can amateur accounts of literature do better than conventional literary criticism? That’s the question I brought to two recent bibliomemoirs: Alexander McCall Smith’s What W.H. Auden Can Do For You (from Princeton and Oxford’s Writers on Writers series, 2013) and Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch (Crown, 2014). The main answers seem to be: 1. sell books (well, better than criticism generally sells, anyway) and 2. testify ardently that reading matters and, perhaps, that the books that strike us powerfully in our teens and twenties may matter most of all. Which makes me think: teaching matters.

smithI enjoyed both books in a mild, non-urgent way. I’m a binge-reader of print or e-books but a slower listener, and because I downloaded My Life in Middlemarch as an audiobook, I consumed it in nibbles. I started Mead’s encomium in September and finished it two months later, listening mainly on extended car trips—and I don’t have a lot of those, since I commute on foot. Yet “no car time” isn’t really the headline here: when I listen to Robert Galbraith or Tina Fey, I somehow find more listening occasions. There just isn’t much suspense in a bibliomemoir. (Spoiler alert: she loved the book!) I read Smith more rapidly, in just a couple of evenings last week, but his is actually the less compelling of the two books. What W. H. Auden Can Do For You just happens to be shorter by more than half and, ahem, I had a deadline. I post this bibliomemoiristic episode from the Modernist Studies Association meeting where I am about to moderate one of the conference’s “What Are You Reading?” sessions, in which I’ll informally present Smith’s prettily-printed meditation.

My feelings are mixed. Smith is an acclaimed mystery writer—I dipped into the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series a couple of times—so he has an easy, appealing, unpedantic style. Twelve short chapters present different aspects of Auden’s life and work, including some basic biography, attention to the major works, and a tactfully-written meditation on how secular people can appreciate a poet’s turn to religion. Smith’s subject is a writer I care about, but not one whose works or life I know thoroughly. I teach Auden and adore many of his lyrics. I don’t know much Auden scholarship. However, even I can tell Smith’s book offers no serious, original appraisal of the Anglo-American poet’s work. In fact, there’s plenty here to irritate even a disaffected member of the contemporary Critical Congregation. Smith pontificates, oh lord, on themes of choice, responsibility, and the journey; and while Smith is totally forthright about Auden’s homosexuality, I found the bit about how “Lullaby” “transcends gender” and “can be appreciated by anybody”—well, not quite untrue, but defensive. And reductive of one of the century’s most beautiful poems. A more accomplished critic could deepen “Lullaby”‘s magic even while explaining its tricks, I think.

Yet there are parts of Smith’s book I found memorably charming. While this is not a very personal bibliomemoir—I closed it knowing the author’s disposition, but not much about his life—I recognized myself in his descriptions of poetic earworms. “The line returns again and again until it becomes part of the way I look at things…It is rather like having the poet by one’s  side—ready to point something out, ready to put into words a feeling or impression that would otherwise be fleeting.” Because Smith happened to read Auden at an impressionable age, and because Auden’s lines delighted and mystified and haunted him, he proceeds to perceive events of his own life more richly and vividly. I loved a passage starting on page 93 and triggered by Auden’s phrase “with thrushes popular”: Smith is inspired by it to find hidden life teeming in all kinds of scenes: rivers become with salmon popular, etc. Auden’s strange locution populates Smith’s life with weird, excessive liveliness. Words affect perception: “the way in which we stock our minds will surely determine the quality of our experiences, conscious and subconscious.”

Overall, Smith’s approach to the poetry seems dated and shallow compared to Mead’s. However, there are several circumstances that dispose me to prefer the latter. I’m less invested in Eliot’s work than Auden’s, which may make me less critical. Mead, a journalist, is in her forties like me and Smith, twenty years senior, sounds rather more like my own stuffiest high school English teachers. Mead’s basic premise cuts close to the bone: she’s a middleaged person beginning to see the shape of her own life the way a novelist might, and also contemplating the ultimate meaning of love and work. Well, yeah. Me too.My Life in Middlemarch is in any case more complex study, rooted in extensive research, archival work, and site visits, as well as a detailed interweaving of both authors’ lives. Mead’s book is not so different from a critical biography; it just foregrounds the researching writer more.

I’m interested in bibliomemoir because my current critical project, Taking Poetry Personally, shares affinities with this emergent genre. I didn’t expect to find myself feeling suddenly more thoughtful about my own children’s reading and the books I assign to undergraduates. It might be that life is full of crises, of which youth is only one, and what we read at any crux can hook us deeply. Yet when I think back through the books that have shaped how I think about myself, that have encouraged and chastened and obsessed me, I realize that I encountered almost all of them before my twenty-fifth birthday.

Twilight, Call of Duty, stupid cat videos: contemporary twenty-year-olds’ brains are with zombies popular. I’m not anti-screen, or even anti-zombie.( I don’t think there’s a better show on the air right now than The Walking Dead, but that’s a swordfight for another day). Yet I do feel inspired by these bibliomemoirs to keep stocking student trees with literary singers. You never know which bird will become the worm.

If you’re swimming with the scholars like me, by the way–or just in or near Pittsburgh–come check out a free reading at the Omni William Penn tonight, Friday 11/7, 9 pm, in the ballroom on the 17th floor. The conference program is here. There will be a LOT of thrushes warbling, including Cynthia Hogue, Meta Jones, Dan Tobin, Julia Lisella, Tyrone Williams, Jan Beatty, Elizabeth Savage, Beth Frost, Aldon Nielson, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Lisa Samuels, and Jeanne Heuving.

Applying for a Fulbright: one reviewer’s POV

I definitely did not have time this September to read and evaluate sixty 25-40 page applications from mid-career and senior scholars and artists to the region of Australia/ New Zealand. I said yes anyway because I was grateful for my 2011 Fulbright to Wellington and felt obligated to pay that generosity forward. I also knew I’d gain insights that might be useful if I ever try for Round Two and certainly could help colleagues and friends trying for similar opportunities.

Insight #1: it’s a miracle I won one of these babies. Fulbright fellowships are amazing, transformative, and few and far between. The agency receives some half-baked applications, but it also sifts through piles of outstanding proposals for highly significant projects from unbelievably gifted and well-credentialed applicants in every field from film-making to chemical engineering, and there are only a few winners for each region. Clearly you have to write a great proposal, but you also have to be lucky, because there are more brilliant projects than can possibly be funded. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, although you should be philosophical about the odds and have a back-up plan.

The Basics on Applying for Grants—You Know This, Right?

You have already applied, successfully, to college and grad school, and probably with mixed success for scholarships and a million other opportunities. You know to seek the advice of acquaintances with related experience and start long before the deadline, because glitches happen (the referee falls ill, tech crashes). You should only apply for grants at the appropriate level (no, exceptions will not be made) and only if you genuinely want to attend that humanities seminar in Siberia—don’t waste time, effort, and referee goodwill if you’re not serious and don’t have an actual shot. Really read the instructions to make sure you know what the grantor is looking for and ask for help if you don’t. For individual fellowships to develop your research or your art, and possibly to fund a sabbatical if you’re an academic, you should also think hard about those referees. Ideally they know you well, admire your work, and hail from different institutions to show the breadth of your connections; they should also be able to testify to the skills you’ll exercise in this particular project (it’s alarming when all the referees for a teaching fellowship say “I’ve never seen her teach but she’s quite charming personally.”) It’s fine if they all know you from different contexts and can testify to different aspects of your career—just make sure the puzzle pieces will fit together into a meaningful whole.

Fulbright Specific Things.

In the region and at the levels I read for, you can apply for research or research/ teaching fellowships, but not just teaching. The deadline is August 1. Proposals are swiftly sent to disciplinary experts who write up short evaluations. If they’re good they help people in other disciplines sift through to the key elements: this journal is top-rate, the research is cutting-edge because x, the sample syllabi are outdated because y, referee no. 3 is a field leader. They’re mostly good. Occasionally, however, some mathematician will offer (probably feeling positively verbose because he’s using words instead of symbols): “A good proposal from a hard-working fellow with respectable qualifications. Should be funded.” Defend against such cryptic obliquity, if you can, by providing your own context for your accomplishments. Sometimes an essay prize or a citation index makes all clear, but remember you will have poet-readers who don’t know biopolymers from colloids, much less how prestigious that visiting lecture series is. Tell us clearly but non-arrogantly what it all means.

The next stage, by the way, involves 4 jurors from different fields who get the applications in mid-September and have to read and comment on them all before a meeting in D.C. in early October. We write up bullet-point comments in three areas: applicant credentials; the quality of the proposal; the significance/ likely outcomes of the proposal. Sixty long and diverse applications, three weeks, hellaciously busy point in the school year: absorb that math. We’re conscientious people, but skimmable applications that are unjargonishly clear about method, deliverables, and significance please us.

Your audience is professional.

Avoid overly general pitches beginning with platitudes such as “science is beautiful” that you might direct at sixth graders or politicians. We’re on board with the premise that research and artistic production are worthwhile for their own sake. Get right to the specifics.

Your audience, however, includes people from radically different disciplines.

What would you say if you were explaining this project to a smart acquaintance from an opposite field, who didn’t know thing one about standard ideas and practices in your subspecialty but who catches on to the basics pretty fast? Make sure that person, reading your proposal, knows why the research matters. The best proposals play out the work’s significance not only within a specialty but to other fields, and sometimes even to government policy, public health, cross-cultural understanding, and other aspects of, you know, life. In the world.

Sound like a Fulbrighter.

You should be eager to contribute generously to your host institution through advising students, giving workshops, and participating in seminar series, and perhaps to the larger community through general interest lectures. You have a lot to give. Know, however, that you will also be helped, possibly even radically changed, by this experience.

I don’t think it’s smart to wax lyrical in your application about the wonders of international immersion. If a past international experience has changed how you think, say so in a specific way that relates your research, and then get back to those project details. It’s worse, though, to sound like a jerk who knows that the poor folks in this remote backwater would be lucky to have you around for a few months.

Plan a project that really requires you to be on site for archival work, equipment use, collaboration, interviews, whatever. Conceive of it from the beginning as a two-way flow of open-minded goodwill and energetic mutual usefulness. Then, even though you’re talking about a hypothetical and faraway time and place, be as specific as you can about what you have to give and hope to learn.

And good luck. Winning altered the course of my professional life—my scholarship, poetry, reading, teaching, even my social connections are richer for the experience. My children now understand that they live not just in the US but in a huge, weird, fascinating world; they dwell in it with greater self-confidence. Trying for this long-shot lucky break was one of the most important and rewarding risks I’ve ever taken.

Sylvia Plath Quiz

My students’ responses to the real Plath quiz I just administered were too red, they hurt me, so I hereby offer an optional retest.* If your brain has not emptied of images like a cup or a room, please answer the following legibly without using the words hook, bald, black, moon, or blood.

1. What brand of cleanser works best to clear the white tumuli of a father-figure’s eyes?

2. Why did “Morning Song” make you all vow never to bear or sire children, while it strikes me as the most cheerful poem one could possibly write about the identity-negating sleep deprivation resulting from tending a newborn?

3. What marine creature does Plath see in the mirror, and what does that teach you about avoiding reflective surfaces?

4. In “Wintering,” what does Plath keep in the cellar, and please don’t all write “dead bodies” again, because that was seriously creepy?

5. Stop crying. Come here, sweetie, out of the closet. Will you major in it, major in it, major in it?

6. On a scale of 1 to 13, with 1 meaning “totally justified critique of patriarchy” and 13 meaning “wildly offensive trivialization of the Holocaust,” how ich-ich-ich-icky is “Daddy”?

7. Pure? What does it mean?

8. Why is bleeding because you “fall upon the thorns of life” so superior, Scott, to oozing gore from a trepanned veteran, dirty girl, thumb stump?

9. How can there be “nothing there” after Lady Lazarus’ “big strip tease,” except a phoenix? Alternatively, explain in three lines or less how these poems can be A) so messed up and B) simultaneously so powerful and indelible.

Extra credit if you can fold these poems back into your body OR tell me why the moon has nothing to be sad about.

*Passing this retest will not affect your actual grade in any fashion.

Frank O’Hara didn’t live long enough to write about middle age

"Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1953" by Larry Rivers

“Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1953″ by Larry Rivers

Last week, as another birthday hurried past, I taught Frank O’Hara! It was the first time ever I chucked the Selected Poems at my students instead of relying on anthology standards! Many of the poems I assigned were the WRONG ONES but it was still exciting—the papaya juice, George Washington in his tight white pants, unpunctuated rushes climaxing in exclamation points! My undergrads were delighted, pissed off, and puzzled in aesthetically pleasing proportions.

We also read an essay by Wayne Koestenbaum, who is visiting later this term for our Shannon-Clark series of scholarly lectures. “‘Oh! kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas!': Frank O’Hara’s Excitement” starts, as many works of literary criticism do, by getting personal, and proceeds rapidly through a range of great insights about poetic structure, allusion, tone, and the minutiae that add up to style. One passage in particular has been resonating in me:

“Excitement comes from being lazy and fun loving. O’Hara worked hard, but he also took it easy. His Collected Poems are a manifesto of the high aesthetic rewards that accrue from a life—albeit a tragically abbreviated life—of taking easiness as the gold standard. Like Warhol’s professed love of easy art (or art that was easy to make), O’Hara’s love of easeful production stood in ironic contrast to the uneasy intensity that electrifies his work and complicates its every emotional posture, threading melancholy and ambivalence and the threat of self-loss into the most apparently insouciant exclamations.”

In class, a surprising remark issued from my mouth: I said something about finding that paragraph provocative, given that our culture has virtually adopted busy-ness as a religion. Now, I’m normally pretty skeptical of phrases such as “our culture.” Who is included and excluded from the “our”? Yes, there’s a lot of media coverage on ever-expanding workweeks and the now-standard response of “Busy!” to the old-standard question, “How are you?” I’ve seen plenty of social-media vows not to talk about being busy anymore; I’ve even issued one myself (and broken it repeatedly). I’m not sure it’s a new phenomenon, though. Hard work has been core to the U.S. national myth for a long time. Think of Melville’s busy lawyer facing down Bartleby: clearly you can be smug about your own industry whether or not you wield a cell-phone.

It’s probably truer to quote Ginsberg’s “America”: “I am talking to myself again.” While I’ve been trying to construct a relationship towards work my whole life, the problem seems more acute now in the second half of my forties. For seventeen-plus years kids have been a helpful counterbalance to ambition, reminding me that from a certain highly valid perspective, my urgent deadlines are meaningless. I accomplished a lot in those decades, and did a ton of kid-cleaning-up-after and school-project-advising too, but there were inevitably big chunks of just hanging out. We tossed pebbles into streams, read chapter books aloud for the fifth time, made birthday cakes in honor of cats who would never deign to sniff them, consumed seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, walked toddlers around the mall until one or the other of us finally collapsed like Lana Turner.

My daughter just handed me a sweet handmade card, though, in which she pointed out that if her college applications go well, this may be the last September ever in which she’s present to celebrate my birthday. (I hugged her and she said, “See, even your birthday is all about me.” Funny kid. Works too hard.) My son is younger so I’m not exactly dangling over a precipice, not yet. Still, there’s less and less standing between me and potentially WORKING ALL THE TIME.

I’m more like that stupid lawyer than I am like Bartleby. Work satisfies me, as long as I get pleasant breathers. And while I don’t know about Frank O’Hara’s writing process, his brand of poetic ease is shockingly difficult to pull off. Good poems only flow readily when you put in a lot of hours reading, writing, talking, and thinking about art, and often not even then. Striving is not the enemy. I just can’t stay clear of the anxiety maelstrom work tends to generate, much less keep it all easy and fun-loving.

I do know it’s impossible to predict which hours are going to matter. You have to write the bad poem before the good one, so walking down dead ends isn’t wasted time. Professional generosities sometimes seem like diversion from vocations—putting in a stint as a department head, writing reviews—and sometimes they are, in fact, almost meaningless exercises that subtract painfully from leisure. Other times a former student expresses gratitude for some kindness you’ve totally forgotten and you realize, well, it cost me forty-five minutes, but maybe that recommendation letter was, in fact, a more transformative literary production than any single poem I’ve ever written.

Koestenbaum also provokes me by asserting, “The point of a poem, or an essay, is to pose questions, not to answer them.” How often have I told a student to explain why his observation matters? Or railed against a grant application in my overlarge reading pile for not stating the significance of the research project? Poems, too—a lot of contemporary poetry is frustrating because the author hasn’t done the work of thinking through her fragmented inspirations. It’s not that she should hand me The Answer on an iambic platter. It’s just that if she doesn’t know what she means, the poem probably doesn’t either, and therefore a smart reader can’t puzzle it out. Jigsaws with lots of missing pieces rightly end up mulched.

Yet here I am, raising an unanswerable question about the right way to work. Asking questions is fun; devising even provisional answers is head-breaking. Maybe that’s the proper retort to the problem. If it’s not paying the bills or saving someone or intrinsically fun, should I ever do it?

And ah, here’s where I’m too much like O’Hara for my own good, and at the same time, much dumber about excitement’s necessary lassitudes. It’s ALL fun, isn’t it, from a certain angle? Poems and people and even devising the winter course schedule! But doesn’t Melville’s excitable lawyer strike you as a few ticks less intelligent than his enervated scrivener? It takes introspection and nerve to realize that even when it’s sequins and chocolate soda, sometimes you just prefer not to.