Saturday, March 29, 2008

My Poet Father - by Hannah Sward

Daughter Hannah with Anthony... Los Angeles...

Editing an ongoing series of essays on Literary Friendship, "Writers Friendship, Writers Enmity," for Web Del Sol / Perihelion (James Houston on Raymond Carver; Lola Haskins; Tony Barnstone...) thought, with some trepidation, I'd invite my daughter Hannah to contribute her thoughts on what it was like having as father... a writer... so, expanding the scope of "Writers Friendship" from what it's like for one writer to sustain a friendship with another, say, to sustaining a relationship with a family member, a daughter no less, who is herself a writer--and a good one!

Okay, here we go...

"My Poet Father," she writes (and I'm including Hannah's essay with her permission):

"The first sounds I remember are of an Olympia portable typewriter. My father clicking away. To this day, I find myself comforted by that sound.

Me, two years old, falling asleep to the rhythm, the vibrations of his voice as he recited his poems at poetry readings, half asleep in a papoose on my father’s back. I remember the vibration of my father’s voice as he recited …

I have many feelings about growing up the daughter of a poet. I cannot separate my father from the poet, the poet from my father. I envy his life. I want my life to be just as interesting. The stories my mother has shared with me of all the young women fawning over my father, coming over to our house, one by one going up to his study in our big old Victorian house in Oak Bay, Victoria, British Columbia. The stories my father himself has told me. Arriving late to a reading he was giving at The Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Only hours earlier having been hit by a car. Still bleeding from the head, bandaged, dizzy, (briefly) an amnesiac, he arrives to read, auditorium filled with starry eyed students –

My father the poet, his life rich with stories I have both lived and not lived, he is my hero. I romanticize his life and the life I have lived growing up with him. The frequent visits to Earle Birney’s home with his much younger, beautiful wife in Toronto. My first meeting with Margaret Atwood, she hovering over me like a medicine woman as I lay sick in my red, wrought iron bed on Algonquin Island (Toronto Island) in the cold of winter. Or, his CBC radio interview in Montreal with Leonard Cohen in the early eighties.

“Why can’t I go, dad?” I ask. “Why can’t I go with you to meet Leonard?”

Growing up there were many places I wanted to go with my father. There’s a line in one of his poems,


"Where do people go when they go to sleep? /

I envy them. I want to go there too.

I am outside of them, married to them.

Nightgown, wife's gown, women that you look at,

Beside them--I knock on their shoulder blades, /

Ask to be let in. It is forbidden. /

But you’re my wife, I say. There is no reply.

Arms around her, I caress her wings."

And I, as a child, and later as the adult, I knock on his shoulder blades, ask to be let in... "But you’re my father," I say. This is the life I wanted to avoid. Now I find myself living it. Even as a kid, the life of a writer is too painful, too lonely. But at the same time many lives in one. The life of a poet’s daughter is at once rich, but it is also lonely. The dreamer, the drifter, the life of a poet, the life of poet’s daughter . . .

*first published in The Paris Review... reprinted in dad's Collected Poems.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

What is a blog? Ars Poetica and the art of the blog

What is a blog? 

Ars Poetica (also known as "The Art of Poetry," Epistula Ad Pisones...) was a treatise on poetics translated into English by Ben Jonson. How does Ars Poetica (aka Arse Poetica) apply to blog? There's an art to poetry. Is there an art to blogging? Just because you make it up as you go along doesn't mean there's not an art to it. 

1. "In media res," or into the middle of things... a popular narrative technique that appears in ancient epics and remains popular to this day, says Wikipedia. Okay. And what is a blog if not an example of "in media res"? It's where you begin... is the beginning where you begin? or where you begin to begin? Blogging I'm thinking is beginning to begin... but of course in your mind you've already begun. Something's going on... even if not directly related to your "beginning to begin..." 

2. "Make it new," the poet Ezra Pound said. Yeah, okay... not as easy as it sounds!

3.  "bonus dormitat Homerus" or "even Homer nods." Homer the poet, not Homer Simpson.  In truth, we're none of us awake. Poets fuck up. Bloggers fuck up. Have a little humility. Have a little compassion. Gimme a break. Give yourself a break.

4. And some continuity. Poems, if not blogs, gotta have some continuity. Yes? No?

5. Then there's "ut pictura poesis", or "As is painting so is poetry", by which Horace (so says Wikipedia) meant that poetry (in its widest sense, "imaginative texts") merited the same careful interpretation that was, in Horace's day, reserved for painting.  So that's where I'm coming from, writing / blogging as if someone would not only read it, but read it with some care. This at a time when most of us are just "window-shopping," cruising from Ramayana and Blog Wild! to Raining Noodles or I Blame the Patriarchy or Smoking Gun or or... I think unless you have attention deficit disorder you're going to have trouble keeping up. Sorry. Am I allowed to say that?

6. Then, understand, the Art of Poetry involves "decorum," using appropriate vocabulary and diction in each style of writing.

So now I'm not sure this even works. For myself, I'm into the messiness and ephemerality, I can cruise, I can window-shop Web / blogs without holding my nose. I'm most inclined to wince when I read my own jottings, own tendency to nod, to be a senior dude older than John McCain.

And one day I'll actually check out the Internet Archive project, Way-back Machine ( that lets you travel back in Web time... I don't know enough. I'm just trying this thing out.

Ultimate Blogs, Masterworks From the Wild Web

So I'm reading David Kamp's review of Ultimate Blogs, Masterworks From the Wild Web -- NY Times Book Review, 3/23/08. I'm more addicted than ever to blog blog blog. But I'll never have it down, never make it as an Ultimate Blogger. Too old, too unable to write "good bloggy prose," too unable to write without at least a _little_ editing. Though best poems, Uncle Dog and some others, were written in just this way, flash flash, bang bang... then fuss with the punctuation. Just did it. Did it and done. On to the next. Even as a journalist (Toronto Star, Globe & Mail), I wasn't really a reporter. I was a book reviewer, a feature writer, which suited me fine. I got to think, I got to have conversations with people, read books, do a little research... edit edit edit... A real reporter would just do it, fast fast fast... and on to the next... so blogging, I think is more like that, "reporting," though one is essentially reporting on oneself, using the Web to do the equivalent (ha!) of what diarist Samuel Pepys was doing in England a couple centuries ago. Writing about himself, what he observed, the good and the bad, the city (London), the times, the daily daily doings... 

But I'm not "conversational and restless," well, maybe... yeah, but "reckless"? Reckless in what sense? He'll say anything. Someone who takes pleasure in surprising himself. Kamp the reviewer speaks of "chin-strokers," big time serious folks like Nobel economist Gary Becker and federal circuit judge Richard Posner, who share a blog "in which they bat serious issues back and forth..." others, I'm discovering, create alt-comix blogs whose work appears in panel form. 

Now I've started this thing, something wells up, once, twice a week, and giving way to the urge, I scribble notes onto "". In truth, I'm writing more blog these days than poetry. Why and why not does something have to be a poem? 

Poetry. "I too dislike it," says poet Marianne Moore in a poem titled Poetry. What she mainly dislikes is the phoniness, the not real, the bullshit... but still, she says, there's a place for it. So while I want an audience, I'm used to _not_ having readers for my poetry and these days am adapting to the idea of _not_ having readers for my blog. Spent half a century, I'm that fucking old! keeping up a journal that I never thought to inflict on anyone. What did I get out of it? I dunno. A poem or two. And I think of all those boxes, all those notebooks, scribble scribble scribble, at Washington University in St. Louis, my little archive. At least it's there and not under my desk or in a closet somewhere. Boxes and boxes and boxes. We're talking 50, 60, 70... lots and lots of boxes. 

Must somehow enjoy it, blogging, because I'm using the time that might go into adding a counter to my blog, to blog... the blogging is taking priority... why put 20, 30 minutes into adding a counter when I can put 20, 30 minutes into writing the damn thing? And I don't even want to know if anyone is reading it. You're reading it. So add a comment, okay?

From what Sarah Boxer says in Ultimate Blog I guess what you want is people to comment. That's the sign of success, that's what counts for Big Time Bloggers... so far the only people who comment on my little strand of a strand of a strand are friends and family. Enough.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Uncle Dog: The Poet at 9 (revisited)

Kai is serving here as place holder. He has the attitude and manner of famed Uncle Dog, though not the "mongrelness" of that legendary animal, a nine-year-old's vision of a Chicago garbage man's dog.

Uncle Dog was the first animal I ever saw who seemed to have some sense of purpose, dignity, pride, and self-regard. Fuck the human species. This Heinz 57 mutt refused to cringe or bark, or in any way even acknowledge other dogs. ‘Uncle Dog.’ He was the one who rode around with the once-weekly garbage man. This was Chicago back in the mid-1940s, and we lived on the second floor of a two-flat apartment. Rent: $65. a month. And the best of it was our back porch where I hung out with animals. But never my favorite, the garbage man's dog, dog of dogs!

I think of him now in our age of "companion animals," "designer dogs," a time when 69 million American households have dogs--73.9 million dogs! Dogs. Dogs. 39 billion dollars a year goes for the care and feeding of American pets.

Anyway, more than any family member or school teacher or, for that matter, yoga instructor... it was Uncle Dog who taught me the importance of carriage and self-regard. Self-respect. We’d gotten dogs from that notorious Cook County prison (c. 1940), the Chicago Humane Society and, no fault of their own, those canines were a sorry lot. Three hungry days in a cage and, broken-spirited... either they were“selected” by some dog-lover or were gassed. That's where we got some real "suspects," canines picked up off the street... dogs without street smarts, dogs... victims of human self-regard, "human exceptionalism."

Uncle Dog. The mongrel prince of princes. Dog of dogs.

In 1957 at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop I wrote the thing. And, surprise! it got accepted by the Chicago Review. Then the Chicago Review Anthology, then Hayden Carruth’s The Voice That is Great Within Us, and some others. And, needing publication to nourish my ego, to do for me whatever needed doing... I draw inspiration from...

I can hear him now: Woof, woof! Woof fuckin' woof!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Woe Be Gone, Melancholics Against Happiness

I'm a fan of Garrison Keillor and, what's this? A New York Times (Sun., Mar. 16, 2008) book review of Against Happiness, In Praise of Melancholy, by Eric G. Wilson. The reviewer? Garrison Keillor. Given the subject of this blog, "Dr. Sward's Cure for Melancholia," I couldn't help but read what Keillor had to say.

"...Wilson clarifies his opposition to anti-depressants later. He is not opposed to them in the case of severe depression, only in the case of mild to moderate depression. All right. Thanks for that. The distinction between melancholia (good) and depression (bad), Wilson writes, is simple: depression is passive, melancholia is turbulent. Defending depression of any sort on the ground that Beethoven suffered from it is awfully close to defending tuberculosis on the grounds that it sharpened John Keats' vision or arguing that you shouldn't clean up violent, drug-ridden neighborhoods because so many brilliant jazzmen came from there. And look at the long list of gin-soaked writers--practically the whole pantheon of the 20th century...

"To argue for melancholia as a force for creativity prompts the question, Why isn't this a better book, since the author is so miserable. And a Minnesotan reading Wilson, a North Carolinan on the tonic effect of melancholy winter has to smile."

In short, Against Happiness is "a good old-fashioned broadside against American optimism--the mass of men lead lives of shallow happiness, the superior man exults in his gloom."

All I know, speaking personally, is that gloom begets gloom. And the title, "Woe Be Gone," is more than clever. Lake Wobegon. It's also a little prayer. This review reads like a charm, a charm against the gloom... O gloom, O melancholy, O Woe... Be Gone!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Ellen Bass, The Human Line

Interviewing poet Ellen Bass for Bay Area publication, the wonderful and amazing Poetry Flash... coverage of the West Coast poetry scene, circulation 20,000. PF edited by Joyce Jenkins and Richard Silberg, both unusually generous poets, i.e., open to other peoples' work... generosity of spirit is a gift, a grace not always present in the people who make up "the little world of poetry." I'd include in that number, the "generous and gifted," our Santa Cruz neighbor, our friend Ellen Bass. She's listened to and critiqued my work, and I'd count her among my mentors. So it is I chose to interview her, so it is I hold in my hand The Human Line, her sixth collection of poetry, one praised by Billy Collins as "frighteningly personal poems about sex, love, birth, motherhood, and aging..."

As a writer, I sometimes ponder the workings of The Imagination, whatever that is. As more and more of what I see of the world strikes me as surreal, as the surreal, in a sense, has begun to seem so "ordinary..." I sometimes wish to employ my imagination as a way of calming down, of steadying the whirling of just about everything. I once took pleasure in the fever of imagining. Now I take pleasure in imagining the world (nature, politics, people...) as, well, a little more stable, and that's not the right word either. I sometimes think the only imagination you need is the ability to witness things "as they are," to record, honestly and accurately, that most run-of-the-mill, the most every day / mundane... just as it appears. That, at some level, that's all the imagination you need. In short, you don't need to smoke and drink and hallucinate... you only need to see and have achieved some mastery of your craft (as writer or painter...) to do justice to your calling.

There's nothing less believable than reality, but made up stories generally make sense.

That's what I think today.

Saying this badly, I suppose, but in reading Ellen Bass's "Sleeping in My Mother's Bed," the opening poem in The Human Line,

Those lines,

"...I lie in her bed
like a fork on a folded napkin,
perfectly still and alone..."

I'm moved by the poem, moved by those lines and, for myself, have no answer to the question: What is the line, if any, between such description and metaphor? And I think one reason I am moved by this poem, and those lines, is they're so utterly natural, utterly believable... I see what the poet is saying... there's an immediate impact certain lines have, certain poems... I sometimes call it "the ring of truth." Ellen's book, The Human Line, has about it... from beginning to end, "the ring of truth."

Another sample:

Sleeping With You

Is there anything more wonderful?
After we have floundered
through our separate pain

we come to this. I bind myself to you,
like otters wrapped in kelp, so the current
will not steal us as we sleep.

Through the night we turn together,
rocked in the shallow surf,
pebbles polished by the sea.

© BOA Editions, Ltd 2002

Monday, March 3, 2008

William Buckley, Sidelight--Liberal?

William Buckley with Ronald Reagan.

Yeah, I’m older than John McCain. And some say he’s older than dirt. Doctor asked today if I felt a 72-year-old like John McCain would be up to handling the Presidency. Physically, mentally... I'm no Republican (our doctor is) but I said, "Sure, but our vote goes for Obama." Doctor said, "I'm a Republican, but I'm leaning toward Obama..."

Anyway, we're talking here about a man called Buckley. In fact, two men... two Buckley's.

In 1959 I was a waiter at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Middlebury College, Middlebury, Vermont, walking distance from Robert Frost’s home. Frost was very much alive at the time and lectured and read from his poems at the Conference.

As a *waiter I was assigned a roommate, a non-waiter named Reid Buckley, younger brother of William Buckley. Chicago-born, fresh out of the Navy (Korean War vet on G.I. Bill), ill-educated, first trip to New England, raw, naïve, I had never heard of older brother William Buckley, author of God and Man at Yale (1951).

Still, I found Reid warm, friendly, a wonderful conversationalist and, well, educated...

Reid, I recall, was interested in what I had to say about my “studies” in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and we exchanged samples of one another’s work, his prose for my poetry. I had never met a self-declared “conservative.” Until I met Reid I had no idea what a conservative was. And the man, I learned later, was an aristocrat. Home-schooled with tutors. Independently wealthy. We could not have been more unalike.

As a conservative Reid argued that nothing genuinely new was likely to be produced in fiction or poetry. He himself was working on what he called a gothic novel. Because nothing new could be written, because it had all already been done, one might as well, Reid argued, write within a given tradition. If you wrote, or read, a gothic novel you knew where you were. Likely a castle, an old castle, maybe abandoned; the work would be pervaded by some mystery or fear; there might be women in distress, lonely women, pensive and oppressed... he seemed disappointed to see I wasn't following "the models," that I wasn't employing rhyme and meter.

For my part, inspired by Walt Whitman, Edgar Lee Masters, Carl Sandburg and e.e. cummings, I was writing free verse. Good, bad or indifferent, I felt my work was, well, original... so, I recall, I was as much a puzzlement to Reid Buckley as he was to me. But I liked the guy and, as roommates go, I counted myself lucky.

In the fall of 1959 (I think I have the date right), I returned to Iowa City and the poetry workshop. And Reid and I corresponded. For a while. Then I made a fatal blunder. I mentioned my intention to vote for John F. Kennedy and made it clear I was a Democrat, a liberal.

That was it. Reid responded by saying he could no longer carry on a correspondence with me. A liberal? He had nothing further to say. So now, more than half a century later, the country more divided than ever, I think of that curiously innocent time. Though is any time ever innocent? And the oddness, so it seemed to me, that one’s political beliefs could so infect one’s aesthetic outlook... and one’s writing... That, in fact, if I believed as Reid believed that “nothing new could be written...” I’d have stopped right then and there. I was the first-generation American middle class graduate of a state University, one who, c. 1959, struck out for the New Territory (Iowa and points west). Reid, as I saw it, was the quintessential Easterner... tradition-bound, cautious, Establishment.

T.S. Eliot was the only model I had for a “conservative.” Eliot wasn't exactly born to it, but he took specific steps in his self-definition. He converted to Anglicanism, dropped his American citizenship and became a British subject. In the preface to his book, For Lancelot Andrewes, Eliot wrote "the general point of view [of the book's essays] may be described as classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion."

But Eliot, I argued, also wrote those extraordinarily original works, Prufrock, The Wasteland... he may have been a conservative, but he was also an innovator. Yes, I read and re-read Tradition and the Individual Talent.

And as for Liberal, I think of my aunt Leah who, in Poltava, Russia, endured successive pogroms. She used the term “liberal” to describe Czar’s who did not encourage or indulge in pogroms. There were czars, tolerant “liberals,” who did not go in for pogroms. A liberal, I came to understand from Aunt Leah, was someone who maintained a live and let live attitude.

That pretty much defined my understanding of what it meant to be liberal, people who thought for themselves.

And William Buckley, to his credit, was that kind of conservative, someone who argued for tolerance, who sought to restrain, for example, others all too willing to have given vent to their prejudices. So, in that sense, William Buckley--in Aunt Leah's eyes--would have qualified as a liberal. God bless William Buckley!

*Novelist and NPR reviewer Alan Cheuse was a fellow waiter that year at Bread Loaf. Alan has remained a friend.