Why I’m Staying In Washington.

posted in: D.C., Day In The Life, Paean | 1
It's you and me, Link. Photo: Wikipedia
How can this be wrong? Photo: Wikipedia

This blog is honest. Everything I tell you is real, and it’s true. Okay, it’s my truth — everyone has their version — but I come to the mat every time with the real deal.

But of course I can’t tell the whole truth, all the time. Sometimes this is because it would be inappropriate — someone else’s privacy needs to be respected, my privacy needs to be respected, it ain’t ready for prime-time, it’s too racy, it’s an over-share, etc. — but sometimes it’s because I’m scared.

Telling just how hard it’s been to move through my life in the past few months, this is something I haven’t been as honest about as I could’ve been. There was a moment of it, but I’ve held back the truly wrenching experience that has been choosing my next step. I am a naturally decisive person, so this back-and-forth has been nothing short of excruciating. Deciding where to live in a matter of weeks — Chicago or Washington — has made me realize that to be a woman with no boundaries presents as many challenges as someone who feels stuck in one place. I have no baby who needs to be fed. I have no husband with whom I make major decisions. I don’t even have a desk job. To be so free, I say unto you, is not so easy.

I haven’t been entirely forthcoming about how my heart has ached. For love lost, love found, love lost again. No one wants to read some maudlin, whiny girl mope about her love life — and this maudlin, whiny girl wouldn’t dare write the stuff — but perhaps I have over-pruned. Sharing that I find myself aching, longing, thrilled, excited, devastated, and confused in matters of the heart almost daily might help someone else out there. If you are that someone else, it’s high time I tell you that I understand.

Today, I turned in my lease. I’m staying in Washington, DC for another year and I’d like to tell you how I finally chose this. You might think what ultimately pushed me in this direction is odd, but to me it was perfect, it was right on time, and I was so grateful I cried.

I’m working on memorizing a Longfellow poem called “The Day Is Done.” Please take a moment to read the whole thing sometime. It’s about a person who wants to hear a poem in the evening — but he doesn’t want anything fancy or difficult (e.g., Homer). He says:

“Read from some humbler poet
Whose songs gushed from her heart
As showers from the clouds of summer,
Or tears from the eyelids start.

Who, through long days of labor,
And nights devoid of ease
Still heard in her soul the music
Of wonderful melodies.”

That poem is why I’m staying in Washington. Oh, for heaven’s sake it’s more than that — perhaps I’ll detail more tomorrow so you don’t think I’ve lost my mind and am making choices entirely based on dead poets — but those verses were my tipping point.

Long days of labor? I know about labor. Nights devoid of ease? Yes, those. But through it all, I keep hearing these melodies. If I keep up the labor, if I’m not afraid of the night, I feel like the melodies will keep coming to me. And I can’t live without them. I wouldn’t want to.

So I’ll honor the melodies by laboring longer. I’ll give them new sights to see, here in the almost-South. I can’t wait to tell you all about the apartment I found on the 10th floor of a beautiful historic building. It looks over a valley so lush and green right now, you can’t imagine how beautiful it is. I’ll stay and watch the leaves in that valley turn to bronze and gold, then fall, then grow again.

Then we’ll see what the melodies want me to do next.

 

 

The Confusion of Childhood, Starring Old Mother Hubbard.

posted in: Chicago, Poetry, Word Nerd | 4
Mother Hubbard and her dog; illustration in Traditional Nursery Songs of England, Ed. Felix Summerly (1843)
Mother Hubbard and her dog; illustration in Traditional Nursery Songs of England, Ed. Felix Summerly (1843)

 

While I’m in Chicago, I’m staying at my friend Heather’s house. She shares the house with her terrific husband, Sam, and I have very recently discovered they have many terrific books.

For instance, they have a full set of the Childcraft “How & Why Library.” I didn’t have Childcraft books growing up, but I’d seen them before. The volumes have names like, “How We Get Things,” “What People Do,” and “About Dogs.” They’re a kid’s first encyclopedia, basically.

I wanted to read all of these books, but “Poems and Rhymes” came first in the set, so I went with that, and the first page I opened to was the tale of Old Mother Hubbard. Have you ever read the entire Old Mother Hubbard poem? It’s not good. It’s not just that it lacks substance — it does lack substance — but it is also is confusing in frustrating ways, as opposed to being confusing in delightful ways, e.g., the work of Lewis Carroll.

Let’s take a look at this thing. The first verse everyone knows and it’s fine, albeit a bummer (if you’re the old lady’s dog):

Old Mother Hubbard
Went to the cupboard
To get her poor dog a bone; 
But when she got there, 
The cupboard was bare,
And so the poor dog had none. 

Okay, fair enough. But buckle up. Next verse:

She went to the baker’s
To buy him some bread,
But when she came back,
The poor dog was dead.

The dog died?? Her dog died while she was running errands? Perhaps your dog died, Mother, because you chose to neglect your pantry. Just when rigor mortis begins to set in, however, the dog suddenly feels much better, not that the author helps his audience prepare for that:

She went to the fruiterer’s
To buy him some fruit,
But when she came back,
He was playing the flute. 

Ol’ Lazarus is playing the flute, eh? That is super, super creepy. And whose flute is it, anyway? The old lady can keep expensive woodwind instruments but no kibble? She should be ashamed of herself. The good news is that the word “fruiterer” is new to me and I like it.

She went to the fishmonger’s
To buy him some fish,
But when she came back,
He was licking the dish. 

We have an issue here with the conjunction. The word “but” is used to introduce something contrasting with what has already been mentioned. For instance, “She went to the fishmonger’s/to buy him some fish/but when she came back/he had made himself tacos.” There is no contrasting idea in the verse as it is up there but the author uses “but” and it’s driving me bonkers.

She went to the barber’s 
To buy him a wig,

A what?!

She went to the barber’s 
To buy him a wig,
But when she came back
He was dancing a jig.

So … He couldn’t put the wig on. Because of the jig. Perhaps she couldn’t catch him in his jigging to affix the wig properly? See above problem with conjunction. I have a headache.

She went to the cobbler’s
To buy him some shoes,
But when she came back,
He was reading the news. 

She went to the tailor’s 
To buy him a coat,
But when she came back,
He was riding a goat.

Sloppy! These thoughts are not congruent in any way! I realize children’s poetry isn’t trying to be Yeats. But the minds of children are typically more fit than adults will appreciate or admit. Don’t you foist this goofy stuff on me, Childcraft. You’re lucky I’m staying in Heather’s guestroom and spied you on the shelf. It could be years before someone else comes along and gives you a fair shake. Okay, last verse:

The dame made a curtsy,
The dog made a bow;
The dame said, “Your servant,” 
The dog said, “Bow-wow.”

Introduction of a new character. Totally out of left-field. Maybe this work needs another draft, Childcraft.

Goodnight, Chicago.

You Should Know: William Soutar

posted in: Poetry, School | 2
Scone Palace, Scotland. (Guess what's for breakfast?? Wakka-wakka!)
Scone Palace, Scotland. (Guess what’s for breakfast?? Wakka-wakka!)

Though I’ve had to take a wee break, I am still working toward my Master’s degree. My advisors have informed me that Columbia is the place to continue the MLA I began at the University of Chicago; if I can get in, stay put for long enough to do the work and not get sick for any length of time, why, I might just be able to get that ol’ girl done. I have a ways to go but I also will probably not die anytime soon. I’m saying there’s time.

I’m not wasting precious reading hours while I get my ducks lined up, though; there’s thesis research to be done and I’m doing it. I know what I want my thesis to be about after taking several workshops about putting together a thesis: I want write about diarists. Being one, and being a fan of them and (by and large) the diaries they write, I suspect I’ll be endlessly fascinated. As I think more and more about tackling a thesis in my life and as I read more and more, the actual intent and focus of the thesis will be revealed and who knows? Maybe I’ll actually discover or contribute something to a body of study that is pretty robust already. For now, I’m just reading diaries and biographies of diarists and books about the diary’s role in Western literature and that’s my school right now.

And in my para-research (doesn’t that sound fancy) I have discovered a wonderful poet that I hadn’t known about before: William Soutar. English majors may groan and shake their heads that this person was unknown to me, but cut me some slack: I studied theater in undergrad. Can you quote a line from Major Barbara? Ah-ha! Didn’t think so. (Note to self: Look up pithy line from Major Barbara.)

William Soutar was a Scottish poet and writer who had a rather tragic life. Born in 1898, he contracted a virus when he was in his twenties and this went untreated. By the time he was thirty-two, he was bedridden, quite ill, and essentially paralyzed. He spent fourteen years in bed and died when he was just forty-five.

But he was an incredible poet and writer and refused to let his ill-health take his brain or his passion as his body lay so feeble. He read and read and wrote and wrote and had all kinds of things published. It was said that his bedroom was one of the centers of the 20th Century Scottish Literary Renaissance, due to all his work and all the heavyweight writers that came to hang out with him.

He wrote wonderful poems for children (“the bairnrhymes”) but is maybe best known over here in America for his Diaries of a Dying Man. The diaries he kept for so many years are all in a book that you can buy (because the world is amazing) and just this very morning I wept reading a certain entry. It is such beautiful writing. Soutar was human and he has his moments of despair and frustration and angst, but by and large, he’s just crazy lion-hearted and awesome and so freaking smart that you ache for his situation while you marvel at his talent. Yes, I am slightly in love with William Soutar (no, Yuri does not feel terribly threatened.)

Here, to whet your appetite, two passages from Diaries of a Dying Man, by William Soutar. The first one is the one that made me cry a little this morning over my tea. The second is a favorite so far.

“I wonder if fit mortals realise that infirmity makes the most ordinary actions wonderful. A person, like myself, set aside from the thoroughfare of life can often look on life’s manifestation with a detachment denied the protagonist in the market-place. Common acts become isolated from particular times and places and grow, by recollection, into moments of beauty loved in themselves without desire or regret. Thus everyday phrases can bring to such a watcher a rounded image of loveliness mysteriously coloured by the consciousness that he himself can no longer enact them; phrases such as ‘he lifted a stone’, ‘he stood by the sea’, ‘he walked into the wood’.”

“For some weeks past I have found myself, from time to time, putting out an imaginary hand as if to touch the earth in a comprehensive gesture of love — but I do not deceive myself by these vague stirrings of affection : it is so easy to love a ‘thing’ : one must learn to love people first.”

I’ll Be Back Next Spring: A Graduate School Limerick

I'll be back.
I’ll be back.

There once was a woman named Fons,
Who longed to stroll green, lushy lawns
And seek brain diversity
At some university
(She was desperate for book liaisons!!)

“To grad school!” she said with a grin,
(For she applied and quickly got in
To a fancy-pants school*
Where brainiacs rule)
“I can’t wait!” cried Fons, “Let’s begin!”

A team of the wildest horses
Couldn’t have dragged her from taking those courses;
Her desire was burning
To slurp up the learning,
…But there were brewing unfortunate forces.

Work travel had always excited
The Fons; she was most delighted
To travel in planes
And meet Dicks and Janes
And see all the things that she sighted,

But suitcases don’t mix with classes,
And soon, our hero in glasses
Was forced to admit,
(Though it gave her a fit!)
Work demanded she leave the school’s grasses.

“I’ll be back and studying soon!”
She said, and whistled a tune;
There was no use in crying —
You know I ain’t lying:
E’vry moment spent learning’s a boon.

*University of Chicago, boo-yah

Meet The Chastushka

posted in: Art, Poetry, Word Nerd | 5
And pretty maids all in a row.
And pretty maids all in a row.

We’re going to talk about a Russian quatrain, but first we have to go to France. Stéphane Mallarmé was a French poet and critic who lived from 1842-1898. You know how poems sometimes do this on the page?

poems     sometimes
do
this                                    on the
page?

Yeah, it’s super annoying unless it’s gorgeous and it usually isn’t — sorry, aspiring poets but hey: I can’t make it gorgeous, either. Mallarmé was among the first to do that sort of thing and his influence on 20th century art was huge. I read a quote from Mallarmé a couple months ago that I loved so much, that rang so true, I melted into weepiness. I set about memorizing it and now when I’m falling asleep at night, I turn it over and over in my head because, well:

“Poetry is the expression, in human language restored to its essential rhythm, of the mysterious meaning of the aspects of existence: in this way it confers authenticity on our time on earth and constitutes the only spiritual task there is.”

I know, right? It’s not just a definition but a reason for poetry. Gah! Flutter, sputter, perish by art. And so it was with Mallarmé’s wisdom on repeat in my head that I set about researching a poem discovery: the chastushka.

The chastushka is a Russian form of poetry whose closest cousin in English is the limerick. “Chastushka” means “to speak fast.” Like the limerick, the chastushka rhymes, though with just four lines to the limerick’s five, it’s a straight ABAB or AABB rhyme scheme. The poem’s subject matter covers the breadth of human experience, but you won’t find a ton of chastushki about the beauty of the sunset; these poems usually focus on sex, politics, or your mother. Also, Chastushki are written in something called trochaic tetrameter, which sounds horrible but is simply the rhythm, or meter, of the form. It’s set. And here’s what it sounds like:

Peter, Peter, pumpkin-eater
Had a wife and couldn’t keep her

…or look at these two lines from William Blake’s “Tyger, Tyger”:

Tyger, Tyger, burning bright,
In the forest of the night;

See? You totally know what trochaic tetrameter is! And that’s a chastushka’s meter. Fun, right? Totally, and I wanted to try writing a few. And now, I present some chastushki for you on this wintry night. You should write a few. You’re not going anywhere. I will not post any chastushki about politics or your mother. That’s for the other blog. Just kidding — there is no other blog. Yet.

Fluffy goose-down pillow fight,
In the morning or at night,
I whup you upside your head,
We laugh and then go back to bed.

When Swanky Squirrel goes into town,
He dresses up and never down,
His suits are crafted by the best,
You should see his bespoke vest!