Monthly Archives: June 2012

Chicago: May 18, 1860

Lincoln campaign posterSome students sit in history class crying tears of boredom into the dust that fills the room. I’ve always believed it takes a special evil talent to take a subject as fascinating as history and make it boring, but many teachers can do this. History is about what people do, and seriously people, what we do is weird, inspiring, touching, funny, and fucked up. There is nothing boring about it. That’s why we invented gossip, romance novels, and People magazine.

Definitely one of the most interesting times in American history was the frantic middle of the nineteenth century. The country disagreed over whether to remain evil and keep slaves, then savagely attacked itself to decide the question. The Civil War was in many ways one of the first (or even the first) modern industrial wars with an incredible number of over 600,000 dead. It was also the first war fought using metal battleships and submarines.

In the book Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin takes us through several decades leading up to the war, and then through the war itself, with a focus on Abraham Lincoln. The “rivals” part of the book’s title concerns the three men who ran against Lincoln for President, who all were convinced to join his cabinet.

The book is 750 pages long, and the entire time I was reading—I’m not exaggerating this—I didn’t want to put it down. It was like reading a compelling novel that pulled me from page to page. When I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about it, and if I had only ten minutes to read, I picked it up. Doris Kearns Goodwin won the Pulitzer Prize for this book, and she should have won two Pulitzer Prizes for writing such a book.

The best thing about the book for me is that Lincoln comes alive, and thankfully he is shown as a real person, not as a Great Being Who Became President. So we see that Lincoln had faults. You can make your own choices as to what counts as a fault, but I would cite the fact that he became so depressed as a young man that his friends were afraid he might commit suicide, or the fact that he seemed indecisive about replacing the grossly incompetent General McClellan. I’m much more impressed by Lincoln as a real human being, who did what he did in spite of flaws. Having one or two flaws myself, I don’t relate much to Great Beings, but from Goodwin’s book, I do relate to Lincoln.

The focus of this vast book is to show us the skill, the thoughts, and the passions of this human being as he became President against expectations, as he persuaded radically different people to work together in his cabinet, and as he led the country through a brutal civil war.

In Team of Rivals Goodwin has also focused quite a bit of attention on William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates. In part this gives her more of a story to tell, as these were also intelligent, ambitious men who tried to become President before Lincoln brought them into his cabinet. In part the attention on these men, and others, also allows Goodwin to show how skillfully Lincoln dealt with a range of people, including those who disagreed with him.

Goodwin is a very skilled story teller, with a sense of how to increase the drama and interest of that story. This is evident from the fact that one of the characters in her “story” is Kate Chase, the beautiful and very popular daughter of Salmon Chase. From this book we learn much of the life story of Kate, as well as of the more obvious political figures (though it may be well argued that Kate was also a political figure).

As we would expect a history book to do, the book moves forward in chronological order, so we know the war is coming, and we know the assassination is coming. Like a novel, however, the book occasionally shifts point of view from one character to another, so that the reader may go for many pages reading only about Seward, before changing to spend an equal amount of time with Bates.

One of the techniques of this book that helps to make it such a compelling read is that Goodwin uses a tremendous number of quotes from written material from the time. Doing this allows us to “hear” the characters speaking in their own voices. It also indicates that Doris Kearns Goodwin did an enormous amount of research.

Among those voices speaking from the past, I was struck by a quote from Lincoln himself, as he disagreed with the United States going to war against Mexico on flimsy reasons. He oppposed the idea that we should “allow the President to invade a neighboring nation…whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary.” While Lincoln was referring to the war with Mexico, it’s remarkable to see this quote that might have been made regarding the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

And I have to say that even though I spent more than 700 pages knowing it was coming, I had tears in my eyes when I got to the assassination.

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The Key to Summer by Leonora LaSilk

Villagers dancing and celebrating

Time to celebrate? Where’s the champagne? And the butter?
–painting by William Henry Hunt

Is it true that when Leo Tolstoy finished writing War and Peace, he ordered a wagonload of champagne sent down from Moscow, gave a feast with a fantasia of butter for all the villagers living nearby, and set off fireworks over the lake? Or did I just make all that up right now because I write fiction and lies fall out of my mouth like rain from a summer cloud?

Well, one or the other.

Last week I finished writing the novel I’ve spent the past year on, with just over 300 excellent pages. Here are some differences between my book and War and Peace: (1) mine is about one tenth as long, so if you have a short atten— hey! hey, I’m talking to you, a short attention span, it won’t be as hard to read, (2) mine has no incredible, unpronounceable Russian names, (3) War and Peace doesn’t have even one reference to Lady Gaga, (4) my book has more humor, because frankly, Tolstoy was not a funny guy. Otherwise, the two books seem to have a lot in common: grammar, punctuation, margins, and other stuff.

Last week I made a two-day emergency soul-maintenance trip to Washington, DC. At the time I was close to finishing the book, so I held off on the last page in order to complete the novel while I was visiting. Considering what to do in celebration, I realized the villagers of DC probably take care of their own butter needs, so that was out. And I was afraid fireworks would scare the dogs. So in celebration I went with a friend to a Greek restaurant, to enjoy a type of food I love but have not had in years.

Of course the book needs revision, as any book worth reading does when it first gets written. Years ago I read someone’s advice that a novel should be laid aside for a year, upon which the writer could return to it with clearer judgement. And I wondered in what universe that was going to happen. I will lay this novel aside for a month or so, and then begin to revise. Does the book need extensive structural changes in plot? No sir, baby, I don’t think so. What it does need is to read it through focusing on the characters, to think about who they are, and in particular to add a change in the relationship between Benedict and Miramar, so that it shows growth.

I’m pretty happy with the book, and I will let you read it just as soon as it’s done, a literary agent opens her arms to my humble application, and a publisher deigns to notice me way down here in the literary darkness. That’s all it will take. I’m still working on the title. The latest iteration was The Key to Summer, to play on the key motif that opens the time doors. Get it? But a trusted source here told me that such a title sounds like a romance novel. Which killed that title pretty dead.

I have more news for those who follow this blog faithfully, by which I mean once in a while when nothing is on TV. After two years of existential battle, I am giving up on living here in State College. I’ve finally concluded what a person with a brain would have known long ago, that to live somewhere you have to be either rich or employed, because people want you to pay for food and rent. I am not employed (I don’t count running a cash register for almost no money), nor am I rich if you don’t count my charming smile and snappy wit. So I’m looking for a job in…wait for it…places where they actually have jobs. Theoretically. At any rate, that’s my assumption regarding Philadelphia, Wilmington (Delaware), Baltimore, and Washington, DC.

Those are my zone. What this new job search will involve other than tremendous effort and perplexed confusion I don’t know. Hopefully, at some point it will also involve employment. Though I do love the town where I live, I am very ready to go, and if I reach a point where I begin using up savings in order to live, I may go anyway, just to be on the spot, though this vague intention begs the question as to which spot I would be on.

A new life is out there, if I can stick my fingers out far enough to touch it. It may take months still to find something, but actually, I’m a pretty diligent guy. I mean, I wrote a novel, right? Even if it is only 300 pages and none of the characters have names like Vasily Sergeyevich Kuragin.

So what if I call the book The Peace Key? Or War and Keys? Or no wait…OK, I’m still thinking.

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Who Needs All This Poetry, Anyway?

[For the first time ever this blog has a guest writer, so I can drink several extra glasses of wine and not have to write anything. The guest blogger is Katherine E. Young, who I got to know when we were both students in Russia. Katherine is a poet, and more information about her follows what she has written.]

Cartoon chickens discussing a poetry blogLongtime readers of this blog know that its writer, David, has a love-hate relationship with poetry – he loves what he writes and pretty much hates what anyone else writes (except for Billy Collins).  David isn’t alone in his feelings about poetry.  My first-year composition students routinely confess that the only kind of writing they actually enjoy is writing poetry – but they’d rather watch grass grow than read anyone else’s poetry.  While celebrity-endorsed collections of American poetry (Caroline Kennedy, Garrison Keillor) sell tens of thousands of copies, a typical “good” sales run for a book of poetry by even a well-known poet may number in the hundreds of copies.  We poets do our level best to buy our friends’ books, and I myself have an impressive stack of perhaps two hundred slim, autographed volumes that I mean, really mean, to dip into one of these days, but, well….

Not only do most Americans not buy or read contemporary poetry, we sometimes seem embarrassed that poetry continues to be written.  I live in Washington, DC, a town with a fantastic poetic heritage from Walt Whitman to Langston Hughes to Elizabeth Bishop – not to mention exciting contemporary poets like Sandra Beasley, Hailey Leithauser, and R. Dwayne Betts – but we locals pretty much manage to ignore it all.  Go to a poetry reading in DC and you’ll likely know most of the people in the audience from other poetry readings – yours or theirs.  A poet friend of mine who’s married to a prominent Washington lawyer says the easiest way to silence a dinner party is to announce that you write poetry; the guests look slightly stricken, as if you might break out into verse right then and there.

Of course, there is one moment every four years when all DC and all America listen, however unwillingly, to poetry.  That’s when we inaugurate a president.  Ever since Bill Clinton revived the tradition of having a poem read during the ceremony, Americans as a whole have variously loved, reviled, or simply scratched their heads at the incomprehensible state of American poets and poetry (such as the inaugural readings of Maya Angelou for Clinton, or Elizabeth Alexander for Obama).

So if all of this poetry is being published and very little of it appreciated, you might ask:  what’s the point?  What function is all this poetry fulfilling?  We may not want too big a dose of it, but an awful lot of us seem to want some sort of poetry in our lives.  As Robert von Hallberg points out in Lyric Powers(University of Chicago Press, 2008), poets have been lauding politicians, commemorating victories, celebrating or bemoaning the vicissitudes of Fate, loving, drinking, memorializing, and generally building relationships and community since at least the ancient Greeks.  Like most of my poet friends, I’ve sometimes been asked to “find a poem” for an occasion, perhaps a wedding or graduation – the poem as an object seems to fulfill an indispensible ritual function, even if no one likes or understands it (just try finding “something from Emily Dickinson” that’s appropriate for your cousin Petey’s funeral).  However, the only time I can recall a genuine, heartfelt appeal for poetry as a defining art form, a means to make sense of the moment and its importance, was on September 11, 2001.  One of my poems was read the next year at a memorial service in Framingham, MA, where one of the doomed flights originated, and the local newspaper actually asked to print it.

Painting of a woman reading a book

Woman reading “Old Boy”

Perhaps all of this is good news, if not for poets, then for everyone else.  If the poet’s time-honored charge to explore the soul, tell truth to power, or express the sentiment of the collective is only required in times of celebration and tragedy, perhaps it means that everyday American life is so rewarding and various that we don’t need poets to tell us so.  But if you, like me, want to keep your finger on poetry’s pulse just to be on the safe side, you can sign up at (or Poetry Daily or Verse Daily or any of a number of similar sites) and have a poem delivered to your inbox every morning.  Sometimes the poems are dreadful, quite often mediocre, but every once in a while I find a poem waiting for me that expresses something about living in this world that I didn’t even know you could express.  For example, here’s the ending of A. Van Jordan’s “Old Boy,” which was the poem of the day on June 7, 2012:

lingers through acts of forgetting
small acts of love or trauma
falling from the same place. Whether
memory comes in the form of a stone
or a grain of sand, they both sink in water.
A tongue—even if it were, say, sworn
to secrecy; or if it were cut from one’s mouth;
yes, even without a mouth to envelop
its truth—the tongue continues to confess.

Now, about those autographed volumes….

Katherine E. Young’s poetry has appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Iowa Review, Shenandoah, and many others. She has published two chapbooks of poetry and was a finalist for the 2012 T.S. Eliot Prize (U.S.).  Her translation of Russian poet Inna Kabysh won a share of the 2011 Joseph Brodsky-Stephen Spender Prize.

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Four Persons Walk Into a Bar

Bunch of bar drinksDarwin and Juliette are walking down a street in Paris with Domenick and Janna. The two couples are both fairly young, in their late 20s, and they are on vacation in Paris for the first time. They sit together at a small table outside, as it’s a beautiful summer afternoon, at a small bar on the Boulevard Saint-Michel. Darwin and Juliette are practicing being sophisticated, to see what fits and whether this is how they should be in the future, so they are both drinking Chambord liqueur. Domenick doesn’t care about practicing sophistication, as he’s pretty sure he’s already on his way there, so he’s drinking a Kronenbourg beer, while Janna has a glass of house red wine.

Maybe because they’re on vacation and in the mood for a little adventure, or maybe because this is the second bar they’ve stopped at (so they’re a little tipsy), or maybe just because they’re young and willing to try new things, all four of them have agreed to go along with helping to illustrate how the literary idea of “person” works in fiction. Before they were asked to do this, they were talking about train schedules, but they’ve agreed to help out.

Back home in Virginia, Janna is an English teacher, so she wanted to explain the basic idea. “Person” she says, “is the point of view, the way you see things in the story. If it’s written as I, that’s first person, second person is you, and third person is he or she, or maybe they.” She takes a sip of her wine and looks at Domenick, who will begin.

Domenick (first person): I was in Paris with my wife for the first time, and we did a lot of the usual tourist stuff, which is OK, isn’t it? We were tourists and had never been there. I’m afraid of heights, so I just stayed on the ground to look up at the Eiffel Tower, and I’ll tell you, just looking up at it was plenty. When somebody suggested, Juliette maybe, that we should take a boat ride on the Seine River, I was all over that. I love boats. We went in the afternoon, and when we first sat down I thought this is going to be so cool, floating right through Paris on a boat. I was also thinking it was too bad they didn’t sell drinks on the boat.

Janna (second person): A boat ride on the Seine would be pretty nice, you think, the bateau mouches they’re called. You remember a little bit of high school French, and you know that “bateau” means “boat”, but what is a “mouche”? Anyway, it doesn’t matter. With your husband and your friends you get on the boat, everybody happy and relaxed, and you see that the boat holds a lot of people, from all over the place. You hear an elderly couple talking and you can tell from their accent that they’re English. Sitting very close by is a family of a father and mother with a little boy, but they also have a teenage daughter who looks like she’s about 15 years old. They’re all dressed in expensive clothes, and you wonder where they’re from. You can hear them talking a language you don’t know, which doesn’t help, but then you hear “da” and “nyet” and you at least know enough to know that’s Russian.

Juliette (third person written close to a character): She was afraid a boat ride would be a little boring and she would rather have hunted for the Sainte-Chapelle church, but the other three seemed so excited that she went along and didn’t say anything. The straw hat she had bought from a street vendor was tied under her chin with a ribbon, so it didn’t blow off. Once they were sitting on the boat and it left the mooring, to begin floating down the river, the began to like it more than she had expected, especially when she saw the Notre Dame cathedral. Her friend Janna pointed out a rich Russian family, and Juliette noticed pretty quickly that something was not going well. The teenage daughter was scowling and then began having an argument with her mother. It looked like the father tried to tell the girl to be quiet or stop arguing, although Juliette didn’t know what they were saying. The girl looked at her father and glared, then said something he didn’t like.

Darwin (third person written distant from the character): One of the common boats that run up and down the Seine night and day passed under a bridge, as tourists on the boat and on the bridge looked at one another. A group of four Americans sat together talking and pointing out sights to one another. One of the men, a graphic designer named Darwin, was looking down the river, paying little attention to the other passengers, so he only noticed a teenage girl nearby when she raised her voice and stood up. At that point, along with many people around the girl, he turned to look at her. Her voice grew louder, and she began yelling at the older couple who must have been her parents. To the shock of everyone, the girl suddenly turned to climb up on the edge of the boat, and then she jumped into the river. She was surprised how warm the water was as she entered it.

As we finish our illustration of different ways of presenting point of view, it turns out that sitting nearby in the bar, finishing his third whiskey, is an American English professor, who has been listening the entire time. Now he wants to get involved, to explain some of the advantages and disadvantages of each method for writing fiction. But no one wants to hear that, and the four friends hurry off to catch a train to Versailles.

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Do You Really Have to Write That Down?

Room drawing made of written wordsWith a free day off, and deciding that I was going to have a real break, I went to a street festival on Memorial Day (for two hotdogs and two pieces of pie, and I don’t care), came home to a beer and a nap, then went to the bookstore, where I did some reading in The Illustrated World’s Religions by Huston Smith. I ended up reading chapter 9, “The Primal Religions”. I think the attraction of that section may have been because I’m looking for something basic or primal missing from my life (because, when you think about it, why was I alone in a bookstore on Memorial Day?).

An idea that interested me in the book concerned the difference between cultures that have writing and those that don’t, that is, oral cultures. Because I’m intensely literate by nature and education, I act as if a word isn’t real until I see it in writing, but I know that writing is an artificial invention, just like an axe or an elevator, and I know that writing only came into existence yesterday (maybe 4,000 years ago). So for tens of thousands of years, human communication has been based on speech.

Speech is ephemeral. The moment someone stops speaking, the words are gone except for memory, and memory can be a shaky source for information. For one thing, every person’s memory will be somewhat different, especially over time. For another, the person in the village with the most information eventually dies, and there it goes. Because writing can be put into forms that last a long time (and because writing is magic), written documents can come to seem like a more serious authority than any one person.

One idea of the “primal” religions I was reading about was that such religions existed only in an oral culture. A feeling of sacredness can be experienced through non-verbal methods. Have you ever stood in your garden or walked in the woods and felt there was something bigger than yourself about it, something spiritual? Or you might get that feeling from a song, from dancing, from watching a chipmunk. In contrast, religious writing takes on an importance that overwhelms other spiritual avenues. If you are a Christian or Muslim or Jew, you are not generally encouraged to discover for yourself what you think God is, based on your own feelings and experience, but rather you should read The Book to find out.

As I try to write about what an oral culture would be like, I realize I end up guessing about most of it. We’re surrounded by writing; even the clothes on our bodies and the trash on the ground have writing. People who don’t know how to read still live in a world with ideas shaped by writing. An oral society, for example, would have less knowledge, because for any given group, all of the knowledge in the world consisted of what the people standing there could remember. If someone died, and that person was the only one who knew which herbs to use for curing snake bites, oh well. Watch out for snakes. Only because of writing, and the accumulation of ideas that it makes possible, do we have electric lights, or democracy, or heart surgery. Or the Beatles (I want to keep a sense of perspective here).

I also start to guess that an oral society would be more prone to rumors and partial knowledge, but then I think that guess might be wrong. In our own society, there is authoritative writing that we can consult, but all those books (or magazines, or websites) are useless if people don’t actually consult them. Centuries of slowly learning things have given us enormous amounts of knowledge, and we’ve recorded it, and it’s freely available—and yet there are people who think global warming does not exist, the Holocaust did not happen, Elvis is still alive, and evolution is impossible because they personally don’t like it.

Writing also lends itself to rumor, false knowledge, and stupidity. Think of graffiti, Ku Klux Klan websites, or any communist newspaper. And in an age of blogs (not this one—this is all true), chat rooms, Twitter, Facebook postings, or something as quaint and old-fashioned as email, no small-village oral society can touch us for magnifying dumbass nonsense.

As I end this rambling, I can think of one enormously appealing advantage of an oral society: there would be no People magazine in the checkout line at the supermarket. Of course there would probably still be someone standing around saying, “Did you hear that Ogbert and Sheena broke up?”

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