Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich has died at 82, a long life for a person who dealt with a chronic and often debilitating condition (rheumatoid arthritis). Physically small and often frail-looking–almost elfin–her appearance and her personal modesty belied her strength, influence, assertiveness. She influenced poets and feminists, women and men, and challenged the social norms in many ways. I discovered her work in the 1970s in a women’s literature class at college, and her thinking as well as her writing enriched my view of the world.

Rather than try to collect my own thoughts about this poet, essayist, and influential human being, I’m going to post some links to others who have done so. I’ll update as the week goes on.

Here’s a videopoem of “Diving Into the Wreck.” Thanks to Dave Bonta for pointing me to this film.

A wonderful interview from 1999 by Michael Klein, who was a good friend of Rich’s, is available here–and is a must-read.

Kenny Fries just published this tribute, too.

And this from the Nation, which includes some new poems!

Now, a website of reminiscences and memorial tributes…

…and a radio commentary on Rich by Jan Clausen.

Best of all, this recent essay by Michael Klein, on Ploughshares’ blog.

Ambitious poetry

Recent discussions with a few colleagues brought up the question of what poetry “should” do. This question is seldom considered philosophical–it generally occurs among inquiries more aesthetic or educational in nature. Any time we have a “should,” though, we may be more clearly looking at an “ought.” Which brings us to philosophy. Or to poetics.

A friend stated that poetry should have aims, aims that relate to society. She prefers the poem that speaks to “all” to the poem that speaks to (or of) the individual. This is a rather grand and ambitious “ought” for poetry, but it strikes me as valid.

Another colleague defends what she calls the “quiet” poem, the one that circles in on itself with some kind of reminder that interior reflection is occurring in the poem. This sort of poem also has, it seems to me, an ambitious project (I hate that term, but I’ll go with it for now): getting the unknown reader to feel he or she is authentically inside that poem’s quiet, particular, individual world. Have you ever tried to convince another person to understand your perspective on anything? It is never an easy project. It can be accomplished sometimes. To accomplish it through a poem is, frankly, marvelous. So this poem is as ambitious as the poem that endeavors to speak to all.

Donald Hall has a significant essay on this topic, ambition and poetry, and edited an anthology of essays on various views of what poetry’s ambitions might be. I turned to it again last night when mulling over the topic of what poetry “ought” to be, or to do, or to say.

Hall begins, “I see no reason to spend your life writing poems unless your goal is to write great poems.” And that is certainly ambitious.  I do feel that is my goal; I don’t expect to attain it. Heck, if I produce even one poem that is great, I will be happy. Hall also writes, “We develop the notion of art from our reading.” Those texts are our models of what great, ambitious, lasting art (poetry) is.

So we develop the idea or aesthetics of what great art is through our enjoyment, study, acculturation, through the models we choose–or reject–ourselves.

Hall wanders into the controversy over writing workshops (the essay is from 1983). I’m not interested in that discussion for this post. But I constantly remind myself of this section from his essay:

Of most help is to remember that it is possible for people take hold of themselves and become better by thinking. It is also necessary, alas, to continue to take hold of ourselves—if we are to pursue the true ambition of poetry. Our disinterest must discover that last week’s nobility was really covert rottenness, etcetera. One is never free and clear; one must work continually to sustain, to recover. . . .

I’m prepared, on my best days, anyway, to accept that I will never be free and clear, that as a poet and as an amateur philosophe (is there any other kind?) I will always be working, continually taking hold of myself, trying again and again to become better by thinking. For me, this is what poetry ought to do.

Early blooms

photo by Ann E. Michael

Quince blossoms.

The strangely warm weather around this equinox has sped spring along. Above, one of my favorite ornamental shrubs, a quince (Chaenomeles speciosa) in the named variety “Tokyo Nishiki.” I love its pale blossoms that lack the orange-y hue of the more common varieties of chaenomeles.

While it’s lovely to see the sun, blue skies, and so many flowers, it is worrisome because an open winter requires–in our temperate region–a rainy spring to make up for the lack of snow-melt. Instead, we are three inches below the average precipitation for March. It is unusual to have to water the spinach bed; usually, I am instead dealing with sprouts that pop up far from the intended rows because heavy rains have dislodged them.

Of course, everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it, as the old saying goes. I am just going to wait and see what happens. Will we get our blackberry frost? Will it be a hard frost that kills off the redbuds and damages the early blossoms? Will we get a freak April blizzard to bookend our freak October blizzard? Or will we have a dry, too-warm spring that means the daffodils wilt early, few blossoms in May, and a tough summer for food crops?

I have some thoughts about gardening in drought years, but I am crossing my fingers that maybe we will get spring rains after all.

Anyone know a rain dance, chant, or prayer?

Next door to God


I’m currently reading a new Tupelo Press anthology of essays by poets, A God in the House. The essays are based on interviews with poets whose work engages with “the spiritual” or with “faith”–often in similar ways, though attained through widely varying means and experiences.

It’s lovely to savor these thoughtful commentaries on the spiritual. Many of the poets wrestle with the concept of faith, soul, or the spiritual as they try to put into words what that feels like. Poets know better than most people the limits of what we can say in words, and they push at those limits in and through their work.

And this book features some marvelous poets. Jane Hirshfield, Jericho Brown, Grace Paley, Carolyn Forché, Li-Young Lee, the incomparable Alicia Ostriker, Gregory Orr (one of my long-time favorite living poets), Annie Finch, and many others. Even if you are not interested in poetry all that much, the anthology is valuable if you are interested in the spiritual and how we obtain, understand, incorporate, question, and express it.

Can we attain transcendence? Or immanence, instead? Or are we fooling ourselves altogether?

Good questions.


When I was a very young child, my father, a newly-minted Presbyterian minister, was assigned to a small parish in a rural area of New York. We lived in a ranch-style manse across the driveway from the 19th-century shingle-style church. We had a large yard which bordered a large field. There was a post fence along the side of the church yard and a barbed-wire fence in back of our own yard. I liked to sit on the post fence’s wooden stretchers and pretend I was riding a horse. There were tall pine trees at the front of the church and I recall watching birds fly in and out of the trees and also in and out of the eaves of the steeple. All of those memories I now associate with church-going and whatever the spirit is. I always think of that time of my life as the days I lived next door to God.

I was raised in the culture of God-the-Father. My father, my human father, was the man behind the pulpit. He wore flowing robes and he sang beautifully, but what I liked best was watching him as he opened the enormous Bible and read from it.

Yes, I was a bibliophile from the get-go.


I suppose the words mattered. Certainly the verses, the language of scripture, its pacing, and the intonation of recitations, creeds, and prayer–not to mention the music–made their way into my forming mind. I learned to read by doodling on church bulletins and pretending to follow along in the hymnals as we sang “Fairest Lord Jesus” or “The Doxology.” But I do not recall ever believing, quite, that the words equaled the spirit, even though I memorized that in the beginning was the Word and the Word was God.

Now I have come around to words again. (Writers do that.) I am not in the right frame of mind to write eloquently, as the writers in A God in the House have done, about how my poetry, my practice, my beliefs entwine with the spiritual. Perhaps someday I will, inspired by the thoughts and reflections of others. It is a brave thing, to write about one’s faith–so personal. I am grateful to the editors (Illya Kaminsky & Katherine Towler) who envisioned this project and interviewed the poets; and I heartily recommend this book.

Cognition and storytelling

Apparently, there has been considerable excitement in the humanities and literature worlds concerning new discoveries in neurology and cognition. And while I have been thinking and reading along these lines for years in my own auto-didactic way, I’ve only recently stumbled upon the texts that specifically explore this cross-fertilization of the arts and sciences.

AWP featured a standing-room-only panel on the topic of Cognitive Science and Stories that alerted me to the work of Brian Boyd (more books for the to-read pile), for example; and just this past week, Annie Murphy Paul contributed an opinion essay titled “Your Brain on Fiction” to the New York Times Sunday Review. Oliver Sacks has, of course, worked along this territory for many years, mostly from the neurological viewpoint with research that suggests we consider the relationship of brain science to art. Leonard Shlain has written intriguing books on the subject as well; though he focuses on gender and visual/textual creativity in his earlier work (see The Alphabet vs. the Goddess), his more recent Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light takes on the “rational” brain (physics) and the world and work of art.

The science, which encompasses both ‘hard science’ such as neurology and social science such as psychology, uses fMRI brain imaging and other forms of feedback measurement to record the brain’s responses to imagery, metaphor, descriptive writing, emotionally-evocative literary passages, and other stimuli to gauge how the human brain takes in such stimuli and which regions of the brain ‘fire’ when encountering the materials.

Associations rule. Reading is associative.  The word “coffee,” as it turns out, engages the olfactory regions; so does the word “cinnamon.” Tactile word cues (velvet, sandy, rough) arouse sensory regions, notes Paul. We associate meaning with senses. Or perhaps senses evoke, in the human mind, associated meanings. This is one reason poetry engages its readers; poetry works via a series of different types of arousals by association–allusions to previously-known information, metaphorical associations by means of sensory-related responses, stimulation of brain regions by word-association, and also cultural or social association (contextual cues, which may also be physical). All of this means that the act of reading is an embodied behavior–we are actively encoding physical settings and sensations while we read!

Human brains fill in the gaps in memory and in event-series that may or may not be related. Some of these neurological studies suggest human brains seek patterns…and construct narratives. Hence, story-making may be something that evolved along with the human cortex while we learned that a growl in the bushes is likely to equal a hidden predator and that if we convey this information by narrative (or metaphor) it will be recalled more quickly by our listener. If the listener is offspring, and the lesson is remembered and used appropriately, the genes survive another generation. That scenario sounds pretty scientific/Darwinian; but to a writer or artist, the scenario is lush with the possibility of story-myth-legend-fiction-poem-art.

Storytelling facilitates sociality, claims Tim Horvath, who explained to the attendees at the AWP conference that sociality is the biologist’s “reciprocal altruism.” Because fiction meta-represents life, it simulates possible life scenarios that can help to foster understanding and offers a way to test out possible social reactions to behavior in a way that is low-risk for the reader. The reader can imagine, or play along, with the rebellious heroine and through this adaptive play (reading can be a form of play) learn how others around her might react if she were to try a similar form of rebellion. Indeed, Marilynne Robinson agrees that “The great virtue of the best fiction is to teach compassion.”

I look forward to learning more about the cognitive side of human narrative. I love it when science and the humanities discourse with one another.

5 good things

Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, describes psychological research that strongly suggests human beings have stronger responses to negative events or stimuli than to positive ones. That makes sense; for survival reasons, it is “wise” to be able to recognize threats or aggression rapidly. Once humans understand this fact of our natures, however, we ought to be able to put its effects into rational perspective…if we are rational human beings.

Kahneman cites a study that looked at marriages and found that, in a marriage the spouses described as “happy,” each partner said or did five pleasant things for every one unpleasant comment or action. The five-to-one ratio turns out to be a steady one in other types of psychological research into mood, threat-response, and attitude assessments among employees, family members, and groups.

In other words, we have to do five nice things to outweigh the emotional effect of one unpleasant thing. Which is, by the way, irrational. A rational equation would be one-to-one for a neutral emotional grounding, and two nice events would (rationally) make up for one nasty remark. Philosophers would agree, but given that human nature is not as rational as we often like to believe, philosophers also readily understand the problem of what Stephen Covey has called “the emotional bank account.” That one negative situation taints our moods pretty severely, even though it should not. The emotional bank account draws down very rapidly if we consider that 5-to-1 ratio.

I propose that we learn from this research to practice five actions as we navigate the challenges of getting along with other people:

1) Try harder to do those so-called random acts of kindness. Smiling is a good start.

2) Repress at least a few of our negative markers (frowns, sarcastic remarks, resentful sighs).

3) Identify more good things people do so we realize that good things do occur.

4) Try to teach ourselves to be more rational when negative things happen.

5) Remember that others are recalling the one bad thing, just as we do, and let it go.

It’s harder than you’d think, but it isn’t impossible. Neither easy nor hard: the middle way.

Here are five good things I encountered today:

Pansies (viola × wittrockiana). Daffodils (narcissus). Chickadees (poecile atricapillus). Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55. Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances Suite No. 3 (1932).

daffodil photo Ann E. Michael

A different kind of difficult book

Elie Wiesel’s Night.

Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird.

André Schwartz-Bart’s The Last of the Just.

Dominique Lapierre’s City of Joy.

Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina.

I’ve been posting about books that I love in spite of–or because of–their challenging material in terms of philosophical thinking or complex scientific explanations. It occurs to me there are other forms of “difficult,” and that topic is yet another challenge for the reader to encounter. These are books I found hard to read because of subject matter, events, descriptions of things I cannot imagine, or maybe can imagine, facing.

Sometimes a book seems difficult for me on these terms because of where I am in my life; it might not be difficult to read at another time. An example of this sort of book is Franzen’s The Corrections, which features among other characters a family patriarch in serious physical and mental decline. My family is experiencing something similar right now, and I cannot quite bring myself to open the book lying on the nightstand.

On the other hand, reading can help me get through tough situations. Maybe I’ll get to The Corrections soon after all if I recall how fiction and poetry–especially the latter–have often been tools for coping or “processing.” It was immensely difficult to read Marie Howe’s What the Living Do close on the deaths (by AIDS) of three friends, but I felt understood when I read her work; I can’t explain it any other way. This exchange is almost magical to me: I do not necessarily feel I understand the writer, but I feel the writer has understood me. Without knowing me. Without knowing a person like me would ever stumble upon and read the pages…yet the text makes me feel understood.

I love that feeling, even though the rational side of me cries “Magical thinking! Coincidence! Self-delusion!”

So that’s art.

Some tough books to read: Gray Jacobik’s Little Boy Blue, Chana Bloch’s Mrs. Dumpty, Donald Hall’s Without, Heidi Ann Smith’s The Carol Ann Burns Story, Selah Saterstrom’s The Meat & Spirit Plan, Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish, Gregory Orr’s Gathering the Bones Together…and these books, mostly poetry, do not include the more traditional memoirs and non-fiction accounts of difficult events that are available to the reader. You could spend your entire life reading about the Holocaust, and some readers do just that.

Why would I willingly subject myself to disturbing reading? I kind of wonder about that myself; it’s not the same impulse that makes me want to read a thriller or mystery novel. In those cases, there is a promise of entertainment in a voyeuristic form and the outcome usually promises a kind of satisfaction that these other books do not always offer (read: hope, redemption, solutions…)

But I will hearken again to something I heard Marilynne Robinson talk about (see my previous post on AWP). She suggested that literature teaches us compassion. Good art of any kind opens up a new kind of perspective, one that thrusts us out of our own comfortable, individual points of view and therefore allows us–in the safety of our own homes, secure in the knowledge that this is only a book and is not happening to us–to engage with the “other.” When we feel empathy for a problematic character, when we feel we understand another person’s plight, even a fictional person, we move away from narcissistic isolation and into engagement with other beings. And that is compassion.

And that is also art.

AWP conference

I got back from Chicago on Monday and have been trying to catch up ever since. Chicago hosted the 2012 Associated Writing Programs conference, where nearly 10,000 writers, aspiring writers, teachers, publishers, and students (often these categories overlap) converge to interact, interface, synthesize, network, inform themselves, and idol-worship.

For an introverted, reflective, crowd-shy person, the event can be overwhelming. I speak from experience.

Nevertheless, the conference generally provides me with tremendous food for thought in the form of books to read, authors to discover, concepts to familiarize myself with, pedagogies to explore, and considerable re-assessment of why I do what I do. Also, I meet people.

At a wonderful presentation called “Literature and Evil,” for example, I was seated next to poet James McKean. We had an amiable discussion about teaching composition prep to freshmen before I figured out who he was. Here is one of his poems: “Bindweed” up at The Poetry Foundation site. For poetry people, that’s big-time. The thing is, I hadn’t read any of his books; it would have been really weird to say, “Oh, I recognize your name. I don’t know your work at all, though. Sorry.” So we chatted about an area of common ground: teaching.

I tracked down McKean’s books via Iowa’s Writing Program and did a bit of internet sleuthing for samples of his poetry. Turns out I really like his work. So I’m going to be reading James McKean’s poems and meanwhile be thinking, what a nice man he is! Such a devoted teacher, down-to-earth. He shared some of his classroom approaches and I shared my teaching experiences with similar students. We talked about the differences between community college adult students and 18-year-old freshmen. We didn’t talk about teaching creative writing, but we did talk about the low-residency MFA and his current crop of students. He is much younger than my dad, but he reminded me of my father, a midwesterner and professor interested in what Marilynne Robinson, Ha Jin, and Paul Harding had to say about evil and literature.

They had lovely and compassionate and interesting things to say, in my opinion. I suggest you read their books. And, while you are at it, pick up a collection of James McKean’s poems. He’s a terrific poet–and a very nice man.

More difficult books

photo by Ann E. Michael

Some weeks back, I posted about reading “difficult books.” It occurs to me that there are different kinds of difficult books, and perhaps different kinds of motivation for reading them.

In my previous post, I addressed why I read philosophy. I also read books on subjects like string theory, fractals, physics, economics, psychology, and other topics that might be considered difficult, especially for a person who is not a scholar in any of those areas. One example is the book I’m reading now, Daniel Kahneman’s best-seller Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman is a psychologist who won a Nobel Prize in Economics, and this book explores how human beings make decisions, are rational or irrational depending on circumstances and how information is presented, make judgments, develop intuition and biases, and learn or fail to learn from mistakes. He’s a fairly good writer for the layperson, staying away from jargon and taking pains to explain his work clearly for the non-psychologist, non-economist, and non-mathematician. Nonetheless, this book–while wonderful!–is not easy material to read. One reason is that the text is about thinking, so (like philosophy) the endeavor is entirely metacognitive. Also, Kahneman’s findings directly challenge many of the things we think we know about ourselves. That sort of book is inherently difficult.

Another book written in lively anecdotes avoiding too much technical language but that I found difficult all the same is Stuart Kauffman’s At Home in the Universe. Kauffman explains Boolean logic in a way that helped me to understand not just the basic premise but how Boolean operates in terms of randomness and the development of algorithms. His book, however, takes for its subject complexity theory. You can tell by the name of the theory that this material’s a little challenging. Furthermore, he begins by writing about chemistry, a science in which I have almost no foundational understanding. I learned much from his work about self-organization of things like molecules and stellar systems, and this book enabled me to read his more theoretical text on “reinventing the sacred” with deeper understanding (and even a bit of skepticism). But easy to understand? No.

Joao Magueijo introduced me to the research and theories of young cosmological physicists through his book Faster than the Speed of Light, a book that is laugh-out-loud funny in places and written with the casual tone of having a conversation with an enthusiastic and possibly jerky scientist while at a university-neighborhood pub (there were more than a few asides in his narrative, most of which dealt with university or science politics). I know more physics than chemistry, but I can’t do the math. I had to re-read some of the pages in Magueijo’s book to figure out where he was going with his potential discoveries. I read the book years ago, yet it stuck with me; recent news about possible faster-than-light particle movement reminded me instantly of the work this team was doing in the late 90s.

Science and philosophy are difficult; and while books that involve the relationship between the disciplines (such as Hofstadter’s now-classic Gödel, Escher, Bach and Kauffman’s Reinventing the Sacred, to name only two) are not necessarily twice as difficult, they cannot be categorized as easy-to-read, even when the author is a marvelous writer. True “System 2 thinking” (see Kahneman) means constant engagement with the text, and our brains simply get tired. But they also get exercise and plasticity from the enjoyable work of reading what is hard, a workout I find exhilarating.