More on the English major

The New York Times commentator Verlyn Klinkenborg recently wrote about the “decline of the English major” in an opinion piece titled “Why the Humanities Still Matter.” I am offering a link to the letters to the editor concerning that essay [which includes a link to the opinion piece as well]:

Another article, this time in the Chronicle of Higher Education, makes the point that employers often want qualities in their employees that the English major supplies…but that employers may not realize that! (One commenter suggests students major in business or biology or whatever and minor in English).

Those of you new to my blog may wish to look at the archives here on this topic, which include:

“Reasonable, Calming”


“Defending the Poetry major”

“Learning the literary analysis”

“Philosophy & English are friends”

I’m a philosophy and literature major who is also a poet; and I’m not starving to death, and I like my job. Can the cynics please stand down? Learning matters. True education makes us into better thinkers. Society benefits.

End of story. Now, go read a book!

Hail and Heidegger

hail and roses

Another freakish, brief summer storm swept through–this time bringing wind, fog, downpours, and hail. Not a gardener’s favorite weather system under any circumstances. Some years ago, a June 9 hailstorm literally decimated (reduced by 10%…though I think it was more like 25%) my gardens and produced the mammatus cloudforms that show up on my “About” page. Yesterday’s hailstorm was–thankfully–not as damaging. Most of the plants will recover fairly rapidly, I think.


Meanwhile, I’m trying to educate myself a bit more on the history of phenomenology as it relates to poetry, art, and poetics by reading a bit of Martin Heidegger. This is a backwards chronology, but I’m not feeling ready to take up Husserl yet. Heidegger’s also problematic because of his early embrace of the Nazi party (he resigned early, too, in 1938, but never made a full repudiation). I understand that great thinkers can nonetheless be very flawed human beings. Michael Wheeler’s thorough essay in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy touches on some of the contradictions and covers Heidegger’s major work. But I am reading Hofstadter’s translation of “Poetry, Language, Thought” and six other shorter essays, such as “What Are Poets For?” and “The Origin of a Work of Art.” Actually, it is hard to consider the first text as an essay. It’s more like a poem in aphorisms. An excerpt:


When through a rent in the rain-clouded
sky a ray of sun suddenly glides
over the gloom of the meadows .  .  .  .

We never come to thoughts. They come
to us.

That is the proper hour of discourse.

Discourse cheers us to companionable
reflection. Such reflection neither
parades polemical opinions nor does it
tolerate complaisant agreement. The sail
of thinking keeps trimmed hard to the
wind of the matter.

From such companionship a few perhaps
may rise to be journeymen in the
craft of thinking. So that one of them,
unforeseen, may become a master.


Almost Confucian, no?


Later in his life, Heidegger moved on from his earlier philosophizing on the ontology of being (he pointed out the need to define “exist” as a premise in any such inquiry) and began to suggest that art exists within the materials/tools of the artist as well as within the artist’s being and abilities, all in a perhaps simultaneous collection of conditions. Wheeler says, “poiesis is to be understood as a process of gathering together and fashioning natural materials in such a way that the human project in which they figure is in a deep harmony with, indeed reveals—or as Heidegger sometimes says when discussing poiesis, brings forth—the essence of those materials and any natural environment in which they are set.”

Heidegger writes, for example, that “a true cabinetmaker…makes himself answer and respond above all to the different kinds of wood and to the shapes slumbering within wood—to wood as it enters into man’s dwelling with all the hidden riches of its essence. In fact, this relatedness to wood is what maintains the whole craft. Without that relatedness, the craft will never be anything but empty busywork…” Wheeler calls this manifestation of the art within the materials (which the artist must understand in order to use her talents and tools to bring forth) a “process of revealing.” Kin, I suppose, to the words often attributed to Michelangelo: I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.


Art, gardens, weather, poetry, the craft of thinking…all processes of revealing and transformation. “We never come to thoughts. They come to us.”ann e. michael hail foot

Myotonia congenita

Here’s the “Fainting Goats” poem I referenced in an earlier posting. It appears in the Spring 2013 issue of Philadelphia Poets.

Fainting Goats

Next door, the neighbor’s raising goats.
I hear them bleating in the mornings while they wait
for feed, their stuttering punctuates the day.
Evenings, they murmur like a small crowd at a magic show.

The goats fall into a brief paralysis at any sign of danger:
they bleat and stiffen, roll onto their sides like live piñatas,
legs outstretched, then collect themselves and bolt
fast as they can, to the far side of the pen.

My neighbor says they’re bred by shepherds
to distract roving predators from the sheep,
sacrificed to the wolf or bobcat if the startle
lasts too long or if the predator’s swift.

Think of the white sheep fleeing in droves,
shunting themselves away from their fallen companion,
trammeling hillside toward safety while the goat
recovers, bellering, attempting its escape.

My neighbor chose them for their novelty,
chases them with an umbrella, makes certain
they maintain the reflex that causes their bodies
to seize and stumble. This is how

we keep our frailties alive, inbred, and how we fall,
sometimes luckily, sometimes into the jaws
of a starving winter day, asking ourselves if it’s destiny
or heredity, lost before we determine the answer.


For other poems, see the Poems page here. Or buy my books–see the Books page here.


Untermyer Park


My enthusiasm for gardens of all kinds seems inextinguishable, and my tastes are wide-ranging. I love cottage gardens, wilderness-style native gardens, garden rooms, rooftop gardens and multi-acre gardens (ah, the Biltmore Estate...), sculpture gardens, vegetable gardens, potager and herb knots and medicinal plots, historic gardens (Monticello, Bartram’s...) and my grandma’s truck patch, may my grandma rest in peace. Also Asian gardens, European gardens, alpine gardens, undersea gardens (I have yet to visit one, but I would love to do so)–and I’m intrigued by trick gardens like the one at Hellbrunn in Salzburg and themed gardens and miniature railway gardens (there’s a fun one near me at Morris Arboretum). Oh, and I adore arboretums. Or should that be arboreta?

Gardens, like art and literature, reflect unique visions and aesthetics. And they are completely process-oriented: the results, if you can call them that, are fleeting and changeable. Maybe that’s one reason they appeal to me.


Recently, I had a garden adventure that was part nostalgia, part history, part aesthetic–and a lovely day out with my sister, as well. We decided to return to a park that had been important to us when we were very young, for the three years we lived in Yonkers, NY (see my post on the Grinton Will Public Library).

My family lived in houses that had almost non-existent backyards, which is not uncommon in Yonkers–a city built on hills and cliffsides, dwellings crowded practically on top of one another in some parts of town. Our parents took us to nearby Untermyer Park for picnics, exploration, and play. Situated above the Hudson River, the park was like The Secret Garden, Alice in Wonderland, ancient Greece, and Narnia, all rolled up into one mysterious and lovely, part-wild, part-formal place. The walled garden and the grotto beneath the Temple of Love were favorite places.

When we lived there, the park was reasonably well-kept, though not planted with many blooming flowers: lawns mowed, shrubs and trees somewhat pruned, no graffiti, a few paths cleared. The park belongs to the City of Yonkers, deeded to the public by Samuel Untermyer–a civic-minded gentleman who for some reason did not also endow the place. As a result, maintenance of the original 150 acres quickly became untenable and the city sold off much of the land. The 1862 mansion was razed, a hospital began to expand on some of the property, and the former glory rapidly decayed, overgrown by trees and weeds.

Which made it all the more exciting to people who are very young. It was entirely possible to believe there might be lions or mountain goats or fairies in the fringes of the woodland. The columns evoked stories and myths. The long reflecting pools, though not entirely full of water, were exotic canals or dangerous rivers or chasms. There were stairs and doors in surprising places, and overhanging vines, and grand old trees.

My sister and I share happy memories of the park. We had heard that it went through ups and downs depending upon the economy, the health of the city, grants, taxes, etc. Apparently the early 70s saw considerable graffiti on the walls we loved and on the grotto rocks. We heard indigent young people liked to hang out there and get stoned. We heard the woods had become littered and full of vermin. In the 1980s, some clean-up occurred; the park had made it onto the federal Historic Register. The walled garden was kept clean, and most of the graffiti tags erased. Deer roamed the place, eating everything but the mugwort, phragmites, and Japanese knotweed. The city still had trouble funding maintenance on the park, let alone restoration.

My sister went searching for Untermyer recently and learned that the city of Yonkers has hired two full-time gardeners and has partnered with a non-profit organization in an attempt to get more serious about restoration of this special place. And last weekend, she and I went on a tour with the enthusiastic gardeners and their young and enthusiastic apprentices.

And fell in love with the park all over again.

Even in its partially-wild, partially-decayed state, Untermyer Park compels the visitor. People genuinely gasp as they enter the walled Persian-style garden through the Artemis gate (the walled garden has been largely restored and looks pretty fabulous). The website offers an overview of the amazing history behind the place and includes some photos from the Roaring 20s, when Greystone Estate was the place to attend a party.

The “Persian” garden symbolizes Eden; indeed, the word “Paradise” has its etymological roots in Persia (Iran) as a compound of the word pairi- “around” and the word diz “to make, as in a wall.” Here’s a photo I took with my sister’s phone. The snapshot doesn’t do the place justice, of course; nor can it capture the thrill we felt at returning to find an old, old friend in the full bloom of health.

Inside the walled garden, looking north at the amphitheater

Inside the walled garden, looking north at the amphitheater

Click here for Untermyer website.

“Next Big Thing”

A friend & colleague-in-poetry, April Lindner, has invited me to participate in the round-robin writing blog event (termed a “blog hop”) called “The Next Big Thing.” Thanks to Molly Spencer for coordinating this web-event, which has been going awhile, so she is no longer curating it as actively. At the end of this post, I’m linking my readers to a handful of other participants. From their sites, you can locate others…and so on! We hope to foster discovery of writers our own blog followers–or random visitors–are not yet familiar with, and to spur readership in general. I love to read, and I have a mission to introduce more people to reading, to poetry, and to contemporary artists–especially word-artists. Therefore, I’m thrilled to be asked to add my 2¢ to The Next Big Thing…even though some of the formulated “interview questions” lend themselves more to fiction writers than to poets. Some of the answers may end up sounding a bit far-fetched, or simply silly.

But poets do possess senses of humor, folks. We are not all depressive garret-dwelling introverted cynics. [Ha!]


Now to commence with the interview questions:

What is the working title of your next book (or story, or project)?

I have two. One manuscript is finished, and I am seeking a publisher–that one is titled The Red Queen Hypothesis. The work-in-progress is tentatively called Barefoot Girls.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

imagesThe Red Queen Hypothesis seems to be culled from a bunch of my poems musing on science. I love science because it is so weird, much odder than so-called real life. Also, the nomenclature…I swoon over those latinates, Greek roots, and things-named-after-other-things. Here’s the biological definition of the Red Queen Hypothesis from Wikipedia: “an evolutionary hypothesis which proposes that organisms must constantly adapt, evolve, and proliferate not merely to gain reproductive advantage, but also simply to survive while pitted against ever-evolving opposing organisms in an ever-changing environment.” As Alice and the Red Queen are hurriedly running through the chessboard of Wonderland in Through the Looking-Glass, the Queen remarks, “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” Don’t we often feel that way?

PBS has a good little article on it here, for those who want to learn a little science with their poetry.

Barefoot Girls evolves as I revise. As of now, the poems are memoir-based about being a teenaged girl in New Jersey, and many of them allude to Bruce Springsteen songs. The collection is, I suppose, lyrical narrative in style. Mostly free verse but with some ballad-type pieces and even a sonnet or two. I may have some trouble getting that manuscript into print because I have to get Springsteen’s permission to use a couple of epigraphs. God knows how long that will take–or if it is even possible!

What genre does your book fall under? Poetry. No other genre need apply.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?  

I would love to have Gary Cooper or Barbara Stanwyck play characters in my poems, which makes about as much sense–since they are dead–as making a movie of a poetry collection.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?   

Life, love, family, environment, death, memory, animals, youth, curiosity, god.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

1) No.

And 2) –you have got to be kidding! Literary agents in the USA generally avoid poets as though we harbor west Nile virus.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Four years, generally, though some individual poems evolve more slowly. My first full-length collection, Water-Rites, took much longer…closer to ten years.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Ah, the “inspiration” question. I have a deep indifference to the question of inspiration. I suggest you read other writers on this topic.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

The Red Queen Hypothesis includes numerous poems that employ formal strategies, as well as plenty of nonce forms; I think of them as experiments, the way scientists frame their work though experiment.There are also philosophical undertones. It is a book of questions that are scientific, speculative, spiritual and philosophical. Barefoot Girls, the project in process, also poses questions–but of a different kind. More social and gender-related questions, more coming-of-age curiosity. The fact that these poetry pursuits came one after the other intrigues me since they seem in many ways fairly unrelated. Perhaps I will discover the relationship as I continue to revise Barefoot Girls.

Meanwhile, if anyone can suggest a publisher for RQH, I’m all ears!

Who are you tagging for The Next Big Thing?

~As The Next Big Thing is on hiatus, I suggest my readers browse for it or follow the links below that will lead to other links & literary discoveries!!

Here are some other Next Big Thing posts:

On being understood

I’ve just learned that a poem of mine, “Fainting Goats,” was awarded a prize from the journal in which it appears, Philadelphia Poets. Liz Abrams-Morley was the judge.

To my delight, the editor of Philadelphia Poets (the lovely and talented Rosemary Cappello) requests judges to write their rationale for choosing the poems as winners, and here’s what Abrams-Morley has to say about “Fainting Goats.” She understands the poem, and that feels deeply rewarding to me.

A very close third place, Ann Michael’s “Fainting Goats” is a poem which intrigues and engages from its unexpected title (and subject) to its terrific, enlarging and emotionally challenging final stanza.  The opening is conversational, a straightforward statement which addresses the reader, and introduces an unexpected fact: “Next door, the neighbor is raising goats.” This drew me right in to the detailed treatise on the quirky fainting behavior of goats, which are almost playfully and so perfectly described as murmuring “like a small crowd at a/magic show” and rolling on their sides “like live piñatas.”   The poem takes a darker turn as Michael reveals that the goats are living distractions, bred by shepherds to draw predators away from sheep. “Think of the white sheep fleeing in droves,// …toward safety while the goat/recovers, bellering, attempting its escape.”  The neighbor, meanwhile, simply “chose them for their novelty,” a statement which chilled this reader following, as it does, immediately on the heels of the harrowingly detailed description of the goat as potential sacrifice to some predator.  As a reader, I felt the panic of prey animals and heard that goat’s cry.

Structurally everything about this poem works.  The unrhymed quatrains, even meter,  conversational language and line breaks—all the poetic choices Michael makes support the poem’s content and feel “right,” even inevitable.

The final stanza opens out the poem, enlarges its vision magnificently, transforms the goat story from conversational tale into powerful metaphor.  Michael’s closing is flat- out gorgeous and provocative.  It leaves the reader, as many of the best poems do, with a question to ponder, rather than with commentary or answer.  I found myself returning and returning to these lines: “This is how//we keep our frailties alive, inbred, and how we fall/ sometimes luckily, sometimes into the jaws/of a starving winter day, asking ourselves if it’s destiny/or heredity.”

I am always interested in how other people interpret my work and appreciate it when they see things that I may not have had in mind; but Ms. Abrams-Morley gleaned from my poem the very things I intended.

Thank you!