Archive for January, 2016

Early Poetry Imprinting

Newly hatched goslings imprint on the first moving object they see, which usually is Mother Goose.  Mother Goose nursery rhymes are the usual way children are introduced to poetry. I’m sure I had my share of exposure to these rhymes in my preschool days. Most children grow away from the rhythms of the poetic line in later childhood, preferring the pace of prose or the lyrics of popular music. My first love in literature is poetry. I came to writing poems before novels or short stories. Looking back on my childhood, two influences played a major role in my enduring love of this art form, which survived the rigors of high school explication and the incomprehensibility of post-modernism.

From third to eight grade, I was a Girl Scout. My Girl Scout leader was Mrs. Xenia Denoyer (1893-1976). She was already in her sixties when she led our troop in Wheeling, Illinois. A white-haired, stocky lady, she was married to the cartographer Philip Denoyer, whose maps hung in many schoolrooms of the day. The Denoyers owned a farm called Singing Grove located near my home, which they had turned into a Girl Scout camp. A large white, green-shuttered ranch house was their residence. For the Girl Scouts they built a log cabin with a big fireplace and loft sleeping area. Mrs. Congdon, the assistant Girl Scout leader, was a British lady who worked in the ladies’ lingerie department of Spiegel Department Store. She stated her profession as corsetiere. To my young imagination, Mrs. Congdon was as fascinating as the Denoyers. She exerted a strong influence on the doings of the scouts, for the large field next to the cabin was named the Plains of Runnymede, the outhouse White Hall, and the cabin Canterbury. Mrs. Denoyer  loved trees and under her forceful tutelage we earned our tree badge. On a tour of the camp, she identified all the trees she had planted. She was particularly proud of her gingko biloba. A special treat during the camping week was the evening the girls spent in the ranch house watching Mrs. Denoyer’s home movie of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. The two women had attended the event in 1953 and considered it a highpoint in their lives.

Another treat, which not all the girls considered one, was evenings around the fireplace in the log cabin when Mr. Denoyer was invited to recite poetry to us. If Mrs. Denoyer was old, her husband was ancient. If she was in her sixties, he must have been in his eighties.  My research revealed that he formed the Denoyer-Geppert map company in 1916, that he retired from the company in 1947, and that he died in Wheeling in 1964 at age 88. His raspy voice reciting Wordsworth’s “The Daffodils” impressed me as the enactment of a profound rite at which I was privileged to be present. Trees and poetry forever became linked in my consciousness as somehow connected with the religious experience. I wanted to crack the sacred code of poetry. It was mysterious and suffused with an aura of wisdom. Mr. Denoyer, who loved to memorize poetry, was my first influence.

The second influence was the nun who was my teacher in both seventh and eighth grades. I remember her requiring us to memorize Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” and Oliver Wendell Holmes “Old Ironsides.” We read Holmes’ “The Chambered Nautilus,” and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” The Bells,” and “Annabel Lee.” Sister Mary Pearce fed my desire to discover more poetry, preparing me for the banquet of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne and Tennyson and others that I would encounter in high school. I had the pleasure of meeting her again in 2001. She is still alive and well. During that meeting, she informed me she was twenty-seven at the time she taught seventh and eight graders and that she did not have a bachelor’s degree. Yet she was the most memorable, inspiring, and motivating grade school teacher I had. Her teaching was rigorous–no Mickey Mouse lessons in her classroom of fifty-three baby boomers.

Trees, poems, and exploration of nature ordained my eventual path to Montana. Singing Grove is no more. The Denoyer farm is now a housing subdivision, but my first love remains with me to this day, thanks to the Denoyers and one Catholic nun.

Originality

In the realm of the literary arts, does anything as pristine and undiluted as originality exist? The word original is most commonly understood to mean not derived from something else. Often a novelist in the process of writing his opus magnum sedulously refuses to read someone else’s novel for fear he will be unconsciously influenced by another writer’s ideas or style. I say “phooey” on that fear. Of course, I am influenced consciously or unconsciously by everything I have ever read. It works like osmosis. I learned to write a complex sentence by patterning my sentence on someone else’s syntax. So what?

Influences play subtly or blatantly in writing. Great novels and poems are replete with literary allusions, references to Greek mythology, and universal symbols that countless other writers have used; yet each writer employs these borrowings from his predecessors in unique ways if his work is considered fresh. I staunchly subscribe to the position that the best way for a writer to improve and to grow in his style and vision is to read widely in the recognized great books of the world and to draw unabashedly upon literary tradition. Good books fertilize the imagination. Cross-pollination can create a brighter, stronger strain of flower. T.S. Eliot wrote about the necessity for the writer to cultivate what he called the historical sense, which “compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.” This historical sense combines with the writer’s consciousness of his contemporary scene to transcend the merely personal, enabling a fusion of his personal experience with a knowledge of the past. This fusion of past and present, according to T.S. Eliot, is the alchemy that renders the art timeless.

Therefore, it is hardly a slur for a work to be described as derivative or traditional. The study of comparative literature involves the identification of influences and cross-currents among cultures, so that the meaning of originality as complete freedom from outside influence or inspiration is a false construct. Instead of fear that reading other books will cause other writers’ ideas to creep into our “original” work, we should embrace them.  Wide exposure to the literary heritage of the world and a knowledge of history will only enhance the individual artist’s work. Imbued with the past, the individual talent can transmute his personal experience into art that transcends time and place. T.S. Eliot terms this depersonalization–the extinction of personality necessary to present a fresh insight into the universal human condition.

 

Writing Book Reviews

After reading the lists of notable books of 2015 that major newspapers publish, I’ve discovered that I have not read any of the titles on their lists. During the past year, I was too busy reading the notable books of the last century. I like the dust to settle on the dust jackets of the currently acclaimed books before reading them. Now, in my sixth decade of life and having stood the test of time myself to some degree,  I prefer to devote my time to reading books that have also shown some staying power.  However, I do like to read reviews of current books, and I will store those titles that strike my fancy away in my memory bank for future reference. Thankfully, my memory bank still has some resilience.

Book reviews whether of books that first appeared years ago or of ones recently published can be valuable in deciding to read the book now or never.  Sometimes the review helps me make the decision. Reviews that either overpraise or harshly criticize are not helpful. They are suspect. Understandably, who would want to review in the first place I book that he did not enjoy reading? Reviewers want to share a good experience, which accounts for the rave review. Is there a way to write a neutral book review in which the reviewer did not indicate his dislike, indifference or outright distaste for the book? Granted, a literary critic has a responsibility to point out flaws in execution, but this can be done without excoriation.  Thus, I tend to give more credence to the review that maintains a less effusive and more objective tone, tacitly acknowledging that literary judgments are subject to the tastes and proclivities of the reviewer.

I like a book review that is written with the prospective reader in mind. My method of writing a book review concentrates on identifying the reasons why anyone would want to read this particular book in the first place. I describe what themes are developed and what insights are offered on the subject. I examine the elements of fiction and of style so that the potential reader can decide whether this book deserves eight or more hours of his life. I state whether the book is plot-driven and action-oriented for those who dislike lengthy descriptions, drawn-out development of setting, and paragraph after paragraph of narrative. If the writing style distinguishes the book, I cite this for those who love playfulness with language, poetical prose, and rich sensory detail. Book reviews that concentrate on plot and character summaries do not interest me. I want only tidbits of information about conflict and main character to whet my curiosity, and I certainly do not want the resolution of the conflict revealed. Basically, I want these questions answered: what kind of reader would read this book and why.  The short, sweet review of approximately 500 words or less can do the job. This review of my taste in book reviews runs to 497 words.

 

Adult Coloring Books

Animal KingdomI received an adult coloring book for Christmas; otherwise, I would not have ventured into this trend that is sweeping the book market. I am overloaded with hobbies, and I feared that one more activity in my current repertory would leave me with five remaining hours of sleep per night. I opened the first page to a very detailed octopus, a fantastical creature with eight winding, intricate, highly stylized feet in my gift book Millie Marotta’s Animal Kingdom. Marotta has several other nature-oriented adult coloring books: Secret Garden, Lost Ocean, Enchanted Forest.

Initially, I questioned whether coloring is a creative activity. Certainly, it is a cut above paint-by-number, because the colorist still retains the decision-making power of what color to fill in where on a drawing someone else designed. I derived a great deal of pleasure from making these color choices. A lot of experimentation was involved, and I was not always pleased with the results of my combinations and contrasts; yet some turned out well, causing me to lean back in my chair and admire my handiwork. I used felt-tip fine markers on this first foray. Although the colors are bright, the fine details make colored pencils better for filling in these drawings. I went to the store to buy a box. While I was browsing another woman was also searching for a large box of colored pencils for her adult coloring book, demonstrating I am not the only old lady to have received a coloring book for Christmas. We excitedly exchanged notes about our experience and the coloring books we were using.

Others who have delved into the intricacies of adult coloring books have reported on its relaxing, meditative DSCN0742quality, producing the same effect that knitting does while watching films or television programs. Like knitting, there is something to show for the unproductive hours of sedentary viewing.  Some recommend coloring for those who have been unsuccessful at meditative practices.  Undoubtedly, coloring can serve as a stress reliever.

The creative aspect and the element of relaxation in the activity relate to color itself.  Specific colors are associated with the chakras or auras around the body. Their different hues represent emotional energy fields.  Color choices reflect moods and levels of energy. Color plays a significant role in dress, home decoration, and gardening. Personality is reflected in the colors we pick in these activities also. This transfers to coloring, because in the process, we are connecting with our inner self.  I found it very satisfying to choose colors and to realize that no two people would color the drawing in the exact same way, and consequently, I was creating something unique to myself. In addition, it was unique to the moment, to the dynamics of the specific time I was coloring, and if I colored the same drawing another day, it would turn out completely different.

The last discovery I made from my adventure into adult coloring was its mystery. By this, I mean not knowing what the drawing would look like in the end. As I colored, a world of possibilities opened before me. That mystery kept me coloring in the same way I would keep reading a detective novel to find out how the crime would be solved.  This is the draw, the wonderful mesmerizing quality of continuing to clothe those empty white spaces as I would dress a naked baby in a cute outfit.

The adult coloring book, as others have widely commented, awakens childhood memories. That is true, yet the reasons coloring gave so much pleasure in childhood are the same reasons that as an adult I find it so pleasurable. Coloring is creative; colors relate to our energy fields; coloring is like solving a mystery.

Several years ago I wrote a poem about coloring, which is in my book Playground, a collection of poems on the childhood activities that my generation loved. Here it is:

Coloring

Open the jumbo box for the first time.

See four rows of sixteen sharpened tips.

Inhale the smell of crayons fresh to smudge

Bright swaths upon the coloring book page.

 

The Walt Disney one fat with cartoons calls.

Who to color: Uncle Scrooge, Donald Duck?

Shade with olive and forest green the trees;

Add turquoise tones and aquamarine skies.

 

Stay within the lines and when finished

Admire the masterpiece then start another.

Hours of Crayola fun inside on rainy days

Spent coloring on the kitchen table.

 

A few dot-to-dots scattered through the book.

Follow the numbers; a drawing is exposed.

Too much pressure on periwinkle breaks

The crayon in two; switch to cadet blue.

 

Carnation pink is worn to a blunted stub.

Boo-hoo! It’s our favorite color, more than

Mulberry, red-orange, or burnt sienna;

Give me the flesh crayon for Fudd’s face.

 

We shade, pressing darker along the lines

In grades that mark an artist’s genius.

The orange and green Binney and Smith box

Holds a few tips still sharp for tomorrow.

 

Many more pages to color, many more days,

Some sunshiny, some dull as used crayolas

Whose smell lingers on fingertips long after

The lid is closed on rows of rounded heads.

 

Broken crayons, some without their paper,

Tossed into cigar box, their luster lost

Until Roger comes up with the bright idea

To melt them down to a model volcano.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Looking Back at the Past Year’s Reading

Of the books I read in 2015, Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin stands out above the rest. After I finished my first reading, I immediately had to read it again. I am sure I will read it several times more before I loosen this mortal coil.

This is an astounding mystical, magical, metaphorical, and historical journey into the American ethos. Helprin liberally draws from the world’s mythologies–Greek, Celtic, Native-American, Biblical, Arthurian–and invents his own. He creates a marvelously centered world of fantastical and historical New York City–the hub, drawing like a magnet pairs of characters from upper New York State, the Jersey coast, Ireland, and San Francisco. The mythical white horse conveys Peter Lake to eternity. There is such a constellation of motifs and interconnections in this voluminous novel of 800-pages that it encompasses not only New York City but the universe. A flying horse and time travel exist alongside tuberculosis and street gangs of the early twentieth century. I predict that this novel will endure well beyond the twenty-second century and stand as the monumental work of American magical realism.

Ultimately, what is the book about? Everything. If I have to identify one over-riding theme, it would be justice and the search for justice. The characters are moving toward a vision of justice, at least Hardesty Maratta’s pilgrimage represents such a quest. The perception of justice requires that the mind move out of time, in fact, reach a timeless realm in which past, present, and future coalesce. Judgments are shaped by past experiences and limited perceptions. In order to perceive correctly, one must be able to perceive all times and all places. Indeed, Helprin strives to create a timeless realm in Winter’s Tale.

Many literary echoes occur in this novel. Dante’s journey comes to mind. Walt Whitman and Hart Crane reverberate, particularly in Helprin’s development of the bridge motif. Hardesty Maratta searches for the designer of the Golden Gate Bridge.  Jackson Mead is obsessed with constructing an equally majestic bridge in New York. There are four gates to New York. “The east gate was that of acceptance of responsibility, the south gate that of the desire to explore, the west gate that devotion of beauty, and the north gate that of selfless love.” Virginia Gamely journeys toward the city from the north, Hardesty from the west; Peter Lake from the south, and Asbury Gunwillow from the east. The characters converge and form pairs in the city. Present, past, and future merge. Hardesty reenacts Peter Lake’s life, and the ascendant Peter Lake re-discovers who he was a hundred years ago. Abby is a reincarnation of the poor, dying child Peter Lake saw in the tenement hallway when he first came to New York in about 1913. Peter finds his “celestial home” again in the room above Grand Central Station that he occupied in the past. The actual astronomical, zodiacal painting on the ceiling of the large concourse attempts to replicate a medieval drawing of the constellations from God’s viewpoint above the stars. Grand Central Station was built from 1903-1913, so it would have been newly completed in the pre-World War I era when Peter Lake arrives in Manhattan. Justice, then, resides in the timeless, all-seeing realm of eternity, and finally, is beyond the ken of time and space-bound humanity.

The pattern of falling and arising in the characters’ lives parallel each other. Cold–the winter–creates the ambience in which everything congeals, in which the whiteness creates a clarity and lightness not otherwise available.  Eventually, the city freezes over; the population skate across the river. Time freezes also. All eras become one.  Everything congeals in winter as everything converges in the city where both the poor and the wealthy exist in a balance, for each is necessary to the other. Crime exists side by side with altruism. Both angels and saints populate the city. Winter furnishes the backdrop for the theme, implying after the deep freeze, the city will be reborn and renewed. Helprin writes: “Winter, it was said, was the season in which time was superconductive–the season when a brittle world might shatter in the face of astonishing events, later to reform in a new body as solid and smooth as transparent ice.”

The plot and subplots are many-layered and it is not my purpose here to summarize even the main plot line. What I wish to do is to praise the richness of imagination embedded in the book. Obviously, Helprin is widely-read in world literature and dips into that heritage as well as into American history. This book is not for the faint-hearted. As with all challenges, it will reward the reader beyond his wildest dreams. This is a philosophical fantasy like no other.