Oct 09

Sic Transit Gloria

I'm an elder now among writers. The younger ones who have the positions similar to what I had, or used to want, do not know me, and haven't heard or read anything I've written; in fact they're not sure I am published at all. I haunt the fringes at readings or workshops, but what they see is a middle-aged woman, a local, who never published in Shenandoah or snagged a big prize, at least that they know about, or any honor that still matters. Maybe I was somebody once, but I made mistakes, missed the boat, and now I'm a member of the old-school. That's how it goes, the way the cookie crumbles, sic transit gloria mundi; anyway, their own lives occupy them quite completely, as they ought to. I have been where they are now.

I have learned that a middle-aged female no matter how distinguished isn't granted that halo of success and prominence the younger are sure that they will have when they reach middle age. Rather, the middle-aged female is a nonentity. The goosey voices of her kind get tuned out. People remark only on the way she dresses: a too-exotic scarf, a funereal black suit, maybe boots (groan), or microfiber flats that too clearly accommodate her bunions or bunionettes. But the clothes might as well be empty. She is an embarrassment; it is feared that her nothingness is contagious. That she might have accomplished notable things doesn't matter. Her fee might be twice what you make in a month. She might even be Secretary of State. But no halo.

It's a gleaming platinum halo; I have seen it around others, around the young, gifted, royal, and hopeful.

I wear it in my hair.

Jun 28

"Starving in a Garret"

Writer (usually poet) is always, in the popular mind, "starving in a garret." I wondered whence came this phrase and image of our profession. Looked it up. The original "born in a cellar and living in a garret"comes from the 18th century. The word "starving" replaces "living" in the19th century, whence comes this romantic 1856 painting, "Death of Chatterton." Seventeen-year-old poet Thomas Chatterton committed suicide in 1770. He actually WAS going to starve, and chose to poison himself. The phrase and image endure; has nobody come up with anything more accurate? I mean, bummer!

Credit Lord Byron, in "Childe Harold" (1812) for making a powerfully attractive figure out of a brooding, reckless young artist who, in real life, would give anybody a pain. I can see Byronic poets wearing black and smoking cigarettes on Delmar Blvd. even today.
Mar 25

The King and I

I once went to a class led by an image consultant who told me to have my upper lipline straightened because one bow is very slightly higher than the other. He said it gave me a contemptuous expression. I was stunned, but didn't think he was lying. I just had never seen what others saw.elvisbw Later when I wrote a long essay about young Elvis I was amazed to see in him the same slight defect, which lent him his famous "sneer," although the man was not known to have sneered at anyone, and on him it looked cool. I'm thinking of this because I met for the first time today the publicist hired by the publisher of Meet Me, and she seemed to have expected a difficult encounter. I have never understood why perfect strangers assume I am cold, exacting, demanding, and severe. Oh, I admit that my gaze is like a laser beam. But the publicist couldn't know that because we had never met.

Something precedes me, and I would say "It's my work," except that on the first day of classes I frighten students who have never read a word I have written, and anyway it isn't scary work. Smiling at students more -- cheaper than plastic surgery -- and putting the class's focus on them, not me, has fixed that. Back in undergrad days my writing did precede me: People would say, "That's you? I expected a big huge Amazon" -- but that was only on campus, and those days are long gone. Or it could be "my reputation" preceding me, except that other than having on numerous occasions given blunt and ill-considered opinions -- but never to students -- and maintaining an army of flying monkeys, I cannot imagine how I earned an intimidating reputation. I think of other writer/teachers who had scary reputations: Howard Nemerov appeared to enjoy making devastating remarks. You will never hear me saying to a young poet, "Son, the problem with you is, you have a tin ear." Others were known as curmudgeons, stoners, and lechers. I am none of those.

I think part of the problem may be that I am female and one bow of my lip is slightly higher than the other, and like almost every other educated female in America I will be acceptable only after I undergo plastic surgery, or, even better, go back into the kitchen where I belong.

Jan 18

What Poetry Was Meant to Do

From Wikipedia. I got a genuine thrill reading this, and hope you do too:

When the book was first published, Whitman was fired from his job at the Department of the Interior after Secretary of the Interior James Harlan read it and said he found it very offensive.Poet John Greenleaf Whittier was said to have thrown his 1855 edition into the fire.Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote, "It is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote 'Leaves of Grass,' only that he did not burn it afterwards." Critic Rufus Wilmot Griswold reviewed Leaves of Grass in the November 10, 1855, issue of The Criterion, calling it "a mass of stupid filth" and categorized its author as a filthy free lover. Griswold also suggested, in Latin, that Whitman was guilty of "that horrible sin not to be mentioned among Christians", one of the earliest public accusations of Whitman's homosexuality. Griswold's intensely negative review almost caused the publication of the second edition to be suspended.Whitman included the full review, including the innuendo, in a later edition of Leaves of Grass.

On March 1, 1882, Boston district attorney Oliver Stevens wrote to Whitman's publisher, James R. Osgood, that Leaves of Grass constituted "obscene literature". Urged by the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice . . .Stevens demanded the removal of the poems "A Woman Waits for Me" and "To a Common Prostitute", as well as changes to "Song of Myself", "From Pent-Up Aching Rivers", "I Sing the Body Electric", "Spontaneous Me", "Native Moments", "The Dalliance of the Eagles", "By Blue Ontario’s Shore", "Unfolded Out of the Folds", "The Sleepers", and "Faces"
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P.S. Whitman's title Leaves of Grass was a veiled way of saying "this is trash written by a hack or unimportant person."