Sunday, March 30, 2008


First up, a poet living in a cold, cold world: John Mutford, who blogs and writes up in Iqaluit, which is the capitol of the province of Nunavut, Canada (much of which is located in the Arctic circle).

On reading other people's poems

"Every reader brings their own background into the poem. But poets are bridge-builders and readers must decide whether or not to cross."
John Mutford at The Book Mine Set.

Next up, a reference to an interview with Markus Zusak in The Guardian, with thanks to Tanita at Finding Wonderland for pointing it out to me on Friday.

Advice for new writers

Don't be afraid to fail. I fail every day. I failed thousands of times writing The Book Thief, and that book now means everything to me. Of course, I have many doubts and fears about that book, too, but some of what I feel are the best ideas in it came to me when I was working away for apparently no result. Failure has been my best friend as a writer. It tests you, to see if you have what it takes to see it through.

Markus Zusak (Don't miss the full interview, which really offers some interesting insights for folks who've already published as well as newbies.)

On reading and writing history

Two quotes from Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, which I re-read this week. Both are from the main character, Catherine Morland. I am sorry to say that as to one of her objections to the reading of it, little has changed in 200 years, and there are still "hardly any women at all" in our children's history books. (See my Women's History Month rant earlier this month.) As to the second (on the writing of histories), I find amusement in it as I continue to work on the Jane project, essentially a sort of history meant "for the torment of little boys and girls".

I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all — it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention.

At this rate, I shall not pity the writers of history any longer. If people like to read their books, it is all very well, but to be at so much trouble in filling great volumes, which, as I used to think, nobody would willingly ever look into, to be labouring only for the torment of little boys and girls, always struck me as a hard fate; and though I know it is all very right and necessary, I have often wondered at the person's courage that could sit down on purpose to do it.

Hattie Morahan as Elinor Dashwood with Dan Stevens as Edward Ferrars

Speaking of Jane Austen (kind of), don't forget that the first half of the new BBC production of Sense and Sensibility begins tonight on most PBS stations at 9 p.m.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Desert Places — a Poetry Friday post

This week I'm here in Gold Canyon, near the foot of the Superstition Mountains. Gold Canyon and, indeed, all of the surrounding area, is part of the Sonora Desert. For those of you who don't know, the Sonora Desert is the only one in which the saguaro cactus grows. The desert here is littered with them, as well as with barrel cacti, cholla, jojoba, organ pipe cactus and more, along with scrubby brush and ocotillo. The foothills are, at present, green (a rarity) and, in some cases, yellow from all the blooming wildflowers thereon. The Superstition Mountains themselves (and the Santans and others) are mostly rock. Bare rock. And in between the scrub and the cactus is a lot of bare sand. Lots around here are sometimes hundreds of acres in size, and even with encroaching population growth, enormous stretches of desert are still easy to find (and easy, one supposes, to become hopelessly lost in, were one on foot in the hot desert sun). At night, if I turn my back to the light pollution coming from the valley that holds Phoenix, I can see many, many stars in a sky darker than what I can manage to see at home in suburbia.

I mention all this as an introduction to today's poem by Robert Frost, whose birthday it would have been on Wednesday. Frost wrote it while living in New England, of course, and so he refers to the falling snow. Friends of mine in Vermont and New Hampshire still can't see the ground for the snow that remains from winter. And I am in the desert now, where it's sunny and the cactus hold their arms up in silent salute. And all of these circumstances led me to this poem, which is guaranteed to make you think, even if the snow is gone where you are, and you are far from sand and cactus.

Desert Places
by Robert Frost

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it--it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less--
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars--on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

The above poem was originally published by Frost in 1936 in a collection called A Further Range. It is comprised of only sixteen lines organized into four stanzas, and yet it says more in that space than many a much longer poem ever manages. Each line has ten syllables, but the metre is not, strictly speaking, iambic pentameter (as in other poems he wrote), nor is it stable; it starts out vaguely trochaic and settles into iambic by the end (perhaps in an "order out of chaos" sort of way?) The rhyme scheme is AABA CCDC EEFE GGHG, with a caveat that the "odd" word in the third stanza is "snow", the same as the odd word in the first stanza, so it might also be considered EEBE. The scheme is close to that he used in Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, but there he nested his rhyme (AABA BBCB CCDC DDDD), which makes for a lovely linking effect. His decision not to link in "Desert Places" is a conscious one, and is meant to keep all the stanzas in isolation, and lonely, as it were.

Although many folks think of Frost's poems as straightforward stories or nature poems, this one is clearly psychological in nature, with direct references to loneliness (and oblique references, perhaps, to depression). The fall of night is both a fact and a metaphor, as is the chill of the falling snow and idea of it blanketing the world and smothering the living things therein. The speaker then turns his attention to space, and the vast emptiness between the stars, which is what sets him musing on loneliness in the first place (a fiction, I believe, for plainly Frost knew his theme long before the poem was completed and revised and published, even if, in the first draft, the connection was not there in the first line). He is not frightened of the loneliness of outer space, but of the space within, both a well-reasoned and sensible fear, I think. And one we've all experienced (the fear and the loneliness) at some time, if we're being honest with ourselves. For another take on the loneliness aspect, check out this blog post by Mopo which I found whilst poking about. For those seeking even more scholarly discussion, check out this pageat Modern American Poetry.