The Well-Read Bookshelf: Randall Jarrell in a Poetry Anthology

 I was looking for the Modern Poetry anthology because I wanted to reread “Next Day,” my favorite poem by Randall Jarrell. It takes the form of a middle-aged woman’s monologue on her new feeling of invisibility.

Randall Jarrell

“Damn it, I saw the book just the other day,” I said as I shone a flashlight on the back shelf of the double-shelved anthologies

This anthology, whether the Norton, the Oxford, or other, was missing .  We have acquired many anthologies over the years. and all the rest are on this shelf:  two different editions of The Oxford Book of English Verse, The Oxford Book of American Verse, an anthology of poetry edited by Garrison Keillor, an anthology of women’s diary excerpts, an anthology of science fiction, a Penguin anthology of Russian short stories, a Penguin anthology of French poetry, a Library of America anthology of Christmas Stories, The Best American Short Stories of the Twentieth Century, edited by John Updike, an anthology of American essays, edited by Philip Lopate, an anthology of American crime classic short stories, and more.

Why is the book you want the only book you can’t find?

How much easier to find things when we had only one bookcase! I was 19 when I bought my first bookcase:  my boyfriend and I lugged the awkwardly oversized box a mile from downtown to our apartment, sitting down frequently on the sidewalk to rest. Once home we had to assemble it, not without some difficulty and borrowing of tools. The bookcase was large enough to hold my small collection of classics and 19th-century literature until both reading and book-buying expanded to include other centuries and I needed more shelves.

For a couple of decades we had bricks-and-boards shelves, which actually looked nicer than the particle-board bookcases with which we replaced them,  But that first bookcase – now shabby and the worse for wear – has lived in many places and is still useful.

Eureka!  Did you think I forgot about Randall Jarrell? I found the Modern Poetry anthology on the floor of the bedroom, in case I needed poetry at night and happened to be sitting on the floor, I suppose. Never underestimate the power of an anthology. Though in this case, I swear it would be easier to memorize all of Randall Jarrell’s poetry than try to find an anthology on our shelves!  So if you see me muttering to myself as I walk down the street, I’m probably reciting “Next Day.”
“Next Day”

Moving from Cheer to Joy, from Joy to All,
I take a box
And add it to my wild rice, my Cornish game hens.
The slacked or shorted, basketed, identical
Food-gathering flocks
Are selves I overlook. Wisdom, said William James,

Is learning what to overlook. And I am wise
If that is wisdom.
Yet somehow, as I buy All from these shelves
And the boy takes it to my station wagon,
What I’ve become
Troubles me even if I shut my eyes.

When I was young and miserable and pretty
And poor, I’d wish
What all girls wish: to have a husband,
A house and children. Now that I’m old, my wish
Is womanish:
That the boy putting groceries in my car

See me. It bewilders me he doesn’t see me.
For so many years
I was good enough to eat: the world looked at me
And its mouth watered. How often they have undressed me,
The eyes of strangers!
And, holding their flesh within my flesh, their vile

Imaginings within my imagining,
I too have taken
The chance of life. Now the boy pats my dog
And we start home. Now I am good.
The last mistaken,
Ecstatic, accidental bliss, the blind

Happiness that, bursting, leaves upon the palm
Some soap and water—
It was so long ago, back in some Gay
Twenties, Nineties, I don’t know . . . Today I miss
My lovely daughter
Away at school, my sons away at school,

My husband away at work—I wish for them.
The dog, the maid,
And I go through the sure unvarying days
At home in them. As I look at my life,
I am afraid
Only that it will change, as I am changing:

I am afraid, this morning, of my face.
It looks at me
From the rear-view mirror, with the eyes I hate,
The smile I hate. Its plain, lined look
Of gray discovery
Repeats to me: “You’re old.” That’s all, I’m old.

And yet I’m afraid, as I was at the funeral
I went to yesterday.
My friend’s cold made-up face, granite among its flowers,
Her undressed, operated-on, dressed body
Were my face and body.
As I think of her and I hear her telling me

How young I seem; I am exceptional;
I think of all I have.
But really no one is exceptional,
No one has anything, I’m anybody,
I stand beside my grave
Confused with my life, that is commonplace and solitary.

The Poetry Section: In Swinburne’s Corner

Joanna Hiffernan in Whistler’s “Symphony in White, no. 2”

I recently went to the art exhibition, Whistler’s Woman in White:  Joanna Hiffernan, at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.  Joanna Hiffernan, nicknamed Joe, was Whistler’s lover and the model for several of his famous paintings, including the three “Symphonies in White.” Gustave Courbet also painted her portrait.  These paintings are spellbinding.

But I was also thrilled to see the manuscript of a poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne, who was a close friend of Whistler and Hiffernan, and had been inspired by Whistler’s painting, “Symphony in White, no. 2.”  I squinted at the manuscript in a glass case but could not make it out in the dimly-lit gallery. Perhaps with opera glasses…  I bumped my head against the glass trying to get closer to the poem. 

Why was I so distracted by Swinburne at a Whistler exhibition?  Well, I am besotted with Victorian poetry.  The rhymes and meter!  The mythological subjects! The gloom and the melancholy!  

I don’t much like Swinburne’s”Before the Mirror” (which I read after the exhibition), but here are two stanzas from “The Garden of Proserpina,” in which Swinburne displays his hyper-gloom and obsession with death. 

She waits for each and other,
         She waits for all men born;
Forgets the earth her mother,
            The life of fruits and corn;
And spring and seed and swallow
Take wing for her and follow
Where summer song rings hollow
         And flowers are put to scorn.

There go the loves that wither,
         The old loves with wearier wings;
And all dead years draw thither,
         And all disastrous things;
Dead dreams of days forsaken,
Blind buds that snows have shaken,
Wild leaves that winds have taken,
         Red strays of ruined springs.

I love this poem – though pretty much everybody criticizes everything by Swinburne.  According to Kenneth Haynes in his introduction to the Penguin edition of Poems and Ballads & Atalanta in Calydon,  the reception of Swinburne’s poetry was often negative.  Robert Browning objected because the verses “combine the minimum of of thought and idea in the maximum of word and phraseology.”  Swinburne’s mother complained that her son didn’t know when to stop….  and Matthew Arnold was offended by ‘Swinburne’s fatal habit of using one hundred words where one would suffice.”   Some poets, of course, were in Swinburne’s corner: Thomas Hardy, Yeats, A. E. Housman, and Ezra Pound.

Swinburne is enchanting company, if you’re in the right mood. He experiments with meter:  according to the Penguin introduction, he wrote in 420 different verse forms – more than any other Victorian poet. 


After the exhibition, I looked for Swinburne in a London bookstores. My attitude was, Well, you never know.

And there it was – in the first store I entered!

It was the Penguin that I already have, but put this in perspective:  where I live – let us call it the wilds – you do not walk into a bookstore and find Swinburne.  No, you order it from Amazon, Abebooks, eBay, The Book Depository, etc. 

This is the point where I realized I was probably not living the life I was meant to live. My lips may have quavered as I wrote the following humorous entry in my diary, “You mean –  Londoners can walk into a bookstore and find poetry in the poetry section ?”  

Instead of National Poetry Month, we should have a Poetry Shopping Day.  Wouldn’t it be lovely if we all bought a poetry book on the same day and the bookstores had to replenish their poetry section?

The exhibition, Whistler’s Woman in White:  Joanna Hiffernan, will be at The National Gallery in Washington, D.C., July 3-Oct. 10.

Nowhere Woman: Self-Expression in the 21st Century

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

In the late 1960’s, my bourgeois family was killing me. While I lounged on the couch and read Charlotte Bronte, J. D. Salinger, and D. H. Lawrence, they sat in the finished basement watching Mission Impossible and The Big Valley. While I learned to read Tarot cards, they played cards. And there were the usual arguments about clothes: I hid my army jacket with the embroidered peace sign in the garage, because my mother thought it too tacky to wear to school.

I was critical of the educational system. I begged Mom to send me to Summerhill, a progressive school in England, but it was not going to happen when there were perfectly good public schools in town. At school I passed the days writing a journal and scribbling quotes from poetry and rock song lyrics. One day a music teacher busted me for not paying attention, and read aloud what I’d written about the meaninglessness of school. I was a hero for a day–a popular boy told me he admired my writing–but I was still humiliated. Once home I slammed into my room, cried a little, and picked up one of my comfort books, probably I Capture the Castle or Joan North’s The Whirling Shapes. And I looked for inspiration from a poster with a quote from Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata: “Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.”

There was a lot of noise and haste to filter out in those days. Poetry and rock songs helped. There was Emily Dickinson: “I am out with lanterns, looking for myself.” There was Charlotte Bronte: “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” Perhaps Edna St. Vincent Millay was my favorite:

My candle burns at both ends;
   It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
   It gives a lovely light!

Rock music was the glue that held my generation together. I adored the Beatles and was devastated when they broke up. I remember how excited I was the first time I heard “Hey Jude.” I would half-listen to the radio for hours just to hear that song. My favorite Beatles album, Rubber Soul, was frequently on the turntable. I loved “Nowhere Man,” though I was never, never, never, never going to be a “Nowhere Woman.”

Doesn’t have a point of view
Knows not where he’s going to
Isn’t he a bit like you and me?
Nowhere man please listen
You don’t know what you’re missing
Nowhere man, The world is at your command
Ah, la, la, la, la

I have begun to feel rather like Nowhere Woman, though. It has been a monotonous year of wearing masks, and I admit I don’t recognize my friends and acquaintances in their masks. I also seem unconsciously to have depended on lip-reading in conversation. Now I hear, “MUMBLE MUMBLE MUMBLE MUMBLE.” And that’s what they hear from me, too.

As for self-expression, we can’t see each other’s faces. This is a small complaint, but it’s time to get out the Emily Dickinson and the Beatles.

The Plague Notebook:  How to Be Happy

How to be happy isn’t really my field.  How not to be anxious is my  area of expertise.

Anxiety stings all of us in this time of the virus, but there are healing  balms. For instance, it is National Poetry Month, and it is delightful to read a poem a day, even though it might not cure all our dark thoughts.   My favorite American poet is Edna St. Vincent Millay, and in my hardcover copy of her Collected Poems,  there is still a  flower pressed on the page of my favorite poem, “Recuerdo..”

Here is the first of the three stanzas of “Recurerdo.”

We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable—
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon


Edna St. Vincent Millay, ’17

 I cannot tell you how remarkable and romantic I found this poem.  Emotionally I knew just how she felt, though I had never had the opportunitiy to ride back and forth all night on a ferry.  I concluded that I lived in the wrong part of the country for that romantic gesture, and would have to move to New York (which turned out to be very expensive, unless I wanted to live in a meatlocker). In the midwest I have happily ridden in a canoe, a rowboat (“Put your backs into it, lassses!”),  and a paddleboat.  None of these experiences belonged in poetry. 

After a non-poetic mini- breakdown  today,  I  went out to look at the gibbous moon.  It must be the first time I’ve looked at the moon since last fall.  There it was, glorious, pocked and shining.  “If only we could go to the moon,” I said, but Mr. Nemo reminded me, “We already have.” “No,  don’t mean that, I mean us. ”  But he was right:  this was our trip, gazing at a gibbous moon in a clear blue sky.

Actually, I feel claustrophobic just thinking about space travel, though Mr. Nemo assures me it would take only about four days. That doesn’t sound so bad, but wearing a space suit might be.  

Earth has plenty of compensations, after all.  “Who but God could make that rainbow?”  a woman once dreamily asked while we sheltered inside HyVee waiting for the rain to stop.  The rain drizzled to a stop, and an  incredible rainbow suddenly arched above the hill.  For a moment I understood what she meant about God.

That’s how I feel about the moon, actually. Who made that gorgeous thing?  But I’m not sure which god, if it was a god.  It was doubltless born out of chaos, like the Earth and the sky in Ovid’s creation myth , but I’d have to check to see where the moon comes in.  Anyway, the goddess Artemis/Diana is associated with the moon.  I’ll have to settle for her role, since I’m too tired to check my Metamorphoses.

I wonder, however, what god would bring a plague.  Actually, gods do behave badly in myths, and quite often they are unreasonable and violent in the Bible.  

Here’s what’s happening in the U.S. during our more-or-less month of lockdown.  You do your daily routine, and then you panic. It’s as predictable as the rising and setting of the sun. The day turns sour when you listen to the governor’s daily  Coronavirus update.  You are horrified by the escalation of  cases of infection  and the death toll.  We cry and feel angry and indignant.

But there is one endless source of joy.   Exercise! It makes all the difference. Going outside, whether to pace or take a walk or run is therapeutic, because, believe me, being  trapped indoors worsens the sense of helplessness.  And if you prefer to stay home, do stretching exercises for at leas 10 minutes.  It helps.  My shoulders have been very sore:   I wouldn’t miss my workout for anything.  It gets all the kinks out of my tense muscles.

This is a challenging time,  different from anything I’d anticipated.   I thought people would face more virulent illnesses and violent storms by 2030, the arbitrary date for the end of possibility for  climate change reversal.  Surely these topics will be addressed on Earth Day, April 22, though obviously it will be idone ndoors.  And let us hope we are much closer to finding  a cure to Covid-19. then  

Cheers!  This will pass.

Stay well!

An Idyllic Education, Dragons, & Reverse Scrabble

I spent a lot of time in this building.

I am a traditionalist.

After graduating from Hippie High, I was astonished to find the state university provided the inspiration and structure I needed.  I was spellbound by humanities, studied three languages,  relished the Renaissance, fell in love with Latin lyric poetry and Greek tragedy, and read nineteenth-century novels in my spare time.

And so I was intrigued by Ellen Fitzpatrick’s essay in the Atlantic, “Remembering the Bold Thinking of Hampshire College.”    This small experimental liberal arts college, founded in the late ’60s,  sounds idyllic.  Unfortunately Hampshire College is in financial trouble now.

Hampshire College

Here is her first paragraph:

It’s hard to believe that nearly a half century has passed since I stood on a hillside in South Amherst, Massachusetts, with Van Halsey, then Hampshire College’s director of admissions, gazing at the rolling green farmland that stretched out toward Hadley, Massachusetts. “That is where the college will be,” Halsey explained. I was 17 years old, entering my senior year of high school, and convinced that this largely invisible place—then mostly a collection of dreams and ideals—was the only college in the country where I wanted to study.

2. And now a change of subject:  dragons.  At Tor, Mari Ness discusses the fantasy elements in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight, the first novel in the Dragonriders of Pern series.

Here is Ness’s first paragraph.

In later interviews with press and fans, Anne McCaffrey would bristle at any attempt to classify  her Dragonriders of Pern series as fantasy. Her dragons, she pointed out, were genetically engineered animals ridden by descendants of space explorers, not magical elves. The language of Pern was not a creation of the author, but descended in a fairly straight line with only a few expected deviations from English and, after McCaffrey moved to Ireland, a few Irish cadences. The plots focused on the development and rediscovery of technology. Most importantly, the presence of dragons, fire lizards, and just a touch of telepathy aside, no one in her Pern books could do magic. They focused on technical solutions to their problems—the use of nitric acid; telegraph machines; metal tools and machines; bioengineered invertebrates; and, when possible, spaceships.

3. And for poetry lovers,  David Lehmann at The American Scholar proposes a prompt.

Reverse Scrabble is a prompt I invented last week. The aim is to derive as many words as possible from one given polysyllabic word and then integrate them artfully into a poem.

The word I suggest we use is operation.

Click on the link for his explanation.

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