Horizons far and near

The other day I rehung my whiteboard from vertical to horizontal and began to ponder what that meant.

Horizon is one of those words that has layers of meaning, whose connotation is at odds with its denotation. It’s from the old French orizante, which in turn can be traced further back to the Greek horizōn (kyklos) to bound, from horos – boundary. 

The horizon is what fences us in, forms the boundaries of our world. It is the vanishing point, the edge, beyond which we cannot see.

Yet we don’t think of it that way.

The horizon invites us to travel. It broadens our world rather than constricts it. We equate it with exploration, journeys, the promise of some El Dorado beyond our shores. 

I probably first learned the word horizon in elementary school, where it adorned the cover of one of our reading books. The Scott, Foresman Co. – the same outfit that published the Dick and Jane books, by which I learned to read – published a series of readers for elementary schools in the 1960s, the titles of which all related to journeys: Wide Horizons; Open Highways; Cavalcades.

I remember them viscerally but not in detail. They were large-format books with a series of stories, some factual, some fictional, many of which were supposed to impart some lesson, build our vocabularies, and strengthen reading comprehension. 

Besides their sometimes insipid content, the books turned reading into a chore by ending each selection with a series of questions or prompts designed to measure our recall and understanding.

Even at 8 or 10 years old, I understood these titles to be metaphorical, although I did not know the term. Reading was an adventure! It would take us on journeys to other lands, other peoples! 

There was a certain absurdity to the whole idea of widening our horizons with this pap. And as a child who had never even been to our state capital (Providence), my horizons were limited indeed.

In a literal sense, I couldn’t see far. Our old farmhouse was ringed by trees and a few other houses. My bedroom had a north-facing window, which looked over my mother’s garden and my father’s sawmill, and a west-facing one toward the winding road, a window so low you had to crouch to look through it.

When we occasionally ventured out, we did not travel far – to my grandmother’s house in a nearby hamlet, to the A&P for groceries, into town on Fridays so my father could visit the imposing, marble-floored bank.

The ocean lay just 10 miles to the south, but we rarely went there. In time I would grow to love the sweep of blue water that appeared to vanish into nothingness. But as a child it was a rare treat.

So of course whatever lurked in these books was unfamiliar. Whether their stories depicted fairy tales and foreign lands, or the seemingly ordinary suburban world of the 1960s, they were exotic to me. 

My father did not wear sweater vests and sit around smoking a pipe, as these “Dads” did, nor did he have a vague white-collar job to which he trundled an attache case every day. His work was physical, demanding, and ever-present. He came into the house sweaty, sunburned, and trailing sawdust from his pants cuffs. My mother scrubbed his green work pants with Lestoil to get out the pine pitch. 

She, too, did not conform neatly to the Scott, Foresman type. Although she wore aprons and toiled away in the kitchen, she would rather have been reading a novel or watching Mike Douglas than frying hamburgers or rolling out piecrust.

If I became an inveterate reader, it was not due to Scott, Foresman. I broadened my horizons with real books borrowed from the library. At first my mother took me to the one-room village library, where I selected Beatrix Potter and Dr. Seuss books for her to read aloud. Eventually I devoured the Nancy Drew series and children’s novels by E.B. White, Lois Lenski, and Mary Norton. 

These books did take me on journeys – the series by the pseudonymous Carolyn Keene brought me to a strange 1930s world where teenage girls drove roadsters and ate something called luncheon. E.B. White evolved naturally from Beatrix Potter’s trouser-clad rabbits. Lois Lenski introduced me to rural Florida in Strawberry Girl, and Mary Norton created a miniaturized world in The Borrowers series that was all too familiar to a powerless 11-year-old.

What was the difference between these books and our “readers”? Maybe it was simply the fact that I chose them. Taking them out of the school context, with no questions to answer at the end, also sparked the metaphorical journey that Scott, Foresman tried to replicate. 

Many of the Open Highways, Cavalcades, and Wide Horizons stories were by accomplished authors, like Corneila Meigs and Robert Louis Stevenson. That mattered little if they were assigned rather than discovered.

Eventually I traveled, literally and figuratively. In high school I finally saw Boston and New York, as an adult New Orleans and San Francisco. 

And my reading has taken me around the world. I have sledded with Sir Ernest Shackleton, climbed icebergs with John Muir, rafted down the Grand Canyon with John Wesley Powell. I have gone back in time to the London of Dickens and Pepys, the moors of the Bronte sisters, the Lake District of Wordsworth. I have been to the South Seas with Maugham and Stevenson, to India with Jhumpa Lahiri, to the Korean islands with Lisa See.

Today I live in that old farmhouse with its limited views. But with the right book, the horizon is always wide.

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Looking at three poets

When I think of this summer years from now, I will remember the squash. They held on longer than last year but now they are starting to die, eaten from within by borers and from without by caterpillars. We pick off the yellow pests daily and drown them in suds, a ritual inherited from my mother. I can see her now, snatching at Japanese beetles and dropping them into a jar of water and Ivory soap shavings.

We’ve had three summer squash, one zucchini, and two large squashes that turned out to be the decorative ones I planted. How depressing. Who can’t grow zucchini? 

This has also been the summer of poets. I read their biographies with a student’s eye, hoping not to be disillusioned. William Carlos Williams, Theodore Roethke, Wallace Stevens – the giants of the 20th century. But of course I am, disillusioned that is.

Williams, whose work I’ve taught and admired – the great physician doctor looking out the sickroom window at a red wheelbarrow, scribbling poems on prescription pads, ushering his English grandmother into an ambulance – is not brilliant enough for his biographer, Reed Whittemore. He’s also fixated on T.S. Eliot, whom he hates with a vitriol all out of proportion to Eliot’s weaknesses. Williams, who famously said that “The Waste Land” landed like an atom bomb and blew up every other poet’s work, should have just kept doing his own thing and left the emigrant to his adopted country.

Roethke of course was mentally ill, which anyone reading “In a Dark Time” could have figured out, but  Allan Seager’s generous biography, The Glass House, paints a picture of a man so focused he could continue to write and correspond from his hospital bed. But maybe I didn’t need to know that he slept in a cocoon of blankets, sweating so much he went through dozens of pajamas a week.

Which brings us to Paul Mariani’s The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens. Williams I have loved as an adult, Roethke I discovered as a teenager, but Stevens? Other than that he worked for an insurance company in Hartford, he made little impression. Yet we read him in ENG 253, and I dutifully marked up “Sunday Morning” and “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.” (“Carpe diem philosophy,” I jotted on the latter.)

Reading The Whole Harmonium and Mariani’s delicious analysis, I puzzled over why I never connected to Stevens. “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” has no clothes, I thought wryly. But why? Was it his obscure language, his opaque references? Because Mariani makes me want to like him; his criticism is perhaps more than Stevens deserves.

I was struck by how Stevens privileged imagination over reality. He believed, Mariani wrote, “there were realities like summer nights which so closely resembled the way we imagined summer nights to be ‘that in their presence, the realist and the man of imagination become one’” (249). I had to stop reading for a bit after that. What is the function of imagination? It is what makes us human. It also helps us create our own reality; think of it simply as consciousness with point of view. And what is memory but an act of imagination? That is, a reimagining of an experience we already have begun to order and re-order each time we revisit it.

Personally, Stevens is often an ass. In Key West, he gets in a fistfight with Hemingway, who knocks him for a loop. Those “business trips” to Florida, sans his wife, are little more than an excuse to carouse on an expense account. When his family objects to his marriage he cuts them off, cold, and then later acts surprised when his daughter asserts her independence just as he had. And within his challenging poetic vocabulary and arcane metaphors is contempt for his readers: He admits to one interviewer that he doesn’t care if they don’t get it.

But I keep coming back to that quote about the imagination. Take our squash, for example. Williams would see it as a repository for his observations: So much depends/upon … Roethke would get down and dirty with the roots, crawl around with those borers and hand them back to us in all their primordial squirmings. But what would Stevens do?

He would not, I think, rely on conventional symbols. He would not just tell us about the dew on the blossoms, or even the soft smear of yellow the dead caterpillar leaves on our fingers. He would find something else, not as dark as Roethke perhaps, and more inscrutable than Williams. Whatever he found in those dying tendrils, it would be uniquely his own. It might nod at reality (our sensory experience of squash) but privilege imagination (what else is on his mind this summer day?). If it seems like a puzzle, that’s only because we’re out of tune with him, he would say; the reader will or won’t figure it out as his wont. What he would not do is give us a dying vine that is predictable, superficial, and benign.

You don’t have to be a poet to take some writing lessons from all this. It was Stevens, after all, whose poem “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” informs Jane Smiley’s “13 Ways of Looking at the Novel,” her seminal text on writing with its exhaustive analysis of not 13 but more than 100 novels. 

Stevens was a poet of imagination, not reality, yet that may be the only reality we have. Knowing this, we can enter his fictive world more readily, and find the poetry on our own.

Further reading

Mariani, Paul. “The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens.” Simon & Schuster, 2016.

Seager, Allan. “The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke.” McGraw Hill Book Co., 1968.

Whittemore, Reed. “William Carlos Williams: Poet from Jersey.” Houghton Mifflin Co., 1975.

Roethke, Theodore. “In a Dark Time.” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43347/in-a-dark-time  

Stevens, Wallace. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45236/thirteen-ways-of-looking-at-a-blackbird 

——————–. “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45234/the-emperor-of-ice-cream 

______________. “Sunday Morning.” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/13261/sunday-morning 

Williams, William Carlos. “The Red Wheelbarrow.” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45502/the-red-wheelbarrow 

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My own private cafe

I miss writing in public.

Like my favorite cafe, Dave’s Coffee, where an iced tea and a chocolate chip cookie over a couple of hours could get me to 1,200 words on my novel.

Set in an 18th-century saltbox house on a rise above Route 1 in our small beachfront town, Dave’s is no Starbucks. The bathroom door barely locks, the floors are bumpy and scarred, and the beehive ovens hold bottles of coffee syrup instead of cordwood. 

In the summer it’s crowded with people coming in off the highway for a bathroom break and a latte. The line is often out the door. Even on a rainy day in winter, it can be hard to find a seat.

On my last day there, in March, I had the place mostly to myself. The staff busily wiped down tables and doorknobs. We all knew the shutdown was coming, but we were trying to stall it as long as we could. 

All I love about Dave’s – the funky décor; the tables so cozy you could follow anyone’s conversation if you were so inclined; the friendly staff – lends itself to neither sterility nor social distancing. In fact, my favorite cafe is the opposite of social distancing. It’s a nest of people familiar and strange, all crammed together, a combination that helps me to enter a writing trance. 

I have written in other places. The cafeteria at the community college where I teach. The grand reception room at our regional library. Neither is open now. It will be a long time before I can write in public again.

So instead I’ve tried to make writing spaces at home. Because I do so much freelancing at my desk, I don’t always look forward to writing there. Sometimes I move to my red office chair, although it’s hell on the shoulders. Or the patio, where an umbrella creates some shade.

But as of this afternoon I have a new writing nook. It’s faintly European – a small table and two metal chairs, set  in the middle of our flower meadow. My own cafe among the coreopsis and black-eyed Susans and Queen Anne’s lace. 

Unlike the patio, this space is hidden from the road. It’s just far enough from the house where I feel like I’ve entered a different world. And I am surrounded by beauty – purple tufts of bee balm, a darting catbird, sunlight dappling the black walnut leaves.

No conversations for eavesdropping; my iced tea, I confess, is from Dunkin’ Donuts. The only buzz is from the bees. But I think I’m going to get some work done here.

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American lit of another syllabus, in another lifetime

In my sophomore year at Keene State College I took Eng 253, American Literature. Because I save everything, I still have most of my notes, tests and papers from that class; because I now teach literature, I am interested in what I learned then; and because the academy’s approach to the subject has changed since 1979, I am curious about what I was taught.

The instructor, Professor Richard E. Cunningham, was a stickler. He served as dean of the college a few times, and he was a scholar of the old school – according to the syllabus, he would flunk you if you missed more than three classes. I vividly remember that when I skipped class to circulate the student newspaper one week, upon my return he gave me an icy stare.

About that syllabus: It was one page, a list by class date of the authors we would discuss and dates of tests (what he called “examinations”). That was it. Oh, and we had to write one 5- to 7-page paper only vaguely mentioned at the bottom.

But what a list it was. We read five novels: The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway, The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald, The Sound and the Fury by Faulkner, The Professor’s House by Willa Cather, and Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis. (I should say 4.5, because I never made it all the way through Elmer Gantry.)

That was not all. There was poetry: T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” e.e. cummings, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Edna St. Vincent Millay. 

William Carlos Williams was at the bottom of the syllabus and got crossed off. Even the toughest professors sometimes don’t get to everything.

My class notes are detailed, fairly neat, with only occasional doodles. Cunningham introduced each author with some contextual information and a brief biography. “Eliot was conservative; man must control his feelings – unbridled emotions are evil,” I wrote. Edna St. Vincent Millay “was flip in public – a pose” and “fits into this advanced feminist world” of the 1920s and 1930s. Willa Cather’s books “dealt with rugged character of pioneers, mostly immigrants[,] then began to write about the past.” They were “a conservative response to the times she lived in.”

Cunningham was erudite; he could talk about anything; I don’t remember him reading from notes, as some professors did. Some of the names he dropped, such as Joseph Wood Krutch, I had heard of, but others, like Frederick Lewis Allen, I jotted in the margins to look up later.

Even when he gave me an A, there was always a “but.” The review sheet for one test listed 11 possible areas we would be expected to discuss, in four essays and more than a dozen short answers. 

Here are some examples: “Discuss the East-West motif in Gatsby.” “Discuss the view of the South in The Sound and the Fury; how does Faulkner depict the Southerners?” “Show [the] thematic function of three allusions in The Waste Land.”

My paper was on Faulkner’s Sartoris. Only the rough draft has survived: “In Sartoris, Faulkner’s third novel, he uses the character of Byron Snopes to contrast the changing role [sic] of the Southern male and female and how the old chivalric ideals of Southern romance have been debased.”

Most of the class discussion was thematic, but we were expected to have a command of such terms as naturalism, realism, and imagism, and figurative language such as metonymy, synecdoche, simile and metaphor. 

Here are some American writers we did not read: the Southern writers that I loved, including Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, and Carson McCullers. Any writers of color, including Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Claude McKay and Langston Hughes. 

If anyone had questioned Dr. Cunningham’s selections, his response probably would have been that he selected the most influential writers since 1900 (in fact, the class had a discrete time period that I’ve forgotten). 

That they were, in fact, probably the same writers he had studied at Notre Dame and the University of Illinois in the 1950s and 1960s did not concern him. In fact, a revolution was taking place right under our noses but you would not have known it – influential writers like Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, Toni Morrison and Erica Jong were on best-seller lists, not syllabi.

I do not condemn Dr. Cunningham for his choices, however. His approach could have been broader, but it could have been worse (he at least had some women in there). 

While he could have explored Faulkner’s attitudes toward race further, he did not shy away from the racial and feminist themes in any of these works. 

He noted “Hemingway’s treatment of women as mindless,” the anti-Semitism of Jason in The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner’s romanticization of the black servant Dilsey as “anti-intellectual,” natural, an idealization.

My approach to a similar introductory literature course isn’t perfect either. I include far more women and writers of color than Cunningham did, including Sandra Cisneros, Ralph Ellison, Claude McKay, and Julia Alvarez. But I’m still teaching many white 20th-century writers, including Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Theodore Roethke, and Eugene O’Neill. (And I always leave room for William Carlos Williams.)

Some of these texts are problematic. Faulkner and O’Connor use derogatory terms for black people as a matter of course; Faulkner, as part of his realism, O’Connor satirically. But should we subject students to these words, even when foregrounded with context? Other writers, including Roethke, have been criticized for ignoring race altogether. 

Each semester I ask my students what they think. I introduce them to the idea of the Western canon, and then ask them to evaluate the works on the syllabus. Their answers are not the only criterion for what I include the following semester, but they are taken into account.

These introductory literature courses are like overstuffed suitcases. What do we absolutely need to bring on this trip? What did we leave home last time? How have our needs changed? 

The instructor still needs to pack in all those literary terms and “isms” while exposing students to as many writers as possible. The suitcase always feels too heavy to carry. But each time we unpack it, we learn a little bit more about what it should include – and what to leave home next time.

Notes from the first day of English 253, Sept. 5, 1979.

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The summer house

In my childhood, summer vacation meant a break from school – lounging around the house drinking iced tea and reading; playing Monopoly with neighborhood friends; walking to our tiny village center for the mail and a bag of penny candy. 

It was only through novels that I understood some people had “summer houses” on lakes or the ocean where they spent the whole season. In books like “All the Best People” by Sloan Wilson (set in Lake George) and “The Catherine Wheel” by Jean Stafford (Maine), I was introduced to this world of genteel privilege. 

I felt not resentment but longing: Wouldn’t it be great to have a summer house of my own, where I could settle into the rhythm of long hot days and twilit nights? I imagined reading in an Adirondack chair or writing on a screened-in porch. 

The summer between high school and college, I had a taste of this life from my own lower class perspective. I was the live-in companion to an elderly single woman. Margaret was frail, querulous, and, I suspect, mentally ill, and my job was to keep up her apartment, cook her meals, and indulge whatever anxiety she was experiencing at the moment. 

It was not pretty. She had bizarre obsessions: She would pick her nose to make it bleed, and then claim she was going to bleed to death and demand I call the doctor. When she defecated my job was to go into the bathroom, view the results, and praise her lavishly, as one would a toilet-training child. I also had to clean the commode she used at night.

From Monday morning to Friday evening I remained captive there, and by July I was going a little batty myself. I cried every day.

But then: reprieve. Each summer her sister, Harriet, invited Margaret to the family summer house in a nearby seaside hamlet, so in August off we both went. Unheated, the rambling house had a bay view, a lovely yard of perennials, and all sorts of accouterments of late Victorian leisure: a claw-foot tub, a soapstone sink, and a wrap-around porch where we ate cucumber sandwiches in the afternoon.

The setting was heavenly, but I was not meant to enjoy it. During the day I read to Margaret and tried to keep her calm. My duties now included rising at 6:30 to bring Harriet’s breakfast tray upstairs and helping Susan, the miserable old cook, in the kitchen. 

So when I slipped across the street one afternoon to wade in the water while Margaret napped – my only break that day, or any day – there was hell to pay when I got back. Susan met me at the door demanding to know where I’d been. Margaret, it seems, had awoken and was pestering her sister with a litany of imagined ills while I was off beachcombing.

Harriet followed me upstairs and in her gentle but imperious way (think Cora on “Downton Abbey”) let me know I was not free to come and go. It was an ugly scene. 

Thus I learned early that for some to have leisure, others must toil. A gardener sweated over the foxglove and peony beds. Susan, who had only Wednesday afternoons off, toiled over a hot stove. My job five days a week, 24 hours a day, was to deal with Margaret. 

The lifestyle these two women led, funded by inherited wealth, was on the wane. The houses of this summer colony were slowly being sold off and winterized, their real estate too valuable to support one seasonal visit each year. 

And it was difficult to get help, which was probably why Harriet didn’t can me on the spot for my transgression. After Susan – who was no spring chicken – passed, who would be willing to give up their entire life save Wednesday afternoons to sweep, scrub and cook all day? 

The summer house continued to hold allure. The closest I would come would be a week’s vacation – at Lake George for a couple of years and then a seasonal return to a rustic cabin in New Hampshire with our children. But that is a story for another day.

I read Sloan Wilson’s novel in the summer of 1974, when I was 14.

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Reading May Sarton in May

My reading this spring had been academic, for a biography I am researching, or compulsory, novels for reviews. But now with the semester over I had come not to a writing block but a reading block, that moment when your bookmark in the latest volume just refuses to move a page. I had to do something.

So I roamed my own library, looking for escapist adventure, a journey story of someone tramping across the Arctic or climbing mountains or traveling across the country in a covered wagon. I own plenty of such books. I thumbed through a few and even eyed my well-thumbed copy of John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley.”

Nothing satisfied. And then I spotted May Sarton.

I first read May Sarton when I was newly married and a new mother. I don’t remember which book I discovered first; it might have been one of the novels, “Kinds of Love” or “The Birth of a Grandfather.” But I think it was “Journal of a Solitude,” the first of the journal memoirs about the house she leased in York, Maine beginning in 1973. I was instantly captivated by the intimacy of her voice, her acknowledgement of her deepest anxieties (though she remained almost pathologically blind to her own faults), and crystalized vision. And though we had nothing in common – she was single, childless, a lesbian, Belgian by birth and still somewhat European in her thinking – she related her inner life with such exactitude it didn’t matter. That is precisely the reason why her fans were male, female, straight, gay, religious, agnostic, and from every corner of the globe. She spoke to the human heart.

So I picked up “At Seventy,” the journal written in 1982-83 and published two years later. Instantly I was cocooned back inside May’s seaside world in that rambling house, Wild Knoll, where she slept on the second floor listening to the sea and wrote from the third floor with a view of the same. Here again were her two pets and walking companions, the faithful dog Tamas and the bird-killer Bramble. A whole host of friends came and went – women she had loved, neighbors whom she depended on, fellow writers and artists who nourished her soul.

Familiar, too, were the wild swings of her moods, which were never her fault – the friendships ruined by her outburts and crying fits, the door slamming, the angry phone calls, the obsessions with women who often were neither gay nor interested. But it’s a package deal: If you want to step into May Sarton’s inner life, her musings about art and roses, you have to accept the tempestuous and irrational mind in which they lived.

It has become a cliché to say that we never read the same book twice, because we as readers have changed. Certainly at 60 I am not the same woman I was at 30, with a new baby and a husband who worked nights, leaving me a scarce hour in the evening to read.

For one thing, I know more about writers and writing than I did then. Although I had read Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse” in my twenties, I had yet to read any of Woolf’s other books, biographies of her, her letters or her journals. Now, with a little more of that background, I was keenly interested in May’s tea times with Virginia, who never gave the newly published poet and novelist the plaudits she sought. How ironic that Woolf would write to Sarton in the way May herself years later reacted to such need: “I was glad to get your letter, in spite of the request you make in it; and in spite of the fact I have no time to answer it.” (Sarton was trying to get the Hogarth Press interested in a friend’s manuscript, actually, not her own.)

I find myself underlining and commenting on Sarton in the margins, a habit I had not developed at 30. I was mostly reading library books then that could not be annotated. Now I freely underline and comment, and as I ranged through “At Seventy” to “After the Stroke” and “Endgame,” I took up pencil in hand.

In “Endgame,” Sarton’s close look at a daffodil – “When you think about it, we almost never pay absolute attention” – reminded me of what Georgia O’Keeffe wrote: “Still – in a way – nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.” At 30 I knew little more about O’Keeffe than she painted desert flowers. Now I could have a conversation with May about just this.

And when Sarton wrote about New Mexico, where she met her longtime companion Judy Matlack, the “gentle, magnificent” Sangre de Cristo mountains instantly brought to mind Edwin Way Teale, who evokes them so vividly in “Journey into Summer,” the second volume in his Pulitzer-winning “Seasons” series of journeys across America. So the more we read, the more writers talk to each other – even when there is no evidence they were acquainted.

Mostly, reading May, I am rooting for her still, although she died 25 years ago. I want her to feel some of the equanimity she had in “At Seventy,” when she “look[ed] forward with joy to the years ahead and especially to the surprises that any day may bring.” By the end of that book she has met another would-be lover and is writing poems again, which would be collected in “Letters from Maine” the same year “At Seventy” was published. This is from the title poem:

“Read between the lines./Then meet me in the silence if you can,/The long silence of winter when I shall/Make poems out of nothing, out of loss,/And at times hear your healing laughter.”

And this is from the last poem in the collection, “This Image is a Garden”:

“This self has lately come to solitude/Who long demanded love as source and prime./Now the wild garden and the ragged wood,/And the uncharted winter’s fallow time/Become the source and the true reservoir:/Look for my love in the autumn flower.”

The more miserable Sarton was, the more unrequited her love for the new woman (a fan, a stranger), the better her poetry. The lesson Sarton had to learn, over and over again, was to make her own inspiration, as Emerson said.

The next decade was a trial, both emotionally and physically. As her powers waned, Sarton resorted to speaking her journal into a tape recorder to be transcribed later. She was in pain virtually every day and though she pressed her doctors for answers – surely May Sarton was not a passive patient – they paid little attention as she lost 50 pounds and spent every day in agony. She died on July 16, 1995. The breast cancer that had first struck her in 1979 had metastasized.

When she agreed to be interviewed by Margot Peters for a biography, she did so only on the condition it be released after her death. Dipping back into the biography, published in 1997, I can see why. Peters clearly detested her. There’s plenty of evidence that May was a difficult, even manic person, that she used people, that she was self-absorbed. But Peters concludes that May mistook knowing great people for greatness, which seems unnecessarily harsh. In the last paragraph of the biography, she flat-out declares that May Sarton “will never be considered a great writer.”

Perhaps not. But she was a good one, and her poetry, novel and journals touched many people and encouraged them to think more deeply about the world. I think it would please her to know in this time of isolation that the world she wrote about so evocatively at Wild Knoll can still provide so much succor for readers, even the second time around.

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The folly of a summer plan

The morning after spring semester ends has become a ritual. I look ahead to the writing summer, that great blank dune of sand to be written on, the palimpsest of seasons past. Grades done, papers filed away, my office loses the trappings of teaching and slowly dons more creative feathers. 

My mind does the same: the space occupied by instruction plans, student papers, and institutional emails opens up, ready for a new kind of work.

This transition has a familiarity to it, so much so that if I look back on journals past I almost always spend an entry marking the occasion:

May 17, 2019: “First day of break. Here is where I will establish my summer routine.”

May 11, 2018: “Another semester in the books. Whew. Celebrating with a cookie and an iced tea at Dave’s.” Well, that won’t be happening this year – at least not in person.

May 12, 2017: “At Bagelz treating myself to a sandwich and a (very strong) iced tea. Trying to get myself into a mediative state of mind.” Is there a pattern here?
May 17, 2016: “So the writing summer begins! Yahoo.”

After the obligatory celebration, I usually get down to business. What do I hope to accomplish? What can I get done in a span of time that is, after all, only a few months?

2019: “I would feel more purposeful if I had a novel to immerse myself in. I haven’t quite figured out where to get back into Moonshine Swamp. I’m feeling somewhat immobilized by it.” Although I did work on that novel, I spent most of the summer on a freelance history project.

2018: “Trying to get in touch with Waller Lewis and his kinds of happiness. Maybe we should start with his kinds of unhappiness.” Another novel, started in 2013, that has yet to go anywhere. Most of my summer energy went toward an ultimately successful hunt for an agent.

2017: “… I will be in my office every day without fail. New habits will be formed. My subconscious will have its party.” I was rewriting my historical novel about three sisters.

2016: “Looking at my mother’s poem, ‘Surf Off Weekapaug,’ I wonder what poem I would write under that title. … Is that the title of my book? Surf Off Weekapaug. Clouds Off LeConte. Lightning Off Florida. I also like that line in it – ‘the troubled story’ – ‘we stare upon the troubled story’ – everything I write has been a troubled story.” I was deep into the Sisters book.

2015: “Still, despite the prologue, wondering where to begin with Louise. Should she be deeper into the journey at the start? Do I need a scene earlier on?” It would take four years to figure out the beginning of this book, and by then “Louise” would be “Meredith.”

To be fair, there has to be a reckoning in August. What did I actually do? Was I feeling positive about the gleanings of summer, or in despair of all the work left undone?
Aug. 21, 2019: “Well, I did some revisions on Lenore’s C. 6. I’m not sure if it’s working, but I think it’s a little better, and just the act of thinking about the book and making a few changes is gratifying.” After the bitter news from my agent that her boss thought the novel had serious voice problems, I was grappling with a  solution. But I also had a new project: “Caroline Hazard remains vividly, almost obsessively, on my mind.” I had been reading about the Wellesley president all summer in hopes of writing a biography.

Aug. 28, 2018: “The memoir will be next. And (as I take a little hiatus from thinking about it) I know how much effort it will take. This will be deeper writing – more elegant – writing for the long haul. I have to throw everything I have at it. This is for Mary Jane. For Andi, for my parents. This has to be good, as good as I can make it. This is sacred writing. There’s always another novel – somehow I feel that way – but there will only be another shot at this, and it must soar.”  After a summer researching my sister’s death in an accident at 19, I felt burdened by grief and my own expectations. I put the documents – police report, death certificate, news clippings – into a box and did not look at them again.

Aug. 22, 2017: “I have a travel piece in the Journal, a review coming out in the Times, but there’s no money in this. The compensation does not – ha! – compensate! – for the mental energy and time. Which must be counted as time away from my other writing.”

Aug. 24, 2016: “I think the book is done. Oh, it will need rewriting. But it’s solid in its form … I should feel emotional, but somehow I don’t.” The Sisters book. Yes, it needed much rewriting.

Aug. 28, 2015: “I haven’t written [in the journal] in quite some time because I’ve been working on the novel.” The Sisters book.

So, there is no real reckoning. Because we are always in the writing moment, looking ahead. There is no crossing-off of tasks the way I keep track of freelance work or household chores. And my expectations and focus continually changes. Emerson said, “The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks.” How true that is. In the last five years I did finish the Sisters book (which has gone nowhere), and 15 chapters of Moonshine Swamp. I have a binder full of research on Caroline Hazard. But that box of family tragedy still sits in the hall closet. Waller Lewis floats around in my head from time to time, seeking purchase in a plot that doesn’t want to come. The Sisters book needs yet another point-of-view correction.

There is no beginning or end. There is just the work. So the summer begins.

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Travels of the Mind

Two contrary news items struck me yesterday. Both speak to how the creative person can cope in this time of isolation.

The New York Times carried a story about three elderly people who are thriving in this forced quarantine. One of them was the literary agent Sterling Lord, a legend in the publishing business. Lord is 99 years old, and in the midst of starting a new agency. How’s that for optimism? One of his clients is centenarian Lawrence Ferlinghetti, equally legendary beat poet and founder of City Lights bookstore in San Francisco.

The reporter also interviewed Janet Wasserman, 85, a historian who is researching a Dutch forger who inspired the titular character in Patricia Highsmith’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” And she’s doing it all online.

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/24/nyregion/coronavirus-elders-nyc.html

Lord, Wasserman, and theater producer Gordon Rogoff, 88 – who’s spending his time catching up on Jane Austen – all demonstrate that for some people, internal engagement is more important than external motion. Whether using online archives, video conferencing or the low-tech hardcover book, they demonstrate that isolation is, well, all in the mind.

Which brings me to the second tidbit. On Instragram I scrolled across a post from country singer/songwriter Miranda Lambert, who just purchased a retro RV and plans to travel in it with her husband – seeing the country in a way that rushing down an interstate in a tour bus does not afford.

My first thought was, “Imagine the contribution she’s going to make to the American songbook.” Fans may love her voice, which can go from soft crooner to edgy rocker in a beat, but Lambert also is a talented songwriter. My favorite is “Automatic,” that paeon to the past that brings in everything from driving stick to using a Rand McNally road atlas in assessing just how far we haven’t come.

It may seem contrary, these two reactions to the coronavirus lockdown. On the one hand, we have an aging writer, agent, and theater producer remaining engaged from the confines of their homes. Then we have Lambert, who can afford to travel in retro high style while maintaining her social distancing. 

I think, for example, of Emerson’s metaphor of travel in “Self-Reliance.” In this classic essay he writes, “Our minds travel when our bodies are forced to stay at home.” If that isn’t a motto for the Lost Year of the Pandemic, I don’t know what is. 

But Emerson equates the traveling mind as a loss of the self, of imitation. I think the mind can travel in positive ways; it can remain in motion while all else stagnates around it. 

Stagnation and motion are key here. To stagnate is from the Latin root, stagnum, “a piece of standing water.” Consider what happens to water that doesn’t circulate. Robbed of oxygen, it grows putrefied, full of algae and other stinky growths. We all know about internal putrefaction. Without light or air, our thoughts can grow repetitive, paranoid, and dark. 

We need the opposite of stagnation, which is flow. Flow equals motion. Our thoughts, like rippling water, need to move; whether cascading or trickling, they must circulate if we are to remain engaged and creative. 

To change the metaphor, think of blood circulation. Without it, we would die; absent metaphoric circulation, our thoughts congeal and our best ideas perish.

And so I examine why I was so drawn to these two contrary coronavirus responses. Is it possible to practice both Sterling Lord’s active quarantined mind – traveling metaphorically – while longing for Miranda Lambert’s literal journey into America? I think it is.

Emerson journeyed abroad after his first wife Ellen’s death, and although he denigrated the old country idols, that trip in 1832-33 to Italy, France, England and Scotland energized him. In the span of a few days, he met the poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the essayist Thomas Carlyle, who would become a lifelong correspondent and friend. The trip crystallized his ideas about the need for a new American intellectual identity.

Thus in “Self-Reliance” he distinguishes between travel “for the purposes of art, of study, and benevolence,” contrasted with the philistine who “travels to be amused, or to get somewhat which he does not carry,” a traveler who thus “carries ruins to ruins.” 

I may be imposing my own ideas on a country singer’s journey, but I do not see Miranda Lambert traveling simply for amusement. Her mind is too finely tuned to the world for that. Like John Steinbeck or Henry Miller, she will feel the need to report back on what she sees and hears. 

At home in my office, I embrace these contradictions. My mind continues to circulate. Like Wasserman, I’ve found the internet a fruitful source of research for my biography of Wellesley President Caroline Hazard. Like Rogoff, my head is often in a book. And like Lord, I’ve found my day job of teaching can be accomplished from home. 

But like Lambert, I yearn for the inspiration of literal motion too. My creativity bulletin board this month illustrates this longing. Past destinations, from Florida to Yosemite, tease with their memories, while future ones beckon: New Mexico and Mount Rushmore, Barcelona and Edinburgh. For now, I can only dream, but dreams are the travel agent of the mind.

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Getting my cinematic education

In the late 1970s Westerly (R.I.) had a little arthouse cinema called The Wayfarer. Now the home of a Mexican restaurant, this narrow building had not been designed to show movies. Folks sat at small tables in a long room with a screen at the end; if you were short, you had to be careful how you positioned yourself.

It was at the Wayfarer that I discovered a whole world of cinema outside the two-screen suburban theaters that had sprung up all over America. I began to get my movie education, seeing the classic films that had never come to our antenna-bound television.

My friend Richard Whitman introduced me to the Wayfarer. Brilliant, sardonic, and a savant of literature, music, and film, he had skipped a grade to join our Class of 1978. He was a dear friend, not a boyfriend, and we stayed in touch after high school, when Richard was at UMass and I was at Keene State.

That winter of our senior year in high school, he often invited me over to his house, where he lived with his divorced mother. Sometimes he would make us dinner, and afterwards he would play guitar on his front step – Dan Fogelberg and Neil Young.

But we also went out a lot, and one of our favorite destinations was the Wayfarer. Here he introduced me to film noir, the Marx brothers, and Hitchcock. At the Wayfarer I first saw “Casablanca,” “Rain” with a young Joan Crawford as Sadie Thompson, and “Monkey Business.”

Richard liked the Marx Brothers more than I did, but a night out was a night out. The classic black-and-white movies held me in thrall, especially Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” which we had just read in Mr. Cohen’s English class, and “Double Indemnity” with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. I loved the shadowy camera shots and smoldering-eyed heroines.

The closest to this I’d seen on TV was the haunting “The Spiral Staircase,” about a creepy killer who stalks a mute woman and imagines she has no mouth. This 1946 film occasionally showed up on the Saturday matinee rotation and was guaranteed to give me nightmares.

Before the Wayfarer, I hadn’t given much thought to my cinematic ignorance. I didn’t set foot in a commercial movie theater until I was 13 years old (on a school field trip, to see “Sounder” with Cicely Tyson), and I hadn’t had much chance to develop a film aesthetic. (In truth, my favorite movie was “Smokey and the Bandit.”)

Six months later I was in college. In the Mabel Brown Room of the Keene State Student Union, I saw “Psycho” for the first time. At Brattleboro’s Latchis Theater, I was introduced to Bergman (“Smiles of a Summer Night”).

But the movie that made the deepest impression on me in these years was a 1967 documentary, Frederick Wiseman’s “Titicut Follies.” The fact that I saw it all was a miracle, because a judge had ruled that only professionals and students in certain fields could watch it after a suit by the state of Massachusetts. Somehow Keene State’s progressive film club managed to get a copy and opened the showing to the campus at large. 

Wiseman, in his typical immersive style, spent nearly a month filming the inmates at Bridgewater State Hospital. The title comes from a variety show they put on, an ironic distraction from their otherwise abused and neglected existence. The movie was shocking in a way even Hitchcock could not rival. Naked prisoners were taunted, roughed up, and force fed; no wonder the state tried to keep the movie out of circulation. 

That we could be watching this grim realism one week and “Rocky Horror Picture Show” the next did not faze me. It was all part of the great cultural stew of college, where movies, books, music, and ideas came flying at us from every direction. I could never hope to know as much about anything as Richard did, but I had come a long way from my “Ma and Pa Kettle” days.

Gradually, Richard and I lost touch, and when I learned he had died suddenly (in his 40s), I was filled with dismay. I remember him fondly, and the great times we had in a funky makeshift theater watching Groucho Marx yuk it up with Margaret Dumont.

Note: A judge ruled “Titicut Follies” should be released to general distribution in 1991 and it is now available on DVD.

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A nostalgic look at TV movies

These days we have access to a vast catalog of movies, through streaming and on-demand, but when I was growing up the choices were slim.

The Saturday matinee on TV rotated through the local channels’ slim selection. Francis the Talking Mule, Ma and Pa Kettle, Tarzan the Ape Man and Abbott & Costello pretty much covered it.

There was also an obscure 1952 film called “It Grows on Trees,” about a family who finds its new saplings sprout $5 bills; one local station showed this movie over and over and over. It appealed to me because my mother was always saying she wished money grew on trees.

The Ma and Pa Kettle series was my favorite, and I waited eagerly for Percy Kilbride as Pa to change the radio station by moving his rocking chair. I thought that was hysterical.

The Kettles were characters introduced by Betty McDonald in her memoir, “The Egg and I,” about the years she spent chicken farming in Washington state with her first husband. I discovered the book when I was 13 and promptly gobbled up its sequels, “The Plague and I,” about her battle with tuberculosis, and “Onions in the Stew,” about settling on a remote island with her daughters and second husband. (There’s another book between, “Anybody Can Do Anything,” which I did not know at the time.) While some of the humor is forced, particularly on more serious subjects, McDonald had a wry outlook fueled by keen observation.

The advent of the TV movie stepped up my film game. The genre began in the 1960s but it was the early 1970s before my mother would let me stay up to watch the ABC “Movie of the Week” or the mini-series that later became popular. TV movies, often dealing with serious subjects and filmed by talented directors (Steven Speilberg had his debut in 1971 with “Duel”), made a deep impression on me. I often mentioned them in my little five-year diaries, and I’ve no doubt they contributed both to my fictional imagination and my nightmares.

“Duel,” of course, is now a classic. I watched it twice – when it premiered, on Nov. 13, 1971, and when it was repeated exactly a year later. I noted it was “really scary.” Dennis Weaver stars as a sort of Everyman (his name is “David Mann”) in a cheap car crossing the Western desert, when he absently passes an aging oil tanker on a rural highway. The truck driver, who is never shown, becomes enraged and begins to tail him; gradually it dawns on Mann that the driver means to kill him. The ending left me flummoxed, and I wondered if it were really a man behind the truck’s wheel.

Fright was often a feature of these movies. There was the ensemble piece, “Home for the Holidays,” starring Eleanor Parker, Jill Haworth and Sally Field as three sisters who gather at the family estate to discover their father (Walter Brennan, in his last screen role) believes his young wife (Julie Harris) is trying to kill him. It had all the gothic trappings I already loved: old house, family trouble, mystery and murder.

TV movies often had casts of stars who had aged out of the “hip” films being released to theaters. Thus we find Bette Davis in the horror film “Scream, Pretty Peggy.” Rex Harrison in “The Adventures of Don Quixote.” Susan Hayward in “Say Goodbye, Maggie Cole.” They lended TV cinema a certain cachet.

TV movies also gave full-time work to a host of emerging stars, such as Cloris Leachman, Martin Sheen, Sally Field, William Devane and Meredith Baxter Birney.

And what movies they were. Adaptations of great literature abounded. TV movies were made of Steinbeck’s “The Red Pony,” “Tom Sawyer,” Edward Everett Hale’s “The Man Without a Country,” “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” and “Great Expectations,” to name only a few. Some TV movies became instant classics, such as “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” and “Brian’s Song.”

Gradually, TV filmmakers became more daring in their examination of social issues. I will never forget Elizabeth Montgomery in “A Case of Rape,” a disturbing film about a housewife who is brutally raped and then victimized anew by her husband and the legal system. I was 14 that winter of 1974 and the movie left me stunned and afraid. 

But it was the premier of the fall 1974 season that would create a firestorm of controversy. In “Born Innocent,” Linda Blair plays a girl sentenced to juvenile detention who is raped with a broom handle; the FCC subsequently cracked down on the networks by creating the “Family Hour,” a move later overturned when producer Norman Lear filed suit.

These titles and more are chronicled in Alvin H. Marill’s Movies Made for Television (Arlington House Publishers, 1980), and as I thumb through my copy, I find myself wishing we had a TV movie channel. I would happily rewatch the thriller “When Michael Calls,” a miniseries about FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt, Natalie Wood in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” and a young Sissy Spacek in “The Girls of Huntington House.”

My sensibilities were fine-tuned in my late teens, when a local classic movie house brought film classics to Westerly. More on that later.

Percy Kilbride as Pa and Marjorie Main as Ma Kettle were staples of the Saturday TV matinee.

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