The Great Wall of China, built with slave power about the third century BC was ineffective against invaders. Now it’s a tourist site. The Biblical Old Testament tells us about the Battle of Jericho: “And it came to pass, when the people heard the sound of the horn, that the people shouted with a great shout, and the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city.” Hadrian’s Wall was built in 122 BC to protect the northern boundary of Roman Britain. It did not keep out the enemy. In 1961 East Germany built a wall of wire and concrete. It came down in 1989. My dictionary defines a wall as “a rampart built for defensive purposes,” meant to enclose, to divide, to confine, to block off.
Robert Frost in his poem “Mending Wall” begins, “Something there is that doesn’t like a wall …” I’m with him. But of course, I live within walls, feel safe and sheltered by the sturdy walls of my home. But these walls are pierced with doors and windows that can provide access, welcome, or escape, as needed. Defensive walls, historically, have not guaranteed safety from intruders. They are costly failures. They are not permeable and can imprison those on the inside. Like Frost, something in me doesn’t like such a wall.
I’ve moved dozens of times and in those moves I tried to free myself of the weight of books. It has yet to work. The books sneak back into my home like stray cats. And this week I had a lesson in the joy of owning them–the books, not the cats.
Reading a library book, I saw what looked like an unintelligible couple of lines quoted from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. These poems are dense and ask a lot of a reader, and despite having read them numerous times, I didn’t quite trust myself to say, oh, yes, typos in an expensive tome of criticism. Didn’t dare say “Gotcha” to an editor from Harper Collins. Hurried two or three steps to the Es in my collection of poetry, and felt momentary panic–where was Eliot? Aha, the coy, slender volume was hiding between Stephen Dunn and Sharif Elmusa.
But my memory was right, two words were missing initial letters in the quoted passage. My copy of the poems saved me from booting up the Mac Mini and waiting for the wifi to open, and then the bother of typing in the search box, and watching the screen light its way into the labyrinth of Eliot’s work to find those wounded words snapped off like glass twigs.
Best of all, I had that little book in my hands, the feel of its sleek cover, the little head shot of T.S.E, a facsimile of his signature, the praise from John Crowe Ransom on the back cover, and inside the familiar dots of red ink I often use to mark memorable lines, my very own Four Quartets. And I read it again straight through, brushed my teeth, and went to bed happy and vindicated.
Whoever first coined that phrase was not in the business of selling books. Authors and editors pay for and applaud effective book design. Readers expect to know at a glance who wrote the book and which genre it fits. The all important title may do the job, but often a sub-title helps to categorize the book. And given that we have probably hundreds of Book Industry Subject and Category (BISAC) codes that help sellers, librarians, and publishers sort books, genre is a very big deal.
I don’t often read noir or romance, and the typical dark or décolletage covers usually tip me off, so I don’t need to see the BISAC. The author’s name, if he/she is someone whose work I know, will tell me if I’m likely to read the book, but I am suspicious if the author’s name glares at me in gold 100-pt font and the title is squeezed in at the bottom of the cover. Says something about marketing and ego.
Some books lie. They pretend to be what they are not. Recently I saw one that had no identification on the cover, front or back. Not even the author’s name. Quite a ruse, as I then had to pick it up and open it to find its DNA. Not one I could relate to.
Of course, the physical properties of the book matter. I don’t expect Stephen King’s latest novel to be printed on heavy stock like a baby’s first book. For one thing, King’s book would then require a fork lift to get it to the register.
I’m about to design books I’ll publish this year and I won’t allow the fiction to look like poetry. Nor will I shout out my name and override the title, thus robbing the work of its own appreciation.
How can I convince you to read Climate of Hope by Michael Bloomberg and Carl Pope? Maybe the credentials of the authors will tempt you. Bloomberg is a famously successful business man and philanthropist and a former mayor of New York City (2002-2013). Pope, a former head of Sierra Club, led a successful Beyond Coal campaign to shut down a number of dirty coal-burning energy producers. Fortunately for readers, both are talented writers who offer a promising approach to surviving ominous changes in Earth’s climate. And a way to thrive in the decades to come if we are smart, aware, and ambitious.
According to Pope and Bloomberg, as their subtitle declares, “cities, businesses and citizens can save the planet.” Given the revitalization of New York City under Bloomberg’s leadership, I believe this claim. And in our divisive and paralyzing political situation in the U.S, that’s a gift.
Before you start to sweat about reading science, let me tell you that this book is full of well-documented data, but not intimidating. Plain language and engaging style make it a good read. I couldn’t put it down and my notebook is full of info which I will use to challenge my local government to develop a more robust sustainability plan. I believe we need to act locally, despite the overwhelming attention the press gives to Congress.
Why would a novelist/poet read such a book? I refuse to be defined by a narrow concept of writing. I am not an ivory-tower, head-in-the-clouds romantic. I write climate fiction and poetry, and I want to know what’s real. I’m tired of empty-headed pessimism that allows us to throw up our hands, swear and wail, and do nothing to clean up our mess. What these two authors have done is art in the guise of good advice. Or it’s good advice masked as good writing. Either way, it’s a good, good book.
I tell other people to write, write, write, even if it’s practice rather than product. And here’s what happens when I tell myself that. Probably these are more dabbles than haiku, but they are of that family. I’m flummoxed with the spacing, so pretend they are single spaced.
We now know more than we ever wanted to know about speaking truth to power. But what about speaking truth to other writers?
Part of my work is to critique manuscripts, and assessing those darlings can give me hives, gastric reflux and headache. What if I tell the truth?: “This story lacks conflict. What I see here is not a poem, but a confession and I am not a priest to grant absolution, these characters are cardboard, the theme of the essay is unidentifiable.” Fortunately, that rarely happens. But the child in me says, “Please, don’t hate me. Like me, like me, like me.”
Do critics such as Harold Bloom, Dana Gioia, and Helen Vendler care if other people like them? I suppose they feel secure in their judgment and know that I’m out here–anonymous, but engaged–relying on them to tell me the truth about a book, a poem, another writer! Even when the truth makes me squirm. What if they were to say bad things about my work? (Would that they know my work.)
Ah, there’s the knot in my shoelace. Every negative review or critique scrapes skin off the writer. The idea that any publicity is good: I question this idea. I don’t much care for Billy Collins’ latest book, The Rain in Portugal, and I doubt he would see any criticism I set loose in the world. But you never know. Recently I tweeted a compliment about W.S. Merwin’s Migration. And, whoa! The next day there was a “like” from The Merwin Conservancy. Liking what I like and saying so publicly is, I’ve decided, more helpful than whining and snarling about what I don’t care for. Or maybe I’m a thin-skinned coward operating on the theory that if I don’t say anything negative about you, you won’t send me to my room for a decade.
In W. H. Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” we find the line “For poetry makes nothing happen …” but we also find this: “Let the healing fountain start,/ In the prison of his days/ Teach the free man how to praise.” Assuming that the free man might be man or woman, we need right now a healing fountain. Today poetry will make this much happen: nine people will drive to Longmont, CO, from Denver, Broomfield, Erie, Lafayette, Louisville and Arvada in pursuit of healing; if not healing, at least thought about the uses of poetry. Like a flight of wine, we will taste a variety of what some call political poems, others label poems of witness or protest.
I doubt we will reach consensus over the value of these poems, but we will listen to the considered opinions of others. Over lunch at The Motherlode Cafe, we will talk about poems that react to war, violence, bigotry, and abuse of power. In these strange, divisive times we thirst for language to express our angst, our shared fears and hopes. Here are the poems we will wrestle with: “The Last Election” by John Haines; an excerpt from the prelude to Whitman’s Leaves of Grass; “The Colonel” by Carolyn Forche; “Some Advice to Those Who Will Serve Time in Prison” by Nazim Hikmet; “On the Steps of the Jefferson Memorial” by Linda Pasten; “The Second Coming” by W. B. Yeats; “Listening to Distant Guns” by Denise Levertov; “Why I Don’t Mention Flowers When Conversations with My Brother Reach Uncomfortable Silences” by Natalie Diaz; and “Explanations” by Stephen Dunn.
These poems are meant to disturb complacency, to cause reaction in troubling times, and there’s always trouble, so I see no end to the need for poems and poets who struggle to wake us up.