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How Now, Brown Cow?


Sometimes poetry gets silly. Goofy. Clever for its own good.

Consider Alice N. Persons’ ode to the UPS man. Turns out, it is an ode to the little-appreciated color, brown, as well. “How now, brown cow?” as they say in speech class where rounded vowels are practiced. Let’s take a look at the package wrapped in plain brown fun:


Why I Have a Crush on You, UPS Man
Alice N. Persons

you bring me all the things I order
are never in a bad mood
always have a jaunty wave as you drive away
look good in your brown shorts
we have an ideal uncomplicated relationship
you’re like a cute boyfriend with great legs
who always brings the perfect present
(why, it’s just what I’ve always wanted!)
and then is considerate enough to go away
oh, UPS Man, let’s hop in your clean brown truck and elope !
ditch your job, I’ll ditch mine
let’s hit the road for Brownsville
and tempt each other
with all the luscious brown foods —
roast beef, dark chocolate,
brownies, Guinness, homemade pumpernickel, molasses cookies
I’ll make you my mama’s bourbon pecan pie
we’ll give all the packages to kind looking strangers
live in a cozy wood cabin
with a brown dog or two
and a black and brown tabby
I’m serious, UPS Man. Let’s do it.
Where do I sign?


Unlike 99.8% of men, the UPS man always brings the right gift because — shazam! — it’s what the lady ordered!

The thought of eloping in a “clean brown truck,” though, is too much. So much, in fact, that the reader is already on board and heading to Brownsville (where else?), where discerning customers and drivers can tempt each other with “luscious brown foods — / roast beef, dark chocolate, / brownies, Guinness, homemade pumpernickel, molasses cookies.”

Before long everyone’s hitting the hard stuff. Sweetly, though, in the form of “mama’s bourbon pecan pie.”

It comes without surprise that the ultimate getaway is a “cozy wood cabin” (brown) with a “brown dog or two / and a black and brown tabby” to boot.

The final flourish? Circling back to the routine of UPS deliveries:

“I’m serious, UPS Man. Let’s do it. / Where do I sign?”

Notice how this mad love is offered to someone who remains distantly-named: “UPS Man.” For the purposes of humor, the UPS man is not so much an individual with distinct looks and personality but a type. Maybe an archetype. You know, like wizards and fairy godmothers who have forsaken pumpkin coaches for an always-turning-right UPS truck.

Signed, sealed, delivered, the poem is yours. Thank you, Alice, for making the simple point: Poets can have fun, too.

Random Thoughts on Another Mother’s Day in May

  • It’s Mother’s Day (don’t forget the apostrophe). Have you called your mother yet? If you have siblings, you should aim to be the first because delays are like weeds. Some people never get out of them.
  • This post is a 4-minute read. I heard you’re supposed to put that up front on everything busy people read these days, but I’m late. It took you six seconds to get this far, by the way.
  • Why do people have such little patience for reading but endless patience for the internet and TV? When you log on to the internet, do you see a page that warns you “6 hours” before you get lost clicking here, there, and everywhere?
  • Finally, some 70-degree (Fahrenheit) weather has found Maine. Every year, Maine is in fair Mr. Fahrenheit’s mostly lost and rarely found bin.
  • Speaking of lost, non-Americans may wonder how we not only lost Celsius but the metric system.
  • 70-degree weather can only mean pine pollen will soon cast a yellow pall over anything outside (or inside, should you leave the windows open).
  • Want to impress your kids? Watch a streaming movie they’d never guess you would on TV (any zombie movie will do), then tell them you actually liked it. They love to box and package your take on the world, so any unwrapping you can do is always fun.
  • Nota bene: If you do the above, be prepared for many more recommendations on what to watch.
  • Spring of 2023 and already we’re seeing too much politics related to 2024. As if we’d recovered from 2020! No, no, and no.
  • I love how people can get logical about President Biden’s age and the dangers of his running for office again but NOT get logical about the dangers of a psychopathic, sociopathic narcissist (among other things) running for office again. Remember selective hearing? This is selective logic.
  • How many outstanding poetry submissions is too many outstanding poetry submissions?
  • Better question: How long should a poetry submission be outstanding (read: “In Progress”) on Submittable? Slow progress. That’s the motto for understaffed, overtaxed poetry staffs.
  • I love it when you pay a $3 reading fee for a journal that never gets back to you. Literally never, I mean. After a year you query and they never get back to you. After 18 months you query and they never get back to you. So you use email vs. Submittable’s message system, but they never get back to you. Meanwhile, they’ve opened up new submissions reading periods as a means of collecting more reading fees (or, as they call them, “Ka-Ching! fees). I recently had this experience with the Southampton Review. What’s Latin for “Let the Submitter Beware”? It should be on the Submissions page of outfits like this.
  • Did you call your mother yet?
  • Speaking of matters maternal (and maternal always matters, let me tell you), it’s interesting that States-side we say “Mom” and Over the Pond-side they say “Mum.” I’ll keep mum on my opinion on that because Mom jokes (and Mum jokes) are not allowed on an upstanding website like this.
  • Am I the only one bewildered by all the streaming costs out there in TV-land? If only we could choose á la carte what channels we want, because most of these cable and streaming services are top-heavy with channels we never look at (or have reason to).
  • I’ve learned the hard way, too, that the channels you DO want are almost never ALL included under one umbrella. Instead, you’d have to pay for “plus” this and “plus” that. Interesting that anything with a “+” sign after it’s name will often lead to a “-” sign on your savings account’s activity log. (I think we’re back to “Ka-Ching Nation” now, further proof that we are indeed a Corporatocracy).
  • Why are you still reading this? You should be talking to your mother!
  • Walking the beach, I’m amazed at how many dogs are well-behaved and stay by their owner’s side instead of charging after people and other dogs like all of my dogs of the past used to. Wow, I say to myself. I wonder if this dog, at its home, actually stays off the furniture and out of its owner’s bed, too.
  • Dogs on the floor used to be “the way” in olden times, but now, in a world where dogs and cats have superseded humans in status, it’s rare indeed.
  • Your mother, if you were talking to her now, would warn you about all that pet hair in your sheets and on your pillow.
  • I like how POETRY the august (even in May) poetry journal has come under new leadership that does tributes to certain authors in each issue. They typically include a bunch of their poems as part of the tribute, too. Usually they’re under the radar poets that we should know better. In a world where a lot of us don’t know better, that’s a good thing.
  • If you write a poem and it falls in the wilderness, does it make a noise?
  • While you have her on the line, ask your mother. Guaranteed she’ll have an answer.

Darkness Sticks to Everything: Tom Hennen in Particular

As a Midwestern poet, Tom Hennen is often paired in people’s minds with Ted Kooser. That is, if Hennen is in your mind in the first place. For me, he wasn’t because I’d never heard of him, and while his poetry is, like Kooser’s, plain-spoken, it is also so nature-centric that I cannot in good faith consider these two that similar. Related by geography and style at times, but different, too.

First and foremost, if you crave rapidly-disappearing nature as a topic in your poetry, Hennen is your man. By modern standards where identity serves as the new Garden of Poetic Eden, he is quaint with his love of the four seasons (especially autumn), trees (especially pines), earth (especially its sky) and so much more. This collection, encompassing some of his best work along with some new poesies, includes the early image poems, focused with great specificity on the landscape, as well as his wonderful collection of prose poems covering the same matter, called “Crawling Out the Window.”

If you are looking for comparisons, Hennen’s quiet army of fans are more than willing to provide them. The Ancient Chinese poets. Robert Bly. James Wright. Francis Ponge. The Scandinavian poets Olav H. Hauge, Harry Martinson, and Rolf Jacobsen. Imagery, personification, and folksiness work together to bring big surprises in small packages. As you read Hennen, his poems grow on you like moss on a tree. Slowly.

So let’s look and see, shall we?

Spring Follows Winter Once More

Lying here in the tall grass
Where it’s so soft
Is this what it is to go home?
Into the earth
Of worms and black smells
With a larch tree gathering sunlight
In the spring afternoon

And the gates of Paradise open just enough
To let out
A flock of geese.

Finding Horse Skulls on a Day That Smelled of Flowers

At the place where I found the two white skulls
Sunlight came through the aspen branches.
Under one skull were
Large beetles with hard bodies.
The other one
I didn’t move.
Around them new grass grew
Making the scent of the earth visible.
Where the sun touched shining bone
It was warm
As though the horses were dreaming
In the spring afternoon
With night
Still miles away.

Things Are Light and Transparent

During the fall, objects come apart when you look at them.
Farm buildings are mistaken for smoke among the trees.
Stones and grass lift just enough off the ground so that you can
see daylight under them. People you know become transparent
and can no longer hide anything from you. The pond the
color of the rainy sky comes up to both sides of the gravel road
looking shiny as airplane wings. From it comes the surprised
cry the heron makes each time it finds itself floating upward
into a heaven of air, pulled by the attraction of an undiscovered

The Life of a Day

Like people or dogs, each day is unique and has its own personality
quirks, which can easily be seen if you look closely.
But there are so few days as compared to people, not to mention
dogs, that it would be surprising if a day were not a hundred
times more interesting than most people. Usually they
just pass, mostly unnoticed, unless they are wildly nice, such
as autumn ones full of red maple trees and hazy sunlight, or
if they are grimly awful ones in a winter blizzard that kills the
lost traveler and bunches of cattle. For some reason we want
to see days pass, even though most of us claim we don’t care to
reach our last one for a long time. We examine each day before
us with barely a glance and say, no, this isn’t one I’ve been looking
for, and wait in a bored sort of way for the next, when, we
are convinced, our lives will start for real. Meanwhile, this day
is going by perfectly well adjusted, as some days are, with the
right amounts of sunlight and shade, and a light breeze perfumed
from the mixture of fallen apples, corn stubble, dry oak
leaves, and the faint odor of last night’s meandering skunk.

Like I said, nothing fancy here. Country wisdom by a man who can name things and who sees movement and life in ways that we don’t and in things that we don’t. Like a warm breeze in early spring, it is. If you’re a certain kind of “old soul” reader, that is.

Mining the Synergy of Opposites


Contrast. Nothing tells a story quite like it. Consider the juxtaposition of junk car parked next to new Porsche, of grandmother in her wheelchair posing with her 5-year-old granddaughter for pictures, of homeless man sleeping under cardboard against the smooth base of a financial-district skyscraper.

In poetry, contrast can work its magic, too. Past and future. Dream and reality. Invincibility and mortality.

The last works particularly well when examining the one childish outlook we’re least willing to give up—the notion that good times go on forever, that hope is an unsinkable ocean liner, that death comes calling for others with regularity but doesn’t even have us on its to-do list.

Let’s see it at work in three poems:


“Driving into Our New Lives”
Maria Mazziotti Gillan,

Years ago, driving across the mountains
in West Virginia, both of us are so young
we don’t know anything. We are twenty-eight
years old, our children sleeping in the back seat.
With your fresh Ph.D. in your suitcase, we head out
toward Kansas City. We’ve never been anywhere.
We decide to go the long way around
instead of driving due west.

Years ago, driving across mountains; your
hand resting on my knee, the radio playing the folk
music we love, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, or you
singing songs to keep the children entertained.
How could we know what is to come?

We are young. We think we’ll be healthy
and strong forever. We are certain we are invincible
because we love each other, because our children
are smart and beautiful, because we are heading

to a new place, because the stars
in the coal-black West Virginia sky are so thick,
they could be chunks of ice.
How could we know what is to come?


To steal a phrase from George Orwell, it has a “Such, Such Were the Days” feeling to it. Reading it, one senses how the speaker’s perspective has brought wisdom and sadness in equal measure: “How could we know what is to come? / We are young. We think we’ll be healthy / and strong forever.”

And all based on logical (to capital-R Romantic humans) reasons: love, smart and beautiful children, West Virginia stars, and a new home somewhere beyond the headlights.

I’ve used the contrast between happiness / security and some unknown reckoning myself. The alchemy works if you jigger it just right. First, from Lost Sherpa of Happiness, the perspective of innocence in the animal world:


“Sharp-Shinned Hawk & the Song Sparrow”
by Ken Craft

All spring, the punctured sky collapses blue
beneath the shrill knives of their call.
All day, shriek and talon, eye and hunger
from the heat of a red-black gullet.

They circle overhead, dive under liquid
evergreen, glide through currents of hardwood,
trunk and limb. Nestling, fledgling,
songbird—on ground or mid-flight—
leaving only an orphan feather for changeling.

And here I hear the song sparrow sing.
Here in the narrow interstice between stealth and wait.
Her three notes. Her cheerful trill. Her hesitation
at the wood’s held breath.
Then, song again.
To sun or cloud, maybe. Wind or mate.

She sings to the stillness of quiet’s dull edge.
She sings to not knowing that every joy
in life is answered, eventually.


As with the Gillan poem, there is no need to address the future, as it is implied. The future is a hawk in waiting. An indifferent hawk, blindly following instinct’s edicts, which somehow doubles the affront.

And here, from The Indifferent World, a similar scene, only more domestic:


by Ken Craft

Three is the loneliest number on a clock
when the night can’t save you.

No doubt it is the constellated tug,
a conspiracy of stars, the silent, primal

voice that whispers the uselessness,
that grinds greater gears,

that mocks the hubris of careful plans,
set alarms. Every blanketed life around you

sleeps safe and happy and secure
like nothing can touch them, like change

has made its exception, named it you,
and passed finally over the frosted roof.


Contrast. A young family driving toward a life of endless happiness in the West Virginia night. A song sparrow singing blithely while bill and talon bide their time from a branch high above. An insomniac convinced that both change and the future make exceptions.

Readers shake their heads saying, “No, no, no,” while wishing, “Yes, yes, yes” against their better judgment.

That wish is a big part of this brief, lovely journey we call life. I’m not sure where we’d be without it.





A Travel Day in the Life

It doesn’t take much to feel like you’re in a movie. Buying a bus ticket for an hour and a half ride from New Hampshire to Boston for a train departing in two hours and ten minutes, for instance. You considered traffic, yes, but did you consider it enough? Do you ever consider it enough?

The movie part: Running through South Station for your train (for it IS yours, in your mind – the next one, leaving in two hours, is someone else’s, dammit). Not knowing the track, just knowing it’s the Acela and not the Regional. Backpack strap digging your shoulder, luggage wheels jumping like Jiffy-Pop on every crack in the station’s bumpy-as-Boston terrain, heels kicking up like the hundred yard dasher you were decades ago.

Is there any feeling as sweet as jumping through a train door just before it closes? Just before the car takes its first lurch forward? Just before you feel the smooth and friendly slide of track somewhere beneath your shoes? It’s as if you’ve liberated a damsel in distress called Two Hours of Your Day, and she’s showering you with gratitude and you don’t want an umbrella.

Amtrak has this marvelous invention called the Quiet Car. It’s no match for humans, however. Humans are social animals. Sometimes the accent is on social, other times it is on animal, but in neither case is it a good thing for Amtrak inventions. 

The first two seats in the car face each other. Why, a logical type might ask, would a Quiet Car include facing seats if designed to thwart social animals? Two not-so-gentlemen sat facing each other and talked blithely away. I figured it would last a few minutes at best, but no. These two were like ladies at the clothesline, coworkers at the water cooler, gossips bursting with goods to share and little time to share it. By God, they had staying power (“staying” defined as “Boston to New York”).

You would think that the conductor would say something. You would think that people who paid for Quiet Car seats close to them would say something. And finally, the thought occurs to you that maybe YOU should say something. 

The problem, of course, is politely asking them to shush or, more discreetly, pointing at the signs hanging over the aisle that say QUIET CAR, is not without some danger. After all, we now live in the Age of Individual Rights. Motto: “Don’t tread on my individual rights, I’ll tread on your community rights.”

It’s like road rage. Express displeasure by rolling down your window or signaling with your bird finger at your own risk. In cars, the glove compartment is now known as the Second Amendment Compartment.

So it comes down to ear plugs, the last resort of that drying pool we call common courtesy and respect. Remember them?

Meantime you’re chugging along for New York City en route to our nation’s capital. And it happens to be the day that a certain former president is being indicted by a certain district attorney for certain hush money paid to a certain porn star. That’s one of dozens of charges, really. And there are other investigations going on at both federal and state levels — all leftovers from four years of “We Interrupt This Program to Bring You Projection, Gaslighting, Narcissism, and Greed” (known in Revelations as the Four Horsemen).

Are any of these passengers getting off here to exercise their first amendment protest rights (kind of like exercising your right to run for trains), you wonder? You also wonder because humans are not only social animals, they’re wondering animals. You? You chiefly wonder when it ends and truly goes away.

There’s nothing peculiar to New York today, though. No sign of pro- or con- crazies dying to exercise their First Quiet Car rights. Just the usual 20 minute layover. Change of crew. A few people running for the train with a backpack strap digging into their shoulder while wheeling luggage that bounces like a colicky baby behind them (sound effects left for you to imagine, as it’s a silent movie outside your window).

Not much left to this day, then, other than the usual taped announcement about turning off phones and not talking on phones. And oh, yes, the usual phones going off with any number of creative tones and far-from-mortified folks not only answering but talking in tones East of Hushed (the town next to Eden). This is the Age of the Cellphone, after all. The Pleistocene is no match.

All this is what you come to expect from a travel day, though. Your reward? Getting there in one piece with little delay. Not quite as sweet as jumping through a train portal before it moves on the track, but still, the announcement that Union Station is nigh, that you can gather all your belongings, that you can join the huddled masses (“Got any change?”) at a station well south of South Station and the track run that started your day.

In a courteous way, you mean. Respectful, trying-to-set-an example way. Like salmon leaping upstream, maybe.


“Prizes Are Part of the Politics That Attend Art the Way Flies Attend Horses” — Carl Phillips on Ambition

In the past few days, I’ve been enjoying the poet Carl Phillips’ new collection of essays on writing poetry, My Trade Is Mystery: Seven Meditations from a Life in Writing. The seven topics he riffs on are “Ambition,” “Stamina,” “Silence,” “Politics,” “Practice,” “Audience,” and “Community.” An instructive parlor game might be to list these by order of importance to a successful writer. After you define “successful,” that is.

In the first meditation, Phillips takes on the Siren call of poetry contests. For poets subjected to their share of rejections, it reads like a pleasant balm after a marathon run. Here are some key thoughts Phillips offers on “the desire to show one’s work to the world”:

“The dangers of this form of ambition are many. Its first strategy is to seduce by distorting logic: ‘If I’m published in a magazine, I’ll be a real writer.’ It becomes quickly addictive: ‘If my poems could be published in a book, I’ll truly have made it’ leads easily to ‘If my book wins a prize, I’ll be the best writer, having triumphed over all the other contenders.’ I believe very few artists avoid falling into some version of this thinking from time to time. As artists, we have something to say, and because we are saying it, it feels—it is—personal, which makes us vulnerable, which in turn makes us long for the protection that, at first, public approbation feels like, protection ultimately from our own fears and doubts as to  our ‘worthiness,’ our ‘right’ to call ourselves an artist, maybe even a good one.”

Over time, Phillips has become skeptical of juried prizes for writing, as “winning a prize for art, far from meaning you were the best today, really just means that a randomly assembled group of humans and therefore subjective and each-with-their-own–biases judges came to an agreement—itself often uneasy—that your art was deserving of a prize. That doesn’t make it the best or, to be absolutely honest, even good.”

Still, writers will take that prize and willingly jump into Hemingway’s famous last line in The Sun Also Rises: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” 

And why not? After being rejected too many times to count, paying reading fees for naught umpteen times, entering contests where their work never get past a certain reader to the eyes of the deciding panel of editors slash judges, most any poet would happily delude himself with a literary victory, suspect as it may be.

To my mind, then, Phillips counsel is better used to not enter contests at all. You could even take it to the extreme and not submit to poetry journals while you’re at it, but a better compromise might be to save your pennies (which, over the course of a year, add up to more dollars than you want to count) by only submitting to journals that do not charge a reading fee for the questionable pleasure of judging your art.

Phillips concludes with these thoughts: “Prizes are part of the politics that attend art the way flies attend horses. They ultimately distract from what, as far as I can tell, art is mostly about: the urgency of and devotion to and sheer pleasure in the act of making some form of expression for what it means to be alive in a human body at this moment in time.”

Phillips, who has been a teacher all his life, tells his students that writing requires “luck, some talent, and stamina: a constant calibrating and recalibrating of arrogance and humility.”

I like that strange brew because it’s true. There’s a certain lovely arrogance to submitting work you’re sure is good enough for acceptance and print. Humility comes when you’re rejected. Or accepted and destined to see your poem in print months after the fact. 

You know. When the restless reviser in you whispers its hot breath in your ear: How could you have considered this work “done”?

Slaying the “Muse of Sluggishness”

The early risers. It’s a club that just as soon not meet, because what’s best about each morning is solitude—when a writer sends his convocation to the Muses. While the house still sleeps, I mean. And only the clock’s ticks can be heard. Or the dog’s breathing. Or the heat radiator’s pings.

Fitting music for writing, the early hours. One can’t help but believe that not only the household sleeps, but the world, for part of the magic of writing in the dark before dawn is the deliberate deception that you are the only one awake in the world. A childish delusion, then. Indoor light reflects your face in the dark window pane, and taking the dog outside reveals only a world with birds on the verge, raccoons on the move, and, weather depending, peepers singing (warm world) and owls whooing (cold, mysterious world). 

We are the perfect audience for Polish poet Adam Zagajewski’s “The Early Hours,” a poem as much about writing as not writing (or, how writing is often hidden in the act of not yet writing). Paradoxical? Here’s the poem:


“The Early Hours”

Adam Zagajewski


The early hours of morning: you still aren’t writing

(rather, you aren’t even trying), you just read lazily.

Everything is idle, quiet, full, as if

it were a gift from the muse of sluggishness,


just as earlier, in childhood, on vacation, when a colored

map was slowly scrutinized before a trip, a map

promising so much, deep ponds in the forest

like glittering butterfly eyes, mountain meadows drowning in

           sharp grass;


or the moment before sleep, when no dreams have appeared,

but they whisper their approach from all parts of the world,

their march, their pilgrimage, their vigil at the sickbed

(grown sick of wakefulness), and the quickening among medieval



compressed in endless stasis over the cathedral;

the early hours of morning, silence

                                                               —you still aren’t writing,

you still understand so much.

                                                 Joy is close.

A muse of sluggishness? I missed him (and am convinced it’s a “him”) in Greek mythology studies but understand his presence, once announced. Then, the two metaphors, one about a love of maps formed in childhood, the other about that odd moment before sleep, the one where “no dreams have appeared,/but they whisper their approach from all parts of the world.”

Perhaps the biggest pay-off to the poem is how it refuses to acknowledge so-called “writer’s block.” Pre-writing, after all, requires NOT writing. Thinking. Dreaming. Creating and recreating the groundwork for poetry. Until, you can’t help but admit, “Joy is close.”

And that, for this poem’s particular trajectory, is the perfect closing.

Raymond Carver “On Writing”: Words of Advice for Poets, Short Story Writers, even Novelists

Before diving into my 2023 project of reading a short story a day from the Library of America’s Carver: Collected Stories, I read his brief essay “On Writing” and jotted some bon mots (French for ‘words that seem more important than others’). Of course, no one gives a damn about a writer’s opinions on writing until said writer has “made it.” I’ll give Ray that. Loved his collected poems, so why wouldn’t I respond in kind to what he is most famous for?

Without further ado, here are some Carver-isms for those plying the trade:


“This is one of the things that distinguishes one writer from another. Not talent. There’s plenty of that around. But a writer who has some special way of looking at things and who gives artistic expression to that way of looking: that writer may be around for a time.”

“Isak Dinesen said that she wrote a little every day, without hope and without despair. Someday I’ll put that on a three-by-five card and tape it to the wall beside my desk. I have some three-by-five cards on the wall now. ‘Fundamental accuracy of statement is the ONE sole morality of writing.’ Ezra Pound. It is not everything by ANY means, but if a writer has ‘fundamental accuracy of statement’ going for him, he’s at least on the right track.

“I have a three-by-five up there with this fragment of a sentence from a story by Chekhov: ‘…and suddenly everything became clear to him.’ I find these words filled with wonder and possibility. I love their simple clarity, and the hint of revelation that’s implied. There is mystery, too. What has been unclear before? Why is it just now becoming clear? What’s happened? Most of all—what now? There are consequences as a result of such sudden awakenings. I feel a sharp sense of relief—and anticipation.

“I overheard the writer Geoffrey Wolff say ‘No cheap tricks’ to a group of writing students. That should be on a three-by-five card. I’d amend it a little to ‘No tricks.’ Period. I hate tricks. At the first sign of a trick or a gimmick in a piece of fiction, a cheap trick or even an elaborate trick, I tend to look for cover. Tricks are ultimately boring, and I get bored easily, which may go along with my not having much of an attention span.”

“Too often ‘experimentation’ is a license to be careless, silly, or imitative in the writing. Even worse, a license to try to brutalize or alienate the reader. Too often such writing gives us no news of the world, or else describes a desert landscape and that’s all—a few dunes and lizards here and there, but no people; a place uninhabited by anything recognizably human, a place of interest only to a few scientific specialists.

“It should be noted that real experiment in fiction is original, hard-earned and cause for rejoicing. But someone else’s way of looking at things—Barthelme’s, for instance—should not be chased after by other writers. It won’t work. There is only one Barthelme, and for another writer to try to appropriate Barthelme’s peculiar sensibility or mise en scene under the rubric of innovation is for the writer to mess around with chaos and disaster and, worse, self-deception.”

“It’s possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things—a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring—with immense, even startling power. It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader’s spine—the source of artistic delight, as Nabokov would have it. That’s the kind of writing that most interests me. I hate sloppy or haphazard writing whether it flies under the banner of experimentation or else is just clumsily rendered realism. In Isaac Babel’s wonderful short story, ‘Guy de Maupassant,’ the narrator has this to say about the writing of fiction: ‘No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place.’ This too ought to go on a three-by-five.”

“If the words are heavy with the writer’s own unbridled emotions, or if they are imprecise and inaccurate for some reason—if the words are in any way blurred—the reader’s eyes will slide right over them and nothing will be achieved. The reader’s own artistic sense will simply not be engaged. Henry James called this sort of hapless writing ‘weak specification.’”

“But if the writing can’t be made as good as it is within us to make it, then why do it? In the end, the satisfaction of having done our best, and the proof of that labor, is the one thing we can take into the grave.”

“I like it when there is some feeling of threat or sense of menace in short stories. I think a little menace is fine to have in a story. For one thing, it’s good for the circulation. There has to be tension, a sense that something is imminent, that certain things are in relentless motion, or else, most often, there simply won’t be a story. What creates tension in a piece of fiction is partly the way the concrete words are linked together to make up the visible action of the story. But it’s also the things that are left out, that are implied, the landscape just under the smooth (but sometimes broken and unsettled) surface of things.

“V.S. Pritchett’s definition of a short story is ‘something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing.’ First the glimpse. Then the glimpse given life, turned into something that illuminates the moment and may, if we’re lucky—that word again—have even further consequences and meaning. The short story writer’s task is to invest the glimpse with all that is in his power. He’ll bring his intelligence and literary skill to bear (his talent), his sense of proportion and sense of the fitness of things: of how things out there really are and how he sees those things—like no one else sees them. And this is done through the use of clear and specific language, language used so as to bring to life the details that will light up the story for the reader. For the details to be concrete and convey meaning, the language must be accurate and precisely given. The words can be so precise they may even sound flat, but they can still carry; if used right, they can hit all the notes.”


A final interesting aside about this essay: Carver quotes Flannery O’Connor on how “she put together a short story whose ending she could not even guess at until she was there.”  You often hear this about novelists who hate outlining in advance. They just write and let their characters provide directions as the novel progresses (a strategy called “pantsing” by practitioners of the trade).

Carver found O’Connor’s words liberating. He had considered it his own dark secret—how he’d start stories with a particular line he loved but without any real sense of where the story should go. That’s right. He often had no idea how the line would inform a story and a character’s truth about life. That nugget should reassure some writers out there. The ones who need a license to just go. Just write. Just see where it all leads because usually it leads SOMEwhere.

What, after all, is revision for? Once you get to the story’s  Promised Land (read: the ending), you can go at it again, revising, ultimately editing for the precision of those periods and commas. You know. The stuff of Babel. The stuff you’d be proud to put your name to because any story or poem or novel worth writing is worth writing the right way.

Writing About Not Being Able to Write About Frank O’Hara

For the record, non-fiction writer Ada Calhoun is *not* “also a poet.” Her book wanted to be a biography of Frank O’Hara but it’s not that, either. It almost wound up being a memoir, but alas, it’s not quite that, either.

Honestly, her book had no choice in the matter. Her father Peter Schjeldahl had collected all manner of taped interviews of people who knew Frank O’Hara, intending to write a biography of the New York School poet, but it all came to naught, partly because of his make-up and mostly because of the recalcitrance of O’Hara’s sister Maureen Granville-Smith, who is the literary executor of Frank’s estate.

Upon discovery of the tapes, daughter Ada decides to fill Dad’s big shoes by writing Frank’s bio herself, picking up where he left off. Only there’s this problem called Maureen Granville-Smith, still alive and well, still recalcitrant, and every bit as stubborn about blocking a bio by Ada as she was a bio by her dad.

This leaves Ada with little choice but to write a semi-biographical O’Hara book and a semi-memoir of herself book — the story of her attempt to write an O’Hara biography, how it brought to a head some lifelong issues she’d had with her dad, and how the manuscript wrestled on the floor, two genres fighting it out to a draw.

Thus you get word-for-word excerpts from Peter’s tapes of people who knew Frank O’Hara because Dad gave Ada permission to try where he failed. She fails, too, and provides a transcript of her phone conversation with Frank’s sister, who comes across as a termagant sure that no one can do her boy Frank justice.


But the book itself is weirdly wonderful. It leans more frankly in a biography kind of way in the first half, then in a decisive memoir kind of way in the second. What is it about these artistic fathers who don’t know how to love their children, even when their children enter the same trade, in this case, the trade of writing? Rhetorical question.

Interesting? Firstly the excerpts from the tapes. Then, as the story builds, the dynamic between father and daughter. And trivia. Lots of trivia and odd bits, like Ada sharing her favorite O’Hara poem, which led me to my copy of The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara edited by Donald Allen. For the curious, here it is:


To the Harbormaster

I wanted to be sure to reach you;
though my ship was on the way it got caught
in some moorings. I am always tying up
and then deciding to depart. In storms and
at sunset, with the metallic coils of the tide
around my fathomless arms, I am unable
to understand the forms of my vanity
or I am hard alee with my Polish rudder
in my hand and the sun sinking. To
you I offer my hull and the tattered cordage
of my will. The terrible channels where
the wind drives me against the brown lips
of the reeds are not all behind me. Yet
I trust the sanity of my vessel; and
if it sinks, it may well be in answer
to the reasoning of the eternal voices,
the waves which have kept me from reaching you.


No, not O’Hara’s most famous poem by any means, but probably one that speaks to Ada Calhoun because she reads “father-daughter” into it (whereas O’Hara had some other relationship in mind).

Another oddity: one of O’Hara’s (who worked at the MoMA) favorite paintings is Rembrandt’s The Polish Rider. Again, not something that comes to mind when one thinks of the Dutch Master smoking cigars while New York poets originally from Grafton, MA, (of all nearby places!) might choose one of his works as “great,” but Frank kind of liked the looks of the horseman. You can find him riding online. The Pole, not Frank.

OK, wrap-up time.

Who would like this unaligned genre of a book? Certainly peeps interested in poetry in general and O’Hara in particular. Or fans of the anything-goes NYC scene in the 50s and 60s (even were he never struck and killed in July of ’66 by a dune buggy at the beach on Fire Island, I fear O’Hara’s liver would have taken him down soon enough). Or readers with a particular interest in problematic family relationships— in this case, a daughter who must forge a separate peace because the daddy she so wants to impress is who he is, as imperfect as any Y-chromosome can be.

If you fit one of those descriptions, you should pick it up. If not and you’re curious, pick it up as well. Over, out, and also a poet,

Ken C.

New Years, Always Bittersweet


A new  year. Always a bittersweet thing. Having 2023 on the doorstep, left by someone who wants no part of it, all swaddled and innocent-looking (for now), is a scary thing. Isn’t it every year? Been there, done that, know better. And it all gets you thinking… thinking about stuff you’ve thought a lot about already:

  • Is it me, or do celebrations seem “forced” on New Year’s Eve? Like St. Patrick’s Day, it has devolved into a drinking holiday more than any other kind of holiday.
  • The best New Year’s Eve I ever spent? One where I  broke a commitment to attend a party and stayed home reading E.B. White’s Collected Essays. I never even noticed as midnight came and went. Now that’s a great way to ring in the new–turning pages!
  • I noticed the neighbors took down Christmas decorations much sooner than in past years–before New Year’s Eve, even. One reason might be Christmas exhaustion. The material holiday, songs and all, gets foisted on us the day after Halloween nowadays. By December 26th, folks are waving the white flag. Mercy!
  • Speaking of, is there a cleaner feeling than a house once the tree is pitched and the decorations are boxed and returned to the basement? Yes, we will find a few needles from the tree along about Easter, but still, it’s a sigh of relief to be done with it once it’s done with you.
  • Before you call me a Christmas Curmudgeon, know this. A lot of my fellow Americans really got into the holiday this year because it was comfort food of a sort. Yes, they overindulged in their family traditions, but given the pall over our heads these days (Covid, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and targeting of civilians, inflation, Agent Orange running for president again, etc.) it made them feel better to go to the birthday party at Farmer Gray’s or to shout “Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!” or to listen to silver bells in the city. Who can blame them for covering themselves in the warm folds of Christmas pasts? They were simply hiding in hopes of making it all go away.
  • Resolutions? Don’t do it! They don’t work, especially this time of year. Pick another day to resolve. Arbor Day resolutions, maybe, sturdy as an oak. Then make sure said resolution is measurable and concrete–one you can track and WILL track. Otherwise, who wants to hear it?
  • The average American gains around 2 pounds between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, or so I read. Seems low… or so my scale thinks.
  • Let’s hear it for January, named after the Roman God Janus, a two-faced sort who looked both forward and back, refusing to play favorites between past and oncoming year. Most folks find it bleak, cold, and insufferable, but January’s all right by me, being holiday-free once the first folds.
  • I’ve been avoiding front pages of newspapers lately, cutting right to the sports and the arts sections. Is this similar to the Christmas-as-comfort-food thing? And who am I kidding? Just because all the bad news goes away for me doesn’t mean it goes away, right?
  • After enjoying Laura Dassow Walls’ biography of Henry David Thoreau, I might up the ante on my bio-reading for 2023. I already have the door-stopper from Ron Chernow, Grant, and am thinking about a bio of Joyce, too.
  • Hopefully, Grant does not become a Broadway show. The thought of ole Ulysses S. traipsing across a stage while singing tunes is enough to discourage any man, although (fact!) he once performed in an army play during the Mexican War.
  • This morning, I caught a falling star as I was out in the climate-warmer than usual air. Must be my lucky day, this last one! Should I buy a lottery ticket, maybe? Nah. One tax I don’t have to pay.
  • Minor Miracle: How something as small as a chickadee, titmouse, or nuthatch can not only live in winter, warm of frigid, but do it joyfully.
  • Speaking of taxes and New Year’s, is anyone still watching all of these NCAA bowl games? I didn’t think so. Factoid: Just learned yesterday that the NCAA, one of the biggest money-makers in the nation, is not taxed because of its (ahem) educational mission. The new tax legislation continues this boondoggle. More taxes for you and me, but none for the NCAA sponsored by $$$ Chevrolet $$$ and $$$ Coca-Cola $$$. It’s the American way: we are all equal, except corporations are more equal than the rest of us.
  • As the famous line goes: “Government of the corporations, by the corporations, and for the corporations” is here. Poor Mr. Lincoln must be turning over in his grave.
  • Also learned yesterday: Many people eat sauerkraut on New Year’s for good luck. Really? My grandmother used to make it in a crock at home. Fermented was big with our grandparents, who knew a thing or two about healthy eating before we had “experts” to tell us a thing or two about healthy eating.
  • Grandma ate “organic,” too, though the word didn’t even exist because EVERYTHING was organic before the Chemical Age (which came to us along about WWII). So the next time you sniff and dismiss yuppies and foodies who spend more for “organic,” remember that it is normal, healthy food that should NOT be overpriced but is thanks to the giant corporations who prefer the profits in irradiated, herbicide- and pesticide-laden foods (not to mention GMOs)—all stuff Grandma would rightly call “science fiction to be avoided.”
  • For a guy who avoids front pages, I’m getting awfully political. Good. Get it out of my system. All politics is local, which you might be able to control. Focus your life locally, then, starting with your family.
  • Happy New Year, readers May your local dreams come true in the fast-approaching year!