26 August 2016

poetry friday: wordsworth, sayers, & me.

The sonnet is beyond doubt my favorite poetic form; one of my more questionable skills is the ability to instantly identify fourteen-line blocks of text even in free verse, prose, and internet comments. Moving into my dorm this week, I was reminded of one of my very favorite sonnets, Wordsworth's "Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent's Narrow Room."
Nuns fret not at their convent's narrow room;
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, into which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, 'twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet's scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.
It's beautiful. On the most literal level I love it because I've always liked small rooms, enclosed spaces, a quiet place to focus on my work. I love it too as a defense of the sonnet (a Petrarchan sonnet at that, which in English is far more difficult than the Shakespearean sonnet), with all its constraint and freedom. And on this reading it reminded me of another sonnet about the contemplative life, Dorothy Sayers' from Gaudy Night. Within the novel Harriet Vane writes the first eight lines and then accidentally puts them in a bundle of papers that she gives to her suitor/detective partner Peter Wimsey. When she gets it back, he's completed her poem with a sestet.
Here then at home, by no more storms distrest,
Folding laborious hands we sit, wings furled;
Here in close perfume lies the rose-leaf curled,
Here the sun stands and knows not east nor west,
Here no tide runs; we have come, last and best,
From the wide zone in dizzying circles hurled
To that still centre where the spinning world
Sleeps on its axis, to the heart of rest.

Lay on thy whips, O Love, that me upright,
Poised on the perilous point, in no lax bed
May sleep, as tension at the verberant core
Of music sleeps; for, if thou spare to smite,
Staggering, we stoop, stopping, fall dumb and dead,
And, dying so, sleep our sweet sleep no more.
It's a gorgeous and terrifying tension, inaction as rest versus inaction as death, and it encapsulates the central tension of the novel, Harriet's internal battle over whether it's possible for an educated woman to have both a life of the mind and a life of the heart, whether Harriet herself can have her career as a novelist and love Peter. "What," in Harriet's words, "are you to do with the people who are cursed with both hearts and brains?" In Peter's sestet he offers her a picture of the dangers of contemplation, the idea that being still and contemplative, "poised on the perilous point," is acceptable only so long as we are kept upright by the whips of love. It's love, of course, that keeps us alive; it always was.

Thinking about these two Petrarchan sonnets, I wrote my own. I have perhaps prejudiced you against it by prefacing it with the works of two far superior sonneteers. Nevertheless, I'm pleased with it, and I enjoyed making it. It's about my freshman year at Wheaton, and about the consolations of study.
It wasn't quite a pensive citadel,
Those four white walls I shared with stranger soul.
I felt condemned to play a foreign role
And longed for peace, a silent monkish cell.
That was a loneliness I could not quell
When I was young and scared and far from whole.
And being far from home took its sure toll:
It was in exile Dante wrote his Hell.

But I was saved by friendship with the dead.
In their words comfort came and strength anew.
In study found I gifts from God above:
In Homer's wars, in Chaucer's pilgrim tread,
In thought, in word, in quest for something true,
In fourteen lines that sang an ancient love.
It's a poem for last year, inspired largely by observing the new freshmen, and I suppose this time next year you can expect a poem about sophomore year. Poems take time, even when you're not actively writing them; this morning in my English class I learned that the two-line "In a Station of the Metro" took Actual Fascist Ezra Pound a year and a half to write after the experience it describes, and all that time he was thinking how best to put it into words. (His first draft was thirty lines long.) "Emily Dickinson could have done it overnight," my professor said, "but most of us need time for our ideas to distill and ferment." (A paraphrase based on my notes, but she really did say that about Dickinson and it really is true; in 1862 she wrote 366 poems.)

It's only now that I have the perspective I need to write the above sonnet, and that's reflected in the fact that moving in this year has been incalculably easier than last year. I'm feeling a confidence and peace that would have been almost incomprehensible to me this time last year. Indeed the sheer number of conversations I've had today would have seemed absurd to me: a friend I ran into in the dining hall at breakfast, a professor from last year who told me I should drop by and talk to her, another friend on the way to lunch who proclaimed himself a faithful follower of this blog (hi)—and others. My sonnet's most grievous omission, which I can only explain with the phrase "scanty plot of ground," is that I've left out all my wonderful living friends and teachers. Fourteen lines, remember, and if there is one certainty in this life it is that there will always (always, always) be more poems.

Less importantly, I'm slightly troubled by the implication that we studied Wordsworth in my English classes last year; we did not, but I'm fond enough of the wording that I'm keeping it as it is.

I'm happy; I wasn't sure I would be, but I am. I'm writing a lot. It's good.

My building, feat. trees, fountain, and a bit of lamp post.
This is most of what I do in my dorm.

The roundup is here.

21 August 2016

lewis & potter.

I have, in preparation for a project, been leafing through Lewis' collected letters—one can hardly do anything but leaf, as except for the slim and delightful Letters to Children they're all rather intimidatingly doorstoppery. Excepted also is the volume that Warren Lewis edited, which takes the eminently sane path of collecting only the interesting bits of letters, and interspersing them with interesting bits out of Jack's diaries. Dare I say that Warren was in some ways a better editor of his brother's work than Hooper was? I do dare, because it's true. He didn't annotate but I don't hold this against him as it saved him from Hooper's deadly sin of overannotation.

The extent of the Lewis correspondence is vast, especially when you consider how very little pleasure it gave him. (A note to Dorothy Sayers: "Oh the mails: every bore in two continents seems to think I like getting letters. One's real friends are precisely the people one never gets time to write to.") Despite that—and may we give thanks for his sake that he was spared the indignities of email, which would have enabled even more total strangers to make unreasonable demands on his time—he wrote terrific letters. Did you know he had a long correspondence with a nun and used to sign himself Brother Ass? And here's the reason for this post, a particular gem I encountered in volume II (1931—1949). He's discussing Beatrix Potter in a letter to one Delmar Banner:
It was the Professor of Anglo-Saxon [i.e. Tolkien] who first pointed out to me that her art of putting about ten words on one page so as to have a perfect rhythm and to answer just the questions a child would ask, is almost as severe as that of lyric poetry. She has a secure place among the masters of English prose. He and I have often played with the idea of a pilgrimage to see her, and pictured what fun it would be to shoulder aside the mobs of people who want to show you all the Wordsworth places with the brief rejoinder "We are looking for Miss Potter."
Which is delightful. I'd known that Lewis loved Potter's work, especially Squirrel Nutkin—in some ways his totally unpretentious love of children's literature was one of his more appealing qualities; see also the bit in The Problem of Pain where he's talking about numinous awe and his first example is out of The Wind in the Willows—but I hadn't realized that he saw her as a serious artist to this extent, still less that Tolkien loved her too and the two of them were a sort of fan-club. This sort of thing is why even when Lewis says something infuriating (as he so often does!) I can never get properly mad at him; I criticize him of course, but emotionally I can only sigh and say "sit down, Jack," as though he were a troublesome uncle or a much-beloved family friend. I've known him too long: I know too many endearing little facts about him, and I'm too well-acquainted with his fundamental intellectual humility.

So what I want to know is chiefly
1: Did they ever meet, and
2: Do we know if she knew his work?

Question 1 is a great deal easier to answer than 2, at any rate with the materials I have on hand. The Banner letter reads as though they hadn't met (you don't go on a pilgrimage to see someone you're already acquainted with, do you?), and it's dated November 1942; Potter died just over a year later, in December 1943, and it's not inconceivable that the two could have met at some time in that window. This letter is the last reference to her in the volume, though, and glancing at several biographies I don't see any references to her apart from the fact that he enjoyed her work. So there's no correspondence, and if there was a meeting the Lewis biographers either don't know about it or haven't thought it worth mentioning. I can't approach the question from the other end because I haven't any works on Potter. (There's no reference in the Tolkien biography either.)

But there's one last means of finding out. The context of the original letter I cite is that Banner had asked him to visit, and Lewis said that he couldn't but would love to, especially if there was any chance of managing to visit Potter—who lived near him in the Lake Country. And then early in 1944 there's another letter to Banner wherein he writes "Less chance now than ever of my getting to your much desired valleys. My domestic difficulties grow worse daily and half my correspondence consists of refusing engagements which I should both like to, and ought to, accept." So by 1944 the desired visit to the Lake Country had not materialized. If it had, even or especially in the form of a "pilgrimage," it seems to me he would have mentioned it here, and so I'm almost certain that no meeting ever took place. It's not the answer I wanted, but the satisfaction of using research to answer a trivial but interesting question is so great that I don't mind in the slightest.

As always, if anyone has any contradictory knowledge—or any data on whether Potter ever read Lewis—please write in. Please join me also in the mental image of C.S. Lewis and Beatrix Potter as a superhero team-up and/or a crime solving duo. She's a genre-defining children's author, he's also a genre-defining children's author, she's a Lake Country sheep farmer, he's an Oxford don, they fight crime. Yes? Yes.

Nothing more on the Lewis project for now, though a proof of concept may show up here at some point in the nearish future. And I've got several other posts in the pipeline, but as I'm flying to the States tomorrow and will be moving back in to the dorms I expect I'll be fairly scatterbrained for a good while yet. Which is the other reason I've been reading Lewis of course; the combination of straightfowardness and familiarity is very soothing indeed.

5 August 2016

poetry friday: spine poems.

I've been reading a lot of Wodehouse lately—it seems to be about all I've been able to absorb, and there is after all a great deal to be said for the public domain. I mean to say there's something so civilized about free e-books. It does not, however, do much for my prose style; everything I've been trying to write has come out, when it comes out at all, frightfully Woosterish. This would of course be super if I wanted to write pastiche (and Wodehouse pastiche is a noble end provided you've got something interesting to say in it—see this or this) but under the circs it's rather less of a boon. In fact I've been dissatisfied with the progress of all my writing lately, which is part of the malaise that's driven me to these straits. In light of that I've decided to share some "writing" I'm not entirely displeased with: my spine poetry for the past few weeks.

Spine poetry is one of the three great book title games. The other two are the The Man Who Melted Jack Dann and "books that sound more interesting with the last letter of the title knocked off"; spine poetry is the easiest, and my favorite: it refers to the practice of making piles of books in such a way that the titles form a found poem. It's become a bit of a hobby of mine, though it's only an extension of my previous long-standing hobby of pottering around pulling books off of shelves. When you've got no words of your own, it's a delightful practice to make things out of other people's. I use almost exclusively books I've not read, since I don't want to be over-influenced by what I know of the contents. The only other thing is to note is that I apologize for the photo quality, which is—politely—inconsistent.

A closer walk
through gates of splendor,
through the wilderness of loneliness—
believing God,
waking the dead.

Silver on the tree—
everything is illuminated.
Little women
on wings of eagles:
fantastic voyage.

There is a land
before the fall.
School days,
infinite jest.

About grace?
Ordinary grace?
Sharp objects,
fates & furies,
flood of fire,
a brother's blood—
the culture of fear.

Life after life
among others.
Invisible cities,
fire and hemlock,
a stone for a pillow.
Comfort me with apples.

Here's the roundup.

3 August 2016

july bookblog.


Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Discussed here. 

Jo Walton, Necessity. Discussed here.

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven. A gorgeous and immaculately plotted novel, set before, during, and (mostly) after a civilization-ending flu epidemic. It's about healing, the connections between people, and the necessity of art. For all that it's an apocalypse story it never feels bleak—it's gentler, more melancholy than despairing. It's a very hopeful book.

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales. I am ultimately going to write a proper blog post about this. You can't expect me to sum this up in a single paragraph. However, my Chaucer blogging up to this point can be found here and here and here and here. There is more to come.

Ken Liu, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories. I've been meaning to read this essentially since it came out, since all the reviews were so good and it's got such attractive cover art, and I finally gave in and bought it when Amazon was offering it for 1.99 a few weeks back. It's a mix of fantasy and science fiction, and it's so good. This is a best-of rather than a themed collection, but Liu has some definite preoccupations—parent-child relationships, intergenerational friendships, storytelling as an act of love and heroism. It's an intensely life-affirming collection, and the prose is delicious. Some favorites: "State Change" is delightfully clever, "The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species" reads like neo-Calvino and I'd adore to write a paper on it, and "An Advanced Readers' Picture Book of Comparative Cognition" made me cry. Other great ones are "The Regular," "Mono No Aware," and "All the Flavors"—but really truly there aren't any duds here.

Chaucer, The Book of the Duchess. It's no Parliament of Fowls.

Diana Wynne Jones, Dark Lord of Derkholm. A re-read. This is from the same sequence as The Tough Guide to Fantasyland and Year of the Griffin. I read the other two first, and they're more to my tastes—Tough Guide is funnier, and Griffin is an academic fantasy, which has always been one of my favorite subgenres—so Derkholm came as a disappointment and I've never rated it very highly. Re-reading it after several years I was much more impressed. It's still not one of my very favorite books of hers—how could it be when there's Witch Week and Fire and Hemlock and Howl's Moving Castle?—but it's very good indeed.

Margo Lanagan, Tender Morsels. What a good book. I know, I'm late to the party—but what a good book. It's a retelling of the Grimms' fairy tale "Snow White and Rose Red," which was always one of my favorites. It's oddly structured and sometimes a bit confusing, but it's good for all that and I'd recommend it if you liked Kristen Cashore's Bitterblue; this is another woman-centered YA fantasy novel about trauma. (I know, I know, I really need to read Deerskin soon.) (Content warning for rape.)

Lauren F. Winner, Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity. I read Real Sex less because I was interested in it and more from a desire to finish all of Winner’s oeuvre; I'd already read all her others (well, except her dissertation). This one is worth reading, but it’s definitely an early work and I think her weakest book. (Rough ranking: Still, Wearing God, Girl Meets God, Mudhouse Sabbath, Real Sex.) I think you can also fairly criticize her for offering so much marriage advice in a book largely written before her marriage.

Rob Bell, How To Be Here. I was feeling insecure about how few books I've been finishing lately compared to how many I've been starting, so I went back and finished this one—I read most of it back when it came out. In many ways it's fairly standard Rob Bell; I don't think there's that much here that I haven't heard him say elsewhere. That doesn't mean it's not good, though. I'm a Rob Bell fan and I like some of the points he makes here, especially about the Sabbath. I have misgivings about his framing of that particular issue, but those misgivings are to be saved for the long essay about Sabbath-keeping. Which will happen! Eventually! Sometime before the last Lammas.

Rainbow Rowell, Eleanor & Park. I was underwhelmed with both Fangirl and Carry On (throughout Carry On I couldn't shake the feeling that nobody needs to read knock-off Harry Potter fanfiction from St. Martin's Press when there's a superabundance of the real thing on the internet), but I'd heard such good things about Eleanor & Park that I decided to give it a try. Apparently third time's the charm. I don't read very many straightforward romances, but this one was a delight, very sweet and believable. What no one had told me is that the characters read Watchmen. I swear, the whole world is conspiring to make me feel guilty for not having read Watchmen yet. It's really dated now probably! I howl to the whistling winter winds. I don't even like superheroes except for Ms. Marvel! Anyway I already read From Hell, isn't that enough for you? And the whistling winter winds reply, It won a Hugo award before the comics category was even introduced and anyway you love From Hell, you thought it was a masterwork, that should just make you more excited about reading Watchmen. The winter winds may not be as unkind as man's ingratitude, but they're still plenty unkind.

Joan Aiken, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. This is a children's classic that I somehow managed to miss reading. It's delightful, all plucky orphans and evil head teachers and secret passageways. It's been a while since I read a proper children's book, and it made me realize that my reading diet these days doesn't have nearly enough plucky orphans in it. I would have loved this if I'd read it in elementary school, and as it was I liked it a lot. The edition I read had a gorgeous Gorey cover, too, which put me in just the right mood.

Brian K. Vaughn & Fiona Staples, Saga: Volume Six. I mean, it's Saga. It's one of like two/three current comics that I keep up with, and if you want a fast-paced space opera comic about family, it continues to be the go-to. Volume six is the most recent trade paperback, and if I have a complaint about it it's that it's been several months since I read volume five and I had a bit of trouble getting back up to speed and remembering where we left off. I'm sort of looking forward to when this series is all over and collected and I can marathon it, like my periodic Sandman marathons. Even at this stage it's a blast though, and there's not a single plotline or character that doesn't interest me.

Elisabeth Tova Bailey, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating. Lovely and meditative, half memoir and half natural history. While Bailey was bedbound with a mysterious virus, a friend brought her a potted violet with a woodland snail in the pot. This book is about her illness and her time spent watching the snail, one might almost be moved to say becoming friends with it, and it's just really really wonderful.

Delia Sherman, The Freedom Maze. The review I read of this said that it was YA, but it isn’t at all—it’s a children’s book, and it’s a very good one. The obvious thing to do is compare it to Octavia Butler's Kindred, but I’m not sure that the comparison is either accurate or useful, though this is a time travel novel about slavery. If you've only got world enough and time for one time travel novel about slavery, it probably ought to be the Butler, but that's not to say that Sherman's book isn't worth reading. It stars thirteen-year-old Sophie, a white girl from Louisiana in the early 1960s. She makes a badly-thought out wish and is sent back in time to the eve of the Civil War, where her ancestors take her for a light-skinned slave. Sophie begins by doing what's expected of her to avoid detection, but by the time she's returned to her proper time her memories have changed so that she really does believe she is who everyone says she is. It's a very short novel, and a genuinely moving one.

C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed. It reads like C.S. Lewis stylistically and in that I recognize his ways of thinking, and not at all like Lewis in that nothing else of his is so... personal, I suppose, not even Surprised by Joy. It's more or less exactly the book you'd expect him to write, which is not even a little bit a critique.


Sixteen books by eleven women and six men. (Which comes to seventeen because I'm counting Fiona Staples, the illustrator of Saga, as an author.) One comic, four books of nonfiction, two MG, three YA, two Chaucer, the rest adult sci-fi/fantasy. Ten that I and family own, the rest from various libraries. Seven paper, eight digital.


I'm not doing a complete list this month of what I started and abandoned, because it's depressing. I tried and failed to read The Man in the High Castle, and I made it a few chapters into Life After Life before I got bored of it. I read most of The Odyssey, and I'm planning to finish it in the next few days. I've also been re-reading Frog & Toad books, which has been more or less where my mind is lately, and I'm working on Troilus and Criseyde. The last thing I started before the end of the month was Naomi Novik's Uprooted.

As of the end of July 2016, I've read 135 books since January. I'll see you next month with another pile!

1 August 2016

july linkblog.

Never say I don't provide you with relatable content, kids. I love Wikipedia a lot, and I’m fully prepared to issue a prize to the first person who guesses what article I got that screengrab from.


At Crooked Timber: Summer Reading for a Rainy Day.

“The English major barista is a myth in the sense of being untrue. It is also a myth in the deeper sense of that word: a story that a culture tells itself to explain wishes or fears. In this case, fears.”

So I didn’t actually tear up reading this NPR essay about the Great British Bake Off, but it was a very near thing. Gotta say though, it’s taking me a while to get used to hearing Americans call it the Great British Baking Show. I think it’s a copyright thing? It’s weird.

And another Bake Off essay, over on Mockingbird. The phrase “revolutionary compassion” is used, to my great delight. (Also, okay, you guys. I still haven’t watched all of that season but I know who won. I thought everybody knew who won. Do the Americans somehow not know who won? That’s adorable. Americans! Qu’est-ce que vous faites!)

Glory be, it’s a nuanced discussion of trigger warnings. I’m not certain I agree with all the conclusions, but it’s a very good read. I definitely agree with the point about the misunderstanding of what triggers are—this is why I only ever use the term “content warning.”

You Are The Cannibal Lobster-Man Of New England. Can You Become The Governor Of Maine? Okay, I know this is on ClickHole, but as it happens I unironically love ClickHole, and this is some genuinely terrific IF. Can you become the Governor of Maine? And should you?

Also at ClickHole: If Black Lives Matter Isn't A Racist Hate Group, Then Can Someone Please Explain To Me Why I Keep Insisting They Are?

IF-adjacent: a Twine-powered interactive self-care guide. I love Twine and I love seeing Twine be used for good. An "interactive self-care guide" is a thing that has the potential to be really saccharin and silly, but in fact it's relentlessly practical and concrete. A good thing.

IF-adjacent-adjacent: this month in literary games! And another new book I want to read.

BILL BILL BILL BILL” — all of Dr. Who fandom, at increasing volume

“moss-based embroidery” = new favorite phrase?

...though it's rivaled by "tilt-shift van Gogh."

Fantasy maven Jo Walton on her surprising cure for writer’s block. I hate the word maven, and I don’t think the surprising cure for writer’s block is all that surprising. (She does something boring to make writing look like the interesting option—I thought we all did some version of that?) Otherwise this is a really solid Q&A. She also gave Uncanny an interview in rhymed iambic pentameter.

The new Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, is a black woman! And an actual professional librarian rather than another scholar!

No links about the garbage fire that is US electoral politics, because I’m exhausted. Here’s Andrew Rilstone’s latest thing on Jeremy Corbyn instead. I dunno anymore. (This is not to say that UK politics is not a garbage fire. But it’s not my garbage fire, and I’m not responsible for it, which means that reading about it can still function as a weird kind of escapism. I'm not endorsing this behavior, just engaging in it.)

This is a good post about Cursed Child; I think the strongest point it makes is that there are only two good parental figures in the series—Molly Weasley and Narcissa Malfoy. I might expand this to include Arthur Weasley, but then Rowling is much less interested in him than she is in Molly. (The second strongest point is that Dumbledore is a bad teacher and a terrible father. I have been saying as much for years.)

Octavia Butler’s notes on writing Kindred!

“I suppose what's happening here is I'm coming to the shocking conclusion that Wittgenstein was a cleverer man than I am.”

“A Think Piece Response to the Open Letter to My Unborn Child About the Things Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew to Pray For: a Manifesto.” This is peak Evangelical satire, we can all go home now.

Old but good: The West Wing as SF; The West Wing as fantasy.

Why we write, but never underestimate an author’s ability to write an entire novel out of spite.

Why Calvin and Hobbes Is Great Literature.

At Tor, a new series on African SFF.

Continuing the AI-poetry theme from last month: Literary Magazine CuratedAI Publishes Only Poetry by Artificial Intelligences.

Guy Leaves Fake Animal Facts All Over Los Angeles Zoo.

I haven’t yet read this, but if I save it till next month I’ll forget about it: Mary Beard on the public voice of women. “I want to start very near the beginning of the tradition of Western literature, and its first recorded example of a man telling a woman to ‘shut up’; telling her that her voice was not to be heard in public.”

The Very Quiet Foreign Girls poetry group. A long and beautiful essay about a poetry group for refugee children.

Little House and the Art of Hiding Your Feelings.

The Mysterious Metamorphosis of Chuck Close.

Okay, we all know the Dark Ages are a myth, yeah? Okay, so enjoy this superb essay on why the Dark Ages continue to be a myth.

A fabulous blog post on my homegirl Penthesilea. "At the moment of her death, Achilles sees her face and either a) falls madly deeply in love with her (ugh) or b) feels really really guilty at what he has done. Either way, he weeps over her corpse, and the warrior Thersites makes fun of him for having feelings. Obviously Thersites has not been paying attention, because Achilles is basically a big squishy stress ball of feelings, that is the point of Achilles." It is the point of Achilles!

This month in webcomics: this is the best xkcd in literal years. I cannot remember the last xkcd that made me laugh this hard.