Monday, May 26, 2008

Bristol and Romanticism

A year ago when I taught a workshop at Wroxton College in Oxfordshire, one of the beginning poets was a charming and well-read man named Donald Gibson, originally from Belfast. I spent a memorable day with him and met his wife Christine, who is working on an advanced degree in English. They have a beautifully sited house high on a hill just outside Bath Spa. That’s a town I hadn’t visited since 1978—hard to explain, given its Georgian handsomeness and literary associations. Anyway, Donald and drove around town to refresh my memory; maybe it’s time to reread Persuasion, my favorite Austen novel. Also, starting out from his place, we made a wonderful two-hour hike up hill and down dale through some of the most ravishing countryside to be found anywhere. Pastures, sheep, horses, cattle, hamlets, Norman churches, and all of it in the leafy, flowery, cool month of May. Hard to say goodbye, but I’ve got this itinerary.

Each time I come to England, I try to see a city I haven’t visited before. This trip it’s Bristol (a half hour from Bath), a city not high on the tourist list, granted. But several facts about Bristol fascinate me, as they might any American who likes history and cultural history. First, when John Cabot made his voyage of discovery to Newfoundland, he left from the port of Bristol (in 1497, only five years after Columbus set out for the Indies). On the historical downside, Bristol was the main port for the British slave trade, which inevitably formed an infernal link with America. (Justice was slow, but eventually found its champion in Wilberforce, the great abolitionist. Lest we forget, Britain outlawed slavery in 1830, which puts the more laggard land of the free in unflattering light.) Another link, at the opposite coordinate of the moral compass, is Admiral Sir William Penn, whose son, noting that Charles II owed Penn Senior a lot of money for services rendered, agreed to accept payment in the form of a hefty land grant in the colonies; it was to become the state of Pennsylvania, named at Charles’s insistence for the father. Penn Junior wanted to call it Sylvania, period. Anyway, it became a safe haven for Quakers hindered from putting their convictions into practice by state intolerance. The Admiral’s tomb is found in Bristol, in the church of St. Mary Redcliffe.

I visited the church, a scaled-down jewel-box of perpendicular Gothic architecture, not so large as Bristol Cathedral, but more intact, and for me, more resonant historically. A small model of Cabot’s ship the Matthew is perched inside the door of the North Portal. Why? Because the ship was built nearby in the water below the red sandstone cliff that gives this quarter of Bristol its name. Also, St. Mary’s was the church of Thomas Chatterton, whose uncle was its sexton. Chatterton and his mother lived in a small house not a hundred yards away. One day Tom’s uncle took him up into the tower room, where the youth found some medieval mss. Also, some ancient parchment that had never been written on. Eventually TC wrote the imaginary poems of an invented Thomas Rowley, in Chatterton’s myth, the secretary for one William Cannynges, an actual Bristol plutocrat, whose polychrome tomb is found in the church. Proto-Romantic England swallowed the myth and showered praise on “Rowley”’s poems. This is plausible if we think back to Horace Walpole’s launching of the vogue for neo-Gothic architectural style, James McPherson’s Ossian forgeries, and the growing fatigue of readers who had grown weary of Augustan literary conventions. The Gothic has been with us ever since this late Georgian revival—often in subliterate, absurd, or camp incarnations. Never mind: it was one of the sources for Romanticism, a keystone of the new wave of feeling, mystery, moonlight, dreaminess, longing for the infinite, and inwardness that was about to sweep through Europe. We’ve never left Romanticism entirely behind, that’s clear at least. I see no sign that our culture wants to leave it behind, not even its “Gothic” component.

But here is a new theory about Chatterton’s death: it was no suicide. A scholar at Bristol University named Nick Groom has argued that TC had no reason to want to die. He wasn’t on the point of starvation at the time of his death, he was being paid for his writing, and he had a trip to the Continent planned. On the other hand, he was an opium aficionado, and he had like most fine upstanding writers of the time contracted an STD. In that period such diseases were treated with small doses of poison like mercury and arsenic. If the poet had also dosed himself with laudanum and then taken an arsenic pill, the interaction of the two toxins could certainly have caused his death. Of course the story of Chatterton’s suicide itself became a myth used by Romantic artists (for example, Keats’s poem about the “Chatterton, that marvelous boy”) and the painting by Henry Wallis at the Tate. This blog has already reflected on the magnetism that poet-suicides seem to contain for artists since the Romantic period. Why it does, exactly, I don’t know. Something to do with the irrational, Freud’s theoretical “death wish,” or some misplaced sense of the glamour of high risk.

Opium addiction takes us to Coleridge, many of whose poems are “Gothic” in the Romantic sense. Add De Quincey, Baudelaire, and Rimbaud to the picture, and we see that hallucinogens are part of the Romantic nexus as well. “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”— T.S. Eliot, who also claimed to be anti-Romantic, even though his poems don’t offer a lot of support for the assertion.

If you bring up Coleridge, you’ll soon speak of Wordsworth. Another gripping fact about Bristol is that almost exactly two hundred and ten years ago, a pivotal Romantic poem was written here. In July 1798, William and Dorothy Wordsworth made a special trip to Tintern Abbey in the Wye valley, participating in the vogue for things “Gothic,” as launched by Walpole and the first writers who drew on its hallucinatory appeal. The recommended way to visit the Abbey had for many years to approach the medieval ruin on a moonlit night, bearing a torch, so that mysterious shadows might be cast on pillars and tracery. The Wordsworths saw it by daylight, but the impression was still strong, for personal reasons as well as the charm of medieval architecture. During the return from their excursion, William began composing a poem in his mind, which he only put to paper once he and his sister were again in Bristol, Chatterton’s home town. Such is the origin of “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.” The irrational, the dream world, the Romantic version of Gothic art: All these threads seem to hang together in a strange, quasi-hallucinatory concatenation, one that seems inexhaustible…. (How did I come by the above facts? From the research I did while composing an essay titled “The Wordsworth Retrospective” some years ago. The essay is included in the upcoming collection to be published by Michigan Press in October.)

Speaking of concatenation, let me change gears by turning to one more of Bristol’s famous attractions: the suspension bridge built over the Avon Gorge by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, founder of the Great Western Railway. It runs from the old moneyed neighborhood of Clifton across to a part of the metro area that needed to be connected to the rest. Work begun in 1836 had to be suspended six years later for lack of funds; but the structure was finally completed in 1864—the world’s first suspension bridge. Brunel used chains and linked metal bars to attach the roadway to two tall stone piers lodged in the sides of the gorge. His design was unmistakably the prototype for the suspension bridges that John Roebling built in the United States decades later, with the added technological advantage of twined steel cable. Most of us already know about the Brooklyn Bridge. But preceding that by a decade or so was the Roebling suspension bridge in Cincinnati, which I go to know and admire when I did the Elliston poetry residency at the University of Cincinnati back in 1989. (I was living in a neighborhood of the city known as Clifton, which can’t be a coincidence.) There is a still earlier and smaller Roebling suspension bridge that connects Wheeling, WV, to Martin’s Ferry, OH, very familiar, no doubt, to the young James Wright. Has someone written a Ph.D. thesis on bridges in American literature? They should. Experience with these apprentice bridges obviously helped Roebling with his grandest project—which, however, he failed to complete before his death. But his son did finish it, and the rest is history and literature and visual art. (By the way, the New York poet Daniela Gioseffi has recently assembled a garland of poems about Brooklyn Bridge on her excellent website. Do look for it.)

One thing that struck me about the granddaddy of them all is that each of Brunel’s stone supports are pierced by a opening near the top perhaps thirty feet tall, an opening shaped like a parabola. Compare that to the twin ogival Gothic arches in each of the Brooklyn Bridge’s piers, and you’re forced to recognize that Brunel’s design is more scientific-mathematical than the later structure’s. Roebling wanted the artistic associations of the Gothic arch, as part of his transcendent conception of the work’s meaning. His bridge is, finally, a work as much Romantic as it is modern and practical. As the poets and artists moved by it quickly comprehended—including your blogger. But I suppose the most eminent poet bridger is Hart Crane, who bridges English Metaphysical poetry and the vision of the Brooklynite Walt Whitman.

"O, America, my new found land!”

Friday, May 23, 2008

In London

This is being written in London where I’ll stay for a week until time to go to Spain for the course I’m teaching at Almàssera Vella. It’s been about forty years since London first swam into my ken (see the Keats Chapman-Homer sonnet), and there have been a dozen visits since, three of them long term. I broke up my Guggenheim year into two three-month installments here, one in 1986, the second in 1987. Those months fed a novel I began around that time, later published under the title Part of His Story (still in print with Mid-List Press if anyone is interested). Another long-term stay came in 2005-2006. Though it wasn’t the main motive for coming here (London enthusiast that I am, I don’t really need one), a course I taught then for the Poetry School, which added some variety and company during those months. I also taught a week in Devon for the Arvon Foundation, my partner for the course the poet Mimi Khalvati. Mimi is unmistakably among the top poets writing now in England, though I’m not sure she is well known in the U.S.A. Her recent book The Meanest Flower was a T.S. Eliot Prize nominee, along with Fiona Sampson’s The Book of Common Prayer, but for some reason neither of these books won.

I don’t usually dabble in bean-counting where gender or ethnic categories are concerned, but it does seem to an outsider that women poets in England don’t quite get a fair shake. Most of the poetry editors of magazines are men (exceptions including Fiona, for The Poetry Review, and Martha Kapos for the summer issue of Poetry London, but not one of the big-name publishers has a woman who edits poetry; and few of the small presses for poetry have women editors. How to explain that? There’s certainly no lack of editorial ability here, Fiona being a prime example. Furthermore, I get the distinct impression that the lion’s share of the poetry readership here consists of women. (On the other side, let it be said that Anne-Marie Fyfe presides over the Poetry Society and runs the most visible poetry reading series, the Coffee Poetry evenings at the Troubadour Café. How she does all that, appears at so many literary festivals in Britain and her native Ireland, and still manages to write first-rate poems is a mystery to which only she has the key.) But my point remains: considering how progressive the British literary scene is, why has it lagged behind in finding women poetry editors for the trade book houses? Not that it usually counts for much, but no woman has ever served as Laureate here, either. Apparently Carol Ann Duffy is close to being tapped these days, or closer than she was, now that she has broken off her relationship with Jackie Kay. It seems a woman living in a unconcealed relationship with another woman wouldn’t suit the public, no matter that Duffy is probably (along with Roger McGough and Adrian Mitchell) among the most popular poets now publishing in the U.K.

This leads me to another curious fact. Although same-sex relations between consenting adults are perfectly legal here, and people of the same gender can marry, almost no openly gay poetry is published in Britain. Even Duffy’s lesbian poems are veiled, using the genderless “you” and other kinds of indirect expression typical of queer poetry during the years (what am I saying, centuries) when same-sex relations were taboo, not to mention illegal. Yes, there is James Fenton, but his love poems are all cast in the second person. The only really out-in-the open contemporary gay male poet I know of is Jeremy Reed, who twenty years ago used to be fairly well known but now has been pushed to the sidelines. And I’m sure there are younger gay poets, but they don’t seem to have acquired a wide audience yet. I hope I’m mistaken about this and that someone will correct an outsider’s view. The same goes for Ireland, as far as I know, despite the fact that some of their most famous novelists are gay—Colm Toibin and Jamie O’Neill, to be specific. And then apparently same-sex desire stops at the Scottish border, judging from the apparent absence of gay writing from that part of the island (Wait, though a resident in England now for many years, Duffy was born in Glasgow, so maybe she is the rule-proving exception.) Anyway, I wish someone could explain the weird and unnecessary reticence on the part of writers here insofar as gay experience is concerned. I thought the “No Sex, Please, We’re British” years were over. Even getting Boy George to fess up was apparently like wading through chilled tar.

I’m staying near the Barbican Centre in the City. I’m a fan of the City (as opposed to Westminster) because of its mysterious ancientness, its remnants of centuries of history, all the way back to bits of the original Roman wall built around tiny Lundinium. And yet City’s mostly passed up (excepting the Tower) by tourists, rabidly elbowing each other aside to see the changing of the guards or Big Ben. Finsbury seems to be the currently favored bohemian artist district, an easy walk from here. I just got back from a short expedition to Bunhill Fields Burial Ground, to pay respects to Blake and his wife Sophia, who are buried there, not far from Defoe and Bunyan. By the way, a couple of years ago Tracy Chevalier published a sensitive novel about the poet, or rather, a family that gets to know him. Title: Burning Bright. Recommended. I got acquainted with Tracy the last time I was living in London, when she was being talked about a lot for one of her novels The Girl with the Pearl Earring. There was a natural affinity based on, if nothing else, our respective fascination with Vermeer. Tracy’s an American, married to a U.K. citizen, and now a permanent resident here. Not to mention being a thoroughly likable person and a reader (obviously) of poetry. But then all the novelists I know read poetry, even those who don’t write it—which ought to help destroy the old cliché “Nobody reads poetry except other….”

Yesterday the stroll went in opposite direction, along Carthusian Street as far as the Charterhouse (the French for that would be La Chartreuse, as in the Stendhal novel). This is a tourist-free site because you don’t see much of the edifice from outside; only those attending Evening Prayer are allowed in, and, if you can take that in stride, the hidden courtyards and sanctuary are worth the detour.

From there I walked to the old Smithfield Market, a handsome Victorian limestone and cast-iron structure where, early mornings, meat is sold wholesale. It’s a venerable London fixture, built on the site of Bartholomew Fair (anyone read the Ben Jonson play of that name?), and was, traditionally, one of the roughest districts in London, as you might judge from the play. Walking through the market, you see commemorative plaques from several periods, one noting that William Wallace, the Scottish patriot, was drawn and quartered here early in the 14th century, his only crime having sought Scottish independence. Another plaque summarizes routine and extraordinary events that occurred at the market over the centuries. Those include “wife selling,” popular five hundred years ago. It’s explained that disaffected husbands used to bring their wives to Smithfield and sell their bodies; not for prostitution but as special viands. Unsuspecting wives were jumped, slaughtered, and carved up like veal—which sort of contextualizes Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. True, for us non-meat-eaters, the animals hanging on hooks embody a morality not at all defensible, either, but let that go.

I walked on to St. Bartholomew’s the Great, an older church than Westminster Abbey, similar in construction material (flint, limestone) to Southwark Cathedral; but less often visited. You can see it if you rerun that bit of nonsense Shakespeare in Love, but the movie doesn’t identify the church or attempt to explain what it’s doing in WS’s biography. An interesting fact for Americans is that during a period when the building was secularized and broken up into shops, young Benjamin Franklin worked as a printer’s devil there.

Restored in the 20th century, it was one of John Betjeman’s favorite churches, in fact, he lived in a little flat just opposite on Cloth Fair Street, as a blue marker will tell you if you look for it. Nowadays on the ground floor of his building, there’s a rather stylish pub bearing his name. During the hour of my walk, I saw Londoners engaging in their favorite after-workday occupation: hanging out at pubs, or in good weather spilling outside onto the pavement, pints of bitter in hand. Pub after pub and the same phenomenon. And the snuggeries all have such quaint names, more than half of them metaphorically decipherable as referring obliquely to sex.

I’m struck again by what a leafy-green city London is as compared to other world capitals. Parks everywhere, little squares, gardens, brick walls with elderflower peeping over them. Late spring is a good time to be here, when the leafage is mint-fresh and many shrubs (like elder) are in flower. It all feels very, very familiar now; and Wordsworth’s lines about the “meanest flower that blows” (Intimations Ode) keep coming to mind, with “thoughts too deep for tears” as I look back over my four decades of visiting this city.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Aesthetics and physiology

Freedom of expression: there's an ideal I can get behind. I entirely concur with J.S. Mill's concept concerning the arena of philosophical (or political or aesthetic) debate. If we have freedom of expression, the best and strongest arguments will carry the day eventually. And weak or hysterical or cheap or mean-spirited arguments will be shown up as just that. They fall under their own gavel.

There's a sort of interesting TV show called Numbers, one of whose installments I saw recently. The charming lead, a young mathematical philosopher, made the point that human beings can't be expected to like just anything: our organs of perception, our neurons, and our mental capacity limit the field of what can attract us, just as they dictate what will repel us. If we narrow the focus a bit to the field of aesthetics, this observation is a restatement of something Nietzsche once said: "Art is applied physiology." Actually, the word "aesthetic" is derived from Greek aisthesis, which means "sensation." Aesthetic experience begins in sensation and develops into something beyond perception. As human beings we can't truly like just any old or odd thing, even if told we should. Sometimes when told we really must, we try to like something we're simply not wired to enjoy--I suppose out of a desire to please the person telling us to like this or that or some other thing. But doing so comes at some cost to our instincts. I'm not saying that first reactions are always trustworthy. We can sometimes be led to like and even to adore artworks we didn't immediately cotton to. But after dozens of tries, after proper instruction and explanation, we still find a work of art tiresome or revolting, why ignore what we feel?

Marxist aesthetics assumes no permanent fixtures in experience; it asserts that human consciousness is a tabula rasa and that we can be programmed to get pleasure from any object, process, or artwork that history has decided we "should" approve of. So that, for example, if history decides we should value as an artwork, what, oh, a five-hundred pound block of concrete sculpted in the shape of a prickly pear and oozing a pinkish-orange pus that has the smell of ozone and commercial "air freshener," then we must, absolutely must, like such sculptures. To which a good reply is: "Sorry. I'm just not wired that way." History will have to go about its business without our particular aesthetic votes of confidence.

Nietzsche's statement was made long before Chomskian theories about language development had been presented. Linguists before Chmsky had been arguing, again, that the human mind begins in infancy as a tabula rasa, and that any sort of grammar could be imprinted on it. But Chomsky observed that, in practice, only a limited number of grammatical features ever appeared in the world's thousands of languages. Which confirmed his hunch that the neurological structure of the brain includes certain processes while it excludes certain others. I think Chomsky is right. And his theory has a bearing on the making of art. Not all possible approaches, combinations, dissonances, amplitudes, discontinuities, repetitions, and insistences can be experienced with anything like pleasure. And where there is no pleasure at all, there can be no art.

Yet we have, as an audience, been browbeaten into putting aside our own instincts and responses in favor of many kinds of art that really have nothing to offer in the way of pleasure; or if they do, a pleasure at several removes from direct, sensory appreciation. The arid "pleasures" being inculcated include the self-congratulatory conviction that the audience is part of a small, rightminded group possessing the best ideas; that this group is on the progressive side of things; that the grating or empty or trivial artworks proposed for this group's appreciation contain the appropriate "message" or attitude for us all; that direct pleasure (or "positive cathexis," to use Freud's term) is a banal cliche', unworthy of the sophisticated art consumer. It's a strange kind of asceticism, better suited for, say, the Trappist order of monks. Asceticism or even masochism. We flagellate ourselves with really awful art. Why? Because we "should."

But really, should we? How long can we defy our own physiology and neural organization? I notice that two writers in recent years have published books on the theme of the return of beauty. Elaine Scarry and Zadie Smith. Coincidence? A shift in the wind? The arena of ideas will decide.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

At the Artists' Colony

Too busy! So I haven’t written here, spending most of my work hours reading proof for the new edition of The Poem’s Heartbeat. The least appealing part of publishing a book, to my taste. Anyway, to pick up the thread from last blog: when I took Amtrak to Hudson, an unanticipated pleasure was the company of Ann Lauterbach, who happened to be sitting in the seat across the aisle. We caught up a bit, exchanging news and thoughts about friends in common. Time passed quickly, as though on automatic pilot, and there we were in Hudson. Jeffrey Lependorf was there to meet me. He is the ploymath, multitasking head of the CLMP, who also happens to be a startlingly original composer and virtuoso performer on the shakuhachi (ancient Japanese flute). And besides all that a kind, thoroughly likable guy.

I stayed as a guest at the Ledig Rowohlt artists’ colony (also known as Art/Omi since it’s located in the hamlet of Omi, several miles from Hudson). I asked if there were any connection between this Ledig Rowolt and a colony called the Château de Lavigny in Switzerland, formerly the country place of the German publisher Ledig Rowohlt. (His wife’s will specified that it should become a residence for artists after her death; or so I was told when I stayed at Lavigny eight years ago. (It’s in the Pays de Vaud, the French-speaking part of Switzerland, with perspectives onto vineyards, mountains and Lac Leman.) Jeffrey explained as we drove out that there was no administrative connection, even though Art/Omi’s founder named it after the celebrated publisher. Anyway, it’s in a beautiful setting, surrounded by broad pastures and distant wooded hills, plus a sculpture park. And I was reminded what an enormously helpful enactment of arts patronage the establishment of these residences has been. I’ve stayed at many of them, beginning with Yaddo and then the Djerassi Foundation, the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Rockefeller Study and Conference Center at Bellagio (on Lake Como) and as said the Château Lavigny. In additionto allowing you to get your work done, residencies are a chance to meet other artists, many of them topnotch in their field. At Yaddo, nearly twenty years ago, I met the novelist Kathleen Hill, now one of my closest friends. A later meeting there with David Del Tredici led to his using a couple of poems of mine as the basis for musical works. At Bellagio, I got to know the mischievously funny Henry Louis Gates, Jr., whose keen and subtle intelligence I admired from the first. He was also the sharpest dresser amongst all the fashion failures exemplified by scholars and writers. At the Château de Lavigny, I got to know the first-magnitude Polish poet Adam Zagajewski and his astute, sensitive, and beautiful wife Maya. At MacDowell, there was the subversively ironic yet sunny Lisa Yuskavage. And so on et alia. You don’t always stay in touch with artists met under these circumstances, but when you do reunite, it always has the feeling of homecoming weekend.

Art/Omi has the reputation of being more international than most colonies, and the assertion was confirmed by the event. At table that first night were Samuel Shimon, a writer born in Iraq and now living in London, where he edits a journal for new Arab writing called Banipal; Denise Leith, an Australian non-fiction writer whose subject is human rights issues; Mercedes Cebrián, a new novelist and poet from Spain; and Claudia Schreiber, a novelist from Germany. Samuel and I soon discovered we had writer friends in common on the London scene and elsewhere. I was struck by the truth that there really is a kind of esprit de corps among artists, who are able to replace narrow nationalisms and sectarianisms with the more general values of human rights and freedom of expression. In an era where United States international politics come under fire nearly everywhere, it was a relief to see that this cosmopolitan group were aware of progressive American opposition to what’s going on. I don’t know if at this point Obama can pull the U.S. out of its nosedive, but I certainly hope he gets a chance to try.

I’m not gong to say much about the CLMP event the following evening in Hudson, though certainly it was a lift to see friends there, including the novelist Lynne Tillman, a new acquaintance I’ve quickly bonded with. The other reader was the novelist Amy Scheibe, and the emcee was Sarah Burns, a cheerful, down-to-earth literary agent. Afterward, some of us went over to the house Jeffrey L. shares with his partner Eric Kennahan and had a light supper. Then back to Ledig Rowohlt.

I dropped my stuff off in my room before going over to the main house to have dessert with the residents. Surprise! As I stepped out the door there was Ravi Shankar (see the blog for March 28), his wife and child, plus a man I didn’t know. That turned out to be Sudeep Sen, probably India’s best known contemporary English-language poet. Ravi and he had been making whistle stops in Connecticut to promote Ravi’s new Norton anthology of Asian poets; which is why I hadn’t met Sudeep the previous night. We all joined the other residents and spent several hours exchanging thumbnail bios, and discovering friends in common. In the week since we met, I’ve been reading over Sudeep’s poetry, trying to define what it is that this new Indian English-language tradition brings to the global literary conversation. I think it’s safe to say that contemporary Indian authors are the 21st-century equivalent to what Latin American writers were in the 1970s and 1980s. Who can explain how these shifts happen? (I’m going to use today's blog as an arbitrary excuse to say that I prefer those writers born in India to V.S. Naipaul, who seems laughably overrated to me; and who seems to enjoy underrating his competition.) But it doesn’t matter how or why it happened, the facts are what they are. And you can also point out that Indian artists were achieving great things a long time ago. There is the elder statesman novelist R.K Narayan, and one should place beside him the very great film-maker Satyajit Ray, surely one of the indispensable figures in 20th century cinema. India: Even to speak that ancient name strikes a chord for any inhabitant of this continent, which five centuries ago saw European visitors only because the latter were looking for the Asian Indies.

There’s more to say, but a blog shouldn’t try reader’s patience. I was going to comment on th experience of rereading of Akhmatova’s Requiem, but that can be put off till another day. Although, granted, the May 11 holiday, to the extent that it isn’t a pure product of the greeting-card industry, would be a good fit for the discussion. Can’t do everything.

Thursday, May 1, 2008


Weather in New York turned lovely yesterday afternoon, though it had been cold and wet the days before that. I braved lashing rain to meet Marilyn Hacker for lunch in the Village, where we exchanged news over our meal for better than an hour. There is a keenness to Marilyn's intellect and a passion for the people and causes she cares about. But we've known each other so long she seems the next thing to being a family member. A truth I often return to is that I am very, very lucky in my friends; and in times of transition like this one, friends, almost more than anything else, help you remember who you are... (Case in point: a delicious dinner that evening with Karen Clark and Jonathan Bernstein on the upper West Side. The other guest was Elise Buchman, who, along with Karen was a student in a class I taught at CCNY earlier in the year.)

Yesterday at the end of the work day I met Jonathan Galassi at the new address of the offices of Farrar, Straus and Giroux on 18th St. We had a pleasant hour together before both went our ways to dinner. He is one of the most qualified editors in the business, no doubt because he is a poet himself and, unlike so many, has actually read all the good books.

I met with my agent Mitchell Waters at Curtis Brown this morning to make plans about the novel (my second) that he is representing. He showed me some of he new books he helped find a berth for, and all in all, it was a productive meeting.

Next I had lunch with Ben Downing, whom I met when I was teaching in the Writing Division at Columbia back in the 1990s. He has published a book of poems and many brilliant literary essays. The latter are so fine I have a feeling that prose is eventually going to supplant poetry for Ben entirely; but maybe not. He also works as a co-editor with Herb Leibowitz, the founder of Parnassus magazine. I went to his place on 10th Street and met his French pug Tallulah, what the French would call une jolie laide, and certainly as sweet-natured as that breed can be. Ben's wife Michele was out, and his daughter Cordelia at school, so we found a lunch place nearby and had a good time shouting out opinions and jokes over the typical din of a popular Manhattan restaurant.

Sum total: a wonderfully restorative week in my former home base, a city I know like the back of my hand. Actually, years ago, I put together a long poem about New York, published as the title work in A Call in the Midst of the Crowd(1978). Like Paterson, which was one of my models, it intersperses prose documents about the history and geography of New York among the lyric and narrative sections. As for genre, it definitely falls into the "modern poetic sequence" category that was the subject of a thoughtful panel at the last AWP Conference, moderated by Yerra Sugarman. I was one of the participants, along with Reginald Shepherd, Alicia Ostriker, Fady Joudah, and Grace Schulman. At the time I thought I should have written about it here, but it was a crowded month for me and it slipped by.

Tomorrow I go to Hudson for the CLMP event.