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Tami Haaland
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When I came to Billings, I heard, vaguely, that Robert Frost had visited several times and somehow had family ties here. I knew he was raised in California and had western roots, but these ties came much later in his life. Robert and Elinor Frost’s youngest daughter, Marjorie, came to Billings in 1933 when she married Willard Fraser, who would later become one of the city’s most beloved mayors. Sadly, Marjorie died an untimely death from childbed fever not quite a year later. Robert and Elinor didn’t travel to Billings for the wedding, but Marjorie’s illness brought them here immediately, and they stayed for seven weeks until her death and afterwards to help with the new baby. Robin Fraser grew up here and graduated from the local high school in 1952, with her grandfather as commencement speaker. The letters provide some information about Robert and Elinor's stay in Billings. Their mail was forwarded to 244 Burlington Avenue, though I don’t know for certain if they stayed there. Visiting the Frost house in Shaftsbury, Vermont brought some doubt to my mind because Elinor Frost was pictured at another location, though that doesn't mean anything either. She could have been visiting someone. The focus of their letters in that period is on Marjorie, her suffering and their loss, with the forwarding address as the primary clue to location. One way or another, I like to think of them when I drive past. After Marjorie’s death, Robert Frost spoke at Eastern Montana College, now Montana State University Billings, and at Rocky Mountain College, though nothing seems to remain from those talks. In 1952, however, he visited both campuses again. The lecture he gave at MSUB was recorded and appears in the Norton collection, Robert Frost: Speaking on Campus. In this presentation, he talked at length about metaphors and other figures of speech, one of his favorite subjects, and ulteriority, which he defined in this talk as “double meanings”: There are figures of speech, metaphors, that have more lasting value than others. But all of them, you learn—as you read poetry—you learn to know that you must leave ‘em; love ‘em and leave ‘em. They have their beauty. . . . That’s all. . . . Some poems are almost without that ulteriority. But almost always there’s a figure within the poem, scattered figures in details or in a figure of the whole. He goes on to say that “intimation” and “hinting” are other words one might use to describe ulteriority (25). I think of it as the subtlety of good metaphors whose surface might be deceptively simple. Marjorie’s poetry shows this quality of ulteriority just as her father's poetry does. The Frosts contemplated whether to publish Marjorie’s poetry after her death, and ultimately they decided that they would. Her small volume, Franconia, came out in 1936. You can read more about their story and hers by digging through the letters (You can also find an essay about her in These Living Songs: Reading... Continue reading
Posted Dec 28, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
On a chilly October afternoon a group of us met at Milltown State Park in western Montana. We stood above the Clark Fork River where we could see the Blackfoot River flow in from the north, and together they make their way westward, eventually spilling into the Columbia and flowing into the Pacific. Historically the park is a passageway, has always been a passageway not only for rivers but for the Salish and other Northwestern tribes moving out to the plains to hunt bison, or for various waves of settlers moving always farther West. Now, there is a steady hum of traffic from I-90 with additional cars coming down Highway 200 to meet the Interstate. The tiny towns of Bonner and Milltown are below, with East Missoula only a little farther West and Missoula past the bend in the river and Hellgate Canyon a few miles away. It is impossible to recreate a pristine sense of what it must have been like pre-automobile and train, but the place is serving the same function as it always has, and so as we began our journey through this landscape, we talked about accepting all sensory detail, traffic noise alongside bird call and wind in the trees, as part of what characterizes this location. This was another of the Humanities Montana programs offered in conjunction with State Parks. The park ranger, Mike Kustudia, and two Americorp employees joined in the hike. We began by gathering in a circle and reading a short passage from N. Scott Momaday: “There are certain villages and towns, mountains and plains that, having seen them, walked in them, lived in them even for a day, we keep forever in the mind’s eye. They become indispensable to our well-being; they define us, and we say: I am who I am because I have been there, or there” (from the essay,“Sacred and Ancestral Ground”). This quotation appeals to me because it removes the stigma of being new to a place; it places the emphasis on engagement rather than duration, and it is in the nature of the park system to welcome new visitors. We hiked through the forest along a deer path, past a huge elderberry whose purplish berries seemed almost floral in the crisp fall air, and arrived at an overlook with its placards about wildlife, geology, the people who traditionally moved through this landscape, and Copper Baron William A. Clark, who owned a large ranch below where we stood. It was Clark’s idea to build a dam there so that he could float logs down the Clark Fork to the mill. Of course he had a hand in the mill, as he had a hand in Montana politics and anything else that might serve his purposes. While the dam may have seemed like a good idea at the time, it was unfortunate that a massive flood happened soon after its creation, bringing loads of toxins down the Blackfoot from the mine above and depositing it in the reservoir... Continue reading
Posted Dec 14, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
For years I’ve been on the Humanities Montana “Conversations” roster, a speaker’s bureau arrangement that sends many of us around the state on various adventures. This past Monday, for example, I spent two hours at Skyview High School in Billings working with seniors who had written research papers and were in the process of turning them into poems for the oral presentation part of their assignment. This fall, the current poet laureate, Lowell Jaeger and I, spend a day with teachers in the far eastern side of the state talking about how to work poetry into their curriculum. We've both visited many schools, along with ghost towns like Virginia City, county fairs, book festivals, libraries, and other events from one end of the state to the other. The Poet Laureate role means somewhere around 10,000 miles of travel, and though my term ended in 2015, I’ve continued to provide poetry-related presentations. Last spring, Humanities Montana asked a few of us—Lowell Jaeger, Caroline Patterson, Dave Caserio and yours truly—to come up with proposals for state park events that would deepen people’s experiences in these areas by introducing writing, art, poetry and discussion. We were all excited about this prospect. In years past I had partnered with a local land institute to offer poetry workshops on the prairie. I’ve also created hiking / creative writing classes for my students. We hiked locally and explored a favorite trail in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, stopping to read poetry, write, and share our work along the way. This new opportunity sounded like great fun, and I said yes when the ranger at First People’s Buffalo Jump State Park contacted me to arrange a September event. First Nations Buffalo Jump was heavily used from 900 to 1500 BCE, before the introduction of horses dramatically changed the culture of the plains. At this site, fourteen different tribes from around the Northwest would gather periodically to herd buffalo over a cliff and in this way provide sustenance for a season or two. Some might consider the site desolate. The prairie can strike people that way because it’s so arid, and by September, there isn’t much green left in the panoramic view. Up close, wild flowers, juniper, or sage offer a splash of color in contrast to the sandy soil and straw-colored grasses of late summer. From the prairie below, the ridge above looks modest. It’s hard to see the steep drop off. This site is a bit out-of-the-way on the road between Great Falls and Helena, a few miles from a small town called Ulm. Three people joined me at the buffalo jump, a former student who drove four hours from Roundup, composer and pianist Philip Aaberg and his friend who were en route from Chester to Helena. We started with a historic overview of the buffalo hunt. The ranger told us how a 13-16-year-old boy was chosen to be the buffalo runner. He would wear a buffalo calf robe, and he, in turn, would choose two friends to... Continue reading
Posted Dec 7, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
Long ago, during the summer when I graduated from high school and turned eighteen, I went to Europe with the Montana Youth Choir. It was the usual month-long, fast-paced trip through eight or nine countries with buses and tour guides. We were endlessly in awe of the world and ourselves walking around in it, singing in places like Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. It’s the sort of thing many young people do every year, and for me, as with so many others, it was a lucky introduction to a larger world. One unusual part of that trip was our passage through Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin. Our choir directors warned us to keep our cameras out of sight and to be highly respectful when a guard would likely walk through our bus, a curious, almost smiling guard, as it turned out, who nevertheless carried a machine gun. I remember the barbed wire on top of the wall but what stuck with me most was a row of landmines and a row of red geraniums neatly spaced on the East Berlin side. When we drove into the city, it was as if the war ended yesterday. The buildings were ragged and pock marked in contrast to the sparkling newness of West Berlin. When I was planning this trip, I thought I would go back to Berlin, go back to Paris, see as much as possible while I was in Germany and maybe go to other countries as well. Last summer I went briefly to Stavanger, Norway for the first time, a three-day side trip from England, to see relatives and the family farm, purchased in 1799. It was a thrill, and I wanted so much to return, thought I might jet up there again for a day or two, the equivalent of my jetting over to Winchester for a couple of days. Fortunately, before I left the U.S. I had a conversation with a friend who wisely advised me to go for immersion rather than making more whirlwind journeys, even to a place that feels like home. Or to places like Paris and Berlin which would also require more planning and more time. When I went to Strasbourg the train would have arrived only two hours later in Paris, and I felt a bit of longing as I stepped off rather than continuing on. But the idea of immersion is what I tried to stick to, especially given teaching obligations and other events that began to fill my schedule. Outside of my brief episode in England, which was easy and familiar, I stayed mostly in southern Germany. Even in that decision, I felt the daily pull, which I have mentioned in previous posts, teeter tottering between walking into town or hopping on a train to someplace new. Ultimately, I’m pretty happy with the balance that governed my days. On my last Sunday there, I took the train to Heidelberg and spent hours walking, first downtown, then up to the castle—a sort... Continue reading
Posted Nov 30, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
On one of my last days in Germany, I went to Marbach, only a few minutes by train from where I was staying. I had considered it over the previous weeks because it was Friedrich Schiller’s birthplace, but I didn’t realize the Schiller National Museum along with an extensive Literature Archive is the centerpiece of the town. Schiller was born in Marbach in 1759, when his father served in the military for the Duke of Württemberg who lived in Ludwigsburg. Later Schiller’s father retired to manage the parks, forests, and botanical gardens I have mentioned in earlier posts. Now these areas provide public space for the city, but at that time they were part of the Duke’s plantations and hunting grounds. I wonder if young Schiller skipped along the tree-lined walkways or whether his father created some of the nearly hidden pathways through the vegetation around the castle. Because of his father’s connection to the Duke, the Schiller family was subject to the Duke’s wishes, and when Friedrich reached the age of thirteen, the Duke insisted he be sent to military school. The family had hoped he would become a minister, but the education he received allowed him to study medicine and law. Still, the Duke’s intrusion into the family sparked a life-long interest for Schiller in how power can be abused, a theme that appeared in his first play, The Robber. It was performed in Mannheim, and Schiller spent time in jail because he failed to ask permission to leave Ludwigsburg. In addition to jailing him briefly, the Duke also insisted he never write drama again. It wasn’t long before Schiller sought asylum and refused to abide by the Duke’s orders. The elegant museum devoted to his legacy opened in 1903. There are no English translations for the exhibits as in many German museums, but it is a rare treat to see the handwriting, portraits and personal effects of so many writers. One wing of the classically designed museum is devoted exclusively to Schiller. A wall of portraits dominates the first room, and additional rooms are focused on his letters and manuscripts. For me, the pages that show his revisions—lines crossed out or arrows that specify where lines should be moved--are favorites because they reveal more about the mind at work than pages with a perfect surface. Beyond the manuscripts, I found myself admiring a rough drawing he made of his arm and closed fist. One room contained his clothes—two sets—one more formal than the other. Something about these personal items—his hat, his shoes, his mirror—provide the imagination with more access to the mystery of the person than any of the portraits. He owned a large quartz crystal and several prisms, and I can only assume he was fascinated by light. The second major wing of the museum houses the work of his contemporaries—Goethe, Hölderlin, Kant, Mörike and many others. Here, there are only small samples, a page or two from each person with presumably many more stored in... Continue reading
Posted Nov 23, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
My time in Germany is coming to a close, and for the past week I’ve been conflicted each day about whether to stay in Ludwigsburg or head out on the train to other parts of Germany, France, or Switzerland. In Ludwigsburg, I can walk through Favoritepark and the palace botanical garden on my way to downtown or choose a slightly different direction and stroll the palace gardens of Monrepos. The town has become familiar to me now, and I like having my small apartment as a home base. On the other hand, I would like to see as much as possible before I go back to Montana. The Favoritepark train platform is three minutes away. I can take the S4 to Stuttgart Hauptbahnhof (main station), and from there, a person can go anywhere. With the Deutsche Bahn phone app, it’s a breeze to buy an inexpensive ticket. Last Tuesday I visited Strasbourg, just over the French border. The town has a long history of independence dating back several hundred years and is now the site of the European Union Parliament. When I arrived at the main station, I asked for directions at the information desk, and it was easy from there. I walked along cobblestone streets until I arrived at Strasbourg Cathedral, distinct from many other cathedrals because of its pink stone. Once inside I sat near a pillar for some time thinking about who had been there, who was here now, how many hands over how many years contributed to this stunning space. Among its regular visitors, for a time, was Johannes Wolfgang von Goethe. He spent a year studying law at the University in Strasbourg and made a regimen of climbing to the outside balcony of the cathedral. There he would quiet himself, then step out onto a small platform with no railing, and in this way he would address his vertigo. In his autobiography, he speaks about this exercise as a pivotal experience. It allowed him to overcome his fear of heights, which then allowed him to see and do more in his subsequent travels to Italy and elsewhere. After I returned from Strasbourg that evening, I spent one day and part of the next walking around Ludwigsburg or staying in my apartment with notebooks and computer, sometimes glancing out the window at the train platform. Then, around noon on Thursday, I made a spur of the moment decision to go to Tübingen. Unlike many German cities, Tübingen wasn’t bombed during World War II. Germany is a patchwork depending on where the bombs fell, with some cities almost entirely decimated and then rebuilt afterwards with simpler, unadorned surfaces. But in Tübingen, the medieval city center is still intact and lively with small shops and many bookstores leading to the university. Narrow cobblestone streets curve up and down above the Neckar River that borders the old city. The castle, high on a hill above these buildings, now belongs to the University and houses ancient art ranging from 40,000-year-old... Continue reading
Posted Nov 16, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
I was in Winchester, England, this week to offer a poetry workshop at Winchester College, a boarding school founded in 1382. The students, teachers, and I met in a room of the college library. We read Sandra Alcosser’s “What Makes the Grizzlies Dance,” and I shared two of my own poems featuring deer, grizzly bears, and butterflies, all leading to a prompt about encounters with animals. The students told me they weren’t accustomed to this kind of writing, yet they had plenty to say and volunteered to share their work with each other. This wasn’t my first visit to Winchester. I’ve been here several times to meet with colleagues or students at the University of Winchester, and nearly always, someone will mention Keats’ visit to the city two hundred years ago. He wrote “To Autumn” there in September 1819, and visitors can follow the walk thought to inspire the poem—around the cathedral, down College Street, past the house where Jane Austen died only two years before in 1817, past Winchester College and along the River Itchen, one of the chalk rivers of southern England. An article in the Guardian, however, says the view from St. Giles Hill may have inspired Keats as he looked down on fields recently purchased by a wealthy banker. The poem, seen in this light, has an edge of social commentary during a time when landowners monopolized the harvest, and food prices were high. Scholar Nicholas Roe suggests that patterns in “To Autumn” parallel the sensibility of King Alfred the Great (849-899 CE), famous for driving the Vikings out of England but also a poet and a humanitarian who argued for translation so that more people, men presumably, could be educated. A large statue of King Alfred stands near the ancient entrance to Winchester, though it wouldn’t have been there in Keats’ day. Regardless of where he walked, and I imagine he walked in various places over the course of two months, Keats would not have been the first poet to combine multiple sources of inspiration into one poem. Apples, fields, flowers, river, swallows and gnats appear in his lines, and like a painter, he did not simply imitate what he saw but created his own design. It may even be that the rhythm of walking influenced his poem. Rumor has it that Keats intended to stay longer in Winchester so that he could use the library at Winchester College. I’m curious what he wanted to research, or maybe he just wanted to prowl through books. In any case, Winchester College refused access because he was not a gentleman. In his letters, Keats complained about the absence of a “tolerable library," but he admired the bookstore on College Street, then called Robbins and now P & G Wells. Around the corner is The Wykeham Arms, a pub he was said to frequent. Hearsay surrounds Keats’ brief time in Winchester and a good deal is documented through letters and scholarship. In snooping about, other details have surfaced.... Continue reading
Posted Nov 9, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
For the next few weeks, I’m living in a small apartment in Ludwigsburg, near Stuttgart, Germany, and on the weekends, I’ll be teaching a brief seminar on Montana literature at Pädagogische Hochschule Ludwigsburg or Ludwigsburg University of Education. Since I arrived on Monday, I’ve been settling into time zone and location, organizing my life, and walking. I like the way travel focuses a person on basic concerns—where to sleep, what to eat, how to return after venturing out. It appeals to my inner hunter-gatherer. Rather than using GPS, I prefer to discover where the road goes, a method that does not guarantee success but is satisfying on its own. So far, I’ve come across crisp fallen apples, fresh blackberries along a walking path, and kale planted at the end of a field for anyone to pick. The Waldorf School just above the campus seems to be surrounded by small farms, complete with resident goats, and today there were perhaps fifteen small wild sheep called muffelwild in Favoritepark. Favoritepark is a small forest situated directly beside the campus leading first to a colorful hunting lodge and then to the palace built by Duke Eberhard Ludwig who famously said, “There are already enough boring towns.” Ludwigsburg is not old by the usual standards. It’s an 18th century city that developed because of the Duke, and it is lovely and spacious, full of trails designed for walking and biking. One path I especially like is the Planetenweg that connects Ludwigsburg to other towns on a path where large steles with sculptures on both sides represent the planets, and the entire system is built to scale. Made by students at the University, these steles feature dismembered human/god figures in relief on the front side and engraved images on the back, where parts of the body are connected but less recognizable, more like a being made of fire. Exhibited on a tree-lined walking path, these sculptures extend out from a gold metal sphere that represents the sun. There is something about seeing the dismembered Erde, or Earth, that feels ominous. I don’t know if this is intentional since all of the figures are similarly portrayed. Because I don’t know German well, I go through the motions of reading the explanatory plaques, and then I make things up. I recognize some words and add my own false assumptions, as if conducting that familiar writing exercise of creating a poem by pretending to translate an unfamiliar language. I imagine climate change and a troubled world as I view this portrait of the Earth, but I don’t think that’s what the students had in mind. Apparently Ludwigsburg is also the center of Swabian poetry. The first night I was here, my hosts mentioned the Swabian dialect, which is connected to a 2000-year-old ethnic group in this area. Friedrich von Schiller, from Marbach am Neckar, and Eduard Mörike, who was born in Ludwigsburg, appear to be the two most prominent poets connected to Swabia. In the 19th century, Longfellow... Continue reading
Posted Oct 31, 2018 at The Best American Poetry
One of Governor Bullock’s assistants called me on the July 22 to ask if I was still interested in becoming the next poet laureate of Montana. I said yes, and I agreed to keep it quiet until the first of August when the news was due to surface. Once it became public, good wishes came in, many more than I expected. I thought maybe no one would notice, but people notice, and then there were a few local interviews, and I signed an oath of office to promote poetry in the state of Montana for the next two years. Previous Laureates were Sandra Alcosser (2005-07), Greg Pape (2007-09), Henry Real Bird (2009-11), and Sheryl Noethe (2011-13). Since there is no salary associated with the job, Humanities Montana supports travel and will offer me a small stipend through its Speakers' Bureau, a great outreach program that allows scholars, writers, and performers to share their presentations with people across the state. Montana Arts Council sponsors the laureateship and maintains the offical web page. The state is large in terms of driving, and our population is only about one million, so anyone’s capacity to provide outreach is complicated by time and distance between communities. I am especially happy to be traveling during the next two years, but I also know that one person can only do so much. For this reason I’m interested in working with existing programs and investigating ways to develop resources. It would be great if writers had more contact with communities around the state. Obviously this will take some planning and the skill of many, but I’ve begun by starting conversations with individuals and organizations who I think will be helpful. In the meantime, here is just a small sample of organizations and groups that promote poetry and literature in Montana. Aerie International is a youth literary magazine at Missoula Big Sky High School. It wins national awards and receives submissions from across the globe. Guided by teacher, Lorilee Evans-Lynn, Aerie is also a great training ground for the next generation. Arts without Boundaries coordinates with school districts to bring professional musicians, writers and artists into classrooms and to offer music and art lessons to students in Billings, Bozeman, and other locations. Billings YMCA Writers’ Voice is one of the first Writers’ Voice programs in the country. It sponsors the High Plains BookFest each year and hosts readings in Billings and surrounding areas. Big Sky Writing Workshops is a new organization of professional writers who provide community workshops in Billings. High Plains Book Awards are sponsored by the Billings Public Library Many Voices Press, located at Flathead Valley Community College, has published Poems Across the Big Sky, New Poets of the American West, and other volumes. Missoula Writing Collaborative is a well-established and very successful organization that offers writing instruction in Missoula schools and beyond. Montana Book Award celebrates literary excellence with annual awards. The Montana Office of Public Instruction has just published Birthright: Born to Poetry—A Collection of... Continue reading
Posted Sep 13, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
When I was a girl growing up in north-central Montana, I spent many hours exploring the prairie and the coulees surrounding the Marias River. Meriwether Lewis named it “Maria’s” River after his cousin who said “no” to his marriage proposal. I’ve always wondered if he chose the name because this river was a “dead end” in terms of the expedition’s search for a Northwest Passage. But now we pronounce it with a long “i” as if there is an “s” at the end Mariah. An expert told me the Blackfeet were probably the former inhabitants of the teepee rings, the circles of stones, that my cousins and friends and I used to walk among. There are whole villages, groups of two or three rings connected, and occasionally a very large ring at the top of a hill set apart from the others. Many doorways and remnants of fire rings are still present. Often I went with neighbors and cousins, but as I grew older, I liked to wander by myself. The prairie was a good place for the imagination to develop, and it has shaped my perceptions in many ways. It provided me with the solitude to sing, pray, dance. I would stop at the edge of a pond or a quiet spot in the river and become as still as I could be, so the animals would learn to ignore me, the minnows would return, and the dragonflies would forget that I wasn’t part of the surrounding reeds or cattails. I loved looking for prairie asters, sweet peas, or bluebells in acres of dry grass. Town was twenty miles away. My class consisted of four girls, my K-12 school of 60-80 kids depending on the year, and the town, Inverness, had a few hundred people. The school is now abandoned, the windows broken, the wooden floors warped. I can vividly remember walking to the lunch room, performing scenes from South Pacific and West Side Story in the gymnasium with members of our music classes, lying on the floor in the back of the small library reading biographies of Mozart and Van Gogh and Janis Joplin. There are many abandoned schools on the Hi Line in north-central Montana, where railroad towns appear every few miles with names like Glasgow, Malta, Kremlin, and Havre. Chester was the location of the Liberty County Arts Council when I was a girl. My family went to most of the events this group sponsored. I saw my first didgeridoo there, my first cowboy singer, and my first opera. The Calgary Opera performed La Traviata, or at least scenes from it, on the high school stage, and of all the programs I saw, this is one that I remember most because I was interested in voice. Shortly afterward, my cousin applied to a youth choir that toured in Europe, and since she applied, I applied too when I was old enough. Maybe the influence of this outreach, alongside a good music teacher, allowed us to believe... Continue reading
Posted Sep 12, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
A few years ago, when I was researching the early writers of Montana, I happened upon Dorothe Bendon’s small volume, Mirror Images. Born and raised in eastern Montana, Bendon moved to California in her youth to attend a Normal School and later, Mills College for “only a year or two.” From there, “she went abroad in search of inspiration and further culture.” She mailed her manuscript to Gertrude Atherton, a San Francisco fiction writer, who helped her find a publisher. Atherton then wrote the forward to her small volume of poems, beginning with this sentence: “Dorothe Bendon hails from Glendive, Montana, hardly a poetic background.” She goes on to marvel at Bendon’s character, commenting on her small physical size, her presence on stage at poetry readings and as Ariel in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, her refusal to accept a patron’s offer to pay her tuition because “she preferred to be independent.” Atherton quotes one of Bendon’s teachers who says, “I have always felt that her roots were deep in the soil of decent and sane living, however lacking in background her early conditions may have been” (“A Forward” in Mirror Images). Mirror Images received a short review in The Frontier, a regional journal published at the University of Montana. Its editor, H. G. Merriam, praises her “fine sense of phrase and . . . image,” then says, “one feels, however, that she writes too infrequently out of realized experience.” He indicates that she was influenced by the “unseeing ideas” of people such as Atherton to “see beauty in acquired information, about Dionysius, classical music, Chillon, and the conventional paraphernalia of ‘culture’ rather than in rooted life experience” (Frontier 12.1). I imagine young Dorothe Bendon caught in the cross-fire between Atherton and Merriam, with Merriam criticizing her work maybe not so much for what she wrote but because of Atherton’s sense of superiority. Merriam, himself, wrote poetry about Greek mythology in the early volumes of The Frontier, though maybe by 1931 he had changed his mind about its relevance. What he says, however, gives insight into the “write what you know” mantra and raises the questions, what does it mean to “know” and how do we know what we know? Merriam asserts that “rooted life experience” is more relevant for a writer than “cultural” experiences such as travel, education, and reading. But the interior, the imagination, our reading and learning lives must certainly be part of what we know, along with the way we match what we’ve read to what we experience, and how we learn to see differently because of the way art, poetry, reading, music or any other cultural experience has affected our perceptions. I’m not sure why a hierarchy between exterior and interior experience would have value, when balance seems a far better approach. To quote Stevens, “The poetry of a work of the imagination constantly illustrates the fundamental and endless struggle with fact” (from his “Prose Statement on the Poetry of War”). When Bendon writes about “Sunday... Continue reading
Posted Sep 11, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
A month ago I traveled to Jackson, Wyoming, to participate in a conference devoted to art and patronage. My job? To provide a brief overview and discussion of ekphrasis, the practice of writing about visual art. Sponsored by Arts Without Boundaries, the conference focused on representational art and featured four top-notch artists, Clyde Aspevig, Jacob Collins, T Allen Lawson, and Tucker Smith, all considered “representational” or “realistic” artists. Featured speakers included Peter Trippi, editor of Fine Art Connoisseur, who spoke about collecting and patronage with an overview of contemporary realists, and Adam Duncan Harris, curator of the National Wildlife Museum in Jackson, who hosted the event and spoke about wildlife art as well as a George Catlin exhibit on loan from the Smithsonian. I listened, watched, and wrote notes as quickly as I could. It was a kid-in-a-candy-store experience for me to get an inside scoop on the artists’ world. There are plenty of parallels to writing, but because of my limited knowledge, the medium seems magical. For example, I learned about a kind of paint casually referred to as “stringy white.” It’s no longer available but apparently just the right thing for the crest of waves, and as I listened, I was thinking about the rhythm and sound of the words, "stringy white." Then it was my turn. I had never spoken before an audience of artists and other art experts, and I was pretty nervous. My examples came from the same broad category of realistic or representational art. I read Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts,” various responses to Brueghel, Madeline DeFrees’ response to “Vermeer’s A Woman Holding a Balance,” and Greg Pape’s “American Flamingo,” a poem written about Audubon’s painting by the same name. I relied on John Hollander’s substantial book, The Gazer’s Spirit, for definitions and read the poems with interspersed discussions about the limitations of language and visual art. In language, we work in image but can’t literally create image. Visual art works with movement, depth and narrative, though literally it’s impossible to create these elements on a static, flat surface. What’s fascinating to me is how the imagination allows us to reach beyond the limitation and how the artists and writers create illusion and rely on gesture to facilitate the work of the imagination. The artist/writer offers, and the viewer/reader reaches, and if all goes well, somewhere in the middle things become clear. Recent developments in neuroscience are equally fascinating for what they have added to our understanding of this process. The brain can rely on the information provided in a given medium and respond with specific mirror neurons that would be involved with the direct experience of an action or image. For example, an image or a word-picture of someone drinking tea will tip off the specific part of the brain associated with this action. We identify with the action, then fill in the gaps with our imagination. One misconception about landscape painting, I learned, is that the artist simply arrives at the perfect... Continue reading
Posted Sep 10, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Recently I spent a day hiking in the Beartooth Wilderness near my home in Billings, Montana. I chose a favorite route that begins in a canyon. The Stillwater River moves so swiftly over massive boulders that it seems to boil. This time of year it appears almost harmless because of low water, but in the spring the passage is dizzying, made more intense by the cacophony of water pounding against granite. It’s an entrance to a different kind of world from the prairie below, and the trail, bordered by a canyon wall on one side and the torrent of water on the other, is narrow with little margin for error. Above, the canyon opens into a valley and the stream grows quieter. It was mid-week. There were only four other cars in the parking lot when I arrived and as I continued my journey up to Sioux Charlie Lake and beyond, I met four groups coming down the trail. Eventually, I knew that I was the only one around for at least a few miles on every side. I was grateful for this. The world I came from in northern Montana was sparsely populated, and I learned early to hike alone and appreciate solitude. I stopped briefly along the way at an aspen grove where the undergrowth was thick and the white-barked trees, each a manifestation of an ancient root system below, offered contrast to the surrounding lodgepole pines that border much of the path. Later, I paused beside an Engelmann spruce, which is wide and singular compared to the colonies of aspen or the repetitive lodgepole. I put one small cone in my pocket. After four or five miles, my turning point was a wooden bridge over the Stillwater. I stretched out on the ground to contemplate the clouds and thought of circumference. In that moment I was the pivot of the compass or Stevens’ jar, and the wilderness rose up all around. But soon the horseflies found me and drove me off, and it was getting late enough in the afternoon that heading back down the trail seemed like the best idea. Three deer, several species of butterflies, bright yellow and black caterpillars, five garter snakes, two chipmunks, and a red-shafted flicker crossed my path that day, but there were no more humans until I neared the trailhead. I had Stevens’ The Palm at the End of the Mind in my backpack, and I intended to reread “Credences of Summer” during my journey. “Green’s green apogee” is what I remember best, but on the way down the idea of resting on rocks a few feet out into the lake or the stream seemed more appealing than opening the worn pages. The water sailed around me, sun glinting off ripples. If I turned my back to the nearest shore it seemed like I might be farther towards the middle. Had I stayed longer and settled into a camping spot for the night, I would have read the poem there,... Continue reading
Posted Sep 9, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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Sep 6, 2013