Category Archives: Literary puzzles and arguments

An Ironic Look at the Process of Inspiration–“The Formula”

It’s been a little more than a week now since I’ve had the opportunity to put up another poem of my own, and while I understand that one can’t always be inspired to work on specific things or in specific ways, there’s still that sense of frustration that arises when a “dry spell” occurs.  So, I decided to write a poem about that; one gets one’s topics where one can, after all!

The Formula

"Sit and think for a bit,
It'll come to you;
It always has before,
Why should now be any different?"
And yet, now is now
And then was then,
And poetry
Is not made to order.
Unresponsive to logic
Even in its most rhetorical form,
It follows a line and melody
All its own,
Declines to be summoned
Except with most respect;
Stays only to hear
Its own self speak,
Though it insists on
Not being thought
A pompous twit, a prig,
But a voice from a heavenly aether,
Or a cloud.
What a put-up job!
Attributing itself
To a series of unknowables
Or unmeasurables, in the course of things,
Like muses, twilit nights, the moon,
Sorrows, radiant sunshine,
Genius or capacity for self-deception,
Anyway--
Really, what has ever been
More uncompromising than poetry?
More querulous, hard to please,
Stubborn, self-dramatic,
Quick to anger,
Slow to compromise,
And all-in-all
Difficult to compose
And call one's own?
Yet, I suppose
If I wait for just a bit,
Give it a chance to seem humble
As if dropping in on me unawares,
Uninvited and unheralded,
Then I won't have to threaten it
With becoming prosy,
With writing a short story instead.

©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 2/28/17

Who knows if I will be able to continue poetry posts in the near future?  Yet I couldn’t resist sharing this wry expression of frustration at an at least mild case of writer’s block.  Shadowoperator

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Working again at the sonnet form–this time, on the genuine article: “A Sonnet After Shakespeare”

Yesterday or the day before, I published a sonnet which was not a real sonnet, in the sense that it did not have a rhyme scheme at all, which sonnets have in one pattern or another.  Tonight, I decided to try my hand at something I hadn’t had practice in for a long time, and do an English sonnet.  Of course, though it’s “after Shakespeare” in the sense of being modelled on Shakespeare’s (while not nearly as perfect), it’s also after Shakespeare in the historic sense, which will have to account for its use of several contractions and a more various examination of money relations (in the extended metaphor using love as the tenor and finances as the vehicle), whereas Shakespeare’s extended metaphors were even “tighter” than this and stuck together better, for want of another way of putting it.  But barring the chutzpah of calling it by the title I’ve given it, I hope you will be able to enjoy it.

 A Sonnet After Shakespeare

You say you love me not, yet I have love
To pay your debt to me of equal sum
Though you'll no debt acknowledge, and you prove
In each account of holdings perforce dumb.

I can't both creditor and debtor be,
To this amount of love sworn to repay
Except by love's froward accountancy
That holds both my heart and my head in sway.

For heart, be owed the gentle passion still,
For head, do calculate the rueful cost.
I must desist, and yet present the bill,
By way of stating what's already lost.

But let my books become two sets in one,
And I'll cheat for you, though I won't have done.

©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 1/12/17

That’s all for tonight.  Sleep well.  Shadowoperator

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Filed under Full of literary ambitions!, Literary puzzles and arguments, Poetry and its forms and meanings

“How Lovers Think”–a poem

Yet another poem on the topic of love and lovers for my site, only this time it’s more about the thought patterns of lovers when they contemplate the beloved person.

How Lovers Think

Swing me softly, swing me low
Chariots sweet are nothing to it,
Bathe me gently in your flow
Of dear love and sweetly to it
Love me deeply, so I feel it
And the dark past cannot steal it.

Rapture me as true religion
Of the profane human region
Your fond love the gods intended
When from heaven’s bourne they bended
Love me sorely, so I rue it
And think not, but swoon unto it.

Shelter me, and give me haven
‘Till I find myself half craven
To relinquish for a minute
Your embrace and all that’s in it
Love me lastingly, and surely,
And cling just to me as purely.

And should ought of earth divide us
Or of humankind deride us,
Search for me amid the stars
‘Till you find my avatars
Love me as we are immortal,
And not bound by earthly portal.

Swing me softly, swing me low
In the path of fire and glory
Bathe me gently in your glow
Where the eons tell our story
Love me always, as I love you,
With just measure writ above you,
Love me always, as I love you,
And with mercy writ above you.

©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 1/7/17

So much for lovers’ philosophy of love, with its hyperbole and occasional contradictions.  It wouldn’t be human, would it, without these two things?

 

 

 

 

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Two love poems for the New Year, one stroppy, one beckoning

Dear Readers,

Once again, I am putting up some of my own poetry to be read, hoping that you will find something you like in it.  These are recent compositions, and still untested in that sense, so please give them your best (though most honest) consideration.

Hoist from Where?

I am not your tinker toy
I am not your doll
Far less am I your device
Or your backstage moll.

Don’t call me your parachute
Or your safety switch
I am not a thing at all
You can’t find my niche.

A god alone knows where I go
Though you won’t agree
You like to think you know my mind
And motives, clear to see.

But I have gears and brakes and cogs
Made in no factory
They don’t go round by your say-so
Nor are they run by me.

I fleetingly have sight of them
When in my soul I peer,
You cannot get the best of them
Whose origins aren’t here.

What e’er there is has made them true,
At least true to my fit
And it’s not you, my precious dear
Who has account of it.

What I can’t make, I can’t betray
Nor cede the right to you
So well are heaven’s plans laid out
With wisdom so endued.

And I will let you fool yourself
And play you have fool’d me,
And as for any consequence,
My dear, let’s wait and see.

©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 1/6/17

(That was the stroppy one–to use a British expression that seems to mean something like “irritable” or “forceful”–and now here is the beckoning, loving one:)

Poem III

Dark hair
Like a cloud of fire’s blackest embers
Warm hands
With a formal touch fond thought remembers
Eyes’ deepness in their brown orbits
Grave or smiling
Long leanness
Shoulders’ curve
Night’s dreams profiling.
Take a guess,
Play a hunch,
Declare a stance, to fetch the notion
Lessons learned
Battles fought
Passage won
Make his wide ocean.
Water fears, all his tears
Now he practices devotion,
Come to me,
Pharisee,
Let me try to fetch you places
Toward safe havens
Blessed with sanctuary
And endowed with graces.
At the least, I can promise love and faith abiding,
You can put an end at last to the lying and the hiding.

©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 1/6/17

That’s all for now!  I hope you’ve enjoyed my self-indulgence as much as I have derived some benefit from sharing it.

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Case study, tribute, answer, or meditation?–Julian Barnes’s “The Sense of an Ending”

A month or so ago, I wrote a post on William Trevor’s book of short stories “After Rain,” and referenced in relation to it the fine scholar Frank Kermode’s critical work first published in 1967, The Sense of an Ending.  You may imagine my perplexity when I discovered on my library website a fairly new book, published in 2011, by Julian Barnes, a novel of sorts also called The Sense of an Ending.  My perplexity was mainly because at no point in the opening pages of the book and nowhere within is Frank Kermode given a nod for his work, except in the overall sense that it becomes overwhelmingly obvious by the end of the book that it is a sort of case study of, answer to, tribute to, or meditation upon Kermode’s work.  Perhaps it is all of these.  At any event, Julian Barnes won the 2011 Man Booker prize and was nominated for other awards for this work, so Wikipedia’s confidence that the book is at least a “meditation” upon Kermode’s thesis seems well-founded, because the publicity attendant upon such fame would make it unlikely that the book could be seen otherwise.

To reiterate Frank Kermode’s notion, that humans, being uncomfortable with their short life span, have to imagine themselves as part of a historical curve of a sort of golden age in the past, to which their own lives are the present leading to an important future, is to deal with many imponderables, and yet it certainly makes sense in the way Barnes envisions it.  Barnes is in fact doing in a work which isn’t entirely novel-like what Kermode says critics must do:  whereas poets help to make sense of the way we see our lives, critics must help make sense of the ways in which we try to make sense of our lives.

The main character, the narrator, Tony Webster, tells a story in two parts in which he is engaged in the first part in telling about his younger years with his friends Alex, Colin, and Adrian, and his failed romance with Veronica (Mary), whose mother also comes into the story.  Later, Adrian writes to tell Tony that he and Veronica are now together, and Tony responds.  Then, Adrian commits suicide not long after another apparently less vital and virile classmate has done the same thing.  The remaining three friends engage in the same sort of philosophical speculation about why Adrian did it that they had shared as intellectually gifted students.  In the second part, we see Tony much later, as a retired man who has since been married to someone else, produced offspring, and been cordially divorced.  He is now reevaluating the earlier years because Veronica’s mother dies and leaves him a diary of Adrian’s; Veronica, however, is in between Tony and the bequest, and prevents him from a complete reading of the diary.  It is in dealing with her as someone who still parallels him in age that he questions himself and thinks about his past in a radically different way than he traditionally has.

“You get towards the end of life–no, not life itself, but of something else; the end of any likelihood of change in that life.  You are allowed a long moment of pause, time enough to ask the question:  what else have I done wrong?”  This is the almost casually stated thesis of Barnes’s work, not casual in the sense of its eventual importance, but in the way he slips it into the woof and weave of many other questions and ponderings about history and in particular personal histories.  For example, from his boyhood days, come memories of hilarity in the classroom at a dullard who, when asked what happened in a historical period of complexity, answers:  “There was unrest,” and when prodded to comment further, goes on to say, “There was great unrest, sir.”  Yet, this comment comes back with some significance to haunt Tony as an older man.  In the last paragraph of the book, he states, “There is accumulation.  There is responsibility.  And beyond these, there is unrest.  There is great unrest.”

That Barnes has pointed out time as one of his avowed subjects is clear from the first, when he says, “We live in time–It holds us and moulds us–but I’ve never felt I understood it very well.”  He elaborates, “ordinary everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly:  tick-tock, click-clock.  Is there anything more plausible than a second hand?  And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability.”  What is as malleable as time, apparently, or as a result of time, is memory, which lives in and changes with time, for Tony is suddenly shocked by a picture of his younger self in a letter which Veronica does return to him with a few of the diary pages before burning the rest.

And yet there is further shock to come–I will not ruin the surprise near the end of the book, for though this is a serious literary endeavor and not a suspense novel, there is a twist near the end which underlines many of the points that Tony gradually becomes aware of as he re-thinks his earlier history.  Suffice it to say that the novel is a very good book in this reader’s opinion, and one well worth the Man Booker Prize.  And I like to think that Frank Kermode might find it a fitting tribute (case study? answer? meditation?) as well.

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A Halloween Floral Tribute from H. G. Wells–“The Flowering of the Strange Orchid”

The impetus toward discovery is a key feature of human nature, and it has spawned many a great invention and many a new and innovative usage of older inventions.  Without those first tentative steps from the depths of the cave and into a new world of perhaps questionable provenance, where would humankind be now?  Still in what is somewhat inaccurately known as the Stone Age.  Nevertheless, as one would say of a secondary computer program, “concurrently running” is the conservative and opposite function of drawing back and using fear of difference as a guide to behavior, and each of these two impulses has its place in guiding human behavior; each is appropriate and necessary for human survival in a world which at times is placid and forgiving, at times inimical and hostile.  As you will see, one without the other can be downright dangerous and spooky, in this Halloween celebration of one of the lesser-known tales of H. G. Wells, “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid.”

T he principle of discovery and the delight one may take in it are articulated in the first paragraph of the story, written at a time when some parts of the globe were still largely foreign and shrouded in mystery:  “The buying of orchids always has in it a certain speculative flavour.  You have before you the brown shrivelled lump of tissue, and for the rest you must trust your judgment, or the auctioneer, or your good-luck, as your taste may incline.  The plant may be moribund or dead, or it may just be a respectable purchase, fair value for your money, or perhaps–for the thing has happened again and again–there slowly unfolds before the delighted eyes of the happy purchaser, day after day, some new variety, some novel richness, a strange twist of the labellum, or some subtler coloration or unexpeccted mimicry.  Pride, beauty, and profit blossom together on one delicate green spike, and, as it may be, even immortality.  For the new miracle of Nature may stand in need of a new specific name, and what so convenient as that of its discoverer?  ‘Johnsmithia’!  There have been worse names.”  This is the elevated perspective of Winter-Wedderburn, a “shy, lonely, rather ineffectual man, provided with just enough income to keep off the spur of necessity, and not enough nervous energy to make him seek any exacting employment.”  This is his hobby, his main enthusiasm, his love.

Speaking on the other side of the question is his housekeeper, who is also a distant female cousin.  Every time he enthuses about orchids or discoverers of orchids who have risked life and limb in jungles and swamps to search for the strange blooms, she promptly puts him down.  And every time he longs for something new and different to happen in his life, she applies the breaks of reason, and assures him that such thoughts are perilous, controversial, and undesirable.  He doesn’t listen, however, but keeps wishing for an eventful life, totally opposed to the efforts he actually puts forth to get one:  “‘Nothing ever does happen to me,’ he remarked presently, beginning to think aloud.  ‘I wonder why?  Things enough happen to other people.  There is Harvey.  Only the other week–on Monday he picked up sixpence, on Wednesday his chicks all had the staggers, on Friday his cousin came home from Australia, and on Saturday he broke his ankle.  What a whirl of excitement!–compared to me.'”  His housekeeper, feeling perhaps that he is heading for disaster (as in fact he is, by wishing for a life which is basically opposed in action, even if whimsically, to his own), responds:  “‘I think I would rather be without so much excitement….It can’t be good for you.'”

He continues, without hearing her caution, to mull over the even more adventurous life, recently ended, of an orchid collector:  “‘That orchid-collector was only thirty-six–twenty years younger than myself–when he died.  And he had been married twice and divorced once; he had had malarial fever four times, and once he broke his thigh.  He killed a Malay once, and once he was wounded by a poisoned dart.  And in the end he was killed by jungle leeches.  It must have been all very troublesome, but then it must have been very interesting, you know–except, perhaps, the leeches.”  The housekeeper, however, also sticks to her convervational guns:  “‘I am sure it was not good for him….'”  He prepares to go to another orchid sale, she, once again protectively, makes sure he has his umbrella, and he heads straight for the adventure he has been longing to have.  As this story among many shows, the old adage “Be careful what you ask the gods for, for you shall surely receive it,” is spot on the money.

He comes back with a selection of orchids of various kinds, some of which are recognizable and one of which is not identified.  He is very excited by it (it is described as “a shrivelled rhizome),” but his housekeeper in immediate answer takes what seems like an unreasonable dislike to it.  “‘I don’t like the look of it….It’s such an ugly shape….I don’t like those things that stick out….It looks…like a spider shamming dead.'”

He addresses her concern by answering with something which is not, in fact, any further recommendation to her, but to him and his perspective:  “‘They found poor Batten lying dead, or dying, in a mangrove swamp–I forget which…with one of these very orchids crushed up under his body.  He had been unwell for some days with some kind of native fever, and I suppose he fainted.  These mangrove swamps are very unwholesome.  Every drop of blood, they say, was taken out of him by the jungle-leeches.  It may be that very plant that cost him his life to obtain.’  ‘I think none the better of it for that’ [says the housekeeper].'” Remarks this ludicrous little Walter Mitty-ish hero, “‘Men must work though women may weep,'” thus partaking in the glory of one of his own supposed role models.  But he is in for more than he bargained for.

As the orchid grows and develops, Wedderburn becomes more and more protective of it, adjusting everything in his small hothouse to suit it.  The housekeeper maintains her prejudice, however, and the aerial rootlets, reaching forth like so many fingers, do not increase her confidence in it.  She refuses to go to the orchid-house until the day when Wedderburn is extremely late for tea, given his usual punctual habits.  This is the same day when he first notices the “new odour in the air, a rich, intensely sweet scent,” and sees to his delighted surprise that the orchid has blossomed.  “…[B]ehold, the trailing green spikes bore now three great splashes of blossom,, from which this overpowering sweetness proceeded.  He stopped before them in an ecstasy of admiration….The flowers were white, with streaks of golden orange upon the petals; the heavy labellum was coiled into an intricate projection, and a wonderful bluish purple mingled there with the gold.  He could see at once that the genus was altogether a new one.  And the insufferable scent!  How hot the place was!  The blossoms swam before his eyes….He would see if the temperature was right.  He made a step towards the thermometer.  Suddenly everything appeared unsteady.  The bricks on the floor were dancing up and down.  Then the white blossoms, the green leaves behind them,  the whole greenhouse, seemed to sweep sideways, and then in a curve upward.”

When the housekeeper finally reaches the hothouse, an eerie sight greets her:  “He was lying, face upward, at the foot of the strange orchid.  The tentacle-like aërial rootlets…were crowded together, a tangle of grey ropes, and stretched tight with their ends closely applied to his chin and neck and hands….She did not understand.  Then she saw from under one of the exultant tentacles upon his cheek there trickled a little thread of blood.”  At first, she approaches and tries to tear the tentacles off, but the scent of the orchid begins to overpower her as well, so she masters her main force and drags both man and orchid with a crash into the open air.  There she is able to tear away the rootlets, where she can see that he is “white and bleeding from a dozen circular patches.”  She calls the odd-job man, and Annie, the housemaid, and sends for Doctor Haddon.  Wedderburn’s life is saved, and the others go to the orchid house later and see that the odd orchid is in a stage of decay, though when the doctor steps too near, one of the aerial roots still stirs upward briefly.

The next day, the adventure is over, but even though the housekeeper’s warnings have been supported and verified by events, Wedderburn is unrepentant.  “Wedderburn himself was bright and garrulous…in the glory of his strange adventure.” So, the next time you wish your life were more eventful, or envy even slightly the busy, bold, bustling life of your favorite hero or heroine, reflect that there is a reason why such people exist and a reason why you exist as you do, not in the forefront, but safely in the rearguard, or the main body.  For, such people’s stories are meant to inspire you, perhaps, to continue forth with your own adventure, while reassuring you that great things are possible.  And also odd and eerie–Happy Halloween!

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“Tomas Takes Charge” and Cinnamon Sticks–A Childhood Memory

Back in the day, when I was in primary school (known otherwise as “grade school”) and was doing lots and lots of reading, I got a book as a gift.  Though I had received many books as gifts, other than “baby books” they were mostly soft cover; this one was my first “collector-grown-up book,” as I thought of it, because it was hard cover and yet still had illustrations to please my youthful taste.  The short novel is called Tomás Takes Charge.  It is by Charlene Joy Talbot, with illustrations by Reisie Lonette.  My twelve-year-old nephew gave me a new copy of the same book for Christmas last year, and though I have to say it has certain drawbacks to my adult taste, I still remember it being one of my first childhood exposures to those growing up in a different culture.  First of all, I came from a small town, and this book is set in the area of Washington Market in NYC.  As well, it is about a young Puerto Rican boy, Tomás Lorca, and his sister Fernanda.  To my adult perceptions, there is something not quite right in the almost stereotypical portrait of their favorite neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Malloy, and also in the fact that all of the people who help them out the most are Anglos.  But to a child, these matters are different, and I didn’t have as keen a view of such things then as I hope to have developed since.  Another part of this bookish memory is of course chewing on cinnamon toothpicks while reading the book, over and over, to such an extent that my tongue often burned and the places where I had marked my page with a cinnamon toothpick reeked of the spice to the extent that it is an indivisible part of the original memory.

The toothpicks were the province of the grade school girls, who, back in the days when grocery stores and pharmacies still sold one-ounce bottles of clear (top-strength) cinnamon oil, would make “cinnamon sticks,” so called because the boxes of toothpicks were soaked in a strong cinnamon oil-water mixture until they absorbed all the moisture, then dried and exchanged for favors and treats from other children at school.  I made my own like most other girls, but I always kept the strongest and most pungent for my private “stash.”  But enough of that:  suffice it to say that cinnamon sticks, so made, were my version of the madeleines made famous in Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust.

In Tomás Takes Charge, Tomás and his slightly older sister, who suffers from agoraphobia, are left alone in their apartment when their father, their only living relative, is suddenly and unpredictably absent.  Mr. and Mrs. Malloy attempt to make sure that the two youngsters go to their “godmother’s,” a concocted story which Tomás produces in his fear of being sent to Welfare, but Tomás’s ingenuity is too much for the older couple.  He finds a way of housing himself and his sister in an abandoned top-floor apartment a few streets away.  The rest of the novel is largely taken up with showing the many and various ways that Tomás employs to feed them and keep them clothed and happy, even to the extent of finding an old discarded portrait of George Washington and a map of the United States to hang on the walls.  Though his sister is abnormally afraid to go outside, she coaxes a mother cat and kitten into their hideaway to help keep away rats, and she does the cooking and cleaning, leaving Tomás to play the conventional “man’s” role.  Tomás accidentally trespasses on an artist’s loft apartment, where he meets Barbara Ransome, who by his very luck happens to be a children’s book illustrator in need of a model.  This gives Tomás even more money to contribute to his little household, and all in all things seem set to prosper.  Nevertheless, the summer is drawing to a close, and Tomás and Fernanda are uncomfortably aware that they have no heat in their hiding spot; and then Tomás takes a tumble on the fire escape while crossing the roofs, and sprains his ankle, concerning the illustrator because she is expecting him to come the next day for work and he doesn’t show up.

Luck plays a large part in the children’s fortunes, but as it is a children’s story, this is perhaps appropriate.  On the same day that Barbara Ransome goes out looking for her little male model, having previously believed his tale of living with an aunt, she meets up with the Malloys.  When they compare stories, they feel sure (of course) that Tomás and Fernanda are hiding in an abandoned building somewhere in the area.  They go out to look; at the same time, Fernanda remembers what her brother has told her about Barbara Ransome’s skylight apartment and starts a smoking fire in the grate in theirs, hoping that Barbara will see it and come to their rescue.  Luckily, of course, Barbara’s brother is a psychiatrist, and as a doctor he goes with the firemen who are summoned (because others not connected with the story have seen the smoke as well).  There is just the matter of “setting the record straight” about Welfare, which happens when Tomás speaks with a representative and finds him nothing like the monster he had feared (this too seems like an apologia for the system, given all the abuses in children’s services which have been exposed in recent years, but this book is full of best-case scenarios, so one has to accept it for what it is).  The ending is the best it could be, under the circumstances:  they find out that the reason the children’s father has not returned is that he was killed in a car accident.  That is, he didn’t just desert them.  The Malloys knock down a shared wall between their apartment and the next adjoining empty room in order to make more space, and adopt the waifs.  And that is the basic story line.  I haven’t hesitated to give the full story without a “spoiler alert” because it is a children’s book, one a parent might have an interest in for a child, though as I have remarked, being written in 1966, and carefully slanted toward praising the system while also carefully attempting not to insult immigrant industry, ingenuity, and pride, the book would perhaps need a stream of ad libbing by an adult reader to bring it up to date (and children do get impatient with extraneous material, as I recall from trying to read The Secret Garden to a child a few years back, all the while giving a brief explanation of the British empire and class system).  Whatever may be the case now, when I was in grade school in the 1960’s, the book was progressive for its time and given its intended audience, though not as progressive as most adult liberal literature of the same time span.  And it is part of childhood memory for me, as I set sail upon the waters of fiction to a better understanding of others with different ways than mine.

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