Sunday, April 4, 2010

Scarlet Letters

Days 53 & 54 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project. While I was in Ohio this weekend, I did discover what 4 people are reading, some of them family members, one my actual daughter, who has inherited my ability to read in a moving car.

Jeff*, who came on a plane from California to the Midwest for perfect 80 degree spring weather (leaving 40 degrees and a cold rain behind him), was reading The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell and in fact finished it on this trip. He reads widely, likes to read used or borrowed books, and a tiny yellow post-it on the front cover tells him to return these Wordy Shipmates to "BAD," someone's initials, not someone's nickname. So I hope he will! Sarah Vowell mixes humor and historical anecdote on public radio as a contributor to "This American Life" and in books like this one, where the topic is the fine distinctions and conflicts between feisty Massachusetts Puritans, as well as other conflicts in the world at large.

By coincidence, my niece Maggie has just been reading The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, also about the Puritans, or at least using them in emblematic, fantastic, and romantic ways to tell the story of Hester Prynne and the courage of someone valuing the inner life against the conventions of the community...and eventually revealing her value to the community and to so many readers ever since.

(Also by coincidence, I am just now starting a re-reading of The Scarlet Letter--one of the readings for Great Books Chicago in early May--and still reading the essays, one by one, in The Death of Adam, by Marilynne Robinson, an expert on those same Puritans.)

Alas, for Maggie's Honors English class, forced to read some truncated version of the American classic! Maggie read the original, purchased on her own, and her class read the "dumbed down" version as she referred to it, "with different words." Why is an Honors English class reading a "dumbed down" version, I have to ask. It seems an irony, no doubt related to the teaching-to-the-standardized-test conventions of education in our times.

Family had gathered in Ohio to see a dance concert, with commissioned new music, choreographed by my brother-in-law, based on a series of my husband's paintings of hands. By continuing coincidence, the theme of the dance was that marvelous tension between individual and community, Hester's lifelong dance. (Though none of the dance creators had been reading The Scarlet Letter!)

In the lobby on opening night, I found Mary, mentioned here earlier in a simultaneous reading context, who, like Toni in an earlier blog entry, was reading The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker, in which the main character, unable to write the introduction to a contemporary anthology, rails a bit against the popular poet Billy Collins, whom, again, it seems important to defend, not that he needs me to defend him! His poems certainly speak for themselves and are heard by many.

I confess that I don't really understand how the same people who celebrate the breaking of any barriers between "high culture" and "low culture" are also sometimes the ones who can't abide a poet of the people, a popular and successful poet like Billy Collins or Garrison Keillor. All I can think is they want to be able to use popular culture in their own poems without having to connect to people as Collins, Keillor, or, for that matter, Walt Whitman can. But that might be 1) cynical or 2) not it at all. There is a lot I don't get, and I have never been hip or cool.

It's not that every single poem by Billy Collins is a "great" one. Not every single poem by Emily Dickinson is a great one, either. Some are surely clunkers. Why wouldn't they be? She wrote a jillion poems, most often without benefit of helpful feedback from readers/poets who could match her in innovation and intelligence. Billy Collins could have helped her! And did, in his poem "Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes," which takes my breath away, and hers. Seek it out in his book Picnic, Lightning, or reprinted in Sailing Alone Around the Room.

Come to think of it, my poem "Making Love to General Robert E. Lee," published last year in Poems & Plays, is similar to the Collins poem in bringing people together despite the barrier of history (but I have already mentioned here my nonbelief in linear time!). Because of its unusual subject matter, this is one of those poems I have published but not shared with my daughter, who is reading Honey, Baby, Sweetheart by Deb Caletti, checked out from her school library.

While the title is disconcerting, I gather from the flaps that it will have an ultimately wholesome message of female empowerment, independence, and self-realization...and that the heroine will have learned from her experience of her irresponsible father not to get too wrapped up in the "bad boy" boyfriend, but we'll see. I think this because the librarian mom drags her daughter to a senior citizen book group, so I think there will be some learning from the wise and some learning to be compassionate mixed in here!

The heroine's name is Ruby McQueen, which the flap tells me she thinks of as her "rodeo cowgirl porn star" name, also a bit disconcerting, as it means my daughter might be learning (or asking me) what a porn star is, and also a bit comforting, as it might mean I can show her my poem coming out soon in the new issue of Poems & Plays...called "My Porn Name." (Don't ask. But the answer is: one of those quizzes on Facebook.)

Happy Egg Hunt, if that's something you do. (If you are Kim, Happy Hummus.)

*Jeff, my brother, is the one who first introduced me to Living Downstream by Sandra Steingraber, about toxins in the area in which we grew up, and, before he flew back to California early this morning, and before we drove back beside the possibly toxic cornfields, I was able to alert him to a second edition, with updated science, recently out in paperback and Kindle.


Kim said...

Glad you are back home, we missed you and your daily blog. I know, only one day, but STILL!

Kathleen said...

Thanks, and here you get two-days-in-one, like a breath mint and a candy.

Susan said...

Hmmm, more synchronicity! I was just talking about this the other day...the way that larger bookstores, even when they choose to showcase "national poetry month" *only* celebrate/display poems by writers like Billy Collins & Emily Dickinson. This isn't so much a problem with the work of these select few (well-known) poets as much as a feeling of disappointment that large bookstores only carry work by such a small selection of writers/poets, especially when they're advertising national poetry month. I just want to see more poetry on the shelves!! (I didn't even see any Margaret Atwood or Sandra Cisneros or Anne Sexton. The selection is very, very limited.) I noticed that with the exception of Emily Dickinson, virtually *all* the books of poetry were written by men. This kind of thing just leaves me wanting...

Kathleen said...

Yes, I saw that in your blog, Susan! The big stores seem to do only the big names. And not to have much selection, though I go there to find the "Best American" anthologies, Pushcart, etc.

I used my Amazon coupon for women whose books I can't find on the shelves...I just ordered poetry books by Freya Manfred and Ann Townsend, via coupon, in celebration of National Poetry Month.