“Church Going” is an atheist’s poem, an ironic atheist’s poem, and a very good one. I remember once hearing the poet, Jack Gilbert, say that one can distinguish the work of a good poet from the work of a great poet primarily by the effectiveness with which the latter controls tone. I always find considerations of tone and of mood an interesting pursuit.
It has been a long winter for me and it is far from over. My first snowy days and nights occurred in Northern Vermont in late November and while the snow there was persistent, slow falling and light, the snow here, in Connecticut, since mid-December has been heavy, quick, and drifting. Habit of mind: when I walk or snowshoe in the falling snow, or watch it descend from inside, lines from snow poems I love come to me. Inevitably, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The Snowstorm”––first line tells us, the storm is “Announced by all the trumpets of the sky”.
Here is a short poem that has charmed generations and runs through my mind on snowy days, written by the internationally famous poet-superstar of his era, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
In just a couple of weeks, thousands from the literary world will descend upon hotels, bookstores, and eateries in Washington, D.C. for the annual conference of The Association of Writers & Writing Programs. For the uninitiated, the notion of navigating a crowd of 8000 writers, selecting from 350 concurrent sessions over the course of several days, and possibly riding in the conference elevator with one of 500 publishers is, well, more than a little daunting. Whether they create pure pleasure, complete agony, or something in between for those who attend, professional conferences of this magnitude warrant a user guide to put new attendees at ease. To help guide the conference neophytes among us, I’ve invited three friends to shed light on the panels, the people, and the parties: Geeta Kothari, Fiction Editor at The Kenyon Review and Writing Center Director and Senior Lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh; Justin Bigos, a poet and alumni of Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers; and Neela Banerjee, co-editor of Indivisible, journalist, and activist.
To the extent that music was part of my childhood, I grew up predominantly on a mismatched diet of 12th century lute music (mom’s) and dueling banjos (dad’s). I wasn’t particularly taken with my parents’ tastes, and unlike my sister and my all-white social set, neither was I interested in Top 40. At an early age, I had decided that mainstream now was not particularly my thing. Instead, I had a handful of Motown 45s, and I’d catch Soul Train on the non-cable tv that I was occasionally allowed to watch. When college and Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill came around, however, I became unexpectedly mainstream. Already primed to love the Motown soundtrack, I found myself among the masses in college dorms across the country embracing vintage Motown as our college soundtrack. Despite my brief moment in the mainstream, I haven’t lost my taste for the sound. If anything, my appreciation has grown, which is one reason that the Dap-Kings and a collision of Cee-Lo Green, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Glee have grabbed my attention. It seems that at least a speck of now is once again firmly rooted in old school Motown, or at least its legacy, and this has me wondering about the differences between now and new.
In early winter, the grass in North America still retains a cast of its autumn green, but after a few nights of deep freeze have killed the last of the ticks and fleas, the green turns greenish-grey. It’s then I begin remembering Thomas Hardy’s moving, highly-compressed and resonant sixteen-liner, “Neutral Tones.” Green is gone, trees are bare, cold days come with high thin clouds through which a small sun appears white. In the world of Thomas Hardy’s “Neutral Tones,” love, like green “sod”, does not last.