Personal anthology: Poems about wells

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a favorite poem, hasn’t it? Let’s rectify that.

Personal Helicon

As a child, they could not keep me from wells
And old pumps with buckets and windlasses.
I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells
Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.

One, in a brickyard, with a rotted board top.
I savoured the rich crash when a bucket
Plummeted down at the end of a rope.
So deep you saw no reflection in it.

A shallow one under a dry stone ditch
Fructified like any aquarium.
When you dragged out long roots from the soft mulch
A white face hovered over the bottom.

Others had echoes, gave back your own call
With a clean new music in it. And one
Was scaresome, for there, out of ferns and tall
Foxgloves, a rat slapped across my reflection.

Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,
To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.

Seamus Heaney

I heard Heaney read this poem once, and he explained that he was thinking both of Mount Helicon, the mountain where the nine Muses liked to hang out, and the Hippocrene, the sacred spring that was supposed to supply poetic inspiration to anyone who drank from it. Oddly, the "poet looks into the well" topos has been done before, by Robert Frost:

For Once, Then, Something

Others taunt me with having knelt at well-curbs
Always wrong to the light, so never seeing
Deeper down in the well than where the water
Gives me back in a shining surface picture
My myself in the summer heaven godlike
Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs.
Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb,
I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,
Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,
Something more of the depths — and then I lost it.
Water came to rebuke the too clear water.
One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple
Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom,
Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness?
Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.

Robert Frost

Both Frost and Heaney dare us to think of them as narcissists, fascinated with their own reflections as opposed to the murky depths below, or the uncertain flash of truth — or possibly "a pebble of quartz"; Frost isn’t going to tell us either way — at the bottom of the well. But one can’t really say that about either of them. Frost is interested in how difficult it is to see what isn’t somehow oneself, and how "uncertain" these perceptions are. Heaney’s speaker’s younger self, big-eyed or bug-eyed Narcissus though he is, moves from being unable to see ("So deep you saw no reflection in it") to seeing "a white face" (not exactly his?) and finally to his own reflection distorted by the splashing rat. Somehow adulthood means finding ways to "see" himself in echoes, in sound, rather than by sight — which, I think, is why the enjoyably "rich crash" of the bucket in the second stanza gives way to the echoing well that "gave back your own call / With a clean new music in it": the voice, changed and returned to the speaker.

I remember how someone brought the Frost poem to my favorite graduate seminar ever, a course on theories of poetry. For the first half of the class, we’d talk about the assigned critical readings (which, that evening, were Nancy Vickers’ "Diana Described: Scattered Women and Scattered Rhyme" and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick‘s rather infamous essay "A Poem is Being Written") and then for the second half, someone would circulate a poem or two that they wanted to discuss. I wish I could recall what we said, because my notes from that portion of the class include questions like "what do truth and a pebble have in common? is there any ground to stand on if there is?"

I miss that kind of conversation. It occurs to me that maybe I’m looking about for the non-university-affiliated equivalent. Then again, that’s why I’ve got comments enabled. Here’s a question for you, gentle readers: Are there any other poems about wells out there?

Mmm. Clove oranges.

Found via the main Typepad page: i was just really very hungry., a food blog I think I’ll be reading regularly. Handrolled sushi! Ochazuke (which I’ve never tasted but now feel compelled to try making)! Things to do with oranges in winter! Capsule reviews of food books! And gorgeous design, to boot.

Now I’m hungry. Time to go to the grocery store.

Three things that are making me happy right now

1. I’ve just finished drafting my personal statements for my application for the CLIR Postdoctoral Fellowship in Scholarly Information Resources. Go me. (Is anyone else out there applying? Please, let there not be countless hundreds of applicants. Please, let them like my application.)

2. I didn’t go to this year’s MLA convention, and after reading what some of the posters at the Invisible Adjunct’s site are saying about it, I’m very glad I didn’t.

3. Over the weekend it started snowing, the first serious snow of the season. Sure, the temperature dropped 20 degrees over the course of a day or so, but cold weather with snow is somehow much less depressing than cold weather without snow.

Alternative career possibility #253: Personal-ad proofreader

Raymond Shapiro has worked for the NYRB since its inception, and for years proofread the personals. He estimates that from the 1960s to the ’80s he read 30,000 of them, in his own publication and elsewhere, and collated 400 or so into a book, Lonely in Baltimore. He says that back then, people were fascinated by the NYRB personals. “Many people didn’t read about Proust and James Joyce, and classical art, but they did read the personals,” he says. Frank in terms of homosexuality, adultery and swinging, they were a bellwether of the culture. “They were very different, in that they had verve, originality. They represented the spirit of the times.”

— Catherine Keenan, “Love in the Personals,” Sydney Morning Herald, 3 January 2004 (via Arts & Letters Daily)

I want a job like that. Think of the entertainment value of reading clever NYRB-style personals for a living! Only I think I’d prefer to proofread personals at the London Review of Books, if ads like the ones from the LRB cited in this article — e.g. “Tap-dancing Classics lecturer. Chilling, isn’t it?” — are any indication.

Incidentally, the personal ads in every publication in my area almost invariably say things like “Good-looking person seeks companion for sunsets, walks on the beach, and dining out. I like music and movies.” They’re depressingly vague and banal. I’m thinking of using a few samples in a lesson for my composition students on how to revise bland, abstract prose into something concrete and interesting.

(I keep meaning to place a personal ad of my own, but I don’t know how much of a response I’d get with “Velma seeks Daphne — well, not exactly. Me: bespectacled literary nerd. You: danger-prone, in a good way, but not dippy. Red hair a plus. Must like baroque opera and used bookstores.” Maybe I should advertise in the London Review of Books, but there’s the small problem of my not living in the UK. Oh well.)

New Year’s resolutions

I made a bunch of New Year’s resolutions, but they more or less boiled down to three or four. Here they are.

In 2004, I will:

  • make time to write every day, even if it’s only for ten minutes at a time;
  • ask for what I want (in the job-search, but also more generally);
  • not spend too much time brooding or deprecating myself;
  • not do things just because they’re what’s expected of me.

I also resolved to floss more often, but I make that resolution every year. I think I’ll have better luck keeping the other ones.

I’m back

I’ve returned from my vacation with only a few days to spare before classes start up again (Midwestern U. begins its winter term insanely early). I spent Christmas day with my family, all of us opening presents, eating ourselves silly in the middle of the day, and then playing a game of Trivial Pursuit that never quite ended. Someone (I suspect it was my adorable but sniffling six-year-old cousin) gave me a lovely cold in the head, but other gifts were much more pleasant. The east coast was balmy all through my trip, and in New York I ended up doing a lot of walking around Central Park with my friend R. The sun shone in that oblique way it does in winter, and it was breezy but almost warm enough not to wear a coat, and we saw one of New York’s peregrine falcons via a telescope someone had set up in the southeast end of the park. And I finally got to visit the Fountain Pen Hospital in person, where I gazed longingly at all the pens I can’t afford but covet. It was nice to be away, but it’s also nice to be back. Or at least it will be until the next bout of freezing rain.

Now I’m catching up on blogs when I should be going to the grocery store. In a few days I’ll have more of substance to say. In the meantime, go read the latest few posts at frizzyLogic: qB has been thinking about foxes, thinking, and negative capability. And now I really must think about the assigned readings for my two composition sections this term.

And one more thing.

I forgot to add, last night: I’ve got a part-time job lined up for the winter term, and probably the summer, too, to eke out my lecturer’s salary. I’m going to be proofreading for a text-digitization project at Midwestern University’s main library. Better yet, the texts being encoded are early modern ones, and my friend T. already works there. It’s only temporary, but having recent nonacademic work experience on my resume will be a very good thing, and having something else to do besides grade papers and fret about teaching will also be a very good thing.

And now I have to go do laundry, shop for presents, get my hair cut, and make a list of things to pack. Happy holidays!

Goodbye 2003

The grades are in, the airport transportation has been arranged, and the preparations for next week’s journey back east have mostly been made. Tomorrow is for pre-holiday things, like finding presents for as many relatives as possible. Luckily I come from an extended family with a long tradition of not stressing too much about the holidays. It’s going to be a great relief to be back among them, not worrying about anything except whether I’ll get stuck with the Q at the end of one of our Scrabble games. True, I’ve got next term’s syllabus to slap together, but that’s not going to take too long, since it’s based on my current syllabi. And then I’m going to New York to visit R., which is always my favorite way to end the year.

This was my last semester as a graduate student (although I was only still a student in the most technical of senses). I’m going into 2004 with Ph.D. in hand. It feels like I should have some kind of pithy one-sentence summary, but the truth is that I’ve been having a bit of end-of-semester, or more likely end-of-grad-school, letdown: a combination of "So that’s it, then?" and "What now?". And it’s late and I’m tired (but also wide awake) after spending the entire evening at the movie theater watching The Return of the King. (But at least Tolkien lets one put things in perspective: graduate school may leave one changed permanently, but at least it doesn’t require scaling the slopes of Mount Doom. Well, not literally, anyway.)

And now it’s past my bedtime. Expect minimal blogging over the next couple of weeks; I’ll be off enjoying my winter vacation.

For those of you still thinking of pursuing an academic career…

Rana compares the academic job market to Survivor. Survivor comes out looking like the more promising option:

the odds of success are probably about the same, and while both can in theory lead to national fame and a million dollars, Survivor is over in less than two months and while physically challenging, probably has less long-term impact on one’s self-esteem (at least to judge by the people on the show this season).

Heh. I’m going to have to start watching more reality shows.

Stray thought occasioned by the term “independent scholar”

Wouldn’t "The Independent Scholars" be a great name for a band? Not a rock band, but an early-music band that plays dance hits of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (I am a Renaissance person, after all.) Like the Folger Consort or the Newberry Consort, only maybe with more bawdy songs. (And on period instruments; I’m not much of a musician, but I want to learn to play the theorbo someday.)

I like the name "Independent Scholars" because it has a certain aura of intellectual seriousness with an edge of rebellion. I think I’m thinking both of the Tallis Scholars and of the Unaccompanied Women, an all-women’s a capella group at my undergraduate alma mater. And possibly the Clerkes of Oxenford as well. Or maybe I’m just thinking of the "band or album?" game, in which, whenever an unusual or interesting phrase comes up in conversation, everyone has to decide whether it should be the name of a band or the title of an album.

(N.B.: This post is meant to stand in for all the posts I would be writing if I weren’t going to try to grade ten more papers tonight, fifteen tomorrow, and still more on Thursday…)