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It has always been my practice to cast a long paragraph in a single mould, to try it by my ear, to deposit it in my memory, but to suspend the action of the pen till I had given the last polish to my work.

~ Edward Gibbon, born on this day in 1737

 

While I suspect the lack of word processors in the 18th century contributed to Gibbon’s restraint, I am nonetheless fascinated by the notion of perfecting a paragraph in one’s mind before committing it to paper (or, rather, to the screen).  For me, much of the joy and fulfillment of writing is derived from formulating a clunky, inelegant passage in the white space before me and then scrambling, inserting, and eliminating words and sentences until perfection is seemingly achieved.  According to novelist Walter Mosley (This Year You Write Your Novel), the process of rewriting is therefore endless because the work never attains perfection.     

Unlike Gibbon, I am a dedicated and zealous reviser.  Of the many scholarly and nonfiction essays, book reviews, newspaper columns, blog posts, novel chapters, short stories, and poems in my “final version” files, none are ever truly finished.  On the contrary, what I love most about writing is the opportunity, the necessity, to revise again and again, sometimes ad infinitum, for as long as the piece continues to enthrall and engage me with its promise.  It is simply impossible for me to read a paragraph I’ve written and not find a phrase or word or comma to alter for its benefit.  Indeed, the premise of a “last polish” has a compelling gleam to it, but I think the enduring potential of a perfect draft is even brighter. 

 

Oddly assorted bedfellows, frost and thaw

ruckus under their scanty quilt of clay.

To them, spring comes as the final straw.

Their tortured nights are pictured plain as day

in sudden humps and craters that we find

in garden ground upheaved and undermined.

 

Tossing about, all elbows in the cramped

embrace to which their restless kind are fated,

their lust for loamy struggle never damped

in all the years since they were strangely mated,

neither has known the other’s throes to yield

to careless calm.  Their bed’s a battlefield.

 

Curious: what they fight is what they share—

a sullen trance where serial nightmares reign.

Scouting the damage spades will soon repair,

shouldn’t we feel less ready to complain?

Our cruelest dreams have yet to match the girth

of these, that wrench the surface of the earth.

 

                               ~ Robert B. Shaw

 

“Spring Spreads One Green Lap of Flowers” by John William Waterhouse, 1910

Spring

The air is like a butterfly

With frail blue wings.

The happy earth looks at the sky

And sings.

~ Joyce Kilmer

 

Blue Morpho Butterfly by Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904)

Solitude

Blest, who can unconcernedly find

Hours, days, and years slide soft away,

In health of body, peace of mind,

Quiet by day,

 

Sound sleep by night; study and ease,

Together mixed; sweet recreation;

And innocence, which most does please,

With meditation.

 

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;

Thus unlamented let me die;

Steal from the world, and not a stone

Tell where I lie.

 

~ Excerpt from Alexander Pope’s “Ode on Solitude”

 

“Sweet Solitude” by Edmund Blair Leighton, 1919

March

Sky a shook poncho.

Roof wrung.  Mind a luna moth

Caught in a banjo.

 

This weather’s witty

Peek-a-boo.  A study in

Insincerity.

 

Blues!  Blooms!  The yodel

Of the chimney in night wind.

That flat daffodil.

 

With absurd hauteur

New tulips dab their shadows

In water-mutter.

 

Boys are such oxen.

Girls! – sepal-shudder, shadow-

Waver.  Equinox.

 

Plums on the Quad did

Blossom all at once, taking

Down the power grid.

 

~ Richard Kenney

 

Vincent van Gogh

In Memoriam

I am waiting for the day

that maketh all things clear

and I am awaiting retribution

for what America did

to Tom Sawyer

and I am waiting

for Alice in Wonderland

to retransmit to me

her total dream of innocence

and I am waiting

for Childe Roland to come

to the final darkest tower

and I am waiting

for Aphrodite

to grow live arms

at a final disarmament conference

in a new rebirth of wonder

 

I am waiting

to get some intimations

of immortality

by recollecting my early childhood

and I am waiting

for the green mornings to come again

youth’s dumb green fields come back again

and I am waiting

for some strains of unpremeditated art

to shake my typewriter

and I am waiting to write

the great indelible poem

and I am waiting

for the last long careless rapture

and I am perpetually waiting

for the fleeing lovers on the Grecian Urn

to catch each other up at last

and embrace

and I am awaiting

perpetually and forever

a renaissance of wonder

 

~ From “I Am Waiting” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

 

“Expectation” by Richard Eisermann, 1927

At the bottom of her heart, however, she was waiting for something to happen.  Like shipwrecked sailors, she turned despairing eyes upon the solitude of her life, seeking afar off some white sail in the mists of the horizon.  She did not know what this chance would be, what wind would bring it to her, towards what shore it would drive her, if it would be a shallop or a three-decker, laden with anguish or full of bliss to the portholes.  But each morning, as she awoke, she hoped it would come that day; she listened to every sound, sprang up with a start, wondered that it did not come; then at sunset, always more saddened, she longed for the morrow.

~ From Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

 

“Madame Bovary” by Charles Leandre, 1931

I stood beside a hill

Smooth with new-laid snow,

A single star looked out

From the cold evening glow.

 

There was no other creature

That saw what I could see –

I stood and watched the evening star

As long as it watched me.

 

~ Sara Teasdale

 

“The Evening Star” by Edward Burne-Jones, 1870

The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter

To regard the frost and the boughs

Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

 

And have been cold a long time

To behold the junipers shagged with ice,

The spruces rough in the distant glitter

 

Of the January sun; and not to think

Of any misery in the sound of the wind,

In the sound of a few leaves,

 

Which is the sound of the land

Full of the same wind

That is blowing in the same bare place

 

For the listener, who listens in the snow,

And, nothing himself, beholds

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

 

                                                    ~ Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)

 

Waking in Winter

Winter dawn is the color of metal,

The trees stiffen into place like burnt nerves.

 

                     ~ Sylvia Plath

 

The Frosty Morning by Nikolay Dubovskoy, 1894
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