Novelistic Intelligence aka the Telling Detail

If you want to know what novelistic intelligence is you might compare a page or two of Hilary Mantel’s work with worthy historical fiction by Peter Ackyrod or Susan Sontag. They are intelligent but they are not novelistically intelligent. –Andrea Barrett, “Dust,” the Paris Review, 209, Summer, 2014

Why “one perfectly chosen detail works better than an army of dutifully transcribed facts.”  Advice we cannot hear too often as we struggle to write the compelling story, the portrait, the poem. 

What do you want? ..Write it!

Look Closely
My dog Ben isn’t the brightest bulb but he knows what he wants. Even if he can’t have it (two balls at one catch!) he enjoys getting close.. like my writing practice, getting almost to the place I’m aiming for: chasing one or another delight or fear or obsession.

Writing is like that. Find a pleasure or an itch and scratch it until it doesn’t itch anymore. Then find something else to scratch, to pursue. There are so many wonders out there. So many wounds in need of healing scabs.

The main thing: write. Free yourself to discover. They say dogs don’t smile. Look closely at my pit-pointer. Ben may not be smiling but he looks content: almost achieving his dream of two-balls at one catch.

Raking the Leaves: Writing is Re-Writing

My friend, the opera  singer calls it raking the leaves, the way, a teacher at the Curtis Institute taught her to play the piano — especially how to sight read at  the keyboard, keeping time without being flustered about how many notes her fingers were missing.

It’s a good analogy to writing practice, to the way a writer must be patient putting down her thoughts, later raking out the weak or inappropriate words, i.e. the deadwood, and passive sentences into a powerful, creative order.  An order that good writers know is itself a form of music.

When writing out your draft: First, pen (or pencil) or type the lines you hear in your head onto the page. Then, read them aloud to yourself. Listening carefully for their “rhythm.”  Now, go back (this is the Raking)!  This time allow yourself to delete or cross out or decide which of the words you’ve put down are the ones you truly want, which ones should move onto the pile for the bonfire or be taken to the dumpster.

Don’t destroy the early drafts too soon. Drafts are mulch.

A writer is always re-writing. Like a gardener, we are always raking, clearing undergrowth, pinching the dead-buds allows the new to bloom faster.

Keep writing. Keep putting down the thoughts that come across your head. This is your voice. Your instrument tuned only to your moods, your feelings, your intellect. Your experiences. Don’t be impatient.

John Donne said it in poem. Patience: hard thing. The hard thing but to pray.


They come in threes, as Mozart knew

The winter was impossible. Basement flooded, the favorite room, my writing studio. The car was vandalized. Then a blackout while driving. Three losses, not impossible, but challenging.

Now spring and three good things. A daughter’s marriage. A grant from Warren Wilson, a major assist toward completing the MFA in poetry. An offer to teach at one more venue.

A favorite set of threes: The Magic Flute, an opera rife with trinities.  The little boys who calm the nerves of Papageno: Stop talking. Be steadfast. Oh, yeah, and play those chimes!


Dream catcher? Kleinzahler’s Hotel Oneira

Daisy Fried’s enthusiasm for August Kleinzahler is catching. And that word oneira sets me thinking of  oneiric, a prompt from my first poet-mentor Henri Cole. Oneiric, or dreamlike, comes back to haunt in the title of Kleinzahler’s latest tome,  The Hotel Oneira, which Fried so well elucidates in the spring issue of ThreePennyReview (the journal does not allow hyperlinks, you must purchase).

David Weaver’s not so much haunted as delighted by Kleinzahler, going by his review in The Guardian, the paper I  longed to write for during my salad days of music criticism. I give in.  Kleinzahler,  jumpy, witty, maniacal New Jersey  master of barometric pressure points now pursues as Gaspar’s ecstasies pursue, and Reece’s restrained solitudes… as Warren Wilson’s essay semester’s solitudinous search for essay-topics weigh upon the soul of this poet..And, why not, Kleinzahler himself has been a music reviewer. Who can rue that.

‘The Rapture of Vachel Lindsay” makes a passing reference to Wallace Stevens’s “venereal soil”, and The Hotel Oneira confirms Kleinzahler once again as among the most delightful flowerings of American poetry in our times.”

Read the rest online:”/index html”



Hurry: Maine Sublime ends October at Olana

Fog Off Mount Desert PDF NGA-1  (Federic Edwin Church, 1850, oil on academy board. 11 1/2 x 15 1/2 in. Private Collection, promised gift, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Maine Sublime: Frederic Edwin Church’s Landscapes of Mount Desert and Mount Katahdin, Evelyn & Maurice Sharp Gallery, Olana. Presented by the Olana Partnership and the New York State Office of Parks & Recreation, Hudson, NY, through Oct. 23.  Scheduled for the Cleveland Museum of Art, Summer of 2014.

Each time I look at Fog at Mount Desert, Frederic Edwin Church’s rocky seacoast, with its plashing foam, I give a start. The 1850 oil painting with its red-tinged shoals, and foaming surf (on loan from the National Gallery of Art) looks so much like a Winslow Homer, so much like Homer’s home territory of Prouts Neck. I doubt I’m the only one who feels this at Maine Sublime at Olana, a show whose intimacy pleases perhaps more than its sublimity.

Church was ten years’ Homer’s senior.  In 1850, Homer, whose link to Maine would become indelible, was a young illustrator in New York likely studying the rising star of American landscape’s every accomplishment.

Remember, American Sublime? Church was still a star, perhaps the star, at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts retrospective of 19th century American landscape that traveled here from the Tate in London. The biggest name, the most works (27) in the splendid show that included among so many others, his teacher Thomas Cole, Thomas Moran, John F. Kensett, Fitz Henry Lane, Albert Bierstadt – and still, we associate the Hudson River School master with grand vistas of the Middle East, of South America, of Niagara. And, of course, Olana, his Persian-inspired hilltop home and studio on 250 acres, now a historic site. Easy to forget (did we know?) Frederic Church loved and painted Maine.

Fitting, that when curator John Wilmerding proposed Maine Sublime to the Olana Partnership, it was decided to launch the exhibit in Homer territory at the Portland Museum of Art.  If you missed it, Maine Sublime has “come home” to Olana’s upstairs Evelyn and Maurice Sharp Gallery (adjacent to the bedrooms now also on view) where it can be seen through October 23.  It’s a small exhibit, 10 oils and seven pencil sketches and this winnowing is one of its delights. Depth, breadth and finesse mark the selections, which come predominately from Olana’s private collection, with four major loans.  Wilmerding (a major Americanist, and the Christopher Barofim Sarofim Professor of American Art, emeritus, at Princeton University) underscores Church’s affinity for seaward Mount Desert and inland Mount Katahdin, as the exhibit reveals Church’s lesser-known, private side.

Church’s visits to Maine began as a bachelor in the 1850s. When he married in 1860, he took his bride Isabel; his visits to the Pine Tree State stretched half a century.  In 1878, Church purchased a home near Lake Katahdin, the only one he ever owned besides Olana.  He enjoyed Maine like the rest of us: hiking, swimming, camping, fishing, singing. “The piano is a standing resource,” Charles Tracy wrote in his diary the summer of 1855. “Mr. Church’s capacity for entertainment is perfectly inexhaustible.”  Other companions were less formal, often punning on his surname. His friend Theodore Winthrop nicknamed him “Iglesias,” (Spanish for church).

Many of the artist’s trips were working sojourns with colleagues (e.g. Bierstadt,  Kensett, Lane), others sizable friend-and-family gatherings. One senses from the details in Wilmerding’s fine catalog essay, all were restorative and productive.

In Campfire Near Mount Katahdin (oil on paper mounted on canvas, 1877), we see the wooden Lean-To’s (spelling?) the artist slept under after long nights of tall tales; a blazing fire is seductive.

Wood Interior near Mount Katahdin  (oil on paper mounted on canvas, 1877) captures the woods near the inland home that Church would purchase; like a number of these works, it was not shown to the public before this exhibit.  The artist’s view from the family retreat, whose placid water and tranquil skies look nurturing, is caught in Mount Katahdin from Upper Togue Lake (oil on academy board, 1877-1878).

Unlike his teacher Thomas Cole, Church did not seek allegory in his nature sketches though a spiritual impulse comes through in the meticulous realism. The eye is keen, botanical; often Church penned notes to himself on the drawing paper. Specificities of temperature, time, season; of rock and barnacle… information that would be crucial to completing the studies and beginning new works in his studio at Olana.

 Birch tree Struck by Lightning (pencil on coarse brown paper, 1850) is one beauty. White Chinese gouache has been applied to the trunk that has split, the shading like a  sorrow.  The husband’s self-deprecating wit is revealed in Frederic and Isabel Church on Mount Desert Island (1860, graphite on thin white wove paper): Church has sketched his new bride on a cliff above him facing into the wind, he stands behind, reversing direction to avoid it.

The pleasure of looking at art in suitable quarters: You are able to really see.  See the “small miracles of impeccable technique,” as Wilmerding describes the watery swirls and foam in Fog on Mount Desert (1850, on loan from the National Gallery). These things can’t be simulated digitally or on a poster.

All the sunset and twilight titles in Church’s oeuvre must exhaust a cataloger.  Radiant, irradiating horizons are plentiful in Maine Sublime.  The luminosity that suffuses Church’s art (made possible by the availability of cadmium pigments in the late 1840s) is a necessary pleasure.  Take your pick: The theatrical Twilight, A Sketch from 1858.  Sunset, Bar Harbor, (oil on paper mounted on canvas, 1854), which was displayed at PAFA’s American Sublime. Here it is doubly fascinating: it is shown with a pencil sketch of the same subject done the same month and year. This Sunset, Bar Harbor (1854, graphite on tan paper) is extensively annotated in Church’s elegant script for cloud formations and different strata of light. There are other sunsets, twilights, each one transfixes.

Notice how the sensual, often tumultuous arrangements of cadmium hues calm through the years. From the warrior orange-reds lighting dramatic skylines, more lavender, softer yellows enter the later works. Lake and sky reflect and appear to merge in Mount Katahdin from Upper Togue Lake from 1877-78, a meditation in oil on paper.

Serenity defines Camp Millinocket on Mount Katahdin (1895, oil on canvas, on loan from the Portland Museum of Art, Maine).  It is Church’s last major work of Maine.  It was a birthday gift for his wife, Isabel, to which he attached this note:

Your old guide is paddling his canoe in the shadow, but he knows that the glories of the heavens and earth are seen more appreciatively when the observer rests in the shade.

Maine Sublime can be seen as part of a Guided House Tour at Olana during its regular open hours but is available for separate viewing only on Saturdays. Reservations recommended. (518) 828-0135.  The splendid exhibit travels to the Cleveland Museum of Art next summer (2014).