Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel — Now What?

I apologize for any repetitiveness, but now that I’ve put about 12 hours into typing this tome, I’m not backing down. It seems somewhere in the process, I turned a corner and started over? Or had a clearer picture? If I were to counsel that young woman I think I’d say, “Sweet Cheeks, you have so much information here, you’ve done the best research possible in these times with your language limitations, but you’ve got to pull it together.” She’d say, “I know, but HOW????” As I am now the secretary to that woman, and she’s nowhere to be seen, and I have only this immense vestige of her efforts, here goes, again…

One good thing that happened in the evolution of this mammoth project is that 36 year old Martha got a stapler which means this section at least is all together and finished… Or not. 😉


“My grandmother taught me many good stories, but she said I should never give them away. I should always get paid fo telling them. Of course, when I was tell them, I couldn’t tell them in just any way, like I told you that one, a little bit of this, a little bit of that, all over the place. When I was learning to tell a story I had to start at the beginning every time. If I made a mistake or changed it as I was telling it, I had to go back to the beginning again. This is the way we learned to tell stories.” Sylvia Lee, Navajo Indian Jewelry Maker, Tucson, Arizona, February 6, 1988

The Chinese Oral Tradition

The Beginnings of the Chinese Novel

The electric lights blaze, ignited by a generator carried on a ship down the Pearl River and across the South China Sea, then on a truck across the bumpy roads of rural Hainan Island. The village itself has no electricity, event though it is February, 1983. It is the New Year Holiday, Spring Festival. Small Children perched on their grandmothers’ laps or on small stools balanced on stone benches watch in amazement as the fantastically costumed characters march back and forth across the stage. 

Gongs, drums, cymbals, horns punctuate every action, every exaggerated sound. It’s the resurrected Hainan Opera, back in operation after the years of silence imposed by the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. 

The story enacted is hundreds of years old. The bandit leader, Song Jiang, and his follower, Wu Sung, are talking in their hideout on the edge of the Liang Shan Marsh. They are speaking Hainanese, a language which no Beijing native would understand. Next to the stage is a projected line of characters; those who cannot understand the actors can read the words. 


Sylvia Lee, quoted above, was a woman I met in Tucson. We got lost in a conversation which probably didn’t help her sales much, but… Her father was a Navajo Code Talker in WW II. He was captured by the Japanese. The camp guard was also a prisoner, a Chinese man, whose last name was Li. He always made sure that Sylvia’s father had food and, at some point, if I remember right, helped him escape. When he came back to America, Sylvia’s father changed his name to Lee in honor of that Chinese guard.

The little clip below is the Wenchang Doll Opera which I DIDN’T see, but the time I spent on Hainan was in a village a few miles from Wenchang.

Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel, 3

Here’s where we left off yesterday in our meandering discussion of early Chinese fiction: The supernatural can intervene at any time in much the way fate appears to intervene in human life. The effect of THAT is one of bewildering realism. 


In *Shui Hu Chuan (The Water Margin, translated by Pearl Buck as All Men Are Brothers), was written in the 14th century. The story opens with a somewhat rash Imperial Commander who has been sent to a sacred mountain in search of a Taoist master who has the ability to cure the entire nation which is, at that moment, suffering from a terrible plague. The commander succeeds in his question, having unknowingly spoken directly to the master who was disguised as a small boy on a buffalo. On his way down the mountain, the commander finds a small temple that has been sealed with paper. He questions the monks about why the temple is sealed. The monk replies that 108 demons are sealed inside. Curiosity gets the better of the commander who commands that that the temple be opened. Against the protests of the monk, the temple — a Pandora’s Box — is opened freeing the 108 demons to roam the world creating havoc. These 108 demons are the bandits and robbers who populate the Shui Hu Chuan.

Hong Loui Meng, written in the 18th century, is probably the most famous and most studied of the older Chinese novels. It opens with the story of Pao Yu, the main character. Pao Yu is not actually a mortal but the human incarnation of a piece of jade which was rejected when the sky was completed. Depressed over his rejection, Pao Yu is noticed by wandering Buddhist and Taoist monks who give him the opportunity to exist in the world of men, the “Red Dust.” Because he is not an ordinary mortal, he cannot be expected to act like one. This the reader knows, but, of course, the other characters in the novel can only guess Pao Yu’s destiny. In this way, the author is able to tie all of the episodes in the story together to make his statement at the end, that, essentially, while the Red Dust and its ways are all-right for mortals, it’s no place for gods. 

*Chin Ping Mei, a “spin-off” of the Shui Hu Chuan, was written in the 16th century. It begins with a Confucian exhortation against dealing with women (!), and, finally, as the ultimate example, the author launches into Chin Ping Mei itself:

Let us then purify our senses, and put upon us the garment of repentance, that so contemplating the emptiness and illusion of this world, we may free ourselves from the gate of birth and death and falling not into the straits of adversity, advance towards perfection. Thus only may we enjoy leisure and good living and still escape the fires of Hell. I am brought to these reflections upon the true significance of wine and women, wealth and ambition, remembering a family which, while flourishing, sank at length into a state of deepest misery. Then neither worldly wisdom nor ingenuity could save it and not a single relative or friend would put forth a hand to help. For a few brief years the master of this household enjoyed his wealth, and then he died, leaving behind a reputation which none would want. 


And THAT folks seems to be a wrap — that’s page 5 and there is no page 6! There is a page 7, 8, 9 etc. but I cannot see from this how younger Martha got to page 7. I’ve looked everywhere, even to the point of finding yet ANOTHER version. It seems that 36 year old Martha Kennedy was seriously into revision. As I typed this it struck me that it just rambles with no direction, and I wonder if that’s not something “she” noticed and that’s why I have three versions of this? NO idea — but I may jump straight to the twentieth century. We’ll see. What appears to be the newest revision of this tome IS the most engaging so maybe I’ll just go there? It’s better… Oh Martha, Martha, no wonder you didn’t finish this. 🙂

* The Shui Hu Chuan is still incredibly popular in Asia — cartoons, feature films, Kung-fu versions. It’s a wonderful adventure story — or compilation of stories. To me, it’s like an Icelandic saga, and I love Icelandic sagas.

** The Chin Ping Mei is a notorious book. An unexpurgated version has come out in English, but the one I read, translated in the 30s, had all the juicy bits translated into Latin. I could expend a lot of energy decoding it or move on. All this righteous stuff is really just a way to turn this extremely racy book into a moral lesson. Pearl Buck included the Chin Ping Mei in her novel, Pavilion of Women with the story that originally it had had poison on the corner of each page so that the evil magistrate (if I remember right) would die when he finished reading it, and, of course, he had to read it. Poisoned books are legendary across cultures — there is another more well known in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. It really discourages a person from reading.

I scored a copy of Clement Edgerton’s 1939 translation of Chin Ping Mei at a used book store. It’s the same version I read so long ago while working on the Pearl Buck project. Used books are great. In this case because someone else would have gotten the poison ( ha ha) and because the person who had this book apparently loved it. He inscribed it with his name in English and in Chinese. The featured photo is one of the new editions and my old books. You’d think the BIGGER book has more in it, but the old book is printed on very thin paper and the type is set close together. I don’t think there’s much difference in quantity of content, but in the new edition the juicy bits are in English.

On the subject of translation, I’m with Goethe. He wrote a very nice poem (which I can’t find now) about this and there’s also the story of how his secretary read to him a story written in French. Goethe said, “That’s a good story.” His secretary laughed and said, “That’s the French translation of your story.” I think it’s better to read a translation than not read the stories at all. Sure, maybe something — maybe a lot — is lost, but not everything. I have two translations of Hong Lou Meng. One is the translation officially sanctioned by the CCP published in an incredibly beautifully illustrated two volume set. The other is a much longer, more complete, less censored and didactic translation put out by the Oxford University Press. The both tell the story, and the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) version says in the illustrations much of what is left out in the words. There is also — in China — a whole field of scholarship over Hong Lou Meng. I like best the writer’s explanation for why he wrote it. Basically because he had nothing to do, was very poor, and writing it was a way to entertain himself and his friends. I feel that with all my heart. There is contention about who wrote it, but generally it is believed to be Cao Xuexin, the impoverished son of a disgraced official. It’s a wonderful book. It’s something I wish I could experience for the first time — again. ❤

I listened to this song all the time back in the day because I was getting sick of “sitting around here trying to write [that] book.”

Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel, 2

In good news, it snowed for five minutes last night and I was out in it. ❤ Yeah, it’s cold but? (Scratching my head trying to figure out what’s bad about that…). One thing I’m learning from typing the Pearl Buck project is 1) I used the passive voice much more back in the 80s. You’re free to read into that. 2) I used more — and fancier! — words — I hadn’t benefited from the tutelage of Truman Capote yet. I have begun editing…but gently. That 34 year old Martha has a right to her voice. And if this gets too boring let me know. After getting so close to Pearl Buck in the past and reading all these Chinese novels, I think it really matters if my audience is having a good time which, as Pearl Buck said, comes from a combination of entertainment and education. ❤ But she was an English teacher, after all…


Here’s where we left off yesterday: “…amazingly few literary critics are able to obey that simple basic rule of criticism—to ask, ‘What does the novelist want to do and has he done it?’” (“Advice to a Novelist About to Be Born”)

This gives the critic a new perspective, and a new question. With this question in mind, it’s difficult to operate under the assumptions one might use evaluating the work of “a generation.” Pearl Buck never claimed a place for herself among the writers of her “generation,” among whom were the “Lost Generation” writers who wrote about what Buck considered “purposelessness.” 

I read modern American novels rather assiduously, as a matter of interest, and I find…evidence of whaat I have been trying to say in the lack of interest in life. The characters are almost universally subordinated to the incident and environment. That is what apparently interests the readers is how much characters hop, skip and jump, not how they feel and are…It may seem a curious contradiction to say on one hand that people demand nothing but amusement from literature, and then to say that literature which only amuses them does not satisfy them…with all our childlike love of a good time, we never really. have a good time unless we feel we are improving ourselves, too…Perhaps it is literature which today has become void of philosophy, so devoid that it has no inner light, so that people reading this have caught no real illumination…(Interview; “Literature and Life,” Saturday Review of Literature, 3/13/38, 3-4)  

Clearly, for Pearl Buck, the purpose of a work of fiction is to entertain and to instruct, a mission shared by Chinese writers since the Han dynasty.

The novel in China developed pretty much on its own until the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries when, after thousands of years of virtual isolation, China sent a few students to foreign countries to study in the universities of the United States, France, Russia, Great Britain, and Japan. Chinese students made contact with all these different literary traditions — and languages. This contact coincided with a period of tremendous upheaval and social reconstruction in the world’s largest nation. Until this time, the influence of any foreign literature on the literature of China had been negligible, confined to the inclusion of various religious mythologies — mostly Buddhist but also Muslim and Christian — in existing Chinese folk stories. 

In the twentieth century, Chinese writers began consciously imitating foreign writers. 

How did the novel develop in these two widely separated parts of the world, what the history, what the sources, who the authors? I need hardly tell you that it developed with complete independence. France, Russia, Spain, and other countries made their contributions to the English novel, but there was no early contributions either to or from China…the Chinese novel grew, enlarged, took on life without any contribution of note from other civilizations until the very recent past when western influence has been so strong in all phases of Chinese life. (Pearl S. Buck, “East/West and the Novel, 1932)

In her Nobel Prize lecture which considered the Chinese novel and its development she said of herself:

When I came to consider what I should say today, it seems that it would be wrong not to speak of China. And this is none the less true because I’m an American by birth and ancestry and though I live now in my own country and shall live there since it is there I belong. But it is the Chinese and not the American novel which has shaped my efforts in writing. My earliest knowledge of story, of how to tell and write stories, came to me in China…yet it would be presumptuous to speak before you on the subject of the Chinese novel for a reason wholly personal. There is another reason why I feel that I may properly do so. It is that I believe that the Chinese novel has an illumination for the western novel and the western novelist. 

The novel in China doesn’t trace its history back to a Platonic or Aristotelian set of dramatic unities, the famous and useful dramatic triangle where the action builds to a climax then drops down to a resolution. It was required only to tell a story and the story was supposed to be entertaining, provide a good moral example, and earn money for the teller. As C. T. Hsia writes in his book, The Classical Chinese Novel, the pre-twentieth century Chinese novel is everything the modern western novel reader isn’s supposed to like. 

The modern reader of fiction is brought up on the practice and theory of Flaubert or James; he expects a consistent point of view a unified impression of life a conceived and planned by a master intelligence, an individual style fully consonant with the author’s emotional attitude toward his subject matter. He abhors explicit didacticism, authorial digression, episodic construction that reveals no cohesion of design, and clumsiness of every other kind that distracts his attention (Hsia)

The novel of Old China had conventions of its own. First, the novelist or storyteller had to pay his dues to the deities. Every major novel written before the twentieth century begins with either a mythical story or a moral parable which serves to involve the supernatural in the plot. This helps the storyteller when it comes time to end the story and provide a moral conclusion for what might have been a lot of very loosely knit, barely related episodes. It gives the storyteller a vehicle for changing the direction of a plot if it isn’t working. The supernatural can intervene at any time in much the way fate appears to intervene in human life. The effect of THAT is one of bewildering realism. 

Pearl S. Buck, Here Goes

In 1984, I had just returned from a year teaching in China. I was regretful at having returned to the US, (apparently) “stuck” in a marriage the wasn’t working and would ultimately end, kind of lost and looking for something meaningful and engaging. My thesis advisor and his wife came to our apartment in Denver for dinner and as we talked, he said, “You should write about Pearl S. Buck. No one is and someone should. You could do that project.”

Surrounding us were packing boxes. The Good-X had just gotten a job in San Diego and we were moving. Just a few weeks after we moved, I got a teaching job at a language school attached to San Diego State University and access to a wonderful library. I had a beautiful typewriter that could erase a whole LINE of type or just a word; even just a letter! State of the art!

I began the project. I remember a few things from that time — one, for a while my typewriter sat on the floor. Then, we found our real apartment and the dining room table (like now) held the writing tools. I remember a Saturday afternoon when I was really stuck under a mountain of research and not sure at all WHERE I was going with this or WHAT I was doing and I thought (and wrote in my little journal), “I don’t know. Maybe this is the way I write a book.” I realized that’s what I was doing.

So. now I’m typing it onto my MacBook, trying NOT to edit that 30 something woman who wrote it. Just because I’ve written a LOT since then and am older, doesn’t make me the god of this project. I want to let it unwind as she wrote it. There are better works about Pearl Buck out there now. She became interesting in the 1990s (my thesis advisor was right) both here in the US and in China, and China became a lot easier to visit. The have also restored a house that is believed to have been hers, though (as I read yesterday) there’s some skepticism about that. Anyway, she’s not in that house, not even the house in Pennsylvania that is a National Historic Monument. She’s in her books and in the great work still being done by the Pearl S. Buck Foundation helping children.

Here goes…


Most ninth grade students have heard of Pearl Buck. My mother’s generation, born in the early years of the twentieth century, smiles when you mention Pearl Buck’s name. My mother wrote in the margin of a book of selected quotes, “You can’t beat Pearl Buck.” The clerk in the used bookstore where I did most of my shopping for Pearl Buck’s novels back in the 1980s when I originally wrote this manuscript smiled whenever I purchased one. More than once she launched into a paeon of reminiscence about the time she read this or that novel as a young girl. 

Pearl Buck’s books are very readable, enjoyable, and difficult to put down. They show deep sensitivity into universal human feelings. the motives of the characters, their problems, and their lives are vividly depicted and true in all the languages into which the novels have been translated.

The Good Earth — Pearl Buck’s most famous novel and the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature — brought the lives of the Chinese peasant into average American homes, giving them an enduring interest and sympathy for China. 

As China opened its doors to the West, Americans have been eager to enter — as tourists, scientists, business people, and teachers. How much of this feeling of goodwill could be traced to Pearl Buck’s novels is certainly impossible to gauge, but it was one of her hopes as a writer to bring her two worlds together. 

In 1972/73 Pearl Buck was denied a visa to enter China. Already in her eighties, with little chance to appeal the decision of the Chinese Bureau of Foreign Affairs, she wrote an open letter to the Chinese people. During her life, the Chinese had access to her books, and she had every reason to believe that her letter would be read by someone in China:

…I shall never see you again, my beloved people of China. My feet will never again tread the hills, the villages, the cities I know so well. Yet, though this is true, it no longer matters…You formed me, you fed me, you shapped me as I am forever…All that China gave me, the friendships, the beauty, the excitement, the dangers — Yes, there were dangers to my very life and the lives of my family and we were saved by Chinese friends — all my experiences for many years, I have poured into my books. My books have taken me, and you with me, far and wide upon our earth. I am glad for your sake that I am the most widely translated author my country ever had, for that means that you, too, are also widely known. To the best of my ability, I have tried to speak for you…

As the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1938), Pearl Buck achieved a large share of fame and notoriety, but not as an author of “great” fiction. Critics generally agreed that The Good Earth was her first and last great novel, and that, perhaps, she should not have been given the Nobel Prize but that it should have gone to one of the more “deserving” contenders:

Outclassed by earlier prize winners like William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Thomas Mann… who have won it before her, Pearl Buck would be placed below such U.S. possibilities as Theodore Dreiser, Carl Sandburg, Van Wyck Brooks…but politics have always played a big part in the Nobel Prize selectios…in politically conscious Europe, Pearl Buck is famed for The Good Earth and for her pungent telling attacks on dictators, for her tribute to the common people of China. (Time Magazine, 11/21, 1938)

It may be that when evaluating literature in the rarified atmosphere of a graduate program, Pearl Buck doesn’t stack up against Mann, Yeats, or Shaw. Still, the eyes of the clerk in my used book store don’t mist over at the sight of The Magic Mountain (which I also bought in her store) or “Major Barbara.” I couldn’t imagine her — sensible, book-loving, well-educated woman that she was — rhapsodizing with a stranger over hours spent as a girl, beneath a tree, reading “The Double Vision of Michael Robartes.”

Critics of Pearl Buck’s Nobel Prize also contended that she wasn’t even really an American writer. After all, she had spent all but four years of her life, roughly 40 years, in China. 

I’m happy to make a sweeping generalization and admit that, in many respects, her novels don’t fit into the mainstream of fiction being written at that time in the West. Her influences were not the same as those of Western writers. Her work fits much better into the mainstream of work being written in China at that time. She claimed the same herself, writing that except for an acknowledged “debt to Dickens,” her novels rely more on the traditions of Chinese fiction. In them one sees the influence of the traveling storyteller and the thoughts of the twentieth century “literary revolutionists” who were rapidly redirecting the development of the novel in China. Like many of her Chinese contemporaries, she wrote out of two traditions and found her own voice.

What criteria would Pearl Buck have wanted the critics to use looking at her work? “…amazingly few literary critics are able to obey that simple basic rule of criticism—to ask, ‘What does the novelist want to do and has he done it?’” 


I hit this point in my typing this morning and took advantage of some current technology (back in the 80s I was reading microfilm, haunting the library at San Diego State and buying used books to read sources) to see what books were selling in the 1930s. I remember them from my childhood when I was riding my bike to the library in Bellevue, Nebraska to find something to feed my then-voracious appetite for novels — readable, engaging writers like Edna Ferber, Rebecca West, Daphne du Maurier, Rachel Field, John Galsworthy, and John Steinbeck. (Source)

Heavy Blue Notebook

In a conversation with myself yesterday (I know, I know) I thought of this big blue old-school notebook and said, “You should just type that stuff up and put it into a book with the other little books in your Chinese cabinets.” So I dug it out of the old trunk that came over from somewhere with someone in my family and looked at it.

It’s the Pearl Buck project that I never finished. The notebook itself is an interesting relic — it and the printer paper which is that paper that had holes on both sides. Some of it is on regular legal sheets where I had typed it with my electronic typewriter. It was a cool typewriter with enough memory to erase a whole line of typing. The printer appeared when my neighbor loaned me his MacIntosh computer and printer while he was out of the country. He had to talk me into it, saying, “You’ll like it” to my “I don’t see why I need a computer.” This was 1985. Along with the project is a small file box filled with index cards with sources and annotations. That has been retyped onto some of these pages.

Looking at it yesterday I see I got lost in the project and it veered from Pearl Buck to Chinese literature. It wasn’t a total detour since the thesis of the project is that Pearl Buck is at least as much a representative of the Chinese literary tradition as the Western.

Though she spent her childhood and much of her adulthood in China, she was not allowed to return in 1972 when she applied. She had refugeed to the US in 1934 during the Anti-Japanese War. In recent years, she’s been “redeemed” in China.

[Pearl S. Buck] remained a Communist Party non-person until, in 1991, anticipating the centenary of her birth the following year, a group of Chinese scholars committed to the importance of her representations of China, proposed a national conference to re-consider her work and legacy. The proposal was approved by the provincial authorities in Jiangsu, where Buck had lived through most of her years in China, but then quashed at the ministerial level in Beijing. In 1997, another proposal was — how shall I put it? — semi-approved: Buck could be discussed but not named in the conference title. Instead, discussions of Buck’s writing were smuggled in under the rubric “Chinese-American Literary Relations.”(Peter Conn, “What the Remarkable Legacy of Pearl Buck Still Means for China” Atlantic Monthly, 2012)

It might have been that my little project could have “mattered,” if I’d finished it but two things came in the way, the major one was technology the secondary one (which was related to the first) was marriage. My neighbor came back, reclaimed his computer and printer, and I was left with the typewriter that was no long sufficient. The Good-X and I went shopping for a computer. I wanted a Mac. After all, my work was saved on disks the Mac could read (imagine that, disks…) But he was a Commodore fan and wanted me to have an Amiga, and as he was the breadwinner, he won. I began the task of retyping the whole thing (god forbid that computer systems in 1988 were universal) and gave up.

Thinking about that now, I wonder why the Good X who wasn’t going to actually USE that computer had anything to say about it at all? Just because he was a programmer? Hmmmm…

Anyway, “my” book has since been written and in China which is awesome and how it should be. But I was wondering; would you all go crazy if for a while you read something about Pearl Buck every time you opened my blog? I promise; it’s interesting and strange. And, if Bear, Teddy and I have a good ramble I will interrupt this program for a word from my sponsor (me). I need a project, and this seems like a good one. And, when I finish, I can jettison the historical notebook and its contents, lightening the old trunk by a good 7 pounds.

Walk with a Friend

Lucky for Bear, she can’t read the weather forecast or she would be feeling all the emotions of disappointment, betrayal, longing. Snow was predicted at a VERY high percentage of probability. I fully expected and/or hoped to wake up to a tiny sift of snow on the ground. Yesterday I found Bear napping in her “snow” spot in the yard, the spot against the fence which is the last to see the snow and ice vanish in spring. As things turned out, it didn’t snow, and she’s just lying here on the floor per usual chewing on a rawhide pencil. It’s drizzly and dark out there, though, so there might be some slight, very slight, hope of snow in spite of what the coin tossers at NOAA have to say. Seriously, I think they make this stuff up. I get more accurate information from the sky.

This is what the weather gamblers have in the forecast for today…


Yesterday, on the spur of the moment, we picked up our friend Elizabeth and headed out for a walk in a windy and beautiful Refuge. Bear likes it when another human is along. She feels less pressure to take care of me (the other human can have that job). Bear smelled all kinds of great things and even found a scent worth rolling in. Fortunately there was nothing (excrement, corpse, etc.) but a scent. The wind blew, but not terribly, the sky was perfectly clear, the mountains seemed near, the conversation was peerless. Bear walked close enough to Elizabeth so Elizabeth could rest her hand on Bear’s back, reminding me that friendship is a very precious thing.

The featured photo is of the sun hitting a small grove of cottonwoods. I took it day-before-yesterday when I was out with Teddy. Yesterday’s clear and open sky was more like this from a year ago today.

Poetry?

On my blog yesterday a short discussion of poetry emerged in the comments. I’m not all that comfortable talking about the impulses that lead to poetry vs. prose for a writer (I think they are infinitely varied and personal), but the conversation got me thinking about it (again).

I seldom write poetry, but I went through a spell last year during the “lock down” because I had nothing to say that wasn’t weirder or more interesting than the reality we were all living in to greater and lesser extents. I wrote a bunch of sonnets, inspired by Val from A Different Perspective. She often writes poetry on her blog and was, I think, responding to some challenge and had posted a sonnet. I thought, “Why not?” and Shakespearean sonnets filled this space for a short time.

As I wrote, I remembered the wise words of my 10th grade English teacher who said, “If you want to be a writer, write sonnets. That will teach you about language.” One thing I know for sure about poetry is that it will teach you about language whether you write poetry or read it. The next year my 11th grade English teacher entered one of my poems in a contest and it won. That was cool. I got disenchanted with it all at some point — much later, during grad school. I don’t remember why, but it might have been because I wrote a reflective piece about riding my ten speed up Waterton Canyon, a common thing to do now but not back in 1978.

I love poetry and I know a lot of poems. I owe that to my mom and dad. They had memorized many poems and loved many more. That’s a major thing, I think, not just the parental influence, but that poems are memorable. Old-school, highly structured poetry that rhymes easily stays with us. I think of blind Homer sitting on a stone or bench telling everyone the stories of the man who sacked the city of Troy.

In my mind is a little file box of poems and lines from poems I can return to when I need something. Lately it’s been William Cullen Bryant’s poem, “Thanatopsis” (A look at death).

To him who in the love of Nature holds   
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks   
A various language; for his gayer hours   
She has a voice of gladness, and a smile   
And eloquence of beauty, and she glides   
Into his darker musings, with a mild   
And healing sympathy, that steals away   
Their sharpness, ere he is aware…

Not only this lovely opening which has always spoken directly to me, but now? ALL of it. I’m not young any more, and, am approaching that age when humans turn the page from “I’m not that old YET” to “OK, now what do I do? Yikes. Right. THAT! OK, but???” The poem has good solid answers. I have always loved it. I love it more now.

That’s just one of the poems in my mental file box. When I see a hawk, Gerard Manley Hopkins calls out,

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
    dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
    Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
    As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
    Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
    Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

   No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
    Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

(The Windhover)

It’s pretty hard to hold a novel or even a short story in our minds like that.

I went to a little poetry-writing class a couple of decades ago with a friend, and the “teacher” said, “There are no rules with poetry. It’s just sentences written down differently.”

I wanted to jump up and run her through with my rapier, but I don’t have a rapier, and such behavior is frowned upon in our time (shooting is OK, though). Poetry is a LOT more than sentences written in sloppy grammar. A LOT more. We never went back. We already knew how to write bad sentences. I despise the word “craft” applied to art. A better word to me is “discipline” or “surrender.” I think if a thing is really going to happen (painting, narrative, poem) somewhere along the line the will of the artist has to step back and serve the creation. The artist is not God over his/her oeuvre but its servant. That can be scary at first — what if you actually LET GO and surrender to the work you’re doing? OH MY GOD!!! But that’s when the dance begins. ❤

This morning I woke up with the idea that writing is (for me, anyway) an act of seeing. I learn a lot from writing, not just about writing but about my thoughts, the world around me, stuff I’m studying. Maybe poetry is a chance to look at life and the world through another person’s eyes, or focus our own eyes more clearly. All the magical poetic devices help us do that — both show and tell. I straddle a fence between thinking that poetry is completely irrelevant and that poetry is the ONLY relevant thing we humans have to offer each other.

Word Up

There are so many words in the English language that came from other languages and other times. Every once in a while I’ll be doing something completely UN-word-related (like walking a dog) and it will hit me what a word actually MEANS. The most recent experience like this was “manger.” I was walking at the Refuge with Teddy and suddenly an extremely negligible epiphany, “Manger — manger. “Fuck,” I thought, “that’s French. But ‘Away in the trough, no crib for a bed’ wouldn’t scan. And pronouncing it in French? ‘manjay’? OK you get an internal rhyme but it sounds silly.”

So here we have “cavalier,” a word I’ve heard mostly describing a careless attitude. “I don’t like your cavalier attitude,” my mom was wont to say when I dismissed her hysterical concerns over my behavior. Cavalier? French AGAIN. A guy who rides a horse. I know there is a lot of history behind all these words, but we live on the surface of history so what difference does that make to us? None, really. Just fodder for the pensamientos of idleness.

You are all probably on tenterhooks about the situation of my Scarlet Emperor beans. Tonight is predicted to be the year’s first hard freeze.


The beans are still sending out new tendrils and I’ve harvested a bowl full of dried beans. There are still several almost-ripe pods on the plants. Wang Wei was the first to stop sending out tendrils and blossoms, and also the first to yield a ripe pod. The rest are not slowing down much in spite of the colder nights and shorter days. I’m torn between cutting them down before the frost hits or leaving them to nature. You can see snow in the forecast, too.

Night Long Ago Aches to Become a Painting

This part of this post is a reprise from 2015. It describes an unforgettable night, a compelling image that still holds my mind.


It’s a summer night in 1957 and I lie on the back seat of the 55 Ford with my three year old brother. My grandfather has died and my dad flew up that morning to be with his mother. On the very same plane, my Uncle Hank arrived from Billings. He’s going to drive us to Billings to be with our dad. My mom doesn’t know how to drive.

Together my little brother and I about fill the back seat with our sleeping bodies. The car stops. I wake up. “Where are we, mom?”

“Wheatland, honey.”

My Uncle Hank says, “I’ll go see if he’ll open up and sell me gas. The store lights are on. He can’t have been closed long.” The green neon Sinclair dinosaur in the window lights the parking stalls in front of the station. Pink and white neon lines the roof-line.

Once the car has stopped I sit up to look out the window at the Wyoming night. Beyond the gas station, the city park, soft, summer darkness, out across the plains forever.

Suddenly there is a burst of girls in long frothy dresses, running and laughing. They run past us, their dresses lit momentarily by the neon of the gas station lights.

“Rainbow girls,” says my mom, thoughtfully. “The Lodge must be nearby.”

“What are rainbow girls?” I ask.

“It’s a club for teenage girls, honey. Your Aunt Dickie was a member.”

“They’re wearing long dresses!” I am five and in love with long dresses.

“Those are formals. They wear formals at their meetings.” My Aunt Dickie — the youngest of the 7 sisters among whom my mom was third to last — reached high school when my Aunt Florence, Uncle David and Uncle Sherman were were working and sending money home, helping out enough that Aunt Dickie could do things none of her older sisters could.

Uncle Hank comes back with the service station owner who has turned on the lights over the pumps. He looks sleepy, but understanding as unlocks the pumps and fills the tank. I’m sure my uncle explained everything to the man. “Thank you kindly,” says my uncle, “Sorry for waking you.”

“You take care, sir,” says the man. “Safe travels.” We’ll make it to Billings.


I have been thinking of this night for the past few weeks as a subject for a painting. I haven’t figured it out yet, but it’s swirling around in my mind, trying to form itself. I’m a little stumped on point of view, how to put that little wonder-struck girl into the painting. Right now I’m leaning toward the girls being somewhere in the distance, just close enough to the gas station for their long dresses to catch the light.

Former Edward Hopperish Featured image ❤

Trying to Hold My Shit Together, but…

All that stuff we’re supposed to do to maintain our mental health can sometimes feel like pressure, one more thing we have to do. It’s crazy how in our world with the ubiquity of advice and opinion that things like “thankfulness” are “prescribed.” The idea of counting one’s blessings isn’t new, but being bombarded by “mindfulness” advice? The insistence on gratitude and so on can make a vulnerable person feel guilty for NOT feeling grateful all the time, for feeling angry, anxious, frightened, tired, resentful, — the whole rainbow of so-called human emotions.

I’ve been wondering how I dealt with everything so much better last year when things were, in many ways much worse. I don’t think I’m alone. I don’t think (we) animals are designed for a persistent crisis — in fact a crisis CAN’T be “persistent.” A persistent crisis is not a crisis; it’s life as we know it — like “living” with the plague (as Shakespeare and pals did so long ago) or The Bomb. That’s all it is. I feel more anxious than I have felt in years, more fearful of doing anything, even going hiking with a friend in a couple of hours. I woke up nauseated and sick to my stomach. Stress? Waking up 2 hours before the alarm just to be sure I’d be ready, but I packed my little day pack and filled my hydration bladder yesterday.

And painting and writing. I look around and see 900,000,000 other people painting, most of them do better work than I do. Why should I paint at all? And writing? What futility! I remember an acquaintance asking me, “Why would you write a book? What for?” It’s difficult to remember right now that painting and writing have always been MOST important to me and maintaining a happy engagement with life — but this “persistent crisis” saps our sensibility. 2020 was a challenge of hope; 2021 is something else, but I don’t know what. And what’s with this arbitrary demarcation of spaces of time other than a traditional acknowledgement of the passing seasons? That’s ALL it is, yet we enter a new year filled with expectations and hope even IF we don’t build up a bunch of resolutions.

So I’m painting anyway, nothing grand, just Christmas tree ornaments, but it’s tranquilizing and possibly good practice and and I sold a couple in my Etsy shop. That’s a little something.

This whole thing is nuts but here we are. Sorry for whining, but, you know, if this speaks to you at least you know you’re not alone. ❤

Someone asked for a link to my Etsy site. Here it is: https://www.etsy.com/shop/MarthaAnnKennedy