Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 7: Black Legacies

In honor of Black History Month (and the birthday of poet Thylias Moss), here are some ideas and resources for exploring nature poetry–and uses of nature in literature–across the Black* and African diasporas of the Americas.

In nature poetry and environmental literature

Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, Camille T. Dungy, ed. Published by University of Georgia Press (2009). The review by Alexa Mergen at the Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing is undated. Here’s a basic description of the anthology, which I just ordered online:

Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, edited by Camille T. Dungy, provides 180 windows from 93 poets onto views of nature.”

  1. Consider the role of nature in the history of American slavery and other forms of Black oppression and destruction. Examples: trees used for lynchings, rivers for trafficking slaves. Can you hear Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit?” Slave-driven American agriculture appropriated both nature and Africans.
  2. Natural race, racial nature: As with nature-based portrayals of women, white patriarchal literary and other traditions have used nature concepts and imagery to dehumanize, reduce and limit Black experience and existence, under the assumption that nature, too, is to be dominated. On the other side, feminists and scholars have theorized means of liberation through ecofeminism–a blend of feminism and environmentalism. I read Ecological Feminist Philosophies for a course during college. Perhaps I’ll look at nature poetry from a feminist perspective in the future. Jon Claborn recently published a nonfiction work titled Civil Rights and the Environment in African-American Literature, 1895-1941. Camille T. Dungy, referenced above, highly praises the book.
  3. Derek Walcott, an award-winning contemporary Black Caribbean poet, died in March of last year. His book-length poem Omeros, a work I also read–and loved–in college, weaves together language, rhythm, sea and island symbolism, myth, and allegory. The poem’s main purpose is to illuminate the history of colonization and the nature of post-colonial life in St. Lucia, the West Indies.
  4. Wild Africa: poems about nature in Africa, though not necessarily by African poets.
African American poetry resources

Moving beyond the subject of blackness: from the Modern American Poetry series at the University of Illinois, “Furious Flower: African American Poetry, An Overview” by Joanne V. Gabbin:

“Rita Dove, acknowledging her own debt to the Black Arts Movement, said that if it had not been for the movement, America would not be ready to accept a poet who explored a text other than blackness. Unencumbered by a necessarily political message, Dove in her Pulitzer Prize winning book Thomas and Beulah (1987) brings wholeness and elegance to the histories of her grandparents. Dove, who held the post of Poet Laureate of the United States from 1993 until 1995, is representative of a large accomplished group of poets who published their first poems during the late 1970s and 1980s: Yusef Komunyakaa, Cornelius Eady, Melvin Dixon, Dolores Kendrick, Thylias Moss, Toi Derricotte, Gloria Oden, and Sherley Anne Williams.”

Dolores Kendrick, Poet Laureate of Washington, D.C., passed away last November. Here is an in memoriam from her southwest D.C. community, including her poem “Epoch.” The Poetry Foundation notes that Kendrick made connections through poetry. She said, “Good poetry does not belong to the poet.”

See also the Academy of American Poets interview with poet Gwendolyn Brooks, “We Asked Gwendolyn Brooks about the Creative Environment in Illinois,” which includes among its subjects the issue of real and perceived neglect of black writers by white anthologists. The absence of Gloria Oden (G. C. Oden) and Sherley Anne Williams from the the Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Foundation websites may speak to that neglect, though the Poetry Foundation does include Williams’ profile page. Below is the salient excerpt from the Brooks interview.

Angle: Do you think that the fact that you are a Negro placed you under any handicap in a writing career?

Brooks: If it has, I don’t know about it. Certain things might have happened that I don’t know about, but I can’t say that I have been hindered because of my race in the field of writing. I am not aware of this being true. I have written poems. I have submitted poems to editors and publishers. When the poems were poor they were returned (as a rule!). When they were other than poor they were published. Everything that I have written that I wanted to see published has been published, with the exception of one juvenile which needs a couple adjustments. And for many years I have had writing invitations from editors and publishers.

I have something further to say on the subject, however. I do believe that it is true, as Karl Shapiro says, that many white anthologists will not admit black writers to their pages. Mr. Shapiro wrote (in a foreword to Melvin Tolson’s “Harlem Gallery”): “One of the rules of the poetic establishment is that Negroes are not admitted to the polite company of the anthology. Poetry as we know it remains the most lily-white of the arts.”

There are exceptions to my exception, of course. Sometimes Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and James Weldon Johnson may be found. Sometimes I may be found. Sometimes LeRoi Jones may be found, but never with his best work, which is the poetry of The Dead Lecturer. Never Kent Foreman, Don Lee, Dudley Randall, Margaret Danner, David Lhorens, Ted Joans, G. C. Oden, Julia Fields, Robert Hayden, Conrad Rivers, Owen Dodson, Margaret Walker. (You will find these people in the Negro anthologies, in Hughes’s and Bontemps’s anthologies.)

Poem by an African American

Finally, an excerpt of a poem by Yusef Komunyakaa, the full text of which can be found through the Poetry Foundation and JSTOR:

Excerpted from "Blessing the Animals"
by Yusef Komunyakaa

. . . An elephant daydreams, nudging
ancestral bones down a rocky path,
but won't venture near the boy
with a white mouse peeking
from his coat pocket. Beyond
monkeyshine, their bellows
& cries are like prayers 
to unknown planets & zodiac
signs. The ferret & mongoose
on leashes, move as if they know
things with a sixth sense.
Priests twirl hoops of myrrh. . . .


Academy of American Poets. “We Asked Gwendolyn Brooks about the Creative Environment in Illinois.” Accessed February 27, 2018. https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/we-asked-gwendolyn-brooks-about-creative-environment-illinois.

Claborn, John. Civil rights and the environment in African-American literature, 1895-1941. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018.

Dungy, Camille T. Black nature: four centuries of African American nature poetry. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009.

Gabbin, Joanne V. 2004. Furious flower: African American poetry from the Black arts movement to the present. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press. (listing: https://www.worldcat.org/title/furious-flower-african-american-poetry-from-the-black-arts-movement-to-the-present/oclc/52424044 )

“The Furious Flower Conference of 1994 represented the largest gathering of African American writers at one event in nearly 30 years. This work assembles a second selection of works by 43 Furious Flower participants covering three generations. It includes biographies and photographs by C.B. Claiborne of many of the Furious Flower participants.

Komunyakaa, Yusef. “Blessing the Animals,” Poetry, July 1997, 220-21.  Accessed February 27, 2018 through Poetry Foundation and JSTOR. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?volume=170&issue=4&page=39.

Walcott, Derek. Omeros. München: Hanser, 1995.

* Black – The term is here distinguished from “African American” to acknowledge the various groups of black people who (1) did not descend from Africa (any more than all of humanity does, which it does) but are in fact descendants of darker-skinned peoples relatively more native to different parts of, for instance, the Caribbean, in this “Americas” context, and (2) are neither geographically nor culturally American.

The term “Black” is here capitalized as a sign of respect for traditionally subjugated and marginalized groups, who, while not ethnically or culturally homogeneous, tend to have darker skin compared to whites and other people of color, and whom white, majority cultures have oppressed, over the centuries, in large part because of that darker skin. For more on the debate over color labels and their use in type, see “Black and white: why capitalization matters” by Merrill Perlman at Columbia Journalism Review.

In case you missed some, here are the previous posts in my famous nature poetry series:

Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 6–Oh, NOW I Get It! Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots

“The Eemis Stane” reconsidered, 1/26/18, via Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 6: Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots

Without a complete translation, there can be no complete interpretation. This I realized after re-reading yesterday my post on Hugh MacDiarmid’s poem “The Eemis Stane,” featured January 9 on my blog.

Although I knew the picture was incomplete, I attempted to analyze it anyway. And although I understood much of the poem’s message without full decoding, it is only after making a firm choice of translation between two possibilities originally left in competition, and, thus, better understanding the concepts behind the words, that I see how much difference a complete, more accurate translation makes, especially in poetry.

Accuracy of interpretation suffers when the meaning of individual words remains in doubt, even one or two words. In such a short poem, so economically constructed, indeed every word counts.

By reading again, and by further considering through logic and deduction the context of a certain passage’s uncertain meaning to me, I was able to insert the last major puzzle piece. As I believe I have now come closer to understanding the nature and significance of the poem’s message as a whole, I’d like to share these new revelations with you.

For reference, here’s the original poem and my first translation:

“The Eemis Stane” by Hugh MacDiarmid

I’ the how-dumb-deid o’ the cauld hairst nicht
The warl’ like an eemis stane
Wags i’ the lift;
An’ my eerie memories fa’
Like a yowdendrift.

Like a yowdendrift so’s I couldna read
The words cut oot i’ the stane
Had the fug o’ fame
An’ history’s hazelraw

No’ yirdit thaim.

Translation and Analysis

I attempted my translation from Scots into standard English with the assistance of The Online Scots Dictionary and other sources. Brackets and parentheses indicate points of possible alternate meanings.

At the darkest point of the cold harvest night
The world like an unsteady stone
waggles in the sky;
And my eerie memories fall
Like a snow driven by the wind [or a blizzard].

Like a blizzard so that I couldn’t [(even) have] read
The words cut out in the stone
Had the smoky atmosphere [or moss] of foam [or fame]
and history’s lichen

not buried them.

And this is the essence of what I said about meaning:

Truth in cultural identity and any peace of mind about one’s place in the world or cosmos are obscured both by personal perspective and the half-truths of history. In other words, not even personal memory and thought can rescue truth and justice from history’s muddled layers. . . .

Although “The Eemis Stane” might be interpreted simply as an intimate human struggle, MacDiarmid, like many great poets, stretches his words beyond the individual into a more universal context. We can see this happening foremost in the introduction of the word “history.” Employing a distinct lexical heritage, the poem is likely best understood as a metaphorical portrait of a people and culture’s displaced memory and shaken identity, and the far too common resulting experience of loss, confusion, and emptiness.

There are several reasons why definitively selecting “moss of fame” makes the most sense, and why both “fog/smoky atmosphere” and “foam” do not.

1. Poetically, the translation would have to be very close to “moss of fame” to establish parallelism with the concept and metaphor of “lichen of history.” Each provides a concrete living thing paired with an abstract societal concept. Each image produced is similar to the other in that this concrete living thing obscures in a similar manner to the other, growing on rocks, spreading itself over their surfaces.

Use of connectors: The fact that both moss and lichen are “of” their paired abstract ideas means that those things, fame and history, inherently bring with them these ironically polluting elements. The poet’s choice to join these metaphors so closely in proximity using the word “and” signifies that the distorting natures, or by-products, of fame and history necessarily go hand in hand. In fact, when one considers it further, they are interdependent.

2. The second reason why “fame” is the correct choice is that the words “cut oot i’ the stane” refer to remembrance, part of the point of memorializing being to preserve a legacy, to obtain or solidify some form of fame in the eyes of observers.

3. Crucially, the key reason that unlocked the meaning for me is that the alternative translation creates a conflict in imagery between an active blizzard and lingering fog or smokiness. Physically, such a thing as fog, mist, haze, or smoke would have to be blasted away by the blizzard. They cannot exist in nature in the same space at the same time. They are mutually exclusive. So process of elimination comes in handy here.

4. Finally, combining these pieces of evidence results in a more robust interpretation of message. Look more closely at the behavior of fame and history as depicted in this poem’s parallel metaphors. They not only obscure the truth but also grow continuously like powerful adhesive upon the “unsteady stone,” further destabilizing it, as moss and lichen both grow on a literal headstone or memorial monument.

A distinct tone of cynicism emerges as these negative sides of fame and history appear. The suggestion is that their “growths” continue uninhibited and uninterrupted, with no one and nothing successfully clearing them away to improve the reputation of fame or history and, by extension, of man. They are natural processes but stubborn nuisances as well, insidious and marring or tainting in how they creep in and take over gradually, almost imperceptibly.

At poem’s end, aided by the described effects of fame and history, the final impression the reader receives is quite clear. The speaker condemns the hubris and vanity of a human race that worships and perpetuates both this “moss” and this “lichen,” implying the absence of the opposite qualities because of mankind’s failure to prevent these incursions. Humanity’s alternate course would be to seek and uphold simple, honest, humble truths—the bedrock, as it were, of goodness, integrity, and justice.

Therefore, the poem is an undoubted lament of those particularly incorrigible, wretched human habits that make the world such a precarious, dangerous place for the individual, and its future such a dismal one for all.

What is left to further interpretation is whether the speaker primarily lays blame and scolds the cause or simply reels from and mourns the effects. In other words, is the final question “Can’t you see what you have done?” or “What have you done to me?”?

The former cries out for change while the latter shows a man incapable of finding the words, the power to move beyond suffering–a man whose “eerie memories,” perhaps even of learned language, scatter into fragments on the wind. He forgets how to read at all. The feeling behind the first question is a sense of urgency and some small hope, whereas the second descends into a confused, frightened, and irrevocable despair.

What do you think MacDiarmid is saying?

Are the layers of obscurity, deception, and confusion just too thick after all?

Or, by revealing them, does the speaker become a catalyst for removing them and restoring what lies beneath?

Either way, my question remains, “What then?” Will we like what we find? Do we need it regardless of how we feel about it? Will it matter?

The speaker makes clear that he cannot say. He cannot make out the words, let alone discover their import. He not only cannot provide an answer; he cannot even see to look for it. His impotence blocks even the consideration of possibility.

For that reason, I see the message as one of despair. The speaker describes the fixed laws of the universe—gravity, inertia, the physics of vibration and spinning—as well as the forces of more intimate natures. The blackness, the cold, the blinding weather, the isolation from fellow humans, and the sticky coverings over our past efforts—together they inevitably overpower man, unsteadying the stone on which he lives and making it impossible to see rightly the things around him, one way and another.

So, yes, I think I get it now.

What do you think?

To view or review the original part 6 post, go here.

For all posts in this series, visit my page under the menu tab “Writing Pool,” then “Poetry,” or under “Wild”: Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry.

Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 6: Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots

Perhaps it is only when we are released from the stranglehold of the deep freeze that we can once again celebrate cold, snowy art. Today between Hogmanay (New Year’s) and Burns Night (Jan. 25), I bring you a Scottish, though autumnal, chill–the blizzard, the wind, the land, and their combined efforts to confound. Still, may your eyes and heart be open wide to the imagery, the sounds, and the impact that only poetry can deliver.

Recently, I rediscovered the work of a famous poet I was vaguely familiar with: Hugh MacDiarmid, celebrated Scottish poet of the 20th century (1892-1978). Again, I became so fascinated with the Scots language he used to effect his art that I started trying to translate the Scots of one of his poems into standard English. A bit more challenging than “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns, the poem is also more somber and contemplative. A novice in translation for personal interest alone, I am unsure of how well it came out and some of it I couldn’t parse, but I thought the poem interesting enough to share with you.

The poem’s title “The Eemis Stane” translates roughly as “The Unsteady Stone.” If you’ve been following my series on nature poetry, you may have realized by now that sometimes there is a fine line between nature poetry and poetry that uses nature imagery but operates through a different primary theme or mode. Although MacDiarmid’s poem also uses nature imagery, as with many poems, its true subject is more abstract and societal. I believe, though, that all nature poetry need not just celebrate nature; it can also lament it. In that sense, “The Eemis Stane” could legitimately bear the tag “nature poetry.” It would simply need other tags as well.

Following is a bit about Hugh MacDiarmid with a link to more information about the poet, and then the poem in full with my translation and analysis.

According to the Poetry Foundation,

“C. M. Grieve, best known under his pseudonym Hugh MacDiarmid, is credited with effecting a Scottish literary revolution which restored an indigenous Scots literature and has been acknowledged as the greatest poet that his country has produced since Robert Burns.”

“The Eemis Stane” by Hugh MacDiarmid

I’ the how-dumb-deid o’ the cauld hairst nicht
The warl’ like an eemis stane
Wags i’ the lift;
An’ my eerie memories fa’
Like a yowdendrift.

Like a yowdendrift so’s I couldna read
The words cut oot i’ the stane
Had the fug o’ fame
An’ history’s hazelraw

No’ yirdit thaim.

Translation and Analysis

I attempted my translation from Scots into standard English with the assistance of The Online Scots Dictionary and other sources. Brackets and parentheses indicate points of possible alternate meanings.

At the darkest point of the cold harvest night
The world like an unsteady stone
waggles in the sky;
And my eerie memories fall
Like a snow driven by the wind [or a blizzard].

Like a blizzard so that I couldn’t [(even) have] read
The words cut out in the stone
Had the smoky atmosphere [or moss] of foam [or fame]
and history’s lichen

not buried them.

Message of the poem

More about perhaps the nature of history and understanding than about nature itself, here is my interpretation: Truth in cultural identity and any peace of mind about one’s place in the world or cosmos are obscured both by personal perspective and the half-truths of history. In other words, not even personal memory and thought can rescue truth and justice from history’s muddled layers. Alternatively, though less likely, it could mean that only history’s obfuscation of events allows the observant man to see things clearly, as if transgression alone, however unintended, is what urges one’s keen attention to matters. Compounded by this confusion, or perhaps contributing to it, is the timing of the attempt: the darkest point of the night, a metaphor for the hardest moment in life, when you are shaken to your core and too discombobulated to make sense of it.

Means of the message

We can trust the reputable MacDiarmid to use the Scots language precisely, but ambiguity is the primary theme echoed by method across the poem. With compound images and multiple word meanings (fog/smoke/moss, fame/foam), unclear things masked in layers (darkness, fog, eerie memories, blizzard, lichen), and unexpected shifts in visual perspective (in total darkness, harvest night’s earth wobbling in the sky as seen from what vantage point?), the reader feels the speaker’s disorientation.

One example of a mysterious reference, the idea of the “words” cut out in the stone literally suggests either gravestone, monument, or ancient language, but figuratively calls to mind efforts to make one’s mark, the tantalizing nature of age-old mysteries, or a foundation marred or eroded by words and time. Then, stanza 2’s double negative (“couldna” plus “No’”) raises further questions of interpretation.

The speaker’s reaction to the confusion is a lament, with the consistent choice of words that collectively mourn: “how-dumb-deid” (darkest point), “cold,” “nicht” (night), “eemis” (unsteady, unstable, untethered, precarious, tenuous, unreliable), “wags” (wobbles, shakes, waggles, jars, dislocates, disorients), “eerie,” “fa'” (fall), “couldna” (could not), “cut oot” (cut out), “fug” (smoke, haze, fog, moss), and, most obviously, “yirdit” (buried). These account for our mood of sadness, solemnity, and empathetic bereavement.

Unlike the poem’s subject, with the help of such words, its overall impression proves firm, immutable by poem’s end. Although “The Eemis Stane” might be interpreted simply as an intimate human struggle, MacDiarmid, like many great poets, stretches his words beyond the individual into a more universal context. We can see this happening foremost in the introduction of the word “history.” Employing a distinct lexical heritage, the poem is likely best understood as a metaphorical portrait of a people and culture’s displaced memory and shaken identity, and the far too common resulting experience of loss, confusion, and emptiness.

Read more Hugh MacDiarmid, aloud for the music or for the challenge of deciphering, but always for the artfulness of poetry:

For more from my collection of famous nature poetry, see:


Lichen grows on a rock at the base of a Nether Largie standing stone in Kilmartin Glen, at the heart of Argyll & Bute on Scotland’s west coast. Image © 2016 C. L. Tangenberg

Book Review: The Good Earth

Book Review: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

book-cover_The-Good-EarthA fictional portrayal of the full life of a Chinese man from his start as a farmer to his death as a townsman still clinging to his farmland and its place in his heart, The Good Earth rarely wavers from the perspective of Wang Lung. Written in third-person point of view, the narration makes Wang Lung the central character from beginning to end. In so doing, the author delivers an unwashed, complex depiction of a human being who is very much a product of his time, his country, and his land while still being unique in his blend of naiveté, instinctual wisdom, hot temper, and abiding affections.

There is no happy ending, no comeuppance for moral wrongs done, no neat destruction or spectacular triumph. Just the steady, everyday hopes, aspirations, worries, resentments, choices, goodness, mistakes, successes, failures, moral decay, and general imperfections of a man making a living and raising a family in late 19th- and early 20th-century China.

The plot is less a plot than a complete time line of a life, but the story shares the journey through that life as lived by the main character Wang Lung. Although that journey may seem to lag in places, I interpreted those parts to be necessary components of the full picture of this character study, and the vast majority of the text never strays into tangents and never dwells on anything that is not relevant to the development of the character and his story. There is always something happening, something brewing, or something being reflected upon, but none if it feels indulgent on the author’s part. Nothing felt particularly extraneous; much of it felt very essential to a full portrayal.

The issue I take with the lagging parts is that the writing is not strong enough to support them properly. Overall, Buck is a great writer. The diction, rhythm and flow of the text keep the preponderance of pages turning. In part, the meandering quality of the prose effectively reflects the stream-of-consciousness thinking of our protagonist Wang Lung, which associates the book with other modernist literature. Written in the 1930s, The Good Earth, too, is recognizably a product of its literary moment. Still, despite these considerations, the applied technique does not escape tedium in its repetitiveness, which drags the novel down a bit.

Characters, even minor ones, never felt over-simplified. Buck had a knack for revealing personality in the sparest of gestures and shortest of lines. Some readers may disagree with this appraisal in light of Wang Lung’s sexist viewpoint, but his attitude is a reasonable revelation of context-bound character—true to both history and fictional integrity—not any kind of misogyny in the author.

Even the best of men in Wang Lung’s midst held the same foolish and limiting judgments of girls, women, and their places in Chinese society. A very strong current of Chinese culture is the favoring of male over female offspring, which persisted well into the late 20th century, with echoes even today through, for instance, high numbers of unwanted Chinese girls adopted outside of China.

Foot binding, seen in Western cultures as a barbaric form of female bodily mutilation and crippling, was common practice in making women attractive to male Chinese sensibilities. As in too many other societies of centuries past, girls and women were seen and used primarily as socioeconomic commodities and objects of male control and pleasure. To follow some misguided moral instinct of shame-based concealment into the erasure of these cultural imprints on Chinese history would have been not only false rewriting of history but also dangerous hindrance to modern efforts toward equality. How can the past be improved upon if it is not fully represented?

Yes, this is a thread in the depicted culture that reveals Wang Lung’s and his fellow men’s flaws and failings, but even a main character need not be morally superior to be worth writing and reading. The fact that their fates do not reflect a karmic meting out of justice does not make their characters any less flawed, but such neat justice might have made their lives less fascinating. The flaws make them human, and the getting away with it makes life unfair, which is eminently realistic. If reader ennui is the necessary result, I say so be it.

Furthermore, this is the story of Wang Lung, not the story of O-lan, his first wife, which means that Wang Lung’s perspective is uppermost in telling his story. Readers are free to take on the fan-fiction project of telling the same or similar period of fictional existence from O-lan’s or Lotus’ or Cuckoo’s or one of the daughters-in-law’s perspectives.

The question of whether any of the characters was likable is irrelevant to the evaluation of the book as a whole. I never need to love a character absolutely to follow his or her journey with curiosity and absorption. The need for a moral hero to champion is, in my view, a sign of unreached intellectual and emotional maturity in a reader. Such a reader either has not read enough traditional heroic tales to have outgrown or assimilated their appeal, or the reader utterly resists all semblance of the sharp, rough edges of realism, or both. This reader seeks literature to enjoy in an escapist, fantasist quality only. The trouble is that classic literature, often categorized as such through a solid foundation of many readers of balanced wisdom, is rarely, if ever, fodder for escapism.

The more pertinent literary question for me is how does any character relate to his environment? How does he express himself as a product of his environment, how does he navigate that environment, and how if at all does he transcend his upbringing and environment? By environment I mean all those people, places, and things that make up a character’s immediate sphere of influence and being influenced. On the other hand, too, how does a character relate to himself, transcend himself, or not?

Wang Lung is no great hero, but he is no great villain either. Yet this does not make his story a bland one at all. I found moments of great sympathy for him and moments of gritting my teeth and shaking my head at him. Perhaps it is a form of Stockholm Syndrome, but when a reader spends this much time with a character, a rising affection is understandable, regardless of the character’s goodness score. I found myself rooting for Wang Lung even as I waited for his punishments for wrongdoing, for there are worse moral actors than he in Buck’s story, just as there are better ones.

Moreover, Buck’s drawing of Wang Lung is wonderfully consistent and unapologetic in its nuanced results for plot and character. Although not a completely static character, Wang Lung possesses a frank incorrigibility and pervading tenderness worth loving.

There is relativism, and there is “it is what it is” and “que sera sera,” but The Good Earth never descends into this pit of simplistic judgment. In the end, the reader is free to wonder at the great changes that have occurred in Wang Lung’s life, family, and society by the time he comes to his passing. Glimmers of the wider cultural changes, in the words and actions primarily of his sons, peek through the closed curtains of Wang Lung’s singular, personal focus. At the same time, the proliferation of his family and his accumulation of wealth greatly change the needs and aspirations of that family.

The earth has been good and it has been bad for their livelihoods, but Wang Lung’s connection to the land is what is dying most with him. Even to him, however, the ground lost some of its sacredness well before he decides to move to town. The cultural and economic tides are turning under his nose and far from his sight almost his entire life. Perhaps it is the gradual nature of this change that makes the letting go less bitter and its long embrace less sweet in the reader’s eyes.

Ultimately, like so many, Wang Lung is a creature of habit and tradition. He rides the plow of these principles until there are none left anymore to work such an implement. New conveyances for new habits and traditions plant new roots for these transplanted people. While the fates of his family do not appear to be all bad in the end, Wang Lung sees the ceasing of earth works, or at least earth ownership, as the great tragedy of his legacy. However, there are worse things a family can come to, and they were coming long before the land’s primacy was ending.

In The Good Earth, the land begins and remains a powerful symbol of a simpler time of simpler pleasures, but like all things, the purity of the land’s beauty and the centrality of its importance throughout the story are always both real and illusory.

Reader Rating for The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
4.2 stars overall: 5 stars for consistent, unflinching characterization; 4 stars for vivid description and atmospheric setting; 3.5 stars for story and plot; 4 stars for prose; 4.5 stars for cultural, including literary, resonance

The Artist’s Corner – Talking Poetry With Poet Carrie Tangenberg, Part 2

Last week, talented storyteller and fellow blogger H L Gibson asked me to offer some thoughts about poetry, along with an original poem. Here’s Part 2 of 2. ICYMI, see also Part 1.

hl gibson, author

Welcome back to The Artist’s Corner for the second portion of my interview with poet Carrie Tangenberg.  Today, we’ll continue with Carrie’s amazing insight into poetry as well as enjoy one of her original poems.

Why is poetry important?

A literary question for the ages. I can only look through my biased poet’s lens, but I think it’s valuable not just because academia tells us it is.

For me:  Poetry gave me a way to express myself early in life that did not demand absolute clarity or lots of text. I could write what I felt or wanted to feel. I could focus on rhythm and the sounds of words. It didn’t have to make sense to anyone but me, and even then, it took me a long time to be so kind to myself. I used to be quite experimental, moving from puns to invented words and concepts, creating…

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The Artist’s Corner – Talking Poetry With Poet Carrie Tangenberg, Part 1

This week, the gracious H L Gibson interviewed me for “The Artist’s Corner” of her blog, talking about poetry. Here’s Part 1 of 2.

hl gibson, author

I met Carrie Tangenberg several years ago in a writing group for poets and authors.  Right from the start I could tell she was an intelligent, well-read, and well-spoken woman.  The best part was that Carrie never came across as haughty or unapproachable.  On the contrary, her elegance and calm reserve combined with her intellect positioned her to make the most constructive critiques.  I have also witnessed this in the classical literature book club to which we both belong.

When I realized I needed a poet for The Artist’s Corner, Carrie immediately sprang to mind.  I only wish you could hear her answers in her own sophisticated voice.  I know you’ll enjoy reading them as they are deeply informative, openly transparent, and incredibly encouraging for anyone who has ever had a passion for art.

Tell me a little about yourself.

Creative writing has been part of my life since…

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Noveling in November

It’s that time again!


Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month

And I didn’t yet finish that epic Alice books spin-off project, my vision of Lewis Carroll’s classic story from the Jabberwock’s perspective. In fact, following a fellow writer’s advice, I took a long break from it entirely after I got stuck in concept analysis and rehashing the outline for the umpteenth time. It felt as if it had become too unwieldy to manage, so from late May to mid-October 2017, I set it aside.

The story started at the July 2016 Camp NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), then I continued to develop it during NaNoWriMo last November, and I even managed to attend to it roughly weekly through early 2017. Après tout cela, le déluge. . . .

A lot has happened in the four and a half months since (in well-blended order):

  • read Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Bram Stoker’s Dracula
  • tutored English, essay writing, career help, and social studies through the summer
  • shopped for a dog
  • became addicted to Gold Peak green tea
  • read Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire and watched Brando in film version
  • gardened and weeded all summer
  • took a memoir writing class; planned and drafted the start of a memoir about teaching
  • took on more responsibility with my local writers group
  • hiked the Glens Trail at Gorge Metro Park for the first time
  • started a new endocrine medication
  • watched the scandalizing History Channel documentary series America’s Drug War
  • painted a portrait of Texas bluebonnets in vases
  • traveled to Pittsburgh to meet a puppy for adoption
  • same weekend, in Cleveland: Gold Cup double-header, nature hiking, Hofbrauhaus
  • adopted the cutest puppy in the universe two days later
  • nearly lost the puppy, who escaped his harness, in a plaza parking lot during the 1st week!
  • watched the affecting A&E documentary series Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath
  • discovered the puppy had worms (gross) and fleas; got him de-wormed and cleaned house
  • worked with financial advisor to improve our finances
  • bought some new, softer bed sheets—nice
  • fell in the garage, bruised/scraped up my right side (mainly knee) trying to corral the puppy
  • rehabilitated and trained a fearful puppy in a month-long, self-imposed boot camp
  • dealt with 4 dogs who got loose in our neighborhood at different times
  • bought a new lawn mower after the handle on our old hand-me-down broke
  • consulted a dog trainer for the first time—helpful
  • fell in love with Panera’s green goddess salad and chipotle chicken avocado melt
  • took the puppy to an art festival only to discover no dogs were allowed
  • wrote a few journal entries
  • became less motivated and energetic for writing once we got the puppy
  • experienced and photographed the solar eclipse
  • watched the classic horror film Rosemary’s Baby for the first time
  • exercised a lot more because of the puppy, lost a few pounds
  • enjoyed a Labor Day party at our nephew’s new Columbus apartment
  • discovered new hiking trails and parks because of puppy
  • discovered we have a grub problem—evidence of skunks digging in the yard
  • took the puppy to a local mum festival (first time going)
  • saw Blade Runner 2049 and Wonder Woman (both great) in theaters
  • learned some agility basics and obedience training for the puppy
  • had several massage, chiropractic, and doctors’ appointments
  • replaced our ancient water heater after losing hot water
  • wrote a couple of poems, drafted some political essays
  • bought a UV light to kill mold and VOCs in our house
  • decorated indoors for autumn and Halloween
  • met lots of new people because of our puppy, including a neighbor friend
  • weaned myself off daily ibuprofen per my rheumatologist’s instruction
  • created a template permission contract for others’ use of my creative work
  • tried a few new recipes, including a great one for pumpkin chocolate chip cookies
  • stopped tutoring social studies after a trend of low ratings from students
  • wrote some blog posts and reblogged others
  • considered but decided against participating in volunteer community theater production
  • Droughtlander finally ended and an excellent Outlander season 3 began
  • attended some pre-NaNoWriMo meet-ups with our municipal liaison, seeing friends again
  • started feeling more pain in my left hip and left knee after stopping ibuprofen
  • signed on to help a writing teacher guide her students through NaNoWriMo
  • cooked a new turkey and white bean chili we enjoyed
  • started reading The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck for classics book club
  • made oodles of to-do lists and one done list like this one; took tons of notes

Not exactly achievements for a traditional resume, but I wasn’t a bump on a log either.

Now, I’ve returned to the same Jabberwock novel to finish the story I started, and all that outlining is paying off. Having an established story structure–plus all my previous character development, world mapping, analysis, and storytelling–has prepared me to pick up where I left off. Now that I’m reoriented, it’s much easier just to show up at the computer, find my place, and write the next scene. I am free to be more creative and explore what remains: the story itself.

The following poem is a sample of my latest work on the novel during NaNoWriMo 2017:

To the Ray Harvesters from Cheshire Cat’s Pub

Let me sell you some sunshine
from the broad eastern plain
so you won’t have to reach so high up that tree
to catch the sun’s rays, blocked by dense
branches and lofty foliage from harvesting.

They have plenty of sun back east
where drought is too long creating
mirages in a soon-to-be-desert
and the drunkards stumble to the tavern’s threshold
only to find invisible smiling cats.

The sun is not useful there
where they block it with blinds
of thick wool and old wood planks
in the one building where infamy lives,
but barely, while liquor flows and cats nap.

The ground there is golden
with burnt grass and bright dirt, mocking
the yellow of sun beams wished
for growing green things, which you have
in abundance in your abundant shade.

Could we make a trade, perhaps,
a bargain of sorts? Rain for sun,
damp for dry, and a stoop of rum
or a sprig of thyme, for good measure
and good faith, or if you’d prefer,
some visions ground from your own toadstools?

It won’t be long now before you’ll
pale in the dearth of light on your western earth
and we’ll shrivel in the hot white searing
of sod and sand and roof on this edge of things.
We must take care of each other, or what are we?

Somehow, I rattled that one off in about 25 minutes after drafting a scene that takes place at the Cheshire Cat’s pub, a place I invented. It probably helped that I came fresh from studying poetry and contemplating the craft of verse writing as part of my responses to a friend’s questionnaire for profiling me as an artist on her blog.

The great thing about NaNoWriMo, which started midnight on November 1, is that there’s always another one around the corner for creative fuel injection. Now a global phenomenon, nearly half a million people are participating in this, its 19th year.

The NaNoWriMo Mission Statement:

“National Novel Writing Month believes in the transformational power of creativity. We provide the structure, community, and encouragement to help people find their voices, achieve creative goals, and build new worlds—on and off the page.”

The goal is to write 50,000 words of a novel between November 1 and November 30. As the website explains, “Valuing enthusiasm, determination, and a deadline, NaNoWriMo is for anyone who has ever thought about writing a novel.”

It sounds like a lot of work, which it can be, but it can also be as enjoyable, enriching, and fruitful as you choose to make it. In the organization’s press release for this year’s program, they describe their enterprise as “one part boot camp, one part rollicking party.”

People unfamiliar with NaNoWriMo, or the impulse to write long-form fiction, often ask why on earth anyone would schedule such a project during the busy holiday season, but there is method to this writing madness. Also, as part of that “structure, community, and encouragement,” there’s at least one article on time management tips by NaNo novel writers (see the sources at the end of this post). Authors whose NaNo novels have been published include Sara Gruen, Erin Morgenstern, Hugh Howey, Rainbow Rowell, Jason Hough, and Marissa Meyer.

I’ve blogged about the NaNo program and my involvement a few times since I started my blog in 2013:

2014 – NaNoWriMo blog “Now What?” post-noveling resources

2015 –
On Finishing That Novel
Literary April: National Poetry Month and Camp NaNoWriMo
Five-Phrase Friday (16): Alphas and Omegas

2016 –
Packing for Camp
Last Week of Camp: Ready to Start
This Hunted Story
Novel excerpt: Song meets Alice

2017 – Camp NaNoWriMo: Song of Spring

As I explained in my April 2016 post about my writing progress after the April camp:

“winning” [NaNoWriMo] is a formality and having some semblance of a recognizable tale when you reach the 50K happens only by the honor system.

[Unless you want them to,] no one reads the final product you upload for official validation to be classed among the winners. It’s all self driven.

This will be my fifth year participating since 2011. (With 2015’s fall workplace stressors, I opted for doodle-and-loiter therapy at those write-ins.) Raising a puppy this summer has worn me out a bit and thickened my usual brain fog, which always makes regular writing a challenge, but I’m hoping for an air-cleansing lightning storm from this year’s NaNoWriMo. There certainly is no shortage of resources for planning, pep talks, and inspiration. It has also helped that the puppy is more comfortable with us after almost 4 months and doesn’t need quite as much attention.

Here’s another excerpt from my first week of NaNoWriMo noveling:

Scene: The White King and Queen confer after the murder plot she has overheard.

The White King sat at his writing desk with yet more papers to go through from the post and the cabinet members’ council meeting of the previous day. The piles were piling up, and these clandestine rendezvous and illicit assassination pow-wows were starting to take their toll on his schedule. His large lower lip pushed out into his usual pout, though it was thin and hardly did a monarch’s pouty face justice.

The eyebrows were another matter. Bushy, white streaked sparely with silver, and often scowling. He brooded over the documents, with one pudgy hand rubbing the barely touchable stubble of his rounded but well-proportioned and well-positioned chin. No one would have seen the stubble from across the room or even a few feet away. The King himself was conscious of it mainly because he had a hand on it, and because he knew he had one of those clandestine rendezvous not long into his future.

The white robe of the White King was made of mink and studded with onyx pyramids projecting from their impossibly soft surface and lining the length of the hem up over his pot belly and all the way around behind his white heeled buckle shoes, usually at least two feet in front of the draping train of the robe.

The White King wore a ring of the monarchy on his right pinky finger, this time a pearl set in 14-carat gold etched with mountain-range like ridges and curving round the stocky little finger with delicate scroll work in bas relief, projecting out like the studs on the robe. The pearl was bulbous and large, comically large against a little finger, however stocky it may be. It resembled a boil or a corn or some other nasty protuberance one does not want to see growing on the skin of a finger or anywhere else.

As she entered the brightly lighted room full of tapered candles and the elaborate royal chandelier just out and above the desk top, the White Queen’s eye fell instantly on that boil of a pearl she always felt compelled to lance, at least for that flicker of time before she again realized it was not illness or injury, but simply jewelry.

She looked up and stopped, raising herself to as majestic a height as she could muster in her diminutive stature, with a neat button nose, silvery hair not yet fully white and a smooth pallor to her facial skin worked in concert as an ensemble complexion that belied her significant age, near to the King’s own.

As was her custom, she folded her hands diagonally to one another, keeping her elbows bent above the hips, her chin up and back, shoulders back and low, elongating that petite frame in the neck and torso so that it almost did perceptibly increase her height. And there she waited for her husband to look up.

Concentrating as he was on the papers and matters of state demanding his attention, he neither heard nor saw her enter. See this, she subtly shuffled her slippered feet laterally beneath her long straight gown, and this did the trick. With almost a jerk, and possibly a shudder, the White King’s head turned up and to his left as he sat in his masterly chair.

“Ah, my queen,” he said mildly, attempting to conceal his startlement. “A word.” He had not summoned her. She had arrived of her own volition and initiative. But he behaved as if his will dictated her every move, even though he knew it did not and never had.

Amused, she waited for the “word” from her lord and master, neither approaching closer nor changing position nor slackening her dignified air. She simply blinked and smiled slightly.

Unperturbed, the King began. “Yes, I am glad you are here. There are some matters I would like to discuss with you, matters of some urgency that we must attend to, my dear.” His round chin drew up into a polite smile but his bushy brows remained concentrated and serious.

The White Queen replied with a soft, silvery tone, like a sword quietly unsheathing itself. “What is it, my lord?”

“Come here. I have something to show you that I need your opinion on.”

The White Queen suppressed a sigh, as was frequent, while she approached the King at his desk throne. She thought to herself, Ah, if only you had consulted me sooner, I would have steered you rightly. She was of course thinking of the plot to kill Jock Warber, which she had overheard her husband, not an hour before, assisting Humpty Dumpty to arrange with the White Knight.

“Yes? What is it, my dear?” she inquired, smiling as she reached his side and brought her hands with open palms on graceful limbs down to the desk surface, tilting her head to see what it was the King was looking at.

I’m a member of the Canton Region of Ohio’s NaNoWriMo participants, also known affectionately as Cantowrimo. Our municipal liaison has kept the Canton group going strong for 15 years. I enjoy attending write-ins, but just knowing the group is there keeps me honest and motivated.

This year for the first time I’ve been asked to join a local middle-grades writing class as an experienced NaNoWriMo participant and cheerleader. We’ve had two classes so far, and the kids are a true inspiration with their massive word counts and clever story ideas.

NaNoWriMo might just be for you, too.

Write on and on and on.


Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month


About NaNoWriMo: https://nanowrimo.org/about

Press Release – September 25, 2017: https://d1lj9l30x2igqs.cloudfront.net/nano-2013/files/2017/09/Press-Release-2017.pdf

8 Best-Selling Books Written During NaNoWriMo That Show You It Can Be Done: https://www.bustle.com/articles/192069-8-best-selling-books-written-during-nanowrimo-that-show-you-it-can-be-done

7 Time Management Lessons from People Who Write a Novel in a Month: https://www.fastcompany.com/3038045/7-time-management-lessons-from-people-who-write-a-novel-in-a-month