Stephen Altman - The Blog
All about Life, John Keats and Blues for the Muse

  • Stephen Altman


Let's take the time this Scrapbook Friday to be awed by a great poem: “The Dream,” by Theodore Roethke. No poet of whom I'm aware could do more with everyday words and perhaps two or three dozen generic objects and phenomena drawn from nature. In his hands they are all mysterious. Roethke--poor, troubled Roethke--is one of my half-dozen favorite poets.



1

I met her as a blossom on a stem Before she ever breathed, and in that dream The mind remembers from a deeper sleep: Eye learned from eye, cold lip from sensual lip. My dream divided on a point of fire; Light hardened on the water where we were; A bird sang low; the moonlight sifted in; The water rippled, and she rippled on.



2

She came toward me in the flowing air, A shape of change, encircled by its fire. I watched her there, between me and the moon; The bushes and the stones danced on and on; I touched her shadow when the light delayed; I turned my face away, and yet she stayed. A bird sang from the center of a tree; She loved the wind because the wind loved me.



3

Love is not love until love's vulnerable. She slowed to sigh, in that long interval. A small bird flew in circles where we stood; The deer came down, out of the dappled wood. All who remember, doubt. Who calls that strange? I tossed a stone, and listened to its plunge. She knew the grammar of least motion, she Lent me one virtue, and I live thereby.



4

She held her body steady in the wind; Our shadows met, and slowly swung around; She turned the field into a glittering sea; I played in flame and water like a boy And I swayed out beyond the white seafoam; Like a wet log, I sang within a flame. In that last while, eternity's confine, I came to love, I came into my own.


--


I knew better than to search for an image that might accent in any literal way the magic of this poem. So here's a cell phone photo I took this past April of irises from my garden. As for the great Roethke, here's a link from the Poetry Foundation website:


https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/theodore-roethke


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  • Stephen Altman

Samuel Johnson famously said,“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” He said this about 250 years ago but it still holds true. Yet the blockheads are still out there. I'm one. There are zillions of us.


When I used to teach writing for adults I'd tell them the first thing to do was decide why they were writing. The biggest danger for a beginner is that they'll just give up. But if they know just why they're writing at all, they'll be less likely to get involved in a project that might not be the right one for them, and that'll leave them discouraged and wondering if they should take up something else entirely. Like skydiving, say, or spelunking.


I have asked myself many times why I write, and below I offer my answer. I look it over every time I begin a new project. Since life continues to revise me, I continue to revise my answer. I try not to lie or over-inflate the mission. But with the mission fresh in my thoughts I'm more likely to finish what I begin, and to be satisfied that my story, win or lose, is the one I was meant to try. Blues for the Muse, the story I just finished, and one that's unlikely to make me much money at all, took me 8 years. I stuck with it because it fit the mission.


You're lucky! You get the long tedious answer first, but then you'll get the short answer, which I arrived at in Sonnet #199 of the book.


The long version:


Some years back the New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote this: "We're living in a technological age that turns everything ephemeral. Newspapers become blogs. Letters become text messages. Everything becomes a temporary version of itself." [And this was before Snapchat!] It's true, no? But I think it's also true that we are--each of us--temporary versions of ourselves. As we make our way along the path we change, and at the end we're gone. But creativity is our means of marking the path--to record our progress, to reveal ourselves and earn love, to help us recall just where we've been and what it's meant to be there, to reassure ourselves that we exist and to leave behind some relic to prove it. So even though the age is trending toward the ephemeral, lots of us still write stories. Some of us still read them. It's been this way a long time and it's still that way. And whether stories happen to take the form of epic poems sung around campfires in ancient Greece or plays staged in Elizabethan playhouses or vast novels read by gaslight in Victorian parlors or stories we've written on a laptop and stored in the cloud, they're all about not being ephemeral. They're about marking the path.


So much for the long version. The short version is a couplet:


There will be proof of sorts that he was here,

And for the friends he’d made, a souvenir.


And though there may not be any money in it, any blockhead will tell you that's plenty reward.


--


As for the image above, I could have posted a portrait of Samuel Johnson or a photo of David Brooks. But then I thought, wouldn't you rather look at Olivia De Havilland and Errol Flynn? The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1938.





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  • Stephen Altman

I lived alone for awhile, earlier this past decade, in a three-room cabin in the West Virginia woods across the Shenandoah River from Harpers Ferry. A couple of times a year I'd go to Italy, mostly to Rome, and spent many an afternoon on a bench by the grave of John Keats.


When I wasn't in Rome I was back here in the States and alone in that cabin. I can't say how many nights I sat at the kitchen table with my sonnets, which refused to write themselves and insisted that I do it, regardless of the deep well of lonely panic that presented. Outdoors it was black and there were forest sounds--crickets and cicadas and frogs and an owl that sounded like a Kong-sized chimpanzee and innumerable shufflings through the trees that you'd swear were the local meth dealers on the run from the Jefferson County sheriff. It was a Phil Spector-level wall of forest sound. And it was just me and my laptop and all these unwritten sonnets.


I'd been inspired to write them on my first visit to Keats's grave, in the spring of 2011. Think of clamorous cosmopolitan Rome, then think of the dirt-road-down-to-the-river boondocks to which I returned after that trip and each of the trips that followed. It was a kind of semi-annual commute in which I carried, entirely in my head, the makings of this verse novel that had no title but would someday be Blues for the Muse. I discovered that your head--or my head, at least--is like the woods at night. You don't know where the sonnets are, or even the makings of the sonnets, but they're in there somewhere and you'll have to wander in the noisy dark to find them.


After a year and a half in that cabin--by which time I was giving names to the squirrels and the crows cawed hello when they saw me out walking--I went exploring and found Shepherdstown. I settled here, and a mere six years later finished the book. Because of the pandemic I haven't been back to Rome since 2019. These days, when I take a walk, I run into friends with their dogs rather than startled whitetail deer or the occasional gaggle of wild turkeys. It's a lot less lonely. But when the day and the socializing are done, with the silence of this lovely little burg outside the window, I am still alone at the table with my laptop. Something new wants to get written and here I am again, in the woods at night.


--


The snapshot is of those woods by day--that's the road down to the river--back in 2012.



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