by Campbell Geeslin

David Orr, author of Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry, writes a column for The New York Times Book Review.

He wrote, “At any given moment, millions of people in this country are happily not reading poems, and dozens of poets are happy to say they don’t care.”

Does one have to study poetry to become a fan? Orr quotes Philip Larkin, “Oh, for Christ’s sake, one doesn’t study poets! You read them, and think, that’s marvelous, how is it done, could I do it? And that’s how you learn.”

Orr concludes: “When we talk about accessibility, we should remember that poetry, unlike churches and fortresses, has never loved a wall.”

AWARD DINNER: Last week, James McBride’s novel Good Lord Bird won the National Book Award in fiction. The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer won the nonfiction award.

The New York Times reported that novelist E. L. Doctorow “cooled the mood” of the celebration by saying, “Text is now a verb. More radically, a search engine is not an engine. A platform is not a platform. A bookmark is not a bookmark because an e-book is not a book.

“Reading a book is the essence of interactivity, bringing sentences to life in the mind.”

NO TRENDS: Blue Apple Books for children was founded by Harriet Ziefert in 2003. It publishes about 40 books a year.

Ziefert was quoted in PW: “We never follow a trend. If you start following trends, by the time you get there, it’s over. Stay with what you know.”

What Blue Books publishes are “books for babies, toddlers, preschoolers; we really know up to age eight.”

Ziefert added, “I’m a big advocate for humor.”

NO RHYMES? According to W.H. Auden, poetry could be defined quite simply as “memorable speech.”

TOUGH GOING: Chang-rae Lee is an award-winning writer who teaches at Princeton. His latest novel, On Such a Full Sea, will be published next year.

Lee said in the December issue of The Writer: “I suppose I get suspicious if the writing seems to come too easily. As long as I’m constantly asking questions, quarreling with the project and myself, I feel that I am getting to some place worthwhile.

“I think this has helped me to think about the work as being innately exasperating, which I think helps me go on and persist in my efforts.”

LATE START: Sally Green, a 52-year-old former accountant, started writing just three years ago. She lives with her husband and their 11-year-old son in Cheshire, England. Her first novel, Half Bad, has been bought by publishers in 36 countries.

Penguin will publish it in March and “predicts that it will do for witches what Twilight did for vampires.”

Green began to write when her son was in school. She told The Guardian, “I’ve often had ideas [for] stories, but I never really believed I could write….[Then]  I found I was staying up until two a.m. just writing.”

HIS PROSE SELLS: It’s generally agreed that C.S. Lewis wasn’t much of a poet, but 50 years after his death, he’s been given a memorial stone in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner.

His religious texts and fantasy novels for children are available in 40 languages, and more than 100 million Narnia books have been sold. The three movies based on those books have grossed $1.6 billion. Tony Markiet, the HarperCollins editor who oversees the Narnia franchise these days, was quoted in The New York Times: “The books are about friendship, loyalty and compassion. They have humor. Lewis would say if a book is good for you to read at five, it’s good at fifty.”

PROCESS: Paul Harding won a Pulitzer Prize for his first novel, Tinker. His new novel is Eron.

He described how he works in the December issue of The Writer: “Every writer has a process.  I have to build it up, scrape it down, and tear it up and burn it, and glue it, and move it here and there, and overwrite it, and then underwrite it, and then change it from first to third person, and on and on and on, until the book rises out of the chaos. It’s very inefficient.…and I have rewritten every sentence that made it into the books at least a dozen times. But that’s me, you know? And for me, that’s not maddening; it’s a pure joy. It’s why I write.”

A GARDENING LIFE: “Those fuzzy little animals get all the press,” Marta McDowell told an interviewer for the Allentown, Pa., The Morning Call. She is the author of Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life: The Plants and Places that Inspired the Classic Children’s Tales. McDowell lives in Chatham, N.J., and teaches at the New York Botanical Garden and Drew University.

Potter was a serious gardener who knew all about thieving rabbits. She must have sympathized with her fictional Mr. McGregor.  Potter accumulated more than 4,000 acres in her lifetime. McDowell said, “She had a cottage garden, which is a style that nowadays we’re all very comfortable with: loose groups of flowers and maybe some fruits and even some lettuce mixed in.

“She wouldn’t have called herself a locavore, but she was certainly growing food as well as flowers in her garden.”

SELECTING SUBJECTS: Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest is The Bully Pulpit, a history about presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.  Research and writing took her seven years. In a Wall Street Journal interview, Goodwin said that she selects her subjects by answering the question: “Who am I going to want to spend all that time with?” She told interviewer Alexandra Wolfe that she could never write about Hitler or Stalin because her characters become part of her life. 

And although she wrote a bestseller about Lyndon Johnson while he was alive, she said she would not write again about a living person.  She explained, “I feel so in need of diaries and letters and the things you wouldn’t have with a modern president….With e-mail and Facebook, I don’t know what kind of material we’ll have 200 years from now.”

CHANGE: When a Harvard graduate or dropout makes news these days, it’s usually because he went to the Law School and landed some big political job, or made a vast fortune on the Internet.

It wasn’t always like that. A brief bio of the writer Conrad Aiken in a book of poetry said he was in Harvard’s class of 1911. That year’s graduating seniors also included T.S. Eliot, Heywood Broun, Robert Benchley and Walter Lippmann.

Being a writer counted for something back in those days.

PURCHASE: The New York Public Library bought 190 boxes of Tom Wolfe’s literary archives for $2.15 million. These include drafts of his four bestselling novels and 12 other books, outlines, research materials and more than 10,000 letters.

In a letter to The New York Times, Alice Bray of New York wrote: “Whatever happened to successful writers like Mr. Wolfe just giving their papers to august institutions like the New York Public Library?

“One can only weep at the thought of all the badly needed and oft-requested books that could have been bought with the $2.15 million.”


WHERE SHE STARTED: Patricia Cornwell’s new Scarpetta detective novel, Dust, is a bestseller. The New York Times Book Review asked her what her favorite books were as a child.

“Anything about archeology," she said. "As a child, my dream was to be an archaeologist when I grew up, and in a way, my fascination with forensics makes total sense. It’s all about taking a shard or splinter or bit of bone and reconstructing how someone died and lived, and who they were. An archaeological site is really one big crime scene.”

THE LAST WORD: The Oxford Dictionaries declared "selfie" was the 2013 Word of the Year. Everyone knows by now that it's a photo taken of oneself. Daniel Menaker in Sunday's The New York Times Review wrote that selfie "was on the baby-talk side of talk, and destined for the etymological trash basket." The New Yorker had a cartoon by Corey Pandolph in which a young woman posing for a sidewalk portrait artist asks him to, "Make it look like a selfie."

Looks as if the Word of the Year has already begun a fatal fizzle.