When I was sick as a little girl (which was pretty often), I would lie in a darkened room with the cool whoosh of the humidifier beside me and would listen to LPs of a complete reading of Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland." The two things are combined in odd ways in my memory, as if being unwell was a kind of going down a rabbit hole into a feverish world of the imagination. That my name is a diminuitive of Alice probably has something to do with my identifying so strongly with it. There is something about how she transforms poems that she wrongly remembers into odd original works, and how the book itself begins with reading over someone's shoulder, "And what is the use of a book," thought Alice, "without pictures or conversation?," that makes this listening to the book over and over in the dark room with a cool cloth on my head seem seminal to the idea of writing.
I was thinking of all this over the weekend, partly because our son keeps bringing home viruses from school, and now I am the one applying the cool cloth and reading to him in a dim room, and partly because I was reminded by Writer's Almanac that yesterday was Lewis Carroll's (Charles Dodgson's) birthday.
Alice has got to be one of those very rare characters from novels (though she in turn comes from a real person) who burst out into their own life in other people's poems. A number spring to mind--I've even written one myself. The first one I happened to turn to was by Allen Tate, "Last Days of Alice," which begins:
Alice grown lazy, mammoth but not fat,
Declines upon her lost and twilight age;
Above in the dozing leaves the grinning cat
Quivers forever with his abstract rage:
Whatever light swayed on the perilous gate
Forever sways, nor will teh arching grass
Caught when the world clattered, undulate
In the deep suspension of the looking-glass.
Bright Alice! always pondering to gloze
The spoiled cruelty she had meant to say
Gazes learenedly down her airy nose
At nothing, nothing thinking all the day.
("Gloze" is one of these words, like "refractory" or "cicatrix" or "bruit" that in my mind almost belong to a particular poet and poem.)
There are other Alice poems. They spring up all over the place once you start looking for them. (Here, by the way, is a wonderful essay by James Wood on the mystery of character, how literary concoctions come alive, that I first got to hear at the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics in Chicago.)
Alice is certainly one such character if she can walk through looking-glasses, and indeed, right out of the pages of one book into the pages of others.
Actually, though, my favorite Lewis Carroll poem--besides maybe the "Hunting of the Snark"--is this sly poem about po-biz, still "strangely" and "wearily" topical, "Poeta fit, non nascitur" (A Poet is made, not born).
"How shall I be a poet?
How shall I write in rhyme?
You told me once 'the very wish
Partook of the sublime.'
The tell me how! Don't put me off
With your 'another time'!"
The old man smiled to see him,
To hear his sudden sally;
He liked the lad to speak his mind
And thought "There's no hum-drum in him,
Nor any shilly-shally."
"And would you be a poet
Before you've been to school?
Ah, well! I hardly thought you
So absolute a fool.
First learn to be spasmodic --
A very simple rule.
"For first you write a sentence,
And then you chop it small;
Then mix the bits, and sort them out
Just as they chance to fall:
The order of the phrases makes
No difference at all.
'Then, if you'd be impressive,
Remember what I say,
That abstract qualities begin
With capitals alway:
The True, the Good, the Beautiful --
Those are the things that pay!
"Next, when we are describing
A shape, or sound, or tint;
Don't state the matter plainly,
But put it in a hint;
And learn to look at all things
With a sort of mental squint."
"For instance, if I wished, Sir,
Of mutton-pies to tell,
Should I say 'dreams of fleecy flocks
Pent in a wheaten cell'?"
"Why, yes," the old man said: "that phrase
Would answer very well.
"Then fourthly, there are epithets
That suit with any word --
As well as Harvey's Reading Sauce
With fish, or flesh, or bird --
Of these, 'wild,' 'lonely,' 'weary,' 'strange,'
Are much to be preferred."
"And will it do, O will it do
To take them in a lump --
As 'the wild man went his weary way
To a strange and lonely pump'?"
"Nay, nay! You must not hastily
To such conclusions jump.
"Such epithets, like pepper,
Give zest to what you write;
And, if you strew them sparely,
They whet the appetite:
But if you lay them on too thick,
You spoil the matter quite!
"Last, as to the arrangement:
Your reader, you should show him,
Must take what information he
Can get, and look for no im
mature disclosure of the drift
And purpose of your poem.
"Therefore to test his patience --
How much he can endure --
Mention no places, names, or dates,
And evermore be sure
Throughout the poem to be found
"First fix upon the limit
To which it shall extend:
Then fill it up with 'Padding'
(Beg some of any friend)
Your great SENSATION-STANZA
You place towards the end."
"And what is a Sensation,
Grandfather, tell me, pray?
I think I never heard the word
So used before to-day:
Be kind enough to mention one
And the old man, looking sadly
Across the garden-lawn,
Where here and there a dew-drop
Yet glittered in the dawn,
Said "Go to the Adelphi,
And see the 'Colleen Bawn.'
"The word is due to Boucicault --
The theory is his,
Where Life becomes a Spasm,
And History a Whiz:
If that is not Sensation,
I don't know what it is,
"Now try your hand, ere Fancy
Have lost its present glow --"
"And then," his grandson added,
"We'll publish it, you know:
Green cloth -- gold-lettered at the back --
Then proudly smiled that old man
To see the eager lad
Rush madly for his pen and ink
And for his blotting-pad --
But, when he thought of publishing,
His face grew stern and sad.
A. E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry, Archaic Smile (1999), which won the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012). Her new verse translation of Lucretius (in rhyming fourteeners!), The Nature of Things,...