Arts-oriented blogs like this one may resemble collections of essays and reviews-- written in haste, perhaps, and repented at leisure-- but they can also draw on other sorts of forms far older than HTML. One such form is the so-called diary-- not the book of daily entries Americans think of when they think of the term, so much as the periodic excerpts from journals or diaries by literary figures which have long run in some British literary magazines. These excerpts have the spontaneous feel of good blogging, and the further distinction of not requiring arguments-- they're not supposed to be about anything in particular, other than the moment-to-moment or week-to-week impressions the world gives their authors (and vice versa).
I think here in particular of the journal excerpts by the English poet R. F. Langley, whose poems are sometimes quite spiky and demanding but whose sinuous prose journals, viewable in many issues of PN Review, are also smart, and easier to follow: they show him, often enough, just walking around, reflecting on flora, reading, local architecture, food, telephones, familiar quotations... there's a published book of them now, which I'm not sure I even want to read cover to cover, because these prose paragraphs-- more a style of attention than anything that attention might generate for some later use-- work so well a page at a time, as brief encounters with the weather of the world-- encounters, one might say, with Helphenstine.
Who's Helphenstine? All told below the fold.


If the disadvantage of blogging, as of journals and diaries, is that you don't get to-- shouldn't, really-- take days and weeks to reconsider (so that if you pursue arguments you may find later that you no longer believe them), the advantage of blogging, as of journals and diaries, is its ability to record rapid impressions. Blogs, like journals and diaries, are archives of style, archives of false starts, neat mistakes, & small discoveries that may not lead anywhere beyond themselves. In this way blogs and diaries are unlike researched arguments and narratives, but like-- though maybe not much like-- collections of lyric poems; their happiest moment may be (as in Langley's journals) impressions with almost no content (separable from style) at all. For example:
Two cats on a bed in a dark room where Jessie is sleeping rise up, in parallel, and turn their heads in parallel, like the rotating "players" in a game of table hockey, in order to look askance at a third cat, who has just, somewhat defensively, entered the room, and now paws noisily under a stool in a corner, since human visitors are sleeping elsewhere, fortunately undisturbed, in the other rooms where two of these three cats are normally wont to spend their night.
Or, to take an example from a poem: yesterday I read all the sonnets of E. A. Robinson, the turn-of-the-20th-century poet who sometimes sounds like Frost, sometimes like Hardy (and from whom Weldon Kees learned almost all his moves). I was trying to find the best few of E.A.R.'s sonnets, the ones about which there seemed to be most to say: about those ("The Sheaves," "George Crabbe," and perhaps a Hardyesque poem of gentle marital irony entitled "Firelight") I'll likely do something elsewhere.
I found there, too, a neat sonnet perfect for a journal, a diary, or a blog entry, because it made a sadly sparkling impression that's not going to last, and because it's about non-lasting impressions, false starts, fleeting mistakes. Indeed, it suggests all persuasions that one human being knows another, has something to say to another are mistakes, and that such mistakes, rather than being distractions from social life, may be the best figure for social life, that all our meetings and exchanges with all other human beings may just be slow-motion versions of Robinson's fortunate, and then unfortunate, and anyway long-vanished, encounter with "Fleming Helphenstine":
At first I thought there was a superfine
Persuasion in his face; but the free glow
That filled it when he stopped and cried, "Hollo!"
Shone joyously, and so I let it shine.
He said his name was Fleming Helphenstine,
But be that as it may;--I only know
He talked of this and that and So-and-So,
And laughed and chaffed like any friend of mine.
But soon, with a queer, quick frown, he looked at me,
And I looked hard at him; and there we gazed
In a strained way that made us cringe and wince:
Then, with a wordless clogged apology
That sounded half confused and half amazed,
He dodged-- and I have never seen him since.

Originally Published: January 11th, 2008

Stephanie (also Steph; formerly Stephen) Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice...