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July 2013

More "reading art" (for Ellen Kushner):

The Poor Poet by Carl Spitzweg

Girl Reading in Bed by James McNeil Whistler

My Life in Bed by Joseph Hubbard

“Literature duplicates the experience of living in a way that nothing else can, drawing you so fully into another life that you temporarily forget you have one of your own. That is why you read it, and might even sit up in bed ’till early dawn, throwing your whole tomorrow out of whack, simply to find out what happens to some people who, you know perfectly well, are made up.”  – Barbara Kingsolver

Reading in Bed by Peter Brannon

"You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive."  - James Baldwin

Boys Reading by André Kertész

The Dramatist by Brigit Ganley

Girl Reading by Vanessa Bell

Interior with Duncan Grant Reading by Vanessa Bell

Portrait of Chattie Salaman by Duncan Grant

“We possess the books we read, animating the waiting stillness of their language, but they possess us also, filling us with thoughts and observations, asking us to make them part of ourselves."  – David L. Ulin

Woman Reading by Alexander Deinka

A Lady Reading by Felix Vallotton

Reader with Yellow Necklace by Félix Vallotton

Sally by Mia Wolff

"Live for a while in the books you love. Learn from them what is worth learning, but above all love them. This love will be returned to you a thousand times over. Whatever your life may become, these books -of this I am certain- will weave through the web of your unfolding. They will be among the strongest of all threads of your experiences, disappointments, and joys." - Rainer Maria Rilke 

The Blue Pool by Augustus John

The Precious Book by Gwen John

Brown Tea Pot with Yellow by Gwen John

“So often, a visit to a bookshop has cheered me, and reminded me that there are good things in the world.” – Vincent van Gogh

Novels by Vincent Van Gogh

The Novel Reader by Vincent Van Gogh

Hall's Bookshop by John Wheatley

A Song Worth Volumes by Camille Engle

"The Poor Poet" by Carl Spitzweg  (German, 1808-1834); "My Life in Bed" by  Joseph Hubbard (American), "Girl Reading," an etching by James Abbott MacNeill Whistler (American, 1934-1903); "Reading in Bed" by Peter Brannan (English, 1926-1994);  "Boys Reading," a  photograph by André Kertész (Hungarian-American, 1894-1985 ), "The Dramatist: A Portrait of the Artist's Husband" by Brigit Ganley (Irish, 1909-2002); "Girl Reading" and "Interior with Duncan Grant Reading" by Vanessa Bell  (English, 1879-1961); "Portrait of Chattie Salaman" by Duncan Grant (English, 1885-1978);  "Woman Reading" by Alexander Deineka (Russian, 1899-1969); "A Lady Reading" and "Reader With Yellow Necklace" by Félix Vallotton (Swiss, 1865-1925); "Sally" by Mia Wolff (American);  "The Blue Pool: Dorelia with Book" by Augustus John (Welsh, 1878-1961); "The Precious Book" and "Brown Tea Pot with Yellow Book" by his sister, Gwen John (Welsh, 1876-1939); "Novels" and "Novel Reader" by Vincent Van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890)'  "Hall's Bookshop in Royal Tunbridge Wells, west Kent" by John Wheatley (English, 1892-1955); and a "A Song Worth Volumes by Camille Engle (American), from her lovely Literary Roost series.

Down by the riverside


Oh Earth, Wait for Me
by Pablo Neruda

Return me, oh sun,
to my wild destiny,
rain of the ancient wood,
bring me back the aroma and the swords
that fall from the sky,
the solitary peace of pasture and rock,
the damp at the river-margins,
the smell of the larch tree,
the wind alive like a heart
beating in the crowded restlessness
of the towering araucaria.

Earth, give me back your pure gifts,
the towers of silence which rose
from the solemnity of their roots.
I want to go back to being what I have not been,
and learn to go back from such deeps
that among all natural things
I could live or not live; it does not matter
to be one stone more, the dark stone,
the pure stone which the river bears away.

Riverside 2

Riverside 3

"Is beauty a reminder of something we once knew, with poetry one of its vehicles? Does it give us a brief vision of that 'rarely glimpsed bright face behind/ the apparency of things'? Here, I suppose, we ought to try the impossible task of defining poetry. No one definition will do. But I must admit to a liking for the words of Thomas Fuller, who said: 'Poetry is a dangerous honey. I advise thee only to taste it with the Tip of thy finger and not to live upon it. If thou do'st, it will disorder thy Head and give thee dangerous Vertigos.' "

P.K. Page (The Filled Pen)

Riverside 4

"What I love is one foot in front of another. South-south-west and down the contours. I go slipping between Black Ridge and White Horse Hill into a bowl of the moor where echoes can't get out












and I find you in the reeds, a trickle coming out of a bark, a foal of a river"

--Alice Oswald (from "Dart," her gorgeous long poem about the River Dart in Devon)

Riverside 5

"My poetry was born between the hill and the river, it took its voice from the rain, and like the timber, it steeped itself in the forests."  - Pablo Neruda (in an interview, 1985)

Riverside 7

How Poetry Comes to Me
by Gary Snyder

It comes blundering over the
Boulders at night, it stays
Frightened outside the
Range of my campfire
I go to meet it at the
Edge of the light

Fingle Bridge

Howard & Tilly on Fingle Bridge

"Quoting Greek philosopher Plotinus, Tarnas writes, 'The stars are like letters that inscribe themselves at every moment in the sky. Everything in the world is full of signs. All events are coordinated. All things depend on each other. Everything breathes together.' For me, poetry is the music of being human. And also a time machine by which we can travel to who we are and to who we will become." - Carol Ann Duffy

The Fingle Bridge Pub


Ars Poetica
by Jorge Luis Borges

To gaze at the river made of time and water
And recall that time itself is another river,
To know we cease to be, just like the river,
And that our faces pass away, just like the water.

To feel that waking is another sleep
That dreams it does not sleep and that death,
Which our flesh dreads, is that very death
Of every night, which we call sleep. 

To see in the day or in the year a symbol
Of mankind's days and of his years,
To transform the outrage of the years
Into a music, a rumor and a symbol,

To see in death a sleep, and in the sunset
A sad gold, of such is Poetry
Immortal and a pauper. For Poetry
Returns like the dawn and the sunset.

At times in the afternoons a face
Looks at us from the depths of a mirror;
Art must be like that mirror
That reveals to us this face of ours.

Morris dancers 1

Morris dancers 2

Morris dancers 3

"This wounded Earth we walk upon
She will endure when we are gone
But still I pray that you may know
How rivers run and rivers flow..."

- Karine Polwart (from her song "Rivers Run")

"There is poetry as soon as we realize that we possess nothing." - John Cage

Publication credits: "Oh Earth, Wait for Me" by Pablo Neruda is from Pablo Neruda: Selected Poems, translated from the Spanish by Anthony Kerrigan; "How Poetry Comes to Me" by Gary Snyder is from his collection No Nature: New and Selected Poems; "Ars Poetica" by Jorge Luis Borges is from his collection Dreamtigers, translated from the Spanish by Mildred Vincent Boyers and Harold Morland. The short passage by Alice Oswald come from her book-length poem Dart (Faber, 2010), which I cannot recommend highly enough. It's simply gorgeous. All rights to the quoted text in this post reserved by their creators.

Into the Woods, 25: The Forest of Stories (Part III)

Library Lions by Graeme Base

In his memoir The Child That Books Built, Francis Spufford quotes this wonderful description of a library from Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes:

The Library by Jessie Willcox SmithThe library deeps lay waiting for them. Out in the world, not much happened. But here in the special night, a land bricked with paper and leather, anything might happen, always did. Listen! and you heard ten thousand people screaming so high only dogs feathered their ears. A million folk ran toting cannons, sharpening guillotines; Chinese, four abreast, marched on forever. Invisible, silent, yes, but Jim and Will had the gift of ears and noses as well as tongues. This was a factory of spices from far countries. Here alien deserts slumbered. Up front was the desk where the nice old lady, Miss Watriss, purple-stamped your books, but down off away were Tibet and Antarctica, the Congo....

But Bradbury, notes Spufford, "writes as if stories burst out of their library bindings on their own. I never found that. For me, they had to be stalked, sampled, weighed, measured, sniffed, tasted, often rejected. There were so many possibilities that the different invitations each book made would have blended together, if they had been audible, into a constant muttering hum. To hear the separate call of a book, you had to take it up and detach it from all the other possibilities by concentrating on it, and giving it a little silence in which to work. Then you learned what it was offering. Be a Roman soldier, said a book by Rosemary Sutcliffe. Be an urchin in Georgian London, said Leon Garfield. Be Little Boy Reading a Book by William Henry HuntMilo, 'who was bored, not just some of the time but all of the time,' and drives past the purple tollbooth to the Lands Beyond. Be where you can hear cats talking by tasting the red liquid in the big bottle in the chemist shop's window. Be where magic works easily. Be where magic works frighteningly. Be where you can work magic, but have to conceal being invisible or being able to fly from the eyes of the grown-ups. Be an Egyptian child beside the Nile, be a rabbit on Watership Down, be a foundling so lonely in a medieval castle that the physical ache of it reaches to you out of the book; be one of a gang of London kids playing on a bombsite among the willowherb and loosestrife, only fifteen years or so before 1972, but already far, far in the past. Be a king. Be a slave. Be Biggles. All this was there in the library basement, if you picked up the books and coaxed them into activity, and uncountably more besides....When I made my choice, and walked back up to the Ironmarket from the library to the bus stop, I knew I might have melancholy tucked under my arm; or laughter; or fear; or enchantment.

Sunday Afternoon, Interior With Girl Reading by Michael Peter Ancher"Or longing. My favorite books were the ones that took books' explicit status as other worlds, and acted on it literally, making the window of writing a window into imaginary countries. I didn't just want to see in books what I saw anyway in the world around me, even if it was perceived and understood  and articulated from angles I could never have achieved; I wanted to see things I never saw in life. More than I wanted books to do anything else, I wanted them to take me away."

Spufford was eight when he read Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy for the first time, paging quickly through Pippin and Merry's adventures in order to "get back to Sam and Frodo and the ring. I identified their journey as the story." Later, he says, "I discovered and cherished Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea novels. They were utterly different in feeling, with their archipelago of bright islands like ideal Hebrides, and their guardian wizards balancing light and dark like yin and yang. All they shared with Tolkien was the deep consistency that allows an imagined world to unfold from its premises solidly, step by certain step, like something that might really exist. Consistency is to an imaginary world as the laws of physics are to ours. The spell-less magic of Earthsea gave power to those who knew the true names of things: a beautifully simple idea. Once I had seen from the first few pages of the first book, A Wizard of Earthsea, that Le Guin was always going to obey her own rules, I could trust the entire fabric of her world."

The Reading Boy by Joshua ReynoldsYet the books that Spufford loved best were those "that started in this world and took you to another. Earthsea and Middle Earth were separate. You traveled in them in imagination as you read Le Guin and Tolkien, but they had no location in relation to this world. Their richness did not call to you at home in any way. It did not lie just beyond a threshold in this world that you might find if you were particularly lucky, or particularly blessed.

"I wanted there to be a chance to pass through a portal, and by doing so to pass through rusty reality with its scaffolding of facts and events into the freedom of story. I wanted there to be doors. If, in a story, you found the one panel in the fabric of the workaday world that was hinged, and it opened, and it turned out that behind the walls of the world flashed the gold and peacock blue of something else, and you were able to pass through, that would be a moment in which all the decisions that have been taken in this world, and all the choices that had been made, and all the facts that had been settled, would be up for grabs again: all possibilities would be renewed, for who knew what lay on the other side?

"And once open, the door would never entirely shut behind you either. A kind of mixture would begin. A tincture of this world's reality would enter the other world, as the ordinary children in the story -- my representatives, my ambassadors -- wore their shorts and sweaters amid cloth of gold, and said Crumbs! and Come off it! among people speaking the high language of fantasy; while this world would be subtly altered too, changed in status by the knowledge that it had an outside."

The Books of Magic, Volume 1 by Charles Vess

A detail from Tom Sawyer by Jeffrey T. LarsonBin Ramke reminisces in his poem"Chivalric":

Here is the past: One was once a boy
and read books and could not pronounce
the most engaging words and read
in silence under blankets. Here   
one was not like oneself or was
quiet and wrong and did not know
the words nor how to ask, who
to ask. Nor why. Boy’s books with flags.
Everyone’s born to the language; anyone
can say something. For instance,   
knight banneret, that’s what she called him,   
having no use for him after history,   

she thrust him into the operatic night:

                                         A woman's hand rose
above the surface of the lake and caught   
the glistering sword, and slowly   
descended into the boy’s refuge,   
his astonishment, so foreign, so little like home...

"Storytelling draws on the magic of language to created Elsewheres," says Maria Tatar (in Enchantment Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood). "Writers use a linguistic sleight-of-hand to take an attribute, attach them to new objects, and create enchantment."

Captivated by Adolphe Alexandre LesrelTatar quotes this passage from J.R.R. Tolkien's famous essay "On Fairy-Stories":

The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make things light and able to fly, turn grey into yellow gold, and the still rock into swifter water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood we already have an enchanter's power -- upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our mind awakes.

"Magic happens," says Tatar, "when the wand of language strikes a stone and makes it melt, touches a spindle and turns it into gold, or taps a trunk and makes it fly. By drawing on a syntax of enchantment that conjures fluidity, ethereality, flimsiness, and transparency, writers turn solidity into resplendent airy lightness to produce miracles of linguistic transubstantiation. 

"What is the effect of that beauty? How do readers repond to words that create that beauty? In a world that has discredited that particular attribute and banished it from high art, beauty has nonetheless held on to its enlivening power in children's books. It draws readers in, then draws them to understand the fictional worlds it lights up."

Study at a Reading Desk by Lord Frederick Leighton

This is one of the many reasons, I believe, that the best of the books published for children and young adults have devoted adult readers too (despite the baffled surprise this seems to incur in certain literary quarters).  Beauty is to our age, Shirley Hazzard once said dryly, as sex was to the Victorians: a subject we don't talk about, except in the most superficial of terms. And yet we need beauty, and wonder, in our lives -- especially now, as a balancing corrective to a culture addicted to novelty and awash in irony and detachment. As the Irish poet/philosopher John O'Donohue wrote in his insightful book Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, "When our eyes are graced with wonder, the world reveals its wonders to us. There are people who see only dullness in the world and that is because their eyes have already been dulled. So much depends on how we look at things. The quality of our looking determines what we come to see."

With beauty and wonder scorned in so many of stories now told to adults (in books, in films, on television), no wonder it's to fantasy and to children's fiction that so many of us turn.

Evening Reading by George Pauli

Reading Aloud by Julius LeBlanc Stewart

C.S. Lewis once wrote: "When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret, and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up."

Farmer Sitting at the Fireside and Reading by Vincent van Gogh

“When we are young," muses Louise Erdrich (in The Plague of Doves), "the words are scattered all around us. As they are assembled by experience, so also are we, sentence by sentence, until the story takes shape.”

We build ourselves through the stories we imbibe, both consciously and unconsciously...and it's in the latter realm that danger arises if we're not wary. 

A Lady Reading by Gwen John

A Young Girl Reading by Michael Peter Ancher

We in the West, says Rebecca Solnit , "have been muddled by Plato's assertion that art is imitation and illusion; we believe it is a realm apart, one whose impact on our world is limited, one in which we do not live. Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me, my mother liked to recite, though words hurt her all the time, and behind the words the stories about how things should be and where she fell short, as told by my father, by society, by the church, by the happy flawless women of advertisements. We all live in that world of images and stories, and most of us are damaged by some version of it, and if we're lucky, find others or make better ones that embrace and bless us." (The Faraway Nearby)

Solnit expresses so beautifully the very thing that I have long been trying to do as a writer, editor, and painter: I want find better stories, make better stories, stories that will "embrace and bless" the readers who find them.

I think that's what we're all doing here in the mythic arts field, writers and readers alike, in our many different ways.

Man Reading (Portrait of Gustaf Dalstrom) by Frances Foy

Whilst Reading, a Portrait of Sofia Kramskoya, the Artist's Wife by Ivan Kramskoi

The "books and reading" art above is: "The Library Lions" by Graeme Base (Austrlian), from his book Animalia; "The Library" by Jessie Willcox Smith (American, 1853-1935 ); "Little Boy Reading a Book" by William Henry Hunt (English, 1790-1864);  Sunday Afternoon, Interior with Girl Reading" by Michael Peter Ancher ( (Danish, 1849-1927); "The Reading Boy" by Joshua Reynolds (English, 1723-1792); "The Books of Magic, Vol. 1" by Charles Vess (American); a detail from "Tom Sawyer" by Jeffrey T. Larson (American); "Captivated" by Adolphe Alexandre Lesrel (France, 1839-1929); "Study at a Reading Desk" by Lord Frederick Leighton (English, 1830-1896); "Evening Reading" by Georg Pauli (Finnish, 1855-1935); "Reading Aloud" by Julius LeBlanc Steward (American, 1855-1919); "Farmer Sitting at the Fireside and Reading" by Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890); "A Lady Reading" by Gwen John (Welsh, 1876-1939);  "A Young Girl Reading" by Michael Peter Ancher ( (Danish, 1849-1927);"Man Reading," a portrait of Gustaf Dalstrom, the artist's hysband, by Frances Foy (American, 1890-1963);  and "Whilst Reading," a portrait of Sofia Kramskoya, the artist's wife, by Ivan Kramskoi (Russian, 1837-1887).

All the works quoted from above are highly recommended: The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading, a charming and poignant memoir by Francis Spufford;  Something Wicked This Way Comes, the classic novel by Ray Bradbury; Bin  Ramke's 1999 poetry collection, WakeThe Enchantment Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood by the great fairy tale scholar Maria Tatar;  J.R.R. Tolkien's essay "On Fairy-stories," published in his collection Leaf by Niggle (it can also be read online here, and my memoir-ish essay about the essay is here);  John O'Donohue's insightful examination of beauty in life and art, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace; Louise Erdich's fine novel The Plague of Doves; and Rebecca Solnit's gorgeous new memoir, The Faraway Nearby.

Tunes for a Monday Morning

This week, a quartet of lovely songs from the British Isles:

Above, Irish singer Mary Black joins Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh and the Donegal band Altan for a stirring performance of  the Irish Gelic song "Siúil A Rúin," filmed in concert in Glasgow. (The English translation of the chorus is: Go, go, go my love/Go quietly and peacefully/Go to the door and fly with me.)

Below, Scots Gaelic singer Kathleen MacInnes performs "Oran a Cloiche (The Song of the Stone)" by Donald MacIntyre at a TransAtlantic Session in 2011, accompanied by Sarah Jarosz, Mike McGoldrick, Russ Barenberg, Donald Shaw, and Nollaig Casey. The song recounts the dramatic (but temporary) return of the Stone of Scone to Scotland in 1950, boldly retrieved from Westminister Abbey by four students on Christmas Day. (You can read the song's lyrics in translation here, and the full story of the stone here.) MacInnes comes from the Outer Hebrides and is now based in Glasgow.


"Ye Banks and Braes," performed by Scottish singer/songwriter Holly Tomás, from Edinburgh. The lyrics, based on a Robert Burns poem, are written from the point of view of a love-lorn woman as she walks by the banks of the River Doon in Ayrshire.

And last:

The Poozies, a wonderful Anglo-Scots all-women trad band, with their gorgeous song, "We Build Fires." The song refers both to the ancient system of building beacon fires on high hills as communication and defense signals, and also to the pagan ceremonial fires lit at various sacred times during the lunar calendar.

The Poozies have had several line-ups over the twenty years that they've been performing, but in this video it's: Sally Barker (lead vocals and guitar), Jenny Gardner (fiddle), Mary Macmaster (harp), Pasty Seddon (harp), and Karen Tweed (accordion). If you'd like to hear more music from The Poozies this morning, go here and here, or try any of their seven CDs.