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Author Archive

T. S. Eliot’s “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

December 18, 2013 | by


In 1927, Richard de la Mare had an idea for some Christmas cards. Because he was a production director at London’s Faber & Gwyer, his cards were festive poetry pamphlets that could be sent to clients and sold to customers for one shilling a piece. Because two years earlier Geoffrey Faber had lured a banker from Lloyd’s Bank to work as an editor at his publishing house, Faber & Gwyer had T. S. Eliot to contribute to the series.

Named for Shakespeare’s sprite, the Ariel poems each addressed the Christmas holiday or a seasonal theme. G. K. Chesterton, Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, Siegfried Sassoon, Vita Sackville-West, Edith Sitwell, and W. B. Yeats all contributed. The Ariel series followed a strict formula: identical cardboard bindings; title, illustrator, author, and occasionally an illustration on the cover; and two interior sheets folded to make four pages. The first page repeated the title information; the following three featured the poem and an original illustration.

T. S. Eliot wrote six poems for the series: “The Journey of the Magi” (1927), “A Song for Simeon” (1928), “Animula” (1929), “Marina” (1930), “Triumphal March” (1931), and, later when the series was revived, “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees” (1954). Only thirty-four lines long, that final poem is like a whisper in the whirlwind of dramatic plays and long poems that characterize most of Eliot’s later work. “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees” came decades after “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1917) and The Waste Land (1922), years after Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939) and The Four Quartets (1943).

I think of Eliot’s Christmas trees every year around this time: when firs, pines, and spruces appear in living rooms, storefronts, and town squares around the country. Eliot wrote the poem when he was sixty-six years old. His voice is wizened, yet wistful as he reaches through all the years of his life to recover “the spirit of wonder” from his earliest Christmases. Though formal and serious, the poem seems almost saccharine when compared to his earlier work. It will surprise many that the poet of fragments and ruins eventually turned his attention to the pretty packages and bright lights of Christmas. Read More »


Called Back

October 30, 2013 | by


Emily Dickinson published only ten poems. Printed in various newspapers, her verses all appeared anonymously. It was not some failure of contemporary taste but her own decision that kept the rest of her poetry private. Dickinson wrote in one poem that “Publication—is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man—” and indeed she seems to have felt there was something crass, even violative about fixing one’s words in a particular arrangement of type, surrendering them for a price.

And yet, I am grateful to have been able to pay small sums of money for her poetry. A few complete editions, two selected volumes, and one pocket collection: new and used, hardback and paperback, her poetry has always been something for which I was willing to pay. I dreamed of sitting by the fire with my Emily Dickinson while someone I loved sat reading Robert Frost. I collected all these copies of her poetry so that no matter where I went, I would be ready for those dangling conversations.

But the books I gathered have gotten to rest these last few days as I’ve spent hours clicking away in the Emily Dickinson Archive. For the first time since her death, almost all of her poetry, published and unpublished, finished and unfinished, appears together in high-resolution scans, just waiting for readers and scholars to page through it electronically.

The first poem I ever received by e-mail was one by Emily Dickinson. Ten years ago, on what would be one of my last true snow days, when school was cancelled and all the world was covered in possibility, a teacher sent me an e-mail: “Don’t forget to put down the books and enjoy some of this winter wonderland,” she wrote, and then beneath her signature included the text of Emily Dickinson’s “It sifts from Leaden Sieves.” Read More »



September 26, 2013 | by


During the bedtime-story portion of his twenty-one-hours-and-nineteen-minutes-long speech on the floor of Congress, Senator Ted Cruz, in an episode that has already achieved notoriety, read Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham as his two daughters watched at home in their pajamas.

“I will credit my father,” Senator Cruz said. “He invented green eggs and ham.” Cruz’s father, the senator remembered, would add food coloring to eggs or mix spinach into them to get the green color.

But not even Dr. Seuss would say that he invented green eggs and ham. It was a bet with his publisher that led Theodor Seuss Geisel to write the book. Bennett Cerf wagered $50 that Geisel could not write a book with only fifty words.

And yet by repeating forty-nine monosyllabic words and a single polysyllabic word (anywhere), Geisel assembled a book with 681 words total that would become his most popular book ever, selling tens of millions of copies. Geisel claimed that Cerf never paid him the $50, but Green Eggs and Ham was one of the many Beginner Books that made the author and his publishing house millions of dollars.

Part of Dr. Seuss’s midcentury success came from federal education reform that dedicated money to stocking school libraries and promoting early education. “Children’s lit,” according to critic Louis Menand, “was a Cold War growth industry, right alongside Boeing, Northrop, and Dow Chemical.”

Dr. Seuss, in particular, was very much of his time, and Menand offers a convincing read of The Cat in the Hat as an allegory for the problems of feminism, communism, and juvenile delinquency. Read More »



September 17, 2013 | by


The cement was dirty, but so were my pants after three weeks of traveling. I lay down on the sidewalk in front of the Sagrada Família, stretching back to look up at the Nativity Façade, trying to capture most of my older sister and all of the spires in my camera’s viewfinder.

Sagrada Família is one of the most beautiful churches that I have ever seen; it is also one of the few that I have seen under construction. Not renovation or restoration, but construction. Since 1882, except for a brief interruption caused by the Spanish Civil War, this church has been the constant, but hurried home of masons and stonecutters, carpenters and sculptors, architects and electricians. On any day, a few hundred might be working inside and outside its walls; every month, church authorities spend over a million euros on construction.

The church, like the tourists who scuttle about its lower crypt and the worshippers who bow their heads and fold their hands in its central nave, is in a state of becoming, not being. The most famous hands to touch the church were those of Antoni Gaudí, who took over its design in 1883. When he died forty years later, less than a quarter of the church was finished.

Originally the idea of a bookseller who was inspired by his pilgrimage to Rome, Sagrada Família has always been an expiatory church, funded by donations. It is hard to estimate the total number of persons who have donated to the cause over the last one hundred and thirty-one years. Millions visit the church every year, their admission fees funding the costly construction that will continue for at least another decade.

While it is only a minor basilica, lacking the seat of a bishop, Sagrada Família calls to mind the great gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages. When I lay down on the cement in front of one of its oldest facades, looking up at my sister, I thought of the many generations that had already witnessed its construction.

I thought of the mothers who brought their sons, only to have those boys take their own children to see the magnificent basilica in the making. I thought of all the fathers who came with their grandfathers only to return with their granddaughters to see light pouring through newly installed stained glass windows. I thought of all the generations who had seen and would see this church the way generations before had witnessed the building of the great cathedrals of the world.

Gaudí wanted the interior of Sagrada Família to look like a forest. The columns of the nave stretch like tree trunks from the floor to the ceiling, branching to support the heavy weight of the ceiling, but also sprawling, reaching like tendrils for the sky. The church is beautiful because of its continual incompletion, its revelation that human construction is not so unlike natural construction: you plant a sapling as a child, then years later it is still growing into something taller, something more; your grandparents planted daffodils that decades later you see still returning every spring; you sit reading the newspaper on a bench in a park that your father tells you was once under water, the river having receded miles from its ancient reaches.

Cathedrals reveal human construction for what it is. In “The Cathedral,” Rainer Maria Rilke wrote “Their birth and rise, / as our own life’s too great proximity / will mount beyond our vision and our sense / of other happenings.” The poet disdains the possibility that cathedrals eclipse their makers: “as though that were history, / piled up in their immeasurable masses / in petrifaction safe from circumstance.” Life, Rilke argued, was on the streets beneath the cathedral’s spires, while death was “in those towers that, full of resignation, / ceased all at once from climbing.”

Read More »


The Last Bookstore

August 27, 2013 | by


Photography credit Scott Garner.

My father’s father was a carpenter. I never met my grandfather, but I know from photographs and stories that in addition to farming, keeping dairy cows, and working on a cannery line, he earned money by carpentry. I also know from the sawhorses that my father inherited from his father.

The wooden trestles stood ever-vigilant in our garage, ready to serve whenever their nail-bitten, blade-gauged bodies were needed. The sawhorses were two of a few inherited things that reminded me of the grandfather I never met: a pear tree that still stands but no longer grows heavy with fruit in early autumn; a concrete trough he made that my sister, used for her horse’s drinking water; a pitchfork on which the handle had been replaced many times, and that we used for moving straw, hay, manure, or leaves, depending on the season.

Our inheritance felt large, but it was the sawhorses that I most admired, especially when my father put them to use constructing bookshelves for my bedroom. My father was no stranger to construction; he built the log cabin in which I was raised. He inherited not only tools but also skills from his father, so he was able to cut, stain, and install the wide bookshelves on my bedroom walls in no time. The shelves were required to house my growing library, acquired book by book in a thrilling sequence of gifts, purchases, and trades.

The day those bookshelves were installed was both an end and a beginning. It was the beginning of my treating books like objects and the end of my venerating them as relics. The order of the library, the logic of the archive, the structure of the bookstore all faded that day; suddenly, my books were mine to play with and I could do with them as I pleased. I could arrange them by height or by color. I could divide them with whatever objects I wanted: the painted deer skull I had been given as a dream catcher, the glow-in-the-dark vampire mask I had bought on a family vacation, the ornate carousel music boxes I had collected. Read More »


Bird-watching on Capitol Hill

July 2, 2013 | by


In 1972, Ralph Nader published the book Who Runs Congress? The paperback retailed for $1.95, and was to be the first of several publications by Nader’s Congress Project, a rag-tag group of students, volunteers, and writers. A better title for the book might have been Who Ruins Congress: its pages overflowed with acts of bribery, corruption, and incompetence allegedly committed by members.

The Congress Project attempted to investigate every member of Congress, eventually producing extended profiles of every senator and member of the House of Representatives. Many of the profiles ran in local newspapers before the 1972 elections; many of their authors, including James Fallows, Michael Kinsley, and David Ignatius, went on to meaningful careers in political journalism. Along with its publications, the Congress Project lobbied for transparency in the legislative branch. It fought to open Congressional committee meetings to the public and published the committee votes of members.

The Congress Project also inspired one of Ralph Nader’s major talking points on the need for citizen activism: Congress, Nader argued, needs to be watched. Millions of Americans pass their time watching birds when they should be watching Congress. Nader hoped to make Congress-watching as popular a pastime as bird-watching.

I thought of Nader’s aspirations two weeks ago as I sat in the gallery of the House of Representatives. The House was marching through the final amendments of the Farm Bill, one of the country’s most sweeping pieces of legislation. It regulates everything from farm subsidies and agricultural research to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The Farm Bill comes before Congress every five years, and I wanted to watch the final hours of debate.

There’s been a lot of interest in the nitty-gritty details of democracy these days. Millions held their breath as the Supreme Court announced its rulings, glued to CNN and refreshing SCOTUSblog. Thousands watched the Texas Tribune’s live-stream of the epic filibuster by Wendy Davis on the floor of the Texas Senate. While the numbers haven’t quite risen high enough to match the hoards of birders in this country, there’s an increasing desire to witness political history as it happens. Read More »