Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Penmanship Lessons and Robert Frost

Uh oh, I may have to work on my penmanship. I'm notoriously sloppy in my handwriting -- an affliction for which I have been maligned since childhood. I've been told numerous times that I should have become a doctor, where bad penmanship isn't merely accepted, it's valued as a badge of courage (until someone dies because the pharmacy supplies the wrong drug because they couldn't read the script and didn't call the doctor, of course).

Robert Frost, one of the most famous American poets of the 20th century (and other than Maya Angelou, how many others do most readers know?), apparently had pretty bad penmanship too, and now it's haunting him while he spins in his grave. The argument, as I read it in the article, is altogether academic (i.e., a bunch of academicians arguing about things that most readers -- even of the New York Times -- might gloss over). But these are honest issues that matter in the world of literature.

I looked back at a couple of my journals this weekend and had trouble reading some of what I wrote. These are items that I penned within the past three or four years. It's not as though I'm looking back at stuff I wrote during the Reagan administration and trying to go back to what I was thinking about in my days of teenage angst. And I've written things in bed with the light off so I didn't wake my wife; that's not easy to do legibly.

I don't expect to be as famous as Robert Frost, but I do hope that I'll have a writing career worthy of note. I'm not about to change my penmanship for future Faggens, but I might be a little more conscious of being articulate. No one likes a muddy sentence, and I certainly wouldn't want the mud in my journals to be washed across the pages of the New York Times forty or fifty years from now. Because that makes all the difference.

As Jay Parini, a Middlebury College professor and the former head of the Poetry Foundation told the Times, niggling over the exact wording in notebooks Frost never intended for public consumption did not seem as important as, say, settling punctuation disputes about the published poems. The notebooks, Mr. Parini said, are "fun to read, but it doesn’t fundamentally alter anything about Robert Frost."

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