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Monday, May 9, 2005

Fourteen years ago, after coming home from work and finding my wife gone, I bought my first mandolin and soon learned that I could impress listeners (the ones who didn't know bluegrass) with far fewer skills than I needed to do the same on guitar. The result was that I played a lot of mandolin, and before long I had better skills on mandolin than on guitar. These days I can hold my own in almost any pop context, from "Sweet Home Alabama" to "I Will Survive" to "Summertime," and I'm pretty good at jug-band and tin-pan alley music. I still can't hold a candle to a moderately competent bluegrass mandolinist, and I tell people that, but even my wife didn't believe me before our first trip to Merlefest. We'd been there less than an hour when she turned to me and said "You weren't kidding, were you?"

I sometimes wonder if my motivation for turning to formalism wasn't similar to my motivation for focusing on the mandolin. Smaller pond, you know, and the audience these days knows less about how it's done. Even if that's true, it doesn't bother me: just as with the mandolin, I've worked harder partly because readers and listeners let me know they think I've worked hard. I think I'm beginning to get a fair handle on pentameter and at least a clue about the shorter lines, and I can see a way forward from here. I've even managed a few poems that I think are pretty damned good. I've found a way to work. Thomas Carlyle exaggerated only a little, and for middle class folks like me, perhaps not at all:

The only happiness a brave man ever troubled himself with asking much about was, happiness enough to get his work done. Not "I can't eat!" but "I can't work!" that was all the burden of all wise complaining men.


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