November 18, 2010

after Rolf Jacobsen, “Skytsengelen,” Hemmelig Liv (1954).

I am the spear carrier,
not of any fame, not beloved,
as I would have wished.

I am the messenger,
hurrying from the burnt overland,
hastening towards tomorrow’s sun.

I am the story
of a lengthening past,
too tangled to be well understood.

I am the bloody ink,
flowing in rivers uphill
against the steady gravity of time.

I am the flayed paper,
plastered against self-inflicted wounds,
against the deep longing to forget.

I am the covered boards,
hard pressed against intended thought,
this sorry diary locked in rust forever.

This poem emerged from a brief session led by John Minczeski at the Anderson Center.  It was the day after 9/11 and that calamity was heavy on my mind.  Later included in Poetry And Artist: Collaboration II, Copyright © 2003, the illustrating artist interpreted the poem as though apocalyptic.

For other poems by Roger Sween posted on this blog, see the list on My Poetry.

I welcome substantive comments on this blog.  Send personal comments to

Tempora Labuntur

November 18, 2010

Tempora labuntur, tacitisque senescimus annis, et fugiunt freno non remorante dies.
      —Ovid, Fasti, VI, 771-772.[1]

Remember watery Kronos, that second-generation god,
a titan who devoured all his children, thus all of us,
at last dethroned by his sister-wife, Rhea, our mother.
She gave him a swaddled stone to swallow, not Zeus.
Him she hid until the deposition of one tyrant by another.

Thus the times were born, as antique ancestors say,
and the Ancient of Days became Old Father Time,
cloaked as fondly paternal, no longer voracious.
Bring on the Saturnalia!  Each spent year, reborn,
becomes the next year’s lease.  So goes the lie.
Tempora labuntur:  The times, they slide away.

In Sumer, two millennia gone before the Hellenes
had sense to name themselves and spin creation stories,
some wide-eyed scribes found comfort in the cyclical.
Does not the horizon’s circle surround me, and starry figures
process round to begin again each year upon their start?
Sumer is dust; yet I, as though become one of them, adore
that circle the Sumerians segmented into sixty parts times six.
Tempora labuntur:  The times, they slide away.

Sixty-minute clocks tame time to clicks and blinks,
but we malcontents zoned the earth, established times standard,
and fool ourselves with saving time and killing time.
As all you slaves, I pretend mastery over that shadow god,
King Kronos, at my side, always at the high noontide of now.
Calendars, schedules, almanacs, every time-mangling deception
dupes me into believing I superintend temporality by these tools.
Rather, revengeful time obsesses me even as Bartlett amply shows.
Tempora labuntur:  The times, they slide away.

What lies beyond the slinky toy of time, the ends of which
stretch inexorably backward, onward without discoverable horizons?
Have I not for too long tended fitfully to a time
that fulfills only its own tendency?
Tempora labuntur:  The times, they slide away.

I am become Tantalus, racked between history and mystery.
Time’s plethoric minutia dangle teasingly always beyond my grasp,
condemning me to never gather even the Stoic’s fruited truth?[2]
While at my feet, nothing endures but the rush of this riverine duration.
Tempora labuntur:  The times, they slide away.

[1]   The times slide away as we grow old with silent years; without a restraining bridle, the days escape.

[2] Veritatem dies aperit:  Time discovers the truth.—Seneca, De Ira, II, 22.

Copyright © 2008 by Roger Sween.

For some inward reason, most of my poems deal implicitly with time, but Tempora Labuntur is the most deliberate of them.  Dwelling on the common expression, “time flies,” when traced to its source, I found another meaning to tempora labuntur in Ovid’s Fasti, an extended poem on the holidays of the Roman calendar, that more suited my theme.

Tempora Labuntur first appeared on Helium in 2008, was posted in CeptsForm on Blogspot, 24 Feb. 2009, and moved to WordPress, 18 Nov. 2010.

For other poems by Roger Sween posted on this blog, see the list on My Poetry.

I welcome substantive comments on this blog.  Send personal comments to my email address.


November 18, 2010

A poem for Pat

One day at a time, they say,
Is how you get by;
But I, you know, look ahead
In years, decades, the end of
The century or millennium
To the new generation.

Now that we’re older,
With experience on our bones,
I thought how fast those past
Years went by,
And what seemed so lengthy
Waiting for the treats of time
Has telescoped from this vista
To flashes of focus.

The future is always ours,
The past, too,
One to shape, the other to savor.
The hard part, my dear,
Is to live the present full
In seed, flower, and fruit
As though we are magicians
Of the everlasting now,
Or, at least, upon occasion
Conscious of the moments
That unfold in these little spaces
Between history and promise

Copyright © 2009 by Roger Sween

For other poems by Roger Sween posted on this blog, see the list on My Poetry above.

I wrote this poem some years ago for our wedding anniversary.  Not previously published, “Anniversary” first appeared in CeptsForm on Blogspot, 25 Feb. 2009,  and moved to WordPress, 18 Nov. 2010.

I welcome substantive comments on blog contents.  Send personal comments to

Bill Holm

November 17, 2010

I’ve never been to Minneota, Minnesota, but somehow it has intruded on my life.

My sixth grade teacher (1951-1952) was a young woman, Miss Matthews, whose hometown happened to be Minneota.  She liked to travel a lot and sometimes told stories about being in places like the east coast where people in all innocence asked her if we were still having trouble with the Indian wars.  When she told them she was from Minneota, Minnesota, they laughed; the name itself sounded ridiculous.  I do not remember many specifics of the sixth grade, but that is one of them.

Notice of Minneota went by the wayside over the years, and it was not until around 1970 and living in Platteville Wisconsin that I met up with another connection.  Judy Megorden, our associate pastor’s wife, was also from Minneota.  We and the Megordens got to be very good friends.  Still Minneota in itself remained a remote, unknown place.

More time went by and I was visiting my close college friend, Rolf Erickson, in Evanston.  He was a librarian at Northwestern University, and I often stayed with him when the American Library Association met in Chicago.  Rolf had a huge battery of friends, partially social and partially from his extensive endeavors on behalf of Norwegian-American studies.  On that occasion, we were invited to dinner with some of his friends and acquaintances, three of whom were editors at Scott-Foresman Publishing Company.  In the course of dinner conversation, the host trotted out a magazine – either Atlantic or Harpers – and proceeded to read aloud the story or article about life in a small town, Minneota, and its characters.  The editor was from there, as was the author, someone named Bill Holm. 

The hilarity of the piece made two things clear.  Bill Holm was a gifted writer who made the seemingly mundane come alive.  A tiny town of a thousand or fewer, like Minneota, had as much to offer as New York City, however different they may be in particulars.  I kick myself now that I did not follow-up on the spot.

More years flow by.  In the fall of 1988, the Minnesota Library Association was meeting in Rochester.  While I was involved in the session “How Do Librarians Lead?” the Reader’s Advisory Round Table sponsored “Meet the Author” with Bill Holm, who talked about his new book, a collection of essays called Prairie Days.  I had to miss him.  However, as some of us ate lunch together, Tom Scott, Director of Plum Creek Regional Library System, called Bill Holm to come over and eat with us.  Not only did Plum Creek encompass Minneota in its region, but Tom Scott was a great promoter of Minnesota literature and had involved Bill Holm in some of the region’s program offerings. 

So here was Bill Holm in the flesh, over six feet tall and impressively big, with a resonant voice and quick to give his views.  In minutes he had a book out and was thumping it at is.  “You must read this book,” he championed, and began reading us a section that was truly magnetic.  The book was The Cape Ann, by Faith Sullivan, who at the time lived in Los Angeles where her husband was a critic for the Times.  Holmes may have known her from the Sullivans’ earlier years in Minnesota to which they would shortly thereafter return.  I had now witnessed Bill Holm at his irrepressible best; or, so I thought.

Bill Holm, split his writing time with teaching at Southwest State University in Marshall, Minnesota.  SWSU had been founded in the latter years of my college career, just 30 miles down the road from my hometown.  I was familiar with Marshall thanks to my uncle Odin Berge and his family who lived there most of the years I was growing up.  If I had been older and had my MALS by then, I would have tried to get a library job there.  But I was soon elsewhere.

Bill Holm had taught a year in China, 1986-1987, something I did not know until I heard him speak at a meeting of the Minnesota Association of Library Friends in 1989.  He had a book coming out on his China experience and his talk was a wondrous mixture of the depth of Chinese culture, its intrinsic difference from our own, and the repression of ideas that the government held over everyday life.  At one point, he even smuggled ancient Chinese classics from Singapore into China for his students.  When I returned to my job at the state library agency, my first self-assigned task was to seek the possibility of getting Holm’s talk published by our office.  “Book Smuggling” came out in Minnesota Libraries.

By 1989, I had become involved in the Minnesota Book Awards.  After the Awards second year’s program, that fall, the committee decided it would work best to hold the event in the spring, and annually thereafter.  Among the 1989-1990 nominees in the Biography category was Holm’s book Coming Home Crazy: an alphabet of China essays.  The book received the award.

He autographed our copy of the book – “For Pat Sween and Roger too!  Best regards from Minneota, Bill Holm.”  I was now a full-fledged Bill Holm fan with more was still to come.

Bill Holm was coming to Red Wing for a performance at the Sheldon Auditorium, and the worry of the organizers was the challenge of filling the 400-seat theater.  I volunteered to help popularize the event which including writing an encouraging letter to the Republican Eagle that promised an event not to be missed.  The place was packed, certainly due to the momentum Holm already gained in his career from appearing on Prairie Home Companion and other Minnesota Public Radio Spots.  His torrent of fans swarmed in from all along the coulees of the Mississippi River Valley.  The show was a non-stop delight.

Bill Holm gave a one-man performance that came on full force.  He read his poetry and some choice poems of other poets.  He told stories and anecdotes.  At times, he harangued the audience over politics, but jovially or with irony, always with the staying suggestion that we could be better than we are.  He sang and played the grand piano with pieces ranging from J.S. Bach to jazz.  I thought that though Minnesota is well-blessed with poets, and Robert Bly has the regard of the nation, likely no other Minnesota poet is as loved and popular as Bill Holm.

Later in the season when the Friends of the Red Wing Public Library wanted to start a book discussion group, I volunteered to facilitate a discussion of Coming Home Crazy.  Scarcely a dozen people came, all women if I remember correctly.  I compared this hardy core with the packed house at the Sheldon and thought of Holm’s view that we have too much entertainment and not enough enlightenment.

In 1997, Holm received his second Minnesota Book Award for The Heart May Be Filled Anywhere in the World: Minneota, Minnesota, which also received that night the John R. Flanagan Award for contributions to the literature of the Midwest.  He commented in his acceptance how he appreciated living in a state where the citizens held books, reading and poetry in such high regard.  Even politicians did, he said, as he mentioned in particular, former Governor Elmer Andersen, a noted collector, and former Senator Eugene McCarthy, a respected poet.  After the tenth Awards program in 1998, I discontinued my association with the Minnesota Book Awards.  Other work assignments had overcome me, and I had begun to plan and prepare for the day I would leave employment in 2000.

That did not mean that I lost all contact with the Minnesota community of the book, as we fondly called ourselves.  Besides, I did see Bill Holm one final time.

The state convention of the American Association of University Women met in Willmar in April of 2007.  The evening entertainment featured Bill Holm, a program that was open to the public, piano and all.  He exuded the usual energy, but seemed to be suffering from a cold.  He looked flushed and sweaty.  The program was necessarily shorter than that glorious night at the Sheldon had been, but he ran through his usual shtick with the addition of tales related to his ancestral home, Iceland, where he had purchased a house on the island’s northern edge.  I remain amazed about that evening in the number of people he knew in the audience and with whom he bantered even calling to them by name.

I always thought that Bill Holm gave himself to life more recklessly than I ever would or could.  We may amplify our own life through the lives of others, but especially poets and other artists.  I worried that he did not take care of himself as he in so revelatory a fashion leaped into the full flight of daily experience.  I knew that he had heart trouble.  Nevertheless, it was a shocking surprise when I learned yesterday as I drove back to Red Wing from Owatonna that upon a return from performing in Arizona, he had died on Wednesday, 26 February 2009, only 65 years old. 

Once, I had seen Bill Holm at two events within one week.  When he saw me in the audience at the second, he said, “Roger, what are you doing here?  Haven’t you had enough?”

“I’m a Bill Holm groupie,” I said.  He was not enough for me.

 The Boxelder Bug Prays

I want so little
For so little time,
A south window,
A wall to climb,
The smell of coffee,
A radio knob,
Nothing to eat,
Nothing to rob,
Not love, not power,
Not even a penny.
Forgive me only
For being so many.
Boxelder Bug Variations, © 1985, page 10.

Copyright © 2009 by Roger Sween.

Bill Holm appeared in CeptsForm on Blogspot, 28 Feb. 2009, and moved to WordPress, 17 Nov. 2010.

I welcome substantive comment on the contents of this blog.  Send personal comments to me at


November 17, 2010

What I Want from My Life

A Matter of Definition

For most of my conscious life, I have wanted to know, to pursue ideas, to achieve something significant and lasting, and to write.  All these desires interrelate, weaving together.  Whether any accomplishment actually followed these desires plagues me.  Life satisfies me in its modicum of compromises at far greater measure than imagined in my romantic youth.  I have become bourgeois in habit, a likely good citizen, but not with the original creativity once craved to the point of idiosyncrasy.

Neither do I feel I accomplished much in my 40-year profession in library and information services.  I know I developed my skills and understanding and used them to give pertinent and reliable public service as a reference librarian and library director as well as learning direction and coaching in librarianship when an undergraduate and graduate instructor and professor.  Yet, I always felt myself to be the principal beneficiary of what I experienced and learned.

As a library consultant and grant administrator, I was never in alignment with the prevailing assumptions and practices of my colleagues.  Although I thought I played a pivotal role in the development of library services, I now view that nothing from those days lasts in the way I then envisioned it.

As a result, any hope for success has become a matter of personal satisfaction as though I now return to the romantic idea of egoism that had so captivated me when I was a teenager and college student.  Ideals still command my attention, and if I am to achieve any measure of success, I must to be faithful to them: the best in art, equality in life, learning as our vocation, the work in life of making the ideal into the real.  Thus far in my ideational world, I am not satisfied that I have done my part to further any of these matters.

What remains for me to do in my latter years?  I do not care for wealth, fame, notice or recognition.  I crave conversation that transcends the phatic but find it rare if not impossible.  I seek thinking that is rational, reflective, self-critical and discerning but find it not only rare and self-justifying at best, but a slave to emotion at worst and seemingly smothering amidst the distractions of contemporary life.  I find enjoyment and the reassurance of human competence in the endeavors of my creative forbearers and cumulative heritage of the past in the arts, in philosophy and science, in the expansion of knowledge and the ceaseless quest for it, and in the potentials of the human brain and mind.

Success for me is to make the most of my situation and opportunities according to my highest values.

What in Life Is Most Important?

I want to gain understanding and share it.
I want to do something good, worthwhile, and basic.
I want to leave something lasting at the end of my life.

Ten instances when I felt the most competent, confident, connected, and joyous:
(Dates are approximate.  In areas marked *, I served multiple roles as researcher, consultant, facilitator, author, editor, and publisher.)

  1. 1968 – Development of a methodology for teaching reference services based upon real questions, a core of 100 most frequently useful resources, and the practice of question negotiation to the accurate and efficient satisfaction of the questioner.
  2. 1969 – “Lyman Beecher and the Lane Seminary Controversy,” a research paper submitted in the course on Puritanism in the graduate program on intellectual history at the University of Iowa.
  3. 1980 – Completion of the novel Phaeton Flight, the story of Frederic Hanreid, an information professional, and Prince Henry Cadly (afterwards Henry II) set in early 39th century Loria.
  4. 1984 – Completion of the novel The Rodi.  Vodar (afterwards Vodarodi I) discovers his unique place in the history of the Seidonese people; he becomes in his early twenties the founder of Loria, 3000.
  5. *1988 – Completion of background and issues papers for the Minnesota Governor’s Pre-White House Conference on Library and Information Services.
  6. *1997 – Development of the criteria and application process for awarding Minnesota technology grants to library systems.
  7. *1998 – Development of the Long Range Plan and application process for federal Library Services and Technology Act funds.
  8. *1999 – Development of the document on the recommended approach to and procedures for the establishment of co-located public and school library services.
  9. 2002-2006 – Service as Administrative Assistant to the State Board of the American Association of University Women – Minnesota under two state presidents.
  10. 2007 – Completion of the story “Inheritance.”  Louisa Enders at 13 years travels with her two very different grandmothers and learns her actual ancestry as an American, the same summer WWI begins.  Intended as Chapter 1 of Progress about the life of small town public librarian through the 20th century.

Five people I most admire, and whose traits I would like to have:

  1. William Shakespeare, 1564-1616.  No one is superior to Shakespeare in the revealing poetry of language; even his “minor” plays are major to me.  He never disappoints but grows in esteem with every renewed experience of his work.
  2. Gordon Sween, 1911-1980.  My father, who led a seemingly ordinary life, has become an exemplar for me due to his self-directed learning, rationality, sense of discipline, family loyalty, and exercise of responsibility.
  3. Frederic Bolton, dates unknown.  Dr. Bolton was one of my religion professors at St. Olaf College.  A student of Reinhold Niebuhr at Princeton, Bolton influenced me with his thoughtful and rigorous approach to Christianity and Christian theology while being honestly critical, but kind and encouraging to a youngster struggling to come to grips with the intellectus quarens fidem (understanding seeking faith) issue.
  4. Ursula K. Le Guin, born 1929.  No contemporary author has written so elegantly and meaningfully for me and my interests in as consistent and beautifully articulate a fashion as has Le Guin.  I rejoice that I once heard her in person when she said in reference to The Dispossessed, “I want everyone arguing and discussing over the meaning of what I wrote,” or words to that effect.
  5. Patricia Anne Worringer Sween, born 1939.  Patty continually impresses me with her understanding of other people, her generosity, and her evenness of temper and gracious tact in dealing with all whom she encounters.

Ranking of ten value areas:

At my stage of development, 70 years old this year in a life of reflection considering what lasts and what transpires, value areas do not mean what they meant to me at earlier stages.  I cannot rank them first to last (1 – 10) appropriate to my current stage and for other various reasons; instead, I group them.

A. Faith in a higher power.  This area is by theological definition of ultimate concern, yet faith, being the work of God in us, exists without my wanting, willing, or working for it.  Ranking here perpetuates a falsity.

B. The areas harder to attain are all of equal high importance to me: Fulfilling relationships, individual accomplishments, making a difference in the lives of others, and legacy (understood as leaving some work significant and lasting).

C. The lesser areas cluster to the bottom.
7. Health I seem to have by virtue of inheritance and caution; that is, I am lucky and careful.  I do not obsess over my health and know that I will die, probably after a long time, probably soon.
8. Wealth, since I am comfortable with enough already.
9. Fame I regard as shallow and transitory.
10. Fun I regard as even more shallow and insubstantial in the ultimate scheme of things.

My plans for success in 2010:

I will attend more intentionally to how I spend my time on my primary ambitions.  I will track my time and quantify it in regards to a schedule I currently regard as ideal in order to hold myself more accountable in aiming for greater success than I have had and thereby attain my chosen ends.

My ideal schedule of a 16-hour waking day has the following areas in priority order.  I will try to sleep eight hours out of every 24 even though that is not often the case.

1. Major writing – 4 hours.  This year I will finish the first draft of At Last, I Depart.  In this novel, Lady Frivovla of Allonor grows from an innocent devotion to her sense of duty into a self-directing and successful champion of her own life.  She becomes in time the consort of Vodarodi II King Loria and the progenitor of all the following monarchs for its ensuing thousand-year history.

2. Study/Pre-writing – 3 hours.  This year I will do the work necessary to establish the bases for two controversial equity issues: one is the ministry of same-gender couples in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the other concerns mission-based membership in the American Association of University Women.

3. Reading – 3 hours.  I will read to completion more novels and other books than I finished in 2009.

4. Organization – 2 hours.  I will gain a “house cleaning” and orderly control of my book collection and other files and prepare for the likeliness of moving to a different dwelling and possibly different city.

5. Miscellaneous – 4 hours.  These four hours are the elastic cushion for all the routine and irregular instances of life that one must do or are more difficult to anticipate and control. 

Note: I assume that most weekends and holidays fall outside the ideal schedule since these days are more interruptible because they invite both travel and interaction with others, chiefly family.

Copyright © 2010 by Roger Sween.

I am indebted to Dr. Daniel G. Amen, Magnificent Mind at Any Age (2008), especially chapter 10, “Make Your Own Miracles,” for guidance in thinking through this issue.

I welcome all comments to blog articles.  For personal comments to me, send to

What is Poetry?

November 16, 2010

Poetry is what poets do.

I do not mean that poetry can be anything.  Rather, poetry has been alive since remote ancient times and cannot be all one thing.  Poets may follow the rules, styles or forms of the time, but poets and devotees of language always push at the envelope of what constitutes poetry.  Repeatedly, poetry becomes something additional to what it was before.

The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (1993), billed as the most comprehensive guide to world poetry, contains 1381 pages of text on this subject.  Those pages cover about 1,000 articles running from brief notices to 20,000 words.  One hundred six entries appear on national poetries but none on individual poets.

An article, you can see, seeking to define poetry amidst its great diversity must stick to the highlights.

We recognize poetry by its characteristics, none of which hold true in all cases.  Poetry is an artifice of language by which the poet aims to say more than the words themselves literally convey.  Poetry, an art that works best aloud, having originated in oral traditions and often sung, makes the happiest of alignments.  The poet renders vision in the most apt wods with resonance of sound, rhythm, surface and connotative meanings, subtext and sensation that together realize an enlightening combination of aesthetic, emotional and intellectual response.  Of course, few poets achieve this in all or most cases.

Poetry predominates among literary forms for most of human history.  Though the bulk of ancient literature is lost, we find poetry at the beginning.  The Sumerian epic, Gilgamesh, from the dawn of lierature, has returned to us, its first fragments not discovered until 1850 in the ruins of Nineveh.  Dozens of poets have made translations to resurrect its power; more will come.  Sappho’s lyric poety, existing almost entirely in scraps, still exhilarates and places her reputation, not only in the highest ranks, but also as the creator of romantic love.  The oldest, extant play based on historical events, Aeschylus’ The Persians, contains these lines in the opening chorus (Benadette translation, 1956).

For the king’s return
With his troops of gold
Doom is the omen
In my heart convulsed,
As it whines for its master;
For all Asia is gone:
To the city of Persians
Neither a herald nor horseman returns.

Does not this tragedy of war resound for us today?

Poetry eixists in an abundance of forms from the exquisitely minute and structured to prolix narratives.  The poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, wrote her novel Aurora Leigh (1856) as a poem.  At almost 11,000 lines, Aurora Leigh outruns the lengths of both the Odyssey and Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Her story of the making of a woman poet, both literate and lievely, earned contemporary praise for its spontaneity and critics today still consider it one of Mrs. Browning’s major achievements.  Perhaps, we need to read it more than is the fashion.

At issue is where poetry comes from.  Ancients saw poetry as a gift of the gods, particularly the Muses in classical times.  The Renaissance revived that tradition and nods to the spirit of the mythic origins continue to this day.  In parallel fashion, God appears as the one who inspires.  The oldest Biblical text, determined by antiquity of language, is the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15.21), a poem of Miriam, Moses’ sister.  With the advent of psychology, we see the locus of inspiration shifted from exterior genius to interior anima or spirit, that is, the subconscious.

Doubtless, conscious choice has much to do with shaping poems, but poetry depends upon well-tuned appreciation so that poets discover their poems as well as make them.  Poets will say, as I do here, ‘This poem happened to me.’

Old Norn sisters, were you ever young,
Hearts and fingers full of flirtation,
Fair flowers in your flaxen hair,
Stumming and piping, cooing sweet songs,
Borrowed from bird and breeze?

Were your eyes wide for the world,
Looking on sunnyside hopes,
Strong armed men at ease with life,
Friends close as sisters, exciting as strangers,
Chosen work knitting home and future into one?

Did you ever love another – hunter or hero,
Shepherd or sailor, farmer or forest sprite,
Alert and strong from kisses and brushes of skin or
Well-chosen roses, hearts grown large,
Thoughts carefree, sure of the good?

Or, were you always old, gnarled in life,
As so many of us, full of romance
In the inward eye, wishing and musing,
But alone, learning pessimism and the power of heavy
Undefeatable fate?

With so much to choose from and so much encouragement to innovate, would-be poets will still do well to regard poetry as a craft, if not an art, and immerse themselves in the poetry of others.  The Robert Graves and Laura Riding argument in A Pamphlet Against Anthologies can convince us to read the work of of poets singly, book by book.  Yet specialty anthologies of selectively chosen poems by several poets do serve a number of  other purposes, one of which is to start aspiring poets on the road to reading oustanding versification.  The excellence works to illustate what is possible and move us to set out own sandards for ourselves.

Sometimes even good old Homer nods, Horace opines in Ars Poetica, line 359.  Let us take this to mean we can all do better.
First published on Helium, Copyright © 2008, and here revised.  The poem “Old Norn Sisters” appeared in Poetic Strokes, v.2, Copyright © 2000.

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Read in 2010

November 15, 2010

Books Read Entire, Listed Chronologically

Updated 17 June 2013. This post is updated as I return to discussing my reading.

Ratings given follow the system established for the Red Wing Area Branch (AAUW) Book Club: 5-best; 4-top 20%, 3-middling, 2-less than average, 1-bottom. Other designations appear as BC – Branch Book Club selections. SF – Stratford Festival plays. YA-Title written for teenage or younger readers.

John Hassler, The New Woman (2005). BC.  Hassler was a Minnesotan through and through, one of the states most popular authors. By popular, I mean he attracted large audiences to his readings. I was fortunate to hear him three times over a 15 year period and to have a conversation with him at the last. He was in charge of those presentations, assured and practiced in his delivery, but also modest about his accomplishments. Hassler wrote from a common background as though somewhere in the midst of the state; one series of his novels revolve around the city of Staggerford and its residents. Agatha McGee is one civic leader who appeared as a side figure in Staggerford (1977) where in Hassler’s words, “she took over” and went on to star in novels of her own – A Green Journey (1985) and Dear James (1993). Miss McGee returns in this one, eighty-eight in 1998.

A couple of bad turns in Agatha’s life move her to leave her big house on the river. She tries and then settles into Sunset Senior Apartments alongside some old friends and many strangers.  Even though Hassler claimed to have given up short stories, this novel seems like three of them knit together.  Agatha misses a diamond brooch she thinks stolen; she shelters a kidnapped child despite the law and her conscience, and she helps form a support group for the depressed.  The overall plot unrolls Agatha’s internal life, and this is where Hassler excels; he is a master of characterization and stories that follow from character.  Agatha, used to being in charge as a teacher and Catholic school principal, exercising her deep respect for tradition and morality even over the resident priest becomes for readers someone more than her apparent past.

Now, I want to read the other novels. 4

*Ursula K. Le Guin, Powers (2007).  After Gifts (xxx) and Voices (xxx), this novel is the third in Le Guin’s series Annals of the Western Shore.  Though I am a devoted fan of Le Guin, who has long inspired me, these books were previously unknown to me.  I read Powers at once, savoring every word. Le Guin has said that “in art, the best is the standard,” and she endeavors to fulfill that aesthetic.

In her novels such as The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed (1974), Le Guin contrasts different cultures with one another. In Powers, young Gavir experiences one culture after another.  Gav and his older sister Sullo had been taken by slavers from their distant home and raised in the household of Arcamand, a patrician family of Etra, a city state, one among many. Their teacher was a slave who passed on his conservative learning and traditional understanding to Gavir so that the Arcas could provide continuing schooling for the children, both of the family and slaves.  As a house slave, Gavir had opportunity to devote himself to learning and relationships within the household.

Suddenly the dark underside of slavery descends upon Gavir.  His sister drowns, apparently due to sexual games of the young lords of the town.  Overwrought with grief, Gavir wanders away witlessly and would have perished were it not for a barbaric hermit who shelters him.  Afterwards Gavir spends time with a band of slaves, then as the seeming favorite of Barna’s band, Heart of the Forest.  Barna advocates freedom for all, but acts otherwise as the man in control.  Gavir moves on once again in quest of his origins, finds his own people, but realizes he is not one of them and seeks once more for a home that satisfies.

Ostensibly a fantasy because of the power of visioning the future, Le Guin uses each vivid setting and complex relationship of characters to illuminate the powers of self-discovery and identification. All this in the most excellent prose. 5, or close to it.

Copyright © 2010 by Roger Sween.

*Given to me by Cy Chauvin, who shares my taste in novels and well-knows what I like.


First appearing as Read in 10 in Ceptsform on Blogspot, the post moved as Read in 2010 to WordPress, 15 Nov. 2010.

I welcome all comments to blog articles. For personal comments to me, send to my email address.

Read in 2009

November 15, 2010

Books Read Entire, Listed Chronologically

Ratings given follow the system established for the Red Wing Area Branch (AAUW) Book Club: 5-best; 4-top 20%, 3-middling, 2-less than average, 1-bottom.    Other designations appear as BC – Branch Book Club selections.  SF – Stratford Festival plays.  YA-Title written for teenage or younger readers.

Will Weaver, Memory Boy (2006).  YA.   After a massive volcanic eruption in which civilization begins to crack, Miles, a teenage boy, and his family leave the Twin Cities in the hope of more security in northern Minnesota.  Miles’ past experiences, as recalled, help them on to a safer place. 3

Sandra Dallas, The Persian Pickle Club (1993).  BC.  The Pickles are not your typical quilting club; or, are they?  They’ve been meeting so long in Harveyville, Kansas that by the dirty thirties days of the Great Depression, they have some second generation members.  Queenie, who tells the story is one, and Rita, her opposite – a sophisticate from Denver – is a newcomer.  Rita tries to settle in, but discovered bones of a murdered man divert her attention to solving the crime.  Characters of the quilters, however, take prominence and Rita learns far more than she expected.  A very delightful book.  4

Cormac MCarthy, The Road (2006).  Few books are as gripping and excellently written as this one.  The story of a unnamed man and his young son heading south in hopes of escaping an apocalytptic winter takes the breath away by sheer power of suggestive language and the horror of incident after incident.  Though the premise is the same as Memory Boy above, McCarthy puts that naive book to shame.  One of the best, an absolute 5.  The film, later seen, pales in comparison to the gripping tension and artistic creation of forbodding in the book.

Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007).  BC.  Two Afghani women, differing in age by a generation, background and early experience, find their fortunes come together in the brutal days of the Taliban.  I grew amazed how Hosseini, with only The Kite Runner to his credit, could master this compelling story with such command and meaning.  The richness of Afghanistan’s history, peoples and poetic culutre comes through alongside the poverty and brutality.  4

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813; edited by Vivien Jones, 1996).  BC.  For years I put off reading Austen, whom I judged wrote for women.  It took broadcasting her novels to get me going and realize how accomplished, insightful, and satiric she was.  I think of Persuasion as her most accomplished novel until I read Sense and Sensibility or Pride and Prejudice that also jostle for first place.  Her books always seem to be about money or the lack of it and the necessity of marriage for women who are not willing to settle for just anything.  But they are all about character of which no two individuals are ever alike. 5, of course.

Avi, Crispin: the cross of lead (2002).  YA.  In the time of Edward III, the high middle ages of 14th century England, Asta’s son, known later as Crispin, finds himself not only orphaned but a public enemy and on the run.  Puzzled and afraid, Crispin barely survives on his own until taken under the wing of Bear.  This independent and enterprising older man helps him onward to further adventures and confident acceptance of himself.  Too much razzle-dazzle for me.  3 

Avi, Crispin: at the edge of the world (2006).  YA.  As Crispin and Bear continue their precipitous flight from the feudal powers after them, I thought all would be resolved and Crispin would gain not only ability with his knowledge and self-acceptance, but some restoration of his rightful place in society would follow.  Instead, much time is spent in the rescue of the mysterious girl, Troth.  Disappointing.  3

Beryl Markham, West with the Night (1983; first published 1942).  BC.  Markham was the first person to fly across the Atlantic, east to west, before Lindberg flew first west to east.  We hardly ever hear of her, yet she was famous in her own day.  Growing up motherless in Africa where her father raised horses, she pursued her own education and interests and in mature years wrote of them.  That writing is fantastic, vivid, arresting and beautiful.  We learn of lion attacks, native wisdom, majestic racehorses, and the awesome grandeur of piloting through the bush.  A stunning book, worthy of much greater attention.  5

Karen Cushman, Catherine, called Birdie (1994).  YA.  Catherine is the spoiled teenage daughter of a feudal lord who does everything she can to avoid being married off to an old baron against her will.  She tells her own story by running comments on the calendar’s day by day designation of which saint it remembers.  The book is jaunty and often silly.  I wished Catherine would get more of a grip on life instead of being saved by a deus ex machina at the end.  Though a Newberry Honor Book, I give it a 2.

Karen Cushman, The Midwife’s Apprentice (1995).  YA.  Brat, latter called Beetle, is as feisty as Catherine but slowly becomes more estimable.  She begrudges her poor situation but finally by observation and clever initiative takes on more worth.  It’s a slow process, but a quick read.  This Newberry Medal Book gets a 3 from me.

Karen Cushman, Matilda Bone (2000).  YA.  Matilda is as oblivious of her station as Catherine and as slow to wake up as Beetle,  but goes through the same slow progress.  The medieval setting, which is why I read these books, comes through here, primarily regarding the primitive and nonsensical practice of medicine.  3, begrudgingly.

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Children of Hurin (2007).  Tolkien’s son, Christopher, has a lot to do with the restoration of his father’s work in sequencing more fully the legends and tales antecedent to The Lord of the Rings.  This story, though appearing sketchily in The Simalrilian and Tales appears here as a novel.  It has the ring of Tolkien’s awesome prose and proceeds as continuous high tragedy.  I liked the pace and style of it as the unfortunate Turin works through Morgoth’s curse upon him and all his family.  4

Doris Lessing, The Grass is Singing (1950).  BC.  This was Lessing’s first novel and the first one I have read.  I was surprised how good it is.  We know the outcome from the beginning, but we don’t know why.  By filling in the great blank of motivation and misunderstanding, Lessing captures our attention and interest into the complex of character, station, aspiration and regret between the Rhodesian farmer, his sorry wife, and the black servant who tends to her.  4

William Shakespeare, Macbeth (ca. 1606; Mowat & Werstine, 1992).  SF.  I had not read Macbeth since senior year in high school nor ever seen it acted.  However, we were going to see it at Stratford, and coincidentally the St. Olaf College President, a former English Professor, invited class reunion planners to his seminar on the play.  The discussion of the Macbeths and their motivations increased our interest.  In this read, Macbeth appeared to quickly fall to temptation while his Lady obsessed over it until her own doom foreshadows his due end.  5

Edmond Rostand, Cyrano [de Bergerac](1897 ; Burgess, 1998).  SF.  One of my long-time favorites, seen only previously on film and television versions.  This more complete script makes greater sense, especially of Roxanne showing up at the battlefront and of Cyrano’s death scene.  5

Jean Racine, Phèdre (1677; Rawlings, 1961).  SF.  Contrary to Euripides’ Hippolytus and Renault’s The Bull from the Sea, where Phaedra otherwise schemes, here Christian conscience wracks her, only understandable by knowing the influence of Jansenism on Racine.  Consequently, because of all the handwringing, I did not care for it as much.  4

Anton Chekhov, Three Sisters (1901; Dunnigan, 1964).  SF.  I must have seen this some years ago because I vaguely remember it.  It is reminiscent of Cherry Orchard in setting and interpersonal dynamics but a different story.  Chekhov’s technique in these dramas was to tell an unrelenting story of stressful changes over time propelled by action that happens off stage.  The power of a Chekhov play grows on you with reflection though it was never fun to read or watch.  5

Robert Lawson, Mr. Revere and I (1981; 1st published 1953).  YA.  On his famous ride, Paul Revere rode a horse named Scheherazade.  At first, she is the very proper British horse of a foppish regimental officer.  Through rough circumstances, Scheherazade becomes a member of the Revere family.  She tells all.  Though her prim voice continues, her attitudes change over time as she begins to see the merits of the colonists and their revolution.  One of the best YA novels and historical send-ups I have ever read, and very delightful.  5

Edward F. Droge, Your Intelligence Makeover (2005).  Droge, who eventually earned a doctorate, began as a poor student.  Now he lauds learning and in this book proposes easy steps to demonstrate it.  I found the book seriously flawed in concept and execution, starting with the diagnostic tests to gauge areas of strength and weakness. I read it because books of this kind appeal to me, but I cannot recommend it.  2

Burn this Book; edited by Toni Morrison (2009).  Intellectual freedom is one of my primary interests, and when I saw this brand new book already remaindered for $4.00, I bought it at once.  According to the subtitle eleven “PEN writers speak out on the power of the word.”  They may be our shining lights – John Updike, Orhan Pamuk, Nadine Gordimer, etc. – but their contributions – mostly new with some older – are uneven, some with factual errors, some flat, some without much relevance.  Considering all he went through with a fatwa on him, Salman Rushdie’s seemed weak.  The exception was Russell Banks, “Notes on Literature and Engagement,” who contrasts novels of social influence with novels of insight thanks to authorial identity, a quality not to be sacrificed to public expectation.  3

Michael St. John Parker, The World of Charles Dickens (1999).  This is really just a pamphlet, but amazingly informative in a few thousand words and apt illustrations.  I think you would have to go to London to buy a copy; I was lucky that a friend made the trip and gave it to us.  4

Daniel G. Amen, Magnificent Mind at Any Age (2008).  I read this in preparation for a session on brain research, but Amen has a lot to him.  Magnetic resonance imaging has advanced recent brain science by allowing us to see activity inside the skull that we could approach before  largely by introspection or behavioral observation.  He tells the basis of his research, most of which gets at dysfunctions, but the bulk is solid advice for healthy living, brain development, and continued learning – all with “skills, not pills.”  I put a chapter of this book to work in my article “Success.”  4

Sandra Dallas, The Diary of Mattie Spenser (1997).  BC.  The discovery of a pioneer woman’s diary in Territorial Colorado leads to following her life over her first two years there.  Then her aged granddaughter’s perspective gives satisfying context to what happened after.  Mattie emerges as a spirited woman with high hopes from marriage and a new life.  Hardship follows, but Mattie persists where many of the women and some of the men of her acquaintance do not.  Children die; men go wayward, but Mattie survives.  Dallas is excellent at character with engaging stories and convincing background.  4

Edmund Cooper, The Overman Culture (1972). Michael Faraday and his classmates live in a contrived world, populated with figures from the past.  Not only are the children named after historic figures with Queen Victoria and Winston Churchill their contemporaries, but war with the Germans goes on somewhere outside their shell.  Gradually, Michael and his chums determine they are flesh and blood while their parents, teachers and others are “drybones,” entities that cannot bleed.  Their discovery of an abandoned library takes them farther on the path to learning the wider context to human existence.  Not until their persistence leads to a confrontation is all explained.  3

Edmund Cooper, The Cloud Walker (1973).  Humanity has been to the brink of self-inflicted extinction twice before.  In the third age of humankind, Kieron struggles against the luddite ethos that endeavors to avoid the same past progression that leads to annihilation.  Apprenticed as an artist, Kieron dreams of flying and experiments with kites and balloons.  Only protection from his feudal lord keeps him from an inquisition’s imprisonment and worse.  And only after Kieron’s tactical advantage of balloon-borne bombs ruin a fleet of pirate invaders does the course of history alter once again.  3

Edmund Cooper, Five to Twelve (1968).  Dion Quern, born in 2025, rebels against the order of his world.  A quirk of late 20th century feminism and attendant birth control has led not only to twelve female births for every five males, but a shift in power.  Women are in charge and that power gives them control of longevity drugs.  Dion is caught while burgling a woman’s apartment, but Juno likes his spirit and keeps him on as a sport for sex and then as a contracted partner because she loves him.  Dion is never happy about his situation; he falls into plots against the female establishment, and bickers with Juno throughout the novel.  Only when he has been brainwashed for all his crimes and without memory of his past does he experience a glimmer of future change.  3

For a further analysis of these three Cooper novels, click on Edmund Cooper.


Copyright © 2010 by Roger Sween.

First appearing as Read in 09 in CeptsForm on Blogspot, 7 Jan. 2010, the article moved as Read in 2009 to WordPress, 15 Nov. 2010.

I welcome all comments to blog articles.  For personal comments to me, send to

Read in 2008

November 15, 2010

Books Read Entire, Listed Chronologically

Note: The ratings given follow one’s used in a book club: 5-best; 4-top 20%, 3-middling, 2-less than average, 1-bottom.  Abbreviations used include: BC – Book Club selections.  SF – Stratford Festival plays.  YA-Title written for teenage or younger readers.

Amy Ephron, One Sunday Morning (2005).  BC.  Though compared to Edith Wharton sendups on the social elites of 19th century New York society, I found this brief novel shallow, stupid, and boring. 1

Penelope Lively, The Photograph (2003).  Gift*  A landscape historian finds a picture of his deceased wife holding hands with her sister’s husband.  He does not rest until he discovers what was going on.  This quest starts a chain reaction among all those involved.  Excellent treatment of character and manners.  4

Diane Lee Wilson, I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade (1998).  YA.  A young Mongol girl, fascinated with riding and horses, impersonates a boy and by chance is trusted with carrying a secret message to the great Kublai Khan in China.  A well done historical.  4

Brian Aldiss, The Dark Light Years (1964).  Though I had read the short story that spawned this science fiction novella, the story intrigued me all over again.  Aldiss is profound in contrasting human assumptions with alien existence.  5

Ayn Rand, …Answers (2005).  Since Rand’s death, her executors have resurrected a number of unintended books from recordings made of her speaking off the cuff.  This one organizes by topic her responses from question and answer sessions following formal speeches.  Though Rand was an early influence on my life, and although some of her answers are stimulating, many show her as extreme, violent, merely opinionated, and irritated.  I take this collection in its chance randomness as revelatory about Rand but lacking in sufficient overall context.  Valuable to students of Rand but cannot be rated due to its peculiar incompleteness.

Louise Erdrich, The Painted Drum (2005).  BC.  Though Erdrich is a noted Minnesota author, this book is the first of hers I have finished, so I take that as a sign that it is easier.  An authentic native drum so captivates an appraiser of antiquities that she steals it from the estate.  The magic of the drum haunts her until it brings its own return to its place of origin.  A beautiful story that crosses half the U.S., generations, and peoples also, thereby, fascinates.  4

Alfred Duggan, Growing Up in Thirteenth Century England (1962).  YA.  Duggan treats a microcosm of Edward I’s time by profiles of the teenage children in three upper class families.  Perhaps this makes sense since these had the most options, but I would have liked to see something more bourgeois. A clear picture of feudalism emerges, most of it comparatively grim.  4

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Heat and Dust (1975).  BC.  An English woman in colonial India finds her life suffocating and to escape it spends more and more time in the palace of the local prince to disastrous results.  I had expected more, but the story turned very flat.  2  Another novel with a similar theme, The Holder of the World (1993), by Bharati Mukherjee, I found far superior because of its meaningful merit and evocative movement.  Give that one a 4.5.

George Bernard Shaw, Caesar and Cleopatra (1900).  SF.  Though straying from the historical, Shaw’s comedy of the aging Caesar mentoring the teenage Cleopatra is a joyous romp of satire in the face of puritan traditions and illuminates the true worth of magistracy.  5

Lope de Vega, Fuente Ovejuna (1619).  SF.  Previously unknown to me, the prolific maker of Spanish classical drama, regarded in Spain as second to Cervantes in their literature, was a later contemporary of Shakespeare.  In this play, the residents of the village “Sheep’s Well,” rise against their vicious feudal overlord and kill him.  All face death until the clement understanding of Ferdinand and Isabella reprieve them.  As insightful to the time of its setting and time of its writing as any Shakespeare drama.  4

William Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost (1598).  SF  Of interest to me is how Shakespeare’s minor plays, some of them very neglected, are so fascinatingly wonderful.  LLL is a courtly piece in which the King of Navarre and three of his fellows swear off women in order to devote themselves to study.  Then arrive the Princess of France and three of her women.  As the principals match up, the women test the seriousness of the men’s interest and find them faithless.  A messenger intrudes with the report of the King of France’s death; the Princess is now Queen, contrary to all history.  So the play abruptly ends with this conceit of loss, though they men are set tests for a year and a day, upon which the women shall return to see what is proved.  Yes, a slight story, most elegantly told with a hilariously silly subplot.  For Shakespeare, this is a 3, overall in literature a 4.

Euripides, Trojan Women (415 BCE).  SF.  Along with Euripides’ Medea, this is one of the most gripping and terrible tragedies I know, not excelled after 2,425 years.  The women of Troy, soon to be sent into slavery, and the anguished Helen each have their say bringing the play step by step closer to grief until Hecuba, widowed of King Priam, and bereft of all her sons faces the final disaster.  5!

William Shakespeare, All’s Well that Ends Well (1623).  SF.  As one of  the “problem plays,” the problem here is that Bertram refuses to recognize his marriage to Helena so that she must win him by obtaining his ring and bearing his child when he deserts her.  Most interesting is that Helena and the other women are heroic while Bertram is a cad.  Another 3, 4.

Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966).  BC.  Do you know of Mr. Rochester, the brooding master of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre?  Rhys wrote a prequel of Rochester’s earlier life and his wife’s origins in the slave-holding Caribbean.  She is the crazy woman who burns down the hall at the end of Jane Eyre.  Now you know why.  Though a slender novel in size, WSS is profound as an artistic deconstruction of the pretense (or naïveté) of imperial fiction.  I never could understand Rochester’s attraction for the otherwise worthy Jane. 4

Vince Starrett, Life of Sherlock Holmes (1933).  In a series of chapter sketches, Starrett treats Holmes and Watson analytically as though these characters had real lives, and thereby explains away the inconsistencies in their stories.  Entertaining even if you are not a Baker Street Irregular.  4

Kiran Desai, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard (1998).  The young son of a middle class Indian family is a disappointment to them.  He has a low-level postal job and no ambition.  Suddenly he goes off on his own to live in a tree in an abandoned orchard.  His joyful solitude lasts until the neighborhood discovers him as a “holy man” and his notoriety spreads.  Chaos follows.  Desai has a wonderful way of writing with subtlety of connotation and verve of expression.  This one was a great delight and I must explore more of her books.  4

Ursula K. LeGuin, Lavinia (2008).  LeGuin has been among my favorite authors for 30 years.  In her mature writing through this period, she blends exquisite prose, inventive situations, and depth of portrayal that always succeeds.  In Lavinia she takes a slight reference near the end of the Aeneid to Aeneas’ Latin wife and builds a whole, marvelous story around her that is visionary, feminist, culturally significant, and artistically satisfying in the finest sense.  A 5 once again.

Steven Saylor, Roma (2008).  I came to Saylor through his early books on Gordianus the Finder, a classical period version of detective, who at first appealed to me as an industrious man able to step outside his illusions.  His grunt work for Cicero in various cases, though critical of that articulate Roman, illuminates society in the years of the “great men” Sulla, Pompey and Caesar.  Though Roma’s subtitle is the novel of ancient Rome, it is not so much a novel as an episodic series of stories and novellas that dramatize key episodes from the city’s prehistoric location to Augustus’ foundation of empire.  The novelistic elements are two – two family histories that weave in and out of the major events and the evolution of Rome itself as a polity and culture.  Though containing enough pettiness among the characters to wear me down, Saylor always vaults his homework into tensions that reveal even as they rise to intrigue.  4

Nancy Freedman, Sappho: the tenth muse (1998).  Though Sappho’s poetry exists in scraps and a vaporous mystery surrounds her life, numerous books seek to make her into a whole person.  This novel is one that I owned for several years before I got around to reading it.  Freedman, new to me, writes with elegance and power and consistently uses metaphor and simile as no one I have read before.  My only complaint was the heavy doses of eroticism and subsequent jealousy among characters that detracted from Sappho as a poet, feminist, and intellectual of her day.  I wanted to believe that Sappho invented the concept of romantic love, a woman far in advance of her time and place.  4

Penelope Lively, Consequences (2007)  Gift*  Lively takes refreshing approaches in her various novels.  This one tells the story of three generations of women through the 20th century.  Each – mother, daughter, granddaughter – must seek her own path and relationships and thereby exercise both will and choice among the chance opportunities that life and history deal out.  What a beautifully conceived and executed book of verity and significance!  4


*My friend, Cy Chauvin, and I have exchanged books at holiday times for several years.  Because we share many of the same interests, including appreciation of the novel of manners, several of Cy’s gifts have been Lively books in this genre where she excels.

Copyright © 2009 by Roger Sween.

Orignally Read in 08 and appearing in CeptsForm on Blogspot, 22 Jan. 2009, the post moved as Read in 2008 to WordPress, 15 Nov. 2010.

Rog the Builder

November 15, 2010

Interpersonal Relationships More than Mating

According to: Helen Fisher, Why him? Why her?: finding real love by understanding your personality type. Henry Holt and Company, c2009.  289p.

According to book jacket blurbismo, Helen Fisher, Ph.D., is one of the world’s leading experts in the nature of romantic love and attachment.  She is the scientific adviser to the online dating service,, for whom she did much of the work that undergirds this book.  Otherwise, she is a research professor of anthropology at Rutgers University.

Fisher’s inventory, “My Personality Type Study,” analyzed the responses of 39,913 members of by four scales in its questionnaire.  Each scale has fourteen statements; respondents answer each statement as to level of agreement – strongly disagree, disagree, agree or strongly agree.  Subsequent scoring indicates a personality profile, a combination of the two highest-ranking types – Explorer, Builder, Director, and Negotiator.

Fisher briefly equates her four types with the preferences in their Myers-Briggs equivalents.

Fisher Percent MBTI
Explorer 26.0 Perceiving
Builder 28.6 Sensing, Judging
Director 16.3 Thinking
Negotiator 29.1 iNtuition, Feeling

For whatever reason, Introversion and Extroversion do not appear in these comparisons.  However, just as there are 16 types in Myers-Briggs, Fisher has sixteen types resulting from any two highest score combinations.  However, she hardly discusses any of these sixteen as though such variations do not account for differing personalities and mating matches.

As is my case with many kinds of questionnaires, I find some of the questions impossible to answer.  Either they are vague, bend to different interpretations, or remain incomprehensible as to what is meant.  Scale I asks questions 5, 6, 13 about being more optimistic, creative, energetic than most people.  How do I know this beyond mere impression?  Scale III asks if I am “tough minded?”  What does this tough-minded mean?

When I counted the scores, which unanswerable questions affect, they ranked Builder – 51, Director – 38, Negotiator – 23, Explorer – 3.  In other words, I wind up tagged as a Builder/Director.  What is the sense of this combination?

The BUILDER/Director has a streak of the independent, innovative thinker, comprising an unusual balance between conventionality and originality.  Like Directors, BUILDER/Directors want a partner with whom they can have deep and focused conversations.  Yet they are literal and emotionally contained.  So these conversations must be concrete, factual and informed.  BUILDER/Directors are probably the most ambitious and hardest working of the Builders even on a date. – page 132

Fisher talks repeatedly about variation in psychological type, but never in a determinative way, more as a caution and awareness of those personality characteristics that are out of type for a person of the type.  Builders equate with loyalty, an emphasis on order, tradition, being conscientious, doing what they ought.  George Washington is an archetype for the Builder.  Religiosity is a Builder characteristic (p.78-79), but some Builders will be atheists.  Fisher sees religion as equivalent to “self-transcendence” and the experience of the mystical.  I see myself as religious when I acknowledge the transcendence of God in relation to my own soulfulness, but base my acknowledgement of the otherwise unknown on ancient testimony and go on my from there by what teaching rationally follows.  In Word Type Study, the words “moral, morals, values” attract Builders as they do me.

As Builders identify with loyalty, so Directors with resourcefulness.  Albert Einstein (1879-1955) is the Director prototype; he was one of my chief heroes when I was a teenager.  Directors are supposed to be attracted to machines because of how machines work as a system.  I am not mechanical but attracted to human systems, primarily social systems and systems of thought – concept-formation, intellectual history, theory, philosophy, theology.  I do not have the spatial skills associated with Directors or musical or athletic ability, but I am analytical, logical and direct.  I have the autonomous personality of a Director, but am far from competitive as one.  Collaboration is my métier; neither do I want control over anyone except myself.

Though I did not score high on the Negotiator, termed “the philosopher king,” of which Charles Darwin is the example, I favor being philosophical with some Negotiator characteristics, chiefly mental flexibility, deep personal connections (though few), and introspection.  I am not convivial, social, or routinely aware of my surroundings unless deliberate in focusing my attention about me.

Certainly, I am far from the Explorer, an adventurer.  I remain adventurous only about ideas; otherwise, I am cautious, but not fearful.  Risk does not excite me; I strive to minimize risk.

Incidentally, being a Builder/Director with Negotiator in third ranking corresponds to me being an NTJ out of my Myers-Briggs profile: INTJ.

I am not sure what to make of Fisher’s claims.  I regard her scales as faulty and her lack of the full run of 16 types as insufficiently explained and misleading.  Mostly I question her arguments based on “what we are dealt,” which in her case means the chemicals that run the brain.  Explorers are dopamine-rich; Builders high on serotonin; Directors blessed with testosterone and consequently 2.3 men to women; Negotiators washed over with estrogen, 1.5 women to men.  Fisher mentions that her next survey will take blood samples to measure hormone levels in her various types.

Fisher maintains that Directors tend to have a longer ring finger than a pointer or index finger, due to a surge of testosterone in the womb.  I have it, and so does everyone in my family including a son-in-law.  (The Internet is full of references to studies by Alison Bailey and Peter Hurd that correlate finger-length indexes with aggression and other characteristics.)   Fisher seems to be the main source of the personality affinity claim.  I remain dubious.

See the other typology approaches listed on the My Type page.

Copyright © by Roger Sween 2010.

I welcome comments on this post.  Send personal comments to me at