Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Writers’ Career Paths, Part 1: Prolific vs. Painstaking

I’m going to devote a couple of blogs to the different types of careers that writers can have. I’d like to start by talking about volume. There are some writers who are extremely prolific. They write almost every day, often for several hours. These writers spin out book after book. Other writers are extremely painstaking in their process. They sweat every adjective. If they produce one poem or one short story every few months, that’s a lot.

Here are a couple of poets who represent those two extremes.

The Japanese author Yosano Akiko (1878–1942) was renowned for her ability to write as many as fifty poems in one sitting. She wrote mostly five-line tanka poems, but still! In her lifetime, she is said to have written more than 50,000 poems. That’s an average of about three a day for her entire career. In addition, she was the author of eleven books of prose, including literary criticism, an autobiographical novel, and a translation into modern Japanese of one of Japan’s classics, The Tale of Genji. You might wonder if she was able to do this because she was a single woman who had no children. No, actually. Yosano Akiko gave birth to and raised eleven children. She must have been a hurricane of energy. 

Yosano Akiko
Here’s my translation of a poem by Yosano Akiko that I like a lot:

that hateful fan
endlessly wafting
sandalwood incense
in my direction—
I snatched it away

At the other extreme, there’s the U.S. poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911–1979). I’m holding her book, The Complete Poems 1927–1979. It weighs less than a loaf of bread. Excluding her translations, it’s 228 pages, and even with her translations from Portuguese and Spanish, it doesn’t reach 300 pages.

Yosano Akiko lived to her 66th year; Elizabeth Bishop, 68. Roughly the same lifespan, but a difference in output of about 10,000 pages.

Who is the greater writer? Well, it’s hard to say. I don’t read Japanese, and only one book of Yosano Akiko’s has been fully translated into a European language. Claire Dodane translated into French the poet’s masterpiece, Midaregami, or Tangled Hair. Dodane’s translation is titled Cheveux emmêlés—same meaning in French. Yosano Akiko wrote this book about her scandalous love affair with the leading male poet of the day, Yosano Tekkan, whom she married and had such a large family with. The book contains 399 tanka poems, a fair sampling of her work in that form. Not every poem is a masterpiece, but there are a remarkable number of excellent poems, especially when you consider that Yosano Akiko wrote this book when she was 22 years old. But quite a few of the poems—I’d say the vast majority—are not at the same level as the best of the collection.

Elizabeth Bishop, on the other hand, must have produced endless drafts of her poems. She published only a handful a year, maybe 120 in her lifetime. Each poem is a sapphire, with every facet cut and polished. Is that a better way to write?

Elizabeth Bishop
I like to think that Elizabeth Bishop and Yosano Akiko wrote roughly the same number of pages of great poems, even though their output and process were so different. But that’s not necessarily the case. And who is in a position to make such a crazy calculation?

There are dangers both to being a prolific writer and a painstaking writer. The danger of being a very prolific writer is that quantity becomes so central that quality may never enter into the equation. Fortunately, that wasn’t true for Yosano Akiko. Some of her poems are bad, some mediocre, some great, some absolutely classic.

The danger of being a painstaking writer is that authors of that sort are such perfectionists that they sometimes never finish anything. Or if they do, what they produce is so precious that it lacks spontaneity and juice.

For some writers, a painstaking process works well, and is absolutely necessary to satisfy the perfectionist within. For prolific writers, the method is to set free all the thoughts and images and emotions and stories and then let the reader sift through and pick favorite pieces.

There is not a right or a wrong answer about how prolific to be. I think it’s a question of personality. Readers may have similar preferences, liking writers who are great stylists, or ones who can tell a good story. Personally, I enjoy the work of both prolific writers and painstaking writers.


Zack Rogow’s play, Tangled Love, about the life and work of Yosano Akiko, will be given a free public reading on Tuesday, July 15, 2014, 8 p.m. at the University of Alaska Anchorage, in the Arts Building, room 150.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Thoughts on Literary Fame

Fame. It’s as irrelevant to good writing as sunny weather. Or is it the gold ring we’re all reaching for?

I was moved to write about fame because I’ve been listening during my commute to a collection of poetry on CDs called The Spoken Arts Treasury. This compendium of the writings and voices of 100 leading poets in the United States was released only 45 years ago, but I was shocked by how many of the poets who were considered necessary writers in 1969 are unknown today. I don’t mean that I’ve only read a couple of their poems. I mean that I had never even heard the names of a good portion of the poets in that collection.

The Greek goddess Pheme, source of the word "fame"
Maybe even more surprising is the fact that a collection released in 1969 did not include many of the poets of the U.S.A. whom we now consider to be some of the leading voices of the mid-twentieth century, such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Allen Ginsberg (too radical for that time), June Jordan, Adrienne Rich (who had already published her first Selected Poems in 1967), Anne Sexton, or May Swenson. In just 45 years, we have dramatically changed our sense of who the important U.S. poets of that time were. Many writers included in The Spoken Arts Treasury do continue to find readers: Elizabeth Bishop, e.e. cummings, Langston Hughes, Robinson Jeffers, Sylvia Plath, William Carlos Williams, etc. But it seems almost arbitrary which poets were included in this anthology.

The word “fame” comes from the name of the Roman goddess Fama, which in turn comes from a Greek word that just means “talk.” That in turn, is related to Old Church Slavonic bajati, but you already knew that. Hey, Zack, what is your point? The point is that fame is just talk, it’s not hard evidence of truth or quality.


Just because a writer is known today, or unknown today, does not mean that her or his reputation will remain that way. In fact, it’s almost a guarantee that tastes and readers will change, and that writers whose work speaks to a particular time and/or readership will vary in popularity, or maybe find new readers in a different time or place. We should not be intimidated by a writer’s reputation and feel we have to like that person’s work. On the other hand, we should appreciate writers who are not well known, but whose work we genuinely enjoy. In other words, trust your taste and your reaction to a work of literature, not the writer’s reputation.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Why a Thesaurus Is of Limited Use to a Writer

Sometimes a writer is on a treasure hunt for a particular word, a word that will clinch a certain passage. The French, of course, have a phrase for that type of word. They call it le mot juste, the exact right word. The author Gustave Flaubert was famous for finding le mot juste in his novels, such as Madame Bovary. But let’s say that, in this case, le mot juste is just not coming to mind, or if you can think of a word that has the right meaning, it’s too cliché. What do you do?

Many writers turn to a thesaurus. That reference work is a great bestiary of words, holding almost all the synonyms in the English language. The word literally means “treasury” in Latin—very appropriate.

I have nothing against thesauruses. I love just reading through them and seeing all the possible gradations of meaning that exist among different words that mean almost the same thing, and how those synonyms differ slightly in the contexts where they are used. In fact, when I was thirteen, one of my best friends nicknamed me Roget, I had such a crush on words.

The first English thesaurus was compiled by Dr. Peter Mark Roget (1779–1869) in 1805, but the book was not published until 1852. Dr. Roget was a physician from London who served as a human subject for the earliest experiments on the use of nitrous oxide, or “laughing gas,” which he also wrote about. 

Dr. Peter Mark Roget
His first collection of synonyms was titled, Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition. I’ll buy that a thesaurus can facilitate the expression of ideas, but I do believe it has limited use in literary composition.

Why? Because a word that a writer is seeking is almost never as obvious as a synonym of another word that a writer might reject as cliché. Le mot juste most often appears out of nowhere, a word that surprises, delights, or shocks the reader. A thesaurus will not help a writer leap across a chasm to that sort of word. At best, the thesaurus will help a writer step over a narrow puddle.

Here is an example from a poem that Sylvia Plath wrote right before her untimely death on February 11, 1963. The very last poem in her Collected Poems, dated six days before she died, is titled “Edge.” Describing a woman who has passed away, leaving behind her children, Plath writes:

She has folded

Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden

Stiffens and odors bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.

Interesting to thing about a mother incorporating her children back into her—or maybe the subject of the poem is gathering into herself a kind of childishness in a flight from the tonnage of adulthood.

Sylvia Plath
If Plath had used a thesaurus to find the right word in this passage, she could never have come up with the stunning phrase “the garden//Stiffens and odors bleed/From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.”

Normally, a writer might say that a flower’s scent wafts. But that’s a cliché. If Plath had cast her net wider and looked in a thesaurus under waft, she would only have found drift, float, be carried, etc. More clichés. You can’t get from tired language to more dynamic speech just with synonyms. A writer has to distort or wring the language till she arrives at something as vivid as a flower bleeding its odor. The search for le mot juste requires imagination, not just a reference work. Well, Plath might have gotten odor from a thesaurus. She could have started with the more conventional aroma or scent and then picked a synonym rarely paired with flower, because of its unexpected negative connotations. There, a thesaurus could be useful.

Another example. Three months earlier Plath had penned a poem called “The Childless Woman,” where she writes:

I spin mirrors,
Loyal to my image,

Uttering nothing but blood…


The usual verbs that describe emitting blood might be shed, ooze, spurt, seep, or trickle. (OK, I admit, I got this list from Roget’s Thesaurus.) But Plath goes so much deeper with the verb “Uttering”. The blood of this childless woman’s period is eloquent, it can speak of her emotions. Never could a thesaurus produce that result. It might even impede it. That’s why a writer has to be cautious in using a thesaurus. You can’t get deeper just by casting wider.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka

Friday, May 2, 2014

Haruki Murakami and Globalization

I just finished listening to the audiobook of Haruki Murakami’s After Dark, a novel that takes place in the space of only seven hours in Tokyo. The plot follows four main characters and several minor characters from midnight to dawn of one day in the grungy downtown entertainment district. I didn’t like the novel as much as Murakami’s stellar The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Norwegian Wood, or his short stories in The Elephant Vanishes, but After Dark does have a couple of classic Murakami scenes where he is at his best, and those scenes alone make the novel worthwhile.

Haruki Murakami with jazz records
Murakami is a master at creating a situation where two characters encounter one another by chance and start talking deeply, and suddenly their hearts and thoughts spring open up in a way that is extraordinary and reveals surprising truths.

I love Murakami's writing, so I was quite surprised when I heard him taken to task at an international symposium on literature I attended a few years ago. At the Third Seoul International Forum for Literature in 2011, eminent Korean scholar Yu Jong-ho, professor emeritus at Yonsei University, criticized Murakami at a session where I also spoke on “The Globalizing World and the Human Community.” Though his criticisms of Murakami didn’t focus on the globalization of literature per se, Professor Yu’s comments appeared to me to be prompted in part by the Westernized cultural references in Murakami’s fiction.

After Dark is a prime example. Though the novel takes place in Tokyo, it begins in a Denny’s Restaurant. There are numerous discussions of music in the book, partly because one of the main characters, Takahashi Tetsyta, is an aspiring jazz trombonist. Almost all the music referred to in Murakami’s novel is from the U.S.A. or the U.K. All the food the characters eat is Western, from chicken salad (there are some hilarious bits about Denny’s chicken salad!) to tuna sandwiches to a fluffy omelet (which, like the love that develops between the two protagonists, is never actually indulged in).


One of the only things in the novel that is distinctively Japanese is a love hotel, not exactly what you’d call classic East Asian culture. Even the love hotel is named for a Jean-Luc Godard movie, Alphaville (sometimes After Dark seems to take place in the futuristic world of Godard’s Alphaville).

So, is this a problem that Murakami’s characters seem to move in a world where Japanese culture, so rich and venerable, no longer seems to exist? The references that Murakami’s characters make to vintage jazz tunes, which he knows extremely well (he once ran a jazz club in Tokyo), are fascinating to me, and they make his characters appealing and endearing, from my standpoint. I’m a huge jazz fan myself. I would never want Murakami to feature Japanese culture in a way that would Orientalize or exoticize his own country. Nor would I want to see Murakami respond in an extremely nationalistic and negative way to Westernization, in the manner of Yukio Mishima, for instance, perhaps the other best known Japanese novelist of the last three generations.


Maybe that’s part of why Murakami has immersed himself so deeply in Western culture, as an antidote to his country’s militaristic nationalism and to the conformist culture of the “salaryman” that has dug so deeply into Japanese life. But I can’t help but wonder why Murakami sees no precedents for his own rebellion within Japanese literary and artistic culture. What of the great poet Yosano Akiko, for instance, who defied expectations that she would continue to run the family business and fled to Tokyo from a provincial town in order to elope with her lover, the poet Yosano Tekkan? She was also a foe of the status quo. What of the poets of the Arechi or Waste Land movement in post-World War II Japanese poetry, such as the wonderful Tamura Ryuichi? Why doesn’t Murakami see his legacy through these and other Japanese writers? Has he become infatuated with the culture of the U.S.A. to the point where he can no longer see the strengths of his country’s own legacy?

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7, Part 8
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka

Friday, April 11, 2014

Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 8: When Is a Work of Literature Finished?

Some say never. James Joyce was notorious for correcting his books till the very last second before he had to turn them over to the publisher—and after. When Joyce’s novel Finnegan’s Wake was republished in 1945, four years after Joyce’s death, it appeared with a sixteen-page booklet of errata that Joyce had compiled after the first edition.

James Joyce
At the other end of the spectrum, there is automatic writing, where the author makes no edits. André Breton, creator of automatic writing, used this title for his guide to spontaneous composition in The Manifesto of Surrealism (1924):

SECRETS OF THE MAGICAL
SURREALIST ART

Written Surrealist composition
or
first and last draft

This approach to writings holds that the most spontaneous, least edited utterances are the most finished. Why? Because, according to this aesthetic, the closer we get to the bubbling spring of our imagination, the more perfect the results.

André Breton
That may be true for some writers—Jack Kerouac’s continuous roll of paper used to write On the Road comes to mind. (Someone should write a thesis on the connections between the Surrealists and the Beats!) But I think the law of averages is against spontaneity in literature. It’s like playing roulette and always betting on 22 black. You’ll win big every once in a while, but what about all the other times? How can you sustain that? In literature, as opposed to jazz, for example, spontaneity is hit or miss. More often, it’s miss. This may be because literature requires a critical and self-critical appraisal of the world and of one’s own writings.

In my own writing, I do countless drafts. I print out my work after each series of revisions because the human eye simply reads paper differently than it reads a computer screen.

At a certain point in the revision process, I realize that I’ve reached a spot where the changes I’m making are no longer improving the text. They are merely changing it. At this stage, I’m also switching things back and forth, inserting the same phrases I deleted earlier. When I get to this crossroads, I feel a work is done.

But I’ve also had the experience of thinking that one of my poems was finished, and then reading it in print several years later and feeling it really needed editing. I tweaked many of the poems in my book The Number Before Infinity when the second edition was released in 2014. Why? Years are like prescription lenses. They sharpen our vision.

I did notice when I reread my book before the new edition appeared that most of the poems I wanted to edit were not the poems I liked best. The poems that were my favorites, the ones I choose for readings, had assumed their final form more easily and earlier. Those I mostly left in peace.


I think each writer has to develop a personal sense of when a work is done, just as each writer has to develop a writing process. The answers will be different for different writers, just as James Joyce and André Breton, who were contemporaries, developed diametrically opposite writing methods around the same time, and both in Paris. These two writers were both fascinated by the subconscious and how it could reshape literature, but in Breton’s case, it was the spontaneity of the subconscious that mattered, while in Joyce’s case, showing the workings of the subconscious or superconscious involved a meticulous collage of words and fragments from a kaleidoscope of sources.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka

Friday, April 4, 2014

Homage to Louis Untermeyer

Louis Untermeyer (1885–1977) edited the very first poetry book I ever owned. I think it was called The Golden Treasury of Poetry, and it had a gold paperback cover. There were lots of poems in it I liked when I was a kid. I remember Oliver Wendell Holmes’s ballad “The Deacon’s Masterpiece or the Wonderful One-Hoss-Shay.” In addition to that anthology, Louis Untermeyer wrote or edited more than 100 books. I always thought of him as a compiler of anthologies, and as a figure in American culture, a sort of intellectual about town.

Louis Untermeyer
Recently I encountered some poems by Untermeyer in an anthology of poetry on audiobook, The Spoken Arts Treasury, Volume 1. It’s a collection full of the U.S. poets who were very popular in the 1950s, writers we hardly ever read or hear today, such as Mark Van Doren, Allen Tate, and Conrad Aiken. The collection includes several diamonds, among them the poems written and read by Louis Untermeyer.

When I heard Untermeyer on this CD, I felt that he was also a force as a poet. His poems seemed on the surface to be written in a fairly predictable meter and rhyme scheme, but despite that, they never ceased to surprise me. Every time I thought I could guess what was coming, Untermeyer came up with an image or an idea that was completely unexpected—and true.

Here’s one of the poems that grabbed me, a sort of atheist prayer:

Caliban in the Coal Mines

God, we don’t like to complain—
  We know that the mine is no lark—
But—there’s the pools from the rain;
  But—there’s the cold and the dark.

God, You don’t know what it is—        
  You, in Your well-lighted sky,
Watching the meteors whizz;
  Warm, with the sun always by.

God, if You had but the moon
  Stuck in Your cap for a lamp,        
Even You’d tire of it soon,
  Down in the dark and the damp.

Nothing but blackness above,
  And nothing that moves but the cars—
God, if You wish for our love,        
  Fling us a handful of stars!

Untermeyer was known as a champion of the underdog, and this poem showcases that side. He speaks in the voice of the despised Caliban of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, more than half a century before that revisionist view of Caliban became popular. But Untermeyer’s Caliban is a miner, and one who can speak his mind, even to God. I love the image of the miner’s headlamp as a moon. And that final image with the verb “fling”— so powerful, so vivid.

Untermeyer got into quite a lot of trouble for his outspoken radicalism. In the early days of TV, he made his living and much of his reputation for several years as a quiz show panelist on the program “What’s My Line?” This show involved television personalities guessing the occupation of surprise guests. Here’s a link to a YouTube of one of the shows, with Untermeyer as a panelist.

Untermeyer lived in New York City, where the program originated. Imagine what his life was like, recognized by the guy who served him his slice of pizza and the newsboy who sold him the afternoon paper—and their commenting on his good or bad guesses on last night’s show—the life of a celebrity.

When Joseph McCarthy’s witchhunt of radicals gripped the U.S.A. in the 1950s, Untermeyer was blacklisted, and overnight, he was fired from “What’s My Line?” with no warning. Imagine the shock, and the blow to him—he couldn’t go anywhere without everyone asking why he was no longer on the program. As a result, Untermeyer didn’t leave his apartment or answer the phone for a year and a half. More on what happened to him in a moment.

Here is another prayer that Untermeyer wrote, but in a voice that sounds very much his own. There is also a wonderful YouTube audio of Untermeyer reading this poem with a plainspoken and sincere delivery. The poem is titled simply “Prayer.” 

God, though this life is but a wraith,
    Although we know not what we use,
Although we grope with little faith,
    Give me the heart to fight — and lose.

Ever insurgent let me be,
    Make me more daring than devout;
From sleek contentment keep me free,
    And fill me with a buoyant doubt.

Open my eyes to visions girt
    With beauty, and with wonder lit —
But always let me see the dirt,
    And all that spawn and die in it.

Open my ears to music; let
    Me thrill with Spring’s first flutes and drums —
But never let me dare forget
    The bitter ballads of the slums.

From compromise and things half done,
    Keep me with stern and stubborn pride;
And when at last the fight is won,
    God, keep me still unsatisfied.

O.K., there are lines I could lose here, like “Open my ears to music…” Pretty corny. But what an amazing idea about what to pray for: “Give me the heart to fight—and lose.” I like the concept of being filled with “buoyant doubt.” And how about that fabulous last line?

So, Untermeyer had the political side of his poetry in order, even though he paid a terrible price for his commitment. In fact, he persisted long enough to outlive his enemies. When President John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, Untermeyer was appointed the Consultant in English Poetry for the Library of Congress, a position that was then the equivalent of U.S. Poet Laureate.

Untermeyer’s career came full circle from a political standpoint. But he was not only a political poet from an economic perspective. Consider this poem, a fascinating take on the battle of the sexes, especially coming from a man:

The Wise Woman

His eyes grow hot, his words grow wild;
He swears to break the mold and leave her.
She smiles at him as at a child
That’s touched with fever.

She smoothes his ruffled wings, she leans
To comfort, pamper and restore him;
And when he sulks or scowls, she preens
        His feathers for him.

He hungers after stale regrets.
        Nourished by what she offers gaily;
And all he thinks he never gets
She feeds him daily.

He lusts for freedom; cries how long
        Must he be bound by what controlled him!
Yet he is glad the chains are strong.
And that they hold him.

She knows he feels all this, but she
        Is far too wise to let him know it;
He needs to nurse the agony
That suits a poet.

He laughs to see her shape his life.
        As she half-coaxes, halt-commands him;
And groans it’s hard to have a wife
Who understands him.

That odd pattern of syllables in each stanza—lines of 8, 9, 8, and then a shorter line of 5 beats—it felt familiar. Why? It's exactly the same unusual metric that Edward Arlington Robinson created for his famous poem, “Miniver Cheevy.” Like “Miniver Cheevy,” Untermeyer’s “The Wise Woman” is a deeply ironic portrait of a man (Untermeyer’s title notwithstanding). That last five-syllable line in each stanza functions almost like a punch line, undermining the more traditional and heroic gait of the first three, longer lines in the stanza.

Untermeyer describes the husband in this poem in the third person, but I can’t imagine this is anyone but the author. He even identifies the husband as a poet. Maybe the third person allowed him that ironic distance and a chance to see himself from his wife’s standpoint. The speaker fantasizes a more promiscuous life, all the while comfortable within his marriage, even when he does and doesn’t realize it. “The Wise Woman” is an interesting take on how men and women dance together in a long-term relationship, giving much of the credit to the woman for her wisdom, understanding, and warmth.


Untermeyer came from a Jewish-American family, and his spirit feels very Jewish to me. That combination of warmth, sardonic humor, and compassion for the oppressed is as Jewish as a bagel and schmear. Not that Jews have a monopoly on any of those traits—or on bagels and schmears, at this point in history.


Korean bagels
Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka