Sunday, December 23, 2012

Writing from Plateau to Plateau

Sometimes, in your growth as a writer, you get past an obstacle that has stood in your path for a long time. You find yourself suddenly able to do something you couldn’t do before, maybe even something you didn’t know you should be doing. That new ability could be using language free of cliché phrases, creating plots with sufficient peril for the protagonist that the reader wants to know the outcome, letting the characters develop through the action of the plot instead of through exposition, or writing about topics that have genuine urgency for you. You pass the obstacle, you know what you have to do next time you see a similar impasse. You’ve reached a new plateau in your writing.
Once you’re on that plateau, vistas open up. So many possibilities unfold for your writing that you couldn’t access before. Suddenly you get it. You feel empowered. It’s the literary equivalent of a growth spurt for a kid. Writing comes more easily to you. That doesn’t mean the path is level, but you’ve crossed terrain like this before, and you know you can get over the boulders and the chasms. Those moments in your writing stand out as crucial milestones that will help guide you through the rest of your career as an author.
But as you explore the plateau, you begin to see new kinds of obstacles. Why hadn’t you noticed them before? Suddenly they stare you in the face. That piece of writing that you had just used your new-found skills to improve—now other errors glare at you. Why are you still using verbs that aren’t active? The verb “to be” appears in every other sentence, slowing the flow of the action. It can’t possibly be time to revise again, right after you solved all the problems?
Yes, it can. The reason is that once we arrive at a plateau, new obstacles become visible that were hiding before. They were using the other difficulties as cover. Now the culprits have no more camouflage. It’s time to flush the new errors out of the bushes, and to work on those.
Is there no rest? To put it simply: no. 
As the French surrealist André Breton said in his poem The Estates General, “There will always be a wind-shovel in the sands of the dream” (“Il y aura toujours une pelle au vent dans les sables du rêve”). OK, I have to admit, I don’t really know what this quote means. What the heck is a “wind-shovel,” and could it lower my energy bills? But seriously, I read this passage from Breton as saying that change is as inevitable as shifting sand, or as the fresh desires that continually crop up in our dreams. Not only that, the tools themselves for the next change are something we can’t even imagine yet, like a “wind-shovel.”
In other words, with each new plateau we scale, we see the next plateau looming above. That may seem exhausting, but without that continual challenge, what would be the fun of writing?

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka

Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Gratitude for a Career as a Writer



Not long ago I was sitting around a table with three people I know, all of us in late middle age. One has made his living helping municipalities draw up bond issues, one is a lawyer, the third is a social worker. We were talking about our dream careers, what work we would have really wanted to do if we had had our druthers. The first person said he wanted to be a musician. The lawyer wanted to be a novelist. The social worker wanted to be an actor. All would have chosen a career in the arts.
When it was my turn, I could honestly say that, as a writer, I’m doing exactly the work I’ve always wanted to do. I actually get to write poetry and drama, and to translate writers whose work I idolize. True, I don’t make a living at my vocation, and I need to piece together more than one job to make ends meet. But I was the only one at that table who could say that I had no regrets about my career choice.
That doesn’t mean that I have no second thoughts. There are times when the choice I’ve made to be an artist is agonizing. I’ve had to tell my daughter that she needed to wait to get her impacted wisdom teeth out, because the limited insurance I have didn’t cover the procedure during the current year (fortunately she wasn't in serious pain). I have to concede to contracts with publishers where the royalties are so small I might as well give away the hard work that took me years to finish. Then I hear people with more lucrative jobs describe their astounding vacations on the Galapagos Islands or at a villa in Tuscany, and the envy rises in me.
But I do feel enormous gratitude for being a writer. I picture literature as a river as wide as the Nile or the Mississippi or the Amazon. That river is fed by many different tributaries, which in turn are filled by many rivulets. If I can add a few drops to one of those rivulets, I feel I will have done my job as an artist. And if someone comes up to me after a reading and tells me they liked a particular poem I read, if I win a prize or two, if I get a good review here or there (rarer than a prize these days), I won’t complain.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka

Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

Friday, December 14, 2012

Why Write Poetry: Part 4, Spoken Music

We speak music. We’re not always aware of the sounds of our words, but speech is constantly morphing into music. Rhymes pop up in everyday banter, meters appear in unlikely phrases. Poetry just makes those natural patterns more evident, more closely bonded to meaning.
Unlike prose, poetry is essentially a spoken art. Fiction and nonfiction can be read out loud, but poetry is meant to be read to live human beings. Poetry is composed to create the music of phonemes.
Some of the poets I admire the most are the ones who can make words into music, without gilding the lily. Why do so many people commit their favorite poems to memory? There is a power in the rhythms of words when they are activated by syntax and meaning.
One of the first times I really fell in love with poetry was when I was attending the Bronx High School of Science (not the most likely venue for poetry!). My sophomore-year French teacher, Janice Gerton, who is now in her 90s and remains an active fan of literature, recited to the class a poem she had memorized by the poet Paul Verlaine (1844–1896). The poem begins like this:

Il pleure dans mon coeur
Comme il pleut sur la ville ;
Quelle est cette langueur
Qui pénètre mon coeur ?

Loosely translated, it sounds like this in English:

Tears fall through my heart
Like rain tears through this city;
What’s this anguish like a dart
That lands in my heart?

(translation © 2012 by Zack Rogow)

Verlaine’s poem (I’ve only quoted one stanza) is so haunting because the sounds of the words recreate the murmur of the rainfall that is filling up the city. The repetitions are oddly soothing, given that it’s a poem about deep and incomprehensible sadness. Somehow, hearing or saying a poem this musical allows us both to feel our own sorrow more deeply, and to begin to heal from it. A poem such as Verlaine’s is like a magic spell, where the words create an actual physical effect in the world.

 I have a personal list of poems I particularly enjoy where the music is extremely effective for me. Here are some of my favorites, in no special order:

Edgar Allan Poe, "Annabel Lee," “The Bells,” “The Raven”  
Faiz Ahmed Faiz, “There’s No Messiah for a Broken Mirror” (in Urdu)
Sahir Ludhyanvi, “Your Voice,” “Taj Mahal” (also in Urdu)
Charles Baudelaire, “Correspondances,” “Invitation au Voyage"
Arthur Rimbaud, “Le Bateau Ivre”
Shakespeare’s sonnets, especially XVIII, XXIX, XXX, LV, CXVI, CXXX
Ezra Pound’s version of "The Seafarer" translated from Anglo-Saxon
Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur” (read here by Stanley Kunitz), “Pied Beauty”
Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, opening lines
June Jordan, “On Your Love,” “On a New Year’s Day,” “Roman Poem #14”
Ntozake Shange, “Orange butterflies aqua sequins…” (at 6:00 into the video), “Somebody almost made off wid all my stuff”
Sekou Sundiata, “Space,” “Blink Your Eyes”
Antonio Carlos Jobim, “Waters of March” (Águas de Março,” sung here by the immortal Elis Regina)

Those are poems that I love to recite or sing or hear read over and over, just to experience how it feels to say those words, and how they sound out loud.

Other recent posts about writing topics:
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka

Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Why Write Poetry, Part 3: Saying the Unsayable



When I was in college, a lot my friends were trying what could be called controlled substances. After they returned from various journeys of the imagination (sometimes jetlagged) their reactions were often, “Wow! Indescribable. Words can’t express what I experienced.”
I was always a little dubious when people reacted in that way to an ecstatic or psychedelic experience. Part of the reason I was skeptical is that I was then reading a lot of poetry by the French surrealists, who were particularly good at spinning out hallucinatory imagery. Here’s an example from the long love poem by André Breton, “The Air of the Water”:

But the earth was filled with reflections deeper than those in water
As if metal had finally shaken off its shell
And you lying on the frightening ocean of precious gems
Were turning
Naked
In a huge sun of fireworks
I saw you slowly evolving from the radiolarians

(translated by Bill Zavatsky and Zack Rogow)

That’s about as trippy as it gets. If you’ve had any visions more detailed or more dynamic than those, I want to know what you were on. Breton’s imagery is not only visionary, it is also sensual in a way that breaks the rules that forbid certain topics.
It’s not just in the realm of surreal imagery that poetry ventures into the unsayable. Poetry also conveys ideas, emotions, and situations that are often considered taboo or verboten. In fact, poetry seems uniquely well-suited to expressing the inexpressible. 
I’m thinking of a book such as Linda McCarriston’s Eva-Mary, where she shines the light of poetry on one some of the most difficult subjects to speak about publicly, physical and sexual abuse within a family, in this case, during her own childhood. Amazingly, McCarriston does this without any loss of the texture of language that we hope to find in poetry. Issuing a summons to the judge who refused her mother’s plea to separate from her violent husband, McCarriston writes:

…When you clamped
to her leg the chain of justice,
you ferried us back down to the law,
the black ice eye, the maw, the mako
that circles the kitchen table nightly.

("To Judge Faolain, Dead Long Enough: A Summons)

These few lines are so filled with the imagery, diction, and music of poetry, that they are almost a textbook of how a writer can shape language to express an idea powerfully in words. McCarriston also speaks about another taboo subject in her poems: class.
So, next time you think that visions, ideas, or experiences are beyond words, check out the poetry shelf of your local library. I think you’ll find that poets have come close to expressing those inexpressible truths. I hope those poems will empower you to speak your own unspeakable truths.

Other recent posts about writing topics:
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka

Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

Friday, December 7, 2012

Why Write Poetry, Part 2: Political Statement

 There are many ways of making political statements: speeches, nonfiction writing, posters—even literary fiction. Why bother to use poetry, a much more labor-intensive and rarified type of communication?
As a form of political speech, I find poetry the most persuasive. By putting a political statement into poetic language, the writer is challenged to make the diction as fresh, immediate, and original as possible.  
In his landmark essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell defines good writing as “picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer.” That’s exactly what poetry does at its best.
Let me give you an example of how poetry can bring to life a political argument. Here are the opening lines of one of my favorite poems by June Jordan, the great poet who passed away ten years ago:

Infinity doesn’t interest me

not altogether
anymore

I crawl and kneel and grub about
I beg and listen for

what can go away
                        (as easily as love)

or perish
like the children
running
hard on oneway streets/infinity
doesn’t interest me

(“On a New Year’s Eve”)

If you were to make the argument of this poem in nonfiction prose, it would most likely fall flat on its face: “I believe that living creatures are much more important than abstract concepts.” Boring. It’s the way that June Jordan tackles the subject in poetry that makes it unforgettable and convincing. First of all, she takes on “infinity.” You can’t take that type of verbal leap in a speech. That one word, infinity, evokes so many things. Here, June Jordan seems to be alluding to the tendency of organized religions to focus on the otherworldly, as opposed to the here and now. It’s much more interesting and verbally efficient of her to take on “infinity” as her antithesis, instead of an elaborate prosy construct like the one I put into the previous sentence, or the paraphrase in quotes above.
Then June Jordan gives such a specific contrast to infinity: children. But not just any children, “children/running/hard on oneway streets”—an image as vivid as a film clip. June Jordan also uses the hard rhythms of the language to suggest those sneakers smacking asphalt. She mentions “oneway streets,” as opposed to the two-way streets of genuine dialogue and opportunity. These children might not be fortunate enough to live on those wider and more prosperous boulevards. June Jordan uses all these strategies to  keep us involved in what is really a political and philosophical argument. Could prose do that? And look: “infinity” appears again, but this time right after the children, on the same line as their running on the streets, as if “infinity” applies to the running children instead of being a mere abstraction, as it becomes again in the following line.
I could give many other examples of poetry producing some of the most memorable political statements. There is Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandius,” mocking the shattered statue of a fallen tyrant. What about Pablo Neruda’s hymn to the Spanish Republic, “I Explain A Few Things,” with its aching refrain, “Come see the blood in the streets”?
Or Paul Eluard’s lyrical anthem to the resistance to fascism in World War II, “Liberty,” which was actually scattered by allied airplanes as a leaflet when they flew over occupied France.
There are also Nazim Hikmet’s great statements of the importance of life, such as his poem “Living is no laughing matter.” 
None of the political speeches made on those same subjects have endured as long as those poems, or retain as much universality.

Other recent posts about writing topics:
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka

Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

Monday, December 3, 2012

Why Write Poetry: Part 1, Intimate Address

Why write poetry? Aren't poems pretty much irrelevant in the age of Flickr, Twitter, Vimeo, and SoundCloud? (Those four could be the names of Santa’s virtual reindeer: “On Flickr, on Twitter…”.)
Who really reads poetry any more? I’m a poet, and even I rarely buy a book of poems in a bookstore and sit down and read it with no distractions. I probably spend more hours reading fiction than poetry.
But poetry still has power like no other art. It speaks directly to all the layers of the human brain, and to the heart. Poetry is the language most at home with and familiar to our bodies. I’m thinking about a great poem like Pablo Neruda’s “Barcarole”

If only you would touch my heart,
if only you were to put your mouth to my heart,
your delicate mouth, your teeth,
if you were to put your tongue like a red arrow
there where my dusty heart is beating,
if you were to blow on my heart near the sea, weeping,
it would make a dark noise, like the drowsy sound of
train wheels,
like the indecision of waters…

(translated by Robert Hass)

When I read those lines, every cell in my body fizzes with excitement. I love fiction and nonfiction, too, but neither of those can do what that poem does. Even though the images in Neruda's poem are dreamlike (the “tongue like a red arrow,” the “indecision of waters”), they are so remarkably familiar to the mind. Those images seem to travel naturally into the unconscious of the reader, by osmosis. 

                                                                    Pablo Neruda

If there is a personal or intimate thought or feeling you want to convey, poetry is the best medium. No form of address is as direct, or as passionate.
Maybe that’s part of why poetry naturally seeks metaphor, because poems are so immediate. Poems require the indirectness of metaphor to moderate and make palatable that extremely personal address, just as it would be too intense to look a person right in the eyes the entire time you are speaking with him or her. 

Other recent posts about writing topics:
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka

Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

How to Finish a Book: Promise Yourself Rewards

Completing a book-length project is never easy, but it’s something that writers need to learn how to do. It takes inspiration, desire, and hard work. Combining those at the right times is not simple. Here’s what I do to keep myself going when I work on a project that can take me years.
While I’m working on a book, I make myself little promises about what I’ll do to reward myself when the book is done. One reward I think about is just announcing to someone that the project is complete: When this book is done, I’ll get to send an email to the editor, telling her that I’ve finished, and I’ll say…
Another reward for finishing that you see in your mind can also be spending more time with your loved ones, or taking a special vacation. Sometimes I imagine doing readings of a particular part of the book that I like, and I picture the audience’s reaction. Another fantasy that keeps me going is to visualize the book on the shelf in a bookstore, though not all books are marketed in stores these days.  
Often I pretend that the book will be nominated for a prize. Whether that’s realistic or true is not the point—it’s an idea that keeps me going. I have a little awards ceremony of the imagination where a favorite literary figure introduces the award and then announces (drumroll, please!) that my book is the winner. That fantasy, silly as it is, also allows me to hold myself to the highest standards while I’m working on the project. I know I won’t have a chance for that prize if I don’t do the best I possibly can on the book.
That’s another challenge when working on a long project—you’ve got to keep the quality consistent. If you feel as if the quality is lagging, take a break till you’re ready to work at your highest level of creativity and attention.
If the book involves an advance, I spend that money in my mind many times over. I think about all the things I could do with the funds, from paying my taxes to going on a shopping spree for my favorite music.
The important thing when working on a book is to keep your nose to the grindstone, but your eyes on the prize—which is finishing. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Literary Contests, For and Against

There are many reasons to enter literary contests, and at least as many reasons not to.
Hundreds of literary awards exist, and many thousands of writers apply for them. Sometimes it seems as though the odds are so much against winning (the number of entries exceeds 1,000 for many first-book awards in the U.S.A., for instance) that it doesn’t seem worth it to enter contests. There have also been many instances in the United States where a prize goes to someone personally connected with the judge. Not to mention that contests can become a distraction from the real business of creating literature that is meaningful and reaches people. I can sympathize with those who refrain from participating in literary contests for those reasons, and personally, I hardly ever enter literary contests.
On the other hand, I know about fifteen writers who have won a prize in the United States that involves publication of a book, and in no case did the writer know the judge. Often the prizes in the U.S. include a cash advance and/or a reading or series of readings. The Poets Out Loud Prize from Fordham University Press, for instance, is given each year by the press to two poets. The writers get the winning manuscripts published as books, a cash advance of $1,000 each, and a reading in New York City in the Poets Out Loud series at Lincoln Center. The contest entry fee amounts to $28.
A prize that involves book publications comes with publicity and a chance to reach a larger audience—not to mention cash. All that is good for a writer, particularly a writer trying to launch a career. It’s also a good exercise to assemble a manuscript for a contest—the stakes are high enough that a writer has to take seriously the task of polishing and arranging a manuscript, a good thing whether you win or lose the contest.
So what’s the downside? I think a writer can become obsessed with trying to win awards, and spend precious time and money researching and entering endless contests. Even worse is the emotional energy writers expend thinking about prizes they do not win. 
Newer writers often waste resources entering contests at a stage when they don’t yet have a manuscript that is really competitive. Before you plunk down $25 for a contest entry fee, make sure that your manuscript measures up to the work of recent winners for that prize. If you book consists of poetry or short stories, at least a third of the work should be published in various literary journals before you enter a book publication contest, and preferably more than half of the work should already be published in magazines. The manuscript should be carefully copyedited for spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
What sorts of books win prizes? In the U.S., contest-winning manuscripts usually have a very consistent style, format, and theme. Some good books fit into that category, but some definitely do not. For books that are more eclectic and varied, it seems to me unwise to enter them in contests. A commercial or small-press publisher might have a more open-minded approach and be more likely to accept a manuscript of that sort.
If the contest sponsor makes public the name or names of the judge(s) in advance of the contest deadline, I would research that before entering. Judges, like anyone, have preferences. It’s not worth entering a contest when the judge’s aesthetic conflicts with your own.
For a good listing online of literary contests in the U.S., consult the website of Poets & WritersTheir listing has the advantage of being organized as a calendar, by deadline date for contest entry. It’s also cross-listed under the name of the contest sponsor.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka

Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

Saturday, November 17, 2012

One in the Other: A Surrealist Game for Writers


One in the Other is a game invented by the Surrealist group in Paris in 1953. The game (called l’un dans l’autre in French) started when the poet and group leader André Breton struck a match and decided to describe it in terms of a lion. He said something like, “I’m a lion with a mane of fire, I’m a lion that lives in a little box with a herd of other lions, etc.” The game evolved from that spark.

Paul Hammond describes the rules of the game in his book Constellations of Miró, Breton:

“The rules of ‘l’un dans l’autre’ are straightforward. Let’s assume there are four players gathered in a room. Player 1 leaves the room and mentally chooses an object (object A). Players 2, 3, and 4 debate amongst themselves and come up with another object (object B). Player 1 reenters and is given the name of object B. Player 1 then has to improvise a description of object A—without naming that object—but solely in terms of object B. The game ends when one of the other players divines what object A is.”

The game is based in part on an idea of the ancient alchemists. According to alchemy, each thing contains the seed of every other thing. Lead can contain gold, to cite the most famous example of alchemy. But this applies to all things—a beach blanket can be seen as a cluster bomb, a cube of cheddar cheese can be thought of as a baseball glove, etc.

How can writers use this game for inspiration? The game can be played by a group, such as a workshop, as a warm-up for a writing session. But an individual writer can also assign himself or herself a game of One in the Other, plucking two contrasting objects out of the subconscious, and then knitting them together through metaphor. The result can sometimes be worth saving or expanding on.

The 19th century French poet Arthur Rimbaud prophetically titled one of his prose poems, “Alchemy of the Verb.” In that poem, Rimbaud says, “For a long time I’ve bragged of possessing every possible landscape…” In the imagination, all landscapes are ours. With One in the Other, each thing is connected to every other thing.

When the Surrealists played the game, they used the first person to become the object that was also the other object: “I’m an hourglass, a part of which, contained in a larger hourglass, is gradually disengaging itself and cutting all ties. I’m opaque, reddish, and elastic. The red sand I contain is turned upside-down every second. I function for an average of several decades.”

The two objects in the example I just mentioned are a baby being born and an hourglass. I find the game also works if the person who is “it” just says, “I’m thinking of an hourglass…” etc.

Here’s an example of One in the Other that I came up with, choosing the random objects “lips” and “a manhole cover.”

I’m thinking of lips you find in the street
I’m thinking of lips that form a perfect circle
I’m thinking of lips with a name molded into them
I’m thinking of lips poured from molten steel
I’m thinking of lips so heavy it takes a strong person to open them
I’m thinking of lips that reveal a world beneath our world

Other recent posts about writing topics: 

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka

Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Learning from Writers You Don't Like

I teach in the low-residency MFA in writing program at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. One of the assignments the students have is to write responses to books by authors they’re not familiar with. I sometimes find that if a student does not connect immediately with an author’s work, the student dismisses that writer offhand. “I just couldn’t relate to this author’s preachy style.” “I found this writer’s diction very stilted and old-fashioned. “I couldn’t see the point of this author’s work.” By painting with such a broad brush, those students could be missing out on an important experience for a writer.

I think we actually have vital things to learn from writers whose work we don’t like. Why bother? Because sometimes the authors we don’t like have exactly the quality, theme, or tone that our work is lacking. Even if we don’t want to write like authors we find uninteresting or distasteful, we may learn from then how to tweak our work so it contains features that we don’t often include in our own writing. I’m not saying we should surrender to the enemy. But I am saying that we should learn why our enemy’s army has better boots.

Here’s an example. When I was in grad school in a writing program, I was studying with the poet Joel Oppenheimer. He assigned us to write a sonnet. At the time, I felt that sonnets were just the most outdated, boring thing a person could possibly write. I didn’t even want to read any more sonnets, except ones that were exploded, unrhymed, free-verse versions of the form, such as Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets, with its collaged, Buddhist moments.

I absolutely refused to write a sonnet in Joel Oppenheimer’s class, and that occasioned a heart-to-heart talk from my instructor, which was maybe what I was really after, without knowing it. I could have learned a lot from writing a sonnet in Joel’s class, but I was too stubborn then to realize it. At the time, I was rebelling against traditional verse, to the point where my poems were prosy, disconnected, and self-consciously loose. Sonnets, on the other hand, have tightness, conflict (between the premise stated in the octave and the conclusion in the sestet), and require careful word choice. Writing a sonnet was exactly what the doctor ordered to correct some of the imbalances in my writing. Not that I needed to become a formal poet, but I would have done well to develop certain skills that were lacking in my work. By studying the poets whose writing is opposite from ours, we can often learn to make useful adjustments to our own work. That doesn't mean we're going to prefer writing we don't like—I wouldn't wish that on anyone! But it does mean that we can learn from any writer.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Rilke's "Autumn Day"



The poet Rainer Maria Rilke uses language in uniquely powerful ways in his moving poem, “Autumn Day” (“Herbsttag”). The poem appears in the first section of Rilke’s collection The Book of Pictures, published 1902.

                                              Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926)

Here’s my own English translation:

Autumn Day

by Rainer Maria Rilke

Time, Lord, it’s time. The summer was vast.
Now drape your shadow over sundials,
And in the fields, make the winds blast.

Command the last fruits to brim on the vine;
Give them two more southerly days,
Push them to perfection and blaze
The last sweetness into the heavy wine.

Whoever has no house yet, will build none.
Whoever is alone, will stay alone,
Wake up at night, write long letters, sift
Through pages, and walk up and down
Tree-lined streets, restless, while leaves drift.

            (translated by Zack Rogow, translation © 2012 by Zack Rogow)

What a fascinating structure Rilke has created for this poem! He substitutes for the stanza of regular length his own distinctive formula where every stanza acquires one more line as the poem goes along, as if each stanza digs to a deeper layer of fall and the emotions connected to it.

The first two stanzas create a sense of fulfillment. This aura is still partly abstract in the first stanza, beautiful, but limited to disembodied shadows and winds. In the second stanza he adds color, taste, and smell to the richness of fall by expanding to the sensual realms of fruit, warmth, and wine.

Now look at Rilke’s German:

Herbsttag

Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los.

Befiehl den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;
gieb ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage,
dränge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein.

Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben,
wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
und wird in den Alleen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.

[emphases added]

He highlights the feeling of fulfillment in the first two stanzas by using the German word ‘voll’—full—in two different forms, the adjective, ‘voll,’ and the noun, ‘Vollendung,’ which means completion, finishing, ending, consummation, perfection. Not only that, Rilke takes the wide-open vowel o from the German word for full, and lavishes it over the first stanza: groß, Sonnenuhren, los, emphasizing the sound by using it in rhyming words that end lines one and three. I’ve highlighed in blue each word in the poem that contains the letter ‘o’ in the German.

The sentences in the poem start out very short and then get increasingly long in the first two stanzas, as the imagery become more lush and hypnotic, while the picture of fall’s completion develops— “Now drape your shadows over sundials,” “Command the last fruits to brim on the vine.”

Suddenly, in stanza three, we are back to short, declarative language: “Whoever has no house yet, will build none.” The words have the authority and stateliness of a biblical judgment, or of a proverb. The second line in the last stanza seems like it’s about to mirror this structure with another matter-of-fact, symmetrical pronouncement: “Whoever is alone, will stay alone,” but then surprisingly the sentence continues, sweeps us along to the end of the poem and into the very private world of the solitary person whose autumn is not one of fullness but of emptiness and loneliness.

Take another look at the German. Amazingly Rilke is able to write the entire last stanza without once using the vowel o, the vowel in the German word for ‘full’ that saturates the first two stanzas, where it continually evokes the sense of fullness. There are few other poets who would use sound in such a methodical, unique, and strange way, foreshadowing the lipogrammatic experiments of OULIPO group members such as Georges Perec, who wrote his entire novel A Void without the letter e.

There is a powerful sense of nostalgia and melancholy in Rilke’s poem, but in two different shades: in the first two stanzas we have yellow-orange sunlight and the long shadows of fall afternoons, colors of ripe fruit and the final warm days; in the last stanza there are the bare trees and the nocturnal scene of the lone man, a colorless world where nothing seems anchored or still.

What kind of person is the figure in the last stanza who wakes up late at night, reads, and writes long letters? An artist, specifically a writer. We know Rilke lived this kind of restless existence, moving from city to city and country to country every few months during many periods of his life. Perhaps he is talking about entering a stage of his life when he will banish himself from the warmth of the family home, destined to a solitary pursuit of literature and his correspondence with friends. This was, to some extent, the plot of Rilke’s life, which he might have seen taking shape at the juncture when he wrote “Autumn Day.” It’s so paradoxical that the poet has the otherworldly power to order God to begin the change of season to the fall (“drape,” “Command,” “push,” etc.), but he ends up alone and isolated at the end, despite that force (or because of it?).

Rilke was involved for several years with Lou Andreas-Salomé, a brilliant woman of letters who had been romantically connected to the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche when she was a young woman. 

                                         Lou Andreas-Salomé

There were thoughts Rilke confided only to Lou, and, as a practicing therapist, she understood the poet better than many. She discusses Rilke’s Duino Elegies in her autobiography, Looking Back: Memoirs: “…one sees clearly, and with a shudder of certainty, how greatly Rainer longed for human experience, for the revelation of life, which, in spite of the perfection of his achievement, would go beyond the work of art, beyond the poet’s word. Only there could that which was most deeply human in Rainer find a resting place, and peace.…Nothing is more certain than that Rainer achieved the joyous affirmation of his own despair in the celebration of the Elegies.” I find this comment about Rilke revealing. Maybe “Autumn Day” is, like the Duino Elegies, both a celebration of the poet’s own despair, and his expression of longing for human warmth. That conflict is part of why "Autumn Day" continues to fascinate and endure.


Other posts on Rilke:
Learning from Rilke
Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo"

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Monday, November 5, 2012

The Dramatic Monologue, Part 3: Writing Your Own

If you’ve never tried writing a dramatic monologue, or you’d like to try again, what character should you pick? Maybe you already know whose voice you’d like to use. In that case, go for it!
If you don’t know, or you’re looking for ideas, consider choosing a character you’ve always wanted to be. I wrote a dramatic monologue in the voice of the great African American singer/dancer/entertainer Josephine Baker because I admire her tremendously. I also love the setting of her early success—Paris in the 1920s. I wanted to know what she might sound like talking to a friend in private about her very public life, so I just made up their conversation, based on research I’d done.
Another reason to choose a persona might be an individual whose life illustrates a particular point. A good example of this is June Jordan’s “Unemployment Monologue.” The poem is in the voice of a young Black male who might be standing on a street corner, talking to someone from a more privileged background. The speaker is called by different tags, from Herbie Jr. to “Ashamah Kazaam,” a name somewhere between an Islamic given name and a superhero punch. We get a sense that this young man is creative and smart, but going nowhere in a society that has no use for him. He boldly challenges the person he addresses—an interesting stance for a dramatic monologue.
Another reason for picking a character for a dramatic monologue might be to choose someone so different from you that it creates a challenge to put yourself in that person’s shoes. The difference could be gender, age, class, historical time period, race, sexual orientation, religion, politics, geographic location, physical abilities, etc. Make sure you are not falling into stereotypes about a group, and that you are creating a character with the complexity that you hope others see in you. If you write about someone from a group not your own, consider showing that person not just at his or her lowest point. Without whitewashing the adversity your persona has to encounter, allow that individual at least a moment of triumph or connection.
One other consideration with a dramatic monologue: who is the speaker addressing? Is it a generalized audience, or an individual the speaker knows? If it’s a specific person, that can create more depth and/or drama. In Langston Hughes’s “Mother to Son,” for instance, the fact that this speaker is a mother talking to her child makes it much more moving. In June Jordan’s “Unemployment Monologue,” the young man addressing a person of relative privilege sets up a dynamic tension. In a sense, even a monologue is a dialogue of sorts, since it is addressed to another or to others.


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