Monday, July 30, 2012

Addressing a "You": Part 3, The "You" as "I"

In another variation of second person address, the writer uses the “you” form but really seems to mean “I.” “You” becomes a stand-in for the speaker of the poem or story. Thanks to the poet Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet for suggesting this classic example, Philip Levine’s poem “What Work Is.” Levine’s poem is narrated by a speaker waiting in line with day laborers hoping to find work at a Ford plant. But by the third line, the poet is addressing us, the readers, in an up-close-and-personal voice:

You know what work is—if  you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is…

Soon the speaker is telling us to abandon our usual sense of self: “Forget you. This is about waiting…” Quickly the poem sweeps us into the vantage point of the “you.” But this “you” is really the speaker, since he is recalling such an incredibly specific event:

…now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to   
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.

More than likely than not, none of us has a brother who worked a night shift at the Cadillac plant so he could study German opera. Most probably Philip Levine did have a brother like the one described in this poem. The reason it works in this poem to use the “you” who resembles the speaker, even though the circumstances are so particular to this situation, is that the poet is telling both himself and his reader or listener that love for another needs to be expressed and demonstrated, not just felt. That’s such a universal imperative that it makes sense that the speaker has externalized the poem to an address in the second person.

Often I find that the “I” as “you,” though, is somewhat dishonest. The writer is not really claiming his or her own experience, but trying to soft-pedal it by it projecting onto the reader. If you’ve written a poem or story of this sort, try putting it in the first person. It may be scary to claim that experience, but it also may be far more powerful, and it might push the writing in other directions that enhance your work.

Other recent posts on writing topics:

Friday, July 27, 2012

Addressing a "You": Part 2, Imaginative Address

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The second kind of “you” I’ll call the “you” of imaginative address. It is spoken only in imagination to another person. One famous example of this is Sylvia Plath’s poem “Daddy”:

There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

The poet is looking at a photo of her father (“You stand at the blackboard, daddy,/in the picture I have of you”), not speaking to him personally—“I was ten when they buried you”. The “you” addressed in the imagination is aimed at a specific person, but spoken only in theory to that individual.

Plath’s poem shows the incredible dynamism of the “you” of imaginative address. The poet speaks her mind about her father, uncensored by the need to show the poem to the person addressed. She can be as brutally honest as she likes. Diplomacy be damned, she tells it like it is.

Many political poems are also spoken to a “you” of imaginative address, such as Anna Akhmatova’s “Imitation from the Armenian.” which she wrote in a sort of code, but the poem was clearly a challenge to the Soviet Premier Josef Stalin, who sent her son away to Siberian forced labor camps for seventeen years:

…was my little son
To your taste, was he fat enough?

(translated by D.M. Thomas)

If you write mostly to a “you” of imaginative address, it might be a worthwhile exercise to try writing to a “you” of personal address, where you actually give the writing to the other person. The content might be more cautious, but it also might be more probing, since you are actually communicating, not just venting.

Also try the reverse. If you usually write to a “you” of personal address, change it up. Write a secret poem or prose piece to that “you” that you would never show that person. It might bring to light emotions or ideas that you otherwise would never express.

More on writing to a "you" in the next blog.

Part 1 of Addressing a "You": Personal Address
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, July 25, 2012

Addressing a "You": Part 1, Personal Address

Writing is often addressed directly to another person, a person called “you” by the speaker, or, in former times, “thee.” Some of the oldest literature in the world is written in this form. Here’s an excerpt of a love poem by Sappho, who was born in Greece in the 7th century B.C.E. The English translation is by the writer Anne Carson:

                                  …oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking
is left in me

Those lines take my breath away. This is an example of what I would call the “you” of personal address. The speaker is talking to a realistic person. It even seems the writer is actually going to give or recite the work to the person addressed. Of course, we have no idea if Sappho had the opportunity to present or speak these verses to this woman, but for all intents and purposes, it seems as if that is her aim.

Shakespeare’s sonnets are another great example of the “you” of personal address, since many of them feel so intimately directed to another human being. Here is Sonnet XXXVI, not one that your high school English teacher had you read, because it’s about illicit love:

Let me confess that we two must be twain,
Although our undivided loves are one:
So shall those blots that do with me remain,
Without thy help, by me be borne alone.
In our two loves there is but one respect,
Though in our lives a separable spite,
Which though it alter not love’s sole effect,
Yet doth it steal sweet hours from love’s delight.
I may not evermore acknowledge thee,
Lest my bewailed guilt should do thee shame,
Nor thou with public kindness honour me,
Unless thou take that honour from thy name:
But do not so, I love thee in such sort,
As thou being mine, mine is thy good report.

I would bet money that Shakespeare handed that poem to his secret love, written out with his own quill. More than literary fame inspired that sonnet! He wanted to reassure his lover that even though their love was tainted by being out of wedlock, or even a betrayal of another, she still had his respect.

The advantage of a poem like this, written with the “you” of personal address, is that it can be given directly to the other person, often a much-sought-after beloved. For this reason, a poem of this sort has to be diplomatic. For instance, Shakespeare doesn’t call their love adultery or a union out of marriage, though it probably is, judging from the sense of the poem. He also tells his beloved that he alone will bear whatever shame their union evokes.

The fact that the writing is addressed to a real human being with an urgent message also makes the words compelling to an outside reader.

More on addressing a "you" in the two blogs to come.

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

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Gilding the Lily and Using Purple Prose

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A lily is beautiful. Gold leaf is gorgeous. But a gilded lily is too much. That’s why writers have used the phrase “gilding the lily” to describe language that is so ornate that it becomes gooey and insipid. In fiction or nonfiction, this type of language is sometimes called “purple prose.”

Here’s an example:

Her hair that lay along her back
Was yellow like ripe corn.

Another:

“We two,” she said, “will seek the groves
Where the lady Mary is,
With her five handmaidens, whose names
Are five sweet symphonies,
Cecily, Gertrude, Magdalen,
Margaret and Rosalys.”

These samples are taken from “The Blessed Damozel” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882). "The Blessed Damozel" is a poem he illustrated with a beautiful painting later in his life:


I admit it’s a little unfair to pick on this poem, since it was an amazing achievement for an eighteen-year-old, and it has some gorgeous passages. Still, Rosetti’s Pre-Raphaelite verse is a good illustration of writers going too far.

When Rosetti describes the Blessed Damozel’s hair as “yellow like ripe corn,” he could have used just one of the two descriptors and been just as vivid: yellow, or like ripe corn. The two together just schmear gold paint all over the flower. I realize this poem is written in metered, iambic verse, and it has to scan, but still…

And the second selection, where Rosetti invents the names of the Virgin Mary’s five handmaidens: Rosalys? Come on, Dante, give us a break. And lose the “sweet” in “sweet symphonies,” puh-leeze! Even the word “Damozel”—so precious!

I love Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s Pre-Raphaelite paintings, but his language as a writer can be over-the-top.

Here’s an excerpt from Danielle Steele’s novel Toxic Bachelors:

“The sun was brilliant and hot, shining down on the deck of the motor yacht Blue Moon. She was 240 feet, eighty meters, of sleek, exquisite powerboat, remarkably designed.”

OK, Danielle, I wish I had one iota of your income from writing, but does the sun have to be “brilliant,” “hot,” and “shining”? I think we know already the sun is shining “down” on the boat, not up from underwater. And the powerboat is “sleek,” “exquisite,” and “remarkably designed”? Talk about repetition! That is deep purple prose.

What’s the harm in gilding the lily and in using purple prose? It slows down the reader. It paints the details so thickly that the image loses sharpness. It’s a matter of taste where to draw the line, but draw it we must.

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, July 7, 2012

The Problem with Books

Let’s face it, books are a problem. They smell funny when they age, like old people. They take up too much space, and you have to keep buying shelves for them. Books are electromagnets for dust, and you can’t even throw them in the wash.
When you move, books are a nuisance to take with you. You have to go all around the neighborhood rounding up cartons for them, which turn out to be too heavy to lift once you’ve packed them. Then you have to haul them upstairs. After all that, you know you’ll never read them. They’re just decoration. Is it really worth it?
If they’re library books, you have to remember to bring them back on time, or you wind up accumulating such large fines that you could have bought the book twice over.
When you come right down to it, most books are depressing, if not outright morbid. Especially the so-called “classics.” When you buy a book, you’re paying good money to give yourself the blues. Treat yourself to a spa instead, get a facial, go out to the latest restaurant, or splurge on a pair of shoes you won’t wear everyday. You’ll be a happier person.
            Maybe if you could plug them in and recharge them, books would be good for something. They don’t have buttons to press, they don’t light up or make noises, you have to keep turning those darn pages, and they don’t look up difficult words in the dictionary for you. They’re not even searchable. What good are they?
The other problem with books is that they’re so hard to forget. Now a good sitcom—you’re done with it and it’s over, like a hot shower. A book stays with you, even when you wish you could forget it.
            Personally, I don’t think anyone should be allowed to read a book in public. Books distract from important things, like ads. In essence, books are anti-social. Yeah, books are a big problem. You never know what people might be thinking when they’re reading a book.

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, July 4, 2012

July 4th and U.S. Immigration

In rereading the Declaration of Independence of the United States on the anniversary of its signing, I’m struck by a phrase I’d forgotten was an important part of the text. The signers objected to the king of England preventing the naturalization of immigrants to the thirteen colonies: “he has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws of Naturalization of foreigners…”
That phrase keeps ringing for me, “obstructing the Laws of Naturalization of foreigners…” particularly in the light of Justice Antonin Scalia’s recent dissenting opinion when the Supreme Court struck down parts of Arizona’s law on immigration. Scalia attacked President Obama’s executive order of June 15, 2012,  blocking the deportation of approximately 800,000 young people who came to this country as children, who are not yet naturalized citizens. Isn’t Justice Scalia doing exactly what the founders of our republic criticized the British monarch for, “obstructing the Laws of Naturalization of foreigners”?
If there are people living within the borders of the United States of America, working hard in our economy, raising their children here, shouldn’t they and their children have the right to become citizens of this country? Why should those people, who are active members of our society, live in daily fear of deportation?
Recent Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has said of the young people who grew up here who are not yet citizens, that they should “return home, apply and get in line with everyone else.” But this country is their home.
Let’s join with the founders of our country in extending a welcome embrace to those who are living in the United States and wish to become patriotic Americans. Don’t we still “hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights”?

Other recent posts about writing topics:
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
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
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