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