Thursday, December 31, 2015

Pathos: What It Is, and How Writers Evoke It

Pathos is one of the emotions that writers most frequently evoke in their work. The noun pathos comes from ancient Greek and from the verb πάσχειν, or pas-thein, which means “to suffer.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines pathos as, “A quality which evokes pity, sadness, or tenderness…”

Essentially pathos is a personal suffering, a solitary emotion,, which is what makes it so poignant. Ironically, it is that individual, interior quality of pathos that allows us to empathize with it, since we all have experienced moments of pathos.

Unlike other emotions, such as love, hate, anger, outrage, friendship, etc., pathos only requires one person to create its story. Because it mostly involves the fate of an individual, pathos might be the easiest emotion to invoke, so it’s a good place to start for a beginning writer.

One of the most classic examples of pathos for me is this poem by the great haiku writer, Hattori Ransetsu (1654–1707).

Hattori Ransetsu
Here is the haiku:

The childless woman,
How tender she is
To the dolls!

translated by R.H. Blyth

In this poem Ransetsu tells the story of one person’s life in fewer than twenty syllables. The woman, who is perhaps a shopkeeper, is arranging dolls, stroking their hair, neatening their clothes. Her tenderness toward them shows the reader the love she would have given her children, if she had had them. This one scene, which the poet depicts with a few quick brushstrokes, gives us an entire narrative. This is not a woman who has voluntarily chosen to forego having children. The pathos comes from the sense of loss, the absence of the life that this woman would have enjoyed as a mother, and the poignancy of her showing that love to a lifeless doll.

Even though pathos does not require many characters to trigger it, it is still a tricky emotion. The danger in attempting to evoke pathos is sentimentality. Imagine, for example, if Ransetsu had written instead:

That poor, lonely, childless woman—
Isn’t it terribly sad how she tenderly strokes
and soothes the dolls!

If Ransetsu had written this overblown version, we would recoil from the writer’s blatant appeal to our sympathy. It’s the restraint that Ransetsu exercises in understating the emotion that allows the reader to experience the feeling.


That’s something to keep in mind in trying to create pathos. Pathos is like mercury. It’s fluid. Unpredictable. It arrives with a sudden flash of light. Trying to force it to appear just doesn’t work. The writer has to create an authentic situation, and allow the pathos to flow into it, and once it does—snap the lid shut so it stays.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Editing by Rewriting from Scratch

When we edit, most of us tend to tinker. We substitute a word or phrase here, we prune a word or two there. We don’t make major changes in any draft. Essentially, we like our own words (who doesn’t?) and we want to keep as many of them as we can. We do that even when we know that a poem or work of fiction or nonfiction that we’ve written isn’t working.

But is tinkering always the best method of fixing something? Many times, when we alter just a little here and there, we are missing an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of a particular draft. It often takes a flawed draft to give us the clue to what our idea really requires. Sometimes the idea needs not what we wrote in our first attempt, or even the fifth attempt. In some cases, we’ve just got to start over.

That may feel like failure. It isn’t. It’s important to see the early drafts of a work of writing not as emeralds, but as tentative experiments, attempts. It’s difficult to do that, since our writings are often as close as we get to our innermost thoughts and deepest insights. But insights usually don’t arrive fully tailored. Sometimes we can’t just sew on a button, we have to begin with a whole new pattern.

I love the example of this sort of editing that I learned about from Professor David Thorburn, who taught the course I took on the modern British novel at Yale around 1973. If I’m not misquoting Professor Thorburn (and my apologies if I am!), D.H. Lawrence wrote his masterpiece, Women in Love, eight separate times. 

D.H. Lawrence
I don’t mean that Lawrence edited the same manuscript eight times. No, he started all over from Chapter One eight different times. That doesn’t mean he kept nothing from the earlier drafts. No doubt there were sections that worked in the very first version. But each time Lawrence began to write from the beginning with no preconceptions about how the book would progress or turn out—or so I like to think.

I’ve recently been trying out a similar method of editing with my own poems. I find this particularly useful for poetry in a lyric form. If one version doesn’t work, it often is self-defeating to edit that version, since any error ripples through the entire form of the poem. It’s better to start fresh, with new rhymes, for instance, or new repeating elements, possibly snatched from an earlier draft, but reused in a different context.

I recently attempted to write a villanelle for the first time. In a villanelle, the poet has to include two lines that are flexible and resonant enough to appear four times each in the poem. 

For instance, take Dylan Thomas’s iconic villanelle, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.” 

Dylan Thomas
In that poem, the two famous refrains are:

Do not go gentle into that good night

Rage, rage against the dying of the light

Imagine if Thomas had initially selected as a refrain not one of those lines, but a different line in the poem, say the second line, “Old age should burn and rave at close of day”?  It might put too much emphasis on the idea of burning or raving to mention them four times. With four uses of the word “burn,” the poem would have a much more religious undertone, since it would evoke burning in hell. The word “rave” occurring in four places might make give the poem too hysterical a note. If those were not the foci Thomas wanted, the current line 2 would not have worked as a refrain. It would have served his purposes better to start over with a different refrain and rewrite the whole poem, rather than to try to tweak that line in some minor way.

There’s another reason we prefer to tinker rather than to rebuild from the ground up—tinkering is a lot less work. But ultimately, several pieces of flawed work that produce nothing usable are much less productive than a lot of work that results in writing worth sending out into the 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

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Influence of Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!

I just finished listening to the audiobook of William Faulkner’s celebrated novel Absalom, Absalom! The book has had a major influence on world literature, but, ironically, not in Faulkner’s home country, the U.S.A.

William Faulkner
In Absalom, Absalom! Faulkner creates a complex plot structure that is one of the novel’s most unusual features. That meandering architecture does have its antecedents—Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier springs to mind.

The tales of the various narrators in Absalom, Absalom! are filtered through the voice of Quentin Compson, a Harvard undergraduate from the rural Mississippi town of Jefferson, where most of the book’s action takes place. Quentin tells the story in 1910 to his roommate, Shreve, though the timeframe of the story is mostly mid-19th century.

But the plot is not a linear progression through history. Instead, the story unfolds in temporal loops that keep circling back to certain key events, revealing with each telling another part of what occurred in a particular episode. As the loops around a certain incident accumulate, the reader is able to assemble a more complete picture of that event. These loops are like the twists of a cord, or the frills at the edge of a doily, moving forward, but never in a straight line.

At one point in the novel, Faulker beautifully describes the worldview that underlies his highly original method of storytelling:

“Maybe nothing ever happens once and is finished. Maybe happen is never once but like ripples maybe on water after the pebble sinks, the ripples moving on, spreading, the pool attached by a narrow umbilical water-cord to the next pool which the first pool feeds, has fed, did feed, let this second pool contain a different temperature of water, a different molecularity of having seen, felt, remembered, reflect in a different tone the infinite unchanging sky, it doesn’t matter: that pebble’s watery echo whose fall it did not even see moves across its surface too at the original ripple-space, to the old ineradicable rhythm…”

In other words, each event in a story resonates with every other event, whether we realize the connections or not, just as the characters in the novel seem to repeat the same actions from generation to generation. Thomas Sutpen, the Southern, self-made partriarch who is the dominant figure in the novel, marries two women without divorcing the first. The son that he never acknowledged from his first marriage similarly attempts bigamy, but…well, I won’t reveal what happens for those who haven’t read the novel. It’s like a cycle of Greek tragedies on a Southern plantation, and then some.

Absalom, Absalom! has been described as “Southern Gothic” but I don’t think there’s a lot of the Gothic in Faulkner’s book. To me, “Gothic” implies the presence of otherworldly beings and phenomena, and the characters of Absalom, Absalom! are very much of this world. What could be more material than Thomas Sutpen’s relentless, Balzacian energy to procreate and to build and rebuild his plantation? I would describe Faulkner’s novel as Southern baroque, since it has the ornateness, grandeur, and sensuality of a baroque basilica.

The style of the novel also has a leisurely, baroque flow. Here’s a passage from the opening paragraphs that gives a flavor of the book’s style, which makes it such a pleasure to hear certain sections of the novel read out loud in a Mississippi drawl:

“Her voice would not cease, it would just vanish. There would be the dim coffin-smelling gloom sweet and oversweet with the twice-bloomed wistaria against the outer wall by the savage quiet September sun impacted distilled and hyperdistilled, into which came now and then the loud cloudy flutter of sparrows like a flat limber stick whipped by an idle boy, and the rank smell of female old flesh long embattled in virginity while the wan haggard face watched him above the faint triangle of lace at wrists and throat from the too tall chair in which she resembled a crucified child; and the voice not ceasing but vanishing into and then out of the long intervals like a stream, a trickle running from patch to patch of dried sand, and the ghost mused with shadowy docility as if it were the voice which he haunted where a more fortunate one would have had a house.”

OK, there are some otherworldly beings there, I’ll give you that.

The novel’s baroque diction and plot were a tremendous influence on several of the greatest South American magical realist writers, particularly in novels such as Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera, and Autumn of the Patriarch. I would add Mario Vargas Llosa’s masterpiece, Conversation in the Cathedral (which you should read if you haven’t—fantastic book!), and Manuel Puig’s wonderful saga, Heartbreak Tango.

It’s curious to me that so few writers of Faulkner’s own country have emulated either his style or his plot structure. He is one of the few North Americans to win the Nobel Prize for literature, isn’t he?

Maybe part of the problem is that Faulkner is a complicated case when it comes to race and gender, and who wants to touch complexity in this day and age? Faulkner probably thought of himself as an enlightened person when it came to those issues, at least in the context of the time when Absalom, Absalom! was published, which was 1936. And in some ways Faulkner was enlightened. There is a character in the novel who nails himself into his own attic and starves to death rather than be drafted into the Confederate army during the Civil War. The book discusses relationships between the races. Those were certainly taboo subjects for a white Southern writer to depict at that time. Despite those moments in the book, Faulkner could be faulted over and over for his obsessive use of the “n” word and his stereotypical description of African Americans. The women characters in the novel are paper dolls. For those of us still living with the legacy of the history Faulkner describes in Absalom, Absalom!, the book is a grab bag as a role model for other writers.


Or is it that Faulkner’s baroque, Southern sensibility is not in tune with the WYSIWIG culture of Puritan America? Who has time for a sentence that goes on for the better part of a page in a world where stock market trades are logged by the millionth of a second? I experienced this firsthand when I was listening to the audiobook of Absalom, Absalom! on the way to work. I would arrive at the parking lot at my office and I couldn’t shut off the narrative till the actor reading the book had come to a stopping point, so I would sit in my car for a couple of minutes while the time ticked away making me later and later for work, and I paused in my Toyota Corolla listening to Faulkner’s sazerac-infused prose, waiting for that beautiful river of a sentence to finally reach its delta.

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, October 2, 2015

Huck Finn Revisited

I first read Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in secondary school. At the time, the book hadn’t yet generated the volume of controversy that it has provoked in recent decades. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a regular on the American Library Association’s list of books most frequently banned in schools because of its attitudes on race. Ironically, the book was originally banned not long after it was published in 1884 by those who found its attitudes toward race and religion too radical and progressive. Still, I'm sympathetic to those parents who don’t think the novel is suitable as a textbook for their children.



Listening to the audiobook recently, my reactions to Twain’s disputed classic were varied. I found myself laughing out loud at certain passages, but seriously troubled by some of his portrayals of black characters, especially Jim.

One of my favorite parts of the book was Twain’s portrayal of Tom Sawyer’s gullible Aunt Sally, and Sister Hotchkiss’s hilarious speech mannerisms:

“You may well say it, Brer Hightower!  It's jist as I was a-sayin’ to Brer Phelps, his own self.  S’e, what do you think of it, Sister Hotchkiss, s’e? Think o’ what, Brer Phelps, s’I?  Think o’ that bed-leg sawed off that a way, s’e?  think of it, s’I?  I lay it never sawed itself off, s’I—somebody sawed it, s’I; that’s my opinion, take it or leave it, it mayn’t be no 'count, s’I, but sich as ‘t is, it’s my opinion, s’I, ‘n’ if any body k’n start a better one, s’I, let him do it, s’I, that's all.”

Twain’s comical shortening of the phrases “says I” and “says he” does justice to the way that American slang can accordion long phrases into monosyllables. I was sitting on the 24 Divisadero bus in San Francisco not long ago, and one of the passengers was inadvertently delivering what amounted to a Mark Twain monologue to a friend sitting next to him. The passenger finished every sentence with, “Nohmsayn,” which I swear he pronounced as one syllable, even though the meaning was eight syllables long: “Do you know what I am saying?” His speech reminded me so much of Twain's Aunt Sally character.

In recording American idioms with loving authenticity, Twain was both poking fun of, and paying homage to, the speech of the common individual. He was honoring equality and democracy at a time when writers were generally expected to parrot the king’s English.

Twain’s vision of democracy versus royalty also emerges in the book’s characterizations. Two of the most unlikeable characters in the book are the shyster vagabonds who call themselves the King and the Duke and pretend to be descended from royalty. From the point of view of Jim and Huck, they are just like royalty in their lazy and parasitic way of life.

But not everything in Twain’s book is democratic. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain mocks superstitious African Americans who are easily taken in, but the whites in the book don’t come across much better. Even so, there is an oddness to the gullibility of Jim and the other blacks Twain paints in the book. Huck seems to be able to fool black people at will into thinking that something they have just witnessed with their own eyes never happened. That willingness of the black characters to believe something contrary to their own senses doesn’t feel either funny or realistic to me.


So I would hesitate to give The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn either a simple thumbs up or a thumbs down. I don’t know that I personally would teach it to young people because of the stereotypes and the incessant use of the “n” word. I can understand parents being upset by those features of the book and not wanting their children to read it at a young age. But other aspects of the book are terrific. And it is laugh-out-loud funny in a great many places. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not a book that I would be quick to judge in either a positive or a negative way. It’s a much more nuanced case, in my opinion.

So, what is the takeaway for writers, here? Even though Twain's book was farsighted for its time, it feels antiquated in many ways now. It's not enough for writers to be just a few years ahead of public opinion. Writers need to have the vision to imagine their work being read a hundred years or more in the future, and to conceive their own mission as an artist with the enlightened eyes (one can only hope!) of the next century.

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

Monday, September 21, 2015

Praise and Lament, Part 9: The Dialectic of Praise and Lament

Now I’d like to turn to another aspect of praise and lament: the unexpected links between these two seeming opposites. We saw in Yehuda Amichai’s poem “The precision of pain and the blurriness of joy” that there is a connection between praise and lament. One learns to praise well by describing in detail the pains of life. I would like to take this even farther and say there is a dialectic of praise and lament.  

Like the ode, the dialectical method originated in ancient Greece. Plato and Aristotle developed a form of dialectic, but this method of reasoning was brought to fruition in nineteenth century German philosophy, particularly in the work of G.W.F. Hegel. Hegel argued that the more an idea or moment in history became truly itself, the more it starts to bend toward its opposite. Eventually, from this conflict or contrast of opposites, a new synthesis is born.


Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
I think there is a dialectic of praise and lament, because in all these poems we’ve discussed there are elements of both. Lament suggests praise, because if we feel the loss of something acutely enough to mourn its passing, then we are implicitly praising it. If it is worthy of being lamented, it’s worthy of being praised.

The other side of this equation is a little harder to see, but I think it makes equal sense. If something is being praised, there is a grain of lament in it, since nothing lasts forever or can be completely possessed. The more we value something and praise its virtues, the more we are setting ourselves up for lamenting it now or in the future.

To illustrate this, I’d like to focus on the final psalm of the Hebrew Bible, Psalm 150. Here is the King James Bible version of the psalm:

Psalm 150

Praise ye the Lord. Praise God in his Sanctuarie: Praise him in the firmament of his power.
Praise him for his mightie actes: Praise him according to his excellent greatnesse.
Praise him with the sound of the Trumpet: Prayse him with the Psalterie and Harpe.
Praise him with the timbrell and dance: praise him with stringed instruments, and Organes.
Praise him upon the loud cymbals: praise him upon the high sounding cymbals.
Let every thing that hath breath, praise the Lord. Praise yee the Lord.

That’s about as straightforward an example of praise without lament as you can get in the Psalms. When it’s sung in English, there is usually only performed with rejoicing and hallelujahs. By the way, “hallelujah” means “praise God.”

Listen to how this psalm sounds in Hebrew, though.


If you’d never heard that piece of music before, would you think it was a hymn of praise, or a lament? It’s not that clear. It's a hymn of praise, but with a mournful tone. 

I think the closer you get to the roots of these two traditions, praise and lament, the more their roots are entangled with each other. If we are aware of that dialectic, whether we’re engaged in praise or lament, we can allow the opposite to add salt to our praises or honey to our laments, as the recipe demands.

Praise and Lament, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7, Part 8

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
How to Be an American Writer

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Praise and Lament, Part 8: Praise of Common Things in Neruda’s “Ode to Salt”

The next poem of praise I’d like to talk about is by the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who lived from 1904 to 1973. Neruda is probably best known for his early book Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, published in 1924 and written when Neruda was only 19. He’s also well known as a poet of political protest. In this blog, I’m going to discuss Neruda’s odes.

Pablo Neruda
The ode was originally a song of praise in ancient Greece commissioned by a rich person. For instance, a wealthy individual might want to celebrate the victory of a chariot he sponsored in the Olympic games. People with means used to pay for chariots in the Olympics just like corporations now put their logos on NASCAR racing cars. Greek poets, notably Pindar, began writing odes to celebrate those winners, but the ode eventually came into much wider use.

Neruda didn’t write his odes in praise of a rich person’s chariot, though. He wrote what he called “Elemental Odes,” odes in praise of ordinary things used and enjoyed by ordinary people, such as “Ode to the Watermelon,” “Ode to My Socks.” I’d like to focus on Neruda’s “Ode to Salt.” Here’s a translation that I did loosely based on the translations of James Wright and Robert Bly, and the translation by Margaret Sayers Peden. If you'd like to read the Spanish original, you can find it here.

Pablo Neruda

Ode to Salt

This salt
from the salt shaker
I saw it on the salt flats.
I know you
won’t
believe me,
but
it sings,
that salt sings, the hide
of the salt flats
sings,
its mouth choked
with earth.
I shivered in those lonely
expanses
when I heard
the voice
of the
salt
in the desert.
Near Antofagasta
the whole
pampa of saltpeter
rumbles:
it’s a
gruff
voice,
its song
a lament.
And in its crevices
rock salt, mountains
of buried light,
a transparent cathedral,
sea crystals, forgotten
by the waves.

And you’re on every table
on this earth,
salt,
your eager
sustenance
scattering
vital light
over
our food.
Preserver
of the musty
barrels of ships,
explorer
of the oceans,
your substance
anticipated
by the undiscovered, half-open
paths in the foam.
Dust of the sea, through you
the acquatic night
kisses
our tongues,
your oceanic taste melts
into each seasoned morsel,
so the slightest
the least
wave of the salt shaker
reveals
not just your domestic whiteness
but the flavor at the core of the infinite.

                                                                                                    translation © 2015 by Zack Rogow

Most of us, if we were asked to celebrate salt, might start with something like, “It’s good on eggs, and it’s really terrific on corn with butter.” Neruda goes way beyond this because praise for him is not just description, but an act of imagination.

Let’s begin with Neruda’s title, which in Spanish is “Oda a la sal.” It only takes five letters to spell the entire title: a, d, l, o, s. A name with only five letters—how much more elemental can you get? Neruda starts with the basic building block of salt in line one, and then in the next two lines begins to permutate that word into “salt shaker” and “salt flats.”

The speaker starts in a very domestic setting, which is often where salt is used, but then is quickly swept up to an expansive landscape of salt flats and desert. Neruda names this unusual landscape: it’s the region of Antofagasta in his native Chile, which is part of the Atacama Desert, often called the driest place on earth. Charles Darwin, during the voyage of the Beagle, wrote of it, “It was almost a pity to see the sun shining over so useless a country.”


Salt crystals in the Atacama Desert, Chile
The Atacama Desert is a place of hallucinatory strangeness, where rain sometimes doesn’t fall for decades at a time, and when it does, the air is so dry the water sometimes evaporates before it touches the ground. Some of the lakes in this area are pink or silver-gray from the minerals in them, even when gathered in a clear bottle. In parts of the Atacama Desert the salt forms strange sculptures. Neruda knew this area well because it was the district that he represented when he was elected to the Chilean Senate. Neruda vividly describes campaigning in this region in his Memoirs:

“It hasn’t rained for half a century there, and the desert has done its work on the faces of the miners. They are men with scorched features; their solitude and the neglect they are consigned to has been fixed in the dark intensity of their eyes. Going from the desert up to the mountains, entering any needy home, getting to know the inhuman labor these people do, and feeling that the hopes of isolated and sunken men have been entrusted to you, is not a light responsibility.”

Responsibility. I think that is a crucial word when it comes to praise. Often a work of praise is created out of a deep sense of responsibility.

Neruda makes the salt flats much more than a cliché place of toil. They take on an otherworldly beauty—”mountains/of buried light”—“a transparent cathedral.” These fantastical images transform this desolate, impoverished area into a place of splendor. Neruda makes this forsaken region a most holy place because of the dignity of the human sweat that goes into it, suggesting medieval cathedrals that were an accumulation of decades and even centuries of work.

Right at this point in the poem where Neruda seems to be taking us farthest from everyday reality into the realm of imaginary cathedrals, he yanks us back to the here and now:

And you’re on every table
on this earth,
salt,
your eager
sustenance
scattering
vital light
over
our food.

Salt is again the familiar condiment of daily life, but it has metamorphosed during the poem’s journey to the salt plains and saltpeter mines. He addresses the salt directly with the familiar tu, as if it’s now a person he knows well, and what could be more familiar than salt? The salt has retained that remarkable light that it had in the desert—la luz vital, Neruda calls it in Spanish, so it still has an aura to it, though it’s back to the most ordinary, domestic setting. Neruda uses a delicious word—espolvoreando—to describe the salt’s sprinkling, portraying the simple act of its pouring as almost gymnastic.

The conclusion of “Ode to Salt” reunites the planetary and the particular. The salt combines the smallest and largest things, the driest and wettest, all in the space of a few short lines of poetry. By the end, the salt is the flavor of a cosmic kiss that lets us touch the core of the universe.


As in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s psalm of praise to “Pied Beauty,” Neruda’s “Ode to Salt” begins to take on the attributes of the thing praised. He sprinkles the words lightly down the page as if they are grains of salt. Neruda is also careful not to overstate, always an important consideration in poems of praise.

Praise and Lament, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7, Part 9

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
How to Be an American Writer

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Praise and Lament, Part 7: Mary Oliver's hymn of praise, "Happiness"

The next work of praise I'm going to discuss is a poem I love, “Happiness” by the U.S. writer Mary Oliver. The poem appeared in her book American Primitive, which won the Pulitzer Prize. You can read the poem here.

One thing I admire about this poem is that Mary Oliver resists the temptation to say too much. A lesser poem might use the image of honey to draw a facile parallel to the sweetness of life. Mary Oliver includes that as a subtext in the poem, but it never becomes saccharine. 

Mary Oliver
Praise has a tendency to get sentimental or gooey, and she never crosses that line in this poem, except maybe with the words “perfections” and “shining” in the final lines: “the perfections/ of honeysuckle and roses and clover,” and in “day after shining day.” Even that last line is an image, though, and not a judgment.

One lesson from Mary Oliver’s poem is: when you are praising, avoid overstatement. It will sour the sweetest writing. In some of her other poems, Mary Oliver cannot resist the temptation to wax rhapsodic and personify the smallest daisy. I’m not convinced that’s her strongest suit.

Another thing that is interesting in the poem “Happiness” is that there are major changes in the space of this poem’s twenty-eight short lines. Here's how she portrays the bear initially, for instance: “Black block of gloom." There is not much to like about this bear at first. 

I think it’s important that this is a she-bear. The aggression we often associate with bears seems somewhat lessened by that detail. But this bear is aggressive in the way it disrupts the bees’ hive.

There is a turning point in the poem where this bear seems to become more likeable: the stanza break. That break is not only a pause, it’s a change in many other ways. Once the bear finds the honey, the bees’ sweetness seems to infuse the bear. The imagery portraying the bear transforms at that point in the poem. The bear becomes like the bees. It acquires wings, and seems almost like a big, furry angel.

Notice also how the sounds of the poem change. Mary Oliver starts with the hard consonants of “Black block of gloom.” Then she progresses to the clunky but inoffensive short vowel sounds of:

down the rugs of her arms,
and began to hum and sway.

Even though the sounds are not terribly welcoming, we do have the image of “the rugs of her arms,” with its warmer, domestic connotations. Less fierce than the “Black block of gloom,” for sure.

Finally Mary Oliver adds in the longer vowels of roses, clover, float, sleep, and sheer. She also uses the softer sibilance of “sleep in the sheer nets” and “day after shining day.”


What do you think of the title of this poem? Is “Happiness” too obvious a moral to draw? What if Mary Oliver had decided to name it something less thematic, such as, “Bear in Honey,” or, “In the Forests of Maine”? How would that change the poem? Wouldn’t she then have to add something so we understood the theme? I think the reason she chose such a thematic and didactic title is so it would stay out of the way for the rest of the poem. The title becomes a lens for us to see through without interfering with the poem’s beautiful sounds and imagery. Yes, Mary Oliver;s poem is about “Happiness,” but she describes it through a very specific incident with its juicy details.

Praise and Lament, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 8Part 9

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
How to Be an American Writer

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Praise and Lament, Part 6: Praise in Yehuda Amichai and Gerard Manley Hopkins

So, now we’re going to move from the valley of lament to the plateau of praise. In many ways, praise is the more difficult mode to write well. The great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai discusses this in his poem “The precision of pain and the blurriness of joy” from his book Open Closed Open, beautifully translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld.

Yehuda Amichai (1924–2000)
What Amichai describes so well in this poem is the way in which our psyches are hard-wired to record every detail of an unpleasant situation. This tendency may be a survival mechanism to keep us from repeating destructive experiences. But we humans are not well attuned to recounting the positive. That takes a different kind of attention.

Nevertheless, poems of praise are some of the most ancient in human culture. Many forms of writing or speech or song are traditionally vehicles of praise: psalms, hymns, odes, litanies, blasons (the blason is a form of love poetry that enunciates all of the beloved’s features one by one).

Just as the lament focuses on loss, on absence, the poem of praise focuses on presence. But the poem of praise is not concerned with something that is obviously present. It’s about drawing attention to something present that deserves or demands more of our attention.

One of the earliest forms of praise literature is the psalm. The Hebrew word for “psalms,” tehillim, literally mean “praises,” in this case, praises of God. Let’s say you wanted to write a poem praising God or the spiritual side of life and you wanted to do it using objects or things or creatures in the world that are the clearest manifestations of the divine. What would be the most obvious things to inspire a sense of spiritual awe? You might choose children’s innocence, sunsets, mountains, beautiful skies, rainbows, etc.things that are self-evidently beautiful or pleasant.

Well, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a sort of modern psalm where he praises God through unusual objects or things in the world. Hopkins was a great poet and an Irish priest who lived from 1844 to 1899. 
Gerard Manley Hopkins
It’s very interesting what Hopkins chooses to single out as evidence of the divine. Here’s the poem:

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things –
   For skies of couple-colour as a brindled cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                Praise him.

What sorts of things does Hopkins choose to praise, and therefore to connect to the sacred in his poem? He doesn’t focus on days when the heavens are a clear blue, but on mottled skies. He praises not constancy and perfect complexions but what is “fickle, freckled.” He spotlights grungy, physical work: “gear and tackle and trim.” In what way are these manifestations of the divine, if God is, as he says, “past change”? Don’t these things seem like the opposite of the divine?

When I taught this poem in the low-residency MFA program at the University of Alaska Anchorage in the summer of 2015, my colleague, the poet Anne Caston, had an interesting interpretation of Hopkins’ choice of things to praise in this poem: “Hopkins understood something about the nature of God to accept the ‘flawed’ and ‘marred’ things in His creation. I love that notion too, that there is a part of the spiritual that sees the beauty and elegance of the ‘flawed’ things.”

One thing writers can take away from this poem is that praise needs to have an element of surprise. There’s a goody-goody side to praise that can be predictable and cloying. Avoid crystals, butterflies, waterfalls, sunsets, and cute babies, unless you can find something to praise in these things that you’ve never heard anyone laud before.

The artistic context of Hopkins’ poem is also interesting. Around the time that Hopkins wrote this poem, the United Kingdom and Ireland were in the midst of a serious medieval revival. You’ve probably heard of the Pre-Raphaelite artists such as Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and William Morris, for instance. 


The families of Pre-Raphaelite artists William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones
Influenced by the art critic John Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelites took their name from the idea of going back in art to the time before the Renaissance painter Raphael, whose work they felt represented a sophisticated corruption of the innocence, sincerity, and freshness of medieval art. During this period of the industrial revolution, in literature as well, there was a yearning for a more innocent and pure art. Many artists turned to or imagined a period when art was inspired by faith and the importance of craft. That’s why this school in the visual arts was also called the Arts and Crafts movement.

In his poetry, Hopkins harked back to the rhyme and alliteration of the very earliest English verse, dating back to the Middle Ages. This was the period of Old English, the Anglo-Saxon roots of English before the influence of French and Latin became predominant in the era of the Norman conquest. You can listen here to a recitation of one of the greatest poems of Old English, “The Seafarer,” so you can hear the alliteration and strong rhythms that characterized the literature in English in its earliest days.


By using the sort of alliteration and rhyme from an earlier period in the history of the English language, Hopkins evokes the faith and values of that period as well. But I think one of the take-aways from Hopkins’ poem is that the thing that you are praising—or lamenting—can shape the way you praise or lament it. It has to shape the way you praise or lament it.

Praise and Lament, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 7, Part 8Part 9

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
How to Be an American Writer