Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Great Writing Stirs the Whole Body

My literary mentor was June Jordan, the most dynamic reader of poetry I’ve ever heard. June was a poet, essayist, opera librettist, and political activist. Listening to June recite her work was a physical experience—I laughed, I fought back tears, I literally got goose bumps of excitement.

June Jordan (1936–2002)
I think the Greek philosopher Aristotle was referring to a similar feeling in his Poetics when he talked about catharsis, the sensation that the audience experiences in watching a tragedy in the theater. The word catharsis comes from the ancient Greek verb kathairein, meaning to purge or to purify or to cleanse. When we experience deep tragedy on stage or in a movie, our entire body feels wrung out, cleansed—but in an uplifting way.

Interestingly, the word catarrh in English, meaning a cold with phlegm, derives from exactly the same Greek verb. I still remember when I read the tragic ending of Ernest Hemingway’s antiwar novel A Farewell to Arms as a teenager, I spontaneously burst into tears, and I had to blow my nose many times. It was a direct physical sensation.

Great literature can also evoke laughter, which is very much a physical sensation. There is certainly something cathartic about humor, the way it releases what’s bottled up in us. Maybe laughter is the way that we let go of grief. I remember as a young man attending my grandfather’s funeral. After the ceremony at the gravesite, the family drove in several cars to my uncle and aunt’s house for a reception. This is going to be the saddest event of my life, I thought. What actually happened is that family members told one funny story after another about my grandfather—in between the tears. The humor helped us all to feel close again to my grandfather and to recover from the loss. The same is true in literature—laughter is a way for the body to release the grief locked in our bones and tissues.

You could say that the reader also feels erotic literature in the body. That’s certainly another type of physical response to writing. Reading Pablo Neruda’s poem “Barcarole,” is an erotic experience for me, for example. But just because a poem is arousing doesn’t necessarily make it great writing.

This points up an interesting aspect of all writing that affects the body—feeling literature in the body is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for great writing. It also has to be well crafted and use language in a way that artfully transfers meaning. But there’s no mistaking the best literature, because we feel it in our whole body.

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 TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

Friday, February 1, 2019

Is It Important to Visit the Places That Great Writers Have Frequented?

I’ve been reading Patti Smith’s book Just Kids, about her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and her start as an artist in New York City in the late 1960s and early 70s. It’s a fantastic memoir, I highly recommend it for its mesmerizing story of how Patti Smith went from being a homeless, teenage arts wannabe to a highly accomplished songwriter, performer, and author.

Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith
One thing that stands out to me about Patti Smith’s recollections of her early days as an artist is how important it was for her to stand in the places other artists had stood:

“My friend Janet Hamill had been hired at Scribner’s Bookstore, and she found a way of giving me a helping hand by sharing her good fortune. She spoke to her superiors, and they offered me a position. It seemed like a dream job, working in the retail store of the prestigious publisher, home to writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and their editor, the great Maxwell Perkins. Where the Rothschilds bought their books, where paintings by Maxfield Parrish hung in the stairwell.”

I share Patti Smith’s love of locales that artists, and writers in particular, have lived in or visited. I’ve made a pilgrimage to Walt Whitman’s house in Camden,New Jersey, where you can still view his signature floppy, gray felt hat. I’ve hiked to Dove Cottage in the Lake District of the United Kingdom to see where Wordsworth and Coleridge had their literary commune. I’ve walked across the bridge in Trieste, Italy, that James Joyce crossed each day on his way to work.

The author with the statue of James Joyce in Trieste, Italy
I’m as much of a literary groupie as anyone. There is something thrilling for me about visiting these places and seeing objects that my writer heroes touched. In the presence of those places I become like a true believer who hopes to experience the healing power of a saint’s metatarsal bone displayed in a gold monstrance. Maybe I’m subconsciously hoping that gazing up at the plaque on the house whereElizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning lived in Florence will somehow help me to harness the power of their art to energize my own. If only it was that simple!

Part of me remains deeply suspicious of artistic hero worship. After all, almost no one knew who James Joyce was when he crossed the Ponte Rosso in Trieste every day in 1905. He wouldn’t publish his first book of fiction, Dubliners, till nine years later. That bridge became famous because James Joyce did the unbelievably hard and inspired work of writing the great stories that make up Dubliners. The way to make your reputation as a writer is not to imitate James Joyce or to drink a Hugo aperitif near his statue in Trieste, as lovely as that is.


Yes, living la vie bohème and being near artists and their haunts may seem glamorous. But art is like sports: watching other people do it is not the same as taking part. There’s no substitute for the hard work of the artist.

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 TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry