This blog provides advice to writers on their literary work.
See the end of this post for links on these topics: How can you get the full benefit of workshops? How can you work best with your mentor? What, when, and how should you publish?
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
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
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.
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
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
Comme il pleut sur la ville ;
Quelle est cette langueur
Qui pénètre mon coeur ?
Loosely translated, it sounds like
this in English:
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
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:
When I was in college, a lot
my friends were trying what could be called controlled substances. After they returnedfrom 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
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
In a huge sun of fireworks
I saw you slowly
evolving from the radiolarians
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.
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
I crawl and kneel and grub about
I beg and listen for
what can go away
easily as love)
like the children
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 tokeep
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
thing when working on a book is to keep your nose to the grindstone, but your
eyes on the prize—which is finishing.
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 & Writers. Their 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.
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
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.
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.
fascinating structure Rilke has created for this poem! He substitutes for the
stanza of regular length his own distinctive formula where each successive stanza acquires
one more line, as if every stanza digs to a deeper layer
of fall and the emotions connected to it.
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.
look at Rilke’s German:
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
Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut
sich keines mehr.
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es
wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe
und wird in den Alleen hin und
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter
Rilke 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.
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.”
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 until the very end of the poem, taking us into the very private world of the solitary person
whose autumn is not one of fullness but of emptiness and loneliness.
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.
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.
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 in his life when he will banish himself from the warmth
of a 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?).
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.
There were thoughts Rilke confided only
to Lou, and, as a practicing therapist who herself had been analyzed by Sigmund Freud, she understood the poet Rilke 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 Rilke’s 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 readers and to endure.
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 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.
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 ignoring the adversity your
persona has to encounter, allow that individual at least a moment of triumph or
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.