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?
St. Vincent Millay (1892–1950) grew up in small towns in the state of Maine in
the U.S.A. Millay’s mother was her only parent for most of her upbringing, and
the family was so poor that Millay and her two sisters would sometimes ice
skate in the living room on the water that had flooded their house from a
nearby creek and had frozen.
Edna St. Vincent Millay by Washington Square Arch in Greenwich Village
Millay's mother was a visiting nurse who was often
gone from the family. An intelligent, self-educated woman, Millay’s mother
instilled in her three daughters a love of learning and poetry, as well as
providing a strong role model. Here’s Millay’s tribute to her mother:
courage that my mother had
with her, and is with her still:
from New England quarried;
granite in a granite hill.
golden brooch my mother wore
behind for me to wear;
no thing I treasure more:
is something I could spare.
instead she’d left to me
thing she took into the grave!—
courage like a rock, which she
more need of, and I have.
By an odd set of circumstances,
Edna St. Vincent Millay became a famous poet at the age of nineteen by losing a
literary contest. She entered her poem “Renascence” in a contest called The Lyric Year, something like The Best Poems of… series that is
published today. The judges wanted to pick Millay’s poem for the first prize,
but when it became known that the winner was an unknown young woman from a
small town, they changed their minds and gave her the fourth prize. A judge who opposed
the decision publicized his grievance, and the ensuing scandal made Millay a
literary celebrity, as well as helping her to gain a full scholarship to Vassar
Millay (who went by the nickname
“Vincent”) went on from there to conquer Greenwich Village’s literary bohemia.
She wrote startling poetry that embodied the values of the Roaring 20s and the
radical 1930s: free love, opposition to World War I, support for the republic
in the Spanish Civil War. Here is her Sonnet CXXVIII, with its frank
beneath your moon, almighty Sex,
at nightfall crying like a cat,
the lofty tower I labored at
birds to foul and boys and girls to vex
tittering chalk; and you, and the long necks
neighbors sitting where their mothers sat
aware of shadowy this and that
that’s neither noble nor complex.
I am, however, I have brought
it is, this tower; it is my own;
it was reared To Beauty, it was wrought
what I had to build with: honest bone
there, and anguish; pride; and burning thought;
is there, and nights not spent alone.
I keep going back to Millay’s
poetry, partly because she is such an unapologetic advocate of passion, but with so many nuances—check out the word "anguish" in the penultimate line of this sonnet. I also
read her poems over and over because she chooses such unusual and modern
topics, curiously combined with a retro love for and mastery of the sonnet form,
particularly the very continental Petrarchan sonnet, while most English-language
poets favor the Shakespearean. This is one of my favorite
sonnets of Millay’s, because it contains such a modern sensibility in an ornately carved ivory box:
will I harvest beauty where it grows:
coloured fungus and the spotted fog
on foods forgotten; in ditch and bog
brilliant with irregular rainbows
and oil, where half a city throws
empty tins; and in some spongy log
headlong leaps the oozy emerald frog….
black pupil in the green scum shows.
inhabiter of diverse places
at all doors, I push them all.
that fearful of a creaking hinge
back forevermore with craven faces,
you Beauty bears an ultra fringe
of you upon her gossamer shawl!
This is not just a poem about
pretty, little moments. It’s about seeking and still finding beauty in a world
where pollution and urban life deposit “rust and oil” in nature. The last four
lines contain a challenge to anyone who refuses to see that our era, flawed by
progress though it may be, is still a time of great beauty, beauty that might
be more “ultra” (what a great word!) than what came before.
Millay was also a philosopher. Her
literary work features five plays in verse, including Conversations at Midnight, where a group of men conduct an after-dinner Platonic dialogue over whiskey and cigars, discussing politics, art, and other topics. The
play has an interesting history. Millay wrote a draft of it while on a
road trip in Florida with her husband in 1936. The two of them checked into
their room at a hotel and went for a walk. As they returned from their stroll, they noticed a column of smoke rising in
the air. The hotel had burned down, along
with her manuscript. Millay had to recreate the entire script from memory.
Among Millay’s more philosophical
works, I like many of her later sonnets where she contemplates the large
questions—the place of humanity in the long history of Earth and in the cosmos.
Here is her Sonnet CXXIV, again featuring the moon:
moon, that rise behind these hills
and yellow in a sky unstarred
pale, your girth by purple fillets barred
drifting cloud, that as the cool sky fills
planets and the brighter stars, distills
thinnest vapor and floats valley-ward,—
flood with radiance all this cluttered yard,
sagging fence, the chipping window sills.
at heart as if for my delight
rose, I watch you through a mist of tears,
how man, who gags upon despair,
his hunger with the sweat of fright
on cold indifference all these years,
it kindness, calling it God’s care.
Fascinating that she uses "rise" for the moon in line 1 and not "rises." I think she is addressing the moon—"you that rise." What is so haunting for me about
this poem is that Millay refuses a sloppy faith in a caring divinity she cannot
see in the skies. But this is not a bleak world she describes, despite the absence of a god
or goddess to protect us. There are sagging fences and chipping window
sills and tears of pity for the millennia of ignorance that came before. But Millay balances those imperfections with the plenitude of a twilight where the moon floats upward
as “the cool sky fills/With planets and brighter stars...”
There are so many qualities I
admire in June Jordan’s work that it’s hard to know where to begin.
with the experience of hearing June read her poetry out loud. It was literally
a physical sensation. Hearing her read, there were times when I would laugh as
hard as I ever have—June was one of the funniest human beings I’ve known. At
other times I thought I was going to burst out sobbing, and I couldn’t hold back a
few tears. Sometimes I got goose bumps, and the hair on my arms stood up. Other passages in her poetry were
incredibly sexy. It wasn’t like the experience of hearing any other poet. Why?
June committed herself to her
readings like no one else She believed 100% in what she was saying in her
writing. Maybe that’s how she had the courage to stand up in front of a large
audience and read in a dialect of English—Black English—that most people just
considered wrong. June helped to revive and honor Black English as a literary
medium, and she wrote gracefully and adamantly about its beauty and unique
grammar. In her essay written in 1972, “White English/Black English: The Politics of Translation,”
from her book Civil Wars, June
quotes Shakespeare’s Elizabethan diction and concludes, “Now that ain hardly
standard English.” She asserts that “…the Elizabethan, nonstandard English of Romeo and Juliet has been adjudged, by
the powerful, as something students should tackle and absorb. By contrast, the
Black, nonstandard language of my novel, His
Own Where, has been adjudged, by the powerful, as substandard and even
injurious to young readers.” She was not afraid to measure her English against
Maybe June Jordan could evoke
such a response from her audience because she spoke out against crimes and
injustices that you just weren’t supposed to talk about in polite company. She
championed the rights of so many, from Puerto Rican and Palestinian
independence to blacks who experienced police violence.
Maybe she reached that level
in her readings because her way of living was a full-court press. She knew she
had only a limited time to make her points, and she made them regardless of
what anyone else thought she should be saying. June resisted being pigeon-holed
in any way: “Make up your mind! They said. Are you militant or sweet? Are
you vegetarian or meat? Are you straight or are you gay?/And I said, Hey! It’s
not about my mind.” (from “A Short
Note to My Very Critical and Well-Beloved Friends and Comrades” in her book Passion)
At a time when many writers and literary critics in the U.S.A. regarded
love poetry as a naive throwback to Edna St.
Vincent Millay and the flapper era of the Roaring 20s, June took to heart the
work of writing great poems of passion. She looked not to T.S. Eliot and the
New Critics and as her role models, but to Pablo Neruda and Walt Whitman.
Part of the appeal of her
writing is her amazingly musical sense for language. While she was an
undergraduate at Barnard College, June studied piano with a faculty member at
the Julliard School of Music. She was at that level in her instrumental
talents. Given the musicality of her poetry, it’s not surprising that June
collaborated with a stellar array of composers, including Leonard Bernstein, Bernice
Johnson Reagon, John Adams, and Adrienne Torf. Here are some of the concluding
lines of her great poem, “On a New Year’s Eve”:
Next on my list of writers I can’t stop reading is Virginia Woolf. No one can get inside the thoughts of characters like Woolf. She shows how luminous a brief moment in human life can be, in all its nuances. Her ear for language is flawless. All her metaphors still feel as new today as water.
One book of hers that’s rarely read that I like a lot is Flush: A Biography, which is not at all a biography. It’s the story of the elopement of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, told from the point of view of her lapdog. Such a strange and beautiful premise, and only Virginia Woolf could actually make this work.
But my favorite novel of Woolf’s is Mrs. Dalloway. To bring to life one day among one circle of friends in the way that she does in that novel, with all the moral and emotional shadings that she exposes, is the literary equivalent of Renoir’s The Luncheon of the Boating Party. I suppose it’s no trick for an author to read the minds of the characters that author herself creates. But if those characters feel like real people, with the longings and failings of real people— the characters in Mrs. Dalloway—then yes, it is a feat to read their thoughts, to sympathize so deeply with such an array of human fates. There is something godlike in Woolf’s compassion and understanding, because it is so wide-ranging, and so wise.
Here’s one of my favorite passages from Mrs. Dalloway, where Clarissa Dalloway is lying down shortly before the party she is throwing that evening, trying to defend herself in her thoughts against the more intellectual and artistic Peter Walsh, the suitor of her youth, a man she refused:
"But suppose Peter said to her, 'Yes, yes, but your parties — what’s the sense of your parties?' all she could say was (and nobody could be expected to understand): They’re an offering; which sounded horribly vague. But who was Peter to make out that life was all plain sailing?—Peter always in love, always in love with the wrong woman? What’s your love? she might say to him."
Why does Mrs. Dalloway call her party an offering, an explanation she doubts anyone will understand? Maybe her party is an offering to personal interactions between individuals, the sorts of interactions that happen at social gatherings such as parties. These interactions are not momentous, but they celebrate and build lasting emotional bonds. Woolf champions the importance of the everyday as opposed to the impulse toward the heroic or the earth-shattering event. It’s the small moments between people that count, both in Woolf’s writing, and in the lives of her characters.
Other recent posts about writing topics:
Writers I Can't Stop Reading, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
I love the work of Willa Cather. I was introduced to her books by the children’s writer Marilyn Sachs, who pointed out to me that Cather is much deeper than the feel-good chronicler of the American West that middle school kids encounter when assigned My Ántonia or O Pioneers! Both of those are good novels by Cather, but they don’t compare with her more mature books such as A Lost Lady and The Professor’s House.
Willa Cather (1873–1947)
Cather was a late bloomer as a fiction writer. She earned her living during her early decades writing for, and then editing, women’s magazines. She didn’t really hit her stride as a novelist till she was in her fifties in the 1920s (a good lesson for those of us starting our writing projects later in life). Her work grew darker and more complex in that decade. You have to read all her books to get a sense of her incredible mastery of character, plot, and description.
She has an amazing eye for the unique characters and landscapes of the American West. Here’s a description from The Song of the Lark, one of her most autobiographical books: “Every rabbit that shot across the path, every sage hen that flew up by the trail, was like a runaway thought, a message that one sent into the desert.” The topography is so specific to the West, and yet conveyed in a way that any reader can visualize.
Her descriptions are like portraits by a great painter: “Frizzy bangs were worn then, but Mrs. Kronberg always dressed her hair in the same way, parted in the middle, brushed smoothly back from her low, white forehead, pinned loosely on the back of her head in two thick braids. It was growing grey about the temples, but after the manner of yellow hair it seemed only to have grown paler there, and had taken on a colour like that of English primroses.” I love the primroses! This portrait gives you a strong sense of a woman who takes pride in herself without needing to be trendy, a woman who is not young, but is worthy of our attention. This passage is also from The Song of the Lark.
Cather certainly knows her characters, their quirks, and their beauty. Here’s her description from the same novel of Ray Kennedy, a railway worker: “Ray had a collection of good stories. He was observant, truthful, and kindly—perhaps the chief requisites in a good storyteller.” Tells us a lot about Cather’s own values as a writer.
She goes on to describe Ray’s background: “Never having had any schooling to speak of, he had, almost from the time he ran away, tried to make good his loss. As a sheep-herder he had worried an old grammar to tatters, and read instructive books with the help of a pocket dictionary.” What a great verb there, “worried”!
But there’s more: “By the light of many campfires he had pondered upon Prescott’s histories, and the words of Washington Irving, which he bought at a high price from a book agent.” No detail is without purpose. Every morsel of information tells how this man without means educated himself, and applied his keen mind to all he read. She tells us also about the complexity of Ray’s thoughts, and how knowledge was a two-edged sword for him: “Ray was a free-thinker, and inconsistently believed himself damned for being one. When he was braking down on the Santa Fé, at the end of his run he used to climb into the upper bunk of the caboose, while a noisy gang played poker about the stove below him, and by the roof-lamp read Robert Ingersoll’s speeches and The Age of Reason.” Robert Ingersoll was a nineteenth century abolitionist and agnostic orator who delivered the eulogy at Walt Whitman’s funeral: “Whitman announced the gospel of the body,” said Ingersoll. The Age of Reason is Will Durant’s history of the Enlightenment. Even though Cather is creating a regional Western landscape, she is dealing with the larger issues of the day.
Cather’s novel A Lost Lady is also remarkable. The book has one of the most convincing male narrators any female author has ever created. Halfway through the plot, the reader has one impression of the main characters, for good reasons. Cather then turns the tables upside down, and by the end of the book, the reader comes to exactly opposite conclusions, also for good reasons. In The Professor’s House, published in 1925, she wrote about the Anasazi Indians with as much sympathy and understanding as any person of European descent has ever done.
I can’t stop reading Willa Cather, because I can’t stop trying to absorb the many lessons that her books hold for writers.
I'm excited that the letters of Willa Cather, long unavailable, have recently been published. More writing by this great author, so long after her death, is great news.
Other recent posts about writing topics:
Writers I Can't Stop Reading, Part 1, Part 2
George Orwell is one of those writers whose work compels me so much I had to read it almost from beginning to end. Orwell is one of the few authors who attained the status of having an adjective formed from his name (ironically, Orwell was the opposite of Orwellian).
What appeals to me over and over in his writing is that he is an author of such consummate integrity that everything he creates radiates that quality. He was uncompromising in advocating for the working class and those suffering from imperialism. That was not an easy thing to do in the England where he grew up, class stratified and wedded to the notion of world empire. But he was also unflinching in calling out those on the left who supported totalitarian practices. His diatribe against sloppy writing as sloppy thinking, “Politics and the English Language,” is an essay I read again and again to remind myself never to get drowsy when I write and slump into cliché language. His six rules for writers are my Bible:
"(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”
Some of my favorites of his books are ones that don’t get read as often as his popular Animal Farm and 1984. I love his book The Road to Wigan Pier, which the Left Book Club commissioned Orwell to undertake. To write the book, Orwell lived with working class families and described their daily travails in a vivid and lively style. Chapter 2 on coal mining is one of the most gripping pieces of descriptive prose I’ve ever read. Here’s part of how he describes a coal mine in the British Isles: “Most of the things one imagines in hell are there—heat, noise, confusion, darkness, foul air, and, above all, unbearably cramped space.” His portrayal of the work of a miner is unforgettable: “It is a dreadful job that they do, an almost superhuman job by the standard of an ordinary person. For they are not only shifting monstrous quantities of coal, they are also doing it in a position that doubles or trebles the work. They have got to remain kneeling all the while—they could hardly rise from their knees without hitting the ceiling—and you can easily see by trying it what a tremendous effort this means. Shovelling is comparatively easy when you are standing up, because you can use your knee and thigh to drive the shovel along; kneeling down, the whole of the strain is thrown upon your arm and belly muscles. And the other conditions do not exactly make things easier. There is the heat—it varies, but in some mines it is suffocating—and the coal dust that stuffs up your throat and nostrils and collects along your eyelids, and the unending rattle of the conveyor belt, which in that confined space is rather like the rattle of a machine gun.” That last amazing metaphor clinches a description that would prod even the toughest heart.
I also love Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, my favorite book about the Spanish Civil War. Orwell’s Spanish Republic is not idealized, or at least not idealized in the way that most accounts are. He shows the ideological splits in the republic, and how they led to infighting that did nothing to help the cause. His account of trench warfare and what it’s like to get shot is surprising and unforgettable.
One quality in Orwell that keeps bringing me back to his work is his ability to stay enraged against injustice. He is never dulled by his experiences. He never chooses an easy metaphor. His language is always as sharp as a box-cutter.