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.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

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

No comments:

Post a Comment