Sunday, December 3, 2023

Ambiguity vs. Confusion in Poetry

Poets are notorious for using ambiguous language. Some ambiguity can be extremely resonant, and it can add complexity. But some lack of clarity is just confusing and puts off the reader. What is the difference between ambiguity that expands language to include multiple possible meanings, and lack of clarity that is just plain obscure? 

Since we’re talking about ambiguity, it’s not surprising that the line between ambiguity and confusion is blurred. A couple of examples can help distinguish between these two types of ambiguity. I’m going to use an early and a later poem by the writer Jorie Graham as examples of these two different kinds of ambiguity.

Poet Jorie Graham

The first example is from Jorie Graham’s early book Erosion, published in 1983. One poem I admire in that collection is “Scirocco,” named after a hot wind that blows from the Sahara Desert to southern Europe. The poem takes place in the apartment in Rome, Italy, that the poet John Keats lived in around 1821, not long before he died at age 26. Describing the view from Keats’ residence, Graham writes:

Outside his window
you can hear the scirocco
working 
the invisible.

Now, I have no idea what it means to be “working / the invisible,” but that’s a beautiful phrase with many echoes. It could mean the literal sound of a wind that moves air or foliage we can’t see, or possibly the activity of a spiritual reality beyond the experience of our senses. The wording is ambiguous but in an extremely evocative way. Graham goes on from there:

Every dry leaf of ivy
Is fingered,

refingered. Who is
the nervous spirit
of this world
that must go over and over
what it already knows,
what is it
so hot and dry
that’s looking through us,
by us,
for its answer?

Again, a lot of the language Graham uses here is not crystal clear. That includes “the nervous spirit” that is “fingering” the ivy (I love the verb “fingering”!). But just the addition of the adjective “nervous” before the noun “spirit” gives us an original and vivid description of a restless wind, and also a seeking, transcendent presence. The lack of clarity in this passage is extremely purposeful and useful, because it sets up the idea that there is a spooky reality even more evanescent than a hot wind, one that links human experience to the things of this world. That spirit is not only “looking through us,” it is looking “by us, / for its answer.”

In Jorie Graham’s entire poem, “Scirocco,” ambiguity paradoxically serves a very specific purpose. The purpose is to suggest there is a metaphysical link between human consciousness and the things of the world, an expansion of a theme in Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies.

Contrast that with a poem from later in Jorie Graham’s career, “The Visible World,” from her book Materialism, published a decade later in 1993. The poem begins

I dig my hands into the absolute. The surface
                                                        breaks
into shingled, grassed clusters; lifts.
If I press, pick-in with fingers, pluck,
I can unfold the loam. It is tender. It is a tender
maneuver, hands making and unmaking promises.
Diggers, forgetters… A series of successive instances…
Frames of reference moving…

Say what? The ambiguities come so fast and furious here, I have a hard time even knowing where we are, and what I’m supposed to be visualizing or feeling. Starting with the opening sentence, “I dig my hands into the absolute,” I’m unsure if this is an actual, physical reality or a metaphorical realm. As soon as I start thinking there is something I can grab onto, such as hands digging in the soil, the poet pulls the ground out from under me and has the hands “making and unmaking promises.” What promises? I don’t feel the poem ever answers that question. Yes, indeed, there are “Frames of reference moving”, But not much else I can relate to, only “A series of successive instances…”

To me, this latter poem is an example of confusion, rather than useful ambiguity. It could very well be that I’m too impatient and too literal, that I’m missing the whole point of how Jorie Graham’s style developed. Still, I can’t decode possible, alternate readings that vibrate with meaning. This poem consists only of fragments for me, and the poet has not included enough matching edges to make me want to fit the pieces together. 

If I had to define the difference between ambiguity and confusion in poetry, it would be this: ambiguity allows for multiple understandings that each resonate deeply with meaning. Confusion leads the reader down multiple burrows that don’t connect in meaningful ways.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Disarming the Reader by Admitting Your Flaws: Nazim Hikmet’s “Falling Leaves”

Readers are rightly suspicious of cliché language in literature. They don’t want to be taken for fools who’ve never read the famous lines. They’ve already seen the usual techniques that writers use to pull our heartstrings. But let’s face it—pulling our heartstrings is one of the best things that a writer can do. So how does a writer evoke deep emotion without alerting the reader’s sensitive antennae for corny language?

Well, one way to use cliché language and imagery is to start by flat out admitting to your reader that you’re doing just that. You concede to your reader that they are sophisticated and aware of the tricks that writers pull out of their hats to produce emotions. 


A writer who is extremely good at this is the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet (1902–1963).


Nazim Hikmet
The breezy, colloquial tone of Nazim Hikmet’s poems could easily fool a reader into thinking that his poems do not involve a lot of craft. The opposite is the case. One of Nazim Hikmet’s favorite devices is to disarm the reader by confessing that he is using the standard gimmicks that artists and writers employ. Once he wins the reader’s trust by admitting that he’s using hackneyed diction, he throws in that kitschy imagery anyway, and he gets the reader to react to that deep emotion before they even knew what’s hitting them. 

A great example is Nazim Hikmet’s classic poem, “Falling Leaves”:


Falling Leaves

 

I’ve read about falling leaves in fifty thousand poems novels

   and so on

watched leaves falling in fifty thousand movies

seen leaves fall fifty thousand times

           fall drift and rot

felt their dead shush shush fifty thousand times

           underfoot in my hands on my fingertips

but I’m still touched by falling leaves

           especially those falling on boulevards

           especially chestnut leaves

           and if kids are around

           if it’s sunny

           and I’ve got good news for friendship

especially if my heart doesn’t ache

and I believe my love loves me

especially if it’s a day I feel good about people

           I’m touched by falling leaves

especially those falling on boulevards

especially chestnut leaves.

 

6th September, 1961

Leipzig

 

from Poems of Nazim Hikmet, translated by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk, Persea Books


Nazim Hikmet starts by saying that there is nothing more trite than falling leaves. He admits that the image is so familiar, it’s used in the most sentimental genres, novels and movies. He lulls the reader by repeating over and over the words “falling leaves,” making it clear that he is aware of how completely stale and sentimental that image is. He even exaggerates by saying he’s seen the image “fifty thousand” times, giving the reader a chance to think, “Oh, falling leaves are not as corny as all that!” Nazim Hikmet even brings in a whole slew of other cliché images: kids playing, chestnut trees, boulevards, and true love, piling on the schmaltz like layer after layer of leaves.


So how does this poem get right to our hearts, even though it’s “as corny as Kansas in August”? After telling you he’s sick of corn, Nazim Hikmet sneaks it back in. He not only gives us the falling leaves again, but also the chestnut trees, the boulevard, and the true love, before we have a chance to realize how he’s snuck up on us and pulled our heartstrings in spite of our emotional defenses.


But there is a part of this poem that is not all sunshine and flowers: 


especially if my heart doesn’t ache

and I believe my love loves me

especially if it’s a day I feel good about people


There’s a terribly poignant note here, the implication that on many days, the speaker’s heart does ache, he’s not sure his love does love him, and he doesn’t always feel good about people. That undertone of melancholy gives the poem a tinge of the bittersweet that makes the poem’s happiness a little sharper. 


By tipping his hand and showing the reader what he is about to present, Nazim Hikmet ironically makes the reader more vulnerable to that content. A writer could potentially do that with any emotion that might otherwise be trite, from tragedy to comedy. 


Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Zack’s most recent book of translations, Bérenice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris

Other posts of interest:

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


Thursday, October 12, 2023

Composing the Emotional Flow of a Performance or Reading

What Is Emotional Flow? 

For a play, opera, or literary reading, the emotional flow is the thread of moods that the audience experiences as they absorb the performance. 

Audiences begin with a natural reluctance to connect with a show or reading, something we skeptical humans bring to any live event. Emotional connection with the performers can change that.

Zack Rogow giving a poetry reading.

When there is humor on stage or in a reading, the attendees laugh, relax, and let go of that natural reticence. On the other hand, when there is pathos in a performance, the audience also connects, but in a very different way. Identifying with the pain of a character or a reader can be a very personal, internal moment. 

What is tricky for the writer of a play, an opera libretto, or a literary reading, is to know how best to thread together the various emotions that a performance stimulates in an audience. Not all combinations work, as I’ve discovered the hard way.

Start Heavy, Go Light—This Doesn’t Usually Work

Earlier in my literary career, I used to do poetry readings that combined stories of sharp tragedy with boisterous comedy. The tragedy sometimes involved the loss of a parent—very heavy content. My first instinct was to put the tragedy first, and then lighten things up with silliness. I followed my tragic, confessional writings with jokey poems, partly to reassure the audience that I was alright, even after exposing a personal trauma. My punchline humor was also a sort of bravado, a way of sidestepping the depths of emotion I’d just unveiled. I don’t think this emotional flow worked. The humor undercut the pathos and left the audience scratching their heads about whether they should be laughing or sympathizing with my pain.

I didn’t discover how badly I was threading the emotions in my poetry readings until I saw a student of mine imitate the heavy-to-light dynamic in his own reading. When I saw how flat and evasive the humor felt after a moment of stabbing pathos, it struck me that I was composing the emotional flow of a performance all wrong. 

Start Light, Go Heavy

It was only by trial and error that I tried the reverse strategy—starting light and ending heavy. I tried this out in a collaboration with actor Lorri Holt. Lorri and I developed together the play called Colette Uncensored, about the life of the French writer Colette

Lorri Holt as the writer Colette in Colette Uncensored

The story of Colette’s life naturally lent itself to the light-to-heavy emotional pathway, because Colette’s earlier years were like a French bedroom farce. Later on, when Colette’s family was swept up in the rise of fascism in the 1930s and 40s, her life became deadly serious. Colette’s husband then was Jewish and was arrested by the Gestapo, and her daughter got involved in the resistance to the Nazi occupation of France. When Lorri and I tried putting the humor in the early part of the play, and made the second half much more serious, the audience seemed to go with that current much more naturally. The initial humor gave the audience a chance to connect to the performance. Once the attendees had warmed up to the show, they were wide open to feeling the pathos in the second half. 

Alternate Light and Heavy

After seeing the light-to-heavy path work well in a performance, I assumed that was the only successful way to combine humor and pathos on stage or in a reading. Recently I saw a performance of Gioachino Rossini’s opera buffa, La Scala di Seta (The Silken Ladder). You can’t find a more outrageous comedy. The emotions run from slapstick to ridiculous. The feelings of the characters are so exaggerated, their crushes are so obviously unrequited, their amorous hopes are so clownish, that the audience is invited only to chuckle. And yet…Rossini and the librettist Giuseppe Maria Foppa insert moments in this opera where a character confesses a hidden passion in the most poignant way. The zany servant Germano confesses his love in the aria, “Amore dolcemente tu prima accendi il core,” (“How sweetly, love, you first light this heart on fire”) and your own heart just melts. 

How does Rossini succeed in placing these moments of extreme romantic passion in a farce? Well, music helps. Strike up the violins, and anything is possible. But I believe that can also be done in a literary work. It ain’t easy, though. I’m still working on it.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Zack’s most recent book of translations, Bérenice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris

Other posts of interest:

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

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Writing Historical Biography: An Interview with Rebecca Boggs Roberts

This post is an interview with Rebecca Boggs Roberts, author of the eye-opening and highly enjoyable biography, Untold Power: The Fascinating Rise and Complex Legacy of First Lady Edith Wilson.

Rebecca Boggs Roberts
Zack Rogow: What was the greatest challenge you faced in writing a biography of Edith Bolling Wilson?

Rebecca Boggs Roberts: There were two big, related challenges. One was the challenge common to many writers who want to tell women’s stories: no one paid much attention to Edith before she married the President in 1915. For much of her life, the only primary source I had was Edith’s own memoir. But that memoir, while delightful, is, at times, demonstrably untrue. So the second challenge is that Edith was an unreliable narrator of her own story.

 

ZR: You begin the book not at the start of Edith Bolling Wilson’s life, but with a dramatic moment in 1919 after President Wilson’s stroke, when his wife successfully concealed her husband’s incapacity from leaders of the U.S. Congress. What made you chose that moment to begin the biography?

 

RBR: It’s a completely bonkers scene: All the President’s Men meets Weekend at Bernie’s. If I couldn’t grab readers’ attention with that episode, it was hopeless. I wanted readers to finish that scene and think, “How did things get to that point? What the heck was going on?” and desperately want to read the rest of it.


ZR: We are used to reading about New York society in the Gilded Age, and the world of the Boston Brahmins. Edith Bolling Wilson came of age and flourished in Washington DC, which had its own distinctive social scene. What made DC society different, and how did that benefit or hinder Edith?

 RBR: Gilded Age Washington was absolutely booming with new money and new plans. The city was less than a century old and the social arbiters often changed with administrations, so there was much more space for social mobility that there was in the confines of Mrs. Astor’s ballroom. Think of Countess Olenska in Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence. Countess Olenska relocates to DC because New York is too conventional. Edith Bolling Wilson didn’t have the Countess’ resources, but she had the same instinct for self-invention.

 

ZR: There’s an intriguing passage in the book’s introduction where you say, “She [Edith Bolling Wilson] is not a hero; she is also not a villain. Very few people in American history are either, and I believe that our collective insistence on picking one category or the other for all of our most influential people has left us (at best) confused about how and through whom our history is made.” I agree with much of that statement, but how are we then to make judgments about the past that will improve our actions in the present, if we just see everyone as complex individuals? 

 

RBR: Is the alternative seeing everyone as stock characters? What can we possibly learn from that? Seeing someone as a complex individual does not preclude judging them. In fact, it gives you better information to make a more informed judgment. And if we require everyone who has had a positive impact on history to be a saint, we risk alienating all future potential agents of social change. Why try to change the word if you are convinced that you need to be a once-in-a-generation genius angel to do so? I think the fact that historical characters are flawed is liberating.

 

ZR: One fascinating fact you discuss in your biography is that Edith Bolling Wilson was the first woman in Washington DC licensed to drive a car and an electric automobile. How did you find that out, and where did you get the details about her zipping around Washington in an electric car?

 

RBR: The actual license survives at Edith’s birthplace museum in Wytheville, Virginia. Researching the history of electric cars was a delightful tangent. I found some original ads for them in early twentieth-century newspapers, clearly aimed at wealthy urban women, since “little electrics” were not as smelly or cumbersome as gas vehicles. Car makers advertised bud vases on the dash and a top speed of thirteen miles an hour. Edith became known for her car—several memoirs of the time by society women like Dolly Gann and Ellen Maury Slayton mention her zipping around town.

 

ZR: When you’re doing historical research for a book like this one, you can easily go down “rabbit holes”—sidetracks only tangentially related to the main story. How do you know whether an interesting lead is a detour, or a direction that provides a new approach to the story?

 

RBR: Every rabbit hole seems fascinating at the time (see the history of electric cars, above)! The act of falling down those holes and burrowing into obscure archives is totally addictive to research nerds like me. I particularly had to curb my enthusiasm for the history of Washington DC. Every time a specific location came up in Edith’s story, I wanted to know the entire history of the building, the neighborhood, and the inhabitants. You lose all critical distance after a while. If anyone wants to know more about the Dupont Circle area a hundred years ago, I stand ready to describe it block by block.

 

ZR: The current political climate is very judgmental when it comes to figures in the past who do not measure up to our current standards of correctness. How did you handle the aspects of Edith’s life, and Woodrow Wilson’s career, that now seem unjust and wrongheaded?

 

RBR: It’s really hard not to judge past actors through contemporary standards. For Woodrow Wilson, he was racist and sexist in his own time—he resegregated the Civil Service after it had integrated under previous administrations, and he continued to oppose women’s suffrage long after his peers supported it. So it’s not current standards of correctness that he fails to measure up to. Edith was also racist. The “darkie” jokes she told and Lost Cause mythology she used for the Civil War might have been more acceptable in her time, but you can’t argue that she wasn’t bigoted. My goal was to simply tell the truth, as far as I could verify it, and not try to either sugarcoat or demonize. I think readers are smart enough to judge for themselves.

 

ZR: Untold Power also has untold humor. There are so many laugh-out-loud anecdotes, including the hilarious bit about the sheep that grazed the White House lawn during World War I to save energy and produce wool for the war effort. How did you mix in humor without diminishing the seriousness of the issues of Edith Bolling Wilson’s time?

 

RBR: This is a corollary of the argument that historical figures are complex humans. Historical eras are complex times. Edith herself was very funny – I love her description of French President Raymond Poincaré leading her into a diplomatic dinner in Paris and feeling “like a big liner with a tiny tug pushing her out from her moorings.”

 

ZR: At the end of her life, what would Edith Bolling Wilson say was her greatest accomplishment or legacy? What would you say was her greatest accomplishment or legacy?

 

RBR: Unquestionably, she would say her greatest accomplishment, the work of her life, was protecting and curating the legacy of Woodrow Wilson. As we find ourselves revising that legacy in contemporary times, it continues to amaze me how much of his reputation as the Great Moral Visionary of Global Peace was a result of Edith’s myth-making.

 

I would say her greatest accomplishment is steering the nation through a crisis in leadership all the while pretending she was doing nothing of the kind. You don’t have to admire her actions to be impressed by her. And as part of that, her legacy must be to serve as an example of the kind of compromises ambitious women have made over time, and how they have operated outside the Hall of Fame model of history to enact social change. If any reader of Untold Power takes the opportunity to rethink who gets to make history and how, then that is no small feat.

 

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Zack’s most recent book of translations, Bérenice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris

Other posts of interest:

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


Saturday, July 22, 2023

How to Move on to the Next Creative Project

Whether you are a writer or you’re involved in another art, it can be difficult to make the transition from one major project to another. That is particularly the case when an artist has gotten some recognition for a series that took years to create. There is tremendous satisfaction in finishing a body of work, but that completion also poses a question: How can you now equal or improve on the originality and power of your last project? 

And what if you’re not fully satisfied with your most recent works? What if time has now given you the distance to see the flaws or shortcomings of your previous creations? Now that you realize how high the bar is set, how can you trust yourself to do better in the future, if that’s the peak you reached last time?

 

All those self doubts can be paralyzing for an artist. How do you get past them?

 

One useful answer for these dilemmas is in the work of the French utopian socialist Charles Fourier (1772–1837).


Charles Fourier
Fourier believed that all humans have a “butterfly passion,” almost a physical craving for variation and change:
 

“The alternating or butterfly [passion] is the need for regular variety, contrasting situations, change of scenery, spicy encounters, and novelties that give rise to fantasies, that stimulate both the senses and the soul….[The butterfly passion] is the agent of universal transition, the principle of liberty…”

—Charles Fourier, The Theory of the Four Movements

 

When you get stuck between projects, set loose your creative butterfly. Allow your thoughts to flit to every possible flowering of your imagination. Enjoy the process of generating different ideas that take on colors and shapes you’ve never before considered.


Starting a new project is like traveling to a country you’ve never visited. But don’t expect that it’s going to be thrilling while you’re still on the long line at the airport security checkpoint. Give that new idea time and space, so that it can surprise you, and lead you places you never planned to see.

If you’re stuck after a big project, it can be extremely tempting to repeat what you’ve done in the past, particularly if you’ve gotten praise and acclaim for recent work. But there is nothing deadlier for art than repetition. You have to cut the ropes that dock you to past successes and failures and set sail, even if there is no land in sight yet. You’re actually in much better shape to complete your next project successfully, because you now have the knowledge you’ve carefully collected throughout your career in the arts.