Plowing the verses

Man's eye
The male gaze suggests a man’s focus on sex if not intimacy.

I wrote the other day about starting a poem, called “Side View,” about the male gaze. And today I would like to suggest how I’ve made progress on the poem and how my example might be of use to you.

The first thing I realized, on looking at the draft this morning, was the question of selection. Most of what I had put in was pretty decent, but I had left out an essential bit of narrative that would clarify where I was going with my idea. It was not enough to mention, in quick passing, in the first stanza that the setting was a “group bike ride.” More of the social setting was required, so this new first stanza:

Twelve, thirteen of us pedal country roads
through the short late summer evening.
We bike for beer and show up après ride
at the Natural State Brewing Company.
In fact, we enjoy each other’s company.

The idea here is to give more of a social, and sociable, context. Before we get to the male gaze, that is, we must set the stage. The bike ride is not an intimate occasion between speaker and girl. They are at first just nameless parts of a group. The ride is pleasant, and then some. There’s a hint of shortening days, shortening pleasures, for such rides as these can’t last  much longer than the fair weather of summer.

Now is the time, once the stage is set, I realized, to acknowledge the free-floating eros in the air, but it’s one that the speaker is not particularly participating in:

There’s romance in riding and in flirting
too, chattering, hoisting bumpers up,
though tonight I abstain, the leader, desiring
to lose a few pounds, could be, and pounding
down desires definitely. I look at the dozen
others over there, specifically the girl
I’ve often gazed at, old man that I am,
with more than a little lust in my heart,
not that I can do anything about it now,
her figure the hourglass they talk about
when they talk about figures, minute
after minute, hour after hour, full breasts,
tight derrière, the lovely hills and declivities
my fingers would so love to ride.

This stanza is still rough, it strikes me now, though I went through four or five iterations of it this morning. That’s nothing. The idea is to keep on working, playing with the text till you get it right, as right and tight as you can make it (even in a world where bodies can’t be made so tight, or kept so tight, over time).

Selection is one criterion, as I say, and syntax another. Here, in the second stanza, I have chosen, or been chosen by (it’s habit now), parallel word structure, so that riding, flirting, chattering, hoisting, desiring, pounding run together and give each other a propulsive bump. Yes, these are the rhythms of life, that constant onward push of what we’re doing, or wanting to do; desiring, or accomplishing; and this forward movement drives us here, in the poem, from the start of one line to the end, and then the start again.

As critics have pointed out, making verse is a matter of moving from one side of a line to another. It’s like plowing: you move along the row and make a furrow, from one side to the other; then you turn, you reverse direction, and begin again.

This kind of consciousness of making poetry stresses movement — out and back, verse and reverse, a continuous movement and counter-movement, a dance, could be, in the dark, for when we begin we may have no very clear idea of where we’re going, unless we’re trying out a regular meter or verse form like a sonnet. May have no idea of fences, or wires, or signposts, or boundaries. We just start plowing, and see where the movement leads us. 

I might note here, as you no doubt have already, that this subject matter is a delicate one these days. We males anyway (old males, old white males) do not usually talk about it in mixed audiences, not in the #metoo age. Yet not to talk about it, frankly, even ferociously, puts us on the defensive, which all in all is not a good position to start from — and leaves us vulnerable to all sorts of criticisms both inside and out.

So I just plow ahead, trying out ideas, images, sounds, figuring what I might keep and what I must throw out in the next draft. And trying not to think too hard of audience or the exact words I need.

The right words will find the right audience, finally. 

Here I wonder if the play on “pounds” and “pounding / down desires” works. Too cute? Are the words too much alike or too close  together? Have I not waited long enough to put them together? Have I lacked syntactic patience?

But I like the image of the hourglass figure, as the revised poem begins with the image of fading light. It’s not just the old man who is fading, inexorably, but the young woman too, but everyone, all bikers, all readers who are along for the ride, who participate in this flirtation of failing light. 

This draft concludes with a third stanza:

Off to the side, I sit apart, away from the beer
and platitudes, not drinking, seeing not merely
the plenitude of the figure of a girl I do not know,
but the dark hair flowing to the shoulders, olive
skin, aquiline nose, full lips, outline it could be
of the essential and vanishing, and as for desire
isn’t it also nice not to be drinking beer
or thinking only pleasure.

There are the sound echoes again: beer, desire, pleasure. And then platitudes, plenitude. We may grouse at English for being pretty uninflected and so not encouraging the kind of common, fertile rhymes and repetitions found in other languages. But once we get our motors going, we should find that sounds arise, like bees in a hive, and the humming proceeds without much of a conscious push. (Don’t strive at first for the bon mot or right word. Just let the sounds come. Hum along. Be less than conscious and more than a little cool.)

And, as I said in the last blog regarding the first draft, the process of sublimation is doing its work. The body, fully apparent here, is doing its business of yielding to the spirit. The body, like the daylight, is fading. The mind is playing the arpeggios of fading light.


A world of one’s own

Am reading a book about the Spanish flu, a century ago, a gift from my daughter-in-law Heidi (The Great Influenza, by John M. Barry). Fascinating account of the lightning progress of science and the scientific method in the 19th century and beyond, especially with the founding in the 1870s of Johns Hopkins. The story of the fight against the Spanish flu, which originated not in Spain but America, apparently, and spread through Army camps both here and in Europe, is obviously akin to our current fight against Covid-19.

Albert Einstein | The Bully Pulpit
Albert Einstein

But it’s a quote from Einstein in this book that commandeered my attention this morning:

One of the strongest motives that lead persons to art or science is a flight from the everyday life…. Man seeks to form for himself, in whatever manner is suitable for him, a simplified and lucid image of the world, and so to overcome the world of experience by striving to replace it to some extent by this image. This is what the painter does, and the poet, and the speculative philosopher, the natural scientist, each in his own way. Into this image and its formation, he places the center of gravity of his emotional life, in order to attain the peace and serenity that he cannot find within the narrow confines of swirling personal experience.

Several of the more prominent scientists discussed in Barry’s book were extremely withdrawn individuals. They retired into the inner worlds of their making and there in their laboratories made guesses and theories and empirical attacks on the nature of the influenza viruses like pneumococcus. 

I also happened to read an interview with a former colleague at Wayne State University in Detroit, Charles Baxter, the first teaching job for both of us, I believe. A fellow Minnesotan, Baxter has become an accomplished and acclaimed writer of short and long fiction as well as a creative writing teacher. He talks in this interview about the “novita,” which is, according to this interview, “a form of fiction that’s somewhere between a novel and a collection of short stories, in which the different parts are linked together but also build to a cohesive conclusion,” perhaps through repeated images. 

This makes sense to me, though Baxter ties the idea, more than I would or could, to the development in fiction of a sense of community, using the early 20th century modernist examples of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and Joyce’s Dubliners.

Anderson’s characters are what he calls “grotesques,” or what most of us might call, a bit more understatedly, oddballs. Joyce’s stories are less satirical but deeper and sadder too. As one critical source tells it, “Joyce’s intention in writing Dubliners, in his own words, was to write a chapter of the moral history of his country, and he chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to him to be the centre of paralysis.” It’s only in the last, great story of the collection, “The Dead,” that Joyce might achieve an inclusive vision of Dublin society, or company, however poignant this vision might be.

But in Einstein’s words, a “simplified and lucid image of [one’s own particular] world” might or might not be a communitarian or collectivist vision. Artistic and literary fashions change, of course. And the modernists, however doubtful they were about moral vision, have given
way, a century later, to a much more politicized and ideological vision of art.

TS Eliot
T. S. Eliot

Think of the notes that another great modernist, T. S. Eliot, uses after The Waste Land, citing F. H. Bradley, Appearance and Reality:

… every sphere is opaque to the others which surround it…. In brief, regarded as an existence which appears in a soul, the whole world for each is peculiar and private to that soul.

Then think of the endless iterations of political messages and manifestos in the pages of today’s little literary magazines. “Diversity” is the keyword here: the more “diverse” your work, the better. If you don’t produce work reflecting diversity, that is, departures from racial and gender norms (white man’s privilege), you are lacking in sympathetic pigment.

But diversity, if that’s your keyword or catchword, comes from vision too, or voice, or style. What makes you, as a writer or other artist, diverse? What gives you a right to think you have anything new to say or a new way of saying it? 

I am attempting now, at this late date, to finish a collection of stories I wrote in the 1980s and ’90s called Not Calling Margaret. I wrote these metafictions without any conscious direction, as far as theme, character, or image goes. Yes, they all proceeded from the angst I was feeling after failing out of college teaching and out of academe. The tone of the collection as a whole may be more cynical or satirical than a lot of collectivist fiction coming out these days. I certainly had not found academe a comforting or affirmative place for rebellious or nonconformist spirits like my own. 

At any rate, my stories, as unfinished as they may be and inconclusive, even incoherent in some ways, express a truth about me and my particular time and place. They show or enact “the center of gravity of [my] emotional life, in order to attain the peace and serenity that [I could not] … find within the narrow confines of swirling personal experience.”

A “still point of the turning world,” to cite another line from Eliot.

When you read a story or a poem, consider the world it summons up. Is it familiar or not? Comforting or not? Challenging? Coherent? Individual?

Perhaps this last word is key. If a story portrays a collective or communitarian vision, is it saying something new? Is it ideology more than individual vision? The artist may or may not be a unique voice, crying in the wilderness, condemning injustice, but if he or she is merely imitative it’s hard to argue for enduring value.