Moving along from the discussion of Feb 6, “Theme,” I’d like to suggest possible themes of a novel I’ve reread lately. I have no idea whether the author started with a theme in mind, or not, a pronouncement on an idea that was worming its way into his consciousness. Or his society’s. But if you were a white South African of any feeling and intelligence, during apartheid, how could such an idea elude you?
This book is the celebrated novel Disgrace (1999) by the Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee. It’s set in the South Africa of the 1990s, just after the end of apartheid. It’s about a literature professor named David Lurie who gets fired from his job for abusing, molesting, having sex with (what are the right words here?) a young student of his. He refuses to apologize in the terms his academic colleagues require and is let go.
He goes out into the South African countryside and lives for a while with his grown daughter, who is farming and taking care of dogs. He helps her with these tasks and is there when three black men break into her house, beat him, rape her.
The daughter refuses to get an abortion when she becomes pregnant.
The father continues ministering to the needs of stray and unwanted dogs at a local veterinary clinic; he assists in their euthanasia and takes the corpses to a crematorium. The last page of the novel is unsentimentally powerful, even shocking:
He opens the cage door. "Come," he says, bends, opens his arms. The dog wags his crippled rear, sniffs his face, licks his cheeks, his lips, his ears. He does nothing to stop it. "Come."
Bearing him in his arms like a lamb, he re-enters the surgery. "I thought you would save him for another week," says Bev Shaw. "Are you giving him up?"
"Yes. I am giving him up."
No, Coetzee is not proposing a Christian framework of salvation, of disgrace and redemptive grace. This fallen creature, David Lurie, cannot save the dog, even for another week. The dog must die, and David must continue living like a dog; for that is the human condition.
The dog is a secular lamb, not Jesus, and will not redeem our sins. Still, if we cannot save the dog but enter into empathy with the doomed creature, identify with the miserable animal, then we ourselves, not without sin, may begin to rise above our misery, our degradation, our disgrace. May achieve some kind of secular grace, which if it does not take us to heaven enables us to go forward with a better notion of our duties and our place in the fragile human condition.
Vulnerable, crippled, disgraced, carrying on and doing the dogged best we can.
My wife Jennifer and I were at dinner the other night with good friends, at their place, high on the hill (local mountain). Dinner was fine (organic chicken, roast veggies, creme brule). And the conversation, like the wine, did not stint.
We were talking about books, and our hosts asked what we thought was the theme of a book? Books in general? I inquired. Particular books?
They tend to read non-fiction, earnest non-fiction, I might say, and are practicing Christians, as Jen and I were once upon a time.
My first thought, as a creative writer, is that we don’t start with themes. Poets especially start with an image, a sound, a story — and go from there. We reason, if you call it reason, inductively, going from particular observations to ends, themes, ideas.
In fact, these ends or themes may not matter much at all to poets, especially if they’re writing short poems. They may be unconscious or semi-conscious at most, left to critics and other analysts to ponder. In my own practice, I think of only one long work, just completed, that might have started deductively: a 31-part poem about brain cancer, pain and suffering.
For the most part, even novels start, I suggest, with a story or a character, not a firm idea or theme. I affirm Mark Twain’s comic take, at the beginning of Huck Finn, on the business of sleuthing a work of art and being a critic:
Notice: Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. By order of the author, Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance.
Just had occasion to hear, and read a bit, of Jordan Peterson, who’s made a great splash in public intellectual circles, especially right-wing circles, it appears. (Can a wing have a circle?)
He’s written several books, the first, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, an encyclopedic inquiry into the stories that identify and bind societies, and the second a lay reader’s approach to conduct, both personal and social, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.
I read a sample of 12 Rules, the introduction to which, by a friend and fellow academic, made me feel uneasy, it was so laudatory, even sycophantic. Peterson’s own introduction was more interesting … and pretty compelling … until I got to the part about lobsters, hmmmm.
Seems in the dog-eat-dog and lobster-eat-lobster world, the alpha animal not only vanquishes the underdog (-lobster) in a fight, he causes the latter, the loser, to shed his macho brain and develop a sniveling and craven underling’s brain. Hoooo! Is that so?
If the example from the natural world is correct, still the question remains how far it applies to the human world. You can’t simply cite the lobster and say his story is the human story, can you, not without a whole lot of proof? Because loser lobsters sink in brain power and achievement, the same does not necessarily follow with human. Sorry, Jordan, that dog, or lobster, of an argument won’t hunt, not as it now stands.
(Who preeminently is it that cites this bullying language of winning and losing, winner take all, all the time, besides, hmmmm, Donald J. Trump? That loser!)
Googling Peterson, I got an academic paper on him from a distinctly Marxist point of view, and felt compelled in my usual diplomatic manner to write the author, who, I suspect, is very young and devoted to the overlord Herr Marx:
Really, how hard is it to write without recourse to cliches and jargon? To make intelligence itself, and writing skill, your MO? Come clean, Prof. Bellemare, come clean. Think for yourself.
So I responded to him, again in my usual diplomatic way:
Ha ha! That’s a good one. I’m 75, and like you got a PhD when I was 15. They were, and evidently still are, giving them away like candy, yes? Especially, these days, when you suck on Karl Marx’s titty!
All it takes, sometimes, for a poem to spring to mind, just about full blown, like Athena from Zeus’s head, is a word. So this song of the moment.
My wife, with a degree
in medical science,
or so you’d think
by the kind of advice
she dispenses, suggests
that many of my (bad)
habits, like drinking
and drugs, I mean
innocuous drugs like
melatonin ’cause how
can a guy with all my
bad habits fall asleep
without drugs, and
did I mention goat
like lechery, are
a forbidding way,
don’t you think,
of looking on
Every summer I take a group of a dozen or so friends and acquaintances to Inspiration Point, near Eureka Springs, Arkansas, the site of Opera in the Ozarks performances. This year the organization is staging three operas, Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte, which my group saw; Puccini’s La Rondine; and Sondheim’s A Little Night Music.
Admittedly, opera is not for everybody. It’s offputting to a lot of people, especially those who are trained or, rather, versed or immersed in pop culture. As one of my friends said last year, after attending his first opera, La Boheme at the OiO, “Why do they sing so high?” And I replied, “Because they can!”
Like you, no doubt, I’ve seen people mimic and mock opera by singing a few bars in silly falsetto. But this mockery misses the point, of opera if not people’s taste and training.
Opera is elaborate, an art that insists and thrives on elaboration — more notes, sure, and higher notes, more ups and downs, more subtlety, more innuendo. We are not hit over the head with the art, both music and text, as we often are in pop music, but treated, rather, to subtle, soaring, transcendent artistic form.
Art, or high art anyway, is a kind of sublimated heaven for those of us on Earth and not necessarily buoyed up by ancient creeds. Indeed, in Cosi Fan Tutte, the principals don’t mention Christianity. They are restrained by the social codes of the day, for sure, which include, in the background, religious faith. The male lovers are convinced their fiancees will not betray them. The fiancees swear off temptation — until they don’t. The villains, or realists, of the play, Don Alfonso and the servant girl Despina, represent the real world of appetite and longing, of flesh and blood. They tempt the four lovers to give in to temptation … until they finally do.
Ironically, of course, the realists sing in the same transcendent operatic forms as the idealists. Even the flesh and the appetites, Mozart may be suggesting, can and should be represented in the most endearing and enduring forms.
The world, the flesh, and the devil are joined with earthly authority, both religious and civic, in the beautiful alchemy of opera.
But what about the many millions who ignore or despise opera? Well, they don’t understand it, first of all, and have not been trained to do so. I don’t mean via classes in classical music or opera, but by their whole life experience and their emotional predilections. Let’s say a person loves folk music, which tends toward simple harmonies and perhaps sentiments, whether love or protest. Or loves heavy metal, gods forbid, which is wild and thrashing and emotional and designed, could be, to exorcize demons.
What can such people devoted to a particular musical genre make out of something so other, so ethereal, so ritualistic as opera? Maybe those trained in classical religious music, not hymns, say, but oratorios or other elaborate forms, can make the transition to opera more easily. Still, it’s not an easy jump for most people.
This year I took 15 people to the Opera in the Ozarks, which plays in a rude pavilion, with rustic air conditioning, and on the day of the opera the outside temp was about 100 degrees. All the group seemed to enjoy the show a lot — there were smiles and laughter, enthusiastic applause — except two sisters, in their thirties, who bolted early. I inquired why, and they said the pavilion was hot and the music was boring.
Ach, du lieber! Boring? What was boring about the music? That it was 230 years old? That it was nothing like the music you ordinarily listen to? That it was slow? repetitive? That the libretto was nothing like an action movie, for which we hanker?
Well, there you go. What can I say? You can’t make people love opera. Or force them to the theater — even with tit-for-tat inducements. Last year, two friends attended, a couple, and were, I’m afraid, bored. They fell asleep though they didn’t leave early. The wine beforehand, at the Mediterranean restaurant we patronized, was a bit of a soporific, but then the show? La Boheme? A bore?
(Another friend, a biology professor, sighed at the end of “Che Gelida Manina,” “Such sweetness!”)
But my couple friends would not be convinced. They pretended to offer me a deal. They would go to the opera, next year (this year), if I went with them first to a monster truck mashup (or whatever these foolish noisy shows are called). Well, hell, sure, I said. I’ll do that if you do this (the opera). But I’m afraid I heard no more from them about roaring trucks and banging metal.
I would be bored by quantum physics, I suppose, if forced to attend an advanced class or lecture for which I was not prepared. To the initiated, and/or patient, such an event might be very appealing. Certainly the field of quantum physics is full of fascinations. Can they be brought down to earth? Made comprehensible to the average man and woman? Can opera operate on a level and earthly field?
What do you think, friends? What is your experience?
Following another prompt in Matthew Zapruder’s book Why Poetry, I’d like to explore a bit the connection between dream and poetry, as it applies to a couple of modern poets and myself, to the practice of conjuring it up from the depths.
I have a poet friend who calls me a mole poet. He sees me making subterranean tunnels with my words, evidently. And in truth I like the idea of a mole, a metaphorical mole at any rate, with its star-shaped snout in the loam. (What poem am I forgetting to remember that has that image of the mole’s star-shaped nose? Now my neighbors, some of my neighbors, in the excellent exurban development where I live, have moles if not poetry, which is to say they have literal and problematic moles in their yards that plow up their lawns from below, but what I’m talking about here is real moles in imaginary gardens, the way Marianne Moore in her much revised and many-versioned poem “Poetry” talks about toads, positing in an early version that real poets create “for inspection, imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”)
And now, thanks in good measure to Zapruder’s prompt, I see what my poet-friend might be getting at. There is something in my lines that comes up from below, some subterranean or chthonic thing, some leak between down there and up here where we are said to be pleased to live. (Even Arkansas, where I have been pleased to live, in retirement, the last ten years or so, though it proclaims itself “the natural state,” is not necessarily the leaky state or known for the vatic fumes coming up from below. I have hiked all around this beautiful natural state and not seen yet one sybil squatting on her tripod amidst the fumes from the underworld and foretelling one damned thing, even something as natural as watch it, buddy, or you’ll break your leg on that rock!).
But hold on a minute, please. I’d like to quote Zapruder here, at least the first time he brings up (as from below) this idea of poetry as dream. He is talking here about how he came up with the idea of the book and how he meant to explain poetry to a reluctant and busy up-in-the-head audience:
… I knew the main idea would be that poetry does something different than all other forms of writing and speech, something essential, something we need.
I would demonstrate this by writing about old poems, and also contemporary ones. I would discuss the mechanisms of poems: form, and rhyme, and metaphor, and symbols. I would reveal that what is strange about poetry—its dream logic, its interest in the slipperiness and material qualities of language, its associative daydreaming movement—is not some deliberate obfuscation, or an obstacle to communication, but essential to the very way poetry makes meaning.
Excellent and exciting prompts, no? Poetry “does something different than all other forms of writing and speech”! And if it’s so different, how can we expect to read it, or “appreciate” it, without knowing what that “something different” is and how it achieves poetry’s essential qualities that are essential to living in this upper world?
Poetry’s strange “dream logic,” which Zapruder does not define here, brings up for me a couple of immediate associations, perhaps daydreamy associations, from my study of poetry, the cases of two poets I have read and written about and enjoyed, Hart Crane (1899–1932) and John Berryman (1914–1972), both of them visionaries, you might say, and stylists, and both of them alcoholics and suicides. (Crane wrote the long poem The Bridge and jumped from the bridge of a ship sailing back from Mexico where he had been living to the United States. Berryman wrote The Dream Songs and jumped from a bridge over the Mississippi River connecting the east and west banks of the University of Minnesota, which I attended as an undergraduate.)
—And yet this great wink of eternity,
Of rimless floods, unfettered leewardings,
Samite sheeted and processioned where
Her undinal vast belly moonward bends,
Laughing the wrapt inflections of our love …
In part I of Voyages (1924), he cites kids frolicking on the beach, but in II his vision moves outward, beyond the safety of the land, beyond the conventionally knowable. These are wonderful lines about the sea, how it winks, teasing and beckoning us toward eternity where, willy-nilly, we will go some day. It goes beyond all bounds we know (“rimless”), whether logical or perceptual, and catches up the mystical musings of Melville and Moby-Dick (the lovely image of “unfettered leewardings”). No, the sea is a queen, covered with precious cloth (samite = “a heavy silk fabric, sometimes interwoven with gold, worn in the Middle Ages,” dictionary.com) and pregnant with mysterious meaning (“undinal,” from undine, a female water spirit). She laughs, or laps, “the wrapt inflections of our love” (Crane was in love with a sailor and dedicated Voyages to him).
Crane called his dream logic “the logic of metaphor” (about which I wrote a Ph.D. dissertation how many eons ago), which he defended to dubious editors like Harriet Monroe when he submitted to Poetry magazine his lyric “At Melville’s Tomb.”
But enough for now. You see how wholly unlike Crane’s language is from everyday language. It’s precious, it’s dreamy, it’s as unlikely to occur in business speech as cocktail chitchat. (Well, more unlikely in business!) It’s love-poem language, and so much beyond the roses-are-red bromides of greeting cards and everyday consciousness that it’s not funny. Not funny, no, but could be stunning. Give in, it whispers. Go with the dream flow. Let yourself be swept away, fall in love, fall out of the world of conventional logical meaning and thought.
John Berryman, my 2nd exhibit of dream language here, began his poetic career as a conventional imitator of the Big Poets of his time, namely, W. B. Yeats and W. H. Auden, two Brits then at the apex of the mid-20th century poetry game. But he figured, all by his lonely, as all good poets eventually do, that his own voice was something else. He wrote a longish tribute poem called Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956) and then, starting in 1964 the Dream Songs, 18 line poems in 3 stanzas. Here’s the beginning of No. 8:
The weather was fine. They took away his teeth,
white & helpful; bothered his backhand;
halved his green hair.
They blew out his loves, his interests. ‘Underneath’
(they called in iron voices), ‘understand,
is nothing. So there.’
Such quick colloquial phrases! Such ironic juxtapositions! Is what’s happening here something that happens in the real world? Fine weather and then the teeth removed? Backhand? Is this tennis, or the back of a hand used to strike? Green hair of a young man? Surely, JB was no punk before his time! Like birthday candles, “loves” and “interests” are blown out at death, and death is “‘Underneath,'” as this poem too, in its insistent dreamy logic, takes us underneath the obvious, the everyday. We seem to sway, reluctantly, could be, in a mortuary environment. We’re made to look, however horrible or horribly funny, at the corpse. (More than Crane, Berryman was haunted by the idea of suicide from a young age; when JB was just 12, his father, like Hemingway’s father, shot himself, and hung like an albatross around the son’s neck —sorry about the mixed metaphor! — until the son too pulled the trigger or jumped.)
Finally, let me offer, immodestly and logically enough, my own example. From my second book of poetry, released October 2021, consider this poem:
Hot Thai Dinner chez Zeck
Kelly comes over and chews some shrooms,
holding them in his mouth as long as possible,
like a lover the first time he kisses a woman
he’s been wanting forever or a smack of caviar.
Holly eats the hot Thai take-out and fire pours
from her head, a petite bronze bodhisattva
exhaling Thai food who wants nothing to do
with Thai food. Kelly and I are laughing like
two baboons chewing the shrooms, what do
we want with food at a time like this? Jen’s
dish is way hot too, the way she was when
we just met, I could hardly get in the door
without whipping it out and we fell moaning
to the floor while upstairs her parents sat
grazing on Bonanza.
I make no particular claim for the worth of this poem or its value vis-à-vis others being written today. But the logic of the progression of lines and images suggests dream or associative logic more than everyday, conventional logic. Now, it may be true that shroom lovers or potheads or alcoholics, for that matter, associate like this more easily than most people most of the time. Most people most of the time don’t jump like this from one image or idea to the next.
There’s the simile in line 3, comparing the chewing of magic mushrooms to the kissing of a long-desired woman. (Oral pleasures, baby!) There’s the comparison in line 6 of the petite Holly to a bodhisattva, a figure of enlightenment or exception (she’s not chewing shrooms, apparently, but hot Thai food). There are the two baboons that Kelly and the poet become when chewing shrooms. And, finally, there’s the hot dish Jen eats, and the poet remembers how, way back when, when he and Jen were newly met and not yet wed, they fell at each other hungrily while the parents, upstairs in the logic room, are grazing on the convention moral logic of Bonanza on TV.
Well, I tend to free-associate like this every day, in speech as well as poetry; it’s my everyday logic, if not others’. A habit of mind that stands me apart at times, where well I should be, as the habit makes some people uncomfortable. It also makes for a lot of free-association joking, and I’m able to entertain people this way and coax them out of the stuffy environment of work and duty.
Logic and duty, then, on one hand. Poetry and jokes and dreams, on the other. Zivili! as we used to toast each other in Serbia, where I taught one year way back when. Long and happy life!
Got a message from a friend who was having trouble with the poems in my 2nd volume, Lost & Found: Poems Found All Around. He appeared to question why he had to consult the dictionary and look up words. Like most people who don’t read much poetry and are not practiced at reading it, he would probably not consider consulting a dictionary to be a lot of fun.
In a recent book, Why Poetry, however, Matthew Zapruder suggests that the dictionary is exactly what you should consult when you read poetry. If you don’t know a word, look it up, he says, for what you need in poetry first of all is the literal sense of the word. When you understand the individual words, the poem will make more sense, at first a literal sense, then perhaps something more. Only then will you be able to connect the denotations of words with connotations or connections.
The more of the surface of the poem you understand, and perhaps discuss with others, the more of the depths of the poem and the interconnectedness of the parts of a poem you will understand. And not just understand but feel and be affected by.
Let’s look at a few unusual words from a sample poem in Lost & Found, and see how this poem may model how poetry makes more sense when you understand the individual words and how they work together.
Poem I’ve Been Hoarding in a Drawer Thinking of Frank O’Hara
Sure, socks, tees, and bikini briefs cohabit
in this fine and private place, grave of a sere
and obscure drawer. And when scraps of poetry
also, stray spraints or scats, pack of street mutts,
anoesis of barks, sniffs, scratches, are found here
one day, after I am gone, stuff I hid away, a dusty
cluster of what might have been, and perhaps was,
back in the day: okay, okay, okay.
The title, first, makes use of the operative verb hoard. Is this a pirate’s treasure we’re talking about? Whoa, now! Before we jump to metaphoric conclusions, let’s define hoard in its most familiar, literal sense. To hoard is to stow or hide something away, yes? To store something up and save it from consumption, maybe against a rainy day, maybe against our fears that sooner or later we’ll have nothing at all left in our hands.
If we hoard something in a drawer, we’re saving or keeping it against use or consumption. In this case it’s both underwear (“socks, tees, and bikini briefs”) and a poem, this poem, that are being hoarded. A strange combo to hoard in a drawer, to be sure.
Then comes a series of unusual, and maybe unfamiliar, words: sere, a rather archaic word for dry; spraints, which means otter feces, and scats, animal feces in general; and anoesis, “a state of mind consisting of pure sensation or emotion without cognitive content” (dictionary.com), which with the modifying phrase “of barks, sniffs, scratches,” suggests some kind of doggy mentation at a pretty basic animal level.
So, the situation is a bit strange, or strained, or not exactly realistic or literal. We have underwear in a drawer and also scraps of poetry, maybe unfinished or unpolished poems. And these unlike objects coexist and somehow belong in, or have been filed in, the same place (by the poet). The phrase fine and private place is an allusion to a 17th century seduction poem, familiar to students of poetry if not the general public, by Andrew Marvell, “To His Coy Mistress,” where the poet says as he nears the climax of his seductive pitch:
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
Marvell is in a hurry to get it on with his mistress, and she’s still resisting. He admonishes her to do it, do it now, before they’re both dead and can feel nothing at all.
The poet of “Poem I’ve Been Hoarding in a Drawer” is not pleading with a lady, but making something of an erotic connection between the hidden contents of a drawer — intimate garments like underwear, that is, and intimate feelings contained in poems. For isn’t that one of the things that poems do best? Talk honestly about things most of us keep to ourselves, perhaps forever, never uttering, never getting off our chests and out of our hearts? True, this particular poet, in this particular poem, has hid poems away: perhaps he doubts the wisdom of presenting them to the world. He’d be opening himself to the cold gaze of the world of duty, service, subservience, convention, it could be.
But in the end, at the end of the poem, he seems to be resigned to the eventual discovery of these poems, these feelings,
stuff I hid away, a dusty
cluster of what might have been, and perhaps was,
back in the day: okay, okay, okay.
Whatever intimates he might have worn, or intimate feelings he might have had, pinned to his sleeve, worn on his face, or tucked out of sight, they are all gone now, you see, except, for this poem (and others like it).
Now I may seem to be making something more ingenious out of the poem than it ever consciously was. I swear that when I wrote it, I did not start or proceed from a rational outline or moral thesis. The poem simply came to me, pretty quickly, and I relied, as often happens, at least as much on sound as on sense. The origins were not much more than anoesis, believe me: scratching, sniffing, barking.
Poets are suckers for sounds. (They have not been weaned perhaps from these oral pleasures and onto the hard, dry facts of the working world.) In the mouths of poets, words are musical and magical things, even dream things, as Zapruder also suggests. But in the end words also must make sense.
In the minds of readers, especially those who do a little homework, as with the dictionary, sound and sense can merge to make a wondrous and affecting experience. Given a bit of time and effort, poetry will make more sense than the brevity of a piece like “Hoarding” might suggest. But poetry will never appeal to readers the way a page-turning novel does. They are completely different creatures, and if poetry requires time, study, patience it can repay us a thousand times for our efforts.
It’s as tough today to write a convincing poem about political issues as it was during the Depression. A poem that is not strident, dogmatic, and beside the point — if we concede that the point of poetry today, as in the past, is to explore the new, not turn over the old and obvious.
(The dictionary definition of poetry is worth citing here: “the art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts.” Even if we know that in the wake of war, catastrophe, and civil unrest, elevated thoughts are not as easy to produce as an elevator ride up to haberdashery, say. And beauty itself comes often in camouflage.)
In today’s arts climate, in fact, the new PC orthodoxies are already old, tired, obnoxious, and obvious.
They harken back to the revolutionary foment of the Depression, when either you were with us or against us (a dedicated leftist, even commie).
Wallace Stevens, 1879–1955, was one poet dedicated to verse, however perverse and even, in some of his verse, he acknowledged, ironically, “otiose prettiness.” He was a poet, the maker of new things that would last and stay; a reformer, he thought, in poetry and politics, but not a young revolutionary. He would not “take the point of view of a poet just out of school” (see The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens by Paul Mariani).
As per today’s young wet-behind-the-ears firebrands, certain words may be allowed. Other words not. Certain attitudes are admirable; others detestable. Certain races and sexual preferences, which have long been “privileged,” must yield to new privileges for minorities and LGBTQ+ (whatever plus is: is it back there in the dark somewhere with Bed, Bath & Beyond?).
If you’re looking to submit literary work to a little magazine and read what the editors are looking for, chances are very high you’ll find among their desiderata the word “diversity” and its half-demented cousins.
My 2nd book of poetry, just released, Lost & Found: Poems Found All Around, contains a poem, in fact, “What We’re Looking For,” based entirely on such editorial shibboleths. Harken if you plan on submitting to our magazine, the editors counsel:
We seek mysteries and marginalized voices, a sense of shared wonder, inclusive art that asks questions, explores mystery, and works to make visible the marginalized, the overlooked, and those whose voices have been silenced, including LGBTQ+, neurodivergent writers, women and women writers.
Heavens help us all. If we could write no better than this clod of an editor, how could we get into any magazine? (I know! Let’s found our own magazine … and welcome those who look, act, think, and smell like us! Neurodivergent writers, whatever that means! If we can’t find an acronym, we’ll use jargon! Don’t let English get in the way!)
I would hope, that among us older, more experienced, more reflective literary artists, diversity could signal an artist who has the most words, the supplest syntax, the most exploratory mind. What does it matter if he or she is white, black, red, yellow, straight or queer?
Use your experience in life, yes, and in letters — and let it rip. Don’t be shy. Don’t hold back. Don’t whine about who might go tut-tut-tut. Too many editors and critics are truculent little whiners. Let them whine. Go your way and make it a journey.
In my 70+ years’ experience in reading, writing, teaching, living, and, yes, like you, suffering, I’ve become who I am today — a human being with a lot to say … and a way of saying it. A voice, in short, that does not rely on acronyms, jargon, and petty-minded formulae.
So, please, sir editor or madame, when I grace your journal with a submission, don’t throw me an 18-year-old reader as your first line of defense, someone who’s read little if anything of the literature of the last 100 years. And may be armed primarily with the prejudices of hisr youthful generation. (There’s a pronoun suggestion for you: hisr. His or her. I’m afraid “hers” is already taken and “their” is, believe it or not, plural.)
If you’re looking for mystery, Ms. or Mr. Editor, look at the words of the writer. The words should be true to the writer’s experience in his or her world and in craft. If she has been silenced or, perhaps more accurately, participated in silence, she needs to develop a voice of her own so she’ll have something to say and a way of saying it.
Her voice can’t merely cry weh ist mir! or how persecuted I am!
Get a life, young lady, young gentleman. A life in writing. Learn to write, that is. Dare to stumble, fall. Get up and stumble again. And when you get up, for gods’ sakes revise!
Writing is a lonely craft. You’re on your own. Get on with it.
If you’re on social media, you may have noticed poetry groups. They are a kind of epiphenomenon, a wart or wonder on the face of language enterprises generally.
Pardon my cynicism. But it’s in the service of a decent cause, I think: skepticism that good poetry can be produced by people who write but don’t read poetry.
Why do so many people write poetry? Is it a good thing that they do?
We might cheer the general idea that poetry should be more popular or more prevalent in our culture. Songs are popular, are heart and soul of pop culture. And it may not matter much that most song lyrics are bad.
Politics is a matter of general concern, though most of us aren’t particularly articulate about our political views. Yes, we complain. But do we know how to bring the country together? (A politically motivated view of poetry is expressed by minorities, like the lesbian writer Julie S Enszer, in an opinion piece called “Are Too Many People Writing Poetry?” Her view is that the more we have of minority opinions, the better. But minority opinions from untrained voices do not necessarily make good art. And such opinions, these days, overload the literary journals.)
Whether motivated by song or politics, poetry should be written by people who have read it and even studied it.
Otherwise, the idea of poetry is cheapened.
Why so many poets or poetasters? We all want to express ourselves.
The problem is knowing how to do so.
We all want to distinguish ourselves from the animals, some of whom have articulate voices or a bit of same. Crows and parrots can imitate language. Bulls and bears can roar and grunt.
But it’s only human beings that have articulate speech.
Some more, some less.
If speech is to become poetry, the speaker must know something about craft. Like other crafts, and arts, poetry has evolved through the centuries. So those who write poetry in the early 21st century should not sound like they’re speaking from the 18th or 19th or even 20th century.
But tons of would-be poets today sound just like that. They mistake rhyme as the crucial element of poetry, not an accessory or even accident. They are guilty of what Chaucer calls “drasty [nasty] rhyming.” By god, friends, if we have to go this pilgrims’ road together, let’s have some decent rhyming at the very least. And, what’s better, some attention to what really constitutes poetry in the 21st century.
Heightened speech, I would say. Rhythmic speech. And access to articulate ideas from all sources, written and spoken.
Poetry is a tough business, as I’ve said before. Not for sissies. Not for whiners. Or for those who expect instant praise or give up easily.
So today read a poem. Go to Poetry Foundation, for example, and dig around a bit. Why not? it will spare you from the drasty rhyming found in poetry groups on Facebook and other muddied sources.
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.