Poetry & backstory

My primary interests on this site are consciousness, nature, philosophy, the arts, and poetry in particular. Recently, poetry has been taking a backseat to other concerns; but poetry has a way of constantly asserting itself into my consciousness–of whatever that may consist (see previous posts for wrestling with that concept).

I have been reading poetry but not writing about it much and not composing at a productive clip, though I am not feeling “writer’s block.” I have, instead, allowed other events in my life to take over space formerly reserved for writing poems. This is neither bad nor good–it is just the state of affairs at present. Recently, a discussion with a friend brought up an aspect of poetry-writing that I have not spent much time thinking about; and the reason I haven’t is probably because I was warned away from the practice long ago when I first began to write verse.

The practice is “explaining the poem.” Of course, in theory the poem should do its own explaining, and if it requires too much prose telling, then it ought to be fiction or memoir or history or something other than a poem. That’s what my mentors and teachers imparted to me about poetry (all hail received wisdom!), and I do not disagree with this tenet–but having taught classes that introduce people to poetry, let me add a few cautions and qualifiers.

See, there’s explaining, and there’s explaining. One version of explaining the poem is to tell what inspired you, how you started to write it, what you were aiming for in terms of purpose, what you intended to “do” in the poem, and what each of the references means as relates to your life, the nation, culture, religion, or a love affair. If that is what the poet does before reading the poem aloud or presenting it upon the page, then the poet is doing all of the poem’s work for it. Too much information.

If the audience does not understand or appreciate the poem without this sort of explanation, then you have either a failed poem or a failed audience.

Then there are forms of interpretation and analysis by critics, reviewers, or fans; these texts or discussions can be immensely interesting and fruitful but do not involve the poet him or herself, so they do not really qualify as “explanations.” This process is what we try to teach students to do in university literary analysis coursework. Sometimes we encounter lackluster or lazy audiences in the classroom: people who want the professor or the textbook to do all the work of understanding poems for them. Poems are complex, like polymer molecules or neurological wiring. Not easy to explain.

But there are explanations of a kind that can be valuable, even if they are fabishop lowell ltrsr from necessary when one encounters a really terrific poem. There are reasons to learn the backstory of a poem, if such a thing exists for that particular poem (not all poems have one). Anyway, it may be worth asking the poet about it, if she is still living and can answer or if the answer may be deduced from archival materials. We have learned the backstories of a few Elizabeth Bishop poems, just taking one well-known poet as an example (see Words in Air); the stories–in this case, letters–do not necessarily help readers interpret a poem or even understand it any better, but the stories remind us that the poem was initially embodied in the brain of another human being who was undergoing and observing experiences–or leaping into realms of imagination.

More about why that’s a good thing, and more about the embodiment of the human brain, in later posts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Be critical, and sing”

pompeiian woman-writer

The poet C. D. Wright died in January of this year. She was an American original. She was a critical thinker of the first order, an experimenter.

For no apparent reason, I thought of her when I saw this fresco painting (unearthed in Pompeii) of a woman with a stylus and book. Something in the thoughtful musing look in this portrait suggested a critical eye, analysis, consideration–a keen and penetrating intelligence. She will reflect before she writes, but she has opinions she  is not afraid to share.

A collection of Wright’s pronouncements, which she combined and arranged in a sort of extended prose poem, was published as “69 Hidebound Opinions.” The hidebound is both tongue-in-cheek and earnest; typical, really, of Wright’s work. I’ll post the link and also share a few that I find intriguing.

“69 Hidebound Opinions” by C. D. Wright.

Here’s #22:

“To opt to be a poet, is to have some resolve. It leaves you free–to sing as you will, with the lungs god gave you–even if no one but god might hear. It leaves you that naked and obligated to sing your best. Suzuki teaches that ‘in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.’ Beginner’s mind then, is not only where you start, but where you must remain. It is what will keep you–long after you have children, job, house, dog, too many keys on your ring–free.”

Number 27:

“An atmosphere of depression will arouse artists’ attention over an atmosphere of prosperity nearly every time. Because it derives from consciousness, art is critical. Also true, ruins are beautiful to us; the Blues make us feel good; it is through the wound that we perceive the body whole.”

Yet, #42 says, “It is left to the poets to point out the shining particulars in our blunted lives like the strands of blue lights Cotter, Arkansas, draped every haunting Christmas from one empty storefront to the empty storefront across the street for eight unoccupied blocks.”

Number 41 resonates deeply: “It is poetry that remarks on the barely perceptible disappearances from our world such as that of the sleeping porch or the root cellar. And poetry that notes the barely perceptible appearances.”

An aside: [I want to write about the sleeping porch, which I loved in my early childhood and which hardly exists anymore. I’d like to sleep on one again, build a house that has a sleeping porch. Also, my joy at discovering my former neighbor had–and used–a root cellar; his joy at discovering the young person new to the neighborhood was fervent about her truck patch.]

“53

Poetry is the language of intensity. Because we are going to die, an expression of intensity is a necessity.

Extended awareness, isn’t that central to the art?”

No. 67–

“Gradually one comes to fathom exactly what it is one has chosen–what is poetry. Poetry avails itself of the listener, the watcher. Whether called upon to emancipate, comfort or forecast, poetry responds. The possibility that the poem you were born to write, will not join you on the porch this summer or the next, looms taller than the sunflowers and the hollyhocks. It could have taken the fork to the river or ended up at the slaughterhouse. It could have died as quietly as the moth on the screen. Or just borne itself up on the breeze. Who can say. This is the poet’s choice: to attend a presence no one else was aware of, to spend the better part of a lifetime preparing for an arrival, that could not occur but for her attention, that would not in fact otherwise make its blaze on this world.”

waterpaper

 

I close with #51: “Now that I am beyond the initial paralysis of calling one’s first teachings into question, I am left with: be critical and sing.”

 

Resilience & interpretation

I know many of the readers who follow this blog are not citizens of the United States. Perhaps you have been hearing about the contenders for our upcoming presidential election and feeling some dismay. Perhaps you are particularly concerned about calls for identifying citizens based upon their ethnic background and religious choice.

If so, I assure you that there is push-back here from people who recognize that persons such as Mr. Trump embarrass the nation. It appalls us to see a person who feels he can ignore the U.S. Constitution running for the presidential office simply because he has money and recognition…although the free and open laws of the country permit him to proceed.

Trump’s proposal to identify some of our citizens by creed or heritage violates the Constitution in several ways. It violates Amendment One’s provisions for freedom of religious expression, and Amendment Four, the right to privacy; and the section of Amendment Five that relates to being held answerable to a crime and deprived of liberties without due process of law; also, Amendment Fourteen Section 1. Many, many U.S. citizens know that such proposals are merely rabble-rousing slander and could not be enacted without completely controverting the Constitution. These people are not wealthy entertainers, and they do not make the news, but they exist and–with any luck–they will vote.

A person running for the highest office in his country should know its laws thoroughly, but nothing in our Constitution says he (or she) must. We citizens are to blame, as clearly many of us are not terribly familiar with the laws of the United States of America, either. U.S. citizens should become more aware of our responsibility to learn about the Constitution, the importance of the vote, and the need to be rational thinkers when we go to the polls. Our democracy’s founding documents were drafted by people who earnestly, if perhaps idealistically, believed that human beings are capable of rational decision-making.

Granted, they also thought they were granting voting rights to property-owning men. The Constitution has been altered over time; it is a resilient, flexible, and enduring piece of prose that’s been the source of frequent interpretation.USConstitution From a literary standpoint, resilience and interpretation are what keep “classics” alive and relevant as works of art, though close readers can also use context, history, and speculation about original intent to examine a piece of writing they love and respect.

I have no idea of how I will vote next November. But I do know I will consider, more than personal values, the values of the nation under whose laws I currently reside. I’m reminded of the wisdom-teachings of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew–

He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” Matt. 22:21

The people listening to Jesus went away “amazed” (Matt. 22:22). There is something ambiguous in that response that speaks to me today, something worth meditating upon, something worth interpreting.

~

Supportive critique

One discipline that keeps me practicing as a poet is ongoing, regular discussion of new work. It has been my great good fortune to be part of a critique group that has been meeting monthly for, I believe, over 20 years! Our participants have come and gone a bit; the group consists of four long-time stalwarts and up to three others. We try to keep to under seven members or the discussions get too lengthy for one evening.

When one has participated in a group like this for a long time, the occasional issue of expected responses comes up. At least, it does for me. When I choose a poem to workshop with my critique group, I might say to myself, “X prefers more narrative poems…Q will think this too wordy…Z will probably correct the dangling modifier…”

If I begin to expect certain stereotyped reactions, one could ask, why bother being part of a group with the same people in it all the time? Would it be more helpful to scout around for novel feedback?

Actually, no. While I am sometimes correct in my expectations of a group member’s initial feedback (and I am often wrong!), the discussions that evolve from that point onward prove tremendously useful. What I learn and can use as inspiration to revise tends to arise from other group members’ questions, challenges, and misreadings; unexpected revision ideas appear during brainstorming, and bouncing the ideas off of others helps me recognize that the poem must communicate or die.

These are good things which nourish the creative impulse.

When we do take on a new member, we fear that he or she may be a bit shocked by our frankness with one another: after 20 years, there’s not quite as much need to dance politely around a poem that isn’t doing its job. But those who settle in with us see that we practice non-defensive openness and that we always find genuine things to praise. Our group purpose is to assist one another in writing the best work we can. That means analysis and criticism, but it also means encouragement and generosity of spirit. It offers us exchange of accomplishments, prompts, book suggestions, setbacks, joys, and sorrows (there have been more than a few).

It may be a small community, but it is a community. And my fellow participants are as supportive as any community I have been part of these past two decades. They take our writing commitment seriously, recognizing that critique is just another step in the process and that dissenting ideas can get us toward brilliance. Once in awhile.

Online workshops

For the month of October, I participated in an online poetry workshop with Daisy Fried (see this post). I enjoyed the workshop and gained a great deal from it; I wish I had had a little more time to put into the writing, however. As is often the case, “life intervened” and I did not find quite as much creative writing time in the month as I had hoped.

Then again, all writers have to juggle. Life intervenes, always. How dedicated are we to making art? We have to ask ourselves that now and then. If distractions too readily remove us from the genuine work, maybe we’re dilettantes. On the other hand, not all of us choose to devote 100% of ourselves to the work. That does not make us less serious about the hours it takes to compose art.

One thing I learned from the online workshop experience is that, with the right participants (our group seemed well-chosen), you can get to know one anothers’ work and topic concerns fairly quickly, and even glean things about personality, cultural background, and literary influences of the people in the group. This may be more true for writers than for other artists, perhaps, as writers are experienced at…well, writing…which is how the critique and feedback exchanges operate on these forums (via comments). The exchanges were interesting and useful because the perspectives varied greatly; and instead of talking together in a room real-time, and perhaps feeling inhibited by face-to-face shyness or fear of interrupting one another, the participants had time to write our thoughts and think a bit before posting feedback.

The downside of an online workshop, for me, mostly entails the quantity of on-screen reading necessary for full participation. I suppose I could have printed the lectures and comments, but that seemed a waste of paper and was not simple because of the Blogger-framework, the format of which does not play well with my printer defaults. Ah, technology! How I love and hate it! And the beauty of a face-to-face workshop is the beauty of human beings, faces, flesh, vocal tones, body language, gesture–subtleties lost in a virtual forum. When I was enrolled in my MFA program at Goddard, the intensity of the low-residency on-campus workshops and lectures were crucial (and irreplaceable).

Nonetheless, I found the workshop online this past month to be a valuable learning experience that expanded my thinking about poems and narrative, about revision and experimentation, and about the various modes of teaching or critiquing. I recognized, for example, how much preparation Daisy had to do to organize a one-month online workshop, how much organization, and how much thought as to purpose and guidance and feedback, let alone figuring out which low-cost method to employ to deliver the lecture, set the context, and permit easy and rapid feedback on the part of both teacher and students. Not an easy task, and she did a yeoman’s job of it. One thing I deeply appreciated was Fried’s devotion to the value of deep revision rather than just to tweaking the draft. I had forgotten how I used to wildly and almost randomly revise drafts “just to see” what might happen if I made radical changes. Often I would return to the earlier draft with renewed focus, and sometimes the radical revision took the poems to much more interesting places. These days, when I have less time to mull and experiment, I tend to stay on the safe side and take fewer risks with revision. Risk is worth it, though. I need to get back to that approach.

All in all, a positive workshop experience, and one which yielded a couple of poems worth revising and some poetry colleagues whose work I like and whose feedback I value and may tap in future (who knows?). Without leaving home.

home-window

The poet & the Good

I have recently finished reading Robert Archambeau‘s collection of essays The Poet Resigns and am mulling over the idea of resigning with him.

It’s not that I necessarily want to give up writing poetry but that, in my reflections about where I can do the most good among the community of sentient beings, my work as tutor and teacher almost certainly has an effect both deeper and broader than my work as poet. This “good” hearkens to the ancient Good of Socrates, Plato, and their ilk but also to the sense of mindful “middle way” of the Tao: a practical path between two values that may be incompatible in many ways.

~

water-rites_coverThe readership for contemporary poetry is small, and my readers number only in the hundreds; among those readers, resonance of any kind–aesthetic, emotional, lyrical–is likely to be limited to a small number of poems. A poem of mine that effects some measure of The Good upon readers represents a minuscule good moving into the world. The net effect, I imagine, hardly registers…not that net effect matters so much. I suppose if a poem of mine moves just one person enough to evince even a small transformation, something has been achieved beyond my individual abilities in the composition of that particular piece.

As a teacher and tutor for the past ten years, my role expands not merely to number of people encountered (few of whom will remember me as an individual) but to the concepts I present to them, most of which will be significant in their lives one way or another–although not immediately, and probably unconsciously. Lately I have been devoting more of my limited energies to this aspect of my life work. Such focus does impede my ability to do creative work of other sorts.

~

This bust resides in the Louvre, and was found here: http://www.humanjourney.us/greece3.html

This bust resides in the Louvre, and was found here: http://www.humanjourney.us/greece3.html

Example: I am reading a little book on philosophy for beginners by Thomas Nagel. The Nagel book is on my table because I have been trying to find simpler ways to talk with students about their philosophy essays. While my main enterprise as writing tutor is to help students to clarify and correct their mechanical weaknesses (sentence and paper structures), it is not always possible to ignore content weaknesses; a student can write correctly about nothing of value–and receive a D or, in the case of Philosophy classes especially, an F.

But understanding philosophy is important.

Now, it is often extremely difficult for beginning writers to express their understanding of philosophical concepts in writing. They are just learning rhetoric and fall into fallacy errors through grammar as often as through thinking. Since I am not supposed to be a content tutor, I have to find ways to tease out what the student understands (or does not understand) and make that idea come through clearly on the page.

Kind of like mind-reading.

[Aside: I have to admit this can take a lot out of me by the end of the day.]

The Nagel book is one of several philosophy primers I have been reviewing to try to find a text to which I can refer my more confused students, the ones who cannot infer the basics from their professors’ lectures or assigned readings. There are academics who might suggest such students do not belong in college in the first place; but I believe in the ideal of an educated populace, and whether or not these students stay in the university through graduation, they can benefit from the discipline of thinking about thinking.

It feels rewarding when, after half an hour of discussion and writing coaching, a young person leaves my office slightly more enlightened. So they tell me, anyway. I know from experience that writing about something helps a person to understand not only the subject but, more importantly, what the writer thinks about the subject.

~

So perhaps my creative energy is better served in the direction of others through tutoring than through poetry; perhaps the former leans more toward the Good. Perhaps I am a better tutor than poet; this is indeed likely, although I have been poet-ing longer than I have been teaching. Then again, not to knock the art of teaching, but writing poetry is much more difficult than the teaching I do. And I get paid to enlighten people through my tutoring.

Not so through poetry. Indeed, Mr. Archambeau–you have gotten me seriously to think about tendering my resignation as a poet, though not without considerably more reflection on the possibility. Writing about the idea has helped me to understand where the Good fits into all of this, and what the middle way might be.

Now, I suppose I could write a poem about the subject…

~

Gopnik enters the English major fray

The New Yorker‘s columnist Adam Gopnik contributes his views about why the English major does or doesn’t matter in the blog accompanying a recent issue. He says, in response to apologists (like me) who contend that English, literature, and the humanities generally contribute to a person’s life experience in subtle, long-term ways:

Well, a humanities major may make an obvious contribution to everyone’s welfare. But the truth is that for every broadly humane, technological-minded guy who contributed one new gadget to our prosperity there are six narrow, on-the-spectrum techno-obsessives who contributed twenty.

Then he points out:

Nor do humanities specialists, let alone English majors, seem to be particularly humane or thoughtful or open-minded people, as the alternative better-people defense insists. No one was better read than the English upper classes who, a hundred years ago, blundered into the catastrophe of the Great War. (They wrote good poetry about it, the ones who survived anyway.) Victorian factory owners read Dickens, but it didn’t make Victorian factories nicer. (What made them nicer was people who read Dickens and Mill and then petitioned Parliament.)

Okay, he’s a bit broad and snarky there–but that’s his style. And nonetheless, Gopnik argues for space in society–if not necessarily in the academy–for the study and discussion and obsession with books and literature. He claims that “the best answer I have ever heard from a literature professor for studying literature came from a wise post-structuralist critic” who said the reason he was a literature professor was because he had “an obsessive relationship with texts.”

I would agree with that reasoning, though I am not a post-structuralist, so far as I know.

I believe that education ought to allow us to follow our passions to whatever logical or surprising ends appear. In light of the huge expense of a university education in the USA, however, perhaps the best question to ask is how to motivate citizens to pursue education individually (see my post on autodidacts). Gopnik calls the estimable Dr. Johnson “the greatest English professor who ever lived,” though he never taught in a university and though his title of “doctor” was honorary, and reminds us that other antecedent writers-on-literature, such as Hazlitt and Sydney Smith, “had to make their living doing something else narrowly related.” Colleges at least offer some employment and a modicum of respect to the humanist interpreters and researchers among us, but we need not be employed by the academy to exercise our obsession with books. That can be done on our own.

Dr. Johnson

Gopnik adds this lovely, wise sentence near the close of his column, and I wish I could convey the value of his idea to every college student I advise: “You choose a major, or a life, not because you see its purpose, which tends to shimmer out of sight like an oasis, but because you like its objects.”

Poems, stories, paintings, sculpture, dance, philosophy, books, books, books…I don’t know my life’s purpose, but I know the “objects” that entrance me.