The universe is not only strange but stranger than we can imagine


About writing…

Hand writing a letter with a goose feather

Scribble, scribble, scribble. Wouldn’t it be better if I just went to bed?

Thoughts, laments and insights (precious, dubious or otherwise) about writing. The craft, the joys and frustrations, the seamy commercial aspects. How  does something we learned to do in Grade One become an art? What makes writing a letter or (God forbid) an ad differ from writing a classic novel? For that matter, how does a “bad” novel differ from a classic? Why do so many people try their hand at writing poetry? Why is so much of it so bad? Then again, why is so much of what is presented as “good” poetry today so completely inaccessible to most of us?

Most of all, why bother?

These thoughts and more to be explored

But is it poetry? Part 2

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
  Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
  And the mome raths outgrabe.

Well, it rhymes and scans, but what does this excerpt from Jabberwocky (a poem by Lewis Carroll) actually mean? As far as I can discover, nothing at all –it is what they used to call a nonsense poem, a set of verses written as a joke, meant to be amusing. Sad to say, I find a great deal of what passes for serious poetry these days equally opaque and less amusing than Jabberwocky.

Asian man in a lab coat giving a shrug on a white background

Interesting — but what does it mean?

The fault may well lie with me. I may be a Philistine, too literal-minded to glimpse the gorgeous souls of the poems I speak of.  In which case, I must forever live without the rich insights that lie buried within them. Or then again, they could just be mediocre poems, impenetrable to anyone but the author and perhaps his/her close friends — a group of overdressed words gathered at a cocktail party for insiders.

Poetry does not necessarily reveal its meaning on the first reading, or even the second or third — at least in the sense that you can say, “oh yes, the author was talking about the transcendent feelings inspired by a lovely sunset,” or whatever the case may be. But I suggest that poetry — dare I say “real poetry”  — does convey something, some emotional charge or difficult-to-articulate insight, even on first reading. Consider one of my favorite openings:

April is the cruelest month
Breeding lilacs out of the dead land
Mixing memory with desire
Stirring dull roots with spring rain…

What exactly do the lines mean? Why is April the cruellest month? You could concoct a long, somewhat tedious explanation which would make sense, but it would probably not capture the emotional response to the lines, the sense of exuberance tempered by the perception of time passing, that comes with the end of winter and the return of spring. The lines have meaning, although the precise meaning may be elusive. “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood,” said T.S. Eliot. These lines communicated something to me the first time I read them, and they continue to do so.

But now, take the opening lines of a poem arbitrarily selected from a recent issue of Harper’s (with apologies in advance to the author for my lack of understanding):

Evening is the stalk
little skulls bloom on
while canyons recede
into the garden corners

I confess, I have no idea what this is supposed to communicate, if anything. Unlike the opening lines of The Wasteland, the lines do not spark any emotional reaction in me, any sense of “yeah, I get it.” The images are striking in what seems to me a rather self-conscious way — but what is the author trying to get at? What feeling or perception is he trying to convey? I couldn’t begin to tell you. The remainder of the work is even more opaque, at least to me. Some lines, from midway in the piece:

…but if we had a red shed
Then we could get a ship in the mist
if we had a ship in the mist
they’d let a robot watch us sleep…

Well okey dokey then.  Once more, I have no idea what the author is trying to say. At the back of my consciousness, trying to scratch its way in, is the uncharitable thought that maybe he doesn’t know either. Or, an alternative hypothesis: the author’s meaning can only be captured by those who know him and know what he is referring to when he talks about ships in the mist, red sheds and so on. The work becomes then the literary equivalent of a private family joke. (As Uncle Ned carves the Thanksgiving turkey he says “Hope I don’t have to shine my shoes tomorrow,” and family members laugh because they know the reference. Last Thanksgiving, Woofers the fat spaniel, sneaked into the kitchen, ate half the turkey and threw up on Uncle Ned’s shoes. Those not in the know just look at each other in puzzlement.)

Either way, I am left in the dark. The work just doesn’t communicate on any level with me.  I read it a couple of times, the words bounce off my consciousness, leaving no mark — and I shrug and move on. The author of the piece doesn’t care that I find it incomprehensible, and at first blush nor do I.  A few minutes apparently wasted, the warm impulse to read poetry a little more chilled, my (nearly non-existent) faith in the judgement of “experts” further eroded — so what?

Yet, on further reflection, the trend towards inaccessibility, towards literary elitism in poetry is unfortunate. When it works, poetry can be so compelling, so stimulating, the source of such rich insights.  When it becomes dry, arid, over-sophisticated, we lose something.  “Poetry should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance,” said John Keats, one of the great Romantic poets.  If poetry reminds us of who we are, its absence can be seen as a form of amnesia,  a washed-out bridge on the road back to self. And that, as the song says, that just ain’t right!






But is it poetry? Part 1

Longhi, Pietro; 'A Poet Declaiming His Verses'; Lady Lever Art Gallery;

Poetry slams in the good old days. Notice the dog and the angel waiting to share their verses.

“Stephanie was drawn to poetry when she discovered the first rule of poetry: there are no rules!”

I received this gem of insight via email recently from an on-line poetry site. Of course, such sites are more about generating clicks than promoting great literature. Even so, the sentiment seems to be a common one. Let me confess up front.  I am one of those disagreeable dinosaurs (a Versoraptor?) who believe there actually are rules, however ill-defined, that poetry is a recognizable entity.

While the definition of a poem may be as vague and shifting as morning fog or the average politician’s most sincere promises, I suggest that a poem is not simply a set of pedestrian thoughts or observations, written in prose and chopped into arbitrary lines. Surely poetry must have some element other than line length which differentiates it from prose? Let’s try an experiment to illustrate the point. Here’s a fragment of prose:

It was a beautiful day today, The sun shone, the lake sparkled and  geese flew overhead on their way south. Fall is coming and life is good!

Fair enough, right? You might jot something like this in your journal or on a postcard to Aunt Sally. Now put it through the line-mincing machine and you get:

It was a
today, The sun shone, the
lake sparkled and
flew overhead on
their way
south. Fall
is coming and
life is good!

Is this really poetry? Have I magically created a poem by pressing the enter key a few times? I would say, no — but seems like a lot of would-be poets and editors out there might say “yes.” Am I being unfair? Is there really a lot of prose masquerading as poetry out there in today’s literary carnival? Here (in prose format) are the opening lines of a recent winner of a poetry contest.

How do you explain a laugh? How do you explain a sigh? How do you explain something that is just a part, a part of what makes you you?

And again, when suitably chopped:

How do you explain a laugh?
How do you explain a sigh?
How do you explain something that is just a part,
A part of what makes you

So I asks again, “is this really poetry?”

“I have my doubts,” says you.

I am not making these examples up, as a few minutes spent reviewing the content of “poetry” sites will prove. Of course, there is some excellent stuff out there as well, some works that I would without hesitation call poetry — but how discouraging for those who really work at their craft,  to find their efforts get no more recognition than those who write banal prose and put it through the line-mincer. They must ask themselves, why do the homework or study for the test when everyone gets an A?

The good news is that people — lots of people — still care about trying to write poetry, to create written works that express their innermost feelings, their most precious perceptions. The bad news is that mediocre or outright awful works often seem to receive the same kudos as excellent ones. Seems like there’s a sort of literary Marxism involved, a politically correct mode of thought which insists that all written works must be equal.  The reality is, to misquote Orwell, all poems may be equal, but some poems are more equal than others.

Coming soon — Part two. What in the heck does that mean? (If anything.)



Why write?

Close up shot of Egyptian hieroglyphics carved into stone with shaft of light

Why write?
Much the drying mummy cares
That glowing hieroglyphs declare
Forgotten triumphs to the silent air.

We long for permanence:
The bull carved in the rock,
Cathedral spire strong against the sky
Even our rambling scrawled across the page
Reminders we were there.

All very well — but really, why write? It’s a question I sometimes ask myself, especially at the end of a long and frustrating writing session which has produced, at best a  few sickly sentences, most of which will be put out of their misery tomorrow or the next day. And it is a legitimate question, especially for the ever-expanding universe of writers who make little or nothing for their pains. Sure, writing requires a minimum of equipment and space, it keeps you out of trouble (more or less) and there is a certain vague cool associated with being a writer.  Even so, why bother?

One possible answer: writing — at least writing well — is an art.  As with any art, there is an inexplicable, irrational pleasure in creating something new and unique, something that would never have been, had you not made it. Whether that creation is a painting, a statue, a song, a poem or a simple description of the view from your window, it takes on a life of its own. The entity you have created from your thoughts, your emotions, your dreams becomes a citizen in the universe of created things. And as, through practice and persistence, you become a better writer (yes, it does happen), your creations become more compelling, more powerful, more apt to reach out and touch your fellow creatures’ hearts and minds.  This is part of the magic of any art.

Or how about this? Writers are part of a long, long tradition. Something there is in us that loves stories.  Tales — true or made up, in plain words or in poetry — have moved and thrilled and shaped our ancestors for tens of thousands of years, since language began. Who can imagine the first stories, told around a flickering fire while unknown things howled and snarled in the darkness outside the cave? What stories will our children’s children tell on distant planets, unthinkable distances from us in space and time, if we pull through as a race? Will the stories we tell today propel them to that future, if we tell the right stories and tell them well enough? Perhaps.

Writers in the present day are the inheritors and the custodians of a dynamic tradition. It is up to us, right here, right now, to make sure the tradition continues, that it does not falter and fade away, destroyed by irrelevance, elitism, the nagging demands of the marketplace.  And so, inspired by my own rhetoric, I return to the task at hand — it’s time to get writing. 🙂