Sunday, October 31, 2004

Letters to a Young Poet (VI)

So. Having rumbled for a while about useful general principles—get off your high horse, put in the work, sift earth for gold, keep your blade keen, go in fear of abstractions, MAKE THEM SEE—I’ve said about all I need to, and about all I can. I’m going to give a couple of final exhortations and then turn the mic over to somebody else...

Six: Last Words (My Own and Others)

On Critiques: If you write, you may at some point—perhaps informally, perhaps in a workshop or classroom setting—be called upon to read the work of others. This can be a difficult position for you, because you will quite naturally approach the text on two levels simultaneously—as a reader, and as a writer. When critiquing the work of others, you must do your level best to suppress the writer part of yourself, and be only a reader.

When you are reading someone else’s work, never, ever re-write it. Never. Even if your re-write would make the work better. Don’t do it. Because that’s not what you’ve been asked to do. It doesn’t help the author. The author doesn’t need you to tell hir what to do: s/he needs you to tell hir what s/he has just done.

It doesn’t help the text, either. The text already has an author—it doesn’t need you. What it has not had, up to this point, is a reader. That is your role: that, and nothing else.

And the author doesn’t really need to know how you would do something—s/he’s still trying to figuring out how s/he would do it. And that’s what really matters—because, in the end, s/he is the one who’s going to have to build the machine. Not you.

Lastly—really, truly, lastly—some reading for fun and education. It’s an eclectic mix: I tend to ignore the boundaries between poetry and prose, between “serious” writing and “genre” writing—like The Duke said, “If it sounds good, it is good.” These books range widely over a vast territory, but they each have something important and interesting to say about the craft of putting words together.

Construction and Mechanics

  • The Elements of Style, by Strunk & White
    Everybody—everybody who’s ever written a decent line of prose in English, anyway—swears by this one. Why? Because it really is the best and most concise grammar-and-usage guidebook around. No laughs, no tears, no Transitive Vampire-style hijinks—but man, does it deliver the goods.
  • How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, by Orson Scott Card
    Don’t be deterred by the author’s (deserved) reputation as a God-bothering, homophobic paleocon—or the fly-by-night-writing-school title. In fact, ignore the title entirely: While there’s a heavy dollop of SF-specific hoo-hah here, what Card is talking about here is storytelling—and the frameworks he lays out for dealing with story (the Idea Net, the MICE Quotient, “Who hurts the most,” and so on) are applicable across genres. Nice sections on language and levels of diction, too, along with an excellent definition of the First Reader’s role.
  • Write Tight, William Brohaugh
    This one is invaluable. From the Rule of Thirds to the invisible adjectives and inseparable pairs and pointless comparisons that clutter our speech, Brohaugh lays out methods and tricks for reducing your word count without sacrificing (in fact enhancing) your message. Intended mainly for prose writers, but there’s a lot here from which poets can benefit—indeed, it is poets who benefit the most when every line is taut and fraught and dense with meaning.
  • To Make A Poem, Alberta Turner
    Lays out the basics with whimsy and patience. The style takes a little getting used to—a little dry in spots, a little ethereal in others—but Turner clearly loves her work here. I’m indebted to her for the term “felt idea,” which, even if a bit clunky, is still the best and most useful way I’ve found to express the notion.

Forms and Inspiration

  • The Practice of Poetry, edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell
    A blockbuster, in the literal sense. New and unfamiliar forms, individual and group exercises, and inspiration from poets from poets who teach. Part regimen, part toolkit, part playground, this book is full of brainstorming techniques and new ways of seeing around corners. Wonderful and indispensable.
  • Surrealist Games, compiled by Alistair Brotchie
    Taking the party-game aspect of the above and making it literal. Why do we create anyway? Because it’s fun! So roll up your sleeves and get down and dirty with this collection of writing exercises and visual techniques, many of them collaborative and all couched in the form of play, to jumpstart your creativity—by cutting your conscious mind out of the equation.
The Creative Life

  • Bird By Bird, by Anne Lamott
    For all its practical nuts-and-bolts information for writers—why first drafts are like NASA rockets, how the view changes when you’re looking through a one-inch window, what a plot treatment is and what it does—what really distinguishes Bird By Bird is a quality missing from most how-to books: Compassion. Anne Lamott acknowledges that failure of many kinds is the stuff of any life, even—perhaps especially—a writer’s. If you are to be merciless with your work—and you must be, if you are any kind of writer—you must be gentle with yourself: that’s the message of this kind and very funny book.
  • On Writing and Danse Macabre, both by Stephen King
    Y’know, I’ve never understood why otherwise clever people get so down on Stephen King. He has come by his massive success in the old-fashioned way—by showing up every day and putting in the work. And he is a man who thinks about the process of writing, and who can walk the reader through that process in an easy, conversational style. On Writing is equal parts memoir and style guide—straightforward and a times quite moving.

    Danse Macabre (1983), while ostensibly an overview of horror fiction an media to 1980, is a far less circumscribed work: It’s a charming ramble that incorporates autobiography, lit-crit, and pop culture appreciation, with constant digressions on talent, luck, compulsion, and What Scares Us.

    This is a man flat-out in love with the power of narrative, and well able to share that enthusiasm. If On Writing feels like a cross between a writing workshop and a motivational seminar, Danse Macabre is a long night with an exceptionally fascinating dinner guest—one of those evenings that starts with coffee in the afternoon and ends with one last cigar when all the house is dark and the hearth-fire has turned to embers.

  • Castle Of Days, by Gene Wolfe
    Three books in one, this. The first is a collection of exceptional short stories: the second, a collection of essays by Wolfe about the writing and editing of his sf epic The Book of the New Sun: the third is a miscellany—letters to other writers, forwards and introductions, personal essays, humor. From these fragments coheres a remarkable portrait of the writing life, from research through to publication and the role of writer as public figure and as part of a larger community. Even if you haven’t read The Book of the New Sun (and you really should), Wolfe’s wit, erudition, and love of books—of language—burn off of every page. You’ll find it shelved with the science fiction books, but it is entirely beyond genre.
  • The Artist's Way and its follow-up The Vein Of Gold, both by Julia Cameron
    Recommended with some trepidation. These two volumes, set up in workbook fashion—essentially, it’s self-help for blocked creative types—are wellsprings of solidarity and courage; but they’re also larded with off-putting New Age guff about “sound healing” and auras and such (this is particularly true of the Vein). There are a lot of valuable insights here about our attitudes towards art and artists, though, and the exercises—which are both practical and spiritual in nature, and are sometimes one while appearing to be the other—can help trigger a dramatic perceptual shift that will open up all sorts of possibilities. Just go into it with an open mind and a functional crap filter, and take from it what you can use while ignoring the rest.

    (The Artist’s Way has spawned a whole cottage industry of books and accessories, by the way—I guess even healing guru like Julia can’t resist the urge to squeeze more green from a marketable premise. Most of the bric-a-brac can safely be ignored: to be honest, the whole thing was going a bit thin even with the Vein, which is frankly seems padded out with lists, sheet music, and a few too many personal anecdotes. The Way, though, is well worth your time—with the above provisos.)

That’s about it from me. Good luck.

Now close the browser window and get back to work.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Letters to a Young Poet (V)

Writing is an act of telepathy: communication, mind-to-mind, across removes of time and space. Poetry as a subset of the written word tends to be used to communicate ideas and mental states—what Wordsworth called “emotion recollected in tranquility”—and that’s where we run into all sorts of problems. Why? It comes down to the untrustworthiness of language. Let's look at the problem, and at some strategies for overcoming it...

Five: Sensory Perception (and the Extra- Kind)

When you are trying to communicate, rather than merely to express, the abstract language of the kind that we usually use to render ideas is so subjective as to be effectively meaningless. The word love, in a poem, tells me nothing. I think I know what it means; You think you know what it means; But how can we agree upon the single word “love” as a shorthand for our individual experiences, given how inevitably different they will be?

The inherently slippery nature of language has paralyzed some writers. The early-20th c. German writer Hugo von Hofsmannthal famously moaned that every simple word has so many possible connotations to different readers that it’s impossible to be sure one is communicating anything.

In despair of ever being able to make himself understood with any certainty, von Hofmannsthal eventually gave up poetry, concentrating instead on writing plays on folk themes—counting on the familiarity of shared cultural signifiers to overcome the vagaries of language. We don’t need to go that far; But we do need to be aware of the weaknesses of language in expressing abstracts, and to compensate for them by playing to its strengths.

Stephen King, in his book On Writing, points us towards a solution. He invites us to imagine a table. On the table is a red tablecloth; on the tablecloth is a cage; in the cage is a white rabbit, eating a carrot; on the rabbit’s back is the numeral 8, marked in blue ink.

Do we see the same thing? We’d have to get together and compare notes to make absolutely sure, but I think we do. There will be necessary variations, of course: some receivers will see a cloth which is turkey red, some will see one that’s scarlet, while others may see still other shade. ... Some may see scalloped edges, some may see straight ones. Decorative souls may add a little lace, and welcome—my tablecloth is your tablecloth, knock yourself out.

Likewise, the matter of the cage leaves quite a bit of room for individual interpretation. ... [The passage] doesn’t tell us what sort of material the cage is made of—wire mesh? steel rods? glass?—but does it really matter? We all understand that the cage is a see-through medium; beyond that, we don’t care. The most interesting thing isn’t even the carrot-munching rabbit in the cage, but the number on its back. Not a six, not a four, not a nineteen-point-five. It’s an eight. This is what we’re looking at, and we all see it. I didn’t tell you. You didn’t ask me. I never opened my mouth, and you never opened yours. We’re not even in the same year together, let alone the same room... except we are together. We’re close.

D’you get the kicker here? King acknowledges all of Hofsmannthal’s discontents and objections, and then shrugs them off. Does it really matter? Obviously not. It is a crude magic, this telepathy, but with a passage like King’s, at least, it is pretty goddam effective. Why? Because King is talking in pictures—in sense-impressions, rather than emotional aggregates.

There, at last, is the crux. The great paradox of poetry is that specific, concrete, sensory images are a far better tool for conveying abstract emotional states than are the words for the abstract things themselves. Eliot called it the objective correlative: Uncle Bill summed it up as “no ideas but in things.” It amounts to the same hard truth—that you cannot effectively describe a thing in terms of itself. When you say, “I am me,” what you say may be technically correct, but you’re not actually telling me anything. But images, comparison, appeal to the senses—now you’re talking.

To say that the grind of work “cancels out all of my positivity” is a nothing-phrase, because it is so subjective—positivity may mean something different to me than to you. Specific sense-impressions, though, tend to be universal. When I say that the day sucks the iron out of my spine, you know what I mean in a way that doesn’t come across when I baldly state that it “neutralizes my ambition.” An image will get the job done even (perhaps especially) if it’s fanciful, or funny. My heart, a fluttering budgie in the birdcage of my ribs, however risible a line, at least makes me feel something, while an idea-word like love—or days, or thoughts, or dream, youth, life, or half-a-million others—just hangs there, like vapor, and has no impact whatsoever.

This is what we mean by “Show, don’t tell”—a phrase uttered by every writing teacher, but rarely explained properly.

Here’s how I first learned this hard truth. Years and years ago, when I were a young lad—probably about your age—I was in a the soul-deadening, exhausting work situation I’ve been using as an on-and-off example of a felt idea for poetry. I tried writing a song about it, but I never finished—because I ran into exactly the problem of how to translate emotional distress into words—but I remember how the first verse started, with a guitar riff rattling behind it like a big industrial press and a flow of word-pictures sketching the situation by implication:

Too many cups of coffee white and lo-cal sweet
I’m hanging from my skeleton like a side of meat
What’s holding me up man I don’t know
Maybe it’s the shoes—maybe it’s the aggro
I’m a broken nose looking for a face to land on
Working a lot harder than I ever planned on...
...and that’s exactly the line where I went off the rails, and the song started falling apart, losing whatever substance (very little, to be sure) that it may have had. What’s more, I realized why all the songs I’d been writing were so fucking terrible. Why? Because I was telling, not showing.

All over but the shouting now...

Friday, October 29, 2004

Letters to a Young Poet (IV)

Let’s go back to Uncle Bill...

Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship. But poetry is the machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy. As in all machines its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character.
So what precisely do we mean by “motion,” here? Motion is something you can feel: Motion is what a poem makes you feel. How do we set our machine in motion?

Four: Deployment (Six Green Bottles)

  1. In poetry you are aiming, generally, for a complete and unified impression.

    Your poem is a delivery system for a felt idea. Your aim is communicate that—to make your readers feel that idea as strongly as you do. Make them see. Make them understand. This is best done by giving the reader a discrete chunk, a portrait, a glimpse that implies a larger whole.

    Don’t make the mistake of thinking this means you need to pile on lots of details to bolster case or create your context—in fact a single small, keen observation will often do the job far more effectively. Given the right detail, the reader can usually infer the broader context. You can do this in a very few words. The whole point of haiku, for instance, is not simply that it is short, but that it is self-contained; but haiku is so perfectly self-contained in part because it is so short.

    What this means, given that The hard work of poetry consists of making choices, is...

  2. Of all your choices, the most important is: What to leave in, what to leave out.

    Think about what you want your machine to do, and choose the words of which you will build it accordingly. Eliminate, inasmuch as possible, any word that does not contribute to your machine’s effect. Every choice you make, you must weigh against this single criterion. Prune the machine to perfect economy: the movement is in the economy. Any engineer will tell you that the most reliable machines are the ones with the fewest moving parts.

    Non-moving parts should probably be left out entirely. Ornamentation is lovely in the physical arts, but in poetry it is, generally, unwelcome—simply because it is distracting. When the reader is working to decode the details of the poem, it is bad form to burden hir with extra work just so you, the poet, can show off. By all means Yes to exuberance, Yes to the sheer joy of language—but try to channel that energy towards the actual essentials of the poem. A Swiss watch does not need tail-fins; however lovingly crafted, they are surplus to requirements and therefore pointless.

    Choosing what to leave in and what to leave out will dictate most of your other choices about a poem—level of diction, structure, rhythm, figures, and so forth.

  3. You may ask yourself; How do I work this?

    It’s going to vary from poem to poem, with the desired effect of each—but let’s take a few examples.

    Say you hate your job, and you’ve found the seeds of a poem in that hate. You want your poem to convey the humdrum endlessness of the workday. Okay, then: you might want to consider a regular rhythmic scheme, with each line having the same syllabic pattern—mechanical, singsong, like the tick-tock of a clock that never seems to chime.

    Or maybe your poem has a violent central idea. You might want to convey that through short, choppy lines, direct (even brutal) language, unsettled rhythms, off-rhymes, hard uvular and plosive consonant sounds, primitive grammar—all of which would serve to bring the reader into the heart of the violence; It’s the equivalent of the whip-pans of a hand-held camera, in the movies.

    On the other hand, you might want to view the violence from a distance, ironically or sorrowfully, in a God’s-eye crane shot. You might render that through long, elegantly-constructed lines, intricate figures of speech, the whisper of sibilants and fricatives.

    If you try to have it both ways in a single poem, though, the piece will be a muddle—unless there is a good reason within the context of the poem for the shift in tone. Some of the World War I poets managed this brilliantly, moving from the muddy chaos of the trenches to the cosmic pointlessness of the big picture, in what would be, in cinematic terms, a long zoom. But even in these cases, the shifts in tone are dictated by the felt idea of the poem, rather than imposed upon it.

  4. Familiarity breeds contempt.

    When I read a poem, I want to see words put together in ways I’ve never seen before. Clichés are death. Fairly or unfairly, they mark you as a lazy writer; They can jolt the reader out of the mood you’re trying to create before you’ve even had a chance to establish it; and they are staggeringly ineffective at getting your message across, simply because the meaning of their component words has been lost... as we’ll see below.

  5. Eliminate unnecessary words.

    Unnecessary words slow things down, and make your lines flabby. Eliminating them doesn’t mean that you’re always going to be writing short poems. Far from it. The Waste Land is a long and complex poem—it’s a meal. Some poems are snacks. But keep in mind that The Waste Land was originally twice as long, and by all accounts half as good. Roger Ebert says that a great movie is always just long enough, but that a bad movie, no matter how short, is always too long. He’s not entirely stupid, that man.

    How do you like your meat? A little poem—a haiku, say—is like a slice of prosciutto—brief, flavorful, thin as a host. A bigger poem is like a steak—maybe a nice filet mignon, or maybe something heftier; The Waste Land is a prime rib the size of a toilet seat. Each to hir own taste.

    But nobody wants their entrée served with big nasty rings of fat and gristle; No matter how much good meat is there, it’s more effort than it’s worth just to get at it. The considerate host trims the fat away before he serves up the meal—because he wants (a) to present his dishes in the most appetizing and inviting way possible, and (b) to make less work for his guests. Be a considerate host.

  6. Eliminating clichés helps to eliminate unnecessary words.

    Ah, it all comes together...

    Clichés, you see, are most often expressed in inseparable adjective-noun pairings. Sparkling eyes. Green grass. Dark secret. In most cases, the adjective is completely unnecessary; When is a secret not dark? When is grass not green? It is in these exceptional cases that you want an adjective: The blighted grass. Her happy secret. Those phrases mean something in every word. “Green grass” just means “grass”—two words doing the work of one.

    The sad thing about clichés is that, often, not only does the modifier fail to add anything—it actively detracts from the meaning and impact of the subject. Example from a poem I critiqued a couple of years ago: Respectable citizen. A ubiquitous formulation, this: when was the last time you heard “citizen” without its little helper-word? Using the word on its own gives the tiny shock of expectations unmet—and with its hearkening to classical Rome, its punk-rock and prison-slang meanings, the word has more power and richer connotations on its own.

    If there’s something unique and significant about the respectability of the citizen—something crucial to the poem’s meaning—then find some other way to say it, because the phrase “respectable citizen” is essentially transparent: it registers for the reader simply as “citizen.” And if you just mean “citizen,” why don’t you just write “citizen”?

    Make every word count. Make every motion of your machine an effective motion.

Closing in on the end now...

Monday, October 25, 2004

Letters to a Young Poet (III)

Having previously established the overriding principle that The hard work of poetry consists of making choices, we need to backtrack a little. If the choices you make in writing your poems should all serve the idea at the heart of the poem—that is, whatever it is that the poem is about—this rather begs the question of...

Three: Motive (A Question and Two Maxims)

  1. How do I decide what my poem is about?

    No, seriously; This is a real question.

    All your choices will be in the service of the poem’s overall effect—but how do you determine what that effect is going to be? Do you just choose an effect, and go for it from there? You could, but the results tend to be smug and unconvincing—like one of those frustrating religious arguments where the facts are manipulated to support a preordained conclusion. Better poetry follows something more like the scientific method, where the thesis is formulated after the period of observation, rather than the other way around. In practical terms, apply an observation you have doubtless heard before...

  2. Good writing consists of 10% writing and 90% rewriting.

    ...which applies to the question at hand... how, exactly?

    Remember a bit earlier, when I yelled a little about “inspiration”? I stand by that; There’s more to making poetry than just the spill of emotion. But that spill—the thinking-feeling-being stuff, the blowing-off of steam and the venting of spleen, the inner-weather reports and the shapeless observational prose—is the raw material of poetry, the ore from which you’ll forge the cogs and springs of your machine. All the important stuff happens in the rewriting, in the reconsideration of your initial emotional spill.

    Now, poetry’s pretty high up the food chain of expression, so it’s resource-intense. It takes 16 pounds of grain and 2500 gallons of water to produce a single pound of beef; Just so, you will write (and later read through) many pages of empty, self-important or self-pitying piffle before you find an insight worth exploring. But those nuggets of ore redeem the great piles of dirt around them.

  3. Aim to discover, rather than decide, what a poem is going to be about.

    So you’re writing your stuff, your splenetic word-explosions—writing for the sake of writing, writing for the drawer, writing that is of interest (in this form, anyway) to no one but yourself. Good. Write your stuff. Write it in great quantity. And then read through it—it’s helpful to let a little time pass, so you can read with some semblance of objectivity—looking for patterns, connections, themes. That is where your poem’s “felt idea” comes from—not even so much from the actual words you’ve written, as from the invisible conceptual threads that connect those words to each other and to you.

    This may be a revelatory process. That’s good. If writing is, as we’ll discuss later, the art of telepathy, then the first mind you’ll learn to read is your own. And what you see there may surprise you.

Further up and further in...

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Letters to a Young Poet (II)

Again, our guiding principle...

There's nothing sentimental about a machine, and: A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words.
Two: Technique (Five for Fighting)

  1. If you want to write poetry, read poetry.

    Sounds like a no-brainer, yeah? Unfortunately, due to the prevalence of the whole white-light-from-the-mouth-of-infinity-spilling-from-the-writer’s-hand-onto-the-page myth, this staggeringly obvious notion has fallen out of fashion.

    Poetry is the only artform I know that almost everyone feels qualified to practice—indeed, I’ve known some who, because they don’t feel so qualified, worry that there’s something wrong with them: I am a thinking, feeling being, the argument goes, therefore I should be able to write poetry. Well, no—no more than having ten working fingers automatically makes you a guitarist.

    I’m not even talking about virtuosity, here, but about first-principles assumptions. If you want to make any sort of noise on a guitar at all, you need to know first what a guitar is, and what it’s for. Punk was D.I.Y., punk was “anyone can do it,” and to an extent poetry is the same deal; but for damn sure the punks were all listening to records and going to shows.

    Bottom line: If you don’t love the medium, why do you want to work in it? And if you do love the medium, why aren’t you reading any?

    It comes back the metaphor that guides us: You’re building a machine. If you want to build, say, an internal combustion engine, how do you start? You look at lots of engines, you take them apart and put them back together: you get inside the engine and get your head around it until you know how it works and how it fits together. Same with a poem. You cannot build the machine if you do not understand the mechanical principles.

  2. Mechanical principles?

    Rhyme, in all its varieties. The various meters, and rhythmic concerns generally. Enjambment. Figurative language—metaphor, simile, synecdoche and all that. Irony, which may not mean quite what you think it does. Allusion. Forms—sonnets, villanelles, haiku and such. There’s more, but that’s a start.

  3. But I don’t want to write sonnets! I don’t need to know all that stuff!

    You want to write in open forms? Free verse? Here’s the secret: for you, the mechanics matter even more—because they are all that separates your poetry from That Which Is Not Poetry. We can assume the sincerity of your feelings and the truth of your desire to communicate. But lacking any of the obvious signifiers of the craft, the question arises: in what way is your work a poem, rather than, say, a journal entry or a postcard with line breaks inserted more or less at random? Good mechanics—evidence of craft—let the work answer that for itself.

  4. In fact, study the forms anyway.

    Even if you never mean to write a villanelle, you should know how one works. Analyzing formal poetry is a great way to demystify the process; the blueprint of the machine is highly visible in the finished product. For that reason, I strongly suggest at least trying to write some formal verse, even if it goes into the drawer afterwards. Fitting a villanelle together like a crossword puzzle, feeling the keywords in a sestina lock like teeth in a gear, can leave you feeling emboldened just as staring at an E.E. Cummings action-painting can leave you overwhelmed.

    And, you know, Cummings knew and thought about the rules intensely; that’s why he was able to break them to such great effect.

  5. Yeah, but c’mon—Synecdoche? Enjambment? I can’t follow all that.

    Sure you can. We all use poetic devices in our everyday speech; analytical prosody is all just naming-of-parts stuff, a quantifying of things you already knew but didn’t know you knew. It all boils down to one simple principle:

    The hard work of poetry consists of choosing which words to use, and how to use them.
    Not what you say, but in how you say it—in what you make. our choices.

    Internalize that principle, and the rest is taxonomy. If you passed frosh biology, you can do this.

Still more a’coming...

Friday, October 22, 2004

Letters to a Young Poet (I)

I find myself saying the same things over and over when asked for advice on and/or criticism of else’s work. What I’m trying to do here is lay it all out in one place for easy reference.

These contentions are, if not truths universally acknowledged, then at least useful working theories, drawn from much reading, study, and practice. Everything I’ve said has of course been said by many others before me—notably and concisely by William Carlos Williams in the introduction to his 1944 collection The Wedge:

There's nothing sentimental about a machine, and: A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words... Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship. But poetry is the machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy. As in all machines its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character...

When a man makes a poem, makes it, mind you, he takes words as he finds them interrelated about him and composes them—without distortion which would mar their exact significances—into an intense expression of his perceptions and ardors that they may constitute a revelation in the speech that he uses. It isn't what he says that counts as a work of art, it's what he makes.

What I know about poetry is a series of footnotes to Uncle Bill’s mighty lines. Let’s tip the bellboy, settle in, and start unpacking…

One: Machine (Four Easy Pieces)

  1. This is work.

    A man makes a poem—makes it, mind you. It doesn’t coalesce from the aether onto the page. This is an act of creation, not of stenography. All that stuff about inspiration and channeling and being a vessel or having your fingers plugged into the sky? Hippie bullshit. Sentiment. You’re building a machine, and there’s nothing sentimental about a machine.

  2. So why do people buy into this crap?

    Most egregiously: Why do writers who really should know better continue to perpetuate it? Because it’s self-protective; It lets you weasel out of taking ownership of, and responsibility for, your own work. But I’m here to tell you, there’s no escape. If your poem blows—if your machine don’t run—it ain’t nobody’s fault but yours.

  3. That’s not to say that Inspiration isn’t real.

    It is. But it’s much less important than you might think.

    True, sometimes (if you’re lucky) it feels like you’re taking dictation from Odin and Jesus and the Buddha, like your hands are white light carving letters of fire—but that feeling passes, and when it does you’re left with a mess of words and you’ve got to roll up your sleeves and build your machine. Inspiration without craft can be impressive, in the fashion of a junk-sculpture of gears and beams, but it doesn’t actually do anything. (Craft without inspiration is its own brand of pointlessness, but it’s not usually something that the beginning poet need worry about.)

  4. Who says a poem has to “do” something? Answer: The Reader.

    In writing for an audience, you’ve entered into a contract with the reader, and the first item in that contract is Don’t waste my time. (Wasting your own time, on the other hand, is forgivable. Just don’t expect anybody else to be interested.) If you want to engage a reader, you've got to give hir something s/he's never seen before, make hir feel a way s/he's never felt before. If you can’t do that, there are plenty of hard-working writers who can.

Much more to come...

Thursday, October 21, 2004

All Your Base...

Well, that’s over.

Not an exciting game, really—the Sox took such an early, commanding and sustained lead that the whole proceedings felt like an extended victory lap—but a sweet finish nonetheless.

I’ll take issue with the Notorious T.O.D.D., though, who opines that Terry Francona is “retarded.” To which I say: retarded like fox, brother. I’ve been watching Francona with fascination; taking it as given that the two teams are about evenly matched in raw talent (although I’d actually grant the Yankees an edge in that department), it was Francona’s tactical genius that won this series.

Call it scientific micromanagement; it’s all about the allocation of resources, and about understanding the opponent and his soft spots. Francona’s frequent shufflings and substitutions are what sealed these games for the Sox—his determination to use the twenty-five guys at his disposal to best possible advantage in every inning, every play, every at-bat.

Look at the fifth game. Tom Gordon is one of the best closing pitchers in the game—when he’s focused, which is almost always. Francona puts in pinch-runner Dave Roberts, who leads the league in stolen bases, and Gordon is effectively neutralized. With Roberts a constant distraction, Gordon can’t find his Happy Place, and when he blows the save he goes to pieces—his pitches wobble like drunken fruitbats until Torre finally takes pity on him.

That’s Francona—setting player against player, play by play, even when by rights he could and should be thinking of other things. In bringing in Alan Embree for—what? three pitches? at the bottom of the ninth with two out—in refusing to be distracted by the thought that Christ, we’re up seven runs and one out away from a Series berth—Francona’s in the moment, Zen-style. Not building a house, but making a brick. For the want of a nail, the shoe was lost, and on and on and on; Terry Francona is pounding his nails, one by one.

It’ll be interesting to see how this will work in the Series. As strategies go, it’s most effective against an opponent one knows well, and the learning curve can be fatally steep. No high hopes, but fingers crossed.

One last note: I usually only like A-Rod’s face when it’s being mashed in by Jason Varitek’s glove, but his expression in the later innings was priceless. Whut th—? Whut cha mean I aint goin tuh th Worl’ Series? They tole me I wuz goin tuh th Worl’ Series! I haven’t seen such a mix of petulance, rage, and sheer animal incomprehension since G.W. Bush’s performance in the first debate.

Roll on, Houston; how sweet it would be to exorcise the Curse of the Bambino and ratfuck Roger Clemens, in one swell foop.

UPDATE: Alas, ‘twas not to be. Ah well. Cardinals, then. In Boston, we’ve had our share of problems with Cardinals, as well.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Still Burning

Topic Abstract: Mother of GOD, that’s some good ball our guys is playin’!
Notice: sub-Donald Hall blatherings ahead.
Pretension Level: Unhealthful.
I just caught sight of myself in a mirror and saw a creature that would frighten small children—pale, drawn, hollow-eyed and shambling. I look recently-exhumed. I look like Death on a cracker. I look like a man in need of a quick flight to the secret Swiss clinic where Keith Richards gets his blood replaced—or, at the very least, in need of a gallon of coffee and a vitamin B12 shot.

This is because I basically haven’t slept in, like, a week—because THE PLAYOFFS ARE ON! and the Sox are, unexpectedly, almost inexplicably, still alive. I barely follow baseball during the regular season, but when the inevitable postseason Yankees/Red Sox matchup rolls around, I am nailed to my couch, living and dying by each pitch, each swing, each questionable call.

Sox fandom, as so many other writers have noted, is a religious vocation; it demands of us patience, humility, and childlike faith. And the effectively-annual seven-game series against the Yankees is our Holy Week, our Passion play. It is the Agony in the Garden, the Harrowing of Hell. If sport is warfare, then the playoffs are a war of nerves: the forces are so evenly-matched that the strategy turns to brinkmanship, psy-ops, even suicide missions—how else to categorize Curt Schilling’s apparent readiness to cripple himself for the sake of a game? It is a long, bloody war of attrition, a gruelingly-literal endurance test.

And like warfare, it is horrible in a compelling way. Although I cannot tear my gaze away, I need to distance myself; I started doing tequila shots as last night’s fourth inning rolled around, because I feared that if I had to watch the rest of the game straight, I would have nervous breakdown. Think of Dennis Hopper’s photographer character in Apocalypse Now: he’s inextricably drawn to Kurtz’s aura, but in the monster’s presence he needs to be fucked-up just to keep functioning.

Our response to each Sox win, to the end of each marathon excruciation, like our response to the Christ’s death on the Cross, is not so much elation as relief—we recognize that there’s a victory being won here, but mostly we’re filled with a desperate longing for it to be over. Please, God, let it end now. Make the hurting stop.

But it doesn’t end. With each game, each oblivion narrowly-avoided, the stakes only get higher. Only tonight, with Game Seven, will it end. A World Series, win or lose, can now only be anticlimactic; To beat or be beaten by—who the hell is it again? the Cardinals? the Astros? some shit like that—means nothing in the face of all the history, all the hate, all the despair that gives the Sox/Yankees rivalry its depth.

A couple of weeks ago I was afraid I was going to crack up thinking about electoral politics and the Fate of the Free World twenty-four-seven. The Sox, by giving me something else on which to focus, have pulled me back from that brink—but in so doing have pushed me to another.

And with World Series week bumping right up against Election Day, all I can wonder is: What do you do when the whole goddam frying pan drops into the fire?

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

"But One Day I Shall Be Thin..."

Following a series of health scares, Roger Ebert is indeed a lot thinner than once he was; But his recently-launched web presence—an expansion of his review archive at the Chicago Sun-Times site—is substantial indeed. With an archive of over five thousand reviews (dating back to 1967), the Little Movie Glossary, a ton of interviews and essays—all of it searchable, all of it beautifully designed—what was already an invaluable resource now approaches the status of national treasure.

If you only know Ebert from TV, as the portly gent in the V-neck sweater, setting up clips and poking his thumb up or down after a thirty-second scuffle with his current interlocutor, you'll be surprised by how, freed of the restrictions of the format, he lays out arguments and observations of genuine nuance. Read further and you'll be amazed by the broadness of his thought and the depths of his knowledge. His writing is lucid and graceful, and he's a dab hand with a one-liner. He never fell prey to the dense, superheated style of Pauline Kael and her legion of imitators and disciples. And while the role of serious film critic (as opposed to ad-blurb hack, a trend that Ebert, ironically, helped make possible) has shifted, post-Kael, to a sort of crypto-social-criticism—lots of asides about what Trends in Popular Entertainment say about the State of the Republic—Ebert has largely steered clear of the pundit trap, too.

His criticism finely balances the old and new schools; while he keenly understands the larger implications of the art he analyzes, his primary focus is always on the art itself—on what it is trying to do, and how well it succeeds. What impresses me, review after review, is his essential fair-mindedness; he's not measuring every film against some arbitrary benchmark—he's trying to divine each film's own terms, and to judge how well it succeeds on those terms. It's a fascinating process.

This is a guy who flat-out loves the movies. If you have any interest in the artform, you owe it to yourself to check out his work. Set aside some time and browse.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Getting the Job Done

Gee, I guess Iraq really is an emerging democracy.

In fact, in at least one respect, it's just like the United States.

Meet the Neighbors

I’m not going to make a game of it, but I've got to admit that I, too, am taken with the fundamental strangeness that can result from the "Next Blog" button above—of the idea of blogs as adjacent in some way. I started noticing those oddball hits in my referrer log, and following the links—and the deeper I went, the weirder it got.

This may be ultimate expression of the community-as-vector model; cutting slantwise across any number of intersecting fields which are themselves in constant motion, algorithmic illusions of randomness putting the hyper (in a mathematical sense) back into hyperlink. Most of the time we experience web-browsing in a roughly linear manner—it's like a meatspace social network, where we travel from friend to friend-of-a-friend to friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend; each point is the hub of a wheel, connected by invisible spokes to a multitude of points which are each, in turn, the hubs of their own individual wheels. We travel outwards, sideways, laterally—but always along the spokes. Always in a theoretically three-dimensional space, in that we only travel between points that are in some way adjacent (search engines being, in this model, hubs with a near-infinite number of spokes).

Random or pseudo-random surfing, though, is fourth-dimensional; it essentially folds the web of wheels, bringing you from Point A to Point Z without passing through any intervening points. It's a nonlinear, indeed non-3D motion. And like the physics behind the concept—the language of hypercube, tesseract, and Kline bottle—it all gets a little dizzying.

So yeah, short form: I thought I'd click through Blogspot three-four times, and see what I could see.

First stop is promising enough—a promo blog for a band called JC and the Noise. Pretty cool. Maybe I'll give 'em a listen later. Next?

Oh, ugh. Here's a new and obnoxious use for free push-button publishing—a cheap-ass promotional site, part of a suite of same; Check the guy’s profile—he maintains two dozen separate quasi-blogs on various commercial topics, all with repeated boilerplate text, hoping to snare the unwary with Google hits on his keywords. Least welcome trend of the year, this.

Worse, I actually hit this bastard twice in five clicks. Gah! Get me out of here! NEXT!

Info and schedule for a badass kickball team. What's with all the promo-type sites? Does nobody use Blogger for personal pages anymore?

Still. Kickball. Who knew? Fuck 'em up good, kids!

Personal pages, personal pages... Ah, here we go! Hm. A pasty Mexican intellectual who digs Schopenhauer, but who, like everybody else on the ‘net, can’t resist posting cute pictures of kittycats. Somehow, that seems to sum up the whole blogging phenomenon, no?

Lastly, we have the very new blog of Matt, a 40-year-old fundamentalist Christian accountant from Des Moines. He's certainly no St. Augustine, but without even a whiff of rhetoric, his relentlessly quotidian accounts of church services, books read, and gym workouts add up to a sort of spiritual autobiography of one man doggedly pursuing a godly life as best he understands it—and as such it is improbably compelling.

No Grand Unified Theory of Blogspot, here. Just people. As always.


Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Odysseus Bound

New and noteworthy: Somewhere On The Masthead, an anonymous blog telling "true stories from behind the scenes of one of the world's most popular magazines." There are only a few entries so far, but the Magazine Man's voice is colorful, funny, and wise—and if my friends in the publishing trade are to be believed, he'll never lack for material.

As to the identities of The Man and The Magazine, well, let the wild speculation commence...

Friday, October 01, 2004

The Redactor

There are book reviews that are themselves so well-argued, so polymathic in scope, so provocative and engaging, that they make you almost afraid to read the book, for fear it could only be a colossal letdown. Such a one in Cynthia Ozick's piece on Robert Alter's new one-man translation of the Pentateuch. This is the kind of cultural writing that I missed during the wilderness year when our subscriptions to The New Yorker and The New Republic were allowed to lapse. (You may be able to read Ozick's piece here, but I can't guarantee that; the precise workings TNR's designations of some of its online articles as subscriber-only some-of-the-time-but-not-always—or not—continue to mystify me. In any case, you really should just subscribe.)

Trepidations aside, I need Alter's book, need it like it was crack. My fascination with liturgical language, with its musics and meanings, has been discussed elsewhere. When we consider the removes from which we regard the Bible—the gulfs of years, language, and culture that separate us from the days of its initial revelation, and from the audience to whom it was initially revealed—that we can glean from it anything of any use, that we can extract from its temporal and cultural specificities a set of useful general principles, seems like, well, a miracle. Alter himself says as much in another of his books, quoted by Ozick:

Ethical monotheism ... was delivered to the world not as a series of abstract principles but in cunningly wrought narratives, poetry, parables, and orations, in an intricate patterning of symbolic language and rhetoric that extends even to the genealogical tables and the laws.
It's miraculous, too, when a translation can recapture some of the poetry in a story we all know so well, that we've all heard a thousand times before in varying levels of diction:
When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God's breath hovering over the waters, God said, "Let there be light."
Ozick calls this passage Joycean, and rightly so; and that singular and idiosyncratic voice would be nigh-impossible in the standard paradigm of translation-by-committee.

Alter's methods and agendas are many—and beyond my wit or expertise to summarize here—but his lodestar is the notion that "[t]he mesmerizing effect of these ancient stories will scarcely be conveyed if they are not rendered in a cadenced English prose that at least in some ways corresponds to the powerful cadences of Hebrew." That he leans heaviest on the Saxon strain of English construction and vocabulary in his attempt to emulate those cadences is a testimony to the lingering emotional resonance of Germanic vocabulary vs. Latinate (nicely summed up in Bill Bryson's comment that we instinctively prefer a hearty welcome to a cordial reception)—it seems sturdy, honest, forthright,

But it seems to me there is something more poignant at play here. Ozick calls Alter's Saxon English "the language of Lincoln," and that's true enough. But that Alter, a New World Jew of European descent, renders these narratives of trial and deliverance in prose that so echoes that of the home now lost to him and his people seems itself an act of deliverance. In this parable, it is language that is redeemed.