Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added)
is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers.
--John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Lenten literary confession

Hello, friends and passers-by and Desirable Rabble from here and yon and kindly unknown people from around the world who come and go here peacefully without a whisper and also my mother--

Today is not a writing day. Today is a traveling day. This afternoon I am taking our three visitors from Bard College back to school while the rest of the family does quite nicely without me, or so I trust. It is also Sunday, and it is Lent, and so before departing I shall make another literary confession. (Feel free to make your own in the comments.)

You know those lists people are always making, the ones where poets write down their 10 Rules for Poetry to tell you what words are OFF LIMITS to poets, or should be? You know what I'm talking about--words like heart and soul and darkling and alabaster and whatever other words strike the list-maker as likely to end up in the sort of poem you will surely find on a blog page called Flowers of Inspiration Amid the Thorns of Motivation or some such.

Poets have a great fear of the smarmy. It's partly why many poets were so happy at the end of the last millenium to write drab, broken, etiolated poems and then read them in a low drone. Such practices seemed entirely to remove the dangerous possibility of smarminess and place that risk somewhere beyond the moon, which was, after all, another forbidden zone. Somehow nobody noticed that those poems were just a variant form of the smarmy. Partly it was the dearth of readers, a thing that came about because many of the poems were so very unappealing to the general populace, also known as people: those beings who used to read, love (note forbidden word love), and memorize poems.

So. You know the lists I mean. And now to confess: I find these lists both horrible and irresistible.

I feel a great desire to rush off and make my own (No use of the word NEWT! No uttering the word SPORK! Off with their pointy heads!) but usually I manage to control the Red Queen and the Dalek in me. But what I cannot, simply cannot rein in is a raging desire to use the forbidden word.

It is for this very reason that I have just written a poem featuring the word gossamer.

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Please scroll up and down to see the new videos of "The Nesting Doll" and "A Fire in Ice."

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"Billiard ball" photograph courtesy of sxc.hu and Gábor Suhajda of Budapest, Hungary.

21 comments:

  1. I wrote a poem with "gossamer" in it in February. It's a great word, and my daily life rarely calls for it. Then again, my daily life rarely calls for "spork."
    --Julie

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  2. What about newts?

    Off to Bard College with Jin, Lauren, and mine!

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  3. One brownie and tea first, though.

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  4. One needs a gossamer touch when sporking newts, Marly. They are tricky.
    Words go through their paces and get worn out, I think. The most recent word that I have dropped from my vocabulary is nessecitate.
    1) It is probably not a word
    2) I cannot spell it if it is.

    Why were poets always banging on about 'larks' in the late 19th century? And 'loons' in the early 20th century? Who knows?
    Maybe I made that up, but it feels about right!

    Fashion and fads!

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  5. I LOVE it when I'm told that there are rules that must not be broken. The artist in me wants to go straight to the offending source of the forbidden and do just that.

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  6. Crystalline. Palimpsest. In Vermont the word-of-the-day used to be "hardscrabble" - a great word but so overused it became a cliche.mOh, it could be a long list! And I agree - let's go right for the gossamer. Think how many times Homer said "rosy-fingered dawn!"

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  7. Just back from Bard, which always seems like the right place for a bard. Hard to leave those sweet and funny little women.

    Paul, I love "gossamer touch when sporking newts." Larks? Maybe because in love with Shakespeare? Loons, really? Maybe it just felt like the looning hour for poets?

    Yolanda, hey, kindred souls even when you are in Siberia! Yes, I am afraid the "no" is always inspiring. Hope the Siberians are treating you well.

    Beth,

    Rats, I shall be pulling a Paul and talking about a palimpsest of crystalline hardscrabble or some such! And Aurora was just as lovely in her rhythmic and constant return--as is the dawn.

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  8. I appreciate the Doctor Who comment there. Exterminate all smarmy words.

    I think people try to pin down those simple dos-and-don'ts because formulas are easier than artistic mastery. But the truth is that it is not the words that are smarmy, but the way you use them--as how you noted that the drab poems were a different kind of smarmy. No smarmy words were used, yet smarmy they still were.

    Smarmy smarmy smarmy. I will never stop using a word too often in one paragraph.

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  9. R, you are so mysterious.

    R is a very pleasing letter and looks as though it is heading off in the right direction.

    Yes, formula is easier. But also list-making is an obsessive sort of act for some people. I tend to make daily lists and take great delight in crossing them off. Autistic alter ego at work.

    A little "smarmy" does go rather a long way.

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  10. I once got made fun of by a fellow poet at a poetry reading for a poem about a cicada. I'm sorry, that's what they're f***ing called! What, should we not write any more poems about cicadas, or the moon?

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  11. Raspberries! I had no idea that cicadas had joined the moon in the list of The Forbidden. I think it now behooves you to write The Cicada Series, each poem containing at least one cicada and one moon. And a bit of gossamer.

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  12. And p. s. to Dave: saw wonderful swans today in a makeshift meltwater lake. Utterly poetic with no smarminess whatsoever.

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  13. Strictly for the bards...

    Now I really want to read some of those early 20c poems about loons, they seem to have passed me by! (In Europe we call loons divers).

    And Beth got in there before me with palimpsest. Numinous has been fenced off for a bit, I gather, and perhaps liminal will be joining it soon (even before the spell checker has come to recognise it). Along with alabaster I think perhaps its partner obsidian should be used with caution. I wonder which other semi-precious rocks we should beware of? Probably most of them, except perhaps beryl, or perhaps garnet since it could rhyme with darn it.

    In my friend's poetry group in Yorkshire there is a complete ban on daffodils, not just the word but any mention of their very existence.

    Gossamer is lovely partly because it reminds me of Gossamer Beynon in Under Milk Wood, and is just fabulous said with a Welsh accent.

    The WV is 'barepore', which has a future, I think.

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  14. For the bards!

    Maybe puns should be outlawed as well, Lucy...

    Ted Hughes has some very roughly-treated daffodils with lots of character.

    Yes, we should demand to see the loons!

    I think I may be guilty of obsidian in my Red King poems. Of course, kings are rather grand. Not to mention hard and obdurate compared to the rest of us.

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  15. When I was an undergraduate taking a video production course, moving the camera more than a slow pan or tilt was off limits. You just didn't do that! You got bad grades if you did!

    Right about the same year I took that class, MTV caused most hip (and now, 25 years later, established) filmmakers to break that rule in sometimes amazing and effective ways. In the ensuing years a plethora of new camera harnesses and digital filter effects were created to facilitate odd an interesting camera movements.

    So, when someone says "don't" to an "artist" the "real artist" does the "don't" in a way that makes the "don'tsayer" later regret their artificial "don'tness."

    "Just do it." (And that is a commercial registered trademark so my quoting it makes me less of an artist, no?)

    Rules often suck. Just sayin'

    Spork you, gossamer encrusted daffodils!
    -Gary

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  16. Agreed, Gary. What malarkey! Breakage is higly important, and often a first step on the way to make-age.

    Although sometimes I think these rules are simply somebody groping around to formalize a personal manifesto, too often they are simply codifying what somebody has been told in a class.

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  17. P. S. to Gary: Loved your assimilation of the forbidden at the end!

    P. P. S. generally. Yes, R was RBM, also known as my daughter. Hello, dear R...

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  19. Ha, ha, 'gossamer' was the word that sprang (or maybe floated, wistfully, threadlike) into my mind first - as soon as I saw the word list.

    (repeated comment - this time spelt correctly, I hope).

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  20. Clare,

    I am so glad you confirm me in the clear need for rebellion! (Sort of. First? Wow.) Poets everywhere, use the forbidden word "gossamer," now! XD

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.