Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Morning thoughts on creation

A good image for a flourishing mind...
by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
for Maze of Blood

One of the stranger things about Genesis is that God is shown making the universe, and at its end the universe is good. In fact, very good. But it's not faultless. Genesis never claims such a thing. The universe is order drawn out of chaos. But it's not order drawn all the way out of chaos.

Without some chaos and change, new things would not rise up as time passes. Evolution would never happen. Some elements of perfection sound very attractive. Volcanoes would not erupt, tsunamis not spill over the earth. We wouldn't have to write books about why bad things happen to good people. Perhaps little would happen to anybody, but the world would be tidy and orderly and safe.

Or perhaps the world would be fully anti-narrative and nothing at all would ever occur. Perfection is static. The order of made things grows out of the soil and ferment of chaos.

A book or a poem (not Creation with a big C but a little-c sub-creation) aspires to perfection, aspires to bring order out of chaos. No one can create perfection, and I imagine a writer might just stop if he or she reached perfection in a work. A book or poem also aspires to do something new in the world, though most stories and poems do not.

And who are the best poems and books for? (Here I am skipping the au courant, the trendy, the passing fancies, the bestseller rages--they have their reward!) Are they written for readers? Not exactly, though words are a siren call sent out to readers who bob by in their little ships. At its best, a poem is made from a springing desire that is beyond words but becomes incarnate in words. A novel or other long work is a mixture of conscious decision and labor and that same springing desire which comes and goes like a will o' the wisp.

The new small-c creation may find readers if the work is good or very good but also if the work has luck and a push toward visibility. Then reader and the writer may at last unite, the reader creating in mind a singular, personal version of the work...

Monday, May 07, 2018

A capital choice

The three poetry books
shown on this post all have
jacket art by painter
Clive Hicks-Jenkins of Wales.
My poetry books are Claire, Thaliad, The Foliate 
Head, The Throne of Psyche, and...
a still-secret one, coming out late this year.
Don't skip the preface...

I should preface this little explanation by noting the simple fact that I have many poet friends who write in very different ways from me--who have entirely different ideas about lines and form and poems. And that's fine.

I like many different sorts of books and poems. But I hold that each writer must decide on the building blocks of writing for his or her own work.

* * *

A capital choice

This morning I received a fat paper letter from a writer and friend--it's so marvelous to get a letter on paper! The internet has swept away such things, except for those who rebel against its winding tentacles, its sneaking power. Luckily, I know such persons.

And one of the things he asked me was why I capitalize the start of lines in poetry. It's an excellent question because I started out as a good pupil and inheritor of Modernism, only using a capital letter when beginning a poem or after a period mark. Back then, I accepted the idea that the practice of using capitals at the start of a line was out-dated, artificial, and peculiar in a modern/postmodern context. It still looks peculiar because almost everybody else in the realm of poetry today does as I once did, even those who are obsessed with that weirdly freeing practice, formal poetry.

Why did I stop?

Part of the answer lies in my semi-abandonment of free verse. I say semi- because I recently wrote a whole manuscript of poems that most people would call free verse, though they are heavily influenced by certain Yoruban and ancient Hebrew structures.

The more I moved into forms, the more compelling I found them--the more I liked the way form dislodges this poet from her own limited thoughts. Rhyme can nudge a poet right out of the grooves of where-she-intended-to-go and into surprise. Meter makes the writer consider more closely how to handle the line, how to fit words and thoughts into units of rhythm.

Modernism is packed with theories and statements about poetic line, many having to do with breath, though in reality a great many poets just go by the slippery judgment of what feels like a rightness. (I should say that the work of the first Modernists reveals their own sharp understanding of meter, sound, and shape even when dismantling the old order in free verse.) Unfortunately, not everybody is equal in the matter of poetic rightnesses, as Wallace Stevens called that act of the mind that seeks perfection in freedom. Many poets seem to break unthinkingly at syntactical units or occasionally to make a kind of pun by stopping the line with what seems a complete thought that is then transformed by the next word on the next line. (I've done both of those things in the course of many years of writing poems.) A lot of free verse contains words that appear lonely and slack, abandoned on a line. Not all, of course, but some of recent poetry simply isn't interesting in a line by line consideration. (I'll get to disjunction and fragmentation later.)

Now you may say that a poem is not simply lines but is a whole--just as a novel had better be more than well-crafted sentences and yet sometimes is not much more than pretty sentences--and that is true. Nevertheless, I want the cake and the eating at once; I want good lines and good poems, or at least the best that I can make.

For me, a capital letter at the start of a line frames the line, separates the line, and forces the writer to think about the whole with its relationship to the part in a more focused way. To pluck an image from Modernism, it is like a tiny Joseph Cornell box; it needs a certain richness of sound and meaning, even when spare. Like meter and like rhyme, this framing of the line is yet another form of discipline that I set as a bulwark against the an era in which the short, self-focused lyric has dominated to the point of banishing poetic drama, long narrative, and a whole wide range of once-useful poetic modes. (Although I simply woke one day with it already in my head, Thaliad must also be part of my own rebellion against such a narrowing of poetry.)

In my own writing, I'm not attracted by the syntactical shiftings and disconnections that provide an uneasy order to so many lyrics, often suggested as the natural result of the disjunctions and chaos of "today's world"; I'm concerned with a wholeness and clarity constructed from well-made parts. Whether or not I succeed, the framing of the line makes me more conscious of those parts, sets up a demand that each one work and be worthy. That desire and ideal may or may not be fulfilled. In saying that each line must be worthy, I'm talking about revision because I tend to be an instinctual writer who composes in a sort of tempestuous flood that afterward I inspect and tame as needed, building little weirs and channels.

The capital-letter frame device emphasizes and makes conscious the fact that the riverine path of a poem is spilling through shapes, through lines, that it must flow forward in meaning while falling through each level or line. Why do I desire flowing sense? Why don't I want for my own poems any marked disconnection or scrambled syntax? To me, postmodern modes of discontinuity seem exhausted, vampire-long in the tooth, gone gray-haired or bald. For others, what I see as an ancient trendiness is alive rather than musty, but for me it feels of little use in making a poem.

Moreover, all poets (no matter what sort of poem they choose to write) are aware that such a way of making poems has alienated and still alienates readers who are not poets. It deliberately destroys many of the purposes that are at the heart of poems, which at their start appear to have been oral gifts made by some sort of bard who sang or recited his own or handed-down poems to other people. And I do like, indeed love, to have a range of readers, even though Modernism and its aftershocks have done their best to make poets the primary readers of poets.

My altered preference also stems from writing novels, and perhaps I never would have embraced capitals at the start of lines and many other elements if I had not started to write fiction. My first long fiction--the novella Little Jordan--lacked causality. Back then, I had been persuaded that plot was artificial. But I soon became fond of propulsion, which has an awful lot to do with causality and, hence, plot. I reached a point where I wanted my novels to be as much like novels as they could be, whatever that meant. And what it meant was a thing I wanted to find out for myself.

The counterpoint to that desire was to wish for my poems to be as much like poems as they could be. And that meant going forward by diving back into the tradition because many of the contemporary poets I read appeared to be descended not from the tradition of poetry but from a narrow part of the prose tradition. But I wanted to be a child of poetry. I wanted to come close to singing in my words, and I wanted to be dramatic. Old forms, old techniques, old tropes, old sources of drama: I wanted to make them new for myself. I wanted their strength. I wanted to stand tiptoe on bigger shoulders than my own.

Adding a capital at the start of the line was one of my later choices and a part of the idea of making my poems as much like poems as they could be. And one of the great differences between poetry and prose is that prose is made of sentence units, and poetry is made of line units. To have an initial capital at the start of the line is to insist on and claim with fierceness the line as the unit of poetry, whereas much contemporary poetry says that the sentence or the isolate, broken phrase is the unit of poetry.

Like every obsessed writer, I have made my many choices. Long ago, when such jobs were hard to obtain, I gave up a tenured job to write, to escape from a realm where poets were part of and supported by the many-tentacled system of academia. Since then, writers have made most of their income and their useful connections in academia, so it was a bad decision in a worldly sense--a bad decision in terms of worldly success and support from the system. But I persist in thinking it was the right sacrifice for a poet and writer. Outside those bounds, I have worked and groped and thought my way, making books as I felt it best. Whether I have made my choices rightly or wrongly is not for me to say. But it is essential for me as that odd creature called a writer to have made them. For a writer, for a poet, it is essential to know and follow and sometimes change those choices. That little, seemingly-wrong choice of the initial capital is, for me, one of many decisions that have made me the sort of writer I am.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Oh, for the language of birds!

I also would like to learn the language of birds.
People in fairy tales sometimes have the luck of it.
(Illumination by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
for Glimmerglass.)
I've never spoke a second language well, though I'm perfectly willing to give the thing a go when I only have a couple of pages of phrases mastered. So in Cambodian, I spoke a little Khmer / Cambodian, and in Thailand, some Thai. One thing that surprised me in Cambodia is that absolutely everybody seemed to be learning English in order to to better themselves, and so I could have conversations where I inflicted Khmer on people while they tried out English on me. Great fun, much laughter. In Japan, I expected everyone would know English, but only a very few did, especially on Sado Island, but I managed enough Japanese (thank you to my daughter, whose love for all things Japanese meant she could critique my pronunciation) to have odd little conversations and laugh with strangers. In Paris, my schoolgirl French, mostly forgotten, had a tiny revival. And for a trip to Chile, Peru, and Mexico, I had no time at all to study, so listened to recordings the day before and took a list of phrases with me. It's surprising how much communication is possible with fifty phrases and a little boldness and rhythm-mimicry. I did take a little Russian in school (from a colorful White Russian woman who adored the class members so much she didn't push us) but have forgotten it, just as much as I forgot the French or more--and I've never been to Russia. When the the eventual next trip comes along, I'll need a smattering of German, and maybe another language.

My lightly-considered opinion of my brain on the language-learning front is that I don't have a fabulous memory but I'm pretty good with sounds (well, excluding the impossible, twisty language of Wales!) and with picking up vocabulary. I don't retain if I don't continue laboring at it, though. That pesky memory at work...

But I would like to know a second language well, and think I will start studying daily once I decide what language it should be. And there's the question. What's a good second language for an American novelist and poet? Should it be something where there's a great need of translation, so when I'm an ancient, doddery old crone (if I am lucky enough to endure so long) with the risk of having no inspiration, I can always translate? So far I can't really imagine not having the impetus to play with words and make stories and poems, but evidently it happens to many people and therefore may happen to me. Should the language be Spanish because there are so many Spanish speakers? Should it just be a language I love? But they're all so different and interesting, crammed full of wondrous words.

If you have an opinion, tell me! I'll definitely ponder it.