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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Dog wags tail, tail wags dog

Overheard in my house:

An upstairs-before-school exchange, audible from the kitchen downstairs:

B, singing lustily:
Always look on the bright side of--

R, with vigor and a soaring note of hysteria:
Shut up!

And now for something completely different...

Reckless, harebrained, madcap fool

Is there something forbidden about writing both poetry and stories? Does such a foolhardy impulse fall into the realm of impossible-to-compass?

Here is that interesting Canadian, Alex Good, on the practice: “In the entire history of literature in English, for example, I can think of fewer than five writers who have achieved a lasting reputation as both novelists and poets. Yet a quick look at the contemporary Canadian scene reveals a number of big names—Atwood, Ondaatje, Urquhart—who obviously feel they can play all positions on the literary diamond. At least some part of this has to be attributed to the cult of celebrity in today's publishing world, which sells us on the idea that anything produced by a literary genius is equally valuable. One has the sense that these authors don't even want you to read their books so much as they want shoppers to identify with a brand.”

When I think of writers who have pursued several major genres (excluding criticism) in English, I think of writers like Donne, Shakespeare, Hardy, Emily Bronte, Jim Harrison, Melville, Yeats, and Beckett. Borges talks about (somewhere--where?) not being able to tell whether the tail wags the dog or the dog wags the tail in his own writing of poetry and stories. Was the dog his stories? Or were the poems what were “important”? The dog likes his tail, but the tail must have the dog, after all.

Why might writing in multiple genres be good?

I am, you see, forced to consider this possibility first, because I like to work in a number of forms at once, and I prefer--like everyone else--to think that my choice might just be the right choice, at least for me. In the same week, I might be revising poems, starting a short story, and finishing a novel. I don't like to think that this might be somehow "against the rules" or a sure-fire road to a hell of low-burning mediocrity.

Coming to fiction changed my poetry. I threw masses of poems away after I began writing prose. Stories gave me a sudden and keen desire for my poems to be as different from prose as possible, and that drove me back to the resources of formal poetry. Form made me know freedom for the first time, for who can know freedom better than one who has tried singing in chains? Prose also made me want to write poems that were about more, and poems that were narratives, and poems that took their shape from strange and sometimes foreign rules. Poems made me want to write fiction that was entirely different from poetry, and sent me on a path from a sort of 'poet’s prose' to something more muscular. Poems made me think about what fiction has that poetry doesn’t—made me want to investigate causality and plot, for example.

Why should an insistence on writing in both areas be bad?

Perhaps it is because many people ramble from fiction to poetry or poetry to fiction without really making a difference between poetry and prose. Perhaps when poetry is only prose clipped into pieces—sometimes simply broken into lines on a page, sometimes wildly blended until the reader’s sense-making is denied—it is simply too small for many readers, too much like a dwindled version of prose.

Then it is the mere stick of a child that the fairies leave when they steal away the living girl or boy. Thought a mother may nurse and dandle such a changeling, she will never know what to make of that diminished thing.

* * * * *
Currently reading/rereading:

98 Reasons for Being
The Magic Pudding (aloud, to N)
Map of Dreams
Kathleen Raine

* * * * * * *

A shooting chance

Can't write about poems without offering a bit of one's own for pot shots. Here's a poem from my 2001 book, Claire (LSU). It'll do for now--for a Christmas in Yankee ice and snow. I wrote it after my husband made some whimsical remark about Kateri being the only saint he could possibly claim as a relation. She is on the path to canonization in the Roman Catholic church. Not having grown up with saints, I have a certain fascination with them.

It's a narrow stream of a poem, short-lined, hemmed in by rhyme. I don't think I've written couplets in tetrameter again, as it crams the sounds very close together, though I've written lots of rhyming stanzas that alternate tetrameter/trimeter.

I somehow have the feeling that I've stuck this one up before, but I can't find it. Since I haven't posted many, the chance is not great. Yet I have three children, and so my mind is--presto!--shot.


A sister of the sun and trees,
She was so often on her knees

In snow that Jesuit brothers thought
Her surely mad. The God she sought

Would not ask for a lash of ice
And briars on naked skin, nor price

Her soul so high that she must plumb
The river till as blue and numb

As a March frog. She was a child
Of Akwesasne Mohawk—more wild

Than other tribes—the reason she
Was made of stuff so fearless-free.

No modesty! And weren’t her whips
Lashed on a naked spine and hips?

The linen froze upon her back
As she rose gasping from a crack

In ice—a wonder that the wave
Did not become her winter grave.

Today the cold still has its bite,
It’s just as hard to tell the right

From false. For some have seen a glow
From fires that burn in pits of snow,

And some have bent to catch the scent
Of something sweet, plucked roses, pent

In barrow earth. Such blooms are red
To look like blood when petals shed,

And there are thorns enough for all.
But records here are few and small.

A votive soul set down in ice?
A flensed and fevered bride of Christ?

Some say that she was simply plain
And odd, and liked the woods and rain

As others like a friend. Some say
Plainly simple. And some say nay,

Not dense. They say she had good sense
Who for her sins did rinse and mince.

They say, lovely as the river,
As arrows tensed, swept from quiver.

Photograph: Courtesy of and Philipp Kleinschmit of Barcelona: library in Wolfenbuettel, Germany.


  1. I think a person should develop as much as they can. After all we go to University to be educated. Why should we limit ourselves.

    Just because I have started playing the accordion doesn't mean I care about my vocal chords or trumpet any less.

    I just need a whole lot ways to express myself...because I have so many feelings. My poor nerves you know, my family has to live with them ;o)

  2. We have a similar dilemma in the visual arts: a painter AND a sculptor - you dilettante! Yet the message of the art world is simultaneously one of "anything goes." Sigh.

    Same language, different dialects.

  3. Do you find you have to be in a certain mood to write poetry or prose, Marly? Do you write in different ways at different parts of the day?

  4. I was fascinated by your telling how writing poetry changed your prose and how writing prose changed your poetry. Yes, I bet the poetry banished poetic prose from your repertoire forever. I can't see any reason at all why a writer shouldn't do lots of kinds of things. Maybe it's because the canon has been dominated by men and men think so linearly--- according to Carol Gilligan, anyway. And women think in connections. It's laterality vs linearity. You spread out, Marly, working in several ways. I'm glad you do.

  5. Hmm, four women who all think similar things: music, sculpture-and-painting, literature, water colors and oils are all represented in the comments, too. For now I can pat myself on the head and say my waywardness is fine, but I wonder what four such men would have to say?

    I do believe "anything goes" applies to writing in the wake of Modernism, as well. The gamut is very wide... Much that is silly or boring or moribund is lying about, often calling itself new or experimental.

    Clare has asked me some questions I haven't really considered before. With three children, I don't have the leisure to have a favorite time to write or a regular schedule, so I write whenever I have time. I often think about what I'm not doing while I'm folding laundry or doing some other dull thing.

    Having no time at all in the day and writing at night definitely changed The Wolf Pit. That was the work of an exhausted woman with her hair on fire. Passages you write between 2:00 and 4:00 in the morning go strange!

    But I work in the day now. Prose I write any time--just need to have some sitting time. I don't fool around and worry but just jump in. Leisure would be nice, but who's to say I'd do better?

    Poems I can feel coming on--that "grass-growing mood" creeping up--and I can write it whenever I feel ready, even in a busy place, because I have an ability to blot out the world that's fairly strong. Afterward, I'll tinker with a poem while doing housework, or carry a batch of poems around while doing child-ferrying.

  6. Down with the Patriarchy!


    wink wink

  7. Must chime in with my $0.02 of agreement. Had the same thing happen back in the day when I fed myself with illustration -- I did photorealistic surreal work, some cartoony work, and some more "editorial" evocative schtuff. Art directors and art buyers would ask, "But what do you DO?" in an effort to make work fit in two lines on a business card.

    Can't blame them -- busy people have a need for a succinct summing-up.

    And now I use a camera, and to me it's not much different than sketching or poems -- the intention, the "seeing," the working through, the desire to share the transformative moment are all of a piece.

    But I'm sure I'd get that dilettante label for not having a specialty.

    I like your note about feeling poems "coming on" -- similar experience for me. Poems happen the way a subtle change in the weather becomes more insistent until it finally rains...

  8. That makes six women who agree. We need to poll some men! They are, of course, different from those of us who are not men. Having been brainwashed by idiotic baby experts, I did not understand that the male sex arrives on the planet as different from us until I had sons. This was and continues to be an enlightening experience.

  9. Thanks M!

    What a way to turn bad spelling lemons into fabulousness lemonade.

    I didnt even see the error! hhaaa thats what makes it funny. My mother always said, "sound it Susanna, just sound it out!

  10. And that last comment goes with the next post.

    Confusing, ain't it?

    Now if you could just rig up those candles on your hat...


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.