From “I Thought You Were a Poet” by Joshua Mehigan:
It seems to me that narcissism is ineluctably at the heart of poetry, maybe of every human enterprise. One-third of people will think I’m an idiot for bothering to state this. Two-thirds will think I’m repugnant for suggesting that poetry isn’t soul magic. But, however magical your soul, doesn’t its unveiling imply a touch of egotism? In lyric poetry, especially, some degree of narcissism seems unavoidable. Even Dickinson and Hopkins sought readers at some point. Now let us observe a moment’s silence for the Unknown Poets, who have defeated narcissism and won oblivion. Then, since there’s nothing to build on there, let us quickly turn in gratitude to their egotistical fellow poets, who reached through self-regard to give the bitter world a little beauty and insight.
from “Self-Consciousness” by Tony Hoagland:
When a person takes the step toward learning more of craft and its history, more of artifice—when, for example, a person crosses the threshold of an MFA program—she chooses to end a childhood in artlessness. She gives up some of the innocent infatuation, the naïveté, the adolescent grandiosity, maybe even some of the natural grace of the beginner. “They are good poets because they don’t know yet how hard it is to write a poem,” I have heard a teacher say, a bit tartly, of her beginning poetry class.
This initiation into knowledge will infect the learner with the virus of self-consciousness. As a consequence of learning of the existence of the poems of W.H. Auden, or Marianne Moore, or Louise Glück, your writing may suddenly seem horribly simplistic, crude as crayon drawings on Masonite. Now the poem, even as you are making it, seems stiff, clumsy, and obvious. Now your work may become, in compensation, coy and encoded.
Yet that very knowledge, which can inhibit and choke, can also inspire and challenge. Self-consciousness is the necessary border crossing of craft, skill, and even of poetic ambition.”
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility,
Do more bewitch me, than when art
is too precise in every part.
— From “Delight in Disorder” by Robert Herrick (1591-1674)
As I fell into the rhythm of the words, as I savored the way Dickens was planting his signposts for the development of the plot, as I watched him create unforgettable characters in a page or two, I felt a kind of peace. This wasn’t hectic. I wasn’t skittering around here and there. I wasn’t scanning headlines and skimming pages and tweeting links. I was reading.
What I am going to do, is take some time every day to read. I believe I’ll make it a practice to read in the room without the computer and the Wi-Fi.
I interpret “…the room without” as the rest of the world. My first daily read for the summer: Moby Dick. (It’s my first time.)
On April 1st, US Poet Laureate Kay Ryan held a video discussion with a handful of community colleges to kick off National Poetry Month, known on Twitter as #napomo — or #napowrimo to those celebrating the month by writing poetry.
I kept an ear on the conference while doing some busy-work. Here are a few partial quotes and paraphrases I managed to capture:
- “In order to write well, you must write a lot.”
- It’s important to have a defended space in which to write: people walk through a garden without fences, even if they didn’t mean to.
- “We’re not hearing from you. Have you answered?” (She was addressing technical difficulties with the link to one of the colleges, but I heard something deeper in it.)
- You need to read — read a lot — the entire spectrum: “It’s useful to read things that irritate you as well as what you like…It’s important to read outside your taste.”
- Think of your brain as a fish tank, and the fish are ideas and thoughts. For those fish to be well, the water has to be aerated all the time. Reading everything and anything plunges oxygenated language into the tank of your brain.
- “Our brain tissue is stained by really powerful voices like Emily Dickinson.”
- “Are you hungry to speak?”
- Don’t be impatient to know too much about your voice — have a lot of tolerance for yourself and your experiments.
- Eventually, one is kind of reduced to one’s voice: “Sandblasted enough, the shape of you starts coming out.”
- When you sit down to write, don’t worry about inspiration — “it’s a dirty trick to think you have to wait for inspiration.”
- You have to start, and inspiration may find you, or it may not at all.
- “I always find disagreement particularly provocative, to take exception to something.”
Editing and Revision
She read her poem The Other Shoe:
Oh if it were
only the other
in space before
joining its mate.
If the undropped
with the undropped.
But nothing can
stop the midair
collusion of the
unpaired above us
and weight. We
feel it accumulate.
- “A short poem, but it took a lot of work to get to it…”
- Unless you are Rimbaud, you better figure that you are going to be doing a lot of re-writing.
- The Other Shoe had nine or more previous versions. (She flipped through them quickly; one included an illustration.)
- “In order to make a poem look unworked, I have to work at it a lot.”
- “I don’t find necessarily that my first thought is my best thought at all. Just a first thought…out of which a good thought might grow.”
- She immediately forgets what she writes, which allows her to re-read as a stranger: “I have a bad memory, and have always thought of it as a great advantage.”
- “This is a patient art, in order to gain some excellence in it.”
- Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose” took 12 years?
- It took Ryan seven or eight years to find a last line that she liked for her poem He Lit a Fire with Icicles.
Questions & Answers
Student question: “What role do other readers play in your revision process?”
Kay Ryan: “Excellent question! None!”
- She keeps her own counsel.
- Her partner, who died recently, had been the only one to read pre-publication versions of Ryan’s poems: “If she didn’t tell me the bad things, I couldn’t trust her when she said something was beautiful.”
- It’s dangerous to listen to other people and their feedback.
- Working through errors yourself can take you in the direction you need to go.
- On workshop poems — “good in some sense that is incredibly boring.”
- Don’t court obscurity, don’t be consciously intentionally obscure.
- “We have plenty of confusion and ambiguity in this world…Try to get something important across…Try to make clear points.”
- “Publishing is an act of communication…to make someone else feel or think very much as I do.”
- When writing a poem, make sure the substance is in the poem, and not stuck in your mind.
- “Is everything you need to understand the poem available in the poem?”
- Poetry — the most exciting, exacting, demanding work she’s ever found to do with her mind.
- “Every sort of experiment can be a useful experiment.”
Note: If it’s in quotes, I’m 99% sure it’s something Kay Ryan actually said. The rest is stitched together from my short- and mid-term memory.
Note #2: I know, I know: bullet points. Sorry! I’m just trying to get this published quickly, and crafting it into a better format will just delay that.
Leap Before You Look
The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.
Tough-minded men get mushy in their sleep
And break the by-laws any fool can keep;
It is not the convention but the fear
That has a tendency to disappear.
The worried efforts of the busy heap,
The dirt, the imprecision, and the beer
Produce a few smart wisecracks every year;
Laugh if you can, but you will have to leap.
The clothes that are considered right to wear
Will not be either sensible or cheap,
So long as we consent to live like sheep
And never mention those who disappear.
Much can be said for social savoir-faire,
But to rejoice when no one else is there
Is even harder than it is to weep;
No one is watching, but you have to leap.
A solitude ten thousand fathoms deep
Sustains the bed on which we lie, my dear:
Although I love you, you will have to leap;
Our dream of safety has to disappear.
– W.H. Auden (December 1940)
Summarizing a recent study:
…the tactile disadvantage extends to the conceptual domain. That is, we seem to be slower at recognising when a word is tactile in nature than we are at recognising whether words are visual, to do with taste, sound, or smell.
The researchers had dozens of participants look at words on a screen, presented one at a time, and press a button to say if they were related to the tactile modality (e.g. ‘itchy’) or not. Some words were tactile-related whilst others were fillers and related to the other senses.
The same task was then repeated but with participants judging whether the words were visual-related, auditory and so on, with each sense dealt with by a new block of trials. The key finding is that participants were much slower at this task in the tactile condition than for the other senses. This was the case even when words were presented for just 17ms, which is too fast for conscious detection but long enough for accurate responding.
Connell and Lynott say their findings provide further evidence for the tactile sense having a processing disadvantage relative to the other senses. They think this is because there’s little evolutionary advantage to sustaining attention to the tactile modality whereas there are obvious survival advantages with the other senses, for example: ‘…in hunting, where efficacious looking, listening and even smelling for traces of prey could afford an advantage.’ You may think of pain and damage detection as reasons for paying sustained attention to the tactile domain, but remember these are served by spinal reflexes. ‘We do not wait for the burning or stinging sensation to register with the attentional system before responding,’ the researchers said.
I can think of lots of reasons for sustained attention to tactile sensation, but they probably don’t have any evolutionary purpose.
But is it not this pillowy
principle of repulsion
that produces the
doily edges of oceans
or the arabesques of thought?
from Repulsive Theory by Kay Ryan
Amy Hillman recently tweeted this photo of the dedication in a book from Bob’s Red Mill:
...a simple, sustaining way of life...
Not too surprising that someone who cares about his wife, work and values this much gave the company to his employees on his 81st birthday.
Words once in common use sound archaic. And the names of the famous dead as well: Camillus, Caeso, Volesus, Dentatus…Scipio and Cato…Augustus…Hadrian and Antoninus, and…
Everything faces so quickly, turns into legend, and soon oblivion covers it.
And those are the ones who shone. The rest–”unknown, unasked-for” a minute after death. What is “eternal” fame? Emptiness.
Then what should we work for?
Only this: proper understanding; unselfish action; truthful speech. A resolve to accept whatever happens as necessary and familiar, flowing like water from that same source and spring.
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 4, #33 (Translated by Gregory Hays)
The epidemic I’m most worried about isn’t swine flu. It’s the death of logical thinking. The cause, I assume, is that most people now get their information from random images on a screen—pop-ups, windows, and sidebars—or from scraps of talk on a digital phone. But writing is linear and sequential; Sentence B must follow Sentence A, and Sentence C must follow Sentence B, and eventually you get to Sentence Z. The hard part of writing isn’t the writing; it’s the thinking. You can solve most of your writing problems if you stop after every sentence and ask: What does the reader need to know next?”
Hmm, I guess I’ve got some thinking to do.
via @WaltPascoe and @zoewesthof