Sunday, November 22, 2009

Memoir; and Thoughts on the Creative Process

In another course I’m teaching this term, students are writing memoirs. Thinking about their challenges, I decided to develop my points further for this course – although we’re mostly doing poems, and some short stories.

A memoir is a nonfiction form; but most memoirists seem to think of their projects as imaginative, and not only memorial. That is true, I think, in at least two senses: first, memory can be thought of as imaginative recreation of the past, rather than an always-factual representation of people, things, and events as they were. Second, when we present fleshed-out writing that focuses on the past as we recall it, if we want readers to be engaged, and to come close to the emotional as well as the intellectual truths, we will probably need to dramatize our memories. Sometimes in memoir that does actually mean outright invention: transposing, events, leaving things out, making composite characters, concocting dialogue, inventing props, and other things that our memories of long-past events typically cannot recover. Also, if we want to engage readers, we need to use the devices of fiction – dialogue, character development, scene creation, foreshortening, exaggeration – to get at those emotional truths.

This is not universally accepted; there is, in fact, much argument among readers, writers, and critics about what’s appropriate or necessary in memoir.

The line between fiction and nonfiction (not only memoir, but other forms as well) is hard to identify. Some autobiographical novels are closer to “real” events (depending on whom you talk to) than many “nonfiction” memoirs.

It seems to me the memoirist can seek the right balance between fictional or dramatic texture and documentary accuracy. Even if she tries to please the most literal-minded fellow witness to the events she’s writing about, she will most likely outrage someone. If it’s not the “false” elements that make someone mad, it will be the truth itself.

Once we start writing about our memories, or from our memories, we risk replacing memory with interpretation. But we have probably (if Freud and others are to be believed) already re-interpreted certain memories a thousand times before we ever write them down. Perhaps our latest recollection of an event is merely a remembering of the last time we entertained the memory: a recollection of a remembering.

For now, I want to talk about some strategies for structuring our recollections; but these are also ways of recovering them in the first place. I think that when we talk out loud or write the memories down – when we do something social or physical, something that is more than sitting back and dreaming of the past – we study the lacunae, the gaps, as much as we do the threads of action and image.

Most of my memories, when I look, are bits and pieces; they are puzzles of 1,000 pieces for which I have maybe 100 pieces remaining – but often, just the right 100 pieces to reconstruct the rest, although with guesswork, myth-making, self-justification, forgiveness, transfer of blame, etc.

One structural device I call “topic/shadow topic.”

For both the writer and the reader, the mind plays tricks – and wants to be tricked. For the reader, often, it is best not to “tell” what we mean as writers too directly; or, not to tell it in discursive or direct terms in certain kinds of writing. If you write on one subject, but seem by the end to have actually written on another, that can be a more enlightening experience for the reader. Likewise, if you start out writing about one thing, but find yourself writing about another – you might have come more honestly or more effectively to that “shadow topic” than if you’d focused your sights on it at the start.

Some of what we call “craft” in writing is a way to successfully trick ourselves and our readers. You can frame your writing process, or your writing goals, in such a way that you increase your chances of coming to the “right” shadow topic. You might already know in certain ways what you want to say, but creative writers, including essayists, allow themselves to be surprised by their own minds. [Note: essay comes from the French word essayer, to try or attempt; it seems to bear the notion that writing of this type is really guesswork.]

How can you come to the shadow topic?

One way is to deliberately choose a certain armature, or scaffolding, for what you are about to do: if in a memoir about your mother you want to get at what it was about her that made her special, you might “look,” for a moment, at what that specialness is, and then turn away from it at an angle, and go into something fairly ordinary in your memory that has a built-in structure. For example, you might look inside your memory at some process your mother did repeatedly in memory: cooking. (I’m not trying to be sexist, by the way! I grew up in the late fifties and sixties, and my mother spent a lot of time in the kitchen.)

First, we can count on certain elements of such a memory scene to be archetypal, at least for a certain kind of reader: mothers in kitchens will be familiar as a shared experience, maybe even for people who didn’t experience it first-hand. Second, what mothers did in kitchens was repetitive and even ritualized, perhaps: when dinner would be started, what steps had to be followed in what order, her particular methods, who helped, what her favorite utensils were, the apron she wore, etc. (this scene is deliberately clichéd – but I want to emphasize the commonness of the scene.)

Enter into the scene, and paint it as carefully as you can – in memory, or right there on paper. Place yourself in the scene, but on the periphery; how old are you? Who was your teacher that year? Put everything in its place, give it its hue and texture, read the labels on the jars and cans, hum the jingles you heard on TV when the commercials aired. Recall the way the light entered the window above the sink in winter, when the sun set early; remember the sound the exhaust fan made above the stove; study the design of the floor tiles. And smells – what were the smells of spices, of the meat broiling in the oven, of the flowers in the vase that were three days old?

What was the rhythm of your mother’s work; how many tasks were running at the same time: stirring the pot, cutting the onion and wiping her eyes, listening to the evening news on the TV in the other room, wiping your baby sister’s mouth, who was feeding herself somewhat sloppily in the high chair? And you, you’re sitting at the kitchen table, doing your math homework: she stops to check on you, and encourage you, and then answers the phone, which she cradles with her chin on her neck while she returns to stirring; and then a laugh, at something the person on the phone just said…

So you get into the scene. Go much further than you will need to for whatever final episode you’re hoping to construct. Let yourself become entranced by the rhythms, sensations, and incongruent emotions of the scene (perhaps because the innocuous memory hides something more pointed. They usually do, I find; which might or might not be your shadow topic).

Ok. You might, in the first go, have discovered, or at least sensed, that other thing or things you want to get at. While you were distracted by the lulling rhythms and sounds and smells and colors, your mind relaxed, and let go of one of its treasure or one of its secrets.

Write often enough, and it will happen, even if not the first time.

But also, you will rewrite. Writers add, take away, insert, weave, jump out, jump back in – you can be in that kitchen, on that winter evening, but also leap years back or forward, as long as you feel for the unity that must ultimately be in place. Everything is connected to everything else; if we segue, or transition, carefully, we won’t lose the rhythm of the scene or the reader’s patience, either. That person on the phone while your mother was stirring: digress, since you are no longer that ten-year-old child, on what happened to her years later. The TV news is on: what were the day’s tragedies or absurdities; what was the sound of the newscaster’s voice? (Some things that your memory has hidden too deeply you will be able to rediscover as history; ask people, look in books, on the Internet, and recapture the historical part of your life at that general level – then, bring that information back down into the personal. Much of our lives is really “the world,” and has been recorded somewhere.)

Your passage, which might be many pages long if you go through the process above, will be rewritten, condensed, and rearranged. Like a film editor, you can splice in whatever develops a particular dimension of meaning in the passage. Things that seem unconnected on the surface might share some significance, pattern, or point of contact; in any case, much of the art of writing, as in magic, resides in the transitions and sleights of hand. Connectives, qualifications, reiterations, contrasts: everything is related to everything else, but the writer needs to find the relations that will matter within the work.

A process, like cooking, can get your mind into a certain space where it will be more open to meaningful associations. Partly, it’s because we already have the entirety of the “narrative” of a process in mind; we can relax our efforts as it tells itself, and within its interstices, encoded elements will (hopefully) become visible. The process, in this case cooking, is readymade with figuration: the kitchen is a charged space for metaphor, metonym, symbol, irony, myth, and anything else that shapes meaning and vision.

Let me give you another fancy word: "topos." A topos is a template for ideas, or for how to generate writing. For example, I talk about "mother in the kitchen" above; Other writers use the same topos, as do filmmakers and others. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in an essay called “In the Kitchen,” uses the “mother in the kitchen” topos. There are many topoi (plural), although the person who created the term, Aristotle, uses them in a much more precise way (Google "Aristotle" and "topoi" and you will find the original list from 2,300 years ago). The value of the topoi is that there are always many subsequent elements or aspects that go along with the initial elements. For example, if I say "mother in the kitchen" we all think of similar subsequent elements, but not entirely the same. We might think of stoves, ovens, refrigerators, toasters, tables, cabinets, and other things; we think of smells, sounds, the "rules" and rituals of the kitchen (who can do what, for example); and yet, all of those things are a bit different for each of us.

My wife is Japanese; so, for example, there would be no memory for her of her mother baking, because Japanese kitchens don't usually have ovens. They don't bake muffins or pies the way we do in the US. And even today, Japanese husbands or sons almost never do dishes! My mother-in-law was amazed and disturbed when she saw me doing dishes. But for me, one of the features of the topos of “mother in the kitchen” is “somebody besides Mother does the dishes.” That was one of the rules in my house.

So, some things would be similar, some different, but each of us could start from the initial element (mothers, kitchens) and create an elaborate, patterned, active scene from our memories and other sources of information (reading, hearing other people's stories of mothers and kitchens). Think of the topos, whatever it is, as a doorway; then, in that room, there are several other doors to go through, and many more through each of those. If you write by imagining what you say as a series of “spaces” or doorways to choose from, you will see that the main problem of writing is not “I don’t know what to say next” but instead, “I don’t know which of these many choices to make next.” It’s a problem of too many, not a problem of not enough.

Also, we can invert, reverse, take out, replace, and do other things that are simple, formal games we always play when we're being creative. For example, Gates puts his mother in a kitchen, but instead of cooking, the main activity he talks about is styling hair. That didn't happen in my mother's kitchen, but I can juxtapose the two things easily in my imagination.

Metonyms, metaphors, symbols: Gates' essay is not simply about hair. It's about how hair is an emotional, cultural, social, and even a political thing. He says "hair" and "kitchen" but he means "people" and "race" or "ethnicity." And maybe, when he started writing, it was his conscious purpose to talk about politics or race. Abut probably, if began writing from a sense of pleasure rather than purpose, he thought first of the kitchen, his mother, someone’s hair, a neighbor…one or more of the treasures of his childhood, worth nothing now but in the ways memory itself confers wealth; and it is through good writing that the wealth is passed along, without diminishing in the slightest.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Definitions of "Poetry"

When people think of “definition,” they generally think of the dictionary: rush to the nearest one (now often online), look up the word, and there you have it. But if you have tried looking up a word in more than one source, you’ve seen that all definitions are not the same. They’re usually close enough, for each equivalent usage, I suppose; but the meaning of a word is a matter of opinion (however authoritative), or of opinion reached by consensus.

But “definition” in its deeper sense is a matter of argument; simply figuring out what to call something, and thereafter how to define it or say what it means, is often the very core of a subject, discipline, or pursuit.

So, we argue for meanings; and the argument is never fully resolved, if we’re lucky: the journey is the goal, as Basho said.

Definition can mean something like outline or resolution, as with an image or a space. So, to define is to find boundaries; but finding boundaries is also finding what lies past boundaries.

Let’s work with “poetry.” Consider each proposal below as a boundary, angled slightly differently than the other proposals for meaning. Order these in different ways; try to create a taxonomy, or a scale, or a hierarchy: which meaning is closer to a “true” meaning; which is more up to date, more expansive, more focused, more helpful in understanding specific poems?

On the other hand, there is much overlap; what are the shared concerns of these seekers of meaning?

But first, I want to point out that when philosophers and aestheticians talk about “poetry,” they often mean something far larger than verse. Frequently, they mean “art” or “imagination” altogether. “Poetry,” though, seems to be a good part-to-whole representation of those larger categories. Why might that be? I think it’s because a definition, as I mean it here, is itself a matter of words.

Poets, themselves, of course, love to define poetry. here’s Reginald Gibbons:

All poetry is language that is also in some way about language.

Notice that this one fits the form of classical definition: genus – species. “An automobile is a form of motorized transportation [genus; a family that includes trucks and motorcycles, usually with four wheels and intended for passengers [species: how autos are different from other members of the genus.]”

Of course, most of these provisional definitions will not bear a great deal of scrutiny if we expect them to be consistent and logical. “Linguistics” is also “language that is also in some way about language.” But by “provisional” I mean “good enough to get us going.” And so, in Gibbons’ definition, we get the notion that poems are often focus on the way language works, how it means, where it comes from. Perhaps we are also meant to sense that poetry pluralizes language: there is more than one level, as with harmony in music. Verse is to melody as poetry is to melody… how far can I go with that sort of analogy?

To put it a different way: poetry is one of the ways we use language to get outside of language; it is “meta” language.

Try another – this, one of many definitions that Percy Shelley offers in his “Defence of Poetry":

Poetry redeems from decay visitations of the divinity of man.

This one’s a bit more poetic – more metaphoric, anyway. Much is embedded here: first, the notion, quite old itself, that humanity fell from a higher state: a golden age, heroic era, or as the line says, godliness itself; which makes of poetry a backward-looking force, and elegy its primary modality. “Redeems” as well is a powerful word in Christendom, and post-Christendom as well (Shelley flirted with atheism). One common argument among poets is whether poetry “does” anything, or has much use in the world:

Poetry makes nothing happen

is the famous line from Auden. But in Shelley’s definition, it’s not Man himself but only “visitations” (glimpses?) of a lost divinity. That also makes of poetry something visual; and focused, I think, on parts and fragments, rather than wholes.

Another, from the German poet/philosopher who renamed himself Novalis:

Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason.

A bit stark; file under “hyperbole.” But actually, I like the underlying metaphor: that poetry heals (notice that it partakes of Shelley’s “saving” metaphor, if you allow for the equivocation – they’re both Romantics, after all), and that “reason” (think of William Blake’s Ulro and Urizen – another Romantic!) harms. For “reason,” replace with “real world,” “materialism,” “greed”… whatever strikes you as the thing we sometimes need refuge from; poetry heals it, Novalis says.

(to be continued…)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Prose Poem

The prose poem is a hybrid creature, not accepted by many as poetry at all, but not taken seriously as prose fiction or essay by others. It seems to like that questionable status, however, and generally lives near the border with uncertainty or doubt.

What is a prose poem? It is generally short, a few lines to a few pages. It does not have lines in verse, or broken lines, and when there is a break we call the parts “paragraphs” rather than “stanzas.” But at the same time, the prose poem aims for compression like a lyric poem; it might feature more repetition or other linguistic effects; it might focus on a particular image, or gesture, or scene, although it might also tell a story.

Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference, if it matters, between a prose poem and a piece of flash fiction. If the author is someone mainly known as a fiction writer, then it will often be seen as short-short fiction; if the author is generally a poet, it will be a prose poem.

The prose poem might have begun, a couple of centuries ago, as a way for poets to escape the constrictions of poetic form. French poets especially liked the prose poem, as traditional prosody in French is very rule-bound; so the prose poem offered escape from those constrictions.

The prose poem is a modern creature, and modernity is all about revolution, breaking rules, trying new things just for the sake of newness. On the other hand, the breaking of lines on the page to show that a poem is a poem is not such a very ancient convention; much of the Old Testament (Job, or the Song of Solomon, for example) could be thought of as prose poetry.

Some prose poems insist on staying inside a kind of box, like the sonnet; they like that square, almost-rectangular shape of the single paragraph, which I think of as a kind of box, or perhaps a stage with proscenium arch: some strange specimen is intimately framed for our amusement.

Many prose poems partake of the absurd, the surreal, or the merely strange or droll. We read, we enjoy or wonder at the strange sight or action, the funny conflation of words or things, and then, as with any tightly-bound work of art, we take a moment to wonder at what we just read. The brevity of lyric poems and of many prose poems tempts us to read again, to see if what we saw is still there.

Te prose poem is not a song, usually; sometimes it’s a snapshot, a post card, a brief note (as in a diary or a field journal), an anecdote, a cameo, or a moment.

Smetimes when we can’t quite say what a thing is, we call it everything else, searching for similitudes; moving backward in order to go forward. “Prose poem” puts together two things that are considered opposites; they cancel each other out, and what’s left is defined by negation as much as presence.

One way to approach poetry, or anything that is sought after, is by continually redefining it. A poem is its own definition. Here are two operative definitions from David Lehman, in the introduction to his anthology Great American Prose Poems:

The prose poem is…poetry that disguises its true nature.


Just as free verse did away with meter and rhyme, the prose poem does away with the line as the unit of composition. It uses the means of prose toward the ends of poetry.

Both these definitions, it seems to me, accentuate the tension between absence and presence. That tension or counterpoint might itself be a key to the modality of the prose poem; but one way to approach the task of finding one’s voice or style or theme in art is to seek after one’s own definitions.

There are many anthologies devoted to the prose poem. Here are a few:

Among those poets who have excelled at the form are: Charles Baudeliare, Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Simic, Russell Edson, Harryette Mullen, Mary Oliver, James Wright, Ray Gonzalez, and Mark Strand.

Here are several prose poems to study – all at the Poetry Foundation Web site:

Russell Edson, “Antimatter”
Matthea Harvey, “Wack-A-Mole Realism”
Ray Gonzalez, “And There Were Swallows”
Carolyn Forche, “The Colonel”
Lydia Davis, "A Position at the University"
Gabriela Mistral, "The Lark"
Charles Simic, from "The World Doesn't End"
...and an interesting analysis of a prose poem by James Wright by the poet Robert Peake, at his blog site.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Sound of Sense

Where do ideas come from? What are the sources of imagination? We have our senses, and our memories; we can assemble and recall information, and reconstruct it in countless ways.

Still, these are not the primary sources of ideas for the poet. Language itself can generate ideas. Writing, as a physical and emotional act, draws forth what it is we want to say – quite often, before we know consciously.

Language is sensual; language is historical; language is animated. It is in us, but we call our first language our “mother” tongue – it gave birth to us, or we came from it.

A poet, or an artist who works in language, more generally, is someone keenly aware of the living qualities of language. Sense and nonsense share a shifting boundary; thought and sound connect across it.

We are all to some extent aware of the physicality of language: we love rhymes, jokes, figures of speech, baby-talk, jingles, and other forms that emphasize that physicality. But a poet seeks after it, and trains his or her ear (and tongue, and eye, and hand) to capitalize on it.

Robert Frost spoke of something he called “the sound of sense.” The most remarkable aspect of this – something which I think songwriters will understand – is that music often comes before the words themselves to a poet like Frost. Here is how he describes it in a letter he wrote:


(From a Letter to John Bartlett, 4 July 1913) (...) I am possibly the only person going who works on any but a worn out theory (principle I had better say) of versification. You see the great successes in recent poetry have been made on the assumption that the music of words was a matter of harmonised vowels and consonants. Both Swinburne and Tennyson arrived largely at effects in assonation. But they were on the wrong track or at any rate on a short track. They went the length of it. Any one else who goes that way must go after them. And that’s where most are going. I alone of English writers have consciously set myself to make music out of what I may call the sound of sense. Now it is possible to have sense without the sound of sense (as in much prose that is supposed to pass muster but makes very dull reading) and the sound of sense without sense (as in Alice in Wonderland which makes anything but dull reading). The best place to get the abstract sound of sense is from voices behind a door that cuts off the words. Ask yourself how these sentences would sound without the words in which they are embodied:

You mean to tell me you can’t read?
I said no such thing.
Well read then.
You’re not my teacher.


He says it’s too late.
Oh, say!
Damn an Ingersoll watch anyway.


No good! Come back—come back.
Haslam go down there and make those kids get out of the track.

Those sounds are summoned by the audial imagination and they must be positive, strong, and definitely and unmistakeably indicated by the context. The reader must be at no loss to give his voice the posture proper to the sentence. The simple declarative sentence used in making a plain statement is one sound. But Lord love ye it mustn’t be worked to death. It is against the law of nature that whole poems should be written in it. If they are written they won’t be read. The sound of sense, then. You get that. It is the abstract vitality of our speech. It is pure sound--pure form. One who concerns himself with it more than the subject is an artist. But remember we are still talking merely of the raw material of poetry. An ear and an appetite for these sounds of sense is the first qualification of a writer, be it of prose or verse.


I like the idea that much meaning is carried in tone; and that one can hear voices as if on the other side of a door, missing the precise words, but getting, through intonation, stress, and to some extent coloration, some essential meaning of the words.

I want to relate this concept of Frost’s to another, more broadly linguistic concept, sometimes known as “sound symbolism” or “phonetic symbolism. The basic idea is that the sounds of words, the vowels and consonants in particular, and the patterns they create, are not random, but are rather connected to the meanings of words. This is a controversial idea, because most linguistics stems from the notion that the relation between sound and sense is arbitrary. And one must wonder how it is that so many languages – thousands of languages, existing and extinct – have connected so many different sound patterns to the same basic ideas. But I have the sense, as I think most poets do, that at least in its traces, language as we understand it today owes much to the ways in which sounds were created by the body, or the way experience affected particular human beings, such that a particular sound came to be associated with a particular meaning; no doubt many time, in different ways, leading to different primeval languages, of which our modern languages are distant descendants, much changed; and the physical connections are now often abstracted, transformed, fossilized, and mostly unrecognizable. Something similar is true for the beginnings of written language, as well – but many thousands of years after the start of spoken language.

So, the poet is an archeologist, or an atavistic creature, or a prophet (if our end is in our beginning). She tries to connect the present and future of language with its past, although its most distant past is occluded.

It is useful, in training your ear as a poet or writer, to study the etymologies of words; not only for the shifting forms and meanings, but to discover the way certain forms stay the same as we go back in time, and to discover the similarities as we cross language boundaries (in particular, in the Indo-European family of languages).

To explore some of this further, I recommend:

…which offers Frost himself reading his “sound of sense” argument;

…which offers some very useful classifications of sound devices as related to various poems of Frost;

…which offers some thoughtful discussion by Carol Frost (no relation) on Frost’s poetics;

...which offers some useful information on sound symbolism.

Also, here is a children’s picture book I wrote, based on some of the concepts of sound symbolism:

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Some Notes on Fiction

What is a story?

Let me start with a famous distinction made by the writer E. M. Forster in his classic work, Aspects of the Novel. Story is like this: “The King died, and then the Queen died.” Plot is more like this: “The King died, and then the Queen died of grief.”

What’s the difference? Story, in Forster’s definition, is a series of events; plot is a series of events that indicate causation. When we hear story, Forster, observes, we think “and then what next?” but when we experience plot, we ask, “and why?”

This is what I call operational definition: a definition to suit a particular situation, need, or argument. “Plot” and “story” can mean more or less the same thing, but even if you don’t like Forster’s distinction, consider the problem of causation: how, in a story, can you get at meaning; at the possibilities of “why”?

Here is another point about how “story” and “plot” differ – and this, really, was more what Forster was concerned with: “story” is the basic chronology of events: how things unfold in time. “Plot” is any meaningful (or, I suppose, meaningless) arrangement of those events. So, when you tell a story, you can go forward in time, first to second to third to last; or, you can choose another arrangement – one that suits some thematic purpose, or any purpose at all. Stories (as in the movie “Memento”) can be told backwards; or (like the movie “Pulp Fiction”) they can be told both forwards and backwards, leaving us somewhere in the middle. Often, a story starts “in medias res” (“in the middle of things,” a Latin phrase I’ve used in posts), because that is where our attention can be most successfully engaged; often, then, a story will back up, or otherwise fill in information, or provide some exposition, to give the reader sufficient background and context for the story and its characters, and their situations.

But there are many possibilities. Time can be directed, replayed, skipped, and multi-layered. Think of the Akutagawa story (the basis for “Rashomon,” one of our first exercises): the same story is told several different ways, according to the different characters’ points of view, and their differing motivations/limitations. Many stories, especially films and novels, will present a scene in one place, according to one character’s point of view; and then jump to a different character/location to show us simultaneous or coterminous events, often linking the two plot lines later in the story.

Also, plot elements can be nested: we can go back in time, or forward, and then, within that secondary chronology, we might be pushed further back or forward. A good example of this is in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.”

This story begins with the narrating character learning of his younger brother’s arrest for drug possession; from this point, we go a little forward, partly to gain some further understanding of our narrator’s perspective; then we go back, to learn of the brothers’ shared past, and within a dramatic framework, we go further still, through a story told by the mother (long dead in the story’s present) of their father’s childhood, and a dark event that shaped his destiny – his, and his own brother’s (creating a parallel, of course, with the narrator and his brother’s destinies). We also have the narrator’s memory-scenes that present us with an idyllic past, when both mother and father were alive, and the family was in equilibrium (but with a threatening darkness not far off).

So, we have story within story, and in a sense, our questions “why?” – why does Sonny, the younger brother, have a drug problem; why should we care about him; why does the narrator, the older brother, feel regret – are suspended, amplified, and (perhaps) internalized: the characters’ investments in one another become our own, in part, I feel, because we enter their story (their plot, really) as if it were a labyrinth of meaning, leading not out but toward a center as the point of liberation.

Consider, then: when you have a story to tell, how should you construct the plot? Is chronological order the best way? Even if so, will foreshadowing or flashbacks enhance your purposes? Is there a point in the midst of events from which you can work back, then forward, to catch the reader’s attention? Are there simultaneous perspectives to alternate between?

The most important thing, I believe, is to think in terms of scenes: how can you help the reader “see” what is happening? Create a series of self-contained, extended moments: what action, what realization, what gesture, what knowledge will give that moment its purpose within the story? What mode of storytelling will predominate: dialogue, narrative, description, interior monologue?

My preference, even in essays and poems, is to think “cinematically,” at least at some stage of the composition: to imagine where the cameras would be placed; to design the tracking, the series of angles, to try out medium vs. close-up vs. long-shot distances; to imagine the montage of shots, considering both what is shown and what is omitted, and how the gaps communicate meaning; and to consider “mise en scene” (what is placed within the frame), also thinking of the relation between presence and absence, and how best to use what I expect a reader to know of what I don’t reveal.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Houston Poetry Festival

Click here to read about this week's Houston Poetry Festival:

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Thus Far, Part 1 (or really, part 1b)

I want to put together some thoughts , over the next few posts, on the Workshop work that you've all been posting thus far. Some of this is reiteration of what I've been posting to the Workshop as replies, but I thought it might be good to pull some of it together.

By the way -- are you opening and reading all my replies to other student's posts? Essentially, those are becoming the ongoing lectures (Ihadn't intended it that way at the start; remember, this course is an experiment). So, try to get in the habit of reading my posts, because I'm directing my replies to everyone -- not everything is meant only as a comment on the particular poem or story I'm "replying" to.

For now, I'll stay with a discussion of poetic form; we've had some brief fiction work, but I'll get to that a little later.

One point I've made in several posts has to do with the poetic line. Other than breaking the line before the right margin, what makes a poem a poem?

The most noticeable thing is end rhyme, perhaps. But my observation in many comments has been that an end-rhyme isn't enough to create the integrity of the verse line (to put it in yet another phrasing). More important, I think, is whatI've called the cadence or meter of the line.

Many poets over the past century or so have written free-verse poetry, which doesn't mean "unrhymed" so much as unmetered. However, free verse poetry still, usually, has a cadence. What is that? I think of it as some way of creating a pattern of sounds that is pleasing and that guides the reader, beyond the sense of the words themselves -- through stress patterns that are not necessarily metrical, but also through grammar, rhetoric, or what can be referred to as "sound symbolism" or "phonetic symbolism," or some other way of drawing more attention to the language than we might expect in prose.

It's very hard to make a clear definition of "poetry" vs. "prose." There are prose poems, for example. So, which are they? Prose, of poetry? We often like things to fit neatly into categories, but often, they don't. Perhaps an artist, or a creative person generally, is someone who doesn't mind, or actually enjoys, confusions of identity, meaning, form, etc. Boundary zones are fruitful places.

So, I am attempting operative definitions here: not absolute ones.

But back to my point: when writing a line of poetry, rhymed or not, try to discover what qualities of language will give energy to the line; and how that will create a pattern, an integrity (something that earns its way, perhaps), a sense of wholeness or rightness.

Metered verse, in the English-language tradition, is "accentual-syllabic," primarily (but not exclusively). That means: verse in which the poet has created a line of a certain number of syllables (usually eight or ten) and a certain number and pattern of accents.  The most common pattern, traditionally, has been "iambic pentameter" -- something like this:

That time of year thou may'st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang

Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,

Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang:

(Shakespeare's Sonnet 28)

If I use capitals to point out the stress pattern, it looks like:

That TIME of YEAR thou MAY'ST in ME beHOLD
When YELow leaves, or NONE, or FEW do HANG
UpON those BOUGHS which SHAKE aGAINST the COLD...

You'll notice, by the way, that the pattern is not consistent. A poem that was perfectly metrical (da DUH da DUH da DUH da DUH da DUH) would sound mechanical. So, the poet sets up a recognizable pattern, then avails himself of inversions, ellisions, additions, and truncations along the way -- often to draw attention to something connected to meaning in the poem. many sound effects are mimetic of meanings, or so people often feel. But other effects are far more subjective, and draw connection to meaning through context, or from a long-held association common among speakers of a language. "K" sounds sound hard; "s" sounds (sibilance) sound soft, or weak; "aye" and "ei" sounds are bright, "oooh" and "oh" sounds are dark, and so forth -- depending on context.

Anyway, an iamb is two syllables, unstressed followed by a stressed; pentameter means five pairs, making a ten-syllable line. Tetrameter would be four pairs. If you're interested in learning more about traditional prosody, Google "meter" or prosody"; here is the Wikipedia page:

It isn't necessary to write metered verse. But it is a good idea to practice it as a way of improving your ear and your command of a free-verse line, which still needs that "integrity" -- something that makes every syllable earn its way, something that justifies every sound and every word in the poem. And that is one operative definition, for me, of a poem: a text in which every mark, every sound, counts -- nothing unneeded is allowed in, and yet it might seem conversational or casual.

I encourage everyone to read a lot more poetry in the "Anthologies" post below. Reading a lot of poetry will greatly improve your ear, and your sense of what's possible.

I'll do more in another post on other issues, and say more about meter and cadence and other sound elements as well. For now, consider the above; and regarding rhyme, try leaving it out, and find the elements in the line itself that give your line its integrity; don't just work your way out to a rhyme with whatever words and sounds get you there. Also, consider other patterns of rhyme besides couplet rhyme. it's often to chiming, too close to allow some of the more pleasing effects of rhyme. Consider quatrain patterns (such as abab, abba, abcb, and so forth) as well as other patterns, and random rhyming.

More later...

Poetry Anthologies, and Various Reflections on Our Work Thus Far...

We don't have a text in this course -- because what I think works best is for writers to discover texts individually, and (as I am doing via the Internet) in relation to specific exercises, or challenges in form and craft.

These are related impulses, although they might sound contradictory. Every writer's path is unique, and yet there are patterns, and writers are a community: influencing, critiquing, competing, reading, envying, disparaging, supporting...dysfunctional at times, but a community.

What are you reading, besides the samples I'm providing? It is important for writers to read voraciously; that's how you discover possibilities -- or at least, it is the best way to discover them: to see what writers before you have already done. Usually, they've done there work in part by borrowing/stealing from writers before them.

If you read a lot, even pushing through on poems and stories that confuse or bother you, you will absorb much; after a while, you'll write as if regurgitating. It will lead you to write some things that are too much in the voice or style of other poets (try reading a lot of Walt Whitman, then try not to write in long anaphoric lines!), but it will also help you build a repertoire of your own: a series of gestures, sounds, patterns, etc. that are your own, but which connect you to the commuity of writers.

One of the things most often missing in the poems I''m seeing on the Workshop is a good sense of cadence or rhythm in the lines; or, an effort at working within a cohesive set of sounds, what is sometimes called "phonetic symbolism" -- vowel and consonant patterns that somehow fit together and create interesting textures that are as important to the poem as the meaning -- or more so.

If you read a lot, you'll have a better ear for cadence, and for the particular rhythms that are your own. But stop, everyone, aiming only for end-rhyme! That's not the be-all and end-all of a poem; it's not the one thing that makes verse verse. It's not bad, and in fact it can be very pleasing; but aim first for a strong line, with or without end-rhyme.

Also, rhyme can be more than couplet-rhyme: again, if you read a lot, you'll see that there are more patterns of rhyme, and often, a more distant relationship between rhyming words can be far more pleasing than the often too-close couplet rhyme.

Anyway, this post was to be about anthologies: I have found two good lists already on the Web. I recommend that you find a couple of these, and keep them around for a while: pick them up, browse, read, and if you really like a certain poet, then buy/borrow some of his/her full-length collections. Do you have a Houston Public or Harris County Public Library card? Also, HCCS campuses all have good libraries; also, if you go to an HCCS library and request a Texshare card, you can check books out at UH, TSU, and other area academic libraries. But those, along with Rice, will let you in; it's just that to check books out, you need the Texshare card (up to four books at a time; and Rice isn't part of Texshare -- it's for public institutions).

Also, besides Brazos Bookstore, Barnes & Noble, Borders, and other bookstores, thre are used bookstores -- Half Price is the dominant one these days, with several stores in the area.

Here is a list of anthologies at the site:

...and at the ever-useful Wikipedia site:

I'll do a post on fiction antholiogies next.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Poetry Reading

This is late notice, but if you're free tonight or tomorrow night, you might find these two poets worth hearing:

If not tonight (Thursday), the same poets are reading at HCC's Southeast College Friday night as well:

Literary Luminaries Poetry Series

Sep 25, 2009
7 p.m. - 9 p.m.
Features poets Dean Young and Matt Hart, plus student performers. Sponsored by HCC Southeast, English Studies Department and CAB. Contact: 713-718-7165 or 713-718-7159
Location: Learning Hub auditorium.

Robert MacBrearty: “First Day”

THE BOSS SPAT. "Do you know how to work hard?" he asked. "I mean hard?"
"Not really," I said.
"I'll take a chance on you," he said. "The first thing you need to do is move that big thing over there."
"That big thing?"
"Hell yes, that big thing."
"It sure looks big," I said.
"You're goddamn right it's big. That is one big thing."
"Where do you want it?"
"Well, we sure as hell don't want it there, do we?"
"So where do we want it?"
"Where do you think we want it, Einstein?"
"Do we want it over there?" I asked, pointing.
"Hell no, we don't want it over there. What the hell would we want that big thing over there for?"
"I guess we don't."
"You're damn right we don't. Take it down to the goddamn warehouse, Edison."
"Where's the warehouse?"
"Where's the warehouse? You work here and you don't know where the goddamn warehouse is?" The boss spat. "Three blocks that way, and then turn that way and then turn that way. That's where the goddamn warehouse is, Balzac."
"Well, okay," I said. "I'll take that big thing down to the warehouse."
"They'll know what to do with that big thing there."
I got ahold of the big thing and tried to hoist it tip on my shoulders.
The boss ran up. His face was red. He spat. "What do you think you're doing? You don't lift those big things, Galileo. You roll them. -What did you do, go to college? You roll those goddamn big things. You don't lift them."
"Okay, okay," I said. "I'll roll it."
I got behind the big thing. I put my shoulder against it. I grunted. My heels came off the ground. The boss watched me. "How's it feel?" he asked.
"Big," I said.
"You're goddamn right," he said.
I dug my feet into the ground and pushed. It creaked and slid a couple of inches.
"Roll it straight, Da Vinci," the boss hollered. "Don't let that big thing get away from you."
It was getting easier. The big thing was starting to roll. The big thing bounced to the left, and the big thing dragged to the right, and I tried to move it from side to side. We rolled out the gate and on to the street. Cars started honking. People were yelling. A guy shouted out his window, "Get that big thing out of the street, you moron!"
I got the big thing up on the sidewalk. it started to pick up speed. It was really rolling now. I saw some people on the sidewalk. I tried to stop the big thing but it just pulled me along with it. "Hey look out," I called. "I can't slow this thing down."
"Watch it, watch it," a man cried. "He's out of control."
People dove out of the way. "Be careful with that big thing," a lady screamed. "You ought to be ashamed."
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," I said. "I'm just trying to do my job."
I turned this way and I turned that way and then I turned that way, and I kept running behind the big thing calling, "Look out! Everybody look out!"
I saw a bunch of guys on the loading dock at the warehouse. They were hollering and waving their arms at me. The big thing rolled through the gate and headed right at them. They shouted and scattered out of the way as the big thing smashed into the dock. Wood splintered, some boxes fell, glass broke.
A man with a clipboard charged up to me. "What the hell are you trying to do with that big thing, kill somebody?" he screamed. Some guys with tattoos surrounded me and stood around spitting.
"My boss told me to take it down here," I said.
"Well, we sure as hell don't want that big thing here. Why the hell do you think we want that big thing down here?"
" I’m just trying to do my job," I said.
Somebody spat tobacco juice on my sneakers. The guy with the clipboard poked me in the chest. "You got a form?"
"No. Nobody said anything about a form."
"Well, I sure as hell can't take that thing without a form, can I? You're going to have to take that back and get a form."
"Okay," I said. "I'll get a form."
"And don't forget to bring me some avocados while you're at it."
“Okay. Sure."
They all hooted and whistled at me as I tried to get the big thing turned around.
"Crank it, crank the son of a bitch," somebody yelled.
"Where?" They all laughed like ruptured hyenas. "Crank it 'where'?"
They hooted, punched each other in the ribs, slapped hands.
I stood on the dock and shoved and the big thing moved an inch and rolled back. The dock vibrated.
"Get that big thing out of here!" the clipboard guy yelled.
"Okay, I will," I said. I put my feet on the edge of the dock and leaned my back up against the big thing and pushed. It lurched forward suddenly and I fell off the dock and scraped my hands and knees. The big thing wobbled forward on its own.
The gang couldn't take it anymore. They convulsed with laughter. They collapsed and lay down on the dock squirming with laughter. One guy drew himself to his knees and said, "If you don't get that big thing out of here now, I'm going to waste you. I'm going to blow you away. We don't take that kind of crap here. We don't take it."
“I'll get it out of here," I said. I caught up to the big thing. It was rolling now. After it was rolling, it wanted to roll. It loved to roll. it was born to roll. After it was rolling, it would roll.
I didn't want to take the big thing back out on the street. I saw an alleyway. I thought I might be able to go back that way. I leaned my shoulder against the big thing. It decided to go the way I wanted to go.
We zoomed down the alley. We knocked over some trashcans. We scared the hell out of a cat. "Look out, cat," I called. The cat stared after us. Its confidence was shot to hell.
We rolled out of the alley and into a park. When the big thing hit the grass, it really started to move. I couldn't keep up with it. The big thing raced ahead of me. I thought that I had lost the big thing for good, but it smashed into a tree. The tree shuddered. The big thing sat against the tree looking like it wanted to belch. I ran up to it. The big thing looked okay. I was glad the boss hadn't seen me roll the big thing into a tree.
I saw a water fountain and I thought I'd get a drink. I left the big thing by the tree and walked over to the fountain. When I turned around, I saw two jerks rolling the big thing down a grassy hill.
"Hey, that's my big thing," I shouted. I ran after them.
The two jerks saw me coming and they gave the big thing a push and took off running in opposite directions. The big thing gathered speed and rolled down the hill and into a muddy ditch.
I slid down the bank of the ditch and waded through the mud to the big thing. I pushed against it and tried to rock it from side to side, but it was really stuck in the mud. It was starting to sink. I was starting to sink too. I'd gotten my foot caught underneath the big thing and now we were sinking together. I was down to my hips. Then I was down to my chest. The mud was up to my neck. I was going down with the big thing. I felt depressed.
“What the hell are you doing down there with that big thing, Houdini?" the boss screamed from up above me. He got out of a jeep. He spat. His face looked red. A tow truck pulled up behind the jeep. Some guys with tattoos got out and looked down at the big thing and me. The mud was over my chin. They looked at each other and shook their heads and spat.
"I ran into a little trouble," I said. "I was trying to bring this big thing back."
"Why the hell were you trying to bring that big thing back, Galahad?" the boss shouted.
"They said I needed a form."
"You forgot the form? You didn't take the goddamn form?"
"Nobody said anything about a form."
"Nobody said anything? You don't think you just move one of those big things without a form, do you?"
"I guess not," I mumbled. I had mud in my mouth.
"Get a cable around that big thing, boys," the boss said.
The guys with tattoos slid down the bank and looped a cable around the big thing and started hoisting it out. I held on to the big thing and they dragged me out with it. I was covered in mud. I had mud in my eyes.
The boss looked at me and spat. He signaled to a guy who bad a toilet tattooed on his chest. "Joe, take this big thing down to the warehouse and tell them I'm sorry for sending Sappho. Tell them Sappho just didn't know what the hell he was doing."
Joe spat. "No problem, boss."
"They want some avocados too," I said.
"Are you out of your mind, Columbus?" the boss snapped. "You mean you forgot the avocados? You didn't even take the avocados?"
The boss looked stunned. "Jesus Christ," he said to the other guys. "Can you imagine what would happen if they didn't get their avocados?"
The boys whistled and shook their heads.
"How could anyone forget the avocados?" the boss asked in disbelief.
"Am I fired?" I asked.
"Fired? Don't be so goddamn sensitive, Geronimo. Don't you like working here?" The boss got back in his jeep. "If you weren't so muddy, I'd give you a lift."
“Don't worry about it," I said.
"Get some lunch, Tolstoy." The boss spat and drove away.
I walked back to work. I sat down with some guys in the grass. They were grinning at me. They offered me some chips and avocado dip.
"So how do you like those big things?" they asked.
"They're okay," I said.
"You'll get the hang of them."
"Is the boss always like that?" I asked.
They stopped grinning. "Like what?"
"Nothing," I said.
"Hey, the boss is a great guy," they said.
"He seems like it," I said.
"You're new. Just listen and learn. You're going to love it here."
They spat. So did I.

Alfred Corn: “Contemporary Culture and the Letter ‘K’”

First inroads were made in our 19-aughts
(Foreshadowed during the last century by nothing
More central than "Kubla Khan," Kipling, Greek
Letter societies, including the grotesque KKK –
Plus the kiwi, koala, and kookaburra from Down Under)
When certain women applied to their moist eyelids
A substance pronounced coal but spelled kohl,
Much of the effect captured on Kodak film
With results on and off camera now notorious.
They were followed and sometimes chased by a platoon
Of helmeted cutups styled the Keystone Kops, who'd
Freeze in the balletic pose of the letter itself,
Left arm on hip, leg pointed back at an angle,
Waiting under klieg lights next a worried kiosk
To put the kibosh on Knickerbocker misbehavior.
Long gone, they couldn't help when that hirsute royal
King Kong arrived to make a desperate last stand,
Clinging from the Empire State, swatting at biplanes,
Fay Wray fainting away in his leathern palm
As in the grip of African might. Next, marketing
Stepped up with menthol tobacco and the brand name
Kool, smoked presumably by models and archetypes
Superior in every way to Jukes and Kallikaks.
By then the race was on, if only because
Of German Kultur's increasing newsworthiness
On the international front. The nation that had canned
Its Kaiser went on to sponsor debuts for the hero
Of Mein Kampf, Wotan of his day, launching thunderbolts
And Stukas, along with a new social order astonishing
In its industrial efficiency. His annexing
Of Bohemia cannot have been spurred by reflecting
That after all Prague had sheltered the creator
And in some sense alter-ego of Josef K.,
Whose trial remained a local fact until the fall
Of the Empire of a Thousand Years, unheard of in 'Amerika"
Of the Jazz Age. But musicians Bix Beiderbecke and Duke
Ellington somehow always took care to include the token
Grapheme in their names, for which precaution fans
Of certain priceless '78’s can only be grateful.
They skipped and rippled through a long post-war glow
Still luminous in the memory of whoever recalls
Krazy Kat, Kleenex, Deborah Kerr, Korea, Kool-Aid,
And Jack Kennedy. Small wonder if New York had
A special feeling for the theme, considering radical
Innovations of De Kooning, Kline, and Rothko. This last
Can remind us that bearers of the letter often suffered
Bereavement and despair (cf. Chester Kallman) and even,
As with Weldon Kees, self-slaying. Impossible not to see
Symptoms of a malaise more widespread still in a culture
That collects kitsch and Krugerrands, with a just-kids lifestyle
Whose central shrine is the shopping mall - K-Mart, hail to thee!
To "Kuntry Kitchen," "Kanine Kennels," and a host of other
Kreative misspellings kreeping through the korpus
Of kontemporary lingo like an illness someone someday
(The trespass of metaphor) is going to spell "kancer.”

True, there have been recidivists in opposite
Direction (a falling away perhaps from the Platonic ideal
Of to kalon*) like "calisthenics" and Maria Callas,
Who seem to have preferred the less marblelike romance
Of traditional English. This and related factors make all
Supporters of the letter "k" in legitimate forms
And avatars cherish it with fiery intensity -
All the more when besieged by forces beyond
Anyone's control, at least, with social or medical
Remedies now available. Dr. Kaposi named it,
That sarcoma earmarking a mortal syndrome thus far
Incurable and spreading overland like acid rain.
A sense of helplessness is not in the repertory national
Of our national consciousness, we have no aptitude
For standing by as chill winds rise, the shadows gather,
And dray light glides into the room where a seated figure
Has taken up his post by the window, facing away from us,
No longer bothering to speak, his mind at one with whatever
Is beyond the ordinary spell of language, whatever dreams us
Into that placeless place, its nearest image a cloudless
Sky at dusk, just before the slow ascent of the moon.

* to kalon: Greek, "the beautiful"

Arthur Hugh Clough: “The Last Decalogue”

Thou shalt have one God only; -who
Would be at the expense of two?
No graven images may be
Worshipped, except the currency:
Swear not at all; for, for thy curse
Thine enemy is none the worse:
At church on Sunday to attend
Will serve to keep the world thy friend:
Honour thy parents; that is, all
From whom advancement may befall:
Thou shalt not kill; but need'st not strive
Officiously to keep alive:
Do not adultery commit;
Advantage rarely comes of it:
Thou shalt not steal; an empty feat,
When 'tis so lucrative to cheat:
Bear not false witness; let the lie
Have time on its own wings to fly:
Thou shalt not covet, but tradition
Approves all forms of competition.

James Wright: "An Offering for Mr. Bluehart"

That was a place, when I was young,
Where two or three good friends and I
Tested the fruit against the tongue
Or threw the withered windfalls by.
The sparrows, angry in the sky,
Denounced us from a broken bough.
They limp along the wind and die.
The apples all are eaten now.

Behind the orchard, past one hill
The lean satanic owner lay
And threatened us with murder till

We stole his riches all away.
He caught us in the act one day
And damned us to the laughing bone,
And fired his gun across the gray
Autumn where now his life is done.

Sorry for him, or any man
Who lost his labored wealth to thieves,
Today I mourn him, as I can,
By leaving in their golden leaves
Some luscious apples overhead.
Now may my abstinence restore
Peace to the orchard and the dead.
We shall not nag them any more.

Craig Raine: "A Martian Sends a Postcard Home"

Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings
and some are treasured for their markings -

they cause the eyes to melt
or the body to shriek without pain.

I have never seen one fly, but
sometimes they perch on the hand.

Mist is when the sky is tired of flight
and rests its soft machine on ground:

then the world is dim and bookish
like engravings under tissue paper.

Rain is when the earth is television.
It has the property of making colours darker.

Model T is a room with the lock inside -
a key is turned to free the world

for movement, so quick there is a film
to watch for anything missed.

But time is tied to the wrist
or kept in a box, ticking with impatience.

In homes, a haunted apparatus sleeps,
that snores when you pick it up.

If the ghost cries, they carry it
to their lips and soothe it to sleep

with sounds. And yet they wake it up
deliberately, by tickling with a finger.

Only the young are allowed to suffer
openly. Adults go to a punishment room

with water but nothing to eat.
They lock the door and suffer the noises

alone. No one is exempt
and everyone's pain has a different smell.

At night when all the colours die,
they hide in pairs

and read about themselves -
in colour, with their eyelids shut.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Poetry & Poets in Film

One of your choices for the midterm Report is to watch and report on a film that features poetry or the life of a poet in some fashion. Here is a long (but not complete) list of choices, briefly annotated to indicate which poet is featured. Also see the resources:

The Anniversary Party – Matthew Arnold
Awakenings – Rainer Maria Rilke
Barfly – Charles Bukowsi
Basketball Diaries – Jim Carroll
Barretts of Wimpole Street – Robert & Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Beautiful Dreamers – Walt Whitman
Before Sunrise – W. H. Auden
The Bridges of Madison County – Lord Byron
Bull Durham – Whitman, Thomas Gray
Crimes and Misdemeanors – Emily Dickinson
Dante’s Inferno – Dante Gabriel Rosetti
Dead Man – William Blake
Dead Poets Society – Several
The Disappearance of Garcia Lorca – Federico Garcia Lorca
Dr. Zhivago – various
The Edge of Love – Dylan Thomas
A Fine Madness – fictional
Forced March – Miklos Radnoti
Four Weddings and a Funeral – Auden
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – Alexander Pope
Gothic – Lord Byron and Percy Shelley
Hannah and Her Sisters – ee. cummings
Haunted Summer – Lord Byron and Percy Shelley
Hedd Wyn – Welsh poet
Henry Fool – fictional
The Horse’s Mouth – various
The Hours – fictional
Il Postino – Pablo Neruda
In the Bedroom – William Blake, HW Longfellow
The Incredibly True Story of Two Girls in Love – Walt Whitman
In Custody – fictional
In Her Shoes – Elizabeth Bishop, e.e. cummings
The Ladykillers – Edgar Allan Poe
Love Jones – Sonia Sanchez
The Loved One – various
Memphis Belle – WB Yeats
Mindwalk – Kenneth Patchen, Pablo Neruda
Mirrors – fictional
Mrs. Parker & the Vicious Circle – Dorothy Parker
Out of Africa – Coleridge, A. E. Houseman
The Outsiders – Robert Frost
Pandaemonium – William Wordsworth, ST Coleridge
Patch Adams – Pablo Neruda
Pinero – Miguel Pinero
Poetic Justice – Maya Angelou
Possession – fictional
Prince of Tides – fictional
Quiz Show – various
The Reader – Charles Baudelaire
Reuben, Reuben – fictional
Rowing With the Wind – Lord Byron and Percy Shelley
Shakespeare in Love – Shakespeare
Slam – Saul Williams
Sophie’s Choice – Emily Dickinson
The Source – Allen Ginsburg
Sylvia – Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes
Smoke Signals – Sherman Alexie
Stevie – Stevie Smith
Till Human Voices Wakes Us – T. S. Eliot
Tom & Viv – T.S. Eliot
Total Eclipse – Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud
War Requiem – Wilfred Owen
The Weight of Water – various
Wildflowers – Robert Hass
Wit – John Donne
Women in Love – D. H. Lawrence

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Heinrich Böll: "The Laugher"

When someone asks me what business I am in, I am seized with embarrassment: I blush and stammer, I who am otherwise known as a man of poise. I envy people who can say: I am a bricklayer. I envy barbers, bookkeepers, and writers. All these professions speak for themselves. They need no lengthy explanation, while I am forced to reply to such questions: I am a laugher. Then I am always asked, "Is that how you make your living?" Truthfully I must say, "Yes." I actually do make a living at my laughing, and a good one, too. My laughing is - commercially speaking - much in demand. I am a good laugher, experienced. No one else laughs as well as I do. No one else has such command of the fine points of my art. For a long time, in order to avoid tiresome explanations, I called myself an actor. My talents in the field of mime and speech are small, so I felt this title to be too far from the truth. I love the truth, and the truth is: I am a laugher. I am neither a clown nor a comedian. I do not make people gay, I portray gaiety: I laugh like a Roman emperor, or like a sensitive schoolboy. I am as much at home in the laughter of the 17th century as in that of the 19th. When occasion demands, I laugh my way through all the centuries, all classes of society, all categories of age. It is simply a skill I have acquired, like the skill of being able to repair shoes. In my breast, I harbor the laughter of America, the laughter of Africa, white, red, yellow laughter. For the right fee, I let it peal out in accordance with the director's requirements.

I have become indispensable. I laugh on records. I laugh on tape. Television directors treat me with respect, I laugh mournfully, moderately, hysterically. I laugh like a streetcar conductor or like a clerk in the grocery; laughter in the morning, laughter in the evening, nighttime laughter, and the laughter of twilight. In short: Wherever and however laughter is required - I do it.
It need hardly be pointed out that a profession of this kind is tiring, especially as I have also -this is my specialty - mastered the art of infectious laughter. This has also made me indispensable to third - and fourth - rate comedians, who are scared - and with good reason - that their audiences will miss their punch lines. I spend most evenings in nightclubs. My job is to begin to laugh during the weaker parts of the program. It has to be carefully timed. My hearty, loud laughter must not come too soon, but neither must it come too late. It must come just at the right spot. At the pre-arranged moment, I burst out laughing. Then the whole audience roars with me, and the joke is saved. But as for me, I drag myself exhausted to the checkroom. I put on my overcoat, happy that I can go off duty at last. At home, I usually find telegrams waiting for me: "Urgently require your laughter. Recording Tuesday," and a few hours later I am sitting in an overheated express train bemoaning my fate.

I need scarcely say that when I am off I duty or on vacation I have little desire to laugh. The cowhand is glad when he can forget the cow. Carpenters usually have doors at home that don't work or drawers that are hard to open. Candy makers like sour pickles. Butchers like pastry, and the baker prefers sausage to breads. Bullfighters raise pigeons for a hobby. Boxers run pale when their children have nosebleeds: I find all this quite natural, for I never laugh off duty. I am a very solemn person, and people consider me - perhaps rightly so - a pessimist.

During the first years of our married life, my wife would often say to me: "Do laugh!" Since then, she has come to realize that I cannot grant her this wish. I am happy when I am free to relax my tense face muscles in a solemn expression. Indeed, even other people's laughter gets on my nerves. It reminds me too much of my profession. So our marriage is a quiet, peaceful one. Now my wife has also forgotten how to laugh. Now and again I catch her smiling, and I smile, too. We speak in low tones. I hate the noise of the nightclubs, the noise that sometimes fills the recording studios. People who do not know me think I am taciturn. Perhaps I am, because I have to open my mouth so often to laugh.

I go through life with a calm expression. From time to time, I permit myself a gentle smile. I often wonder whether I have ever laughed. I think not. My brothers and sisters have always known me for a serious boy.

So I laugh in many different ways, but my own laughter I have never heard.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Neruda on Film

Speaking of Neruda, have you seen il Postino? It's a good film about poetry, as well as about love, and a good fictionalized but historically rooted story of Neruda himself. Here's a clip:

Neruda's poetry is also featured in Patch Adams. Here's one clip; compare it to the funeral scene I posted earlier -- with the Auden poem:


We've had a few love poems in the Workshop; there are many good model poets to read, and I have mentioned a few in my comments on the Workshop. Here's one to study, partly because his point of view is very masculine, you might say -- and also vvery much informed by his somewhat surrealistic, "tropical" imagination.

Pablo Neruda: 100 Love Sonnets (Stephen Tapscott translation)

This is a Google Books preview only; look for the whole book in print!


There are hundreds of "ezines," or online literary publications; many are good, some are not -- but of course, to each his own!

Some of the online literary sites are companions to traditional print journals. Many of these have been around for decades; some are "establishment" publications, and others are more open to new and young writers.

For many print publications, you still need to snail-mail your submissions; but usually, they provide guidelines online for how to get through the door. Look for "Submission Guidelines" or "Submit" on the site.

Many, though, allow emailed submissions; there are still guidelines to follow -- carefully, to avoid going unread altogether. Some also have a Submissions Manager tool -- you upload a file and can track it through the Manager.

My recommendation is to do a lot of reading of these ezines (and print journals) before submitting any or your own work. It's all subjective: editors are not gods, but they sometimes act like they are. Check the guidelines regarding format, number of pieces, method of submission, aesthetic preferences, genre preferences, submission period, simultaneous submissions, and other matters.

Borders, Brazos Bookstore, Barnes & Noble carry some print journals. Also, the public library has some, but to see the greater number, go by the UH, TSU, or Rice libraries, and ask the librarian (or search the catalog) to find call numbers for most literary journals. Give yourself an afternoon to browse, and find ones you think are worthwhile -- for reading, perhaps subscribing, and eventually, for submitting.

Here is a site that lists a lot of lit mags:

...but google "ezines" or "literary journals" yourself, and you'll find specific sites as well as other directories that are worthwhile. None lists everything; so, search a few, at least.

And here are a few online mags worth browsing:

Born specializes in multimedia presentations;

...experimental work, for the most part;

..."establishment" writers -- the traditional Creative Writing world, online -- but you'll find some of the best living American writers here;

...young writers, heirs to the Establishment;

American Poetry Review -- the Establishment, and then some -- this is the main print publication for academic poetry;

...another key player in academic poetry, but a bit more open, perhaps;

Callaloo specializes in African American writing; of our local journals -- but of national reputation; run by the grad students, but professionally;

..."creative nonfiction" done concisely;

...the anti-establishment, but successful enough to have become Establishment Alternative; this is a clearinghouse site, so take time to explore;

...a wide range of academic and more freewheeling writers.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Derek Mahon's "Matthew 5 v. 29-30"

I'll post an exercise for this next week; but it's here as an example of hyperbole, or perhaps reductio ad absurdum:

Matthew 5 v. 29-30

Lord, mine eye offended, so I plucked it out.
Imagine my chagrin
when the offense continued.
So I plucked out
the other; but the offense continued.

In the dark now, and working by touch,
I shaved my head.
(The offense continued.)
Removed an ear,
another, dispatched the nose.

The offense continued.
Imagine my chagrin.

Next, in long strips, the skin--
razored the tongue, the toes,
the personal nitty gritty.
The offense continued.

But now, the thing finding its own momentum,
the more so since
the offense continued,
I entered upon a prolonged course
of lobotomy and vivisection,
reducing the self
to a rubble of organs, a wreckage of bones
in the midst of which, somewhere,
the offense continued.

Quicklime then, for the calcium, paraquat
for the unregenerate offal;
a spreading of topsoil,
a ploughing of this
and a sowing of it with barley.

Paraffin for the records of birth, flu
and abortive scholarship,
for the whimsical postcards, the checques
dancing like hail,
the surviving copies of poems published
and unpublished; a scalpel
for the casual turns of phrase engraved
on the minds of others;
an aerosol for the stray thoughts
hanging in air,
for the people who breathed them in.

Sadly, therefore, deletion of the many people
from their desks, beds, breakfasts,
buses and catamarans,
deletion of their machinery and architecture,
all evidence whatever
of civility and reflection,
of laughter and tears.

Destruction of all things on which
that reflection fed,
of vegetable and bird;
erosion of all rocks
from the holiest mountain
to the least stone;
evaporation of all seas,
the extinction of heavenly bodies--
until, at last, offense
was not to be found
in that silence without bound.

Only then was I fit for human society.

Derek Mahon

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Brown Reading Series

I will post messages over the next few days about resources for hearing fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in Houston. Here's the first:

Margaret Root Brown Reading Series

This is the most notable literary-reading series in Houston, bringing nationally-renowned writers to read at the Alley theater downtown most often; check the details). The primary force behind this series is a nonprofit organization called Inprint, Inc; more about them in a later post.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Two Good Online Resources

Here are two useful sites, which I have already directed you to in the exercises thus far:

The Academy of American Poets:


The Annerberg Foundation: has audio, video, and numerous poems, essays, and other resources relating to poetry. is mainly an education site for all levels, but has many good video resources. In particular, you can find full-length episodes for the 13-part "Voices and Visions" series, which is about modern American poets such as langston Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whotman, and others. It is very well made, entertaining, and instructive about poetic craft.

Flannery O'Connor's "Revelation": An Excerpt

THE doctor's waiting room, which was very small, was almost full when the Turpins entered and Mrs. Turpin, who was very large, made it look even smaller by her presence. She stood looming at the head of the magazine table set in the center of it, a living demonstration that the room was inadequate and ridiculous. Her little bright black eyes took in all the patients as she sized up the seating situation. There was one vacant chair and a place on the sofa occupied by a blond child in a dirty blue romper who should have been told to move over and make room for the lady. He was five or six, but Mrs. Turpin saw at once that no one was going to tell him to move over. He was slumped down in the seat, his arms idle at his sides and his eyes idle in his head; his nose ran unchecked.
Mrs. Turpin put a firm hand on Claud's shoulder and said in a voice that included anyone who wanted to listen, "Claud, you sit in that chair there," and gave him a push down into the vacant one. Claud was florid and bald and sturdy, somewhat shorter than Mrs. Turpin, but he sat down as if he were accustomed to doing what she told him to.
Mrs. Turpin remained standing. The only man in the room be¬sides Claud was a lean stringy old fellow with a rusty hand spread out on each knee, whose eyes were closed as if he were asleep or dead or pretending to be so as not to get up and offer her his seat. Her gaze settled agreeably on a well dressed gray haired lady whose eyes met hers and whose expression said: if that child belonged to me, he would have some manners and move over there's plenty of room there for you and him too.
Claud looked up with a sigh and made as if to rise.
"Sit down," Mrs. Turpin said. "You know you're not supposed to stand on that leg. He has an ulcer on his leg," she explained.
Claud lifted his foot onto the magazine table and rolled his trouser leg up to reveal a purple swelling on a plump marble white calf.
"My!" the pleasant lady said. "How did you do that?"
"A cow kicked him," Mrs. Turpin said.
"Goodness!" said the lady.
Claud rolled his trouser leg down.
"Maybe the little boy would move over," the lady suggested, but the child did not stir.
"Somebody will be leaving in a minute," Mrs. Turpin said. She could not understand why a doctor with as much money as they made charging five dollars a day to just stick their head in the hospital door and look at you couldn't afford a decent sized wait¬ing room. This one was hardly bigger than a garage. The table was cluttered with limp looking magazines and at one end of it there was a big green glass ash tray full of cigarette butts and cotton wads with little blood spots on them. If she had had anything to do with the running of the place, that would have been emptied every so often. There were no chairs against the wall at the head of the room. It had a rectangular shaped panel in it that permitted a view of the office where the nurse came and went and the secretary listened to the radio. A plastic fern in a gold pot sat in the opening and trailed its fronds down almost to the floor. The radio was softly playing gospel music.
just then the inner door opened and a nurse with the highest stack of yellow hair Mrs. Turpin had ever seen put her face in the crack and called for the next patient. The woman sitting beside Claud grasped the two arms of her chair and hoisted herself up; she pulled her dress free from her legs and lumbered through the door where the nurse had disappeared.
Mrs. Turpin eased into the vacant chair, which held her tight as a corset. "I wish I could reduce," she said, and rolled her eyes and gave a comic sigh.
"Oh, you aren't fat," the stylish lady said.
"Ooooo I am too," Mrs. Turpin said. "Claud he eats all he wants to and never weighs over one hundred and seventy five pounds, but me I just look at something good to eat and I gain some weight," and her stomach and shoulders shook with laughter. "You can eat all you want to, can't you, Claud?" she asked, turning to him.
Claud only grinned.
"Well, as long as you have such a good disposition," the stylish lady said, "I don't think it makes a bit of difference what size you are. You just can't beat a good disposition."
Next to her was a fat girl of eighteen or nineteen, scowling into a thick blue book which Mrs. Turpin saw was entitled Human De¬velopment. The girl raised her head and directed her scowl at Mrs. Turpin as if she did not like her looks. She appeared annoyed that anyone should speak while she tried to read. The poor girl's face was blue with acne and Mrs. Turpin thought how pitiful it was to have a face like that at that age. She gave the girl a friendly smile but the girl only scowled the harder. Mrs. Turpin herself was fat but she had always had good skin, and, though she was forty seven years old, there was not a wrinkle in her face except around her eyes from laughing too much.
Next to the ugly girl was the child, still in exactly the same posi¬tion, and next to him was a thin leathery old woman in a cotton print dress. She and Claud had three sacks of chicken feed in their pump house that was in the same print. She had seen from the first that the child belonged with the old woman. She could tell by the way they sat kind of vacant and white trashy, as if they would sit there until Doomsday if nobody called and told them to get up. And at right angles but next to the well dressed pleasant lady was a lank faced woman who was certainly the child's mother. She had on a yellow sweat shirt and wine colored slacks, both gritty¬ looking, and the rims of her lips were stained with snuff. Her dirty yellow hair was tied behind with a little piece of red paper ribbon. Worse than niggers any day, Mrs. Turpin thought.
The gospel hymn playing was, "When I looked up and He looked down," and Mrs. Turpin, who knew it, supplied the last line men¬tally, "And wona these days I know I'll wear a crown."

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Ekphrasis: An Example, with Image and Annotations

Here is an ekphrastic poem of my own, with an image of the subject painting; and a link to a wonderfully informative blog post at a site called "Bioephemera," that is itself a good source of creative inspiration; click the home link after you've browsed the "Stone of Foly" informaion and check out the blogger's other posts.

The poem:

“The Stone Surgery” by Bosch

cut the stone of folly
from my skull
make me a rill
for kingdom’s coming.

Let the engines of the sky come down
to nail and helmet me
funnel me
beneath a metal mouth
an eye.

Fill my simple mind
with wisdom of the stars
give me knowledge
pure, celestial
like yours.

Take up the scoring blade
and core the stone from me
the less, the more
than me.

The image:

The post at Bioephemera:

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Afterthought: The Auden Poem

You can hear this poem below -- and see it recited; here is a link to an online print version at the NPR web site.

Lorrie Moore on Writing Short Fiction

Here is some tongue-in-cheek advice on writing from Lorrie Moore, a popular fiction writer...

"How to Become a Writer"

Auden's "Funeral Blues"

Two of my loves are poetry and film; so, it's great when the two work together. I will present some samples this semester of ways that filmmakers have used poetry and viewed poets on film. To start, here is a clip from a popular '90's film, "Four Weddings and a Funeral." In it, a character reads and recites a poem by the British/American poet W.H. Auden. This is a kind of elegy. I will post some exercise ideas on the Syllabus on the class web site. Meanwhile, consider looking up other elegies, and other poems by Auden. Auden is important in many ways, but among them is his broad and masterful practice of traditional prosodic forms. His poetry is good to read and borrow from in your efforts to learn.

Here is the clip, found on Youtube:

Monday, August 10, 2009

Blanton Poetry Project

Earlier this summer I published a poem in the journal Borderlands (out of Austin). On their web site, you can find a link to a related effort called the Blanton Poetry Project:

It's a media-rich presentation with images, text, audio and video.

The Blanton Museum of art is on the University of Texas campus; check it out the next time you're in Austin.