Sunday, October 17, 2010

Poets at Work

This is a new site that looks like it has good information and resources:

Tom Larson

A quick informational post, while I work on the next "lecture" --

If you have time this week, consider going to this event at the downtown Houston Public Library. The author, Thomas Larson, is a friend and colleague of mine, and an authority on memoir as a creative-nonfiction form. If you are interested in writing memoir, he can perhaps answer questions. The book he is presenting is a hybrid form: memoir, music history and biography, culture studies, musical analysis. It will be a media presentation, so if you are interested in writing about music, it might give you some ideas.

It's Wednesday, October 20, 6 pm -- read more at this site:

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A Study of Two Poets: Cruz and Kooser

I spoke before about repetition as a dynamic and formal element in writing. This week I will focus on poetry more specifically, and will look at prose next time. I want to look somewhat at repetition, but since it is, in a sense, artificial to isolate the elements of art, I will also talk about a few other matters, to show how important it is to study these points of craft one by one, but also to see their synthesis.

One issue I’ve tried to address in my Workshop posts, particularly with regard to poems, is the importance of defining the integrity of the line. The ways in which a voice or a point of view in the poem can help “shape” the line are quite varied. Traditionally, a poetic line has been defined greatly by the elements of stress and syllable count, or “meter”; but even when poets use those metrical elements in traditional ways, there must be some other force at work to give it life and authenticity.

I have spoken in the Workshop about dramatic situation, for example; “voice,” the word I use above, is in a way a further condensation of the concept of dramatic situation.

Voice is (to offer some tentative definition) how the poet creates a sense of relationship in the poem, and also a sense of occasion in the traditional rhetorical meaning of that word (kairos). Occasion in that sense is the spur, the impetus for writing or speaking; it might be some event, some previous text or other words, or merely a feeling that arises when the poet prepares to write (or that cause her to write). But also, the poet (or any writer) can invent a sense of occasion, and make it an important part of the poem (or story, or essay).

Sometimes, the voice appears to speak “to” or “of” somone, although that other presence might be abstract. The poet W. B. Yeats said that rhetoric was speech heard, and poetry was speech overheard – meaning that poetry, often, is more private, and more like one’s speaking to oneself. But even in that situation, we have a matrix between speaker and auditor – a space within which some sort of occasion, sense of pace, sense of prior and succeeding action, exists, however slight or abstract.

Look at the first poem below, by Victor Hernandez Cruz. It uses a fairly universal occasion, you might say: eating; and it uses, I think, a particular food, red beans, in a metynomic or more broadly a symbolic or emblematic sense – red beans stand in for cultural identity, but also, for the archtetypal truth of sustenance, hunger, and fellowship (we tend to eat together, and meals are rituals).


Red Beans

next to white rice
it looks like coral
sitting next to snow

Hills of starch
The burnt sienna
of irony

Azusenas being chased by
the terra cotta feathers
of a rooster

there is a lava flow
through the smoking
white mounds

India red
spills on ivory

Ochre cannon balls
next to blanc pebbles

Red beans and milk
make burgundy wine

Violet pouring
from the eggshell
tinge of the plate.


There are many wonderful forces at work in this poem: it is beautifully imagistic, very inventive, and expansive, although the initiating element is something as mundane, as ordinary as red beans and rice!

Think, first, of occasion: the poem might indeed make you feel hungry, but certainly, it reminds you of eating, of family, of the table, the kitchen, a restaurant, and all the noises, smells sights, and feelings of such experiences. Furthermore, the poem is metamorphic: it compounds one image and suggested scene upon another, each quite different from the next (though all related, ultimately) such that in fact it has no natural (or climactic) way to end – it could go on even longer, I imagine, proposing various ways that the red and the white of a plate of red beans and rice suggest other sights and experiences.

It is a “list” poem, of a sort: and that is a key aspect of repetition as a force in art. Give your reader one thing, and then be generous enough to offer it again in a different packaging, a different flavor, from a different angle. In other words, although there are nine stanzas here, there is one basic concept that the poet unfolds numerous ways. Creativity,  to a great extent, is finding many ways to do the same thing, and making us enjoy it rather than get bored because we know what’s coming. You want the reader, in a way, to both know and be surprised by what comes next.

Each stanza – of two or three lines – is a miniature scene; each one, directly or indirectly, is also metonymic or symbolic of some aspect of history, or more specifically, of the ongoing experience of people of the Southwest – or so it seems to me; and you could, of course, interpret or value the poem in various other ways. It is from knowing a few things about the poet, perhaps, that I make that connection – but it is also the metonymic power of single words. One word or one image can suggest volumes of history, emotion, and life.

But notice as well how concrete and particular the words are, for the most part. This is another point I’ve been trying to make in Workshop. Start from concrete, small, sensual details; if you want to write a poem about love or loneliness or war or injustice, forget that you want to write such a poem, and look for a real thing that your mind can handle, explore, and open up into the poem that seeks you. If injustice or love or war or loneliness are in your heart, the poem will probably end up touching those notes; but it will do so in a way that evokes, that conjures, that strikes – not by preaching or essaying.

One more point: the lines here are free-verse lines; they are small lines, in short stanzas. The appropriateness of those two choices is probably due to the essentially imagistic frame of the poem: often, image-driven poetry uses a narrow line in a short stanza, because it is (I think) somewhat like the movie camera moving in close, to show us the pores, textures, beads of sweat, blemishes, granulations, etc. – the distance between what a thing is as an item in a genus or family of other things, and what a thing is as the pure matter of which all things are made – whether we react to them with love or hate, revulsion or desire, hope or regret.

Next, I will look at a poem that seems very different to me, but that still illustrates these issues, I think. First, the poem:

A Box of Pastels

I once held on my knees a simple wooden box
in which a rainbow lay dusty and broken.
It was a set of pastels that had years before
belonged to the painter Mary Cassatt,
and all of the colors she'd used in her work
lay open before me. Those hues she's most used,
the peaches and pinks, were worn down to stubs,
while the cool colors - violet, ultramarine -
had been set, scarcely touched, to one side.
She's had little patience with darkness, and her heart
held only a measure of shadow.  I touched
the warm dust of those colors, her tools,
and left there with light on the tips of my fingers.

Ted Kooser

Ted Kooser was the Poet Laureate a few years ago (the position changes every two years; the current Poet Laureate is W.S. Merwin). He is culturally and aesthetically different from Mr, Cruz, I suppose: a midwestern Anglo-American (well, maybe not "Anglo," exactly!), somewhat older, and more of a traditional poet, although still mainly operating in free verse. Perhaps Mr. Cruz owes more, in his construction of the poetic line, to the Modernist poet William Carlos Williams, who was trying to create a distinctively American sort of poetic form (different, that is, from the European, specifically, British, tradition), also focused quite often on seeing – on the image. Mr. Kooser is still harkening back to the traditional iambic pentameter line, and thus still presents a poem that includes more overt narrative and discursive statement (the Cruz poem suggests the occasion or situation of sitting down to eat, but the rest of its occasions are very abstract, though also very visceral: the cannon invokes war and the ravages of history, the rooster suggests peasant life or at least rural life, the Azusenas suggest womanhood or romance (to me!), etc. But such a story does not have at its center a singular consciousness, or a distinctive, named self.

Kooser’s poem is almost confessional; that is, it does focus on a single self, an "I," a speaking consciousness, talking directly from memory. The character and story are not elaborate, within the lines of the poem, but they are clear and complete, though compact.

The dramatic situation suggests a visit to a museum, or perhaps the house of a famous artist (Mary Cassatt), that has been turned into a museum (I'm guessing, and could perhaps do research and find out more surely, but guessing is often good enough for appreciating the poem as it is). The “theme” of the poem seems very strongly tied to the basic antithesis or continuum of colors as “cool” or bright. It is symbolic in the sense that the poet tells us, more or less, that this painter preferred birghtness – not only in terms of raw color, but perhaps in terms of emotion – optimism over pessimism, hope over despair. (None of this is exact or certain; it doesn’t need to be. Your intepretations need only be plausible.)

Also, before continuing: this poem is just slightly, indirectly, related to a class of poems (writing generally, really) called ekphrasis. An ekphrastic text is an intensive verbal description of a work of art or visual scene. More recently, a poem about a work of art, or an artist's work, is called ekphrastic, but the basic point is that the poet or writer attempts to evoke, to conjure, the visual object within words. It is almost a kind of contest between the powers of visual art and the powers of verbal art. Look for my earlier posts on ekphrasis, and look out for Exercises on our class site dealing with various aspects of ekphrasis.

But how is it similar, if at all, to “Red Beans”? I am trying to help you as writers discover the most rewarding aspects of craft and skill; how to find the true energy of making art. It seems to me that both poems depend heavily, if in different surface-level or formal ways, on repetition. In the Kooser poem, it is more a matter of reiteration, or how prose often moves forward: state a subject, then move forward in part by restating or renaming it. See the Kooser poem as reduced to the main line of this list: rainbow, pastels, colors, hues, peaches, pinks, cool colors, violet, ultramarine, darkness, shadow, warm, color, light. These words are reiterations, I think, of the same basic note (to insert a musical analogy). In a way, the poem is made up entirely of this one concept, “color,” unfolded in a dozen different ways. But the poem has synthesized that with a basic narrative; we like to listen to anecdotes, to stories, but it seems to me the true art here is not in the story itself, but in the reiterations – in the unfolding of the one thing into many things, as if the poet were a magician – or a creator. (Really, the art is in the synthesis: in giving us both a natural, appealing story, and also, a fugue of words).

Cruz does the same thing, but his “story” is much further away (there is no “I once sat down for dinner…” comparable to Kooser's "I once held on my knees...");  but both poets give us a fugue of words. In Cruz, as it happens, it is also to do with color; in fact, that red and white (also the colors of blood and flesh, the Eucharist, or the Catholic identity of many Hispanics of the Southwest) are foregrounded in this poem. So, Kooser foregrounds narrative, but combines it with the reiterations on the theme of color. Cruz foregrounds color, but still has a suggestion of situation, if not exactly narrative.

My points, to work back toward being a creative writer, are: first, consider the paradox of the many out of the one when you are creating. Open a door – choose a singular, but concrete, theme – and then find the various ways you can repeat it. Second, if you choose a formal or structural armature – telling a story or painting a scene – consider that you still need  a contrapuntal element: and often, that will be how your story needs the stasis of scene, or your scene needs the dynamics of story, though one or the other might be minor rather than major.