Reader’s Corner: Poetry in Bed

The deadly debonair Welsh actor Richard Burton may have made his living as an actor but his true love was reading, particularly poetry. The range of authors who “corrupted” him ranged from Shakespeare to Proust and Hemingway:

But mostly I was corrupted by Dylan Thomas. Most people see me as a rake, womanizer, boozer and purchaser of large baubles. I’m all those things depending on the prism and the light. But mostly I’m a reader…

In Gabriel Byrne’s lyrical new memoir Walking with Ghosts, he describes drinking with Burton after a grueling day of shooting a big costume drama in Venice. In between ruminations on their craft from a jaded veteran (“I’ve done the most appalling shit for money”), Burton rhapsodizes about his true love:

Poetry, the sound and music of words sooth me, always have. And books. Home is where the books are, he said. What I’ve always rather wanted was to be a writer, perhaps it’s too late now. I’m at an age, he said quietly, when I fear dying in a hotel room on a film.

Byrne notes that Burton’s fear did not come to pass:

He didn’t die in a hotel room but at home in bed, halfway through a volume of the Elizabethan poets.

Writer’s Desk: Follow the Scent

Here is Louise Glück telling Poets & Writers about her process:

When I’m trying to put a poem or a book together, I feel like a tracker in the forest following a scent, tracking only step to step. It’s not as though I have plot elements grafted onto the walls elaborating themselves. Of course, I have no idea what I’m tracking, only the conviction that I’ll know it when I see it.

One might imagine it’s actually better for the writer when they have no idea what they will find.

Writer’s Desk: Who Cares What They Say

The ineffably brilliant John Berryman was never a popular poet. But those who know his work tend to be, shall we say, highly committed to singing his praises. His style was raw and jangled, symphonic and bluesy, the sort of thing that hits you in the heart and makes you imagine everything terrible and beautiful in the world.

Of course, that also makes him not everybody’s cup of tea. His advice to young writers who are trying to make a go of it, and facing some resistance?

I would recommend the cultivation of extreme indifference to both praise and blame because praise will lead you to vanity, and blame will lead you to self-pity, and both are bad for writers.

The Paris Review

Writer’s Desk: Love Words More Than Your Voice

AudenVanVechten1939
W. H. Auden (c. 1939)

According to legend, or at least a book with the lilting title How Does a Poem Mean?, W. H. Auden was once asked what advice he would give to a young poet. Auden responded that if he asked the young poet why they wanted to write and the answer came back that they thought they had something important to say, Auden’s conclusion was that there was no hope.

However, Auden went on to say that if the answer came back as “I like to hang around words and overhear them talking to one another,” then he thought the young poet might have promise after all.

Following Auden’s line of thought, you could say that if you start with a love of words, their flow and shading and endless permutations, you might get to somewhere important. But starting in grandiloquence will get you nowhere.

Writer’s Desk: Rely on Your Instincts

Rilke in 1900
Rainer Maria Rilke

In Letters to a Young Poet (1929), Rilke corresponded with Franz Xaver Kappus, a young poet who was not sure whether or not to go ahead with a career in the arts or to stick with the Austrian military. It seems clear that anybody seriously considering those two paths in life would not be well-suited for a lifetime of uniformed service, but Rilke took the query seriously.

Commenting on some poems that Kappus had sent and some questions about their worth, Rilke had this to say:

You ask whether your poems are good. You send them to publishers; you compare them with other poems; you are disturbed when certain publishers reject your attempts. Well now, since you have given me permission to advise you, I suggest that you give all that up. You are looking outward and, above all else, that you must not do now. No one can advise and help you, no one.

Feedback is necessary, particularly when it helps writers overcome blocks or be more attentive to flaws that escaped their notice in the first draft. But waiting for acceptance from the outside world or permission to continue on is a fool’s errand. Better to follow Rilke’s advice to dig deep, find a reason, and write as though it were your last day on Earth:

Go within. Search for the cause, find the impetus that bids you write. Put it to this test: Does it stretch out its roots in the deepest place of your heart? Can you avow that you would die if you were forbidden to write? Above all, in the most silent hour of your night, ask yourself this: Must I write? Dig deep into yourself for a true answer. And if it should ring its assent, if you can confidently meet this serious question with a simple, “I must,” then build your life upon it. It has become your necessity. Your life, in even the most mundane and least significant hour, must become a sign, a testimony to this urge.

Writer’s Desk: If You Cannot Sleep…

Leonard Cohen, 2008 (Rama)

Sometime in the 1960s, Leonard Cohen inscribed one of his early poems (or at least the title) on the wall of a cafe in Montreal.

“Marita, Please Find Me, I Am Almost 30” is a beautiful, heartsick piece that threads the love of creation through a desolate sadness. In other words, it expresses precisely the type of temperament that people normally ascribe to melodramatic artistic types.

But take note of this:

but when I couldn’t sleep
I learned to write
I learned to write
what might be read
on nights like this
by one like me

and just try not feeling and seeing yourself in that moment of joyful, rending creation.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Worry About Being Original

All writers want to stand out. How do you make a name otherwise? But it’s also easy to tie yourself up in knots worrying about it.

Poet Derek Walcott, who was never anything but original, dismissed such worries in his essay “The Muse of History“:

We know that the great poets have no wish to be different, no time to be original, that their originality emerges only when they have absorbed all the poetry which they have read, entire, that their first work appears to be the accumulation of other people’s trash, but that they become bonfires, that it is only academics and frightened poets who talk of Beckett’s debt to Joyce… We are all influenced by what we have read…

Own it, but earn it.

Do as Walcott says, and make a bonfire from the trash of the greats.

Writer’s Desk: Something Every Day

The poet William Stafford (1914–1993) had a fairly disciplined four-part approach to his daily writing task.
But the key element to his process is the last, where he advises this:
For this day, again, you give yourself a chance to discover worthy things. Nothing stupendous may occur… but if you do not bring yourself to this point, nothing stupendous will happen for sure… and you will spend the balance of your day in blind reaction to the imperatives of the outer world — worn down, buffeted, diminished, martyred.
Get something down on paper each and every day. Leave yourself open to something wonderful. Or terrible.
You can edit later.

Weekend Reading: January 20, 2016

library1

Screening Room: ‘Paterson’

paterson1

One of the most surprising and rewarding movie treats of 2016 is Jim Jarmusch’s quirky yet heartfelt Paterson, about a poetry-writing bus driver in New Jersey. It reminds you not just how great Jarmusch can be but renews your faith in a particular brand of American independent filmmaking.

Paterson is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

Proudly reinforcing the at-times under-siege notion that there is great, grasping life yet in American filmmaking, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson is a simple story told with power, complexity and vision. Like many of the Frank O’Hara or William Carlos Williams poems that the film’s namesake protagonist (Adam Driver) reads and re-reads, the film is a poignant portrait of the mundane, a singing symphony of the everyday. It’s also a comedy, a romance, a paean to American post-industrial resilience, and a sublimely enjoyable work of art about a bus driver who writes poems that he doesn’t seem to care if anybody ever reads. There’s a lot here, folded like tightly coiled wires under the seemingly placid surface…

Here’s the trailer.

Writer’s Desk: Dylan Says

bob_dylan_-_the_freewheelin_bob_dylanSince Bob Dylan has been honored with a Nobel Prize for Literature, we may as well welcome the man into the community of those practiced in the art of belles lettres. Good to have you, Bob!

Here’s some advice from Mr. Zimmerman contained in Paul Zollo’s Songwriters on Songwriting, which could apply to most any writers:

It’s nice to be able to put yourself in an environment where you can completely accept all the unconscious stuff that comes to you from your inner workings of your mind. And block yourself off to where you can control it all, take it down…

If you follow his often stream-of-consciousness lyrics, that approach makes sense. It’s harder to do, of course, than it sounds. Be open to the muse, but direct it.

Quote of the Day: The Easter Rising

1913_Seachtain_na_Gaeilge_poster

On this day in 1916, Irish rebels rose up around the country. The short-lived Easter Rising to establish a free Irish Republic was put down by British forces on April 29.

From W.B. Yeats’s commemorative epic poem, “Easter 1916“:

We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead.
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse —
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Quote of the Day: Pope’s Day

Guy Fawkes' Night celebrations at Windsor Castle, 1776
Guy Fawkes Night celebrations at Windsor Castle, 1776

Tonight in England is Guy Fawkes Night. It’s one of the island’s more unusual holidays, in that it commemorates that time in 1605 when a group of Catholic terrorists plotted to blow up the House of Lords on November 5, thus killing King James I and (hopefully) returning the country to Catholic rule. It didn’t work out so well. Fawkes and his other conspirators were discovered, convicted, and drawn and quartered. The king instituted laws restricting Catholics’ rights that wouldn’t be revoked for two centuries.

Ever since then, Fawkes has been burned in effigy on this day in a nighttime celebration that includes fireworks, general Halloween-esque revelry, and readings of this verse:

Remember, remember!
The fifth of November…

In the United States, Guy Fawkes Night was celebrated as Pope’s Day. That is, until George Washington was annoyed enough by the anti-Catholic songs his troops were singing—at a time when he was trying to secure French-Catholic support for an invasion of Quebec—that he banned it in 1775. For some years afterward, the celebrations were switched over to burn another despised traitor in effigy: Benedict Arnold.

Weekend Reading: June 12, 2015

reading1