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

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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

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Screening Room: ‘Paterson’

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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

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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

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Reader’s Corner: Rimbaud in Ethiopia

The legend of Arthur Rimbaud (1854–1891) is an intoxicating one. He started writing young, and by the time he was done at 21 years of age, had quite possibly changed Western literature forever. Poems like The Drunken Boat ripped something open in the era’s creative mindset:

If there is one water in Europe I want, it is the
Black cold pool where into the scented twilight
A child squatting full of sadness, launches
A boat as fragile as a butterfly in May…

Rimbaud also led the poetic lifestyle that many adolescents would dream to emulate. He debauched, he innovated, he caroused, he blazed forth briefly and brilliantly, he defined libertine.

He also may have changed history.

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Rimbaud in Harar, Ethiopia (self-portrait, c. 1883)

After a dustup with his lover, poet Paul Verlaine, in which Verlaine ended up shooting him, Rimbaud left France. In 1880, he washed up in, all of all places, the ancient trading city of Harar in Ethiopia. There, Rimbaud changed from dangerously licentious artiste to jack-of-all-goods trader. He even became an arms dealer, at one point agreeing to secure weapons for Ethiopia’s emperor, Menelik II, who apparently swindled Rimbaud out of the money he was promised.

According to Rachel Doyle:

Frustration aside, Rimbaud’s procurement of weapons for Menelik II may have been his greatest contribution to modern African history. Scholars reckon that the guns he sold in 1887 likely helped the emperor defeat Italy in 1896 when the country’s troops tried to invade Ethiopia. As a result of the rout at Adwa, Italy signed a treaty recognizing Ethiopia as an independent nation…

It’s not every poet who is still remembered over a century after their death. And it’s certainly not every poet who might have changed the course of world history.

Quote of the Day: No Armistice for the Dead

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Today marks the signing of the armistice in 1918 that put an end to the First World War. The United States marks the occasion as Veterans Day, while in England it’s Armistice Day.

Although the day is meant to commemorate all the men and women who have served and died in the armed services, something particularly tragic and horrific remains in the collective memory of World War I. An official statement of Congress ending the war included this aside:

Whereas the 11th of November 1918, marked the cessation of the most destructive, sanguinary, and far reaching war in human annals …

Over 8 million soldiers and nobody knows how many civilians died in the four-year conflict. Some 36 percent of all British soldiers, and 65 percent of German soldiers, were either killed or wounded. And still nobody still quite understands why it was fought.

Siegfried Sassoon
Siegfried Sassoon

One of the war’s great poets was Siegfried Sassoon (1886–1967). He served with the Royal Welch Fusiliers in France. In 1917 wrote a protest letter to the House of Commons, refusing to fight anymore: “I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.” He was hospitalized later that year.

Here’s his poem, “Absolution“:

The anguish of the earth absolves our eyes
Till beauty shines in all that we can see.
War is our scourge; yet war has made us wise,
And, fighting for our freedom, we are free.

Horror of wounds and anger at the foe,
And loss of things desired; all these must pass.
We are the happy legion, for we know
Time’s but a golden wind that shakes the grass.

There was an hour when we were loth to part
From life we longed to share no less than others.
Now, having claimed this heritage of heart,
What need we more, my comrades and my brothers?