Monday, October 26, 2009

A Christmas Cautionary Tale

This is a cautionary tale for writers who mean to write about and during the holidays.  My advice is DON’T.  I repeat:  DON’T.  To me it’s like going to the ocean to hear something profound.  The ocean doesn’t say a thing; it keeps its secrets and forever promises to reveal them.  The sea is a big damned liar.

The holidays don’t lie.  Their secrets are all over the place.  I go to a performance of Messiah every year just to be overwhelmed by it; to be left limp and ragged, uncomprehending.  I end up knowing the great truths I want to write and knowing I can’t write them on such an emotional overload.  Listen to Wordsworth and recollect in tranquility.  This cannot be done in season

On Christmas Eve I have been beneath the stars, the clouds, in rain, in snow, drunk, sober, with a love, alone, with a dog.  I have walked, run, biked.  I have felt moved and have never written a word worth a lick about the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year holiday troika.  They menace me with auguries and never deliver them to the pen.  The paper awaits, lying there like a naked lover jilted at the last instant.

There is just too much going on.  The mind has no silence to move upon; even in long silences the truths cannot be stated, written, transposed into language.  Once I learned how helpless I am to get it right, I stopped trying.  The holidays must pass me by; let the poet sleep or shop or roast chestnuts and remain essentially thoughtless.

I am appalled at the great charade of the holidays and cannot even write about that.  The best I can do is read stories to my grandkids, balance the checkbook and feed the cats.  I would prefer to be alone to ponder and sleep; ponder the greatness of religion, life, my place in the cosmos and fall asleep every moment I shake my head to toss off the weight of what I’m trying to ponder.   Perhaps this poet was never meant to know the truth but, like the sea,  forever to be promising and unable to deliver.

So long for now.

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Get a Big Head

From Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink:

"We make connections much more quickly with pairs of ideas that are already related in our minds than we do between pairs of ideas that are unfamiliar to us.”

It is in the unfamiliar connections that much poetry thrives, especially the poetry that is contemporary, not-so-formal.  This is what we learn in workshops and is both the good and the bad of workshops.  The good is that we learn not to bore the reader with old stuff.  The bad is that we get boring if connecting unfamiliar ideas becomes a game rather than the pursuit of truth that art should be engaged in.

I would like to focus on the connecting of unfamiliar ideas; or rather the unfamiliar connecting of ideas.  I think Gladwell mis-states his case.  The ideas are familiar, their connection is not.  For the poet, the idea and the connections leading to it are both unfamiliar.  Further, the poet begins with the familiar and by way of new connections brings us to a freshness that is both unfamiliar and still rings as true to life.  I think this is Gladwell’s point in that the psychological tests he cites reveal truths about ourselves that are surprising because they are hidden until the tests reveal them.  Poetry does the same thing.

I see, surprisingly, that I am again treading in that territory where business and art may bump.  For all his pomp, Gladwell gives little artistic circumstance and the feeling he conveys is a little too pop and businessman-worthy.  Yet, as with Michael Michalko in Thinkertoys, there is a crossover value to the poet in his business applications, his non-art-focused analyses.

When we write as poets we are not as far from using the creative tools of business people as we might think and vice-versa.  Our whole brains have both halves and we should learn from each other.  It is in making new connections that our brains literally grow.  This is a physical, chemical process that somehow gets into the non-physical realm of ideas.  (I love the mystery of it.)

New connections are not only interesting but they lead us to make other newer connections and our intelligence (of all types) grows.

So, go get a big head.

So long for now.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Thnikertoys and the Arts or Business Not (Necessarily) Be Damned!

Picking up from the last post I would like to mention Michael Michalko’s excellent book Thinkertoys.  Written for the businessman, this book is full of ways to trigger creative thought and many of the lessons can apply to writers and this brings up a challenge:  I have often considered there to be a divide, a bifurcation between business and art, between businessmen and artists.  In fact,

I have spent much of my life sneering at businessmen for their compromises, the abortion of their artistic bents, their ham-handed handling of human sensitivities and etc.  Never mind that I’ve spent nearly thirty years working for a small business engaged in insurance and retail enterprises and that I have been, in a sense, a corporate mouthpiece.  (I hasten to add that I have been blessed with an atypical boss/owner/president who is remarkably creative, quick-witted and decent.)

Creativity is often snuffed out by the workplace but it is folly to reason that therefore all workplaces and their denizens are not creative.  There is great creativity in the workplace but it rarely serves art.  It serves bottom lines by way of product development, production development and marketing.  Barbie lives because of someone’s creativity.  The creativity in the workplace is usually just excellent use of the left brain whereas creativity in the arts is usually associated with the right brain.

I think the world would be well-served if the two brains worked together more.  This is where Thinkertoys comes in.  Yesterday’s post was in part prompted by Michael Michalko’s book and the idea that we can appeal to an authority in our minds and ask how to solve a problem, how he/she would solve a problem, answer a question.  This technique can apply equally well to a business problem or an artistic challenge.

I don’t think the rift between art and business will ever be healed and I don’t think it should be.  Nonetheless, we are all the same species, walk the same planet and can be quickened by encounters with the arts, however brief or sustained.

So long for now.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Blink and the Creative Writer or How to Move Your Mountain

At the Saturday meeting of the Manchester Chapter of the Connecticut Poetry Society I tried to explain some of the mysteries of the creative writing process.  I spoke of the internal wizard whose help we seek and urged that he become a consciously summoned aid de camps.  I have several such internal helpers.  I ask them to help me solve challenges when I am stumped, blocked in the process of writing, usually a specific piece.  I then send them into the recesses of my self and wait for them to return with whatever gems or detritus they want to bring back.  These surrogates return with the most God-awful stuff and, if I am willing to work with it, it turns into gems I couldn’t get on my own.

There is another part to this process and for its name I turn go Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.  He uses the term “motor program”.  Although the term has different connotations for different disciplines I take it to mean the physical action components of an activity; relate it simply to muscle memory.  That said, I think of creative writing as set up by a certain series of physical cues that can be repeated.  Simply enough, I have written very productively over consecutive days on which I awoke at 6AM, brushed my teeth, made tea, set up the coffee-maker for my wife, sat in a chair by the living room window, took my pen from a chair-side drawer and began thinking.  Every step the same every day.  The series became my cue to write.  It worked.

To bring the two together; what I wrote in the morning would often become something wanting further work.   (A lot was dreck.  Prolific writing yields only so much that is worth working on—writing more means having more good stuff and  more bad stuff.)  As I revised, I would be stumped by the challenges, the poems whose argument I could not hear, whose direction I was unable to discern; I would call on the internal wizards, the spirits from the other side of the veil of consciousness to help me.  I would ask them what they could suggest, bring to the poems—and I asked them to make certain it was new and fresh.  Then I’d let them go do their work.

Later, perhaps minutes, often hours or days, I would close my eyes, visualize the aids and ask them what they brought.  This is an imaginative process and they, permitted free rein, would bring back surprising stuff.  My obligation was to thank them and say to myself, “What the hell do I do with this stuff?”  Then I had to do it.

Even when I doubted them, I was invariably helped by these guides.  As Gladwell points out in his book, there is a whole lot going on in our heads that we not only don’t know but can’t know.  The process works because it works.  There is no explaining and we, as poets must understand and permit ourselves to do and write things that work without understanding.

So long for now.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Art—it ain’t for sissies

I am the lucky possessor of On the Limits of Poetry by Allen Tate.  Luckier still, I have read it.   It is a collection of essays released in 1948 about poetry, poets and a couple of other things.


Most recently I have been marveling at “Narcissus as Narcissus” written in 1938.  It is a commentary on his own poem “Ode to the Confederate Dead”The poem itself is good, excellent, hard and you should read it and be familiar with it the second time you read the essay.


The first time you read the essay, read it for what it says about poetry and the work of the poet.  You will discover the best demonstration of the difficult precision of the art of writing poetry I know of.

Tate, in talking about his poem tells and shows us indirectly how much work it takes to write a poem.  Notice the exactitude with which he consciously uses individual words, broken (poetic) feet, broken lines in service to the fuller realization of the poem.  Note too the agony remaining years later over whether changes he made, words he chose, were the right ones.  And re-read the essay to better mine the ore of seemingly off-hand brilliance:

“…the sea boils and pigs have wings because in poetry all things are possible—if you are man enough.”

“Serious poetry deals with fundamental conflicts that cannot be logically resolved:  we can state the conflicts rationally, but reason does not relieve us of them.  their only final coherence is the formal re-creation of art, which ‘freezes’ the experience as permanently as a logical formula, but without, like the formula, leaving all but the logic out.”

Wrestle with this second one:  it is deep, complex and exactly right and a damned good expression of the unresolved and unresolveable logic of good poems.


I would like to quote more but instead will urge you to find the essay and the poem (in that order) and add it to that list of things you go to when your page is blank and you need to prompt yourself into real thought about poetry.  It ain’t for sissies.  (After all, it is art.)

So long for now.

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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Ten Commandments from an Editor

I’m not big on urging or teaching how to get published but I have some advice for you.  I’m prompted by my experience editing (which means producing, beginning-to-end) the Long River Run members-only journal of the Connecticut Poetry Society.  Our guidelines are a little lax so some submissions are going to be awkward if not downright strange; yet I come to some rules you ought to follow.


1.  Follow the guidelines.  If it says “forty line limit” don’t send forty-five lines and ask me to shorten it for you.

2.  If the limit is one poem don’t send three and ask me to pick one.

3.  Don’t send me a second email with a only the few changes you want me to make in the first one.

4.  Don’t use a cute, rare, illegible font.  Times Roman 12pt is fine.

5.  Although I respect your need to protect your brilliant work, don’t send me something I cannot edit.  I am an editor and if I have to cut and paste an image from a pdf and then have to sweat over it to make it look like the other pages sin the book I might leave it out.

6.  Send electronic copy as an attachment if possible.  Email programs do strange things to your work.

7.  If you cannot send an electronic copy, send a typed copy.

8.  If you send a handwritten copy, make it legible!  I am not a seer.

9.  Include all your contact information so that when you violate these commandments I can give you a chance to redeem yourself.

10.  Don’t email me after the deadline asking if it’s too late to send something—it is but it’s better to send me a poem I can ignore than to piss me off with a message that wants an answer before sending me a poem I will ignore.


I’m sure there will be more commandments—I’m no Moses. But these are those I was given last night as I assembled the first draft.

So long for now.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Back to the Future


It’s good to read old stuffRight now I’m reading from “The Limits of Poetry” by Allen Tate; his essay on Emily Dickinson currently having my attention and thrill.  Not only does he have wonderful insight in to poetry and to Dickinson but he gets the divine madness part of the writers.  So, read him.

Having said that let me urge you to return to reading criticism by the great ones—Cleanth Brooks comes to mind; contemporarily, look to Helen Vendler.  And how about Winifred Nowottny?  (Her The Language Poets Use is staggering.)  These critics can tell you more about poetry than most universities and certainly more than MFA programs.  To write, you must read and read lots and read lots of stuff that isn’t poems.

I read these guys in order to write better, to better understand what poetry is.  I think I learned more about Robert Frost’s ambiguities by reading Tate’s essay on Dickinson than in all the classrooms, seminars and workshops I’ve attended combined.

By going back and reading older critics, our poetry can better move into the future.  Also, by reading Tate’s essay on Dickinson you can learn how it is that the past makes possible the future or at least the present moment.  These are things of great import to us individually whether we are writing about Truth and Beauty or about the dead doe in the road or about the trip to the toilet in the quiet of the early morning hours at camp.