Friday, April 16, 2010

Indian Summary

For reasons I’m unsure of I was recently moved to revisit Longfellow’s poetry, specifically “The Song of Hiawatha” which I had never read from beginning to end.  It is easy to dismiss Longfellow as a rhymey-dimey poet forgettable after high school and of passing interest as part of the line of American poets who interest us as in some sense ancestral to our own art. 

Well, I may be going soft but I found “Hiawatha” to be awfully good, occasionally moving and very, very interesting.  And I hasten to add that I am richer for the experience, hated to see the noble savage paddling westward at the end of the poem.  I really had no idea that he departed with the arrival of the white men, priests and the weight the moment carried as I read it.  Of course I’m influenced by my own understandings but I value that they must be entirely differrent from those of Longfellow’s contemporaries and are still valid, which is sort of the point of this post:

Whatever we bring to the poem today is valid and what we may intuit about the departure of Hiawatha upon the arrival of the white men is deep, profound and somewhat saddening in light of what we know today.  The bigger point is that the great poems stand the test of time and remain valid irrespective of who reads them and how time has changed things.  They are new because we are new.

And it took Longfellow to remind me of this.  Go read “The Song of Hiawatha” and enjoy!

So long for now.

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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

10,000 Hours to Greatness

If we can believe Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, then you’ll be an expert poet after 10,000 hours of practice.  This boils down to 19.23 years at ten hours a week or two hours five days a week.  This is a lot of writing but it gives you some idea of the amount of effort it takes to get to the top of any craft or art.  That’s part of the reason the air is so rare among the best.

I first began writing verse in high school and I got into it because I liked it and because I thought it was easy.  As time went on I was seduced away from my simplistic view of it and into poetry’s thrall and the wicked amount of work and study it takes to write real and really good poems.  If it’s easy, you ain’t doin’ it.

Hugh Ogden was both a mentor and a friend.  He was also an excellent poet.  Over lunch I asked him what the most difficult part of being recognized as a good poet was.  He replied that people didn’t appreciate the amount of time and effort it took to become successful; the amount of blood and sweat and disappointment that precedes good writing.

When I tell you to write a lot, I mean WRITE A LOT.

When I tell you to write often, I mean WRITE OFTEN.

When I tell you to read a lot, I mean READ A LOT.

Don’t wait for inspiration—it will come.

It is difficult to learn to let the poem have its own way, to let the gods lead and it takes a whole lot of writing to learn this.

Calculate how many hours you’ve spent writing and how many more it will take to get to 10,000 hours.  Don’t include pondering, planning, reading—just the time spent actually putting words to paper.  Then figure out how many hours a day you need to put in to get to that ten thousand.  Then do it.

The only way is to write, so WRITE AND WRITE AND WRITE, GODDAMIT!!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Write, By God!!

I’ve been reading Thomas Merton lately and, while I don’t really find his poetry particularly interesting, I find his criticism appealing.  I want to look at one of his points:   That you are writing for God.


It is my experience that when the writing is right the conscious act of writing is only part of the process.  Look to Frost’s “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader” to understand what I mean.  I’ve said and heard it many times:  The poem has a life of its own.  It’s true.

Merton tells us that we are writing for God and whether he feels a poet is genuinely writing for God has a lot to do with how he regards the poet.  Having said this I remind you that Merton is surprisingly charitable to many poets who I thought might not meet this standard.

I come down here:

When the writing is right, the gods will lead your work.  Whoever your gods are, they will lead you.  This brings me to Seneca the Elder’s wonderful:  “ The fates lead him who will; him who won’t they drag.”  If you will let the fates lead your poems, they will and you will be the better writer for it.

I have grown to greatly respect Thomas Merton for a variety of reasons but right now he ranks high in my personal pantheon for recognizing that the arts and the gods are intimately affiliated and that this redounds to the enhancement and glory (I hesitate at that word!) of both.