Blogging offers a forum for musing about the craft of writing and the events that surround us in a very frustrating and yet exciting time, as we are faced with many issues similar to those of the 1960s: A government that lies to us, neo-colonial incursions into other countries, repression of ideas and serious threats to the well-being of the human race, while offering bread and circuses at home in the form of rampant materialism. A groundswell of protests against authority again reflect the response that was given by youth in the 1960s. Writing once again can explore those moods and present an alternative.
Frantic and edgy, once a month, a writer comes to the workshops full of apologies.
“The dog threw up and I had to take her to the vet.” “Big fight with my spouse.” “Work got me, I had only thirty-five minutes to write.”
Next we’ll hear about the supreme effort. “I got up early and wrote as fast as I could. I didn’t have time to go over it. Or anything. So sorry!”
This happened last week with Vivian. All she had time for, so she said, was an abbreviated “character sketch.”
Then she read a powerful, understated, poignant story. It might be her very best. It’s tuned to the subject, it doesn’t waste any time on fancy sentences or literary images. It has a consistent, naturally evolving tone. And it stays on track. It goes efficiently to its conclusion.
What happened? Why was her opinion so different from the fact?
She might think it was only by chance, that in one moment all the elements for good writing came together. Once she started, though, nothing was by chance.
You know the phrase, “I got out of my own way.” I don’t know when it originated, but I’ve heard it for forty years. We haven’t been talking about the creative process for long, historically, not since Aristotle. Henry James, at the turn of the last century, was the first to analyze story components. And the poets? Keats makes an occasional mention of process. “Getting out of your own way” could have come from Trungpa Rinpoche, in the 1970s, in his talks with Allen Ginsberg.
With only thirty-five minutes for her story, Vivian’s creative unconscious picked a strategy, and nothing got in the way. There wasn’t time. She started at the beginning and went through to the end. Her editorial voices got put aside — no time for them! — her impulse to spell correctly got put aside — no time for that! — her worry about her character’s depth got put aside — no time for that! — her instinct to insert more flair got put aside — no time for that! Her conscious strategy to sharpen her best point got put aside — no time for that, either. None of this is an accident.
The potential for this easy confluence is always at our fingertips. It can happen any time, and nothing about it is an accident. Can we train ourselves to find it? Yes. Do we need to ignore the apologies and the screeching the editorial and writerly voices come up with, because they were ignored? Or circumvented by time? Yes. Or at least give them little credence.
And there’s history. Abe Lincoln’s Gettysburg address was written on an envelope on the train, Martin Luther King discarded his prepared speech and wrote “I have a dream” as he listened to the other speakers, Paul Hawkins threw away his notes, too, and graduation morning wrote his inspiring commencement address, “Earth is Hiring.”
What’s the common element? Or rather, two elements. One, not thinking too much, there isn’t time for that. And two, these writers were in the immediate presence of their material. The temptation to waver their focus was non-existent.
So they wrote well. Very well.
A guest showed at our workshop last night, one who attended a reading I gave in October. I’d presented Mainline poems from 45 years ago along with Chalcedony Songs and talked about how the voice, in both, uses the world and emotion as reflections of a personal journey.
But I don’t know exactly what intrigued our guest. We do often invite people to see what the workshops are like, and the invitation goes out to whoever displays a spark.
This guest brought a poem with intense heartbreak in the first stanza, and the next three stanzas seemed to spin away from the trauma. Our guest used highly interesting language, but the feeling in the first stanza was not developed. We couldnâ€™t tell what the motivating impulse might be, whether to explore the heartbreak, to accept it fully, to complain about its injustice, or to expose its ironies. Or something else.
We gave feedback, reading to each other lines that we liked, pretending the author was not in the room. This protocol is designed to give our guest the sense of eavesdropping on an honest conversation. There were a number of lines that we liked quite a lot.
The questions was then asked, “What does the poem need?” The imbalance of emotion was noted, and we discussed two strategies. One, to develop the heartbreak, at the same depth it was presented, in the remaining stanzas. Two, to dilute the feeling and spread it, more or less evenly, throughout the poem.
Next we asked the author to join the conversation. We were thanked for our feedback, but our guest had nothing more to say. I couldn’t tell if our comments had struck a chord. And today I received an email thanking us for the invitation and declining to attend another session, on grounds that the workshop was not a fit.
A goal of mine currently is to be more honest, so my reply contained more than polite noises. I made a guess at the forces underlying the previous evening.
“I’m sure you gathered that our workshop believes writing that’s hinged to one’s personal journey is by far the most powerful. Your piece clearly started there. When you’re ready to develop that connection, please feel welcome to join us again.”
Poetry should be accessible. And I believe the only poetry that works over time is direct and totally understandable. Poetry’s ancient and continuing role is to carry our culture from generation to generation, and we don’t join that tradition if our primary impulse is to show off our brilliance. Or to be witty, or to make money. We do well when we join the tradition with full humility.
Today, of course, this role is debased, but less than one might think. It seems debased partly because of how we define “poetry.” Advertising fits several definitions of poetry perfectly, and it certainly carries much of the culture, even as it drags us down. Spoken Word is totally accessible, and it’s poetry, and it’s carrying the culture for many young people. Same for Rap.
The reading public’s complaint is correct, though: what is termed “mainstream” poetry is often inaccessible. But we should understand “mainstream” is a misnomer. It’s a marketing tool, and there’s nothing mainstream about it, other than that some successful publishers and their audiences use the term. Most mainstream poetry is oblique lyrical poetry. It’s designed to be meditated on, rather than understood. But, to give it its due, mainstream poetry can be far more accessible than procedural poetry, for instance, or Language poetry.
If you read my poetry, you’ll see one way of working through this problem. There are many ways. We should remember how accessible most of our favorite poems are, and “accessible” does accurately describe much poetry. What’s inaccessible about “rosy-fingered dawn” or “money doesn’t talk, it swears” or “the poem does not lie to us, we lie under its law” or “we were very tired, we were very merry” or “be kind to yourself” or “the pure gold baby that melts to a shriek” or “I heard a fly buzz when I died” or “mango warmth fills my belly”?