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Karen Blixen (Isak Dineson): “I think all sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.”
I am not a novelist, really not even a writer; I am a storyteller. One of my friends said about me that I think all sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them, and perhaps this is not entirely untrue. To me, the explanation of life seems to be its melody, its pattern. And I feel in life such an infinite, truly inconceivable fantasy.
You Want a Social Life, with Friends
You want a social life, with friends.
A passionate love life and as well
To work hard every day. What’s true
Is of these three you may have two
And two can pay you dividends
But never may have three.
There isn’t time enough, my friends–
Though dawn begins, yet midnight ends–
To find the time to have love, work, and friends.
Michelangelo had feeling
For Vittoria and the Ceiling
But did he go to parties at day’s end?
Homer nightly went to banquets
Wrote all day but had no lockets
Bright with pictures of his Girl.
I know one who loves and parties
And has done so since his thirties
But writes hardly anything at all.
Kenneth Koch (1925-2002) was an American poet, playwright, and professor. He was a prominent poet of the New York School of poetry, a circle of poets that also included Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery.
So many people, many of whom enjoy other forms of the arts, are quick to declare, “I hate poetry.” I suspect that what they really mean is that they hate bad poetry. But perhaps I should agree with them and say, “I hate poetry too.” That is, I hate this terrible definition of poetry that has become standard in American culture (and perhaps other parts of the Anglophone world? I don’t know it well enough to say).
The first part of the problem is that poetry has become interchangeable with rhyme. Not all rhymes are poems and not all poems rhyme. But the collective consciousness seems to have decided that two lines of varying length and cadence can tied together with an end rhyme (or near-rhyme), and voila! You have a poem. It seems that kindergarten teachers start us off on the wrong path and most of us never get corrected.
The second major issue I’ve observed is that people take confession a bit too far. While personal touches or revelations can make a poem great, overdoing it is uninteresting at best and downright awkward at worst. Often some of the worst offenders on issue #2 aren’t also committing sin #1 of rhyming any- and everything (but when they do, it is AWFUL). Rather, they take what is basically a diary entry, add some haphazard line breaks, and call it a day. Processing that deep emotion through poetry should not be so quick nor so simple.
All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling. To be natural is to be obvious, and to be obvious is to be inartistic. –Oscar Wilde
The third problem is that because the subject matter is often so personal and deeply felt, no one wants to offer the budding poet anything but praise. Certainly it does take courage to share one’s works and experiences, but just as with any other art form, or any skill at all really, the beginner needs honest feedback, direction, and constructive criticism to grow. You probably wouldn’t let your friend try to exhibit his finger paintings in an art gallery if he was older than 8, and yet you might give him a pat on the head when he pays lots of money to have his terrible poem included in an anthology (which is a scam, by the way).
We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry. –William Butler Yeats
The fourth problem isn’t unique to poetry: people want to be producers and not consumers of the art. In other words, people want to write poetry, but not read it. Or write novels, but not read them. Make films. Take photos. And so on. One novelist often laments how his publishers pass on his new fiction work, but offer him a nice advance for a “how to write a novel” or “how to get published” guidebook, because those will be sure to sell. The more poetry you read, though, the better your poetry will become. And not just good poetry, either: read BAD poetry, really really bad poetry, for a nudge in the right direction.
And of course, one should read good poetry. We share our favorites on this site (with perhaps a crummy poem or two for variety). There is the Academy of American Poets. AllPoetry.com. The Poetry Foundation–and they’ll even email you one poem per day if you sign up for their newsletter.
So, how do you stop writing bad poetry and start writing good poetry? (more…)
Ty, którego nie mogłem ocalić,
Zrozum tę mowę prostą, bo wstydzę się innej.
Przysięgam, nie ma we mnie czarodziejstwa słów.
Mówię do ciebie milcząc, jak obłok czy drzewo.
To, co wzmacniało mnie, dla ciebie było śmiertelne.
Żegnanie epoki brałeś za początek nowej,
Natchnienie nienawiści za piękno liryczne,
Siłę ślepą za dokonany kształt.
Oto dolina płytkich polskich rzek. I most ogromny
Idący w białą mgłę. Oto miasto złamane
I wiatr skwirami mew obrzuca twój grób,
Kiedy rozmawiam z tobą.
Czym jest poezja, która nie ocala
Narodów ani ludzi?
Wspólnictwem urzędowych kłamstw,
Piosenką pijaków, którym ktoś za chwilę poderżnie gardła,
Czytanką z panieńskiego pokoju.
To, że chciałem dobrej poezji, nie umiejąc,
To, że późno pojąłem jej wybawczy cel,
To jest i tylko to jest ocalenie.
Sypano na mogiły proso albo mak
Żywiąc zlatujących się umarłych – ptaki.
Tę książkę kładę tu dla ciebie, o dawny,
Abyś nas odtąd nie nawiedzał więcej.
(tr. by Czesław Miłosz)
You whom I could not save
Listen to me.
Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another.
I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words.
I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree.
What strengthened me, for you was lethal.
You mixed up farewell to an epoch with the beginning of a new one,
Inspiration of hatred with lyrical beauty;
Blind force with accomplished shape.
Here is a valley of shallow Polish rivers. And an immense bridge
Going into white fog. Here is a broken city;
And the wind throws the screams of gulls on your grave
When I am talking with you.
What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
A connivance with official lies,
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,
Readings for sophomore girls.
That I wanted good poetry without knowing it,
That I discovered, late, its salutary aim,
In this and only this I find salvation.
They used to pour millet on graves or poppy seeds
To feed the dead who would come disguised as birds.
I put this book here for you, who once lived
So that you should visit us no more.
* As Clare Cavanagh points out, the English translation loses something very important: the singular you. This is not an address to all the victims of the war, but to one person.
Lines Lost among Trees
These are not the lines that came to me
while walking in the woods
with no pen
and nothing to write on anyway.
They are gone forever,
a handful of coins
dropped through the grate of memory,
along with the ingenious mnemonic
I devised to hold them in place-
all gone and forgotten
before I had returned to the clearing of lawn
in back of our quiet house
with its jars jammed with pens,
its notebooks and reams of blank paper,
its desk and soft lamp,
its table and the light from its windows.
So this is my elegy for them,
those six or eight exhalations,
the braided rope of syntax,
the jazz of the timing,
and the little insight at the end
wagging like the short tail
of a perfectly obedient spaniel
sitting by the door.
This is my envoy to nothing
where I say Go, little poem-
not out into the world of strangers’ eyes,
but off to some airy limbo,
home to lost epics,
and fugitive dreams
such as the one I had last night,
which, like a fantastic city in pencil,
in the bright morning air
just as I was waking up.
Berryman (W.S. Merwin)
I will tell you what he told me
in the years just after the war
as we then called
the second world war
don’t lose your arrogance yet he said
you can do that when you’re older
lose it too soon and you may
merely replace it with vanity
just one time he suggested
changing the usual order
of the same words in a line of verse
why point out a thing twice
he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally
it was in the days before the beard
and the drink but he was deep
in tides of his own through which he sailed
chin sideways and head tilted like a tacking sloop
he was far older than the dates allowed for
much older than I was he was in his thirties
he snapped down his nose with an accent
I think he had affected in England
as for publishing he advised me
to paper my wall with rejection slips
his lips and the bones of his long fingers trembled
with the vehemence of his views about poetry
he said the great presence
that permitted everything and transmuted it
in poetry was passion
passion was genius and he praised movement and invention
I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t
you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write
Hey kids, I’m writing again. Really writing. Funny how a little anxiety and sadness send me scurrying back to hide under notebooks. Well, not really funny. Or surprising.
Anyway, most of what I’m working on you can’t read just yet (still in research stages of… a screenplay!) or will never want to (thesis). Aside: Why am I writing a screenplay? Because I don’t have time for it and I don’t know how to do it. But here are some fun haiku I’ve done for my supercool friends lately….
promises nice winter nights
i’m totally stoked
‘to my father’
We become our craft?
Doctor can’t understand what
The mechanic can
28 December 2009
Little black dresses
And all the right subscriptions
Thought I was ready