“a poem is getting at something mysterious”

I loved this quote from J. I. Kleinberg’s  The Poetry Department so much that I am compelled to share it with you:

“…it’s the nature of the work that a poem is getting at something mysterious, which no amount of staring at straight-on has ever solved, something like death or love or treachery or beauty. And we keep doing this corner-of-the-eye thing. I remember when we were in training to be night fliers in the Navy, I learned, very strangely, that the rods of the eye perceive things at night in the corner of the eye that we can’t see straight ahead. That’s not a bad metaphor for the vision of art. You don’t stare at the mystery, but you can see things out of the corner of your eye that you were supposed to see.”

William Meredith  (January 9, 1919 – May 30, 2007)

“Omit needless words”

If you are still wondering what to buy the fiction-writer on your Christmas list, I am happy to recommend Alice McDermott’s What about the Baby?: Some Thoughts on the Art of Fiction (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021).

McDermott’s 2013 novel, Someoneis one of my favorite novels of all time. At some point I decided that where McDermott leads, I will follow, and I snapped up her craft book in hardback the minute it was published. For a few months, I was happy simply to own the book. But now that I’m finally reading it, it’s  proved a great way for me to procrastinate getting my poetry book finished and my mystery novel revised. A series of lectures given at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference over a twenty-year period, What about the Baby? is utterly brilliant, chockablock with gems about stories, sentences, and faith.

Because in my writers group we often debate whether to cut a word or not, I wanted to share this passage, which is not McDermott but E. B. White of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. We all know his famous advice to “omit needless words,” but I don’t think I had read this elaboration that White, himself, offered a reader who objected:

It comes down to the meaning of “needless.” Often a word can be removed without destroying the structure of a sentence, but that does not necessarily mean that the word is needless or that the sentence has gained by its removal.

If you were to put a narrow construction on the word “needless,” you would have to remove thousands of words from Shakespeare, who seldom said anything in six words that could be said in twenty.

Writing is not an exercise in excision; it’s a journey into sound. How about “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”? One “tomorrow” would suffice, but it’s the other two that have made the thing immortal. (E. B. White, qtd on pp. 62-63)

McDermott surrounds this with her own notions about style, for instance about sound: “read your sentences out loud in order to discover your own sound: the rhythm, pattern, refrain, reprise of your prose” (63).

…of your prose, and your poetry.

 

 

Christmas Stories

I was just over at Salt and saw that they have three poems by Lucille Clifton — a one-of-a-kind human being and poet I was privileged to hear in person a few times.  Salt had a Christmas poem by Billy Collins last week (also worth a visit), and in this week’s offering, keeping faith with the season, Clifton’s poems, “mary’s dream,” “a song of mary,” and “john,” i.e. John the Baptizer.

This past Sunday I attended my childhood church and there, too, the message was drawn from one of those leading-up-to Christmas passages in the book of Luke. I have to set the stage here a bit, if you’re to follow where I’m going (which is, my apologies, not quite clear even to me). The couple who now pastor the church are in their 80s. My parents would have loved them. This ministry is a definite calling for the Bakers, and it came quite late in life. So when “Sister Baker” (as we say) talked in her sermon about the angel Gabriel visiting Zechariah, to tell him his wife Elizabeth, “well stricken in years,” would bear a child, a precursor to Christ — well, she had a personal response.

Zechariah tried to tell Gabriel it just couldn’t happen. We’re too old, he said. So he had to be struck mute. As Sister Baker said, when God has a plan, if you can’t get on board, he may ask you to get out of the way. Then — this was her personal response — she added, “I sure hope Gabriel doesn’t show up and tell me I have to have a baby, at my age.” Everyone laughed.

I’m not quite sure where I’m going with this, except for the last two days I’ve been wondering how I can work this anecdote into a poem. It’s easier to imagine a challenge for the fiction writers in my group:

Write a scene in which a character attends a church service and hears a message that makes him or her uncomfortable.

I hadn’t been too sure about this trip, but the church service itself didn’t make me at all uncomfortable. My brother and sister and their spouses were there (my brother said at lunch that he was surprised the church didn’t fall down); also one my of aunts (age 86), and about a dozen of my cousins from all over Southwest Washington. Lots of music. I did a complete flashback to my childhood and wept. Much has changed (the drums and guitars up front), and I knew only two of the people in their small congregation. But there was a time for personal testimony, and an altar call at the end — both could have been scripted from a service when I was seven.

I’ve been rereading Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, and this morning I underlined this line:

“our emotion is perhaps nothing but an expression of a poetry that was lost” (p. 6).

That’s kind of the space my thoughts are hovering over.

Here’s one of the poems from Salt:

mary’s dream

winged women was saying
“full of grace” and like.
was light beyond sun and words
of a name and a blessing.
winged women to only i.
i joined them, whispering
yes.

–Lucille Clifton

Mostly, I’ve been wondering what’s calling me right now — what’s completely unexpected and calling me — and how to say “yes” to it.

Writing from a Place of Delight

So, about a week ago I thought I would write a blogpost inspired by Steven Pressfield, about…pain. I copied Pressfield’s recent post and linked it (see bottom of page), and I added this passage from the painter Grant Wood:

“The public does not realize, perhaps, the amount of work that goes into one painting before I begin to set it down on canvas. In my last picture, I spent two months–fourteen hours a day, including Sundays–sketching, making notes, rejecting ideas.” –Grant Wood

It’s all very wise and was meant to encourage me to push through a rough patch. But it really just made me feel  the complete opposite of encouraged. I wanted to go back to bed.

On a whim I googled “DELIGHT,” and it took me straight to J. B. Priestley’s book Delight, published in 1949. Not long ago my husband and I watched the 2018 film of Priestley’s play, An Inspector Calls, so this seemed like one of those synchronicities that we ought to pay attention to. I bought the book, downloaded it, and, well, was delighted.

In the preface, Priestley begins, “I have always been a grumbler.” He goes on to explain the benefits (the delights?) of a good grumble. But then we get 114 short chapters on what delights him: reading detective stories in bed, lighthouses, waking to the smell of bacon, the ironic principle, orchestras tuning up, making stew, departing guests. Some of it is a little dated (the stereoscope, wearing long trousers, and several chapters about the delights of smoking). But it’s also a window into Priestley’s time (1894-1984), bits of a lost world.

I’m rushing off to a task this morning (and finishing it will delight me), but here’s a post from another blog that does a better job than I have time for: https://www.stuckinabook.com/delight-jb-priestley/

And that’s your assignment for this week. Sure, I hope you sometimes push through, dig deep, suffer for your art, but meanwhile: what delights you? I’d love to hear about it.