August 30, 2011

Martin King: childhood memories and #100BLOGFEST

Martin King, author, and daring blogger, decided in the month of August to post 100 childhood memories: as he says, "roughly 3 a day." I found Martin through the wonderful Cathryn Wellner. You can link to her  and her childhood memory by Catching Courage in the margin of my blog: Excellent Friends and Heroes.

Here is Martin's lovely memory: a tribute to childhood and motherhood:

Did you ever have a problem with anyone nicking (our phrase for stealing) from you when you were younger? I did. I was only about eight at the time and my mum used to give me sweets that I left in my coat pockets. My coat was hung up in the cloak room.

So one day I came to get my chocolate bar (see blog # 80 for a discussion on your favourite sweets) to find it wasn’t there. So you get be excused for thinking that I had lost it on the way to school or aliens had visited earth and stolen it. But then it happened again and then again.

I told my mum about it and she was livid. But she concocted a cunning plan. She bought a packet of rolos and very carefully unwrapped the packet. Then she carefully injected mustard into them, through the little indent at the top so you couldn’t tell.

The next day I left my doctored rolos in my pocket. The trap was set. That lunch time I checked my pockets to find the tube of chocolate rolos had gone. The culprit had taken the bait. I never did find out who the light fingered person was, but from that day foreword, they never visited my coat pockets again.

Does that remind you of any jokes you may have tried? Tune in to further blogfest stories to see the one about the joke shop.

These blogs are all about fun and sharing. Thank you for reading a ‘#100blogfest’ blog. Please follow this link to find the next blog in the series:

When you link back to Martin's site, you will find other writers, whether published authors or not, who have joined him in the search for the willed word. And you will find me. I will post what I wrote for Martin  here soon as well. For now, link back to him and discover a world of memory.

August 21, 2011

The Beginners (a mini review of a flick), poetry and prose

Recently, I posted this Q.: Why Read Poetry? and I asserted that reading poetry will make you a better writer—and reader of fiction, memoir and non-fiction. You'll even enjoy film more if you begin to see the subtleties I argue for here.

A movie I've seen recently and that I hope is playing near you—actually I loved the film so that I saw it twice—proves what I assert here and proves it in spades: The Beginners, written and directed by Mike Mills (check out his Facebook page for the film) operates with the deftness and concreteness of a poem. The performances are terrific, but it is the screenplay that stuns. Watch the trailer by clicking on the title of the movie. Then run, don't walk to see it.

The movie itself is transformative because the concrete details of the lives of all the characters, even Arthur the Jack Russell terrier, are specific, non-generic and thus the movie achieves a startling universality about love, grief, living and beginning. And it earns all those abstractions I just used to describe it without ever using those words.

What I want to do here today is get you to that film and learn from Mike Mills.

I also want to show you what I mean. Again, the more concrete we are the better we communicate. Let me know how I do here.

Two quick and easy exercises will be my proof. I'll discuss both and I invite your comments and discussion:

Exercise one:

Make a list of feelings that come to mind. I've made a list of my own. Yours may be different, of course:

(This last may not seem like a feeling, but think about this one).

Exercise two:

Consider now these two brief lists and see if you think one list is better than the other, meaning more powerful, more punch, evocative:

List one:

1. A dozen long stemmed roses
2. The lion and the lamb
3. A black cat

List two:

1. An empty doorway and a maple leaf
2. The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea

Let's discuss

Exercise two, first: The two lines in List Two rely on both what you know and the surprise that you know it. 

The trite relies only on what you know—that is why the first three in List one are cliché or trite. That doesn't mean I don't want a dozen long stemmed roses. The roses do that work when you hold them in your hand from another's hand. What I mean is that the phrase a dozen long stem roses won't do much work for the proof of love. The Lion and the Lamb phrase skirts the line of the trite--and of course, William Blake made that image strikingly original in his poem "The Tyger." But then he compared the tiger to the lamb.

In both prose and poetry we should avoid the cliché unless we knowingly use it in dialogue or  want to take the cliché on, write about it and make it new in that way.

Exercise one: Much as these feelings, in your list and mine, are key to our conversation and how we may describe ourselves, these words are abstractions and poets and good prose writers use these words, of course, but with care. If you've ever taken a writing class, you probably know the old saw: The proof is in the details. As writers, we need to earn our abstract words. That means we need to prove them. If you write in abstractions or judgments, you are not writing concretely, You're not using the particulars that prove, and that proof is the foundation of fiction and poetry—and, as Mike Mills knows, a great screenplay. The "particular" is the building block for creating what John Gardner calls "the continuous dream."

Let's read a poem. The lines in List two above come from this poem that teaches us how to write:

Ars Poetica

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,
Here's a book worth owning

As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind—

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.

A poem should be equal to:
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—

A poem should not mean
But be.

—Archibald MacLeish

The Beginners by Mike Mills, the film that I'm wild about and the screenwriter I adore, leaves you breathless with the details of his deeply human characters, particular in their natures and their flaws—and the film does not mean; it breathes.

August 03, 2011

Why read poetry?

Recent research in Scotland shows that poetry is good for the brain, that reading and listening to poetry requires greater brain activity than reading prose, that it may help people with age-related memory problems, and children who are dislexic. If you clicked on the article from 2005, you know that I am not making this up.

From the article: Edwin Morgan, the nation’s official Makar, the Scottish equivalent of the poet laureate, added: "Writing poetry is almost a physical experience as well as mental. Children are rarely worried about extracting too much meaning from poems, but they seem to get a much deeper experience from it."

I don’t know much more about the research but I do know that the reading of poetry, in fact the reading of any truly good work of fiction or memoir, requires the reader to be deeply attentive, to make quick associations, to be part of what the poet Ed Hirsch has called a structured reverie (The American Poetry Review, July/August 1999), and to willingly suspend disbelief. These are all good things for the brain, let alone the heart. So take heart and read on.

A poem sits on the page in a decidedly different manner than prose. By this very fact, it’s hard to ignore that it is in a “form” that is meant to be noticed as part of the experience of reading the poem. The reader, like the poet Auden, asks himself this question in one of my favorite books The Dyer’s Hand (pp. 50-51) when he looks at the shape on the page: "Here is a verbal contraption. How does it work?” That’s the first question Auden asked himself when he read a poem. And it’s a good one.

In some sense, looking at a poem might be compared to looking at a painting. When you go to a museum and stand before a framed painting, you know instinctively that the form of what you are looking at is part and parcel of how it communicates to you. There is no way to separate those two: the form and its communication.

This is true of any poem but to make my point in blunt fashion look at Easter Wings by George Herbert, the master of the conceit or extended metaphor—here in heavy-handed manner—I’m not suggesting that form should be this blunt.

Easter Wings

 by George Herbert

 Lord, Who createdst man in wealth and store,
         Though foolishly he lost the same,
               Decaying more and more,
                       Till he became
                         Most poor:
                        With Thee
                       O let me rise,
               As larks, harmoniously,
         And sing this day Thy victories:
 Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

 My tender age in sorrow did begin:
   And still with sicknesses and shame
         Thou didst so punish sin,
                   That I became
                    Most thin.
                    With Thee
                 Let me combine,
       And feel this day Thy victory;
     For, if I imp[1] my wing on Thine,
 Affliction shall advance the flight in me.

[1] A term from falconry: to mend the damaged wing of a hawk by grafting to it feathers from another bird.

Read Poetry to Write Better Prose

If the fact that a poem sits on the page in a form is so obvious, why do I think it’s so important to talk about? Because form, what form your writing will take, how form informs meaning, indeed how form is inseparable from meaning, are keys to writing both poetry and prose. Poetry helps focus the issue and the questions that surround it for us.

Understanding how form operates in poetry will make you a better prose writer and any poet worth his salt knows that form and meaning must be inseparable for the poem to succeed. This is as true for poetry written in a prescribed form (the sonnet, the villanelle, for example) as it is for free verse. But you may still conclude that poetry is more trouble than it’s worth. And you are not alone. The poet Marianne Moore said about poetry: “I too dislike it. There are things more important beyond all this fiddle.” From her poem “Poetry”—a sort of manifesto on what not to do in a poem.

How a Bad Teacher Turned You Off Poetry?

Sadly, few people buy poetry books. So, how could there be very many people reading it? If you’re among the minority who are reading it, I hereby honor you.

But I also say that if you’re not, it’s not your fault. I fault a lot of bad teachers of poetry for the state of poetry reading today. They are on my list of people who should get their just desserts because they had a captive audience and they taught how NOT to read poetry.

They made you hunt for messages and themes. This produces readers who won’t go near a poem and it also produces writers of awful poetry. A better suggestion than the hunt for meaning would be Auden’s second question when he read a poem: “What kind of guy inhabits this poem?” That’s a good one to remember and he elaborates on it: “What is his notion of the good life or the good place? His notion of the Evil one? What does he conceal from the reader? What does he even conceal from himself? (W.H. Auden, “Making, Know and Judging” The Dryer’s Hand, p. 51).

A poem is not a very good poem if the only reason we read it is for the message. Or to put it more simply, if a prose statement would be better than the poem or at least as good, the poem isn’t very good. Fiction or poetry that is purely idea driven won’t succeed for the reader. So, if you read a poem and are uncertain how to sum it up neatly, how to state its so-called theme, you’re not confused, you’re wise. Its layered complexity of meaning is why it’s worth rereading, why it gives pleasure, breaks open again and again in different ways and why it can’t easily be summed up with a “message.” This is not to say that the poem doesn’t have anything to say. It is to say that a good poem has more than one thing to say.

The poet cannot speak in abstraction. He must be concrete. The reader must quite literally see what you mean. A good poet to read on this is Wesley MacNair in this essay:  "Advice for Beginning Poets". 

But how do we go about understanding how the poem is made, let alone attempting to write one? It seems to me  the answer lies partly in understanding something about its “form.” Both the poet and the prose writer will benefit from knowing something about the form of poetry. You may be thinking at this point, But what about free verse? My answer comes from one of its masters, T.S. Eliot, who said “… no verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job. … [A] great deal of bad prose has been written under the name of free verse …. [O]nly a bad poet could welcome free verse as a liberation from form. (from his essay “The Music of Poetry” On Poetry and Poets, p. 31.)

I have much more to say about this, but suffice it now that I add this note to close: Poetry is poetry because rhythm drives the poem, is essential to its meaning—even if that rhythm doesn’t follow a prescribed form. You know it’s a poem when you see it , of course, but primarily, you know it’s a poem because you hear its rhythm. 

And if you write fiction or memoir, rhythm is key to the your voice.

Read Poetry:

To make your brain stronger.
To become a better writer

Most important, read poetry for the reason William Carlos Williams gave us in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”:

My heart rouses

               thinking to bring you news
                              of something
that concerns you
                 and concerns many men. Look at
                                  what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
                despised poems.
                               It is difficult
to get the news from poems
                 yet men die miserably every day
                                 for lack
of what is found there.