Sunday, September 17, 2017

Ending Somewhere Different Than Where You Began

One of the key strategies in a work of literature is to start deliberately from a certain extreme place, and then end somewhere opposite by the end. In fiction or drama, this could involve a character or characters having a certain goal or outlook, and then finishing with an almost opposite state of mind by the climax of the story. An example would be George Orwell’s Animal Farm, where the animals begin with an idealistic and egalitarian rebellion, and then their revolution becomes increasing compromised until the leaders of the farm are chowing down with the same farmers they overthrew.

In poetry, this transition from Point A to Point B often involves starting with a certain mood, emotion, or idea, and then shifting almost 180 degrees by the end of the poem. An example of a poem that does this beautifully is Robert Hass’s “Meditation at Lagunitas.” 

Robert Hass
At the start of the poem, the speaker defines a way of thinking that is current and popular in intellectual and artistic circles: “All the new thinking is about loss.” Hass goes on to describe how this sense of belonging to a fallen world without meaning has become pervasive:

The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea.…

…Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.

At this point in the poem, we have hit a low point, a world in which even common words no longer seem to have any fixed or real significance, an idea that many contemporary writers and philosophers have propounded, such as the structuralist thinker Jacques Lacan, whose work became trendy in universities in the 1980s and 90s. 

But even as Robert Hass describes this idea, he starts to inch the poem in a different direction. Notice how carefully he describes the “bramble of blackberry.” The precise and original language he uses throughout builds a foundation that words actually are capable of describing something real.

The turning point in the poem comes in the next section:

After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you and I. There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
called pumpkinseed.

It’s one thing to give some credence to the idea that the word blackberry has lost its meaning, but when Hass adds the phrases woman, you and I, this suddenly calls up a memory for the speaker of an actual romantic encounter, with its unforgettable and remarkable particulars. Hass conveys the specifics of how that lovemaking felt on an emotional and spiritual level so clearly that we are no longer in the bloodless realm of philosophical skepticism. We are in a world where certain realities are too specific and compelling to be denied, and those facts sweep along with them even the almost trivial memories of the pleasure boat and the fish called pumpkinseed, the way a river’s current carries in it all sorts of flotsam.

The poem then concludes with almost a complete reversal of the world as initially described. Now the undeniable reality of that romantic episode ripples through all words, giving substance to the smallest mundane things:

There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

Initially the blackberry was the perfect example of how words have become trivial and have lost their meaning. In just 31 lines, Robert Hass has taken us all the back way around to a state of grace where an everyday occurence, such as saying the word blackberry, testifies to the possibility of goodness and meaning in the world.


To make this point more generally, often when we writers are struggling with a draft, we haven’t yet found the potential opposites in the work. Those opposites can be implicit in an early draft, but buried. The challenge is to heighten and bring forward those contrasts, even if they seem extreme and scary. By emphasizing those polarities, and by being open to ending at a completely different point than where we started, we can surprise ourselves and the reader with a realization that can suddenly appear at the end, as unlikely as a rabbit in a top hat.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka, The Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Poetic Forms: The Villanelle

The villanelle is a beautiful and haunting form that began in French and took on its present shape in the mid-nineteenth century, according to Amanda French. It’s a demanding form in many ways. The first and third lines of the villanelle have to repeat throughout the poem in a set order. If the poet uses rhyme, only two rhymes are permitted in the entire poem.

The villanelle was originally a song form for country dances. The name derives from the Italian villano, which means “peasant” or “boor.” But there is nothing boorish about this form. It is very much like a country dance, though, with its deliberate repetitions and variations. Folk dances often take the participants through a series of steps that mirror one another from different angles and with different partners, but then wind up more or less where they started. 

French country dance
Here’s a video of a charming traditional French folk dance, for example, that has a theme and variations pattern similar to a villanelle. The pattern of the villanelle makes much more sense when you think about its origins in folk dance.

The Academy of American Poets website describes the form this way:

“The highly structured villanelle is a nineteen-line poem with two repeating rhymes and two refrains. The form is made up of five tercets followed by a quatrain. The first and third lines of the opening tercet are repeated alternately in the last lines of the succeeding stanzas; then in the final stanza, the refrain serves as the poem’s two concluding lines. Using capitals for the refrains and lowercase letters for the rhymes, the form could be expressed as: A1 b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 A2.” 

Of course, slight variations on the repeated lines are allowed, even encouraged.

You’ve undoubtedly seen villanelles, even if you weren’t aware that was the form you were reading. Some of the most famous villanelles in English are “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas, and Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.”

The most challenging aspect of the villanelle, from my standpoint, is that the refrains, the two lines that repeat, have to occur four times each in the space of the poem’s nineteen lines. Not only that, the two refrains have to rhyme.

One approach to these limitations is to choose refrains that are fairly general, and can reoccur in several contexts without stretching their meaning. W.H. Auden, for example, in his villanelle “If I Could Tell You,” begins his poem:

Time will say nothing but I told you so,
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

Lines as general as “Time will say nothing but I told you so,” and  “If I could tell you I would let you know,” can make sense in many contexts, and Auden ingeniously creates several settings for these lines in his poem. 

W. H. Auden
That flexibility is a plus of a vanilla refrain. On the other hand, choosing fairly neutral refrains means that eight of your poem’s nineteen lines are something of a throwaway in terms of their poetic energy. 

To me, a more exciting solution to the villanelle’s restrictions is to pick two absolutely killer lines that bear repeating four times each. Dylan Thomas accomplishes this brilliantly:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

In the first four words of the poem, he strategically violates the rules of grammar by using “gentle” instead of the adverb “gently” to modify the verb “go.” He also creates a sonorous but not predictable alliteration with “go,” “gentle,” and “good.” He embeds a paradox in just eight words: the “good night” is actually something to be resisted.

In Dylan Thomas’s second refrain, the repetition of the powerful word “Rage” at the start is unforgettable. It also adds assonance to the word “rave” in the previous line. “Light” and “night” are a dynamic pairing for the two main rhymes in the poem. 

The problem with the killer refrain is that it has to be complex enough—linguistically and emotionally—to merit all those repetitions.


Keep in mind that once you’ve written the first tercet, you’ve also written the last two lines of your villanelle, so plan ahead. Your two refrains have to work not only as a beginning but as an ending, and they have to continually surprise the reader. Easier said than done!

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Patti Smith’s M Train: Focus on the Heart of Your Story

I recently listened to the audiobook of Patti Smith reading her own M Train. The book is a memoir about various pilgrimages that the singer/songwriter has made in recent years, particularly journeys related to literary figures she deeply admires.

The pilgrimage I loved reading about was the first one she narrates, an unlikely trip to Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni in French Guiana, the godforsaken site of a prison that was the transfer point to the infamous Devil’s Island. Patti Smith and her husband Fred “Sonic” Smith travel there to gather stones from the prison, stones that she later places on the grave of the French writer Jean Genet, who lamented that his own jail sentence came too late to experience that most legendary of penal colonies.

Patti Smith and Family
I also really enjoyed Patti Smith’s account of a meeting in Berlin of the CDC (Continental Drift Club), an international society of 27 members dedicated to the memory of Alfred Wegener, an obscure but notable geophysicist who died on an ill-fated expedition to Greenland. Wegener was seeking evidence for his now widely accepted theory that the continents were originally all part of one connected landmass. The members of this society are known only by a number, and Patti Smith is an unexpected addition to this lovable collection of geology nerds. It’s a wonderful vignette.  

After several of these literary hajj narratives, though, I started to get bored. There’s only so many times I can hear about Patti Smith laying flowers on the graves of dead writers, all but one of them male. Her adulation of these writers, much as I also revere them, becomes somewhat sophomoric.

What I think Patti Smith loses in M Train is the heart of her story: her relationship with her husband, the MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith. The most moving parts of M Train for me are the times when Patti Smith lifts the curtain and we see the deep love she and her husband shared—Patti giving up her dream of opening a literary café in New York to move to Detroit to be close to Fred, the boat that they owned in Michigan that didn’t float but that they spent time in together in their yard, his untimely death at age 45. Why isn’t there more in M Train about how they met, how they fell in love, what it was like to lose a husband so young, how their kids reacted to his passing?


I realize those are moments that she may not feel like imparting to strangers. I love and admire Patti Smith as an artist, but I feel that she let this book get away from her when she declined to tackle those more personal scenes. The lesson here for writers is that you’ve got to look your story right in the eyes. Don’t get distracted by its cool hat or shoes. Stick to the emotional heart of your story.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration

Saturday, July 29, 2017

George Orwell’s Response to “Alternative Facts”

On January 22, 2017, two days after the inauguration of Donald Trump, counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway used the phrase “alternative facts” as a way of describing lies. She was referring to the White House press secretary’s providing false estimates for the crowd that attended the inauguration.
This idea of “alternative facts” is actually not unique to the Trump administration. Although that term is new, the dictatorships that dominated Europe in the mid-twentieth century, the Nazi regime of Adolph Hitler and the Soviet government of Josef Stalin, were no strangers to “alternative facts.” Those two authoritarian states regularly issued pronouncements and provided information that they knew were not true.
One of the greatest literary champions of truth in the face of these threats was George Orwell, who died all too soon at age 46 in 1950. 

George Orwell
Orwell, author of 1984 and Animal Farm, spent the final years of his life revealing in those two novels how dictatorships contort the truth to achieve their ends. In his book England Your England, composed largely after the end of World War II and the fall of Hitler, Orwell analyzed the effects of how Nazism and Russian communism constantly used “alternative facts” to promote their ends:
“Indifference to objective truth is encouraged by the sealing-off of one part of the world from another, which makes it harder and harder to discover what is actually happening. There can often be a genuine doubt about the most enormous events. For example, it is impossible to calculate within millions, perhaps even tens of millions, the number of deaths caused by the war. [World War II] The calamities that were constantly being reported—battles, massacres, famines, revolutions—tended to inspire in the average person a feeling of unreality. One had no way of verifying the facts, one was not even fully certain they had happened, and one was always presented with totally different interpretations from different sources….Probably the truth is discoverable, but the facts will be so dishonestly set forth…that the ordinary reader can be forgiven either for swallowing lies or for failing to form an opinion. The general uncertainty as to what is really happening makes it easier to cling to lunatic beliefs. Since nothing is ever quite proved or disproved, the most unmistakable fact can be impudently denied.” (p. 54)
This analysis describes all-too accurately the state of truth in the current era of “alternative facts.” The government in Washington baldly denies even the most obvious facts—the existence of global warming and climate change, the size of a crowd on the Mall in DC, the effects of a bill that deprives millions of people of their health insurance, the absence of widespread voter fraud in the United States, etc.. It’s frightening that the other examples of governments that use these tactics are two of the worst dictatorships in history.
What does Orwell recommend that writers do in response to governments denying obvious truths? He advocates political action, but interestingly, he cautions that opposition to regimes that embrace falsehoods can also lead to fanaticism and dogmatic ideas if we embrace activism without reflection:
“To suggest that a creative writer, in a time of conflict, must split his life into two compartments, may seem defeatist or frivolous: yet in practice I do not see what else he can do. To lock yourself up in the ivory tower is impossible and undesirable. To yield subjectively, not merely to a party machine, but even to a group ideology, is to destroy yourself as a writer. We feel this dilemma to be a painful one, because we see the need of engaging in politics while also seeing what a dirty, degrading business it is. And most of us still have a lingering belief that  every choice, is between good and evil, and that if a thing is necessary it is also right. We should, I think, get rid of this belief, which belongs to the nursery. In politics one can never do more than decide which of two evils is the less, and there are some situations from which one can only escape by acting like a devil or a lunatic. War, for example, may be necessary, but it is certainly not right or sane. Even a general election is not exactly a pleasant or edifying spectacle. If you have to take part in such things—and I think you do have to, unless you are armoured by old age or stupidity or hypocrisy—then you also have to keep part of yourself inviolate.” (p. 25)

In other words, writers have to curb the temptation to oppose fanatics with an equally fanatical ideology. We must act, and not be paralyzed by ethical dilemmas. But we must never let go of our critical and moral judgments, even if we have to bracket them in order to undo a terrible evil.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration

Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Motown Last Dollar Choice and What It Means for Writers


Not long ago I was fortunate enough to visit the Motown Museum in Detroit, also called Hitsville U.S.A. 

The Motown Museum, Detroit

At the end of the guided tour through the museum, I got to stand in Studio A where a huge number of the greatest songs of the last half century were recorded (photo below).


These were hits sung by Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Martha and the Vandelas, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye…the list goes on and on. So many of these incredibly talented artists were all living in Detroit at the same time in the mid- and late-1960s. That period reminds me of Florence during the Renaissance—Motown Records brought together that sort of concentration of artistic genius all in one place and time.

Our tour guide, Cecilia (the liveliest tour guide ever!),  told us an intriguing story about a decision-making strategy that Motown Records used at its height, a method that I think has important implications for writers. Every Friday morning, the entire Motown community—recording artists, executives, and staff would sit down for a weekly meeting. They would play the tapes of the songs that the singers and musicians had recorded that week and they would ask themselves as a group one key question about that song:

If you were down to your last dollar, would you buy this record or would you buy a sandwich?

If the answer was the record, they would release it. If the answer was the sandwich, it was back to the studio to continue working.

There is something refreshing and honest about this standard. It cuts through a lot of the pretention and gimickry that often plagues the arts.

I wonder how many poets and writers would be willing to subject their work to a similar metric? As a poet, I think there are all-too-many poems that could never in a million years hope to approach that standard. Are there any poems that could reach that bar?

I think there are some poems that are more nourishing to the soul than a sandwich would be to the body. I have my own list (see below), but that list would be different for each person.

I wonder how often we challenge ourselves to write a poem or other work of literature that would reach that bar, and whether we even should? I do think there are poems that contain such an important life lesson, and/or use language in such a beautiful and succinct way, that I would pick them over a pesto chicken Panini on an empty stomach.

I think few of us attempt to write in a way that is so universal and compelling because we are distracted by our own stories, our experiments with language, and our own preoccupations. There is also the danger of writing in a way that ends up being corny, or sententious, and those are unpardonable sins in contemporary art. We are so obsessed with authenticity and originality. I think we should be more tolerant of writers who err on the side of being preachy or schmaltzy, because they should be given credit for making the attempt at creating a poem that someone would pick over a sandwich. Academic criticism can be unforgiving of a writer such as Mary Oliver, who can go over the top with her Buddhist life-lesson poems collected in walks in the woods, but I salute her for trying to say something deep and universal, even if she only succeeds some of the time.

Here are the poems that come to my mind as reaching the poem-over-sandwich bar:

William Blake “The Tyger”
Chana Bloch “The Joins”
André Breton “Always for the first time” from The Air of the Water
Robert Desnos “No, Love Is Not Dead”
T.S. Eliot “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Hollow Men”
Tess Gallagher “Each Bird Walking”
Federico García Lorca “Sleepwalking Ballad” (or “Somnambule Ballad”) and “Gacela of Unforeseen Love”
Allen Ginsberg “America”
Langston Hughes “Mother to Son”
Frank Paino “Each Bone of the Body”
Edgar Allen Poe “Annabel Lee” and “The Raven”
Kenneth Rexroth, tanka translated in One Hundred Poems from the Japanese
Wislawa Szymborska “True Love”
Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
Yosano Akiko, various tanka from Midaregami, including “tell me this evening as you gaze eastward…,” “my hands cover my breasts…,” “early evening moon rising over a field of flowers…”


Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration