Tuesday, March 27, 2007

This Actually Happened!

Slate has an interesting dialogue this week between poets Dan Chiasson and Meghan O’Rourke on autobiography and poetry, as part of a “Memoir Week.” What most interests me is not really the issue of autobiography and memoir, but what Dan Chiasson calls “the reality guarantee”:

But what about when writers play to the readerly preference for facts? Here we are on riskier grounds. “This actually happened!” writes Allen Ginsberg at the end of “Howl,” of a story so fantastical—a man jumps off the Brooklyn Bridge and walks away unharmed—that we might otherwise categorize it as “surreal.” But if we DID categorize it that way, it would be just another one of the marvelous, incandescent, surreal details in “Howl”—nice but forgettable. Because Ginsberg underwrites it with this remarkable assertion—”this actually happened”—(and because, importantly, he says that only ONCE in the whole poem) the bridge-jumping episode becomes, for me, the most powerful thing in the poem. It’s as though the curtain parted and the “real” Ginsberg, suddenly playing by the ordinary rules of “factual” depiction, addressed the “real” reader.

This move—let’s call it the “reality guarantee”—needn’t be so explicit as saying, “This actually happened.” There are other ways to cue a documentary response in readers, other terms of the documentary contract. The visually ingenious detail, so real it feels like a snapshot (the doilies, for example, in Elizabeth Bishop’s “Filling Station”) or the affective detail so open and attractive as to feel “artless” (as when Frank O’Hara says “fun” in the first line of “Having a Coke with You”). And there are acts of strong intimacy, like Hopkins when he tells God, “I am gall, I am heartburn,” or like Herbert’s when (in “The Flower”) he exclaims, “Who would have thought my shriveled heart / Could have recovered greenness.” Or take it further back: you mention Sappho. When Sappho describes turning “greener than grass” at the sight of her beloved in the presence of a man, or when the anonymous poets of the Greek Anthology proclaim across the millennia, “I press my lips to yours.” These moments read as “real,” no matter what cultural or historical distance intervenes, and I must say, these moments are more or less what I look for in poems.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Whine Glass--Half Empty

I know it's because I had a lousy night -- awoken at least four times by my own internals, by the cat outside, by the tightening and tightening of the chains of our quotidian constraints -- but I'm having an awful hard time doing what I need to do today. I don't need anyone to remind me that I am in the larger existential sense lucky. And I don't really think there's any cosmic force weighing things, allowing this much angst for that much fortune. But I'm worried. I'm worried that at this stage of life we haven't figured out how to play the game well enough to win more than we lose. I'm worried because my strength is failing me. It's not even that I don't want to fight any more, but that the wear and tear is killing me. Three steps up and two down, two steps up and three down. How long can one bear this?

I'll stop, I promise. The day is lovely. Maybe later on today I will be able to nap and probably the world will then improve. Maybe there will be a letter, a phone call, an email that will help me see it.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Just Musing

I know, it's been forever since I've posted anything here, but I couldn't resist responding to a message about poetry and muses on the Warren Wilson listserv so I'll post it here too.

Hey, Carlen, sometime last week you asked, “If any of you believe in a Muse (or muses), what is it you believe?” I’ve been thinking about this, as I really do believe in a muse. I suppose I believe in an inner figure who is not me and who I’d damn well better treat as real if I care about my writing. It’s rather corny but (like Greg, as I recall) I’ve been influenced by James Hillman. It may be corny but I think it works. When I’ve felt stuck in my writing it’s really helped me to sit and write a dialogue with my muse. In fact I think the corniness and the shallowness and the whole intellectual shamefulness of it is part of its essence. I think we’ve got to be willing to look stupid in order to be creative. I think we need less Derrida and more Mary had a little lamb.

Anyway, if you’re interested in reading further, here’s a short excerpt from Hillman’s Healing Fiction:

The next example is from an elderly man, well past sixty, who came from abroad after his wife had died. He had no children. He came to Zurich, took a little room, and began studying everything psychological that he could lay his hands on. He kept a journal. Here is an entry from the journal:

“August 27. Still so cold, I cooked a hot lunch, then back to Neumann. After a while my attention wandered and I heard a clear young voice say, “Where have you been staying, Father?” It could have been the voice of a boy or a girl. If I jump to the conclusion that because of the letter from B, the dream father is dead, then I can now take the father role. I am becoming a father. If it was a boy talking, then is he the divine child in me? Or what? If it was a girl, then presumably she will be an anima figure? But why do I become her father? I am lost ... Later: Since the above, I tried to contact the voice with all the most inviting phrases I could summon, but to no avail. Just sit back and love the voice, you old fool. Relax.”

I do believe you have felt this man’s simple and rather tragic mistake. It is simple because all he would have had to do was hear the child’s question—where has he been?—and try to respond to it. And it is tragic in that he answered the voice by psychologisms and interpretations, that is, he used psychology against the soul. ... The child did not say ‘love me.’ It asked him, loud and clear, where have you been staying, father. He missed the moment. All his beseeching and cajoling could not bring it back ....

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Other echoes / Inhabit the garden

… shall we follow them? A lovely lamb-like March day, almost 60° -- not as warm as the next few days are forecast. I opened the shades in my office that I need to keep closed in the morning to see the monitor and looked out at the garden. One of the Douglas irises was in bloom, so I went out to look at it. Outside, I saw that another had bloomed and gone already, without my seeing it. Hopefully, John saw it, and the Greta sniffed at it. But it made me sad that my life is so busy and in turmoil that I'd missed it entirely. Maybe this weekend we can put in some time out back.

Elsewhere in the garden is a volcanic-type rock with a hole in it. A calla lily is blooming straight through the hole. Well, okay, I suspect John set that up to happen but still, it's neat, isn't it?

Here's a question that needs to be asked: If you have submitted a ms. to a competition one year, is it worth resubmitting it the next year if it's unchanged or hardly changed?

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Stay-at-home Cinderella

Well, I wish I'd been to AWP, though I would probably be a hundred times green with envy and consumed by desire to be read and admired. But I would rather be anywhere than in my little life right now, for reasons I'm not at liberty … Though I love my John, my son and his sweetie, and my dog.

If I can drum up any excuse, I'll be at the next one in NYC, the city that is like someone I sort of knew a long time ago. And I will see if the old haunts are still haunted -- or there.