I Am: Episode 9 — Edwin Thumboo
“Nursery rhymes teach you a number of things. Firstly, rhythm. And nursery rhymes, of course, have a certain quantity of absurdity in them. And that helps you to understand: How do children accept our adult world given the mess, given the terrible things that happened? And I think they see it as a kind of parody.”
“[T]he secret of a good teacher is to treat his students, his pupils as young adults, and on an equality.”
“Never assume your poem is complete. Always keep on trying. And you must always write at the limit of your ability. You’ve got to be adventurous. You’ve got to be willing to fracture the language, but you must have a good reason for it.”
“One of the strongest sources of the sense of self is when you meet others who are different, and difference strengthens identity, your own identity. And going overseas has got two advantages. Firstly, you’re away from home, and you can, as it were, look at yourself. And secondly, you’re looking at yourself in a different context. You learn, you observe, you see difference, and difference is what generates new ideas, new perceptions.”
“Start with an idea. The idea attracts words [and] develops. You use language to explore and expand your theme, and your theme, as it expands, makes new demands, and these demands test your language again, challenge your language. So there’s this dialectical process that goes on. And you revise, and you revise, and you revise. You add, you reject. In other words, you use words as an instrument of sculpture. You sculpture a poem.”
“A poet can do worse than to remind us that kindness to others may not only be the right thing to do, but the effective thing, too.”
— Alexander McCall Smith, What WH Auden can teach us in times of crisis
“Poets may not at a stroke change the course of events but they may provide enlightening commentary and may prompt those who actually do change things to reflect on their actions. Most of all, they may provide some comfort and some sense of value in a world that may seem frighteningly dangerous.”
— Alexander McCall Smith, What WH Auden can teach us in times of crisis
“Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language. Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss. But it had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech. It went through. It gave me no words for what was happening, but went through it. Went through and could resurface, ‘enriched’ by it all.
In this language I tried, during those years and the years after, to write poems: in order to speak, to orient myself, to find out where I was, where I was going, to chart my reality.
It meant movement, you see, something happening, being en route, an attempt to find a direction. Whenever I ask about the sense of it, I remind myself that this implies the question as to which sense is clockwise.
For the poem does not stand outside time. True, it claims the infinite and tries to reach across time — but across, not above.
A poem, being an instance of language, hence essentially dialogue, may be a letter in a bottle thrown out to sea with the — surely not always strong — hope that it may somehow wash up somewhere, perhaps on a shoreline of the heart. In this way, too, poems are en route: they are headed toward.
Toward what? Toward something open, inhabitable, an approachable you, perhaps, an approachable reality.
Such realities are, I think, at stake in a poem.
I also believe that this kind of thinking accompanies not only my own efforts, but those of other, younger poets. Efforts of those who, with man-made stars flying overhead, unsheltered even by the traditional tent of the sky, exposed in an unsuspected, terrifying way, carry their existence into language, racked by reality and in search of it.”
— Paul Celan, “Speech on the Occasion of Receiving the Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen,” Collected Prose (translated by Rosemarie Waldrop)
“I decided false illusion would be the truth: two negatives make an affirmative.”
“It is not the object described that matters, but the light that falls on it, like that from a lamp in a distant room.”
Jerome Brooks: [I]s writing easy for you? Or do you find it difficult?
Chinua Achebe: The honest answer is, it’s difficult. But the word difficult doesn’t really express what I mean. It is like wrestling; you are wrestling with ideas and with the story. There is a lot of energy required. At the same time, it is exciting. So it is both difficult and easy. What you must accept is that your life is not going to be the same while you are writing. I have said in the kind of exaggerated manner of writers and prophets that writing, for me, is like receiving a term of imprisonment—you know that’s what you’re in for, for whatever time it takes. So it is both pleasurable and difficult.
“The language of science was unsatisfying to me. ‘The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it’s comprehensible,’ Einstein said. But I don’t think human relationships are ever fully comprehensible. They can clarify for small, beautiful moments, but then they change. Unlike a scientific experiment with rigorous, controlled parameters, our lives are boundless and shifting. And there’s never an end to the story. We need more than science—we need storytelling to capture that kind of complexity, that kind of incomprehensibility.”
— Jennifer Percy, in ‘Life Keeps Changing’: Why Stories, Not Science, Explain the World by Joe Fassler
“I don’t think writers are supposed to give answers or explain characters fully. We are supposed to describe and expose problems. You don’t have to name the character’s problem, just describe its effects. That makes the wounds more resonant, more suggestive, so people can relate to them.”
“[Literature] does educate us about life. I wouldn’t be the person I am, I wouldn’t understand what I understand, were it not for certain books. I’m thinking of the great question of nineteenth-century Russian literature: how should one live? A novel worth reading is an education of the heart. It enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world. It’s a creator of inwardness.”
“Successful writers are not the ones who write the best sentences. They are the ones who keep writing. They are the ones who discover what is most important and strangest and most pleasurable in themselves, and keep believing in the value of their work, despite the difficulties.”
— Bonnie Friedman (via poetsandwriters)
“The mistakes I tend to make in my first draft are too many adjectives. When I type it up and look at it, I try to take out half the adjectives and a third of the self-pity.”
From “Place” by Dorothy Allison in The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House. Tin House Books: 2009.
“[M]an is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth. But the key question for men is not about their own authorship; I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’ We enter human society, that is with one or more imputed characters—roles into which we have been drafted—and we have to learn what they are in order to be able to understand how others respond to us and how our responses to them are apt to be construed. It is through hearing stories about wicked stepmothers, lost children, good but misguided kings, wolves that suckle twin boys, youngest sons who receive no inheritance but must make their own way in the world and eldest sons who waste their inheritance on riotous living and go into exile to live with the swine, that children learn or mislearn both what a child and what a parent is, what the cast of characters may be in the drama into which they have been born and what the ways of the world are. Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words. Hence there is no way to give us an understanding of any society, including our own, except through the stock of stories which constitute its initial dramatic resources. Mythology, in its original sense, is at the heart of things. Vico was right and so was Joyce. And so too of course is that moral tradition from heroic society to its medieval heirs according to which the telling of stories has a key part in educating us into the virtues.”
— Alasdair MacIntyre, “The Virtues, the Unity of a Human Life and the Concept of a Tradition,” After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory
“We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel—or have done and thought and felt; or might do and think and feel—is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become. A person who had never known another human being could not be introspective any more than a terrier can, or a horse; he might (improbably) keep himself alive, but he could not know anything about himself, no matter how long he lived with himself. And a person who had never listened to nor read a tale or myth or parable or story, would remain ignorant of his own emotional and spiritual heights and depths, would not know quite fully what it is to be human. For the story—from Rumpelstiltskin to War and Peace—is one of the basic tools invented by the mind of man, for the purpose of gaining understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”
— Ursula K. Le Guin, “Prophets and Mirrors: Science Fiction as a Way of Seeing,” The Living Light 7:3 (Fall 1970) (via hours)