Advice to young poets from Saeed Jones.
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“There is a certain kind of fascination, a strictly artistic fascination, which arises from a matter being hinted at in such a way as to leave a certain tormenting uncertainty even at the end. It is well sometimes to half understand a poem in the same manner that we half understand the world. One of the deepest and strangest of all human moods is the mood which will suddenly strike us perhaps in a garden at night, or deep in sloping meadows, the feeling that every flower and leaf has just uttered something stupendously direct and important, and that we have by a prodigy of imbecility not heard or understood it. There is a certain poetic value, and that a genuine one, in this sense of having missed the full meaning of things. There is beauty, not only in wisdom, but in this dazed and dramatic ignorance.”
— G. K. Chesterton, “Browning as a Literary Artist,” Robert Browning (via anotherword)
by: Joyce Kilmer
from: Trees and Other Poems
(For Mrs. Henry Mills Alden)
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
“Real poets, I think, turn the outer world into the inner world and vice versa. Poets always have to be outside, in the world—a poet can’t close himself in his studio. His workshop is in his head and he has to be sensitive to words and how words apply to realities. It’s a state of mind. A poet’s state of mind is seeing the world with a kind of double exposure, seeing undertones and overtones, seeing the world as it is. Every intelligent person, whether he’s an artist or not—a mathematician, a doctor, a scientist—possesses a poetic way of seeing and describing the world.”
“Literature itself is the society thinking.”
— Marilynne Robinson, The Workshop as Phenomenon, June 9, 2011, The Englert Theatre, Iowa City, Iowa, The Iowa Writers’ Workshop 75th Anniversary Reunion
Henri Cole: Don’t you argue in an essay—using the example of Jesus writing in the sand—that poetry has the power to suspend violence? You suggest that it wasn’t important what Jesus wrote in the sand, but it was the unexpected gesture of his turning away from the stoning of a prostitute and writing in the sand that stops the stoning or suspends it.
Seamus Heaney: Yes. Debate doesn’t really change things. It gets you bogged in deeper. If you can address or reopen the subject with something new, something from a different angle, then there is some hope. In Northern Ireland, for example, a new metaphor for the way we are positioned, a new language would create new possibility. I’m convinced of that. So when I invoke Jesus writing in the sand, it’s as an example of this kind of diverting newness. He does something that takes the eyes away from the obsession of the moment. It’s a bit like a magical dance.
Cole: It’s a marvelous trope for writing.
Heaney: People are suddenly gazing at something else and pausing for a moment. And for the duration of that gaze and pause, they are like reflectors of the totality of their own knowledge and/or ignorance. That’s something poetry can do for you, it can entrance you for a moment above the pool of your own consciousness and your own possibilities.
— The Art of Poetry No. 75 (an interview with Seamus Heaney by Henri Cole)
“In Poetry and the World, I wrote: ‘Poetry is the most bodily of the arts.’ […] I realized that for me the medium of poetry is the column of breath rising from the diaphragm to be shaped into meaning sounds inside the mouth. That is, poetry’s medium is the individual chest and throat and mouth of whoever undertakes to say the poem—a body.”
“Here, then, are some words of advice on language, intended for those who would like to exercise ‘reflection and choice’ [Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist] as human beings and citizens, rather than be the manipulated victims of ‘accident and force.’ [ibid.] I’ll make just four points, though I could mention many more.
First: Learn the precise meanings, the spellings, the etymologies, the histories of the language you use. These are all related. The pitfalls of inattention to these things are around us everywhere, often in common everyday metaphors—like, for instance, ‘pitfall.’ Heaven knows how many times I have read the phrase ‘they were given free reign,’ with ‘reign’ spelled R-E-I-G-N rather than R-E-I-N, signalling that the writer does not know that the metaphor comes from riding a horse and loosening one’s control on it by freeing it from the reins. ‘Free reign’ with a G is, perhaps, close to what one is trying to say, but it isn’t the real McCoy. A small example? Perhaps. But from small things, big things one day come.
Second: Strive to be plain and direct in your own writing and speaking, with an active voice, and no reliance on buzzwords, catchphrases, or bureaucratic barbarisms. Richard Mitchell uses the example of Winston Churchill’s great speech rallying the British people in World War II, as they wondered whether Nazi Germany would invade their country. The prime minister memorably said: ‘We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills.’ Mitchell rewrote the lines as a modern bureaucrat would have expressed them:
Consolidated defensive positions and essential pre-planned withdrawal facilities are to be provided in order to facilitate maximum potentialization for the repulsion and/or delay of incursive combatants in each of several pre-identified categories of location deemed suitable to the emplacement and/or debarkation of hostile military contingents.
Contrast Churchill’s lean, rhythmic, repetitive, and defiant call to arms with this mass of stupidity. If language has power, the only power this stuff has is to put the listener to sleep.
Third: Plain direct expression is not the enemy of complex thinking, nor of beauty. Here I turn to the great twentieth-century English mystery writer, essayist, and translator of Dante, Dorothy L. Sayers, who said:
We think that correctness and comeliness do not matter, provided we say what we mean; unaware that without correctness and comeliness we cannot say what we mean, but often say more, or less, or the complete opposite.
And I will rely on Sayers again, for a point I could not possibly put so well as she:
The test of good writing is a simple one. If a sentence puzzles or startles you, pull it to pieces. If it is good writing, then the harder you pull, the more tightly you will discover it to be woven together, and the more closely you examine it, the more meaning it will yield. But it if tumbles to bits easily—if you find its syntax dislocated, its epithets imprecise, its meaning vague or contradictory—then it is bad, and should be quickly thrown into the dustbin of oblivion; one should not keep rubbish lying about in the house of the mind.
‘The house of the mind’—isn’t that a wonderful image? Language is how we furnish that house, and it won’t do to let the house fill up with junk.
Fourth: Try not to commit ‘verbicide.’ This is a term I borrow from C.S. Lewis, the British novelist and Christian writer, who in his ‘day job’ as a literature professor wrote a great book no one reads any more called Studies in Words. ‘Verbicide’ means what it sounds like, the murder of a word, which Lewis said can be accomplished in a number of ways. The ‘greatest cause of verbicide,’ he wrote,
is the fact that most people are obviously far more anxious to express their approval and disapproval of things than to describe them. Hence the tendency of words to become less descriptive, and more evaluative; then to become evaluative, while still retaining some hint of the sort of goodness or badness implied; and to end up by being purely evaluative—useless synonyms for good or for bad.”
— Matthew J. Franck, Uncluttering the House of the Mind (adapted from a commencement address at Glendale Preparatory Academy)
“We think that correctness and comeliness do not matter, provided we say what we mean; unaware that without correctness and comeliness we cannot say what we mean, but often say more, or less, or the complete opposite.”
— Dorothy L. Sayers, quoted in Uncluttering the House of the Mind by Matthew J. Franck
“The test of good writing is a simple one. If a sentence puzzles or startles you, pull it to pieces. If it is good writing, then the harder you pull, the more tightly you will discover it to be woven together, and the more closely you examine it, the more meaning it will yield. But if it tumbles to bits easily—if you find its syntax dislocated, its epithets imprecise, its meaning vague or contradictory—then it is bad, and should be quickly thrown into the dustbin of oblivion; one should not keep rubbish lying about in the house of the mind.”
— Dorothy L. Sayers, “Plain English,” Unpopular Opinions: Twenty-one Essays
“Gatsby is a weird book, so much stranger than its reputation, and probably stranger than high school students can appreciate. Its numerous flaws tend to get glossed over, though they are fascinating. For one thing, there’s an odd emotional disconnect between the story and the writing. The story, with its callous rich people who smash everything apart and leave others to pick up the pieces, didn’t really move me as a kid; it’s possible the story aspect of the novel still doesn’t really move me. I don’t find the characters endearing—I don’t even really like any of them. And yet Fitzgerald’s writing, the actual almost-physical temperature of his prose, is so astounding it almost doesn’t matter what he’s writing about. He could write about anything, the way he writes. And he can get away with anything. This is the quality, I think, that failed to impress me as a student reader; it’s the quality that enchants me now.”
— Susan Choi, in 'That's My Middle-West': The Most Dazzling Paragraph of The Great Gatsby by Joe Fassler (via invisibleforeigner)
“Poems, the patterns in poems, show us not just what somebody thought or what someone did or what happened but what it was like to be a person like that, to be so anxious, so lonely, so inquisitive, so goofy, so preposterous, so brave. That’s why poems can seem at once so durable, so personal, and so ephemeral, like something inside and outside you at once. The Scottish poet Denise Riley compares poetry to a needle, a sliver of outside I cradle inside, and the American poet Terrance Hayes wrote six poems called ‘Wind in a Box.’ One of them asks, ‘Tell me, what am I going to do when I’m dead?’ And the answer is that he’ll stay with us or won’t stay with us inside us as wind, as air, as words.”
— Stephen Burt, Why people need poetry