Hope you are well for this week of Thanks. It’s sure to be a busy week for a lot of folks. But I hope you are able to carve out a little time for yourself. To look and to listen. To smell the smells. To be thankful for these small moments as well as the big ones.
I have been teaching Walt Whitman in my lit classes. Those sentences of his, the cadence of them, burrow deep into my brain, popping up, one by one, as I go about my day. I think prose writers can learn a thing or two from poets that will make our writing richer.
There is a rhythm to Whitman’s poems that, once you hear one, you can recognize others. I was elsewhere, in another room, when this commercial for Volvo came on and I knew it was Whitman simply through the cadence of the lines. (It is, incidentally, a beautiful commercial. That Father Walt would utterly despise.)
Besides rhythm, Whitman can teach us wonder.
Imagine how broken and fraught the world was in Whitman’s day. He was, afterall, a nurse, trying to ease the suffering of the Civil War wounded. And yet, he continues to look upon the world through a lens of wonder.
A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?
(I’m reading Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier, a polyphonic, speculative novel where a strange light begins to illuminate from everyone’s injuries and illness. It asks us to consider what would happen if we could visually see the pain of those around us. It is, on the one hand, deeply philosophical. There is pain and there is suffering. And yet, there is also a deep sense of wonder throughout.)
And Whitman can also teach us about ego. It was Emerson who wanted an American Bard to rival the poets of Europe. Whitman said no problem. I’ll just write this 40 page poem without meter. It’ll be great. When Leaves of Grass went uncelebrated by critics, he wrote his own reviews to remind folks that it was, in fact, great.
Sometimes, in the day to day business of writing, our ego gets bruised or buried. The rejections pile up. We lose our focus. Writing becomes a chore instead of a place to park our wonder. I think it’s important for us to know what keeps us coming back to the page. Is it discovery? Building a world to escape into? Examining relationships? For me, it’s language. And usually, when I’ve fallen into a rut, it’s because I’ve strayed away from the words.
(Though I should also say, that ruts are part of the rhythm of writing. We sit down for a session and it’s meh. And another one comes and goes and we don’t think we’re making progress. It can make a body discouraged waiting for that day when things shift, and we can see the pieces sliding into place. But if we do this long enough, we learn the rhythms to our writing days. And we know that great one is coming soon.)
Robert Hass’ “Story about a Body” is a poem that sticks with you long after you’ve read it. Even if you forget the title, like I always manage to do, it’s impossible to forget that image of the bowl of bees. We remember images. Especially ones that surprise us, as this one does. Too, this little poem sticks the landing. It serves as a reminder to end with a punch. A surprise. We don’t need to over explain, but simply walk away and leave the reader in awe.
Louis’s Elegy for the Forgotten Oldsmobile plays with language in a way that keeps me reading. The voice is immediate in that first line.
July 4th and all is Hell.
It is personal, calling out to Uncle Adrian. The narrator lets him know
I’m in the reservation of my mind.
He’s trying to make sense of this life. How things might have gone. If only, he’d had that Oldsmobile.
Rhythm and repetition go hand in hand sometimes and I love the way Franny Choi uses repetition in “The World Keeps Ending, The World Goes On.” Twenty-six times she uses “apocalypse.” Twice as much in the first two-thirds of the poem. So much, that it loses it’s meaning. Everything becomes an apocalypse. Too, there is a juxtaposition of the awful and the beautiful:
boats of prisoners, boats cracking under sky-iron, boats making corpses
bloom like algae on the shore.
There are passages within The Illumination that make use of repetition. Of juxtaposition and metaphor and wonder. Passages that take your breath away and keep you reading:
There were more than enough children in this world already. He saw them every day in grocery stores and fast food restaurants and the playground at the end of the block, laughing and shouting at one another, so careless and daring. They played slapping games that left luminous blotches on the backs of one another’s hands. They climbed fences and tackled one another, fell off bicycles and rolled down hills, until their bodies were resplendent with bruises. They held races on busy sidewalks, dashing past grown men and women lit all over with injuries of their own. Everyone had his own portrait of pain to carry.
And the gun shops and munitions factories were as plentiful as the blades of grass. And the emergency rooms were as full as they had ever been. And there were towns in the great open middle of the country where the cemeteries outnumbered the churches.
One of the chapters in The Illumination is about a ten-year-old kid. He doesn’t fit in. He’s a little off. He loves the number ten. This chapter has it’s own sense of rhythm. Somewhere deep into, I realized why. The sentences were each 10 words in length. Every single one of them. In the whole chapter. It’s not something that I think many readers might notice. But I have to imagine that Brockmeier set this rule up for himself and had some fun with it. Give yourself some constraints. Write a piece where all the sentences have the same number of words (or syllables if you are feeling more adventuresome). Maybe you exclude a letter. No words with the letter T. Or R. Or whatever. Nope, that word’s off limits.
Or. Use one of the poems as a beginning place. Write about grass, or cars, or the accumulation of injuries, big and small.
Revision. How might you add some rhythm or repetition to a spot that feels flat? What image could you end a scene with that would devastating to the other character?
Speaking of endings, this is a great essay (watch the video too) on the feeling writers hope their readers come away with after reading their books.
Do you have a flash piece that incorporates the theme of ten? If not, see spark above and send your piece to Retreat West for their birthday anthology by Nov. 28.
Hub City will be open for poetry manuscripts from Southern folk Nov. 26-28.
Empty House is looking for work that focuses on home, place, and memory.
Am thinking that we’ll do a book long read the month of January. Haven’t decided which book yet, so if you’ve got ideas, send them my way. There are so many good ones out there.
Okay, scribblers, I hope you are able to catch some words this week. And if not, I hope you fill your well with new images and stories and memories. Until next time~