Robert Bly on the music in poetry

May 22nd, 2015

“Exactly. Poems can become musical events in a number of ways. Two I’ve been brooding on are these: First, the seven holy vowels, as they were understood in ancient times, can come in. (Joscelyn Godwin has a charming book about the mystery of the seven vowels.) The great vowels bring radiance and add energy when they enter; they even encourage the arms and legs to move in a certain way. The seven vowels, one could say, penetrate through the intellect to the body. Then there is such a thing as chiming. Chiming means that tiny sounds chime with each other inside the line. It’s a sort of interior rhyming that the writer does without alerting, or even telling, the reader.

Suppose you decide, like Stevens, to chime with the syllable in. Then you could say: “The trade wind jingles the rings in the nets around the rocks / by the docks on Indian River.” It is the choice of in that determines the name of the river at the end.

One little chiming poem of mine begins: “How sweet to weight the line with all these vowels: / Body, Thomas, the codfish’s psalm. The gaiety / Of form lies in the labor of its playfulness.” Later it goes: “The chosen sound reappears like the evening star / In the solemn return the astronomers love.” Most good poems have repeating sounds. But one can make chiming into a sort of principle. If the chiming sound returns three times, it becomes a tune. Then the whole stanza turns to music.”

From The Paris Review. You can read the entire interview here.

Carry on anyway

January 3rd, 2014

“Every time I have set out to translate the book (or story, or hopelessly long essay) that exists in such brilliant detail on the big screen on my limbic system onto a piece of paper (which, let’s face it, was once a towering tree crowned with leaves and a home to birds), I grieve for my own lack of talent and intelligence. Every. Single. Time. Were I smarter, more gifted, I could pin down a closer facsimile of the wonders I see. I believe that, more than anything else, this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing.” – Ann Patchett, The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life

“Our poems can never satisfy us, since they are at best a diminished echo of a song that maybe once or twice in a lifetime we’ve heard and keep trying to recall.” – Stanley Kunitz, The Collected Poems

And yet I keep at it. One day, one line, one word if only for a second it will be like clear water. Like Schwarzeis. Just once, I will be transparent, and the thing on the page will be the thing in my head.


Words from May Sarton

October 23rd, 2012

It does not astonish or make us angry that it takes a whole year to bring into the house three great white peonies and two pale blue iris. It seems altogether right and appropriate that these glories are earned with long patience and faith … and also that it is altogether right and appropriate that they cannot last. Yet in our human relations we are outraged when the supreme moments, the moments of flowering, must be waited for … and then cannot last. We reach a summit, and then have to go down again.

Summer is ending

September 21st, 2012

There’s fog in the mornings now, sometimes just threads of cotton candy curling around the hills, sometimes so heavy I can’t see our nearest neighbors 500 meters across the fields. It burns off slowly, as the sun rises, and by nine o’clock, most days, I can see the church steeple in the village. But I know what this morning fog means, in this part of Switzerland: summer is coming to an end and soon will come days and days when we’re socked in with fog, when the sun is weak and the sky is grey and all the colors will be muted.

Maybe that’s why the Swiss fill their flower pots and window boxes with winter hard Erika – flowering heather that offers up some color through the winter. Winter is better for me now, with the enforced social life that comes with SB’s hockey team and with the time I spend skating outside either at the hockey school or playing pickup hockey with the boys on some rink somewhere, but still – the winter months sit heavy on me and this fog creeping in on cat feet in the morning is my early warning. It’s time to start storing up color. It’s time to put Erika in the flower boxes on the balcony, and in pots by the door.

Why I write

January 9th, 2012

I drove to a friend’s house last week and there is a point in the drive where I crest a wooded hill and at the top clear the woods and make a slight turn and BAM all across the horizon snow-covered peaks. In the foreground there are fields, and a few traditional Swiss farmhouses, and below the village. It was a pretty day when I drove, in the mid-afternoon, and I topped the hill and the Alps bore down on me and I actually said “Wow” out loud. More than once. It can still do that, after ten years, that sudden panorama. It can still nearly stop my heart.

What would happen if I opened my heart to every pink-blue sunrise, every red-streaked sunset, every first crocus of spring? Would it burn up from the rapture of it all? Explode? Get stronger? Sometimes I look up at the Eiger and wonder how we even manage to move through the day at all rather than stand rooted to the spot – any spot, the Alps or the sunrise or the blossoming plum tree – saying wow wow wow over and over. If we opened the valve, really opened the valve, we’d be ripped from shore and carried downstream by the sheer fact of the world. How to open the valve just enough to be alive and not so much we’re uprooted? Or is that the living, the moment of feeling your roots ripped from the soil of the ordinary?

And it is that, that BAM that ripping that rapture that is the first time every single time that I’m reaching for every time I pick up a pen. I want to crest the hill, to clear the woods, to be brought face to face with the extraordinary and to realize, finally, that it is extraordinary and I want to take you with me.

Writers on writing

December 17th, 2011

“Reality – if we use that word to indicate real life, and the way things really are – should always be viewed as a sheet of ice beneath which we, the writers (with our readers in tow) are swimming, trying constantly to punch through, so that we can breathe. With every sentence we write, we must be poised and alert to punch through and make the story better.” – Rick Bass

Songbirds and nuclear reactors and the horrible beauty of the world

March 14th, 2011

How does one write poems in the middle of something like this? What good, really, are my words now? How do we make the words meaningful in the face of disaster – although, if we are already following the injunction to “write as if you are dying” the words should never be trite, the words would always be weighed against the horrible beauty of the world.

The horrible beauty of the world. I have refilled the bird feeder and the blue tits and the great tits are back, swooping down from the branches of the willow tree, pecking at the feed sticks, flitting away – those bright little song birds I am so happy to have lured to our patio. Meanwhile, entire villages are wrecked and gone – entire villages of the dead and missing. Radiation is leaking out of several reactors – and how does a sentence like that even exist? – leaking poison and here I am watching my songbirds – that’s the horrible beauty of the world, that these two things exist at the same time, that it is our duty to see both of them, to take them both in.

Stare at the horrible images. Watch the songbird out the window. Hold these two things simultaneously in your heart.

In defense of a good story

March 2nd, 2011

After The Glass Bead Game, my book club is now reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog – it’s a particularly interesting (and entirely coincidental) back-to-back. Both books ask the same Big Questions – what is the purpose of a life? – but in completely different ways. The eras in which the books were written show: Hedgehog is an engaging narrative with characters the reader is meant to respond to emotionally – in a word, a modern novel – whereas Glass Bead Game was all intellect – very much the German Intellectual novel of the last century. It was work for me to read The Glass Bead Game every night (I had hoped to read it in the original German, but that proved too much and after about 40 pages I switched over to an English translation); Hedgehog is a pleasure and it’s still asking the Big Questions. And because it’s a pleasure to read I’m engaging with the questions more than I did with The Glass Bead Game, which asked them so earnestly.

Did I just out myself as low-brow? That I’ll consider the Big Questions but only if they are wrapped up in a good story?

Or was it that The Glass Bead Game was neither fish nor fowl? I’ll read a philosophy book and I’ll read a novel but don’t give me a philosophy book pretending to be a novel. A story that is a story only to serve as the platform for an idea. Yes, I did just criticize the literary talents of a Nobel Prize winning author. But only in the context of this novel – I’ve read other works by Hesse and I remember being utterly, completely engaged – Demian stands out in my memory as a book I read again and again over the course of a year. But in The Glass Bead Game I think the story had to do far too much heavy lifting for the philosophy. The book was full of interesting ideas but it failed for me as a story, a story in which I connected with and cared about the characters as fellow human beings whose fates mattered to me.

One of the women in the group mentioned during the discussion that Dostoyevsky also asks Big Questions, perhaps most notably (but certainly not exclusively) in Crime and Punishment all within the framework of a story peopled by characters who are vividly alive. You care about them, you hate them, they repel you, whatever – but you respond to them emotionally as a reader. So here is where I defend myself against my own charge two paragraphs back: story matters. If you are writing a novel, story matters. Characters matter. These things matter because I think that we as readers are most open to examining the human condition when we feel our connectedness, our underlying unity, with the character experiencing the action. Through the portal of connection and caring we find our way into the story and are open to what the story has to teach us. This is not the same thing as saying we need to read about characters who are just like us, not at all – shoot, Watership Down is about rabbits, but damn if you’re not rooting for those little bunnies with all your heart by the end of the book. And it’s because somehow – and here is the magical, the ephemeral thing – the author has shined a light on their essential humanity (yes, the humanity of the bunnies too) and through that light our own humanity as well. If I cannot get inside a story the characters will always be Others to me, out there in that book, I will always be aware of their identities as constructs, and I won’t see what is happening to them in the full light of their – and thus my, our – humanity.

Fiction can be edifying, can shine a light on our own interior world or a spotlight on the world around us – think about books as divergent as Catcher in the Rye and A Half of a Yellow Sun – while still being a marvelous story full of people about whom the reader can care, deeply. It is not a zero-sum game by any means, edifying or entertaining – indeed if you are an author you had better not be approaching it as a zero-sum game.

Story has to matter, otherwise just write a philosophical essay and be done with it. There has to be a reason why we choose story; why we as humans have always chosen story as the way to grasp and examine the world and to tell our essential truths. Of course story matters, and not just the ideas contained within it.

Story is everything.

Reading Wallace

January 29th, 2011

My poetic education has been spotty. As a reader, but above all as an American poet writing as part of a tradition of American poets, I have some appalling gaps. One of the poets of whom I am far too ignorant is Wallace Stevens. I am familiar with his most familiar poems, the ones that might have been anthologized or taught in a survey course, but the vast body of his work is unfamiliar to me. Unforgivable, really, for an American poet, and so my project for this year is to read a Wallace Stevens poem each day. I’m currently making my way through Wallace Stevens Selected Poems – I’m not entirely sure why I didn’t just start with Collected Poems and be done with it, because the selected poems will not get me to the end of the year, other than that I had the Selected Poems on my shelf already and international Amazon orders are reliably slow to arrive.

By reading a poem a day, rather than trying to swallow the book whole, I find I’m able to reflect a little about each poem – I’m even keeping a journal of sorts. I hope this slow emersion in his work will allow me to really get to know it rather than just be able to say I have read it. And I’ve noticed in the past week or so that after finishing my poem for the day I want to read more. One poem is not enough. But rather than jumping ahead, gulping down the poems and perhaps losing this reflective approach to them, I move backwards to re-reading.

Today’s poem, “Farewell to Florida,” was the first taken from Stevens’ second collection, Ideas of Order. This is from my reading notes:

The brief chronology included in Selected Poems notes that from 1925 to 1933 Stevens “virtually stopped writing poetry.” I’m curious if there will be some sort of recognizable shift, a change in his voice and style.

Curious because I am definitely recognizing things now. His cadence. The use of rhyme. Repetition. And the colors. The Harmonium poems, at any rate, are bursting with colors: “rosy chocolate” “gilt umbrellas” “Paradisial green” “swimming green” “brilliant iris” “glistening blue.” And those are all just from section I of “Sea Surface Full of Clouds”

The colors are there in this poem, the first included from Ideas of Order, and the use of rhyme. Clever internal rhyme. And the curling back of repetition, the almost-repetitions, the repetitions-with-a-twist. The assertive I voice in section III – “I hated the weathery yawl from which the pools/Disclosed the sea floor and the wilderness/Of waving weeds. I hated the vivid blooms” – feels new. Stevens didn’t avoid the I voice entirely in the Harmonium poems, but it appeared rarely (at least in the ones in Selected Poems). It feels like possibly a new experiment on Stevens’ part. I shall have to read more of the Ideas of Order poems to see if it appears again.

Sometimes I start my day with the poem and sometimes it is the last thing before going to bed, but it’s becoming my practice. Some people meditate, some people jog, I read Wallace Stevens. There are worse habits to have.

Still crazy after all these years

September 11th, 2010

Sitting at the Grosse Schanze, this view that I never tire of. To the right the green wooded hill of the Gurten, in front of me in the foreground the spire of the Heiliggeistkirche and to the left the dome of the Bundeshaus, the tiled rooftops of the city below me, the window boxes of geraniums that are the hallmark of Bern and the backdrop to it all the snowcapped wall of the Alps, the Jungfrau, Mönch, the black diamond of the Eiger Nordwand. Even the Bernese come up here on a blue sky day, lean against the railing and stare out at that view. The hippest trying-to-be-jaded twenty-something will stop in spite of himself, watch a cloud forming around the peaks. I love this view, I’m crazy for this view, I can’t get over this view. This view makes up for Swiss-German, for my outsider status, for being a foreigner, for Swiss reserve, for being away from home and living my life between two languages, two countries, two cultures, two homes. This view helps my heart decide.