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.

On revision

January 23rd, 2013

As I cull poem after poem from my chapbook, I’m drawing strength from these lines by Annie Dillard (in The Writing Life).

The part you must jettison is not only the best-written part; it is also, oddly, that part which was to have been the very point. It is the original key passage, the passage on which the rest was to hang, and from which you yourself drew the courage to begin.

I had thought my chapbook was about an event in the narrator’s life, but it’s not. It’s about the aftermath, and all the poems about the event are just background in my head. Only the aftermath poems matter.


October 1st, 2011

We’re off for a much needed family vacation to someplace warm with a beach. I’ll be back in a week. See you then and have a good week!

In the meantime, for your reading pleasure, check out this amazing poem by Traci Brimhall in Passages North: “The Women are Ordered to Clear the Bodies of Suitors Slain by Ulysses.” Then go back to the table of contents and read the other three she’s got in that issue as well. Wow, huh?

“Ask Much, The Voice Suggested” by Jane Hirshfield

July 5th, 2011

Ask much, the voice suggested, and I startled.
Feeling my body like the trembling body of a horse
tied to its tree while the strange noise
passes over its ears.
I who in extremity had always wanted less,
even of eating, of sleeping.
Agile, the voice did not speak again, but waited.
“Want more” –
a cure for longing I had not thought of.
But that is how it is with wells.
Whatever is taken refills to the steady level.
The voice agreed, though softly, to quiet the feet of the horse:
A cup taken out, a cup reappears; a bucketful taken, a bucket.

Yes. And yes.

(From After)

Why I Write (stolen from a better writer than I)

January 20th, 2011

Critical theory is full of discussion of the inadequacies of speech, and it’s true that words are arbitary things, assigned to their objects in slippery ways, and that we cannot rely on words to convey to another person what it is like to be ourselves. ‘What proof do we have,’ writes Craig Morgan Teicher, ‘that/when I say mouse, you do not think/of a stop sign?’

But we have nothing else, and when words are tuned to their highest ability, deployed with the strengths the most accomplished poets bring to bear on the project of saying what’s here before us – well, it is possible to feel, at least for a moment, language clicking into place, into a relation with the world that feels seamless and inevitable. If that is a dream, so be it. At that instant when langague seems to match experience, some rift is healed, some rupture momentarily salved in what Hart Crane called ‘the silken skilled transmemberment of song.’

Mark Doty, The Art of Description: World into Word

A poet to keep an eye on

December 29th, 2009

Joe Wilkins is fast becoming a favorite poet of mine. His prose ain’t bad, either.

What’s the difference between a bowl and a kidney dish?

December 7th, 2009

I once wrote a story in which one of my main characters, a 13-year-old girl, wakes in her hospital room after surgery to discover that she has broken her femur so violently in so many places that metal plates and screws have been inserted into the bone to help it knit together. On hearing this news, she begins to gag – she is about to throw up. My second main character, a 28-year-old doctor with a backstory, searches around for “a bowl” for her to throw up in. (He does not find one, and cups his hands for her to throw up into; the gesture is meant to reveal his character.)

I’m currently reading Water for Elephants, and I read this line last night: “I turn as vomit explodes from my mouth. Someone is there with a kidney dish, but I overshoot…” Do you see how precise that is – kidney dish? The reader instantly pictures the curved stainless steel dish used in a hospital. The reader has a solid image in her head. A bowl? What is that? Tupperware? Glass? Something from the cafeteria? That – that precision, that detail and care, that research to get it right, that sharpening of every word – that is the difference between stories that stay inside the computer and stories that make their way in the world.

What’s the difference between a bowl and a kidney dish? All the difference in the world.

An ordinary day

January 2nd, 2009

I love these fairy-tale Swiss days, story book days with the mountains and the snow and the crackling blue sky so clear it hurts. Days when we go sledding and I realize that I’m sledding in the Swiss Alps. The Swiss Alps. And even after eight years, the wonder of it hits me all over again and I’m reminded of these lines from Jhumpa Lahiri:

“I have remained in this new world for nearly thirty years. I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first. Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.”

Simply beyond my imagination.

More delicious words

July 3rd, 2008

Here’s another one from Chabon: “There is a small, decisive clink, a bit hollow, like false teeth clapping together.”

It’s not just the startling combination of words that make these images so great but the way they fit perfectly into the style and tone of the work. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a crime novel, gritty, dark, full of noir characters: in the scene from which the line above is taken, the room is full of down-and-outers who probably have – or need – false teeth. And here’s another: “A Disney shtetl, bright and clean as a freshly forged birth certificate.” This to describe a neighborhood that’s home to organized crime on the eve of “the Reversion” when a good many people might be wanting forged birth certificates. Even the image from my earlier post: as the novel progresses Landsman, a police detective, and his partner are indeed comrades in a probably doomed adventure.

At some point I stopped dog-earing my pages to mark such perfect lines because I was turning back every other corner.

Swooning over this simile

June 27th, 2008

Listen to this line from The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon: “He checks behind the hot-water tanks, lashed to one another with straps of steel like comrades in a doomed adventure.”

Wow. Wow oh wow oh wow.