Category: writing

James Wright, “From a Bus Window in Central Ohio, Just Before a Thunder Shower”

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Cribs loaded with roughage huddle together
Before the north clouds.
The wind tiptoes between poplars.
The silver maple leaves squint
Toward the ground.
An old farmer, his scarlet face
Apologetic with whiskey, swings back a barn door
And calls a hundred black-and-white Holsteins
From the clover field.

It’s a simple little poem, but it’s gorgeous and explosive, a teacup that runneth over. This spurs me on, makes me want to be a better writer so badly.

Poetry is…

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“Poetry is, above all, a singing art of natural and magical connection because, though it is born out of one’s person’s solitude, it has the ability to reach out and touch in a humane and warmly illuminating way the solitude, even the loneliness, of others. That is why, to me, poetry is one of the most vital treasures that humanity possesses; it is a bridge between separated souls.”

– Brendan Kennelly, poet, Irish guy. The Irish know how to say everything best.

Wordled!

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In a world of nifty online apps, this has to be one of the niftiest. Wordle is a word-cloud generator – those of you familiar with blogs, del.icio.us, etc. are familiar with tag clouds – this is the same idea. With Wordle, you copy and paste in a piece of text – an entire novel, a poem, a blog, a website – and Wordle generates a cloud with the most frequent words represented in larger type, less frequent words as smaller type, and a whole continuum in between. I decided to make a Wordle cloud with my poetry, taking all the poems from jacksonhays.com and entering them into the generator. Here’s what I came up with! Most of the big words make sense – “remember,” “us,” “night,” “summer,” “air,” “want,” “will,” “cold,” “city.” It seems right that “remember” and “us” are the biggest/most frequent words. But there are also words like…”hair”? Huh. Hair. Apparently hair shows up a lot in my poetry. Then you have mid-sized words like “love,” “skin,” “warm,” “wind,” “hands,” “light.” Full disclosure, I’ll admit that I removed the word “like” from the word cloud. It seems I rely on similes quite heavily, because “like” was far and away the biggest word in the cloud. Note to self: more metaphors, buddy!

Besides being a cool piece of visual art, this tells me quite a bit about my poetry. It shows what words I use the most (excluding “like,” as I said, and other words like articles and pronouns), and – more importantly – it shows me words I enjoy using but don’t use enough. Words like “smoke,” “ghost,” “neck,” “touch,” “become,” “open,” and colors. I’m inherently a visual person, so seeing my writing represented in this way turns the whole thing on its head. See? It is nifty!

Lines Written: Robert Graves, A.E. Housman

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The truth is that only gold ore can be turned into gold; only poetry into poems.

-Graves

A.E. Housman’s test of a true poem was simple and practical; does it make the hairs at one’s chin bristle if one repeats it silently while shaving?

-Graves

Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act.

-Housman

Perhaps not the most practical quotes, but beautifully enigmatic.

Book Guilt

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The truly cultured are capable of owning thousands of unread books without losing their composure or desire for more.
-Gabriel Zaid, So Many Books

I like this quote. I love it, in fact. A few months back I ran out of space on my big bookshelf. The glut of books that accompany the Christmas/birthday season didn’t help matters, and soon I had at least four knee-high stacks of books hanging around in my room. Add in the comics and well…they say the human body is 70% water – I believe mine is 70% paper and ink.

Now here’s the big reveal which is sure to deny me some of my street cred: half the books I own – a literal 50% – I haven’t read. You have no idea the guilt I feel because of this. And apparently I’m not alone. This guilt manifests itself in strange ways. Like, I feel guilty about getting books from the library. Sometimes I’ll wake up in the morning and feel sheepish just looking at the shelf. Or I feel like an ass for taking so long to read Anna Karenina even though I love the book so much I moved it to the #4 slot of my Desert Island Top 5 the other night. (The #5 slot is reserved for a rotating selection of books.) The main reason it’s taking me so long to read is I ALWAYS fall asleep when reading. But that’s another post altogether.

The funny thing is, the ONE time I should feel guilty about having too many books – when I’m buying new books – is precisely the time I feel the least guilty about it. The feeling of joy when walking out of a used book store with a new stack of books is unparalleled. Similarly, when a friend starts gathering books for me to read, I will always choose to read those first over my own books, provided there is sufficient joy and sincerity in the recommendations, which there almost always is.

There are of course many reasons NOT to feel guilty about owning unread books. I’ve got a long lifetime of reading ahead of me, for one. And I know deep down that I’ll get to all these books eventually. My parents own about six-seven times as many books as I do and they don’t seem too worked up about it. And then there is the above quote, from a man who should know a little something about owning books. Mr. Zaid makes me feel downright proud of my unread book collection! My unread books mark me as a “truly cultured” person! You can see from the quote that Zaid understands the joy of buying books too. I shouldn’t feel guilty – I should feel good about my passion and desire for reading. Vindication.

The only way to really break the cycle of guilt is to just keep reading, which is my plan anyway. Since reading is so integral to writing, the only way to continue being a good writer is to keep reading good books. The bookshelf is like my power plant, the books my coal, the words and my eyes ingredients in a combustion reaction, the pen a power line, the poems I write the little houses lit up at night.

Lines Written: Leo Tolstoy

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‘Not bad,’ he said, peeling the sloshy oysters from their pearly shells with a little silver fork and swallowing them one after another. ‘Not bad,’ he repeated, raising his moist and shining eyes now to Levin, now to the Tartar.

From Anna Karenina, as translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

This little paragraph doesn’t have any philosophy contained in it, no, the reason I’ve singled it out is its poetry. Read it again a couple more times. Read it aloud. This passage, usually forgettable in a 800-page book, jutted out at me and asked me to reread it several times before continuing on with the book. What I love about it is the resonance of the words. They all seem to run on the same frequency, building harmonically on one another into a shiny, glimmering little thing – a little pearl, if we want to keep with the oceanic theme.

This is a testament to the power of translation. It’s nearly impossible for me to know what the passage looks and sounds like in the original Russian. Does Tolstoy give the passage the same resonant harmonies? I’m sure he does elsewhere, but here? Or is the beauty of this passage found purely in translation, specifically, the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation? Translating is a daunting task, and the couple that translated this and other Russian novels have done more for Russian literature than anyone in the past hundred years, I think. It’s not enough simply to translate the words into another language. The poetry of the words must be kept alive, and it’s this that Pevear/Volokhonsky excel in. So often the trouble with translated works is that they’re just not readable. They are competently, even perfectly, translated, but they lack attention paid to what’s not written down. So they read stiffly, and make one find the original author dull. The energy, poetry, and vigor of the original works are lost to whole generations of English readers. Maybe it’s simply that this book is written with a more modern eye, and the Garnett translation (and her translations of other Russian masterpieces), the original master translation, is just too, well, old, trapped in the musty language of turn-of-the-century England.

Either way, this is an opportunity and an invitation: go and visit/revisit those Russians that have so daunted you for years, and find they’re not so hard to understand and love.

(I’ve added Anna Karenina and The Brothers Karamazov to my Powell’s bookshelf)

Editable offense

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I came up with a new phrase yesterday. Drew asked me the correct punctuation when making a list: comma before the and – the much-debated “Oxford Comma” – to make lions, tigers, and bears; or no comma (lions, tigers and bears). I said that while I preferred a comma there, and many people do, an equal number of people prefer no comma, and neither punctuation option is an “editable offense,” meaning that if I were editing his paper, I wouldn’t mark it. (The preceding run-on sentences, however, are certainly editable offenses, although fairly mild. Perhaps an editable misdemeanor.) Drew said he liked the phrase “editable offense,” and at that moment I felt terribly clever.

Of course, this is the 21st century, and nothing is new under the sun anymore. These days a milisecond’s worth of Googling will confirm whether your feeling of cleverness is well founded or not.

My moment of cleverness is, I feel, still intact, but with a few dents to the armor. The search “editable offense” returned some hits, but only a couple pages worth, hardly signaling the robust preexistence of this phrase. And just about every hit was in regard to messageboard moderation; meaning, is saying such-and-such an offense worthy of the poster being “moderated” (the deceptively polite 21st century version of “censored”). I didn’t find anything relating to proper editing however, so I declare myself the inventor of the phrase “editable offense.”

Lines Written: Jorge Luis Borges

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Interviewer: In your Antologia Personal
Borges: Look here, I want to say that that book is full of misprints. My eyesight is very dim and the proofreading had to be done by somebody else.
Interviewer: I see, but those are only minor errors, aren’t they?
Borges: Yes, I know, but they creep in, and they worry the writer, not the reader. The reader accepts everything, no? Even the starkest nonsense.

From The Paris Review Interviews, vol. I