Isn’t life,” she stammered, “isn’t life–” But what life was she couldn’t explain.

prosereadingwriting

Katherine Mansfield, in “The Garden-Party.” I’ve been wrapped up this week in NaNoWriMo, about one-tenth of the way into the novel I will supposedly have written by the end of this month. So far it’s been going quite well; after some early jitters regarding pacing – I felt I was moving much to fast – I have settled into a good rhythm. I hope by next week I’ll really hit my stride. Like most people, I think, I look for inspiration and help in lines and quotes from my favorite authors, little things to provide motivation or jostle the brain into literary life.

One of my most inspirational quotes as a writer is this one from Katherine Mansfield’s short story “The Garden-Party.” Mansfield was a writer who dabbled in epiphany, years before Woolf and Joyce had really stepped into that realm of writing. Here in this example the main character has been slapped on the head with epiphany so profound she’s rendered speechless. I think we’ve all had these moments; where you look out on the world and find it so beyond description that you’re dumbstruck. For me, as a writer, this is what I seek. The irony, if you can call it that, is that it’s obviously quite hard to describe something that is indescribable, so the writer is left in a bit of a quandary. Still, though I think this is what really good literature does, or tries to do – it describes the indescribable.

By the way, if you’ve never read anything by Mansfield and you enjoy books by Woolf, Joyce, poetry by Eliot, etc. – do yourself a favor and pick something up of hers. I guarantee you will love it.

Robert Herrick, “Delight in Disorder”

poetry

A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness;
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction;
An erring lace, which here and there
Enthrals the crimson stomacher;
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribands to flow confusedly;
A winning wave, deserving note,
In the tempestuous petticoat;
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility:
Do more bewitch me, than when art
Is too precise in every part.

~ ~ ~

This one’s from 1648. Yeah, look at the cool guy with his 362-year-old poetry. Seriously though, I really like this little poem and I’ll tell you why. To me this poem perfectly describes poetry itself. Poetry is an ancient thing, originally born from earth and pure emotion, out of the wild. It is humanity’s oldest way to explore and think about the natural world, our place in it, and the mysterious forces that we feel govern it. But poetry is also an art of kings and scholars; and this duality is shown here. “Sweet disorder,” “fine distraction,” and of course – so beautifully said – “wild civility.” Wild civility. If that is not poetry’s true identity I don’t know what is.

And Herrick was right to choose the word “bewitch” when he describes what this wild civility does to him, because poetry, as I said before, is about the mysterious forces – about magic. And I don’t mean magic in the cheesy, is this your card way – I mean magic in the old school way. It’s hard to say what I mean…like Tom Robbins said, “using words to describe magic is like using a screwdriver to cut roast beef.” But I think you understand just the same. Poetry is essentially a catalog of the world’s mysteries.

John Steinbeck said…

lines written

I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one… . Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil… . There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?

– John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Bill Callahan, “Too Many Birds”

poetry

Too many birds in one tree
Too many birds in one tree
And the sky is full of black and screaming leaves
The sky is full of black and screaming

And one more bird
Then one more bird
And one last bird
And another

One last black bird without a place to land
One last black bird without a place to be
Turns around in hopes to find the place it last knew rest
Oh black bird, over black rain burn
This is not where you last knew rest
You fly all night to sleep on stone
The heartless rest that in the morn, we’ll be gone
You fly all night to sleep on stone, to return to the tree with too many birds
Too many birds
Too many birds

If
If you
If you could
If you could only
If you could only stop
If you could only stop your
If you could only stop your heart
If you could only stop your heart beat
If you could only stop your heart beat for
If you could only stop your heart beat for one
If you could only stop your heart beat for one heart
If you could only stop your heart beat for one heart beat

~ ~ ~

This song is very beautiful on the page, especially that last section, where each line has this new nuance that carries you along. But – the song must really be heard to be loved.