Feb 20, 2011


Pix: Pie in the Sky

It's a winter Sunday, and it's been awhile since I've posted Robert Hayden's classic, "Those Winter Sundays," which is about humility and quiet, solitary work that goes unappreciated.

Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden

I also see or imagine a disproportionate amount of talking about writing as opposed to writing. “Talk, talk, talk” can infringe more than it should on “write, write, write”—which means, “revise, revise, revise.” Poet Linda Pastan once said she never considers sending a batch of her work to a magazine until she’s gone back to it at least 50 times. Long ago at a reading, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. informed the audience that his 200-page masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five, was originally over 1,400 pages in typescript. And there is Faulkner’s famous dictum: “Kill your darlings," in which case your darlings are your words.

Poet Thomas Lux speaks of “boiling it down.” When a student returns with a rewrite, Lux often says, “Boil it down some more.” I suppose that might be bluster, but I doubt it; Lux strikes me as an honest, hard-working guy. Also consider: if an honest, earnest, smart writer can bear to cut something, it most likely needed to be cut. (And you don’t burn the old version; you put it in your junkyard drawer and, maybe, return to it someday for potential spare parts).

I also wonder if the kind of celebrity attached to professional writers at these affairs amounts to The-Poet-as-Rock-Star more than the poet as monk or mentor. In any case, Famous Dude Syndrome infringes more than it should on the actual work of any headliner poet.

It’s the work that needs to be studied, the work on the page more than the work at a reading, the work in solitude, along with other writers' commentary have said about that work or that poet. The only justification for readings is the fact that readers might get a glimpse of writing they didn’t know and will want to explore it further.

The value of a reading has little or nothing to do with the intended or accidental meaning injected into the work by the writer’s speaking voice. Homer’s been dead awhile now, yet mavens of the reading scene speak reverentially about the importance of the oral tradition begun by Homer. Should we quit reading Homer because we can’t hear him read aloud?

For several centuries now, writing has occurred on the page—and recently in cyberspace as well. If someone can’t connect to it there, hearing it read by its creator cannot rescue the essence of that work for that reader. Thinking that it does converts the text to a performance, a theatrical event. A typical play has two or three hours to get itself into an audience’s head and heart, after which it might not outlive any transitory enchantment that it caused. That should not be the case for poetry or fiction, which should be absorbed by the ounce, read and re-read, silently or aloud, in bed or in a coffee shop, one line or sentence at a time. The work can be memorized for its healing powers. It’s not fast food or a strip tease. It's a little jar of Truth and Beauty. Apply slowly. Repeat.

A reading, no matter how artful, is oratory more than writing; it’s a little like a night at the movies. Yes, of course, there’s some connection between the written text and what audiences hear at readings. It’s not an either/or proposition. I get that. But I’m not sure that those disagreeing with me—the majority, it seems—get the fact that one’s final, meaningful response to the written word is a private, quiet affair, a romance, or a battle, perhaps, between the written words and a reader.

My concern is that, in our Attention-Deficit, YouTube culture these days, the reward of a party atmosphere and instant gratification, the sense of the conference as a social club . . . all that eclipses the benefits of absorbing legitimate views, both the friendly and the challenging, from peers and celebrity teachers, about the work of both student and headliner. Workshops and readings can be helpful, to be sure, but it’s also easy for the face-to-face and voice-to-voice to override the eye-to-text experience. In a workshop we might remember the person who made the comment more than the comment itself. We might remember the celebrity’s hotness factor without remembering five words or two ideas from his reading.

Back to Hayden's winter Sundays . . . maybe I think of the polished shoes as the father's poems. They are what he made. I picture them sitting in a corner, near the door, not in the center of the living room where they deserve to be, but that's the way it is with so many labors of love, objects of quiet pride, products of our work. It's one more reason that isolation and alienation are such dominant themes in literature.

Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden

to be continued . . .


Anonymous said...

What a wonderful poem. Polished and plain. He brought the father to life in just three perfectly placed brushstrokes.

As to read vs spoken, I think that may depend on whether the poem was meant to be a performance piece. Some verse really needs a voice, inflection, a bit of acting to get it off the ground.

That's not my kind of poetry, but, to steal my favorite Muriel Sparks line, "For those who like that kind of thing, that's the kind of thing they like."

Banjo52 said...

The Sparks quote is cool--I've heard it, but didn't know it was hers.

I did actually go to a poetry slam once and was, surprisingly, impressed. But my question always remains, "What will happen to those 'poems' after the authors' deaths?"

The reading aloud can enrich and add questions, but if it's essential, what does that say about the words on paper?

A related issue for me: book reviews that get me all fired up to read the novel, only to find out that the novel isn't a quarter as good as the review of it was. Weird.

It's all subjective, I suppose. I'm just very suspicious when it comes to mob mentality and trendiness.

bandit said...

You lost me at the 'reading aloud' quote. I basically read aloud to my dog. She seems to be the only interested party within earshot.

I recently went back to school to practice writing for real. Thought it a good idea since I write in a certain collaborative poetic form with people from all over the world, and every one of them an academic of some sort. That, being lost some times in discussion, and haikai is not your everyday topic of discussion either. It's pretty obscure actually. Obviously, I need to broaden my horizons.

Funniest damn thing - I attended a presentation at said school for info on what you can do with an English degree. To a man, each instructor cited the idea of writing poetic forms as a TOTAL dead end. Of course, it didn't help that when I entered the room I recognized one instructor at the board and mistakenly said out loud, "Oh, its this pompous ass clown," only to notice too late a panel of teachers in the front row looking at me aghast.

As for self-editing, I can't look at a piece too long or I'll never move on. I've easily hit 50 edits or rewrites in longer things; I can't seem to lay off. Really though, it has to be a good thing.

That's the first I've seen of the Robert Hayden poem. Man, I think I've experienced both sides of that coin.

Barbaro said...

I'm not as down on readings as you, maybe bc I haven't been to as many. But perhaps they should be MORE like rock concerts. Most poets are terrible readers, the literary equivalent of lip-synching. But a good reader, like a good musician, can bring new life to a piece. I've heard the Russian tradition is to give memorized readings--that'd be a welcome start.

You can't beat that Hayden poem with a stick. How he earns the surprise and directness of those last two lines takes my breath away every time.

Banjo52 said...

Bandit, good to see you here. I've gotta be careful not to over-respond . . . .

First, in addition to the obvious career possibilities--teaching, editing, advertising, journalism of some kind-- I've been told a few times that English is a good major for business or law because so few people are any good at communicating in writing.

Secondly, about self-editing--I agree it can become a disease or at least an obsession. I've found the biggest help is to put a draft in a drawer after a few edits and not let myself go back to it for 6-12 months. It's truly like reading the work of a stranger.

Congrats on going back to school. If all the practical benefits fail to work out, will it have been a waste of time and effort or will you have learned enough about this and that to not want ALL of your money back?

Glad your dog is a good audience. Mine always appeared ready to dial 911 when I spoke more than three words to them alone.

bandit said...

Sorry - couldn't stop chuckling! Always be kind to your dogs. Share a good joke with them from time to time, especially the self-deprecating ones, and you'll have a friend for life.

I realize the importance of communication; its just being capable of finding people to listen. I've waited decades to get a point across to someone. Patience.

Editing is the task I couldn't accomplish in my "former" life. Thirty years a construction craftsman led me to seek an ultimate refinement of physical technique. I felt sometimes that if I could apply the perfect movement first time, then I might somehow become immortal.

I always loved to write, though. Not to be immortal, but to convey what I feel now, maybe the feeling become immortal, that moment repeated every time its read by a different person. Yet one strives for perfection. That piece thrown in the drawer, and later found, reading that "other person", then tinkering some more.

I'm not concerned with the practical benefits of a degree so much. My answer usually when asked of my goals is to earn a degree so as not to pursue a career. I'm holding out to take an early pension offer. On the Gov't dole for the tuition loans, but i assume I'll die before I have to pay them. And I still have my tools.

This and that is not a bad thing to learn. It made me one of the best purveyors of my craft one might find. On to other things.

Shanna said...

I love the poem and thank Hiker for this link.

When I was in grad school at Iowa and my former husband was in the Writer's Workshop, we attended many readings. There was a particular style popular - make that - mandatory there at that time.

The style was to read each word separately with no emphasis on anything, We began to read things aloud in that style, such as the back of the cereal box. This was done with a totally straight face and was quite convincing,

Perhaps we were missing some meaning in the poetry? Or maybe there was no meaning, And the no-meaning was the meaning.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand the gymnastics of Haiku, and never will. But it has led Willie (Bandit) to a place where he can show and not tell. And he shows very, very well in his prose. When he doesn't tell, he has a gift.

-K- said...

It reminds me of a Jane Kenyon poem.


I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birchwood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

by Jane Kenyon

gothpunkuncle said...

This is pretty vexing stuff from a fella who picks a Banjo for his avatar as opposed to Inkwell52 or Parchment52... (Me thinks the poet doth protest too much.) Isn't this tirade against the dramatically enhanced just a crying-out for groupies and assless chaps?

Seriously, you make good points, but some sort of balance has to be struck. I've read Hamlet's "To be or no to be" set to the old go-go gem "Land of a Thousand Dances." The back-up band and I left the stage wearing the laurel that night, not a dry seat in the house.

I've also had three-year stretches where I didn't want to leave the house because my manuscripts were completely unbearable. Nothing was good enough. For my efforts in that mode, I now read internet rumors that I had a breakdown on the cusp of some sort of artistic/commercial breakout.

I like watching Leonard Cohen's Live from London DVD knowing that the guy spends his downtime quietly cooking simple meals for monks.

Jean Spitzer said...

Beautiful photos, especially the first.

Marjie said...

I fear the art of writing, poetry or prose, will be lost because of the ADD, ADHD, instant gratification, oh-hell-let's-just-make-an-excuse culture we live in. We're headed to Fahrenheit 451, but it won't be the government burning our books; it will be people concluding that they're a waste of time. It's very sad. Thanks to Karen for the link.

Banjo52 said...

Barbaro, yeah, I guess we've had different experiences. Thomas Lux, Sharon Olds, and Kwame Dawes are fairly rock-starry, and I'm OK with it. C.K. Williams, Jane Hirshfield, Tony Hoagland and a host of others were more reserved or traditional, but not boring. I can go either way. What I object to is the crowd of fawning "students" who are more or less middle-aged yet seem to want to touch the hem of some star's garment. I can also think of two women poets who struck me as peddling sex first, poetry second. They were old enough to know better. Maybe Olds can get away with that; others oughta stay away, male or female.

I think it's hard to be honest about anything, so maybe I'm being hypocritical. But we're talking about adults who think they're serious about writing, but are acting like giddy teens in a mosh pit. I better follow up on this later, in a post.

Banjo52 said...

Shanna, welcome. You were at Iowa! You must have seen every facet of the best and worst of what I'm talking about. Your last paragraph is great.

K, thanks for the Jane Kenyon poem. I sometimes like her a lot, including this one--usually more than I like her hubby. I'm sorry to say that, for he taught a friend of mine, who loved him, and the friend died a couple of years ago.

For those who don't know, Jane Kenyon was married to the poet, Donald Hall, maybe 20 years her senior. He got cancer, survived it; she got cancer and did not.

Jean, thanks. I was worried about focus in the moon shot, but maybe we could all believe the moon's teeth were in focus and that was all that mattered. You gotta have a dream, I tell ya.

PA, where did your comment go? On the Day One post, I bet. I agree with you about that comment on the poem at "poemhunter.com." I wish she hadn't assumed that Hayden is the speaker, but her information is valuable about the life and times then (1940s?).

I should also mention that Robert Hayden was an African American who got little respect as such. My sense is, having read only a little about him, that he wasn't racial or radical enough to suit the Left; he cared more about poetry than politics and so was somewhat ignored in both arenas.

So for me Hayden belongs (like the poem's father, ironcally) in that unsung hero constellation with E.D., Hopkins, Keats, and a host of others. Unsung but devoted to the enterprise, eyes on the prize.

Banjo52 said...

Shanna--actually everyone BUT Shanna--for those who aren't aware, U. Iowa was, I believe, the first M.F.A. in creative writing, and as far as I know, it's still the most prestigious, though there are now dozens or hundreds of MFA programs in creative writing.

I like it when unlikely places are pockets of stardom in some area. Is it still U. Missouri in journalism? Oberlin College in music?--as well as pioneer in gender and racial equity.

Banjo52 said...

I don't know what's up with the chronology of arriving comments . . . . Anyway--

Marjie, welcome, and I hope you return. Obviously I share your concern. One reason I rarely read novels, unless they're audio books, is that I can't slow down enough for them. Either the book is dreary and self-indulgent, or I'm impatient, thinking how many poems I could've read, slowly, wallowingly, in the same amount of time.

GPU, I've been accused of arranging my life in silos, this thing here, that thing there, banjo here, Yeats over there, as if I'm ignorant of the fact that Scruggs is indirectly connected to an Irish fiddle (maybe/probably).

Obviously, I'm innocent of all charges, as usual (pause for epic LOL), but I do find it hard to mix some things, esp. if the "creators" are mixing it up just for the hell of it. I'm fine with some of the rationales for dressing Shakespearean actors in the dress of another period, including February 2011. But what if it boils down to "Let's see Cordelia's belly, everybody. Let's hope she's been doing her crunches. What's worse than a fat Cordelia?" I don't think you're gonna tell me that such absurdity does NOT exist. And I'm just adding my hunch that most of the perps know damn well that it's absurd. But they want attention.

So at some point I ask the slammers, etc., "Why must you call it poetry? Why not call it Slamdangle? Slamapaloosa? Or Advanced Dramatic Memorization?

In my limited samples, they do memorize impressively. But memorize what? And did they ask that question? Why not?

Yeats is not Earl Scruggs, but I love 'em both (their work, that is). Each in his own silo, you say? Well, maybe. We need to define terms.

I'm impatient with people who make themselves a conspicuous pain in the ass just for sake of getting looked at. Ladies and Gents, here's young Yeatsy Keatsy, age 22, to read his poems. On a film screen behind him, we watch and listen as two NFL linebackers smash into a series of high school quarterbacks until at least four teens die. I know! Let's call it performance art! About man's inhumanity to man! I think I heard that line somewhere. But we'll sue the hell out of those linebackers.

(I've heard that something a little like that really happened)

If I sense a purpose in an experiment, I'll try to decipher it. Or maybe they could just tell me the purpose. Or would that be too honest? Would they have to stop smirking too long, go into smirk-withdrawal?

Some experiments mean progress. Others mean bullshit. Often we don't know which is which for a long while. But I'm not at all sure how many experimenters ask themselves, IN ALL HONESTY, which thing they're up to.

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