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 . . .