Jun 18, 2010

Favorite Lines: What Is It We Remember?

Whether or not she meant to, Altadenahiker in her visitor comment yesterday reminded me of the old writing guideline, "Show, don't tell." It works for both fiction and poetry, and I think I believe in it strongly.

On the other hand, I find myself as well as others loving lines that are at least on the verge of telling. Whether or not we mean to, I suspect we all go to writing and the arts for wisdom as well as beauty, entertainment, and other purposes.

Here are a few lines that come to my mind. If they’re not didactic, full of message, and “telling” more than showing, aren’t they perilously close to it? Yet I remember them and love them, whether or not I believe in them. And I am not a crook—though I wonder if there’s a streak of Bible-thumper in me that makes me like these truths. Truths? Well, there are no turkeys here.

Please feel free to offer your own favorites in response.

Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty--that is all
Ye know on earth, and all Ye need to know.

I wake to sleep and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

Can't repeat the past? Why, of course you can.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Do not go gentle into that good night.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing,
For every tatter in its mortal dress.

Ah, Margaret, are you grieving
Over goldengrove unleaving? . . .
It is the blight man was born for.
It is Margaret you mourn for.

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last
Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?

A poem should not mean, but be.

. . .

And what if William Carlos Williams had not begun with “so much depends upon”?



Barbaro said...

On the one hand, I do think contemporary (American) poetry has pushed too far toward the concrete and particular at the expense of the philosophical, political, spiritual, moral.

On the other hand, all of your examples (those I can place) had to be "earned"--in the case of Keats, for example, two pages of extremely intricate imagery preceded the famous couplet about beauty and truth.

Back to my first point, though, I think Williams overstated his own case for "no ideas but in things." The famous "Wheelbarrow" would, for my money, be almost worthless without the first line. The ancient Chinese (Li Po, et al) were masters of expressing philosophy and emotion through physicality. A lot of lesser poets feel they have to choose, and become blindly loyal to description.

Anonymous said...

I don't think your examples disagree with the point. Some are the one-two punch at the end, so that's a turn. Others posit and then consider.

I live for lines and hooks like that. Just, don't tell me the guy on the bus is dour an depressed. Tell me he smells of old cigarettes. Then you can throw in a broken promise.

Brenda's Arizona said...

I'm confused... does that mean story tellers aren't treasured? Or does it mean that a good story teller paints a story?

I have so enjoyed your photographs! I keep forgetting to tell you. This church sign is a keeper.

Banjo52 said...

Barbaro, I esp. like your last two sentences, although I'm not sure I see the contemporary scene as devoid of philosophizing or abstraction.

AH, if "show, don't tell" was even part of your intent, we might not hear the same meanings in it. I think I agree with what you've said both here and at your place. I really like your last two sentences as well.

Brenda, thanks about the photos. For me, they are a relief from "words, words, words."

Also, I think, yes, a good story teller absolutely has to paint pictures, whether in prose or poetry. And I do treasure those I admire--short stories more than novels.

"Paint" is a tricky word, however. Sometimes what's painted is as much a feel as a picture with lines and colors, though the two go together, of course. When I say that, I might be thinking of Raymond Carver, among others. He offers some memorable images, but I think I feel his world as much as I see it. That might also be my experience with Faulkner and Alice Munro.

But maybe I'm creating a false or pointless dichotomy between specific physical details and regions of the mind. Can you have the second without the first? And the first without the second--how much is that worth, an aimless pile or list of details?

Besides, the point of the post was that I like to SAY I don't want to be preached to, but maybe I just WANT to think that about my uppity self. I guess I'm now suggesting that with the best writers we don't have to choose--which means, I think, that I agree with Barbaro and AHiker.

Have I risen to the clarity of mud yet?

Bottom line: do I feel preached at, lectured and condescended to by a writer? Sinclair Lewis comes to mind. Hawthorne and Dickens run the risk, but there's so much ambiguity and complexity in their (best) work that they go well beyond any oversimplified message. I think I've felt that way about Aimee Bender's stories, but I've never taught them, so I'm less sure.

Am I done? May I have breakfast now?

Brenda's Arizona said...

Sure, but only if you make us feel breakfast too! Scrambled eggs with ketchup? Or dippy eggs with your toast tip dunked into the yolk, so that the juices run amuck across your plate?

Ever read "Bird by Bird" by Annie Lamott? She described a PB&J sandwich. But she tells her students you have to say WHAT KIND OF JELLY, what kind of bread. Apricot jelly depicts a totally different taste/picture than GRAPE jelly, White bread is a different sandwich than sourdough bread is.

I am getting the picture. Keep painting - er, after breakfast. Ours is just coffee and cold cereal (GrapeNuts) today...

Brenda's Arizona said...

Robert Frost's poem Home Burial paints a picture to me. Plus, it tells a story...

"She took a doubtful step and then undid it"
"He sat and fixed his chin between his fists."
And how he digs a grave: "Making the gravel leap and leap in air,
Leap up, like that, like that, and land so lightly
And roll back down the mound beside the hole."

I see pictures.
OK, I'll go away now...

Banjo52 said...

I haven't read Lamott, but I completely agree about PBJ sandwich. Jelly and bread types matter, but also crunchy or smooth PB? Jiff or all natural? Who's gonna stir it? It's a bother.

I like your examples from Frost. I may have mentioned once that it took me awhile to realize that "Home Burial" is (I think) blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter). I already liked it, was moved by it, but that added to my respect for it and my realization that there is in fact some kind of music, which I thought I'd been hearing, but didn't know why or how.

Now when I feel that way about a poem, I usually remember to check for rhyme or meter I hadn't noticed.

So you've added to the argument that, whether it's PBJ or Robert Frost, the devil's is once again in the details, along with much of the delight. Three extry grape nuts for you tomorrow.

Banjo52 said...

Oh yeah, feeling breakfast . . . A slice of multigrain toast with olive oil, touch of sea salt and pepper, handful of blueberries, 1/2 banana. It's damned good and makes you immortal.

Unless you then go out with the boys and slurp up sausage and cheesy omelette.

gothpunkuncle said...

"Poems are such odd little jiggers."

Banjo52 said...

GPU, Cool. Who said that? Jigglers as in turkey wattle?

Anonymous said...

"Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I always watch for the longest day in the year and then miss it."

Daisy, Great Gatsby

Banjo52 said...

AH, great choice! I'm pretty sure that's one of the lines that keeps me from hating her in a simplistic, sanctimonious way (and I'm never far from that . . . ).

I don't recall the context, but I wonder if she's being melodramatic and "literary." Does she honestly feel sad about this, or does it just sound good? In any case, there is important truth in the line.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Karin, great one! And here we go, the first day of summer.

Lovers' Lane