The “Sullen Art” of Writing Poetry

dwarfs

Sure, some writers love to spout off about inspiration, about their passion for writing, about the way their precious ideas bloop out as finished products, ninth month in the first week and Hail Caesarean!

Then you have the honest writers. The ones who write quality poems, but acknowledge it as work that seems to take this side of forever. Writer as the eighth dwarf, call it, whistling as he heads off to the mines for another day’s work. Poem as dirt and sweat, then. As collar so stained you can no longer see the blue.

One poet who described writing this way was that brief star from Wales, Dylan Thomas. I say brief because his life was cut short by the black hole called alcohol (also known as “America’s drug of choice”).

In the end, Thomas writes, his work is for the lovers “Who pay no praise or wages / Nor heed my craft or art.” Now those are words a writer can identify with, as writing, even when published, seems the province of a vacuum, of a god named Hoover or Dirt Devil.

Here is Thomas’s “In My Craft or Sullen Art.” Does it look, like so many good poems do, spontaneous and born of sea or briny foam (or, God save us, of Adam’s rib)–miraculously? Or can you picture the messy process, the ink stains and half-past-midnight oil, start to finish?

I know a poet who claims he sends no poem to markets until he’s revised it for at least a year. Hyperbole? Perhaps. But if it’s true, it’s wise. Wiser than any golden potato chip.

 

“In My Craft or Sullen Art” by Dylan Thomas

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.

Sure Things: Food and Loneliness

rice

What to write about?

Seems like an easy enough question. Some say your topics should be determined solely by the dictator that is you. Others say have mercy on your readers’ souls. Consider them. Others still–the agnostic wafflers of the bunch–say, “Why not both?”

I’ll be political and not take a stand because who really cares what I think? I do know this: You’re in trouble if you think you can write about something you know nothing about or don’t care about.

Which brings us to two sure things: food and loneliness. Like air and water, they will keep you grounded.

How do we know food resonates? Easy. People eat it up. And people with cellphones (there are a few, apparently) actually photograph and upload the stuff before eating it. Curious case closed!

And loneliness? True, most confuse loneliness with being alone, two different animals. Unlike many in this world, I cherish alone time. It sustains me. And my writing. But I know the world also harbors manic social sorts. They get frenzied by lack of sound, technological input, people. They believe they are unpopular, neglected, or sad if not buoyed by activity and input. (How sad!) Can you go wrong, then, when writing about the poignancy and beauty of alone-ness? Rhetorical, I assure you.

My thoughts turned to these two staples of writing after I read Li-Young Lee’s poem “Eating Alone,” which nicely breathes and drinks the two poem-sustaining wonders in one fell swoop. And check out the last line! It speaks to the ages (if you’ll pardon the pun). See if you agree:

“Eating Alone” by Li-Young Lee

I’ve pulled the last of the year’s young onions.
The garden is bare now. The ground is cold,
brown and old. What is left of the day flames
in the maples at the corner of my
eye. I turn, a cardinal vanishes.
By the cellar door, I wash the onions,
then drink from the icy metal spigot.

Once, years back, I walked beside my father
among the windfall pears. I can’t recall
our words. We may have strolled in silence. But
I still see him bend that way-left hand braced
on knee, creaky-to lift and hold to my
eye a rotten pear. In it, a hornet
spun crazily, glazed in slow, glistening juice.

It was my father I saw this morning
waving to me from the trees. I almost
called to him, until I came close enough
to see the shovel, leaning where I had
left it, in the flickering, deep green shade.

White rice steaming, almost done. Sweet green peas
fried in onions. Shrimp braised in sesame
oil and garlic. And my own loneliness.
What more could I, a young man, want.

 

— from Rose by Li-Young Lee, BOA Editions

If Every Word Is Suspect, Your Writing Will Be Arresting

szymborska

Here’s something I learned from the late Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska: If every word is suspect, your writing will be arresting.

What does this mean? It means writing–especially poetry writing–cannot always be a prisoner of denotation. Of course, specific language serves the creative writer’s purposes for imagery, but there has to be more: not only connotation, but something even more unusual at times.

Sometimes you need to stare at a word for an hour until it begins to change shapes like a Protean gift from the Muse. Sometimes you need to consider angles and caroms that wait like a bounce in inertia’s clothing. Sometimes you need to take chances with words and be willing to write something awful on the faith that every pan of mud might contain a chip of gold.

Consider these three words: future, silence, nothing. Wislawa Szymborska did. And from those rather tired, heard-them-before-and-maybe-even-too-often abstractions, she found gold.

How? By simply handing them to her brain to play with for an hour or so while she made dinner. The result? “The Three Oddest Words.” Enjoy:

The Three Oddest Words

When I pronounce the word Future,
the first syllable already belongs to the past.

When I pronounce the word Silence,
I destroy it.

When I pronounce the word Nothing,
I make something no non-being can hold.

 

By Wislawa Szymborska
Translated by S. Baranczak & C. Cavanagh

And look what happens to words when they return to their natural habitat in “The Joy of Writing”! We even get a cameo from the word “silence” again–still breaking the rules, still escaping the bullets of denotation, still doing what writers do best when they see not only the world, but words themselves, differently. Enjoy again:

The Joy of Writing

Why does this written doe bound through these written woods?
For a drink of written water from a spring
whose surface will xerox her soft muzzle?
Why does she lift her head; does she hear something?
Perched on four slim legs borrowed from the truth,
she pricks up her ears beneath my fingertips.
Silence – this word also rustles across the page
and parts the boughs
that have sprouted from the word “woods.”

Lying in wait, set to pounce on the blank page,
are letters up to no good,
clutches of clauses so subordinate
they’ll never let her get away.

Each drop of ink contains a fair supply
of hunters, equipped with squinting eyes behind their sights,
prepared to swarm the sloping pen at any moment,
surround the doe, and slowly aim their guns.

They forget that what’s here isn’t life.
Other laws, black on white, obtain.
The twinkling of an eye will take as long as I say,
and will, if I wish, divide into tiny eternities,
full of bullets stopped in mid-flight.
Not a thing will ever happen unless I say so.
Without my blessing, not a leaf will fall,
not a blade of grass will bend beneath that little hoof’s full stop.

Is there then a world
where I rule absolutely on fate?
A time I bind with chains of signs?
An existence become endless at my bidding?

The joy of writing.
The power of preserving.
Revenge of a mortal hand.

 

By Wislawa Szymborska
From “No End of Fun”, 1967
Translated by S. Baranczak & C. Cavanagh

 

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Living on the Writer’s Block

tiny-tim

The crutch. It’s a mighty symbol, one I see frequently in the lives around me as well as in my own. But when it comes to writing, the crutch must be reckoned with.

Let’s start with Tiny Tim. The little guy needs his crutch. For him, it is a powerful symbol generating sympathy and tears, especially after he’s gone and only the crutch remains for Christmas dinner. But Tiny Tim wasn’t a writer. He was a God-Bless-Us-Everyone-er. Writers write. So why are they so fond of the crutch called “writer’s block”?

Living on the writer’s block is a choice. You don’t crash there like a plane that has lost its engine. I learned that by staring at my share of paper (once upon a time) and Word doc screens (once upon a more recent time) over the years. It was nice blaming the Muse-jamming equivalent of white noise, but who’s kidding whom? I was kidding me, that’s what.

Truth be told, writing something, writing ANYthing, is better than limping along on crutches feeling sorry for yourself. If you have mastered the pencil and / or the keyboard, voilá. Writer’s block has gone the way of the dodo bird (South, my friends… DEEP South).

Writing garbage (read: a first draft) is the ticket. Because in every dump the writer in you will find some treasure. Some shiny bauble. Something calling out to your eye. And how much easier is it to write from something as opposed to nothing? Rhetorical question.

So, yeah. I gave up writer’s block once I saw it for what it is. A fraud. No, I won’t lecture fellow writers who play that well-worn card. I won’t cry “Crutch!” like some know-it-all. But inside I’ll wonder. I’ll wonder, “Why doesn’t he just write?” Revision is where writing is at, and if you haven’t written something than you’ve got nothing to revise.

Nothing but a crutch, that is.