Category Archives: poetry

Bob Dylan meets Archibald MacLeish

MacLeish: poet, essayist, playwright

Archibald MacLeish (1892–1982) won three Pulitzer prizes, two for poetry and one for his play about Job, J.B, which also won a Tony Award. His collected poems won the National Book Award. Like some other famous writers of his generation, MacLeish served as an ambulance driver in World War I but also as an artillery officer. After the war he moved to Paris and knew many artists, including Gertrude Stein, John Dos Passos, John O’Hara, Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Cole Porter, and Dorothy Parker. He was good friends with Scott Fitzgerald and one of Ernest Hemingway’s closest. He served as Librarian of Congress.

MacLeish ultimately broke with modernism, though his early modernist statement in his 1926 poem “Ars Poetica” endures: “A poem should not mean/But be.” Later, he became somewhat unpopular in the literary world for writing poems that dealt with political and public life. As David Barber wrote in an essay for Modern American Poetry, “He rejected the modernist emphasis on the private individual’s experience and the poet’s alienation from society. The poet, he came to believe, was inevitably involved in society.” MacLeish defended himself to Benjamin DeMott in an interview for the Paris Review:

There are those on the fringes of the art who think that poetry and the public world should be mutually exclusive—as though poets were the internists of the profession and should stick to their bowels. . . . If you can break through the confusion of words about a political crisis like the Pentagon Papers to the human fact—such as the human reality of an attorney general’s behavior—you have written the experience. And the fact that the writing appears in The New York Times won’t change that fact for better or worse. Journalism also has its uses—and to poets as well as to journalists.

You spoke of the Apollo flight—the first circumnavigation of the moon—the one that produced that now familiar, but still miraculous, photograph of the earth seen off beyond the threshold of the moon . . . “small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats.” This was one of the great revolutionary moments of the human consciousness, but the moment was not explicit in the photograph nor in the newspaper accounts of the voyage. Only the imagination could recognize it—make imaginative sense of it. Are we seriously to be told that the imagination has no role to play here because the event is in the newspapers? Or is it the publication in the newspapers of the imaginative labor which offends?

MacLeish’s statement about the dangers of pride for writers also endures, while also being the first and last word on ethics for writers. (He knew well three hugely talented victims of egotistical self promotion: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Robert Frost.) He said in the Paris Review interview:

The essential is not to think of one’s self as a writer and to do nothing which will put one’s self in that popinjay attitude. You don’t write as a writer, you write as a man—a man with a certain hard-earned skill in the use of words, a particular, and particularly naked, consciousness of human life, of the human tragedy and triumph—a man who is moved by human life, who cannot take it for granted. . . . You can put it down, I think, as gospel that a self-advertising writer is always a self-extinguished writer.

MacLeish courted Bob Dylan in the late sixties to write songs for his play Scratch, based on the Stephen Vincent Benét short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” Dylan said in his memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, that MacLeish was “the poet of night stones and the quick earth. . . . He could take real people from history . . . and with the tender touch of a creator, deliver them right to your door.”

Dylan’s memoir, Chronicles. I’d bought Chronicles years ago and only recently opened it to read about MacLeish, then read the whole thing, and was glad. It’s impressionistic, unconventional—the New York Times called it “flabbergasting.” It zooms when Dylan jumps years ahead and writes about his creative rebirth with producer Daniel Lanois in New Orleans, working on what became Oh Mercy. That 1989 album—another Dylan “comeback”— features one of my favorite Dylan songs, “Man in the Long Dark Coat,” and Dylan tells of its genesis. He got in a funk during the recording sessions, and to change his emotional weather took a long motorcycle ride through Louisiana, met a strange old apocalyptic coot named Sun Pie who ran a funky store-restaurant-boatyard. Sun Pie’s Old Testament ramblings sparked something mysterious; it’s like one of his Mojave songs, or so I think of them, like “All Along the Watchtower,” “When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky,” or “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power),” the latter with the immortal line: “Well, the last thing I remember before I stripped and kneeled/ Was that trainload of fools bogged down in a magnetic field.” But unlike the other Mojave songs, “Man in the Long Dark Coat” is humid, with a hurricane, crickets, floodwaters, a menacing Bible-quoting stranger.

Bob Dylan’s New Morning

Anyway, Dylan found MacLeish’s Scratch too dark, “heavy,” and MacLeish found Dylan’s trial songs too light; after a second meeting at MacLeish’s house they went their separate ways. Dylan used some of his Scratch efforts on his wonderful 1970 family-man, Woodstock-phase album New Morning (the title song, for one, according to Dylan; evidently “Father of Night,” supposedly “Time Passes Slowly”). After the disaster of Dylan’s Self Portrait, critics hailed New Morning as a comeback. As for Scratch, it bombed, closed in three days.

When Dylan met MacLeish. Dylan’s accounts of their meetings are touching for how he portrays his feeling of being flattered by MacLeish’s attention and for how star-struck he seems in MacLeish’s presence. Dylan saw Joyce’s Ulysses on MacLeish’s shelf and almost asked him to explain it, since when Dylan tried to read Ulysses Joyce had seemed “the most arrogant man who ever lived” and its words mystifying. MacLeish was highly educated—the product of Hotchkiss, Yale, and Harvard Law—and could have summed up Ulysses for Dylan, the intuitive bohemian. MacLeish had even known Joyce. But Dylan was too shy: he wondered but didn’t ask. As for “Archie” MacLeish, Dylan said, “He possessed more knowledge of mankind and its vagaries than most men acquire in a lifetime.”

I agree. MacLeish was wise. He took a long view—he knew he was no Yeats, was modest, but he was a poet; his efforts fed the ocean of literature, and he was smart and had learned from experience. In a continuation of his thought that a writer lives as a man, not as a writer, MacLeish said in Paris Review:

What you really have to know is one: yourself. And the only way you can know that one is in the mirror of the others. And the only way you can see into the mirror of the others is by love or its opposite—by profound emotion. Certainly not by curiosity—by dancing around asking, looking, making notes. You have to live relationships to know. Which is why a lifetime marriage with a woman you love is a great gift, and five marriages in a raddled row is a disaster to everyone, including the marrier. The great luck—the immeasurable luck—for a man trying to write the poem of his life is to have known good men and women and to have loved them well enough to learn the differences from himself. It won’t guarantee the poem will get written but it is immeasurable luck.

Reading Scott Fitzgerald’s letters to Ernest is illuminating in this connection: you see at once what was wrong with that friendship. Scott writes as a writer. And in friendship, in human relations, in life, there is no such thing as a writer: there is merely a man who sometimes writes. I can’t imagine anything shallower than a friendship based on a common interest in the production of literature.

MacLeish’s essay “Poetry and Journalism,” delivered as a lecture in 1958, published as a monograph, and collected in his 1967 book A Continuous Journey, is a touchstone for me. His recognition of journalism as a form of literature inspired me when I was a young reporter. I returned to his words during this surge of creative nonfiction, curious about what he said about journalism and whether it applies more broadly. MacLeish defines art in the essay in a way that includes journalism, still literature’s and nonfiction’s red-headed stepchild.

David Shields redux. Today’s creative nonfiction seems often to set itself apart from journalism, on the one hand, and to claim equal artistic status with fiction on the other. David Shields, in Reality Hunger, claims greater artistic merit for creative nonfiction, at least compared with what he considers the dead narrative moves of traditional fiction. Shields calls the book his “ars poetica,” which means the art or nature of poetry. In fact it was Shields’s recent, second interview with The Rumpus, on the occasion of his book’s issuance in paperback, that spurred my return to MacLeish’s “Poetry and Journalism” to try to figure out for myself, once again, what art is and how much freedom the artist needs to achieve it.

I believe that art is intensely personal and so must the artist be. Does this mean that journalism, at least, cannot be art, while creative nonfiction with its greater freedom can be?

Next: Archibald MacLeish’s seminal essay “Poetry and Journalism” on how all writing, from poems to news reports, consists of recreations from the world’s materials and shares more similarities than fundamental differences.

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The glory of nonfiction

from Verlyn Klinkenborg’s interview with James Norton for Flak Magazine

“I believe in the glory of nonfiction. I don’t believe in the hierarchy of genres that seems to prevail in the United States. Is the novel the higher calling, or is poetry the higher calling? Frankly I think nonfiction is equally great and equally profound—and often gloriously better. I’m a convert to my own genre, is the way I’d say it. You meet a lot of nonfiction writers who feel their next step ought to be to write a novel, and for a lot of them, it’s just not a good idea. The number who have actually pulled it off is actually very small.”

“My influences as a writer come out of a lifetime as a reader. It draws from all over the map. It comes from the real training I got as a Ph.D. scholar, reading 18th-century and 17th-century prose in depth. It comes really out of a love of all sorts of writers—at the moment, John McPhee and Joan Didion, essays by Richard Rodriguez, some by Annie Dillard . . . It’s a very eclectic range of influences, and they have more to do with what I hear in my ear than what I see in nature.”

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Against narrative

In the About section of this blog devoted to narrative, I used to fret that narrative seems to inhibit reflection, or at least is in tension with other ways of exploring meaning: I’d noticed in writing a memoir the pressure of the constant “and then” of the story. But a friend questioned what I meant and I couldn’t defend my tentative insight. So it was exciting to see a writer boldly go there—in fact he mounted a sustained attack on narrative—in an address at last week’s Ohio University Spring Literary Festival sponsored by the English department’s creative writers.

David Shields made clear he was also fretting, and speaking for himself, before confessing to an auditorium of writers that he’s sick of seeing the creaky techniques of narrative coming at him. Deeply read and the author of nine books, an English professor at the University of Washington, Shields gave an erudite talk that made me feel uneducated, timid, and very traditional. His books include an acclaimed novel, Dead Languages, and a bestselling new work of nonfiction, The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll be Dead. He based his talk on his book forthcoming in 2010 from Knopf, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto.

For Shields, the nontraditional lyric and collage essay forms have David Shieldssupplanted the traditional novel as a means of knowing and investigating the world. “The motor of the novel is story; the motor of the essay is thought,” he said. “I’m not drawn to literature because I love stories per se. I find nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless. Making up a story or characters feels, to me, like driving a car in a clown suit.”

He came to this epiphany in the mid-1990s while working on his fourth novel, which collapsed—he couldn’t commit himself to working out its plot and character—and in its wreckage emerged his first nonfiction book, Remote: Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity. Shields wants to eliminate the “delusion and contrivance” of fictional characterization. “Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art,” he said. “I and like-minded writers and artists want the veil of ‘let’s pretend’ out.”

Some of his other assertions:

• “Although great novels—novelly novels—are still being written, a lot of the most interesting things are happening on the fringes of several forms. I write stuff one inch from life, but all the art is in that inch. Tell the Truth but tell it slant. Genre is a minimum-security prison. All great works found a genre or dissolve one.”

• “The world exists. Why recreate it? I want to think about it, try to understand it. What I am is a wisdom junkie, knowing all along that wisdom is, in many ways, junk. I want a literature built entirely out of contemplation and revelation. Nonfiction is a framing device to foreground contemplation. Fiction is ‘Once upon a time.” Essay is ‘I have an idea.’ I don’t seek to narrate time but to investigate existence. Time must die.”

• “Serious plumbing of consciousness, not flashing of narrative legerdemain, helps us understand another human being. I have a strong reality gene. I don’t have a huge pyrotechnic imagination that luxuriates in other worlds. People will say, ‘It was so fascinating to read this novel that took place in Greenland. I just loved living inside another world for two weeks.’ That doesn’t, I must say, interest me that much.”

• “The play Hamlet is, more than anything else, the person Hamlet talking about a multitude of different topics. I find myself wanting to ditch the tired old plot altogether and just harness the voice, which is a processing machine, taking input and spitting out perspective—a lens, a distortion effect. He would keep riffing forever if it weren’t for the fact that the plot needs to kill him.”

• “The poem and the essay are more intimately related than any two genres, because they’re both ways of pursuing problems, or maybe trying to solve problems. One could say that fiction, indirectly, is a pursuit of knowledge, but the essay and the poem more urgently attempt to figure something out about the world.”

• “A conversational dynamic is built into the essay form: the writer argues with himself; the writer argues with the reader. The essay enacts doubt; it embodies it as a genre. First person is where you can be more interesting; you don’t have to have to be much but a stumbling fool. The wisdom here is more precious than in the sage overview, which in many writers makes me nearly puke. No more masters, no more masterpieces. What I want (instead of God the novelist) is self-portrait in a convex mirror.”

• “When the mimetic function is replaced by manipulation of the original, we’ve arrived at collage. The very nature of collage demands fragmented materials, or at least materials yanked out of context. Collage is, in a way, only an accentuated act of editing: picking through options and presenting a new arrangement . . . The act of editing may be the key postmodern artistic instrument. Our lives aren’t prepackaged along narrative lines and, therefore, by its very nature, ‘reality’-based art—unprocessed, uncut, underproduced—splinters and explodes.”

• “Collage is not a refuge for the compositionally disabled; it’s an evolution beyond narrative. The novel is dead. Long live the anti-novel, built from scraps. Absence of plot gives the reader the chance to think about something other than turning pages. In collage, we read for penetration of the material rather than elaboration of story. I like work that’s focused page by page, line by line, on what the writer really cares about rather than hoping that what the writer cares about will somehow mysteriously creep through the cracks of narrative.”

• “Collage implies brevity. You don’t need a story. The question is how long you don’t need a story. Omission is a form of creation. Cut to the chase. My ambition is to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a whole book—what everyone else does not say in a book.  I remember in grad school telling my girlfriend that I wanted to forge a form that would house only epiphanies—such presumption—but now, twenty-five ears later, I feel as if I’ve stumbled into something approximating that. I want the overt meditation that yields (at least an attempt at) understanding, as opposed to a lengthy narrative that yields—what?—I suppose a sort of extended readerly interest in what happens next.”

It seems to me that a writer wants to tell a story and wonders if he can in the form he envisions. Next he doubts his chosen form, its conventions and constraints. Next he examines the cultural grab-bag from which he borrowed. Finally, to greater or lesser degree, he begins to consciously work out his own aesthetic.

Shields is out on the bleeding edge of artistic desire.

The mass of readers will always want narrative, but a growing minority will respond to innovative forms. To me, narrative does seem necessary for greatest emotional resonance. Truly the delivery system is gooey: narrative is as humble as our flesh. But stories affect us because when a writer shows us things happening we decode them in our very bones. Actions speak, in our own interpretations, as in life: the partial answers narratives contain are your own answers, however inarticulate. 

After graciously emailing me a copy of his talk, Shields and I corresponded briefly and I asked him about my narrative-is-necessary theory. He said he’s interested in stories but believes most narrative doesn’t serve a larger theme or contribute to emotional resonance. Ninety-nine percent of narrative, he told me, is “pure machinery.”

Alas, a postscript: It was clear at the conference that Shields’s sally upset some people—a prominent poet pointedly described his work from the podium as narrative—but later I learned how upset a widely published fiction writer was. And a professor who teaches doctoral writing students said they analyzed Shields’s tract and declared that it formed a . . . narrative of his discontent.

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Filed under aesthetics, craft, technique, creative nonfiction, essay-collage, essay-lyric, evolutionary psychology, fiction, memoir, narrative, poetry, theme

Does writing pay?

In his recent column in The Week, Francis Wilkinson asks whether professional writing has become an activity for the rich, since almost no one makes meaningful money at it. He notes:

“In 1896, Richard Harding Davis went to Cuba to report on what his binspublisher, William Randolph Hearst, fervently hoped would be a war. Hearst offered the 32-year-old writer $3,000 for a month of work; Davis expected to collect another $600 freelancing for Harper’s Magazine. Davis was a well-known and popular writer. But even the most famous print journalists today would have a hard time duplicating his earnings, which would amount to six figures in today’s money.”

With legions writing for free, and with most writers who are paid earning peanuts (especially if they consider their hourly rate), the fact is that the craft is a calling. Or, as a sensible businessman would say, an activity for “artists,” by which he means “idiots.”

But college creative writing programs are packed. The recent Association of Writing Programs conference in Chicago was host to 8,000 writing teachers and students. Interesting shifts are occurring in English departments because students are flocking to classes in writing poetry, fiction, and nonfiction while avoiding the traditional study of literature.

In his essay “The Rise of Creative Writing & the New Value of Creativity,” in the February 2009 issue of AWP’s The Writer’s Chronicle, Steve Healey notes and defends the proliferation, saying a creative writing degree constitutes a great liberal arts education and fits a body for today’s economy about as well as anything. “[A]n increasing number of American workers are valued not for their ability to produce things but to produce concepts, emotions, lifestyles, and experiences—and this class of workers increasingly wants to consume those same abstract products,” writes Healey. “. . . The skills that have the most value in the new economy are often those practiced in this academic field—including the ability to manipulate language, to affect audiences in powerful ways, and to craft evocative stories, characters, images, and voices. [T]oo few of us are willing to consider how rapidly and thoroughly post-industrial America has taken on a creative ethos, how that desire for escape from commercialism has itself become a commodity, and how many of our students are actually receiving valuable training for the new economy.”

Healey says he asks his students why they’re there, and he reports: “Overwhelmingly the answers resemble my own motivations for taking Creative Writing: my students want freedom from an oppressive curriculum that demands too much rote critical thinking, dry textual analysis, and academic prose strangled by thesis statements and Strunk & White correctness. As a teacher, I feel that same buzz of liberation, partly because my students seem so happy to be there, and also because I feel less pressure to teach and evaluate them according to conventional standards. None of us in this field can quite understand why this freedom is allowed to exist in an institutional environment still apparently controlled by those standards, but we also know that understanding is not necessary, because here we are, and we’re in demand. We can accept that mystery at the core of Creative Writing as long as it continues to succeed.”

Moreover, he adds, in the writing classroom “poems and stories are not passively consumed but actively created; and they’re exchanged not for profit but as a ‘humane’ gesture that asks for nothing in return. [T]he familiar opposition between cultivated humanism and vulgar marketplace, between impractical creativity and practical profitability, is rapidly disappearing, and this disappearance has contributed to the Creative Writing boom. . . . Students are savvy enough to understand how powerful creative literacy has become in our current social context. Whether they see Creative Writing as rebelliously impractical or career-mindedly practical or just a fun way to earn credit, they want access to its power.”

There you go, art for art’s sake, with a twist in that it’s ultimately practical. Surely a small percentage of graduates will become regular writers, and a tiny percentage of that subset will make any money. For most people, writing, like farming, may function best as a calling, as a hobby, as part-time work, as prerequisite for the day job. Professional writing always begins there, in any case, with someone writing a term paper or a poem or a short story and pleasing himself and perhaps a teacher or parent.

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Filed under aesthetics, fiction, journalism, poetry, teaching, education, workshopping

Annie Dillard on structure in nonfiction

from “To Fashion a Text,” collected in Zinsser: Inventing the Truth

“I like to be aware of a book as a piece of writing, and aware of its structure as a product of mind, and yet I want to see the represented world through it. I admire artists who succeed in dividing my attention more or less evenly between the world of their books and the art of their books. In fiction we might say that the masters are Henry James and Herman Melville. In nonfiction the writer usually just points to the world and says, ‘This is a biography of Abraham Lincoln. This is what Abraham Lincoln was about.’ But the writer may also make of his work an original object in its own right, so that the reader may study the work with pleasure as well as the world that it describes. That is, works of nonfiction can be coherent and crafted works of literature.”

“When I gave up writing poetry I was very sad, for I had devoted fifteen years to the study of how the structures of poems carry meaning. But I was delighted to find that nonfiction prose can also carry meaning in its structures and, like poetry, can tolerate all sorts of figurative language, as well as alliteration and even rhyme. The range of rhythms in prose is larger and grander than it is in poetry, and it can handle discursive ideas and plain information as well as character and story. It can do everything. I felt as though I had switched from a single reed instrument to a full orchestra.”

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People understand the constraints

Solstice musings on poetry & nonfiction & Mom’s Christmas letter.

When I read poems and when I (rarely) write them, I’m apt to think This is an essay! When poets gave up rhyme and meter, they exposed the fact that poetry and creative nonfiction can be one in the same, though poets are free to fictionalize. (Long ago I was taught the only definition of poetry is that the poet controls the length of his line.)

The similarity does not mean, of course, that poetry is passé; the relationship merely underscores an interesting harmony between the forms.addressfirebell-blog1 In much of the best creative nonfiction, every line is polished into poetry. And many contemporary poems could pass as segmented essays.

The poet Emma Bolden addresses this affinity in her blog post “A Certain Slant of Light” : “I’ve written several entries about the difference between poetry and prose, but my latest prose-writing experience has led me to believe that they are, perhaps, not so different after all. Though I do still miss my line breaks, I think that there are great similarities. An essay — or, at least, a lyric essay — seems to depend largely upon what’s left out, and upon what happens in the blanks — the leaps created by white space, the connections and juxtapositions blankness and absence can create.”

I wrote the little moment at the end of this post as a poem, but it could have been developed as a concise essay. Or more. A glance can produce ten pages, or a book, as we know. This poem is intended to be wistful, not sad—but regarding that: sad poems often seem sadder than sad essays. I think that’s because essays usually embody some narrative, and narrative is hopeful: “Obla dee, obla dah, life goes on,” the lads sang.

The background for this slight poem (and formalist to boot, with a modest rhyme scheme that plays off its content and supposed genre): my wife was trying to get me and the kids to help her write the annual Christmas letter, and we were harassing her with suggested verses disrespectful of the genre, the season, her recipients.

“I want to write a poem in the usual sense,” Kathy complained.
“Too many constraints,” I said.
“People understand the constraints,” our daughter said, rallying to her mother.

I thought the idea interesting of an optimistic woman trying to keep normal human difficulty out of her annual missive, a sunny Christmas-letter-poem that edges unwillingly into darker water . . .

 

A Poem in the Usual Sense

People understand the constraints:
the need for rhythm, vaguely the meter.
They still desire rhyme most of all—
give ’em that and no complaints.

We’re made to feel its wrongness, though,
the Philistine inside, the childish reader.
And I admit the postmodern order is tall:
Tell, with irony and restraint, life’s sorrow.

But Mama, animal despair beneath her,
strives for cheer, writing our Christmas letter,
and scratches her head as poignancy falls
unbidden, a solstice shadow, as it were.

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