The best in poetry (and poetic things)
Who knew the act of reading could be such a beautiful thing? Photographer Steve McCurry captures the beauty of being a reader in this set of exquisite photos of people around the world engaged in the act … of reading. Curry says, “We are familiar with words describing images, but not so familiar with images describing words and the impact reading has on our lives.”
Artist Bo Bartlett paints images that contain layered narratives. He often paints in his childhood home, because, he says, “All my dreams are in this house. …No matter whether I am in Pennsylvania or Maine or New York or Seattle, when I have a dream it’s often of one of the rooms in this house.” He relates in the video having found an old soldier figurine from his childhood and recognizing the image in one of his paintings, having played with the toy so much that it imprinted in his subconscious mind.
This is the part of today’s article where I should begin to use a certain word at literally every conceivable opportunity. But? I have been online since my feet literally touched the floor this morning, and literally every possible use of the word has already been made in literally countless articles already. Here’s the story: Self-proclaimed grammar nazis (they aren’t literal nazis, as far as I know) have long been figuratively stomping their grammatically-correct feet over the misuse of the word literally. And now, at least three dictionaries are snatching their righteous indignation out from under them with a revision to the word’s literal definition, which includes a figurative use. This may (or may not) be the first time a dictionary has pitted contrary meanings against each another in the same entry.
There is much figurative and literal gasping and sputtering to be found across the Internet since Merriam-Webster, Cambridge Dictionaries Online and Oxford Dictionaries made the shift, though some prefer to blame Google. But lucky us: Dick Wisdom helps to soothe the figurative nerves of those who are likely still reeling over the Oxford comma’s demise, explaining that “Dictionaries do not dictate language usage, they describe it.” Literally. Which is another way of saying “This is why we can’t have nice things.”
There’s a perception among some–not all–that by self-publishing, one could avoid the steps of traditional publishing. Say, for instance, editing. The truer truth is that editing shouldn’t be skipped no matter who publishes your book, from proofreading and copy-editing to developmental and structural editing, to work out the more significant kinks in your manuscript. Successful self-published novelist Rachel Abbott talked to The Guardian about self-publishing her first and second books, and how she learned the important role of an editor.
I didn’t understand the editing process before I started writing, and I wish I had. I had this idea that it was just about correcting mistakes; when I realised that an editor does so much more than this, I had the strange notion that they would take my book and rewrite the bits that were dodgy. I had no idea that I would get comments back like “this slowed me down” or “the storyline is confusing at this point” and then have to sort it out for myself. Not only is it important for the book to be well edited, it’s important for me as a writer to know where I am not being clear, or where the writing doesn’t move at the right pace, or a thousand other issues that can dramatically change the finished book.
Among other aspects of self-publishing, Abbott also discusses the importance of cover design, which is also addressed in a BBC documentary on the history of the paperback book. The cover played a significant role in the mass market sales of paperbacks which promised to “turn us all into librarians of our own private collections.”
4 Poetry at Work
You’ve probably seen the Holstee Manifesto at some point over the past few years–the black and white letterpress poster beginning with “Do what you love, and do it often” and ending with a reminder that “Life is short. Live your dream and share your passion.” The guys who created the manifesto which drives the Holstee business model shared tips for mindful living and business practice (“to be fully aware and to appreciate the impact of one’s actions”) with Fast Company. Ask why, they say. “Why am I doing this? Why are we creating this product? Why is this a design principle? Asking ‘why’ encourages you to go deeper and become more aware of what’s driving you, and whether or not you want it to be driving you.” They also advocate being the architect of your life:
Be considerate and intentional with your life decisions. Rather than let life happen to you, author the story of your life. Author and philosopher Howard Thurman says it best with, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
This is what the world needs.
I’ll tell you what else the world needs. More Sesame Street. Because only Sesame Street would find a way to put poetry to work in a spoof of the Sons of Anarchy. Need a rhyming word? That’s what we heard.
In college, I was not my favorite professor’s favorite student. One might think it was my failure to appear at scheduled class times, but it also had something to do with my tendency toward a certain South American dialect, while he preferred something closer to his native Castilian. One of the best bits of advice Dr. Escalante ever gave me was to drink the same beverage while studying as during an exam. He suggested coffee, because while he felt a cerveza would be better, regulations prohibited beer on campus. An article at Ooomf.com suggests reasons why he may have preferred beer as a study aid. Coffee, it turns out, is a liar, blocking the adenosine receptors allowing chemicals that impact neural activity to work extra hard for a net effect of “telling your body that your energy reserves are good to go even when they’re long gone.” Beer, on the other hand, allows for greater creativity by making “you less focused because it decreases your working memory, and you begin to care less about what’s happening around you.” Bottom line? Beer for the idea; coffee for execution. And if you want Dr. Escalante to like you, show up for class and pronounce your Z’s like Th’s.
Perhaps Dr. Escalante was familiar with Hemingway’s famous advice to “Write drunk; edit sober.” Olivia Laing has a new book looking at six writers (including Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, and John Cheever) and the question of alcohol in and around their writing. Blake Morrison discusses The Trip to Echo Spring in an article asking whether these writers accomplished what they did on the page because of, or in spite of, their use of alcohol.
How much can you trust a reader? It’s an important question, one that helps the writer determine what to put in and what to take out of a piece of writing. More often than not, I’m learning, the reader can be trusted quite a lot, and there is also quite a lot that is best left off the page so the writing can go where it needs to go–or where the reader needs to take it. Ryan McIlvain has a piece at the Rumpus discussing how much a writer should explain in fiction, and how much should be left to context. And even whether it’s okay to leave a reader not fully understanding.
The metaphor of translation is an important one, one I think of often. Something always gets lost in it, we’re told, and I believe that. Whether we read Homer or Joyce or Woolf, Saul Bellow, Anne Tyler, Brady Udall, we won’t know their worlds as well as their characters do. And that’s okay. In fact, I think that process of almost understanding, or understanding as completely as we can, is what allows a character to acquire her unique weight, her illusion of reality. Her mind is not our mind, after all. In many novels she isn’t even aware that she has a historical obligation to explain herself to us, so she doesn’t. She lives her life (dramatic some days, quiet others), thinks her thoughts (big and small), and we hide behind the pages and try to eavesdrop. This is the fiction I most enjoy reading. This is the fiction I try to write myself.
Poetry, it could be argued, requires even more trust of the reader to understand (or to be comfortable with “almost understanding”). Jack Underwood recently tweeted twenty “poetry tenets, “ some of which echo this idea (without saying it outright). Some favorites:
5. If a poem wanted you to know exactly what it was about, it would be a boiled egg.
6. A poem is the shoe you saw as a child, by the side of a road, and you asked yourself about.
15. A poem is getting into a too hot bath without any water in.
17. “Hello” said the poet. “You don’t live here anymore, ” said the poem. “But you can look round”.
Once upon a time, around junior high, I was accused of singing the wrong words to Donna Summer’s “MacArthur Park.” Apparently I was so humiliated that to this day I can’t recall my errant version, but I do recall my simultaneous consternation that words that made no sense at all–about a cake left in the park in the rain so the green icing melted and, damn, she doesn’t have the recipe to bake another cake–were actually the right words. Every Day Poems featured a poem by Susanna Children about mistaken song lyrics and the poignant alternate version in her head:
Mistakes I Have Made
failing truck alongside the peat-bog-voice of Van Morrison
a sweet philosophic jumble I have never parsed
out. My father, steady as June, touched my arm once
and corrected me: the question isn’t “What’s the sound
of one man clapping?” but one hand, one hand,
and even then I sang, didn’t get it, how could I, hounded
by the thought of this one man clapping—so grand,
really, profound—some guy in a hooded Celtics sweatshirt
standing out in the street, in the aisles of an empty
chapel, ten acres of tobacco, a grocery mart,
a fire escape, clapping, clapping, clapping, clapping.
Read Mistakes I Have Made by Susanna Childress at Every Day Poems
We recently passed the 98th anniversary of Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken. In belated celebration, listen to Frost read the poem:
I can’t seem to terminate my Netflix subscription. One of the members of my household is a great fan of AMC’s series Breaking Bad, and Netflix is his access, so I concede and pay another month, and then another. For those of you who, like me, don’t watch the show (though I get regular recaps from my son), the main character, Walter White, is an unassuming chemistry teacher with an inoperable cancer diagnosis who turns to meth production in order to build a secure future for his family. Yes, it’s complicated.
It seems Walt Whitman hangs in the background of Walter White’s character, between curious parallels in his name and circumstance as well as Whitman’s poetry making an appearance on the show. English professor Mike Chasar and Poetry Foundation’s Kera Bolonik break down Whitman and White in Breaking Bad.
Does Breaking Bad have a thing about Percy Bysshe Shelley, too? The new season trailer features a voiceover of Walter White reading “Ozymandias.”
The Great American Novel is as elusive as the American Dream. A lot of folks want it, not everyone can have it. And not everyone recognizes it for what it is. So what is the greatest American novel? Is that even a fair question? The Millions features the opinions of nine English scholars for a definitive (or not) answer. Meanwhile, I will act all casual-like and whistle in the corner because not only have I not seen Breaking Bad, but I have read only one of the potential greatest American novel candidates.
Perhaps I should look up the rest of the titles on Three Panel Book Review and bring myself up to speed, and then I can sit in on the panel of experts for whatever unanswerable question we’re asking literary experts next. Or, I could just read the three panel reviews and get a great laugh for the afternoon.
10 Sound ‘n Motion
I was not the sort of child who gladly practiced the viola every day for my lessons. In fact, there were probably days when I wouldn’t have minded if my viola made its way to the local landfill. Contrast that with kids in Cateura, Paraguay, who are pulling junk from the landfill for Favio Chavez to create instruments and populate his Landfill Harmonic. This is a beautiful thing. Literally.
Top photo by Basheertome. Creative Commons via Flickr. Post photos by Claire Burge. Used with permission. Post by Will Willingham.
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L. L. Barkat says
smiling, of course, literally, of course.
And? That reading of Ozymandias is something else. Love.
Maureen Doallas says
Really enjoyed the video on Bartlett, especially that last little bit about his discovery: “It’s a magic world.”
And that reading of “Ozymandias”: wow!
Megan Willome says
So, to paraphrase Stephen King, write with beer, edit with coffee. Is that it?
Love, love, love the “Sesame Street” video. Especially as a Baylor alumnus because of the Armstrong-Browning Library on campus, which is the largest collection of secular stained glass anywhere. Booyah!
Roses are red
Candy is sweet
I literally loved
“Sons” from Sesame Street! 😉
Jody Collins says
1) the hard boiled egg/poetry meaning thing. I think that’s just mean, ’cause sometimes I have no idea what a poem means and then I feel dumb.
2) Landfillharmonic video–magnificent. A teacher friend circulated that earlier this year and I’ve sent it around the world to more than one person.
3) Donna Summer wrote ‘MacArthur Park’? I had no idea; all those years I sang that song along with Chicago….and I’ve even BEEN to MacArthur Park.
Your compendium not only teaches new things but brings a smile as well. Sesame Street video–pure brilliance.
Thank you for your weekly potpourri-ing on our behalf.
Will Willingham says
You make me smile, Jody. 🙂
1. I think it means you don’t need to feel dumb. The poem doesn’t necessarily have a prescribed meaning. As my friend Megan Willome says, what matters is what the poem means *to you.* Or a hard boiled egg. Whichever you like. 🙂
3. Not sure who wrote it. I just remember in my anti-disco years that Donna Summer sang it.
Loved that Sesame Street thing very much. 🙂