December 30, 2011

Revision and The Body

Good poems are written in the body.  Some might say that poems are written with the body.  The five senses are full engaged. The poem is connected to the body of the person and to the earth's body.  

"If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry," says Emily Dickinson.  She reminds me that part of the body is energy. The first half of this sentence, "if I feel physically..."  is countered by the next part, "as if the top of my head were taken off." I think of this as energy. These days we are aware of an energy body in alternative healing, Hindu or yoga philosophy, people talk about the chakras and the concept of kundalini, the upward journey through the body toward union with the divine. This experience is a spiritual one. I define the word spirituality in this way--a mutuality of spirits, a feeling of congruence with another. Poetry is the union or communion of the spirit. 

How does one create a poem that gives another person this experience? I do think there are ways to revise increase the poems physicality and spirituality. First question then is, is the poem written in the body? Does it employ all the senses? Is it fully physical?  

The next question is about spirit or energy. This part of revision, in my experience is about taking out the extra junk: extra words, explanation, interpretation.  It involves becoming more simple, more focused, more evocative.  In my college writing class with teacher Wayne Moen, I learned that the more evocative a poem, the stronger it was.  He insisted that we allow the reader to participate in making meaning.  Lawrence Sterne also said this; he was the author of Tristam Shandy. Do not insult the reader, Sterne warned, by telling him what to think or feel. The revision technique needed is one of ellision. Take out clutter, words, lines, sections of the poem in a fearless surgery.  

The next way to increase the energy of the poem is through the rhythm and sound of the words. One strives to create a certain music, even if it is not a formal poem, the poet pays attention to the vowels, consonants and where the stresses fall. Other things increase the energy as well -- resistances, frictions, contrasts, textures.  

Muriel Rukeyser wrote about energy:  "In poetry, the exchange is one of energy. Human energy is transferred, and from the poem it reaches the reader. Human energy, which is consciousness, the capacity to produce change in existing conditions." 

"The only danger is in not going far enough. The usable truth here deals with change. But we are speaking of the human spirit. If we go deep enough, we reach the common life, the shared experience of man, the world of possibility. 

"If we do not go deep, if we live and write half-way, there are the obscurity, vulgarity, the slang of fashion, and several kinds of death." --Muriel Rukeyser in The Life of Poetry

Muriel Rukeyser was a poet and social activist. The Life of Poetry was published in 1949.  She was actively against the war and censorship (remember McCarthyism). The first chapters of her book examine the resistances that our culture has had to poetry. People say they "don't have time for it."  I love the way she analyzes this as a fear.  "A poem invites you to feel. More than that: it invites you to respond. And better than that: a poem invites a total response."  Are we willing to open ourselves to an emotional experience? Are we willing to take a poem inside, to listen with our own senses to the world another has given us? Are we willing to have time for the spirit?

December 12, 2011

New Work & Poetry Hybrids

Right now, I am at work on a new piece of writing. It is a hybrid between poetry and prose, and I search inside for its form. The goal is to find that interesting friction or energy that will engage me and the reader, and that will help the work go forward. Often, writer's block will occur when I've taken a wrong turn. I work in fits and starts, forward and back, revising and developing.  

Anne Carson writes (from the section Short Talks in her book of essays and poems, Plainwater (Vintage Books, New York, 1995): 

Anne Carson is a poet, translator, scholar of ancient Greek literature, and essayist, and she is a good example of a writer who is combining forms.  She is entertaining and incisive. The Autobiography of Red carries the Greek myth of Herakles into contemporary culture. This story in poems details the Red Monster as a gay man who wears a heavy black coat to disguise his wings. We read about Herakles' mother and a lover in Argentina.  The book also contains an interesting essay about the adjective and meat.  The book Men in the Off Hours has poems that are essays. The Beauty of the Husband is billed as a fictional essay in 29 tangos. Decreation contains a set of poems, a play, and essays about ecstasy and eclipses.  Nox is an art box of fragments and photographs, memories of a brother, and a translation of an ancient Greek elegy.

The boundaries are not fixed. Patterns shift. Formal poems give way to informal. Meaning gives way to language. Poetry gives way to prose. Sources vary. Discourses mix. There is a potluck of essay, fiction, autobiography, poetry. Conventions travel. Cultures blend. Translations err and err again. Words are the stock in trade. Poets conduct raids of other landscapes and lexicons. We make forays into art and science and metadata to yield the right friction or energy or fusion.

Recently, WW Norton came out with an anthology, American Hybrid. The editors have included many good poets who are experimenting with language, but I thought the collection falls a little short. The editors acknowledged how challenging it was to put the collection together. Their initial choices they decided against, in favor of collecting the work of the earlier generation, the precursors. The publishing world has turned upside down Cole Swenson writes, and academics are no longer on top. Changes are happening fast. Technology, the internet, and rapid changes in our culture make it difficult for an editor of such an anthology to keep pace.  In order to learn the new works, it's best to scan the New York Times Book Review.  Besides the interesting fusions in genre, other influences exist. Graphic novels, music videos, video games, and hypertext provide interesting story telling techniques. 

I read Anne Carson because she opens doors. I also read Clarice Lispector, the Brazilian prose writer.  This is an excerpt from the novel, The Hour of the Star (New Directions, 1992) that so clearly conveys that each book tells the writer how it must be written. It was written in Portuguese and is translated by Giovanni Pointiero. The narrator is a writer, Rodrigo S.M., who tells the story of a poor girl from Northeast Brazil who comes to the city and works as a typist. She is a very bad typist, and she lives a very sad existence. The drama of the novel is the struggle the writer Rodrigo has with his story.  He says:
"I know perfectly well that every day is one more day stolen from death. In no sense an intellectual, I write with my body. And what I write is like a dank haze, the words are sounds transfused with shadows that intersect unevenly, stalactites, woven lace, transposed organ music. I can scarcely invoke words to describe this pattern, vibrant and rich, morbid and obscure, its counterpoint the deep bass of sorrow. Allegro con brio. I shall attempt to extract gold from charcoal."
"I write because I have nothing better to do in this world: I am superfluous and last in the world of men. I write because I am desperate and weary. I can no longer bear the routine of my existence and, were it not for the constant novelty of writing, I should die symbolically each day. Yet I am prepared to leave quietly by the back door. I have experienced almost everything, even passion and despair. Now I only wish to possess what might have been but never was." 
Lispector is not a writer who is much concerned with plot. She has the concerns of a poet yet writes in prose. She is a wonderful and deep writer who is able to bring the reader with her into a threshold space of each moment, a threshold of becoming. This book is a very good book to read when one is struggling with a piece of writing, becoming.  I return to her work again and again for her vision.