A LETTER TO MADELINE BRUMBY
ABOUT THE LAUGHING MONKEYS OF GRAVITY
27 October 2003
Thanks for your thoughtful email.
I can’t possibly do it justice, but I’ll try to respond to some of the issues
you bring up. First of all, I think a good poem must be honest. Honesty is what
connects heart and head. Honesty is what teaches, not the poet. Everyone has
“something” to say, but I think what makes a poem compelling is that it rides
the back of a wind that is more powerful than any particular ego or any
particular content. If a poet catches that wind, fine. If not, then the poem’s
merely a piece of pretty propaganda. I’d also add that many bad poets (and bad
readers, as well) confuse honesty with sincerity. They’re not the same. You can
be very sincere, but tell (and believe) a lie. Real honesty’s a lot tougher than
As to vaudeville being satirical,
I’m not sure. I see vaudeville as a succession of songs, dances, skits, etc. in
the old music hall tradition. Each individual section of the title poem embodies
various bits of comic business (the bricks falling on Oliver Hardy’s head, the
Tramp caught in the machine or trapped by the Big Waiter, etc.) that I try to
examine as variations on the human situation. If you flip comedy, I think you’ll
also find tragedy. Being trapped in a lion’s cage can be funny when seen in a
certain way, but it’s also about not having your friends nearby to help you out
of a jam, which is, in itself, another form of death.
As to rhythm, it’s very
important to me. I try for a conversational rhythm, but I also
find myself composing lines as if they were musical phrases. What appears free,
I can tell you, is often the outcome of a long struggle to find the right formal
sound. And every poem has its own sound. One wrong note (word), and, in my view,
the poem fails. This is the hardest part of the process and relates to the point
about honesty. A good poet taps into the power of language to take us out to the
edge and surprise us and then bring us back to the center and reassure us.
Language does this better than film or any other art that I know because it goes
deeper and lasts longer and seems to tell us more about ourselves. At least
that’s the way I see it, being a film teacher, too. Words wake us up, while film
makes us think we’re dreaming when, in fact, we’re not.
I hope this helps. When you
finish your project, I’d be honored to see a copy of it.
A LETTER TO MARY KATHRYN WILEY
ABOUT CREATIVE WRITING
19 October 2009
Dear Mary Kathryn–
I read your sampler carefully and have a response.
Probably nothing that you really want–it’s what comes out of my own
general encounter with poetry, and especially the poetry that writers
send me who are just starting out and want advice. As you know, I’m not
a creative writing teacher, since I believe that the curriculum of
literary study is best pursued in an open liberal spirit, and not as a
narrow search for technique. “Creative writers,” it seems to me, are
like engineers who study bridges and roads; their interest is not in
actual travel from place to place but in constructing a tangible
structure from blueprints and plans. I see them as literary
stay-at-homes; they read poetry because it’s a practical tool in their work(shop) rather than a transforming–and otherwise totally
useless–spiritual liberation from themselves.
Which is why I’d say it’s worth continuing your
experimentation with the sonnet, but not because you’re able to perfect
a certain kind of rhyme scheme or construct fourteen lines in meter
(syllabic or accentual). I’d add that, because of its constraints, the
sonnet forces you to find a voice that feels and thinks at the same
time–a voice that finishes what it has to say almost in the blink of an
eye. Either the constraining form imposes itself on you or else you find
a way to subdue its outward demands and make it seem to express itself
naturally. To scale down Rossetti’s rhetoric, it’s
about finding a moment worth singing about and, in so doing, making a
poet of yourself, at least for the time being. In shaping such an artful
song, you (hopefully) also liberate yourself from the occasion of it.
I should add, if it isn’t already clear, that what
I’m saying is not about “creative writing” in the usual sense.
“I think I must have kissed your lips too soon” is an erotic lyric-line
that, yes, starts from a particular moment but
has the potential to take us anywhere, to go far beyond the experience out of which it arose. Such a
line is a commonplace of the sonnet, but the song in which we find it
can sing, if it’s good, about new things or even about old things in a
new way. It’s what Petrarch’s sonnets did and those of the first English
poets who adapted him. The danger is that once a “creative” style
becomes conventional, the ideas, feelings, and language associated with
it tend to act almost as technical requirements. For a time after
Petrarch what poets did–despite the obvious social differences between
then and now–was to “workshop” the sonnet.
You can go anywhere as long as you stay with literature. Today’s “creative writing” workshops,
on the other hand, are mostly for and about people who advise one
another on questions of routine. What I like about “I think I must have kissed
your lips too soon” is its openness. (There are
other such lines, too.) I’d like to see you go where such
simple-seeming lines take you, to be enfolded (to adapt a metaphor you
use elsewhere) in poetry and to spread your wings, both. On the subject
of loss that attracts you so much perhaps even works like Psalms and
Lamentations will be a part of that embrace, among the many possibilities. Who knows? The more
true you are to literature (yourself), the more likely it is that you’ll
come to the kind of poetry that will never stop being important.
I think you wanted me to be more specific
than I’ve been. Please forgive. It’s because I admire your passion
for literature that I tried not to make this sound like the
usual shop talk.