Archive for May, 2016

Writing: Sketch and Fill, Write, Write, Prune, Sitting, Standing, Morning, Afternoon or Night

May 30, 2016
Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway

 

I write in the afternoon, like everybody else” asserts Dylan Thomas in the in the Caedmon Collection, a fantastic set of recordings of the poet’s live readings which are introduced by Billy Collins.

This would be a curious comment coming from most writers, but Thomas was a notoriously late drinker. Actually, he was a round-the-clock drinker.  In one of his introductions, Collins laments the foibles of Thomas, who was often confused, lost, and inebriated across America during the early 1950s.  (My dad had tickets to a see Thomas at Bridges Auditorium in Claremont, CA; sadly, as on many other occasions, Thomas was unable to make the show.)

I’m pretty sure most writers write in the morning when the mind is fresh. Many writers such as Franz Kafka and Kurt Vonnegut had to wake early to write before hitting the day job.

Ernest Hemingway’s approach to writing is strongly influenced by Freud.  Hemingway sees creativity as a sort of gas tank that is constantly being refueled by the subconscious mind. Hemingway recommends against allowing the brain to run on empty.

Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start. (Ernest Hemingway On Writing 42)

I don’t know if Graham Greene was familiar with Ernest Hemingway’s philosophy of writing, but he certainly practiced it. Greene had some sort of system that informed him exactly when he had written five hundred words. And that’s how much he wrote every morning, even if had to stop mid-sentence. Pretty soon after that he would start drinking, but this isn’t going to be another post about the inebriated scribbler, is it?

Writers write all sorts of ways: before breakfast, after dinner, dictating, typing, long-hand, short-hand, hunched over a keyboard, sitting up in bed, or standing up. Standing up is how Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, on a desk that his descendants later sold (along with 130 slaves) to pay off the Great Man’s debts after he died. Jefferson heartily enjoyed the finer things in life, particularly French wine. (Spendthrift Jefferson provides a stark contrast to frugal George Washington who made provisions in his will to leave Martha with a healthy estate and to also grant* manumission to all of his slaves.)

I have a theory that there are basically two types of prose-writers: Sketch and Fill writers and Write, Write, Prune, writers.

I’m a Sketch and Fill writer. I prefer to write in the morning and revise later in the day or during the evening. As my writer’s gas tank nears empty, I often begin to make notes on what I’m going to write about when I return to the keyboard with a fresh brain.

* to boldly split your infinitive is often the more poetic thing to do

by Richard W. Bray

Shut that stinkin’ thinkin’ down

May 29, 2016

WWEyore

Our family is a prison
Of misery and sad
My sister blames my mother
I just blame my dad

You can live or you can drown
On thoughts
You can’t get rid of
Shut that stinkin’ thinkin’ down
With fellowship and love

I’m a sad man
Getting sadder every day
Sitting on a barstool
While my life drips away

You can live or you can drown
On thoughts
You can’t get rid of
Shut that stinkin’ thinkin’ down
With fellowship and love

Everything I try to do
Is just gonna fail
I’m coward and a loser
I belong in jail

You can live or you can drown
On thoughts
You can’t get rid of
Shut that stinkin’ thinkin’ down
With fellowship and love

I should just accept
What everybody knows
Bad luck gonna follow
Everywhere I go

You can live or you can drown
On thoughts
You can’t get rid of
Shut that stinkin’ thinkin’ down
With fellowship and love

It really makes sense
To drink my blues away
It’s all God’s fault
For making me this way

You can live or you can drown
On thoughts
You can’t get rid of
Shut that stinkin’ thinkin’ down
With fellowship and love

by Richard W. Bray

Walt Whitman is the Poet We Deserve in the Age of Trump, but Emily Dickinson Reigns

May 28, 2016

wwemily

There are several reasons why Emily Dickinson does not inhabit her rightful position as the greatest writer our culture has yet produced—she sedulously avoided publicity in her own lifetime (“How dreary – to be – Somebody!”); a comprehensive scholarly edition of her poetry was not compiled until almost seventy years after her death (long after the cannon had been established); she is often celebrated for her winsome poems that find their way into the high school textbooks like “I Shall Not Live in Vain” which represent only a tiny fraction of her output; she wrote short poems. (There is an absurd bias among critics in favor of “epic” poetry). Finally, we cannot overlook the obvious fact that Emily Dickinson was a women and most of our cannon-selectors have been men, many of whom no doubt shared Nathaniel Hawthorne’s contempt for that “mob of scribbling women”

Moreover, elevating Emily Dickinson to her rightful place atop the pantheon of American poets would call into question the singular supremacy of Walt Whitman. Whitman, who sees himself as the great champion of democracy, claims to “contain multitudes” in his writing, but he merely embodies mountains of self-regard:

If I worship one thing more than another it shall be the spread of
   my own body,
or any part of it.

It is his intrepid endeavor to displace God with Self rather than the actual quality of his work which makes Whitman the darling so many humanist critics. As Alfred Kazin notes in God and the American Writer, for Whitman

There is no one supreme Deity, no hierarchy, no heaven. It is on earth and nowhere else that we live out the divine in ourselves to which we are called. We are as gods when we recognize all things as one. Spiritually, we are sovereign—entirely—thanks to our culture of freedom. As we dismiss whatever offends our own souls, so we can trust our own souls for knowledge of the infinite.

Like the self-deluded subjects who claim to see the Emperor’s New Clothes (and like the editors at Social Text who published Alan Sokal’s intentional gibberish) few critics today are able to discern this manifest truth—Walt Whitman is an overblown, narcissistic, self-worshipping buffoon. (“In all people I see myself.”) Of course, in so many ways, Whitman’s solipsism makes him precisely the national icon we deserve, particularly in the Age of Trump. (It is not at all surprising that Bill Clinton gave his girlfriend a copy of a book by Whitman, although we might have expected him to choose “Song of Myself” rather than Leaves of Grass.)

Walt Whitman’s poetry delivers much music but very little sense, irony, or wit. Despite his gargantuan reputation, the words of Whitman taken together hardly amount to a single metaphorical dead white blood cell inside the metaphorical pustule existing inside the metaphorical pimple on Emily Dickinson’s glorious metaphorical backside. Dickinson proves again and again that she is capable of saying more in fewer than thirty syllables than Whitman ever gets across in page after page of his rambling jingle jangle.

One of the wonders of Emily Dickinson’s capacious mind is her ability to entertain opposing thoughts. As Richard Wilbur notes in “Sumptuous Destitution,” his splendid 1959 article on Emily Dickinson, she is “not a philosopher.” This is precisely why she can embrace paradox in a manner that would be difficult for a philosopher, thus expanding our understanding of our bizarre universe.

In “Faith Is a Fine Invention,” for example, Dickinson seems to ridicule the tendency to cling to faith in our modern age.

“Faith” is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see–
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.

Note the irony of calling faith (rather than the microscope) an invention. And what is it exactly that gentleman can see? Evidence of an invisible God, perhaps? But she is also lampooning those whose superstitious faith prevents them from seeing what wonders science reveals. One is reminded of Christian Scientists who would deny her children medical attention on religious grounds.

In “I Never Saw a Moor,” however, Dickinson defends faith entirely for its own sake. If you will pardon the tautology, she knows because she knows.

I never saw a moor;
I never saw the sea,
Yet know I how the heather looks
And what a billow be.
I never spoke with God,
Nor visited in heaven.
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the checks were given.

Paradox is not a manifestation of reality; it is a consequence of the limitations of human perception. As Kurt Vonnegut notes in the novel Deadeye Dick, birth and death amount to the opening and closing of a “pinhole.” Great poets enable us to slightly expand the boundaries of our pinhole. That’s why my favorite philosophers are mostly poets.

by Richard W. Bray

Let’s Face the Music and Dance

May 22, 2016

wwhauden

The earth is an oyster with nothing inside it,
Not to be born is the best for man;

W.H. Auden, The Dead Echo

Wow. That’s pretty depressing. In fact, I wrote that listening to Auden read “The Dead Echo”* from The Voice of the Poet series makes me want to lie down in the fetal position and turn out all the lights.

Is our human existence, as Auden suggests, so meaningless that we would be better off without it? No. Because Love.

In his famous soliloquy Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow Shakespeare’s Macbeth complains that

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

As an ardent nonbeliever, I don’t see how human existence signifies anything beyond itself. But our existence is nonetheless pretty awesome when considered on its own terms.

I’m pretty sure that there isn’t any anthropomorphized God up in outer space listening to all our prayers, a god who cares about every little thing that happens in the universe, including the death of every sparrow.   Yet I see reason for hope in this terrifying realization because it informs me that human beings must rely upon one another instead of inventing a god in order to assuage our cosmic loneliness.

However, Auden makes another claim in “The Dead Echo” which haunts me to the core of my being:

A friend is the old old tale of Narcissus

In other words, our hunger for Love is merely a manifestation of ego since we are only capable of viewing the world through the prism of our own interests and our own self-perception. As Auden explains in his collection of essays called “The Dyer’s Hand” :

Almost all of our relationships begin and most of them continue as forms of mutual exploitation, a mental or physical barter, to be terminated when one or both partners run out of good.

This is true, of course. But it hardly renders Love meaningless.  The act of caring about others is selfish and selfless at the same time.  It’s one of life’s many paradoxes.  Our lives are full of paradox not because that’s how the universe is designed; we see life as being full of paradox because that’s how our brains are designed.

When Samuel Goldwyn complained that a script she had submitted “ended on a sad note,” Dorothy Parker noted

“I know this will come as a shock to you, Mr. Goldwyn, but in all history, which has held billions and billions of human beings, not a single one ever had a happy ending.”

So what should we do about this whole being alive thing?  Well, in addition to depressing the hell out of us in “The Dead Echo,” Auden provides us with some practical advice:

Throw down the mattock and dance while you can.

And as another poet notes, between birth and death, It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.

So the loveliest and most courageous thing we can do is acknowledge the hurt and ugly in our lives and still manage, somehow, to face the music and dance.

* Auden elsewhere refers to this poem as “Death’s Echo”

by Richard W. Bray

Her Reply (Updated)

May 21, 2016

wwalter

Sir Walter Raleigh, The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd

If we lived in decades past
When marriages were built to last
I might be tempted to tilt your glass
And be your little lovely lass

When I was young my mother told me
That a man is good to hold me
But I must never bought and sold be
Thus no man has yet controlled me

She said a girl must make her way
In this crazy world today
And if I always let you pay
I’ll be tormented should you stray

I do not fit your portrait, sir
Neither rubies nor your fur
Will set my little heart astir
Or make my body coo and purr

You confirmed just what your heart meant
When you offered an apartment
And a closet full of garment
As though my life were some department

Of an edifice you dreamed
Without once consulting me
I can’t live your reality
I shan’t subsume identity

by Richard W. Bray

Thanks, Max

May 15, 2016

wwThanxMax

 

Why are chase scenes so common in motion pictures? Why do television stations interrupt their regularly scheduled programs to broadcast live police pursuits? Are we rooting for the chasers or the chased? Richard Wilbur suspects it’s the latter. In his poem “Man Running,” Wilbur comments on our tendency to “darkly cheer” the fugitive and “wish him, guiltily, a sporting chance.” Wilbur speculates in the poem’s concluding stanzas that the popularity of chase scenes might be a function of evolution.

Sharing with him our eldest dread
Which, when it gathers a sleeping head,
Is a place mottled, ominous, and dim

Remembered from the day
When we descended from the trees
Into the shadow of our enemies
Not lords of nature yet, but naked prey.

(Collected Poems, Page 9)

Recently in our evolutionary history, human beings made the dramatic transition from prey to predator. But the terror and trauma of millions of years of being feasted upon by other animals has left a strong imprint on our psyche. (Even city kids are terrified of wild animals.)

In her book Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War, Barbara Ehrenreich posits the provocative thesis that human bellicosity, particularly as it manifests itself in our perpetual contemporary war-making activity, is largely the result of our atavistic need to overcome animal predators.

When our ancestors figured out how to make weapons and how to work in unison by communicating with one another, it was time for some epic payback on our furry enemies.

Homo sapiens arrived in Eurasia roughly 45,000 years ago, and very shortly thereafter, virtually every large species of prey animal and competing predator was gone. The patently obvious deduction is that Homo sapiens intentionally and methodically wiped out all those other species.

Man, the new king of the jungle, obliterated the competition:

Cave bears, saber-toothed tigers, mammoths, rhinos, lions, leopards, dholes–fierce as they were, they all vanished from the forests and steppes of Eurasia.

And even the Neanderthals, our most serious completion for world domination, “first drastically dwindled and then vanished as well.”

So how did our ancestors transmute from “naked prey” into such effective killing machines? Anthropologists tell us that three evolutionary developments were a key factors in making us the baddest species on the planet: big brains, opposable thumbs, and speech. But according to Steve Donoghue’s review of The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction (a new book by Pat Shipman) dogs also played an essential role in our rise to global dominance:

a pack of canines can detect prey long before humans can, and they can chase that prey farther and longer than humans can, and, crucially, they can keep that prey at bay and stationary until humans can arrive with their superior numbers and projectile weapons. The wolf-dogs would have realized in short order that in exchange for their instinctive distrust of hominins the arrangement would garner them more reliable kills. And the humans would have seen that the wolf-dogs were helping to secure more meat than they’d provide if they themselves were simply slaughtered. And so the 35,000-year-old partnership between humans and dogs began – in multiple genocides.

So I think it’s time for me to publically say, “Thank you, Max, you adorable little Shih-poo early warning intruder protection device. Thank you and all your canine ancestors for enabling us to eliminate the competition.”

 

by Richard W. Bray

Delicious

May 14, 2016

I think about you so much
My guts are getting raw
I wanna cook with your mama
And hunt with your paw
I wanna meet your crazy uncle
Who lives out in a shed
I wanna see you every night
Sleepin in my bed

Your face looks so delicious
I really wanna kiss it
You’re everything I need
To remedy my wishin

I work fourteen hours every day
Just to be the man
Who’s good enough to be with you
And hold your lovin hand
Whatever makes you happy
That’s what I aim to do
I’ll dig a garden with a soupspoon
Just to be with you

Your face looks so delicious
I really wanna kiss it
You’re everything I need
To remedy my wishin

 

by Richard W. Bray

The impossible of us

May 13, 2016

wwimposibletostickacadillacinyournose

Everybody tells me
There is nothing I can do
The Improbable of love
The faraway of you

Removing my own heart
With a butter knife
The cruelty of love
The absurdity of life

Hope perched on a star
And dreams made out of dust
The ridiculous of love
The impossible of us

Blind to reality
That anyone could see
The temerity of love
The insanity of me

by Richard W. Bray

Cruel to Be Cruel

May 9, 2016
Frank O'Hara

Frank O’Hara

 

J.K. Simmons garnered an Academy Award for his portrayal of the cruel, exacting, excellence-obsessed music teacher Terrence Fletcher in the movie Whiplash.  Fletcher tells his struggling student that “there are no two words more harmful in the English language than ‘good job.’” In other words, Fletcher argues, he is merely hard on people for their own good, pushing them to achieve new levels of excellence.

Fletcher is echoing Hamlet’s assertion that “I must be cruel only to be kind.” Today in our success-worshipping culture the clichéd notion that we are doing people a favor when we are hard on them is repeated often by parents, teachers, and others who suggest that they only want the best for us while they are abusing us.

But we should ask to whom, exactly, is Hamlet being kind. Notice that Hamlet makes his famous cruel-to-be-kind assertion right after he stabs Polonius in fit of rage. Yet Polonius was merely guilty of eavesdropping, hardly a capital offense. However, Hamlet demurs when presented with an opportunity to kill Claudius, the man who murdered Hamlet’s father.  (Claudius is certainly a much more appropriate target for Hamlet’s sword than Polonius.)

Hamlet is a cruel, insufferable, whimpering coward who, like Terrence Fletcher, is usually cruel just to be cruel. For sport, Hamlet badgers poor, innocent Ophelia, a woman who simply wants to love him. Later Hamlet whines when he discovers that Ophelia has committed suicide.

So Hamlet abuses people for fun and Terrence Fletcher abuses people because he wants to win jazz competitions. They’re both losers in my book.

However, the obviously hypocritical and self-serving sadism of Fletcher and Hamlet notwithstanding, there certainly are times when it is necessary to be hard on people.

But when is outright cruelty justifiable?  I’m not a big fan of fussing and fighting, yet Alfred Kazin notes in his memoir A Walker in the City that sometimes a healthy screaming row is necessary in order to clear the air, so to speak: “In Yiddish we broke all the windows to let a little air into the house” (119).

And the poet Frank O’Hara makes a similar point:

Hate is only one of many responses
true, hurt and hate go hand in hand
but why be afraid of hate, it is only there
think of filth, is it really awesome
neither is hate
don’t be shy of unkindness, either
it’s cleansing and allows you to be direct
like an arrow that feels something

out and out meanness, too, lets love breathe

Some people enjoy hurting other people; I don’t.  It sounds pretty wacky to me, but according to physicists, all matter is connected. So maybe when we attack others we are actually attacking ourselves. Or maybe Allan Seager’s description of poet Theodore Roethke also applies to me: “his despair seems to prove that he already had the prime requisites of a poet, a tingling sensitivity as if he lacked an outer layer of skin.”

by Richard W. Bray

 

The Ringer

May 8, 2016

wwringer


The greater the love, the more false to its object

W.H. Auden, The Dead Echo

You said you liked me for a friend
And I was sure my life would end

I found a hole
To crawl inside
I starved my soul
But I survived

You said you liked me for a friend
And I was sure my life would end

I drank up a distillery
I puked up blood and bile
I crucified my crazy heart
Because I missed your smile

You said you liked me for a friend
And I was sure my life would end

I put my body through the ringer
I’m lucky I’m not dead
Playing out a melodrama
All inside my head

by Richard W. Bray