Archive for the ‘Adrienne Rich’ Category

relentlessly describing

December 26, 2021

What kind of beast would turn its life into words?
Adrienne Rich

Relentlessly describing
Everything I see
I got a magic eye
The world will notice me

Countless dinner parties
Living in the glow
Don't know why I'm crying
Feelings come and go

Candor in my vision
The covenant I keep
I see for miles and miles
But I don't look in too deep

Wealth and fame and glory
Always on the phone
I told a thousand stories
But I never knew my own

by Richard W. Bray

An Interview on Writing Lyrics and Verse with Richard W. Bray Conducted by Richard W. Bray

February 7, 2016


Question: When you write in the first person, are you writing about yourself?

Answer: Not necessarily. The decision to use first or third person is often made for phonetic and/or syntactical reasons. For example, I chose first person for “It’s Better to Burst than Ripple Away” largely because it sounds better in first person. For example,

compare this

I’m a rough and tumble cowboy
In a civilized time
My boots are gonna ramble
Till the end of the line

with this

He’s a rough and tumble cowboy
In a civilized time
His boots are gonna ramble
Till the end of the line

The first person just sounds better. And going the from the bilabial m in my to the bilabial b in boots is a smoother transition.

Question: Is this what you meant when you wrote that poetry is a journey across syllables?

Answer: Yes. I can see you’ve done your homework. That’s important for an interviewer. You wouldn’t want to embarrass yourself like the time Charlie Rose asked a guy who had stabbed his wife: “What’s the biggest mistake you ever made in your life?”

Question: You have referenced Robert Pinsky’s elegant little book called The Sounds of Poetry.

Answer: So you’ve read that book too. What’s your question?

Question: You need to stop being such a spazz and wait for the question. You’ve written that there’s always tension sound and meaning.

Answer: Yeah. It’s a constant tug-of-war between what you want to say and how you want to sound.

Question: Are you a rough and tumble cowboy in a civilized time?

Answer: Not really. I’m more of a “Can’t we all get along?” sort of a guy.

Question: Do you ever wish you were more of a rough and tumble cowboy?

Answer: Sure. And I’m very sympathetic to guys like that. And I probably wish I were less cautious and more mavericky.

So your writing is a variety of wish fulfillment?

Answer: Sometimes. But more often I write about the types of people and behaviors which annoy me. “Fastidious Fred”, for example. The genesis of that poem was a news feature I watched about an extremely uptight famous performer who was ironing his own shirt before going onstage.

Question: Who?

Answer: I’d rather not say.

Why not?

Answer: Because it wouldn’t be nice.

Question: But isn’t the pursuit of Truth and the creation of art more important than being nice to people?

Answer: No. It’s not even close.

Question: But there must be at least a little bit of Fred inside you.

Not much. I hate ironing and I’m lousy at it. But like Fred I’ve certainly been guilty of idiotic stubbornness. In a more general sense, however, if you’ll pardon my circular reasoning, Fred comes out of me so he must be inside me. Adrienne Rich wonders about herself (and this applies to all writers): What kind of beast would turn its life into words? And writers turn their lives into words as spiders turn their lives into silk.

Question: You wrote “sometimes I think I have a long way to go when the poem suddenly informs me that I’m finished.” Can you give me an example of when that happened?

Sure. It happened with the last thing I wrote, “Put the World in its Place” which I expected to be much longer. But after I inverted the order of the two stanzas I had written, the poem said, “You’ve made your point. There’s nothing to add. Now shut up and take a shower; it’s time to go to work.”

Question: You also wrote “Sometimes I begin writing a poem knowing exactly what I want to say and it turns out just like I planned. Sometimes. Other times I set out to write something, but I end up writing something else.” Can you give me an example of when that happened?

Answer: Sure. Originally “Unspeakable Things” was going to be an Emperor’s New Clothes narrative where someone, probably a kid or a newcomer to the town of Lidane, was going to ask why nobody ever talks about the giant box in the center of town or perhaps he was going to ask why they don’t just tear the stupid thing down. But after writing three descriptive stanzas, it was a little late to begin my narrative and the poem said, “Wrap it up, dude. You made your point.”

I notice Lidane is an anagram for denial.

Answer: You probably think you’re pretty clever for figuring that out.

Question: You write a lot about denial.

Answer: No I don’t.

Question: How do you decide if what you write is a song or a poem?

Answer: Usually I know from the beginning based on its structure. For example, if it’s iambic it’s probably a poem and if the stresses are more spaced out it’s a song. But sometimes I argue with myself right up until the moment I post it.

Question: Do you primarily consider yourself a songwriter or a poet?

Answer: Neither. I think it was Robert Frost who said you can’t declare yourself a poet; someone else has to do it for you. And no one that I know of has ever accused me of being a poet. And I can’t be a songwriter because I don’t know anything about music. Besides, I’ve only ever read one book about songwriting, and no one has ever set any of my words to music. So I’m just a frustrated would-be lyricist waiting for someone to email me saying, “I just have to make a song out of something you’ve written. Time to quit the day job.”

Question: I noticed that you write a lot about alcoholism and substance abuse.

Answer: I noticed that too.

by Richard W. Bray (and Richard W. Bray)

Genius Knows Itself: The Wonderful Words of Emily Dickinson

August 11, 2012

Emily Dickinson

There is no professionalism, in the worst sense, here; and it is interesting to note that, although she sought out Higginson’s advice and named herself his “scholar,” she never altered a poem of hers according to any suggestion of his. She had, at one time, perhaps been willing to be published, but, later, she could do without print.

Louise Bogan on the “pleasure” of reading the poetry of Emily Dickinson “from beginning to end” from Twentieth Century Views: Emily Dickinson (141)

I have a notion that genius knows itself; that Dickinson chose her seclusion, knowing she was exceptional and knowing what she needed.

Adrienne Rich from On Lies, Secrets, and Silence (160)

Emily Dickinson’s idiosyncratic relationship to words enables her to find the perfect phrase to many thoughts.

At first reading, Miss Dickinson’s word choices can jar the reader’s expectations. Her unconventional grammatical constructions often feel like typos and many of her word choices seem bizarre. But there is much sense in her method; she wrote the poems she wanted to write.

Consider the following lines:

To fight aloud is very brave—
But gallanter, I know,
Who charge within the bosom
The Cavalry of Woe—

She’s saying, of course, that active, probing reflection and contemplation are a far greater indication of courage than boisterous displays of belligerence. And the words “very brave” are delivered with verbal irony that cuts deeply into our preferred notions of “gallantry.”

But I am also interested in her choice of the word “who” at the beginning of the third line. Grammatically speaking, the word “to” is the more obvious choice. However, because “who” stands for “all those who would,” the compacted might of this syllable is delivered with considerable heft.

Dickinson’s poem If I Should Die is about the silliness of human cupidity and acquisitiveness contemplated against the backdrop of eternity:

’Tis sweet to know that stocks will stand
When we with Daisies lie—

Here’s some more caustic verbal irony: There’s nothing “sweet,” or comforting about this knowledge; it doesn’t render anyone any less dead; it doesn’t tell us that we shall be remembered fondly by loved ones.

(Note: Like many poems by Dickinson, If I Should Die is in common meter, which means it consists of alternating iambic lines of four and three feet. Here’s a quick common meter test: try singing the poem to the tune of Amazing Grace.)

The conventional metaphor about time “marching” conditions us to think of it as an unalterable, deliberate, rhythmic force, which is why the word “gurgle” in line three flusters the reader’s expectations. The poetess is reminding us that time will continue to proceed in a soft, unpredictable, melodious fashion no matter what we do.

Dickinson’s employment of the word “usual” in line six is also compelling.

Adjectives aren’t supposed to modify verbs, that’s an adverb’s job. (Of course, this is putting it rather crudely. A word is not a part of speech, a word acts as a part of speech, and usual usually acts as an adjective.) Curiously, the poem would not have suffered metrically if she had used the word usually because both usual and usually can be pronounced as trochees (two-syllable words with an accented first syllable.) Usually can be enunciated as a two-, three- or four-syllable word. However, using the word usual suggests that beaming is the sun’s quotidian task whereas usually would have implied that beaming was the sun’s normal condition. Great art is the result of such apparently minor distinctions.

The meaning-per-syllable metric is one tool for assessing a poet’s endowment; Emily Dickinson extracts riches from words with an efficacy that the greatest prospectors should envy.

If I Should Die

If I should die,
And you should live—
And time should gurgle on—
And morn should beam—
And noon should burn—
As it has usual done—
If Birds should build as early
And Bees as bustling go—
One might depart at option
From enterprise below!
’Tis sweet to know that stocks will stand
When we with Daisies lie—
That Commerce will continue—
And Trades as briskly fly—
It makes the parting tranquil
And keeps the soul serene—
That gentlemen so sprightly
Conduct the pleasing scene!

by Richard W. Bray