Posts Tagged ‘Adrienne Rich’

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

February 7, 2016

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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.

Question:
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.

Question:
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.

Answer:
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 my. 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?

Answer:
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.”

Question:
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)

The Vaster Economy of Desire: Richard Wilbur on the Sumptuous Destitution of Emily Dickinson

November 16, 2012

brook

Philosophers are bound to paradigms and past pronouncements. But no paradigm comes close to capturing our multifarious world. That’s why my favorite philosophers are mostly poets. Poets are less likely to get boxed in by theory or even worry too much about what they were saying a week ago.

Richard Wilbur notes that Emily Dickinson (“not a philosopher”) was “consistent in her concerns but inconsistent in her attitudes” (10; 5). One of Miss Dickinson’s major concerns is the limited capacity of human beings to absorb even a fraction of what we crave. Our gargantuan appetites are ill-fitted to our frail, finite, and terminable bodies. But instead of lamenting this unsuitable arrangement, Emily Dickinson celebrates privation for its own sake:

Heaven is what I cannot reach!

In his 1959 article “Sumptuous Destitution,” Wilbur explores Dickinson’s “huge world of delectable distances,” where desire trumps actual possession (11). As Wilbur explains Dickinson (“Linnaeus to the phenomena of her own consciousness”) the poetess finds anticipation far more enticing than actual possession because “once an object has been magnified by desire, it cannot be wholly possessed by appetite” (4; 8). Employing physical hunger as a metaphor for all human desire, Dickinson explains in “I had been Hungry All the Years” how she “found”

That hunger was a way
Of persons outside windows,
The entering takes away.

Frustration is the inevitable consequence in Dickinson’s world of perpetual want where itching vanquishes scratching. The vigor of Dickinson’s yearnings are “magnified” by elusive wants:

[N]ot only are the objects of her desire distant; they are also very often moving away, their sweetness increasing in proportion to their remoteness. “To disappear enhances” one of the poems begins (11-12).

When Dickinson asserts that

Success is counted sweetest
By those that ne’er succeed

she is “arguing the superiority of defeat to victory, of frustration to satisfaction, and of anguished comprehension to mere possession” (9). Wilbur posits convincingly that, for Dickinson, the dead soldier in “Success is Counted Sweetest” made “the better bargain” than his compatriots who survived the victorious battle because his “defeat and death are attended by an increase of awareness, and material loss has led to a spiritual gain” (10).

Emily Dickinson chose her seclusion, and “At times it seems that there is nothing in her world but her own soul, with its attendant abstractions, and, at a vast remove, the inscrutable Heaven” (12). The God of Emily Dickinson’s capacious consciousness is immense and mysterious. We can spend our lives contemplating Him, but He can only be ingested in small bites.

The creature of appetite (whether insect or human) pursues satisfaction, and strives to possess the object in itself; it cannot imagine the vaster economy of desire, in which the pain of abstinence is justified by moments of infinite joy, and the object is spiritually possessed, not merely for itself, but more truly as an index of the All (11).

In his poem “Hamlen Brook,” Richard Wilbur discovers sumptuous destitution when he is nonplussed by overwhelming natural beauty.

How shall I drink all this?

Joy’s trick is to supply
Dry lips with what can cool and slake,
Leaving them dumbstruck also with an ache
Nothing can satisfy.

by Richard W. Bray

Genius Knows Itself: The Wonderful Words of Emily Dickinson

August 11, 2012

Emily Dickinson

Louise Bogan

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

Writers on Writing

February 24, 2010

Adrienne Rich

Robert Pinsky

Javier Marias

Lajos Egri

Writers on Writing

(Editor’s Note: This post is the result of a conversation I had in the comments section of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog. Until quite recently I would have scoffed at the very notion that such a thing as an online community could possibly exist)

W. H. Auden The Dyer’s Hand

Attacking bad books is not only a waste of time but also bad for the character. If I find a book really bad, the only interest I can derive from writing about it has to come from myself, from such a display of intelligence, wit and malice as I can contrive. One cannot review a bad book without showing off. (11)

Richard Wilbur Responses, Prose Pieces

Emily Dickinson elected the economy of desire, and called her privation good, rendering it positive by renunciation. And so she came to live in a huge world of delectable distances….And not only are the objects of her desire distant; they are also very often moving away, their sweetness increasing in proportion to their remoteness. “To disappear enhances,” one of the poems begins, and another closes with these lines:

The Mountain–at a given distance–
In Amber–lies–
Approached–the Amber flits–a little–
And That’s–the Skies

(11-12)

Adrienne Rich On Secrets, Lies and Silence

I have a notion that genius knows itself; that Dickinson chose her seclusion, knowing she was exceptional and knowing what she needed. It was, moreover, no hermetic retreat…But she carefully selected her society and controlled the disposal of her time. (160)

The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller

So long as modern man conceives of himself as valuable only because he fits into some niche in the machine-tending pattern, he will never know anything more than a pathetic doom. (60)

Ira Gershwin Lyrics on Several Occasions

When I was on jury service in New York many years ago there was a case found for the defendant. Afterwards, in the corridor, I saw the lawyer for the plaintiff approaching and thought I was going to be lectured. But no. Greetings over, all he wanted to know was whether the words or the music came first. (41)

Theodore Roethke On Poetry & Craft

The writer who maintains that he works without regard for the opinion of others is either a jackass or a pathological liar. (48)

Norman Mailer The Spooky Art

Kurt Vonnegut and I are friendly with one another but wary. There was a period when we used to go out together fairly often because our wives liked each other, and Kurt and I would sit there like bookends. We would be terribly careful with one another; we both knew the huge cost of a literary feud, so we certainly didn’t want to argue. On the other hand, neither of us would be caught dead saying to the other, “Gee, I liked your last book,” and then be met with silence because the party of the second part could not reciprocate. (288)

Robert Pinsky The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide

There are no rules.
However, principles may be discerned in actual practice: for example, in the way people actually speak, or in the lines poets have written. If a good line contradicts a principle one has formulated, then the principle, by which I mean a kind of working idea, should be discarded or amended.
(7)

Javier Marias Written Lives (on Rainer Maria Rilke)

The fact that such a sensitive person, so much given to communing, should have turned out to be the greatest poet of the twentieth century (of this there is little doubt) has had disastrous consequences for most of the lyrical poets who have come after, those who continue communicating indiscriminately with whatever comes their way, with, however, far less remarkable results and, it has to be said, to the serious detriment of their personalities. (83-84)

Gore Vidal United States

Sex is. There is nothing more to be done about it. Sex builds no roads, writes no novels, and sex certainly gives no meaning in life to anything but itself. I have often thought that much of D. H. Lawrence’s self-lacerating hysteria toward the end of his life must have come out of some “blood knowledge” that the cruel priapic god was mad, bad and dangerous to know, and, finally, not even a palliative to the universal strangeness. (37)

George H.W. Rylands Words and Poetry

When a generation labels everything as “superb” or “divine,” when a man says “damn” or “hell,” the actual meaning of the word is secondary to its emotional value; the word becomes a symbol of pleasure or disgust. The use of language in poetry is extraordinarily similar.” (72)

Stephen Fry The Ode Less Travelled

I HAVE A DARK AND DREADFUL SECRET. I write poetry. This is an embarrassing confession for an adult to make. In their idle hours Winston Churchill and Noel Coward painted. For fun and relaxation Albert Einstein played the violin. Hemingway hunted, Agatha Christie gardened, James Joyce sang arias and Nabokov chased butterflies. But Poety? (xi)

Percy Lubbock The Craft of Fiction

…when we think of the storyteller as opposed to the dramatist, it is obvious that in the full sense of the word there is no such thing as drama in a novel. The novelist may give the very words that were spoken by his characters, the dialogue, but of course he must interpose on his own account to let us know how the people appeared and where they were, and what they were doing. (111)

Stephen King On Writing

The dictum in writing class used to be “write what you know.” Which sounds good, but what if you want to write about starships exploring other planets or a man who murders his wife and then tries to dispose of her body with a wood-chipper? (158)

Lajos Egri The Art of Dramatic Writing

It is imperative that your story starts in the middle, and not under any circumstances, at the beginning. (200)

by Richard W. Bray