Posts Tagged ‘Robert Pinsky’

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)

Flinging our Souls

December 24, 2014

aaaaaaathrush

I’m goofy for words. And I will happily read and read and read until I find a combination of words which “strikes like a chime through the mind.” Then I will read some more.

Thomas Hardy forges a concoction of meaning, sound, and feeling when he tells us that a singing little bird

Had chosen thus to fling his soul

Of course, every line of “The Darkling Thrush” is a work of art.

Poetry and language are the same thing. Perhaps the people we call poets live the music inside the words with greater intensity than the rest of us do, but all words are music.

Consider the first line of a poem by Emily Dickinson:

From Us She wandered now a Year,

There are a thousand less lovely ways to tell us that a woman has abandoned her family. And the beauty of the sound and rhythm of this line is assaulted by the sadness it conveys.

Here’s the entire poem:

From Us She wandered now a Year,
Her tarrying, unknown,
If Wilderness prevent her feet
Or that Ethereal Zone

No eye hath seen and lived
We ignorant must be—
We only know what time of Year
We took the Mystery.

There are so many things we are not told: Who is this woman? Whom did she abandon? Where? Why? The reader is left to fill in the blanks.

Robert Pinsky proffers a handy metaphor: Novelists wade through words while poets skate on their surface.

by Richard W. Bray

Life Remains a Blessing

March 20, 2014

galaxy

Sentient consciousness is a marvelous gift; I’m really glad I exist.

I would be happy to thank Someone for every glorious breath that life grants me; I just can’t quite figure out whom to thank. God? Which one?

I’m a devout deist because my Creator has endowed me with the type of brain which renders me incapable of experiencing a connection to an anthropomorphized God. I can’t imagine ever giving myself over to the God of the Christians, for example. First of all, a God who wishes to be exalted by the likes of me would be all too human for me to take seriously. Moreover, there are billions of people on Earth who believe in reincarnation while billions of other people believe in heaven. These are two mutually incompatible outcomes of existence. Maybe billions of people are right and billions of people are wrong. Who knows?  Fortunately, it’s not my task in life to figure these things out.

To be clear, I am not one of those New Atheists who hates God for not existing. On the contrary, I encounter many things in Christianity that are good and beautiful. I’m all for fellowship, good works, humility, and forgiveness; furthermore, the Peace Christians are my heroes. (And I really don’t think grownups should have heroes.)

But the universe got along just fine for a long, long time before human beings came onto the scene, so it’s obvious that Existence really isn’t about us.

For some reason or another, human beings have developed the capacity to appreciate the fact that we exist. At any rate, for me, life remains a blessing, as W. H. Auden notes in “As I Walked Out One Evening,” his bleak and lovely meditation on Christianity

This brings me to the Christian concept of grace. Although there is much bickering over the theological specifics of grace within and between Christian denominations, grace is basically the notion that human beings have done nothing to deserve the love and mercy bestowed upon us by God. Instead of arguing about how loving and merciful God actually is, I will simply concede that our existence is unearned. Life is a mysterious take-it-or-leave-it proposition. And griping about how life should be different is a silly waste of our precious time on Earth.

As Robert Pinsky notes in “Family Values,” his bleak and lovely poem about resentment and cupidity,

nobody gets what they/ Deserve more than everybody else.

Does anyone deserve to have an unhappy childhood? Of course not.  But this world is not about fairness.

The universe wasn’t built for us. But it’s a spectacular privilege to be granted the slight and brief glimpse that our limited consciousness affords.

I don’t “hope for higher raptures, when life’s day is done.” The physical world is sufficiently marvelous for me.

I’ll leave the final word on grace to Kris Kristofferson.

by Richard W. Bray

Myrtle Myers Redux

March 8, 2013
Shel

Shel Silverstein

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I took an English class from a poet named Robert Pinsky. (Actually, it was at Berkeley in the mid 1980s, but many Northern Californians would argue that Orange County is about as far away from Berkeley as I could get.) Since that time, Mr. Pinsky has received a great deal of well-deserved acclaim. Thus I frequently see him on my tv promoting poetry. A few years back I heard Pinsky say that whenever someone asks him about when he started writing poetry, he responds by asking: “When did you stop?”

I stopped writing poetry in sixth grade and took it up again about twenty years later.

Here’s what happened: I was teaching at a boys home in a special education program for SED (Severely Emotionally Disturbed) students, which was quite an education for me. These kids were intimate with poverty, violence, addiction, rape and murder in ways I will never comprehend. (Actually, I do know a thing or two about addiction.)

Sometimes they would tease me by asking me if I were “street.”
“Of course I am.” I would reply.
“Where you from? Inglewood, Nickerson Gardens, South Central?”
“That’s it,” I’d say. “I’m from South Central Claremont.”

I’ll never know how much good I did working with those kids, and the only life I saved was my own. But it did lead me back to writing poetry. The most coveted book in our meager little school library was Where the Sidewalk Ends, a collection of funny poems by Shel Silverstein. It is a work of immense skill.

In a state of profound ignorance regarding what such a task would entail, I decided that I wanted to write a book like Where the Sidewalk Ends. So I went to the library and got some books on verse, meter, and rhyme. Some time thereafter, although I still barely even understood what poetry was, I somehow sat down at my EMachine and wrote “Myrtle Myers.”

I’ve read a bunch of poetry and thousands of pages of criticism since then. I even went out and got myself a Master’s Degree in Literature. But I don’t think I’ve ever written anything better than “Myrtle Myers.”

“Myrtle Myers” is, of course, a very conservative poem. (How did that happen?) It was not written as an allegory, but it sure reads like one. When I wrote it, however, I was mostly thinking about the power of denial, a major theme on this blog.

Myrtle Myers

Myrtle Myers bought some pliers
At the hardware store
She took them home and all alone
She broke down the door

The next day she found a way
To make the toilet flood
She took a wrench from daddy’s bench
And made a great big thud

Unperturbed, her mother purred
“Well, girls they will be girls
All this rage is just a stage
She has such darling curls”

Then Myrtle took an evil look
At her mother’s dress
It made her think and with some ink
She made a lovely mess

Yet with rage unassauged
She shaved her sister’s head
With kerosene and gasoline
She burned her brother’s bed

Undistressed, her father guessed
“It’s just a child at play
They’re just jealous, those who tell us
To have her put away”

Her parents planned a party grand
Just to celebrate
Her twelfth birthday, and by the way
Myrtle showed up late

No girls nor boys bearing toys
Decided to attend
Although assured the girl was cured
They feared their lives might end

As her family huddled, scared and befuddled
By her piercing stare
Myrtle growled and then she howled
“I publicly declare

“This can’t be true! What did you do
To make them stay away?
You’ll all be blue and live to rue
This catastrophic day!”

Myrtle made a bomb that day
Intending to destroy
Her own home town and miles around
And every girl and boy

But in her hurry, she forgot to scurry
Away from her invention
She’s gone away, I’m sad to say
Results of ill intention

Her parents pleaded all she needed
Was love and understanding
And though it’s true that we all do
Life is more demanding

It takes affection to give direction
And most kids do not mind
Those restrictions and prohibitions
Which seem to some unkind

Richard W. Bray

Eleven Stanzas that Strike Like a Chime through the Mind

May 29, 2011

Christina Rossetti

Richard Wilbur

e e cummings

Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.

from Uphill by Christina Rossetti

Let Observation with extensive view,
Survey mankind, from China to Peru:
Reark each anxious toil, each eager strife:
Then say how hope and fear, desire and hate,
O’spread with snares the clouded maze of fate,
Where wavering man, betrayed by venomous pride,
To tread the dreary paths without a guide,
But scarce observed, the knowing and the bold
Fall in the general massacre of gold;
Wide-wasting pest! That rages unconfined,
And crowds with crimes the record of mankind;
For gold his sword the hireling ruffian draws,
For gold the hireling judge distorts the laws;
Wealth heaped on wealth, not truth nor safety buys,
The Dangers Gather as the Treasures rise

from The Vanity of Human Wishes (The Tenth Satire of Juvenal Imitated) by Samuel Johnson

We have it and it doesn’t do us any
Good because nobody gets what they
Deserve more than everybody else.

from Family Values by Robert Pinsky

I am tired of tears and laughter,
And men that laugh and weep;
Of what may come hereafter
For men that sow to reap:
I am weary of days and hours,
Blown buds of barren flowers,
Desires and dreams and powers
And everything but sleep.

from Garden of Proserpine by Algernon Charles Swinburne

Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of Roses,
Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies
Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten:
In folly ripe, in reason rotten.

from The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd by Sir Walter Ralegh

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

from Hamlen Brook by Richard Wilbur

“I see the guilty world forgiven,”
Dreamer and drunkard sing,
“The ladders let down out of heaven,
The laurel springing from the martyr’s blood,
The children skipping where the weeper stood,
The lovers natural and the beasts all good.”
So dreamer and drunkard sing
Till day their sobriety bring:
Parrotwise with Death’s reply
From whelping fear and nesting lie,
Woods and their echoes ring.
The desires of the heart are as crooked as corkscrews,
Not to be born is the best for man;
The second-best is a formal order,
The dance’s pattern; dance while you can.

from Death’s Echo by W. H. Auden

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

from To Fight Aloud is Very Brave by Emily Dickinson

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I’d have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek.)

from I Knew a Woman by Theodore Roethke

and nothing quite so least as truth
—i say though hate were why man breathe—
because my father lived his soul
love is the whole and more than all

from my father moved through dooms of love by e.e. cummings

No memory of having starred
Atones for later disregard
Or keeps the end from being hard.

from Provide, Provide by Robert Frost

by Richard W. Bray

nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH

May 27, 2010

Thomas Hardy

Archibald MacLeish

nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH

The poem’s meaning is evoked by the structure of words-as-sounds rather than by the structure of words-as-meanings. And the enhanced meaning, which we feel in any true poems, is a product, therefore, of the structure of the sounds.

–Poetry and Experience
by Archibald MacLeish (23)

Scansion records units of rhythm, not units of sense

–All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing by Timothy Steele (530)

Vocabulary

Meter: The basic rhythmic structure of written and uttered words (not simply poetry)

Iamb: A unit of language consisting of an unstressed syllable and a stressed syllable, in that order.

I once began a lesson on meter to a group of eighth-graders by exaggerating (both verbally and bodily) the inherent iambic rhythms of the following lines of poetry:

“I cannot go to school today,”
Said little Pegg-y Ann McKay
I have the measles and the mumps
A gash, a rash and purple bumps*

A girl in the class looked at me in utter recognition and blurted out,
“I get it:

nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH
nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH

I was happy that this student immediately picked up on the main point of my lesson, but I was really thrilled because her description of iambic poetry was, in my opinion, superior to the one that is commonly offered in textbooks, a depiction with a musical correlation which mimics a snare drum:

ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum
ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum

Here are some examples of iambic meter:

Iambic Monometer–One Beat (nuh-NUH)

Upon His Departure Hence by Robert Herrick

Thus I
Passe by
And die:
As one,
Unknown,
And gone:
I’m made
A shade,
And laid
I’th’grave:
There have
My cave.
Where tell
I dwell,
Farewell.

Iambic Dimeter–Two Beats (nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH)

The Robin by Thomas Hardy

When up aloft
I fly and fly,
I see in pools
The shining sky

Iambic Trimeter–Three Beats (nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH)

Touring a Past by Dick Davis

There is no boat to cross
From that ill-favored shore
To where the clashing reeds
Complete the works of war
Together with the grass,
And nesting birds, and weeds.

Iambic Tetrameter–Four Beats (nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH,
nuh-NUH)

Now I lay me Down to Sleep

If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take

Iambic Pentameter–Five Beats (nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH,
nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH)

Mad Girl’s Love Song by Sylvia Plath

“I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my lids and all is born a-gain
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

One Final Thought

…”scanning” a line is not a dramatic, or poetic reading of a line. Scanning a line is reading it in a special, more or less forced, way, to bring out the meter and any definite derivations or substitutions. Scanning will not bring out the other parts of the tension; it will tend to iron them out. On the other hand, a good dramatic, or poetic, reading will tend to bring out the tensions–but note well that in order to do this it must be careful not to override and completely kill the meter. When that is done, the tensions vanish. (Another reason why the meter must be observed is, of course, that if a line is truly metrical, a reading which actually destroys the meter can only be an incorrect reading–by dictionary and rhetorical standards.) A good dramatic reading is a much more delicate, difficult, and rewarding than a mere scanning. Yet the scanning has its justification, its use. We would argue that a good dramatic reading is possible only by a person who can also perform a scansion.

The Concept of Meter by W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley
from The Structure of Verse, Edited by Harvey Gross (163-164)

Suggested Further Reading:

The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within by Stephen Fry

The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide by Robert Pinsky

Versification: A Short Introduction by James McAuley

by Richard W. Bray

* Sick by Shel Silverstein

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