Mark Doty is a highly accomplished contemporary poet, but there’s a distinct lack of pretension in his work. His poems suggest a mind that is always surprised and elated by life’s experiences. And he invites us to appreciate life with him. Here’s a 2009 reading at Cornell University:
E.E. Cummings was born October 14, 1894 in Cambridge, MA. He was a prolific writer of poetry, prose, plays, and essays.
When I was in high school, many of the my fellow students only knew him as “that poet who doesn’t use capital letters.” Non-standard capitalization is a feature in many poems, but it’s incorrect to say he avoids capital letters. He just uses them sparingly, a technique which highlights the importance of certain words or phrases.
He covers many topics in his 2900+ poems–nature, politics, religion, sex, etc. His poems often challenge traditional forms, though formless would not be an apt description.
He has long been among my favorite poets. Reading him repeatedly has taught me (and continues to teach me) much about diction, form, syntax, rhythm, imagery. You know…all that poetic stuff.
Here is a website that has compiled a few poems for your reading pleasure.
And here are a few lines I like from various poems:
For whatever we lose(like a you or a me) / it’s always ourselves we find in the sea
somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond / any experience,your eyes have their silence:
I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing / than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance
i like my body when it is with your / body. It is so quite a new thing.
pity this busy monster,manunkind, / not. Progress is a comfortable disease:
my father moved through dooms of love / through sames of am through haves of give, / singing each morning out of each night
Last week, my friend Andrew said to me, “I like attending your readings, but your poetry really comes alive on the page.”
I asked my Twitter followers and Facebook friends which they prefer, and it seems Andrew is very much in a minority position. I’m speculating here, but perhaps he prefers it on the page because he’s an English major. We English majors spend four or more years at university learning how to read differently than lay readers. He may want to spend more time with each poem, deriving its meaning, analyzing my use of rhetorical devices, and so on.
As for my opinion on the topic, it depends on the poet. I attended a Billy Collins reading at the University of Tulsa a couple years ago, and, though I was already a fan, hearing him read added something extra. His cadence and tone highlighted certain images, made his frequent jokes funnier, and helped me feel connected to the poems.
Some poets are awful readers of their work, though. I found a CD at Barnes & Noble featuring 20th century American poets reading selected works. The worst reader on the disc is Robert Frost. I don’t think many would deny that Frost is among the literary greats, but his drab, rushed presentation of “The Road Less Travelled” disappoints. While I was still trying to decide which road to take, he was already finished. I didn’t feel the emotional pull that I get when I read it myself.
Then there are poems that don’t make sense when read aloud. E.E. Cummings has several like this, poems in which the form serves a necessary function. Example:
So what’s your preference? Do you like poems on the page or read aloud?
For those who prefer the audio/visual experience, here is Billy Collins reading three poems at the 2007 Aspen Ideas Festival.
I have two young children, which means some days include me reading more children’s books than adult books. Thank God for Dr. Seuss. Most kid lit is awful for adults, but I enjoy reading Dr. Seuss’ limerick filled books. The fun stories, easy cadence, and unique illustrations engage both adult reader and child listener.
There’s also something about the nostalgia of reading books to my children that were read to me when I was their age. They deserve their classic status.
I think that many people overlook the wisdom contained in these works. “A person’s a person no matter how small” from Horton Hears a Who is only one example.
Too bad my children aren’t as motivated to eat what we serve them as much as they would be if we served green eggs and ham.
An alcoholic is someone you don’t like who drinks as much as you do.
Dylan Thomas (1914 – 1953) (quotationspage.com)
Alcohol has long held a (honorable?) place in literary culture. Sometimes it takes over. The early deaths of Truman Capote, Dylan Thomas, and many other writers can attest to that. But if you are one who can drink in moderation, go for it. Pour yourself a double and get to work on that novel, short story, essay, or poem.
Alcohol is a social lubricant for me. When I drink, I talk and talk and talk. When I drink around paper, my pen does the talking. A couple glasses of Scotch (neat, please, Mr. Bartender) or a Gin Martini (Beefeater, dry) has helped me through a few blocks.
The greatest risk when drinking while writing, for me at least, is that I lose exactness. My ideas flow as freely as the booze, but my specifics falter. I make careless grammatical errors. I present ideas out of order. I ramble.
That’s why it’s important to edit sober. Take out that draft the next day, if you aren’t too hungover, and comb through it. After you correct the mechanics, you may well have a fine draft. This is simple advice really, but I know several writers who indulge in writing drunk then fail to sober up for the editing process.
Here’s to the brewers and distillers and to good writing! Cheers!
Writing in first-person is about more than just saying ‘I’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she.’ Seeing a story or poem through a particular character’s eyes both conveys the story itself and tells us a lot about the character. We connect with first-person narratives because they, when written well, are so “real” and personal, but first-person is difficult to write convincingly.
J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is one of the best first-person narratives. Salinger does a remarkable job of maintaining Holden Caulfield’s voice throughout the novel. This is the biggest trap about writing in this perspective. It’s easy to let the character’s voice merge with the author’s voice. Even if the character is similar to the author, the character is a character and should consistently speak from his/her own perspective. Salinger’s ability to stay in the character allows the novel to become what it is, an exploration of the character, not just a recounting of events in the character’s life.
Some argue that Salinger had such ease with Caulfield because they were similar, but often our character needs to be someone quite different than our selves. I wrote a story a couple years ago from the point of view of a factory worker. I’ve never worked in a factory. I concentrated on my observations of my dad and his friends, many of whom have worked in that environment all their lives. My character had things to say about work ethic, unions, trade policy, and other issues that I can only talk about theoretically. Unfortunately, I did let my character sometimes sound more like an English major than blue collar man.
One novel that makes this mistake of the author’s voice co-opting the character’s is C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces. Many of Lewis’ works are remarkable, and the mistakes he makes in this novel show how difficult writing first-person can be. His protagonist is Orual, a Greek princess, but the voice he uses is never convincingly feminine; it’s his overtly masculine voice poorly masked with female pronouns and experiences.
Another problem with Lewis’ novel that occurs in a lot of first-person writing is that the narration and descriptions sound like the descriptions of a narrator, not a character’s perception. Sure, there are reactions from the character to what is happening, but the format of “this is what happened; this is what I think about it” doesn’t work well in this case.
Another great first-person work is Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry which shows us how a (potentially) dishonest narrator can develop a story. The novel is set during the Irish Revolution and is told by Henry, a grandiose, self-deceived character who makes himself out to have nearly super-human strength. Though the context is the Irish Revolution, the real topic is self-formed mythology. Henry develops a mythology about who he is and also a mythology about what it is to be Irish in a post-colonial context.
What we learn from these books is that the most important aspect of first-person writing is consistency. We must remain consistent to the character we’ve created. Everything else is just writing.
If you read my post, Poetry, an Oral Art, you know I’m keen on the public reading of poetry. Unfortunately, I can’t attend all the reading I want to. Good thing I have lots of interwebz at my disposal. One source I turn to often to watch poetry readings is the UC-Berkeley channel on YouTube. They have a program called Lunch Poems where they bring a poet to campus once a week during, well, lunch hour. They record the readings and post them on YouTube. Here are a few of my favorites:
UC-Berkeley isn’t the only source of good poetry readings online. Look around. Feel free to share your favorites with me.
Before there were literary journals, Norton anthologies, and fantastic writing blogs like this one, poetry was an oral art. Beowulf was recited by memory for hundreds of years prior to being put to paper (possibly in the 9th Century A.D.). At 3182 lines, that’s quite a task; it certainly puts my high school task of memorizing Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy to shame.
Unfortunately, we no longer embrace the oral aspect of poetry as much. We have public readings and open mic nights, but these are often seen as special events instead of a core part of the experience of poetry. Poetry has become an only individual experience. We read it alone in the dark corners of our personal space, and I bet that most readers consume it silently.
I’m not saying that poetry isn’t personal, but it should be a personal experience that we have together. It should be, as it has been previously, an art that shows us that our most intimate, most alone thoughts are not lonely thoughts. I think this turn away from oral poetry has alienated many readers. Many think of reading poetry as a purely academic task, and they are turned off when they don’t “get it” in the same way that the university English department gets it. Poetry is filled with layered meaning and the complexities of rhetorical devices, but we who appreciate those aspects should not create an artificial distance between ourselves and other readers. Experiencing the poetry orally allows each of us to meet the poem where we are; it makes poetry a democratic experience.
What’s to be done about this seemingly hopeless situation?
Go to the readings that are happening. Any city large enough for a coffee shop or two surely has an open mic night where poets and musicians can share their arts. You don’t have to be a participant to enjoy yourself. If your local cafe doesn’t have these or other poetry readings, ask them to. If you write, ask to read your own work. Some places have Slam Poetry readings and contests. Though this style of poetry is not for everyone, these events are a beacon of hope for poetry as an oral art. Professional poets often tour, so go to these readings, too. Local universities are often the hosts to these events.
Read aloud at home. Read poetry to your kids, your roommate, your significant other, your cat, whomever. Invite friends over, and tell them you’d like to share a few poems you’ve been reading. And ask them to share with you. In my opinion, this could be much more fun than just discussing your favorite sitcom at your dinner parties.
I have a few ideas as to how I’ll help the cause. As soon as I can find my computer mic, I’ll be adding readings of my own poems as I publish them here. I don’t know if my netbook’s internal mic is up for the task. I’m working with Ida Red on organizing a monthly poetry reading here in Tulsa that will feature local poets for more time than what we get at open mic. More details will be shared as we work them out.
Happy reading, friends.
p.s. For my deaf friends, I hope I haven’t alienated you with my praise for the auditory experience. We can all benefit from the public personal experience I described, though your medium of expression will be different.
Earlier this week, I posted an entry about using sound (particularly onomatopoeia) in your writing to help the reader more fully connect with your work. Now it’s time to talk about smell. I guess this means I’m writing a freakin’ series now, doesn’t it?
I previously talked about sound being neglected in writing, but I think smell is even more so. Considering that smell is the sense most strongly linked to memory, this is a huge missed opportunity for writers.
So how do we describe smell?
Don’t be too general. If something has an unpleasant odor, don’t tell me it “stinks.” Describe to me why it stinks. Use concrete adjectives and figurative language. By concrete adjectives, I mean words like sweet, sour, and so on. Ex: Cutting open the grapefruit immediately released a rush of sweet, tangy odors, and a citrusy tinge that made my eyes water. Figurative language often includes the use of simile and metaphor to describe how something smells. Many a restaurant trash dumpster, for instance, smells overwhelmingly like soured milk. (I’ve worked in my share of restaurants.)
Figurative language doesn’t have to describe the smell so literally, as I’ve done with my dumpster example. It is, after all, figurative language. Ex: Lemonade smells like the summer evenings of my youth, sitting on my grandfather’s porch and watching the sun disappear behind the distant cotton fields.
If you don’t have space to describe it further (i.e. you’re writing a poem in a particular form), at least use a stronger adjective. If it smells really bad, “reek” is often a better choice than “stinks.”
In my post about sound, I suggested sitting somewhere with your eyes closed for a few minutes then writing about the sounds you heard. A similar exercise may be beneficial with smell.
Well, I’ve got to get back to watching the kids, so smell ya later!
The ticktickticktick staccato of sleet on my roof last night got me thinking about sounds in writing. Writing that appeals to all five senses has potential to reach readers better than single-sense writing in many cases. I’m not saying there isn’t a place for works that focus on one or two senses or three senses, but don’t miss out on the full array of senses just out of laziness.
Using multiple senses is not just for creative writing. Obviously journalism uses multiple senses, but it can also be useful in academic writing (when appropriate in your discipline).
So what is onomatopoeia? Other than a word I always have to look up the spelling for, an onomatopoeia is a word that represents a sound. There’s a large vocabulary of standard onomatopoeia that we share in our culture. Just pick up a children’s book, and you’ll see them–chirp chirp ruff ruff moo moo ribbit ribbit. Sometimes these are good enough. Since they are parts of a shared vocabulary, we can often overlook that they aren’t always accurate representations for sound and mentally produce the correct sound.
But sometimes the best course is to create your own onomatopoeia. It doesn’t have to be complicated. The one in the first sentence of this post isn’t. I just said that sleet makes a tick sound on my roof. It’s a quick, assertive, repeated sound, so I put a few ticks together and added that it had a staccato rhythm.
Though it isn’t necessarily complicated, it does help to practice. I like to sit somewhere with my eyes closed for a few minutes then write about all the sounds I heard.
The following is an excerpt from a poem I wrote called “Louis Armstrong on His Bicycle.” The poem describes a homeless man who is sitting on bicycle outside of an Italian restaurant and starts “singing” along with the live Jazz music that can be heard on the patio.
Live Jazz pours out of the Italian place
onto the patio
where he now leans his bike.
The smoky beat fills him.
He belts out
in that throatysmooth voice
Ba ba da de doo
Ba ba da de dum
Have fun exploring the use of sounds in your writing. And we’ll all practice spelling onomatopoeia, in case it shows up in a New York Times crossword puzzle.