Write me: rjn@richardjnewman.com
Craft Talk 4: Relearning The Value of Patience in Assembling a Book of Poems
It’s the mid­dle of August, which means sum­mer is almost over and I have to start prepar­ing in earnest to go back into the class­room. This is the first sum­mer in many years–at least fif­teen, I think–that I’ve been off since the spring semes­ter end­ed in May. I cer­tain­ly could’ve used the extra mon­ey I would’ve earned teach­ing my usu­al two sum­mer class­es, which didn’t fill because of low enroll­ment, but I’m also not com­plain­ing. I was able to make very pro­duc­tive use the extra time. I fin­ished a first draft of my next book of poems! It’s more a frame­work for a draft, actu­al­ly, nowhere near ready to share with the world, and so many of the poems are still in flux—even some that have been pub­lished in jour­nals (here and here, if you’re interested)—that I am relearn­ing a les­son each of the pre­vi­ous two man­u­scripts I have pub­lished taught me: patience.

 

CavanKer­ry Press, for exam­ple, reject­ed two or three dif­fer­ent and sub­stan­tial revi­sions of the man­u­script that became my sec­ond book, Words for What Those Men Have Done, for rea­sons that boiled down to my not being able to get out of my own way with­in my own poems. (I was, to put it dif­fer­ent­ly, try­ing too hard and too self-con­scious­ly to make the poems do what I want­ed them to do, turn­ing them more into poet­i­cized edi­to­ri­als than works of art.) It wasn’t till I real­ized that I had fall­en too much in love with the for­mal con­cept I had for the book as a whole, which was con­nect­ed to ideas about cham­ber music and string quartets—ideas that would take too long to explain here—that I was able to hun­ker down with the lan­guage and take the time nec­es­sary to trans­form the man­u­script into some­thing worth pub­lish­ing.

One rea­son I had such a hard time see­ing this prob­lem in the first place was that Words For What Those Men Have Done is so deeply per­son­al. It deals far more explic­it­ly than The Silence of Men with my expe­ri­ence as a sur­vivor of child­hood sex­u­al vio­lence, and it was, there­fore, cor­re­spond­ing­ly more dif­fi­cult and painful to write. The for­mal scheme I’d come up with for orga­niz­ing the book–four or five long poems divid­ed into four or five move­ments each–had been my way of mak­ing that pain and dif­fi­cul­ty man­age­able, estab­lish­ing the bound­aries that would give it struc­ture and mean­ing. I hadn’t under­stood that this structure’s pur­pose was, in real­i­ty, to enable me to gen­er­ate the poet­ic mate­r­i­al I need­ed. To turn that mate­r­i­al into suc­cess­ful poems, enough of them to fill a book, I need­ed to allow the struc­tures that would hold those poems to emerge organically–and that required patience.

Now that I have com­plet­ed a first draft of this new manuscript—the work­ing title is This Sen­tence Is A Metaphor For Bridge—I real­ize that I have been through more or less the same process. I just didn’t need to have the man­u­script reject­ed three times for me to fig­ure it out. After I fin­ished Words for What Those Men Have Done, I was, quite frankly, tired of talk­ing about myself. It wasn’t just that I didn’t want to go back yet again to the vio­lence of my child­hood, or the inti­mate ques­tions about man­hood and mas­culin­i­ty that my poems some­times explore, or the issues of my Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, or my mar­riage. I just didn’t think I had any­thing new to say, at least not in poet­ry. I want­ed to write some­thing that would take me out of myself, that would force me to focus more on the poem as a self-con­scious­ly con­struct­ed lin­guis­tic object, and so I set myself what I thought at first would be a pure­ly for­mal exer­cise, sort of like play­ing scales on the piano. I decid­ed to write son­nets, a form I have always loved, that would not only fol­low as strict­ly as pos­si­ble the rules of the form, but that would also adhere to a set of guide­lines meant to take me–my auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal self–out of the the poems as much as pos­si­ble. These are all the rules I cre­at­ed:

  • I would write in strict iambic pen­tame­ter
  • All rhymes would be full rhymes (a rule I end­ed up hav­ing to break only once)
  • While I would not hold myself strict­ly to the Shake­speare­an or Petrar­chan rhetor­i­cal struc­tures, the rhyme schemes would adhere absolute­ly to one or the oth­er of those forms (a rule I broke a cou­ple of times)
  • I would not use the first per­son sin­gu­lar pro­noun, I, unless it was spo­ken in direct speech by a char­ac­ter in the poem
  • As much as pos­si­ble, rather than rely­ing on nar­ra­tive or log­i­cal momen­tum to move the poem for­ward, I would rely on the music of the lan­guage

I rarely set aside “writ­ing time”” to work on these poems. Rather, I com­posed them piece­meal, usu­al­ly on my phone, while I was rid­ing the train or stand­ing in line at the supermarket–pretty much any­where but at my desk. If I got stuck or inter­rupt­ed mid-line, as I often did, I just put the poem aside until I could pick it up again. When I did, though, instead of read­ing through all the lines I’d writ­ten pre­vi­ous­ly, I looked only at the line that had been inter­rupt­ed, and maybe the line before it, find­ing a way to con­tin­ue based on the music—the rhythm, the sound patterning—of that bit of lan­guage. I didn’t give these son­nets titles, only num­bers, and once a son­net was done, I did not look at it again. I just moved on to the next one.

After I had about thir­ty of these son­nets, I began to real­ize I was in the mid­dle of some­thing more than a palate-cleans­ing exer­cise, and I start­ed to imag­ine I was writ­ing a son­net sequence. Woudn’t it be great if I could get to a hun­dred, I thought, and wouldn’t it be cool that they’d all be so strict­ly for­mal? In the end, I com­plet­ed 120 son­nets before I ran out of steam, and I cer­tain­ly as impressed with myself. Only thir­ty-four more and I’d have as many as Shake­speare! This is when I start­ed show­ing the son­nets to a few of my friends who are also poets. All of them found the work excit­ing, but what they found most exciting—something I did not catch at first because my head was still filled with the son­net-writ­ing nature project—was the voice I was writ­ing in, not the poet­ic form I’d giv­en to that voice. Based on their excite­ment I start­ed revis­ing the poems with an eye towards pub­li­ca­tion, but even in those revi­sions, I remained almost slav­ish­ly com­mit­ted both to the rules I’d start­ed with and to the son­net sequence as the form the man­u­script would take.

It wasn’t till I sat down at the begin­ning of June, with a three month stretch of more or less unin­ter­rupt­ed Mon­day-through-Fri­day morn­ings ahead of me, that I start­ed to see just how many of the son­nets did not hold togeth­er as son­nets and would not hold togeth­er no mat­ter how much I tin­kered with them. Once I accept­ed this fact, I start­ed to hear more clear­ly the voice my friends had been excit­ed about, and it is that voice I am explor­ing as I fur­ther revise and hone this man­u­script. Since I am still in the mid­dle of dis­cov­er­ing just what this voice is all about, I don’t want to say too much about the voice itself–except that I agree with my friends who hear in it a con­nec­tion to the work I did co-trans­lat­ing clas­si­cal Iran­ian poet­ry (specif­i­cal­ly Farid al-Din Attar and Saa­di of Shi­raz). What I will say is that fig­ur­ing out how to make this voice work rhyth­mi­cal­ly and son­i­cal­ly has thrown me back onto ques­tions of craft–counting met­ri­cal feet or syl­la­bles; fig­ur­ing out how to make a meter, or a line, or a stan­za rhyth­mi­cal­ly inter­est­ing; craft­ing sound pat­terns, includ­ing rhyme, that con­tribute mean­ing­ful­ly to the move­ment and sub­stance of the poem–no less rig­or­ous­ly than writ­ing the son­nets did in the first place.

Indeed, the nec­es­sary con­cern with craft that writ­ing the son­nets imposed on me is part of why I start­ed writ­ing the series of blog posts that I am call­ing “Craft Talk.” I’ve writ­ten three of these posts so far. The first one, about a poem called “A Con­ven­tion of Lit­tle Dogs,” from Quin­cy Troupe’s book, The Archi­tec­ture of Lan­guage, deals with how Troupe cre­ates what I expe­ri­ence as the kinds of rhythms a jazz drum­mer might cre­ate, and how this emerges from the way Troupe bends and stretch­es the syn­tax of a sentence–or, maybe it’s that he hears a rhythm and he bends the syn­tax to fit what he hears. Either way, writ­ing the post allowed me to get a look under the hood, so to speak, of one of Troupe’s poems and exam­ine more close­ly how he uses rhythm that as a dri­ving force in his work.

The sec­ond Craft Talk I wrote is about The Cat­tle of the Lord, a book of poems by the Por­tuguese poet Rosa Alice Bran­co, trans­lat­ed by Alex­is Lev­itin. This post looked at how how Lev­itin was able in Eng­lish to recre­ate both the chis­eled syn­tax and com­plex lin­eation of Branco’s original–or at least as much of the orig­i­nal as I was able to glean from a side by side com­par­i­son with the trans­la­tions.

The third Craft Talk, which I called “Fig­ur­ing Out Why a Poem Doesn’t Work for Me,” is about Kaveh Akbar’s award-win­ning col­lec­tion Call­ing a Wolf a Wolf. I bought this book in large mea­sure because of the tremen­dous enthu­si­asm with which it has been received and talked about, but even though there’s a lot in it that I like–I think Akbar is a tal­ent­ed poet whose career will be worth following–my expe­ri­ence of read­ing this book just hasn’t lived up to the hype. I wrote this third craft-talk post to fig­ure out why and ended up reaf­firm­ing for myself the same les­son that work­ing on This Sen­tence Is A Metaphor For Bridge has been teach­ing me: the impor­tance of not get­ting in the way of your own work, of not try­ing too hard to direct a poem where you think it ought to go, and how one effect of try­ing to do that can be that your read­ers will think you don’t trust them.

I first learned this les­son from an essay Hay­den Car­ruth wrote about Robert Frost–called, sim­ply enough, “Robert Frost”–which I read in Efflu­ences from the Sacred Caves way back in the 1980s, when I was first start­ing to take myself seri­ous­ly as a poet. Indeed, I learned more from this book about craft in all its aspects, and also about what it means to hold one­self and oth­ers account­able to that craft, then I did from most of the teach­ers I had at the time. One of the things I most respect­ed about Car­ruth was that he held no one sacred. No one, in his esti­ma­tion, was above crit­i­cism; and no one, cer­tain­ly, was above fail­ure. He read poet­ry, was deeply, deeply com­mit­ted to read­ing poet­ry in the way I tell my cre­ative writ­ing stu­dents they need to learn to read, as a writer, not as a crit­ic.

Over the last cou­ple of weeks, moti­vat­ed in large mea­sure by every­thing I’ve writ­ten about above, I’ve been reread­ing Carruth’s book of essays, and while much of what he wrote about is dated–and it is, by today’s stan­dards very white (which, from what I know about Car­ruth, prob­a­bly devolves more from the fact that most of the pieces were com­mis­sioned than from his own sen­si­bil­i­ty)–how he writes about about poet­ry, the way he reads it and talks about it, seems to me as rel­e­vant today as ever.

Any­way, back to what Car­ruth had to say about Robert Frost:

What one finds upon read­ing the Col­lect­ed Poems is a rel­a­tive­ly small num­ber of first-rate pieces and a much larg­er num­ber of unsuc­cess­ful ones. I don’t mean the fail­ures are “bad poems”; a few are, but scores and scores of them are poems that almost make it–almost but not quite. Usu­al­ly they con­tain fine descrip­tions, point­ed imagery, apt and char­ac­ter­is­tic lan­guage; but then at some point they turn talky, insis­tent, too lit­er­al, as if Frost were try­ing to coerce the mean­ing from his own poet­ic mate­ri­als. And in fact I think this is exact­ly what he was try­ing to do. Call it van­i­ty, arro­gance, or what­ev­er: Frost came to dis­trust his own imag­i­na­tion, and believed he could make his poems do and say what he want­ed them to do and say.

In his con­clu­sion, Car­ruth argues that Frost’s failed poems are in fact a gift to the rest of us, a reminder that we are all, in our own work, sub­ject to the same “van­i­ty, arro­gance, or what­ev­er.”

What I admired, what moved me, about Carruth’s essays when I first read them, and what I admire and am moved by when I read them now, is the sim­plic­i­ty and depth and breadth of his com­mit­ment to poet­ry, not to any one school, not to any par­tic­u­lar notion of poet­ic great­ness or achieve­ment, not to any giv­en polit­i­cal agen­da, but sim­ply to the idea that, because poet­ry is a cul­tur­al neces­si­ty (even if a cul­ture like ours doesn’t par­tic­u­lar­ly val­ue it), writ­ing poet­ry is work worth doing and worth doing well.1 Cen­tral to the art of doing it well, I am sure Car­ruth would agree, is hav­ing the patience not to give in to “van­i­ty, arro­gance, or what­ev­er.”

As usu­al, I’d love to hear what you think. For the end of our sum­mer, my wife and I are off to do some rail bik­ing in the Adiron­dacks. I hope that what­ev­er you’re doing, it is fun, adven­tur­ous, meaningful–or all three rolled into one.

  1. Which is not to say Car­ruth was apo­lit­i­cal, or that he did not have ideas about who was and who was not a great poet or about the state of poet­ry as an art in his time. []

2 Comments

  • Prami­la Venkateswaran Posted August 18, 2018 11:08 pm

    Richard, I enjoyed read­ing this blog post. In par­tic­u­lar, I liked your explo­ration of how not to get in the way of the poem–“the impor­tance of not get­ting in the way of your own work, of not try­ing too hard to direct a poem where you think it ought to go, and how one effect of try­ing to do that can be that your read­ers will think you don’t trust them.” I am amazed that you were able to write so many son­nets, espe­cial­ly since the son­net is a dif­fi­cult form, accord­ing to me, more so than the ses­ti­na.

    • rich­new­man Posted August 19, 2018 2:33 am

      Thanks, Prami­la!

Add Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: