Recognizing the Paradigm

 

I have been spending my summer vacation so far rereading the Harry Potter series. In Harry Potter: Goblet of Fire, the three European wizarding schools are set in a competition against each other. The individual champions must face dangerous tasks to prove how good they are at magic, strategic thinking and sheer bravery, all in the interest of fostering international and inter-school cooperation. Our Olympics are very similar, using a competition to foster cooperation.

This seems odd. Aren’t the skills that are inherent to competition kind of opposite those that are inherent to cooperation? I have been thinking about this in relation to my teaching these last two or three years. After teaching Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” two to five times a year for the last twenty-plus years, I have seen how he manages to avoid the language of combativeness and argument and replace it with a more nonviolent language of persuasion. He always treats his readers not as opponents who have to be put down or put right, but rather as people who don’t realize they are imminent allies or possibly already allies. This is a very different way of presenting one’s ideas and, if the American political discourse going on these days is a marker, possibly an alien one.

But it is not just politics that seem inherently combative. The news is full of this kind of language, from politics, to sports, to weather. So where do we go for alternate ways of speaking? I wonder if there are texts out there about artistic collaboration, people describing how they work together to create a shared vision. We need more of that and we need it yesterday everywhere. You can’t change the world’s paradigm if you can’t even talk outside the paradigm.

Words are Meaningless and Forgettable. Say What?

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So I got on the train today only to see a pin stuck to the radiator at my feet. It said (with a picture of roses, for some reason) Words Are Meaningless And Forgettable. What an unkind thing to leave where a writer might stumble across it. Winter in Boston is bad enough with the unkind weather and existential dread. But to tell someone for whom words are her stock in trade that, nope, worthless, sorry! Cruel.

Now, given that we are coming up to Valentine’s Day, this might just be a bid by florists to get people to buy more flowers, although I guarantee you that any florists you may know will have several bandaged fingers on Monday. This is like how I always have chalkdust on my right sleeve and a stripe across the back of my jacket: occupational hazard. And as a writing teacher and professional poet, I can also guarantee that there is probably just as much blood on the love poem you get this weekend as there is on your roses. The difference will be the source.

A Made Thing before Valentine’s Day

“My Foucault-friend, who is now an ­anthropologist, observes that in the West we tend to think of made things as being false” (Biss).

Anti-Valentines-Day-Metal-Playlist

If the poem I make is a false thing, as made as my house,

As false as your eyelashes that you also made this morning,

As thing-like as your car that falsely carried you

To work yesterday and just as falsely, eventually,

Carried you home last night, then how am I to cultivate

Truth like a garden of earthy, homegrown delights?

 

If my poem, made from words, which presumably also

Have been made, in this case by our ancestors

Who agreed what the grunt would mean, and the hiss

And the slow accumulation of consonants, then how

Can beauty be real, since there too we simply have to

Agree on the symmetry and style of another face?

 

If the song you made from notes just lying around

The universe is false, if the story you told yourself

Of love and loss and, eventually, redemption and love

Again, if that too is made and therefore false, what hope

Do any of us have to find the real thing, the true and

The beautiful thing, the unmade heart beating to ours?

 

Biss, Eula. “‘The Folded Clock,’ by Heidi Julavits.” Review. New York Times. 27 Mar. 2015. Web. 10 Feb. 2016.

Maybe I Need an Art Buddy. Maybe I Just Need Backup.

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Well, here I am back in the Writer’s Block, which kind of sounds like something you would find in a Communist prison. Yes, they really used to confiscate writers’ typewriters in the USSR and Poland. It was cost-effective. You don’t need to feed typewriters and they don’t bleed when you beat them up.

Here in the more or less democratic US of A, where we have Freedom of Font and also a whole lot more options for putting our ideas down and spreading them around, the problem tends not to be so much Tyranny that is rearing its ugly head as it is Woeful Lack of Imagination.

Part of this, I suspect, is because a blog is not exactly a Project in the same sense that a novel or, for want of a better example, a few hundred pages of poetry about a 1990s TV show are. There isn’t the compulsive pull of a few well-chosen characters whose voices need to be explored. There isn’t the narrative tension of a plot to resolve or of subplots to weave in artfully. On the flipside, there are more opportunities to use pictures of cats to make my points.

Sometimes, when procrastination takes the form of Radically Empty Brain Syndrome (REBS), I stare at the wall, vainly hoping for something to show up. But remember that “radical” comes from the Latin, radix, meaning “root.” If there is nothing at the root of the brain, there won’t be much to grow out of it. So maybe the solution is to find another brain to work with.

If I were an Igor in a Terry Pratchett Discworld novel, I suppose I would mean that literally: find a brain, go up to the top of a tall MIT building and wait for lightning to strike. Then do an evil maniacal laugh, etc. Problem solved.

Tempting…

Failing that, I suppose I need to find another brain the less old-fashioned way, by actually finding a writing buddy, a collaborator, or possibly some badass with a big gun or maybe a Frisbee. Some writing buddies each write their own work separately and then read each other’s work. This is different from collaborators who work on the same project. Personally, I was thinking more along the lines of someone to come to my rescue with a whole lotta firepower, or possibly an Iron Frisbee of Doom.

Then maybe I’ll get writing again.

The Weirdness of Precipitation. Also Umbrellas.

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So a friend has pointed out that I have been veering from the straight path of poetry and investigating all kinds of apparently nonpoetic things, and she is not wrong. At first I thought this was simply a result of my writer’s block, again, and to some extent it is. Then I thought about how I started this blog in part to figure out my poetics, that is, what the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics defines as “a systematic theory or doctrine of poetry” (Preminger 636). What do I think counts as poetry and where do we draw the line? Is it enough to “not be prose,” i.e., to have lots of short lines, some of which may happen to rhyme? Is it likely to have more elegant language and imagery than non-literary prose generally uses? Must it be beautiful? And what do we mean by beauty?

And then I realized that some of what I have been unconsciously doing is figuring out my aesthetics, which oddly enough, Preminger does not define, although he does include aesthetic distance and aestheticism, this last of which he seems to define as art for art’s sake, although he takes several pages to do it. I think for me defining one’s aesthetics is about defining what one as an individual, artist and nonartist, find beautiful and not. What draws you, as the bagpipes drew me before my mind had realized that my legs were moving? What repels me, as the sonorous, groaning organ does, even though it has great symmetry and harmony and All The Things, and can move other folks to tears for Very Different Reasons?

And I have been fascinated by our recent popular culture projects, because they have been drawing me in a similar fashion. Some of what I like is the smart juxtaposition between apparent opposites that we often get, the mixing of deadly serious and light wit, or dark, almost Gothic environments mixed with warm companionship. Or just high school students reading 500-year-old texts in an actual library to learn about the demons they are about to face. These tinctures in the story-telling of our time fascinate me, and I hope are teaching me about how to tell a more beautiful story, whether I do it in poetry or prose or some other way.

But for those who came for the poetry, here is a poem from last Monday when I got soaking wet about three different times.

.

Suddenly the air

is awash front to back

with water, which once,

before today, used

to be ocean or cloud.

.

And walksign people

scurry and slosh across

sidewalks become rivers

for a moment or two

too long for dry shoes.

.

Only the dry ones, those

who planned ahead,

stay anywhere near dry

carrying their nylon roof

on a stick.

.

Preminger, Alex, ed. Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1974.

Language, People!

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So last week my writing students at MIT were given a piece by science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany’s book About Writing. The passage I like best says, “Use the precise word. Don’t say ‘gaze’ when you mean ‘look.’ Don’t say ‘ambled’ or ‘sauntered’ or ‘stalked’ when you mean ‘walked.’ (And don’t say ‘walked’ when you mean one of the others.) As far as the creative writer goes, the concept of synonyms should be a fiction for high school and first-and second-year college students to encourage them to improve their vocabularies. The fact is (as writers from Georg Christoff Lichtenberg [1742-99] in the eighteenth century to Alfred Bester [1913-87] in the twentieth have written), ‘There are no synonyms'” (4).

Similarly, poet Marge Piercy says (somewhere probably in this book but I cannot find it) that every poet should have, in addition to a good dictionary and thesaurus, a set of Peterson’s Field Guides to trees and flowers and birds. There is a difference between a grackle and a sparrow, a walnut tree and an oak. Similarly, when you get a good thesaurus, that means Roget’s, NOT Mirriam-Webster. For “Color” Mirriam-Webster says things like “hue” and “tint.” Roget’s gives you all kinds of reds, oranges, yellows, greens, etc. Some are from flowers, others from gems. Always look up the thing to see what it came from.

Particulars persuade, people. So watch your language!

Delany, Samuel R. About Writing. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2006.

Piercy, Marge. Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt. Ann Arbor: U Michigan P, 1999.