The Weirdness of Precipitation. Also Umbrellas.


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.

Instruments that Speak to/for/against Us


I started out Roman Catholic in the 1970s, which was a mixed time for Catholic hymnody. On the one hand, the conservatives who still hadn’t gotten over Vatican Council II (1963-7) still insisted on the organ (and thankfully we didn’t have one of those arrghanists who play at half speed and twice the loudness!) and on the other hand us younger/more liberal crazy kids wen to the so-called “folk” masses with guitars and hymns that had actually been written by somebody who wasn’t dead. (You can clearly see into which camp I fall, yodeling.)

In theory I understand a friend who finds the idea of anything less grand than an organ being an affront (I guess) to God’s grandeur. But let me tell you a story. Sometime about ten years ago I was in a Catholic church in Boston that in fact did and still does have an arghanist of the kind I described above. But to this particular Mass, the pastor had invited some young men from an orphanage in Haiti to come and speak to the congregation (and collect money, natch). I don’t remember what the processional hymn was but the two young men had their long drums suspended from their necks and were drumming away behind our singing—that is, until they reached the altar, when they stopped and the organ picked up the accompaniment. Well, I say, accompaniment, but in fact I found myself drowned out. As a female in the Catholic Church, I had felt that way before from time to time, but only metaphorically. But that experience—of the big, loud, low and therefore symbolically male voice of the Organ drowning out not only my female voice, but also the “voice” of young men whose country had been colonized by the western church—that was probably one of the last times I set foot in a Catholic church as a Catholic.

Now I am mostly happily Protestant—Episcopalian (we have women priests! and bishops! and gay priests! and bishops! Ask Me How!)—but I still get that icky feeling when I hear organ music, like somebody’s voice is being drowned out and nobody is even noticing except me. They invented the piano for a reason, people!

And I think about this because one of my Facebook groups, Scottish Clans & Families, had a post about how you know you have Scottish blood when the pipes speak to you like no other instrument could. And I started thinking about how we identify ourselves not just with things you can see, like pictures or desk toys, but also with things you can hear. The organ fills me with moral outrage. Bagpipes make me cry (in a good way, but I am also an old softie). Last summer at the alumni reunion at Middlebury, they had a piper standing just below Mead Chapel playing for an hour before the big convocation. On the other side of campus, I heard the music and immediately moved in that direction, in tears, like there was some big emotional switch in my bone marrow that the fellow had turned on from a quarter mile away.

I’m not quite sure if I have a conclusion about all of this, unless it is “humans are weird.”

The Hokey-Pokey of Writing


So back in May I talked about the bit in a piece of writing, usually a long piece of nonfiction, which you always end up cutting. It served you as a writer to get from idea A to idea M, but it no longer serves your readers, so it must go. The problem is that it’s not always obvious which bit or how much of it is the bit you need to cut and which bits you need to keep. Sometimes you cut a section, then put it back in, then take it out again, or possibly take another bit out and then put it back in again. After a while you throw your hands up in despair and run away weeping, which is actually a really good idea.

But let’s face it folks, that really is what it’s all about. And if you don’t believe me, check out this video of bagpipers proving it:

Often what you need after finishing a draft, particularly a frustrating draft, is distance. Walk away. Do something else. Eat something. Do your laundry. Read a book. Play with the cat. While you are gone, with luck, the writing will set like Jello, and your choices will be clearer.