Archive for the ‘Writers on writing’ Category

James Tate (born 1943)

On first read, The Wheelchair Butterfly may be difficult to understand. The lines most quoted from the poem are in the fifth stanza where the boy plucks the butterfly from the air. It is an image we can pluck from the juxtaposition of images in this poem and make sense of. It’s important when reading a poem like this to allow the mind to go where it will. Our mind has a way of taking dissimilar things and putting them together into a pattern.

But that means reading this poem out of the corner of the eye. It requires a surrendering of logic in our minds. That’s one of the underlying statements of surrealism. The only way to speak to some problems is through the imagination. To see me, reason pollutes the process, it says. The analytic, linear part of the brain normally used to work through the world doesn’t work here. The right side of the brain, the intuitive side, the side that sees things as a whole and not in parts becomes what we need to work through a poem like this. Surrealism says, that’s what needs to be reinforced in people to solve some puzzles in life.

By the age of five, a teacher told me recently, most children have already been discouraged from using their imaginations in their artwork. Elephants can no longer be purple, and clouds can no longer have eyes. That kind of reinforcement debilitates people from using a part of their brain they need to learn, they need to have a certain dexterity of thinking in this world. The right side of the brain has different information we can use to make sense out of life.

Many of Tate’s poems like The Wheelchair Butterfly marry together what seem random images. My interpretation of this poem may not be what he intended at all, but that’s the beauty of surrealism. In its playfulness, it gives the imagination a moment to tinker and have fun.

Blue Morpho butterfly

I see image after image in this poem as panes of stained glass which allow a variety of colors. Mice, wheelchairs, the pregnant girl, bicycles, poppies, hornets, bifocals, garages, attics, ice-cream trucks, fleas, honeysuckle, dandelions, trumpets, tabernacles all give me an impression of suburbia. And with that, the poem begins to fit together more easily. The girl who is always pregnant and bruised like a pear is in a setting now. The camera is panning in on something I understand. In a line like Beware the trumpet wants a glass of water! I see a marching band walking down Main St. and a young boy asking for a glass of water. The mayor urinating on the sidewalk brings to mind small town U.S.A.

I don’t know if Tate’s writing of this poem had that much planning behind it. But something about it itches at our minds. We want to understand what this is about. The images seem aware and responsive to each other. Perhaps the images aren’t concerned if we understand them or not, but the reader is conscious of their placement next to each other and how they inform each other with new meaning.

Our curiosity is stirred from the beginning by the title. Those are two objects we wouldn’t normally place together. A butterfly couldn’t use a wheelchair. It flies in the air. It doesn’t have hands or arms to work the wheels. Wheelchairs are mentioned several times in this poem as if the people in this world are all handicapped. The butterfly will also be handicapped now that the boy has handled it. He will bruise the delicate wings and tear the body and prevent it from flying. It will be as bruised and beaten as the young girl.

Humans are locked in place in this setting, not free to fly around like dandelion seeds or butterflies. They sit in an orange garage full of daydreams. These aren’t men but the mice of men contemplating suicide. The garage color is the only cheerful thing in their lives. It expresses something about what they want. They want to get off of the spinning wheel of this assembly-line existence, which has plucked them from the air and made them captive to a prefabricated paradise.

The Indian pony is an image of that captivity, mustangs that once roamed the plains in the U.S. The 1961 movie The Misfits with Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift and Thelma Ritter illustrates how the animal was domesticated and slaughtered for dog food or shot from airplanes. The wild west as we know it, symbolized by these free-roaming horses, was paved over for condos, shopping malls and parking lots. We’re urinating on the sidewalk now, not the earth.

In the end of the poem, the warden of light marries an old piece of string. I see in this odd coupling an evangelist and a church lady as connected to the tabernacle in the preceding line. The trumpet wanting water could be a Salvation Army band banging next to them.

I love the appearance of a trolleybarn in this poem. These repair stations, used for electric streetcars, are a symbol of urban decay in our country and are now in the hands of historic preservation societies. The buildings remain in the fragmented parts of cities left behind for urban sprawl. Throughout this poem, we are receiving fragmented images of urban life. Abandoned people and places, no longer accessible by any other means of transportation, are fixed together in these disjointed images. The girl is on a bike, but she is pedaling backwards, the man is in a car but he can’t get out of his garage. The boy, the mayor, the warden of light and the pregnant girl are left behind on ground overgrown with dandelions. These are landscapes void of ponies or the poetic language of Sanskrit.

The Wheelchair Butterfly

O sleepy city of reeling wheelchairs
where a mouse can commit suicide if he can

concentrate long enough
on the history book of rodents
in this underground town

of electrical wheelchairs!
The girl who is always pregnant and bruised
like a pear

rides her many-stickered bicycle
backward up the staircase
of the abandoned trolleybarn.

Yesterday was warm. Today a butterfly froze
in midair; and was plucked like a grape
by a child who swore he could take care

of it. O confident city where
the seeds of poppies pass for carfare,

where the ordinary hornets in a human’s heart
may slumber and snore, where bifocals bulge

in an orange garage of daydreams,
we wait in our loose attics for a new season

as if for an ice-cream truck.
An Indian pony crosses the plains

whispering Sanskrit prayers to a crater of fleas.
Honeysuckle says: I thought I could swim.

The Mayor is urinating on the wrong side
of the street! A dandelion sends off sparks:
beware your hair is locked!

Beware the trumpet wants a glass of water!
Beware a velvet tabernacle!

Beware the Warden of Light has married
an old piece of string!

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Portrait of Rilke by Paula Modersohn-Becker

Below are excerpts from letters by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). He is considered one of the most significant poets in the German language and is known for the Duino Elegies, Sonnets to Orpheus, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge and The Book of Hours

These 10 letters were written to a 19-year-old poet named Franz Xaver Krappus in the early 1900s and are collected in the book Letters to a Young Poet, published in 1934. Essentially Rilke says, If you wake up every morning thinking about being a writer, then you were meant to be a writer. He encourages the young man to look within to discover his destiny.

Letter One: There is only one way: Go within. Search for the cause, find the impetus that bids you write. Put it to this test: Does it stretch out its roots in the deepest place of your heart? Can you avow that you would die if you were forbidden to write? Dig deep into yourself for a true answer. And if it should ring its assent, if you can confidently meet this serious question with a simple, “I must,” then build your life upon it. It has become your necessity. Your life, in even the most mundane and least significant hour, must become a sign, a testimony to this urge.

Letter Two: Live awhile within these books. Learn of them, whatever seems worth the learning, but above all, love them. For this love you shall be requited a thousand and a thousand times over, no matter what turn your life will take. This love, I am sure of it, will weave itself through the tapestry of your evolving being as one of the most important threads of your experiences, your disappointments, and your joys.

Letter Three: Let me ask you right here to read as little as possible of aesthetic critiques. They are either prejudiced views that have become petrified and senseless in their hardened lifeless state, or they are clever word games. Their views gain approval today but not tomorrow. Works of art can be described as having an essence of eternal solitude and an understanding is attainable least of all by critique. Only love can grasp and hold them and can judge them fairly. When considering analysis, discussion, or presentation, listen to your inner self and your feelings every time.

Letter Four: Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.

Letter Five: There is much beauty here because there is much beauty everywhere. Unending streams of lively water flow over the old aqueducts in the large city. They dance in the city squares over white stone bowls and spread themselves out in wide roomy basins. They rustle by day and raise their voice to the night. Night here is grand, expansive, soft from the winds, and full of stars. And gardens are here, unforgettable avenues lined with trees.

Letter Six: Why don’t you think of him as the coming one, who has been at hand since eternity, the future one, the final fruit of a tree, with us as its leaves? What is keeping you from hurling his birth into evolving times and from living your life as though it were one painful beautiful in the history of a great pregnancy?

Letter Seven: To love is also good, for love is difficult. For one human being to love another is perhaps the must difficult task of all, the epitome, the ultimate test. It is that striving for which all other striving is merely preparation. For that reason young people — who are beginners in everything — cannot yet love; they do not know how to love. They must learn it. With their whole being, with all strengths enveloping their lonely, disquieted heart, they must learn to love — even while their heartbeat is quickening. However, the process of learning always involves time set aside for solitude. Then to love constantly and far into a lifespan is indeed aloneness, heightened and deepened aloneness for one who loves.

Letter Eight: And this is the reason the sadness passes: the something new within us, the thing that has joined us, has entered our heart, has gone into its innermost chamber and is no longer there either– it is already in the blood. And we do not find out what it was. One would easily make us believe that nothing happened; and yet we have been changed, as a house is changed when a guest has entered it.

Letter Nine: Your doubt can become a good attribute if you discipline it. It must become a knowing; it must become the critic. Ask it, as often as it wishes to spoil something, why something is ugly. Demand proof of it, test it, and you will find it perhaps perplexed and confused, perhaps also in protest. But don’t give in; demand arguments. Act with alertness and responsibility, each and every time, and the day will come when doubt will change from a destroyer to become one of your best fellow-workers, perhaps the wisest of all that have a part in building your life.

Letter Ten: Art also is only a way of life, and we can, no matter how we live, and without knowing it, prepare ourselves for it. With each encounter with truth one draws nearer to reaching communion with it, more so than those in unreal, half-artistic careers– by pretending proximity to are, they actually deny and attack the existence of all art. All those in the field of journalism and nearly all the critics do it, as well as three-fourths of those engaged in literature or who wish to call it that.

Here is letter one in completion:

Letter One
February 17, 1903

Dear Sir,

Your letter arrived just a few days ago. I want to thank you for the great confidence you have placed in me. That is all I can do. I cannot discuss your verses; for any attempt at criticism would be foreign to me. Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism : they always result in more or less fortunate misunderstandings. Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life.

With this note as a preface, may I just tell you that your verses have no style of their own, although they do have silent and hidden beginnings of something personal. I feel this most clearly in the last poem, “My Soul.” There, something of your own is trying to become word and melody. And in the lovely poem “To Leopardi” a kind of kinship with that great, solitary figure does perhaps appear. Nevertheless, the poems are not yet anything in themselves, not yet anything independent, even the last one and the one to Leopardi. Your kind letter, which accompanied them, managed to make clear to me various faults that I felt in reading your verses, though I am not able to name them specifically.

You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you – no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your while life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. Then come close to Nature. Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose. Don’t write love poems; avoid those forms that are too facile and ordinary: they are the hardest to work with, and it takes great, fully ripened power to create something individual where good, even glorious, traditions exist in abundance. So rescue yourself from these general themes and write about what your everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty – describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember. If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is not poverty and no poor, indifferent place. And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sounds – wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attentions to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance. – And if out of this turning-within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not. Nor will you try to interest magazines in these works: for you will see them as your dear natural possession, a piece of your life, a voice from it. A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it. So, dear Sir, I can’t give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create. Accept that answer, just as it is given to you, without trying to interpret it. Perhaps you will discover that you are called to be an artist. Then take the destiny upon yourself, and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what reward might come from outside. For the creator must be a world for himself and must find everything in himself and in Nature, to whom his whole life is devoted.

But after this descent into yourself and into your solitude, perhaps you will have to renounce becoming a poet (if, as I have said, one feels one could live without writing, then one shouldn’t write at all). Nevertheless, even then, this self-searching that I as of you will not have been for nothing. Your life will still find its own paths from there, and that they may be good, rich, and wide is what I wish for you, more than I can say.

What else can I tell you? It seems to me that everything has its proper emphasis; and finally I want to add just one more bit of advice: to keep growing, silently and earnestly, through your whole development; you couldn’t disturb it any more violently than by looking outside and waiting for outside answers to question that only your innermost feeling, in your quietest hour, can perhaps answer.

It was a pleasure for me to find in your letter the name of Professor Horacek; I have great reverence for that kind, learned man, and a gratitude that has lasted through the years. Will you please tell him how I feel; it is very good of him to still think of me, and I appreciate it.

The poems that you entrusted me with I am sending back to you. And I thank you once more for your questions and sincere trust, of which, by answering as honestly as I can, I have tried to make myself a little worthier than I, as a stranger, really am.

Yours very truly,
Rainer Marie Rilke

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Richard Hugo (1923-1982) was nominated for the Pulitzer in 1980
for his book of Selected Poems and in 1981 for The Right Madness on Skye.

Below is an excerpt from Hugo’s book The Triggering Town, a collection of lectures and essays on writing, published in 1979:

One mark of a beginner is his impulse to push language around to make it accommodate what he has already conceived to be the truth, or, in some cases, what he has already conceived to be the form. Even Auden, clever enough at times to make music conform to truth, was fond of quoting the woman in the Forster novel who said something like, “How do I know what I think until I see what I’ve said.”

A poem [a paragraph, an essay] can be said to have two subjects, the initiating or triggering subject, which starts the poem or “causes” the poem to be written, and the real or generated subject, which the poem comes to say or mean, and which is generated or discovered in the poem during the writing. That’s not quite right because it suggests that the poet recognizes the real subject. The poet may not be aware of what the real subject is but only have some instinctive feeling that the poem is done.

Young poets [writers] find it difficult to free themselves from the initiating subject. The poet puts down the title: “Autumn Rain.” He finds two or three good lines about Autumn Rain. Then things start to break down. He cannot find anything more to say about Autumn Rain so he starts making up things, he strains, he goes abstract, he starts telling us the meaning of what he has already said. The mistake he is making, of course, is that he feels obligated to go on talking about Autumn Rain, because that, he feels, is the subject. Well, it isn’t the subject. You don’t know what the subject is, and the moment you run out of things to say about Autumn Rain start talking about something else. In fact, it’s a good idea to talk about something else before you run out of things to say about Autumn Rain.

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