Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Fine Delight That Fathers Thought

Now that my second semester of grad school is well on its way, I feel relieved. I actually feel like I know what I’m doing this year, and random crying jags are a thing of the past (I hope). I feel like I can afford to work on my private projects more, and my confidence seems to be returning with the sunlight. Today there is lovely white snow and a brilliant blue sky. Obviously a perfect day for… blogging!

Grad school wasn’t the only thing that was keeping me from blogging very often last year. I’ve reached that point in my life where poetry is suddenly “for keeps,” and I haven’t been completely happy with my progress. Far too often, it seems, I go over things I wrote in high school and find them superior in feeling and ear to things I’ve written more recently (of course, there is also a lot of dreadfully serious gush… I have made some progress). I am a lot more educated and a little more experienced than I was then—but somehow I have less inspiration to work with.

There are plenty of professional prose writers who will tell you to grow up and stop believing in the Inspiration Fairy. And they are right. If you are a journalist or a freelancer or a screenwriter, you must keep writing at all costs or find another line of work. But when you are producing something as superfluous and ornamental as poetry (yes, I’m being facetious!), there are really no incentives beyond your own satisfaction to keep you on track. If you simply do not write the poetry, no one will notice. And this is only fair, because second-tier poetry is less satisfying than all but the silliest popular potboiler or big stupid summer action movie. People have been pointing this out at least since Horace. I myself would rather go see another Die Hard sequel than read another okay-ish ghazal in the current issue of Wing├ęd Zebras. (Er… well, at least the ghazal wouldn’t take several hours to read.) Anyway, my point is that I used to get very strong inspirations, and now I mostly don’t—which makes me loathe writing.

I have no idea where they came from, but I remember those startling inner weathers; the haze of meter that crept around things and turned the moon into a drum and the wine glass into an organ pipe; those urgent voices. I was spoiled, I guess; and if this “inspiration” was so important, why was it wasted on juvenilia? Sounds suspiciously like adolescent vapors to me. Except that I remember feeling it for the first time when I was nine, and it followed me faithfully through my first year at college. Now it’s over. Instead of being driven to scribbling by eerie, Apollonian compulsion, I am sitting down and saying, “Now I will write a sonnet. A Petrarchan sonnet. About… something.” I have been going on like this for two or three years now, and even though I get little zaps of muse every once in a great while, it’s hard to make myself care. I think it’s telling me to shake things up and do things differently; and I’m confident now that it will show me something new once I’ve slogged away on my own for awhile.

So I’m through with drifting along and feeling mildly depressed about my lack of awesome. I’m going to think seriously (and unseriously) about poetry. I’m going to write things and see what I come up with. I’m going to study Shakespeare more thoroughly than I ever have before, and I’m going to translate Virgil and Horace into English. (I’ve already started creating my own version of the Alcaic stanza in English.) Part of my problem is that I haven’t translated anything for a while. When I was in high school, I translated quite a lot of Spanish poetry. I’ve always had a certain knack, and I need to exercise that more. I’m helping to edit Dappled Things, and I’ve had a couple of poems published there, and two reviews… I think I’m sort of stuck with this poetry thing. At least it gives me an excuse for being weird and spacey: “Don’t mind Meredith. She writes poetry. Really quite harmless.”

Someday that motto at the bottom of this page is going to get an answer. This is my fond belief, and I have the rest of my life to find out if I’m right. I can "cease to be silent" just by talking, but it’s the uti chelidon part that comes only as a gift. To be like the swallow- to sing like a bird-that’s why we try. I think of those exquisite little things from the seventeenth century, frighteningly beautiful tunes like… Sweet rose whose hue, angry and brave, bids the rash gazer wipe his eye… or anything involving the words Ask me no more… and I could almost sing back. Then I wake up and I’m back where I started: practicing.

PS - Sheila is back with her series on "The Wreck of the Deutschland"! Check it out....


Sheila said...

This post is kind of sad ... but I know how you feel. The poetry-making mood that used to keep me in its grip so much of the time is now no more than an occasional visitor. But it does come, and if I'm dedicated enough I won't push it away to deal with "practical" things, but capture it, savor it, and maybe even write poetry about it. (Here's hoping!)

Definitely keep doing what you're doing: translating poetry, reading poetry, listening to words. And don't forget to take your peaceful moments (perhaps a reduction in these moments is a contributor to our muselessness when we get older) to look at beauty and let yourself be excited by it. I remember you used to take pictures of the loveliest things (like the mist among the pear trees at Christendom -- I still remember those pictures) ... I am sure the kind of careful eye that is needed produce those pictures will also help you SEE the world clearly enough to SPEAK it.

I'm talking as if I know all about it, but I haven't written a poem since last summer. :P But -- well -- I understand.

some guy on the street said...

It probably sounds fatuous, but mathematicians get the same trouble, from time to time, and (so I hear) even physicists of the R.P.Feynman variety. I've gone through such things myself (although it's hard to see to what ultimate result; I still feel tightly wrapped in raw silkthread, to be honest). Some people seem to think there's a need to run off and explore and see new strange horizons in search of inspiration; but I rather suspect that going home can be at least as good for setting one's heart free --- "there and back again", don't you know. Certainly in Feynman's case, a cafeteria stunt (not his own!) and a return to high-school level classical mechanics were as pebbles in the mountains that start an avalanche. (on the other hand, going home can be the occasion of unwieldy if much-needed sleeping ...

So be of good cheer, thou poems latin and spanish translating maiden, verse and stanza newly writing! For with God shall nothing be impossible; remember Sarah and Elizabeth and Mary! (orate)

dylan said...

I can sympathize wholeheartedly with this post. I've done nothing in poetry for the last seven years except produce several goofy examples of surrealism, and revise some much older, much better poems for possible publication. In fact, the poems of mine about which I feel most secure were written many, many years ago.

Twenty-five years ago, for me, writing poetry was a matter of life and death! I don't think that's much of an exaggeration, if it is one. I was ablaze with zeal for learning things about the craft, and for reading everything I could get my hands on! Nowadays, though, writing poetry seems less important, less necessary.

Perhaps it is better to write too little than to write too much. (I always tend to be over-indulgent to my own bad writing, seeing it as necessary "practice." But it really is better to work on something -- for many nights and weeks and months -- than to always be dashing off tripe, as I fear I've been doing lately.)

It's very hard to write good poetry. You have done so, and will most likely do so again. Keeping yourself immersed in the art, through reading and translating, can only be a good thing.


Dr. Thursday said...

I have let this matter stew for a little - alas, I wish I had time to respond well. But I don't so I have made a poor little something which you can read here.

Incidentally, if you're in a red-pen mood, you can have a chuckle at Illi Pueri Hardii. A few beers from now maybe I will try for a second capitulum. Hee hee!

Paul Stilwell said...

This post is very heartfelt, and I feel impelled to say something, though I'm no one to say it.

"...those startling inner weathers; the haze of meter that crept around things and turned the moon into a drum and the wine glass into an organ pipe; those urgent voices."

I've known these weathers in my own manner, and I know they were there because I was not filled with words.

Later, we get filled with words, and the poetry won't come out. We can go on reading, writing, and in your case also translating, but in the midst of all these the inspiration that comes always, always, always happens at the tip of "no words"; the poet gives up, in the last analysis, all claim on words. And that's precisely when the words come.

Again, it's not to say at all that we stop reading, writing, studying, etc.

I hope this doesn't come across as pretentious. Thanks for this post.

Marcello said...

Hello Meredith!

A very fine, and touchingly honest, post, and one to which I can relate, though in my case it hasn't been poetry I've fretted about but rather the problem of producing effective (mostly prose) writing in general (well, I did write that great--I think?--sonnet for my Mom when I was 16, and then there were all those haiku...). There's just no way to "can" inspiration, and I certainly can relate also to mild depression at one's (perceived, anyway) lack of awesomeness.

Anyway, I commend you for your new determination to try different avenues for inspiration. The combination of serious and unserious thought is, I think, quite important (leave it to me to focus on the unserious). Your translation projects sound exciting! I'd love to see the Alcaic stanza you are working on some time.

I also found your point about the motto quite poignant: it reminds me a little bit of Anthony DeMello's The Song of the Bird (the ending especially). There's such grace and nobility in the idea of waiting and fervently believing that one day all the obstacles in one's path will finally fall away. I treasure a similar hope (though again in my case my "singing" isn't in verse), and pray your hope will not be in vain.

Valeto, o optima poeta, fortique animo esto! M

PS Have you ever seen Eliot's drafts of the Wasteland, with Pound's annotations and corrections? WOW.

PPS Dr. Thursday: the Latin Hardy Boys translation was great. The errors only improved it! I am definitely looking forward to some more. As for your "poor little something"....

Marcello said...

[oops, got cut off]: as for your "poor little something", color me impressed... to the point of speechlessness. M

Meredith said...

Thank you all for your kind replies! The post may have been a little sad, but I felt much better after writing it, and I hope that reading it may have had a similarly cathartic effect.

Sheila: it's so true that our responsibilities hinder our writing when we get older. Experience adds depth, but when you're worrying about other things it's harder to worry about words. But if words start coming, don't feel guilty for making room and time for them! Beauty is always practical.

I'm smiling, remembering those pear trees. I'm glad you remember them. (Not that I thought you had forgotten...!) Those were beautiful days.

someguy: it doesn't sound fatuous at all! Math and poetry are related. I'm as far from being a mathematician as I am from being an astronaut; but from what I can tell, the love of speculation and beauty is the same. And sometimes it is those small things that make for breakthroughs. A cafeteria stunt for math, a nursery rhyme for poetry, maybe.

Dylan: I was curious to see what you would say. We scribblers need to stick together! (says the girl who cheers on William Logan whenever he savages someone. >:-) ) "Goofy surrealism" is a little too self-deprecating, if you ask me. You've written a lot lately that has been witty, quirky, and charming. We could use more of that.

I wonder why it is that we are most *passionate* about poetry when we are high-schoolers and starry-eyed undergrads? People admit it ruefully, sometimes bitterly, but no one seems to have a real theory about it. I don't think the fall-off in "passion" is actually that important, though. Everyone says it happened to them - even the greats.

In her snooded garment and bare feet,
All ringleted with assonance and woodnotes,
The poet's dream stole over him like sunlight,
And passed into the tenebrous thickets.

- Heaney, 'Alphabets'

There's nothing like being 16 and a poet! Wheeeeee! ^_^

But I've found that the poems I felt most secure about weren't always my best... and some that I felt to be slightly frigid turned out to be the most moving to readers. The last poem I published in DT, "Roman April," was one such poem. Plain, hard work does make a difference, and that poem started out as a make-work project. I don't know of any good poet who did without drudgery. Have you read the 80% (90%?) of Dylan Thomas's work that isn't immortal? Slush and strangeness by the truckload.

(You're making us madly curious about those "much better" poems, you know.)

Seraphic Spouse said...

Sorry it's been rough, Meredith.

Apparently a lot of people struggle with depression in grad school... I wonder why. Perhaps grad school culture needs a massive overhaul.

Meredith said...

(Okay, slowly getting around to my next reply...)

Dr. Thursday, you are awesome. "Oh Meredith, drink wine or nibble cheese!" Hahaha! I am totally going to buy myself some cheese today and do just that. I love ballades. Thank you.

As for the Pueri Hardii, I'm with Marcello: the errors only make it more hilarious. It's like something a Roman Nigel Molesworth would come up with.

Paul: I'm glad you found my post worthwhile. I don't know if I've experienced the same state of "no words," but I've certainly had the experience of coming up with a rhythm before I came up with words, and feeling, even after I wrote the poem, that there was a tune meant to go with the words which I would never hear. Also, when we cram ourselves with great literature and foreign languages and new experiences, we have to spend a while digesting it all, and good poetry isn't going to come out of that right away. It's the essence of inspiration that it's surprising, and that we never could have brute-forced it out of all the possible word-combinations.

Marcello: I so agree about the need to be both serious and unserious! The Institute program is helping me do just that.

I will send you the Horace translation when I am done with it. Here's a preview, from the first stanza:

See how the snow sets, shadowing deep around
White mount Soracte, groaning on loaded pines

It's hard but fun, forcing my mind to think in these rhythms!

What I kind of accepted at last, after writing this post, was Dylan's unwelcome truth: "It's very hard to write good poetry." Writing is freaking hard! There's no way around it. So keep after it, and throw everything you've got at the problem until something sticks. Prayers coming your way. Ut praemium auferas.

(I've never heard of Anthony DeMello... eek! Sudden book craving! I will have to check him out.

I haven't actually seen the "Waste Land" drafts, although I've read some of the dreadful stuff that was cut. Can you look at them on the internet?)

Marcello said...

Hey Meredith,

Funny you say that the Institute in particular helps you with combining serious and unserious. I can think of a number of unwittingly funny Latin gaffes for which I became (in)famous in Terry's classes... like the time when I was reading aloud a passage from the Adelphoe of Terence, where the grouchy character rants, paratragically:

o caelum, o terra, o maria Neptuni!

Sure enough, when I got to "maria," I pronounced it as though it were "Maria" with the accent on the i. This was funny for everyone in the class, the humor compounded by the fact that they all knew I was Catholic. Terry said--sardonically--something like, "Ah, id est aliquid aliud..."

Yes, so there's plenty of room for "unserious" in the Institute, as you can see. Thanks for the gustatio of your translation of the Soracte ode: very nice. I liked the detail about the "groaning pines" in particular: a fine bit of interpretation on your part.

I can see you are already familiar with the deletions and the corrections of the Wasteland. I didn't find it online, other than the pages you can look at on Amazon of the Facsimile edition put out by Eliot's widow.

Never *heard* of DeMello?! O caelum, etc! ;) He was a Jesuit priest who had a knack for drawing on many different religious traditions in order to make effective points about the spiritual life. His book Awareness is good; the Song of the Bird is a beautiful treasury of useful spiritual stories from all over the world. I have always found the final story of his book particularly moving (though a lot of them are great). Something about what you were saying reminded me of it. Check it out, if you like. It's called "Ignatius of Loyola" and can be found in a couple of places on the internet if you just search for DeMello, the Song of the Bird, and "Ignatius of Loyola." But, again, I unreservedly recommend the whole book, particularly to a poet of strong faith.

Thanks for the prayers and encouragement. I will pray for you (and your lovely readers) as well. Please pray for me tomorrow in particular, if you remember, b/c I am having my proposal defense. Eeek! indeed!

Ut in Christo oppido bene ac pancratice valeas!

Marcello said...

PS Oh, hey, Seraphic Spouse is here! Cool. I enjoy your blogs, btw; I make a point of recommending them to fellow (trying to be seraphically) singles. Agreed on Grad School culture needing a massive overhaul. Can I sign on for the revolution? ;)