Leaping Poetry by Robert Bly

Note: I’m out of pocket during my final residency period at school. I love your comments! But it may take me several days or a week or more to respond.

I read this little collection of poems and essays for Diane Gilliam’s seminar, “As If the Top of My Head Were Taken Off: Getting More Energy Into Our Poems.” Robert Bly offers his own essays on what he believes poetry should be: that poems should leap, not plod, that they should make wild associations, that they should answer to our animal instincts. He argues that in the Christian world and particularly in “America” (by which I surmise he really means the United States), we have gotten too safe, gotten away from the leap. Alongside his own essays, Bly collects poems he admires (including one of his own), to illustrate his points.

I enjoyed many of the poems, and I found Bly’s commentary interesting, but often problematic. (Here’s where I acknowledge that this book was originally published in 1972, so we can choose to make certain allowances, if we’re so inclined.) For one thing, his assessment of contemporary poetry (more than a generation ago now) is very much defined by national borders. French poets are good; Spanish poets are “much greater”; American poets have “faltered” (in the 1940s and 50s), and are now turning to the South Americans (parse that). I can allow that there is such a thing as a national “school” of poetry or of thought, although I suspect that’s less and less true in the age of swift international communication – which is quite a bit different from 1972, of course, and is still limited by language – one of Bly’s great concerns is that not enough fine Spanish-language poetry has been translated into English (when he says “Spanish,” does he mean coming from Spain? or merely Spanish-language? how concerning). But I think to say that Spanish poets are better than French poets are better than American poets is disturbingly close to racism, or nationalism. It caused me to stumble several times. Was this okay in 1972?

Also, I find myself exasperated that Bly has collected 32 poems (and 2 epigraphs) here, and 31 of those poems (and both epigraphs) were written by men. (Thank you, Marguerite Young, for representing half the world.) I assume that I’m to conclude from this that women just about cannot write good poetry at all… I know, 1970s, but still I’m disgruntled.

As a much smaller point, I wondered at the assertion that “the desert contains almost no mammal images.” This is in the course of a very interesting essay about the “three brains” (reptile, mammal, and ‘new’), and meditation, and accessing different parts of ourselves. This essay was the part of the whole book that I most engaged with. He sets up a desired move from reptile brain to new brain, through the mammal brain, necessitating a journey to “the forest” (he uses quotation marks) and finally to the desert, where an absence of “mammal images” lets us then move to the new brain. Well, I’m intrigued, if not sold. With those quotation marks, “the forest” becomes more archetypal than literal, perhaps, and I can permit that a similarly archetypal desert has fewer mammals than an archetypal forest. But as a lover of a very real desert in particular (that has mammals in it), I stumbled, again.

Leaping Poetry is, at least, an interesting book to engage (and possibly argue) with. I haven’t even touched on his theories of poetry, since I always feel underqualified. As I say every semester about the challenging readings I’m assigned for seminars, I’m looking forward to what Diane Gilliam does with this in her class. I’m sure it will be wonderful.

Rating: 5 stains on a handkerchief.

my favorite craft books

As we approach the time of year when I usually do lists, I was inspired to add this one, when a dear friend from my MFA program asked me for craft book recommendations in particular. (Abby is usually a fiction writer but is entering her cross-genre semester in nonfiction, so a special emphasis there.) Another dear friend from my MFA program, Okey, used to enjoy this blog and said he especially looked here for craft recommendations. (We lost Okey after this past summer’s residency, unexpectedly, and we are all still reeling. If you haven’t already, please consider this scholarship in his name. It’s a great cause in the name of diversity and inclusivity.)

So. Here’s a list in two tiers, followed by a link to all the craft books I’ve read. Keep in mind that these are the books that have worked best for me, and your mileage may vary. I put a * next to the ones for nonfiction in particular, for Abby and for anyone else who may be interested.

Very favorites, in no particular order:

Well loved, in no particular order:

And, click here to see all books with this tag, which will include titles not listed here.

Thanks for stopping by, as always. Was this list helpful for you? Is there another list you’d like to see me work on? (In the past I’ve done movies, children’s books, audio favorites, science books, LGBTQ…) Let me know, and maybe I’ll put one together!

The Art of Mystery: The Search for Questions by Maud Casey

In Chekhov’s famous letter to a friend, he wrote, “You are right to demand that an author take conscious stock of what he is doing, but you are confusing two concepts: answering the questions and formulating them correctly. Only the latter is required of an author.”

I have been looking forward to Maud Casey’s The Art of Mystery, because it sounds like it addresses something I like in the writing I admire, and something I hope to do myself. I have thought of it more as ambiguity, or subtlety, than mystery; but I think we’re talking about the same thing. As in that perfect Chekhov quotation above, it’s about posing interesting questions and exploring them, not about having all the answers. If we provide too many details, we take away the reader’s chance to use her own imagination or her own experiences to fill out the story, to make it her own. It is questions, not answers, that are a part of the universal experience, and that’s what makes really good literature so rewarding.

Casey’s focus is on fiction writing, but I didn’t find that it mattered much. She studies a number of novels and short stories (relatively few of which I’d read, but it was fine) for their mystery. She praises Paul Yoon’s Snow Hunters, for example, for its offstage gestures: the protagonist makes reference to a castle, forests, high canopies, a river, none of which are explained. “The gesture toward everything that we don’t know about [that protagonist] doesn’t frustrate; rather, it intrigues.” And I found myself asking the question, why does this work when he does it? The rest of us would be scolded for the same: references to details nowhere in our own stories. But then comes the answer: “In every case… it’s useful to ask, What is the effect of the withholding? Does it yield something generative in relation to character? Or is it an effort to drum up surface-level suspense, whose effect may be experienced as exactly that, effortful, and cosmetic, rather than as true dramatic tension?” Twenty-six pages later, again: “It’s a question of effect. Is a bizarre character, and the mystery surrounding that character, being generated for look-at-me-Ma show, or is it doing something that leads to generative mystery?” (I confess I enjoyed “look-at-me-Ma show.”) See the repeated words: we are looking for effect; our goal is generative mystery. (That last is the phrase Jessie used in recommending this book.) The bulk of The Art of Mystery is devoted to explicating these concepts with lots of good examples (that make me want to read lots of books). For this review, I’m content to have named them.

Like so many significant lightbulb moments in studying the craft of writing, this one seems obvious in hindsight. The writer must know what she’s trying to do; she must work with intention; and she must consider the effect of the choices she makes. Mystery for its own sake is at best a cute trick, liable to frustrate the reader. Generative mystery has a job to do. Know which is which.

Rating: 7 cataracts.

The Art of Syntax by Ellen Bryant Voigt

I continue to have mixed reactions to The Art of series from Graywolf (a publisher I love). (See History, Subtext, Description; I gave up on Donald Revell’s The Art of Attention without reviewing it.) Voigt’s The Art of Syntax was interesting, and not without its high points for me. But a very detailed focus on poetry made it, unsurprising, less accessible for this particular reader than it might have been.

Much of the book is devoted to metric feet and uses poetry terms that I am still learning. There is a glossary, to help us keep our trochees and tercets straight, our spondees and Pyrrhic feet, and I referred to it repeatedly, but I think I still need the beginner course. Voigt parses a number of specific poems (she also uses the verb ‘parse’ in a specific way I was not familiar with); and I enjoyed these: Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose”, Donald Justice’s “To the Hawks,” Philipi Larkin’s “Cut Grass,” and D.H. Lawrence’s “Snake,” among others. (I love the naturalist theme of those titles! although “the Hawks” are figurative ones.) But – and I suppose this betrays my interests – I wish I’d learned more about the words themselves and their meanings, and spent less time on feet and meter and syllables. My brain just doesn’t have great patience for counting these, which perhaps is why Jessie wanted me to read this book. Sigh. I don’t know that I got everything out of it that I should have. (I feel like a broken record when writing about poetry.)

I ended up being reminded of Suzanne Paola’s excellent teaching (at Western Washington University) on syntax and language (particularly Germanic vs. Latinate words – a topic Voigt touches on briefly). Suzanne was much more prose-focused, and made much more sense to me at the time. I wish I had access to some of her teaching. I do still have this link she shared with us, which I appreciate for its recognition of concepts as well as its terms naming them. A handful of these (like parataxis and hypotaxis) appeared in Voigt, like old friends.

In the end, the most useful nuts-and-bolt craft tip I distilled out of this book was: vary your sentence lengths! which, duh; but it bears reminding. Beyond that, the music in the line – rhythm and rhyme – is something I recognize and admire and want for my own work, but the minutia of it eludes me at this point. Whatever of it that I have now comes by instinct, not conscious design, and certainly not counting of feet. I shall keep on exposing myself to discussions like this and hope it sinks in. Another central idea of Voigt’s is the importance of surprise, not the surprise of content (which the reader will be aware of) but the surprise of word order or syntax, that the reader may remain unaware of as the source of that special something in a given line.

They are good lessons. Despite my continuing trouble with this series, I’m looking forward to Maud Casey’s The Art of Mystery, so stay tuned for that review.

Rating: 6 perseverations.

Writing the Personal Essay

Hey folks, another quick digression here (and bonus Saturday post!). I didn’t want anyone to miss a great opportunity. Creative Nonfiction‘s online classes are about to get a great boost, when Matt Randal O’Wain teaches an upcoming section of “Writing the Personal Essay.” Matt is a visiting faculty member with my MFA program this semester, which means I got to study with him at this recent residency, and I was really pleased to get to know him. He’s a great guy, personable and thoughtful and considerate and we share some interests; more importantly for these purposes, he’s also a well-read, thoughtful, insightful teacher. Register here! This Monday is your last day to get discounted registration for this course, and I have a coupon code to share with you to get an additional $50 off! I’m not sure I should post that here, but drop me a line at julia@pagesofjulia.com and I will get you the code asap.

If you have any questions about CNF’s courses, or about Matt, also drop me a line or comment here and I’d be glad to share what I can.

Thanks for reading. Back to your weekend.

What It Is by Lynda Barry

This is an interesting piece. Coffee-table-sized, all done in graphic format, and for a number of pages I wasn’t sure there was anything like a narrative here. Four pages of the first 24 involve narrative storytelling; the rest are collage, often with text in comic-style boxes, but not necessarily linear or related text.

None of this is un-fun, but it’s not what I was expecting. The drawing style is fun and quirky and consistent enough throughout that I gradually got to know the artist; and the collage, which involves materials other than Barry’s own creations, is an interesting way to look at the world and her vision, too. There are nearly limitless possibilities to interpret text that’s been all jumbled up together. I kind of enjoyed that. But my narrative-driven, literal, logical-progression-type mind–the mind that struggles with poetry–missed having a thread to grab onto.

There is a narrative, as it turns out. It starts in earnest on page 25. It comes and goes, interspersed with the collage-pages, which come to hold together a bit more as the narrative and themes become clearer.

Lynda Barry tells the story of her childhood, with its devotion to imagination and play, and her childhood delight in stories and pictures, and then the adolescence that stole these delights, chiefly when two questions came to her that refused to leave again. The questions are, is this good? and does this suck? She continues on, to show us how a certain art teacher in college helped her find her own way, release those outside considerations (at least temporarily; they do creep back in) and find the joy and the imagination and the inspiration again.

The latter third of the book is more craft book or how-to (although keeping the graphic format; this is my first graphic craft book!), with plenty of exercises, and a few whimsical characters to help us along. Whimsy does not mean the tone is light, however. Barry is serious about the difficulties of artistic work (writing, drawing, or otherwise), those two questions always threatening to intrude again.

It’s a different take than I’m used to; and I am not personally big on exercises. But it was visually very interesting, and good practice for the brain to take on something different. I respect Barry’s multiple talents, and I appreciate her view on what it takes to make art, and her idea that we tap into something a bit unconscious, or a different consciousness, to do it. I’m intrigued.

Rating: 6 sea monsters.

Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir by Beth Kephart

This craft book has things in common with both Family Trouble and Fearless Confessions. Like the former, it addresses in part the difficulties in writing about real people, especially those we love. Like the latter, it takes a certain rah-rah tone, encouraging aspiring writers to go for it, you can do it, and don’t be bothered by all those nasty critics disparaging the genre that is memoir. I don’t mean to condescend, and I appreciate the support that Silverman and Kephart offer. It is a tiny bit peppier in tone than my personal preference would call for. But it’s valid support that I need and appreciate, and it’s backed up by both writing chops (publications) and a secure knowledge of craft.

So this is not a *perfect* book, for me, but a very good one. I really enjoyed Kephart’s boiling-over enthusiasm for the genre, and I’m inspired by her apparently wild success as (in her own words) an “entirely unschooled” writer. I love her annotated appendix of memoirs to read, categorized by subject (grief, childhood, “unwell,” “mothers, fathers, children,” and more): there are so many such lists out there, but I eat them up every time, looking out for the title that I’ve never encountered before (and there were several here!), for the different perspective. Kephart does a good job, introducing this appendix, of pointing out the subjectivity of such lists, the value a book may hold for one reader/writer and not for another, and the value in a book a reader doesn’t love.* Then she goes ahead and lists–with some discussion/description, which is great. Here, the title I picked up on was Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone by Mary Morris. I went ahead and ordered myself a copy on Biblio.

In the body of the book, Kephart offers discussions of what memoir is and what it is not (not revenge, not tone-deaf, not therapy, but rather making the “me” work for “us,” making one’s story universal). A number of short chapters offer prompts, or reminders to include weather, place, food, and sensory detail. Final thoughts on how to turn scraps of writing into a book; and exhortations to always work from and toward empathy, to not make stuff up. I appreciate that one of the central pillars of memoir writing, for Kephart, is the idea of making a story speak to the human condition. That my story is not interesting because of its particular, but becomes interesting when I make the unique universal, make the personal stand in for shared experience, draw conclusions, find meaning. (See Gornick’s The Situation and the Story–though it’s not my favorite articulation of this idea, Kephart appreciates it.)

There is much to love here, especially for hesitant writers new to memoir, or those without the benefit of an MFA program–though I am in a program I love and still found lots to appreciate!

Rating: 7 porcelain dogs.

*I am totally tickled when she writes, “You will blog about my inevitable injustice,” when I the reader find my favorite memoir left off her list. Here I am, blogging! But she listed several I love, by Kimmel, Bechdel, and Bragg; Dillard, Williams, Offutt; titles I haven’t read but have faith in by Sanders and Thomas; craft books by Klaus, King, Lamott; and Doty’s Heaven’s Coast, which I am anxious to get to. Sometimes she chose my second-favorite title by a given author. But I am certainly not here to blog about any injustices, no.

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