mark twain

2 posts

Returning to the Scene of the Crime


We readers play by certain rules. Some happily abandon books that don’t interest them after (fill in the blank) pages, others plow on to the end no matter what. Some only read the genres they love like comfort food on a cold winter’s night, others force themselves to sample a wider variety of styles. And some refuse to go back and reread a book they cherished as a child or teen, while others venture where angels fear to tread.

I thought of this recently while reading a review of D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. As a teenager, I thought Lawrence was great stuff and read a bunch of his books. He lived on the edge, it seemed, where sexuality was always under the surface of his characters’ lives (and, in some cases, out in the open). To an adolescent of literary bent, what could be better than that?

Now, however, questions abound. Was my reading pleasure more about Lawrence’s talent or more about me, age 14? There is one way to find out: reread one of his books as an adult, umpteen decades later. As is true with many things, there is an argument for and against such a decision.

For: I might find something new in Lawrence’s book, something I could not possibly have noticed or enjoyed in my callow youth with half the brain I claim to operate now.

Against: I might destroy another icon of my youth. You know, read it and wonder what was wrong with this punk reader known as “me.” It’s almost a bullying scenario–the seasoned reader scoffing at the little guy, dismissing his “reader’s perspective” as unworthy, as laughable even. And just like that, a happy memory from the 70s would become a relic of history. No trace left. Just the hint of a smoldering foundation, maybe.

Although I don’t do it often, I have reread childhood literary icons with good results. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for instance. I first read it as an adventure tale hampered by some slow stretches. Many decades later I came back, catching all the racial nuances and controversies (though the last half of the book didn’t hold up as much as the first).

Then there’s The Catcher in the Rye. I thought for sure this old chestnut, with it abuse of the word of the word “phony,” would burn in the fires of cynicism, especially given the fraught character of Holden, a kid many modern teens dismiss as “a whiner.”

But the center held. I appreciated Salinger’s choice of New York City, of the Christmas season, for his commentary on what Twain might have called “the damned human race.” I even forgave him the precociousness of little sister Phoebe. Precocious characters and I are a bad mix, typically, but if ever a character needed a foil, it would be Holden Caulfield.

So, it’s a draw. A book-by-book decision. To reread or not? Maybe the bottom line is yes and no. Reread some and keep others as souvenirs of the lad I once was. Memory plays tricks, yes, and often sifts out the bad––but no harm, no foul, right?

Every childhood deserves a museum with a few precious artifacts behind glass or a red felt rope.

Ideal Conditions for Writing? Hear Ye, Hear Ye!

What are ideal conditions for writing? Far be it for me to offer advice, but since you didn’t ask, I’ll relent.

First of all, it is a myth that poetry, unlike it’s more verbose cousins (novels, plays, essays) is best written on paper. Sure, many famous poets wax poetic (what else?) about blue ink on long yellow legal pad, but me, I find the blizzard-like beauty of Word-.docx white just as enticing. Why? To preserve erasers. Nothing gets revised as many ways to Sunday as a poem suffering birthing pains. The confetti of eraser sheddings gets bothersome.

Writing position? As the Poles say, in their poetic way, on your dupa. (If you’re Polish and notice a misspelling, please forgive me.) I love Mark Twain, but never understood his elderly habit of writing in bed. Isn’t there a famous blues song, after all, called “Don’t Write in Bed”? (Ear worm works its way into my cochlea.)

Writing atmosphere? We cannot control the high and low pressure systems the Weather Gods (and their inept interpreters — read: meteorologists — on TV) send our way, but we can adjust ambience. For me, poetry is best written to classical music. Reason? The aforementioned ear worm. It doesn’t turn and do its night crawl when the music lacks lyrics.

Music with lyrics is like someone reading over your shoulder. Or worse, someone whispering another man’s poem in your ear while you are trying to compose your own. Have you ever tried to recall a song while another is playing? It puts the caco- in cacophony, let me tell you.

Some of my favorites? I love the Estonian wonder, Arvo Pärt, and his tintinnabulation. Kind of like Poe’s bells, bells, bells, only Pärt does it with more than bells. Like Bach, he’s also fond of repetition. Wave upon wave of musical refrain and echo and repetition. Are these not musical tools in the poet’s toolbox, too?

When Pärt is not around, I go with Johann Sebastian himself. Or Sibelius, whose music has a nice Finnish to it (don’t groan–the Bard is fond of puns, too, and no one groans).

Finally, before I sit down to classical music at the word processor and begin to write, I like to read good poetry for at least a half hour. Wonderful word play by masters sets the tone. Inspires. Fools you into saying, “Shoot. I can do that!” And, make no mistake, this conceit must be present, even if it is a wild conceit.

Results may vary, as they say. As will definitions of “ideal.” As long as you have some, that’s all. As long as you could write this column, too.