William Wordsworth

2 posts

Pulitzer Pablum and Other Curiosities

pulitzer

Hello, Ruby Tuesday. Special, apparently, to Mick Jagger, but for me, just another day of the week to wonder, whine, and wax ineloquent about this wonderful world we share through no choice of our own. (Please, though. Don’t blame Mom and Dad. They were young and restless, too, at one time!)

  • Is it me, or do award shows like the Oscars begin to verge on self-parody more and more?
  • March Madness is here! Unfortunately for NCAA basketball, the “madness” is more about corruption and greed than about zone defense and buzzer beaters. Bracket that.
  • I’ve loved getting to know Marie Howe’s poetry in recent weeks, but looking at her author photo makes me worry about the weight of her hair. What some of the receding-hairline crowd would do for some of that profusion!
  • Since writing about listening at poetry readings on these pages, I have heard from more and more people (even poets!) admitting that they often don’t fully grasp what’s being read to them, either. “Listen my children, and you shall hear…,” is all I can say. Well, actually, I can say a lot more than that, as you can see…
  • Ever notice how some poetry terms refuse to stick? Dactyls and litotes and haibuns (oh, my!). Like Teflon, I fear. Sliding off the cerebellum every time.
  • Best poet’s name of all time? I nominate William Wordsworth.
  • Did you know that Ernest Hemingway’s first literary efforts were in the field of poetry? It didn’t go so well, but credit where credit’s due: some men know when to retreat.
  • In reading William H. Gass’s essay, “Pulitzer: The People’s Prize,” I came across these amusing quotes: “The Pulitzer Prize in fiction takes dead aim at mediocrity and almost never misses…,” “Not only will [judges] be partisans of their own tastes–that’s natural–each will be implicitly asked to represent their region, race, or sex…,” “While the Pulitzer Prize for poetry has none of the esteem that the Bollingen conveys, it has been spared fiction’s shame, partly, I think, because there is no appreciable audience at all for poetry, consequently no reader whose moral and mental welfare the judges must consider their prizewinning poems to improve.”
  • Rest assured, when Gass uses “People’s” as an adjective, he means it as a pejorative.
  • While we’re on classical Gass and his opinions (the man does not lack!), he despises the present tense. (Should I say he despised the present tense?) Many poets, on the other hand, seem to love it as much as the dish did the spoon (hey diddle, diddle).
  • March, the Season of Mud (or “mudluscious,” as edward estlin might say), gives us but one holiday: St. Patrick’s Day. Call the famous beer mix a “black and tan” at your own risk (at least in Ireland). Half and half, that’s called!
  • And I have no idea what “Erin Go Bragh!” means, but I do know this much about the 17th: If you’re not Irish, fake it.
  • Enya: Flash in the pan, or talent?
  • The world is divided into two kinds of poetry lovers: Those who see Rupi Kaur as a “gateway poet” leading our youth to better things, and those who see Rupi Kaur as a gateway (in need of oil).
  • Credit where it’s due: Some “Instagram Poets” (anything like the “Lake Poets”?) are making more hay than their more conventionally-published brethren (ahem).
  • I love the word “brethren.” I like it’s sound: “Brethren.”
  • I am dabbling in Inscape, a meditation app that I borrowed my wife’s iPad to use (as I have no cellphone). The lady who leads you through your meditative practice has a lovely voice (making her my brethren), a lovely accent (though I can’t place the country), and a peculiar way of saying “nose” (like it’s the plural of “no”).
  • For those keeping score, so far it’s Monkey Mind 56, Me 0.
  • Goodreads, Amazon’s latest glom, recently switched its Goodreads Giveaway program for authors from free to $119 a shot (make that $599 for a “premium Giveaway,” because the word “premium” is expensive). Each GR author sees an “Authors & Advertisers” blog on his or her Author Dashboard. And Goodreads invites comments to these blog entries, of course — except for posts about the Goodreads Giveaway program. Comments are mysteriously closed on those posts.
  • Amazon, champions of freedom of speech! (Care for a little verbal irony with your coffee this morning?)
  • A good day’s reading, suggested dosage one poem each: Galway Kinnell, Jane Kenyon, Jack Gilbert, Robert Frost, Wislawa Szymborska, Zbigniew Herbert, Marie Howe, Jane Hirshfield,  James Wright, and Tony Hoagland. With plenty of liquids and lots of bedrest.
  • I’m never quite ready for the surprise question: “Name your favorite poem.” Even if you tell me in advance.
  • Best headline seen the past month, from Charles M. Blow of the New York Times: “America Is a Gun.”
  • I recall the line “Pass, crow…” from a poem, but cannot recall the poem itself. That doesn’t stop me from talking to the birds in question, occasionally: “Pass, crow,” I say. They laugh in their crow kind of way.
  • I had to look up “pablum” for the headline of this post. Just to make sure. You know. Teflon again. But I had it right. “Trite, insipid, simplistic writing.” First drafts, in other words.

Contrasts: Making Juxtaposition Work for You

phaethon

But two days ago I sat in front of the heat vent, a habit from childhood, reading a collection of Charles Simic poems. At the time, I missed the contrast of a nostalgic pastime (the heat passing between shirt and back) and a more modern, tongue-in-cheek experience (Simic’s cool, savvy verse), but now the weather itself has brought the point home.

Mid-May, and Wednesday the temperature was in the high 80s Fahrenheit. Thursday did one better, topping the 90s, setting records around New England’s little towns and its big city of Boston, which hit 95 degrees, breaking a 1936 record of 91.

One minute the gods consist of manufactured warmth rising from a heat register, the next they’re the wheels of Phaethon throwing sparks of heat and humidity that reach the ground, burning between skin and collar. Phaethon, as you’ll recall, took the keys to Daddy’s chariot before he was ready to drive. Kind of like July weather carjacking May — with dire results.

This extraordinary heat brought on more contrasts still: The same people at work who complained just last week about the unseasonably cool weather now started complaining just as vociferously about unseasonable warmth.

Meaning: The house furnace is churning one moment, the house air conditioning is churning but a few days later. Contrasts. As a catalyst, they make it happen.

In writing and poetry, contrasts always make stronger points than they ever could were only one side of the odd couple being described. I found a perfect example of this in the collected poems of Simic I was reading in front of the heat vent:

My Weariness of Epic Proportions

I like it when
Achilles
Gets killed
And even his buddy Patroclus–
And that hothead Hector–
And the whole Greek and Trojan
Jeunesse dorée
Is more or less
Expertly slaughtered
So there’s finally
Peace and quiet
(The gods having momentarily
Shut up)
One can hear
A bird sing
And a daughter ask her mother
Whether she can go to the well
And of course she can
By that lovely little path
That winds through
The olive orchard

Nota bene: jeunesse dorée (literally: “gilded youth”) is French for “wealthy, stylish, sophisticated young people”

Here Simic gives us an effective juxtaposition between Greek gods and heroes and the everyday lives of ordinary people like you and me. Enough already with Homer and his hotheaded heroes slashing and slaying, conquering and crowing! A little girl wants to go to the well. When her mother grants permission (how sweet of the girl to ask first!), the daughter chooses a lovely path that winds through an olive orchard. Can you inhale the lovely, warm smell of olives right now? Can you hear the leaves moving softly to the wind?

And pardon my hubris, but isn’t that what it’s all about? Isn’t that what matters in life–the little things? If you want such simplicity to loom large, park it next to something epic. Epically tiresome. See if your weariness doesn’t get more bang for its buck.

Of course a modern reader of this poem cannot help but compare Greek and Trojan heroes to headline-hogging politicians. Don’t they incite your weariness to epic proportions? Don’t you take refuge by turning off news sources and focusing on the simple, everyday things and people you love?

What a contrast the songs of the spring-morning mockingbird make with presidents and Congressmen, for instance. As Wordsworth once said: “Come, hear the woodland linnet… There’s more of wisdom in it.”

Moral of the story: As a writer and a poet, look to contrasts early and often. Singly, they may be strong, but side-by-side, they are much, much stronger.