Sunday, February 28, 2010


Anthology means "bouquet" in Greek. So about three or four years ago or so, I put together my own anthology in an attempt to marry the two meanings. I'll be posting throughout Lent. Beginning with the prologue...

Anthology - for Elizabeth


In the beginning, God created the heavens, and the earth...

Carolus Linneaus was the king of names,
Another Adam giving his assent
Reality in the organized aims
Of science. Studiously, his mind would plant
Lineages with grafted stems of Latin,
Unearthing meaning found in roots of Greek.
Still, signal fragments of that first garden
(Lost in less time than the holy week
In time’s own making)leave us haunted names:
Nomenclature’s power may plant a tree
And reason’s calling may adore the bloom –
Enduring death, may life be left some room
Upon these lines to let love’s mystery
Spring a testament of wholly scriptured rhymes.

Friday, February 19, 2010

"Rent Your Hearts and Not Your Garments"

This seems as good a way to dive into Lent as any - from St. Cyprian's 'The Lapsed." He was speaking specifically about those who have committed apostasy - but in a certain sense it can apply equally to all who reject Christ through sin. The detail in his writing is exquisite - and draws out Paul's injunction to wear Christ as the only fashion for all seasons. The drawing out of this figure, of course, is fitting for a teacher of rhetoric. As a fascinating side note, his life mirrors St. Augustine's.

Let each one, I entreat you, brethren, confess his confess his sin while he who has sinned is still in this world, while his confession can still be heard, while satisfaction and forgiveness granted through the priests are pleasing to God. Let us turn back to the Lord with our whole heart and, expressing our repentance in deep sorrow, implore God for His mercy. Let our sould bow before Him, let our sorrow be offered to Him in satisfaction, let our hopes rest in Him. He Himself has told us how to ask: Return to me from all your heart, along with fasting and weeping and mourning, and rend your hearts and not your garments. Let us return to the Lord with all our hearts, let us appease His anger and displeasure, by fasting, tears, and lamentations, as He Himself enjoins.

But are we to believe that a man is sorrowing with all his heart, that he is calling on the Lord with fasting, tears and lamentations, when from the very day of his sin he is found dialy at the baths, or after feasting sumptuously and gorging himself to excess he is next day belching with indigestion and never shares any of his food or drink wit those in need? When he goes about laughing cheerfully, how can he be lamenting the state of death he is in? And whereas it is written, You shall not spoil the appearance of your beards, why is he plucking hairs from his beard and making up his face? Is he courting someone's favour when he is out of favour with God?

Or is that lady sighing and sorrowing who spends her time decking herslef out in rich dresses, without a thought fo the 'putting on of Christ' which she has lost; or when she dons such costly ornaments and jewelled necklaces, without a sigh for the lost splendour of holiness with which God once decked her?

For all the foreign garments you put on, for all your silks from China - you are naked still; with whatever gold and pearls and jewels you enhance your beauty, without Christ's beauty you are unsightly still. Dye your hair no more, at least now that you are in mouring; and as for your eyes which you paint up with kohl, let tears, at least now, wash them clean of it. If death had robbed you of one of your dear ones, you would mourn and weep in sorrow; with face neglected, finery laid aside, hair dishevelled, melancholy look and eyes cast down, you would show every sign of grief. Yet now, for shame, when you have lost your very soul and only survive here in a life of spiritual death, walking about in your own corpse - why are you not weeping bitterly and moaning inconsolably? Why do you not hide away, out of shame for your crime, and give yourself up to your grief? Nay, your wounds are even greater, your guilt still deeper; for after sinning you make no atonement, you have fallen and you do not repent.


Monday, February 15, 2010

Because It Involves Alcohol

Today we’d like to wish Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward a happy birthday but unfortunately he’s been dead since 1959.

Nonetheless, this prolific writer would be 127 years young today.

And perhaps he would still be writing – and because of his highly subjunctive longevity, his highly unlikely pen name might have garnered immediate declarative name recognition: Sax Rohmer.

Mr. Rohmer, you see, is the daddy of the devious Dr. Fu Manchu.

And because of this, even by his own day’s standards, Mr. Rohmer was considered politically out of bounds with his depictions of the opium trade and what he coined “the Yellow Peril.”

If only he'd made Fu Manchu a white male - oh, but wait!

In many ways, a writer’s writer, this middle class Englishman made a living on what he penned and like many another writer too heavy for light work and too light for heavy work he never had to go looking for anything else to support himself. He took on all projects – from comedy sketches for music hall performers to short stories and serials for magazines. One of these serials eventually became The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu.

To his defense, Rohmer often visited the Limehouse district in London where he eventaully set the fictional Fu Manchu’s hidehout and where at the time the very real opium dens of the day were full of conniving Chinamen seeking the ruin of souls. You see, he was not arbitrarily picking on people from the orient - although admittedly he was a bit heavy-handed about it.

On the other hand, Rohmer’s vision of a worldwide oriental conspiracy was about 50 years premature.

So no one reads him today – and I’m not sure if that’s a shame or not. What is a true tragic shame is the fact that his second greatest creation – named after his first greatest creation – the Fu Manchu cocktail, has also fallen into disuse.

Rohmer's biographer Clay Van Ash (hard to believe that's a real name, while we're at it!) relates how Rohmer invented the concoction one fine day while visiting the most famous rummery in rumdom – the Myers Rum Distillery of Jamaica in 1932.

Jamaica rum was Sax's favorite drink. In company with Mr. Myers and several members of the staff, he spent the pre-luncheon hour helping to invent the Fu Manchu cocktail. This proved rather difficult, for Sax insisted that it ought to be a mysterious shade of green, but, short of dyestuffs, there is not much which will impart such a color to rum. At the fourteenth attempt they did eventually get it right, but none of them wanted much lunch afterwards. (I understand that this mixture was actually added to the official cocktail list, but I have not been able to find the recipe.).

Whether these were the result of that pre-prandial spree, here are two versions of the drink current in bartending guides – they differ to allow, I presume, for the mood your rum may be in that evening:

Fu Manchu One
Fill glass with ice
1 1/2 oz Dark Rum
1/2 oz Triple Sec
1/2 oz White Creme De Menthe
1/2 oz Lime Juice
Dash of Sugar Syrup
Or 1/4 tsp Sugar
Strain into chilled glass.

Fu Manchu Two
Fill glass with ice
1 1/2 oz White Rum
1/2 oz Triple Sec
1/2 oz White Creme De Menthe
1/2 Oz. - Rose's Lime Juice
1 Dash - Sugar Syrup
1 Twist - Orange
Combine with ice and stir. Strain and garnish with fruit.

And one more note on this mysterious mystery writer before we leave Limehouse and suspicious facial hair behind – perhaps forever - Mr. Sax Rohmer’s is also a story which belongs in the Life’s Great Ironies Hall of Fame.

He died in 1959 of, yep, you guessed it, the Asian Flu.

Sax Rohmer on the Origins of Fu Manchu, or Why a Ouija Board Is No Substitute for a Good Agent for Keeping Your Books in the Public Eye

"I was a young man and I was ambitious. I had written my first story at seventeen, and I had not written another one; perhaps that was why.

"All the time I thought it would be very nice to be an author; you know the sort of thing that appeals to young men in rooms in a London suburb. I suppose all young men in lodgings want to be writers; the trouble is that there are so many lodgings!

"Looking back on those days I was happy enough. You know Stevenson's line about it being better to travel hopefully that to arrive, though I don't think that's true. It would be much better traveling hopefully if you knew you were going to arrive, some day, somehow, somewhere.

"A few of us shared a studio in Clapham Old Town, and we liked to tell one another what we were going to do when we were famous. We also told our guests. How we managed to entertain I don't know. The piece de resistance was roast potatoes and the other course was shredded wheat. There was beer, of course.

"The illusion of fame never left me even at Clapham station. But don't put that down or you will get lots of Claphamites writing in to say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder or something of the sort.

"Well, one of the fellows and I bought a planchette board. We were always asking it questions. I remember I asked it whether I should ever be a success as a writer of fiction, and it said that I would. When I asked it in what direction it answered the one word 'Chinaman.' We asked it again and still the answer was definitely and unmistakenly 'Chinaman.' I couldn't understand it at all for I knew nothing in those days about China or Chinamen.

I must have remembered that when I sat down to write a book some time afterwards. All the usual types had been worked to death and so I lighted on the idea of a Chinaman, and what a Chinaman he was going to be!

"He was to be rather tall and rather gaunt, with a tremendous cranial development as befits a genius. So I began to build him up. Then I thought he ought to have some sort of defect, so I made him have a kind of film over the eyes, as with a bird. It was a new one on medical science and still is, but there it was. He was to be a great linguist---a man who knew every civilised language and many dialects. He was to be absolutely impersonal, not criminal according to his own way of thinking, for he was true to his consuming desire to revoltionise civilisation. He was to be the embodiment of the idea that the East has been gaining knowledge while we have been building machines, the supreme master mind hovering on the border of madness, as so great a genius would.

"That was how I turned him over in my mind. Well, when I began to write, it seemed that I knew the man intimately. He assumed his own shape and there he was. He was a success and has continued so. I have now written seven books about him---the Daily Sketch is to publish the seventh---and from beginning to end and taking everything into account I suppose he has made me about 150,000 pounds.

"He has brought me in a spot of bother as well. When I was in New York some years ago the Chinese students at Columbia University organised a protest and, I believe, went to the Chinese Consul about him; said he misrepresented the Chinese character. All I can say is that Fu Manchu is Fu Manchu. He can't help that; no more than I can.
Well, that's the story of the sinister doctor of the Orient. Next time you see him looking out at you with his inscrutable eyes you will know how he came to be there.
- in an interview with Geraint Goodwin, London, Thursday, May 24, 1934.

Excerpt from Rohmer's Writing:

Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government--which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man. - Nayland Smith to Dr. Petrie, The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, Chapter 2.

The Max Rohmer Writing Assignment:

1. This one has less to do with writing and more to do with drinking – but it comes to the same thing – a flexing of your imagination. Create a drink (first on paper, perhaps, to avoid wasting alcohol) based on your favorites characters in literature. The drink should have some bearing on the nature of the character. Thus, an Ahab or a Wolf Larson ought to involve rum – the liquor universally associated with life at sea. On the other hand, the Quentin Compson or the Hazel Motes doesn’t necessarily need to include Bourbon – but be ready to defend your decision to use, instead, for instance, Campari in the case of the QC (because Quentin was a bitter young man) or Chartreuse for the HM (the color, duh!).

2. This one has more to do with writing than drinking – but it too comes to the same thing if you like to drink while you write. Just as James Bond made the vodka martini famous and Dr. Tom More made Gin Fizzes/Vodka and Tang immortal, write a scene (for short story or novel) in which a character makes a new drink – perhaps you could borrow from Assignment #1 – or your own real life experiences. In college, I remember staying up late one Sunday night in my apartment. At the end of one rather open floodgate of a weekend with well-irrigated guests, I wound up with nothing in my bar but root beer and tequila. The result, alas, was never worth repeating - but the name I gave the poisonous impotable lives on: Tequila Mockingbird.

3. This one has equal parts writing and drinking: Ask someone other than a bartender - in fact, someone who knows little or nothing about mixology - to make you a mixed drink. Observe the process, the ad-hoc bartender’s style, quirks, etc. and the finished product. Test the finished product. Chances are they are not adequate. Repeat process as necessary. Throughout the entire proceedings, you should be taking notes which will eventually become a descriptive piece of writing entitled “When the Uninitiated Approach the Bar of Mysteries” or somesuch. Nota Bene: Do not wait until the next day to write. Chances are, your notes will be less accessible than Kubla Khan was to Samuel T. Coleridge upon waking.

Friday, February 12, 2010

No, the other Campion...

English Renaissance poet Thomas Campion is 443 today.

Not to be confused with the other famous Campion...

Anyone with even a modicum of instinct about the cinematic possibilities of Catholic saints should know who St. Edmund Campion is. Think “Man for All Seasons Meets Your Favorite Espionage Film.”

Cast suggestions?

If St. Edmund's life is ever made into a film (perhaps Whit Stilman's first venture into period costuming and action film genre?), given the fact that they were near-contemporaries, I think it would be unavoidable to have Thomas Campion supply the soundtrack.

I have no idea whether the two Campions are related by blood – (Anyone? Campion? Campion?) - but they are very much related by their affinity for the goodness of beauty in truth.

Thomas Campion was not, as far as I could tell, Catholic, which would make sense given the fact that he was an active poet associated with the savagely anti-Catholic court of Queen Elizabeth I. He did, on the other hand, leave for France a year before her death, and there is some speculation that he may have converted at this time, while a medical student at the University of Caen, France.

Religious questions aside, Campion was quite the interesting character. Besides being famous in his own lifetime for his lyrics and music, Campion was a doctor who ministered to the English during the Plague, took part in his fair share of court intrigue, and died of the Plague himself, no doubt, as a result of his service to his patients. He was born in London and schooled at Cambridge and had an impressive set of contemporaries: William Shakespeare, Michael Drayton, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, composer William Byrd, historian Edward Gibbons and fellow songster John Dowland.

Like many of his fellow versifiers, Campion looked to lyric poetry more for its lyric quality than its poetic quality. I can do no better to explain what I mean by this than what Walter R. Davis says in the Norton edition of Campion’s works: “That Campion is primarily the poet of the auditory imagination is due to his combining the roles of poet and composer in a manner unique in the history of English literature.”

To read Campion is to hear the musical possibilities of language – and not just tonal qualities, but actual, bona fide musical elements. The lyric quality of poetry is one of its distinguishing marks – when done well, it “sings.” But Campion seems to have taken that principle one step further.

No mere songwriter springing ditties from his kitchen table, Campion labored long and hard to marry word and sound in a way few other poets have attempted, let alone achieved. The author of Campion’s entry in the esteemed and intimidating “Cambridge History of English and American Literature” notes:

"It seldom happens that poet and composer are one; but when, as in [Campion’s] case, the combination does occur, it is easy to see that there is likely to be a close connection between the twin offspring of the single brain. As one can readily understand, in many cases the words framed themselves to an air in composition, or an air suggested its suitable lyric. These verses were not intended to be read, or even printed alone; their sole function was to be sung, and adaptability, therefore, was an important requirement."

In fact, Campion was rather modern in some of his views on poetry. Late in his career, for instance, he eschewed rhyme and attempted to recalibrate English meter along quantitative lines akin to the measures of ancient Greek and Roman prosody. Instead of employing the drum-beat of most English poetry (as P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertrand Wooster would say, “Ta-tum-ta-tum-ta-tum-tum-tum”), Campion composed according to the length of musical notes (quarter, half, etc.). Vowels were assigned musical values and the consonants – well, they best just get out of the way…

Get a holt of a copy of his work and read some of it out loud and see if your ear’s not begging for a tune to accompany what your voice is saying. The connection between music and poetry is ripe for revisting – and Campion is a good place to start.

Thomas Campion on why the English lyric can be as profound as longer genres in English or other languages - SO THERE!.

Short Ayres [that is, lyric poems], if they be skillfully framed and naturally exprest, are like quicke and good Epigrammes in Poesie, many fo them shewing as much artifice, and breeding as great difficultie, as a larger Poeme. Non omnia possumus omnes [“We cannot all do all things.”], said the Romane Epick Poet [Virgil]. But some there are who admit onely French and Italian Ayres, as if every Country had not is proper Ayre, which the people thereof naturally usurpe in their Musicke. Others taste nothing that comes forth in Print, as if Catullus and Martials Epigrammes were the worse for being published. In these English Ayres, I have chiefly aymed to couple my Words and Notes lovingly together, which will be much for him to doe that hath not power over both. The light of this will best appeare to him who hath pays’d [weighed] our Monasyllables and Syllables combines, both which are so loaded with Consonants , as that they will harly keepe company with swift Notes, or give the Vowell convenient liberty. – from his note “To the Reader” in his Two Books of Ayres…To be sung to the Lute and Viols, in two, three, and foure Parts: or by one Voyce to an INSTRUMENT.

Exemplary poem by Thomas Campion:

Now Winter Nights Enlarge

Now winter nights enlarge
This number of their hours;
And clouds their storms discharge
Upon the airy towers.
Let now the chimneys blaze
And cups o'erflow with wine,
Let well-tuned words amaze
With harmony divine.
Now yellow waxen lights
Shall wait on honey love
While youthful revels, masques, and courtly sights
Sleep's leaden spells remove.

This time doth well dispense
With lovers' long discourse;
Much speech hath some defense,
Though beauty no remorse.
All do not all things well:
Some measures comely tread,
Some knotted riddles tell,
Some poems smoothly read.
The summer hath his joys,
And winter his delights;
Though love and all his pleasures are but toys
They shorten tedious nights.

Thomas Campion writing assingment:

Do one of the following:

1. James Joyce's last major work, Finnigans Wake, was based on a traditional Irish folk song. Write a short story based on a song that's been banging around in your head with narrative potential. Think for example of Neil Young's "Powderfinger," the Cowboy Junkies "Lay It Down," The Who's "Who Are You?", REM's "Country Feeback," They Might Be Giant's "Meet James Endsor," or Frank Sinatra's "It Was a Very Good Year."

2. (The Dana Gioia Writer's Challenge). Take any pop song currently enjoying its ephemeral moment on the pop charts and scan it for its meter. Despite the banality of the lyrics, examine whether they "fit" the tune metrically. Does the musician attempt to "bend" the lyrics around the music or cram them into a musical line past the point of sane bearing (Michael Stipe and Bono are notorious for this) or do music and lyric fit like hand in glove (Paul Simon and Gordon Lightfoot are renowned for this)? Rewrite the song's lyrics in a way that would please Thomas Campion enough that upon a first hearing he would be grabbing for another flagon of punch....

3. Write a poem or short piece of prose (a prose poem?) in which you pay particular attention to the consonants and vowels. How do they "express" the meaning of the words? - Arthur Rimbaud's "Vowels" offers one possible option for exigesis. Edward Lear, Wallace Stevens and Dr. Seuss also offer by way of induction a unique perspective on the "sense of sound" in their work.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Roy Who?

Roy Broadbent Fuller was born 98 years ago today – and if you’ve never heard of him before, join the party.

Still, we should know about him – and that’s the injustice of literary evolution – the survival of the swankest, perhaps?

Right now I’m grooving on “A Reader’s Manifesto,” an essay which first appeared in the July 2001 issue of Atlantic Monthly by B.R. Myers. (The following year Myers turned around and expanded it into a book of the same name.)

In the great vein of cranky critics – such as Yvor Winters – Myers takes on the modern pantheon of the perceived “literary” novelists. His basic argument comes down to this – good writing is not dictated by who gets the most notice or discussion time in scholarly journals and classrooms, but by who can actually write well-constructed sentences, tell a good story and maintain a certain level of consistency from book to book.

His hit list of notorious offenders includes Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, Annie Proulx, Don Delillo, Paul Auster and David Guterson, to name a few. If you don’t know any of these names, then chances are you’re doing well, as far as Myers is concerned.

On the other hand, some of his thumbs-up writers might surprise you as well - such as Stephen King, Louis L'Amour and Ken Follett.

Who knew?

Myers was dismissed as a crank (they always are) at the time the essay and book appeared, but I tend to think he was distressing his critics' vanity even as he was dressing down the emperor for his new clothes…

So what does all this have to do with Roy Fuller? His novel The Second Curtain happens to be one of the books Myer holds up as an exemplary work of neglected brilliance.

Like Alan Tate, Fuller was first and foremost a poet who also wrote happened to write novels – but unlike Tate, he was well known for his novels – and this is part of Myers’ point – at least at the time he was writing them. He took the opposite tack of Thomas Hardy, who began as a novelist and turned to poetry later in life.

But interestingly enough, Fuller also had a life outside literary circles. He was ambiguously associated with The Movement which included this Gerasene member's personal favorites Kingley Amis ("Lucky Jim") and Philip Larkin (Everything!) among its numbers. Having lived through the war as a special intelligence officer in the Royal Navy (1941-1946), Fuller took up work as an earnest solicitor (that’s English for “lawyer”) for a building company and made quite a name for himself in the professional world (much like Wallace Stevens at Hartford Insurance Co.).

Fuller was associated with the movement because his style was marked by the same sort of discipline in meter and imagery which served as The Movement's reactionary stance against the earlier generation of poets best embodied by Dylan Thomas. War, postwar conditions and general suckiness in the world had turned The Movement’s members against the free-wheelin' updated Romanticism of the Welshman’s loosey-goosey Christianity-on-Freudian-steroids imagery. While this style propelled Thomas to fame, making him a virtual rock star (sans musical instruments) in the 1950s, it registered nothing but a disconnection of sensibilities among the war-torn veterans who were writing verse.

However, Fuller was never completely associated with the movement, probably because, to be frank, he didn’t have the time. Between his lawyering and being named Professor of Poetry at Oxford (1968-1973), he probably had better things to do than hang out with fellow poets. After all, most poets, we're all painfully aware, usually have nothing better to do than drink, smoke, play cards and write on blogs about other poets…

Why the Critics Have Neglected Roy Fuller – or, How a Slow, Steady Burn Trumps a Flash in the Pan Every Time…

It is easy enough to note what Fuller has not done. In his period he has not written the most original poetry, nor the most lyrical, nor the profoundest, nor the most humorous, nor the most vibrant—the list could be extended—for one must take into account Ted Hughes, the venerable Robert Graves, Philip Larkin, Sir John Betjeman, and Stevie Smith among others. If it is possible to generalize about poets as diverse as those named, then it can be said these artists succeed on the whole by working a narrow and particularized approach. This is by way of identifying Fuller as a normalized generalist. Fuller's high profile representativeness is both his strength (and value) and limitation as a poet. Fuller does not lift the reader out of his being and does not afford him unusual or striking ways of apprehending experience; he does enable the reader to comprehend more penetratingly and feelingly a reality approximating his own sense of it. If he does not take the reader out of himself he permits him to more fully possess himself. Fuller has a worldliness, a flexibility, a balance, a totality of being not found in Hughes or Graves or Smith. This may make, finally, for a less impressive kind of poetry in a literary sense, but produces nonetheless moving and meaningful work in a humane one. Is it a fair kind of analogy to suggest that one would be more excited to meet Hughes or Graves than Fuller, but one would choose Fuller for extended personal friendship? – from a critical essay on Fuller by Allen E. Austin

Exemplary Poem by Roy Fuller

The Middle of a War

My photograph already looks historic.
The promising youthful face, the matelot's collar,
Say 'This one is remembered for a lyric.
His place and period – nothing could be duller.'

Its position is already indicated-
The son or brother in the album; pained
The expression and the garments dated,
His fate so obviously preordained.

The original turns away: as horrible thoughts,
Loud fluttering aircraft slope above his head
At dusk. The ridiculous empires break like biscuits.
Ah, life has been abandoned by the boats-
Only the trodden island and the dead
Remain, and the once inestimable caskets.

Roy Fuller Writing Assignment

Read a book or essay about one famous battle in history and find the “middle moment” when the tide turns and write about that moment in either a short story, a poem or an imaginary letter from a soldier in the battle. The piece of writing ought to be more than journalism – it ought to show the battle unfolding in real time. For inspiration, vide The Iliad, The Aeneid, Tolstoy, Churchill, Foote, etc.

POSTSCRIPT: This assignment was in part inspired by the fact that I was born in Freehold, NJ, which was the site of what many consider the "turning point" of the Revolutionary War - the Battle of Monmouth. The engagement itself resulted in a stalemate - but it was the first battle in which Washington proved he could actually bring a disciplined army onto the field - and in fact hold the field. Fought on a stifling 100+ degree summer day, the battle saw many on both sides die from heat exhaustion. Thus when Mary Hays took to the field with her pitchers of water, only to see her artilleryman husband fall to British bullets, she took the tamper and kept the cannons singing... She thus became known as Molly Pitcher.

Molly Pitcher was naturally a part of my native mythology. But I actually had to check to see she was a real person and not a figment of my own imagination. At any rate, Mary Hays may or mayn't have been Molly Pitcher (the current wisdom says she was a "composite" of several women who were bringing water to the continentals that day.) But her story remains fixed in my imagination (compare, by the way, the inclusion of women in battles in Herodotus, Thucydides, and Virgil.)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

And now for something completely different...

Ah, the good Sir John Suckling. If he were still dashing about in high boots and a rakish hat cum ostrich feather, he would be 401 today.

Perhaps not cutting quite the lively figure of yore...

The quintessential Cavalier poet, Suckling is perhaps equally well-known as the inventor of cribbage and originator of the expression “nick of time.”

As in: "Ho, laddy, I've been up here in the Tower of London for a dreadfully long time, you know, and I just now in the nick of time realized that, having brought my board along with me, I should have been engaging the gaoler in a game of cribbage the whole while. I believe I would have gone batty otherwise. Right. Who's turn?"

I have to admit, I cheer on the Cavaliers against the Roundheads (much like the Southerners against the North in our own go around on national self-slaughter) – not least of all because of the number Oliver Cromwell did to Ireland after his hook-and-crook ascendancy.

But more than that, the Cavaliers' poetry has a certain life-qua-lark quality that makes their writing infectious and always a near occasion for drink, tobacco and riotous living.

Perhaps it was the fact that as “all the King’s men,” Suckling and his tribe probably knew they would be closing out their careers on the end of a pike atop London Bridge. Still, while the Cavaliers’ caviling was probably their own brave way of whistling in the dark, past the graveyard, and with cribbage, to while away the time – I can’t help but admire the heroic sense of play they demonstrated amid their crumbling fortunes.

(Perhaps it was no accident that Suckling is associated with both the hopeful sense of rescue found in his phrase “nick of time” and the quiet desperation found in a good game of cribbage over multiple quaffs of good stout ale.)

Of course, in the end, it all came to naught, apparently, for poor Sir John. Exiled to mainland Europe at the end of the Civil War, he took his own life with poison – a much too Roman end for any right-thinking Catholic fellow to tolerate.

All the same, his poetry lives on – for those who care about such things as royalty, loyalty and the lustiness of language.

W.H. Auden’s embodiment of Suckling’s playful esprit de corps:

The peasant may play cards in the evening while the poet writes verses, but there is one political principle to which both subscribe, namely, that among the half-dozen or so things for which a man of honor should be prepared, if necessary, to die, the right to play, the right to frivolity, is not the least. -W.H. Auden

Exemplary Poem of Sir John Suckling

"I prithee send me back my heart"

I prithee send me back my heart,
Since I cannot have thine;
For if from yours you will not part,
Why, then, shouldst thou have mine?

Yet now I think on't, let it lie,
To find it were in vain;
For thou hast a thief in either eye
Would steal it back again.

Why should two hearts in one breast lie,
And yet not lodge together?
O Love! where is thy sympathy,
If thus our breasts thou sever?

But love is such a mystery,
I cannot find it out;
For when I think I'm best resolved,
I then am in most doubt.

Then farewell care, and farewell woe;
I will no longer pine;
For I'll believe I have her heart,
As much as she hath mine.

The Good and Gamey Sir John Suckling Writing Assignment:

1. Write a story told in a series of letters in which you imagine the circumstances by which this quixotic poet invents cribbage. In fact, invent a secret history – how did cribbage inadvertently lead to the downfall of King Charles? Also, be sure the phrase "nick of time" shows up at least once in the story.

2. Write a modern short story on one of the various true-life controversies surrounding the game of Monopoly including:
a. The allegedly specious claim that capitalist entrepreneur Charles Darrow invented the game (some say he stole the idea from an English Quakerwoman who was rather down on capitalism).
b. The ironic legal battle in which Parker Brothers sought to maintain a monopoly on the copyright of the name “Monopoly.”
c. The use of specially designed editions of Monopoly as a way to transfer important information to Ally prisoners of war during World War II.

3. Write a tale which provides the back-story for the origins of one of the chess pieces. The character ought to reflect the piece’s abilities. How, for instance did the diagonal movement of the bishop develop? (Some long-forgotten ecclesial intrigue in some long-forgotten kingdom? A prelate who served as a sign of contradiction in a court on the outskirts of a dying empire - a sort of Brownsville, Texas, as it were, on the margins of ancient Rome's scope and reach...)

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Speaking of Lowells...

Apparently the Lowells did everything but become Presidents of the United States. Several became poets – including James Russell, Robert who we met yesterday, and his distant cousin Amy who today would be 136 years old.

In fact, Amy has much in common with yesterday’s birthday girl Elizabeth Bishop. Both Amy and Bishop were lesbians; both had tremendous influence on their peers and future generations; both died of brain aneurysms (which says what about writing poetry…?); both were noted for their plain, objective style; and both traveled extensively to find their inspirations.

But despite the similarities, there are enough differences to make all the difference. Bishop is still being read while Lowell is read mostly as a footnote to the Modernist movement. It was said that she singlehandedly wrestled the imagist movement from Ezra Pound – no small feat if you know anything about Pound. But then Amy was no small woman…

At the same time, she was perhaps better known for the support she gave other poets than for her own output, although it is accomplished within the limits of what Imagist poetry can do.

In the end, it's not clear that poetry would be better off with or without Ms. Lowell’s own poetic output. But the poets she helped and Poetry capital P no doubt would be poorer for not having the “hippopoetess” as Pound, quoting an early critic of Lowell’s, once described her, to sell it big to the universe.

T.S. Eliot joined in on dog-piling Lowell too by describing her as that “demon saleswoman of poetry,” which echoes her own frank assessment of her purpose on Parnassus: “God made me a businesswoman and I made myself a poet.”

Amy Lowell on why we should eat - er, that is, read poetry:

Why should one read Poetry? That seems to me a good deal like asking: Why should one eat? One eats because one has to, to support life, but every time one sits down to dinner one does not say, 'I must eat this meal so that I may not die.' On the contrary, we eat because we are hungry, and so eating appears to us as a pleasant and desirable thing to do.

The necessity for poetry is one of the most fundamental traits of the human race. But naturally we do not take that into account, any more than we take into account that dinner, and the next day again, dinner, is the condition of our remaining alive. Without poetry the soul and heart of man starves and dies. The only difference between them is that all men know, if they turn their minds to it, that without food they would die, and comparatively few people know that without poetry they would die. (from "Why We Should Read Poetry," in Poetry and Poets, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1930, pp. 1-9.)

Exemplary Amy Lowell Poem:


In the cloud gray mornings
I heard the herons Flying
And when I came into my garden,
My silken outer-garment
Trailed over withered leaves.
A dried leaf crumbles at a touch,
But I have seen many Autumns
With herons blowing like smoke
Across the sky.

Amy Lowell writing assignment:

Look out your window and write an imagist poem about what you see.

There are three basic tenets of writing an imagist poem as defined by F.S. Flint, a critic and early proponent of the movement. According to Flint, an imagist poem ought to demonstrate the following:

1. Direct treatment of the "thing", whether subjective or objective.
2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome.

Thus Pound’s two-line wonder – which served as the small whisper before the great wind of modern poetry:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Although this famous imagist poems effectively illustrates these prescriptions and Pound’s proscriptions of imagism, a more sustained and beautiful use of these principles is found in Robert Frost’s “The Wood-pile.”

Monday, February 8, 2010

I just can't resist a sestina..

I took up my own assignment...

A Separate Grief

Whoever had any doubt the ruler
Of summer’s margins, the ruby robin
Of song, would return with its proud largesse
Of eggs and cluster its nest with garnet
Telltales of broken shells!
sang the vodka
From my martini glass in Malibu.

And so January in Malibu –
Her voice on the phone, the flat of a ruler
Slapping a tabletop: “The first robin
Arrived today,” said alimony’s largesse.
I watched the swimming pool shimmer garnet
On my ceiling. “You still hit the vodka?”

“I do,” I said. My marriage to vodka
Brought me to ruin and to Malibu
After divorce became the sad ruler
Of single days – more raven than robin –
Its black division subtracting largesse
From sad California skies washed in garnet.

“It’s funny, I think about the garnet
I gave you for…” I sip hard my vodka –
“…before Ike died.” My words in Malibu
Meet with silence. Death on wings, the ruler
Of distance, has killed the ragged robin
With snowstorms like scarlet fever’s largesse.

“Don’t.” She pleads with me, but there’s no largesse
As gaping as grief. “Remember that garnet?”
I watch ice cubes bleed into my vodka.
She responds, “I do.” And then Malibu
Weds sun to sea and sunset is ruler
Of evening’s despair. “Today, the robin

“Returned,” she repeats. “It seems the same robin
Ike had seen his first day sick.” What largesse
I thought… “Let’s stick with the garnet,”
I rush her words. “You stick with your vodka,”
She retorts, “and…and…” “Stay here in Malibu?”
I hung it up for her. When did I rule her

Out of bounds? When did the robin’s largesse
Exile this poor ruler to Malibu?

That day she dropped the garnet in my vodka.

99 Today

One of my earliest and still one of my favorite 20th century poets, Elizabeth Bishop was one of the first poets in my aesthetic education who taught me to "see" what I was writing about. She was also a sign of contradiction amid a generation of poets known for its subjective, confessional style.

Born in Worcester, Mass., Bishop was virtually orphaned after her father died and her mother went mad. Perhaps her move to Nova Scotia to live with her grandparents was part of my early fascination with her work – which features much of this region’s landscape and character.

This little peninsula dangling like a comma off Newfoundland into the North Atlantic happens to be home to many of my people. (Yes, I’m a “Newfy,” it’s true…). My father tells me we came from fishermen and sealers (which probably explains why I never got along with Greenpeace).

At any rate, Bishop’s style ran contrary to her contemporaries – especially John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, and her lifelong friend Robert Lowell, all of whom embodied the “confessional” style of the 1950s. Serving as a sort of counterpoint, Bishop wrote in a more objective vein that married a talent for description with insights into the importance of a writer's "place."

Her own greatest influences were the modernist poet Marianne Moore of the previous generation and Lowell – of her own generation. The friendship between Bishop and Lowell served as one long writer’s conference for two – as they continually inspired one another’s work. The contribution of their collaborative friendship is as important in its own way as that of Pound and Eliot.

It is said that Lowell was hopelessly in love with Bishop – hopelessly because she was a lesbian. She never made her sexual orientation a featured element of her work, though, preferring to look at her craft not as a vehicle for personal politics but as an attempt to establish a serious voice in American literature.

Recognizing her contributions to the craft, writers continue to read Bishop today; in fact, the body of her work can be taken together as a lesson in “seeing with words.” The Library of America published her complete works and selected letters in 2008 - edited by Robert Giroux (FSG published the majority of her work during her lifetime). Bishop died in 1979.

Elizabeth Bishop on Writing:

“When I think about it, it seems to me I’ve rarely written anything of value at the desk or in the room where I was supposed to be doing it — it’s always in someone else’s house, or in a bar, or standing up in the kitchen in the middle of the night. . .” (In a letter to poet James Merrill)

Poem by Elizabeth Bishop:


September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

She thinks that her equinoctial tears
and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
were both foretold by the almanac,
but only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child,

It's time for tea now; but the child
is watching the teakettle's small hard tears
dance like mad on the hot black stove,
the way the rain must dance on the house.
Tidying up, the old grandmother
hangs up the clever almanac

on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
hovers half open above the child,
hovers above the old grandmother
and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
She shivers and says she thinks the house
feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.

It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
I know what I know, says the almanac.
With crayons the child draws a rigid house
and a winding pathway. Then the child
puts in a man with buttons like tears
and shows it proudly to the grandmother.

But secretly, while the grandmother
busies herself about the stove,
the little moons fall down like tears
from between the pages of the almanac
into the flower bed the child
has carefully placed in the front of the house.

Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.

Elizabeth Bishop Writing Assignment:

The sestina is at once one of the easiest or poetic forms to write in and the most difficult. It is the easiest because there are few rules: 7 stanzas – one through six have six lines and the 7th stanza (known as the "envoi") has only three lines. Each line ends with one of six words in the first six stanzas – and are tucked two to a line in the envoi. On the other hand, it is also one of the more difficult forms to master because it requires a fresh use of each word so that the poem does not lapse into moribund repetition, the death knell for the sestina. The poetic form is meant to serve as a “show off” whereby the poet demonstrates both the flexibility of language and his own adroitness and cleverness. All the same, the final product, if successful, has a certain musical quality - through the repetition of the words throughout - which sets it off as a perennial favorite.

Write a sestina using the following six words (in any starting order):
1. the first object you see in your desk drawer
2. your state’s bird
3. the first word that your finger lands on in a dictionary
4. your birthstone
5. your preferred type of alcohol
6. the model of your first car (i.e. Corvette, Escort, Caravan, etc.)

Friday, February 5, 2010

"I want to be a part of the Gerasene Writer's Conference!"

Happy Birthday to Father Andrew Greeley – born 82 years ago today in Oak Park, Ill.

Yes, I know, I know….his controversy precedes him – and I don’t have the time or energy to try to hash it out. But all’s fair in love, war and the written word (if you’re a fictionist or poet, anyway…).

That said, I will note two things you may or mayn’t know about Greeley – he defended celibacy in the face of withering criticism after the priest sex scandal broke. Father Greeley may have his own reasons for loosening the strictures on celibacy – but the abuse issue ain’t one of them.

He also, from what I hear, has great reverence for the Mass and gets cranky about priests who are sloppy with the rubrics. He also tends to hang right of center when it comes to other elements of the liturgy as evidenced by his inclusion among the speakers at a recent shindig at the Liturigical Institute, Mundelein, Ill. – which dares to understand and teach the liturgy primarily in its sacramental context and not merely as a “pastoral” (alas, this poor word as been nambypambyized in the last 35 years or so…) excuse for institutionalizing liturgical abuses and thereby undermining the faith.

THAT said, we wish Father Greeley a happy birthday – and that he continues to recover from his accident of two years ago.

I also make a motion that we make him an honorary member of the Gerasene Writer’s Conference – if only because of his bold and daring use of the word “bricolage.”

Andrew Greeley on writing characters:

Where do my people and their worlds come from? They are all fantasy and fairy tales. Fantasy is not merely a distinct genre. All fiction is fantasy; a narrative of a world and people created by the storyteller’s imagination. My people leap out of the soup of my preconscious, the ever-flowing, ever-changing reservoir of bits and pieces of memory that my consciousness is always scanning.

I instinctively snatch some of these bits and pieces in an act of bricolage and thus create my people and their lives. I don’t develop them subsequently as the story sporgresses because the yare already, Venus-like, fully grown. Rather I come to know them more fully and understand them better.

They are very difficult at times, especially when they realize that I have vallen in love with them. They try to take the story away from me, an experience that the Irish novelist Flann O’Brien (ne Brian O’Nolan) describes vividly in his At Swim-Two-Birds (the name of his pub). The characters are so angry at the slow pace of the story that they come off the page, kill the author and finish the story themselves…

John Fowles (also Irish but Orange) in Mantissa tells of how a beautiful woman comes to life from the pages of the book, seduces him and then slips away. In a nod to his Green countryman, he gives the names of O’Brien’s killers to some of his characters.

None of my people have tried to seduce me, however. Good Irish Catholics that they are, they wouldn’t dream of it. Matriarchs or matriarchs in the making, they content themselves with telling me how I should finish the story. If I’m wise, I listen to them.
(from “They Leap from Your Brian Then Take Over Your Heart,” in Writers on Writing, ed. Jane Smiley, New York Times).

Excerpt from Father Greeley’s writings:

"One of our L trains is missing!"Sean Cronin, Cardinal priest of the Holy Roman Church and by the grace of God and abused patience of the Apostolic See, Archbishop of Chicago, swept into my study with his usual vigor. Since he was not wearing his crimson robes but a gleaming white and flawlessly ironed collarless shirt with diamond studded cuff-links, it was not appropriate to describe him as a crimson supersonic jet. Perhaps a new and shiny diesel locomotive.

"Tragic," I said, pretending not to look up from the Dell 300mx computer on which I was constructing the master schedule for the next month in the Cathedral parish.

"And Bishop Quill was on the L train!!"

He threw himself into a chair which I had just cleared so as to pile more computer output on it.

"Indeed!" I said looking up with considerable interest. "With any good fortune we will find neither the L train nor Bishop Quill."

Out of respect for his status among the missing, I did not refer to our lost bishop by his time-honored nickname, imposed by his unimaginative seminary classmates - "Idiot."

"You South Side Irish are innocent of charity . . ." he replied. "You have any tea around?"

Normally he would have appeared at night in my study and commandeered a large portion of my precious Jameson's Twelve Year Special Reserve or Bush-mill's Green Label before he assigned me another clean up task. Auxiliary Bishops play a role in the Catholic Church not unlike that of the admirable Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction: they sweep up messes. However, it was morning, a sunny early autumn morning to be precise. Banned from coffee by his foster sister Nora Cronin, he was reduced to pleading for tea to fill his oral needs. Before I could wave at my ever present teapot, he spotted it, stretched his tall, lean frame to the table on which it rested (surrounded by the galleys of my most recent book There is No Millennium) and poured himself a large mug of Irish Breakfast tea.

"Great!" he exclaimed with a sigh of pleasure. The pleasures of being a Cardinal these days are, alas, few and simple. I waited to hear the story of the disappearance of the L train and its distinguished passenger. He continued to sip his tea, a tall, handsome man just turned seventy, with carefully groomed white hair, the face of an Irish poet, the political skills of a veteran ward committeeman, and the hooded, glowing eyes of a revolutionary gunman.

"So what was Idiot doing on an L train?" I asked, realizing that I was missing one of the lines in our routinized scenario. "Your brother auxiliary bishop," he said with radiant irony as he played with the massive ruby ring on his right hand, "was mingling with the poor on the way home from his weekly day of ministry in the barrio. Preparation doubtless for the day when he succeeds me."

Milord Cronin laughed bitterly. "He will never be able to learn Spanish which does not cause laughter among those who know the language."

"That, Blackwood, is irrelevant to the present story . . . His limousine driver was to pick him up at the Kimball Avenue terminal of the Ravenswood Line and drive him back to his parish in Forest Hills."

"Brown Line," I said in the interests of accuracy.

"What?" He exploded, a nervous panther looking for something to spring upon.

"The Ravenswood Line is now known as the Brown Line."

"The Ravenswood Line is the Ravenswood Line, Blackwood," He insisted with the sense of shared infallibility that only a Cardinal can muster and that rarely these days. "Arguably."
"So the train never arrived," he extended his tea mug in my direction and, docile priest that I am, I re-filled it. No milk. The valiant Nora had forbidden milk as part of her virtuous campaign to keep the Cardinal alive. "And Bishop Quill never arrived either."


"The chauffeur became concerned and called the CTA which, as one might expect, assured him that the train had arrived at Kimball and Lawrence on time . . . That's a Korean neighborhood now, isn't it Blackwood."

"An everything neighborhood - Koreans, Palestinians, Pakistani, some Japanese, and a few recalcitrant and elderly Orthodox Jews who will not leave the vast apartment buildings they built so long ago."


"Much safer than many others I could mention, some of them not distant from this very room."

"Who would want to abduct Gus Quill?"

"I could provide a list of hundreds of names, with yours and mine on the top."

"Precisely . . . Anyway, the chauffeur then called the Chicago Police Department and apparently reached your good friend John Culhane who called me about midnight. They have determined the L in fact never arrived at the terminal. Rather it has disappeared into thin air and, Commander Culhane assured me an hour ago, so has the Most Reverend Augustus O'Sullivan Quill."

I almost said, "Deo Gratias."

Instead I took a firm stand for right reason and common sense. "L trains do not disappear," I insisted. "Neither, alas, do auxiliary bishops, though sometimes they are treated as if they do not in fact exist . . ."

Milord Cronin waved away my self-pity.

"The CTA is searching frantically for their missing train. The police are searching frantically for the missing bishop. He was the only one on the train at the last stop. The driver has disappeared too. The media have the story already. I hear there are cameras at the terminal and up in Forest Hills . . ."

-from The Bishop and the Missing L-Train

Andrew Greeley Assigment:

Rewrite the excerpt quoted above – changing whatever part of it you like: setting, dialogue, descriptions, point of view, characterizations, sequence of events and any other elements you deem necessary to show your own version of the story.

Now, the point of this exercise is to get at the heart of comic variation – which is commonly accomplished in one of three ways – through univocal, equivocal or metaphoric use of language. As you rewrite Greeley’s scene above, do so according to one of the following premises:

a) (Equivocal) One of the men in the scene owns, it is well known, an N-scale model railroad of the entire elevated rail system in Chicago. It is set up in the basement of his rectory and he is famous among clerical circles for the fastidiousness (“Don’t TOUCH!”) he demonstrates when showing the set-up off to fellow clergy and select parishioners.

b) (Univocal) Both men in the conversation think the missing train in question is an item from the beloved model railroad – which of the two is going to be more perturbed?

c) (Metaphorical) Either only one or maybe both men recognize the “missing train’ as code for something else – missing parish funds; lost virginity (we are talking Greely, here, folks!); lost dentures; stolen pectoral cross; etc. Perhaps only one realizes that this is a metaphor and the other is taking it as literal, unable or unwilling to “catch on” to the first man’s drift about the matter.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Meet Stewart O'Nan

Happy Birthday today to Stewart O’Nan – who comes highly recommended by my wife (a consummate reader of fiction) as a writer to read. She read his A Prayer for the Dying – in one sitting - until 3 a.m. And for my wife, who has iron poor blood in the first place, that's some feat.

O'Nan is a New England writer - so I don't know how in the world he wound up writing about Wisconsin.

Also, I would suspect with his last name being so Ostentatiously Obvious in its Obligations to the Hibernian blood that he could very well be a Catholic boy. Don’t know that for a fact, mind you, but a strong possibility – or my name isn’t – well, never mind.

Stewart O’Nan’s tip for finding time to write:

"Very simple things like keeping the manuscript with you at all times. Always keep it with you. That way you can always go back to it. Doesn't have to be the whole manuscript. Another way to do this is to bring only the very last sentence that you worked on--where you left off, basically. Bring it with you on a sheet of paper or index card. Keep it on your person so that if you're running around the building where you're working, you take that five seconds to pull it out and look at it and say, "Okay, oh, maybe I'll do this with it. Maybe I'll do something else with it. Maybe I'll fix it there.” (From, “Finding Time to Write,” Nieman Reports, Spring 2002)

Summary of A Prayer for the Dying:

When his town's sleepy summer tranquility is shattered by an outbreak of diphtheria, Jacob Hansen--constable, deacon, and undertaker--stares at an impossible dilemma: save both himself and his family or observe his many duties? Although he's nearly convinced that it's possible to do both, the inexorable and crushing horror of Stewart O'Nan's fifth novel, A Prayer for the Dying, is that evil doesn't flinch, that its insistence can obliterate goodness, corrupt humility. "When won't faith save you?" Jacob wonders; the silence soon deafens him.

An ostensibly inured Civil War veteran, Jacob watches helplessly as his neighbors in tiny Friendship, Wisconsin [a real place located in the southeastern region of the Diocese of La Crosse, Wis.], are stricken with disease: simply hearing a mother say of her daughter, "She's sick," becomes chilling. Yet even as his wife and baby fall ill, Jacob patiently, dutifully tends to the helpless and buries the dead. When panic erupts, however, and he grapples with the tragedies accumulating before him, he feels the prick of spiritual doubt, even succumbs to violence. "Is this the devil's work?" Jacob asks as he struggles to discern the good in a world without order, watches those he serves turn against him, and disregards his own moral outrage. (From the Amazon review)

Excerpt from A Prayer for the Dying.

Not that you mind earning your money, but when folks have need of you it’s someone’s misfortune one way or the other. The undertaking’s easy; being a constable is hard. When you put them together I can be too much, though that’s only happened once since you’ve been back. And you got through that fine, did the Soderholms proud. With his head cocked on the pillow and his hair combed just so, you couldn’t see where his brother conked him, and Eric, for his part, went easy, even came to the funeral in irons and his Sunday suit. You led him up to the casket for his last respects.

“I didn’t mean it so hard,” he said, not really sorry, still mad at him.

It was about a dog. Arnie threw it in the river above the mill dam to see if it would drown. It didn’t but by then it was too late to save either of the Soderholm brothers. It was just a plain rock, you picked it up in one hand, weighed it like an egg….

Writing assignment inspired by A Prayer for the Dying.

Write a paragraph or two in which you show a character dealing with the tension created by having to hold multiple occupations:

a. A local politician who also serves as the town’s only school bus driver
b. An award-winning poet who also works as a plumber to make ends meet.
c. A watercolor artist who also happens to be a crime scene photographer.
d. Make up your own! Why do I have to do all the work?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

February and Jamie Wyeth

In honor of February...and to celebrate out loud the works of Jamie Wyeth - and yes, he's related to THAT Wyeth family...

February: “Portrait of Pig”

February – (Februarius (mensis), (month) of purification < februa, expiatory offerings, poss. of Sabine orig.) –The American Heritage College Dictionary

Born in this month’s girth, I called you Valentine,
You lover of trash, slurper of pre-chewed
Dinner, rooter of other people’s food;
How I loved you, remembering how fine
A day, warm for the month, which roofed your birth.
Snow dripped like grease from barn’s steeple and eaves;
It is a false spring which cruelly deceives
Farmyard children in the naked pink of earth.
Father spared you for your bigness, but said,
Handing your squealing tininess to me,
“Love demands a sacrifice, so don’t be
Surprised when it is asked. “ You felt, then, like lead
In my arms, Valentine, my heavy loved one
Born in a month of slops and expiation.

The pork report comes over the radio
From across the river in Iowa,
Dividing your life into a ratio
Of belly futures to marginalia:
Such greatness only portraits can contain –
From the amethyst squint of your tiny eyes
To your humanoid expanse of facial strain.
These held your pride, like a swarm of flies,
To cluster and swell, gold in pinked oils,
Strutting now above my fireplace. Gone
From all but memory’s greedy taste for spoils,
You offered prized shanks, ribbon by ribbon.
Now, they report your fame, you who were so kind
For February futures, this runt-month’s end.

Monday, February 1, 2010

keep working on it...


Keep working on that fear of writing assignments. Lord knows I know as much as any about being swamped by work, etc., but aren't there times in a man's life when he just needs to do something on a lark?

Think of it as bringing beer to a party (or wine, pace, Matthew). Or as your contribution to a great common feast.

The idea of a group assignment is meant to strengthen the group as much as the individual. There's a sense of ownership not only for your particular piece of writing but for the conference as a whole. I think this sense of ownership is wrapped up in a few things:

First, there is a real commitment. You're right - it takes time to follow through on an assignment. But the time spent and the talent spent are a further investment in the conference itself.

Second, there's that sense of a talent shared. How much better off the group is for knowing that each individual member has made the sacrifice - not only to show up for the conference but to say, 'My talent is worth sharing with these other fellows on a common project; one in which we're all looking at the same thing (C.S. Lewis' defintion of friendship fits in here, no?) and expressing what we see through our individual talents."

And lastly there is the sense of contributing to a "feast" of words for both your own and your fellow writers' benefit. The hope is that the work you put into the assigment will edify and further hone your own talent - but it will also be something that your confreres can benefit from as well, on a practical level, as a matter of personal development or somesuch.

Or here's another way of looking at the notion of a group writing assignment: - say you go to basketball camp one summer and althought the other players are all practicing their individual skills (dribbling, lay-ups, jump shots, etc.), when it comes time for a game, each defers. "Nah, I didn't have time to practice before this." "I don't really have the time for a game right now." "I'm way to busy in the summer league I play for to really have time for a game here in camp." That sort of thing. The individuals may benefit, but the group as a whole suffers. There's got to be some give and take, I guess.
It is also a particularly Catholic way to approach the idea of a writer's conference. At least, to the extent that anything that anytime community comes together to witness both a feast and a sacrifice has something Catholic about it...

And besides, on a more mundane level, as we all acknoweldge, the finished product could very well lead to something remarkable - and therefore marketable...

Well, those be my rambling gambols...