Writing off the Subject

February 21, 2019

A poem can be said to have two subjects, the initiating or triggering subject, which starts the poem or “causes” the poem to be written, and the real or generated subject, which the poem comes to say or mean, and which is generated or discovered in the poem during the writing. That’s not quite right because it suggests that the poet recognizes the real subject. The poet may not be aware of what the real subject is but only have some instinctive feeling that the poem is done.

Young poets find it difficult to free themselves from the initiating subject. The poet puts down the title: “Autumn Rain.” He finds two or three good lines about Autumn Rain. Then things start to break down. He cannot find anything more to say about Autumn Rain so he starts making up things, he strains, he goes abstract, he starts telling us the meaning of what he has already said. The mistake he is making, of course, is that he feels obligated to go on talking about Autumn Rain, because that, he feels, is the subject. Well, it isn’t the subject. You don’t know what the subject is, and the moment you run out of things to say about Autumn Rain start talking about something else. In fact, it’s a good idea to talk about something else before you run out of things to say about Autumn Rain.

Don’t be afraid to jump ahead. There are a few people who become more interesting the longer they stay on a single subject. But most people are like me, I find. The longer they talk about one subject, the duller they get. Make the subject of the next sentence different from the subject of the sentence you just put down. Depend on rhythm, tonality, and the music of language to hold things together. It is impossible to write meaningless sequences. In a sense the next thing always belongs. In the world of imagination, all things belong. If you take that on faith, you may be foolish, but foolish like a trout.

Richard Hugo
Writing off the Subject
The Triggering Town

never write again

February 17, 2019

When I am locked out of the gates of literature, I despair, brood, obsess. I believe wholeheartedly that I will never write again. I pursue this line of thought to the bitter end. It’s an excruciating process, but there are no shortcuts on the road to writing. I’ve come to consider the atmospheric disturbance that exists at the edges of laying honest sentences across a page to be character-building experiences. After all, writing demands resilience, self-respect, discipline. More exhilarating, perhaps, is the fact that it requires an equal measure of disobedience. It makes little sense, then, to pursue efficiency in lieu of the chaos writing causes when we are at a loss for how to begin the telling. So often, the inability to write is a sign that we are not yet ready to be honest, or reckless in our pursuit of subject matter. In the face of such a tall order, the only thing I know to do is to resign myself to the unpleasant experience of waiting patiently at the gates. To pass the time, and to build up courage, I return to Kafka, Nietzsche, Nabokov, Lispector. Eventually, I’ll read a sentence like, ‘Now I know how, have the know-how, to reverse perspectives…’ Suddenly, I’m reminded of how alien the world feels to me, and, before I know it, I am writing again. All I had to do was suffer long enough to remember that I am only spying on this strange and sublime world momentarily, and that I don’t have any time to waste.

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi
Poets & Writers 2nd August 2018

an artist must feel this

February 9, 2019

A writer – and, I believe, generally all persons – must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. All things have been given to us for a purpose, and an artist must feel this more intensely. All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art.

Jorge Luis Borges
Twenty-Four Conversations with Borges: Interviews by Roberto Alifano 1981-1983

not just the words

January 31, 2019

What poetry is made of is so old, so familiar, that it’s easy to forget that it’s not just the words, but polyrhythmic sounds, speech in its first endeavours (every poem breaks a silence that had to be overcome), prismatic meanings lit by each others’ light, stained by each others’ shadows. In the wash of poetry the old, beaten, worn stones of language take on colours that disappear when you sieve them up out of the streambed and try to sort them out.

And all this has to travel from the nervous system of the poet, preverbal, to the nervous system of the one who listens, who reads, the active participant without whom the poem is never finished.

Adrianne Rich
Someone is writing a poem

Poetry is a forsaken art not for those who write or practice it, but for many others. Yet there is a kind of grace that poetry offers, something that paradoxically is hard to catch with words, an elemental rush that Shelley tries to evoke in his “A Defence of Poetry,” that extraordinary chronicle of the exalted, impossible task of the poet from which we have taken the line for today’s resolution.

Toward the start of his essay, Shelley speaks of beauty and the way by which the intuition of what he calls “this indestructible order” is something granted to the maker of art. Then comes a leap of faith. He argues artists are “the institutors of law, and the founders of civil society” — in short, legislators: what they were called in earlier times.

Now this seems to me to be a leap that could not sustain the body that sought to land, from its free fall, into some possible space of survival. Surely we need to unhook the idea of the intense apprehension of beauty and “this invisible world” from ordinary legislation, our notion of congresses and parliaments, of procedures and plenipotentiary powers.

Meena Alexander
What use is poetry

For the young who want to

January 22, 2019

Talent is what they say
you have after the novel
is published and favourably
reviewed. Beforehand what
you have is a tedious
delusion, a hobby like knitting.

Work is what you have done
after the play is produced
and the audience claps.
Before that friends keep asking
when you are planning to go
out and get a job.

Genius is what they know you
had after the third volume
of remarkable poems. Earlier
they accuse you of withdrawing,
ask why you don’t have a baby,
call you a bum.

The reason people want M.F.A.’s,
take workshops with fancy names
when all you can really
learn is a few techniques,
typing instructions and some-
body else’s mannerisms

is that every artist lacks
a license to hang on the wall
like your optician, your vet
proving you may be a clumsy sadist
whose fillings fall into the stew
but you’re certified a dentist.

The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.

Marge Piercy

By insisting on a conception of art and writing that emphasizes the physicality of both, and by finding in the erotic what Audre Lorde called “a well of replenishing and provocative force,” Lidia Yuknavitch draws on a specifically queer and feminist tradition of thought. She joins the assaultive presentation of sexuality in the work of the Marquis de Sade and Georges Bataille — a tradition Yuknavitch calls “the underbelly of literature” — with the ecstatic lyricism of the French novelist and theorist Monique Wittig, plus the conviction, shared with Hélène Cixous, that formal experiments can be politically liberating. “Such is the strength of women that, sweeping away syntax, breaking that famous thread,” Cixous wrote, “…women will go right up to the impossible.” Yuknavitch’s sadomasochistic sex scenes also owe a debt to another French thinker, Michel Foucault, and his notion that consensual, ritualized sexual violence can affirm “the limited being and … the limitlessness into which it leaps.” Such acts, in this view, have the potential to renew or even reinvent the self. Cixous, Wittig, and Foucault were among a number of French thinkers who became popular on university syllabi after the “theoretical turn” in literary studies in the nineteen-eighties, and in her memoir Yuknavitch notes the exhilaration she felt when she first encountered them as a graduate student. Not since Kathy Acker — Yuknavitch’s “literary foremother,” to whom she dedicated her second book of stories — has an American novelist written so vitally from within this tradition, claiming the body, especially the female body, as her primary subject, and writing polymorphous sexuality not only so explicitly but with such joy.

Garth Greenwell
The Wild, Remarkable sex scenes of Lidia Yuknavitch
The New Yorker 25th August 2015

need to rebuild

November 17, 2018

In general, I look for placeholder language when I revise. That is, moments in poems where the language seems to get habitual and is, let’s say, falling down the stairs in an uninteresting way. Those are the spots I need to tend to. Often, those spots are indicative of larger structural issues I need to address. Like, I need to rebuild the stairs so the falling down them gets more interesting. Or, I need to remove the railing so the falling can happen more quickly. Or, I need to install a new spiral-y railing so the falling knows where it’s going. I realize I’m extending this falling-down-the-stairs metaphor very, very far. But what this metaphor also demonstrates is that for real revision, I need to immerse completely in the world of the poem; I have to move through it intuitively and with everything I’ve got.

Chen Chen
Interview with Allison Peters for the Michigan Quarterly Review

Light and reflections by Andrea Moore

Poems, even when narrative, do not resemble stories. All stories are about battles, of one kind or another, which end in victory or defeat. Everything moves towards the end, when the outcome will be known.

Poems, regardless of any outcome, cross the battlefields, tending the wounded, listening to the wild monologues of the triumphant or the fearful. They bring a kind of peace. Not by anaesthesia or easy reassurance, but by recognition and the promise that what has been experienced cannot disappear as if it had never been. Yet the promise is not of a monument. (Who, still on a battlefield, wants monuments?) The promise is that language has acknowledged, has given shelter, to the experience which demanded, which cried out.

John Berger
And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos

impulses and inspirations

October 4, 2018

At the hour when our imagination and our ability to associate are at their height, we really no longer read what is printed on the paper but swim in a stream of impulses and inspirations that reach us from what we are reading

Hermann Hesse
My Belief: essays on belief and art