Monday, 17 September 2007

Inner Libraries

"I think we internalise the poems we have by heart and they operate by osmosis to influence the writers we become. I favor the iambic tetrameter line, instilled in me by James Russell Lowell and sharpened by my later infatuation with Auden. Mostly, though, I am grateful for those old-fashioned teachers who revered the poems of a bygone era and by exacting from us twenty-odd lines a week gave us an inner library to draw on for the rest of our lives."
~ Maxine Kumin



I agree with this statement wholeheartedly. My English teacher, a wonderful woman, used to give us merit points for memorising set passages. One which has remained with me is Jacques' Seven Ages of Man from As You Like It. It's actually one of my favourite Shakespeare passages now. I still know every word, seven years later, and I recite it to myself when I have to have injections or fillings in my teeth. It's incredibly effective at taking one's mind off things.

I would argue, though, that a piece doesn't have to be memorised in order to influence our writing hugely. In my early teens I was a bit of a stereotype and I carried a battered copy of Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath with me everywhere I went. Perhaps it would not be an exaggeration to say that those poems saved my life. I read those poems over and over, to the point that I have scraps memorised unintentionally, but I never set down and learnt them. And yet, they have been hugely influential.

Another poet who has influenced my writing greatly without my sitting down and memorising any of her work is Carol Ann Duffy. My favourite poem of hers is called The Laughter of Stafford Girls' High. It's rare for me to get so absorbed in such a long poem: I find that reading poetry requires immense concentration, so intense, in fact, that I can't sustain it for long and so tend to only read short poems! Stafford Girls' High is addictive, though - it carries you along. It's the rhythm especially, the same rhythm which causes me to memorise bits unintentionally. Lines like: "How do you expect to become the finest of England's mothers and daughters and wives after this morning's assembly's abysmal affair?" or "Bad words ran in her head like mice."

Ah, Duffy. Let us all pay homage, and let the little children bring flowers.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Stop! Sin!

I'm particularly enjoying this blog at the moment, and I'm also enjoying stealing the owner's posts (his pointy-outy-look-at-this posts, not his own writing, because that would be naughty) for my blog. I was really tickled by the flowchart he posted, from James A. Brundage's book Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe. I couldn't let you miss out. This supposedly lets you know when/if it's safe (theologically speaking) for you to have sex in the Middle Ages. Here's the link to the Flickr post.

Feeling randy? Yes: continue. No: Stop! Sin!
Are you married? Yes: continue. No: Stop! Sin!
Is this your wife? Yes: continue. No: Stop! Sin!
Married more than three days? Yes: continue. No: Stop! Sin!
Is wife menstruating? No: continue. Yes: Stop! Sin!
Is wife pregnant? No: continue. Yes: Stop! Sin!
Is wife nursing a child? No: continue. Yes: Stop! Sin!
Is it Lent? No: continue. Yes: Stop! Sin!
Is it Advent? No: continue. Yes: Stop! Sin!
Is it Whitsun week? No: continue. Yes: Stop! Sin!
Is it Easter week? No: continue. Yes: Stop! Sin!
Is it any other feast day? No: continue. Yes: Stop! Sin!
Is it a fast day? No: continue. Yes: Stop! Sin!
Is it Sunday? No: continue. Yes: Stop! Sin!
Is it Wednesday? No: continue. Yes: Stop! Sin!
Is it Friday? No: continue. Yes: Stop! Sin!
Is it Saturday? No: continue. Yes: Stop! Sin!
Is it daylight? No: continue. Yes: Stop! Sin!
Are you naked? No: continue. Yes: Stop! Sin!
Are you in church? No: continue. Yes: Stop! Sin!
Do you want a child? No: Stop! Sin! Yes: GO AHEAD! But be careful: No fondling! No lewd kisses! No oral sex! No strange positions! Only once! Try not to enjoy it! Good luck! And wash afterwards!

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Say Yay for You Today

"I suppose the first thing I learn when I finish a poem is that I was able to finish a poem... I mean that I genuinely fear when I write a poem that that there won't be another one. I gather this is a very common experience, even among writers so distinguished and prolific that you'd never guess they had such fears. The second thing I usually feel is elation that the poem is a good one. I don't see how you can go on as a writer if you don't allow yourself this brief luxury of elation... That's a personal wisdom to strive for, apart from learning new ways with language."
~Mary Jo Salter


Rob made a post recently, talking about the need for humility in poets. As he said, it's necessary to promote one's own work and also necessary not to come across as arrogant when doing so. And there's a fine line between pro-active and positive, and attention-seeking and arrogant. The same arrogance is to be avoided in the writing process itself, of which self-critique is probably the main componant. This is something you learn quickly at PFFA, or end up in the dreaded Outside with everybody laughing at you. Rob outlined the following four statements to be remembered at all times:

1. "You are not as good as you think you are" (Scavella’s mantra).
2. "Never believe in your own propaganda" (John Peel).
3. Never dispose of a rejection slip.
4. When people, especially famous poets, say something nice about you, accept that with good grace. But listen even more carefully when people you respect criticise your writing.

I especially agree with number four, though I think you'd have to be superhuman not to be thrilled if a famous poet started praising your writing. And I do get rid of rejection slips, because for me it's part of the putting-it-behind-me-and-moving-on process. If I kept my rejection slips, I'd just sit and weep over them instead of trying again.

I will say, though, that, because of all the reasons why it's vital not to get arrogant, there seems to be a fashion in poetry communities for going too far the other way. We need to be aware that what we've written isn't perfect, is probably far from perfect, but that doesn't mean it's terrible. A sort of self-flagellation seems to have become trendy, to not only be encouraged but pushed onto people, probably because it's the perfectionistic, self-critical people who tend to make good poets. Being perfectionistic and self-critical to a degree is necessary in poetry, but take it too far and you never finish anything. What's more, it's seriously unhealthy. We need to congratulate ourselves sometimes, or we'll end up unbalanced and unhappy individuals.