When I was a young and foolish freshman, I was in a FWIS entitled “Writing Everyday Life.” We were assigned to read a book of poems that I’d never heard of before by a guy who, frankly, I’d never heard of before. Though I started out hopeful, I soon grew aggravated by the loose structure of the poems. I tried and failed to find meaning in the name-dropping and the place-dropping, which read less like poetry and more like a pointless chronicle of a person’s day. “I went here. I did this.” Nothing else.
I hated the poems. I wanted to cause harm to the publication that had caused me so much aggravation. Like a medieval torturer specialized in finding new and unique ways to induce pain, I plunged the book into a sink full of water, as if to dissolve the very words off the paper, and then for good measure I threw it in the microwave.
As an aside, I do not recommend doing this. Microwaved glue is not a pleasant scent.
The book I so savagely attacked was Lunch Poems. The poet was Frank O’Hara.
I’ve thought a lot about that book since. I no longer have it – when I could not get the scent of burned glue off the pages, I decided to throw it out entirely, and at the time I did not consider it a loss. But as my knowledge increased a little and my patience for things I do not understand increased a bit more, I began to wonder if I was simply taking the wrong approach to the poetry on the page.
I have since learned, from Edward Hirsch’s A Poet’s Glossary, that O’Hara and the other poets that made up the New York School of poetry often used the city as subject matter. They “valued spontaneity and movement, impulse, accident and coincidence.” O’Hara himself literally referred to his own poems as “I-do-this-I-do-that” poems. By looking for allegory and allusion, by searching for symbolism in the place names and concrete details, I was perhaps missing the entire point of the poetry, which was simply to convey everyday life.
One day in my FWIS, we watched a video that, even at the peak of my hatred of his poetry, made me respect and admire O’Hara as a writer willing to abandon all control over the details his poems contained. In the video, O’Hara is sitting at a typewriter, tapping out his latest project as he talks to the interviewer behind the camera and another man, Alfred Leslie, off frame. The phone rings, and O’Hara picks it up. We hear only his side of the telephone conversation as he asks his friend “How are you? You have an upset stomach?” still typing away at his machine. He talks for a time, explains to his friend on the other end of the line the peculiar situation of simultaneously talking on the phone and writing and being interviewed “for educational purposes.” He jokes around. He stops typing, falling still at something the man says. “Flash and bolt, what does that mean? Flashing bolt, you mean?” He recommences typing. “Good. Flashing bolt, good, good.” He takes his hands off the keyboard to look at what he’s written. “A flashing bolt. Is that art, or, what is it? I just laid it onto the paper.”
Now, when I imagine O’Hara writing Lunch Poems, I don’t imagine him perusing a thesaurus, trying to find the perfect word that conveys the perfect emotion. I imagine him walking down the street, taking detailed, specific mental notes of the things that he sees. Making art out of that, out of the everyday.
I have lately revisited O’Hara for the first time since freshman year, and the experience I had was much more profitable – and much less violent – than my last interaction with his poetry. In recently reading “The Day Lady Died” for class, I was able to appreciate the detailed account of his movement throughout the city and his mundane actions not as a pointless digression from the subject of the elegy, Billie Holiday, but as O’Hara’s account of a day in which Holiday’s death – and her life – lingers behind every detail and every interaction, though she only literally occupies three lines of the poem. And I recognized that O’Hara’s name-dropping and place-dropping had its own sort of unique purpose – to contrast with the one thing, the one person too sacred to name. Like someone looking at the sun out of the corner of his eye for fear that direct exposure will blind him, O’Hara talks around Holiday; yet, she remains nonetheless an omnipresent, all-pervasive part of the poem. Her central presence is striking, considering that she is kept on the periphery of the poem until the very end.
I’d be willing to bet that no matter how much you disliked a piece of writing, you’ve never dissolved it in water and thrown it in a microwave. But maybe you’ve felt as confused and aggravated by a piece of literature as freshman Indigo felt about O’Hara. Before you take your anger out on the book, a word of advice: learn a bit about the literature before you sink the knife; learn a bit about its author. Though art may at first appear pointless, it can take on profound meaning and depth once you take the time to learn its background; if you don’t believe me, look up the back story to Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ museum installation that consists of 175 pounds of hard candy piled in a corner of the room. You would never guess it at first glance, but this is one of the most moving art installations I’ve ever heard of (http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/152961). For me, O’Hara’s poems function the same way. When I went in looking for something specific, some adherence to some convention, I was aggravated when I found nothing; but in turning my back, I failed to see something interesting, something uniquely moving, that I was never expecting to see.
Written by Indigo V.
When I watched the most recent film adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince with my sister, I cried like a baby — I actually had no control over my emotional reaction. We paused in the middle because my sister declared she had to practice violin (typical disciplined type A older sibling), and because I have no self-control, I looked up the rest of the movie on Wikipedia (the movie necessarily deviates from the original source material). Even just reading the article, which is plain old plot summary, made me cry. That’s how ridiculous of an effect it had on me.
We finished the movie together anyway, and at one point, Jennifer asked me, “Wait, why is she looking for the little prince? He’s not real.”
I felt annoyed and couldn’t exactly pinpoint why, until after we finished the movie and I figured, well, none of it is real, per se. And does that matter?
We keep literature, music, film — the arts, basically — close despite the fact that none of it is really tangible. Think about how different it is to read something like A Song of Ice and Fire or Love in the Time of Cholera versus a New York Times news article. More often than not, there’s such a distinction that, somehow, these books affect us much more strongly than a fact-based report. Somehow, someone else’s world — which in turn becomes inexplicably yours — is so incredibly powerful and moving. The words on pages bound together into a novel, shapes on a movie theater screen, that tell a story separate from reality are yet far more identifiable than the reality in which we’re rooted.
I’m sure we’ve all felt this, whether with Harry Potter, or Calvin and Hobbes, or Her. But the skeptics remain.
Albus Dumbledore famously said in the final Harry Potter novel, "Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?"
Yes, none of it is concrete and none of it is tangible — it’s hardly even explicable. Things like novels and films are woven, entangled with metaphors, because art simply can’t be defined in normal terms. It can’t be quantified or rationalized. And maybe it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why it affects us so, but maybe the reason they do is the reason we need them.
So yeah, all of that was happening in someone else’s head. And it’s playing out in yours now, too. But at the end of the day, isn’t everything? Is anything “real”? Does the "realistic" nature of art matter at all?
When it comes to art — the intangible — the part that matters is the fact that it does.
Written by Julianne Wey (’18)
About a month before school began I came across this gem in a Half-Price Books store. I knew that I admired Pynchon’s work (Gravity’s Rainbow, The Crying of Lot 49, Inherent Vice, all of which I recommend as well), so I thought I would check out how well he wrote when he was about my age. I did not find great stories in this collection, or early signs of an American literary wunderkind. What I found was an introduction that gave me comfort in the immaturity of my own writing. Often upon revisiting my own work I come down with the grippe from pure embarrassment. My stomach contorts and I immediately consider calling anyone who has seen the story. I consider pulling a Prince, hereafter signing my name as an unintelligible symbol to be referred to as “the paragon of inadequacy that is Caleb Smith.” After telling myself that it isn’t that bad—or that I can learn something from the piece—I calm down and realize that I’m hypercritical of myself, and even if it was that terrible it does not preclude me from continuing to write.
The actual stories will not blow you away with elegant prose or subtle genius; it is, in the author’s own words, “pretentious, goofy, and ill-considered.” But that is exactly what I love about them. In Pynchon’s introduction to the collection he discusses his obsession with seeming literary and being a part of the Beat movement, which ultimately collapse into “some mighty tiresome passages.” Pynchon is ruthless toward his own writing and his younger self, often so rude and sarcastic that I actually laughed out loud. But he berates himself on our behalf, and demolishes the notion that literary genius is innate. When you read the stories, the issues that he outlines in the introduction are glaring. At times I had to put the book down because I was privileged to the knowledge of the older, wiser Pynchon. The poor attempts at phonetic spelling made me cringe every time, and I am certain that it would not have been so bad had he not pointed out his case of “Bad Ear.” The introduction comes with some great, quotable advice for young writers: “get too conceptual, too cute and remote, and your characters die on the page”; “Ignorance is not just a blank space on a person’s mental map. It has contours and coherence”; “It is simply wrong to begin with a theme, symbol or other abstract unifying agent, and then try to force characters and events to conform to it.” Pynchon analyzes his own work in order to come to these conclusions, and along the way displays the effect of the Beat insurrection, JFK, and the Cold War on American writing.
My copy from Half-Price cost $7.50, but I’m sure you could find it on Amazon for cheaper. It is worth the money, even if only for the introduction. If you have ever doubted your ability to write, or if you have written something that made you pray for a time-machine in order to return to your self-proclaimed “moment of inspiration” and slap the folly out of yourself, then you will find solace in this book. I have received the same advice from several different sources—so there must be truth in it—write on, through the good and the bad. Slow Learner makes the bad times more bearable and the good times less sacred.
Written by Caleb Smith ('17)
Since the beginning of time, creative writers have been divided into two camps: Plotters and Pantsers. Plotters carefully plan their pieces and stick to outlines. Pantsers write on the fly, “by the seat of their pants” so-to-speak, letting the story flow naturally. Neither group quite understands the other.
My fellow Plotters believe that writing means research-- lots of research. It means meticulous plotting sessions, careful outlines, decisions on where the story is going before even sitting down to write. Plotting is a useful way to creatively explore a world or a scene before even beginning to write.
And yet, sometimes I enviously glance over to the other side. There, the Pantsers live, crafting stories on a whim. They discover the plot as it comes to them, making decisions in the moment. Pantser-land seems like a magical place, but I know it comes with its own struggles.
George R.R. Martin, author of the A Song of Ice and Fire series, identifies these two groups using different terms. He characterizes Plotters as architects and Pantsers as gardeners, saying:
“I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they're going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there's going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don't know how many branches it's going to have, they find out as it grows.”
Initially, it does seem like this is a divide that can’t be breached. But it really just comes down to how you best create. There’s no right or wrong way to write; there’s only what works for you. After all, we all have the same goal: staving off writer’s block as long as possible. Be you Plotter or Pantser, architect or gardener, I wish you well in your quest.
Written by Megan G. ('19)
Charms Against Lightning, the debut poetry collection from James Arthur, is my go-to collection when I want to read something old and familiar, find inspiration, or just think about my experience as a writer. It begins with a hauntingly beautiful poem that bears the title of the anthology and reads like a chant. Here’s just the first two lines:
Against meningitis and poisoned milk,
Flash floods and heartwreck, against daydreams
In just those two lines, you can get a sense of a few of my favorite things about Arthur’s poetry. All these poems read as a collection of sounds and images that link together and convey a greater feeling. They feel both like diary entries and conversations: they are simultaneously secrets and musings being shared directly with their reader. The poetry talks about the painful, doubt-provoking parts of life but leave room for positivity and ask questions of how we experience hope – charming away daydreams alongside heartwreck, as an example.
I bought the collection after the poet visited my high school back when I was a senior. Like a performative or spoken word poet, Arthur recited all his works from memory, which gave him space to rearrange and create the experience of the poetry all over again. I got the honor of hearing him present the same poem a few times; it was like hearing an adaptation of a familiar story. Even though the words stay largely the same, when all you’re relying on is the poet’s voice, the poet shapes the entire poem uniquely every time. Part of this effect, I learned directly from Arthur. He analyzed a poem alongside me and the other students in my writing class and imparted what is maybe the biggest lesson I’ve learned about poetry: that it works sometimes just to put sounds together and make meaning from what you get.
One of my favorite poems from the collection is called “Distracted by an Ergonomic Bicycle,” and can be found with a recording of Arthur reading the poem at this link: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/art/weekly-poem-elegy-1/. This poem is an incredible example of what I find is so meaningful about Arthur’s poetry. It captures a moment so clearly while also weaving in human feeling and subjectivity. For example, lines 17-18, “…I felt only not myself/ but that I’d never been…” are stated without decoration. They stand out alongside the experience of the moment of seeing the bicyclist and make the poem itself intimate in a way a lot of poetry has never done for me. I find myself thinking sometimes - even when I haven’t read the poem in a while - about standing on a street corner in the rain with a Doberman watching an ergonomic bicyclist go by and having that experience as if it were my own.
You can find the poet’s website here: http://www.jamesarthurpoetry.com/. There, you can find links to more poems to be read and listened to and experienced. James Arthur’s poetry is absolutely incredible for summarizing subjectivity of loneliness and uncertainty, the vivid corners of our world, and the way sounds come together to make meaning.
Written by Erika S. ('19)
I share my body with an angel / of light who sunbursts / on my horizons at dusk
- Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton