Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Letter To A Young Writer

I want to share here this letter that writer Colum McCann posted lately to The Story Blog, in which he offers his advice to young writers. I'm posting it here because:
1/It offers brilliant, no-nonsense advice.
2/He's one of my contemporary favourte writers.
3/I could do with some writing advice right now - as could no doubt you, fellow aspiring writers tuning in...  Honestly, we can never have too much of it....
4/It is also a lovely nod to Rilke's 'Letters To A Young Poet' which contains some of the most beautiful lines of advice ever written about writing. 

Every sentiment of this is reflective of McCann's own writing style which is bold, unique,  poetic and powerful.  (I had the good fortune of meeting him once, and after asking him a question about his book, he immediately responded off-the-bat 'Are you a writer yourself?' to which I was pleasantly surprised, chuffed even, and still am. Well, if you're going to get recognition from anybody, lovely that it's a writer, one of your favourites and most highly regarded at that. (So thank you for that Colum.)  And by the way, he is such a nice guy in real life, highly intelligent and talkative, modest and courteous and kind.  

Anyway, he would know a lot about advice as he teaches Creative Writing at Hunter College in New York. He is by all accounts, not just a brilliant writer but an inspiring teacher as well. Anyway, words to  remember, to engrave into your writing heart:

'Do the things that do not compute. Be earnest. Be devoted. Be subversive of ease. Read aloud. Risk yourself. Do not be afraid of sentiment even when others call it sentimentality. Be ready to get ripped to pieces: It happens. Permit yourself anger. Fail. Take pause. Accept the rejections. Be vivified by collapse. Try resuscitation. Have wonder. Bear your portion of the world. Find a reader you trust. Trust them back. Be a student, not a teacher, even when you teach. Don’t bullshit yourself. If you believe the good reviews, you must believe the bad. Still, don’t hammer yourself. Do not allow your heart to harden. Face it, the cynics have better one-liners than we do. Take heart: they can never finish their stories. Have trust in the staying power of what is good. Enjoy difficulty. Embrace mystery. Find the universal in the local. Put your faith in language—character will follow and plot, too, will eventually emerge. Push yourself further. Do not tread water. It is possible to survive that way, but impossible to write. Transcend the personal. Prove that you are alive. We get our voice from the voices of others. Read promiscuously. Imitate. Become your own voice. Sing. Write about that which you want to know. Better still, write towards that which you don’t know. The best work comes from outside yourself. Only then will it reach within. Restore what has been devalued by others. Write beyond despair. Make justice from reality. Make vision from the dark. The considered grief is so much better than the unconsidered. Be suspicious of that which gives you too much consolation. Hope and belief and faith will fail you often. So what? Share your rage. Resist. Denounce. Have stamina. Have courage. Have perseverance. The quiet lines matter as much as those which make noise. Trust your blue pen, but don’t forget the red one. Allow your fear. Don’t be didactic. Make an argument for the imagined. Begin with doubt. Be an explorer, not a tourist. Go somewhere nobody else has gone, preferably towards beauty, hard beauty. Fight for repair. Believe in detail. Unique your language. A story begins long before its first word. It ends long after its last. Don’t panic. Trust your reader. Reveal a truth that isn’t yet there. At the same time, entertain. Satisfy the appetite for seriousness and joy. Dilate your nostrils. Fill your lungs with language. A lot can be taken from you—even your life—but not your stories about your life. So this, then, is a word, not without love, to a young writer: Write.'

It's something isn't it? Well it has been a motivating force for me to post here in the past three months. [Apologies for that...]  

I think my absolute favourite line in this letter is: 'Be vivified by collaspe.' Indeed! An audacious concept. Collaspe is not the end, rather a means to reanimation. An aha revelation. The very notion of letting collaspe, exhaustion, failure vivify you is heartedly reassuring. And coming from McCann's voice, I believe it. Also: 'prove that you are alive' - couldn't that be the  core raison d'etre of writing? And, 'read promiscuously', oh yeah. Think I'm guilty of that alright. Finally  - 'Fill your lungs with language'. Inhale deeply: yes, yes, yes :)

And if you enjoyed what you've read here, then I implore you to check out Colum McCann's novels - powerfully affecting, linguistically brilliant. He has that mark of a great writer - the ability to wield language to his own thematic desires, until the technical telling becomes the story, the story itself life not just as we know it, but as it could be known.  Transcending, tremendous. 

~ Siobhán 

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Summer Reading Bliss: A Retrospective

 "There is a temperate zone in the mind, between luxurious indolence and exacting work;    and it is to this region, just between laziness and labor, that summer reading belongs."  
~ Henry Ward Beecher 

Now that summer is drawing to a close I realise I am really going to miss my reading time.

There is nothing more definitive of summer for me than lying in the garden with the sun spotlighting the pages of a book (or indeed, as the case was most of the time this year - indoors at a window brailled with rain...) Summer may be the best time ever for reading. All that light. All that time outdoors. All that sense of escapism - of time unfolding in front of you as a wide golden berth, an endless horizon to fill with all kinds of dreaming and imagining, books the perfect propellers to imagination's engine.  Whole days to read, late nights and lazy mornings, and as such, the ability to immerse yourself completely in different worlds, uninterrupted. Bliss, in a word.

'One benefit of summer was that each day we had more light to read by.' ~ Jeanette Walls

This summer I have been gluttonous in my reading, navigating narratives on rainy days, sunny days, early mornings and late nights. There is always though, one defining book for me each summer, one that the whole summer seems to hang upon and reverberate from. A book that I can tell you exactly every nuance of what weather was doing while I was reading it; a book that led to more books of its kinds and countless imaginings; a book that dragged me hook, line and sinker into its world and still has not let go. That book for me, this year has to have been the recent Pulitzer prize-winning 'All the Light We Cannot See' by  Anthony Doerr. 


“The brain is locked in total darkness, of course, children, says the voice. It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?”  
This book is, as the title declares, a story full of light. Light in its most essential essence - revealing every little detail so as to illuminate this particular period in time, this particular story of life. The story is set during WWII in France and Germany, following the fates of two characters whose lives are intertwined -  Marie-Laure, a young blind girl who flees to St-Malo with her father when the Germans invade Paris and a young German boy, Werner, as he leaves the orphanage of his younger years to join the Hitler Youth and from there, the war. It is a story of war, but also of fate and character, of beauty and light. The writing, as I've come to expect from Doerr, is crystalline, rich in metaphor and image, sparkling with a poetic delight. The characters are all so memorable, so well-drawn that it was hard to close the page on them and leave them behind. It's a big novel, 500+ pages, but I sped through it, riveted by the dual narrative, the simultaneous plotting, the suspense, the beautiful language, the stories within stories.

I ended up then searching out other WWII novels (Suite Francaise, The English Patient, The Book Thief) so enthralled was I in that time.  But the story that Doerr tells is so unique and original, so unusual, that my search I know will be in vain. His shimmers like a fairytale but is also underpinned with a psychology that is so precise, and told in a voice that is so full of poetry and faith and hope.  It's the kind of book that immerses you in its story so much, especially its setting of St-Malo, the sea-swept walled town in Brittany, you will have not left it entirely when the story is over. (I can still smell the salt and see the narrow streets, the snail-lined hideaway, the shell-like house...) Anyway, you can read my Goodreads review of it: here. I highly, heartily, recommend it. You will learn new and surprising things about a time that is well-documented and what is most vital in a piece of fiction, be transported completely and irrevocably to the world of the novel. 

My guilty escapist summer reads (don't you just love those?) included nearly all of American author Sarah Addison Allen's novels. The experience akin to the succulent sweetness of a summer evening, the smell of sugar on the air and thrill of pink in the sky.  Sarah Addison Allen's novels fall under the genre of magic realism, but added to that should be romantic magic realism and whimsy. Her stories are light whimsical concoctions where conflicts dissolve and romances blossom with the help of a few magical stimuli (think floral food spells, eccentric family traits and characters, moon lore, fairy godmother ghosts, animate books and animals, and emotions manifesting in transformative ways.) All set in the lovely surrounds of North Carolina with quaint little towns and endearing characters. The author has often been compared to Alice Hoffman, but I'd say much more sugar-coated and whimsy-orientated. (Garden Spells, is, a bit like Practical Magic, but sweeter and more gorgeously decorative with food recipes and the like.) For me, they are also reminiscent of Nicholas Sparks films, but definitely with more quirky than cutesy elements and more original set pieces than predictable story-lines. Whimsical, wonderful, sensuous, feel-good feasts. 


They are also girly without being chick-lit - i.e. entirely consumed with love-life conundrums. They are whimsical, foody, dreamy and emotional without smacking of sentimentality, light quest narratives of becoming true to oneself. In a word they're lovely, with all its soothing connotations: cushy, cosy, charming and warm-hearted. Delightful reads that will transport you to worlds ruled by the heart. They are books to enjoy lying in daisy-spotted grass, the sun glinting gold lattice light on the pages, books to script daydreams by, all tinged with that rose-tint happy horizon glow of dreams coming true, if you just follow your heart (definitely a selling-point for summer evenings, when the light is long and lovely and softens any hard reality into a malleable dream-able one.)

Sound like the ideal summer fodder to you? Yep, if you need a break from serious literature and are a lovers of all things whimsical, these are my recommended choice.  

Other highlights of my summer reads included the sci-fi thriller (and soon-to-be-movie-release) 'The Martian' by Andy Weir; wallowing in the gorgeous language and light of Hardy's 'Far From the Madding Crowd'; the brutally stunning debut 'The Enchanted' by Rene Denfield; and the lilting and lovely weather-appropriate 'History of the Rain' by Irish author Niall Williams.

They say a great book is like an event and well if that's the case,  a variety of great summer reads makes for an eventful time. Every book I read in summer seems to stay with me more. Maybe it hearkens back to days of school holidays with an open, endless parade of reading time and the freedom of self-chosen material. Days at the beach round-reading with friends or early mornings in the garden trying to unreel the knotted words of classics  into a language that brimmed with gold, in hours that seemed gleefully stolen from life's frantic advancing pace. Reading is perfect for summer as it slows time down, even freeze-frames certain instances. You can press a moment between the pages of a book as well and delicately as you can a flower; there are in every book I've read from summers past, fragments of that time's goings-on preserved in their pages. Each book is a marker and a map of a particular summer's best-kept moments. That's why I savour summer reading. And now that it is coming to an end, there is always a certain melancholy. With it too, all those sunlit moments of endless basking, daydreaming, whimsy, freedom, spontaneity, possibility and panache, that are the hallmarks of summer's narrative. But while it lasted, sheer unadulterated reading/living bliss. 


So what have been your favourite summer reads? What stories have coloured your carefree days with narratives of worlds foreign and afar? Transported you on their magic carpet rides against a backdrop of pink-frilled skies and silken soft hours? What have  been the makings of your storied summer? Here's to holding its stories dear, both read and written, both imagined and real.

~ Siobhán

Monday, 10 August 2015

Blue Moon Postlude

I am aware that I have countless posts on this blog about the moon. But what's one more eh? Especially since we have just experienced a blue moon last week.  That's right, a rare blue moon. It must be its bright pendulum that is still swaying my thoughts at the moment to all things lunar.   

The moon of course is a poet's most beloved muse. Muse and mentor. Metaphor-maker and talisman. A currency. A lightbulb of inspiration.  An occupational heart-ed object. A slice of sky on which all hopes and dreams get pinned, poetic preambulations plotted. The moon pulls the words in us like it does the tides: back and forth, to and fro, skimming and flooding the blank page of the mind. Our luminous patroness. 

The moon, as I've mentioned in other blogs (you can access them by clicking on the 'moon' label below this post') is something special to poets. We, supposedly, write by the light of the moon. This may not be true literally, but it holds metaphorically. Its luminescence is our light by which we 'see' things, its steady orbit of earth our mind in its forever watchful pose. 

If you are a poet, it's a surefire bet you've written one or two poems about the moon, if not a truckload. I know I have. The moon in all its manifestations: new moon, half moon, full moon, dark of the moon, harvest moon, pink moon, blue moon. And indeed, by the light of the moon - of which I mean at night, bathed in the glow of its unobtrusive light. 

The moon offers countless imaginings to poets: it can be a female deity (this is especially true for many female poets' poems - Carol Ann Duffy's 'Woman in the Moon' is a highlight as is Anne Sexton's 'Moon Song, Moon Woman'; Alice Oswald also has a few great feminine odes to the moon), a disco ball, a disembodied person, a source of romance, of mysticism, of inspiration, of myth vs reality, of ever-constant guardian or silent witness. There are poems in which the moon speaks or in which the poet addresses the moon like an old friend, a romantic overseer. I particularly love Carl Sandburg's 'Backyard' poem in this respect, it's so jubilant and full of the notion of romantic celebration/transformation.  And Billy Collins' 'The Man in the Moon' has such an endearing quality to it. It describes so nonchalantly the moon's ever-there presence in a poet's life, moving through extremes of emotion for that grand ending which also expresses the poet's own unbridled joy at the sight of the moon.

Poems in which the moon is mused upon from a scientific perspective (Archibald Mac Leish's 'Voyage to the Moon' was an imaginative inquisitve response to the 1969 landings; May Swenson  also does a great one on this topic, of which I've posted here before in a previous blog so won't again), a romantic enchantment, or most often a luminously inspired state, even, a lonely solitary one.  Loneliness and the moon are so often intertwined, the moon has come to stand as a symbol of the state, a talisman, a globed sigh hung in the night sky. But it also seems to represent beauty through solitude - a lonely, but beautiful presence. Sara Teasdale's short poem on this 'Morning Song' is gorgeous and offsets loneliness and sadness so beautifully with the idea of solitude, of independent freedom of mind and body, it is one of my favourites for sure. Or the last poem I've posted here, a concrete poem on the moon, pokes fun at all the descriptions heaped on the moon, but then ends on a simple, short almost whispered confession of one truth - the loneliness of the moon.

For some, the moon is light, proof of life beyond our earth, and to others it is the light of the mind, the illumination within when inspiration strikes. I adore Mark Strand's musing on it, 'Open the book of evening to the page/where the moon, always the moon appears...'  Or Kojiju's ode proposing that even to know that the moon exists is to be certain of light not only in night, but in the uncertainty of our universe, in the darkest mysteries of life and what lies beyond.

The moon as it appears in poetry can be magic, can be balm,  or just mystery. A constant companion or an aloof indifferent onlooker, sometimes an advocate for lunacy.  Always though, it is a charm, which exerts an undeniable and sometimes inexplicable power on the poet and the reader.  I cannot get enough of moon poetry - writing and reading it. I search out poems on the moon with something of an explorer's gleeful momentum. Every time I find a new one, it is like the moon has been rediscovered - it is new and gleaming once again. Moon poems shine with a light that comes from awed observance and perceptive finely-tuned poetic antennae.

It seems every poet has written at least one ode to it. Some seem truly smitten, the likes of: Carl Sandburg, Emily Dickinson, Billy Collins, Mark Strand, Alice Oswald, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, WH Auden.  I want to post a few of those poems here today, a few of my my favourites, poems that I have not already posted here.  I hope you will enjoy them and feel moved to suggest some of your favourite moon poems? 

Happy Blue Moon Musing, 


*Most of these poems are taken from this wonderful anthology: 

On the Spirit of the Heart as Moon-Disk - Kojiju

Merely to know
The Flawless Moon dwells pure
In the human heart
Is to find the Darkness of the night
Vanished under clearing skies.

The Man in the Moon - Billy Collins

He used to frighten me in the nights
of childhood,
the wide adult face, enormous, stern, aloft
I could not imagine such loneliness, such coldness
But tonight as I drive home over
these hilly roads
I see him sinking behind stands of winter trees
And rising again to show his familiar face
And when he comes into full view
over open fields
he looks like a young man who has fallen in love
with the dark earth
a pale bachelor, well-groomed and
full of melancholy
his round mouth open
as if he had just broken into song.


Moon - Mark Strand

Open the book of evening to the page
where the moon, always the moon appears
between two clouds, moving so slowly that hours
will seem to have passed before you reach the next page

where the moon, now brighter, lowers a path
to lead you away from what you have known

into those places where what you had wished for happens,
its lone syllable like a sentence poised

at the edge of sense, waiting for you to say its name
once more as you lift your eyes from the page

close the book, still feeling what it was like
to dwell in that light, that sudden paradise of sound.



Moon Compasses - Robert Frost

I stole forth dimly in the dripping pause
Between two downpours to see what there was.
And a masked moon had spread down compass rays
To a cone mountian in the midnight haze, 
As if the final estimate were hers;
And as it measured in her calipers, 
The mountain stood exalted in its place.
So love will take between the hands a face... 


The Well - Denise Levertov

At sixteen I believed the moonlight
could change me if it would.
          I moved my head
on the pillow, even moved my bed
as the moon slowly
crossed the open lattice.

I wanted beauty, a dangerous
gleam of steel, my body thinner,
my pale face paler.
          I moonbathed
diligently, as others sunbathe.
But the moon's unsmiling stare
kept me awake. Mornings,
I was flushed and cross.

It was on dark nights of deep sleep
that I dreamed the most, sunk in the well,
and woke rested, and if not beautiful,
filled with some other power. 


Moon Song, Woman Song - Anne Sexton

I am alive at night.
I am dead in the morning,
an old vessel who used up her oil,
bleak and pale boned.
No miracle. No dazzle.
I’m out of repair
but you are tall in your battle dress
and I must arrange for your journey.
I was always a virgin,
old and pitted.
Before the world was, I was.
I have been oranging and fat,
carrot colored, gaped at,
allowed my cracked o’s to drop on the sea
near Venice and Mombasa.
Over Maine I have rested.
I have fallen like a jet into the Pacific.
I have committed perjury over Japan.
I have dangled my pendulum,
my fat bag, gold, gold,
blinkedly light
over you all.
So if you must inquire, do so.
After all I am not artificial.
I looked long upon you,
love-bellied and empty,
flipping my endless display
for you, you my cold, cold
coverall man.
You need only request
and I will grant it.
It is virtually guaranteed
that you will walk into me like a barracks.
So come cruising, come cruising,
you of the blast off,
you of the bastion,
you of the scheme.
I will shut my fat eye down,
headquarters of an area,
house of a dream.

Voyage to the Moon - Archibald MacLeish 

Presence among us.                                      

                   Wanderer in our skies,

dazzle of silver in our leaves and on our
waters silver,
Silver evasion in our farthest thought –
“the visiting moon” . . . “the glimpses of the moon”...
and we have touched you!
                                           From the first of time,
before the first of time, before the
first men tasted time, we thought of you.
You were a wonder to us, unattainable,
a longing past the reach of longing,
a light beyond our light, our lives – perhaps
a meaning to us . . .
our hands have touched you in your depth of night.
Three days and three nights we journeyed,
steered by farthest stars, climbed outward,
crossed the invisible tide-rip where the floating dust
falls one way or the other in the void between,
followed that other down, encountered
cold, faced death – unfathomable emptiness . . .
Then, the fourth day evening, we descended,
made fast, set foot at dawn upon your beaches,
sifted between our fingers your cold sand.
We stand here in the dusk, the cold, the silence . . .
and here, as at the first of time, we lift our heads.
Over us, more beautiful than the moon, a
moon, a wonder to us, unattainable,
a longing past the reach of longing,
a light beyond our light, our lives – perhaps
a meaning to us . . .
                     O, a meaning!
over us on these silent beaches the bright

          presence among us.


Morning Song - Sara Teasdale

A diamond of a morning 
Waked me an hour too soon;
Dawn had taken in the stars 
And left the faint white moon. 

O white moon, you are lonely, 
It is the same with me,
But we have the world to roam over, 
Only the lonely are free. 

Backyard - Carl Sandburg

Shine on, O moon of summer.
Shine to the leaves of grass, catalpa and oak,
All silver under your rain to-night.

An Italian boy is sending songs to you to-night from an accordion.
A Polish boy is out with his best girl; they marry next month; to-night they are throwing you kisses.

An old man next door is dreaming over a sheen that sits in a cherry tree in his back yard.

The clocks say I must go—I stay here sitting on the back porch drinking white thoughts you rain down.

Shine on, O moon,
Shake out more and more silver changes.

'The Moon Speaks' - James Carter


How much it must bear on its back,
a great ball of blue shadow,
yet somehow it shines, keeps up
an appearance. For hours tonight,
I walk beneath it, learning.
I want to be better at carrying sorrow.
If my face is a mask, formed over
the shadows that fill me,
may I smile on the world like the moon.
- See more at: http://blog.sevenponds.com/the-next-chapter/dealing-with-grief#sthash.YYPw94l7.dpu
How much it must bear on its back,
a great ball of blue shadow,
yet somehow it shines, keeps up
an appearance. For hours tonight,
I walk beneath it, learning.
I want to be better at carrying sorrow.
If my face is a mask, formed over
the shadows that fill me,
may I smile on the world like the moon.
- See more at: http://blog.sevenponds.com/the-next-chapter/dealing-with-grief#sthash.YYPw94l7.dpuf

Friday, 31 July 2015

Ten Things Not To Say To A Writer!

The hashtag #TenThingsNotToSayToAWriter has been trending on Twitter the past few days, in a big way. 

If you haven't heard about it, go google right now! It's basically a hashtag for writers to express their frustrations as to how the craft is misunderstood and generally disrespected by the majority of the public.  So many writers - both aspiring and established - have embraced the hashtag as a means of venting their frustrations. To give you a taste of some of the tweets, have a look at this article on:  Thought Catalog. Seems the most common refrain goes along the lines of ignorant dismissal: 'So what's your real job then?' (this line by Margaret Laurence always ricochets in my mind to that one: 'When I say 'work', I only mean writing. Everything else is just odd jobs.' Amen.) Many of the tweets also show the assumption that writing is a hobby and one that everyone can do apparently, given enough time. Pah!

Oh I can agree with so many of them. And this got to thinking what are the ten things I hate to have said to me in relation to writing... Hmmm:

1. "Ah, creative writing - you mean calligraphy." (Complete cluelessness. This actually was said to me, on a few occasions!) 
2. "Yes, but when are you going to get a real job?" (Peevish cynics/jealous onlookers suffering from a big lack of vision/imagination/dreams of their own) 
3. "Don't you have to be older to be a writer? You know, have more life experience." 
(Ageist and completely incorrect as to who writers are and what they do - because no, we are not all writing memoirs.) 
4. "Yes, but apart from that, what do you do?" (Haughty undermining) 
5. "You have to be really lucky to get a book published these days - like winning the lotto!" (Er no, snide dream disser, you don't need luck when you've got talent and drive.) 
6. "Then again you could be lucky like -insert name of popular prolific chick lit author here"- (Well I hope NOT! since I don't want to sell-out my literary soul! Hard to understand every woman is not a chick-lit writer - or reader - for that matter!)
7. "Maybe you could write my life story, be a bestseller!" (Narcissists' input - happens more than you'd think...) 
8. "Oh I've always wanted to write a novel,  everyone has one in them." 
(Belittling. Er, no. Sure, everyone has a story or stories in them, but not everyone has the ability to transmute these narratives to imaginative written expressions.)
9. "Oh... so you're a journalist!" (Inability to comprehend the actual variety of genres in writing) 
10. "Did that really happen to you?" (Inability to understand ah, the premise of 'fiction') 

But I have to say, despite all of these things, there is one absolute worst thing than these. When I mention I write or want to be a writer, this response: _____________ . 

Big bad blank. Nothing, nada, nope, didn't hear that, don't want to hear that, what?!?!  Not what they have said, but what they have not said. A complete ignoring. Try it. As Carolyn See put it in her excellent guide to writing - 'Making a Literary Life', if you want to stop a conversation dead in its tracks, mention the fact that you write, or aspire to being a writer. Whoa! 

What about you fellow writers? What are your ten things? Writing is a misunderstood craft, especially when it's committed to as an active career. #TenThingsNotToSayToAWriter shows just how much. Darn it. But we accept the mantle valiantly. To write is to battle silence, indifference, ignorance, dismissal, misunderstanding, all of it. So, on we go, regardless of what people think of our profession/obsession/occupation.

But anyway, not to end on a cranky note. Here's ten things we writers would like to hear more:

Ten Things To DEFINITELY Say To A Writer:

1. How is the writing going? (genuine interest, acknowledgement) 
2. What an exciting profession! (admiration, respect) 
3. You're a very talented writer/I love your work. (recognition)
4. What a joy to create for a living! (support)
5. I really enjoyed your work (Plus that is to say I did actually read it) 
6. I love reading books. (support of your industry)
7. What do you write? (interest) 
8. What writers do you admire? (interest, upped)
9. I'd love to read your novel/script/poetry/articles. (support and encouragement)
10. Writing is hard work! (Yes, thank you!)


Observer: Hashtag Has Famous Writers Venting And Bonding on Twitter
Huffington Post: #TenThingsNotToSayToAWriter is Funny, But Also Good Etiquette

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

The Sense of a Sensibility: On Being a Poet

'To be a poet  is a condition, not a profession.' ~ Robert Frost

I've been thinking a lot recently on what it means to be called a 'poet.' To be a writer and to be termed a writer is a very different thing from being a poet. Writers write, poets... wander lonely as clouds, through dales and daydreams (!) Poets pen poems of course, but to majority opinion, they exist in a state of bemusement, in a dreamy airy-fairyness. If you imagine a writer, it's a person sitting slavishly at a typewriter, surrounded by reams of pages; imagine a poet and it's a vague ambling figure, eyes to the sky, mind gallivanting betwixt the real and the imaginary. If a writer's profession is seen to be a strange one, then a poet's is far more surreal, and unsure in the eyes of many. 

The term 'poet' not only describes what you do, but more so, who you are. It's not just the act of writing poems that defines a poet, it's the general disposition that goes with that. The poetic disposition or sensibility, the enabler of poetry writing. There is truth in what Robert Frost said that to be a poet 'is a condition, not a profession'. I agree. It is more trait than talent, more a way of being than of writing. Most poets will tell you that to have a career writing poetry is almost impossible. But to be a poet, is reward in itself, for you are blessed with an unique way of seeing the world. 

'Poet' is really a word for a person who pays close attention to life. A life-observer. Note-taker.  Poets see things minutely, miraculously. We are attentive to every little detail, every nuance of emotion, every shift of light. To be a poet is to be continually aware of life - the emotions that eddy and swirl, the strata of the  physical, natural world down to the slightest movement of a leaf in a breeze. As Mary Oliver says in one of her poems: "Instructions for living a life: pay attention, be astonished, tell about it." And that's what poets do. To be a poet you work in the realm of astonishment, where every little thing is a wonder, a wonder that demands the right words to translate it to a wider audience. You have sensitive antennae that are always feeling out situations for poetic inspiration. I always think the mind of a poet is like a coral reef, alive with colour, opening and probing in an endless unfurling of brilliant blossom, vibrant with life. We have a kind of built-in periscope in the heart, to see not out of the deep, but into the deep.

I saw an advertisement for a writing job recently with one of the requirements asking for a 'high emotional intelligence.' Granted, all writers have this of course. How else could you write credibly about people without an innate understanding of the emotional psyche? But poets, well they excel in this realm. Look how precisely we can identify and analyse emotions, pin them like strange underwater specimens to our blank page and dissect them into fragments of many metaphors and similes, symbols and images. Our area of expertise is emotional terrain. We are more equipped there than anywhere else. It's not just a keen sensitivity (we feel - a lot), but we can dive into the depths of those feelings and emerge with a new knowledge, a newly gleaned wisdom  that is poetry's greatest attribute.  

And contrary to some popular opinion, we poets do not live in a grandiose world of our own making. As a poet, you are intrinsically attuned to the world as it is, not removed from it. We render it in language that shines a light on its silent secrets, illuminates and releases its burden of unnoticed glamours. Poetry is an expression of living, a testament of being here and feeling alive, a 'life-cherishing force' as Mary Oliver notes. And it is not the pursuit of the dreamy, or the airy-fairy, or a part-time past-time. It is a worthy discipline. I love how Mark Strand put it that: 'life makes writing poetry necessary to prove I really was paying attention.' In our finer moments, poetry is what we all do, what we all feel; that which quickens out heartbeat and bestows on us a true sense of being alive. Poets are just people who pledge their lives to this course, who take the time to record in verse (to seek, as Coleridge said 'the best words in the best order') the amazement of life they witness.  How can any of this be sometimes looked upon with smug derision by certain people? (Cynic, thy name is critic!)

Writers are concerned mostly with the search for truth in their writing. For poets, it's something else. Our holy grail goal is akin to Beauty, which is always to be found lilting over the horizon, stepping in and out of our wordings like a mirage goddess. To some people success is money, status, fame. To a writer, it is recreating Life in fiction; to a poet it is the skillful capturing of the Muse, the transformation of ordinary matter into the extraordinary. Poetry is a kind of alchemy, gilding precious gold the most commonplace of things. A poet  is blessed with a vision that sees the world as it innately is: a kind of Wonderland of experience and inspiration. 

How to spot a poet? Well maybe it's that person staring off into the distance with a glint in their eye, someone who takes an impish delight in their surroundings.  People who mutter words aloud - Yeats was often caught at this while out walking - no doubt the locals thought him mad, but my, how we of the poetic disposition would disagree! I often speak words aloud to hear their trill (and thrill.) To sound out how they fit together, how they sieve through air for a soft feather finish. As WH Auden says, 'a poet is first and foremost a person who is passionately in love with language,' but I beg to differ. A poet is first and foremost a person who is passionately in love with the world. As Wallace Stevens put it: 'a poet looks at the world the way a man looks at a woman.' And it is this love that leads to ingenious feats of language craft. 

In a book I'm reading now by Irish author Niall Williams ('History of the Rain') I was struck by the lines on the first page about the personality of a poet: "My father bore a burden of impossible ambition. He wanted all things to be better then they were, beginning with himself and ending with this world. Maybe this was because he was a poet. Maybe all poets are doomed to disappointment. Maybe it comes from too much dazzlement." 
Dazzlement. Yes! The very thing. That's the occupational consequence of being a poet, being constantly dazzled.  And it can lead to a lot of things: gratitude, luminous verse, a magnificent sense of the joy of living. But also it can mean disappointment and disillusion and that distinctly Irish trait implied here of melancholy. 

I realise I'm lucky to be Irish and live in a country where poetry is respected so much. To be called a poet here is a term of endearment and respect. We have always celebrated poets in Ireland, right back to ancient times when a 'file' or bard, was one of the highest esteemed members of society. They were seen as a kind of magic practitioner (I love how Seamus Heaney echoed this when he said that he 'dabbled' in words), and were revered for their work. The file was the person who had a say in the running of society, one of its wise council, not to mention a mirth maker and almost soothsayer. The written word was held in the utmost regard, and still is. Today, poets enjoy a respectful presence in the land. Poetry competitions, readings and celebrations are rampant and our legacy of great poets such as Yeats and Heaney always something to be proud of despite other national problems. In a way our national character is infused with a sense of poetry, which manifests itself in wit and melancholy and a 'gift for the gab.' Our language is rain-soaked, dew-fed, a warm mixture of Gaelic and English, a cadence of mirth and woe, chiseled on the rhyme of sing-song greetings and the rhythm of jaunty dialects. 'We are all born with the gene of poetry', but I think this is particularly true of the Irish. And I'm glad to be an inheritor of that heritage. 

I've been thinking about this recently I suppose as I am becoming more aware of it all. How I pay attention to the world. How each day is a mass of colour amid a volley of words and bright bouquets of inspiration that manifest in the most ordinary of situations. Sometimes, there is sensory overload - too much to take in. The whole day shifts and shimmers as a wild rough draft and I struggle to lasso the neurotic subject  matter and pull it all into shape. 

I love that I see the world as a poet. As a place of plentiful inspiration. On good days, every little thing sings for notation: trees, skies, the petal of a flower, the memory of a song, the flutter of an eyelash, the wing of a bird, a smile, a word, a phrase, a food, a feather-light passing feeling. It is an exuberant, almost invincible feeling, a feeling that can trump every other negativity that crops up along the way. Instant heart highs. I have the power to shapeshift it all onto the page, and once there, some sense is made, but more than that, some significance, some semblance of worthy recognition emerges. Anything is worthy of poetry - as Flaubert said: 'There is not a particle of life that does not contain poetry within it'. And you find that to single out a subject for poetic incarnation is to enlarge the experience of it. To present it on a epic scale. And the result is that life accelerates into a momentum of mattering. It's almost a kind of superpower, really.

Being a poet may not be practical in today's world. It may not get you a 9 to 5 job or a moneyed up lifestyle. But it will make you rich with other gifts. Because of being a poet, having a poetic disposition, I find treasure everywhere I look; I can create my own riches. And I suppose I'm writing this post to acknowledge that fact, to express my heartfelt thanks for this 'condition' of being.  To accept it more fully. To understand it. To know my place in the grand scheme of work/life/career/vocation. And maybe mostly, to remember that there is something that I do that will always remain... hidden I suppose. Partly invisible.  But it is still there nonetheless. Pulsing quietly like a galaxy of stars. And it may not matter to some, but it matters to me. It may not be a way of proving my worth in the workplace or 'real' world (let's face it, in most jobs, poetic sensibility or 'high emotional intelligence' is not a required must), but is a way of proving my worth as an all-seeing, all-feeling human being, as a way of paying (awed) dues for my stay on this planet. I thank all my lucky stars that I have been bestowed with not just a knack at arranging words but this way of seeing, of being. This profound delight in taking note of living. I think this line sums up the feeling of a poet writing a poem most brilliantly: 

 "And what I was feeling was the wonder, of being more than me. I had become a shining star, a burning nova. Exploding with love." 
~Walter Myers  

To put it simply, a kind of magic.

And a big-up salute to all you poets reading this! We may have it tough at times contending with practical pedanticness and cynical critics, but do remember, the goodness, the giddy gladness that accompanies our profession, and condition.