Archive for the ‘Writing in General’ Category

Pop Culture Wins in 2016

Pop culture wins in more than one area in 2016.

In October when the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan, I questioned its appropriateness. Wasn’t the creation of a separate category more in order than pronouncing Dylan’s lyrics an accomplishment in world literature considering that songwriting spans the realms of music and literature? I recognize that poetry no longer has a general readership and that most Americans’ exposure  to poetry today comes solely through song lyrics. I have no elitist quarrel with this state of affairs, for clearly poetry has its roots in an oral tradition. Yet the gushing of some authors such as Salman Rusdie and Joyce Carol Oates over Dylan’s award struck me as excessive and unwarranted. The Academy justified the award because Dylan “had created new poetic expression within the great American song tradition”–a peculiar rationale, which seemed to justify a new category–songwriting–not a prize for outstanding accomplishment in literature.

I wondered if I was missing something. Did others see literary merit where I had only heard successful popular folk music that I had enjoyed while growing up? I wondered if the lyrics would impress me as great poetry when I read them on the printed page. I determined to read all of Dylan’s lyrics and to formulate my own judgment. With this purpose in mind, I ordered the 679-page volume of The Lyrics 1961-2012.

It has taken me two months to read the entire book. By page 100, I was bored. Granted, there are some clever lines scattered here and there; but I didn’t see enough meat on the bones to pronounce this great poetry. I struggled to finish the book, only able to read a few pages at a time. Much is monotonous, boring, silly, lame, and the usual mournful love laments. The lyrics are dependent on refrain and repetition and are often rather banal. Dylan is a genius in use of rhyme, but on the printed page they come across as too forced. “Blowin’ in the Wind,” of course, stands out as rising above the ordinary lyric and reads well as a poem. Much of what I read is pure doggerel, light verse à la limerick. Did the Academy members actually read all of the complete lyrics?  How did they stay awake for the duration?

About page eighty-five the language is becoming more political, and in “One Too Many Mornings,” Dylan creates one of his memorable refrains: For I’m one too many mornings/And a thousand miles behind. A good example of his word wizardry that everyone enjoys occurs in “All I Really Want to Do:” I don’t want to meet your kin/Make you spin or do you in/Or select you or dissect you/Or inspect you or reject you. Or these unforgettable lines in “My Black Pages:” Ah, but I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now. Of the intermittent lyrics that I consider crossing the border into what may be termed literary in the canonical sense is “Chimes of Freedom” in which the one-line, end-of-stanza refrain is not overdone and the line Through the wild cathedral evening the rain unraveled tales/for the disrobed faceless forms . . . possesses the fresh, vivid imagery, assonance and consonance my senses love in fine poetry.

But moments of verbal virtuosity are lost  in pages of verse that are flat and trite. There are too many to choose from, but I’ll settle on this from “I Shall Be Free No. 10:” Now they asked me to read a poem/At the sorority sisters’ home/I got knocked down and my head was swimmin’/I wound up with the Dean of Women/Yippee! I’m a poet, and I know it/Hope I don’t blow it. Ogden Nash could do better. Dylan’s gymnastics with rhyme augurs the rise of rap and hip hop at the end of the twentieth century.

Half-way through the book, I began to note poems that seemed to transcend the jingle-jangle of merely a song lyric. “Tin Angels,” “Golden Loom,” and “Romance in Durango” (a bilingual ballad) have glimmers of more substance, and “Too much of Nothing” has the clever line evocative of Dylan’s social commentary. Then I rejoice, hearing the sounds of my favorite song lyrics in “Forever Young,” and “Simple Twist of Fate.” Am I swayed by memories of listening to these songs, or are they also good, if not great poems? The Academy’s consensus apparently was that Dylan’s body of work rose above the trite and time-worn found in love ballads and folk songs. I am not so sure, especially, when I come to this final verse in “Where Teardrops Fall” toward the end of the volume: Roses are red, violets are blue/And time is beginning to crawl/I just might have to come see you/Where teardrops fall. Sometimes Dylan runs out of steam in playful language and his last lines bomb into vacuity. Is that his intention? Laughing at his own verbal play? Here’s another ending from “Dignity:” Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take/To find dignity. Here I hit the bottom of an empty well.

We have another figure of pop culture rising to prominent heights this year: Donald J. Trump, impresario of  the TV reality show “The Apprentice.” Pop culture has colored the nation’s judgment, taste, manners, and morals. So should I really wonder at the Swedish Academy’s wisdom in selecting Bob Dylan as recipient for the Nobel Prize in Literature?  Can the world at large discern quality in literature any better than the general electorate of the United States can distinguish character and fitness for office among political candidates? Pop culture has triumphed in all spheres of life. Pop culture is largely entertainment and is supposed to be fun. I don’t fault it for being that, but I do fault those who are unable to appreciate that dealing with important national and global issues is no laughing matter.

 

The Writer and Politics

Writers form part of the intelligentsia–the group of creative minds who through their writings, paintings, sculpture, music, and other forms of art, reflect upon and portray the spirit of their times. In doing so they cannot ignore politics. Who are the current players upon the national stage? What is the moral climate? How is the fabric of society being effected by events, styles, fads, popular opinion, new inventions, gadgetry, and fashions? Even if they write historical fiction, their narratives of the past seek to shed light on the contemporary milieu. It is not necessary for them to be polemical or take to the streets as activists. They can stay home and compose The Grapes of Wrath.

In the two weeks since the shocking election of Donald Trump, I have reflected how this event, thought so impossible by the intelligentsia, could have occurred. Like so many citizens who prided themselves on being informed and thoughtful voters, I was stupefied within one hour of listening to the election returns on November 8th and, thoroughly aghast, I turned off the television by seven o’clock. The country rejected elitist thought and chose a vulgar, ignorant, duplicitous man to be its president. My judgment had been terribly wrong. All Trump’s negatives, lack of temperament and qualifications did not matter to a goodly portion of Americans, both educated and non-educated, well-informed or ill-informed. They kicked elitists in the butt. Crudity and vulgarity ruled, which translated into not being politically correct–now considered a virtue. I moped. I still admired good manners.

I had invested time and energy in the last year and a half expecting him to be defeated. He was too absurd, too bizarre, too incoherent, to ever be elected. I am a pointy-headed intellectual who misread my country and my countrymen. It is a humbling experience. It is my comeuppance. It is the pride that goes before the fall, and the outcome made me extremely crestfallen.

Water therapy helps. Several bubble baths later, I can calmly reconsider this catastrophic event. This is my wake-up call, my eye-opener, not exactly being knocked off a horse like Saul on the way to Damascus, but it will have to do to give me new vision. I now have regained some serenity in the matter. My daily anodyne for twenty-five years has been A Course in Miracles, which tells me now “to loose the world from all I thought it was” and “not value what is valueless.”

Escaping from the political bombshell, I soaked in the tub, reading Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. In the first paragraph the narrator Genly Ai, the peace envoy to the planet of Winter, states “Facts are no more solid, coherent, round, and real than pearls are. But both are sensitive.” I nod my head, thinking “Isn’t that the truth in this campaign cycle?” Facts were inconsequential, ephemeral, irrelevant; but still precious as pearls. This science-fiction novel holds out the hope for peace when the two main characters, alone crossing the glacier, build trust and love for each other despite their differences. A dose of the Chinese yin and yang was a salve to my jangled soul. Light is the left hand of darkness/and darkness the right hand of light, Le Guin writes. Bingo! A light seemed to glimmer in my darkness. Trump is the shadow side of America, and I am a part of that America. I must own it, and in that darkness also acknowledge there is accompanying light. Something good may come of this bad.

Trump can’t fix the world; no one can, and certainly not one elected official alone. What’s real is love–the only fix-it-upper. To continue to lambaste this man is not the road to peace. To continue to find fault and to blame will not solve one problem (even if he did that in spades). The problem is in ourselves–our failure to forgive. Politics too much lately has been an exclusive game of fault-finding and finger-pointing. After the car breaks down, the owner has to fix it or buy a new one. I do not wish a failed presidency on anyone, but I feel the elevation of Trump to high office is bound to enlighten him and everyone who voted for him despite his inadequacies. He will have ample opportunity to fall off his high horse as I did. If he stumbles and falls, the experiment in electing an unqualified, low-minded person will have been tested, and we will have to form and test another hypothesis.

What I want to do in the next four years is first, stay alive; two, read a lot more books because that’s what an egghead does; three, play my harp while Washington squabbles; fourth, write some more blogs like this one that few people will ever read; five, knit fifty lace shawls; and last but not least, make new friends but keep the old ones. Have I given up following politics? No. I’ll just get my information entirely from reputable print and online news sources. Will I break down and watch the inauguration on January 20? No. I’ll be remembering my mother who was born on that day in 1917.

I append to these election reflections a two-part poem on the subject. The first part I wrote the morning of November 8th; the second part I wrote ten days afterwords.

Election Reflections

A.M.

Election morning brings feeling
That in the evening
We’ll have a leader that is female
Then the world in one breath will exhale.

To play footsie with an ignoramus
Was terribly dangerous.
The chance of a bigot as POTUS
Was a blemish on all of us.

With the counting seek the polestar
That in the evening
Will project in bright light
All are not without foresight.

Election morning I’m foreseeing
That in the evening
Love’s heel crushes the head of hate
Then binds a divided state.

P.M.

Premonitions are often wrong
Like morning’s hopeful song
That collapses like the twin tower
Folding in upon itself in horror.

Beyond dumbstruck by the dumb
Who’ve elected the worse than dumb
Stupefies and I’ve become the buffoon
Babbling like a baboon.

Reason is trumped, resentment
Excuses bad judgment,
Moral compass is jettisoned
And I’m utterly disillusioned.

The navigational guides are jinxed;
We’ve been hoodwinked.
The ship of fools sails on with broken spar,
Can Ahab steer to safe harbor?

What is Oratory?

The glaring absence of this art in the political arena today gives cause for reflection on how its presence is immediately recognizable to listeners. We know we heard it in Martin Luther King’s speeches; we know we heard it in John Kennedy’s speeches; the world heard it in Winston Churchill’s speeches, but we don’t hear oratory in the GOP presidential candidates of 2016 and maybe just little glimmers in Bernie Sanders; none in Hillary Clinton’s because her words fail to aspire.

Oratory is formal speaking, although at points in an address an orator may modulate his key from a lofty to a folksy tone for greater intimacy with his audience. Franklin Roosevelt did this in his fireside chats. The Latin root ars conveys the meaning that oratory is the art of eloquence, of eloquent speech. Then what is eloquence? How is eloquence recognized? Eloquence is fluid, forcible, filled with crafted sentences, analogy, metaphor, and colorful language. It is rhythmic, musical, and paced like carefully placed rests in a musical measure. What about the speaker? He is confident; his gestures are graceful and purposeful. He is not wooden or robotic.  He enunciates his words, varies his pitch, volume, and tone consistent with his meaning.  He avoids perpetual shouting and the canning of lines he delivered hundred of times before.  He chooses the precise word, in fact, every word deepens and broadens understanding of his argument. He does not have to resort to vulgar language in a weak ploy to add force to his speech, which only appeals to the baser instincts of his audience.

There is substance to oratory in contrast to the platitudes that comprise the usual political speech. Substance is achieved through a well-organized speech that has been written out and planned in advance but delivered as if it were extemporaneous. Good orators know how to read from a text naturally. Churchill wrote his speeches in psalm format. “The Finest Hour” speech appears like typed lines of poetry on the page.Finest hourEach line builds upon the other. Progression is paramount, thus enabling the audience to follow the argument easily. Repetition is used meaningfully.  Contrast the orator’s organized speech to the ramblings of our current candidates or the jumbled blather of Sarah Palin.

Oratory is an art form because it encompasses many disciplines: knowledge of literature, history, the ability to construct balanced sentences, an ear for rhythm and harmony, control of voice and body movement. Great orators are great readers. They are conversant with the world’s literature and with the sacred texts of the world, including the Bible. They would not be stumped to quote a favorite passage from the Book of Proverbs or elsewhere in the New or Old Testaments. Forgive me, if I cannot conceive of any of our candidates reading more than a few books of any substance since they graduated from college.

But a stump speech can be oratory if it demonstrates these qualities of eloquence. Unfortunately, what I am hearing on the campaign trail is harangue. What distinguishes harangue from oratory? Often Adolf Hitler is given credit for oratorical skills, but his was the talent of the haranguer. The haranguer is a great shouter. The emotions the haranguer stirs up are fear and hatred while the orator inspires the audience with nobler qualities of faith, hope, courage, love, and the brotherhood of man. He is encouraging his audience to believe and to act better than they have previously thought they were capable of doing.

Often cited as the presidents who possessed oratorical skills to one degree or another are John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. One of the reasons attributed for the election of a junior senator like Obama was his oratory. Similarly, Ronald Reagan greatly benefited from his early days as a radio announcer and his acting career. He won also because his speeches inspired the country to believe that the United States was that shining city on a hill, the New Jerusalem.

I look for inspiration with substance backed up with sound reasoning, precision of language, and coherence of argument. Bombast is not oratory. A grocery list of platitudes is not oratory. Senseless repetition is not oratory. Oratory is inseparable from the speaker; for the speaker must be confident, truthful, sincere, principled, and dedicated to ideals beyond glorification of self.

 

Originality

In the realm of the literary arts, does anything as pristine and undiluted as originality exist? The word original is most commonly understood to mean not derived from something else. Often a novelist in the process of writing his opus magnum sedulously refuses to read someone else’s novel for fear he will be unconsciously influenced by another writer’s ideas or style. I say “phooey” on that fear. Of course, I am influenced consciously or unconsciously by everything I have ever read. It works like osmosis. I learned to write a complex sentence by patterning my sentence on someone else’s syntax. So what?

Influences play subtly or blatantly in writing. Great novels and poems are replete with literary allusions, references to Greek mythology, and universal symbols that countless other writers have used; yet each writer employs these borrowings from his predecessors in unique ways if his work is considered fresh. I staunchly subscribe to the position that the best way for a writer to improve and to grow in his style and vision is to read widely in the recognized great books of the world and to draw unabashedly upon literary tradition. Good books fertilize the imagination. Cross-pollination can create a brighter, stronger strain of flower. T.S. Eliot wrote about the necessity for the writer to cultivate what he called the historical sense, which “compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.” This historical sense combines with the writer’s consciousness of his contemporary scene to transcend the merely personal, enabling a fusion of his personal experience with a knowledge of the past. This fusion of past and present, according to T.S. Eliot, is the alchemy that renders the art timeless.

Therefore, it is hardly a slur for a work to be described as derivative or traditional. The study of comparative literature involves the identification of influences and cross-currents among cultures, so that the meaning of originality as complete freedom from outside influence or inspiration is a false construct. Instead of fear that reading other books will cause other writers’ ideas to creep into our “original” work, we should embrace them.  Wide exposure to the literary heritage of the world and a knowledge of history will only enhance the individual artist’s work. Imbued with the past, the individual talent can transmute his personal experience into art that transcends time and place. T.S. Eliot terms this depersonalization–the extinction of personality necessary to present a fresh insight into the universal human condition.

 

Writing Book Reviews

After reading the lists of notable books of 2015 that major newspapers publish, I’ve discovered that I have not read any of the titles on their lists. During the past year, I was too busy reading the notable books of the last century. I like the dust to settle on the dust jackets of the currently acclaimed books before reading them. Now, in my sixth decade of life and having stood the test of time myself to some degree,  I prefer to devote my time to reading books that have also shown some staying power.  However, I do like to read reviews of current books, and I will store those titles that strike my fancy away in my memory bank for future reference. Thankfully, my memory bank still has some resilience.

Book reviews whether of books that first appeared years ago or of ones recently published can be valuable in deciding to read the book now or never.  Sometimes the review helps me make the decision. Reviews that either overpraise or harshly criticize are not helpful. They are suspect. Understandably, who would want to review in the first place I book that he did not enjoy reading? Reviewers want to share a good experience, which accounts for the rave review. Is there a way to write a neutral book review in which the reviewer did not indicate his dislike, indifference or outright distaste for the book? Granted, a literary critic has a responsibility to point out flaws in execution, but this can be done without excoriation.  Thus, I tend to give more credence to the review that maintains a less effusive and more objective tone, tacitly acknowledging that literary judgments are subject to the tastes and proclivities of the reviewer.

I like a book review that is written with the prospective reader in mind. My method of writing a book review concentrates on identifying the reasons why anyone would want to read this particular book in the first place. I describe what themes are developed and what insights are offered on the subject. I examine the elements of fiction and of style so that the potential reader can decide whether this book deserves eight or more hours of his life. I state whether the book is plot-driven and action-oriented for those who dislike lengthy descriptions, drawn-out development of setting, and paragraph after paragraph of narrative. If the writing style distinguishes the book, I cite this for those who love playfulness with language, poetical prose, and rich sensory detail. Book reviews that concentrate on plot and character summaries do not interest me. I want only tidbits of information about conflict and main character to whet my curiosity, and I certainly do not want the resolution of the conflict revealed. Basically, I want these questions answered: what kind of reader would read this book and why.  The short, sweet review of approximately 500 words or less can do the job. This review of my taste in book reviews runs to 497 words.

 

To M.F.A or not to M.F.A.

The article “Why Writers Love to Hate the M.F.A” in the New York Times this morning caught my attention. After reading the 75 comments that followed, I want to add my more than two cents worth to the debate, which has been the subject of many writers’ blogs before. Not being a graduate of any of these programs, I have a suspicion that if I were a younger, aspiring writer I would  be among those 20,000 applicants to the 381 different writing programs in the country today.

The one compelling reason to complete such a program, providing it is at a prestigious institution, is to make friends in the publishing industry. If it does not afford the opportunity to expose your writing or ostensible talent to editors, publishers and agents; then don’t waste your money–unless, of course, you have a lot of money to spend on your personal pastimes. There is a less expensive way to do that. Besides not all the writing schools in the world will make you a published author unless you have something meaningful and/or significant to write about. Otherwise your brilliant verbal effects are like the dummy dressed up in the latest fashion in the store window. The commenters who recommend travel, a career as a journalist, or finding a job outside of academia give the best advice. These are paths to life experiences that can translate into engaging books above and beyond your personal angst as a writer. Too often the novels of academically-trained writers sport college professors and writers as their main characters. Boring!

There are less expensive methods to develop your writing. Ray Bradbury said that the public library is where he went to school. Through voracious reading he learned to write. Reading widely is the launching pad. Good books inspire; bad books show us what not to do. The next step is to practice the art of writing. Write often; write a lot; good, bad or indifferent write every day. Keep a journal. Try your hand at the essay, short story, novella, the memoir. The third step is to participate in a writer’s group, but choose carefully, making sure the members know how to offer and give constructive critique. A helpful investment of your time and money is to attend, preferably once a year, a writers’ conference. I recommend the Southern California Writers Conference as one of the many held around the country. These conferences usually offer the opportunity to submit a sample of your writing for a personal conference with an editor or agent; however, be sure your kind of writing matches the editor’s or agent’s interest. Think of how many of these workshops over your lifetime you can attend for the cost of that $40,000 M.F.A. degree.

A higher education isn’t necessary as authors like Bradbury prove. If you go for a college degree, any number of fields like literature, history, psychology, or law can produce good writers. The M.F.A. degree on your resume does not guarantee publication. Neither does the less expensive way I have outlined here.

The fact of the matter is there are far more excellent writers than book buyers. Not only would libraries but also millions of people would have to purchase the plethora of books published every year, more of which are remaindered than read.  In today’s market, chances of publication by a major commercial publishing house is a crap shoot. I have dealt with this reality through Amazon’s Createspace and Kindle publication programs. Age is a factor also in my decision. I don’t have the time or energy anymore to write query letters and to submit manuscripts forever. I only retain the passion to continue writing. The universal urge to create accounts for the proliferation of these M.F.A. programs. In my estimation they satisfy a need no different than any other art school. Painters and sculptors long have realized that they are most likely destined to be starving artists all their days on earth. If luck should strike, they can say they were in the right place at the right time and the right person saw and appreciated their work. Bravo, well-done!

For my part, I’ve accepted obscurity and the satisfaction I derive from completion of a piece of writing. Print-on-demand is my solution. The book doesn’t get produced electronically or in print unless a reader buys it.  Perhaps a few hundred strangers have read my books, but they are more than enough to make my solitary art worthwhile. Thank you, everyone.

Helpful Critique

As I prepare to turn my hand again to writing short stories, I am reminded of the first creative writing course I took. At the time I was in my third year of college. The course was specifically directed at writing the short story. For my first assignment, I dug into my memory, drawing from my experience (limited though it was as a twenty-year old college student) and faithfully followed the dictum: Write about what you know. I have since discarded that rule (I think wisely) in favor of the imagination.

From the well of memory I extracted my experience as a three-year old child of sitting before the small white casket of my baby brother who had died a few days after birth. This was the nexus of my story. The intent was to portray that the little girl had no sorrow, no real tears, only anger at the adult world that did not want to open the coffin so that she could see the baby she had been promised. Of course, it wasn’t a good story. Not much went on except in the head of the little girl. No dramatic tension was created and dialogue probably was scarce. So what help did my professor offer me after he read my story and handled it like “a dry turd,” as Holden Caulfield described his teacher doing in The Catcher in the Rye?

The professor suggested that I read a James Joyce story, supposedly to learn how Joyce handled something similar. I can’t recall the name of the story. “Araby” sticks in my mind, but I’m not sure. In any case, I didn’t read the story. I was rather nonplussed, mainly because the professor did not diagnose my problem and gave me no indication how the Joyce story was supposed to doctor my problems.

Why is suggesting that an aspiring writer read a particular author’s work, unhelpful critique? Because the critic has not tried to deal with the story on its own terms. Does he have any idea in the first place what the writer is trying to do in the story? If he is unsure, has he asked the writer about his intent? A writer wants to write his own story, not someone else’s or the story that the reader would like to write himself. Once a critic grasps what the writer wants to do, he can offer advice on ways to better produce those effects. Then he’s not proposing another story  be written, but helping the writer to write the story that he intended to write, but which may have missed the mark.

I am not gainsaying the fact that wide reading helps the would-be writer. When it comes to improving a specific piece of writing, remedy for its deficiencies comes from understanding authorial intent. If the author does not know what the hell he was trying to do, then it’s time to throw that attempt at writing into the circular file and begin from scratch. The thinking that goes on in the head probably is more important and more time-consuming than actually writing the story.

Today I would diagnose my problem as not thinking out my story well enough in my head before I started to write.