If you’re an attentive reader of this blog, you’ve probably noticed that there have been a lot of poets around here, usually in the Quotes of the Day. This isn’t an accident. I’ve been posting quotes on a daily basis for almost five years—I haven’t missed a day yet—and in the process, as I’ve noted before, you quickly run through most of the usual suspects. (There are also a few unwritten rules. I do my best not to run more than one quote from the same source within three months, and I try to avoid falling back on excerpts from the interviews in The Paris Review, which seems a little like cheating. Whenever you see one on this blog, it’s usually because I ran out of ideas.) Whenever I find a promising new source of quotes, I tend to mine it dry before moving on. Sometimes it takes the form of a reference work, like Gaither’s Scientific Quotations, or a book that copiously cites other interesting sources, like Robert Root-Bernstein’s Discovering. Most often, though, it’s because it suddenly occurs to me that a certain field or profession would be a good place to look for wisdom. This month, it happens to be poetry, and it isn’t the first time. A couple of years ago, I ran a long series of quotes from most of the living poet laureates, like Robert Pinsky, of which I said later: “Appointments and prizes in the literary world are often ridiculed as meaningless…but at their best, they provide a soapbox for prickly, passionate, cantankerous artists to bring their opinions to a wider audience.”
Which brings us to the poets whose thoughts I’ve been posting here recently, all of whom have one thing in common: they’ve all won a Pulitzer Prize. And if their interviews are invariably interesting and packed with insights into craft, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Most practicing poets—the ones who manage to make a career out of it, even if it involves teaching or selling insurance on the side—are repositories of lore and good tricks, and the only difference a Pulitzer makes is that they’re being widely interviewed for the first time. In many cases, as with a poet laureateship, it’s the first touch of mainstream fame that these poets have ever received, and you can feel their eagerness to pour out decades of accumulated wisdom for a larger audience. If much of the resulting advice is relentlessly pragmatic, this only reflects the reality of poetry itself, which doesn’t have much patience for dilettantes or dreamers. Threading the needle in any creative profession is a tricky proposition, and it’s all the more true in poetry, in which the needle, not to mention the thread, has a way of disappearing entirely. A poet smart and talented enough to pursue that calling successfully for years has to be preternaturally driven in the face of widespread indifference, a combination that tends to produce useful strategies for living and working.
And what they have to say is often more valuable than what other writers might have to offer under similar circumstances. Looking at the quotes that I’ve posted on this blog over the years, I’m struck by the fact that many of the best come from three professions: poets, playwrights, and programmers. I’m just more likely to learn something interesting from an interview with someone in one of these categories than I am from yet another novelist. Part of this is because the best insights often come from outside your own field, and applying a trick from one discipline to another can be as useful in the arts as it is in science. Even more fundamentally, though, I’d like to think that there’s something about these three jobs in particular that enforces a certain quality of thinking, and it isn’t hard to guess what it might be. All three are defined by constraints. For a poet, those constraints are self-imposed, but any meaningful career in poetry has been shaped at some stage by a prolonged confrontation with form, meter, and rhyme. A playwright—at least one who has any interest in being performed—operates under considerable limitations of length, budget, cast size, sets, and practicable action onstage. And while the hardware and memory limits that coders once had to confront are becoming less of an issue, programming is still constrained by the problems it has to solve and the unforgiving logic of the language. Writers would take a vastly different approach to their work if a poorly written story refused to load altogether.
The more I think about it, the more convinced I become that the answer to Job’s famous question—”Where shall wisdom be found?”—lies in the following equation:
Wisdom = Constraints + Time
If the novel has produced less in the way of useful advice than we might expect, it’s in part because it has been historically defined by its lack of constraints: originally, it was simply a long prose narrative that didn’t fit into any other category. A novel can be anything we want, and as a result, the tips that novelists provide have a hard time being useful to anyone in particular. In poetry, playwriting, and programming, by contrast, the constraints inherent to the form result in a lot of collective wisdom about how to survive. And the lesson for novelists isn’t that we ought to switch fields, or even that we have it easy: in some ways, the lack of constraints in the novel makes it the hardest of all to do well. The real takeaway is that we should impose constraints on ourselves whenever we can, even if it’s just an arbitrary word limit, and that we should pay close attention to fields in which such practical limitations aren’t merely voluntary. (Even better, spend an hour or two talking to a poet over the age of sixty.) And we should remember one of the few great pieces of advice from any novelist, in this case Dennis Lehane, while substituting one of the other two professions as necessary: “The best question I ask myself is: What would a playwright do?”
Yesterday I received a large manila envelope from someone in Georgia. Inside I found a blank index card and a handwritten note on yellow paper. The note read, “Congratulations on your well-deserved Pulitzer Prize. I haven’t read your book because it isn’t on my Kindle. Please send me an autographed photo and sign the index card on the unlined side. Feel free to write a few lines of verse.” He considerately included a stamped, self-addressed envelope.
Last month, in a post about the origins of my novelette “Stonebrood,” I quoted the author David Brin, who compared writing science fiction—with tongue in cheek—to wildcat oil drilling. Here’s more of what he said:
If you think that the territory of notions is limited, then the hard SF writer is like a wildcat miner drilling out resources that are shrinking. For whatever it’s worth, some people think that way. A lot of SF writers aren’t writing hard science fiction because they think most of it has been written. If their reasoning is true—and I don’t think it is—one of the reasons is that you have writers like Larry Niven out there mining out whole veins and leaving nothing left for the rest of us to explore…He not only mines all those marvelous veins of ideas, he mines them to exhaustion.
Brin may not believe that writing is really like wildcatting, but his image gets at something meaningful about how authors work. When you embark on a project of any length, you’re making an excursion into unexplored territory. You can pick the area based on promising signs in the landscape, but in the end, you have no choice but to start digging and hope that the effort pays off. There’s skill involved, but also a lot of luck.
And a writer is less like a modern oil company with a team of geologists than a lone wildcatter driven by an obsession, like Daniel Plainview at the start of There Will Be Blood. Brian Frehner, in his interesting study Finding Oil, refers to them as “vernacular prospectors,” and describes how some relied on dowsing rods and mysterious black boxes called doodlebugs to identify potential sources of oil. It was crackpot science, but to the extent that it worked, it was as a way of focusing the user’s own hunches:
Like a blind man navigating the terrain with a cane, the most successful doodlebug prospectors also surveyed the landscape, and this activity cultivated within them an instinct for recognizing changes in topography and vegetation that indicated the presence of oil. In order to operate a doodlebug, [a prospector] explained that “you’ve got to have a lot of common sense and some knowledge of oil to get any effective results.”
Similarly, any writer eventually develops his or her own bag of superstitious tricks for identifying promising material, even if they’re ultimately just a means of enabling extended thought or reflection. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the specific tools that writers use, from mind maps to tarot cards, are less important in themselves than as an excuse that forces you to sit and think for the necessary number of hours that any idea requires.
But sometimes your intuition can fail you, even if you’re an experienced writer who has navigated the blank places on the map before. I got to thinking about this after reading Robert A. Caro’s description of the Hill Country of Texas in The Path to Power, the first volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson. Describing the view that greeted settlers in the nineteenth century, Caro writes:
The tall grass of the Hill Country stretched as far as the eye could see, covering valleys and hillsides alike…To these men the grass was proof that their dreams would come true. In country where grass grew like that, cotton would surely grow tall, and cattle fat—and men rich. In a country where grass grew like that, they thought, anything would grow.
He concludes bleakly: “How could they know about the grass?” In reality, the grass of the Hill Country had taken centuries to form, growing on a thin, fragile layer of soil over limestone, and as soon as it was eaten by cattle or otherwise denuded, it would never return. In Caro’s memorable words, the Hill Country was “a trap baited with grass.” And any writer can relate to the problem of encountering what seems like a promising area for a story—just look at all that grass!—only to end up striking bare rock.
Even worse, it can take weeks, months, or even years of effort before the writer realizes that the land has gone sour. (As Ted Hughes once said, quoting an unnamed playwright: “Dramatists waste eighty percent of their productive life on unworkable ideas that have to be abandoned.”) And even caution and long experience can’t always defend you against such mistakes. Caro continues:
Moreover, as to the adequacy of rainfall, the evidence of the settlers’ own eyes was often misleading, for one aspect of the trap was especially convincing—and especially cruel…Rain can be plentiful in the Hill Country not just for one year, but for two or three—or more—in a row. Men, even cautious men, therefore could arrive during a wet cycle and conclude—and write home confidently—that rainfall was adequate, even abundant. And when, suddenly, the cycle shifted…who could blame these men for being sure that the dry spell was an aberration; that it would surely rain the next year—or the next? It had to, they felt; there was plenty of rain in the Hill Country—hadn’t they seen it with their own eyes?
The italics are mine. All the caution in the world can’t prevent us from sinking months or years of our lives into ideas that won’t pay off in the way we hoped. The only way to avoid it is to stick only to the areas that have been thoroughly explored, which can lead to its own kind of disappointment. Any ambitious writer—which is to say, any writer determined to strike off on his or her own—will fall into that trap sooner or later. And when it happens, all we can do is pull up stakes, try somewhere else, and hope that this time we’ll find the land that we need.
I don’t believe metrical writing is inherently superior to non-metrical writing; I just believe that a serious poet should be equipped to make a choice between them, and that sufficient ignorance or ineptitude in either mode will rob that poet of the chance for genuine choice.
Over the last few days, my daughter, who turns three in December, has become obsessed by a movie called Ballet 422. It’s a documentary, released earlier this year and now streaming on Netflix, about the creation of an original work for the New York City Ballet by dancer and choreographer Justin Peck. I hadn’t even heard of it until last week, and I cued it up for Beatrix mostly out of desperation: I was reaching the end of a long day that had encompassed visits to the library, a sushi restaurant for lunch, a bookstore, and two parks, and as usual, when it was time to make dinner, I was scrambling to find something that could keep her distracted. But the movie sucked her in from the very first shot—of dancers arriving for their morning exercises—and it never let her go. Since then, she’s asked to see again it multiple times, and we’ll sometimes end up watching it twice on the same day. And in retrospect, it’s the kind of movie that was made to hold her interest. There’s no narration, no talking heads, no grownup’s idea of a plot: just the camera calmly recording attractive people as they engage in intensely interesting creative work. (Documentaries, in general, seem like a promising avenue for the two of us to explore. An attempt to interest her over the weekend in Bering Sea Gold on the Discovery Channel didn’t go as well, but I’m tempted to see what she thinks of Happy People, Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov’s look at life in the Siberian taiga.)
Longtime readers of this blog will know that I’ve written here before, perhaps at excessive length, about the oddly prominent role that ballet has assumed in my inner life. I’m not a dancer, or even much of a real balletomane, but there’s a thread in my thoughts about art that runs through The Red Shoes, my favorite movie of all time, through Ballets Russes, the most moving documentary I’ve ever seen. And in the process, I’ve become increasingly convinced that ballet is the art form that tells us more than any other about the nature of art itself. Along with singing and oral storytelling, it’s the medium that requires the minimum amount of necessary equipment, aside from a functioning human body, but it can also blossom, step by step, into Diaghilev’s idea of the full gesamtkunstwerk, in which all the arts find unified expression. And it’s also the form in which art’s essential transience feels the most visible. Even if it’s preserved on film, or in the notes by the choreographer, a dance exists in the moment, leaving nothing but a memory behind, which I’m starting to feel is fundamentally true about all kinds of art, even those that seem superficially more lasting. I doubt that my daughter senses much of this—she’s more interested in all the pretty people, their movements, and their makeup—but as I watch her face as she watches it, I can’t help but reflect on the role that art plays in giving a shape to a life.
I’d also like to think that Beatrix is receiving a quiet education in the art of documentary filmmaking. Jody Lee Lipes’s movie is the kind of unobtrusive, absorbing work that is so easy to take for granted and so very hard to do well. Instead of imposing himself on the material, as a lesser director might have done, he holds himself—and us—at a slight distance, and the result is defined as much by what it leaves out as by what it includes. We don’t learn anything about Peck’s background or his personal life, and we pick up information about the other participants on the fly. Everyone we meet is intently focused on the business at hand, and the camera takes it all in with a serene equanimity that allows us to forget how difficult it must have been to capture. In a profile in the New York Times, Lipes recalls how he had to work within considerable constraints:
The deadline to create the work gives the film a tautness that was reinforced by the filmmakers’ tight budget: They could afford only limited shooting. Mr. Lipes said his wife, Ellen Bar, a producer of the film, was especially helpful in guiding his choices, since she is a former City Ballet dancer and the dance company’s director of media projects.
“I would say, ‘Should we shoot today?’ ” Mr. Lipes recalled. “And Ellen would say, ‘This is the first time Justin is going to see the orchestra perform the piece; we have to be there.’”
In other words, Lipes’s film becomes an understated emblem of the exact kind of restraint and ingenuity that it celebrates. The “deadline” mentioned above refers to the fact that Peck had only a couple of months to put together his ballet: a hole had unexpectedly appeared in the company’s roster, and he was asked to fill it. Another movie might have used this detail to set up an artificial ticking clock, but Ballet 422 doesn’t go out of its way to emphasize it. Like dance itself, in which artistic self-effacement and discipline are channeled into the creation of overwhelming emotion on stage, the movie’s air of detachment becomes almost a fetish. And yet its closing scenes—in which Peck watches his premiere along with the rest of the audience, strips off his suit and tie, gets into costume, and joins the corps de ballet onstage for the last performance of the evening—are indescribably moving. This last sequence includes the only showy edit in the entire movie, as the image of a ring of dancers cuts to the matching circle of the fountain at Lincoln Center. From there, it moves to a view of the entire plaza, seen from far overhead, and as the credits roll, I always find myself thinking of my own life. I spent a memorable year in my twenties, not all that much younger than Peck, living just a short walk way from that fountain. And when I look away from the screen now, I see my own daughter dancing before it.
Begin to draw as early in life as possible. If you begin quite early, use any convenient tool and draw upon any smooth uncluttered surfaces. The flyleaves of books are excellent, although margins of textbooks too have their special uses, as for small pictorial notations upon matters discussed in classes, or for other things left unsaid.
Doing the research to write [Bellocq’s Ophelia] I immersed myself in so much of the history—going to the archive, reading secondary literature, looking at the photographs, looking at an almanac of the weather in New Orleans for a particular year. Then, before I could write I had to shove it all aside. I had to forget everything from the front of my brain, or at least in the foreground of my thinking, to forget all that I had read. But it was still there for me to access as I tried to write poems. “Intuition is the result of prolonged tuition.” It didn’t go away, but I had to get out of the mode of researcher and back into the mode of poet. And there were times—I could probably look in my notebooks right now and see notes to myself saying to myself exactly what you said, “This better not sound like a little essay in poetry about history.” I would give myself directives to stop accessing the place where I had stored all those things in my mind and instead look at the photographs again, just respond to what I am seeing. I think it’s a way of making yourself, after feeding the intellect, go back to allowing the heart to drive the responses with the hope that in doing so you will have that melding. You’ll create something that touches not only the intellect but also the heart.