Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Robert Hass

The power of repetition

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The first fact of the world is that it repeats itself. I had been taught to believe that the freshness of children lay in their capacity for wonder at the vividness and strangeness of the particular, but what is fresh in them is that they still experience the power of repetition, from which our first sense of the power of mastery comes. Though predictable is an ugly little world in daily life, in our first experience of it we are clued to the hope of a shapeliness in things. To see that power working on adults, you have to catch them out: the look of foolish happiness on the faces of people who have just sat down to dinner is their knowledge that dinner will be served…Thinking that this is going to happen and having it happen might be, then, the authentic source of the experience of being, of identity, that word which implies that a lot of different things are the same thing.

Robert Hass, Twentieth Century Pleasures

Written by nevalalee

July 28, 2018 at 7:30 am

The balloon frame

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Robert Hass

Now, I think, free verse has lost its edge, become neutral, the given instrument. An analogy occurs to me. Maybe it is a little farfetched. I’m thinking of balloon frame construction in housing. According to Giedion, it was invented by a man named George Washington Snow in the 1850s and 1860s, about the same time as Leaves of Grass. “In America materials were plentiful and skilled labor scarce; in Europe skilled labor was plentiful and materials scarce. It is this difference which accounts for the differences in the structure of American and European industry from the fifties on.” The principle of the balloon frame was simply to replace the ancient method of mortise and tenon—heavy framing timbers carved at the joints so that they locked heavily together—with construction of a frame by using thin studs and nails. It made possible a light, quick, elegant construction with great formal variability and suppleness. For better or worse. “If it had not been for the balloon frame, Chicago and San Francisco could never have arisen, as they did, from little villages to great cities in a single year.” The balloon frame, the clapboard house and the Windsor chair. American forms, and Leaves of Grass which abandoned the mortise and tenon of meter and rhyme. Suburban tracts and the proliferation of poetry magazines. The difference between a democratic society and a consumer society.

Robert Hass, Twentieth Century Pleasures

Written by nevalalee

July 23, 2016 at 7:30 am

What is poetry like?

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Vladimir Mayakovsky

Poetry is like mining for radium. The output an ounce, the labor a year.

Vladimir Mayakovsky

Poetry is like making a joke. If you get one word wrong at the end of a joke, you’ve lost the whole thing.

W.S. Merwin

Your teacher says that poetry is like an exquisite and towering pagoda that appears at the snap of the fingers or like the twelve towers of the five cities of the immortals that ephemerally exist at the edge of heaven. I do not agree. To use a metaphor, poetry is like building a house out of tiles, glazed bricks, wood, and stone—he must put them all together, one by one, on solid ground.

Shih Jun-chang

Wallace Stevens

Poetry is like prayer in that it is most effective in solitude and in the times of solitude, as, for example, in earliest morning.

Wallace Stevens

Poetry is like a panther: it delights the eye; but against any attempt to enslave it, it may wreak revenge.

Walter Kaufmann

Many a fair precept in poetry is like a seeming demonstration in the mathematics, very specious in the diagram, but failing in the mechanic operation.

John Dryden

Nicholson Baker

Poetry is like math or chess or music—it requires a slightly freaky misshapen brain, and those kinds of brains don’t last.

Nicholson Baker

Writing a poem is like getting a short-term contract from God. You get this one done and if you do a good job, then maybe another contract will come along.

David Bottoms

Writing poetry is like writing history—talent, learning, and understanding in suitable proportion.

Yuan Mei

P.D. James

Poetry is like religion: sometimes the vision is immediate and almost frightening in its intensity; sometimes it is reached with difficulty, giving intimations only, and those confused and partial.

P.D. James

Writing a poem is like solving for X in an equation.

—Attributed to W.H. Auden by Robert Earl Hayden

Poetry is like being alive twice.

Robert Hass

The wisdom of a poet laureate

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Robert Pinsky

I met Robert Pinsky once. At the time, he had been serving as the United States poet laureate for just over a year, and I was a high school senior at a conference held in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where a long list of distinguished honorees were doing their best to hang out with one another and avoid smartass questions from kids like me. At one event, I got Pinsky’s autograph, and tried to ingratiate myself by saying that I’d really enjoyed his translation of the Purgatorio. (He’d actually only translated the Inferno, but never mind.) I also mentioned that I was writing an essay on the poetry of Ezra Pound for a literature class, and asked if he had any thoughts on the subject. He responded by citing Pound’s observation, which I recently posted here, that a poet is a centaur: he needs to master both the intellectual and the sentient faculties, so he’s like a man on horseback who has to shoot an arrow at the same time. I dutifully noted this down, and after returning home, I included his observation in my essay, which began with the words: “As Robert Pinsky once said to me…”

Recently, I’ve been thinking about this encounter a lot, ever since posting a series of quotations from former poets laureate as my quotes of the day. The hard thing about finding quotes for a blog like this—and I’ve posted well over seven hundred of them—is that you quickly run through most of the famous aphorisms on writing fiction. Once you’ve gone through “Kill all your darlings,” “When you meet a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out,” and “You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way,” you’re forced to look further afield for material. I’ve made a habit of systematically plumbing other disciplines for insights that might be applicable to the art of fiction, and I’ve done so with profit in such fields as architecture, dance, and computer design. Whenever I find a rich new vein of quotations, I feel like I’ve hit the jackpot. So it was with a great deal of pleasure that I realized that I could draw upon the work of recent poets laureate, ultimately posting quotes from Ted Kooser, Donald Hall, Howard Nemerov, W.S. Merwin, Robert Hass, and Stanley Kunitz.

Natasha Trethewey

And this strikes me as a fine advertisement for the role of poet laureate itself. Like most people, I’m not entirely clear what a poet laureate does. As Robert Penn Warren said upon his appointment: “I don’t expect you’ll hear me writing any poems to the greater glory of Ronald and Nancy Reagan.” According to the Library of Congress, the formal responsibilities of the laureateship—which is funded by a private endowment from the philanthropist Archer M. Huntington—consist only of giving a reading at the beginning and end of the term and selecting two annual poetry fellows. More evocatively, another page on the official site says:

The Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress serves as the nation’s official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans. During his or her term, the Poet Laureate seeks to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry.

It’s hard to imagine a comparable public position that includes the term “official lightning rod” in its description, but perhaps it’s only fitting for such a peculiar role. And if nothing else, it means that poets laureate will have greater occasion than most of their contemporaries to speak seriously about poetry’s craft and importance, often in a book or two, which explains why they’re such a good source of quotable wisdom.

As far as I’m concerned, this justifies the position all by itself. Appointments and prizes in the literary world are often ridiculed as meaningless, and not without reason, but at their best, they provide a soapbox for prickly, passionate, cantankerous artists to bring their opinions to a wider audience. Novelists have a range of awards that can serve a similar function, which is why establishing a “novelist laureate” would be redundant, as much fun as it might have been to watch the likes of Mailer or Updike fight over a title that probably would have gone to Louis L’Amour. For most ordinary readers, though, who presumably have trouble remembering that something like the Bollingen Prize even exists, a poet laureateship is one of the few things that can make us sit up and take notice. And most laureates, to their credit, have used the position admirably. Poetry is the most fragile and precious form of literary expression we have, and it’s a national resource that deserves to be protected. And since I’ve been quoting them so much, I’ll close with the words that our current poet laureate, Natasha Trethewey, fittingly uses to describe her own job: “You are the cheerleader for poetry.”

A life’s work in half an hour

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A hundred words a day

Yesterday, I posted a quote from the former United States poet laureate Robert Hass: “You can do your life’s work in half an hour a day.” It’s a nice sentiment, and one that I desperately wanted to believe seven years ago. Back then, I was working at a job that I liked, but didn’t love, and I was doing everything I could to write novels in my spare time. I’d already begun and discarded an ambitious project that I’d spent close to a year researching, only to find myself lost after a couple of chapters, and the novel I’d chosen as its successor—an art world story that would eventually, after radical transformation, be reborn as The Icon Thief—wasn’t going anywhere. Frustrated, I resolved to force myself to write a certain number of words each day, and decided to make the the goal as achievable as I could. A hundred words, I thought, was a reasonable quota: if necessary, I could do the necessary work in five minutes, and if I kept up that pace, after two and a half years, I’d have a novel. Anything more would be gravy. Thus inspired, I wrote my target on an index card and posted it to my medicine cabinet, so it would stare me in the face each morning, in a writer’s version of the mirror scare.

I should give fair warning, at this point, that this isn’t a post about how I wrote my first novel a hundred words at a sitting. In the end, I didn’t keep up the routine for very long—maybe a month at the most. Ultimately, as readers of this blog know, I quit my job to write full time, and although it took me years before I could begin to make a living at it, I think this was the best solution, at least for where I was at that point in my life. I’m aware, of course, that this isn’t an option that most of us have: even in my own case, the ability to do so was the result of a confluence of several unrelated factors, as well as some degree of blind luck. Moreover, I don’t think word count was my problem. I have a hunch that I would have been more than capable of writing a novel while still working during the day, provided that I managed to develop the planning and outlining skills I later developed. I didn’t lack time or energy; what I lacked was a plan. And although in my own case, I had to commit completely to writing before acquiring these habits, there’s no reason why they can’t be put to work under other circumstances. (Part of the reason I write this blog is out of the hope I can convince a few readers to avoid the mistakes I made.)

Robert Hass

But Hass’s advice is still valuable, even if, at first glance, it seems to apply to poets more than novelists. Just it’s easier to start saving money by easing into it gradually, then increasing the amounts over time, the habit of writing every day—which nearly all professional writers share—is best achieved in small steps. There’s nothing wrong with the math of writing a hundred words a day, as long as you can keep it up over the long term, which is where all those outlining and creativity tricks come into play. And the nice thing about writing is that once those hundred words are written, barring some kind of unforeseen disaster on your hard drive, they’ll stay there, and the resulting paragraph has the same ultimate value as those written on days of extraordinary productivity. The only real benefit of spending the entire day writing, aside from the chance it affords to disappear more deeply into the fictional dream, is that it allows you to cover the necessary ground a little faster. Minute by minute, however, the ground looks much the same. To slightly misquote David Mamet, you write a novel in the same way you eat a whole turkey: one bite at a time.

And the best part of writing each day, even in small amounts, is that the half hour you spend at the computer turns out to be only a fraction of the effort you’ve invested in the project elsewhere. As I’ve noted many times before, much of a writer’s best work is done while he’s apparently engaged in something else entirely: taking a walk, doing the dishes, shaving, in the bus, bath, or bed. That half hour of work isn’t just important for its own sake, but as a means of organizing and channeling the otherwise aimless work of one’s daydreams, which tend to inevitably return, at the most unexpected moments, to the problems of the story you’re writing. And the only way to enter that continuous state of receptivity is to write every day, even if the word count remains a modest one. A writer is like an athlete: most track and field events are over in a few seconds, but they represent the result of endless hours of solitary devotion, which only attain their full meaning in the arena. For us, the arena is the page, and every word we write is, or ought to be, the visible crystallization of an unseen and ongoing process. It’s possible, as Hass notes, to do your life’s work in half an hour a day. But only if you’ve structured the rest of your life around it.

Written by nevalalee

January 30, 2013 at 9:50 am

Posted in Writing

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Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

January 29, 2013 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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