Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Robert Penn Warren

The overripe grape

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I want to begin with some poems and try to see how their particular truths are operative within the poems themselves. I know perfectly well that there are some readers of poetry who object to this process. They say that it is a profanation, that they simply want to enjoy the poem. Now my experience with such people is that very frequently they do not want to enjoy the poem; they want to enjoy themselves. Such a person is like a big overripe grape, ready to ooze or spurt juice at any pressure or pinprick, and any pressure or pinprick or poem will do to start the delicious flow…

True, we all want to enjoy the poem. And we can be comforted by the fact that the poem, if it is a true poem, will, like the baby’s poor kitty-cat, survive all the pinching and prodding and squeezing which love will lavish upon it. It will have nine lives, too. Further, and more importantly, the perfect intuitive and immediate grasp of a poem in the totality of its meaning and structure—the thing we desire—may come late rather than early—on the fiftieth reading rather than on the first. Perhaps we must be able to look forward as well as back as we move through the poem—be able to sense the complex of relationships and implications—before we can truly have that immediate grasp.

But we know that the poets sometimes seem to give aid and comfort to the ripe-grape kind of reader. First, this is because the poet is in the end probably more afraid of the dogmatist who wants to extract the message from the poem and throw the poem away than he is of the sentimentalist who says, “Oh, just let me enjoy the poem—it gives me such beautiful feelings!” At least the sentimentalist does not want to throw the poem away. That is something, anyhow.

Robert Penn Warren, “The Themes of Robert Frost”

Written by nevalalee

April 15, 2017 at 7:30 am

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.”

The treacherous craft of Aaron Sorkin

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When I consider Aaron Sorkin and the weirdly watchable train wreck that is The Newsroom, I’m reminded of something that Norman Mailer once said about craft: “I think of it as being like a Saint Bernard with that little bottle of brandy under his neck. Whenever you get into trouble, craft can keep you warm long enough to be rescued. Of course, this is exactly what keeps good novelists from becoming great novelists.” Craft, in other words, becomes a kind of intellectual sleight of hand, a way of disguising bad thinking or more fundamental narrative problems, when a writer of lesser facility might have been forced to deal more honestly with the true implications of his material. Mailer cites Robert Penn Warren as an example:

Robert Penn Warren might have written a major novel if he hadn’t just that little extra bit of craft to get him out of all the trouble in All the King’s Men…And his plot degenerated into a slam-bang mix of exits and entrances, confrontations, tragedies, quick wits and woe. But he was really forcing an escape from the problem.

Which, if you think about it, sounds a lot like the The Newsroom, which so often confuses manic action and the rapid-fire exchange of factoids with drama and witty repartee. It’s a frustrating, often outright terrible show, and yet I find myself watching it with increasing fascination, because it achieves the level of badness that can only be attained with the aid of remarkable craft. Sorkin is a man of enormous talent, but in his best work, he’s been aided and restrained by other strong creative voices. The Newsroom gives us Sorkin uncut, without the guiding hand he needs to hold him back from his worst impulses, and the result tells us a lot not just about Sorkin, but about the nature and limitations of a certain kind of drama. Because watching this show forces us to confront what David Thomson, speaking about David Mamet, has called “the time-killing aridness in brilliant situations, crackling talk, and magnificent acting.”

That sort of “crackling talk” is a skill that can be learned over time, and Sorkin, who has written hundreds of hours of television, theater, and film, has had more practice doing it than just about anyone else. As a recent supercut made clear, he also tends to return repeatedly to the same verbal tics and phrases (“Well, that was predictable”). Yet this only reflects how good he really is. Sorkin is a machine for creating great dialogue, and like all insanely productive creative professionals, he likes to fall back on the same tricks, which he generates almost unconsciously. If he’d slaved over a line to make it work, he wouldn’t have used it again, but the fact that these lines reappear so often implies that they came easily. As Nicholson Baker says in U and I of John Updike’s reuse of certain images in his novels: “He liked it enough to consent to it when it appeared in a street scene the first time, and yet he didn’t like it well enough for his memory to warn him off a second placement.” And that’s the mark of a writer of almost supernatural felicity.

Yet it also conceals deeper problems of substance, as well as a disturbing lack of real ideas. As Sorkin recently said to Terry Gross: “I phonetically create the sound of smart people talking to each other.” And what The Newsroom demonstrates is that Sorkin’s blessed ability with dialogue has left him underdeveloped along other parameters, a shortcoming that seems especially visible now. If you write wonderful words for actors to say, this can conceal any number of other limitations, sometimes for years, but eventually the mask starts to slip. Sorkin is a verbal genius, with the Oscar and Emmys to show for it, but without good collaborators, his gift tends to ripen and rot. What Sorkin needs, clearly, is a strong creative force to push against, which David Fincher provided with The Social Network and Thomas Schlamme and John Wells did on The West Wing—although his recent purge of many members of his writing staff makes it doubtful if this will happen soon. But I hope it does. Because otherwise, the show will continue to waste its great potential, and a legion of viewers can only say: “Well, that was predictable.”

Quote of the Day

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You have to be willing to waste time. When you start a poem, stay with it and suffer through it and just think about nothing, not even the poem. Just be there. It’s more of a prayerful state than writing the novels is. A lot of the novel is in doing good works, as it were, not praying.

Robert Penn Warren

Written by nevalalee

March 2, 2012 at 7:50 am

Mailer’s cask of brandy, or the pitfalls of craft

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Frequent readers of this blog will know that one of my ongoing obsessions is the idea of craft, even if I’ve never really bothered to define it before. Craft, if I had to pin it down, encompasses everything in a writer’s life aside from inspiration: it includes a vast range of skills, tricks, and habits, from the simple discipline of writing for hours each day to the nuts and bolts of grammar and style to larger issues of structure and organization. More than anything else, it’s the set of tools that turns those who want to write into those who do write, and those who write occasionally into those who write for a living. Craft is clearly a precious thing, acquired piecemeal over time, and it’s something that no writer can do without.

It can also become a trap. The trouble with craft, once a writer has it, is that it can be used as a substitute for things like intellectual honesty, emotion, and engagement with the real world—and the stronger the craft, the easier these evasions become. Good writing, as we all know, can disguise bad thinking, for author and audience alike. More insidiously, craft can be used to circumvent problems that otherwise could only be addressed by agonizing or uncertain introspection. Craft keeps a writer from having to depend on inspiration all the time, which is great—otherwise many novels would be started, but few finished—but it can also lead to an avoidance of risk in favor of facile solutions. Norman Mailer puts it beautifully in The Spooky Art:

Craft is merely a series of way stations. I think of it as being like a Saint Bernard with that little bottle of brandy under his neck. Whenever you get into trouble, craft can keep you warm long enough to be rescued. Of course, this is exactly what keeps good novelists from becoming great novelists.

These are harsh words, but coming from Mailer, who had both plenty of craft and the intellectual courage to pursue his obsessions, it’s necessary to take them seriously. Mailer points to Robert Penn Warren, author of All the King’s Men, as an example of an author whose craft kept him from confronting the full implications of his material: “As it was, he knew enough about craft to use it as an escape hatch.” And I think we’ve all been guilty of this at one point or another. Once you’ve learned the basics of narrative, you can easily nudge a story into a dramatically satisfying shape that avoids the problems you’ve set for yourself. And yet the unmediated confrontation of these problems, without a safety net, is what results in great art.

So where does this leave us? Not with abandoning craft altogether, of course. Without craft, there would be no writers at all, and it’s hard to ask any artist to give up the tools that took so much time and effort to develop. And confronting the world’s problems without craft, as many well-meaning writers have done, is like going unarmed into battle. Still, it’s important to recognize its limitations. Craft is a snug little house that a writer builds for himself, but which he has to leave from time to time to get a sense of the snowy world outside. When he does, he’ll usually find that his craft isn’t sufficient, but he needs to push forward, knowing that otherwise he’ll only limit himself to an increasingly circumscribed range. And in the end, his house becomes larger—at least until his next excursion. Because the final secret of craft, it seems, is to know when to leave it behind.

Written by nevalalee

August 10, 2011 at 10:01 am

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