Make your soul grow

In starting to think tentatively about edging into considering possibly attempting to make a case for brainstorming the notion of perhaps writing something relatively close to poetry, I thought of this wonderful Letter of Note from the wunderbar Kurt Vonnegut.

November 5, 2006

Dear Xavier High School, and Ms. Lockwood, and Messrs Perin, McFeely, Batten, Maurer and Congiusta:

I thank you for your friendly letters. You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years. I don’t make public appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana.

What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.

Here’s an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don’t do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?

Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash recepticals. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.

God bless you all!

Kurt Vonnegut

using words “as poets do”

Fitzgerald, P (1996), ‘Obstacles‘ , The London Review of Books, 4 July

et

"He began to write poetry in December 1914, and all his poems were written by December 1916. Credit for this is usually given to Frost, certainly by Thomas himself, although Frost declared that ‘all he ever got was an admiration for the poet in him before he had written a line.’ Certainly they were agreed at once on the relationship between traditional metre and the tones and half-tones of the spoken voice, a kind of counterpoint. But Frost’s practical advice to his friend in 1914 was to look at certain passages in his latest book, The Pursuit of Spring, and to write them again in verse form, but with exactly the same cadence. It seems unusual advice, not quite using words ‘as poets do’, and Thomas sometimes tried it the other way round, turning poems back into prose, though he did describe this as ‘unprofitable’.”

“like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.”

Benfrey, C (2013),‘What Seamus Heaney taught me’, The New York Review of Books, 1 September

seamus

Seamus believed that much of the craft of writing could be taught. “I can help you with that part,” he told us. “The other part is up to you.” He was a calm, unassuming presence in class, not the “great poet” at all, cautiously offering suggestions in the mode of “what if?” Mostly what he suggested was what he called surgery. “This poem could use a little surgery,” he would say. “What if you cut the first stanza?” Or, “Isn’t that last line a bit grandiloquent for the occasion? Perhaps you could do without it.”

For help with the “other part,” the un-teachable part, he recommended a book called something like The Poet’s Work, but the only time I heard him refer to it was to summon Lorca’s notion of duende, a mysterious dark fire of inspiration, a demonic rage, which, as I remember, Lorca associated with bullfighting and flamenco. When Seamus heard that I was working on Emily Dickinson he said, “Well, she had duende, didn’t she?”

He didn’t try to turn his students into copies of himself. He rarely mentioned his own poems. Instead, he tried to find poets further along the path that the student seemed to be following. One day, I brought in a poem about a couple skipping stones on a cow-pond. I remember only one line: “Mine skipped three times and burrowed in.” It wasn’t the deliberate cows (the adjective comes back) or the pond that interested him, even though his own poems are full of such pastoral props. It was the notion of divination, of trying to guess the future by how the stones struck the water. “You might look at Robert Graves’s ‘The Straw,’” he murmured, which begins:

Peace, the wild valley streaked with torrents,
A hoopoe perched on his warm rock. Then why
This tremor of the straw between my fingers?

Looking at that tercet now, I suddenly remember Heaney’s most famous lines, from “Digging”: “Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests.” The pen as divining rod.

He seemed always older, wiser—the Master, as we called him. My first thought when I heard the news of his passing was, “Only seventy-four! My God, he was one of us!”