Sing, O Muse, Somewhere Else
I'm a few weeks into my MA program at the big local uni. Adjusting to the additional demand on my time proceeds more or less well, though an exciting work trip I am taking next week will mean missing a workshop and getting behind in my paid jobs some. Fortunately, this term is the survey course, providing an overview of various genres plus aspects of the writing business, so the writing assignments aren't too arduous yet.
Tonight we covered poetry. Poetry is not a country in which I feel at home.
My primary education took place in a small Catholic elementary school where the nuns seemed to have it in their heads that we should all be groomed to recite in front parlours circa 1912: stand up straight so you can project your voice, fold your hands so, and clearly enunciate the section of Paul Revere's Ride you were set as homework. This pedagogical approach did not nurture a love of verse.
As I was making my descent toward adolescence I stayed for a time with a great uncle who, while a genius, was also of this mindset. He cajoled me into memorising Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark, the longest nonsense poem in the English language. It beat being home washing dishes at local inns for the summer, so I played along. It helped that I already liked Lewis Carroll, and I further pleased my bookish great uncle by memorising a few of Carroll's parody poems. I am fine with parodies.
In fact, when it comes to poetry, I prefer parodies. There's a kind of hushed reverence with which people talk about poetry that immediately gets my back up: again, I was raised Catholic, and as part of my lifelong backpedaling from that I am immediately suspicious of anyone speaking with hushed reverance about anything.
But especially poetry. Look at the "Analysis" section of the Wikipedia entry for The Hunting of the Snark to see what I mean:
"Widely varying interpretations of The Hunting of the Snark have been suggested: an allegory for tuberculosis, a mockery of the Tichborne case, a satire of the controversies between religion and science, the repression of Carroll's sexuality, and a piece against vivisection, among others. According to Cohen, the poem represents a 'voyage of life', with the Baker's disappearance caused by his violation of the laws of nature by hoping to unravel its mysteries. Lennon sees The Hunting of the Snark as 'a tragedy of frustration and bafflement,' comparable to British actor Charlie Chaplin's early comedies."
It could be about tuberculosis OR about animal testing OR possibly about Carroll's maybe being a bit of a nonce. Or all of those things! Who knows? It is [hushed tones] ineffable.
It is also possible that Lewis Carroll, not having access to podcasts, streaming television, or even a primitive cassette player, went out for a long walk one day and, as commonly happens to writers, had a line fall into his head that wouldn't go away. Sort of a self-perpetuating earworm, but instead of a chewing gum jingle, it's the line "For the Snark was a boojum, you see." This is more or less what Carroll himself said, and I think we can probably just take him at his word here.
"Hugh, you chose that poem. For God's sake, why?"
Tonight we looked at two aspects of poetry: how sound informs sense, and a little bit about form stuff. For the sound and sense we were asked to take on an exercise: write some words you just like the sound of in a sensuous kind of way, then pick one and write several more words which have similar sounds, whether it's a full-on rhyme or syllable pattern or whatever. Then find some words that "feel" like its opposite, and do the same. Finally, write a poem using a selection of the appealing words and the opposite words.
I sat there staring at my paper for a solid minute. I spent a little time in an MFA in Teaching program once upon a time, so I am aware that learning styles are not really a thing anymore. But if I were to pin myself down in one of those defunct categories, I would say I don't learn through visuals, through kinetics, or even through verbal processing, but through piss-taking. So that's how I eventually approached this exercise.
The word I liked was "twilight". I decided its opposite was "mollusk".
Here is the result:
You will note this leapt from my pen to the page without a single revision. That's how you can tell it is complete shit without even bothering to puzzle out my penmanship.
In case you're morbidly curious:
At Twilight, The Mollusk--
Down in the sighing wilds of water
Pumps the bivalve valiantly
Crunching saline nourishments,
Under cover of the one-celled masses
This child of the Mesozoic
(I shared this with my occasional play-writing partner. Her analysis:)
All around me people shared their creations and some of them were very pretty; all of them had some soulful emotional tone to them--that hushed reverence again, yuck. (I tip my hat to the one classmate who wrote his poem inspired by the word "bung", though.)
Still, I admit I felt a little guilty (again, Catholic) about not taking the exercise seriously. So when our lecturer set the next exercise I tried a little harder, even though the brief made me cringe: come up with several metaphors for "what writing is" and then write a sort of manifesto poem based on one you like. Writing about my writing (even writing this post) chafes me. But it's going to be expected of me pretty bloody often between now and July 2021, so I'd better get used to it.
I went to town during the five minutes we were given to brainstorm--one thing I've learned during my years as a marketing copywriter is how to generate a ton of options in no time at all-- and noticed upon reading them that most of my metaphors were related to housekeeping. You can see them marked with red here:
All that horrible tangle below reads:
Writing is rushing to hide the mess before the guests arrive
It's struggling with the hoover hoses, the duvet covers and the wandering carpet in the hall
Writing is setting a formal table for eight and suddenly seeing the single smudged wineglass
It's the stacking of papers, corralling of Lego, the arrangement of plants just so
And at last when the doorbell rings
Writing is dimming the lights and sparking up the candles
And hoping everyone brought liquor
The ones classmates read out talked of wanting to scream, of needing to be heard, of having big and important things to say. I didn't share mine, because I wasn't sure how I felt about what it said about me: that I write to make others feel at home.
I guess that is what I want in a way. I don't know if I want you to be comfortable all the time, though. But feel free to bring liquor.