Roman Armies, men and words, were structured, highly structured. Poetic structure can take many forms: external structure, the sonnet, for example, with its 14 lines and its 4+4+3+3 verse form which can also be 4+4+4+2 or 5+5+4, or 5+4+5 or 2 x 7 or 3+3+3+3+2. I have experimented with all of these sonnet forms, and many more, at one stage or another in The Nature of Art. Milton Acorn, the Governor-General’s Poetry Award Winner for poetry, wrote a book called Jackpine Sonnets. His Jackpine Sonnets are wild and beautiful, growing this way and that, totally individual and out of shape, just like wind-swept jackpines of Tara Manor in St. Andrews on the East Coast of New Brunswick, Canada, where I penned some of these poems.
In the same way that poems can be given a formal structure, so can lines. Structure can be external, flowing from line to line in an unbroken sequence, or it can be internal, limited to each line. Some of my poems include stanzas where the individual line flows into the stanza and the result is an amalgamation of both the individual and the whole. Individual lines can be structured by syllable count, 10, 11, 12 or more per line. They can also be structured by stress, the stress of normal speech or the stress of forced rhythm. Structures can have Greek or Latin names, English ones too. Or it can be the structure of simple, everyday speech. Fray Luis de León, (1527-1591) wrote that he counted his syllables when he spoke and he wrote prose and poetry the same way he spoke. Syllables, a strange term nowadays, not understood by all. Try the ‘beat’ of music: “You can’t always get what you want” (Rolling Stones) or “All you need is love,” (Beatles). Simple really, but it is all too easy to complicate these concepts.
Comment: Clearly this is a simplification of what can be an intensely scientific and academic subject. We have only to think of the books of rhetoric, with their long lists of Greek names for the different syllables, long and short, and the different line lengths that run from Iambic Pentameter to Hymns Ancient and Modern. However, the purpose of these thoughts is to simplify and not to complicate. More important, perhaps, rhythm, in one form or another is akin to structure and many of us have an innate sense of verbal rhythm, whether we count our syllables on our fingers, as I do, or count them not, as is the modern trend in some poets. Think daisy petals: she loves me, she loves me not, I count them, I count them not. Yet still the rhythm is there and that, in many ways, is one of the key secrets of our unique poetic voices: we all speak and write in different fashions and that is one of the things that makes us unique.
The Musicality of Words Wednesday Workshop Bastille Day 14 July 2021
The Roman armies marched all over Europe and, as they marched, they sang marching songs, traces of which lingered, along with the Latin language, everywhere they went. Think of the poems in his book as songs, each with its own special rhythm. You can find music in a single word, in a group of words, in a single line. You can hear and feel it too when you follow the punctuation and move with the words across adjoining lines. Unfortunately, far too many of us have become used to slogans and advertisements: three words repeated incessantly, two verses of a song that loop continuously. Many of us have forgotten how to read anything other than newspaper headlines and simple sentences. We have also forgotten how to listen to words, how to gain multiple meanings beyond the simplistic message of slogan, sound byte, scandal, and news. Diversity of meaning is what you learn when you read poetry, for poetry is more, much more, than the delivering of a simple message. To read a poem is to set out on a personal journey of exploration, into your own memories and mind, as mediated by the poet’s words. It is also to explore the vast treasure trove of our personal relationship with our language. Remember: a poetry book is a dream you hold in your hands.
Comment: Words have meaning, but they also have music and the musicality of meaning must never be forgotten for when music an meaning combine, a new set of meanings is formed that depend as much upon the ear as they do upon the decoding mind. This is all a part of what we refer to as the poet’s voice and remember this style of poetry is not to be found in newspaper headlines nor on the radio and television news, scaled down as they are to the lowest common denominators of language.
Look carefully at the painting that heads this Wednesday Workshop. Look at the movement and the musicality of linked forms and colors in a still, silent, two-dimensional space. Meaning takes on different meanings and becomes something different when we look at these words of color, these soundless sounds, these rhythmical movements of color. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Indeed it is, and in poetry, it is also in the musicality of the words and the flow of the ideas that bind the words and change their meanings.
Words are formed from a combination of letters and sounds. Join them together and they will march like Roman soldiers, in groups of meaning. A cohort, ten words, ten men, commanded by a Decurion. One hundred words, a century, commanded by a Centurion. Six thousand words, a legion with six thousand possible implications attached. I use the image of the Roman Legion because meanings in poetry are Legion and our Western Poetry tradition, of which I am a part, goes back more than two thousand years to Roman times and beyond. Tolle, lege: Latin for take and read. Sortes Virgilianae: fortune telling by chance words drawn, originally, from Virgil’s Aeneid and now from this poetry book. Choose your words and sentences at random. Interpret them as you will.
While each word has an individual dictionary meaning, words are much more powerful than the dictionary. Each word is surrounded by a network of associations, called an associative field, and those connections are different for every reader. This means that each word and its associative field have very personal emotional strings attached. When you understand this, you will also understand that each reading, each interpretation, is your own and nobody else’s. This is not a grade school classroom. Here, there are no poetry thought police to tell you that you are wrong, that you are mistaken, that you do not understand what the teacher is telling you.
Take the word ‘grandmother’. The dictionary meaning is clear. Your grandmother is the mother of your father or the mother of your mother. Each of us has, if we are lucky, two grandmothers. Some of us have more than two. The emotional ties between you, as reader, and your own ‘grandmother(s)’ will determine your own personal version of the word’s emotional and poetic tones. Now you must apply these individual meanings to each word you read. Reading poetry in this fashion will allow you to create your own personal world of tone, meaning, associations, and emotions. This is what poetry brings to you, not a handful of information to be scanned for knowledge, but a series of sights, sounds, memories, all personal, that are triggered in your mind by the impact of the poet’s words.
Comment:Wednesday Workshops are my attempt to express some of my ideas and theories on writing in general and on poetry in particular. Hopefully, the will encourage other writers to think about their writing and to deepen their knowledge and understanding of what we do best: think and write. By all means add your own thoughts to what I have written here.
The Nature of Art and the Art of Nature is a book of poems each one of which celebrates humanity’s relationship both with the natural world and the way that world is recreated by artists in so many different forms. In order to read these poems and receive full value from them, it would help to know how to approach them.
Preparing to Read
First, de-clutter the mind. Poetry cannot be hurried or rushed. Remember, it is better to read one poem a hundred times than to read one hundred poems once. Prepare yourself mentally and physically for your reading. Sit down. Make yourself comfortable. Close your eyes. Concentrate your mind on something you find peaceful: a sail on Passamaquoddy Bay, a rose in Kingsbrae’s Rose Gardens, a butterfly in the Butterfly Garden, or a fine white cotton cloud in a cerulean sky. Breathe in and then breathe out. Now slow your breathing down. Breathe in, count up to four, slowly, breathe out, counting up to six. Breathe in, count up to six, slowly, now breathe out, counting up to eight. Breathe in, counting up to eight, and breathe out, also counting up to eight. How long will you sit there? When your breathing has slowed and your mind is clear, you will be ready to start. You will know when that is.
Open your eyes. Take your book and begin to read. Don’t start on page one and rush through. Dip in, here and there, find a title or a first line that you like, and read that poem. Read it two or three times. Then move on, randomly to another poem. Select individual lines, phrases, sentences. Savour the words. Roll them around in your mind. Read them to yourself, quietly. Then read them out loud. Try to capture their essence, their rhythms. Taste them, as you would a fine Spanish Manzanilla wine. Select another word, another line, another poem. Seek and you will find some sequence that you like. Return to it often.
Comment: I will restart my Wednesday Workshops. The Nature of Art, the manuscript on which I am currently working, has an Introduction on The Nature of Poetry. I will put this up in installments. The handwritten opening page comes from an online video on Creativity and Writing Poetry during the Pandemic. This poetry video is the first one in the series. Click here for link. Other workshops on writing can be found by searching Writing Workshops on the Blog search (top right hand corner) or by going to this link Poetic Creativity and Thoughts on Writing
Spotify: Remember to scroll down to the appropriate audio episode.
Slow going this snow going, but at least it isn’t snowing.
Snow forecast on the weather show, but we all know it cannot last, now the equinox is past.
With a roll of drums Easter comes, but friends and family stay away.
So all alone and safe at home we’ll spend our Easter day.
Everybody understands how often we must wash our hands.
Don’t go unmasked, even when asked, and all our friends must safely stay at least six feet away.
Comment: I just received this poem as a memory on Facebook. Interesting. I remember writing it, online, a year ago today, and what a fun time I had. Here’s the link to the video. I loved being involved in the creative experience. It was my first poetry video. I do hope you like it.
He who would true valor see, let him come hither. One here will constant be, come bad or fair weather. No line length can him fright, he’ll with a paragraph fight, and he will have a right, to be a writer.
Those who beset him round with dismal stories, do but themselves confound: his strength the more is. There’s no discouragement will make him once relent his first avowed intent, to be a writer.
Rejections nor bad critics can daunt his spirit. He knows he at the end will a book inherit. So critics fly away, he’ll fear not what they say, he’ll labor night and day to be a writer.
Comment: John Bunyan tempted me and I fell into temptation. In fact, as my good friend Oscar Wilde once said: “I can resist anything except temptation.” So, ladies and gentlemen, change the he to a she or the pronoun of your choice, turn the writer to a sculptor, stoneist, poet, playwright, painter, novelist, dramatist, comedian, song-writer, singer. Breathe deep. Believe in your own artistic talent and remember: “Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.” Remember this too: “You’ll never get to Vancouver by bus, if you get off the bus at Montreal or Toronto.”
Our minds absorb words as blotting-paper soaks up ink. Phrases carve beehives deep in our inner circuits. No te preocupes / don’t worry. Yet tone and carry are different in each language and the comfort-blanket serenity of note preocupes does not translate easily from Spanish to English. The verbal vibes are just not the same. Nor do the catcalls from the soccer, aimed equally at opponent and referee, and tumbling raucous from the stands where people sit. Shrill whistles sound in the bull ring: a matador who seems afraid to approach this particular bull for reasons only known to him, yet his shakiness visible to all who watch and understand what they are seeing. The Cordobés answers the telephone he places on the bull’s nose, yet fails to approach between the horns and his sword rebounds off bull bone: pincha hueso. Each one wounds, the last one kills. El Viti, stately, graceful, an elderly churchman proud of his vocation and always willing to perform to perfection the weekly ceremony of the sacrifice. The boos when the bull enters the ring, stumbles, and comes up lame and limping. The cheers that accompany the arrival of the seventh bull. The refusal to eat meat that has been slaughtered in the bullring, even though it is advertised outside the butcher’s: tenemos solomillo de toro de lidia / we have tenderloin steaks from fighting bulls. Bulls who have led the best of lives, fed on the tenderest pastures, watered by flowing streams. Bulls grown for slaughter and public sacrifice.
Guernica. The bull fight in the sand-filled square. Except it wasn’t a fight, it was more a circus. The slippery pig. The hens and chickens. The rabbits and hares. All the animals running scared. The animals released, one by one, and the spectators jumping into the ring, really a sand-filled square, one by one, and chasing down the animals, taking them home for dinner, if they could catch them. Then the bigger beasts. The mule, ferocious, jumping into the air, kicking four tormentors, one with each leg, and biting a fifth with his teeth. No fearful, clucking chicken this, nor the cow who came after with her padded horns. Participants moved more carefully now. She watched them from her querencia, the where she chose to fight, not die. She knelt, scraped off the rubber balls that covered her horns. Re-armed, she charged and the crowd scattered, all but one young kid, caught, falling to the ground, the cow standing over him, ready to gore again. Sixteen years old, an outsider, I jumped with others over the barrier, twisted this away and that, thumped the cow’s side, smelled her fury, her fear, the whole soured being that emanated from her. Together, we hustled her, bustled her, dragged her kicking, butting, from the ring, backwards, pulled by the tail. Visible scars of damaged animals. Scars of the participants. That young man who broke his leg. That old man, inebriated, stuffed with food and drink, who loosened his belt to move more freely. We watched as his pants slipped from his waist to fall around his knees and trap him, just as the cow charged. He survived but will bear the scars forever, some visible, many not. Long summer days, on the Sardinero, the Segunda Playa, playing soccer. Different rules, different skills, different swear words: I carry a dictionary tucked into my bathing trunks and refuse to play while I look up the words spat at me by my opponent. Good heavens, I think, is that anatomically possible? The ball bounces away on the hard, sand ridges. I chase it and steadily dehydrate under the hot sun. A sea-salt wind desiccates my body. My mouth fills with salt water when I swim out to retrieve the ball from the sparkling sea. My tongue sticks to the inside of my mouth. When I spit, I spit dry and everyone laughs. Now I am totally dry, shiver, and no longer sweat. On the way home, we get off the trolleybus early, at Jesús del Monasterio and enter the long string of bars that lead past Numancia towards Perines. Red wine in glasses, in porrones, with tapas and raciones to soak up the alcohol, morcilla, mariscos, callos, patatas bravas, wine consumed until our blotting-paper bodies are ready once more to sweat. Bread soaks up the wine that relieves the oil that now filters through our skins and who needs suntan lotion when the oil is inside us and bodies are oiled, well-oiled, from the inside out? These excursions are all male, just like the soccer teams. I have four friends and I know them by their nicknames and the way they play soccer. I also know them from the way they try to trick me and laugh at my mistakes, or the way they treat me as a human being and help me to understand this new world into which, sink or swim, I have been thrust. Total immersion in another culture does not come with a set of instructions and the rules of soccer change from grass field to beach sand. Pedro plays centre-half, loves heading the ball, even when it’s laden with sand. I watch him playing field hockey one day, out at La Albericia, and when a low shot heads for the corner of the goal, he dives and heads it away. They carry him off on a stretcher, blood everywhere, and you wonder if his scars will ever heal. Tennis on the clay courts, also at La Albericia. I play so slow but they play so fast. I learn top spin, side spin, back spin, cutting the racket beneath the ball and learning to bend it sideways off the clay that is not clay really, but a fine-packed Italian sand on which I can slide and glide, and commit to a shot running one way then turn and commit to another in the opposite direction. I try it on a hard court, after the immersion period ends, when I get home, and my foot sticks on the tarmac (or whatever that hard, non-slip surface is) and over I go, skinning my knees, creating more scars.
Comment: Another Golden Oldie reclaimed from the reject file. I remember the scenes so well, even though I have moved deliberately in the piece from Elanchove and Guernica (Basque Country) to Santander (now Cantabria). I got lucky and was able to attend a series of workshops on memoirs run by Brian Henry of Quick Brown Fox. Taking his workshops, I realized that most of what I write is more akin to Creative Non-Fiction (CNF), rather then memoir, though much of what I write is rooted in memory. What thrills me in this style of writing is the rhythm that emerges, the word patterns I knit with my pen and a skein of ink, the remembered brightness of the Spanish sun, the sparkle of the waves, the warmth of a people, still grieving after their losses in a bitter civil war, their willingness to accept me, a foreigner, and take me to their hearts. The Other: we talk so much about The Other. But when we ourselves have been That Other, have been dependent on Other Others for food, drink, warmth, care, and love it is so much easier to understand what The Other is lacking and what we can give. Warmth, not scars; a hug, not a punch; open arms, not a fist… so easy to say. I have been there. I know. But can we, deep in our hearts, find it in ourselves to make the sacrifices for The Other that other others have made for us? Only time will tell.
Empty now the house, clean the floors where she
spattered food and scattered her toys, polished
the tables, grubby no more, where small hands
clattered fork and spoon, her breakfast not wanted.
Empty the bathroom, the tub where she bathed.
Dry the towels, full the toothpaste tubes she
emptied in ecstasy. Where now her foot
-prints, her laughter and tears, the secret
language she spoke that we never understood?
Empty too my heart where, a wild bird, she
nested for the briefest time, then flew, yet
I possess her still, within my empty hands.
Commentary: The lead painting is the one Finley painted for me. I received it as a Christmas present, a couple of years back when she was 3 or 4. When asked if she wanted to add some more to the painting as the canvas wasn’t full, she replied: “No, it’s finished. That’s just how I want it.” Picasso once said that he spent the first half of his life learning to paint and the second half learning to see again as children see. Sometimes we complicate our art so much that we kill our inspiration and our vision. Some poets necessitate a dictionary in order for a reader to understand their words, yet when the meaning emerges, we find that the poem is convoluted, stilted, almost meaningless and even emptier than it was before.
Question: why do we try to gild the lily? Why do we lead to the slaughter the gift of the goose who lays the golden eggs? Are we writers or assassins? Are we not capable of putting meaning on paper with the directness and simplicity of a child? Good questions all. Sometimes I think that poets are like the existentialists of Albert Camus’s novels: they are the assassins of language and the murderers of direct and clear writing. And who are the victims? The words, images, metaphors, feelings that are strangled in the cradle or forced into captivity behind prison bars of jumbled lines and scattered thought.
Original ideas? No, not at all. This is the basic argument that Francisco de Quevedo (conceptismo) had with Luis de Góngora (culteranismo) in the Spanish literary salons of Madrid between 1613and 1627. The literary insults they wrote to each other are still a scandalous joy to read. These two seemingly separate styles of writing, which are actually very similar on many levels, eventually blended together and led to a total renewal of the Spanish literary language. This in turn was bastardized by second-class imitators who did not have the skills of the original ‘super’ artists. And thus the pendulum swings: innovation > standardization > parody and satire of a worn out language > fresh inspiration and innovation.
As for me: how I would love to regain the clarity of vision and the joy of words that I experienced when I was a child. Back then, the world was a magic place, the pen and pencil were magic wands, and the empty page was a blank canvas to be filled with wonder. Alas: then I was sent to school. Rules were set. Bars were installed. Blinkers were inserted. Doors and windows were locked. Creativity ended. I will say no more.
The KIRA artists (Roger Moore, June, 2017) were invited to make a video on the ways in which they worked. Here is my KIRA video. This is the first time I have ever made a video of myself. I am not into selfies (wrong generation) and had to be ‘persuaded’ to do this. The instructions were simple: something easy that anyone could do under lock down or in a home-schooling situation. I hope you enjoy the show!
The introductory picture (above) shows revisions made to my painting by my three year old grandchild!
1. As I read my early morning messages, I realize that there are two very different processes involved in creative writing: creation and revision.
In terms of creation, I follow Graham Green and Steven King: write 500 words a day, regularly, about two pages. Then, next day, re-read them and revise them. Then continue with the next two pages. This allows a steady accumulation that is usually somewhat under the writer’s control. It also allows the writer to go back and revise while creating: an important step for both King and Green.
In terms of revision, once the book or story or manuscript is complete, different processes emerge. One is to leave some time for the manuscript to settle: this also works chapter by chapter during the writing process. The other is to start again and apply the revision process as outlined in the First Five Pages.
Each one of us will be on a different stage of what is, I hope, an enjoyable creative experience. Part of the fun is also finding out what works for us; and by us, I mean each one of us. And yes, we all need those words of encouragement … so hang in there… have confidence … and be creative …
As for revision, I started by reading The First Five pages and found that this made the revision of my own manuscript much easier. The First 5 Pages deals with items one by one and in order of priority; it also allows you, as a writer / reader / adviser to have a clear idea of where you are going with the revisions, what you are doing, and why you are doing it. I also perused other online links and found them quite useful, especially those that referred to the revision process. I recommend searching for such links, in particular, the one that tells us never to give up.
Burroway for me is an adventure. I find that when I am reading the theory, I have a tendency to get confused and lost. In addition, I do not always agree with her analyses of the chosen snippets of text. I understand what she is saying, but I do not always agree with what she has said.
Selected stories themselves are something different. Reading them allows me to gain a perspective on what I am doing and how I am doing it. Thus I can say: I can do that; or I’ve done that; or I wouldn’t want to do that. The stories then come over as a reflecting mirror in which I can see aspects of my own writing, however beautified or distorted. The theory, on its own, leaves me cold and often confused. Other people’s creativity is inspiring.
The secret, in my opinion, is to relax, to be yourself, and to continue writing as you want to write while paying attention to the small details of which I am becoming more and more aware of every day. We are all creative — or we wouldn’t be here, reading this, doing this course. The secret is to develop and polish our own creativity. We must also learn to develop our own voices and to have confidence in those creative sparks that dwell within us.
2. Writing the introduction last is a standard procedure in academia. This is partly because it isn’t until the end of the research / study that the writer really understands the substance and the intent of what s/he has been studying. Also, it is only when the work is finalized that the appropriate conclusions can be drawn and the route that one has taken can be established.
As for the order in which revisions are made, there are many rules and circumstances can change. Even when there doesn’t appear to be a plot, as such, there is a chronology and chronology can be used as a substitute for plot. There is probably some form of evolution throughout the chronology, and that should be kept in mind, too. In addition, I would assume that as the learning process “bites” so we will be better able to make our own judgement calls. The art of good teaching is to eliminate the need for a teacher.
3. Changing the perspective: letters work: they can be found, sent, received, or discovered. The identity of the writer / receiver is also interesting.
In the 13th Story, the novel which I am currently reading, the principal narrator investigates / researches her subject in local libraries, the Who’s Who, a graveyard (reading the tombstones), and many different places. She also visits the local newspaper archives and interviews other characters in the novel, much as a newspaper reporter might.
Just read, think, learn, absorb, and, above all, remember to reject that which doesn’t suit you!