Roundup: Craft

As we look forward to updating the Ploughshares blog for the new year, we’re also looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009.  Our roundups explore the archives and gather past posts around a certain theme to help you jump-start your week.  This week we have posts on the craft of writing.

Many books have been published on the craft of writing.  The topics can range from big picture discussions of the structure of a novel to detailed examinations of sentence structure.  From time to time, our guest bloggers have weighed in on the subject of craft, and this week we’re bringing you some of those posts.

Roundup: Scary, Creepy, Dead, and Haunting Posts

As we look forward to updating the Ploughshares blog for the new year, we’re also looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009.  Our roundups explore the archives and gather past posts around a certain theme to help you jump-start your week.  Since Halloween and Day of the Dead both take place this week, we’ve gathered posts that discuss that which is scary, creepy, grotesque, supernatural, dead, and “haunting.”

  • Tired of hearing books described as “haunting”?  Andrew Ladd takes on the misuse and overuse of this word in a “Blurbese” blog post.



But Art Just Isn’t Worth That Much

GHyland Blog OK copy.jpguest post by Peter B. Hyland

Nabokov Lolita White 550.jpgWhen I was a teaching fellow in graduate school, one morning a colleague and I debated the virtues of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita over coffee in our campus office. I had added the novel to the booklist for my fall classes, and her initial vague disapproval now solidified into the contemplative frown and raised eyebrow that lets a man know his character is up for judgment. While checking her e-mail, she asked how my classes were coping with the text after fifty pages. I said “great,” and it was true. Although I felt a few minor tremors erupting here and there during my first lecture, the students began asking intelligent, probing questions once they actually started reading, and one went as far to say, “I really like this, but I hate Humbert. Is that all right?” My friend clicked her mouse a few times, turned away from the monitor, and asked, “But what do you want them to get from it?” I answered back with something about the nature of desire and the purpose of art and the astounding conflicts a psyche inevitably endures. She sipped her coffee. “Hmm…what else?”
Her point, as far as I could tell, was that my undergraduate students weren’t ready to handle a novel about a pedophile. It unnerved me a little. Once I put aside her tired reservations about literary taboo and propriety, her question prompted me to explore more vital considerations about my role as a writer, the impact of my work, and where I exist in an ethical community.

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Shall I Compare Thee to a Taco Bell?: Pop in Poetry

Hyland Blog OK copy.jpgGuest post by Peter B. Hyland

In 1877, Joseph Ray, M.D.–“late professor in Woodward College”–published Ray’s New Practical Arithmetic. I own a copy for some reason, part of a small collection of nineteenth-century books that my father-in-law gave me, containing everything from an abridged version of Livingstone and Stanley to The Early Poems of John Greenleaf Whittier. They’re beautiful artifacts, each disintegrating at its own pace.

Hyland pop 1.JPGRay’s Arithmetic is especially cool. A name, “G.J. Burgess,” has been penciled onto the flyleaf, flanked by two poorly drawn hands pointing toward the script. Mr. (or Ms.?) Burgess really wanted to brush up on the practical math. The book is saturated with human presence. A foldout of meticulous, elegant handwritten notes on thin wax paper has been pasted inside the front and back covers. Math problems have been worked all over the rear flyleaf, as well as on a blank stock certificate for shares of National Steel Plate Engraving Company ($10 each!), folded neatly and stuck within the pages. A number-scribbled bookmark peeks its little head out from the bound leaves, an appropriated business tag from Lexington Cycle Works, owned by G.M. Cox, “Successor to W. B. Blanton.”

Hyland pop 2.JPGBoth the stock certificate and the bookmark are from the early twentieth century. The former has an empty date field reading “190_”. By Googling “Lexington Cycle Works,” I found a link to the Kentuckiana Digital Library, which holds a scanned page from the March 8, 1906 edition of Clay City Times that refers to G. M. Cox, who apparently sold “all kinds of talking machines” (click on “Page [3]” under “Contents”; the reference is in the far left column, a little more than halfway down). If you’re not yet convinced of our technological acceleration, consider that it took me five minutes, on the PC in my den, to find scanned source material referencing an obscure business which sold “talking machines” just over a hundred years ago.

All this futzing around with history got me thinking about the things that poets choose to include in their work. There was a time, conceivably, when I could have written a poem that mentions talking machines, the National Steel Plate Engraving Company, and Lexington Cycle Works, and they would have been as familiar then as iPhones, Microsoft, and Britney Spears are to readers today. Poets are notorious hoarders. We gather up the world, dropping any and every available object, person, place, or idea into a poem to make it spark.

The annihilation of strictures on the use of “low” culture has been one of the most valuable breakthroughs in modern poetry. Now, absolutely anything can go into a poem, and we’re better off for it. One can knock out a poem that includes Payless ShoeSource* or Daffy Duck** and still be artful, dignified, and legitimate. And why not? Pop culture expresses our collective desires, attitudes, perfections, and defects during a given historical moment. If we banish it from poetry, we banish part of ourselves. Unbridled prejudice against pop culture is really a kind of neurosis.

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Broken Plank & Immortal Veil

Hyland Blog OK copy.jpg4175102506_fda658ff0a.jpgGuest post by Peter B. Hyland

In book five of The Odyssey, the sea goddess Ino comes to the aid of a storm-tossed Odysseus. She emerges from the waves and loans him her veil, a talisman that ensures he will arrive in one piece on the island of Scheria, his last stop before returning home to Ithaca.

Ino was once human, nurse to the young Dionysus in one prominent rendering from Greek mythology. Judging from all the stories our Greco-Roman friends have left us, her family life bore characteristics typical for the period–filicide, madness, frenzied escape into the sea and subsequent transformation into a divinity.

Despite Ino’s good intentions, Odysseus is suspicious. She urges him to jump overboard and swim for it, promising that the veil will protect him. But he decides to stay in his boat. He’s already been jerked around by the gods a few too many times. In Robert Fagles’ translation, Odysseus says:

No, here’s what I’ll do, it’s what seems best to me.

As long as the timbers cling and joints stand fast,

I’ll hold out aboard her and take a whipping–

once the breakers smash my craft to pieces,

then I’ll swim–no better plan for now.

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You Talk Funny: Some Notes on Accessibility and Poetry

Hyland Blog OK copy.jpgGuest post by Peter B. Hyland

At a dinner event last week, I met an engaging lawyer who was very interested in the fact that I write poetry. He had an enthusiasm for wanting to read poems, but admitted that he rarely does. His explanation was familiar–poetry can be difficult to understand. We were seated at one of several large, round dining tables, rinsed in a sharp kaleidoscopic glow that emanated from the walls and spilled onto the polished concrete floor. More than a hundred fluorescent lights surrounded us. We were literally inside a work of art, an installation by the minimalist Dan Flavin, discussing the difficulties of poetry. It seemed appropriate.


Dan Flavin installation at Richmond Hall, The Menil Collection.

From our conversation, I could see that my lawyer friend has a generous intelligence, and his profession requires him to wrestle with language and rhetoric daily. Still, when I speculated that most people are intimidated by reading poetry, he quickly nodded his head in agreement. He’s intimidated, too.
I’ve been thinking about this notion of accessibility lately. I work for a literary non-profit, Inprint, which presents numerous readings. Poetry events typically turn out our smallest audiences, and patrons are generally more animated by a line-up heavy with fiction and non-fiction than one boasting a majority of poets. Whenever I talk to poetry neglectors about this, their reluctance is almost always linked to discomfort. They feel unwelcomed, as if poems are intentionally giving them the cold shoulder. Poets who are supposedly more plainspoken (Billy Collins is the example I’m presented with the most) get off easier and are considered more convivial.

But maybe there’s no such thing as plainspoken poetry. A poem becomes a poem when it sets itself apart from common speech, and what we mean by plainspoken as a poetic trait can be hard to pin down. Let’s take a look at a classic example of the plainspoken by William Carlos Williams:

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Jaunt over to a dive bar or a martini bar or tiki bar and slip those lines into casual conversation. I’m willing to bet people will notice, and not because they know the poem. They’ll notice because it’s art. The wheel barrow, rain, and chickens are all unremarkable things, and the vocabulary is plain enough, but the speaker’s meditative stance announces that we’re in a moment that defies normal experience. What is “so much” referring to anyway? Why focus on these things and not other stuff in the yard? After you’re done at the bar, stop off at the library and check out the amount of scholarship that attempts to make sense of this poem–what it means, what it doesn’t mean. A lot of attention has been paid to understanding something so accessible.

And here’s another point to consider: the parameters of diction, vernacular, and definition are constantly shifting. Would so-called plainspoken poems today have been considered plain three hundred years ago? Will they be plain to audiences reading poetry three hundred years in the future? What will they make of Williams’ wheel barrow, rain, and chickens? It’s hard to say. The argument for accessibility involves disturbing implications for our relationship to poets throughout history. Those folks from the past don’t talk like we do, so why should we listen?

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“I Pledge My Death-Wattle to the Cause of Poetry”

Hyland Blog OK copy.jpgGuest post by Peter B. Hyland

One of the finest readings I can remember attending took place a few years ago. It was held at the Museum of Printing History in Houston, a serene little building displaying so many typographical wonders that each time I leave I feel compelled to murder the first tree in sight and pulp the remains for the mill, just so some letterpress virtuoso will have a fresh piece of paper he can stomp ink onto. About sixty of us were seated, talking and waiting for the writer to be introduced.

I soon noticed that the room was quieting, and when I looked to the podium I saw a wiry woman with dark hair giving us a look that suggested something between a school teacher’s reproach and insane ferocity. This was Mary Ruefle. She stood there silently until the last person settled down, so that the only remaining noise was the breathiness of the air conditioning vent. She then started reading a piece called “Snow,” which did that thing to the top of my head Emily Dickinson famously describes.

Not the reading I attended, but great nonetheless.

Later, I went home and wrote, having been lit up a little by the big fire Ruefle made through her performance. I’m usually inclined to work on a poem after I hear a terrific reading. Inspiration can travel this way, a reading acting like a live wire that passes on part of its creative charge. But I’ve noticed something. Whatever sense of artistic euphoria I may have after a reading like Ruefle’s, it doesn’t compare to the sheer creative rush I experience after a mind-blowingly awful literary exhibition.

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Death, Abundance, and Table Settings

Welcome to our inaugural week of Get Behind the Plough! For each issue of Ploughshares, you can read weekly posts from three authors we’ve published: their thoughts about poetry and prose, art and artifice, life and death. Pretty much anything that gets their creative juices going.

For the next six weeks, we’ll bring you musings from three authors we love from our recent Winter 2009-10 issue. Every Monday, tune in for Peter B. Hyland (kicking things off today!). Alicia Jo Rabins will post on Wednesday, James Arthur on Friday.

Our first guest post from Peter covers extremes in poetry, through the lens of seventeen-century painting. Later this week, Alicia dishes about her city crush, and James remembers his idols. Enjoy these posts, and please continue the discussion at the end by leaving comments. Our guests would love to hear from you.

Hyland Blog OK copy.jpg“Death, Abundance, and Table Settings”
Guest post by Peter B. Hyland

A jaw-less skull, the rind of a half-peeled lemon resting over the edge of a silver platter, some wilting peonies, a shattered crystal goblet…

220px-Pieter_Claesz_002b.jpgWhen I was in high school, before I actually started writing poetry and all my ideas about artists involved a certain perverted romanticism, if someone had asked me what a poet’s dinner table looked like, I probably would have answered with the description above. This tableaux might come off as overly affected and ornamental, like a scene from a bad biopic about Edgar Allen Poe, but it presents key features of vanitas, a compelling conceit in still-life painting that had its heyday in 17th-century Dutch art.

Vanitas paintings gather up objects that indicate abundance and decay, luxury and waste, to remind you that nothing lasts forever, particularly yourself. Some exude austerity, thumping the death note pretty hard; others luxuriate in a pile-up of earthly bric-a-brac. The word itself, vanitas, means “emptiness” in Latin, and at their most moralistic, the paintings try to spark an awareness of the deficiencies of the material world, urging you to lead a good temperate life and better prepare yourself for what comes after.

What I’m interested in is understanding vanitas as an artistic strategy.

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Peter B. Hyland, Winter 2009-10 Contributor

Thumbnail image for Hyland Photo 1.jpgPeter B. Hyland is the author of the chapbook, Elegy to the Idea of a Child. His poems have appeared in American Literary Review, New England Review, New South, and elsewhere. He is the development director at Inprint, a nonprofit literary arts organization in Houston.

Hyland’s poem, “Lake Charles,” was published in the Winter 2009-10 issue of Ploughshares, guest-edited by Tony Hoagland. View the issue here.

Excerpt from “Lake Charles”:

So long as pipelines rush raw oil
Thrilling through
A circulating need, so long
As a man must be propelled
Forward & his engine filled.

After the jump, Hyland writes about the inspiration behind his poem.

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