Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Autobiography in Fiction: What are the boundaries?

The great thing about managing this blog is it gives me the opportunity to learn about writers I may not otherwise study. I was doing some research on our current poet, D.H. Lawrence, who, although an accomplished poet, painter, and critic, is best known for his novels. It is understood within the scholarly community that Lawrence's work was highly autobiographical, and that he drew from personal experiences and acquaintances to inspire his work. His home town of Nottinghamshire frequently provided the setting for these stories. Check out this site for lots of great info about Lawrence's life and work.

Many times, the people of Nottinghamnshire were offended by Lawrence's work, because they could recognize themselves in the often unflattering portrayals of the characters in Lawrence's books. Apparently, Lawrence did not try too hard to disguise who was inspiring what character.

What are the boundaries, do you think, for this kind of writing? Today, the lines between genres are more blurred than ever. We have memoir, which is different from autobiography, which can be different from other kinds of non-fiction, which is different from fiction, but these categories frequently blend and overlap. Does a writer have an obligation to protet the identities of real-life people who inspire their characters, or does it depend on the genre? Is it enough to simply change a character's name? What about memoir? What are the ethical/ literary boundaries?


Friday, December 17, 2004

D.H. Lawrence--Let's Discuss.

Our next poem is by D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930): "When I Went to the Circus." For a short biography of this extraordinary novelist, critic, poet, and painter, click here.

Extra special thanks to Jett who suggested the poem, and when I couldn't find it, typed the whole thing out and sent it to me. Thanks, Jett!


When I went to the circus that had pitched on the waste lot
It was full of uneasy people
Frightened of the bare earth and the temporary canvas
And the smell of horses and other beasts
Instead of merely the smell of man.

Monkeys rode rather grey and wizened
On curly piebald ponies
And the children uttered a little cry--
And dogs jumped through hoops and turned somersaults
And then geese scuttled in in a little flock
And round the ring they went to the sound of the whip
Then doubled, and back, with a funny up-flutter of wings—
And the children suddenly shouted out.

Then came the hush again, like a hush of fear.

The tight-rope lady, pink and blonde and nude-looking, with a few gold spangles
Footed cautiously out on the rope, turned prettily spun round
Bowed, and lifted her foot in her hand, smiled, swung her parasol
To another balance, tripped round, poised, and slowly sank
Her handsome thighs down, down, till she slept her splendid body on the rope.
When she rose, titing her parasol, and smiled at the cautious people
they cheered, but nervously.

The trapeze man, slim and beautiful and like a fish in the air
Swung great curves through the upper space, and came down like a star
--And the people applauded, with hollow, frightened applause.

The elephants, huge and grey, loomed their curved bulk through the dusk
And sat up, taking strange postures, showing the pink soles of their feet
And curling their precious live trunks like ammonites
And moving always with a soft slow precision
As when a great ship moves to anchor.
The people watched and wondered, and seemed to resent the mystery
That lies in the beasts.

Horses, gay horses, swirling round and plaiting
In a long line, their heads laid over each other’s necks;
They were happy, they enjoyed it;
All the creatures seemed to enjoy the game
In the circus, with their circus people.

But the audience, compelled to wonder
Compelled to admire the bright rhythms of moving bodies
Compelled to see the delicate skill of flickering human bodies
Flesh flamey and a little heroic, even in a tumbling clown,
They were not really happy.
There was no gushing response, as there is at the film.

There is so much to do with this poem. Mostly, I am struck by the response of the human beings to the parading, performing animals and humans. They begin “frightened” and “uneasy,” just from the smells of animals and canvas. Children “shout out” when they see the monkeys. There is a “nervous” cheer for the “nude-looking” “tight-rope” lady,” her almost-naked appearance being to primitive or animal-like for the comfort of the audience. The same for the “trapeze man,” who receives “hollow, frightened applause.”

It is striking how the audience is just as uncomfortable with the human acts as they are with the animal acts. It is as if, in the three rings of this circus, animals and humans are on a level playing field, all of them serving the same purpose, which is to parade their trained talents in front of a crowd. The audience senses this “equality” between man and animal, and are forced to consider that they, as human beings, may be just as trained—to applaud in the proper places, and to obey their compulsion to watch the disturbing show.

The stanza with the elephants is the one I find most poignant. The audience watches the elephants “taking strange postures” “with a soft slow precision,” disturbed by the elephant’s talent and ability. The people resent “the mystery / That lies within the beasts.” Why? I believe it goes back to the leveling of animals and people—that elephants are capable of the kind of great beauty and intelligence that only people should be capable of. To be confronted with the idea that they may not be the most significant creatures on the earth, but only one of many—this is what the people resent.

But, in the end, they are still “compelled to wonder… admire… and see” the show, despite how it disturbs them. They don’t responds with enthusiasm however, not the way they would “at the film.” Why? Because a film is not real. You can always leave a movie thinking, “well, that’s just a story, that’s just a movie.” But what these people witnessed was real life confronting them with what is potentially their own insignificance.

Thoughts? Please share!

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

A Poetry Manifesto

Before we move on to the next poem, I would like to post something I wrote for my poetry workshop. We are required to write a poetry "manifesto," a word that makes me laugh a bit, but is supposed to be our chance to express something we believe about the nature and purpose of poetry. Feel free to comment, to add something, to agree or disagree, whatever. I'm interested to hear what poets and/or readers of poetry might think. Thanks for indulging me!

A Call for Courageous Poets

Do we have anything new to say? Is there any freshness and new-born life in us that we can express in our poetry? Is there any boldness and color left in our language that hasn’t already been appropriated by one of our predecessors? Is there anything unique about our lives, our experiences of love, pain, loss, beauty, sex, lies, truth, violence, abandonment, death, birth, hate, and joy?

I believe, at some point, each of us must confront this question. How we answer it fundamentally affects how we write, what we write, and our attitudes toward what we and other poets write. I have my answer.

The nature of experience is one of fluidity. We each travel from moment to connected moment, as if flowing through a liquid circle of time. Usually, when a moment feels cemented or halted in our minds, it is because its sensory impact was so strong: the scent of a mother’s baked cookies; a particularly cold hike through the woods; a traumatic instance of abuse; the first time we kissed someone; the first time our hearts were broken. But each moment, no matter how apparently mundane, takes up its own space in our lives, and is as worthy of our attention as the “stronger” moments. Our individual connectedness to these moments, our willingness to be grounded firmly in our experiences, and our mastery of language are what determine the quality, impact, and uniqueness of our art.

In an essay entitled “A Poet is Made, Not Born,” Tina Blue writes, “The more carefully you attend to observation, to really experiencing the complexity and intensity of the world's details, the less likely you are to view your experience of life through the lens of cliché” (sic). Cliché serves a purpose in our language. It is a way we are taught to express an idea so it will be readily and commonly understood. But cliché is not natural to us. It is learned. I think of my nearly three-year-old niece, Justine, who sings a famous Christmas song this way:

Jingle bells, jingle bells,
Jingle all the way.
How much fun it is to ride
Horse and soap and sleigh! Hey!

Justine doesn’t know the actual lyrics to this song, and she doesn’t care. She has complete faith in her ability to translate what comes at her from the radio or the CD player. No one has yet told her, “No, Justine, it goes like this.” Justine has perfectly and confidently expressed her experience of the song.

We have an advantage over Justine, however, and that is our mastery of language. If we can learn to ground ourselves in experience, and if we continue to study the beautiful English language, we can either avoid cliché by discovering our own words, phrases, colors, and distinctions, or we can exploit cliché, by subverting it, or employing it in the interests of satire or to provoke debate.

Language, like experience, is fluid. Words are constantly being added or subtracted from the English lexicon. There is no possible way for language to be completely used up. Like experience, it is not finite. How can one completely quantify the sensory and emotional impact of an experience? How can one learn and employ every word and nuance available in our language? We can’t. As poets, this is to our advantage; we can each express our particular perception of an experience through disciplined and creative use of language. Because each of us is unique, because each of our experiences is interpreted through our own unique conscious and subconscious filters, because language always carries the potential for unique expression, we can create unique poetry.

This is not for the faint-hearted. It is not for the easily jaded, or for the cynical. It takes courage to create art even in the best of circumstances; it takes even more if we have voices around us whispering, or even shouting, that there is nothing we can express that has not already been expressed. This is an artificial, external voice, not our own, internal truth. Let’s dig out our truths. Let’s not cast judgment on our experiences. Let’s use it all: our pain, love, abuse, fear, guilt, bodies, friends, hate, joy, everything. Let’s seize our courage and put it to use, injecting hope, creativity, and beauty into a frightened world, with language that we choose. Let’s learn from our predecessors, but not be intimidated by them.

Do I believe I have anything new to say?


Who wants to join me?

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Pablo Neruda

This year marks the 100th birthday of the poet Pablo Neruda. Check out Copper Canyon Press for a celebration of his life and work.

Thank you to Kristina for suggesting the following beautiful poem by Neruda.

Here I Love You

Here I love you.
In the dark pines the wind disentangles itself.
The moon glows like phosphorous on the vagrant waters.
Days, all one kind, go chasing each other.

The snow unfurls in dancing figures.
A silver gull slips down from the west.
Sometimes a sail. High, high stars.
Oh the black cross of a ship.

Sometimes I get up early and even my soul is wet.
Far away the sea sounds and resounds.
This is a port.

Here I love you.
Here I love you and the horizon hides you in vain.
I love you still among these cold things.
Sometimes my kisses go on those heavy vessels
that cross the sea towards no arrival.
I see myself forgotten like those old anchors.

The piers sadden when the afternoon moors there.
My life grows tired, hungry to no purpose.
I love what I do not have. You are so far.
My loathing wrestles with the slow twilights.
But night comes and starts to sing to me.

The moon turns its clockwork dream.
The biggest stars look at me with your eyes.
And as I love you, the pines in the wind
want to sing your name with their leaves of wire.

Neruda is amazing at expressing love in a way that is terribly romantic. Trees, water, the sea, the moon, the stars—he uses lovely, expressive imagery that catches our imagination, longing, and desire for love.

This, in my opinion, is not what makes him a great poet. What he does so wonderfully well is describe love that is complicated, heartbreaking, and even messy. In this poem, “Here I Love You,” the speaker is separated from the object of his love: “the horizon hides you in vain.” In vain, because the speaker, although feeling the pain of separation keenly, feels no diminishment in his love.

In the first stanza, there are many subtle images which serve to complicate the expression of love. The "pines" in which "the wind disentangles itself" are "dark," and the "moon glows like phosphorous on the vagrant waters. My first response to the word "phosphorous" is simply to think of a warm glow on the surface of the water, perhaps reflecting a warm glow of love in the speaker's heart; but it is interesting to note that the most common form of phosphorous, which is a white solid, is highly poisonous. It is also insoluble in water. Why use a toxic substance to illustrate love? Perhaps because to love someone who is far away from you is so painful. It can feel as if something poisonous is eating away at you from the inside.

Why are the waters "vagrant?" Vagrant means "one who has no established residence and wanders idly from place to place." Perhaps the vagrant waters reflect the life of the speaker, one who must travel but feels as if he has no true home; at least, no home apart from the one he loves. And "Days, all one kind, go chasing each other." This expresses not only the day-to-day life of someone on the sea, doing his work almost robotically, thinking of his love, but also has a quality of depression: that every day seems exactly the same; every day brings the same pain and separation; every day the speaker longs for the lover he cannot see.

Neruda takes the experience of love and layers it, complicates it, even makes it downright painful. For me, this makes his work more accessible, because it reflects the world in which we exist. Sometimes love just plain hurts.

And this is just the first stanza. Any thoughts? I'd love to hear your ideas.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

More on e.e. cummings

Thanks to Carson for giving new insight into the time in which e.e. cummings lived. Carson writes that cummings would have lived in a era when the "l" (el) on the typewriter was used to write not only the letter "l", but also the number "1" (one).

Fascinating, especially in the context of the alienation and lonliness inherent in the poem. The number one is, of course, "the loneliest number." So, visually, we can view that first letter as the number one, which adds to that sense of loneliness.

Also, the letters after the parentheses spell "oneliness," or "one-liness." Now cummings is really playing with us: "1", or "one-liness," equals "loneliness."

Love this poem.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004


First, I am still soliciting poems from anyone who might have a poem in mind that they'd like to see discussed here. Thanks to everyone who took the time to suggest their favorite poems. I'm planning to cover many of the suggestions.

Today, I'm posting a poem suggested by a friendly reader at http://snazzycat.com/ordinarychica. (I was careful to spell it correctly :-) It's by e.e. cummings.




Form is at the heart of this poem. As chica pointed out, if you read everything between the parenthesis, you read "a leaf falls." The rest spells "oneliness." If you add the beginning "l" to the "oneliness--that is, everything not in parenthesis--you get "loneliness."

Man oh man. This poem is heartbreaking. Upon first reading, I thought, how clever. A nifty poetic device. But the more I read it, the more it got to me. The form illustrates falling, motion, slimness, even termination. The lines are long--not just the poem as a whole, but the letters in the poem--so many l's and f's. Long, even fluid lines, all leading down.

We are familiar with the image of falling leaves and the poignancy that creates. Poems are full of that image. But cummings is illustrating that poignancy in several ways. First, the words themselves: "a leaf falls loneliness" or "loneliness a leaf falls." It doesn't work well to read it that way does it? Second, in the long, lean lines; the downward fluidity of the poem as a whole created with the whole line, and the lines of the letters. Third, those parentheses! Parentheses are inherently exclusive. cummings illustrates loneliness by alienating that word from the rest of the poem. And fourth, although this list is by no means comprehensive, the title. l(a. Alienation and loneliness is inherent in the separation, the boundary, between those two letters.

The gentle, wind-carried fall of a leaf, traveling downward to meet its fate, which is, let's face it, death. The separation of the leaf from its home and companions. Fantastic poem.

Any other ideas about this poem? Feel free to comment with other insights--I'd love to hear your ideas.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Soliciting Poetry Ideas

Do you have a favorite poem? One that you love and read over and over? How about a poem that you're sure is a work of genius, but you just don't get. Or one that has recently inspired or moved you in some way. If so, please suggest this poem in the comments section and I'll choose one to post and discuss on the site, or more than one.

Any are welcome, although I especially like the postmodern New York schoolish "what the f*** does this mean" type of poem (hello Ashbery fans)! We can figure it out!

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Essay on Linda Hogan's "Nothing"

Linda Hogan’s “Nothing”

“Nothing sings in our bodies / like breath in a flute” (Hogan 416). The first two lines of Linda Hogan’s poem “Nothing” sound almost flippant upon the first reading, the way someone might say “nothing tastes like chocolate in the afternoon,” or, in the words of Sinead O’Connor, “nothing compares to you.” In these two examples, “nothing” refers to that which is non-existent, either in matter or in thought. But the speaker in Hogan’s poem offers a very different definition of “nothing:” it is the invisible, vital, life energy which inhabits, animates, and connects all things.

Nothing takes up space: “it dwells in the drum.” It has sound: “I hear it now / that slow beat.” It is the matter from which life can be created, like the “blue fish / born of nothing.” It is also the intangible but very real love we have for others, like the “nothing” offered by the speaker’s hands as she touches the man in her bed, the same nothing her hands offered to “wash the dead” and “the just born.”

In an interview with Carol Miller, Hogan said she loves to write poetry because “it is like a whole body experience” (Miller). “Nothing” is a poem which illustrates this “whole body experience” perfectly. Not only are the flute and the drum bodies which contain nothing, but the speaker’s body, which has “still a little life / left,” is filled with nothing. In the end, this nothing is vast enough to include even emptiness, the necessary internal void we all possess which allows us too “enter in one another.” Love, life, sound, matter, birth, death—when the speaker states “take nothing from me,” she is offering everything she is.

Works Cited

Hogan, Linda. “Nothing.” Modern American Poetry. Ed. Joseph Coulson, Peter Temes, and Jim Baldwin. Chicago: The Great Books Foundation. 2002. 416.

Miller, Carol. 1989 Interview with Linda Hogan. SAIL – Studies in American Indian Literature. 4 December 2004. .

Copyright Amy J. Grier 2004

Friday, December 03, 2004

New: Barbara Guest's "LEICA"

Yes, it's back to blogging about poetry, which I have missed immensely. Fortunately, I have two essays due next week, which gives me motivation for exploring two new poems of my choice (as long as they are contemporary American poems).

I'm going to examine Linda Hogan's poem "Nothing" for one essay--a beautiful poem; see the "Linda Hogan" post to read it--and for the second, I've chosen the following poem by Barbara Guest (of the New York School, like john Ashbery):


Others about the embarking
have reasons.

I holding shreds
carpenter leavings.

Motions in the wind,
wave rolling

disturb sad plots,
disturbing sad plots.

Desolate places
on the grass
where the birds are a light,

Gather in midsummer,
wood shingles,
visionary house.

Taking glances
from tree to eave,

bicyclist, car,
dark green spots

for the movement
of window.

Mowing bitter edges, too.

It passes,
whatever it is.

Day divided by night.
Corn ears.

Whichever decides.

Constructed of film
Day or night.

-Barbara Guest

All right. The first step for me in doing a close reading of this poem was to look up the meaning of the title. Turns out, according to Wikipedia, that the LEICA was the first practical 35 mm camera (Leitz Camera). Now that I know that, it is impossible for me to read this poem without focusing on imagery, particularly the still imagery provided by a camera shot. "Embarking"--on a journey--at first I think of getting on a boat, especially with "Motions in the wind / wave rolling." But I think of this as a metaphor for a life journey (sounds flakey, but there it is); the speaker believes other people "have reasons" for living, as if the have found meaning or purpose, but the speaker has only "carpenter leavings" to go by--bits or shards of meaning that she has collected, that don't seem to fit together, or are only the bits left over from artists who really create something original. Maybe the speaker believes she has nothing original to create, only the "leavings' of other artists.

"Desolate places on the grass / where birds are a light." Now this sounds like a picture--the nature kind, where the birds are not "alight," the are the light-colored specs in an otherwise gray, perhaps black and white photo. These "desolate places" "Gather in midsummer, / wood shingles, / visionary house." Imagine a photographer going out in the nice weather to do nature photography, "taking glances" with her camera "from tree to eave / bicyclist, car," "for the movement of window"--the release of the shutter? "It passes"--these moments caught with the camera are always just a temporary moment that moves on.

"Sums. / Day divided by night:" implies the dark/light of a film negative. "Constructed of film / splices. / Day or night." My feeling is that the speaker views her life as a series of delineated moments which continually pass, but do not seem to connect. They are "divided," despite adding up to the "sum" of a life." Instead of finding some unifying meaning to these moments, these experiences, she feels she has only a collection of of scenes that she does not even truly experience, but rather feels she is viewing through a lense, perhaps the inescapable filter we all, as humans, strain our experiences through. The speaker, however, does seem to think that there are others who do "have reasons," who do seem some unifying meaning to their lives, who do not need or have the LEICA lense, or at least are not disturbed or distracted by it.

I can't get over the imagery of the speaker standing, holding shards of "carpenter leavings" in her hand, bits of life that cannot be molded into any one thing, and in fact did not originate with her. Sad and fascinating.