Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Most Frightening Thing About Blank Verse --

-- Is that it can write itself.

As any temple deity can deem,
The world is not an oyster, but a pearl:
A pendant seed, tormented by the tides
And false alarums of the tyrant, Time.
Five billion years of battering have creased
And cratered all the faces of this globe,
And as the seedling wavers on its pole,
The seasons and the sufferings go on.
Pain is every earthquake; every flood,
A shame to us who cower in the night
While human brethren gambol in the day.
And yet we plead for knowledge of this place,
As we might plead for serpents of Saigon
And wish to end all writhing in the dust;
Let learning lend them legs. And so to us,
Non-reptiles, yet as worthy of up-rise
And elevated locomotion's prize.

I wrote that in less than five minutes, but don't worry: the ambulance is on its way.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Everything I Need Right Now, to Live

She said, "You should be writing," and I thought --

I hear the red-winged blackbird in the marsh;
His weight can hardly sway a cattail stem,
And yet his voice can reel away the years
And show me cedars from my childhood's hills.
Above its purple rim, the eastern sky
Has bubbled up the moon; no steel-blue lake
Is here to catch reflections of its red,
But still, that face had watched me in the past,
And watches me again as I watch you.
Your every step beside me sings. Your hand,
As cool in mine as bedsheets on the skin,
Is everything I need right now, to live.

-- Absent in their southern fields, the birds
Are now too far away to lend a song.
The moon has burst and lies, a broken leer,
Hollow on the rooftops. And your hand
You tore away from mine. The years are gone.
I turn my back on evening, and I write.

Friday, January 23, 2015

A Certain Dream for a Certain Dreamer

Yes, I am lost, but I seem to be lost in a fascinating place.

One great advantage of being lost is that it forces you to stare at the dirt roads and low hills around you with a new intensity. It forces you to look for stands of cedar, for evening stars, that might guide you back to some place just a little bit like home.

From the unknown to the less unknown leads me to ask: what do I know about short stories?

Both Sean O'Faiolain (whose work remains unknown to me) and H. E. Bates (whose work is in the process of becoming known) have written about short stories, and they agree on certain principles.

Both argue that short stories bear less kinship to novels than they do to lyric poetry.

Both agree that no one has been able to define what a short story is. There seem to be no rules for the crafting of short stories, but only tools and methods. Some stories have plots, but many do not. Some stories extend themselves in time, but many do not. Some stories work by implication, but many do not.

Sean O'Faiolain has gone further, and said that characterization is not important in short stories. Lacking the scope of novels, they must present the illusion of character, the implied possibility of growth or change. What people in stories require is not biographical depth, but vivid perception of the moment.

I find this reassuring, yet at the same time, troubling. How many editors would agree with Sean O'Faiolain? How many, instead, would believe that short stories must be novels in brief?

For my part, when I think of stories, I think of circumstances, and settings, and images, and weather, and implications. The characters arise from these.

As important as characters are, they remain one component. To succeed, a story must present with conviction many components, held in place by the most important of all: the prose.

Prose in itself is not one thing. It is euphony, imagery, sensory detail, metaphor, clarity. When we say that prose is well-written, we have in mind not only the structure and flow of the sentences, but the pictures the words convey, the moods that seep from the language, the ideas combined and illuminated by the text.

This need not imply that stories must present cardboard people or stock players; what matters, instead, is an illusion of life, a suggested complexity.

Quite often, the story itself is characterization: an echo, a reflection, of a character's hidden hopes and fears. Things happen to a particular person because this person is receptive in specific ways, to certain hunches or hallucinations, in the same way that only a certain kind of dreamer can have a certain kind of dream. For example, what happens to Colleen Lambert in "Who Would Remain" is not explicable by human standards, but it does reveal her sense of purpose, her self-definition, and her protective stance towards other people.

I love this approach, because I am less interested in where people have come from, than in what they experience right now. Their jobs, cars, clothes, consumer goods, have no importance to me beyond what they might offer to enhance the story; what matters is what people do and say and feel and fear, right there on the page. For that reason, I question the need to write autobiographical sketches before I begin to write, because these details are beside the point. In a play or novel, this approach would make sense, because plays and novels are very much about the detailed examination of people over time. But short stories are most often about specific moments, and like poems, they are built upon the careful choice and use of words.

Am I wrong about this?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

When I Was Five Years Old

By 1969, I had been dead
(Or so it felt in my dead-tired heart)
The previous five years; but if I lacked
Some spark of living other children held,
I carried in my head a sick sick ghost.
It dragged me out to watch the sunlight die
And bleed from every dusk; then it observed
My bleakness in the grey.

I was compelled
By pictures from the ghost to draw my own.
And so: a house, Victorian and lean,
With tower square, and crowned with narrow mansard --
Bellcast, bullseyed, black, with iron cresting
(Perhaps to fence in widows at their walks).
My favourite design, it drained my pens
And sprawled on pads of paper, stack by stack.

Soon I began to listen to the ghost
Who steeped my head in stories, and I tried
To waste my pens on these, but drawings failed.
Yet kindly women of my Kindergarten
Took heed of what I said (these endless tales)
And wrote the stories down for me. Then I
Would stare at every trace immortalized
By green or purple marker, and pretend
That I had learned to read. It was my trick,
My only magic flourish. It was fake,
As dead as any ghost, but fooled a few.

Where are these ladies now? The ones who chose
To listen while I babbled, and to write
The words that stood beyond me? Forty years
And five can turn a human into dirt;
But I can see their green and purple traces,
I can feel their kindness and concern
Even as the ghost felt mortal daylight
Cooling in the mansard of my head.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Blank Verse Blackness

Democracy, enlightenment, compassion,
All the living strivings of the past --
The stanzas and the standards, all the hands
Raised to paint or sculpt or scope the stars,
To challenge ears with music or with verse,
To point the way to observations new
And calculations inestimable
Yet bold with implication -- All of this,
All of these achievements, in the dust;
For we have cheered the wrecking of the past
And jeered at any future. We live Now,
Live only for the Now, and our delight,
Our fungus lamp and sigil of the age,
Is cash and cash alone. We have no worth
As loving, dreaming, depth-exploring beings;
We only live in what we buy and sell,
We only die to gain the banker's knell.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Dry Crystals

"Within a few kilometres of home, the night caught up with her.

"The full moon became an opalescent smear upon the sky, then darkened into black. In the beam of her headlamp, a few random snowflakes drifted and gleamed like
dustmotes, then increased to block her view in a blinding tunnel of cold stars.

"She stepped down from the bike, turned off the headlamp, and found herself in a bone-grey world with a hint of solid darkness on the left, where the mountainside formed
a rampart of ghostly aspen trunks. To the right, open fields vanished into nowhere. The only sense of life and motion came through the trudging of her boots, the sliding unsteadiness of the bicycle at her side, the cold melting kisses on the unprotected circle of her face."

From "The Vast Impatience of the Night."

But when I went out this evening, I felt as if grains of sand were being tossed at my eyes -- a shame, because the tiny dry crystals formed columns of light that swayed under the streetlamps, and they were beautiful to see... when I could see.

Slamming Doors

And here I am, that audience of one,
As always, after midnight, for the show:
That sick play self-produced, that ever-slow
Uncurtaining of all my never-done,
My never-can, my never-will, begun,
As always, night by night, within the glow
Of pointless hope and useless farrago,
As always, disappointing. Chorus? None.

And here I am, again, as always: Me.
I play the part myself, and all my schemes
Collapse to the applause of slamming doors.
I wear my childhood cloak: futility.
Yet I would rather fail in my own dreams
Than gain success in borrowed rags of yours.

-- Saturday, January 03, 2015.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Most Accomplished Hero of the Age

"There was formerly a king, who had three daughters -- that is, he would have had three, if he had had one more, but some how or other the eldest never was born. She was extremely handsome, had a great deal of wit, and spoke French in perfection, as all the authors of that age affirm, and yet none of them pretend that she ever existed. It is very certain that the two other princesses were far from beauties; the second had a strong Yorkshire dialect, and the youngest had bad teeth and but one leg, which occasioned her dancing very ill.

"As it was not probable that his majesty would have any more children, being eighty-seven years, two months, and thirteen days old when his queen died, the states of the kingdom were very anxious to have the princesses married. But there was one great obstacle to this settlement, though so important to the peace of the kingdom. The king insisted that his eldest daughter should be married first, and as there was no such person, it was very difficult to fix upon a proper husband for her. The courtiers all approved his majesty's resolution; but as under the best princes there will always be a number of discontented, the nation was torn into different factions....

"While the nation was in this distracted situation, there arrived the prince of Quifferiquimini, who would have been the most accomplished hero of the age, if he had not been dead, and had spoken any language but the Egyptian, and had not had three legs."

-- Horace Walpole, "Hieroglyphic Tales."

Printed for G. G. and J. Robinson, Paternoster-Row, and J. Edwards, Pall-Mall. London, 1798.