We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us. —E. M. Forster
A few years ago, a graduate school friend who now teaches in a low-residency writing program was working on a panel about “Late Bloomers” for the Associated Writing Program’s annual conference. As I understood it, the idea was to gather a group of writers and/or teachers and lead a discussion about people who come to their writing careers and/or get published and recognized after they are forty years old. At the time, our back-and-forth e-mails got me thinking about what such a term means, and whether or not it really is applicable to the many of us who embrace writing and the writing life—whether for the first time or after a long hiatus—when we are “middle-aged.”
To me, the word “late” itself implies time passing—as does the word blooming—as if there is a before-and-after, an inevitable progression, almost a prescription as to how something—an event, an activity, a life—is expected to unfold. A flower follows a cycle, buds then blooms and, in time, the blossom drops and dies. Beginning and end. Start then finish. Early versus late.
In a 2008 essay in the New Yorker called “Late Bloomers,” Malcolm Gladwell, wrote: “Genius, in the popular conception, is inextricably tied up with precocity—doing something truly creative, we’re inclined to think, requires the freshness and exuberance and energy of youth.” He goes on to offer a few familiar examples—Mozart, Picasso, Orson Welles. But the story doesn’t stop there.
These days, it certainly seems that, for the most part, contemporary literary culture celebrates the precocious achievements of gifted youth more often than seasoned later-in-life talents. I wonder, instead, if it isn’t a better idea to see creativity and art as part of the flow of life and our lives, something we inhabit and do, a continuous, unfolding arc of possibility rather than an arrival at a destination bound and determined solely by our subjective notions of time.
For a host of reasons, many of us take longer to do what we want or feel we are meant to do in life. I returned to a focus on writing at in 1988 when I was in my early 30s; that seems young now, looking back. I moved on from extramural classes to the master’s program at SUNY/Binghamton, getting my degree in 1994. But only in my 40s, after other life priorities shifted and changed, was I able to make writing my daily focus. And still that journey has included more workshops, classes, and writing teachers and mentors. Surely, life intervenes time and again and circumstances and artistic preoccupations change, even for those writers who start out of the gate running, showing flash and dazzle when they are 25 years old.
Are the potholes any different for a late-blooming writer than a youngster? Maybe, maybe not. Sometimes I think there are more potholes the farther away you live from New York City or if you are outside the college and university writing scene, as I have chosen to be. Still, I think an increasing number of writers (not just later-in-life ones) are doing their work outside of academia. Many can’t afford to plunk down the tuition money for MFA/MA programs. Or they aren’t willing to go into debt for a degree that won’t necessarily get them very much in terms of practical, wage-earning skills in the end. This may make it even harder to market oneself, or to break into the journals especially the ones associated with colleges and universities—we all know connections are the name of the game in that corner of the writing world.
I also wonder if publication a good way to measure who is and isn’t arriving to the writer’s life late. Publishing is a major crapshoot. I have had success in my “late-blooming period” (a fellowship, over sixty publications, two chapbooks.) Still, these successes, while encouraging, are a reminder that the competition to be “discovered” let alone successfully published—and read by more than your friends and relatives, books not immediately remaindered, etc.—is fierce. Some of this is a direct result of the industry the AWP itself has worked to create—so many writing programs which has led to many more writers at a time when fewer and fewer people are reading and buying books. The longer I work at this (and possibly the older I get) I find I am writing more for myself and less for any hope of recognition or the attentive eyes of the world. I know young writers who’ve come to this same conclusion. We do it for the love or because we can’t not write. And hope to find a few readers along the way who like and appreciate our work. After that it was all gravy, every minute of it, as Raymond Carver once wrote in a poem.
(Carver died at the age of 50 in 1988. Most of his writing success came to him after he was 40 years old.)
More and more, I suspect blooming only happens when we stop talking about whether it’s early or late. When we stop comparing our idiosyncratic creative trajectories tit for tat. When we simply sit down and do the work, our work. In the end, isn’t that all that really matters?
For all you horticulture nerds, the photo is a Night-blooming Cereus, a member of the cactus family that blossoms only once with its heady and fragrant petals closing by the following morning. It’s also known (with good reason) as Queen of the Night, the lunar flower, the moon flower, and luna flower.
Sometimes it is by going back (often thanks to new translations) to study a timeless and ancient text that I find I can begin to take in with fresh eyes still-relevant wisdom about the writing craft.
During a recent bookshelf purge, I unearthed not one but two copies of Lu Chi’s Wen Fu (The Art of Writing). One is a slim brown volume translated by Sam Hamill and published by Breitenbush Books. The other, translated by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping (Shambala), includes not just The Art of Writing but wisdom about writing and poetry from other Chinese Masters.
Both cosmic and practical treastise, The Art of Writing was originally a rhymed prose piece of literary criticism that often speak to the place where mysticism and inspiration meet. Barnstone and Ping call it an “ars poetica” in the spirit of Pope and Horace. While some of the ideas surely get lost in the translation—both literally and through the intervening years and cultural differences—my recent readings brought a few new kernels of wisdom home to me.
Lu Chi (or Lu Ji as he is also known) came from a military family. His grandfather won the throne for Emperor Wu and was given a dukedom. Then, warring between political factions erupted and Lu Chi and his brothers were placed under house arrest for a decade. That’s when Lu Chi started to study Confucianism and Taoism. Later, the power struggles continued and Lu Chi was accused of treason. He and his sons were executed soon after. The Art of Writing, his thoughts about how to write well penned during his house arrest, originally written in 320 A.D. have lived on.
On my recent passes through both volumes, I made my own shorthand list of writing mantras to turn to whenever I feel the need.
Writer’s block is a dead river. Inspiration is a thought wind. Writing is an essential relationship, a spiritual voyage connecting impulse with action, words with music, and self to the world.
You get the gist.
Mightily influenced by Wen Fu, Howard Nemerov, the former United States Poet Laureate and elder brother of the photographer, Diane Arbus, penned a long poem, “To Lu Chi.”
Through many centuries of dust, to which
We both belong, your quiet voice is clear
About the difficulties and delights
Of writing well, which are, it seems, always
The same and generally unfashionable.
In all the many times I have read your poem,
Or treatise, where the art of letters turns
To the inspection of itself—the theme
(I take your phrase) of how to hold the axe
To make its handle—your words have not failed
To move me with their justice and their strength,
Their manner gentle as their substance is
Fastidious and severe. You frighten me
When you describe the dangers of our course,
And then you bring, by precept and example,
Assurance that a reach of mastery,
Some still, reed-hidden and reflective stream
Where the heron fishes in his own image,
On a long ago March Sunday of wild wind and speeding-by clouds and at least a dozen rain showers with sun breaks in between here in the Pacific Northwest, it was a lovely luxury to dip into Lu Chi’s words and fish up handfuls of pearls.
I especially liked Sam Hamill’s translation of the final prose poem. He entitled it, simply, “Conclusion”—
Consider the use of letters, for all principles demand them. Though they travel a thousand miles & more; nothing in the world can stop them; they traverse ten thousand years. Look at them one way and they clarify laws for the future; look at them another, and they provide models form old masters morals. Through letters there is no road too distant to travel, no idea too confusing to be ordered. It comes like rain from the clouds; it renews the vital spirit. Inscribed on bronze & marble, it honours every virtue; it sings through flute and strings, and every day is made newer.
I've spent some time -- inspired by Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love I suppose -- trying to come up with my word for 2011. I meant to do this last year, and the year before, and never got around to it. Then today, this appeared in my e-mail as my Daily Peace Quote—words from a favorite poet no less.
Our deepest fears are like dragons guarding our deepest treasure. - Rainier Maria Rilke
So I knew the time had come and I (of course) instantly knew my word: fearless.
And even though its definition is simply lacking fear and a number of its synonyms veer into the language of battle and war -- bold, brave, courageous, intrepid, valiant, valorous, gallant, plucky, lionhearted, heroic, daring, audacious, indomitable, doughty; unafraid, undaunted, unflinching; informal gutsy, spunky, ballsy, feisty -- I've decided I still want to keep it, for now, to try it on for size as I venture in the creative and West Coast Fitness waters of this my 56th year on earth.
Maybe it will inspire me (or at the very least remind me) to reclaim some of the derringdo and pluckiness I once exhibited (in spades) when I was younger, more optimistic, and, of course, thinner. Maybe it will simply help me have more confidence and know that there is nothing to fear even as my right knee shows signs of arthritis and my hands turn psoriasis-prone. Maybe it will give me the perspective I so often lack -- and truly need and want -- to be able to use my writing to tell my truths.
A recent assignment for my narrative poem class asked us to write a multi-part poem about a forgotten social injustice. I decided to boil down my words to tell the story of Gandhi's march to Dandi, a railhead by the sea as part of a non-violent protest against the viceroy's egregious tax on salt. This became the famous Salt Satyagraha of April to May 1930, a cornerstone of the Indian independence movement. Below a snip.
Dandi Salt March
What hope shall we gather, what dreams shall we sow?
Where the wind calls our wandering footsteps we go.
One of my resolutions for 2010 has been to jump-start what I’ve taken to calling my solo MFA regimen. I know I have many gaps to fill, knowledge-wise. But, instead of spending $30K for another (I already have a degree in fiction)—I hate to say it but likely useless, job-wise—master’s degree in poetry—I’m slowly wending my way through the many books on poetic theory and form that, over the years, have found their way to my shelves.
So far, some pretty freaking nerdy stuff. Lewis Turco’s The New Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics veers into the esoterica PDQ. Not for these gray, low-light winter days! I made it to page 28 in the chapter about sonic levels only to lose my footing in his back-and-forth discussion (sometimes with examples, sometimes not) of headless iambs and tailless trochees.
But great stuff has been swimming to the surface as well. The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland is a wonderfully clear and easy-to-apprehend primer. Each form’s traits are listed, then the history of the form is recounted, and wonderfully accessible examples of contemporary poems written in each of these forms are then offered up. “Poetic form is not abstract, but human” is the axiom of this very helpful book.
In Western Wind, what I’d call a classic Poetry 101 textbook, I learned—math dunce that I have long been—about the series of “golden numbers” called the Fibonacci sequence, where each number is the sum of the two preceding ones: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55 and so on. Apparently such sequences turn up time and again in nature—in the generation of bees, in the number and pattern of leaves or petals on certain plants, the patterns made by the spiral unfolding of a sunflower. And they find their way into artistic creation as well—how musicians work with duration in their rhythms, and painters decide where to place what on a canvas. And, of course, in the creation of a poem—from the number of syllables in a line to the number of lines in a stanza to the number of lines in a poem. And I had long wondered why I often ended up with poems of 13 and 21 even 34 lines and they somehow seemed, well…right.
It’s complicated to explain further here so I’ll give you the erudite scribes at Wikipedia to further expound. But suffice it to say, pretty darn cosmic and cool. And, according to Plato, “God always geometrizes.”
Iambic pentameter is the familiar heartbeat of the English language. Blank verse—unrhymed iambic pentameter—is poetry’s “tool of all trades.” You can count only the syllables in a line of poetry and that’s a form—haiku does this. Same with counting words. Any and all of these form decisions affect the tone and energy of your work. Free verse has much to do with the interrelationship between the line and sentences. And then there are the newer kids on the block, concepts like fractal poetry where (if I got it somewhat right) a three-dimensional discontinuity of plane, surface, texture, opacity, transparency and understory is what the poet makes her or his textual assemblages about. This is some pretty out there stuff!
I know this level of exploration and book-learning isn’t for everyone. Many folks who write poetry are content to simply get down their “first thought, best thought” as Allen Ginsberg famously said and leave it at that. But the longer I immerse myself in the art form that is writing poetry, the more I find I both want and need to have at least a skeletal handle on what all the fuss was about in the ages before I showed up and wanted to break my thoughts out into lines and/or stanzas on a blank page. And that takes me back to the basics: rhyme and meter and form.
Poetry began as an oral art form, the telling in memorable ways of stories and myths and tales and epics to be passed down, our song and heartbeat, in forms from rap to Lear’s final soliloquy. There’s something to be said in these too-much-speedy-information days about the fact Robert Frost pulled it off a very difficult eleven-syllable rapid and skipping rhythm so effortlessly in his poem, “For Once, then Something” that most of us never even need to know it’s the hendecasyllabic meter of Catullus. And Catullus was a great admirer of Sappho, whose poetry centers on her passion and love for various personages and both genders. That sounds awfully contemporary to me…
We hold these truths
to be self-evident... —The Declaration of Independence
A single event
can have infinitely many interpretations.
A lot of
professionals are crackpots.
Disgust is the
appropriate response to most situations.
These days, when
civility in public discourse has plummeted to yet another low when accusations
fly like poisoned arrows from one ideological camp to the next, facts are taken
out of context and twisted, and half-truths and blatant lies treated as
equivalencies on nightly newscasts, I’ve turned back to Jenny Holzer’s Truisms in search of some way, any way to get a handle on the
contrarian nature that seems to have infected our every attempt at conversation
Any surplus is
People who don’t work
with their hands are parasites.
Jobs lost, homes
foreclosed, surpluses squandered, wars waged, fortunes gambled, security
destroyed, health care ever elusive, far from the civil right it should be in a
country half as rich as ours—it’s easy to see how the power of any kind of
propaganda might seize a fretting mind in these less-than-best of times.
Worrying can help you prepare.
You are a victim of
the rules you live by.
Words tend to be
Jenny Holzer works
with text as her art. She finds, crafts, and then puts provocative, strange,
unsettling, at times enigmatic words and sayings and texts and documents—into
public spaces and leaves them, waiting for discovery, response, and reaction.
Sometimes the words make an obvious narrative, even a story, sometimes not;
more often, you the viewer/reader are left to construct a meaning for yourself.
Symbols are more
meaningful than things themselves.
Description is more
important than metaphor.
In the early days,
thirty-plus years back, Holzer put her words on posters, placing them pretty
much at random on New York City street lights and telephone poles; not long
after she moved to her primary medium, LED signs and displays often projected
in places as diverse as the façade of the New York Public Library, a JFK
terminal arrival/departure board, and on the Big Brother-esque electronic
marquees that now leer above Times Square.
Chasing the new is
dangerous to society.
Confusing yourself is
a way to stay honest.
Abuse of power comes
as no surprise.
project, begun in 1977, gathered sayings that you may or may not have heard
before and then (maybe or maybe not) repeated some verbatim and turned others
on their tiny linguistic heads. The thing is: they sound authoritative, like something you ought to pay attention to and believe. They sound like they contain
the wisdom of the ages, like they are channeling the truth, like they might
offer a tidy little Zennish koan you can use to chant your blues away.
Categorizing fear is
Fear is the greatest
Except many on the
list contradict one another. Cancel one another out. Fight side-by-side to the
death. Not unlike the screaming matches I can only imagine breaking out in the
chambers of Congress if decorum were really to be breached and the furious
tempers of misunderstanding and conflict let loose. Which for someone like me,
words and writing-obsessed and -possessed, just might be the unnerving point:
maybe it is impossible to ever hold any—let
...when the showman shifts the gears, lives become careers, children cry in fear, let us out of here.
A dear, dear friend from my long ago past life was found this week. What a gift that is! I, who pride myself on not losing touch with those I hold so near and dear lost this person, how, I don't even recall. But now he's found, thanks to a mutual pal who braved the vagaries of Facebook to connect with him. And already, after a mere 24 hours of e-mail back-and-forth, man oh man, there are some people you just pick up with where you left off...
When was the last time I saw G.? 1978 or 1979? Before I moved up the road to Ithaca, New York? My son was 1 or 2; he'll be 33 this coming June. A life, a generation unfolding, days passing, so much time gone. G. said in an e-mail, and rightly so:
"Time eats us alive. Mozart died at 35 and Louis Kahn built
his first building after 50. It's a minute by minute thing with no real
boundaries. It's a dream."
Damn if he isn't absolutely, ineluctably right.
Photo: One John took of the damn coolest outdoor art exhibit: one-dimensional but stand-up photograph/cut-outs of African immigrants living throughout Italy. It was staged in Campo San Margherita, April 2008, when we were living in our Venetian apartment a short stroll across the Rio San Barnaba canal. Shortly after, it moved on to Roma.
I had a good run there, writing daily, productively, and actually producing farther-along-than-first-drafts for something like over a month. Then the (inevitable?) crash and burn which, for me, comes in the guise of self-doubt, a feeling of wasted time, being utterly convinced I will never learn how to "do" this, get it "right" (even though there is no right, of course), on and on, blah blah blah.
Then to stumble on this poem on the Mudlark electronic poetry journal site last eve—yet again the reminder that wisdom does often arrive, to rescue and embolden, just when needed:
The First Step
The young poet Evmenis
complained one day to Theocritus:
"I've been writing for two years now
and I've composed only one idyll.
It's my single completed work.
I see, sadly, that the ladder
of Poetry is tall, extremely tall;
and from this first step I'm standing on now
I'll never climb any higher."
Theocritus retorted: "Words like that
are improper, blasphemous.
Just to be on the first step
should make you happy and proud.
To have reached this point is no small achievement:
what you've done already is a wonderful thing.
Even this first step
is a long way above the ordinary world.
To stand on this step
you must be in your own right
a member of the city of ideas.
And it's a hard, unusual thing
to be enrolled as a citizen of that city.
Its councils are full of Legislators
no charlatan can fool.
To have reached this point is no small achievement:
what you've done already is a wonderful thing."
Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard, Translators The Complete Poems of C.P. Cavafy
Chatto & Windus: London, 1975
Photo: The side of a train car, National Train Day, Portland, Oregon. May 2009.