Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Reading about Writing

Revising the last poem I posted (Rocking Stone Flat) I was reminded of something Charles Olson said. Originally, it ran:

it strikes me now
that now is then and time
no more than a list
of things to do. That then
is now and here I am
in the same wild place... etc.

Something about this passage annoyed me. The poem seemed to lose all it's energy here and fall flat. I changed it to:

it strikes me now
that now is then and time
no more than a list
of things to do. This is
the same wild place... etc.

A bit better, I thought. I had been too pleased with the "now is then" idea, I decided, and had footled around with it as a consequence.

... That then  
is now and here I am

had to go.

As Charles Olson said:

" A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader. Okay. Then the poem itself must, at all points, be a high energy-construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge. So: how is the poet to accomplish same energy, how is he, what is the process by which a poet gets in, at all points energy at least the equivalent energy which propelled him in the first place, yet an energy which is peculiar to verse alone and which will be, obviously, different from the energy which the reader, because he is a third term, will take away?

This is the problem which any poet who departs from closed form is specially confronted by...


Charles Olson (1951)

I like reading what writers say about writing. It was pure coincidence that last night, after reflecting on Olson, I picked up Theodor Adorno's Minima Moralia and came across this. It's good advice, although I'm not sure I can live up to it and I sometimes come across writing where I'm pleased the writer has ignored some of it (I quite enjoy blogs, for example, when people go off at a tangent):

"A first precaution for writers: in every text, every piece, every paragraph to check whether the central motif stands out clearly enough. Anyone wishing to express something is so carried away by it that he ceases to reflect on it...

One should never begrudge deletions. The length of a work is irrelevant, and the fear that not enough is on paper, childish...

When  several sentences seem like variations on the same idea, they often only represent different attempts to grasp something the author has not yet mastered. Then the best formulation should be chosen and developed further. It is part of the technique of writing  to be able to discard ideas, even fertile ones, if the construction demands it...

Properly written texts are like spiders' webs: tight, concentric, transparent, well-spun and firm."
 Theodor Adorno (1951)


the watercats said...

*head... *whoosh....

I've always used poetry as a form of self help and enjoy the alchemy of creating something from nothing.. or nothing from something.. I personally don't have the inclination, knowledge, expertise or willpower to spend more than ten minutes writing anything.. it comes out.. it is finished... I don't plan what comes out and rarely change anything and if there are more than two pauses during the stream of thought, I scrap it, because that generally means hard work....
writing can become as complex or as simple as you like it, as with music... the point to me is, it must have soul... but a lot of that has to do with the perception of the reader/listener..

Rachel Fox said...

Writers on writing...they're very good at the 'one rule for everyone else and another one for me' (aren't they?).
Have I got any examples. Not to hand,'s more of a hunch. I really wish people wouldn't pronounce theories without any evidence to back them up. Outrageous.

Poetikat said...

Thanks for this, Dominic! I need a restraining order sometimes to hold back the "energy" and stop being "carried away". These are the very tips that I need to take to heart.

I do agree with your edit and think the lines work well.

Dominic Rivron said...

watercats: What I write tends to pop out, too. I could never do with those writing course projects where you twiddle round with ideas on a page and then make a poem out of them. But I've always found what CO says about the importance of energy to be good advice.

RF: Yes, rules are made to be broken. If you want an example, take the Olson quote itself: he's writing prose, but for a man who's into energy, and says "ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION" (his capitals) he doesn't half go on. I would only stand by what he said, not how he says it.
For that matter, I don't think one has to agree or disagree with what other writers say about writing. One can pick up or put down what they say at will. I just find it interesting.

Dominic Rivron said...

Poetikat: Thanks for that. :)

Rachel Fox said...

Absolutely...I could quote Larkin on writing till the cows come home.

Rachel Fox said...

And what if the cows are already home? Ah, tricky...

Niamh B said...

I think the edit works, on first reading I would have liked to leave it as it was first, but rereading I can see what you mean - especially after reading that advice further down, thanks for posting those up - they're quite inspiring, if difficult to live up to...!

Dominic Rivron said...

RF: Anyone found reading Larkin after the cows come home gets a pat on the head :)

NiamhB: I know what you mean. I vacillated over changing it at first, too.

Rachel Fox said...

See! You've got jokes coming out of your...hands?

The Weaver of Grass said...

I have thought about this since you sent me that information in a e mail a couple of days agao. Sorry but I think it is making a simple point in a very complicated over-verbose way. I do agree that often I write ten words where one appropriate word would do - and for that reason I write a poem, sleep on it and think again. But there is nothing worse than a poem which has been worked on for so long that it becomes sterile. As water cats rightly says - a poem has to have soul and it is very easy to destroy that.

Titus said...

Good advice for me though Dominic! I witter on forever because I WANT TO MAKE SURE PEOPLE REALLY UNDERSTAND. Apologies for capitals as don't know how to italicise in comments.

More seriously, I do find it enlightening to read other writers on writing - as with life, we tend to pick what we need at the time and discard the rest.

The Solitary Walker said...

Well, sometimes I like what writers say about writing and sometimes I don't. Often when writers theorize too much about the whole process it makes me suspicious. Olson was certainly a great theorizer, but was he a great poet? Adorno was a philospher and intellectual - but not a great, creative, imaginative writer. In my opinion.

Sometimes the Greats - like Goethe - were brilliant at both creating AND commenting, writing AND reviewing, creating AND theorizing about the creative process But on the whole I think writers are smart if they downplay the art of how-I-did-it and how-it's-done - as Norman MacCaig does so artfully.

In your extracts I'm afraid the 'energy' passage lost me rather. And, although I agree wholeheartedly with 'Form is never more than an extension of content', the next 'maxim' about one perception having to follow another seemed to me a trifle trite and not very meaningful. I felt myself rebelling at that word 'must'.

BarbaraS said...

I really like the bit about webs at the end. Spot on, really. Must look up more of that guy, he sounds like he knows what he's talking about.

Dominic Rivron said...

RF: Me? jokes? I was trying to think of another, but I can't think of one (but see next post).

WG: Perhaps a poem can be spoilt by being either under- or over-worked?

Titus: Exactly. And even when one disagrees with them, they can stimulate ideas.

SW: I enjoy Adorno's writing (though I can only read him in translation). I think his advice is good (and particularly for anyone trying to write like Adorno!) and not at all contraversial, really. He always tries to say precisely what he means. He also said "The writer ought not acknowledge any distinction between beautiful and adequate expression. ... If he succeeeds in saying entirely what he means, it is beautiful."

You're right about downplaying the how-it's-done. Norman MacCaig is fantastic if you ask me.

Olson's strength and weakness in what he says is that it is both true and a bit obvious. He might be describing "projective verse", but a lot of what he says could be applied, more or less, to poetry in general. As for "must", I know what you mean but the guy was writing a manifesto, so I suppose we should let him off.

BarbaraS: Yes! The web bit is brilliant, isn't it?

Poet in Residence said...

Dominic, I too like reading what writers say about writing. Drat someone rung a bell. I have to eat a fish.

Poet in Residence said...

Coppicing is a good thing provided you don't burn the hedgehogs along with the twigs.

Dominic Rivron said...

P-i-R: Coppicing. Thanks for that. Adorno also said in the same passage, "the thicket is no sacred grove. There is a duty to clarify all difficulties". I almost stuck that bit in, too.

Speaking literally, I'm all for preserving the hedgehogs. We've quite a few round here that come to be fed.