A Roar for Powerful Words
A roar for powerful words meme is going around. Kate Harding tagged Paula Cisewski: I have been tagged, I shall tag. And so it makes its way here to me.
The assignment is this:
“list three things [you] believe are necessary for good, powerful writing.”
Paula and Kate have done well, listing these:
- Know what you do well, and what you don’t.
- If you “don’t write for other people,” then put it in a goddamned drawer and be done with it.
- Accept that you can’t please all of the people all of the time.
- Figure out who you are.
- Get over yourself.
As well, the meme started well, with these three:
- Innovation: I love writing that doesn't rely on tired, easy phrases.
- Truth: I need to sense that there is some truth in what is being written.
- Humanism: I need to feel that the writer has an idea about human nature, that as the author of work intended for human consumption, the writer has a grip on the mechanisms, sensitivities that strike a universal chord in all of us.
So what can I add to this list of sound thinking? These eight (and there are many more, as the meme has spread out) thoughts make for the kind of engagement with language that is necessary to keep close. These are good things to keep in mind when giving yourself authority to write.
But I’m envisioning myself reading a poem, and thinking to myself that any poet could violate all these and still write powerfully. Even to the level of “tired, easy phrases,” which can often become the force behind, say, a John Ashbery poem, where the phrase is made to stand on its head, to use a tired and easy phrase.
Writing well and writing powerfully are two facets of one thing: coming out with good art. To write well, which we all want to do, these eight ideas are crucial. To write powerfully, though, I think one could take a step behind what it means to write well, and do something else, that’s very difficult for me to put into a trio of things. So, to support what’s been said, and to try to address “power” directly, here goes:
1. Believe the unbelievable. Stevens called it the “Necessary Fiction,” and I adore the motivation. You must sign on fully to something you know to be false and believe it as true. It’s a wonderful way to allow for the kinds of movements art makes. Does Dorthea Tanning really believe the world looks like that when she paints it that way? Yes. And no. And YES. Perhaps this is just to say “trust your metaphors as real,” or “Truth: the final frontier.”
2. Know that everything is always wrong. All art fails. It is all ephemera. It is useless. It does not rise into the world to become the world. But then again, maybe it does. And maybe it will this time, in this next poem, the one you’re about to write. There is a crack in everything. The crack (to paraphrase Leonard Cohen) is how the light gets in. So you must find the crack, and know, inevitably, there will be a crack in what you produce as well. Attack it.
3. Do something else. Love something else almost as much as writing about it. But know the writer’s first commitment is to the writing. The artist’s job is to make art. Owning that, but almost leaving it is important to me. When I’m reading a poem, I like to feel that more is going on than good writing, or cleverness. It’s the vision thing. The vision of a world brought back through the writing of that world. The conceptual possibility of language to see the world differently than experience sees the world. This difference is possibility.
I’m not certain that these are helpful or interesting. Directives always make me nervous. I keep envisioning the opposite as a possibility.
And I’ll tag these five poets. Maybe they can fix this all back up: Zachary Schomburg, Mathias Svalina, Christopher Salerno, Paul Guest, and Mary Biddinger.
Zachary Schomburg - The Lovely Arc
Mathias Svalina - Yes, Starlings! Yes!
Paul Guest - Almost I Rushed Home to Tell You This
Mary Biddinger - the word cage