Poetry is a controlled refinement of sobbing

An idea from the narrator of Nicholson Baker’s book The Anthologist (2009):

Isn’t crying a good thing? Why would we want to give pills to people so they don’t weep? When you read a great line in a poem, what’s the first thing you do? You can’t help it. Crying is a good thing. And rhyming and weeping—there are obvious linkages between the two. When you listen to a child cry, he cries meter. When you’re an adult, you don’t sob quite that way. But when you are little kid, you go, “Ih-hih-hih-hih, ih-hih-hih-hih.” You actually cry in a duple meter.

Poetry is a controlled refinement of sobbing. We’ve got to face that, and if that’s true, do we want to give drugs so that people won’t weep? No, because if we do, poetry will die.

Tell me you sob. Tell me our poetry lives.

What have you read, writer, that made you weep?

 

How can hair come from what is not hair, or flesh from what is not flesh?

In Book II of Lives of Eminent Philosophers Diogenes recounts a story about Anaxagoras (500 – 428BCE), a Pre-Socratic philosopher who adopted Athens as his home in his twenties.

“When someone inquired of Anaxagoras, “Have you no concern in your native land?”

Gently, he replied, “I am greatly concerned with my fatherland,” and pointed to the sky.

Anaxagoras was tried for impiety and Medism in 450BCE.  The accusations were based on his claims that the sun was a red, hot stone and that the moon was made of earth. Following the trial, ostracised from Athens, he returned to Iona and settled at Lampsakos where the anniversary of his death was marked as a holiday from school for all children of the region.

What claims do you own in your writing?

What statements do you utter that could befall trouble?

What lands do you call father?

What do you stand for, with your words, so that a public holiday may be named in your honour?

The gift has already been given

It took three hefty gods to chain and rivet the Titan Prometheus to Mt Caucasus. In Aeschylus’ play, Prometheus Bound (430BC), the gods of strength (Kratos), violence (Bia) and black-smithing (Hephaestus) fix Prometheus to the rock.

Kratos says to Hephaestus, “Now drive the adamantine wedge’s stubborn edge straight through his chest with your full force.”

“Alas, Prometheus,” says Hephaestus shortly before exiting the scene, “I groan for your sufferings.”

Defying Zeus, Prometheus gave us fire. Yet, in a speech delivered to the choir of visiting ocean spirits, chained painfully to the rock, Prometheus declares that he also gave us writing. He gifted us the stringing up of letters with which to hold all things in memory.

From Prometheus, we are able to write things down so we will not forget them. Over space and time the things we have written persist.

Do not struggle with your writing. Do not feel it has left you. In a brave and selfless act writing was given to you by a noble hero. It is yours for the taking.

ευχαριστώ Προμηθέως

Make words speak louder than actions

There is an appeal against the worth of words, placed in the mouth of Ajax by Antisthenes (c. 445-365 BC, founder of the Cynic school of thought).

In an instructional speech delivered against Odysseus, the mythical character Ajax says,

Do not look at words when judging heroic virtue but, rather, at deeds. For war is decided not by word but by deed: we cannot compete in debate with our enemies, but must either conquer them by fighting or be slaves in silence (53.7)

What, then, can words do? What can we judge from words? When might a word have worth? Are not actions, after all, nothing more than the meaning of a word?

My name, for example, is a word, not a deed. It has worth, to me. My name will tell you things about me and only the one who knows it can call me home on the wild nights.

One of our tasks, as good writers, is to choose words more sturdy than the deed.

Prove Ajax wrong.

Nonumque prematur in annum

Horace advised in, Letters to Piso, that once we have written we let our work rest.  “Put your parchment in the closet and keep it back till the ninth year.”

While these lines (386-390, Art of Poetry) are often interpreted as guidance towards quality, they also highlight the proper length of a thing (with a dash of Horace’s characteristic mockery).

A breath is half a chorus. Twelve hours turns a tide from high to low. A carronade is much shorter than a long gun.

The time it takes to write our work is as long as it takes. Speed is not admirable.

Side-step imposed narratives about writer’s block by casting time as part of the writing. The value of the Sun King’s soup tureen is the price that someone is willing to pay for it. The value is set by the act of payment.

The time it takes to write our work is the time it takes. The time we give is part of the writing, not a measure of the work nor a ruling of ourselves as failing or otherwise.

 

… Siquid tamen olim

scripseris, in Maeci descendat iudicis auris

et patris et nostras, nonumque prematur in annum

membranis intus positis; delere licebit

quod non edideris; nescit uox missa reuerti.

Sharp