A Good Word, A Fine Phrase, A Printed Page

Paperback Writer
The Beatles

A Good Word, A Fine Phrase, A Printed Page

Artist in His Studio


“So, I want to be a paperback writer.” The song is about someone who will do anything to get a book deal. It’s not about the money, it’s not about art, it’s about a place on the shelf at the local bookstore. If all goes well, the money and the art may follow. This is the dream of the writer, or at least the writer at the center of the song. But what is it a writer does and how do you teach someone to be a writer? The painting is by Rembrandt and it is of him in his studio trying to make a painting. When we think of the painter making his art we have a picture, we know what a painter at work looks like. Of course we do not really know what the work is the painter is doing, we only know what the painter looks like when he is working. When someone is trying to master the art of putting paint on canvas, we know what that looks like too. The work of course is in the mind and the imagination but we kid ourselves into believing we know what the artist at work and the artist in training look like and what it is they do.

The writer may be at a desk with pad and paper or a typewriter, but the pad may be blank, the typewriter silent. The work is entirely invisible. Even if the pen is moving and the typewriter is putting letters on a page the work is somehow separate from the movement of the pen or the keys. Perhaps the same is true of the painter and the bits of color and the fragments of an image are not much different from the ink on the page. But it seems that a painting in process looks more like “something” than a text in process, though both the painter and the writer begin by confronting an empty space.

Hemingway posing for a dust jacket photo
Lloyd Arnold

The photograph of Hemingway was taken for the dust jacket of one of his books. It was intended to show the writer at work. It is a staged picture and it looks a bit staged. Anyone who has read A Moveable Feast knows how Hemingway presented his approach to the writing process and it wasn’t sitting at a typewriter banging away at keys. It was working and reworking sentences until they were “true.” Critics can argue over how true those sentences were in fact but he labored over them until they were true to him, or so he tells us. There is also a romance to this image of the writer punching keys. Hemingway is alleged to have said, “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” I think he thought these “sports” because they involved personal risk and the one engaged in the sport was risking her or his life in way a football player or baseball player does not. Perhaps by this definition writing is a sport as well. It certainly proved deadly for Hemingway.

As an English teacher I struggle with teaching writing. I do not believe anyone can be taught an art but they can be taught the craft that the individual can transform into art and proceed from craftsman to artist. I do not expect that many of my students will attempt this transformation, though I know some will. Most just want to know what they need to know to write a college paper so they can go on and get a college degree, in other words they need to become craftsmen with words. I do not know of any other way to become a good writer than by writing. This makes for a lot of repetition and drill in the classroom. My experience is that the more students write the better they write. They must spend some time building vocabulary, looking at what good writing looks like, and thinking about what they want to say. But to write well they must write regularly, But in the class much of this is monotonous and dull. Each day of each school year I wrestle with how to make this interesting. But writing is a solitary business and writers must bring their own excitement to the process. This is difficult to do when all the student aspires to is competency or something less than competency. For most of them this is not a sport.

Plot Chart for Harlot’s Ghost
Norman Mailer

This paragraph is sandwiched between two images of two different writers’ process (or at least a part of their process) for constructing a novel. The image above is Norman Mailer’s plot chart for one of his novels, Harlot’s Ghost. It demonstrates that he had a plan when he wrote, someplace he wanted to get to. The book is a long book and the chart looks complicated. I do not know how closely he followed this chart but it is evidence that though inspiration may be a part of the process, it is certainly not the whole of the process; in fact it may be a very small part of the process. The other image is of Julian Barnes’ “completion scheme” for one of his books, Flaubert’s Parrot. I am not sure how to read the chart but it looks like he is trying to bring loose ends together, but that may be just my take on what I see. But it shows that careful thought and planning goes into the making of a book. It goes into the making of any piece of writing of consequence, from the term paper to the Great American Novel.

Completion Scheme Flaubert’s Parrot

Julian Barnes


But what is equally important to notice is that Barnes and Mailer do not approach their compositional problems in the same way and there is a lesson in this as well. As writers, whether we write as craftsmen or as artists, we have to have a method that works for us, that can help us put words on a piece paper when the words will not put themselves there, that will help us when the inspiration does not come, or after the inspiration has come and gone and the real work of writing begins. It is my experience with the writing process that the words that come most directly from inspiration are usually the worst words I write and the hardest words to part with. There is an emotional investment in words that flow from inspiration. It felt good getting these words and writing them was a thrilling exercise, it was form of ecstasy, a kind of “speaking in tongues.”

These words are important because they begin the process and wonderful things can follow from them, but they are words about which it is difficult to be objective and when the emotions clear and objective thought returns they are often embarrassing. But the words in which I take some pride would probably not have come if those that embarrass had not come first. This is part of the work of writing. This is what it means to be truthful. If we are not truthful with ourselves about what we have written our words cannot be true for others.

There was an article in The Guardian this weekend about Australian writers and their use of language. It was called “Australian Authors Defend Language.” There are many countries in the world that have English as their national language. But none of these English speaking nations speak entirely the same language. They have all evolved differently. For example, when the first Harry Potter book was published in England it was called Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone. The stone that Nicholas Flamel in fact created was the philosopher’s stone that was sought by all the medieval alchemists. For American audiences, though, the title was changed. Perhaps Americans had less experience with alchemy and with philosopher’s stones but the publishers obviously thought that “The Sorcerer’s Stone” would play better with American readers than “Philosopher’s Stone.”

The problem for Australian writers though goes deeper than this. When a book that began in Australia does well in America it is often in part because the American publishers Americanize the text. This wouldn’t normally be a problem for Australian books in Australia but the Australian government wants to change import laws so that the American editions can be sold in Australia. The end result is that the Australian vernacular is purged from successful Australian literature. For Australian writers this must be terribly frustrating because part of what a writer does is capture a reality that is real for the writer.

When foreign publishers can do what they want to a writer’s work what happens to that work? Is it really the author’s work any more but the work of an anonymous editor someplace? What does it say about a nation when it is willing to sacrifice the purity of its literary tradition for a few dollars more in profits? Mark Twain said, “The Difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and the lightening bug.” What happens to a literary tradition when non-literary folks are able to change the “right word” into “almost the right word” and transform a writers lightning into the lightning bug?

Finding Forrester – “You’re the Man Now Dog”
Columbia Pictures

This clip from the film Finding Forrester makes a point about an aspect of the writing process. Forrester tells his young student to sit at the typewriter and type. Don’t think just type. He is trying to get the student to see that the writer has to have something to work with and words on a page are the writer’s tools. I think this is good advice. I try to encourage students to do a first draft of any essay they do for me as a free write. That trying to make a first draft the finished draft is often an invitation to writer’s block. But what Forrester does not address, and perhaps he did not need to address, is where do the ideas come from. For a writer of fiction the ideas, or at least the initial idea, often comes from inspiration.

Research can be done for a story, but research rarely produces a story. But for the student writing an essay for class the research often comes first, there is a topic that was assigned or selected. That topic is then researched and the paper is written. To do the first draft students must fill their minds with the information that can feed that draft. But I think it is best to write quickly and freely and then edit and revise later. But it is often the editing and the revising that the students are trying to avoid. Anthony Trollope once said, “There is no way of writing well and also of writing easily.” But for most who see writing as a means to something else and not as an end in itself, writing quickly and easily is the goal.

On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt

Claude Monet

I like this painting because it illustrates for me how sub-text works in a piece of writing. There is a house behind the trees under which the young lady is sitting. We cannot see the house because it is hidden behind the trees. But we know the house is there because we can see its reflection on the surface of the river. This is how sub-text works in writing, it is not said explicitly anywhere but it is reflected on the surface of the language from which the text is constructed. This for me is where the true interest in writing lies. It is in what the imagination of the reader must bring to the reading. The writer has put it there but the reader must find it. The reader must look at more than words on a page they must look for all that lives between the words and between the lines. It is in part here that the voice of the writer lives.

Chapters and Verses

“Fern Hill”
Dylan Thomas

Chapters and Verses

Dylan Thomas

Augustus John


My first memory of college is of a professor who when he found out I liked poetry took me to the audio-visual center of the college and set me up with a record player and a two disk recording of Dylan Thomas reading his poetry. The poem, “Fern Hill”, that opened things up was on this recording; in fact the record included most of Thomas’ known recordings to that date. I went out afterwards and bought my own copy of the record. It was produced by Caedmon Records, a company that specialized in spoken word recordings.

Years later when I went to England I rode my bicycle from London to Swansea, Wales on a kind of pilgrimage to Thomas’s hometown. I was nearly run over by a student driver in Windsor and had a horrendous climb up a mountain in a coal mining section of South Wales just above Cardiff (I was told later that I should have visited the north of Wales, that the north was much more beautiful). It was an arduous uphill climb but the ride down the other side was a pleasant coast much of the way. But I finally made it to Swansea and the seashore. I went into the local bookshop and bought a copy of Thomas’s poetry so that I would have an edition that came from his hometown.

T. S. Eliot

Wyndham Lewis


This same professor later checked out recordings of T. S. Eliot reading his poetry and he also gave me my first copy of Eliot’s poetry, a paperback book with a yellow cover that included most of Eliot’s major poems. The critic Edmund Wilson was quoted on the cover of the record as saying no one read poetry better than Eliot. After listening to the recording I thought Edmund Wilson could not have listened to many poets. In any event the recording did not impress me, though I have always enjoyed Eliot’s poetry. What did impressed me was the time the professor took with me and how he cultivated and fed my interest in poetry. I still have the yellow paperback copy of the poems.

I remember the first poem that I read that captured me. I do not know if it is a very good poem, it is often anthologized and it was in my twelfth grade English textbook. It is John Masefield’s “Sea Fever”. I still teach it when I get a class of seniors and I tell them that it is Masefield’s fault I devote as much time to poetry as I do in the classes I teach. I also tell them that I am often moved by poems I do not understand, that the poem makes me feel something but it is difficult to pin down why it makes me feel as it does. I often cannot point to specific passages and explain the meaning of the words in a way that clarifies the feelings evoked by the poem. This is not always a bad thing.

So what is it about poetry that moves people? It never sells as well as fiction, but it does maintain an audience over the years. Bookstores still set aside a section for poetry. People still write poetry. Most of it may come to us through other channels like radio and popular music, but it is always present. And even when it is not highly valued there seems to be an aura about it that leads some to cultivate the “image” of being a poet. There are some that say Yeats wanted to be thought of as a poet before he worked seriously at becoming a poet.

W. B. Yeats

Augustus John


Yeats also represents the power that poetry can wield over a culture. His poems captured the turmoil that produced the emergence of an Irish state. But he did it in a way that speaks to cultures in tumult to this day. He also speaks to those trying to age gracefully and to those who are in love, as well as to the mythology of his culture and of others cultures and what that mythology has to say us about how to live our lives. This is what poets do. In his poem “Lapis Lazuli” he talks about the poets capacity for gaiety. He speaks of Hamlet and of Lear who suffered greatly but whose suffering was transfigured by the gaiety of the poems they recite in their few hours upon the stage.

All perform their tragic play,
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That’s Ophelia, that Cordelia;
Yet they, should the last scene be there,
The great stage curtain about to drop,
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep.
They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.
All men have aimed at, found and lost;
Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:
Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.
Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages,
And all the drop-scenes drop at once
Upon a hundred thousand stages,
It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce. (lines 9-24)

Even when the poet is sad there is a celebration somewhere in the language that they use. No matter how tragic the scene, the tragedies growth is stunted by something the poet brings to the event.

Poetry often does not translate well because there is in it a marriage of a specific language to a specific cultural or human experience that often gets lost in translation. The music of the poems is in the words that are used and it is in part the music that awakens the emotions. The ideas that are contained in a poem are often easily captured in translation but the ways the words talk to each other in the poem are often difficult to capture. There was an article in the New York Times Review of Books a few weeks back that looked at how different translators put the words of the Greek tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides into English. It was a review of a translation of A House of Atreus done by the poet Anne Carson.

In comparing Carson’s translation with that of other poets and translators there is a discussion of translation and how it is most effectively done. The translators of these plays struggled with the language employed by the original and the language that would most effectively reach a 21st century English speaking audience. All versions had their strengths and shortcomings and none fully succeeds. Perhaps the poetry is a bit like an incantation and it is not enough to get the meanings right but for the spell to work the charm must be spoken in its original language. It is not the ideas that awaken the spirits but something that sings from within the original words.

The Death of Chatterton
Henry Wallis

This image of Thomas Chatterton is the stereotype that many carry of the Romantic poet, a bit of tragedy and a noble gesture in the face of a world that does not understand. But one of 20th century America’s finest poets was an insurance salesman, as was one of its finest composers. In the poems of Wallace Stevens it is impossible to read for meaning the way we read an essay or a story. There are images of snowmen, of boats in a harbor in Key West, of cigar rollers and emperors of ice cream. It is very difficult to read the words and find a meaning. But often a poem moves us long before we understand it.

I was moved by The Waste Land the first time I read it, but to this day I do not know precisely what it means. I know mostly how it makes me feel and how the images and symbols and other tricks of language help to shape that emotion. But it is not like “The Gettysburg Address” where a word can be seen to mean a specific thing and to contribute a specific idea to an overarching argument. The mind plays a part in untangling the mystery in a poem but in most cases the mind must listen to the heart if it is to find meaning.

“Night Driving”
Ad by Volkswagen
Richard Burton reading from Dylan Thomas’ play for voices Under Milkwood

That poetry can move people to do things that they would not do if they were thinking clearly is attested to by this ad. It uses the poetry of Dylan Thomas to sell automobiles. I do not know how successful the ad campaign was, but the ad itself has a beauty to it that is enhanced by the power of Dylan Thomas’ language. Poetry often wins people over and the poet has a power. The skaldic poet Egil Skallagrimsson wrote a poem in praise of a king he despised in order to escape execution. The poem was so finely done the king had no choice but to let Egil go. Once free Egil created a different kind of poem, a curse, that expressed his actual feelings.

This week’s New York Times Review of Books, no doubt because April is poetry month, ran an article on memorizing poetry. The article is titled “Got Poetry” and was written by Jim Holt. At the end of the day the only reason to memorize poetry, according to the author, is because of how it changes the memorizer and brings the poetry to life inside the mind. Reciting a poem from memory is vastly different from reading it off the page. He mentions the suffering that English teachers of his generation inflicted upon students by requiring them to memorize large chunks of poems the students did not really understand. This sort of memorization is rarely fruitful and is often no more successful than requiring students to memorize words for a vocabulary test, once the exercise is finished the memory begins to go blank.

For a poem to live in the imagination it does not really need to be understood, but it needs to be valued and attention needs to be paid to how the poem is working on the imagination. Poetry ought to be an essential part of any curriculum, or so I believe. I think poetry trains the mind and the imagination to work in ways that prose fiction or non-fiction cannot. There are many English teachers who do not agree; that think studying a poem kills the poem. There is truth to this, but it is a statement that is equally true when applied to the teaching of any text and there are some that think the English classroom should focus only on writing and leave the teaching of literature to others.

I think that poetry touches us in ways that other writing does not. Whether the magic resides in the rhythms and meters, in the rhyme, or in the sound of the words themselves I do not know, it probably involves all these things. I think this love of poetry, though, is a relationship that needs to be cultivated; it does not happen of itself. There need to be introductions, a period of liking and friendship and getting acquainted, and then perhaps a betrothal. It is very like a courtship.


Aiming the Canon – Studying Words of Art

Roll Over Beethoven

Chuck Berry

Aiming the Canon – Studying Words of Art

Those that like the music of Beethoven, or progressive jazz, may not like Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven.” The artistry that Berry aspires to is not the same artistry that Beethoven aspired to and those that find art in Beethoven may deny that it is to be found in Chuck Berry’s song. Others find great artistry in the song, the magazine Rolling Stone ranked the song 97th in their list of the five hundred greatest songs of all time (of course there is a facetiousness in the label “all time” unless time began somewhere in the 1950’s).

Librarian Arcimboldo Stokholm.jpg‎ (434 × 599 pixels, file size: 71 KB, MIME type: image/jpeg) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Arcimboldo_Librarian_Stokholm.jpg

The painting is of a man, a librarian, made of books and for me it captures the essence of the bibliophile. A person so in love with literature that books form the very essence of his being. Trying to teach classic literature to young adults, on the other hand, has always been difficult and it seems to get more difficult as time goes by. Books for these young people are not intimately woven into the fiber of their being. I was born in 1949. When I was born books had only radio and the movies to compete with and it was not long before that when there was even less competition. Books were a popular form of entertainment for much of modern history because reading and playing a musical instrument were about the only forms of entertainment available that could be done without others to play along. This is probably an oversimplification, there were no doubt other ways people amused themselves, but the written word had it much easier in the competition for discretionary time.

I remember when the first television came into our house. I remember vaguely a house before television in the early 1950’s but have a harder time remembering how the time was filled before television. I doubt I was a voracious reader, being only about half way through the single digits of my existence, but I remember the first television and know there was no television for us or anyone else before that first television, so it could not have played a part in the evening’s entertainment.

Nor are television and movies the only competition with which the book must compete. The book is also at something of disadvantage because reading is a difficult pastime to pursue passively. But is the canon concerned with books that are read for entertainment. It is unlikely that a book that fails to entertain will survive long enough to find its way into the canon, but for a book to find a place in the canon that book must probably do more than just entertain. And it is that something else that is studied in literature classes and it is also that something else that holds little interest for students (or for many of their parents I suppose).

Jonathan Lethem in this Sunday’s (11/09) New York Times reviews a new book by Roberto Bolano, 2666 (it also included the Arcimboldo painting of the Librarian). The review is entitled “The Departed” and begins with a reflection on the nature of art, especially literary art and whether it is possible for flawed human beings to produce something perfect enough to be called art. He points out that there is much that is wrong with the books that are labeled great, in part because of the inherent ambiguity of language and in part because of the imperfection of the human character. But perhaps that is part of the greatness of literature in that it showcases the human psyche at odds with an imperfect world and other imperfect people. If nothing else they can provide models for how to live in a broken world. Though there is still the problem of what imperfect human authors consider “proper behavior.”

Twilight Zone “Time Enough at Last”

Henry Bemis in this Twilight Zone episode is a man with a passion for books. He reads with enthusiasm even when he ought to be doing other things and this gets him in a bit of trouble. He cannot read at work and he cannot read at home. There are few in his life who share his enthusiasm. There is also the problem of his passive acquiescence to everyone who criticizes him primarily because he wastes so much of his time reading. It is a stereotype of the bookish person out of touch with the world and incapable of functioning in social situations. I think this is the first stereotype that must somehow be addressed if reading is to retain a place of prominence in the culture.

I think we read books because they are by and about imperfect human beings. It cannot be overlooked that many writers project views and attitudes that are troubling and these views must be shown for what they are. But often these views reflect the times in which the author lived and are surrounded by other attitudes that challenge what is wrong with those times. Dickens’ portrayal of Victorian society in Oliver Twist confronts much that is wrong with the treatment of the poor, especially poor children by that society. But then there is also the Anti-Semitism found in the depiction of Fagin. Should works like this be abandoned and replaced with others that do not get some things so glaringly wrong. Is it possible to produce a book that does not get it glaringly wrong? That which replaces the works removed from the canon will be shown over time to have flaws that are as bad or worse.

Perhaps the real issue is the necessity of a canon at all. Are great books and the reading of them an out of date exercise? Is it necessary to expose the young people of today to Charles Dickens or Homer or Cervantes or Shakespeare? Emerson believed we studied the past and the literature of the past in order to better understand our present and more importantly to better understand ourselves.

A proper understanding of history does not involve remembering key dates and events but understanding the people that shaped those events and the forces inside of them that motivated their actions. There is little value to knowing that Washington led the forces of the American Revolution. There may be something to be learned, though, in trying to understand what led him to take on such a task as there would be value in trying to understand why a king in a country many thousands of miles away (and a journey of some months) would try to force his will so stridently on a people that he aroused such a fierce resistance. There is also a value to confronting or encouraging as the case may be, those motivations when we find them in ourselves. We cannot confront them if we have not first been taught how to identify them.

There need not be a conflict, to return to the initial point, between Beethoven and his admirers and Chuck Berry and those that admire him. In fact there are many that reside in both camps. The same may be true of books. The books of the past still have power to move and influence those that read them. The problem perhaps lies in trying to force on those we teach the terms by which those books are read. I do not read for the same reasons as my students. What moves and motivates me probably does not move or motivate them. The problem is often that I am trying to get them to look at a book that does not interest them while employing a way of reading and a point of view that is to them irrelevant. The book has to ignite a spark within the reader if it is to come to life within that reader and that spark is unique for each of us.

But on the other hand reading a book seriously and closely with an eye to the little things that work so well within it is a skill and a craft that must be learned and it is learned in part by following the journey through a book that another has taken. Before Emerson could apply the lessons of literature to his own life someone had to show him what lies beneath the surface of plot, or if in fact anything does lives beneath that surface. I don’t try to teach students to look at a book the way I look at a book because I want them to read like me but because I want to give them the tools to read profoundly for themselves. All I can do is take them down the path I have traveled and point out some of the things I have noticed and hope that at some point along the way they will take off on a path of their own making.

In describing King Arthur’s knights as they went off in search of the grail Sir Thomas Malory says, “And so on the morn they were all accorded that they should depart everyone from the other; and on the morn they departed with weeping cheer, and every knight took the way that he liked best.” They all left the castle using the same road, but disappeared at different times and places into the woods to pursue their own unique path. That is perhaps what we all must do both in the way we read and the way we live our lives.