Revolutions and Writing

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It’s been said that the best creative writing comes from periods when political and social revolutions are happening. I suppose the drama of a revolution is a part of that, and the intellectualizing or rationale for the revolution generates situations and characters that writers can easily work with. But a quick survey of modern revolutions and their run-ups reveals different sorts of creativity.

Nothing much in the way of literature came directly out of the American revolution, but in its aftermath, as American society began to settle in, we had novelists Melville and Hawthorne, poets Whitman and Dickinson. The French revolution? Here think foremost of Hugo and Marat, who wrote their stories amid the revolution’s action. And similarly in Russia, the great writer Tolstoy. However, preceding the Soviet Union’s dismantling – a relatively gentle revolution – we have firebrand novelist Solzhenitsyn and poet Yevtushenko.

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In later years, the literary medium changed. The Cuban revolution and the U.S.’s almost-revolution of the fifties and sixties brought a new form of creativity to the fore: songs. Things were happening so rapidly, in the U.S. particularly,  that songs quickly written, recorded and put on the airwaves were the best way for energy to coalesce about the day’s drama.

In South Africa, the grander literature preceded the revolution outright, in the novels of Coetzee, and Gordimer, to name a mere pair of many.

And so we see the great fertile literary periods of the twentieth century were in times of ideological change and consequent revolution. What will this century bring, with its social media and blogs – something new and as yet undeveloped?

 

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A Shot to the Gut

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Nutshell, by Ian McEwan

One of the challenges to writing fiction is deciding on a narrator. Is it your protagonist? The author – on the outside looking in? Some wild and wacky personage – dare I say improbable?
McEwan, always inventive in his compact little novellas, has decided to have an unborn child narrate Nutshell. Now, before anti-abortionists begin to claim all sorts of talents gestating within such a fetus, we must be reminded that they emerge as tabula rasa, a blank slate. But McEwan’s future child is an expert on wine and whiskey (drunk by his mom), the bits and pieces of poetry and music he hears, human psychology, and various sex acts that occur only a skin thickness away. But to what end, you ask?

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His mother, Trudy, is estranged from the kid’s father, John, and is in an affair with the father’s brother, Claude. Claude is a victim of his senses, a ne’er-do-well, John a failed poet. But John owns a rather expensive but dilapidated town house in London, something Claude lusts for. As a result, Trudy and Claude are planning to murder John in order to reap millions from the sale of the town house. The unnamed babe waxes philosophic in his helplessness, caught in the quandary of devotion to Trudy and a desire to escape hers and Claude’s plot
The ending is somewhat typical of McEwan’s other novellas, but the truncation leaves a loose end or two, something he rarely does. Still, as always, he accomplishes more in less that 200 pages than most authors do in hundreds more.

My rating: 17 of 20 stars

 

Visit my website here. There’s also a Facebook fan page if you can find it. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

Dylan and the Nobel

So Bob Dylan has won the Nobel for literature in 2016. I’m not sure what I think about that.

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Not that I disparage Dylan’s work over the past half-century; he’s certainly set trends and erased boundaries within the music world during that time. During the ‘sixties, he wrote and performed songs in the topical, bluesy folk style that had a profound on the American civil rights movement and the greening of youth worldwide. He later moved into movie scores and toward mainstream pop music, trifled with a new form of gospel  music, and has recently recorded a CD of popular standards. The effect of all this? Beyond a demonstrated personal awareness of the sensibilities of these musical forms and genres, many of his pieces have entered the American musical canon. Much the same as Hemingway’s early work changed the way we thought about fiction, Dylan’s work has done something similar for popular music.

My concern isn’t his talent in the field of popular music (you may contest my constant use of the term popular music to describe his work, but many of his songs have gained such broad appeal that it’s hard not to place it under that heading); it’s the limitations inherent in the popular song in a literary sense. Sure, he uses poetic tools: imagery, wordplay, rhythmic patterns. But the popular song, in any of  its multifold blendings of genre, places equal weight on its musicality alongside its literary worth.

This then is my concern; virtually all songwriters, with few exception, must contend with the marketability of those songs; meaning they must attract listeners in the 3-4 minutes the music industry insists on limiting them to.

That Dylan’s lyrics are now recognized for their literary worth by the Nobel judges is as daring as if his lyrics represented a step forward in poetic evolution. Dylan certainly deserves some sort of similar recognition, but the Nobel, which does generally recognize lifetime achievement, may not have been the best device to recognize his half century of work.

Still the power of his work is undeniable, as the following song attests: “I Shall Be Released,” recorded at The Band’s farewell concert, The Last Waltz, made into a movie by Marty Scorcese.

To Read Or Listen, That’s The Question

 

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This week, when a technician stopped by to install a security gizmo for me, he quickly made note of my book collection and bemoaned the fact that as a newlywed he hardly had time to read any more. But, he added, I listen to audiobooks now when I’m on the road.

So I offered him a free copy of an audiobook for my story collection, Sam’s Place, and he gobbled it up. (NOTE: I still have a few free audiobook copies of that book, so if you want a copy, let me know. It’s the complete book, not a teaser.)

But as this article makes clear, there are no clear cut advantages to either print or audio books. For myself, I think reading a book, whether print or digital, requires a bit more participation by the reader than audio, but that’s a close call.

Let me know what you think.

 

Visit my website here. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

Exploring the World

My friends are my estate. 

~ Emily Dickinson ~ 

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Emily, who never left her home and spent many years tending a dying relative, knew whereof she spoke. She was a shy person, her world tiny. But through imagination and friends, she explored the world.

Visit my website here. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

The Limitations of the Poetic Self

Why not write about yourself? many prominent poets today will argue. After all, poetry can be the most intimate of the written creative disciplines. To be honest, writing begins within one’s consciousness, one’s perception of the world. But were your poetry to begin AND end with you, you’ve done the writing of it a disservice. You haven’t plumbed its depths; you haven’t sought out the universality in your poetic urge.

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For instance:

In Robert Frost’s poem “Birches,” were he to have taken a more personal approach, such as:

“I prefer not to think of their branches

bent with age, leaves downcast,

like my thinning hair, wind

stripping them, the way the years

have sapped my strength…”

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Not bad if I do say so. But do you see the limitation this approach takes? Sure, it approaches the birches from the poet’s own situation in a good way. But is this a universal approach, the way the best poetry must do?

But look what Frost does:

“When I see birches bend from left to right

Across the lines of straighter darker trees,

I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.

But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay.

Ice storms do that.

You see the difference? The more complex imagery, the bending of time in one complicated thought? In the supposed example, the poem hugs the poet’s physical self, his/her specific situation. Of course neither set of lines is complete, but Frost’s sets the stage for a complicated take on his stand of birches, not the simpler, less potentially universal intertwining of self and the thing perceived.

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Parsing Poetry

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Odd that after all these months I find myself reading poetry again on a regular basis. And talking over the ups and downs of poetic content and structure with a colleague. But what’s come from this new/old exposure?

  • First, this is the age of confessional poetry. That’s not my thing, I discover. too much “me” while poetic gifts that should be aimed at humanity, indeed, at the world at large, are spent whining about one’s personal ups and downs.
  • We’re a couple of centuries deep into free verse, which to date has no accepted structure. No villanelles, no odes, no ballads or sonnets. This can be liberating, but it can be a prison, too.
  • So what the heck? More and more, slant rhymes are the thing (Yes, Emily Dickinson). And the old rhythmic workhorse of poetry, iambic pentameter, is being stretched to its limits. Anyone taught poetry these days is confronted almost immediately with the issue of imagery. And in a deconstructive age, can we do without irony?

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I began as a poet, but I’ve long since moved around the block to prose, and so I don’t fancy myself an expert on all things poetic. But in the weekdays following this, I’ll lend a hand to those struggling with understanding poetry, both the writing and reading of it. And who knows? Some pittance here may open a new door for you.

Visit my website here. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.