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A Prose Writer Reads a Few Poems

by Richard McCann

I never think, when I hear someone speak of writing an essay on the craft of making poetry or prose, I believe I’d be the man for that job! This might be because when I first started to write as a freshman in college, I read every issue of Writer’s Digest from cover to cover, with its grimly practical articles of advice: “The Seven Tools of Dialogue,” “The Eight Ways to Write a Five-Star Character,” and “Twenty-Five Ways to Improve Your Writing in Thirty Minutes a Day.” It only took a year or two for me to wonder if writing was really something I could learn to do numbered-step-by-numbered-step, the same way that one might learn from Popular Mechanics how to assemble a crystal radio detector with simple objects, like lead pencils, baking soda, razor blades, and rocks, that one might find around the house.

The only how-to-write book that I’ve loved without qualification is Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, a series of ten letters that Rilke wrote between 1902 and 1908 to a nineteen-year-old officer cadet at the Vienna Military Academy who, discouraged by the prospect of life in the Austro-Hungarian army, was considering a literary career. Much of what Rilke has to say to the cadet comes down to these sentences from Rilke’s first letter: “A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it.”

Those sentences, it seems to me, are true.

Thus, I want to look not at a question of “craft” but rather at a few things that writers of prose, whether of fiction or nonfiction, might learn from writers of poetry. I will do what I would normally hesitate to do, though only for a brief bit: I shall use myself as an example. I’m a prose writer who started as a poet. I took poetry workshops in college and at graduate school, at both Hollins College and the University of Iowa, and, at least until I was about thirty-five, I published only poetry. I now teach workshops in fiction and creative nonfiction, the genres in which I work most often, though I’ve never taken a workshop in either, not even once. I started to write stories in part because I was drawn to the rhythms of prose; mostly, however, I started to write stories because I had some stories I needed to tell. And how did I learn to write prose stories? From reading poems, at least in part. It has never seemed to me important to keep the genres distinct and separate; rather, it often seems to me that the act of defining things is like building barbed-wire fences in order to police a genre’s borders. But who’s the policeman?

One of the things that gladdens me most about teaching at Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA), in fact, is that people—students or faculty—are not required to define themselves as practicing only one genre: people can identity themselves as “dual-genre.” I’m not a fan of MFA programs in which one is required to tick a single box, as being either a prose writer or poet, in a manner not so different from that employed by the U.S. Census from 1790-1850, when the racial classifications consisted of “White” and “Black (Negro),” with the latter designated as slave or free. I think of genres not as entities but rather as permeable categories that are far from absolute.

Of course, that’s not the way I thought of genres when I was in high school, where we learned all there was to know about them.

I knew what a poem was, for instance, and I knew it without question. A poem was the kind of oddment that Mrs. Dawn Dollard read aloud to us in my dumb-dumb 12th-grade English class, as she sat on the edge of her wooden desk, her legs crossed at the ankles, where her glossy support hose slightly bunched. It was Mrs. Dollard’s job to ask us what things meant, particularly the things in poems. “What does ‘blue’ mean in this poem?” she might ask. And Ruthie Blumberger, always the first to volunteer, would answer with something like this: “Blue, Mrs. Dollard? Blue means ‘resurrection.’”

How does she know that? I used to think. Where was my magic decoder ring?

And that’s what a poem was, when you got right down to it: It was, first, something in which only people like Mrs. Dawn Dollard and Ruthie Blumberger might take an interest. And second, it was something into which someone—a poet, evidently—had buried what Mrs. Dollard called “hidden meanings.” To understand a poem, you had to unearth each of the poem’s hidden meanings and then translate it, one after another, as if from a dead language that no longer had native speakers, like Avestan or Coptic or Sanskrit. Like these languages, poetry was a language that existed only for use in sacred rites—the sorts of arcane rites that Mrs. Dollard performed, I mean, along with Ruthie.

As for fiction—well, I knew what that was, too. And I also knew without question that I could never be a fiction writer. It was ridiculous even to consider. I knew that a fiction writer was someone—well, not someone exactly, but a man, a man like Jack London or Ernest Hemingway or Phillip Roth—who could produce a tale simply by someone asking him to do so. Let’s have us a story, someone might say to the writer of stories. And that writer would be able to go on for hours—“and then, and then, and then”—with a tale that was set somewhere interesting and exotic, in the kind of place I’d likely never experience, like in an igloo or in a nightclub in Paris or on a pirate ship on the high seas. If his tale wasn’t of that sort, it would quite likely take place in the woods and it would be about having sex with an Indian squaw or shooting a bear, both of which appeared to be, if one read literature, the sort of experience that a boy would need if he were going to turn into a man.

It wasn’t that I never tried writing stories. When I was a freshman perusing back issues of Writer’s Digest, for instance, I learned that one could make money by making up and writing down stories for True Romances, True Story, and True Confessions. My first story was called “I Hitchhiked Through Hell,” and, as you might imagine, it was a cautionary tale about a young girl who is raped when she tries to hitch a ride to the hospital where her grandmother is dying. Was it my own hidden homosexuality that made me understand so quickly the formula of the confessions magazines—that every protagonist’s misstep is somehow a sexual misstep, whatever its ostensible content, and that everything sexual, no matter how brief or how vague, must be punished in the end? But as soon as “I Hitchhiked Through Hell” came back from True Confessions with a rejection slip, I pretty much lost interest, even though I had by then already received an acceptance letter—hand-signed by Bennett Cert himself, or so I thought—from the Famous Writers School, in response to my having sent to them what they termed an “aptitude test” on which one was required to fill in the blanks, for instance, to show one’s gift for metaphor: “It was as hot as ________.” “The lake was as blue as _________.”

In any case, I started to write poems. I can’t say why I began to write poems, not exactly, though I do recall that when a fashion design student whom I liked demanded that I tell her what I did in life that made me distinct, I blurted, “I write poems!” And that was true, in a way: I’d written three haiku in high school—in Mrs. Dollard’s class, in fact. But in college, once I started to write them, I was hooked. I sent my first poem that I considered finished—a lumpy, witless imitation of a James Dickey poem I’d read the week before—directly to The New Yorker, which then sent it directly back to me, along with a sincere note explaining that if I were to submit to magazines in the future, I should include an S.A.S.E. A little while after that, I decided I’d be better off if I wrote more like Ogden Nash or Phyllis McGinley; then I tried out Louise Bogan and John Crowe Ransom and even (as who does not?) e.e. cummings. It wasn’t until a year or two later that I found my way to the three books that defined for years what I believed a poem to be—Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, Anne Sexton’s Live or Die, and Diane Wakoski’s Inside the Blood Factory. Through reading these books, I began to consider the prospect that I might have a voice of my own to cultivate.

At twenty-eight, I moved overseas and stopped writing altogether. Of that time, I can say that it’s true, what Phillip Lopate says about writing in “The Necessity of Turning Oneself Into a Character”: “If you are so panicked by any examination of your flaws that all you can do is sputter defensively…you are not going to get very far….” At thirty-four, I returned to Washington, D.C., where I grew up. One humid August day I found myself drenched with sweat and trudging up Columbia Road as the #42 bus passed me, leaving me in its wake of black, noxious exhaust. Holy shit, I thought—I’m home. It seemed to me right then that I wanted to describe what it had been like growing up in the days before air conditioning in a city built on what had once been a swamp. Back in those days, my family had retreated to the basement for almost the whole summer, my mother declining to light the stove and serving us nightly dinners of cold cuts taken quickly from the fridge.

But how was I to write stories? I had written only poems—and lyric poems, at that, poems about intense and heightened and transitory moments, not about the ordinary movements of human lives subject to, and seared with, the impress of time. First, I wrote a wretched imitation of Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation.” Then I wrote a story about a young man—myself, of course—driving through a New England snow storm, thinking about some sad things that had happened in his and his family’s past. It was the kind of story poets often write at first—a story in which nothing happens, except for maybe something like the falling of the snow outside the car window. That, and the metronomic sweeping of the wipers back and forth across the windshield.

Here’s what I did: I kept reading poems, which are what I still like best to read. I read them and began to find within them some lessons about how to approach the stories I wanted to tell. With that in mind, I thought I’d present a few poems, poems that I love dearly, and describe a few things in each that might teach us something about the writing of prose—or, maybe, the writing of anything at all.

Here, for starters, is Jack Gilbert’s stunning and challenging poem “A Brief for the Defense,” from his collection Refusing Heaven, published in 2005, when Gilbert was 80:

A Brief for the Defense

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

The title “A Brief for the Defense” places the poem in the context of prose, of course, referring as it does to a legal brief, a written document that is presented to a court arguing why the party to the case should prevail. In Gilbert’s poem, it’s the nature of life itself, it seems, that’s on trial. What is life “worth,” given the extraordinary suffering that it includes? How dare we to “risk delight” in the face of such “slaughter” and “suffering” as Gilbert describes? What interests me in part is that the poem is an argument—but it’s not an abstract argument, not at all. Instead, it makes its argument through specificities and renders its ideas entirely through particularities and things, whether they are flies in the nostrils of babies or Bengal tigers or the women laughing “in the cages of Bombay.” I’m interested, too, by the way that Gilbert moves the poem, as it closes, toward a more extended scene than the poem has yet allowed itself, beginning with our standing again “at the prow of a small ship/ anchored late at night in the tiny port/ looking over the sleeping island….” What interests me about this? Here is a poem that describes itself as a “brief” and that has a somewhat determined argument to make. In the end, however, as revealed through the poem’s habit of thinking through physical details and specificities, as well as through its commitment to direct presentation and the development of scene, the poet shows his ultimate allegiance as being to the creation of felt experience—the sudden punch of the last line, for instance, which jolts the poem forward in time—rather than to the presentation of ideas.

Let us look now at two poems by Marie Howe, the poet of my generation from whom I often feel I’ve learned more as a writer (and yes, as a writer of prose) than most anyone, perhaps because when she speaks about the process of writing, she speaks about it as being something far more than a craft. She’s more inclined, in fact, to speak of writing in the same manner as Rilke, as a vocation of the soul. Here is “The Boy,” the first poem in Howe’s extraordinary second collection, What the Living Do, a collection rooted at least in part in the autobiographical:

The Boy

My older brother is walking down the sidewalk into the suburban …..summer night:
white T-shirt, blue jeans–to the field at the end of the street.

Hangers Hideout the boys called it, an undeveloped plot, a pit …..overgrown
with weeds, some old furniture thrown down there,

and some metal hangers clinking in the trees like wind chimes.
He’s running away from home because our father wants to cut his …..hair.

And in two more days our father will convince me to go to him–you …..know
where he is–and talk to him: No reprisals. He promised. A small …..parade of kids

in feet pajamas will accompany me, their voices like the first peepers …..in spring.
And my brother will walk ahead of us home, and my father

will shave his head bald, and my brother will not speak to anyone the …..next
month, not a word, not pass the milk, nothing.

What happened in our house taught my brothers how to leave, how to …..walk
down a sidewalk without looking back.

I was the girl. What happened taught me to follow him, whoever he …..was,
calling and calling his name.

Here’s a poem that explores what is evidently a remembered event—or, more accurately, a series of events—of such magnitude that all of the speaker’s brothers and the speaker herself bear its painful impress for years and years into the future. Indeed, the event is of such consequence to the future lives of the speaker and her brothers that one might say that the poem itself bears an impress not only of the father’s brutality but also of the sort of “necessity” that Rilke described.

This poem, it seems to me, offers numerous lessons for prose writers, perhaps particularly to writers of memoir who must necessarily re-enter the painful pasts about which they are writing. One of the great successes of Howe’s “The Boy,” in fact, derives from Howe’s deliberate and well-paced descent into memories that become more and more specific as she engages in the process of recalling them. That she has arrived into the past—that she’s not standing at the edge of something remembered, recalling it from a safe distance—is evidenced by the sudden specificity of “white T-shirt, blue jeans” in the second line of the first couplet, an image far more particular than “the sidewalk” or “the suburban summer night”: indeed, the sudden specificity of “white T-shirt, blue jeans” is the signaling moment of full arrival into the scene that Howe presents. This arrival—this act of being present to a moment that is no longer there—is also evidenced by Howe’s use of the present tense to describe those events that have literally passed but that persist as irreducible aftereffects into the present. Indeed, in the first six couplets, we are so much inside the scene that we hear the speaker’s voice as a child—“No reprisals,” “He promised”—unmediated by the retrospective voice with which the poem concludes. Howe isn’t writing about a remembered experience; she’s writing from it.

As a prose writer, one might describe the first six couplets as being comprised primarily of scenes, even if they are brief ones: these couplets recount through direct presentation the sequence of chronological events that E.M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel describes as the “story.” By contrast, the last two couplets—the primary features of which are that they are retrospective and rendered not through scene but through exposition—are what transform the poem’s story into what Forster would call its “plot,” which concerns not merely a sequence of events but rather the illumination of its meanings. And isn’t this transformation—which occurs through the poem’s movement from scene to exposition, as well as from recounting to reflecting—exactly what one wants to accomplish also in memoir?

Let us turn now to Marie Howe’s stunning poem “A Certain Light,” from a sequence of poems in What the Living Do, in which the speaker tends to, and serves as witness for, her younger brother, John, who is dying of AIDS-related complications. Like much of Howe’s work, this is a poem that shows us how to look with full attention at things that are difficult and painful to look upon without flinching:

A Certain Light

He had taken the right pills the night before.
We had counted them out

from the egg carton where they were numbered so there’d be no …..mistake.
He had taken the morphine and prednisone and amitriptyline

and Florinef and vancomycin and Halcion too quickly
and had thrown up in the bowl Joe brought to the bed—a thin string

of blue spit—then waited a few minutes, to calm himself,
before he took them all again. And had slept through the night

and the morning and was still sleeping at noon—or not sleeping.
He was breathing maybe twice a minute, but we couldn’t wake him,

we couldn’t wake him until we shook him hard calling, John wake up …..now
John wake up—Who is the president?

And he couldn’t answer.
His doctor told us we’d have to keep him up for hours.

He was all bones and skin, no tissue to absorb the medicine.
He couldn’t walk unless two people held him.

And we made him talk about the movies: What was the best moment …..in
On the Waterfront? What was the music in Gone with the Wind?

And for seven hours he answered, if only to please us, mumbling
I like the morphine, sinking, rising, sleeping, rousing,

then only in pain again—but wakened.
So wakened that late that night in one of those still blue moments

that were a kind of paradise, he finally opened his eyes wide,
and the room filled with a certain light we thought we’d never see …..again.

Look at you two, he said. And we did.
And Joe said, Look at you. ………….And John said, How do I look?

And Joe said, Handsome.

Here’s a poem that is at once restrained and deeply emotional, a poem that achieves its power not through weight but rather through simplicity—the simplicity of Howe’s language, for instance, which is so clear that it possesses what Robert Lowell described, when speaking of a Vermeer painting in his poem “Epilogue” as “the grace of accuracy.” With what I take to be only one exception—the phrase “”one of those still blue moments// that were a kind of paradise,” which constitutes a metaphor—the poem doesn’t reach for figurative language; indeed, its language is almost entirely specific and concrete, with the exception of a few important abstractions, such as “blue moments,” “paradise,” and “certain light,” all of which appear clustered in the eleventh and twelfth couplets, which serve at least in part as interpretive exposition. At once deeply felt and unsentimental, the language is what one might think of as “right-sized,” in that it never seeks to exaggerate or diminish the realities on which the poet’s attention is concentrated: she never ogles; she never blinks or looks away. In this regard, “A Certain Light” calls to mind Pablo Neruda’s famous poem “I’m Explaining A Few Things,” in which Neruda demonstrates how the refusal of both the poetic and the metaphorical can demand that we look at things as they are, without flinching: “and the blood of the children ran through the streets/ without fuss, like children’s blood.”

The ending of “A Certain Light” is of course a killer: it’s close to impossible to read those last few lines—those bits of dialogue, at once simple and profound—without coming at least close to tears. But this is earned emotion, the opposite of sentimentality. Howe’s poem does what I most want from stories as well as poems. It does what I want most, it seems, from everything: through simple language, and as if by stealth, it provides the reader with an emotional experience so complex and various as to be commensurate with human life.

Works Cited
Gilbert, Jack. Refusing Heaven. New York: Knopf, 2005.
Howe, Marie. What the Living Do. New York: W.W. Norton & …..Company, 1998.


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