Friday, September 2, 2011

Spontaneity and Craft

“Diversify your investments” say the stockbrokers. If one fails, the others may hold steady.
“Diversify your plants” says the rainforest. If you only plant elms and Dutch elm disease comes, you’re in trouble.
“Diversify” your interests, says I. If one isn’t happening for you, another might.

And so it is with me at the moment. Music down, poetry up. I’ve started to re-memorize some key poems and suddenly, the antennae are out and the words are pouring in. Yesterday morning, I sat in the sun for a moment with my cat Chester and out came this little poem:

“Chester the Pester lies in the light
After rousing me from my sleep last night.
To be woken like this is far from fun,
Does he care? No, he just sits stretched out in the sun.
He meows again with his plaintive cry,
Chester the Pester, oh why oh why?”

Not destined for immortality, but cute enough, especially since it took all of two minutes to write. And then today, watching a woodpecker in the park, out came this:

“I hear the sharp rhythm as I sit in the park,
The red-headed woodpecker attacking the bark.
Not for the beat of the music does he
Rat a tat tat up and down the tall tree.
It’s food that he seeks, it’s food that he needs.
The ants and the beetles upon which he feeds.
For him, a necessity, for me, it’s mere fun.
Here pleasure and need are now woven as one.”

Not too bad. And again, about a five-minute exercise.

A century ago, the poet Yeats and others became fascinated by “automatic writing,” a process by which it appeared that a person was merely taking dictation from a spirit without or a deep subconscious layer within. A half a century ago, Jack Kerouac championed a style of spontaneous writing and claimed to have written “On the Road” in three weeks. Both interesting testaments to quieting the editing mind and letting the words flow. But keep in mind that it was Yeat’s wife, Georgie Hyde-Leeds, who was one of the proponents of automatic writing. No one knows of her work, but Yeats’ meticulously-crafted poetry did indeed endure. And though Kerouac achieved more lasting fame, it appears that there was more revision done on “On the Road” than he let on and critical acclaim for the work was, and remains, controversial. (When Truman Capote was asked about Kerouac’s writing, he replied, “That’s not writing—that’s typing.”)

The poet Mary Oliver, whose poems carry the natural quality of conversational speech,  once said, “It takes about 70 hours to drag a poem into the light.” This kind of attention to detail, the craft of the art, is really what the whole deal is about. I mentioned this a few postings ago with the Nicholas Brothers and mention it again having recently recited Gerard Manley Hopkin’s poem “God’s Grandeur.” I’ve long know that his poetry is dense, each word chosen with the care of someone shopping for a new car, but this time, the genius of his ear for language took my breath away. For example, speak the line, 
“Oh, morning at the brown-brink eastward, springs” and note the r’s, some with a consonant following— “morning, eastward”—some following a consonant—“brown, brink, springs.” And then the last line: “World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” Same pattern—“world, warm/ broods, breast, bright.” 

Such attention to the music of language, knowing full well that most will hit the reader/listener below the conscious belt and that most will not choose to take the time to analyze how he did it and marvel at the commitment to getting it right and his genius. But today I saw it as well as heard it and it inspires me to not rest content with spontaneous utterance, but craft, shape, edit. Except for this Blog, which is almost always first-draft!

PS If I give you poetry homework so soon after the jazz history homework, you will leave this site never to return. So it’s entirely optional. But God’s Grandeur's theme is similar to Keats’ “A Thing of Beauty,” concluding that “nature is never spent, there lies the dearest freshness deep down things.” Having spent a day with my cat, woodpeckers, trees and sunlight, I agree.

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