In the Thick of It (or Not)

midsummerLast night I woke up with the beginnings (or rather the ending) of a poem; within half an hour, I wrote the whole thing. It’s a sonnet, like many of my others.

I want it to begin below this picture, so I’ll go on here for another sentence or two. Why a sonnet? What’s so appealing about this form? I am drawn to the conciseness, the logic, and especially the volta; but beyond that, the more sonnets I write, the better I know their language. I am not sure that sonnets should tell stories, as this one does, and some of my others do–but since this is a story about telling a story, I think the form fits. (Why am I ambivalent about sonnet-stories? That’s a discussion for another time.)

The Misunderstanding

The room was loud, so after spurts of whats
and I-can’t-hear-yous, I declaimed a tale,
doused with illusion, of a bowl of kale
all crinkly somber green, sprinkled with nuts
and lush tomatoes…. where from here? A klutz
with small talk, stumped beyond the pale,
I nailed the salad part, but when the frail
rundown ran out, I flailed in ands and buts.

And while you smiled, and while the windowsill
cracked open into breeze, and I believed
that every nod of audience you meant,
that, just as I poured forth with the intent
of giving, so with soul was I received,
a fragile evening glittered in goodwill.

With poetry, as with music and other things, I am either in the thick of it or not; when immersed, I have one idea after another–no trouble with “writer’s block,” yet a strong sense of how to improve, where to go from here, what to try, what to refine.  I am not good at “sort of” doing things; I have to be surrounded by the idiom.

When not in the thick of it, I have trouble doing it at all; a poem might come now and then, but scrapingly.

This one didn’t scrape, though. Maybe there will be more soon.

Art credit: Henry Towneley Green, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1895.

In This Grand Primordial Mess


Messy people (including me) may be on the up-and-up. Behold, to the left, a desk, my desk. This is about as unmessy as it gets. At least once a week, the piles at least triple. They flow onto each other. They threaten to converge and topple. So I bring them down a little and start again. That has been my life since adulthood. In childhood and adolescence, it was much worse; my mess didn’t even organize itself into piles. But I enjoyed it in some way and did not want to become neat. Others tried to get me to organize myself; although I did, a little, over time, I also kept a good deal of messiness, since it allowed me to focus on other things.

So I was delighted to see Jesse Singal’s article on mess. Apparently there are more mess-defenders in the world than I thought. I learned about a new book, Messy:  The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, by Tim Harford. Unfortunately, though, the title gave me IS (Instant Skepticism). It sounds like another “Great Secret to Creativity” book. I hope it’s not that. There’s lots to be said for a degree of messiness, but I don’t for a messy second believe that becoming messy will make you more creative or successful. (It may be that the title only flops askew over the book’s actual contents; I will wait to see.)

When and how can messiness be good? Well, first of all, it’s just the way some of us are. My students have described me as organized, but that’s probably because I have learned over time how to handle my mess. Even so, I don’t organize myself more than I have to. It takes too much time, and I have my mind on other things. I work better if I don’t have to worry all the time about putting things in their  proper places. As long as I know where to find them, and as long as I keep them in good condition, I’m fine.

I need some messiness; I need the freedom to pile book on top of book while I am looking into an idea and writing out an argument. Also, I like the look and feel of mess (up to a point); it reminds me of things I and others have been doing, and it keeps an array of materials at hand. This cannot and should not be pre-engineered; it’s just the way I work.

It may well be true that all creativity involves some messiness. This does not mean that you arrive at creativity by generating mess. Mess comes in different forms; there are people who maintain an impeccably neat exterior but allow themselves a pile of loose ends in the mind. There are those whose mess occurs in blogging, or in speaking, or in musical tastes. It’s unlikely that any “messy regime” will help anyone produce a work of brilliance.

On the other hand, it is nice to see some people questioning the despotism of neatness. Talk about hegemony. Some of us (including me) have had points taken off, throughout our lives, because we didn’t write as neatly as others, organize our notebooks clearly, take legible notes in class, or put everything away immediately after using it. For the sake of justice alone, I am happy to join in praise of limited mess.

Speaking of mess: I was delighted to come upon some videos of a 1978 concert by the Roches. I first heard them in 1982 (thanks to a friend who insisted I come hear them). I had forgotten just how beautifully messy (yet in time and in tune and inspired) they were. Here they are performing the wonderful “We.”

Oh, the title of this blog: Once upon a time, in 1989, someone’s beautiful mess, and the occasion of a tornado, inspired a sonnet from me. Here it is.

Tornado, July 10, 1989

The winds began to imitate your prance,
a rolling soda can became the lyre,
the sirens sang the lyrics, mixing fire
with something like your name. The dance grew dense,
a cat shot an accusatory glance,
and time was canceled. Wood, debris, and wire
were pulled like windowshades to curb desire,
since pagan hail had trampled down the fence.

Thinking survival hardly worth the cost,
I risked electrocution or success,
clambering over what was once a street,
with hopes that in this grand primordial mess
finding you in your element, I’d greet
what never had been had, and still was lost.

“Poet! do not cling to popular affection….”

So begins Alexander Pushkin’s sonnet “To a Poet” (which could also be translated “To the Poet”). The gist of the poem is clear: don’t cherish popular opinion or affection; live alone; enjoy the freedom of integrity. But what makes the poem memorable is the sternness and liberty of the language. I have been thinking about how this sternness and liberty go together. The liberty is hard won and all too easily surrendered–especially through careless language. Here there is nothing careless.

I recorded and uploaded the poem so that anyone can  hear how it sounds–in my reading, at least. (I found an online recording by someone else, but it has an awful rock beat in the background.)

This sonnet has a rhyme scheme of ABAB ABBA CCD EED. The C rhyme has the same vowel sound as B, and D rhymes obliquely with A. Thus the final sestet carries sonic hints of the first two stanzas–as well as interesting word associations and contrasts: for example, “narodnoi” (popular), “kholodnoi” (cold), “svobodnoi” (free), “blagorodnyi” (noble), “khudozhnik” (artist), and “trenozhnik” (tripod).

The first stanza can be translated literally as follows:

Poet! do not cling to popular affection.*
The temporary noise of ecstatic praises will pass;
You will hear the fool’s judgment, the laugh of the cold crowd,
But you must remain firm, calm, and morose.

In Russian, it’s much more majestic and severe:

Поэт! не дорожи любовию народной.
Восторженных похвал пройдет минутный шум;
Услышишь суд глупца и смех толпы холодной,
Но ты останься тверд, спокоен и угрюм.

It’s in a slow-paced iambic hexameter, with word ordering that English does not allow (e.g., in the second line, “Of the ecstatic praises will pass the momentary noise”). The last word “угрюм” (“ugrium, ” “morose”) stresses the seriousness of the matter. This is no pleasant conversation-piece.

In the second stanza, the emphasis shifts to the poet’s internal liberty, once he has established the conditions for it. The language is gentler and more whimsical, with repetition of the word for “free”:

You are a tsar; live alone. By way of the free road
Go wherever your free mind draws you,
Perfecting the fruits of your beloved thoughts,
Not asking  any rewards for your noble feat.

In Russian, you can hear the stanza’s fluidity:

Ты царь: живи один. Дорогою свободной
Иди, куда влечет тебя свободный ум,
Усовершенствуя плоды любимых дум,
Не требуя наград за подвиг благородный.

Then the final sestet reflects the first two stanzas in a kind of skewed symmetry. The first tercet continues to refer to the artist and his work; then the final three lines, like the first four, return to the crowd and its judgments, contrasted with the poet’s work. In Russian:

Они в самом тебе. Ты сам свой высший суд;
Всех строже оценить умеешь ты свой труд.
Ты им доволен ли, взыскательный художник?

Доволен? Так пускай толпа его бранит
И плюет на алтарь, где твой огонь горит,
И в детской резвости колеблет твой треножник.

And in an literal English translation:

They are inside you. You are your highest judge;
More strictly than anyone can you appraise your work.
Are you satisfied with it, exacting artist?

Satisfied? Then let the crowd treat it harshly
And spit on the altar, where your fire burns
And your tripod oscillates with childlike friskiness.

This translation does not come close to capturing the last two lines: the plosive of sound of “plyuyet” (“spits”) and the tripod wavering through friskiness. To me, everything builds to that final line, which is as strange as it is vivid.

As I was reciting the sonnet this morning, I heard the combination of liberty and severity in the sounds themselves. The poem is didactic but goes far beyond its overt lesson; one comes close to that tripod and feels it wavering–not out of hesitation, but out of vitality.

*Note: I have been dissatisfied with my literal translation of the first line. I changed it to “Poet! do not cling to popular affection”–which, though not literally exact, feels much less awkward than the previous “Poet! do not cherish the love of the people.”