Finding a poet or poem to celebrate for National Poetry Month today was difficult for me. Like I said last year, I’m not really a fan of poetry.
The rare exception is Beat poets. I was born perpetually looking backwards, always joking I’d been born thirty years too late. (And then the universe saw fit to grant me that poorly-expressed wish on November 9 last year.) From a young age I was fixated on hippie counterculture, as well as its predecessor: The Beats. One of my self-directed research projects at school was on Allen Ginsberg. I don’t remember where or when I first read “Howl“, but there was something so new and so weird and so arresting about it that I wanted more. Tragically, I’m separated from my Ginsberg collection—Planet News, Collected Poems, and his journals—but I can direct you to some of my favorites.
We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not dread bleak dusty imageless locomotives, we’re golden sunflowers inside, blessed by our own seed & hairy naked accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black formal sunflowers in the sunset, spied on by our own eyes under the shadow of the mad locomotive riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening sitdown vision.
Full disclosure: this blog post originally appeared, essentially in its entirety, on the Stockholm WriMos Blog. I’m reproducing it here because 1) I wrote it and 2) I still think it’s helpful.
I took a lot of writing workshops in college—par for the course when you’re a Creative Writing major. They were a tough slog, but everything was worth it for this one valuable insight:
First drafts are not the final product.
It sounds so banal, doesn’t it? So self-evident, so obvious. But the difference between what you scribble in that so-late-it’s-early madness and what gets finished (maybe even published!) isn’t just cosmetic. It is huge. Substantive. Significant. If you’ve read Stephen King’s On Writing, you might recall that King touches on this. If you’re an aspiring writer and you haven’t read On Writing, you should, but for this blog post I’ve dug up something even better than King’s example. It illustrates the reality of this little truism better than I ever could.
Elizabeth Bishop and “One Art”
Elizabeth Bishop was an American poet during the middle of the last century. A few of her poems are bound to come up in the study of English writing and American poetry, in particular, her villanelle “One Art.” reproduced below:
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
–Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
Pretty stunning little poem, isn’t it? Every time I revisit it, it gets me.
How many drafts do you think it took Bishop to pen this? Certainly a few. But could you quantify it? I’ll let you take a moment to guess.
She wrote 16 drafts of this poem.
The truly fantastic thing is that, because she was so contemporary, we have a pretty good record of her stuff, including those drafts. All 16 are still around today (and are, I’m sure, part of some university’s fancy literary collection).
My writing professor photocopied selections from those drafts (images of the original, handwritten drafts!) and handed them out to us as part of her lesson on the importance of revisions. I forget whatever it was she said that day (sorry, professor!) but just seeing those changes and that personal struggle on the way to a finished product was lesson enough. Unfortunately, I failed to keep that handout. But the Internet has preserved their content, if not their original form. Go read them now. Even if you’re not a poet (I’m not). Even if you didn’t like the above poem. My point is not only to illustrate the difference in quality (that is, at the end of the day, subjective) but also the difference in form, in content, in voice.
If you don’t have time to read all of them, then at least read this first draft.
The Art of Losing Things
The thing to do is to begin by “mislaying”.
Mostly, one begins by “mislaying”:
keys, reading-glasses, fountain pens
– these are almost too easy to be mentioned,
and “mislaying” means that they usually turn up
in the most obvious place, although when one
is making progress, the places grow more unlikely
– This is by way of introduction.
I really want to introduce myself – I am such a
fantastic lly good at losing things
I think everyone shd. profit from my experiences.
You may find it hard to believe, but I have actually lost
I mean lost, and forever two whole houses,
one a very big one. A third house, also big, is
at present, I think, “mislaid” – but
Maybe it’s lost too. I won’t know for sure for some time.
I have lost one long (crossed out) peninsula and one island.
I have lost – it can never be has never been found –
a small-sized town on that same island.
I’ve lost smaller bits of geography, like
a splendid beach, and a good-sized bay.
Two whole cities, two of the
world’s biggest cities (two of the most beautiful
although that’s beside the point)
A piece of one continent –
and one entire continent. All gone, gone forever and ever.
One might think this would have prepared me
for losing one averaged-sized not especially——— exceptionally
beautiful or dazzlingly intelligent person
(except for blue eyes) (only the eyes were exceptionally beautiful and
But it doesn’t seem to have, at all … the hands looked intelligent)
the fine hands,
a good piece of one continent
and another continent – the whole damned thing!
He who loseth his life, etc… – but he who
loses his love – never, no never never never again –
The difference between the two is something to be marveled at. Not only for the difference between the first and final drafts, but also for the fact that Bishop had the dedication to work these scant few lines over 16 times until she found what she was looking for.
What’s Ernest Hemingway got to do with it?
This quote gets around a lot, especially during NaNoWriMo, but it bears repeating:
The first draft of anything is shit.
This doesn’t mean that all first drafts (including this one) are automatically mind-breakingly awful. (I would not deign to call a Poet Laureate’s first draft “shit”; that smacks of hubris.) Some certainly are mind-breakingly awful; some are quite good. Chances are yours will fall somewhere in between. But, with rare exception, you will think what you have written is shit. And it is your own judgment call on your work that matters the most, at the end of the day. If you are perfectly content with the first thing that comes out when you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, you are a sparkling rare unicorn but also probably have no need for motivation or inspiration or pep to sit down and write. Why are you even reading this?
But if you are not that sparkling rare unicorn who loves everything they write on the first go, then you need to embrace the possibility of your first draft being shit, because at least some of it will be. It is not a pretty truth and it can absolutely get overlooked in all the hype and run-up to NaNo. “Nothing is perfect in a first draft,” they say. True. But that’s a euphemistic spin on this cold, hard truth:
Some, if not all, of your first draft will definitely be terrible.
Not just “not perfect.” Not just “not that good.” Some of it will be awful.
Say it a few times until it sinks in. Look in a mirror if you have to. Channel your inner Elsa and let it go.
You need to have that Zen experience of realizing that you will write shit, the first draft of anything can and probably will be shit, otherwise your dreaded Inner Editor will come out and stop you from adding new words to the paper. If you cannot make peace with that fact, you are going to have a tough time—not only with NaNo, but with writing anything. Ever. For some reason, people seem to be able to apply this lesson to any other skill (drawing, learning a musical instrument, building things) but when it comes to writing people refuse to believe it. Maybe it’s because writing is a skill we study more in school than art or singing or carpentry?
Now, this got pretty bleak, and the point of this was to be a pep talk, wasn’t it? Here is the silver lining of this “it’s all going to be awful” philosophy:
It is one of the most potent cures for Writer’s Block known to WriMos.
Having that Zen moment and giving yourself permission to write shit, through some weird alchemy, turns into giving yourself permission to write. For real. Even if you just do NaNo for fun and have no aspirations to publish or revise or edit or even read what you wrote ever again. Permission to write shit is the big gun you need when a deadline isn’t enough. (For many people, a deadline becomes that path to Zen mastery, but sometimes it’s the other way around.)
It is also an essential part of the revisions process, but more on that in another post.
My first draft? Is definitely going to be terrible. It is going to be cringe-worthy and awkward and there will be moments when I will want to delete the whole thing out of shame. It’s in those moments when I recall Elizabeth Bishop and Ernest Hemingway and press on. I am, after all, in good company.
And so are you.
Here’s to writing shit! We will all do it, and we will all be better for it.
First of all, I’m always amazed that Bob Dylan isn’t dead yet. I think this is because I’ve always been under the impression that he was well in his 20s or even 30s by the time he appeared on the music scene. The truth is that he was closer to 18, so I suppose it’s actually not surprising at all that he hasn’t shuffled off this mortal coil.
I’ve already talked about my favorite lyricists back in April, to celebrate National Poetry Month. You might notice that Bob Dylan isn’t on the list. To be perfectly honest, he’s never been one of my favorite musicians or lyricists. Funnily enough, the night before Dylan’s win was announced, he was a topic of conversation among myself and a few of my friends, specifically related to protest and political music. I brought up Edwin Starr’s “War” and Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” (but then promptly forgot the lyrics, oops!). One friend countered with:
“Okay, but like, Dylan. Ugh, I hate Dylan. I like The Band so much better.”
“Well, I’ll give you that. Dylan writes great songs for other people to cover, but I can’t stand his voice.”
When the Swedish Academy announced Dylan’s win the very next day, I was almost tempted to email an article about it to said friend. (I didn’t.) I still felt a little like a kingmaker, though. My trash obviously makes people Nobel Prize winners. If you have a favorite author who you believe has been snubbed for a Nobel Prize, get in touch with me and I’ll do my best to tip the scales in their favor for 2017. 😉
All jokes aside, though: even though I don’t particularly care for Bob Dylan, I’m not particularly upset over his win—not on the grounds of him not being a “proper” writer, anyway. There is something to be said about the moral obligation of literary prizes to award deserving but unknown writers, and Dylan’s celebrity, as well as his artistic chops, have been well-established by this point. This is the same awkwardness that underlies Neil Gaiman’s 2016 Hugo for best “Best Graphic Story”: Neil Gaiman has garnered enough acclaim by now to comfortably coast on it for the rest of his life. (That’s another post, though. Some extenuating circumstances make Gaiman’s win a bit different.)
Perhaps the sad truth simply is that more people deserve a Nobel Prize than can possibly win one.
Han Kang’s The Vegetarian has been making the rounds on the book blog corners of the Internet for a while now, so I’m not that surprised to see it win the prestigious Man Brooker Prize. What is more surprising is the story of the English translator:
The book was translated by Deborah Smith, who only started teaching herself Korean in 2010.
She said she initially tried to translate the book for a publisher after only learning Korean for two years, but the translation was “awful”.
However, after publisher Portobello Books asked her if she had a Korean book that would be “right for their list”, she had another go at translating a year later.
Translating can be a tricky business. Even in neighboring languages there are discrepancies—when does “jag orkar inte” mean “I don’t want to,” and when does it mean “I don’t feel like it,” and when does it mean “I can’t be bothered”?—with languages from two different language families, the gulf will only widen. An artful translation that maintains all of the nuances of the original is a difficult task, and it seems like Smith succeeded. (“Seems like,” I say: I leave it to the bilingual readers to determine if she actually succeeded.)
I’ll admit, for a few years now it’s been my pipe dream to foster more translations of Korean literature into English. Smith’s success has rekindled the hopes I have for that pipe dream (there are Korean courses at Stockholms universitet! was my first thought on reading the news) and I find myself daydreaming a little. But maybe the daydream is more about attaining enough Korean fluency to enjoy a whole new realm of literature, and less about actually translating anything.
At any rate, there is certainly plenty of work to be done when it comes to Swedish literature in translation. There is far more in the Swedish literary tradition than Astrid Lindgren and gritty crime novels, after all. It’s a sad state of affairs when Pär Lagerkvist, one of the foremost Swedish authors of the last century and a Nobel prize winner, is still incompletely translated into English. I would love to bring his work, or help somebody else bring his work, to a larger international audience.
Again, congratulations to Han and Smith. I look forward to devouring (hah, hah) The Vegetarian in the near future, and I wish them much success, literary and otherwise.
In the US, April is designated as National Poetry Month (among many other things). And while I’m an English teacher, I admit that I actually don’t care much for poetry. Heresy! But put that poetry to music and suddenly it becomes something magical. I’ll let other writers and teachers tackle the poets; this poetry month I want to talk about songwriters and lyricists. Music is often touted as a great way to learn a language, and I believe that wholeheartedly, but I think the quality of the lyrics makes a huge difference in how effectively you can learn from a song.
There are too many that I could possibly list, but no matter what I would have to start with Tom Chapin, the poet and bard of my childhood. He’s always my first suggestion when parents want English children’s music. His songs use simple language and a wry sense of humor, and many of them promote positive lessons on topics like tolerance in “Family Tree”:
The folks in Madagascar
aren’t the same as in Alaska.
They got different foods, different moods
and different colored skin.
You may have a different name,
but underneath we’re much the same.
You’re probably my cousin and the whole world is our kin.
or environmental stewardship in “Someone’s Gonna Use It”:
When you stand at the sink did you ever think
about the water running down the drain?
That it used to be in the deep blue sea
and before that it was rain?
Then it turned to snow for an Eskimo
to use in a snowball fight.
Then it floated south ’til it reached your mouth
to help you brush your teeth tonight.
Someone’s gonna use it after you.
Someone needs that water
when you’re through.
‘Cause the water, land and air,
these are things we’ve got to share.
Someone’s gonna use it after you.
Twenty-odd years later and I still know entire albums by heart. They are catchy tunes.
It’s worth mentioning the late Harry Chapin, Tom’s older brother and a giant in the American singer-songwriter/folk scene. Tom’s music for families and children is great, but sometimes you want something a little more mature. Harry had a knack for weaving stories, often bittersweet or outright sad, into his music. “Cat’s Cradle” is basically the story of parenthood:
My child arrived just the other day.
He came to the world in the usual way.
But there were planes to catch and bills to pay;
he learned to walk while I was away.
And he was talkin’ ‘fore I knew it, and as he grew
he’d say “I’m gonna be like you, Dad.
You know I’m gonna be like you.”
I’ve long since retired; my son’s moved away.
I called him up just the other day.
I said, “I’d like to see you if you don’t mind.”
He said, “I’d love to, Dad, if I can find the time.
You see, my new job’s a hassle and kids have the flu.
But it’s sure nice talking to you, Dad.
It’s been sure nice talking to you.”
And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me,
he’d grown up just like me.
My boy was just like me.
And “Thirty Thousand Pounds of Bananas” tells the actual true story of an out-of-control tractor trailer full of bananas in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
He was a young driver,
just out on his second job.
And he was carrying the next day’s pasty fruits
for everyone in that coal-scarred city,
where children play without despair
in backyard slag-piles and folks manage to eat each day
about thirty thousand pounds of bananas.
If you’re not a fan of folk music, then allow me to shift gears into popular music for a second. The genre has a bad reputation for being shallow, but there are great writers in the genre. My long-time favorite is Ben Folds, who (like Harry Chapin) is a fantastic storyteller, though with an electric guitars-and-keyboard pop style instead of a solo acoustic guitar. He also has some great character studies:
Your Uncle Walter’s going on and on
’bout everything he’s seen and done.
The voice of 50 years experience,
he’s drunk, watching the television.
You know he’s been around the world.
Last night he flew to Baghdad
in his magical armchair.
Cigarettes and a six pack, he just got back.
The spit’s flying everywhere.
Fred sits alone at his desk in the dark.
There’s an awkward young shadow that waits in the hall.
He has cleared all his things and he’s put them in boxes;
things that remind him: “Life has been good.”
he’s worked at the paper.
A man’s here to take him downstairs.
“And I’m sorry, Mr. Jones.
(“Fred Jones Part 2)
Be warned that Ben Folds doesn’t shy away from using strong language, so this isn’t one for your younger children (maybe). But for those of you who don’t mind salty language, “Army” and “Song For the Dumped” are two of my favorite of his story songs.
Finally, if you prefer something a little more offbeat, you can’t go wrong with They Might be Giants. While some of the lyrics border on absurd or nonsensical (like “Dead”), and others on standard pop music’s repetition of just phrases and rhymes for rhyme’s sake (“Cyclops Rock”), there are lots of more linear, story-like songs.
I never knew what everybody meant
by endless, hopeless, bleak despair,
until one day when I found out.
The first time I ever left my house
it saw me and followed me home,
and stayed with me for my whole life.
For years and years I wandered the earth,
condemned to a life of bleak despair.
Then, one day, I looked around
and found it had disappeared.
(“Hopeless Bleak Despair”)
How can I sing like a girl
and not be stigmatized
by the rest of the world?
Tell me, how can I sing like a girl
and not be objectified
as if I were a girl?
I want to raise my freak flag
higher and higher, and
I want to raise my freak flag
and never be alone.
Never be alone.
(“How Can I Sing Like a Girl?”)
They also have a couple albums of educational albums out: one for letters, one for numbers, and one for science.
I could go on, but I’ll stop myself here. That’s plenty of new music to explore, isn’t it?
Who are your favorite songwriters? Is there anyone I should know about? Comment or Tweet at me!