What My Winter Reading Taught Me About Writing in Five Quotes

Unfortunately, my month of freedom is over. This might be the first time that I’ve ever been sad to return to school, and only part of that is due to ‘senioritis’. After a few years in which I had all but abandoned reading everything but theory, I realized that no matter how much Freud I read, I would not be emotionally satiated without the connection between reader and writer that rarely exists in non-fiction. Over the course of the semester, I began to revisit some favorite works, most of which I read when I was too young and/or too ignorant to appreciate them:  The Picture of Dorian Grey, King Lear, Wit by Margaret Edson, This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz, as well as revisiting some of my favorite poets like Christina Rosetti and Adrienne Rich. These helped me ease my way back into literature and enjoy new (or mostly new) works.

This winter break, I intended to read more than I did—or I suppose I intended to read more books than I did. I spent endless hours reading and re-reading poems, attempting, as my new love Walt Whitman says, “to get at the meaning of poems”. I also intended to write more than I did—that I mean. But despite my lack of ambition and inspiration, I learned a lot about writing from the things I read. Here are some techniques and ideas, illustrated through five quotes, that I found particularly interesting and hope to implement in my own writing over the course of the spring semester and beyond:


1. Better Working with Binaries

From “The Apple Tree” by Linda McCarriston:

More beautiful now than ever you were

pale in May blossom, or in August,

gravid again—your chained boughs

bearing, your skirts, stiff camouflage

arustle—you stand, past use, past

prettiness in the winter of your winter.

McCarriston’s book, Eva~Mary, continually gets more gruesome as the poems throw you deeper and deeper into its theme of abuse. I couldn’t finish it; I didn’t want to read something where every line hit me in the gut, making me more and more nauseous, making me conscious of things I’m not ready to address. So it’s been sitting on my windowsill for nearly a month, indefinitely waiting for me to finish it. However, one poem sticks out in my memory.

“The Apple Tree” is the first poem in the book, dedicated to the author’s mother; it is also the only one that doesn’t rely on gratuitous descriptions of pain to drive its message. Those opening lines of first poem establish the book’s topic of abuse; but rather than describing every scene in great detail, “The Apple Tree” conveys meaning by establish the binary of before and after. Rather than doing this directly, McCarriston sets up two other binaries as illustration: spring and winter, prettiness and beauty.blog-10-five-best-quotes-1

The poem starts by introducing the ‘you’ as beautiful—more beautiful than she had been as a young woman. The poem continues establish the ‘you’ as strong like a tree from which all the rotting apples had fallen. In lines 3-4, she describes the past as a time when all the boughs of the trees were chained even in the spring when she was blossoming, or in August when she was beginning to bear fruit. In those days, she was young and pretty, but trapped, chained, used: “—you stand, past use, past/prettiness in the winter of your winter,” (lines 4-5). In contrast to the spring and summer, the winter is her time. The poem later states, “… now, from your deep/seeking source under snow, drink long,/ breathe slow, be still…” (lines 13-15). . The winter is nourishing, and, as stated in the final lines, “The many that/found you and took you are fallen away.” And the tree is bare, but it is strong, and it is beautiAs the converse of villains who are turned to animals before they are killed in children’s stories, it is more easily digestible to see human pain transferred onto inanimate objects, and this is done beautifully without directly stating the pain. I suppose there is a time and place for the other poems in the book, describing her mother’s plea to the divorce attorney, alcoholism, and physical and sexual abuse, but this poem proves that one does not need to tell the horror stories directly to be emotionally moving; one simply must know how divide and combine elements to capture the feeling.


2. Using Personal Experience as a Resource Rather than a Reference

From “Foreword” to Ariel by Freida Hughes

She used every emotional experience as if it were a scrap of material that could be pieced together to make a wonderful dress; she wasted nothing of what she felt, and when in control of those tumultuous feelings, she was able to focus and direct her incredible poetic energy to great effect.

A few days ago, I was finishing Louise Gluck’s book of essays, Proofs and Theories, on writing poetry. In an essay called “Invitation and Exclusion”, Gluck describes how Plath severs all ties with the reader with her “…resistant, mercuric quality: you think you know me, the poem says. You don’t know me; you can’t even imagine me. Which is to say, we’re hearing someone out of our range.” By removing the narrative of her emotion and applying that ferocity to a persona the way she does in “Lady Lazarus”, she is, in a way, denying her connection with the reader as much as she is often denying her connection to the physical world.

In my post about Plath, I complained about her lack of narrative, primarily because spending thirty minutes trying to fit the pieces of every poem together prevented me from reading other things. Plath does not only, in her later work, detach her emotions from her personal narrative, but she detaches them from all narrative. And maybe this is why young women flock to Plath—she pieces her poems together in a way that proves, time after time, that she is a woman who cannot be understood.


Sylvia Plath and her daughter, Freida Hughes

Her world, the world of the bees in the hive and real-life resurrection, could not be illustrated in the literal, the inclusive. Gluck notes that she was obsessed with boundaries. As a woman in the 1950s and early 1960s, I’m sure she was. Therefore, to capture her sense of imprisonment, she could not simply write of what she learned from the bees the way Elizabeth Bishop does in “The Fish”. One narrative could not carry all the emotions that Plath wants to express, so she creates her ‘beautiful dress’ with scraps that can hardly be articulated in relation to one another but are felt. Always felt.


 3. Using Structure to Make the Reader Move With the Poem

From “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman

I understand the large hearts of heroes,

The courage of present times and all times,

How the skipper saw the crowded and rudderless wreck of the steam-ship, and Death chasing it up and down the storm,

How he knuckled tight and gave not back an inch, and was faithful of days and faithful of nights,

And chalk’d in large letters on a board, Be of good cheer, we will not desert you;

How he follow’d with them and tack’d with them three days and would not give it up,

How he saved the drifting company at last,

How the lank loose-gown’d women look’d when boated from the side of their prepared graves,

How the silent old-faced infants and the lifted sick, and the sharp-lipp’d unshaved men;

All this I swallow, it tastes good, I like it well, it becomes mine,

I am the man, I suffer’d, I was there.

Here is Song of Myself 33 in its entirety read aloud.

While procrastinating on writing about Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, I decided to do some research on the epigram, the final line of this passage. There was a note, from the first time I read this book, scribbled above it: How does this quote relate to the story? It’s still not something figured out—not really, anyway—but it brought me to read Walt Whitman for the first time voluntarily.

I’m not sure what made me think I despised Walt Whitman, but for as long as I can remember, I’ve been baffled when people declared their affinity for Leaves of Grass. But what I’ve come to find is that all literary work is canonized for a reason, and there seems to me that there are three reasons: it was reclaimed post 1960, it functions as propaganda for the American cultural narrative taught in public schools, or it is both revolutionary and good. After being fed endless documents by the Founding Fathers, the self-deprecating poems of Anne Bradstreet, and that treacherous sermon by John Winthrop about how America will become a “City on a Hill”, I had up on all American literature before Gatsby.  But this—not only did it revolutionize free-verse, but it is a sexually explicit anarchist rant about the one-ness of the universe that inspired and paved the way for many brilliant, anti-patriarchal writers to come, i.e. Allen Ginsberg, Langston Hughes, my girl Adrienne Rich, and, apparently, James Baldwin.

His writing is magical; my heart beat danced with the words, the pauses, the paragraph-long sentences followed by strings of words that are hardly sentences at all. It is poetry that you feel, like music, in the body; his use of line length and punctuation help the words move that way. It’s clearly gotten into soul because I can’t stop using the semi-colon today.

But sometimes, like in section 33 where this quote is pulled from, it can get to be too much. All of the images begin to blur together—not in the way that they are meant to, as a collage image of details of society—in a way that makes my mind begin to doze. I prefer the images that are drawn out like the above quote to the line-long images that rapidly bounce from one to another to another.

The passage starts with a statement and builds up anticipation until the last two lines. Each line is a different length, and the catalogued reasons beginning with ‘how’ have two ‘and’s. The first ‘and’ begins a line about half way though, and it sets the reader up for the end of the idea and the beginning of the next. But we get no next idea—we are propelled further until we reach a series of quick statements joined with commas. The rapid alteration between the subject of these statements, ‘I’ or ‘it’ pulls the reader quickly through with the pace set up by the first-word repetition already established. The stanza ends on three ‘I’ statements, to finish the string of short independent clauses attached with commas. This line is the epigram to Giovanni’s Room.

blog-10-five-best-quotes-3The epigram is punctuated differently: the staccato string of independent clauses is skewed with a semi-colon rather than a comma after ‘I am the man’. It is punctuated:

I am the man; I suffered, I was there.

This emphasizes ‘I am the man’, making it a once again bold declaration, allowing it to stand out with the punctuation mark. The other two statements are softened by it, which draws out the empathy that is contextually implied. Since there is no build-up for the epigram, it needs stronger punctuation. By taking that one line from its context and changing one punctuation mark, the rhythm, the feeling of the line changes.


4. The Beauty of Homonyms and Homophones

From “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe

Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture –a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees –very gradually –I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.

Edgar Allen Poe is another member of the American literary cannon that I have always avoided, but because of his place in the cannon—because whenever I think of Poe, I think of reciting part of “The Bells”, the part about wedding bells, on film, in unison with a fifth-grade boy who was even more uncomfortable with the situation than I was. It was never an active avoidance, but it embarrassed me just enough to prevent me from picking his work up on my own.

The eighth graders I work with were reading a “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontialldo” in Language Arts a few weeks ago. I ended up reading “The Tell-Tale Heart” aloud twice over the course of the week. And noticed that Poe has a distinct rhythm, the same rhythm that moves the few lines of “The Bells” that have stuck with me; his work is meant to be spoken.

About a month prior, I had read John Hollander’s essay, “Some Notes on Refrain” while doing research on repetition for my final portfolio. He began the essay by discussing “The Raven”, with its famous refrain, “Quothe the Raven, ‘Nevermore.’” Poe called this refrain a “pivot upon which the whole structure might turn,”. In fact, the original refrain was only used five out of eighteen times in the entire poem

This story reads, like the prose of many great poets, as poetry itself— less like a prose poem which clings to the lyric elements of poetry but like a monologue in a seventeenth century play: rhythmic prose. Because of this, he can play with homonyms and homophones like Shakespeare did.

And this is particularly important in “The Tell-Tale Heart”. It is a first-person story of a man so tormented by the ‘Evil Eye’ of the old man that he kills him; but after he is dead, the narrator is no longer haunted by the eye, but of the sound of the old man’s beating heart. As can be seen in the quote above, the first-person narrator is at first uncertain of what caused him to kill. This story being the textbook example of ‘the unreliable narrator’, it is hard to believe him when he declares it was the eye.blog-10-five-best-quotes-4

Especially considering that ‘eye’ and ‘I’ are homophones. In short, he did not kill the old man because of the ‘Evil Eye’, but because of the ‘Evil I’, which is supported by the fact that he declares right at the beginning of the story that he had no motive to kill. When he was preparing to murder him, the narrator held his lantern on the ‘Evil Eye’ and the rest of the man was no longer visible; this is when he began to hear the beat of the old man’s heart. “I knew that sound well,” he states. Thus he introduces one of the few creative uses of the most heavily abused homonym in the English language: the heart. It kept beating to the narrator even after he murdered and dismembered the old man. The literal heartbeat of the man and the metaphoric heartbeat of the narrator.

As tempted as I am to start talking about the narrator’s death drive, I’ve made my point about homophones and homonyms: they use language to their advantage by playing with double meanings which adds a new layer to the text.


5. Implying Meaning through Association

From “Singer” by Christina Pugh

 You Closed your hand on mine so I could

see the ruined seem between our two

worlds, the living and the dead—neither

of us mothers. But if you live in my ear,

I too might live again—as an inkling,

the flame between a number and the

welling of a wish that stops the cry:

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

I wanted to write about her work earlier, but something felt intrusive about posting my thoughts on my former professor’s work online, even though all I have is praise. I’m about half way through Christina Pugh’s book Grains of the Voice, and I can see, in every poem, the things she taught in her class manifest. I notice her enjambments and emphasis on prosody; I with every new poem, I hear her tell me that the title should hint to what you want the reader to emphasize in your poem. And in this poem, I came to the last line and was enthralled with the way she appropriated the closing line of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18”. At first, these poems have little to do with one another.

After trying to figure this out, I looked back to the flame “between a number and the welling of a wish that stops the cry: So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” I first questioned what the number meant, and the only thing that I could think of that ‘a number’ could refer to is age. This forced me to look at the context rather than the content of “Sonnet 18” addressed to the beautiful young man in the sonnets where Shakespeare writes about immortalizing his beauty: this is the poem where he realizes he can keep this man’s beauty alive through his poetry. And thus we can draw the connection between age and immortality.


One thought on “What My Winter Reading Taught Me About Writing in Five Quotes

  1. Pingback: Blissful Exclusion in Roland Barthes “The Pleasures of the Text” | An Atmosphere of Glass

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