If anyone comes to the gates of poetry and expects to become an adequate poet by acquiring expert knowledge of the subject without the Muses’ madness, he will fail, and his self-controlled verses will be eclipsed by the poetry of men who have been driven out of their minds.
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
I wouldn’t call Musashi ordinary.
But he is. That’s what’s extraordinary about him. He’s not content with relying on whatever natural gifts he may have. Knowing he’s ordinary, he’s always trying to improve himself. No one appreciates the agonizing effort he’s had to make. Now that his years of training have yielded such spectacular results, everybody’s talking about his ‘god-given talent.’ That’s how men who don’t try very hard comfort themselves.
It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.
Zeus, who guided men to think,
who has laid it down that wisdom
comes alone through suffering.
Still there drips in sleep against the heart
grief of memory; against
our will temperance comes.
From the gods who sit in grandeur
grace is somehow violent.
Hector Mannix, waterworks clerk, San Juan, has entered a lion,
Boysie, two golden mangoes bobbing for breastplates, barges
like Cleopatra down her river, making style.
“Join us,” they shout. “Oh God, child, you can’t dance?”
But somewhere in that whirlwind’s radiance
a child, rigged like a bat, collapses, sobbing.
A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is “merely relative,” is asking you not to believe him. So don’t. Deconstruction deconstructs itself, and disappears up its own behind, leaving only a disembodied smile and a faint smell of sulphur.
Thus, in criticizing fiction we must be careful to distinguish those books that satisfy our own particular unconscious needs — the ones that make us say, “I like this book, although I don’t really know why” — from those that satisfy the deep unconscious needs of almost everybody. The latter are undoubtedly the great stories, the ones that live on and on for generations and centuries. As long as man is man, they will go on satisfying him, giving him something that he needs to have — a belief in justice and understanding and the allaying of anxiety. We do not know, we cannot be sure, that the real world is good. But the world of a great story is somehow good. We want to live there as often and as long as we can.
In it, we discussed my fifteen years of writing in China, the raucous Shenzhen arts scene during the late-2000s, utopias, transnationalism, and how one manages a writing habit as the world seems to dissolve around you.
Really, in the realm of literary magazines, Spittoon does a champion’s work. They also have a rocking graphic designer:
There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.
…the great and powerful Somerset Maugham
Storytelling is the first and oldest spell, cast around lamps and fires since before there were cities, alphabets, and domesticated herbivores. The lives we live through stories intermix with our own memories, and because of stories our experiences multiply; our apprehension of the humanity of others is broadened, improved, and complicated, and each voice we hear becomes a small part of our own experience on this earth.
Upon your penitential morning,
some skull must rub its memory with ashes,
some mind must squat down howling in your dust,
some hand must crawl and recollect your rubbish,
someone must write your poems.
…from “Mass Man,” by Derek Walcott, in The Gulf and Other Poems
….their destiny is tied up with our destiny.
…their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.
We cannot walk alone.
Both listening to and rereading this speech are visceral, unifying joys. It gives you chills. It’s the height of achievement with the English language, and it’s as important today as it’s ever been.
This is why young men and women fall in love with the composition of the written word: the belief that they too can make people feel something so immense that their lives, and their worlds, are irrevocably changed.
I urge you to read the great man’s greatest speech today. It will remind you of all that is good and worthwhile in humanity.
It is sometimes useful to remind ourselves of the simpler aspects or things normally regarded as complicated. Take, for instance, the writing of a poem. It consists of three stages: the first is when a man becomes obsessed with an emotional concept to such a degree that he is compelled to do something about it. What he does is the second stage, namely, construct a verbal device that will reproduce this emotional concept in anyone who cares to read it, anywhere, any time. The third stage is the recurrent situation of people in different times and places setting off the device and re-creating in themselves what the poet felt when he wrote it. The stages are interdependent and all necessary. If there has been no preliminary feeling, the device has nothing to reproduce and the reader will experience nothing. If the second stage has not been well done, the device will not deliver the goods, or will deliver only a few goods to a few people, or will stop delivering them after an absurdly short while. And if there is no third stage, no successful reading, ,the poem can hardly be said to exist in a practical sense at all.
In 1986, Ted Hughes wrote this letter to his son, who suffered from depression.
It is a small miracle of words.
I hope things are clearing. It did cross my mind, last summer, that you were under strains of an odd sort. I expect, like many another, you’ll spend your life oscillating between fierce relationships that become tunnel traps, and sudden escapes into wide freedom when the whole world seems to be just there for the taking.
Nobody’s solved it. You solve it as you get older, when you reach the point where you’ve tasted so much that you can somehow sacrifice certain things more easily, and you have a more tolerant view of things like possessiveness (your own) and a broader acceptance of the pains and the losses.
I came to America, when I was 27, and lived there three years as if I were living inside a damart sock — I lived in there with your mother. We made hardly any friends, no close ones, and neither of us ever did anything the other didn’t want wholeheartedly to do.
(It meant, Nicholas, that meeting any female between 17 and 39 was out. Your mother banished all her old friends, girlfriends, in case one of them set eyes on me — presumably. And if she saw me talking with a girl student, I was in court. Foolish of her, and foolish of me to encourage her to think her laws were reasonable. But most people are the same. I was quite happy to live like that, for some years.)
Since the only thing we both wanted to do was write, our lives disappeared into the blank page. My three years in America disappeared like a Rip Van Winkle snooze. Why didn’t I explore America then? I wanted to. I knew it was there. Ten years later we could have done it, because by then we would have learned, maybe, that one person cannot live within another’s magic circle, as an enchanted prisoner.
So take this new opportunity to look about and fill your lungs with that fantastic land, while it and you are still there. That was a most curious and interesting remark you made about feeling, occasionally, very childish, in certain situations.
Nicholas, don’t you know about people this first and most crucial fact: every single one is, and is painfully every moment aware of it, still a child. To get beyond the age of about eight is not permitted to this primate — except in a very special way, which I’ll try to explain.
When I came to Lake Victoria, it was quite obvious to me that in some of the most important ways you are much more mature than I am. And your self-reliance, your independence, your general boldness in exposing yourself to new and to-most-people-very-alarming situations, and your phenomenal ability to carry through your plans to the last practical detail (I know it probably doesn’t feel like that to you, but that’s how it looks to the rest of us, who simply look on in envy), is the sort of real maturity that not one in a thousand ever come near. As you know.
But in many other ways obviously you are still childish — how could you not be, you alone among mankind? It’s something people don’t discuss, because it’s something most people are aware of only as a general crisis of sense of inadequacy, or helpless dependence, or pointless loneliness, or a sense of not having a strong enough ego to meet and master inner storms that come from an unexpected angle.
But not many people realise that it is, in fact, the suffering of the child inside them. Everybody tries to protect this vulnerable two three four five six seven eight year old inside, and to acquire skills and aptitudes for dealing with the situations that threaten to overwhelm it.
So everybody develops a whole armour of secondary self, the artificially constructed being that deals with the outer world, and the crush of circumstances. And when we meet people this is what we usually meet. And if this is the only part of them we meet we’re likely to get a rough time, and to end up making ‘no contact’.
But when you develop a strong divining sense for the child behind that armour, and you make your dealings and negotiations only with that child, you find that everybody becomes, in a way, like your own child. It’s an intangible thing. But when they too, sense when that is what you are appealing to, and they respond with an impulse of real life, you get a little flash of the essential person, which is the child.
Usually, that child is a wretchedly isolated undeveloped little being. It’s been protected by the efficient armour, it’s never participated in life, it’s never been exposed to living and to managing the person’s affairs, it’s never been given responsibility for taking the brunt. And it’s never properly lived. That’s how it is in almost everybody. And that little creature is sitting there, behind the armour, peering through the slits. And in its own self, it is still unprotected, incapable, inexperienced.
Every single person is vulnerable to unexpected defeat in this inmost emotional self. At every moment, behind the most efficient seeming adult exterior, the whole world of the person’s childhood is being carefully held like a glass of water bulging above the brim.
And in fact, that child is the only real thing in them. It’s their humanity, their real individuality, the one that can’t understand why it was born and that knows it will have to die, in no matter how crowded a place, quite on its own. That’s the carrier of all the living qualities. It’s the centre of all the possible magic and revelation. What doesn’t come out of that creature isn’t worth having, or it’s worth having only as a tool — for that creature to use and turn to account and make meaningful.
So there it is. And the sense of itself, in that little being, at its core, is what it always was. But since that artificial secondary self took over the control of life around the age of eight, and relegated the real, vulnerable, supersensitive, suffering self back into its nursery, it has lacked training, this inner prisoner.
And so, wherever life takes it by surprise, and suddenly the artificial self of adaptations proves inadequate, and fails to ward off the invasion of raw experience, that inner self is thrown into the front line — unprepared, with all its childhood terrors round its ears.
And yet that’s the moment it wants. That’s where it comes alive — even if only to be overwhelmed and bewildered and hurt. And that’s where it calls up its own resources—not artificial aids, picked up outside, but real inner resources, real biological ability to cope, and to turn to account, and to enjoy.
That’s the paradox: the only time most people feel alive is when they’re suffering, when something overwhelms their ordinary, careful armour, and the naked child is flung out onto the world. That’s why the things that are worst to undergo are best to remember.
But when that child gets buried away under their adaptive and protective shells — he becomes one of the walking dead, a monster. So when you realise you’ve gone a few weeks and haven’t felt that awful struggle of your childish self — struggling to lift itself out of its inadequacy and incompetence — you’ll know you’ve gone some weeks without meeting new challenge, and without growing, and that you’ve gone some weeks towards losing touch with yourself.
The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.
It was a saying about noble figures in old Irish poems — he would give his hawk to any man that asked for it, yet he loved his hawk better than men nowadays love their bride of tomorrow. He would mourn a dog with more grief than men nowadays mourn their fathers.
And that’s how we measure out our real respect for people — by the degree of feeling they can register, the voltage of life they can carry and tolerate — and enjoy.
End of sermon. As Buddha says: live like a mighty river. And as the old Greeks said: live as though all your ancestors were living again through you.
For many years, I’ve taught young writers that there are only two things that matter, two things they need to learn, and that the entire universe of literature is contained within those elements: images, and (honest) emotions. Now, it seems, I’ve been proven correct:
Notably, readers did not at all agree on what poems they found appealing, an outcome that supports the notion that people have different tastes; nonetheless, there is common ground—vividness of imagery and emotional valence—in what explains these tastes, even if they vary.
It’s always fun to see the academy catching up to that which artists and musicians have known for, oh, fifteen thousand years?
Blue, blue is the grass about the river
And the willows have overfilled the close garden.
And within, the mistress, in the midmost of her youth.
White, white of face, hesitates, passing the door.
Slender, she puts forth a slender hand;
And she was a courtezan in the old days,
And she has married a sot,
Who now goes drunkenly out
And leaves her too much alone.
Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.
For those (like myself) who still read Twain with a kind of absorbing awe, and also those (not like myself) who read academic writing, I’m quite proud to point to this month’s issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, which features a lengthy work of mine titled “The (Magical) Voice of Community in Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger,” in which I argue that Twain was America’s (and perhaps the world’s?) first magical realist novelist, and also that magical realism itself is little more than…well…how southerners talk.
Nothing’s as far away as love is,
not even the new stars,
Though something is moving them
We hope in our direction, albeit their skin’s not on fire.
Moments like these remind me of Don Williams’s classic song from 1980, “Good Ole Boys Like Me,” which is in my estimation among the ten or so greatest country songs ever written. Its chorus begins: “I can still hear the soft southern wind in the live oak trees, and those Williams boys they still mean a lot to me, Hank and Tennessee.” This lyric is stunning for ten thousand reasons, but strikes me in a personal way, as this is precisely how I feel about the Wright boys, James and Charles.
At the end of a dark corridor
There is a lit match in a trembling hand
“I still have stage fright,”
The beautiful woman says,
And then she leads us past wardrobes
With mirrors and creaking doors
Where whispering dresses hang,
Whispering corsets, button shoes –
The kind you’d wear while riding a goat.
What is left of all of it?
Blind hoboes sell American flags
And bad poems of patriotism
On Saturday evenings forever in the rain,
Between the cathouses and the slag heaps
And the river, down home.
Oh Jesus Christ, the Czechoslovakians
Are drunk again, clambering
Down the sand-pitted walls
Of the grave.
Lying is universal – we all do it. Therefore, the wise thing is for us diligently to train ourselves to lie thoughtfully, judiciously; to lie with a good object, and not an evil one; to lie for others’ advantage, and not our own; to lie healingly, charitably, humanely, not cruelly, hurtfully, maliciously; to lie gracefully and graciously, not awkwardly and clumsily; to lie firmly, frankly, squarely, with head erect, not haltingly, tortuously, with pusillanimous mien, as being ashamed of our high calling.