Two Amazing Poems

November 21, 2009

With the sheer bulk of writing out there, and the utter banality of much of it, I am surprised when I come across pieces that shake me up as much as these two poems I saw today do. I won’t attempt to introduce them, but just reproduce them here:

Robinson Jeffers – “Original Sin”

The man-brained and man-handed ground-ape, physically
The most repulsive of all hot-blooded animals
Up to that time of the world: they had dug a pitfall
And caught a mammoth, but how could their sticks and stones
Reach the life in that hide? They danced around the pit, shrieking
With ape excitement, flinging sharp flints in vain, and the stench of their bodies
Stained the white air of dawn; but presently one of them
Remembered the yellow dancer, wood-eating fire
That guards the cave-mouth: he ran and fetched him, and others
Gathered sticks at the wood’s edge; they made a blaze
And pushed it into the pit, and they fed it high, around the mired sides
Of their huge prey. They watched the long hairy trunk
Waver over the stifle trumpeting pain,
And they were happy.

Meanwhile the intense color and nobility of sunrise,
Rose and gold and amber, flowed up the sky. Wet rocks were shining, a little wind
Stirred the leaves of the forest and the marsh flag-flowers; the soft valley between the low hills
Became as beautiful as the sky; while in its midst, hour after hour, the happy hunters
Roasted their living meat slowly to death.

These are the people.
This is the human dawn. As for me, I would rather

Be a worm in a wild apple than a son of man.
But we are what we are, and we might remember
Not to hate any person, for all are vicious;
And not be astonished at any evil, all are deserved;
And not fear death; it is the only way to be cleansed.

Robinson Jeffers, “Original Sin” from The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, edited by Tim Hunt. Copyright © 1938 by Robinson Jeffers, renewed 1966 and © Jeffers Literary Properties. With the permission of Stanford University Press, Source: The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers (Stanford University Press, 1988)

Denise Levertov – “Come into Animal Presence”

Come into animal presence.
No man is so guileless as
as the serpent. The lonely white
rabbit on the roof is a star
twitching its ears at the rain.
The llama intricately
folding its hind legs to be seated
not disdains but mildly
disregards human approval.
What joy when the insouciant
armadillo glances at us and doesn’t
quicken his trotting
across the track into the palm bush.
What is this joy? That no animal
falters, but knows what it must do?
That the snake has no blemish,
that the rabbit inspects his strange surroundings,
in white star silence? The llama
rests in dignity, the armadillo
has some intention to pursue in the palm forest.
Those who were sacred have remained so,
holiness does not dissolve, it is a presence
of bronze, only the sight that saw it
faltered and turned from it.
An old joy returns in holy presence.

Reproduced in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences

These poems sort of say the same thing, but very differently. And the astonishing thing, for me, is the way they describe the ugliness of humanity without being misanthropic or encouraging hatred. It seems to me that what these poems attempt to get at, with a self-conscious sense of failure tempered by a beauty of imagination, is an awareness of the non-human world that steps beyond human judgment, and into a primal state of being that humans have lost because of civilization. They lament the de-spiritualized mode of perception that is imposed by humanity’s current way of life, or perhaps a loss too deep to put into words, something that explains our sense of alienation and nihilistic impulses far better than Marxism, Existentialism, or any political, religious, or philosophical ideology ever could.


National Novel Writing Month Begins!

November 1, 2009

November is National Novel Writing Month! I’ve never officially written a novel (unofficially is another story), but it sounds like fun and challenging idea to write 50,000 words in 30 days. That works out to about 175 pages in a standard paperback size, and 100 pages in Microsoft Word, single-spaced, with 1 inches margins all around. The focus is on quantity over quality.

Check out the website below for details. I’m not sure whether I’m gonna sign up on the site, or just do this on my own.

To reach 50,000 words, dividing the days up equally, would mean 1,667 words per day, or about 3 pages in Word. I managed to write 2,113 today! Yay! It’s kinda fun, and feels like an accomplishment to know I produced that much in one day, so I’m hoping the experience will be as satisfying by the end of the month.

I plan to update my word count here on the blog regularly.

This may be a slight cheat, but I am not starting from scratch–I’m adding to an ambitious werewolf story that I’ve been working on and revising for years. I already had 30 pages written for the current version (33 now), and have a number of ideas for my characters. Nanowrimo advises against this kind of thing, but I’ve been wanting to try to come up with a complete draft for this project, whether it stinks or not.

Big Town Vampires and Small Town Demons

September 3, 2009

I am reading a classic horror novel–Bram Stoker’s Dracula–set (most of it anyway) in London. I also just finished a novel about a demonic figure plaguing the small town of Castle Rock, Maine–Stephen King’s Needful Things.

It’s taken me a while to get as far as I’ve gotten in Dracula (around page 200), as it starts kind of slow. It’s not really the most exciting read, both because of the pacing and because of the plot, but it is helping me to have a better idea of the characters. Lucy Westenra has 3 men in love with her, and it’s always been hard to keep who’s who straight from the movie versions, and I’ve seen a number of them. Off the top of my head, I remember seeing: the Bela Lugosi Dracula, Hammer’s Horror of Dracula (w/the inimitable Christopher Lee), Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Dracula Dead and Loving It, and Dracula 2000. There was even a TV show set in modern times with the Van Helsing family set against a Dracula who doubled as a ruthless corporate bigwhig.

Not much time is actually spent on describing and exploring Dracula’s character. The epistolary format of the book makes this hard; we are only given letters, diary entries, and other miscellaneous documents and correspondence, so our impressions of the Count come from other characters’ descriptions, and so far Jonathan Harker is the only one who has properly met him (Lucy does not seem to remember her night-time rendezvous; her diary entries speak only of vague fears, disrupted sleep, and a large bat that appears but she does not connect to a certain hypnotizing undead).

The descriptions of him we do get are not of the suave, seductive character we know from the movies. Perhaps this is because we only know of him from mostly Jonathan’s encounters, but he finds him very off-putting and somewhat grotesque, even when he only thinks of him as a business client, and writes of having to repress his disgust. And in a particularly creepy scene, Drac even seems slightly reptilian:

“…I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings….I saw the fingers and toes grasp the corners of the stones, worn clear of mortar by the stress of years, and thus by using every projection and inequality move downward with considerable speed, just as a lizard moves along a wall (p. 35, Ch. III).”

There is a surprising amount of space given to Mina’s & Lucy’s correspondence and diaries, with much that has little to do with anything supernatural. I suppose this is necessary to a certain extent for the plot, although at least some of it seems more for characterization. Just as I was confused about Lucy’s suitors, I never had a good sense of Mina’s and Lucy’s characters. Lucy is definitely still mysterious, and Mina is perhaps not far off from what the stereotype of what a proper English woman should be–virtuous, longing for her beloved Jonathan, and jubilant when reunited. But through her extensive writing and contemplation of matters both practical and profound, she comes across as more intelligent and shrewd than in any of the movie portrayals.

Renfield’s character also yields more nuances and differences from the movies. Firstly, he’s much scarier than in the movies. In film, I think he’s portrayed as a sniveling, simpering idiot who is just a fool pawn of Dracula’s. However, in the book, he is a physically powerful presence of his own, often overpowering several attendants at the assylum or others he gets into scraps with. The depth of his insanity is also frightening in and of itself; these come across more in-depth through Dr. Seward’s diary entries. He also seems to have a off-and-on relationship with the Master, worshipping him at times, abandoning him at others.

So, it’s not the greatest piece of literature, but it is an interesting horror classic and definitely helps get a better sense of the characters.

As for Needful Things –people can denounce Stephen King all they want, but I was left satisfied after finishing it. It shows how one man (or demon in a man’s guise) can play on an entire small town population’s greed, fear, and cruelty. It was partly painful and partly fun watching the lives of all these simple, mostly good people unravel their own lives by being tempted by his merchandise–he sold objects that brought out whatever insecurities people had so as to turn them against their neighbors. A modern parable perhaps of the evils of our consumeristic, mentally unhealthy culture.

What are these, so withered and so wild in their attire?

March 27, 2009

Last night, I got to take part in a little scene from Macbeth, when Macbeth and Banquo first encoutner the Three Witches. I got to play Banquo. While I did not have much time to rehearse or memorize lines, and I only had 2 speeches, it was a fun return for me to Shakespeare and acting. The ladies who played the witches were great. Angele got really creative without much time to prepare: she procured an ad hoc “pilot’s thumb” by cutting off the thumb of an oven mit.

I miss acting, even though I am a bit afraid to pursue it for several reasons. One of them is the difficulty of auditions…without having assigned lines to read beforehand, reading from a script can pose a problem for showing your acting skills when you have to look close to the page, and thus can’t interact with the other actors as easily (or show your best to the director).

I wish I could be a well-rounded Renaissance Man – not only writing, but making art, music, and acting. (Never had much interest in sculpting or dancing.)

The World of Odysseus

March 19, 2009

I’ve set myself some reading goals this year. One of them is to read James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake. (I’ve already read Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.) But I’ve set my bar even higher: to understand those works, I’ve decided to read the Iliad and the Odyssey. And before I even read those, I’m reading M.I. Finley’s The World of Odysseus, which attempts to reconstruct both the world of Homer and the society reflected in those two epic poems – which he claims is the “Dark Ages” a few hundred years before Homer, roughly 1000 to 800 B.C.

There are a few surprising things that Finley claims:
– despite the discovery of the “Linear B” tablets that refer to what archeologists think is Troy, what they reveal shows no connection to the Homeric poems, bears no witness to any major war, and makes the city sound more like a small impoverished village rather than a mighty, opulent place
– though there are variants in the versions of the poems we have today, dating back to quotations in Plato and fragments from 300 B.C., the differences are largely insignificant, mostly of interest to linguists (this reminds me of arguments Christians make about how “accurate” various versions of biblical texts are)
– we know next to nothing for sure about who Homer was; it is likely that the Iliad and the Odyssey were not written by the same person; it is also likely that other poems attributed to the author/authors of those poems is not the same as the one(s) who wrote the so-called Homeric hymns
– there was no concept of “Greece” as a whole (or any synonym thereof such as Hellas) or unity between kingdoms in that region during ancient times
– it is unlikely that there is much historical truth in the narratives of either poem; both garble geographical references, conflict with other records of the time, or are unsupported by other records (and whose claims are unlikely due to what records exist); again, I am reminded of Christians who get all huffy when people attack the accuracy of the Bible, saying that other ancient texts are not afforded the same scrutiny and skepticism
– the Greeks believed in the authenticity of the poems in a literal sense, and saw them as integral to their lives, even to the point of saying they were good instructional guides for behavior; however, some important figures like Plato and Xenophanes deplored them for depicting the gods with all the worst qualities of mortals
– the authenticity of bards like Homer was based on the notion that they were “divinely inspired” – that they received visions of the events they described in dreams, or ecstatic states inspired directly by the gods (“Muse” wasn’t just a metaphorical concept then); one quotation even says their writing is “god-breathed” (again…suspiciously reminded of the Christian notion that scripture is God-breathed)

So what does this tell me? One, that ancient pagan/historical writings are not necessarily any more reliable than religious texts. Two, that there are many similarities between Christian claims of authenticity (and their errors of rational judgment) and pagan/secular ones. Three, that history seems almost empty, our heritage a vague blur. It sounds all good and clear-cut in the high school text books, but if we could really go back in a time machine and visit, say, 750 B.C. “Greece,” it would probably be like visiting the Eyrilians on the 5th planet from Alpha Centauri, even if we knew ancient Greek. It’s just too far from our knowledge and experience. Yet, somehow, literature allows us to transcend that…at least to a degree.

National Poetry Month

March 12, 2009

Next month is National Poetry Month! Yay! (But hey, come there isn’t a National Fiction Month or National Short Stories month? Is there?)

I hope you’ll be celebrating like me: knocking down athletes at sporting events with potato-gun propelled poetry books; prank-calling people at 2 a.m. to recite some e. e. cummings; and passing out drunk after “poetry and pizza” parties where poetry is incessantly read aloud, sometimes multiple poems read at once, for an inhuman twelve or thirteen hours at a time.

Another way I might celebrate is to post a poem a day from a published poet, and then to comment on it. (I could challenge myself to write a poem a day, but I already did this in January with Angele.) You can get daily poems from the Writers Alamanc, but that would be too easy, and I don’t always like the poems in there, anyway. You can also get a poem e-mailed to you every day in April by the Academy of American Poets. The Academy suggests other ideas, including the “poem in your pocket” project. You carry around a poem (or poems) in your pocket, and spontaneously read them in a public place.

You can also leave poems at restaurants, bookstores, bus stations, etc. I think I might do this one, too.

The Poet’s Market Poetic Asides blog also offers good posts and weekly poem prompts (on Wednesdays), so if you don’t want to try the demanding challenge of writing a poem a day, maybe one a week will still be pretty hyper-productive for you.

That’s all I’ve got for now. Let me know if anyone has any other ideas.