Archives for October 2015

“Our Town”

Last night I went to see “Our Town” for the second time at the Fredericksburg Theater Company. This time, my husband went with me. He’d never seen the play, although he’d seen part of the ending from an episode of the old TV show “The Wonder Years.” I’ve owned a copy of the play for more than a decade. I bought it for 50 cents at the Friends of Waco-McLennan County Library Book Sale.

As the actors moved chairs into place on stage at the beginning of Act III, my husband leaned over and whispered something to me about knowing what those chairs were for—the funeral. And I wish I could’ve seen the look on my own face. Because those chairs aren’t for the living; they’re for the dead. The dead sit and stare at the audience all through Act III.

Emily: “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?

Stage Manager: “No. [Pause.] The saints and poets, maybe—they do some.”

Watching the third act last night, I didn’t feel like a poet or a saint. I thought about my people sitting in those chairs: Dub, Don, Merry Nell, David, Ashley, Nell (that’s since 2009). My dad gave eulogies at every one of those funerals, plus recently, for a dear friend from college. He’s also officiated at two family weddings. Act II, so to speak. Perhaps he’s our family’s Stage Manager.

Tomorrow is Halloween, the eve of All Saint’s Day. Monday is All Souls. Playwright Thornton Wilder, who won a Pulitzer for “Our Town,” has given me a new image of the dead: sitting, waiting.

This is from the stage notes at the beginning of Act III: “The dead do not turn their heads or their eyes to the right or left, but they sit in a quiet without stiffness. When they speak their tone is matter-of-fact, without sentimentality and, above all, without lugubriousness.”

Lugubriousness, “looking or sounding sad or dismal,” says the dictionary.

The dead in Wilder’s play notice things—rain, people coming and going at the cemetery, a single star.

Another Man Among the Dead: “A star’s mighty good company.

A Woman Among the Dead: “Yes. Yes, ’tis.”

What “Hamilton” Can Teach Us About Poetry

“Drake rhymes, Mom. So does Lil Wayne.”

That was my son’s response when I told him most of my poetry doesn’t rhyme. My kids—who both listen to hip-hop—have played enough of it for me that I can appreciate its complicated rhymes. I can’t play at that level.

But hip-hop uses another poetic technique that I can use and so can you. It’s as old as the Psalms and as new as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical “Hamilton,” about Founding Father Alexander Hamilton.

Repetition.

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Miranda’s raps and rhymes and R&B are phenomenal, but what strikes me as I obsessively listen to the cast album is his use of repetition.

Often the word or phrase is introduced as a song title—“My Shot,” “Wait For It,” “History Has Its Eyes,” “Stay Alive,” “Blow Us All Away” or just “Satisfied.” The words reappear at different times, sung in different voices, but the repetition comments on the action or the character. The ending songs in both Act I and Act II combine several of these phrases as a summary of Where We Are Now.

Repetition also allows Miranda to play with words that have multiple meanings, like “shot.” It can mean a shot from a gun (there are three duels in the show). It can also mean a chance, an opportunity, as in the refrain, “I am not throwin’ away my shot.” He does the same thing the word “boom”—might be coming from a cannon in the Revolutionary War, might be a heart falling in love, might be a bright idea.

Seriously, just count all the times and all the different people who sing the phrase “look around.” It’s always the same three notes, never the same twice.

Miranda also uses the inherent repetition in counting, from the song “Ten Duel Commandments” (which is repeated in “The World Was Wide Enough”) to counting in French (“Take a Break” and “Stay Alive (reprise)”). Warning: If you don’t get to 10, something bad happens.

Perhaps my favorite repetition is a chunk of lines that Eliza first sings to Alexander in “That Would Be Enough” in Act I, as they’re awaiting the birth of their son. Later in Act II, he sings the same words back to her in “It’s Quiet Uptown.” Their lives have been unimaginably changed. The words have a totally different resonance.

Now for all of you who do love the rhymes of hip-hop (especially those involving multisyllabic words), Miranda’s got ’em. This is from “Cabinet Battle #1” when Hamilton is challenging Jefferson about the issue of the federal government assuming state debts:

If we assume the debts, the union gets a new line of credit

a financial diuretic

How do you not get it?

If we’re aggressive

and competitive

the union gets a boost. You’d rather give it a sedative?

I can’t write like that. But I can repeat. Miranda showed me how to do it better. And he gets me singing along.

 

“How to Write a Poem,” chapters 8 & 9

I’ve spent the last few weeks blogging through Tania Runyan’s new book titled “How to Write a Poem.” I’ve written and revised. Now it’s your turn.

Chapter 8 is about sharing your poetry, getting it out there in the world. Like this entire book, it’s very practical. I especially liked what Runyan had to say about reading poetry aloud in a group setting.

But chapter 9 is where I’ve been hanging out for a month or so and will probably be in for the remainder of the year. It’s called “Get Your Exercise,” and it’s 25 poems, each with its own prompt to help you write a poem of your own. I’ve done the first five exercises. For Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man,” I wrote a poem that imitated his as closely as possible because I was so blown away.

Friends, if you have any interest at all in writing poetry, this is the book for you. It’s a workshop and an anthology rolled into one. The next time I have a poem that’s kind of meh, I’ll open my copy of “How to Write a Poem” and work on making it just a little bit better.

Thank you, Tania, and thank you, T.S. Poetry Press!

“How to Write a Poem,” chapter 7

“A Change for the Better: Revision.”

I like revision. Oh, sure, there’s always a slough of despair when I realize what I’m writing is not yet what it needs to be and I have no idea how to get it there. But when I have that spark of an idea, I enjoy the hard work of getting that fire going and then keeping it from consuming everything in sight. And then, when it’s perfect, I tweak it some more. So it should be no surprise that this chapter on revision was my favorite in Tania Runyan’s book.

“I would argue that revision is the highest form of respect and soul-nurturing you can give to your poetry.”

As anyone reading this series and reading the comments knows, I’ve revised the heck out of this poem. I started blogging through Runyan’s book thinking my poem was finished. Here’s that draft:

Roadside Oddity (#5? #10?)

Tire tracks dissolve

into pasture streaked by yellow tape:

“Do not cross.”

 

We cross drought-bleached grass

sift debris. The earth

curves away

 

though there’s nothing odd

about a cross beside a highway

in a dry county except

 

this cross is not white. Entwined grapevines

rise toward ivory sky.

Praire wind lifts our zephyr skirts.

 

Thankfully, time passed between reading chapter 7 the first time and reading it again to blog about it. I printed the first draft of my poem, the one some folks had liked the best, and laid it next to this most recent draft. I read each one aloud. Then I reread chapter 7 and made changes in pencil. I do my best work with a pencil.

I decided that although the poem above corrects some of the flaws in the first draft, it’s too tidy. It lacks emotion—it’s like the reader is looking at the cross while driving 75 miles per hour down the interstate instead of trudging through the grass.

So, I give you draft No. ?. The final (for now).

 

Roadside Oddity

 

There’s nothing odd

about a short cross beside a Texas highway although

this one is not nestled in some Dead Man’s Curve

in a dry county. This one

is not white. Entwined grapevines

rise out of pasture so flat you can see the earth curve

toward ivory sky.

 

“Careful, there could be snakes,” she says,

but there’s no water. Tire tracks dissolve

into pasture streaked by yellow tape:

“Do not cross.”

 

We cross drought-bleached grass.

Prairie wind lifts our zephyr skirts.

 

“How to Write a Poem,” chapter 6

Tania Runyan titles this chapter “Let it Go: Mystery.”

“But most readers want to live with a poem, not be lectured by it. They want the author to get out of the boat so they can spend some time on the poetic waves themselves.”

Today I don’t want to be in the boat or out on the waves. Today is October 4. One year ago today my cousin Ashley Meagher died in a car accident. A few days later, on the way to her funeral, we marked the site with a grapevine cross. That’s what my evolving poem is about. And today I just don’t know what to do with it.

Let it Go.

In the comments, some of you have said you liked the first version the best. Although I’ve shared five versions of the poem, I’ve actually written 10—I think. Does it count as a revision when I change one word? Which version was best? Which allowed mystery?

Let it Go.

This past week Tweetspeak shared a poem of mine from 2013. The first, oh, 20 versions of it were essentially variations on the same theme. This summer I decided to rewrite the whole thing and imitate “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae, the poem on red poppies and World War I. When I turned in “At Mile 37,” I didn’t know if it was any good. Something mysterious happened in that 21st version.

Is that what needs to happen with this poem—go in a completely new direction? Or am I on the right track and don’t know it because the subject is so personal? Why didn’t I just write about one of those stunning sunrises in Amarillo? No one would have to know we saw it the day after the funeral, on our way home.

No poem today. Let it Go.