FORM AND FUNCTION

POETRY VS. ADVERTISING

            I quoted William Stafford’s philosophy of writing in Chapter 7.  Here’s one of his finished poems, plus the first draft of this poem with some changes he has hand written on it.  We have his theory of writing, a work in process, and the final result–a good opportunity to see Principle #4 at work.

                        

                           ASK ME

 

                   by William Stafford

 

Some time when the river is ice ask me

mistakes I have made.  Ask me whether

what I have done is my life.  Others

have come in their slow way into

my thought, and some have tried to help

or to hurt–ask me what difference

their strongest love or hate has made.

 

I will listen to what you say.

You and I can turn and look

at the silent river and wait.  We know

the current is there, hidden; and there

are comings and goings from miles away

that hold the stillness exactly before us.

What the river says, that is what I say.

 

 

 (1st draft of same poem)                      

                        ASK ME

                 by William Stafford

 

Some time when the river is ice ask me

mistakes I have made.  Ask me whether

what I have done is my life.  Others

have come in their slow way into

my thought, and some have tried to help

or to hurt–ask me what difference

their strongest love or hate has made.

 

I will listen to what you say.

You and I can turn and look

at the silent river and wait.  We know

the current is there, hidden; and there

are comings and goings from miles away

that hold the stillness exactly before us.

What the river says, that is what I say.

 

 

            What is he saying?  He could be saying, there’s more to our lives than people see on the surface.  Or, life is like a river.  People complain they don’t like poetry because it’s too hard to figure out its meaning, or that it can mean anything you want it to.  I think what they resent is that it isn’t as accessible as prose.  That may be true in some cases.  But, let’s go back to basics: What are the scenes?  Who are the characters? 

  

             Scene 1, Stafford is on the bank in winter, looking out over the frozen river.  Scene 2 seems to be the same place and time, but he is joined by someone.  Who is the “You?”  We know it is someone special, because he cares about this person, and in Scene 1 he has said most people don’t mean anything to him–even those who have loved him strongly.  It could be a wife or a daughter, but the only person we are sure is looking at this river of ice with him is…you, the reader.  My question–“What is he saying?–is  a trick question.  I’m asking what’s the poem’s theme.  Stafford more than anyone rebels at this idea.  Isn’t he telling us not to reduce his life to an obituary or a resume or a theme?  There’s too much to life to do this.  At best he can compare it to something else that seems simple–the frozen river–but in reality is complex.  The river needs no justification, neither do I, neither do you. 

  

            I said that science is a language to describe the observable world.  Poetry describes things we can’t know, by comparing them to those we can observe.  We don’t know what it is to die, but we in some way understand it by comparing it to sleep.  “But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep.”  Or, in Stafford’s poem, old age is the winter of one’s life.  A fitting time to be musing life’s worth. 

 

             Art is different from advertising.  Poetry encourages us to find multiple levels of correlation in its metaphors; the images of advertising want to be unequivocal–a sports car equals sexual prowess; a brand of beer means popularity with peers; a particular watch, the symbol for success.  Poetry wants the audience to think, to perceive, to feel, to expand.  Advertising wants to limit our options, numb our ability to discern,…get us to buy.

  

FIRST DRAFT TO FINAL PIECE

            Notice the changes Stafford has written on the first draft and the difference between these and the finished poem.  Look for things an eight or nine year old would spot.  He changes “the mistakes” to “mistakes I have made.”  “The thoughts” to “my thoughts.”  “Efforts” becomes “hate or love.”  He adds, “I will listen to what you say.”  The last lines state, “If the river says anything, whatever it says is my answer.”  He rewrites this to: “What the river says, that is what I say.”  He seems to be making the words more definite.  When he says “mistakes I have made” and “my thoughts,” “he’s also taking ownership.  Is there anything else that you notice in the way it looks?

  

            The final poem is broken into two stanzas.  Stafford writes early in the morning.  I can picture him looking out his kitchen window at this frozen river just as the day starts to get light.  I’m not a morning person, and my thoughts anytime before 9AM are black.  That’s what I’m picking up on when he says:

   

            Others have come in their slow way into

            my thought, and some have tried to help

            or to hurt–ask me what difference

            their strongest love or hate has made.

            To me these are strong, bitter words.   He’s saying, “Ask me if I give a damn about anything or anybody.”  If I had written this I’d stop a minute, and think do I really mean that.  No, I do care about what someone thinks.  There’s a turning point in the poem.  If the first part is “ask me,”  the second is “I will listen.”  And to mark that, he adds a line; but more important, he separates one part from the other.  A theme is emerging, and Stafford is using form to accentuate the duality that is a part of that theme.  See the process at work?  He is reacting to the river; in that reaction he discovers someone important to himself; and now he’s fashioning the structure of the piece so it is even clearer to himself and to his reader. 

  

            Just as through the writing he comes to take ownership of his thoughts and his mistakes, so he is taking possession of his theme and framing it to best advantage.  That’s what writing, what poetry is all about.  Poetry, even free verse, has a device that prose doesn’t have.  Compare the last words of each line of the first draft to those of the final draft (by the way, three other drafts came in between). A major alteration the poet has made is in the line breaks.  Here is the poem again with comment.

  

                                    Some time when the river is ice ask me

 

 Here I would like to stop as I read the poem because it is the end of the line, but there’s no period so I am forced to go around the corner

  

                                    …Mistakes I have made.

  

Now I have my period, but can’t come to a complete stop because it’s not the end of the line. 

  

                                    …Ask me whether

                                    what I have done is my life. Others

                                    have  come in their slow way into

                                    my thought, and some have tried to help

                                    or to hurt–ask me what difference

                                    their strongest love or hate has made.

  

The lines pull me along, meandering as if following the turning course of a river.  Until we are at the turning point of the poem, then look what happens. 

  

                                    I will listen to what you say.

 

The line begins a sentence and ends with a period.  He is using the line almost like punctuation.  There’s only one other place where that happens.  The last line.  Listen…

  

                                    I will listen to what you say. 

                                    You and I can turn and look

                                    at the silent river and wait

  

We are on that meandering river again. 

 

  

                                    …We know

                                    the current is there, hidden; and there

                                    are comings and goings from miles away

                                    that hold the stillness exactly before us.

                                    What the river says,

  

Boom.

  

                                    that is what I say.

 

 Boom, boom!  Form following function.

 

            Truman Capote claimed to have written Breakfast at Tiffany’s in ten days, except for the last page, which took two months.  More specifically it was the punctuation of the last page that took two months.  He stated that punctuation is the shared rhythm between writer and reader.  He wanted that rhythm to end just right.  In a practical way that’s what Stafford is doing here.

PRINCIPLE #4

JOHN FITZGERALD KENNEDY

 

Here’s how Principle #4 works.  Suppose you’re drawn to John Fitzgerald Kennedy.  You want to write a book about him, but the problem with this, and with any subject, is that it’s so broad it would take many lifetimes to write everything that could be said about him.  You are forced to be selective, but you have many choices.  Imagine these options as segments of a horizontal line.  You could write about the rise of Joseph Kennedy before Jack was born.  You could concentrate on the period through JFK’s graduation from Harvard.  There’s Kennedy, the naval hero.  The reckless, young Senator Kennedy.  The Presidential campaign. The first thousand days in office.  His assassination.  The Great Society.  Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy.  Ted Kennedy is good for several books; and now there’s a whole new generation–John Kennedy Jr–making the gossip columns.  Inevitably there is one aspect of this spectrum you are drawn to more than to others.  That will be your topic.  But realize each segment has a meaning for you, and you are choosing the one that is most significant to your own personal needs. 

           

JFK’s upbringing might represent how environment shapes one’s destiny.  His naval service, your need to find heros.  The assassination, how dreams fall apart.  You’re not conscious of the theme as you pick the topic; the reverse is true.  As you write, the theme emerges, and when it does you can use it to include or exclude events from all segments of the subject that enforce that theme.  It’s like doing a large pencil drawing.  You like the drawing well enough to get it framed.  At the frame shop as you pick out a mat you think: Parts of this drawing are better than others.  I’ll get a smaller mat than I need and move it around on the drawing so it frames the strongest elements and, if possible, excludes dead areas around the edges.  We can do the same thing with our writing.  Use a theme to frame the strong points and to exclude irrelevant ones.  There’s still infinite choice within a segment, and you need to ask yourself: Of the many possibilities , which scenes are most readily accessible for my reader to experience the story?  Use this as an additional selection criterion.

           

College freshmen say, “I understand plot, character, setting; but how do you arrive at the theme of a piece?”  I’ve devised this little formula to help.  Take the beginning of the work, the ending, any central symbol, and the title.  Put them into one sentence and you have the theme.  It works, because the beginning presents the conflict, the ending solves or comments on that conflict, a central symbol is a mirror of what the author thinks is significant, and the title is a last effort to point the reader in the right direction.  But, once you have this statement of theme what do you have?  A generalized conclusion, such as on the left side of the diagram. If Tolstoy, Bronte, James thought they could accomplish what they needed to in a sentence, why would they write thousands of pages instead.  Theme is a tool for the writer. 

 

PERFECTLY FRANK

           

Let’s try this principle out.  I was forced to watch a TV mini-series a couple years ago on Frank Sinatra.  I can just imagine someone in Hollywood coming up with this idea.  “Well use appropriate songs of his to underscore the different episodes, see.  Maybe we can even get an album out of this.”  Then some studio devil’s advocate counters, “Yeah, but he’s still alive and he’s trouble.”  To which the first person replies, “We’ll get his daughter to produce it, she’ll know how to handle her old man.”  Imagine you’re the writer, how would you present this subject?  The way it was done to start with young Sinatra growing up in Hoboken with a rather overriding mother.  Next he’s married to Nancy Sinatra, but his recording career is pulling him away from family life.  He then falls in love with Ava Gardner and gets into the movies.  There’s even a short scene or two of his brief marriage to Mia Farrell.  Where’s this going?  What kind of ending could you come up with.  Granted this biography is following the chronology of Sinatra’s life, but it seems to me the writer consciously or unconsciously has organized it around the women in his life.   Recognizing this, to get an ending consistent with this theme you would ask, besides his mother, his wife, his mistress, his other wives, what other women are there?         The actual series just trailed off.  But, I think the answer is, of course his daughters.  For one reason or another, his daughter, the producer, didn’t use this.  Perhaps she wanted to perpetuate the image that he’s still a romantic figure, or perhaps he wasn’t much of a father (the real subject, for her, which she prefers to keep hidden?). But, once a pattern starts to emerge it is a good idea to use it as an instrument for what to include or exclude. 

           

Often biography or non-fiction at first seem overpowering to the writer. The secret is to think of the book in terms of the reader.  Pick scenes that readers can experience, then pack other information into these scenes as secondary material (or simply drop the extra material, a reader can only absorb so much).  After you have done this see if a pattern isn’t emerging from these scenes, do a second cut of those scenes that don’t conform to this pattern.  I guarantee the task be more doable and the result be much more readable.


SEARCH FOR MEANING

 A GLORIOUS FEAST

 

In workshops, after participants write a scene from their  storyboards, I collect the papers and read them.  I apply a reality check.  You can do it for yourself with your own scenes.  Does the writing “show”–create experience you, as a reader, feel as if it is happening to you; or does the writing “tell” about what happened–you feel you are hearing it second hand.  It’s the difference between going to a movie or sports event, yourself, and listening to someone tell about one he or she attended.  Imagine a diagram on this page.  At the bottom left of the diagram are a bunch of dots that represent  experiences a person has in life.  The way our mind and language work is to generalize from these particular experiences.  Instead of carrying around the details our senses have felt, we now have converted these to conclusions based on those experiences; “Men are insensitive.” “Life is hard.” “It’s good to exercise.”  Not only do we want to reduce what happens to us to these generalities, but we also find this a convenient way to communicate these ideas to others.  So Person A communicates his or her conclusions to Person B.  Person B can either (1) accept what is said as true, (2) reject it as false, or (3) alter its meaning to something with which he or she can agree. An example of (3) is someone saying, “Life is hard.” That conclusion may be based on the fact that part of the world population doesn’t have enough food to get through the day.  Person B may agree, “Life is hard,” but by that understand, “I have to go out in the snow to get my morning newspaper.” 

  

Whether or not  Person B accepts, rejects, or alters what Person A communicates depends on how well these generalities fit Person B‘s own set of life experiences.  If they match, Person B accepts them, if not Person B rejects or alters the meaning of these conclusions.  The trouble is, what do we tend to write about?  We search our experiences for things we feel are unique or on which we have some new perspective.  If they are unique, there won’t be corresponding experiences for our audiences, and they’ll be rejected or misunderstood…unless we can communicate those experiences themselves trusting our audience to draw the same kind of conclusions we have.  Besides increasing our chance of acceptance, this way of writing gives the reader an active role, which is flattering.  The writer and the reader are partners, collaborating. 

           

There’s a wonderful bonus.  Experience can be transmitted, not only to a reader we know, but also to people in other parts of the world, to grandchildren who have not yet been born, and to us by others who lived before we were born.  We can share experience with someone from thousands of years ago.  Whose play is Oedipus Rex, anyway?  Sophocles, the playwright could say, “That’s my play, I wrote it.”  The actors (especially before the days of the printing press) could claim, “No, it’s our play–we are the ones who put it on before an audience.”  The audiences could say, “This is our legend, you’ve just written it out or spoken the lines.”  And Freud twenty centuries later realizes, “This is an archetype of human relationships that belongs to all people no matter in what period of time they lived.” 

           

We all use many languages.  There is the language of science that describes what we know, and the language of poetry that deals with things we can’t entirely know–at least directly.  By its nature language gives pattern and order to chaos.  It’s graspable…and communicable; we share in it together with others, living and dead.  The great thing about literature is that our participation in it does not diminish another’s participation.  If I own a house, it means you don’t own that house.  But the same isn’t true of a story, play, or poem.  We can all take whatever we need from it.  In fact it may mean more to me as a reader in particular circumstances than it did to the person who just happened to write it. 

           

The Roman, Seneca, wrote, “Whatever has been well said by anyone is mine.”  The line between writing and actively reading a piece is thin.  We happened to learn to speak before we learned to read, to read before we learned to write, and consequently we feel more comfortable speaking than reading, more comfortable reading than writing.  But, that’s only a matter of practice.  Literature is a glorious feast, whose participants transcend the limits of place and time.  Whether we prepare the banquet, enjoy some or all of its dishes,  or do both, how can we turn our back on an invitation to be a part of it?

           

But, look back at what I’ve just said.  Just because you are presenting experiences rather than conclusions doesn’t mean you can’t influence those conclusions your readers make by what you include, what you exclude, and the order in which you present them (as we have seen with Newspaper Wars).  This is Principle #4.

 

Principle #4: FRAME.  A work’s opening and conclusion directly affect meaning.  Theme is determined by parameters a writer sets on the chain of reactions; it stems from the specific needs that compel us to write.  Exploit these needs.  Confront your fears.