On “There Will Come Soft Rains”

I have a poem for you today. No, come back! It’s not mine. I’m going to share this poem, and then I’m going to talk a bit. I hope you stick around.

rain

There Will Come Soft Rains
Sara Teasdale, 1884 – 1933

(War Time)

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,

Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

***

The reason I wanted to look at this poem is because of Ray Bradbury. After all, it’s why I know the poem. The automated house, the silhouettes, the tree branch, the quiet beautiful disappearing, and the voice still speaking to no one. But look back, and find this poem, and something else beautiful and sad.

I love beautiful and sad.

***

I’m no poetry expert. Obviously. This entire series is about me laying my ignorance and confusion out on the table, confessing that whatever I might have learned in pursuit of my degree fled my head as soon as each paper was turned in. Sorry, undergrad.

In another post I’ll talk about what I remember from studying poetry, and what lacked about it, but for now I’d like to stick with a poem. The Teasdale poem above. It has a lovely quality, which makes me long to live in memories of looking out over quiet Missouri hills in the early morning, or laying in the backyard while Bambiland scampered around me. At the one house, we called my parents’ backyard Bambiland. It was idyllic. A little pond with fishes, beautiful flowers climbing on a trellis, a forsythia that an adult could hide in, a few raised garden beds, trees and bushes large and small… And on maybe a half-acre. You could still hear the traffic, but I mostly remember the sound of the little pond, and birds.

***

When I was reading A Poetry Handbook, I was surprised how many of the very simple concepts felt like revelations to me. Even the ones I already knew. Iambic pentameter! My goodness. Spondees and dactyls, oh my. And so many types of rhyme. I don’t believe any of them were new concepts (except masculine and feminine rhyme) but something about the presentation worked for me.

Here are some things I noticed about this poem.

Rhyme

When I like a poem that rhymes, it’s generally because the rhyme isn’t intrusive, or I like it in spite of the rhyme. With this being in couplets, and so many other aural things going on, I don’t mind the rhymes existing.

Alliteration

Speaking of other aural things going on. This is the thing that gets me most, I guess. Swallows circling with their shimmering soundFeathery fireWhistling their whims. These things are important to me.

If I had to guess, at this early stage of my terrible studies, I’d say the thing that matters most to me is the sound of the language. If it’s free verse that just sounds like talking, like sentences, then what’s the point? Honestly, what makes that poetry? I suppose calling it that. But read a poem that confidently takes language and shapes it into something that delights the ear, and even the mouth, and that seems like a little bit of poetic magic to me.

That first phrase I called out… I think it’s the most blatant to me, and sets me up to really notice the others. I just want to roll the words around in my mouth, taste them like a good whiskey. Swallows circling with their shimmering sound. It’s not, I don’t think, it’s not a hiss of a snake sort of sound. It’s the susurrus of birds, the flickering rush of hundreds of starlings, blackbirds, swallows, moving as one in the sky.

Enjambment

Let’s take a breath.

Okay.

In the first three couplets, you get these lovely images of nature, with beautiful word choice that causes it to flow off the tongue — that’s the alliteration, smooth like a spring breeze. Quiet ideas of rain, night sounds, trees gently moving in air.

And then you hit the fourth pair. Though those ‘n’ sounds are soft, they stop you. Not one. Stop. Maybe it’s the ‘t.’ Probably! Especially after the gentle, smooth motion of the third couplet, this one changes the poem. Turns it around. Just in time for the war. Not one appears twice in one line, and then — suddenly — she breaks the phrase. It’s kind of violent, compared to the rest. Though there’s no pause written, the line breaks, snapping the phrase in pieces, like the war and the apathy break the poem right here.

Nature won’t care if we all kill each other.

Spring will still come. Dawn will brighten the landscape. The war will be over but no one will be there to claim victory.

And yet there will come soft rains.

***

I don’t have a specific structure in mind for these posts about poetry. I’m open to ideas. I only have a few basic ideas, but they’re deep wells.

Your turn!

Have you read this poem before?What did you think? I would be utterly delighted if you had comments or questions or thoughts of any kind.

Reading Poetry: It Begins…

I had this idea to force one of my poetry friends to engage in a conversation with me in which I yell belligerently at them about poetry.

(tweet deleted for not being funny: Someone said that “poetry is that which is lost in translation,” right
What the hell
What does that mean)

Instead I muse about it sometimes on Twitter, and always have some book of poetry or other I’m working through. I enjoyed the Carol Duffy I read, I guess, but honestly, what do I know? I enjoyed some of the Silvina Ocampo, but some of it was just words. I’m reading Anne Sexton and spoiler not enjoying it much.

(tweet deleted for being too long: What is free verse? Are you sure it’s poetry and not just a bunch of words? …is this like modern art, where it’s up to the beholder to decide it’s art, like Duchamp’s urinal or anything Mark Rothko ever touched?)

But now I’m also reading Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook, which I think is a good thing for me to read. What I’ve struggled with is articulating what I feel I don’t know, articulating why I feel ill-equipped to deal with poetry, articulating why I don’t get it. And it’s not like I don’t get all of it. I have favorite poems. But why do I like them? Why do I dislike others? Why are some considered good, and some not? What makes a poem? Exactly what is it that you consider with poetry that’s different from prose or essay? Why do line breaks matter, and why do they vanish and change? Why can two lines be a poem? What intricacies am I missing, since something 200 pages long can also be “a poem”? There must be categories and names for all this, right? I mean, “epic,” but what’s the two-line poem called? Mini? Micro? Wee baby poem? Why did Transformations have to be poetry, versus The Bloody Chamber‘s stories? Why does free verse even exist, man? What’s its deal?

I am being completely serious in my flippancy.

(tweet deleted for being too rude: Yeah, but prose poetry. That’s a scam, right?)

But I really want to hash some of this out and dig under the haze that poetry seems to be under for me. I am going to do that. This is my public declaration of helpless naiveté.

I say all of this as someone who studied poetry* in undergrad.

So I can’t imagine what other people feel.


*Not as my focus, but by way of both English and Spanish literature, I ended up reading and writing about a good amount of poetry. And yet. And yet.

Update on that no-media experiment

Things I successfully avoided in my experiment: Fiction. Surprisingly, that was the easiest thing to do. Mostly because there is such interesting nonfiction in the world! Podcasts were easy to avoid, too (with one exception that I knew I couldn’t quit. PCHH, I love you too, too dearly.)

Otherwise, I cheated a whole heck of a lot. I did occasionally still watch things, but I tried to keep it as a reward at the end of a week, or documentaries. I found myself replacing my TV-downtime with games, which I honestly hadn’t thought about. I replayed most of The Talos Principle, which was not the best use of my time, but oh well.

(Sidenote: Seriously, if you haven’t played The Talos Principle, maybe you should?? And then we can talk about it??? It’s about consciousness and puzzles and what it is to be a person and free will and lasers and a storm-engulfed tower and robots, so I don’t know how there isn’t something for everyone in there.)

And then I played through Botanicula and was this close to replaying Samorost and the Submachine games…

So instead, since it’s been about a month, I’m taking a moment to look back on the experiment.

Among other small accomplishments, I did write messy drafts of two new stories, and I got two of the three workshop stories out on submission. That’s not bad. I’m not really attempting to write poetry so much as literally playing with it — I took some paragraphs of stories I’ve written, and pages out of books I was reading, and I cut them into their component parts (copies! don’t worry) and have, occasionally, while listening to music, been reassembling them into poems. And realizing that magnetic poetry is a form of dada cut-up, and yet somehow misses the spirit of the game entirely.

As September creeps into view, I’m going to shift the experiment a little. After a month, I was craving some fiction. So I picked up The Sundial and am reading it, nice and slow.

As for TV: does anyone have some willpower they could loan me?

Too much talking and too many rules

On Twitter, someone linked to this post (I want to say it was Kelly Link, but it was sometime last week, and I’m pretty sure Twitter doesn’t exist more than 24 hours into the past) and when I finally read it, it felt like sinking into a chair I forgot I owned, and thinking, “When did I put this in storage? Why isn’t this in my living room?”

Anyway, the post is Reality Affects by Matthew Cheney, talking about another essay (What Should Fiction Do by Bonnie Nadzam).

When you hang out with a lot of readers and writers, it’s really easy to get caught up in what others think fiction ought to be. If there’s a formula, if there’s a map, if there is a right and a wrong when it comes to shaping a story, that makes things easier. If there’s a way to do it right, wouldn’t you want to do that? If someone says they know how to write a story that will get an agent’s attention, that will be a bestseller, well, heck, maybe they do know! Maybe if you do what they say, you’ll sell your next book, and everything will be okay.

Writing from inside these conversations, while surrounded by movies, while seeing each book-of-the-moment pass by, at some point you might accidentally absorb all these rules about stories. You have to have an inciting incident. Your character has to go on a journey. They must refuse the call and have a thousand faces. Your protagonist must try and fail and try again, try bigger, fail harder. There must be scenes and sequels, action and cliffhangers, emotional processing, a familiar shape like a mountain, like a bell curve…

But is that all? Of course not.

I don’t think I even noticed that I’d absorbed and built up these rules around me, until they started to chafe. I wanted to follow patterns, to obey plot structure, and by God, I wanted to do things right. If I’m going to do a thing, I better do it right. I will listen, I will take notes, I will show up and do it exactly as you’re supposed to. I will analyze and figure out what the heck a chapter is, where and how often to drop foreshadowing, how much to worldbuild, when exactly to have the protagonist hit their dark night, their nadir, and when I finally slog through writing this book, I’ll have done it up right.

Oh, Lord, is it tiring and deadening to think like that. Do it right? What’s that even mean? everything is made up. Like, all of art is a construct of one sort or another. The rules come from the last group of people who were making it up as they went along. They looked at what had been done, and did something a little different. And a little different again. Or a lot different! Transgressing the established formula speaks to the thing you’re transgressing as well as asking a reader to be more conscious of what they’re reading. And I find that very interesting. Not the idea of breaking all the rules for the sake of breaking things, but not being beholden to them.

Literature deserves more than formulas, more than cinema. The written word can do interesting and complex things, different from the mapped out swoop of a story, something other than fake cinema. Written stories can do so much more than what’s popular and salable right at this moment. Beyond all that writing advice that’s in digestible bullets and charts. And I’m very interested in all that lately, freshly, again.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that literature isn’t doing any of this. Only that’s it’s very easy to find myself suddenly wearing blinders I didn’t know I’d picked up, and get trapped into thinking X the only way to do writing right. Cheney’s essay was like a cold splash of water to wake me up and remind me of the things that excite me most. I read it at a good time, when I was feeling weary and sort of confused about this one project, and realized I was weighted down by the idea of doing all these things right.

It’s nice to be reminded that “right” is debatable, and so is the idea of what fiction should do.

 

Complete do-over: On rewriting, maybe

Let’s be honest: Anything anyone’s ever told you about writing? There’s like a 60% chance it’s completely wrong for the project you’re working on. So don’t mind me as I waffle endlessly about how to do things.

My current “am i doing it right is this okay or have i gone round the bend” thing is this novel I’m working on. And have been, for quite some time now. I spent months last year doing a serious edit, and this spring was finally able to get some writing friends to critique the draft. I received such great, thoughtful, engaged, and excited feedback that I was freshly pumped about a story I was feeling run down on.

The next day, I was accepted into a short story workshop. After some frantic note-organizing, I completely switched gears to short stories for about two months.

Yesterday I returned to the novel and all the notes I had made. And I thought “I should rewrite this entirely.”

In various drafts, I had already made some rounds of serious structural edits, so I felt like I knew what I was comparing. I knew what it meant to look at the draft and my notes and prep another revision. I knew how much I would want to cling to what was already there. And I knew what I really wanted this novel to feel like, the energy I wanted it to have, the plotlines I wanted to focus on…

And some part of me said, “I should rewrite this entirely.”

It’s a lot of work. My god, it’s a lot of work. Because that fresh draft, while backed by years of thinking about this story and working out kinks in character, plot, and world-building, will take X weeks to write, will need a new round of edits, will want a new round of early readers (if they’ll indulge me).

But today I’m looking at my notes on a potential new outline, and I’m thinking, “I should rewrite this entirely.”

I’m giving it a week for the shock of the idea to wear off, so I can sit with it and decide if it really is a good idea.

Reader (if you are reading this, ever, at any time), how do you figure out rewrites and/or edits? Alternately: Have I gone round the bend?