Thursday, October 1, 2009

Get Back in the Water

A. O. Scott calls the new movie ("Bright Star") about Keats and Fanny Brawne "porn for English majors." And there is an awful lot of yearning with their clothes on, some of it in iambic pentameter.

At one point Fanny drops by Keats' place for a lesson in Understanding Poetry. He says to think about it this way: when one goes to a lake and dives in, it isn't just to get to the other shore. It's really to be in the water and to enjoy oneself.

Well, he's the lake she wants to be immersed in, but he's also right. It's more fun to lie on one's back in a poem and look at the sky. If poets wanted meaning to be important we'd all stand around with sandwich boards, each with a message on it. I Love My Wife. People Can Be Cruel. And everybody's favorite: Nobody Understand Me!

And I don't see why the same metaphor couldn't be used on prose writers, many of whom have their eyes on the prizes (looking across the lake at the awards glittering in the sun) rather than at the sensuous body of water lapping at their bare toes.

Let's say you breaststroke across and get the prize. There you stand with a towel over your bare shoulders while everyone applauds. Lookit me, Ma! Then somebody else swims up and the crowd goes crazy. And, wouldn't you know it, her trophy is bigger! A breeze comes up. You start to shiver. That long, arduous swim for two minutes of approbation!

Get back in the water. Take a mouthful and spit it out like you're a little fountain. Wallow around. Then paddle like a dog. Language is our medium, friends. Enjoy it.



  1. Okay, here's me respectfully disagreeing. Yes, it's bad when a writer pays more attention to message than to literary elements; but remember Jackie's example one residency of the poetry reading she attended where the poet just kept repeating "apocalyptic noodle"? Sure, it sounds cool, but, at the end of the night, who cares? How much more satisfying it is when language and meaning are in balance. And I'm scratching my head over your extending the metaphor to glittering prizes. Preachy books don't usually get the gold.

  2. The real world of writing encases the sneaking hope that somebody will like what you write. That could be a "cool" from a 10 year old or a nod from an editor, or a "good" from your spouse. Nothing matches the struggle to get it on paper, but for five seconds, let the hope dribble down your chin.

  3. Interesting, Christine. I usually prefer poetry where I can ascertain some kind of meaning as well--although I think sometimes meaning can come from the way words sound and language fits together.

    I also think one could belabor the lake metaphor even further and say that eventually--you do have to return to shore. There's probably a spectrum between standing around with Ron's sandwich boards and an "apocalyptic noodle" poetry jam.