Monday, April 14, 2014

RHYTHM FOR A REASON: Ear Cropping for Smaller Breeds

(NOTE: You picked me out, brushed me off/Crushed me while I was burnin’ out/Then you picked me out/Like an ashtray heart/Hid behind the curtain/Waited for me to go out/A man on a porcupine fence/Used me for an ashtray heart)

April is National Poetry Month (to find out more log on to, when those who haunt bookstores are confronted with posters, bookmarks, and big displays of poetry books. This is cool. Poetry is where the language dances, is the news that stays news, and brings images of the past to the present. An honest poem gives us more than we can carry in one lifetime, a surfeit of humanity at its most pure. The reader enters the lines like a new land no matter how many times they are read. Poetry is the beating heart of literature and any prose writer who ignores the poem is a jerk.
We need poetry to make sense of our lives. They are songs celebrating the human experience. Poet Richard Hugo said, “Writing is a way of saying you and the world have chance.” This cheers on the poets stuck in garrets, under bridges, driving taxicabs, or sorting the mail. Sure, teaching provides a living for poets, but the fire of poetry burns brightest for those on the outside, where most of us live. Do more than read a little Wordsworth this month and support today’s poets by buying their books, lots of them, then read aloud to your friends and family until they get the message: Poetry is for everyone.
Poet Charles Olson once quoted poet Robert Creeley as saying, “Form is never more than an extension of content.” This is true for everything from cell phones to wind-up ducks, and works of prose. In fiction, the form is the paragraph followed by the chapter. Look carefully at Iris Murdoch’s The Good Apprentice (Chatto & Windus, 1985). Her paragraphs are long, convoluted affairs that illustrate the inner states of mind among characters too financially secure. When a husband and wife must confront the wife’s ongoing affair with another man, the paragraphs go out for a cup of coffee and dialogue takes over, saying much more than what was inside their heads. The result of this dramatic change is exciting reading.
A frequent question asked by new writers is about the length of a chapter. Snotty editors will answer, how long is a piece of string? Chapters are the rhythm of the story, established by the story. The importance here is listening to what the story needs and following its advice. For the reader, keeping the chapters of equal size invites them to hear the music of the story and follow its rhythm from front cover to back. Some stories are served better by short, ten-page chapters. Others like The Good Apprentice need breathing room. Murdoch divides the book into three parts, with each containing several unnumbered chapters. She wrote in the service of the story, and brought the reader into its form defined by the content. The form is invisible as the story unfolds.
Attention to form over content wears on the reader. Every bit of pyrotechnics in prose writing takes the content along with it. Fireworks never stay in the sky. With a solid foundation in form dictated by content, the reader can return to the story and find new things not seen on his or her first reading. A story can be told in any form when the content says so. Forcing content into a form is to invite disaster.
First-time and experienced writers must read The Dog Walked Down the Street: An Outspoken Guide for Writers Who Want to Publish (Cypress House, $13.95), if for no other reason than to learn the ins and outs of good writing and the perils of publishing. The book also has a swell cover that matches most of the spring colors. Buy several to go along with your Easter frocks and suits. Instead of making haberdashers nervous with unreasonable demands, log on to for your friendly neighborhood independent bookstore. Make reasonable demands of the clerks and you are guaranteed to walk out with an armful of treasures as long as your credit is good. Speak like you said.

NEXT: Ban the Pomeranian

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