arrested-development-2

Within thirty-six hours of the release of the long-awaited fourth season of Arrested Development, reviews—not just of the first episode, but of the entire season—started appearing online. Reviewers watched the full eight-hour season in one or two sleep-deprived binges, then spent the remaining twenty-eight hours spewing out essay-like things, some in excess of 3,000 words, purporting to offer an authoritative viewpoint on the show. One gets the sense that many of these writers would proudly refer to their essay-like things as thinkpieces, which is internet shorthand for unfocused, poorly edited conglomerations of words designed to project the appearance of depth without actually providing any.

My parents have had subscription tickets to the New York City Ballet for over thirty years, dating back to when the company performed at The City Center.  They moved up and up as better seats became available and settled in the exact two center seats of the eighth row.  Until the recent renovation, courtesy of David Koch, one ticket read “enter from left,” the other “enter from right.”

In the maiden voyage of this column, Poetry for the Nervous, Vol 1, I led with the principle that what you love, what strikes you, what moves you in poetry is what matters.  Critics do not matter.  The judgments of others do not matter.  Poetry is yours to dispose as your heart dictates.  If your teachers or friends impose upon you some poem or poet they champion, and you just don’t get it, there is no need to think yourself stupid or inadequate, nor to give up on poetry as a whole.  You will find what you love eventually, because poetry in its essence is as deep within us as our desire to communicate.

From an appeal towards what you love, I’ll work into something a bit less romantic.  I think the best poetry is also useful.  That’s a dangerous word in the world of art, wrapped up as it is in the most ancient debates about aesthetics and utility, but I’m always ready to argue that gallery art is great, but does it really beat, say, a well crafted chair that is beautiful to behold, and is also very comfortable for sitting?  Do any human efforts match the art of nature, for whom, especially if you are a cosmologist, utility is the most fundamental quantity?

I am crazy about poetry. Absolutely besotted. Poetry has helped me though the darkest days I’ve endured; it’s calmed me down during minor surgeries; it’s helped me remember experiences I never want to lose to the horizon; and it’s helped me put out of my mind destructive vexations.  Poetry is so utterly a part of my life, my everyday, that I am still astonished when I run into people who dislike poetry, who distrust poetry, who even fear poetry.  As any lover prickles in unrest unless everyone else acknowledges the magnificence of their beloved, I find myself wanting to draw my friends, my family, my colleagues into my inductive field of admiration.

This column is for those who are nervous about poetry, those who have had a nervous breakdown from the effects of poetry stuffed down their gullets by bad teachers. For those who have felt belittled or just bewildered by what they have been cajoled to admire, under pain of being called Philistines.  For those who have found their intelligence insulted by shallow irrelevance.  This column is not about educating you, but rather sharing delights with you, with the full understanding that you will like some of it, and dislike some of it, and that, that’s OK.  I’ll present different ideas and themes regarding poetry each time, and I’ll always have a poem or two to share, and I hope I can put you in the mood to share alike. To tell me why the poems I pick work for you, or why they do not.  To tell me in general why you love or hate poetry.  Each column is just a touchstone for discussion. I want to hear about your experiences with poetry, or lack of same, whether good or bad, satisfying or enervating.

Over at book blog Big Other, resident genius AD Jameson tells James Wood a thing or two about the possibilities of fiction, opting for inclusion over exclusion in the consideration of valid novelistic style. Jameson’s argument is well-considered, erudite, and strangely hopeful. And perhaps most importantly, it throws into high relief the unfortunate percentage of criticism that seeks to amplify the value of certain areas of art by degrading or seeking to invalidate others.

“Throughout How Fiction Works, Wood systematically diminishes fiction’s enormous capacity. The actual art form is vast, and audiences delight in its diversity. It can accomplish a great many things: entertainment, instruction, journalism, shock, experimentation, verisimilitude, confusion. Its forms range from anecdotes to jokes to fables to parables; from morality tales to allegories to tall tales to dirty stories; from pulp genres like horror, sci-fi, fantasy, romance, war, thrillers, and westerns, to surrealism, Dadaism, and absurdism, to genres more enamored with realism: naturalism, regionalism, and minimalism; from comic books to zines to airport paperbacks to the “great books” on Harold Bloom’s canonical lists; from children’s stories to young adult novels to adult literature to adults-only novels; from the picaresque to the baroque to the romantic to the modern to the postmodern and well beyond; from the high to the low and back again; from the experimental to the utterly conventional. It contains room enough for even the quaint, timid stories delivered weekly by the New Yorker!”

Jameson has his preferences, but above all, he celebrates the great variety of forms possible within fiction, and unlike Wood, would never wish to restrict it. If any of you know Mr. Wood, send him to Jameson’s post, and encourage him to answer for himself!

Recess

By Mary Hendrie

Writing

A couple weeks ago, I decided to try writing fiction, something I have told myself for a very long time that I simply couldn’t do. I started by putting on my headphones and opening a blank text file and typing away. Then I did it again. And again. Until a character started to emerge, and I started to learn about her life. It started out boring and difficult. It was very slow going, but it was also rewarding work. Like all writers (and perhaps all human beings), I live with some people I call my inner critics. They are noisy, rude, condescending, and generally counter-productive. But when the work is exciting enough, it’s possible to shut them up long enough to get something done.

So, for the past couple weeks, I managed to keep my inner critics hushed up long enough to write a first draft of a short story. As soon as the draft was complete, I handed it off to a couple trusted readers, and immediately the critics began chomping at the bit to get out and make some noise. Tempting as it is to stuff the critics further down into my already crowded psyche or to submit to feeling tortured and insane while they engage in a psychological prison riot, I believe that even my inner critics are part of myself, so today, I let them out to breathe.

The scene was like this.

It was the first warm day in a very long time, and the third graders at the local Catholic elementary school were going absolutely stir crazy to get outside. The first couple hours of the day felt interminable. They dragged their feet through every work sheet, math problem, and sentence diagram. Lunch gave them a glimmer of hope despite the bland so-called “spaghetti.” They ate in a hurry, guzzled down their milk, then dashed outside for recess. That’s when the screaming started, along with the face-making, booger flicking, and creative name calling. Some of them spun in circles while counting to thirty, then attempted to run full bore across the school yard. Some of them puked. But that’s all rather predictable for kids who have been cooped up too long.

But then something truly strange happened. Once the kids worked out all their unruly energy, they came back to me, formed a circle around me, and then proceeded to hold some kind of intervention. It was awful. It was like the “the cheese stands alone” verse of “The Farmer and the Dale.” And the worst part was that they all appeared to have an absurd, kind, over-protective concern for me. They said stuff like, “Sweetheart, this fiction thing you’re trying … we understand that you want to branch out and expand your creative abilities, but … maybe you should stick to poetry and nonfiction.”

“Yeah,” another piped up. “Poetry doesn’t even require a plot. You don’t even really have to make things up. You can just play with pretty words. It’s easy.”

A grumpy one off to the side said, “Well, poetry’s not exactly easy, but at least you’re good at it … sortof. I mean, you’ve done it before. So, technically you know how to do it. You’re not that good, but …”

“Well, what about nonfiction? The story and the characters are already there, so all you have to do is write them down …”

“Yeah, but it’s hard to get that stuff right. Real, believable people on the page? I think you’re asking too much of her.”

“All we’re saying is maybe you’ve set your sights too high.”

“Maybe work more on what you know already.”

“Maybe take a break from writing for a while.”

At this, the crowd lost focus and began to murmur among themselves. First in whispers, and then in shouts. They gave contradictory advice of all kinds but they did agree on one thing: I should probably give up because I’m not really as good as I’d hoped. Finally, I spoke up.

“Um. Guys? ” They continued to talk over me. “Guys!” Finally, silence. “The draft is written. It’s out of my hands now. I’ve given it to some people who will read it, and I hope they will do so kindly. They will probably give me some suggestions. And then I can decide to go on with the piece or not.”

“You GAVE someone your DRAFT?” Someone shouted.

“Oh sweet Jesus. We’re really in for it now. I mean, I saw that draft with my own eyes, and it was not pretty.”

“The typos!”

“The awkward dialogue!”

“The plot holes!”

“They’re going to think you’re an idiot! Seriously. Who would write something like that and call it a story?”

“Of course, WE know you’re not an idiot. We know it’s just a first draft. We know it’s a work in progress. But why would you go showing anyone something in that state?”

I cringed but held my ground. The piece was out there in the world now, incomplete and flawed as it may be. It’s out there. So be it. Luckily the recess bell rang just as the kiddos were looking too exasperated to go on. They got up from where they had been seated on the grass. Some of them had little twigs stuck to the backs of their chubby thighs. Their cow licks were going wild. They smelled of people who were too young to use deodorant but old enough to start needing it. They were sticky around their mouths and fingers. Some of them gave me mournful looks and kicked the dirt as they shuffled past me and back toward their classrooms.

It’s an odd sort of victory, but it seems I won, simply by outlasting them.

Of course, a victory of this kind is also temporary. Every day, every time I sit down to write, and every time I send off a story, poem or essay, they begin to chime in. I do my best to lull them to sleep with music or lure them away with candy or otherwise shut them up long enough to write a few thousand words. Luckily, having seen them for who they really are, I find them much more bearable. They’re not the grumpy old men who used to hang out at the coffee shop where I worked, because deep down, I never cared what those assholes thought. They’re not my junior high school English teacher who shamed me to no end when she found a note I’d written containing lots of foul words regarding the boys in my class. They’re not my boss because I don’t even care if he understands my creative endeavors, and that ain’t what he pays me for anyway. They’re not even my husband because luckily, he loves me even if my first draft sucks, and even if my second, third and fourth drafts don’t get any better. They are just kids. Sticky, smelly, ignorant yet opinionated children who need a chance to scream and shout and act immature yet condescending before they have to go back to class, sit in their desk and learn something.