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Ars Poetica

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If you’ve ever studied poetry or creative writing, you’ve most likely come across the phrase Ars Poetica.  And if you’re anything like me, the very whiff of Latin, its archaism and stuffy classroom memories of monotonous rote learning (porto, portas, portat…), will have the tendency to impose one of the following effects on you: sleepiness, frustration, or disinterest all together.  But let us be brave and broach this subject – if only briefly.  Follow me, if you will.

Ars Poetica, strictly translated, could read as ‘the technique/method of the poet’, though is more widely understood and referred to as ‘the art of poetry’.  Coined back in the good old years (circa 20BC)  by folks like Horace et. al, and resurfacing with unalloyed obsession by Renaissance humanists, it came to be the subject matter: what is ‘good poetry’.  But of course, it didn’t end with the Renaissance; the dialogue continued with the Romantics and through the Victorian era, each with their own dos and don’ts, and pretty well stumbled, exhausted, into the 20th century, falling at the feet of the giant, Post-modernism.  If you want to see an excellent illustration of what Post-modernism did to the notion of Ars Poetica, watch the memorable scene from Dead Poets Society, when that delightful preface, ‘Understanding Poetry’, written by a certain Dr. J. Evans Pritchard (Ph.D.), gets blissfully torn to shreds.  I must say, I hold somewhat reserved sentiments towards the whole idea of Post-modernism (whatever it really is); however, that aside, one of the better things, I think, that Post-modernism has achieved (if we can even say that), is that there no longer exists a collective conscience that rigidly defines what is or isn’t a good poem, as the scene from Dead Poets Society so aptly proclaims.

And so now Ars Poetica has come to mean something quite different – and far more agreeable, too.  Owing to the fact that Horace’s Ars Poetica was a treatise concerning the nature of poetry, that is, a piece of writing about writing, it has come to categorize poetry written about poetry.  Rather like, in part, the poem from my previous blog entry.  And here is another example I penned a couple of years ago, entitled
‘Poetical Enlightenment’:

Gripped in winter’s restlessness
for onward passage,
impatient with anticipation,
like a lover
waiting for a train.

The relief of arrival;
the penning of a pending poem.

Writing Summer

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‘I’m not as happy
as you think I am
but I’m as happy
as I’ve ever been’
I begin to write,

as an adolescent summer
shuffles
through my window with so much
promise
and growth
and pain ahead.

Getting to know each other through literature

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Part of the established pattern of my week is to meet once with two friends of mine. In its strictest parameters, the rendez-vous is a reading/creative writing group; in reality, it’s three guys getting together who may (or may not) share and talk about what they’ve been reading – and on the very rare occasion what they’ve been writing. It should be known, though, that throughout most of my late adolescent and adult life, I have been quite suspicious – and maybe even disdainful – of such intellectual coteries.  Most probably for the reasons of my (hypocritical) disliking of pretense, not wanting to appear less intelligent than my fellow man, and perhaps greatest of all: my fear of  being exposed as a fake.  It’s a peculiar tension I’ve known seeing that I have always studied literature and, for the most part, have felt very affectionate – indeed, passionate – towards it.  I don’t know what exactly it was this time that persuaded me otherwise to join this particular group, but what I want to express now that I have, and what I cannot deny, is that meeting with these two friends of mine to share and discuss literature has had quite an unforeseen and – dare I say it – profound effect on me.  And it’s the word ‘share’ that is the important one here.

Now, without wanting to give a lesson in ethics, sharing, as we all understand, renders a possession immeasurably more satisfying than if it’s kept to oneself (provided our sharing is unbegrudged).  Simply because: sharing brings us closer together – and it is no different with literature.  And the part that I have known to be profound, is experiencing  how literature has been the medium through which I’ve got to know better these two friends of mine; it has allowed me to glimpse further into their lives.  Because hearing how each one understands, say – a poem by Pablo Neruda, or even the nuance of one word, brings me nearer to understanding who they are as individuals.  Or perhaps, as often happens, they’ll reveal how certain images within a given text evoke different memories from their lives, and suddenly you’re learning things about someone you might otherwise never hear; suddenly the richness of someone’s life is woven into the richness of a text, and vice-versa, each imbuing the other with a tangible vivacity.  Not only, then, am I learning something new about this text, I am learning something new about this person.  Depth and meaning are being delightfully saturated.  Sharing literature with people, therefore, discussing it, savoring it, sucking the marrow out of it (to borrow a phrase from a famous poet and favorite film of mine), can be like a two-way lens: one seeking out new meaning in the literature, the other casting light into each other’s lives.

Why he writes

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After posting my last blog entry, I wanted to revisit some of those ‘Why We Write’ articles in Poets and Writers.  One which lodged itself in my memory was that by a photographer and filmmaker, Scott Hartman.  Scott’s article, entitled ‘To Get Words Out’, delineates a sort of dual conflict he’s experienced in his life with words: firstly the hardship of his stammer, which he recounts through episodes of his childhood; and secondly, as an adult, his forays into creative writing and the difficulty of completing his novel.  For its simplicity, it is a remarkably poignant piece and fittingly characterizes, I think, this inescapable, vivid, and quite indefinable humanness to writing – something so innate, so mysterious.  His final paragraph – what I really wanted to share – reads as follows:

I have never taken a photograph, never seen one, that has made me cry.  I’ve never watched a movie or heard a piece of music that has had such a profound effect.  I’ve never found an art form that touches me – or that can touch people – more powerfully than the written word.  Before I could find my voice as a writer, I fought for my voice, period.  A voice is not a given; words don’t come easy. Both are worth spending a lifetime trying to find.  Both are worth fighting for.

Concerning the birth of this blog

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I have a subscription to the bi-monthly Poets and Writers, and in each edition a different writer will have a turn sharing his or her thoughts on the subject matter: ‘Why We Write’.  Invariably, it is this article which I go to first – and almost without exception the article I savor the most.  Why?  Because for all the negative ideas and feelings (often?) associated with writers and writing – arrogance, pretense, loathing, cynicism, indifference; for all the literary theory of philosophers, such as Saussure‘s arbitrariness of language and Levinas‘s impossibility of language; for all the frustration, boredom, and self-doubt writers experience; and for all the people (myself included) who gawp in bemusement at the sheer quantity of writing ‘out there’ in the world around us, then the article speaks to that question by returning almost unfailingly, it seems to me, to one reason, simultaneously simple and complex: our humanity.  In essence, then, this is the theme of my blog, or at least therein lies the source of its creation and its departure point.  We write and we read for no other clearer reason than because we are humans.

Beginner’s quintet: haiku

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I. Honeymoon (for G.)

Lonely Iron Goats
Return to be together
Happiness is us

II. Thank you (for J.&E.)

Cold night in London
Sharing lentils and the past
Warmth is with the Birds

III. Facebook Comment (for G.)

Silver sparkle morn
Bright hearts like glowing pancakes
First breakfast married

IV. Illinois (for J.&E.)

Dizzy and breathless
Over the snow-swept city
Above the Great Lake

V. S.A.M. (for G.)

Perusing beauty
Hung luminously on walls
Your heart shines brighter