Tuesday, August 23, 2011

`Find Musical, Surprising Stuff to Say'

Every writer, maybe every person, looks to bolster what he’s already trying to do. Our efforts are like self-administered shocks of recognition, defibrillating jolts, reminders from others that say: “You’re fine. Keep it up. I get it.” Monday it came from the great Australian poet Les Murray:

“What does some phenomenon in the world mean? What does it lead to, what does it point to, what deeper dimension can you find in it? I do a lot of that, and I think of it as contiguous to what science does: working a thing out. Seeing its less obvious connections. Surprising yourself. But I wouldn't always want to be forensic like that. Sometimes you just want to play around and find musical, surprising stuff to say.”

That’s my routine: Think about some familiar, unsurprising thing and wait for it to surprise me. The description sounds too calculated – “forensic,” to use Murray’s word -- when it’s really more a matter of readiness. The connections and flashes of wonder are already latent. My job is to remain alert and look in the right direction. Fancying myself too hip to be surprised guarantees I won’t see a damned thing. Murray’s instinctive horror at pretentiousness, including most of what passes for art today, is almost savage . Elsewhere in the interview he says:

“A lot of modern art is very autistic. There is this arbitrary law that you're not supposed to be sentimental or have any feelings. What the bloody hell is that but autism, pretending to be some kind of automaton?”

Over the weekend a reader in New Hampshire, a woman in her seventies, wrote to me:

“Next week I'm going to be a sort of guest of honor at my cousin's Book Group. They are having a poetry evening because my cousin & I are known to `love poetry.’ I fear it will be an ordeal. We've each been assigned a poem to read & discuss, chosen by the group leader's poet daughter. They may all be feminist -- mine seems to be about hating one’s parents. Awful strong stuff for this group of New England ladies, most of a certain age. My cousin will probably insist on reading Emily Dickinson's `Further in summer than the birds’ as well – she’s strong-willed. I wish I could read Hardy's `Proud Songsters’ but I won't.”

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