Leaf by Niggle

I’m one of the best procrastinators this world has ever seen. As a child, I was supposed to clean my room every few weeks–pick up, vacuum  and dust. It should have taken 30 minutes max (I didn’t live like a total pig). Yet I would spend my entire Saturday finding ways to put off my cleaning. There were cool toys to play with (instead of putting away). I hadn’t read that book in a while. The vacuum cleaner held an orb of destruction that needed to be diffused by my GI Joe action figures. The guinea pig litter was too stinky. Thus, I turned a short project into an eight-hour dilemma. I missed out on many Saturdays of playing with friends, running around outside, and the general rewarding goodness of completing a task in a timely manner.

Portrait of Niggle

Mr. Niggle

So it is I found a kindred spirit in Niggle, the protagonist in J.R.R. Tolkien’s short story “Leaf by Niggle”. (On a completely unrelated side note, I dig his beard.)

Niggle is a painter, and not a very accomplished/talented painter at that. His passion is leaves–he studies leaves, draws them, and paints them. Niggle wants to paint a tree, but feels he hasn’t yet mastered the leaf. He also struggles with completing his work in a timely fashion. He tries to paint but finds excuses not to–he doesn’t know enough, he isn’t good enough, people are interrupting, his neighbor needs help, etc.

One day, Niggle sees a picture of a tree with a forest and a mountain in the background. I can’t tell if the picture is real or in his imagination, but the painting becomes his magnum opus. Unfortunately, his handicapped neighbor’s wife grows ill, and Niggle abandons his work to offer minimal help.

Another side note with a little more applicability than the last: Niggle is defined as “a trifling complaint, dispute, or criticism” (Websters).

Niggle eventually dies, or “goes on his journey” as the story puts it. He spends some time in a hospital/holding cell where he learns to manage his time, is granted grace and freedom by a “doctor”, and is finally released into his new life, which, ironically, is the landscape he had been trying to paint.

Timothy Keller asserts that this story is about work, the value of work, the importance of completing work, etc. I agree, but that idea isn’t what captivated me when reading the story.

I was moved by the artist’s image/perception/understanding of the unknown. As I read it, Niggle, in his own human way, perceived a glimpse of heaven and was trying to the best of his ability to capture it. In life, his vision was broken, hung in a back corner of a museum, and then forgotten about forever. To the outside world, Niggle was a nobody, but he still had a vision, an artistic drive, and the overwhelming fear to ship his product (as Seth Godin puts it).

I fear that I’m like Niggle, a mediocre writer at best in the eyes of the world. If I were to die tomorrow, I doubt that my writing legacy would live for very long. Very few may ever be moved by my work.

But it’s still my work,my poetry, my art. And the people I’ve met in the ongoing process of becoming an expert have given life to my writing that I never thought imaginable. Niggle didn’t have a community of artists (or even friends) to challenge, encourage, and even validate him as an artist. I need to stop getting hung up on whether or not I’m skilled enough, well-read enough, or whatever not-good-enough worries that haunt many artists. Instead, I need to write, which isn’t complete until you read it. And maybe someday, we’ll find ourselves in a more perfect form of your poem or mine.

What fears keep you from writing? Or from sharing your work with the public?

What are your visions of eternity?

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

I read The Road (2007 Pulitzer Prize winner) over the holidays as it came to me highly recommended. It was fitting to read because of the recent movie release, and many of my peers (co-teachers and friends) had read it with varying responses and reactions. I was a bit worried due to McCarthy’s token violence and gruesomeness. Granted, the cannibalism is terrifying and sickening, but if you get hung up on that then you are missing out on the rest that this novel has to offer.

One of my students told me that The Road is the first novel that he’s read that seems to be more of a prose poem than a novel. This came during a conversation about some contemporary views that the novel is nothing more than an evolved epic (you know, the type that was sung by the ancient bards. Hello Helen…). I’m not sure I agree, but it’s fun to think about. There’s something just different about prose and poetry. In fact, Joseph Hutchison wrote this in a recent blog post:

. . .[W]hat is the difference between prose and poetry? I would say that it all comes down to this: poetry cares more than prose does about the imaginal dimensions of words. Poetry essentially exists in order to plunge the reader into the wild imaginality of language, while prose exists to let the reader experience the imaginal at a distance. This is why good poetry is more imaginal than good prose, why we call prose “poetic” only when it becomes imaginally heightened, and why we have a “form” called the prose poem.

I’ve been meaning to blog about this novel for a month, but was waiting for some sort of springboard. Is The Road a novel, a prose poem, or both? The context of Hutchison’s quote is one of the meaning of language, so nitpicking about whether poetry is just a wild imaginality of language is splitting hairs (in this instance!). But why even consider The Road a piece of prose poetry in the first place? For starters, the form.

This novel reads like none other that I’ve experienced. It’s not stream of consciousness like Joyce, but the only punctuation used are periods and possessive apostrophes. There are no chapters, only paragraph to page-long episodes that move along chronologically.  Are poets the only ones that can mess with form? No, but hang in there. The form actually relates to the setting of the novel. The apocalypse has come and gone. The sun doesn’t shine, everything is burned or is burning, it rains and snows ash, and there is no warmth or hope. Those people that were left behind have resorted to cannibalism as all other animals and fruits/vegetables/grains/foods have rotted or been consumed. I guess punctuation rules were also raptured (haha). In all seriousness, life in the novel no longer has meaning (except for the main character and his son, who both spend the entirety of the novel looking for the good guys, “carrying the fire.”) and the lack of punctuation, formal chapter breaks, and sentence structure reflects this. I don’t think that this in itself is reason to call the novel a prose poem. But many of the snippets/episodes feel “poetical.”

As crazy and terrifying as the story is, I was engrossed in a novel–not a prose poem. And then I reached the end. Once the story concludes, when we know what happened to the father and the son, McCarthy provides a paragraph about mountains and a fish in a pond. Of the fish he writes:

On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.

The end. What the–? Nothing else in the novel reads like this last paragraph. I’d say this is an ambivalent image that rips open the entire novel for interpretation. This forces me back into the novel, forces me to look at what is going on beneath the surface. I suppose that prose is just as capable of doing this as poetry, but it seems to me that McCarthy forces the read to look at the imaginal up close, though it seems kind of distant during the reading experience. Without the ending, this is just a novel. However, that last image thrusts the book into consideration for being prose poetry.

(I mentioned imaginal, and this may beg for an explanation. I first learned that term in a poetry class at University College under the tutelage of Joseph Hutchison (yup, the same Hutchison quoted above), who was also my thesis adviser. We’ve had many conversations about it, and I spent a good part of my thesis work defining “imaginal” from a Christ-centered point of view. Hutchison recently wrote some great, thought-provoking  insights into the imaginal. I have come to a little bit different conclusion/definition of the imaginal, and I will post a blog in detail in the near future. However, the basis of the imaginal is clear and indisputable: there are things in our lives that we perceive outside of our five senses. We experience the unseen, feel the unfelt, sense the untouchable. For now, that’s the imaginal. Come back next week to read more specifically about my take on it as  Christian artist)

But form doesn’t ensure poetry, so we have to look at imaginality. What’s so imaginal about The Road? At first glance, nothing. As crazy as it sounds, the apparent absence of imaginality establishes…yup….imaginality. As I read the novel, I shouldn’t care about the characters because everyone is as good as dead anyways. But I do care–deeply. What is it that causes that care? It’s not in the prose. The boy needs his father’s encouragement, but he also challenges his father to help everyone that isn’t going to try and eat them–even if that person is two steps from death. As I followed these two characters down their road, I was filled with absolute dread and fear that something horrible was going to happen. I have no textual evidence to explain why. By the end of the novel, I was filled was uncanny hope…with no textual evidence why. I experienced something that wasn’t written. But was this experience a pie-in-the-face or a distant observation? I don’t know.

So is The Road a prose poem? I want to say yes–the epic poetry of old is resurrected for the post-apocalyptic bard to sing on top of rotten strumming from a burned guitar. In a world (presented in the novel) where everything is dead–language, vegetation, humaneness, mercy, etc.–there is a mystery that my five senses cannot explain. Many may argue that this is prose and not poetry, which is fine. Either way, it’s a direct path to the imaginal.

On Metaphor

In Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning, Barfield spends a considerable amount of time discussing meaning. I know, it sounds weird since it’s only in the title, but he keeps his word and actually stays focused on the task at hand. In the chapters on metaphor, Barfield outlines the history of various words that over time, have grown in meaning. For example, the word ruin used to mean only to fall. But poets began using the idea of falling in terms of describing things (they created a metaphor out of it) and the word became a noun. This is a fun way to think about language. While working at the Youth Writers Camp at The Lighthouse last week, there was a conversation and somebody mentioned either banks or bakeries. My ears have still not recovered from that concert at the beginning of July, so I asked for clarification–because there’s a big difference between a bank and a bakery. The response:

Yeah, but both have dough.

Doh! I love a good pun. But it wasn’t just a pun in my mind thanks to Barfield. I started thinking about the connection between bread and money. Somewhere, sometime, somebody drew the connection (is the origin of the metaphor related to the expression of bread winner? Bringing home the dough?) and the word’s meaning expanded.

Barfield asserts that language needs poetry because through poetry language and meaning grow. I agree with Barfield. The point? If we keep theorizing about poetry (langpo, flarf, conecptualism, quietude, blah, blah, blah) we lose sight of meaning. Now, to someone like Goldsmith, meaning doesn’t even mean anymore so why try. But I think it’s a cop out. I wonder if this is why there is such a disconnect between the p-a crowd and everybody else. To say there is no meaning but in words is ludicrous as Barfield points out, because words and meaning depend on experience. So I would say this whole idea of poetry existing only through theories leads to a dead language, where people like Goldsmith dwell. Take the experience out of poetry, and you’re left with flarf and other regurgitations rather than humanity and a growth of language.

Reconciliation of Science & Literature

I recently came across Planet Narnia by Michael Ward. Ward asserts that Lewis incorporated a deeper meaning within the Chronicles of Narnia, where each book represents the mythological characteristic of a different planet. There are seven books in the series and seven planets in medieval astronomy: the moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Some call it the Narnia Code. However laughable it may seem, the idea in itself is intriguing. Check out the above website for more information, but I’ve been thinking about this intersection of myth and literature. And our understanding of science makes it all ridiculous.

In pre-Copernican astronomy, people understood the heavens to consist of the above-mentioned planets. But the idea that planets have personalities is, by today’s scientific standards, laughable. We have proved the planets to be big balls of rock and gas, and the moon and sun aren’t even considered planets. Our scientific discoveries have taken the mystery and possibility of personality out of our galaxy. I realize that our galactic discoveries have led to more mysteries, but I wonder if we are better off solving everything we can get our hands on.

The idea of something inanimate having influence and (for lack of a better word) personality boggles my mind–I wasn’t raised to think this way. It’s a clear violation of my liberal arts college education, and some Sunday School teacher somewhere is rolling over in his grave cursing this work of the Devil. Regardless, our current state has erased our ability to imagine or consider something so…well…imaginative. This entire idea is child’s play, a mere myth. In terms of progress, this is a great thing because we don’t have to live under a veil of myth and superstition. We know what makes things tick and we solve more of the Rubik’s cube every day.

Get ready for a lane change. Blinker on…

I love magic tricks. I know that they are illusions, and I know that there’s an answer to everything. I went through a phase in junior high where I wanted to be a professional magician/juggler. I couldn’t juggle more than 3 objects and my slight of hand needed more practice than I cared to endure. But I learned quite a bit about the magic world in my short endeavor. And I still have some pretty cool trick decks. A fake thumb comes in handy for a good case of tom foolery as well. Even now, when I watch illusionists on tv or live, I know what to look for with certain tricks. The mystery is gone. Sure I feel smarter than those around me, but the pure thrill of seeing something mystify me is gone.

And I’m not talking about ignorance. I know the magic trick is an illusion, but it’s really neat to see. Ignorance would be thinking that the trick is real. Is myth merely scientific ignorance? Is science merely imaginative ignorance?

(Another lane change, more blinking…)

Women are another mystery in this world in that they are completely indecipherable. I know that my wife has 250,000 thoughts going on at once in her mind, and somehow they are connected. I have one thought in my mind, and often times she doesn’t want to hear about it (whether she has a headache or not). This is a mystery to me. In the larger scheme of life, should I go through each day trying to figure out why my wife thinks this way, or is there joy in understanding what I can and just experiencing the rest?

I love science–especially physics and origins of the earth stuff. I love literature. But I wonder if one of the reasons that the two seem not to dance well together is because they are fundamentally opposed. Nobody longs for ignorance, and nobody likes a know-it-all. I wonder how much we miss out on without a balanced dose of each.

On Reading Poetry

I’m in a Writing Workshop class right now with 14 other people.  Whenever you put a group of people together, there’s always someone short of social intelligence (rumor has it that if you can’t identify that person, then you ARE that person).  Of the 15 people in class, I am the only one working on poetry–everyone else is working on a short story.  In fact, there is a disdain for poetry coming from these very vocal people:

“I can never figure out why the apple can’t be an apple.  The writer says it’s an apple, I believe it to be an apple.”

“I excel at missing the deeper meaning of things.  If it’s deep, I’m sure to miss it.”

This next one is my favorite.  Read it out loud in a high, screechy voice with a touch of whine to hear what I heard.  “I don’t even try.  It’s too hard and I never understand it.  What’s a person supposed to do with it anyways?” and then repeat the above quote after counting to ten.

High quality…this discussion on poetry…high quality.

But the truth of the matter is that poetry is hard.  Not all of it, but as a genre, it is more often a brain activity than escapism (like fiction or movies).  When we see a poem that’s 16 lines long, we think that we can read it quickly, get it, and move on with life in a short matter of time–like a youtube video.  But, like a Rubics-Cube, there is a system or a method that makes poetry accessible if the reader is willing to invest the time.  Here are the steps:

  1. Read the poem slowly.  Not painstakingly slow but not skim-scan-speedy like a lot of people read.  Pay attention to the tone of the words and the type of verbs that are use.  Read the sentences like you would a sentence–don’t pause after everyline unless there’s punctuation because it can break up the thought so much that you lose it.
  2. No go back and read the poem one stanza at a time.  What is actually happening in that stanza?  Are there any words that don’t fit the description or action that would suggest a deeper meaning?  Is the thought in the stanza a continuation of the previous one or something new?
  3. Go back a third time and read the poem one line at a time.  How does that line stand on its own?  Does it feed into the next line?  What images come from that line?
  4. By now, you are getting pretty familiar with the poem and should be able to identify the tone (attitude and emotion) presented.  This helps in getting at what the writer may be communicating.
  5. Finally, most poems come down to an epiphany or an emotion/experience.  Which is it in this poem?  What universal idea is the poet communicating?  What meaning does it have in your life?

There you have it.  Easier said than done, I know.  And yes, it does take practice.  So, being a teacher and all, I will walk through a poem by Billy Collins, one of my favorite poets because one of his goals is to show people that poetry is accessible and worthwhile.  I will be writing about his poem titled “Introduction to Poetry.” Click on the link and go read the poem.  It isn’t spam and I can’t reprint it here without permission or a lawsuit.  Really.  Go read it.  Thanks.  And now for my thoughts.

  1. An initial read reveals an “I” and a “them” in some sort of instructive setting–we can assume a college classroom because Collins is a professor.  Looking at the title as a part of the piece, he is obviously introducing poetry to a class.  This poem is his desire and their response.  Simple enough.  Let’s look at each stanza.
  2. The first stanza compares reading a poem to observing slides without a projector.  You have to hold it up, look closely, and try to identify the objects in the picture.  The biggest thing with looking at slides this way is to get the big picture, as details would be nearly impossible.  The key sense is vision.  The second stanza is only one line but Collins challenges his students, now the reader (tricky huh?) to listen to the poem like we would a bee hive.  Does it hum?  Is it loud?  Just a little buzz?  What sounds come from a poem?  Rhyme and rhythm affect a poem.  Is it sing songy or does it feel like you’ve taken too much allergy medicine?  What is the poet trying to communicate with the sounds?  The third stanza says to watch a mouse work his way out of it.  What is it mice work out of?  C’mon, use your thinker.  A maze.  A maze, generally speaking, is considered a type of…think back to my rubics cube comment earlier…some are flat and come in different piece counts…rhymes with nuzzle…if you said puzzle you are right!!  The best way to make it through a puzzle (poem) is piece by piece (line by line) instead of digesting the whole thing at once.  Just like a maze when you don’t have the end in sight.  Again, use your eyes and brain.  The following stanza challenges us, I mean the students, to use the sense of touch.  Feel around the poem–what sensations are there?  The fifth stanza takes us on an experience by mentioning waterskiing.  I hate waterskiing because I ‘ve never been successful at it.  But for most people, it is a fun activity.  My wife for one loves it.  Poetry should be a fun challenge worth tackling, waving to the spectators in that moment of success.  The last two stanzas have drastically different verbs and images–being tied to a chair and tortured as if the poem were being held hostage.  People are so bent on finding the deeper meaning that they beat the poem up trying to find it rather than just using the senses (and sense) to experience what the author is presenting.
  3. I’m not going to go line by line because the post is getting long, but many lines are simple commands or desires for reading poems. (I want them to waterskii)
  4. The tone in the first half is exploratory, fun, adventurous, and maybe even a bit scientific.  The second half is brutal, harsh, painful, and destructive.
  5. So what is Collins’ experience?  That students want so much to have the answer that they miss the journey.  Slow down, have fun, read what the poet is writing instead of treating it like a pinata.  This idea can be applied to life in general instead of just reading poetry.  If we aren’t taking the time to see what’s around, listen to the sounds of our days, feeling flower petals and weed pricklies, then we are just tying life to a chair, demanding it give us joy and meaning.

So there we have it, an introduction on reading poetry.  I’ll work on some more poems.  Until then, check out poetry180.

The Conclusion to March Madness

A brief introductory note:  I’m sorry I never finished the March Madness series, but after being contacted by NCAA lawyers and a historical literary character union strike, the idea fizzled out.  Instead of paying legal fees and union dues, I decided to cease and desist.  That plus the lack of subscriptions really forced me into other ideas.  Ironically, as soon as that was settled, Haiku passed the ring and returned to visibility.

March Madness

Who really has time for college basketball anyways? Okay, most everybody in the United States. Bad question. Well, in the spirit of March Madness and competition, I have my own bracket: Literary Hero Ultimate Fight. The following characters from various stories and movies will go head to head to the death (yes, this is inspired by 10 ways to kill Tom Sawyer). Check back daily (or close to it) for the latest literary action. The Brackets:

Children Conference Classic Conference
Tom Sawyer
Henry Flemming (Red Badge of Courage)
Ender (Ender’s Game)
Pearl (The Scarlett Letter)
Animals Conference Movie Conference
Haiku, my dog
Napoleon Dynamite
Jack (Titanic)
Jar Jar Binks (Star Wars Episode 1)

We will start off tomorrow with Jack vs. Jar Jar–to the death!