Sunday, July 15, 2007

Expanding Your Sources

I came to my current marginlly serious approach to writing by a circuitous path. While I've always played with words (my earliest "serious" effort being a novella penned in the fourth grade about a villanous plot to make Mars invisible to the Earth for nebulous and never-detailed nefarious purposes). But I was always more active as both participant and practitioner in other art forms. I've been a chorus and band performer in since first grade, played the accordion since the 4th (more bands, but as a serious solo for the first time, acted in and directed plays and conducted musicals since high school, and devoured books of all genres for as long as I can remember - including those 4 glorious summer of commuting into Manhattan, where I averaged 2 books a week (one I particularly remember was Ed Koch's Mayor - not to date myself or anything...).

My point is this: my poetry today is heavily influenced by sources other than poetry. If you surf the body of my work, you'll of course find weak echoes of
Stevens, Frost and Williams, and some more contemprary influences as well. But you might also detect the influence of Loesser's lyrics, any number of prose authors of any period (Twain, Bradbury and Zelazny, to form one non-obvious group), and one I'm often surprised to find myself turning toward, Woody Allen.

If you only know Allen from his movies (or worse, from his more recent, more average movies), you are avoiding the company of brilliance. He has a new book of essays out, his first since 1980, which I'm going to pounce on this week.


Having always been enjoyed books, plays, and movies in that order, I first came upon Allen in a copy of Side Effects stolen out of my Uncle Frank's bedroom when I was 13. That copy has since been stolen from me, which makes a sort of sense. But I still have my Without Feathers, which has any number of examples of how all great writing has elements that poets can learn from.

Excellent poems are often built around phrasing which is both unexpected and perfect. As in this line, opening "The Early Essays (On Seeing a Tree in Summer)": "Of all the wonders of nature, a tree in summer is perhaps the most remarkable, with the possible exception of seeing a moose sing "Embraceable You" in spats".

What I love about that line is how it starts in ordinaryness (banality, even), and wrenches you to someplace completely different and unanticipated. We can debate whether it's funny (I know, Mother, I know), but there's no debating its originality and craft.

Another example: Allen's names are designed to dive through the ear and create tangible and complete characters by the end of the sentences in which they are introduced. Names like "Sir Osgood Mulford Twelge" and "Kaiser Lupowitz" seem to come with headshots attached.

The point is that Allen is brilliant at dropping you someplace you could not have anticipated. It may not be taking the top of your head off, but remember what Mr. Allen had to say about another of Ms. Dickinson's quotes: "How wrong Emily Dickinson was! Hope is not "the thing with feathers". The thing with feathers has turned out to be my nephew. I must take him to that specialist in Zurich."

NOTE: All quotes are from Woody Allen's Without Feathers, 1975 edition. Also stolen from my Uncle Frank.

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