Book Review: Tess of the d’Urbervilles

Possible spoilers, explicit sexual terminology included

While I have yet to solidify, if possible, my knowledge and perception of the different versions of the novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, and the controversy surrounding them over the course of 30 years of critics’ reactions and Hardy’s revisionist responses to those reactions starting in the late 1880s, I can unreservedly share some gems of beautiful writing to be found in one version or another. That, along with a brief summarizing book review, is the purpose of this post.
The Transatlantic Press (TAP) 2012 edition preserved or restored several paragraphs’ worth of text missing from the Penguin Classics edition (1998), which is based on a not-easily-identifiable mixture of previous editions. Whatever its sources, TAP 2012 includes the Chaseborough dance scene first restored, from Hardy’s drafting prior to the first 1891 publication, only in the 1912 edition, over 20 years later. Other aspects of TAP’s version preserve text from the 1891 publication, based on direct comparison after I purchased the Penguin Classics rendering of that version while reading the 2012 TAP edition.
That’s the barest tip of the tip of the iceberg that constitutes this novel’s textual history. Suffice it to say there were moral objections to several parts of the work from different quarters, stirring in Hardy different shades of both defiance and compliance to society’s sensibilities over a 30-year span. Amidst the intrigue, according to the Penguin editor, Tim Dolin, Hardy had the foresight, lament it though he would, to bowdlerize his own work in order to pre-empt unwanted excisions by publishers.

Tess was his second to last novel, followed by Jude the Obscure, after which, out of fatigue or frustration with critics’ and publishers’ opinions (the general public generally received the novel with enthusiasm) and the hassle of straddling between his own wishes and theirs, he swore off novels and spent the rest of his long life writing excellent poetry. An excerpt from his poem “The Darkling Thrush” kicks off my Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry series on this blog.
Setting that complicated history and the questions it raises aside, I center this post on a literary appreciation of Thomas Hardy’s controversial work in Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
Like most changes Hardy made, was asked to make, or purposely neglected to make, the deleted and restored scene provokes moral objections. Its palpably sensual tone and sexually suggestive content at the turn of the twentieth century was a challenge for a Western world barely recovered from the era of Victorian mores and not yet liberated by the sexual revolution of first the 1920s and then the 60s and 70s.
Leading up to the Chaseborough dance scene, Tess has been working for Alec d’Urberville’s blind mother, caring for her birds at their estate and journeying on summer Saturdays to fairs and other outings among fellow laborers in the vicinity of the fictitious town of Trantridge, real county Dorset. On one of these Saturdays, she comes upon a singular atmosphere. Alec is the instrument of her ruin which has yet to strike, and the scene serves not only as that event’s foreshadowing but also as perhaps a blend of frankness and lyrical abandon on Hardy’s part in its indirect comment and direct depiction of real society dressed warmly in Romantic and mythological allusions.
Once she reaches the source of the fiddler music unaccompanied by the sound of dancing feet, she peers through the doorway of the outhouse. The total portion of the scene represented in the TAP 2012 edition comprises some 15 paragraphs of variable length. From the second of these paragraphs, the reader shares Tess’s somewhat entranced gaze:
“It was a windowless erection used for storage, and from the open door there floated into the obscurity a mist of yellow radiance, which at first Tess thought to be illuminated smoke. But on drawing nearer she perceived that it was a cloud of dust, lit by candles within the outhouse, whose beams upon the haze carried forward the outline of the doorway into the wide night of the garden.”
“When she came close and looked in she beheld indistinct forms racing up and down to the figure of the dance…” (start of para. 3).
The residue making up the “yellow mist” had come from “the storage of peat and other products, the stirring of which by their turbulent feet created the nebulosity that involved the scene” (para. 3). And this “residuum,” or “scroff” as Hardy first labels it, accounts for the muffling of the sound of the dancers’ nonetheless very active feet.
Then, the energy rises with the number of sexual connotations, adding also some scientific tonality:
“Through this floating, fusty debris of peat and hay, mixed with the perspirations and warmth of the dancers, and forming together a sort of vegeto-human pollen, the muted fiddles feebly pushed their notes, in marked contrast to the spirit with which the measure was trodden out.”
As we zoom in, the Greek mythological allusions binding sex with music begin and pile on thickly. I include definitions and references for further reading following the passage:
“They coughed as they danced, and laughed as they coughed. Of the rushing couples there could barely be discerned more than high lights–the indistinctness shaping them to satyrs clasping nymphs–a multiplicity of Pans whirling a multiplicity of Syrinxes: Lotis attempting to elude Priapus, and always failing.”
satyr – “creatures of the wild, part man and part beast, who in Classical times were closely associated with the god Dionysus. Satyrs and Sileni were at first represented as uncouth men, each with a horse’s tail and ears and an erect phallus. In the Hellenistic age they were represented as men having a goat’s legs and tail. Rival theories differentiate silenis from satyrs.” – Britannica.com.
similar creatures: faun (Roman), minotaur, centaur, harpy, siren. – Wikipedia
nymph – “a minor female nature deity typically associated with a particular location or landform. Different from other goddesses, nymphs are generally regarded as divine spirits who animate nature, and are usually depicted as beautiful, young nubile maidens who love to dance and sing; their amorous freedom sets them apart from the restricted and chaste wives and daughters of the Greek polis. They are beloved by many and dwell in the mountainous regions and forests by lakes and streams.” forever young, can bear immortal children by gods, though not necessarily immortal themselves. examples: Charybdis and Scylla. similar creatures: mermaid, huldra, selkie, siren. the frequent target of satyrs – wikipedia
Pan – “god of nature, the wild, shepherds, flocks, of mountain wilds, rustic music and impromptus, and the companion of the nymph, often associated with sexuality” – Wikipedia
Syrinx – “a nymph and follower of Artemis, known for her chastity. Pursued by the amorous god Pan, she ran to a river’s edge and asked for assistance from the river nymphs. In answer, she was transformed into hollow water reeds that made a haunting sound when the god’s frustrated breath blew across them. Pan cut the reeds to fashion the first set of pan pipes, which were thenceforth known as syrinx.” – Wikipedia
Priapus – “a god fo animal and vegetable fertility whose originally Asian cult started in the Hellespontine regions, centring especially on Lampsacus. He was represented in a caricature of the human form, grotesquely misshapen, with an enormous phallus. Father was Dionysus, the wine god; mother either a nymph or Aphrodite, the goddess of love.” “in Hellenistic times . . . in the country adopted as a god of gardens . . .” – Britannica
– “a minor rustic fertility god, protector of livestock, fruit plants, gardens and male genitalia. Priapus is marked by his oversized, permanent erection, which gave rise to the medical term priapism.” – Wikipedia
priapism = “a persistent, painful erection of the penis unaccompanied by sexual excitation or desire” – Britannica
Lotis – “a nymph mentioned by Ovid. In his account, at the Liberalia festival, Priapus tried to rape her when everyone had fallen asleep, but she was awakened by a sudden cry of Silenus’s donkey and ran off, leaving Priapus in embarrassment as everyone else woke up too and became aware of his intentions. In another account, she was changed into a lotus tree to escape Priapus; later, Dryope picked a flower off the tree Lotis had become and was transformed into a black poplar.” “In Book 6 of the Fasti Ovid tells much the same story, but with the goddess Vesta rather than Lotis as the intended victim. According to some sources, Lotis was the daughter of Neptune or Nereus. Ovid suggests that Priapus later kills the donkey.” – Wikipedia
And, Pan and Syrinx are the parents of the satyrs and nymphs. Phew! Lots to unpack.

Paragraph 4 further emphasizes the sense of illusion and transformation:
“At intervals a couple would approach the doorway for air, and the haze no longer veiling their features, the demigods resolved themselves into the homely personalities of her own next-door neighbors. Could Trantridge in two or three short hours have metamorphosed itself thus madly!”
But it doesn’t stop there, and Tess interacts next with not one but two men who notice her nervous hope that the dance will end soon so her neighbors will leave and she won’t have to journey back in the dark alone. Each man is presented as a god- or saint-like figure in an ironic sense, as they are both drunken and make suggestive comments akin to Alec d’Urberville’s assuaging overtures to Tess up to this point.
The first is described as “one of [the] Sileni of the throng,” and the singular, a “Silenus,” is a particularly older, mentor-like figure in the company of the wine god Dionysus. “The plural sileni refers to the mythological figure as a type that is sometimes thought to be differentiated from a satyr by having the attributes of a horse rather than a goat.” – Wikipedia
After these exchanges, we return to the dance floor itself in paragraph 11 of this edition’s surplus Chaseborough scene:
“The movement grew more passionate: the fiddlers behind the luminous pillar of cloud now and then varied the air by playing on the wrong side of the bridge or with the back of the bow. But it did not matter; the panting shapes spun onwards.”
Here, the dancers are reduced to nebulous forms themselves, less sexual beings and more impressions of objects, like protons spinning around an atom’s nucleus. This lends the suggestion of inevitable, eminently natural movement, the essence of life and energy. Their identities are again obscured; they could be either animals or something else, but something either supra-human or subhuman.
Hardy then focuses on the dancers’ tendencies to stay with the partner they’re inclined to once begun, as if to point out the glue-like, intimate nature of these pairs, in contrast to traditional country dances of ever-changing partners and a communal sense of order and purpose and propriety. In the middle of that paragraph, number 12 of the passage, the theme of cosmic movement reaches a pinnacle:
“It was then that the ecstasy and the dream began, in which emotion was the matter of the universe, and matter but an adventitious intrusion likely to hinder you from spinning where you wanted to spin.”
The use of the pronoun “you” personalizes the described experience to the reader’s frame of reference while simultaneously bringing emotion and human intention into equality with the ultimate nature of the cosmos. This moment serves as the climax of the figurative sexual intercourse that is the dance.
The next description reiterates the sense of accomplished sexual union and orgasmic release. However, Hardy takes it one step further in continuing to emphasize the collective over an individual couple, suggesting with no great subtlety orgiastic abandon. Paragraph 13:
“Suddenly there was a dull thump on the ground: a couple had fallen, and lay in a mixed heap. The next couple, unable to check its progress, came toppling over the obstacle. An inner cloud of dust rose around the prostrate figures amid the general one of the room, in which a twitching entanglement of arms and legs was discernible.”
Again, Hardy returns to the medium of the dance: the “fusty” “yellow mist” operating even more now as a sexual fluid of semen or the mixed pool of male and female ejaculate fluids.
Even more scandalous in his day, however, must have been his final coup de grace at the end of paragraph 14:
“. . . female accents from the human heap–those of the unhappy partner of the man whose clumsiness had caused the mishap; she happened also to be his recently married wife, in which assortment there was nothing unusual in Trantridge as long as any affection remained between wedded couples; and, indeed, it was not uncustomary in their later lives, to avoid making odd lots of the single people between whom there might be a warm understanding.”
Translation:
The husband’s clumsiness with a partner other than his wife, resulting in their falling down together, led to his wife and her partner’s collision with the first couple. This arrangement of non-wedded pairs of dance partners was not unusual in Trantridge if there was affection between sets of couples and unwedded members of the opposite sex. Well into their married lives, it was not uncommon to switch partners so that single people did not feel left out in the mix either, and to make of the crowd a more unified whole of versatile dance partners, and, implicitly, sexual partners. Swingers, orgies, etc.
As if that weren’t enough discomfort for the die-hard Victorian or Puritan reader, later when the crowd departs, Hardy overtly attaches halos to their heads, as if their very sensuality and its shameless expression have made them somehow saintly or angelic.

Hardy had balls, that’s for sure.
One would think there might be a Chapter X general note in the Penguin Classics edition concerning this deleted scene, but they don’t give it such prominence. However, they do include a note marked at the specific location where the text is significantly different between versions:
“2 – When Hardy removed this chapter from Graphic [first publication in this magazine for serial form of the text] it included a long dance scene at this point. It was retained when the chapter was published separately [as Saturday Night in Arcady], but was not restored to Tess until 1912. Appendix V reproduces both versions.”
Spoilers ahead.
At this point in the story, an incident during the journey home directly precipitates Tess’s fatal decision to go with Alec d’Urberville, who takes her into the forest and in some versions rapes while in others seduces her, resulting in her birthing a daughter, prior to which one version replaces the rape/seduction scene with a duplicitous false marriage scene between Tess and Alec.
And the confusion about Tess’s character and morality only mounts with the increase of changes and counter-changes Hardy makes over the ensuing years, in everything from subtle actions taken to gestures and tears to comments on her thought processes. The same goes for other principal figures in the book, so that when the revisions have finally ended, the modern reader hardly knows what to make of it all.
Still, and amazingly, despite all the complications, Hardy manages to deliver into posterity a well-loved narrative and tragedy of Greek proportions in a captivating writing style. Its considerable length is buffered by a noticeable economy of language coupled with playful use of extraneously large, technical-sounding words, and some made-up ones, such as “vegeto-human.” This latter feature particularly irritated many critics, but as an incorrigible intellectual in love with big words, I love Hardy for it. The tale is epic and complete and the commentary on society’s moral hypocrisy not only discernible but memorable.
Hardy elevates our understanding of human complexity, not only in his carefully told tale but also in the vacillations of all that pre-emptive shaping, editing, redaction, and rewriting. Tim Dolin, editor of the Penguin Classics edition’s textual history section and end notes, remarks on the practical impossibility of identifying a definitive edition, and proposes there may really be no such thing.
Indeed, this notion may be the simple truth of most published writing; especially in hindsight, the author knows that more could have been done or done better, but at some point they pull the trigger or nothing ever gets published. For the reader as well as the writer, the work always remains to some degree unfinished, which only adds to the fascination of literature.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles has become a new favorite book of mine, and I am sorely tempted to eschew future plans on my to-read list to take another sensual spin full of rich, transporting description around Thomas Hardy’s d’Urberville universe and the magnificently complex and shape-shifting character of Tess Durbeyfield. All that remains is the tiny matter of which edition to choose next.

book on the grass

Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

Croak

We might croak.

We might kick the bucket, we might shuffle off the mortal coil, or maybe even push up daisies and become food for worms. However we go, all of us, most certainly, will die.

Edward Young’s expression to “join the great majority” goes a long way toward erasing one’s sense of individuality. I prefer George Eliot’s approach, and would love to “join the choir invisible.” (Thank you, convenient Wikipedia.) I’ve always wanted to sing. Not like a frog, but sing nonetheless.

However, I have no interest in farms and would not care much to buy one.

To the degree that “sleeping with the fishes” implies being murdered and dumped in a body of water, I suppose there are worse ways to go. I don’t mind fish so much, nor sleeping.

“Kicking the bucket” actually derives from hanging, in which one kicks the bucket from under one’s feet so gravity can do its full work. Having a bucket list, therefore, might for some carry a dark undertone of the potential for suicide once everything’s crossed off your list.

My ass is somewhat large but relatively normal, so I suppose I should not be averse to kissing it good-bye, were I able to reach it.

But whether I find myself taking a dirt nap six feet under or riding the pale horse on the last train to glory, I know there is this final step I must take, whether of my own volition or not.

I’d almost rather be eaten by a large predatory animal–after, of course, being neatly and painlessly killed by the blow from a paw or the tonic of a poison–than to be reduced to ashes of lesser usefulness, or less heft. I seem to recall musical artist and singer Björk making a similar comment, that she wanted to die violently, by being eaten by a tiger or spattered with lava. (Icelanders . . . Björk.)

Diseases are pretty far down the list of most people’s preferred ways to die, but some diseases are more merciful than others.

A few years ago, a fellow writer and budding friend of mine died of cancer. She was my age, in her late thirties. Before we lost her, I had helped her refine her application essay to an MFA writing program, and she, as part of our writing group, had critiqued a nature poem of mine.

Now, every November, when my circle of friends and I participate in National Novel Writing Month, we commemorate her gift and passion, marking her departure from our lives with a day named for her, Anna’s Day, November 17th. On that day, in that week, and, for some of us, all month and intermittently throughout the year, we include her in our thoughts if not also somehow in our work. She also happened to die five days after my great aunt, who also died of cancer. It’s not easy for me to forget that week of the year.

Anna didn’t like how my poem ended. In fact, she hated it. And she did not hesitate to tell me so or attempt to soften her words to dampen her feelings, or spare mine. As I age and grow closer to death than any time since my birth (for all I know), I’m increasingly grateful for that. Useful feedback from others on a piece under construction should never be totally devoid of bold frankness or hard truths. We can’t grow without learning of our work’s flaws.

Comparatively with my other efforts, this poem was a bit of a disaster for several reasons. Yet, I felt strongly, even after receiving Anna’s notes, that the ending was far from the biggest problem. The rhythm was clunky, the lines too long. I used, as I often do, too many hyphenated phrases that become tongue twisters. In the space of one poem of 83 lines with an average of 8 or fewer words in each, there were too many different subjects and ideas competing for attention.

Perhaps above all, the themes and messages were too well concealed so that the whole became a mystery wrapped in an enigma trapped inside a puzzle pretending to be a solvable riddle. Too obscure, too obtuse, too evasive to connect with the reader. Smart writing group members couldn’t grasp my meaning. My mom understood, but she knows me very well and knows my writing, so she had an advantage. We don’t write just for Mom. When I’m apparently trying to be too clever, as in that poem, I suppose there is a dimness to my feelings or a cowardice that hides them from my readers.

At any rate, the poem, though couched in nature and wildlife appreciation, was most centrally about the persistent triumph of depression and a negative outlook over the struggle to feel alive and happy. That last line, the ending that Anna so despised, was “because when I said it I meant it, ‘Life sucks.'” Negative, true, but also inelegant.

Of course, Anna was dying of cancer at the time and doing her best to live for the moment, accomplish her goals, be her best self more than ever–in every way to rage against her dying light. How could anyone, perhaps especially a writer, a fellow poet, and someone she liked reasonably well, genuinely feel this way about the thing she desperately clung to with all her soul? Her response to such a statement might have been visceral, possibly even a kind of revulsion.

I don’t know whether she read the whole poem before starting her critique. If she did, it means she was probably a better person, a better beta reader, than I, because it means she tamped down her horror long enough to comment constructively on much more than just that nasty ending. Perhaps she was a better person than I in lots of ways. She was very likeable, friendly, and easygoing when I first met her. Clearly intelligent, astute, with a sense of humor and fellowship, she fought hard to live in spite of her death sentence.

But in truth, I didn’t know Anna all that well. Perhaps if I had, her indirect and sometimes direct message of carpe diem would have influenced me more strongly, made more of a difference. One time, in response to the question of what to do with feedback after a writing group discussion of her work sample, she said to a mixed crowd of some who knew her situation and some who had just met her, “I don’t believe in tomorrow, for lots of reasons.” She’ll take her feedback immediately, please and thank you.

I still put things off, I still take things for granted, I still undervalue my work, but I do think a lot about Anna. I think about her reaction to my autobiographical declaration in that final poetic line, and I marvel at how different people’s experiences of life, of its goodness, of its meaning, of our esteem and appreciation of it can be. I notice how even knowing that you’re going to die might not bring out a noble response in you, at least not all the time. Sometimes adversity just kicks our asses and wins the trophy.

Perhaps it was Anna’s sense of the permanence, the finality of committing that last contemptible line to print, and possibly posterity, that stood against everything she stood for. I could almost hear her: If you’re going to leave a legacy, make it encouraging, inspiring, life affirming. I’ll never know, but the poem was both. It both affirmed life and lamented the inability, the often extreme difficulty at least, to affirm it.

We wish across each other. She may have wished, in addition to not having to die, that her sense of the preciousness of life could be felt by all those around her, whether they knew they were dying soon or not, particularly in that moment when she read of someone’s opposite feeling. I wished I had had more time with her, to learn from her, to build a friendship. I often wish for that sense of imminent death, without death itself, that’s supposed to kick you in the pants and make you produce things, be better, live fully.

Maybe it’s my signals of ambivalence that so irritate the dying woman who knows she’s dying. Don’t whine. Either get it over with or get on with it. Don’t hem and haw. Pick a side and charge ahead. Irrevocably, we have so little time to lose.

As I age, my health seems to grow more precarious from different directions. I’m aware of some of the signs, if not all. I’ve got way too many medical specialist physicians.

“We interrupt this broadcast to bring you this special announcement,” that the writer has left the writing room so she can book a weekend getaway in Hocking Hills State Park to enjoy hiking, ziplining, and adventures with husband and dog. Carpe diem. . . .

And what did I do instead? I talked about my health with my husband, did some drug and physiological research, exorcised my fears a little–all useful activities, to a point. But when will I get around to a spontaneous leaping toward joy? Answering that, of course, would contradict the intention and fundamentally change the action’s nature.

Unless the answer is “never.” In that case, internal consistency prevails. I long ago compromised courage so as to avoid hypocrisy. Principles being principles, habits being habits, and all of these forming my identity, why would I pull the rug out now?

At bottom, I perceive one of my life’s purposes to be to earn, perpetually, the right to happiness. I don’t deserve it outright (does anyone really deserve anything, good or bad?), and I have trouble accepting it as a gift for fear of much harsher punishment as a direct response to its indulgence. In order to stave off the dropping of the other shoe, I walk around barefoot. Deprivation is my insurance policy.

The only trouble is, that doesn’t really work either. It leads exactly to the attitude expressed in my awe-filled and awful poem. And so it becomes a tug of war between, on one side, some kind of Catholic guilt-driven, Puritanical self-denial and, on the other, owning and claiming my truth while pursuing my passions. Between feeling just and feeling justified. Between “should” and “want.”

One half is always holding back the other; the other half is always straining to break free. Being locked in combat with myself like this, I envy as I compare others’ successes to my stagnation, and that comparison, and subsequent judgment, results in low self-esteem and depression.

This is why a psyche like mine can always use another dose of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way program. She talks a lot about giving oneself permission to try, to fail, to be oneself, to invest in one’s art, no matter what anybody else says or does. She describes the pitfalls of the virtue trap, the thinking that being virtuous somehow leads to happiness. It doesn’t inherently do so, no. She really tapped into a selling strategy by couching the artist’s way as “a spiritual journey to higher creativity,” guided by fate, destiny, God, or some other force that only wants the best for us and calls us to express ourselves.

I don’t believe in an active, anthropomorphic God or even in the supernatural more broadly, per se. But I have seen truth to the good that can come from believing in myself and focusing my energy where my deepest instincts and greatest loves reside. So much for intuition. As an introverted thinker, an incorrigible intellectual I suppose, I’ve always lived primarily in and through my mind. Thus, the philosophy degree and the sense that the whole spectrum of reality is to me merely theoretical. So much for intellect.

If nothing beyond that cerebrally weighted attention occurs, perhaps the effort is enough. Maybe that’s my way of embracing life. Just keep doing what you’re doing. The end is not all, but it’s coming. When it does, will you be able to say that at least you tried your best? Will you look back with a sense of restless bitterness or of peace and love? Will you remain open hearted and open minded, receptive to mystery, surprise, and wonder? Will you know transcendence beyond pain and pettiness? I suppose these are decent enough measures of life’s quality.

You thought this post was going to be about frogs, didn’t you? Well, according to my train wreck of a poem, indirectly, it is.

Grand Showcase coming soon!

Hey, art lovers and writers in northeast Ohio, heads up!

The annual Writing Knights Grand Tournament has been restyled as Grand Showcase and Marketplace 2018!

Grand Showcase 2018

Presented live in Canton, OH ~ July 27-28

Hosted by Writing Knights Press and downtown Canton

I’ll read my poetic “Scenes from a nature film” live @ IKON Images Gallery & Shoppe, July 28 at 1pm

Descriptive nature verse (mostly)–some seasoned pieces, some revised, some made fresh for the show

Located at 221 5th Street, Canton, IKON is just one of several venues where poetry, music, comedy, and stories will be performed over Friday and Saturday, July 27-28.

Check out the full main schedule of performers, including me at 1pm on Saturday, July 28, plus an open mic list. All the action starts Friday night, July 27.

Open mic runs concurrently with the main program on July 28, from 12pm to 6pm. Interested performers for the open mic email writingknights@live.com. Full instructions here.

Below is the general plan. “Love” offerings (cash) will be accepted at each program.

“Friday July 27th from 7pm to 9pm: We will have one show at Makeshift Makerspace.
Saturday July 28th will be the big day. We will have the following shows:
  • 12pm to 2pm show at IKON Art Gallery
  • 3:30pm to 5:30pm show at Makeshift Makerspace
  • 7pm to 9pm the final show of the event at Avenue Arts/Kathleen Howland Theatre.”

Vendors will set up along Court Street, so bring cash for food, souvenirs, etc.

Writing Knights will also be selling copies of the Showcase issue of their literary magazine The Wayward Sword for $15. Four of my poems made it into the litmag.

Full details at Writing Knights Press, see the posts using key word “Grand Showcase 2018.”

Come out to support the arts scene, share your work, get inspired and just have fun!

Poetic feet now ON fire

They were brought to the heat, and now they just might be ablaze. You be the judge.

In my last post, I talked about preparing for a writing performance and publishing opportunity happening in July. Originally approached for revision simply to reshape it for optimal total number of lines to comply with submission guidelines, one particular poem seemed finished to me otherwise.

But I have learned anew the truth of how good writing happens. It ain’t quick, and it ain’t easy. I think I’ve had a notion for a while that, because poetry is my favorite mode and the one I’ve received the most recognition for, I don’t have to work as hard at it compared to other writing. Nothing could be more false.

If, as Anne Lamott says in her book Bird by Bird, we’re to expect and get used to writing “sh**ty first drafts” in prose, the same applies to poetry. That may be an exaggeration, but the quality does have huge potential to rise with revision.

I also notice that the more time I spend with a poem, the greater tendency it has of becoming more formal in meter. The demands of rhythm take over, and I’m compelled to make it consistent across the poem. This is what has happened with my poem “Inspirator,” shared previously on this blog. There’s a lot of counting, yes, even using my fingers, to make sure lines are complete and don’t go over the set number of stresses, which in this case is seven.

What I see as improvements extend to:

  • better word choice
  • shorter sentences to get the point across sooner
  • less reliance on other favorite words such as “bloat” and “forth” as in “bring forth” (I’ve noticed them in several of my poems)
  • reduced number of hyphenated descriptors, a crutch of mine
  • fewer needless words such as prepositions, some articles, and the pronoun “all,” another crutch
  • removal of unneeded descriptors–by the 2nd-to-last line, the reader gets that the imagery is “fiery”; no need for another adjective just to use every way of saying it
  • smoother phrasing that aligns with rhythm and is easier to say out loud
  • clearer communication of meaning in individual images and overall
  • closer connection between title and poem, using the word in the text
  • less alliteration, a device best reserved for comedy or levity (not for this poem)
  • closer attention to the reader’s journey through the field described, addressing the reader directly
  • while the meter is not uniform in unstressed syllable use, there are exactly 7 stresses in every line, and I noticed alternation between starting lines stressed and starting unstressed, until the last stanza, which consists solely of iambic heptameter (unstressed, stressed; 7 stresses per line)

See if you can find some of those improvements and new features in the revised first stanza of the poem “Inspirator,” originally shared here:

Giddy feathers, beige but tall, perch unnamed fronds; their crowns
in fanned-out spikes sprout up to play both fire and ashy end.
Higher still, the color starts. Smooth leaves, chartreuse beneath,
grey-green their backs—or are they faces?—cast off half-domes,
masonry left homeless; unimpressed, the orphans bow
half-hearted honor, fractured praise, or simple nodding off.

which replaces the earlier version‘s:

Giddy beige feathers in
this field of tall, unnamed fronds
perched at a tilt, sprout their crowns
in fanned-out spikes, forging two things
into one: fire and ashy aftermath.

Two heads’ lengths above
these frozen flames,
the color starts.

Green, rounded leaves
of chartreuse underbellies
and grey-green backs, or faces—
I can’t tell which—huddle like
discarded half-arches, craft of the
stone mason who made too many,
just in case. A half-hearted bow
only at their very tops, partly
praising the fractional work.

Can you detect the following types of figurative language and literary device in the first one or last two stanzas of the poem?:

  • fire imagery and theme
  • metaphors – equivalences
  • personification – giving inanimate objects human-like qualities
  • theater/performance/façade/pretense theme
  • breath/consumption and output themes
  • irony – reversal of typical sense or connotation; appearance contrasting reality
  • synecdoche – an expression in which part of something stands in for its whole, as in “hand” for a person’s help when “we need more hands for the project”

Some sky-bound spirit forages and slurps all this combustion,
pulling smoke from grey below; above, from yellow-white
sun fumes. The wind roars conflagration, feigns inspirator*,
while darker soot envelops lighter, breathing victory.

These pebbles see up sprays of grass to ashen, flying feathers,
but more to rushing bands of smoky clouds and asphalt char,
the path astride this field. My molten shadow drips off stones.
The tar now fused and cooled, I walk it back to turgid fires.

which replaces:

The wind roars like a terrible
conflagration, and the grey,
not white, smoke is winning.

Stone-piles at my feet see up
to the short spray of grasses,
hints of feathers on higher fliers,
and my shadow. But mostly,
to the rushing bands of smoky
clouds, straight up, and the char
of an asphalt path set down
astride the still, fiery field.

Blown quiet, I walk on
cold coals, most unhurried,
back, into no fire.

All this is to just to reiterate what I said last time, that the specter of a live audience and official publication is a healthy catalyst for fruitful revision. Since exploring the nature of the writing process with my poetry in my series “On Process: Verse Writing,” I have come to realize, too, that the particulars of the process matter less than going through it. But it should consist at least of a shift in types of attention to the work: writing with creative abandon, then reading with editorial skepticism, and, once this due diligence is done, being willing to put the editor away again if the piece needs another injection of creativity.

So, by way of advice, I would say don’t skip revision and be open to rewriting. You may not only learn new things but also greatly improve your work. The trick at that point is knowing when to stop and say, “It’s as good as it’s going to get,” because writing can be overworked, too.

Well, what do you think of the changes to “Inspirator”? Are these poetic feet on fire, or am I sifting through the ashes of ideas lost to change?


* The word “inspirator” can mean four different things: (a) a device or agent that serves as an injector of vapor, air or liquid, (b) something that enlivens or gives spirit to someone or something, (c) something that inspires in an artistic or conceptual sense, and (d) something or someone that takes in breath (creative license here). I mean it in all four senses at different points in the poem.


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Poetic Feet to the Fire

I’ve won a poetry contest before, once (granted I’ve entered only about 4 or 5 total), and I entered one recently. For this live performance competition, I collected a group of poems I thought to be of reasonably high quality for the upcoming event (end of July). Before long, I started narrowing down the candidates, returning to that process again after two things changed: The “tournament” became a showcase due to insufficient competitor entries to make the brackets work, and the accompanying call for literary magazine submissions opened up to entries from more writers than just would-be contest winners.

Thus, the pressure was lifted for content on one platform (stage) and transferred to the other (page). The result was to extend the time available for each writer’s decisions on what to submit (deadline moved from June 2 to July 1). With the change in deadline came more detailed guidelines as well. I suppose the crisis of faith that followed for me simply happened sooner than it might have, which is probably good since you don’t want to panic right before going on stage either. Whatever the cause or contributing factors, doubt has crept in.

I had already shuffled the order a few times, relegating poems to alternate status and back again, when I learned the news of the event’s structural changes. Before the tournament became a non-competitive showcase, there was to be a series of time limits for contestants at the mic. However, with a dearth of entries, stage time has expanded for each participant. By contrast, with the new goal for the literary magazine being to include more participants than before, page space per writer has shrunk.

The new submission guidelines for poetry (the event includes storytelling, comedy, and music as well) specify a limit of 30 lines per poem, including lines between stanzas, and this has added difficulty to my decisions. It’s appropriate–only your best work. Of course I would submit only my best! If I could.

My trouble, as I see it, given that I do not write poetry prolifically, is that my shorter poems, the ones eligible for submission, tend not to be as good as those just out of range.

The consequences? My collection has thus begun to dwindle further (not inherently bad); I was forced to revise structures to make a few poems more horizontal and less vertical in appearance (no biggie); and I started to feel the overall quality ebbing away (kind of a biggie). The bubble of my collection of poems seems already to have burst.

For this event, I’ve focused on nature poems, but so does my overall poetry collection. Due to my infrequent verse writing activity (up to a half dozen poems a year), the total collection of possible candidates also spans a period of decades. The oldest poem in the group is 24 years old, the youngest a couple of months. My verse children were born in different personal eras (adolescence, college, working world), geographical places (France, Ohio, and Massachusetts), and moments in my poetic development (confessional, abstract/obscure, nonsensical word play, formalism, free verse with internal rhyme, terse verticality, and so on). A diverse brood. Ironically, the oldest poems tend to be the most underdeveloped–sometimes that’s the nature of literary babies (and some humans).

I have not officially, i.e., formally, published any poetry in my career, if one can even call it a career. So, finding myself on the cusp of large-scale live audience action, if not publication, I’m sitting up a little straighter and feeling the lick of flames under my toes.

In desperation before these emergent, combined realities, I found myself scrounging for additional works to use. One poem I had discarded, or set aside, a few years ago as birth defected and beyond repair has become an object for resuscitation, remodeling, and renewal. You can do that with some writing. I journaled about it, scanned the meter, and color coded my pen marks for the strongest aspects I could isolate and reshape into something new. Now the poem awaits rewriting. Who knows? Maybe it will be the saving grace of the family.

Putting yourself out there is a healthy thing, I must remind myself, even if doubt lingers. It forces you to keep moving forward, find a way to make things work, and start new projects. With the imminence of the showcase, for which I’m officially on the schedule, I gain new motivation to work, to improve, to learn, and to try again. Sometimes, when idea inspiration doesn’t come, when desire to express doesn’t win out, the external pressure of a deadline and an audience can provide the needed incentive.

What is it? Disguised blessing? Healthy challenge?

There are more ways than one to get things done, and opportunity need not be a crisis. So courage, creator! And carry on toward adventure.

Poetry in song: Indie rock music lyrics

My preferences in music lie in this general direction: good lyrics, good groove, good singing, complex instrumentation, but my tastes are much more specific. The truth is, I can be kind of a musical snob. I grew up learning the trombone, a little piano, and dancing and singing on the fly whenever I could. Learning how to read and listen to music for its parts opened the door for me to enjoy music in greater variety and depth, which made me a more discerning consumer.

I don’t tend to like mainstream pop. I go more for alternative rock, indie pop, New Wave, electronica, movie and TV soundtracks, jazz, and classical, or rock that incorporates combinations of these elements. Such as No Doubt’s use of ska or Kings of Leon’s and Glass Animals’ blues-heavy alt rock. See the glossary at bottom for genre definitions.

I’m also a sucker for the occasional nostalgic 80s pop tune and musical theater production. I listened to a A Chorus Line a lot as a kid and have memorized most of the Rent soundtrack. Growing up on Olivia Newton-John, Madonna, Prince, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, and Billy Joel took a dramatic turn in the early 90s with my exposure to alternative bands The Cure and Depeche Mode. I always liked U2, INXS, and Duran Duran.

Then, at age 13, I became a Tori Amos fanatic, with sides of Bjork and The Sugarcubes, Indigo Girls, Sarah McLachlan, PJ Harvey, and Sheryl Crow through the next decade, much of which I’ve outgrown, though I do reminiscence. The story is similar with Fiona Apple and The Ditty Bops, and, earlier on, The Cranberries and The Sundays.

Today, some of my favorite bands include Young the Giant, Foster the People, Of Monsters and Men, Modest Mouse, Nothing But Thieves, Chvrches, The Killers, Bastille, and Cold War Kids. I went through a Florence+the Machine phase (Baroque pop), and I really like Hozier, Lorde, Jack White (The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather, and The White Stripes), The Black Keys, Silversun Pickups, The Kooks, Muse, Tame Impala, Metric, Snow Patrol, Joywave, Big Data, Matt & Kim, Alice Merton, Phantogram, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Two Door Cinema Club, Vampire Weekend, Saint Motel, and St. Vincent.

I still groove to the likes of Kaiser Chiefs, Bloc Party, Interpol, The Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, Arctic Monkeys, Incubus, Keane, Ra Ra Riot, Faith No More, Cake, Fitz and the Tantrums, Phoenix, Garbage, Soundgarden and Audioslave, Ben Harper, Over the Rhine, G. Love & Special Sauce, Radiohead, Foo Fighters, Beck, Metric, Gorillaz, Rilo Kiley, Passion Pit, Ben Folds Five, The Smashing Pumpkins, Tove Lo, Queens of the Stone Age, Siouxsie and the Banshees (keep hearing “Turn to Stone” in my head for some reason), and The Clash when they pop up. Alternative rock, alterna-pop, punk, funk, post-punk revival, and offshoots of those.

I also love the music of James Brown, Blondie, Sam Cooke, The Police, Bob Marley, The Pretenders, Van Morrison, Otis Redding, Prince, Donna Summer, and Michael Jackson.

I don’t like most of today’s streaming radio apps. I like to choose my own playlist of specific songs, not songs derived from the artist or song I chose. But I’m also still looking for a music player app that truly understands the definition of random shuffle. Open to suggestions.

Anyway, these somewhat rigid standards translate into listening to a lot of the same music on repeat–for years. Thus, the following throwback recommendation. As a send-off to National Poetry Month 2018, I’m sharing some poetry in modern musical form. 

One of my favorite bands for great lyrics is The Shins, described as an “indie rock” band by Wikipedia. Guitar-based, keyboard-infused, and vocally and lyrically focused, The Shins strike the listener with their dynamic melodies, pop sensibilities, and pleasing harmonies. With more keen listening, their wit and ennui emerge.

I only have a couple of their albums, but the songs are very singable and packed with meaning. In dance terms, they tend to be more for swaying and head bobbing. Wincing the Night Away (2007) is my preferred Shins album between the two I own, the other being Oh, Inverted World (their first record, 2001), which I bought second. Wincing seems to me to have a more consistent and polished sound across the album.

 

The song lyrics below form a representative example of the turns of phrase, ideas, mood, and rhythms in many Shins tunes, especially on Wincing the Night Away.


“Turn on Me” by The Shins (from Wincing the Night Away, SubPop Records, 2007)

You can fake it for a while
bite your tongue and smile
like every mother does her ugly child
but it starts to leaking out
like spittle from a cloud
amassed resentment pelting ounce and pound
you entertaining any doubts

(chorus) ’cause you had to know that I was fond of you
(fond of y-o-u)
though I knew you masked your disdain
I can see the change was just too hard for us
(hard for us)
you always had to hold the reigns (sic)
but where I’m headed you just don’t know the way

so affections fade away
or do adults just learn to play
the most ridiculous repulsive games
all our favorite ruddy sons
and their double-barreled guns
you’d better hurry rabbit run run run
’cause mincing you is fun
and there’s a lot of hungry hatters in this world
set on taking it over
but brittle thorny stems
they break before they bend
and neither one of us is one of them
and the tears will never mend

(divergent chorus/bridge) ’cause you had it in for me so long ago
(boy I still don’t know)
I don’t know why and I don’t care
well hardley (sic) anymore
if you’d only seen yourself hating me
(hating me)
when I’d been so much more than fair
but then you’d have to lay those feelings bare
the one thing I know has still got you scared
yeah all that cold ire
and never once aired on a dare

(chorus) you had to know that I was fond of you
(fond of y-o-u)
so I took your licks at the time
a change like that is just so hard to do
(hard to do)
don’t let it whip-crack your life
and I’ll bow out from the fight
those old pius (sic) sisters were right
the worst part is over
now get back on that horse and ride.


Note the unique word choices, robust lines of ideas, verb tense nuances, use of repetition in words (sonically a harmonized echo) and verse rhymes (aaabbbb, dddeeeexxffff), which has this unique “oh, and one more thing” effect, and chorus variations. Yet, the chorus also holds a fairly consistent rhyming pattern, especially between the last two: chorus 1, cdxdd; chorus 2, ghgxhhhxh; chorus 3, cacaaaxa.

The tune opens with a spare, rising and falling guitar line with slight reverberation in a minor key, there’s a medium tempo with fast lyric delivery, and the song ends abruptly after the last line.

The collective effect of the words, rhymes, pace, notes, and rhythm is a message of sad but insistent coming to terms with personal differences leading to relationship’s end, seemingly with a friend rather than a lover. It plays as a kind of overture to be frank with the former friend, not to be interrupted, not expecting it to be reciprocated (though knowing the other might heal if release were allowed), in order to reveal that the speaker was more aware of their dynamics than the other probably assumed.

The second verse portrays a sort of cat-and-mouse (or rabbit-and-hatter) game between the people in this relationship, only to dismiss it as pointless role-play that doesn’t befit them. Fans of Lewis Carroll and followers of my blog may notice the Alice in Wonderland references with “rabbit” and “hatters.”

There’s all this friction, tension, wasted aggression, and drama. He “took” the “licks,” put up with the contempt and attitude of “disdain” because of love. But now he sees their fracture was inevitable and releases the other from the struggle, by leaving it himself and encouraging their moving on without clinging to the pain.

It ends with a message, more to self than to other, to get on with life now that he’s said his piece and supposedly found closure in it. He’s trying his best. However, the very need to sing the song, the “oh, and one more thing” pattern in the rhyming lines, the abruptness of the ending (before the declaration has a chance to sink in even to the one making it), and the emphatic, staccato delivery of the last line collectively suggest there will always be some part of it that at least one, if not both, of them can never get over.

As a result, the title “Turn on Me” reads in two ways: (1) Here’s what you did and I never understood why (the question haunts me), and (2) here’s what I almost dare you to do, to respond whether to explain or keep battering away at me, even though my final words say “nevermind, I’m out.”

Even without being put to music, it’s a sophisticated piece of poetry as a whole, conveying a theme not often found in mainstream pop, using incisive remarks, clever yet concise phrasing, and raw but controlled emotion. Like most poetry though, of course, it’s made to be listened to.

Among songs on the album, I also really like the more well-known singles “Australia” and “Phantom Limb.” The tunes “Girl Sailor” and “Red Rabbits,” though not popular on Amazon, are additional favorites of mine based on the lyrics and, ultimately, Wincing‘s great sound. Although I find the tune a little too stripped down musically, I do like the lyrics to “A Comet Appears,” the album’s last song.

My introduction to The Shins was through their single “New Slang”‘s prominent role in the movie Garden State with Zach Braff and Natalie Portman. That lovely single appears on the Oh, Inverted World album.

album-cover_Wincing-the-Night-Away_The-Shins_2018-Amazon

Cover of The Shins’ 2007 album Wincing the Night Away. Credit to image owner.

Notes on the text: I’ve based the lyrics above primarily on the album’s CD jacket text for the song. I forgive The Shins’ editors the CD jacket’s spelling errors, but I do mark them rather than correct them as some lyrics sites have. I’ve represented the lyrics without punctuation except for the abbreviations and contractions containing apostrophes, the hyphens, and the final period as shown in the jacket. I retain most of the line break model provided by MetroLyrics for ease of reading since the jacket has only 3 lines of text for the entire song, extending across two and a half page spreads. It’s one big run-on. To learn where each sentence really ends, buy and listen to the recording.

I restore lowercasing as shown in the jacket text and have re-broken stanzas according to my own sense of idea units and shifts in musical elements between verses and chorus. Per the original published text, I retain phrase truncation and omit question marks, though some lines are questions. I add parentheses around the echoed harmonies that MetroLyrics adds as separate lines of lyrics, as these are not in the original. I also correct several wording errors from the MetroLyrics text.


I recommend more music in these posts:


Glossary of Music Genre Terms

alternative rock, a.k.a. alternative music, alt-rock, or alternative – “a style of rock music that emerged from the independent music underground of the 1980s and became widely popular in the 1990s. . . . as distinct from mainstream rock music.” Benefiting from “the groundwork laid by the independent, DIY ethos of punk rock from the 1970s,” the term has been used at times to describe underground rock artists that are seen to be descended from punk rock (punk, new wave, and post-punk).” (Wikipedia excerpts) In short, not mainstream rock but not easily defined.

Baroque pop/rock – a fusion of rock/pop and classical music with Baroque compositional styles and use of instruments commonly associated with this movement of the classical genre, such as harpsichords (as on Tori Amos’ album Boys for Pele), strings, and, in the case of Florence+the Machine, harps (paraphrase of Wikipedia)

electronica – a variety of “styles including techno, house, ambient, jungle, and industrial dance, among others” (Wikipedia)

electropop – “a variant of synth-pop that places more emphasis on a harder, electronic sound, revived in popularity and influence since the 2000s.” (Wikipedia)

indie pop – “a genre and subculture that combines guitar pop with DIY ethic in opposition to the style and tone of mainstream pop music.” (Wikipedia)

* indie rock – a genre of alternative rock that originated in the U.S. and UK in the 1980s, originally referring to their independent record labels, evolving into a style and further evolving as different genres and subgenres ebbed and flowed in popularity. Often seen as an underground movement stemming from grunge, punk revival, and Britpop bands, some artists described using this term moved into the mainstream as well. At one point used to describe music produced on punk and post-punk labels. (paraphrase of Wikipedia) In short, once a clear genre, now muddled.

funk – “a music genre that originated in African American communities in the mid-1960s when African American musicians created a rhythmic, danceable new form of music through a mixture of soul music, jazz, and rhythm and blues (R&B). It de-emphasizes melody and chord progressions . . . and brings a strong rhythmic groove of a bass line played by an electric bassist and a drum part played by a drummer to the foreground.” (Wikipedia) In short, sexy, groovy awesomeness.

post-punk (originally “new musick”) – “a broad type of rock music that emerged from the punk movement of the 1970s, in which artists departed from the simplicity and traditionalism of punk rock to adopt a variety of avant-garde sensibilities. Inspired by punk’s energy and DIY ethic but determined to break from rock clichés, artists experimented diversely with sources including electronic music and black styles like dub, funk, free jazz, and disco; novel recording and production techniques; and ideas from art and politics, including critical theory, modernist art, cinema and literature. . . .” (Wikipedia). In short, punk morphed into anything they wanted.

punk rock or punk – “a rock music genre developed in the mid-1970s in the U.S., UK, and Australia rooted in 1960s garage rock and other forms of what is now known as “proto-punk” music; punk rock bands rejected perceived excesses of mainstream 1970s rock . . . typically produced short or fast-paced songs, with hard-edged melodies and singing styles, stripped-down instrumentation, and often political, anti-establishment lyrics.” (Wikipedia). In short, angry protest rock.