Collected Poems, by James Wright

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If memory serves, before now I had only read one poem by James Wright, his most famous one: “The Blessing”. I was drawn in and held by the gentle images, too specific to be sentimental, until the final image hit me like a fierce wind, lifting me out of this life.

The poem is a perfect example of Robert Bly’s concept of “leaping poetry” which I discussed a few weeks ago. That is no accident. I’ve come to find out that Bly was not only a friend to Wright but also a mentor.

If I liked the poem so much, why didn’t I read more of his work? All I can say is that I meant to. This 1971 collection of his poems, which won the Pulitzer Prize, is a good way to do that. It contains a good selection from his earlier books along with a section of new poems and one of translations from writers such as Neruda, Vallejo and Trakl.

As I read the selections from his first book, The Green Wall, I wondered if this could be the same poet. They seemed complex and overly elaborate, like something from an earlier age. However, I did appreciate his themes of estrangement from nature (symbolised in the green wall), the horrors of the modern world, and mourning.

The poems from his next book, St. Judas, went further into the hearts and minds of the poor, the criminal, the disenfranchised. Growing up in Martins Ferry, Ohio, during the Depression, he witnessed poverty and suffering first-hand; the only thing worse than a soulless factory job was having no job at all.

A bad review from the poet James Dickey led to an angry exchange of letters. However, upon reflection, Wright allowed that Dickey’s criticisms had merit. He let go of 19th century poetic traditions and, working with Bly and others, found a new, more direct style. By concentrating on images instead of stylised meter and rhyme, by using plainer language instead of rhetorical flourishes, he began writing the kind of amazing and transcendent poems that I originally fell in love with.

Wright’s next collection, The Branch Shall Not Break, was widely praised and influenced poets such as W. S. Merwin, Sylvia Plath and Galway Kinnell. I loved the poems here and in the remainder of the book. Of course, some are more successful than others and perhaps he overuses the technique of the leaping last line, but there are real gems here.

Wright dedicated one of the poems in Branch to Dickey, who became such a fan that he wrote a glowing blurb for the Collected Poems, saying:

James Wright is one of the few authentic visionary poets writing today. Unlike many others, James Wright’s visions are authentic, profound, and beautiful . . . He is a seer with astonishing compassion for human beings.

I think this episode with Dickey is a good lesson for any writer. It’s normal to feel defensive when your work is criticised. However, if Wright had continued to hold out against Dickey’s comments, he never would have experimented with changing his style. He would never have become the beloved and influential poet we know today. He never would have written the poem that lifted me out of myself and made me seek out this book.

Have you ever received a criticism that you initially thought was unfair but later recognised had merit?

Hard Truth, by Nevada Barr

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I’ve enjoyed the Anna Pigeon mysteries by Nevada Barr ever since they first came out. Anna is a park ranger, and each book takes place in a different national park. Barr herself worked in national parks during the summer, so she brings experience to her stories.

I know she also does extensive research for each book. One of her books, Blind Descent, is based on an actual incident in Lechuguilla, one in which my brother was involved. He was shocked by how accurate her details were, not just of the cave itself, but caving technology, and the kinds of people who would be on such expeditions (though there were no murderers on his descent!).

I heard her speak once, and loved her description of how she learned to write mysteries. Her first book was surprisingly accomplished. It deservedly won both the Agatha and Anthony awards for best first mystery. Barr said she learned by taking a few favorite mysteries and taking them apart. She studied them for months trying to understand what worked and what didn’t. I think this is a great way to learn how to write! After all, it wasn’t that long ago that there weren’t MFAs in creative writing.

Hard Truth is the 13th book in the series and finds Anna working in as District Ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park. When she arrives, she finds a team that has been traumatized by a six-week search for three missing girls. They come camping with a group of young people under the guidance of their pastor. The girls have never been found, and the active search called off.

Oddly, the parents did not participate in the search. Instead, they prayed. Part of what I would call a cult, their home is a compound run by a large bully of a man whom everyone is afraid of. Anna hears that the sect has broken off from the Mormons, finding them too worldly and liberal.

A parallel story gives us a young woman, Heath Jarrod, who has come camping with her aunt. They are staying in the “handicamp” because Heath is confined to a wheelchair since a climbing accident, leaving her bitter and angry.

Barr mixes up these characters in events so suspenseful that a long car ride passed in a flash. I like Barr’s writing, her detail about the life of a park ranger, and her descriptions of the parks. This book, sadly, had less about the park and more about the evil on the loose.

One of my friends told me she stopped reading Barr’s books because she finds them too violent. I’ve thought about her comment while I’m working my way through them again; I find it interesting to read a series consecutively sometimes. I have to say, this book is particularly gruesome. In fact, the last few have been quite violent near the end, but this one verges on being a horror story. I’m almost afraid to read the next. My friend might be right.

What mystery series have you enjoyed?

This is Us, by Dan Fogelman, et al.

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The object of this blog is to look as stories to see what I and other writers might learn from them. While nearly all of my posts are about books, this week I want to take a look at a television series.

A writing teacher I revere recommended This Is Us, specifically the episode titled “Memphis” as an example of excellent writing. That was enough to get me started. The series, now in its second season, has been nominated for and won many awards, including a Writers Guild of America Award for Episodic Drama for Vera Herbert for Episode 9 of Season 1.

It’s a family drama about three siblings and their parents. The show’s concept is that the father and the three children share a birthday. The pilot episode is their 36th birthday, so we move between the past of Jack’s birthday and the present of the siblings’. We meet Jack and Rebecca as they are enacting their traditional celebration of his birthday, hampered by Rebecca being massively pregnant with triplets. The bond between them, the openness, humor and compassion, are quickly established.

Our introduction to the three children as adults uses key details of setting to establish their conflicts. An overweight Kate opens a refrigerator to see everything marked with her own sticky notes telling her not to eat them. Randall, sitting in his corner office engrossed in his the multiple stock-tracking windows open on his monitor, is disturbingly low-spirited when his employees come in with a surprise birthday cake. Before we see Kevin, we see a sculpture of the comedy and drama masks, a poster for Richard III with the famous quote “Now is the winter of our discontent”, and a poster for a sitcom called The Manny showing a naked Kevin holding a baby. No surprise, then, that Kevin is collapsed on a bed, ignoring two women—hookers or groupies—and feeling sorry for himself.

Continuing to jump back and forth between the present and the past, the show anchors us by staying within that day, Jack’s 36th birthday when the children are born and their own 36th birthdays. Since we’ve already seen that Randall is not the same race as the others, I’m not giving anything away by explaining that after one of the triplets is stillborn, Jack and Rebecca adopt Randall who had been left at a fire station, thus setting up additional potential conflict.

A visual medium enables us to tell whether we are in the past or the present just by looking at the characters. As writers, though, we have to find ways to subtly establish when we are jumping into a flashback and when we return.

What I like most about the show is seeing how Jack and Rebecca rise to the task of parenting the three children, and how Randall, Kevin and Kate then carry those skills forward. There’s a lot of humor and conflict and love without, in my opinion, crossing the line into sentimentality. I love the way they talk to the children and Jack’s hilarious ways of distracting them. Jack and Rebecca find a balance between caring for the children and giving them space, something I see too rarely.

As a parent, I’m dismayed that with these excellent parents the three children should turn out to have so many problems as adults. However, conflict is the engine that drives stories, so as a writer I approve.

Another driver is suspense. There are many story questions raised in this opening episode. Some, like how Randall ended up in the family, are answered by the end of the episode. Others, like Randall’s relationship with his biological father, are resolved by the end of the season.

However, there is one major question which is still being milked even though we are well into the second season. In the present of the series, it has been made clear that Jack is dead, but how and when is a big mystery. There were a lot of teasers last season that the final episode would reveal the answers. When it didn’t, I wasn’t the only one disgusted. My friends who watch the show felt betrayed, and at least one quit completely.

Similarly, I’ve heard readers complain about novels that leave too many questions unanswered at the end in a clumsy attempt to set up a sequel. Deciding the right moment to reveal information and answers is one of the hardest tasks for a writer. If you put it off too long, you will lose the reader’s interest; too soon, and the suspense fades. One good suggestion is that every time you reveal the answer to one question, you ask another.

Be aware, too, that if you are going to make something into a big mystery and keep teasing and holding off on answering it, you are building up expectations. When you finally do reveal the answer, it had better be spectacular. And if it’s a TV series you’d better—right away—set up another big question or your viewers will wander off.

We’ll see.

Is there a TV series you recommend for its writing?