Wednesday, August 09, 2006

E Minor

The morning is waning away. Across the street, a leaf blower roars furiously in intermittent bursts. The dogs, jangle this way and that, barking. I'm sipping fairly expensive coffee, enjoying the textures, and subtleties of flavor. The August sky above Cincinnati is occluded with clouds. Our near-antiquated air conditioner churns loudly to my right. Archie is sniffing at the ground near the sweet gum tree, as though he were contemplating digging up the entire tree.

And I'm weary.

This morning, the dogs woke me by dashing up the stairs and nuzzling against me in bed. They had some assistance from my wife, of course, but for a long moment, I did not feel like emerging from the cocoon of the comforter. Instead, I simply lazed there cuddled next to my dogs until Michelle reminded me they hadn't yet been out and I had horrible flashbacks to a similar morning a few months ago when Dixie ended up in our bed without first making a pit stop outside.

After taking the dogs outside and checking my email, I drove a few miles to procure the coffee I'm now savoring and the customary iced mocha for my wife. In the car, alone, I listened to a recently purchased album by a band that's been described as vaudeville punk. While listening to the fifth track—which is told from the point of view of a friend of a woman in a horrible relationship from which she simply can't extract herself—a tear trailed down each of my cheeks.

Perhaps, this is just a side-effect of recent moods—not enough sleep and not enough productivity, but I doubt that serves as a sufficient explanation. The fact of the matter is simply that pop songs occasionally have the ability to touch us deeply. And I think that song touched me in such a way.

Now, I won't claim that this makes for a great song—even though I'm currently quite enamored of the album in question. However, I would like you to think a moment about this. How many pop songs have made you cry? Can you even name them all?

I can't. Granted, this may say more about me than the current state of pop music, but I do think that the "poetry" of pop songs combined with the plaintive chords of a piano playing in minor key can have a powerful emotive effect. More, I think that the artifice of music in our culture, for some reason, does not begrudge us the peculiar emotional release of such music. How else can you explain the vast appeal of a band like Radiohead?

Now, consider literature. How many stories or poems have you read that have led you to weep? I'm guessing that you can count the number of works on one hand—maybe both hands if you're a fairly emotional person with an excellent memory.

Personally, I can only remember weeping when I read The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold and perhaps when I read Night by Elie Wiesel. I can't remember a poem that made me weep—although I remember countless that have moved me. What about you?

More, I have managed to write one unfinished story that managed to make readers weep. Yet, the reviews from those readers (friends only) are a bit mixed. When I first showed that story around, searching for feedback, I was stunned by the response. The fact of tears actually made the story much more difficult to revise. In fact, a year an a half later, I still haven't managed the task. Instead, I sent it off to The New Yorker assuming that the visceral response of some readers would certainly be replicated on the editors and result in a pleasant payday for me.


You see, overwhelming tears wasn't the only response. At least one person felt manipulated by the story. Another seemed disconnected enough from his emotions to workshop the piece as though we were still in college. So clearly, the story still had flaws. In fact, with more distance from the story, I recognize many of the flaws and will work to correct them someday.

I want to focus on that notion of manipulation, however. Naturally, any poem or story is designed to manipulate emotions. If a poem did not engage your emotions why would you read it? But where is the line between manipulative maudlin sentimentality and great literature like the memoir Night?

Well, unlike my story, Weisel’s Night engages our intellect. When I wept over that book, it did not seem to be an effect of the writing or the style. I did not feel as though the writer wanted me to cry. Rather, the writer was there with me, somehow managing to describe ineffable horrors. Weisel did not make me cry; he let me cry.

Perhaps, in a larger scheme of things, this is mere hair splitting, but I think it points to the expectations that readers have. For the written word—even a tiny poem—readers have far different expectations from what they expect from a song. With a song, like that track 5, it's a bonus if my intellect happens to be engaged. With the written word, on the other hand, if a writer can't engage one's intellect, then it's mere hack work. It might sell to Hallmark, but the majority of people I know will dismiss the work as a waste of time.

And there's the catch. The intellect and our emotions are often so very opposed that finding a work that engages both—powerfully and effectively—is near impossible. How do you do that?

In all honesty, I'm not sure. But, with each poem, and each story, I try. I work with sounds, structures, and metaphors, using every feasible technique I can master simply to match the sound of a piano chord in a minor key.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did you read Graham Greene's The End of the Affair? The book made me cry.

Also, the poem that almost made me cry was Bishop's One Art. (Not even sure if this is indeed the title - it's about the art of losing).

4:56 PM  
Blogger Les said...

The title of Elizabeth Bishop's poem is indeed "One Art". It's an amazing poem--one of the finest examples of a vilanelle in the English language.

If you aren't familiar with the poem or would like a second look:

Sadly, I'm not at all familiar with Graham Greene. I will add the book to my ever-growing list of things to read.

5:04 PM  
Anonymous Karen said...

Have you found yet some kind of poetry scene in Cincinnati? There was a really vibrant poetry scene there when I was at UC in the '70's.

4:02 PM  
Blogger Les said...

Karen: I haven't really found one, as yet. I suspect there's one here (I know a couple of folks, but no one well)--but I also suspect that it has ebbs and flows. I understand that in the late 90s it was hopping too.

I also live on the Westside, which seems far less bookish than the Eastside judging by the placement of bookstores.....

I'll keep looking though.

7:20 PM  
Anonymous Karen said...

I can't say pop songs make me cry but my favorites give me goose bumps emotionally or physically or both, which might be a different form of crying.

I like your blog; have to confess I found it when I was at the laptop to be writing, am trying to write a book on racism.

When I was at UC, the poetry scene I was in was just offshoots of our writing classes, people getting together to continue the camaraderie, isn't that the way it usually works? I think it's harder to find a writing support community after the college years.

At UC I took a poetry class with Denise Levertov who was poet in residence in '73 - loved her more than her poetry actually -- and Philip Levine, very kind man. Do you like either of their work? Hope you post some of your poems sometime.

8:35 PM  
Blogger Les said...

Karen: Thanks for your kind comments about my blog.

As for the poets you mentioned from your time at UC, I really like Levertov. I absolutely adore the work of Phil Levine. I envy his ability to make what seems the simplest language sublime.

Also, good luck with the book--and check out the work of Jim Daniels if you don't know it yet.

9:33 PM  

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