I’m a hoarder, I’ll admit. Whenever I see hoarders on cable, they sound delusional while they wax romantic about literal pieces of trash. In like fashion, I’m not using the delete button on this blog nearly enough.
There’s lots to tweak, twist, and completely transform, indicating this blog is a notebook more than a collection of essays. It works best when I make myself rethink and rewrite. I recently cleaned up an entry on Auden’s “The Fall of Rome”. Auden’s imagery is vivid: torrential rains, menacing waves, various Roman personages in roles with which we can relate. Doing justice to his work was a matter of keeping things simple. The rewrite I’m most proud of is on Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody! Who are You?” The old comment on that poem was utter gibberish. The more recent one takes a radical line of interpretation, holding until it yields.
In what follows, I’m going to document some of the myriad ways I have failed. I’m guessing it’s important I have a list of the things I’m prone to do wrong. I hope this list is of some help to those of you who are working on your writing. Without further ado:
Jumping into analysis without preparing the reader
This is probably the number one problem making most of this blog useless. It’s really funny: if it gets solved, I probably get a lot more confidence and a larger audience. The range and depth I’ve covered over the years is pretty good, to say the least.
And how have I done justice to that range and depth? By writing complete crap. For example, in a comment on Louise Bogan’s “Knowledge,” I discussed the poem with a person far more capable than me (good), turning that discussion into a disorganized pile of slop (not so good). Let’s start with the poem:
Now that I know
That passion warms little
Of flesh in the mold,
And treasure is brittle,
I’ll lie here and learn
How, over their ground,
Trees make a long shadow
And a light sound.
It’s simple and beautiful and cryptic in just the right way. Bogan describes something that sounds like disappointment over a relationship, as she says “passion warms little of flesh.” But she could also be voicing a more general disappointment, for “treasure is brittle.” There are yet more twists involved: Why use the phrase, to be more exact, “flesh in the mold?” And why does her “knowledge” result in lying down under a tree?
See how simple that was? Instead of writing anything like that, I wrote this mess to start:
Temperance made a bunch of neat observations. “Know” in the first stanza potentially conflicting with “[will] learn” opening the second stanza is the one I remember most. What we spent the most time discussing was the nature of the “passion” invoked. “Passion warms little” cannot possibly mean the speaker is herself dispassionate. But how exactly do we account for that numbness, say, when relationships fall apart? When we don’t want something anymore, but still want it?
This is far from the worst thing written on the blog. It ends with serious questions that concern the feeling the poem conveys. It also contains a very sharp, easy-to-miss observation in the second sentence. But it comes out of nowhere after the poem and just throws stuff at the reader. Every opening line is an opportunity, and this one wastes the opening especially. Every opening paragraph is an opportunity… yeah, you get the idea.
Doing analysis but not preparing the reader for it is a matter of priorities gone astray. I’m assuming my readers reread and think through things, and they do. Still, that’s a dangerous assumption in terms of craft: it can make me hopelessly unclear and lacking impact exactly where I could most be authoritative.
It’s not a bad thing to think out loud on the page. It is a bad thing, though, when you generate paragraphs like this (I do not expect you to read the whole paragraph below):
Animal souls in places moving across or downward are contrasted with the all-too-human speaker. Is “in the dark” a place? The animal souls seem defined by motion, even as the landscape becomes still. Is human being that which can choose rest? That correspondence between one’s wants and a natural order (no-thing) might make us both “sleepy” and “benign.” Still, perhaps I said too much in mentioning “correspondence.” The speaker is waiting for some sort of message. The mail coming late and the singing that will come in another season strongly imply that we don’t simply let nature speak to us, for good reason. Our whole sense of “hearing” may be a process of listening and responding conditioned by interaction with other humans. Moreover, despite the wonderful placidness of this poem, there are strong overtones of death (no, I don’t want to get into when this poem was written in Kenyon’s life. You can look that up for yourself). The vole don’t have a terribly long lifespan; the nuthatch dives downward. “Nothing I want” recalls the 23rd Psalm, snow covers the landscape, and that pond literally reflects what is above it.
What the hell does any of this mean? It concerns Jane Kenyon’s elegant “Dark Morning: Snow,” reproduced below:
It falls on the vole, nosing somewhere
through weeds, and on the open
eye of the pond. It makes the mail
The nuthatch spirals head first
down the tree.
I’m sleepy and benign in the dark.
There’s nothing I want…
The vole, on the ground, nosing through weeds. Then, higher, a mailbox, and maybe even higher a nuthatch, spiraling in descent alongside a tree. Kenyon’s imagery, dusted with snow, asks a question: Where, in all this, does the speaker fit? “Sleepy and benign” seems a non-answer. Her position lies the very opposite of the ascent she’s detailed. It’s a mystery into which we’ve been initiated, as snow dictates to every other creature and process, but our human speaker imagines, observes, wonders.
Not writing enough
I could rail at myself right now for carelessness, lack of organization, not doing enough research, going for higher thoughts when more mundane ones are warranted, failing to respond to my own work well-enough. I should rail at myself for those things.
However, saying “I do too much analysis” and “I ramble” presents a problem of its own. That problem is not merely hypothetical, as I’ve published so much that I’ve run into it numerous times. In a number of instances, I simply do not write enough, leaving the reader on an island.
I have entries on Plato’s “Cleitophon” and “Lovers” which have been edited heavily and are still not of the quality they should be. The posts are clumsy and not tightly organized. But the big problem is that I don’t explain anything at the moment things most need to be gone over in detail and clarified. Let’s look at two passages from my commentary on Plato’s “Lovers:”
In both attempts to define philosophy, the problem lies not with philosophy’s supposed nobility, but rather with how it can be useful. This is a strange critique of philosophy. Socrates in Aristophanes’ Clouds taught the unjust speech, which was most useful and highly ignoble. Here, the boys already are immersed in and eager to do philosophy; this does not constitute the majority of Athens, who are addicted to drama and spectacle. In fact, the setting is specifically the schoolhouse of Dionysus. A Dionysus was said to have been the teacher of Plato (Leake 80, fn. 1).
The way most people understand the virtuous or noble focuses on whether it is good for them or not. Moralistic fables where the virtuous are rewarded abound. It is possible to believe that self-sacrifice constitutes such an honor that one thinks it the only good worth having. The wrestler’s complaint about the debate, though, shows that a demonstration of utility with an implied reverence for the city and its gods will suffice for him.
Truth be told, while there’s some disorganization at play here, these paragraphs are not that bad. However, because I haven’t fleshed out every important concept – only a few – these passages feel more disorganized than they are. The first major problem emerges in the first paragraph above. Aristophanes critiqued philosophy as mercenary, ignoble but most useful. What exactly that has to do with the present setting is ambiguous. A clearer statement about the audience of the boys, who are in love with trying to be wise, would help enormously. I should have been emphatic that the boys are not going to see philosophy as ignoble no matter what Socrates argues.
However, since I wasn’t entirely clear about that, the details pile on as the material gets more complicated. The boys of the “Lovers” are only one part of Socrates’ immediate audience. He also engages a musician who fancies himself philosophic and a wrestler who is an obnoxious brute. “The way most people understand the virtuous or noble focuses on whether it is good for them or not:” this line speaks to those two men. It seems to contradict the Aristophanean critique directly. A few sentences before, the noble was not the useful, end of conversation. Now I’m saying that most people understand the noble as useful.
Obviously, these are difficulties a little thought can resolve: the solution to the immediate difficulty is in plain sight. While I’m committed to working on as many blog entries as I can, revising until things are perfect, I’m not too worried about the one on Plato’s “Lovers.” The conclusion there is strong enough to carry the rest of my messy musings.
Still, I should have written more. Maybe not to be clearer, in this case, but to introduce a puzzle and flesh out its parameters better. Wondering about Socrates’ audience, about what each participant wants, is the heart of Plato.
I can’t panic about writing badly. I just need to write more and keep moving forward, editing when I can. In that spirit, will the above list help me? Can it help you?
To be fair, let’s list what I’ve written that’s decent. Not perfect, but can be of use, and maybe even demonstrate thoughtfulness:
I’ve got more than that, I know. At the very least, I owe myself this much. It’s weird being a writer who’s failed in so many ways, who features a singular clumsiness with words, yet might have some small, strange legacy. Only “might,” as self-delusion is so much more likely. Still, no one ever said bad writing was unimportant or unnecessary writing.