April 23rd, 2010 11:30 EST
Good Writing is Born of Silence: A Good Writer is Ruthless
I have a fat file of failed poems. I like to think of them as works in progress. Sometimes I pilfer from this file, but it`s not like a vampire`s harem; I don`t visit it at night.
I`m encouraged in this brutality towards botched ventures by the example of my mother (Juanita Guccione), an artist I used to watch at work. She kept no discard files. She was much more ruthless. She crumpled and burned drawings that failed to meet her expectations. She had two ironclad rules: never talk about or show anyone a painting until it`s finished, and unhesitatingly destroy a project that misfires.
When I became the executor of her estate I had more than one occasion to savor this. True, I eventually burned some of her drawings. It felt like a war crime. But I knew by the time I lit the burn barrel what would best serve her memory. Or I thought I knew. It`s an onerous task, and there`s no right or wrong, just woefully subjective judgment. I had the benefit of knowing she had herself been an unremitting self-critic. Still, I had always to wonder why she had spared certain works. Probably because they were notations, marginal notes that reminded her of a rite of passage.
Recently a fellow poet remarked in a review of my book, Far From Algiers, that he wishes I had reconsidered certain infelicitous lines. I couldn`t remember those lines when I read his review. But in a few hours, as I was recovering from a lingering handshake with swine flu, I remembered that their anti-poetic rawness had somehow pleased me, even though I knew they might rub the wrong way. Infelicity has its purposes. Still, I knew what he meant and I may have failed my own purpose.
As I thought about this I wondered if my mother had spared some drawings and paintings for the same reason. I often saw her break stretchers and stuff overworked canvases into the trash. I saw her ritually ball up drawings as if she savored the task. Sometimes she would smile at me, even wink. It didn`t seem to disturb her to have failed her own vision. I think she regarded it as a matter of course. Her wink was memorable for being so rare. She typically confronted life with a bolt-blue stare.
The work I burned and my own failed file consist of efforts to override failure by overworking the material, efforts to cheat the inevitable. It`s one thing to overpaint, leaving pentimento, but it`s another thing to belabor a vision until it becomes a mockery of itself, a bit too much of everything. A not insignificant part of art is knowing when to stop. Nothing serves a poet better than silence. This is why poets instinctively understand Paul CÃ©zanne`s bare canvas.
One reason I keep failed poems is that I like to see how I got to a certain impasse. My cross-outs, zigzags, loops, underlines, word reversals, word switches, etc, remind me of my state of mind, and every so often I am able to double back and pick up the trail I had originally intended to follow. Another function of the failed file is to see what characteristically eludes me, to dissect the way my mind plays tricks on me and leads me down blind alleys. Poems, after all, are my algorithms, and when they go wrong they sometimes reveal to me what my mind has carefully hidden, usually because it`s too painful to confront.
There are poets "A. Alvarez, the critic-poet comes to mind "who are excitingly merciless towards their own work. I don`t regard this as masochistic. I regard this as self-respect. I wish I had more of it. I do discard a great deal of work, but I should discard more. And I`m aware that I`ve forced poems into being before their time. I`m less tolerant of my fiction, something I think about a great deal these days as I read Louis-Ferdinand CÃ©line`s Voyage Au Bord de la Nuit, wishing I could have kicked him in the shins for that forest of exclamation marks. Still, I find myself lurking in that forest, imagining myself one of its loony creatures. And this perhaps suggests that we can be dogmatic about an artist`s intentions to our detriment.
It was once chic to criticize the poet Hart Crane for torturing his stanzas, freighting them to the breaking point. Because I admire Crane`s vision I have wrestled with this once voguish critique and in my old age I find it a bit facile, much as it once impressed me. The sting in this criticism of Crane was that he was pretentious, but my late-life take is that he eschewed artfulness for its own sake and deferred to the complex workings of our minds as a kind of mirrored iteration of his own. That is, he did not think it befitting in the 20th Century to write poems any less perplexing than our own minds. In other words, he was criticized for an act of respect.
This is perhaps an all too tortured rationale itself, but I propose it because again and again in old age I find ideas that once seduced me to be clever by half. Taken by such ideas, I declined to read CÃ©line in my youth only to find now that what he said in the 1930s about human folly is even more harrowing than when he said it. I listened to critics when I should have discovered writers and their subjects for myself. Sometimes the critics posit themselves as shortcuts around scholarship and inquiry, and that is rarely a good thing.
Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.
His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal LattÃ© first prize in fiction in 2008. His poems have been published in The American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, poemeleon, The Same, and other journals. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.
Del`s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal LattÃ©`s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother`s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt`s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com