Poetry is the journal of the sea animal living on land, wanting to fly in the air.
-Carl Sandburg

I saw this quote (which seems to be the accurate one) re-stated in this way: Poetry is a diary kept by a sea creature who lives on land and wishes he could fly.

Not to demean the original, but my own mind gravitates toward the second version of this.

The comparison of these two versions brings me directly to the heart of what has been brewing in my head, regarding poetry, for the last few weeks.

Reading Cormac McCarthy's two masterpiece books (The Road and Blood Meridian) helped me learn something very important about my own work.
Reading Cormac McCarthy’s two masterpiece books (The Road and Blood Meridian) helped me learn something very important about my own work.

 

It all started during a week-long “break” I took from blogging, podcasting, and teaching. During that week, I did some prep work for the final two classes I would teach for the most recent courses. One course (Reading as a Writer: Cormac McCarthy) was the sort of course I teach as much for myself as for the students who attended it. This was the third time I taught a Reading as a Writer course, and each of the first two times, I selected authors I thought could speak to the work I was doing: Graham Greene and Madeleine L’Engle.

This time around, I deferred to a request of one of the students/writers who has been a constant and valuable member of various groups over the last several years. I also wanted to read McCarthy, because I had tried, years ago, and couldn’t quite understand what the fuss was about.

We soldiered through Blood Meridian and then moved on down The Road. The class was coming near it’s final week and while I had been moved and impressed by the prose, I wasn’t yet sure what my take-away lesson was going to be: How would these books change the way I saw my own work? What could I add to the tool-belt of my own prose, having read McCarthy’s two most-lauded works?

I knew the answer had something to do with the language McCarthy uses in his descriptions and exposition. I knew it had to do with setting and a sense of place and the way he is able to set a very precise tone through his word choice and empowered by his selection of significant detail.

As I was reading some additional material about McCarthy, I came across an essay that had reprinted a section from the opening of his early novel, Suttree. That section read like this:

Weeds sprouted from cinder and brick. A steamshovel reared in solitary abandonment against the night sky. Cross here. By frograils and fishplates where engines cough like lions in the dark of the yard. To a darker town, past lamps stoned blind, past smoking oblique shacks and china dogs and painted tires where dirty flowers grow. Down pavings rent with ruin, the slow cataclysm of neglect, the wires that belly pole to pole across the constellations hung with kitestring, with bolos composed of hobbled bottles or the toys of the smaller children. Encampment of the damned.

Classic McCarthy.

But seeing this description lifted from the novel and placed alone in the flow of an essay caused me to read it differently. I read it twice. Then a third time.

I read it out loud.

And then I took my Lamy fountain pen, filled with a lovely fall-brown ink (Brilliant-Brown, from Pelikan) and I rewrote those words. Unlike the Sandburg quote above, I did not change a single word. Or punctuation. But I did write it quite differently.

Weeds sprouted from cinder and brick. A steamshovel
     reared in solitary abandonment against the night sky.
Cross here.
By frograils and fishplates where engines cough like lions
     in the dark of the yard. To a darker town, past lamps
stoned blind, past smoking oblique shacks
     and china dogs
          and painted tires where dirty flowers grow. Down pavings rent with ruin,
the slow cataclysm of neglect,
     the wires that belly pole to pole across the constellations
hung with kitestring, with bolos composed of hobbled bottles
     or the toys of the smaller children.
Encampment of the damned.

I’m not sure this is the final form I settled on that day. I played with the words a while, trying different line breaks, and somehow lost the paper I was writing on in the time since, but I think even this version shows, quite clearly, what I was doing.

McCarthy’s descriptions are poems. Or, nearly so.

He is playing with words, much like a poet does (this is, at least, my impression) to make every beat, every breath, every syllable count for something.

When I brought this forward to the class, at the last meeting, one of the other writer/students said something very profound. She had not liked reading McCarthy. The riding, the killing, the riding, the death, the riding and walking and riding and cannibalism and more walking and riding still. “But,” she said, “if I just take the book, and open it to a random page, and just read a paragraph or two, I am struck by the power of the words.”

Struck, indeed.

McCarthy’s words are forceful. Often they are cringe-worthy, especially in these two books. But they are never inane. And I doubt they are ever accidental.

I get the feeling that almost every syllable has been massaged and played with, just in the same way a poet will labor over every word choice, every word placement, every break in line. His words are surgical. Specific. Refined and delicate in their brute force.

Yet, here I am, wielding a blunt instrument as I pound out words for the next short story or peck away at the mountain of trash that needs to be removed from my novel.

It isn’t just the intricacies of a McCarthy setting I need to learn to add to my own work, it is this poet’s mindset. I’m sure I’m not the first to come to this conclusion, but it was a powerful one, for me.

Tomorrow, I will expand on this a little more.

McCarthy and The Road to an Epiphany
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