Books

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Beauty Is Truth

This week Irene McKinney, Poet Laureate of West Virginia, came to my classroom. She already read in our reading series Writers at Newark, so we knew her tough minded great poems and her straightforward manner--she gave a great reading. In class she gave us a lot of wisdom in a short period, two bits of which made everyone lean forward. One was to take a good look at the place you are from, your place, and see what's there for your work. She told us that for a long time she believed her place, rural West Virginia, wasn't a place at all, but nowhere special. It wasn't until she read the poet Gary Snyder that she understood that her deep relationship with her farm might actually be the subject of poetry. A lot of us could relate to that--our places seem too familiar to be interesting. Too specific and foreign to others. 

Yet we know to be true that familiarity and specificity ground us. We may not have experience of Jane Eyre's cold wet houses, or Willa Cather's empty deserts, but these writers lead us to understand how the human mind experiences such places. When an author offers the details that connect a person to a place, and shows the flux between them, he or she opens the place to meaning. Any place can be found to have a profound meaning when the relationship between it and its creatures is discerned.

Irene McKinney
Irene also suggested to us that we write about our shame--not the public embarrassments, but the private shames that only we know about. Doing this will ground us in honesty and possibility with our writing, and let us know what it feels like to be fearless witnesses of our own experiences. I loved her suggesting this; it's both leveling and revealing. You surely see who you think is looking over your shoulder when you're writing, as well as finding out what aspects of yourself you don't really care to think about. Maybe these are necessary to have at hand.

One thing I love about Irene's work is that she doesn't try to lift up the hard feelings in her poems. She simply follows them. Hard, hard to do. Hard not to want to be transformative.

Written down by George Keats
Thinking of all this prompted me to look up Keats' Ode to a Grecian Urn. I turned to it thinking of the famous lines he quotes from Joshua Reynolds. "Beauty is truth, truth beauty." I wanted to read them again, in context. Here are lines that come just a little before the quote:

Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral! 

Oh, I just love that. Cold pastoral, those frozen figures on the urn, and, I feel, the cold beauty of direct perception, beauty discerned in relation to what we can't see as beautiful; aging, death. Paradoxically, when I read great poetry, I get this exalted sense that everything actually is beautiful. That is the truth.  Thanks, John Keats. Thanks, Irene McKinney.

4 comments:

  1. Thank you. I especially like "...or Willa Cather's empty deserts, but these writers lead us to understand how the human mind experiences such places." How the human mind experiences . . . that frees us up to write honestly and honest writing frees us up to write read and talk honestly. And live (maybe).

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  2. "When an author offers the details that connect a person to a place, and shows the flux between them, he or she opens the place to meaning. Any place can be found to have a profound meaning when the relationship between it and its creatures is discerned."

    --That's the smartest articulation of place I've ever read; it gets to feelings I've been trying to describe to myself, and to my students, for years. It goes instantly onto the Quotations for Fiction Writers worksheet I pass out every semester. Thank you.

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  3. Sarah, that's how I feel, too--writing can make one a more honest person. thanks for saying so.

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  4. Paul, I think you're the one who inspired me to grasp this. So thank you back.

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