Tuesday, November 20, 2007

How to Avoid Using Cliches 2: Insight

Pursuing the idea that developing insight is important to poetry, let's start with a reminder about clichés: they tend to be superficial glosses. They tend to miss the point, and all the nuances, because they don't go deep enough. Clichés avoid the hard work of diving into a subject, wading around, and finding out everything you can. Clichés desire to be superficial, because real life is too much work. Clichés are reductive: they minimize every nuance into a rhetorical soundbyte. They overlook the details in favor of a pithy and supercilious remark.

A cliché cannot evoke insight, because genuine insight will supercede any cliché, and show it to be hollow and empty. True knowing, even knowing that you don't know, is the most effective cliché-killer of all.

For example, let's look at a cliché about art, that became a literary/critical cliché in its own right. Calling the Annie Proulx short story Brokeback Mountain the "gay cowboy story," or calling the movie made from the short story the "gay cowboy movie," completely misses the point. It doesn't tell you what the story is really about. Proulx herself has talked about the fact that this was a rural love story set in a rural place, at a time when such a love was just heartbreakingly impossible. It still is, mostly. I've lived in Wyoming and New Mexico; I've spent a lot of time in Texas, Montana, and the other western states; I can say with utter certainty that the story of Brokeback Mountain is still happening, in various ways. The heartbreak isn't a thing of the past; men like this still exist, still stuck in those patterns of belief and culture that make expressing such love uneasy at best, impossible at worst.

Worse, the cliché that such a story is a "gay cowboy" story ignores the context and beauty of the land in which it is set. The story takes place mostly in the Big Horn Mountains, which straddle the borders of Wyoming and Montana. There's a lot of open prairie there, but there are also some of the most beautifull mountains in the western USA. It's horse country, and sheep country, and cattle country: ranch-hand country, cowboy country. The context of cowboy culture, usually shyly laconic or speechless in the face of social gatherings, knows not what to say about two basicaly ordinary uneducated ranch-raised cowboys accidentally falling in love with each other. The tragedy of the story is that it can never work—not because gay love cannot work, but because in 1963 Wyoming "gay love" isn't even a concept on the map. It's not even words anybody would put together, there and then. The geography and environment are like characters in both story and film versions: characters larger and more silent still than the protagonists. The sheer beauty of the land, as well as its harrshness and implacability, are presences felt constantly, in all the scenes in which the actors move. The Big Sky is its own presence, its own character, out there. It's something you can never forget, because it so dominates every vista.

So, if you can still call it a "gay cowboy" story, I pity you. That's a typical ignorant city-bound viewpoint to call it that, from someone who's never lived out there, under that sky, in all that continuous wind.

Ignorance is always curable. It is easily curable. All it requires is the ability to read, a little bit of empathy, and maybe some little bit of travel experience. So, ignorance, being totally curable, has no excuse.

Insight requires you to get your feet wet and your hands dirty. It requires you to wade in there and get dirtied by the mire and blood and messiness of real life.

If you're going to write a poem about some topic you haven't experienced for yourself, get the details right. This is the truth that lies behind the writer's platitude Write what you know—the truth that writing is often more compelling when it's based in experience. But the other side of experience is imagination, and a writer's vivid imagination can go boldly where the writer herself has not. The key to making it work, though, is believability, and believability lies in the details. Get the details: do your research: visit your locales if you can. Notice the quality of air and light wherever you go.

I've had negative responses to some of my poems because I talk about an ineffable quality of air and light in the place where the poem happens. People didn't believe it, they thought it was artistic hyperbole—until I showed them the photographs I took there, and they realized that I was not at all exaggerating, merely reporting. For example, here's a photo of the Taos Plateau in New Mexico.

The Sangre de Christo Mountains are in the background. The sunset light hit a veil of descending rain coming from the low clouds. It was minutes before sunset. I slammed on the brakes, pulled the truck over and ran out onto the plateau to capture as many photos as I could before the light faded. It was chilly and windy, and when I got back to my trailer, a little later, I had a bitter cold night. I huddled in my blankets for hours, doing nothing but trying to read, drink tea, and stop shivering. But it was all worth it, to capture this one photo. The secret of my photography is very simple: Always carry a camera with you, and always be ready to drop everything to get that one photo, if you happen to be in the right place at the right moment. Never hesitate to drop everything. Never hesitate to ignore people staring at you, wondering what the heck you're doing.

So, look at that photo. How would you describe that light to someone who has never seen it, or even been outside the boundaries of their city existences, even if they've moved from city to city?


Insight means immersion. It means being willing to drop everything for the sake of a poem. It means gathering experience and memories like fuel for an invisible fire. It means being willing to go well out of your way to make sure your research bears fruit. It means travel—but it means more than mere tourism.

Rainer Maria Rilke, in 1910, in his autobiographical novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, wrote this, which stands as good advice for any poet willing to immerse themselves in life:

. . . Ah, poems amount to so little when you write them too early in your life. You ought to wait and gather sense and sweetness for a whole lifetime, and a long one if possible, and then, at the very end, you might perhaps be able to write ten good lines. For poems are not, as people think, simply emotions (one has emotions early enough)—they are experiences. For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and Things, you must understand animals, must feel how birds fly, and know the gesture which small flowers make when they open in the morning. You must be able to think back to streets in unknown neighborhoods, to unexpected encounters, and to partings you had long seen coming; to days of childhood whose mystery is still unexplained, to parents whom you had to hurt when they brought in a joy and you didn't pick it up (it was a joy meant for somebody else—); to childhood illnesses that began so strangely with so many profound and difficult transformations, to days in quiet restrained rooms and to mornings by the sea, to the sea itself, to seas, to nights of travel that rushed along high overhead and went flying with all the stars,— and it is still not enough to be able to think of all that. You must have memories of many nights of love, each one different from all the others, memories of women screaming in labour, and of light, pale sleeping girls who have just given birth and are closing again. But you must also have been beside the dying, must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window and the scattered noises. And it is not yet enough to have memories. You must be able to forget them when they are many, and you must have the immense patience to wait until they return. For the memories themselves are not important. Only when they have changed into our very blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves—only then can it happen that in some very rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them. (trans. by Stephen Mitchell)

So, insight takes patience, and work, and time. Time to come to fruition, to grow into our lives. Time well-spent while we appear to be doing other things. (An artist is never not making art, no matter what else they appear to be doing.)

The reason Proulx' short story Brokeback Mountain works is because it doesn't try to impose a false narrative on the messy details of life. The author describes the details well, and gets them right. The story doesn't end: it just stops. It has a concluding thought, but really it just stops. You know that the lives of the characters go on—those still living anyway—and that there are things that happen after the story ends, which are not told. (One mark of the impact of a good story on the reader is, you want to know what happens next, after the story ends.) The story relates the messiness of life to the by not trying to impose a logically coherent narrative, with an artificial beginning and end; the author doesn't try to shoehorn the story into a conventional narrative format, or force an ending that rings like a church bell in some stiff attempt to tie up all the loose ends. The loose ends in the story dangle there, unresolved. The characters get caught up in the mire and blood of real life, sometimes literally. And they go on, as messily as ever, having learned at least not to repeat their same mistakes.

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Blogger Dan said...

Re: Brokeback. The cliche was not that it was a gay cowboy story, but a gay cowboy love story.

There is no love between the two main characters, merely lust. Putting aside the changes in the film from the story, which was easily the worst in that collection, the critical cliche was the insertion of the word love. Granted, there were a boatload of cliches and hamhanded symbolism in the screenplay and tale- such as the shirt within a shirt in the dead guy's closet

Had this been a hetero tale, neither character would have been looked upon with sympathy- they would have been deemed immoral adulterers who destroyed their families.

Neither person is deep, we do not get a dram of insight into who they are, and why they are. All of a sudden, after the Aussie guy spends a half hour inaudibly grunting, he decides to play choo-choo. Out of nowhere, which only reinforces another cliche- that of the gay man who'll fuck anything with a hole.

But, due to the PC times, the use of the word 'love' was proffered so as not to be deemed anti-gay- another example of where a cliche, or ten, just begets another banality.

7:34 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Really? The shirt within a shirt was a cliché? Can you cite where you've seen that image before? I doubt it.

Your comments are pretty homophobic, overall: "the gay man who'll fuck anything with a hole." Actually, if you really want to get your clichés right, you should have referred to bisexual guys who'll "fuck anything that moves." Since both men had children, and wives, I think we can safely say they were bisexual.

As for PC, that's a predictable target for you to pick, since it requires no thoughtful analysis, only the throwing of firebombs at the nearest shibboleth. I love how most people who decry PC as evil don't really even know what it means. Did you get that one from Rush Limbaugh?


10:15 PM  

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