Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Le mot juste

What's in a name? that which we call a word
By any other name would drive us just as mad.

Sorry for taking liberties with your immortal lines, Will, but I have good reason. As a few of you may know, the one creative act that I've made a concerted effort to explore - because I'm that much worse with everything else - is poetry. And as all of you should know, the building blocks, the soil, the rocks, the clay, add your own cliché, of verse are words. The meaning they hold - literal, personal, abstract or, as is usually the case, a dash of each - the way they look on the printed page - or the screen - the way they sound to the ear, both by themselves or in relation to the words and lines embracing them, all of these linguistic, visual and aural textures come into play when writing, and for those of us not gifted with genius, we have to work all the harder to hopefully rise even a smidgen above mediocrity, trying our damnedest to avoid the syrupy, the maudlin, the mundane.

Often, a phrase or an idea will pop into my head out of nowhere and without thinking - if I'm lucky enough to have a notebook or any piece of paper nearby, though the skin is always present as a last resort - I'll transcribe it, not giving its quality a second thought. Just get the words down now and worry about the rest later. Even more often, as I'm lost in daydream, something will come, something is borne on the images and colors and sensations that filter through that hallucinatory mist to become words. Those too will be recorded on paper.

There is one final, broad category that I must address, for it is the most troublesome, nerve-wracking and sleep-depriving of all: the solitary word. Sometimes excised from verse I am working on, sometimes manifesting out of the blue or chosen with a purpose, a lone word can be the perfect starting point to a wonderful piece or a tough, thick vine twisting around my feet keeping me from moving any further. Perhaps it's broad enough in sense and meaning to be the quotidian seed from which a rich bouquet will grow, a clean palimpsest of cultural or personal experience that hides secrets, seen if only I'd look closer. Maybe I simply like the sound, the way it appears to the eye. In each instance, the word is insistent in its continued existence, in the same way a disdained melody or song throbs in your head without cease, no matter what remedies you apply.

But this? This is much worse. You know that in time, that godawful music will disappear. This word will not until it is transformed into the root of a creative act and nothing you do, not ignoring it, delving into another activity, putting up a blogpost full of scantily-clad ladies, writing an angry letter to your Congressperson, nor drinking heavily can hope to change that universal truth. This beautiful, maddening seductress cannot be sated. There is no protective circle, there is no crucifix, no silver bullet. There is no escape.

So what are you waiting for, fool? There's the discarded word. Write.


Most would be hit with visions of the mysterious, of the dead upon seeing or reading that word. I've woven patterns of the former in some of my works, not too much of the latter, save the occasional vampiric metaphor. But only in an alluring, come hither kind of way, not with a 'I vant to suck your blut!' I very much dig the old Universal and Hammer Horror flicks, but those aren't all that romantic, now are they? I'm certainly not aiming for things associated with a crypt, at least not in a motif of dark, dank limestone slabs housing rotting corpses. Though something is indeed sleeping, a feeling long dormant, or long searched for and found - possibly - at last. Here's where the mystery comes in.

Mystery. What does that word conjure up? Or the penultimate word of the previous sentence? No, despite the apparent ease of A linking to B bringing up C, the verse itself remains unclear. Yet there is a definite accumulation of related concepts: mystery, ambiguity, conjuring, magic, sorcery. Not in a cheesy, MMORPG sense, though many would no doubt interject a "hey, Randal, the other way is just as cheesy, you dumb fuck." You're right. To you, probably, it is. But being a big sap who won't write about my cat or my job or doing the dishes or strangely attired passers-by or existential problems or politics no matter how much I may want to because I simply cannot regardless of how hard I try, I'm stuck with, aside from the occasional nature poem with impressions quietly pilfered from John Clare - shhh, don't tell anyone - the emotion that, above all others, drives humanity fucking insane.

Thus, I build around that word floating in a sea of reverie, waves of consonance and assonance and rhyme battering, smoothing out the rough edges, leaving jagged those that need to be sharp. The word itself, with Greco-Roman roots, has a whiff of the Anglo-Saxon, not exactly ponderous, yet still heavy. A disruptive sound in need of softening. Both literally and emotionally, another word beginning with a hard C fits as the perfect suffix: caress.

Cryptic caress? How fucking stupid, no? Yet, find opposition between ideas of death and life, of the unseen obscured in the dark and the tactile feeling of a lover's hand on your flesh - another word that will find place in a line in time - all which circles back to the shadows in twilight, the red of the setting sun flush with the imprint of love, both won and lost, despised and longed-for, the shock of that touch, soon soft, then gone. And what is more mysterious, more damning than love itself, a sentimental ouroboros that we hope will protect us yet can just as easily be nothing but a prison? In my mind and heart, at least, I know and feel what this one word, now two, means, so it must be moved from the first line to the last of the first stanza. The foundation, though remaining visually so for these four lines, becomes the emotional denouement, the pinnacle, the spire in the clouds, before le deuxième acte.

Yet, the lines that lead to this climax remain unknown. They must be uncovered syllable by syllable. So many structures of antiquity were shaped in stone; they were permanent, both a guardian and a barrier. Thus,

Raising the stone
removes the obstacle and permits the passions to be free,
allows the fire to roam,
forsaking the sleep, the hibernation that maliciously dulls the senses, that lulls desire to become dormant, creating emotional inertia -
leave the void of velvet slumber behind.
Now awake to burn away the veil that deadened our perception, that left a placid heart beating unfulfilled; a perception true for so long begins to melt with that fire
Spreading throughout the nightmare of the soul,
returning with a gentle fury, the inflamed hope of our being, welcoming the turbulence one can only find with another,
in spirit and flesh, your cryptic caress.
The entire piece remains in the dark, but there, where I could not see very far, was dappled with the merest light whose spell began to break through, pushing me to write further, capturing the unspoken that offers the gentle illusion of you, the cause of this joy lost in the firmament. Stormy, unstable passions you give to me, those barriers crumbling to dust as does my strength, my resolve. Cursed with the inability to handle the ideal, my pleas collapse as your fire vanishes, the last chords of your grand symphony, along with the terminal sounds of my feeble verse, fading into silence. The stone is replaced, shutting out the final strains of light, your imagined caress now my crypt. Through the course of twenty-eight lignes en decasyllable I am brought to hinted-at ecstasies far too short in duration - and the inevitable return to the precipice, the plunge back into darkness where I hope that another perfect word in the days ahead can gift to me one more moment, however fleeting, of love.


PoliShifter said...

I think this is way above my head. But I did hear Chuck Norris mutter something to the Huckster about how poetry is for pussies.

Mary Ellen said...

Polishifter, I just opened up the comments to say something very nice and I read your comment and burst out laughing.

Ok--composing myself....What I wanted to say, Randal, is that you are amazing and your wife is lucky to have you.

Scarlet W. Blue said...

...a lone word can be the perfect starting point to a wonderful piece or a tough, thick vine twisting around my feet keeping me from moving any further. Perhaps it's broad enough in sense and meaning to be the quotidian seed from which a rich bouquet will grow, a clean palimpsest of cultural or personal experience that hides secrets....

I think your prose is poetic.

Now I feel bad about my profanity post. Damn you!

b said...

This is unbelievably beautiful, Randal. So powerful, easily tugging at some of my deepest emotions. Each word, each sentence is full and so well placed. There is a profound and alluring mystery to this, indeed. Please keep writing and sharing your amazing gift!!

Dr. Zaius said...

"What's in a name? that which we call a word..."

Letters, mostly.

Randal Graves said...

Poli, oh shit, really? Well, guess I better take up hunting!

ME, it made me laugh, too. :) Merci - don't worry, I won't cry, muah - but better tell her that!

SWB, you're too kind, but hey, I'll be back to swearing like a fucking sailor any moment now. Everyone now and then just have to spill a bit o' the guts of a non-political variety, you know?

b, you're also too kind. Love is just one of those odd things that even when you're in it, there's still this undercurrent of sadness, of something that's askew. I don't know, it's really hard to explain exactly what I'm trying to say, but I think you know what I mean. If not, I'll tell you when I figure it out!

Dr. Zaius, letters. Mostly. I know what this is, another one of your digs at IG-88! Sure, he's no Boba Fett, but is it HIS fault he has numbers as part of his factory-installed nomenclature? I'm both shocked and appalled.

pissed off patricia said...

Even though it's pretty early in the day and I'm fairly sure most of my body is still asleep, I'm thinking I loved reading your post. When the rest of me wakes up, my opinion may change. ;)

Candace said...

See Randal? Your prose is awesome. Now, let's see, what rhymes with cryptic...

Freida Bee said...


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mary Ellen said...

Here's a rhyme for cryptic, Candace...ecliptic. How's that work for ya?

Anonymous said...

Randal, you've probably seen me floating around other sites we have in common and perhaps I may have commented on your site once or twice, but in my concerted effort to broaden my scope of blogs I read, coming across this one today set my muse on fire.

I, too, like to dabble in verse. For some reason, I hate the idea of self-identifying as a poet because I feel it constricts me to just this form of writing.

The thing I dug most about this post was the way you weaved snippets of verse into your prose, which I imagine happened in a stream of consciousness moment. Brilliant.

Then there were words like palimpsest that simply left me limp with envy. Fuck! Where did you pull that one from! Nice.

Anyway, I added yours to my blog roll and have an RSS-feed to it in my blog bookmarks.

And, if I may answer Candace for you, how about septic?

Randal Graves said...

POP, thanks for the, er, compliment. ;-)

Candace, synaptic, elliptic. Er, apocalyptic.

Freida Bee, clandestine ninja verse, mon amie.

Spartacus, I hear you. The sobriquet 'poet' should be used for those that actually are on a full time basis. I'm just a dude that writes some. I've only written one piece of fiction, but that's so fucking horrible I'm not sure I'll ever attempt that again any time soon.

As for palimpsest, I knew that reading all those goddamn history books for years would pay off. :) Many thanks for your kind words. I saw that you had posted some of yours up on your blog and I dig them. I might actually have to start doing that here on occasion.

But, septic? I suppose in a poem about Bush that might work. ;-)

ME, you have two rhyming words. Write a poem and post it on your blog. Pretty please with sugar and sprinkles and crumbled-up cookie things?

b said...

No, I fully appreciate what you are saying about love containing both sadness and joy. Love is one of the most powerful things a person can feel and just as with life, it contains sadness and joy, often simultaneously. To be aware of their simultaneous presence is to understand life. And what is more important for a remarkable poet like yourself to understand?

There are plenty of obscurities in life and that is the great mystery you are drawn to. I tend to be the same...gravitating toward the obscure, not to know/name/master it but to enjoy its obscurity, to draw inspiration from it and to accept it.

Again, this is powerful and beautiful. Can I ask you... how did/do you feel when you are writing this and/or after writing it?

Mary Ellen said...

Randal- Nah...I'm not planning any more posts for awhile. Not sure what I'm doing with my blog.

But here ya go....

There once was a blogga from Chicaga
Who wouldn't vote for Obama
The rumors are flyin'
A set of white sheets she's buyin'
To attend the local KKK-orama.

Ok...a poet I'm not, but according to a blogger who has said it on his blog and two others, I am a racist.

Time for me to drop out of politics and stick to dirty jokes and sci-fi movies.

Randal Graves said...

b, I'm glad you get what I'm saying so I don't have to try to via some boring, long-winded thing! But do you mean what I felt while writing this or the poem itself?

ME, ???

My Inner French Girl said...


I love how much you really, really enjoy language and all the gifts it presents the writer willing to explore it to its very depths. Have you read Stephen King's On Writing? Whether or not you're a King fan, you might appreciate his writing memoir, as it not only details his struggles to become a published author but also his enduring love of the written word.

I loved this piece you wrote, and the rhythm that's resonates in my head long after the last word. I can only imagine how much you deeeee-test Dubya for his deliberate carelessness with the English language. I know that I often want to slit my throat when he opens his mouth, and not just because of the meaning of his words.


Randal Graves said...

I love a lot of the old King - just haven't gotten around to a lot of the newer stuff, there's so much to read! - but that's one that keeps on getting recommended. I should just break down and read the damn thing. ;-)

Believe me, my writing is much cleaner than my speech, and I'm not even talking about the swearing, but goddamn, Bush is abysmal. Sure, we all probably flub more in public than in private, but it's as if he's actually attempted to become a linguistic butcher.

b said...

Yeah, I guess I'm just curious how you felt while writing it and once you finished it? How does writing (poetry specifically) make you feel?

Randal Graves said...

Oh, bloody hell, I'm not sure I can answer that in just a few words. Not that I'm doing the most profound thing in the universe akin to some stunning humanistic breakthrough in a new Renaissance, but emotions are all over the place, sometimes the lines will flow quickly, sometimes I just hang over them, on a word I cannot find and next thing you know the CD is done.

This is almost as hard to explain as writing a poem. ;-)

Maybe I'll do a post on it, and you can do one on how YOU feel when YOU write. I imagine that, if the sensations and thoughts aren't identical, they're pretty goddamn close.

La Belette Rouge said...

If I could write like you and find the kind of inspiration you do from music, I imagine that, I would do nothing else and keep the headphones on 24 hours a day. Yet, there is clearly the difficulty of finding the words for what it is you really want to write. And, yet what you manage to write is inspired, beautiful and---uhh-um--it is beyond my limited vocabulary to describe what it is you do ( but, I think there is a hard C in it: craft, create, cathect, conjoin, catapult---no, its more than that).

The observations and self-awareness you bring to the page is incredible. And, if you never wrote about anything other than your writing process I would show up every day and assuredly be in the same state of awe and reverie you always inspire.

Dr. Zaius said...

I actually have a toy IG-88. He's very cool.

Randal Graves said...

LBR, There are times where I wish I could keep the headphones on 24 hours a day. And yes, the right words are never found. I'm never happy with with what I write, whether it's a poem or junk on here. But, might as well keep trying. What else am I going to do? ;-) Je vous remercie pour vos gentils mots.

Dr. Zaius, this makes up for everything!

Anonymous said...

Randal - What a great writer's post. I'm taken by your use of language and your ability to explain with such beauty your process.

Well done, pal. Really.

Anonymous said...

Uhm, not to beat a dead horse or anything, but you should read King's On Writing. It's actually a pretty good read and is the most inspiring writing memoir I've ever encountered.

Have you found your writing to be measurably improved by your blogging? I'm curious because I do think that, if nothing else, the discipline of writing something everyday has helped my freelancing, if not my novel writing. I know that some people think that blogging is not the same as writing, but I don't get their distinction.


Randal Graves said...

dcup, thank ya kindly. But I think I made up for it by the verbal storm of fuckery above.

Majorie, are you saying I should read that book? I just want to be clear. ;-) I wouldn't say measurably improved because I think it still needs a lot of work, but it's certainly gotten better. I don't write prose as much as you, so maybe it's not as applicable in my case, but just the process of getting ideas out into language can only help whatever medium you're creating in.

And of course blogging is writing. Most novelists, I would assume, create using a computer. Well, looky here at what we're doing. This is writing, just in smaller chunks.

b said...

Okay, so that was an immensely complex thing to ask one to describe but you feel alive when you write, don't you? All the agony and ecstasy of it makes you feel REALLY alive, right? I think that is what I was getting at or hoping to get at but failed. :)

But yes, this would be a great post idea!

My Inner French Girl said...

Bonsoir, Randal!

Er, yes, please do read the book. ;-)

If nothing else, I think that blogging does help me to write more efficiently. I know that conventional wisdom dictates that Web writing requires short, snappy copy, and I do try not to ramble, but I think a happy medium does exist wherein I can still craft interesting prose without sacrificing insight for brevity.

Do you write directly to your blog, or do you write several posts in advance? How long do you take to write such thought-provoking essays such as these?


Randal Graves said...

Hmm, efficiently is a good way of putting it I think. I tend to ramble and get all purple-y with my prose at times, which is how I write and what I generally like to read, but you actually have published articles and you have to be a bit more concise while trying not to sacrifice too much creativity, and blogging is a perfect vehicle to hone that.

Um, if it's a political post, I just try to find something snarky or ranty right then and there. I can't do the well thought out stuff like a lot of the blogs on my list up there. I will admit that I have a bunch of YouTube music posts saved up for when I can't think of anything. Kind of a last resort, the derringer by the ankle when my Colt is out. ;-)

Something long-winded like this, I might have it written in my mind, or at least a good chunk of it - not exactly word for word, I don't have a photographic memory! - and when I type it, I'll just see where I end up. I might go "I haven't written about writing in awhile" and want to post about that. Political crap is the easiest to do because that's always going on, but in a way they're boring because others are saying it better and with more thought put into them. Hence cheap laughs. I'd rather spend my time on something like this, but I always fear I'm just repeating myself.

Sorry to have taken so long to answer your question. :)

My Inner French Girl said...

Funny, you're the 2nd person to apologize for "taking so long" to respond to my comment. (LBR was the first.) I wrote those commments late last night, and you responded this morning. Gosh, I feel bad because my own policy is to respond to comments within 24 hours. Now I'm beginning to wonder if that's too long! ;-)

I've only recently started reading more political blogs, mostly because with the primaries in full swing, I feel like the election is finally starting to gain momentum. I'm not ashamed to admit that I didn't watch any of the fall debates. Too early for my blood. But now...well, I'm looking forward to seeing how it all shakes out.

Okay, I was wondering how far in advance you write some of this stuff. I really need to put together a backlog of posts so that I can easily throw something up when my schedule ends up getting all f***ed up, as it seems to be doing lately.

What do you think of many of those books that came out a couple of years ago that were based on blogs, some of which were actually just compilations of blog posts? I was just curious because I'm wondering if blogging can easily translate to the printed, bound word. It would seem that blogs, unlike newspaper columns, are often hastily written in order to meet the daily demands of publishing. Not to mention that they meet the needs of a very specific niche in the audience (like snarky Francophiles with left-leaning politics!), which wouldn't bode well for a mainstream publication's chances.

So glad to meet another fellow writer!


Randal Graves said...

I meant taking a lot of words. I guess that was worded poorly. ;-)

I barely watched any of the debates. I've heard enough bullshit in my lifetime. I'll let the others suffer through that cesspool!

The only stuff I have in advance is cheapo music stuff. Everything else I kind of write on the fly, or only within a day or so, except for something like my albums of the year, when I was still deciding which ones to include. Oh, famous birthdays are always a nice space filler, as well!

I think a lot of blogs are written that way too, and that's not necessarily a derogatory statement, but one of fact. The prose is sharper, more direct because it has to be, for aesthetic reasons, time constraints, etc. And if us Francophiles did that, well, we could buy each others' books! A happy illusion of success!

My Inner French Girl said...

Bonjour, Randal!

Yeah, I rarely go back with a fine-tooth comb and edit my blog posts. I do occasionally re-read them later, during which time I catch some pretty cringe-worthy mistakes (for a writer and former English teacher, it's especially horrifying to come across those), but for the most part I like the immediacy of the medium.

I have a Google Notebook account in which I quickly record post ideas as they come to me (or cut-and-paste any interesting articles online that may serve as useful jumping off points for future posts). But for the most part, it's pretty day-to-day. Glad to hear I'm not the only one!

Oh, another great great book about writing is Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones She's a Zen practitioner and a very insightful writer with some gorgeous prose. You might enjoy reading it, especially if you're the meditative type.


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