Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Advantage of Belief

'Most people do not believe in anything very much, and our greatest poetry is given to us by those who do.'
--Cyril Connolly, the late British literary critic, whose influence is sometimes compared to his American contemporary, Edmund Wilson. Isn't that sentiment true in just about every aspect of life?


At 4:40 PM, Blogger Jessica L. Brooks (coffeelvnmom) said...

You're right, I think it is true in every aspect. Good quote to remember when writing - to believe in the words so others can as well.

At 4:42 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Thanks, Jessica. And welcome, first-time commenter. I was touched when I noticed the other day that you were following this blog, for which I thank you. Good luck with that book of yours. I know you'll keep us posted.

At 6:23 PM, Blogger Kass said...

Mary Oliver comes to mind when I consider great poetry and writers who believe in something.

At 6:25 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Thanks, Kass. Can you point us to anything of hers in particular that especially resonates with you?

At 6:39 PM, Blogger June Calender said...

While I think most writers believe in something -- it might be in atheism -- I think most people also believe in something but possibly live their beliefs more shallowly than writers who, by the nature of their work, question themselves a great deal. Does that make sense? I think what I'm trying to say is that writers tend to put what they beleive on the line all the time; others go through life rarely looking at what they believe.e

At 8:51 PM, Blogger Kass said...

I think everyone knows Wild Geese so I won't reiterate it here, even though it is one of the few poems I have memorized. My next favorite would have to be The Journey:
One day you finally knew
what yo had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice -
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried with its stifff fingers
at the very foundations -
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do -
determined to save
the only life you could save.

I posted about Oliver when I discovered 'Thirst'
Mary Oliver (click on name)

At 9:01 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Nicely said, June. Who could argue with that, when you put it that way? And Kass, thanks for that. Not only am I not familiar with Wild Geese, but I've never even heard of Mary Oliver. We're all guilty of assuming everyone knows all kinds of things, but that's often a mistaken assumption. I've had to learn over and over not to assume much of anything about our shared knowledge. Anyway, thanks for the education.

At 11:24 PM, Blogger Jim Murdoch said...


The thing about beliefs is
they don't need to be true.
That's not their job.

They're there because
so many things aren't true.
Nature abhors a vacuum.

19 December 1996

At 6:52 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Thanks, Jim.

At 11:28 AM, Blogger Kass said...

Sorry for the assumption, John. Mary is so good, I just assumed too much. June actually saw her read in person last year.

Jim - great poem.

At 11:32 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Kass, sorry if my riff about assumptions sounded like a knuckle-rapping, even a light one. Not remotely how I meant it. I was more thinking out loud about how often I assume all kinds of things about what people know, and how often I'm wrong. It actually makes life and conversations such as these all the more interesting and valuable, because there's so much to learn that perhaps we should have or might have already known, but just didn't. That makes having smart friends (such as you, for instance) all the more valuable and delightful.

At 12:00 PM, Blogger Britta said...

I agree with Mr. Connolly. And not all poetry is verse, just as not all wealth is money.

At 12:04 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

You're especially deep today, Britta. How's the weather down in N.C.? Cleveland's got a snowstorm today.

At 12:25 PM, Anonymous Mr. Bluster said...

I think June is right. Looking at your beliefs afresh in new contexts as you encounter them is a way to generate ideas to write about, too.

At 12:27 PM, Blogger Britta said...

We are threatened with an ice storm tomorrow and Saturday, which means good North Carolinians are rushing out to the Food Lion to buy up the bread, milk and canned soup and to the Home Depot for kerosene heaters and cans of propane (so you can cook that soup on the grill.) Oddly, the excitement of a winter storm puts everyone in a good mood down here.

At 12:28 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Right you are, Bluster. But her comment also reminded me that there is a sometimes not so marvelous side to all that. It has to do with how the examined life, while more interesting, and not really even an option for smart, curious people, can also sometimes be exhausting, and also harder on loved ones. Anyone have any thoughts about that?

At 12:31 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

That's interesting. I do know how fun and exciting bad weather can be for places that usually don't experience it. My first week living in D.C., it snowed in biblical proportions, to the general merriment of the populace, which lives in a region where even two inches can close schools. That one was more like three feet.

At 1:27 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

The flip side, of course, is that much of poetry being written these days is being written by people who don't believe about anything very much, and their poetries reflect it. The post-modern malaise, if you will, is that nothing is more important than anything else, and nothing matters very much.

But reactionary anti-modernism is not the solution. I'm not saying that Connolly is urging any such thing; I don't think he is. Yet one of the more visible and vocal strains in contemporary is so-called neo-formalism, which is for the most part a reactionary desire to turn the clock back to when rhymed, metered verse was the dominant mode for poetry. As though free verse had never been invented.

And that's no solution.

My response to Connolly's quote is that he's right, in essence. How we re-insert meaning into our poetry, to make it greater than it's been lately—I think the precise methods can be argued, valiantly, for lots of different means.

The observation that great art does bring meaning into life is something I of course agree with. I leave it open-ended what that meaning looks like, is all.

At 1:35 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

And remember, he made this observation at a time when academia wasn't spewing forth scores of would-be poets and novelists like so many human widgets. That has no doubt drained some of the urgency and lifeblood out of a pursuit which so many now pursue as a career rather than a calling.

At 1:45 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Very true. Very true.

As for the poetry created out of the MFA, workshop, "professional poet" mentality, I don't know if it's so much drained the lifeblood out of it as stomped it to death.

I'm pretty sure Connolly would have been dismayed by all this.

At 2:18 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I believe your views on this subject are abundantly on the record, Art.

At 3:25 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

LOL Sorry. If I'm becoming too predictable, I suppose it's time to change some opinions. :)

At 3:29 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I don't think anyone's lodged a complaint about it yet, Art. But if they do, I'll certainly let you know.


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