As we have been trimming a lot of tricky, spiky things lately – yuccas, giant agaves, pigmy date palms (they have spines on their leaves that go like daggers to your heart) – I considered the problem of handling prickly things. And I hit on a pretty basic insight: Once you know how, it’s easy to handle.
Getting your gloves on and pointing all the spiky bits in the same direction (away from yourself), goes a long way toward making it a painless experience. I was going to carry the analogy over to writing – dealing with difficult dialogue or twisty plots, killing your darlings and resurrecting ideas. I was going to comment on life in general. I was going to hold forth on the debilitating existence of prickly people, but the words and the sounds just ran away with me. So here is a pretty little poem about prickly things.
The world is full of prickly things –
prickly pears, porcupines, people,
pissed-off cats and pineapples.
Handling them can be pretty painful.
Until you know how.
Prickly pears are prickly and painful
and loath to give up their juicy goo,
but there are ways to peel a prickly pear,
pain- and prickle-free.
Porcupines have bigger prickles
but porcu-pricks can be prevented too.
To handle a cat you might need a permit,
a diploma in preventing disaster
and a personal protection device,
but even a cat can be controlled –
they’re hard to handle
until you know how.
Experience is a pair of gloves
that fits over your tender fingers
and stretches even to your heart,
for prickly people prickle deeply.
It’s all hard to handle when you start.
Until you know how.
Poetry is a song even the deaf can hear. There is a rhythm in its lines and a tune in its metre. And yet. No matter how blurred the dividing line, poetry and song are not the same.
As with books made into films, songs can be a way to popularise poetry, to make it more accessible to everyman and everywoman. O, I do love some poems for the sake of the sound they make, even if I do not pretend to understand them. But sometimes it is easier to love a song.
Here is one complicated example – Leonard Cohen singing his own reworking in English of Federico García Lorca’s Spanish poem. Firstly a fragment of Lorca’s poem in Spanish:
En Viena hay diez muchachas,
un hombro donde solloza la muerte
y un bosque de palomas disecadas.
Hay un fragmento de la mañana
en el museo de la escarcha.
Hay un salón con mil ventanas.
In English it goes something like this:
In Vienna there are ten little girls,
a shoulder for death to cry on,
and a forest of dried pigeons.
There is a fragment of the morning
in the museum of winter frost.
There is a thousand-windowed dance hall.
And now Leonard Cohen:
Now in Vienna there are ten pretty women
There's a shoulder where Death comes to cry
There's a lobby with nine hundred windows
There's a tree where the doves go to die
There's a piece that was torn from the morning,
And it hangs in the gallery of frost.
I have to admit that with poetry much is lost in translation, either in rhythm and rhyme or in meaning. Nevertheless, I prefer Cohen’s version, but is that because the English here has a better rhythm/rhyme or because it plays out as a song in my head? Which poses another question – can a poem ever be unsung? Because once you have heard it as a song, the music will always influence your “reading” of the poem.
Many Afrikaans poems have found an extended audience when set to music. One of my favourites is HA Fagan’s poem “Huisie by die see” (Little house by the sea) as sung by Laurika Rauch:
Ek het ‘n huisie by die see. Dis nag.
Ek hoor aaneen, aaneen die golwe slaan
teenaan die rots waarop my huisie staan
met al die oseaan se woeste krag.
Ek hoor die winde huil – ‘n kreun, ‘n klag
soos van verlore siele in hul nood
al dwalend, klagend, wat in graf en dood
geen rus kon vind nie, maar nag soek en smag.
My vuurtjie brand, my kersie gee sy lig.
Ek hoor dan maar hoe loei die storm daar buite,
ek hoor hoe ruk die winde aan my ruite;
hier binne is die veilig, warm en dig.
Kom nag, kom weer en wind, kom oseaan -
dit is ‘n rots waarop my huisie staan.
Can all poetry be sung? Probably not. l don’t think one can sing Ted Hughes, for example, or Seamus Heany. Not in the same way as say, Robert Burns or W.B. Yeats. This is certainly no criticism of their poems or the accessibility thereof, it is merely a categorisation and a subjective one at that. Sung or unsung, poetry has a music all its own.
Is there a poem set to music that you particularly love? Please share in the comments section below.
Because eating an elephant is no less intimidating a task for now being more common, I am reposting a blog originally written for LinkedIn.
I have eaten many elephants.
How do you move eighty tons of sand and clay to build a cob house? One bucketful at a time. How do you embroider a tapestry? One stitch at a time. How do you write a book? One word at a time. How do you climb a mountain? One step at a time. How do you feed a multitude? One spoonful at a time.
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
So here are some important things I have learnt from eating elephants:
1. Elephants can block out the sun
When you’re digging in for all you’re worth, head down and shovelling it in, it may seem that you are caught in a dark cave. The sun has disappeared behind a mountain of meat that you will never be able to digest. You cannot see any progress. Heck, you cannot see anything. Does anyone have sympathy? No. Does anyone else see your darkness? No. Because outside the elephant the sun is still shining, the same as it has been doing for billions of years.
Do not get discouraged by the darkness. The light is waiting for you. Just keep swallowing that elephant.
2. You can’t eat an elephant on the run
Even if you’re eating it one bite at a time, it’s a big meal you’ve got there. Don’t try to gulp it down. Pachydermal indigestion, well, you just don’t want to go there.
Don’t take your own sweet time about it, but do take it easy. Give yourself time to digest the enormity of what you are accomplishing and allow yourself a pat on the back every now and then. Document your progress. See this big elephant? Now, two weeks later, see how you’ve eaten into it, that small hole in the rump? Good on you, mate, just keep going.
3. Team Elephant can make it fun
Some things can’t be delegated – any volunteers for chewing the next mouthful? But a buddy to back you up can make all the difference in the world. You may need someone to sharpen your knife (or your pencils), someone to tie your bib (or your shoelaces). Someone to stand on the other side and shout that you’re almost done, even if they’re not quite telling the truth.
If your entrepreneurial spirit allows, you can even advertise the adventure of a lifetime and give guided elephant-eating tours. What enormous fun you can have!
If this has added just a drop of marinade to your meal, I’ll be happy. Bon appetit!
(A simple trick in the fight against writer’s block)
If you’re a writer in the middle of the worst word blockade this side of the full moon, the last thing you want to hear is that you’re moping without cause; that there are a million story ideas out there; that truth is stranger than fiction, so start writing it down.
A prodigious author turning out novels like buns from a bakery can really get you down. Where do they get it from? All you want to do is to huddle in a corner with your headache/belly ache/gout and your dose of Dutch courage and feel sorry for yourself.
Well, I’m sorry, but close your ears if you don’t want to hear this (I didn’t): You’re moping without cause.
After decades of envying a mother who had ideas for artwork scrolling through her head 24/7, after countless hours of frustrated creative blankness and fuming at the absent muses, I have stumbled upon a solution.
Now this is not the solution. It might not be your solution. But it certainly is a solution and boy! (girl!) does it get the story scroll rolling.
Here’s how it works.
Take anyone you meet or vaguely know. It could be the cashier at the supermarket or a client at your flower shop or your co-pedestrian at the traffic lights. Take what you know about that person, however little it is. If you think it isn’t enough, try thinking like Sherlock Holmes for a second. Then ask – what if?
For example, today we worked across the road from a cemetery. There seemed to be a funeral in progress. A ute towing a caravan draws up in the street and an elderly couple get out. When I look again, they are emerging from the caravan all dressed in formal black. What do I know about them? Only that they are old, attending a funeral and not from around here, hence the caravan. Maybe it is an old friend they are burying today, one of their contemporaries that they have come a long way to bid farewell. Normal enough, but no story. But, what if?
What if it is a child who died, their only son whom they haven’t seen in years? What if they were on a long road trip and were arguing contemplating adding a reconciliatory visit to their itinerary when they got the sad news? Or what if they aren’t married at all and have for this reason been outcasts for years, now having to face the criticism of their relatives once again? What if they are actually brother and sister, fatefully thrown together by life events and unable to escape an increasingly brittle relationship? What if they are amateur actors, hurrying to the first shooting of a minor film doomed to fail? Or even, what if they are aliens?
Once you start imposing alternative story lines, there is really no end to the possibilities and no possible reason for writer’s block. Even if you don’t necessarily like where the story is taking you, at least it’s taking you somewhere.
You may come out of hiding now, put away the sad face and get on with your job. You’re a writer with a reason now and a million gazillion ideas. But, what if…?