Wednesday, August 30, 2006

RE: It's a pity because you could do it with her so much longer!

Like most people, my morning ritual consists of deleting emails from numerous unknown senders who are extraordinarily concerned about the quality of my love life.

Ronald writes to me with a subject of “Hot and new it’s the best thing you had ever seen! Delight.” After a genial greeting and word salad that allows this message to sneak through the filters, he transforms into my personal cheerleader: “Let’s make our ejaculation like steel!” We are united by sexual dysfunction. We’re in this together!

In another, the writer assures me that “this obstacle can be overcome by you, the real man.” Though I am not a man and steel-like ejaculations do not sound appealing, I am nonetheless intrigued by the tone of these emails, at times celebratory, aggressive, or gently reassuring. Stocks or pills or Nigerian businessmen: they want to enlarge something of mine, they want to share a secret, they want my assistance claiming money from an international bank, they want to verify my password. Even writing at its least sophisticated places demands on its reader.

I imagine that it’s about as hard to grab someone’s attention in a spam email as it is in a piece of literature. There are complicated mechanisms in place—let’s call them laundry or bills or walking the dog—that filter out these requests for our time. There are hundreds of competing forces that prevent us from sitting down and spending time with a good book.

Still, even with a filter designed to weed out spam, they get through. And I read them. How do they do it? The writers are very clever. They know the programs can predict common phrases like “buy Viagra here” and “multiple orgasms,” so they avoid them. They contort language and use nonsense passages or novel excerpts to reduce the likelihood of being categorized as spam. Once they make it through the filter, they catch my eye with a subject heading like “help desk response” or “order confirmation” that looks almost authentic. Sometimes the subjects are so delightfully ridiculous, such as “vast coconut” or “aardvark reverie,” that I can’t help myself.

What can a writer learn from the spammer? To catch an audience, you must entice, cajole, and proffer something they do not yet know they desire. In the words of a recent message, “Make your equipment suit the task— and she'll worship you for that!”


Thursday, August 24, 2006

Attention! Attention!

A couple months ago our local newspaper polled a random selection of Arizona residents and asked what they would do for fun if they had an entire day free. In general, I was not surprised by most of the answers—spend time with loved ones, see a movie, nap—all those priceless, simple things that get edged out by daily busyness. I was, however, surprised by the one answer that almost everyone gave. What would you do if you had more time? Read.

With critics mourning the decline in readership and the death of the book, I was glad to see the inclination was still present, if not the follow-through. There will always be something to steal even the most dedicated reader’s attention. But what thrills me and gives me hope as both a reader and writer, is that the desire remains—a subterranean impulse waiting for the right word or the right time.


Friday, August 11, 2006

The Poetics of Space

If I have enough space—I prefer the sprawling space of the countryside, but even a little bit of mental space from distractions will do—I learn things about poetry, and in particular the sounds of poetry. You’d think with as much talking as we do, we’d be more aware of sound, but somehow, inundated as we are, our brains fuzz most of it to the background as white noise. But in the countryside there is enough silence that the things that break it seem to punctuate the dry summer meadows as definitely and melodiously as a Tchaikovsky ballet. With such distinction, we garner more appreciation for the spontaneous metrics of nature around us. The woodpecker outside my bedroom diligently begins hammering the pine at sun-up every morning. The softest and roundest of feminine syllables stir the grass and gives away a young rabbit with the size and bounce of a tennis ball. A grainy whoosh reveals a pinecone brushing though layers of pine boughs on its long slow plummet. Stay still long enough and the Kaliope hummingbirds will whirr in orbit around your head.
Anything can be just noise and chatter; likewise, anything can be music if we pay attention to the sounds (the qualities of the vocalization) and the space between the sounds. Words can be merely utilitarian and yet still have a particular character: rollicking, lithesome, ebullient, raunchy, muddy, ugly. Jibberish can just as easily articulate feeling; Lewis Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky is a classic example of nonsense language that so convincingly voices sensible feeling.

By Lewis Carroll

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!"
He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought --
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.
And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!
One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

"And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!'
He chortled in his joy.

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

How we voice out chosen words says as much as the words we choose. Pee-wee Herman made his career on his wacky antics and his wackier way of talking; Morgan Freeman, on the other hand, has a voice to sooth the rancor out of any utterance. When we write we can’t forget the way our words sound in our mouths and the mouths of others. Just listen to a recording of W.B. Yeats reading The Lake Isle of Innisfree and you’ll feel the powerful vibratory rhythm of the poem. It’s half as powerful read silently on the page. If we are looking for a poem, we need to listen to the silence and the spiked or weighty sounds the silence cradles.