One of the most-quoted pieces of advice about fiction writing is the one from Raymond Chandler about how the best way to resolve a problem of plotting is to have someone come busting through the door with a gun in his hand.
It turns out Chandler didn’t exactly say that. Or at least, it wasn’t what it has been taken to mean. Chandler wasn’t recommending it as advice to young writers. He was reflecting back on his days as a writer for pulp magazines, and limitations on story development that came with the demand for action from the pulp editors:
…the demand was for constant action and if you stopped to think you were lost. When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand. This could get to be pretty silly but somehow it didn’t seem to matter. A writer who is afraid to over-reach himself is as useless as a general who is afraid to be wrong.
So, it’s not exactly advice to young writers, but it’s not exactly a cautionary tale, either. It reminds me of Richard Hugo’s advice that “if you are not risking sentimentality, you are not close to your inner self,” not to mention his advice that “you have to be silly to write poems at all.”
And it reminds me of an episode in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Captain Picard has an artificial heart, the result of being stabbed in the heart during a youthful barroom brawl, an incident that he recalls with some shame. He has a chance to go back in time and change things, which he does. He backs away from the provocation, avoids the brawl, leaves with heart intact. Now back to the present again, and he discovers he is not Captain Picard, but a junior science officer, held back from promotion over and over because of a reputation for timidity and avoiding conflict.
How does all this relate to us as poets? Should we all have artificial hearts? There are always going to be ex-spouses and ex-lovers to insist that we already do.
Would our poems benefit from having someone bust through the door with a gun in his hand? Hmmm…let’s think about that.
It worked for Kenneth Fearing, in his reimagining of “St. Agnes’ Eve”:
The dramatis personae include a fly-specked Monday evening, A cigar store with stagnant windows, Two crooked streets, Six policemen and Louie Glatz. Bass drums mumble and mutter an ominous portent As Louie Glatz holds up the cigar store and backs out with $14.92. Officer Dolan noticed something suspicious, it is supposed, And ordered him to halt, But dangerous, handsome, cross-eye'd Louie the rat Spoke with his gat, Rat-a-tat-tat— Rat-a-tat-tat And Dolan was buried as quickly as possible. But Louie didn't give a good god damn, He ran like a crazy shadow on a shadowy street With five policemen off that beat Hot on his trail, going Blam! Blam!-blam! While rat-a-tat-tat Rat-a-tat-tat Said Louie's gat
Could every St. Agnes’ Eve be spiced up similarly? In Keats’s version, Madeline prepares to receive the vision of delight that will come to virgins on the eve of St. Agnes if they go to bed supperless and “couch supine their beauties, lily white.”
So there’s Madeline, couched supine, naked. Ready to receive a vision, when
Meantime, across the moors, Had come young Porphyro, with gun in hand For Madeline. Now through the portal doors, Busts he, and, weapons blazing, scores! The saints cannot protect dear Madeline...
Well, maybe that’s too abrupt.
But surely T. S. Eliot, that staid old proper Englishman from Missouri, could use a little of his frontier roots:
April is the cruellest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain. Winter kept us warm, covering Earth in forgetful snow, feeding A little life with dried tubers. Louie surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee With gun in hand; ordered us into the Hofgarten, stole our wallets, and talked for an hour.
No, no. If we’re going to have someone come busting through the door with a gun in their hand (to use the modern pronoun form), it has to be done with a little more subtlety, as Chandler realized. But he also realized that writers can’t be afraid to overreach themselves, to introduce elements every bit as discordant as a thug busting through the door with a gun in his hand.
Here are a couple of things to remember about writing poetry.
1. It’s OK for it to be fun. William Carlos Williams, in his introduction to Howl, shudders at Allen Ginsberg’s “horrifying experiences,” stands in awe of his courage, and warns his readers that as they venture beyond his intro, “we are going through hell.” But it’s hard to imagine Ginsberg writing:
Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! ecstasies! gone down the American river! Dreams! adorations! illuminations! religions! the whole boatload of sensitive bullshit!
without pausing to howl with laughter. Writing Howl, cathartic and self-lacerating though it may have been, has to have been a hell of a lot of fun.
And we know that Dylan Thomas reveled in his reputation as a bad boy, and delighted in his ability to épater les bourgeois. These days les bourgeois are pretty much épater-proof, but there are other ways to have fun. Try to startle yourself every now and then. See my “Informal” column for Verse-Virtual, May 2019, for some examples of this.
2. Pencils were made with erasers, and computer keyboards with a backspace key. It’s OK to take ridiculous chances. Maybe one time out of ten they’ll work. The other nine, you can zip right out.
So onward and upward with the noble art of poetry, and remember the immortal words of Archibald McLeish:
A poem should be palpable and mute As a globed fruit, Dumb As old medallions to the thumb, Silent as the sleeve-worn stone Of casement ledges where the moss has grown— A poem should go rat-a-tat-tat Like Louie's gat.