Guest Post, Charles Rafferty: Maxims and Observations on the Writing Life

Espresso
“Espresso” by Jordan Merrick is licensed under CC by 2.0

Compression is achieved by leaving things out — useless details, obvious emotions. This is why I prefer espresso. Its blackness tells me there is just enough water. Consider the following maxims and observations on writing to be fifty cups of espresso:

  1. On the need to write every day: No one can shoot a nickel off the back of a galloping ox with just one bullet. The most one bullet will get you is a dead ox.
  2. On mistakes: There is a kind of progress we make when we trip and fall forward.
  3. The eye can see only by continuing to blink. This is an argument for stopping work when a poem gets stubborn and ceases to improve. Time in a dark drawer is always time well-spent.
  4. The critic has the blueprints, but the poet builds the palace.
  5. On my former aversion to prose poems: I used to think of them as mules — sterile hybrids. Now, I see the prose poem as a euglena — that cutthroat survivor with a foot in two kingdoms.
  6. There are works that I’m ashamed to have not read, and there are those that merely embarrass me. This is the difference between the greatness of the past and the enthusiasm of the present.
  7. Certain scenes are awkward because the characters don’t play well together — they are like dolls of different scales pushed into the same tea party.
  8. The painter with chopped-off hands will learn to sing better than the writer with inherited pitch.
  9. A good book should stay with you at least as long as your average tick bite. Reading it should make you itch.
  10. In a forest, the best poets think of axe handles and violins.
  11. On revisions: Don’t treat first drafts too preciously. Nobody carves a log before pushing it into the fireplace.
  12. Distancing yourself emotionally from the subject matter of your stories is important. But there’s a point at which the faces grow indistinct and we cease to have any stake in who dies or falls in love.
  13. On the popularity of confessional poems: The mirror always answers.
  14. The painter would make different choices if he began instead with a black canvas.
  15. On poems that refuse to get finished: It can be like carving your initials into the sea or digging up the shadow of your favorite spruce.
  16. I’m the kind of person who takes more pleasure in the novel he burned than he does in the novel he’s trying to finish. The former, at least, provides a good anecdote at a cocktail party.
  17. On the critic who tries to advance the careers of his friends by writing favorable reviews they don’t deserve: The dog is the planet to his fleas.
  18. On the charge of strangeness: The world is my materials. I won’t apologize for my materials.
  19. On ambition: Climbing the mountain doesn’t bring the stars any closer.
  20. Extra syllables at the end of a poem are like a squeaky piano stool as the final notes of a symphony try to evaporate.
  21. The dictionary is an anthology of one-word poems, footnotes included.
  22. A sonnet is a jail that lets us in.
  23. On the influence of dead poets: The wake of a swan continues long after it has taken flight.
  24. Trusting a poem is our first mistake. Living as if we had not read it is our second.
  25. That a poem means is more important than what a poem means.
  26. On obscurity: Poets in America are fourth magnitude stars, and everyone’s night vision has been ruined by sitcoms and football.
  27. On the growing number of people claiming to be poets: The tiniest flowers have no fragrance; America is full of tiny flowers.
  28. When I was young, if a poem wasn’t about being with a woman, it was about being apart from a woman — and all the great merits of either circumstance.
  29. On writer’s block: We need not fret about our occasional lack of inspiration. The guitar player needs to take a day off to let his calluses thicken and heal. A man needs a nap before screwing his woman a second time.
  30. On reading the lines I wrote when I was high: After the sunset, the pollution goes back to looking ordinary.
  31. Stories either start stable and become strange, or start strange and become stable. The ice is always melting or hardening.
  32. In defense of sonnets: The piano is an old instrument, but we can play new songs on it.
  33. On the charge of prettiness: Yes, the bell of the tulip is pretty, but it cannot rise without some dirt beneath it.
  34. The critic concerns himself with the parts of a poem the way a disreputable mechanic wants every piece to shine and be new. The poet simply wants the goddamned car to move.
  35. Nature poetry should be more than verbal postcards. In any glorious arrangement of mountains, we must find at least the shadow of a man.
  36. The poet transmutes the world into sound the way a bluejay turns trash into a nest.
  37. Don’t let your admiration of traditional forms override the notion of suitability. If the form doesn’t correspond to the subject, the poet will be accused of trying to fit a puppy inside a ringbox, of delivering a diamond inside an aircraft carrier.
  38. The will to criticism: It’s just the urge to have answers at a particularly severe cocktail party.
  39. We like listening to known liars. It’s the pleasure of hoping they’ll trip themselves up. A poem must proceed with the liar’s bravado. In this sense, a poem should leave the reader frustrated.
  40. On failed poems we can’t stop revising: There’s nothing so steady as a half-sunk canoe.
  41. On finding no one to publish a poem: It feels like a five-dollar bill with too much taped and missing.
  42. The worst poets treat their poems like puzzles — something merely to be figured out. In the most dire cases, they withhold several pieces, hiding them in their breast pockets, forcing us to come to them with questions we would rather not ask.
  43. Poems can fail in two ways: boredom or confusion. Boredom stems from too small a grasp — the ordinary sand grain in the palm of a hand. Confusion stems from extravagance — the attempt to palm a city. Given the choice, I prefer my poems to fail always by confusion.
  44. On self-promotion: A car can rev its engine just as loud whether the trunk is full of gold or horse shit.
  45. We are awestruck by actual sunsets, but embarrassed by their photographs. This is a proof that some beauty defies translation.
  46. On the need to take a break from the daily routine of writing: If a garden goes untended long enough, even the weeds come into flower.
  47. During the initial draft of a poem, when we are knocking on every door we come across, there is that moment when a peephole goes dark, and we know that the door must be kicked in.
  48. On inspiration: Sometimes, the girl is brought out of the marble by a single hammer tap.
  49. On our steadily fragmenting culture: At the rate things are going, someday even Jesus will require a footnote in the Norton Anthology.
  50. On ambition: I won’t be content to be called the American Shakespeare. I won’t be satisfied until Shakespeare is known as the English Rafferty.
Charles Rafferty

Charles Rafferty

Charles Rafferty's tenth book of poetry is The Unleashable Dog (2014, Steel Toe Books). His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Oprah Magazine, The Southern Review, and Prairie Schooner. His collection of short fiction is Saturday Night at Magellan's (2013, Fomite Press). Currently, he directs the MFA program at Albertus Magnus College.
Charles Rafferty

One thought on “Guest Post, Charles Rafferty: Maxims and Observations on the Writing Life

  • November 28, 2014 at 5:04 am
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    “Compression is achieved by leaving things out …” – NOT in data compression. In technical data compression (everyone knows, and probably uses, the popular “zip” program) all the information is fully preserved, only the “slack” is cut. What a brilliant (as against an “average”) writer can do is to “compress” like “zip” software: leaving the information intact while getting rid of the “dross”. Looking at today’s journalism, I have to say, often information seems to get left out in an attempt to “compress” which actually just happens to be unwanted viewpoints and thus objectivity and inclusiveness is left by the wayside.

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