“When the King of Siam disliked a courtier, He gave him a beautiful white elephant.
….” In Dispraise of Poetry by Jack Gilbert
I made a great find this past weekend at Capitol Books, a used bookstore in D.C. with floor-to-ceilings offerings in a row house near the Eastern Market—a copy of the poet Jack Gilbert’s Views of Jeopardy, his first book of poetry from The Yale Series of Younger Poets, published in 1962. I am not a collector of things— I’ve never felt the urge to bring anything but words into my house.
I believe there may be a chapbook out there. I remember he published one while I was at Syracuse University, the one year he taught at this upstate New York college, and I believe I even bought it. But it’s lost to the years and a dozen or so moves.
“Three days I sat Bewildered by love. Three nights I watched The gradations of dark. Of light …” Before Morning in Perugia by Jack Gilbert
What I remember most about him was that he was slight man, white haired and in his sixties by the time I was his student. He was passionate about the poetic line and about women, especially those he found himself with in places foreign to him, a guy from Pittsburgh, and I find that these passions imbued in this early set of poems.
“… When I got quiet she’d put on usually Debussy and leaning down to the small ribs bite me. Hard.” Portrait Number Five: Against A New York Summer by Jack Gilbert
I think of him so young writing these poems, and want to cry out, but instead I read on, gorging on the words, ebullient with my find.
Have you ever found a book at a used bookstore you treasure?
I had a letter from a reader who asked me to talk a bit more about dialogue.
It’s hard, I’ll tell you that. It’s the hardest thing in writing. But it’s also the thing that editors look at–as a sure gauge of a writer’s level of accomplishment.
Pay attention to great dialogue. When you read a something that really works, bear down on yourself and ask, what’s going on here? Analyze it like it’s a boxing match. Who’s up, who’s down and how do you know? Who won? When did you know they were going to win, when would you have put your money on Character A vs. Character B? Get used to reading the subtext. That’s dialogue.
Note the mix of landscape and voice, the cross loyalties. What’s said and what isn’t. The less said the better.
I guess the most important tip about dialogue is this:
1. Write the sentence, not just the story Long ago I got a rejection from the editor of the Santa Monica Review, Jim Krusoe. It said: “Good enough story, but what’s unique about your sentences?” That was the best advice I ever got. Learn to look at your sentences, play with them, make sure there’s music, lots of edges and corners to the sounds. Read your work aloud. Read poetry aloud and try to heighten in every way your sensitivity to the sound and rhythm and shape of sentences. The music of words. I like Dylan Thomas best for this–the Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait. I also like Sexton, Eliot, and Brodsky for the poets and Durrell and Les Plesko for prose. A terrific exercise is to take a paragraph of someone’s writing who has a really strong style, and using their structure, substitute your own words for theirs, and…
I’m concerned about your summer reading list, heavy on nonfiction titles, lacking in fiction, classics, poetry, which reflect the common core of what I believe every educated American should read (of course, I will readily admit that this is totally subjective, and I want to stress that I am happy that you are reading at all, something I stress to my own children).
So, I have some alternative titles to your summer reading list for you to consider:
The Complete Works of Emily Dickinson, short poems, easy to read at the beach, or choose any other poetry collection.
1984 by George Orwell. I am amazed at how often George Orwell’s 1984 is quoted, especially in relations to politics and to technology. I plan to re-read this summer, and I think you should too. “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the presents controls the past.”
The “Battle Royal” section of Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison to understand the history of racism and pain in America. The entire of the book is moving too, but it’s that section you have to read.
Hilary Mantel’s Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories, or Lydia Davis’ Collected Stories, or George Pellecanos’ Martini Shot, if you’d like some terrific genre short fiction— one nice thing about short story collections is you can feel free to skip a story or two and still say you read the book. I’ve been reading a lot of short fiction lately—short fiction focuses the mind, and these stories all present character, image, conflict in the most concise way.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie, my son just read this in 9th grade – talks about being the ‘outsider’ and ‘other’ here in America better than any young adult novel. One other thought: Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, winner of this year’s National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, written in verse. I have it on my TBR list and so should you.
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, the Broadway show is a big hit, but the graphic novel is a deep and moving tale of a father and daughter— and coming out. And it’s always cool to say you read graphic novels.
I’m sure others would have suggestions for you that go beyond your limited nonfiction and science/tech-focused summer book reading choices— any others out there?
I’d just urge you to go farther and wider and be more open and curious in your reading, and if you do, to share it with us all.
Read on, Bill! Have a great Memorial Day Weekend!
*Full disclosure: I am the author of two critically acclaimed young adult novels: Before My Eyes (St. Martin’s Press, 2014) and LIE (St. Martin’s Press, 2011). More at http://www.carolinebock.com
Caroline Bock is the author of the acclaimed young adult novel LIE, published by St. Martin’s Press in August 2011. Set on Long Island and inspired by true events, LIE is the story of the aftermath of a hate crime, and has been called “unusual and important,” (Kirkus, starred review). She is also a new member of the WNBA New York chapter, having joined in fall, 2011 after researching book titles for her book club. She is also thrilled to be a volunteer reader for the upcoming Great Group Reads in 2012. When not reading literary adult and young adult fiction, she is an adjunct lecturer in the English and Mass Communications departments at The City College of New York. In addition to publishing her first novel, she has written and sold screenplays and creative nonfiction works. Prior to focusing on her writing, she led the marketing and…