Colorado Poets Center E-Words Issue #3

Marilyn Krysl: Collaborators with the World

Marilyn Krysl(Marilyn Krysl’s poetry books start with Saying Things (U. of Nebraska Press) in 1978, and, six books later, come to Warscape With Lovers (winner of the Cleveland State Poetry Center Prize in 1997. Her fiction collections are Honey, You’ve Been Dealt A Winning Hand (Capra Press, 1980), Mozart, Westmoreland and Me (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1985) and How To Accommodate Men (Coffee House Press, 1998).

The questions ask about how writers decide certain writerly matters. These questions and the words “difficulty” and “challenge” imply that the writer is trying to write. In fact, what the writer does is sit and wait for language to appear. Not me, D. H. Lawrence said, but the wind that blows through me. Richard Rodriguez has said, “you are forced to just wait there like an idiot, waiting for it to come.” He’s spoken eloquently about writing and then realizing that he had nothing to do with those paragraphs, that they sounded utterly foreign and other to him. I know just what he means.

There is a tendency to talk about writing as though it is “craft” and the writer a “craftsman.” But writing seems to me a transcendent experience in which the bodymind acts as a portal through which the natural surround—our earth, the natural world—speaks. David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous eloquently details how human language evolved from the expressive, “speaking” earth and earth creatures. (And by the way, this book should be required reading in all secondary schools in the world.)

From a slightly different angle, Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift similarly suggests that the artist is merely a “mouth” through which the poem or the story arrives into the world, and that it is the artist’s obligation to receive the gift the earth delivers and pass that gift back into the world.

As a child I believed that words came out of the ground and the wind blew them into our mouths so that we could speak. I was told this was wrong, so I gave up this notion, but when I grew up and began to “write,” I understood that my child’s intuition had been right all along.

We who write often speak as though we invent because the audience assumes that writers are inventors. But it would be more accurate to say that we who “write” are collaborators with the world. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle embodies the fact that we can’t be entirely objective because we can’t step outside of the world we try to observe. We have no choice but to collaborate with the world. And so we agree to become vessels and scribes, receiving what the world sends and making a written record of it. For this reason it’s humbling to “be” a writer. You understand that you have a responsibility to listen carefully to what is spoken through the live, collaborating instrument you are.

Writing is an embodied activity. As the words come into me, I feel this physically, and at a nonverbal level my bodymind understands that I am being given something amazing, something which ups the amount of adrenaline in my body and begins to transform me—something that is making me wiser and more generous. I sit, and feel language writing itself, and think lucky me, I just happened to be here.

Having said this, I can speak to your question about genre. I don’t think of myself as primarily a poet or primarily a prose stylist. Writing is writing, and genre feels incidental. As for what ‘causes’ me to write in one or the other genre, I have no idea. I’m busy letting writing do what it wants with me. As the first words come onto the page, I recognize whether this is a sentence or a phrase, and already this phrase of language tells me whether it’s heading for a poem or a sentence in a story or in an essay. All genres seem to me equally intriguing, interesting, compelling, glorious. They are simply different forms, and all form rises out of the language’s sound and rhythms, and the sounds and rhythms of the planet.
What I can say is that prose is defined by the sentence and the sentence fragment, and by the essay’s or story’s progressive logic. Some poems have nothing to do with sentences. Some poems use sentences as part of their structure. When a poem appears as sentences, the rhythm of the sentence is one of the factors that determines the poem’s line length and line breaks. When a story uses sentences,

the rhythm of the sentence is crucial to the larger unit of the paragraph. There are, then, very basic similarities between these genres.

All this is preface to saying the obvious: all writing flows out from the music inherent in language. All languages are rhythmic. When you place your order and say “A double burger and a side of fries,” you’ve spoken an iambic pentameter line. “A cappuccino and large juice to go.” Writing evolves out of the language’s rhythm and its sounds. Rhyme and off rhyme, assonance and consonance, and the cadence in which these sounds manifest are factors in all genres.

Readers may not be consciously aware of sounds and rhythm, but I guarantee you that whether they read to themselves or out loud, their body-beings feel pleasantly engaged by rhythmic language. Rhythm is compelling. Our bodies want to stretch, move, dance, and our ears like listening to repeating rhythms and changing rhythms, to rhyme and off rhyme, to all manner of unexpected John Cage sounds. The rhythms are scored by words on the page, and our bodies listen to these scored rhythms, as did listeners before the alphabet and print were invented.