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Of Mythoi, Music, and The Reader Ship

(Note: this missive is from our good friend and poetry master class instructor, Chris Ransick.)

Imagine aspiring authors as survivors in a lifeboat afloat on Arctic waters, desperately awaiting rescue by the Reader Ship. Some scribble anxiously in their damp notebooks, some stare pensively across the blackness, and a few, probably future critics, whisper together about whom to cannibalize when provisions run low.

Now cast a glance at the hearty souls clinging to the gunwales. It was determined by consensus that there was simply not enough room for them aboard. They’re hanging on, legs dangling in the icy deep, teeth chattering behind blue lips.

But their eyes are fierce. These are the poets and they aren’t going to let go.

Six writers have signed on to the Lighthouse poetry master class this winter and I want to welcome them all—and tell the larger community how much I admire their chutzpah. Each has a manuscript, not just random poems but a collection that has aggregated, evolved, and cohered, equivalent to a novel or a full-length memoir but distinguished by its homage to language music above narrative, theme, or any other consideration.

These people are all the more impressive to me because they have stuck to their task despite the knowledge that writing a collection of poetry in this time and place is, as my physicist father would have said, damned impractical.

Plato argued in The Republic that poets should be banished (overboard!) and the marginalization of contemporary poetry in our literary culture suggests the old Greek’s fears that the mythoi are dangerous to the status quo. They roll language right up to its boundaries and then with a grin or a grimace, they push it beyond. They contradict themselves, tweak the rhetorician’s nose, and their difficult lines often mock logos and add up to nonsense.

In his recent book Close Calls With Nonsense, Stephen Burt provides an approach for effectively reading contemporary poetry. What struck me was an understanding I’d gotten elsewhere, one that informs my own writing and will underlie my facilitating of the master class: in the best books of poetry, language music drives the art and from its harmony and cacophony, its clashing and melding, meaning can happen—but it must finally happen as a resonance in the reader who perceives not what is being said but how language is being used. So those completing a book of poetry must finally settle their work and hope this elusive effect, intuitive and amorphous, coalesces in the reader’s experience.

I just read a wonderful article in Slate tracing the life, writing, and literary philosophy of the late author David Foster Wallace. Among Wallace’s epiphanies, informed by the philosophical work of Wittgenstein, is that same idea again: meaning doesn’t inhere in language. Rather, language can only take meaning from how it is used.

Granted, this is summary of a complex treatise, but at its core, the concept is clear and brilliant—and devilishly hard to excel at as a poet. But that’s the challenge the master class participants have shouldered. They know that you know what they’re trying to do. Did I mention that their eyes are fierce?

And as a final commentary on this matter I offer lines from Jack Gilbert’s masterful Refusing Heaven, from a poem titled “The Lost Hotels of Paris.”

Ginsberg came to my house one afternoon
and said he was giving up poetry
because it told lies, that language distorts.
I agreed, but asked what we have
that gets it right even that much.

So on a Monday in early January, a group of survivors, poets all, will meet in Tom Ferril’s upstairs living room and exchange their texts—printed symbols of sounds that form words that evoke abstract ideas that will please please please readers. Foremost, these texts are a score for voice, and over the course of the next six months, we’ll sing them together and thereby finish fashioning these manuscripts into books. And then, finally, we’ll let go the gunwales and start swimming for the Reader Ship on our own.

9 comments on “Of Mythoi, Music, and The Reader Ship

  1. Greg Jalbert
    December 27, 2010


    Bravo to the six hearty souls who believe in the magic of language in a world where text messaging is fast-rewinding language back to the grunt of the cave. I’ve always loved this poem about writing by James Tate, since I often feel like a hairy beast listening to the voice of some nut. In some odd way it always make me feel encouraged:

    Teaching the Ape to Write Poems

    They didn’t have much trouble
    teaching the ape to write poems:
    first they strapped him into the chair,
    then tied the pencil around his hand
    (the paper had already been nailed down).
    Then Dr. Bluespire leaned over his shoulder
    and whispered into his ear:
    “You look like a god sitting there.
    Why don’t you try writing something?”

  2. andreadupree
    December 27, 2010

    Thanks for this, Chris! Nerd alert: I was just reading an old “subscribe to me” form letter from POETRY (long story) in which Christian Wiman unpacks Williams’s famous lines “It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/for lack/ of what is found there” thusly: “What he meant, I think, was that poetry can make our daily existence mean more to us. It can cut through all the distractions and busyness and help us seize our lives, to be more completely in them.” And to me, that’s the altruism behind the fierce eyes. By doing your work, you poets are helping the rest of us live our lives.

    (Or something like that.)

  3. Karen Palmer
    December 27, 2010

    Lovely, lovely, lovely.

  4. Wendy V
    December 28, 2010

    Yes, an inspiring meditation, and the Reader Ship is brillig. Did you coin that ? I’m impressed, and will try not to steal it …

    To the music ! And the fierce eyes.

  5. Ginny Hoyle
    December 28, 2010

    Chris, your remarks give me shivers, in such a good way. And make me nostalgic for master class, which taught me so much, and also gave me some of my best and most enduring poet friendships. There is a strong sense of community among Lighthouse poets who have discovered how to make music individually and together and get into all kinds of creative mischief. Lighthouse poets are just about the smartest and funniest people I know. For example, Dee Casalaina and Andrea Moore can be seen in the opening minutes of Alexandre Philippe’s new movie, The People vs. George Lucas, coming to a theater near all of us sometime soon, I hope. Having heard these outrageous poems the night they were read/filmed, I am sure they give the film a rousing start!

  6. Chris Ransick
    December 29, 2010

    Wendy, yes, the Reader Ship just sort of happened in my first sentence–the kind of happy accident that comes along when you let things roll. To the music, indeed . . .

    Ginny, I am also often nostalgic about that very special group of poets we brought together several years ago. What a privilege and a pleasure it was to run that session of the master class. I saw Alexandre’s movie a couple months ago and yes, Dee looks quite marvelous in the opening moments.

  7. Ginny Hoyle
    December 30, 2010

    And, two of that group have books in print. Barbara Ellen Sorenson’s Song From the Deep Middle Brain chapbook just out from Mainstreet Rag. And JD Frey’s Umbrellas Are Us published by Ghost Road Press.

  8. Cara Lopez Lee
    December 30, 2010

    I think that may be the first time I’ve read someone else’s blog to my husband out loud, probably because that’s the first time I sensed in a blog post the sublime underlying music of a master poet. How do you do that? Don’t answer. Like most people in a magician’s audience, I might wonder, but I’m happier not knowing, just ignorantly mumbling, “oooh, ahhh.”

  9. Therese Wenham
    January 4, 2011


    This explains everything…I’m sending it straight to my dad, who cannot understand why I want to do this. He spends a lot of time in a boat, “Its a lot like fishing – you know they’re down there, you just have to find them.” And from now on, when I get that fierce look in my eyes and I can see the people in the room stealthily backing away, I’ll just brush it off, “Oh its just a poet-thing – nothing to worry about…”

    Glad you’re the captain of our little boat…

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This entry was posted on December 27, 2010 by in Writing.

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