#WriterGoals by Homer, Odysseus, and Ryanne

#WriterGoals by Homer, Odysseus, and Ryanne

Yes, my title is a hashtag. Sometimes I like to break the trend of ordinary prose. Sorry not sorry. Ironically, however, this post is based on writing standards set waaaaaaaay back in the days of Homer. In reading through The Odyssey for my university’s honors institute, I realized two things: First, listening to Chopin’s nocturnes whilst reading makes even the most boring of passages intensely moving. For real, I felt tears coming when Odysseus’ men were turned into pigs. Thanks, Chopin. Secondly, although Homer (whether of not you believe in him or think he was a group of poets or whatever new conspiracy is floating around in the literary community) does tend to be a bit- well- wordy in his accounts of first the Trojan War and then the homecoming journey of Odysseus, he is a master at his craft and the fact that philosophers and students alike have been studying his epics for thousands of years ought to be proof of that. Further evidence for this mastery is in his recognition of the key components of good writing/story-telling: truth, reason, and beauty.

He says in Book XI lines 363-369:

“‘Odysseus, we as we look upon you do not imagine

that you are a deceptive or thievish man, the sort that the black earth

breeds in great numbers, people who wander widely, making up

lying stories, from which no one could learn anything. You have

a grace upon your words, and there is sound sense within them,

and expertly, as a singer would do, you have told the story

of the dismal sorrows befallen yourself and all of the Argives.'”

In this instance, a king is praising the eloquence and clarity of Odysseus’ account of his journey, but more significantly, Homer is, through this character, identifying the essential components of writing worthy of enduring esteem. Such writing, first of all, must feature truth. When Odysseus concludes his tale, the first remark that the king makes is regarding the verity of Odysseus’ words; they are not fantasy, at least in the context of this epic, and thus deserving of serious consideration. But does all writing need to be true then in order to be great? The Harry Potter geek within me screams “NO!” in answer to this and, actually, the fangirl part of me is correct. C.S. Lewis believed strongly in fiction because of its seemingly paradoxical ability to convey truth. Take his most famous series, The Chronicles of Narnia, for instance. In any given library, these would be shelved with other works of fiction and probably even among children’s fiction. However, it is impossible to read these wonderful books without coming away having learned from them lessons of sacrifice, morality, family, forgiveness, and, consequently, truth. Good fiction always centers on truth.  Whether this truth is found in the form of a universal theme such as what it means to be a man or even a real event such as the an ancient war, if you dig deep enough as a reader or write well enough as an author, some aspect of truth will always be found at the core of a truly great piece of literature.

Continuing on, the king praises the sensible nature of Odysseus’ words; he does not use more than necessary. Bored readers might argue that Homer is not exactly concise, but when one considers the vast amount of mythology, culture, character descriptions, interactions, geographical courses, and rituals that are woven together to create the intricate tapestry of this epic, it becomes a wonder that such a magnificent story could be consolidated into a mere twenty-four book poem. This often unappreciated conciseness is vital to truly great writing. Of course, as the saying goes, “even Homer nods”, and some passages, such as the listings of over 600 Achaian ships in The Iliad are arguably a bit much, but considering the wealth of information and the overall complexity, this is certainly excusable.

Finally, Odysseus’ (and Homer’s) words are revered as beautiful. Being originally poetry sung by roaming bards, it is probably a no-brainer that The Iliad and The Odyssey are considered among the most beautiful pieces of literature. In this passage, great writing is described as having “a grace” and being crafted “expertly, as a singer would do.” Both poetry and prose must have a flow, a grace like the one here described. In music performed by a singer, every note, every inflection of the voice, every tiny breathe and consonant must be purposefully employed in order to convey the message of the song. In the same manner, a great writer must choose his or her words with purpose; not a “jot or tittle” is thrown in carelessly in attempt to meet a word count or appear more intelligent to the ignorant reader, but rather, each phrase is composed like a line of music, thus appealing to the reader’s deepest sense of beauty. Of course, one might debate that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but regardless of personal opinions of individual readers, by combining intentionality with artistry, a level of universal beauty, such as that achieved by the enduring works of literature, can be achieved.

To summarize: Many truths. Very clear. Much beauty. (Sorry, breaking the flow of my prose again. At least it was not a hashtag this time.) This passage in The Odyssey was one of those passages that make me gasp “Ah-ha!” aloud in the middle of the library. It made me race to the nearest computer to jot down my thoughts and publish them to my blog in the unlikely case that one of my readers may find inspiration in them as I did. This passage made me take a step back and reevaluate myself as a writer, but it also gave me a renewed passion as it guided me toward the path of truly great writing, that which is truth-centered, focused, and beautiful.

Sophisticated Simplicity

Sophisticated Simplicity

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci is remembered as one of the most ingenious men to have walked the earth. Even those unfamiliar with art recognize his name as the painter of the “Mona Lisa” and the innovator of ideas ahead of his time. And yet, this man, the epitome of a Renaissance man, believed that simplicity was the highest level of sophistication, that simplicity was the most apt means of communicating the most complex subjects. 

I agree with Signor Da Vinci. 

You see, this week I have been thinking a great deal about the relationship between simplicity of expression and beauty of thought and have realized that, when it comes down to it, they are inseparable. I sang in my regional honor choir last week and one of the songs we performed was a stunning piece of music, but when our director asked us what the lyrics meant, nobody had a clue. Normally, I am quite good at either discerning or inventing a meaning for the words I read, but even I was at a loss to explain what bizarre lines such as “born of scorpion need” could mean. Although beautiful when obscured by strong piano accompaniment and rumbling bass voices, these lyrics made no sense on their own; they were too vague to effectively convey their message and thus their potential beauty was lost.

In contrast, my favorite song from our concert, a joyful piece by Dan Forrest titled “The Music of Living”, was a rather basic work of poetry when examined apart from its music. It reads:

Giver of life,

Creator of all that is lovely,

Teach me to sing the words to Your song.

I want to feel the music of living!

And not fear the sad songs,

But from them make new songs

Composed of both laughter and tears.

Giver of life,

Creator of all that is lovely,

Teach me to dance to the sounds of Your world.

I want to move in rhythm with Your plan.

Help me to follow Your leading!

This song is joy! It is praise to God sung by His creation! It is a jubilant dance and encouragement between the faithful and a confession of dependence on His infinite strength! But even more than that, this song is simple and through this blessed simplicity conveyed infinitely more meaning and beauty than any amount of obscure metaphors and “scorpion needs.” 

What even is this trying to say? If this is deep, then I can be deep too: "Hearing: It's like smelling through your ears."
What even is this trying to say? If this is deep, then I can be deep too: “Hearing: It’s like smelling through your ears.”

Simplicity’s sophistication is found in prose as well. Take this quote for instance: 

“There are infinite numbers between 0 and 1. There’s .1 and .12 and .112 and an infinite collection of others. Of course, there is a bigger infinite set of numbers between 0 and 2, or between 0 and a million. Some infinities are bigger than other infinities. A writer we used to like taught us that. There are days, many of them, when I resent the size of my unbounded set. I want more numbers than I’m likely to get, and God, I want more numbers for Augustus Waters than he got. But, Gus, my love, I cannot tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I’m grateful.”

John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

I don’t know about you, but I read that and it took a moment to process. Even apart from the fault in this math (pun so intended it hurts…), this quote was wordy and unbelievably eloquent for a teenage character. I got the idea behind this passage: it’s a profession of love. But I was not left with any resounding emotion by this excerpt and within five minutes of reading it could not tell you what exactly it even said. I know many idolize John Green for his eloquence, but in this instance it seemed to get in the way of the raw emotion behind this scene. (Feel free

to disagree; this is just my opinion.)

Gilbert Blythe: the king of simple sophistication. <3
Gilbert Blythe: the king of simple sophistication. ❤

In contrast…

“I don’t want diamond sunbursts or marble halls. I just want you.”

-L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

It does not get much simpler than that and yet in those two brief sentences, Anne shares her complete love for Gilbert; she no longer dreams of castles or fairy tales, just him. If that is not true love, what is? And somehow L.M. Montgomery conveyed all that in twelve simple words. Beautiful. Crystal clear in wording and beautiful in meaning.

In my own life, simplicity has won out as the most sophisticated art form as well. Although I do not generally share my drafts of stories or scribblings of poetry, they have grown, opposite of what most would expect, more simple over the years and even the last few months. Where I used to dream up complex compositions of passionate lyrics and “artistically” dissonant music, I now find delight in honest writing and pure melodies. Where once I would have generated philosophical-sounding gibberish, I now dream up simple refrains such as,

“Let the red roses grow and fade; I’d rather have daisies on a rainy day.”

If you haven’t seen “You’ve Got Mail”, do yourself a favor and watch it this weekend.

Even this line from my writing journal attests to the superiority of simplicity: red roses for passion are elaborate but predictable and when it comes down to it, daisies for no reason are simple but sweet.

Granted, I should add as a disclaimer that I adore complexity within literature and music. I love speculating and analyzing, but I find that the most poignant pieces of art tend to be the most simple, as seen in the power of “The Music of Living” or Anne of Green Gables, both of which spoke to me on a personal level and will remain a part of my artistic soul forever, whereas other, more “refined” works of music and literature will be sang, read, and forgotten because in all their complexity, they failed to have the impact of pure simplicity.

To sum up, often overly-flowery writing proves unnecessary; use too much artistic license and the artistry itself is diminished, try too hard to be deep and you’ll end up sounding shallow.

Sometimes we need daisies more than roses; try too hard to be deep and you'll end up sounding shallow.
Sometimes we need daisies more than roses; try too hard to be deep and you’ll end up sounding shallow.
Poetic Purpose: Why Meter Matters

Poetic Purpose: Why Meter Matters

“Poetry is the rhythmical creation of beauty in words.”

~Edgar Allan Poe

Aside from signing my friends’ yearbook with personalized limericks, I admit that I have little experience with poetry. However, I adore reading it, as it was meant to be read, aloud. I love the sounds of its rhymes, the flow of the lines, the imagery and emotion that are woven together into a spoken song… but I’ll stop trying to sound poetic and go back to actually discussing poetry.

As with many of my posts, this one is inspired by my AP Literature class. We are beginning a unit on Hamlet and as it is virtually impossible to separate Shakespeare from iambic pentameter, we spent a period learning about meters of poetry. Right away, it made sense to me and, I noted with interest, my musical friends. However, those who had no musical experience (at least to my knowledge) seemed confused at the entire concept of poetic rhythm and its purpose. While my violinist and vocalist friends were nodding their heads appreciatively, many others were asking why does meter matter? Basically, meter in poetry matters because it helps the poet to give purpose to his or her writing and the reader to understand this purpose. As simple as this answer may sound, though, it is easy to miss if one does not understand the parallel concepts of poetry that are found within music.

To explain this concept further, I’ll provide a brief music lesson which will, I hope, function as a more concrete example that can later be used to clarify upon the abstract ideas of poetry.

In music, like poetry, meter is crucial. Consider for a moment one of the most famous forms of dance music: a waltz. What do you think of when you think of a waltz? The words that come to mind for me would be adjectives such as romantic, gliding, and elegant. Clearly a waltz is not rough, casual, or jerky. But what makes that distinction? For the sake of this example, let’s say that meter does. Obviously, other musical elements such as dynamics, tonality, and chordal structure are key as well, but meter is undeniable the biggest distinguishing trait of a waltz. Waltzes are generally in triple meter, which refers to counting each measure (or small section) of music in three beats, with the first beat receiving the most emphasis.

Listen to this waltz played on the piano by Arthur Rubinstein (Chopin’s waltz in c sharp minor Op. 64 No. 2).

Can you hear the left hand playing on the three main beats? Listen carefully and you will hear beneath the melody a strong “ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three” pattern. This is what triple meter sounds like in music.

This is the opening of the above waltz. See in the lower line the three main beats?
This is the opening of the above waltz. See in the lower line the three main beats?

Why triple meter? This is a fair question. After all, couldn’t a waltz be elegant, gliding, and romantic in any other meter? The answer is no, it probably could not. A waltz is a dance and  the triple meter, with its emphasis on beat one and then lighter beats two and three, is innately dance-able.  (Yes, “dance-able” is a word…) The dancers would make their largest and strongest step on the first beat, the emphasized ONE, and then smaller steps on the subsequent beats, two and three. And not only is the waltz in triple meter fit for dancing, it is fit for elegant, smooth,and lovely dancing. Other music with different meters can be danced to, but not in the same way. You see, the meter here serves a unique purpose.

Let’s consider another musical meter: quadruple. This meter consist of four main beats, giving it a steady one-two-three-four rhythm with each beat being approximately equal in emphasis. Take a listen to this famous quadruple meter pop song, “Love Song” by Sara Bareilles:

This is a passage from "Love Song". The four main beats are depicted in the treble clef.
This is a passage from “Love Song”. The four main beats are depicted in the treble clef.

Would you say this is a graceful song? Or perhaps a delicate song, like a lullaby? Of course not! This is a energetic, determined, and even angry song. Listen to the driving chords that create the strong one-two-three-four rhythm. These are crucial to making this song what it is! “Love Song” would sound ridiculous if performed in triple meter like a waltz, but the continuous one-two-three-four rhythm of quadruple meter provides a forward drive and a memorable riff that are guaranteed to not only communicate the frustrated feelings of the artist but become stuck in the listener’s head for the rest of the day. (Or, in my case, from 8th grade until now.)

So how does this relate to poetry? Exactly. Meter in music relates exactly to meter in poetry; that is why the choir and orchestra geeks understood our poetry lesson while others found it puzzling. Not only are lyrics to songs poems set to music, but the meters of the two are often the same! For instance, the quadruple meter we just listened to is the musical equivalent of spondaic meter in poetry, which consists of repeated stressed syllables. See the similarity?

In music: one-two-three-four

In poetry: / / / /                    ( / refers to a stressed syllable)

“Love Song” was a quadruple meter song, so let’s look at a spondaic poem for comparison. The internet for once failed to provide me with what I needed, so I was forced to write my own example, which shall remain untitled.

   /       /      /       /

Coffee now please

 /    /      /      /

I need caffeine.

  /         /       /     /

Two more coffees

 /    /    /      /

Or I’ll be mean.

I think the emotion behind this piece is pretty clear: I’m tired and need coffee in order to avoid being cranky. Not exactly “Love Song”, but the frustration and forcefulness of the writer is as apparent in my untitled snippet of a poem as it is in Sara Bareilles’ famous breakup song. The only difference is that my poem is not set to music and therefore referred to as spondaic dimeter, meaning there are two sets of two stressed syllables per line (thus four syllables total per line). If I were to set this poem to music, it would probably be in quadruple meter like “Love Song”, with each stressed syllable placed on a strong beat. Like quadruple meter, spondaic meters tend to communicate power and potentially anger with their clearly-defined emphasis and lack of unstressed (softer) syllables.

Swing/jazz music and dance are characterized by a fun, energetic vibe given by their swung rhythm.
Swing/jazz music and dance are characterized by a fun, energetic vibe given by their swung rhythm.

There are many other meters in both music and poetry and the parallels between the two are undeniable. For example, trochaic meter, which consists of an stressed syllable followed by a unstressed syllable, is remarkably reminiscent of jazz music with its rhythms of swung notes. The link below features a swing song, “Sing, Sing, Sing”, with its characteristic “long-short-long-short” rhythm which is comparable to the stressed-unstressed meter of trochee poetry. This rhythm can indicate a sense of freedom from regulations of strict meters as it bends from straight, even beats.

These parallels fascinate me and I could discuss them forever, but I must answer the question I began with: Why does meter matter? We looked at why it matters in music, that is, to communicate the composer’s emotions and purpose in writing the piece. Chopin’s waltz was in triple meter to convey the sensation of dancing with poise and beauty; Sara Bareilles’ “Love Song” is in quadruple meter to demonstrate her determination and frustration as she tells off her needy ex; and jazz music has a swung rhythm to give it its carefree, spontaneous feel. In poetry, meter is used in the same way: to provide a structure that supports the ideas of the poet and communicates them better to the reader. I used spondaic dimeter to convey my urgent need for coffee through its demanding, blunt rhythm and I feel that my choice of meter made my emotion more apparent to the reader than if I had, say, written about my need for coffee in an iambic pentameter sonnet, which probably would have come across too flowery and romantic for my topic. In the same way, real poets (meaning not me) use specific meters for specific purposes. Whether or not they do so intentionally is a question for another day, but there can be no doubt that they do use different meters for different purposes and this allows for effective communication of ideas and emotions through verse.

To conclude, I will address another question that a peer of mine asked: Why do we, as students and readers, need to know the various types of meters? Again, I will return to my music comparison; as a music student, I obviously need to know the meters of the pieces that I play, but even as a listener, I should be aware of these meters so that I can fully appreciate the artistry of the music. By being aware of the elements that combine to create music, such as meter, I am better able to understand and appreciate a waltz for its elegance, or pop for its energy, or jazz for its freedom.  When reading and studying poetry we ought to be aware, as educated readers, of meter just as we ought to be aware of elements such as figurative language, diction, and point of view, to deepen our understanding of the piece and allow the purpose of the poet to be fully communicated to us as his or her audience.

Grave con Brio: On Pianos in Literature

Grave con Brio: On Pianos in Literature

Writing-An-Essay-877
Me right now…

I feel a bit guilty admitting this, but I love writing essays. Really. My classmates- if any of them actually are reading this- are probably rolling their eyes and groaning, but call me a nerd, I don’t care and I’ll say it again: I love writing essays. I especially love writing them when they are not on set topics and I am free to explore familiar regions, themes from my own life, stories chosen directly from my bookshelves. Having, over the course of the last two weeks, written a total of nine essays for AP Literature (even for me, this was too much), I suppose I was bound to find at least one where I could choose my own topic and, to my delight, the final prompt was the one. 

I'm afraid this is going to be me in a few hours...
Me in a few hours…

I was instructed to choose a motif not generally taught in English course and discuss its appearance in several literary works, but having just spent several hours practicing piano, it was hard to switch gears so suddenly into essay mode. But, as it turns out, I didn’t have to! My favorite instrument (sorry, bagpipes) happens to be a common motif in literature and I was so embarrassingly excited to write this paper that I may or may not have written it to be two pages longer than required… oops.

 

Anyway, here is the finished product:

 

 

Grave con Brio: On Pianos in Literature

“I tell my piano the things I used to tell you.” -Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)

In this one heartbreaking statement, Frédéric Chopin, the “Poet of the Piano,” describes not only his yearning for a lost friend but a motif that has played its way into numerous literary works: the piano. This instrument is one that I hold dear to my heart, as it has been an extension of myself since I learned my first tune; it has been and continues to be a source of comfort and companionship for

the emotional artist in times of loneliness and despair. Like Chopin, many authors have understood this connection between musician and keyboard and made use of it to portray depression, isolation, but also a hope for recovery.

 

hammershoi-woman-piano          The piano as a motif appears in most literary works on my bookshelves, but is especially prevalent in those dealing with thwarted love. For instance, in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, when Marianne is abandoned by her unprincipled lover, she sinks into a sorrow beyond the reach of her friends and family. However, she finds comfort in the notes of her pianoforte, which provides a means for her to both express her woe and piece her heart back together. Similarly, in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, when Jo March refuses to accept the hand of her best friend and ardent admirer, Laurie, in marriage, he storms away. A few hours after his disappointment, Laurie is heard playing the opening lines of Beethoven’s “Sonata Pathetique,” which is considered among the most keenly sorrowful works for solo piano, having been composed around the time of Beethoven’s tragic hearing loss. In fact, Beethoven wrote it to be performed “grave” and then “allegro di molto con brio,” which mean gravely and then with fiery passion. In this instance, like that of Marianne in Sense and Sensibility, Laurie feels that none among his friends can empathize with his disappointment and thus turns to the piano, which is always there to suffer under his angry fingers and propel him toward recovery through its understanding melodies.

 

The piano as a motif does not merely appear when cupid’s arrows have misfired, however, for this instrument can be the medium for emotion and healing from misfortunes beyond star-crossed romances. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, when Daisy and Gatsby are finally reunited in Gatsby’s mansion, one of the first things that they do is find the pianist who has been “visiting” for many 13994344704_2229c08b1f_zmonths and make him play a song for them called “Ain’t We Got Fun?” This piece, while frivolous, bridges the gap between them in a way that words never could and it allows Gatsby to feel for the moment that he is not completely alone. Granted, this still seems romantic, but Gatsby’s true desire is for acceptance by the “Old Money” families of society and he has simply found this desire personified in Daisy. Thus, when the piano is clinking away a familiar melody, Gatsby is actually expressing his longing to be a part of a world that he has been excluded from and creating a feeble link between himself and the representative of this world. The piano music, although performed by another, was commissioned by Gatsby to serve as the accompaniment to his heartache and attempts at healing. Another example of the piano motif, and perhaps the most obvious, is in Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera.  In this novel, the face of the title character, Erik, is horribly disfigured. This, combined with his extraordinary genius, gives rise to violent suspicion in other men, thus forcing him to cut himself off from his fellow men to become the “Opera Ghost.” He conceals himself within the cellars of the Paris Opera House and spends his indistinguishably dark days and nights at his organ and piano, composing his masterpiece. The dissonant tones and provocative melodies of his composition parallel the turmoil of his forsaken soul. Only the keys of his instruments understand his anguish and give a voice to his misery. Like most appearances of the piano motif, the music has a restorative nature, keeping Erik alive only for as long as he continues playing; when his masterpiece is completed and he leaves the piano bench, his life too comes to its finale. Here, as in The Great Gatsby, the piano offered a catharsis for Erik’s emotion, but when its notes faded, the healing was halted.

Me in real life (not a meme!)
Me in real life (not a meme!)

The piano is a staple instrument. It is used to find pitches for singers, tune violins, unify jazz band riffs, and create mood in silent films. Nearly every home has one crouching in its living room, or at least a keyboard lurking in some forgotten closet, but wherever the piano is, there lies the heart of the house and the musician who resides there. I can personally attest to this truth, for I have a piano dominating my front room and seek refuge in its music whenever my heart is overwhelmed. In the same way, pianos furnish the pages of literature as a motif that is generally overlooked but can provide major insight into the souls of the players if examined closely. From the works Austen to Leroux and Alcott to F. Scott Fitzgerald, the members of the literary canon are crowded with pianos, which, although they play different tunes, all  represent an emotional outpouring and a gradual calming of the mind, experienced through the impassioned performances of their owners.