April 11, 2008

Poetry Friday: A Prizewinner!

Yesterday I found out that one of the professors at my alma mater (not one of my professors, since I never took an English class while I was there)--Robert Hass--won the Pulitzer for his latest book of poetry, "Time and Materials." At the risk of sounding sickeningly school-spirited--Go Bears!

I'd been wanting to read more of his work, and I have another book of his, "Human Wishes," sitting on my shelf--if not entirely unread, merely browsed so far. I lucked out and found two poems from his new book at the end of a fascinating online interview. I usually don't feel like getting too political on this blog, but I couldn't help but think about last week's contribution from D Elzey from a book of poems entitled "America at War." This Hass poem would make a great addition, methinks:

From Horace: Three Imitations
Odes, 3.2 Angustam amice pauperiem pati


Let the young, toughened by a soldier’s training,
Learn to bear hardship gladly
   And to terrify Parthian insurgents
      From the turrets of their formidable tanks.

Also to walk so easily under desert skies
That the mother of some young Sunni
   Will see a marine in the dusty streets
      And turn to the daughter-in-law beside her

And say with a shudder: Pray God our boy
Doesn’t stir up that Roman animal
   Whom a cruel rage for blood would drive
      Straight to the middle of any slaughter...

Click here to read the rest of the poem. More crown sonnets and Poetry Friday contributions can be found at A Wrung Sponge.



It seemed fitting that I'd find out about a Berkeley professor winning the Pulitzer on the same day that I was giving something back to the school by volunteering as an interviewer for alumni leadership scholarships. Last night, I spent about four hours in a little room with three other alumni, asking local high school seniors about their leadership experiences. There were 14 interviews, each one of them awe-inspiring and humbling.

When I write about young adults, I usually try to write about characters who are intelligent, creative, and relatively socially aware and busy; but these students were exceptional. It made me wonder: do I "dumb down" my characters, make them less complex and active than they could be? Do any of you other writers find yourself struggling over how much your characters should achieve in order to remain realistic and/or still appeal to the non-overachievers out there? I'm curious!

1 comment:

TadMack said...

Wow -- that is a seriously excellent poem, and the Bay Area has really raked it in this year in terms of major literary awards. WESTSIDE!

Okay. Hokey moment over.

It made me wonder: do I "dumb down" my characters, make them less complex and active than they could be?

I have to say a big NO. I don't think you dumb down your characters, and you have to keep in mind that the average is a wide, wide sea, and the hyper-achiever is a streamlet. Achievement, intelligence and involvement are RELATIVE, to my mind. You can have a very sharp student who is being relentlessly pushed by a parent -- and then the novel won't focus on their smarts, but on their feelings. A student who is bright but who has so much anxiety and stress that it blunts their intellect is a whole 'nothing piece of fiction. There are kids all across the spectrum, and you will, of course, write where your heart is, but I don't think you need feel you should pull your characters up to some invisible and arbitrary standard of excellence so that you can better reflect 'real life.' It comes in all shades and shapes...