Today I’m focusing on the sonic qualities of both these pieces. The poem is written (mostly) in iambic tetrameter, which just means alternating unstressed-stressed syllables four times per line (da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM). To me it sounds like a horse clopping along, and it gets into my head the way a catchy song might. (There’s one point where this rhythm breaks—see if you notice it.)
The story’s rhythm is much less formal. In fact, the writer is emulating the clipped and conversational style of the diary entries of an ordinary man. But I think it’s just as carefully composed as the poem, and its sound is just as distinctive. I was lucky to hear an excerpt of the story read in person by the author, and was surprised at how it became hilarious in a way it hadn’t seemed when I read it to myself. Strange how hearing something read aloud changes the way we experience it. I always suggest to writers that they read aloud to themselves when they get stuck with a work-in-progress; a lot of times, this is how you’ll figure out how to proceed.
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
Who is this guy?
Born in Coventry, England in 1922, Larkin studied English at Oxford University, and after graduating, became a librarian. He continued working in libraries even as he published novels and collections of poetry. Interestingly, his body of work amounts to a relatively small number of pages, but it was on the strength of these that Larkin became known as “England’s other Poet Laureate.” However, he disliked the trappings of fame and stayed mostly in small towns, and maybe his popularity has to do in part with how he dwelled in and wrote about the “ordinary.” In the New York Times Book Review, J.D. McClatchey described Larkin’s poetry as “clipped, lucid stanzas, about the failures and remorse of age, about stunted lives and spoiled desires.”
The Semplica-Girl Diaries (excerpt)
Having just turned forty, have resolved to embark on grand project of writing every day in this new black book just got at OfficeMax. Exciting to think how in one year, at rate of one page/day, will have written three hundred and sixty-five pages, and what a picture of life and times then available for kids & grandkids, even greatgrandkids, whoever, all are welcome (!) to see how life really was/is now. Because what do we know of other times really? How clothes smelled and carriages sounded? Will future people know, for example, about sound of airplanes going over at night, since airplanes by that time passé? Will future people know sometimes cats fought in night? Because by that time some chemical invented to make cats not fight? Last night dreamed of two demons having sex and found it was only two cats fighting outside window. Will future people be aware of concept of “demons”? Will they find our belief in “demons” quaint? Will “windows” even exist? Interesting to future generations that even sophisticated college grad like me sometimes woke in cold sweat, thinking of demons, believing one possibly under bed? Anyway, what the heck, am not planning on writing encyclopedia, if any future person is reading this, if you want to know what a “demon” was, go look it up, in something called an encyclopedia, if you even still have those!
Am getting off track, due to tired, due to those fighting cats.
Hereby resolve to write in this book at least twenty minutes a night, no matter how tired. (If discouraged, just think how much will have been recorded for posterity after one mere year!)
Oops. Missed a day. Things hectic. Will summarize yesterday. Yesterday a bit rough. While picking kids up at school, bumper fell off Park Avenue. Note to future generations: Park Avenue = type of car. Ours not new. Ours oldish. Bit rusty. Kids got in, Eva (middle child) asked what was meaning of “junkorama.” At that moment, bumper fell off. Mr. Renn, history teacher, quite helpful, retrieved bumper (note: write letter of commendation to principal), saying he too once had car whose bumper fell off, when poor, in college. Eva assured me it was all right bumper had fallen off. I replied of course it was all right, why wouldn’t it be all right, it was just something that had happened, I certainly hadn’t caused. Image that stays in mind is of three sweet kids in back seat, chastened expressions on little faces, timidly holding bumper across laps. One end of bumper had to hang out Eva’s window and today she has sniffles, plus small cut on hand from place where bumper was sharp.
Lilly (oldest, nearly thirteen!), as always, put all in perspective, by saying, Who cares about stupid bumper, we’re going to get a new car soon anyway, when rich, right?
Upon arriving home, put bumper in garage. In garage, found dead large mouse or small squirrel crawling with maggots. Used shovel to transfer majority of squirrel/mouse to Hefty bag. Smudge of squirrel/mouse still on garage floor, like oil stain w/ embedded fur tufts.
Stood looking up at house, sad. Thought: Why sad? Don’t be sad. If sad, will make everyone sad. Went in happy, not mentioning bumper, squirrel/mouse smudge, maggots, then gave Eva extra ice cream, due to I had spoken harshly to her.
Have to do better! Be kinder. Start now. Soon they will be grown and how sad, if only memory of you is testy, stressed guy in bad car.
When will I have sufficient leisure/wealth to sit on hay bale watching moon rise, while in luxurious mansion family sleeps? At that time, will have chance to reflect deeply on meaning of life, etc., etc. Have a feeling and have always had a feeling that this and other good things will happen for us!
Who is this guy?
Born in Texas in 1958, George Saunders is among the most celebrated short story writers and novelists working today; his novel Lincoln in the Bardo won the Man Booker Prize in 2017. His stories are often sci-fi tinged and feature ordinary, even downtrodden characters confronting absurd situations. Perhaps that makes him the ideal writer to turn to in this moment—take a look at the letter to his students he recently published in The New Yorker.
Think about something that happened or you did this week. Try writing about it in two very different styles: formal and conversational, for example, or old-fashioned and contemporary, or highly dramatized and understated.
Alanna Schubach is a fiction writer, freelance journalist, and teacher. Follow her on Twitter @AlannaSchubach and read her work at alannaschubach.com. Send questions, recommendations for future newsletters, and the results of writing prompts (if you’re so inclined) to firstname.lastname@example.org