Color-Coding Your Manuscript

Although I had heard about color-coding a manuscript before rewriting it, I had never employed this technique until last year. In addition to writing books, I weave baskets, so it seems natural for me to draw an analogy between what one does when weaving a basket and what one does in a color-coded rewrite.

I first started weaving baskets in 2003. And the first ones I wove were simple weaving: 01/U1. That stands for Over 1, Under 1, and that’s what you do with the weaver: you weave it over one stake, and under the next stake. Then over one, then under one, until you’re back at the beginning and need to start the next row.

Simple weave is used for many baskets. Probably most of the baskets I’ve woven are simple weave. But the strongest baskets have a twill weave. In basketry, a twill weave is any combination of O/U except O1/U1. A simple twill can be O2/U1, or O2/U2. A complex twill might contain combinations of  07/U1, O5/U3, and so on. The picture is a Cherokee pattern basket I wove maybe ten years ago. You can see that the pattern is complex. 

One can weave a basket, and one can weave a story. You’ve probably heard some form of the expression, “He/she weaves a good story.” That’s because stories, particularly longer ones such as novels, contain patterns/themes/motifs that the writer weaves or threads through the story. In a story, as in a basket, the tighter the weave, the stronger the product. A loose weave is a sloppy weave. Not pleasant to look at. And it’s weak.

If writing were basketry, then most novels would be considered twills because they have several elements woven through them, sometimes in complex ways.

If you’re weaving a basket and you forget to pull a weaver through a particular spot, three things are going to happen: (1) there will be a definite weak spot in the basket where you missed the pattern; (2) the looks of the basket will be disrupted — something will look odd or out of place or missing; (3) this missing piece is going to disturb the user. 

The same thing is true of a manuscript. If you forget or “drop” one of your motifs, you will create a weak spot in your story — the flow of the story will be disrupted and the reader will be unsettled, either wanting to hear about the missing part, or forgetting about it and then being surprised or annoyed when you pick it up again.

Writing teachers are constantly devising methods to help writers create stronger stories when they rewrite their manuscripts. One such method, which I think was invented by Darcy Pattison (but I’m not sure), is the “Shrunken Manuscript” method. What she calls the shrunken manuscript I call color-coding.

Once you have a manuscript ready for rewrite, consider the important elements that you want to weave through it. If you’re rewriting nonfiction, I think 3 or 4 motifs are sufficient. If you’re rewriting fiction, I suspect you could have 3-6 motifs. Motifs are dominant ideas in a work of art. Two of the motifs in my novel are: the protagonist’s relationship to cross country running, and the protagonist’s relationship with his father. Fiction is more complex than nonfiction, hence the greater number of weavers you want to move through the story. After you’ve named your motifs, assign each a color. 

Last year I rewrote my first YA novel four times. On the fifth rewrite I used color-coding, and with the help of a friend I named six motifs to weave through the story: the two named above, plus four others. These elements were already present in the manuscript: they just needed to be woven through the story consistently. I work on an Apple computer, on which I use Pages as my word processing program, so it was very easy for me to use the Pages color selections. Choose six strong, bold colors and assign one to each motif.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before you start color-coding, make a copy of your manuscript — you do want an original, uncolored manuscript around, in case an editor wants to see it. Title the copy something like NOVEL A, Color-Coded. Then, for each color motif you chose, go through the manuscript once, selecting everything that pertains to that motif. Color it. I not only colored it, I underlined it as well, so that it would stand out even more when shrunken. (Later I learned that it would have been easier to color the space behind the type: that method will make the color sections stand out better.) I had six motifs I wanted to trace, so I went through my manuscript SIX. TIMES. This was tedious work, but it was very worthwhile. I got to see where I dealt with issues, whether I did it in page-long sections, in paragraph-long sections, in single sentences, or even in phrases. 

Don’t try to combine passages through the manuscript. That is, don’t try to do your reds and blues at the same time: it’s guaranteed that you won’t be paying as close attention as if you were looking for just one of these motifs. Chances are you will miss something.

Manuscript written and color-coded by Chris Tebbetts.

Next comes the shrinking part. Select your entire manuscript and reduce it to 6 point type. Get rid of chapter breaks if you need to, so that what you have is pretty much all text. The end result is your shrunken manuscript.

Now look at your color-coded shrunken pages. If you can line them up in a “light table” mode across your computer, all the better. If not, you will have to deal with them in a vertical fashion. In either case, you should be able to see where a color goes on vacation for a while — no purple for, like, 60 pages! This means you’ve dropped that motif for quite a while. There’s a gap there, and you need to work that purple motif into the gap.

The example above is a color-coded shrunken manuscript from friend and critique-group member Chris Tebbetts, co-author of James Patterson’s Middle School series.

When I used color-coding on my 320-page YA novel and then shrank it, it reduced to something like 73 pages. When I looked at my color-coding, I learned something that, to my knowledge, articles on the topic didn’t cover. What I learned was that some writers handle their motifs in chunks, others handle their motifs in mostly slivers. For the Chunk writers, who deal in pages and paragraphs, the colors on the shrunken ms show up in vivid blocks.

For the Sliver writers, who handle their motifs, or some of their motifs, in sentences or phrases . . . those tiny little slivers of color don’t show up very well in a shrunken manuscript. I, alas, saw that half of the time my motifs were dealt with in slivers. And I couldn’t see those thin lines of color.

So I made myself a chart in which I numbered each of my 73 pages on the left, listed each of my six motifs across the top, and filled in the colors if they were there, left the chart blank if the colors weren’t there. Creating the chart took me a while, but this was time well spent, because the chart made rewriting so much easier. I taped this chart to my bookcase and looked at it every day when I rewrote.

Color-coding my manuscript helped me see that, even though I thought I never dropped any of the weavers, I did indeed drop three of them from time to time. In the rewrite, I added them back in — making for what I hope is a tighter story with no places where the themes are dropped. 

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For a colorful setting, read Barbara Gregorich’s mystery novel, Sound Proof.

Mountain Passes: Yellow Mountain Gap

In 1776 the American colonists delivered their Declaration of Independence to King George who, refusing to let them leave the British Empire, ordered the British Army to conquer them. The British had the support of perhaps one-third of all colonists. These supporters of Britain were called Loyalists because they were loyal to what had been their government. Those who rebelled were called Patriots.

From 1775 onward, the invading British Army and the defending Patriots engaged in battles from Massachusetts to Georgia. By 1780 British General Lord Cornwallis had seized Charleston, South Carolina, the largest city in the South. Cornwallis intended to subdue all of South Carolina, then march into North Carolina and from there into Virginia.

Mountain Range: Appalachian Mountains
Elevation: 4,682 feet
Location: On the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, in the Pisgah National Forest.

Major Patrick Ferguson, second in command to Cornwallis, campaigned throughout South Carolina to successfully rally Loyalists to his cause. [South Carolina contained more Loyalists than any of the other thirteen colonies.]

Successful in South Carolina, Ferguson found himself meeting major resistance from the settlers who lived on the west side of the mountains. These frontiersmen called themselves “Over the Mountain” men because they or their parents had crossed the Appalachians, many through the Cumberland Gap. Ferguson called these men mongrels and threatened that he would march his army over the mountains, “hang their leaders, and lay their country to waste with fire and sword.”

Instead of waiting for Ferguson to march into their territory, the angry frontiersmen marched east from Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and what is today Tennessee. Riding horses, they wore frontier buckskin and carried long rifles.  Their small groups of 30 or 40 joined one another to become more than 1,000 strong, among them at least five black men. The groups came together at what is today Elizabethton, Tennessee (in the far eastern end of the state). One of the African-Americans was Essius Bowman, a free man. The Overmountain women prepared food and packed supplies. One in particular, Mary Patton, worked nonstop to make 500 pounds of high-quality, fast-burning gunpowder for the Patriots.

Armed and ready, the Overmountain men marched from Elizabethton southward, through the high mountain passes. On the night of September 27, 1780, they entered Yellow Mountain Gap, the highest point of their 14-day trek. Snow in the gap was already “shoe-tongue” high. Camping alongside Roaring Creek, they made beds on the ground, placed their long rifles on top of the bedding, then lay on top of the rifles to keep them dry. During the night at Yellow Mountain Gap, two men deserted to the Loyalist side and rode ahead to warn Major Ferguson.

Even though Ferguson’s troops outnumbered the Patriot soldiers, he started to retreat toward Lord Cornwallis’ large army at Charleston once he heard the Overmountain men were marching toward him. But instead of continuing to the coast, he stopped on Kings Mountain in South Carolina. There he stationed his troops so that they occupied the mountain top and could shoot down upon the Patriots and route them.

On the night of October 6, the Overmountain fighters chose the 900 fastest horses and 900 best shooters. These 900 set out in a cold rainstorm and marched all night and most of the next day, covering 35 miles. At 3 p.m. on October 7 they reached the foot of Kings Mountain. Unseen by the Loyalists, they  divided their forces: one half of the men stealthily crept up one side of the mountain, one half stealthily crept up the other side.

When the shooting began the long rifles of the Overmountain Men, although they could fire only once a minute compared to the four times a minute the British muzzles could fire, proved superior — they hit their target more accurately. A volley of bullets, at least one of them fired by Essius Bowman, knocked Major Ferguson off his horse, killing him. In close quarters the British soldiers fought with bayonets, but the mountain men fought with tomahawks like the Cherokee used. Within one hour the smaller Patriot force had overwhelmed the Loyalists and caused them to surrender. Patriot losses were 28 dead and 62 wounded. Loyalist losses were 150 dead, 150 wounded, and 800 captured. The victory at Kings Mountain destroyed the left flank of Cornwallis’s army.

After the battle a man named Joseph Greer volunteered to walk north to tell the Continental Congress about the Kings Mountain victory. Using a compass for direction, Greer walked for thirty days to reach Philadelphia. His message of victory inspired the American colonists, who had thought South Carolina lost. More soldiers were drafted or volunteered to fight. Cornwallis was pushed backward toward the sea until he abandoned Charleston. One year after the Battle of Kings Mountain, Cornwallis surrendered to General Washington. Years later President Thomas Jefferson called the Battle of Kings Mountain “the turn of the tide” in the American Revolution.

Yellow Mountain Gap

Heroes trod
this path
to clash
with Redcoat
wrath

Today Yellow Mountain Gap, named for its beautiful fall colors, is one of the many stops along the famous Appalachian Trail. Over 2,000 miles long, the Appalachian Trail is a series of many connected hiking paths from Katahdin, Maine, to Springer Mountain, Georgia. 

The Appalachian Trail is the most visited hiking trail in the world. Each year nearly four million people hike one or more parts of the trail. And a few spend months hiking the entire trail, all 2,174 miles of it. These hikers carry their own food and water and tents, and when they are lucky, they can spend the night in a hut or shelter. 

The shelter at Yellow Mountain Gap is larger than most: it’s an old barn that has been converted into sleeping quarters for at least 35 people. It’s named the Overmountain Shelter, in honor of the men who helped win the American Revolution.

_________________________________

Barbara Gregorich’s previous post on mountain passes was Athabasca Pass.

He Traded Rose Gacioch

Rose Gacioch’s parents emigrated from Poland to the United States in the early 1900s. A member of the immigrant working class, Rose Gacioch did not speak perfect English. This is what happened to her as a result.

He Traded Rose Gacioch

He traded Rose Gacioch,
he did, the President
of the South Bend Blue Sox,
after just one season.

He traded Rose Gacioch,
he did, even though the Manager
and the Board of Directors
ordered him to trade anyone
but Rose Gacioch.

He traded Rose Gacioch,
he did, because although she had
great speed, could field, throw, hit,
and hit for power, he thought
she didn’t speak English good.

His eyes weren’t on the game,
they weren’t; they weren’t on Rose’s
baseball skills. His eyes were on modes
of dress, on extending a pinkie finger
while drinking tea, and on speaking English good.

And so he did, he traded Rose Gacioch
to the Rockford Peaches, where she slammed
triples, set the record for outfield assists, and,
when she grew older and slower,
pitched a 20-wins season.

He traded Rose Gacioch, he did,
because he didn’t count performance,
only appearance, and when you encounter
his likes in your workplace, remember
that Rose Gacioch’s bat, Rose Gacioch’s arm,
Rose Gacioch’s feet, and Rose Gacioch’s head,
they spoke. They spoke good.


———————————————

Other poems by Barbara Gregorich appear in Crossing the Skyway.

Description: Vivid and Brief

In both fiction and nonfiction, description paints a picture of characters, land, structures, objects, and the like. Just as dialogue and action need to advance the plot of a novel, so, too, should description — it should provide necessary information. The things being described should be described not only because they advance the plot, but because they somehow affect either the plot or the characters in the story. Or both. And, because description makes the setting and characters more vivid, it draws readers more deeply into the story.

Entertaining the reader is not description’s main purpose — even though some writers treat description in this manner. Some readers thoroughly enjoy long, long passages of description: of the countryside, perhaps, or clothing, or a house. Other readers react impatiently to such long descriptions and often skip ahead to get to the places where something is happening. Perhaps these readers, without consciously realizing it, are reacting to the fact that such long passages contain unnecessary information.

I’m a reader who likes description not for its own sake, but because it somehow helps me understand the characters or plot better, or helps me more sharply feel the setting. I become bored when reading long passages of description: I feel that in such cases the purpose of the description is either to increase the number of pages in the book, to avoid getting to the conflict in the novel, or to show off one’s ability to write compound-complex sentences perhaps, or choose little-known words.

Even writing books written nearly a century ago cautioned that descriptive writing needed to subordinate itself to some purpose. In A Handbook to Literature (1936), the authors state: “Descriptive writing is most successful when its details are carefully selected according to some purpose and to a definite point of view, when its images are concrete and clear, and when it makes discreet use of words of color, sound, and motion.”

In So You Want to Write Marge Piercy and Ira Wood have an entire chapter on description. They start the chapter by saying: “Descriptions are places where writers feeling their oats often let themselves go and readers nod off, put down the book or at their kindest, skip.  No description should be skippable, . . . every one should be functional. If you describe something, make it work.” 

In Chapter 21 of Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies, I give examples of description from Sound Proof, and show the difference between description that serves almost no purpose and description that is functional. Here is a short description as it appears in Chapter 3:

The thermometer on the back stoop read 92°.

Directly under the thermometer, leaning up against the house siding, a nylon instrument case stood unprotected.

I couldn’t tell by looking what instrument it housed because the case was long, wedge-shaped and blue — like a Cheesehead after a Green Bay winter. 

These details are short: selected for a purpose. If the details hadn’t been selected for a purpose, the passage might have read something like this:

The back stoop of the farmhouse was small by comparison to the front porch, a mere five feet by three, but covered for protection from the sun and rain. 

The two concrete steps were well-worn and pitted and the roof newly shingled with what looked like cheap tiles: in keeping with Mary’s penny-pinching.

The large outdoor thermometer, once green but now faded to white, attached to a post with two rusty screws, read 92° — and the day had hardly begun. 

Directly under the thermometer, leaning up against the faded-gray house siding, a nylon instrument case stood unprotected.

I couldn’t tell by looking what instrument it housed because the case was long, wedge-shaped and blue — like a Cheesehead after a Green Bay winter. A long zipper ran lengthwise around the case. A thick nylon strap was attached to each long end of the case by a black plastic D-hook.

The passage above contains way too many details. So many that they don’t appear selected. In fact, they weren’t selected: I just blathered on while writing them, describing everything Frank might see. The original passage, however, focuses on those details that are important to the story: the temperature and the blue nylon case. It bears repeating: in writing description, select the details that are important to the story.

Regarding description, Piercy and Wood also state: “Learn to describe briefly or in snatches, so as not to stop the story in an obvious way.” Remember that readers do not want the story to stop. So learn to describe briefly or in pieces, interspersing the descriptions with action or dialogue or other narrative.

Descriptions should not only be brief, they should be vivid. And it’s specificity that helps make descriptions vivid — the specificity of significant details. Specific details that help paint a vivid picture. And it is up to the writer to think about what those specific details might be, and then to employ them in the written description.

Description is not optional. A writer cannot decide, “I hate description, so I won’t write any.” Description presents to the reader the qualities of a person, a place, an object, even of an action — unless these are presented to the reader, the reader won’t be able to see/imagine what is happening. 

The best book I know of on description is by Rebecca McClanahan. Its title is Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively. In it, she lists five qualities of good description:

  • It is carefully worded, using correct terms for things and using precise images.
  • It is sensory, making the reader, see, feel, hear, or smell things.
  • It presents things “as in a state of activity.” That is, good description creates the illusion of movement or motion forward, not an impression of static existence. 
  • It often employs figurative language.
  • Finally, and most importantly, description must be effective. It must do its job of aiding plot, characters, or action.

One of the best pieces of advice McClanahan gives is to avoid adjectives that label or explain — words such as lovely, noteworthy, remarkable. Instead, use adjectives that actually describe (rather than label or explain), such as curly, frayed, or moss-covered. Wherever possible, use concrete nouns such as barn, guitar, or shirt — rather than general nouns such as structure, instrument, or clothing.

Writing ineffective description that’s too general to be interesting, that does not affect a novel’s plot, characters, or action — is way too easy. Writing effective description takes more effort — but learning how to write effective description is not overly difficult. And learning how to do so allows a writer to see things in a new way — an interactive way in which description serves a purpose.

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For more examples of and information on description, read Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.

Mountain Passes: Athabasca Pass

Athabasca Pass is located in the Canadian Rockies, on the Continental Divide between Alberta and British Columbia. During the early 1800s it was an important pass on the highly lucrative fur-trade route, with furs trapped west of the Rockies carried eastward and shipped to England.

The first non-Indian to see Athabasca Pass was David Thompson, perhaps the greatest European explorer of the North American continent. David Thompson was Welsh, born in London in 1770. Although his family lived in poverty, he was able to attend the Gray Coat Charity School, where he excelled in mathematics. At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to the fur-trading Northwest Company and sailed to Canada. There he would have been a clerk working on books indoors, except for the fact that he broke his leg so badly that he spent a long time recovering. During that time, he was taught how to use a compass and sextant and locate the exact position of land forms by sighting the stars. 

Thompson became so good at determining location that the rival Hudson Bay Company hired him as a mapmaker. In 1798 he mapped the upper Missouri River and the Mandan villages. When Lewis and Clark explored that area of the continent in 1804, it was David Thompson’s maps that they used.

Because Thompson used a sextant to site the stars and determine the exact location of rivers, lakes, mountains, and even forts, the First Nations people called him Koo Koo Sint — he who looks at stars.

In 1807 Thompson was the first Euro-Canadian to cross Howse Pass in the Canadian Rockies. The native tribes such as the Kootenay and Piegan (Blackfeet)  had been using this pass for centuries, and shared its location with Thompson. Using Howse Pass, Thompson and other fur traders crossed the Canadian Rockies yearly, bringing furs back east. 

But First Nations people (in this case the Piegans) resented being cut out of the fur trade business. They resented white people taking over their land. They especially resented that Thompson’s men traded weapons to the Kootenays and Nez Perce, who were enemies of the Piegans.  When David Thompson and his group of trappers tried to cross Howse Pass in 1810, he was warned away — the Piegans had blocked the pass. Even though Thompson was highly respected by the indigenous tribes, his life was in danger — he left Howse Pass and headed north, convinced he would find another way through the Rocky Mountains.

Thompson headed north during the month of November — winter was fast approaching. In fact, it had arrived in the Canadian Rockies. In preparation for heading north, Thompson and his group of thirteen hunters/trappers spent nearly three weeks building dogsleds and snowshoes.  With the help of an Iroquois guide named Tomas, they did find a pass further north. Thompson called it Athabasca Pass, after nearby Lake Athabasca. The pass was 30 miles long.

Thompson’s men grumbled all the way — the going was very, very difficult. In crossing, the men sank into snow up to their kneecaps. When they tested the snow with a 20-foot pole, the pole did not touch bottom. The temperature was minus 30 degrees, the winds howled, and there were no game animals to eat, so the traders were forced to eat dogs and horses, much like the Lewis and Clark expedition would do in Lolo Pass. 

Mountain Range: Canadian Rockies
Elevation: 5,751 feet
Location: On the Continental Divide between Alberta and British Columbia, in Jasper National Park, Canada.

One man who made the crossing of Athabasca Pass wrote: “We were obliged to stop every moment to take breath, so stiff was the ascent. . . . On either side were immense glaciers or icebound rocks.” But where others saw difficulty, David Thompson saw beauty. He wrote that the pass was “a most exhilarating sight, but . . . a heavy gale of wind, much more a mountain storm, would have buried us beneath it. . . . . My men were not at their ease, yet when night came they admired the brilliancy of the stars, and as one of them said, he thought he could almost touch them with his hand.”

Despite the difficulty of the climb and the steeper descent heading west and the glaciers and the ice and snow, Athabasca Pass was a safer trading route than Howse Pass. For nearly forty years this far-north pass was the most-used pass in the Canadian Rockies. the main route used by traders of all kinds. But then, with the coming of the Canadian Railroad, the pass was abandoned by traders and travelers.

During the 28 years that he worked out west, David Thompson traveled 55,000 miles and covered eight million square miles of land. He explored the entire length of the Columbia River, which runs from the Continental Divide into the Pacific Ocean. He found the headwaters of the Mississippi River and mapped the lands and waters around them.

After the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States, David Thompson was asked to map the new borders — both sides accepted his findings without question. And much later, when he was 58 years old, Thompson was asked to determine the boundary between Canada and the United States from Lake Superior westward. Again, his decision was accepted without question, so great a cartographer was he, and so trusted. Many have called David Thompson “the greatest land geographer ever.”

In 1971 Athabasca Pass was declared a National Landmark by Canada. It lies in the southwest corner of Jasper National Park and is enjoyed by hikers. Blazes left on trees by Thompson and his men two-hundred years ago are still visible.

Athabasca Pass

Centuries of slumber
broken by a brief flurry
of fur trade glory,
and then a rolling over
and back to sleep.

___________________

Barbara Gregorich’s previous post on mountain passes was Lolo Pass.

Emily Dickinson

The very first Emily Dickinson poem I encountered was in a book of poetry for children. My mother gave it to me when I was in second or third grade. In among poems by Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, there was this one:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you — Nobody — Too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise — you know!

How dreary — to be — Somebody!
How public — like a Frog —
To tell one’s name — the livelong June —
To an admiring Bog!

Several years later, probably while in junior-high, I encountered Dickinson’s “A bird came down the walk” poem. Here is its first stanza:

A Bird came down the Walk —
He did not know I saw —
He bit an angleworm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw.

In both the “nobody” poem and the bird one, Dickinson shows a quirky sense of humor. Her observations are so astute that her poems are like visual memories. We might not remember the exact wording of a line, but we remember the visual image.

As I mentioned above, when I first read Dickinson’s poems I was seven or eight years old. My memory of the words on the page is that the lines of the poem did not contain excessive dashes. It’s possible that children’s book editors removed the dashes — which just about everybody agrees are excessive. And certainly the short lines look better without the dashes, which seem to interrupt the flow of a poem. Critics argue that Dickinson used the dash to emphasize certain words or thoughts; to indicate uncertainty; to indicate a shift in thought; to connect and separate at the same time; to be informal.

For ease of reading, I prefer the poems without all the dashed dashes! Although . . . when I see one of her poems and it contains no dashes at all, I think something is wrong.

Just as the “a bird came down the walk” poem shows Dickinson’s sense of fun, the well-known “A narrow Fellow in the Grass” poem shows she can make us shudder at the feeling of a snake unexpectedly gliding by our feet.

In my late teens and early twenties I began to encounter people of all types, I was struck by how unanchored some of them seemed. It appeared to me that they hopped from one idea to another to another to another, all without examining how or why or what the differences were. And then one day, while reading The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson (I was taking a class in Dickinson) I ran across this four-line poem:

I bet with every Wind that blew
Till Nature in chagrin
Employed a Fact to visit me
And scuttle my Balloon —

For years I had that poem hanging on my office wall.

A large percentage of the words Dickinson wrote with are one- or two-syllable words of Anglo-Saxon origin. They are, therefore, words very familiar to us, and their brevity and familiarity help give them power.

But Dickinson had a very large vocabulary that naturally included words of Greek and Latin origin. When she used such words in a poem, juxtaposing them against the Anglo-Saxon words, the Greek or Latinate words seemed more powerful. As an example, consider one of her most highly regarded poems, “Because I could not stop for Death.” The words in the first two lines are short Anglo-Saxon words. The fourth line ends with the word “Immortality,” which came into English from Latin. The contrast between the Anglo Saxon words and the Latinate ones helps the reader feel stronger emotions and, at the same time, think about concepts and beliefs.

Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman were the two most important poets of 19th century USA. Whitman was published and self-published in his lifetime: Dickinson had only ten of her poems published. The two are very far apart in style and subject matter, but both have influenced generations of poets. Whitmanesque lines and themes can be seen in the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, particularly in “Howl.” Dickinson has influenced poets such as Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Susan Howe. And I can’t help but think that her short-lines influence is visible in the “skinny” poems of our era.

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None of the birds in Barbara Gregorich’s poems bite angleworms in half. See Crossing the Skyway: Poems.

Food for Thought

I wrote this poem after my husband, Phil Passen, told me about this experience, which happened to him while he was playing music at the Green City Market in Chicago.

*    *    *

Food for Thought

Standing under a sheltering chinkapin
the musician gigs at the organic market
each weekend, and though the venue
is dry and dusty, his music nourishes all,
particularly mothers, nannies, and children
who stomp and spin to the beat of his old-time
dance tunes: “Chicken Reel,” “Blackberry Blossom,”
and “Shove That Pig’s Foot a Little Further
into the Fire.”

Caregivers dole out dollars to the children,
who scamper up to the musician’s basket
and drop in the bills, watching them flutter
and settle. The performer goes home hot,
tired, and happy, knowing organic consumers
enjoy his music.

The musician thinks maybe more market goers,
those far from the chinkapin oak, might enjoy
his music, so one day in addition
to his thirty-pound dulcimer he hauls
his thirty-pound Bose Tower speaker system
to work. Erecting the tower he plugs
it in and plays, and it is true that he draws
a wider market audience, from
as far away as the quiche corner,
the fennel farm, and the Japanese
sweet potato grower.

More mothers, more nannies, more children:
more stomping and spinning to the beat.
But now, when caregivers slip the children
dollar bills, the children run up to the imposing
Bose monolith and deposit their offerings
before it. Even when the amused adults
approach the tower, pick up the false-idol dollars,
and drop them into the musician’s basket,
the children do not understand —
they rush to the basket, remove the dollars,
and once again offer them to the tall
black pillar from which emerges
the intoxicating beat.

At the end of the day the musician
packs up, collects his money (and the monolith’s)
and returns home hot, tired, and full of
processed knowledge —that given a choice
between the actual and the enhanced,
humans sprout a primal urge to abandon
the genuine and worship the magnified.

 

_______________________

You can read other poems by Barbara Gregorich in Crossing the Skyway: Poems.