Florilegium – gathering literary flowers

Ever have one of those moments when you realize you are not what you claimed or thought you were? Where an illusion of yourself, either self-imagined or externally imposed, dissipates.

Well, an interesting thing happened to me on the way to the Intermodal Station. While I had thirty minutes to spend, I lost my way through the labyrinthian shelves of Downtown Books in search of a Latin dictionary. Instead, I found a used English dictionary.

Knowing that half of the English language is built on the foundation of Latin, I found a delicious word: florilegium. Culling flowers is the literal definition. But “a volume of writings” reminded me of something else. The idea of gathering literary flowers or collecting the flowers of one’s reading. Somewhere between the Middle Ages and Renaissance the practice of writing quotes and excerpts from other texts began. Later it manifested itself in European culture as commonplace books.

For years I considered myself a modernist of sorts. Writing down quotes, excerpts and notes on or from influential artists like Jackson Pollock, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, Jack Kerouac, and Ezra Pound. But there I was, standing in Downtown Books searching a dictionary for English words with the Latin root word “loci.”

When did this happen? When did I begin act and resemble a classicalist? Maybe this is part of the great conversation. Connecting the dots. Reading the ancient writers. Comparing them to modern literature. Maybe this is part of gathering literary flowers. Legacy informing legacy.

I boarded the train. Found a seat. Opened a copy of Gary Snyder’s Left Out in the Rain. And gazed out the window at the setting sun.

Be selective in what is read

New acquisitions at the used bookstore.

Have you ever wondered how fast you read? A stack of reading material on the nightstand begged for my attention. I considered how long it would take me to get through it.

Reading speed test.

Curious, I took an online test to find out.[1] I selected a blog post from a published poet/essayist and took the reading test. The results disappointed me. It took me less than two minutes to read a blog post with more than 300 words. According to a Forbes article, the average adult reads 300 words a minute.[2]

Test two. I selected the nut graph of a Slate.com article. Again, below average reading speed. Test three. Selected another blog post. This time from a professional blogger. I received an above average reading speed. Test four (and five). Two different New Yorker articles selected. I read the opening paragraphs. Two different writers. One wrote a news piece. One a literary critique. The results varied. The critique results were below average and the news piece was above average.

Content readability.

I turned my attention to the text read. Using an online app I graded the passages read.[3] The Slate.com article received a good readability rating. The professional blogger article earned an okay readability score. The literary critique received a poor readability grade. The news piece received a score worse than the literary critique.

The app rates the difficulty of a text. The readability grade based upon passive voice, adverbs, phrases with simpler alternatives, and sentences that are hard or very hard to read. In other words, difficult sentences that included compound or compound/complex sentence structures.

Observation.

What I have noticed is that numbers (and analysis), abstract ideas and foreign words slow me down. There is so much I desire to read, but time limitations prevent the volume of literature I seek to explore. So, I have to be selective in my reading habits. And this reminds me of something Annie Dillard wrote:

“He is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write. He is careful of what he learns, for that is what he will know.”

NOTES:


[1] ReadTime, accessed January 11, 2017.
http://readtime.eu/

[2] Brett Nelson, “Do You Read Fast Enough To Be Successful?,” Forbes, June 4, 2012 @ 09:09 AM, accessed January 11, 2017.
http://www.forbes.com/sites/brettnelson/2012/06/04/do-you-read-fast-enough-to-be-successful/#436dc4dc58f7

[3] Hemingway App, accessed January 11, 2017.
http://www.hemingwayapp.com/

 

Strange Throwback Thursday

Comic Stroll 2013

 

After nearly a six-year hiatus, I was excited to see a project that began with notes and sketches transform into a published comic strip. Even if it was a one-off. Even if I had to hand the responsibility of drawing each panel to someone else. It was done.

I had imagined that the creative non-fiction comic story I crafted would earn some interest. Maybe it would open a few doors to an audience. And allow me to write and illustrate. Even earn some money. Maybe I would quit my day job and provide for my household by doing something I loved. Telling stories. And drawing pictures.

That was five years ago.

A few weeks ago I found a box in the garage. It had several copies of a publication that printed my comic strip. I glanced over the pages and then placed them back into the box. I also found several books. Opened one book I remembered enjoying.

“What’s that?” asked one of the children.

“It’s a collection of comic strips.”

“Oh.”

I pulled a copy from the box and gave it to the child.

“There’s a story in there I wrote.” I said. “See if you can find it.”

The child took the copy of Comic Stroll and headed off to the couch in the living room.

I flipped through the pages of the book I had found. Read a few highlights.

Yeah, I resemble that, I thought to myself after reading a few lines at the end of the book. The author referenced a friend of his who gave up an art gig for a corporate job in order to provide for his family.

Yeah. I know what that is like.

How many comic pages might I have written and illustrated if I had. . . Well, what-ifs and might-have-beens are dangerous paths to pursue. What you did, great or small, is what matters.

Watching my progeny spend an afternoon reading comic strips I had a hand in creating was a pleasure.

NOTES:
Comic Stroll, a publication of the Southeast chapter of the National Cartoonist Society, featured a collection of previously unpublished comic strips. You can read the whole journey of what started in November 2005 as a couple drawings and became a creative non-fiction comic strip:
[1] Comics and Narrative Non-Fiction
[2] Comics and Narrative Non-Fiction Continued
[3] Narrative Non-Fiction Comics: part 3
[4] Narrative Non-Fiction Comics: part 4
[5] Narrative Non-Fiction Comics: part 5
[6] Narrative Non-Fiction Comics: UPDATE
[7] Narrative Non-Fiction Comics: UPDATE
[8] Strange Familiar Place comic series
[9] Strange Familiar Place returns
[10] The return of Strange Familiar Place to print

Language is communal

If “language is communal” with the primary obligation of telling the truth, than poetry — the highest form of literature — is essential for addressing the fragmentation of communities and people.

Thirteen years ago, my wife and I hosted friends at our cottage on the outskirts of Asheville. A simple meal of salad, chicken and pasta, and red wine provided the vehicle for conversation and stories.

The husband told a story about being pulled over by local police near Old Fort. The officer asked for the husband’s driver’s license and registration. The requested items were provided through a narrow slit of a rolled down window.

“I still have to roll the window down,” he smiled. This attested to his mountain frugality and blue collar virtue.

The officer returned the license and registration and asked if he knew why he had been pulled over and if he had firearms.

“No. And yes,” he replied. The officer asked where the firearms were located. He told the officer that the guns and ammo were stored separately in the trunk. He was then asked to get out of the vehicle and show the officer the guns. Which he did.

The trunk was opened to reveal a chainsaw, climbing equipment, tools and containers for guns and ammo. The officer admired the make and model of one pistol. Asked what he did for a living. And requested to handle the pistol. The husband complied. The officer inspected the pistol. To the husband’s surprise, the officer commented that he would tell his wife about this. She might buy it for him as a birthday gift.

“Well,” said the officer. “Have a safe drive home. And repair that busted tail light within the month.”

I admired the husband’s story. His stories were like climbing a mountain road that rose and fell and wove between cove and valley and eventually arrived were it intended.

That night, as the dishes were cleared from the dining table and a second glass of wine poured, his wife shared that she and her mother planned to attend my reading at Malaprop’s Bookstore and Café on Thursday night. She confessed that she was looking forward to the scheduled night of poetry and music. But she wanted to know why I chose to read and write poetry.

“Why not stories?” she asked.

That question haunted me.

Poetry’s form and function is different from prose. It is more ancient. Where a novel’s exposition provides a landscape of hundreds of pages to expand the narrative plot of character, conflict, and theme, a poem compresses an idea, thought or theme into a few lyrical lines. This is an overly reductive and non-academic comparison of the two forms. But consider the etymology of the word “poetry.”

The English word for poetry comes from an ancient Greek word meaning “to make” or “to craft.” The German word for poetry comes from a Latin word meaning “to dictate.” The Romans often borrowed Greek ideas and themes and aped or improved them. Between the two etymologies I gather the impression that poets are conduits for The Muses — the source of inspiration and creativity. Poets dictate the message of The Muses. Poets craft the message of truth. The ancient Greeks invoked The Muses at the beginning of poems, hymns and epics.

At the time of the diner with friends, I held a casual understanding that poetry in the German language encompasses a compression or density of thought and theme. And that poetry in English embraces beauty and harmony–or graceful elegance. Then, as much as I could afford, I studied Persian, Chinese, Japanese and Korean poetry. And I learned there is much I did not know about continent of poetry.

“Why not stories?” she asked. Stories are important. Poetry is essential. Community is vital. Words must nurture a fractured community in order to bring it together and make it stronger. That August Asheville evening, more than a decade ago, was one of the last nights our two families enjoyed supper and stories together.

People leave. Find a better job. A greener pasture. Or at least a different job with a different view. Change is the only constant. The transience of American culture enables people to move every few years. Words, idioms and phrases fall in and out of fashion. How then are we to nurture a strong community? Maybe it requires each of us to dwell deeply and stand by language. Stand by words.

Poem Fifteen: Late Night Writing

Title poem by Matthew Mulder from the book Late Night Writing.

Title poem by Matthew Mulder from the book Late Night Writing.

Poem Fourteen: Sunrises I and III

Poem Fourteen: Sunrises I and III

Poem Thirteen: Reading “The American Zen Master” by Dick Allen

Poem Thirteen: Reading “The American Zen Master” by Dick Allen

Poem Eleven: Narrative kernel

Poem Eleven: Narrative kernel

Poem Ten: Values

Poem Ten: Values

Poem Nine: Always Departing

An excerpt of

An excerpt of “Always Departing” by Matthew Mulder from the anthology Rooftop Poets.