The Necessity of Absolute Rubbish
The three weeks I studied directly under the poet and teacher Paul Matthews had a tremendous impact on the way that I think about writing and the teaching of writing. More so than any other writing course I’ve taken at any age, at any institution, including MFA writing courses at the University of Minnesota. Paul’s class turned a lot of my ideas upside down and brought me face to face with myself in a way I hadn’t ever quite experienced before. It was kind of like magic—interactive magic—but using only words. The work was great fun, but it was also clearly undergirded by Matthews’s extensive understanding of the history of language and many branches of philosophy. In several places here on the Elephant Rock website, I try to describe what is unique and powerful about the way Matthews approaches writing workshops (and, in turn, how I have come to approach them). However, there is nothing like hearing it straight from the source.
Here, in Paul’s own words (from Sing Me the Creation: A Sourcebook for poets and teachers, and for all who wish to develop the life of the imagination) are some thoughts on writing and writing groups. On starting points and the unexpected presence of communion. On the thwarting of our voices and the possibility that dwells within us. On the need for “absolute rubbish.” On the dangers of taking it all too seriously and accidentally believing it must always be meaningful. On the serious business of play and the human imperative.
For all of you who are signed up for a retreat already or are considering one, or who just wonder now and again why it is that you want to write in the first place, Paul’s words may shed welcome light!
From Sing Me the Creation, by Paul Matthews
…[It] seems we have lost all sense of our common story. So if a group or class gathers intent upon writing and creating together, we must find some other starting point. W.B. Yeats expressed it very clearly when he said:
Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.
(from The Circus Animals’ Desertion)
Maybe when we meet there seems to be nothing at all between us; yet if you give me your word I can reply with the next, collaborative, responding to questions asked, needs recognized, testing each other’s immediate joys and fears in the writing. That is how I started my work as a poet-teacher—with nothing, almost, with simple human acts of language—till gradually I became aware that through a word or a sentence shared in writing we could move into the presence of a communion greater than anything I had intended. At such moments it was no longer a classroom with me, as teacher, at the center. It became a “circle of truth, poetry, and love” in which we were all servants of the Word, the Logos, that is beyond any skill or genius that we might have in language.
Therefore … I mean [this as] a book where exercises in the craft are also … inner exercises leading both to self-knowledge and to an understanding of the language that Nature is. And when I say “a sourcebook for poets,” I am referring to the possibility that dwells within us simply through the fact of our being human. My basic assumption throughout has been that each one of us has a unique voice which, despite all the inhibitions and thwartings that life brings, can receive permission to speak. It is fundamental to the work of a poet to make this possible, and the writing group can be the means of achieving it. Language comes alive between people.
From childhood onwards we live with the insistence of parents and teachers that language (and hence our thinking and feeling) should be brought within the civilized bounds of correct pronunciation and spelling, proper sentence structure, essays having a beginning, middle, and end, and so on. We are taught to be truthful at all times and, of course, not silly or boastful. Perhaps the greatest inhibition of all is that language must be a tool for meaning—absolutely necessary, no doubt (and the laws of grammar are fundamental to this book), but taken to an extreme this insistence can crush all life and play out of the language, so that writing and speaking must always be the expression of what we know already, not the result of listening, not the discovery of what moves here in the moment. Thus our word-hoard gradually gets locked up inside us, our true voice stifled.
Therefore, at the outset of our work together, the following poetic license is granted:
1. You may break the rules of any exercise that is set here.
2. You may, when the need arises, use “bad” English, begin in the middle, leave your work unfinished, etc.
3. You may write in collaboration with your neighbor.
4. You may copy your neighbor’s work.
5. You may be silly or meaningless. There is no need to be profound or literary. “Absolute rubbish” is permitted.
6. You may tell “lies,” and exaggerate.
7. You may speak to things and flowers and animals and strangers and to yourself. You may speak for them. You may speak to God.
8. You may be personal and “subjective” and sentimental—a participator and exclaimer as well as the detached observer and reporter.
9. You may enjoy yourself.
The philosopher, the theologian, the scientist, the butcher, the baker, all have their tasks and truths to be rightfully serious about. But the poet? What does the poet have to deal with seriously unless it be the realm of play which of all the realms seems least to warrant it?
Friedrich Schiller (in his Aesthetic Letters) expresses the view that for most of the time we are bound—either by the laws of logic, or by outer necessity. Only in play, he says, can we be free from them, or free to balance their one-sided tyrannies. “Man is fully human only when he plays, and he only plays when he is human in the fullest sense of the word.” In an extension of the concept he then goes on to say that art too belongs in this realm of freedom, and that by definition poetry would be something very serious indeed—the enactment of our full humanity.
So if in the writing group we begin by playing together it need not be seen as a “trivial” activity (though I have often heard the word); it offers the possibility of entering once again that state of childhood where, totally intent upon the act, we heal the division in our consciousness. Writing can be come very intense and inward at times, so play and laughter (as well as tears) are a vital part of any writing group.
For more about these techniques and writing retreats, come visit me at Elephant Rock Retreats.