Henri Cole's Paris Diary

In the Summer Issue (#209) of the Paris Review, Henri Cole remarks that poetry is primarily “finding the right words and getting them in the right order.” Later when asked why he writes, he replied:

For the completely selfish pleasure of composition, which for me surpasses the trumped-up pleasures of eating, drinking, and sex. Since I do not write to teach anybody anything, it’s a completely selfish act, but it gives me a sense of equilibrium and a reason for existence. Nothing gives me as much pleasure, when I’m doing it well, as writing.

I have had the same experience, as I write almost entirely for myself, viewing it as an exercise to put my thoughts to words as clearly as I can. If I didn’t write, those thoughts would never be put to the test, to see if they had any merit. Writing clarifies. Writing corrects.

Writing also takes me away from myself. This happens when I have something to say. I write and the time flashes by. Sometimes I look at the clock and cannot believe what time it is. When this happens writing becomes a kind of mindlessness.

But I have also come to recognize that in part, I write to converse, to make contact with someone, even though the person isn’t present or offers a reply.

Henri Cole is a prize-winning poet. While I’ve not read many of his poems I have come to know him through the poetic-like prose-picture essays he has been writing on the New Yorker’s web site. The most recent installment of his Paris Diary, “Street of the Iron Po(e)t” describes the early arrival of Spring in Paris.

A mild winter has prompted the vegetation in Paris to wake up early. Since February, plum, cherry, and almond trees have been blossoming in France, and the buds on the hazelnut trees are releasing grains of pollen into the wind. Has grim winter really ended?

It is followed by an extensive photo-essay on bees, their arrival, the role of each bee in the hive, and reference to the poetry of bees.

Here in France, bees, symbolizing immortality, were once an emblem of the sovereigns. Napoleon Bonaparte wore them embroidered into his regal garments and they ornamented many of his possessions. Surely the idea of a kingdom originates in nature with the bees. Perhaps the kingdom of poetry is not so different from that of a bee hive.

**Note: The latest chapter in Cole's Paris Diary can be found here.


cath said...

Reading about writing is almost as good as writing itself. Do you remember at what age you started writing the way you describe it: to put your thoughs to words as clearly as you can? I started my very first diary when I was fourteen although I suppose it was more to clarify my feelings at that time. And although I recognise how time can fly while writing, I am most happy when I'm writing mindfully: something like a blending of the craft and being inspired.

Richard Katzev said...

Thank you Catherine. I was always writing something at school on my assignments, the same in college and graduate school, where I wrote my dissertation. And then I wrote a great many research papers. None of this is normally considered writing, but that's what was, kind of like piano practice I suppose. And like you I kept a Journal or Diary once I was married and one day I tore it up as it was so juvenile. I still keep a Journal but I don't write in it daily. The real "writing" if you call it that began when I left the academic world and began writing personal essays. That was the start of Act 2 of my writing. As I age, like everyone else, I often realize how much I like it and how grateful I am that I can still type on the keyboard with ease.

Linda said...

I completely agree with you both! For me, the act of writing is a revelation. In order to understand anything, an idea, an emotion, an instinct, I must be able to write it down in my own words. Writing is always a discovery - I start with something and end up with something else.

Thank you for the validation.

Richard Katzev said...

I suspect you write a lot in your job, it is good training I can assure you. Write as often as you can. I know it is impossible to handle two activities at the same time. That's why I gave up one.

Stefanie said...

Writing also helps me figure what I think. When I think on paper it always has to be with a pen in hand, I tend to zone out or be too hasty if I try it on a computer.

Richard Katzev said...

You are correct. I wish I could read my handwriting but it is slow. It is strange the way people differ on the differences between handwriting and typing. The typewriter and then the keyboard liberated me. I am totally in synch with my thinking when I type. As fast as the speed of light, zoom.