Thursday, May 21, 2009

Eastward Ho

Tomorrow the whole family packs into the car and drives east to spend a week in Maryland with the in-laws. A week after that we head up to Ithaca for the month, where I'll be researching an article I'm thinking about writing about A.R. Ammons. Ammons was the presiding spirit in the halls of the English Department at Cornell and perhaps as a result I always resisted reading him. But as someone with a continuing interest in pastoral poetry I think it's time to give him a second look; I'm interested in the possibility that the seemingly quietudinous Archie Ammons might be in some ways the flip side of the avant-pastoral more readily identifiable in the work of Charles Olson and company. As my former prof Roger Gilbert has remarked to me, he thinks Ammons may have evaded classification as a postmodern or avant-garde writer largely because of the company he kept—or didn't keep—in Ithaca, where by all accounts he enjoyed being the biggest fish in Cayuga Lake. But of course he was good friends with Ashbery and shared with him the increasingly dubious honor of having been canonized by Harold Bloom. If Ashbery is by no means completed by Bloom's insistence on reading him as a pure Romantic, perhaps Ammons isn't either.

I'll also keep hacking away at my fiction project and work on the final version of Severance Songs to give to Tupelo for publication. Of course we'll also be enjoying Ithaca and our friends (two of whom are expecting a baby almost any minute) and showing toddling Sadie the creeks and gorges. We'll miss Chicago—life here has become more dense with pleasures small and large in the past year—but Ithaca is divine in the summer. Anyway, I'd have a good time anywhere with these lovely ladies.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Occasional Notes on Fictional Prose

With verse, there's no problem: the line is the fundamental unit of meaning and of rhythm. With the prose poem, I focus on the sentence and the relation between sentences. Critical writing takes its rhythm from the argument, and at least in part from the work I'm writing about. But one of the difficulties of prose fiction is the freedom it offers: its fundamental unit can be the word, the phrase, the sentence, the paragraph, the chapter, or even potentially the entire book (the map is the territory).

By "fiction" I am trying not to mean narrative or storytelling, but fiction as the most open category of prose: that which can include any kind of writing, because it is by definition not held to the standards of non-fiction. The prose is the fiction in its capaciousness, its generosity of relation. (I would say "novel" because that gets closer to the heteroglossic territory proper to what I'm attempting, but for now I shy away from the word and its grandiosity.)

"Narrative" seems at this point nearly synonymous with hypotaxis. I find for the most part that the units or chapters of my project are hypotactic on a sentence level (generally not my strategy with poetry) but the arrangement of the units themselves is paratactic: I hop from one scene to the next, one character to the next, without apparent causal links. But many if not most of the chapters have a conventionally realistic hypotactic coherence. Next time I'd like to try the opposite trick: paratactic sentences within chapters, but the chapters themselves following a linear, if not strictly causal, arrangement.

The chief stylistic tic of the fiction thus far is the sentence extended by numerous independent clauses set off by commas--a fugitive parataxis that interrupts the narrative, representing either the flight into a character's inwardness or an outward bound flight into the self-consciousness of the narrative itself.

Dialogue. In some chapters it takes conventional form, with quotation marks and little gestures and actions by the speaking characters that establish their spatial and emotional relations. In other chapters there are no marks, blurring the line between dialogue and indirect discourse. I don't know if ultimately one form must end up replacing the other. I was always a sucker for Joycean dialogue, in which dashes provide enough of a visual cue to the reader so that she knows who is speaking, but as the paragraph proceeds the line between dialogue and action becomes more wavery and indistinct. Conventional punctuation of dialogue produces a ventilating effect, a kind of breezy relief from the large blocks of prose I tend to produce--but I'm suspicious of this breeziness, the desire it seems to serve for writing qua writing to disappear and be replaced by a convincing illusion of speech.

The fiction I've loved most has been the fiction that conjures worlds: Middle Earth, Napoleon's Europe, Bloom's Dublin, Gatsby's Long Island, Sutpen's Hundred, Mrs. Dalloway's party. This requires a powerful imaginative effort utterly distinct from what I want to call imaginative verbal flow--one word, line, phrase, sentence following another, creating and compelling its own logic. I do not as yet have a strategy for managing these seemingly competing impulses, but the model that seems to offer the most hope and promise for what I want to do is Woolf. In To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway and most of all The Waves she evolves a fictional method in which the logic of verbal flow miraculously and as it were interstitially conjures a living world of people and places in dynamic relation (though notoriously without "action," without anything much happening except, devastatingly, between the lines). Joyce, as brilliant as he is, can seem like a clever schoolboy by comparison.

The anecdote is something I resist in poetry. In prose fiction it interests me, less for its content (action) than for the situation of its speaker: who is telling this anecdote and to whom and with what motives. One valuable inspiration I take from Bolaño is his method of putting anecdotes into the mouths of minor characters which the major characters collect and arrange, or fail to arrange.

Write what you know. If a major public event is part of my fiction, how does this not simply become the more-or-less exciting backdrop for the private events that the realist novel tends to focus on? If I give in to this tendency I reproduce my own American middle-class experience as someone for whom the Events of his time--the fall of the Wall, 9/11, Iraq, Obama's election--were in fact mostly backdrop, experienced indirectly and less pressingly than the events of his private life. This is a damning fact of my life that I can't just run away from; it must therefore be my subject.

Length is a problem. Not the page count, which I still fetishize to a degree: it's all too easy to pile up pages if you show up every day, even if only for half-an-hour. But as the form of the thing emerges I'll have to decide how to bring that form out through significant cutting and rearranging. Right now I must simply go forward: if I write a bad chapter (and I've written many) I can only flag it and go back to it later, if there is a later. But what seems bad now may suit the form that I can't yet see, that I haven't yet determined or that has yet to determine me.

Take a lesson from my daughter, whose experience (walking, talking) is utterly new to her and utterly expected--the form she'll take is utterly determined (she will grow, she will speak in whole sentences, go to school, become ever more distant and independent) and utterly unpredictable. Utter in the sense of ultimate, utter in the sense of speech. I am amazed by the sheer beautiful ordinariness of her life. Let it be so with what I'm writing, too.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Fictional Poets

The most recent issue of Poetry, which for some reason arrived at my house a week later than usual, not only features excerpts from a long and novelistic poem by my benefactor Ilya Kaminsky, Deaf Republic, but an essay-review by Brian Phillips, "Fortune-tellers and Pharmacists," of some novels by poets, which begins with a quotation from the Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash (a character from A.S. Byatt's marvelous Possession): "The difference between poets and novelists is this, that the former write for the life of the language—and the latter write for the betterment of the world." Phillips doesn't quite take this fictional poet's assertion at face value—he'd rather read the novelist's preoccupation with "the world" as fundamentally one of interest rather than activism—but he does seem to accept the fundamental dichotomy it offers. It seems to me that this dichotomy falls apart as soon as it is scrutinized: what are Shelley's unacknowledged legislating poets, in the Romantic view which I think still dominates our poetic discourse, if not imaginary betterers of the world? And it would be obtuse to assert that the likes of Joyce and Nabokov weren't writing "for the life of the language." Nevertheless, Ash's/Byatt's/Phillips' assertion makes for a useful jumping-off point, a view of writing, whether you call it poetry or fiction, as divided into writing about something versus simply writing.

This dichotomy tends to be dialectical in actual practice, but it seems to me to be something of an uneven one: even the most abstract of poets never fully escape subject matter, and most poets, even the "skittery" ones, scarcely wish to; but there are plenty of novels and stories out there which, while of course not escaping language, nevertheless express a powerful will to escape it: to be realized as John Gardner's "vivid continuous dream" or, more baldly, as a film. Even sophisticated novelists like Ian McEwan sometimes seem sometimes to be writing film treatments as opposed to producing a work with its life centered in language. (The fictional experiment I'm currently embarked on tries to confront this head-on by appropriating, for at least one of the narrative threads, the language of the film treatment and of the camera, refusing the narration of anyone's interiority but the imagined audience's.)

What fascinates me, though, is the possibility of the "about" being not the goal for which the writing is a mere means, a vehicle, but simply a way of organizing writing, of fulfilling possibilities for writing that verse seems largely incapable of because the line as unit of utterance calls so much attention to form, without necessarily doing anything interesting with it. (Here I've put Phillips' essay in dialogue with a useful interview in the most recent Denver Quarterly with the poet and now novelist John Olson, conducted by Noah Eli Gordon, in which he talks about why he's become drawn to prose.)

One expedient means of using narrative and prose to without completely losing sight of "the life of the language" is demonstrated by the curious trend of some poet-novelists to write about, well, poets. I've already talked about how liberating it's been to me to see Robert Bolaño produce great fiction in large part by writing about poets and their inevitably doomed attempts to take total refuge in the life of language, forsaking every "about" (By Night in Chile shows us the doom of a poet of the right that attempts this, while The Savage Detectives focuses, if that's the word, on the disappearance of two poets of the Left). Liberating because it offers the perennial permission every writer needs to write about what s/he knows best (without, I hope, falling into the imaginatively foreclosed trap of "Write what you know"). Now Phillips has me interested in reading Forrest Gander's first novel, As a Friend, though from one perspective it couldn't sound less promising: a short and elliptical narrative about the sort of Byronically charismatic poet that, in the abstract, sounds completely insufferable: the sort of fellow invariably described as "smoldering" (or in Phillips' wonderfully overripe phrase, a guy that "seems to exist in some kind of sweaty harmony with the axial lean of the Earth"), in a story suffused with Gothic atmospheres, sex, and suicide. To some people that no doubt sounds like a heady stew, but my first reaction is to say no thanks, I'd rather just read the original Faulkner.

Phillips nevertheless draws me in with his claim that the novel, and the fatally attractive character of the hero, is "explicitly about poetry." The compelling center of gravity that is the book's hero, Les (my guess is that he's based on Frank Stanford, who seems to have exerted as powerful a fascination on Gander as he has on Gander's wife, C.D. Wright), is a representation of the potential power of poetry to be, as Phillips puts it, "a form of supercharged awareness that cultivates the same ethical attention as human relationships." That awareness is extended democratically, one assumes, to people, things, and words; and in Gander's novel, it proves to be more openness than Les can sustain, to judge by his suicide.

Some might judge Gander's focus on the life of a poet to be a severe limitation upon his fiction; if Bolaño escapes similar censure, it probably has to do with the increasingly epic sweep of his works, plus their political content (this is the old problem/opportunity of writers who've lived under oppressive regimes: their writing will always mean differently than that of those of us who've never known anything but Western democracy and first-world comforts). But I see it as an opening, at least potentially (we'll see what I make of Gander's hothouse prose when I encounter it directly), a way to make writing its own "about," while at the same time inviting in enough narrative world (characters, setting, events) to allow the language its range, its fuller life. It suggests to me a possible path for my own writing, for accommodations beyond the lyric or even the prose poem. And if Gander has done it right, there will be enough "about" there to interest readers of traditional fiction as well. Because I'd be lying, as I imagine the poets Phillips talks about would be, if I didn't say part of my interest in fiction wasn't the wider readership it garners.

Really what interests me now is a testing of genre. I really like what Kundera says about the novel, how each must follow its own law, be its own model. This applies to the poem too, of course, and stands behind the long conflict between the adherents of traditional forms and those who stand and shout with Creeley and Chas. Olson that FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT. I want something supple enough to include characters and events and essayistic digressions, shards and skeins of beautiful language, autobiography and the totally made-up, surrealism and satire and realism. The shape it all eventually assumes will be called a novel because "novel" seems to be the most capacious literary genre form available. But I will still be trying to maintain, as I try to do in my poems, some balance between my natural preoccupation with language and my life in what we call the world. And then I will say Goe, little booke, and see what others can make of it.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Sinking In

The full impact of winning the Dorset Prize is still making itself felt upon me. Thanks to everyone, by the way, who has written with their congratulations and best wishes. To receive such dramatic and sudden validation for a manuscript, Severance Songs, that I've been working on and believing in (and sometimes failing to believe in) for so long has really turned my head around, and the implications are still sinking in.

One question still to be resolved is, whither Burned-over District? I still like that title a lot, but I now think I came up with it because I needed to find some way to turn a corner, to achieve a fresh perspective on a book that I was in danger of losing in some essential way. Which is a strange way to think, because the book was always the book--it was fine, the poems were fine, maybe better than fine. But you need, or I need, to keep a project like that alive and vital in the mind while it's making the rounds, and it's hard to resist the urge to interpret, to find tea leaves, in the innumerable rejections the manuscript received before that shocking final yes.

I'm sure many poets, and artists in general, struggle with this. What do, what can all those noes mean? From a purely rational perspective, they may mean nothing other than that you simply never can tell what will appeal to a given editor or judge, and of course also that there are always many more high quality manuscripts out there than can be published in a given year. But it's hard not to assume that years of no--or years of coming close, which is almost worse--mean something, and that if you just made the right magical change then you'd somehow persuade the next reader to take a chance on your work. This is mostly unhealthy, and if I've persevered this long as a poet, it's largely because of the habit I've cultivated of sending stuff out, and then when it comes back, simply sending it out again.

But Severance Songs wasn't like that, because I've always had a special feeling for it: a belief that it expresses more consistently and compellingly whatever it is I've got in me to express, while at the same time working with and from and to a live language (a live wire). The right balance, in other words, of construction and expression. And so, as it was rejected year in and year out, I began to despair that it would ever find its readership, except in the piecemeal form it already has.

The Odyssey rewrite, which is the one that Tupelo received, was my latest attempt to open a manuscript that risks hermeticism if only in its quasi-sonnet form; I wanted to make it, yes, more accessible to readers. And perhaps I've succeeded in that and that version will stand. Or maybe the poems themselves were enough--have always been enough--and the lesson I should take from this is the simplest and hardest one to learn: have faith. I'd certainly encourage any younger poets reading this to try and absorb that lesson from my experience. (But also I'd advise them not to put all their publishing eggs in the contest basket. Poets under thirty, go start your own presses right now!)

Not to get mystical, but maybe this manuscript has been waiting for its time. It was written in the Bush years and bears those stains, and for a while I felt almost frantic at the thought that history was passing it by. But maybe only now, in a new and unformed era, can I and others hope to reckon with what it was to feel so fundamentally cut off from one's own decency and hopefulness, and at the same time to be so fully alive with desire.

Thanks again, readers, for the support you've shown me over the years.

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