This week's essays are by Mark Van Doren. My stapled packet contains two essays with the handwritten date of 1942. They're collected in a book called The Private Reader: Selected Articles & Reviews (1968).
"Poetry and Subject Matter" is an argument against pure experimental abstraction in Modernism.
"Save for the esoteric and the insane, no one who is recent years has defended modern art by insisting that all art be free from subject matter has ever been quite comfortable with doing so. For art needs subject matter as much as it needs form, and only a madman will continue to deny this. Indeed it cannot have form without subject matter; thought it can have technique, a smaller thing that survives catastrophes easily, a kit of tools that turns up, rusty but still recognizable, under the ruins of any civilization. It is the tools of poetry rather than its shape and meaning with which criticism has largely been concerned since poetry in its modern phase began to need defending: since, that it to say, it began to lose its audience.”
If we sends ourselves back to 1942 we can understand why conversations about subject matter might be fresh. MVD might have been dismayed to see how far those impulses went headlong into the 21st century.
“There is something beyond the parts, a formed life which in poetry at any rate is never born without benefit of subject matter. The difficulty of modern poetry is to be explained not by the presence in it of techniques which further study will make us love by by the absence in it of subject matter.”
This was a lost cause in 1942. I think we can see how it makes more sense in 2020. Forsaking subject turned even more narcissistic than confessionalism somehow. Eradicating even the self.
MVD admits that Wordsworth (“still the classic of modernity”) struggled to find a subject for "The Prelude" after many years of waiting for one. But Wordsworth's successors “have been forced back upon themselves in search for something to say"…and "even the subject of self” is something one “bravely exploits” but in it we only hear a “tone of complaint….of irony.”
MVD suggests that “poetry has become impossible because the world no longer supplies [the poet] with things to love.” He invokes “The Waste Land” … part of contemporary poetry with nothing to say. Writers lack a “faith in theme” like war, love, justice, God.
“The subject has been tarnished beyond any tolerable point: and once more it has ceased to reveal its variety….uniformly disillusioned and abstract.”
Disillusionment and abstraction...that was pretty much what modernism was about. To complain about this was to miss the point. Or state the obvious. But he understands our pain: “the industrial revolution, machinery, the middle class, too much sanitation, too little leisure, the credit system, standardization, total wars, frontier psychologies,…the hideousness about him.”
Imagine complaining about middle class leisure today, machinery, washing machines. We’re all leisure and embrace of technology today. He's be horrified. We’ve sold out our middle class in a race to the Walmart price and a house full of machinery crap.
He asks, “Was the world ever beautiful…is any actual world the prime material of poetry?” Perfection “was never here, and it will never be here, and the poet should know this better than anybody. But the typical modern poet, having sold himself to the world, knows only that he has been deceived.”
These messages must have been harshly unsuited to the poets of his time. Or the poets of the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s.
As we're dissembling into chaos and social media, our complaints about the foibles of language seem trite and privileged. MVD is absolutely right when he said,
“The world is all that it is, and there is an infinite number of things to say about it.”
The second essay is called "Achievements of intellectualist poetry" and here he takes on modernist's "difficult poems."
“I shall maintain that Intellectualist poetry has forced us to think exhaustively about the art which it serves—about the elements of this art, I mean, and about its history—and that as a result we have become an audience which for better or worse is committed to the complex poem”
He describes these complex poems as: “skeletons rather than as figures in the flesh," "diagrams of the nervous system, hideous with a tracery of vermilion and purple lines," and "Studies in anatomy, confusing in the way that diagrams are confusing...too many joints exposed."
There are many problems, he says. One, our age is eclectic, we read and know too much, “every style is available to us.”
Second: “we believe in too many things, not that we believe in nothing”...“we are meaninglessly free to choose. Neither orthodoxy nor heresy is possible in a situation which bestows upon all truths an equal and therefore minimum value. So the poet must make what stir he cam among the small, dry bones of thought, rattling them fantastically or arranging them in patterns which at best can only startle us by the oddness with which familiar notions have been juxtaposed.”
Third, society is to blame, poverty, war, spirits strangled in an evil and ugly world. [Man] has “a fierce desire to escape the very data of existence. Objects, customs, things: he distrusts them all."
Poets Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton are one of the interesting famous poet friendships. While working on the Essay Project I came across Kumin's book To Make a Prairie, Essays on Poets, Poetry and Country Living and reading that led me to read Anne Sexton, The Complete Poems. My friend Ann sent me a copy of her collected poems and it’s been sitting on my shelf next to a Sylvia Plath’s collection for over 10 years.
The Kumin book begins with a section of interviews. She talks about meeting Sexton in a poetry workshop and becoming long-time writing friends. Only two of the interviews resonated with me, one where she quotes John Ciardi as defining a poem as “a way of meaning more than one thing at a time” and the Karla Hammond interview which talks about poems with too much “furniture” and Kumin’s typical level of specificity, as well as message poetry, psychic distance in a poem, metaphors as “tricks” and other craft “tricks” she learned around form and meter that help her write poems.
Section two is full of essays on poetics. The first is a short piece on the creative process (digressions, improvisations), her memorial comments for Anne Sexton, another short piece on Sexton’s book, The Awful Rowing Toward God, and a longer essay on their friendship. ("The clear thread that runs through all the books of poems is how tenuous that life was. She was on loan to poetry, as it were. We always knew it would end. We just didn’t know when or exactly how.”) The other pieces in the section are about Kumin's own writing process: she calls alliteration “pyrotechnics” and she has this to say about metaphor: “is not smaller than life. It mediates between awesome truths. It leaps up from instinctual feeling bearing forth the workable image. Thus in a sense the metaphor is truer than the actual fact.” Huh.
Section three contains three lectures on poetry. Besides the Sexton pieces, these are worth the purchase of the book. There’s an excellent essay on different ways to close a poem called “Closing the Door.” The next essay, “Coming Across” is about about the intent of the poem. The last essay, "Four Kinds of I," is about the point of view in lyric, persona, ideational and autobiographical poems.
The last section contains four essays about life on her country farm.
Now on to Sexton’s collected poems. I was intrigued by Kumin's comments. I didn't really like Sexton's poetry in college and I've been tired-out with confessional poetry for many years, so much of what we still read today is either the self-involvement of language experiments or confessional pieces. I tried to read Transformations in graduate school at Sarah Lawrence and although I liked it better than reading Cinderella years before, I still didn't love it.
But, as I say again and again, you have to be ready to read any book you pick up. It's as much about you as it is about the book. Some years you’re just not ready for it. I tried to pick up about 10 other poetry books and was unable to finish anything before I started reading Sexton. I was restless and didn’t know what kind of poem would break me out of it.
This book was interesting for another reason, like other books you read it defined the principle of sunk costs. Reading the first book in the collection was a real struggle but I kept going.
A few weeks ago I finished a MOOC called Mindware: Critical Thinking for the Information Age (University of Michigan) and we were learning the concept of Sunk Costs, which is like saying 'don’t throw good money after bad.' Bail out if you’re not enjoying something. I’ve always found this concept to be faulty in the case of reading, at least reading some things. For novels or short stories these days I’m very willing to bail out early. Life is short and getting shorter. But I usually hang in there with books of poetry, especially collected or selected works where certain phases might not be your cup of tea but soon you may very well come upon something transformative (to use a Sextonism).
As I said, I didn’t respond much to the first book (To Bedlam and Part Way Back) partly I think because I was expecting it to be more “bedlamy” from all the mythologies about her and critiques of her work. Maybe at the time it seemed more shocking. By the time I got to “The Operation” in the book All My Pretty Ones, I was getting hooked and appreciating her stoic and well-spoken candor about womanhood, like her famous "In Celebration of my Uterus." Many essays over the last decades have bemoaned her kind of shock confessionalism and I think this deterred me from reading her to be frank, especially since I’ve read a trillion confessional books. But I wasn’t turned off by Sexton. She was a far superior writer to many later-day confessionalists, rarely was she boring in this middle period. I found much to love in Live or Die and Love Poems as well. Details in these poems are also interesting snapshots of the late 1960s and early 1970s and it's interesting to read her thoughts after Sylvia Plath's suicide in "Sylvia's Death" ("O tiny mother,/you too!/O funny duchess!/O blonde thing!") Like Plath, Sexton references Nazis and the holocaust a lot and it doesn't really age all that well.
From "For Eleanor Boylan Talking With God"
Though no one can ever know,
I don't think he has a face.
He had a face when I was six and a half.
Now he is large, covering up the sky
like a great resting jellyfish.
From "The Black Art"
A writer is essentially a spy...A writer is essentially a crook...
Never loving ourselves,
hating even our shoes and our hats,
we love each other, precious, precious.
Our hands are light blue and gentle.
Our eyes are full of terrible confessions.
But when we marry,
the children leave in disgust.
There is too much food and no one left over
to eat up all the weird abundance.
Much of her life, Sexton struggled with ideas about God and religion. From "Protestant Easter"
And about Jesus,
they couldn't be sure of it,
not so sure of it anyhow,
so they decided to become Protestants.
Those are the people that sing
when they aren't quite
From "For My Lover, Returning to His Wife"
She is so naked and singular.
She is the sum of yourself and your dream.
Climb her like a monument, step after step.
She is solid.
As for me, I am a watercolor.
I wash off.
It's in the book of fairy tales retold, Transformations, where Sexton is on fire. Re-reading both of my copies, (the collected set next to my original copy with the drawings and Kurt Vonnegut introduction where he first proposes his Cinderella story structure) was a revelation. This time I took the trouble of looking up any Grimm fairy tales I didn’t already know. Her tone is cavalier and very funny. Her similes are whimsical and very 1970s ("The queen chewed it up like a cube steak" and "She was as full of life as a soda pop" and "as ugly as an artichoke"). The tales are twerked in darkness and cynicism and at times awfully sobering, like the final Sleeping Beauty poem alluding to sexual abuse by her father ("It's not the prince at all/but my father/drunkenly bent over my bed.")
The Book of Folly was back to strictly confessional poems to some extent and trying out other group sets, like “The Jesus Papers” and the Fury and psalm poems in “The Death Notebooks,” all about her explorations with religion. I almost enjoyed these more than her final non-posthumous book, The Awful Rowing Toward God where I felt some of the deft skill devolving again all throughout the end period, as if the control slipped and poems became more diary entries, unfinished, even in the horoscope set. But throughout all of it there is the march toward the end, her self-loathing, more and more of an inability to see herself as anything but foul and often literally evil.
When the cow gives blood
and the Christ is born
we must all eat sacrifices.
We must all eat beautiful women.
There's an intro essay by Maxine Kumin (her own book's version, but expanded).
The essay I dug up for this week is definitely from the Sarah Lawrence essay class because Lamont and Annie actually put their names on the first page, which is nice, because then I can remember them. They found a Jan/Feb 1996 article in The American Poetry Review by Christopher Merrill about poets and the war in Sarajevo, “Everybody Was Innocent: On Writing and War.”
Aside from this essay, we can all sense we’re living through unprecedented times right now, relatives against relatives, old friends against old friends, teams against teams. I watched The Social Dilemma last weekend on Netflix and fears are mounting regarding civil wars in most established democracies around the world right now. This is no longer a far-fetched idea. And it seems social media has done a lot of the work to create a monstrous dystopian reality for all of us.
As writers we all may soon be called upon to become war writers right inside of our own poems about place. This will become the same project.
When I read news reports of Sarajevo back in the 1990s, I remember feeling very moved and very removed. So reading this essay again gave me both a flashback on that feeling and an entirely new perspective.
In this article, Christopher Merrill visits Sarajevo and interviews an ‘embedded’ poet there. Which reminded me, I subscribed to APR for a few years and never read a single article like this in the journal, only academic reviews and landscapes. I wish APR had been as hard-hitting when I subscribed.
The article talks about the special issues around writing about war, such as:
“I want to explore some of the ways in which writers can approach a subject extensively covered by the media: when television cameras shape our perception of a tragedy like Bosnia, how can writers respond to it without, as Sarajevans say of some visitors to their city, ‘going on safari’ – shopping for material, that is, like tourists?”
We can easily replace the idea of television with cable news and social media.
1996 was a year of commemorations, Merrill stated: the liberation of Nazi concentration camps, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, V-J Day, the shootings at Kent State, the fall of Saigon…
"it is important to remember that more than fifty wars are now taking place around the world. The Cold War is over, and we are deep into the Cold Peace.”
Merrill talks about how in Sarajevo the war script was flipped, how in typical wars, the majority of the casualties were soldiers. But in Bosnia, the majority of deaths were civilian. He talks about the “sense of ambiguity integral to the talks of writing about war. Nothing is as it seems…despite what pundits and politicians would have us believe.”
He quotes Vietnam writer Tim O’Brien:
“In war you lose your sense of the definite, hence your sense of the truth itself, and therefor it’s safe to say that in a true war story nothing is every absolutely true.”
He talks about the “enormous power of television” and how “CNN has the power to shape events” and again for us it's the cripplingly awesome power of social media and the Internet.
The article quotes Greek poet, Odysseas Elytis, translated by Olga Broumas and T. Begley, who says that during World War II,
“An entire contemporary literature made the mistake of competing with events and succumbing to horror instead of balancing it, as it should have done”
in contrast with the example of Henri Matisse who:
'‘in the years of Buchenwald and Auschwitz…painted the juiciest, rawist, most enchanting flowers and fruits every made, as if the miracle of life itself discovered it could compress itself inside them forever.”
This reminded me of the immense and moving humanity to be found in Georges Perec’s novel Life A Users Manual. Merrill says,
“This is, of course, no small task—even in peacetime. And those who rise to the occasion in war are truly heroes of the literary imagination.”
He considers Bosnian poet Goran Simic one such hero, “discovering meaning in this tragedy.” He also quotes Ferida Durakovic,
“Before the war I didn’t really like Goran’s poetry. It was too hermetic to me. But now it’s so clear and direct. Now he only writes about what’s important.”
Merrill says what interests him is how Simic “looks at the crevice between what the media finds and reality itself.” Merrill talks about Sarajevan humor “at its most biting with a profound moral vision….” and this most haunting warning by journalist Dizdarvic,
‘the victory of evil continues on unabated—the powerlessness of good, the triumph of chaos over order, the verification of defeat in the match between humanity and the bestial goes on…that Sarajevo’s story is not unique—many other towns like it lie along the road of the madmen who have ruined it. As a Sarajevan who has seen and lived through these events, I am compelled to broadcast a warning: there are sick people in the world who now understand that they are dealing with a public that, when it comes to international politics, is egotistical, incompetent, and unrealistic. We are witnessing a renascence of Nazism and Fascism, and now one is willing to call it to a halt. We are witnessing the abolition of all recognized human values.”
That was 1996.
“This insight,” Merrill says, “is one reason why the War Congress closed its session with Ferida Durakovic reading a declaration asserting that ‘the writer exists to face evil.’” Merrill says, “Televised images of war are revolting, but we grow used to them. The writer’s task is to change that.”
Merrill talks about Tobias Wolff’s memoir, In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War,
”Wolff went to see at eighteen dreaming of Melville, and it may be said that he went to war to act out something from Hemingway. A writer’s education depends upon the stripping away of illusions about the world—and the self. There is no better place to do that than in a war, where you quickly come up against your own cowardice.”
Merrill ends with a comparison of the witnesses versus the watchers:
“The difference between witnessing and watching is a function of the imagination. Witnessing comes from the Old English for to know; watching is related to waking as from sleep. First we watch and then, if our imaginations are sufficiently engaged, we witness. What I wish for is to make witnesses of us, not just watchers, because in the Age of Television [the Internet] no one is innocent.”
We are at the precipice, if not in the midst, of a civil war, a global civil war and also a very local civil war. It is here. How will we write about it?
Not all the essays in my stack are from my essay class. This one was given to me by a classmate named Teresa and her note says “Mary: Essay on Music from Teresa.” This essay, "What Do I Like?" by Theodore Roethke is from Conversation on the Craft of Poetry, edited by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren (1961).
Teresa had been talking to me about the rhythm in my free verse poems and this is an essay all about rhythm and music in lines, the power of meter even in free verse, which Roethke calls “a denial in terms…the ghost of some other form, often blank verse.”
Roethke takes apart his favorite stanzas by these poets (some listed only by last name, others by full names): Auden, Samuel Johnson, himself, George Peck, Elinor Wylie, (Louise) Bogan, Charlotte Mew, Donne, W.H. Davies, Blake, Janet Lewis, Robert Frost, Stevens, Ransom, Whitman, Lawrence, Christopher Smart, and Robert Lowell.
Roethke talks about iambs, sprung lines, base line, alliteration, logic, feminine endings and velocity, spondees, propulsion, repetition, psychological pacing, tone, stress, the “bounding line” or the nervousness in a line, the tension, the energy, the psychic energy, rhetorical devices, enumeration, successive shortening of line length, line length variation, modulation, the natural pause, and the breath unit.
Here are some of the most interesting quotes:
“To question and to affirm, I suppose are among the supreme duties of a poet.”
“We must keep in mind that rhythm is the entire movement, the flow, the recurrence of stress and unstress that is related to the rhythms of the blood, the rhythms of nature. It involves certainly stress, time, pitch, the texture of the words, the total meaning of the poem.”
“We all know that poetry is shot through with appeals to the unconscious, to the fears and desires that go far back into our childhood, into the imagination of the race... [which is why] "some words….are drenched with human association...”
“We must realize, I think, that the writer in freer forms must have an even greater fidelity to his subject matter than the poet who has the support of form. He must keep his eye on the object, and his rhythm must move as a mind moves, must be imaginatively right, or he is lost.”
In any case, I watched one of my old favorites a few weeks ago, Sea of Love, only to discover I like it a lot LESS now, (as opposed to Tootsie, the closing scene of which reminded me of Sea of Love in the first place). I find it so much less sexy now. Although I still like Al Pacino, I'm much less affected by his sad, puppy-dog shtick and the whole story feels much seedier and ickier post #metoo (unlike Tootsie which held up recently at a Netflix movie party with a group of women I know).
But anyways....there's a poem scene in it! I had no memory of this.
In the movie, the cops are under the mistaken impression that the killer is a woman who loves poetry in her want ads. So they go to Frank Keller's (Al Pacino) apartment to try to write a poem to entice the murderer. Al Pacino's father, played by William Hickey, comes up with a gem his deceased wife once wrote in high school. The cops are dumbfounded and use this poem in their ad.
Lady—I live alone within myself
like a hut within the woods.
I keep my heart high upon a shelf
barren of other goods.
I need another’s arms to reach for it
and place it where it belongs.
I need another’s touch and smile
to fill my hut with songs.
A single, white, male, 42, NYW
The image to the left is a hilarious critique of poetry by a 5th grader. Read more about it on DailyDot.
So I’ve finally come to the essays my assigned-partner (who I can’t even remember) and I picked for our essay week when it was our turn. Full disclosure, they were terrible. I had not a clue where to find poetry essays, was completely turned-off by the Sarah Lawrence library (and hated going there) and my partner had no interest in researching anything or doing any kind of group work (you know who you are). And so we were left with a few bad short pieced I found. Looking back, I disappoint myself.
"The Problem with Poetry" I brought to Sarah Lawrence as a clipping from something published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch years earlier. I have no clue where we found the Rainer Maria Rilke quote. I was reading "Letters to a Young Poet" but maybe my partner found it. Clearly I was the one who photocopied it because I have a piece of paper taped to it blocking out the parts we didn’t want to photocopy.
"The Problem with Poetry" was an op ed by journalist David Awbrey. It was republished across the country at the time. This essay class was really not the best audience for this editorial. I find myself often simultaneously enthralled and mortified as I look back on my time at Sarah Lawrence, all the times I was a completely clueless and an unintentional shit-starter. I wasn’t brave enough to have been half as annoying as I undoubtedly was as I was trying to form and express my identity as a writer who knew nothing from nothing.
In any case, this article takes poets to task for many things:
“Unlike some great writers of the past -- Dickens, Zola, Melville -- many of today's writers have little understanding of how most people live and work. Where aspiring writers once labored on newspapers or in gritty real-world jobs, today's young novelists are more likely enrolled in a college creative-writing program. There, rather than rub their noses in the raw material of life, young writers produce self-pitying drivel on the tragic struggles of assistant professors of English or pick in their subconscious at the scabs of abuse, despair and other wounds caused by their own tiresome personalities.”
Ouch! That’s my classmates he’s talking about. Did I read this thing again before bringing it in?? No wonder I wasn't making friends and influencing people!
“For many of them the foremost issues are whether they get academic tenure or funding from the National Endowment for the Arts....so much current literature is written in an obscure language that is virtually incomprehensible to the average college-educated reader…jargon-ridden and code-laden…read by virtually no one beyond a narrow range of literary cult-followers.”
Here is bit of a weird part about the written message of God:
“Unique among world societies, Western civilization is a culture of the word. The Judeo-Christian tradition is based largely on the written message of God. American democracy is based on a clearly expressed legal system. In Western history, the printed word has been the primary agent of cultural change....It's amazing that at a time of wrenching social upheaval so few writers have anything to say that doesn't center on themselves and their inner lives. A look at a stack of recently published novels or the book sections of magazines and newspapers will turn up few purposeful guides to life in the late 20th century.”
Is he advocating political writing? That would be interesting considering Modernism and Post-Modernism's complete success in eradicating 1930s feminist and political (communist and socialist) writing from the earth, starting during the red scare and continuing through....like yesterday. Or is he only looking for life-guidance in modern art?
“After all, Ms. Angelou talks about rocks, rivers and trees -- and even Washington politicians understand what she means.”
I’m always torn between intellectualism and popular culture. Both sides are so adamant in their ideologies. I try to bridge the gaps between them and just end up feeling depressed. So little understanding flows in both directions. It’s part of our narcissism culture. We’re so self-obsessed, we lack the muscle to even consider other points of view.
What young person can resist writing too soon, though? But it speaks back to my earlier cluelessness, a cluelessness that is essentially evidence for his point. Here it is in its entirety:
“…Ah, poems amount to so little when you write them too early in your life. You ought to wait and gather sense and sweetness for a whole lifetime, and a long one if possible, and then, at the very end, you might perhaps be able to write ten good lines. For poems are not, as people think, simply emotions (one has emotions early enough) - they are experiences.
For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and Things, you must understand animals, must feel how birds fly, and know the gesture which small flowers make when they open in the morning. You must be able to think back to streets in unknown neighborhoods, to unexpected encounters, and to partings you had long seen coming; to days of childhood whose mystery is still unexplained, to parents whom you had to hurt when they brought in a joy and you didn’t pick it up (it was a joy meant for somebody else -); to childhood illnesses that began so strangely with so many profound and difficult transformations, to days in quiet restrained rooms and to mornings by the sea, to the sea itself, to seas, to nights of travel that rushed along high overhead and went flying with all the stars, - and it is still not enough to be able to think of all that.
You must have memories of many nights of love, each one different from all the others, memories of women screaming in labor, and of light, pale, sleeping girls who have just given birth and are closing again. But you must also have been beside the dying, must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window and the scattered noises. And it is not yet enough to have memories. You must be able to forget them when they are many, and you must have the immense patience to wait until they return.
For the memories themselves are not important. Only when they have changed into our very blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves - only then can it happen that in some very rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them.”
Having chosen this piece now seems like an ironic little missive, me chiding my current self with a WTF from the past.
You probably can’t get through a general writing program in America without reading this essay. It’s been a very influential and important essay in retrospect, as has O'Connors fiction, important for not just fiction writers but in many ways for poets.
And I have to say, this essay came up in my stack at a very serendipitous time. Not only is there a new Flannery O’Connor documentary out now called Flannery, which I watched a few weeks ago, but I learned there that O’Connor and her father both died of Lupus, a fact which sent me into a big of a funk because I’m in the process of being diagnosed with an auto-immune disorder that might be Lupus, will most likely be Lupus. Everyone around me (including my new Rheumatologist) tells me Lupus is very survivable these days (in fact, my own Grandfather survived it); but because I’m a bit of a hypochondriac I’m already imagining my Greta Garbo death throes. And her real first name being Mary doesn't really help.
Anyway, O'Connor opens with this somewhat heady start: “I think that if there is any value in hearing writers talk, it will be in hearing what they can witness to and not what they can theorize about.”
She beings to discuss “literary problems” and how the 1950s contained no writerly consensus like the “1930s writers with similar social consciousness." Interesting this history has largely been erased from college classrooms, even though I read in Camille Paglia's book, Break, Blow Burn, that she sees socialism all over college coursework. More on that book later.
“Today each writer speaks for himself,” O'Connor says. My 1990s notes asks“is this dated?” My 2020 response was “no.” (I’m even argumentative with myself).
O'Connor maintains that every writer sees themselves as a realist writer. She then talks about being pigeonholed as a Southern writer:
“The first necessity confronting him will be to say what he is not doing; for even if there are no genuine schools in American letters today, there is always some critic who has just invented one and who is ready to put you into it. If you are a Southern writer, that label, and all the misconceptions that go with it, is pasted on you at once, and you are left to get it off as best you can…and are judged by the fidelity your fiction has to typical Southern life./I am always having it pointed out to me that life in Georgia is not at all the way I picture it, that escaped criminals do not roam the roads exterminating families, nor Bible salesmen prowl about looking for girls with wooden legs.”
She then talks about the point of a novel. And this is important because it explains her view of where relevant novels diverge from popular novels.
“There was a time when the average reader read a novel simply for the moral he could get out of it”
After watching the documentary I feel she’s casting her mother in this category of moral-seeking reader.
“Today many readers and critics have set up for the novel a kind of orthodoxy. They demand a realism of fact which may, in the end, limit rather than broaden the novel's scope. They associate the only legitimate material for long fiction with the movement of social forces, with the typical, with fidelity to the way things look and happen in normal life.”
She goes on to say,
“The writer has no rights at till except those he forges for himself inside his own work.”
“…as long as these works have vitality, as long as they present something that is alive, however eccentric its life may seem to the general reader, then they have to be dealt with; and they have to be dealt with on their own terms.”
Here is where O'Connor gave permission for the interests of the writer to diverge from the interests of the reader, the writer who seeks experimentation or uniqueness or expression of the self. It’s a very important, as is the example of her fiction itself. It was such a juicy time to be a fiction writer. All bets were off. Go your own way. Like all self care, it eventually turned in on itself until it became a narcissistic impulse.
I do say I don’t think the two extremes should be as competitive as they are: the self vs. the community. But we tend to view such things this way, very black and white, these days.
O’Connor then particularizes her ideas talking about the Southern grotesque:
“When we look at a good deal of serious modern fiction, and particularly Southern fiction, we find this quality about it that is generally described, in a pejorative sense, as grotesque. Of course, I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic…In these grotesque works, we find that the writer has made alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe every day, or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life… the customary kind of realism have been ignored…there are strange skips and gaps …Yet the characters have an inner coherence, … Their fictional qualities lean away from typical social patterns, toward mystery and the unexpected.”
It’s so easy to see how her 1950s readerships needed some help in learning to read her stories.
“All novelists are fundamentally seekers and describers of the real, but the realism of each novelist will depend on his view of the ultimate reaches of reality.”
The lovely relativism we’ve all been taught to respect, this is it "the doctrine that knowledge, truth, and morality exist in relation to culture, society, or historical context, and are not absolute." (Google.com) It was a beautiful thing, relativism. But like all ideas put to action, it had unintended consequences. And I believe there’s a straight line to be drawn from the cult of individuality and respect for relativism to the political climate we live in today, where millions of people can flatly deny the reality of another group of millions of people.
And where does the suspicion of science come from (as seen from fifty years ahead of this essay)?
“Since the eighteenth century, the popular spirit of each succeeding age has tended more and more to the view that the ills and mysteries of life will eventually fall before the scientific advances of man, a belief that is still going strong even though this is the first generation to face total extinction because of these advances. If the novelist is in tune with this spirit, if he believes that actions are predetermined by psychic make-up or the economic situation or some other determinable factor, then he will be concerned above all with an accurate reproduction of the things that most immediately concern man, with the natural forces that he feels control his destiny. Such a writer may produce a great tragic naturalism, for by his responsibility to the things he sees, he may transcend the limitations of his narrow vision.
On the other hand, if the writer believes that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious, if he looks upon us as beings existing in a created order to whose laws we freely respond, then what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself. His kind of … Such a writer will be interested in what we don't understand rather than in what we do. He will be interested in possibility rather than in probability. He will be interested in characters who are forced out to meet evil and grace and who act on a trust beyond themselves–whether they know very clearly what it is they act upon or not”
There a lot of good stuff in there: writing into the unknown, writing into possibility. She then goes on to talk about fiction and the senses…and distorting the senses….the wild that is “of necessity going to be violent and comic.” Do you recognize where we are vis a vis cultural stories? How violence and comedy have merged?
She then talks about grotesque being the true anti-bourgeois style and how America connects grotesque with the sentimental. She talks about the idea of compassion being overused.
“The kind of hazy compassion demanded of the writer now makes it difficult for him to be anti-anything.”
“In nineteenth-century American writing, there was a good deal of grotesque literature which came from the frontier” [I thought of Mark Twain here.]
This probably the most famous quote of the essay,
“Whenever I'm asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one”
She goes on to describe the South as Christ-haunted if not Christ-centered. She says, “the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.”
There’s a really interesting reference to William Faulker and the demands of the writer to “make it new” (which is another pressure of obtaining fame and individuality):
“...the individual writer will have to be more than ever careful that he isn't just doing badly what has already been done to completion. The presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.”
Ugh. She’s so good.
She goes back to talking about what good literature should avoid…
“Whenever the public is heard from, it is heard demanding a literature which is balanced and which will somehow heal the ravages of our times. In the name of social order, liberal thought, and sometimes even Christianity, the novelist is asked to be the handmaid of his age.”
There follows a questionable part about Henry James describing a black porter’s mistake. It could be a racist idea but I don’t even understand the point of it. So I couldn’t say. It’s good to note here that the documentary delves into whether O’Connor was a racist, a product of her times or a describer of the racist evils of her time.
“The novelist must be characterized not by his function but by his vision”
I question this idea now, having seen the effects of a fiction that absolves itself from cultural obligation. We are our stories. And horrifically, we become the stories we tell. Life coaches will tell you this. Certain American culture groups value stories more than other groups do. Where are we now?
“I once received a letter from an old lady in California who informed me that when the tired reader comes home at night, he wishes to read something that will lift up his heart. And it seems her heart had not been lifted up by anything of mine she had read. I think that if her heart had been in the right place, it would have been lifted up.
You may say that the serious writer doesn't have to bother about the tired reader, but he does, because they are all tired. One old lady who wants her heart lifted up wouldn't be so bad, but you multiply her two hundred and fifty thousand times and what you get is a book club.”
That was probably the second most famous sentence from the essay.
“I used to think it should be possible to write for some supposed elite, for the people who attend universities and sometimes know how to read, but I have since found that though you may publish your stories in Botteghe Oscure, they are any good at all, you are eventually going to get a letter from some old lady in California, or some inmate of the Federal Penitentiary or the state insane asylum or the local poorhouse, telling you where you have failed to meet his needs.”
“… The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. When he reads a novel, he wants either his senses tormented or his spirits raised.”
“...We live now in an age which doubts both fact and value, which is swept this way and that by momentary convictions. Instead of reflecting a balance from the world around him, the novelist now has to achieve one from a felt balance inside himself.”
“...The great novels we get in the future are not going to be those that the public thinks it wants, or those that critics demand. They are going to be the kind of novels that interest the novelist”
“...The problem for such a novelist will be to know how far he can distort without destroying”
The above is just a fine line (such a hazy line) in retrospect. I think in the pre-neofascist era, I would have agreed with everything O’Connor has said. But I’ve had a change of heart. She ends with this:
“…I hate to think of the day when the Southern writer will satisfy the tired reader.”
I morn these ideas to some extent. I wish the writer could go his own way exclusively. I wish all of us could be disruptions. But what we end up with is an alienated, disrupted society. Now the reader is not only tired, but neurotically anxious and possibly psychotic (as a culture). So which way did we move exactly? We’re certainly as blind as we ever were, albeit nobody thinks they particularly are.
The literary goal of testing a readers discomfort seemed interesting and honorable, to shake people out of their complacency. The effort has surely taken over literary movies, fiction and poetry. But in the end it’s just made us all feel edgy.
We’ve absolved ourselves of any moral responsibility for our collective stories...and something has filled the void.
“Taking What You Need, Giving What You Can: The Writer as Student and Teacher” is an essay by David Huddle from Writers On Writing, edited by Robert Pack and Jay Parini.
This is mainly an essay about the value and practice of writing workshops. Huddle starts by taking survey of his own experiences with no fewer than eleven writing teachers. This made me count the number of writing teachers I’ve had and I could only remember the poetry teachers: eight as of now. I can’t really remember the fiction ones: but probably around 3.
Huddle says, “I was able to take what I needed from every teacher and every class, and I was able to disregard what I didn’t need or what might have harmed me. I’m not sure what to name this quality—survival aptitude, perhaps…”
He says this seems to be the skill you’re born with or not. I would agree. I’ve seen many writers unable to parse through the intimidating onslaught of information in workshop discussions for usable advise. I’ve also seen writers who have their eye on the ball and can work like a surgeon to take what they need from a heap of opinions. A tough skin helps but some very sensitive writers can also get there. It just takes a few days for the sting to wear off.
Huddle says from his years of experience he can say that intelligence, language aptitude, literary instinct and other “writerly resources” cannot predict who will succeed in writing and who will not.
He goes into a few paragraphs about how high school and undergraduate teachers made writing seem too elite to him. But he feels “writing is a natural act” as is reading and criticism. Like all workshop teachers I have known, Huddle is all about reading, reading and more reading. He says, “automatically, [writers] consume the writing technology of what they read.” I feel this is true. It sinks into you, all the craft and the architecture. The rhythm. You don’t even have to explicate it. But that’s fun too. Just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile for someone else to be doing that.
He feels workshop critiques come in two varieties, those who make pronouncements and those who feel they are not in a position to make pronouncements. My first teacher and primary mentor, Howard Schwartz, was really good at breaking through this fear. He would call on us individually. We had to make pronouncements or at least ask questions. I was terrified by it but hung in there because only a flood would’ve kept me out of that class I was learning so much.
Then Huddle talks about the writing process. And strangely his comments map a conversation I saw last week in an amazing documentary about artist Elizabeth King. She struggled with the same issues described here:
“..when I first began writing, I always had a plan and I stuck to it as strictly as possible, trying to ignore the distracting ideas that came to me in the composing process. I tell [my students] that I still begin with a plan, but that nowadays I try to accept most of the ideas that come to me in the composing process…such ideas are, in my opinion, true inspiration…..much more reliable and useful than the other kind."
Then he talks about how to receive criticism, a “valuable skill very much worth developing. He defends the process of a writer remaining silent during workshops: “I remind authors that they are not required to accept any of the criticism they are offered, and I suggest that they not be hasty in deciding whether or not to use a piece of criticism or a suggestion. A suggestion that seems insulting during and immediately after workshop discussion may next week be the key to a brilliant revision.”
He then goes through the experiences of each of his eleven workshop teachers and what he learned from each one, even the terrible one. And this was insightful:
“What a workshop is not is a committee that repairs faulty manuscripts. Most of the time manuscripts can be improved in response to workshop discussion. But the process is not a mechanical one in which critics tell the author what is wrong with a story and how to fix it, and the author goes home and does what the workshop told him to do. The dynamic of a workshop is oblique, indirect, subtle, and occasionally perverse.”
Souls who can’t deal with this kind of grayness often get frustrated with writing workshops, writers who want things cut and dried, black and white. It’s wrong or right? Disagreements make them uneasy.
“I believe workshops can be immensely useful but that they are only rarely useful in obvious and logical ways.”
Tom Lux used to tell us something similar, that workshops won’t get you published but they’ll give you your readers and writerly friends for life. Although I didn't appreciate the message at the time, (Sarah Lawrence was an awfully expensive meetup in that case) I did meet my current two best friends at Sarah Lawrence.
He ends with a checklist about good writing:
Which is all to say not to take writing workshops too seriously. It’s an aid but not the most important work, not as important as practicing, reading and experimenting on your own.
I’m currently working on a poetry project with playing cards, a regular poker-card sized deck. I come from a big poker playing family. Unfortunately, I am hopelessly terrible at poker and have lingering PTSD from these family games. Not only were they ruthless players but I was completely unable to see the patterns in poker hands, even with the cheat sheets my father created for me. I have a poker blindness it turns out. But I love the feel of a card deck in my hands, the very tactile slipperiness and the sound of a shuffling deck. I love to see some talented shuffler at work. I even liked building houses of cards. And as an extension of that, card designs is also fun and culturally interesting to me.
While trying to explain my own project to a friend of mine, I went through my house and realized I had quite a collection of cards, especially when I dug through the game closet. I had a book about Apache poker cards, a deck of historical Spanish playing cards (the real Wild West cards) purchased from Bent's Fort, Phoenix cards (supposedly they tell you your past life), I Ching cards, cards from the games Masterpiece, Killing Dr. Lucky, 25 Outlaws (those cards were designed by Dave Mathews interestingly), Go Fish Modern Art cards, Agatha Christie game cards and some cards from a
game called Art Shark.
To help explain my project I also went online to find other existing card sets and purchased two additional decks plus another interesting poetry game.
In a 1-card instruction, David Trinidad writes about the magic 8-ball quality of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. He created a 78-card tarot-like deck of big cards you can use for 1 to 4 card divination spreads. I’m pretty ‘eh’ about divinations only because a bad or good read can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I mean, I’m skittish and superstitious enough as it is. And what good does it do you to know what’s coming up?
Anyway, I tried it out and each card has 1-2 lines of a Dickinson quatrain on its face. One drawback of the cards is the fact that there’s no attribution to the lines, so if you liked some you don’t have a clue (other than a google search) as to which Dickinson poem to seek out. The largeness of the cards was also a big unwieldy.
One question I asked was about a sort of screwball endeavor and should I continue with it:
"Passenger – of Infinity –"
The second question was about guidance for a current project not going well:
"Those not live yet
Who doubt to live again —"
(I have no idea what that means.)
The third question was open ended, “tell me something about life?”
"Many Things – are fruitless –
‘Tis a Baffling Earth –"
These are very narrow cards that work similarly to the Dickinson deck, as divination. Created by Eryk Hanut and Michele Wetherbee, they have simple to complex spreads, using Rumi verse as life guidance. The set also comes with a somewhat big book (for card sets anyway) on the history of Rumi, divinations and how their project started.
I did the simplest spread of three cards.
The spread was as follows: First card (what brought on the situation), second card (what is the current situation) and third card (what will happen or “how to deal with it.” I love the double meaning of deal there, as a coping strategy and being dealt cards.) I can tell you I never "dealt well" with the poker cards I was dealt. Anyway,
This looked intriguing!
Some issues: it was hard to get the paint chips out while they were still in the box and yet pouring them out of the box felt like a potential nightmare. Also, they’re ordered in perfect color-wheel order. Playing with them messes that up. Not for OCD people. It bothered me and I’m not OCD. Also, there weren’t enough prompt cards.
Each paint chip has a corresponding word. The basic idea is that you pull 12 color chips and a prompt and write a poem using some or all of the paint chip's colors or words.
The first spread I sent to my friend Christopher. We’re doing a cross-writing project similar to what Wordsworth and Coleridge did. He wanted to write a new poem and asked for prompts. This box seemed a pretty handy prompt generator. We'll see what he comes up with. Here were my chips, prompt and the resulting poem.
to Watermelon Mountain is to go
to the bottom of the sea after all
the blue has been washed away.
Coral fish skeletons swim around
mesas and settle in buttes.
I came to find
my grandmother’s hydrangeas
growing like a fence along the dirt road,
rustling like mystic royalty or a memory
of lavender blowing in the dust.
Euphoria is colorless
here, a breeze from the West
waffling around you, dappled
sunlight after the day’s spartan
The key is catching up
with the zephyr. The key is often surprising
Like every first kiss. You come upon it
and stop to say hello like an inchworm
considering the cottonwood leaf
with his many feet.
This week’s packet was a twofer, “On Being a Poet in America” and “To Make Words Disappear” by Louis Simpson. I have to say these are the first essays I didn’t like at all. I’ve noted that they were brought in by Greta and Andy, two poets at SLC who I DID like. The first essay can be found in the book Selected Prose and the second short essay from A Company of Poets, both books by Louis Simpson.
I’m quite immune to a kind of “grumpiness as display” from writers like Mark Twain. I’ve done it myself, learned from the somewhat stalwart grumpiness of my grandfather Stevens. But this grumpiness of Simpson's is far from charming. The last straw for me was reading in another book last week, essays by Maxine Kumin, that Simpson dismissively reviewed one of Anne Sexton’s books as “Menstruation at Forty.” On this side of #MeToo he comes off poorly. But here we go.
“On Being a Poet in America” starts with lofty goals with that title and he begins by telling us there is no shortage of poets short on talent, how talent cannot be “bought, borrowed, or stolen. Many pretend to have it…” I’m thinking here we’re dealing with fears of illegitimacy we all have as artists; but no, he’s got no soothing conclusion for fears of talent-less-ness.
He then talks about imaginary beginnings for good poets and how a poet should behave: “He will not serve other men. That is the occupation of a valet.” Seriously? That's dismissive to poets and valets.
The sections are basically small mini-rants with no real transitions or cohesion.
Then he talks about being seen as a writer: “The astonishment that anyone reads anything you write, and that anyone takes it seriously, as though it actually existed." This is good. This is a common feeling. But then he continues with "And then your resentment. What right do they have to read your mail?” Resentment? I think he’s revealing something of himself here, mistakenly attributing that feeling to all of us.
The next section is about how poets cannot have great audiences because, “The mark of a bad writer is that he is popular.” He outright dismisses popular culture and continues by saying “popularity…flatters the stupidity of the audience. But real poetry cannot be popular in its own time.” So much in here is messed up.
He goes on about the falseness of “artistic integrity” and how professors he has known who have bemoaned about it always end up as advertising executives. So…he's dismissive of both popularity AND artistic integrity. Pretty amazing.
The next short section declares this: “There is only one law for the poet—tell the truth!...tell the truth…if you are serious about it—and if you’re not, you aren’t a poet at all.” You know I hate this "poetry is" crap but especially today, in this world of propaganda and our polarizing struggles to define truth, this seems like such a quaint and naive idea. And his fury at the declaration marks hint the great struggle over truth might already be beginning.
But even when he’s full of himself and full of hot air, I still find something to like here, like these fiery sentences:
“I know too much about literary life. I know by what means, by what steady cultivation of his betters, by what obsequiousness in print and out of it, the mediocre writer gets himself a name…The need of fame has turned many a decent man into an envious, spiteful, vanity-ridden, self-deluding wretch. And what does he have to show for it? A handful of reviews.”
But then he's back to academic insults: “whether one writes ‘in form’ or ‘out of form,’ is not an essential question—it is a matter for simpletons to worry about" and “How easy it is to settle on a certain style, to write a certain poem over and over again! Most verse writers do just this. The publish a new book of the same poems every four years, and when they have repeated themselves often enough they win the Pulitzer.”
And then he has very lofty ideas about truth: "you find that you are wrestling with an angel….not witnessing but assisting at the birth of truth in beauty. Of course, to some people this is all nonsense. To a deaf man, music does not exist; to a blind man, there are no constellations in the sky.” There's no room for any kind of variation of experience or disagreement here. You are blind and deaf if you don’t agree with this.
The next section takes aim at critics: “Criticism in the last forty years has been largely an end in itself, a bastard kind of art, a kind of theatricals for shy literary men…when you examine the critic’s method, under the appearance of sweet reasonableness, there are only prejudices and taboos. The critic’s art depends on an exertion of his personality, an unstable quality.”
And here, even when you agree with him, you find yourself cringing at his own very "theatrical” vitriol. And then there’s the inconvenient fact here that a poets art also too often depends on the same kind of “exertion of his personality, an unstable quality.”
All this hints at sour grapes over being excluded in some kind of group. And hey, some of us out here should be able to relate to that. But he makes any kind of relatable connection impossible. I found this tone problem the very same that always crippled arguments between my grandfather and other people. His very valid truths would always get lost behind his presentation too. You see it all the time right now in political debates: smug republicans calling liberals smug. Smug liberals calling conservatives stupid. It just makes people entrench. But the hate is at such a high level, it cannot defuse itself and compromise collapses.
Simpson says, “the poem, the novel, the play. They deal in facts. But the critic deals in opinions.” This is simply not true. Art is full of opinions. And so it puts his whole idea of truths into question.
The last section talks about poets with “poetic intelligence” like Rilke, Yeats, Blake. “Poetic brains.” Frost drew “back from ultimate commitment” he says. "...a poet of original and purely poetic talent….would make up new ways of seeing things; he would push metaphor to the limit. And if such a poet were also interested in ordinary life, we would have great American poetry. Such a poet would not have to justify his existence in America; the rest of us would have to justify ourselves to him.”
You read that and wonder if that sounds like humility coming from Simpson or him suggesting that such a poet is himself.
“To Make Words Disappear” talks about “emotional intensity” being “what poetry consists of.” Here we go again. This is the issue with surrealism, Simpson says. Emotion needs “a narrative line” and poets “seem to think that it is enough to say that they are having a feeling.”
He also doesn’t like “poetry that preaches…a poet berating people for their shortcomings—for example, for not being as ‘politically aware’ as he is.”
“There is a lot of hard breathing going on…you may feel sympathetic, but it doesn’t do a thing for your life.”
If that’s not a narcissistic statement, I've never heard one. What can this poem do for me?
But then hilariously he adds, “It would be better if he were less self-absorbed and told you something that was interesting”
Something interesting according to you. It’s all about you. It's not always about you. I think that's the cautionary tale of these essays.