Categories
writing

Vision and revision

In the wake of publishing my first book of poems, Transitions: Early Poems, 1979-1989, I find myself with 20 years’ worth of middle period poems on my hands and the question of what to do with them. (Not to mention late poems, from the time I moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas in 2011, and a considerable number of short stories.) Of course, I mean to publish these middle poems, but not now, not in the condition they are in. 

Writing is one thing. Re-writing is another.

Seeing is one thing, and we all hope our first visions are keen and perceptive. But re-seeing, re-vising is another animal altogether.

Revision requires a certain humility, of course — an acknowledgement that what we once wrote, perhaps dashed off, is not the cat’s pajamas, or the mouse’s, or the lion’s. Time helps provide critical distance, and so does immersion in the discipline of criticism.

If you’ve made a formal study of language, that helps. You might have been a grammarian at one time, if only in grade school. Or a linguist or lexicographer, amateur or more. Or a poetry reader or editor. But wherever your critical practice and theory come from, they are gifts that will be employed in improving even if not perfecting the things you’ve written.

Revisiting my middle-period poems convinces me that many were splashed out as responses to specific events or feelings. The death of my father, for example, in 2008, who survived my mother some twelve years and remarried. 

Some of these poems seem to me pretty pallid now, perhaps because they are too personal. I don’t mean personal in the sense of confessional poems, but personal meaning too restricted to one particular person’s point of view. Sure, we all experience love and loss. Our parents die. Other loved ones die. They drop like flies — make that drosophila — all around us. And there we are, left with our own sinking, leaden feelings. As we know, the modern world of today (as some of my freshmen English students would call it) does not allow much time for mourning. Buck up, buster. Get a hold of yourself. Put your shoulder to the wheel.

File:Polidoro da Caravaggio - Saturnus-thumb.jpg
The Roman god Saturn, patron of the saturnine and gloomy as well as the possibility of recovery and regeneration.

Nevertheless, we have put down the thoughts and feelings that may have put us down. We were in mourning. We brooded. We couldn’t get away from it. We were feeling positively saturnine. 

Now that we have recovered what we like to call a presence of mind, we are removed from the immediate emotional effects of the event. Things may seem clearer. The only challenge, as if it’s only a small challenge, is to give a broader, more universal view of what has happened to us in particular.

If I charge into the task of revising, without relaxing enough or getting away from the pressure of the text, the weight of the words already committed to the page, I find I may be only trifling. The problem is not the words per se, but how the words evoke the strongest response. 

Shall we step away?

It’s been more than twelve years since my father died. That certainly provides some distance. 

But what was it essentially about our relation that I seek to explore, deplore, celebrate?

Dad was a lawyer, the son of a streetcar conductor, an old Polish bastard (literally), miser, and tyrant who left the farm at the age of twelve and came to the city to find his way. He broke away from a stepfather who didn’t love him, who spurned him in fact and abused him in one way or another. Dad spoke of his dad as from “the old school,” a junk collector in his personal life and private yard who demanded his three sons obey, learn to collect junk and repress emotions in their turn, and never to question authority.

This authority extended to the Catholic church, which had labeled Grandpa a bastard in the first place and made him weep guiltily about his bastardy to the end of his life. He wasn’t, probably couldn’t have been, a very warm, loving father to his three sons.

In my dad’s case, it was three sons, again, and four daughters. He knew how to love the girls and express his love for them, but not the boys. I was the middle boy of three, and my older brother Gerry was a rebel from an early age and my younger brother Bob a black sheep. It wasn’t easy to please Dad, and the way I chose was to excel academically even while nursing rebellious, anti-social thoughts. (Is parricide one?)

Yes, Dad was a lawyer, a stickler for the letter of the law. If he did not lay down the law, he certainly transmitted it from the Sinai of his medieval brand of Polish Catholicism. Thou shalt not was writ large on the door to his person. 

And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars, my joys & desires.

So what could I do but become an English teacher and lay down the law of grammar & correctness? Which I did for a while, way back in the 1970s and then, intermittently, in the 1990s and 2000s, too.

When I flunked out of Academe (failed to get tenure), I began writing poetry as a reaction to this failure. I had not pleased the authorities at the college where I taught, and was on my own, and had to figure, wasn’t it about time, how finally to grow up?

Poetry was the principal way I learned to grow up, although when I wrote it, back in the 1980s, I could not have told you my aim. I knew only that I had a strong background in the formal disciplines of language and language arts; that I could apply them to the commercial writing which I took up as a means to make a living if not live; and that I had to get through this long, unsponsored period.

The poems of the 1980s were, willy nilly, coming-of-age poems. They recorded episodes of childhood and adolescence in an emotionally turbulent Catholic household. They enacted rites of passage: that is, the poems themselves were performances of the need to grow up and the growing up, at least in verse.

In “Physical,” for example,

“No signs of impurity,”
the family doctor said,
Doc Leiferman, scribbling
on his chart, when I was just

fourteen….

The kid in this poem gets a physical exam from the good (Catholic) doctor and suspects, with the doc’s initial utterance, that he’s told the priest about the kid’s masturbatory habits. It ends:

Crossing myself, I crossed
the good physician’s threshold,

sped out into the suburban dusk,
and made bold to think several
impure thoughts about his twin
blonde pubescent daughters.

With the middle poems, there is more urgency perhaps but less freshness. (You could only be fresh once, it could be. Your intellectual and artistic gifts diminish, it could be, as your body does. Which makes re-vision, the ability to see farther and more deeply, all the more imperative.) 

Here, for example, is the untampered beginning of a poem written shortly after my father’s death:

The rain that’s swept all the winter’s
snow away, the fog in which we’re currently
enveloped, Pop — this is the talk
I always talk with you, never, apparently,
about anything important, the things that are
so hard to wrap ourselves around, the sort
of love between a father and a son that
is never concluded satisfactorily.

Well, okay, here’s an idea. But it’s awfully discursive, don’t you think, and prolix too? Looks more like an essay, could be, a wordy, windy essay.

So what to do?

As a first resort, and not recommended for the most part, I started tampering with the text. One example, from the beginning again: 

The rain that’s swept all the snow away, 
the fog in which we’re wrapped up, Pop — 
these are the topics I always talked with you 
on the phone. Here it was springtime
in Minnesota. There you were down
in the Ozarks battling tornadoes.
There was never anything earth-shaking
to talk about, including earthquakes,
which we don’t have here in these parts,
nope, except the things
we could not talk about like the love
between a father and a son.

Better perhaps, a bit more info in a shorter space. (Some of it was sprawled out in the later parts of the poem.) But still, something lacking. Why should you, the reader, care about my relation with my father? 

Sharon Olds
Sharon Olds, who writes “intensely personal, emotionally scathing poetry.” Photo by David Bartolomi.

Then I thought why not look at Sharon Olds again. She’s rightly famous for her book of poems called The Father, about the life and death of her dead. And she’s a personal poet, “whom the poet Billy Collins has called … a poet of sex and the psyche, adding that ‘Sharon Olds is infamous for her subject matter alone…but her closer readers know her as a poet of constant linguistic surprise.’” Which is not a bad deal, is it? Surprise. Constant surprise. Something always new, even in the old old relations we might think there’s nothing fresh left to say.

Judgment and self-pity seem from this perspective not very new or fresh. And yet they’re the way we tend to think and write, it could be, especially when we think life has dealt us a crappy hand. We sit there with our crappy cards and cry for ourselves. We hold a pity party. But who will attend?

Olds presents her father, living and dead, directly in front of us. In “The Glass,” for example, we get her usual physical assault:

I think of it with wonder now,
The glass of mucus that stood on the table
In front of my father all weekend. The tumor
is growing fast in his throat these days,
and as it grows it sends out pus,
like the sun sending out flares, those pouring
tongues.

So you thought poetry was all lovey-dovey romance and romping in the flowers?

Not necessarily.

Romantic avoidance of that which is hard to say, impossible to speak?

We should hope not.

Avoid avoidance. See again. As with fresh, new eyes.

So let’s have at it once again, shall we? Thank you, Sharon Olds. We are not you, Sharon Olds. But your example is tonic.

 

Categories
order poetry writing

Notation in music and in verse

Craig Wright
Prof. Craig Wright of Yale teaches a music appreciation course that is available free online.

Professor Craig Wright and Yale University offer a free online classical music appreciation course. In the 3rd lecture, Wright makes a simple but profound comparison between Western classical music and other music, say Eastern music and pop music in the West.

Our classical music is notated, he says. The focus is on the composer, who is the star. He’s like the architect, while the players are, say, carpenters or masons or window installers. When you go to hear pop music, on the other hand, whether rock or jazz, you will rarely see a music stand and printed music. You go to see the band or the ensemble, who are the stars. You talk and laugh and dance while the music plays.

Pop music, which must have come first in any culture or country, is heart and body, rhythm and dance. Classical music replaces heart and body with eye and mind, Wright says. It’s more analytical, rational, demanding of both player and listener. Which is why you need to know something technical about it in order to understand and appreciate.

In the same way, written poetry is a notated system. Most of us in the West may know poetry primarily through song, whether Bob Dylan’s or David Lee Roth’s. (Gods help us, but there is a difference.) And we don’t have to read music to get the rhythms of the song or the idea of the lyrics. Or course, we also know poetry, or did in my day, by reading and singings songs in our early education, whether these were patriotic hymns or folk music. And by memorizing poems, if that quaint idea is still around. (In Catholic high school, junior year, our Christian Brother English teacher had each of the boys in turn come to the front of the room and recite a poem we had memorized, whether Tennyson’s “Break, break, break, / On thy cold gray rocks, O Sea” or Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill”: “Now when I was young and easy under the apple boughs.”

An awful lot of poetry currently being written shows no particular knowledge of meter, rhythm, rhyme, and the other formal niceties of traditional poetry. In itself that’s okay. Most of us don’t write formalist poetry anymore. But all of us who write should know something about those traditions, if only to skirt them successfully, to pay homage as necessary and move on. (Of course, even if we don’t use a formal rhyme scheme, we can use off rhymes or slant rhymes, internal rhymes rather than end-of-line rhymes; and there’s an awful lot of shaping of poetry, still, in tercets, quatrains, and other stanzaic groupings.)

This matter of form and formal notation in poetry comes down ultimately to the question: How can we write poetry unless we read it, poetry of the past and poetry of our time too? So that the poetry we write today becomes part of the great flow of poetry over time, not merely a private or solipsistic exercise? “O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,” as Yeats asked, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

It’s difficult in a culture as oral as ours (as narcissistically addicted to sucking and suffering), as “postliterate” as ours (as the Trump reign has been called) to take the time and effort to read and think, gods know. To retire to a “fine and private place,” which is at the same time not (yet) the grave, and there, in the mind, to be content with what we can produce on our own and how we can locate it in the tradition.

 

 

Categories
friendship writing

Should you join a writers’ group?

In the wake of the publication of my first book (Transitions: Early Poems, 1979–1989), I’ve been looking at and even joining a few online writers’ group. Everybody has a story to tell, and so many want to be a writer, the only thing stopping them being fear, doubt, and experience.

Not inexperience in telling stories, which we all do easily among friends and family. But shaping the stories, or poems, or dramas — or any idea for public transmission — into publishable form.

Most of the questions posed in writers’ groups are naive and childish, seems to me. Seeing them, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Let me show you a few examples here and see what you think.

Cruikshank, The Juggernaut
George Cruikshank (1792–1878) was an English satirical illustrator, beginning in the 1820s. He satirized politicians, royalty, and the hoi polloi. Why not extend his target from royalty to would-be royal writers. Gin-soaks in his day, those drunk on the dream of fame in ours.

In a Facebook group, a would-be author asks, “What is a good title for a memoir about surviving a double lung transplant?” To date she’s gotten more than 700 suggestions, all manner of “help” from would-be helpers, including

  • A Different Kind of Windfall
  • Wind-Owe to My Soul
  • Wind-Oh to My Soul
  • How to Breathe
  • Out of Breath
  • Breathing Gratitude
  • Thank God I Survived Twice: The Story of Two Lung Transplants
  • Within the Rib Cage
  • Branching Passages of Air
  • Double Your Pleasure
  • Heavy Breathing

Most of these suggestions are going nowhere fast. They’re embarrassing or off the point, if the point can be divined. I commented, simply, “Write the book, Snoopy, and forget the title. It will come to you, easily, after the heavy lifting.”

Writers Helping Writers, the name of this group, suggests that writing is a lonely craft, which it certainly is. Do writers need other writers? Certainly. They need people with experience and judgment to help them through the long, lonely task — the heavy lifting — of writing, revising, and finishing a book. What the experience and critical capabilities of the people in this Facebook group are, however, only the gods know.

Writing is lonely. You’ll have craft if you put the necessary blood, sweat, and tears into the task. To paraphrase the title character in Henry James’s The American, I would exhort all young writers, “Read. Read all you can. It’s a mistake not to.” (James’ character, the ambassador of the title, Lambert Strether, tells the young man he’s talking to, “Live. Live all you can,” which is also great advice and necessary for the writer.) Live all you can and read the best stuff you can find, wherever your interests lie. For how can you write if you do not live, or have not read, or written enough to punch your way out of the kraft bag (craft bag) you have put yourself in?

No, you don’t have to enroll in a formal course of study, the way I did way back when (majoring in English in college and then earning a Ph.D. in American lit and teaching literature and writing for years). You don’t have to get into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, or any other formal school, though joining a local writers’ group may be helpful if the members are competent writers and compassionate, knowledgeable critics too. (Face-to-face writers’ groups don’t always work out, as I can testify from experience. Sometimes there are petty personal disagreements. Sometimes you simply can’t get much interest or attention in your project. There may be too many members, or too few. But at their best, writers’ groups offer live support and immediate clarification if not gratification.)

Reading the best stuff will help you form your judgment and inform your craft. Your writing will become a stronger mix of direct day-to-day experience, stories and ideas you’ve heard from friends and family, and the most intriguing craftsmanship. There is a divide between high and low culture, of course. I’m not suggesting you must stick strictly to the high road, but if your idea of craft is informed only or largely by pop music or genre fiction, you’re on pretty shaky ground as to influence.

In another online writers’ group, on LinkedIn, a member passes on advice for struggling writers, as in “How To Overcome Writers Block: 12 Simple Ideas That Helps with Creative Blockage.” Not a bad read, actually, if you’re on the ball and don’t take everything here literally. (Shouldn’t writers, of all people, learn to distrust the literal, the concrete, the superficial, that which pretends to be anchored in the “real,” whatever that is?) If you think, for example, that writer’s block is caused by “emotional distress,” you may not have sorted through or dealt otherwise with your emotions. Indeed, you might say we write precisely to sort through our emotions, to banish or lay down distress in the dust, to master that which has threatened to master us.

What about the suggestion here to “Take a shower”? Excuse me, I think I’ll pour myself a bourbon. Or “Meditate/Yoga”? Up to you, my fine feathered friend.

But here’s a good one, an excellent idea: “Read other people’s writings.” Of course. Other professional writers’ good writing, celebrated and justly acclaimed writing. It’s a mistake not to!

Categories
writing

Poem genesis

So how does a poem get started? And how does it get polished and revised if not perfected?

There’s a lot to be said for raw energy. I know poets who put out daily (one of them calls his output, which he puts out on his iPhone, his “daily drivel”; another pours out slam poetry, which slams against the brain, I would say, the way pop music does).

In my case, there’s an impulse, an idea or image or story. It’s raw stuff, yes, what Henry James called, in the case of fiction, the “germ” of the story. But whether I have a narrative or not, I generally start with a germ. Here’s the latest example I can offer. The other day, pruning a Chinese golden raintree in my garden, I noticed how many spindly, flailing arms the tree had. And wondered, not logically but magically, but metaphorically, what would people be like if they had that many arms to wave or employ in god knows what endeavors?

Li Bai Strolling, by Liang Kai (1140–1210)
Li Bai Strolling, by Liang Kai (1140–1210).

Nothing happened with this germ until this morning, when I connected the idea of the Chinese tree with the Chinese poet Li Bai, about whom I’ve been reading a bit. Not that I know much about Li Bai, except he was one of the most famous Chinese poets, from the Tang Dynasty in the 8th century CE, and was translated by Ezra Pound, among others, and I had studied Pound a bit in graduate school at UT-Austin and used one of his translations of Li Bai (or Li Po) in my wedding ceremony, “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter,” which ends plaintively like this:

You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me.
I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Chō-fū-Sa.

So, knowing I could do worse than invoking Li Bai, I wrote this (which reflects quite a few little changes and is not, I’m sure, yet finished):

The Tree

The Chinese raintree at the garden pond
flings out its weepy arms as if it were
a woman, say the river merchant’s wife,
imploring the return of her long gone man.
Seventy summers and winters having come
and gone, I might like to do the same, grow
how many sets of arms, my hair down to
the ground, flailing and beseeching the return
of the things I’ve lost or never had. Where
was I? Ah, yes. Until that day, if and when
it comes, I could do worse than remember
the days when I was young and held her
in my arms, the days I would read Li Bai
and think of coming out to meet her
as far as Chō-fū-Sa.

There’s something missing here, I fear. What, for example, are “the things I’ve lost or never had”? Enigmatic, yes? What do you think? We’ve all had them.

At any rate, you can see here something of the process of generating the idea for a poem and then a pretty good if not complete draft of the poem itself. The lessons, if any, for poets in general, or readers for that matter? One, be alert to the clues that life flings your way, whether in the flailing branches of a tree, or your reading, or your memory of events from long ago. Two, be aware as you struggle with writing or reading a poem that the big majority of them come out not full blown or grown, the way the genius Mozart might have produced his musical works or freaks, but half born, sometimes even apparently stillborn; that the form you see, that is, is the result of lots of formal work, playing with the sound and shape and layout of words, to give the impression that the poem emerged full blown from the poet’s brain, like Aphrodite from Zeus’s head.

Categories
poetry publication writing

Transitions

Transitions: Early Poems
Cover of the paperback version of Transitions ($12.95 through Amazon).

In my efforts to promote a first book of poetry just published, I drafted a press release and sent it off to a couple of arts groups. Without blowing my own horn or strumming my own lute too much, I have to say that this analytic exercise was illuminating for me.

The collection is called Transitions: Early Poems, 1979–1989, and is available at Amazon in both paperback and epub formats. With a name like Transitions, long the working title for poems I wrote in the 1980s, it shouldn’t be surprising that the poems deal with passages or rites of passage in one’s life. But readers and reviewers have readily discerned the theme of growing up or awakening in these poems.

To quote myself (sorry) in the press release:

As several readers have pointed out … the collection is a coming of age series. The struggles to find a voice are enacted against the background of conforming institutions — church, family, marriage, and academe. “I failed to get tenure at the college where I was teaching,” Zeck says, “and began through the 1980s, when I was in my thirties, a struggle to find out just who I was, unmoored from institutional supports or detaching from them. There were the night sweats, and the day sweats, as John Berryman might have said, and the constant if unconscious need to make something of myself and to make it on my own.”

There’s nothing particularly novel about such a theme. We all struggle, in one way or another, to come of age, to mature, to grow into our own skin. What makes my struggle different, could be, is the confluence of these particular pressures: the church, family, marriage, and academe coming together to produce a collection of particular utterances about the struggle, which results in or enacts a voice and an identity, finally, of my own.

The poems testify to the Catholic puritanism of my upbringing, a streak that runs through my dad’s Polish-American family like a toxic vein. He himself was very reticent about sex, and his father guiltily mourned his bastardy to the end of his life. This kind of childhood was not Blake’s Garden, where the happy childhood is succeeded by “Thou shalt not writ over the door.” The childhood itself was marked by fears and doubts of ever being worthy, of ever escaping the all-seeing eye.

One poem, “Something for My Cousin,” testifies to the complacencies of faith purveyed by the church. At the funeral of a first cousin who died by her own hand,

… the goateed priest, half through the mass,
capered to the lectern. Ours, he said, comfortably,
not to question why this dread thing happened
but to know the Lord works in mysterious ways.
Capon! Mumbling of resurrection and eternal life,
he got on with the job, hoisted the chalice, wiped
his dribbling chops, handed out communion, leading
the faithful up faith’s candy-coated mountain.

In “Suburban Sacraments,” an elegy for a youthful friend,

Machinegun-style, our alcoholic pastor spat out the Latin
of the Mass: “Introibo ad altare Dei.” And, hands folded,
Mark and I fired back: “Ad Dei qui laetificat juventutem
meam.” It was not the ideal preparation for life the cataclysm.

But the church and family were not all dregs and disappointments. Humor leavens this bitter loaf, often in things sexual. In “Physical,” the examining Catholic family doctor intones, writing on his chart, “No signs of impurity,” and the kid wonders how the doctor has not seen or suspected his masturbatory habits.

Had I been suspect? How could
he know? Would it show?
Crossing myself, I crossed
the good physician’s threshold,

sped out into the suburban dusk,
and made bold to think several
impure thoughts about his twin
blonde pubescent daughters.

And in “Transitional,” part of “Onan Suite,” the longest poem in the collection, the narrator wonders about the futility of the sacrament of penance. He confesses his lusts, his impurities, and is forgiven, but knows he will once more be “beating off” when he sees the girls in the neighborhood:

I could go on and
on counting the ways,
telling the beads
of my onanistic rosary,

a sly and unrepentant
teenage Catholic boy
who could never quite
make it across.

It’s not only the content, of course, but the form of the poem that gets it across, that makes a bridge, or a transition, for the poet and, he would hope, his readers. In my case, the Latin of the mass and sacraments instilled in me a love of language, a love of form, that became transmuted into a secular but still, in a way, hieratic voice, if only the voice of the fallen priest or angel — and then professor — and then one who had to come up with his own words entirely to profess and convince, without institutional support of any kind.

The large question here is how do any of us make it across, wherever it is we end up going? What kind of transitions can we make, if we’re left largely on our own, the mysteries and terrors of institutions like church and state and family pushing us away not embracing us?

Poems themselves, or other art objects, may become “transitional objects,” in the terms of W. D. Winnicott. They stand for mother and family, of comfort, of home, and at the same time are the means of moving away into one’s own sphere of being and accomplishing. They are home and not home, mother and not mother, finally altogether, if the bearer of these objects is lucky, an other.

I pushed through a difficult boyhood, did well in Catholic school and then at the university (I was too afraid not to), where I earned a B.A. in English and German and a Ph.D. in American literature. Such an education naturally immersed me in language, especially poetry, which proved as rich as, no, richer than, the Latin of the mass and the sacraments. But when I began to teach college, in Detroit, in the 1970s, academe became for me, a reiteration of the authority of church, family, marriage.

No, I didn’t get tenure at Wayne State University, where I taught from 1972 to 1979 (tenure: meaning the ability or capacity to hold on, as for dear life). I was too young, too immature. I didn’t write enough, or enough of the right kind of thing, using the right “methodology” (the totem of the English Department, which yearned for the power and responsibility not to mention salary of the sciences). I didn’t make connections, or pretend friendships, with those in the department who had the power to confer tenure. I did, however, get immersed in the alchemy of language, anxiety, identity, so that when I would try out an academic paper on my colleagues I’d hear back I didn’t know what I was talking about … but sure could write. By the time I was ejected from Wayne, and then after a Fulbright year teaching in Serbia, trying to make a living through freelance business writing, I was ready to remember and record the occasions, and gifts, that led to my being me, including, if I may conclude thus, this love poem to my wife and apologia for the poetic vocation too.

Poem on the Beautiful Hands of Jennifer

In the half-light of the marriage bed
you take from under the sheets and show me
your incredibly beautiful hands —
small, slim, tapering into flame —
and hold me then to the heat of your breast,
your heart which is choiring in this milky
light, and tell me with your erotically
articulate fingers how close we can be.
As I unfurl from doubt’s tight fist,
from the fetal dark, it dawns on me
how wholly unclenched and open you are —
your fingers which know so well how to sew
and cook and tease a balky piano into music
and stroke a lover ecstatically, a wand
of subtle light and heat that binds me gently
to you, this early hour of the morning,
in the half-light of the marriage bed.

Categories
poetry politics writing

History & Nostalgia

F. Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald, the oracle of the Jazz Age and our age too.

There’s a wonderful Sarah Churchwell essay in the New York Review of Books called “The Oracle of Our Unease” about F. Scott Fitzgerald, local boy made good from St. Paul, Minnesota (where my wife and I lived 16 years). The essay explores a facet of Fitzgerald’s work on the so-called “Jazz Age” (a sobriquet he took credit for) that is not much remarked on, the connection between the horrors of WW I, just completed, and the ebullience and drunkenness of the ’20s.

The essay ends in a summary warning at this political and cultural junction:

Fitzgerald became America’s poet laureate of nostalgia because he understood its perils as well as its allure: nostalgia wants to falsify the past, whereas history tries to clarify it. Gatsby, the emblematic American, is destroyed by nostalgia, his dreams of reclaiming paradise shattered by the “hard malice” of Tom Buchanan’s plutocratic power. Gatsby’s incurable faith in the false promise of renewal—“Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!”—is America’s. Like Gatsby, we want to recover some idea of ourselves that we’ve lost, to return to the past and find there, intact, our own innocence. Gatsby’s “extraordinary gift for hope” is our own—and ensures we keep willfully forgetting that his great aspirations ended dead in the water.

We’ve all read The Great Gatsby, haven’t we? And I hope we continue to read it in high schools and colleges through the nation. Now, almost 100 years after its publication, it sounds the same alarm about plutocracy and democracy. Do we fight, in wars, in elections, merely to keep the rich in place, atop the pile, piling on, adding to their advantage? Or do we demand a little room to breathe for fellow citizens (like George Floyd) and ourselves?

The air may be rare up there, where even the toilets are gold plated, but down here on the ground, in the trenches, “the mud of Gallipoli,” as T. S. Eliot put it, remembering a friend’s death in WW I, we need to sweat and bleed in the common way to make any progress at all.

Wilfred Owen
Wilfred Owen, British poet and soldier. He died at age 25 one week before the signing of the Armistice.

Or course, conservatives constantly prattle about “the city on the hill,” “American exceptionalism,” “Make America Great Again,” and, most facile of all, “patriotism” — the patriotism of the great dead white men and of course the live ones, most of whom didn’t and wouldn’t go to war themselves (can anyone say “bone spurs”?) but would be glad to send the deplorables and the inexorables to the mud for the sake of the country, sure, and the munitions manufacturers.

They haven’t read (what’s reading?) or haven’t heeded the warning of Wilfred Owen’s poem (what’s poetry?) about the Great War, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” which ends in exhortation of those who have not been to war:

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Patriotic bullshit. Toxic nostalgia. It’s not sweet, nor is it just, to die for the country. Don’t let ’em tell you that it is. Don’t let ’em wave their flag in your face. Read your history, fight your own fights, and the hell with filial or final piety.

(For an analysis of a more recent misadventure in patriotism and American arms, see Frederic Wehrey’s “This Soldier’s Witness to the Iraq War Lie,” also in the Review of Books.)

Categories
friendship

Connections, electrical and other

Helping a friend, who had a bad traffic accident a few months ago, wire his deck. He promised to be my assistant, sitting in his wheelchair, and I could do the work.

Turns out he’s quite the tyrant, even in his sedentary position. While I clamber from one ladder to another, putting up PVC conduit and pulling wire, he tells me just what to do. Make that quite the martinet. Without barking, he barks out orders: do this, do that, do the other, as if I have no idea what I’m doing.

(Well, I’ve been doing this sort of basic electrical for years without having much idea what I’m doing. But have yet to shock or kill anyone. And have saved a lot of money, and learned a bit, by not calling in an electrician.)

How To Choose A Ladder | Werner EUWhen I show a bit of impatience with my friend, he tells me a story about how he had a plumber in a few years ago. Evidently he hovered over the guy and told him just what to do, or suggested how he do it, till finally the plumber stood up, clearly peeved, and said, “Look, I’m a master plumber. If you want to tell someone what to do, why don’t you hire a $5 an hour handyman?”

My rates, for this special friend, are $0 an hour, but they do not include, I suggested to him, too much verbal abuse. I know how to make the basic connections: white to white, black to black, ground to the green screw; in-wall box, box extension, cover; PVC connector, conduit, glue, straps, and like that.

(I should admit that the friend is aching to get back to physical connections. He’s a great putterer in his big garage, where he works on several old sports cars at a time; where he invents parts if he doesn’t have ’em; where his restless hands get a full work-out. And he’s aching too to get back to walking, hiking, and biking.)

In the end, basic electricity is not rocket science, nor is basic friendship. One connection is made, and then another. Disruptions occur, ground faults, shorts. But the friendship survives because of shared feeling and interests. In the case of my injured friend, these interests include hiking, biking, joking, laughing, and drinking dark beer, if not artistic matters (he worked in a technical field). I brush off his bossiness and go on with the work. He can’t rise from the chair or rise to the occasion, so I must. I ascend the ladder, I screw in a box, I twist in a length of conduit and screw in a few straps. The air is cleaner up here, could be, and the higher I ascend the purer it becomes. All of this is helped by my hearing difficulties. The higher this old guy goes, the more serene it becomes.

Say what, earthling? I don’t care. Way up in the air I am now making angelic connections.

Categories
poetry politics writing

Politics

William Butler Yeats
William Butler Yeats in his later years.

The poet William Butler Yeats wrote “Politics” in 1938, on the eve of WW II. It’s a short poem and a provocation, seems to me, in times like these.

“In our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms.” — Thomas Mann

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics,
Yet here’s a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there’s a politician
That has both read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war’s alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms.

Yeats wrote this ditty in May 1938 and died the following January. So, yes, the world was on the verge of WW II and Yeats was on the verge of dying. A no longer young man’s thoughts turn to spring, or the springtime of Eros, as signified by the girl he sees on the street.

But is Hitler going to slow down for a girl? Is Donald Trump?

Well, let me rephrase that. Hitler had Eva Braun and his world of hate. Trump has his hatred if minorities and immigrants — and as many women as he can molest and get away with.

We understand why old folks regret their dying, their passing into eternity. In “Sailing to Byzantium” (1928), Yeats wrote, “An aged man is but a paltry thing” unless he invests in soul or sails to Byzantium:

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Without exaggerating the state of the planet at this time, and gods know it’s bad enough, with floods and hurricanes in one place, fires in another, man the consuming and exploiting animal dominating nature, as if he would gladly wipe it out entirely, I would suggest not sex or politics as the answer to our problem but poetry.

Poetry is the most speculative of the arts. It can range hither and thither, up into the celestial regions, down into hell, searching for the answers to the eternal questions: who are we and what in the devil are we doing on this planet?

Politics is the art of the city (polis), of living together in cities and communities and trying to make a go of it. Sex is, well, you know what sex is, the conjunction of bodies and sometimes minds with them, in celestial and/or diabolical alignment.

So while we decide here in the USA on Trump vs. Biden, this autumn of the Year of Our Lord (if any) 2020, let’s not forget the offices of poetry: why are we here? to what end? and how do we explain this miracle of being?

(But of course poetry is an aspect of Byzantium. The poem that Yeats created praising and parsing politics and Eros is an aspect of the “artifice of eternity.”)

Categories
narration story writing

More on Homer and Henry James

No, I don’t believe the two gents knew each other, though both were masterful story tellers. (They lived 3,000 years apart.)

In my last entry I broached the subject of finding a story, citing Daniel Mendelsohn’s essay about his troubles moving from a narrative of events to a genuine story. I mentioned his teaching of Homer’s Odyssey, and I brought up Henry James, who wrote many novels and critical essays collected under the title The Art of Fiction. 

In his essay Mendelsohn mentions good advice from a mentor, which was actually contained in and demonstrated by the Odyssey. Homer does not stick to a straightforward chronology at every point, but darts back into the past (flashback) and anticipates the future (flashforward). This in fact, then, was what Mendelsohn did with his bloated and listless manuscript of some 600 pages: made the class he taught on the Odyssey the central narrative and tucked into it temporal dislocations on caring for his dying father and taking a cruise that retraced Odysseus’s voyage.

The story emerged out of the bushels of facts. It was a kind of metastory, in fact, a story about being lost and finding one’s way. Just as Odysseus voyaged for years to return home from the Trojan War, so Mendelsohn scrambled to find a home in the heart of his materials.

You might find something of the same struggle going on in Henry James’s fiction, though he covers his tracks pretty well. I’m thinking here of the care he lavishes on his female characters, especially the protagonists, in novels like The Portrait of a Lady, where Isabel Archer moves from America to Europe and is seduced into a loveless marriage by a man interested only in her money.

I’ve suggested that James’s interest in female characters is characteristic of his large moral imagination. But it’s also founded, I think, on self-interest.

It’s long been know that James, who never married, had homoerotic proclivities. He was so refined, so domesticated, in fact, that he could have passed, without too much trouble, as a woman. Mark Twain famously, or infamously, called him “Henrietta James.” T. S. Eliot, more accurately and charitably, opined that James “had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it,” no ideology or stereotype disturb it. When he created characters, he went deep, plunged into hearts and minds, and emerged with characters that enlarge our appreciation of life’s moral puzzles and quandaries.

Portrait of a Lady cover
Penguin’s rendition of James’s Isabel Archer of The Portrait of a Lady (1881).

One of the central leitmotifs of James’s fiction is renunciation. The characters only want what they cannot have, though their desires are not the outsize or outrageous stuff of popular fiction. Isabel Archer wants only a happy marriage … and then happiness for her husband’s illegitimate daughter, Pansy. When she discovers the incorrigible evil in her husband, there is no going back. She renounces herself, or her own chance at happiness, in order to serve others, especially the younger, more innocent self, the daughter.

An article by Colm Tóibín details how “Henry James’s Family Tried to Keep Him in the Closet.” Yes, he had written many “ardent” letters to young men, stuff that would scandalize eminent and obscure Victorians alike. James’s heirs squelched these letters, but the same impulses shown in the letters appear also in the fiction, though in disguised form: his admiration for the fine minds and individual moralities of many female characters, the capacities of men like Lambert Strether, the title character of The Ambassadors, to learn and grow. (Strether is sent to fetch home to New England a wayward son, with a French mistress, but he comes to see that it’s puritan New England and the New World which is corrupt, not the Old World.)

James could not express his ardent desires directly, but he found in writing, both private letters and public letters (that is, literature), a way to announce and renounce who he was and who, under different circumstances, he might have been.

For fiction writers, facts are one thing, finally. But the story, the overarching idea and meaning behind all facts and events, is something else entirely, something grander and more enduring.

 

Categories
narration story writing

Finding a story

If you’re telling stories, you have a fund of experience to draw on. Don’t we all? Nearly all of us tell stories, and jokes, in daily life. We regale and assail each other with such stories. We while away the time, which otherwise might bore us out of our minds. We stake an advantage. We perform.

But what to do with these stories if we would tell them in print?

I should say rather than stories, it’s narratives we all have, sequences of events that happen to us and around us and sometimes way out there in the family of man. And we may have sequelae, also: outcomes whether healthy or not that are moral, physical, psychological. They may be punch-lines in a joke or a sad or hilarious coda to a story. But how do we get these narratives to add up and make sense and march on in print?

There’s a very good hint provided in a recent essay by Daniel Mendelsohn in The New York Review of Books. He talks about the long research journey he undertook to write about how the Holocaust wiped out the Jews in a town once in Poland, now Ukraine, in which his ancestors lived. And how, once he published that book, he was depressed and paralyzed and floundered for another project.

Mendelsohn is a writer of factual accounts and analyses. After a hiatus of several years he was able to reach out past the Holocaust back into ancient Greek history and find a subject in Homer’s Odyssey. He wrote hundreds of pages of narrative in three parts, based on a classroom (in which he had taught the Odyssey), a ship which recreated Odysseus’s route home, and a hospital in which his father, who’d taken Mendelsohn’s course in the Odyssey, lay dying.

He gave the script to an old friend and mentor, and got this reaction:

The first part, the account of the seminar, was interesting, he observed—after a small silence during which I absorbed his criticism—but, in his opinion, the problem was that once you reach the end of that part, once you come to the end of the Odyssey course, you didn’t want to keep reading. You don’t want to get through the whole semester and then have to go on a cruise, he said, at which I weakly protested, But that’s how it happened. I don’t care how it happened, he returned; this isn’t about fact, this is about a story. You need to find a way to plant the cruise and the hospital within the narrative of the seminar. Use flashbacks, use flash-forwards, don’t worry about chronology. Make it up, if you have to! You just have to find a way.

When he said the word way, I couldn’t repress an embarrassed start of recognition. The phrase “find a way” allowed me, first of all, to understand retroactively the nature of the creative and spiritual crisis I had undergone after finishing my previous book. I was suffering from what the Greeks called aporia: a helpless, immobilized confusion, a lack of resources to find one’s way out of a problem. The literal meaning of aporia is “a lack of a path,” or “no-way.” I hadn’t been able to leave my apartment; I couldn’t think of a new project. I was, in the Greek way of thinking, pathless—the adjective, as it happens, that in the Odyssey is used to describe the sea, the terrifying blank nothingness from which Odysseus must extricate himself, literally and figuratively, in order to reclaim his identity and find his way home.

Now you or I may not be writing a book. But whether we’re rendering a narrative orally or writing it out, we have to concern ourselves at some point with the central, essential story: where are we going with all these details? what do we want our audience to feel and understand?

If we don’t know these matters well at some level, we may well mess up a joke — or a written essay, article, or book. You know how that works? You go through the details of a joke, and then realize you’re leaving something out or putting something in that shouldn’t be there — you’re messing it up (again), aren’t you?

Henry James
Henry James, The Master, as painted by John Singer Sargent in 1913, three years before James’s death.

Some people, of course, are inveterate and practiced jokers. They know how to tell a joke or perhaps play a trick, and everyone is convinced. Most of us, however, have to work on our capers and find out, however we can, what is the essential story. There’s a struggle between our conscious and unconscious faculties. We want to control the narrative, but must let the chthonic powers play.

This sort of struggle may have underlain Henry James’s idea of the story “germ.” He writes in his notebooks about how he would overhear a story told at dinner and take its essence, the germ, home with him, only the germ, the central point, as he saw it, and then work it up on his own into his own story.

Once he had his suggestion … he hastened to close his ears to the rest of the story lest clumsy Life should take his seminal idea away. When the artist is too close to the reality he wants to describe, his imagination is no longer stimulated and therefore ceases to work. — “James on Art and the Novel”

James’s MO may or may not work for you, but the gist of this story of the Master is that he let his imagination play, have free rein, roam beyond the confines of the tale he had heard. Of course, James like his brother, the philosopher William James, had a great moral imagination. He was able to create characters and tell their stories with a profound human empathy. Many of the stories, like The Portrait of a Lady and Washington Square and The Aspern Papers, have to do with cold-hearted, amoral men who cheat women out of love, or money, or full personal development. After a while, I would think, such a concern, or motif, a central part of his own character, would be part of the germ, naturally, of many of his tales.

So how do you find a story, telling the facts, such as they are, and developing the meaning of the facts — the solid, essential story which experience, the gift horse, has presented you? Surely, you can’t spend too long looking it in the mouth? Giddyup, you gotta ride experience’s suggestions.