Thursday, March 29, 2012

Me Versus the Western Canon, Round Two

I've been trying to read more poetry lately. As someone who works with language, I'm always looking around to see what bright people are making out of words, what images other writers have discovered, what opportunities exist to break grammar apart and reformulate it in startling, shiny ways. A poet is often more daring than a prose writer and often has a more sensitive ear for the sounds of the work, the vowels against the consonants, the inner rhythms and rhymes, the stresses falling on more or less important words, etc. You know: the poetry of the writing. See how clever I am to define "poetry" by calling it "poetry." Did I mention that I work with language? Maybe I should say prosody, though that doesn't really seem to capture all of it. The fine shadings within the music of language, maybe.

Poetry and I do not have a rich and storied history together. We aren't old pals, neighbored in youth and 'havior. I read the old chestnuts in school (you know, the standard list of Frost and Poe and Tennyson and Whitman and Lindsay that every American youth was fed during the late 60s and early 70s) and in college I wandered around with Sylvia Plath and and Erica Jong and Emily Dickenson and Shakespeare and Allen Ginsberg. I paid far too much attention to pop song lyrics which are generally not very good poetry at all. So I don't know much about poetry, obviously. The Poetess of Boise suggested Seamus Heaney some years ago and I like him a good deal but there's only so much of him I can take before I no longer know what I'm reading.

I'm searching, therefore, for an idea of what I actually like in poetry. Who I like, who I don't like, getting together a plan to deepen or at least broaden my understanding of what's out there. My starting point is the Norton Anthology of Poetry 3rd Edition (Shorter). I'm working my way from front-to-back, starting with old Anglo Saxon poems and will someday find myself in the impossible future year of 1983 or whatever. I'm in the 18th century now, and have decided that there are a lot of English poets I won't be bothering with in future.

Here's this Philistine's review of some English poets up to the end of the Baroque era:

Chaucer is still on the list; Canterbury Tales is a classic. William Langland's Piers Plowman is worth the time, too.

William Dunbar, though? Not so much. John Skelton is a bit too foursquare for me. I can appreciate guys like Thomas Wyatt (My Lute, Awake!) but I can't spend a lot of time with him, no. Henry Howard is readable enough, but his short bits on love and nature don't move me.

But, you know, Spencer and John Donne and Shakespeare (of course) and some of Ben Jonson and Robert Herrick (that sensualist, always going on about Julia and what a happy strain she puts upon his libido) and Milton (of course of course and have you not read Paradise Lost?) and Anne Bradstreet but Dryden is overrated but Edward Taylor seems all right and Jonathan Swift and I will have more to do with each other in the future (or me with him, him being dead lo these many centuries) but Alexander Pope, whose "Rape of the Lock" I've circled all these decades? My, I just don't like him so I don't see what all the fuss is about.

William Cowper writes a nice epitaph for one of his pet rabbits, so I might see about seeing more of him. Samuel Johnson doesn't do a thing for me. William Blake is an old favorite though he can be oppressive if I spend too much time with him. Robert Burns? Oh, I do like Burns. I've just started the Wordsworth section. Wish me luck.

I will admit that my favorite poem from this collection is one by John Lily. It's a poem that I used in a novel several years ago, as lyrics to a drinking song sung by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (yes, those two) while deep in their cups:

Oh, for a bowl of fat Canary,
Rich Palermo, sparkling Sherry,
Some nectar else from Juno's dairy;
Oh, these draughts would make us merry!

Oh, for a wench (I deal in faces,
And in other daintier things);
Tickled am I with her embraces,
Fine dancing in such fairy rings.

Oh, for a plump fat leg of mutton,
Veal, lamb, capon, pig and coney;
None is happy but a glutton,
None an ass but who wants money.

Wines indeed and girls are good,
But brave victuals feast the blood;
For wenches, wine and lusty cheer,
Jove would leap down to surfeit here.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Me Versus the Western Canon

One reason I write novels is because the novel--or a long list of novels I've read--is an important part of my life. I have no idea what living would be without access to great books. I have no idea who I'd be had I not had access to great books. No, I don't know what "great" means and maybe I'll go into that later. For now, I want to say that novelists are the artists who've had the greatest impact on my life and personality.

One reason I write novels is because I want to be one of the people whose art has a great impact on the lives and personalities of people like me. I write novels because I am grateful to novelists and I'd like to join that club, be part of the communion of literary saints.

Part of the idea of joining the club of novelists is the idea of writing something that will endure, something that will have lasting value. I don't know what "value" means, no. Nor do I necessarily know it when I see it. But as one who hopes to write something that will endure, I find myself bang up against the Western Canon*.

There are some interesting conversations going on right now about how and why works of art enter the canon, and equally interesting conversations about what the canon itself might be and what it contains. I lack sufficient depth of knowledge to engage much in these conversations, but I will go so far as to say that the Western Canon (a moving target with a pretty solid center but very porous and fuzzy edges) is central to my intellectual life. It's central to my view of what a novel is, and central to the idea I have of joining the league of great novelists. Yes, that's what I want. I want to write novels that will one day be part of the Western Canon.

That's a trick with a high degree of difficulty, and of course since the canonical invitations to novels being written during my lifetime will all be mailed out long after I'm dead, there's no way to measure my progress toward this goal. What I'm left with, which is possibly all that many writers are left with, is to attempt to write novels that stand up well against the novels I respect and love. So I write and then compare what I've written to those works within my beloved Western Canon and I ask myself if I think my books are equal (another term I can't define) to the books I love.

My answer is always "no," though sometimes I think my books are as good as those being written by any of my contemporaries. I don't know what I mean by "as good as," either, thanks for asking.

I pause to wonder if "as good as" is even the right way of thinking about this. One possible definition of "canon" is "convention," which means that I'm attempting to write novels that are, essentially, similar in some way to a lot of novels I've already read. I'm sure that this is an important part of being an artist, to have been influenced, to build rooms onto the existing house of Literature, to join the canonical culture.

When I was a young man, full of arrogant energy**, I imagined that I'd write things that broke the mold, that sheared away from the conventions and showed that I Am My Own Man. I recognize the importance of experimentation, of striking out beyond the edges of the map, but I think that when one does this purely--or primarily, at least--to set oneself in opposition to an idea of "convention," then one is basically just being perverse. "I will be different" is not much of an artistic vision. "I will fit in" isn't either.

So one innovates, I suppose, and possibly it's true that a lot of innovation by young artists comes about through error: the artist is actually attempting to paint like Vermeer but lacks the technique and temperament and so stumbles along creating glorious failures that have their own aesthetic power. "I made it that way because I didn't know what I was doing; I didn't know any better." Yes, that happens. But it's also true that artists, having gathered technique and experience together, see new possibilities and go on to do more difficult*** things. Some of the formal innovations of William Burroughs, for example, are accidental hack work; the formal innovations of Vladimir Nabokov, however, are deliberate and careful. Both are interesting aesthetic experiences, but because I'm an old-school worshipper of craft, I claim that Nabokov is the better writer though it's true that Burroughs can be more fun.

Am I going anywhere with this? From where did I start? Oh, yes. Me versus the Western Canon. I keep writing books. I'm writing book number six right now, unless I've lost count. I think it's going to be publishable, a book people will read. But I have no idea if it's a worthwhile book, whatever that means. I have no idea if it's a book I would respect were I not the author. As the author, it's impossible for me to respect it because I view my own novels as sorts of machines that either run smoothly or they don't; the aesthetic experience I have from them is not the aesthetic of a reader. I keep repeating myself here. I want to write great books. I don't know if I will. Even if I write one (or in fact have already written one), I'll have no way of identifying it as such.

Christ, writers should not be allowed to blog. It should be against the law.

* from the Latin, derived from the Greek kanon, "measuring rod, standard"

** I remain arrogant, but I have far less energy

*** "difficult" meaning here either technically challenging, or challenging to the reader's aesthetic

Thursday, March 22, 2012

"We must pay coin."

I'm reading volume 6 of the Ecco Tales of Chekhov 13-volume set (translations by Constance Garnett). Whenever I read Chekhov--at least those stories he wrote once he was free of the length restraints his early editors put on him when he was writing short tales to amuse readers who were skimming through newspapers while waiting for trains--whenever I read Chekhov, I was saying, I feel that I'm encountering the ideas and observations of someone who honestly saw real life*. Chekhov's stories don't fit into any preconceived shapes that writers tend to use. If they seem at all familiar, it's because there's a school of modern writers who tend toward what's been called the Chekhovian story type, but by reducing Chekhov to a single pattern these modern stories have limited the possibility of the story and are missing what Chekhov was actually doing. He wasn't really writing a type of story and he didn't follow any single plan of action. I am rambling and I know it, but I'll continue anyway.

It's impossible to predict how a Chekhov story will develop. Many of his "mature" stories begin in an almost humdrum vein and the temptation is there to assume you'll be bored, that the story has nothing to offer. A traveling salesman watering his horses at a roadside tavern, talking for three pages about the discomfort of traveling by cart across rural Russia? Nothing's happening, you observe. And then a drunken peasant accosts the salesman, mistaking him for someone else. They quarrel, one of them is knocked down into the mud. Both men are revealed to be deeply unhappy for their own particular reasons. The story ends. Oh, you say. I know this story. It's real life. People are selfish idiots. Nothing is resolved, ever. People move through life, have their troubles and then die. Some people are better than others, except when they aren't. I know this story.

Chekhov is the writer of middles, of unresolved mysteries that are wholly knowable because they are the everyday mysteries of all our lives, the writer of lost characters, lost opportunities, mistakes, misanthropy, misogyny, hubris, etc etc etc. You can see where a writer like Samuel Beckett was influenced by Chekhov, but Beckett (and many writers who've followed Chekhov's lead, like Barthelme) lacked Chekhov's humanity, his sensitivity to the tragedy of life. Beckett laughed at humanity, but Chekhov is tender even as he is relentlessly honest about the failings of man. We are nothing, Beckett seems to say, and so we should laugh at our striving, because in the end there is nothing to say, nothing to do, nothing to care about. Chekhov, on the other hand, seems to say We are nothing, but we could be something, so we should laugh at our failures and treat one another better, because we are all we have. I prefer Chekhov's philosophy.

I'm not sure these days why I read anything but Chekhov. Possibly it's that I feel guilty ignoring all those other writers who've worked so hard and might have interesting things to say to me. Chekhov wrote no novels, and I'm a fan of novels, so I must read someone if I want to indulge in long-form fiction. And while there are uncountable good and even great novels out there, I find lately that whenever I return to Chekhov, I don't know why I ever left him. I don't know what any of this means. Nothing, probably.

* I am also reading his collected letters, and I recognize the irony that while Chekhov was a great observer of his fellows, he was himself a highly-strung, opinionated and at times mean-spirited fellow who hectored his brothers and constantly complained but seemed to view himself as a noble, intelligent and well-behaved fellow.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Chapter 10, Not Really Sanguine

Chapter 10 continues apace. I've got about 1000 words down, I think. Maybe not quite that many, but I'm moving forward and that's the job. I will say that I worry because while I know that I've got enough material here for a novel, I can't be entirely sure that I've actually got a story. This book is either going to be a fabulously cool success or a fabulous disaster. I don't see a lot of middle ground. Well, it's always fun and important to experiment and a bad day writing is still better than a good day doing most anything else. So we'll just see, in a few months, what we can see. Revisions are going to be interesting.

Crow Images for Alex M

Friday, March 16, 2012

"Demon - with the highest respect for you - behold your work!"

Despite the title of this post, I'm not writing about Our Mutual Friend except to say that I expect to finish the novel this weekend. Dickens has led me to believe that there will be violence before things end; I hope I'm not disappointed.

No, I'm moved to write this post because today at lunch I wrote a one-page outline of the remains of my novel-in-progress. It seemed like a daunting task, figuring out what I'd do for 35,000 more words, until I realized that I only have seven (7) more chapters to write. I can figure out what to do in a chapter, and I can do that seven times in a row, right? It also simplified things when I remembered that this book alternates chapters between the points of view of the two main characters, which means that I have three more "David" chapters and four more "Catherine" chapters to write. Coming up with a 3-chapter outline for him and a 4-chapter outline for her wasn't that difficult. Making sure that they flow correctly in time as they alternate was also not a problem.

So job done, and well done me. I'll have to go through my growing stack of notes and make sure I haven't forgotten anything important I'd planned to work into the second half of this book, but otherwise I feel pretty confident that I know what I'll be writing as I go forward. Also, having a chapter-by-chapter outline, even if it's only one or two sentences per chapter, should let me write fairly quickly. Maybe I will have this first draft finished by midsummer. It could happen.

The next book I read will be Chekhov, more short stories. I won't be reading anything hefty until after I finish this damned draft. But when I do, I'm thinking it'll be The Brothers Karamatzov, which I've never managed to finish. I do believe that 2012 could be the year. Until Mr Dostoyevski and I face off, it'll all be shorter novels and short stories, damn it. Mr Dickens has taken too much of my concentration.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Our Mutual Friend: Three of Four Novels

Dickens' novel Our Mutual Friend is a long book. The Project Gutenberg edition is (less the "small print" &cet) 326,867 words. That's the equivalent of four of my novels. I was thinking this morning, while reading into Book IV on the omnibus, that I was pretty far along with Mr Dickens and I'd not have him much longer. Now I realize that I've still got about 86,000 words ahead of me, which is, as I say, the equivalent of an entire novel. Which is a comfort, because Out Mutual Friend, despite the very stressful turns taken in this third act of the story, is a nice place to hang about in. The Golden Dustman has reached a low point, though I'm sure he can go yet lower in chapters to come, poor idiot.

In my last scattershot post, I noted that Dickens indulges often in cheap sentiment. At the same time, what keeps me reading (aside from the wonderfully inventive way he has with language and that is a pure joy for this reader) is the way Dickens is unsentimental. His people are thoughtless, cruel, arrogant, selfish people as much as they're pure of heart and good good good. His best characters, of course, are those who are both good and weak. Possibly I only think that because it mirrors my Western Christian upbringing, wherein humanity is assumed to be good but weak. I don't know. I've never thought about that before, but it's an interesting thought that's doubtless been explored already by smarter folk than me. I shall now wonder about my own novels and the relationship between my characters and the lives of the saints. Because I'll bet there's something there. But I digress.

Dickens' folks are being pressed hard by Dickens' plot (which is what plots are for, if you were wondering) and are revealing themselves as pretty much normal humans (which is what literature is for, if you were wondering), which means that things are getting bad for some characters, and other characters are plotting to make things worse. Just like real life, hey?

So this is a great long novel, twice as long as Moby-Dick. For months after finishing the Melville, I wished I was still reading it. I wonder if I'll miss Dickens and his London in the same way. Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities, novels I've read in the last couple of years, didn't hang on to me, but Our Mutual Friend is a much better book than either of those novels. It's richer, with more depth and a physical reality--a tactile quality--I've not encountered in any of his other work. Granted I've only read three other Dickens novels. Anyway, the more I read of Mr Dickens, the more of him I want to read. That's a good thing, right? I hope that after Our Mutual Friend I won't be disappointed by the rest of his books.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Our Mutual Friend: Uncollected Thoughts

I'm about 5/8th of the way through Dicken's last finished novel, Our Mutual Friend. It's very very good, you know. Except where it's not. Where it's not is when Dickens wallows in cheap sentimentality, which he's done in every book of his I've read (and yes, that's only four books out of 15 or however many). It used to annoy me when Dickens would introduce a small child who smiles sweetly at a main character and then takes sick and dies in a saintly manner. Now I just forbear and keep reading until Dickens is writing once more like a sane man who respects his reader. Still, it's this vein of sentiment that keeps me from calling Dickens a great novelist. He was unquestionably a great writer, and some of his passages are among the best ever penned in English. He was a great experimenter in prose and theme and metaphor, but many things about his books just don't bear up under any sort of scrutiny. If you've read Dickens, odds are that you know what I mean. The plots tend to hinge on unlikely coincidences. The main characters, no matter how low their station, tend to speak in proper English no matter how their fellows speak (why do Lizzy and Charlie Hexam not mimic the speech of the other river people, for example?). So Dickens was a good novelist, but I can't call him great. Your mileage will likely vary.

Still, I'm enjoying the heck out of Our Mutual Friend. I begin to think that the title refers not only to John Rokesmith but also to money itself. Everyone wants to shake money's hand, to invite money home and make it part of the family. OMF is so much about money that Dickens could well have titled it About Money. And all the bits about money, actually, are really great. The Veneerings, the Podsnaps, the Lammles and poor Twemlow are all brilliant characters in brilliant chapters. I enjoy how Dickens slips into present-tense in most of the chapters about the nouveau riche; it adds to the frenzy. The chapter with Veneering running for Parliament is worth the price of the whole book.

I should bear in mind, of course, that I've yet to meet the perfect novel. I doubt such a thing exists, especially because it's likely that my standards change all the time, and by "perfect" I likely mean "exactly as I would have written it," which is, as I say, a moving target. So for Dickens to be a good writer who often achieves greatness means that he is, of course, doing about as good as one can reasonably expect. He's doing better than most of us will ever do, in fact.

And it's that last "better than most of us" that makes it clear to me that I am a very poor critic, and not so good a reader. Try as I might to read for the pleasures of the text, I am always comparing the novel in my hand with the Platonic novel in my head which I strive to write myself. Over and over again I find that I do nothing but talk about my own books, my own process, my own writing, no matter what I think I'm writing about. It's insufferable. I can't help it.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Boffins, the Boffins, the Boffins!

'Ma,' said Bella, angrily, 'you force me to say that I am truly sorry I did come home, and that I never will come home again, except when poor dear Pa is here. For, Pa is too magnanimous to feel envy and spite towards my generous friends, and Pa is delicate enough and gentle enough to remember the sort of little claim they thought I had upon them and the unusually trying position in which, through no act of my own, I had been placed. And I always did love poor dear Pa better than all the rest of you put together, and I always do and I always shall!'

Here Bella, deriving no comfort from her charming bonnet and her elegant dress, burst into tears.

'I think, R.W.,' cried Mrs Wilfer, lifting up her eyes and apostrophising the air, 'that if you were present, it would be a trial to your feelings to hear your wife and the mother of your family depreciated in your name. But Fate has spared you this, R.W., whatever it may have thought proper to inflict upon her!'

Here Mrs Wilfer burst into tears.

'I hate the Boffins!' protested Miss Lavinia. I don't care who objects to their being called the Boffins. I WILL call 'em the Boffins. The Boffins, the Boffins, the Boffins! And I say they are mischief-making Boffins, and I say the Boffins have set Bella against me, and I tell the Boffins to their faces:' which was not strictly the fact, but the young lady was excited: 'that they are detestable Boffins, disreputable Boffins, odious Boffins, beastly Boffins. There!'

Here Miss Lavinia burst into tears.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Inviting a Friend to Supper

Inviting a Friend to Supper
Ben Jonson

TO-NIGHT, grave sir, both my poore house, and I
Doe equally desire your companie:
Not that we thinke us worthy such a guest,
But that your worth will dignifie our feast,
With those that come; whose grace may make that seeme
Something, which, else, could hope for no esteeme.
It is the faire acceptance, Sir, creates
The entertaynment perfect: not the cates.
Yet shall you have, to rectifie your palate,
An olive, capers, or some better sallad
Ushring the mutton; with a short-leg’d hen,
If we can get her, full of eggs, and then,
Limons, and wine for sauce: to these, a coney
Is not to be despair’d of, for our money;
And, though fowle, now, be scarce, yet there are clerkes,
The skie not falling, thinke we may have larkes.
I’ll tell you of more, and lye, so you will come:
Of partrich, pheasant, wood-cock, of which some
May yet be there; and godwit, if we can:
Knat, raile, and ruffe too. How so e’er, my man
Shall reade a piece of VIRGIL, TACITUS,
LIVIE, or of some better booke to us,
Of which wee’ll speake our minds, amidst our meate;
And I’ll professe no verses to repeate:
To this, if ought appeare, which I know not of,
That will the pastrie, not my paper, show of.
Digestive cheese, and fruit there sure will bee;
But that, which most doth take my Muse, and mee,
Is a pure cup of rich Canary-wine,
Which is the Mermaids, now, but shall be mine:
Of which had HORACE, or ANACREON tasted,
Their lives, as doe their lines, till now had lasted.
Tabacco, Nectar, or the Thespian spring,
Are all but LUTHERS beere, to this I sing.
Of this we will sup free, but moderately,
And we will have no Pooly, or Parrot by;
Nor shall our cups make any guiltie men:
But, at our parting, we will be, as when
We innocently met. No simple word
That shall be utter’d at our mirthfull board
Shall make us sad next morning: or affright
The libertie, that wee’ll enjoy to-night.

The Oxford Book of Seventeenth Century Verse.
H. J. C. Grierson and G. Bullough, eds.
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934. 155-156.

This is a poem about art, not about dinner. I also think it's one of the few that shows how Jonson may, actually, have had a sense of humor. A lot of his verse is sort of bullying and argumentative but this one, I think, really does invite the reader into Jonson's house.

I’ll tell you of more, and lye [lie], so you will come That's good stuff, Ben. Tempt us with false promises because you know that what we'll actually find at your feast will satisfy us even if we wouldn't think so from an honest invitation.

I also like it because it makes me think of John Lily's "Oh for a bowl of fat canary," which is one of the finest little bits of verse about drinking that's ever been written.

Another possible misreading of this poem, especially if you consider the lines

your worth will dignifie our feast,
With those that come; whose grace may make that seeme
Something, which, else, could hope for no esteeme

is that Jonson claims English poetry to be as good/valuable/whatever as the classics, as the wine Jonson will be serving (that fat Canary) would have kept Horace and Anacreon alive had they drunk of it. Though earlier on he promises that Virgil, Tacitus, Livy or "something better" will be read, and he himself will profess no verse. So I don't know. But the lines quoted above infer that English poetry, if that's what the poem is about, will only be dignified if English readers partake of it. And so the way to get English readers to read English poetry is to pretend that English poetry contains "meats" more rare than it actually contains? I don't know, again. Or still. The poem becomes more complex the more I look at it.

"Pooly and Parrot" were informers for the repressive state's thought police, and as such were not invited to supper. "...and lie, so you will come" is still my favorite line here. I think it reveals Ben in ways none of his other poems do (or at least none of the poems I've read, which is admittedly a small portion of his total output).

Thursday, March 1, 2012

missing from his mental warehouse

Bradley Headstone, in his decent black coat and waistcoat, and decent
white shirt, and decent formal black tie, and decent pantaloons of
pepper and salt, with his decent silver watch in his pocket and its
decent hair-guard round his neck, looked a thoroughly decent young man
of six-and-twenty. He was never seen in any other dress, and yet there
was a certain stiffness in his manner of wearing this, as if there were
a want of adaptation between him and it, recalling some mechanics in
their holiday clothes. He had acquired mechanically a great store of
teacher's knowledge. He could do mental arithmetic mechanically, sing
at sight mechanically, blow various wind instruments mechanically, even
play the great church organ mechanically. From his early childhood up,
his mind had been a place of mechanical stowage. The arrangement of
his wholesale warehouse, so that it might be always ready to meet the
demands of retail dealers history here, geography there, astronomy to
the right, political economy to the left--natural history, the physical
sciences, figures, music, the lower mathematics, and what not, all in
their several places--this care had imparted to his countenance a look
of care; while the habit of questioning and being questioned had given
him a suspicious manner, or a manner that would be better described as
one of lying in wait. There was a kind of settled trouble in the face.
It was the face belonging to a naturally slow or inattentive intellect
that had toiled hard to get what it had won, and that had to hold it now
that it was gotten. He always seemed to be uneasy lest anything should
be missing from his mental warehouse, and taking stock to assure

Suppression of so much to make room for so much, had given him a
constrained manner, over and above. Yet there was enough of what was
animal, and of what was fiery (though smouldering), still visible in
him, to suggest that if young Bradley Headstone, when a pauper lad, had
chanced to be told off for the sea, he would not have been the last man
in a ship's crew. Regarding that origin of his, he was proud, moody, and
sullen, desiring it to be forgotten. And few people knew of it.