Wednesday 21 September 2011

"Reality Hunger" and "Close Calls with Nonsense"

Yesterday I managed to browse through Stephen Burt's Close Calls with Nonsense and read David Shields' Reality Hunger. These books have been on my reading list for a while. Both are worth reading. Burt's is probably worth buying, though getting it in the UK might not be easy.

Close Calls with Nonsense (Graywolf Press, 2009)

This has sections trying to explain the work of some supposedly difficult poets - contemporary US (e.g. Armantrout) but also WC Williams and GB poets (Denise Riley and Muldoon). His name's associated with the term "Elliptical poets", those who "broke up syntax, but reassembled it; they tried (as had [Jory] Graham) to adapt Language poets' disruptions to traditional lyric goals (expressing a self and its feelings), and tried (as Graham did not) to keep their poems short, song-like or visually vivid". In his introduction he points out that one needs to keep an open mind

  • "Some of the most celebrated "difficult" poetry of the past ten years seems to me derivative, mechanical, shallow, soulless, and too clever by half"
  • "In pursuing certain virtues - colorful local effects, personae and personality, juxtaposition, close calls with nonsense, uncertainty, critiques of ordinary language - the current crop of American poets necessarily give up on others. I miss, in most contemporary poetry, the arguments, the extended rhetorical passages and essayistic digressions I enjoy in the poems of the 17th and 18th centuries (and in WH Auden and Marianne Moore)",

The explanations he gives are helpful, as are his tips - "Look for self-analyses or for frame-breaking moments when the poem stops to tell you what it describes". His writing style's approachable. As usual, Minimalism seems hard to explain, and I sometimes had trouble seeing why less ambiguous/challenging alternative methods weren't used by the poets. For example, on p.331 he quotes from "To a Poor Old Woman" to show "how Williams's line breaks work"

They taste good to her
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her.

They taste good to her (you might not like them); They taste good (not merely adequate); she tastes them, taking them into her body, rather than merely contemplating them.

To me, italics would have made the points better (if indeed these were the points). Breaking the line after "good" is rather like putting a dash there - it emphasises "to her", thus making the statement more subjective. He reads it as if "good" is emphasised (because it's at the end of the line, I suppose). But at least Burt has expressed himself clearly; it's possible to agree/disagree rather than merely feel baffled. I'd recommend the book to anyone who feels that the current crop of young poets are unreadable.

Reality Hunger (Penguin, 2010)

A plea in 618 numbered paragraphs for fewer standard novels. He begins with "Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art" (p.3). He mentions that "extended aphorisms [Ecclesiastes, Confucius, Heraclitus] eventually crossed the border into essay" (p.8), that "essai" means "experiment", that "fiction" derives from "fingere" meaning "to shape", that according to Coetzee, the word "novel" "meant the form of writing that was formless, that had no rules, that made up its own rules as it went along". He likes a return to these original notions, where facts can be experimentally shaped. He likes mixed-form novels that combine essay, memoire, reportage, fable, etc (he mentions Sebold, Brian Fawcett, Bernard Cooper). He likes sampling (in this book he doesn't separate quotes from his own words, and he sometimes adjusts the quotes. The last section of the book lists the sources)

He distrusts the supposedly factual, quoting Marshall - "Autobiographical memory is a recollection of events or episodes, which we remember with great detail. What's stored in that memory isn't the actual events, but how those events made sense to us and fit into our experience", adding that "As a work get more autobiographical, more intimate, more confessional, more embarrassing, it breaks into fragments. Our lives aren't prepackaged along narrative lines and, therefore, by its very nature, reality-based art - underprocessed, underproduced - splinters and explodes" (p.27)

He dislikes chronological narrative as the principal structuring device - "The grandfather clock is the reflection of its historical period, when time was orderly and slow. .. By the 1930s and 1940s, wristwatches were neurotic and talked very fast. ... Next, we had liquid-crystal watches that didn't show any time at all until you pressed a button ... Now, no one wears a watch; your phone has the time" (p.123)

He likes Proust. He points out that Marcel plays a similar role to the "I" in poetry as regards the stance viz a viz the author. He writes "The poem and the essay are more intimately related than any two genres, because they're both ways of pursuing problems, or maybe trying to solve problems - The Dream Songs, the long prologue to Slaughterhouse-Five, pretty much all of Philip Larkin and Anne Carson, Annie Dillard's For the Time being" (p.202)

He likes short-shorts (Jayne Anne Phillip's "Sweethearts", Jerome Stern's "Morning News" etc) because they focus on the essentials. He likes novels that are more short story collections. He's not keen on books like "The Corrections", preferring "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men", "Nadja", "Letters to Wendy's" etc.

I guess he feels it's more psychologically honest to show that there's an author, to follow the twists and turns of thought rather than fake objectivity and watch the clock

  • "Serious nonfiction removes fiction's masks, stripping away monuments to civilisation to arrive at truths that destroy the writer and thereby encompass the reader - the last shred of human expression before silence seizes all words", (p.149)
  • "The beauty of reality-based art - art underwritten by reality hunger - is that it's perfectly situated between life itself and (unattainable) "life as art"", (p.166)
  • "It was exciting to see how part of something I had originally written as an exegesis of Joyce's "The Dead" could now be turned sideways and used as the final, bruising insight into someone's psyche. All literary possibilities opened up for me with this story. The way my mind thinks - everything is connected to everything else - suddenly seemed transportable into my writing", (p.173)

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