The poet Deborah Digges has died, an apparent suicide. I met her once at a conference and have admired her work. She was just my age — a year older — and I remember envying her when she won the Tufts Award. She was successful and loved animals, though I heard that her husband had recently died of cancer. She had previously been married to the poet Stanley Plumly. Is it unseemly to wonder whether perhaps she had come to a point where she had nothing left to prove with her art and at the same time was overcome by loneliness? It’s dangerous, I suppose, to impute motives to the dead, but this just seems so untoward. Just goes to show that success doesn’t insure happiness and that suicide has its own awful logic. [More from the NY Times here.]
Yesterday was the day the Vietnamese officially* celebrate the founding of the nation by honoring the Hung Kings and so I am starting my VN diary on — or at least near — an auspicious day a week before I leave the US. The goldfinches have begun turning gold here in South Colton, but yesterday rain mixed with snow splattered out of the sky all day and then last night turned to snow. It is still snowing. We have about six inches of heavy wet snow on the ground this morning. I’m ready for some warm weather, which will really be getting going by the time I arrive in Hanoi, though I’ll also be heading into the summer monsoon season, so it’s going to be wet. But it will also be green, which will be a relief after the long winter and recent brown thaw here.
So what is it about Vietnam? The history with the US makes it an interesting place, of course, fraught with analytical and moral peril; but for me that’s not really the center of my interest. Dana Sachs says simply what I have tried to say in various complicated ways over the years, that Vietnamese society is different and appealing even while it is strange and sometimes difficult for an American. I wrote a diffuse and impressionistic response to Vietnam during my second trip to Hanoi ten years ago, but rereading it now I have the sense that I was skating over the surface, imposing my patterns of perception on the my experience of the city. [That page of diary entries is, I see, a hodgepodge of things written at different times over two trips — not sure how that particular document came into existence: I was writing for a now-defunct poetry magazine. –jd] I touch on some of this nystery† in a light-hearted way in my recent interview with Ly Lan.
What draws me? Something that seems at once completely clear and at the same time obscure. There is one paragraph from those earlier diary entries that I would keep:
With Dao Kim Hoa Iíve just finished translating five poems by Huu Thinh and I may have learned more about Vietnam from this process than I did in my two months in the country. What I learned, however, seems impossible to describe. Literally impossible. I can tell you about the tree-lined streets of the Old Quarter, and I can tell you about the riverside cafes of Hoi An; I can even have a shot at describing the sense of holiness I felt visiting a little pagoda of no particular significance out among the orchards of the central coast. I could tell you how the older monk laughed with me when we managed to piece together a few sentence in “Vietlish” about the beauty of the evening, and how the two young monks stood smiling among the fruit trees in the courtyard in front of the sanctuary. I could tell you about the lunch prepared by the boatmanís wife on the Perfume River outside Hue. But the mental and spiritual world I have just begun to see into by learning the language is completely beyond my powers of description. Every time I open my Vietnamese dictionary I feel as if I have been granted access to a world that until three years ago might as well have been in another galaxy.
In recent weeks I have been intensifying my study of Vietnamese and over the last few days have begun to understand sentences. This makes me very happy and I think represents a new set of possibilities for my understanding of Vietnam and of Vietnamese poetry.I’m going to try to write something here nearly every day during my travels in the coming weeks.
*The festival itself is scheduled according to the lunar calendar, but the national holiday occurs on April 6th each year on the Gregorian calendar for the convenience of businesses and government offices.
I’m not big on biological reductionism when it comes to the arts, especially when the evolutionary biologists start talking about the “evolutionary value” of this or that cultural practice, making up their little just-so stories. But I was intrigued the other day by this article describing the way the brain processes jokes. It occurred to me long ago that a lyric poem and a joke share certain structural similarities — ones Michael Theune could no doubt elucidate in detail — but in simplest form, the punchline, the payoff, the turn or the pivot that surprises. So here we have the human brain, which loves pattern and repetition, music:
This process, of memory formation by neuronal entrainment, helps explain why some of life’s offerings weasel in easily and then refuse to be spiked. Music, for example. “The brain has a strong propensity to organize information and perception in patterns, and music plays into that inclination,” said Michael Thaut, a professor of music and neuroscience at Colorado State University. “From an acoustical perspective, music is an overstructured language, which the brain invented and which the brain loves to hear.”
But the joke, which the brain also likes, depends on variation and timing and detail:
Really great jokes, on the other hand, punch the lights out of do re mi. They work not by conforming to pattern recognition routines but by subverting them. “Jokes work because they deal with the unexpected, starting in one direction and then veering off into another,” said Robert Provine, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the author of “Laughter: A Scientific Investigation.” “What makes a joke successful are the same properties that can make it difficult to remember.”
In poetry, then, one is forcing the brain to operate on more than one level. In an older paradigm — that of the left and right hemispheres of the brain — it was possible to imagine something similar going on: the left hemisphere’s interest in and control over meter and pattern combining with the right hemisphere’s interest in novel arrangements. The physiology is of course much more complicated that the metaphor, but the metaphor is still suggestive. Poetry integrates different kinds of cognition, even kinds that might seem to be in conflict with each other.
A good joke or a good poem has a ground of pattern against which a specific path is picked out and that path has turns and surprises concealed in it, sometimes using the camouflage of pattern to conceal itself until the right moment. Question: What does the surprise — the punchline — yield in terms of knowledge? Insight? Understanding? Can a punchline or a surprise be empty?
Cross-posted to The Plumbline School.
A few more books for the beginning fiction writer — or for the poet long in the tooth who decides to give fiction writing a try — starting with a couple of good anthologies:
The Story Behind the Story — Andrea Barrett & Peter Turchi: This is a good anthology of short stories by many of the usual suspects in many of the usual modes. It includes fairly brief statements by each author describing the genesis of the story. These statements tend toward the personal rather than the technical, so, while they are interesting, they remain idiosyncratic and not terribly useful to the student, except insofar as a student needs to see what sorts of† experiences (ulikely or ordinary) can generate a story. (Judith Grossman’s brief explanation of her story, “I’m Not Through” goes right to the heart of the fiction writer’s problem, however.)
12 Short Stories and their Making — Paul Mandelbaum: This anthology is similar in conception to the Barrett & Turchi book above, except that each author is interviewed by the editor and the interview appears after the story. Because Mandelbaum is interested in technical as well as personal matters, he pushes the writers to explain their methods, which the attentive student will find useful. Because Mandelbaum asks his various authors similar kinds of questions (while allowing the interview to find its own shape), there is much more consistency of response than in The Story Behind the Story.
Narrative Design — Madison Smart Bell: This is the most theoretical and narrowly focused of the books under discussion here, with the fewest stories. Bell divides narrative structures into “linear” and “modular” and provides several examples of each, with extensive analysis that includes an almost line by line set of notes for each story. His general discussion of each story is clear and useful; personally, I get bogged down in the detail of the notes, but others may find these useful. Again speaking personally, I liked the “linear” stories Bell selected much more than the “modular” ones, with the exception of a piece by Miriam Kuznets, “Signs of Life.”
The Half-known World: On Writing Fiction — Robert Boswell: This is a collection of essays dealing with specific issues and drawing on particular works of fiction with which the reader will need to be familiar. Not really a beginner’s book, it’s probably going to be most useful to those who have read a good deal and already written some fiction. One of the most useful things Boswell emphasizes is that in literary fiction, the writer only knows the half of things, that his / her characters and plot emerge from the unknown and must remain partly mysterious even for the reader. This was a great relief to me as a beginner, since that is how I find things in my stories.
Modern Library Writer’s Workshop — Stephen Koch: This book takes the attitude of a coach, addressing specific problems the writer will face in trying to get a story on the page. It covers the basics in a friendly and direct way, referring to many works of (mostly short) fiction to illustrate its points. It also quotes many writers — too many, sometimes — on various subjects related to the craft of fiction. Along with LaPlante’s book (see my earlier post), this is a sensible and encouraging guide.
“Civilisation’s greatest single invention is the sentence.” [The rest of Banville’s short statement is here.] While I don’t subscribe to the young Wittgenstein’s “picture theory” of language, in which every proposition is a picture of reality, as a writer, I have the strong sense that every sentence is a line thrown out into the world in order to retreive something of the real. Sometimes you catch something, sometimes you don’t. But that metaphor doesn’t quite catch it either; the sentence — as opposed to the fragment, which is always self-referenmtial — the sentence tries and fails. It is the pattern of those trials and errors that give us what access we have to the real.
Note: Cross-posted to The Plumbline School.