Small Demon
May 092010
 

Notes on Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen. I ignored this when it came out a few years ago, consigning it to the category of Chick Lit. That was a mistake. The memoir focuses on the year and a half during the late 1960s that Kayman spent as a patient at McLean Hospital. She was eighteen when she went in and twenty when she came out, “stabilized” but skeptical of conventional wisdom, a trait that makers her a good writer. There isn’t a wasted word in the 168 pages of text. The portraits of her fellow patients — other adolescent girls — are moving and funny, but not sentimental. Kaysen refers in passing to some of the famous people who have passed through McLean — James Taylor, Robert Lowell* — establishing the class affiliation of the patients. She points out that you don’t get to stay there unless someone keeps paying the bill each month.

When the teen-aged Kayson refuses to consider going to college despite her obvious intelligence and verbal gifts, I found myself reacting with incomprehension until I realized that this was the most radical form of rebellion a young person of her class could engage in, whereas, where I came from, going to college was very often considered a kind of betrayal of one’s family. Remember Huck’s father berating him for going to school? Something like that. Going to college, I aspired to transcend my class; Kaysen does the same thing by “attending” McLean Hospital.

Kaysen’s personal recollections are for the most part objective, with a minimum of interpretation, so that when she does reach for the larger meaning of her madness her observations are grounded in direct experience; furthermore, she rejects easy conceptualization at every turn, refusing to create meaning where she does not see it. This gives the book an unsettling quality that emerges from this rhetoric of negation and refusal. The effect on the reader is a sense of the author’s integrity. Girl, Interrupted presents a fragment of the 1960s. From her genteel madhouse, the young Kaysen looks out on the assassinations, riots, the hippies & the Yippies, the Vietnam War & Watergate. These details are sketched sparingly, like the distant city in a Renaissance landscape, but they serve to establish both the cultural and personal context for the story.

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*She might also have mentioned Alice James, sister of Henry & William — and perhaps William himself, the records are missing and there is only circumstantial evidence.

May 062010
 

A colleague with a self-improving streak mentioned that he and a student were having a contest to see how many books each of them could read this summer & so, having a self-improving streak myself, I asked if I could go along for the ride. This blog used to be called Reading & Writing, so it is appropriate, I guess, to keep track of my books here. I’ll also encourage Stephen & Louis to post what they are reading in comments, or link to their own online lists. What, though, do we mean by reading? I read some things, for classes, say, in one way & other things, for research, or pleasure, etc. in other ways. What counts as reading for this competition?

Feb 262009
 

Note: Originally posted on 2.8.2009, I’ve moved this back to the top because Robert Bernard Hass has been kind enough to respond in comments. I have also written a response to his comment and would love to hear the view of others, which is why I’m also going to cross-post this to the Plumbline blog.

What the hell is the point of this? I didn’t think much of Alexander’s poem either, but I tried to sketch a few reasons I thought the piece didn’t work. Jack Foley, whoever he is, has simply delivered an insult without content. Another writer at CPR (which I tend to think of as a literary organ of the rump New Formalism), makes a sronger case. Robert Bernard Hass’s objections make sense, as far as they go, but I find the assumptions underlying his conclusion problematic:

Perhaps what was most troubling about this inaugural event is that one of our most celebrated poets (Ms. Alexander was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize) seemed so woefully underprepared to seize the opportunity to take poetry from the periphery of our awareness and make it more culturally relevant. With such a huge audience on hand, her inaugural moment had the potential to inspire a nation, to find, as President Obama himself has often iterated, “old ways to be new.” Unfortunately, Ms. Alexander’s poem, so devoid of the rhetorical resources poets have always relied upon to celebrate exceptional accomplishment, failed to capture the American imagination—as President Obama had done, so eloquently in his speech, only moments earlier.

An understanding of the the rhetorical situation is essential, I agree, but I suspect that no rhetoric can reconcile electoral politics with the “politics of the unconscious.” (Modern) poetry can only assent provisionally to ideology. The modern poet must write from an alienated position. It occurs to me, in fact, that those poets (like me) who see modernism in terms of a fundamental break in the culture of the West are likely to see a parallel fundamental disjunction between poetry & politics. On the other hand, poets (& readers) who see Modernism as just another literary style will tend to see the relationship between politics & poetry as, if not unproblematic, then at least not fundamentally problematic.

Feb 182009
 

I’m still getting my bearings in this discussion so I’m going to indulge in just a bit more terminological meandering before I get down to looking at some actual poems.

In Kenneth Burke’s The Philosophy of Literary Form, there is an otherwise unremarkable essay on using Freud as a guide to interpreting poetry, in which Burke deploys three terms, each naming an aspect of a poetic text on which the critic might want to focus. By implication, it’s possible to suggest that different poets might display more interest in one or another of these aspects, or modes.

Burke writes that the critic can look at the dream, the prayer, and the chart aspects of any particular poem. Dream corresponds roughly to the Freudian unconscious presented more or less raw. In my earlier discussion of amateur and professional poets, the amateurs would exhibit a predominance of dream discourse: self-expression. In Burke’s telling, prayer stands for the desire to communicate and brings in technique: rhetoric, rhyme, meter, all the canons of “professionalism” I was talking about earlier. In prayer, then, the poet turns toward the audience. Chart is the term Burke develops the least in this system and I’m not quite sure what to make of it. I had assumed, based on my previous reading of this essay (years ago), that the chart aspect of the poem embodied the reality-testing function, that it aspired to describe states of affairs; but going back to the essay yesterday, it appears that Burke may have something more linguistic in mind: “As to the poem as chart: the Freudian emphasis upon the pun brings it about that something can only be in so far as it is something else. But aside from ambiguities, there is also a statement’s value as being exactly what it is. Perhaps we would best indicate what we mean by speaking of the poem as char if we called it the poet’s contribution to an informal dictionary. Burke goes on to describe what has been variously called by others the poet’s personal “mythmaking,” or perhaps even the poet’s “voice.” It ammounts to the creation of an idiosyncratic constellation of meanings more or less unique to a particular poet–his or her “vision” of the world, if you will.

In writing this up just now I began to wonder whether Burke’s terms can be mapped onto Seth Abramson’s pragmatic, syntactic, and cognitive-symantic types of poetry. On second thought, I’m not sure that the exercise would lead anywhere productive.

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Note: Cross-posted to The Plumbline School. Please comment there.

Feb 042009
 

“Prime Evening Time” — Ward Just: Character study of an Army Captain home & working in the Pentagon after three tours in Vietnam. He has won bronze & silver stars & the Congressional Medal of Honor. Only a Captain, he’s on track to be a general. There really isn’t any external action in the story; all the action takes place inside the Captains personality. Not his mind, which seems blissfully blank, but his personality. The story presents the captain’s transformation from a soldier reticent to discuss his war experiences — he doesn’t even talk about them with his wife — to being a mouthpiece for the government’s war effort. He is seduced so easily by the television network that interviews him that he doesn’t even notice the seduction. In general, I find that Just is not a very good miniaturist — I find his longer fiction more effective than his shorter pieces. I like the novels best, then the long short stories; the shorter stories never seem to develop their worlds effectively. [From The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert.]

“The Hoaxer” — Walter Kirn: A razor-sharp portrait of a certain kind of American failure. The story is told from the point of view of the hoaxer’s son Travis, who is just entering adolescence when he discovers that his father is in the habit of creating crop circles, Bigfoot sightings, UFO scares & the like, as a hobby. The father, an autodidact (though of limited interests) who never finished his engineering degree, drags his wife & son from one city to another, where he takes low-level computer programming jobs so as to pursue his real passion, creating hoaxes. Told by the son, the story presents a father filled with resentments. [From 12  Short Stories and their Making.]

“Upon the Sweeping Flood” — Joyce Carol Oates: Motivation is a problem at the end of this story. It’s easy enough to imagine why the main character decides to drive into danger instead of away from it, but the murder he commits at the end of the story seems insufficiently motivated. A buttoned down businessman spends the night with a brother and sister surviving an horrific flood that, apparently, washes civilization clean out of him. If the point is that our civilized behavior is but a thin veneer, then the story is banal.

“Sacha’s Dog” — Karen Brennan: A effective story that, while it does not technically take the dog’s point of view, presents the world as a dog might experience it. Which means pretty much unrelenting cruelty & indifference — toward dogs & other humans — on the part of the characters. [From The Story Behind the Story.]

“Maggie Meriwether’s Rich Experience” — Jean Stafford: An early story about a young American woman whose fluent French deserts her as soon as she sets foot on French soil. The story takes place over the ocurse of an afternoon & evening in which she endures a snobbish outing to a country estate, at which she is the only American, followed by a dinner with American friends. [From The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford.] Note: I’ll be reading the whole book in the coming weeks and posting more on Stafford, whose work I find very useful to my own writing.

“The Interior Castle” — Jean Stafford: A study of surviving physical pain. Stafford herself was in an automobile accident that disfigured her face, though the circumstances a different form those of the main character, Pansy, in this story. The entire story takes place as Pansy recovers from a skull fracture and badly broken nose & details the ways in which she goes inside herself, into her “interior castle,” which is how she imagines her injured brain. The story is clinical & the narrator dispassionate, rendering the pain in excruciating detail. [From The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford.]

“The North Shore, 1958″ — Ward Just: A long, sprawling, inelegant, but very effective story about a particular slice of American cultural history. I like Ward Just because he finds ways to get, not just politics, but the arts, too, into his stories as motivating presences. In this case, some Edward Hopper paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago. Just’s characters sometimes tend to be types rather than individuals — saved because they are interesting types. [From The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert.]

“A Wife of Nashville” — Peter Taylor: Beautifully stylish story with a structure that parcels out the plot according to the timeline of a family’s hired help. A series of maids define the southern, middle-class Depression-era life of the story’s point of view character. How the spirit is made and destroyed. Makes me want to read more Taylor. [From Narrative Design.]

“Depth Charge” — Craig Bernardini: I found the management of detail and action in this story confusing, though once the reader understands the situation & setting, the final action is powerful. This story suffers from a common problem in contemporary fiction, unclear motivation. Or merely mystifying motivation.  [From Narrative Design.]

“Daisy’s Valentine” — Mary Gaitskill: Well, it’s a story about a bunch of losers in the city & it generates no sympathy for any of them, which is a problem for me. (In my own attempts at fiction, I am probably too sympathetic toward my characters.) The scenes are drawn very clearly & the pieces of the story — especially images — go together in ways that suggest (without hammering on) thematic concerns. [From Narrative Design.]

“Strike Anywhere” — Antonya Nelson: More of a series of scenes implying a story than an actual story. Seems not to take responsibility for formal completion. [From The Story Behind the Story.]