Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Gudding, Bolaño, and the Limits of Literature

Last week I had the pleasure of having Gabe Gudding up to Lake Forest to talk to my Modern Poetry students and give a reading. I'd recommend him to any teacher and any class anywhere. One of my students marveled afterward about how unpretentious he is. Both in conversation and in the reading he was a quiet, yet commanding presence, the best imaginable soft advocate for his own work. At least three of my students wrote or are writing pieces inspired by him and Rhode Island Notebook in the wake of his visit, and it's some of the best writing they've done all semester.

But I come not to praise Gabe but to bury him, or rather to contemplate his own flirtation with the limits of poetry. We were all struck by his admission in the class that he often doesn't like or feels embarrassed by his old work—something most writers can surely relate to—but during the Q&A after the reading he went further and told us that he doesn't read much poetry any more and doesn't really like or trust it. "I want poetry to be useful," he said, and said he was moving away from beautiful language and metaphors (things he clearly loves and which come naturally to him as the leaves to a tree) toward simply presenting the things he finds in the world—an Objectivist-inluenced stance. The example of the new style that he presented was an section from his horological essay, "Praise to the Swiss Federation," a portion of which was excerpted in Harper's. I took this piece for a poem in the spirit of Christopher Smart, but Gabe calls it an essay, and as such evidence of his move away from poetry and, it would perhaps not be too much to say, an expression of his unease with the literary as such.

Given my obsession with Roberto Bolañno, it was natural for me to connect Gabe's unease with the central quality of Bolaño's greatness, as asserted by the clever boys at n plus one, following up their own Benjamin Kunkel's review of The Savage Detectives that first appeared in the London Review of Books. There Kunkel wrote, "Here is a writer, then, who writes as if literature were all that mattered, and at the same time writes in a distinctly unliterary way." The collectively authored n plus one piece goes further, comparing Bolaño or at least his similarly sudden canonization to W.G. Sebald (have they been reading my blog?) and saying of both authors, "neither fiction writer writes as if he believes in fiction. Our canonization of these writers implies a sense, even a conviction, that you can't be a really important novelist anymore unless you can't really write novels" (italics original).

We have overshot, then, the hermeneutics of suspicion that characterized "theory" in the 1970s to arrive at a poetics of suspicion: only literature that puts the very premises of the literary into question can now summon the aesthetic impact we associate with great literature. This may represent the most complete assimilation by authors of the skeptical stance that diffused itself in the last universally acknowledged great wave of postmodern fiction (Pynchon, Delillo, Coover) and poetry (Ashbery, Ashbery, Ashbery). Now it's not merely literary strategies that are picked apart and turned around through unreliable narrators, disordered chronologies, the blurring of fact and fiction, extreme parataxis, etc. It's the literary itself, the summoning and deployment of aesthetic effects, summarized in the phrase "beautiful language." It's like the avant-garde attack on art as an institution, but the spirit is less merry prankster than Beckettian: I can't go on writing, I'll go on writing. Which tone makes me wonder if this new anti-literary strategy isn't just modernism through the back door, since it's modernism's aura of mournful remembrance that most superficially distinguishes it from the products of postmodernism.

The only problem with this thesis is that it isn't really true. Sebald's work first shocked readers with its apparently artless photographs and endless paragraphs, but in recollection the work is nearly limpid, its melancholy polished to a high gleam. If Sebald's writing drew sighs of longing from its American readers, that had less to do with a sense of liberation from the literary than it provided a frisson of contact with a culture and history and tragedy that seemed far weightier and more substantial than ours during the decade of his American emergence. He seems less strange and more realistic in post-9/11 America, with his endless search for lost people, lost time, lost atmospheres. As for Bolaño, I suspect the artless, "lurid and flat" storytelling we accuse him of now will become not the surface to be broken by the diving reader in search of deeper, more duende-like qualities; instead, it will eventually be seen as the very thing that attracts us and which marks his writing as literary: that is, language hijacked on the road to representation by the very starkness and strangeness of the real that infiltrates and suffuses the work of Sebald and Bolaño alike. Or to put it another way, this is writing that doesn't pretend to understand the strangeness of life but lets it unfold, never shaped in any form save by storytellers who don't disguise both their interest in and their lack of control over the outcome. Sebald did this monologically; Bolaño's major innovation is his dialogism, as seen in the innumerable narrators of The Savage Detectives. None of them has a handle on the truth, but collectively they present us with the restless search for truth, for a truth that can account for the fate of the novel's antiheroes on every level: social, economic, juridical, literary, geographical. From what I've read of 2666 he pursues a similarly dark and heteroglossic investigation, one with far more chilling consequences in its irresolution.

Which takes me back to Gabe, whose Rhode Island Notebook already shows signs of the anti-literary, hyper-literary stance he now wants to take toward poetry. In its seemingly artless, scatological, essayistic progress, the book picks up and discards language both lyrical and mundane, sometimes sadistically so, reckoning experience through that simplest and most flexible of narratives: there and back again, anabasis-katabasis. So when Gabe talks about wanting to somehow move beyond poetry, yet in poetry, I want to send him one of those old Publishers Clearing House envelopes that says YOU MAY ALREADY BE A WINNER. And I wonder what his model may have to teach me in my own moment of revulsion (too strong: recoiling? re-collection?) against my own literary DNA, my own restless distrust of the beautiful language I seem so badly to need.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Flowers in My Hair

Caught in the feedback loop of silence. Wanting to write—there's no more futile emotion. You have to want to write something. And I am writing, here and there, but it never seems like the thing. But wanting it to be "the thing" is what defeats me.

There are two books I want to read between semesters: Robert Bolaño's 2666 and Lewis Hyde's The Gift. Bolaño draws me in much the same way W.G. Sebald did years ago, though he entirely lacks Sebald's lyricism (in spite of being a poet) and studied sense of guilt (except in the fictional sense, as in the sensational, abject guiltiness of Father Urrutia in By Night in Chile. As for Hyde, his book is a vade mecum that others have tried to push on me in the past, but I always avoided it, knowing little about the author and suspecting, because of the title and the way it's marketed, that it's basically a glorified self-help book. Just look at that little heart! But from what I've heard, it really is a masterpiece and a boon to the thinking of any poet who seeks escape from markets (especially the market in recognition that is the subject of Adam Kirsch's latest dismal screed in the same November issue of Poetry that gave me my first taste of the poetry of Robert Bolaño [typically, though he always thought of himself first and foremost as a poet, only his fiction has made it over into English]).

But I mention Kirsch because of his essay, with its anatomy of the scorn that has been heaped on the head of Keith Gessen, author of a novel that both chronicles the literary ambitions of young men and is the ourouborian document of Gessen's own ambition—much misplaced, it seems, in these unliterary times. Why didn't he just do a virtuosic job of lip-syncing something on YouTube? But then, why don't I? Because I have this faith in literature which is yet killing my ability to produce any. The desire to speak from the mountaintop—to go big—to take on one's era—shames and paralyzes. We must think small, instead, but cannily: to assume that our petty obsessions are the keys to something greater. Joyce's silence, exile, and cunning must meet with Emerson's core belief: "To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius." And that is how I recognized the genius of Bolaño, who writes frankly and astonishing about the pettiest of worlds—the world of poets—and ends up going very big indeed, stalking nothing less than the wounded utopian specter that haunts the Americas, manifesting in the present tense as farce (in the government and persona of a Hugo Chavez), as cynicism (it's hard not to feel hopeless at Obama's apparent transformation into Clinton III—but did he really promise us anything different?), or most starkly as murder (the countless unsolved murders of young women in Juarez that are the major subject and backdrop of 2666).

The very little I've seen of Hyde is a tonic for all this. I couldn't find The Gift in the Evanston Public Library, but I did glance at his introduction to the collection of Thoreau essays he edited, in which he talks about Thoreau (and I think Emerson) as a master of the prophetic voice: that which stands upon the hilltop above the valleys of venal life and proclaims—not the future, but truths which must be eventually be fresh again because they are eternal. Up to this point Hyde seemed a talented hagiographer. But then came this astonishing passage:
A Thoreauvian prophetic essay leads us on a redemptive journey... but there is a redemption of the valley as well, one that comes from abandoning all hope of getting it together. If you need to come apart, you do not need to listen to the prophetic voice. Stop trying to be a hero. There is a time to fall to pieces, to identify with the confusion of your life as it is, confined absolutely to the present November sunset and your present apartment. (Emphasis added.)
This is exactly what I needed to hear, exactly the cure for the itch of objectless ambition, or more simply the desire to "get it together": to seamlessly synthesize a life that, in its multiple spheres—writing, new fatherhood, marriage, teaching—resists all my efforts to be glued into a whole. If I can take Hyde's advice and be an upended Thoreau, who goes not into the woods but deeper into his own messy life, maybe I'll find my way back to the writing that matters to me, without letting everything else go any more to pieces than it already is.

As a step in this direction, which may superficially resemble the urge to get it together, I'm taking a holiday to San Francisco at the end of this month, roughly coinciding with MLA, though I have no plans to attend the conference itself. Instead, I'm going to meet up with the poet-friends who will be converging there, to talk poetry and read manuscripts and browse Green Apple and Moe's Books like in the old days, and reconnect with that hauntingly beautiful cityscape, and just be a poet for a few days, letting the ties that bind me unravel a little bit without worrying about reraveling them later—they'll do that themselves, god knows. My beautiful wife is willing to let me go for a little while, though it will be painful to miss even six days of little Sadie Gray's growth. (She's dabbling now in language: show her a picture of a dog or say "dog" to her and she makes a little "uff-uff" sound, almost reflexively, her bright and shining eyes as yet displaying nothing like consciousness, present-tense eyes like those of dogs themselves.)

And so I have no plans either to get this blog together. Let it hang out as it will, a post per month or per day or per year. Let it and the pace of expectations adapt to my life and not the other way around for a change.

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