Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Poetics of Prose: John Gardner's "Ingenious Genre Crossing" in Four Modern American Writers.

In a 1957 interview published in the Paris Review, writer Frank O’Connor was asked why the short story was his preferred form.  “Because it’s the nearest thing I know to lyric poetry” he answered.  “I wrote lyric poetry for a long time, then discovered that God had not intended me to be a lyric poet, and the nearest thing to that is the short story. A novel actually requires far more logic and far more knowledge of circumstances, whereas a short story can have the sort of detachment from circumstances that lyric poetry has”.

Later in this interview he talks about his hesitance to make plot notes about a story before writing it: “I’ll write it down in my four lines; that is the secret of the theme. If you make the subject of a story twelve or fourteen lines, that’s a treatment. You’ve already committed yourself to the sort of character, the sort of surroundings, and the moment you’ve committed yourself, the story is already written. It has ceased to be fluid, you can’t design it any longer, you can’t model it. So I always confine myself to my four lines. If it won’t go into four, that means you haven’t reduced it to its ultimate simplicity, reduced it to the fable”.

On the surface, it seems that O’Connor is relating the short story with the concise form of the poem and its condensing of an idea.  His last statement in particular, the reducing of an idea to its “ultimate simplicity”, points to this directly; however, there are many other connections between poetry and prose besides this notion of reduction.

John Gardner in The Art of Fiction says that, “Novelty comes chiefly from ingenious genre-crossing or elevation of familiar materials,” and it is this which is “behind most of the great literary art in the English tradition” (20).  This notion, along with O’Connor’s statement about the short story being the closest thing to lyric poetry, compelled me to look for contemporary examples in American literature that blur the lines between poetry and prose.  In some ways, probably any piece of writing carries some poetic device in its passages, but it’s not only the use of a literary or rhetorical device that this essay is considering, but instead the blurring of genre itself within the text while maintaining a clear definition of genre over the whole text.

I’ve chosen four authors to examine, with the first, Ernest Hemingway, being grounded solidly in the American canon.  The other three—Denis Johnson, Chloe Caldwell, and Rodney Jones—are living authors whose work is more recent: Johnson’s published in 1992, Jones’s in 2011, and Caldwell’s earlier this year in 2012.  Also, Johnson and Jones are highly regarded writers in their own time, both of them Guggenheim Fellows and finalists for Pulitzer Prizes, with Johnson winning a National Book Award and a Whiting Award, and Jones winning the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award.  Caldwell is at the beginning of her career, having just published her first book with an independent press.  However, even with these differences, each of these represents writing as groundbreaking in its own time through the use of “ingenious genre-crossing”.

The opening line of Paul Verlaine’s “Art Po├ętique” says, “You must have music first of all.”  So in looking for prose works that bend toward poetry, I started with what I think of as one of the most musical passages written in English: the opening paragraph of Ernest Hemingway’s short story “In Another Country.”  Of course, the title of “most musical” is highly subjective, chosen in much the same way that the two people pictured in one’s high school yearbook were chosen for the same title.  For me, the bias comes from my mentor in graduate school, the novelist Kent Haruf, who had all of his fiction students memorize this opening paragraph:

In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more.  It was cold in the fall in Milan and the dark came very early.  Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows.  There was much game hanging outside the shops, and the snow powdered in the tails of the foxes and the wind blew their tails.  The deer hung stiff and heavy and empty, and small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers.  It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains (267).

The music in this section of prose comes from its stepping over into the realm of poetry.  First, there is the repetition of words “fall” and “cold” in the opening and closing sentences which create a sort of frame around the details that make up the center of the paragraph.  There is also the use of anadiplosis in the next-to-last sentence with the word “wind”.  One might also note the repeated use of the pronoun “it” in these framing sentences, though the meaning of that word changes from war to indefinite usages.

These repetitions certainly add a poetic quality to this passage, but it’s actually the use of polysyndeton—the use of conjunctions in close succession—that gives this prose its music, namely because this literary device is immediately recognized as being integral in the prose of the King James Version of the Bible.   The KJV is often cited as a literary influence to authors, but the importance here is not on the influence of this text on the author’s prose so much as it is on the reader’s ear.  Since its publication in 1611, the KJV was the single most read text throughout the English speaking world, and for much of that period of time, it wasn’t read but heard.  The masses heard the scripture read each week in urban cathedrals and in country churches, particularly before the rise of newer translations of the Bible became commonplace and public education created a literate populace.  Regardless of race or gender or class, of region or denomination, this became the music of the English tongue. 

In the opening paragraph of “In Another Country” the conjunction “and” is used once in the first two sentences, then twice in the next sentence, four times in the penultimate sentence, and one last time in the final sentence; it’s as if this repetition mirrors the narrative arc of a story from rising conflict to climax to denouement.   Each successive addition of “and” raises the prose to new poetic heights.  Combine this with the stark, concrete language of Hemingway’s prose, which is another hallmark of the KJV (as well as modern poetry) and the poetic qualities of this passage seem clear.

But this is only an opening paragraph.  By itself, one could imagine it broken into lines to create a narrative poem; but it is the beginning of a story, and after this point, the prose becomes fairly utilitarian.  Still striking and full of detail, but certainly less poetic in quality.

In order to look for an example of short fiction that contains poetic quality in more than just the opening paragraph, it makes sense to look at a writer who started his career as a poet and then switched to fiction.

When Denis Johnson’s story collection Jesus’ Son came out in 1992, it seemed to redefine the American short story one more time before the close of the 20th Century in the same way Hemingway had at its beginning and Raymond Carver had in its middle years.  Yes, part of the quality of Johnson’s stories in this collection is the spare prose style associated with Hemingway and Carver, but throughout there is an addition that is solely Johnson’s: moments of lyrical flourish that stand in contrast to that stark detail, giving these stories the feel, at times, of long narrative poems.  Some might suggest that this lyricism is reflective of the drug addled mind of the narrator, which may be partially true; at the very least, it allows Johnson to get away with these fantastic leaps which under normal circumstances a reader might question the validity of the narrative voice, but in Jesus’ Son, if a reader is taken aback by the shifts in prose style, they can at least say, “Well, he is high out of his mind.”

But I think there’s more to it than this.  To me, Johnson captures in these stories what every poet tries to capture, whether they are writing from a personal point of view, as an observer, or as a persona: the poet is trying to bring together the subtle nuances and connections in the web of details that surround our everyday lives in a way that reveals some truth, no matter how small, about the human condition. Poets see the same things everyone else sees, but somehow they express them using words in a way that is both familiar and shocking.  Johnson’s stories in this collection have the same effect.

Likewise, these lyrical moments are, in a way, like the volta of a sonnet: they mark a turn in the story.  Of course, there isn’t the strict formal quality of a sonnet in these stories, but there is that contrast, that shift from the stark simple prose that is a trademark of 20th century short fiction to something that can only be described as poetic in nature, which, like the volta, is a point of dramatic change.

There are many brief examples of this throughout Johnson’s collection.  One of the most memorable comes in the opening story “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” where we find our narrator recalling the incident that the title of the story describes.  He comes to after the accident and next to him on the seat is a baby still alive, which he picks up and carries around the scene trying to figure out what happened.  He sees a man hanging out of a wrecked car who is

snoring loudly and rudely.  His blood bubbled out of his mouth with every breath.  He wouldn’t be taking many more.  I knew that, but he didn’t, and therefore I looked down into the great pity of a person’s life on this earth.  I don’t mean that we all end up dead, that’s not the great pity.  I mean that he couldn’t tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn’t tell him what was real (10).

This small turn, this move from basic functional prose to something unexpected—particularly from this narrative voice, marked by the formal usage of “therefore”—is like the volta in that it nearly brings the story to a full stop and creates a point of change.

This happens in a more significant way at the end of the story when the narrator is speaking to a doctor in the emergency room and then abruptly shifts to telling about being in detox years later.  There is no transition, no set up in the plot, and no return to the previous narrative.  Just a full stop and a dramatic turn.  A volta.

You see other examples of this in the collection.  One of the most notable is in the story “Work”.  Our narrator and his friend, Wayne, have spent the day salvaging copper wire from Wayne’s abandoned house near the river that was ruined by flood.  Afterward, the narrator feels good about having worked and earned money, and they go to The Vine to drink the rest of the night.  While there, Wayne nearly gets into a fight with a “huge, murderous man.” (64).  In the middle of this climactic tension, the narrator again steps outside the narrative to tell of another incident, but this time with more intention by announcing it to the reader: “And then came one of those moments” (64).  He goes on to describe a time when he was with the woman who would be his first wife, but before they were married, and there was a hailstorm.
Our naked bodies started glowing, and the air turned such a strange color I thought my life must be leaving me, and with every young fiber and cell I wanted to hold onto it for another breath.  A clattering sound was tearing up my head as I staggered upright and opened the door on a vision I will never see again: Where are my women now, with their sweet wet words and ways, and the miraculous balls of hail popping in a green translucence in the yards?  We put on our clothes, she and I, and walked out into a town flooded ankle-deep with white, buoyant stones.  Birth should have been like that (64-65).

He follows that description with “That moment in the bar, after the fight was narrowly averted, was like the green silence after the hailstorm.”  This connecting of a moment in time with another completely separate, seemingly unrelated event, is the work of poetry.  Breaking the narrative arc in order to give room for this type of lyricism goes against every convention in modern fiction.  And yet, this takes us back to Gardner’s statement about the “elevation of familiar materials.” These stories aren’t just another minimalist collection of short fiction.

After all, only a poetic sensibility could move, as Johnson does in the story “Emergency”, from a line as clear and straight-forward as “Around 3:30 a.m. a guy with a knife in his eye came in, led by Georgie” (71) to a Blakean description of a drive-in movie playing in the middle of a snowstorm, which is mistaken by our narrator for a military graveyard “filled with rows and rows of austere, identical markers over soldiers’ graves.  I’d never before come across this cemetery. On the farther side of the field, just beyond the curtains of snow, the sky was torn away and the angels were descending out of a brilliant blue summer, their huge faces streaked with light and full of pity” (81).

These examples from Hemingway and Johnson clearly support the notion of poetic quality in short fiction, but what about other creative prose?  Non-fiction writing is often very utilitarian in its function and usage.  There are real events that must be conveyed to the reader, and while there are certainly examples of lovely description in non-fiction, often such flights into lyricism when writing about one’s personal experience can seem maudlin.  However, in Chloe Caldwell’s collection of essays Legs Get Led Astray, she uses formal repetition in a way that seems both unique and familiar.  There are certainly conventional narrative essays here, but there are nine essays that are more like the long poems of Whitman or Ginsberg, namely through their use of anaphora.

The majority of those essays begin each paragraph with the same phrase, which often comes from the title.  A great example of this is “My Mother Wanted to Be Betty Boop”.  In it, the successive paragraphs all begin the same, some becoming longer and more developed, others short and percussive, like punctuation.

“My mother wanted to be a dancer…My mother wanted me to be an artist so she bought me cray-pas and canvasses and put a purple beret on my head…My mother wanted to be Betty Boop…My mother wanted her daughter to be sexually free, since she was not” (48).

 This short biography of Caldwell’s mother is accomplished in four pages using this poetic litany of details, and it captures so much in a short space because of the poetic form rather than what might have been written as a chronological story of the author’s mother.  This is not just another diary entry from a young woman thinking on her mother and her gender. Instead, it is a powerful and fresh piece of writing because of its unique use of form.  The same could be said of many of the best essays in this collection.

Caldwell’s essay, “Underground,” is even more poem-like in that its repeated openings are tighter, more concise, and follow a formal pattern leading to the ending.  In this essay, Caldwell opens each paragraph with a statement about which train the narrator is on at the time of the event she is about to relate.  The first page’s paragraphs start with “On the G train”:

 On the G train in the mornings there is a woman crack-head who flicks her lighter at me and mutters about murdering me while I sit, trying to look composed and unphased and unafraid, wearing black and white, writing in my journal on my way to waitress the brunch shift./On the G train I take candy from a stranger. I can smell marijuana on him, and I know I should say no, but has these sesame peanut butter things that look too good to pass up, and he offers them to me with such integrity that I take one…./On the G train I am on Adderall writing in my journal and I remember that somewhere I read that writing in public makes people uncomfortable and I get sort of paranoid that I am making people uncomfortable because this is New York City and you don’t want to mess around (131).

The second page is in reference to events that took place on the L train: “On the L train we meet a girl who is sick and mumbling to herself and tiny and we walk her to her apartment in Bushwick and later we tell people that we met a heroin angel./On the L train you eat grapefruit and yogurt which are the opposite of train foods and it’s really gross and people stare” (132); and the third page is about the A train: “On the A train I see a boy with Nike sneakers and back-pack and I wish he would save me from myself./On the A train there is a Mariachi band and they play “Here Comes the Sun”. On the A train I read the back of a pregnancy test and eat Smart food popcorn” (133).

 The last page mentions the 1 train and the R train, then the penultimate paragraph begins with “On all the trains”, and the final paragraph brings everything together by including a sentence for each of the trains from the previous pages: “On the L train I stand alone. On the G train I eat grapefruit.  On the A train I try not to fall asleep but I learn to rest my eyes the way the rest of the adults do and I clutch my purse tightly while I do it. On the 1 train I look at different girls’ hands and think of your hands” (134).

This attention to form, along with the repeated use of anaphora, makes these essays seem an entirely new way of approaching non-fiction.  They are frank yet musical, accessible yet poetic, narrative yet within a form.  At the same time, they are recognizable in their construction, for one need only look at the poem “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg with its continued use of anaphora and its frank description of modern American life to see the poetic precedent for Caldwell’s style:

“who walked all night with their shoes full of blood on the snowbank docks waiting for a door in the East River to open to a room full of steamheat and opium,/who created great suicidal dramas on the apartment cliff-banks of the Hudson under the wartime blue floodlight of the moon & their heads shall be crowned with laurel in oblivion,/who ate the lamb stew of the imagination or digested the crab at the muddy bottom of the rivers of Bowery….

Or go back even further to Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:

“Where sun-down shadows lengthen over the limitless and lonesome prairie,/Where herds of buffalo make a crawling spread of the square miles far and near,/Where the humming-bird shimmers, where the neck of the long-lived swan is curving and winding….

All of these things taken together in Legs Get Led Astray—the music, the form, the concise clarity—seem a perfect example of Gardner’s “ingenious genre-crossing or elevation of familiar materials.”

It’s clear from these three examples that Frank O’Connor’s statement on the close relation of short fiction (and by extension short non-fiction) to poetry remains true even when put to a more precise analysis past the condensing of a single idea in a short literary form.  But does the door swing the other way?  Does poetry borrow from prose?

Certainly one might think of prose poetry as an obvious link, which is simply a poem printed in block form without line breaks.  In fact many narrative poets write their poems out as prose first before thinking about line and stanza.  But the connections between poetry and prose can be more than that.

In nearly all of his nine collections, the poet Rodney Jones features long sectioned poems which work on many levels more like essays, though there is no mistake that they are indeed poetry.  They are lyric and broken into lines and stanzas, the language is precise and condensed, but they are also made up of several numbered sections that aren’t simple continuations of the previous section.  These aren’t just long poems, but instead introduce new themes and events with each section that are woven together as the poem progresses in the way a creative essay might work.

In an interview that appeared in Third Coast in 2012, Jones speaks to this, saying, “Often my sectioned poems begin in journals, and when I'm writing in journals, I concentrate very hard, but when I feel a corner or a wall, I put down an asterisk and jump…. At other times, I need to find another angle. I sense disequilibrium and intuitively seek a balance: often a relief, or shift of perspective. In all cases, I want the separate sections to be in conversation with each other in a way that the individual sections do not address.”

In Jones’s most recent collection, Imaginary Logic, the sectioned poem “The Previous Tenants” stands as an exquisite piece of writing that intertwines the literary forms of poetry, narrative, and essay to create a work that transcends each distinct genre.

The poem itself is comprised of 10 sections and begins by thinking on the man and woman who had built the house where the poet and his wife currently live: “The couple who built our house had great plans/for this lot where they would live out their days” (47).  Jones describes them as they appeared to their neighbors, buts this view shifts after the woman’s memorial service where her son eulogizes that “she was a fine counselor, but a terrible mother./She was not there for us when we failed./She only loved our successes” (47).  This moment turns the theme of the poem to the second section where the poet seeks to understand this couple, the previous tenants of the house where he now lives: “Until then we had had foolishly thought them happy:/he an accomplished man, a graduate of Penn;/and she a woman of privilege and beauty,/tall and regal with an aquiline nose and blue eyes” (47).

The third section focuses on the house itself and what Jones saw in it when he was thinking of buying it: “The big room upstairs, open and high-ceilinged,/a luxury after the cedar frame and plain brown door,/as though the modest exterior held a larger interior” (48). Descriptions of the rooms and the yard and the gardens continue through this section until at the end a neighbor asks for clippings of columbine that had been planted along the driveway.  The seasons pass, marked by the various flowers that bloom and fade, but the columbine never appear.

This leads to the fourth section that addresses the dementia of the previous male owner: “He forgot the names of the irises, but the ego did not diminish./He forgot the trowel under the azalea, but the ego did not diminish./He forgot the azalea. Others and then himself he forgot” (49).  Section five opens with the line “How do you know you are old?” (50) and continues on this through section six.  Section seven relates how the previous tenants’ presence is still in the house, in flowers planted and unfinished projects and left behind household items in the basement.  “From things that work and things that no longer work” (53).  Section 8 is the poet reflecting on his own mortality and tying that back to the son’s eulogy in section 1.  Nine and ten bring all of these themes together, then leave the reader considering the question of what we leave behind, how we are known, after our deaths with the last line stating “The wood with its resins still speaks of the tree.”

Jones speaks of the need for this unique form in order convey everything he was trying to capture in this poem: ”The work of the poem was convincing the ghosts to stand still long enough to let me describe them. At times, the poem seemed like a conscious essay. At other times, it was an intimate, nearly hallucinatory encounter. I saw the previous tenants in the deer in the yard, and I saw the rips in the screen wire on the porch where the wife had sat as runs in her stockings. It was difficult to establish the sections in a meaningful sequence because…the house had become internalized, and the poem surrounded me. Perhaps this is why the closure is as much surrender as resolution.”

“The Previous Tenants” is an amazing work of art that could not have been what it is had it followed conventional form.  If he had written it as a narrative essay, something would have been lacking.  Jones speaks to this in Timothy Shea’s interview when he says, “Pure narrative is like crabgrass: because it is a mimesis of happenstance, it chokes out other possibilities.”  It’s this notion of mimesis that I think Gardner is getting at with his statement about blurring genre and elevating conventional forms.  It’s this notion that these four writers are trying to unlock in their work by stretching the conventions of their reflective genres and borrowing from other literary forms.

Jones sums it up nicely by saying, “I'm not into movements or schools. Those are for fish. American poetry is not a factory or an argument. I prefer poets who fail the standards of other poets of my previous affections. I look for aesthetic freshness, narrative brilliance, imagination, bold language, dramatic intensity. I don't care if a poem is tragic or comic or a mixture. Anything that doesn't embody individual character bores me”. 

I think this extends to all literature, not just poetry, and the works featured here seem to accomplish this by avoiding the trap of simply being called story, poem, or essay, but instead recreate those forms to become something that might only be called art.

Works Cited

Caldwell, Chloe. Legs Get Led Astray. Portland OR: Future Tense Books, 2012. Print.

Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction. New York: Vintage Books, 1991. Print.

Hemingway, Ernest. “In Another Country.” The Short Stories. New York: Scribner, 1995. Print.

Johnson, Denis. Jesus’ Son. New York: Harper Collins, 1993. Print.

Jones, Rodney. Imaginary Logic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcort, 2011. Print.

Jones, Rodney. Interview with Timothy Shea. “Pure Narrative is Like Crabgrass: Rodney Jones on the Sectioned Poem.” Third Coast. 34. (2012). Web. Nov. 2012.

O’Connor, Frank. Interview with Anthony Whittier. “The Art of Fiction, No. 19.” The Paris Review. 17. (1957). Web. Nov. 2012.