Fiction, poetry, reviewing, and the meaning of it all

Update: I'm promoting this post up in time so it appears closer to the top... it's going for the record in numbers of comments.

I've decided to suspend my weekly New Yorker fiction reviews indefinitely. A few reasons for this. The main one is that I had hoped they would generate discussions about contemporary fiction. They haven't. Plus the magazine routinely puts out novel excerpts without giving a heads up about it. That's lame and wreaks havoc with any attempted analysis. Also, it's starting to feel like a chore, and if you've ever seen the doghair tumbleweeds gliding through our house, you know I don't like chores. And I reckon I miss the old workshop and thought it would be like that. And finally, Nate's comment in the "What did you read this summer?" post --
Why doesn't anyone read poetry? Is it so bad? So insular and unapproachable? I thought this was a literary blog... Call me crazy, but last time I looked, literature went well beyond New Yorker fiction.
-- is still haunting me. Because he's right. Why don't I read poetry? I think because I don't feel up to understanding it properly. Because I never really learned to read it. Because it makes me impatient. It's like some exotic cheese meant to be savored morsel by small morsel, when all I've ever done is gobble up cheddar and monterrey jack and, it must be admitted, Velveeta.

Also, the world seems to be going to hell, and it feels indulgent to relentlessly keep on reading and writing about reading and writing no matter what or when.

Fiction's easy to read for pleasure. Right now I'm cruising through The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and loving it. I look forward to picking it up, as if I'm picking up a remote control for a movie in my mind. That has never happened to me with poetry, and I think that's sad, and it means something is wrong, and I've decided to try and fix it.

So I'm starting with the Norton Anthology of Poetry. I'm up to Shakespeare right now. I'm nibbling the exotic cheese a bit at a time.

I loved when Chad was enlightening all of us with his witty responses to New Yorker poetry. But again, there is more to the literary scene than the New Yorker. I had merely thought it would be a good touchstone, something we might all have in common, a starting point to launch conversations about what is working in good writing today and why. But I'm finding you can't make a blog do what you want. Instead, it stubbornly goes about its business as it pleases, occasionally shining with brilliance, often sleeping, sometimes shuffling around grumpy or confused or angry or indignant. It just is what it is, and stays that way. Like a friend.

I'll probably still post story reviews when I get excited about something, or angry or grumpy or confused or indignant about something. I'm eyeing the Ann Beattie story in this week's with hope and anticipation. And last week's was really good, in case you missed it. But now I have to go have a plantar's wart on my heel looked at.

End soliloquy.

(See? I would never had thought of that word without the recent Shakespeare infusion.)


Pete said...

I read a ton of poetry these days because I teach a ton of it; my students tend to engage with it more wholly than with fiction.

I consider myself a poetry convert since Iowa, and I think it has to do with finally giving up the idea that poetry exists to be "gotten." I had known this wasn't true previous to that, but meeting and chilling with poets made it click.

Nate said...

I've sort of regretted making that comment everyday after doing so because I didn't really want to sound like such a crabby lout, & really I'm not, I'm not soooo bothered that no one (& I mean NO ONE) really cares about poetry, at least that grants us a bit of liberty! 'cause if no one's looking who cares what you do or how much you touch yourself or where, for that matter.... but on the other hand, I do sometimes want to be advocate for the art, an ambassador, if you will, & in response to Grendel's comment, I want to pipe in and say, yo, it IS pleasurable, and that there's a huge variety of work, some of which snobs like me and Chad will disparage, but none the less, more or less "poetic" & worthy of a reader's attention; and furthermore, I want to say that even with difficult & weird poetry--generally the kind I like--part of the pleasure, and I do sincerely mean pleasure, is the disorientation that comes with encountering a body of charged language which, although is written in yr native tongue, seems to be pointing its signs and signals in all the wrong directions. That, at least, is the initial marvel. If it's good work, layers and layers of pycho-linguistic-subconsious-symbolic-lyrical-geological-secrets-&-music exist beneath this surface. And one other point, the point is, I think, that in general, you just can't read poetry the way you read prose, because one has to be so aware of all the other weird shit going on, weird shit that frequently changes an "easier" content-based reading.

As for the politics thing, well, that might be a long discussion. I do believe, however, we need the lyric--that moment of extreme individuation, subjectivity and interiority--to counterbalance the political, the social, the wordly--for we can only approaches these issues with our best sense of human-ness if we are constantly reminded of the violent contradictions that exist in subjective experience and the collective life... Yikes, that's high falut'n, come down of that peak, cowboy...

And finally, congrats to Corbin for braving the might Norton. One word of advice: don't go chronological! It's not a linear story!

Nate said...

how do you edit comments?

read "be advocate" as "be an advocate"

read "the might Norton" as "the mighty Norton"

El Gordo de Amore said...

I thought you were being poetic.

Ba dum dum.

Thank you! Goodnight!

Brando said...

No more fiction review? Did the Atlantic Monthly staff take over Earthgoat? Are you going to start excerpting Christopher Buckley's grocery lists?

possum said...

I think the attempt to "get" poetry is common. My first writing teacher in college gave us about 5 rules. One of them: Keep Your Hand on the Machine. But the one that matters here: Never Be Clever -- Poems are not riddles. And, more than anything I learned in that class about voice or image, Never Be Clever is the thing that I find most useful in my classes. Certainly now that I'm teaching high school, where the students want to out-do each other with their inside jokes. Honesty means more to me than any of the clever bullshit.

the plunge said...

This is a really interesting conversation--I'm with Grendorbindel--the poetry I like and take the time to 'get' is worth every moment and every iota of extra focus that arriving at that state of contentment requires. I would love to do it much more often and know for sure that I would gain hugely from it--but no one ever taught me to read the stuff, neither by rule nor by example.

I think this matter of 'getting it' is worth exploring, or at least, trying to define a little. Are we meaning "to get" as "to form a concise yet comprehensive, irreducible theory of the poem, such that it can be 'explained' to others in a reasonable amount of time"? Because nah, we know you can't do that. But on the other hand, if "get it" means "to arrive at some kind of holistic, perhaps difficult-to-articulate yet certainly coherent understanding or at least emotional recognition"---well shit, if I can't get that, then what am I sitting here reading this for?

Reading poetry must employ her·me·neu·tics, musn't it? Since reading is after all a process of interpreting. Making sense of symbol-sign-image-sound and alla that good stuff? Nate-dogg, to be frank, your fancy blue-state english paragraph was greek to this roman--I don't know what that violent cotradiction you're talking about is--do I?--or that moment of extreme individuation. Is that the same as an 'ah-ha!' moment? Where you suddenly feel that you...uh...'get' what you're trying to get, and that you have witnessed your own brain folding new wrinkles into itself that will never disappear? Because I like that kind of moment, and that's what happens to me when I sit with a poem for a while. But yo, on the reals, it's gotta be a pretty long while.

And possum and pete--I'm too stupid not to be clever. What does that mean? Do I really have to let go of the feeling of wanting to understand? That's like the holy grail of feelings in my world. Let go of that and I'm one of the 13% who thinks Bush handled Katrina well.

That's mostly what I want to know...I'm not saying poetry is too hard or anything...just that I think that I honestly never learned (or better yet, never taught myself) to read it the right way.

Hey! Since we're taking a short hiatus from the fiction reviews (moment of silence), maybe we can like, discuss some poems? Grendilicious--what say we pick a poem from the Norton and these dudes can teach us a little something?

(I say dudes because there's no poetry chicks cept for possum on here and she's from our class.)

the plunge said...

P.S. I know there are a few other beautiful ladies of poetry that are participants on this particular internet weblog. They just ain't never post shit.

P.P.S. Grendelbaum--Velveeta line? Brilliant.

cj said...

Or to put it another way: a lot of us feel uncomfortable with poetry because we don't have any confidence that we are connecting with the poet's intentions. The Plunge is probably right that that's our own fault because we haven't made the effort to learn how to do so. But is there agreement that that should be a goal? I mean, I might be able to find something meaningful or moving in reading a poem, but if it's not at least in some sense what the poet was trying to communicate, why single out poetry for that exercise? I might as well look for meaning in any found object, e.g., studying a landscape or reading the back of a milk carton. I don't know -- am I guilty of trying to "get" poetry?

Pete said...

I teach a lot of my composition classes at Malcolm X as poetry appreciation classes. One of first things I tell them is that the point isn't something hidden, it's something intrinsic to every word in every language: sound and meaning, both at once.

Then I demonstrate the point by having half the class write down an adjective and the other half write down a noun. I then call on them in adj/noun pairs. We get weird combinations, but ones we can all "see": "Purple sandwich," "greasy house," etc., all of which mean something (even if it doesn't resemble reality) and make interesting sounds.

For me, and I saw this as a horrible poet with little formal education about poetry reading or writing, this is the point in its entirety. Nothing but language can be sound and meaning at the same time (at least so precisely so), and no other form of linguistic expression focuses itself so essentially on this intersection. It's a point so basic, so plainly reflexive, there's a common assumption that it is more complicated than that. But the thing is this: it is complicated, infinitely so, because language is infinitely complicated. It's everything and nothing at once.

As for cleverness- I think that's a good point, and I think it should apply to fiction as well, and perhaps all art. I'm not saying you can't be funny, or clever in places. But to me, too much cleverness is like too much irony: a millstone. It weighs you down when you should be trying to levitate.

Pete said...

One more thing- CJ- I agree, you might as well look for meaning in everything. I would even say that we generally should look for meaning in everything. (watch out- lapsed Catholic alert). We can't meditate on everything all the time; we need short hands to function. But that doesn't mean the shorthands are beautiful in their own right or really anything more than utilitarian.

Grendel said...

Well, I'm sure I'll never be able to fully give up the idea of trying to "get" a poem. But I'll try. I suppose the part of getting it that should in fact happen must include actual understanding of what the poem means. That seems minimal, and without that I don't see why I'm reading the poem. But I don't know that I'd ever be able to say I got the poet's intention -- just what they said.

And to clarify: it's the "Shorter" edition Norton I'm tackling -- a mere 600-odd pages.

Brando, no, the Atlantic Monthly hasn't taken over. FEMA has. But I have said too much already.

As for Never Be Clever, that sounds great, but somebody forgot to tell Shakespeare. The thing I enjoyed about his selection in there was the cleveress. But maybe poetry has changed immensely since then.

Here's my question: do fiction and poetry have ANYTHING to do with each other? I mean, they are both made of words, yes. But a skyscraper is made of glass and steel, and so is my French press coffeemaker, and yet they have few or no points of convergence. It's just not the same thing. It's like fiction is a film, and a poem is a photograph. Or something. The process of reading them doesn't feel even remotely the same to me.

the plunge said...

Oh yeah I kind of misread that part of possum's comment. I thought she meant Never Be Clever as applied to READING poems, not writing them. As in, stop trying to 'get' stuff all the time.

See how never clever I am?

possum said...

I think I should say that by "clever" I mean quick-witted or something like it, but not incredibly intelligant. I don't think Shakespeare was being clever -- I think he was smart, could language-ify circles around other humans, but he was never giving up the carefeul construction of the line, the good way his ears worked, in favor of being able to say, "Get it? Get it?" Funny and clever aren't the same thing. Am I making a point at all here? Unclear.

I would ask this: When you read a novel, a great one, do you turn that last page and then ask yourself, "What was the author's intention?" or, "Do I understand the author's intention?" If you DO ask those questions, which I doubt you do, and the answers are no, then do you stop reading novels?

Also, I'm with Pete here. Why not look for meaning in every fucking piece of our world? It's all we got.

cj said...

But I do feel (relatively) confident, when I read good fiction, that the enjoyment I'm getting from it roughly corresponds to the enjoyment the author intended me to get from it. If I'm supposed to take meaning and enjoyment from a poem completely without regard to the meaning and enjoyment the poet hoped to give me, then reading poetry is an awfully solipsistic exercise, and it's hard to know why I should be concerned that more people aren't attracted to it. If poetry isn't ultimately about some kind of communion between the writer and the reader, then why is it important?

possum said...

I guess that's my point. How do we know our enjoyment corresponds with the author's intentions? Why are you so confident about fiction? Why not so with poetry? Did someone teach us all to read fiction before we could enjoy it, understand it? I think it comes from reading. And I think the same confidence comes when you read poetry. But the reading has to occur. I guess what I'm saying, in the end, is that I don't see that great a difference in the reading of poetry, fiction, nonfiction. I turn to art with a hunger for something -- I suppose that hunger is different for us all, but it's there. If we're reading or writing, we're doing it for a reason. We're searching. I think too often we don't put enough effort into the search because we've been told it's a hard one.

Pete said...

I think it is absolutely a communion in poetry, just as it is in fiction. I guess I just think that this communion is always delicate and fleeting whatever form it takes. It's more obviously so in poetry than in fiction, I think. Why is another question.

Maybe it is because there are so many conventions in fiction-- more than I could ever hope to count or name-- that we've sort of all agreed upon as meaningful and useful in certain ways. But I imagine those are present in poetry, too, but as a relative novice I'm less aware of them.

I also think that the confidence you speak of is learned. Someone with an MFA in fiction is probably going to be pretty confident when they read a story. As they should be.

This conversation reminds me of the WCW poem about the wheelbarrow. It has no "point" that I can discern, but I still like it. It's an anti-point, I think; everything depends on everything, and everything is meaningful in the way we've been talking about, even a wet wheelbarrow.

the plunge said...

That makes good sense. When I finish a novel, you're right, I don't ask "What was this person trying to do?"--because I'm asking myself that at a subconscious level the entire time I'm reading it, so by the end I already know what I think, pretty much, and the only reason to put it into words would be that I feel the need to solidify the lesson in my mind, since I think it's easier to remember stuff that has been put into words (just like it's easy to remember a particular state of emotion or type of thought by thinking of a poem that corresponds to it).

So yeah, I think we're all agreeing here, kind of. The lament we couple of Phillistines are making is somewhat akin to saying, "I'm so BAAAAD at flying airplanes...why am I so bad??" when we've never really tried to fly an airplane.

Course another interesting question is, when and why did you poets develop your affinity for poetry, when most of us have had similar educations, have at least semi-literate parents, love to read, etc---and why didn't we?

Probably ya'll had more exposure to poetry and poetry lovers somehow, and likely many of you were ultra-wide readers in your yoothz, so you could discover stuff on your own. Speaking for myself, I was not an intellectually curious young'un, nor an ultra-wide reader. I read books my mom gave me, pretty much (she's a librarian)--and she never gave me much poetry. Nor did I have a single good English teacher in high school, let alone someone who could point me to Whitman and Blake or WCW.

So basically what I'm saying is, you poets had more priveleged upbringings than we fiction writers. You were born with silver scrolls in your hands, where we had to work hard for our literaryness. And now you accuse us of taking your jobs?? The stones on you.

cj said...

Yes, yes -- I will certainly plead guilty to not putting the effort in to appreciate poetry. I have to admit, though, that part of me wonders whether any amount of effort would ever be enough to give me the confidence that I'd need to keep going. I think I would always wonder whether I was a "loose reader," having an experience of the poem that was wholly unrelated to the experience the author was aiming at -- much more so than I ever wonder in reading fiction. This may be a rational calculation, or a total cop-out -- but in any case I think it accounts for why a lot of fiction writers don't invest more time and effort in reading poetry.

Of course some poets are more accessible than others, and I suppose that would be the place to start.

(People who took Frank's workshop will remember that the presence of a "loose reader" was a criticism of the writer, not the reader. I always got the sense that Frank had a similar pessimism toward his own ability to appreciate poetry. An old joke of Frank's: "In fiction, if the reader doesn't understand it, it's the writer's fault. In poetry, if the reader understands it, it's the writer's fault.")

kclou said...

i write fiction and i read a fair bit of poetry because i enjoy it. i can't tell you why i enjoy it or when i started enjoying it but i also watch about one movie a year, so maybe we have a finite amount of art forms we can enjoy (i don't really mean that).

two reasonably contemporary poets who i think fiction types might find interesting and easy to appreciate are james wright and philip levine. prose poetry is an interesting gateway drug, and for that i definitely recommend charles simic's _the world does note end_. our boy robert hass--both his lyric poetry and prose poetry--might grab you, too.

Pete said...

I'm a fictionist myself, but for me it was two things:

1) On the whole, poetesses are hot. In college, some friends and I started reading some poetry (Lorca, Bukowski, Yeats) so we'd have an excuse to talk to them. Most of the time, this strategy didn't work. The few times it did, I got my heart broke, which led to a second realization about poetesses.

2) Teaching lit at Iowa. We had to do a poetry unit and I knew that when my students said, "I don't get it," I had to have a meaningful response. I learned grammar that way too. I've gotten better at a lot of things as a teacher simply because I've had to.

the plunge said...

There's a good review of Eco's new book about beauty in this month's Harper's. The author, Arthur Krystal, does a good job of summing up a pretty big subject. Anyway, one of the passages from the review put me in mind of this thread. Here it is:

"There is no shame in confessing that part of the pleasure we derive from modern art is the satisfaction of "understanding" it. Pleasure, of course, is a loaded term, but not one we can ignore. It is, after all, what first draws us to art. The sensible George Santayana observed that beauty begins with sensation: what we like immediately, and especially what children like immediately, is the best proof of sincerity [I take this to mean the sincerity of the artist]. And when "sincerity is lost, and a snobbish ambition is substituted, bad taste comes in." But so does ambiguity. Standards of taste cannot be limited to what is immediately apparent. Hume understood this when he proposed the "disinterestedness" that comes from experience [that's a kind of analytical eye that is uninfluenced by a sensual reaction]. At some point, if one makes a fetish of art, the appeal of immediacy wanes, and artwork becomes significant rather than beautiful."


cj said...

I suppose I should let this thread come to a peaceful conclusion . . . but I keep asking myself: Suppose ten different readers read, say, Ishiguro's Remains of the Day. Don't all ten take a very similar experience from that book? Not exactly the same, of course, but very, very similar. If they were asked to synposize the plot, for example, or describe a given character, or describe their emotional reactions to various scenes, wouldn't there be a great deal of overlap?

Then take ten readers -- even make them ten experienced readers of poetry -- and have them read a poem by Jorie Graham. How much overlap will there be in their experience of the poem? I think this is the basis of many fiction writers' disinclination toward reading poetry. This is where some reassurance from the poets would help: is it true that the ten poetry readers actually do experience that poem in a roughly similar way? If not, then what has become of the communion between writer and reader?

Maybe it is unfair to compare a very accessible example of fiction with a notoriously difficult example of poetry. But they are both celebrated authors in their form. Moreover, this discussion seems to be more about comparing accessibility with difficulty than it is about comparing fiction with poetry.

I am partly playing devil's advocate here -- really just trying to pinpoint that part of me that resists reading poetry, even though other parts of me are ashamed of that fact. I like the Plunge's Eco quote, and I don't want to be someone who confines himself to "what is immediately apparent" in a work of art. But I'm unwilling to abandon my desire to get myself on the same wavelength as the artist in experiencing the artist's work. At some point, as we proceed down the slope of difficulty and obscurity (in fiction or poetry), is that no longer possible? If I am one of ten readers, each of whom experiences a poem in completely different ways, how much confidence can I have that I have connected with the poet?

Charlemagne said...

Sorry to come to the party so late. And as I have read through this long chain of comments I have to admit I didn't realize how engaged with poetry so many of you already are. Just by bringing up the points you are bringing up show me that you all are thinking about poetry in a way that the novice never does.

By this I mean that poetry is partly the struggle you are discussing. There is always a struggle for the poet between the context and the sound of the poem. Good poets, and poets with good intentions, are not trying to make it difficult to understand. There are some who do, but they are the forces of evil and are more interested in proving some point of philosophy or critical theory. Most of us write as it comes to us. I don't mean stream of consciousness. But, at least for me, it is a play betweem following ideas, content, going through my brain, and also following the sound of words, letting that part of my brain take me places. One doesn't often sit down saying I want to write a poem about the unbearable beauty of a lover, or a wheelbarrow, or the Florida keys. Instead, if it is important enough, the words will start taking you there. It shouldn't be a mystery and it turns into a very workman like act.

So I think that 10 readers may not get the same thing. But they will see the same signs. These signs will point in different directions for some people. But the signs will still be in sight for everybody. That is why when poets are asked what their poems are about during a reading they usually mumble incoherently about what got them to start writing the poem, not what it is about. Its not that poets don't know what their work is about. Its just that they themselves know the signs are pointing in a different direction for they themselves as the months, sometimes even days, pass.

I got into poetry because of a good friend who I thought was cool and I wanted to read what the cool guy read. No silver scrolls here. But you just have to roll out and read whatever comes to you. Just like when you were a kid you didn't start off with Joyce. I read Tolkein and CS Lewis and Star Wars books and then I was given Kerouac and then I went back to fantasy and then I stumbled upon Joyce.

Try Frank O'Hara. He's the one who hooked me and hooked me good.

Charlemagne said...

In just talking over a smoke with Vampiro I realized that one doesn't hope for one meaning in a novel. The best of novels always have some many levels of ideas and contradictions.

What is so bewitching about poetry is that this happens most often in a small small space. The tension between lines is where so much of the poem lives. You read one line and totally get it. You read the next line, and yep, still got it. Then 6 lines later it is thrown in total flux. So meaning is important, but the movement of mind is even more important. Some days, you just don't see why the mind moved there, but thats the fun. Living in the way someone else communicates is the rewarding aspect of it.

the plunge said...

I'll check out some Frank O'Hara. Enough of my friends in college had a line of his as their email sig that he must appeal to the dawning poetic sense.

As for the 10 readers 10 reactions thing--it reminds me very specifically of the teacher in high school who said, "There's no right answer when it comes to interpreting poems--everyone's reaction is valid." Which in a deeper sense is incredibly true, but in the superficial sense she meant it in, it couldn't be more wrong. I.e. there is a right answer to every poem, but it's not '1789' or 'St. Clementine' or 'To get to the other side'--it's more like an answer set, right? Where the answer, which is less an answer than a set of relevant assocations, falls within some kind of boundaries. Sometimes the boundaries are pretty limited, as with ""The Owl and the Pussycat", and other times they're closer to unlimited, as with the red chicken poem. But your reaction isn't valid unless it falls firmly within the answer set.

I'm verging on stating the obvious here, which is that everyone's reaction to things will be different in the sense that the seventy-eight billion neuronal pathways that light up in their brains when they read a poem will not be identical, even though the general shape of the reaction should be similar. When I read To His Coy Mistress, I think of Jenny Adams from the 10th grade. You think of Hilda Blumenthal from kindergarten--but Marvell got us both to think of the right girl.

And the differences in 'valid' reaction will be even much more variant than that, but they've still got to be substantially similar or else someone is misunderstanding something somewhere. Same as in a novel.

And I think Charlemagne in your second post you're right to dispel the notion of a 'unified' meaning in which all the parts correspond neatly as they would in a scientific theory. Contradiction and misalignment are basic to the way our minds relate to the world.

So yeah, no, yeah...have we made any progress here? I still haven't read any more poetry, despite having spent a couple of hours writing about it on this thread. God blogging's great.

the plunge said...

Ha! I just read the sequal to the owl and the pussycat, which Lear didn't finish. Man it totally sucks!!


Pete said...

I was thinking about this on the bus yesterday: We tell stories; what do we "do" with poems?

I think it's a distinction worth making: poetry aims to describe preverbal consciousness in language, whereas fiction is a little more transparent: it exists in time in a continuum of "and then," it always has a teller who accounts for his telling.

Nate said...

In response to Pete's last comment: Would it be adequate to think of the difference between narrative & lyric genres as: event vs. state of mind?

Potentially misleading, I suppose, since we all know good fiction entails state(s) of mind, i.e. p.o.v. or simply the poetic sense of the language; and we all know that poems frequently contain tangible "events" -- but still, this distinction seems applicable.

Nate said...

Oh yeah, since he's here already, one great thing that Frank O'Hara said, which I think can inform our discussion of "meaning" or "getting it": in a poem, "you just go on your nerve." In case anyone care's for context (!), that's in "Personism: A Manifesto," a wonderful prose parody of avant-garde manifestos.

cj said...

I think the Plunge is right on when he talks about "answer sets." Of course there is no one right way to experience a poem, but clearly there must be many wrong ways -- ways that don't overlap at all with the poet's vision. True of fiction, too, but I feel far more capable of spotting them in fiction. Are you saying that the reader has to develop certain special sensitivies to reliably hone in on the answer set in poetry, or that the answer sets in poetry are actually larger and more diffuse? For some reason I am more comfortable with the former than with the latter.

Maybe it is true that one can never underestimate the plodding, concrete nature of the typical fiction writer. For example, I believe that fiction writers, accustomed as we are to relying blithely on the soft return, find line breaks to be a threshold deterrent to approaching poetry. The little philistine inside me (which for some reason I am choosing to haphazardly expose to strangers in each one of these posts) is always asking, "Line breaks -- what the fuck? I mean, yeah, fiction writers use paragraph breaks, but only because without them you'd go insane. (E.g., Thomas Bernhard.) Can someone enlighten me about the meaning/purpose/point of line breaks, at least in free verse? Would the poem really be different without them? And when the poet reads aloud, you don't hear the line breaks! What am I supposed to make of THAT??"

As you can see
I am flummoxed by
the most foundational issues.

will I ever
make it to Jorie

possum said...

I have to admit, I find this string of comments rather frustrating. My stomach knots up, and I'm even a little angry. I think this stems from my inability to know if CJ is being a little sarcastic or really insulting. The rest of the comments seem to be engaging in a real discussion. Am I completely misreading things here?

I have to go teach freshman about "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" right now, but if you all are going to discuss the nature of line breaks, I'm interested to see what ideas are out there. It might not be a bad idea to start thinking not about how lines are broken, but how they are built. I learned that from Jim Galvin, who taught me also the theory behind considering a poem's "motion of mind."

the plunge said...

Allow me to suggest that you read the post with fresh eyes, fraulein possum. I bet that if cj inadvertantly stuck cj's analytical phallus too roughly into the depths of the line break, it was not cj's intention to cause consternation. Remember, you're dealing with pagans here, those who have only heard god spoken of by the priests, but who've never seen Him for themselves. With grace, every pagan can be saved...

And if anything I've posted has given offense...well, you know where to find me.

Charlemagne said...

Ok, in response to the idea of the purpose of the line there are many things I can say. Of course there are metrical and other reasons of form that one would need to make a line break for. But for those poems that don't do this, in the most basic sense the line is often one idea that is the part of a larger idea. Sometimes it can be more ideas in one line, so it is kind of silly to say what I said. But lets look at an easy example, one of the Psalms. (I'm using a psalm because I am at work, I work for a religious publishing company, and it is all I have at hand.

The voice of the Lord strikes with fiery flame:
the voice of the Lord rocks the desert;
the Lord rocks the desert of Kadesh.
The voice of the Lord twists the oaks
and strips the forests bare.
All in his palace say, "Glory!"

What a great lil poem. First of all, imagine how this would be without line breaks. It wouldn't have the same impacts. Look at the last words of each line: flame, desert, Kadesh, oaks, bare, and Glory! Also look at how the lines are individual and yet part of a while. Yes the 'Voice of the Lord twists the oaks" and that would be good enough. But we move with the line and the sentence and are further shocked by the fact that the voice also "strips the forest bare." If not in line, this runs together and the stripped forest is not as much a big deal.

Sometimes lines in free verse especially were attempted to be broken to accomodate breath. The poet attempted to accomodate the breath of her or himself. Pretty interesting and skilled stuff when you get right down to it. Others trying to make free verse closer resemble that of normal speech used the line break to their advantage.

Charlemagne said...

A quick little story to illustrate the idea of the line and how important it is to poets. Its not my idea, though I wish it were. It is something Dean Young told us in one of his seminars on sex, death, and all the good stuff. I'm thinking most of you know about the Greek poet Sappho and how her poems only exist in tiny fragments. A line here, a line there, sometimes just words from many of the lines. These fragments are like elixier to many of us poets because they are so freakin' cool and seemingly contemporary. Well, these here lines, Dean said, should be an example to us. If only one line could exist of our work and be found in the future as a representative of our work we better make a damn good try of writing each line in a fullness that should do us justice.

Imagine just one sentence of your fiction remaining, or for that matter and the difference of size, etc, imagine half a chapter? Thats the importance of line.

Grendel said...

Wasn't poetry originally sung? And wasn't rhyme employed so they could remember the words better? Surely that is the origin of the line in poetry, that the end of each line contained a word whose predictable rhyme would trigger the singer's memory in time to keep going -- for hours, if necessary. Think Homer. And even with rhyme modernly excised, the remnant of line makes poetry easier to memorize than prose (at least for me).

cj said...

Thanks, Plunge, for being understanding. I'm not trying to insult anyone, especially since I'm an outsider to the blog (and since I like the blog so much). But the initial issue was, why don't fiction writers read more poetry?, and I really am trying to put my finger on why, at least in my own case, that's true. I suspect Possum feels possibly insulted because she (he?) thinks I may be saying, "It's all bullshit!" I'm not saying that, but I guess I am saying that when I approach a relatively inaccessible work, I fear that I will myself commit bullshit -- that I will end up patting myself on the back for some fine experience of the poem which happens not to coincide at all with the poet's vision. So I feel like I can walk only in baby steps, making sure that each step I take is securely anchored in a real connection with the poet before taking another.

But again, I'm not willing to abandon my desire to reach some connection with the poet in my reading of a poem. A poem has to stand on a different footing from a Rorschach inkblot, doesn't it? I appreciate the efforts Plunge, Charlemagne, Pete, kclou, et al. are making to convince me that the effort would pay off, even on those terms. But the religious metaphor may be all too accurate: it would be nice to believe, but I'm not sure I can...

At the Workshop, there was definitely a pronounced streak of anti-intellectualism among the fiction writers. Maybe that's coincidence, but could it be adaptive? Is it possible that the presence of that little inner philistine (always whispering, "Oh, come off it!" into the writer's ear) actually serves a fiction writer in ways that it would not serve a poet?

Anyway, I notice that other poetry-avoidant fiction writers are mum on the reasons for their avoidance. I would gladly pass the spokesman role to someone else. Could we offer a general amnesty?

Pete said...

This reminds me of the time a certain someone insinuated in a certain tone that myself and a few others around here are too intellectual to write fiction. But really, what I think he meant was his kind of fiction.

Not that you are being anything but nice about it, CJ. I've enjoyed your comments here and at BAF.

But anyway, I think there are a lot of fiction writers who read poetry: are we not reading it like fiction writers? I don't know how much scrutiny such an idea could withstand. I'm far more interested in this point about how it affects one's fiction writing.

For what it's worth, I read poety and do not write "beautiful language" in my fiction. Anyone who ever claims my language is "beautiful" hasn't read it and is just looking for something nice to say.

Grendel said...

Just ran into this in Leaves of Grass, 1855 Edition, and thought it was insightful and relevant to what we're talking about:

Have you reckoned a thousand acres much? Have you reckoned the earth much?
Have you practiced so long to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and the sun ... there are millions of suns left,
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand ... nor look through the eyes of the dead ... nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.

Pete said...

I was reading Mary Oliver's "Rules for the Dance" today (I use it as a textbook) and maybe that would be a good place for people to start. The book is about metrical poetry, but makes an excellent case for the importance of breath, something in all uses of language, but particularly conscious in poetry. The more breath is the point for me, the less is "getting" anything.

Has anyone pointed out the divergent reputations of the poetry and fiction programs at Iowa? It seems relevant. They really couldn't be more different, and I wonder if that caricatures the question a little bit. The archetypal Iowa fiction writer and the archetypal Iowa poet might as well be yin and yang.

chad said...

I'm sad to have come to this so late and could hardly begin to address much of it. I'd suggest Koch excellent book "Making Your Own Days" as a great place for anyone to start who feels he or she doesn't "get" poetry.

One of the clarifying points for me (I think I first read it in 2000 or something) is that poetry is a foregin language. I originally took this as a metaphor, but I now think it is literal.

possum said...

My first loves list: Richard Hugo, Wendell Berry, Dickinson, Whitman, Yeats, and O'Hara.

Grendel -- I do agree that the line, at least the iambic line, and rhyme were used to make the stories order memorable to the teller. Chaucer and all that, too.

And the Whitman lines are apt. This goes back to the very beginning. We are here experiencing the world. Why does this assumption exist that a fiction writer and poet are not the same exact thing? Sure, most of Raymond Carver's poems blow, but look at Wendell Berry -- who's a nonfictionist, too. Yeats wrote some pretty great plays. It seems to me, when I sit down to write, that there are some things that are addressed better by poems, some by essays, some in fiction. Making such a clear distinction between the genres becames a hindrance more thatn a help. The wall between fiction and poetry, at least in the workshop building itself, was counterintuitive to me. More cross-pollination couldn't have hurt. I mean, it seems impossible that it could have hurt in any way. Being with other humans, especially smart, funny, willing to talk humans, is a great opportunity. I wonder if the huge differentiation (I'm a poet. You're a fiction writer.) is a bit put on. When we just fucking read, widely and voraciously, and we talk about what language teaches us, then we become better readers and thinkers and writers.

Perhaps the anti-intellectualism comes from over-indulgence in false discussion, and I encountered a lot of that in both camps. People discussing bullshit just to be discussing something.

As I wrote that, I had a sick feeling that I'm engaging in just that exercise. Now I am unsure what to do, so I will go cheer my students on in their soccer game.

T-bone said...

Pete, what do you mean by the divergent reputations of the poetry program and fiction program at Iowa? I'm a little in the dark about this and wanted to contribute to this extra long post.