Sunday, January 6, 2013

(3) Pieces of the Frame

Well, I knew I had to have McPhee on the shelf. The question was which of his many books to include. I chose Pieces of the Frame because it was one of the early volumes of his that I read, because it's a collection of essays which he wrote in his capacity as staff writer for the New Yorker, and because there's a passage from "Reading the River" that I used for many years in my classes to illustrate how syntax can sometimes be artfully designed to reinforce or add a subliminal charge to whatever description is being attempted. I wrote about this passage in a Throughlines post way more than five years ago. But I'm going to have at it again. Here it is:

When modern canoemen go down a river in a wild-water race, covering distance against a clock, the amplitude of what they do is not so immediately apparent as it is when, at a time of leisure, they stop to enjoy a rapid. They can, for example, go zipping down a braided white torrent and suddenly stop dead in the middle of it, turn around, and hover, like a trout in a stream. Facing the current, they will nose down behind a ledge and let the full force of the river pour upon their bows while they sit there contemplating. They will come schussing through a rip, crash through an eddy wall, rest a moment, poised and quiet, then peel off through the far line of the eddy and drop so fast that soon only their heads are visible from the place where they paused to rest. Darting into an eddy on one side of the river, they will sit steady, facing in the direction from which they came, then slice the canoe decisively into the main current, paddling hard upstream. The result of this maneuver, called a ferry, is that they go skidding sidewise directly across the river, despite its velocity, without moving six inches downstream. To them, the white water is not a chaos of flow and spray but a legible language, and they know how to read it.

 What interests me about this passage is the way the language moves, and, more to the point, the way that the movement of the language mirrors the movement of the "modern canoemen." Two sentences illustrate this particularly well.

Example One:

They can, for example, go zipping down a braided white torrent and suddenly stop dead in the middle of it, turn around, and hover, like a trout in a stream.

What I admire here is the work done by the commas. The two commas at the start of the sentence set up a tentative, stop-and-go rhythm that is released in the middle part of the sentence, which not coincidently is about canoemen zipping down the river. When they stop, the commas return, three of them this time, to again create a rhythm in the syntax which mirrors that of the men in the water. I also note with satisfaction the placement of the simile at the end of the sentence, where the canoemen are compared, aptly, to fish.

Example Two:

They will come schussing through a rip, crash through an eddy wall, rest a moment, poised and quiet, then peel off through the far line of the eddy and drop so fast that soon only their heads are visible from the place where they paused to rest.

The same dynamic is at work here, but with the commas clustered at the start of the sentence, four of them this time, before the sentence plunges headlong with no interruptions to its end. Again, the movement of the language mirrors aurally the movement of the men in their canoes being described visually.

It's about at this point that my students will object, asking something like "Do you really think the author thought about this (their hypothesis being that no one would), or did it happen by accident. At which point I admit that I have no real way of knowing, but that there is ample evidence that careful writers respectful of their craft, like McPhee, do in fact think about such things. Raymond Carver, for example, has this to say in his essay "A Storyteller's Shoptalk":

Evan Connell said once that he knew he was finished with a short story when he found himself going through it and taking out commas and then going through the story again and putting commas back in the same places. I like that way of working on something. I respect that kind of care for what is being done. That's all we have, finally, the words, and they had better be the right ones, with the punctuation in the right places so that they can best say what they are meant to say.

Perhaps McPhee did consciously deploy his commas in this way with these effects in mind. Or perhaps he was just working intuitively to find the right way to capture this very complex reality in words. Either way, it works, and there's there for those who have eyes to see. To steal his own metaphor and turn it back on him, I'd argue that in the same way that the canoemen are learning to read the river through long experience of paying careful attention over time, careful readers need to learn to navigate the waters of prose by reading alertly and attentively over time

McPhee is the kind of writer who rewards that kind of close attention, which is one of the reasons why he's on my list.

Addendum Jan 7, 2013: Just got an email with the table of contents for the January 14 issue of the New Yorker, which features an interesting essay by McPhee on design structures in writing. (You'll need to be a subscriber to read the article, or pick it up on the newsstand or at the library.)

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

(2) Adultery and Other Choices

I've written about Andre Dubus twice before (here and here). Adultery and Other Choices is the second book on My Ideal Bookshelf for several reasons. First because Dubus is a writer of surpassing gifts whose stories have given me great satisfaction over the years. (In his back-of-the-book blurb for Dancing After Hours, Elmore Leonard says of Dubus, "More than any writer I can think of, he makes me aware of the simple pleasures of reading a story. You'll recognize Andre's people; you might very well be one of them." That's certainly how I feel.) Second because there's a personal connection. Dubus is one of a handful of writers I've actually met and talked to. I saw him read on a number of occasions, and hung around after a reading in 1985 long enough to talk with him for about five or ten minutes. Third because I wanted to include a book of stories in recognition of the genre, and if I had to pick one book, it was going to be something by Dubus. In the same way that including Allegiances was a gesture at the the whole genre of poetry and its importance in my life, Adultery and Other Choices is a stand-in not only for the eleven other books by Dubus, but for all of the other collections of short stories which didn't make it onto My Ideal Bookshelf but are to this day sitting right next to the twelve volumes by Dubus on the actual bookshelf in my living room,  books by masters of the form like Charles Baxter, Michael Byers, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Anton Chekhov, James Joyce, Jhumpa Lahiri, Daniyal Mueenuddin, Alice Munro, John Murray, Grace Paley, and Colm Tóibín.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

(1) Sturdy for Common Things

The first book on My Ideal Bookshelf, barely visible in the shadow on the left of the Dubus book, is Allegiances by William Stafford. It holds pride of place not just on its own behalf, but on behalf of the hundreds of poets and thousands of poems which have enriched my life, and which I might never have encountered if I had not first discovered Stafford, who set me on my way.

During my senior year of high school and my first two years of college, I worked at a small store in Fairfield, Connecticut which sold books and greeting cards. I tended the cash register, answered questions, and did such dusting and mopping and stocking of new merchandise as needed to be done. Eventually the owner, for whom the bookstore seemed to be a hobby to be indulged when he happened to be in the mood for it, took to leaving me to run the store myself. One whole wall of the bookstore was stocked with paperback books, and in the hours when the store was empty—and there were many of them—I'd often peruse the stacks and try to find something interesting to read. One afternoon I pulled a book of poetry off the shelf. It was called The Rescued Year, by William Stafford.

I should say that at this point, as an 18-year-old, I had no real interest in poetry. I had been the victim of the same kind of narrowly academic instruction that most students to this day are made to suffer with regard to poetry, which was presented as a kind of intellectual exercise to be approached and solved as a puzzle. The poets I had been exposed to—Donne, Eliot, Shakespeare, Dickinson, and the like—were using a kind of language which was understood to be elevated and freighted with Significance. Our duty as readers (and it felt like a duty), was to tease out the "hidden meaning" via a process of formal analysis.

It was therefore something of a surprise to me, and a considerable relief, to begin reading the first lines in Stafford's book:

The Tulip Tree 
Many a winter night
the green of the tulip tree
lives again among the other trees,
returns through miles of rain
to that level of color
all day pattered, wind-wearied,
calmly asserted in our yard...

This was a new idea to me, that you could write like this, that you could use very simple language and convey the movements of thought in a reflective, explorational way, even to the extent of bending the syntax ("to that level of color/all day pattered") in a way that doesn't sound right but feels right. I read that book straight through—the first time I had ever done that with a book of poems—and went back to the shelf for Allegiances, which offered up the first poem I ever committed to memory of my own volition:

Tragic Song 
All still when summer is over
stand shocks in the field
nothing left to whisper,
not even good-bye, to the wind. 
After summer was over
we knew winter would come:
we knew silence would wait,
tall, patient, calm. 
And that cold this winter gray wolves
deep in the North would cry
how summer that whispered all of us
at last whispers away.

I don't know about you. But for me, it doesn't get a lot better than that. The language is clean and simple, the imagery coherent and closely interwoven but also surprising, the point being made both sobering and eloquent.

Reading Stafford put a taste in my mouth that I wanted more of. It began a lifetime of reading poetry and writing poetry and (later) teaching poetry as if it were what in fact it should properly be understood to be: the product of another human being's very personal attempt to speak what is true in words that ring true. For, as Stafford says in the last two stanzas of the title poem in "Allegiances":

...once we have tasted far streams, touched the gold,
found some quiet limit beyond the waterfall,
a season changes, and we come back, changed
but safe, quiet, grateful. 
Suppose an insane wind holds all the hills
while strange beliefs whine at the traveler's ears,
we ordinary beings can cling to the earth and love
where we are, sturdy for common things.