Saturday, June 6, 2015

Go Figure

Okay, I'm back. Three months and change since I last posted anything, but I'm heading back into the classroom next week and it's been on my mind to get back in the saddle and ride for a while. It's not that I haven't been writing at all. I've been making it a point to try to write at least 500 words a day in my MS Word journal; since my last Throughlines post on February 25 I've done 31 entries of at least that length. That is, needless to say, a different kind of writing, and most of it would be of even less interest to anyone who stumbled by this blog than the stuff that I have usually posted in the past. (I've also been cranking out collages like crazy. Lots of recent examples on Flickr, if you want to see where I've been.)

As far as reading goes, my most recent exploration began with a review by Tom Perrotta of Kate Atkinson's new book, which led me to Ben Lerner. In the last couple of weeks I've read both of his novels, Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04, and two of his collections of poetry, Angle of Yaw and The Lichtenberg Figures. I find him very smart, very inventive, and very funny. He works in that very interesting territory somewhere south of fiction and north of nonfiction. As Perrotta points out in the passage that originally got my attention:

Some of the most interesting “novels” of the past few years — Teju Cole’s “Open City,” Jenny Offill’s “Dept. of Speculation,” Ben Lerner’s “Leaving the Atocha Station,” not to mention Knausgaard’s epic, “My Struggle” — are barely novels at all. They read more like memoirs, or a series of lightly fictionalized journal entries, recounting the mundane lives and off-kilter ruminations of their first-person narrators, who are either postgraduate students or blocked writers. There’s a bracing smallness to these books — even those of Knausgaard, who’s a miniaturist on a gargantuan scale — and a serene indifference to what has long passed for ambition in the novel. There’s no plot and barely any action, very few characters, no shifting points of view or tricky chronologies, no attempt to recreate a distant era or illuminate the inner workings of a particular society at a particular moment in time. There’s just the writer, eating his omelet, putting her child to bed.
I'm drawn to Lerner for many of the same reasons that I'm drawn to the artwork of Robert Rauschenberg and Kurt Schwitters, or the poetry of John Ashbery (whom Lerner admires). I like art and writing that is chancy and generates its own logic as it evolves, rather than relying on pre-existing formal or cultural conventions.

Lerner's poetry, like Ashbery's, adopts conventional forms mostly in order to play around with subverting them. The Lichtenberg Figures, for example, consists of 53 poems that look like sonnets, that are sonnets of a sort, but that don't play the same games that most traditional sonnets play. Example:

True, a great work takes up the question of its origins
and lets it drop. But this is no great work. This is a sketch
sold on the strength of its signature, a sketch
executed without trial. Inappropriately formal, 

this late work reflects an inability to swallow. Once
my name suggested female bathers
rendered in bright impasto.
Now it is dismissed as “unpronounceable.” 

Polemical, depressed, these contagious black planes
were hung to disperse museum crowds. Alas,
a generation of pilgrim smokers
has arrived and set off the sprinklers. 

True, abandoning the figure won’t change the world.

But then again, neither will changing the world.

There is, at least preliminarily, and perhaps ultimately, a there there. It is a poem that engages the question of what is good and what is not good in art and writing. But there is also what I find to be a rather delightful off-the-road romp that liberates the poem from its self-consciousness and allows it to become, well, something else than what it would have been if had stayed on the road. In his review of Ashbery's new book of poems in the June 1 New Yorker, Dan Chiasson says at one point, that "These poems conjure a massive mental errata slip made up of what they almost say and nearly mean." I like that formulation, and I like that zone of consciousness in art and writing, the one in which the meanings remain (and are intended to remain) fluid and unresolved. There's a playfulness, a freedom, an openness at work which I find inviting and encouraging.

I often ask my students, once we have read something that is a little out of the range of their normal reading experience, to take a shot at writing something like that, whatever it was, not so much because it's likely they will be able to compete, but so as to better understand the nature and challenges of the game. In that spirit, with apologies to both Ben Lerner and Mark Strand, I'll close with this, my own unrevised proto- (or perhaps post-) sonnet, which I wrote earlier today in my journal:

The last of the golden retrievers bays at the rising, broken moon
as the shadows lengthen over the village green. How much time
remains is anyone's guess. In the elms across the street two crows
speak to one another in their enigmatic code. In here, no sounds

but the hum of the fan and the refrigerator's gurgle. Gleeful seems
a long way to drive, easier to just do the dishes, put out the cat,
and head downstairs, which would be upstairs anywhere else.
One and two and snicker snack, the scissors at their surgery,

cleaning up the edges. You could try to do something
with the trimmings, but at some point diminishing returns
have the last word. How granular does one go? Enough is
enough; into the bag with you. You've served me well,

but now it's time for a change of pace, a fresh start, a horse

of a different color, something new to wish for. (Careful.)

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