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Posts Tagged ‘literature’

17 MARCH, 2014

Djuna Barnes Interviews James Joyce in 1922: The Iconic Irishman’s Most Significant Interview

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“He turned to quill and paper, for so he could arrange, in the necessary silence, the abundant inadequacies of life, as a laying-out of jewels — jewels with a will to decay.”

Djuna Barnes might be celebrated as a pioneer of modernist writing, her 1936 novel Nightwood a beacon of both modernist fiction and queer literature. But few know that Barnes was also a formidable journalist — a practitioner of literary journalism decades before Gay Talese pioneered the genre. In 1913, after completing her studies in art, 21-year-old Barnes began interviewing and profiling some of the greatest artists, writers, actors, singers, playwrights and other luminaries of the first half of the twentieth century for a number of prominent magazines. In 1985, three years after Barnes died at the age of ninety, outliving every single person she ever profiled (“It’s terrible to outlive your own generation. I wish I could be dead,” Barnes had remarked a decade earlier), these extraordinary conversations were collected in Interviews by Djuna Barnes (public library), featuring Barnes’s own drawings of her subjects. But what makes them especially compelling is that Barnes, like today’s most masterful interviewers, poured into these conversations an enormous amount of her own heart, mind, and sensibility, so that they invariably reflected as much about her as they did about her subjects.

Among them was none other than James Joyce, whom Barnes interviewed and profiled for Vanity Fair in 1922, months after Ulysses was published. The interview remains the most significant one Joyce gave in his lifetime, at once the most cryptic and the most revealing.

James Joyce

Barnes met Joyce in Paris in 1922. After reading an excerpt of Ulysses in The Little Review, where her own work had appeared, she was so impressed that she proclaimed in despair: “I shall never write another line. Who has the nerve after this!” She soon befriended Joyce and became especially close with his wife, Nora. But the admiration was far from one-sided: Joyce thought highly enough of Barnes to gift her the original, annotated manuscript of Ulysses. He may have been a major influence on her writing, but so was she on his, especially as later evidenced in Finnegans Wake.

It is this admiration that pours into Barnes’s introduction to the interview, where her beautiful prose and expansive mind tickle one another into transcendence:

There are men in Dublin who will tell you that out of Ireland a great voice has gone; and there are a few women, lost to youth, who will add: “One night he was singing and the next he wasn’t, and there’s been no silence the like of it!” For the singing voice of James Joyce … is said to have been second to none.

The thought that Joyce was once a singer may not come as a revelation to the casual reader of his books. One must perhaps have spent one of those strangely aloof evenings with him, or have read passages of his Ulysses as it appeared in The Little Review, to have realized the singing quality of his words. For tradition has it that a singer must have a touch of bravado, a joyous putting-forth of first the right leg and then the left, and a sigh or two this side of the cloister; and Joyce has none of these.

Barnes, who had been “on one or two theatrical committees just long enough to suggest the production of Exiles, his only play,” revels in Joyce’s most beautiful sentences (“So stood they both awhile in wan hope sorrowing one with the other.”) and writes:

I realized Joyce must indeed have begun life as a singer, and a very tender singer. And, because no voice can hold out over the brutalities of life without breaking, he turned to quill and paper, for so he could arrange, in the necessary silence, the abundant inadequacies of life, as a laying-out of jewels — jewels with a will to decay.

(This sentence itself if undoubtedly among the most beautiful prose ever written.)

Before that first meeting with him in Paris, Barnes held great admiration for Joyce the writer but what she knew about Joyce the man was somewhere between hearsay and legend — mostly based on the ludicrous rumors about him in America. (Ezra Pound had famously contributed to the myth by writing, “Joyce is the only man on the continent who continues to produce, in spite of poverty and sickness, working from eight to sixteen hours a day.” Of course, we now know the reality of Joyce’s daily routine was rather different.)

So when Barnes first met Joyce at a little Parisian café across from the church of St. Germain des Près, she found herself transfixed by his odd appearance — a waistcoat too young and too small for him, “partly because he had thrust its gathers behind him, and partly because the belt which circled it lay two full inches above his hips,” a strangely styled red and black beard, which “descended sharply into a scant wedge on an out-thrust chin, and a what appears to be the early-twentieth-century version of an Ugly Christmas Sweater, knitted by Joyce’s own grandmother “for the first hunt of the season” — a purple waistcoat featuring “alternate doe and dog heads, [the does’] tiny scarlet tongues hanging out over blond lower lips, drowned in a light wool.”

Portrait of James Joyce by Djuna Barnes

Joyce’s demeanor was equally unapologetic, beginning with the very first thing he said to Barnes regarding the recent censorship of Ulysses:

The pity is, the public will demand and find a moral in my book — or worse, they may take it in some more serious way, and on the honor of a gentleman, there is not one single serious line in it.

And yet it is quickly revealed that he takes language — and thereby his own writing — rather seriously as a sculptor of culture. He tells Barnes:

All the great talkers have spoken in the language of Sterne, Swift, or the Restoration. Even Oscar Wilde. He studied the restoration through a microscope in the morning and repeated it through a telescope in the evening

[In Ulysses] they are all there, the great talkers, them and the things they forgot. In Ulysses I have recorded, simultaneously, what a man says, sees, thinks, and what such seeing, thinking, saying does to what you Freudians call the subconscious.

He adds a quick sleight against Freud and his craft, which had just reached its cultural height some years earlier:

But as for psychoanalysis, it’s neither more nor less than blackmail.

Once again, Barnes’s own exquisite prose pours in:

People say of him that he looks both sad and tired. He does look sad and he does look tired, but it is the sadness of a man who has procured some medieval permission to sorrow out of time and in no place; it is the weariness of one self-subjected to the creation of an overabundance in the limited.

If I were asked what seemed to be the most characteristic pose of James Joyce, I should say that of the head, turned farther away than disgust and not so far as death.

Barnes, who went on to befriend Joyce over the course of the four months she spent in Paris that year, notes that “one may not ask him questions, one must know him” and recounts their talks, the conduit of knowing:

We have talked of rivers and of religion, of the instinctive genius of the church which chose, for the signing of its hymns, the voice without “overtones” — the voice of the eunuch. We have talked of women;a bout women he seems a bit disinterested. Were I vain, I should say he is afraid of them, but I am certain he is only a little skeptical of their existence…

We have talked of death, of rats, of horses, of the sea; languages, climates and offerings. Of artists and of Ireland.

Joyce told her of the latter:

The Irish are people who will never have leaders, for at the great moment they always desert them…

Barnes remarks on Joyce’s curious customs and routines:

Joyce has few friends, yet he is always willing to leave his writing table and his white coat of an evening, to go to some quiet nearby cafe, there to discuss anything that is not “artistic” or “flashy” or “new.” Callers have often found him writing into the night, or drinking tea with Nora. I myself once came upon him as he lay full length on his stomach poring over a valise full of notes taken in his youth for Ulysses — for as Nora says, “It’s the great fanaticism is on him, and it is coming to no end.” Once he was reading out of the book of saints (he is never without it) and muttering to himself that this particular day’s saint was “a devil of a fellow for bringing on the rain, and we wanting to go for a stroll.”

However it is with him, he will come away for the evening, for he is simple, a scholar, and sees nothing objectionable in human beings if they will only remain in place.

Of course, Barnes knew better than to let the reader mistake Joyce’s outlook for sheepish resignation to the human condition. She quickly counters by relaying Joyce’s iconoclastic tenacity in his own words:

I will not serve that which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church; and I will try to express myself in my art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use: silence, exile, and cunning.

Interviews by Djuna Barnes is a treasure trove in its entirety, with many more rare conversations with cultural icons. Complement this particular one with three poems by James Joyce and his newly revived children’s book.

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04 MARCH, 2014

A Solitary World: A Breathtaking Homage to H.G. Wells from a New Genre of Cinematic Poetry

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“What is this spirit in man that urges him forever to depart from happiness, to toil and to place himself in danger?”

From my friends at PBS Digital Studios and filmmaker James W. Griffiths comes A Solitary World — a breathtaking homage to H.G. Wells, with text adapted from five of his most celebrated works: The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The First Men in the Moon (1901), In The Days of the Comet (1906), The World Set Free (1914). Read by Terry Burns and featuring an appropriately haunting score from the young British composer Lennert Busch, the film belongs to — pioneers, perhaps — an emerging creative genre: the cinematic poem.

A horrible feeling of desolation pinched my heart. I listened rigid but heard nothing but the creep of blood in my ears. Great and shadowy and strange was the world and I drifted solitary through its vast mysteries.

A remote faint question, where I might be, drifted and vanished again in my mind. I found myself standing astonished, my emotions penetrated by something I could not understand.

I felt naked. I felt as perhaps a bird may feel in the clear air knowing the hawk wings above and will swoop.

I began to feel the need of fellowship. I wanted to question, wanted to speak, wanted to relate my experience. What is this spirit in man that urges him forever to depart from happiness, to toil and to place himself in danger?

It was this restlessness, this insecurity perhaps that drove me further and further afield in my exploring expedition. As the hush of the evening crept over the world, the sun touched the mountains and became very swiftly a blazing hemisphere of liquid flame, and sank.

Then, slow and soft and wrapping the world in fold after fold of deepening blue, came the night. And then, the splendor of the sight — in the sky, one bright planet shone kindly and steadily like the face of an old friend. The full temerity of my voyage suddenly came upon me. At last I began to feel the pull of the earth upon my being, drawing me back again to the life that is real, for men.

For a wholly different homage to Wells, see Edward Gorey’s vintage illustrations of The War of the Worlds. For a deeper dive into Wells’s own narrative magic, the works used in the film are in the public domain and thus available as free ebooks here, here, here, here and here.

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17 FEBRUARY, 2014

Joseph Brodsky on How to Develop Your Taste in Reading

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“You stand to lose nothing; what you may gain are new associative chains.”

“The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not,” Kurt Vonnegut famously proclaimed. But how is one to develop that discerning taste, especially in determining what is worth reading and what is not?

On May 18, 1988, several months after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature and exactly seven months before he delivered the greatest commencement address of all time, the prolific poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky gave the opening keynote at Turin’s very first book fair. His talk, titled “How to Read a Book” and included in the 1997 anthology On Grief and Reason: Essays (public library), is a beautiful and timeless meditation on the value — the purpose, the challenge, the transcendent joy — of the written word. Although it was written with books in mind, it applies just as brilliantly to the question of what is worth engaging in, in any medium — a question all the more pressing amidst our era’s constant influx of information of increasingly questionable quality, delivered with increasingly uncompromising ploys for our attention.

Brodsky begins by contemplating how books address our mortality paradox and serve as assurance against the uncomfortable impermanence of existence:

On the whole, infinity is a fairly palpable aspect of this business of publishing, if only because it extends a dead author’s existence beyond the limits he envisioned, or provides a living author with a future he cannot measure. In other words, this business deals with the future which we all prefer to regard as unending.

On the whole, books are indeed less finite than ourselves. Even the worst among them outlast their authors — mainly because they occupy a smaller amount of physical space than those who penned them. Often they sit on the shelves absorbing dust long after the writer himself has turned into a handful of dust. Yet even this form of the future is better than the memory of a few surviving relatives or friends on which one cannot rely, and often it is precisely the appetite for this posthumous dimension which sets one’s pen in motion.

So as we toss and turn these rectangular objects in our hands — those in octavo, in quarto, in duodecimo, etc., etc. — we won’t be terribly amiss if we surmise that we fondle in our hands, as it were, the actual or potential urns with someone’s rustling ashes.

He then moves on to the spectrum of creative merit in readable material and the value of the books that Susan Sontag didn’t consider part of literature in honing a writer’s taste:

In order to write a good book, a writer must read a great deal of trash — otherwise, he won’t be able to develop the necessary criteria. That’s what may constitute bad literature’s best defense at the Last Judgment. . . .

But despite this potential value of bad books, Brodsky argues that for time-economy reasons, we need a system of separating the good from the bad and points, “some compass in the ocean of available literature.” The formal role of that compass in society is played by the reviewer and literary critic, Brodsky argues, but that is a compass whose needle “oscillates wildly.” He considers the problems with criticism:

The trouble with a reviewer is (minimum) threefold: (A) he can be a hack, and as ignorant as ourselves, (B) he can have strong predilections for a certain kind of writing, or simply be on the take with the publishing industry, and (C) if he is a writer of talent, he will turn his review-writing into an independent art form — Jorge Luis Borges is a case in point — and you may end up by reading reviews rather than the books themselves.

(To that, we might begrudgingly add (D) “he” is, indeed, primarily male — a statistic that bespeaks a whole other set of problems in literature.)

Brodsky continues by exploring the alternative to the flawed system of relying on professional reviewers — or “tastemakers,” as it were — presaging the equally questionable era of Amazon reviews and crowdsourced opinion-homogenization:

In any case, you find yourselves adrift in the ocean, with pages and pages rustling in every direction, clinging to a raft of whose ability to stay afloat you are not so sure. The alternative therefore would be to develop your own taste, to build your own compass, to familiarize yourself, as it were, with particular stars and constellations — dim or bright but always remote. This, however, takes a hell of a lot of time, and you may easily find yourself old and gray, heading for the exit with a lousy volume under your arm. Another alternative — or perhaps just a part of the same — is to rely on hearsay; a friend’s advice, a reference caught in a text that you happen to like. Although not institutionalized in any fashion (which wouldn’t be such a bad idea), this kind of procedure is familiar to all of us from a tender age. Yet this too proves to be poor insurance, for the ocean of available literature swells and widens constantly.

So what is one to do amidst this grim set of options? Brodsky sees only one viable way to cultivate that compass — to learn what Wordsworth believed to be “the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge” and to develop what Edward Hirsch so memorably called “a mind so miraculously attuned and illuminated that it can form words, by a chain of more-than coincidences, into a living entity,” that special thing that, as James Dickey put it, “makes possible the deepest kind of personal possession of the world.” Brodsky writes:

The way to develop good taste in literature is to read poetry. If you think that I am speaking out of professional partisanship, that I am trying to advance my own guild interests, you are badly mistaken. For, being the supreme form of human locution, poetry is not only the most concise, the most condensed way of conveying the human experience; it also offers the highest possible standards for any linguistic operation — especially one on paper.

The more one reads poetry, the less tolerant one becomes of any sort of verbosity, be that in political or philosophical discourse, be that in history, social studies or the art of fiction. Good style in prose is always hostage to the precision, speed and laconic intensity of poetic diction. A child of epitaph and epigram, conceived indeed as a short cut to any conceivable subject matter, poetry to prose is a great disciplinarian. It teaches the latter not only the value of each word but also the mercurial mental patterns of the species, alternatives to linear composition, the knack of omitting the self-evident, emphasis on detail, the technique of anticlimax. Above all, poetry develops in prose that appetite for metaphysics that distinguishes a work of art from mere belles-lettres. It must be admitted, however, that in this particular regard, prose has proven to be a rather lazy pupil.

Noting that all you need to do is “arm yourselves for a couple of months with the works of poets in your mother tongue, preferably from the first half of [the twentieth] century, he goes on to offer specific reading recommendations for poetry in some of the major world languages:

If your mother tongue is English, I may recommend to you Robert Frost, Thomas Hardy, W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop. If the language is German, Rainer Maria Rilke, Georg Trakl, Peter Huchel, Ingeborg Bachmann and Gottfried Benn. If it is Spanish, Antonio Machado, Federico Garcia Lorca, Luis Cernuda, Rafael Alberti, Juan Ramon Jimenez and Octavio Paz will do. If the language is Polish — or if you know Polish (which would be to your great advantage, because the most extraordinary poetry of this century is written in that language) — I’d like to mention to you the names of Leopold Staff, Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert and Wieslawa Szymborska. If it is French, then of course Apollinaire, Jules Supervielle, Pierre Reverdy, Blaise Cendrars, Max Jacob, Francis Jammes, Andre Frenaud some of Eluard, a bit of Aragon, Victor Segalen, and Henri Michaux. If it is Greek, then you should read Constantine Cavafy, George Seferis, Yannis Ritsos. If it is Dutch, then your must is Martinus Nijhoff, particularly his stunning “Awater.” If it is Portuguese, you should try Fernando Pessoa and perhaps Carlos Drummond de Andrade. If the language is Swedish, read Gunnar Ekelof, Harry Martinson, Werner Aspenstrom, Tomas Transtromer. If it is Russian, it should be, to say the least, Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, Vladislav Khodasevich, Viktor Khlebnikov, Nikolai Kluyev, Nikolai Zabolotsky. If it is Italian, I don’t presume to submit any name to this audience, and if I still mention Quasimodo, Saba, Ungaretti and Montale, it is simply because I have long wanted to acknowledge my personal, private gratitude and debt to these four great poets whose lines influenced my own life rather crucially, and I am glad to do so while standing on Italian soil.

One of the chief benefits of cultivating such taste, Brodsky suggests, is the confidence of knowing which books are not worth reading, which in turn makes the choice of the worthy all the more meaningful. (“Non-reading, Pierre Bayard wrote in his excellent How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, “is not just the absence of reading. It is a genuine activity, one that consists of adopting a stance in relation to the immense tide of books that protects you from drowning. On that basis, it deserves to be defended and even taught.”) Brodsky adds:

If after going through the works of any of these, you would drop a book of prose picked from the shelf, it won’t be your fault. If you’d continue to read it, that will be to the author’s credit; that will mean that this author has indeed something to add to the truth about our existence as it was known to these few poets just mentioned; that would prove at least that this author is not redundant, that his language has an independent energy or grace. Or else, that would mean that reading is your incurable addiction. As addictions go, this is not the worst one.

What makes poetry so exceptional at honing literary taste, Brodsky argues, is how little room for hackery it leaves:

Poetry, as Montale once put it, is an incurably semantic art, and the chances for charlatanism in it are extremely low. By the third line a reader will know what sort of thing he holds in his left hand, for poetry makes sense fast and the quality of language in it makes itself felt immediately.

Above all, however, poetry promises to do for the mind what Vannevar Bush presaged the internet would — create a network of associative trails that link up ideas, which is, of course, the foundation of creativity. Brodsky concludes with a beautiful sentiment:

Like the proverbial proletariat, you stand to lose nothing; what you may gain are new associative chains.

On Grief and Reason is a soul-stimulating read in its entirety. Sample it further with Brodsky on how to play the game of life, then see Virginia Woolf on how to read a book, Edward Hirsch on how to read a poem, and James Dickey on how to enjoy poetry.

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10 FEBRUARY, 2014

The Project of Literature: Susan Sontag on Writing, Routines, Education, and Elitism in a 1992 Recording from the 92Y Archives

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“A writer is someone who pays attention to the world — a writer is a professional observer.”

Susan Sontag remains one of the most interesting minds in modern history, with provocative and prescient beliefs and opinions on everything from visual culture to love and sex to stereotypes and polarities to why lists appeal to us. But arguably her most timeless insights touch on the heart of her own creative material — literature.

In the spring of 1992, exactly ten years after her magnificent meditation on books in Letter to Borges, Sontag visited the 92nd Street Y in New York to deliver a lecture on the project and purpose of literature. Now, thanks to a new partnership with the Unterberg Poetry Center at the 92Y, who recorded the live event, I am proud and heartened to offer Sontag’s talk for our shared enrichment. Transcribed highlights below — please enjoy.

On becoming a writer, writing itself (a subject Sontag pondered frequently in her diaries), and its osmotic relationship with reading — a fine addition to the collected wisdom of great writers:

What made me be a writer was that I was a passionate reader. I began reading at a very, very early age, and I’ve been a reading junkie ever since — I read all the time. I probably spend more time reading than any other thing I’ve done in my life, including sleeping. I’ve spent many, many days of my life reading eight and ten hours a day, and there’s no day that I don’t read for hours, and don’t ask me how I can do all the other things — I don’t know. The day has pockets — you can always find time to read.

Reading set standards. Reading opened up to me all these norms, or — to put it in a more naive and probably truthful way — ideals. So that to be part of literature, to be even the humblest, lowest member of the great multitude of people who actually dare to put words on paper and publish them, seemed to me the most glorious thing one could do.

Now, in this sort of book-drunken life … in this relation to reading, which is where the writing comes — I didn’t discover I had a talent; I discovered I wanted … to emulate, to honor, by trying to do it myself, as well as continuing to read it and love it and be inspired by it.

And I mean this most passionately. That’s where the standards came from, that’s where the ideas came from of what was good, what was right, what was better, that there was always something better and whatever you could do was by definition not good enough. The only thing that was good was what was hard to do, what you had to work very hard to do, or what was better than anything you could do.

Sontag goes on to explore the still-debated issue of gender in literature and the notion of how stereotypes imprison us:

That all came from books, and it came from the usual books that are now called “the cannon” — used to be called “classics,” which is not a bad term either — and most of those writers are men. It’s not my choice that they be men, but as far as we know, Homer and Shakespeare and Dante and Rabelais and so on, those writers, they’re mostly men. Of course… George Eliot and Virginia Woolf and Emily Dickinson and so on [are] absolutely first-class writers, but most great writers have been men — this is not to justify it, this is not to be happy about it, it’s just the way it is. For all the obvious reasons, we know why the majority of distinguished practitioners of most arts have been, up to this time, men — there’s nothing about the future, nothing about what ought to be, just what is.

Therefore, it was so natural to me to take the attitude that these were writers — in other words, Emily Dickinson isn’t a “woman poet” any more than Walt Whitman is a “male poet” — they’re just both poets. George Eliot isn’t a “woman writer,” whereas, let’s say, Dickens is just a “writer” — they were just writers. . . .

I also live in a time in which it’s very important to me — and natural to me — to support and want to align myself with most aspects of the feminist agenda. I’ve always been a feminist — it’s not something I became. At a certain time, I had the honor of being called by Elizabeth Hardwick “somebody who is born a feminist.”

[But] there can be a contradiction, if you will. It is important to women coming to consciousness of the cultural disabilities under which women labor, in which their consciousness is formed, to make those distinctions — the distinctions that I want to, as a writer, not think about. They can be very important for women in general to think about. So there’s the contradiction — let’s say I do one thing as a citizen, as a civic person, and I do something else as a writer.

[…]

But… if I truly considered people and their lives over a long span of time — people with marriages and love affairs and careers, living in a conventional society — it could not be the case … that I would not be struck by the ways in which women think of themselves in subservient roles and in which they become dependent, or even crippled, by gender stereotypes. … Everybody knows it. What we say is what we have permission to say — we always know much more than we say, and we see much more than we acknowledge that we see, but at any given time there are conventions about what we say we can say and what we think we can think. And one of the interesting things about being a writer is to try to open that out a little bit.

Adding to Italo Calvino’s timeless definitions of what makes a classic, Sontag considers what a writer is and what literature means:

A writer is someone who pays attention to the world — a writer is a professional observer.

To be a writer, also — and this is the contradiction — demands a going inward and reclusiveness, just plain reclusiveness — not going out — staying home all the time — not going out with everybody else going to play. . . .

In all of this, I am assuming a certain idea of literature, of a very exalted kind. I’m using the word “writer” to mean someone who creates, or tries to create, literature. And by “literature” I mean — again, very crude definition — books that will really last, books that will be read a hundred years from now.

Now, most people are not “writers” in that sense… 40,000 books a year are published in this country, and many of them are useful and are entertaining to some people. They have some constituency — they’re not part of literature. Literature is actually just this little tiny percentage of what is produced in book form. But, of course, that’s what I’m talking about — I would go as far as to say that no book is worth reading if it isn’t worth reading five times, or more. . . . That’s what I mean by “literature” — a book that you would want, repeatedly, to read, to be inside you, to be part of your bloodstream.

In answering an audience question, Sontag adds her contribution to famous writers’ daily routines, fusing with characteristic elegance the practical and the philosophical:

Writers’ lives are really very boring. I get up in the morning, I make coffee, and I go to work. And I work until I drop. . . . A day in the life of a writer — this writer — is getting up and doing it all day long, and all evening long, and sometimes till 3 or 4 in the morning.

On the psychological value of writing by hand amidst a digital culture, a point that has amplified resonance two decades later:

I write by hand and then I type it. But I have to write the first draft by hand. Now, don’t tell me about the computer — I know the computer is wonderful. I remember one writer friend of mine … said, “I don’t want to use a computer because it’s too entertaining.” It’s not writers’ masochism that makes some few of us continue to hold out against this — it’s that it is better if it goes slower, at least I think so. It’s good to feel it in your hand and it’s good to be able to just think. . . . .

Maybe a writer who grows up with computers would not feel this way, but then, I think, the writing will be different. Let’s put it this way: Writing, like painting, is artisanal. It’s one of the few artistic activities which does require solitude. Most other art activities do involve people and are collaborative. . . . To be an artist or a writer is to be this weird thing — a hand worker in an era of mass production.

In answering another audience question, Sontag considers what it takes to be — rather than become — a writer:

You have to be obsessed. . . . [Being a writer] is not like something you want to be — it’s rather something you couldn’t help but be. But you have to be obsessed.

Otherwise, of course, it’s perfectly okay to write, in the way that it’s perfectly okay to paint or play a musical instrument — and why shouldn’t people do that? I deplore the fact that only writers can write, as it were? Why can’t people have that as an art activity? … But to actually want to make your life being a writer, it’s an auto-slavery … you are both the slave and the task-master. It’s a very driven thing.

Sontag, who considers herself unproductive despite her dozen published books by that point and her ample diaries, returns to the question of daily routines and writerly rituals:

The most productive writers I know have been the most rigidly scheduled, and I’m incapable of having a schedule. . . . Alberto Moravia, the Italian writer who was enormously productive … told me that he started work every morning at a quarter to 8 and he quit at a quarter to 1, and that was it — that’s when he had lunch. . . . And I said, “Well, what happens if you’re called to lunch at a quarter to 1 and you’re in the middle of a sentence?” And he said, “Well, I just stop. I just go and have lunch and go back the next day.” And I thought, I couldn’t do that to save my life. I have a feeling … it’s started! How could I? … I can’t leave it! It’s not even that I can’t leave it because I’m afraid that it would go away… I simply can’t.

It’s as hard as stopping peeing in the middle of peeing — excuse the simple-minded example, but just in the same way that it’s very hard to stop peeing once you’ve started, it seems to me, once you’ve started writing, that day, if there’s anything there, how could you stop?

(There’s a reason, indeed, why the creative process at its most immersive is called “flow,” and it’s perhaps this that Henry Miller touched into in his meditation on the joy of urination.)

On the absurdity of using “elitism” as a divisive and derogatory term, something that we still grapple with today:

I think most of what is called “elitist” is a mask for anti-intellectualism — I mean, there is such a thing as excellence.

Sontag ends on a remarkably prescient note about education, the broken system for which she had proposed a revolutionary intervention some two decades prior, and a system that remains just as broken two decades later:

The worst thing about [the system we live in], I suppose, is our educational system. And that is, perhaps, also the most hopeless thing in the system — it’s the most important thing that we should be changing, and it’s the thing we’re least likely to change. And if we don’t change that, basically we won’t change anything else.

Stay tuned for more excellent recordings from the 92Y archives, and explore more of Sontag enduring genius here.

Illustrated portrait of Sontag by Wendy MacNaughton for a previous collaboration

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28 JANUARY, 2014

The Poetic Principle: Poe on Truth, Love, Reason, and the Human Impulse for Beauty

By:

“A poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul. The value of the poem is in the ratio of this elevating excitement.”

“True poetic form,” Edward Hirsch wrote in his wonderful meditation on how to read a poem, “implies a mind so miraculously attuned and illuminated that it can form words, by a chain of more-than coincidences, into a living entity.” James Dickey, in his guide on how to enjoy poetry, argued that “poetry makes possible the deepest kind of personal possession of the world.” In his sublime Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the late and great Seamus Heaney asserted that poetry works to “persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness” and remind us that we are “hunters and gatherers of values.” But, surely, all these exaltations apply to good poetry — great poetry, even. The question, then, is what makes great poetry, and why does it make the human soul sing so?

Arguably the most compelling answer ever given comes from Edgar Allan Poe in his essay “The Poetic Principle,” which he penned at the end of his life. It was published posthumously in 1850 and can be found in the fantastic Library of America volume Edgar Allan Poe: Essays and Reviews (public library), which also gave us Poe’s priceless praise of marginalia.

Poe begins with an unambiguous definition of the purpose of poetry:

A poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul. The value of the poem is in the ratio of this elevating excitement. But all excitements are, through a psychal necessity, transient. That degree of excitement which would entitle a poem to be so called at all, cannot be sustained throughout a composition of any great length. After the lapse of half an hour, at the very utmost, it flags — fails — a revulsion ensues — and then the poem is, in effect, and in fact, no longer such.

And yet, he argues, this isn’t necessarily how we judge poetic merit — he takes a prescient jab against our present “A for effort” cultural mindset to remind us that the measure of genius isn’t dogged time investment but actual creative quality:

It is to be hoped that common sense, in the time to come, will prefer deciding upon a work of Art, rather by the impression it makes — by the effect it produces — than by the time it took to impress the effect, or by the amount of “sustained effort” which had been found necessary in effecting the impression. The fact is, that perseverance is one thing and genius quite another

(It’s interesting that he uses the term “sustained effort” more than a century and a half before the findings of modern psychology, which has upgraded the term to “deliberate practice” to illustrate the qualitative difference in the effort necessary for achieving genius-level skill.)

After discussing a couple of examples of poems that elevate the soul, Poe takes a stab at what he considers to be the most perilous cultural misconception about poetry and its aim, a fallacy that profoundly betrays the poetic spirit:

It has been assumed, tacitly and avowedly, directly and indirectly, that the ultimate object of all Poetry is Truth. Every poem, it is said, should inculcate a moral; and by this moral is the poetical merit of the work to be adjudged. We Americans especially have patronized this happy idea; and we Bostonians, very especially, have developed it in full. We have taken it into our heads that to write a poem simply for the poem’s sake, and to acknowledge such to have been our design, would be to confess ourselves radically wanting in the true poetic dignity and force: — but the simple fact is, that, would we but permit ourselves to look into our own souls we should immediately there discover that under the sun there neither exists nor can exist any work more thoroughly dignified — more supremely noble than this very poem — this poem per se — this poem which is a poem and nothing more — this poem written solely for the poem’s sake.

He goes on to outline a dispositional diagram of the human mind, a kind of conceptual phrenology that segments out the trifecta of mental faculties:

Dividing the world of mind into its three most immediately obvious distinctions, we have the Pure Intellect, Taste, and the Moral Sense. I place Taste in the middle, because it is just this position which, in the mind, it occupies. It holds intimate relations with either extreme; but from the Moral Sense is separated by so faint a difference that Aristotle has not hesitated to place some of its operations among the virtues themselves. Nevertheless, we find the offices of the trio marked with a sufficient distinction. Just as the Intellect concerns itself with Truth, so Taste informs us of the Beautiful while the Moral Sense is regardful of Duty. Of this latter, while Conscience teaches the obligation, and Reason the expediency, Taste contents herself with displaying the charms: — waging war upon Vice solely on the ground of her deformity — her disproportion — her animosity to the fitting, to the appropriate, to the harmonious — in a word, to Beauty.

(I wonder whether Susan Sontag was thinking about Poe when she wrote in her diary that “intelligence … is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas.”)

Beauty, Poe argues, is the highest of those human drives, and the domain where poetry dwells:

An immortal instinct, deep within the spirit of man, is thus, plainly, a sense of the Beautiful. This it is which administers to his delight in the manifold forms, and sounds, and odors, and sentiments amid which he exists. And just as the lily is repeated in the lake, or the eyes of Amaryllis in the mirror, so is the mere oral or written repetition of these forms, and sounds, and colors, and odors, and sentiments, a duplicate source of delight.

[…]

The struggle to apprehend the supernal Loveliness — this struggle, on the part of souls fittingly constituted — has given to the world all that which it (the world) has ever been enabled at once to understand and to feel as poetic.

Acknowledging that the poetic sentiment may manifest itself in forms other than poetry — art, sculpture, dance, architecture — he points to music (“Music”) as an especially sublime embodiment of the Poetic Principle:

It is in Music, perhaps, that the soul most nearly attains the great end for which, when inspired by the Poetic Sentiment, it struggles — the creation of supernal Beauty. It may be, indeed, that here this sublime end is, now and then, attained in fact. We are often made to feel, with a shivering delight, that from an earthly harp are stricken notes which cannot have been unfamiliar to the angels. And thus there can be little doubt that in the union of Poetry with Music in its popular sense, we shall find the widest field for the Poetic development.

(Again, I wonder whether Poe was on Susan Sontag’s mind when she wrote that “music is at once the most wonderful, the most alive of all the arts,” or on Edna St. Vincent Millay’s when she exclaimed, “Without music I should wish to die. Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is.”)

Poe returns to the subject of beauty as the ultimate source of this “Poetic Sentiment” in all its varied expressions with an argument that rings all the more poignant and stirring today, in an age when we question whether pleasure alone can make literature worthwhile. Poe writes:

That pleasure which is at once the most pure, the most elevating, and the most intense, is derived, I maintain, from the contemplation of the Beautiful. In the contemplation of Beauty we alone find it possible to attain that pleasurable elevation, or excitement, of the soul, which we recognize as the Poetic Sentiment, and which is so easily distinguished from Truth, which is the satisfaction of the Reason, or from Passion, which is the excitement of the heart. I make Beauty, therefore — using the word as inclusive of the sublime — I make Beauty the province of the poem, simply because it is an obvious rule of Art that effects should be made to spring as directly as possible from their causes: — no one as yet having been weak enough to deny that the peculiar elevation in question is at least most readily attainable in the poem. It by no means follows, however, that the incitements of Passion, or the precepts of Duty, or even the lessons of Truth, may not be introduced into a poem, and with advantage; for they may subserve, incidentally, in various ways, the general purposes of the work: — but the true artist will always contrive to tone them down in proper subjection to that Beauty which is the atmosphere and the real essence of the poem.

He then offers a precise, unapologetic definition of poetry:

I would define, in brief, the Poetry of words as The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty. Its sole arbiter is Taste. With the Intellect or with the Conscience, it has only collateral relations. Unless incidentally, it has no concern whatever either with Duty or with Truth.

[…]

While [the Poetic Principle] itself is, strictly and simply, the Human Aspiration for Supernal Beauty, the manifestation of the Principle is always found in an elevating excitement of the Soul — quite independent of that passion which is the intoxication of the Heart — or of that Truth which is the satisfaction of the Reason. For, in regard to Passion, alas! its tendency is to degrade, rather than to elevate the Soul. Love, on the contrary — Love … is unquestionably the purest and truest of all poetical themes. And in regard to Truth — if, to be sure, through the attainment of a truth, we are led to perceive a harmony where none was apparent before, we experience, at once, the true poetical effect — but this effect is preferable to the harmony alone, and not in the least degree to the truth which merely served to render the harmony manifest.

Portrait of Poe by Benjamin Lacombe. Click image for details.

Poe ends with an exquisite living manifestation of his Poetic Principle — a sort of prose poem about poetry itself:

We shall reach, however, more immediately a distinct conception of what the true Poetry is, by mere reference to a few of the simple elements which induce in the Poet himself the true poetical effect He recognizes the ambrosia which nourishes his soul, in the bright orbs that shine in Heaven — in the volutes of the flower — in the clustering of low shrubberies — in the waving of the grain-fields — in the slanting of tall, Eastern trees — in the blue distance of mountains — in the grouping of clouds — in the twinkling of half-hidden brooks — in the gleaming of silver rivers — in the repose of sequestered lakes — in the star-mirroring depths of lonely wells. He perceives it in the songs of birds — in the harp of Æolus — in the sighing of the night-wind — in the repining voice of the forest — in the surf that complains to the shore — in the fresh breath of the woods — in the scent of the violet — in the voluptuous perfume of the hyacinth — in the suggestive odor that comes to him, at eventide, from far-distant, undiscovered islands, over dim oceans, illimitable and unexplored. He owns it in all noble thoughts — in all unworldly motives — in all holy impulses — in all chivalrous, generous, and self-sacrificing deeds. He feels it in the beauty of woman — in the grace of her step — in the lustre of her eye — in the melody of her voice — in her soft laughter — in her sigh — in the harmony of the rustling of her robes. He deeply feels it in her winning endearments — in her burning enthusiasms — in her gentle charities — in her meek and devotional endurances — but above all — ah, far above all — he kneels to it — he worships it in the faith, in the purity, in the strength, in the altogether divine majesty — of her love.

Find more of Poe’s timeless wisdom in Edgar Allan Poe: Essays and Reviews and complement it with his meditation on marginalia and Lou Reed on the challenge of setting Poe to music.

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