Monday, January 18, 2010

A Novel About Poetry

That's what I'm reading now, having finished Jane Hamilton's book Disobedience, which is about a teenaged boy who stumbles upon an e-mail from his mother that reveals she's having an affair. Terrific on multiple counts: the family dynamics, the affair dynamics, the teenage petulance and rage and confusion. Funny and well worth reading, though technology has already caught up to Hamilton's opening:

Reading someone else's email is a quiet, clean enterprise. ... There is no sound but the melody of the dial-up, the purity of the following Gregorian tones, and the sweet nihilistic measure of static.

How long has it been since you heard that sequence of sounds? So odd to think that dial-up's a technology that most people won't even remember in a few years.

Now I'm starting into Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist, which is about a minor poet whose personal life is in shambles and who's trying to write the introduction to a new poetry anthology. Even though I love poetry, a novel with such a plot would normally make me run very far, very fast. Probably toward a movie with lots of explosions.

But Baker is a very interesting writer. Along with a book about his obsession with John Updike (U and I), he has written a couple of fairly dirty books (Vox and The Fermata). Vox, which is the transcript of a long phone conversation between two people who've dialed into a chat line, is a really smart book that will make you think about the depersonalization of sex, the eroticism of anonymity, the old Shirley Maclaine quote about the brain being the most important sex organ. It will make you think about all of these things, once you're done with the lotion.

The main quality of Baker as a writer, though, is interestingness; he is seemingly incapable of not being interesting, and usually this is one of my favorite things in his books: He'll take some ordinary object, like a toenail clipper or something of the sort, and mine it for all its odd history and personal meanings and place in modern life, and usually this minutia is so fascinating that it doesn't bother you at all that, very occasionally, it grows a little chilly. (He talked about his fixations a bit in an interview with Salon a while ago.)

Anyway, my point is that Baker is one of the few writers who could write a book about a guy trying to write the introduction to a poetry anthology and actually make me want to read it. And sure enough, on page 9, the narrator provides advice I thought worth sharing.

And never think, Oh heck, I'll write that whole poem later. Never think, First I'll write this poem about my old orange life jacket, so that I'll be more ready to confront the haunting, daunting reality of this poem here about the treehouse that was rejected by its tree. No. If you do, the bigger theme will rebel and go sour on you. It'll hang there like a forgotten chili pepper on the stem. Put it down, work on it, finish it. If you don't get on it now, somebody else will do something similar, and when you open next year's Best American Poetry and see it under someone else's name, you'll hate yourself.

This strikes me as about 90 percent true, which is enough true that I think it should be Xeroxed and handed out to creative writing students. And then there's that 10 percent that says sometimes you are just not ready, and you have to let that poem percolate or it's going to come out weak and grainy.

I've had this happen with poems that I let sit in my brain for over a year before writing--but then, I've also had the other thing happen, where I didn't write it and it flew off to visit someone else. What about you? Are there ways you've learned to lasso the thing and get it tied it down before you're ready to ride it?

(I count at least three metaphors in the above couple of grafs--coffee, birds, broncos--that make me think I just need to go back to reading for the evening.)

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Kudzu, Kannibals, and Kosher Sushi

And now for recent reading highlights ...

Best book that never quite seemed to develop a plot: Joseph O'Neill's Netherland. Really, what happens in this book? A lonely dude mooses around New York missing his estranged wife, dealing with his natural dreaminess (Frank Bascombe, meet your Dutch-boy soul mate), and interacting with a vast multicultural stream of characters. But who needs a plot when you have New York City, disquisitions on how to produce kosher sushi, and a quest to turn cricket into a national sport?

Best book that will make you want to shoot yourself, in between bouts of wondering whether human flesh really tastes like chicken: Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

(I dragged my husband to the movie during the holidays, too. Sorry, honey. It wasn't exactly festive. But I generally agree with Kafka's idea that we should read "only the kind of books that wound and stab us ... books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves ... book must be the axe to the frozen sea inside us." To which I've long been sure Kafka meant to add, "Oh, and books that make us laugh till a little bit of pee comes out.")

Which brings me to:

Best book I read, flat out: Beth Ann Fennelly's collection Unmentionables. It's funny, naughty in parts, imbued with a nice southerny tongue-in-cheek-iness that I liked a lot. But for all the southern bits (the kudzu poems are terrific, and you can see a cool video art version of them here), my favorite part is the sequence on Berthe Morisot.

Other bits of note: Katie Roiphe's fascinating essay on sex and the American male novelist in the last New York Times Book Review. A friend of mine pointed out that, in An American Dream, Mailer throws a woman out the window after raping her, and that therefore she couldn't find it in herself to work up much nostalgia for this older generation of scribblers. My first instinct was to agree, but then it occurred to me that it wasn't Mailer but Stephen Rojack who threw someone out a window, so given the novelist's common role of cultural critic, it seems a less clear feminist cause to me (though Mailer's own taste for the human ear is well-documented). In any case, the essay's definitely worth a read. Did you read it? What did you think?

Now starting into Ron Slate's The Great Wave and Jane Hamilton's Disobedience. See you on the other side.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Of Yaks and Modern Poetry

The Washington Post released its list of the best books of 2009 a few weekends back.

Memoir! Fiction! Arts and Letters! Business and Economics! Separate lists of American history and world history! Biography! Politics! Science! Sports!

And not a poetry book in sight. Not one.

The Post has apparently decided that poetry is a dead medium. Maybe it takes one to know one?

(I'm sorry. That was harsh. I know some very dear people who work at WP. And it has occurred to me lately that there are similarities between the ongoing gutting of journalism and the neglect/disappearance of poetry. Good poetry and good journalism are both things many people will not miss until they've disappeared completely, when the difference between the two arts and what's left in their place--Hallmark card doggerel and blogs loaded with truthiness--becomes starkly clear. Poets have never been able to make a living off their craft, yet poetry has survived, even if it's been marginalized. Journalists--who once could turn their skills into a decent living--are increasingly in the dinghy poets have drifted in all along.)

The New York Times, at least, included two poetry books on its 100 Notables list, those by Amy Gerstler and Louise Gluck. It's paltry, sure, but it's something--and the Times also included a lot of terrific short fiction collections, which frequently suffer similar neglect.

I'm sad to see my hometown paper ignoring poetry. I know they have their little poetry ghetto every week (which has recently changed form, allowing a poet to discuss one of his or her own works). I like Poet's Choice, but whenever I used to read the columns, my enjoyment was tinged with the sense of being treated to an explication of an obscure and mysterious art from a strange and distant land. As though the poem under review were a Himalayan basket designed for an obscure god to lay an egg in, or a Peruvian bowl made out of alpaca hoof.

It was this thought, along with a general musing about the insular nature of modern poetry, that inspired this poem a while back.

Happy new year to all!