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.)


Sandra said...

I shouldn't be writing this--I'm at VCCA, so browsing blogs feels very poor time management--but I enjoyed your post. You should check out Elizabeth Gilbert's TED Talk. I'm not a huge Gilbert fan, but between minutes 10 and 12 or so she talks about a conversation with Ruth Stone in which the poet described "catching" poems (or not!) as they flew by her house. Kind of an amazing metaphor.

I also plowed my way through The Anthologist, the ONE book I asked for for Christmas. Liked it. Maybe we can compare notes when I'm back in town?


Anonymous said...

I loved The Anthologist--and Baker's ideas about meter gave me plenty of food for thought.


M. C. Allan said...

Thanks for the tip, Sandra. I'll definitely check it out -- I was so-so on "Eat, Pray, Love" but thought her book "The Last American Man" was terrific. It made me want to have a beer with her. On that note, perhaps a beer and Baker evening should happen ... let me know when you resurface!

Thanks for the endorsement, Marie -- it will give me impetus to stick with it, if I need it.