Thursday, February 16, 2012

"Writing That Sounds Like Writing." Huh?

I was cleaning up dead blog links and ran across this excellent post from the very much alive Elegant Variation. Wanted to repost it because I also read this review of Leonard's latest book, and was equally flummoxed by the praising of the rule, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

What does that mean? I wondered, sipping my coffee, distracted by the dog clawing at my face. If it sounds fussy? Overworked? Baroque? Non-Hemingwayesque? Too Hemingwayesque? If it doesn't sound like common conversation? If it uses large, pretty words? If it's structured?

You know what sounds like writing, to me?

And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.... And one fine morning —So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.


You know what else sounds like writing to me?

All can be measured by the standard of the capybara.
Everyone is lesser than or greater than the capybara.
Everything is taller or shorter than the capybara.
Everything is mistaken for a Brazilian dance craze
more or less frequently than the capybara.
Everyone eats greater or fewer watermelons
than the capybara. Everyone eats more or less bark.

From Sandra Beasley's delightful and hilarious poem, "Unit of Measure." Swoon again, differently (and with more caution about accidentally swooning onto a large rodent).

Over the past few years, I have repeatedly heard the word "writerly" used as a pejorative. Why?

That's about as far as I got with my thinking. But it's apparently one of Sarvas's pet peeves, and he does a nice job of slicing and dicing the idea:

What one presumes Leonard is saying, given the other dumbed-down rules on his list, is that he eschews what we commonly refer to, for want of a better term, as lyrical prose. One imagines he would have John Banville [ed's note: dreamy sigh is mine], Joseph O'Neill and Teju Cole busily erasing their manuscripts. On the other hand, if he doesn't mean that, perhaps he means writing that, because it fails - because it is, essentially bad writing - feels "written". So, basically, fix bad writing. Thanks a whole heap, Elmo.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Dark Side of the Wordsworth: The Anxiety of Influence, Revisited

It struck me recently that in his (clearly miserable, as anyone who's ever wailed along with "Another Brick in the Wall" would know) experience as an English schoolboy, Pink Floyd's Roger Waters probably had to read William Wordsworth's work repeatedly. Perhaps not the bigger stuff like the Prelude, but I doubt many school kids could have escaped without learning his "Ode" or "Tintern Abbey."

I started thinking about this while driving home one afternoon when "Comfortably Numb" came on the radio. Where I normally just let the melancholy awful trippiness of the song ("my hands felt like two balloons" is maybe the best line ever about being a kid with the flu) wash over me, this time, I realized that certain lines reminded me of something I'd read before. Specifically, these lines:

When I was a child I caught a fleeting glimpse/
Out of the corner of my eye/
I turned to look but it was gone/
I cannot put my finger on it now/
The child is grown, the dream is gone

gave me a flashback to studying in the UK and reading Wordsworth that was so strong I could almost smell the halal shop that used to be on our corner. When I went and looked it up, I found the poem it had clanged on: Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood," one of those poems you could not escape reading as a lit major and which would have been canonical in the English schools of Waters' childhood. There are several parts of the Wordsworth poem (which is, truly, a stunningly beautiful and profound work, but Wordsworth was nothing if not verbose) that contain this idea. Here's one:

The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature's priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

I was interested by this, but probably wouldn't have bothered to blog about it had I not today been listening to one of the Poetry Foundation's recent Poetry Off the Shelf podcasts on Robert Duncan. This one spent a fair amount of time on Duncan's well-known "My Mother Would Be a Falconress," published in his 1968 collection Bending the Bow. Probably because I've been on a Floyd binge lately, the similarity to Waters' late seventies' terror "Mother" seemed unmissable.

To be clear, I think it's highly unlikely Waters knew this poem; most likely he was simply channeling Oedipus, both the figure and the complex. There are a few verbal similarities (the bird metaphor appears in the Floyd song, but Waters' avian clearly leans toward the songbird rather than the raptorous: "She won't let you fly, but she might let you sing.") But the similar overall tone and horror, the constrictive-verging-on-cannibalistic mother-son relationship depicted in the pieces is what really struck me. If you put the poem and the song side by side, I won't wager which would win the creepy award, but I think there'd be one definite effect: You won't want to call Mom for a while.

Anyone noticed other Waters' song/poem correlations? One more might make it a worthy subject for a fumbling undergraduate essay, or at least a decent new tangent of discussion for the generations of stoners who try to sync Dark Side of the Moon to The Wizard of Oz.