06 April 2007

Fortifying Oneself With Words

Poetics, the Utility of Fiction, & Hemingway

I spent last Sunday at the John F. Kennedy Museum & Library, attending the Hemingway Awards for best first work of fiction. The library is a tall white building like a NASA hanger perched on the edge of the Bay, windows looking out over the long stretch of downtown skyline. I rode South, clattering, on the Red Line, and from there on a bus past the U Mass campus, built along hospital lines, the open spaces pocked by large contemporary artworks: deformed plastic birds, roosting; a giant rusting girder like an L; a small stone grotto.

This is by way of telling you why certain things have been on my mind. But first:

Podrán cortar todas las flores, pero no podrán detener la primavera.

It was a cool, clean day, the sun out and throwing everything into a clear light. At the bus stop while I waited, high schoolers in matching red sweatshirts sang angelic chamber music. While they sung I watched the trains pass, and the grafitti on sides of the highway overpass, and the rusted-out factories. Rounded, Latin words hung in the air in three part harmony. Afterwards there was a sudden rush of giggles and self-conscious gossipy chatter to fill the silence, awkward, half-formed.

If you wanted you could detect a kind of throughline in the better speeches and in some of the readings during the award, which encompassed too the L.L. Winship/PEN New England.

Fiction, it was said, is necessary. We tell stories to help ourselves get by. We - K.C. Frederick said this before his reading - are like Whitman's noiseless patient spider, casting filiment after filiment into the void, desperate for a response.

I won't give you the ceremony; I'll leave it to you to imagine the short introductory speakers, the varying quality of the speeches, the applause, the airy new-looking auditorium, the Hemingway-themed programs, the reception after, three kinds of dip, pita triangles, fruit and cheese and wine served in plastic glasses, tiny pieces of cork bobbing in Cabernet Sauvignon.

Edward P. Jones, author of The Known World, gave the keynote; it was he, among others, who said we tell stories to help ourselves get by. He ended with a story - one about Hemingway.

"I don't know whether this one is true," Jones said. "I don't think that it matters." Hemingway's grandson chuckled onstage. I thought about a man down the row from me who I'll describe later.

It seems, he said, that Hemingway was in a bar in Key West with a bunch of friends. They'd spent the afternoon competing to see who could tell a story in the fewest words possible. It came to Hemingway. He took a drink, and said:

For sale: Baby booties, never worn.

All of this is a long way of saying, I came back from the awards and sat down with a book of poetry by Louise Glück, who'd just gotten the L.L. Winship for Averno.

And it occured to me that I treat poetry differently than, say, novels - I pick my way through it piecemeal, disregarding wholeness. I scavange my way through books of poetry, looking for pieces to steal, a line, a stanza to take with me. I say, a noiseless patient spider, and hold on to that scrap and what it meant.

Novels have a wholeness that makes this difficult - Glück, incidentally, does too, which is what struck me. Reading Vita Nova or The Seven Ages it's hard to treat that unadorned language as parts to be stripped. The writing less epigrammatic, the images inextricable.

Perhaps there is a way in which lyrical poetry's I, or its we - the anonymity of it, makes it easier to hold on to as a keepsake. Almost as a diagnostic. A scrap of poetry could be seen to trap a particular moment, a particular feeling, as though it were being bottled - distilling to essence in precisely the way a perfumer would, boiling down and condensing into three words that stand for a meadow, a particular day in spring, the feeling of being in love for the first time.

Fiction you can't do that with, generally; it's a story, not an image, and the characters however identifiable are not ourselves. Unless I'm missing the diagnosis.

I'll translate, taking liberties, that scrap above the fold: They may behead all flowers, but they cannot detain the spring.

It was a piece of graffiti I saw, written in thick black marker on a white plaster wall in in an alley in the old Jewish quarter in Córdoba. It's by Pablo Neruda, originally. It's something I hold on to shorn from context.

Is there a way in which being torn from context diminishes something, takes meaning from it? Does pastiche reduce what was better whole?

There's a separate issue here that I won't even touch - a man in black cowboy boots down the row from me confessed halfway through a story about his father's heart attack - a baker, a large man who loved Italian cigars, red wine, meats, who catered for Clint Eastwood during Mystic River - that he hadn't read fiction since he was in college. "Clint Eastwood will live forever," he said. "For twenty years more at least. I saw him once behind the restaurant. You know how some people have that aura? He had it. My father, a great man in many ways, he didn't have that when he was that age. I saw Clint Eastwood when he was 72. My father, God rest his soul, was 72 when he died." He went on: "I don't read fiction anymore. Haven't since college. There's too much in the world to know about. I just finished reading about the incident in the 70s, the U2 spy plane that crashed in Soviet Russia - "

Does fiction help us get by? Does fiction inform how we make sense of a world that is not made up out of nothing?

I titled this piece a while ago - I had other things on my mind, mix tapes, juxtaposition, raiding the storehouses of a decadent culture. But for now, though I'd said it's difficult, I want to give you a fragment of Louise Glück's work, torn out of context from a poem entitled "The Sensual World," and judge for yourself whether it helps you get by, in its spare admonition, the wide feeling I get reading it, as though the air were thinning.

I caution you as I was never cautioned:

you will never let go, you will never be satiated.
You will be damaged and scarred, you will continue to hunger.

Your body will age, you will continue to need.
You will want the earth, then more of the earth -

Sublime, indifferent, it is present, it will not respond.
It is encompassing, it will not minister.

Meaning, it will feed you, it will ravish you,
it will not keep you alive.

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