Appalled is what I am by the outright nose-thumbing in the vague direction of “fiction.” Particularly in a “wing” of the written arts and sciences that seemingly pines for a dissolution of genre. The world ain’t paratactic, it ain’t pointillist, it ain’t a matter of amassing a series of discrete particulars and lining ’em up in the penny arcade, ducks all in a row. Sequences persist, and language can be made to mimick the way one thing occurs as a result of another thing. And, to indicate the extent to which the first thing changes. Which is narrative, which is character. I like what Alice Notley says (quoted in Rasula’s Syncopations): “What a service to poetry it might be to steal story away from the novel & give it back to rhythm & sound, give it back to the line.”
If Marjorie Perloff is sidling toward an argument against narrative by means of her conclusion in Wittgenstein’s Ladder that ”Description . . . replaces explanation,” the lost term in the argument may be “relation.” According to Rasula,
Perloff derives the term [description] from Wittgenstein himself: “We must do away with all explanation and description alone must take its place.” Wittgenstein’s preference for description is explicitly grounded in aesthetics: “Aesthetics is descriptive. What it does is to draw one’s attention to certain features, to place things side by side so as to exhibit these features.”Wherein note must be made, that it is the arraying of “things” that throws up th’aesthetic scrim for our attention. That is, meaning occurs in relation (as Ronald Johnson says: “Ratio is all.”) Whether it’s fitting to argue that putting relation into play leads inexorably to narrative feints, I do not know. I do know it is difficult to read a series of descriptive items without beginning to assemble story-like elements. Ronald Johnson again: “Linkings, inklings, / around the stem & branching of the nervetree— / shudder and shutterings, sensings. / / SENSE sings. / “A world where chaos and cosmos are interlaced and superimposed, / where anything may happen, / but nothing happens twice.” / / —perceive! perceive! Reality is ‘make’ believe.”
An experiment. Two selections, four contiguous sentences each:
The city made a yellow amoeboid splash on the road map of the state. Sleep was choppy, unproductive. My car was getting keyed. Lots of hastened engravery on the side panels, the trunk.And:
The sound of a foghorn, but no sight of fog. They went into Safeway just to get into the cool conditioned air. Two boys ask the old man what he’s doing with a net and a bucket. He throws the empty beer bottle out into the bay.Is it immediately evident which is thieved out of “fiction,” which out of “poetry”? Aren’t sentences omnivores, willing to graze in whatever pastureland they be put? More importantly, shouldn’t “one” be voracious, rather than delimiting, if one is engaged in a study of sentences and what sentences do? Isn’t one more likely to find specimens of note in locales where a species thrives? If “one” is looking for sentences, aren’t novels—based on some simple population theory—probably the place to look? Look to James Joyce, with’s investigations of stylistic tics in a whole slew of “minor” genres within “fiction.”
Shrill, likely. It’s the self-satisfy’d dismissal, or the obsequious “guilty pleasure” confessional tone of admission (“Spent the weekend reading Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Lazy Lover. What a relief! What tripe! Today working diligently through “A”.”) It’s that moral superiority thing (“nothing to learn there”) that sends me—pickaxe in teeth—cramponing up the friggin’ wall. Writers ain’t “specialists,” and “one’s” got to do more’n cover the lousy waterfront. Try:
Van was positive that not once during a month of love-making had he failed to take all necessary precautions, sometimes rather bizarre, but incontestably trustworthy, and had lately acquired the sheath-like contraceptive device that in Ladore county only barbershops, for some odd but ancient reason, were allowed to sell.Or try:
Most memorable for the bridegroom Debs and the bride Kate had been the cordiality paid to them in Washington, D.C., by the Robert Ingersolls, something that would be long remembered and not tarnished by the atavistic terrors soon to tear the fabric of the democracy of these United States when it would become apparent to some of its critics that the true anarchists were not the huddled masses but the czars of iron and steel and other merchandise who, as Debs would put it, were russianizing American life.They’s sentences out there.
There’s a terrific chapter about Clayton Eshleman (“Notes on Clayton Eshleman”) in Jed Rasula’s Syncopations. Most of it publish’d in 1987 (though exactly where I do not know—for context, the book needs a list of where its pieces originated). One thing I learn’d was how in the ’seventies Eshleman wrote and publish’d poems under the name Horrah Pornoff, apparently not-so-identifiably Eshlemanian works even to the cognescenti, though Rasula, at least, suspect’d th’authorship. As Rasula says, the poems “have a character apart and make a convincing case for Eshleman as a partial author of heteronymy.” I like Rasula’s identification of Eshleman: “Imagine Blake’s image of Nebuchadnezzar as a portrait of Eshleman; those pelt drips off his flank are adhesive tentacles. Having carried so much of other people’s writing on his back (as translator), some of it stuck and has come off in chunks.” And noting how, in Eshleman’s poems: “all forms of life are raffishly prolific and uncontainable . . . Anything organic, if given a suitably grotesque space—a tunnel, an intestine, a cave—blurts out indelicate promptings . . .” Think of Eshleman as King Lear brooding on the copulatory / excretory world: “The wren goes to ’t, and the small gilded fly / Does lecher in my sight. Let copulation thrive . . . / The fitchew, nor the soiled horse, goes to ’t / With a more riotous appetite. / Down from the waist they are Centaurs, / Though women all above . . . / There’s hell, there’s darkness, there’s the sulphurous pit, / Burning, scalding, stench, consumption; fie, fie, fie! pah, pah!” Too, Rasula, in commenting on the multiplying notes to poems in Eshleman’s recent books, remarks rightly how the text is “a worksite,” a research center, not a performance space where the gladiatorial poetic ego struts.” Such remarks turn me toward the work—a difficult body, surely—with renewal. What more can criticism do?
Identifying the prose, in order: I Looked Alive, by Gary Lutz (out of a story call’d “Chaise Lozenge”), Paradise, by Ron Silliman, Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, by Vladimir Nabokov, and Harp Song for a Radical: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs, by Marguerite Young.