Statement of Philosophy

A site for exploration and discussion about verse, poetics, the aesthetic, and creative writing in general.

Because there is a profound difference between writing something to be read and writing something worth reading; and in that difference might beauty be found.

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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

"Lo Mein" by August Kleinzahler -- Poetry Daily, 10/14/2013

from The Hotel Oneira (Farrar. Straiss amd Giroux)
poem found here

first lines:
You were still only a child,
I, nineteen, the age of your eldest boy now.


creative writing versus reportage and description (and the "mayonnaise jar" trope)


There is an interesting thing that happens at the end of this poem.

40 years ago, 40 years . . .
You don't remember all that, do you?
How could you? I'm making it up,
the two of us both there at the same time.

For the most part, writing a poem or story or what what suddenly goes, "surprise! it is not what you think at all!" is one of the cheapest effects you can see in writing. Yet, it is common enough in writers on the lower side of the learning curve that it has a name: the "Mayonnaise Jar" trope.[FN] In long form, it goes something like: "it is an 'But in Reality, Everything Is Actually Happening Within a Mayonnaise Jar' story." The phrase comes from fantasy/science fiction writing, and refers to stories where, at its end, it is suddenly revealed that the whole of everything has been occurring within some grossly defining context: for example, the entire bloody, society-shattering war between the Glumps and the Grogs has really been occurring within a mayonnaise jar. Its most common form in white-bread fiction and poetry is, "But it was all only a dream." It can also occur in more subtle forms. Or, in reverse forms, for example, take the poem that spends thirty lines describing a scene and only two lines on the action/ideation; and when it comes to it, the scene was actually entirely irrelevant to the critical-action. The poem was really two lines long; the rest was fluff. (I remind myself of the "But she is dead, now," line not infrequent to pop poetry, which I talk about in my "#Poppoetry" essay: same basic idea.)

[FN] Ok, Ok. It might not be a phrase so established you'll read it everywhere you look. But I do see it, or things similar to it, here and there.

The reason it is such a failing trope is that it is mostly just an attempt at surprise. Except, instead of legitimate surprise (which has purpose within the greater plot), it wholly shifts the context of the entire story. As a result, it by accident disqualifies the importance of the story being contextualized. In the matter of the Glumps and Grogs, the tale of the war suddenly becomes utterly unimportant to the narrator (and thus reader), as the ideation has shifted from something of profound value to something of discardable trivia. To say it a different way, the text has overtly declared that the story -- everything you just read -- is no longer the primary context. In fact, no longer has any context of importance. The defining context is actually the world of the mayonnaise jar, and in that world, the war of the Glumps and the Grogs is irrelevant.

Now, it must be said, the "it was only a dream" frame is something pretty much every writer will do at some point. I am convinced there is something about it that is necessary to the unconscious climbing the learning curve of writing. So don't condemn yourself for your stories of that nature. Just recognize what you did; learn from it; and move beyond it. Figure out why it is a very unsophisticated -- and wholly unsuccessful -- technique. Even if it takes writing many stories or poems of the same nature. But, know, it is poor story-telling.

"Never mind, I made it up," like in today's poem, is another version of the same thing. It may seem to the poet that the speaker is being funny. But the speaker is not talking only to the listener: the speaking is talking also to the reader. As such, saying "I made it up" rather prompts the response on the reader's part of "then why the hell did you tell me that in the first place? why are you wasting my time with nonsense?"

Which brings us to the next lines (skipping two) in "Lo Mein" (also the final lines):

As you please me, poking through your lo mein,
raising your head nervously to take in the room,
me, and what's doing with the rain.

What happens here? The story -- the story that the speaker just made up -- does have purpose within the outer narrative moment: the speaker is watching their sibling eat in a way similar to what was being described as regards the father in the story. There is a reason why the story was told: it was prompted by the way the sibling is eating. As such, the poem has a structure of "The way you are eating is like X."

Except: Instead of X being a known thing, the speaker makes up a story. And not only that, the story made up is about their father, an actual and known person. So now there is a new energy brought into the narration: it's structure can now be understood as "The way you are eating is like X (the father). The way you are eating is like this story. In turn, this story is also like X." It is not an simple X=Y comparison. It is X=Y, Y=Z, X=Z. The story informs the present moment. But also, the present moment has created an opportunity to speak not ony about the person in the present moment, but also the person(s) in the story being told, even though the story is wholly fictional. And in the mix, something greater than mere comparison is created: J.

It's a kind of indirection. Let me take a moment to spell it out. The narrator is going

  1. How you are eating reminds me of father.
  2. So I am going to describe a situation that describes how you are eating.
  3. But, in that the situation is fictional, I am also taking the opportunity to describe -- ideationally -- our father.
  4. Because it may be that you do not realize what our father was really like.
  5. And thus, in turn, what you are like.

So, in speaking directly about X (father), Z (sibling), and Y (the fictional story), the narrator is actually talking about J: here, in my reading, this is what you are like, even though you don't see it (and, most likely, as father didn't see it.)

This is demonstration of one of the essences of good writing: direct description offers nothing but direct description.Same thing with narration (which is really description, but includes action). In the plastic arts, direct copying from nature is the lowest form of art, because it is only ever a question of technique. It is not until the artist brings in ideation, metaphoricity, interpretation, creative play, that the art advances in sophistication from mere verisimilitude to an engagement. In literature, mere narration -- moving to its limit within mere description of facts it is called reportage -- is the lowest form of writing. It offers the reader nothing but data. It might was well be a printout of such.

Here, the statement of "You are eating like X" is not completed with mere description, which would be pointless. But it is also not completed with description of the father, which is the exact same thing only once removed. It is completed through a fiction, a fiction which is not trying to state the facts of the image, but the ideas and experience being generated by the image. Of course, it is very possible that the sibling will completely miss the point, and see the story as only a story -- as description --, and dismiss it when the narrator says, "I'm making it up." And, actually, as I read it, I get the feeling the sibling will do just that: the sibling can only see the surface details. And surface details disappear the moment you say "that's not correct." Thus, they will miss the whole of the point of the story.

Now, of course, this does not mean that every narrator should be making up stories. But it does point out two very important elements of creative writing:

  1. The creative energy of a narrator does not lie in the narration. It lies in the fact that a narrator will tell their tale through their own eyes, speaking what is important to them, ignoring what is insignificant to them, slanting it all through their own experience, life, and situation. For example: one of the greatest narrative events ever pointed out to me is with Stoker's Dracula. The entire text of the book has been edited and redacted by Mina. It makes for a far more fascinating read when you are watching for what has been edited out, and what she could not keep from slipping through.
  2. As such, with every text, the energies of the text never lie in the facts. They lie in how the facts are related to the reader, whether through the actions of the narrator, or through the actions of the text itself (through the implied author -- a complex idea that is to me central to literature, but which I can't pick up here).

A curious event in the American Realism movement in fiction is that the better writers of it could not, in the midst of their efforts to speak out of direct description, avoid the metaphorical. Indeed, one example, Frank Norris's The Octopus -- considered by some the greatest American Realist novel -- states as much with its metaphorical the title. Within the book itself, the energy of the more profound moments lie not in the realist descriptiongs, but in the overarching metaphoricity, symbolism, and ideation: for me, tacit admission that the verisimilitudinal techniques of realism are insufficient to the creating of literature.[FN] (In a similar way, this is one of the many fault's of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings: the descriptions might be interesting as descriptions, but usually create very little (if any) ideational energy that moves beyond description.)

[FN] To note, one of the books I have listed on my "Library" page, Barthes's Criticism and Truth, goes into how verisimilitudinalism works also within criticism. There he takes the idea out from here technique to being one of cultural ideation as well, describing the verisimilitudinal as the method of the nomic text and of nomic criticism. It applies here as well, but I will stop short of that step.

In closing, a demonstration here, once you recognize what is going on, of what is the central idea of creative writing. Creative writing is not description or reportage. It is creating. The "facts," as it were, are merely raw materials.


To be honest, I don't much like the lines

You don't remember all that, do you?
How could you? I'm making it up,
the two of us both there at the same time.

especially at "I'm making it up." To me the lines are very clunky. Curiously, though, if read as words in a play rather than a poem, they could work. One could hear an actor saying those words in a way that makes them work. Except, that doesn't work in a poem: there is no actor. The rhythms of the poem are created by the poem: and in the poem, they don't come off as well for me.


A gammar note: There seems to be a bit of sloppiness in the use of grammar in this poem. (Recognize, there could be transcription errors.) Looking at other poems by Kleinzahler, there is variation from poem to poem in his use of grammar and syntax, but always more control than I see here. The lack of punctuation at the end of line three is an error. Also, it should be a semi-colon or a period after line 1. The lines as written don't work: "You were still only a child, I, nineteen" cannot help but cause the attentive reader to stumble. (I do not mean bring the reader to pause and pay attention; I mean stumble.) It is not as though the poem is trying to avoid short phrases. (E.g., line 12: "He was mad at something.") To me the poem reads as though it lacks the control I see in other poems on the web.

Also, just to point it out, look also at line 7:

a patch of ice maybe here or there,

The line does not mean the same thing if there are the commas:

a patch of ice, maybe, here or there,

In the former, the "maybe" is attached to "here or there." In the latter, it is attached to "a patch of ice." Yet, if the intent was the former, it would be better to write with one comma:

a patch of ice, maybe here or there,

Leaving out both commas creates a stumbling within the poem.[FN] The reason is is that the natural grammar is to have either one comma or both. When there is the explicit choice to have neither, it is telling the reader to read the line as though there is neither. This means, in essence, the reader is to try to read the line without the pauses that would signify to what the "maybe" is attached. Try to do it, and you should hear the clumsiness.

[FN] It is not like Kleinzahler is rying to avoid that structure. He does it a few lines lower, with the comma after "Mother":
Mother, beside him, silent, stiff with fright.

Most of the time, grammar follows annunciation. Where it doesn't the annunciation is implied by the syntax or semantics. A couple hundred years ago, writers put commas where ever there was a pause in the reading: whether natural or created by the text. Nowadays, we try to limit the number of commas to only those that are necessary, and let syntax and semantics do the rest of the work. But that trimming down does not reject the natural relationship between grammar and annunciation. If you put a comma in a line, you are creating a pause. If you leave a comma out where one should be, you are creating a "do-not-pause."

Grammar is incredibly important to poetry, where sound is important and where the language can become densely contracted. Recognize the effects it has not only on meaning, but also on reading.


Final note. What do you think about this pair of lines?

my father swerving left and right,
Mother, beside him, silent, stiff with fright.

A kind-of rhymed couplet there, appearing in the middle of the poem. Its presence has no small emphasis: both lines are very iambic, and the sound of "-ight" is very noticeable. (I would say the poem up to that point has an iambic lilt to it; but it is not meant to be read with the sound-quality of metered verse. It is meant to be read as casual phrasing.) The question is does it work? Does it come off as intended? Or does come off as accidental. (Which is, actually, not good: something that reads like an accidental positive still comes off as accidental, as a kind of slip up.) If it does read as intended, what is the consequence to the reading of the poem. After all, you are accepting that the poet intends for the poem to suddenly shift into a rhymed iambic (that is, a formal moment in the middle of casual speech), and intends for the reader to read the poem as such. To think other wise is tantamount to saying, "he's not that good a poet; he probably didn't recognize the event himself."

Which is an idea worth thinking about, though not so much in regards to this poem but in regards to reading poetry. It is recognition of the idea that a poet has their degree of sophistication, and the reader also. A poet is only as good as they are. A more sophisticated reader will see things the poet missed. What does this mean? It is to recognize that the quality of a poem can be judged -- and one-on-one should be judged -- in regards to the poet at their state of sophistication. Even though they missed something you see in reading, is the poem a successful effort on their part to create something more sophisticated than they had previously? Or, is it an error that the poet recognizes but refuses to address (which is essentially admission of laziness).

Of course, it also has play on the part of a reader. If you are reading a poet's book, and you are continually stumbling over things that the poet is obviously either blind to or is too lazy to address, you should probably put down the book and spend your time with something more valuable to yourself. The old saying in sports: a team will play to the level of their opponent. In writing, if you continually fill your head with low sophistication poetry, you will write unsophisticated poetry. (But, recognize as well, that if you are reading a poem that is of greater than sophistication than your own abilities, it can come off as filled with stumbling blocks. Which could mean you simply haven't found the door to opening the writer's work, yet. But it could also mean you need to do some work before you can understand what they are doing.)

(Just to be clear as regards my thoughts on this particular poem: as I said above, looking at other poems by Kleinzahler on-line, this poem looks to lack the attention to detail others were given. So I see the stumbling points less as issue of sophistication, and more as, simply, the poem's not wholly successful.)

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