Because of all the complications we worked our way through regarding Covid 19, I finally gave this paper, called “Aspects of Poetics in Contemporary Fiction and Poetry: a practical logic of legacy, a working arc of continuance,” as a ZOOM delivery from UBCO with both Sharon Thesen and Nancy Holmes there with me on November 19, 2020.
I have to say I agonized over this paper, both the writing of it, and the thinking through of it, for a long, long time, and I will never know why it was so important for me. I know I wanted to honor Sharon who I recognize as one of the most knowing poets regarding the practice and history of poetics, and I also wanted to tackle breaching what I have always sensed was an artificial wall separating the legacies of modernism in Western writing from the emerging legacies of postmodernism in Western writing. In some ways, at the very nadir of my own experiences of these things in my own writing and teaching, something smart in me recognized that I was, myself, a microcosm of this breach because of the coincidences of my own education and experiences. I was born just after World War II, in 1948. By the time I went to university in 1965, I was being educated by British and American professors mostly, and I was working pretty quickly in the modernist poetics of Eliot, Pound, Yeats and Wallace Stevens. But by the time I started teaching Creative Writing at York in 1971, I was specializing in what would later be named postmodernism in both fiction and poetry and I was much more fascinated by Canadian writing. So the agony of speaking about my own education and its various power hierarchies had much to do with something I had learned early from Sheila Watson at the University of Alberta: the survival/dismissal/survival of poetics and conventions of composition in writing has a lot to do with the rather shallow vicissitudes of trend and style that mask a deeper more organic evolution or dance between form & content in many short-lived, long-lived schools of fashion in writing and all the other arts. So be careful what you trumpet, and be just as careful what you dismiss. Try to be big enough to spot the lines of continuance, the bright watermarks of invention and innovation, the way conventions evolve, connected. And so here it is, this agony. You’ll feel it. I’m having a hard time, but I’m enjoying every moment of it, too.
Thanks to Sharon Thesen, Nancy Holmes and Jake Kennedy for this opportunity to say something stumbling, raw, but, to me, important. The paper is below.
Aspects of Poetics in Contemporary Fiction and
Poetry: a practical logic of legacy, a working arc of continuance
For Sharon Thesen
—Northrop Frye, A Natural Perspective: the Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance, 1965
And that is why I believe those hollow crisps on the bathroom floor are moths. I think I know moths, and fragments of moths, and chips and tatters of utterly empty moths, in any state. How many of you, I asked the people in my class, which of you want to give your lives to be writers? I was trembling from coffee, or cigarettes, or the closeness of faces all around me. (Is this what we live for? I thought; is this the only final beauty: the color of any skin in any light, and living, human eyes?) All hands rose to the question. (You, Nick? Will you? Margaret? Randy? Why do I want them to mean it?) And then I tried to tell them what the choice must mean: you can’t be anything else. You must go at your life with a broadax…They had no idea what I was saying. (I have two hands, don’t I? And all this energy, for as long as I can remember. I’ll do it in the evenings, after skiing, or on the way home from the bank, or after the children are asleep….) They thought I was raving again. It’s just as well.
—Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm, 1997
I believe that modernism is the legacy of all living artists. It is our inheritance; it is the foundation of our work whether we acknowledge it as such or not. It is a legacy so vast that we have not begun to ‘spend’ it. It lies like diamonds on the ground and we have barely begun to notice. We use this legacy even when we don’t know that we are using it, and through this use we are informed by it and can discover its meaning. Modernism is about consciousness in the world. Until we see it, grasp it—and I mean grasp all of it—we cannot proceed as artists.
— Barbara Caruso, Wording The Silent Art, 2001
I want to thank Nancy Holmes and all of you at The University Of British Columbia, Okanagan, for inviting me to come here for a three week stint as Writer In Residence last March. I have been retired for almost ten years now, and you have no idea how great it was for me—Covid19 aside—to suddenly have the kind of contact I had with your students and the public in Kelowna and Vernon. It made me think hard about shapes of art and it made me think hard about the importance of being able to discuss pedagogy with other Creative Writing instructors. It also reminded me how devoted and hard-working creative writing instructors are. Teaching Creative Writing is a very unique and singular and demanding discipline at universities and colleges and that singular discipline attracts wonderful writers and wonderful teachers, especially here at UBCO and also here at Okanagan College as well. The fact is, we have a stunningly talented pool of writers and teachers here because of UBCO and Okanagan College, maybe one of the most diverse and talented groups of writers in the country. I’m very aware of that, especially when I think about poetics, about different approaches to form and material as evidenced in the spectrum of powerfully different work produced by this community of writers. So thank you, thank you, for asking me to be a writer in residence here. It was truly an honor, and I will never forget it.
When I found out that part of the writer in residence ‘deal’ was that I was being asked to write and deliver the first of The Sharon Thesen Lectures, an annual event this department has envisioned to honor the work and teaching of Sharon Thesen , I was both thrilled and terrified in certain ways to say yes: thrilled because I admire Sharon so much, her writing and her teaching; terrified because I wanted to write something unique that might begin to honor and thank her properly. For years, I would announce brazenly to whoever might have asked, ‘There is nobody I know in the county who knows as much about ‘poetics’ than Sharon Thesen.’ So, as you might suspect, the terrified part is bigger than it sounds, and that will become more clear later on.
Then Nancy, being Nancy, phoned and said she needed a title for this lecture immediately. ‘I know,’ I thought in an impulsive moment of panic, ‘I’ll write about the issue of ‘poetics’ in fiction and poetry, and how important it is for creative writing instructors to be as open as possible to the wide spectrum of options in poetics these days. And I thought up this title: Aspects of Poetics in Contemporary Fiction and Poetry: a practical logic of legacy, a working arc of continuance. I’m sure I knew, in that moment, what I meant by this title. And I remember carelessly and innocently sitting there and staring at it, thinking, ‘Good then. At least that’s settled.’ ‘Things are going well,’ I thought. ‘I’m off to a good start. Good for me!’
Yeah right. The truth of the matter regarding this paper is that it’s origin is based on a personal coincidence in two peoples’ lives. It just so happens that Sharon and I started teaching Creative Writing courses right at the beginning of the invention of it as an independent academic discipline in this country. Fred Cogswell in New Brunswick, and Earle Birney at UBC Vancouver and James Reaney at Western and Rudy Wiebe at U of A had invented some creative writing classes and seminars in the 50s and 60s, but the independent academic discipline of teaching creative writing as a degree option or diploma option began at Simon Fraser University, York University and Concordia University in the very early 70s, and I showed up at York in the fall of 1971 and Sharon at SFU a few years later. We were both teaching assistants/grad students. We were both there to see everything lift off. We both started teaching Creative Writing. We both had to figure out what to teach. We both began a life-long search for poetics we could pass on to our students. And so it all began for both of us. Right there, on the ground. Yikes.
And here we are now, almost 50 years later, retired. Elders who are still squinting into everything, especially poetics and pedagogy, and all the other issues that surface daily concerning teaching in this discipline. We’re still edgy with things to say sometimes. We’re old hands, after all. We worked on the coal face too long, as my friend Tom Wayman would say. But it’s true! We probably do have a lot to say sometimes, but we care what it must be like to be you, as well: to be on the ground now, teaching new writers in 2020 . So there’s a modesty that surfaces that is caused by two things (and they’re good things): first, a modesty caused by the respect we both have—respect and affection—for each of you teaching on the ground right now in a discipline that is both vibrant but complex; and second, a modesty caused by the act of leaving or withdrawing from teaching, too, an act that ushers in a kind of isolation and humility that is abrupt, new and mysterious and that makes you wary about bleating out whatever great idea surfaces in your head randomly. It gets complicated. So I’m going to say some things tonight out of both kinds of modesty. And I may stumble or get into trouble, too, and I’m hoping you will trust me enough to know I’m just trying to illuminate what I sense is an important personal story about the growth of poetics in the pedagogy of teaching writing in the Western world over the last century, and a caution I especially have about drawing too hard a line between the poetics of modernism and the poetics of postmodernism in that growth, especially when it comes to providing logic and legacy and confidence for creative writing students. I’m going to try to tell you a story that might help you or simply comfort you in all the work I know you’re doing. And it’s really a story about keeping pedagogy open and up for grabs, and sustaining a community of creative writing instructors that actively supports differences in these matters. It is a matter of pure coincidence that I can tell you a story about teaching creative writing that goes back to the beginning of teaching creative writing as a discipline in north America, and because of that innocent coincidence, there may be a few tidbits in the story that might be useful to some of you in your own struggles teaching creative writing.
I have written thirty openings to this paper. It’s getting ridiculous. So ridiculous there’s a chance that the structure of the essay will simply be these openings. I keep looking for the right logic, the exact arc of delivery. But I also keep wrestling with an impossible, intrusive mystery that lies beneath the facts of Sharon Thesen’s incredible career and retirement, and even beneath the facts of my own career and retirement: what happens to elders like us when we still have something we want to say regarding the teaching of creative writing, but which age, modesty and the capricious nature of political correctness and literary theory sometime combine with the erasure of legacies to caution us to remain silent, to turn away from issues of poetics and/or teaching because they will never be satisfactorily resolved anyway, especially by anything we might have to say about our pasts now—or how much of our life’s blood we feel we invested in inventing the discipline of teaching creative writing in post-secondary institutions in this country in the first place—and a long time ago at that, and in the midst of other rather radical revolutions that are now taken for granted and/or even forgotten or, even, dismissed. [What a ridiculously long and complicated sentence that was, the logic and syntax of which is as revealing as anything it might be trying to say; in fact, it might even be what it’s trying to say.]
But why would I be so uncertain about discussing the role of poetics in the discovery of pedagogical strategies for teaching CRWR courses? Why would I feel wary about raising issues regarding traditional conventions of form in poetry, fiction, non-fiction & drama? Why do I sense there is much caution these days when it comes to these discussions? No one wants to appear stupid, behind the curve, or ignorant when it comes to representation, diversity, theory; and no one wants to appear arrogant or dismissive or imperial about these things either. One antidote against such caution for me is a gift I received because of my retirement, and it’s been the slowly evolving friendship I have experienced with Sharon Thesen herself. A good part of that friendship has been an almost crazed openness in our discussions of teaching creative writing. That, and our worrying about a lot of other writerly things, a worrying that devolves sometimes into saying things that might be considered politically incorrect this week, or, even accidentally, politically correct next week: the two of us hunched over in a shadowy corner of the Art Gallery Café in Winfield, old creative writing front line soldiers, both of us, one with an eye on the door and/or the mounted cameras on the wall, the other flicking imaginary cigarette ash onto the floor in a defiance of practically Lou Reed’s everything, the two of us huddled there as in a gloomy border scene in a Le Carre novel, whispering, waiting for the culture and theory Stalinists to break in out of nowhere and bust us for some infraction, big or small. Doesn’t matter even. It’s the chronic dread that matters. The chronic dread and the mysterious unknowingness.
Of course I’m being silly, but it’s only because I want to be as human as I can be tonight in order to honor Sharon Thesen properly and also, to draw you younger writers and teachers into an awareness of what it might be like to be us, fluttering around now on the periphery, trying to keep quiet, but sometimes feeling restless and edgy: first, as one of the most exciting writers I have been lucky enough to know in my life, one of our very best poets, and second, as one of the most gifted teachers of Creative Writing I have had the luck to know, too. My mind is so full of gossip and mischief tonight. I can’t resist either while another more mournfully serious side of me is already sorry for that. Already regretting it. But it’s just the way it is. And yet, more than anything, I want to throw a crazy, reckless net over the chaos of talking about poetics, legacy and continuance in an age of necessary but risky self-consciousness about these matters. I suspect both Sharon and I worry sometimes that these issues of pedagogy and poetics should always be un-self-consciously debated, constantly and openly. Maybe that is the root of what I’m trying to say here: the value of that openness.
I once joked to my friend Craig McLuckie, back in 1991, standing on a balcony in the Vernon Campus of Okanagan College, having a smoke—because he’d asked me a fairly blunt question about postmodern theory— so I said that I had drunk my way through structuralism and was now earnestly and soberly thinking and reading my way through post structuralism. Which I was. It all became important to me : it became important to me to understand the spectrum of widely diverse and contradictory theoretical ideas that might have an impact on the practical conventions of poetry and fiction for my students who wanted to use them and needed to know them. That’s how I myself had started in the mid-sixties at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. My favorite writer, teacher and mentor back then was the writer and scholar Sheila Watson, and she taught me how to understand and apprehend the conventions of fiction and poetry in modernist movements in Western culture. It was my first taste of how knowledge of forms led naturally to the practice of forms, like breathing. It gave you the gift of confidence.
As far as poetics go, my real starting point as a Creative Writing instructor, was in 1971 at York University in Toronto, before structuralism or post structuralism had even announced themselves in North America, and just after my own six year immersion in the ‘new criticism’ poetics of modernism in poetry and fiction. I had written an MA Thesis on T.S. Eliot at the University of Alberta, and I was now working on a dissertation for York University on the fiction of Malcolm Lowry. I retrieved all my notions of the conventions of poetry and fiction from those two pools, as complicated as they might have been. And the second part of my starting point at York was something that was literally surfacing around me in Toronto in 1971: the first stages of a nationalist movement in this country that was insisting we take our own writing and literatures more seriously, nurturing our own literary culture and voices. Needless to say, my own poetics were firmly in the paternalistic colonial frame at that point, as you can see: Eliot and Lowry, so I was unwittingly a good example of a young writer who wanted to write about the south side of Edmonton, but whose conditioning was to imagine that significant literary material could only occur in London, Paris, New York, Barcelona etc etc. And finally, the last part of my own starting point as a novitiate teaching Creative Writing, was that my own writing was pretty thin at that point. I had run a small magazine in Edmonton, I had written some songs, but I was just starting out. I was writing a lot, but not publishing anything yet. I was forgiveably pompous and seemed sure of myself, sturdy masks to conceal all my insecurities, but there ya go! I knew where I wanted to go as far as material was concerned, but I was green about how I was going to do it and in which of the technical voices I had been conditioned to speak in. That was how I started. Because I had always wanted to take a creative writing class but couldn’t because there weren’t any I could take, when I realized I was going to have to teach a creative writing class for Don Summerhayes at York, I asked myself what would I myself have liked to learn as a student, and the answers were almost completely technical, compositional. How did you go about the actual writing, the composition, as in music or painting. How did you move the words around on the page. What were the tricks of the trade technically. I knew creative writing students wanted these goods: they wanted what I had wanted: direction in the craft of techniques and conventions of writing that might turn them into professional writers in time. They wanted confidence.
I am trying to be straightforward about where I started. And I realize tonight, that each of you will have a starting point as well. Our starting points will never be the same, which is a good thing, but all starting points are dense, specific and beautiful. The common ground is that we all share the experience of having had a starting point in order to begin teaching. And it’s where we go with it, and how we go. I realized eventually, in poetry, the importance of imagery, image complex, phrasing and line breaks, and a jazz-like use of the vernacular in voice, as music, as rhythm. So my starting point in poetry included the poetry of Yeats, Eliot, Williams and Stevens. And that’s where I began in first year CrWr: taking the students away from the heavy, beautifully geometrical or Euclidean conventions of Romantic and Victorian poetry, and hauling them into the rush of 20th C material & rhythms and music. I stuck to that particular starting point for forty years because in time I realized just how solid it still was for new writers, a strong place to start to build confidence. I would probably still start there even though I can see now—from this distance—how heavy-handed my choice of models was as far as gender, class, cultures and diversity were concerned. But still, it was a strong place to start to move towards all those other expansions which were to come in time, still a strong way to learn confidence. And the other side of it was to try to provide a passionate permission for new writers to move into this landscape here, the landscape of home, as their material. That was also an important part of the starting point and it would lead, eventually, too, into powerful parts of those expansions of awareness as well. In fiction my starting point was the realist movement in mid-nineteenth century Western literatures. And I tried to show how the conventions of realism eventually split into two streams—social realism and psychological realism, still both very much alive today, but two streams that produced very different shapes, forms and conventions of fiction, very different stories. I tried hard eventually, as my own interest in understanding postmodernism and post structuralist thought intensified, I tried hard to show how there is a direct lineage from those crude, even lumpy realist short stories in mid-nineteenth century Europe, through the conventions of psychological realism, past itself to the incredibly hybrid forms of surrealism, stream of consciousness narrative, irrealism, magic realism, high realism, even metafiction or historiographic metafiction (a term I always disliked). So for forty years I simply kept returning to these fields, adapting them so they would be further illuminated by visionary and formal developments that were occurring around me as well, on the ground, and evidenced in contemporary poetry and fiction that revealed where all these threads in 20th Century poetry and prose seemed to be going, and eventually, under the significant influence on vision/content/material that we started to witness as key developments in western philosophy began to expand our awareness of the world, our awareness of the human in the world, our awareness of voices that hadn’t been represented, our growing and expanded awareness of our own genders and sexuality, our political history, our complicity with imperialism, our enmeshment in contemporary politics and our responsibilities in everything else. And in all that I never saw a dividing line between modernism and postmodernism. I only saw legacy and continuance. All the struggles led us forward. They were all necessary. Nothing is dated when you go into such material and such history with respect and love and empathy. Nothing. It’s all important and it all matters. The exponential growth of consciousness and awareness can also be seen as a simultaneous, slow motion blossoming full of legacy and continuance that carries us, always, back into the original logic of that exponential growth.
I’m revealing these things because so many of you here tonight are writers, teachers of writers, or new writers yourselves, and I know that you struggle with these things just as I did all my teaching life. Imperfectly. But ardently. Looking for William Stafford’s ‘well’ in his poem, ‘The Well Rising,’ looking for that ’final curve’ and walking down our hallways every week toward his vision of ‘wonder’:
The Well Rising
The well rising without sound,
the spring on a hillside,
the plowshare brimming through deep ground
everywhere in the field—
The sharp swallows in their swerve
flaring and hesitating
hunting for the final curve
coming closer and closer—
The swallow heart from wingbeat to wingbeat
counseling decision, decision:
thunderous examples. I place my feet
with care in such a world.
Or as Stafford would write in another poem, aptly called “A Course In Creative Writing,” : ‘They want a wilderness with a map.’ What wilderness? What map? Just what so many of us here tonight struggle to answer almost every day of our working lives in the face of going in to see our wonderful, magical new writers who are waiting for us just down the hall. Yikes. Wilderness. Map.
When I was a young scholar and teacher, I worked on the fiction of Malcolm Lowry for ten years, from 1971 to 1981, and before doing anything else about him and his work, I needed to solve a very practical, technical problem regarding poetics in fiction for myself first: I needed to figure out how a person could write what was being identified then as a stream of consciousness narrative. Surprisingly, there wasn’t a lot of research that had been completed at that point that could answer such a question. R.H. Humphries had written a small book on stream of consciousness narrative, and a young French scholar, Victor Doyen, was beginning to write some amazing work about it, too. But there wasn’t much out there. The long answer was that like Joyce and Woolf and Lowry and Faulkner and Celine and Waldo Frank and Dos Passos, that young person would have to apprehend and/or comprehend the subtle shift from temporal to spatial forms in Western narrative, particularly the use of juxtaposition as kinetic in narrative, maybe especially the practical use of panels or fragments. Joseph Frank was a critic who had invented the term ‘spatial form’ as a way to understand the beauty and architecture of such a narrative, while Erich Auerbach had identified the same territory and beauty in his mammoth and careful study of such forms called Mimesis. Both were trying to locate new conventions that were required to build a representation of internal reality in fiction, where a writer would actually represent, through words, the associative, chaotic dynamic of consciousness moving, a dynamic that was both wild and unified, like jazz can be sometimes. So to honor of all those years of finding out about all that, this paper will proceed in exactly the same way: by juxtaposition, wild but unified.
[NOTE #1: for beginning: tell them you want to try to complete two things: (1) you want to ask an important question about exposing and sharing poetics in contemporary writing, and (2) you want to demonstrate why opening up and relaxing discussions about theory can really help guide new writers not only to use contemporary conventions in poetry and fiction, but also to discover new conventions BECAUSE they know the fundamental ones already. They’re not just guessing. Tell them that in order to complete these two considerations, you are going to throw some disconnected fragments at them, knowing in advance these fragments will have another kind of unity and logic they will see or hear beneath the surface. It’s all about using a hundred and fifty year legacy of conventions in Western literatures to find ways of discovering new human beauty.]
[NOTE #2: OK. So here we go. I’m going to say what I just said, but from what seems to be another angle. For all of us teaching creative writing it seems to me there are two fundamental impulses at the core of how we set pedagogy, and they don’t really complement one another, and I know my own career in finding pedagogy for new writers is marked by which impulse I favored at different times in my own development as a teacher and as a writer. The two impulses are: first, the seductive vanity and power of the untested, unproven ‘new;’ and second, the power of the contemporary conventions of fiction and poetry composition that are proven and tested, but are maybe a bit less seductive because we don’t see them as being ‘new.’ The way we approach this choice should be dictated by what we know new writers will need, but is often dictated instead by what we think we need, or how we ourselves need to be seen. Let the students find the untested, the new, naturally, on their own, either through models or by practicing the tested, the fundamentals on their own. They’ll do it every time. They’ll blow you away, the good ones. They will. Otherwise, they’ll simply mimic the new, the avant garde or conceptual or irresistibly theoretical, but it will stall out as a mime, maybe even as a possibly shallow mime and never stumble into its own possible radiance & depth because these new writers never learned the legacy of conventions that produced the avant garde in the first place. They missed out on the precise logic of rejecting things for a reason, not just as a trendy gesture of arriving somewhere with a new hat on and a pack of smokes and a bottle of Absinthe, imitating someone else.]
As I was thinking hard about this essay, someone told me of recent measures taken to erase some of Flannery O’Connor’s work from curricula at universities in the United States. When Sharon & I discussed it, we both had to laugh in one way because we knew O’Connor’s gift was that she was pretty hard-assed about everybody: there weren’t a lot of people who escaped her critical eye. She was harsh and unforgiving and sometimes that was hard to explain, but important to explain nonetheless. Along with the work of Kurt Vonnegut and Margaret Laurence, for me Flannery O’Connor is a writer I taught every single year of my teaching life. I know in my early sixties young bones that she had singlehandedly drawn me—an innocent Irish Catholic Canadian boy from the Caucasian suburbs of Edmonton, Alberta in the William Aberhart, Ernest Manning, John Diefenbaker 50s—into a contemporary, universal world of human rights and cruel bigotry and love and violence and change that I would never NOT see again. She had drawn my young consciousness into that very world and had made me stare into what I saw for the rest of my constantly evolving and changing life, including now. She was, looking back, a necessary artist for me, very much a part of my legacy’ my inheritance as a writer and, in other ways, as a human being. To bring this matter even closer, when I first read the short stories of Alix Hawley—the stories that made up the manuscript of her first book of short stories, The Old Familiar, I told her in the end that her pursuit of the grotesque as a vehicle for kinds of truth about us as a culture, was only matched in my mind by the dark humor and genius of Flannery O’Connor, skills I assumed Alix had simply inherited from O’Connor like breathing or like cooking recipes. So the idea of ‘erasing’ some of O’Connor’s work now seems especially mind-boggling because I read Alix Hawley’s trilogy on Daniel Boone—her most recent opus— as a complex meta-analysis of the very cultural, political and racial divide in the United States of America that is causing so much of the sorrow and rage and violence we are witnessing right now, this fall, all around us—a chaos, ignorance and violence I first understood only because of Flannery O’Connor. O’Connor took the conventions of realism in the modern short story, maybe especially the much imitated device of Joyce’s ‘epiphany’, and she parodied them, adding burlesque and grotesque unpredictabilities over top of these conventions, in order, she admitted, to make her readers ‘see’ something important about themselves and their biases, judgements, and various states of myopia. The lesson, for me, as a writer, was her deft, knowing use and abuse of those conventions of story-telling—O’Connor’s awareness of them. It’s what Frye was getting at in that opening quote, “Of course all art is conventionalized, but where the convention is most obvious and obtrusive the sense of play, of accepting the rules of the game, is at its strongest.” Like Shakespeare in his later plays like The Tempest, or Glenn Gould’s second recording of The Goldberg Variations, part of the richness in O’Connor’s stories is simply her delight, and the reader’s participatory delight, too, in her ‘play’ with conventions, the legacies that nurtured and led to her own mastery of craft.
So sometimes, in my worry about these things, I wonder whether you either teach these fundamental forms, and try to demonstrate their legacies in the world, or go the other way completely and simply teach ‘inspiration’ or ‘improvisation’ or commercial conventions that pander to something else entirely in our culture and which avoid these agonies, these gardens. When you throw in the complex, evolving variances embodied in the aesthetics/[poetics of the word ‘beauty,’ it’s tricky, eh? I’ve been caught in these rather unsolvable contradictions or breaches all my teaching life, and I’m still caught in them, even in working on this essay to honor Sharon Thesen who, I suspect, has been just as caught as me in these same conundrums. It is tricky and it can be really personal as well, but we have to be able to talk about this trickiness. From one angle, this trickiness includes significant levels of awareness or non-awareness of contemporary conventions of writing and the generosity and security to address them fairly without boxing yourself in whether you are a student or a teacher. These levels of awareness or unawareness are either going to work for you or against you as a writer, and they have everything to do with your understanding of contemporary poetics, or, more precisely even, Frye’s ‘conventions’…the tricks of the trade…a writer needs to know how these conventions evolve and transform and persist, and how they are vehicles for what we might call ‘beauty’…if you don’t care to know these conventions, or their history, or the unlaundered practise of them by key artists who came before us, you might end up being stuck as a beautiful practitioner of conventions that have not evolved or persisted, conventions that have not transformed, and your work might be creaking behind some crazy curve you are unaware of, dating itself in another kind of arrested beauty, of the naif maybe, or of the primitive, these crazy politically incorrect euphemisms for strange dismissals. Think of doing the same thing in music, or in visual art. Nobody would want to. And it is important to say, too, that this awareness of conventions must be aimed at the ‘new’ as well as at the old. It might be, for example, that the evolving, transforming curve that creates new conventions is not working very well in our culture, and has created new conventions that are weak or superficial…that can happen too, and if so, it will endanger new writers especially who can sometimes be overwhelmed by fashion, by vanity, by superficial, stylistic conventions that are part of trends that do not support density or kinds of beauty in writing. But regardless of either extreme, every writer and every writer who is also a teacher of writers, has to work these things out, has to have a practical strategy that holds these mysteries as a poetic, not necessarily as resolved mysteries, but simply as mysteries that must be acknowledged in the craft and talked about. So what do we do as writers and teachers with all these things ? I still puzzle over these questions all the time….they’re important to me…and they’re really hard to solve…and I’m retired…]
What IS the issue here or what are the issues??? What am I trying to say? What am I trying to sneak up on? Why am I sneaking?
‘The Silencing’…the inability to discuss variances in poetics without fear of theoretical or politically correct/incorrect shaming…
The silencing…this self-conscious silence…this reluctance of elders to hold things up, or to make asses of themselves even accidentally, or to get overwhelmed by a loathsome presumption of entropy in their own ideas, of having little to offer now, or of being in the way, or of misreading everything, of being reactionary, of being behind the curve of theory but always a bit suspicious of it, especially when it first appears in its predictable first orgasm of self-congratulation, or of failing to understand the crucial issues surrounding representation in art and the responsibility of the artist etc etc…of being retired, of being an elder whose experiences do not affect contemporary discourse anymore, or of driving a chic SUV, or of wearing sandals with argyle socks and aviator sunglasses (not the sandals, but you know what I’m getting at)…all these artificial stops and barriers that foster such silencing…and yet, and yet…these barriers and our worry about crossing them in order to say something, all this is simply another kind of superficial and fragile vanity, too, the same vanity that has driven art movements forever…the same old story: the fragile, blossoming confidence and insecurity of one generation rejecting the fragile fading confidence and insecurity of another, while the truth is they need one another; they require one another to live in a transit driven by another kind of humility rather than fake suspicion—what Sharon Thesen references Richard Rohr identifying as a ‘generative humility’…so that after years of thinking we were safeguarding both access to and opening up of forms in creative writing, we can say strongly now that such silencing around discussing these forms is never a good thing. We admit now that we must be more careful, we must pay more attention to our different histories, our different legacies of wonder…we must learn more from our hard won and hard wired breakthroughs and bursts of consciousness and development of conventions over this past century in the Western world…must be open, not closed…must hold onto that generative humility, a humility that allows us all to make things in the face of admitting that we often do not know the full extent of what we are doing or saying or proclaiming…that’s just the way it is, and it’s a good thing that that’s just the way it is…it keeps us all new or young…or on the safe ground that William Burroughs once proclaimed in a CBC Radio interview, “Whoever thinks he’s right, is wrong.” That safe ground.
So let me just say at the top here that I am writing these ideas out of a fairly long career of trying to imagine and build the right kinds of openness in poetics that could support a few generations of new writers committing themselves: first, to the rush of achieving vision in art and second, to the equivalent and necessary ardor of acquiring close and practical knowledge of some conventions in the craft of writing that will allow for such vision.
I started teaching Creative Writing at York University in Toronto in the fall of 1971. I was a Teaching Assistant at that point for a wonderful mentor and poet, Don Summerhayes, and he gave me half of his creative writing students and told me to have fun and learn something on my own. The people teaching Creative Writing at York then were Don Summerhayes, Don Coles, Bob Simmons, Michael Ondaatje, Miriam Waddington and Irving Layton. I am thinking out loud now, almost fifty years later, about how important I still believe the words legacy and continuance are in the long game of teaching poetics in fiction, poetry, drama and creative non-fiction and that list of names just brings all that importance back. We were inventing the pedagogy of teaching those poetics in Creative Writing back then. On the ground; in the trenches. Creating Writing was a new academic discipline, fraught with the predictable dramas and melodramas of acceptance and rejection in an academic community rife with the snobbish smallness and insecurity of competing disciplines, a smallness and insecurity that persists, of course, to this day, to this night even. And we are still in the broad, opening stages of inventing that discipline now. It’s still up for grabs, and that’s a healthy, if turbulent situation sometimes, but a situation many of us are used to. My restless, vague, fear about this invention of creative writing pedagogy post retirement is that we might have lost some of that sense of legacy and continuance in the art of writing and the teaching of that art because of a vague hypnotic seldom discussed deference we made to the tsunami of philosophical and literary theory that surfaced in the 90s and early 2000s in academic communities, and which at times created its own addictive and understandable confidence and exclusivity, and which indirectly and directly encouraged us to hive modernism off from postmodernism and as a consequence, risk losing a kind of ‘player’s’ confidence necessary to achieve vision in art, a confidence linked, strangely enough, to a continuance rather than a rupture in poetics from modernism to post modernism. Even though I myself might be one of the first to admit that in the midst of a sweep of illuminations that occurred in philosophy and literary theory in the last thirty years in Western culture, it was necessary to revisit and re-evaluate, even qualify some of that legacy and sense of continuance—even so, even so, we are not here to serve theory; we are here to discover things, to invent new visions and forms for those visions…we can be inspired by theory, changed by it even, but we are not here to serve it. I don’t think we can afford to turn away from the kind of legacy that Barbara Caruso is referring to in that passage from her essay “Arists’ Writing and Critics’ Writing” in her book Wording The Silent Art quoted earlier because I believe we are connected in significant ways to the modern and postmodern revolutions which produced us in the Western world in the 20th Century and which link us to other cultures as well, and which were hard won and full of incredible visionary and technical shifts. So forgive me in advance for my tangents and self-indulgence as I stay perilously close to the poetics that carried me for so long and which I still engage in and even, at times, advance in my own small way, but through my work now rather than my teaching…See? My never-ending syntax and endless subordinate asides and qualifications are, even in themselves, the truth of what I am trying to say here: a syntax of self-questioning that longs for a closing rhythm, a fusion and a logic that will simply not declare itself ever, and whose wonderful, completely symmetrical unity will elude me forever. So There you go then. That’s the music then. This other music. That’s the image then. This other image. That’s what’s real instead. This fractured, imperfect real, driven by longing and constantly renewed by what Sharon Thesen perceives as a ‘generative humility.’
The risk in truncating things in this way—hiving off modernism from postmodernism—is that we do not understand how we got to be here, how we fashioned these new poetics, how we discovered them slowly and arduously…the real price being we do not have enough confidence and will to improvise out of these new poetics because we cannot quite feel or understand in a practical way the weight of love and effort in their back stories, their bones; we are disconnected from the process and cerebral sinew that produced them, the techniques, tricks, conventions of new forms to solve new problems…
What bothers me is the risk of losing that confidence for all the wrong reasons by simply ignoring the long history of conventions I referred to earlier. I do worry about that. Devolution instead of evolution. Constantly re-inventing the same wheels. So that is what I am talking about here: how to maintain a longer view of these conventions, how to perceive that legacy and celebrate it, and how to further its continuance through wild, beautiful experiments that grow out of an understanding of that legacy, or, as Frye suggests, enhance the ‘sense of play.’ We would never truncate that legacy or continuance in music, in drama or even, in visual art. Why do it in fiction and poetry?
So I’m going to briefly isolate two moments in 20th Century poetics in Western culture when new ground was being broken—one in fiction in the early 1900s during the inception of what we call now ‘modernist’ poetics, and one in poetry in the middle of the century, in the late days of modernist poetics and the early days of postmodern poetics, right at the cusp of that transition. My hope is that by isolating these catalytic moments, we can feel what connects them and how they anticipate us, now: legacy, continuance.
PRACTICAL LOGIC OF LEGACY POETRY
Sylia Plath’s poem, ‘Black Rook In Rainy Weather,’ was written in 1956 and first published in 1957, smack dab in the middle of the Twentieth Century, poised perfectly between the strong surges of modernism and postmodernism in twentieth century western literatures. I have always been fascinated by Plath’s poem because it employs such strong use of modernist poetic conventions, but it opens up onto a changing poetics, and participates in creating powerful alterations in poetry that eventually become part of what we now see as postmodernism or postmodern sensibility. I’m going to read the poem in its entirety:
Top of Form
Black Rook In Rainy Weather
On the stiff twig up there
Hunches a wet black rook
Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain-
I do not expect a miracle
Or an accident
To set the sight on fire
In my eye, nor seek
Any more in the desultory weather some design,
But let spotted leaves fall as they fall
Without ceremony, or portent.
Although, I admit, I desire,
Occasionally, some backtalk
From the mute sky, I can’t honestly complain:
A certain minor light may still
Out of kitchen table or chair
As if a celestial burning took
Possession of the most obtuse objects now and then —
Thus hallowing an interval
By bestowing largesse, honor
One might say love. At any rate, I now walk
Wary (for it could happen
Even in this dull, ruinous landscape); sceptical
Yet politic, ignorant
Of whatever angel any choose to flare
Suddenly at my elbow. I only know that a rook
Ordering its black feathers can so shine
As to seize my senses, haul
My eyelids up, and grant
A brief respite from fear
Of total neutrality. With luck,
Trekking stubborn through this season
Of fatigue, I shall
Patch together a content
Of sorts. Miracles occur.
If you care to call those spasmodic
Tricks of radiance
Miracles. The wait’s begun again,
The long wait for the angel,
For that rare, random descent.
Plath’s legacy in this poem is the rich background of modernist poetics, the work of Eliot, Williams, Stevens, Lowell and Hughes—especially in the very precise field of the use of image—woman, kitchen, window, bird—which become, almost astonishingly, perfect vehicles to suggest a macrocosm of awareness that shimmers around the poem and its after-effects of meaning. This macrocosm includes the role of women in Western culture in the late 50s, the presence of the Cold War in the 50s, the chronic fear of nuclear destruction in those mid-fifties years then, the displacement of conventional religious faith or belief by the frightening neutrality of the philosophy of existentialism as it surfaced in culture and pop culture in the fifties, etc etc— just the rush of seeing Plath reach for these things by plumbing the power of this small, precise set of images—or as Pound identified it, the convention of the ‘image complex—just to appreciate the craft that muscled that reach, the process of it, the exemplum she created in it for new writers re: how you go about trying to catch big things through small objects in poetry (an act as careful as magic or surgery)— and is extended directly & indirectly through to a foreground of evolving poets who come after her, are influenced by her, and who extend her legacy forward, poets as various as Miriam Waddington/Adrienne Rich/PK Page/Gwendolyn McEwen/ Margaret Avison/Daphne Marlatt/Sharon Thesen/Anne Carson/Erin Moure/Nancy Holmes/Karen Solie.
The Good news: is the ‘play’ with the convention of using image in this way, as an ‘objective correlative’ for something hidden or difficult to articulate in any other way…the startling compression of this image complex as it reaches to suggest those larger things…the music all this imagery creates in the reader…the natural joy and sorrow of this kind of beauty in an art object…
The Bad news: is the heavy-handedness of the poem maybe in reaching for all these things (and the way it might announce or push its own meanings sometimes), its privileging of idea over image, the necessary wit of reference and associations in the history of literature involved in forcing such a precise macrocosm…the subservience of the actual world of the images to the world of the ideas the first world is calculated to suggest…lots of things to think about…other places to go…re: other ways to compose to reach a different kind of wonder, hard to say…
When I think of the poets before Plath, and then the poets after Plath…I see an underlying continuance not often commented on but important, especially for new writers seeking out elements of craft & design…the important point being that though the poetics transform in conjunction with contemporary philosophy (from the existentialism of the 50s, the structuralism of the 60s/70s/the post-structuralism of the 80s/90s/2000), you can trace the line of breaking away from one kind of very temporal/geometrically driven sets of designs/BEAUTY/ in the late 19th Century to another more spatial/new kind of physics, new kinds of human designs and patterns driven more by the hesitation and juxtaposition in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s…so that the line or arc of alterations and/or changes in composition is a continuous arc driven by parallel experiments and an obvious quest for new designs that will yield new forms of wonder or beauty or entertainment or longing or humanness: new consciousness…and we are still rattling around in that shift…BUT (and this is SO difficult to articulate or demonstrate) this continuous arc, these morphing forms, this slow evolution and transformation of poetics, is caused and best understood by a complex communal transformation engine of vision rather than structure, content rather than form, so that by some crazy, extended and more elaborate sense of what ‘mimesis’ actually meant in the first place, with Aristotle, content does produce form, vision does surface as design, and both these fields discover new, even hybrid designs of consciousness, of the human…they open doors that might mirror, might represent, in fact, the hybrid human…it is so important to remember this and realize that the radical acts of experiment in poetry and fiction in the 20th and 21st Centuries are radical, sometimes avant garde experiments in both form and content, but mostly content…We tend to forget that, to our own peril…we tend to see the avant garde as a field of primarily formal experiments, hip, exclusive, often both obviously and startlingly visual, sometimes quite disconnected from what we might think of as ‘ordinary’ experience…to our peril…the poetics change because what we see changes and we need new conventions to catch that newness of seeing…
Here, for example, is a wonderful poem, written early in Sharon Thesen’s career, that demonstrates what I am trying to say here…it’s called “Animals.” Look how far—like Plath, like Wallace Stevens, Like W.C. Williams—how far into the so-called ‘ordinary,’ into the human, into the dazzling, breathtaking chaos of the unsolvable, Thesen peers; look how closely and how far, even though she might be categorized as a postmodern poet, she extends the modernist legacies she has inherited in order to reach maybe, a postmodern vision, in order to catch what she sees in front of her:
“Animals” by Sharon Thesen
When I come out of the bathroom
animals are waiting in the hall
and when I settle down to read
an animal comes between me
and my book and when I put on
a fancy dinner, a few animals
are under the table staring at the guests,
and when I mail a letter
or go to the Safeway there’s always
an animal tagging along
or crying left at home and when I get
home from work animals leap joyously
around my old red car so I feel like
an avatar with flowers & presents all over
her body, and when I dance around
the kitchen at night wild & feeling
lovely as Margie Gillis, the animals
try to dance too, they stagger on
back legs and open their mouths, pink
and black and fanged, and I take their paws
in my hands and bend toward them,
happy and full of love.
In terms of the good news and bad news I mentioned earlier regarding the poetics/design of Plath’s poem, note that Thesen still builds a compressed image complex here implementing modernist ‘imagist’ conventions in a predictable way, much like Plath coincidentally—[woman/kitchen/car/paws/dance]—but there is a significant alteration & progression past the ‘modern’ as well: the ideas that surface through the poem’s images are not peering down upon the world of the poem’s images; instead, they are joined at the hip, literally, staring at one another…Thesen has advanced the complexity of her own field of vision of the human, has hauled the angel into everything, banishing the word ‘random’ from the poem, or changing it somehow…the magic love in this poem is immanent, not transcendent…we are moving away from some absolute binaries of modernism and evolving towards a different kind of consciousness, awareness, legacy, continuance…slouching towards something else, something that might even be the death of irony…I don’t know, but I find it exciting…a new way of seeing, as Berger might say, and a slightly newer way to catch that seeing…
WORKING ARC OF CONTINUANCE: PROSE
In closing, I would like to look sideways at a similar or parallel moment in fiction where I think a writer stumbles, almost accidentally, onto a different mode of seeing and capturing a character in prose. I am going to say a few words about D.H. Lawrence’s short story, “Odour Of Chrysanthemums,” (1911 ) , then examine a short passage from Jake Kennedy’s biography, Made Line Sing (2016) to try to show a similar continuance linking modern and postmodern conventions.
“Odour Of Chrysanthemums” starts out as a very solid social realist story in the traditions of Samuel Butler, Ibsen, Strindberg—the same legacy James Joyce employed to compose the short stories in Dubliners—and all its conventions are quite obvious: the detailed description of the gritty small mining town, the harsh domestic lives lived by the women and children in this town, how they are ‘determined’ by those lives, the even harsher working conditions and risks the male characters inhabit, the rough working class voices delivered in a tight welsh dialect. The story focuses on Elizabeth Bates, a pregnant mother of two who is married to a miner Walter Bates who we are told early on works hard and drinks hard. It becomes clear quite quickly that Elizabeth is a very unhappy person caught in a marriage that is beneath her social expectations in this small town. Then the unthinkable happens. There’s an accident in the mine and the whole town awaits what may be the deaths of some of its miners. As it turns out Walter is delivered home, dead. He has been suffocated in a mining accident; his dead body is otherwise perfect, an important detail. The townspeople (who don’t really like Elizabeth much) gather round Elizabeth to support & comfort her while she stares down at this perfect person who had been her husband and who is now dead. Up until this point in the story, everything about the story has been delivered as a strong social realist composition, the weight of the narrative focusing on the physical, external world of these characters in a strong, predictable rhythm. Then abruptly, out of nowhere it seems, the point of view and language and rhythm of the story changes wildly as the reader is thrown by Lawrence into the head of Elizabeth Bates. Suddenly, the story is not social realism any longer as it pursues, crazily at times, the internal world of Elizabeth Bates, her consciousness, her new awareness of her marriage, her sexuality, her love, and her future. Something about a major shift in content here is requiring an equivocal shift in form. The story changes before our eyes. It is a real rupture in point of view and language and style, even logic. It is almost as if Lawrence, like Joyce before him, has stumbled accidentally upon what Joyce would eventually call an ‘epiphany,’ the convention that would become the most famous convention of psychological realist stories in Western culture. It is a thrilling moment to participate in this change in this story because it has the crackling breath-taking energy of an unexpected discovery in a chemistry or physics experiment. Just listen to this as it unfolds in the writing, sentence by sentence:
When they arose, saw him lying in the naïve dignity of death, the women stood arrested in fear and respect. For a few moments they remained still, looking down, the old mother whimpering. Elizabeth felt countermanded. She saw him, how utterly inviolable he lay in himself. She had nothing to do with him. She could not accept it. Stooping, she laid her hand on him, in claim. He was still warm, for the mine was hot where he had died. His mother had his face between her hands, and was murmuring incoherently. The old tears fell in succession as drops from wet leaves; the mother was not weeping, merely her tears flowed. Elizabeth embraced the body of her husband, with cheek and lips. She seemed to be listening, inquiring, trying to get some connection. But she could not. She was driven away. He was impregnable.
She rose, went into the kitchen, where she poured warm water into a bowl, brought soap and flannel and a soft towel.
“I must wash him,” she said.
Then the old mother rose stiffly, and watched Elizabeth as she carefully washed his face, carefully brushing the big blond moustache from his mouth with the flannel. She was afraid with a bottomless fear, so she ministered to him. The old woman, jealous, said:
“Let me wipe him!”—and she kneeled on the other side drying slowly as Elizabeth washed, her big black bonnet sometimes brushing the dark head of her daughter. They worked thus in silence for a long time. They never forgot it was death, and the touch of the man’s dead body gave them strange emotions, different in each of the women; a great dread possessed them both, the mother felt the lie was given to her womb, she was denied; the wife felt the utter isolation of the human soul, the child within her was a weight apart from her.
At last it was finished. He was a man of handsome body, and his face showed no traces of drink. He was blonde, full-fleshed, with fine limbs. But he was dead.
“Bless him,” whispered his mother, looking always at his face, and speaking out of sheer terror. “Dear lad—bless him!” She spoke in a faint, sibilant ecstasy of fear and mother love.
Elizabeth sank down again to the floor, and put her face against his neck, and trembled and shuddered. But she had to draw away again. He was dead, and her living flesh had no place against his. A great dread and weariness held her: she was so unavailing. Her life was gone like this.
“White as milk he is, clear as a twelve-month baby, bless him, the darling!” the old mother murmured to herself. “Not a mark on him, clear and clean and white, beautiful as ever a child was made,” she murmured with pride. Elizabeth kept her face hidden.
“He went peaceful, Lizzie—peaceful as sleep. Isn’t he beautiful, the lamb? Ay—he must ha’ made his peace, Lizzie. ‘Appen he made it all right, Lizzie, shut in there. He’d have time. He wouldn’t look like this if he hadn’t made his peace. The lamb, the dear lamb. Eh, but he had a hearty laugh. I loved to hear it. He had the heartiest laugh, Lizzie, as a lad—”
Elizabeth looked up. The man’s mouth was fallen back, slightly open under the cover of the moustache. The eyes, half shut, did not show glazed in the obscurity. Life with its smoky burning gone from him, had left him apart and utterly alien to her. And she knew what a stranger he was to her. In her womb was ice of fear, because of this separate stranger with whom she had been living as one flesh. Was this what it all meant—utter, intact separateness, obscured by heat of living? In dread she turned her face away. The fact was too deadly. There had been nothing between them, and yet they had come together, exchanging their nakedness repeatedly. Each time he had taken her, they had been two isolated beings, far apart as now. He was no more responsible than she. The child was like ice in her womb. For as she looked at the dead man, her mind, cold and detached, said clearly: “Who am I? What have I been doing? I have been fighting a husband who did not exist. He existed all the time. What wrong have I done? What was that I have been living with? There lies the reality, this man.”—And her soul died in her for fear: she knew she had never seen him, he had never seen her, they had met in the dark and had fought in the dark, not knowing whom they met nor whom they fought. And now she saw, and turned silent in seeing. For she had been wrong. She had said he was something he was not; she had felt familiar with him. Whereas he was apart all the while, living as she never lived, feeling as she never felt.
In fear and shame she looked at his naked body, that she had known falsely. And he was the father of her children. Her soul was torn from her body and stood apart. She looked at his naked body and was ashamed, as if she had denied it. After all, it was itself. It seemed awful to her. She looked at his face, and she turned her own face to the wall. For his look was other than hers, his way was not her way. She had denied him what he was—she saw it now. She had refused him as himself.—And this had been her life, and his life.—She was grateful to death, which restored the truth. And she knew she was not dead.
And all the while her heart was bursting with grief and pity for him. What had he suffered? What stretch of horror for this helpless man! She was rigid with agony. She had not been able to help him. He had been cruelly injured, this naked man, this other being, and she could make no reparation. There were the children—but the children belonged to life. This dead man had nothing to do with them. He and she were only channels through which life had flowed to issue in the children. She was a mother—but how awful she knew it now to have been a wife. And he, dead now, how awful he must have felt it to be a husband. She felt that in the next world he would be a stranger to her. If they met there, in the beyond, they would only be ashamed of what had been before. The children had come, for some mysterious reason, out of both of them. But the children did not unite them. Now he was dead, she knew how eternally he was apart from her, how eternally he had nothing more to do with her. She saw this episode of her life closed. They had denied each other in life. Now he had withdrawn. An anguish came over her. It was finished then: it had become hopeless between them long before he died. Yet he had been her husband. But how little!—
“Have you got his shirt, ‘Lizabeth?”
Elizabeth turned without answering, though she strove to weep and behave as her mother-in-law expected. But she could not, she was silenced. She went into the kitchen and returned with the garment.
“It is aired,” she said, grasping the cotton shirt here and there to try. She was almost ashamed to handle him; what right had she or anyone to lay hands on him; but her touch was humble on his body. It was hard work to clothe him. He was so heavy and inert. A terrible dread gripped her all the while: that he could be so heavy and utterly inert, unresponsive, apart. The horror of the distance between them was almost too much for her—it was so infinite a gap she must look across.
At last it was finished. They covered him with a sheet and left him lying, with his face bound. And she fastened the door of the little parlour, lest the children should see what was lying there. Then, with peace sunk heavy on her heart, she went about making tidy the kitchen. She knew she submitted to life, which was her immediate master. But from death, her ultimate master, she winced with fear and shame.
The language and syntax and sound of the story changes as Lawrence moves the camera into Elizabeth’s consciousness. It is a movement into a more lyrical rhythm in the syntax that matches and creates the interiority and panicked self-questioning Lawrence needs to build. As the logic of this vision of the characters in this story shifts from the social to the psychological realism, the conventions of the story’s form shift to accommodate it. Content produces form. A new kind of story emerges and new conventions of style emerge to enable it.
The Good News: What an incredible technical breakthrough in the form of the short story. It allows the writer to internalize the ‘reality’ of consciousness and build the new genre of psychological realist short story, altering the tried and true convention of ‘climax’ in the traditional short story, and it reveals technical tricks too, that anticipate conventions in stream of consciousness fiction, tricks that will eventually allow Waves, To The Lighthouse, Ulysses, The Sound and the Fury, Nightwood, Journey to the End Of The Night and Under The Volcano to emerge. It singlehandedly answers the question: ‘Why did Joyce throw the 1000pp manuscript of Stephen Hero into the fire and then re-write it as a 180 page novel called A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man?
The Bad News: Maybe this scene, too, is a bit over-written in the midst of its own excitement. It is possible that D.H. Lawrence’s personal vision of gender roles and sexuality in Western society is taking over things a bit, almost creating an opportunity for a small soap box to be situated in the middle of the floor in this scene just near Walter’s body. So, as in Plath, there is a chance that ‘ideas’ begin to dominate ‘things’ inordinately. But what an amazing achievement or discovery regardless. Lawrence is so good. He is seeing something for the first time.
In the early 90s I wrote an academic paper that examined Kristjana Gunnars’ novel The Prowler in terms of the ending of James Joyce’s story “The Dead.’ My premise was connected directly to this idea here of moving narrative inside character as Lawrence does in “Odour Of Chrysanthemums.” I simply wondered, out loud, “What if the conventions of the Joycean ‘epiphany’—that intense and climactic moment of self-awareness either in the character’s consciousness or in the reader’s consciousness—what if the conventions of that ‘epiphany’ became your starting point for a narrative rather than its end point? What would a story or a novel look like then? A lot like Gunnar’s The Prowler, I thought. A lot like it. So the logic and structure of the epiphany—of consciousness in all its flux and chaos and elusive associations, stumbling into a state of illumination, a state of complex self-awareness—would become the fluid structure of the narrative that carried the story. What a risk that would be in some ways, but as it turns out, a risk taken by many writers including Ilse Aichinger, Herta Muller, Kristjana Gunnars, Erin Moure, Annie Dillard, Pierre Michon, Gerald Murnane among many others, and it’s a risk that has a long legacy that goes far back into the late 19th Century experiments with realism by writers as diverse as Henry James, Djuna Barnes, James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad…I can hear so much of that late 19th Century music in these more recent, conceptual or simply mysterious pieces…and I find that long arc of continuity comforting and illuminating, too…it makes sense to me…and it makes community, too…
So I’m going to end by making a few remarks about community, and about a writer I admire who is part of our community here in the Okanagan and whose work shares much with the last list of writers I just announced, beginning with Ilse Aichinger. Jake Kennedy has written six books and has won many awards for this work, especially for Hazard, The Lateral, and Appollinaire’s Speech…Kennedy’s work is thick in its layers and in its designs. It is also sometimes risky in the sense that he is quite comfortable taking deliberate pilgrimages into the surreal, the absurd and/or the almost inexplicable lack of logic in our day-to-day lives, the wonderful ‘try’ life can be instead, the many-sidedness of the way we experience its vicissitudes, its deranged geometry, so that his work, being so committed to these qualities in life, rebuilds them in art, mimics them so beautifully that the reader has to surrender to these qualities in the narrative rather than try stubbornly to subdue them or erase them or turn them into something else that might be easier to take in. In his process, which is apparently a slow, arduous process, Kennedy cuts away into and at his material, stripping it back to a boldness and vibrancy that sometimes simply astonishes me. It is a minimalism that carries an abundance within it,and has been carefully constructed to do just that. The reader might register a lot of pressure in this abundance moreover: the cumulative ‘forces’ of its syntax, its logic and its sound and the spectrum of its ‘play.’ This is a bit like the pressure a reader might find in the meta-fiction of Gunnars’ The Prowler, a pressure or density that goes back to a writer like Gertrude Stein, or forward to a writer like Pierre Michon or some of the work of Djuna Barne’s, David Jones, Milan Kundera, Berger, Herta Muller, and Annie Dillard, a wonderfully compressed minimalism if that’s a good term—I’m so wary of throwing terms at what I’m trying to say about what I see in this kind of work—but forms of prose fiction that have compression and abundance in the same hinge, contraction and expansion built into the very engines that pull them forward. So when I read a writer like Jake Kennedy, I am reminded, crazily, of the steps taken by D.H. Lawrence at the end of “Odour Of Chrysanthemums:” his leap into a kind of lyricism and looseness that is also an act of compression. The two writers, separated by almost a century, share something in their visions and in how they use conventions of form to seize something significant about human experience.
In 2016 OPR Editions in Brooklyn New York, published Jake Kennedy’s book: Made Line Sing: An Extemporaneous Biography of Madeline Gins. The American writer, poet, architect and designer Madeline Gins founded the Reversible Destiny Foundation with her husband, the architect and writer Shusaka Arakawa. Gins was a writer Kennedy greatly admired, and even a cursory glance at her work reveals qualities of play, of looseness and compression, and of intellectual dare-devilry that surface in Kennedy’s work as well. They were writing along parallel paths sometimes. I know that Jake Kennedy had a chance to meet Gins and chat with her about her work, and I believe their connection was so strong and obvious in that meeting that after she passed away in 2014, Kennedy wrote this ‘extemporaneous biography’ of her. Here is a passage from the opening of this completely fabricated biography. It is about Madelaine and her parents just when she first arrived as a baby into the world. I hope it will reveal the wonderful play of conventions and awareness of Gins’ own incredible career that is ever-present in Kennedy’s hilarious and moving honoring of her:
The mirror began its speech: “Every reflection is a circus of resistance. What the mirror means is this: so multiple are things that doubling—though a grand augmentation in itself—seems trite to them. My advice is to give up the belief (bad faith) that the past is inaccessible, the present unpinnable, and the future immoral. Subscribe only to the sphere, and visualize yourself as always spinning.” The mirror also reflected the window which was playing, in its way, a video of Monet’s “pastelling of the lilies.”
Madeline created a large attack by trying to find her face (through glass/mirror) in gruesome gestures. “What am I getting at here?” asked Madeline. Atoms, separation/cleavage, the lips, the kind of connection that burns and fuses an hour to another hour? At that moment (it was a mere instant) Madeline’s wonder was sufficient to create a worm-hole between the window, the mirror, the Monet water lilies, the trees and herself. That is to say, if she reached out again to touch her reflection she simultaneously stroked glass, looking-glass-silver, vegetable matter, bark, and human flesh. Her body was all over the place.
The mirror finished its speech: “You are known as the individual but the mirror’s advice is to forget such suffering. In the carnival of the masses, simply be the masses which, in living forever, is what you are and will be, anyway.” Madeline the image disappeared into the mirror-the-thing because she was the mirror, and the room, and the mother pulling her away, and the father following behind, and the walls. “While I do not know anything,” she began—but her father interrupted her to mimic the sounds of her voice.
I see this kind of writing as part of the legacy and continuance of the leaps Joyce and Lawrence and Woolf and Faulkner took into the poetics of psychological realism, then surrealism, then stream of consciousness fiction and everything that issued after those including some of the work of Burroughs, Kerouac, George Perec and the Oulipians who followed him, an arc of continuance that bridges the modern and the postmodern and is just a part of the poetics so many new writers are pursuing now…part of a much larger, continuing legacy, a long line of like-minded experiment and a lot of fun with Frye’s sense of ‘play’ with the conventions of those experiments.
Sometimes it’s easier to see or hear something unfolding in front of you than it is to try to put that unfolding into words. I’ve thought a good deal about where I was going to end up here, and it’s a bit bewildering to say the least. (Don’t you love the word be wilder?) So in order to bridge these connections—from Sylvia Plath to Sharon Thesen, or D.H. Lawrence to Jake Kennedy—I would like you to do me a favor when you get home. Just dial up YouTube and listen to three short pieces of music back to back. They’re easy to find. And they are short. Each of them is an experiment to find another kind of beauty of abundance in something quite compressed, minimal: the first was written in 1888 by Eric Satie and it’s called Gymnopedie #1; the second was written in 1958 by Bill Evans and is called Peace Piece, and the final piece was written in 1978 by Arvo Partt and is called Spiegel Im Speigel. I have mentioned the dates of composition because I want to indicate the long line of this experiment (considered slightly avant garde in three very different epochs & cultures) which line arcs through modernism and postmodernism with a consistency of intent that bowls me over when I listen to these compositions back to back.
So carry on with your wonderful work, each of you. And just think from time to time of the legacy and continuance and community within which you write and teach and which allows all of us to reach out to artists all over this planet. And honor writers and teachers like Sharon Thesen. They are gifts to all of us. They give everything of themselves in order to keep this wonderful dialogue with the earth open…and I’ll close on a more gossipy note about Sharon because I want a cheap, easy laugh. How small of me after all that. But I was snooping around in some of the biographical material on Sharon when I realised that in the mid 80s, a bit like Ronnie Spector had been in the music scene of the early 60s, Sharon Thesen was at times the ‘bad girl’ of Canadian Poetry. Here is a short excerpt from an article about her in Encyclopedia.com:
“Thesen’s early volumes in particular are characterized by fairly grim explorations of the limits of love, loneliness, anger, and despair. In a 1988 interview in the Malahat Review she calls these works her “mad,” “sad,” and “bad” books. In Artemis Hates Romance Thesen vents her rage and sorrow at the failures of romantic relationships, stating that “there is no /metaphor for love that is not /redness & pain” (“Wilkinson Road Poems”) and that the appearance of love “brings dread to the heart, /knowledge /unasked for” (“The Argument Begins with A”). In a poem called “Dedication” Thesen’s anger is specifically targeted at “‘honeybunch,'” otherwise addressed as “you stupid fucker” and “you slimy hogstool,” for his part in arresting her career as a poet: “you never thought I’d do /it did ya … /it’s no goddamn thanks to you, hiding my /typewriter and always wanting fancy dinners all the time.”
I have to say Ronnie Spector is one of my most favorite singers. Thank you Sharon for everything you’ve done and made; and thank you to Nancy Holmes and everyone at UBCO as well.