Consider the extraordinary C.D. Wright, who in “Pictures Never Taken but Received” compares poetry to photography in order to help us understand an aspect of writing that is difficult to capture, its social and ethical role. “Photographs,” she tells us, “are a writing of the light.” Then she draws an analogy: photography is to poetry as writing with light is to writing with silence:
The relationship of poetry to silence is as involved as that of photography’s. In photography, silence is a given and an effect. In poetry it is a state of mind and an effect…. Perhaps the greater responsibility lies with poetry,… to sort through the inaudible signals before speaking up.
Photography cleaves the image from darkness so that what cannot be seen becomes visible. Poetry cleaves the image from “the inaudible signals,” what cannot be heard. The “greater responsibility” of poetry is the weighing and sorting of what is not heard in the din of the historical moment, a din curated by the same political class George Orwell took aim at in “Politics and the English Language.”
Why would any of this matter to a novelist? Distinctions among literary forms can be useful. They can also restrict us from accessing different approaches to plot, point-of-view, even the cadence of a sentence. Besides, these distinctions are historical and bound by rather hierarchical assumptions about what constitutes literary high art, who should be allowed to read, and who should be allowed to write. One of the greatest writers in the English tradition, Virginia Woolf, was denied an education by her father on the basis of her gender. He foolishly left her in his library unsupervised. She educated herself and became an iconoclast, a novelist who broke icons, wrote essays that were short stories and novels that were poems. But that will be the topic of my next post, in September.
Whether we are poets or novelists, it is important to understand why Wright points to William Carlos Williams, someone who in her estimation “epitomized the prepared observer.” Williams was, she wrote, a “watcher. A listener. Goat stubborn. Feet-in-the-soil independent.” She shares with Williams a recognition of what I refer to as the landscape and its song perhaps because, having come to this country as a political refugee, I feel a greater sense of the connection between writing and history, especially any history that remains unspoken and unheard. Whatever we call that recognition, it was for Wright the “greater responsibility” of writing. I had that sense the few times I was privileged enough to be in her company. She was an extraordinary poet and teacher who understood the tyranny of image over written language, a usurpation that accelerates over time as we look back over Williams’ life (1883 to 1963) and hers (1949-2016). Both poets were “[g]oat stubborn” in their insistence that listening precedes the image that reconciles, that helps us understand the suffering that binds us together.
It is Williams who notes in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” how “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” No, poetry does not offer information as efficiently, as cheaply as a newspaper. It offers instead a bridge between reader and world, a difficult one to cross. Wright in The Poet, the Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, a Wedding in St. Roch, the Big Box Store, the Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All, published shortly before her untimely death, returns to a similar idea: the inefficiency, the impracticality of poetry–its “overproved slowness”:
I may have to allow that poetry’s overproved slowness is part of the reason it, too, is becoming a casualty. It is not merely that images have displaced its authority, but speed has set aside its function of relaying information. I would have to qualify this allowance with the tenacious feeling that our enduring function as seers is not only intact but is also being pressed back into service.
By “seeing” Wright does not mean that poets are prophetic, as she explains. She means that poets work at “rectifying the word. Trueing what is seen.” After all, “[t]he nth of acuity is not a given of the art [of poetry] but a time-honored goal.”
In “A Sort of a Song,” Williams signals the fragility of the poet’s process, of “[l]et[ting] the snake wait under / his weed,” in order to transform into language something that might otherwise have remained inaudible. It’s funny how Williams titles the poem a “sort of a song.” He is hesitating, as if to warn us of the dangers of formal classification, of how such a rash mistake could destroy the landscape that holds snake, weeds, Saxifrage, rocks, and the poet’s consciousness as one. The poet must wait until “through metaphor” he can draw the comparison that breaks open and “reconcile[s] / the people and the stones.”
Critics sometimes interpret Williams’ guiding premise “[n]o ideas but in things” as an insistence on “simple language.” I think the call for “simple language” is a sign that we have left behind Wright’s sense of the “greater responsibility.” I think the ascendancy of the image has caused us to see writing, not as a thing in itself, the pattern and texture of a sentence and an argument unfolding rhetorically in time, but as an invisible conduit to some end product, some bit of something readers must hurry to grasp in order to get to the next thing. Syntax, word choice, complex ideas–these are impediments to the harried reader in search of the bottom line.
Susan Sontag makes the point in On Photography that the photographic image has no context. The image is unmoored, rendered like an empty landscape without borders. Neil Postman, educator and cultural critic, reminds me of Sontag’s observation. In his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, he notes Sontag’s distinction between how a photograph confirms our knowledge of the world, and yet “all understanding begins with our not accepting the world as it appears” (italics original), which means that the image, for all its pleasures and practicalities, also lacks a frame of reference, a specific landscape. As Postman observes, while “[m]eaning is distorted when a word or sentence is, as we say, taken out of context; when a reader or listener is deprived of what was said before, and after,” a photograph is not open to such distortion because, for better or worse, “…the point of photography is to isolate images from context, so as to make them visible in a different way.” (I think of how many people, no doubt well-intentioned, could only ever ask me about the iconic Fidel.)
These intellectuals are not arguing against photography. They are working to understand the effects of the photographic image on culture. What happens when we privilege image over writing? Postman argues that the world becomes “atomized,” reduced to an ahistorical present in which we experience an overwhelming sense of our inability to change anything. What happens to story-tellers (poets and writers) who question the world as it has been made to seem? I remember the novel Slowness: “Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared?” Milan Kundera asks. “Where have they gone, those loafing heroes of old song, those vagabonds who roam from one mill to another and bed down under the stars?” In the shift from word to image, our tools as story-tellers have been turned upside down, and we ourselves rendered as impractical and irrelevant as Quijote.
For Wright and Williams, image follows silence. In the world Postman describes the image is all. The image does not follow from contemplation. It dominates, and then euphemism follows. Imperialism, purges, deportations, atom bombs–“in our time,” Orwell wrote in 1946, at the end of the Second World War, these are all defensible, “but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties.” In order to side step the brutality of their arguments, politicians speak in euphemisms, which is why, for Orwell, political writing “consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house” (italics original). Euphemism exacerbates the break between song and landscape.
Look around: foreign policy has been reduced to 140 characters; people tagged “bad” or “good.” So it is time for “goat-stubborn” story-tellers to think less about the marketplace and genres; to consider deeply the silence; to sort through whatever truths we find and let them settle on the page. Our song is a transaction with the landscape of our times. Recognize the Saxifrage: the Antarctic dissolving away, refugees floating dead on unreached shores, less-than-motherly bombs killing civilians and combatants alike. What splits the rock? What reconciles? It seems to me the inaudible screams to be heard.
Does your story-telling question the world or accept it as it is?
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