Wednesday, January 28, 2004

My note about expectation & perception in Chicago yesterday got me thinking. Back in 1970, when I spent the summer in Buffalo, I had an experience that has shaped my thinking about aesthetics & form ever since. Having grown up in the Bay Area, it was my first real time trying to live anywhere else & it took a couple of weeks for me to get the hang of the landscape. But as I did, I began to realize that I was seeing less & less of what was there. To put this another way, at first I had no mechanism for knowing what was an important detail – a landmark, for example – and what was not, so I was literally soaking it all in. But as I began to remember landmarks & link them in my imagination to a map of the city, I no longer needed to absorb so much data. In the Bay Area, where I had been living at that point for over two decades, I could go from place to place almost with my eyes shut.*


In motion pictures, novels, even poems – especially longer ones – any time-based art form, something to the same process applies. Often in a motion picture – regardless of quality – there is a period in which the details feel quite chaotic to the viewer as he or she sorts out basic elements (e.g., who is the main character here?). In more formulaic Hollywood flicks, I sometimes think that there is a three-part structure:

·         Chaotic introduction of detail that gradually sorts into elements of plot, character, genre, etc.

·         Machinery moving the plot from point A to point B

·         A car chase or similar FX-heavy conclusion


Almost all the pleasure for me occurs in the first of these three movements. Indeed, I would argue that the works I like best are those that do the best job extending & propelling that first stage to the greatest degree possible. When I think of the list I gave January 7 of the novels that have most held my interest written over the past fifty years – Gravity’s Rainbow, V, Satanic Verses, Visions of Cody, Naked Lunch, Underworld, Dhalgren, Islands in the Net – which I characterized at the time as “almost all narratives that ‘go nowhere,’ & which would be unrepresentable in film”** – a major feature is that each lengthens this first movement & to some degree seems predicated on stretching it out as far as can be imagined.


The same dynamics apply in poetry of course. A poem in quatrains tells you an enormous amount about itself even before you’ve absorbed the first word – an entire series of expectations are set & framed. These can be met or confounded – either approach has its pleasures – but it’s significantly different from a poem that leaves the reader unsettled, off-balance, not certain quite what to expect. The latter seeks to preserve the experience of newness formally precisely by denying the reader predetermined landmarks. In some sense, I think this was the way in which a good deal of what came to be known as language poetry was first received in the 1970s. People were – and to some degree still are – unsure of whether or not to take Lyn Hejinian’s My Life as a poem or a novel. Sitting Up, Standing, Taking Steps won a Pushcart Prize for fiction in 1979, even tho the work has no characters, no plot & nothing fictive in its text – it was, however, in a paragraph,  In 1979, a hard right margin was all it took for the Pushcart editors to not only decide something was fiction, but award-winning fiction at that.


One problem that any serious post-avant writing confronts is that, over time, readers come to understand the landmarks to any new terrain. What was comically misidentified in the 1970s becomes instantly recognizable just 25 years later. In order to keep it new, the writer (me or you or whomever) must go beyond the exoskeletal components of structure to create a sense of liveliness internally – through word choices, sentence juxtapositions, the underlying logic. I obviously have a serious bias towards building in devices – like the “new sentence” – that block or at least slow the integration of the text, the point at which it moves from the first of my three mock stages into the moving machinery one. Even as a reader, I am more apt than not to avoid reading the title until the very end of the poem & oftentimes not even then. I’ve gone through entire books without taking note of a title. I simply find them too confining. And I guess that my own titles have a tendency to point anywhere but the text.


The logic behind all this isn’t newness for the sake of novelty, some sort of attention deficit approach to contemporary meaning, but rather to maximize the reader’s (& my own) attentiveness to detail. That’s what gets lost when a reader gets too comfortable with the landmarks of the poem – why, for example, it’s so very hard to write a good haiku – just as it’s what gets lost when you get too familiar with a landscape or city. Slushing around Chicago in the snow last weekend was a great reminder of just how awake one feels when confronted with so much new information.




* Indeed, in some circumstances I could literally do it. Having grown up in a MacGregor house in Albany, I thoroughly internalized the basic floor plan this developer favored as he populated the flatlands of the East Bay with starter homes in the 1920s. When Barrett Watten & Carla Harryman bought a MacGregor, the only difference was that the floor plan was reversed left-right from the one in which I’d been raised. I could go anywhere. Later, Krishna & I bought our own MacGregor – it had a couple of hallway doors placed differently, but otherwise was identical to the home in which I’d been raised.


** I subsequently heard from someone who has written a screenplay for Dhalgren.