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Jodi Angel, author of You Only Get Letters from Jail and Matthew Spektor, author of Amerian Dream Machine reading at Powell's Books Monday, July 22, 7:00pm
METAPHOR WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE, by J.C. Hallman
This week, we’ve had the privilege of hosting J.C. Hallman at the Tin House Writer’s Workshop. You think he’d be busy plugging his new book IN UTOPIA (out August 3rd), but he’s made some time to continue the crusade he began with THE STORY ABOUT THE STORY: GREAT WRITERS EXPLORE GREAT LITERATURE.
Just the other day, I was heartened when I stumbled across the following passage in Steve Almond’s Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life; Almond is criticizing a piece of rock criticism in The New Yorker:
Frere-Jones is certainly not messing around. He covers instrumentation, performance style, and lyrical content. True, he risks losing those of us who are musical dolts…but the real problem here is emotional. The prose, for all its technical fidelity, conveys almost nothing about what the music feels like.
What heartens me about this is less Almond’s call for emotion than his implication that to write well about rock and roll you really need to employ metaphor, figurative language. In other words, I would have italicized like instead of feels.
As it happened, I needed a good heartening. I needed it because I’d just read Helen Vendler’s review of C.K. Williams’s On Whitman in the New York Times Review of Books. (Link below). Admittedly, I haven’t read On Whitman, and I’m not attempting to defend Williams here. Vendler’s review, however, speaks to two things. First, it confirms the continued existence of a perennial problem in the business of book reviewing: like that guy in your workplace who seems unable to prevent himself from speaking aloud the very thought he should keep to himself, book review editors again and again exhibit the terrible tic – let’s call it literary Tourette’s – of assigning books to precisely that reviewer least prepared to appreciate what it is they’ve been asked to assess. Second, and more important, I think, Vendler’s review accidentally measures the dimensions of the chasm that separates writers and critics on the question of how we should write about literature. This is the same chasm that Almond politely maps.
From what I can tell, On Whitman is Williams’s take on Whitman, of course, and a few other poets. Apparently Williams, on a number of occasions, permits himself the luxury of Almond’s advice: he writes about what it’s like to read Whitman. More simply put, Williams writes enthusiastically about an enthusiastic poet – which makes both logical and aesthetic sense. Yet it’s this that gets Vendler’s back up.
Her review trains its sights from the outset: “Enthusiasm is an appealing quality, but it calls out for some accompanying astringency, and the exclamatory nature of Williams’s prose can become excessive.”
What’s notable here is that even as Vendler’s tone can be said to be astringent, she relies entirely on pathos to make her point. She offers no explanation at all for how or why enthusiasm calls out for astringency. She simply asserts it, and her assertion is that assertions, particularly enthusiastic ones, ought to be checked in some way, by something, by her, apparently. We’re barely fifty words into her review and her logic has already come full circle.
Vendler’s astringent prose not only lacks enthusiasm – it contains its opposite. Reacting to Williams’s characterization of the 1960s, Vendler tries to shed a light she thinks Williams overlooked. She reminds us that the sixties also saw “many good minds lost to drugs, red-eyed students stoned in classrooms and careless one-night stands.” The prose here is scrunched, smothered, downright conservative. It’s as though someone has shown Vendler some sexy pictures and she’s decided to be grossed out by them. And all she has really done is borrow and de-enthuze the first lines of “Howl.”
Vendler finds C.K. Williams kind of adolescent. She says: “Something of [Williams’s] adolescent passion for Whitman governs the prose of this book: ‘How wildly exciting, how really exalting it must have been to him when his poetry first offered him a way to see and record so much — it can feel like everything. Just reading it, the brilliance of the moments of inspiration are like raw synaptic explosions, like flashbulbs going off in the brain, in the mind: pop, pop, pop.’ There is perhaps too much of this…” [Italics mine]
Too much of this? Too much good writing and metaphor? That’s about like saying it’s okay to watch porn, and it’s even okay to talk about it and write about it, but under no circumstances should you actually imitate the acts that get your juices flowing. Or, if you feel any actual ecstasy in response to ecstatic work, you should sublimate all of it when you attempt t communicate any of it.
In one fell swoop, Vendler has positioned herself in relation to Williams’s adolescent: she has become the aging schoolmarm playing chaperone at a middle school dance. There she is, scrunched out on the dance floor, eagle eyes wandering, watching some young boy really get off on the music – he’s dancing, he’s lost himself in the moment – and the old schoolmarm can remember only vaguely when she herself danced, that dancing was the whole point. But now it’s lost. “These kids, these kids,” she seethes. “They’re just having too much fun!”
Vendler acknowledges that Williams lifts his style from his subject: “Williams’s prose here, as elsewhere, has been raised to Whitman’s own oratorical pitch, as he reaches a startling conclusion…” But it’s not something Vendler can bring herself to do. Claiming to articulate poetry’s real purpose, she astringently claims that poetry “necessarily subsumes even the ethical under whatever it has set up as the aesthetic law governing a particular construction.”
Thud. Thud, thud, thud. Technical fidelity, no feeling.
My concern here is less for Vendler than what she represents: the kind of writing – astringent – that we demand students employ when they first write about books. That’s central, I think, to nature of the chasm between writers and critics. A number of writers have commented on this very thing.
Seamus Heaney, in “Learning from Eliot,” describes his first experience of “The Hollow Men”:
Whatever happened within my reader’s skin was the equivalent of what happens in an otherwise warm and well-wrapped body once a cold wind gets at its ankles. A shiver that fleetingly registered itself as more pertinent and more acutely pleasurable than the prevailing warmth….But, of course, we were not encouraged to talk like that in English class.”
And William Gass in the The Tunnel:
When I was in high school I had to write an essay duplicating the manner and subject of Bacon’s “On Reading,” and I remember including all the comfortable clichés. I said nothing about how books made me masturbate.
Both Gass and Heaney long for the license Almond would enthusiastically issue them. For metaphor. Heaney explicitly, and Gass, well, while it’s not strictly metaphoric, masturbation requires an extensive use of the imagination, I’d say – and I think that may be his point. And that’s the thing. Vendler’s call for “astringency” betrays an almost allergic response to the use of the imagination in response to works of the imagination. This – this – strikes her as adolescent.
But who’s really the new kid on the block, putting on airs?
Alas, it’s Aristotle (seconded by Demetrius, and Horace, and Isocrates) who called the use of metaphor “the mark of genius.”
Helen Vendler’s review of Williams proves that even a schoolmarm remembers how to throw a child’s tantrum.
Link to Vendler Review: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/04/books/review/Vendler-t.html