Classics Club #1: “The Dyer’s Hand” by W. H. Auden

For a number of reasons, I knew that I wanted to start my Classics Club project with a look at W. H. Auden’s The Dyer’s Hand. For one, of all the books on my list, it’s the only one that I’d read any part of; during the first semester of my MFA program, I had to read several essays from the book and then write poems inspired by them. For another, as a work of literary criticism, I thought that The Dyer’s Hand might provide a high-level view from which to consider the rest of the books on the list. And for a third, it just happened to be next on my queue regardless.

But while I was reading it, I found it difficult to settle on a direction to take this post. After the first three or four essays, I thought about comparing Auden’s fragmentary style to the philosophical inquiries of Ludwig Wittgenstein, but then Auden’s style became more streamlined and structured as the collection went on. I thought about comparing my thoughts on various artworks to Auden’s, but let’s just say that he’s seen Don Giovanni infinitely more times than I have. And I thought about discussing the Ariel/Prospero distinction he mentions in his essay on Robert Frost, until I remembered that I wrote such an essay in grad school and decided I didn’t want to repeat myself.

I was completely stuck, until I happened upon a discussion that has apparently been raging across the internet: the state of the negative review. It’s a topic that the book-blogging community raises frequently (see, for instance, this post from Krysta of Pages Unbound), but of late the topic has come up more in the popular press. In recent months we’ve seen Kyle Paoletta decry the overly-celebratory nature of TV criticism for The Baffler, Rob Harvilla contemplate the role of the take-down in the age of social media for The Ringer, and sci-fi author John Scalzi defend the virtues of the pan on his blog. And I found all this fascinating in the context of The Dyer’s Hand, because if high-brow W. H. Auden were to walk into this conversation that’s been going on, he’d actually be the most skeptical of the negative review’s value.

In the first essay in The Dyer’s Hand, entitled “Reading,” Auden says that a critic ought to perform at least one of the following tasks when discussing a work:

1) Introduce me to authors or works of which I was hitherto unaware.

2) Convince me that I have undervalued an author or a work because I had not read them carefully enough.

3) Show me relations between works of different ages and cultures which I could never have seen for myself because I do not know enough and never shall.

4) Give a “reading” of a work which increases my understanding of it.

5) Throw light upon the process of artistic “Making.”

6) Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc.

The Dyer’s Handpp. 8-9

Looking closely at this list, one can conclude that Auden doesn’t really see aesthetic appraisal as a vital role for the critic. Auden’s ideal critics should provide context, draw connections, share discoveries, and reveal truths, but it’s not clear that they should provide up-or-down judgments as to whether a book is good. The task which comes closest here is the second, and even there, it would seen that Auden wants the critic to go in a specific direction: to show that a work is better (or perhaps just more interesting) than the audience had given it credit for. He does not advocate that critics tear down works which they believe have been wrongly praised.

Indeed, throughout “Reading,” Auden is skeptical of the notion that writing bad reviews serves any purpose, and he addresses either directly or implicitly some of the common arguments in favor of the practice. An obvious argument would be that writing a negative review will persuade readers not to waste their time on a given work. But Auden reminds us that even a negative review acts as publicity and keeps a work in the current conversation. “Had Macaulay never written his review of Robert Montgomery,” he writes, “we would not today be still under the illusion that Montgomery was a great poet” (p. 10). Instead, Auden would have advised Macaulay to remain silent on the matter, allowing Montgomery’s work to fade into obscurity.

I’ll admit, I find this argument to be Auden’s weakest, or rather the least generally applicable. Being a poet, Auden naturally has poetry on his mind as he’s writing this essay. Even by the standards of book publishing, the poetry market is incredibly small; one could probably count on one hand the number of people making a living solely off revenue from writing poems. There aren’t any big marketing campaigns to smear the latest chapbooks across the public consciousness, so reviews are basically all the advertising a poet may get. Thus, if their collection is terrible and no one wants to review it, then it will almost certainly be forgotten for all time. But the same rules don’t apply to Hollywood films and popular TV shows. The machinery supporting those cultural products is so large and powerful that there is little chance of them simply withering in the darkness.

But at other points, Auden’s critique of the negative review seems not only reasonable, but also insightful. For example, he takes up the notion that one must critique bad works of art, lest those works inspire artists to make even more inferior pieces. The problem with that argument is that influence doesn’t necessarily work like that. Those who make bad works of art often draw inspiration from masterpieces; they simply lack the skill or vision to duplicate their forebears’ successes. Think about how many terrible student films come from kids who fashion themselves the next Quentin Tarantino or David Fincher. “The more powerful and original a writer,” says Auden, “the more dangerous he is to lesser talents who are trying to find themselves. On the other hand, works which were in themselves poor have often proved a stumulus [sic] to the imagination and become the indirect cause of good work in others” (p. 10). That last point rings especially true for me: I find I have far more success in writing when I use mediocre poets as a model, rather than trying to write something like Milton or Dryden.

This is not to say that Auden sees no value in the take-down. First, he concedes that in practice, critics often can’t just refuse to review a bad work. The terms of their employment may require them to write something, and if they can’t stay silent then they’ll at least be honest. Second, Auden still believes that the “corruption of the language” should be “continually publicly attacked,” but even then he says the true culprit is not the work in question but “the misuse of language by the man-in-the-street, journalists, politicians, etc.” (p. 11). But that’s about as far as Auden is willing to go in this essay. Personally, I’d carve out a larger space for the negative review. In particular, the belief that one should connect a work “to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc.” requires that a critic call out harmful or dishonest artworks when they encounter them, lest we pretend the realms of art and life are somehow separable. And the more prominent a work is in the culture, the more harm it can do, and the less compelling Auden’s arguments seem to become.

It will be interesting to see whether I can, or whether I should, keep to the spirit of Auden’s position for the rest of my Classic Club posts. At the very least, I always want to keep those six tasks he listed in mind when writing a post. I’m certain that I’ll dislike at least some of the next forty-nine books I read for this project, but whatever I write about them should have some substance beyond mere vitriol. It may be true that, as Auden claims, [o]ne cannot review a bad book without showing off” (p.11). But I’m sure one can do so without just showing off.


Please feel free to share your thoughts on The Dyer’s Hand or on negative reviews in the comments below. If you’d like to get a sense of what’s on the horizon for my Classics Club project, you can access my list of fifty books here. And as always, thank you for reading.

Three Fragments on a Painting by John Singer Sargent

I.

The above image is an 1884 painting called The Breakfast Table. The artist is the American portraitist John Singer Sargent, and the subject is the artist’s youngest sister, Violet. In this painting, Sargent has captured his sister in an instant of the perfectly everyday: reading a book over breakfast.

It’s clearly a page-turner, given that she’s staring down at the text while peeling an orange, not even glancing back at the blade that she’s sliding under the skin. If you look closely, you’ll notice that she’s even got the book propped up on some more oranges, which is perhaps the most charming detail here. It’s a potentially chaotic moment in this otherwise composed setting: what if her hand slips? what if the oranges roll off? When one thinks on it perhaps too long, the scene seems to have the potential for slapstick. Yet, looking at Violet’s expression, I cannot believe that any such calamity could occur. She’s too studious in her reading, too steady with the knife she’s holding, for any ill to befall her. I know, intellectually, that she will need to turn the page at some point, but I can imagine her holding this position for hours on end, a model of concentration.

The fact that I can see both chaotic and controlled futures in the world of the painting perhaps explains why I’m uncertain how to categorize it. It’s easy to call The Breakfast Table a genre painting, that is, a painting that depicts a scene from everyday life. Genre paintings tend to be alive with action; in this case, it’s the tension surrounding the woman, the book, and the knife. But we also see the poise associated with traditional portraiture, and given how much physical space on the canvas is dedicated to the breakfast room’s furnishings, one could even call it an artificial landscape.

You might think that such labeling is merely academic, but the context in which one views a work of art is important, and genre is a massive piece of context. I first saw The Breakfast Table with the expectation of seeing a portrait, based on what I knew of the artist, and so I first focused on the features and demeanor of the one person in the frame. But were I instead told it was a genre painting ahead of time, I’d likely focus my attention on the subject’s actions, and if someone said it was a landscape, I’d give myself over to the gestalt sensation of the room. In each case, I’d still judge the painting by how compelling and truthful it is, but just what would constitute truth may vary depending on which frame of reference I employ. Would the warmth of a morning at the breakfast table, which I’d want to find in a landscape, necessarily be welcome in the expression of someone being portrayed deep in concentration? I think it unlikely.

II.

The Breakfast Table is currently part of the collection of the Harvard University Arts Museums in Cambridge, Massachusetts; according to their website, one can view the painting in Room 2100 on the second floor, a gallery themed around “Centuries of Tradition, Changing Times: Art for an Uncertain Age” (perhaps I was onto something in the above section regarding all those tensions). As you have probably gathered from that last sentence, I have not seen The Breakfast Table in person. I was not even aware that Harvard had art museums, though that fact shouldn’t really surprise me.

Instead, I found The Breakfast Table through an art book, specifically, John Singer Sargent by Trevor Fairbrother (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994). The book, which was made in association with the Smithsonian, is more or less what you would expect, with scans of paintings from all stages of Sargent’s development as an artist and informative writing from Fairbrother to place those paintings in context. At least, that’s what I assume one would expect, as this is only the second art book that I’ve read.

I’m honestly not sure why I haven’t read more art books in the past. Art history represents a significant hole in my knowledge base; watching Jeopardy!, few categories fill me with as much dread as the fine arts ones. My ignorance is especially odd because I write so many ekphrastic poems. (The last poem I had published, for example, was inspired by Fernand Léger’s painting Animated Landscape.) Every time I sit down to write something on a painting or a sculpture or what have you, I rediscover that I can’t really place the poem in its full historical context. I may know, for example, that a given work was made during the Gilded Age, but what art was like during the Gilded Age, or how it differed from what came before or after, is beyond me. Art books seem like a perfect way to fill that gap, especially now that I live in the country, where there are far fewer art museums.

Granted, I find art books to be somewhat odd on a conceptual level. Let’s set aside that, to build on Walter Benjamin, such books cannot convey the “aura” that viewing the original in person does, and instead let’s focus on the nature of books and paintings. To read a book is a continuous process; you are always moving from one word to the next, turning the pages to pull the thread of the book along. This is different from how you view of a painting, where you linger over the brushstrokes and the play of light and so forth. If someone were to stop dead in their tracks and observe the same spot on a canvas for twenty minutes, we’d assume they that were deep in aesthetic appreciation; if someone did the same to the book they were reading, we’d assume that they had merely zoned out.

To read an art book, I’d say, is to negotiate the tension between two impulses. At least, that’s what I’m finding as I read Fairbrother’s book. To the extent that I’m reading a book, my instinct is to keep moving along, to read more about, for instance, the context in which Sargent painted The Breakfast Table (the scandal surrounding his Portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau at the Salon of 1883, his experiments in Impressionism, etc.). To the extent that I’m admiring a collection of paintings, though, my instinct is to slow down, to investigate each painting I come across, to scour The Breakfast Table for evidence of the claims Fairbrother makes. I simultaneously believe I am moving too quickly and too slowly, which is as good an approximation of life as any.

III.

In describing how Sargent frames The Breakfast Table with furnishings cropped by the edge of the canvas, Fairbrother states that the artist wishes to “enhance the viewer’s sense of privileged intrusion into the scene” (p. 56). The word “privileged” there carries two connotations. The first sense, the one that Fairbrother certainly intends, is the connotation of intimacy. The subject, a woman reading to herself, is engaged in an inherently private activity. She is alone not only in her physical space, but in her mental one as well. To read is to temporarily seal oneself off from the surrounding environment by imagining a different one, and to view this painting is to breach that seal.

The second sense, the one that Fairbrother does not likely intend but is still fitting, is the connotation of wealth and status. In his caption to the painting, Fairbrother calls The Breakfast Table “an interior devoted to the charms and comforts of middle-class domesticity: silver, linen, and roses in an aura of tranquility and privacy” (p. 55). While the woman at the table is the focal point of the work, the great majority of the canvas is dedicated to depicting the fine and tasteful décor that surrounds her. In viewing the scene from this angle, the audience may have a chance to see how the other half lives.

I don’t think that the woman’s reading is incidental to this display of material privilege, either. Even with rising literacy rates and falling production costs over time, reading is still in some sense a luxury activity, or at least a luxurious one. There is obviously the monetary cost of acquiring new books, but let’s not forget the cost in time as well. Even the shortest of novels will take hours to read, and if a person must work to make a living, or must care for children or elderly family members, they will have far less time to enjoy literature than will the idle rich. (For an almost comical illustration: think how long it can take to linger over a monstrously sized art book, and then imagine someone trying to squeeze it into their commute on public transportation.)

More than anything else, that’s what The Breakfast Table has come to mean for me: a reminder that to read, to write poetry, to even consider running this blog on the side, are all products of relative privilege. There are invisible costs to every human activity, but we can become aware of them in oddest ways. I cannot imagine Sargent had anything like this in mind when he painted his sister reading in his family’s dining room. But a work of art is an opportunity for self-reflection, as much a mirror as it is a window.


Thank you for reading this most recent installment in my “Fragments” series. You would perhaps like to check out my previous efforts in the form: on the 2017 National Book Festival, on nothing, and on a photograph of Yankees game. And if you have any thoughts on John Singer Sargent’s The Breakfast Table, art books, or anything else on topic, let me know in the comments!

Marianne Moore’s “No Swan So Fine”: An Analysis

Marianne Moore wasn’t my favorite poet who I studied as part of my MFA, but she was one of my favorite characters. The way that Elizabeth Bishop describes in particular is just so charming: an almost comically old-fashioned woman who happened to have an experimental flair for poetry, an erudite thinker with popular appeal. I admired her in concept without loving her in fact. At least, that is, until I really stopped to analyze today’s poem, “No Swan So Fine.”

The poem, which you can read over at the Poetry Foundation website, is in many ways the perfect poem to start off the new year with. After all, a new year is a time of transition, a time to reflect upon the past and confront the uncertainty of the present moment. I’m hard-pressed to think of poems that quite capture that anxious attitude toward time like this one does.

We might as well begin with the quote that opens the poem: “No water so still as the / dead fountains of Versailles” (lines 1-2). If you’re not familiar with Marianne Moore’s style, your first question entering the poem may concern who is speaking there, and why we never hear from that person again. As it happens, the opening quote is not dialogue at all, but rather a line that Moore came across while reading the New York Times Magazine. This is one of Moore’s many trademark moves: incorporating material from mundane, non-poetic sources into her own work. If you’ve ever read her most famous piece, “Poetry,” you’ll recall that she did not think it “valid / to discriminate against ‘business documents and // school books’; all these phenomena are important” (17-19). For Moore, profound and fruitful material could be found everywhere.

In this case, the opening quote comes from an article that Percy Phillip wrote for the New York Times Magazine about the restoration of the Palace of Versailles, the grand home of the Bourbon dynasty for the century prior to the French Revolution. As the tone of the quoted material indicates, Phillip found that the restoration still left that symbol of the Ancien Régime feeling sterile, yet because the statement is framed as an absolute, there’s still a sort of grandeur to the setting. Little wonder, then, that Moore found the line inspiring, for it’s the exact sort of language that she extols in “Poetry.”

Where Moore places the line within the poem, however, is somewhat unusual for her work. Generally, these quotes from brochures and technical manuals and whatnot happen in the middle of her poems, occurring almost casually within the verse. In the case of “No Swan So Fine,” though, Moore uses the quote to open the poem, where it blurs the line between text and paratext; were it not for the visual presentation, one might mistake it for an epigraph. In fact, the line more or less functions as one, because the quote directly inspires the speaker’s reflections that comprise the poem.

From that line in the New York Times Magazine, the speaker makes an associative leap to an ornamental swan “[l]odged in the Louis Fifteenth / candelabrum-tree” (8-9). As Grace Shulman writes in Marianne Moore: The Poetry of Engagement (excerpt available on the University of Illinois website), the real-life piece Moore had in mind was a candelabra owned by former British Prime Minister Lord Balfour, which had recently been auctioned off. Both the palace and the swan are antiques of a declining aristocracy, pieces of history whose auras have faded through time.

The speaker’s feeling toward the swan seems ambivalent, to judge by the language used to describe it. To get a sense that ambivalence, let’s look at that first stanza in full:

"No water so still as the
    dead fountains of Versailles." No swan,
with swart blind look askance
and ambidextrous legs, so fine
    as the chintz china one with fawn-
brown-eyes and toothed gold
    collar on to show whose bird it was. (1-7)

On the one hand, there is a regal quality to the verse here, which comes through strongly in the stanza form. As with many of Moore’s early poem, “No Swan So Fine” is built on what Lewis Turco would call quantitative syllabics: repeated stanzas with the same arbitrary pattern in the number of syllables per line. In this case, the stanza form is 7-8-6-8-8-5-9. (Granted, this requires one to use the archaic one-syllable pronunciation of “flowers” in line 14, but such archaisms are not exactly unwelcome given the subject.) Compared with other Moore poems in quantitative syllabics, which often juxtapose Whitman-esque line-lengths with Williams-esque ones, the line lengths of “No Swan So Fine” are relatively regular, with only the last two lines of each stanza differing all that much from the mean.

Further, Moore had a predilection for so-called light rhymes, which are so soft that read aloud they hardly register; one needs to read “The Fish” on the page, for instance, to realize that it rhymes “an” with “fan” and “the” with “sea.” There are no such light rhymes in “No Swan So Fine.” This first stanza’s sole rhyme, “swan” and “fawn,” hits so strongly, despite “fawn” coming as part of a hyphenated compound, that I’m tempted to call this poem Moore’s version of heroic couplets: composed, self-contained, and befitting high subject matter.

While the form of “No Swan So Fine” looks like how a modernist would mourn the decline of aristocratic society, the diction of the poem tends to knock down such nostalgia. While there is something majestic about this statue’s “swart blind look askance,” the speaker mentioning its “ambidextrous legs” only calls attention to the statue’s fundamental inability to move; at any rate, “ambidextrous” is far too functional and clinical a term to “properly” elevate its subject. (Moore would perhaps disagree, but imagine Dryden praising a bird in this fashion.) Or consider the “chintz china” material. While “chintz” can describe a floral pattern originally used in fabric, it also calls to mind the word “chintzy,” meaning gaudy or cheap. Add on that “toothed gold / collar,” and you can envision a statue that is really a grotesque parody of old-money opulence.

Yet just when the reader may start suspecting that Moore looks at the swan sculpture the way Phillip looks at Versailles, the second stanza pulls back on that “look askance,” as it were. Whereas the first stanza focuses on the man-made, artificial elements of the sculpture, the second stanza highlights the natural objects that the sculpture has replicated. The candelabrum is a mixture of “coxcomb- / tinted buttons, dahlias, / sea urchins and everlastings” (9-11), things whose mere mention brings to mind more vibrancy than anything described previously; it’s an almost excessive blooming of life, enough to overcome the knowledge that these, too, are as motionless and inert as the swan itself.

It’s at this point that “No Swan So Fine” appears as though it’s building to a revelatory climax, as though it’s about to uncover something previously unappreciated in the swan sculpture. Closing the above list with “everlastings” carries the suggestion of immortality, and then the speaker has the swan takes its proverbial throne: “it perches on the branching foam / of polished sculptured / flowers—at ease and tall” (12-14). These lines, with that archaic pronunciation of “flowers” I mentioned earlier, have a perfect iambic rhythm, in addition to the quantitative syllabic rhythm the poem is built around. The “polished sculptured / flowers” are the dignified counterpart to the “chintz china” of the first stanza. After that dash, the swan’s poise, how it perches “at ease and tall,” may as well promise a royal rebirth, a restoration.

And then, the punch: “The king is dead.” Four words, then full-stop.

This last sentence is so final, so sudden, that its impact—at least on me—takes a bit to fully sink in. First off, the line recalls those “dead fountains of Versailles” that inspired the poem in the first place, and why those fountains are now full of still water (namely, the execution of Louis XVI). But even stronger, Moore chooses to end the poem before the phrase is complete. After all, the saying goes, “The king is dead, love live the king!” There’s the promise, the guarantee, of continuity in the line of succession, a promise that the world of the poem cannot keep.

When that last line is taken as whole, we’re left with a very uneasy sentiment: the stability of “at ease and tall” vs. the earth-shattering “The king is dead.” There is no obvious way to resolve this tension; rather, it is best to accept is as an essential element of the poem. Schulman sees a “dialectical progress of the mind” in Moore’s poem, in how it oscillates between the two moods we’ve discussed, and if you ask me, no moment embodies that tendency more than this last line.

No poem less certain than the jewel crafted by Marianne Moore.


But I’ve gone on for long enough. What are your thoughts on “No Swan So Fine”? Are there any poems that you think capture a similar feeling to this one. Let me know in the comments!

And as always, thanks for reading.

My Classics Club Reading List

I’ve never been one for reading challenges, but I’ve never quite been able to figure out why. I don’t like the public performance that taking on such a challenge represents—but then again, I’m maintaining a blog, which is its own sort of public performance. I don’t like how they turn the meditative act of reading into a competition against time—but then again, the mere act of rationing of, for example, a comics trade paperback over six days does something similar, tying the reading experience to something arbitrary and external. And I don’t like committing myself to tasks unnecessarily—but then again…well, I don’t have a ready counterpoint to that one; that one’s just true.

This has been a lot of throat-clearing to explain that I’m joining The Classics Club, whose main selling point is functionally a reading challenge.

The rules of this game are fairly simple: make a list of at least fifty classic books, read them within no more than a five-year span, and write a blog post about each one. That comes out to a leisurely pace of ten classics per year, which at least at a distance seems manageable.

What I find a bit more intimidating is requirement that one write about each book. I don’t generally write reviews in the traditional sense, offering up-down aesthetic appraisals. I prefer essays and the like, exploring a piece of writing because I find it interesting, because it opens up some larger conversation about craft or context. But I can’t guarantee that any given book will avail itself to such a post. I’ve read plenty of books which I enjoyed immensely but never wrote about because I couldn’t find an “in” to the text beyond saying, “It was good, and you ought to read it.” But I fear that’s because I’ve been too shallow in my own reading habits, neither analytic or emotional enough to my thinking. This little challenge is an attempt to rectify that.

In drafting this list of fifty classics, I’ve tried to go for a broad cross-section of the “genre,” as it were. Chronologically they range from before the common era (Virgil’s Aeneid) to 1993, which was the compositional cut-off date when I first started drafting the list (Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower). I’ve gone for kitchen-sink Naturalism and spiritual science fiction, epic and lyrical poetry, literary theory and analytic philosophy, Renaissance and modernist drama. It’s a hodge-podge, and that’s both an advantage and a hindrance. It may be difficult to draw connections between these books, but if I find one style is not my taste, the whole project won’t become stale.

Now for the technical specs. This project will begin on December 22, 2018, and conclude no later than December 21, 2023. Should I get through all the titles on this list, I will add more books to it based on my discretion.

And so, presented alphabetically by author, the fifty books for my Classics Club list:

          Auden, W. H.: The Dyer’s Hand
          Austen, Jane: Sense and Sensibility
          Austin, J. L.: How to Do Things with Words
          Bacon, Francis: New Atlantis
          Baldwin, James: Giovanni’s Room
          Behn, Aphra: The Rover
          Boccaccio, Giovanni: The Decameron
          Böll, Heinrich: Billiards at Half-Past Nine
          Brooks, Gwendolyn: Annie Allen
          Butler, Octavia: Parable of the Sower
          Cather, Willa: My Ántonia
          Cavendish, Margaret: The Blazing World
          Chekhov, Anton: Uncle Vanya
          Dickens, Charles: David Copperfield
          Ellison, Ralph: Invisible Man
          Fitzgerald, F. Scott: The Last Tycoon
          Flaubert, Gustave: Madame Bovary
          Gordimer, Nadine: The Conservationist
          Gunn, Thom: The Man with Night Sweats
          Harper, Frances: Iola Leroy
          Hauptmann, Gerhart: The Weavers
          Hemingway, Ernest: For Whom the Bell Tolls
          Hume, David: Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion
          Ibsen, Henrik: A Doll’s House
          Jelinek, Elfriede: Wonderful, Wonderful Times
          Le Guin, Ursula K.: The Lathe of Heaven
          Middleton, Thomas: A Chaste Maid of Cheapside
          O’Neill, Eugene: The Iceman Cometh
          Ovid: Metamorphoses
          Paton, Alan: Cry, the Beloved Country
          Pope, Alexander: An Essay on Criticism
          Radway, Janice: Reading the Romance
          Roth, Philip: Portnoy’s Complaint
          Russell, Bertrand: The Problems of Philosophy
          Schmitt, Gladys: The Collected Stories of Gladys Schmitt
          Schuyler, George: Black No More
          Sexton, Anne: Transformations
          Shakespeare, William: Twelfth Night
          Shute, Nevil: A Town Like Alice
          Spenser, Edmund: The Faerie Queene
          Steinbeck, John: Cannery Row
          Stevens, Wallace: Harmonium
          Strachey, Dorothy: Olivia
          Toomer, Jean: Cane
          Treadwell, Sophie: Machinal
          Twain, Mark: Pudd’nhead Wilson
          Valenzuela, Luisa: He Who Searches
          Virgil: Aeneid
          Wright, Richard: Haiku: The Last Poems of an American Icon
          Zola, Émile: Thérèse Raquin

This ought to be fun. And in the words of Neil Young, “We’ll keep good time on a journey through the past.”

The Perils of Point-of-View in Writing Biographies

On this blog, I’ve dedicated a lot of energy to dissecting bits of what I consider to be solid writing, in posts where I’ve highlighted the literary techniques contained within a passage or a poem and argued that they are what make the piece a success. But there’s an important caveat to that sort of discussion that I don’t think I’ve addressed before: there are no intrinsically good techniques, only techniques that are good in some context. If this blog is to be at all useful in exploring writing, I believe it needs to acknowledge that, sometimes, writing can be sterling in the abstract but flawed in a given situation.

To that end, I’d like to look at a passage from the first volume of Blanche Wiesen Cook’s biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, a book which in general is written in a perfectly fine if utilitarian manner, but at one dramatic moment adopts a far more lyrical prose style. The moment in question comes after Eleanor confronts her husband Franklin about his affair with her former secretary, Lucy Mercer, and offers him a divorce. It’s one the emotional low points in Eleanor’s life, so it’s perhaps no surprise that Cook would choose this part of her subject’s narrative to indulge in some rhetorical flair:

He made promises, provided explanations. This “golden boy,” this vibrant “apollo” who charmed everyone he met, now directed all his influence and charm toward his wife. He would never see Lucy Mercer again. Did he apologize? Did he explain? Had he been engaged in a long-overdue emotional rebellion—against being a mama’s boy who always did the right and proper thing; who condemned all departures from the proprieties of his class and culture; who had mocked his half-brother’s son’s love for a socially unacceptable woman and blamed Taddie for his father’s death; who at the young age of twenty-three had taken on the responsibilities of a wife and home? Well, he had erred. Washington was so full of temptations; he had been trying out his new power, his new independence, for the first time in his life. It was a flamboyant, fatuous time. And it was over. He cared about his wife; he loved her. He was sorry he had hurt her. There was so much at stake—so much to do, and to do together. (p. 231)

If you put this passage in a bottle, if you consider it in isolation, it’s rather impressive. In fact, you could probably give this paragraph to an AP Language and Composition class and have the students tear it apart as an exercise. The aim of the passage is to place the reader in FDR’s mind as realizes that his affair has been exposed, and every device that Cook uses serves that goal. There’s the mixture of short paratactic questions (“Did he apologize? Did he explain?”) with looping hypotactic ones (“Had he been engaged…”), both of which highlight Franklin’s excited mental state. The use of anaphora (“who had always…who condemned…who had mocked…who…had taken…”) calls to mind the great persuasive speeches of history, only here it’s directed inward, as though FDR wishes to convince himself of his good nature. Even the insertion of a discourse marker (“Well, he had erred”) is indicative of a mind at work. These devices are not especially advanced or obscure, but there are undeniably effective at achieving Cook’s end here.

But that only raises the question: is that an end worth achieving?

Let’s talk about point-of-view for a bit. We’re perhaps more accustomed to thinking about point-of-view in fiction. Fiction writers, after all, have a great deal of freedom in choosing a POV for their stories. They can use an omniscient narrator, moving from one character’s perspective to another’s, or even describing events outside of anyone’s perspective. They can adopt a quasi-objective, reportorial stance, as in Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” Or they can restrict themselves to a single character’s POV, whether in first person or a limited third person. As long as the writer is consistent with regards to POV, they have almost limitless options.

The reason that fiction writers have such freedom is that fictional worlds are entirely of their own creation. In George Eliot’s Middlemarch, for example, the narrator can spend one chapter in Dorothea’s mind, then one in Lydgate’s, then one in Mr. Casaubon’s, and so on, without fear of being inaccurate to the facts of the narrative, because there are no narrative facts as such. The whole story exists as it does solely because George Eliot wrote it that way. But imagine if Middlemarch were literally, as the subtitle has it, a study of provincial life? Suddenly the narrator’s movement from one person’s mind to the next would seem a bit more suspect. The reader would be compelled to ask, “How does she know any of this?”

In Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, Ursula K. Le Guin notes that improper shifts in point-of-view are the problem that she encounters most often in unpublished (and even published) writing. That fact on its own did not surprise me when I first read Steering the Craft a few years ago, as it lined up with my own experience in writing workshops. What did surprise me was that Le Guin had found that the problem extended beyond novels and short stories:

It’s a problem even in nonfiction, when the author starts telling the reader what Aunt Jane was thinking and why Uncle Fred swallowed the grommet. A memoirist doesn’t have the right to do this without clearly indicating that Aunt Jane’s thoughts and Uncle Fred’s motives aren’t known facts but the author’s guesswork, opinion, or interpretation. Memoirists can’t be omniscient, even for a moment. (p. 70)

Le Guin frames this defective handling of POV in essentially moral terms: “A memoirist doesn’t have the right to do this.” If a fiction writer mishandles POV, the result is simply a weaker, more confusing story. If a nonfiction writer mishandles POV, the result may be straight-up dishonesty. “To use limited third person in factual narrative,” Le Guin goes on to say, “is to trespass, pretending you know what a real person thought and felt” (p. 71).

Cook isn’t writing a memoir, of course, but I think it’s fair to say that she has the same responsibilities that Le Guin assigns to memoirists. In fact, in her case those responsibilities may be even more pressing. When we read a memoir, we know that we’re getting a personal, edited account of real-life events, that we’re getting only one perspective on the complications of life. But when we read a biography, we expect the author to maintain objectivity, to follow where the facts lead and not to step beyond them.

Reread that passage from the Eleanor Roosevelt biography in this light, and you’ll start to see places where Cook strains against the limits of what can be known about FDR’s mental state after Eleanor’s offer of divorce. The rhetorical questions, which before sounded like an attempt to imagine FDR’s thought process, now sound like a way of sneaking in unfounded speculations without fully committing to them. They suggest that FDR may “have been engaged in a long-overdue emotional rebellion” without providing concrete evidence to support that claim; indeed, Cook follows it up with just further suppositions. In this brief digression into FDR’s mind, Cook has breached the biographer’s contract with the reader.

Yet, in all honesty, I can’t condemn Cook wholeheartedly for this trespass. See, FDR’s affair with Lucy Mercer is a momentous event in Eleanor Roosevelt’s life, as any discovery of infidelity would be, but it’s an event lacking much in the way of documentation. Cook says that Eleanor “wrote of that time only obliquely, and in code” (p. 232). References to the affair in her correspondence are scant to say the least, and her memoir devotes just a passing thought to the moment of discovery described above. (Even memoirs with consistent POVs, it is worth remembering, are not 100% factual accounts, either.)

This leaves Cook in a quandary regarding the Lucy Mercer affair. She can either stick to what the documentary record and interviews with Eleanor’s surviving acquaintances reveal, and say less than what the affair would appear to deserve; or she can speculate beyond what those limited sources have to say, sacrificing strict accuracy in the hopes of obtaining a perhaps unobtainable truth. This is not a choice that I find enviable, but is the choice that a writer in Cook’s position must make. I think either decision could be justified, but one must accept the consequences in either case.


But what do you think? Are there any cases you can think of where a biography has benefited from the sort of POV shift we talked about here? Is it ethical for a biographer to make such a shift in the first place? Let me know in the comments!

If you’re in the mood for something more thought on biography, here’s a piece I wrote last month about Frank Brady’s biography of Bobby Fischer, which looks into the duties we owe to abjectly awful people. Or, if you’re looking for more on point-of-view, here’s a post on Luisa Valenzuela’s “The Sin of the Apple,” a story that can teach us how to write from the POV of inanimate objects.

And, as always, thanks for reading!

Joseph Brodsky’s “December 24, 1971”: An Analysis

In my last post, I mentioned that I’ve been working my way through a lot of large, sprawling books of late. But I neglected to mention the one that I’ve been reading for the longest time: Joseph Brodsky’s Collected Poems in English, 1972-1999. Brodsky, a Soviet-born poet who later settled in the United States and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1987, is a poet with a dazzling command of the formal aspects of verse; his use of slant rhyme is particularly admired, and in my mind rivals that of Sylvia Plath’s in terms of its inventiveness.

But rather than dwelling on the poet’s technical mastery, which I am wont to do in these close readings, I’d instead like to look at Brodsky’s handling of subject matter. Brodsky wrote a number of Christmas poems during his career, and seeing that it’s December and all, I thought now would be a good time to look at one of them: “December 24, 1971,” which you can read over at the Poetry Foundation website.

The poem begins with a rather bold assertion: “When it’s Christmas we’re all of us magi.” As a universal claim, it’s an inherently arresting statement, but it’s also one that demands proof, and also clarification. What does it even mean to say that people are magi at Christmas? Certainly we’d want some sense of what the speaker is getting at before we sign onto their argument.

First of all, for anyone unfamiliar with Christian tradition: “the Magi” refers to a group of a nebulous figures who appear in the Gospel of Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus. I say “nebulous” because there isn’t an agreed upon translation of the word magi: the King James Version refers to them as “wise men,” some more recent translations call them “astrologers,” and in more colloquial contexts they’re often described as “kings” (e.g., the popular carol “We Three Kings”). Whoever they are, in the Biblical story the magi, after following a star signaling the birth of a new king, bestow their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh upon the infant Christ.

From this story, we can draw out several connotations of the word “magi” that the speaker would likely wish to evoke. First, the magi are dignified people, either learned or regal (or possibly both). Second, the magi are gift-givers, and lavish ones at that: all three of their gifts were expensive commodities two thousand years ago. And third, the magi are travelers, leaving their homelands in pursuit of the wondrous and the miraculous. So: to what extent do we see those connotations in Brodsky’s poem?

Well, the gift-giving aspect is the easiest to see in those first few stanzas. The beginning of “December 24, 1971” is positively littered with material goods. Given the poem’s title, it’s not surprising to see the whole city seems caught up in last-minute Christmas shopping. People “[a]t the grocers’ [are] all slipping and pushing,” while elsewhere the crowds are “heavy-laden with parcels” (lines 2 and 5). Foodstuffs appear to be the most common purchases, as the air is filled with their various scents: “Reek of vodka and resin and cod, / orange mandarins, cinnamon, apples” (9-10). Perhaps vodka and cinnamon are the modern frankincense and myrrh. But despite all this commerce, one aspect of gift-giving doesn’t come up in the poem: the recipients. For all of us to be magi in the sense of gift-givers, we in fact need someone to bestow gifts upon. They are plenty people in the city, but as it it seems, few relationships: “[E]ach one [is] his own king, his own camel” (6).

The people of this poem don’t appear especially dignified, either. One gets the impression that this city’s streets are always on the verge of chaos. The speaker succinctly captures the mood of unchecked consumption when they say that “a tin of halvah, coffee-flavored, / is the cause of a human assault-wave” (3-4). Instead of refined, composed attire, they see “caps and neckties all twisted up sideways”(8). Even “the bearers of moderate gifts,” the people who one might think to be above the fray, “leap onto buses and jam all the doorways” (13-14). Christmastime in the city is no regal pilgrimage, but a struggle for survival.

In trying to figure out why Brodsky evokes the magi, by process of elimination, we’ve left ourselves with just the journey towards a new hope. So that’s the solution, right? Except the people of the city seem to be journeying without any purpose. The “[f]loods of faces” the speaker describes leave “no sign of a pathway / towards Bethlehem” (11-12). And even if that holy place of purpose were within sight, the people wouldn’t expect to find anything. When they get off the buses and enter the courtyards of their apartment buildings, “they know that there’s nothing inside there: / not a beast, not a crib, nor yet her, / round whose head gleams a nimbus of gold” (16-18). The whole Nativity is out of reach. There is little hope, but rather, as the fourth stanza begins with, “[e]mptiness” (19).

Thus far, “December 24, 1971” has read like a remarkably somber Christmas poem, but that is perhaps to be expected. Brodsky wrote this poem during a period of great uncertainty in his life. As both an individualistic poet and a Jewish man, Brodsky had been persecuted by the Soviet authorities for almost a decade; he’d been sentenced to hard labor in the Arctic, institutionalized for fraudulently-diagnosed mental illness, and barred from traveling freely in his own country. By Christmas Eve in 1971, Brodsky was a candidate for exile from the Soviet Union. If the “magi” of his poem seem to wander aimlessly, it is only because Brodsky himself could not be sure where he’d be going, either.

Yet there was hope for Brodsky in 1972: his situation drew the sympathy of the Western literary establishment, and the poet W. H. Auden in particular helped to settle Brodsky in the United States. At the time of composition, the prospect of safety and security may have seemed distant. But the mere possibility of escape is a powerful hope, and it’s that hope which ultimately turns the poem:

Emptiness. But the mere thought of that
brings forth lights as if out of nowhere.
Herod reigns but the stronger he is,
the more sure, the more certain the wonder.
In the constancy of this relation
is the basic mechanics of Christmas. (19-24)

Particularly significant is the reference to Herod, the ruler in Matthew who, in response to the birth of Jesus, orders the execution of all male infants in Bethlehem. He is a tyrant, one whose authority must be fled. Mary and Joseph escape to Egypt with their child ahead of the massacre, and the magi, “being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod…departed into their own country another way” (Matthew 2:12, King James Version). Even the magi must flee. When it’s Christmas we’re all of us refugees—but ones who know the new king has come.

Perhaps that is not much hope to cling onto, but in a world so hectic, so somber as the one presented in Brodsky’s poem, it’s more than enough to justify the festivities:

That's why they celebrate everywhere,
for its coming push tables together.
No demand for a star for a while,
but a sort of good will touched with grace,
can be seen in all men from afar,
and the shepherds have kindled their fires. (25-30)

According to the speaker, those celebrating Christmas don’t “demand…for a while” some ostentatious miracle à la the Star of Bethlehem, but instead seek—and more importantly, find—”a sort of good will touched with grace… / in all men”. That universal kindness and acceptance may in fact be crucial for the Christmas miracle, as the speaker later makes clear: “He who comes is a mystery: features / are not known beforehand, men’s hearts may / not be quick to distinguish the stranger” (34-36). Again, one can’t help but see the parallels to Brodsky’s own situation at the time.

I’ll close this analysis with a note on the weather. I haven’t mentioned it up to this point, but as the speaker comes closer to consolation, the weather becomes more wintry. “Snow is falling” during the sixth stanza (31), and in the final stanza the “drafts through the doorway disperse / the thick mist of the hours of darkness” (37-38). Normally, we might expect this turn in the weather to signal a darkening mood, but that’s not what we get. Instead, it signals a personal transformation, a closing epiphany:

...a shape in a shawl stands revealed,
both a newborn and Spirit that's Holy
in your self you discover; you stare
skyward, and it's right there:
                                                           a star. (39-43)

It’s a wonderfully unexpected way to set up the final sentiment, linking the Holy Spirit to the cold air blowing through a house. There is something terrifying about the Nativity story, with messages from otherworldly beings and the threat of state-sanctioned murder, and Brodsky, perhaps because he can approach the subject from a non-Christian perspective, is able to capture that reality so well. The fact that he can apply that story to his own state in life makes it all the more startling.


Thanks for reading! If you have a favorite poem for the holiday season, or want to shere your thoughts on Brodsky’s piece, then let me know in the comments. And if you liked this piece, then you may be happy to learn that I write a new close reading of a poem every month. You can start catching up on them with my previous installment in this series, on Emily Dickinson’s “[The Poets light but Lamps – ].”

The Practice of Packaging Novellas

In my current reading, I’m up to my eyes in capital-T tomes. I’m about 350 pages into George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and about 350 pages into the first volume of Blanche Wiesen Cook’s biography of Eleanor Roosevelt. In both cases I’ve read a substantial chunk of the work, yet in both cases I’m not even at the halfway point of the narrative. Yes, it’s great to get lost in a sprawling, richly-detailed book—seriously, Middlemarch is incredible so far—but at a certain point, I yearn for something more concise, more compressed: a good novella. Only one problem: they’re not that easy to come by.

Over at Electric Literature, Tobias Carroll discusses American publishers’ reluctance to publish novellas. He bemoans the reality that the major publishing houses prefer “bloated novels and multi-volume series” to the concise style of writing found in a shorter novel. Carroll links this state of literary affairs to the American tendency towards excess. In the land of the Hummer and the triple-bypass breakfast skillet, this line of thinking goes, why should we be surprised that the door-stoppers dominate bookstore display tables?

If one wanted a different consumer-oriented explanation for the novella’s diminished role in the American marketplace, one might argue that Americans are more likely to think of value strictly in monetary terms. There may be a sense that thousand-page novels offer a better value-per-page proposition than hundred-page novellas. People only have so much disposable income, we might reason, so of course they’ll try to stretch out their money the way that Dickens stretched out his chapters. I know I fall into this trap quite a bit. I’m often reluctant to buy new poetry collections, because I’m wary of laying down fifteen or twenty dollars on, say, sixty pages worth of poems. I heartily agree that such collections may have immense aesthetic value, but, well, one can’t subsist on that.

Now, Carroll knows that the major American publishing houses do, in fact, sometimes publish novellas, but it seems that moreso than the other major forms of fiction, publishers demand that novellas be packaged within some grander context:

When Big Five publishers have released novellas—Garth Risk Hallberg’s A Field Guide to the North American Family, or Penguin’s forthcoming edition of Ottessa Moshfegh’s McGlue—they’ve generally been new editions of older works by authors who have gone on to be widely read. And there’s also the case of novellas being paired with other novellas by the same author: A. S. Byatt’s Angels and Insects comes to mind, as does Joe Hill’s Strange Weather.

A related technique that I’ve seen is to package a novella as part of a short story collection. Examples of such books include Alice Munro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus, and the English translation of Luisa Valenzuela’s Clara. In all three cases, the novella is the collection’s title story, so perhaps moreso than the methods Carroll mentions, this format may be suited to highlighting the novella in specific. In the reprint method, the novella is a selling point secondary to the author’s name, and in the multiple-novella method, two rival books must vie for attention. But in a short story collection, the novella takes the undisputed top billing.

The benefits of packaging novellas alongside short stories should be apparent. First, readers can be more confident that they’re getting a sufficient quantity of writing in exchange for their limited book-buying resources. Second, reading a novella in the context of an author’s short stories can give readers a better sense of the writer’s body of work; they can look at both the novella and the short stories and compare the author’s plotting, characterization, style and so forth when working in different formats. Maybe the author feels freer to explore scenery in the more expansive novella, or leans on shorter sentences when compressing a plot down to a short story.

However, I can also see a potential downside to this arrangement, and it has to do with the nature of collections of shorter works. If you have a collection with multiple forms of writing in it, such as a novella and short stories, and either category is stronger than the other, one may get the feeling that the weaker category is purely there as filler. Sure, a poetry anthology or a short story collection may contain pieces of highly variable quality, but in such cases one questions the author’s skill or the editor’s taste; one does not suspect that the publisher has watered down the whiskey, so to speak. But if a strong novella comes packaged with lower-tier short stories, or vice versa, the reader is more likely to be dissatisfied with the work as whole.

I felt this sense of dissatisfaction most acutely when I read a translation of Yasunari Kawabata’s House of the Sleeping Beauties, which came packaged with two of Kawabata’s short stories: “Of Birds and Beasts” and “One Arm.” The novella, I remember, was a wonderfully crafted and often unsettling reflection on aging and lust; the old man’s inner thoughts stuck with me for days after finishing it. The short stories, on the other hand, seemed rather slight by comparison. “One Arm” evidently left so little an impression on me that, when I later reread it in a different anthology, I didn’t even recognize it. (Considering the premise involves borrowing a woman’s arm and sleeping with it, that’s saying something.) It didn’t help that, by page count, the novella was about 5/6 of the book; that fact alone made the short stories seem really tacked on.

But what do you think about this? How would you package novellas to help boost their presence in the marketplace? Can you think of any novellas which benefited or were harmed by how they were packaged? Let me know in the comments, and as always, thank you for reading!