Tuesday, May 30, 2017

I am all at once what Christ is, says Gerard Manley Hopkins

After a little poking around, I discover without a speck of surprise that everyone (and the dog as well) has seen the mark of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poetry on the poems of Dylan Thomas. Having just read the collected poetry of Hopkins, I am ready to announce that I find much of Thomas' work baffling and impenetrable in the same way I find much of Hopkins' work. I call that real progress, the ability to point to one poet and see an ancestor poet, an influence. I can only do this with Thomas and Hopkins, but it's a start, you boys. Though it's true that there are plenty of other poets whose work I can't understand. I should rewrite this entire paragraph, add a little structure and sense. Alas.

I am also ready to announce that I find much of Hopkins' baffling work to be quite a lot of fun on the level of localized wordplay, of rhythm, and of rhyme even if I can't beat much sense out of the poems (or: even if the poems can't beat much sense into me). I can't say that I have that much fun with the baffling works of Dylan Thomas, but I have also not read that many of Thomas' poems; I could probably list them all in a short space if I could remember the names. Almost none of this is what I'd intended to write. I have not been a good reader of Gerard Manley Hopkins, is what I'd intended to write.

My ignorance of the Victorian Age allows me to skip right past Hopkins' references to the growing sense in England that Nature is just another machine, to be dealt with using more machines, and I am mostly blind to (unless I really search for it) Hopkins' growing insistence that Nature and the particularity of each individual thing within Nature is a road to spiritual perfection and grace (in the Catholic sense, that is). Most of that is lost on me; I know it's there because smarter readers, biographers and editors say it's so. I can see the poems invoke Nature and natural forces and I can see when Hopkins stretches and extends Nature into metaphor to evangelize, like he does in "The Starlight Night":
Look, look: a May-mess, like on orchard boughs!
    Look! March-bloom, like on mealed-with-yellow sallows!
These are indeed the barn; withindoors house
The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse
    Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.
shocks here refers to a collection of twelve sheaves of wheat, so the Apostles, you heathen you. This is one of those poems where some of it is for me mere fun with phonics rather than anything I can clearly understand. Check out the middle of the thing:
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies!
    Wind-beat whitebeam! airy abeles set on a flare!
    Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare!
Ah well! it is all a purchase, all is a prize.
I'm hazy as to what most of that intends to convey. Stars shining overhead and fields of grain maybe, snow like flying chicken feathers, sure. But what about them? I donno, not really.

In the end, I can't say I've gotten much out of Hopkins' poems. Though maybe it's too early to tell. After all, what do I mean by "gotten much out of," anyway? Certainly my initial response to many of the later poems was one of confusion, that of a man who stares at a sign writ in an unfamiliar tongue. But there are things like "Inversnaid," where I find
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
and that's quite fine, Hopkins keeping the complexity of the sounds themselves while leaving the grammatical complexity behind so that a simple guy like me can see Hopkins' weeds and agree with him that we should keep it all with us, the wet and the wildness. Hopefully, someday I will be comfortable with complexity in poetry the way I am with complexity in prose. How can I declare Finnegans Wake beautiful while declaring Hopkins impenetrable? I don't know. I do like this, though:
                                         ...Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; | world's wildfire, leave but ash:
                                            In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
                                            Is immortal diamond.
That one's easy to get something out of. Maybe I'll write about Hopkins again, in a year or two, after I read him another time. It could happen.


  1. What a fine, sensible, reader-response approach to the poetry, Scott. I also find Hopkins to be challenging. When I "attempted" Hopkins, I settled for pleasure through sounds rather than sense through sight and meaning. Perhaps that is a half-assed approach to a poet who deserves more, but I have my cognitive limits, and some writers operate at levels too far above my paygrade. Hopkins is one. I know too little about Thomas's poetry to pass judgment on him or my ability to read him. Well, the bottom line is this: I very much enjoyed your posting.


    1. Somehow I missed your comment! Last weekend we had a houseguest, a poet who was quite familiar with Hopkins. She certainly understands his poems a lot more than I do. I've been reading some of his letters and his sermons but that doesn't seem to help with the poems.

      The next poetry I read will be a collection of British poetry from WWI, written mostly from the trenches, I think. "In Flanders Field," that sort of thing.
  2. Now you mention it, I too don't really understand Hopkins. But I am happy to let his works affect me in the same way as music does: his sounds and rhythms seem to me utterly intoxicating.

    I did say yes

    O at lightning and lashed rod;

    Thou heardst me truer than tongue confess

    Thy terror, O Christ, O God;
    Thou knowest the walls, altar and hour and night:
    The swoon of a heart that the sweep and the hurl of thee trod
    Hard down with a horror of height:
    And the midriff astrain with leaning of, laced with fire of stress.

    What does it actually mean? I honestly don't know. And I'm not sure I care that much. I just find the verbal music of something like this irresistible.
  3. Irresistible, yes. I can get something from the poem above, but I'm mostly swept up in the rhythms and the forward drive of it. You can see how powerfully the formal innovation swept up the Moderns, and why. I confess that too much of this sort of poetry (or of any Modernist poetry) leaves me feeling sort of beaten up and bruised.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

"War," he said, "does not escape the laws of our old Hegel. It is a state of perpetual becoming."

The city seemed a formless and black mass which all of a sudden passed from the depth of night into a blaze of light, and in the sky, where one after another, the aviators rose amidst the shrieking wail of the sirens while, with a slower movement, more insidious and therefore more alarming, for it made one think they were seeking ah object still invisible but perhaps close to us, the searchlights swept unceasingly, scenting the enemy, encircling him with their beams until the instant when the pointed planes flashed like arrows in his wake. And in squadron after squadron the aviators darted from the city into the sky like Walkyries. Yet close to the ground, at the base of the houses, some spots were in high light and I told Saint-Loup, if he had been at home the evening before, he would have been able, while he contemplated the apocalypse in the sky, to see on the earth, as in the burial of the Comte d'Orgaz by Greco, where those contrasting planes are parallel, a regular vaudeville played by personages in night-gowns, whose Well-known names ought to have been sent to some successor of that Ferrari whose fashionable notes it had so often amused him and myself to parody. And we should have done so again that day as though there had been no war, although about a very "war-subject", the dread of zeppelins realised, the Duchesse de Guermantes superb in her night-dress, the Duc de Guermantes indescribable in his pink pyjamas and bath-gown, etc., etc.
I am about 105 pages into the final volume of Proust's In Search of My Lost Time Piece, and by gum, it's riveting stuff. The War as seen from Paris, by a non-combatant observer, the political and social changes brought by war and the shifting power between the middle classes and the nobility. Truly great stuff, electric, even if it is mostly Marcel reporting conversations he's had with Parisians about the war. I find it impossible to imagine Paris in a blackout, the streets empty. In 1916, Proust was 45 years old. It's unclear how old Marcel was that year.

Monday, May 15, 2017

gnōthi seauton, Marcel

"...love, even in its humblest beginnings, is a striking example of how little reality means to us." --Marcel Proust, À la Recherche du temps perdu: Albertine disparue, Montcrieff translation.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Burn the house and start from scratch

I have printed out the manuscript for a novel called Antosha!, in order to prepare it for submission to a variety of literary agents and small presses. "Prepare it" here means revise once again, polish up the prose, fuss with the narrative, and in at least one case, completely rewrite the ending of a section. None of this is new to me, having been down this road with other manuscripts many times already. I've been putting this off not because I don't enjoy the work (because I do enjoy the work of revising; it's where the real writing takes place, where the real creative work happens), but because it leads inevitably to the cover letter I must send along with the manuscript when shilling it to agents and publishers. What am I going to say about this book? That's always a vexing question.

I don't think of my novels as particularly experimental or unorthodox, though I suppose in my heart of hearts I am aware that I am not after all working along the same general lines as most of those writers whose novels are getting published. What are my books? They're collections of ideas more than they are self-contained stories about particular characters. I do not believe in characters, or setting, or plot, though all of my novels include stuff that looks like those things. What I mean is that I no longer believe that long-form fiction is really what we're all taught to believe it is. I don't believe that we are watching a play in our imaginations, or whatever, or that we are to believe in the structural integrity of the imaginary characters and the internal consistency of their imaginary worlds. No, I don't buy that, because what a writer of fiction does is manipulate and twist all of the imaginary elements of the imaginary events into arbitrary shapes to fit around his worldview, which is what's actually being put on display. In most current American fiction, the worldview is one where an Individual becomes valuable, overcoming adversity, or something like that. You are a special snowflake, imaginary protagonist, and so are you, imaginary reader. Fly your freak flag etc. Share your own story, we celebrate you.

My novels sort of tend to be fairy tales or myths about other novels, or at least they acknowledge that there is a great deal of other literature out there, and attempt to horn in on their imaginary real estate and invoke those other novels within my own imaginary lands. But mostly, my novels express my particular worldview that selfishness is a failing business and should be abandoned. Or, as Chekhov said to Gorky, "Tell my friends that they are living badly, and they should stop it." This worldview is not generally considered to be marketable. That's one reason my books stay unpublished, I believe. There are other reasons, such as my clanging reader-unfriendly prose and my refusal to hew closely to a certain novelistic metapredictability. I make myself out here to be some sort of militant avant gardist, but really I just write the books as they occur to me, and I try to make the process of writing them as interesting as I can, and I am attracted to certain things like stream of consciousness and sudden swaths of elevated language and metaphysics and looping chronology and the development of theme versus the development of plot. Also, probably, I moralize far too much, I am propelled by philosophical forces as much as I am by artistic forces. Which is just like I am in real, non-novel-writing life, I say touchily in my defense. My imaginary people often think about love and art and faith, instead of sex and money and success and what other people think about them. This makes the novels "not relatable," as Ira Glass said of "King Lear" in his Philistine "Shakespeare sucks" tweets a year or two ago. Fuck you, Ira Glass.

I am drifting far, far off topic here, amn't I? This is why I try not to blog about my own writing, because too often it turns into a litany of complaints. Who am I to complain? What standing have I upon which to base my complaints? So where was I?

Oh, yes, the cover letter. I am never sure what to say about my novels. Perhaps they are not really novels. Perhaps they're more like imaginary symposia superimposed over reports of fictional journeys. That last sentence will not go into my cover letters. It would be fun, though. But no.

Antosha! is the fictional biography of Antosha Chekhonte, who was a pseudonym of Anton Chekhov. Antosha! presents a skewed reflection of the life of Chekhov, in the form of stories, letters, and a stage play, and the novel projects past the death of Antosha Chekhonte to hint at the influence of Chekhov that has carried forward into the present day (though of course my book by itself already demonstrates that). There are also mashups of Shakespeare and Kafka with Chekhov, and a burlesque of Leo Tolstoy. Anyway, none of what I've just written is likely to make the novel look marketable (or relatable, Mr Glass), no matter how well the book is written. Nevertheless, I am preparing Antosha! for submission to a variety of literary agents and small presses. It's what I do, for now anyway.


  1. It seems like your posting ought to be your cover letter! Onward!
  2. Provocative sales copy, especially the Ira Glass part.
  3. I think I've done this right:

    "In Russia in 1878, Antosha Chekhonte is a quiet but bright seventeen-year-old on an 800-mile journey from his home town on the Sea of Azov to Moscow, where he will attend medical school on a scholarship. Along the way he meets a famous landscape painter and his beautiful model, and Antosha finds himself captivated by the power of art, which sparks within him passionate desires to write and to be in love with a beautiful woman. Following graduation from medical school Antosha’s duties as a physician gradually give way to the life of a successful writer, though Antosha is increasingly aware that his time for anything—even love—will be brief, as he is already dying of tuberculosis. Antosha travels to Venice, Paris, Prague, and the Far East, where he has lively and volatile encounters with such writers as Leo Tolstoy and Franz Kafka.

    But the call of his family—whom he supports—brings Antosha back to Moscow, as does the desire for a wife and family of his own. When his love affair with a young actress grows serious, Antosha pressures his talented and ambitious sister Maria to remain unmarried so that there will be someone to care for their parents. Antosha—the literary champion of compassion—has an enormous blind spot for his own family, and cannot measure his own happiness against the pain he causes Maria.

    A deeply evocative story of the search for personal and artistic truth, Antosha! captures a remarkable period of time—Russia in the late 19th century—and the extraordinary life and loves of an unforgettable artist."

    That's the back cover copy of a couple of other fictional biographies, rewritten a bit. It fails to capture the essential whateverness of the novel. But suddenly it looks marketable. Huh.


    1. That does sound legitimately blurbish.
    2. I may actually use it in my query letters, with a little bit of editing. I live a life of irony. The hard part will be deciding if I'll mention that the book is in the form of stories, letters, and a stage play and is based loosely on the life of Chekhov. I probably should include that. But I am amused that I'm basically stealing the sales pitch from some Random House best-seller. I wonder who they stole it from.
  4. It's not a bad idea to read flap or back copy to write your own description, avoiding the more egregious pablum. I've been guilty of doing that. Same for writing back-jacket blurbs for other people's books--I sometimes read a bunch to get a feel for what is the less meretricious sort of blurb.

    And I doubt you have to mention Chekhov. (It's pretty obvious, isn't it?) Well, maybe you do, these days.

    Try not to scare them. I'd brush in the bit about forms with a light, light hand. Mixed forms and anything smacking of the "anatomy" form appear to be frightening to many literary agents.

    You're doing the right thing. In the end, it is always best to keep your soul and to write out of it as you see fit. The other way has a whole different set of problems. And they are impossible to master.


    1. Very encouraging, thanks! I think my list of possible agents excludes the ones who don't have an inkling who Chekhov is, so probably I can leave that out. I really feel like I'm thrashing about in a vacuum in the submission process. There's so little feedback of any sort.
    2. Yes, submission to agents is another one of those things that needs complete overhaul. Alas. I've had two. Can't say it helped much, though both meant well. Publishing also needs an overhaul, less of the winner-takes-all lead book mentality. Maybe current changes will help. Or not.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The sweet cheat's new wheels

Alas, this false letter, when I wrote it in order to appear not to be dependent upon her and also to enjoy the pleasure of saying certain things which could arouse emotion only in myself and not in her, I ought to have foreseen from the start that it was possible that it would result in a negative response, that is to say one which confirmed what I had said; that this was indeed probable, for even had Albertine been less intelligent than she was, she would never have doubted for an instant that what I said to her was untrue. Indeed without pausing to consider the intentions that I expressed in this letter, the mere fact of my writing it, even if it had not been preceded by Saint-Loup’s intervention, was enough to prove to her that I desired her return and to prompt her to let me become more and more inextricably ensnared. Then, having foreseen the possibility of a reply in the negative, I ought also to have foreseen that this reply would at once revive in its fullest intensity my love for Albertine. And I ought, still before posting my letter, to have asked myself whether, in the event of Albertine’s replying in the same tone and refusing to return, I should have sufficient control over my grief to force myself to remain silent, not to telegraph to her: "Come back," not to send her some other messenger, which, after I had written to her that we would not meet again, would make it perfectly obvious that I could not get on without her, and would lead to her refusing more emphatically than ever, whereupon I, unable to endure my anguish for another moment, would go down to visit her and might, for all I knew, be refused admission. And, no doubt, this would have been, after three enormous blunders, the worst of all, after which there would be nothing left but to take my life in front of her house.
The Fugitive is, at least in the opening pages, a comedy, a cross between French farce and something by Wodehouse. Marcel runs in circles, flaps his hands, alternates between despair and fury, and simply must have Albertine back, by this very evening! Or tomorrow evening! Or a week from now, or two weeks, at the very latest! But no, he despises her! though he cannot live without her! Etc! It's all very funny. I laughed aloud when I got to the "take my life in front of her house" line above. That conclusion on Marcel's part comes after he writes a long passive-aggressive letter to Albertine, in which he tells her how much better off they are apart, though
I had thought of organising our existence in the most independent manner possible, and, to begin with, I wished you to have that yacht in which you could go cruising while I, not being well enough to accompany you, would wait for you at the port (I had written to Elstir to ask for his advice, since you admire his taste), and on land I wished you to have a motor-car to yourself, for your very own, in which you could go out, could travel wherever you chose. The yacht was almost ready; it is named, after a wish that you expressed at Balbec, le Cygne. And remembering that your favourite make of car was the Rolls, I had ordered one. But now that we are never to meet again, as I have no hope of persuading you to accept either the vessel or the car (to me they would be quite useless), I had thought — as I had ordered them through an agent, but in your name — that you might perhaps by countermanding them, yourself, save me the expense of the yacht and the car which are no longer required. But this, and many other matters, would need to be discussed. Well, I find that so long as I am capable of falling in love with you again, which will not be for long, it would be madness, for the sake of a sailing-vessel and a Rolls-Royce, to meet again and to risk the happiness of your life since you have decided that it lies in your living apart from myself. No, I prefer to keep the Rolls and even the yacht. And as I shall make no use of them and they are likely to remain for ever, one in its dock, dismantled, the other in its garage...
Marcel will keep the yacht and the Rolls Royce, as mementos of his love for Albertine. He has of course purchased neither item. This is all very funny, as his hysteria mounts. Calling the yacht "Swan" is funny. I don't know if it's funny in French. Probably, but in a more direct way. Meanwhile, Marcel is under observation by the French police, who mistakenly (but understandably) suspect him of being a pedophile, and it is also at this time that the Duke and Duchess de Guermantes are trying to arrange a marriage between one of their nieces and Marcel, whom they view as almost suitable for a young girl in whom none of the nobility are interested.

I just remembered the part of Max Frisch's Homo Faber where Walter buys his mistress, Ivy, a sports car in her favorite color. Proust casts a very long shadow.