Monday, January 31, 2022

the tender exclamation of Macduff: “Alas! Thou hast written no book.”

Reader, it is impossible we should know what sort of person thou wilt be; for, perhaps, thou may'st be as learned in human nature as Shakespear himself was, and, perhaps, thou may'st be no wiser than some of his editors. Now, lest this latter should be the case, we think proper, before we go any farther together, to give thee a few wholesome admonitions; that thou may'st not as grossly misunderstand and misrepresent us, as some of the said editors have misunderstood and misrepresented their author. 

In our last initial chapter we may be supposed to have treated that formidable set of men who are called critics with more freedom than becomes us; since they exact, and indeed generally receive, great condescension from authors. We shall in this, therefore, give the reasons of our conduct to this august body; and here we shall, perhaps, place them in a light in which they have not hitherto been seen. This word critic is of Greek derivation, and signifies judgment. Hence I presume some persons who have not understood the original, and have seen the English translation of the primitive, have concluded that it meant judgment in the legal sense, in which it is frequently used as equivalent to condemnation. But in reality there is another light, in which these modern critics may, with great justice and propriety, be seen; and this is that of a common slanderer.

--Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling

I'm not sure what it says about me that I can take Daša Drndić's warnings to critics in EEG seriously, but I can't extend that courtesy to Fielding. Possibly it's that Drndić is defending the methods and structure in which she has no doubt, whereas Fielding is excusing what he knows are weaknesses in his craft. "Some parts of this novel," he seems to say, "are not that good, and I admit it, but the parts that aren't bad are actually pretty good, and you must admit that at least." Fielding, clearly, had his doubts. Though one is also tempted to accuse Drndić of protesting too much. Of course, if I look at what I have written under the "about me" link on this very blog, I seem to be taking a fighting stance as well. So huh.

I ask myself why all of Fielding's talk regarding critics and criticism of his writing is so interesting to me right now, why I seem to be so sensitized to it. I answer that it's because I've been submitting manuscripts to publishers lately, now that we're past the American holiday season (during which, for the most part, US publishing shuts down for acquisitions). This of course means that I'm putting my work out for judgement by strangers, which rather puts one in a defensive mood. I must be overcompensating, then, to be siding against Fielding as I seem to be, acting as an apologist for editors who will not be charmed and ensnared by my novels. 

None of this is particularly important, except that I find it interesting, the way our own immediate circumstances may cause us to interpret in a personal way something that was written hundreds of years before we read it, by persons in quite different circumstances. Tangentially, at least, this thinking is connected to Amateur Reader's current group project of reading all of the extant ancient Greek plays (read about that here). I haven't read all the plays myself, maybe 23 of them (I have not gotten to the latter half of Euripides' output). Sometimes the plays seem comprehensible and quite modern, and at other times they are very alien and I become aware of how far away ancient Greece is from America of the 21st century. The past is not a different country, it's a different planet. Even Fielding in Tom Jones, not even three hundred years ago, writing in English, in England, not too much ahead of the American Revolutionary War, lives on another planet. But all of them, Fielding, the Greeks, the ancient Egyptians, the Sumerians, etc, were Moderns, in their time. They were not aware that they were historical figures, dimly-lit shades of the mostly-forgotten past. But that's all of us, isn't it? We are modern, we are history, we are present- and past-tense all at once. These are not original thoughts, I know.

Monday, January 10, 2022

sky blue as


Perhaps I will write poems, Susan thought. Might I not begin today, even this morning, on this cheap pad of cheap paper? Where on earth did it even come from? Perhaps the gods laid it in the drawer, so that when my muse descends to whisper in my ear, I’ll have some place to store the treasures. Oh, no, it was a gift from the bank, wasn’t it? Yes, there’s the bank’s name and address stamped on the heavy cardboard backer. Well, mystery solved, George.

Susan took up her pen and laid the pad at an angle before her. She nudged her coffee cup half an inch to the left. One final collection before I am dust, she thought. Who knows, anything is possible. Except for all that is not. An extensive list, George, but I don’t need to tell you.

Sky blue as, she wrote across the top of the paper. How trite, how childish. His eyes had been blue. Won’t write about that, won’t write about his eyes. He’d lain there on the cold floor for hours, possibly, before she’d felt his absence in her sleep and sought him out. She’d called his name, softly so as not to wake him if he’d fallen asleep on the living room sofa. That had been happening, often enough, as he’d found it progressively more difficult to find a comfortable posture in their bed. George had not answered her call, and then she discovered him curled up on his left side by the table on the yellow and white linoleum. She knelt in urine and tried to rouse him. The overhead light was hard, indifferent and ugly. George’s eyes were open, all the color having seeped away, down into Tartarus where it was not of any use to anyone. His eyes had been blue, and then they were not, they were merely empty.

Sky blue as

Had it been, she wondered, the theft from her husband’s eyes of their lovely blue that had made Susan question the value of poetry, of all art in fact? Had that crime inspired her to wonder if these words were less than air, nothing but an unflattering narcissism, and if the poet’s seeing eye is naught but the poet’s “I” and poetry itself being no more than ego pushed rudely onto the face of the world, which remains unchanged by that psychic projection, leaving art in a state of all furious effort to no actual purpose? Is that what had happened, and why?

And what of readers of poetry, or consumers of art in general, what do they see and how—if at all—are they changed? Do they paint themselves (or their imaginary better selves) onto the poems of Yeats, into the paintings of Titian, into Michelangelo’s Pieta as both Madonna and savior? Long ago Susan and George stood inside the Notre Dame de Paris and took a long breathless look at the mosaic of Mary Queen of Heaven, set into the vault ceiling above their heads. Did they see the mosaic, the work in tile, or did they see an emblem or several emblems of their own ideas regarding the Celestial Virgin, or did they see their idealized selves looking back down at them, loving art to be in love with themselves as art lovers? And if that’s all art is, if that’s all it’s for, if that’s all poetry adds up to, then what is the point?

Susan drew a line through sky blue as and wrote cream, sugar, coffee below it. That’s useful writing, she thought. A meaningful poem.

There was an open pack of cigarettes, a box of matches, and an ashtray on the table. Susan smoked a cigarette, drank her coffee, refilled the blue mug and used the last of the cream. She played with her pen, blacking the tips of three fingers on her left hand. She sketched an open eye on her paper and then heavily crosshatched over it. Outside the window, the day looked no warmer. Judy the pest would call it a crisp morning, George. But she is an idiot.

Eggs, bacon, macaroni, Susan wrote. Yes, that’s all good, excellent work. Worthy of me. No wonder the neighbors think I’ve gone mad. I’ve become an eccentric old woman. Maybe I have gone mad. Damn it, either art is something or art is nothing. I’m going for a walk, George. You will appreciate me taking my horrible cigarettes outside.

Susan dressed in a cowl neck sweater, a long wool skirt, wool socks, and the low leather boots with heavy treads she’d bought for a walking tour of Scotland that she and George had planned to take last year before his health declined so rapidly. Susan liked the boots and got good use from them. Perhaps she’d walk along the stream, past the stubble field east of town. She’d see nobody out there, not even a farmer at this time of year. Just her, the damp ground, and the hard indifferent beautiful sky, sky blue as, sky blue as. Susan shrugged into a long wool coat, putting keys and cigarettes into an outer pocket. I am in shades of brown, she noticed. Earth tones, the fashion design students would say. An earth goddess. An earthen goddess. An earthenware goddess. Where, goddess? Onward, goddess, out the door.

Potatoes, she thought. Damn, the list is on the kitchen table. Perhaps I’ll remember when I return home. Potatoes, grown hidden in the earth. The earth feeds us that we may later lie dead within it. That’s a good poem, the longest poem ever written. Well done, ye Nature. Potatoes. It’s cold out here, not crisp at all, you pestilential woman.

I have mentioned once or twice that I'm working on a novel-in-stories called Islands, set in the Midwestern United States during the late 1970s. The above is a snippet from the second chapter, "The Problem With Susan Arthur." Some of Susan Arthur's poems appear later in the novel, as read by a seventeen year-old rock musician who wants desperately to be Lou Reed. It's that sort of novel, whatever that means.