1METAPHORPHYSICS, METAMORPHYSICALLY: Another Round of TEDDY vs SYL
Reading and writing are the only Arts I know of which are also, at the basic level, quotidian. People don’t sketch, sculpt or compose music as a matter of course as they tick-off the must-do boxes of the day’s unavoidable chores. There’s lots of confusion, then, between the entry-level activities and their manifestations as Art. It doesn’t help that the levels of accomplishment between crudest practitioner and the furthest, finest opposite, on the scale, are not nicely-vaguely infinite but divided by the rough number of the total literate population of earth; past, present, future.
I often press the point, when the old controversy comes up, that Sylvia Plath died before she could mature as a poet. She gassed herself when she was thirty. Many of her poems were fine, of course… she was Sylvia Plath and I note the accomplishment. We’ve probably lost the sense of the thrill of newness her kind of confessional poem presented when it hit the hidebound scene, which was still being intimidated by TS Eliot’s urbane neo-classicisms and disoriented by Whitman (who, in his secret guise as a racist proto-Log Cabin Republican, continues to disorient us: is Walt’s Brotherly vision entirely, as it is blatantly and sybaritically, phallic? Would they, in Sylvia’s era, have been capable of acknowledging how horny Walt’s oeuvre is? ). But the technology froze in its progress, on Plath’s pages, stopped like Miss Havisham’s clocks (I must stop using that image) at the level of soundsense precociousness.
Ted Hughes’ technology really developed as he matured, able as he was to mature, because he lived. They will always be compared, Syl and Ted: it’s inevitable. What I find unjust and nonliterate is how Plath wins the comparison, by default, because Hughes was a “cad” or a cad. But Hughes reached a higher order of competency that few readers appear to be sensitive to. The special ability is evident in a poem I will reference here (being careful to avoid a copyright violation). This line; look:
And the black bit of his mouth, he takes it
Between his back teeth
There’s nothing in Plath like this. Hughes has crushed the physical world to a weird plane where a void becomes an object and he has mastered Nature into being a creature that takes a fractally recursive absence into its mouth as if by instinct. The shape of space formed by the absence of a thing has become a new thing the initial thing interacts with as a feature of itself: Hughes’ simple words, arranged simply, have taken on a near-frightening power to remake physics, Flesh and the normal hierarchy of object and perception. Our sense of the basic is subtly breached and Hughes shows that he is in control of far more than his emotions or his recall. It’s there, again, in the same poem, when he has the cat running under its own spine: an impossibly lyrical disjointing, of a thing’s place and moment, from itself. It’s a dangerous stereotype, given Hughes’ absurdly toxic biography, to cast him as any kind of brute but the force of his craft is brutal. Hughes the brute wizard of metaphorphysics.
The visual equivalent is Cubism but Cubism is less dynamic, with no dimensional element of Time, and, compared to Hughes’ deformations, it is quaint. Picture a Hughes poem as Cinematic Cubism, then, but one with a tactile component (Hughes, as far as I can remember, doesn’t really do smells). Hughes took Cubism further with a much more brutal violation of the “real” or the “natural” than Picasso could manage (it’s hard not to point to the fact that Hughes’ mythos out-brutes Picasso’s as well). The next-best contender in the Minotaur-in-the-labyrinth, reality-smashing sweepstakes, can only be CERN.
Plath didn’t live to grow beyond a naively playful, or willfully imprecise, soundsense relationship with her words and the objects she matched them to. She’s famous for passages like this (I’m avoiding titles here to hide this talk from the online copyright hawks, but this is from Plath’s most famous, posthumously-published poem):
Godiva, I unpeel —-
Dead hands, dead stringencies.
And now I
Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas.
The child’s cry
Melts in the wall.
Am the arrow,
The dew that flies,
Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red
Eye, the cauldron of morning.
It’s pretty enough (a double-exposure, perhaps, of Plath in her trapped domesticity and also in her erotically violent dreams, or memories, of freedom on the horse) but Plath hasn’t forced us into a new relationship with the world (and its natural laws) here; she has certainly not forced us into a new relationship with our relationship with the world. Godivas are white, hands can be dead, seas do glitter and it’s not much of a stretch to picture any sound being absorbed into a wall. Children cry out, eyes can be red. We already know this world; it’s just a matter of now knowing Plath’s emotional state regarding it. We may sympathize or be shocked or depressed but we will not finish this poem with a new sense of the hierarchies shattered and re-packed in perception, word, object. There is, of course, something strange about Sylvia’s poetic ability to “foam to wheat” but what can we do but conclude that this is either unnecessarily busy, or scattershot, verbing-to-noun or a private metaphor we can never hope to decode? Is Poetry primarily code-making; is the hardest code, to crack, in Poetry, the best? “Elusive” is one thing when it comes to Meaning; entombed in a concrete block is another. Is the only critical task, in Poetry, the decoding of the autobiographical cipher? Are Poets, therefore, worthy of interest first and writers of poems second? Is a poem just another residual artifact of celebrity?
The language in much of Plath’s famous, posthumously-published horse poem, here, is too inconsequential (is there really much to be mined in “dead stringencies”?) or confessionally obscure, to make much of anything happen. Any sequence of words, intentional or not, can be interpreted. But isn’t reading Poetry the dedicated hunt for words that, arranged in a sequence, do something on their own, like a little motor, or a ghost motor, powered by the subtle energy of readerly attention?
Too much of the normal tradition of modern Poetic interpretation is byzantine apologia for ghost-motors, then, that don’t really work; that do little or nothing. A critic lauding this famous poem of Plath’s, that I’ve taken the above-cited sequence from, writes, of it:
“Yet for all the poem’s intensity, the meanings of its various metaphors remain ambivalent: should one interpret, for instance, its final depiction of her flying into ‘the red // Eye, the cauldron of morning’ as signifying apocalyptic conflagration or as looking towards an exciting vita nuova? Startling in its precision and purposefulness, the language of [the poem] brilliantly enables the contradictions that are the source of its energy to co-exist without resolution.”
Ach. This is just double-talk for saying that it doesn’t matter that the poem does little or nothing or, worse, that doing nothing (making no sense) is a poetic virtue. How? How does this paragraph of critical apologia manage to wire together the “ambivalent” and “precision” in the same admiring line of critique? Failing to make sense, a poem does little more, if it’s coherent at all, than provide sensations. Plath was able to provide sensations but it was only by dying, and folding her actual death into the subsequent sense of her oeuvre, and this posthumously-published poem, that she managed to provide the illusion of a structured coherence and a through-line glimpse of some “exciting vita nuova”. Unless it’s the Vita Nuova of Nonsense. Or Little Sense. Or posthumous Fame.
[Speaking of apologia: the critic goes on, to write, about another stanza in the poem in question: “(It is, incidentally, surely much to be regretted that the need to intensify every perception leads Plath to convert these blackberries into ‘Nigger-eye / Berries’, even if in the early 1960s the N-word was not as beyond the pale as it has since become.)” ]
Here’s Hughes manipulating his animal to exaggerate an effect that will embody the animal, and animality itself, in a way that broad or complacent observation couldn’t:
trying to grind some square
Socket between his hind legs round
Hughes hasn’t smashed timespace flat to the dimension of the page in this particular example but he is utterly the God of this animal’s god. You can’t be an entry-level reader and catch this point. Few poems, made after the birth of Einstein, are made so brutally well.
But just imagine what Ted could have done with Syvia’s horse…
2PLANTATION CENTERFOLDS: A MISSED OPPORTUNITY or THE INVIGORATING PARADOX of HEF AS CIVIL RIGHTS FIGURE, IMAGINED FURTHER (ie WORSE)
The genius of the Heffnerian project was in conflating extreme ends of the eugenic spectrum (Superman; Subhuman) into one germ-free, post-human package… and putting it on sale. The Playboy Bunny is both a marvel of perfection and a worthless plaything and it lived in virtual confinement on the grounds of Adolf Heffner’s camp (to be disposed of discreetly when it ceases to function properly). To paraphrase Walter Sobchak: Say what you like about the tenets of the Playboy Aesthetic, Dude, but at least it’s an Ethos! Again, Yankee know-how shows those over-earnest Nazi hicks how it’s done: you should have turned the camps into sexual theme parks, you putzes!
But even more interesting: why no Playboy, or Playboy-esque, operation based on Black Bunnies? Picture it!
Too on the nose? It would have been huge.
3WRITING FOR NOTHING is not WRITING FOR NAUGHT
“And to spend one’s life as a so-called “creative artist” is probably the most comfortable, cozy, and privileged life that a human being can live on this earth—the most “bourgeois” life, if one uses that phrase to describe a life so comfortable that no one living it would want to give it up. To lie in bed and watch words bump together until they become sentences is a form of hedonism, whether the words and sentences glorify society and the status quo or denounce them.”
-Wallace Shawn via
And who would really want to jeopardize that privilege by writing anything that would go too far toward alienating the readership and cutting the privilege-generating funds off? Ie, are some of our “edge-pushing” writers being careful not to push too hard? I sometimes perceive either a failure of nerve or a failure of the imagination in writers even as great as DeLillo and I know it can’t really be the latter. I think Money is too often, in the end, the answer to that question; consciously or not. Money is an effective, indirect (or even direct, sometimes) mechanism of Control. Your best, most fearless Art will happen when you are making not a dime off of it nor expect or need to. Historically, one wonders if our genuinely Edgiest Art came mostly from those with a private income (our default Artistic contempt for the Bourgeoisie notwithstanding: wasn’t Godard a child of the Bourgeoisie? The legend goes that JLG stole and sold his wealthy grandfather’s rare books to finance early efforts, but perhaps there was a trustfund, as well…? Look at Truffaut: no trustfund; no Masculin Féminin… Stolen Kisses instead).
There is no Artistic imperative to engage with the explicitly “political” and there is every Artistic imperative to avoid, in fact, devolving to the level of the merely topical or polemic… but… if one engages the “political” to the extent that one willingly feeds state propaganda into one’s material, doesn’t the material become an extension of State Propaganda? When Ian McEwan wrote Saturday, arguing, in allegory, the justness of Iraq2, based solely on the “reality” that the war-wagers projected as a justification for the war, didn’t his Art become propaganda… disposable propaganda, at that? Who speaks seriously of that embarrassing novel now?
Perhaps you require evidence? Hold onto your hats for this sudden swoosh of Golden Age Propaganda, dressed up in reassuringly mod verbal finery, as Liberal brain surgeon Henry Perowne (is McEWan having a laugh with that name?) thinks, idly, of the baronial pleasures of fucking his wife… and lets his thoughts run eerily awry…
He thinks of sex. If the world were configured precisely to his needs, he would be making love to Rosalind now, without preliminaries, to a very willing Rosalind, and afterwards falling in a clearheaded swoon towards sleep. But even despotic kings, even the ancient gods, couldn’t always dream the world to their convenience. It’s only children, in fact, only infants who feel a wish and its fulfilment as one; perhaps this is what gives tyrants their childish air. They reach back for what they can’t have. When they meet frustration, the man-slaying tantrum is never far away. Saddam, for example, doesn’t simply look like a heavy-jowled brute. He gives the impression of an overgrown, disappointed boy with a pudgy hangdog look, and dark eyes a little baffled by all that he still can’t ordain. Absolute power and its pleasures are just beyond reach and keep receding. He knows that another fawning general dispatched to the torture rooms, another bullet in the head of a relative won’t deliver the satisfaction it once did.
Ian really scored some stinging points off of that pudgy soon-to-be-hung-in-his-own-country-by-his-country’s-illegal-invaders despot, didn’t he? High fives all around (though: go back and re-read the second sentence of that asinine passage and ask yourself, incidentally, if that was an awkwardly deliberate attempt at a sudden flash of Faulknerian high style or just bad editing, with “Rosalind” rushing back, the second time in the sentence, a far more “very willing” Rosalind than the Rosalind of the previous dependent clause but one…? But I digress…)
Wallace Shawn wrote (as we were plummeting towards the same outcome of the same, as defined at Nuremberg, War Crime):
“[W]e can’t deny that Bush and his men, for whatever reason, are under the sway of the less peaceful side of their natures. From the first day after the World Trade Center fell, you could see in their faces that, however scary it might be to be holding the jobs they held, however heavy the responsibility might be for steering the ship of state in such troubled times, they in fact were loving it. Those faces glowed. You could see that special look that people always have when they’ve just been seized by the most purposeless of all things, a sense of purpose. This, combined with a lust for blood, makes for particularly dangerous leaders, so totally driven by their desire for the violence to start that they’re incapable of hearing any voices around them who plead for compromise or peace.”
…And the passage is rendered half-worthless (though not nearly as egregious as McEwan’s) because Wally took, as his source for the “reality” he was commenting on, the “dangerous leaders” themselves. The “dangerous leaders” explained the situation to Wally Shawn (and the world) and Shawn then analyzed the behavior of the Dangerous Leaders in the context of the Situation as they described it to him: I call Cognitive Dissonance of the highest order, if not fractal recursion reminiscent of the kind I cite in the first essay, above, for opposite reasons: Ted Hughes distorted Reality for Artistic Ends; Wally Shawn accepted and recirculated a distorted Reality, as gospel, for reasons of socio-political expediency? Or is Wally (so cossetted for so long) merely naive? A man steals your wallet and tells you a lie about who stole your wallet and, later, after you manage to snatch your wallet back (with no money in it) the man tells you that the money fell into the river. And so… what… you start searching the river?
We’ve just lambasted two very different kinds of professional writer. One Liberally Hawkish; the other Dove-ishly compliant. Each guilty, in essence, of Amplifying/ Disseminating State Propaganda. Wally, of the two, didn’t mean it, surely. It was being a professional, and needing to remain one, perhaps (that shadowy, subconscious Third Hand) that misguided him. Yet: the results are the same.
The Reader is misled.
“Write for Nothing” (aka for Love) and you will nurture your unvarnished relationship with Truth. Write for Nothing and your reason-for-writing collapses, beautifully, in Time, to one immense reason: Writing.
But if you must kill yourselves in the pursuit of Writing for Fame and Fortune: I offer, in closing, for 29.99 (payable in ducats) these REVISED RULES for WRITING FICTION for MONEY:
1. Learn to kiss gatekeeper arse; kiss it early and often.
2. Pick the creative writing program best positioned in the school best positioned in the part of the country best positioned in the country best positioned in the hemisphere best positioned to maximize access to gatekeepers’ arses.
3. Identify your Target-Audience by matching your hypothetical jacket photo with the jacket photos of successful authors already catering to said Target Audience
4. Identify the needs of your Target-Audience by watching lots of the same Television programs your Target Audience watches (your “style” will flow naturally from total immersion in this resource).
5. Cater to the Target Audience’s needs by A) giving the reader the impression that he/she is The Best and that B) everything, somehow, eventually, is Gonna Be Alright (if not for the characters in your Product, then certainly for The Reader).
6. Expand items #1-#5 into the chapters of a bestselling book.