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Composition

I’ve written before about composition from the perspective of Stephen. There’s some more of that in this week’s reading as well, as we get his various asides as he pontificates about Hamlet. (I didn’t much enjoy episodes seven or nine, by the way. Nine was especially irritating.) This week I’m going to write a bit about composition from the perspective of Bloom. Though there may be more/other relevant passages than the ones I’ll list here (time constraints kept me from doing the second readthrough this week), I’ll focus on a few that stood out to me.

The first appears on page 152 of my edition. Bloom is considering how poets write and suggests that they do so by using similar sounds. Then he amends his assessment when he thinks of Shakespeare writing in blank verse; it’s not the rhyme, he figures, but the flow of the language that makes poetry (Milton came to a similar conclusion and advertised it in the argument to Paradise Lost, it occurs to me). The trigger for these thoughts seems to be his somewhat serendipitously pairing the words “rats” and “vats” after thinking about rats in a brewery. He then sees some gulls, thinks back to the story about Reuben J (94) his telling of which was rudely interrupted (the thwarted telling of that story/joke a sort of act of verbal composition in the works; thanks to Paul for calling to my attention this detail, which I had sort of glossed over), and comes up with a little couplet about a gull flapping over the sort of water Reuben J would have pitched into. We have witnessed here an act of artistic creation. It’s no great act, as the couplet is really kind of bad, but the gesture is intact. There’s a moment of discovery (rats/vats) followed by a brief stream of associations followed by a sort of synthesis followed by analysis.

A few pages later, casting his thoughts again to Dignam while trying to elicit sympathy from a female acquaintance he meets (one of the major points of poetry, one might argue), he seems to write another little ditty, this time using an old Robert Burns song as source material (Salinger latched onto the same song, with alterations of his own):

Your funeral’s tomorrow
While you’re coming through the rye.
Diddlediddle dumdum
Diddlediddle . . .

He doesn’t speak the ditty aloud, of course. What he has just spoken aloud is “Funeral was this morning.” Metrically, it’s very similar to the first line of his little stanza; “this morning” and “tomorrow” scan identically, and the larger phrases both include “funeral” at the beginning. He has taken an utterance and turned it into a nubbin of a poem. The first line is rhythmically similar to a repeated line from Burns’s poem — “Should a body meet a body” — and the lines share a body association, so he makes the leap. But he’s distracted by conversation and can’t finish the thought, so he substitutes rhythm placeholders to close out the stanza. I imagine him subtly padding his fingers on his pantleg along with the rhythm he fashions in his head.

The next act of composition that stood out to me appears on page 170. Bloom has gone into a restaurant and, grossed out by the masticatory, slobbery, soppy affair of actually eating elbow-to-elbow with other people (compare to his contemplation of dining upon a kidney alone in episode four), sees a man stuffing cabbage down his throat with his knife. He thinks of the old saying about being born with a silver spoon in your mouth and modifies it to say (to himself) that this man was born with a silver knife in his mouth. Bloom thinks it’s a witty modification. But then he realizes that silver would suggest that the man was born rich, and this man clearly wasn’t. When you ditch the silver association and are left with the knife, you lose the allusion, he concludes. Not so witty after all. (Ahem, Kinch.) Bloom here is composing and revising a witticism he might have been thinking of using later in the day. It’s easy enough to imagine him among friends again trying to cut in (a la the Reuben J story) with an anecdote complete with witty wordplay.

On the next page, Bloom turns his mind to cannibalism (again inspired by the gobstuffing going on around him) and starts putting together a limerick. He rolls it around in his head while ordering food. An acquaintance uses the phrase “Who’s getting it up” (about Molly’s concert series), and the sexual connotation of the phrase, along with his prior speculation that the cannibal chief gets to eat the “parts of honor” of any victims, leads Bloom in a more ribald direction with the limerick. Again we’ve seen here how the germ of an idea takes on the associations that the surrounding events and conversation suggest and results in an act of creative expression.

A couple of pages later, Bloom thinks about an idea for a poison mystery story, but I’m not as interested in that as I am in his treatment of a couple of flies he spots. First he thinks the following: “Stuck on the pane two flies buzzed, stuck.” Later, he observes: “Stuck, the flies buzzed.” Sexual imagery aside (the two thoughts are separated by an explicitly sensual passage), these observations strike me as acts of revision. By the time he reaches the end of the first sentence, he has decided he didn’t like his syntax, and he tacks “stuck” back onto the end. Or maybe it’s not a syntactical revision so much as a syntactical emphasis. Or maybe it’s merely a mistake, a detail added that he forgot he had already specified. In any case, it’s a considered sentence. The later version suggests revisitation of the observation. Maybe he’s not landing on a final syntax here, but he’s thinking again about the flies (was it watching two flies stuck together that called to mind the sensual scene from his memory, much as watching a couple of stuck-together dogs got Molly hot and bothered in an earlier episode?) and about the particular terms in which he’s thinking about them. It seemed to me a sort of glimpse at a way in which associations influence composition.

As I noted initially, we also see behind the curtain of Stephen’s mode of composition. I think the men’s modes are different, though I’m not sure I can explain very well why I think this; it’s sort of a vague sense at this point. Stephen is a composer of imagery around abstract ideas, while Bloom is a simpler compositor of associations. Stephen seems to go from memory to poetry, Bloom from observation to poetry to memory (I’m not at all sure yet that I fully believe this; I’m still considering it). Stephen knows a lot of things and uses poetry to showcase what he knows. Bloom asks a lot of questions (seriously, I’ve written “inquisitive” in my margins a bunch of times), and his private compositions arise in a way out of his trying to locate himself within the world around him. Stephen, maybe, is a dry, sterile Modernist (I’ve touched before on my bias against Modernism), Bloom something either older or newer, something to me more personal and likable, if less accomplished and cerebral.

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Anniversary (Nothing Morbid, Merely a Weird Coincidence)

September 10, 2009 3 comments

The September issue of Poetry magazine includes a poem by one Dan Beachy-Quick entitled “Anniversary.” It’s a thick issue, and, beyond flipping to the poems by Atsuro Riley, whose work I always crave, I had given it only a cursory glance. Today I skimmed Beachy-Quick’s poem and sort of wrote it off as something sentimental I wasn’t much interested in investing much of myself in. But I gave it another chance, and though I’m not sure I’ve given it enough of a chance yet, a few weird things started to jump out at me. I’ll quote the poem in full, hoping that qualifies as fair use:

Anniversary

You are for me as you cannot be
For yourself, chaos without demand
To speak, the amethyst nothing
Hidden inside the trinket shop’s stone,
Dark eyes dark asterisks where light
Footnotes a margin left blank. You
Don’t look up to look up at the sky.
Your ears parenthesize nothing
That occurs, that I keep from occurring,
In the poem, on the page, as you are
For me, not a shadow, but a shade
Whose darkness drops from no object
But is itself yourself, a form of time
Spanning nothing, never is your name.

Let me first qualify what follows by saying that I don’t present it as any sort of theory or close reading. It’s just a set of associations that I couldn’t help noticing. Of course, what you take from a thing you read is largely a product of what you bring to it, and I’ve got Wallace and Infinite Jest very much on the brain these days.

So the title. Anniversary. September 12 marks the anniversary of Wallace’s death, and this is the September issue of Poetry. Of course, it often takes months for submissions to be accepted or rejected, much less published, so synchronicity here is either lucky or orchestrated (probably lucky).

Chaos without demand to speak calls to mind Hal’s aphonia.

Wallace was born in February, and the amethyst is the birth stone for February.

The trinket shop makes me think of the Antitoi brothers’ shop.

Asterisks and footnotes: ’nuff said.

There’s lots of sky imagery in Infinite Jest (though to be fair, you’d probably be hard-pressed to find a book that didn’t have lots of sky imagery).

The notion of occurring makes me think of a certain rant of Schtitt’s.

The mention of darkness makes me think of The Darkness. The association of that darkness with objects makes me think of The Darkness’s relationship with objects.

I could probably tease out more, but this is a quick brain dump. For the moment, I’m resisting the temptation to look for some kind of annagrammatic acrostic in the poem’s first lines’ first letters (the initials DFW do appear, but not in uninterrupted sequence). I don’t fully grok even the basic thing the poem is saying and need to do a different sort of reading of it than I’ve done so far. Just thought I’d put this free-association out there in the mean time.

Update: I wrote the poem’s author, and he kindly wrote me back and said that he hadn’t read Wallace, so the things that jumped out at me are in fact weird coincidences and/or the product of my overactive imagination.

Poetry

September 8, 2009 7 comments

As a number of people have already said, the last couple of hundred pages of Infinite Jest tend to be kind of a downhill sprint. I was by no means among the first participating in Infinite Summer to find myself in the 800s and unable to stop myself at the spoiler lines. As hard as it’s sometimes been to avoid spoilers (accidental ones, at least), having read the book a number of times before, it’s especially hard during this last leg of the book. So I keep finding myself false-starting on posts this week and will probably do the same next week. Things I want to say reach too far into the future for me to be able to chisel much out of them just yet.

So for tonight, a diversion. I’ve flirted with poetry for years. For decades, I guess, if you count a thing I wrote in elementary school that rhymed “butterfly” and “flutterfly.” I wrote the usual dark angsty suicidal type stuff in high school and early college, and then I began to think more seriously about poetry midway through college. It became for me less about expression and feelings than about structure and playing with formalism and convention, about hewing something out of the raw material of language. That’s not to say I was any great talent at it, but I did pursue the interest and even got a minor in poetry writing. In the decade-plus since I graduated college, I’ve written only a little bit, and rather poorly. Every once in a while, I’ll pick up a sheaf of works in progress, but it’s not a serious pursuit by any stretch of the imagination. Even more rarely, I’ll slingshot something (usually something old and fairly polished) out to a journal, so far with no luck (but with so little invested, it’s hard to feel too bad about it).

Of course I read a lot of poetry throughout school as well, though I’ve forgotten most of it by now. A few years ago, I sold most of my poetry books to clear space on my shelves prior to a move. Gone are my Auden, my Yeats, my Larkin, my Stevens, my Creeley. Gone is even good old accessible Billy Collins. And William Carlos Williams. Lord, I almost forgot him, though he was one of my early and enduring favorites, whose quest for an appropriate but elusive American poetic foot informed my own such ill-fated quest. Ah, and Wordsworth, of whom my early imitations constituted something rather more like battery than flattery. They’re all gone. Remaining are a collection of Wilbur (whom I dislike), another of Pinsky, and a few anthologies, mostly Norton. There’s an Andrew Hudgins book and a couple of Robert Wrigley books. These two gentlemen I won’t do without. I have a slim volume of Donald Hall’s that I used to own in hardback but sold and then bought again in paperback a few years later when I had a change of heart. The collected work of my mentor throughout college, and then a book of a colleague of his. A few other scattered things, like a long one by Derek Walcott that I’ve never yet managed to read, though it sits waiting in my bedside table. Then there are the back issues of Poetry magazine, I don’t know how many years’ worth.

So there I go namedropping, right? Well I don’t really mean to, because the sort of sad thing I’m coming around to is that I don’t often really enjoy reading poetry. It’s the prose and the letters in Poetry that I most enjoy these days, finding typically one or two poems over the course of two or three months that really stand out to me. And part of why I sold my various collected and selected volumes was because I rarely went to them and, when I did, I found so very little that I really enjoyed. The Wilbur and Pinsky I kept because they’re signed and not because the work is especially meaningful to me. Yet something in me still craves poetry. Again and again I go back to it, hoping to find something electrifying. But so much of it just falls flat for me.

I spent some melancholy time this week leafing through my few volumes with the idea of posting an excerpt in memoriam (even my Tennyson I sold back) of a certain author the anniversary of whose death is looming. But I couldn’t find anything I liked, or I couldn’t bear to wade through all the insufferable stuff in order to get to some decent nugget. Occasionally when I’m experiencing this sort of dread of poetry, I try to make a point of reading more carefully, of putting more into the reading in hopes of getting more out. There’s not usually a payoff. And I’m not blaming the poets, mind you — clearly the work is deemed by some body of people to be worth ink and paper. I think I’m just not a good reader. Which invites the pretty bitter supposition that if one isn’t a good reader of poetry, he surely can’t be that good a writer of it, which goes hand in hand with those flurries of rejection slips from various publications when I experience a little spurt of poetic allegiance.

What I’m ultimately sort of coming around to is that I think I’ve been a fairly conscientious reader during Infinite Summer. Oh, I don’t mean to say that I’ve been a great critic or have cut new ground or anything, but I’ve put a lot in, and I’ve gotten a whole lot out. So why the blind spot with poetry, I wonder, when something in me really does want to get a lot out of it?

In the short story “Little Expressionless Animals,” Wallace has a character say of poetry that “It beats around bushes. Even when I like it, it’s nothing more than a really oblique way of saying the obvious.” The person that character is talking to replies, “But consider how very, very few of us have the equipment to deal with the obvious.” At the end of the story, the second speaker is talking again about the obvious and borrows from an Ashberry poem (“Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” — another poem I can’t bring myself to read in its entirety) to cut kind of a beautiful figure:

“You asked me once how poems informed me… Remember? Remember the ocean? Our dawn ocean, that we loved? We loved it because it was like us, Faye. That ocean was obvious. We were looking at something obvious, the whole time… Oceans are only oceans when they move… Waves are what keep oceans from just being very big puddles. Oceans are just their waves. And every wave in the ocean is finally going to meet what it moves toward, and break. The whole thing we looked at, the whole time you asked, was obvious. It was obvious and a poem because it was us. See things like that, Faye. Your own face, moving into expression. A wave, breaking on a rock, giving up its shape in a gesture that expresses that shape. See?”

It’s the last lovely bit about the wave that Wallace borrows pretty much verbatim (with acknowledgment) from Ashberry. And the thing for me is that it’s entirely palatable and meaningful to me when Wallace gives it to me like this, but when it’s buried in the middle of a bunch of stuff that looks like a poem but reads like a stylized inner-monologue, I just can’t grab onto it. I can’t hang on for the ride.

How about you? Do you read poetry? What do you like? Have you found any little poetry references in Infinite Jest? There’s at least a Larkin reference; Auden is fairly promiment in The Broom of the System; and Wallace wrote a prose poem or two. Should Matthew over at Infinite Summer consider adding some poetry to the mix for the ongoing reading program he’s proposed? If so, do you have any recommendations? Can you name a poet (or particular poem) that really takes your face off (and explain why)?

Underground

It’s probably coincidence that something of an underworld scene in Infinite Jest happens to start on page 666. But here we have the young male E.T.A. students “punitively remanded below ground” to clear the tunnels in preparation for the inflation of the lung. It’s been a good long time since I’ve read The Inferno (when I did, it was Pinsky’s translation in terza rima, and I thought it was so good that I sat in my dorm room and read the whole thing aloud to myself in one sitting), but I wonder if one might not find a reference or two within this section. Certainly, reminders of sins past abound — the “sweet stale burny smell none of them can place” (668) a node to Hal’s lonely indulgence; “a bulky old doorless microwave oven” (670) possibly the microwave JOI used to eliminate his map (Dante’s representation of Hell itself, if I recall correctly, something of a map). When the boys find the awful refrigerator, one says “This is Death. Woe unto those that gazeth on Death. The Bible” (673).

Avril makes her way from place to place underground as well, calling to mind for me the myth of Demeter (like Coatlicue, a mother goddess) and Persephone (with underground Hal as a sort of Persephone, Avril as Demeter with a real green thumb as far as her Green Babies go but ultimately batshit toxic and stifling to her kids). Although I can’t find it now, I thought I had read a description in this passage of what seemed disembodied (not literally) heads, and it made me think of Pound’s poem “In a Station of the Metro”:

The apparation of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough

There are variations on the punctuation of the the poem, but the idea is that the heads of people lined up somewhat haphazardly waiting for the subway train resemble petals (I think of cherry blossoms, probably because the poem has kind of a haiku feel to it) lined up on a branch. “The metro” thrown through a European filter can read as “De Metro,” and it’s just one hop from there to Demeter, who prowled around looking for her daughter who was underground, meanwhile affecting the seasons and the earth’s fertility (e.g. flowers).

I am not suggesting that Wallace was making an oblique reference to Pound (he’d be more likely to point to Larkin). I’m not even sure I’d defend too steadfastly the notion that this scene is an underworld scene (though epics tend to have those) in the literary sense. These are just associations that came to mind.

I can’t do those two standout nearly-blank pages 664 and 665 and the just fantastic note 269 anything resembling justice, but gosh are they ever good.

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