Songbirds and nuclear reactors and the horrible beauty of the world

March 14th, 2011

How does one write poems in the middle of something like this? What good, really, are my words now? How do we make the words meaningful in the face of disaster – although, if we are already following the injunction to “write as if you are dying” the words should never be trite, the words would always be weighed against the horrible beauty of the world.

The horrible beauty of the world. I have refilled the bird feeder and the blue tits and the great tits are back, swooping down from the branches of the willow tree, pecking at the feed sticks, flitting away – those bright little song birds I am so happy to have lured to our patio. Meanwhile, entire villages are wrecked and gone – entire villages of the dead and missing. Radiation is leaking out of several reactors – and how does a sentence like that even exist? – leaking poison and here I am watching my songbirds – that’s the horrible beauty of the world, that these two things exist at the same time, that it is our duty to see both of them, to take them both in.

Stare at the horrible images. Watch the songbird out the window. Hold these two things simultaneously in your heart.

Reading Wallace

March 9th, 2011

I’m still reading a Wallace Stevens poem a day, usually at the end of the day though I enjoy it most fully on those rare occasions I get to it first thing in the morning before anybody else has begun to stir.┬áHis is an insistent intellect; I can feel him sometimes straining through the pages to tell me something, to express what Harold Bloom calls “that solitary and inward glory we can none of us share with others.” It is, in the end, inexpressible of course – I can no more truly convey to you what it means to be me than you can make me understand what it is to be you and yet here is Stevens trying, in poem after poem, to do just that. Here we all are, poets and writers and bloggers trying to shape words in some magical way so that they take on finally the form of the self so that I might share it with you. It is the endless project; endless because we must begin the endeavor new again each day, this quest to understand and be understood, and endless because we must all fall short. But we wake again and try again, and it is a noble project.

Spring is on the way

March 3rd, 2011

There are crocuses and snowdrops in the yard and frog eggs in the pond. The seasons are indeed changing.

In defense of a good story

March 2nd, 2011

After The Glass Bead Game, my book club is now reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog – it’s a particularly interesting (and entirely coincidental) back-to-back. Both books ask the same Big Questions – what is the purpose of a life? – but in completely different ways. The eras in which the books were written show: Hedgehog is an engaging narrative with characters the reader is meant to respond to emotionally – in a word, a modern novel – whereas Glass Bead Game was all intellect – very much the German Intellectual novel of the last century. It was work for me to read The Glass Bead Game every night (I had hoped to read it in the original German, but that proved too much and after about 40 pages I switched over to an English translation); Hedgehog is a pleasure and it’s still asking the Big Questions. And because it’s a pleasure to read I’m engaging with the questions more than I did with The Glass Bead Game, which asked them so earnestly.

Did I just out myself as low-brow? That I’ll consider the Big Questions but only if they are wrapped up in a good story?

Or was it that The Glass Bead Game was neither fish nor fowl? I’ll read a philosophy book and I’ll read a novel but don’t give me a philosophy book pretending to be a novel. A story that is a story only to serve as the platform for an idea. Yes, I did just criticize the literary talents of a Nobel Prize winning author. But only in the context of this novel – I’ve read other works by Hesse and I remember being utterly, completely engaged – Demian stands out in my memory as a book I read again and again over the course of a year. But in The Glass Bead Game I think the story had to do far too much heavy lifting for the philosophy. The book was full of interesting ideas but it failed for me as a story, a story in which I connected with and cared about the characters as fellow human beings whose fates mattered to me.

One of the women in the group mentioned during the discussion that Dostoyevsky also asks Big Questions, perhaps most notably (but certainly not exclusively) in Crime and Punishment all within the framework of a story peopled by characters who are vividly alive. You care about them, you hate them, they repel you, whatever – but you respond to them emotionally as a reader. So here is where I defend myself against my own charge two paragraphs back: story matters. If you are writing a novel, story matters. Characters matter. These things matter because I think that we as readers are most open to examining the human condition when we feel our connectedness, our underlying unity, with the character experiencing the action. Through the portal of connection and caring we find our way into the story and are open to what the story has to teach us. This is not the same thing as saying we need to read about characters who are just like us, not at all – shoot, Watership Down is about rabbits, but damn if you’re not rooting for those little bunnies with all your heart by the end of the book. And it’s because somehow – and here is the magical, the ephemeral thing – the author has shined a light on their essential humanity (yes, the humanity of the bunnies too) and through that light our own humanity as well. If I cannot get inside a story the characters will always be Others to me, out there in that book, I will always be aware of their identities as constructs, and I won’t see what is happening to them in the full light of their – and thus my, our – humanity.

Fiction can be edifying, can shine a light on our own interior world or a spotlight on the world around us – think about books as divergent as Catcher in the Rye and A Half of a Yellow Sun – while still being a marvelous story full of people about whom the reader can care, deeply. It is not a zero-sum game by any means, edifying or entertaining – indeed if you are an author you had better not be approaching it as a zero-sum game.

Story has to matter, otherwise just write a philosophical essay and be done with it. There has to be a reason why we choose story; why we as humans have always chosen story as the way to grasp and examine the world and to tell our essential truths. Of course story matters, and not just the ideas contained within it.

Story is everything.