Monday, November 21, 2016

The Poetry of Great Prose

I believe in the magic and authority of words.

                               René Char

“You want to write great fiction? Then read poetry.” It’s what I tell young writers all the time. Surely such late great novelists as Joseph Conrad, Marcel Proust,  Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce spent many a patient hour at the feet of their favorite poets. Only glance at their fiction and see. Read the opening pages of Heart of Darkness, of In Search of Lost Time, of To the Lighthouse, and try (just try!) to restrain your admiration, your awe. Read but the last few paragraphs of Joyce’s short story "The Dead” and you’ll be struck at once by the genius and poetry of this complex, this revolutionary, this beautiful prose.  

Of course it makes sense: literary modernism—the movement within which the language of each of these writers was forged—was distinguished, above all, by the patent, if sometimes tacit, determination to elevate the lowly novel as a form to the time-honored status of poetry. And how did these writers achieve this? By making their prose more expressly poetic, by coopting and adapting for the novel and short story many of the conventions by which poetry as an art was best known. Of these many and venerable traits, perhaps the one these writers found most appealing was the dense, allusive, often highly symbolic nature of the language itself. No longer would their prose be just the invisible cousin to plot and character and theme, the wire by which the current was carried to the bulb, but would boldly take its place beside them in the tale, regularly calling attention to its charms, sometimes—drunk with wonder at itself—even obscuring what happens and to whom (see Molloy and Malone Dies, see Ulysses, see Finnegan’s Wake)! 
Rita Dove once said that “Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.” It is an idea affirmed by poet Frances Mayes in her remarkable introduction to the reading, appreciation, and writing of poetry, The Discovery of Poetry. Again and again she insists that poetry is the language art for the way it teaches us about the often simple words we use each day, restoring weight and consequence to our expression, to our every verb and noun, to our every comma and period and dash. Good writing is deliberate writing; it is language under pressure—a fact well known to poets. Indeed arguably no writers put more pressure on their language than poets, toiling daily with the challenge of capturing the obvious and the ineffable, with “the naming of things into their things.” Poets are nothing if not meticulous, obsessive, precise. Writes Edward Arlington Robinson, “This morning I deleted the hyphen from ‘hell-hound’ and made it one word; this afternoon I redivided it and restored the hyphen.”

Crazy? I don’t think so. It’s what poets do, restlessly reinventing our language for us (its glory, its purpose, its pitfalls, its might) and by extension our very sense of ourselves—as people, as human beings. As much as ever now we are our words, our poets (and the novelists who revere them) the subtle crafters of our being, our fate. Writes the great modernist, T.S. Eliot, “For last years’ words belong to last years’ language/And next year’s words await another voice.” 

Here again are some of my favorite novelists—each of them steeped in poetry—who have answered Eliot’s call: Lowry, Barnes, Cela, Ellison, Castellanos, Bellow, Qian, Saramago, Camus, Carpentier, Oe, Böll, Dorfman, Niwa, Voinovich, Manea, Ishiguro, Rushdie, Gordimer, Saghal, Jin, Brink, Malamud, Cortázar, Gao, McCarthy, Styron, Amado, Pamuk, Vargas Llosa, Jelinek, Klíma, Stein, Wright, Grossman, Mistry, Gombrowicz, Lispector, Morrison, Sabato, Silko, Pavese, Coetzee, Nabakov, Kahout, Olesha, Oz, Levi, Okri, Appelfeld, Bernhard, Platanov, Farah, Aksyonov, Fuentes, Bolaño, Ulitskaya, Emecheta, Sebald, Unsworth, Martin, Trevor, Erdrich, Kaniuk, Petry, Naipaul, Szabó, Hong, Chacel, Borges, Bowles, Yehoshua, Sōseki, Tišma, Walser, Ford, Head, Green, Duffy, Abish, Cohen, Ghalem, Agnon, Baldwin, Handke, Ivo, Rulfo, Benet, Mahfouz, Ali, Megged, Murdoch, Hrabal, Novakovich, Bowen, Houllebecq, Ocampo, Zhang, Rodoreda, Asturias, Sábato, Soyinka, Müller, Fox, White, Adler, Vollmann, Ford, Lenz, Márquez, Platonov, Toer, Narayan, Schulze, Carey, Wallace, Bedford, Ying, Nooteboom, Achebe, Arenas, Desai, Páral, Énard, Lamming, Robbe-Grillet, Kraznahorkai, Machado de Assis, Del Paso, and Gass.

Peter Adam Nash

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