What Makes Good Writing Good?

This was the question posed in a blurb article in the back pages of Atlantic Monthly's January/February 2006 issue. Is it the ornate phrasing of William Gay? The surprising descriptives of Ron Hansen? The underlying irony and wit of Ian McEwan? The mood-evoking narrative of David Guterson?
Storytelling and character development are paramount, of course, but we're talking here about the nuts and bolts from which these are constructed. A combination of any of the above can certainly lure a reader into an all-night read-a-thon. And those of us who write and have a facility with these can rest secure in our competency. But what else might it take to run the publishing gauntlet, past agents, editors and reviewers? Some of the most caustic critics of today's good literature promote the same trait as this article: clarity.
The article's author, Christina Schwartz uses the writing of Anita Brookner as an example. Brookner's sentence structure is complex, but her use of metaphor and phrasing, her understated tone, her disregard for the quasi-poetic devices many writers lean on to supplant prosaic eloquence, is rather common, judging by the example given. Her prose, however, is economical, neat and – above all – effective.
To say more regarding clarity is superfluous when you can read the real thing. Check out the article and Brookner's writing sample. It's a short article, but gigantic in its implications.

Power of the Pen

This too is a month late, but the trial of Orhan Pamuk has been halted. Pamuk, the preeminent Turkish author, has played j'accuse with the Turkish government, claiming genocide of Kurds and Armenians. Trying a writer of Pamuk's stature is clearly a bitter pill for the Turkish government, and a testimony to the power of literature. We can only hope this will be the end of this matter, but probably not. If the trial revives, I'll report it here. For more details on this, see: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4533664.stm.

Best Reads of the Year

One of the advantages of being this late with a "Best Books of 2005" list is that you have the opportunity to do something unique. So here are the most enjoyable books I've read this year. Some are classics I’ve come back to; others may be a year or two old, others hot off the best seller lists.
Fiction:
The Clearing by Tim Gautreaux -an historically based novel of rough-hewn sawmill towns in Louisiana in the early 1900s.
The Darling by Russell Banks – an alienated but idealistic American woman and her life in Liberia.
Gilgamesh by Joan London – an Australian woman’s pilgrimage to Mesopotamia at the outbreak of World War II.
Saturday by Ian McEuen – a day in an English family’s life, woven about 9/11.
The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway – probably autobiographical, an American expatriate who has become involved in a ménage a trois with two women.
Non-fiction:
Nickel and Dimed by Louise Ehrenreich – the author goes undercover to see if she can make it at the lower economic levels of American life.
Sex, Time and Power by Leonard Shlain – how women’s sexuality shaped human evolution. Despite some hyper-extended theories, probably the best layman's book on human evolution since Desmond Morris' The Naked Ape.
The End of Faith by Sam Harris – an exposition on the problems posed by religion within modern society, and a look at where religion’s traditional pursuits should be headed.
Annapolis Autumn by Bruce Fleming – an insider’s look at life at the U.S. Naval Academy, warts and all.
Inside the Third Reich by Albert Speer – for those who wondered how a nation could be so misled, this book may provide insight.
Poetry (sorry I don’t have more here):
The Iliad, translated by Stanley Lombardo – a gift from writer friend David Frauenfelder, who teaches such to high school kids. Probably the best translation of The Iliad I’ve come across.
Selected Poems by T.S. Eliot – the Centenary Edition, 1888-1988 – includes the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, The Waste Land and The Hollow Men.
A Coney Island of the Mind by Lawrence Ferlinghetti – Beat poetry at its best.

More on poetry

Before I let poetry drift away for awhile, I want to expand a bit on things I wrote in my last post. To begin, I have to go back some fifteen years, to the date of my one and only published chapbook. The publisher told me, "Bob, I'm delighted to publish your work, but you need to realize that poetry as a written art form doesn't sell in America. Here, poetry readings are well attended and slams are packed, but the fans of these writers rarely buy their work. The opposite of Europe, where poetry is bought, read, studied and recited in salons or the like. In the U.S. published poetry is a losing proposition."
She was right. In twentieth century U.S., poetry, due largely to the popularity of the Beats, came once again into its own as an oral form. As a result, the written, academic version often seems one-dimensional, if not glib or trite. Why? The good poets are writing performance poetry, or at least poetry that will go over better in readings than on the page. Again, why? Well, that's where the audience is.
The good and bad of each:
In performance poetry, the audience gets a better feel for the poet's intended phrasing within the meter. Voice can emit nuance that will never be present on the page, at least without simulation or a lot of digging. Performed poetry is more akin to music, with the strong backbeat of its rhythm, assonance or alliteration creating an effect similar to a song's catchy rhyme patterns. The poet can modulate his vocal timbre, can add body english, facial quirks, or gestures, to cue the audience to the subtleties of meaning and intent, can even slip a cue to waiting musicians to amplify emotion. All this making performance poetry a multi-media event, something American audiences never seem to get enough of these days.
Its downside is that word crafting – selecting just the right wording to convey depth of meaning – often gets lost in the hubbub of performance, creating the potential for sloppy writing. And the poet's ability to communicate to the audience is limited in performance – he/she gets one shot at putting over a poem, then it goes into memory's faulty vault.
With written poetry, the reader has the opportunity to experience verse on multiple levels, can re-read and contemplate without the din of a performance crowd or the limits of performance time. The reader can enjoy the poet's wordplay, the delicious ambiguity of words, lines, stanzas, the deeper meaning, where Truth is reputed to reside. The reader can digest the metered stresses, then speak the lines aloud, notice the stresses changing, sometimes the meaning. Here, poetry is the mutidimensional vehicle it has become at its best in the twentieth century.
But written poetry's downside is that it tends in the hands of lesser poets toward the erudite, the obscure, almost a literary code meant for the elite – as the poet forgets his/her mass audience. For such poets of moderate talent, this written obfuscation is an attempt to simulate meaning on multiple levels. Often, though, it wallows in pedantry, massaging the poet's ego or assuaging the poet's hurts.
Personally, I've been trying in my own verse to revive the epic poem, to renew a sense of story in poetry – something Ginsberg broke from – to a degree – in Howl, something that Eliot, Coleridge Dante and others carried forward from poetry's ancient oral traditions. But a return to Homeric poetry – or the ballads, sestinas, villanelles, etc we see cropping up today – won't further the poetic art form. Such is the grasping of an art form on the rocks. At best it's a re-grouping, an attempt to find the path forward.
But where is poetry headed? Once, I thought the modern "pop" songs of The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and others, would be the new tradition. Now, that form has morphed into multi-media performance poetry. I sense, though, that all such efforts are means to a greater end, as yet unrevealed. Will we have a new, predominantly oral tradition in poetry, steeped in new archetypes for an emerging, technological world civilization? Will we take the written form to previously conceived emotional heights, or commensurate depths of meaning? Or will be be "stuck" with the linearity of increasingly non-fictive prose? Only time – via the Muses – will tell.

Baby beats and other things

I was probably feeling guilty for allowing poetry to slip from my literary attention, so my wife and I decided to attend a local poetry happening in town, a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Allen Ginsburg's Howl. The evening featured readings by local and internationally known poets, an excellent jazz trio adding aural color. Not surprisingly, it was an evening both moving and entertaining, with the exception of one emaciated local lad trying to be the poetic version of Hunter S. Thompson.
Most of the original beats have departed the planet, so that evening focused on the following generation, calling themselves Baby Beats. Poetry these days is the ugly stepchild of American letters, but the Baby Beats are singlehandedly keeping alive what I believe to be the true poetic spirit.
I want to mention two books we felt moved to buy that night:
Baby Beat Generation (An Anthology – Une Anthologie) ISBN 2-913919-24-3,
and
Pulsa – A Book of Books, by Richard Cambridge, ISBN 1-887012-24-9
The first, as you might suppose, was published in France, where the beats are revered, and where poetry is an integral part of social and intellectual life. It's tout in the U.S. is one of the Baby Beats of the evening, Thomas Rain Crowe.
The other author, Richard Cambridge, has won the Ginsburg Prize for poetry, is another of this generation of Baby Beats, another polished performance poet, who also works to bring to public light the status of political prisoners and prisoners of war within the U.S.
Both men and both works are cut from the Kerouac, Ginsburg, Burroughs, Ferlinghetti mold, and their poetry is passionate, clever, and free-flowing, with the usual beat wit. To my mind, their work in written form is a bit uneven, but perhaps that minor bit of blame can be set at the feet of the performance poetry phenomenon. Probably not a coincidence that the anthology also includes a CD of selected poets performing.
The status of poetry in the U.S. is a conversation for another evening, but I'm including the ISBN numbers for these two books because they aren't published by traditional means. If one wants a copy, the ISBN will help.