Monday, April 11, 2011

Notes on Writers and the Teaching of Writing, II.


In Women Writers at Work:  The Paris Review Interviews, Joan Didion notes that she learned how to write sentences by reading and analyzing Ernest Hemingway's sentences:  "When I was fifteen or sixteen I would type out his stories to learn how the sentences worked" (323).  Not surprisingly, Didion, like many others writers, finds Hemingway's direct manner of utterance attractive:  "I mean they're perfect sentences.  Very direct sentences, smooth rivers, clear water over granite, no sinkholes" (323).

Didion contrasts Hemingway's "clear water over granite" with Henry James' "perfect sentences too, but very indirect, very complicated.  Sentences with sinkholes.  You could drown in them" (323).  For anyone remotely familiar with both authors' works, Didion's use of "smooth rivers" and "sinkholes" seems appropriate:  Hemingway's audience awareness is in many ways quite different than James' intended audience--and the authors' mannerisms declare what they value.

Their stylistic mannerisms could be analogous to the two main camps in contemporary poetry and writing in general:  The Hemingway camp favors austere language and direct syntax, whereas the James' camp loves lush language and syntactic complexity.

For example, when I consider the poets Philip Levine and Rita Dove, I would have to place them in the Hemingway camp; both create poetry that utilizes the language of everyday discourse and syntax.  As for Charles Wright and C. K. Williams, their poetry would definitely fit within the James' camp with its "sinkholes."

Does either camp have an advantage over the other?  I would posit that the tribe of Hemingway certainly has a greater degree of what's known as relative readability:  Their manner of phrasing, their syntactical constructions, would be less stressful to the average reader when it comes to comprehension.  This isn't to say that their poetry is simplistic, though the danger does exist; nevertheless, poetry in the Hemingway camp, at its best, can be compared to the best of Shakespeare and Donne.

But the tribe of James also has an advantage:  those "sinkholes" permit stylistic leeway and, quite possibly, greater non-linear introspection; the reader can dive into those sinkholes for brief periods, but the danger involves losing track of the writer's initial linguistic leap or arc, so to speak.

When I consider two poets--among many of my influences--whose works I consciously chose to emulate in terms of stylistic mannerisms, I think I was attracted to both partly because they were good examples of those two camps:  Robert Bly and James Dickey.

Bly's poetry has tremendous appeal for me precisely because of his austerity; of course, this could have something to do with his and James Wright's adherence to the "deep image" ethos that somewhat echoes Haiku's emphasis on precision to the point of laser-like rendering at a localized level.

Dickey's work also utilizes imagery, but the welter of imagery and the complex syntactical constructions (the clauses can be overwhelming at times) Dickey infuses and wrings out of each poem has great appeal too:  The challenge in Dickey's work is to allow the imagination to roam the cosmos but always come back to the journey's center or "purpose" (a word and concept I'm uncomfortable with when it comes to creative writing) which is often simply to enjoy the linguistic excursion itself:  the poet as cartographer mapping out a route to some unknown destination.

For me, both camps have their advantages and their potential pitfalls.  For poets and writers, the challenge is to work within those camps--or attempt to intertwine them--and avoid the pitfalls.

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