Commentaries

from Miami to magical thinking (not so far)

Both audio (mp3) and video (streaming) recordings of Joan Didion's two-day visit to the Kelly Writers House are now available, linked here: LINK. And a few photos are here (taken by John Carroll).

I spent a good measure of my time and energy, during our various discussions (several public, others informally), focusing on the continuity between her early writing and The Year of Magical Thinking which so many people say marks a big change. But grab your paperback copy of that recent elegaic memoir and look at the bottom of page 7 and top of 8. She begins there to say that the manner of her writing has always been--increasingly in fact--a matter of hiding "thoughts" (she doesn't say feeling but means that) behind an increasingly untransparent, impenetrable skein of words. In other words, she does with language what I and many others who enjoy modern (and experimental) writing have always admired: the significance is in the words and the manner means something, so don't think you must find the true feelings below in symbols of some truth under or beyond the language that is itself no more or less itself the truth of what is being said. In that prefatory passage Joan Didion seems to say that now--now that the trauma of loss has struck her--she wants to be less impenetrable, since she herself is her writing and she wants that self no longer to hide what's really true about her feelings. Yet that's just a prefatory expression of hope. If you read the book closely you'll see that she "fails" to do what I think is the cliche of writing about the death of a loved one--that is to say, she does not change--but rather she reaffirms--that being made in the writing. It's the writing and only the writing. Indeed it's the main lesson she learned from the love relationship with her writer husband. It's the writing. That's where one is. So in the end, the fact that Magical Thinking is no more "personal" in its writing than Miami is the most remarkable thing about the newest development of his great writer.

When (in '67 or so) Joan Didion wrote through her first major breakdown she described a rejection of the conventional American narrative mode (a mode that tried to prevent improvisation, for one thing), she charted a move from narrative to image, from "ethical" to "electrical," and her mantra was--it still is--the Poundian call for juxtaposition: petals on a wet black bough. If one reads The Year of Magical Thinking as a Poundian foray rather than a self-help manual for grieving, one won't have it quite right but will be close enough, and, I believe, will derive tremendous pleasure from the reading. Read or re-read the passage about the family photographs along her hallway and I think you'll see what I mean.

idea for writing experiment

Write about the "two-track approach" of Reagan-era foreign policy with a grammar such that each sentence means what it means & also its opposite.

which man is it that I know?

That's the late Stanley Kunitz taking a break at Poet's House in Manhattan. He happens to stop and pause beneath Robert Creeley's "I Know a Man," which has been inscribed on the large window. Ah, juxtaposition!

Finally, then! An answer to the darkly imponderable Creeley question:

the darkness sur-
rounds us, what

can we do against
it

The answer is: Stanley Kunitz!

books are not themselves symbols

Ken Krug has painted a series of book-and-thing still lives. A simple and yet--to me, anyway--endlessly pleasurable juxtaposition. Ken takes a favorite book and then quasi-intuitively reaches for the object that "catches my eye," as he puts it. Ken is a brainy guy--always reading and always intellectualizing--but for his paintings, at least these, he suspends the way he thinks about the book and sets the object with/against it in the spirit of an alternative (opposite) mode. For Durrell's Alexandra Quartet it's a pair of sunglasses. For Whitman's Leaves of Grass a single Adidas sneaker. Borges with a Mets cap. Spiegelman's Maus gets accompanied by a salt shaker and a pepper shaker (this is the painting I myself own). Kafka's Complete Stories and a can of Campbell's tomato soup (not a nod to Warhol). Krazy Kat gets painted with an iPod. And Samuel Delany's Dhalgren poses with a cell phone. Krug does these in one sitting, working oil paint on board only with a palette knife.

Book with object does not mean book as object. The object tends to defer to the book, challenging any easy categorical assignment. Ken Krug, it seems, is not opposed to the hegemony of reading, even when its representation is objective, even though, rendered in these works, it bears depictive qualities--color, shape. The book is desymbolized in order, paradoxically, so that its value as a repository of ideas and aesthetics can be reclaimed from the world of things.

The painting of Van Gogh's Complete Letters and a wristwatch is not meant as a temptation to interpret (O, Time!), but it is that. Resist the symbol-making impulse!

agh, petals maybe

Still transferring old Real-format audio and video materials into the more accessible and less proprietary mp3. Today it's a short discussion--by me and Shawn Walker--of William Carlos Williams's poem "Portrait of a Lady," which, perhaps oddly, I ask my students to read not when we study the rise of modernism but, a little later, when we are preparing to enter the postmodern. Here's the chapter of the course where it occurs. And here is the discussion of the poem.

Portrait of a Lady

Your thighs are appletrees
whose blossoms touch the sky.
Which sky? The sky
where Watteau hung a lady's
slipper. Your knees
are a southern breeze—-or
a gust of snow. Agh! what
sort of man was Fragonard?
—As if that answered
anything.—Ah, yes. Below
the knees, since the tune
drops that way, it is
one of those white summer days,
the tall grass of your ankles
flickers upon the shore—-
Which shore?—-
the sand clings to my lips—-
Which shore?
Agh, petals maybe. How
should I know?
Which shore? Which shore?
—the petals from some hidden
appletree—Which shore?
I said petals from an appletree.

Above: a detail of Fragonard's painting "The Swing."