“That’s because I’m anti writing as merely written. I want the oral tradition.”

November 25, 2013 § Leave a comment

There are many examples of wonderful alliteration like these: “We would live in ice like a little bit of lost light.” “He scissored when he spotted superstitions singing like sirens . . .” And many dazzling examples of assonance like: “That barren patch grew like a scratched rash.” I’ve encountered many editors who are put off by such sentences. How do you manage to get away with it?

Well, I don’t. They punish me for it. They don’t like it at all, and I love doing it because I know they don’t like it. I was taught all this, but it was so bunk, and it was all held back. It was okay if I followed a certain form in poetry, as long as I didn’t write like [Gerard Manley] Hopkins, whom I adore, or Stevens. God. But if you’re writing prose, you can’t have any rhymes in them—you have to get rid of it; you have to get rid of sound patterns and alliteration, and so forth. But alliteration was one of the first structural things in English. Anglo Saxon poetry is alliterative poetry. I have always argued that the difference between prose and poetry in our age is quite different. Some of the best poets are prose writers, that is, they do everything that poetry used to do and doesn’t now. Poetry is prosy now, and not as interesting as prose, I think—not even close. I’m also reminding people that this is a homemade object—the cuckoo clock, it says something, things speak themselves as well. That’s because I’m anti writing as merely written. I want the oral tradition. You go back to John Donne’s prose, or any of those writers, you get plenty of that, you get rhyming, alliteration, you get all kinds of other connections, all other devices of suggestion, and echoing, and so forth, because they were talking to hundreds, sometimes a thousand people in a church. Their sermon had to go out verbally and they had to use all the mnemonic devices they could, because they wanted to embed the so-called message. It was the word, it was the living word,” and all that, that they wanted to stress. It was the same time the opera begins, masques and so forth. They were trying to figure out how music and its nature, and language and its nature, could cohabit. It is for me a great moment because of that.

* * *

The idea of “Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop’s” seems like an inversion of the admonition at the end of Willie Masters’: “YOU HAVE FALLEN INTO ART. RETURN TO LIFE.” All this leads me to ask, if you could enter a sentence, what would it be?

Well, it would have to be in English, though there are some sentences of Rilke’s that I know well enough that I could say it in German, yes, but it would have to be in English. I’m not sure, but I know that one of the candidates would have to be a Gertrude Stein sentence, like “It looks like a garden but he had hurt himself by accident.” I love that sentence. Another that I’ve used several times is from [Laurence] Sterne: “A cow broke in (tomorrow morning) to my uncle Toby’s fortifications.” Now that sentence is interesting because it breaks, because there’s an ontological crack, but the Stein, when you unpack it, is pretty straightforward, but it’s like the rose is a rose model, which is always quoted out of context, and the full context is something about a civilization is a rose is a rose is a rose, and it’s the same contrast that she’s talking about in that other sentence, it looked like a garden, that is to say, it looked cultivated and planned, intended, but in fact his injury was not that intended thing but just happened by accident. There’s nothing ontologically crazy about that sentence, really, but what it does is change the kinds of concepts that are being used to say this. Then you have all kinds of other things that those sentences do. There are sentences which I couldn’t quote, but there’s one I do use in an essay on Henry James that’s from The Golden Bowl, and it’s one of my favorite sentences, a sentence albeit a paragraph long. It’s when they’re in the shop where they buy the golden bowl. I’ve actually done an architectural diagram on that sentence. It’s so magnificently organized in every respect. He’s just looking for something.  Everything that he’s offered in this shop is basically tasteless, tawdry, cheap, touristy, which says a lot about what else is going on. But there’s one sentence there, the sentence that leads you into the shop, goes down a spiral staircase. The sentence goes down a hill, using “old” as the riser. You have a table or a tablet. It’s the kind of sentence you read and then applaud and think, “Oh, that son of a bitch, he’s just done it.”

— from John Madera’s interview with William H. Gass (via)


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