“I was a word, therefore I was”

March 9, 2014 § 4 Comments

So he would die as a disturbance. That was probably proper, but it was proper only when put this way, rather than another, which was something Magus Tabor had taught me: wait for the words, he’d say, and then you’ll know what is going on; wait for the words, they will betray their occasion without a qualm; wait for the words, when their objects will become real, turn real as a face turns red with the realization they are being said; don’t deal with the unnamed, they are without signification; remember, to be is to be enunciated—said, sung, shouted—to be syllabated; I was a word, therefore I was; and while I was a word, brief as a breath, held in the head or sustained on paper, prolonged in print, bound as a book, I was like licketty,  you understand, like a term on one of the tablets of the gods, like lights made of stars flicked on and off to say: here I am, I’m stage, I’m song, I’m printed on the ticket; so Tabor could die in a thousand descriptions, although each way only once: once as a disturbance, once as a sign from the gods, once as a penalty, once to signify the unfairness of fundamental things, once to be symbolic of his soul’s strife, once to remind me of what he taught, once to be simply another number in the census of the dead that day, the day—evening, midnight, dawn—he did it—it did it—died.

— William. H. Gass, The Tunnel

“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)

bound for a hanging high, improbably high, in the trees

August 21, 2013 § Leave a comment

Following the cue of a friend who expressed to me a similar sentiment, I affirmed that I also perhaps too regularly read this section of Omensetter’s Luck, where Henry Pimber walks into the woods and names the trees, like the first goddamned, depressed Adam, bound for a hanging high, improbably high, in the trees.

And in that spirit, I re-post this:

music that survives the din of life’s repetitions

March 21, 2013 § Leave a comment

Wooden postcard and Gass blurb copy

“We were late among the living”

October 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

So I wonder why I’ve lived so much of my life in a chair the way I wonder at the daily disappearance of my chin — without surprise — without question or answer — because loneliness is unendurable elsewhere. Here it may be sat through, if not stood. Here it may be occasionally relieved, like a crowded bowel. Here it may be handled like a laboratory mouse, so tenderly it squeaks only from the pressures of its own inner fears. And here that loneliness may be shaped the way the first dumb lump of clay was slapped to speech in the divine grip. We were late among the living, and by the time God got to us ice was already slipping from the poles as if from an imperfectly decorated cake. The stars and planets were out of sync. Uncursed, the serpent was swaying on its tail like an enraptured rope. Haven’t I always maintained that our several ribs were the incriminating print of a bedeviled and embittered fist?

— William H. Gass, The Tunnel

“they were ordinary, commonplace, banal, ubiquitous… and revolutionary.”

September 13, 2012 § 1 Comment

The following is an excerpt from William H. Gass’ recently published essay, “Abstractions Arrive,” available here. (Note: presently it is only available for IPad 2 users. I’m told the publishers are working to widen the net eventually.)

The essay as a whole is very good, as is the interactive features with the astonishing artwork of Michael Eastman. I will perhaps have more to say about it later. For now, though, I want to feature this bit about cities. Arguably, it is about as optimistic as Gass ever gets, but is so in a way that gets at something more than wishful thinking or hope. There has long been talk about beauty in ruins & decay — typically with a series of artful forward and backward glances, both in their respective ways aiming to turn the object into a static, crumbled icon, and thus tending too often to neglect the movement this very moment, amidst even the dust and bones, taking place. This, it seems to me, is what Gass has in view.

I appreciate the publisher giving me permission to post this. I hope you like . . .

* * *

American cities are almost as abandoned as occupied, not simply in certain blighted areas, although these are certainly, among the ignored, the most notable. Abandonment, however, is ubiquitous. Just as we leave behind loved ones, parts of our past, old debts, parts of ourselves, we litter the landscape: a small hutch here, a garage, a warehouse, a closed school, an emptied shop or silo, a cottage industry, a de-animaled barn. When elevators fail, the upper stories of tall buildings fall empty; a widow may begin to live in only one room of her house; half-finished buildings, like half-held hopes, are soon overtaken by the homeless, who help themselves to what is left; and alleyways and passages and porches and outside stairs and stubbled fields drift into idleness and obsolescence. Asphalt lots are reoccupied by weeds. Fences sag, posts rot, wires rust. It is the abandoned lots and streets and buildings that teach us the most and are often in their poverty most wealthy. It is better, they tell us, to fall into the hands of Nature than to remain in the hands of Man.

Just as the corpse has been a dangerous contaminant and dreadful bother to almost all societies, so are the dead bricks and decomposing boards of abandoned buildings. Often, like bodies sometimes, they are cut and scattered, blown up, burned, or even buried, fed to thieves who steal their skins or their intestines, their cornices and colored glass and decorated doorways, and dispose of them in the Sun Belt somewhere like the rest of cold old age. Many peoples leave their dead in trees, or they offer them to the mercies of hyenas, vultures, sharks, or other sorts of sweepers in the streets. Many, however, just walk away. We leave the fields to weeds, the woods to their underbrush and fallen trees. We motor from our cities more often than not, turn a cold shoulder, banish all thought of docks and rail yards; and the face of the city becomes pocked with little lifeless hollows, spaces that are sealed off from sight and unavailable for any use. Then we speed by barn yards and out buildings that are their own tombs. They live their death as if it were another life, and nothing tells us more about a region than those places so lost and impoverished they have pushed away even their own poor.

Outcasts and pariahs, no more concern is felt for them, for the histories they had, the living that once went into them, than is felt for any faceless and forsaken rag of man or woman stretched out on a bench, huddled over a warming grate, or curled up under a bridge. These human beings live on themselves and grow thin from that diet. They live in the only interior they have as though that inside were their overcoat, and consequently we can see sometimes, as though through a flung-open door or raised window, their consciousness spill into the public world they are now so unaware of as they gesture at ghosts and declaim their pain for the balm of a passer-by’s snicker. Eventually, they become simply the last layer of dirty clothes in the bundle, a mutter like the wind’s, a nearly bodiless movement that’s yet as far beyond futility as disconnected stoves their former fires.

The surfaces of spaces which have been abandoned, and which know only the touch of the tramp, the spray can of the vandal, the trash of the vagrant; where a cheap Tokay’s sweetness lies shattered like the bottle, and the tin-can stove threatens to scorch the mattress that’s been flung like a self into a corner; or where the calm insouciance of forgotten furniture can be encountered, or the eloquence, though hardly heard, of one shoe or a left-over word: they combine to create a Dorian Gray-like image of the city’s soul or country-cousin’s character: a landscape of spiritual self-loathing and suicidal hate.

Yes, these are the spaces where strange animals rest: machines left in the tombs like the retinues of the pharaohs. These are spaces where a bulb may still burn, the light as neglected as the darkness. These are spaces that return their boundaries to the physical world, and only the mice and cats come, the pigeons perch. This is where otherwise only dripping water moves, and mildew is time’s measurement, rot rules, rust too, and decay becomes constructive because the orderly and equal ministrations of Nature, indifferent and patient, crack the plaster with beguiling lines where pipes poke forth and their shadows flash; they peel paint more seductively than underclothes; they subdue vulgar colors until they harmonize like the lyrics of a master — the raucous red of a discarded watermelon rind, for instance, reaching a pink more tantalizing than a tongue’s tip, at least to some developed, though depraved, tastes. Here our metals curl like paper, and stones we had let fall — oh, anywhere — out of idleness, now stand above our better feelings to mark their burial place beneath cliché and faddish slogan.

The qualities that finally constitute the surfaces that define such spaces are so rich, so various, so intense, yet so subtle and delicate, that they rarely could be realized by any artist; and the most humble materials, the plainest places, left to the routine actions of Nature, achieve a kind of elevation in their downfall, a tubercular beauty in their final fever.

And they lay there, in plain view, waiting for the photographer to make them immortal. They weren’t in motion; they weren’t hidden away in exotic places; they didn’t charge by the hour to pose; they also weren’t charming, immediately attractive, stylish, shocking, or outrageous; they were ordinary, commonplace, banal, ubiquitous… and revolutionary.

“it thought itself the glory of creation when it was the pit of hell itself;”

August 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

Getting rid of the holy was a long and arduous process, and it would be opposed, slowed, it would be glacialized; but the movement in the direction of the secular was nevertheless steady and strong, accelerating when the Church was no longer a principal patron. Escaping the cold hold of humanity was more difficult because the world was always no more to man than an image in mankind’s eye; its ego was enormous, its presumption supreme; it thought itself the glory of creation when it was the pit of hell itself; the species wasn’t fruitful but it multiplied, so it could safely spend much of its time butchering its own kind; in the fifties the dead already reached around the moon, just from the slaughters of half our century, when painting turned its back on the frightful scene and decided not to be of use.

— William H. Gass, “Abstractions Arrive”

we shall feel longing, lust for one another; we shall share rage for the world.

March 13, 2012 § 1 Comment

You think it horrible that lust and rage
Should dance attendance upon my old age;
They were not such a plague when I was young;
What else have I to spur me into song?

Old man Yeats knew what was true. If you have no anger at this world, anger at its willful stupidities, its grim indifference, its real sins: its murdering hordes, its smug myths, exploitive habits, its catastrophic wastes, the smile on its hyena hungry face, its jackal tastes, then you belong to it, and you are one of its apes — though animals should not be so disgraced as to be put in any simile with man.

Old age ought to know. Death will soon enough come to its rescue. Till the knowing ends, all that was wasted and wronged in youth — through ignorance, haste, competition, bad belief — all that was bored by middle age into one long snooze, has borne its juiceless fruit, and is now known for what it is: nothing has been righted here. Yet if desire can be kept from contamination, if it can be aimed, as one’s fingertip, at the root’s place, if it is not harnessed to the horses of dismal domination, but is allowed to be itself and realize life, then the flutter of an eyelash on a cheek will assume its proper importance; Wall Street may crash and the gods of money smelted back into the sordid earths they came from; yet, unfazed, our heads will rest at least on one another, a fall sun will shine on the sheets, your nipple shall enter my ear like a bee seeking in a bloom a place to sleep; life shall run through us both renewed; we shall feel longing, lust for one another; we shall share rage for the world.

— William H. Gass, “Lust”

By “great library” I mean . . .

January 21, 2012 § 2 Comments

It would be a decade before I would encounter my first great library. By “great library” I mean a library whose holdings are so huge that no one quite knows what is in its basements; a library in which Vivaldi scores may lie hidden for a hundred years; a library of density as well as scope; a library that will turn no book away—trash or treasure—for a good library is miserly, proud of its relics as a church, permitting even a cheap novel to be useful to the study of the culture it came from; an institution, consequently, that won’t allow ephemera to ephemerate and is not ashamed of having the finest collection of bodice rippers in existence; a library that has sat safely in the same place and watched like a sage its contents age, consequently a library whose dust is the rust of time; a library that never closes on cold days and will allow the homeless to rest in its reading room; a library that will permit me to poke about in its innards as long and as often as I like; and finally a library that makes generous awards, and then lets me win one.

[. . .]

My books are there to comfort me about the world, for only the wicked can be pleased by our present state of things, while the virtuous disagree about the reasons for our plight and threaten to fall to fighting over which of us is responsible for the misery of so many millions, and in that way steadily increasing the number of hypocrites, jackals, and rogues.Among them, writers of books.

No occupation can guarantee virtue the way hard labor makes muscle, and only sainthood requires it as a part of its practice. So the writers write, perhaps improving their texts from time to time, but only rarely themselves.

But the books . . . the books disagree quietly, as the minds of the many readers in the library may, without the least disturbance; and in that peace we can observe how beautiful, how clever, how characteristic, how significant, how comically absurd the ideas are, for here in the colorful rows that make bookcases seem to dance, the world exists as the human mind has received and conceived it, but transformed into a higher realm of being, where virtue is knowledge, as the Greeks claimed, where even knowledge of the worst must be valued as highly as any other, and where events as particular as any love affair, election, or battlefield are superceded by their descriptions [. . .] for these volumes are banks of knowledge, and are examples, carefully constructed, of our human kinds of consciousness, of awareness that is otherwise  momentary, fragile, and often confused. Among the shelves, where the philosophers tent their troops, there is a war of words–a war of the one supportable kind–a war of thoughtfully chosen positions, perhaps with no problems solved, but no blood spilt; shelves where human triumph and its suffering are portrayed by writers who cared at least enough about their lives and this world to take a pen to paper. Thucydides knew it when he said, concerning the conflict that occurred on the Peloponnesus, in effect: this war is mine. History occurs once. Histories happen repeatedly in reader after reader.

Every-one of these books is a friend who will always say the same thing, but who will always seem to mean something new, or something old, or something borrowed, something blue.

William H. Gass, “Slices of Life in a Library” in Life Sentences (2011)

a sipper of sentences

December 14, 2011 § Leave a comment

“[The ideal reader] is skilled and generous with attention, for one thing, patient with longeurs, forgiving over error and the author’s self-indulgence, avid for details . . . ah, and a lover of lists, a twiddler of lines. Shall this reader be given occasionally to mouthing a word aloud or wanting to read to a companion in a piercing library whisper? yes; and shall this reader be one whose heartbeat alters with the tenses of the verbs? that would be nice; and shall every allusion be caught like a cold? no, eaten like a fish, whole, fins and skin; . . . oh, [the ideal reader] will be a kind of slowpoke on the page, a sipper of sentences, full of reflective pauses, thus a finger for holding its place should be appointed; a mover of lips, then? just, so, yes. large soft moist ones, naturally red, naturally supple, but made only for shaping syllables, you understand, for singing . . . singing. And shall this reader, as the book is opened, shadow the page like a palm? yes, perhaps that would be best (mind the strain on the spirit, though, no glasses correct that); and shall this reader sink into the paper? become the print? and blossom on the other side with pleasure and sensation . . . from the touch of mind, and the love that lasts in language? yes. Let’s imagine such a being, then. And begin. And then begin.”

— William Gass, Preface to In the Heart of the Heart of the Country

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