Saturday, October 15, 2016

Some thoughts on Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”

I’m remembering a moment in my past: I’ve told someone that I write poetry and in response she tells me, ‘Oh, I love poetry’. I’m taken aback. In my memory, the speaker of this perplexing statement is a young woman, fresh and glowing. I remember her distinctly, or at least I believe I do; I have so completely attached her statement to a memory of a particular physical person that she has become iconic. Other women and men have told me something similar, only perhaps not as directly. They have been less startling in their clarity, and perhaps because of that, my memory of their faces, the shapes and positions of their bodies has disappeared. I remember only that I have heard this same passionate declaration on several occasions.

Even in this very moment, her statement makes me wince: Has she read the same poetry I have? I wonder. Has she read postmodern poetry, the Language poets, for example? It seems unlikely. My own feelings about poetry are less definite. There is some poetry I love, some that I hate, and much that I dislike or am unmoved by. For me, the problem with this young woman’s professed love is that it’s generic. What I imagine she loves is an idea of how poetry should be, of how it should function in the world. She seems to me like any entranced lover who has projected her desire onto the impassive face of the unknown beloved. If I were to place her sense of poetry in a world of dualistic discourse it would be ‘good’ and therefore ‘at rest’ and ‘light’.

Such lovability, poetry’s lovability, seems entwined with the musicality of the lyric, whose function – because it is fuelled by eroticism – is to uplift, to present a world awash with beauty and optimism, even while lamenting love. Lyric poetry seems to eschew the dark side of life – those aspects that are attached to injury – and are found in cruelty, the impulse to hurt others or the self – or it uses these darker impulses as a plaything, a rhetorical device to enlarge its stance and throw its imagination of love into high relief. 

Consider Shakespeare’s many cleverly framed sonnets, some playful and others philosophical, even mystical, such as Sonnet 53 with its collision of metaphysical and modern viewpoints in which multiple perceptions of those who surround his beloved become images or ‘shadows’, or death-like shades, and the lover the locus of some intangible but dark substance:

What is your substance, whereof are you made, 
That millions of strange shadows on you tend? 
Since everyone hath every one, one shade, 
And you, but one, can every shadow lend. (93)

The use of sonic lyricism to lighten sorrow or pain is also found in Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’, her well-known poem on a lost love. For the reader, her wit and careful use of the villanelle form mediate the pain that she feels over that loss. Besides the sounds that soothe, the formal techniques of irony and a complex traditional structure of rhyme require and suggest intellectual detachment, which in turn competes with the emotional chaos intrinsic to deep loss. The lines may be laced with ache but the self-consciousness of the piece as art suggests that the pain is managed, converted into a rhetorical device. There is something almost insouciant in the overall metaphor, the repetitions of the third line of the last stanza and the repetitions throughout the poem. In the last stanza the irony is kept on the side of sorrow only by the parenthetical remarks, which break into the rhythmic expectations of the lines by their implied sotto voce:

– Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture 
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master 
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster. 
(Poems, Prose, and Letters 166 )

In her book, American Poetry: The Rhetoric of Its Forms, Mutlu Blasing comments on ‘One Art’, suggesting that the poem, which depends on repetition, is linked to loss because of its formal need to devise distinctions within words that are the same. Every word contains within it, Blasing remarks, shapes of Otherness:
Writing and losing are one art because the formal repetition of loss, which promises mastery, simultaneously finalizes disaster: ‘(Write it!) like disaster.’ Repetition duplicates and divides, both masters and loses, and thus makes for ‘disaster.’ The division-by-duplication of the ‘aster’ is the ill star that governs poets. (112)
As seductive as Blasing’s idea is, it doesn’t address poetic forms that use repetition and its potential for shifting lexical meaning into humour and play, such as limerick and children’s nursery rhymes. Nor does it address current linguistic theory, such as that described by Michael Arbib in How the Brain Got Language, which posits that recursion (168–169), which is the structural repetition used to create complex syntax, is intrinsic to all language grammar – poetry or prose, Indo-European or Hmong-Mien – and that repetition is a feature of the neurological basis of learning and the development of language. What the success of Bishop’s poem’s emotional tenor depends on, I believe, is not the lyric form or repetition but the reader’s experience of loss in love, which allows for a shared emotional experience – a sympathy for the pain of lost love and the seeming impossibility of assuaging the grief caused by that loss. 

This is not to say that a reader needs to have experienced the exact same kind of love that Bishop has lost, but rather needs to have known the loss of something loved – an experience than can be written into much more removed incidents, such as a child’s despair over the loss of his pink blanket when his mother temporarily confiscates and condemns that blanket to the laundry. Our childhoods – and life in general – give us a thorough enough understanding of potentially dire situations, especially when they are placed relatively on the spectrum of experience. That is to say we have the imaginative capability of extrapolating painful moments. Form, also, mediates the reader’s experience. For example, I find Bishop’s poem cold and unfeeling because of her form. Other’s would disagree on both the effect of form and its influence the reader’s empathy. Neither stance can be denied by the other, really. What I believe is accurate in Blasing’s implied understanding of poetry is not about the effects of form but rather that the poet is most often engaged with and compelled by darker emotions, and that loss is primary among them. 

Friday, September 23, 2016

A poem for my uncle

I recently started a project with my uncle, who is doing a series of sculptures using wood trimmed from the trees in his yard. Here is the first print.

And here is a letter I sent to him along with the poem.

Dear Bob,

I’ve been meaning for a few weeks now to send some thoughts on the print that I sent you. So here I am, beginning. These thoughts are meant to explain the poem in relation to the sculpture.  

This particular photo of your work reminded me imaginatively of Brancusi’s Bird in Flight series. The single ray of light, gold surfaced, slicing through the air. But one of the things that engages me about the line of light in your sculpture is that it is natural; it is not a sleek, polished surface, it is not homogenous in line or surface. The subtle shifts that are part of tree branches and that are more acutely part of nature engage the eye in a way that Brancusi’s do not. We cannot really examine Brancusi’s sleekness. The eye just slithers away from what it sees. It does not rest on the surface but rather “looks at” the whole. “Reads” the whole. This is not true of your sculpture: the organic snags the eye at almost any point, but in a way that is pleasing. There is elegance in the sideways shifts of the organic surface.

So while the upward movement seen by the eye, and perhaps in the memory of Brancusi, suggest flight in the photo detail of the “animal” from your “ménagerie”, I wanted to move away from that in the writing. There is only one image in the poem that is connected with flight, and that is of the shoes – a person – running through heaps of apricot blossoms in the street. That running is intertwined with falling, something oppositional to flight. So the questions that came to me before writing the poem was: how? And where to start?

I wanted the poem, physically, to inhabit the negative space of the photo. So three columns, differing in width. Here it is, in an easier way to read:

A painting here                  columns of              forecasting
in the Uffizi.                      darkness                  round
Sky gold leaf                     into which                fruit, pink      
the air sacred                      warm sun                 cheeked
space cleaving                    does not                   apricots,
to the figures of                 reach — rise            a bite, mouth
Mother and Child               and fall of                full of sudden
who have in turn                surface, the              sweetness.
vanished from the              lean slope                How hearts
wood panel paint                dividing                   beat in the
peeled in gauzy drops        air’s  thin                 elastic space
faded tears or perhaps        integrity                   of moments,
evaporated dispersed          — slow rain             defying
into bright air. Gone          of blossoms,             algorithms of
the eyes nose mouth           unfastened,              perfection.
cheek and chin. The           rising again              Spin of breath
long fingers wrapping        in the scuff              zephyrs,
the child’s leg. Only          of shoes                   and light’s
their outline remains,          and running feet      vortex
the void of their                 the texture of           — gleam
substance. And the             petals. Rain              of gold
blazing sky

I started from the idea of gold, which has had so many meanings in art, but one of the most fascinating I’ve found is the substitution of gold for the sky in medieval religious painting. Gold is reflective and yellow, almost the opposite of what we sense when we look at the actual sky. In the poem, the column on the left describes a painted wood panel I saw in the Uffizi. It was of a Madonna and child but all the paint had disappeared, leaving only the shape of the two figures and the gold-leafed background.  In contrast, the right two columns of the poem move back to the photo of the sculpture itself, they describe the sculpture but in terms of a natural world phenomenon – the falling of apricot blossoms, which is known in parts of Asia as an apricot rain. The warm color range of apricots seemed similar to the warm background of the photo.

Well, I think that’s all I have in the way of comments.

All best to you and cousin Glenn,

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

From Page to Electronic Impulse

Have finished, at last!, my first poetry video. Well, first video, which happens to be about poetry. Kicked off from the admirably obtuse work of Wittgenstein. Oooh, let me know what you think!
Three Propositions is here!

Adding a bit of info. This was filmed in the front rooms of my house in San Leandro. For years I’ve watched the light of the setting sun trace mysterious patterns on the wall. I've dreamed about filming them, and at last I had the chance. The walls freshly painted, all the furniture gone in between tenants. Only the curtains left behind.

There are other things I love about the house – the silence in the cottage, the roses in the garden – but the light seems to have traveled with me over the years.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

My Next Big Thing

Tagged by the brilliant Elizabeth Robinson, I've at last managed to post this interview!

What is the working title of the book?

Where did the idea come from for the book?
I can’t really call it a spin-off from Hoard, the book I just published with Shearsman Books, but it’s definitely linked. Hoard comes out of a moment when I fell in love with a display of the Hoxne treasure, a cache of Anglo Roman jewellery and domestic items at the British Museum about three years ago. The poems form an imaginary narrative about love. Just before I left for the UK in order to better write these poems, the Staffordshire hoard was uncovered near Birmingham. Since it’s the largest discovery of Anglo-Saxon items ever uncovered and since it’s changing the way early medieval England is thought of, I couldn’t resist writing a poem sequence about it. The salient characteristic of the Staffordshire hoard is that it is all military ornamentation: beautifully designed and crafted sword hilts, pommels, and such. And so, the poems had to be about war. That has meant a lot to me.

What genre does your book fall under?

What actors would you chose to play the part of the characters in your book?
There are no actors that can play the parts of the speakers in this poem. They are real live people: their testimony taken from a number of sources: journalists’ notes, trial records, interviews in the field, etc.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
I think it’s a question not a synopsis. Several questions, really.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
I’ve been taking notes for about three years, but it probably all boils down to a month of writing.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I’m not sure inspiration is the word. The things I hear and see in the media compelled me. Perhaps the biggest influence would be Chris Hedges and then the death of Tim Hetherington.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Someone else will publish it, I hope, though I may put it into performance events first.

Now to think of someone to tag who hasn’t been tagged already!

Thursday, March 25, 2010


Within the archive of letters that flowed
from his fingers across the keyboard
she reads hindrance, the not yet unfolded musk
of moth-white flowers in the powdery air of dusk

There isn’t anything there, on second look,
only kerned curves and vertical strokes—
black on white—not, as she thought (the backlit
screen a veil, the image revenant),
pain behind the eyes’ lens,
decking the surrounding skin with lines.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Corduroy Mansions: The implications of publishing an online novel

This paper examines the online publication of the serial novel, Corduroy Mansions, by Alexander McCall Smith, as well as other online novels, and their implications for writing, publishing and the cultivation of a global reading audience.

[This paper was delivered at the 7th International Conference on the Book in Edinburgh, Scotland, on Oct. 18, 2009.]

On September 21, 2009, the Telegraph Media Group embarked on the publication of a second serial novel, The Dog Who Came in from the Cold, by Alexander McCall Smith. Like Corduroy Mansions, the author’s and the UK’s first publisher-supported online novel, the sequel is a complex production that makes use of most of the media formats available on the Web. The site includes illustrations by Scottish artist Iain McIntosh of the novel’s characters and setting, organized in professionally rendered graphics within the familiar page layout; downloadable audio readings of the daily installments; and links to related sites. One link to the home page of McCall Smith’s official website. And another to a Google map of the novel’s London setting (the previous novel had a link to a YouTube video of McCall Smith, bareheaded, walking through a perfect weather day in rainy Pimlico). There are also links to an ex-pat book club and to the Telegraph Bookstore. A summary of Corduroy Mansions on the site provides a kind of preface to this second novel, and an appraisal distilled by the Telegraph staff from readers’ comments continues the first novel’s precedent for reader interaction, not only with the Telegraph but also with McCall Smith himself.

All these forms of online promotion have been developed over the past decade through individual and corporate practitioners’ use of the Internet. Online novels themselves have been on the Web for some time—if not from the Internet’s Big Bang then at least since the beginning of its Jurassic age—and they are part of the vexatious issues constituting the Sturm und Drang that has plagued corporate publishing and individual copyright and intellectual property rights on the Web.

The e-novel’s lack of material form and the general unruliness of the Web make them a capitalist’s nightmare. For theoreticians and academics, the format has quixotic paradigm written all over it. But the e-book’s most obvious feature is that it eliminates the author’s—and the reader’s—need for a publisher and all the paraphernalia that goes with making a printed book. Unlike the Internet, the bound book promises sustained endurance and duration in the material world. The fact that e-books lessen the need for a publishing elite that mediates between author and reader unburdens them from the detailed work of corporate publishing while contributing to its economic floundering.

The Internet is filled with websites for online novels, such as, which claims to “provide links to any and all novels, short stories, and poetry that can be read or downloaded on the Internet.” The novels on this site, which I’m using as characteristic examples of online publications, take several forms, from blogs with serial entries to downloadable and compact e-books. Even in the blog format, however, these novels are, for the most part, structured to follow the traditional form and concepts of the twentieth-century print novel.

Occasionally, in the supplemental information available around an e-novel, the author will address issues of online publishing. Novelist Cory Doctorow writes about the issue of copyright on his website for Little Brother, his free downloadable e-book: “E-books are verbs, not nouns. You copy them, it’s in their nature. … Hard drives aren’t going to get bulkier, more expensive, or less capacious. Networks won’t get slower or harder to access. If you’re not making art with the intention of having it copied, you’re not really making art for the twenty-first century.”

Doctorow redefines e-novel publication as a practice in which reproduction is given over to the reader, and then makes a leap of understanding in use of the Internet as a medium for art—one dependent on multiplicity rather than uniqueness. Multiplicity extends not only to the copying of manuscripts but also to the participation of the author, as an abstract concept. Potential readers sort through material and select by either author or genre. Since most online writers are unknown to either the print or the cyberspace reading community, selection by a reader is based on descriptions of the book, or rather, on the genre the book seems to inhabit. The practice is similar to choosing books from a section of a bookstore or library with all the high-profile writers’ work pulled. Shifting text selection to genre rather than author is reminiscent of a time before nineteenth-century Romanticism, which brought an emphasis on the artist as a unique and gifted solitary, and before the twentieth century’s emphatic legal institutionalization of intellectual property.

Mainstream publishing has both used and misused this shift—wavering between conservative possessiveness and liberal attempts to redirect and adapt to the Web’s amorphous and exponential growth of immediate community. Time-Warner and J. K. Rowling have been extremely aggressive in their development of licensing for the Harry Potter books and in their control of copyright, going so far as to threaten legal action against fans who have used Rowling’s characters to develop their own Potter stories in online fanzines—a switch from the fanzine policies of American television and movies, where writers scrupulously avoid using fanzine ideas for shows. The attempts by Time-Warner to assert provenance over Rowling’s property within this community of mostly young fans were thwarted when some more savvy Web users brought the news media into the fray.

These property issues reinforce the notion that a text is not inviolable. But for online authors such as Doctorow, the use and reuse of text found online is a secondary issue. He writes, “For me—for pretty much every writer—the big problem isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity.”

The HarperCollins website Authonomy ( uses the Internet to support the costly publication process entrenched in the publishing industry by putting editorial responsibility for the development of novels in the hands of authors and the peer groups they develop online through their postings. Shared manuscript readings and commentary are an active though not obligatory practice throughout this online community. Publisher-run sites like Authonomy also put in place a kind of ad hoc marketing study by asking participants to evaluate one another’s writing skills and book popularity.

This sense of developing and maintaining community is the earmark of many online groups, even those not openly connected with fiction and literary writing, such as Facebook and Twitter. At the moment, though, publishers like Time-Warner and HarperCollins continue to consider the making of the book as a material object and physical possession the final stage in publication of a text for its widest possible audience.

The Internet’s first publisher-sponsored online serial novel, Naomi, by horror and fantasy writer Douglas Clegg, was launched in May 1999, when the Web was only a few years old. Clegg continues to produce online serial novels, like Naomi, that are free and downloadable and available by subscription. How he writes his books seems to vary little from the standard fiction model; however, it is clear that Clegg views his work as a creative act scheduled primarily by inspiration. To his subscribers, he writes: “I will send out The Locust as each episode is finished. That means, ‘not like clockwork,’ but ‘as soon as I can’ … The episodes may go out twice a week, once a week, or even twice a month. It’s [or, writing is] not like delivering groceries.”

Stephen King was the first high-profile best-selling author to write a book that had the Web as its primary publishing format, but his attempts to use the medium have been spottily successful at best and bumbling at worst. Like Clegg, he used the writing model developed in print publication, which he has practiced for some 40 years; the only change was the medium the book would occupy. In 2000, one year after Naomi, King posted the novella Riding the Bullet online for free downloading; Amazon pulled the book not long after, reportedly because customer demand exceeded the online bookseller’s ability to meet it. Simon and Schuster now carries Riding the Bullet as a $2.50 e-book for downloading. In March 2002, the story was included in the hardcover collection of King’s stories, Everything’s Eventual. It is currently available in hardcover, softcover, e-book, audio, and Kindle formats.

King continues to flirt with online mega-bookseller Amazon. His latest e-book, Ur, was released in early February 2009 to coincide with the launch of Amazon’s upgraded Kindle reader—an electronic device that Amazon advertising describes physically as “thin as most magazines” and “lighter than a typical paperback,” and functionally as “reads like real paper.”

Ur is about a professor who receives a supernatural Kindle that gives him information from other eras. One reader of Ur in Kindle format, J. Gremillion, commented on the Amazon site, “Numerous times throughout the book the professor is told to ‘Just read books on the computer like everyone else’ … King also goes into lengthy detail describing … how awesome all the Kindle features were … You cannot get through more than 2–3 paragraphs without feeling like you’re reading an infomercial for Amazon.”

According to Ralph Vicinanza, King’s New York-based agent, Ur will eventually go to print, even though Kindle “sales of Ur reached ‘five figures’ after barely three weeks on the market.”7 Ultimately, however, Kindle and competing devices account for no more than 1 percent of overall book sales.

King’s most controversial online publishing adventure, however, was The Plant. In January 2000, King offered the book as a work-in-progress on his website. Again, the idea was simply to change the means of distribution by eliminating print and the corporate editorial and production services around print. The problem was how to ensure that readers paid for the book—a problem that had sprung up around the distribution of Riding the Bullet. To prevent copyright infringement, King offered the book unencrypted and in installments. Each installment cost $1, and the total cost of the book was set at $13, no matter what number of pages were eventually written. King vowed to drop the project if the percentage of paying readers fell below 75 percent of the readership.

After three installments, King and his publisher decided to double the cost of the fourth installment to $2, at the same time doubling the size of the installment to 54 pages. Paying readers dropped to 46 percent of those downloading the fourth installment, and the number of downloads decreased overall as well. During the experiment, King posted his hopes for The Plant and gave an accounting of the number of “copies” sold in the message section of his official website. The last installment of the unfinished novel was published on December 18, 2000, leaving those who had paid in advance for future installments with unfulfilled promises and, judging by some posted comments, feeling bereft. JRM posted the following message on Sept. 7, 2009: “For the love of all your fans. PLEASE finish this story as a novel!” Other loyal fans stated that they would wait, and pay, for The Plant, in whatever format it appeared. King claimed that other more pressing projects had taken over his schedule but that he would complete the project in the fullness of time. A shift in creative focus later became King’s final defense for abandoning the project midstream.

In his comments about The Plant, King criticized online publication in general—or, rather, criticized online readership: “I see three large problems. One is that most Internet users seem to have the attention span of grasshoppers. Another is that Internet users have gotten used to the idea that most of what’s available to them on the Net is either free or should be. The third—and biggest—is that book-readers don’t regard electronic books as real books.” It’s unusual for an author to so directly criticize his readers—or grasshoppers. Also unusual was King’s unabashed recounting of his sales of The Plant, which clearly indicated that the e-book was an experiment in publishing rather than in fiction and that King’s concerns were financial rather than artistic.

An op-ed piece in the New York Times suggested that ultimately the failure of The Plant came about because it deviated from his plot-driven writing, which appeals to readers based on the feelings of horror and anxiety it elicits and which demands a quick and continuous read or resolution. King produces “suspense of a kind that cannot be drawn out over months. It is far better consumed in a single sitting, like a bag of hot popcorn or a bowl of cold cereal,” the article asserted.

If we assume that capitalism will prevail in discovering a means for online writing to be profitable and that it is not the primary occupation of writers to discover how to manipulate the profitability of such writing, the questions to be addressed by and for writers are: what kind of writing is suitable for the Web, and how does the Web dictate how writers write?

No one has suggested that Alexander McCall Smith should be writing something other than serial novels. On the contrary, the description of him as the “Dickens for the digital age” has become a critical cliché. His first serial novels—the 44 Scotland Street series—appeared in print in 2004, published by the newspaper the Scotsman, and were later put into hard- and softcover print editions. In September 2008, when the Edinburgh-based author began his first online novel, Corduroy Mansions, it was published on the online site of the London newspaper the Daily Telegraph. He was brought to the Telegraph by the former Scotsman editor, Iain Martin, who had joined the Telegraph Media Group in 2006. The publication rights for Corduroy Mansions were split between the Telegraph Media Group, which had online rights; the Scottish publisher Polygon, which published the hardcover edition; and McCall Smith’s UK publisher Little, Brown Book Group, which held the UK paperback rights.

Almost every day for 20 weeks, McCall Smith published a 1,000-word episode, concluding the novel on February 13, 2009, with its 100th episode. Reportedly, the author wrote the installments as the days passed, the novel developing through a process in which the readers were able to read the book’s installments as immediately as they were written. But because the Telegraph Media Group was recording the downloadable audio files in groups of 15 installments, McCall Smith maintained a lead of some 25 episodes between writing and online posting.

Clearly the writing of this novel varies greatly from preceding e-novels by best-selling authors, if only because of its harrowing deadlines, which preclude the caprices of inspiration. McCall Smith followed a similar practice in print when he wrote the 44 Scotland Street novels originally serialized in the Scotsman. Those ran for more than five years, appearing every weekday for six months of the year.

To write that series, however, the author was aided by knowledge of his hometown, Edinburgh, which allowed for embroideries of place and setting. All of McCall Smith’s writing is aided by the fact that he is a deeply well-educated man with a wide range of social and cultural expertise.

McCall Smith has claimed that serial writing with this demanding frequency becomes “addictive.” Notoriously verbal, the author is known to write between 3,000 and 4,000 words per day. In a January 15, 2009, interview he stated, “I realise that I am very fortunate in the way in which I write without redrafting … I find that I do not have to think a great deal in advance about what I am going to write; I sit down, and it just seems to come. It is a little bit like being in a trance.”

The publishers’ editorial staff, however, shared the pressure of the schedule, as it transformed each installment into a flawless text. Telegraph Assistant Comments Editor, Ceri Radford, wrote in her September 23, 2008, column, “The daily podcasts will be turned into an audiobook by Little, Brown next year without any anticipated re-recordings, so we’re committing ourselves to turning out a final, edited version of Corduroy Mansions to rolling deadlines. We quickly arranged a loop so that the chapters pass through editors at Little, Brown, and the recording studio, before ending up with the online arts team here.”

Part of the writing process for Corduroy Mansions, and an aspect that differs most radically from the usual writing and publishing of a novel, was that it was ostensibly interactive: readers were encouraged to email suggestions to the author about the novel and the directions they thought it should take; their suggestions were recognized and responded to. Because of the production schedule, however, there was a time gap between when suggestions were sent and when they could be integrated into the story, making the assimilation of readers’ ideas into the plot less practical. Nonetheless, McCall Smith emphasized that he listened to readers’ comments: “I take them seriously,” he stated. And he especially listened if readers protested that “one of the characters is unsympathetic.” More than in his print novels, he found that “readers have an emotional stake in the [online] characters,” a phenomenon that he ascribed to the immediacy of the Web: “It changes the relationship of the readers to the characters. It increases the reader’s sense of ownership of the characters.”

The fact that McCall Smith’s novels are serial, meaning that they tell a story through smaller stories presented over time, with few shifts in the direction of time—no flashbacks or flashforwards—makes them suitable for reading on the Web. But his novels are not serial in the same manner that Dickens’ were. Although Dickens wrote his novels in sections that were published in print monthly, the stories were highly structured, leading to one conclusion or resolution, whether or not Dickens had committed himself to that conclusion at the beginning of his writing. McCall Smith’s writing is episodic, but the stories do not necessarily lead to a final conclusion. Rather they are strung like shiny beads on a string.

The regularity of postings, the evenness of their length and the similarity of structure among episodes that deal with an event within a somewhat rambling text create a basic symmetry in Corduroy Mansions, which most people find pleasing. It is neither too rigid nor too random. This basic formalism, when coupled with accessibility and the ability to respond and comment instantly, sets up a simple scaffolding over which more complex language, ideas, and actions can be draped. The security of the structure trumps the amorphous irregularity of the Web.

In developing his approach to the serial novel, McCall Smith’s practice was to “let it [the novel] go wherever it wished to go.” In the writing of 44 Scotland Street, a clear pattern developed within the simpler thousand-word structure: three chapters would deal with a character and his or her dilemmas, then the next installment would switch to another character. The result was a group of stories “running parallel and contemporaneously.” One main issue is addressed in each chapter, and within that chapter the prose can “meander.” This meandering gives “an intimate feel” to the writing, so that the reader feels “caught in a bit of a conversation.” It’s an organic form that follows of the flow of thought without becoming, like stream of consciousness, locked into the writer’s point of view. As McCall Smith comments, “writing comes from the subconscious.” This approach to the novel form runs against the current logic of literature, in which no detail is accidental and every incident builds toward a conclusion. A meandering flow is an aspect of journal writing, however, and the journal’s online sister, the blog.

McCall Smith used an episodic narrative style in his hugely successful first series of novels, The Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, although the episodes there are longer, giving the novels a more leisurely pace. Unlike the typical genre mystery, the novels deal with small mysteries that are interwoven and solved throughout the book. The standard huge and bloody crime, often followed by other bloody crimes that are related or subordinate to the initial murder, which is solved in a final turnabout and revelation at the end of the book, simply does not exist in the series.

What ties the Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency stories together is the setting of Botswana and the personality of the lead character, Precious Ramotswe, as a woman of Botswana. All of McCall Smith’s series have followed this commitment to place and character: the 44 Scotland Street series and the Isabel Dalhousie series, both set in Edinburgh, the Professor Dr. Von Igelfeld series, set in the rarified metaworld of academia, and Corduroy Mansions, set in the Pimlico district of London.

Place is the overarching narrative of McCall Smith’s books—it impels the characters. For Corduroy Mansions, the selection of Pimlico was suggested by Iain Martin: setting the novel in London made sense not only because the bulk of the Telegraph readership is based in London but also because many people living abroad have traveled to and have memories of London. Corduroy Mansions is set not in a city as much as in a small corner of that city, a house in a district where groups of strangers live tangential lives to one another. That this would have great appeal to a global community, in which individuals are both restricted to the local, where they were born, were raised and now live, and yet have wider connections to a community that is without territory or physical surroundings, is understandable. It was common practice in comments on Corduroy Mansions for readers to state where on the planet they lived, to revel in their locality in the midst of global anonymity. In the immaterial world of the Web, place becomes magnetic, and setting an identity.

McCall Smith’s series call attention to character rather than plot. There are few cliffhangers, a plot device Dickens used amply in his serial writing to entice the reader from installment to installment. The cliffhanger has since been used in media adaptations from the earliest TV serials of the ’50s and continues to be a feature of soaps and other TV dramas. How many times was Flash Gordon left in dire straits before the evil Ming? How many times has a soap opera housewife staggered before a revelation at the last second of supposed or real infidelity? The device used by McCall Smith to move the reader from episode to episode is less a cliffhanger and more a hesitation at a crossroads. His characters are everyday folk with everyday concerns muddling through their dilemmas in a kind of post-angst existentialism that has slipped from the avant-garde into the middle-class. The readers, like the characters, may recognize their own questioning in the self-questioning of the characters: “Where is this going?” “What does it mean?” “Is there a conclusion or a closure?”

More likely, though, readers recognize the impulse for storytelling that grips us all in the face of our perpetually separate loved ones and the inscrutability of life. It is the same storytelling that inhabits the world of the campfire and the saloon, in mythologies gone commonplace and confessions made in the therapist’s office.

In this palette of human relationships, narcissism, not murder, becomes the ultimate crime between individuals. Narcissism is often the bloodless crime that stalks the darker sides of McCall Smith’s characters and that confounds them and creates sorrow. The closure of his novels—the resolution of transgression or the abandoning of distress—comes in the final scene, which unites the characters in a celebration of community.

The Telegraph’s Assistant Comments Editor, Ceri Radford, writes, “I like to think of Corduroy Mansions as a microcosm of what the Internet is doing for lovers of literature as a whole: connecting people divided by geography, allowing them to share their interests and exchange ideas.” Though Radford maybe idealistic in her perception, there is some truth in her suggestion. Her vision mirrors McCall Smith’s ongoing consideration of his readers and their desires and his relationship to them as a writer within a community.

Monday, March 05, 2007

In Defense of Difficulty

Adolf Wolfli,
Mental Asylum Bandhain,

A talk given as part of "In Defense of Difficulty" panel at the 2007 AWP conference held in Atlanta, Georgia.

In 1895 a thirty-one-year-old man was sent to Waldau Clinic in Bern, Switzerland, after attempting to sexually molest a three-and-a-half-year-old girl. Judged “mentally ill, unaccountable for his actions,”1 Adolf Wöfli was to live as a patient at the clinic until his death in 1930. An often-violent inmate who was constantly plagued by hallucinations and voices, Wölfli would calm himself by drawing and writing. During his thirty-five years at Waldau he wrote 25,000 pages of text and created over 3,000 illustrations, which he bound into large folio-sized books. Although his work is quantifiable and has been sifted through and examined by a number of experts—both psychiatric and artistic—his position in the world as an artist and a man remains mysterious because of our social need to define and evaluate the visual and verbal work of artists: to place that work in some hierarchy of creative legitimacy.

In his writings on Wölfli, art critic Carter Ratcliff defines the logic behind this hierarchy: “At the apex, stands the genius: he can flirt with madness, even embrace it, so long as familiar definitions of art suffer no substantial change. But madness occupies a place too low for reciprocity. Art can be mad but madness cannot be art.”2

In 1908, after almost ten years at Waldau during which the self-taught artist evolved not only a method of drawing and writing but a set of symbols, icons, and musical notation, Wolfli began his first book: From the Cradle to the Graave. Or, through work and sweat, suffering and ordeals, even through prayer into damnation. In this 2,615 page hand-written narrative Wölfli retells his childhood, and transforms its unbearable realities: his brutal and drunken father’s abandonment, his mother’s inability to keep her children, especially her youngest Adolf, from fierce and shameful poverty, Adolf’s hiring out as a laborer at the age of eight, and his mother’s death when he was nine.

In his retelling of his childhood from the age of two to eight, his family not only remains intact—gaining two imaginary female children—it becomes part of a group of traveling relatives and scientists: the Swiss Hunters and Natural Explorer Traveling Society. Among the travelers are princesses and dignitaries, all humane in their treatment and alliance to the young Adolf, or as he is nicknamed, Doufi. The family travels through the cosmos, and Doufi is able to buy planets as well as countries, which he outfits with a host of utopian structures. His story is filled with lists, for the universe that Wölfli creates is densely populated—like his drawings—with materiality.

“…endless eternity is neither round nor square, has absolutely no limits. On a stretch of absolutely not less than about: 420,000,000 German miles or 1,680,000,000 hours along which, in 1868, with my very own beloved parents, brothers and sisters, friends, under the constant presence of God Almighty the Fatther, I traveled in the infinite spaces of creation by the most manyfold means of transport, as for instance gigantic and majestic carrier, luxury and transport birds, island-mothships, giant-fountains, lightning serpents, omnipotence-moths, etc. etc., always in quite comfortable riding information, I saw during every staar-bright night a chaos of staars of the most manyfold kinds such as the most skillful writer’s hand is unable to describe and explain.”3

Just three years before Wölfli was confined, Henry Darger was born in Chicago. Like Wölfli, he would lose both his parents—his mother through death and his father through illness and poverty—by the time he was eight. When his father entered St. Augustine’s Poor House, Henry was institutionalized in a Catholic boys’ home. A doctor, who claimed that the fractious young Darger’s heart was “in the wrong place,”4 had him transferred to the Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln, Illinois when he was twelve.

A recluse who attended Mass sometimes four and five times as day, the adult Darger was a janitor at local hospitals. At night, sequestered in his room, he worked on an epic story about an imaginary world in which Christian countries battled to defeat Glandelinia, a country that trafficked in the violently abusive slavery, torture, and murder of children. The heroes of his story were the seven dazzlingly beautiful, often naked and hermaphroditic Vivian girls, who were aided in the child-slavery wars by adult male soldiers and a genus of innocence-loving, butterfly-winged serpents.

During the course of his life Darger would write, illustrate and bind into books over 15,000 pages in The Story of the Vivian Girls, in what is Known as the Realms of the Unreal.

Filmmaker Jessica Yu, who made a documentary of Darger in 2005, explained the reasons behind making the film In the Realms of the Unreal: “. . . there was something about the combination of strange subject matter and innocent presentation, the total lack of irony in his bizarre imagery, that stuck with me . . . I was drawn to tell his story finally because he created this world of images only for himself. I kept asking myself, ‘Can imagination be enough? Can one replace real human relationships and community with those invented in one’s mind?”5

Darger’s ability to function in the world, no matter how minimally, has been used as an argument for his being a more “legitimate” artist than Wölfli. But in the world of art there is in fact little difference between Wölfli’s madness and Darger’s “innocence.” Both remain on the margins of literature and art.

A more interesting parallel between Darger and Wölfli was their need to move inward, to create an intricate, complex world in which they could somehow heal the injustices that had occurred to them as children. Any writer can identify with this impulse to move inward to create other worlds; it’s an essential imaginative form of the practice, and one that both writers and readers delight in. Perhaps it functions as a form of healing for most of us, if not an exploration of possibilities.

Louis A. Sass, a professor of clinical psychology at Rutgers, brought forth the topic of schizophrenia and literature and art in his meticulous and wide-ranging study, Madness and Modernism. Sass likens the symptoms of the disease to practices of perception and techniques in art developed in the early twentieth century and in use today. He does this, he claims, not to “denigrate” or claim that modernist and post-modernist art is schizophrenic, or to “glorify schizophrenia … as conducive to artistic creativity” but rather to “clarify” what has been named the “quintessential form of madness in our time.”6

Schizophrenia, writes Sass, begins with changes in perception, the first of these is an experience of the external world as an “unreality” in which “Reality seems to be unveiled as never before, and the visual world looks eerie and peculiar—weirdly beautiful, tantalizingly significant, or perhaps horrifying in some insidious but ineffable way.” The perspective includes experiencing the very existence of objects in reality as unbelievable and as fragmented: “objects normally perceived as parts of larger complexes may seem strangely isolated, disconnected from each other and devoid of encompassing context.”
Sass finds “such experiences can be akin either to the exalting feeling of wonder, mystery and terror inherent in what Heidegger considers to be the basic question of metaphysics—“Why is there something rather than nothing?”

Finally, “a certain abnormal awareness of meaningfulness or of significance” accompanies the individual’s new perceptions of the surrounding world.

As one moves deeper into schizophrenia, the trend is for unremitting self-awareness, an increasing sense of isolation, and solipsism. Sociologist Brigitte Berger’s explains Sass’ thesis:

“. . . both the modernist artist and the schizophrenic are characterized by a pronounced thrust to deconstruct the world and to subjectively reconstruct human experience without reference to objective reality. Layers of reality exist side by side, frequently fusing into each other, and the acute self-awareness Mr. Sass calls hyperreflexivity, as well as a profound sense of alienation from the empirical world, run rampant.
And there is the crux of this provocative book [Madness and Modernism]: the contention that there is a tenuous, though clearly discernible, connection between modern culture and madness.”7

Wölfli, in his schizophrenia, claimed that he was “only copying what he had drawn before at God’s bidding, during his travels round the cosmos before he was eight years old.” What kind of truth we as readers and observers attach to his words, however, is somehow irrelevant. By saying that I’m ascribing to neither an ideology of inwardness nor to one of laissez-faire creation and interpretation. What I’m reaching for is something closer to what the German psychoanalyst Hemmo Muller-Suur suggests when he states:

“With his art Wölfli mastered his fate with a naïve but deep earnestness, imperturbably devoted to his artistic mission. And just as for him this art contained the task of ‘commemoration,’ it contains this task for us as well . . . We understand it only when we also consider how in this art the theme of Wölfli’s being insane is developed as a human fate, and we thus experience therein something of the mysterious essence of being insane.”8

We also understand something more of the essence of being human, the core of its fragility. Wölfli and Darger lie at the extreme end of the spectrum of writing and art. However, wayward their impulses may seem to us, writing served to save them. Who would deny them this? And if we allow that their writing has validity, not simply to themselves but to all of us who struggle with the dilemmas of writing and living, then how can we not extend that validity to others? If we make an exception in their cases, give them legitimacy because their work is directed by an inner need that seems to endow them with a less rhetorical and purer motivation than that of a writer who seeks an audience, then we undercut the legitimacy of the rational writer. Can we also designate experimental and difficult writers as less legitimate because their writing is less accessible? Perhaps even less accessible than either Wöfli or Darger’s writing? Why would we do that? Why would we deny validity to any writer whose work comprises one more intensely human act; who, in concert with other writers, forms the human community?

My thanks to Dr. Robert Ehrlich for pointing the way.


1. Carter Ratcliff, “Adolf Wölfli,” from the catalog The Other Side of the Moon: The World of Adolf Wölfli (Philadelphia: Moore College of Art, 1988) accompanying the exhibition at the Goldie Paley gallery, 17.

2. From the Ratcliff essay cited above, 25.

3. Harald Szeeman, “No Catastrophe without Idyll, No Idyll without Catastrophe,” from the catalog Adolf Wölfli (Berne: Adolf Wölfli Foundation, Museum of Fine Arts, Berne, 1976), 63. Quotes from Adolf Wöfli are from this catalog unless otherwise noted.

4. From the introduction by Michael Bonesteel, Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings, (NY: Rizzoli, 2000), 9.

5. From the PBS site:

6. Unless otherwise stated, all the quotations referencing this book are from Louis A. Sass, Madness and Modernism (NY: Basic Books, HarperCollins, 1992), 9, 44-49.

7. From the review of Madness and Modernism by Brigitte Berger, “Schizophrenia: Chicken or Egg?” New York Times, December 13, 1992.

8. Hemmo Muller-Suur, “Wölfli’s Art as a Problem for Psychiatry,” from the catalog Adolf Wölfli (Berne: Adolf Wölfli Foundation, Museum of Fine Arts, Berne, 1976), 105.