Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Literary Aphorisms and Short Comments 2011

Here’s a collection of literary aphorisms and short snippets of thought that I wrote in 2011. From the most part, I’ve separated them out from my quick comments on cultural, historical, and political issues more broadly, and also from lines that are just primarily quotations. I may put lists of those up later if I find time.

Agree, disagree, or ignore as you will. I’m just glad to know I was thinking, at times, about things other than how to make it through the work day.


Avant literary resistance to bourgeois U.S. aesthetic and cultural norms is what makes avant work seem opaque or “elitist,” since fundamental to upholders of bourgeois norms is an inability to recognize, much less respect, anything that does not resemble them, even when the people doing those opaque other things are also bourgeois.

How many categorizing terms does it take before your poetry can no longer be recognized, even in current critical discussions? I’m thinking three.

Which other books, besides The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, have gone from being considered high school “readable” books to books needing a complex critical/historical approach to understand?

I once taught a version of Walt Whitman’s 1855 Leaves of Grass that had (unexpectedly for me) neutered all the gendered pronouns.

One of the best insights into writing fiction that I’ve ever received: take the people and situations you have known, and make them worse.

The only thing as unsurprising as a writer going to AWP is a writer acting superior about not going to AWP.

The people who want to go to AWP and be too cool for it simultaneously now do it this way; "Yes, I'm going to AWP, but not to attend any of the panels."

I want to believe that writers moving higher up into the echelons of the MFA world don’t necessarily have to embrace greater and greater dullness in the writing of others, but I struggle sometimes to find many counterexamples.

I don’t follow many standard English guidelines about the comma. I don’t use them for clauses and meaning always as much as I use them for pacing.

Guess I’ll never be called a New Fad now.

Radical poetry’s now going high speed into an era split between randomized aesthetic wordplay and painstaking factual documentation.

Hearing about what poets in MFA programs are reading often makes me want to insist on a more hardcore avant garde line than I might otherwise. Oh, bad history and creeping middle-of-the-road blandness masquerading as the exciting edge.

Because my students have often been confused by literature, they frequently assert that they wrote something confused in order to confuse readers because that’s what (most of) literature does. This issue comes up in every single introductory creative writing class I teach.

I’m not sure there’s any line about literature I quote more often than Gertrude Stein’s “There is no repetition, only insistence.”

A creative writing workshop is most effective when people in the workshop share some sets of principles about what makes a good piece of writing–something which makes very clear the problems of the workshop model.

Look at any word too closely, and language turns to mush.

A word is always in conversation with other words.

Has any writer (including writers of science fiction) ever idealized and glorified machines as thoroughly as Marinetti?

What would have happened if Aimé Césaire’s Notebook On A Return To The Native Land had become the central text of the Modernist poetry canon, instead of The Waste Land?

One thing that a university literary education apparently teaches you: writing a poem, story or novel is the easy part.

Fascinating to remember that for some people, every book gets called a “novel.”

Sign of bad literature #1: Dullness.

Sign of bad literature #2: Lack of energy.

Sign of bad literature #3: Lack of risk.

Sign of bad literature #4: Conventional view of the world.

I’m maybe not that interested in literature that tries to depict the values people should live by.

Of course it’s easier to write effective dystopias than effective utopias. What’s maybe more surprising is that dystopias are so much more enjoyable to read.

It doesn’t matter what your subject matter is. It matters what you do with your subject matter.

Trick endings and forced rhymes are more or less the same problem: the power of mass information.

The Author may not be coming to save us.

With my students, I usually need to get them interested in what literature cares about before I can get them to care about literature.

The Modernists were often genuinely weirdo outsiders. These days, it’s mostly just a bunch of ordinary people using Modernist techniques.

I’m with Thomas Pynchon on the greatness of Oakley Hall’s Warlock (1958). Maybe the most significant novel there is about the (old) American West, and the desire there for (and absence of) anything resembling justice.

I’m not a fan of the Beating A Dead Horse School of Poetics, but sometimes you have to beat a dead horse because if you don’t, people start thinking it’s alive. With apologies for the metaphor...

Writing a theory about why your poems are fascinating is not the same as writing poems that are fascinating.

Poetry and poetics as community garden: a metaphor I just don’t believe in.

As much as Joshua Clover’s overly abstract idea of totality annoys me (which is every time I think of it), I still prefer it to the idea of a political poetics as community garden. The problem is always larger than local specificity can make sense of.

Dear Poetry: I want someone to say something weird, flabbergasting, impossible, or non-existent. Anything but helpful.

Poems that just want to be helpful: ugh.

I’m not a poetry fetishist.

I don’t believe in literature or love, although at times I practice them.

Few misconceptions about fiction annoyed John Cheever more than the idea that fiction was really just non-fiction, memoir in flimsy disguise, and I’ve always felt the same way.

The idea that literature should be uplifting comes out of the idea that somehow it should shield and save us from our lives. Much more interesting to me is literature that makes us recognize our lives and the lives of others.

The trouble lies in what the story doesn’t know.

Love literature but don’t idealize it.

The pervasive sexism of a lot of the male radical New American poetry and fiction of the sixties gets wearing and seems very dated.

Poetry doesn’t have a Zeitgeist.

Writing poetry anonymously or under another name turns out to be an excellent way of making a name for oneself.

Isn’t some of the most fascinating poetry from any culture work which may not translate well? I'm always intrigued by poetry that doesn't speak at all to my own cultural condition. Makes the world a much bigger place than my narrow dreams sometimes imagine it to be.

It’s not only acceptable for a writer to be frustrated by the state of literature, it’s also often essential.

The work was slightly avant, somewhat, in a non-threatening, non-risky way that left few traces.

I liked Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy well enough, but the growing genre of lyric poetry about being bored and angst-ridden in the suburbs easily gets boring. Travis Nichols’ Iowa, despite many well written lines, would benefit from more terror, frustration, anguish or harsh alienation.

If you doubt the cultural value of literature, move from a place that has frequent public literary events to one that doesn’t.

"The Fall of the House of Usher" as American allegory about the significance of real estate.

Consolation? These people occasionally writing articles asserting that contemporary poetry is no good almost certainly aren’t writing good poems themselves, since clearly they haven’t learned to pay sufficient attention to words.

I’m not a fan of the use of italics in poetry to indicate the intensity or sensitivity or importance of a line. If the words don’t carry that weight already, the italics will only highlight that, and if the words do carry the weight, the italics aren’t necessary.

The most frightening work of literature I’ve ever read, unquestionably: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

Few things ensure the publication of mediocre, middle-of-the-road books of poetry as effectively as a rigorous, professionally scrupulous academic peer-review publication process.

It’s not clear that literature and theory have ever “gone past” anything, but it may well be that they have yet to comprehend most things. And rejecting what you don’t yet comprehend is to invite the return of the repressed.

Writers whose whole context for literature is the university always depress me.

It had only minor dissonance against its own certainty of its own good intentions.

So far, with one notable exception to my knowledge, at the &Now Literary Festival the No Futurists, and the Queer and Aberrant and other Political Futurists, have kept mainly to their own panels.

Going to one literary reading and assuming all readings are exactly like that is not that different from going to one live music show and assuming all music is like that.

Much of the most gripping art of any kind has a uniquely vivid personality that’s in the work itself, even if that work features a critique of individuality and the privileges of the subjective author/creator, as long as we understand that the work itself is a translation of various material processes into another kind of material process. That is, not essence, but condition.

As amazing as his work can be, I don’t think that the John Ashbery influence has really served poetry in the U.S. all that well.

Whenever I look back at poems I’ve written, there seems no clear correlation between my feelings during that time period and the mood of the poems. Some of my most brutal pieces have been written during eras when I was enjoying myself, and some of the most optimistic during eras when I felt desperate.

I agree with scholars when they say “critical writing” is also “creative,” but I’ve never heard one say that “creative writing” is also “critical.”

I’ve never wanted to be the kind of writer who dislikes any aesthetic that doesn’t resemble my own. In fact, crucial to my aesthetics may be an attempt to challenge, even violate, whatever aesthetic principles I might convince myself I have.

My reaction to a recent book of poems: “I’m sorry that your potential girlfriends find you annoying and so act skittish.”

All these writers always declaring that something is dead have to be right every now and then.

Literature when I’m angry about its social condition: words written in a specific cultural pattern for the pleasure of a few friends and rare professional advancement opportunities. Makes you look cultured in the eyes of the non-literary, although it’s essential, when among the tribe, to admit a constant sense of defeat, humiliation and rage. Best used by those seeking spiritual rewards or who simply can’t help it.

1 comment:

JforJames said...

I share your affinity for the aphoristic mode of literary criticism.
Thanks for posting these.