This is a very strange way to recommend you some books
How do you feel about good words? Spread out on a page, arranged as a perfect length of rope to make a map, a knot, a snare for your heel to drag you along?
I sometimes explain how I feel about poetry by saying that, after reading something good, the top of my head (on the inside) would bubble and fizz, as if everything was working harder; as if it were hotter in there. Were the top of my brain a lake, it would be bubbling up dead carp by now — fat heavy things flaking in the roiling heat. Emily Dickinson said the same thing, a bit earlier:
If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?
Very close, I think. A big build up of energy, a click, a cool sense of space left afterwards. It’s a violent idea — one where you’re not in control — or rather, where someone else is guiding your thoughts places they wouldn’t normally go to.
And as Emily asks, is there any other way to know it?
I think this is the taste I am always trying to track down when cracking a spine. But where can one find this kind of literary treepanning and pressurecooking?
I’d like to take a little bit of time to explore what I like about some of my favourite writers — the ones who do remove the top of my head each time I read them, or present a burning map, or make me feel like I am having a long sip of hot tar.
Reading Yourself Free
What I like most, what gives me the biggest buzz, a kind of internal shining crown in the skull — its leaves and arches pointing in — is best explained as a kind of jolly classicism, an integration of a grand system into another, through fragmented views and narration.
And this set of ideas hangs around in doorways at parties thrown by modernism and post-modernism.
Like a lot of people, I read for myself a lot when I was younger because it seemed to arm me against the world — and taught me how to connect ideas through context. You could learn things through reading fiction which were broadly true, if specifically lies.
Before then I read a lot of books about dragons being a nuisance to the locality, and some high fantasy nonsense. But I already knew that I was looking for something that felt more free. I didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about playing with form, but that was the kind of story I wanted to write.
My first real experience of this was when, at a more tender age, I bought Number 9 Dream by David Mitchell from a Virgin Music Store. I bought it based on nothing other than the fact I had to try to find something that wasn’t a classic or school taught, and couldn’t be a dull holiday novel.
It was perfect — it had a non linear structure, it played with form and it was referential to some things I vaguely understood; John Lennon, Tokyo — and thing I did understand: computer games, being a young confused man desperate to be in love, flights of fantasy.
It was probably the first time I bumped into magical realism (the narrative acceptance of magic and the fantastic without comment). This was ideal for someone who has thought of their fantasy habit as a little bit dirty, not because of the content, but because of the rigid set of expectations within it. Fantasy writing always felt like someone standing up very straight and using the right cutlery, while dressed as a furby.
And it was modern.
Again, not that I knew what modern writing really was. Clearly they were great because they were of a world which was worth exploring.
I Want To See All Of It, From Blossom To Root-tip
Readers often confirm that they desire what I often did, as a TV-watching child: wanting to know what the other characters were doing while off-screen. You knew it would be boring, but you wanted to be able to experience the wholeness of a TV show, or film. You wanted the rest of the world these character existed within.
This kind of demand for the wholeness of a world might come from playing videogames and accepting them as a legitimate medium. The promise in (many) games is that you can experience a whole space/narrative entirely under your own terms. Obviously you experience broken version of complete world more than not — and while you can turn your back on the narrative, it’s rare for a game to present you with anything as equally as interesting.
This sense of choice creates a taste for the “what if?” and the unlikely voyeurism that is often presented in modern texts. When a writer or poet re-imagines a known, shared text or reference, you get the opportunity to peek at Hercules between scenes.
So with classics we get the footnotes — and it’s even better if the source is working on something shared in the first place. The Divine Comedy for example, is a structure and system of hell presented in Inferno (a shared set of ideas being formed into a novel physical structure), which then has editorial footnotes sprinkled on top to aid the modern reader. It’s a kind of elegant greenhouse surrounding a narrative which explains another architecture inside.
And in the modern novel, like Number9Dream you’re introduced to our hero, building his courage up to approach a lawyer to find out who his father is, and imagining different scenarios. You’re treated to all of the different versions of his daydreams — including: death by freak flood, meeting his father within a videogame, and even success. Later, you find yourself in the house of a short story writer — and you’re not just told this, you’re treated to the warm up stories that she writes before getting to her real work — there’s a goat character who keep eating the stories within, a little like the way each minor diversion in the novel nibbles at its surrounding to inform it’s own architecture.
Speaking of architecture, in House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski, you’ll find a storm of footnotes, narratives within narratives, essays crossed out, appendices and cross-referenced ideas which blend between each formal delivery method. House of Leaves is a wonderful example of a book which wants a little bit more from you as the reader — while also playing notes from songs we all know. The way the notes on Midas/the Minotaur (struck through if I remember correctly) mirror the Navidson Records, and a father doing something drastic to hide his shame, which then gestates in the pool of Truant’s own familial issues. This is a great example of a linking of hands between Greek myth and Freud, with a shift in narrative position between allowing both to exist happily.
1908 and News That Stays News
In 1908 Ezra Pound turned up in London and gave the British their modernist movement. The outcome was, in part, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Pound’s The Cantos — both are world-nearly-complete poems which gives me lots of roots to scratch my nails between.
Let me describe Ezra Pound’s The Cantos to you as I have always seen it (no, please don’t leave, I won’t take long). The Cantos is a kind of great work of abstract stained glass — each canto it’s own piece in it’s own right, but part of a great system. You shine a light through the first and see what you see, and then you place the second canto behind it — this change not only the canto you’re reading but the canto you read, and the overall tone of the piece. Then you add a third. You continue to do this and the image gets more complex — and the light you need to shine through it has a need to become brighter and brighter… Which naturally you can’t apply all at once
This is the complex arrangement of fragments — sometimes lifted and borrowed fragments — is translated in front of you. Not only within the poem in individual lines, but your understanding from one canto to the next.
Because Pound seemed to be recording what could be described as a kind of cultural canon into this great epic poem, and much of it being translation and odd history lessons, you get this fragmented view of a particular kind system being built. Simultaneously this is a massive number of voices, but in it’s curation, composition and cutting together, contains his view of the world.
The Waste Land on the other hand is more free with it’s presentation of voice and fragments in one sense — and anxious in it’s peppering of footnotes in the other. Where Pound translates for us — directly after the foreign language line — Eliot leaves us with original. Knowing that Pound had a hand in the implementation of some of the footnotes asks us why he thought his work was so different.
Pound talked about poetry and literature being “news that stays news” — the idea that there is some ultimate truths expressed in the good stuff.
Anne Carson and The Desert Of After Proust
The kind of news which stays news is those big meta-narratives we all know and endure. Whether it’s Odysseus’s boat trip, Hercules’ to-do list, or folk stories closer to home — the seven swans of Fenland folklore for example — there’s always room to retell them in new colours, clothes, locations.
Anne Carson is one of them. Between Red > Doc and Autobiography of Red, I’m in love with all her modernist, post-modernist, classicist wandering. Carson pursues smaller gaps than Eliot or Pound, and gives you a lot more texture for it in her stitches.
Tell me a meta-narrative any time, and then make is specific — and I’m yours.
In both Red Doc> and Autobiography of Red Carson is exploring the story of a red monster boy known as Geryon. In Autobiography Geryon is coming to terms with his sexuality, and the heartbreak which follows after falling in love with cool boy Herakles. Red Doc is a later life experience of regret — two old bachelors — one renamed as Sad with his PSTD and the other as G. They take a road trip to check themselves into a psychiatric ward.
Retelling Hercules’ trials as a broken love story is the perfect example of taking something we know and then reworking it into something joyfully specific. We accept as a kind of trunk narrative that we can build from in all our storytelling, and the specific give us our texture and flavour against the grain. It give you an appreciation of the shared knowledge, the known story, which provides the undercutting sadness, as you know how it has to go — in this context.
So this is how I get that buzz from reading — it’s the fact I have multiple things to play with within the writing I am consuming, all at once.
“Prose is a house, poetry a man in flames running quite fast through it.” *
I suppose, what I’m really saying is that the stuff I really like is the stuff that makes you want to go write some words about it.
Anne Carson also talks about that feeling of finishing something good, in her case Proust, and casting about for your next fix, coming up cold, and then trying to find a way to prolong the experience of the work. This is the experience of being lost in The Desert Of After Proust:
This is why we’re here. You’re reading this because I wrote something while wandering my own Desert After Carson.
Reworking, Relayering, Translating Your Own Language
Re-layering and re-working of meaning through shared understanding is more or less what language is about. It’s the place where we can make commerce without having to meet each other entirely. Language is the neutral ground for trading of ideas and intent.
But you can re-layer and re-work meaning in a way which changes the context of something previously understood to mean something else.
Ben Marcus provides this kind of re-layering of concepts. For example, in The Age Of Wire And String — Marcus has the goal of reworking a concept into another through a tight expression of language and withholding of certain information. He show us that language is somewhat immutable/impossible to consider untrue as, while it’s something we strive to understand, it is also the tool we use for our understanding.
We are so used to the conventions of language, so ready for it to explain the truth of a situation, that we allow it to fictionalise another, existing concept.
In The Age Of Wire And String we are treated to various descriptions of structures, activities, objects — but each is folded in from other objects, structures etc. It is what Marcus describes as “fake non-fiction, seems like an essay, seems like a dictionary entry, but it’s completely made up.” It uses a register of authority — that of an encyclopedia or similar — and uses this view to provide weight to the complex descriptions because “the real problem for the fiction writer is being believed.” Marcus rebuilds from nothing other than our assumptions, the concepts which we know as completely solid.
Where Pound and Eliot made for connecting the existing parchments, the leftovers, Carson and Marcus both rewrite with their own language.
We accept that all thing can be all other things at once, because we accept that perspectives are changeable or multiple.
David Ohle — author of Motorman — runs the same game of changing language through forcefully constructing an understanding around the nouns and verbs of his world. In Motorman we join our hero on a Kafkaesque journey to escape his “home” and make it to somewhere more idyllic. It’s hard to explain the joys in it, but it has an attention to detail that is consistent in it’s weirdness. Usually, you would expect writing that spends time talking about the feeling in individual muscles of the body to be ponderous — but because this kind of writing in the novel is structured, and leans so well on itself, it becomes the way we view the world of the book. It’s much like watching someone build something before your eyes that you think might be a house, but ends up being a dog. You’re sure that you watched them write in the bathrooms and the kitchen, but no, it turns out to be a dog standing before you, wagging it’s tail.
C A Conrad creates systems for his somatic poetry (poetry created through physical exercises and rituals in combination with filter words), and a whole world in The Book Of Frank. In Frank the abused hero wanders through his childhood horrors and into a kind of peace of adulthood and draws in themes from and against Freud repeatedly — starting from the opening where Frank’s father asks where his daughter’s cunt is — and Frank’s expectations towards his masculinity are set in motion. This is explored throughout the multi-part poem where his envy of females is a central exploration.
In Conrad’s A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon we are treated to the outcomes of his somatic poetic exercises. Because we know the structure with which he’s approaching the writing of these poems there’s a great pleasure in tracing back the immediate sensations and feelings to the ones which may have been felt during the exercises themselves.
Setting the rules
All of these writers spend time within their works setting out the rules within which it is interpreted. Whether that’s something discovered within the text, or through the implementation of another, separate text or story, we can be sure that there’s something for us to measure our understanding against — and compare our expectations to.
Recommend Me Some Books
The best poetry for me is the one which is very loud in my head. As much as I know poetry must be read aloud to be understood and heard — the poems I love are simply the loudest inside my skull, even when they’re sitting on the page sensibly. Some kind of fire map: a clarity of a system which seems to burn bright and hot, wild data over a known shape which is supposed to inform you.
And I suppose, all of this is a very long winded way to ask for book recommendations! Know anything I should have read by now? I’d like to expand this ramble into something even more rambling, so comment your recommendations at me!
If you want me to write a thing for you, email me on c at cjeggett dot co dot uk