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How I Write Now
I learned how to write in the following way: I was taught to select the most accurate word to describe a given action, object. I was taught to value precision, to seek out accuracy. It is for want of this sort of precision, for example, that novelist Francine Prose takes novelist Donna Tartt to task in a recent piece in the New York Review of Books, calling The Goldfinch a vague draft of itself, rife with “the sort of passages a novelist employs as placeholders, hastily sketched-in paragraphs to which the writer intends to go back: to sharpen the focus…to actually do the work of writing.”
Whether or not we ourselves want to condemn The Goldfinch, it does seem fair—even accurate, precise—to say that precision in writing is no longer particularly prized, at least in American English. I am OK with this. I want to say this upfront, that even as I enjoy the piety of a perfectly modulated description of a bottle of oil with a feather stuck to it in a nineteenth-century novel, I recognize this as a piety of a kind. Anyway, I managed to live something like twenty years in a century previous to the current and was an adolescent when Bill Clinton sent his first presidential email (of but two, the Internet proclaims). There’s been a change in the location of writing, which is also a change in what it means to write not just well but in a way that seems adequate, or, to return to my favorite piety, accurate, precise, perhaps even natural.
Nothing could be more obvious than the observation that a lot of writing is now sunk in a certain technological support; very little is more obvious than this/your screen. What’s funny is we’ve already lived through modernism. We’ve already experienced the technological and economic shifts of the twentieth century and had a literature (the so-called “Pound Era,” for one) that attempted to engineer its own relevance, clearing away Victorian acanthus and undulating nudes in favor of more serious machinery. This renovation was primarily accomplished by means of diction. Dialect and other non-standard Englishes were groomed and displayed; the neologism selectively dispensed. Fidelity to the “newness” of the times was the reason for literary work—and with this came also an attempt to describe populations, living and working conditions, the various displacements and migrations that also made themselves felt in language, in linguistic shifts.
I haven’t even come to the question of poetry. This is more than partly because when I was taught how to write “the poem” as a whole or unique entity was seldom if at all mentioned. Anyhow, poems were written in prose all the time. The identity of the poem seemed, at least to me, not to inhere in its form on the page, in the line or stanza, in a quality of meter or of rhyme; nor in brevity. Rather, the poem—or what was even more vaguely defined, “poetry,” or “poetics”—seemed more often than not generated by certain kinds of socializing, friendship, and personal antagonisms (both on-campus and off-), as well as a slightly more difficult to characterize attitude toward writing, one that included intense concern for the reader, not to mention plenty of attention to, like, diction.
So I have for a long time been prepared for “poetry” and “poetics” to exist in some location other than “the poem,” though perhaps I did not always know in advance what this would look like. And here, before moving on, I would like to share a pair of exhibits:
I was messaging with an acquaintance on Facebook, about a poetry journal he edits. The acquaintance asked if I would submit something to the journal. I said that I would and several days later sent him a piece of a novella, which he politely rejected, asking me if I really considered it “poetry.” I tried to write that I did, but I knew that there was no real way for me to mean this, since it was actually a piece of a novella. I knew that the novella chapter was not a poem, but all the same I did not want to admit that I knew that. I wanted to say, “Yes, I indeed believe this is poetry!” In the end, I didn’t write anything in reply. I was too concerned about my own stubbornness.
I asked a friend, a poet, to introduce me at a reading I would give. I had never done something like this before: either asked someone to introduce me to an audience, or been introduced by a friend at length. My friend was exceedingly gracious and generous. She also told the audience that I was a conceptualist. Her words were, “hardcore conceptualist,” which was a phrase that made me feel very proud of myself as much as it made me somewhat nervous, since I do not consider myself a conceptualist.
I think that what these two scenes indicate or maybe even exemplify is two main ways to deal with the current situation, which is to say the vagueness of the three terms, “poem,” “poetry,” “poetics,” the lack of good definitions for these. The two main ways of dealing with the current situation are: 1., to define the body of the poem in a certain way and 2., to define the philosophical allegiances of the writer or poet in a certain way. And yet I still think all the time about precision in descriptive language—and not nearly enough, I fear, about context, formats, social and material entities, as much as I do think about them.
It’s because of this lingering (and perhaps inappropriate) piety about diction that I have decided to compose a series of short essays. Each essay has a single-word title and says something about how I am thinking about writing, but more importantly about how I am thinking about three terms, “poem,” “poetry,” “poetics,” and the lack of good definitions for these. The six short essays are called: “History,” “Pleasure,” “Novelty,” “Misrecognition,” “Email,” and “Time.” They will be posted here throughout February.
They are about how I write now.