The Poetry in the Prose: Part One (and If You Haven't Read The Savage Detectives Consider Yourself Spoiler Alerted)

The only piece missing from The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolaño’s 648-page puzzle of a novel about avant-garde poets in Mexico, is, oddly enough, their poetry. In an online conversation with David Orr and Marcela Valdes, Carmine Starnino points out that this poetry “is, quite likely, terrible,” especially since Bolaño’s poets spend most of their time making mischief, manifestos, these sorts of things. Orr, however, argues that the mythical poetry of Bolaño’s bards, through its very absence, retains the possibility that it is good. In general, it’s probably best for mythical works of art to stay mythical – that is, unmade but unmarred.

Our libraries are poorer for having only scraps of Sappho’s body of work – but our imaginations aren’t. Thomas Pynchon's late novels were much better when they were mere rumors, metastasizing away in the relatively silent seventeen years following Gravity's Rainbow. And face it, Brian Wilson’s Smile and Axl Rose’s Chinese Democracy – two long-mythologized long-players that were released, finally, to mixed reviews – were always going to sound better in our minds, where mixing boards know no limits. Cleverly, Bolaño – who was a poet and could’ve ghostwritten some poems for his fictional poets Belano, Lima, and Madero – leaves the poems between the lines, where they can only raise expectations in the audience, especially its more adolescent constituent.
And it is often the young who invest the most in the idea of art, which doesn’t always return a profit. Bolaño’s poets, particularly their younger incarnations, invest so much in the idea of the poetry of Césarea Tinajero (a modern day Sappho with almost none of the scraps) they fail to notice the idea is a Ponzi scheme that will never pay off their lofty expectations. But wouldn’t you know it, in following their search for the lost Tinajero, I, too, got caught up in the sheer adventure of it all. Just what will happen if they actually find Tinajero? I found myself wondering. Will she recite a poem so spectacular everyone in earshot, myself included, will spontaneously combust? (Probably not since the only poem of hers that exists is, it turns out, an unrecitable concrete poem; nevertheless, I remained riveted until the very end.) Of course, when Bolaño knocks off the aged Tinajero almost as soon as she’s found, and, worse, denies the reader access to her notebooks, he knows what he’s doing: preserving by cruel twist of plot the myth of Tinajero, not to mention that small, sentimental part of his more romantic readers, which needs such myths preserved. Who wants her actual poetry? Her life is poetry enough.
Your reaction to The Savage Detectives will reveal something about your tolerance for the sort of fiery, youthful rebellion that doesn’t always require a lot of fuel – the sort that often runs on fumes. Poet and critic Evan Jones, who’s quite partial to surrealism (one of the reference points of Bolaño’s poets), doesn’t see a satire in Bolaño’s novel, but, rather, a loving, comic portrait of youth’s, and maybe poetry’s, necessary pretensions. Those with a soft spot for the idea of the avant-garde (the sort for whom any old ‘garde’ will do, as long as it appears sufficiently ‘avant’) may just see a loving portrait, period. Starnino sees “poets whose lives are long on convention-flouting and short on art—[who] have brought to their calling all the creativity that should, by rights, have gone to their writing,” echoing his own writings on the self-mythologizing Canadian poet Susan Musgrave. I see these poets, too. And I see my peers in my creative writing classes of yesteryear, kids who were mad for anything that seemed remotely edgy (like sound or concrete poetry) regardless of whether it actually was edgy – kids who organized themselves with the zeal of guerrillas, usually against those elements they deemed too conservative.
Finally, I see a younger version of myself, daydreaming about the stories I imagined J.D. Salinger was stockpiling in secret. I didn't really want the stories, I now realize; his hermit's life was story enough. But to this day, it’s still safe to buy me a record if the artist who made it is some reclusive perfectionist. It’s an even safer purchase if the artist is dead and her one release a compromise, a murky demo, a poorly recorded hint of what could have been. So when Bolaño, with barely a blink, kills Tinajero and closes the book on her oeuvre forever, some small, sentimental part of me is glad. But not the part of me that knows I better stop daydreaming and get to work if I’m ever going to write a decent poem. But then that part of me is never much fun.

Originally Published: February 6th, 2009

Jason Guriel is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in such influential publications as Poetry, Slate, Reader's Digest, The Walrus, Parnassus, Canadian Notes & Queries, The New Criterion, and PN Review. His poetry has been anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English, and in 2007, he was...

  1. February 7, 2009

    Jason -- So true. Tinajero's death caught me like a one-two punch, first hitting the reader-me emotionally invested in Belano and Lima's journey, and then the writer-me, who realized just how well Bolano knew what he was doing. You can only sit back and say Wow.
    An example of this dark-matter approach to poetry that has always struck me is Keats, of course. What he wrote is beautiful and interesting. What he didn't - what his death at 25 prevented him from - is infinitely more so.

  2. February 8, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Thanks, Mairead, for bringing up Keats, the author of some of the best "dark-matter" out there. I'm glad I didn't discover him when I was younger, when I was really vulnerable to those more mythical works of art.

  3. February 9, 2009

    I love the delicious irony of two ultra-conservative, avant haters such as Orr and Starnino praising a book written by a guy who'd probably stick a fork in their eye if he had ever met them. Those two manage to drain the life out of just about every party.

  4. February 9, 2009
     P. Scott Cunningham

    Jason, thanks for posting about The Savage Detectives. n+1 had a nice summation of Bolaño in a recent issue, in which they said that for RB, "Literature is a helpless, undignified, and not especially pleasant compulsion, like smoking." But smokers feel more comfortable with other smokers, right? I enjoyed every page of TSD because I felt like I was in the company of characters who cared as desperately for poetry as I do (or more so), and at the end of the day, it's not about whether David Orr likes your work or whether it gets tapped "avant" by JB3--it's about writing and sharing it with others any way you can. If that's not enough for you, in my reading of Bolaño, then maybe it's not writing you're in love with.

  5. February 10, 2009
     Guillermo Parra

    " the end of the day, it's not about whether David Orr likes your work or whether it gets tapped "avant" by JB3--it's about writing and sharing it with others any way you can."
    Posted by: P. Scott Cunningham on February 9, 2009 8:37 PM
    Sure, that's true. And yet Bolaño and his characters thrive off difference, polemics and the tensions between "mainstream" and "avant-garde." I imagine he'd be simultaneously delighted and horrified at all the attention he's getting from the likes of Time and Oprah. And I think he'd dread being the latest literary fad (which he seems to be for some). After all, Belano and Lima wanted to kidnap Octavio Paz, which I find delightful. That scene where Paz's brain-dead secretary watches Lima and Paz sit together in a park and chat seems to point to that battle between the mainstream and the avant-garde (a non-event in the end).

  6. February 10, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Thanks for these comments, but I don't find phrases like "ultra-conservative, avant haters" to be very precise or useful. Like all cheap shots, such phrases are fired off easily enough but usually miss their mark. Assuming Bolano's book is as leftist as some claim, doesn't the sheer fact of Starnino's praise of Bolano's book suggest that Starnino is at least slightly more complex a critic than the ideologue he's accused of being? (And wouldn't any supposedly right-wing ideologue's enjoyment of Bolano's book suggest that the book itself is more complex than it may appear to those who identify with its more leftist energies?) Starnino recently named a book by Coach House Press - Canada's most obviously 'avant' publisher - to be one of his books of the year. Although he has objected to a certain book by a certain Bok - in a review that is more infamous than actually read - Starnino has anthologized other 'avant' work by his supposed rival, a not particularly hateful gesture, and one which I have not seen returned by the pitchfork-bearing poets who are convinced that Starnino's their enemy (even if they don't appear to have studied him very carefully; if they did, they might be surprised to find a thoughtful, spirited critic who disdains the dogma of any party, and wishes no one's eyes put out). Starnino may not be in lockstep with the left, but who would want to be in lockstep with anything? (For the record, I consider myself left of center, politically, but I also believe that true inclusiveness - one of the left's better impulses - sometimes requires (even if it often fails to pull off) a less hateful tolerance of real contradictions, which can be difficult but rewarding. And reading Starnino, whatever you perceive his politics to be, can be rewarding.)