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The Poetry in the Prose: Part Two
Last time around, I dealt with the unreadable poems of the fictional poets in Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Savage Detectives, or what one fellow blogger neatly dubbed, “dark-matter.” It’s not that these unreadable poems are composed solely of punctuation or something, like the experimental works of D.L., the self-anointed postmodernist in a certain David Foster Wallace novella. The Savage Detectives’ poems are unreadable because they’re nowhere to be found, because Bolaño withholds them from the reader, even though Bolaño, a novelist and poet, could’ve easily ghostwritten some decent lines for his characters. It’s fascinating, though, when novelists – especially those who aren’t known as poets – actually do write some poetry, for the purpose of, say, prodding along a novel’s plot. We usually neglect them, these works-of-art-within-works-of-art, but they’re not without their critics and admirers.
In Stephen King’s pulp fiction, The Wastelands, the character Jake, a teenager with one foot in another dimension (bear with me here), channels onto paper an involuntary incantation, which his teacher mistakes for a precociously poetic response to a homework assignment. The incantation, “My Understanding of Truth,” is not great, at least by the standards of a Poetry magazine, but it’s good enough to earn an A+. The teacher is impressed – “Younger students are often attracted to so-called ‘stream-of-consciousness’ writing, but are rarely able to control it” – and she even suggests Jake’s work be published in the school’s student magazine. Jake laughs. He thought he had been losing his mind. It turns out he is merely a Romantic poet, an antenna receiving lines like:
The way station is the truth.
The Speaking Demon is the truth.
We went under the mountains and that is the truth.
There were monsters under the mountain. That is the truth.
One of them had an Amoco gas pump between his legs and was pretending it was his penis. That is the truth.
I remember admiring Jake’s weird poem when I first read King’s novel, when I was a teenager and thought poems ought to be weird. Now I admire the harmlessly human fun of it all: as the ultimate sovereign over the world of his novel, King gets to play poet, via Jake, but gets to play critic, too, judging his poem-within-a-novel a success.
Nabokov plays poet and critic, albeit on a much larger scale, in his Pale Fire, which consists of a 999-line poem (by a character named John Shade) and its critical commentary (which makes up the remainder of the work). Shade isn’t real, but he’s real enough; he possesses a biography, a bibliography, and, of course, the 999-line poem, which is quite good for a poem that doesn’t exist in the world outside of Pale Fire; which is, one could also say, as good as a poem by Nabokov himself.
Pynchon’s slim work of art, The Crying of Lot 49, nevertheless finds room to house its own works of art, plus their critics. Listen to “Miles’s Song,” a pricelessly bad British Invasion knockoff by an American band called the Paranoids:
Too fat to Frug,
That’s what you tell me all the time,
When you really try’n’ to put me down,
But I’m hip,
So close your big fat lip,
I may be too fat to Frug,
But at least I ain’t too slim to Swim.
“‘It’s lovely,’” says one of the characters, politely, “‘but why do you sing with an English accent when you don’t talk that way?’” The characters in The Crying of Lot 49 also enjoy a performance of a Jacobean revenge play called The Courier’s Tragedy, a sensational snuff drama in which a character named Ercole waves around a rapier (tipped with, what else, an impaled flaming tongue) and seems to have blank verse on the brain:
Thy pitiless unmanning is most meet,
Thinks Ercole the zany Paraclete.
Descended this malign, Unholy Ghost,
Let us begin thy frightful Pentecost.
The lights go out, the act ends, and someone in the audience – perhaps anticipating the response of Pynchon’s real-world reader – says, “Ick.” In Pynchon’s prose, there’s always a little song, and everyone’s a critic.
Our real-world playwrights have long enjoyed this convention of the play-within-a-play, which can be an easier, more manageable production to pull off than the plain old play itself. I like to think Shakespeare enjoyed imagining his most famous play-within-a-play, The Mouse-trap, a remake of The Murther of Gonzago, which appears in Hamlet and kick-starts the murderous Claudius’ conscience, sending him out of the theatre and off to prayer. If only all plays could be so literally moving. And if only all plays had a resource like Hamlet, the amateur critic, who not only tweaks the script but offers sound criticism and acting tips to its players, just before the curtain goes up.
There’s a canon of these works-of-art-within-works-of-art (with their attendant criticism) just waiting to be constructed by some budding Bloom – including the critically acclaimed assemblages in William Gibson’s Count Zero, and the fake discography Lester Bangs forges for the real-world garage band, Count Five. Or maybe this canon wants a community of Blooms, who will offer more diverse examples than I do, including ones by non-white, non-male writers; Wikipedia of all things has an entry, “Story within a story,” that’s worth a look and echoes some of my choices.
Writers rarely have much control over how their works are received, but they do have control over the worlds their writing frames. Granted, the laws of these worlds can be disconcerting: the critic Philip Marchand, who once took an inventory of Margaret Atwood’s novels, discovered that her male characters tend to be mediocre artists, fated to preside over “inane,” “farcical” works. Still, I’m charmed by the very human impulse to smuggle into a novel some amateur poetry, to imagine an art that doesn’t need to work too hard, that can be greeted as a readymade success or dismissed with a single damning “Ick,” depending on the mood of a King or a Pynchon. These works-within-works don’t need publishers, and don’t need to be in good taste. They don’t obey our laws, and don’t have to. They don’t even have to be any good, though they sometimes are (Wikipedia tells us that stories-within-stories are often cutting-room-floor scraps, too rich to discard). These works need merely to be imagined. As the main character in J.M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace observes, while writing his touchingly tasteless opera about Byron’s mistress: “Surely, in a work that will never be performed, all things are permitted?”