I started reading this old novel on the bookshelf next to my bed, a hardback of the kind that is picked up in a thrift shop and left for summer tenants to bring to the beach. It is by the prolific R.V. Cassill, a former neighbor of mine in Truro, now dead. He was, I'm almost positive, though Wikipedia doesn't seem to know it, the founder of the Associated Writing Programs!

The novel is very interesting to me for several reasons. First, you can see from the start why no one reads it anymore. It was published in 1983 but feels like a novel of the early 60s, in terms of its attitudes toward women (it concerns a married, failed novelist, the protagonist, on summer vacation on the Cape, who's having an affair with a much younger woman--who quite literally worships his prick!--in the midwest where he travels for his job). It's all going along like a derivation of Updike when the interesting part starts and the young woman in Cincinnati starts speaking in tongues out of her hoo-ha. It's very sexual, as I remember novels in the 70s being. The failed novelist's wife is a former dancer with two kids who's very pragmatic, and here's where my ears pricked up: I think that character is based on my mother! (I'm enjoying writing about something that could only possibly be of real interest to me.) At one point when I was about nine or ten we, my mother and brother and I, started going down the road to visit this old novelist quite often. Then stopped.

Of most interest to anyone in this episode will be how sad it is to read a novel with actually very rich and worked prose that just fails fails fails because you can see, for various reasons, that it's too close to the source material. It's undigested? Or unmined? Unprocessed, unflagellated, unfiltered? Is there a name for this, in literary critical terminology? If so, does it apply to poems too? And if not, what's it doing on this blog.

Originally Published: August 31st, 2009

Born and raised in New York City, Rebecca Wolff earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She authored Manderley (2001), selected for the 2001 National Poetry Series; Figment (2004), winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize; The King (2009); and One Morning— (2015). Her work has appeared in BOMB...

  1. August 31, 2009
     Don Share

    Facinating post, Rebecca... thank you.\r

    This is from Luke Menand's recent article on writing programs in The New Yorker:\r

    "In 1967, shortly after arriving at Brown and just at the start of a boom in university-based creative-writing programs, [Cassill] founded the Associated Writing Programs, the professional association of academic creative writers.\r

    But at a convention in Boston on the fifteenth anniversary of the A.W.P. Cassill stunned the membership by suggesting that the organization should be disbanded. He thought that writers had become complicit in the academic logrolling and gamesmanship of publish-or-perish: using other people’s money–grants from their universities and from arts agencies–they devised ways to get their own and one another’s work into print, and then converted those publications into salary increments (which is apparently how Cassill thought that most professors operate). They wrote poems to get raises. The academic system was corrupting, and it was time for the writers to get out. 'We are now at the point where writing programs are poisoning, and in turn we are being poisoned by, departments and institutions on which we have fastened them," he said. The speech got attention, but the A.W.P. did not disband. It eventually renamed itself the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and it now has more than twenty-five thousand members."\r

    I knew Cassill a little bit - one of my first editorial jobs was working on Kay Cassill's book Twins: Nature's Amazing Mystery - and I, too, have been interested in him for a long time. Even years ago he seemed like a gentleman who had survived from another era! Your questions in the last paragraph are really good ones, spot on. And I think what you're describing does happen to poets, and happens repeatedly - perhaps it even happens most of time.

  2. August 31, 2009
     Rebecca Wolff

    The irony of the title of Kay Cassill's book is astounding! (given the unmysterious nature of twins these days).\r

    Glad someone else can attest to the mysteriously [insert as-yet unidentified literary critical term here] quality of R.V.'s narrative.

  3. August 31, 2009
     Henry Gould

    R.V. Cassill was one of the people who influenced my lurch into poetry. In my 1st year at Brown, back in '70, when I was writing both poetry & stories, he refused, in what seemed to me anyway a rather smug, unfriendly way, to allow me to take his fiction-writing class. I think he told me my prose was too impressionistic, or something. (In those days I was trying to write like Rimbaud on acid.)\r

    He lived nearby in Providence, long after he had retired. We would pass each other as I walked to work. He did have a kind of old-fashioned, old-world manner; natty dresser, with cane. Formidable, always.

  4. August 31, 2009
     thomas brady

    "Use the Metaphysical Club, Luke!"\r

    This is from Luke Menand’s recent article on writing programs in The New Yorker:\r

    Isn't it Louis Mendand?

  5. August 31, 2009
     thomas brady


    a) Rimbaud \r
    b) on acid\r

    If, instead, you had chosen:\r

    a) Shakespeare \r
    b) on coffee\r

    You'd be famous by now.

  6. August 31, 2009
     Henry Gould


  7. August 31, 2009
     thomas brady

    This proves Rimbaud on acid cannot contain Shakespeare. \r

    Fans of the Bard would probably insist that Shakespeare, however, could work up a satisfactory portrait of Rimbaud...\r

    Henry, how is one supposed to 'read' those 'spaces' in your text? Is there an instruction booklet by Charles Olson which I might consult? \r

    Personally, I find them absolutely maddening. \r

    What exactly is their purpose?

  8. August 31, 2009
     Henry Gould

    You read them with your eyes. Their purpose is to add a different rhythm to the sonnet form. (Sorry, Rebecca Wolff, for going off-topic.)

  9. August 31, 2009
     Henry Gould

    ...& actually, Rimbaud-on-acid DOES contain Shakespeare-on-coffee. ISLAND ROAD is an alchemical limbeck in which Shakespeare's Sonnets are suspended. But you have to listen to it : the jokes, the echoes, the layout. (One Knotty problem for Will, indeed.) See Alastair Fowler on the structure of the Sonnets sequence. There are a lot of jokes & echoes right there in #34 : but you have to know how to find them.\r


  10. August 31, 2009
     Rebecca Wolff

    Yes, isn't anyone going to assay the lit-crit term I'm looking for?

  11. August 31, 2009
     Joel Brouwer

    Rebecca, you're looking for a term to encompass "very rich and worked prose that just fails fails fails because you can see, for various reasons, that it’s too close to the source material"?\r

    "Literary fiction" will work as shorthand for that nine times out of ten, I'd reckon.

  12. August 31, 2009
     Henry Gould

    Seems complicated, Rebecca, by the fact that some of the undigested "source material" - for example the fictional wife of the fictional failed novelist - is as close to you as it is to the (failed?) novelist himself...\r

    I wonder if the problem has less to do with proximity and more to do with motive. Cassill's failure to "work up" or "fictionalize" the autobiographical material - the fact that it degenerates into (thinly-disguised) autobiography or chronicle or anecdote or reminiscence or memoir - might have something to do with the fact that it lacks a theme. It's not that it's too close - it's that he's discovered no meaning in it. It's a maze, rather than a labyrinth.

  13. August 31, 2009
     Henry Gould

    My feet first touched ocean in Truro, Mass. \r

    We left Minneapolis, City of Lakes, on July 4th, 1961 (departure delayed a week, because my father was stuck in a trial). Journey by station wagon. 4 boys in the "way-back" seat, arguing, yodeling, breathing exhaust. 1400 miles. "Are we almost there?" Stop-offs at Fort Ticonderoga; Cape Vincent, NY (where relatives had paintings from Napoleonic France covering the ceiling); Hillsboro, NH (where the Goulds came from); "Old Ironsides" in Boston harbor... \r

    I need a dose of Nabokov.

  14. August 31, 2009
     Daisy Fried


    Yrs., Daisy

  15. August 31, 2009
     John Oliver Simon

    Roman a clef?

  16. August 31, 2009
     John Oliver Simon

    Also sounds like a case of narcissism.

  17. August 31, 2009
     Desmond Swords

    Hi Becks.\r

    Great to read you. I am very impressed and incredibly jealous of your clear poetic gift.\r

    The technical term condensing into two words what you strung out to over 30 words, is something i cannot aid you on, i'm afraid Wolff. Please accept my apologies.\r


    I do have a criticism dictionary, not to hand, I'm afraid: as i have just moved out of my old apartment and into a brand new fourteen roomed house, and I have been partying for the last month since moving into the property.\r

    I'm just waiting on my carpenter to come and put up some bespoke bookshelving, and then i might be of use to you - if i can spare the time. But don't worry, this article is well worth the Grant you are getting for it. Don't spend it like I have been spending recently, on partying and excess. I mean, do if you like, but only if you are like me and loaded with family fortune.\r

    I don't know if you know it Becks, but i am one of the Aristocracy, from what used to be one of the richest European royal houses of the Middle Ages, and so i'm Old Money, and have no need to write for Trade, but only for my deep love for Poetry and the agents responsible thereto, who come and sing to me, unbidden and unpredicated. Madness many used to say, before poetry got analysed and dragged into the 20C by one of my all time favourite poets and cultural agitators: EP.\r

    Anyway, i have been titting about, waging the campaigns on various stages at the theatre of operations round about the place; where it's Dada week in one of them, which explains what is below. A playful attempt to enhance the already incredibly sophisticated intellectual vibe going on here at your thread, by free-associative experimentation, in which the only rule is: the Imagination has no law.\r

    I had read you earlier, but because i had been having a hangover after the last theatrical weekend with the fruits and loons who make one's Art thus - i had been pondering on the shallowness of stuff generally: pondering the impossible in an attempt to further produce the goods for Her M the teaser, playing life's music, Dada the sound poetry Becks you very talented artie of the only order worth reading.\r

    Hence, on clicking H's link, i stumbled into the chance of a write-through poem. You might have read already, about this new form pretty much only i work in, in its present form?\r

    Write through is like Flarf for intelligent people who have developed theior poetic ability beyond being able to click on copy and paste. It's where one uses the words of one poem, re-jigged into another.\r

    The ultimate write-through is when we use the letters in the words, to make new words entirely. I showed a while ago which examples the possibilities of completely changing stuff around.\r

    The one below, on a one to ten level of compositional complexity, would stand around four or so. I just copied and pasted Gould's poem Mudlark No 6, and started playing with the language.\r

    No Dum Lark 9 \r

    Maple seed twirls, the reddening leaves\r
    out of cerulean and into ochre brick\r

    this one autumn day, its clarity, wonder \r
    everything blushed towards a coming fall\r

    at the terminus where our mind ends\r
    among birches on some shamanic shore,\r

    wilderness of limbs, white on white \r
    beckoned into icebound sheaves, woodpile\r

    garnered in the pear-shaped mound, \r
    in an endless lake of eternal night, \r

    frozen, huddled bundle of poles, nicked\r

    five ways, signalling right and left, \r
    sun-wise and counter, forgotten "wrong \r

    way" and phantom wards, inclined sticks\r
    springing back in delirious heave\r

    a lurch to free energy, bearing sure \r
    back to a whole door, us beyond in soul\r


  18. August 31, 2009

    Menand's piece is, iirc, a review of a book by Mark McGurl about the "[writing] program era" in American fiction....

  19. September 1, 2009

    I got a case of narcissism by reading Rimbaud on acid. Cleared it up with a dose of Frost on the pumpkin.

  20. September 1, 2009

    a dose of Nabokov\r

    A little penicillin will clear that right up.

  21. September 1, 2009
     John Oliver Simon

    Narcisssism has been going around. They don't seem to have developed a vaccination against it.