Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Strange Case

I enjoyed Wendy Lesser’s review of Julian Barnes’ new novel, Arthur & George, today on Slate, “The Strange Case of Julian Barnes.” Before you read it, be warned that, as Lesser warns at the start, it gives away what happens in the novel. This blog, however, contains no spoilers, as I’m not even going to talk about the book, which I haven’t read. In fact I haven’t read any of Julian Barnes’ books, though the review certainly got me interested.

What really interests me is Lesser’s belief that in Arthur & George Barnes finally found a subject matter to suit his talents. I think this search for the right subject is something we poets hardly ever talk about, maybe hardly ever think about, in our own work or others’, but it seems crucial to writing good poems. Lesser puts it this way:

Not until now, it seems, has Barnes had a subject that allowed him to maintain exactly the right distance—neither too close nor too far, neither helplessly indignant nor cowed by admiration, neither mired in the plot nor caddishly manipulating the heartstrings of his characters. Flaubert, perhaps, was too chilly a model for him [in Flaubert’s Parrot], and too grand a one. He needed somebody he could stand up to—someone whose thought processes he could reasonably hope to emulate and maybe even outdo. He needed a figure who cared, as he evidently does, for logic, order, and structure. He needed someone who was both English and not-English, because one of Barnes’ constant strengths, especially in his nonfiction, has been the ability to see England from the outside. And he needed at least one character whose inner life he could hope, respectfully, to convey.

Instead he got two, Arthur and George. Their solid reality gave him grounds for respect; their placement in time gave him the necessary distance; and their eccentric combination of merits and shortcomings (different merits and shortcomings in each case) gave him the room he needed in which to create believable characters.
I don’t think Lesser is saying that writers in general need characters sufficiently distant in time from themselves, with sufficient eccentricities, etc. She’s saying this is what Barnes needs. I think the most important skill for poets to learn may be how to pick a subject that suits their temperaments. (Yes, I realize the whole notion of “subject” is suspect, and maybe what some writers need is to avoid any subject.) Maybe John Ashbery needs to write about Daffy Duck and Kim Addonizio needs to write about “the Guerra brothers slinging pigs from the truck and onto the dolly.” It seems almost impossible to save a poem if you’ve picked the wrong subject, but it’s so hard to know what you need. Do you need a subject that’s very close to the bone (your bones) or far away—or exactly where in the middle? Do you need a character who loves logic and structure (like Barnes), or just the opposite?


Diane K. Martin said...

Robert, I hate to be the one to always comment when you post, but I so want to say--before I overthink this--that I don't think subject is key--or not just subject, anyway. For me, when I write a poem, there has to be some entry, and it's rarely subject or subject alone. I might have had it in me to write about my inability to love someone a long (long) time ago, but it was only sitting in the garden, drinking white wine on a fine day and musing about the color blue and the fact that he had lived in Brazil that let me write Sonhar. It's only by a very tortuous route--including how conjugation sounds like conjugal--that I could write the poem "about" love that I'm bringing to our next workshop.

Now maybe that's my problem. I don't find a subject as much as allow it to find me. And possibly other things that were mentioned in the Lesser review--like subjects that allow one to find the *proper distance*--are more important for my writing. But how does the right subject resonate for you? I mean, how did you come to write in the voice of Jakob Boehme (sp--sorry)?

Robert said...

I think my concept of "subject" includes the sort of thing you're talking about--at least I want to stretch it to include that. Maybe what you call a "tortuous route" is what works for you. I think a whole lot of poets work that way, including me much of the time. Sometimes what works is starting with a subject like "the color blue" that you intuit has the potential of leading into a deeper subject like "my inability to love."

As far as what works for me, well (heh heh), I don't know that I've figured it out except I know I need to put my ideas into words (duh!) to see if they're going to work. I can spend a lot of time thinking about some great concept, but when I finally get around to writing it down, it takes about two lines to realize it was a bad idea, so I know if I've got a "great" idea, I'd better actually write a few lines before I waste too much time.

Last night I heard Tony Kushner interviewed by Terry Gross about his screenplay for Munich, and he said at first he'd told Spielberg he didn't want to do it, but then decided he'd draft just a couple scenes to see if something interesting would come out, and it did.