Posts Tagged ‘Norman Mailer’

An Interview on Writing Lyrics and Verse with Richard W. Bray Conducted by Richard W. Bray

February 7, 2016

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxcat

Question: When you write in the first person, are you writing about yourself?

Answer: Not necessarily. The decision to use first or third person is often made for phonetic and/or syntactical reasons. For example, I chose first person for “It’s Better to Burst than Ripple Away” largely because it sounds better in first person. For example,

compare this

I’m a rough and tumble cowboy
In a civilized time
My boots are gonna ramble
Till the end of the line

with this

He’s a rough and tumble cowboy
In a civilized time
His boots are gonna ramble
Till the end of the line

The first person just sounds better. And going the from the bilabial m in my to the bilabial b in boots is a smoother transition.

Question: Is this what you meant when you wrote that poetry is a journey across syllables?

Answer: Yes. I can see you’ve done your homework. That’s important for an interviewer. You wouldn’t want to embarrass yourself like the time Charlie Rose asked a guy who had stabbed his wife: “What’s the biggest mistake you ever made in your life?”

Question: You have referenced Robert Pinsky’s elegant little book called The Sounds of Poetry.

Answer: So you’ve read that book too. What’s your question?

Question: You need to stop being such a spazz and wait for the question. You’ve written that there’s always tension sound and meaning.

Answer: Yeah. It’s a constant tug-of-war between what you want to say and how you want to sound.

Question: Are you a rough and tumble cowboy in a civilized time?

Answer: Not really. I’m more of a “Can’t we all get along?” sort of a guy.

Question: Do you ever wish you were more of a rough and tumble cowboy?

Answer: Sure. And I’m very sympathetic to guys like that. And I probably wish I were less cautious and more mavericky.

Question:
So your writing is a variety of wish fulfillment?

Answer: Sometimes. But more often I write about the types of people and behaviors which annoy me. “Fastidious Fred”, for example. The genesis of that poem was a news feature I watched about an extremely uptight famous performer who was ironing his own shirt before going onstage.

Question: Who?

Answer: I’d rather not say.

Question:
Why not?

Answer: Because it wouldn’t be nice.

Question: But isn’t the pursuit of Truth and the creation of art more important than being nice to people?

Answer: No. It’s not even close.

Question: But there must be at least a little bit of Fred inside you.

Answer:
Not much. I hate ironing and I’m lousy at it. But like Fred I’ve certainly been guilty of idiotic stubbornness. In a more general sense, however, if you’ll pardon my circular reasoning, Fred comes out of me so he must be inside my. Adrienne Rich wonders about herself (and this applies to all writers): What kind of beast would turn its life into words? And writers turn their lives into words as spiders turn their lives into silk.

Question: You wrote “sometimes I think I have a long way to go when the poem suddenly informs me that I’m finished.” Can you give me an example of when that happened?

Answer:
Sure. It happened with the last thing I wrote, “Put the World in its Place” which I expected to be much longer. But after I inverted the order of the two stanzas I had written, the poem said, “You’ve made your point. There’s nothing to add. Now shut up and take a shower; it’s time to go to work.”

Question: You also wrote “Sometimes I begin writing a poem knowing exactly what I want to say and it turns out just like I planned. Sometimes. Other times I set out to write something, but I end up writing something else.” Can you give me an example of when that happened?

Answer: Sure. Originally “Unspeakable Things” was going to be an Emperor’s New Clothes narrative where someone, probably a kid or a newcomer to the town of Lidane, was going to ask why nobody ever talks about the giant box in the center of town or perhaps he was going to ask why they don’t just tear the stupid thing down. But after writing three descriptive stanzas, it was a little late to begin my narrative and the poem said, “Wrap it up, dude. You made your point.”

Question:
I notice Lidane is an anagram for denial.

Answer: You probably think you’re pretty clever for figuring that out.

Question: You write a lot about denial.

Answer: No I don’t.

Question: How do you decide if what you write is a song or a poem?

Answer: Usually I know from the beginning based on its structure. For example, if it’s iambic it’s probably a poem and if the stresses are more spaced out it’s a song. But sometimes I argue with myself right up until the moment I post it.

Question: Do you primarily consider yourself a songwriter or a poet?

Answer: Neither. I think it was Robert Frost who said you can’t declare yourself a poet; someone else has to do it for you. And no one that I know of has ever accused me of being a poet. And I can’t be a songwriter because I don’t know anything about music. Besides, I’ve only ever read one book about songwriting, and no one has ever set any of my words to music. So I’m just a frustrated would-be lyricist waiting for someone to email me saying, “I just have to make a song out of something you’ve written. Time to quit the day job.”

Question: I noticed that you write a lot about alcoholism and substance abuse.

Answer: I noticed that too.

by Richard W. Bray (and Richard W. Bray)

Some Thoughts on The Spooky Art

October 24, 2010

Norman Mailer

Some Thoughts on The Spooky Art

The problem with naturalism is that there are just so many ways of saying that life is futile. About a hundred years ago when God was freshly deceased in the modern mind, Jack London, Theodore Dreiser and Stephen Crane had room to ruminate about the bleak, harsh unfairness of it all without getting stuck in naturalism’s inevitable cul-de-sac. Artful naturalism can still be written (see Being Dead by Jim Crace), but novelists with a metaphysical predisposition have many more aesthetic avenues to explore than devout nonbelievers.

Unlike so many twentieth century writers who were unable to reconcile belief in an anthropomorphized deity with the carnage and horror of two world wars and the Holocaust, Norman Mailer saw the supernatural everywhere. He was a confirmed mystic who was constantly groping after salvation in his tempestuous personal and artistic life.

In The Spooky Art, a compilation of the novelist’s musings about the craft of writing, Mailer insists that an “ongoing and conceivably climactic war between God and the Devil” manifests itself in the quotidian world of human strife (307). This is no mere literary affectation. Although Mailer did not ascribe to a particular faith, he was afflicted with a mercurial temperament which sought a deity that was, interestingly, much like himself:

“I confess that I have no attachment to organized religion. I see God, rather, as a Creator, as the greatest artist.”

Mailer enjoyed quoting Kierkegaard — I have a theory that Kierkegaard is more quoted than read. And he was deeply concerned with matters of good, evil, courage, and existence. Mailer argues that it is ludicrous to contemplate a universe without an active deity and some form of an afterlife (Mailer’s money is on reincarnation).

“Carnage walks the aisles of history hand in hand with philosophy. If there is no afterworld where the contest continues, then existence is indeed absurd” (148).

Sparkling literary careers have been wrought from that absurdity (see Brecht, Vonnegut, Kafka, and the Hebrew wit who wrote the Book of Job). But a diverse group of modern writers, including Fyodor Dostoevsky, G. K. Chesterton, Graham Green, Flannery O’Connor, John Updike, W. H. Auden and T.S. Eliot, have been theists.

It is not surprising that the pugnacious novelist and raconteur would have an idiosyncratic approach to religion. Mailer submerged everything that frightened and confused him into a big, dark pit which is alternately seen as hell or his own subconscious. For Mailer, the two are deeply connected. He asks us to

“Suppose the unconscious has a root in the hereafter that our conscious mind does not”(138).

For a novelist, the subconscious is a magic and mysterious font “and you never know where your words are coming from, those divine words” (70). Mailer, who was “always a little uneasy when my work comes to me without much effort,” liked to think of his unconscious as a “separate creature”(127, 143).

The novel Nightwood is a mad dreamy reactionary assault on society written by a brilliant, confused and obviously self-loathing woman, Djuna Barnes. In the section “Watchman, What of the Night?” Dr. Matthew Mighty O’Connor argues that night time—sleep time—is when the devil does his battling. Nightwood is a bizarre and disturbing book for many reasons, but Dr. O’Connor’s rant about sleep, “that unpeopled annihilation” in many ways explains how Mailer sees his own relationship with his unconscious (95).

…the day and the night are related by their division. The very constitution of twilight is a fabulous reconstruction of fear, fear bottom-out and wrong side up. Every day is thought upon and calculated, but the night is not premeditated. The Bible lies the one way, but the night-gown the other (87).

Norman Mailer takes his craft seriously and he fears the decline of “serious” novelists such as himself because “[n]ovels that reinvigorate our view of the subtlety of moral judgments are essential to a democracy” (161). Surveying the present state of fiction in America, Mailer laments how “the smart money would bet against the serious novel”(51). (Mailer’s observation, “I don’t think Jackie Susann went to bed with Rainer Maria Rilke on her night table,” gives us an idea about his regard for un-serious novelists(49).

For Mailer, the difference between “serious” novels and bestsellers is that the latter generally do not challenge their readers:


“mega-best-seller readers want to be able to read and read and read–they do not want to ponder any truly unexpected revelations. Reality might lie out there, but that is not why they are reading”
(51).

Norman Mailer was not sanguine about the future of fiction in America, a profession that has long been plagued with “various pirates, cutthroats racketeers, assassins, pimps, rape artists, and general finks (57).” And he has even less faith in our press which produces a “[n]ausea-broth of TV pundit-heads, coming to an intellectual climax every night” (83). A co-founder of the Village Voice in 1955, Mailer is hailed as an “innovator of narrative” . Here is his portrait of the journalist’s life:

“One half is addiction, adrenaline, anecdote shopping, deadlines, dread, cigar smoke, lung cancer, vomit, feeding The Goat; the other is Aloha, Tahiti, old friends, and the free ride to the eleventh floor of the Sheraton-Chicago, Patterson-Liston Press Headquarter, everything is free.” (185).

by Richard W. Bray

Some Thoughts on Alfred Kazin’s America

October 4, 2010

Some Thoughts on Alfred Kazin’s America

We can only guess how many literature–loving undergraduate English majors have been dissuaded by the massive edifice of Literary Theory: Freudianism. Marxism. New Criticism. Structuralism. Semiotics. Feminism. Poststructuralism. Postmodenrism. Reader Response. etc. The tumescent postwar expansion of our university system along with the demise of so many literary publications has in many cases reduced the discussion of literature in this country to the “endless theorizing about what literature cryptically is” (513).

Rereading Alfred Kazin’s America, a selection of the late writer’s works adroitly and lovingly edited by Ted Solotaroff, I am transported to a less restive time when a university professor of literature like Kazin could get by simply expressing his enchantment with the written word. As Solotaroff notes in his introduction, Kazin “was not interested in literary theory or in what nowadays is called textuality” (xxi).

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s solipsistic (and rather disturbing) assertion in Self Reliance that “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind” is faintly echoed in Kazin’s essay To be a Critic:

To be a critic, nothing else is so important as the ability to stand one’s ground alone. This gets more important as criticism gets more standardized and institutionalized, as the critic gets more absorbed in literary theory rather than in the imaginations who are his raison d’etre (510).

Kazin always stood his ground, even when his opinions collided with hagiography. Here he is on the Lost Generation:

They had a special charm–the Byronic charm, the charm of the specially damned; they had seized the contemporary moment and made it their own; and as they stood among the ruins, calling the ruins the world, they seemed so authoritative in their dispossession, seemed to bring so much craft to its elucidation, that it was easy to believe that all roads really had led up to them (117).

And here he is describing how The Great Gatsby triumphs despite its flaws:

The book has no real scale; it does not rest on any commanding vision, nor is it in any sense a major tragedy. But it is a great flooding moment, a moment’s intimation and penetration; and as Gatsby’s disillusion becomes felt at the end, it strikes like a chime through the mind (122).

The mercurial and sometimes brilliant Norman Mailer has been an enigma for both reader and critic because his uneven output is often overshadowed by his tempestuous personality.

Mailer’s tracts are histrionic blows against the system. They are fascinating in their torrential orchestration of so many personal impulses. Everything goes into it on the same level. So they end up as Mailer’s special urgency, that quest for salvation through demonstration of the writer’s intelligence, realism, courage, that is to be effected by making oneself a gladiator in the center of the ring, a moviemaker breathing his dreams into the camera (278).

Things don’t always go according to plan for American writers, as demonstrated by this cutting observation about Sinclair Lewis:

Here was the bright modern satirist who wrote each of his early books as an assault on American smugness, provincialism, ignorance, and bigotry; and ended up by finding himself not an enemy, not a danger, but the folksiest and most comradely of American novelists (99).

e. e. cummings, another brash and electric talent, is neatly summed up by Kazin:

As Cummings saw it, the world was composed of brutal sensations and endured only by fiercely desperate courage and love; it was so anarchical that all attempts to impose order were motivated by either ignorance or chicanery (127-128).

And here he is on the tempestuous Sherwood Anderson:

Anderson turned fiction into a substitute for poetry and religion, and never ceased to wonder at what he had wrought. He had more intensity than a revival meeting and more tenderness than God; he wept, he chanted, he loved indescribably (93).

Emily Dickinson is the greatest literary genius our culture has created (says me). Adrienne Rich wrote that “genius knows itself” and Dickinson “chose her seclusion, knowing she was exceptional and knowing what she needed.” Here’s how Kazin describes Dickinson’s beautifully bizarre, cheerful death wish:

In poem after poem she expressed, in her odd blend of heartbreaking precision and girlish winsomeness, the basic experience, in the face of death, of our fear, our awe, our longing—and above all, of our human vulnerability, of the limit that is our portion (402).

Kazin reflects on the singular achievement of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man from the perch of a dispirited and tumultuous time (1971) while taking a swipe at Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes and every other notable contemporary African American writer.

Certainly more than any black writer, Ellison achieved as dramatic fact, as a rounded whole, beyond dreamy soliloquy or angry assertion, a demonstration of the lunatic hatred that America can offer, on every facet of its society, to a black man. This irrationality is more real, more solidly grounded to blacks writing out of actual oppression than is the idea of an irrational society to white writers dislocated in a country they used to take for granted and now find so much of America “meaningless” (282).

And here’s Kazin on Herman Melville’s fall and posthumous rise:

Melville may have been ditched by his own century; he became important to the next because he stood for the triumph of expression over the most cutting sense of disaster, negation, and even the most ferociously unfavorable view of modern society in classical American literature (366).

The young Ezra Pound was in many ways a generous soul who took the time to befriend and nurture younger poets. He was also an egomaniac. According to William Carlos Williams, once, when the two young poets were walking through the New Jersey countryside, Williams exclaimed that the winter wheat was coming up to meet Ezra. Pound noted wryly that it was the “first intelligent wheat” he had ever come across. (This sounds like something Sheldon Cooper might say.) Kazin discusses how this great mind eventually became so diseased:

Pound was a convinced fascist. The cruelty and death of fascism are an essential part of his epic and cannot be shrugged away in judging his work. Pound recognized his epic hero in Mussolini because fascism, like Ezra Pound, had few abiding social roots and was based on an impersonation, like Pound’s, of a mythic personage (196).

There is a sheen of other-worldliness in Nathaniel Hawthorne, “the only novelist from New England as subtle as its poets” (338).

Hawthorne, surrounded by so many moralists who thought they commanded the reality principle, created more memorably than he did anything else a sense of the unreality of existence, of its doubleness, its dreaminess, its unrealizability by anything less profound than the symbolic tale (338).

While Kazin was enthralled with the “imaginations” of our finest writers, he wasn’t afraid to take a shot at one of our most exalted figures:

Thoreau was a pure idealist, living on principle: typical of New England in his scorn for Irish immigrants, properly indignant about slavery in far-off Mississippi, but otherwise, as he wrote Walden to prove, a man who proposed to teach others to be as free of society as himself (329).

Over seven hundred thousand combatants perished in the Civil War, the bloodiest conflict in human history up to that point. Much good resulted from this ghastly episode in our history, but millions of lives were damaged irreparably and African Americans would not be fully emancipated and enfranchised for another century. Only God could say if such massive suffering were justifiable for any cause, but that didn’t prevent victorious Northerners from singing “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!”

The triumphant North needed proof of its saintliness, and found it in the consecration of Abraham Lincoln. The civil religion that came out of the war turned America itself into a sacred object and ritual demanded that America be its own religion—and that everybody had to believe in it. The Lincoln who never joined the Church became the god of a godless religion. Under the smug Republican administration of Calvin Coolidge, a great temple in Washington was built around a statue of Lincoln seated on a throne. Now the people truly had someone eternally to worship (400).

I’ll leave you with a final warning from Alfred Kazin.

If the critic cannot reveal to others the power of art in his own life, he cannot say anything useful or even humane in its interest. He will scrawl, however learnedly, arbitrary comments on the text (512).

by Richard W. Bray

Writers on Writing

February 24, 2010

Adrienne Rich

Robert Pinsky

Javier Marias

Lajos Egri

Writers on Writing

(Editor’s Note: This post is the result of a conversation I had in the comments section of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog. Until quite recently I would have scoffed at the very notion that such a thing as an online community could possibly exist)

W. H. Auden The Dyer’s Hand

Attacking bad books is not only a waste of time but also bad for the character. If I find a book really bad, the only interest I can derive from writing about it has to come from myself, from such a display of intelligence, wit and malice as I can contrive. One cannot review a bad book without showing off. (11)

Richard Wilbur Responses, Prose Pieces

Emily Dickinson elected the economy of desire, and called her privation good, rendering it positive by renunciation. And so she came to live in a huge world of delectable distances….And not only are the objects of her desire distant; they are also very often moving away, their sweetness increasing in proportion to their remoteness. “To disappear enhances,” one of the poems begins, and another closes with these lines:

The Mountain–at a given distance–
In Amber–lies–
Approached–the Amber flits–a little–
And That’s–the Skies

(11-12)

Adrienne Rich On Secrets, Lies and Silence

I have a notion that genius knows itself; that Dickinson chose her seclusion, knowing she was exceptional and knowing what she needed. It was, moreover, no hermetic retreat…But she carefully selected her society and controlled the disposal of her time. (160)

The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller

So long as modern man conceives of himself as valuable only because he fits into some niche in the machine-tending pattern, he will never know anything more than a pathetic doom. (60)

Ira Gershwin Lyrics on Several Occasions

When I was on jury service in New York many years ago there was a case found for the defendant. Afterwards, in the corridor, I saw the lawyer for the plaintiff approaching and thought I was going to be lectured. But no. Greetings over, all he wanted to know was whether the words or the music came first. (41)

Theodore Roethke On Poetry & Craft

The writer who maintains that he works without regard for the opinion of others is either a jackass or a pathological liar. (48)

Norman Mailer The Spooky Art

Kurt Vonnegut and I are friendly with one another but wary. There was a period when we used to go out together fairly often because our wives liked each other, and Kurt and I would sit there like bookends. We would be terribly careful with one another; we both knew the huge cost of a literary feud, so we certainly didn’t want to argue. On the other hand, neither of us would be caught dead saying to the other, “Gee, I liked your last book,” and then be met with silence because the party of the second part could not reciprocate. (288)

Robert Pinsky The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide

There are no rules.
However, principles may be discerned in actual practice: for example, in the way people actually speak, or in the lines poets have written. If a good line contradicts a principle one has formulated, then the principle, by which I mean a kind of working idea, should be discarded or amended.
(7)

Javier Marias Written Lives (on Rainer Maria Rilke)

The fact that such a sensitive person, so much given to communing, should have turned out to be the greatest poet of the twentieth century (of this there is little doubt) has had disastrous consequences for most of the lyrical poets who have come after, those who continue communicating indiscriminately with whatever comes their way, with, however, far less remarkable results and, it has to be said, to the serious detriment of their personalities. (83-84)

Gore Vidal United States

Sex is. There is nothing more to be done about it. Sex builds no roads, writes no novels, and sex certainly gives no meaning in life to anything but itself. I have often thought that much of D. H. Lawrence’s self-lacerating hysteria toward the end of his life must have come out of some “blood knowledge” that the cruel priapic god was mad, bad and dangerous to know, and, finally, not even a palliative to the universal strangeness. (37)

George H.W. Rylands Words and Poetry

When a generation labels everything as “superb” or “divine,” when a man says “damn” or “hell,” the actual meaning of the word is secondary to its emotional value; the word becomes a symbol of pleasure or disgust. The use of language in poetry is extraordinarily similar.” (72)

Stephen Fry The Ode Less Travelled

I HAVE A DARK AND DREADFUL SECRET. I write poetry. This is an embarrassing confession for an adult to make. In their idle hours Winston Churchill and Noel Coward painted. For fun and relaxation Albert Einstein played the violin. Hemingway hunted, Agatha Christie gardened, James Joyce sang arias and Nabokov chased butterflies. But Poety? (xi)

Percy Lubbock The Craft of Fiction

…when we think of the storyteller as opposed to the dramatist, it is obvious that in the full sense of the word there is no such thing as drama in a novel. The novelist may give the very words that were spoken by his characters, the dialogue, but of course he must interpose on his own account to let us know how the people appeared and where they were, and what they were doing. (111)

Stephen King On Writing

The dictum in writing class used to be “write what you know.” Which sounds good, but what if you want to write about starships exploring other planets or a man who murders his wife and then tries to dispose of her body with a wood-chipper? (158)

Lajos Egri The Art of Dramatic Writing

It is imperative that your story starts in the middle, and not under any circumstances, at the beginning. (200)

by Richard W. Bray