Unless something comes up between now and 9 o’clock tomorrow morning, you’ll hear no more from me until I’m back from Japan on October 1. Until then, see the delightful folks in the left-hand column …
Archive for September, 2004
A friend in the UK kindly passed along news of the death of poet Michael Donaghy in London at age 50. Well known in England as winner of the Whitbread, Faber, and Forward prizes and as a member of the so-called “New Generation” poets, Donaghy was a past poetry editor of the Chicago Review and published his first book of poetry, Slivers, in Chicago back in 1985. He had lived in London for almost two decades. An obituary appeared in the Independent on Monday. My friend notes that Donaghy was “certainly very well loved over here by fellow-poets (whether formalist or not) and readers alike.”
Here’s a Donaghy poem called “South-Westernmost”:
I’ve a pocketwatch for telling space,
a compass tooled for reckoning by time,
to search this quadrant between six and nine
for traces of her song, her scent, her face.
Come night, that we might seek her there, come soon,
come shade the lower left edge of this chart,
the damaged chamber of my mother’s heart.
Mare Serenitatis on the moon,
this blindspot, tearhaze, cinder in the eye,
this cloudy star when I look left and down,
this corner of the crest without a crown,
this treeless plain where she went home to die.
I can almost hear it now and hold its shape,
the famine song she’s humming in my sleep.
I’ve been having a devil of a time lately getting GRJ’s pages to load in Internet Explorer. If you’re having the same trouble, let me know and I’ll try to tweak my template accordingly.
Also, raise your hand if you find that the links in my post are impossible to see with my new design. I see one in back …
Feast or famine, as they say. Tonight we’ve got Louis de Bernieres at the Newberry Library’s A.C. McClurg Bookstore (6pm), T. C. Boyle in the auditorium at Harold Washington (6pm), and Susanna Clarke about an hour from now at the Borders on State Street in the Loop (12:30pm).
You may have noticed that Clarke’s book, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, is being touted near and far as the book of the fall/winter season. As the boys at The Literary Saloon inform us, Clarke’s book was “called in” for consideration for this year’s Man Booker Prize. If that means anything to you.
The Trib gets the nod this week for superior literary coverage, with several significant new books covered:
* Art Winslow reviews Cloud Atlas, finding it neither difficult nor unreadable. “Unlikely as it might sound, the book feels as if it partakes of Nordhoff and Hall’s Mutiny on the Bounty and Melville’s ‘Billy Budd,’ Philip K. Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ (basis of the sci-fi film “Blade Runner”), Ken Kesey’s nightmare of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, ethnographies of the South Pacific from the early days of anthropology, and even corporate-malignancy-cum-murder thrillers a la Silkwood.”
* Jane Ciabattari looks at two books with southeast Michigan settings, The Mercy Killers by Lisa Reardon, and All These Girls by Ellen Slezak. In a sidebar, Jessica Reaves talks to Stuart Dybek about Mich lit. (No mention of my man Seager, though.)
* Jonathan Rosen’s Joy Comes in the Morning gets good marks from Floyd Skloot. “Despite the lack of suspense, Rosen holds the reader with suave prose, delightful narrative inventiveness and compelling ideas.”
* Finally, Alan Cheuse reviews Louis de Bernieres’s “soaring” Birds Without Wings. “Give[es] the dazzled reader a lively and enlivening history and character study and geography and theological accounting all in one.”
Across the way at the Sun-Times, they go easy on me this week:
* Mark Ahtitakis covers Greenblatt’s Shakespeare, calling it “A speculative but rigorous biography that ties the man’s historical record to his plays, his plays to Elizabethan society, and that society to the man himself. (I still haven’t read the other articles.)
* Looks like the ST’s expanded literary calendar is here to stay — now on its own page.
* Finally, something I missed from Friday’s ST: Hedy Weiss’s piece on the new collection, Seven Black Plays: The Theodore Ward Prize for African American Playwriting, with an intro by August Wilson.
Maud Newton’s reply to my post on Deborah Solomon prompted me to do a little reading and reflection on the subject of irony, which I studied too long ago to remember any of it. (Actually, I remembered just one name – D. C. Muecke – which I never heard before or since. But the man knew his irony.)
Since I didn’t mean “ironic” as Maud defined it, I did a little surfing to figure out what I meant. (I rely on the Internet the way Mr. Bagnet relies on Mrs. Bagnet. I say “Old girl, give me my opinion. You know it. Tell me what it is.”)
According to a Ukrainian scholar:
The critical history of “irony” invites a broad distinction between two uses of the term. In its first sense, dominant till the end of the 18th century, the term refers to a rhetorical or verbal mode – the dissimulation of ignorance (Gr eironeia) by one who says other or less than he means (eiron) – as exemplified by Socrates in the Dialogues. Classical rhetoricians defined irony as a figure and a trope, medieval theorists did likewise, though, typically, as a sub-category of allegona. “Allegory is other-speech. One thing is spoken, another is meant” (Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae). Samuel Johnson’s single definition (with the illustration ‘Boling-broke was a holy man’) conforms with traditional usage in limiting “irony” to “a mode of speech in which the meaning is contrary to the words.”
Use of the term irony in its second, and much more complex, sense, was introduced by German romantic theorists in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Friedrich Schlegel’s redefinition is pivotal: irony is “the recognition of the fact that the world in its essence is paradoxical and that an ambivalent attitude alone can grasp its contradictory totality” (Wellek). Irony so conceived, explains Schlegel, is by nature non-corrective in the sense that, like Socratic wisdom, it is self-regarding and endless. “No things are more unlike than satire, polemic, and irony. Irony in the new sense is self-criticism [Selbstpolemik] surmounted, it is never-ending satire.
Neat thing about this passage is that it defines “irony” in the sense I intended– “the dissimulation of ignorance by one who says other or less than he means” seems to be exactly what Solomon is doing – as well as in Maud’s sense (via Johnson), and distinguishes both these from yet another meaning that is broader and more ambiguous. I also liked the connection to Socratic dialogue, which I hadn’t thought of, even though Solomon’s piece is a dialogue too.
(Comparing Solomon and Socrates — surely I’m being ironic?)
Which brings me to Maud’s other question: how do you tell if someone is being ironic? This time I turned to my bookshelf for my musty copy of Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Irony. (That time the basement flooded.) Booth’s better known book is The Rhetoric of Fiction (one of the defining texts for the concept of the “unreliable narrator”), but the irony book is pretty interesting too. The book distinguishes between seven kinds of irony:
The dimensions are defined as follows:
Stable/Unstable – Intended meaning inherently clear vs. ambiguous
Overt/Covert – Presence of irony clear or unclear
Local/Infinite – Scope of the negation represented by the irony (ranging from “the opposite of this specific statement is true” to “the universe is ambiguous and unknowable.”)
It seems to me that Solomon’s piece is more understandable as unstable-covert irony than as the product of accident or sloppiness. Although I think Maud’s on the right track when she attributes this kind of irony to Americans in particular. For everyday examples, I think of David Letterman’s frequent refrain after telling a joke: “I don’t even know what that means!” – and Jon Stewart, who undermines his meaning even when it’s clear – “I’m just the dancing monkey.”
In Chapter 3, “Is it Ironic?” Booth posits five “clues” that help us determine whether a piece of writing is ironic or not:
1. Straightforward warnings in the author’s voice, often in titles or epigraphs, or (in books) introductions or post-scripts. Kenneth Burke: “I must impress it upon the reader that many of the statements made in my story with an air of great finality should, as Sir Thomas Browne said even of his pious writings, be taken somewhat ‘tropically.’”
2. Known error proclaimed. Fractured cliches, misquotations from other works, or violations of “conventional judgment” are common. Nabokov, Ada: “‘All happy families are more or less dissimilar; all unhappy ones are more or less alike,’ says a great Russian writer from the beginning of a famous novel …”
3. Conflicts of facts within the work. “A very great proportion of ironic essays could be said to have this essential structure: (a) a plausible but false voice is presented; (b) contradictions of this voice are introduced; (c) a correct voice is finally heard, repudiating all or most or some of what the ostensible speaker has said.”
4. Clashes of style. “If a speaker’s style departs notably from whatever the reader considers the normal way of saying a thing, or the way normal for this speaker, the reader may suspect irony.”
5. Conflicts of belief. “Finally, we are alerted whenever we notice an unmistakable conflict between the beliefs expressed and the beliefs we hold and suspect the author of holding.”
Like a lot of heuristics, this one turns out to be less useful in practice than you might expect. In fact, it’s really hard to tell when covert irony is at work; it’s a little like trying to tell when someone is lying. And as with lying, if you believe (or want to believe) in what’s being said, you may never see the irony even when it’s explained to you.
None of this helps us determine whether what we’re looking at is a case of intended irony that fails, as Maud suggests as a possibility here. If it is “failed irony,” why not subject it to a “straight” reading? Here’s why: if you believe the writer is intending but failing to be ironic, you’re granting that the apparent meaning isn’t the real one – in fact the real meaning may be the opposite. So accepting the apparent meaning at that point doesn’t seem logical — it’s more reasonable to say “I don’t think she means this, but I don’t know what the hell she does mean.”
Elsewhere Booth points out that irony is often used defensively. He quotes Swift’s Grub Street hack in A Tale of a Tub: “Where I am not understood, it shall be concluded, that something very useful and profound is coucht underneath.” I think I’d probably fault Solomon for irony-as-self-defense rather than writerly sloppiness. By adopting a tongue-in-cheek pose, a writer escapes censure for elitism, or naivete, or disrespect, or anything else indicated by her statements. But by evading responsibility for what she writes, she opens herself up to charges of dishonesty, frivolousness, or cowardice, depending on the seriousness of the subject.
You can decide for yourself how serious the subject of Poet Laureate of the United States is, though Joseph Epstein is happy to help.
Of course, if you don’t think Solomon is being ironic, none of this is relevant.
I’m not a big fan of Deborah Solomon’s interviews in the New York Times Magazine. I’m annoyed by her coy, facetious tone, which causes her subjects to be either a) correspondingly facetious, or b) cryptic and non-responsive. As her interview with Ted Kooser demonstrates, she takes her questions from three pots:
1. “Average guy” questions (How much do you make as poet laureate? Do poet laureates hang around together?)
2. Questions that elicit the subject’s reaction to some bit of conventional wisdom about the world (Is an unhappy childhood a prerequisite for a career in poetry? Are Midwesterners measured people?), and
3. Questions that elicit the subject’s reaction to some bit of conventional wisdom about the subject (Don’t you think you should be better acquainted with European poetry? Aren’t your poems a bit sentimental?).
Then she throws in a few supposed personal opinions that, like her questions, are also facetious (Ax murderers and divas are both self-centered types who seem unaware of the needs of other people). In no case, it seems to me, does Deborah Solomon ask her subjects a question from Deborah Solomon.
As you can tell from my own poor offerings, I have nothing against irony; these interviews just don’t do it for me. It’s probably a matter of taste; other people probably find them refreshingly unconventional and funny. But love her or hate her, the one thing you can’t do is read her “straight,” which is what Crabwalk does. Crab, you’re letting down the team.
Can it be just a coincidence that the most recent novels by two Irish authors, Nuala O’Faolain and Roddy Doyle, are both set in turn-of-the-century Chicago? (See here and here.) And coincidence too that both authors will be in Chicago on the self-same day this November? (See here and here.)
I can never get anyone to listen to my conspiracy theories. On the other hand, my nickname for President Roosevelt is sweeping the country.
But back to reality here, and what a relief it is. O’Faolain’s still working on hers; I don’t know the release date. Doyle’s novel, Oh Play That Thing, is actually set in the 1920s. Louis Armstrong figures. It will appear in the U.S. on November 4, a full 60 days after its UK and Canada debut, allowing Terry Eagleton time to spoil it for the rest of us.
I never liked that little blighter.
I don’t post info on creative writing courses very often, but thought this one might be of interest …
MASTER CLASS WITH STUART DYBEK
Saturday, October 16, 2004
at the Gleacher Center (UChicago downtown campus)
Dybek is a four-time winner of the O. Henry Prize for the best short
stories published that year in the U.S., as well as a PEN/Bernard Malumud
Prize “for distinctive achievement in the short story form.” His
publications include Brass Knuckles, The Coast of Chicago, Childhood and
Other Neighborhoods, and I Sailed with Magellan.
For more information, including how to register, go here.
Don’t know why — it seems so slight — but I keep returning to this poem, “The Stars Are” by Samuel Menashe, from the most recent (September) issue of Poetry magazine:
The stars are
Although I do not sing
About them —
The sky and the trees
To whom they please
The rose is unmoved
By my nose
And the garland in your hair
Although your eyes be lakes, dies
Why sigh for a star
Better bay at the moon
Better bay at the moon
Oh moon, moon, moon