Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Dan Chiasson

The art of the anti-blurb

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In a recent issue of The New Yorker, the critic Dan Chiasson offers up an appraisal of the poet Bill Knott, who died in 2014. To be honest, I’d either never heard of Knott or forgotten his name, but I suspect that he might have been pleased by this. Knott, who taught for decades at Emerson College, spent his entire career sticking resolutely to the edges of the literary world, distancing himself from mainstream publishers and electing to distribute his poems himself in cheap editions on Amazon. Chiasson relates:

The books that did make it to print usually featured brutal “anti-blurbs,” which Knott culled from reviews good and bad alike: his work was “grotesque,” “malignant,” “tasteless,” and “brainless,” according to some of the big names of the day.

Here are a few more of the blurbs he reprinted: “Bill Knott’s ancient, academic ramblings are part of what’s wrong with poetry today. Ignore the old bastard.” “Bill Knott bores me to tears.” “Bill Knott should be beaten with a flail.” “Bill Knott’s poems are so naïve that the question of their poetic quality hardly arises…Mr. Knott practices a dead language.” According to another reminiscence by the editor Robert P. Baird, Knott sometimes took it even further: “On his various blogs, which spawned and deceased like mayflies, he posted collages of rejection slips and a running tally of anti-blurbs: positive reviews and compliments that he’d carved up with ellipses to read like pans.” Even his actual negative reviews weren’t enough—Knott felt obliged to create his own.

The idea of a writer embracing his attackers has an obvious subversive appeal. Norman Mailer, revealingly, liked the idea so much that he indulged in it no fewer than three times, and far less nimbly than Knott did. After the release of The Deer Park, he ran an ad in The Village Voice that amounted to a parody of the usual collage of laudatory quotes—“The year’s worst snake pit in fiction,” “Moronic mindlessness,” “A bunch of bums”—and noted in fine print at the bottom, just in case we didn’t get the point: “This advertisement was paid for by Norman Mailer.” Two decades later, he decided to do the same thing with Marilyn, mostly as a roundabout way of responding to a single bad review by Pauline Kael. As the editor Robert Markel recalls in Peter Manso’s oral biography:

The book was still selling well when [Mailer] came in with his idea of a full two-page ad. Since he was now more or less in the hands of [publisher] Harold Roth, there was a big meeting in Harold’s office. What he wanted to do was exactly what he’d done with The Village Voice ad for The Deer Park: present all the positive and negative reviews, including Kael’s, setting the two in opposition. Harold was very much against it. He thought the two pages would be a stupid waste of money, but more, it was the adversarial nature of the ad as Norman conceived it.

Ultimately, Mailer persuaded Roth to play along: “He implied he’d made a study of this kind of thing and knew what he was talking about.” And five years down the line, he did it yet again with his novel Ancient Evenings, printing up a counter display for bookstores with bad reviews for Moby Dick, Anna Karenina, Leaves of Grass, and his own book, followed by a line with a familiar ring to it: “The quotations in this poster were selected by Norman Mailer.”

This compulsiveness about reprinting his bad reviews, and his insistence that everyone know that he had conceived and approved of it, is worth analyzing, because it’s very different from Knott’s. Mailer’s whole life was built on sustaining an image of intellectual machismo that often rested on unstable foundations, and embracing the drubbings that his books received was a way of signaling that he was tougher than his critics. Like so much else, it was a pose—Mailer hungered for fame and attention, and he felt his negative reviews as keenly as anyone. When Time ran a snarky notice of his poetry collection Deaths for the Ladies, Mailer replied, “in a fury of incalculable pains,” with a poem of his own, in which he compared himself to a bull in the ring and the reviewer to a cowardly picador. He recalled in Existential Errands:

The review in Time put iron into my heart again, and rage, and the feeling that the enemy was more alive than ever, and dirtier in the alley, and so one had to mend, and put on the armor, and go to war, go out to war again, and try to hew huge strokes with the only broadsword God ever gave you, a glimpse of something like Almighty prose.

This is probably a much healthier response. But in the contrast between Mailer’s expensive advertisements for himself and Knott’s photocopied chapbooks, you can see the difference between a piece of performance art and a philosophy of life truly lived. Of the two, Mailer ends up seeming more vulnerable. As he admits: “I had secret hopes, I now confess, that Deaths for the Ladies would be a vast success at the bar of poetry.”

Of course, Knott’s attitude was a bit of a pose as well. Chiasson once encountered his own name on Knott’s blog, which referred to him as “Chiasson-the-Assassin,” which indicates that the poet’s attitude toward critics was something other than indifference. But it was also a pose that was indistinguishable from the man inside, as Elisa Gabbert, one of Kott’s former students, observed: “It was kind of a goof, but that was his whole life. It was a really grand goof.” And you can judge them by their fruits. Mailer’s advertisements are brilliant, but the product that they’re selling is Mailer himself, and you’re clearly supposed to depart with the impression that the critics have trashed a major work of art. After reading Knott’s anti-blurbs, you end up questioning the whole notion of laudatory quotes itself, which is a more productive kind of skepticism. (David Lynch pulled off something similar when he printed an ad for Lost Highway with the words: “Two Thumbs Down!” In response, Roger Ebert wrote: “It’s creative to use the quote in that way…These days quotes in movie ads have been devalued by the ‘quote whores’ who supply gushing praise to publicists weeks in advance of an opening.” The situation with blurbs is slightly different, but there’s no question that they’ve been devalued as well—a book without “advance praise” looks vaguely suspicious, so the only meaningful fact about most blurbs is that they exist.) Resistance to reviews is so hard for a writer to maintain that asserting it feels like a kind of superpower. If asked, Mailer might have replied, like Bruce Banner in The Avengers: “That’s my secret. I’m always angry.” But I have a hunch that the truth is closer to what Wolverine says when Rogue asks if it hurts when his claws come out: “Every time.”

Dickinson’s dispatches

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Emily Dickinson's envelope poems

Last week, the poet Dan Chiasson published an article on Emily Dickinson in The New Yorker that moved me for reasons that I had trouble explaining. It buzzes with the intensity of one probing critical mind confronting an even vaster intelligence, and it’s loaded with striking insights. On Dickinson’s use of dashes and plus signs, which she used while jotting down her poems on whatever pieces of paper were available, Chiasson says:

Her idiosyncratic punctuation sometimes feels like triage for the emergency conditions of her muse…Time, on these little scraps, is a function of space: both run out at the same instant.

And here he is on the enormous fact of her long, uneventful residence in the same house in Amherst, Massachusetts:

But Dickinson’s genius always kept a fixed address. She was a scholar of passing time, and the big house on Main Street was the best place to study it. Because her subject was longitudinal change across the span of hours, days, and years, she needed to set her spatial position in order to see time move across the proscenium of her subjective imagination.

After reading these lines again, however, I’ve realized that I really like them for two reasons. One is the picture that they present of Dickinson as basically a scientist, which is how I’ve always liked to imagine her. The other is the contrasting models of poetic time that they present. On the one hand, Dickinson is always on the alert, ready to record impressions as they arrive, and fully aware that a lost idea may never return. (Chiasson writes: “The makeshift nature of the scraps gives us a vivid idea of what composition must have felt like for a woman whose thoughts raced far ahead of her ability to capture them. Who knows how many of Dickinson’s lines were forgotten before the poet had a chance to write them down?”) On the other, you’ve got a woman who was willing to sit still for years, even decades, to absorb the raw data that she needed. But both pictures ring true. War has been described as consisting of stretches of utter boredom alternating with instants of sheer terror, and you could say much the same of the creative process: nothing happens for a long time, and then everything explodes into action so suddenly that you’ve got to scramble to keep up. It’s a little like nature photography. Watching the footage from the new season of Planet Earth, you ask how they ever could have captured these moments, and the simple answer is that they set up the camera and filmed for months to get a few unforgettable seconds. And it helps to have a clever editor.

Envelope poem by Emily Dickinson

That’s how Dickinson worked, too. Much of Chiasson’s essay is devoted to her envelope poems, which are now widely available to be viewed online. As Chiasson describes them:

It sometimes feels as though Dickinson’s sojourn in print, so fraught from its inception, was a temporary measure, now nearing its end as it’s replaced by a better technology. To write this paragraph, I looked hard at an envelope: what a mercurial object it is, more like origami than like a sheet of paper. If you use the back of a closed envelope…you get three squat triangles, like faces of a flattened jewel. She wrote within, and occasionally across, the folds and creases of this complex surface. To read the lines, you have to turn the image counterclockwise. The vertical column of the first panel then becomes a broad horizon, which, when the poet runs out of space, picks up on the third blank panel.

In other words, Dickinson engaged with the physical qualities of the pieces of paper—“the flap of a manila envelope, the backs of letters, chocolate wrappers, bits of newspaper”—that she kept in her pockets with a pencil stub. And at first, this might seem to conflict with the idea of these notes as makeshift dispatches that she wrote down before they could be forgotten.

But I think that it hints at something important about why such scraps have always played such an important role in creative thinking. I’ve written elsewhere about the appeal of napkins and tablecloths as a surface for thought, and they seem particularly attractive to workers in science and mathematics. (One of my friends, a math professor at Indiana University, recently told me how much he likes writing on paper tablecloths.) In my post on the subject, I guessed that it had something to do with the disposability of the medium and its tactile pleasures: “[A napkin’s] folds, like those of an envelope, add an appealing sense of three-dimensionality: I’ve found that a blank piece of paper immediately becomes a more attractive medium for notes when it’s simply folded in half.” Yet I suspect that the real reason, which we glimpse in Dickinson’s envelopes, has something to do with the role of a scrap of paper as a conduit between the fleeting and the eternal. A thought flashes forth, and we scribble it down on whatever is closest at hand. Once we’ve caught it like a butterfly in a killing jar, we can scrutinize it, look at it from different angles, and even take cues from the properties of the surface on which it happens to have been captured. We’ve safely gotten hold of the essential, which frees us to play with it, following the folds of the envelope or the seemingly endless plane of the tablecloth. The envelope poems are Dickinson’s field notes, and in them, we see the instantaneous meeting the infinite, as we follow her handwriting, like “fossil bird-tracks,” racing across the page.

Written by nevalalee

December 9, 2016 at 9:39 am

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