From Anthony Burgess’s review of John Updike’s The Coup:
This emboldens me [Burgess] to set some of Mr Updike’s prose as verse, making such small emendations as are necessary to regularize the rhythm:
The piste diminished to a winding track,
Treacherously pitted, strewn with flinty scrabble
That challenged well the mettle of our Michelin
Steel-belted radials. Distances grew bluish;
As we rode higher, clots of vegetation,
Thorny and leafless, troubled with grasping roots
The rocks. In the declivities that broke
Our grinding, twisting ascent, there were signs
Of pasturage: clay trampled to a hardened
Slurry by hooves, and also excrement
Distinguishable still from mineral matter,
Some toppled skeletons of beehive huts,
Consumed, their thatches, as a desperate fodder.
Aristada, which thrives on overgrazed
Lands, tinged with green this edge of desolation.
I see Burgess’s point. More than this, I’m reminded of the very low standards of contemporary poetry. If you want to write a novel or even a short story, it better be interesting in some way. For a poem, though, it just has to be . . . not too embarrassingly bad. The above passage, as poetry, would fit just fine in the New Yorker or elsewhere—it follows all the rules (imaginary gardens with real toads and all the other life-affirming b.s.). And, in fact, if I saw it there and troubled to read it in that format, I’d probably think of it as pretty good, in the sense that I could actually figure out what it is talking about. Personally, I trace this back to what we were taught by our high school English teachers about poetry being intense, poetry being a puzzle, and or course good poetry being something you’re supposed to like. Now, I fully admit that T. S. Eliot has been admired by many people whose literary skills, tastes, and judgments I respect much more than my own—still, I think of him not so much as a great poet but as somebody who was well connected and got off a few good lines. I’m down on the whole poetry-as-puzzle thing. It worked OK for Michael Stipe, but he had that music thing going on.
OK, now on to Topic #1
The above is all set-up to my main point. My real goal here is not to bash poetry but to reflect upon a related item from Burgess’s review, where he writes:
[Updike] is committed also to a kind of poetic unit, a verse paragraph that, in certain contexts of action or even speech, seems excessively long. And there is a basic melody which seems to require otiose adjectives:
. . . a poster of Elvis Presley in full sequinned regalia, Marilyn Monroe from a bed of polar bear skins making upwards at the lens the crimson O of a kiss whose mock emotion led her to close her greasy eyelids, and a page torn from that magazine whose hearty name of Life did not save it from dying. . . .
That hearty [continues Burgess] is surely unecessary . . . yet without the adjective the prosody falters.
I have a few comments:
1. I think Burgess is right. “Hearty” does not really make sense there, but it wouldn’t work to simply remove it. For one thing, “whose name of Life” would sound too much like “the game of life.” The word “hearty” nudges the reader and keeps the sense of the sentence moving along.
2. Updike’s rhythm really works, allowing the reader (that is, me) to follow a complex sentence straight through the first time. And I know, from my own experience, that it’s not easy to get that sort of flow.
Just for example, why did Updike put “upwards at the lens” before “the crimson O”? In spoken English it would be natural to set out the object of the verb right away (that is, to say, “Making the crimson O of a kiss” and go from there). But, no, that wouldn’t work: if you put the “upwards at the lens” phrase after the kiss, it won’t be clear that it should be modifying Marilyn, not her kiss.
I’m aware of this particular rearrangement trick because I do it all the time in my own writing. My point is that it takes a lot of work to get the sentences to just flow on the printed page, where you don’t have timing, intonation, facial expressions, and gestures to help clarify your intentions.
3. There are other ways to keep the logical flow, for example the sort of frank discursiveness most impressively (to me) done by Nicholson Baker in The Mezzanine.
4. My main reaction, though, is the thought that Burgess’s argument applies to me as well! At a much lower level than Updike, sure, but still. I put so much effort into the flow of my sentences (even, I’m embarrassed to admit, when blogging), and in writing about technical matters (as I usually do), I have the further constraint of not wanting to get anything wrong. In Bayesian Data Analysis in particular, I went carefully over everything to make sure I was not saying anything sloppy. I’d noticed that a lot of the statistics literature had such sloppiness, and I wanted to be careful to label rigorous results, conjectures, and opinions as such. Along with all of this, I try to avoid cliches, especially those sloppy expressions such as “the lion’s share” (one of my pet peeves, for some reason—and, no, I don’t really think of “pet peeve” as a cliche even though, yes, I know that it is) which are vaguely—but only vaguely—quantitative.
Anyway, in making sure my sentences are readable, I sometimes lapse into too rhythmic a style. I hadn’t really thought of this except in special cases, but reading this Burgess review of Updike, it all suddenly makes sense. There can be a tradeoff between rhythm and meaning. And not just in a simple way that you can choose between words that are true and words that are beautiful. Rather, the same rhythm that I rely on to make my words clear on the page (or the screen) has the effect of requiring me to add unnecessary words. And there’s no simple solution, because if I just remove those extra words, all of a sudden it can be hard for people to follow what I’m saying.
As they say in the stagecoach business, remove the padding from the seats and you get a bumpy ride.
P.S. This all reminds me . . . I’m a big Updike fan (despite being unimpressed by his book titles); I love Rabbit, Run and like its sequels, many of the short stories are just amazing . . . a few years ago I picked up a copy of Roger’s Version, which I recalled has having received good reviews. I read a few pages but just couldn’t continue—nothing about the writing seemed remotely plausible. It didn’t seem anything like how a real person would talk (nor was it interesting enough to realize for other reasons). Rabbit, Run, though, that was great. I like how it was written and also its ideas. I completely disagree with the notion that Updike was merely a painter of pretty word-pictures with nothing to say.
P.P.S. Speaking of Updike, here’s my favorite poetry-related item from recent years (from the New Yorker in 1994):