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Rhythm vs. meaning: Lessons from the stagecoach business

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):

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3 Comments

  1. Steve Sailer says:

    The Updike quotes are from Updike's extraordinary 1978 novel "The Coup," which is either one of the most preposterous novels of the 20th Century, or one of the best, or both.

    When I read Barack Obama's "Dreams from My Father," I was stunned by how similar Obama's father and mother were to Updike's Col. Ellelou, the brilliant but self-destructive dictator of an African country, and the second of his four polygamous wives, an American coed he bigamously married in 1959. Obama's parents met at college, too, and bigamously married in 1961.

  2. Steve Sailer says:

    From my reader's guide to the President's autobiography, "America's Half-Blood Prince: Barack Obama's 'Story of Race and Inheritance.'"

    Written at the gleeful height of Updike‘s powers, The Coup consists of the verbally dazzling memoirs of a hyperliterate American-educated official in the fictitious African country of Kush. The Coup was based on Updike‘s prodigious research into the lives of post-colonial African elites very much like Barack Obama Sr.

    Two of Updike‘s children have since married black Africans. Updike's 1989 essay “A Letter to My Grandsons” is addressed to his daughter’s half-African children. In it, Updike explains to them that there’s “a floating sexual curiosity and potential love between the races that in your parents has come to earth and borne fruit and that the blended shade of your dear brown skins will ever advertise.” (I'm not sure that Updike's children and grandchildren truly wanted to read that, but if Updike is to churn out a book a year, in his voracious search for material he must occasionally mortify his progeny.)

    After four seemingly pleasant years at an American college, Updike's protagonist, Hakim Félix Ellelloû, returns to Africa, acquires a total of four wives, including his white American college sweetheart, turns against America and capitalism in the Cold War, and (here is where the lives of Ellelloû and Obama Sr. diverge) deftly climbs the ladder of government, becoming dictator in the late Sixties.

    Ellelloû attempts to impose upon his homeland of Kush the three ideologies he acquired while studying in America: Marxism, Black Muslimism, and Islam (all of which have interested Obama Jr. to some degree).

    Written at the nadir of American power and prestige during the Carter years, Updike audaciously prophesied American victory in the Cold War for the hearts and minds of the Third World. Ellelloû's radicalism destroys what little economic activity Kush ever had, and he's overthrown by pro-American forces in the titular coup.

    Thirty-years later, The Coup can now be read as a kind of Obama Clan Alternative History. In our world, Obama Sr.'s career back home in decolonized Kenya got off to a fast start in the Sixties, then foundered. What if, however, like Ellelloû, Obama Sr. had instead possessed the abstemious, observant, cautious personality of Obama Jr.? It would hardly have been surprising if the elder Obama, if blessed with his son’s self-disciplined character, had become president of Kenya.

    The Coup has been one of my favorite books since I first read it in 1980. I always considered Updike's comedy, however, fundamentally preposterous. Politicians and literary men were simply breeds apart.

    Updike recognizes that problem, having his protagonist narrator explain, unconvincingly: “… there are two selves: the one who acts, and the ‘I’ who experiences. This latter is passive even in a whirlwind of the former’s making, passive and guiltless and astonished.” The idea of a head of government with an overwhelmingly literary sensitivity and sensibility was an amusing conceit of Updike's, I thought, but not something we would ever see in the real world.

    I‘m not so sure anymore.

  3. Steve Sailer says:

    One amusing thing about Updike's career is that it follows the kind of arc you see among baseball players, who typically reach their apogee in their late twenties and then decline. Updike wrote so many books that you have a big enough sample size to plot a career curve for him, just the way you can with, say, Woody Allen, who hit his peak with Annie Hall at age 41. Updike, who war born in 1932, hit his apogee in his late 40s (which I suspect is rather late for a writer.)

    "The Coup" is from 1978, and his most prize-laden book "Rabbit Is Rich" is from 1981. As Updike explained in 1990:

    "I was full of beans, really, looking back on it from my present relatively beanless condition. I was in my mid-40's, just a kid.

    "… So the [1979] gas crunch became my hook: running out of gas, which is the first phrase in ''Rabbit Is Rich.'' The general sense of exhaustion, inflation, Jimmy Carter's fainting during one of his trots – all that seemed to add up to a national picture.

    "The paradox was that although the theme was running out of gas, I was feeling pretty good. And so the book is kind of an upbeat book in spite of itself. It's really a cheerful book, very full, it seems to me insofar as I can be a critic, of itself and its material. I really had to cut it short at the end – it was threatening to go on forever. …

    "But it's a big, basically bouncy book that won prizes. Why some books win prizes and others don't is a mystery. In part it was that by this time, I'd been around so long, and was obviously working so hard, that people felt sorry for me and futhermore hoped that if Rabbit and I received a prize we would go away and put an end to this particular episode in American letters."