Friday, April 16, 2010

from his troubled shelves he takes the volumes of friends long dead - experiment, concept, and a great new book by Fred Chappell

Next week, or part of it, is Zola Week, Thérèse Raquin, specifically. What do I know about Zola?  Not much.  This is the first time I've read him.  One unfortunate legacy of Zola's is the introduction of the confusing term "experimental writing," drawing an analogy with experimental science.  I think the analogy is deceptive, but I don't want to pursue that now.  See Prof. Myers for more of the anti- case.  Forget the "experiment."  Zola didn't mean experimental.  He meant conceptual.

I've already written too much about Zola.  Next week, next week.  My point, my point.  Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, Tristan Corbière, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Jules Laforgue - all of the assorted French Symbolists and other weirdos - all made conceptual breakthroughs.  They came up with new ideas about how poetry could be written.  The ideas were not specific to French poetry, and as a result English and American and German and Portuguese poets quickly pulled the key innovations into their own language.  Fine, fine.  This is all literary history.

As a reader, though, my wonderful discovery has been that they were all great poets aside from their conceptual stance.  They had new ideas about poetry, but they also wrote poems.  For counterexamples, I can't help moving to the visual arts, to Marcel Duchamp's readymades, say.  The difference between saying you could submit a signed urinal to an art exhibition, and actually doing it, is real, but small.  The difference between saying you could write a good poem according to some specific principle and then actually doing it is large.  The key word there is "good."  Duchamp, at that point, had no interest in "good."  As crazy a nut as Arthur Rimbaud wanted, once in a while, to write a great poem.  Then he'd do it.

I just read a new book of poems by North Carolina poet Fred Chappell that at first looks like pure concept.  The book is shadow box (2009).  The poems imitate the title.  Here we have a wife watching her husband, a poet near death:

The Elder Poet's Search

Through tears she sees him fumble about the room
And how from his troubled shelves he takes this one
And that, the volumes of friends long dead, undone
Or done with, and in their stanzas seeks with numb
Fingers lines that when first read in gloom
Or joy shone warm as island lakes in sun.
She sees him, now grown chill with dread, write down
The granite words she must order for his tomb.

What's going on with those annoying italics?

from his troubled shelves he takes
the volumes of friends long dead
and in their stanzas seeks
lines that when first read
shone warm as island lakes
now grown chill with dread

The thoughts of the poet, the husband, are embedded in his wife's poem.  Some of their shared phrases refer to exactly the same action ("and in their stanzas seek") while others take on a new meaning ("now grown chill with dread").  In some cases, either the internal or external poem, either the shadow or the box, seemed obviously the better poem.  Not here, not to me.

Is every poem in the book like this?  No.  Mostly, yes.  Chappell has a few other inventions - some interwoven dialogue poems, and some ingenious embeddings of translations of classic German poems.  Are the poems experiments?  No, no, no.  They may be the results of experiments.  Now, they're just poems, good ones.  Chappell had a concept that he turned into real poems.  The concept, once created, is available to everyone.  But the poems in shadow box, they're his.

Anyone who finds this all a little too conceptual should instead seek out Chappell's Family Gathering (2000), a hilarious little book of poems set where it says they're set. Find out what happens when "Uncle Einar smokes his big cigar."  Hear how "Aunt Wilma Describes Her Many Charms."  Fear "the terror of the soul: \ Aunt Lavinia's casserole."  I love that book.


  1. Are the poems experiments? No, no, no. They may be the results of experiments. Now, they're just poems, good ones.

    This is a breakthrough for me. I'd read Prof. Myers on the subject (and others over the years of course), and felt like an anti- myself. But my thoughts were cloudy.

    Now, I see this is exactly it. Yes!

  2. I could go on about this all day. Sometime, I probably will.

    Maybe it's just semantics, but replacing "experimental" with "conceptual" helped me clear up a lot of confusion. The problem is acute in literature, since most books and poems are a jumble of many processes. That's why I often reach to music or visual arts to get purer examples.

  3. Hey Amateur Reader, it looks like comments are off on your Monday Zola post!! Just FYI, maybe you tried to do that? for some reason?

  4. Thanks so much Rebecca. Everything went wrong with that post. Should be fixed now.

  5. I have been racking my brains a little bit trying to think of which bloggers put me on to reading Chappell--thanks!

  6. Oh, my pleasure. Please try Family Gathering!