Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Furthering the theme of successive approximations from my last post, I heard someone on the Book Show today talking about the idea of working and working a poem until it stands up and says, "You have found me." The same idea, from a less mathematical perspective! I used to write poetry, was never all that good at it, but I think in my short stories I'm still driven by the poet's yearning for precision and highest refinement. Poetry is apprehended by all the senses: image and cadence of course, but to me the ultimate poetic sense is olfactory. You breathe in a poem, like the subtlest perfume, like a vapour arising between the lines. You could say that, literarily speaking, a novel offers meat: something to fill the belly, whereas a poem offers fragrance only, a very Buddhist sort of pleasure. I am not a poet because I am still too hungry, and then not quite a novelist, because I am too ascetic. So I keep on writing these damn short stories.

I have also reflected recently, like many writers before, on the failure of the realised to attain the perfection of the ideal. So those attracted to perfection, like myself, tend to cut back, to pare away the explicit in favour of the suggested. It truly is an ascetic's impusle, as if the cutting away, the negating of the material, somehow leaves a space in which the ideal can be reflected, can breathe. But the ultimate end of such an impulse, if left unchecked, is the negation of form entirely. It's J.D. Salinger's rumoured room full 0f stories too precious to ever be published, or John Cage's 4'33''. It's silence and anorexia. Poetic writing - by which I mean not just poetry, but all writing with a poetic sensibility, must play its music on a string drawn tight by the tension between the material and the formless, between sound and silence, being and emptiness.

And anyway - final thought - novels can have fragrance too. Some ideas, some images, some thoughts can only breathe in the space given by a whole novel. You have to build a cathedral if you want to make organ music. And yes, I'm mixing my sensory metaphors awfully, but you'll get the gist of the riff...

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