Opinions. Nice to be rid of them. Opinions unloaded joyfully, with relief, like so much silver change weighing down a wallet. Plenty more where that came from. A million, but about five people left in the world, perhaps who can justify their opinion, who can argue the case at length. And about three people left with the time to hear them out.
Manifesto thinking will get us nowhere, but it’s bracing, and necessary, if only temporarily. Ironing out the uncertainties might, perhaps, be useful for occasional bursts of productivity. We can apologize later, when we’re not writing.
The finely chiseled, selfish self-isms of Louise Glück. Actual title of a 2003 review of The Seven Ages: ‘Louise Glück’s Monumental Narcissism’. Perhaps, in an ungenerous light. But poetry, in an ungenerous light, is a preposterous wrangling of language. Widen the beam, and now the remaining literary forms are, at different angles, effete, dull, needlessly prolix, contemptuously straightforward, altogether pointless. The standard complaint about Glück – who, at her best, speaks in a language simultaneously plain yet poised about forms of life common yet extraordinary – is that her self-regard has extended to too many volumes. As if the self and its universe could be solved, slate cleaned. I got three books out of it, and now I’m done. Louise, talk a walk, write about the election, about the kindly face of your local butcher, about overheard talk in the street.
From the front cover of Silence Yourself, a 2013 album from English band Savages:
THE WORLD USED TO BE SILENT
NOW IT HAS TOO MANY VOICES
Use of caps is theirs.
‘Catching up on your obscure Nobel winners?,’ a second-hand bookseller once asked me, as I slid the striking, yellow Faber paperback of Wisława Szymborska’s Selected Poems across his counter. I had no real answer to the question. In the conversation that followed, I also learned (by way of a conversation about John Updike’s A Month of Sundays that Gilbert Sorrentino, a few years passed, had been wrong about practically everything due to his complete and all-encompassing bitterness about the world. The Szymborska cost me six dollars.
Ben Cauchi is a New Zealand photographer, working in a genre one might tentatively call Modern Spirit Photography. Ghosts, empty rooms. Presences. They are, in one sense, perfect replications of a dead form, yet in his reproductions (he is often the model) there is also, at times, a deliberate stiffness – they carry their artifice with them. The photos are genuinely haunting because of their two-fold nature – they overtly bend at the knee to an earlier style, yet they seem personalised, like private work. Which is to say they somehow end up feeling unique, Cauchi’s own voice or style, despite the obvious debt. You could leave it at that, perhaps, and, after looking at his photos, watch a short video about his process in another room of the gallery. Cauchi is a reserved, considered man.
First daydream: a jail cell watched over by kindly wardens, who provide, other than time and solitude, writing materials, and ask only that no less than four pages are produced each day. The quality of said pages is not important. They won’t read them, and after handing them over, you’ll never see them again.
Is the friend who insists upon a kind of wordlessness as they exit a cinema right to do so? We have a fundamental disrespect for the inchoate, a distrust of it. Unlikely sentences of our time: I have no opinion on that. We do now, almost out of courtesy, on every topic, presumably for the non-existent transcriber of these words who is keeping them in a book someone, some day, will read. Dutifully.
Gilbert Sorrentino was a merciless writer. The writer you think of as merciless, well, not so much. Our satirists, for the most part, do not wound. They want their targets back at the end of the day, for fresh feeble practice come tomorrow. The arrow, not the box of dynamite. The universe is a fiendishly protracted roast where no matter how vicious the insult during proceedings, everyone gets together for drinks after the show. What did Sorrentino say of Edward Dahlberg? He is not for sale. Not a man short of eloquence, Sorrentino, but this, for him, was the highest praise. It can be said of few.
I have nothing to say, but I must keep talking. Either Beckett, the internet, a dinner party going badly, or a lonely person trying to keep occupied.
Why does this written doe bound through these written woods? For a drink of written water from a spring whose surface will Xerox her soft muzzle? Why does she lift her head; does she hear something? Perched on four slim legs borrowed from the truth, she pricks up her ears beneath my fingertips. Silence – this word also rustles across the page and parts the boughs that have sprouted from the word “woods.”
‘The Joy of Writing’, Szymborska
Blurbs, for the most part, take the non-specific line of praise. The names of the blurbers are occasionally familiar as writers of genuine talent, so the consumer, in this instance, can assume they’ve only temporarily forgotten how to write with any specificity or charm. They all sound like vague but hyperbolic praise from someone who, from the hundredth page, began skimming at speed. And the blurber, like Charlotte Haze, all effusiveness and wonder, dazzled a dozen times a day.
Art might demand an expression, but does it really need it? Words which have brought into the world under no necessity, with no higher aim that their purposeless hearing, tend to carry some tell-tale mark on them. They are their own shibboleth.
You can tickle in the vague direction of artistic representation’s fundamental lie – that the word isn’t the thing – but going on about it at length, or, please no, making a career out of it, can make even the most renowned thinker seem a dunce when stood back to back with even a comparatively minor and theoretically unaffiliated realist. Best, in both practice to analysis, to treat it lightly, with a music, or a despairing wit. Hammering on about it like some humourless party stalwart might convince you that even the most earnest tyro didn’t strike upon the same truth before scratching their chin and moving on with their work.
Maybe all art should aspire to music. Just very softly played music, that always sounds better from the next room.
Savages permit no mobile phones or other such devices at their shows. This is a demand, not a polite request. The sign at the door of each of their gigs:
DEAR AUDIENCE OUR GOAL IS TO ALWAYS DISCOVER BETTER WAYS OF LIVING AND EXPERIENCING MUSIC WE BELIEVE THERE ARE STILL NEW WAYS TO BE FOUND WE BELIEVE THE USE OF PHONES TO FILM AND TAKE PICTURES DURING A GIG PREVENTS ALL OF US FROM TOTALLY IMMERSING OURSELVES ONLY WITH FULL EXPERIENCE WILL THE WORDS WE SPEAK BE TRUE LET’S MAKE EACH EVENING SPECIAL SILENCE YOUR PHONES
Use of Caps is theirs.
A writer, if they wish to muscle in on the marketplace, must have a presence. Silence will not be tolerated.
‘And then there is, of course, always, and inevitably, this spume of poetry that’s just blowing out of the sulfurous flue-holes of the earth. Just masses of poetry. It’s unstoppable, it’s uncorkable. There’s no way to make it end.
If everybody was silent for a year – if we could just stop this endless forward stumbling progress – wouldn’t we all be better people? I think probably so. I think that the lack of poetry, the absence of poetry, the yearning to have something new, would be the best thing that could happen to our art. No poems for a solid year. Maybe two.’
– Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist.
You’re carrying a book, heavy, impractically large, a sprawling novel, perhaps a collected poems, or a biography of a notable historical or literary figure. Those are always large, because, by dint of publishing logic, they have to be big. There’s no room for elegance or concision in the writing of these lives. They all weigh in at over 600 pages now, to show you the importance of the life, damned if you’ll read it or not. If you don’t, and the sodding thing ends up just sitting on a shelf unread, the supertome will, in its perched weight, suggest the merit of the life all the same. And other shelves will sag under a similar weight.
You can have disrespect for language. You can treat it carelessly, grandiloquently, through a megaphone, landing on a worthless point. You can treat it like a balloon that you think will take endless breath. The following is a real song title, courtesy of post-rock outfit Red Sparowes:
‘And by Our Own Hand Did Every Last Bird Lie Silent in Their Puddles, the Air Barren of Song as the Clouds Drifted Away. For Killing Their Greatest Enemy, the Locusts Noisily Thanked Us and Turned Their Jaws Toward Our Crops, Swallowing Our Greed Whole.’
The other seven tracks on the album are similarly, ridiculously titled. At times bands like Mogwai and Stars of the Lid can indulge in similar tricks. In the case of Stars of the Lid, having done away with the human voice altogether on their drone tracks, their titles have nothing left to do than be suggestive or evocative. But this at times can mean a love of the meaninglessly evocative. Why ‘The Artificial Pine Arch Song’ on that track, but ‘Requiem For Dying Mothers’ on the other? Could they be swapped around with any difference to the track? Does this matter?
‘What’s it about?’ Indisputably the saddest but most inevitable question a person can be asked. The social contract demands an answer, straining and polite. We live in summaries, by crude necessity alone. Describing a work in fitting terms would be making a 1:1 map of talk. So of course we betray our readings, and our mind. Our hand was forced.
A truism easily enough forgotten: Celan’s ‘Death Fugue’ gains its power through repetition. Every time I read it I’m shocked at how few words it holds, and how it makes a cathedral from a small stockpile of bricks. But all of Celan’s poetry feels like this – there is a pressure of selection brought to bear upon necessary language. Nothing feels extraneous. These are the opening lines of ‘Alchemical’:
Silence, cooked like gold, in charred hands.