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A Rant on Literature

There is a tendency, in classifying literature, to attempt to be far too specific in the assignment of genres.  Eventually, it runs so far amok that there are not merely genres and a few sub-genres, but sub-sub-sub-genres, to the nth degree.  It is almost as though every work produced, as it is written, creates its own genre, because, after all, every author is expressing their own unique self.  The school of thought that the principle of artistic creation is, as Wordsworth – a great poet – sadly and ironically called it, the “spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion” has become pathetically dominant amongst critics and consumers alike; so much so that generic boundaries are ignored all the time in the increasingly descriptive classifications of today’s works.  The hailing of this spontaneous, simultaneous manifestation of that which is a loose but nonetheless real abstraction is of course complete and utter nonsense; for if a work does indeed, by its creation, put forth a whole new genre of literature, there is a fairly good chance that, whatever the genre might be called according to the expressivity of the author, it would more aptly be called “crap.”

For instance, there is a novel right now which is selling fairly well: The Art of Racing Through the Rain: A Novel.  First of all, it seems odd to have to describe what sort of literature one is writing; John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” tells the reader, by its title, what the theme of oration within the valediction is.  Secondly, this novel, as the readers are all well informed before they open the volume (“Perhaps it’s a biography?  Maybe a history?  A collection of Ethiopian poetry?  Oh well, since it does not say what it is on the outside, I guess I won’t pick it up and look.”), is written in the first person perspective of a dog.  That might be a clever and imaginative way to present a story for children, or part of a greater myth, in which the whole cosmic reality presented helps the reader to better see the cosmic reality in which he lives – but this book is about the real world and is intended for adults.  The only magic presented is a sort of absurdity: one which places the consciousness of a human being into an inhuman creature.

There could be great insights, nonetheless, about human nature in the book.  It could make things wonderfully clear that are otherwise muddled – that is one half of the literary goal, which as was stated thousands of years ago by Horace to comprise the efforts of instructing and delighting the audience.  Perhaps The Art of Racing Through the Rain is also delightful to read – to those who find delight in reading rubbish.  An excerpt reads, “And while I occasionally step over the line and into the world of the melodramatic, it is what I must do in order to communicate clearly and effectively.  In order to make my point understood without question.”  The last little atrocity is not even a sentence; and while it is clear the author is striving for a colloquial, conversational tone in his work, people (or personified dogs) do not speak the way they write, and vice versa.  Frankly, it is stodgy and awkward when they do, as is this little bit.  Certainly Cormac McCarthy writes with frequent fragments; but no one would speak the way he writes, either.  His writing is the masterful imitation of a disjointed and dissolving consciousness.  Likewise is the framed first-person narrative of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness a nigh flawless masterpiece of literary locution: “‘The point was in his being a gifted creature, and that of all his gifts the one that stood out preeminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words – the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and the most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness.’”

Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ

Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ

What does an author put forth when he writes a work?  Many would call it an extension of the self; but that is certainly not so, for the work exists in a manner which is divisible from the author.  This can be seen in the Sacred Scriptures and the four methods of interpreting them: the literal, allegorical, tropological (moral), and anagogical.  Almost any passage of Scripture may be interpreted in any of the four ways, provided that there is some wholeness to the passage.  It is almost certain that most of the human authors of many of the books did not intend many of the possible and correct interpretations of Scripture: but they exist there, objectively, nonetheless.

This non-intentional possibility of a work’s meaning is easier seen in good poetry, which does not always spell out things so clearly.  In bad poetry, what is left is either a confusion – an emptiness rather than an ambiguity – or a juvenile, insecure, ungrounded work unfit to be read aloud.  For instance, let this poem, from poetry.com (which accepts anyone’s submissions) be considered:

Teach the young to sing
For mother earth and her sky
Teach them right from wrong
Teach them why.

Teach the young to sing of love
For mother earth and her sky.
Teach them to sing with the
Birds and harmonize with
The lonely wolf’s cry

Teach the young to sing
A song for mother earth and her sky
One day mother earth may sing
Along. we wont know till we try.

The poem is rife with genuine, sincere feeling; no doubt the author is a sensitive young man who only buys recycled materials.  Nonetheless, it is crap, in both of the aforementioned senses.  All that is indicated by the poem is that mankind ought to be more in tune with nature, and that doing so will somehow make things better; how profoundly moving and invigorating!  Despite the would-be-poet’s clever ability to rhyme thrice in a semi-pertinent way with the word “sky,” the command of language leaves the work lacking in both linguistic fluidity and profundity of meaning.  Granted, the poetry of even the best poets occasionally came out quite bad: Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “The Soldier” has a rhtyhm of forced feeling which falls flat (alliteration seldom goes too wrong, though…).  However, consider, as a stark contrast to the spontaneous overflow of powerful, earth-loving emotion above, the intellectual, metaphysical, and linguistic complexity of this stanza from The Wreck of the Deutschland:

Five! the finding and sake
And cipher of suffering Christ.
Mark, the mark is of man’s make
And the word of it Sacrificed.
But he scores it in scarlet himself on his own bespoken,
Before-time-taken, dearest prized and priced –
Stigma, signal, cinquefoil token
For letting of the lamb’s fleece, ruddying of the rose flake.

Even better:

Dame, at our door
Drowned, and among our shoals,
Remember us in the roads, the heaven-haven of the Reward:
Our King back, oh, upon English souls!
Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east,
More brightening her, rare-dear Britain, as his reign rolls, Pride, rose, prince, hero of us, high-priest,
Our hearts’ charity’s hearth’s fire, our thoughts’ chivalry’s throng’s Lord.

Truly, Hopkins’ poetry represents a pinnacle of erudition; not only of the meanings of words, but their interplay, the complex and fruitful meanings which may be drawn out of the syntactical construct that comes from the arrangement of words, phrases, clauses, sentences, and stanzas, to form coherent wholes that serve as parts to greater yet coherent wholes, painting an image of beauty and truth.  Into what genre does Hopkins’ poetry fall?  Good poetry.  Sometimes, that is all that needs to be known.

Categories: General
  1. June 26, 2009 at 10:51 am

    Oh the Wreck… Such a poem to pick through…
    I miss Bruce Almighty… The Teacher of course, not Jim Carrey.

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