With the posting of the last of four blog posts at Southerly I’ve completed my month of guest blogging for this publication—and with great thanks to Southerly for asking me to write for them. Effectively the pieces I wrote for Southerly are pieces that I might have otherwise posted here as entries in my “Diary of City Poet” pieces—ie, they are essays musing about elements of the writing and reading life. I know there are readers here who have already followed the posts, but I thought I would whet your appetite for the four essays, and encourage you to head over to Southerly not only to read these, but to explore the site more generally. Our literary journals are an important space for writers. Anyway, let me take you on a little tour of what I was up to over there this month…
The first piece I wrote was “The Lives of Other Writers.” Thinking about my own penchant for literary biographies, as well as the letters and diaries of writers, also led me to think about how reading such books makes me think about my own writing life.
While our literary commentators are often pronouncing the forthcoming obsolescence of the novel or poetry (Can Poetry Matter?Dana Gioia asks and everyone wrings their hands again…) one form that seems to be in no danger is the biography. We never get tired of talking about the way we live, and wondering if it’s the right way. Many of us turn to biographies for examples of right and wrong turns, as well as for a particularized vision of an era or a milieu that interests us: they make very palatable history lessons. The genres of biography and memoir of course run the gamut of type and quality, from the masterful multi-volume consideration of the life of Henry James by Leon Edel to the “unauthorised” biography of the latest starlet, who at sixteen or seventeen already is deems worthy of a report on life in progress.
For myself, and for many other writers I know, biographies and memoirs of writers are a great pleasure to read—side outings into the letters and diaries of writers, often published posthumously, also count here. …Keep Reading Here…
The second piece I wrote wandered through the inescapable language of our high-tech world. After reading Emily Nussbaum’s television column in the New Yorker—an essay focussed on the way the television show The Good Wife uses technology in smart ways that reflect its pervasive spread into our lives—I recalled those word-of-the-year lists that the dictionaries and lexical associations of the world compile. So many of those words in the past decade were associated with our online lives or with our new devices. And I turned to poetry—because that’s what I do. In particularly, a wonderful poem by Jaya Savige, “The Fig Tree,” which I plan to return to at greater length here in the future. Anyway, a sampler of “Brave New World: High-Tech Words”:
In a recent edition of the New Yorker, television critic Emily Nussbaum wrote about the television show The Good Wife. As television shows produced for the major free-to-air networks in the United States go, The Good Wife is remarkably grown-up: the adults act like adults, with nuanced, contradictory opinions and mannerisms, the parents behave like parents, and the few teenagers that appear on the show act maddeningly like teenagers. The search for the grown-up is not a new phenomenon in this time of teen-oriented media saturation: Virginia Woolf famously declared George Eliot’s masterpiece Middlemarch “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” Like The Good Wife, Middlemarch is an in-for-the-long-haul novel, as characters making ordinary decisions become fully aware of their consequences and deal with those consequences in wrenchingly human ways. So it is with The Good Wife: while the procedural case-of-the week format of the show can be hit and miss, the long-term build up of these characters and the legal/political milieu of the show’s version of Chicago is multi-faceted, and therefore satisfying. But this is not a television review.
I was interested in Nussbaum’s article not only because I am a fan of the show, but because she proposed that The Good Wife is “the first great series about technology”—technology in contemporary life, that is, and in a recognisably ordinary world. (Of course science-fiction frequently offers often-brilliant musing on technology.) The Good Wife explores social media, twitter, e-currency, online personae, the ins-and-outs of surveillance in the iPhone camera age among a myriad of other digital minutiae. Characters display greater or lesser facility in dealing with their technology, but what elsewhere could be turned into simplistic buffoonery—hey, grandma doesn’t know how to turn on a computer!—here becomes part of the debate about, to use Anthony Trollope’s phrase, “The Way We Live Now.” Or, in Nussbaum’s words,
as the show goes on, its plots have become a dense, provocative dialectic, one that weighs technology’s freedoms against its dangers, with a global sweep and an insider’s nuance. …“The Good Wife” stands in contrast not merely to other legal shows, with their “The Internet killed him!” plots, but also to the reductive punditry of the mainstream media, so obsessed with whether Twitter is making us stupid.
The writers, husband and wife team Michelle and Robert King, are aware that these technologies are here to stay—at least until they morph into something else—and through their show they want to explore what this means for human relationships. …Keep Reading Here…
From there I took a turn towards readerly obsession and guilty pleasures: my own great love is the boarding school book, and I looked at such works in their childhood story, literary and memoir incarnations in “Guilty Pleasures (Lights Out! Meet in the kitchen in one hour for a Midnight Feast!)”:
While I often deny the word “guilty” in relation to pleasures, I admit the phrase has its attractions and, yes, usefulness. A guilty pleasure has a little subversive thrill embedded, and is often something enjoyed when we feel we “should” be doing something else. That feeling of “should” could come from an awareness that we are procrastinating, but just as often I’m sure it comes from the idea that we could be spending our time on something with greater seriousness. One of my teachers and friends, the wonderful fiction and non-fiction writer Sugi Ganeshananthan, once said, “Guilt is a useless emotion. You should dispense with it.” I’ve treasured that as much as possible, and I’m sure it has greatly cut down on the amount of guilt I feel, though not eliminated it altogether. I feel guilt about not getting things done immediately (usually when I am juggling too many things at once) but not about enjoying non-canonical reading or watching television or seeing the latest dance movie, no matter how terrible. The mind needs rest too! …
I know that many writers have their guilty pleasure genres. Dorothy Porter used to talk about her love of detective fiction—how much she must have loved being able to bring that out in her verse novel in that genre, The Monkey’s Mask! And how much she must have enjoyed that book’s great success! Another friend and mentor, poet A. Van Jordan is a huge fan of comic books and graphic novels, a love that shows up in his poetry at times.
For me it’s not so much a genre as a milieu that I can’t bypass: the boarding school. I’m pleased to say I’m not the only person I know who has a great love of boarding school books (to my delight, when I mentioned these books to my father, he went to the bookshelves and brought back Rudyard Kipling’s Stalkey and Co., a favourite of his own from childhood) though I’m often greeted with a somewhat mystified expression when I mention my addiction—and with the question, “Did you go to boarding school or something?” (No, I did not.) …Keep Reading Here…
Finally, I turned to poetry and ekphrasis, particularly two great poems—one by William Carlos Williams, one by W. H. Auden—that explore the same painting by Pieter Brueghel, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” While ekphrasis has been on my mind in general for the past year or more, I had the opportunity to pull my thoughts together when I was asked by the Rockdale City Library to give a talk for them. It was a pleasure to do so, and from this talk I pulled my notes together to write “Icarus Downstage, Right: Writing Art”:
This past week I gave a talk on ekphrasis and the ways in which pictures in themselves may tell stories. In part I wanted to give a little history, and so looked back to Homer’s description of Achille’s Shield, as well as to consider the ways in which, despite being saturated with images, we are less skilled in reading them now—simply because we are no longer accustomed to spending a lot of time with a single image. The other aim of the talk was to discuss my own practice and think about the different ways I have approached writing about artworks in my own poetry; in the middle of it all, however, I looked at two poems I particularly love that take the same great painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder as their starting point—“Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” ...Keep Reading Here…
Putting these things together, I realise yet again how much I wander across different interests in my daily and writing life—but also how those interests return again and again to the work of writing (and, one of the most vital parts of that work, to reading). The riches of such contemplation are not monetary—but they don’t need to be. So let me add a note to express my gratitude to readers who follow the tapestries my mind weaves: even without readership, the creation of the words is what counts, but knowing that words are becoming part of a conversation is so very meaningful to me. Let’s keep wondering together.