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Goodbye to the Gass

Of necessity, style becomes increasingly individual as the medium becomes a largely inexpressive and neutral one (unless it is employed by a committee, a bureau, an anonymous source, a corporate ‘spokesperson’, an advertising agency, a member of Congress, a general of the army; then the medium’s inexpressive and neutral qualities are exploited).

-Habitations of the Word

One of our greatest individuals has just left us, an even more exceptional loss in a time in which all those parenthesized voices listed above have only increased their influence over daily life and the cultural consciousness of our time.

William H Gass was a genius, a phenomenal writer, a unique American voice whose works, along with those of Faulkner and Bellow, constitute our greatest achievements in the art form. A sad day, but one to go and again read his books, and breathe in a poetry of intense stylistic rigor and an unwavering commitment to form. A true writer. It’s hard to express, in our contemporary climate of commercial writing and endless self-promotion, just how true. For writers like us, he was somewhat of a last resource, and for that, today feels like a complete loss.

Nevertheless. We write, Gass once wrote, even in the face of inevitable death and oblivion, “because replenishment is equal to decay and balances the books; because then, at least, we know who and what and where we are.”



Sailing to St Macdara’s

For the first time in our dubious existence, the Literary is actually on the coast. It’s a landmark, surely, and rather nice. There’s lots of seabirds and Irish foliage. Guinness is never more than a quarter-mile away.

Kate O’Brien once lived down the street, and her Farewell to Spain is a solid book, so we’re hoping for the best. Supposedly Sting lived there for a time as well, but we don’t think that means anything.

JM Synge (rhymes with Sting) traveled through here, back in 1905, and Padraig Pearse lived for a spell in a cottage just over the boggy horizon, as the chough flies.

Frank O’Connor never lived anywhere near here but the man is fantastic, and his An Only Child has been keeping us company at night. We’ve also been reading the likes of Seamus Heaney and Eamon Grennan, Brendan Behan and Edna O’Brien, none of whom ever lived here, though they might have, and Grennan could have been writing about it when he wrote (about somewhere else):

I would like to let things be:

The rain comes down on the roof
The small birds come to the feeder
The waves come slowly up the strand.

Three sounds to measure
My hour here at the window:
The slow swish of the sea
The squeak of hungry birds
The quick ticking of the rain.

Then of course there are the trees.
Bare for the most part.
The grass wide open to the rain
Clouds accumulating over the sea
The water rising and falling and rising
Herring-gulls bobbing on the water.

They are killing cuttlefish out there,
One at a time without fuss.
With a brisk little shake of the head
They rinse their lethal beaks.

Swollen by rain, the small stream
Twists between slippery rocks.
That’s all there’s to it, spilling
Its own sound onto the sand.

In one breath one wink all this
Melts to an element in my blood.
And still it’s possible to go on
Simply living
As if nothing had happened.

Nothing has happened:
Rain inching down the window,
Me looking out at the rain.

It’s true, nothing has happened, though we’re in a different place, and they kill lobster here instead of cuttlefish.

all she (we) wrote

We came. We saw. We concurred.

New York, yes, it’s the place to be. The grandest urban center we’ve experienced in our decade away from home. Like a good love it was great at the beginning, comfortable and stimulating in the middle, dreadful toward the end.

A good place for a writer? Maybe, depends. In our opinion writing should be 90 percent concentration and 10 percent conversation. The latter is easy and abundant in the big city, the former quite a bit harder to achieve. Probably time would be better spent elsewhere–from a purely writing perspective. Then again, no one really lives on a purely writing perspective.

With that in mind it’s onward for the Literary! We’ll be keeping it coastal, but it’s time to check out another continent.

One more for the Crown.

rooftop heights

How to…read more poetry

Check out the new Cynthia Cruz, my review here.

Let There Be…

…better puns. You’ll find some in the new collection from Thomas Lux. I review it here 🙂

Full of Gass #2: True Lies

Folks, if you’ve read any of this ridiculous and now vitiated weblog, you’ll have surely picked up on our steadfast and by-no-means-unique opinion that William H Gass is not only a living literary legend, but one of the greatest writers in the history of the sport. As a craftsman, he is meticulous; as a poet, wondrous; as a weaver of words, rapturous.

We could claim this mild encomium is apropos of picking up at random a collection of the great man’s essays and once again being blown away by the wit, intelligence, perspective, poetics, aesthetics, and humor therein, but really he is constantly in our thoughts, when reading, when writing. I can’t think of a better teacher of literature to whom to direct aspiring writers. Read his fiction; read his essays. Then go read the folks he talks about in his essays.

And listen to his advice (like this he gave last October), and the advice inherent in his position (however pushed aside) in the literary world:

Try to remember that artists in these catastrophic times, along with the serious scientists, are the only salvation for us, if there is to be any. Be happy because no one is seeing what you do, no one is listening to you, no one really cares what may be achieved, but sometimes accidents happen and beauty is born.

It’s true. Sometimes accidents do happen. There are a handful of young writers today with great talent and ability, whose books are actually taken up by the reading public. Jonathans Foer and Franzen are two. Claire Keegan, across the pond, is one. All too often they do not showcase their gifts, but try instead to write to their (perceived) audience: they tone it down, they write short books because they don’t think readers can take long ones, they don’t challenge themselves because they don’t want to challenge us.

Keegan is a short-form writer, and this is no criticism of her. Franzen nobody can claim doesn’t try to write long (too long) masterpieces, but they always come up short, they lose focus after page 150. Foer and fellow NY boy-genius Ben Lerner are tremendously talented, yet can’t seem to write more than a 200-or-so-page book (Foer might be trying to rectify this, as his new book, coming in Sept, is much longer). It isn’t that length is always good, or necessary (again, see Keegan), only that the profound issues these writers are tackling can’t be tussled with in the cool space a hipster wants his books to slide into. They take time. As we should want them to.

I am constantly telling friends that fiction isn’t fiction because it’s not true, it’s fiction because it doesn’t have to be. In other words, elaboration is the entire point. Besides brevity, the next most fashionable modern trend is that of memoirist or “nonfiction novel” type writing, along with its more literary sideshow (see Lerner) of metafictionally mixing the form back into non-fiction. This again plays to the ignorance of readers for whom this type of writing is easily digested, those who either haven’t been taught enough fiction, or didn’t grow up reading it, or both. It’s always been common sense that any work of fiction is derived closely from reality. Fiction’s role is to free the writer (and the reader) from the narrow construction of what was perceived as to actually have happened. This specific type of imagination is the very point of reading fiction. It is also the only real way to get into another’s consciousness, and not through the “true story” which lacks just that imagination.

Literary criticism, a separate art form with the same problems, isn’t helping by supporting these trends, indeed utilizing these same tricks themselves. As Gass proclaimed some years ago:

Bad critics treat good books as if they were lousy novels. Even though their copies were complimentary and haven’t cost them, they sprawl on top as if they had paid.

Good ol’ Gass is 91. I don’t know if we’ll get another round out of him but he’s left us such a magnificent body of work it’s hard to not feel lucky. American readers have felt this before–think of Saul Bellow and William Faulkner. Give Gass to the high-school kids! Give him to the college surveys! Make awful movies of his books! Gass was born in July, so let’s just say it’s now the Month of Gass (who loves the scatalogical), and celebrate accordingly.


The Bard of Prince Town

I believe deeply and unironically in the romantic notion that poems should always be chasing after what they can’t say.

James Richardson

You said it, James. I say more about it here.