Guest Post, Donald Morrill: Nonfiction Fact and Poetic Fact

Donald MorrillIn December 2002, a justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was castigated by his colleagues for delivering a legal opinion in quatrains.*

The case involved a woman who sought damages from her estranged, much older fiancé because he had lied to her about the nature of her engagement ring (not to mention its value). The majority of the court denied her claim, declaring that she, given the difference in their ages, had relied foolishly on his assurances.

But the poetic justice dissented. And thus sangeth:

A groom must expect matrimonial pandemonium

When his spouse finds he’s given her cubic zirconium.

Given their history and Pygmalion relation

I find her reliance was with justification.

One of the justice’s colleagues observed that “every jurist has the right to express him or herself in a manner the jurist deems appropriate,” but he was concerned about “the perception that litigants and the public at large might form when an opinion of the court is reduced to rhyme.”

Reduced to rhyme.

Perhaps the offending justice is merely a bad poet (though he defended his work, accurately, I think, by declaring: “You have an obligation to be right, but you have no obligation to be dull.”)

His critics, however, seem to be suggesting that the musical properties of verse are insufficiently serious for the task at hand; and that the characteristic virtue of poetry—to condense and transmute whatever it wishes into memorable, indestructible language—somehow harms the facts, stripping them of the gravitas appropriate, in this instance, to an instrument of law.

Yet there is a venerable legacy of serious nonfiction in verse. For instance, Lucretius in his treatise On the Nature of Things, from the first century B.C., presents in hexameters a full-scale exposition of the Greek Philosopher Epicurus and the atomic theory of Democritus. There is also Ovid’s satirical but no less serious handbook of seduction, The Art of Love.

So maybe poetry, or even merely verse, is not the problem here. Maybe the justice’s quatrains—his creative nonfiction, if you will—are unsuitably creative because they employ the wrong poetic techniques. If he had written his dissent in a less galloping meter or even in verse libre, if he had chosen fewer polysyllabic rhymes, or had used slant rhymes, or had dispensed with rhyme altogether, perhaps his colleagues, and the guffawing public they imagine, would not think his verse a diminishment.

Poetry, in its official get-up, is a matter of lines and line breaks, of course, and the interplay of these with sentences draped down the page, through the stanzas, across the pauses. It’s a spectacular confinement, and at its best, a delicious, necessary unsettling of the language.

But we also know that poetry appears in prose, as prose, perhaps as often as it appears in verse, as verse. It’s something other than just lines. So we might assert, for the sake of argument, that verse is to poetry as nonfiction is to creative nonfiction.

Nonfiction prides itself on trafficking in facts. But many poets assert that poems should be factually accurate, even when fictive. So what happens to the status of a fact once it is introduced into a poem? Is there such a thing as a poetic fact? If there is, can it be introduced into nonfiction? How is its status changed by doing so? And how does it alter the status of nonfiction?

Poetic writing consorts with a lyric consciousness, of course, and with the metaphoric—saying one thing by saying another, saying one thing in terms of another but in a more controlled and sharpened way than the metaphoric slip-slop of ordinary speech. A poetic fact—not a fact made poetic—embodies more than one kind of perception. It registers more than one kind of measurement. And it inspires in us a devoted restlessness among those perceptions and measurements, because it also welcomes the possibility of discovery at its edges. It presents—and verges on presenting something more.

Let me give just one example of a poetic fact, though they abound, of course—a line from “Chimes” by the wonderful poet Robert Dana:

Every day I live I live forever.

The statement is true, undeniably factual in several ways but not like My heart beats sixty times a minute now.

Both lines might be verse, since they both scan, but only the first is poetic, or poetry.

We might wonder how, then, a poet would rewrite the versifying justice’s opinion in order to include poetic fact and whether the law would still be the law if that were to happen. We nod yes when Ezra Pound says poetry is news that stays news. But if the newspaper were poetry, we certainly wouldn’t need a daily edition. (And can you imagine the 11 o’clock news as a poetry reading?)

***

Consider now Norman Maclean’s masterpiece Young Men and Fire. It is a book of nonfiction fact, relating the story of the death of a dozen smokejumpers—and the unlikely survival of three others—in a forest fire blow-up at Mann Gulch, Montana, in 1949. Maclean meticulously replays, rethinks, re-imagines and researches the last thirty minutes of the doomed men’s lives—setting this quest for comprehension against the backdrop of what was known about fire at the time of the disaster and what has been learned in the 38 years afterward. The book brims with historical documentation and scientific data about fire fighting, about burn rates and the effects of wind; it contains maps and photographs, diagrams, transcripts and mathematical equations; and it also draws on his and others’ intimate knowledge of the local landscape, gleaned from lifetimes spent in the Montana woods.

As he writes: “In a modern tragedy you have to look out for the little details rather than big flaws.”

The word “tragedy” should cue us here. Maclean is also drawing on a lifetime of teaching Shakespeare and the Romantic poets, and this is where the poetry comes in. His book is haunted by the search for compassion and understanding about the earth and our place on it. While acting as a factual detective, Maclean is also confronting the problem of identity, which, even as he faces old age and his own mortality, remains unsolved for him—unsolvable for us all.

It is probably not surprising, then, that the book was left unfinished at his death, though it is, most assuredly, complete.

Maclean’s task lay beyond the power of nonfiction facts alone, so he turned to poetic facts, of which the book contains many. Consider, for instance, this passage from the concluding pages, which illustrates how he extends nonfiction fact with poetic fact. About the doomed men running up the steep mountainside from the fire that will consume them, he writes:

The evidence, then, is that at the very end beyond thought and beyond fear and beyond even self-compassion and divine bewilderment there remains some firm intention to continue doing forever and ever what we last hoped to do on earth. By this final act they had come about as close as body and spirit can to establishing a unity of themselves with earth, fire, and perhaps the sky.

This is as far as we are able to accompany them. When the fire struck their bodies, it blew their watches away. The two hands of a recovered watch had melted together at about four minutes to six. For them, that may be taken as the end of time.

If this were not enough, a few sentences later, Maclean writes, in what is the concluding passage of the book:

I, an old man, have written this fire report. Among other things, it was important to me, as an exercise for old age, to enlarge my knowledge and spirit so I could accompany young men whose lives I might have lived on their way to death. I have climbed where they climbed, and in my time I have fought fire and inquired into its nature. In addition, I have lived to get a better understanding of myself and those close to me, many of them now dead. Perhaps it is not odd, at the end of this tragedy where nothing much was left of the elite who came from the sky but courage struggling for oxygen, that I have often found myself thinking of my wife on her brave and lonely way to death.

It is a thematic coda, of course, but at the very end of it something wholly unexpected flares up. Maclean has mentioned his wife only once before, briefly, telling us of her death from lung cancer, and that there is a valley near Mann Gulch named for her. (Another place where fire can make its strange appearance.)

These few details become supreme poetic facts because they allow the nonfiction facts about the nature of fire—and the facts about the smokejumpers’ deaths, the strange solitude of their deaths—to also stand metaphorically for the obscure solitude of Maclean’s grief at his wife’s lonely death. These poetic facts revise our understanding of the book by suddenly multiplying the dimensions of its assumed subject. The nonfiction book of nonfiction facts is called Young Men and Fire. But the poem it also becomes by virtue of that final passage could be called Old Man and Ashes.

Thus, we might assert that creative nonfiction—if we can now think of it as a form of poetry—is the most impure, and thus capacious, of poetic forms because it allows the broadest range of rhythms and “content.” It honors the nonfiction fact, reveres and seeks the clarity of definition that nonfiction fact aspires to, but, like Maclean’s fire, it knows and submits to the earthly reality that, in a moment, a fact of that sort can become quite something else.

 

NOTE

* “Justices Call on Bench’s Bard to Limit His Lyricism:” The New York Times, December 15, 2002, Adam Liptak

Guest Post, Jacob M. Appel: Transcending the Particular

Transcending the Particular: Why All Stores Do not Matter Equally

 

Jacob AppelShakespeare and I have far less in common than meets the eye.

On the surface, we’re both Caucasian, male, reasonably well-off for our times, and, in the eyes of my students, roughly the same age. And, as it happens, we also write plays—although his have received a somewhat more enthusiastic reception. For the time being, at least.

That’s roughly where the commonality stops. Shakespeare was English, and left countless artifacts to prove it, as every huckster in Stratford-upon-Avon will assure you. Meanwhile, in Shakespeare’s day, my forebears, a motely crew of impoverished fishermen, brick layers and subsistence farmers, struggled to survive the brutality of the Russian Pale. They practiced a rigid breed of Orthodox Judaism, spoke Yiddish, and suffered the brutality of Cossacks. Novels and plays were likely as alien to them as the church bells of London. Later, those relatives who survived the Pogroms found their way to the gas chambers of Poland. To describe Shakespeare’s drama as my cultural heritage, merely because of the demographic characteristics enumerated above, would reflect the worst of whiggish anachronism.

I emphasize this context, because I want to explore an argument advanced by a Sacramento high school English teacher, Dana Dusbiber, in a Washington Post op-ed last summer, in which she argued against assigning Shakespeare to her inner city students, a majority of whom are low-income kids from minority backgrounds. She wrote:

“….I enjoy reading a wide range of literature written by a wide range of ethnically-diverse writers who tell stories about the human experience as it is experienced today. Shakespeare lived in a pretty small world. It might now be appropriate for us to acknowledge him as chronicler of life as he saw it 450 years ago and leave it at that.”

I do not mean to dismiss the entirety of Dusbiber’s argument: Certainly, students should be able to relate to the literature that they read and a strong case can be made for allowing young people a say in designing their own curricula. Having exposure to literary role models with whom they can connect is essential if we are to welcome a diverse generations of future writers. My concern with Dusbiber’s column is that it does not just dismiss Shakespeare, but embraces a philosophy, increasingly present in literary circles, that writing does not transcend context. One might as easily argue—and I think this would prove a grievous error—that Frederick Douglass lived in a remote antebellum world of chattel bondage, so why read a slave narrative? Or dismiss the distinct rural feminism of Willa Cather, because nobody dwells in sod houses any longer. What makes great literature, as I see it, is precisely the opposite: The ability to capture your own “pretty small world” in a way that speaks to people nothing like yourself.

One need not be African-American to be moved by Richard Wright’s Native Son or Jewish to connect with Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer—or, I’d like to hope, to see the commonality of experience endured by Bigger Thomas and Yakov Bok. The joy of reading lies in recognizing the universality of human experience lurking within the particulars: seeing your own tedious cousin in Jane Austen’s William Collins or an ex-girlfriend in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jordan Baker, or, I have no reason to doubt, a friend or acquaintance lurking in the great oral narratives of Latin America or Southeast Asia—even though one has not grown up in 19th century Britain or Jazz Age Long Island, has never stepped foot in the Andes or the Mekong Delta. When in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, she describes the “long littleness of life,” I understand instantly, even though my politics and lived experience might prove closer to Shakespeare’s than to hers. Whitman’s “multitudes” may be vaster than my own, but the moments of overlap leave me breathless. Growing up as a Dumbo-eared, funny-looking child with a lisp, I remember discovering Pecola Breedlove in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and feeling a deep kinship with her—not to suggest, obviously, that my suffering was anywhere as severe as hers, but I cannot emphasize enough the solidarity, and solace, I found in our parallel fantasies.

Great stories look outward. What is the point, after all, of speaking to people who share your own values and experiences and sensibilities? I wish to emphasize very strongly that this observation is not directed only or primarily at minority writers. Quite the opposite. Far too many of today’s celebrated A-list literary figures are upper-middle class white men who write specifically for people precisely like themselves. (Brooklyn Heights, I hear, crawls with them.) They are often enabled by a publishing industry populated by editors who share similar lived experiences. That is not to say that one cannot cull worthwhile, transcendent truths from Sutton Place or Westchester County—as, for example, does John Cheever—but that many authors no longer seem to be trying. Similarly, a resistance exists to reading about people different from ourselves, or to do so primarily to witness their differences, in lurid exoticism disguised as open-mindedness, rather than to enjoy our similarities. So much of publishing has become inward looking—about marketing to specific audiences, branding, and targeting insular literary communities. I want my students to write for people as unlike themselves as possible. The stories that matter most, at least to me, are not those that merely capture an unknown world—but those that bring me a world I do not know and teach me how it reflects or connects to my own.

With increasing frequency, when I speak at conferences or on panels, audience members ask some variation of the question: Can I write effectively about people whose backgrounds and lived experiences are fundamentally different from mine? (It is worth noting that the questioners tend to by an extremely diverse lot—far more so than the audiences at these events.) To my surprise, and dismay, authors I admire are increasingly answering “No.” I think this approach is misguided, but also tragic. Needless to say, it is much harder to write about cultures and experiences distant from one’s own—and the room for error is significantly greater. Exploration is not an excuse for carelessness or stereotype. But do we really want to create a literary world where the next Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee can’t write about heterosexual couples? Or in which William Styron, whose Sophie’s Choice rivals The Diary of Ann Frank as the most compelling of Holocaust narratives, confines his intentions to Tidewater Virginia? I believe we should be encouraging our students to write about people far different from themselves—to hope for empathy rather than to fear appropriation. (This is a distinct issue, I believe, from the serious problem of the chronic underrepresentation of certain stories and groups in mainstream publishing, but the two matters are often—and, in my opinion regrettably—conflated.) I dream, maybe naively, of a world where we tell each other’s stories, and do so with such insight and identification, that they truly become our own.

So back to Shakespeare.

A host of plausible reasons exist for reading less Shakespeare. But I’d hate to believe that one of them is that he doesn’t speak to low-income minority students. To me, that sells those students short. I’d hope that their teachers can find a way to show the relevance of Hamlet’s doubt or Macbeth’s ambition to their own lived experiences, much as my teachers were able to do for me. Obviously, students of all backgrounds should also be introduced to the universal human experience found in writers who “look” nothing like Shakespeare. But there’s a magic to discovering that someone very much unlike oneself—let’s say a playwright who lived on a distant island more than four centuries ago—shared recognizable fears and longings.

If literature cannot bring us together, what can?

A Celebration of Shakespeare

Interdisciplinary Humanities and Communication, School of Letters and Sciences, ASU Polytechnic Presents

For the Love of Shakespeare:

A Celebration of Shakespeare, Theatre, and the Arts

Come join us for an exciting and entertaining showcase of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry, as well as a daring dueling display, performed by the students of ASU Polytechnic.

Admission is Free.

Where: The Black Box Theatre in the Arts Pavilion next to Santa Catalina

When: Wednesday, April 11. Two Shows, one at 1 p.m. and one at 5 p.m. Running time: 40 minutes.

If you need more info, please contact Professor Barnard @ James.Barnard@asu.edu

Basic Rules for Great Poetry

While poetry is most often seen as a ‘free-flow’ or emotional exercise, poetry has a long standing history of rigid form. (Shakespeare anyone?)

And while using a free write exercise for poetry has its place, there is something to be said for using a healthy balance of emotion and form to create a spectacular poem.

To find a good balance for your poetry, try some of the following suggestions:

1. Figure out your form: Whether you chose to write a sestina or a free verse poem, sometimes choosing a form can help get your creative juices flowing. And remember–you can always modify the form after you write the poem, or even while the poem is being written.

2. Line Breaks: No matter what form you’re using for your poem, well placed line breaks are key to the way that your poem comes across to readers. Use shorter line breaks to make your poem have a faster pace, and longer ones to make your poem read more slowly. Be sure that you read your poem out loud after you’ve written it to make sure that you change any lines that may appear to break in awkward places.

3. Grammar; it’s not just for essays: A problem that we sometimes see here at Superstition Review is poetry that lacks (or sometimes overuses) grammar. Remember, in a poem, a comma still acts as a small pause, just like a period signifies the end of a sentence. Therefore, a free verse poem that is written without using periods is like one large run on sentence (not to say that this can’t be done, it can: but it’s hard to pull off successfully). So when it comes to grammar, tread carefully.

4. Imagery: Using images that help your readers ‘see’ and really understand what you are trying to say in your poem is important because it makes the poem more real to them.  Images are concrete pieces of an intangible expression that allow poetry to be shared by people everywhere. While imagery can sometimes represent emotions or deeper themes, a poem without any imagery stands to lose the interest of its audience and come off as paltry at best.

5. Remember your audience: While it’s sometimes easy to write poetry for the pleasure of releasing ideas or emotions, if you plan to publish a poem you need to make sure that it will be understood by your audience. That means using very little ‘inside knowledge’ (meaning, something that only you understand) or rambling on without any purpose or in a way that is confusing to your reader.

If you have any questions regarding our submission guidelines at Superstition Review, feel free to visit our Submissions Page or e-mail us with additional questions.