Guest Post, Hannah Lee Jones: Poet Expend Yourself

guest postPoet Expend Yourself 

Several years ago, I was a beginning poet determined to learn the craft of poetry without the rigaramole and expense of earning an MFA. Inspired by my friend Rebecca Wallwork’s model—interviewing accomplished writers to get at the gems of their craft, which she’d then share on her blog, The MFA Project—I launched my own blog, Primal School, where I would do something similar with poets.

What I knew then was that I wanted to connect with and learn from other writers. I was prepared to give myself over to everything the art and craft of poetry would demand of me. I wasn’t as prepared to run into my own resistance to everything else the poetry universe demands of its artists.

With the blog my project began easily enough, beginning with questions for the poets I interviewed: How did you come to write this poem? What did you mean by this particular line? Tell us about your revision process.  As I mined for the poets’ techniques and sources of inspiration and highlighted their work on the site, I got to know the people behind the poems. Relationships blossomed. Poets expressed their appreciation for the blog, for the attention and care being given to their work. In a few cases I even helped boost poets who were just starting their careers and whose credibility would be supported by an interview feature. As young as Primal School was, others had even begun sending their students to the site as a resource.

In the winter of 2017 I began a seasonal stint as an intern at Copper Canyon Press in what was then my backyard of the Pacific Northwest. I regarded this experience as another brick in the growing poetic education that was my self-created MFA. In a drafty building in the middle of Fort Warden State Park I made copies, filled book orders, and read the manuscript submissions that came in. In retrospect what was fascinating and almost funny about this period was how quickly my perceived status in the poetry world grew in a manner which had absolutely nothing to do with anything I’d written or actually done. I watched with fascination the god-like projections poets would lavish on Copper Canyon editors in spaces like AWP, some of which inevitably spilled over onto staff and interns including me. I noticed my ego eating it up. I also observed that something in me had developed an allergy to a disjunction I was seeing — between the artifact that is a poem and the life that is its habitat; between poet and other; between poet and the world. It was around this time that my writing dried up, and with it my personal life and the structures in my world which I had come to regard as given.

The exact source of this disruption is difficult to name. But I suspect that the seeds for it were planted during a trip to South Carolina for a writing residency in late fall of 2016. The election of our new president was around the corner; the lefties who were my peers at the residency were not the least bit concerned that this would be the outcome. I wasn’t so sure. For reasons of curiosity and cultural immersion I formed a deep relationship with a Trump supporter who had been kind to me, and as I got to know him, I understood instinctively that his stories were the life which had been missing from my experience. Life to me could no longer consist only of reclining on my chaise lounge with a volume of Tranströmer poems, so far removed from a world coming undone with its poverty, grief, abuses and addictions. I still wanted my poems, but their fuel source was out.

For the grand embrace of the All that is America, the poet we love returning to time and time again (of course) is Walt Whitman. Revisiting his “Song of Myself,” I detect an inspirational whiff of the thing that was missing and that I’d left behind when I committed my life to poetry:

I am enamoured of growing outdoors,
Of men that live among cattle or taste of the ocean or woods,
Of the builders and steerers of ships, of the wielders of axes and mauls, of the drivers of horses,
I can eat and sleep with them week in and week out.

When the calling came for the open road I knew I had to respond, which I eventually I did. My writing naturally was reignited.

Gary Dop gave a memorable interview on Primal School in which he advocated for poetry as one of the great healing agents in a culture which has lost its spiritual center. I think it’s worthwhile to examine the question of whether the literary community as a function of this wider culture has also strayed from its center — whether that’s in the way we write (towards a style or objective rather than our deepest selves); or in any number of paths we walk unquestioningly (first you publish poems in journals, then they win prizes, then those poems become a book, then the books win you more prizes, and you get to repeat the cycle ad nauseam till the end of your career); to our relentless concern for how others react or what others are thinking or doing, whether that’s in the reviews we write or how we go about sharing our work (we give readings, of course). I see nothing wrong with any of these things on their own; it’s the blind adherence to them as inevitable steps forward in the career every writer that I’ve begun to question.

As an experiment in confronting these time-worn paths and really challenging whether they are for me, I recently took a break from submitting to journals and have been giving my poems and other writing away on social media. I don’t know how long I’ll be doing this. The recent critiques and discussions around “Instapoets” are compelling for the questions they raise: What is “accessible”? Who gets to say what’s good, or what poetry even is? Why is it seen as a waste of a good poem for an author to post it to a social media platform right away (which constitutes publication) instead of submitting it for the formal validation of appearing first in a journal? Bob Dylan’s Nobel win, along similar lines, got me thinking about poetry as a wider arena that in a more inclusive world would encompass songwriters and spoken-word artists and others like them (I’m thinking of people like Gregory Alan Isakov, Cleo Wade and Andrea Gibson). As artists they are all masters of the creative giveaway, a concept worth revisiting in Whitman’s later lines:

What is commonest and cheapest and nearest and easiest is Me,
Me going in for my chances, spending for vast returns,
Adorning myself to bestow myself on the first that will take me,
Not asking the sky to come down to my goodwill,
Scattering it freely forever.

The older I get the more I believe that to expend oneself creatively is an act of communion that burgeons out beyond the individual into something that Gregory Orr describes as “the Beloved that is the world.” Recently I had an exchange with a poet who remarked quite cavalierly that he’d never understood poetry as needing a purpose that was rooted in anything that wasn’t the self. I disagree with him. Poetry demands that the self come to fruition and nothing less. But I think the self is just a conduit for the transmission; the real reason we write is to connect with the Other in as many ways as our tools will allow us. In a world steeped in suffering such as ours is in these times, the reason we write is because of our love and our pain, which are shared; our desire to sustain our belief in a world where goodness and mercy and mutuality have not been exterminated.

I am grateful for and continue to hold in highest respect the institutions and individuals who train our poets, who publish their books, who promote their careers. Without them I wouldn’t still be writing poems. I’ll be culling from their wisdom and ideas as I find my own path forward. But I also care about whether we are connecting to the full with the world around us; whether we are honoring our contract with life by saying yes to our deepest and most colorful possible participation in the universe through everything we create. That would be something worth giving my life over to.

Guest Post, Robert Detman: The Necessity of Writing (and Reading)

guest postThe Necessity of Writing (and Reading)

The need to write can be as essential and sustaining as any healthy addiction. With the commitment comes the inevitable desire to send the work out into the world to be published, perhaps in search of literary glory, or merely in the hope of finding corroboration that what one has written is worthwhile.

Writing is such a compulsion that it justifies itself; I often find myself returning to work that is years old, which nags at me, insisting that I give it another read. The energy in the prose sustains and reasserts the imperative of its creation. Because of the number and variety of these drafts, and how they occasionally mix genres, I never know when–or if–I’ll return to them to try to revise again.

At an AWP panel in Tampa this year, “How to Fail: On Abandoning a Manuscript, and Not”, the writers assembled discussed why or why not one might give up on a piece of writing. The consensus seemed to be that writers don’t easily give up on their work. This may be why William Faulkner advised us to kill our darlings—no one is going to do it for us. If success is only gauged by publication, most writers are serial failures. Yet writers who would never abandon their work seem to have hit upon a truth that lies at the heart of all writing: Only the writer herself can determine if a piece succeeds or fails. And perhaps the inherent stubbornness and persistence it takes to be a published writer means we do not give up projects so easily, or even when we should.

What does one hope to accomplish with this persistent—yet intermittent—revisiting, and revising, of past work? We’re likely not just doing it for its own sake. We can perhaps see a progression in the drafts, that there is more there than we might have recognized in previous drafts; there must have been something there all along. Whatever kernels of truth there are in the work, are worth looking at again. As well, it must increase the chances of publishing if we can make use of the material we have. For myself, it often feels right to reconsider an abandoned piece, as I’m aware that I don’t usually work on something I don’t intend to try to publish. And of course, it’s not always true that what I write gets published, but I understand what it takes. It also makes me aware that writing and revision seems to never end.

Though it’s possibly true that what the writer gets out of producing a piece of writing is not nearly the same as what the reader gets from it, could the need to write have any correlation to what a reader may feel drawn to in the writing? In his groundbreaking 1994 book The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, Sven Birkerts pairs the activity of reading and that of writing as, in essence, one and the same, of existing in a kind of symbiosis in the eye and mind of the beholder—that is, whomever is reading or writing it. Reading and writing could be the proverbial chicken or egg conundrum: which came first?

In relation to other arts, writing may be no less hard won in its creation than painting, or music, or film and drama. Yet these other arts are experienced by their audience with varying degrees of passivity. It’s even possible to experience them obliviously. In fact, it would be possible to experience these works and not engage with them at all. I would guess that not everyone who seeks out cultural artifacts is fully “on” in their presence. The same cannot be said of writing. Reading is a voluntary act of volition, which requires one to fully engage with it. It is almost useless to read passively.

Generally, when I read, I’m looking to be surprised, wowed, or otherwise blown away. I crave that unique experience, which occurs when a narrative is so seamlessly accomplished that it manages to defy precedent. I look for this in fiction, and most often this sustained experience is achieved in novels. Not surprisingly, it’s usually these goals that I aspire to when I write.

I have the compulsion and habit of writing in multiple genres. People argue and make justifications for the superiority of one genre over another. Still, it’s all writing. Lately, I’ve been focused on poetry. Having written poetry for years, I undertook recently to study with an award-winning poet, and I’m encouraged. I read and write poetry with a sense of rediscovery, almost as if working muscles I didn’t know I had. I can sense I’m breaking ground for myself, which is an exciting part of the experiment that is my writing vocation.

My interest in writing across genres—and not being defined by any one—stems from restlessness, and that genre hopping is fed by my frequently broad reading. This restlessness may also just be a way of shaking myself from complacency, keeping fresh what is in front of me. I use writing toward whatever ends my mind craves. Poetry, for me, is the purview of feeling and emotion, and playing with language. Although the same might be said of fiction, I believe fiction is driven by the play of characters. The characters of fiction become real to me, and I become their caretaker. These characters are perhaps stand-ins for my own interests, and I use them to explore motive and action. There is frequently a spiritual depth to this work.

What fiction offers to a reader is story and a possibility of an empathetic identification with the characters in the work. Fiction projects a simulacrum of emotion we might feel, safely in the realm of language. We are safe because it’s only feelings we are “trying on” temporarily. We may be emotionally invested, but we are in our own heads. There are few repercussions. It can also engage the reader in the way that narrative seeks to find resolution. Narrative, which is telling a story, is inherently a form of entertainment.

Nonfiction, of the type you are currently reading, is driven by a desire to clarify my thinking, or to codify an experience. Nonfiction can be intellect driven work. I find that writing in a journal, for example, is essentially the deliberative framing of my thinking. The goal is often to find the energy in a piece with the momentum of a thesis, for an essay or blog.

When I write, I give myself license to not always have a clear objective. Writing is to wrestle and struggle with the unknown. To write to whatever end occurs to me is a search for the objective in the subjective. All of this is a way of trying to explain the motivation to write, the necessity of it. I can’t be sure I am providing for a reader what I look for in writing, but I hope in some way that I’m close.

As much as I am a writer, I am a reader, and vice versa. It seems almost strange to say it, but I really read to learn how I can write better. How to pull off—using an imprecise expression—the tricks that I find in exemplary work that upends precedent. This is not to say I don’t also read for joy, and frisson, and to get a sense of my place in the world. But at the crux of it all is the desire—the necessity–to write, and to hopefully impart that desire to an eager reader.

Guest Post, Caleb Nelson: The Oulipian Strategy

guest post, Caleb NelsonTHE OULIPIAN STRATEGY

We might think of Ouilpo as the ultimate writing workshop program. Of course, Ouilpo is more than that. The organization has a longevity few literary groups can claim. In the essay “Raymond Queneau and the Early Oulipo,” scholar Warren Motte writes, “Oulipo has certainly shattered the record of longevity for literary groups, leaving Dada, Surrealism, Futurism, Lettrism, Situationism, and so forth behind like so many sleek but abashed hares bested by the tortoise.” The constant quasi-religious in-fighting of groups like Lettrism and Surrealism made it almost impossible for the members to remain a unit. For example, André Breton’s excommunications of those like Robert Desnos and Raymond Queneau (Oulipo’s cofounder) seems almost tyrannical in hindsight. Ouilpo somehow avoids this. As Motte describes, “No excommunications here, no ritual immolations, no spectacular au·to-da-fé, no gore-drenched seppukus.” Oulipo achieves this relative peace perhaps out of its very ambitions and aims, its structuring.

Raymond Queneau described Oulipo as “Rats who build the labyrinth from which they try to escape.” In an essay called, “Into the Maze: OUILPO,” scholar Mónica de la Torre argues, “The concerns of the original members of the Oulipo were, at least, two-fold: on the one hand, they wanted to write literature that could not be easily consumed and disposed of, literature that was always in the making… Oulipians also wanted to devise a system to guarantee that writers would not run out of innovative formal possibilities.” There’s a playful paradox at work here. The Oulipian literary model attempts to impose arbitrary constraints on the writing process, and, at the same time, hopes to produce lasting, transformative (non-disposable) works of art, which suggests there’s a useful/latent degree of freedom lurking within such constraint. The idea of not running “out of innovative formal possibilities” might seem sort of old hat in our age of algorithms, but it wasn’t in the 1960s.

Oulipians wanted to maintain a system of procedural innovations for writers, but they also wanted their literature to be transformative. They differed from the Surrealists in the sense that they considered “automatic writing” to be a form of cheating. According to Queneau, in his 1963 essay, “Potential Literature,” he says the Oulipian goal is “To propose new ‘structures’ to writers, mathematical in nature, or to invent new artificial or mechanical procedures that will contribute to literary activity: props for inspiration as it were, or rather, in a way, aids for creativity.” Again, it’s kind of like the ultimate writing workshop formula(s)/exercise(s). Torre explains the exciting, if not obvious, possibilities of such a program, “Thanks to the Oulipo, poets with writers’ block can explore lipograms, perverbs, antonymic translations, homophonic translations, spoonerisms, centos, heterograms, pangrams, and a myriad of other forms instead of agonizing over the blank page.” Oulipo didn’t invent these forms or procedures, but rather, according to Torre, they rescued them from “literary oblivion.”

A writer I love and admire comes out of the Oulipian world, the Italian short story writer Italo Calvino. Calvino has a wonderful collection of short stories called Marcovaldo, which are obviously still worth reading today. In an essay called “Cybernetics and Ghosts,” Calvino describes some foundational Oulipian assumptions. He writes, “primitive oral narratives, like the folk tale that has been handed down almost to the present day, is molded on fixed structures, on, we might almost say, prefabricated elements – elements, however, that allow of an enormous number of combinations.” Here, we see again the Oulipian fascination with a predetermined “labyrinth” as a set of literary possibilities. Calvino goes on. He argues, “Even if the folk imagination is therefore not boundless like the ocean, there is no reason to think of it as being like a water tank of small capacity. On an equal level of civilization, the operation of narrative, like those of mathematics, cannot differ all that much from one people to another, but what can be constructed on the basis of these elementary process can present unlimited combinations, permutations, and transformations.” Combinations. Permutations. Transformations. Calvino, rather brilliantly, outlines the Oulipian strategy. I have to say, this program/project may partially explain Oulipo’s longevity. The possibilities within this mazelike framework are unexpectedly open and endless.

Guest Post, Johannah Knudson: Three Difficult Names

In the summer of 1991, I visited Saint Petersburg, Russia, with a group of “youth ambassadors.” The Cold War was melting, the Soviet Empire was crumbling, and efforts were being made to forge personal and political connections between two regions long divided by competition and suspicion.

The city had recently returned to its original name. In 1703, Peter the Great had founded and effectively named the city after himself. Then, in 1914, at war with Germany, the city became Petrograd—a distinctively Russian, rather than Germanic, name. Almost a decade later, after the Bolsheviks took power, the city was dubbed Leningrad, which it remained until 1991.

I stood in the city in the midst of this transition, its attempt to reclaim something of its former self by returning to its former name.

The Irony of Leningrad

The irony of Leningrad is that Lenin itself was not the original name of the man it referred to. It was a name intentionally acquired by a revolutionary with big ambitions. The man in question was born Vladimir Ulyanov. To cover its bases, in 1924, the Soviet Union designated a different city Ulyanovsk.

In fact, three major figures of the Bolshevik Revolution had all changed their names. While working to subvert the Russian Empire, Lenin wished to avoid capture by hiding his identity-not coincidentally choosing a pseudonym that was both terse and memorably alliterative. Lev Davidovich Bronstein became Leon Trotsky to distance himself from his Jewish ancestry, an effort that was ultimately unsuccessful, despite even his own antisemitic rhetoric. And Joseph Dzhugashvili became Joseph Stalin because—well—Stalin means steel. It was a statement of personality and philosophy. It was a kind of one-word manifesto.

My Own Contrivance

When my grandfather was born in 1905 in Miskolc, Hungary, his parents gave him a last name different from their own. While my great grandfather’s surname was Rosenzweig, my grandfather’s was Racz. Together with his first name, Zoltan, my grandfather’s name was consummately Hungarian.

I used to think that the name change was an effort to hide the family’s Jewish identity in an atmosphere of antisemitism, but this explanation doesn’t quite compute; my great grandparents were highly religious and my grandfather became a rabbi, hardly an effort to hide his religious identification. Though the family was undeniably subject to antisemitism, the name change in 1905 Hungary most likely was an effort to assimilate in terms of nationality, not religion, in a society that elevated Hungarian national identity above all others.

Ironically, outside of Hungary, the name Racz is a mark of ethnic and national difference. In the U.S., it is typically encountered as unfamiliar and unpronounceable. In effect, because my family immigrated to North America, it became a different name, not one of belonging or sameness, but one of separation.

I’ve spent my life both correcting others’ pronunciation of my name and deciding how to pronounce it myself; would I roll the r, would I say the cz like tz as done in Hungarian—a language I do not speak? Would this be more authentic than an Americanized pronunciation such as Racks or Race or Rahz or Rocks?

I was trying to find my original, authentic name, my “real” name.

But I could not find it. There was no “real” name—by virtue of my grandfather’s name change and then my family’s change of country and context. My name was wholly my own, connected to a history but not predetermined by it.

And then I changed it.

My last name is now Knudson. To be clear, the K is audible, pronounced almost as if it were its own separate syllable, but not quite.

The reason I considered changing my name at all when I married was its history, which taught me that a name is not identical to that which it names. My name was—is— a point of choice rather than an inevitability.

The Name of God

In Hebrew, the most sacred of name of God is never spoken. Rather, one way to refer to God is HaShem, literally, the name.

Within this is an acknowledgement of language’s propensity to limit, the way its inevitable connotations make it unsuitable to refer to that which is beyond definition: God, the infinite.

In this way, theoretically, either by remaining beyond speech, or, alternatively, by being the name instead of a name, God can exist apart from circumstance and context, from concerns of nationality or politics or culture or campaigns for power or control—while also encompassing it all.

The infinity of God remains.

Being There

As human beings, with names, we can’t remain infinite. We take names with histories and connotations, and intentional and unintentional meanings that locate us within a social, political, and historical framework. When we learn someone’s name, it becomes inextricably linked to our sense of who they are.

A sequence of three names identifies me, Johannah Racz Knudson, each term of which is commonly considered difficult to pronounce. Each is subject to misunderstanding or doubt, which reminds me constantly that no name is identical to its owner. I’m constantly negotiating the distance between my self and my name. Even as I’m asking the world to get it—to get me—right, the experience itself shows that there is no perfect union between name and essence.

Via my “difficult” name, I am inscrutable, but also undefined.

A Slippery Medium

As writers, we work in a slippery medium, one that points to something but that is, in essence, nothing. Names, words, are carefully arbitrarily selected. When we write them, we believe we know what we are saying. We do our best. We write and revise. We name and rename. We write a poem and then another.

Regimes rise and fall. People move across borders and oceans. Names change. Languages. Words flow, in flux.

And we write them down, as they are, right now, in this moment. If we’re lucky, someone, somewhere, reads them, and understands.

Guest Post, Ramona Reeves: Seeing Buffalo

The buffalo blocked the two-lane road. Barely six-years-old, I had no notion of the rarity of this intimate sighting. In the distance a herd of the mythic beasts gathered in clumps across the Oklahoma reservation to eat pale, ankle-high prairie grass. The car’s engine hyperventilated in a get, get, get rhythm. The open sky and expansive plains mocked us. My mother sheepishly honked the horn once or twice, but the buffalo (technically a bison) held its ground. It may have been five or fifteen minutes until she finally surrendered and cut off the engine.

The next time I saw roaming buffalo was more than four decades later in Caprock Canyon, a remote state park in Texas. The buffalo ran toward a lake for their morning drink in early July as we circled the park both searching for them and surveying the available hiking trails. Again, a regal beast blocked the road. Behind the lake, brown lumpy hills of short grass and Mesquite transformed into orange-red cliffs dotted with green. The buffalo came and went as they pleased, and soon I realized we were the ones in the way. But it wasn’t until that moment that I recalled the first encounter in the avocado-green Oldsmobile accompanied by my mom, my grandmother, and the friend we were visiting.

I’m no expert on the brain, but I wonder about such trigger points and the workings of memory. I especially wonder about them in connection to writing, how on the best days the words flow and unexpected links appear, as though risen from the dead. Such memories do seem to move like ghosts across my mind, the actor in those memories both me and not me. Specific details often elude, but the feeling and some truth of what happened remains.

I’ve read that our brains experience a recalled moment the same as if it is happening in real time. That the brain can accomplish this feat hints at the illusory nature of time and the connectedness and layering of experience. Amazing, yes, but the downside of the brain’s indiscretion is not without trepidation; there’s plenty most of us don’t want to relive, but for writers maybe there’s an upside. During the process of telling a story, we are given the opportunity to make more sense of derailed experiences, the ones that both wounded and defined us. Maybe writing allows us to grapple with those experiences in more satisfying ways, even if the result remains the same.

After I began writing this, I went to New Mexico for a weekend. While there, a dear colleague, who is part of indigenous culture, gave me and several others a buffalo tooth. She knew nothing about the large animals recently populating my memory when she told us the buffalo is a sacred animal, majestic and symbolic of gratitude, abundance, and blessing. Recalling the buffalo at Caprock Canyon and the one that blocked the road when I was young, I can understand why our indigenous neighbors ascribe greatness and meaning to the brown-bearded giant, an animal capable of running 35 miles per hour and surviving harsh winters. An animal capable of surviving near-decimation in the nineteenth century and reclaiming its place in the world.

It’s strange how a new event can call past memories through a different doorway where a new light catches the hidden layers, revealing what we didn’t know at the time and assigning deeper meaning to what we do know. Much understanding seems to pivot on these moments of illumination. I didn’t know until my grandmother died, for example, that she wrote the occasional essay or poem, which deepened my understanding of those moments when she encouraged me to write.

In his book Narrative Design Madison Smartt Bell discusses modular design. Bell says, “What modular design can do is liberate the writer from linear logic, those chains of cause and effect, strings of dominoes always falling forward.” He goes on to say that modular design has less to do with motion and more to do with shapeliness. And he mentions that “modular design allows the writer to throw off the burden of chronology, as much as possible.”

Although Bell is referring to structure in fiction, it seems to me these observations might just as easily apply to nonfiction. Perhaps this is something many nonfiction writers know, but as someone who’s written mostly fiction, I was struck by an idea: Modular design, with its ability to move more freely, to be shuffled and reorganized, may come closest to mimicking memory, which is anything but chronological.

That a structure might exist to corral memory is appealing, though I’m hesitant to completely let go of its wildness. Lately, memory seems to me its own bearded beast, both majestic and mysterious in its ability to run alongside our lives when we are not paying attention, and to help us see and make connections when we are.

Guest Post, Josef Kuhn: A Retrospective Review of The Moviegoer

Love and Existentialism in New Orleans: A Retrospective Review of The Moviegoer

“On this my thirtieth birthday, I know nothing and there is nothing to do but fall prey to desire.” So says Binx Bolling, the ironical hero of Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer. At one time, Walker Percy was a literary superstar. The Moviegoer, his first book, was published in 1961 to glowing reviews, and it won the National Book Award that year, establishing Percy as one of the foremost voices of Southern literature. Since then, the novel has been included on numerous “best novels of the century”-type lists. Yet whenever I mention Percy’s name to friends today, nobody seems to have heard of him (except those in Catholic literary circles, for reasons that will perhaps become clearer below). I’m here to say that this is a crying shame.

The Moviegoer fuses the philosophical complexity and spiritual intensity of a Russian novel with the Southern tradition of the “familial decline” plot. Think Dostoyevsky meets Faulkner. Binx Bolling is a boyish thirty-year-old from a genteel New Orleans family who could do virtually anything that he wants with his life—and yet, faced with such freedom, he chooses to live in a featureless suburb, selling stocks and frittering his time away with pretty secretaries. His step-cousin Kate is similarly aimless, caught in a dialectic of mania and depression caused in part by her overbearing mother, Binx’s aunt. When this aunt puts pressure on Binx to make something more of his life, it forces a crisis that sends him and Kate careening on an ill-advised Mardi Gras journey.

For one thing, Percy’s prose is scintillating, some of the most finely tuned I have ever had the pleasure to read. He depicts the subtleties of landscapes and scenery with a painterly attention to detail: “A mare’s tail of cirrus cloud stands in high from the Gulf. High above the Lake a broken vee of ibises points for the marshes; they go suddenly white as they fly into the tilting salient of sunlight.” (Given Percy’s frequent attention to the qualities of light and atmosphere as well as his spiritual themes, it’s not a surprise that filmmaker Terrence Malick almost made a screen adaptation of The Moviegoer.) Percy has a talent for finding the exact metaphor or simile that, when you read it, convinces you that no other metaphor or simile would possibly do, as in “The blue boat rides up and down the bayou, opening the water like a knife.”

Physical description may be the lowest rung of mastery for a writer, but Percy brings the same level of acuity and subtlety to his observations of human character. For instance, Binx observes about his cousin’s fiancée: “What is funny is that Walter always starts out in the best brilliant-young-lawyer style of humoring an old lady by letting her get the better of him, whereas she really does get the better of him.” In a dinner-table scene involving Binx’s family, every gesture and line of dialogue seems to reveal some new element of the intricate subtext. Even in the briefest sketches, the most minor characters stand out as fully realized and lifelike:

“As he talks, he slaps a folded newspaper against his pants leg and his eye watches me and at the same time sweeps the terrain behind me, taking note of the slightest movement. A green truck turns down Bourbon Street; the eye sizes it up, flags it down, demands credentials, waves it on. A businessman turns in at the Maison Blanche building; the eye knows him, even knows what he is up to. And all the while he talks very well. His lips move muscularly, molding words into pleasing shapes, marshalling arguments, and during the slight pauses are held poised, attractively everted in a Charles-Boyer pout—while a little web of saliva gathers in a corner like the clear oil of a good machine. Now he jingles the coins deep in his pocket. No mystery here!—he is as cogent as a bird dog quartering a field. He understands everything out there and everything out there is something to be understood.”

But even more than Percy’s technical virtuosity, what I find most remarkable about him as a writer is his existential audacity, the boldness and originality of his intellectual vision. He is ever attentive to the particularities of history and geography, yet in The Moviegoer, he also dares to stride right past such temporal concerns to grapple with perhaps the most fundamental question faced by conscious being: How does one deal with the freedom of one’s own existence? This, in fact, seems to be the whole point of “the search,” an idea that recurs to Binx throughout the novel. Binx has a whole private lexicon of terms that seem ripped right out of Kierkegaard (e.g. “repetition,” “the malaise”) to describe his little phenomenological “researches.” Both he and Kate are acutely aware of the flimsiness of the solutions that modern society offers them—Binx claims his “only talent” is “a good nose for merde, for every species of shit that flies,” and Kate pokes fun at the shallow pedantry of her therapist, whose name, Merle, is suspiciously close to merde. What they’re dealing with is an emotional-intellectual problem that, as Kate describes it, is beyond the pale of 1960s psychotherapy:

“[Merle] got interested and suggested we look at the reasons. I said, Merle, how I wish you were right. How good to think that there are reasons and that if I am silent, it means I am hiding something. How happy I would be to be hiding something. And how proud I am when I do find secret reasons for you, your own favorite reasons. But what if there is nothing? That is what I’ve been afraid of until now—being found out to be concealing nothing at all.”

Percy is an ironist and a contrarian who takes pleasure in puncturing the banal pieties of his day, especially those of educated society. In one of the most hilarious passages, Binx lampoons a radio program called This I Believe in which high-minded celebrities state their personal credos. “If I had to name a single trait that all these people shared,” Binx says, “it is their niceness. Their lives are triumphs of niceness. … Everyone on This I Believe believes in the uniqueness and dignity of the individual. I have noticed, however, that the believers are far from unique themselves, are in fact alike as peas in a pod.” By the end of The Moviegoer, it becomes clear that Percy’s primary satirical target is a kind of shallow, toothless scientific humanism that is replacing people’s ability to independently contemplate the meaning and purpose of their own lives. It is a brave new vision of the world in which “needs are satisfied, everyone becomes an anyone, a warm and creative person, and prospers like a dung beetle, and one hundred percent of people are humanists and ninety-eight percent believe in God, and men are dead, dead, dead.”

Percy converted to Catholicism when he was about 30 years old, and Catholicism is present in a muted fashion throughout the book. But the novel rarely comes across as preachy, at least not in a religiously sectarian sense. I first read The Moviegoer when I was still nominally Catholic but teetering on the edge; the second time I read it, I was a non-religious agnostic. But if anything, I liked the novel even better the second time around. If the foregoing rant against scientific humanism sounds a tad reactionary, it’s worth noting that Binx is just as alienated from the thoughtless, conventional Catholic piety of his mother’s family as from the lofty universalist sentiments of his father’s. Percy never clearly comes down in support of any particular creed; Catholicism is just one more phenomenon that Binx is trying to make sense of as part of his existential search.

The book does, however, have a tendency to wax philosophical; if you don’t like your fiction with large doses of existential musing, then The Moviegoer is probably not for you. Reportedly, Percy’s later novels became increasingly dark and didactic (though probably no more so than, say, Sartre’s or Dostoyevsky’s). Perhaps this later didactism accounts for his relative obscurity today. I cannot vouch for the later work, but I can attest that The Moviegoer, at least, is a masterpiece of American literature that feels every bit as relevant in today’s fragmented, decentered social world as it must have in 1961. For any craft-conscious writer, or for any reader who enjoys dwelling on existential themes, this book is not to be missed.

Guest Post: William Cordeiro: Once More, with Feeling

Feel? Let the reader feel!
—Fernando Pessoa

James Merrill, Richard Wilbur, David Kalstone, and a couple others were once at Merrill’s house in Key West when they each decided to write a poem that morning. When Merrill came downstairs to show his work, Wilbur said, “Well, Jimmy, it’s very fine—very formally sound, it’s just… missing something.”

“Oh right,” Merrill said, “I forgot to put in the feelings!” He raced upstairs, and, in another hour or so, doctored his poem. He then read the new version to the delight of all.

I remembered this anecdote while down in Tucson a few weeks ago, attending the UA Poetry Center’s Bagley Wright Lecture Series. Timothy Donnelly made a comment that’s stuck with me; he claimed he was more of a “constructivist” poet, as opposed to an “expressivist” poet, meaning that he often didn’t have anything particular to say—he just liked building things, tinkering, working with the materials of his chosen medium. Constructivists, like Merrill and Donnelly, can sometimes forget to put in the feelings.

The impulse of a constructivist is to make patterns. Three rocks scattered in the woods might not seem significant, Donnelly said, but three rocks stacked in a cairn do. We observe the imposition of human consciousness. However, we don’t necessarily know what such patterns signify—turn left, straight ahead, or look out for the poison oak. Likewise, in poetry, patterns create music and architecture, arrangements which suggest mood and sensibility: penumbras inflecting and leaching out into the tone, the heft, the configuration of a poem beyond its ostensible content.

Expressivists, on the other hand, tend to have something specific to convey. Language acts as a medium of communication by means of which the author’s ideas, experience, or emotions can be transferred to the reader. An expressivist poem is thus a more chiseled version of the way we use language in everyday life. In some cases, it strives for a message, a moral, and it has designs to incite political action.

Every poet, perhaps every poem, must figure out how to reconcile these divergent motives. The results of this balancing act contribute to one’s style. Although there are limitations to this (or any) binary, Donnelly’s distinction proves useful in observing a trend and unpacking the forces behind it: American poetry is having an expressivist moment.

In the ’90s and 2000s, the pendulum swung away from the Confessional poets. New Formalists and LANGUAGE poets, New York Schoolers and Ellipticals alike could be deemed constructivists while Slam poetry, as an example of expressivist work of that era, infrequently saw the pages of literary journals. One might argue, too, that the immediacy of Slam poetry is suited for the voice and stage, rather than the drier archival pages of journals anyway.

Today’s poetry scene, with journals now mostly online and many hosting video content, values immediacy. Expressivist poems appear urgent, direct, sincere, visceral, approachable, and woke. They’re bone spurs and gut-punches, shivers and fist bumps. Constructivists poems, by contrast, will always have critics who accuse them of being empty, academic, confusing, oblique, or baroque. Constructivist poems can be ponderous, requiring interpretation and repeated readings, though a handful of constructivists have developed enough panache or sprezzatura to avoid this fate. A certain elitism prevails among constructivist poets, since their work, whether harnessing traditional modes or disrupting them, appeals to what Milton called a “fit audience… though few.” They require the reader to pick among the stones they’ve set and wander in the runes, as it were. The reader must construct and deconstruct along with them.

That said, the expressivist poem, so popular currently, faces the dangers of being obvious, too literal, a tad boring, blunt and underwritten, and ultimately little more than dressed-up journalism. Expressivists foreground the author over the work. Thus, expressivists can develop hang-ups about authenticity. An expressivist poet may fall to repeating herself, boxed in by her own voice, the work shrinking to the size of a single viewpoint instead of expanding to encompass the multiplicities of the imagination.

The trend toward expressivists might, of course, result from a political climate in which readers are spoiling for poems that give voice to their anger and disorientation, as well as greater institutional awareness and efforts to expand the variety of perspectives represented at all levels of publication. Also, poems that spill their guts might rise to the top of slush piles: blood floats on ink. Busy editors sometimes just don’t have time to re-read and interpret delicate, challenging, or more subtly structured work before casting it aside in today’s clamorous marketplace.

A counterargument to my own analysis above, however, is the state of creative nonfiction (CNF) today. CNF has been trending more constructivist lately. The heyday of the echt memoir was the 90s and early 2000s—think Mary Karr, Frank McCourt, James Frey. As opposed to straight narrative, today’s CNF is lyrical, collaged, broken, braided, collated, curated, speculative, or anagogical: it emphasizes its structure and shifting registers and embedded texts; it’s by turns hermetic and punchy, colloquial and precious, erudite and rude. Given this newfound stress on form, and the play that form affords, essays are increasingly like poems—at least, poems with a constructivist bent—and it’s no accident that many of our major essayists are bona fide poets: Maggie Nelson, Ander Monson, Anne Carson, John D’Agata, Kevin Young, Lia Purpura, Nick Flynn, and Claudia Rankine, to name just a few.

This tendentious bifurcation between “constructivists” and “expressivists” aside, as writers we should perhaps recognize that all expression must be constructed; all construction yields some expression. So, writers whose temperament is mushy might benefit from thinking how to give shape and definition to their sentiment through more attention to structures, logics, forms, and outward facts. And those, like myself, who tend to dawdle over form for form’s sake, need to circle back to ask: What am I bothering to say? Does it matter? And, importantly, am I giving my reader the feels?