Big Other’s Birthday Tribute to William H. Gass, 2012

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Photo by Frank Di Piazza

It’s probably too easy a move to begin my very brief remarks about Gass’s use of architecture as a metaphor by trotting out the old horse of a quote about language being the house of Being, before flogging it to death once and for all; but it seems appropriate, nevertheless, to do so, especially when I think about Gass’s positing that the sentence is a container of consciousness. Actually, the quote from Heidegger is useful only when held in contrast with Gass’s ideas about language. Whereas Heidegger placed speech, that is, the continuum of speech, which includes talking, listening, and silence, at the center of his theory of language, Gass does not see writing as a mere supplement to speech. The continuum of writing includes four modes: persuasive, expository, expressive, and literary; and two hybrid modes: argumentative (a fusion of persuasive and expository) and critical (a fusion of expository and expressive) modes. Of these modes, it is the literary that receives the primary focus in Gass’s critical writing. And so, one might perhaps properly say that, for Gass, writing, or, rather, the sentence is the house of becoming. And what is it exactly that becomes in a sentence? For Gass, the sentence is a container of consciousness, a “verbal consciousness, of course, one built of symbols, not sensations; yet one of perceptions all the same: perceptions followed by thoughts like tracking hounds, and infused throughout by the energies of memory and desire, the moods emotions foster, and the reach, through imagery and other juxtapositions, of imagination…” (“The Aesthetic Structure of the Sentence”). Like any house, this container can take any number of forms:

[S]entences must be understood to contain all sorts of unused syntactical space; places that could be filled with more words, but, in any specific instance, aren’t…Sentences are like latticework, like fences, to be left open or prudently closed, their boards wide or narrow, pointy or level, the spaces between them, ditto….A sentence can sometimes give its reader such a strong sense of its overall character that it provokes a flight of fancy, a metaphorical description: it’s like a journey of discovery; it’s like a coil of rope, a triumphal column; it’s like a hallway or a chapel; it’s like a spiral stair. To me, for instance, Sir Thomas Browne’s triplet—“Grave stones tell truth scarce forty years. Generations pass while some trees stand, and old families last not three oak.”—with its relentlessly stressed syllables (seven strong to one weak in the first row, seven to two in the second course, and six to one in the last) resembles a wall. I can even locate spots (the weak stresses) where its stones have crumbled. Families come to pieces the way the word does.

Yes, architecture is a theme running throughout William Gass’s oeuvre, not only in his critical work but in his fictions as well, particularly in The Tunnel, where tunnel-as-metaphor is used as the very structure from which the novel is built.

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Jamie Iredell’s “Literary Pillars”

First, it was really hard to narrow this down to fifty “literary pillars,” for myself as a writer. I had to cut many good and influential books. Those I chose to cut I did so because when I thought about what I would say if someone asked me why that book was important to me as a writer, I thought my answer would be pretty nebulous. I don’t know why those books were important, really; they just were. So here I’ve gathered books that I feel I can provide an intelligent response to questions about why they were important. I’m probably missing a good number of important books, too—those that aren’t on my bookshelves at home because I borrowed them from friends, professors, or libraries, or they’re not coming to mind at the moment. Anyway, I feel safe enough, at least for this post, to explain why these fifty books were and are important to me as a writer. I’ve divided them up by genre:
Fiction

  1. On the Road, Jack Kerouac: I read this as a freshman in college and it was the book that made me decide I was going to be a writer. I had some pretty romantic ideals about my own group of friends and when I saw that someone else had written about his friends, and it was a great read, I figured I could do the same thing, since Sal and his buddies reminded me of me and mine.
  2. The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner: This was one of those books I was told I was supposed to read in college and when I first tried to I didn’t understand it and I couldn’t even get past Benjy’s section. Later, though, I read it again and something clicked and it was all very clear, and all very brilliant. The direct relation of images, events, and ideas to the reader, without much narratorial intervention, was hugely influential.
  3. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy: Another book everyone says you should read. I did and once I got in I didn’t want to get out. What’s amazing is how rich Tolstoy’s characters are and how your allegiances shift throughout the novel. One minute you’re thinking that Prince Andrei’s a total dick, and 200 pages later you’re in love with him.
  4. Moby-Dick, Herman Melville: I didn’t order these in any specific way and only wrote them down as they came to me and I could probably have a whole section of books that are about here’s what you can do with fiction that you never thought you could do until you read this. Moby-Dick is up there as one of my favorite novels. It’s formally crazy, incorporating multiple genres. It’s a prose poem, a really long one.
  5. Collected Stories, Flannery O’Connor: Really, if you want to learn how to write a short story you ought to just read everything that Flannery O’Connor ever wrote.
  6. Ray, Barry Hannah: Another whoa you can do that? book. Ray is downright fun. The shifts from the somewhat realistic setting of the majority of the novella into the Civil War scenes are particularly magical.
  7. Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy: I really love westerns, although I haven’t read many of them. But this is a western I can read and re-read. As with all McCarthy, I’m overcome with love for his use of language. His sentences somersault around with lovely details and rich music, even when he’s describing Native American babies’ heads being smashed against boulders. This book was important to my own novels, which I would say are westerns, those that are set at The Lake.
  8. Suttree, Cormac McCarthy: Here’s a great novel about . . . nothing. It’s like a proto-Seinfeld, but at the same time funnier and more serious. The amazing thing McCarthy pulls off with this plotless novel is how as a reader you feel like things are going to happen continuously, like you’re moving from one place to another, but nothing does happen, and you never get anywhere. But at the novel’s end you feel oddly satisfied with what you’ve read. I don’t know how he did that.
  9. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck: I could have a whole other sub-category of novels that are what I‘d call “road novels,” novels about characters traveling. The great thing that Steinbeck pulls off here is on the one hand telling a very personal story about a family’s survival in the face of terrible misfortune, and on the other hand showing us in pure poetry the conditions of millions of people all struggling through the Great Depression.
  10. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf: Mostly what I love about this book is the lesson about what a novelist can do with time. She can stretch out the events of a morning to cover hundreds of pages, or she can compress ten years into thirty. Also, what writer doesn’t like a good novel about creating art? Continue reading

Best of 2011, Part 2

Lots of great things happened in 2011 for Gary Amdahl, Donald Breckenridge, Tobias Carroll, Aaron Gilbreath, Johannes Göransson, Dylan Hicks, Christopher Higgs, Tim Horvath, Jamie Iredell, and David Peak.

Find Part One, here.

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Best of 2010, Part 1

Though this season has seen me being pummeled by the various viruses and whatnot that are floating around—not to mention succumbing, for perhaps the first time in my life, to some form of seasonal affective mood disorder—the year, as a whole, has had some bright moments (as Rahsaan Roland Kirk would say). At some point, I’ll post a list of what I enjoyed reading this year. In the meantime, I’ve asked many great writers to send along a list of some of their favorite books, music, films, events, moments, or whatever for 2010. As you’ll find below, these “bests” need not have been released this year. In this installment, check out lists by Scott Garson, Jamie Iredell, Norman Lock, Kevin Sampsell, and Ken Sparling. More to come, soon.

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Jamie Iredell on Stevens

I’m going to write about “Metaphor as Degeneration,” one of my favorite Stevens poems, from later in his career, from The Auroras of Autumn. I’ve always loved this poem, the idea behind it, but it strikes me now as particularly fun and funny because of an ongoing mock fight between myself and a fellow writer (Blake Butler) about metaphor, what it is, and how useful it can be in one’s writing.
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Metaphor as Degeneration

If there is a man white as marble
Sits in a wood, in the greenest part,
Brooding sounds of the images of death,

So there is a man in black space
Sits in nothing that we know,
Brooding sounds of river noises;

And these images, these reverberations,
And others, make certain how being
Includes death and the imagination.

The marble man remains himself in space.
The man in the black wood descends unchanged.
It is certain that the river

Is not Swatara. The swarthy water
That flows round the earth and through the skies,
Twisting among the universal spaces,

Is not Swatara. It is being.
That is the flock-flecked river, the water,
The blown sheen–or is it air?

How, then, is metaphor degeneration,
When Swatara becomes this undulant river
And the river becomes landless, waterless ocean?

Here the black violets grow down to its banks
And the memorial mosses hang their green
Upon it, as it flows ahead.

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A Sentence About a Sentence I Love: An Anthology, of Sorts

A few months ago, in April, to be exact, I started a series of posts entitled “A Sentence About a Sentence I Love” with a sentence about one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s magnificent sentences. This concentration, or, rather, this obsession with the sentence may have come from my, at the time, recent readings of William Gass’s essays wherein he concentrates much of his attention on the sentence as a primary building block in poetry and prose. Essays by Gass like “The Soul Inside the Sentence,” “The Sentence Seeks Its Form,” “The Architecture of the Sentence,” take as their focus the centrality of the sentence toward the construction of thought, and particularly of thoughts within the parameters of fiction. In “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction,” Gass claims that sentences are “the most elementary instances of what the author has constructed….a moving unity of fact and feeling.” Moreover, sentences

must be sounded, too; it has a rhythm, speed, a tone, a flow, a pattern, shape, length, pitch, conceptual direction. The sentence confers reality upon certain relations, but it also controls our estimation, apprehension, and response to them. Every sentence, in short, takes metaphysical dictation, and it is the sum of these dictations, involving the whole range of the work in which the sentences appear, which accounts for its philosophical quality, and the form of life in the thing that has been made (Fiction and the Figures of Life, 14).

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