Medger Evers and Eudora Welty

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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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William Walsh’s “Literary Pillars”

After examining three bookshelf walls in our home—one in the living room and two in the basement (one on the “finished” side of the basement and one of the side of the basement with the boiler and the washer/drier), here’s a list of fifty books that pillar my reading and writing life:

  1. Success by Martin Amis
  2. Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson
  3. Leviathan by Paul Auster
  4. The Fermata by Nicholson Baker
  5. 60 Stories by Donald Barthelme
  6. The Watch by Rick Bass
  7. Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
  8. Among the Thugs by Bill Buford
  9. The Most Beautiful Woman in Town by Charles Bukowski
  10. The Stranger by Albert Camus Continue reading

New Books Roundup #1

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Alternately bizarre, poignant, and unsettlingly funny, William Walsh’s Ampersand, Mass.—the titular town situated somewhere between Winesburg, Ohio and Yoknapatawpha County—brings Donald Barthelme’s darkly comedic compressions to mind. These fragmentary, non sequitur-filled stories, peopled by ne’er-do-wells, nincompoops, and priapic not-quite-post-adolescents, circumvent expectations, the seemingly desultory images and events actually carefully sutured together to evoke the sadness, anomie, rebellion, boredom, apathy, and, yes, even heart and kindness that you might find within a small-town in these altered and dissociated states of America. Marked by concision and precision, a commanding use of narrative ellipsis, and humor and utter strangeness, these stories, moving between strange and funny and sad, sometimes in the same story, sometimes in the same paragraph, might just cut you up, in both senses of the phrase.

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Three poems: Two after “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”, One on Pilgrimage

Three wonderful writers sent in poems–two after one of Stevens’s most popular and most influential poems, “Thirteen Ways of Looking a Blackbird” In alphabetical order: Tiff Holland, W.F. Lantry, and William Walsh

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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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