March 3


American prose aspiring to be poetry

At my university, we have a reading group for fiction writers. A few weeks ago, we looked at paragraphs. Each of us brought in one paragraph we admired so the group could examine it, pull it apart.

The first paragraph we discussed came from Don Delillo's White Noise:

Babette and I do our talking in the kitchen. The kitchen and the bedroom are the major chambers around here, the power haunts, the sources. She and I are alike in this, that we regard the rest of the house as storage space for furniture, toys, all the unused objects of earlier marriages and different sets of children, the gifts of lost in-laws, the hand-me-downs and rummages. Things, boxes. Why do these possessions carry such sorrowful weight? There is a darkness attached to them, a foreboding. They make me wary not of personal failure and defeat but of something more general, something large in scope and content.

This is lovely, of course.

Gary Lutz claims, in his seminal essay, “The Sentence is a Lonely Place,” that if you carefully attend to the individual letters and syllables in your writing, then you will discover in them the seeds of new words, new images, new ideas. In other words: good prose is not simply beautiful to your readers. It is helpful to you, its writer. Attention to the words that you have put down will show you what words to put next.

Lutz comments:

Gordon Lish… instructed his students in a poetics of the sentence that emphasized what he called consecution: a recursive procedure by which one word pursues itself into its successor by discharging something from deep within itself into what follows. The discharge can take many forms and produces startling outcomes, such as when Christine Schutt, in “The Summer after Barbara Claffey,” is seeking the inevitable adjective to insert into the final slot in the sentence “Here is the house at night, lit up tall and ______.” What she winds up doing is literally dragging forward the previous adjective, tall, and using it as the base on which further letters can be erected. The result is the astounding, perfect tallowy—the sort of adjective she never could have arrived at if she had turned a synonymicon upside down in search of words that capture the quality of light.

In the above paragraph from White Noise, I believe it's possible to see Delillo doing exactly this–not the “consecution” precisely, perhaps, but the building-of-new-words-according-to-their-predecessors. While I wasn't there when Delillo wrote these lines, one can trace vowel sounds repeating in the sentences, and speculate that it was those vowel sounds that led to the word choices, that brought them into being in Delillo's mind.

For instance, in the paragraph's second sentence, once Delillo decides on either “major” or “chambers,” he then looks to repeat the a sound, resulting in “major chambers.” Then he duplicates not just the a of “chamb” but the o of “jor,” as well, to produce “power haunts.” “Sources” also repeats the recurring “o.”

Other sentences contain similar patterns. The double o of “possessions” is repeated in “sorrowful,” as is the single o of “scope” and “content.”

As if aspiring to the condition of poetry, the passage attempts to affect its reader with aural repetitions, and with phrases and claims that do not quite open up to rational unpacking. What does “sources” mean in terms of architecture? One understands, more or less, its connection to “major chambers,” without being able to pin down one specific meaning.

There is a different feature of this paragraph which adds to its feeling of being close to poetry: Delillo's narrator does very little explaining. On the one hand, the passage is extremely cohesive. It's easy to imagine the second sentence as the “answer” to the first (why do they do their talking in the kitchen?), and the third as the answer to the second (why is the rest of the house not suitable?).

On the other hand, we have only one sentence that has a subordinating or logical function, the “why” sentence. The rest of the paragraph presents, in additive style, the narrator's impressions. He doesn't, at least in this passage, speculate on causes or reasons, or try to order his observations in relevance (with subordinating terms like “even though” or “because”).

The speaker is simply there, unable to alter or fully comprehend. He is like a swimmer, treading water, conscious of but not able to grasp the vast depths underneath his kicking feet.

I feel like this is a particularly contemporary and particularly American way of writing prose.




Christine Schutt, Don Delillo, Gary Lutz, Gordon Lish writing tips

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  • I love what Lish said about the poetics of the sentence. Thanks for the blog and the link to Lutz’s essay.

    • Lutz’s essay is pretty overwhelming on first read: have fun! Are you by any chance going to AWP (or waiting for Seattle)?

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