Sunday, May 19, 2024

Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote (1939).

It was not too long ago that I discovered I was a character in a work of fiction.  At least that's how the whole business seems have turned out.  It was not the discovery I was expecting to make, by any means.  It's not like you can just wake up one morning and expect to find that the nature of your entire life is akin to that of words made of ink on a page?  And so, here am I.  The way it all came about was simple.  To tell you truth it was all down to nothing more than what I would have otherwise thought of as little more than a minor private pastime.  In order to explain why something like a seemingly inconsequential personal hobby can be enough to turn a flesh and blood human being into just another picture in a book, some explanation is in order.  I've been a reader and a viewer all my life, you see.  I can still recall the first clear and unbroken memory I ever had of single day in my life.  I must have been no more than five, and I'm walking into my family living room.  The TV is on, and the first thing I see, my first complete memory, is of an animated TV show featuring characters created by a man whose name I will later learn is called Jim Henson.  As my young self continues to watch the show, all that happens is Uncle Jim metaphorically takes my hand, and proceeds to teach me the value of the Imagination as a means of creativity.  Looking back, that seems to have been the start of the whole business, really.  I've been a fan of the arts ever since.

It really does seem like from that moment on, my focus in life was on the world of the Arts.  The Imagination and its ability to tell stories seems to have become one of the key guiding passions of my life.  One of my main avenues for plugging into reality, if that makes any sense.  Thanks to the efforts of Henson, and others like Spielberg and Don Bluth, I was granted the ability to be curious about how stories are made and what they all mean.  It's a path I haven't really strayed from since.  Looking back, I think the best part of getting hooked on all of this stuff was that was I never aware at any point that I was receiving a lesson.  I was just having too much darn fun to bother with the notion that I might have been learning something at the same time.  Looking back on it now, I've come to regard stumbling upon gifts like that as perhaps the best and truest way to teach any valuable subject to a person, no matter their age.  Anyway, the point is that from that moment on, I was a student of film, and later books.

When I learned to read for myself it was like discovering yet another key to an unnoticed secret casement.  The best way I can describe the value of becoming a bookworm is to say that it's like being able not just grasp or reach at least some kind of understanding of reality, it's also that for a moment or two, you're able to hold a potentially valuable aspect of it in your hands.  I can't tell how much sense I must be making now.  I'm also not so sure it matters.  Those who know what its like to come under the spell of good storytelling will know what I mean.  If a filmmaker like Henson was the gardener who planted the original seed in my mind, then it was later writers like Dr. Suess, Charles Schulze, Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, and J.R.R. Tolkien who taught me that the essence of stories all comes from the words on the page before it ever can or will exist anywhere else.  

So, to reiterate, I was a reader and a filmgoer to begin with.  These twins aspects of a life must be kept in mind, because otherwise nothing I'm about to explain about the occasional hobby that grew out of this process will make sense.  It's only with the full picture in place that you'll be able to understand what it's like to turn into a work of fiction.  The way this latter half of my tale came about is natural enough if you're the kind of person who likes to read and watch a lot of stories.  As I got older I began the normal process of growing up to be a discerning reader.  Rather, let's say that I've gotten somewhat better at being able to tell a good work of narration from either the minor, or else just plain bad.  What I think few people, even the professionals never bother to keep in mind, is that the Art of Writing is very much one big game of chance.  I've heard the act of literary composition described as the same type of job as any other manual labor, like brick laying or architecture.  I'm willing to admit a great deal of truth in that sentiment.  What I think even the best authors seem to miss about this aspect of the trade is that their really describing no more than the Craft of their jobs.  When it comes the actual capital-A Art of telling stories, then I'm afraid everyone is either a rookie or veteran Vegas gambler, and the house odds are always stacked against your favor.  Good writing isn't just labor, it also involves a lot of dumb luck.

Another way to say it is that the best writing often winds up as one big game of Go Fish.  The artist tries to turn their attention to the Imagination, and then just hopes and prays that something will happen.  That a really creative idea will pop up into their head, like a flair sent up from the middle of a vast lake.  I've read and studied this phenomenon enough to know that this is pretty the ultimate standard operating procedure for all writers.  All are at the mercy of the Muse.  The trouble with this method of operation is that when you get right down to it, all that the literary game of Go Fish amounts to is just gambling with the odds.  It's the basic idea of rolling the dice or betting on the lucky number by other means, no more, no less.  In that sense, much like running and playing the odds in Vegas, all the really best books amount to little more than hopeful bets that somehow managed to come up all Aces and Jacks.  An even better way to put it is that the successful story belongs to whoever is lucky enough to draw that tricksy wild card in their favor.  If all that sounds less than promising, then the real kick in the teeth is that there is no sure-fire formula for working the odds in your favor.  It's proven impossible to cheat the Imagination.  You either play by its rules and wind up with a maybe publishable book, or else you take your little red wagon and go home, never to show your face at this particular dice table ever again.

There is one aspect to this whole literary gaming table that's begun to fascinate me in recent years.  I'm not talking about the blockbuster successes or the cringeworthy failures anymore, here.  Nor am I thinking about at all about the middle of the roaders, the types of storytellers who are good enough to be remembered, even if they're not in the company of the greats.  The type of stories that have begun to draw more of my attention of late are the ones where the roll of the dice somehow just didn't pay out, yet you'll swear its almost possible to see the faint hints, traces, and outlines of how things could have worked if the writer had just a little bit more careful.  What I'm talking about now, in other words, are those moments where you run across a story that is an objective poor showing, if maybe not just plain bad.  These are the less than successful efforts where nonetheless a careful study of the material leaves the notion that you can just begin to see how things might have been able to work out with better success.  If only the artist had paid greater attention to the artistic material they were working with.  If they had just taken a bit more time to work out this particular plot point, or chosen to explore this otherwise unexamined bit of narrative thread, then things might have been different.  I don't say the finished product would have been a masterpiece.  Yet at least it might have had a better chance of being a genuine entertainment.  These are the ground rules for the kind of unfinished story I'm thinking of.

There are some books and films out there, in other words, where you can tell there was a lot good potential to be had, and yet the bet just never came off.  The author didn't play the cards he was dealt as well as he should or could have.  Are you starting to see what I mean when I say that writing is like gambling?  You take a chance on a roll of the dice, and the worst plays are the one's where you can see in retrospect how things could have been better if you'd just played your cards different, or given the writing a bit more of the effort needed to be, at the very least, a pretty decent read.  I've been fascinated by those almost success stories for sometime now.  What happened is I'd get to mulling over various finished products where I could tell the story still needed a bit of work.  The pastime I mentioned before got started when I began the serious effort of giving some actual thought into the question of whether or how could an essentially incomplete story be made better than what we got, or wound up with?  That was the key to the whole thing for me.  If you can find any halfway decent answer to that question, then you might have learned a thing or two about the Art of Storytelling that's not in any of the official dossiers.  So that's the hobby I've started.  I've taken works that seemed unfinished, and I began to mentally consider the all of the possible ways and means in which a mediocre tale can be a good one.

To my own surprise, I've managed to come up with a few possible solutions to a few final products that seemed lackluster.  I kind of surprised myself by stumbling upon what (to me, at least) sounds like a more promising narrative through line than the official one we've gotten for every single release in the Destiny video game franchise, for instance.  I'm not saying I've managed to find anything like a definitive storytelling solution.  Just one that grants the secondary world of those games a better overall plot, and hence a greater use of its recurring cast of characters.  That's a story for another day, however.  The point I've been working up to with all of this is that it was this relatively recent hobby of mine that lead by pure accident to the discovery that I was just a picture in a book.  The way that came about was that I happened to stumble by pure chance on the account of someone else who seems to have had the exact same idea more than 40 years before I was born.  I was doing nothing more than looking for something to read, and then I ran across the history of how some enterprising young wit in Argentina came to similar conclusions about how a merely competent story could become a potentially great one with just a bit of proper rewriting.  This is the story of "Pierre Menard", by Jorge Luis Borges.

Saturday, May 4, 2024

Stephen Kings Harrison State Park 68 (1968).

Let's get one thing clear, I am not an expert on modern poetry.  In fact, aside from one very recent instance, I can't for the life of me recall how many times I might have used snippets of the art form even for the sake of simple quotation.  I'm not even sure just what kind of reputation poetry enjoys at the moment, if I'm being honest.  The best understanding I've got on the situation is that the poem, while not disappeared, is very much a mode of writing that is sort of in a state of retreat, or eclipse.  It seems to have been subsumed once back into the particular type of art out which it originally emerged from, music.  That's where poetry got its start, after all.  Before there was the poem, there was the song.  Singing appears to have been one of mankind's oldest forms of artistic creation, something that goes all the way back to the time when we used to huddle in caves for shelter, and we all lived in the forest, because no one could live anywhere else.  What this turn of fortunes says about the popular reception of poems appears to mean that we no longer see the art of verse in quite the same way that our ancestors in the Renaissance or Victorian eras might have.  We're no longer part of a universe in which the rhyme couplet or the blank verse is considered to have any kind of intrinsic value of its own.  Prose has overtaken the practice of poetry.

If I had to take a guess for why that should be, then I'd have to chalk it up to an evolution in human artistic taste, pure and simple.  The poem proper seems to belong to a time when the prose story as we now have it wasn't even a glimmer of possibility in the mind of any of the major writers prior to the 18th century.  If you go back and look at the historical record of mankind's written works, you'll soon find that there was a time when the major form of literary expression wasn't the prose line, but rather that of verse.  Even every single line of dialogue that Shakespeare ever wrote has more in common with poetry than it does the kind of stylistic practices we expect from modern stage plays.  This is all because it really does appear to have taken us that long to perfect the idea of the prose mode of expression.  This in itself points to a whole history of how human beings conception of the art of storytelling tells its own tale of mental evolution.  One of those fundamental concepts that are so obvious its no wonder it takes so long for any of us to notice it.  It's a topic well worth digging into some other time, perhaps.

Right now, the main point is that this evolution in our understanding of how stories can be told means that with the advent of prose, the artistic expression of prosody soon found itself relegated to a kind authorial second-class citizen status.  As time went on, and some of the best names in the business came along and helped to develop the idea of the good prose line, the art of versification began to take a backseat to all the windows onto new vistas that were opening up for artists and audiences around the world.  This constant strand of development and craftsmanship applied to the non-lyrical mode of storytelling has lead us, with the passage of time to the current situation we now find ourselves.  The practice of novelistic literary writing seems to have reached its apex.  We're now perhaps as close to artistic perfection as the prose line is ever going to be able to achieve.  What few of us seem to have realized until just now is how this accomplishment in stylistic excellence has come at the cost of poetry itself.  It's as if there's been an unconscious law of exchange involved here.  Something that was always going on, yet we were too preoccupied to see it.  The better we were at using prose, the less of a need we had for the use of poetry.  It's gotten to the point where the very verse form that was once considered the height of literary sophistication is now regarded as something like an extra accessory implement.

Poetry has managed, through no fault of its own, to achieve the status of a mere literary tool, in other words.  It is no longer regarded as something of value on its own terms.  Instead, it's seen more as an accessory to other artforms like the novel, or even more to the point, the song of music.  When looked at from this perspective, the story of the poem has this strange, almost perfect cyclical quality.  It's practically a novel epic in its own right.  The story of a genre with lean and musical roots that is able to claim one bright and shining moment for itself, before slowly sinking once more back into the primordial cauldron of music from which it emerged.  The history and fortunes of poetry are pretty remarkable when you think about it.  What's even crazier is the idea that someone like Stephen King would even have anything to do it with.  Here's another instance where the curse of pop culture expectations comes into play.  So far as any of us know, Stephen King is just that guy who writes a lot of Horror stuff down in books.  He's never really been much of anything else so far as the mass audience expectations have been concerned.  So what on Earth is there to be said about the writer in connection with the lost art of verse?  Well, here's where Bev Vincent comes into the picture.

In an essay with the suggestive title of The Dead Zone (not the novel of the same name) Vincent makes a number interesting observations on the relation that King has to the writing of poetry.  "In a 2011 interview with the Atlantic, Stephen King shared his thoughts about poetry. “[Poetry] takes ordinary life,” he said, “it takes things that we all see, and concentrates them in this beautiful gem. When the good ones do that, that’s what you get.” He singled out Philip Larkin and James Dickey as poets who express life’s sometimes inexpressible beauty and mysteriousness and concluded, “poets … do speak God’s language—it’s better, it’s finer, it’s language on a higher plane than ordinary people speak in their daily lives (web)".  From there, Vincent goes on to make a very obvious admission on the subject.

"King might seem an unlikely arbiter of poetic language. His best-selling novels, short stories, and film adaptations—mostly but not exclusively in the horror genre—have earned him sobriquets ranging from “America’s Storyteller” to the “populist poet of American doom.” But King is also a committed poet, albeit not a prolific one. He’s published barely more than a dozen poems over the past five decades, most in small literary journals, although hundreds more exist on scraps of paper or in half-used notebooks, and several others appear in his novels as the work of his characters (ibid)".  The idea of King as someone with a commitment to poetry is an interesting idea.  The open question for me has to do with just how valid it is?  There's one poem of King's in particular that I recall reading not too far back, and for whatever reason (whether good or bad) it has always remained stuck in my head.

The title was Harrison State Park 68, if I recall.  It took a while to track down a useable copy of the poem online.  However, I now have the whole thing in my possession.  Having a chance to go over it once more has been an interesting sort of experience, and I'd like to share the results of it with you now.  In going over the 68 poem, I'm going to have to make considerable use of Vincent's essay.  In many ways, what follows is going to be something of a dialogue with the critic's views about the relation of King to poetry, as well as whatever merits the author deserves as a poet.  With this in mind, I think it's best if we let the original poem itself do the talking as a good way to start things off.