The appeal of Roth to a poet?
Pretence to truthfulness in a book, which can be picked up or put down, or
perceived with faint daze before put down, ignores that many read books to be
titillated. From to be tickled. To be tickled as a child is one thing, and
tickling in adulthood an extra thing, of course.
Where does sobering literature go, then? Straight to the heart? Or to the
guilt? And is the guilt located in the heart, or is it passed (from one
person to the next person to whom s/he recommends the book; with the idea
that it is supposed to make interest in all other books feel newly
complicated; not a guilty pleasure, but an unpleasurable guilt; so that the
pleasure stands aside till the guilt is atoned for)?
Of the three books I've been reading for review this Christmas, at least one
clearly sets out to titillate, but I wonder which manage to evoke those basic
questions of logic and useful puzzlement that a child experiences. Why did
that scene move to that scene? Why did that happen? Children seem oblivious
to the page - where things are on the page, how one page moves to another
page. Children follow logic. They demand it, or ignore it when they can't
find it. Without logic, there is no guilt that leads to thought, only a bowed
head kind of guilt.
Performers in the city must read plays. So that echoes, of more than one,
come to bear on any performance. This is not quite saying poets should read
other poets (to be better poets). Poets should take the risk of reading other
poets for the risk of being dumbstruck. Or allowing that the other can have
something which makes one's own performance seem broken, stuttered. This is
only being humbled if it comes with seeing one might be able to be broken.
There are cities on the information highway, where traffic slows down on the
approach, a one way system begins to usher and boss and the outre is
practised. The cities are not its oases but its out of town malls. In
cyberspace only between two neighbours are provincial idiocies not practised,
where there might be actuality now and no avant-garde sentimentality.
Meanwhile the loneliness that forces the life of real cities is strangely
redammed and forded, through a real rush not in itself really wet. And so
there is less anti-provincialism, more provincialism, and less city, so less
metaphorical city, less cyber-city. The rich live in gated estates, behind
firewalls, on which we the rest are scalded if, ever, we pause to look at
their coins as objects that pass into and through our digestion. Existence
now less gets talked about as everyone's life, but it does as everyone's
money, in a talk of dead metaphors and common sense as dully reducible as the
taxable gross of grunts. We are a spread sheet, but only notice it
peripherally with a metonym-based shudder when we ever heard the word for
column, or see a column. We stare at walls as if they were windows, and if,
ever, not, then there is no Midas - only a touch that makes only metal (only
not valued for its use): metal, and skin, and cornea, blistered. It is not
that there is no community without privacy, the internet world of avatars. It
is that we commune over something we have both, but not perfectly
identically, pored over, in a way that can't be summarised in a digest or
Idiot's Guide. Instead we hint at each our own studies, and Roth suggests,
create a gravitational field that isn't about the person but instead a sort
of selfish gene to knowledge/depth. An itch. But don't call it love, or lust,
or pure. Perhaps call it the selfish city.
Nobody would expect a poet to change the setting in a new book, look at a new
kind of drama, a different politics. Why should Roth?
Histrionic exaggeration and grand sweeping statement as poem couched in
Roth's prose. Auden doubted it, feared it. It is the fantasy of being able to
sweep out of the room, with your line still ringing in others' ears, and
makes for poetry. The room must be filled, not the swept white room of the
Compare the two late Bellow novellas. As markers of what the old guy now
does, and what things now mean to him. Again, performance, for The Humbling
is about an actor who can't perform anymore, though he is at least not
sexually impotent the plot discovers. But what is performance? What are its
temptations to simplification and exaggeration? In a swept white room?
Freudian language about the self made a theatre of performance. New
acceptance of mental health takes that away, makes the relationship of
performer to audience different, so that some "natural performers"
want to leave the stage and be less bombastic. It seems like a desire for
intimacy. But the intimacy has recording equipment on it and the chance to
fetishise the joy as it flies. Not quite the self-surveillance of the self
that Roth's narrator in the Dying Animal once (sweeping out of the chapter)
urged it seems us to get past.
The multimedia age changes things, or personalises, or kills
something, hence the death in the Humbling.
One notes the scene of abuse of children, within the idealised hearth and
thus within the idealisation that implies the tragedy. Yet I look for the
denial to be over, every refusal of pain of others is to do with overload of
pain. Perhaps one should take away all looking from these books, all
describing, all wish to be "stripped of" (in Denise Riley's poems)
stimulation, if stimulation is the wrong kind of titillation? As an exercise.
One notes that perhaps Philip Roth read the accounts, disputed, in Vanity
Fair of Woody Allen at the time of child abuse allegations against Allen.
What does anyone read, and how fully are they with it? If they are not with
it, then must we be with them, holding to the every word they hold in
suspense? Or perhaps they will give them to us.
I don't write fiction. I love poetry. And I rarely
find books of new poems that I like. I get great nourishment for my appetite
in Roth, who cites poets again and again and on the pulse.
Jeremy Reed lives in the current real city of London.
Myung Mi Kim from her blurb teaches a great deal in American cities but her
book is located in places of penury (as the title suggests), sparsity and
torture. As the goal seems to be in torture, there seem very few hopes and
not even literal dreams (mixings-up and greater horror or greater joy in REM
sleep) and a lot of cynicism. There are implications of lives that have
rarely if ever had hope, but (as if established logically) also that have
rarely if ever had literal dreams. This is a confrontation rhetorical tactic,
a kind of abstraction, and one of the tactics one can associate with poetry.
The would-be titillated may cry "but I don't like this" and some
voice from within or without replies, "it is poetic to have written
this, and poetic to like it".
Poets, especially, have problems with endings, as does Roth in novel after
novel. At least, it is my experience that I often pore over the pages leading
up to the ending, then skim the ending. The Humbling has a clean ending, led up to with pace,
but one to which my reaction was "but I don't like this" and some
voice from within or without replies, "it is poetic to have written
this, and poetic to like it". It has led me to think hard about what its
death is, and to conclude it is the death of an old performance world. In
Roth's book, there are computers. A couple sit, as modern couples in relative
Western affluence do, each on their laptops at night, not talking much. I am
left a little trying to work on what the intention might have been, what was
cut to fit expectations of channel surfers and the timing given by the
distributor. But Roth's work demonstrates, as Ashbery does, that the same
mind that produces ambitious work produces grandiose work, and at least it
sometimes produces ambitious work. One of the features of the modern
publishing world is that the minds of artists don't get the punts from the
publishers that they used to, it takes a much tougher skin to persist with
the hermetic activity that only makes sense when the author is gone, the
With an epistolary, documentary, real-time endeavour like Jeremy Reed's
books, ambition and ending don't happen, or not in that way. He doesn't
organise his work to put re-occurrences of certain themes, the red of
lipstick, designer fashion labels, an interest in some Japanese people, so
that they re-occur rhythmically across his book. Everything is a reaching for
surprise, sometimes successfully. His work is not inert, as the many poets
who reach for imagery every line can be, although rhythmically the lines in
each poem pile up like a hawker shouting every headline in the paper page by
page; and this is not untrue of Myung Mi Kim's rhythm either. Both poets work
in an apparently visual way, which really means some curator (who are more
indulgent than publishers) might put the pages on the walls of a white room
called a Contemporary Art Gallery, and one might be able to get something
from them with one's gallery head on. That is not a revolutionary space, but
a cocky one, and the worlds of theatre and publishing and the stifled lives
of people at or not at their laptops are given no more tools for addressing
each other with pointful language. Instead, the pots simmer and shriek with
tones sometimes accompanied by gristle of the language of their literal
Locales are suggested, however. And one is convinced not to visit them as a
tourist, at all, and that one may never in one's lifetime go there properly,
and therefore not at all. One says this, with the weariness of the hemmed-in
real waking-time body, but almost feels warded off from dreaming these places
either. One feels one might get to know the people who know the poets, but
not the poets, and yet might get to know the poetry-loving novelist direct.
Making small talk only, perhaps.
Does death need to take place at the end of a book? Especially when one is
only allowed with discomfort to be a voyeur, a tourist. If one is forced out
of being oneself, then thoughts of death for characters or the authorial
voice in the book become too much like the utter nonsense of Damien Hirst's
title The Impossibility of Death on the Mind of Someone Living, they become not unbearable but
illogical. They are bad rhythm, bad construction, disguising itself as an
equally good, alternative rhythm and construction. It is more the
unpalatability of bad silliness for someone good who's trying to live.
Morbidity comes usefully in the Reed book, but like a bad day one tries to
put it behind one.