Wednesday, 12 June 2013

A poet's note on preparing to read a novel

Is it better to think of reading novels as a pleasure or as a task? I am not sure the idea of pleasure is precise or complex enough, though the sense of obligation implied by a task casts away pleasure altogether, unless one takes pleasure in completion itself. Good, that's another one read!

I hope for more and I imagine others do too.

What do I hope for?

In a poem I look to find a re-experiencing of the world through imagination and language-as-spell, as if language, by an act of magic somewhere between song and sense, were touching the world for the first time and naming it. The poet, said the Hungarian poet Ágnes Nemes Nagy, is a scientist of the emotions, set on discovering new ones. The poem in total is the name of the emotion.

And why should emotions matter? It is because, once articulate, they are our best handles on significance, on the sensation of passing through life and registering it through the fingers of language. Poems don't need to be long. They usually have some narrative drive but they rarely extend to plots as such. It is not so much a matter of first here, then there: it is here here here unfolding itself.


But what of the story-telling process, that succession of first here, then theres? What sense of significance might that deliver?

A good story is good in so far as we are interested in what happens in it and want to see how it too unfolds. The story represents life as process, but - in a novel at least - as a process that is constantly moving on, deploying its sense of the whatness and thingness of the world-as-language as a device to enable action rather than naming.

There is, of course, pleasure in this - pleasure in a hazy but comfortable sense of the word - and that pleasure is not to be dismissed. We may be pleased by being entertained and kept on our toes by implied expectations in a form that manages to avoid altogether satisfying them, by dangling before us the promise that, if we persist long enough, they will at last be satisfied in the way we would want them to be satisfied.

And that is indeed satisfying.

The problem - from a poet's point of view - is that the satisfaction is the least satisfying thing about it. Even a reasonably sophisticated well-made book, one good with plots, timing, detail, and comfortable with language, tends to stop at that point of satisfaction.

But some novels give us much more. In their totality - a totality that may comprise parts not altogether well written, not altogether consistent, not altogether well plotted or well characterised - they offer a sense of the world that surprises us by its comprehensiveness and depth. It is not so much a matter of characters and what they do, as of the functions that characters and events perform, instinctive functions that can suddenly carve open the world and show us its profound, idiosyncratic workings.

And at that point, once we have started believing this about the book, the ordinary mechanisms of the novel become individual acts of the imagination that have been reabsorbed into vision. And vision is the point.

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