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The Ground of Thought
Lyall Bush

The following article, a review of three books, including Richard Poirier's Trying It Out in America , appeared in The Iowa Review Fall, 2002. It is reprinted by permission.

In writing about style we are almost always writing about something else. Someone begins an essay on the subject, observing that style is the man, and then ends up with a paragraph that agrees with Heraclitus, who wrote that character is fate. Style is elsewhere. Essays that take up style more directly pick out writers's choices among semi-colons and full stops, longer and shorter paragraphs. But then the discussion turns on feeling, on tone, on the grain of the voice, the clouds streaming behind the mechanics. Often the kicker is that style is character, another kind of fate.

So it is with Harold Brodkey. When he died it came out that he liked to slump in a chair at the offices of The New Yorker and complain that everyone was stealing his sentences. He seemed to mean that other writers were adopting his virtually un-copyable style of showing all his shifting thoughts in a grammar that came out of, but seemed to owe little to the stream of conscious writers of a previous generation. He specialized in bravura, veering phrases, darting words that matched a mind gathering the world. In that sense style is character, a way of letting personality and conscious life come out in waves of clause and phrase. But writers in the American grain often use style to mean something more vaporous than conscious life or character: they use it to mean "voice," which is a kind of inner style. It's voice, along with a gift for musical phrasing, that gives Brodkey's sentences so much crazy life—that and a wicked talent for reversing what he's just written. In any case, many readers find it irrelevant whether a writer makes long, drafty sentences or short, daggering ones. The real question is what their antennae are picking up in the sound of the word, in the way of joy, say, or desperation, or Sunday afternoons or blind alleys or bliss.

Another way is to see style is as a pointer: style takes readers to separate places, it gives them a view of the world. That's the issue Richard Poirier, professor emeritus at Rutgers University, took up in book after book and in article after article, in his long and distinguished career. Trying It Out in America: Literary and Other Performances, his last book, is a collection of occasional pieces and reviews written in the past decade, and it is uncharacteristically scattered. But at the point in his career when the book came out anyone who knew his work had a pretty good idea, starting on just about any page, what he was up to. The essays are various, but all are about style in one way or another: the essay on Bette Midler, the review of a book about the widely-praised but still under-read Walt Whitman, a piece on George Balanchine's genius reign at the New York City Ballet, and others on Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, whom Poirier takes a swing at. And he comes back over and over to the one writer he admired above all others, the wild American philosopher of character, Ralph Waldo Emerson. In one essay, Poirier examines a single paragraph from Emerson's "Self-Reliance," which he regards as the most important and influential piece of writing in American literary history. Reading Poirier read Emerson, you believe it too.

For all its range the book feels like the last offering that it eventually was. And for a book that takes up style, too, it is, thank goodness, more readable than his earlier books. No doubt many of the pieces benefited from being written for publications like The New York Review of Books and The London Review of Books. The sentences are more direct, less wandering. Readers of Poirier's earlier books on Frost (The Work of Knowing), American writers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (A World Elsewhere), and American Modernism (Poetry and Pragmatism) will be familiar with his whorled grammar and his grandly narrow preoccupations: "Nearly all the American writers I'm most concerned with here," he asserts in the Introduction to Trying It Out, "have ambitions for themselves that are similarly in an always precarious, quite often faltering equilibrium." The subject of the sentence is—can you see?—"ambition," specifically the ambitions of the American writers of talent. But you might spend an hour piecing out what he means when he says that their ambition becomes "precarious." And what does he mean by "equilibrium"? With what?

Poirier, who continued for years into his retirement to edit the footnote-free quarterly, Raritan, which he founded in 1983, admires plain prose. Literary folks alternately loved and feared his snarling marginalia on their manuscripts, and he was known to slash anyone's prose for the journal. But his own style is lumbering, fitting gravelly and cryptic words like "arrangements" and "equilibrium" into paragraphs that start with the intention of explaining the way a writer's voice works in poetry and prose.

Yet he is a good and careful reader. He seems to have spent time down at eye- and ear-level, among the words and the sounds of words, examining the way they go together, not mechanically but as eddies of human grunts and pauses and dartings from the subject. Get past Poirier's grizzly periods, in fact, and you will probably learn a great deal about American literature. You may even learn to read it with new eyes. In that sense he is less a stylist than an issuer of reportage on the strenuous weirdness of reading American poetry and prose, his great power as a reader discoverable in his well-deep appreciation of surface glories.

He had an admirable lack of system, too. You will find no intellectual template or filter for writing that corresponds to psychoanalytical scans or deconstruction. (Deconstruction, anyway, always made reading seem a little degraded, a pitiful way to spend your time. Read a book "against the grain," as deconstruction would have you do, and the pages soon seem full of prejudice, a little hateful, even when its subject is a common experience like happiness. This can make some readers feel good about themselves, but it is a bad day for happiness.) In his books Poirier prefers to maintain that writers are great to the extent that they point us to the most interesting things in a culture. And he sticks to the local attractions, the bright phrasings that make readers of the rest of us.

He was at his best when he encouraged readers to see what he called the energies and resistances and modulations in other writers' voices, the flashing "movements" of voice that hold a reader on the page. For him, reading was an active appreciation of performance. So he is willing to put up with writers who may have no story to tell (Gertrude Stein) or no coherent "meaning" to convey (Frank O'Hara), but are simply lively, cool, funny, jazzy, interesting. Writing about Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery, two of the poets at the forefront of the New York movement in writing and art in the 1950s and 1960s, Poirier captures the strangeness of first coming across their funny worlds of private reference, jokes and half-stories. That they ceased to communicate much, at least in traditional terms is, he argues, something we will have to live with if we are going to follow-out this American tradition of expressing the moment more or less improvisationally.

On a passage in O'Hara's poem "Mayakovsky," in which the poet refers to "carrying bricks," for example, Poirier makes his point vividly. What bricks, he wants to know? It is a passing moment in a long poem about a certain kind of witty romantic longing: a poet writes verses, blood pounding in his temples while he thinks of a man he wants to "just come back once / and kiss me on the face." In a middle stanza, O'Hara writes that he has blood on his chest: "oh yes, I've been carrying bricks," he writes. Poirier tells us that one commentator found the biographical note: the bricks were for a bookshelf O'Hara was helping John Ashbery build. Poirier explains that the explanatory note is beside the point: "the passage," he writes, "is testimony to the peculiar nature of O'Hara's writing;" our attention "is being drawn, not to this or that particular thing, but to O'Hara's rapid movement away from it and his swift transit to something to which it bears no discernible relation at all." Later in the collection, Poirier praises Norman Mailer's habit in Ancient Evenings of composing a plot that is a "getting away from something."

These are the least pat things he could write. When I was in graduate school in the cauldron of New Brunswick, New Jersey in the 1980s, Poirier was famous for the sounds he made in classes. He would growl or grunt when anyone in class said anything too smooth or slick. He would not and make sounds of approval when he had heard a good mid-term paper. He talked about sounds, too, out of Robert Frost: the sounds people made on the telephone agreeing with the person on the other end of the line. In those years the younger faculty wore black Levis and Reeboks, in some effort to tie themselves to a lively pop culture where the Terminator movie series and thrash metal bands held some cultural power that could be said to be literary. They were interested in spatial things, in blocks of prose that they could argue held or withheld or denied "meaning." Poirier, meanwhile, maybe more radically, kept wearing expensive shoes, tailored suits and lightly starched shirts, and in seminars he would ask us to consider the complexity of simple stories, and he would undo his tie and get going on Emerson's strange, veering habit of unsaying in one sentence what he had just said in the last one, a habit Emerson described as an "antagonizing" feature of the human mind.

While the rueful young professionals rapped out Gallic conundrums about power on their new 286 computers, Poirier kept it simple: he grunted and pushed at his students to "read the sentence, read it." It was the most difficult thing any of us would ever do, I think. The old guard had their greatest apologist in Poirier, who came in on the same train from New York three days a week, a copy of The New York Times under his arm. He would teach class in an old-fashioned seminar style that was mostly intimidation: How be I ask you questions and you answer them? was our essential contract. Having served in World War II, he knew, as Norman Mailer knew, as a whole generation knew, the value of discipline and hard work. He didn't talk about his reading, but everybody knew that he was reading. And into his fifties and sixties he kept writing, too. He read his beloved Robert Frost in class—"Spring Pools," "Putting in the Seed"—as if he was getting to the strange matter in them for the first time.

He was seriously young in the way he took in a poet like O'Hara, or Emily Dickinson, or Walt Whitman for that matter. He took their brand-newness seriously. It wasn't a larger theory about their who-ness, subversiveness, or identity-politics he was after&mdash'highly specious claims given the way actual writers actually write—but their energy. And nothing in American life is more Pop than that.

"These poets are saying, in effect," he writes in sum, about O'Hara and Ashbery, who are among Whitman's twentieth century heirs, "that while the language available to you has to some degree already shaped and determined your experiences all day long, your use of that language in writing or reading, no matter how innovative or how much a challenge to the existing order of things, becomes still another instance of the possibility that composition flattens, deadens, or makes into a monument the very things it is meant to represent."

Let me translate: language is double-edged because it is alive in us, in our consciousness, but it is also utterly inherited and dead. Words carry in them ways of seeing the world and we must take care to attend to their peculiarities and natural "fossil poetry" (an Emerson-ism). Otherwise, language can kill the experiences it is meant to vivify (it may do it anyway). What Trying It Out stands for, at last, is the Gertrude Stein-ism that the end of writing is in the jangle of nerves and the barbaric yawps it traces, the immediate pleasure of reading it, the joy in it as a performance rather than in its smooth finish, its happy ends or in any "ideas" it ends up with. Or, to paraphrase another child of Whitman, Bob Dylan, literature's value lies in the ghost of electricity that howls in the bones of the work after publication.

Poirier is more or less following writing where it went in the past century—inside, into consciousness and unconsciousness, and into dreams. From Henry James to James Joyce, and from Joyce to Jorge Luis Borges and Amiri Baraka, writing spent the past hundred years following the god of the interior voice. And in American literature, there has been no more game or innovative a writer of the interior than Harold Brodkey. Brodkey apparently talked in person, too. By his own account, he talked away a dozen novels that he should have written. And he took so long to publish his great novels, The Runaway Soul and Profane Friendship, that he may have lost the natural momentum (and reputation) a young writer would have been accorded. But no matter: Brodkey was a great writer, alive to voice in precisely Poirier's terms, with a comic addled quality to his antagonized fiddling. Here is a beginning of a chapter of Profane Friendship titled "The Movies in Venice"—Brodkey is forever a fan of the movies—whose wistful and churlish wit kept him soloing on the epic:

Love chiefly and the actual moments of the day are my topic, and hatred and whoring and the nature of the body and revengeful or placable memory and the wish for innocence. Also, ambition and the stages of being and the condition of the world. I sort of sing of arms and the man, the arms of an embrace, the arms that are weapons. Not epically. Not with skill.

The whirl of "and"'s and "or"'s are pure off-hand Americanism ("I sort of sing..."), as is the way he unmans the large enterprise of the epic tradition. And Brodkey did that in just about every piece of writing he ever published. He can't stop adjusting, adding, clarifying. His sentences show him aiming at a perfect arrangement of the imperfect, dissolving world, and never heavily or portentously. If anything, he sounds like a guy who is, as he quotes himself saying to Carol Burnett in a piece he published in he New Yorker, "a bumbler."

That essay can be found in posthumous collection of his essays titled Sea Battles on Dry Land. The collection is unevenly brilliant, and taken altogether it is fair to call it important, and important in Poirier's sense: it is a small miracle of fun. Here is Brodkey, for example, on the "Kaelfication" of American movie reviewing. He is speaking, of course, of Pauline Kael, the longtime New Yorker film reviewer:

Ms. Kael single-handedly established the sub-elitist transitory moment as the measure, that it was always to be taken as trashy-as human-with no interest in uplift, thank God, but only in the melodramatically intense procedure of giving people what people really want. She is a very short woman and very intelligent but thoroughly unreasonable. She is masturbatorially intelligent—and successful. . . .

But she may be the very best writer who ever lived at descriptions of the dramatic actions, of what-is-there, of what actors are doing. Her class bias and her sense of preferred subject matter—it should be grungy, raunchy, universal in that sense—are a workable recodification of the democratic common denominator. . . .

The limited subject matter and inarticulate intelligence and nearly lunatic and often infantile opinionatedness of contemporary movies is the result.

Another writer might have looked on paragraphs such as these as journal notes, a draft wanting to be squared up and settled. But the genius of the sentences is their sound of chatty thinking. Does anyone really know what the "sub-elitist transitory moment" really is? Probably not, but reading you feel that you know.

Brodkey can be as charming and as self-involved as Holden Caulfield. One essay is the story of his attempt to figure out if Woody Allen's new movie—Husbands and Wives in 1992—is any good. He has to get lots of opinions before he watches a movie, he confesses; otherwise, his reactions are too eccentric. One friend tells him The Runaway Soul sits on Mia Farrow's coffee table in the film. So: "I went to the movie to see my novel make its movie debut." When he finally writes about the movie in the last couple of paragraphs he types up a floating scarf of thought: "Mr. Allen as a brainy, funny-looking Tony Curtis, a sweet New York guy, needs more poison in his character but he is fairly convincing as a good man." But then he gets serious and he is very good: "A good movie is not good. Or bad. It is a ground of thought, a source of named feeling, of wandering sensations, of thought about what life is and what it might be." There are few writers who could say so much with such add-on jerry-built rapidity.

So it is instructive when Brodkey decides to take on a subject like grammar. But don't worry, it's not that instructive. "Grammar and American Reality," at five pages, would never be published in Poirier's Raritan.What is it about? Not subordination and coordination. He asks us to consider the number of dialects at play in From Here to Eternity-not the book, the movie. (Brodkey can be almost too much fun to bear.) Montgomery Clift, he writes, speaks Boston and New York, and against his angst the movie pits Sinatra and Burt Lancaster in whom there is "a lower-class background audible and visible." Deborah Kerr, he writes, uses "an acted American tone with a theatrical British English base." Donna Reed makes a "portrait of a whore as a matter of vocal inflection and facial expression and of extreme lady-likeness using school teachery English."

One of the best essays I have ever read on the subject of American life and popular culture is Brodkey's "Translating Brando." It is supremely good, sketchy and wobbly and sure: "Part of Brando's persona as an actor is that he is a swindler and a rapist and a bully (of a certain kind), a murderer, a madman." Of Brando's eyes, he writes: "clever, androgynous, hauntingly threatening eyes, somehow also soft and weak, satyr/American-storm-trooper eyes (though they are less famous than his profile). He seems to have worn glasses at one point."

It is the casual word "seems" in the last sentence, and the parenthetical "of a certain kind" in the first, that marks Brodkey's style, as some of what he writes is so personal as to be the buzzing interior monologue of someone who couldn't be bothered to look "finished." Yet the excitement in his writing is just that. He swerves in the way Poirier says Frank O'Hara swerves in his poems—wittily, full of light brooding, bursting with cultural knowledge but uninterested in using it against his readers. But by the end of the Brando piece it is clear that it is a great portrait of an artist because it is in some respects autobiographical. Brodkey writes of Brando: "Brando took over the vanity and posing and sheer willfulness of a good-looking woman and developed a deconstructed version—an antiversion of a diva's romantic sexuality." According to all reports, that was Brodkey, too, making himself known through a style that points to a kind of Eden of the movie self. I am, he seems to write, because I am as alive in prose as Brando was on screen. We are each antiversions of a diva's romantic sexuality. The style is memorable because it is a snapshot of a temporary thought. It is electric because it is writing that's being thrown away.

Guy Davenport exists somewhere between Poirier and Brodkey. A fiction writer, translator, essayist, and MacArthur genius fellow, he is formidably learned. He has written some of the most readable essays about American and European literature of the past several decades, including earlier collections like Geography of the Imagination and Every Force Evolves a Form, both of which were nominated for National Book Awards. He has translated Greek verse, in some cases with definitive poetic power (Sappho, Archilokos), and he has written sharply smart, if monumentally challenging fiction. He seems to have read everything twice. Like Poirier and Brodkey, but differently (he is a southerner), he is alive to the culture. But the culture that catches his eye is not theirs. A classicist by nature, he writes sentences a Shaker could admire—simple and elegantly designed, and piercingly clear. In his most recent collection of essays, The Hunter Gracchus, he takes up James Joyce (a favorite), Donald Barthelme, Gertrude Stein, Kafka (another favorite), and a score of other writers and some artists like Paul Cadmus and Grant Wood. He is a thinker in a wonderfully old-fashioned sense: he writes about great writers and artists so that the average curious person will know more by the end of an essay than s/he did at the beginning, and he does it through a complex, but not complex-seeming bricolage.

Like Poirier, and even like Brodkey, he takes texts as his beginning. Inevitably he says what he wants through discussions of nets of words leading back. In "Ruskin According to Proust" the subject is both a new book on Proust's translation of John Ruskin a hundred years ago and a fine set of ideas on the way pupils and teachers, in writing, find each other: Proust was emboldened to make an art of digression in his masterpiece thanks to Ruskin's weird, eccentric yet grippingly digressive style. Davenport also lets us see that in Ruskin and Proust we get to watch the fall of the city, a century ago, "as our unit of civilization."

Two pieces, chapters really, are simply great. Titled "Journal I" and "Journal II," they are carved from Davenport's own journal, and his magpie eye and habit of thinking about the world through classical texts is a wonder: "Protagoras sold firewood," he begins Journal I. "Democritus liked the way he bundled it for carrying and hired him to be his secretary. Mind is evident in the patterns it makes. Inner, outer. To discern these patterns is to be a philosopher." His aperçus are bundled accordingly. Shortly after the epiphany about Protagoras he offers this priceless one: "The American's automobile is his body."

Regarding the bricolage habit, his title essay is instructive. Taking one of Kafka's best-known short stories he weaves facts about the Roman family Gracchus into biographical details about Kafka. Such as? Well, that Kafka read Wilkie Collins's novel Armdale while he wrote "The Hunter Gracchus," and that it probably propelled him to go further into the idea of a "guilty past." Davenport does so not through elaborate transitions but by white lines and by titles ("A Victorian Pentimento," "De Chirico"). These sections allow Davenport to mass information so that his readers can get inside Kafka's strange story once again, this time with a sense of where Kafka's muse carried him. It is an intellectual knit that the style proposes: Kafka himself, as a Modernist, worked by the cut-and-paste method we know from reading T.S. Eliot, whereby pieces of this or that text are more or less accidentally (via the unconscious) brought together into a new thing. This is Davenport's method, too.

"All messages in Kafka are incoherent, misleading, enigmatic," Davenport observes. And yet, Kafka possesses a strange prescience too: "All of Kafka is about history that had not yet happened. His sister Ottla would die in the camps, along with all of his kin. The German word for insect (Ungeziefer, "vermin") that Kafka used for Gregor Samsa is the same word the Nazis used for Jews, and insect extermination was one of their obscene euphemisms . . . . Quite soon after the Second World War it was evident that with The Castle and The Trial, and especially with 'In the Penal Colony,' Kafka was accurately describing the mechanics of totalitarian barbarity."

But, it should be added, Kafka did it in the early 1920s.

This is an interesting point. If Poirier and Brodkey could be said to believe in the magic of the extemporaneous, in the high vividness of the improvisational moment captured in language, Davenport goes in another direction. Writing in his spare, hard style, he says, over and over, contra Gertrude Stein, that there is a there there. Literature is not only the bump and burp of the voice . It may include improvisation, but literature can hardly be just that. Writing, Davenport argues, is also a tool for unraveling mysteries of history, of consciousness. It is a glass and a light, an exact measurer of the immaterial and maybe the immemorial. For Davenport, reading books and studying art is a way to get to real things, and reading his essays you get the impression that the world of trash and spectatorship and wild excitement that Brodkey and Poirier like, and like to riff on, is not for him. Davenport, finally, is an American from another Emersonian tradition-not the one of movements and shifts but the one who sees religious power everywhere. This, for example, from Emerson's "Divinity School Address": "When a man comes, all books are legible, all things transparent, all religions are forms. He is religious . . . All men go in flocks to this saint or that poet, avoiding the God who seeth in secret." Reading Guy Davenport, you get some of that sense of a maker of books legible and things transparent. His style, so pellucid, seems to point to a semi-divine elsewhere.

Contributor's Note

Lyall Bush is executive director of Northwest Film Forum. He has also been executive director of the Richard Hugo House, a literary center. His essays have appeared in The Iowa Review, The Stranger, Film Comment, MovieMaker, The Wallace Stevens Journal and Cinema Journal.

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