Thursday, April 20, 2006

The material of expression

My late night reading is Wallace Stevens' Collected Poetry and Prose. Last night, I reached the end of his 1942 collection Parts of a World and was surprised to see that it ended with a passage of prose not in Faber's Collected Poems. It has no title except "The Immense Poetry of War" added, it seems, by the editors:
The immense poetry of war and the poetry of a work of the imagination are two different things. In the presence of the violent reality of war, consciousness takes the place of the imagination. And consciousness of an immense war is consciousness of fact.
I knew this in slightly different form as an aphorism used by Paul Auster in The Invention of Solitude. He opened Opus Posthumous at random and read: In the presence of extraordinary reality, consciousness takes the place of the imagination. I quote this from memory of a book I last read in 1988. (Appropriately, in a pile of books I searched through, Stevens' poetry was found immediately below The Invention of Solitude but I can't yet find the Stevens reference).

The prose passage continues by doubting that such consciousness of fact is readily available to us in works of the imagination.
We leave fact and come back to it, come back to what we wanted fact to be, not to what it was, not to what it has too often remained. The poetry of a work of the imagination constantly illustrates the fundamental and endless struggle with fact. It goes on everywhere, even in the periods that we call peace. But in war, the desire to move in the direction of fact as we want it to be and to move quickly is overwhelming.
Putting the book down, I thought that maybe this helps explain my lack of enthusiasm for any young writer that I've read lately and the unease I also feel about banging on about writers long dead. I long for more fundamental struggles with the material of expression.

Stevens' words need not have been deleted for the Collected Poems even if they were meant for a wartime audience. Since that time, as he predicted, the desire for fact has been overwhelming. It ranges from VS Naipaul's vain rejection of fiction to young writers resort to self-consciously 'raw' subject matter in unconsciously dead prose. It's not a new thing but the misreading of a perennial failure. It's also a failure of nerve.

Another one of these dead writers to whom I'm always returning is Beckett, and this week's TLS provides another opportunity. It has Until the gag is chewed, Dan Gunn's marvellous essay (not online) on the correspondence of which he's an associate editor. He makes it very clear that when (and if) the four volumes are published they will "consitute a major addition to the Beckett corpus". Just one quotation from a 1960 letter to an Israeli writer is confirmation enough. It also reiterates Stevens' words whilst also pointing a way forward:
But the material of experience is not the material of expression and I think the distress you feel, as a writer, comes from a tendency on your part to assimilate the two. The issue is roughly that raised by Proust in his campaign against naturalism and the distinction he made between the "real" of the human predicament and the artist's "ideal real" remains certainly valid for me and indeed badly in of revival. I understand, I think no one better, the flight from experience to expression and I understand the necessary failure of both. But it is the flight from one order or disorder to an order or disorder of a different nature and the two failures are essentially dissimilar in kind. Thus failure in life can hardly be anything but dismal at the best, whereas there is nothing more exciting for the writer, or richer in unexploited expressive possibilities, than the failure to express.


  1. Anonymous10:00 am

    Steve, this was a remarkable post.I got so much from reading it. Just wanted to say that and thank you.

  2. Anonymous3:53 pm

    The Beckett quote is amazing. I don't have my issue of the TLS yet, but I hope that the letters will see the light of day.

  3. Anonymous10:49 pm

    Hello, Steve. Lovely post. I'm wondering if you've yet found where the quote comes from, that Auster cites? I'd like to read it myself. Thanks.



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