Some notes on pacing

I was having my creative writing students do an exercise on pacing, and I realized that for some the term & the concept might be unfamiliar, so I gave them a couple of examples. Here’s what I wrote.

“Pacing” refers to the speed at which events are narrated, and the felt speed at which they occur–how we experience the speed of the events.

Here are the opening paragraphs of “No One Writes to the Colonel” (Harper & Row, 1968), a  60-page story by Gabriel García Márquez:

The colonel took the top off the coffee can and saw that there was only one little spoonful left. He removed the pot from the fire, poured half the water onto the earthen floor, and scraped the inside of the can with a knife until the last scrapings of the ground coffee, mixed with rust, fell into the pot.

While he was waiting for it to boil, sitting next to the stone fireplace with an attitude of confident and innocent expectation, the colonel experienced the feeling that fungus and poisonous lilies were taking root in his gut. It was October. A difficult morning to get through, even for a man like himself, who had survived so many mornings like this one. For nearly sixty years—since the end of the last civil war—the colonel had done nothing else but wait. October was one of the few things which arrived.

Here are the opening paragraphs of In Evil Hour (Bard/Avon, 1979), a 183-page novel also by Gabriel García Márquez: Continue reading

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Whose broken window is a cry of art

I always feel a little badly for Gwendolyn Brooks. Like many readers, for years all I knew of her work was “We Real Cool,” the short striking poem that gets anthologized all over the place, and that fits–for careless or superficial readers–a little too neatly into racist tropes of African American cultural dysfunction.

Don’t get me wrong–I like the poem, I think it’s got a lot going on, formally as well as in what it has to say. More so, in fact, than at first meets the eye. It’s just that it’s almost too accessible, and so invites quick dismissal. And, like any over-anthologized piece, it ends up being what this deep and multifaceted author is reduced to.

Then I started reading some of her other work, and discovered how much broader and deeper her range is than any one poem can illustrate. But one poem that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go was “Boy Breaking Glass.” It’s a gnarly poem–challenging, complex, rich in meaning and technique–and I found I had to write about it, to understand why I found it so compelling. I worked at it and let it sit and then worked at it some more, but was never satisfied. Finally I decided just to post what I had, even so. The recent events in Baltimore just make it all the more appropriate.

Here’s what I came up with.

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The (in)human author and the (in)human characters

The other night we were talking about fiction, or more generally any art, that could represent a non-human reality, a non-human perspective and experience. I argued that fiction was particularly unsuited to this task, because it’s a genre rooted in very human experiences and conventions for representing those experiences. A couple of us speculated that any art is ultimately going to founder on this problem, because we always bring our human perspective to bear, both in the making and in the reception of the work. But I suggested that other genres—poetry, nonfiction—might do better at getting us closer to some such world.

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Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant

Kazuo Ishiguro is coming to Seattle at the end of this month, and I’m looking forward to going to see him. I got talking about him with a friend and fellow writer, and in a burst of enthusiasm went out and bought both When We Were Orphans and the new novel, The Buried Giant. (Spoiler alert: the article I’ve linked to gives away a bit of the plot, which is unfortunate, but it also has some comments from Ishiguro on the style issues I talk about here. If you want his comments without the spoilers, skip down to the last four paragraphs of the interview.)

After I finished The Buried Giant all I could say was, what a strange guy he is. And I knew, if I had the chance to ask a question when I see him, I’d say this: “You’re a master of style, of voice, of tone. What was it about the narrative voice in The Buried Giant that drew you?”

Here’s my guess at an answer. (It doesn’t jibe completely with what Ishiguro has to say in the Star article I’ve linked to above, but it’s not completely off, either.)

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Objectivism, Williams, and counterpoint

This from a while back, when I was doing some reading in prosody inspired by Charles Hartman’s Free Verse.

Dipping into an earlier chapter of Sound and Form in Modern Poetry (while reading Jeffers’s Cawdor, which Gross analyzes, which led me to think of Paterson, which got me trying to remember what Gross had said about Williams). Gross takes issue with Williams’s objectivism. (By the way: I say Gross, although my edition is Gross & McDowell, because I’m assuming the substance of the argument is to be found in the earlier edition, which he wrote alone.) He begins by quoting the following from Williams’s autobiography: Continue reading

Another fine poem by Charles Hartman

Here’s another fine poem by Charles Hartman, from his 1995 collection Glass Enclosure.

Against the Log, the Seed

Against the log, the seed.
Against the public statue, rain
and running fame. Against the deed
the clouds of pain.

Against the hunkered will,
the traffic’s frantic pantomime;
however still we sit, we’re still
hurtling through time.

The painting of a spray
of pansies moves as much as they;
so that we see the color stay,
light storms away.

This poem grabbed me when I first read it, so much so that I had to keep re-reading and thinking about it: enjoying what I liked, puzzling over what I didn’t fully understand (often the same as what I liked), analyzing technical qualities I only intuited at first, going over it again for the sheer pleasure of it all. What follows is my attempt to spell out in writing what I found so compelling about it. The nice thing is that, even after all the analysis, the poem retains its ability to please and surprise and invite reflection. Continue reading

Cubist Grammar and the Ambiguity of Pi: Charles Hartman’s “Tambourine”

One spring evening many years ago I stood in the balcony in a bar in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, waiting for the next act in the Seattle Improvised Music Festival to begin. Two percussionists laid brass gamelan keys, blocks of wood, glass bottles, a metal sheet and assorted other objects on the floor next to an antique washing machine. This was a large enamel tub with a spindle in the center driven by an electric motor. Jutting out from the top of the spindle was a short wooden arm, to the end of which a piece of string was attached, and at the end of the string was a small hard rubber ball. As the spindle turned the arm the string yanked the ball around, and the ball bounced against the deeply resonant enamel walls of the tub. The turning of the spindle and the shape of the tub gave the sound its regularity, its pattern, while the play of the string and the bounciness of the ball gave it its random quality. It was never quite clear from moment to moment if the machine would keep the beat or change it, but it always seemed to return to some fundamental ur-rhythm, not an actual rhythm but a potential for many rhythms. The musicians improvised with this lunatic metronome, using mallets on the things they had laid out next to it. The biggest challenge they faced was not to fall into any set rhythm, but instead to respect the irregularities of their guiding instrument—to listen carefully, not to let their playing become stereotyped, but constantly to hover around the edges of rhythm, maintaining the tension between the ear’s desire for pattern and the arbitrary fluctuations of the apparatus. It was one of the most lucid demonstrations I have ever witnessed of that basic tension in all art, between the desire for order and the demands of the contingent, whether in the world at large or in the materiality of its medium.
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