Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. I repeat this to myself whenever I fall sick. Which is worse, a physical malady like a painfully sore throat or a bout of food poisoning that renders one unable to speak and function normally, or the darkness that descends upon the mind and shuts everything else out, rendering it cold and numb? It is easy to say that physical illness is easier to manage compared to clinical depression but when I fall sick, I find that unpleasant, long-forgotten memories tend to return to the mind, which then makes it susceptible once again to the chilling darkness. Somewhat like the sentiments that Rupert Brooke expresses in this poem on seasickness.
The damned ship lurched and slithered. Quiet and quick
My cold gorge rose; the long sea rolled; I knew
I must think hard of something, or be sick;
And could think hard of only one thing—you!
You, you alone could hold my fancy ever!
And with you memories come, sharp pain, and dole.
Now there’s a choice—heartache or tortured liver!
A sea-sick body, or a you-sick soul!
Do I forget you? Retchings twist and tie me,
Old meat, good meals, brown gobbets, up I throw.
Do I remember? Acrid return and slimy,
The sobs and slobber of a last years woe.
And still the sick ship rolls. ’Tis hard, I tell ye,
To choose ’twixt love and nausea, heart and belly.
Rupert Brooke, A Channel Passage
Out of the many ways to heal, literature is the best of all, perhaps; to write, and to read good fiction.
I was delighted to come across this essay by Nick Ripatrazone in which he says that Pynchon is ‘difficult, dated, and frustrating’, with sentences that ‘are labyrinthine and recursive: full of noise. As his sentences become paragraphs, and his paragraphs span pages, the novel becomes a whirlwind of paranoia; a test of a reader’s endurance and patience.’ Having been eager to read The Crying of Lot 49 based on McHale’s critique of the book, I had nearly wept with frustration when I had to put it away, right next to Ulysses on a shelf of books that I mean to return to, someday.
‘The Crying of Lot 49 makes students consider what happens when a work of art might not have any traditional secrets to reveal’, says Ripatrazone, adding that ‘Pynchon’s fiction is like a literary workout that forces them to build from the ground up as readers. When students read easier works of literature, they might become deluded into thinking that all language is employed in the service of clear communication. Pynchon’s paradoxes make them return to other, non-literary texts with a bit more skepticism and independent thinking.’
Yet another book on that shelf is the verse novel The Distance Between Us. As I look at the shelf, a pattern begins to emerge. Art created for its own sake, that rejoices in itself and somehow remains at a distance from the reader.
Recently I found myself explaining the meaning of the word crore (Indian term for ten million) more than once in course of conversation, which reminded me of a classic Tamil poem from primary-school days, by the poet Avvaiyar whose quote:
‘What we have learned is as much a handful of earth
What we are yet to learn is as much the entire world‘
is exhibited at NASA.
Avvaiyar was an enigmatic poet who is said to have lived a thousand, two thousand, or three thousand years ago, no one knows for sure. Very little is known about her, including her real name. Like the name Lao-Tse (who is alleged to be an ancient Tamil mystic) implies ‘Old Master’, Avvai is a generic term for a woman with the suffix ‘yar’ indicating respect. She is believed to have been a wandering minstrel who travelled by foot through the realms of Tamil Kings of yore and blessed, praised, counselled, and even saved them through her poetry. What has survived of Avvaiyar over the millennia is her poetry, among the most famous of it being a set of alphabetical aphorisms for young children that impart moral lessons through terse phrases. And some interesting stories about her trysts with the Kings of the age, fellow poets and citizens, all of whom celebrated her erudition and wisdom.
One of these stories is about a competition in which all the poets of the land were called forth to submit four crores of poems. As an impoverished poet who was desperate to win the prize struggled to write as many poems, it is said that Avvaiyar composed these stanzas in a few moments and gave it to him. I have attempted to translate from the Tamil, but the beauty of the original verse is elusive to translate, as is the rhythm of the words and the way they blend together to create meaning at multiple levels.
Them who do not respect you –
To never set your foot
upon their threshold
Now that is worth a crore
Those who do not urge you
to dine beneath their roof –
To avoid eating at their home
Now that is worth a crore
To expend a crore, and more
to be in the company of
those who are noble-born
Now that is worth a crore
Even when offered crores,
To sway from the truth –
To stand firm by your word
Now that is worth a crore
Avvaiyar (Ancient Tamil Poet)
Enjoyed reading this essay on how the technique of using footnotes in fiction has evolved over the years. Another example is Book: A Novel by Robert Grudin, a work of pure metafiction in which the footnotes try for a while to dominate and take over the main narrative.
“In fact, what all of these works show—from Nabokov and Wallace to Danielewski and Boully—is that experimentation quickly stops being experimental when it works well, and gives way to progression … Footnotes, once the hallmark of pedantry and pretension, have now entered the realm of craft. More than a trick, footnotes can be technique. We’ve seen how they can be used to comment on a narrative or to create a new one, to overlap separate narratives, to evoke character in new ways, and to dig into difficult parts of who we are. Footnotes, in other words, no longer merely support a story; now, they can be the story.”
Jonathan Russell Clark, ON THE FINE ART OF THE FOOTNOTE
Metapoems are almost as alluring as metafiction. Perhaps even more, considering that poetry is said to be the purest of all art-forms.
“I think you exist only
To tease me into doing it, on your level, and then you aren’t there
Or have adopted a different attitude. And the poem
Has set me softly down beside you. The poem is you.”
John Ashbery, Paradoxes and Oxymorons
“The problem of the writer is not to produce writing; there is plenty of it. It is – and this is the heart of my message – in one sense to suppress writing, to defeat facile expression, to control the verbal abundance most of us generate, to be, fundamentally, a critic. It is to become not a writer but a re-writer, sifting, challenging, revising and questioning one’s own expression until what is produced becomes inescapable, the thing that, in all authenticity, it is necessary for this writer to write.”
Enjoyed reading this essay that is all the more relevant in present times. To think that Bradbury wrote this in 1979!
More than once I have tried to record the sounds of birds singing on a spring dawn. Most often I have tried this while sitting in a tiny college room behind my beloved Banbury road. But each time, the recording comes out as but a frail echo of the original sounds, reiterating yet again that something as pure as birdsong can only be experienced in the moment.
In the spring I had the pleasure of listening to Liz Berry reading her poems in the characteristic Black Country accent. It was as soothing as listening to birdsong on an early spring morning. Poetry that touches the audience’s heart and connects them with the pure and pristine part of their minds, which is the pinnacle of all great art.
Loved this poem by Philip Ardagh which talks about the rendezvous between ‘a stanza of poets and a chapter of authors’ by an idyllic river, where they exchange words ‘like glittering prizes’.
A stanza of poets and a chapter of authors sounds like a delightful way to describe writers whose essence lies between the lines of their work. A scene of playwrights, perhaps?
My night shall be remembered for a star
That outshone all the suns of all men’s days
Last weekend I went to Cambridge again and remembered two writers associated with the place who are very close to my heart. Samuel Butler whose novel The Way of all Flesh soothed my soul like nothing else could when I first read it. And Rupert Brooke, my forever crush and the love of my life.
I dreaded turning twenty-eight because I never wanted to be older than Rupert who was lucky in a way to have died young and thus remained forever twenty-seven – his poetry was one of the things that kept me alive during the years of depression. I am not sure anymore if I want to visit his grave at Skyros as I had planned to, once – I would rather remember him as a young man full of life, sitting on the grass beside Byron’s pool, throwing his head back and laughing, reading and writing in the shade of the Old Vicarage. Why did I write ‘remember him’ when I ought to have, when I meant to have written ‘imagined him’? Because Rupert comes across as more alive, more full of life than most people I see around me.
In The Way of All Flesh, young Ernest Pontifex reflects gloomily about death – he hates his overbearing family and equally dreads encountering his unpleasant grandparents in the afterlife. But methinks even the afterlife would be a delightful place if one could see Rupert there with a song on his lips and a twinkle in his spring-blue eyes, tossing his ‘brown delightful head / Amusedly, among the ancient Dead.’
Thank God for immortal poets.
Oh! Death will find me, long before I tire
Of watching you; and swing me suddenly
Into the shade and loneliness and mire
Of the last land! There, waiting patiently,
One day, I think, I’ll feel a cool wind blowing,
See a slow light across the Stygian tide,
And hear the Dead about me stir, unknowing,
And tremble. And I shall know that you have died,
And watch you, a broad-browed and smiling dream,
Pass, light as ever, through the lightless host,
Quietly ponder, start, and sway, and gleam —
Most individual and bewildering ghost! —
And turn, and toss your brown delightful head
Amusedly, among the ancient Dead.
“I’ve been in love with you for weeks.’
There’s no such thing,’ she says. ‘It’s a rhetorical device. It’s a bourgeois fallacy.’
Haven’t you ever been in love, then?’
When I was younger,’ she says, ‘I allowed myself to be constructed by the discourse of romantic love for a while, yes.’
What the hell does that mean?’
We aren’t essences, Vic. We aren’t unique individual essences existing prior to language. There is only language.”
― David Lodge, Nice Work
How much more overtly metafictional can a novelist get? Though I enjoyed this snippet of dialogue, I believe that characters in literary fiction are more than constructions of language. They are real, so much more real than most people.