Friday, July 29, 2011

Words Fail Me

Of course words always fail because they are words merely. How can I bring the taste of malted milk to the page? I can tell you how Judy R. drove the four of us over twenty miles to a coffee shop which fell to earth north of Franklin on Beachwood Drive in middle of a residential section in the old Hollywood Hills. How we each communed with our forbidden spoon-thick malts. How we were transported back to some childhood moment sitting on a soda fountain stool or maybe our tongue recalled the anticipation of the powder in a Horlick’s jar. If you’ve never been there the malt-flavored barley cannot be imagined.

Words can only circle the wagon firing metaphors. On a poet or writer’s good days the best words in the best order describe or even evoke but they are ultimately incapable of embodying the essence of anything. This is why every poem fails. But what a sweet smell failure has; perhaps better than success. As Robert Louis Stevenson put it, Our purpose in life is not to succeed, but to continue to fail in the best of spirits.

Bad fiction reeks of completion. It has the odor of wrapped-up characters and resolved situations. Disbelief is rescued from the edge. Simple folk go where you expected them to and complex ones fall off a cliff. Pages are turned, myths reinforced and we sleep well, unpeturbed.

In the past fifty years discerning readers have become a bit more demanding. To be called literature, it must allow for the question about its essence to remain open and the intuition about its whole to be uncertain, as Albert Manguel said. Failure then, as writers understand it, is not just the only possible outcome …., but its goal, its supreme achievement. Distinguishing between the classical narrative, in which the hero reaches his objective like Jason winning the Golden Fleece and the modern one, in which K never reaches the castle.

Words on a page insist on participation by the reader. As Whitman said, Great poetry requires great audiences. The more space in the text with gestures, ambiguities and fits & starts here and there urges the reader in. In a packed movie house there are hundreds of movies being seen; each person coming away with a slightly different experience. I consider a poetry reading successful when I am drawn in sufficiently to ignite my own poems.

Manguel said, The very fact of not attaining the desired objective, of the adventure remaining apparently unfinished, is not a weakness of the author’s imagination but, on the contrary, its strength and purpose… When poets come close to reaching their imagined goal, then articulation of what that ideal form is must fail, and memory of what it was must falter. Every work of art or literature offers an always-receding horizon of comprehension, which allows us to call it great, is in this sense incomplete.

It doesn’t bring us any closer to the tactile, olfactory and tasteful experience of a malted milk to know that it is the addition of soaked and toasted barley to a frothy saccharine lacteal secretion of a graminivorous quadruped.

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