Writing for Writers: Poetry, James Joyce, and the Arc of Absurdity

mc escher hands

One night last week I was having drinks with a close friend I hadn’t seen in a while. We proceeded to catch up on how things were going with work, with our romantic relationships, our families, mutual friends, the whole standard ticket. At some point in the evening, things turned to talk about writing—as they often do.  My friend happens to be an exceptional poet.

We often discuss our struggles, our victories, our works in progress, and so on. He is one of very few people with whom I discuss my writing; however, after our discussions or exchange of notes on one another’s writing projects, I feel more inspired and tend to recognize a spike in my productivity and in the quality and quantity of my writing. This is generally the case when I share writing—or ideas about writing—with other writers as well.

Until recently, my friend spent a lot of time with the NYC poetry community. He volunteered at organizations that held readings, and read relatively frequently at these readings as well as others throughout the city and in Brooklyn. Whenever possible, I would go to these readings in support of my friend, and because I genuinely think his poetry is wonderful and I enjoy hearing him read it.

I never felt entirely comfortable amongst the tightly knit community of poets. Quite honestly, I don’t know how much of that is my fault. Still, it seems like a paradox of self-interest for a poet to knock around town putting on airs that alienate even people who go to readings and are interested in poetry.

Scenes vs. Communities.

Generally, I do not enjoy participating in—or being in the presence of—anything that can be called a “scene.” I am not suggesting that I am against people with common interests getting together and sharing ideas. In fact, I think communities are what give our lives meaning.   And on more basic levels of need, our survival depends upon them.

It is this point that stuck with me in our conversation: that communities of people who share common interests and ideas are what give our lives meaning.

I think of Septimus Smith—the “Solitary Traveler” in Virginia Woolf’s—Mrs. Dalloway. An extreme example, he committed suicide because his life lacked any kind of significant communication. There was no meaningful connection.

I think also of Marlow returning from his visit to the Inner Station, no longer feeling like he could relate to ordinary Londoners after having seen the horrors at Kurtz’s camp.

No, they did not bury me, though there is a period of time which I remember mistily, with a shuddering wonder, like a passage through some inconceivable world that had no hope in it and no desire. I found myself back in the sepulchral city resenting the sight of people hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other, to devour their infamous cookery, to gulp their unwholesome beer, to dream their insignificant and silly dreams. They trespassed upon my thoughts. They were intruders whose knowledge of life was to me an irritating pretense, because I felt so sure they could not possibly know the things I knew. Their bearing, which was simply the bearing of commonplace individuals going about their business in the assurance of perfect safety, was offensive to me like the outrageous flauntings of folly in the face of a danger it is unable to comprehend. I had no particular desire to enlighten them, but I had some difficulty in restraining myself from laughing in their faces, so full of stupid importance.

My Dad pointed out this section to me when I was a teenager to explain how he felt when he returned home from the Vietnam War. He could only talk about the war with others who had been there and had seen what he had seen. He knew, too, that there were many who had seen worse. For them, the circle of understanding must have been even smaller.

Working off of Maslow’s model of human needs, a sense of belonging comes soon after the basic needs are met (safety from harm, food, water, sleep, shelter, etc.).

To Bring This Back to Writing.

I am thinking of Hemingway’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech. Particularly the following section:

Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.

 

Studies & Meaning.

First, it is probably necessary to disclose that I studied literature and writing, both as an undergrad and as a graduate student. Later, I taught literature and writing at Brooklyn College for a few years. The study of literature is critically important to me. And much of my ability to feel like my life is meaningful hinges on my writing and how that work is going.

Here, I am referring to the kind of meaning that one can only find through some combination of toil, talent, and luck. The clarification that I mean to make is that it is a different kind of meaning than one can find through their children, or their parents, siblings, or friends. It is the kind of meaning that leads to self-actualization when things are going well, and existential crisis when things are going poorly.

Futility & Absurdity.

The first words that came out of my professor’s mouth during my first graduate school English class: “Okay, is everyone ready for another exercise in futility?”

Simple and easy like that. It was something we already knew—or we certainly should have known—but it was something that we (as tuition-paying students) had to necessarily sweep under the rug. If we didn’t learn our lesson with a bachelor’s degree and continued on that path towards advanced degrees, then our capacity for self-delusion must have been strong.

It is true that good writing is far more rare than it probably ought to be. It is also true that there is tangible professional value in writing well-crafted and grammatically correct sentences. However, it is also true—I suggest—that there is an absurdity involved in a life’s work of studying—at a professional level—the language and literature of one’s own country. Particularly when that country violently rejects the idea of secondary languages.

For artists of any medium, I would argue that things angle towards absurdity as the available audience diminishes.   There comes a point in most art forms when the artist’s creation is too esoteric, highly allusive, or otherwise difficult for laypersons or casual enthusiasts to enjoy. As you near absolute absurdity, enjoyment is more possible than understanding—the work itself has become incomprehensible to anyone but the creator himself.

James Joyce.

james-joyce-ezra-pound-ford-madox-ford-john-quinn

The focus of my graduate studies was Modernist literature & postcolonial theory. One of my favorite authors is James Joyce. I’ve written about his works extensively and I have lectured on him both in the U.S. and abroad.

In February 2008, I presented a paper on Joyce at the University Roma Tre, in Rome. Some of the most renowned Joyce scholars—and literary giants in general—were at the conference. These people had invested an even greater portion of their lives to Joycean scholarship. This was probably the first time I recognized the level of absurdity upon which our unfortunate fraternity is bound. I also knew that this would probably be the first and last time that I’d be in a room full of people who wanted to talk about James Joyce and had extensive knowledge of the subject.

So far, it has been.

Studying Joyce is a strange thing to do, and it takes at least a modest amount of willful self-deception. Joyce falls into the realm of Ivory Towerism in the mind of most people. His detractors accuse him of being pretentious and portentous. I’m not sure that I’d bother arguing that he wasn’t pretentious. He did, after all, write a book that only he could fully understand (Finnegans Wake), and then did several of the translations himself. I would argue that that is just entirely too weird to fall into the stuffiness of the Ivory Tower.

After all, you can’t get much more punk rock than having that kind of talent and spending it on writing experimental books that few people read and fewer understand.   To properly read Ulysses and Finnegans Wake takes a lot of time and a number of additional books.

Joyce is of the Martello Tower—a tower of inward-looking meaning, manufactured to pillar oneself against outward-looking indifference.

There is a loneliness involved in caring about something that so few care about. Your authority in a given field of study is nothing if not futile if there is no one with whom you can exchange ideas. So, for this reason, I think of Hemingway’s remarks about organizations for writers once again. Writing is a lonely life. Particularly when there is an absence of reciprocal engagement.

Poetry.

New York School

Poetry itself is not as arcane as Joyce studies; however, I do think that a parallel can be made. A recent report showed that among adults who read books for pleasure, less than 7% say they read poetry.

Moreover, a study conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts found:

More than half of American adults read a work of literature or a book (fiction or nonfiction) not required for work or school. However, adults’ rates of literary reading (novels or short stories, poetry, and plays) dropped back to 2002 levels (from 50 percent in 2008 to 47 percent in 2012).

If only half of the American adults read books, and only 7% of those people read poetry, the audience becomes critically small. This study doesn’t come as a great surprise to me.

When I first started to write seriously—or when I first became serious about writing—I mostly wrote poetry. At that point in time, I surrounded myself with other poets, went to poetry readings, and even our parties seemed to somehow involve poems or discussions about poetry. It was a really great time in my life.

I mostly write prose these days, but I do go to poetry readings every now and then. I see a similar pattern. For the most part, the community of people reading poems is the same community that is writing poems.

Fortunately for the poets and their battle against isolation and absurdity, there is a much larger community of people writing poems than there are reading Joyce.

For my Joyce friends…if you ever find yourself out on the ledge with no one to talk to. Send me an email, and I will happily shoot the shit about that crazy Irish bastard.

With that in mind, I’ve even linked a paper that I’d written on Joyce, with the hope that it makes us all feel a bit less alone for failing at indifference.

 

Click below to read:

THE TROUBLES IN JOYCE’S DUBLIN – POLITICAL, RELIGIOUS AND LITERARY HEGEMONY IN ULYSSES AND A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN

 

The Internet.

For all of its flaws and it’s destructive influence on face-to-face communication and its negative impact on manners and social grace, this is one area where I am unquestionably grateful for the internet. It is far easier to find people with common interests.

And, of course, any possible kind of porn you’re into…

If you’re into Joyce, that shit is probably pretty weird. If you know what I mean…you know what I mean.


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