Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Morning thoughts: on making

Interior decoration by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
for Glimmerglass, out in September.
A lion, a leaf, and a crown--surely they are
nothing if not realistic. And yet, put them together...

Often I'm startled by my own absurd temerity in saying anything about books. What do I know? Why don't I stick to my own narrative and lyric frolics and words and keep my mouth fast shut otherwise? A writer is always making things up, beginning at the very beginning--knowing nothing about how to make what she must make next. It's yet another thing about being a writer that enforces (or should enforce) a kind of humility, whether a writer wants it or not. Having revised a poem or novel or story, I hold an amount of strange knowledge . . . and yet it all flies out the nearest window, never to return, when I sit down with the blank page, the not-yet-born next.

Yet I do persist in this mania of having and changing opinions, thinking that I know things about what I do. For example, I've long felt that the roots of our literature in English are quite other than what is often praised--this thing called realism that so dominates much of our thinking about books. And I've felt, in fact, that there is no such thing as realism, just as there is no such thing as the fantastical or irrealism. These words are but handles, convenient ways of describing points on a continuum. As I've said before, if a book could be perfectly and wholly "realistic," it would then replace reality in one Borgesian swoop. All works of literature are made from nothing, or from Yeats's "a mouthful of air." That is the nature of creation and the sub-creation that is literature.

From Beowulf to Gawain and the Green Knight to The Tempest to Tom Jones to Bleak House to the latest narrative in prose or verse, what matters in poetry and fiction is energy. Is the work alive? And the answer to that question has little to do with where a work falls on the continuum between realist and irrealist, and everything to do with whether it captures something of the energies of life.

* * *


It occurs to me (once again) that I have already said these things before, in some way or another. These morning thoughts, written before the dawn . . . Waking, making. Making is a kind of waking, isn't it? And a maker desires to be awake, to wake others.

* * *


Here's Jacob Bacharach, author of A Bend in the World, at Huffington Post:
Sometimes I think that all the really great works of surrealism predate our boring, modern obsession with dividing the real from the unreal, truth from fiction, the conscious mind from the dream. I'm using surrealism in its common and not specific sense; a lot of the works I'm going to mention are what you might call magical realist, or experimental, or postmodern, or just plain weird. I'm actually a fan of weird fiction myself. If my own writing ever spawns a genre, that's the name I'll lobby for. Anyway, in working on a current unfinished writing project, I've been rereading the Bible, and it's reminded me that of a friend of mine who once said that Revelation was his favorite science fiction novel. I'm a fan of Job, myself, which would give Burroughs a run for his mugwumps, although for true weirdness, you really ought to reread Genesis, in which the utterly ordinary and the utterly otherworldly coexist and commingle in a manner totally alien to the modern ear and imagination; the poetry of creation gives way to genealogy, and God flits between instantiating His word and dickering with little humans over the specific price and measure of disobedience...
I tend to think that all great literature has an element of the fantastical and the surreal: BolaƱo, Melville, Djuna Barnes, Anne Carson, Laurence Sterne... Each era throws up writers who take their elbows to the way we're supposed to see things, and these are the ones I come back to when I am bored with being bored.
Via that interesting young seminary professor and writer, Wesley Hill


  1. This is among my favorite postings of all those I've read on your blog--. And it applies equally, I think, to the making of visual art. I especially like this: "I've long felt that the roots of our literature in English are quite other than what is often praised--this thing called realism that so dominates much of our thinking about books. And I've felt, in fact, that there is no such thing as realism . . .if a book could be perfectly and wholly "realistic," it would then replace reality in one Borgesian swoop. All works of literature are made from nothing, or from Yeats's "a mouthful of air. . . ." And this:"[W]hat matters in poetry and fiction is energy." The first note to myself I tacked to the wall of my first studio said "Do anything, but don't make it dead."

    1. Ah, that's a great quote for a studio wall!

  2. I agree with Mary. This is certainly something you come back to every once in a while, but you say it especially well here.
    I too return often to the conundrum of "realism" in literature. Such "realism" is only a pose, as you say. It is a framework or pattern that reveals much more about the time it was written and the person who writes it than the nature of reality itself.
    But I find that important and interesting, a worthy subject of study in itself.

    1. And certainly our own time has an awful lot to say about the subject...

  3. Funny you should mention it, but Job is my favorite book in the Bible. It's terribly strange. A great post!

    1. Oh, Job--I love. Especially 41:

      [1] "Can you draw out Levi'athan with a fishhook,
      or press down his tongue with a cord?
      [2] Can you put a rope in his nose,
      or pierce his jaw with a hook?
      [3] Will he make many supplications to you?
      Will he speak to you soft words?
      [4] Will he make a covenant with you
      to take him for your servant for ever?
      [5] Will you play with him as with a bird,
      or will you put him on leash for your maidens?
      [6] Will traders bargain over him?
      Will they divide him up among the merchants?
      [7] Can you fill his skin with harpoons,
      or his head with fishing spears?
      [8] Lay hands on him;
      think of the battle; you will not do it again!
      [9] Behold, the hope of a man is disappointed;
      he is laid low even at the sight of him.
      [10] No one is so fierce that he dares to stir him up.
      Who then is he that can stand before me?
      [11] Who has given to me, that I should repay him?
      Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine.
      [12] "I will not keep silence concerning his limbs,
      or his mighty strength, or his goodly frame.
      [13] Who can strip off his outer garment?
      Who can penetrate his double coat of mail?
      [14] Who can open the doors of his face?
      Round about his teeth is terror.
      [15] His back is made of rows of shields,
      shut up closely as with a seal.
      [16] One is so near to another
      that no air can come between them.
      [17] They are joined one to another;
      they clasp each other and cannot be separated.
      [18] His sneezings flash forth light,
      and his eyes are like the eyelids of the dawn.
      [19] Out of his mouth go flaming torches;
      sparks of fire leap forth.
      [20] Out of his nostrils comes forth smoke,
      as from a boiling pot and burning rushes.
      [21] His breath kindles coals,
      and a flame comes forth from his mouth.
      [22] In his neck abides strength,
      and terror dances before him.
      [23] The folds of his flesh cleave together,
      firmly cast upon him and immovable.
      [24] His heart is hard as a stone,
      hard as the nether millstone.
      [25] When he raises himself up the mighty are afraid;
      at the crashing they are beside themselves.
      [26] Though the sword reaches him, it does not avail;
      nor the spear, the dart, or the javelin.
      [27] He counts iron as straw,
      and bronze as rotten wood.
      [28] The arrow cannot make him flee;
      for him slingstones are turned to stubble.
      [29] Clubs are counted as stubble;
      he laughs at the rattle of javelins.
      [30] His underparts are like sharp potsherds;
      he spreads himself like a threshing sledge on the mire.
      [31] He makes the deep boil like a pot;
      he makes the sea like a pot of ointment.
      [32] Behind him he leaves a shining wake;
      one would think the deep to be hoary.
      [33] Upon earth there is not his like,
      a creature without fear.
      [34] He beholds everything that is high;
      he is king over all the sons of pride."


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.