Poetry, according to a casual polling of the thousand or so high school students I taught in my truncated career, sucks.
There are outliers, naturally – both poems that do not suck and students who like the ones that do – but by and large, the sentiment of America’s youth is clear: poetry ranks on the list of possible leisure activities somewhere below forced labor and dental work, but possibly above physics.
Kids (and, less frequently, adults) can usually be brought around to the joys of poetry (as I’ve discussed at more length here), but it’s crucial to first overcome the central grievance, which, as I understand it, seems to be the opacity of the language. And it’s easy to see why when we encounter the first lines of Hopkins’ ass-kicker, The Windhover:
“I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-/ dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding/ Of the rolling level underneath him steady air…”
Generally speaking, the language we consume is not like this. It is transparent, or better, entirely invisible. When I ask my wife where I put my half-eaten banana from yesterday and she replies that it’s in the fucking trash where it belongs, both of us understand the meaning of the other at once. This, after all, is the point of communication and, not incidentally, the reason we are so happy together. Neither person pauses to reflect on the language itself, and, as a result, neither of us tries to craft that language in any obtrusive way. She does not, for instance, tell me, “I threw that yellow brown and fickle fruit, before it could fade utterly to mush, into the trash.”
Then again, I am not married to William Faulkner. On page one of Absalom, Absalom (which is, by the way, the best novel in English), we encounter the following sentence:
“[…] Miss Coldfield in the eternal black which she had worn for forty-three years now, whether for sister, father, or nothusband none knew, sitting so bold upright in the straight hard chair that was so tall for her that her legs hung straight and rigid as if she had iron shinbones and ankles, clear of the floor with that air of impotent and static rage like children’s feet, and talking in that grim haggard amazed voice until at last listening would renege and hearing-sense self-confound and the long-dead object of her impotent yet indomitable frustration would appear, as though by outraged recapitulation evoked, quiet inattentive and harmless, out of the biding and dreaming and victorious dust.”
Clearly Faulkner is doing something here that goes above and beyond basic communication. Some people call it “literature,” or “literary fiction,” but I distrust both those people and those words. Rather than cage it up with a term, I’d just observe that Faulkner wants you to notice his language. Certainly we can look through it, to the scene he’s describing, but we are also encouraged by the syntax, by the odd contractions, by the unexpected juxtapositions, to look at it. Both the scene and the language used to describe the scene share the reader’s attention.
Today, however, as I worked through my review of the copyeditor’s notes on my own book, I was struck by how differently we approach language in genre fiction. With a few exceptions, writers of genre, and here I’m particularly interested in fantasy, attempt to buff and polish their language until it is utterly clear, a perfect window. We might get a stylized opening passage, or a rhetorically embellished conclusion, but the bread and butter of most of these books is nothing at all like Faulkner.
Now obviously, I’ve loaded the deck by choosing Faulkner (and this novel in particular) as my example of linguistic opacity, but even a more temperate comparison might make the point. The first two quotes below are from Annie Proulx, a “literary” writer, but a popular one known more for character than verbal shenanigans. In other words, she could write recognizable fantasy. The third is from China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. I picked it because, among people writing fantasy today, Mieville is reputed (rightly, in my opinion) to be a keen prose stylist. Proulx first, with her description of Diamond Felts:
“Five-foot three, rapping, tapping, nail-biting, he radiated unease.”
“He picked up a night ride with Tee Dove, a Texas bullrider, the big car slingshot at the black hump of range, dazzle of morning an hour behind the rim, not a dozen words exchanged.”
In both excerpts the language shoulders its way to the fore. It doesn’t obscure the description because Proulx has her shit together, but it makes itself known as language – beautiful, arresting, and a little unexpected. Compare with Mieville:
“The food stalls stretched the noisy length of Shadrach Street. Books and manuscripts and pictures filled up Selchit Pass, an avenue of desultory banyans and crumbling concrete a little way to the east. There were earthenware products spilling down the road to Barrackham in the south; engine parts to the west; toys down one side street; clothes between two more; and countless other goods filling all the alleys.”
This is a wonderful descriptive passage, the tempo, syntax, and play of consonants all masterfully handled. But look at the difference – aside from that one word, “desultory,” the language defers almost entirely to the content it is tasked with describing.
My statistician friends will not appreciate my basing the whole case on three data points, but I’ll do it anyway: fantasy (and genre fiction more generally) encourages, even relies on, the invisibility of language. Let me be clear, I am not elevating one style or indicting the other, not coming down in favor of either Proulx or Mieville; I love them both. The question that interests me is whether or not there is room on the shelves for swashbuckling sword and sorcery novels in the style of Faulkner, or Proulx, or Anne Carson. Would people read them? Or perhaps they are already there?