Esprit de l’escalier, the Steven Heighton edition

November 26, 2009 by · 3 Comments 

Earlier this year, I published an essay in Canadian Notes and Queries with the somewhat adversarial title “Fuck Books.” In it, I expended about 3,000 words gassing on about the prevalence of a certain kind of pseudo-poetic, lyrical fiction that seems to dominate the literary discourse in this country. Two writers in particular – Anne Michaels and Michael Ondaatje – took it on the chin in that piece. (Of course, that essay was written before I read The Winter Vault, Michaels’ follow-up to her highly acclaimed debut novel, Fugitive Pieces; although my feelings about the latter novel remain unchanged, regular readers of this site may recall my surprise at how much I liked The Winter Vault.)

In the wake of the CNQ essay’s appearance, critics (myself and others) pointed out that not all poetic fiction is created equal. This is something that came to mind last night as I was dipping into the poet Robyn Sarah’s essay collection Little Eurekas. I came across a dialogue that Sarah had with Steven Heighton in the pages of another journal, The New Quarterly. The subject of the “paired talks” was “The Poet’s Hand in the Short Story,” and had I read it prior to writing my own essay, I might have reconsidered, since Heighton says almost everything I wanted to say, but in a much more concise and cogent manner:

To put things another way: while a literary novelist strives to get every sentence right, and a short story writer struggles with every word, a poet is actually attentive at the level of the syllable – attentive to every syllable’s length, stress, latent or overt music, onomatopoeic potential and so on. Over the course of a text, the meanings developed and/or stories conveyed are not separable from this interplay of syllables any more than the externals of a galaxy are independent of the microscopic dance of its atoms. Which is simply to say that poets strive to build texts from the micro-level upwards.

When it works, this molecular construction, this radical aptness of diction, leads to writing that feels layered, textured, mysterious, complex, and symphonic; where it fails, the results feel fussy, showy, effortful, pretentious, or, worst of all, static – a bevy of pretty phrases standing around preening and admiring themselves.

One way for the poet-writing-fiction to avoid this kind of vain stasis is to spin a compelling story – as does Cormac McCarthy – because poetic writing that leads narratively nowhere feels (at least to me) self-indulgent and idle, while similar writing that relates, or embodies, a good story simply adds to the text’s resonance and force. So lucky readers of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian or Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth get to savour both a compelling yarn and a bravura verbal performance.

The idea of a “compelling yarn” married to “a bravura verbal performance” is what John Barth was referring to in talking about the desirable combination of algebra and fire in fiction:

Let “algebra” stand for formal ingenuity and “fire” for what touches our emotions. … Formal virtuosity itself can of course be breathtaking, but much algebra and little or no fire makes for mere gee-whizzery, like Queneau’s Exercises in Style and A Hundred Thousand Billion Sonnets. Much fire and little or no algebra, on the other hand, makes for heartfelt muddles – no examples needed. What most of us want from literature most of the time is what has been called passionate virtuosity …

Perhaps the fact that passionate virtuosity, the satisfying combination of a “radical aptness of diction” and a compelling story, is so rare is actually a blessing, for it makes the experience of encountering them that much more potent.


3 Responses to “Esprit de l’escalier, the Steven Heighton edition”
  1. LH says:

    Interesting post, Steven, and now I want to get my hands on your essay, and this conversation as well, which seems very illuminating indeed. I have a similar distaste for a certain kind of fiction–referred to here as poetic fiction, but like Heighton, I’m not so clear that “poetry” can be blamed. I very much appreciate the point that poets “build texts from the micro-level upwards,” though it seems to me that while the image is one problem, It’s more the backwash of romantic slowness, an ever de-ccelerating montage of images. The problem is the relatively static nature of that image-fest, the fetishization of the word, again, in a static way. At least in the case of Michael’s Fugitive Pieces. (I may, on your recommendation, check out the new Michael’s but I do so with great terror of facing a similar psychological assault as the first. )

    The notion of a verbal performance as distinct from the poetic is intriguing. Love Joyce Cary. McCarthy too of course. In my mind it’s about a certain viscosity, or texture. And energy, among other things…

  2. Finn Harvor says:

    Yes, the Heighton quote is very good (as is the Barth, btw). And as you underline, it’s hard to find work that marries stylistic virtuosity with heart.

    Furthermore, since perceiving work that tries for both and succeeds at combining them is a rare experience and also a subjective one, it’s worth examining examples. Your point about A. Michaels is well taken, though I feel at a disadvantage since I only thumbed through FUGITIVE MUSIC when I was in Toronto and haven’t seen a word — or, come to think of it, poetic syllable — of THE WINTER VAULT. (This isn’t snark, incidentally — all I mean here is not many Canadian titles make it to Korea.) A few more examples would be appreciated. Does Heighton offer any of his own in his essay?

  3. Finn Harvor says: