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george saunders

So this morning I wake up, give my daughter a long bottle of formula (she is now able to wield the bottle on her own) and await my wife’s return from Dunkin Donuts. Yes. My wife has gone out to hunt. I am reading Across The Land And Water (Selected Poems, 1964-2001) of W.G.Sebald, Author of Austerlitz (that’s what’s on the cover). Austerlitz is a very trendy book among graduate students for I hear them dropping Austerlitz the way they dropped George Saunders or Anne Carson: long sentences I hear, like Henry James (only not)–German dude.

So I am reading poems by the author of Austerlitz. That way, I can say to someone: “but have you read his poetry?” They will say “no… no I haven’t,” and then I can raise an eyebrow, give them a significant stare, and respond, “You must” and walk away, having avoided mentioning that I have not read Austerlitz of the long sentences.

I open the book to page 74 because I am sick of hearing all about the arc of the book. Next to the pretentious rock albums of the early 70′s many of which I loved and which were all “operas” there is nothing more loathsome to me than the arc of the book. If you can’t enjoy a book of poetry in a non-linear fashion, then the hell with it. Poems exist in dynamic relation to each other–but not the relation the author chooses. They exist in the reader’s mind–a dynamic relation that is from the book but not of the book. A poem is an isolated particular until some blue spark shoots forth from the poem Z to the Poem q and you start to see how the poet’s poems are wired–but forget his arc. That is not organic. If he or she really has an arc, it will begin to show itself as you proceed skipping about. This is an age when people read from page one until the end because we are a fascist country in love with order. As we fall apart, we keep sending roses to order, and inviting it to dine. Then we prattle on about how there is no real order. Of course, there is no real order. Order is imposed. Order of this sort is date rape. The author is not a prussian general. He does not know the true order of his troops.He probably never even asked their permission. If I am wrong (and I probably am) then poetry books are unified works of art and each individual poem adss to the overall artistic effect, and reading the book out of order is a mistake at best, and evil at worst–or both, an evil mistake. It is 6:30 am, give or take a few minutes, and my wife shall soon return, and my baby daughter has thrown the long bottle to the floor, and I am making an “Evil mistake.” Evil error is even better. I am making an evil error. Somehow that fills me wth mute mirth. So page 74 of the selected which because they were culled from other works, from other “arcs” should not have to have an arc. Page 74:

Poetry For An Album
Feeling my friend
wrote Schumann
are stars which guide us
only when the sky is clear
but reason is a
magnetic needle
driving our ship on
until it shatters on the rocks

Because I often read stupidly, and because there are no italics, no quotation marks, etc, I see this as “feelings wrote Schumann.” Schumann is the composer I judge the merits of all pianists by. You can not merely show off with Schumann. He isn’t a show offy type. You have to play the middle voices, and your true talent as a pianist rather than a show off comes forth. You can’t hide in the fast notes. Anyway, I like the idea that feelings wrote Schumann. Was he not a man written by feeling? Can we not be authored by our feelings? But it makes no sense syntactically and so I realize this is being attributed to Schumann the writer–and, furthermore, it is “reason” that leads us to shipwreck–not feeling, the mind whose compass of reason is both infallible and infallibly leading us North to our doom. Very nice moody idea. Might even be true. Schumann goes on to allude to his crippled hand that ended his career as a pianist (the real Schumann, or, rather, the historical Schumann, made a crazy device he thought would extend his reach, but which maimed him). Suppose he had not been maimed, and the hand’s reach had been extended, and Schumann was able to play 12ths, and do all sorts of crazy fancy tricks? (his wife Clara could bend Florins with her bare hands) Would he have become just another show off? Would he have developed the inner voices that make him the criteria for all my favorite Pianists? Beats me, but one could make the case that injury lead to the sort of choral piano Schumann wrote–deceptively simple. I remember a story where Schoneberg defended Traumerei against the charge that it was simple. He showed all its inner voices. It was a favorite encore of Horowitz. I am sailing away from the poem–sometimes a good thing. I already want to put the poem next to Transtromer’s Schuberttieden which begins: “So much we have to trust just to stay alive.” So let’s read the rest:

It was when my palsied
finger stopped me playing
the piano that calamity
came upon me

These are very drab sentences, but as I tell my students poetry draws attention to itself as language first and last. Uber flatness–a prose denuded of character or flourish certainly draws attention to its manner of utterance first: the dead pan makes everyone look at the face. The rest of the poem reads like a show and trell of some student who is dressed up as Schumann for the purpose of a fourth grade history project, except that the North–the compass, the mathematical basis of a mind gone to ruin is the main theme. In this poem Schumann longs for the North:

I know I shall steer
for the North I have yearned for
though it be colder there
even than the ice on
gemo metry’s intersecting lines

My mind begins racing. I think of Fellini’s Casanova starring Donald Sutherland, that last scene of the seducer left to circle for ever on a frozen lake–his hell being the cold reasoning of seduction, the ultimate inability to feel anything except desire to achieve the target. Music is mathematics. I think of that. Schumann, the arch romantic, the one who had characters for all his piano pieces, the composer of Manfred , the one who envisioned his music as unified with the feelings that arose in him from literature,,, was he taken North by reason? The very flat, deadpan informative quality of the poem makes me bounce all over the place–but I know schumann’s music and I know the tricks of post modern deadpan, and I think of Oppen’s bright light of shipwreck, and of Gatsby’s green light across the bay–longing as a trope of doom, and all of them, in a way, calculating rather than passionate: “a rigorous test of sincerity.” I think of reasoning–some sort of inability to feel except in fine weather. I am staring into a camp fire and imposing images so I must wonder: perhaps I have read too much to truly read this poem except as part of a tradition–the arc of post-modernity, the inability to say anything except in pieces, in Empson like fragments of ambiguity. A lay person would say: “So what?” Must one be trained to Sebald’s art? Must one know he is the author of Austerlitz?

So I think of what I told my students: all poetry, all of it is on a spectrum between the poetic and the prosaic–neither of which is better or worse than the other. The more toward the poetic, the more the language is drawing attention to itself as language, either by sounding poetic or by being intentionally flatter than most prose. The more it exists to convey information, or meaning, or an agreed upon concept, the more it leans towards the prosaic. Non-cognition is always an attempt at pure poetry–and it most often fails. Narrative is often an attempt at coherent, linear reality and it, too, often fails. The best poems use both poetic and prosaic elements. But what about Sebald? This is certainly flat. It draws attention to some details and a couple of ideas but abandons them. It draws attention to its own flatness but does not heighten that by any particular ritual. So I go to the intro to see if anything is said about poesis or prose. and sure enough the intro begins speaking on that subject:

’My medium is prose,’ W.G. Sebald once declared in an interview, a statement that is easily misconstrued if a subtle distinction the German author added is overlooked… ‘not the novel.’

Sebald does not write the novel. He writes prose–and he writes prose even when he writes lyrical poetry–flat, speculative prose bereft of character, plot, all the usual suspects. This is not an artistic failing; it is, rather, an artistic intention. Where have I heard this before? Ah yes… MArianne Moore who, decades before the author of Austerlitz, called her poems “lucid prose.” The intro goes on to bring forth the name of Said and the idea of the exile inhabiting the “median state”–that place that is neither here nor there, but somehow between–liminal spaces that can not be defined yet call forth an almost obsessive trope of attempted definitions–all failing in the end.

Ok. So I have a bead on Sebald, but what do I think of his poems. I have read Trakl and I prefer Trakl. I have read Celan and I prefer Celan. But Sebald has his merits–the merits of shipwreck. So I skip around a language washed up on the shores where the water is neither salt nor fresh. So I skip around again, and land on page 1 (where the junkies of order think I should have landed to begin with):

So hard it is
to understand the landscape
as you pass in a train
from here to there
and mutely it
watches you vanish

So now I want Transtromer, and Schumann’s Carnaval, a couple of paintings from the German expressionists, the last scene of Casanova, and I want to know how reason and feeling, prose and poesis cohere or fail to cohere. I want someone to talk to me–someone so smart I will nod my head and say, “you must be right,” but even then… not believing the rightness. My wife thinks Sebald is pretentious, but that he can’t help but be pretentious because he is Sebald. His name writes him, determines him. He is a brand of rock dropped into the pool so that ripples will ensue. He is pretentious in his poetry (she liked Austerlitz). I don’t know…Does feeling write us? Does the landscape watch us vanish without trying to understand us? Are certain modes of stupidity genius? And If it is hard for us to understand the landscape, then how much time does the landscape spend on understanding us? Is watching a form of understanding or, is it a form of vanishing? I will have to read more poems to find out, and I may never know. It’s 7:49 now, and I have gone from breakfast to a speculative essay. My coffee is cold–the way I like it when I am writing. So much can be built upon a poem once you abandon the question of whether or not you think it is good, or whether or not you like it. I think I’ll go listen to Schumann. I will sit in the living room, listen to Schumann and read more of these poems by the author of Austerlitz. Should I listen to Traumerei? Sure.