Critical Mass

Robert Polito on Mixing Genres


Robert Polito, who received the National Book Critics Circle Award in biography for “Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson,” was one of the panelists for the September 12 NBCC panel at the New School on “Mixing Genres,” moderated by Peter Straub. Polito directs the Graduate Writing program at The New School. His poetry collection “Hollywood & God,” is forthcoming in Spring, 2009 from the University of Chicago Press. 
Many of my favorite books from the last few decades tend to operate along the seams of poetry, fiction, and essay. I’m thinking of books as various as W. G. Sebald’s “The Rings of Saturn,” James Merrill’s “The Changing Light at Sandover,” Geoffrey O’Brien’s “The Phantom Empire,” Frank Bidart’s “Desire,” Michael Ondaatje’s “Coming Through Slaughter,” Anne Carson’s “Glass, Irony, and God,” Geoff Dyer’s “Out of Sheer Rage,“Lisa Robertson’s “Occasional Work,” J.M.Coetzee’s “Elizabeth Costello,” Ander Monson’s “Neck Deep and Other Predicaments,” Luc Sante’s “Kill All Your Darlings,” David Markson’s “Reader’s Block,” Jenny Boully’s “The Body,” Lydia Davis’s “Samuel Johnson Is Indignant,” Rachel Cohen’s “A Chance Meeting,” René Steinke’s “Holy Skirts,” Harry Matthews’s “My Life in CIA,” John Haskell’s “I Am Not Jackson Pollock,” Joe Wenderoth’s “Letters to Wendy,” Maggie Nelson’s “Jane: A Murder,” Steve Erickson’s “Zeroville,” Jonathan Lethem’s “The Disappointment Artist,” Paul Auster’s “The Book of Illusions,” Lynne Tillman’s “American Genius: A Comedy,” and Tom McCarthy’s “Remainder.”

Could this mongrel—or magpie—book be the signature genre of our time? I’ve come to think of these books as dramatizing, even embodying thinking in sentences and lines, at least as Elizabeth Bishop advanced the notion when she wrote as a Vassar undergraduate that she wanted to write poems that seize the mind “in action” rather than “at rest.”

“We fill pre-existing forms, and when/ we fill them, change them and are changed,” Frank Bidart writes in “Desire”—writes twice, as it happens, as if to shadow the recurrent, intractable figure of desire, as well as the circular intricacies of personality and genre. The long poem in “Desire,” “The Second Hour of the Night,” recasts the incestuous tale of Myrrha and Cinyras out of Ovid’s “Metamorphosis” against a backdrop of now analogous, now contrasting public and private episodes ranging from the memoirs of Hector Berlioz, Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” “A Manichaean Psalm-Book,” John Wayne Gacey, and the poet’s own friendship with the artist and writer Joe Brainard, who died just before Bidart started the poem. Let me read one short passage from “The Second Hour of the Night,” so we can hear the particular mix of narrative and speculation, lyric and essay, the sense of a poet working through a succession of volatile cultural and personal issues, as Bidart focuses the oppositions, contradictions, and secret stories surrounding desire—it’s the moment when Myrrha finally walks down the corridor to her father’s bedroom: 

As Myrrha is drawn down the dark corridor toward her

          not free not to desire

          what draws her forward is neither COMPULSION nor

          or at least freedom, here choice, is not to be
          imagined as action upon

          preference: no creature is free to choose what
          allows it its most powerful, and most secret, release:

          I fulfill it, because I contain it –
          it prevails, because it is within me –

          it is a heavy burden, setting up longing to enter that
          realm to which I am called from within…

          As Myrrha is drawn down the dark corridor toward her

          not free not to choose

          she thinks, To each soul its hour.

Everything about this is impossibly slippery, as all the contraries—compulsion, freewill, choice, burden—flow together, simultaneously asserted and negated. And despite the narrative and emotional tilt of the passage, this is a collage; nearly every line of “The Second Hour of the Night” is a quotation from some other work, here most obviously Ovid, but also Plotinus, even T.S. Eliot. (Eliot wrote about Marianne Moore in his preface to her 1935 Faber & Faber “Selected Poems”: “We all have to choose what subject matter allows us the most powerful and most secret release; and that is a personal affair.”) There are many reasons for this allusive netting—but this poem about desire and inevitably also, via Joe Brainard, about the
living and the dead is itself a medley of dead voices. As Bidart said, “We fill pre-existing forms, and when/we fill them, change them and are changed.”

I know of no recent novel that so originally seizes an American mind “in action”—the siftings and fixations of an interior life, or the arc of consciousness into history—as Lynne Tillman’s “American Genius: A Comedy.”

A woman whose name we eventually discover is Helen monologues from inside an artist’s colony, though the institutional setting carries mischievous overtones of a sanitarium or prison. Incantatory, deadpan, analytic, deflective, chilling, and gorgeous, Helen’s mind coils through such topics as noisy plumbing, awful food, other residents, vanishing nature, animals, furniture, textiles, skin, the Manson trial, Puritans, presidents, languages, Manifest Destiny, Kafka, empire, race, the living and the dead—in short,the full “American genius” across various intimations of that ancient word:attendant spirit, prevalent disposition, character, inventiveness, and exalted talent.

Tillman’s style often is the sound of an epigram cracking open—“Everything is a problem, I can’t think of anything significant that isn’t a problem from the past for the future, and though I erect contemporary altars to what I remember,
some of which feels permanent, as I remember scenes exactly the same way for years until I don’t, I’m wary of its drastic claims on the present, especially for sensitive people.” If Stein and Beckett are the household gods of her elegant, self-consuming sentences, so too is Warhol:

Puritanism successfully infiltrated America, nowhere else so completely, and in this country fame is visible proof of God’s love, it sits beside material wealth, intangible but a form of temporary approval, and may be gained and lost, possibly the devil’s work, whose business easily fools sinners, and so the famous, whose celebrity rests on the effervescent fascination and mood of non-famous others, must maintain that goodwill through incessant appearances and reappearances, to fix their stars in a worldly firmament and also in limited imaginations. The famous become paranoid. Celebrity is coruscating and fleeting, since its value isn’t attached to anything, there is no logic to fame and no use to it, except for exciting suffocated imaginations that consume hope. Dante’s paradise became tiresome, blandly beautiful, because in it there was nothing left to hope for, while hell was vivid and detailed. I’m an American Calvinist who rebukes herself, also with other lives, a desperate convict on death row or an escaped slave, Harriet Jacobs, caged for years in an attic hardly bigger than her body, whose authorship was disputed because she was black, but I still can’t discount all lesser anguish, and I also don’t believe I should, though others’ pain overwhelms or even shames mine, but relativity is also historical, so my ethical compass wobbles. It must be why a dark night is endless, when I often remind myself that I must unmake everything, but the best I can achieve is a temporary, furtive indifference to myself, the others around me, and my projects on the floor.

Bishop culled her at rest/in action distinction from Morris Croll’s essay on seventeenth-century writing, “The Baroque Style in Prose,” and back there in Sir Thomas Browne and Robert Burton, more than in any modern novelist or artist, might we find the ultimate genus of “American Genius: A Comedy”? Isn’t it exactly right, not only for this panel on mixed genre but also for the cultural moment I’m describing, that as a young poet thinking ahead to the sorts of poems she hoped to write, and decades later ultimately would write, Bishop turned not to poems, but to prose, and moreover prose about prose? And isn’t also “American Genius: A Comedy,” this strange, dark, funny, glorious, unclassifiable book,Tillman’s “Urne-Burial,” her “Anatomy of Melancholy?”—Robert Polito

Adapted from “New Ohio Review,” Fall 2008.