Monday, August 19, 2013

The Music and Mystery of Poetry and the Short Story: What Short Story Writers Say

Dorothy Johnston, on whose new book Eight Pieces on Prostitution I have posted a recent blog, has contributed an interesting comment on Tim Horvath’s new collection Afterstories, about which I have also posted a recent blog. Dorothy says my reference to Poe and realism in the post has reminded her of her recent reading of T. S. Eliot’s essay, “The Music of Poetry,” suggesting that some of the things Eliot says about poetry seem “germane to the discussion about the dimensions of the short story form, those aspects which escape categorisation by such terms as 'plot' or 'realism'. Eliot talks about the poet being 'occupied with frontiers of consciousness beyond which words fail, though meanings still exist'. Although I will always be a prose writer and never a poet,” Dorothy says,”this seems apt to me”
I agree with Dorothy and revisited Eliot’s essay on the music of poetry to see what relation his ideas have toward the way short stories mean. Perhaps echoing Keats’s “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” Eliot says: “the music of poetry is not something which exists apart from the meaning.  Otherwise, we could have poetry of great musical beauty which made no sense, and I have never come across such poetry.”
 Several prose writers have praised the musical beauty of the short story as well. Indeed, one of the most common judgments authors have made about the short story over the years is that it is next to the poem in artistic challenge and excellence.  Poe was the first to say so, proclaiming: “The tale proper, in our opinion, affords unquestionably the fairest field for the exercise of the loftiest talent, which can be afforded by the wide domains of mere prose.” 

After Poe, perhaps the most oft quoted poem/short story comparison is William Faulkner’s flat-out assertion, "A short story is the nearest thing I know to lyric poetry,” or Herbert Gold’s insistence that the short story must “strike hot like the lyric poem.”  The most common characteristic the short story shares with the lyric poem, Gold argues, is that they both tend to “control and formalize experience.”  However, this very characteristic, according to British writer James Lasdun, is one of the reasons many readers don’t care for the short story. Lasdun suggests that short stories do not sell well because the genre demands an interest in form more than the novel does, and “people do not seem so interested in form these days.”
Echoing Poe’s emphasis on the formal unity of  the literary art work, Eliot sys the music of verse is ” not a line by line matter, but a question of the whole poem.” The work of art, argues Eliot, depends on its overall structure or form.  He says, for example, “A play of Shakespeare is a very complex musical structure…”

Eliot believes that a poet may gain much from the study of music. ”I believe that the properties in which music concerns the poet most nearly, are the sense of rhythm and the sense of structure…. A poem, or a passage of a poem, may tend to realize itself first as a particular rhythm before it reaches expression in words, and that this rhythm may bring to birth the idea and the image…:
Prose writers have said much the same about the short story.  For example, Harold Brodkey says, “The music of language carries more of the real meaning [in the short story] than the literal meaning of words does. A shift in the mind, in the mood, and you lose control of that music.” American author Charles D’Ambrosio agrees, chiming in that, “It’s the musical nature of sentences, where you actually hear the sound in a meaningful way, and those sounds have meaning and nuances as important as any of the content.” “I love that aspect of the short story, says D’Ambrosio; it’s almost like reading a poem.” Short story writer Amy Hempel says that when she starts a story, she often knows the beat, the rhythm of the first line or first paragraph, without knowing what the words are. “I’ll be doing the equivalent of humming a tune over and over again,” she says, “and then this tune will be translated into a sentence. I trust that. There’s something visceral about the musical quality of a sentence.”

Hempel’s fellow short story writer, Deborah Eisenberg concurs, noting that in her stories, “Sometimes there’s a kind of tonality that I want, almost as if I were writing a piece of music.”  And short story master David Means says about his experience writing the short story: “You listen to a song and get a bit of narrative along with beat and tone and sound and images, then the song fades out, or hits that final beat, and you’re left with something that’s tangible and also deeply mysterious.” This deeply mysterious, yet tangible something—what Donald Barthelme calls “rigorous truth”—is related to the formal nature of the short story, which communicates by pattern rather  than by explanation or by mimesis.

Perhaps the most provocative and most difficult to prove statement Eliot makes about poetry is similar to statements made about the most challenging short stories by such writers as Chekhov, Hemingway, Malamud, Carver, Trevor, and Alice Munro: “If, as we are aware, only a part of the meaning can be conveyed by paraphrase, that is because the poet is occupied with frontiers of consciousness beyond which words fail, though meanings still exist.” Eliot adds, “There may be much more in a poem than the author was aware of.”

That greatest of all short-story writers, Alice Munro, has said, “When I write a story I want to make a certain kind of structure, and I know the feeling I want to get from being inside that structure.”  Munro used the term “feeling” again when an interviewer asked her if the meaning of a story is more important to her than the event. “What happens as event doesn’t really much matter,” Munro replied. “When the event becomes the thing that matters, the story isn’t working too well. There has to be a feeling in the story.” Rather than being concerned with character or cause-and-effect consequence, Munro says she wants the “characters and what happens subordinated to a climate,” by which, she says, she means something like “mood.” When Munro was asked about intent in her stories, she said, “What I like is not to really know what the story is all about. And for me to keep trying to find out.” What makes a story interesting, she says, is the “thing that I don’t know and that I will discover as I go along.”
Eliot’s suggestion about frontiers of consciousness beyond which words fail echo Eudora Welty’s claim, "The first thing we see about a story is its mystery. And in the best stories, we return at the last to see mystery again. Every good story has mystery--not the puzzle kind, but the mystery of allurement. As we understand the story better, it is likely that the mystery does not necessarily decrease; rather it simply grows more beautiful." Flannery O'Connor says "The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery."

The lyric nature of the short story has led some critics, such as Sister Mary Joselyn, to argue that although all stories have a mimetic base, many have additional elements that we usually associate with poetry. Some of these poetic elements she notes are: "(1) marked deviation from chronological sequence, (2) exploitation of purely verbal resources such as tone and imagery, (3) a concentration upon increased awareness rather than upon a completed action, and (4) a high degree of suggestiveness, emotional intensity, achieved with a minimum of means." Sister Mary Joselyn says that the lyric story often has a dual action: a syllogistic plot that rests on the onward flow of time, and a secondary action that expresses "man's attempt to isolate certain happenings from the flux of time, to hold them static, to probe to their inwardness and grasp their meaning"

From its beginnings as a separately recognized literary form, the short story has always been more closely associated with lyric poetry than with its overgrown narrative neighbor, the novel. Regardless of whether short fiction has clung to the legendary tale form of its early ancestry, as practiced by Hawthorne, or whether it has moved toward the presentation of the single event, as innovated by Chekhov, the form has always been a "much in little" proposition that conceals more than it reveals and leaves much unsaid.


Dorothy Johnston said...

Thank you for another excellent and thought-provoking post. What marvellous quotes from Alice Munro, Eudory Welty and Flannery O'Connor!
The more I mull over it, the more I think that questions of time and the passage of time are crucial to the similarities between poems and short stories, and to the ways both these forms differ from the novel. Short stories and poems create, and are free to create, their own occasions, and to link the mundane with an infinite sense of mystery, if the poet or short story writer chooses to do this.

Sandra Rouse said...

Thank you again for your insights about the short story.
Because of the way you dig into the form and the way you give examples from master writers, I am extending my appreciation of the short story, far beyond my degree program. I gather encouragement in my writing process.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks to Dorothy and Sandra for these kind words about my efforts to understand and appreciate the short story. I much appreciate it.