Literary Criticism

Book Review – The Bow and the Lyre by Octavio Paz

Poetry is knowledge, salvation, power, abandonment. An operation capable of changing the world, poetic activity is revolutionary by nature; a spiritual exercise, it is a means of interior liberation. Poetry reveals this world, it creates another. (Location 70)

As one can discern from the quote above, Octavio Paz held poetry in pretty high regard. In his explication on the nature of the poetic, the author presented a high-minded analysis of the reasons why:

…the struggle between prose and poetry, consecration and analysis, song and criticism, latent since the birth of modern society is resolved by the triumph of poetry. (Location 3404)

A heady analysis bracketed these citations.

It is somewhat unusual for a literary figure to write an intellectual tome on his/her field. As Mr. Paz was a poet of great renown, I wanted to explore his take on the topic. Since this April 19th marks the twentieth anniversary of his passing, this month seemed a good time to do so.

The author derived the title from a quote attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. He wrote, “The universe is in tension, like the bowstrings or the strings of the lyre. The world ‘changing, rests.’” (Location 2932) That seemed a solid choice. It referenced the bow and the lyre that poets used to accompany their work during ancient times. It also gave an indication of the book’s heavy philosophical leanings.

Some of author’s more thought provoking observations included:

By means of the word, man is a metaphor of himself. (Location 361)

…–the poem is something that is beyond language. But that thing that is beyond language can only be reached through language. A painting will be a poem if it is something more than pictorial language. (Location 229)

The myth is a past that is a future ready to be realized in the present. (Location 804)

Are you still with me, reader? Okay. I’ll continue.

As indicated in the opening, Mr. Paz had a very high opinion of poetry.  He reasoned:

The spoken language is closer to poetry than to prose; it is less reflective and more natural, and that’s why is easier to be a poet without knowing it than a prose writer. (Location 207) … The poet sets his matter free. The prose writer imprisons his. (Location 212)

He added, “When a poet acquires a style, a manner, he stops being a poet and becomes a constructor of literary artifacts.” (Location 140)

Mr. Paz didn’t just like poetry; he used this book as its apotheosis. He believed poetry played a vital role in any community. This is where I found the author drifting from adoration into pretention. He wrote:

Without an epic no society is possible, because there is no society without heroes in whom it can recognize itself. (Location 3302)

At one point, he even suggested the poem on a superior plane to the person who created it.

The poem is not a literary form, but a meeting place between poetry and man. A poem is a verbal organism that contains, stimulates or emits poetry. The form and the substance are the same. (Location 97)

He later wrote:

Poetry is not the sum of all poems, Each poetic creation is a self-sufficient unit. The part is the whole. (Location 114)

I also thought one of Mr. Paz’s observations odd. He noted: “Poetry is the hunger for reality.” (Location 859) That seemed a strange statement as the author wrote surrealist poetry himself.

Mr. Paz displayed both practical and intellectual proficiency in the topic he presented. I still found The Bow and the Lyre a very difficult read. The complexity of thought and amount of information would benefit academics. I wouldn’t suggest this book to people with a general interest in poetry, however. For those readers, I’d advise them to check out a volume of the author’s own poetry. Mr. Paz just may have agreed with that. As he explained:

The poem is a work that is always unfinished, always ready to be completed and lived by a new reader. (Location 2964)…A poem is fully realized only in participation: without a reader, it is only half a work. (Location 437)

Book Review – The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

Several writers recommended John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction to me on the grounds that it’s a “classic”. My interest in agreeing with fellow authors leads me to concur with that observation. The iconoclast in me struggles to find reasons for encouraging prospective writers to read the book.

I cannot refute Mr. Gardner’s erudition. He cited works from a varied group of authors…and cited them…and cited them. After a while, the repeated name dropping became tiresome. Did I mention he referred to a variety of different writers? The author conveyed the impression that he’d read everything ever written from Homer to William Gass. To put a positive spin on this, as I perused The Art of Writing Mr. Gardner convinced me he earned the right to opine on the topic.

I thought many of Garner’s points intelligent and well-reasoned. I enjoyed his twist on the old adage about “writing what you know.” He suggested, “Write the kind of story you like best.” (Page 18) The author discussed how the temptation to explain should always be resisted. (Page 111) He author also pointed out that an ending should be both “inevitable and surprising.” (Page 172.) As the subtitle of the book read, “Notes on Craft for Young Writers” I liked these sound observations.

Which allows me to segue into my main issue with the book: a lot of the ideas I read seemed far advanced for someone just beginning to write. At one point Gardner used a concept from the field of physics to illustrate something involving writing.

But there remains one question, a central concern in all modern art, as in contemporary science; namely, the implications of the Heisenberg principle: To what extent does the instrument of discovery change the discovery, whether the instrument be “the process of fiction” or the particle bombardment of an atom. (Page 130)

Huh? I’m not a physicist, but I define the Heisenberg (Uncertainty) Principle as the understanding that it’s impossible to know both the speed and location of an object at the same time. What that has to do with literature exceeds my powers of comprehension. I can’t imagine how observations such as this benefit aspiring authors.

In addition to that, Gardner included other high minded concepts that could scare off beginners. One of his ideas terrified even me. The author included thoughts on how fiction has “the power to enslave”; Gardner used those exact words. Using a hypothetical protagonist as an example he explained:

The effect on the reader of this lonely, lofty hero could be very great indeed-but not necessarily healthy. If such heroes occur in very many plays and novels, if the appeal of such a character becomes widespread, then democracy, even common decency is undermined. We have been taught to admire, to submit to, or behave like the well-meaning Nazi officer, the business-world tyrant, or the moral fanatic. Nothing in the world has greater power to enslave than does fiction.
(Page 87)

To my mind the greater danger entails authors possessing such a degree of pretention that they believe the entire universe reacts to every word he/she writes.

The Art of Fiction came out in 1983 shortly after the author’s passing. With the advent of the internet and flash fiction, the early 1980s seem like a lifetime ago. Because of that I thought some of the concepts rather dated. I liked Gardner’s view that authors should include a good amount of detail in his/her writing. I agreed with his assertion that this makes fiction better and more believable to the reader. I thought his idea of what constitutes sufficient detail much too excessive for the modern era. He cited a passage from Ivan Bunin’s “The Gentleman from San Francisco” that took up three quarters of a page. The author wrote this piece in 1915. I think a more modern example would’ve buttressed Gardner’s point better.

I did find some useful guidelines for aspiring writers in The Art of Fiction. The book serves readers better as a “classic” treatise on writing, however. It provides an excellent snapshot of the state of the craft in the early 1980’s. A wealth of information about numerous authors appears in The Art of Fiction. (In case I didn’t emphasize it enough before: Gardner cited a lot of different writers.) It belongs in a similar category with Arthur Schopenhauer’s The Art of Literature or Edgar Allan Poe’s Literary Theory and Criticism. It doesn’t work as a practical “how to” book for young writers, though.