At a mere 80 or so pages, Jessica Schneider’s novella – The Architecture of Loss – manages to achieve much within its short length. Although, being an early work of hers, it sets up many of her favorite tropes and themes that would be further refined in later works – that fact does not prevent it from being singularly unique due to the countless innovations held within and the sheer beauty of the prose. Furthermore, the novella is available for sale on Amazon, which means you can buy it now and get a taste of the future to come when the rest of her novels are published for the public to finally consume.
Since the novella is absolutely dense, and because I don’t want to spoil too much of the experience – I’ll be covering some prose sections, as well as some parts of the book’s structure, to illustrate the many things that this work has to offer. Firstly, here is the summary of the book as posted on Amazon:
Victor Erickson has recently resigned from his position as an architect due to reasons he finds too painful to disclose. His family, worried about his isolation and sanity, take turns monitoring his well-being. Finally, on one snowy winter morning, Victor finds himself enclosed within his own inner world while his daughter Anna visits. As Victor relays a tale about having almost drowned as a boy, the two find themselves discoursing about death, dream and the illusion of perception. With neither able to leave due to the impending weather, Anna too finds herself stuck within her own stillness.
At the core of the novella is the above mentioned ‘discourse’ between Anna, and her father, Victor. You would think that this would turn the book into one of those musty literary experiments centering around clashing voices. Yet, despite a bulk of the book being dialogue (and thus the subtitle ‘A Novella in Three Acts’ – jumping between play/film and prose sections), there is so much revealed in the exchange between Victor and Anna, and it is told so wonderfully, that it does not read like an experiment at all. The novella has many innovations, but they flow and cohere so naturally that the mind is caught in the scenes, of the characters and their world, rather than the artifice.
One such innovation is in how the story opens. It begins with a quick scene between Victor and his wife (initially unnamed) – showing the tension of their marriage combined with some of the lightest wintry prose ever placed on a page:
“I don’t care if it is cold. I don’t want to hear the flame,” Victor responds, still sitting in his bathrobe and pulling his blanket up close to his face. He can feel his body shivering, even though the living room is modestly warm. He is beside the shut window, and outside he can see from his chair the snows rolling into hills of white bedding, appearing almost transparent, and without human tracks. It is supposedly the coldest January the city has experienced for five decades or more.”
The second chapter then jumps to some time in the past, when Victor and his wife (Christabel) first got together – they met as teens because their parents both owned lake houses on Lake Superior. It is a longer chapter and focuses mainly on Christabel’s perspective. The amazing thing is how, after this chapter, we will hardly see Christabel in person (except two other chapters) despite the massive role she seems to play in Victor’s life – because Anna will come in and the long dialogue between Victor and Anna will begin. Yet, we will feel Christabel’s presence sometimes through the dialogue – when she is mentioned and her character slips through the gaps. This is also the only chapter-length third-person narrated flashback in the whole book. In other words, what we get, through this momentary dip into memory – is a mere hint at the foundation of all of Victor’s later suffering through a god’s eye view of his background. Although, certainly, flashbacks aren’t a new thing in an author’s repertoire – the way it is used here is truly innovative, for it where it is chosen and how it plays out. We even get a slight touch of intertextuality with Coleridge’s poem Christabel being used in the chapter itself, to further the overall atmosphere of stillness.
The character of Victor is also extremely interesting. He is a depressed unemployed architect lazing at home in utter solitude, and when you think about this description you can think about all the possible ways that this book could fall into cliché. Works centering around angsty or depressed characters – Plath’s Bell Jar or Dazai’s No Longer Human – have been prevalent throughout the whole of history. Victor is different because the book does not conform to merely his perspective, uses Anna as a foil (although she is full of angst herself), and the melodrama/solipsism/self-pity/self-suffering exists solely within the character and is not submerged into the whole book. The result is that there are moments when Victor is pathetic, and there are moments when he is wise and can see into Anna’s problems while being blind to his own, and there are moments when he glimpses into a higher cosmos of creativity – he is complex and multi-faceted, and he does not fall into the utter anomie like so many other portrayals of depression out there.
Victor also follows the trope of the overly intellectual artist (or artistic wannabe) caught up in his own dreams and abstractions – a character that does not just appear in other works by Jess, but also in the works of other creators like Bergman and Woody Allen. During some parts of the dialogue, he will jump into poetic leaps of fancy and abstract ideas. For example:
“No, it wasn’t. Because I had this overwhelming sense of peace. Granted, when I woke I was in a sweat, but during the dream, it was nice to feel forgotten. Some might say that sounds depressing, but it was a state of otherness that I admired,” he says. She waits for him to finish, pausing just enough to make sure he is not going to speak again.
“Sounds depressing, dad,” Anna says while lifting their empty bowls. They have both finished lunch.
“No, but it’s not. It wasn’t at all. It was just strange, really.”
“It sounds strange,” she says before adding, “Is that what makes you happy? To be forgotten about? Don’t you want people to remember you? I mean that’s the last thing I would have thought you’d find reassuring—to be wiped out of oblivion.”
“You make it sound so melodramatic. But I can assure you, it wasn’t like that.”
This exchange comes when Victor recounts a dream he has of being in a “giant room that was all red, and then it felt like it was swallowing me up”. The interesting thing is how, within the context of Victor’s personality – this exchange outlines his depression and angst – yet, when seen in the context of the whole novella, can be attached to so many different symbols and ideas that are brought up within the book about art and the cosmos. This is a leap of association that never appears in the solipsism of Plath’s Bell Jar – that a character can simultaneously dig internal into himself, and yet outline higher things as well.
Anna, as you can tell from the above extract, serves to viciously pull Victor out of his own head – even though the ferocity she uses to do so outlines her own flaws. So, a chunk of the dialogue focuses on these two self-loathing intellectuals, despite being father and daughter, tearing at each other and trying to assert their own ego. Once again, the novella could have gone in all sorts of wrong cliched directions – were it not for the fact that Jess took the best lessons from creators like Bergman and Allen, and never lets the internal suffering of the characters dominate the work.
In order to achieve this, the prose is absolutely important. Jess inserts little pockets of astounding natural beauty throughout her novella to contrast with the selfishness and angst of the human emotions in the dialogue. Here are just some snippets to give you a taste:
Often on afternoons Christabel would sunbathe with her sisters, reading a collection of poetry, or when her literary father wasn’t around, a romance novel. She would sun all afternoon and shut her eyes and once again pretend to sleep. She would do this until the heated slants of sun caused her skin too much color, where by then she’d force herself into the overwhelming lake large enough to be a fresh water ocean, and walk her nude feet across partly sanded stones not yet soft.
A good hour has passed since they’ve eaten, and the snow still falls with a sense of unceasing persistence. Anna worries a little about her husband, in the hopes that his drive home will be alright. She is standing near the main window, which faces their large orchard, and a small fountain her father installed several years ago for her mother’s birthday looks back at her. Water that once fell freely through it six months ago in summer now stands stubborn and covered in a sheet of ice, buried below a shroud of white. The snow continues to fall everywhere around it, even making a small, pointed cone on the top of the small stone statue’s head. It makes the small naked boy appear to be wearing a hat. Anna watches while her breath makes fog on the glass, and it is upon noticing such, that she realizes she’s been standing there for too long.
Her face is hot, and so Anna rises to excuse herself. Down the hall, the walls are colored with the shades of expired afternoons, not quite night but too late for sun. The sky is gray and the trees laden with snow. Their branches point outward in contrast to the blending forgetfulness of the sky, which appears as one solid separateness, close and contained. A lowness holds her, and so she moves with it across the dimly lighted hallways, across the painted walls that have nothing for her to hold and yet they hold her, ever loosening as an old touch, where the hand she feels ever so briefly for a time then falls away without any sense of loss.
The lighthouse, although stagnant, makes a moving point of light along the length of the sea, growing ever deeper as the aging waves, these waves that greet shores on every point of earth, saturating it and all parts of land till there is blue against all sides. And then he finds himself on the island once again, near his summerhouse, and notices that his hands are not as they are in winter. In winter they appear whiter, when the winter works to wipe away any previous stains from the sun. But now his hands look as he remembers from his youth—copper colored and unclean from having sanded away years of stone, as though he too is a block of something solid. Thinking he sees his young wife, he waves but she does not wave back. She only continues to read and sip her drink in the lukewarm sun, her frame dangling in the hammock, watching while her single toe labors against the ground to move the rest of her. How relaxed she looks, thinking then that it has been so long since he remembers her appearing in such a way.
As you can see from above, the prose is incredibly refined, and also supports the themes by contributing to the sense of wintry stillness the two characters are trapped in. The moments where prose erupts are also smartly chosen, and the lighthouse paragraph above comes from Chapter 7, which is a telling of the red room dream that Victor later mentions to Anna. Though Victor cannot adequately explain it to his daughter, the prose does the work for you and conveys what he wishes he could convey.
Now – all of the above only serves to outline bits and pieces of the work in question, but how everything comes together can only be seen when reading the book itself. I have not touched on one of the most important aspects of the novel, which is the symbols used – especially that of ‘architecture’. I want you to think about what expectations and preconceived notions comes from reading the summary and weighing the title “The Architecture of Loss” in your head. It can refer to both internal and external architecture – and the divide is put into question throughout the novella, as the environment seems to seep into the characters, and vice versa. When I first read the title I was thinking, stereotypically, in terms of the loss of someone close – but the way in which both words – ‘architecture’ and ‘loss’ – are played with, and expectations subverted all the way to the very end, and constant layers of meaning built and overlapping – it is something that I feel has to be experienced rather than explained.
I hope this review will help spur you on to purchase The Architecture of Loss for yourself and experience the journey in full. It is merely an appetizer compared to the rest of Jessica Schneider’s plentiful corpus, but great nonetheless. And, for any publishers out there – you’re missing out on one of the greatest prose writers of our time (and not just one, but two!) – so get publishing!
Dan Schneider’s Selected series (7 books so far) is now on Amazon: with 2 collections of short stories, 2 prose excerpt collections (from the novels), 1 collection of excerpts from his memoirs, 1 collection of essays and 1 collection of reviews (the last two draws from Cosmoetica). The full novels, plays, poems, short stories (basically the entire Schneiderverse corpus) etc… will have to wait – but anyone who is interested in great writing can finally get a small taste of what the entire has to offer. Though, if you want to see the rest – get the man to a proper press!
Groucho on Groucho is a poem of Dan’s that may not reach the heights of condensation & subtlety of his others, but it is a good showcase of technical virtuosity. The musicality is loud & lyrical, and the thrust is clearly communicated, rather than submerged into a million other pathways of meaning. In a sense, it might be a good poem to use as an entry-point into Dan’s world – especially to those who are not yet used to the finer points of seeking meaning over aesthetics. It also serves as an example of how a poet can use other voices yet reveal his own through theirs.
So, here’s the poem in question:
Disclaimer: Do not read my analysis until you’ve pondered the poem for yourself. After all, most of the fun and power comes from how you, as a person, orient yourself to the poem before conferring with other views. In the end, much of poetry’s strength comes from intuition – although explanation & analysis can help ground intuition for later readings.
Rather than critique the poem stanza by stanza, I’ll just treat it as general segments this time.
The poem opens with an enigmatic line “the secret word is pain”, and an epigraph from Sigmund Freud – setting up the techniques that will be used & the themes that will be subverted further lines down. The entire poem is structured as an internal imaginary dialogue in the head of Groucho Marx, the famous comedian, with one side being the active analyst, and the other side reacting against the analysis. In this way, Freud’s epigraph works well, because it is a quote from the famous psychoanalyst talking about how psychoanalysis can be taken too far and things like cigars can be overanalysed (to be read as Phallic symbols etc…) – and not only does this sync with the pop-culture image of Groucho Marx smoking his cigar, but it plays with the self-questioning that Groucho performs throughout this poem.
The first line shows what the poem is all about. Analyst-Groucho (AG) will try to get Reacting-Groucho (RG) to admit that their comic persona is a form of escape/repression from certain traumas & pains in Groucho Marx’s life. Throughout the dialogue, the word ‘pain’ will be suppressed and swapped with another rhyming word signifying the act of repression in progress, at least until the shift at the end. In this way, the rhyme actually contributes something more than its own lyricism, helping to facilitate this process of repression. The poem could not work without the rhyme.
AG opens the poem with a series of traumas in Groucho’s life, like the fact that his father was an “ill-reknowed tailor” (typo?), that one of his brothers was a gambler & drunk, and that he was alone “like a tootsie sans fruitsie”. Notable is how Dan keeps the comedic style of Groucho’s witty comebacks, as well as making reference to some of the jokes in his films (the Tootsie Fruitsie Ice Cream joke from Day at the Races). The primary thing that AG wants to prove is:
“Or could it be that in your black tie and tails
You cover a soul that excuses and wails?”
“And at a fine ball, or in a grand stateroom,
Do your wisecracks reveal a soul rent by gloom?
And can a carnation emblem salvation?”
Yet, from this initial part we can also see the primary weakness of the poem – the lack of extensive layering & parallels within individual lines, although how the whole comes together is superb. It explores the character of the comedian, does the voice well, has a bounty of interesting images and shows the psychological process in action – but there isn’t the same line-by-line subversion that can appear in something like Angelus of the Flatiron.
After AG’s analysis, RG reacts and almost says the word ‘pain’ – but supresses it (shown by the empty underline) and replaces it with the word Spain. Then the poem goes into a wayward whimsy for a few lines, with RG hamming it up comedically to try and escape from the questioning. Although this seems to be a surreal clutter of lines, it does hide a couple of parallaxes in the imagery (“rain plainly falls”, “questions dissolve”) to the whole anti-analytic stance.
The next suppression isn’t pain, but something ending with ‘-alls’ – most likely ‘balls’ – which is a small little touch that adds to the character (the family friendly nature of old comedians) rather than the main ideas. It also shows how Dan is willing to go beyond the parameters set up (The poem would still work if ‘pain’ was the only suppression) with these small details that contribute to the whole. There is also a layer added by shifting the word to ‘halls’ (of memory), which underlines the underlying psychological process – and RG’s next part is about trying to recognize AG as an internal mirror to RG (me or a ‘ventriloquist dummy’).
When ‘pain’ is supressed again – this time for the word ‘Maine’ – RG begins with the same whimsical comedy, but shifts into lines pointing to Groucho Marx’s Jewish background. This extends the characterization (especially due to how apolitical & universal the persona of Groucho Marx seems to be), but there’s also a growing convergence to self-recognition as RG refers to AG as ‘Julius’, which is Groucho Marx’s real name separate from his persona. Finally, it leads up to a confrontation as RG gets on the offensive with:
“And my mustache and glasses are just what they are-
not some signposts of anguish or a third-rate cigar!”
Which plays the epigraph in the beginning.
As AG begins to lose, we see another technique enter into the fray. The existence of ‘visual cues’ (“getting antsy”) other than just the rhyming voice. Despite being a simple technique, this opens up into a series of pathways to be interpreted – mainly a sense of pulling away from the internal into the external. With the next suppression, it goes back to ‘rain’ – and plays off the ‘rain plainly falls’ image established beforehand with ‘plain filled with rain’. The first suppression went into comedy, the second into past bad memories, and this time RG recalls a good memory – meeting his wife Lydia. From there he is able to launch his final attack against AG.
I won’t have to delve into that stretch of speech, but take note that there’s an interesting image – a hovering duck – that suddenly appears in the midst of it. When Groucho is finally able to accept the word without supressing it, there is a visual cue of the duck dropping. From there, the poem heads towards its conclusion, ending with the gestures of Groucho Marx, rather than his speech.
This poem touches on several themes characteristic to Dan, such as the importance of memory, getting over internal suffering to touch on a greater reality, and the act of ‘knowing thyself’. It is a great example to learn how you can submerge your own voice into that of another subject, and still use it to express your own world – but, in terms of ranking I feel that it is either near-great, or it just passes into greatness (94 or 95). Notice my lack of analysing the music, as opposed to past poems – because while the ability to sustain the Groucho voice is a technical feat, it also prevents creating meaning-layers in that dimension. The poem is more inward, in touching on the psychology of Groucho Marx, than outwards (although that aspect does exist).
This is not a bad thing though, for when placed in the context of Dan’s corpus – of which there are countless other great poems that reach out further – this proves how vast his voice is. And, as Dan has previously mentioned in his William Shakespeare essay: with works where you can see more chinks in the armor (near-great works) – it also educates on how the poet reached his heights in later great works.
Edit: In an email, Dan clarified that the whole structure was based on a TV show by Groucho Marx called You Bet Your Life – which I did not know about. It clears up some of the deeper references like the ‘secret word’ and the appearance of the duck later in the poem. Dan’s comment was that “it’s the old Groucho from the 1950s tv show speaking w the younger Groucho of Broadway and the movies”. I feel this fact shows how cohesive the poem is, though, in that even without knowing about the core references, I was able to feel the general thrust of it with just a bit of knowledge about Groucho Marx & some of his films watched.
This is the revised Primer to poet-writer-critic Dan Schneider, because I feel like I didn’t do him enough justice in my last Primer. Now that I have gotten to know the writer and his works even more, I will try to characterize who he is, what he has achieved, and why you should care about him and read everything he has to say, even if it seems off-putting at first glance.
For people who might have accidentally wandered into his website Cosmoetica, or chanced upon his movie/lit reviews (probably due to an endorsement from Roger Ebert) – you might know of him as a seemingly contrarian critic who has a lot of powerful opinions on all kinds of subjects. He doesn’t care about what has or has not been classified as a ‘Classic’ by the academic consensus, but uses his own judgment. He has rejected huge names in literature like Shakespeare (to him, the comedies are trite though he has 7-8 great premodern plays), Virginia Woolf (“a rambling piece of vomitus” with regards to To The Lighthouse), Joyce (has moments of brilliance, but is mostly a mess), Faulkner (full of stereotypes rather than real human beings) – and a variety of contemporary poets. Here is Dan ripping apart Ted Hughes:
“There is an ironclad rule when approaching the poetry of Edward J. ‘Ted’ Hughes- &, no, it is not DO NOT FOLLOW HIM TO THE ALTAR! Smartasses! The rule is this- if the poem is under 10 lines long it might be a passable poem. If the poem is over 10 lines- forget it; it’s likely a disaster. This is because TH never wrote a poem over 10 lines long that was any good. He simply lacked the musical skill to keep a poem felicitous, & his intellect was too lacking to come up with any scenario worthy of taking past the 10 line limit. TH was a bad poet, overall. I could go on to show how he relentlessly tried to capture elements of his 1st wife’s poetry in his own, despite the long debunked mythos that it was TH that taught what’shername how to be a great poet. Ever notice that that was never propounded before her headbaking incident? Yes, the wife said it, but that’s because she was stuck on TH’s fishing rod. Don’t believe me? I challenge you to read his late 1970s book length atrocity Gaudete- the longest poem in the English language. OK, not technically, at 200+ pages, but it FEELS like it as the interminably dull narrative plods on.”
Dan is unrelenting in his criticism, and he’ll tear these writers apart regardless of their literary stature. In the meantime, he will uphold as ‘great’ several names of his own choosing, and, the greatest of them all – himself. He has, by his own claim, written more than a thousand great poems, as well as several great books – including a 2 million word book called A Norwegian in the Family.
All of these things are extremely off-putting for any new reader, and will deeply piss off any intellectual type who loves to catch up on the latest review at the NYRB or the Paris Review even more, and will deeply deeply incense any academic who has spent their entire life toiling over several of these classics – and, of those people who are attracted to some of the reviews, there are probably only a percentage who will really dive into everything Cosmoetica has to offer.
There are a bunch of opinions regarding the man himself, scattered throughout the internet. Usually negative and aggressive. Dan has dealt with some of them in his own writings, and I’ll just put one up here as a representative, from a website called Flashpoint Magazine:
There’s cranky. And then there’s Dan Schneider. Dan is a guy who just can’t let it go. It sticks in his craw. It pisses him off like kids leaving garbage on the front lawn or telemarketers calling during dinner.
And what is Dan pissed off about. Taxes? Nuclear war? White slavery? No. Its poetry, no less. Poetry? Yeah, fuckin’ poetry. Can you believe it?
And why is Dan pissed. Well, because no one will recognize that he is the “great poet” he has proclaimed himself to be. And as proof he has made it his mission to attack the current crème de la crème of the poetry world.
The sad fact is personal and ad hominem or not his attacks are generally thoroughly justified. What’s astonishing is that the mainstream poetry world has given him so much grist for his mill.
To merit a ‘This Old Poem’ mugging by ex-gang member Schneider there are four sins the poet getting thumped must commit. These are Schneiders’ cardinal sins and he repeats then ad nauseam for virtually every contemporary poet he attacks.
His four cardinal sins are sloppy enjambment, use of clichés, lack of concision and the stated or implied fact that they are not as ‘great’ a poet as Schneider is.
The astonishing thing is that Schneider’s poetry and the poetry of people he claims to admire are virtually indistinguishable from the poetry he criticizes.
I chose this quote because, despite being full of spite and aggression, it does helpfully condense a couple of gripes that people have towards Dan. They charge him with egoism for even DARING to uphold his own poetry & works as greater than the Literary Canon, they attack his own poetry for being “virtually indistinguishable from the poetry he criticizes”, and they also denude his method, since Dan’s critical method of ‘enjambment, clichés, concision, and greatness’ probably seems like some kind of rigid system that reduces and formalizes the splendor of the medium, or something like that.
I’ll get into these points later, but, for now, I have to set up some preliminary set-up as to who exactly Dan Schneider is.
The Man Himself (And His Works)
Regarding Dan’s background, an article entitled “Dan Schneider vs the Rest of the World” saved in the City Pages website has a nice summary of his life. When I checked the website, it was removed, but thankfully you can find a copy of the article with Wayback Machine. I’ll post an excerpt, but you can look it up yourself. Take note that the article fails to actually showcase Dan’s works, and makes him seem like a one-sided critic with nothing to offer:
More importantly, I want to focus on the works themselves which is, in the end, what will be given over to Eternity. If the True Life Memoirs ever reaches the general public, you will get a full picture of the man with much more clarity than I could ever sketch out on my keyboard. You can see some examples of that work here, but most of the links are probably dead, so you might have to do some Waybacking. You can find a list of Dan’s unpublished works over here.
And I did a page showing some of the wordcounts and sheer quantity of stuff he has written over here.
Now, with this we have established that Dan has written more words than Proust, and probably a ton of other people out there (even though part of his wordcount is re-appropriation of old texts, A Norwegian still has more original words than In Search of Lost Time, not to mention Proust spent his whole life writing his novel, while Dan took roughly 17 months and had other books, and a few thousand pages worth of poetry, before that).
A general rebuttal you hear people use against critics is that they are all just talk, and rather than criticize, they should actually ‘do it themselves’ (as though the biography or output of the critic had any effect on the logic of the criticism). Even if we take the criticism as valid, we can see that Dan does not apply by a long shot. He is a prolific creator, as well as a critic.
But Stephen King is also prolific, and he’s a pulp writer! What about the quality of the works in question?
Well, if you’ve read any of my analyses of the works themselves, you can see how Flashpoint’s criticism of “virtually indistinguishable” does not apply.
The website claims that “Clampitt does create little impressionistic bon bons like her poem “Fog” and with far more élan than Schnieder’s crampy squats”. Here is the poem by Clampitt in question. Here is Dan’s Congoleum Footfalls, that uses 5 or so different styles in order to convey a total sense of mood. Here is his American Imperium, that switches between voices (Reverend Samuel Parris, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Nixon, and ends with a segment set in a SF setting) in order to showcase a total vision of America, syncing together with Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire series of paintings. Even in terms of smaller works of abstraction and imagery, here are the Holy Sonnets, which are all tight little philosophical posits with surprisingly simple imagery, yet leading up to complex truths. To state that Dan’s poems are “virtually indistinguishable” from those he criticizes, is to show a complete lack of understanding of nuance. American Imperium might have the veneer of a polyphonic work like Ezra Pound’s Cantos, but look at the structure, and the way that Dan sets up a narrative, and it will be more concrete and focused than the digressiveness of Pound. Look at how Clampitt sticks to a single style of poesy and vagueness for the whole poem, while look at how Dan swaps his style around with sound intellectual judgment in Angelus for the Flatiron, to fit the vision that he wants to impart.
But, maybe the lyric might be too subtle for some, so here are some teasers to the daring experimentation that Dan has done in his unpublished poems. I’ll just leave you with little snippets, and hopefully this will inspire some publishing house to step up and spread his works to all:
Do you know anybody who has written with such range of technique, difference of voice, and subject matter – in published poetry today? Not that I know of.
And let’s not get into the stuff beyond the poetry! I’ve already done some reviews of his plays and parts of his prose elsewhere in the site. Rather than being packaged into any single subject, movement, ‘-ism’, or style – Dan merely aims towards creating a vast bounty of life itself. He uses whatever technique that fits the moment, and is not limited at all. Here is an excerpt of a poetic moment from A Norwegian:
Dan can pull of the same kinds of poesy as a person like Virginia Woolf, but, in this case, it is only a fraction of the total reality encompassed in A Norwegian. He does not have to lard an entire book with it. And, compared to post-modernist fat books, he actually has living and breathing human characters of every variety walking his pages, rather than caricatures. Just look at the concision that Dan can set up a person’s psychology and background:
Look at the contrast between the more poetic excerpt, and the more psychological one. The ability to dance across so many styles for hundreds of pages, even though his writing speed is a hundred times faster than many writers out there, showcases the absolute peaks of writing ability that any human can achieve.
Now, the main reason why I spent so much time to outline all of the above is to outline a seeming paradox. People who look at Dan’s criticism seem to think of him as too formalistic, reductive, or, basically – too simple. Yet all of the above showcases the opposite in his works – the multiplicity of styles that encompasses worlds upon worlds. Is Dan being hypocritical, or lying to us? To fall into that kind of thinking is merely to misunderstand what Dan is actually talking about in his criticisms. Does his usage of “cliché” mean, for example, to merely cut out words like ‘Sun’, or ‘Moon’, or ‘Rose’ from your own writing? Of course not! This is the part where I spend my time breaking down the elements that frequently appears in Dan’s writings, and how revolutionary such thinking is, even though it seems reductive at first glance.
Cliches, Subversions, and Stereotypes
Let me bring up one of Dan’s criticisms of poet John Dryden over here, where he breaks down a couple of clichés that Dryden uses. The first one is ‘a flame within’. Does this mean that we can never use this string of words for any other poem?
Let’s compare with Dan’s own love poem, You Are All Desire, which also happens to contain the word ‘flame’ within it.
Now notice the clear difference. The flame in Dan’s poem, linked to the idea of ‘oxygen’ and the contrast of ‘needs’ versus ‘desires’ – generates tons more complexity of idea as compared to the feeble way that Dryden uses it in his love poem. He merely expounds on the idea of love being like a fire within, while Dan does the same, but twists this idea and subverts it, having water “quell the instinctual ravening” by the next line. Throughout all 4 stanzas of Dryden’s poem, his flame is the old idea of a flame of romance tormenting him. By stanza two of Dan’s poem, the ‘conflagrations’ he mentions change from being linked to love, into being linked to something higher, like the actual act of writing the poem itself.
What provides Dan’s poem with condensation of meaning is not the image itself, but the structure that it is placed in, and the varied parallels and branches that stem from its connections with the other words within the poem. This is what he means by the need to avoid clichés, or subvert them – to ensure that words are placed in a nexus that generates the most explosions of meaning and layers in the brain.
This seemingly simple command has infinite variations, and can be applied to an infinite number of things. It is a call to have everything cohere, while simultaneously building outwards into newer and newer forms. You can experiment, but make it count in the structure of the text! You can use clichés, but why say the same old thing? Make those clichés shine again in a new light! Don’t be stuck in any single bias, and keep thinking of how to build new constructions upon constructions, which are constant in their subversion and newness! From Dan’s single command to himself to always subvert clichés, and try out new things, and never repeat himself, we get the massive edifice of A Norwegian – a book that always provides something new across hundreds of pages.
This is also why Surrealists embrace the chaos as a method, yet they also sound the same across reams and reams of text. They think that having a flow of words is equivalent to mirroring the great flow of Life itself, and yet this is untrue, because Life flows, but it also gathers, into logic and narratives and coherent structures. It is a chaos that orders itself in parts, and so does Dan – that he can have variety across his pages, but he can knit them together with sense.
And this is why Dan clears out much of the literary canon, for a select few ‘great works’ of his own choosing – like Moby Dick, or Vonnegut, or Hesse, or the early works of Kundera, or even A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – and this is despite probably having actually read most of the Canon to the point where he can quote extensively from a ton of books in his own works (and the fact that he does not show it off is probably part of the reason why he has been misconstrued as a contrarian or middle-brow at times, because nobody knows what his literary cred is and assume that he’s going up against literary scholars like Bloom with little books under his belt). These books are the books with the most subversion and coherence. They always provide something new, and build up to a complex idea, and, simply put, do not waste the reader’s time with excess.
This, incidentally, leads up to the next point, about concision.
Concision of Meaning
When one thinks of what concision means, one might think of stripped down, emotionless, minimalism – or some kind of style guide like The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. This is not the case, because, as established above – Dan cares about structure more than the words themselves.
You can be as ornate as Melville, or as stripped down and realist as Irwin Shaw, or as sensual and ironic as Kundera – but the best works of such writers are characterized by how they expand outwards in their constant subversion and coherence. Same for movies – in that you can have lengthy Tarkovsky-style shots, or gritty Cassavetes style shots, but the power of such films comes from how they can condense one slice of human reality into a few hours. Shakespeare’s comedies are bad not merely because they are ‘lowbrow’ (just see how Dan uses lowbrow humor in A Norwegian to elucidate the characters of people like Richard Nixon, or create greater symbolic resonances) but because those jokes go nowhere, and are limited in their purposes. Some might flesh out character, but not the bulk.
Of course, the words themselves are related to the structure in some way, which is why he has some pointers there as well. Don’t waste your time proliferating modifiers and “poetics for the sake of poetics” style imagery, especially if it only serves as cosmetics to your story, rather than contributing to that nexus of meaning.
We might find Woolf’s writing, or Faulkner’s writing, beautiful in the moment, solely due to the aesthetic proliferation of images and sounds – but when you are sitting on the bus, or talking to friends – will any of those words ever come to mind after reading? Or are they just little experiences in themselves, separated from all reality? Yet the works of Dan has penetrated my life to the point where I can remember entire scenes even when I’m just walking around or talking to people, and, more than just remembrance (because a teenage fan can remember every single song of some pop star) – I also get a sense of the fuller life and reality that exists beyond each moment. This was probably what Joyce wanted with Ulysses, but how many times does one experience that ‘elevation’ after the moment of reading, and how many days after? And Ulysses will only speak to literary scholars, while Dan’s memoirs are simply written, but complex in the truths that they build up to, and can be picked up by more people of different lives. One might feel the shifting tide of Becoming (or whatever is being propounded) if they read postmodern philosophers like Deleuze or Derrida, but who thinks of deconstruction on the toilet? Yet Dan’s poetic moments of shitting (as seen in that chapter on Richard Nixon) will outline that greater reality, sometimes, even as I am taking a dump.
(Even with regards to my point about the pop-star. Dan’s works are filled with people who attach themselves to small things like the pop culture of his time, so he reaches out to those people as well)
This is what concision of meaning can bring you. It builds up structures within you, so that you feel a multitude of lives within you that you can remember. Dan describes the same feeling in a review of Delilio’s Underworld:
“Of course, the answer is clearly no, as there need be no overlap between assertions of excellence and simply liking something, just as one might think a woman is gorgeous, yet also a raving bitch you cannot stand. They are utterly distinct domains of human reaction. But, while scanning dozens of the book’s blurbs, not a single ‘prominent’ (read- published) critic dared to state the utter sense of apathy that Duncan mentions. Like him, I too, now typing this almost a week after finishing the book, would be almost utterly helpless in describing, even at the macro level of detail I have, any of the events or characters I have, sans my notes, on Post-its, of the book. It utterly washed over me, yet, years later, without looking things up online, I can recall the smell of fresh baked bread, as described in the opening of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, the obstinacy of Bartleby in Bartleby The Scrivener, the loneliness of the General, in Sandor Marai’s Embers, as he waits for Konrad’s return, or the addled joy and despair of Billy Pilgrim in many scenes in Slaughterhouse-Five. And this is not because I am a lazy reader, rather because DeLillo simply ran out of story, and tried to bloat a good to very good novella into a monstrosity of a novel without extending the story’s scope and cast of characters to be commensurate to the tale he hoped to tell.”
Such a sense of life can only be created through the condensation of information that the above books pulls off, such that you can see resonances and parallels even in the most innocuous words and ordinary events. When you process information at such speed, no longer do you see the artifice of the text for what it is, but the words are forgotten, and there, instead, is a model of the scene, or the man. Descriptions, unless they contribute to symbols or moods, are also excessive – because people view places based on the ‘internal’ rather than the external. For an example, see how Dan uses anecdotes to characterize a certain bar in a chapter of A Norwegian, rather than describing its exterior. He calls this ‘co-creating’ with the reader, which contributes to his technique of Total Immersion.
Because of this idea of concision, it is also the reason why Dan values enjambment above all other techniques in poetry. Line breaks, which can split apart poetic images and create dualities of meaning, is what defines the medium of poetry against any other medium, even at its most experimental. Sure, prose poetry can exist, but most fail because they do not understand that the existence of line breaks means that we process the information completely differently from poetry. One of the critiques you hear is that bad poetry is just “prose broken up into lines”.
Similar to meter, which may or may not exist, but, even if it does – only contributes a small % to the overall music of the text that contributes to meaning, when assonance and consonance creates more, and all that is useless if the structure is totally devoid of intellectual heft. This is why you can have the most finely metered Romantic verses, and yet remember none of it. Equally silly is the idea that poetry should contain all sorts of imagery to stimulate the senses, like visual imagery, or auditory imagery, or kinaesthetic imagery – when the power of poetry comes from its abstraction and its ability to reach into deeper structures than the senses. If one reads poetry to merely have their senses stimulated, one might as well go to a fashion show instead, or a carnival. Only when these sensory images are combined with meaning, can you get the above effect that Dan talks about, where he remembers the smell of bread in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
Rather, all of the above are tools to derive that concision of meaning that can come from the best of poems. Every line is fresh and new, and yet coheres and has multiple layers. The skewed face of a Picasso speaks more to me about war than a thousand realist paintings, because it communicates a deeper meaning about the ridiculousness of conflict, and its comicality.
The end result of all of the above, if done well, is that you get works that are truly, and objectively, great.
Objectivity is a taboo word, because anyone who claims it is also claiming the burden of order in the midst of fluctuation. The safe bet is always to take relativism as your stance, or, at the very least, a kind of intersubjectivity. After all, with stuff like the sciences, objectivity can be proven by method – but nobody wants to be told that they are objectively wrong with regards to anything related to the Arts. Art is the realm of feeling and personal meaning. You identify with it. There’s no way you could possibly be wrong about it, could you?
The fear is that if a stance is actually taken, then a hierarchy will be formed, which will lead to a dictatorship of meaning. It is the implication that some human viewpoints are going to be more valid than others, and, in this case, Dan is objectively more ‘human’ than anyone else on this Earth.
Yet, the basis of this fear is due to a misunderstanding of what objectivity entails. When objectivity comes into the frame, people will think about poet-machines, and literary AlphaGos replacing authors with their own calculations on how to write literature. They think of critic-cabals shouting down works from totalitarian towers. This is far from what Dan means when he talks about Objective greatness, and you can see from all the above examples of his bountiful variety, that they are all vastly different from one another.
There is still a gap, after all, between the world as we see it, and the totality of things. And Art is merely a translation of that totality known as Reality, turning the fluctuation of human souls into an object, as it were, that one can grasp throughout daily life. As stated here:
“Art can’t fix anything. It can just observe and portray. What’s important is that it becomes an object, a thing you can see and talk about and refer to. A film is an object around which you can have a debate, more so than the incident itself. It’s someone’s view of an incident, an advanced starting point.” (Steve McQueen quoted through an essay by Jackson Hawley, which also has a wonderful characterization on what objectivity entails)
When you compare the Love poems of Dan, to the love poetry of any lesser poet before him, which shows more sides of the thing? Which turns it into an object that you can spin around, like a cube, in your head? One merely speaks of love’s loss, but Dan’s poems are full of love’s loss, gain, passing, sensuality, and he even has poems where he’ll link it up to other things, like animal imagery and mythological imagery – and the best of his love poems can condense all of the above within its edifice. Just look at his Twin Towers Canon where he combines a love sestina with a mythological rumination on the towers.
It is more of an Object. It reaches a greater totality. This is a hierarchy in the sense that a cathedral is larger than a house, and can house and uplift much more souls in it. It houses more interpretations and minds. It is less exclusionary, and can open worlds to the reader, just as Melville opened the world of nautical adventure to countless readers who have not even stepped in a boat before, and uplifted it to a cosmic profession.
Dan doesn’t want to be a God (at least, not a monotheistic one… I hope) – but he wants as many humans to be creators of their own worlds, objectified in art, as possible:
“But I believe differently- & perhaps this explains why I don’t fall into the seemingly DIF-inspired trap of envy & irresponsibility for my art. I believe that art’s ‘physics’ hews less to a Classical line than to a more modern ‘Quantum’ line. Classical physics forbids other universes with other sets of physics. Likewise a Classical view of art hews to the DIF. Quantum physics allows for other universes, dimensions, & sets of physics within those dimensions. Likewise the more Quantum view of art allows that each poem/artwork is- in effect- its own universe & must merely be self-consistent to its own artistic principles/physics. & like Quantum physics, which allows that anything is possible but most universes that realize themselves (& are ‘successful’ by that definition) will be physically similar, so too will each poem/artwork/universe in my view have an infinite range of possibility”
Capturing the great flow of life itself, reining it in, and turning it into something concrete, that lasts as long as men have eyes to see.
I have corresponded with Dan about several things since my first primer on him, and I feel that there is one thing I must mention. Going back to the earlier charge by Flashpoint magazine. Is Dan egoistic?
The answer – definitely yes… but what artist isn’t? And egoism is negative only if it is invalid, but if you have a 2-million-word book and several thousand poems, you probably have some right to call yourself great.
But, more than anything, he does not call himself great merely to blow his own horn, but also because he wants to see more great works on the field. Imagine if there was a massive novel like A Norwegian for every country – would that not do better to break boundaries and teach other people about the multiplicity of lives? If people learnt to appreciate great works, would they not reach that totality that exists beyond the narrow scope of their biases and lives? It pains me that the trap known as the ‘Literary Canon’ has ensnared people for hundreds and thousands of years, but it gives me hope to see that a single man from Queens, who has forged his way up from the bottom, can circumvent the trap that has caught thousands and thousands of souls, through his innate talent and sheer hard work. And, according to him, it all started with Whitman – which reminds me of that beautiful stretch of verse:
Have you reckoned a thousand acres much? Have you reckoned the earth much?
Have you practiced so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun…. there are millions of suns left,
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand…. nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.
Young poets, writers, and creators of all types – do not fall for the trap. Contact Dan. Stop moaning about the death of Literature when a contemporary Melville is walking the Earth. Put as much hours into your work, based on the wisdom he has gleamed, and come up with works that will last into Eternity. This isn’t the end of things, but the start of things. Do not be driven by externalities, and foreign words, but drive your own fate and tongue with uniquity. Do not be lazy. The world is waiting for you.
Or, in the words of the man:
“You are not the poet I love most….”
There is the feeling beside that which is felt,
as if a great artwork beyond consciousness,
whether gazing a church tower, or being sifted through its panes
like alluvial photons. There in a bowl of opening roses,
made majestic by a slice of sight reflecting
the spoke of sun upon a slab where something dead may lay,
is an abstract of insight grown well within your wreath of verse,
brief episode of touch, still opening endlessly and growing,
self-illumined, silent paladins of the muse,
like nothing that ever was:
I know nothing of life.
Yet handfuls of this distanceness flash subtle signals
kissing gently my eyes, my mind which wilders yet prompts
the words which core, then filter, sweetly a stumble of laughter,
themselves into the subject’s smile, removed from thought,
as if you, inflaming the gestures of what may occur within,
as if still seemingly supple to God’s will,
the many illusions of its breath:
I know nothing of it.
And then this love- of life, of it, of you-
as if I were what you are, so strangely
itself, like you:
I know nothing of you.
Then, as if newly formed and felt,
Some of Dan’s most powerful poesy comes from his ‘Skyline Poems’ – a series of poems each focusing on a different famous high-rise building. The verses orient more towards the grandiose and cosmic, possibly trying to emulate the grandiosity of the building’s elevation. So, this analysis, I’ll be looking at one of the shorter ones – Angelus for the Flatiron.
23-skiddoo is what they mean, and say,
to men who lift their eyes that way, to skirts blown
high from the draft from that space. 5th and Broadway
is no place for a lady to stay. Alone,
in the shade the terra cotta made, is shown
lascivity unleashed. In the here and now,
where the end is nigh, I wandered lonely in
a crowd, and stood underneath the evening prow,
as the looks grew cool, in a Renaissant way,
and foresaw Revelation: my dress had blown
so high (in culture-abandoned artsy sway!),
and arched through the dream, in which Satan had shone,
the sun catalyzed by this architect’s own
vision. Creation is the subject that now
occupies his Orpheus, this country, known
for its future. Stand beneath its steely prow
where this Gothos of limestone’s illicit ways
make old Gotham’s crush so uniquely its own
time and place; watch as this skyscraper parlays
the elegant loneliness of excellence
into Armageddon (I know not of ends-
save this!), and so I pray to the Virgin. How
I do not know, for such psalms have swiftly grown
into chorals of loss, that bequeath their prow
to the morrow, where reason is the final
straw, where women can rush, and not have to show
their best, in a gust, to strangers, whose looks cull
a crowd, glancing underneath this tower’s prow.
Disclaimer: Do not read my analysis until you’ve pondered the poem for yourself. After all, most of the fun and power comes from how you, as a person, orient yourself to the poem before conferring with other views. In the end, much of poetry’s strength comes from intuition – although explanation & analysis can help ground intuition for later readings.
Before peaking into grandiosity, Dan begins with the most surprising of entrances – the slang phrase 23-skiddoo. For about a stanza and a half, the poem focuses on an image of a lady having her skirt blown up, before transitioning the descriptions of the building. This starting point also fits because the phrase has found itself embedded into the mythos of the building, as seen in the Wiki article.
The poem transitions from low slang to a higher image effortlessly in the first three lines, ending with “high from the draft from that space”. Cosmic hues are set so that they can be followed up later. The image of the men staring up the skirt also sets a connection to a phallic thrust as well, followed up later in the imagery. In terms of music, the woosh is conveyed through the “skirts blown high from that draft of space” contrasting against the slower verses before.
The remaining few lines drags back for a moment, focusing on the lady, and preparing sounds for the woosh again in the second stanza. Each line has a contrast between the ending word with ‘o’ sounds and the first part, such that there’s a constant push and pull throughout, and the “I wandered lonely in a crowd, and stood underneath the evening prow” has a slow decline that sets up the next stanza.
Enjambment such as ‘alone’ and ‘I wandered lonely in’ sets up images of a lone smaller figure juxtaposed against the tower (the beautiful image “in the shade of a terra cotta made”). Apocalyptic words are also slowly introduced such as “lascivity unleashed” and “where the end is nigh” to follow up on the theme of decadence that will be introduced later. The reveal that the whole poem is being narrated first-person by the female whose dress is blown only comes with the “I wandered lonely in” – which also brings to mind the famous Wordsworth line, but subverts it with the image of modern alienation “I wandered lonely in a crowd”.
The slow ending of the previous stanza is carried over with “as looks grew cool”, and this stanza also opens up with hints at a greater theme of historical progress, with the “in a Renaissant way”. Then, the next two lines begins the cosmic rise of the poem, segueing from the dress blowing up again (intuitively conveyed through the tones of “culture-abandoned artsy sway!”) – and changing into an abstract image of “arched through the dream”. The use of “shone” subverts “shown” and transfers over to the image of the “sun catalysed” in the next line. A possible comparison is to look at The Finn and see how the sun & dream motifs are used there.
The words used in this stanza (and the next) call-back to more Classical styles, especially if you compare it to another one of Dan’s sonnets on Milton. The Latinate words used helps to bolster the sense of ‘construction’ going on, building up the skyscraper – and providing a hardening of the softer syllables used in the first stanza. It merges with the forward ambitions of America, and also fits the ‘Angelus’ format established in the title.
While the initial lines in the stanza each had a verb or image providing something ‘hardier’ to latch onto (“grew cool”, “blown”, “sway”, “arched through”, “sun catalysed”) – lines 6 to 8 of this stanza changes into a comparatively abstracted hue (“Creation is the subject that now occupies his Orpheus, this country, known for its future”), as though standing at the peak of idea after ascending up the steps of the previous lines.
This stanza ends with a return to concrete description of the skyscraper, after spending time in a more abstract realm – with the “steely prow”. This description is given symbolic import from the connection with the “future”, and repetition of the ‘prow’ throughout the whole poem at the end of each stanza, with each repetition giving different connections.
The skyscraper is once again compared with decadence in “limestone’s illicit ways”, juxtaposed against “old Gotham’s crush”. I’m guessing this Gotham refers to the nickname for New York City, rather than the Batman city, although there are also possible connections to be made there in terms of the whole ‘dream’ strain – but that depends on the frame of the reader, and is less related to the core of the poem.
If you look at lines 2-5 of this stanza, you can see how each line subverts the one that came before it. The enjambment of line 2 seems laudatory of Gotham, but line 3 establishes its position as mere history (“time and place) and raises the skyscraper above it (“parlays”). Line 4 provides an interesting description of its greatness being “the elegant loneliness of excellence”, and line 5 segues back into the narrator’s high moral voice, decreeing its Armageddon.
With the last part of this stanza, which has the narrator “praying to the Virgin” against the tower’s decadence – the sounds change back again into softer tones with words such as ‘psalms’, ‘swiftly’, ‘loss’. It returns back to focus on the woman and shifts away from the tower. Here the symbol of the prow also shifts away from the steely thrust of ambition, into “chorals of loss/that bequeath their prow/to the morrow, where reason is final”. The symbol has changed to become antithetical to the tower’s soar.
Narratively, the poem ends with a return to the small, and it ends with the image of a crowd glancing at the woman’s blown dress under the prow. The grandiose poetics are gone, and the sounds go back to normal.
The two notable subversions in this stanza are: the ‘straw’ that appears after “where reason is the final” – creating an enigmatic feel (you could read it as a segue back into the woman narrator’s internal voice, telling herself that it’s the final straw) – and the last line’s twist on the ‘looks cull’. Before you read the last line, it feels as though the line is talking about the woman narrator feeling the crush of stares on her, but when the “looks cull a crowd” comes into play – this inverts the image as something standing up against the crowd staring at the woman. It provides an image that lingers once you finish the whole poem.
With complete control of music and constant subversion, Angelus for the Flatiron reaches its cosmic vision while still having a bit of humour in the subject chosen. Compared to the last poem that I scored, American Sonnet 11, it utilizes similar techniques like the ‘rise and fall’, but deals in larger themes. But, compared to something like the Twin Towers Canon, which is a double sestina that combines the cosmic-architectural imagery with a love poem for even more novel juxtapositions, it is definitely smaller. Taking all of the above into consideration, it places at a 97 for me – a mid-great poem.