Greatness is about difference. This statement becomes all the more apparent when comparing the works of Dan Schneider to the works of Jessica Schneider. Despite having an overlap in influences and inspirations, both writers manifest their voice in completely different ways. This is an important lesson for any young writer, or creator in general, in that rather than emulation (“I want to write like Shakespeare/Bergman/Whitman! etc… etc…”) – differentiation should be one’s primary aim. Differentiation, firstly, on a technical level, in the avoidance of clichés and previously-tread ground – before using an edifice of influences to rise up into distinction of voice.
Compared to Dan’s expansiveness, Jessica’s works are smaller – from those couple of novels I’ve seen, they usually resolve between 100-200 pages. Yet, this is not a criticism, because of the sheer precision & beauty of her writing, which allows her to mine deeply into microstructures of her characters, while Dan aims more towards a macrocosmic scope of world. And, through this focus on the micro, it still powerfully translates a portion of reality – internal reality – and reaches into its own distinct area.
The excerpt I’ll be analysing today is a few pages from Jessica’s unpublished novel – The Vanishing Spider – covering the beginning of the book & outlining aspects of her artistic voice to future readers, also counter-acting the possible misconception that Dan praises Jessica’s writing out of some kind of nepotism rather than perception of actual quality. Hopefully my analysis can prove her objective greatness to you. Jessica has two books published so far, and you can find her Amazon page over here. Alex Sheremet has also done a review of her novel – Quick with Flies – over here.
Before I get into the excerpts, let me quickly summarize The Vanishing Spider. It focuses on Sister Jacinta – a nun of the Dominican Order who is also a poet – and her various reflections towards God, her own Art, and life in general. The Bergman influence is strong in terms of themes like God’s Silence and its analysis of religion – but Jessica distinguishes herself from the film-maker in many different ways. The 2 main plot-threads are Jacinta’s attempts to get her book of poems published by the Church’s publishing press, and her bond (positive or negative) with one of the priests in the Church called Father Marko. Ultimately, though, the book places Jacinta as a spectator to various aspects of the religious life, and is less concerned with a linear storyline than a gradual development of several themes, symbols, character personalities and narrative threads. Yet, the novel cannot be charged as a “work where nothing happens” despite seeming so – at least to people who read for that purpose – since there is still a direction it heads towards, pulling together all its separate threads towards a single tapestry.
Despite being a book about religion, and despite Jess probably being non-religious herself, it does not concern itself solely with religious grappling (e.g. Dostoyevsky or any other book centering on stuff like doubt) – nor does it concern itself solely with didactic criticisms of religion (although it does show the hypocrisy and stupidity of some religious types). The Vanishing Spider treats religion as an object of analysis, takes a ‘God’s eye view’, and aims to illuminate as many sides of it as possible. Thus, it combines all perspectives and ideas into one, and this is what distinguishes it as Art rather than anything smaller. Jacinta does have religious grappling & doubts, and she does see stupid religious types & there are criticisms of the whole institution – but Jess is more concerned with showing how Religion ties in to things like Humanity’s perception of the Cosmos, or the Creative urge, or the connection to deeper Nature. Let me remind you again that she touches on all this in about 150 pages or so.
Without further ado, let me present you with the prologue section of The Vanishing Spider, entitled “Some Form of Separateness” – and the 3 pages of chapter 1:
Let me reveal to you a limitation that comes with analysing a book like The Vanishing Spider on such a small scale (prologue & 1st chapter). I cannot show you to development and permutation of the symbols and parallels across the entire scope of the book, so your perception of this prologue will murkier due to its abstraction, while there are parallels that I perceive for having finished the whole already. Even then, I can still show you how Jessica sets up the themes that will come.
The book begins with a rumination, and here we already see the trappings of that whole “religious doubt” theme, although Jess doesn’t centre exactly on religion, and uses a statement of doubt in general. Yet notice how there is a leap in the first paragraph already, suddenly jumping to an unknown ‘student’ talking about how an artist perceives the greater cosmos. Just to illustrate the difference between Jess’s approach, and someone who starts with a same sort of rumination but goes into a smaller scope – here is famous YA writer John Green, and the opening of his book Paper Towns:
Notice how Green’s opening aims to be snarky & overly-precious, and cuts off the rumination on luck by linking with the main storyline in a ‘boy-meets-girl’ sort of cliché. I also use a YA example to show how simple Jess’s style, but how her ideas are complex. She doesn’t care about Green’s lesser approach, and is willing to leave a schism between the two parts of her paragraph – striking purely at theme, and describing exactly what is necessary. Then, she breaks off that paragraph for a single line with a wonderfully enigmatic image: “Even the most prestigious school is not immune to fire”.
This image seems abstract, but you can see a dichotomy set up within it – splitting between a “prestigious school” and the dangerous element of fire. This line will appear once again in a later part of the story, but for now it sets up a symbol that can be applied to a lot of things – like the primary sacred/profane distinction that exists at the heart of religion, or, to most people really, who find certain things they care about but are always subject to degradation (for example, the later plot points where Jacinta’s poetry is critiqued by other nuns who are incredibly dense towards her art). Also note how interesting and novel the image is.
Once more, it jumps back into a longer paragraph, this time with another split of image – student & teacher – before segueing into what seems like a memory. Here is the part that links up to the “separateness” in the prologue’s title, and this develops the previous idea of the “divided world” of the artist, as well as all sorts of separations cosmic or divine. Think about how you could read this with different frames, say, as Jacinta remembering her childhood, as an artist separating herself into her characters, or even as the possible primal conditions that builds up into the urge to religion (“younger time”) & that lonely childish form parallaxing with themes of God’s Silence and existential solitude.
Finally, the prologue ends back with a single line, raising a question that seems to set up the rest of the novel “Who wants to live amid a memory?”. There is still a lot of mystery to whom the ‘I’ and the ‘Creator’ and the ‘story’ to be relayed are – for now – but you can still feel a general trajectory to the whole prologue even if it is currently enigmatic. Beginning with a statement of cosmic questioning, linking up to the theme of art, setting up a dichotomy, jumping into the concrete memory & image of what seems like a lonely young girl, before ending on a question that speaks the denial of such a memory. Because of that structure, and because of how simple the words are, it is totally different from some po-mo writers that aim towards aporia, textual leaps, and a slapdash with 50 or so abstract lines and ‘surreal’ imagery thrown to bamboozle rather than to gently force contemplation and set up future developments of theme. Note how gentle and relaxed the flow of the prose is in Jess’s case too.
Now we move to chapter one of the novel.
In the first chapter, we get to see the primary approach to prose, which is to form each chapter from a series of immaculately crafted poetic vignettes, which might not necessarily be linked together in terms of plot, there are definite links in terms of theme. In a sense, you could think of each vignette as equivalent to a line of poetry, with the title being the unifier of all parts. Take note that not all the chapters are written like this, and Jess doesn’t write with the same voice all the way through. She mixes up the vignette-chapters with chapters that centre around dialogues, and sometimes she centres the vignettes on a single place rather than letting it float like freeform reflection. Like Dan, she aims not to repeat herself.
Chapter 1 is titled “The Beauty of Dead Flowers” – and the first vignette grounds that image in, focusing mostly on the concrete. The second vignette develops from the first. It is shorter & posits that the title-phrase “the beauty of dead flowers” comes from a singer – “the name I could not be sure”. Now, the astute reader’s first association will probably be towards themes of God Silence, if one knows of the religious thrust before reading the book of course. Such associations stem from the language of absence that Jess uses – “kept hidden”, “no significance”, “Where were they from?” and the singer’s lack of name. All of this points to a deeper reality than mere descriptor, and frames the flowers as something totally different such that the mind cannot help but sense a deeper intellectual structure at work here. She also ends the first vignette with a rumination “I doubt any man could ever grow to become so sensitive” which pushes out from the image into something more internal.
The next vignette pulls away from the flowers, into a different image – this time actually touching on the ‘Creator’. Using the image of a mirror, Jacinta dives into a small interrogation of self-identity. What stands out to me in this vignette is the beautiful way that her face is described – “peach-coloured and slightly lined at the eyes, surrounded by a veil of cloth”. The details that Jess chooses to focus on frame the face in a novel way, and it matches the daintiness of the flower-image in the first vignette, possibly even allowing for a correspondence between the two due to the choice of a colour that associates with fruits & nature. Further developed is the idea of separation from the prologue, especially in how it contrasts the separateness of the artist with this idea that the opposite of separateness defines religion.
And next we come to a dichotomy, of “basements and attics” – one of which shelters while the other points towards “sky-bound things”. This vignette has many facets to it. This idea that Man is split between sheltering Earth & higher things is an old theme, of course, but Jess uses an image that links to Jacinta’s memory, merges up with the memory established in the prologue, and even creates a metaphorical resonance between the man-made attic and a ‘tree’ – merging the image with the realm of nature. So, this single vignette connects to the old mythological divide, to the memory of Jacinta, to the natural imagery used in previous vignettes & will be used later, and just encompasses a wide variety of frames.
There is an image thereafter of Jacinta reaching into the vase to draw some parts of the flower, before releasing these parts into “the foggy, half-light of afternoon”. The twist of prose in “a fist formed me” – which does a kind of poetic leap such that the human becomes the object manipulated, even as Jacinta reaches out to grasp the flowers – is highly evocative and blends together the external action with internal action. And, as she releases the petals, it falls into memory with “grandmother’s garden” before surging all the way back into the creative process – Jacinta writing. Look at the amount of subversions and connections that occur within a mere 2 paragraphs of prose. This makes The Vanishing Spider into one of those books that, despite being so short, you have to activate your full intellectual capabilities to sift out all the facets.
Suddenly, there is a shift in tone, as the next 3 vignettes cuts away from the dainty prose and is more spoken. This is a rumination by Jacinta on the types of women who enter the convent, and she demarcates between the type who joins for more individual reasons of solitude, and those that “lives for God alone and prayer”. Jacinta claims to be “existing as both and neither”. Notice how these paragraphs could function as aphorisms if severed from the rest – but outline character and higher themes when placed in connection with the whole.
And this smoothing out of tone leads to a small bit of exposition, where we finally get Jacinta’s name and what order she belongs to. Despite being exposition, it is short and ends in an interesting way (“he performed many magical things”).
From there, Jacinta recollects a memory of seeing a movie about the Blessed Virgin Fatima. There’s a little quip from her father about Christianity that she recollects, but the point of interest to me is the core of the recollection, where the image on the screen syncs together with the idea of the miracle (the parallel is strengthened when Sister Jacinta talks about the historical Jacinta – “the one witnessing this miracle”) – and how “images of that miracle, both from the film itself and how I imagined it, ever remained within me”. Themes of religion and its connection to fiction are tapped in this recollection.
There’s also a small moment where Jacinta recalls a thought she had as a child – thinking about nuns and their need to confess – which, although not appearing now, links up with a later part of the story where Jacinta, a nun herself, ponders her own image and how she appears to other people. This also ties in with the whole idea of the reality of the miracle and its image.
After that recollection, the immediate next paragraph becomes charged with much intellectual energy. Jacinta wonders about a city called Fatima in Portugal, and how “the most fascinating events exist as something one only reads about”. The connection to divine distance/separateness is plain here. But also think about how it syncs with the core image of the “Beauty of Dead Flowers” – the viewing of apparitions from a distant city, and beautifying it in one’s own thought.
Then, Jacinta recalls a cat called Frank who lives near the chapel – and there is, once again, parallels in how Frank is named – “I am unsure who chose the name” – with all of the other symbols of absence in this chapter (and the main symbol of the ‘Vanishing Spider’).
The next image is an amazing one – as Jacinta, going to pray below the Blessed Statue – sees Frank nuzzling at her feet, and wonders about children’s preference to “to explore, to express and to see”. She notes how she would do the same as Frank if she was in the cat’s position. Besides parallels with Jacinta’s prayer at the foot and the cat’s appearance at her own – and how it links to greater themes of man, divinity, limits of knowledge, place in nature etc… etc… this also reflects Jacinta’s character when, later in the novel, she undergoes frequent self-questioning and reflection, much in the same way as Frank’s forage.
Two paragraphs – one talking about the architecture of the church – and the other talking about the scenery of nature, combined with one more recollection of the “dead flowers”. The architecture, as described, reflects the previous paragraph about “basements and attics” and sky-bound things. It nicely caps of everything that came before, providing another variation to a theme of divine separateness and human limitations. Much of this chapter is about reaching out. The line that brings it all together, I feel, is “I believe one can sift for meaning among most anything”.
The ending is a peaceful one, and allows the chapter to dissipate away, pulling back into Jacinta’s peace. So, in a single chapter we have image/symbol – poetic descriptions – aphorism – exposition – memory – witticisms – just as much as possible in 3 pages.
Reading a work like this is really panacea to the imprecisions and slowness of other writers, even those who claim precision and minimalism. Yet precision is not merely about stripping sentences to their core, but ideas – which is why Melville, despite his ornateness, can still do more per page in his condensation and variety – than a ton of others aiming towards simpler sentences.
In other words – publish Jessica Schneider! Her books will not waste your time, and can be consumed in a few days – but the ideas and poetics within them will resonate infinitely, and draw you back again and again, in a hunger for greater things.
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!
This is a series of 15 short stories chosen from Dan’s various collections that he has decided to self-publish on Amazon. For people who want to get a greater Cosmoetica fix after seeing what greatness already exists on the website – go get it when it finally becomes purchasable. If the stories are proof enough of greatness, promote Dan’s work so that the corpus will be available to humanity in full one day!
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,