Friday, June 11, 2010

The Old One-Two Punch

I just read Truman Capote's novella Breakfast at Tiffany's, a little story that the late Norman Mailer particularly loved. Mailer said that "Capote is tart as a grand aunt, but in his way he is a ballsy little guy." Capote's style got me to thinking about what exactly it was--that verve, that tenacity--that American lit had in the 1940s through 1960s, when things were a bit more pugnacious than they are now, where machismo was a bit more cherished, where folks were far cheekier than they dare to be now.

But what I noticed in Breakfast at Tiffany's is how Capote is at once tough but sensitive; the fierce front of his prose actually works to reveal the sentiments of his characters. In Breakfast at Tiffany's, the main character--who has worked to distance himself from the mysterious Holly Golightly--finds himself called to Joe Bell's bar, where a photograph induces the recollection of the narrator's interactions with Holly.

Capote's prose is terse, yet sweet. Consider, for instance the narrator's final weeks in Holly's presence, a sequence that Capote handles in a few words of exposition that seem, on the surface, rather blunt. However, the quickness belies an underlying attachment--and a sort of brotherly love--that the narrator has for Holly:
"Those final weeks, spanning end of summer and the beginning of another autumn, are blurred in memory, perhaps because our understanding of each other had reached that sweet depth where two people communicate more often in silence than in words: an affectionate quietness replaces the tensions, the unrelaxed chatter and chastising that produce a friendship's more showy, more in the surface sense, dramatic moments....we spent entire evenings together during which we exchanged less than a hundred words; once, we walked all the way to Chinatown, ate a chow-mein supper, bought some paper lanterns and stole a box of joss sticks, and then moseyed across the Brooklyn bridge..."

This is one of the small joys of the novella: that such large spans of time, collapsed into a millisecond, reveal far more than page after page of scene might. There's something to Capote's prose that wants to simply tell us what happened and how the last weeks with Holly Golightly were spent. But at the same time, we hear seeping through that narrator's word the "sweet depth" that exists between himself and Holly, and we can almost see them striding alongside each other in a delicate, peaceful silence. It's as if we're observing the knowing nods between them--simple gestures that reveal two minds in sync--as they enjoy their quiet--yet exciting--night in Chinatown.

Usually, straightforward, linear prose isn't exactly my thing, nor is the terse-n'-tough minimalism of the Hemingway years generally one of my favorite styles. But Capote shows us how effective this can be. On one hand, it's tough, fast, sure of itself, and in that approach we can see precisely how emotional and sentimental a good prose narrative can be.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Wednesday Poetry: "Conversation Among the Ruins," by Sylvia Plath

Striking some new ground in Wednesday poetry with Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), who along with Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, and W.D. Snodgrass is known for advancing the genre of so-called "confessional" poetry. In these poems, it's assumed that the speaker is the poet and that what we're hearing is the poet's actual sentiments and perspectives. (IMHO, I think confessional poetry has ruined many later poems written in the first person, because now students of literature are trained to say "The poet says..." instead of recognizing that a narrator doesn't have to be the poet her-/himself.)

But this poem, "Conversation Among Ruins," has a blip of the first person in the opening line and then moves into a more lyrical mode. Afterwards, the first person is mostly communal--an "our," for instance--so instead of self-centered whining we get Plath trying to negotiate a relationship; the title intimates as much, in informing the reader that this poem is a conversation, a dialogue of sorts, on a ruined property. Plath takes us from the steps of the narrator's "elegant house" and then, through appropriating the imagery of a dilapidated estate, reveals the crumbling of any structure or system--actual or imagined--over time.

"Conversation Among Ruins"

Through portico of my elegant house you stalk
With your wild furies, disturbing garlands of fruit
And the fabulous lutes and peacocks, rending the net
Of all decorum which holds the whirlwind back.
Now, rich order of walls is fallen; rooks croak
Above the appalling ruin; in bleak light
Of your stormy eye, magic takes flight
Like a daunted witch, quitting castle when real days break.

Fractured pillars frame prospects of rock;
While you stand heroic in coat and tie, I sit
Composed in Grecian tunic and psyche-knot,
Rooted to your black look, the play turned tragic:
Which such blight wrought on our bankrupt estate,
What ceremony of words can patch the havoc?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Wednesday Poetry: "Grief Thief of Time," by Dylan Thomas

Today's bit of Wednesday poetry comes from Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, most famous for "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night." Enjoy!

"Grief Thief of Time"
Grief thief of time crawls off,
The moon-drawn grave, with the seafaring years,
The knave of pain steals off
The sea-halved faith that blew time to his knees,
The old forget the cries,
Lean time on tide and times the wind stood rough,
Call back the castaways
Riding the sea light on a sunken path,
The old forget the grief,
Hack of the cough, the hanging albatross,
Cast back the bone of youth
And salt-eyed stumble bedward where she lies
Who tossed the high tide in a time of stories
And timelessly lies loving with the thief.

Now Jack my fathers let the time-faced crook,
Death flashing from his sleeve,
With swag of bubbles in a seedy sack
Sneak down the stallion grave,
Bull's-eye the outlaw through a eunuch crack
And free the twin-boxed grief,
No silver whistles chase him down the weeks'
Dayed peaks to day to death,
These stolen bubbles have the bites of snakes
And the undead eye-teeth,
No third eye probe into a rainbow's sex
That bridged the human halves,
All shall remain and on the graveward gulf
Shape with my fathers' thieves.