The close of The Great Gatsby is probably the most famous and referenced ending of any American novel. Lyricized in a lushly romantic invocation of American promise, somehow gone wrong in the stinking, rich like of Tom and Daisy Buchanan, and in the aftermath of Jay Gatsby’s failed striving, with such foolish and criminal élan, to take his place among them, it recedes in a haunting, youthful nostalgia:
Well, no, actually, we aren’t.
So never mind that this exquisite lie, this flawed jewel of an ending, is simply wrong in most every respect.
An ending I like as much – more, for this matter, that its story is less gaudy and cheap, but just as truly and more deeply American – is the that of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. It is as highly poeticized as Gatsby’s close, also rich in image, but with the ache of an old man’s earned reflection, not a young man’s clinging to early dreams. The diction and cadence are not elegant like Gatsby, but flattened, like the middle of the country. You hear the beats – like a four-count rhythm – rather than glide over them.
It is the poetry that interests me here. It simply is poetry, written as prose, and conversations about why it is poetry are as essential to what poetry does for us as the poetry itself, but that’s not what interests me here. Here I am interested in the poetry, and I thought I would share a little exercise of mine.
The exercise is one in craft, which is to say art, which is to say craft. Too often we separate the two – the art and the craft – believing, in some totemic relic of romanticism, that art is mysteriously enlivened in the incalculable genius of inspiration and original conception. The art arrives whole, delivered bawling and brilliant into the world, if not from God or divine muse, then from the lower divinity of the individual creative imagination. The craft is just swaddling clothes. Art is the poetry, craft the prosaic cradle carpentered to hold the Buddha.
Shall I say there is no truth in this, or that art would not mean less to us if we could not think it so? I shall not. Who wants to believe that Nabokov or Neruda or Shakespeare can be the product of an MFA program only? But writers know – and the better they are, the better they know it – that long after the midwives have left the bedchamber, and has passed that fever of impassioned experience, or the impassioned experience of fevered conception, there remains to be applied with talent and training the magnetic attraction and the frictive collision of words, all the artful choices that shape a sentence, and that lead each sentence, as if by nature, into the next.
The craft in this exercise is applied to words that are not one’s own. Absent that ownership – the sense of possession over whatever original experience or conception first sought to communicate some part of itself through the words – one is left with only the words and what they mean rather than some intent of one’s own that one is attached to conveying. One is able to step back more easily from investment in the writing – as the crafter of art, the artificer of all the visions and drafts but the first hopes, ideally, to do.
My exercise with Maclean was to render poetic language into some more recognizably poetic form, in this case free verse, and with attention, as one pays in free verse, to line length and break. I thought about cadence and breath and units of meaning, and how to serve them, and of how formal variation might help render meaning. Some were even found decisions, as in page-enforced line breaks that happened to appear in the particular prose edition from which I worked. It all exercised, in the work of my decision making, a craft that, applied to someone else’s writing, is hardly art, any more than is the work of the best, most active editor. But honed in skill to an extraordinary level, like that of artistic imagining itself, and applied to that imagining, the craft is as much the art as what it serves – the manner of the writer hewing from that first rough block of imagination the whole work of art.
Here is what I did. You might have done it differently. The purpose was the work, and to perform some small service to writing I admire. It is writing, as much as any I know, that seems to approach last thoughts, in what probably would not be thought, but something beyond thought, as one of the ends of poetry is to name the nameless.