Some of the Words Are Theirs


My column from the spring 2012 issue of West:  Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It and an exercise in the craft of poetry.

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 life 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.

And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

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 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 itself, 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.


Read the whole column, with my rendering of the novel’s close in poetic form, and a video clip of the film adaptation’s version, at West…

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