Tuesday, January 27, 2009

`We Know the Difference'

In the dentist’s waiting room I read this passage in Rosamund Bartlett’s Chekhov: Scenes from a Life:

“[Nikolai] Leikin was a journalist first and foremost, and he wanted material that fitted the template of his journal: stories had to be short and funny, and cranked out without too much deliberation. Chekhov was never going to be a writer in Leiken’s mould. He was an elegist as much as a comic, with a poetic temperament, and he found it increasingly difficult to write to order.”

I brooded on this through the teeth cleaning and the drive home, where I answered an e-mail from an acquaintance of Kay Ryan who had read and enjoyed some of my posts on Ryan and Chekhov. The leap across space and time between these writers is, I suppose, immense – 21st-century American and 19th-century Russian, poetry and prose, female and male, gay and straight, and so forth. The spirit of the age tells us they share nothing of substance, their identities are mutually exclusive, and their readers know of course that this is rubbish. As artists, both are masters of concision and came up from the “provinces,” away from the centers of literary taste-making. Both toy with the permeable membrane between the elegiac and comic, and relish using sly, gentle irony without turning it into a weapon. Both revere the natural world, and for both of them pretentiousness is anathema and words are never filigree. In the middle of a review of a volume by Ryan, David Yezzi writes:

“Chekhov is another modern writer who keeps us laughing until the moment we are brought up short by the opposite of laughter.”

Consider Ryan’s “Great Thoughts” (from Say Uncle, 2000):

“Great thoughts
do not nourish
small thoughts
as parents do children.

“Like the eucalyptus
they make the soil
beneath them barren.

“Standing in a
grove of them
is hideous.”

For certain writers, “great thoughts” are like fossil fuels – non-sustainable and polluting. Russia seems particularly susceptible to such bombast, expecting her writers to play the roles of prophet and seer. Chekhov would have none of this, which earned him the scorn and incomprehension of prominent critics. He was briefly seduced by Tolstoy’s crackpot social and religious ideas but eventually wrote, “Reason and justice tell me that there is more love for mankind in electricity and steam than in chastity and abstinence from meat.”

Ryan no doubt harbors as many political and social sentiments as the rest of us, but they make no discernable appearance in her work. Her job is words not thoughts, great or small. Her work is philosophically rich but never thesis-driven. If she wrote fiction she might say as Chekhov did in a May 30, 1888, letter to Alexey Suvorin:

“It doesn’t seem to me that it is the job of writers of fiction to decide questions like God, pessimism, etc. The writer’s task is only to describe those who have said or thought something about God and pessimism, how, and in what circumstances. The artist should not be a judge of his characters or what they say, but an impartial witness.”

In Poetry, Ryan published a humorous essay about humor in verse (not necessarily humorous verse), “Laugh While You Can: A Consideration of Poetry.” In it, she distinguishes “great thoughts” and sincerity from poetry in a way Chekhov would have appreciated:

“All feelings must go through the chillifier for us to feel them in that aesthetically thrilling way that we do in poetry. Poetry’s feelings are not human feelings; we know the difference.”

1 comment:

Donald said...

Do eucalypts really make the soil barren? They might compete effectively with other plants for water, but they can also control leaching of nutrients from the soil. They don't support a lot of wildlife in foreign places, but in their native place they do. Just ask a koala. There might be more to this "great thoughts" simile than meets the eye.