Sunday, March 20, 2016

`Larger As It Gets Smaller'

As I get older, too much of anything makes me sick, whether potato chips or words. My taste runs to elegant density – pâté and epigrams. Anything else feels like filler, like the foam-plastic peanuts we stuff into parcels. Most poems and prose today are like that, mere padding, much mass but little weight. The word that comes to mind is heft, which in turn brings to mind a hand-sized stone polished smooth by the river. Kay Ryan, the author of good small poems, writes this in “On the Miniature”:

“And this is the magic I’m interested in: not the astonishment kind, not the how-did-he-do-that kind, but the release kind. You are not made to feel large and clumsy by comparison to the exquisite tiny thing; you are invited to eat the magic bean. You laugh. You feel…right-sized.”
Like Ryan, I prefer to let a little go a long way, multum in parvo, and so on. In the Summer 1983 issue of Grand Street, Steven Millhauser published one of his rare nonfiction pieces, “The Fascination of the Miniature.” I have a copy only because Steven photocopied it for me years ago. Though he has published four novels, including the brilliant Edwin Mullhouse (1972), his first book, Steven’s essential gift is for the short story and novella – small forms. His “miniature” is not identical to Ryan’s: “The miniature, then, must not be confused with the merely minute. For the miniature does not exist in isolation: it is by nature a smaller version of something else.” He lovingly catalogues examples:
. . . intricately carved chessmen, paper circuses and theaters, peach-pit monkeys, pastries in the shape of cathedrals, the little clockwork coach described by Poe at the beginning of `Maelzel’s Chess-Player,’ boxwood rosary beads the size of plums that open to reveal minutely carved scenes from the life of Christ, the enchanting Praxinoscope Theater invented by Emile Reynaud in 1879, the tiny tin and copper kitchen utensils made by the copper founders of medieval Nuremberg to supply the needs of dolls.”
For Millhauser, the attraction of the very small is fractal in nature and essentially ontological: the minute replica tells us something about its big original (see Borges, a Millhauser favorite). Ryan prefaces her essay with a sort of proverb, another small form: “To be miniature is to be swallowed by a miniature whale.” A devoted miniaturist as a poet, Ryan is skeptical of the very small, of its theoretical value.
“In any case, by changing size, so that we can’t get in there anymore, generating rooms too small to actually occupy, we give ourselves the possibility of everything turning out otherwise than it does here. We loosen an imaginative space that gets larger as it gets smaller.”
That final sentence Ryan writes as a poet. There’s another quality of the miniature that should not be disregarded: elasticity.

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