Sunday, November 27, 2011
November 14, 2011 Issue
John McPhee, in an interesting piece called “Progression,” in this week’s issue, talks about, among other things, the background sources of some of his early New Yorker articles. In a way, it’s sort of a companion piece to the fascinating Paris Review interview he did last year. It seems McPhee always dwells on structure whenever he talks about his writing method. In doing so, he sells himself short. Yes, structure is one of the hallmarks of his incomparable style. And yes, it’s absorbing and useful to learn how he structures his work. But structure is only one aspect of his composition. McPhee is a brilliant describer. For example (this is just one among hundreds that can be adduced), in “Ranger” (The New Yorker, September 11, 1971), which he mentions in “Progression,” he describes Hartzog’s boatman, Cal Smith, as follows: “Smith is a big man with heavy bones, frankfurtery fingers, lithic jowls.” How did McPhee arrive at that adjective “frankfurtery”? The average writer – someone like myself, say – would write “thick-fingered” or maybe, if he/she saw, as McPhee did (a mighty big “if”), the similarity between thick fingers and wieners, he/she might say “weiner-like.” But “frankfurtery” takes finger description to a whole new level, an inspired level, in my opinion. How did McPhee think of it? Here’s another example, also taken from “Ranger.” It’s a description of Hartzog fishing:
There are five eyes on his rod. He sights through the last one into a patch of flat blue among high mounds of cumulus. He finds a fragment of cloud loose in the blue and he frames it steadily in the fifth eye while he waits for the glass to bend.
What an inspired perspective! A view of a cloud fragment as seen through the eye on a fishing rod! How did McPhee conceive it? No amount of talk about structure accounts for it. It’s art; it’s inspiration; it’s genius. McPhee’s work brims with it. Here’s one more example. In “The Encircled River - I” (The New Yorker, May 2, 1977), McPhee provides this arresting image of salmon: “Looking over the side of the canoe is like staring down into a sky full of zeppelins.” How did he conceive the comparison of river with sky, salmon with zeppelins? In a piece titled “Checkpoints” (The New Yorker, February 9, 2009), McPhee touches on his art of figuration. He says, “In ‘Coal Train’ (2005), I felt a need for analogy and guessed at one: ‘The releasing of the air brakes began at the two ends, and moved toward the middle. The train’s very long integral air tube was like the air sac of an American eel.’” I felt a need for analogy – right there is the nub of the creative mystery. Why does he feel that need? Maybe McPhee can’t explain it. Maybe no one can. It certainly involves more than structure. It’s sourced in the realm of inspiration. I wish McPhee would talk more about it.
Postscript: Last week, when I was in Trinidad, Cuba, I had lunch in the back yard of a little restaurant under the vast green canopy of a giant ceiba tree. The tree’s gray bark was like elephant hide. It struck me that the tree would be worthy of a poem. When I returned home, I opened this week’s New Yorker and was astounded and delighted to find just such an item, a poem by Mark Svenvold, titled “Ceiba Tree, Petac, Mexico.” I enjoyed it immensely, particularly the part about “the broad cloth / of a morning above us and in us, like some momentary shaft, / of sunlight on the floating seed of the ceiba tree, / that hangs like this and like that in the shadows and subaltern greens.” And is this the same Mark Svenvold who went up the Merrimack with John McPhee in McPhee’s wonderful “Five Days on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers” (The New Yorker, December 15, 2003)? I believe it is. Perhaps this is another way in which, as McPhee says in “Progression,” pieces “skein out in surprising ways, finally ending in some unexpected place.”