What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

August 7 & 14, 2017 Issue

For me, the key ingredient of great writing is specificity. William Strunk, in his The Elements of Style (1959), wrote,

If those who have studied the art of writing, are in accord on one point, it is on this: the surest way to arouse and hold the attention of the reader is by being specific, definite, and concrete. The greatest writers – Homer, Dante, Shakespeare – are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter. Their words call up pictures.

“Specificity” is used in this week’s New Yorker at least twice: Richard Brody’ “Movies: Girls Trip (“The view of middle-class African-American women’s lives behind closed doors, despite its antic exaggeration, has a lived-in specificity”); and Judith Thurman’s “World of Interiors” (“In Cusk’s recent novels, it isn’t the drama of the events but their specificity that keeps you riveted”). And it’s evinced in at least three inspired passages:

When the unruly menswear label Hood by Air staged its 2014 fall runway show, it tapped this subversive d.j. to create the score. The resulting twenty-four-minute composition, “10,000 Screaming Faggots,” wove together soaring Beyoncé samples and poetry by Juliana Huxtable, all laid under silver-bullet drums and synths that clawed at warehouse walls. [“Night Life: Total Freedom”]

A woman with a glittery backpack ordered a Woolynesia, tropical punch with gin, lime, chili, cinnamon, and puréed stone fruits, served in a woolly-mammoth-shaped mug. Paintings, prints, and statuary of the extinct beast, a lugubrious mascot, lurk everywhere you look. The woman took a sip, smiled at her man-bunned companion, and said, as far as an amateur lip-reader could tell, either “I love you” or “Elephant juice. [Carolyn Kormann, “Bar Tab:The Wooly Public”]

On exhibit were a palm-leaf book the size of a sheaf of paint samples, a big ball of raw rubber from a rubber tree (one of Sri Lanka’s resources), boxes of Ceylon tea (“We have the best, best tea”), a large stone grinder for spices (“Sri Lankan women were strong, back in the day”), her grandmother’s sitar, a replica of a seated Buddha considered to be the fifth-greatest statue in the world, and a statue of the fasting Buddha (“For six years, he ate no food and never opened his eyes”) that was made of welded iron. [Ian Frazier, “Extra Credit”]

The opposite of “specific” is “generic.” Dan Chiasson’s “Paper Trail” (in this week’s issue), a review of Susan Howe’s new poetry collection, Debths, recalled, for me, the concluding essay in his One Kind of Everything (2007), in which he says of the lines in a passage from Howe’s Hinge Picture,

Their indeterminancy, their conscious evasion of affect and style as those words are usually understood, their elevation of spatial constraints over formal ones, their rejection of the personal dimension, make them generic, and deliberately so.

To me, this is damning. But Chiasson expresses it quite neutrally. He doesn’t dismiss Howe’s poetry. He seems to value it. In “Paper Trail,” he writes,

The result, “Hinge Picture” (1974), translated to the page Howe’s visual installations, in which isolated phrases had been offset by the stark white of a gallery wall: the gutter, a unique feature of books, divided the visual “picture” into distinct zones. The friend had inadvertently launched one of the great careers in recent American poetry. All of Howe’s volumes since have tested the limits of the printed page; in doing so, they reaffirm the page itself as a necessary check on—and an expressive feature of—her imagination.

In “Paper Trail,” Chiasson doesn’t use “generic” to describe Howe’s poems. Instead, he concentrates on their look, the way they “test the limits of the printed page.” By treating Howe’s poems as “visual installations,” he shows their aesthetic specificity. 

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