Sunday, March 29, 2009

Taking it back

I once attended a workshop with the fabulous Beckian Fritz Goldberg, author of Body Betrayer and The Book of Accident, both of which dominate that particular shelf in my bookcase, where she off-handedly referred to Kenneth Patchen as an archetypal adolescent literary love. Much like Thomas Wolfe, Patchen was another angry young lyricist who had to tell things the way they really were, and risk caricature, bombast, and imagery for its own sake. So at 19, I adored them both, even if Wolfe’s character portraits did tend to acquire the exaggerated demeanor of an Al Hirshfeld sketch, and Patchen’s enraged direct addresses to the reader made me uncomfortable. But they were in a way, a playbill for how a young writer could work on style and imagery and dialogue without selling out, as it were, to The Machine, The Combine, The Authority, or what-have-you, since both of them would rather spit in your eye than admit some philosophical ambiguity or ambivalence in moral literature. They would have hated each immediately, I think. (Wolfe was a Romantic and Patchen was angry but hip. Funnily enough, though, they sometimes fell prey to poor impulse control, textually: Wolfe could shamelessly descend straight into de-facto poetry, as in the pivotal graveyard scene in Look Homeward Angel, much as Patchen does in The Journal of Albion Moonlight.) I suppose we all have our adolescent standard bearers that we avoid revisiting later on in order to protect our experiences of them, and the energy and the authority that they lent to us then, in spite of the flaws that would most likely be quite in evidence now. Still, in order to amuse myself, I often think of the social equivalent of literary steel cage matches (ala Philip Levine’s poem about Hart Crane meeting Lorca). Is this the academic version of celebrity gossip? There are worse vices.

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