Monday, July 1, 2013

The Newish Paragraph: or what's with all these chunks of print?

This past AWP in Boston I hardly grazed the thousand or so tables of other press's books; my lungs were too full of phlegm for that. But when I finally did take a brief walk, casually opening a book here and there, I wondered, "What's with all these books full of paragraphs?" And I don't mean paragraphs that nestle up against one another, paragraphs that cuddle. I mean blocks of text that float as quasi-islands on their pages, blocks defined as much by the white space between them as by their own coherence. So, because I have a hunch that paragraphs, even when they're numbered in sequence, provide an exaggerated chance for randomness (that is not one), I'm going to take several texts written in what I will (tongue in cheekily) called The Newish Paragraph, and weave them together by process of random selection. First the texts, among which I include one of my own. For vested interest is mine; or, we see best what we already recognize.

55. The presumption is: I can write like this and "get away with it."  Ron Silliman, "The Chinese Notebook."

Random access memory. Trunk of a tree or block of wood. The plank in reason. Rationales for "exclusionary criteria": as if fact mitigates fact. If your body is obese, it will not fit in our storage area. Or: "the anatomical relations are altered." No alteration where alteration found. Donne was a nasty poet, Ben notes. Ambition is as ambition does. Has nothing to do with flies, but with aggression. "The point is not to suppress your anger, but to watch it and let it go," writes the Motocycliste on Daily Kos.  Susan M. Schultz, "She's Welcome to Her Disease": Dementia Blog, Volume Two.

125. Of course, you could also just take off the blindfold and say, I think this game is stupid, and I'm not playing it anymore. And it must also be admitted that hitting the wall or wandering off in the wrong direction or tearing off the blindfold is as much a part of the game as is pinning the tail on the donkey.  Maggie Nelson, Bluets.

Rick Moody may or may not be the worst writer of his generation, but he is certainly not the worst italicizer of his generation. Evan Lavender-Smith, From Old Notebooks.

Earth is wandering. Moon's round eye dreaming. The fields are on fire. We're entering the heart of strangeness.  Etal Adnan, Sea and Fog.

I don't know how strange this heart is, but the question, "what is it?" comes to mind, just as the civil defense siren goes off, it being the first day of the new month, and near noon. Nothing has broken--this is not a new form, nor is it a new concept or a take-down of old ones like flarf or an ethnically defined project--and nothing new has been constructed. The paragraph is not avant-garde, nor is it rear-guard. It's in the middle of the caravan. One presumes there have always been paragraphs. Nor has the paragraph been redesigned, re-formed. The OED definition seems obvious, downright dull: "A distinct passage or section of a text, usually composed of several sentences, dealing with a particular point." Same thing as it was in 1525.

One clue is that I can't read any of these books without wandering, without jumping. Bryant has an old video made by an off-road unicyclist in Alaska. (Oh my god, it's here!) We once spent an hysterical evening with poets watching this video, which was like a poetics of unicycling. The man was humorless. He had a large and faithful dog. His day consisted of getting on his unicycle and taking wooded paths. So he jumped from rock to rock, then peddled when he could toward the next field of rocks. As he did so, the voice-over instructed us in how to do this ourselves. It was also like a Buddhist talk, where examples of difficulty are juxtaposed with episodes of calm. And where there are lots of rocks.

Paragraphs are like these rocks. Except that we don't have to follow the path in linear fashion.

Or: paragraphs are like those moments of recognition: I could jump to that large flat rock, though the edgy one might work better and more quickly, if I do it right.

Or: paragraphs are what make us fall down. A single paragraph can be very funny, a joke like the rock that's covered in water, on which your single tire slips.

Or: paragraphs can be like the big dog. They can follow you faithfully, or you can walk next to them and hum under your breath. You can take breathers between rock-like paragraphs. You can write your own words there, or compose your own lyrics.

Another clue is that these paragraphs all contain opinions. Rick Moody may be but is not.  I can get away with this. I can wax philosophical and you can stay with me for one paragraph. I can offer you a detail and then offer you an abstraction and then the waitress will come and you can choose which number you wish to order on the Chinese menu (yes, Silliman's Chinese Notebook has numbers, just like many Chinese menus).

But you can't stick with the opinion. There is no development, at least not right away. We are on a road that is also a white water course that is also a jet stream. We may be heading in the same direction, but we're not going to get there at the same time, even if it's just us. The paragraph before Rick Moody had to do with UPS. The paragraph before the blindfold game had to do with the Spirit Book, and with suffering. The paragraph after Silliman's assertion is about worsening economic conditions, which are another way of saying you can't get away with what you can't afford.

Yet another clue is how much quotation is going on in these quotations. To italicize is to quote, so Rick Moody may not be a great writer, but he's a damn good compiler. He lays bricks. You might say the game is stupid, but you include it anyway, because you might be quoting someone other than yourself.  Peek-a-boo, it might be me saying it, too! Daily Kos's motocycliste is quoting a Buddhist text, but his audience must needs be different. My paragraph quotes from the Georgetown University guidelines for body donations. But alternates them with Renaissance truisms. (Don't ask me to parse that one!)

But the Modernists quoted, and the post-modernists deconstructed, and everyone italicizes! That gets me to what might be newish about the newish paragraph, that it synthesizes. If Movements tend toward purity, even in their lack thereof, manifestos being pure blurts of rhetorical extravagance, then non-movements like the newish paragraph are more quietly impure. These are not new sentences, because there's no torque between sentences, and because there's an implied coherence between paragraphs. If Maggie Nelson is thinking about anything, it's the color blue, which re-emerges on every page of her book. If I'm thinking about Alzheimer's then, damn it, I'm not leaving that field for anything like gardening. If Evan Lavender-Smith is giving us his apercus, then so be it, they just keep coming.

This is more manifest than manifesto. There's a list of passenger writers, but nowhere in particular to go. That may be the perfect form for now. For the form permits wandering, but it also (like the Alzheimer's home) offers a fence, a circular walk, a way to return over and again to where you started. There's a sense that paragraphs, especially when they're numbered, gesture to philosophical investigations. Something about how you use your paragraphs, as opposed to what they mean. Something about form as loose swaddling rather than fence-work.

I feel very much as if I've said very little. Perhaps that's really the case. But the paragraph is sneaky that way. It's very non-descript, hard to pin down, not as hard to write as a villanelle or a sestina, though like them it can come around again. It's like the house you can't see from the road, the one whose inner architecture might be splendid. The inner parts of my brief tour of the paragraph may be as plain as the paragraph's form itself. But the books from which I've taken my examples are not. They range--they free range--they live within an open field but don't require the visual art of the open field poem. They contain the breath, at least until they're spoken.




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