|…. it was as if the phrases he had in front of him
had become suddenly familiar, were starting irresistibly to remind
him of something, as if onto each one that he read there had been
imposed, or rather superimposed, the at once precise yet blurred
memory of a phrase almost identical to it that he had perhaps
already read somewhere else; as if these words, more tender than a
caress or more treacherous than a poison, words that were
alternately limpid and hermetic, obscene and cordial, dazzling,
labyrinthine, endlessly swinging like the frantic needle of a
compass between a hallucinated violence and a fabulous serenity,
formed the outline of a vague configuration in which could be
found, jumbled together, Germain Nouveau and Tristan Corbière,
Rimbaud and Verhaeren, Charles Cros and Léon Bloy.
|Georges Perec,“The Winter Journey”
tr. John Sturrock
Joan Schenkar calls Patricia Highsmith
(1921-1995) the “Dostoevski of American Noir”:
Patricia Highsmith, who always had murder on her mind, is my enduring
candidate for Great American Expatriate Writer. She belongs somewhere between
Willa Cather (the only woman writer she openly admired) and Hell (a condition
she prepared for her characters as energetically as did her maître, Henry
James). Highsmith provides the most sustained literary examination of guilt and
the instability of gender identity in American literature – and she does it by
the kind of formal forgery that continues to trick publishers into advertising
her books as “crime novels.” Reader, do not be deceived.
An equal opportunity discriminator, Highsmith preferred men in her books as
the active agents of her violent imagination and women in her bed as the
inspiring objects of her inability to form permanent partnerships. Neither
gender fares particularly well on the point of her pitiless pen and Patricia
Highsmith is that rare creature - a writer as indifferent as Wilde or Sartre or
Camus or Thomas Hobbes, for that matter, to moral postures in art; a writer
whose characters are capable of anything.
In Highsmith’s toils, good intentions corrupt naturally and automatically,
guilt often afflicts the innocent not the culpable, and life is a suffocating
trap from which even an escape artist like the talented Mr. Ripley cannot find a
graceful exit. She treats people and the things they handle in the same
deadeningly objective way; the cumulative effect is a horrifying aura of unease.
Although she never tried to achieve its style, High Art was always Highsmith’s
inspiration; what makes her own work so indefinably odd is that most of her
murdering, mutilating, muggish characters are inspired by it as well.
There is always a bit of blood in the corner of a smile – and a
recommendation to read Henry James; a knife turning restlessly in someone’s hand
at the mildest moment – and a preference for the poems of Auden; a lunch
punctured by a horrible suspicion – and a man weeping at the grave of Keats. Her
male characters are often psychologically twinned and obsessed by clothes; her
most enticing love scenes are usually between gastropoda.
Read: STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, CAROL (AKA THE PRICE OF SALT),
THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, THE BLUNDERER, THIS SWEET SICKNESS, THE GLASS CELL, THE
CRY OF THE OWL, THE ANIMAL-LOVERS BOOK OF BEASTLY MURDER – and be
is writing a biography of Patricia Highsmith, THE TALENTED
MISS HIGHSMITH: the secret life and serious art of Patricia Highsmith,
for St. Martin’s Press, to be published in 2005. Her last
Recommended Reading appeared in Vol. 2, No.
Marilyn A. Johnson tells why we should read Contemporary American
I’m trying to find some beauty out of an ugly middle-class upbringing: strip
malls, etc., emotion recollected in turmoil; and so I write mongrel poetry using
chain link fences, cars, driveways, teen pregnancy, and I gravitate to
plainspoken poets. But I find contemporary American fiction writers
(CAFW) are the ones who have really staked out that turf.
I’ve been leaping from one fresh talent to another. Then a literary friend
confessed she hated reading CAFW because of their
engagement with middle class life.
All right, she’s a professor’s daughter, I’m a car salesman’s daughter, maybe
that explains it.
Or maybe she’s just prejudiced. What she’s missing, though!
THE CORRECTIONS, by Jonathan Franzen, is a peak experience
for someone who loves bleak humor and beautiful sentences, and all the better if
you know St. Louis. The New Jersey take: James Kaplan’s
TWO GUYS FROM VERONA. The California take; anything by the
underappreciated Carolyn See. My friend is missing – well, I have to go
to the shelves outside my office, where I try to keep copies of my favorite
books, including everything by Pete Dexter and Robert Stone,
violent guys, best read next to Toni Morrison. In fact, read the three of
them, and there’s America, nailed. Lorrie Moore. THAT
NIGHT or CHARMING BILLY by Alice
McDermott. AMERICA’S DREAM, by my friend
Esmeralda Santiago, or anything by our pal Ben Cheever, who has such
a wild, funny, edgy take on the suburbs his father once owned. Allegra
Goodman. How about Joyce Carol Oates’s novel about the high school
reunion, BROKE HEART BLUES? I can’t help pressing
my favorites into people’s hands, so lots of titles are missing,
THE VIRGIN SUICIDES by Jeffrey Eugenides, for instance: I
can’t keep that in stock.
I think maybe my CAFW-phobic friend simply hates those
bad, faux, easy books where boys and girls come of age in the suburbs, and Mom,
who has fidelity issues, screams through the screen door, and everybody drinks
and drives onto the golf greens – no, no. We’ve advanced way past that, though
Rabbit Angstrom and Richard Yates’s doomed characters still wave in the
background. I just finished THE LOVELY BONES, a
first novel by Alice Sebold, and though I don’t totally buy the end, it
is an incredible premise, narrated by a dead fourteen-year old girl who keeps
track of her family, friends, and the man who murdered her. A brave book, and it
left me almost as breathless as Laura Kasischke’s THE
LIFE BEFORE HER EYES, about a high school shooting, where the psycho
classmate asks two girls holed up in the bathroom, I have to kill one of you,
which will it be? The novel is the story of the girl who says, Please,
not me. Beautifully written. A poet wrote it. And I don’t mean that
fuzzy-static nature-and-beauty poetry, I mean the poetry that takes something
real and passes it through somebody’s soul, maybe grabbing some Velveeta and
crackers on the way.
Marilyn A. Johnson
poet whose work has appeared most recently in Field. She helps run the
reading series for the Hudson Valley Writers Center in Sleepy Hollow,
Tea with Kevin McFadden. An Interview by F. David Mencken.
The Interviewer had the chance to catch up with poet Kevin McFadden at a
coffeehouse in Charlottesville, Virginia. They met for a discussion of anagrams,
the OuLiPo movement, contemporary poetics, including the effect of these on his
INTERVIEWER: It seems to me, Kevin, that the puns and word games in
your poems have a lot to do with the duplicity of language. Is that accurate?
KEVIN McFADDEN: Well, sure. Duplicity is a good word for it. Early on
we think of language as communicative solely, but as we advance in language we
sometimes find as much is said to conceal as represent. Sometimes it’s innocent.
We said we’d meet for coffee and yet we’ve both ordered tea. Why didn’t we say
we’d meet for tea? So much humor is meant to show us when we’re behaving
robotically or conventionally, catching us in our routine linguistic logic and
exposing something absurd. We go to the bathroom and it’s not for a little
shampoo, is it?
I: Does that set up a difficulty for a poet who’s trying to say
something? I mean, if words and poems are consistently undermined by their own
KM: For the kind of writing I’m interested in, two meanings is a
minimum. I like to think that a poem has the ability to expose an entire
argument in its tension. To say something, you’re necessarily excluding
something else. To speak in a way that says something and something else at the
same time seems truer to our lives, at least to me.
I: Describe to me the process of your anagram poems. How did you begin
writing them and why?
KM: I invented the anagram form I use. So I thought. I was an American
college student at the University of Glasgow, truly awash in a variety of
englishes, pronunciations and spellings; words started losing their monolithic
dimension to me. I’m convinced when we are taught to read that we diminish our
sense of possibility with language. All these trees of possible ends but we
learn to go out on the same branches every time. The point of reading a
sentence, we are taught, is to get through it quickly, without mispronouncing,
without stumbling. We train our minds to use context to filter out homophones
and homonyms, any number of variants that would wreak havoc on a sentence’s
avowed universal meaning. Dyslexia, the supposed inability to stick to these
rules, is in that scheme a disability. You could as easily describe it as
hyperlexia—the dyslexic is not fooled by this conspiracy of sense we call
grammar and usage. The dyslexic sees it is the sane who are crazy, or at least
okay with an eerily agreeable conformity, and it is the sane who suffer, who
need to be confined. My purpose for many years, because I do not clinically have
this condition, has been to induce dyslexia.
I: How do you decide what to anagram?
KM: Usually I take a line of this monolithic dimension, something
we’ve heard so often it’s recognizable. Something we know so well or, if it is
contemporary, something I think we will one day know so well it is taken as a
kind of proverb. Then, I begin taking it apart at its letters, seeing what
arises, and let it rebuild itself into a new form. Each line has to have the
same combination of letters, exactly, as any other line. It is my hope that when
a poem begins “There’s nothing new under the sun” and ends “There in the unsung,
wonder’s then” that we’ve tried to move a monument. Or at least graffiti on the
monument’s other side. There are other times I choose a line I love and continue
to riff on it. Usually by the end of an anagram poem you can tell whether, like
some classical sonnets, the introductory arguments have been challenged or
incorporated. Other times I withhold the seminal line until the end, or
introduce it in the middle. Each has different effects.
I: You implied you didn’t invent the form.
KM: Well, no. When I began with it, I hadn’t seen anyone using it. It
seemed to arise from the nature of anagram. I liked seeing one line turning into
another, but then I wanted it to be more than one other version, three, four;
then for those versions to be conversant with each other in a way that read like
a poem. Look at them go. I was this genius inventor, a legend in my own
lunchtime. Then I found (in a search for an Internet anagram generator) at least
one other English poet who’d done one, Heather McHugh; she anagrammed William
Butler Yeats’s name. As I looked more into the anagram, I found that the OuLiPo
had been using it for half a century.
I: I was going to get into the OuLiPo...
KM: Well, they are a fascinating group. A European movement, which is
perhaps why American tastes are always unfairly suspicious of their ingenuity.
They were and are convinced, like almost any literary clique, that their purpose
was to revive the literature, to denounce the flaccid poetry and prose around
them, and to adopt strictures that would accomplish a lexical revolution. The
constraints the OuLiPo place on their work are nearly always calculated on
abstractions—novels with no letter e as in Georges Perec’s classic;
Queneau’s sonnet that can be read 100,000,000,000
ways; abecedarian progressions—and the results are like nothing you’ve generally
read before. Sometimes they’re also like nothing you’d want to read anyway. I’m
bad with French acronyms, but I know the po in OuLiPo means
“potential”—and that’s the significant part. That’s what their group is doing,
combing the infinite potential of language in search of new forms for writing.
I: Here the phrase “po biz” evokes the careerist side of poetry. Not
so in France, I take it.
KM: Yes, you’ve hit on it. What a difference in a syllable. When po
is potential, I’d be honored to say I’m in po-biz. What could be more
worthwhile. I once heard an OuLipist described as a rat who invents a maze in
order to escape it. Of course you can’t join OuLiPo proper, you have to be
“made.” I was borrowing, whether I knew it at the time or not, from their
I: With these intricate schemes and reactive methods, how does one
avoid the charge of just plain satire?
KM: Well, you use that word with contempt. Satire, to me, is not a
secondary genre. The act of satire is a primary function of existence. Most of
us are subtle satires of our parents, as they were of theirs. Accordingly, we
will all deserve to be satirized by the coming generation. We’re all subtle
satires of our cultures in order to survive them—sometimes funny, sometimes
dead-serious. Satire originally meant a mixture—a mixture of styles, a
low-discourse in a high-discourse setting, vice versa. Can you name a movement
or breakthrough, artistic, scientific, whatever, that has no relation to
elements of thought already ancient? We’re constantly mixing and remixing the
past to expose something. Often with a critical distance. This, to me, is
I: And yet, it still is dependent on those pre-existing forms before
it can work.
KM: Everything lives on the decay of something else, a fact we seem
perfectly at home with except when it comes to literature. In literature, great
works just spring up wholly formed, like Athena. If satire were in the oxygen
cycle, it would be a tree sucking in our endless profound exhalations and giving
them back to us so we can simply breathe again. The great satire goes on.
I: Is there an anagrammer’s—
I: If you like. Is there an anagrammarian philosophy?
KM: There isn’t just one. Some of the ideas have roots in Jewish
mysticism. Some philosophies I’ve heard are more dramatic than others. At times
it is as simple as subversion—that’s a little basic though. Certainly some
believe anagrams expose truths—I think they merely expose alternatives. When a
word is born, so are its anagrams, some of which have meaning, and others of
which are still behind a veil. When veil is born so is vile, and
live and evil. Perhaps meanings are hidden in a different
language. In the case of my poems, each anagrammed line approaches its seminal
line like the Jewish mystics approached a piece of scripture—the point of the
commentary is to revitalize it, to deepen our understanding of it. It may remind
us these lines which we’ve privileged have some relation to the whole system,
comical perhaps, perhaps serious. Each anagram is first among equals.
I: Can you name any OuLipists who’ve used this method of anagram?
KM: I should say the art of anagram is centuries old. Someone may be
first to spot an interesting anagram but claiming to have created it seems
against anagram’s own convictions. It created itself, or, if you like, when
anyone decides on a word they are necessarily outlining its anagrams. There are
word puzzles from Greek and early Christian times, throughout the medieval
period and beyond. Queneau had a poem in 1923 that
rearranged its letters. The first to consist of ordinary words was taken from a
line by Gérard Nerval and was a collaboration by three OuLipists in
1948 or so—their names always escape me. A good resource
here is OULIPO COMPENDIUM, edited by Mathews and Brotchie.
I know Oskar Pastior did a collection in German, Michelle Grangaud in French.
But the first person to make a collection of these poems was Swiss, Unica Zürn.
Zürn suffered from schizophrenia and was confined several times for it.
Eventually she jumped out a window.
I: A cautionary tale for anagrammarians?
KM: Madness is a danger the more and more you stare into the letters.
Kabbalists used to, maybe still do, have a stricture that the only practitioners
of their art must be forty year-old married men of great girth. This was so
they’d be strong enough to resist the pull the letters had—the black magic. I’m
relying on my thick mid-section to carry me through here. Sanity is truly at
risk, depending on how far you humor the letters. Easy to slip into a state
where the world comes apart at these little verbal hinges we really rely on. The
Kabbalist phrase is “Who touches is touched.” Meaning the sacred letters. Mess
with the letters, they might mess with you.
I: What do you feel is wrong with contemporary literature that forces
poets to these non-traditional methods?
KM: Wrong isn’t the word I’d use. It’s a question of freshness.
Generations have trod, have trod. The critic Harold Bloom, and I should say I
find myself in the rare position of agreement with him here, says that most
contemporary American writing is derivative of Wordsworth, consciously or
unconsciously imitated. I’ve written plenty of poems from that place, some I’ll
still stand by, but it’s harder to keep my interest because the equation seems
done and overdone. There are few untrodden ways at this point. Still I’m not
going to join those who have made the use of the biographical I a literary
crime—it’s a necessary and valuable direction.
I: But you’re saying it’s not fresh.
KM: The injunction is “make in new,” not “make it you.” That’s the
easiest way to give identity the veneer of originality, to say this is new
because you’ve never heard it my way. I usually want to hear something else from
a poet, not just I’m X from Y and
I’ve been through Z. That can be one leg of a poet’s
stool, but it can’t be the only one. The variables may change, but if the story
is all that’s new it’s still probably a story we’ve heard somewhere: let
N = your childhood and pretty soon you’re rowing circles
in the Lake District or someone’s reasonable facsimile thereof. I like the I,
but I like that it’s not the only way I must write. Now I believe attention to
language and its forms can be its own trace of identity, and those
considerations preoccupy me. I like that anagram steers me away from the I,
especially in lines in which I is not an option.
I: One of the technical considerations formal poets have registered is
a worry that they’re filling out a form. Do these anagrams run that risk?
KM: Sure they do. There’s a sort of dull cadence that a sonnet or a
villanelle can fall into, and I’ve learned this through writing my own and
listening to others. Avoidance of that dullness really distinguishes great uses
of these forms from mediocre ones. I usually suspect it’s time to end an anagram
because the interesting variations have run out. I’ll keep seeing the same words
pop up. “Sin” seems to be a favorite of mine. Some lines, by their algebraic
arrangement, limit themselves to becoming smaller poems. Two instances of the
letter V in a line, for example, can be near deadly
to an English arrangement. On the other hand, presence of threnodials, a
word composed of the eleven most common letters of English language, can sustain
a poem for quite some time. It’s interesting, in French, they’re ulcerations.
I: Did you mention an anagram generator earlier? Do you have one of
these at home?
KM: Yes and no. It’s not its own kind of machine like a blender or
some useful appliance.
I: Where do you find one?
KM: I searched the web and found quite a few, and those are the ones I
use. Initially, I did my work with pencil and paper, but the computer can get me
out of a fix so much faster and sometimes with better combinations than are
available to my mind. There’s one I’ve used because it allows me quite a few
strictures: how many words I’d like in any anagram, any repetitions of words
allowed, that kind of thing.
I: Do you find the computer generated lines limit self-expression and
keep back egotistical intentions we may have for poems?
KM: They don’t keep them back enough! I wish the computer kept me from
seeing what I’m inclined to see in the letters. And yet there are times it won’t
let you have something you’re dying to get the poem to say. But in practice,
I’ve found if you’re steering toward a phrase you can usually find it. Usually.
Plenty of times I’ve thought, I need a K, or what I
wouldn’t give for a P—but that’s like playing
Monopoly and hoping that when you get to Go you will have your pawn turned into
a queen. You simply can’t have it, it’s a different game. So you let the poem go
where it’s asking to go. I have a friend who thinks I write these because they
absolve me of responsibility for having written them—the letters made me do it.
No, not quite, but there’s definitely enough you can do to toy with certain
I: An image is a sensory imitation. A rhyme at least has a tonal
imitation. What about these poems, being based on an abstraction? Doesn’t that
upend the idea of mimesis, when there’s nothing present in the world by which to
appreciate their form?
KM: I think these anagram poems are elaborate rhymes—each line with
the next. The most perfect of rhymes, it may even be argued, although a word is
not supposed to rhyme with itself, it merely is itself. If you can’t rhyme with
yourself, now, who can you rhyme with? Now there’s a mystery. In anagram you
hear a music begin to pick up. It’s a music to get used to, but there is
something like it in the world. It’s usually too big or small for the naked eye
to take in in a moment, but it’s there. It’s a cycle, endless recombination, a
terrarium. How often do you move around furniture in a room to give it the
appearance of newness? Or what about DNA? Isn’t it just
one amazingly intricate anagram? Nothing is gained or lost, only infinitely
I: Ever miss a letter?
KM: No, God-willing. I try to keep to it. I check relentlessly. There
are severe penalties in some scripturally transmitted religions for missing even
one letter. Freud mentions a German newspaper in wartime that misspelled the
headline Heil Hitler as Heilt Hitler. That’s “heal Hitler,” of
course, and what a difference one t makes. The difference between and
interview and an innerview.
I: Do you feel like the letters are getting the upper hand?
KM: Who touches is touched. The letters have got a lot to say, more
than I can imagine, more than any of us can imagine. That’s why we’ve been
packing them around all this time, finding the forms that unlock their
potential. They’re simple machines really: levers, pulleys, inclined planes.
Everything else we do seems to sink into the earth, save the letters. I’m
pushing the conceit to absurdity, but even the alphabet song is sung to “Twinkle
Twinkle Little Star.” They used to stand for things in the world, but now
they’re above it, little resurrections, little ascensions. They won’t stay down.
We write them down, but their nature is up.
OULIPO COMPENDIUM, eds., Harry Matthews, Alastair
Brotchie. Atlas Press,1998. (Queneau’s 100,000,000,000 sonnets appears here. The
book leaves perforation marks so you can divide the lines by strips and change
the verses of the poem, like fourteen Dutch doors if that makes any sense. —KMcF.)
Michelle Grangaud, MÉMENTO-FRAGMENTS, ANAGRAMMES.
_______, RENAÎTRES. Ecbolade, 1990
_______, STATIONS, ANAGRAMMES. P.O.L.,
Oskar Pastior, ANAGRAMMGEDICHTE.
Verlag Klaus G. Renner, 1985
Georges Perec, A VOID, tr.
Gilbert Adair. Harper Collins, 1995
Raymond Queneau, CENT MILLE MILLIARDS DE POÈMES. Gallimard, 1985
________________, EXERCISES IN STYLE.
New Directions, 1981
Unica Zürn, DARK SPRING, tr.
Caroline Rupprecht. Exact Change, 2000
MAN OF JASMINE & Other Texts, tr.Malcolm Green. Atlas
________ , GESAMTAUSGABE. Brinkmann &
anagram poems have appeared in Denver Quarterly, Iowa Review, American
Letters & Commentary, Gulf Coast, The Ledge, Fence, and
6, No. 1), and are forthcoming in Chicago Review. He suggests that
interested readers might look at an anagrammarian site,
which he himself has used on occasion.