Saturday, May 9, 2015

Getting the Neighborhood Dialect Right

Many of your writing habits were informed and influenced by those two consummate grouches, Ernest Miller Hemingway, and Ezra Pound.  You discovered the work of each in your late teens, took them in as though they were pure oxygen and you in a state of gasping.


Now, over half a century later, both are still with you, in ways that disturb you, so far as Hemingway is concerned, and impress you when you come to revise and see Pound, winking at you.

So far as you can tell, you are like neither in attitude nor levels of self-importunates.  On a quantitative basis, one Hemingway, The Collected Short Stories, resides in your bookshelf devoted to short story.  Of Pound there are The Confucian Odes, and Personae, plus a volume devoted to unraveling his most well-known longer poem outside The Cantos, Hugh Selwyn Mauberly.

When someone asks you who your favorite short story writer is, Hemingway gets a flicker of awareness as you pass over him, Fitzgerald, and Cheever, a nod back in time to D.H. Lawrence and Katherine Mansfield, but then the little white ball from the roulette wheel lands into the domain of Deborah Eisenberg, where it comes to rest.

Were someone to ask in the same spirit about your favorite poet, you'd stop for a long moment to consider the conversation you once had with your now departed friend, Peter Wigham, who professed poetry at UC, Berkeley.  Wigham shook his head ruefully at his belief that the thing that stopped Pound from greatness and recognition is the fact of no one ever taking the trouble to keep lines of Pound in memory.

Wigham did not know about your freakish memory at the time, but you cut loose with arguably one of Pound's shorter-but-famed poems: " The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough."You went on until he cut you off, but not before you got out, from The Cantos, “What thou lovest well remains, the rest is dross What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee What thou lov'st well is thy true heritage Whose world, or mine or theirs or is it of none?"

So, you would likely say Pound, except when you don't, because you say Yeats, not that he was any less caught up in his own mythology as Pound, but because of one poem which sometimes comes to you, in waking or sleeping moments, and shoves you against the wall to consider:

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

You would say Yeats, as you once did to John Sanford, who said, "That crazy son of a bitch," because he'd had personal dealings with the one you'd name if you didn't name Pound or Yeats.  

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

That, of course, is William Carlos Williams.  Every time you pick up his In the American Grain, it is as though you are being offered the book you'd been looking for all those years when you were looking for the book that would teach you how to write.

The thing you picked up from Hemingway is the way he used "and" to connect independent clauses.  After all these years of self-editing and having "and" called to you attention as a habit word and, as an editor, calling it to the attention of those you edit.

What all this brings to you, however, is a novelist who has fallen between some impressive cracks, gone from out midst since 1999.  As Dennis Lehane does and Robert Parker often did, George V. Higgins wrote of working-class Irish from Boston's south side.  As these two worthies do and did, Higgins heard something extra, so that were you to see it in print, you would know with a certainty, yes, this is how they spoke:  This is authentic South Boston Irish working class dialect.

But it is no such thing. Higgins' dialogue is informed by it, but it has been distilled in his writers' imagination.  You would not be surprised by the Irony of some South Boston readers, coming upon such Higgins novels as The Friends of Eddie Coyle, then being led to conclude, So this is how we are supposed to sound.  We'd better get on with sounding this way, because Higgins' way is the better way.

You came upon Higgins' novels about midway through your career of wanting to hear the authenticity of the clamor in your own head, not wanting it to be led off pitch by the sounds of others.  Higgins, and by extension, Parker and Lehane, are as far away as possible from your own people, yet they are identifiable as coming from a neighborhood.  The closest contact you've had with these three is the fact of having edited the man who put Parker's Spenser and Hawk to television.  All were helpful in your discovery of what and where your neighborhood is.

Nice coincidence that your last editing job was about a man who grew up in Los Angeles and now lives in Santa Barbara.  But coincidences do not make neighborhood dialogue; you have to get close and listen for that.


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