It was with great sadness that I heard of the pending death, from cancer, of Steve Heighton, one of TNQ’s initial “Wild Writers”, though I was grateful to have the opportunity to let him know how much I admired him, as a person and a writer. He responded with his usual good grace. A kind, compassionate, and gentle man, Steve was also an athlete and a literary polyglot, publishing poetry, short fiction, novels, non-fiction, and literary criticism. He was also an incidental artist. The double volume of The New Quarterly coming out of our initial “Wild Writers We Have Known” conference, a celebration of the Canadian short story in English held at the Stratford Festival venue, September 21-24, 2000, includes a series of Steve’s pen and ink drawings of various participants, including an attendee about whom he remarks, “Attentive posture, but fast asleep.”
Steve at the first Wild Writers Gathering in 2001.
Steve joined fellow poet and fiction writer Robyn Sarah in a readings and response session titled “Ringing Changes: The Poet’s Hand in the Short Story.” It speaks to the fiction writer’s use of poetic devices such as imagery, metaphor, tropes and patterns that create meaning by implication” together with sonic devices that “affect a reader corporally.” We reproduce that essay here.
May Steve’s work in all genres continue to ring in our ears. He is so missed.
—Kim Jernigan, former editor of TNQ
Ringing Changes: The Poet’s Hand in the Short Story
Poetry aspires to the condition of music, Walter Pater observed. Nowadays we might add a corollary: modern and postmodern stories tend to aspire to the condition of poetry.
This tendency should come as no surprise. Short stories demand the precision and compression of sonnets; like lyric poems, they often revolve around a single emotional moment or insight; and their language can be unremittingly dense and poetic’ in a way that might cloy over the course of a novel, where narrative momentum is more important and whose readers may feel lost after too many pages of lyrical indirection. So the story form may be the natural one for published poets who turn to fiction- as it is for those fiction writers who are, in essence, poets.
But what can it mean to call a writer essentially a poet? To venture a definition- always a risky enterprise, since definitions exclude as much as they include a poet is any writer who leads with the ear. Whether writing free verse or haiku or cantos of terza rima, whether it’s short stories, novels, or even journalism, poets are guided not only by the meanings of words but by their music. By this definition some writers who’ve never actually published a poem should be seen essentially as poets.: Cormac McCartney leaps to mind; Guy Davenport: Thomas McGuane: F. Scott Fitzlgerald; Joyce Cary; Proust, Flaubert: Nabokov. Gogol has long been seen by his Russian compatriots as a Poet. though ostensibly he was a novelist and short story writer. Here in Canada, Elizabeth Smart, Tony BUrgess, Norman Levine, Alistair MacLeod, Greb Hollingshead and Sheila Watson are all essentially poets, and so are many of the writers present at this conference, come to think of it. “The Poet’s Ear in the Short Story” might have been a better subtitle for this piece.
To put things another way: while a literary novelist strives to get every sentence right, and a short story writer struggles with every word, a poet is actually attentive at the level of the syllable–attentive to every syllable’s length, stress, latent or overt music, onomatopoeic potential and so on. Over the course of a text, the meanings developed and/or stories con-eyed are not separable from this interplay of syllables any more than the externals of a galaxy are independent of the microscopic dance of its atoms. Which is simply to say that poets strive to build texts from the micro-level upwards.
When it works, this molecular construction, this radical aptness of diction, leads to writing that feels layered, textured, mysterious, complex, and symphonic; where it fails, the results feel fussy, showy, effortful, pretentious, or, worst of all, static–a bevy of pretty phrases standing around preening and admiring themselves.
One way for the poet-writing-fiction to avoid this kind of vain stasis is to spin a compelling story- as does Cormac McCarthy-_because poetic writing that leads narratively nowhere feels (at least to me) self-indulgent and idle, while similar writing that relates, or embodies, a good story simply adds to the text’s resonance and force. So lucky readers of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian or Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth get to savour both a compelling yarn and bravura verbal performance. (Though putting things this way makes it sound as if you can somehow tease out and sequester the two things; as if Lolita without Nabokov’s prose is still Lolita.)
But of course, rich, hammy, Nabokovian prose–”the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth”-isn’t always in order. Sometimes the poet-writing-fiction will want to pare the sentences down until they don’t look poetic at all, while in fact they embody a poetry of understatement and economy, as with Joyce’s self-described “scrupulous meanness” in writing Dubliners, and as in many of the stories of Hemingway, Carver, and Norman Levine. Here; for instance, is Levine in “A Small Piece of Blue”: “We went out and walked along the slope of the hill. The bell began to toll for lunch. Grass was burnt. And scattered were small patches of blueberry bushes. We walked on a narrow path sunk in the hard ground following the contour of the hill. I could see the tramline going down but we were too far away to hear the buckets creek although the sound of the bell still reached us.”
Whether the poet’s prose is conspicuously or subtly poetic, the important thing about this writing where every syllable is weighted is that instead of just describing what’s happening in the text, it re=enacts it, in structure, rhythm, and sound. When a boozed-up character staggers down a flight of stairs–Dan COMMA suddenly drunk COMMA stumbles the steep flight down to the tavern door–the sentence shadows him, its awkwardly stuttering alliteration, its rhythm, even its punctuation recreating his descent so the reader experiences it sensually and physically rather than just receiving it in a passive, mental way. Recent neurological and kinesiological research ahs confirmed what athletes have long known–that there is such a thing as “muscular memory” and that physical events are remembered with more immediacy than purely mental ones. So on one level the purpose of essentially poetic writing–writing whose sounds and rhythms affect a reader corporeally in much the same way as music or a physical event–is to ensure that the story stays read.
But I feel uneasy with the utilitarian justification of the poet’s prose. In the end, such prose need have no inherent purpose at all. So long as it doesn’t go on to the point of self-indulgence, it can simply give pleasure, on repeated listening, like a slide guitar solo or a Mozart sonata.
Moving away from the poet’s fiction at its most basic level–the level of the syllable, of sound and phonetic music–it should be noted that poets tend to bring into their prose other common poetic devices, in unusual abundance: imagery, metaphor, tropes, and patterns that create meaning by implication (as opposed, say, to traditional fiction’s dramatic scenes or direct authorial comment, which forge meaning more overtly). In fact one of the reasons that poets’ fiction is tricker to teach is that it’s harder to draw a moral or message from imagery–say, the recurrent image of the lost keys in Robyn Sarah’s story “Looking for My Keys”–than it is from pure drama. So it might be said (herewith another incomplete definition) that poets are those writers who work to thwart the pedantic impulse to reduce texts to a moral or a message. Poets such as Melville sense that any living text hauled thrashing and gasping from the deep, and then boiled down to some supposed essence, ends up as nothing better than the whalebone stays in corsets on well-to-do 19th century ladies–that is, as a reinforcer of polite society’s conventions and prejudices. Pedants and moralists always fish out the morals they expect and require.
Robyn Sarah and I have been asked to speak not just in general but in specific, personal terms. Discussing the seminar in advance, we discovered that we’d coined remarkably similar phrases to suggest what we, as poets who often write fiction, attempt to do. In Robyn’s case, “serial resonance” is a good description of what she does in fiction almost all of the time; in my own case, “serial illumination” describes a form I sometimes use (while at other times I write more traditional fiction). What both terms suggest is a poetics of echo and increment, calling to mind the rhetorical force through artful echoing of key words or phrases, or even images. Both Robyn’s and my terms seek to describe texts that accrue meaning and momentum via a slow accumulation of juxtaposed words and images, rather than by following the old “line of rising action” to a conventional climax and dénouement. Robyn will want to speak about her form and technique herself. To speak briefly of my own “serial illuminations”, I see it as allowing a writer to investigate some nagging , haunting image or phrase by casting light on it from different angles, each angle constituting a section or chapter in a long story. If the form works–if, in the process of writing, something “organic” emerges from what is after all a conceptual form–the whole should be greater than the sum of its parts.
To be specific. For some time after spending a year teaching in Japan, I was haunted by the Japanese proverb “A man away from home has no neighbours.” The phrase is usually invoked to explain why people freed from societal strictures–say, a Japanese soldier in Nanking after the city’s capture from the Chinese in 1937–will behave in ways they would never behave at home. But to me the phrase seemed to resonate on many other planes as well. As my eventual first-person narrator put it, “I began to see in a certain way it would burst open and scatter meaning in all directions, like the white-hot particles of a new galaxy. Like a universe of a grain of sand–a fistful of desert sand turned to glass–it reflected all the past, the present, and maybe the future too.
In exploring the rich proverb’s possible meanings I wrote a series of small stories, each growing out of a different interpretation of the phrase. My hope was that in the end these more or less discrete, schematically linked parts would coalesce into a unified whole. The image I have when I think of serial illumination (I’ve used the technique now in five long pieces) is of the old Ptolemaic cosmic model, where the sun revolves around the earth–or some other sun orbits an as-yet unknown planet. Revolving, this sun gradually illuminates different facets of the globe–the oceans, if there are oceans, the deserts, if there are deserts. In the course of a full revolution the whole planet is sequentially revealed. But not just revealed. Affected, altered. Whether there turns out to be life down there or nothing but ochre dust and ancient, dried watercourses, is partly the author’s burden, yet also partly out of his hands; he has to keep hoping something stirs and evolves in whatever light the sun of his writing brings to bear on the surface.
In the sense of ludic unpredictability the technique is a bit like writing a poem using a formal constraint like rhyme (which Rilke called “That goddess of ancient and wondrous coincidences”); to some degree, the form dictates where you go. The form resists you. The form prods you in new directions. And this can be disastrous or marvelous, depending on the case–and the patience, skill, and luck of the author. For me the sense of hazard and gamble and risky exploration, the potential for bad or happy accidents, are major attractions of this kind of story (as in fact they are for rhymed poems). You can never be sure where you’ll end up, or what you’ll end up signifying. Maybe nothing; maybe something you didn’t know you knew.
Finally, to finish where this started, with language. All postmodern structural gambits aside, the reason I seek out poet’s short stories is because the music of the words, and the living pulse of cadenced prose, help keep the story alive in me longer. Ringing in my ear; felt in my gut. Great themes, grand historical events, ingenious ideas, shapely tales–all of these are, relatively speaking, a dime a dozen. Strong bones, but without flesh. It’s the writing–re-enactive, radically apt writing, writing you can read aloud with joyous agitation and awakened senses–that embodies them and brings them to life.