The Best Lesson a Fiction Writer Can Learn from Allen Ginsberg

in writing •  2 years ago 

wwk803q2uqw422gw8sk5.jpegAllen Ginsberg never wrote fiction or drama, only poetry. When he wrote essays, they were essays about poetry or poets. Still, he is my biggest influence though I never write poetry, only fiction. The main technique that has influenced me (which could influence a writer of any variety) is viscerally resonant parataxis, the way he places stunning images together without explaining the connection, favoring visceral effect over meaning or metaphor. You can see hundreds of examples in "Howl," of course:

"who broke down crying in white gymnasiums naked and trembling before the machinery of other skeletons"

And also in poems like "Transcription of Organ Music":

"those red bush blossoms beckoning and peering in the window waiting in the blind love, their leaves too have hope and are upturned top flat to the sky to receive--all creation open to receive--the flat earth itself."

And "Sunflower Sutra":

"and those blear thoughts of death and dusty loveless eyes and ends and withered roots below, in the home-pile of sand and sawdust, rubber dollar bills, skin of machinery, the guts and innards of the weeping coughing car, the empty lonely tincans with their rusty tongues alack, what more could I name."

And so on.

In contradiction, concepts of the representational function of images in fiction, as I've witnessed in my workshopping experience, have become deeply entrenched, even dogmatic, and fiction writers, ironically, don't have the proper language -- or at least I haven't found it -- to talk about alternate functions of imagery in fiction, as Ginsberg challenges us to do.
Essentially, imagery is treated in two ways: as a function of either verisimilitude or symbolism -- as either a depiction of what may realistically happen in a given situation or how it reflects abstractions of a character or society or a concept beyond the image itself. There are many more ways images can work in fiction beyond this, but they're under-explored, for example: the viscerally resonant parataxis, image juxtaposition functioning primarily to stimulate or dislocate or make a reader feel something, whether or not the juxtaposition represents anything at all. Poetry has been liberated from its narrative and rhetorical function at least since the Romantic period, and the Imagists liberated poetry from its symbol function as well: poems like "The Red Wheelbarrow" by Ginsberg's mentor William Carlos Williams are allowed to be just an image and derive value from that alone. That's not to say poetry can't be all of the above simultaneously -- "The Red Wheelbarrow" can be narrative, rhetorical, and symbolic if the reader wants to read it this way. By "liberated," I mean poetry no longer has any obligation to be narrative, rhetorical, or symbolic to be good poetry. What value is then left? The base, pure stimulant value at the core of a text. You can call it the lyrical value, according to the technical definition of "lyrical," but that implies an image must be beautiful, and Ginsberg was at his best when marrying the sacred and the obscene, the beautiful and the ugly.

Ginsberg took this liberation from narrative/rhetoric/symbolism even further than the original Imagists, extending parataxis to the limits of its possibility. The lack of directly stated connection between images in parataxis, according to one way of reading it popular among the pro-rhetoric/symbolism crowd, forces the reader to make a connection, to fill in the unstated rhetoric or symbolism. However, it doesn't actually need a connection to be great parataxis as long as the combination of images stimulates. Ginsberg uses a simpler two image parataxis line by line or he extends this over longer poems, every image functioning paratactically. For example, the line from "Howl" above combines "white gymnasiums," "machinery," and "skeletons," but Ginsberg never directly states a connection. As an example of successful parataxis, it succeeds in stimulating and doesn't need a connection -- it could make an argument, tell a story, or represent something, but it doesn't have to do these things to be a successful image. An example of a poem composed solely as a series of these is "Transcription for Organ Music" which presents various images of opening; the reader can choose which image of opening to value, whether concrete or abstract (opening to spiritual enlightenment, for example) but this shouldn't depower the other images.

This is a very valuable tool for a fiction writer, even if it's isolated to two images, where the value is less the ability of this image combination to communicate something about plot or character or some abstract concept; the value is placed in the stimulation of the images themselves, respecting the images in a way they are not often respected. The focus on images is too often accused of superficiality, but it can create a direct access to deeper levels of engagement than mere representation or symbolism which can be stuck in a cerebral level which, I would argue, can be a more superficial level than the one achieved by focusing on images in this way. The most obvious type of fiction to use parataxis is the surrealist story since parataxis is designed to access irrational impulses and a definitive technique in Surrealism, but a writer new to parataxis might be distracted by the seeming randomness of the juxtapositions. In fact, a common, classic critique of Surrealism is that randomness does not make poetry or fiction, but parataxis isn't random if the goal is visceral impact. This involves letting go the fallacious notion that a piece of literature must be universal to have value. Irrational juxtaposition is highly subjective and thus difficult to systematize in such a way, and some surreal images will just appear random and superficial. For example, the stories of Donald Barthelme seem shallow to me while In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan, despite using a similar technique, has much more visceral impact. But this is not a technique solely for the Surrealist. Realists can and often do use parataxis to elicit a visceral effect. Examples of relatively realistic writers who use a pure form of parataxis to access a deeper level are Stuart Dybek in stories such as "Pet Milk," Denis Johnson in stories such as "Emergency," or Miranda July in stories such as "The Shared Patio." However, you could see magnificent examples of parataxis in most conventional works of fiction.

However, in my experience people have been slow to accept this as a valid element of fiction, especially in workshops where the structure/philosophy would lead people to say things like "It's not clear how these images relate." It's valid that the combination did not work for this reader, but the phrasing implies the reason it did not work is because of its lack of clarity and logic. Parataxis, by its nature, is irrational, and the connection is not directly stated (a clear, logical connection would kill the stimulation of the best parataxis -- if, for example, Ginsberg had said, "The skeletons were mechanical because the people who were laughing at me were cold and emotionless and made me sad") (this is also a more nuanced permutation of the overly simplified and dogmatic "Show, don't tell"). The same can be said of the old Aristotelian nonsense that the one plot element must flow logically from another which is really just one among many choices, not a standard to judge all stories. "Transcription for Organ Music" presents a beautiful, very un-Aristotelian story -- a poor man meandering between disconnected images of opening -- that demonstrates why holding those old Greek concepts as sacrosanct is nonsense and purely irrational parataxis cuts right to the heart of a story.

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