The Contingency of Realism

The current Paris Review has an interview with Harry Mathews, the only American member of the Oulipo. The website has an excerpt, but I'd urge you to get hold of a copy and read the whole interview.

I think what Mathews says in the interview gets at the whole stasis that constitutes the current practice of mainstream poetry—the notion that the poem is somehow (and must always be) about something other than itself. A few excerpts:

MATHEWS (Talking about 14th century ars nova music): The music is often lyrical—what I meant by nondramatic is that the formal structures used weren't created to produce a specific effect on the listener. Like stanza forms, they were tools used by the composers to construct their music, and this in fact is what poets have always done, until free verse came along. What is interesting about a complicated stanza form? It has no inherent dramatic or emotional value. Its main use is to construct the poem.


MATHEWS: I don't say there is no sense or no meaning. There is, but it's not one that exists outside of the work. Robert Louis Stevenson—and he's not exactly considered a modernist writer— once wrote: "The novel, which is a work of art, exists, not by its resemblances to life, which are forced and material, as a shoe must consist of leather, but by its immeasurable difference from life, which is both designed and significant, and is both the method and the meaning of the work." For me, that's it.


MATHEWS: Something I've said again and again, which I try to make sure is evident in all my books, is that the experience of reading is the experience of reading. In America there's a tradition that says that what literature should do is give you the real thing. But for me, the only real thing is the writing.

To me this gets at what Stein and other folks were up to, and what I've tried to explain to my puzzled fellow workshoppers as the materiality of the word, the word (and writing) as always and primarily a thing in itself, and with "realism" and "expression" as secondary, contingent, and entirely optional effects of the construction.

UPDATE: The interview fails to mention it, but Mathews's volume of collected essays, The Case of the Persevering Maltese, is available.

A big "Thank you!" to Tatyana Mishel for pointing me to the Mathews interview.


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