Darwin, the Novelist? Read on!
No philosophizing this week, and no organized writing advice, since my writing advice usually turns into something akin to instructions for an origami swan: “Relax. Go to a cafe. Listen. Overhear. Read. Play with your dog. Take a walk. Write.” (Steps 1-8, fold here, fold there, then…it’s a swan!) It’s like my best advice to parents with their first newborn: “Sleep when the baby sleeps and you’ll be okay.” Streamlined and optimistic.
So instead of advice, I’m offering up three links to things that have interested me over the last month. They range a bit far and wide, but winter is not a bad season for the farness-and-wideness of things, is it?
Best Thing I Read This Month: Charles Darwin, Natural Novelist by Adam Gopnik
This New Yorker article, written by one of my favorite essayists, Adam Gopnik, about the literary techniques of Charles Darwin. (if you have trouble with the link, the URL is https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/10/23/rewriting-nature )
Not many people explore how Darwin employed novelistic techniques to overcome resistance to his ideas. “He realized that he had to write a completely new kind of story, in a tone that made it seem arrived at; he had to present dynamite as brick, and build a house, only to explode the old foundations. Long-felt speculation had to be presented as close-watched observation, and a general idea about life had to be presented as a sequence of ideas about dogs.”
The reference to dogs is about Darwin’s opening information about the breeding of dogs, a topic that offered his readers a way to understand the concept of e; he used a scale of time and a subject they could easily understand, as opposed to starting point blank with the idea of evolution over millions of years. Start small, start with something clear and plain, draw people in, then go big and challenge their assumptions. Not a bad plan for a cunning novelist.
Gopnik goes on to say, “Darwin really was one of the great natural English prose stylists. He wasn’t a “poet” in that vaguely humane sense of someone who has a nice way with an image; he was a man who knew how to cast his thesis into a succession of incidents, so that action and argument become one. And, as with all good writing, the traces of a lifetime’s struggles for sense and sanity remain on the page. Reading Darwin as a writer shows us a craftsman of enormous resource and a lot of quiet mischief.”
Best moment in the essay, in my opinion: “Of course, the theory of evolution by natural selection would have been true even if it had been scratched in Morse code on the head of a needle. But it would not then be Darwinism: a “view of life,” in its author’s words, not an ideology. (An ideology has axioms and algorithms; a view of life has approaches and approximations.)”
That’s a classic Gopnik line, the theory of evolution scratched in Morse code on the head of a needle. Gad, I love the way he writes.
End result: I’ve put some Darwin on hold at the library. I’ll read it and see where it takes me. Meanwhile, I’m thinking about the writing of poetry being, at heart, the act of cultivating a nice way with an image. I’m thinking about approximation vs. axiom, and about the writer’s desire for sense and sanity, which makes me proud to be a writer (as long as we’re proud of what we do, we can keep going, right?)
Maybe by heading so many directions, I’m procrastinating. Or maybe I’m following a mysterious set of footprints into the forest, and where I end up will be my next poem or my next book….?
Best Poem I Read This Month – Tulips by A.E. Stallings
Tulip Fields in the Skagit Valley of Northwest Washington
While snowed-in by what became lovingly known in the neighborhood as “Snowmageddon,” I read a lot of poetry, but this favorite was an easy pick, because I’m longing for tulips.
The tulips make me want to paint,
Something about the way they drop
Their petals on the tabletop
And do not wilt so much as faint,
Something about their burnt-out hearts,
Something about their pallid stems
Wearing decay like diadems,
Parading finishes like starts,
Something about the way they twist
As if to catch the last applause,
And drink the moment through long straws,
And how, tomorrow, they’ll be missed.
The way they’re somehow getting clearer,
The tulips make me want to see—
The tulips make the other me
(The backwards one who’s in the mirror,
The one who can’t tell left from right),
Glance now over the wrong shoulder
To watch them get a little older
And give themselves up to the light.
From Olives (Northwestern University Press, 2012).
This poem first appeared in Poetry (June 2009).
Best Source of Inspiration for Poetry This Month – The Smithsonian Magazine
Who can resist an article about the fur of flying squirrels turning fluorescent pin
k under ultraviolet lights? Also, information about the vocalization of songbirds. About the art of facial recognition. About space dust on fire. About how “flames have forged our world.”
I’ve written poems about every one of these strange phenomena, all of them inspired by articles in The Smithsonian Magazine, especially articles about science. I’m convinced science is where it’s at for poetry – the imagination engaged not with magical realism but with the marvelous real.
Hope you have some wonderful end-of-winter wanderings. I can feel optimism seeping in. Tulips are coming.