March 12, 2007

Literary Immortality

Books from Geoffrey Philps LibraryIn two recent posts at the Poetry Foundation’s blog, “Inspired to Last” and “Poems that Last Take Two,” Kwame Dawes tackled the very difficult subject of literature and longevity, or to put it in the form of the interrogative, what makes a poem, play or novel memorable? What makes literature great? Besides the quality of the work itself (which is the only thing over which the writer has any control) memorability resides within the community.

Of course, the a priori assumptions of memorability are that the community has the interest and confidence to believe that it can produce something memorable and that there is a strong sense of continuity. In other words, are there citizens who are committed to the preservation of cultural artifacts? Are they asking questions such as, should this work be preserved? Who is currently producing memorable work? What makes this work worthy of preservation? What are the qualities in the work that warrant preservation? The criteria for preservation should grow organically out of the community’s sense of identity and its desire to extend that identity into the future. If these conditions are not present, then the questions are moot.

But without extending the dialogue into the future, what makes a work of literature memorable right now? If the writer has done her work (interesting characters, startling imagery, excellent word choice—a combination of sound and sense that engages the emotional and intellectual centers), then the quality that must be present within the community is empathy—the ability of the readers to be able to say, this is me or this could be me. The ability to empathize or to put oneself in someone else’s place arises from the imagination and compassion.

It may be argued that these are innate human characteristics, but within a work of literature, the application of these qualities is shaped by the act of reading. First, the reader has to be willing to enter the work compassionately and imaginatively, and then read or discern patterns within the work. If the writer has done her job, the clues are buried in the text. They are always buried in the text. So when Mabrak in Dream on Monkey Mountain, surrounded by Baron Samedi and the sounds of African drums, begs for a bottle of rum and is rebuffed, and he says, “You call yourself a Catholic?” we realize that Walcott is invoking a search for identity within the communion of the Caribbean. This kind of reading produces a kind of excitement that prickles the senses.

But reading is not only an elaborate detective game. It’s also about the pleasure of words. That indescribable feeling that is produced from the right placement of words that not only describes the subject, but allows entry into a wider range of feelings and emotions. Sometimes the first sentence of a novel begins the evocation. Nicholas Laughlin has written an excellent post about the most memorable opening lines in Caribbean literature: Great First Lines. Finally, reading a memorable text allows us to experience those things around us that we don’t see or sometimes take for granted. We can laugh or cry, but we have experienced our world. Reading also gives us a sense of who we are and an experience of meaning.

This is perhaps why the poetry, plays, short stories, and novels of writers such as Walcott, Brathwaite, Scott, McNeill, Goodison, Senior, Mordecai, Kincaid, Lovelace, Morris, Naipaul, Lamming, Hopkinson, and Danticat, to name a few, have stuck with me. Because every time I pick up their work, I can say, this could be me. This is me!


Related post: Desire, the Secret, and Literary Fictions

This is the final week for submissions: Name Your Top Ten Caribbean Novels.


Via Francis Wade @ Moving Back to Jamaica: “Miss Jamaica” @ “Miss Universe”



Frances-Anne said...

I see you included a bunch of women authors this time...See that wasn't hard at all was it? :D Thanks much all the same. And for your open gracious response when I mentioned it in our email correspondence. I appreciated that very much!

iqpLENS said...

My favorite book is In the Castle of My Skin. I cannot help but think most of the things the kids did in the novel were the same things I did as a kid. Once before I was thinking of writing a book of my childhood experiences, but Lamming beat me to it. It would be the same.

By the way, I like your blog.