What a fiction writer can learn from Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg’s birthday the other day reminded me of the tremendous influence he’s had on me though I’m a fiction writer and Ginsberg was strictly a poet. The main technique that has influenced me is the viscerally resonant parataxis. You can see it in “Howl,” of course:

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

But also in poems like “Transcription of Organ Music”:

“those red bush blossoms beckon ing 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.

This may explain why I have such difficulty communicating on a basic conceptual level with other fiction writers because they seem to have such a different philosophy across the board, for example the value of an image and the way it functions in a story. Concepts of the function of an images in fiction have become so deeply entrenched they’re dogmatic, and we don’t even have the language — or at least I haven’t found it — to talk about fiction in a different way, 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 a character or abstract 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, as exemplified above. Ginsberg wasn’t the first to use this, but arguably, with “Howl,” he has been its most prominent popularizer. Poetry has been liberated from its narrative and rhetorical function at least since the Romantic period, and with the Imagists it was liberated 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 this — the red wheelbarrow can be narrative, rhetorical, and symbolic if the reader wants to read it this way. What I mean by liberated is just that poetry no longer had to be narrative, rhetorical, or symbolic to be good poetry. What value is then left? The stimulant value. 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 beauty and ugliness.

Ginsberg took this liberation from narrative/rhetoric/symbolism even further stretching parataxis (the combination of two images without a directly stated connection) 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 function paratactically. For example, the line from “Howl” above combines “white gymnasiums” “machinery” and skeletons,” and the connection is not directly stated. As an example of successful parataxis, it succeeds ins 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 can 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 (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 image in a way it is 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 example of a writer using images in this way is Donald Barthelme, and while I appreciate the way he challenges how stories work, I find his stories to be superficial; while I admire them, I can’t love them. Examples of writers who use parataxis but 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, in my experience people have been slow to accept this as a valid element of fiction, especially in the MFAish workshop machine 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 that demonstrates why holding those old Greek concepts as sacrosanct is nonsense.

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