Saturday, February 9, 2013

Prosaic Poetry, Poetic Prose: Reflections on James Wood's "Becoming Them"

In my last post, I highlighted a few phrases from Richard Blanco’s inaugural poem that failed to achieve anything fresh or original.  Those phrases included “equations to solve,” “history to question,” and “the impossible vocabulary of sorrow.”  Then, this past week while reading James Wood’s article “Becoming Them” in The New Yorker, I came upon the phrase, “the plagiarism of inheritance.”

Wow!  It was one of those gong moments where an initial crash subsequently opens out into something larger and more beautiful in its resonance.  I immediately stopped in my reading to let my mind open up all the possibilities of that new and fresh idea.  The plagiarism of inheritance.

So why was Wood’s phrase so effective while those of Blanco’s poem weren’t?  As I said in that earlier post, Blanco’s phrases rely on literal or tired ideas: it’s no secret that we solve equations and question history, while “the impossible vocabulary of sorrow” is just another way of saying “unspeakable tragedy” or reiterating how words so often fail us when trying to console the bereaved or express grief.  None of that is new. 

But Wood’s phrase, the plagiarism of inheritance, pairs two ideas that don’t usually get paired, and what’s even more delicious is that the pairing includes a paradox of sorts. An inheritance is something received by right—someone has dictated that you should have something, and so it is yours.  Plagiarism, on the other hand, means wrongfully taking, or as Merriam Webster defines it, “to steal and pass off as one’s own.”  Inheritance=something given.  Plagiarism=something stolen.  Inheritance involves something one has a legal right to.  Plagiarism originates with something that does not belong to the plagiarizer. There’s also a nice contrast of passivity and activity (to inherit, one does little else except be the one named as receiver; to plagiarize, one actively commits wrong).

So the phrase itself is rich in the texture of its meaning.  But if you read the essay from which it comes, you’ll see that it’s even more brilliant in how it captures the entire point and spirit of the essay in just four words.  As the title “Becoming Them” implies, Wood’s article is about the pain of losing one’s parents paired with the pain and joy of finding oneself, as one ages, to be nothing more than an unoriginal copy of the parent.  Here’s the passage in which the phrase appears:

Sometimes I catch myself and think, self-consciously, You are now listening to a Beethoven string quartet, just as your father did.  And, at that moment, I feel a mixture of satisfaction and rebellion.  Rebellion, for all the obvious reasons.  Satisfaction, because it is natural to resemble one’s parents, and there is a resigned pleasure to be had from the realization.  I like that my voice is exactly the same pitch as my father’s, and can be mistaken for it.  But then I hear myself speaking to my children just as he spoke to me, in exactly the same tone and with the same fatherly melody, and I am dismayed by the plagiarism of inheritance.  How unoriginal can one be?  I sneeze the way he does, with a slightly theatrical whooshing sound….

That one phrase, the plagiarism of inheritance, captures the complex feelings Wood’s article gives voice to of being caught, both happily and mournfully, in the great system of loss and gain, the conflict we all feel of clinging to the familiar while longing to do or say or be something new, original, and entirely our own.  To embed that complexity in a phrase of four words is to achieve the economy of poetry. 

So don’t let form fool you.  Just because something is intended to be a poem does not make it poetic; likewise, keep awake for how poetry can sneak up on you, even in prose.

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