A. Jay Adler
Los Angeles Southwest College
A. Jay Adler, a New Yorker always, is Professor of English at Los Angeles Southwest College. He earned his B.A., with concentrations in English literature and philosophy, at the City University of New York, and his M.A. and M.Phil. degrees in English literature from Columbia University. Before his teaching life, Adler was an executive in the air courier business, directing client shipments and himself to points around the globe. Along with writing, literature, film, jazz, photography, thinking, and general adventure, travel – by air, sea, locomotive, cable, four wheels, two wheels (motorized and muscle-driven) and by foot – remains a passion.
Adler writes in all genres. A 1989 nominee for a junior fellowship in the Harvard Society of Fellows, his poetry, for which he was awarded a 2002 residency grant from the Vermont Studio Center, has appeared in such publications as Blood Lotus, Tipton Poetry Journal, Pebble Lake Review, and Adagio Verse Quarterly, among others. Journalism has included essays on the history of Route 66 and westward travel for DoubleTake and an account of the now settled Individual Indian Money Trust Fund lawsuit against the Department of the Interior, in Tikkun. “Aboriginal Sin” was included in the 2009 anthology Global Viewpoints: Indigenous Peoples, from Greenhaven Press. Essays on film appear in Bright Lights Film Journal. Among several screenplays, What We Were Thinking Of , since adapted for the stage, has won several awards, including second prize at the 1998 Maui Writers Conference Screenwriting Competition. During his 2008-09 sabbatical year, Adler traveled the country with photographer Julia Dean of The Julia Dean Photo Workshops working on a book documenting current Native American life. Also in progress is a composition textbook and Adler’s memoir of his father’s life, The Twentieth Century Passes. Adler blogs daily on politics, culture, and ideas at the the sad red earth.
Poetic License – Some of the Words Are Theirs
The close of The Great Gatsby is probably the most famous and referenced ending of any American novel. Lyricized in a lushly romantic invocation of American promise, somehow gone wrong in the stinking, rich life of Tom and Daisy Buchanan – and in the aftermath of Jay Gatsby’s failed striving, with such foolish and criminal élan, to take his place among them – it recedes in a haunting, youthful nostalgia.
And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Well, no, actually, we aren’t.
So never mind that this exquisite lie, this flawed jewel of an ending, is simply wrong in most every respect.
An ending I like as much – more, for this matter, that its story is less gaudy and cheap, but just as truly and deeply American – is the that of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. It is as highly poeticized as Gatsby’s close, also rich in image, but with the ache of an old man’s earned reflection, not a young man’s clinging to early dreams. The diction and cadence are not elegant like Gatsby, but flattened, like the middle of the country. You hear the beats – like a four-count rhythm – rather than glide over them.
It is the poetry that interests me here. It simply is poetry, written as prose, and conversations about why it is poetry are as essential to what poetry does for us as the poetry itself, but that’s not what interests me here. Here I am interested in the poetry itself, and I thought I would share a little exercise of mine.
The exercise is one in craft, which is to say art, which is to say craft. Too often we separate the two – the art and the craft – believing, in some totemic relic of romanticism, that art is mysteriously enlivened in the incalculable genius of inspiration and original conception. The art arrives whole, delivered bawling and brilliant into the world, if not from God or divine muse, then from the lower divinity of the individual creative imagination. The craft is just swaddling clothes. Art is the poetry, craft the prosaic cradle carpentered to hold the Buddha.
Shall I say there is no truth in this, or that art would not mean less to us if we could not think it so? I shall not. Who wants to believe that Nabokov or Neruda or Shakespeare can be the product of an MFA program only? But writers know – and the better they are, the better they know it – that long after the midwives have left the bedchamber, and has passed that fever of impassioned experience, or the impassioned experience of fevered conception, there remains to be applied with talent and training the magnetic attraction and the frictive collision of words, all the artful choices that shape a sentence, and that lead each sentence, as if by nature, into the next.
The craft in this exercise is applied to words that are not one’s own. Absent that ownership – the sense of possession over whatever original experience or conception first sought to communicate some part of itself through the words – one is left with only the words and what they mean rather than some intent of one’s own that one is attached to conveying. One is able to step back more easily from investment in the writing – as the crafter of art, the artificer of all the visions and drafts but the first hopes, ideally, to do.
My exercise with Maclean was to render poetic language into some more recognizably poetic form, in this case free verse, and with attention, as one pays in free verse, to line length and break. I thought about cadence and breath and units of meaning, and how to serve them, and of how formal variation might help render meaning. Some were even found decisions, as in page-enforced line breaks that happened to appear in the particular prose edition from which I worked. It all exercised, in the work of my decision making, a craft that, applied to someone else’s writing, is hardly art, any more than is the work of the best, most active editor. But honed in skill to an extraordinary level, like that of artistic imagining itself, and applied to that imagining, the craft is as much the art as what it serves – the manner of the writer hewing from that first rough block of imagination the whole work of art.
Here is what I did. You might have done it differently. The purpose was the work, and to perform some small service to writing I admire. It is writing, as much as any I know, that seems to approach last thoughts, in what probably would not be thought, but something beyond thought, as one of the ends of poetry is to name the nameless.
Now watch and listen to this passage as it is rendered in voice over during the closing scene of the Robert Redford directed film adaptation of the novel. Note that in exercising their craft as filmmaker and screenwriter – to meet the demands, as they saw them, of a different medium – Redford and Richard Friedenberg have made subtle alterations in Maclean’s text, adding, cutting, and in one instance making a questionable alteration in words.