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“Fiction 2009” and poetry

August 23, 2009

When I was on the plane home this summer, I read some of the Atlantic’s “Fiction 2009” issue, which started out with a terrific essay by Tim O’Brien called “Telling Tails.” “In fiction workshops, we tend to focus on matters of verisimilitude largely because such issues are so much easier to talk about than the failure of imagination,” he writes. “And for the writer, of course, beefing up a character’s physical description is easier than envisioning a sequence of compelling and meaningful events in which that character is engaged.”

This discussion warms my heart. “From your lips to their ears,” I pray. I heart imagination. (I just heard a long interview on “Fresh Air” with the novelist José Yglesias in which he described his latest novel in a way that made it sound as if it were actually a journal transcription: apparently everything in the novel really happened! I hear these things and know literature is dying.) Of course, with O’Brien, almost everything can be imagination—does he really have two sons, or are they as imaginary as the daughter in The Things They Carried? (Yeah, I know, that was fiction—but it didn’t stop readers from asking him after his daughter at readings.) And of course, it doesn’t matter: the essay goes on brilliantly, ending with a take on “The Aleph” by Borges.

But here’s what gets me: in the middle of this wonderful paean to imagination are planted two of the dullest poems ever written. They are there because they were penned by Donald Hall, who apparently must be printed these days because he used to be “a name.” (Not a household name! He’s a poet after all.) There’s nothing in this work that reflects what poetry can do better than prose, or that asks the reader to think even for a moment. It takes more brain power to move your eyes from the end of one line to the beginning of another than it does to let the banality wash over you.

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