Recently I quoted John Hawkes's assertion that he "began to write fiction on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting and theme, and having once abandoned these familiar ways of thinking about fiction, totality of vision or structure was really all that remained." I thought of this statement when reading Josh Corey's discussion of the "poetic" as "the staging of resistance toward the means of narration we associate with prose and the 'true story' alike."
Josh's post is actually about the films of Terence Malick, of which Josh feels the term "poetic" is an accurate description. "This quality," he writes, "is easier to define negatively: plot, characterization, and dialogue have diminished importance in the films I've seen. . .Then there's the voice-over, which imposes a single startling subjectivity over the action and more or less substitutes for the usual through-line of fiction films, plot." Ultimately the films are poetic because they embody "a desired stance toward experience" that can't be resolved into the usual narrative conventions.
Not only do I agree that Terence Malick's films have this "poetic" quality, but I would argue further that much of the best post-World War II American fiction is similarly poetic--or, to use Hawkes's words, in this fiction "totality of vision or structure" is what remains after "plot, characterization, and dialogue" have been displaced. Hawkes's own fiction (The Lime Twig, Second Skin, The Blood Oranges) is among the best examples of such an approach (and Hawkes's work is due a revival), but the fiction of such writers as William Gaddis, Gilbert Sorrentino, Walter Abish, David Markson, Donald Barthelme, or William Gass manifest the same kind of "resistance" to conventional story-telling Josh Corey perceives in a film like Days of Heaven, although certainly each writer stages this resistance in a different way and few of their fictions seem poetic in the more or less rhapsodic and pastoral mode we find in Malick's film. Along with metafictionists such as Barth and Coover, these writers end up foregrounding "story" (either through its conspicuous absence or through the exposure of its conventionality) in such a way that the reader is encouraged to question the extent to which we associate the art of fiction with "narrative."
Litlove at Tales from the Reading Room has suggested that "Stories are how life could be if we cut all the dull bits out where nothing happens, and fast-forward the snail’s progress we make towards understanding. They are condensed, compact, sharp-edged versions of the real thing. And for what it’s worth, I do think that they are the only means we have of making sense of this crazy business of living." I agree that stories as they are customarily described (linear, or at least triangular, as in the Freytag version) produce an illusion of "how life could be if we cut all the dull bits out where nothing happens," but I don't think this necessarily commends them as the means to create literary art. Indeed, Litlove's language here--"understanding," "making sense"--stresses fiction's ability to bring us knowledge (albeit an "uncertain, enigmatic" kind of knowledge) rather than its capacity to produce aesthetic pleasure. And I'm not sure that we want our fiction writers to "cut all the dull bits" if we also want them to represent life as it's really lived rather than as "it could be" if we all lived our lives like the protagonists of "sharp-edged" novels. (I'm particularly thinking of a writer like Stephen Dixon, whose work often concentrates entirely on the "dull bits," making great art--indeed, "poetry"-- out of the most prosaic of situations and resisting the pull of narrative toward melodramatic distortion and artificial resolution.)
In my opinion, to value fiction (or film) primarily for its ability to "make sense" through story is to move it even farther away from poetry (itself the fountainhead of all literature) and to align it with--even make it subservient to--all those other areas of inquiry where "understanding" reigns, however intuitive or partial such understanding might be where literature is concerned. Casey at A Voyage Thither seems to appreciate this danger when she writes that "the most fundamental source of literature's value may stem not from its usefulness, but precisely the opposite: from it's uselessness." But he then partially retreats from this insight when he goes on to affirm for his students that a literature class "also may be the most important" class they'll take in college. Beginning to read works of literature seriously may indeed be the most important thing some (but not by any means all) students do, but to teach literature as "useless" and therefore all the more useful in a liberal arts curriculum is to restore with the right hand what the left hand is taking away: an externally grounded justification for reading literature that emphasizes why it might be good for you rather than how it works to produce a distinctive kind of experience that is its own compensation.
Undoubtedly Casey's students would find poetry the most "useless" kind of reading. Without "plot, characteriation and dialogue," perpetually staging that "resistance toward the means of narration we associate with prose and the 'true story'" to which Josh Corey refers, poetry is the purest expression of language as play, as the potential source of beauty or delight. And what is the good of that? In his insistence that "the true enemies of the novel [are] plot, character, setting and theme," John Hawkes was proposing that fiction also might exhibit such a dispostion toward language, that it might be "poetic" and thereby defiantly, exultantly useless. It is a consummation devoutly to be wished.