A month ago, the world lost Tomas Tranströmer, the Nobel Laureate who also had a career as a psychologist working with youth and drug addicts. A number of his poems seem to arise from this work, from his concern for those living on the outskirts of society. By and large, these are not poems explicitly about people on the fringes, but rather poems that trouble the very idea of a civilization possessing outskirts. Why are some people forced to the edge and some comfortable in the center? Who draws the lines, and where? And, centrally for Tranströmer: what is possible in the middle spaces?
Hilary Mantel, when she writes fiction, prefers to grab on a fact. A handhold, if you will. “I aim to make fiction flexible enough so that it bends itself around the facts as we have them,” she said in her Paris Review interview last week. If someone were to claim that the pursuit of the factual runs counter to the aims of fiction, she’d reply that most of human history remains unknown to us, anyway – we have only fragments of Sappho and stumps of buildings and broken statues and fields and fields of unmarked graves all over the world. So if you are lucky enough to build a human universe around any kind of factual handhold, why wouldn’t you use all you could get? To extend the climbing metaphor: just because you can, improbably, hoist yourself along a sheer cliff face doesn’t make the risk of falling any less, or the vista behind you any less stunning.
A few years ago, I was teaching a middle school writing elective at a well-regarded summer camp for the arts. The students in this class were not primarily interested in writing: they were there as young musicians, or dancers, or studying “general arts” which usually meant their well-off parents thought it more edifying for them to draw with charcoal and write poems and create spliced-together musical theater out of the latest pop songs than to let them spend the summer watching TV and lighting matches in the backyard.
* Leah Falk *
In the fiftieth anniversary year of Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, considering the alphabet as both technology and aesthetic object.