Dark yet redemptive poetry or fiction?
February 19, 2010 2:43 AM   Subscribe

It takes a certain mood to get into rallies of joy and nature and deep emotions; when one feels alienated, out-of-touch from everything the poets love, what then to read?

The good old David Foster Wallace ouvre is running out; I’ve devoured Pär Lagerkvist’s poems (anxiety, atheism, desperate clinging need for some kind of transcendental apocalyptic salvation, etc — great poetry, but I'm not so God-fearing); Prufrock rang a lot of bells but the archaic diction feels too remote; I thought Camus’s essay on Sisyphus started affectingly but got stupid with the quantitative ethics; I love The Mountain Goats’ lyrics (like the anti-music song with “I don’t like Morrissey and I don’t like you,” raging shit like “I am drowning, there is no sign of land, you’re all coming down with me, hand in unlovable hand, and I hope you die, I hope we both die,” lines like “you were a presence full of light upon this earth and I was a witness to your life and to its worth,” etc); oh yeah and Howl was pretty good. And Lolita, but I'd want H.H. to really break down and cry; there's like one redemptive sentence in the whole book.

I want this: “Look man, we'd probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what's human and magical that still live and glow despite the times' darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it'd find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.” [from DFW interview]

Here’s more about my idiosyncracies. I meditate and try to be happy, and in the summer I even like Whitman, but I'd like some poetic treats for the dark miserable winter evenings when you just want the universe to disappear in a puff of irony. Actually what’s worked for me so far is honest but rational, kind, philosophical, sober stuff like Richard Rorty, Erich Fromm, books about virtue ethics (wtf?), William James, I even sneak some guilty pleasure from C.S. Lewis. But I’m trying to get into poetry and fiction. Don't take anything I said I disliked too seriously.
posted by mbrock to Writing & Language (17 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Life, friends, is boring.
posted by creasy boy at 3:41 AM on February 19, 2010

Check your pretension at the door and read Dante.
posted by lydhre at 4:31 AM on February 19, 2010

the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what's human and magical that still live and glow despite the times' darkness

I know you said

in the summer I even like Whitman

but I find Whitman's "Song of Myself" always rings this bell for me, summer or winter or springtime or fall.
posted by sallybrown at 5:26 AM on February 19, 2010

Stephen King. Really. No, really. He has some great books that are all about triumph despite adversity, but not in a hackneyed way. If you haven't read him since middle school (because a lot of lit snobs will say things like "Oh? King! I read him in middle school!" when I recommend him), take a second look, particularly at The Shining, Gerald's Game and Dolores Claibourne.

Oh, and Generation X and Microserfs by Douglas Coupland. Those are all about that stuff, too. Finding joy despite a dark world.

Honestly, my reading habits have made me much less joyful since I've stopped trying to define myself by them and instead read what thrills me (at the moment, YA fantasy books aimed squarely at 14-year-old girls who, I suspect, understand the joy of the world around them better than any grown-up). Read what thrills you. CS Lewis doesn't need to be a guilty pleasure. It's good enough on every level to just be a pleasure, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:43 AM on February 19, 2010

I find Gore Vidal's essays a good companion in times like this - like having a dear, grumpy, but fundamentally good, friend. Even if you don't agree with him about authors, his instincts about the role of literature are absolutely pure.
posted by WPW at 5:53 AM on February 19, 2010

In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what's human and magical that still live and glow despite the times' darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it'd find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.

OK, brace yourself: Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger, in which a ghost figures prominently in the lives of her still-living loved ones, just bursts with *cough* the power of love and hope *cough*. In fact, I'd venture to say it fits DFW's definition perfectly. And listen--I'm the queen of dark and cynical (ask anyone!), but the book won me over, so you might give it a try. Plus one of the main characters works in a cemetery.

Also: Damn you, creasy boy.
posted by scratch at 6:11 AM on February 19, 2010

I think you may like Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
posted by sickinthehead at 6:17 AM on February 19, 2010

And Ernest Hemingway.
posted by sickinthehead at 6:20 AM on February 19, 2010

I came in to recommend Paula Spencer by Roddy Doyle. It is a lovely, sparse, dark and exhilarating book about the redemptive power of mundane, everyday life.
posted by GraceCathedral at 7:22 AM on February 19, 2010

War and Peace. There's a reason people say its the greatest novel ever written.
posted by Commander Rachek at 7:29 AM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Eliot wrote 'Prufrock' when he was like, sixteen. Try the later stuff. The Four Quartets are amazing. Even as he embraced Anglo-Catholicism his poetry turned inwards and became incredibly bleak, I think, YMMV. The darker moments of Philip Larkin are also delicious: "Life is first boredom; then fear. / Whether or not we use it, it goes..." (Possibly mispunctuated). What they're both doing is confronting the void, and continuing.

Maybe also the novels of Jim Thompson. They're all the same but The Killer Inside Me is often held to be the best. Nihilistic, but entertaining nevertheless.
posted by tigrefacile at 9:09 AM on February 19, 2010

Try the poetry of:
Wendell Berry
Mary Oliver
Denise Levertov
Jane Kenyon

by Jane Kenyon
©2005 by the Estate of Jane Kenyon

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birchwood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.
posted by cross_impact at 9:16 AM on February 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

Seconding Jim Thompson - The Killer Inside Me, and also Pop 1280, and his spiritual colleagues and successors: Patricia Highsmith, James Ellroy ('specially the LA Quartet), some Raymond Chandler. As I think about it, a lot of noir seems like trying to squeeze some little bit of justice out of a bleak and morally empty world. This all kind of leads into Cormac McCarthy, who isn't really my cup of tea, but you may dig him. Worth a shot.

As poetry goes, you can't do much better than the Romantics. Read some Byron - start with Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, which is more or less about what to do with your life when everything you could possibly do seems to suck, and work your way into Don Juan, which is kind of the same thing, but done as a comedy.

Or go with Wordsworth, who is really one of the great English poets of gnawing despair and failure. The "Intimations" ode takes some getting through, but it's about whether there are any countervaling advantages to the loss of the kinds of joy you were able to feel as a child. (Spoiler alert: not really, but what can you do?)
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 9:22 AM on February 19, 2010

I often turn backwards for the kind of "rallies of joy" you describe in the first part of your question, and then move towards the present or the future on the "dark winter nights" -- an example in poetry would be Tao Lin (weird ironic website), and in fiction might be Neil Stephenson or Tree of Smoke / Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson. When I feel extremely wintry, I read poets I don't understand and don't totally like, like Ashbery, and produce my own irony.
posted by Valet at 10:56 AM on February 19, 2010

You sound about as down-to-earth as a piece of space debris, but no one can sneer in my face over the internet, so I'll suggest... Harry Potter. Especially as you get to Book 4, it gets surprisingly dark, but the bright moments are all the brighter for the darkness.

Also, Lord of the Rings.

Happy reading! ;-)
posted by LauraJ at 3:50 PM on February 19, 2010

You might like the short stories of Thom Jones, check out either The Pugilist at Rest or Cold Snap.
posted by Bron at 4:16 PM on February 19, 2010

Emily Dickinson was Whitman's contemporary but also, in many ways, his opposite. I agree that Whitman is a great summer poet: loud, full of vigor, all-embracing. Dickinson's voice, at its best, is typically compressed, elliptical, and dark, but the sheer invention and music of her poems is totally joyful in its own right. To me the most Dickinsonian time of year is November, when a few leaves are still hanging from the trees, the darkness settles early, and the smell of burning wood is in the air. But she's worth reading any time, including now.

She never prepared her work for publication, so you do have to sort through some chaff to find the grain, but her best poems (and letters) are simply wonderful, easily one of the highest achievements in American literature. She's my favorite poet. I recommend Thomas H. Johnson's Final Harvest as a selection of poems.

Some less famous poems (listed by first line) that I think you might like:
- The Zeroes taught Us - Phosphorus (1862)
- It was not Death, for I stood up (1862)
- I had been hungry, all the Years (1862)
- I saw no Way - The Heavens were stitched (1863)
- Doom is the House without the Door (1863)
- I felt a Cleaving in my Mind (1863)
Good luck in your journey.
posted by cirripede at 5:40 PM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

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