"reading into poems nasty little messages that aren't there"
October 30, 2013 4:34 PM   Subscribe

Joyce Carol Oates's new story about an imagined interview with Robert Frost has been called outrageous, even an attack on the poet. [note: story link opens a print dialog]
posted by RogerB (32 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm experiencing serious vicarious embarrassment for JCO right now. I'm not, strictly speaking, a writer, but even I have experimented with a fictional back-and-forth with a famous dead white male*. It's in my cupboard; I keep it around to remind myself of what a remarkably arrogant person I can be. I should count myself lucky that I wasn't enough impressed with myself to publish.

*Einstein. Yeah.
posted by topynate at 5:24 PM on October 30, 2013


You should definitely never read Wild Nights!, a collection of Oates's previous stories about famous authors, then. It'd be mortifying.
posted by RogerB at 5:27 PM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


I used to read a lot of Robert Frost in high school (25 years ago). Jim O'Connell, my fantastic high school English teacher, introduced to all sorts of stuff including Derek Jacobi, Ernest Hemingway, and, of course, Robert Frost.

Mr. O'Connell remarked how pitiful it was to see Robert Frost at JFK's inauguration. An old man by then, frail, looking befuddled, he lost his speaking notes to the winter wind. But Jackie Kennedy loved him.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:04 PM on October 30, 2013


I am glad I read enough of this story to be alerted to existence of "poetry haters" and being able to quote Lil Wayne.
posted by Juliet Banana at 6:05 PM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have eaten
the plums You bastard
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast Fuck you

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold Now eat shit
posted by Splunge at 6:23 PM on October 30, 2013 [10 favorites]


I read this and was sort of shocked that you are allowed to do this and still get published in famous magazines, never mind get published in famous magazines by doing this. She seems to have made up horrible facts about Frost --sexist, misogynist, bigot, etc-- and portrays them as ostensible fact, then writes herself out of it at the end by submitting it was all just a dream. Da fuh?

I was surprised to read that Frosts's grandchildren are themselves in their nineties now. Crap, I am getting old.

All that being said, I read this and it did make me think, "goddammit though isn't it probably true that some portion of all those old dead male poets you love so much were probably somewhat sexist pigs as was common for their time?" That was sobering.
posted by onlyconnect at 6:37 PM on October 30, 2013


She seems to have made up horrible facts about Frost --sexist, misogynist, bigot, etc-- and portrays them as ostensible fact

I don't know, I kind of think both that the "horrible facts" are less made-up, and that the "ostensible fact" of the story is more obviously fictional, than you're implying. On the one hand, there exists nonfictional biographical writing that portrays Frost as a horrible person in many of these ways, so it's not as though Oates made up her fictional Frost's monstrousness out of whole cloth (even though he's certainly not in line with the best biographers' impressions of the historical Frost, as the New Republic piece attests). That is, there's at least some nonfictional precedent for this portrait, even if the sources providing it are flat wrong (nonfictional wrongness being, probably, a different matter from fictional fabrication). But on the other hand, it's labeled as a piece of fiction and is under no obvious obligation to be anything else; if this fictional Frost had sucked blood from Fife's neck, people presumably wouldn't be complaining that Oates had slandered the historical Frost with vampirism, so it's sort of an interesting question why this piece's obvious, even ham-handed, fictional exaggeration has touched such a nonfictional nerve.
posted by RogerB at 7:05 PM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Fact Family

A fact is a fact,
And was always a fact.
But a theory's now backed
That poetic license is fact,
As is fiction, and wacked
Out lies, I expect.
Only editors can predict
What will next prove a fact.
Poetry, of course, is a fact--
But was always a fact.
posted by onlyconnect at 7:07 PM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Joyce Carol Oates sure writes a lot. Good on her.
posted by turbid dahlia at 7:18 PM on October 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


Poetry was always
A way
To tell us how went, your night
Or day
In words that were florid and
And possibly fey

Yet some people consider
A poem
The same, as solid as rock

It's a crock

A poem is as any poem did.
posted by Splunge at 7:28 PM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Declamatory dialogue
made Dostoyevsky's books a slog,
down to the Brothers from the Notes.
Somebody tell this to Joyce Oates.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 7:37 PM on October 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


TWO bios diverged in a yellow press,
And sorry I could not borrow both
And be one scrivener, long I stressed
And researched one, the one that transgressed,
The truth it bent was not under oath
posted by Monsieur Caution at 7:53 PM on October 30, 2013 [5 favorites]


Don't discount our powers;
We have made a pass
At the interviewer
posted by sweet mister at 7:58 PM on October 30, 2013


TWO bios diverged in a yellow press ...

You started this without a plan.
A parody of Frost should scan.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 8:01 PM on October 30, 2013 [7 favorites]


but on the other hand, it's labeled as a piece of fiction and is under no obvious obligation to be anything else

The end of the piece is appended by: "This is a work of fiction, though based on (limited, selected) historical research. See Robert Frost: A Biography, by Jeffrey Meyers (1996)." It thus is not really simply labeled as a work of fiction, but purports to be some hybrid type of fiction that is based in fact. I read this and was confused by the description and the second footnote over what was true and what was made up.

I am interested in this in part because of discussions we've been having about the ways that David Sedaris sometimes embroiders the truth and still gets published as non-fiction, and most people think, hey no harm no foul, though in fact it had a serious negative effect on one member of his family. (His younger sister was estranged from him for eight years following a misunderstanding, possibly her own, over a story he wrote about her; she committed suicide in May and barred members of her family from attending her funeral or claiming her body.) I'm not saying people are hurt by this story (though apparently the family is not happy), just interested in whether authors have responsibility when they write some hybrid of fiction/non-fiction today.
posted by onlyconnect at 8:02 PM on October 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


A parody of Frost should scan.

I have destressed
the vowel
that was on
the key word

and which
you were probably
saying
with full stress

Forgive me
it was too precious
one glide
and then two
posted by Monsieur Caution at 8:14 PM on October 30, 2013 [10 favorites]


Huh. I read it. The people I can think of who might've been really wounded by this are my grandmother and maybe my middle school english teachers, which is the main thing that makes it seem gratuitously cruel to me. Who are people who cherish Frost anymore anyway? That and that it trades on the atmospherics of senility/dementia in ways that I can't see as having much to do with Frost specifically and are just kind of broadly offensive anyway. But really it just seems like she could've written much the same kind of grim scandalous thing with santa claus or something, which (i.e. if I can imagine that substitution going through) makes me question what is actually interesting here underneath all the controversy...

Anyway, Roald Dahl's My Uncle Oswald is a more fun variation on the character assassination by fiction thing.
posted by batfish at 8:17 PM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


M. Caution, It was really the whole thing, not just that one line. If it's any one line, it's the fifth, which clunks.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 8:22 PM on October 30, 2013


If it's any one line, it's the fifth, which clunks.

Oh, you're right--that's a miss. ;D
posted by Monsieur Caution at 8:23 PM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm not overly impressed--appears to me the story relies more on outrage rather than craft.
posted by BlueHorse at 8:27 PM on October 30, 2013


Joyce Carol Oates sure writes a lot. Good on her.

"Her typing keeps me awake at night.."
posted by ovvl at 8:32 PM on October 30, 2013


Coming this summer . . .

Two roads diverge.

Only one comes out alive.
posted by spitbull at 8:45 PM on October 30, 2013 [8 favorites]


I am a longtime Harper's subscriber and I thought that this essay was one of the most poorly written things that I've ever read in the magazine.
posted by Kwine at 9:45 PM on October 30, 2013


Have you never heard of postmodernism? In a nutshell, the notion is that what the writer meant is unknown and perhaps indeterminable. It is the meaning taken in the reader's encounter with the text that is the only meaning. This has little or nothing to do with the writers "intent" which exists only under erasure. People like Justice Scalia would probably agree with you that deviation from the original intent is illegitimate. Surely you don't want to be like him!?
posted by Lrn24gt at 10:09 PM on October 30, 2013


Obvious that the haters on JCO don't know or care about her past work. She's adept at pushing people's buttons. She's done it again. So she's kicking at fusty idols like Robert Frost. Good for her.

I am a longtime Harper's subscriber and I thought that this essay was one of the most poorly written things that I've ever read in the magazine.

It's not an essay.
posted by blucevalo at 11:08 PM on October 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


A vicious piece of tripe.
posted by chance at 5:33 AM on October 31, 2013


This story is linked in such a way that it makes the print dialogue appear on my computer.
posted by ChuckRamone at 7:36 AM on October 31, 2013


Coming this summer . . .

Two roads diverge.

Only one comes out alive.


uh

aren't they converging, then
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:30 AM on October 31, 2013


What's interesting to me is that so many of the responses to Oates's piece read it as a particularly malicious piece of historical fiction, whereas I read it as a postmodern riff on literary hero worship and how empty of meaning the whole concept of "the poet" is (much less the "greatest American poet"). I mean, if you look at all the weirdness going on in the story--the use of anachronism jumped out at me in particular--it seems pretty clear that Oates is up to something stranger and more subtle than her critics give her credit for. The mind-blowing piece, for me at least, is that from that very postmodern point of view both readings of the story are equally plausible! (I still like mine better.)
posted by 912 Greens at 1:13 PM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


What's interesting to me is that so many
read it as a particularly malicious piece of fiction
whereas
literary hero worship
empty of meaning
I mean
all the weirdness
anachronism jumped out
it seems pretty clear
something stranger and more subtle
are equally plausible!
I still like mine better.
posted by Splunge at 1:35 PM on November 3, 2013


It's not an essay.

To me, an essay is "a short piece of writing" and Harper's magazine is a collection of essays. Sorry this put you in a negative frame of mind, but I'd be curious about what your point is, should you like to attempt to clarify what it actually is.
posted by Kwine at 9:26 PM on November 4, 2013


Kwine, it's a piece of short fiction. People tend not to call short stories essays, and Harper's collects both. The distinction between the two genres isn't the magazines in which they're published.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 4:16 AM on November 5, 2013


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