When I mentioned on Twitter that I was reading H Is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald’s recent falconry/grief memoir, a poet I know commented, “That book is so overwritten.” In a way this remark ruined the book for me; it got in my head like an earworm, and I couldn’t help evaluating the rest of the book against it, thinking, Oh, but I like how baroque this description is, or, alternatively, Okay, this bit is rather overwritten.
It reminds me of my college roommate, a self-proclaimed “supertaster,” wrinkling her nose, practically shuddering at the sight of a perfectly luscious pear or juicy peach: “Eww, I hate overripe fruit.” My idea of underripe (a crunchy pear, the whitish pink near-rind of the watermelon) was her idea of peak ripeness.
“Overripe,” “overwritten” — these terms have judgment baked in. A term like baroque or minimalist reserves judgment; you can like minimalist work or dislike minimalist work without needing to choose a different descriptor. But it would be weird to say “I like overwritten poetry.” “Overwritten” implies a shared benchmark, an agreed-upon, appropriate level of writtenness.
I do, though, kind of like overwritten poetry, when it’s purposely overwritten. Take Lucie Brock-Broido, who may be the queen of garish, costumey excess. No one can tell me she isn’t trying to be funny, a little bit — see the first two lines of “Basic Poem in a Basic Tongue” from Trouble in Mind:
Here is the maudlin petty bourgeoisie of ruin.
A sullen pity-craft before the fallows of Allhallowmas.
It’s the understatement of “basic” that does it, the underselling of the overstatement to come. Charles Wright, too, traffics in the overwritten – a free-verse poet who works in a formulaic mode, Wright almost always starts a poem with a big, showy riff on the sky, nature, the view from his porch. Here are two examples; first, from “Ars Poetica III”:
November is in cameo, pink blink.
Four fingers, forsworn from their hand,
pick up their burden
And tap out the messages day-after-tomorrow licks up,
Gates of Mercy, stop breaking down.
Cloud strips like raw bacon slatted above the west edge of things,
Cold like a shot of Novocain
under the week’s gums.
And from “Nostalgia III”:
Sun-sliding morning. The doors of the world stand open,
The one up and the one down.
Twice-blessed by their golden handles,
We try them both, but they don’t open, not yet, they don’t open.
Wind from the west as usual,
harp-limbs of bare trees
In southwest corner of things.
The music of memory has its own pitch,
which not everyone hears.
Cloud-gondolas floating in with the east-moving wind-waters,
Black-hulled and gilt-edged,
white on white up above, smooth pole.
Later, the sunset, flamingo, great bird of passage.
I love this Buddhist acid-trip stuff — the unlikely similes (“cloud strips like raw bacon”?), the ten-car pileups of images (Don’t like the cloud metaphor? Wait five minutes!). You trust his voice because he consistently goes too far.
I’ve always enjoyed excess in art, up to and including Jeff Koons’s giant Mylar balloon dogs, as a kind of celebration, and magnification, of its central lack of necessity. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to appreciate much “quieter,” subtler poetry. Part of me worries this is like rich people getting rid of all their stuff, the intellectual equivalent of mistaking asceticism for refinement. The Marie Kondo craze is basically the opposite of horror vacui — fear of empty space versus fear of bounty. Minimalism versus maximalism, simplicity versus complexity.
Because, of course, you can go too far in the other direction; of late I’ve read a few books I thought of as underwritten. The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink, though frequently hilarious, was so effortless in style, so anti-“try-hard” that in the end I wished it had tried harder. Later I read that she wrote the book in a matter of weeks, which comes across. It’s not that I don’t think there’s room for silly books and silly sculpture and film and music. As a reader, I’m only disappointed when something in the book promises more — when I have the sense that the author has low-balled me. In professional billiards you have to call your shots; The Wallcreeper played slop.
A friend told me he abandoned a novel recently because “No one could walk through a garden without every flower being described, and [the author] is careful to work each of the five senses into each description.” Oh god, I thought, that sounds like a grade-school poetry exercise — do we ever need to smell anything in a novel? But maybe we do! Helen Macdonald’s sensual descriptions are precise and surprising in a way that feels authentically attentive, like keen observations made in real time, not description painted on after the fact to “bring the scene to life.” Her hawk, Mabel, has a “prehistoric scent to her feathers … peppery, rusty as storm-rain.” Later, Mabel’s “hot hawk breath” smells like “pepper and musk and burned stone.” Her eyes make a “wet click, click, click” when she blinks.
In another scene, “there’s a brumous, pewter light outside, as if someone had stuck tracing paper against the glass.” (I had to look up “brumous”: foggy; wintry.) In another, the author peruses stands of apples at a fair:
I walk slowly along the apples, glorying in their little differences. Soft orange, streaked with tiger-spots of pink. Charles Ross. Berkshire 1890. Dual use. A little one with bark-like blush markings over a pale green ground. Coronation. Sussex 1902. Dessert. Miniature green boulders, the side in shadow deep rose. Chivers Delight. Cambridgeshire 1920. Dessert. Huge apple, deep yellow with hyperspace-spotting of rich red. Pasgood’s Nonsuch. Lincolnshire 1853. Dual use.
The apples are like Wright’s skies — they can only change so much and yet the variations are endless. And Macdonald delights as much in the language required to describe them as the apples themselves.
But I don’t know, because I didn’t press him, if these are the parts the aforementioned poet found overwritten. If I found H Is for Hawk at times overwritten, it had more to do with a tendency to spell things out that could have remained as undercurrents. And the book does succumb to what I think of as the primary pitfall of memoir — an overeagerness to auto-analyze, and a false finality to the analysis. The rhetoric of the genre so often follows the pattern of “I didn’t know then, but I know now”:
All the way home on the train I thought of Dad and the terrible mistake I had made. I’d thought that to heal my great hurt, I should flee to the wild. It was what people did. The nature books I’d read told me so. … Now I knew this for what it was: a beguiling and dangerous lie. I was furious with myself and my own unconscious certainty that this was the cure I needed.
By extension, shouldn’t she be suspicious of this fresher certainty? It’s the end of history illusion writ small.
One of Elmore Leonard’s “10 rules of writing” was “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it” — which suggests that all writing is overwriting. When I first heard this quote I thought, But I like writing that sounds like writing. That is to say, I like writing that knows what writing is for; it can express things you would never say. The hard thing is judging the right level of writtenness — more than you would say, but not all of it. •