Nick Thurston: The Joys of Being Undone

I’m midway through the second of two great new books about what might be called ‘under-finished’ forms of literature. When we call food ‘under-cooked’ it’s usually a disappointed description of something that isn’t as it should be, something that hasn’t reached its potential. But what establishes a literary work as finished, or determines its potential, is even more contentious and subjective than the criticism of cooking. Every time we read we all ask those two questions, or at least assume an answer to them. The very fact that a text is already in the world for us to pick up is generally taken as a guarantee that the author considers it finished and the publisher considers it ready.

The book I’m midway through skips that assumption. Matthew Harle’s ingenious first monograph, recently published by Bloomsbury, Afterlives of Abandoned Work: Creative Debris in the Archive, is a material and cultural study of the phenomenon of unfinished literary work. His umbrella category of ‘unfinished’ includes unrealised proposals, never completed works-in-progress, abandoned manuscripts, notes and other miscellany – all manner of fragments that have survived, unpublished yet given some coherence by their preservation in archives, folders, boxes and libraries. Harle tries to rescue the discussion of such texts from an obsession with lack and ruin lust. His method is to re-contextualise each example as the triangulation of a trio of creative-cultural acts: writing it, collecting it and interpreting it were each done with certain materials in a certain time and place by certain people, and are chained together: Acts of unfinished writing leave behind texts which negate their own completeness. We then have to try to understand those texts through their traces that remain present in our moment of reading, which is conditioned by (and thanks to) those who saved them and the way they’ve organised what they’ve saved.

Harle’s ingenuity is severalfold. What I’m most enjoying are his wild range of literary and extra-literary examples, which stretch from a 1970s catalogue of abandoned industrial designs to unbuilt urban planning schema to Muriel Spark’s narrative notes-to-self. He reads them all with a literary-critical lens that takes seriously the gap between the situation in which they were written and the situation in which they are being read. In doing so, he champions the idea that we might find new frames and frameworks for reading literary and extra-literary texts that were never completed in any conventional literary sense and have never pretended to be so.

This task might sound counter-intuitive. After all, why would anyone want to read unfinished things? But Harle’s approach is to say that we need to develop suitable literacies for engaging with the unfinished rather than presume such texts are unreadable and blame their incompleteness. Only after we’ve learned to read them can we decide if they were worth reading.

Flipping the problem of lack so that culpability rests with the reader’s approach is a neat reminder that a work of literature could also be under-finished by the other party in the relationship, in the sense that it could be under-read or unfinished by its readers. For example, the very fact that I’m writing comparatively about a book I haven’t even finished yet might be disastrous. Add to that the fact that the other book, which I have finished, is itself an unfinished manuscript, and this blog post could be plain irresponsible.

Am I ready to write about these books? I think so, in no small part because both of them grant a certain kind of readerly licence – even encourage a certain kind of licentious reading – and I want to quickly explain why that might be useful to expanding our understanding of how poetry pays attention to language and the world and how we pay attention to poetry.

Let’s call that doubled understanding ‘poetics’. What would a poetics of the under-finished be and what would it make possible? What if being under-finished in a conventional poetic sense was itself a different kind of finished-ness? The unpublished manuscript I mentioned is by the American critic Paul Stephens. It takes an unusual angle on an unusual set of practices: what Stephens calls ‘minimal writing’, in echo of the under-appreciated early poetry of Aram Saroyan, who’s a key figure in Stephens’ survey. ‘Minimal’ can mean lots of things and, crudely put, that’s the key point of Stephens’ argument. As an aesthetic tradition, the ‘very little’ or ‘just enough’ could be polarised against the maximal, the ‘as much as possible’ or ‘too much’, pitching the the composition of the least possible significant expression against the gesture of excess. But that dichotomy is lazy. For example, minimal poems might repeat the same few words and so can be composed of lots of instances of the same few components.

What Stephens brilliantly develops is more nuanced and more rewarding. Minimal writing refuses the normal syntax of prose, the line and meter conventions of verse, and the grammar of a complete statement. It squeezes out components we might normally expect writing to exhibit, components that language normally requires to communicate meaning effectively. Literary minimalism elides the expected for the sake of concision and the chance to mean lots of things at the same time. Unlike the unfinished texts that Harle studies, the elisions of minimal writing are intentional. For Stephens, minimal poetry pushes to the limit how minimal a unit of language we need to develop a poetic reading, compressing the unit all the way down to one-word poems or even broken glyphs. Minimal poetry intentionally negates our expectations of the finished, the ready, the meaningful.

This extreme focus on what little remains as a poem’s content tends to emphasise something often ignored: The visual and material presence of the poem when published, and the technologies involved in publishing it, are integral to the way we are inclined to read it. Stephens points to a classic example, the famous opening of John Ashbery’s 1970 poem, ‘The New Spirit’:

I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer way.

clean-washed sea

The flowers were.

These are examples of leaving out. But, forget as we will, something soon comes to stand in their place.[i]

The gesture of minimisation, of ‘leaving out’, undoes the proper form of the sentence, ‘The flowers were.’ What were they? And what else might be missing: a preceding question; a possessive apostrophe? The integrity of any attempt to answer these questions and close the sentence properly is already undone by the playful improperness of the line’s form, by its play with absence. It’s finished and unfinished at the same time, yet still we try to figure a ‘stand in’. The author’s unfinished work of ‘leaving out’ makes the line behave aphoristically, offering its minimal content as an aperture for thinking. That aperture can’t be closed and so always invites new readings, which in turn becomes the unfinished work of reading poetically.

Some people might still want to ask, why would anyone choose to read things that intentionally say as little as possible? Like Harle, Stephens’ claim is not defensive. He doesn’t repeat the cliche that ‘less is more’, or even that ‘less is enough’. His book, Absence of Clutter: Minimal Writing as Art and Literature, which MIT will publish soon, is about less being itself. Minimal poetry gives the marks of writing new space and so allows words to do new forms of work. Likewise, the unfinished literatures that Harle explores are incomplete but are what they are, they remain and remain incomplete. What both projects inventively demonstrate is that the radical sufficiency of seemingly under-finished poetries require a different kind of reading, which in turn requires a different kind of poetics.

All of which is a very longwinded way of saying,

The flowers were.

The poems will.

[i] John Ashbery, Three Poems (New York: Viking, 1972), 3.