"Dippy Verses," John Barth, and Tolkien

John Barth’s collection The Friday Book: Essays and Other Nonfiction contains an excellent piece on what I take to be the novel as vacuum cleaner, or, to use his title, “The Prose and Poetry of It All, or, Dippy Verses.” A reviewer called four lines—in his estimation, three and half—of verse/poetry at the beginning of Barth’s novel Sabbatical: A Romance “dippy,” leading him point out that a) of course they’re dippy, given that they’re a joke between the protagonist and his wife, b) they’re intended ironically, and c) they’re part of a novel, a genre that is by its nature pastiche, and therefore should be considered part of its whole and not poetry as such. If poems within a novel happen to work as standalone poems, all the better, and if not, they should be evaluated as part of the whole.

“The Prose and Poetry of It All, or, Dippy Verses” is worth reading in full, especially for Barth’s wonderful extended metaphor on osprey nests, conservationists, shoal lights, and solutions, which is too long to repeat in full here, and to summarize it would be to admire a small bird in the wild, kill it with a shotgun, and then bring the results home to prove how beautiful the bird is. Much criticism works this way to a lesser extent anyway, but in this case it seems particularly egregious.

The topic arises in part because an upcoming conference session on Tolkien will focus on his poetry, which probably would not be judged much good by the Modernist standards of the mid-Twentieth Century, but that’s of little importance: for one, he wasn’t trying to write modernist poetry—he was presenting poetry in its Medieval and older role—and for two, he was working from pre-printing press cultures. Part of Tolkien’s beauty is the extent to which he recreates that earlier time. When books and parchment are exceedingly expensive, transport tenuous at best (see The Pursuit of Glory: 1648 – 1815 for more on historical developments in that field), and history transmitted generationally from person to person, verse made memorizing and disseminating oral information easier. Some scholars have speculated that the reason for the variations in titles in The Iliad, The Odyssey, and the like, where references to “giant-killer Hermes” and “Prince Telemachus” abound, those two picked at random from a page of The Odyssey. Tolkien’s doing something similar. The distinctions we have among genres and among fiction and nonfiction weren’t well developed until sometime around the Seventeenth or Eighteenth Century, as Michael McKeon argues in The Origins of the English Novel. Therefore, to characters in Middle-earth, poetry is not just artistic, but historical documentation.

I’m only too happy to see Tolkien’s poetry analyzed as such, but what’s embedded in Lord of the Rings should be judged a component of a novel, that most slippery and contaminated of art forms. I don’t know what if anything Barth thought of Tolkien, but his essay more than defends the aesthetics of judging the works within works that many novels contain.

As for The Friday Book more generally, it’s probably the most hilarious literary essay collection I’ve read, particularly because Barth is as skeptical of and engaged with the writing of essays as he is with the writing of novels. At one point, he says “[…] I don’t much enjoy analyzing my own [work]. It’s sobering enough to see what curious things my novels say to other people; never mind what they say to me.” Elsewhere, the simple and profound gets wrapped in the cloak of the ridiculous, or perhaps vice versa, as when he notes “Of painful searching and futile running around, our literature is unavoidably full […]” Above I implied that “The Prose and Poetry of It All, or, Dippy Verses” cannot be given in even an adequate form save in the one it takes, as with most good essays. It did, however, leave me with deeper and stranger thoughts about its subjects than when I began, which is the test that matters. That many apply to other fields—including Tolkien—is just another bonus.

“Dippy Verses,” John Barth, and Tolkien

John Barth’s collection The Friday Book: Essays and Other Nonfiction contains an excellent piece on what I take to be the novel as vacuum cleaner, or, to use his title, “The Prose and Poetry of It All, or, Dippy Verses.” A reviewer called four lines—in his estimation, three and half—of verse/poetry at the beginning of Barth’s novel Sabbatical: A Romance “dippy,” leading him point out that a) of course they’re dippy, given that they’re a joke between the protagonist and his wife, b) they’re intended ironically, and c) they’re part of a novel, a genre that is by its nature pastiche, and therefore should be considered part of its whole and not poetry as such. If poems within a novel happen to work as standalone poems, all the better, and if not, they should be evaluated as part of the whole.

“The Prose and Poetry of It All, or, Dippy Verses” is worth reading in full, especially for Barth’s wonderful extended metaphor on osprey nests, conservationists, shoal lights, and solutions, which is too long to repeat in full here, and to summarize it would be to admire a small bird in the wild, kill it with a shotgun, and then bring the results home to prove how beautiful the bird is. Much criticism works this way to a lesser extent anyway, but in this case it seems particularly egregious.

The topic arises in part because an upcoming conference session on Tolkien will focus on his poetry, which probably would not be judged much good by the Modernist standards of the mid-Twentieth Century, but that’s of little importance: for one, he wasn’t trying to write modernist poetry—he was presenting poetry in its Medieval and older role—and for two, he was working from pre-printing press cultures. Part of Tolkien’s beauty is the extent to which he recreates that earlier time. When books and parchment are exceedingly expensive, transport tenuous at best (see The Pursuit of Glory: 1648 – 1815 for more on historical developments in that field), and history transmitted generationally from person to person, verse made memorizing and disseminating oral information easier. Some scholars have speculated that the reason for the variations in titles in The Iliad, The Odyssey, and the like, where references to “giant-killer Hermes” and “Prince Telemachus” abound, those two picked at random from a page of The Odyssey. Tolkien’s doing something similar. The distinctions we have among genres and among fiction and nonfiction weren’t well developed until sometime around the Seventeenth or Eighteenth Century, as Michael McKeon argues in The Origins of the English Novel. Therefore, to characters in Middle-earth, poetry is not just artistic, but historical documentation.

I’m only too happy to see Tolkien’s poetry analyzed as such, but what’s embedded in Lord of the Rings should be judged a component of a novel, that most slippery and contaminated of art forms. I don’t know what if anything Barth thought of Tolkien, but his essay more than defends the aesthetics of judging the works within works that many novels contain.

As for The Friday Book more generally, it’s probably the most hilarious literary essay collection I’ve read, particularly because Barth is as skeptical of and engaged with the writing of essays as he is with the writing of novels. At one point, he says “[…] I don’t much enjoy analyzing my own [work]. It’s sobering enough to see what curious things my novels say to other people; never mind what they say to me.” Elsewhere, the simple and profound gets wrapped in the cloak of the ridiculous, or perhaps vice versa, as when he notes “Of painful searching and futile running around, our literature is unavoidably full […]” Above I implied that “The Prose and Poetry of It All, or, Dippy Verses” cannot be given in even an adequate form save in the one it takes, as with most good essays. It did, however, leave me with deeper and stranger thoughts about its subjects than when I began, which is the test that matters. That many apply to other fields—including Tolkien—is just another bonus.

Life: and taking leave of it momentarily

“Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.”

—J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories

(This appends to The joys of fantasy and Romance. Note too that Paul Graham uses the prison metaphor in his essay about schools, Why Nerds are Unpopular.)

The Name of the Wind, The Daughter of the Empire, and Pulp Fantasy

In middle and early high school I read more pulp fantasy than I care to recall, which my Dad derisively referred to as “dragon books.” Most were terrible, and when I’ve picked some up more recently I’ve been aghast at the poor writing and haphazard plot. Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind is as bad as Dragonlance, The Wheel of Time, The Sword of Truth, and the many of the others I used to read. To give some examples from The Name of the Wind: “The man cut him off with a sharp gesture,” whatever a sharp gesture is, and “[A sword] was deadly as a sharp stone beneath swift water.” Underwater stones are deadly? To who, besides writers struggling for metaphor? There are enough variations on “sharp” to whet every magic sword in the kingdom. Elsewhere, Kote’s head “[…] was bowed slightly, as if a great weight had settled onto him.” Chills get sent down spines. In addition to language problems, nothing actually happens in the first fifty pages, which also lack the jovial pleasure of the Shire.

Raymond Feist and Janny Wurts’ Daughter of the Empire is at least as bad and perhaps worse. Atrocities, adverbs and cliches abound: “Mara put on a brave face,” as no one has ever done before, this not long after her “cheeks burn with anger,” her “eyes narrowed,” and “her voice controlled fury.” Doubts plague, inner peace is sought, weight shifts, and after 30 pages of honor and ritual I’m ready for Woody Allen.

The low standards for writing and reviewing pulp fantasy novels are evident from pieces like this one from The Onion A.V. Club, which says, “Shelve The Name Of The Wind beside The Lord Of The Rings, The Deed Of Paksenarrion, and The Wheel Of Time—and look forward to the day when it’s mentioned in the same breath, perhaps as first among equals” (italics added). That day will never come. The Wheel of Time is written at a 12-year-old’s moral and intellectual level, and it dramatizes an immature adolescent’s view of sexuality. That The Name of the Wind received any good reviews, let alone a comparison to Tolkien, demonstrates the inadequacy of the competition to which fantasy novels are compared and the knowledge of some who review them. The Name of the Wind steals so much and so poorly from Tolkien that one should read the master and skip Robert Jordan. To explain how a series of novels as awful as The Wheel of Time comes to be, I’m forced to go back to Stephen King on Tolkien again:

A thousand pages of hobbits hasn’t been enough for three generations of post-World War II fantasy fans; even when you add in that clumsy, galumphing dirigible of an epilogue, The Silmarillion, it hasn’t been enough. Hence Terry Brooks, Piers Anthony, Robert Jordan, the questing rabbits of Watership Down, and half a hundred others. The writers of these books are creating the hobbits they still love and pine for; they are trying to bring Frodo and Sam back from the Grey Havens because Tolkien is not around to do it for them.

While the desire for Middle-Earth illuminates why The Wheel of Time was written, I can’t explain its popularity. The criticisms of The Name of the Wind and Daughter of the Empire both apply, and if I still owned The Wheel of Time novels I’d pick a page at random and find still more examples.

The worst part of someone reading these lousy novels is that some great modern fantasy novels exist: His Dark Materials and Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy both qualify. Both are rich in language, plot and ideas, unlike the sloppy hackery from The Name of the Wind and Daughter of the Empire. They almost justify highbrow sneers about genre fiction, and I write about the two only as a reminder that good fantasy exists for those who care to find it. Too bad Feist, Wurts, and Rothfuss probably don’t understand the difference, and if they do, fail to show it in their writing.

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