Saturday, July 19, 2008

USED BOOKS: The Poems of Norman Mailer


Modest Gifts:Poems and Drawings
Norman Mailer (Random House Trade)

Some of us think Norman Mailer ought to win the Nobel Prize for literature because of the sure and quarrelsome genius of his books and the ideas they contained; like him or consider him an abberation in the culture, a number of the styles he took, particularly the novel, the essay and journalism, gave you a personality that was hard to ignore. Many who thought him a lout , a grind, an egomaniac had to admit, after reading him to counter his many assertions about many things, that Mailer was, after, a Great Writer. Joyce Carol Oates, an astute critic of Mailer, offered that Mailer's ideas were dangerous because he wrote so well.This, though, isn't one of those books," Modest Gifts" being, at best, a gussied up reissue of a lone book of verse he produced in the early Sixties,"Deaths for the Ladies (and Other Diasters)".
Now, as then, the pieces are slight, skeletal, un-propelled by anything resembling a notion that the reader cares about. For a writer who's composed some of the richest prose and lyric flights this side of Faulkner and DeLillo, these efforts are so minimal that even a verbal skinflint like Hemingway would call these gifts not modest ,but cheap. The poems were written in the early sixties when the author had several professional , legal and marital crisis hanging over him, a situation that had given him writer's block and which, as a professional writer, placed an additional burden on him. Brief, truncated in content, artless in the lack of interest of achieving the sort of ambiguity that is poetry's to apply to the senses, the poems are more like pained gasps of someone airing their gripes, bitches, and congested rage in a sequence of angular phrases. These are the kinds of things you might hear in an operating room when the patient's ether and pain killers wear off. The splintered style, rough and absent color, rhythm or graceful metaphor, is what Mailer wanted to present the public, though, and thought it in his best interest to write about his troubles in a language that lacked the elegant buttressing his essays and journalism could achieve. Of interest to scholars, perhaps, who can examine these puny bits in context with the larger body of work--many of his life long obsessions are to be found here--the reader desiring Mailer's talent for metaphor, adjective and metaphysical fancy had best look elsewhere for some of the brilliance some of us claim for him; this volume is an embarrasemtne in the late author's career. Mailer explains interestingly that these were put together at a bad time in his life when he could not compose--stabbing your wife will tend to dampen your willingness to wax--and that he found something therapeutic in their existence, but there never has been a compelling reason for these things to be put between covers and sold. Unlike some, I think that a great writer's less great work, the unformed work, the jottings, the juvenilia,the notebooks, the scraps and orts, need to remain in the drawer, and not committed to the judgment of history. This poetry is so minimal that it can't even raise a stink.

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