The Novel as Poetry

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Billy Faulkner spitting hot ones:


How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home.

And:

When something is new and hard and bright, there ought to be something a little better for it than just being safe, since the safe things are just the things that folks have been doing so long they have worn the edges off and there's nothing to the doing of them that leaves a man to say, That was not done before and it cannot be done again.

One thing that's really helping me in going through As I Lay Dying is hearing Faulkner the way I would heard some of Yusef Komunyakaa's work, or the way I heard Ghostface as a kid. The first time I read The Sound And The Fury, I think I was working to hard. I was trying to keep track of every character and how every event linked up. Maybe I would have gotten that on the second reading. But I prefer, now, to just let the novel talk to me, to just let the thing speak, admire the speaking, and then think about what the speaking says in terms of a broader truth.

Reading Komunyakaa as a kid was challenging. He would have all these images that would tie my head in knots. Lines like, "a tiger circles us in his broken cage." And I would think, "I have no idea what the fuck that means, but it doesn't sound good." What he was talking about, I thought, was danger. That it did not make literal sense to me, that I could not follow every single line had to be put aside. The line, "Money had slept like a night-gown" never made literal sense to me. But I got the point. On a broader level, I never quite followed plot of "Motherless Child," but I got it on an emotional level. The only way for me to access any of this was to let go, allow the language to wash over me and then think about how it made me feel.

I'm digging this book in the same way. Perhaps I'll get all the plot-points when I'm done. Or when I read it again in some years. Or never. I don't much care. An overly literal, "this-happened, this happened, this happened" isn't the only way for me to enjoy a story. Sometimes, it's not even the best way.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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