When I talked to Aimee Bender, author of The Color Master, for this series, she mentioned a recent article in the journal Science that suggested reading fiction changes one’s orientation towards the world. When it compared popular fiction, literary fiction, nonfiction, and reading nothing at all, the Science study found that literary fiction temporarily increases what researches call “theory of mind”: emotional intelligence, essentially. It’s not hyperbole, then, to say “This book changed my life”—literature demonstrably boosts one’s ability to understand, relate to, and empathize with others.
How strange—and yet how unsurprising, to people who love novels—that reading causes perceptible changes to our brains and bodies. (It sounds like something out of an Aimee Bender story, actually—like the dessert served in The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake that briefly allows the narrator to hold the full psychic weight of her mother’s secret history.) In her conversation for this series, Bender shared the story of her own such transformation. Memorizing a mysterious Wallace Stevens poem, Bender experienced much more than the pleasure of learning words by heart—the poem worked a real, physiological magic that surprises her to this day.
The Color Master blends psychological realism and fairytale fabulism in the balance she is known for: Women marry child-eating ogres, tigers have their stripes sewn on, girls learn to make dye just the color of the moon. Aimee Bender teaches creative writing at the University of Southern California. She spoke to me by phone from her home in Los Angeles.
Light the first light of evening, as in a room
In which we rest and, for small reason, think
The world imagined is the ultimate good.
This is, therefore, the intensest rendezvous.
It is in that thought that we collect ourselves,
Out of all the indifferences, into one thing:
Within a single thing, a single shawl
Wrapped tightly round us, since we are poor, a warmth,
A light, a power, the miraculous influence.
Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves.
We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,
A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous.
Within its vital boundary, in the mind.
We say God and the imagination are one...
How high that highest candle lights the dark.
Out of this same light, out of the central mind,
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.
Aimee Bender: I first heard “The Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour” at a funeral. A large funeral, and a very sad one. A poet read it to the people gathered, and I found it moving, and helpful, but in a kind of inexplicable way. It’s something of an oblique poem. It concerns mystery, and its language is itself mysterious. Yet there was something in it that I sensed, even listening for the first time, about a community coming together to support this family and pay tribute to this life.
The poet knew Stevens’s poem very well—it was like it had metabolized in her. She’d absorbed it fully in a way that helped us absorb it, too. I felt that magical alchemy of poetry, the way it acknowledges things we can’t fully understand. I felt very sad about the death that had happened, but there a healing line from this poet to the people sitting around.
Right away, I knew I’d want to look that poem up and spend more time with it. One line—“We say God and the imagination are one”—stuck with me especially. There’s something beautifully enigmatic about that line: It contains what feels so expansive and mysterious about the imagination to me. I love the way it treats the imagination with an almost-religious reverence.
A friend of mine, the Tin House editor Cheston Knapp, wrote an essay once where he recalled memorizing a Frost poem as a younger man—he was making fun of himself, calling out the pretentiousness of this. And it’s funny, because I found myself thinking: I want to do that. Not in a showy way. I don’t want to perform a poem. I just like the idea of having the words accessible in my mind. I love poetry, and I wanted to carry Stevens’s poem with me. To live with it. I’d never been required to memorize anything before—the days of learning poems by heart in school are gone—and suddenly, I wanted to.
It took a while for me to learn the words, which I’d repeat to myself while driving in L. A. Trying to speak a poem over and over, you learn to pay attention to all its nooks and crannies: I had to ask myself, is it “a” or “the?” Is the phrase “miraculous influence,” or something else? You have to slow down so intensely to read a poem and take it all in. As I tried to digest it, chew over all its details, I started to feel the way the lines flowed into one another. I started to understand it through its shape.
Here’s what surprised me: When I had it all memorized, I felt elated. I had a physical response to holding all those words in my mind together. A real buzz—that was shocking to me. But it also makes sense because it was the same thing that happened to me at the funeral: Hearing the poem aloud, it had this certain physical magic that I recognized. Speaking it aloud, the same powerful feeling came through. When I spoke the poem, just as when I heard it, I could feel something happening within.
The poem’s meaning shifted for me, too. The line I’d liked so much at first, “We say God and the imagination are one,” began to seem darker. I started to feel it was acknowledging human limitation, addressing the way we invent things to comfort ourselves. That’s when the next line rose up, a line I’d completely overlooked when reading on the page: “How high that highest candle lights the dark.”
This image is expansion and limit all at once. Stevens has just told us that our largest, most expansive thoughts are still contained within us, that our sense of God or something larger exists only within our minds. We feel there’s something larger but, no—that’s in our minds. Yet this idea turns again with “how high that highest candle lights the dark”: Even within our human limitations, how beautiful we can be. It’s still just a little candle, but how high: our beauty, our capacity for thought and feeling, for togetherness. Our humanness is vast and ripe and gorgeous, and, as Stevens says at the end of the poem, “being there together is enough.” Even though he’s struggling with the nature of what we imagine, the poem ultimately enters a place where connection is possible between people. Ultimately, I think it’s a hopeful poem in that way.
Part of the reason the memorization appealed to me is I felt like I want these lines available to me at certain times of my life—if something is difficult, or something is joyous, I want to feel like I have access to words that will help me think about and express what I’m feeling. And the more the better. We can be so vague in our memory of books. Paragraphs that we loved become slippery, then gone. Memorization was a way for me to force myself to be more precise, and to forge a more permanent relationship to the words. It allowed a certain kind of magical construction to get in my mind and simmer there. The work of tinkering with the language it’s that exquisite, that well-wrought, is so exciting—it reminds you what art can do. I had a physical reaction. I felt caffeinated. And that feeling lasted for a long time.
Granted, I’m someone who loves words. I’ve always loved poetry—so it’s suited to me. But I still was shocked by the poem’s palpable effect on me. I think we’re biologically impacted by language. It can be deeply, deeply nourishing. And I don’t mean that as a metaphor. It can feel like something cellular gets fed. When language is treated beautifully and interestingly, it can feel good for the body: It’s nourishing, it’s rejuvenating. This is not the way we typically think about literature, which tend to talk about as taking place inside the head—even if it’s the emotional part of the head. To feel energized by Stevens was a singular experience that reminded me how words register in our physical bodies, too. It felt like concrete proof that literature is important.
I was talking once to David Wilson who curates the Museum of Jurassic Technology here [in Los Angeles]. He said, “I don’t know why not knowing where a story is going is nourishing, but it is.” I love that—because it’s true. When I don’t know where a story is going, I feel better—I physically feel better, after not knowing and then being surprised. Language, when it’s that worked-through, is such a gift. The human being needs language, and the human being needs language to be treated well—not just with easy, throw-away sentences. Skimming and reading constantly and reading lightly is not enough. Slow down: It’s good for the brain. Memorizing Stevens forced me to slow down. It was nice to realize, I can turn off the radio as I drive. I can say these poems aloud, and see what they do.
I draw this same physical nourishment from my own work, too, at times. If I write something that I’m happy about, it means the language is clicking in some way that will sustain me for weeks. Sometimes, one good paragraph can keep me going through weeks of bad paragraphs, all the writing that feels like walking through sludge.
And it’s interesting that the writing I tend to think of as “good” is good because it’s mysterious. It tends to happen when I get out of the way–-when I let it go a little bit, I surprise myself. I feel most pleased with my language when I don’t understand it completely. When it sustains hope that there’s more to write about, that there’s an open door for me to explore. That’s when the writing gets really fun. I feel like it’s all about waiting for a kind of discovery that takes place on the sentence level—as opposed to having a light-bulb about a character. That’s the thing that drives me from first sentence to last sentence.
Language is the ticket to plot and character, after all, because both are built out of language. If you write a page a day for 30 days, and you pick the parts where the language is working, plot and character will start to emerge organically. For me, plot and character emerge directly from the word—as opposed to having a light-bulb about a character or event. I just don’t work like that. Though I know some writers do, I can’t. I’ll think, oh I have an insight about the character, and when I’ll sit down to write, it feels extremely imposed and last for two minutes. I find I can write for two lines and then I have nothing else to say. For me, the only way to find something comes through the sentence level, and sticking with the sentences that give a subtle feeling that there’s something more to say. This means I’ve hit on something unconscious enough to write about—something with enough unknown in there to be brought out. On some level I can sense that, and it keeps me going.
That’s why I love Stevens’s poem, too—it sits between these great mysteries that he’s articulated without dispelling them completely. Some of those mysteries clarify, but they’re not all going to clarify. I think a good poem will always stay a little mysterious. The best writing does. The words that click into place, wrap around something mysterious. They create a shape around which something lives—and they give hints about what that thing is, but do not reveal it fully. That’s the thing I want to do in my own writing: present words that act as a vessel for something more mysterious. I know it’s working when I feel like there’s something hovering beneath it the verbal, that mysterious emotional place that Stevens wrote about.
Language is limited, it’s a faulty tool. But how high it lights the dark.