Defending One’s Strangeness: on “To the House of the Sun”
Back when my long Civil War poem To the House of the Sun first came out in 2015, I sent a copy to somebody that’s pretty well-known in the field—if a field it is—of those who popularize mythology, on TV and elsewhere. (If I say much more somebody might figure out who I mean, and that’s not what I mean to do here.) Suffice to say that three years later, I finally heard back: this person returned the book and was puzzled, and offered the criticisms of somebody hadn’t really tried, yet thought I should rewrite it anyway. I replied with the email, below, that brings together a lot of what I’ve written about how and why certain kinds of art become well-known (or doesn’t); and since this person suggested that what the book needed was my own introduction to it, perhaps they’re right, and perhaps this will serve as the bare-bones to one in the future. Also, while I’m not one to respond to a bad review, sometimes you do just have to defend yourself. And of course, if any of this interests somebody out there, you can still get copies of the book here, at a steep discount.
[…] I can’t tell how far you got in it, but I can certainly see your point about putting some kind of introduction in there, and I’ll grant you all the mistakes I may have made in designing and putting out the book. For someone who wants his anonymity, but who has created this weird book, just how to put it in front of the world remains a problem. But you must know that everything in the beginning of the book—the map, the detailed table of contents which pretty much outlines the entire book in three pages, and so much else—were all put there to help the reader. Not so obvious apparently! But on to the other bits:
I’ll get the simplest statement out of the way first: it just may not be for you. I’ve always been comforted by the fact that Yeats never finished Joyce’s Ulysses, and that James Frazer didn’t know what to do with Eliot’s Waste Land. Sometimes great minds, even the greatest, don’t align. On one level I think it’s a matter of storytelling expectations. […] I’m reminded of Simon Schama, who talks beautifully about the different demands a five hour TV series on the history of the Jews calls for, compared to a nearly 2,000 page 3-volume companion series of books. Just from your website, and while you obviously also write, it’s clear that you have become expert especially in the previous mode, the mode meant for TV, for teaching writing, for giving tours, etc. I envy that ability, but it does produce different expectations. There are works of art and culture that are mostly dictated by the audience and their immediate reaction, there are others made for an audience but dictated by a ruthless carelessness for them (I’d put a lot of postmodernism in there), and I think To the House of the Sun is in the middle, which puts it in an awkward spot.
First, I’m aware of all the limitations which the poem presents. Few people read poetry; fewer still read poems longer than a page; and even fewer than that, long poems of a historical or religious nature. People go to nonfiction books or movies for all that. To the House of the Sun is in a way not many people’s cup of tea, precisely because within it are so many cups of tea: it’s a retelling of Orpheus & Eurydice (with an Underworld journey at the end), it’s a war poem, a travelogue, a love story, an immigrant’s tale, Walt Whitman and the Donner Party make cameos etc., and in its last third becomes a sort of holy man’s journey, as my character travels the American West. Those who come to it only for the Civil War will go away disappointed, and ditto those who come to it for mythology, or the West, etc. You may simply not care for the Civil War—I certainly didn’t before writing the poem, and that’s a huge barrier to get past from the start.
While I’m not very patriotic, it was written to give America its own Iliad and Odyssey, illustrating America’s reliance on both violence and religion. I also obviously meant it to carry a spiritual message, and for it to be a mirror and an answer to all the great poetry and mythology we are heir to. All of these works were so popular and central to the culture which gave birth to them that they show evidence of having been composed, edited, redacted, and rearranged by many hands. These are also many many cups of tea. For this reason To the House of the Sun is its own whole, but is also essentially episodic, and you need not read the entire thing, or even refer to the notes. My introduction to Joseph Campbell, back in high school in the late 90s, was seeing him in a video sitting in a restaurant with four or five people, telling a story. This, I think, is instructive: all the episodes of To the House of the Sun could be detached from the main narrative, prefaced by a sentence or two of introduction, and told around a table. It is basically that simple; that it had to be published as completely as possible (and with hundreds of pages of notes) at first just made sense, but other iterations of it will come, to make this part of its nature more clear.
You asked me about necessity, and I’d only say that it would have been spiritual death for me not to write the poem. How’s that for necessity? To write a poem with all of history and religion behind it, to set in within recent memory as many of the great stories have been (something only a little more recent than the setting of Homer’s poems were to his audience), and to make it essentially a poem of empathy. Of course all of this all sounds very nice, but as I went along it also became clear that the poetry of those I was quoting from and adapting, from Gilgamesh to the Kalevala, were all necessities for their given culture in a way that no one relies on poetry today. I’ve written elsewhere about the person who came up to Bruce Springsteen after 9/11 and simply told him, “We need you.” So I completely understand that, to use Campbell’s image, I returned from my journey with a boon my society neither wanted nor asked for. But I hold out hope that they some day will.
For this reason, and for granting poetry’s lowly status in the cultural world in general, I’m hesitant to make any changes to the book. (That and it is a young man’s book written between age 25-35, and I don’t know that person anymore.) If it were a novel or a screenplay meant for immediate consumption, or something part of a creative writing class which (to those who have gone through MFAs have told me) require a kind of sameness and lack of difficulty to everyone’s output, I would see the reason to change it up; I have a novel at an agent right now, and I will gladly turn it inside out if they ask, since the nature of the story allows for it. But To the House of the Sun is a book meant for my daughter, for her children, for their children; it may seem ridiculous to say that, but I do mean it.
You would have no way of knowing this, but the experience of writing the poem (not even the publishing of it, just the isolation required to write it) also allowed me to collect anecdotes from everywhere that illustrate how fickle and unpredictable the creation and reception of art can be. The most recent one is William Blake; it was news to me, but to make a living, this great visionary worked as a secretary for a “popular” poet that nobody reads anymore, and who also thought Blake’s poetry unreadable. The list is endless, including John Kennedy Toole killing himself because his Confederacy of Dunces couldn’t get published, and ten years after his death it is published and wins a Pulitzer.
I know and I know and I know how utterly dangerous it is to align oneself with stories like this, but I went To the House of the Sun it assuming this would be the case, and assuming the book would have to wait a long time for its moment, for people to catch up to its vocabulary. (Again, how strong must my sense of necessity have been, to keep at it for twelve years?) The American poet James Merrill published an even longer poem back in the 1980s, The Changing Light at Sandover, with no introduction or help of any kind, and it is entirely Modernist and unforgiving, but people eagerly studied it based on his reputation. But I have no reputation, no academic affiliations, no famous or hip friends, no one to supply a “stunning blurb” (though recent printings do have excerpts from reviews on the front and inside cover), and the time I could have spent cultivating all of these was spent writing the poem instead. All the while it’s been suggested to me that I could easily become either a hipster or a guru, ideas which are abhorrent to me. Yet if I had done all of these things, or if To the House of the Sun came at the end and not the beginning of my career as a poet, I’m pretty sure that every oddity and every complaint you had about the book would be forgiven as just the peculiarity of “that great poet”; all the ampersands you don’t like would instead be primers for discovering a new rhythm, a different reverie.
What I also found, since it’s a feeling I have too, is that the people attracted to mythology, or even just Shakespeare or Wordsworth or Ginsberg—we all love to enter into and be a part of a famous work’s interpretive tradition. But very few people want to be the start of that tradition, the initiator of it. In other words, To the House of the Sun simply hasn’t found its St. Paul yet; but it will. Its half-life hasn’t even begun. I published it the way I did because I wanted its first iteration to be the “full” edition; e.g. “in case I died” I could say this is how it should be. But by 2020 I hope to start issuing it again in a dozen different ways: on its own with no notes, each of its three parts as separate paperbacks, maybe even each of its 33 books as their own pamphlet or podcast. But being that it was not meant to compete, and really can’t, with the demands of Twitter or the movies, I’m in no hurry to apologize for making something that aspires for eternity. Ezra Pound famously said something like nothing short of divine vision or a cure for the clap would make going through Finnegans Wake worthwhile; well, I’m shooting for divine vision. I don’t get why Campbell spent his time on Finnegans Wake apparently anymore than you want to wander through To the House of the Sun, but things made honestly & truly will make their way. I appreciate all the nonfiction scholarship that makes up the study of religion, or popularization of the strangeness of mythology, but it seemed necessary to go looking for the golden point where these things were actually created, a new myth. Of course Campbell said in 1987 that things are changing too fast to make new myths; how much faster now!; and so my new myth will be sitting around for when things slow down.
No, I won’t be the guy who says You just don’t get it man!, but knowing a few strangers I sent the book to who have gotten it, and got it immediately and good, I know it’s possible. As for the notes: as I said, To the House of the Sun is based on the old way of telling stories where so much is borrowed and modified, and this fact seemed either forgotten or just uninteresting, but it became the driving force of building the poem, and of reintroducing our heritage of sacred literature (I’ve begun to do this again by just posting the myths themselves); but the 20-page culture-by-culture rundown of how storytellers have done this since Egypt was vague to you, so I can’t say much more. I can’t begin to discuss the other things you bring up, because you sent the book back anyway and it’s hard to talk about it when I don’t know how far in you made it……