Thursday, January 02, 2014

Swallowing the Sea: On Writing & Ambition Boredom Purity & Secrecy: A Review

Lee Upton’s Swallowing the Sea: On Writing & Ambition Boredom Purity & Secrecy attempts to be many things. It’s partly a memoir of the writer’s experience with language and writing. It tries to address the nouns that make up the subtitle, but primarily it’s a collection of quotes that are thrown onto the page. The publisher information accompanying the book provides a blurb by David Lehman, who describes Upton’s book as a “chrestomathy,” a selection of literary quotations. That description is an accurate one.

It’s apparent that the writer is trying to define certain subjects about writing. “It’s Such a Filthy Word,” for example, attempts to define purity as it relates to poetry. The opening sentence of each paragraph shows this attempt to pin down the term. It isn’t until the seventeenth paragraph, after having provided quotes by Sylvia Plath, Homer, Thomas Hardy, Pablo Neruda, Wallace Stevens, William Blake, Charles Lamb, and James Fenton, that Upton informs her audience that “purity is both a necessary impulse and a dangerous aspiration.” It isn’t until the final paragraph, twenty-five paragraphs later, after quotes from ten more writers and an artist, that Upton reaches the conclusion that purity can neither be obtained in “art [n]or in life.”

I think the book is intended for students in advanced creative writing classes. This book serves to introduce writers that these students may not have been aware of and allows them to delve more deeply into their own conception of such terms as ambition, boredom, purity, and secrecy because these ideas are ones that they will have to address as they grow as writers.

As a reader, I would have preferred a memoir and would have found a detailed examination of the writer’s own struggle with ambition or boredom, for example, more enlightening than to be caught up in a cascade of quotes.

As a writing teacher, I find an abundance of quotes to be neither convincing nor endearing. Instead, these quotes, after a while, clutter up the text and make it difficult to decipher what exactly the writer is trying to say. If it takes an abundance of quotes for the writer to make a point, I would suggest that the writer pare down the prose and re-examine what it is that he or she wants to say.

It is particularly aggravating when one quote follows another without the writer having explained the reason for borrowing these words from someone else.

The book shows the writer’s knowledge of literature and writing. I would have preferred more of a narrative as the writer explores such subjects as ambition, boredom, purity, and secrecy as they relate to her life as a writer.