Thursday, February 16, 2012

Ishmael Reed and the purpose of a book

In his novel Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, Ishmael Reed wrote: "No one says a novel has to be one thing. It can be anything it wants to be, a vaudeville show, the six o'clock news, the mumblings of wild men saddled by demons."

Reed is a poet, novelist, and essayist whose work has often been concerned with the neglected and underrepresented. He's also the author of one of the finer horror poems of the 20th century: "Beware: Do Not Read This Poem," well worth finding online or even better, in a book, when you can.

"Beware: Do Not Read This Poem," written in 1969, has been cited as one of the approximately 20 poems educators have identified as the most frequently studied in literature courses.

In 1998, during an interview he stated "I've probably been more influenced by poets than by novelists — the Harlem Renaissance poets, the Beat poets, the American surrealist Ted Joans. Poets have to be more attuned to originality, coming up with lines and associations the ordinary prose writer wouldn't think of."

As a poet, I can appreciate that assessment.

Looking at BARROW, I can see how not just a novel, but even a book of poetry has a tendency to become anything it wants to be. The best of books are given the freedom to breathe and become, they don't come forth as a product of pure will. There's a wilder element to a true book that bucks and chafes and takes not just the reader but the author in directions less planned. A writer should be prepared for that.

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