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True Things: 2 of 3 Riffs on Hemingway
February 9, 2007 - 8:52am


Students often tell me the old lie they’ve been told themselves—Hemingway’s prose is simplicity itself. (“What do Hemingway scholars have to talk about?” a grad student sneered, a beer and a cig in his hands.) But once you start looking at it, the prose is too idiosyncratic to be called simple. In fact, it looks more like poetry.

Look at the “interchapter” from In Our Time that I quoted in the previous post, for repetitions of “they,” “courtyard,” “water,” “rain,” and “There were….” Hear the rhyme “hard” and “courtyard,” and the assonance of “paving,” “rained,” “nailed,” and “make.” Hemingway’s diction is not simple so much as Germanic—the men are “shot,” not the Latinate “executed.” He also shapes details, changing the setting from a field outside town to the wall of a hospital (that which heals is now deadly) and moving up the time to first light (traditional hour of execution). And—O!—the awful unspoken image of the sitting man taking his in the shins and through the top of his skull.

Hem’s early fiction is in fact like Imagist poetry—a distillation—a connection that hasn’t been fully explored. (A quick search reveals only one article on it, “ The Sun Also Rises: One Debt to Imagism,” by Linda W. Wagner.) Ezra Pound was Hem’s mentor, friend and tennis partner in the Paris days, and it was Pound and his peers who came up with the ideas for Imagism: "(1) Direct treatment of the “thing” whether subjective or objective; (2) To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation; and (3) As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome."

After Pound had renounced Imagism (“Amygism,” he dubbed it, when Amy Lowell published three anthologies of Imagist poems), the rules were expanded to include “common speech,” “the exact word,” “new cadences,” “absolute freedom…of subject,” poetry “hard and clear,” and “concentration… the very essence….” But as William Pratt points out in Imagist Poem: Modern Poetry in Miniature, “After 1917…Imagism was no longer a movement: it had become a tool, which each poet could adapt to his own use.”

This included the young Hemingway, who wrote what he called his six “Paris 1922” sentences, telling Ezra Pound he “fancied them.” (Pound understood; he had boiled down his own 30-line poem about getting off the Metro into a two-line haiku of sorts: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough.”) The six-sentence exercise was the start of Hemingway’s mature style, tone, and content, and they’re what he means when he talks about “good and severe discipline” in writing.

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know,” he says he told himself, in Moveable Feast, his memoir of ‘20s Paris. “It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.”

Milton A. Cohen’s Hemingway’s Laboratory: the Paris in our time (2005, University of Alabama Press), is a poetics of and sourcebook for the early prose. As Cohen reports, the sentences “each begin with ‘I have seen’ and describe in compressed, vivid detail six scenes or actions the narrator has witnessed: (1) a steeplechase accident at Auteuil, which the crowd ignores in its haste to see the finish; (2) a quarrel at a late-night dance club between Peggy Joyce and a ‘shellac haired’ young Chilean, who shoots himself later that night; (3) a battle between police and a crowd on May Day, in which a sixteen-year-old boy has shot two policemen; (4) the workingmen on the Batignolles bus…; (5) a one-legged prostitute sheltered from the rainy night by an Episcopal clergyman holding an umbrella over her; and (6) two Senegalese soldiers teasing a king cobra in the snake house of the Jardin des Plantes.”

Here are two in full:

(4) “I have stood on the crowded back platform of a seven o’clock Batignolles bus as it lurched along the wet lamp lit street while men who were going home to supper never looked up from their newspapers as we passed Notre Dame gray and dripping in the rain.”

(2) “I have seen Peggy Joyce at 2 A.M. in a dancing in the Rue Caumartin quarreling with the shallaced [sic] haired young Chilean who had long pointed finger nails, danced like Rudolph Valentino and shot himself at 3:30 that same morning.”

Couldn’t we all use a little “good and severe discipline” in our writing? On Monday I’ll post six true sentences about college life. I invite you to post your own—even one or two—as comments to that entry. Start with “I have seen,” or “I have heard,” or the like, and hit us with your truth.


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