Between Earnestness and Irony

by Posted on April 1st, 2010 at 4:12 pm

Review of The Laurel Review, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Summer 2009)

Past cover of The Laurel Review

Previous to this issue, I last read The Laurel Review in 2000—Volume 34, Number 1. The Laurel Review has improved in the last nine years, or at least moved closer to my taste, but is still a bit too straitlaced, Raymond Carver earnest for me. More than any other quality, the fiction and poetry in both that and this issue are united by a seriousness of purpose that disallows irony. For instance, Ted Kooser’s “A Courthouse Ledger” in the 2000 issue:

These ink strokes, like wisps of brown hair

from ninety years ago—

no longer warm or perfumed

but stubbornly holding the curl

of the writer’s finger—

can barely hold onto the page

as this enormous ledger flies into the future

with the weight of a slab of white marble,

ground smooth

by the heels of a thousand hands.

And from the 2009 issue, the first few stanzas of Wayne Miller’s “A Prayer (O City—)”:

O arrow landed deep in Harold’s eye—

O voice

pressing upward against the sky—

O light and steam.

(When the western windows

of the City go pink, the rooms behind

lock shut with clouds.)

O clouds—

The ascendancy of irony in today’s literature is a response to the seriousness that permeated fiction and poetry for a period, and which realized itself most fully in the 1980s. And of course neither irony nor earnestness is better than the other, but are just respective ends of the same sensibility. The largest problem with irony as a dominant literary device is that, similarly to Surrealist painting, it is easy to do fairly well but very difficult to do greatly. (Earnestness, conversely, is just very difficult to do effectively, which accounts for Raymond Carver, whom I feel to be overrated but very good, inspiring so much flatly straightforward emoting in lesser writers.)

Past cover of The Laurel Review

My favorite piece of prose in the 2009 issue is Paul Cockeram’s “Bridges Burn,” in which he muses about a visit to the bridges made famous by the Meryl Streep / Clint Eastwood film and Robert James Waller novel The Bridges of Madison County. In his description of the visit—along with the difference between his and his mother’s reaction to the movie as both a film and pop-culture phenomenon—Cockeram renders notions of earnestness and irony extraneous. But in “On Its Stalk the Beryl Moon Rolls and Rolls,” Karla Kelsey is earnest about being earnest, and acknowledges that earnestness to great effect. In its entirety:

To have opened the curtain before bed so that its light would fall upon

sleep. This is not an extravagance of dream, but insurance in this season

for salting meat, for the pulling of old wheat, new prayer eating away at

the storm window’s light rain. By your hand wind has gone concrete

and there in the vacuum rush that comes after, the answer grows. And

after, replete in the blue worsted quilt I told the contents of the small

alabaster box to the blurred part of the flame, for the part closest to

the wick understands this technique of fingernails wedged with dirt.

I want a small say in the version you take away, pitch of danger, expression

fixed in the manner of a thorned bud, wood seasoned hard by first ice. And

so the flame cupped

Sky outwashed to soft white I’d recognize this bare tree anywhere,

trembling with the measure of hands for I said hearkening but meant I

am at my best in a room where no sound escapes and dust hovers with

the feel of a center, suspension among a million stars pulsing so hard

that conditions have been rendered impossible for anchoring.

and the wall dark with the singeing of hair. And so shielded, a tiny sparrow

in the blue pushes up as hills push up from the ribs of the valley. By morning

such nocturnal greens will have faded to sage, the color feather-stitched over

the bodice of my dress.

Like Cockeram’s account, this is both impressive and very affecting. The Summer 2009 issue of The Laurel Review is as inconsistent in quality as it is consistent in aesthetic and moral seriousness, but the highlights are worth the price of admission.