Thursday, December 13, 2012

jarnot's duncan

Ben asks me to expand a bit on my praise of Lisa Jarnot's Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus: A Biography. Maybe the word "footwork" wasn't the best; maybe I should have said "spadework," or "ground-work." Any way –

What's evident thruout her book is a massive organizational effort, one which I can sympathize with & understand, having done something similar (or parallel) with the LZ biography. When you begin a book like this – that is, a first comprehensive biography of someone about whom much is known, but whose life has never been told at length – there's an enormous amount of sorting and filing to be done. I'll speak to my own methods, since I don't really know precisely what road Jarnot took, but I began by constructing chronological databases, based more or less on what sources were out there (Dictionary of Literary Biography articles, biographical sketches, etc.): one database of writings, sorted first by composition date (when known) and then by publication date; then another database of events (education, jobs, addresses, meetings with important people, readings, illnesses, etc.). Those databases constituted a kind of skeleton for everything – the girders beneath the fabric of the narrative, as it were.

Then the real work began: reading everything possible by, about, and around the subject. Of course LZ's works – I had already read everything several times, but was constantly re-reading. (When it actually came down to writing a given chapter, I'd re-read everything LZ had written during that period, just to have it fresh in my mind.) Perhaps as importantly, from a biographical standpoint, was correspondence: I tried to read every extant letter LZ had written, and every letter he'd received. Contemporaneous letters are the gold standard for biographical evidence, so far as I'm concerned, and I tried to back up every statement of "fact" with a letter written as near as possible the actual event. As I read letters, I entered the gist of their contents into the "events" database, often altering the orders and dates of events as better evidence emerged.

Interviews as well got sifted into the mix; they proved more useful for human "impressions" of events than for actual hard data, it became rapidly clear – people have great memories for their own first impressions of someone, but their memories for dates and places are far less reliable.

At any event, I ended up with several thousands of pages of photocopies and notes before I even began the actual writing of the thing, which was a wholly different challenge: how to pour as much of this material as possible into a readable narrative, one that wouldn't be clogged or overburdened with detail, yet would convey the shape of LZ's life and writing career. Looking back, I think I achieved maybe 60% of what I hoped to do.

Jarnot, I suspect, had a much larger mass of material to work with – after all, Duncan spent a large proportion of his later years on the road doing readings and visiting teaching gigs, and he seemed to be in more or less constant correspondence with Jess during that period: a lot of letters to take account of, a lot of quotidian data. She's had a hell of a lot of stuff to sort through and make into a book, and she's done a very solid job of it indeed.


Jeff Hamilton said...

This is a helpful elaboration, Mark. Jarnot has put together a chronology that makes sense, evidently, of RD's primary relationship, with Jess. My bother is that from about 1970 on, RD's "life" comes to seem the distillation of his various trips and letters home. Some larger picture falls out of focus as RD's professional paper-trail comes into focus. Obviously, she makes no claim either for the poetry, or its cultural embeddedness. I feel that simply as a loss, so it's good to hear from you on what I should try to value just as much.

mongibeddu said...

Great hearing your method! Ralph Maud I gather did something similar for Charles Olson. Anyway he showed me once a set of binders with chronologically arranged texts and summaries of events. An undistilled version of Jay Leyda's Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson, which I've often consulted.

Looking forward to reading the Jarnot biography, when some space clears on the bedside table!