On Kafka and writing

I was looking for inspiration for a Kafka poem I was writing and came across this blog.

http://blog.bestamericanpoetry.com/the_best_american_poetry/2008/07/what-would-kafk.html#

Here is the blog entry as it appeared. Let me answer the question before it was asked. Yes, I think this is “fair”, the editing makes it an extraordinary poem. Add too that the “letter” is translated from German. From a letter written nearly 90 years before Carver’s poem.

It can be argued that many hands went into making “Kafka’s Watch” a poem. I personally tend to err on the side of being derivative rather than found poetry but there is plenty of evidence for this tradition. Ancient and contemporary.

(Of course, I don’t recommend that others -PARTICULARLY NEWBIES- “find” poetry in other writers’ writing. But if you’re looking for how others do it check out Jorie Graham’s Materialism. Note, however, how scrupulously the quotes are attributed.) End of my rant. Beginning of someone else’s.

July 11, 2008

What Would Kafka Do?

On October 21, 1985, The New Yorker published this poem by Raymond Carver:

Kafka’s Watch

I have a job with a tiny salary of 80 crowns, and
an infinite eight to nine hours of work.
I devour the time outside of the office like a wild beast.
Someday I hope to sit in a chair in another
country, looking out the window at fields of sugarcane
or Mohammedan cemeteries.
I don’t complain about the work so much as about
the sluggishness of swampy time. The office hours
cannot be divided up! I feel the pressure
of the full eight or nine hours even in the last
half hour of the day. It’s like a train ride
lasting night and day. In the end you’re totally
crushed. You no longer thing about the straining
of the engine, or about the hills or
flat country, but ascribe all that’s happening
to your watch alone. The watch which you continually hold
in the palm of your hand. Then shake. And bring slowly
to your ear in disbelief.

To a devoted Carver fan, the poem seemed uncharacteristic: more lush than the spare style that tagged Carver as “minimalist.” I loved the poem, clipped it, and committed it to memory.
Ten years later while reading Kafka’s letters, I came across this passage, written in October 1907, when Kafka was 24 and had begun work for the Italian insurance company Assicuraziono Generali:

My life is completely chaotic now. At any rate, I have a job with a tiny salary of 80 crowns and an immense eight to nine hours of work; but I devour the hours outside the office like a wild beast. Since I was not previously accustomed to limiting my private life to six hours, and since I am also studying Italian and want to spend the evenings of these lovely days out of doors, I emerge from the crowdedness of my leisure hours scarcely rested . . .
I am in the Assicurazioni Generali and have some hopes of someday sitting in chairs in faraway countries, looking out of the office windows at fields of sugar cane or Mohammedan cemeteries; and the whole world of insurance itself interests me greatly, but my present work is dreary.
I don’t complain about the work so much as about the sluggisheness of swampy time. The office hours, you see, cannot be divided up; even in the last half hour I feel the pressure of the eight hours just as much as in the first. Often it is like a train ride lasting night and day, until in the end you’re totally crushed; you no longer think about the straining of the engine, or about the hilly or flat countryside but ascribe all that’s happening to your watch alone, which you continually hold in your palm . . .

My immediate reaction was dismay. Although I’m well acquainted with collage techniques and the practice of “sampling” — as Eliot remarked, “immature poets imitate, mature poets steal” — I wondered about the propriety of what RC had done. Did he take too many liberties? Does the title indicate that this is a “found” poem? When Carver later published Kafka’s Watch in a collection, he added the epigraph “from a letter.” Does that addition make it right?

Would Kafka approve? Do you?

— sdh


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