To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
When I was a student of twenty-one, admiring of poetry but somewhat fearful of encountering it within myself (for my dreams were novel-shaped), I enrolled in a workshop taught by Lisa Williams, whose main technique of teaching us to appreciate contemporary poetry without distracting attention from teaching us to write it and improve it, was to assign us “imitations,” due each class, to be discussed alongside our more personal creations. I remembered that the poets who were most satisfying to imitate were the ones who seemed most uniquely themselves, who you could spot by the staccato sounds, the violent imagery, etc, because one could isolate a characteristic or two or several and take a similar topic and come up with something that while it might not sound exactly like that poet, it might sound like an impression, like a comedian or class clown doing impressions, or like a painter dabbing pink and blue and green to make white.
So I have decided to attempt here a review of To the Lighthouse, written in my best approximation of Virgina Woolf’s signature style, which I find is characterized by endless sentences stacked with descriptive and appositive phrases, some of which interrupt each other as they rush to add detail after interior-focused detail, just as Lisa Williams taught me, although we never did apply the exercise to prose, yet it’s especially fun this time, perhaps because Woolf’s style is so distinctive, and writing to imitate it makes my fingers tap-dance on the keyboard and my mind fly freely to associate and connect the most random and delightful words and images to each other in a great big pile of sounds and fury (oops, that was the other long-sentence-writer). The characters and the sentences that describe them grow together in complexity, adding more and more information until the poor reader can’t hold them all in her head at a time. The confusion of the pronouns–who is “he” again? Better to imitate the style than to describe it, I feel, for I internalize the style this way; I sympathize with it and with Woolf; I am no longer detached from her project but continuing it in a small way by placing my mind’s eye inside her drowned eyeballs and looking around at the watery world.
For me, the experience of reading Virginia Woolf is about giving up control over understanding everything and just being borne by the prose like a surfer by a wave. I feel like I’m reading incomprehensible modern poetry: I get to the point where I just let go of the urge to search for meaning and just let the rhythms and the sounds wash over me. (And in writing this I’m letting go also of the teacherly urge to correct comma splices and run-ons, because thoughts are naturally connected like this, aren’t they, they trail together and keep running until your mind stops turning, which is never.) I read in the moment, paying attention to the words in front of me, and not trying to make many connections to the previous pages (even though that’s one of the seven reading strategies I teach my students). Maybe it makes me a bad reader or a lazy reader, but who are you to say my experience of reading is any less valid, it’s what I make of it, or at least I thought that’s what Stanley Fish said. It’s a lesson in living and reading in the moment, being present and noticing details. It’s a form of meditation.
Very little of the actual plot of the novel sinks through this meditative state into a firm understanding: pictures of dinner parties, couples walking on beaches navigating their own agendas, Mrs. Ramsey queenlike presiding over all, Mr. Ramsey despotic, vain, petty, Lily Briscoe the painter observing. The weighty, guilty conclusion of the mother: “children never forget.” Painting is of course the perfect metaphor here: I feel like these details are like the brushstrokes of an impressionist painting, and if you focus to closely on them, you lose sight of the whole, the flowers or bridge, and it is only by standing back and taking in the whole that the small touches have meaning.
Has this been a successful experiment? Can you see a hint of Woolf between my sentences?
Yes, I thought, turning away from my keyboard in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.