Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Paper Towns by John Green

Right now, you may be asking yourself a few questions. Like "hey, don't you usually talk about poetry? And isn't Paper Towns a novel? What gives?" Or maybe "What's with the two different covers? And who is the chick on the cover anyway?" You may be wondering what the title means, or even who John Green is. I hope to answer most of those questions in this post.

First off, I do usually talk about poetry. And today's selection is a novel, and one written in the usual way with full paragraphs and dialogue and stuff, and not one written in poems. Paper Towns tells the story of a high school senior named Quentin who has had a crush on Margo Spiegelman, the girl next door, since they were young kids who used to be just friends. And when I say "the girl next door", I'm not using a clich̩; I mean it literally Рhe can see into her bedroom from his bedroom window, if she leaves the shade up. The chick on the cover is Margo. There are two covers because they are meant to represent the two sides of Margo: the cool, sly, popular girl on the yellow cover whom everyone admires, and the private, unhappy Margo that most folks know nothing about.

With weeks to go until graduation, Margo shows up at Quentin's window one night and convinces him to keep her company in a night of extreme pranksmanship. The next day, Margo is gone, leaving behind some "clues" for Quentin. Worried that Margo may have done something horrible and rash, Quentin sets out to find and follow the clues, which take him and his friends farther than they ever expected to go, and with rather surprising results.

Along the way, Quentin completes his senior year, including writing a final essay on Moby Dick in a way that I think might justify reading Paper Towns, if only to find new ways to think about and discuss Moby Dick if it's assigned reading. (Hint: if you pay attention in class, you can usually figure out what sort of thing your teacher is actually looking for, and with a bit of work, you can persuade your teacher to agree with him- or herself by serving up their own opinions couched in your words.)

What I'll tell you about the title: it means something specific, and it serves as a metaphor within the book as well. More than that I will not say. And as for John Green, the author of the book: he's won awards for his two previous novels, both of which I highly recommend: Looking for Alaska and An Abundance of Katherines. Last year, John and his brother, Hank, shot to internet stardom with their one-year vlogging project, Brotherhood 2.0, after Hank's musical offering, "Accio Deathly Hallows" went viral. It has resulted in an online community known as Nerdfighters, which includes social networking as well as social action components. John and Hank are getting ready to launch a national tour: tour dates can be found at the Nerdfighters website, accessible in the links to the left.

Paper Towns will be available for purchase beginning this Thursday, October 16th. And as for what this has to do with poetry . . .

And now, for the poetry portion of the post

The clues which Margo leaves for Quentin are tied up in the arts: a particular record album and highlighted passages from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Also in play within the book are the words of Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson. Whitman, Plath and Dickinson are quintessential American poets. Both Whitman and Dickinson forged new poetic styles, each of them working essentially on their own to create bodies of work that represent some of the finest poetry written in the 19th century. Plath, also an American poet, was known as a "confessional" poet, and a master of both free verse and complicated poetic forms such as the villanelle. She is also well-known for her confessional novel, The Bell Jar, in which she discusses her teenage depression and suicide attempt.

One of the poems specifically referenced in Paper Towns, which gives insight into Margo Roth Spiegelman and provides Quentin with plenty to think about, is "Song of Myself" by Walt Whitman, which comes from Leaves of Grass. "Song of Myself" is a long poem. Really long. And as the main character, Quentin, notes "the poem starts out really slowly – it's just sort of a long introduction, but around the ninetieth line, Whitman finally starts to tell a bit of a story." Not only does the book quote the poem, but it analyzes part of it as well. So if you're reading "Song of Myself" for English class, or for your own edification, you might want to read this book, too, just for the many times the poem is visited and, well, explained.

In "Song of Myself", Whitman presents a series of scenes that, taken together, tell not only a story of sorts, but explain some of his thoughts on poetry and his views on sexuality, among other things. The poem begins with these lines:

I celebrate myself;
And what I assume you shall assume;
For every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you.

Scientific-minded readers will notice that Whitman's lines reflect the notion that everything is composed of atoms; spiritual-minded readers might notice that it includes as well the belief in a shared existence.

The lines from "Song of Myself" to which Quentin returns again and again are found in the sixth section of the poem, which is one of the most widely cited and most-discussed passages in the poem, and is the sixth section of the poem:

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is, any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer, designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say, Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic;
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white;
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you, curling grass;
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men;
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;
It may be you are from old people, and from women, and from offspring taken soon out of their mothers’ laps;
And here you are the mothers’ laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers;
Darker than the colorless beards of old men;
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death;
And if ever there was, it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared.

All goes onward and outward—nothing collapses;
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

Whitman speaks to the interrelatedness of life, and the notion of (if you will) the Circle of Life.

Emily Dickinson, like Whitman and Plath, considered weighty issues like death, eternity and the search for meaning in life and death and, if you believe in it, the afterlife as well. Her poems were mostly untitled, and are usually referred to by first line if you go to look them up. Also? Almost all of her poems can be sung to your choice of the following songs: "Amazing Grace," "The Yellow Rose of Texas," or the theme from "Gilligan's Island." But I digress. Her poems also include a lot so f dashes. If you read her poems aloud, each dash indicates where a slight pause in recitation should occur. In the poem which follows, that means you'll be pausing at the end of every line except the penultimate (next to last) one, and some other places as well. The poem to which John Green (or, rather, his characters) make reference is Dickinson's "Forever is composed of Nows":

Forever — is composed of Nows —
'Tis not a different time —
Except for Infiniteness —
And Latitude of Home —

From this — experienced Here —
Remove the Dates — to These —
Let Months dissolve in further Months —
And Years — exhale in Years —

Without Debate — or Pause —
Or Celebrated Days —
No different Our Years would be
From Anno Domini's —

Returning to Whitman before the end of the post, here's the final section of "Song of Myself" (#52) and its oft-quoted lines. In them, Whitman talks of his legacy and bids his readers farewell:

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me—he complains of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed—I too am untranslatable;
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The last scud of day holds back for me;
It flings my likeness after the rest, and true as any, on the shadowed wilds;
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.

I depart as air—I shake my white locks at the runaway sun;
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.

I bequeathe myself to the dirt, to grow from the grass I love;
If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am, or what I mean;
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged;
Missing me one place, search another;
I stop somewhere, waiting for you.


BookChic said...

I'm really looking forward to reading Paper Towns and seeing John Green on tour. Great post, and I loved the focus on the poetry aspect of this novel. Intriguing way of discussing the book! :)

Justin Colussy-Estes said...

I'm excited about Paper Towns too! He's going to be here in our shop (Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, Ga) on Tuesday and I'm very psyched. I've just got to figure out a way to skip class so I can see him...

(Sorry for the crass commercial plug, I just wanted to share in some excitement)

Little Willow said...

Paper Towns is a great book. It's also going to bring a lot of young eyes to Walt Whitman, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, and Woody Gunthrie.

Kelly Fineman said...

Nerdfighters! Justin, I envy you: I have to wait until November 11th to even have a chance to see John this time 'round, and then I'll have to drive a few hours to Lancaster to do it. Still, I hope to make it.

Bookchic: I usually talk about poetry. I am also a huge fan of John's work, so when I saw a way to talk about his novel AND discuss poetry, I jumped at it.

LW: There's always lots to take away from a John Green book, and having an intelligent "discussion" about poetry and music within the book validates everyone who enjoys discussing literature. At least, that's my opinion.

Possum said...

This is a really an unrelated, too late comment, but I just wanted to say that I enjoyed this blog entry. I found it when I was looking for something about Walt Whitman and Paper Towns (whoah... I wonder WHY!) and there it was, in the google search.

Just thought you should know. =)