Like Ice Sitting on a Cold Stove

Good writing, like any craft or art, convinces us of its inevitability. “It’s like all your sentences always existed, just waiting around in Style Heaven, or wherever, for you to fetch them down,” the admiring student in Wonder Boys says.

Maybe the better word is intentionality: the confidence that a work (novel, painting, song, poem) has in its own significance, even as it essays toward meaning, and even when it alternates surprise and recognition. Robert Frost says the “mystery is how a poem can have wildness and at the same time a subject that shall be fulfilled.”

This intention can be seen in single-line drawings of animals by Picasso, in concept albums (“it works, because we said it worked,” says John Lennon of Sgt. Pepper), a Basho hokku, or in the performance art of Riddle and Phelps.

Intention’s power comes from movement that captures emotions in it, like insects in amber. Or, as Frost also says in “The Figure a Poem Makes”: “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.”

When this goes wrong, narratively or in other ways, when something has more presence than significance, it becomes unsettling instead, a cousin to the uncanny or sublime. Some would-be narratives sit there, like ice not melting on a cold stove. They have presence because they signal intention, but they lie. Sometimes I do not see the lie coming, because I think first that the fault lies in my understanding.

The other day I was in the former offices of Dalkey Archive Press, at University of Illinois. An old friend, Greg, told me he was “going to have Puddy’s truck.” David Puddy was Elaine’s boyfriend on Seinfeld, and while I did not remember him driving a truck in the series, my feelers went up. Greg said the actor Patrick Warburton, who played Puddy, was driving the truck cross-country for some publicity stunt. I begged Greg to get me access to write about it.

The truck was there. There was a girl named Kathy Simmons in and out of my shots. Puddy came out dressed as a forest ranger. He posed with the truck which had writing on it. Under an awning Kathy Simmons was drinking all the punch, and I was giving Greg grief about working for a liquor company. I was saying, “Oooh, you work for a…” and he was laughing but nervous. His mother was saying Kathy Simmons got all the punch, and Kathy Simmons looked over at me. I got a bunch of photos of Puddy dressed as a Canadian Mountie and thought of how it could be used in a video profile in the New Yorker style.

I woke in a bed in a dark basement, confused, and mulled what I had just seen. Its emotional authenticity was proof of its existence. Of course Greg was worried about the Puddy event going well; he is a computer scientist at a research university, not a liquor-company PR guy. In my hypnogogic state I was happy I had caught something for this blog, and happier still when Greg’s father appeared in the abandoned Dalkey offices to say, “This one’s gonna be a doozy!”

And that is why I am taking vacation. See you in July.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.