Horace’s How-To

Among the previously uncollected pieces in Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories is a six-pager called “How I Write My Songs.” The “I,” like many of Barthelme’s narrators, is initially anonymous; we learn his name—it turns out to be Bill B. White—only in the second-to-last sentence. The songs he writes, or that Barthelme has written for him, are country- and blues-inflected numbers, vacuous yet weirdly plausible:

Goin’ to get to-geth-er
Goin’ to get to-geth-er
If the good Lord’s willin’ and
    the creek don’t rise.

White is evidently a master of his craft: “When ‘Last Night’ was first recorded, the engineer said ‘That’s a keeper’ on the first take and it was subsequently covered by sixteen artists including Walls.” Such reminiscences alternate with helpful hints, all of them comically banal: “Various artists have their own unique ways of doing a song.” “It is also possible to give a song a funny or humorous ‘twist.’” In the final paragraph the lecture modulates into a pep talk (“The main thing is to persevere and to believe in yourself”) before ending on an oddly defiant note: “I will continue to write my songs, for the nation as a whole and for the world.”

Horace; detail from Luca Signorelli’s fresco of the Last Judgment in the Cathedral of Orvieto, Italy
Scala/Art Resource
Horace; detail from Luca Signorelli’s fresco of the Last Judgment in the Cathedral of Orvieto, Italy, 1500–1503

The story reads like a parody of something we half-recognize but cannot quite put our finger on. Is it the emptiness of popular song lyrics? The vapid idiom of Parade magazine? Or is it, we might wonder uneasily, Barthelme’s own readers who are being gently mocked? For the story purports to answer that question asked innumerable times of every famous artist—“Where do you get your ideas?”—with its implicit corollary: How can I do it?

Whatever else Barthelme’s story may be, it is a sly rewriting of one of the classics of American literary criticism, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition.” In that essay Poe, in his best professorial voice, explains how he went about writing his most successful poem, “The Raven.” He began, he tells us, by settling on the ideal length (a hundred lines or so), the effect to be aimed at (beauty), the tone (sadness), the central device (a refrain), the nature of the refrain (a single word), and the kind of word needed (one with prominent o and r sounds, these being “sonorous and susceptible of protracted emphasis”). “In such a search,” he adds complacently, “it would have been absolutely impossible to overlook the word ‘Nevermore.’ In fact, it was the very first which presented itself.”

But how should the refrain be introduced? At this point things take a perilous turn: “Here…immediately arose the idea of a non-reasoning creature capable of speech; and, very naturally, a parrot,…

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