I hate to be that guy, but ah what the hell…
Last semester I took a course on James Joyce with Dr. Doggett, and it blew my mind, since we read Ulysses. It’s impossible to quickly the form and content of the whole book, but you can pretty much understand it as Joyce’s attempt to construct an epic out of an ordinary day of ordinary in Dublin in 1904.
Ulysses shows us, among many things, that every person is infinitely complex, elusive, sensitive. The novel illustrates, criticizes, and deconstructs modernity, and ideologies like Irish nationalism, masculinity, sexuality, marriage, British imperialism, romanticism, the growth of modern capitalism, masochism and victorian pornographic novels…it’s about everything. Beyond the various complex explorations of political and ideological structures throughout the book’s 700+ pages, Ulysses also makes a beautiful and subversive political point too–that nobody can truly be categorized or understood as one thing. That point finds its expression on the formal level too, by blurring the lines between prose and poetry. The novel begins in a somewhat regular realistic fiction mode, and descends through a number of modes (parodies of newspapers, parodies of nationalist rhetoric, etc), into a forty page eight sentence stream of consciousness at the end, from one of the only female voices in the book, where the difference between poetry and prose seems to break down completely.
Here’s the end of the book (no spoilers, I promise, but sorry for the huge block quote (not really sorry though because it’s beautiful)):
…and the sun shines for you today yes that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is and I knew I could always get round him and I gave him all the pleasure I could leading him on till he asked me to say yes and I wouldnt answer first only looked out over the sea and the sky I was thinking of so many things he didnt know of Mulvey and Mr Stanhope and Hester and father and old captain Groves and the sailors playing all birds fly and I say stoop and washing up dishes they called it on the pier and the sentry in front of the governors house with the thing round his white helmet poor devil half roasted and the Spanish girls laughing in their shawls and their tall combs and the auctions in the morning the Greeks and the jews and the Arabs and the devil knows who else from all the ends of Europe and Duke street and the fowl market all clucking outside Larby Sharons and the poor donkeys slipping half asleep and the vague fellows in the cloaks asleep in the shade on the steps and the big wheels of the carts of the bulls and the old castle thousands of years old yes and those handsome Moors all in white and turbans like kings asking you to sit down in their little bit of a shop and Ronda with the old windows of the posadas 2 glancing eyes a lattice hid for her lover to kiss the iron and the wineshops half open at night and the castanets and the night we missed the boat at Algeciras the watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.
So this comes after 650 or so pages of tightly controlled form, lifting off of the page from the protagonist’s (Leopold Bloom) wife’s (Molly) point of view, when she can’t sleep after he returns home from his travels around Dublin during the day. From the outside (Leo’s view) in the scene before this, she’s silent. From inside Molly’s mind, poetry breaks out of the novel’s form, and lifts off of the page in this last sentence, expanding to encompass multiple landscapes and people, ending in an affirmation of life in all its sensuous detail. Notice how image-based this is, how particular they are to this narrator (Andalusia, the seedcake, the straw hat), but how you can see the world extending out from this singular point of view, becoming almost infinite. I think this is a good goal for which to strive with poetry–expanding out to show life in its beauty and complexity.
More than anything, Ulysses changed the way I think about writing and poetry, how we can use language to illustrate our complexities, and to subvert the structures that would categorize us.