Sunday, November 07, 2010

`Always Forming New Wholes'

Eliot writes in “The Metaphysical Poets” (1921): “A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility.” Both essay and sentence are lastingly influential and often quoted, but the subsequent sentences prove even more interesting:

“When a poet's mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man's experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.”

I would stretch “poet” to “writer.” Along with linguistic gifts – that is, a taste for words -- the writer’s essential tool is a hearty appetite for experience and a synthesizing imagination. Nothing is lost, no matter how small, and all potentially is useful. Experience is to a writer as krill is to a whale.

At last I’m reading How to Live, or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (2010) by Sarah Bakewell. Don’t let the tacky subtitle (most likely a publisher’s ploy) deter you. We’ve needed a popular life of the essayist since Donald Frame published his more scholarly biography in 1965. I’ve only just started reading Bakewell’s book (a belated birthday present) but already have noted a number of passages, including one that reminded me of Eliot’s observation:

“Montaigne wanted to drift away, yet he also wanted to attach himself to reality and extract every grain of experience from it. Writing made it possible to do both. Even as he lost himself in his reveries, he secretly planted his hooks in everything that happened, so that he could draw it back at will. Learning how to die was learning to let go; learning to live was learning to hang on.”


interpolations said...

Your krill caught in the writer's balene - indeed, the whole of your post - reminds me of Whitman, which saw me off to sleep last night:

"Beginning my studies the first step pleas'd me so much,
The mere fact consciousness, these forms, the power of motion,
The least insect or animal, the senses, eyesight, love,
The first step I say awed me and pleas'd me so much,
I have hardly gone and hardly wish'd to go any farther,
But stop and loiter all the time to sing it in ecstatic songs."


Shelley said...

As a writer, I keep in mind not only that metaphor, as your excerpt implies, brings together two seemingly disparate experiences; but I once read that Roseanne Barr also said that that's what makes a joke funny: the collision of two differences and a sudden twist of perception.