Friday, December 10, 2010

`A Command of the Potentialities of Language'

Almost anything is readable, even John Ashbery, in carefully selected, bite-size nuggets. I draw the line at Writer’s Lament, the mewling of self-ordained novelists, poets and bloggers who bewail their lonely task. I read a prominent blogger carrying on this way and thought: Get a job cutting hay or laying asphalt -- real work, the kind that wrings out your brain and might shorten your life. Of all emotions, self-pity is the most insufferable, as anger is the most tiresome – I mean to others, not to the self-pitying and angry, who fuel themselves with unhappiness.

Hard work freely undertaken is a privilege and often a pleasure, and writing is a vocation, part gift, part application, part joy. No one makes you do it and you look silly complaining about it, like a toddler whining about too much ice cream. In “The Plain Style Re-Born,” written in 1961 and collected in Forms of Discovery (1967), Yvor Winters writes:

“During the Romantic movement a great deal of sentimental nonsense was written about the isolation of the artist, and the nonsense usually verges on self-pity; there is a trace of self-pity in [J.V.] Cunningham's poems `Envoi’ and `Forgiveness.’ The fact remains, however, that the artist, if he is really an artist, is really isolated, and his personal life in this respect is a hard one. There are few people with whom he can converse freely without giving offense or becoming angry. It is no accident that so many great writers have sooner or later retreated from society; they retreat because they are excluded.”

Who else could get away with accusing Cunningham of self-pity? And who else refuses to ignore the obvious: Writing is not a social activity. One undertakes it in a sort of double aloneness: Physical isolation, of course, a pushing away of the world, but also mental solitude, maintaining a preserve within, a one-person deer park. There, one can play undisturbed with words and ideas, for that’s essentially what a writer does. In “Three Poets,” written in 1948 and included in Uncollected Essays and Reviews (1976), Winters writes:

“The two marks by which we most readily recognize a poet [writer], I presume, are first an ability to grasp and objectify a particular subject so that it is rendered comprehensible both as an individual thing and as a symbol of general experience, and second a command of the potentialities of language, phrase by phrase, including the rhythmic potentialities. Neither of these abilities will ever develop very far by itself; the subject cannot be defined satisfactorily in general; unless it is defined well in detail, and the language, phrase by phrase, cannot be made to say much unless the poet knows what he is trying to say.”

It’s remarkable how many writers with nothing to say and no gift for saying it are eager to tell us how tough it is being a writer.

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