Sunday, January 01, 2012

`That It Serves Another's Good'

Work is solace, even raking leaves, scrubbing the tub or assembling a blog post. Measureable results – leaf-free lawn, white enamel, clean prose – always satisfy. One of the pleasures of journalism is the built-in discipline of working within tight constraints. It’s two-thirty, the editor says: “I need that story, fourteen inches, three-source minimum. By four o’clock.” No excuses, no negotiating, just do it. With time, the good writer becomes his own editor, his own keeper of deadlines, just as a good editor prays for his own obsolescence.

While researching The Life of Kingsley Amis (2006), Zachary Leader discovered an untitled, unpublished poem in the writer's archives. Amis was a workhorse – twenty-five published novels, seven poetry collections and much else in forty-some years. For Leader to express surprise at Amis wishing to “serve another’s good” is ridiculous. Few twentieth-century writers so consistently supplied readers with laughter and bullshit-proof integrity. Here’s the portion of Amis’ poem that impresses me:

“There once was an answer:
Up at the stroke of seven,
A turn round the garden
(Breathing deep and slow),
Then work, never mind what,
How small, provided that
It serves another's good.”

Yes, work is solace, but more importantly it “serves another’s good.” A writer, if gifted and disciplined, educates, edifies, clarifies, angers, challenges and/or amuses. Good writers don’t write in mirror-covered rooms (nor on the public square). In those final lines, Amis suggests in thirteen words what it took Samuel Johnson nineteen to distil definitively:

“The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.”

1 comment:

Nige said...

Hear hear - Happy new year Patrick!