Wednesday, January 30, 2013

`We Die of Words'

While talking not about his histories of Soviet crime but his poetry, Robert Conquest tells an interviewer that “even though you feel something very strongly, that doesn’t mean you can write about it. I mean you can try, but it often doesn’t come off. And I think there are quite a few bits that I should have cut from my own work. Maybe three-quarters of it.” The interviewer asks why and Conquest replies: “Well, for not getting it right. It’s very difficult to specify why something seems to have failed. I don’t believe in any preconceived method of judging poetry really. Just put it in a drawer for ten years, and then see if it still works.” [Fourteen on Form: Conversations with Poets, ed. William Baer, University Press of Mississippi, 2009.] 

If only more writers would resort to the drawer. Self-ruthlessness is always admirable in a writer. Last weekend, before he consumed half a day taking the SAT, I told my twelve-year-old: “Writing is rewriting.” Politely, he said nothing, but I believe it more strongly than ever. Spontaneity is approximately the opposite of solid, logical, reasonably honest prose and poetry. I thought of the lines from Conquest’s “George Orwell” (Arias from a Love Opera, 1969): 

“We die of words. For touchstones he restored
The real person, real event or thing.” 

Elsewhere, Conquest praises Orwell for his “principle of real, rather than ideological, honesty,” and says “Orwell represented honesty more than anything else. That doesn’t mean that he doesn't sometimes make some rather foolish remarks, or that people, whatever their principles are, don’t lapse sometimes.” As I’m reading Orwell’s essays again, I note the lack of flash, his dedication to the plain style, to not letting fancy prose get in the way of the “real person, real event or thing.” At a book fair in downtown Cleveland in 1969 I bought the recently published four-volume Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell. I had already read Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four in school and disliked them intensely (static and idea-driven, like the science fiction I had renounced a few years earlier), but the non-fiction attracted me. Mr. Sammler’s Planet, serialized in The Atlantic Monthly in November-December 1969, cinched it. When Bellow’s Mr. Sammler gives a talk at Columbia University and cites Orwell approvingly, a bearded heckler in the audience shouts: “Orwell was a fink. He was a sick counterrevolutionary. It’s good he died when he did.” I love Orwell’s line from “Why I Write” (which also includes, as Conquest says, “some rather foolish remarks”): 

“So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.”


Cynthia Haven said...

Timely words, Patrick. Thank you for this.

You might like my own interview with Bob Conquest (I've blogged a lot about him, too) here:

Anonymous said...

Yesterday I ran across Orwell's delightful article "A Nice Cup of Tea" (1946), in which he discusses the steps to brewing tea. Here are a few quotes:

"Secondly, tea should be made in small quantities--that is, in a teapot. Tea out of an urn is always tasteless, while army tea, made in a cauldron, tastes of grease and whitewash."

"Fifthly, the tea should be put straight into the the pot. No strainers, muslin bags or other devices to imprison the tea. In some countries, teapots are fitted with little dangling baskets under the spout to catch the stray leaves, which are supposed to be harmful. Actually one can swallow tea-leaves in considerable quantities without ill effect, and if the tea is not loose in the pot it never infuses properly.

"There is also the mysterious social etiquette surrounding the teapot (why is it considered vulgar to drink out of your saucer, for instance?) and much might be written about the subsidiary uses of tea leaves, such as telling fortunes, predicting the arrival of visitors, feeding rabbits, healing burns, and sweeping the carpet."