Wednesday, December 11, 2013

`The Man Who Wants to Tell the Truth'

Requests for advice on a “writing career” bring out some of the best and much of the worst in me. One wishes to encourage, but just short of lying. Warnings about solitary hours, ass-punishing labor, unreliable paychecks and uncomprehending editors must be dispensed gingerly, with tact. I may soon be in the position to hire freelance writers at my university, and don’t wish to drain the talent pool even before I begin. I’ve been reading the Collected Poems (Carcanet, 1998) of C.H. Sisson (1914-2003) again, and his understanding of the writing life, if not inspirational, is at least truthful and head-clearing, like a cold shower. In one of his “Pocket-Sized Poems” from the early nineteen-eighties he writes: 

“When I thought what I could do
Fifty years ago, I knew
There must be something I'd do well,
What it was I could not tell;
I had not done it, that was clear.
Nor have I now. How can there be
Ignorance enough left to me
For hope to feed on, when there isn't
Enough delusion for ambition?” 

Not exactly a writerly pep talk but one values Sisson’s no-nonsense insights into the human capacity for self-fabulation. And put this poem into biographical perspective: Sisson published almost thirty volumes of poetry, numerous translations from four languages, a novel and much critical work, much of it written while holding down a job as a civil servant (about which he published a standard text, The Spirit of British Administration, in 1959). In “No Address” from the early nineteen-seventies, Sisson writes: “Pliny, Horace, Cicero, talk to me; / I am a dead language also. / The poetry owners cannot make me out. / Nor I them.” In “The Trade” (the writing trade, presumably) from Who and What (1994), he writes: 

“The language fades. The noise is more
Than ever it has been before,
But all the words grow pale and thin
For lack of sense has done them in. 

“What wonder, when it is for pay
Millions are spoken every day?
It is the number, not the sense
That brings the speakers pounds and pence.” 

In 1965, Sisson published an essay on the Dorset poet William Barnes (1801-1886), who was hugely prolific and often wrote in dialect.  Sisson says Barnes was “not a local poet except by accident,” one who “exploited the natural speech of his boyhood.” He writes: 

“His use of dialect probably enabled him to maintain his liberty of feeling amidst the uncomprehending pressures he must have faced from his social superiors. Barnes is not there to encourage a factitious oddity, but on the contrary to demonstrate that the poet has to develop in a straight line from his origins, and that the avoidance of literature is indispensable for the man who wants to tell the truth.” 

When Sisson published his collected essays in 1978, including the piece on Barnes, he titled the volume The Avoidance of Literature.

1 comment:

R.T. said...

For another writer's view, see the following:

Flannery O'Connor's advice might surprise you.