Wednesday, January 22, 2014

`The Unfrilled Sister-Form'

Joshua Mehigan was working at Poets and Writers in 1999 when he wrote his first letter to Edgar Bowers, who replied, “I don’t know much about Poets and Writers (though one doesn’t have to know much to find the name amusing) . . .” Amusement, or lack thereof, at the finicky self-importance of the journal’s name is a fine litmus test for identifying a certain sensibility, one that finds humor in solemn pomposity.  Mehigan confirms the impression when he further quotes Bowers as saying “. . . writing well should be the end of the writer.” Not the writing industry with its self-preening journals, MFA’s and workshops (Kingsley Amis nails that one in Jake’s Thing: “If there's one word that sums up everything that’s gone wrong since the war, it’s Workshop. After Youth, that is.)” 

A kindred sensibility is at work in “A Needed Noun” (A Peep into the Past and Other Prose Pieces, ed. Rupert Hart-Davis, 1972), a 1902 essay by Max Beerbohm which begins: 

“In the midst of an essay, I find myself writing that So-and-so `was a great poet, but not a great writer of prose.’ Wishing to balance nicelier the antithesis, I pause, seeking some single word equivalent to those three words `writer of prose.’ Of course, I might change `poet’ to `writer of poetry.’ But whoever has a sense of the value of anything—money, words, what not—is accordingly economical. Moreover, my space is limited. For the rest, `writer of poetry’ strikes me as absurd. Yet not, indeed, as more absurd than writer of prose.’ Surely, there must be some single word . . . I ring for a dictionary . . .” 

The dictionary (Nuttall’s) is produced, and Beerbohm reviews his findings: “`Proser (s.), a tedious speaker or writer.’ I shake my head,” and so on, through Proserpina, prosing, proslavery, prosy, the last of which is defined as “like prose, dull and tedious.” Beerbohm muses: “I raise my eyebrows. Why these repeated sneers at prose?” He looks up prose and finds “ordinary language,” “to make a tedious relation,” “resembling prose; dull; uninteresting.” He laments: “Poor prose!” and looks up poetic: “Yes, here we are: `pertaining to poetry; possessing’—what’s this?--`the peculiar beauties of poetry; sublime.’ Dear me!” By this point in the essay, a certain sort of reader (me) will find himself laughing, alone at his desk, at Beerbohm’s delicious mock-pedantry. He goes on to probe the dictionary’s “weird distinction”: 

“One of the prices men have to pay for their egoistic natures is a tendency to glorify whatever they cannot do, and to contemn whatever they can do. Most men cannot write in in rime and metre. Most men can, and often do, write without those frills. And so, whereas they revere poetry, for the unfrilled sister-form they have no reverence at all. Far it is from them to acknowledge that the common form is as susceptible of beauty as the rare one is.” 

Of course, the situation today is even more complicated than in Beerbohm’s day, because most of what comes advertised as “poetry” is indistinguishable from “dull; uninteresting,” sub-journalistic prose, and prose, in certain quarters, is lauded only when it is judged “poetic.” What usually is meant by the latter appellation is not the concise, precise, artful deployment of words but the deeply sincere gushing of emotions best confined to the therapist’s cell. Beerbohm continues: 

“A fatuously drawn distinction!  For, though it is harder to write bad poetry than to write bad prose, beautiful prose is as hardly written as is beautiful poetry. Hardlier, indeed. Prose is the unwieldier instrument. All the writers of good prose have written, from time to time, delightful verses. But few good poets have evolved two consecutive sentences of decent prose [A partial and incomplete dissent: Jonson, Dryden, Swift, Johnson, Keats, Melville, Winters, Bowers, Cunningham, Larkin, etc.].” 

After another two and a half pages of digressions within digressions, all great fun, Beerbohm returns to his quest for a satisfactory one-word synonym for “writer of prose,” and settles on an entry in Nuttall’s he had earlier overlooked: prosaist. He writes: “The word is too rare to have been imbued with a contemptuous significance. It is, to all intents and purposes, a new word.” 

My spell-check software rejects prosaist with an angry red underlining, though the OED welcomes two meanings, only one of which would make Beerbohm happy: “a writer of prose” and “a prosaic or unpoetic person.” The most recent usage cited for the former is 1998; for the latter, 1892. Beerbohm, a great and unfashionable prosaist, concludes: “May it pass into currency.”


Denkof Zwemmen said...

This reminds me of an interesting idiom inversion I encountered many years ago, while reading Billboard Magazine. (I was the proprietor of a CD store at the time, and Billboard was a trade publication for me.)
In an interview, one of a songwriting duo said, “George [I’m making up the name here] is the lyrical one. It’s up to me to write the music and give some feeling to his words.”

Guy Walker said...

I sense that there is an anti-intellectual inverted snobbery against good prose in our modern taste democracy. On my blog I aspire to write good prose by your lights -'the concise, precise, artful deployment of words'- in philosophical or comic pieces. I encouraged a famous journalist to dip in to some and he used a very interesting word in describing my efforts - he urged me to be less 'Olympian'. A wonderful word but somehow diminishing of the potential orbit and range of prose. It led me to write a piece called 'The Quarantine of Eloquence'. If you're interested try my 'Truth and the Tower of Babel', 'Brian Cox ha ha ha' or 'Is Love love?' Would love feedback on them and the state of modern prose. Are we 'allowed'to use the full range of our language and to treat the full range of our experience, however Olympian or workaday?