Tuesday, February 18, 2014

`An Indulgence, Not a Corvée'

“A certain expertise I would claim, however, if only what comes from long years of reading, and of writing irrationally undertaken in spite of an acute shortage of leisure, an excess of non-literary concerns, and an obduracy on the part of publishers which it took years to defeat.” 

Like a long-dry alcoholic contemplating his return to drink, a writer wishing to work has only two necessities to make it real – availability (of time and tools) and desire. Except in rare cases of pathology, writer’s block is myth, as is inspiration. Writing is work, like welding and cooking, and can be performed in a spirit of exaltation, dutifulness or despair. With sufficient dedication – that is, endless repetition – what looks like drudgery becomes as regular as breathing, without ever losing the thrill of accomplishment. 

“Since writing has to be about something, there is no good writing either in prose or verse which is not the answer to some necessity, independent of both money and of other forms of recognition.” 

And yet how often we encounter writing precisely about nothing. There are poets (and politicians) who revel in their disdain for about-ness. Meaning, they say, the precise matching of word and thing, is illusion. No, it’s not, though meaning doesn’t suffuse the air like mist. Or if it does, the writer’s task is to condense it to make it potable. It’s work. 

“An actual preference for the best literature is probably not so common, nor so teachable, as is sometimes alleged, but if one is so constituted as to feel such a preference vividly, one is saved the trouble of reading an awful lot of books. One moves habitually in distinguished company – company distinguished for what it is and not for what is said about it. The company is, naturally, overwhelmingly of the dead, as literature has been going on for a long time.” 

That “awful lot of books” includes, of course, most written by our contemporaries. Among many readers and critics there exists the appalling provinciality of the present. Some readers read only the new, a self-consuming literary genre fated to quickly evaporate. I prefer Hazlitt’s approach: “If I have not read a book before, it is, to all intents and purposes, new to me, whether it was printed yesterday or three hundred years ago.” For most of our contemporaries, Catullus and Dryden are undeniably new. 

“My reading has been an indulgence, not a corvée. For most of my life there has been enough I had to know, without burdening my leisure with any programmatic reading, which is not to say that one piece of reading has not often suggested another, nor that there has not at all times been an involuntary connection between what I read and what I wrote.” 

On occasion, I’ve read books because an editor thought I could usefully review them. Without that enforced discipline, I would never have touched some of these volumes (Dennis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, unreadable and self-indulgently long). I can only read, except for such brief professional lapses, serendipitously, and for pleasure. 

“The most that is intended is that these essays might suggest, to a reader here and there, that there should be some care for the literature of the past, outside the precincts of academia, and some attempt to look at the products of our own time in the light of the still readable work of the past—a procedure which can only result in the rejection of all but a tiny fraction of the current morbidly large output of verse, fiction and criticism.” 

The quoted passages above are drawn from C.H. Sisson’s preface to his In Two Minds: Guesses at Other Writers (Carcanet, 1990). I’m grateful to have discovered Sisson, whose voice has lately taken up residence in my head, like a literary conscience. He’s all coolness, learning and good sense, and his prose is enviably punchy and concise. Here he is on Whitman: “One can see that this loud, untidy writer demands a place somewhere. He is a sinister portent of worse to come.” And again: “What a lout the man is!” With approval, Sisson quotes Dr. Johnson’s assessment of Swift’s poems: 

“There seldom occurs a hard-laboured expression or a redundant epithet; all his verse exemplify his own definition of a good style, they consist of proper words in proper order.”

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