Among the most valuable sources of writerly know-how published during my lifetime is The Poetic Art (Carcanet, 1975), C.H. Sisson’s translation of Horace’s Ars Poetica. The work consists of a ten-page overview titled “The Ars Poetica in English Literature,” the 467-line translation and twelve pages of notes. There’s nothing stuffy about any of it. The practical advice quoted at the top comes from the notes to lines 40-78, in which Horace (via Sisson) commends the use of new coinages, saying that “new-made words can flower, if they come from good roots.” The pun is tartly precise. He adds that neologisms should “not be allowed to run wild.” Characteristically, Sisson urges tradition-minded novelty, moving forward while ever looking back:
“For why should the reader
Allow to Sterne what he will refuse to Joyce?
And why should I not add something, however little,
To the language which Chaucer and Shakespeare made more pointed?”
To read A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) is at once endlessly entertaining and instructive. Johnson supplemented the 42,773 words in the first edition with roughly 114,000 quotations, most frequently from Shakespeare (about 17,500 citations, about fifteen percent of the total). Every serious writer, even if he doesn’t read it cover to cover, should at least keep Johnson’s Dictionary handy, in lieu of grad school. It’s cheaper, less tedious and more reliably informative. Follow each of Johnson’s citations to their source and you’ll give new meaning to “continuing education.”
The latter half of Sisson’s sentence is worth pondering. In the writing trade, masters are few. Most of us remain apprentices, a few are promoted to journeyman but the learning and hard work never cease. There is no graduation. Even the better among us remain perpetual beginners. Implicit in apprenticeship is knowledge handed down. We study under those who excelled before us even if they died, like Horace, two millennia ago, or Johnson, more than two centuries ago. Of course, there are no guarantees. Perseverance doesn’t necessarily forgo failure. Here is Johnson’s definition of apprentice: “One that is bound by covenant, to serve another man of trade, upon condition that the tradesman shall, in the mean time, endeavor [my italics] to instruct him in his art.” And here is Sisson in his notes to Horace:
“Find what you can write about and you have solved your problem. Of course the aspiring writer has to face the possibility that the answer may be, Nothing. At any rate the beginning, as the continuation, of literary capacity involves a certain self-knowledge. Nothing is further from it, therefore, than the intoxications of publicity and reputation.”