Wednesday, June 03, 2015

`The Proper Use of Words'

“If you are nearly twenty, then I am nearly a hundred. Or so I feel after reading your letter and poems. I expect you will think me a very ill-tempered old man, but it is not only age, for I remember what I was doing at twenty, and though you may think that it is so long ago as to have no bearing on the way they do things nowadays, I am not so sure. Indeed it is the whole point of literature—or a large part of the point—that it can cure one a little of the follies of one’s own time, which one imagines at first are not follies.”

C.H. Sisson (1914-2003) is writing in 1976 to a young woman, Clare Holland, who has sent him some of her poems and asked that he read them. A selection of his letters is included in the 2010 special issue of Agenda devoted to Sisson and his work. Often a writer’s letters are lighter and less formal than his published work – in a phrase, not so literary, more social. That’s not the case with Sisson. His letters are blunt and plain-spoken, and read like drafts of his essays. Like the rest of his work, his letters come without “trigger warnings.” He continues:

“Thus by reading the appropriate masters one can learn that people in Roman times, in the middle ages, or in the seventeenth century, had quite different—yet related—ways of thinking about things, yet were human, entirely, and as good as we are or, in the case of the surviving master-writers, much better. Why therefore spend your time at the university learning about the rubbish of popular fiction, or the film: both of which you will get to know something about anyway, whereas you won’t get to know the real writers, WHO ARE DEAD, and without whom you will have no standard by which to judge the living, if you don’t begin to come to grips with them while you are a student. Ah, good advice. How horrible!”

Once, such thoughts were commonplace and common sense. The translator of Horace, Lucretius and Dante is saying the provincial among us are bounded in their assumptions and tastes by the present, which is a very small and not particularly important or interesting place. We flatter ourselves by thinking the present is significant because we live there, and the past is something we have overcome and now, without worry, can forget. For Sisson, no past = no qualitative judgment; that is, no reputable critical standards. By eviscerating the curriculum and erasing the past, educators and critics have denied young people their rightful inheritance. Now Sisson gets personal with one of the disinherited:

“I propose to be rather severe about your poems. For you are no longer a child, yet—I grow more horrible every minute—you write like one. First, there are too many big ideas . . . a fatal defect in any writer, in prose or verse. The first thing is to be able to perceive the limits of what you actually see, smell, and feel yourself. All this cant about what God ought to be doing is beside the point. Also, never mind what they can do to the scent of a rose, wonders of science and all that rubbish.”

Small writers find big ideas irresistible, and nothing is less amenable to good writing than big ideas. I’ve not been able to find a trace of “Clare Holland.” I don’t know who she was, whether she continued writing or if Sisson’s letter scared her off. One of the critic’s chief obligations is to discourage the untalented and delusional. The truly talented, after all, will heed the lesson, persevere and learn from the priceless experience of being honestly read. What a writer does at home in the privacy of her laptop is solely her business, but as soon as she imposes it on a reader, it’s open season. After Sisson details the “carelessness” of Holland’s rhythmic sense, “which is really the key to poetry,” he concludes:

“There! Harsh words, meant to be helpful, however, not offensive. The proper use of words—which is what literature is—is a matter of arduous discipline; let no-one persuade you that it is not. That is not to say that poetry, when it does come, may not come `as easily as the leaves of a tree,’ as Keats said. But this is not the same as just opening the mouth.”

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