Monday, March 13, 2017

`As a Cobbler Made Shoes'

Some of us like making things, whether bookshelves, étouffée or sonnets. The absorption we experience, the pleasure of solving problems, evaluating alternative strategies, discarding some and embracing others, and the resulting sense of time profitably spent, is sufficient reward until we realize someone may appreciate what we have made. In this sense, even the better sort of poets and journalists have something in common. They work within boundaries of time and space, and the limits, self-imposed or otherwise, don’t discourage them but prod more inspired creation. In a 1953 interview with the BBC, when asked if he was conveying a “message” in his work, Evelyn Waugh replied:

“No, I wish to make a pleasant object, I think any work of art is something exterior to oneself, it is the making of something, whether it’s a bed table or a book.”

Recall that before Waugh resolved to be a writer, he considered devoting his life to painting, and then contemplated carpentry and printing. Each is a craft, defined in the OED as “an art, trade, or profession requiring special skill and knowledge.” C.H. Sisson was no admirer of Waugh, dismissing him as the author of “quite readable if not profoundly illuminating novels,” but he shared similar thoughts on the primacy of art as making. In “Art and Morality,” an essay written in 1961 and collected in The Avoidance of Literature: Collected Essays (Carcanet, 1978), Sisson writes: “There was a time when everyone spoke of a maker of ballads, and probably thought of him making them as a cobbler made shoes.”

The particular object of Sisson’s scorn is the post-Romantic cult of self-expression, especially in poetry. Today it represents the dominant mode of writing. Sisson says, “It might be said that `self-expression’ is what poetry looks like to the observer, but that to the poet it looks like `making.’” No longer. Most of our poets are less makers than bearers of urgent, albeit tedious, messages. The loss is ours, as readers. Sisson writes:

“The notion of `making’ poems leaves many things unsaid, but unlike the theory of self-expression it is solid enough not to disappear with a change in metaphysic, and is moreover of general application, being as true of a song of Campion as of Wordsworth’s `Ode on the Intimations of Immortality.’”

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