Saturday, June 26, 2010

`An Enlargement of the Mind's Real Resources'

“The approach to perfection in literature is marked, as we know, by a stripping of the vocabulary; the number of words used diminishes, but the number of their different uses increases: and this shrinkage of `material’ emphasizes an enlargement of the mind’s real resources, of its ability to simplify and combine.”

The impossible audacity of “perfection in literature” thrilled me on first reading. That a writer could proceed with such confidence as late as 1945, when Paul Valéry published “The Physical Aspects of a Book” (also the year of his death), is cause for cautious hope: Perhaps not every writer has lost his artistic nerve. Two writers, most of whose work dates from the post-war period, came to mind as filling some of Valéry’s daunting prescription – J.V. Cunningham and Samuel Beckett.

The American poet produced some of the most compact verse composed since the Elizabethan Age. Guy Davenport said his poems are “as well made as wristwatches.” Such concision, rich and never desiccated in Cunningham’s hands, results in greater attention paid to individual words as units of sound and sense. Thus, “their different uses increases” and the fat is gone. Without desiccation or fat, what’s left but muscle? Take #12 from To What Strangers, What Welcome (1964), subtitled A Sequence of Short Poems:

“Absence, my angel, presence at my side,
I know you as an article of faith
By desert, prairie, and this stonewalled road—
As much my own as is the thought of death.”

No archaisms or jargon, no vocabulary exceeding the command of a bright second- or third-grader, even in American public schools, yet no one would mistake these four lines for light or children’s verse. In his essay “Several Kinds of Short Poem” (The Collected Essays of J.V. Cunningham, 1976), Cunningham says the fifteen-poem sequence “relate[s] some sort of illicit and finally terminated love affair.” Surely “an enlargement of the mind’s real resources.”

With Beckett we watch a lifelong condensation, a famously scornful jettisoning of superfluity. The result is prose with the density of poetry but seldom “poetic” in the cheap sense. Take the opening sentences of “Stirrings Still,” Beckett’s final work, published the year before his death in 1989 at age eighty-three:

“One night as he sat at his table head on hands he saw himself rise and go. One night or day. For when his own light went out he was not left in the dark. Light of a kind came from the one high window. Under it still the stool on which till he could or would no more he used to mount to see the sky. Why he did not crane out to see what lay beneath was perhaps because the window was not made to open or because he could or would not open it. Perhaps he knew only too well what lay beneath and did not wish to see it again.”

The plainness of vocabulary is notable. Read the fifth sentence aloud, slowly, and savor the consonants. “Simplify and combine.”

[The Valéry essay is included in Aesthetics, volume thirteen of the sixteen-volume Collected Works of Paul Valéry.]

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