Friday, January 15, 2016

`Most of Us Dainty People'

“Writing is difficult; the words fall dead
Sometimes. The mind must learn to overlook
That pain.”

In fact, that’s a good pain to know and never forget. Another word for it is scrupulosity, a distrust of effortless words, first drafts and glibness. Writing is notoriously difficult to film because it’s strictly an inside job. Hollywood resorts to scenes of the author pacing, sweating, breaking pencils and, after the Sturm-und-Drang montage, pulling a masterpiece triumphantly from his typewriter. But writing, especially the writing of verse, is not for the delicate of heart (or ass). The reminder quoted above is from “On a Young Writer” by James Matthew Wilson, who takes his epigraph from “That No Man Should Write But Such as Do Excel” by George Turberville (1540-c. 1597). Yvor Winters uses that poet’s “To the Reader” as one of the epigraphs to Quest for Reality: An Anthology of Short Poems in English (1969):
“I thee advise
If thou be wise
To keep thy wit
Though it be small;

“’Tis rare to get
And far to fet,
’Twas ever yit
Dear’st ware of all.”

Wilson’s poem keeps alive the ancient tradition of poets advising juniors in their joyous labors. Here he most immediately echoes Winters, who famously advises a student in “To a Young Writer” to “Write little; do it well,” and in “On Teaching the Young,” “Grown middle-aged, I teach / Corrosion and distrust, / Exacting what I must.” To a non-poet, the writing of poetry looks like the most difficult of crafts. At every step, the poet must suppress impulsiveness masquerading as inspiration and tame his gush with prosody. As Winters puts it: “The poet’s only bliss / Is in cold certitude— / Laurel, archaic, rude.” The rest of us settle for prose. In my most recent reading of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, I marked this passage in Chapter XXXIII:

“Here undoubtedly lies the chief poetic energy: — in the force of imagination that pierces or exalts the solid fact, instead of floating among cloud-pictures. To glory in a prophetic vision of knowledge covering the earth, is an easier exercise of believing imagination than to see its beginning in newspaper placards, staring at you from the bridge beyond the corn-fields; and it might well happen to most of us dainty people that we were in the thick of the battle of Armageddon without being aware of anything more than the annoyance of a little explosive smoke and struggling on the ground immediately about us.”

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