Tuesday, June 27, 2017

`The Clarity Varies'

“I suppose what really guides me when I’m writing about anything is rhythm. Words come up and whether they’re right or not probably depends largely on whether I think they are when I write them down.”

Prose writers don’t talk much about the rhythm of their words. That’s probably a good thing. Prose is the draft horse of style, getting the heavy job done. Too much filigree and the language turns precious. The reader rightly suspects the writer is compensating for sparsity of content. Words are never in isolation, and are more like notation in a musical score than stones in a mosaic. One word follows another according to the logic of sound and sense. We spend a lot of time matching words to the rhythm that already exists in our heads, a rhythm we can’t begin to perceive until we start organizing the words. Sometimes for emphasis we purposely break the rhythm, always with resolution or absence of resolution in mind.    

The passage at the top is taken from an interview C.H. Sisson gave to Nicolas Tredell, collected in Conversations with Critics (Carcanet, 1994). Sisson was a poet and accomplished critic and essayist who often cited Charles Maurras: “Reason may convince, but it is rhythm that persuades.” In the interview, speaking of poetry, Sisson says, “The kind of free verse I’ve written is all against a background of ordinary scansion. . . . I have no use for the sort of free verse that is so free you can’t tell it’s verse at all.” Think how this observation might apply to prose. Later, when the interviewer asks Sisson about the purported obscurity of his poetry, Sisson says:

“The trouble is I don’t think about what I’m writing. I write what I write at the time and looking back, the clarity varies.”

Seasoned writers know that writing often seems to come from some obscure place beyond his understanding. If a writer surrenders to it, he produces rubbish (automatic writing, “spontaneous bop prosody”). If he ignores it, paralysis and sterility set in. Each tempers the other. Sisson was an industrious translator, beginning with Heine, followed by The Poems of Catullus (1966). About it he says to the interviewer:

“I’d written quite a bit by then, but I  was still hankering after some kind of directness and plainness, and I thought it would help to go to something so blindingly clear as Catullus.”     

In 1965, Sisson published an essay on the Dorset poet William Barnes (1801-1886), who often wrote in dialect. Sisson says Barnes was “not a local poet except by accident,” one who “exploited the natural speech of his boyhood.” He writes: “His use of dialect probably enabled him to maintain his liberty of feeling amidst the uncomprehending pressures he must have faced from his social superiors. Barnes is not there to encourage a factitious oddity, but on the contrary to demonstrate that the poet has to develop in a straight line from his origins, and that the avoidance of literature is indispensable for the man who wants to tell the truth.”

When Sisson published his collected essays in 1978, including the piece on Barnes, he titled the volume The Avoidance of Literature.

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