Tuesday, November 21, 2017

'The Rule that There Are No Rules'

“There are owls who want prose to be wholly prosaic. Some kinds of it, yes. Like Locke’s. But, whereas poetry is better without any prose in it, prose can often embody a great deal of poetry. Prose in poetry is a blemish like ink on a swan; but prose without poetry becomes too often as drab and lifeless as a Sunday in London.”

The problem here is defining “poetry” in the context of writing good prose. It’s not poeticisms or purple patches. It’s not Look Homeward, Angel or The Tunnel or the abomination of “prose poems.” One of the reasons I read a lot of poetry is that I hope to write better prose. Good poems are precise, concise and organized. They are not rhapsodic or arbitrary. The passage above is from the chapter titled “Simile and Metaphor” in Style (3rd ed., Cassell & Co. Ltd., April 1956) by F.L. Lucas. Style manuals, by nature, possess little worth. Strunk and White, when not being self-evident are prim and tight-assed caricatures of schoolmarms. Lucas’ entertaining book is the sole exception I know, in part because its medium is its message. That is, he writes well. Lucas continues:

“By ‘poetry’ in this sense I do not mean ‘fine writing,’ such as De Quincey or Ruskin were sometimes tempted to overdo; I mean a feeling for the beauty, grace, or tragedy of life. It is thanks to this that some can find more essential poetry in Sir Thomas Browne than in Dryden; in Landor than in Byron; in some paragraphs of Yeats’s prose than in twenty shelves of minor verse.”

This is an extraordinary observation delivered in the plainest of prose and the most neutral of tones. It echoes the old notion that style is the man. Style is an expression of sensibility rather than verbal veneer; architecture, not interior decorating. Here is the balance of Lucas’ paragraph:

“And one of the things that reduce me to annual rage and despair in correcting examination papers is the spectacle of two or three hundred young men and women who have soaked in poetry for two or three years, yet seem, with rare exceptions, not to have absorbed one particle of it into their systems; so that even those who have acquired some knowledge yet think, too often, like pedants, and write like grocers.”

In “Heavy Sentences,” Joseph Epstein reviews yet another unreadable book by Stanley Fish, and for relief refers at some length to Lucas’s Style. He describes it as “the best book on the art of writing that I know,” and praises Lucas for understanding “the element of magic entailed in great writing.” It’s not a science. Perhaps in approval of Lucas’ statement that good writers possess “a feeling for the beauty, grace, or tragedy of life,” Epstein writes:

“Lucas didn’t hold that good character will make an ungifted person write better, rather that without good character superior writing is impossible. And, in fact, most of the best prose writers in English have been men and women of exceedingly good character: Samuel Johnson, Edward Gibbon, Jane Austen, William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, George Eliot, Matthew Arnold, Anthony Trollope, Henry James, Max Beerbohm, George Orwell, T. S. Eliot, Willa Cather. Even those excellent writers with less than good character—compose your own list here—seem to have been able to have faked good character, at least while at their desks.”

Epstein, like Lucas, understands that writing well has little in common with assembling a bookcase from Ikea: “In art, anyone writing a book on how to write ought to remember there are no rules except the rule that there are no rules.”

1 comment:

Gary said...

Very valuable entry, expresses perfectly that we should keep prose out of poetry and keep poetry in prose.