Monday, December 02, 2019

'But It Is Words That Are Creative'

Diffidence in writing frequently gets mistaken for mendacity or timidity. If someone is not forthcoming with every emotional twitch, he must have something to hide. Only by gushing can one remain true to himself and his readers. Honesty and emotional intensity exist in a one-to-one ratio. Such was the gospel that reigned in “encounter groups” and Mao’s cadres during the Cultural Revolution. And yet, the most emotionally raw poet of the twentieth century, T.S. Eliot, was never autobiographical in this banal sense.

In The Man Who Went into the West: The Life of R.S. Thomas (Aurum, 2006), Byron Rogers quotes a letter written by a young teacher, Christine Evans, to the Welsh poet-priest. Evans rather courageously included some poems she had written. By Thomas’ customary standard, his reply is rather gentle. He opens with these words: “These aren’t bad.” In Thomas’ world, that amounts to awarding a Nobel Prize. He continues:

“I see the sincerity in some of them, but here again you have a problem. You have an attachment to this area [Aberdaron, Wales] and Bardsey; no wonder. And in so far as you can put down some of the feelings it arouses in you, that’s fine; they are sincere, and give you relief. But – they are to a large extent private. Only the few of us, who know this area, really understand.”

A useful observation. If you write too personally, your words, rather than fostering understanding, turn hermetic. The revelations may be precious to the writer but the reader is left baffled or bored. How does one balance the particular with the universal? That’s every writer’s dilemma, and the answer can only be worked out incrementally, word by word. Thomas writes:

“And to make private and personal and dear things universal is one of the great tasks in which only a few poets succeed . . . Have you tried suggesting, rather than putting things patiently down? Try a course of Wallace Stevens. Words are so important, as you know. It is words from which poetry springs, yet we will keep trying to describe our mental states and emotions, thinking that will be poetry. But it is words that are creative, arousing strange thoughts and emotions in us. Rhythm, too, is important.”

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