Tuesday, January 11, 2022

'A Burning Desire to Be Explicit'

“When John Freeman asked Lord Birkett (the British judge), ‘Why did you leave your father’s business, to study law?’ he said, ‘I think it was the fascination of using words in a way that would be effective’ – true indication of indigenous talent.” 

The attraction of matching word to thought comes early. It starts sensuously, the way mathematics draws some, and later answers some internal moral need. “Proper words in proper places,” Swift reminds us, “makes the true definition of a style.” Style isn’t filigree. A common fault among self-indulgent writers is showing off by piling on the synonyms, whether adjectives or nouns. A good writer is ruthless with his words, not afraid to strangle them in the crib. In the passage above, Marianne Moore is writing in the Christian Science Monitor on January 11, 1966. Her prose, as usual, is a lively skein of allusions.


John Freeman was host of an English television show, “Face to Face,” which premiered in 1959. His first guest was William Norman Birkett, 1st Baron Birkett (1883-1962), who served as the alternate British judge during the Nuremberg Trials. Using words to be “effective” is not the same as using them to fill the air or page. Effectiveness implies a bond of respectful clarity between writer and reader. Moore writes:


“Always, in whatever I wrote—prose or verse—I have had a burning desire to be explicit; beset always, however carefully I had written, by the charge of obscurity.”


February 5 will be the fiftieth anniversary of Marianne Moore’s death and the sixteenth anniversary of Anecdotal Evidence. In “Poetry” she writes: “we / do not admire what / we cannot understand.”


[“A Burning Desire to Be Explicit” can be found in The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore, ed. Patricia C. Willis, Viking, 1986.]

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