Friday, July 01, 2022

'Less from Ornament Than from Sparseness'

I’ve learned to be skeptical of first and later impressions – but not always. With age I’m more appreciative of human mystery and less taken with my own shrewd judgments. Not that I’m wishy-washy. I’m just likelier to give people time to prove themselves. Not everyone who acts like a fool or a saint behaves that way consistently, though plenty of them do. Self-reflection confirms that conclusion. I love reading unexpected characterizations of people we complacently think we already know. 

Here is Hugh Kenner on meeting Samuel Beckett for the first time, in 1958. He arrived in Paris with Beckett’s street address and, on a hunch, sent him a note via the pneumatique – a defunct means of communication I’ve always admired but never used. It worked. Kenner writes:


“From that day on we were friends for thirty years. He was the sweetest man I’ve ever known. He was also my model, whenever I was writing, for the discipline of utter economy: start with short words, progress in short, clear increments. And elegance comes less from ornament than from sparseness.”


Kenner articulates a stylistic ideal I can only dream of achieving. It brings to mind an impulsive purchase I made on Wednesday. Wiseblood Books has just republished J.V. Cunningham’s The Exclusions of a Rhyme: Poems and Epigrams. No sane reader would confuse Cunningham with Beckett, though both worked hard to write elegantly by way of sparseness.


The passage describing his first meeting with Beckett can be found in the last book Kenner published during his lifetime, The Elsewhere Community (Oxford, 2000). Here is the next paragraph: “At our last meeting, three months before his death [on December 22, 1989], he confided that there is no longer a pneumatique.”

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