Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘W.H. Auden

My ten creative books #8: The Silent Woman

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Note: I’m counting down ten books that have influenced the way that I think about the creative process, in order of the publication dates of their first editions. It’s a very personal list that reflects my own tastes and idiosyncrasies, and I’m always looking for new recommendations. You can find the earlier installments here.

For various reasons, there are fewer useful books on the craft of literary nonfiction than there are on writing novels. This may just be a result of market demand, since more people seem to think that they might make good novelists than biographers or journalists. (As W.H. Auden devastatingly notes: “In our age, if a young person is untalented, the odds are in favor of his imagining he wants to write.” And he was probably thinking of aspiring fiction writers.) This is a gap that needs to be filled—I’ve learned firsthand that writing a nonfiction book can be practical and rewarding in itself, and I wish that I’d had more models to follow. In recent years, there have been a number of notable efforts, including Good Prose by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd and the indispensable Draft No. 4 by John McPhee. But by far the best work on the subject that I’ve found is The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Janet Malcolm, which, as I recently noted, is probably the best book of any kind that I’ve read in years. It isn’t a guidebook, and if anything, reading it might dissuade a lot of writers from tackling nonfiction at all. Those who persist, however, are rewarded with a book that has more insights per page into the creative process than almost any other that I can name. To pick just one example at random, here’s Malcolm on the biographer’s use of letters:

Letters are the great fixative of experience. Time erodes feeling. Time creates indifference. Letters prove to us that we once cared. They are the fossils of feeling. This is why biographers prize them so: they are biography’s only conduit to unmediated experience. Everything else the biographer touches is stale, hashed over, told and retold, dubious, unauthentic, suspect. Only when he reads a subject’s letters does the biographer feel he has come fully into his presence, and only when he quotes from the letters does he share with his readers the sense of life retrieved. And he shares something else: the feeling of transgression that comes from reading letters not meant for one’s eyes.

And perhaps the book’s most memorable passage comes after Malcolm visits the home of a minor player in the Sylvia Plath saga, who turns out to be a hoarder. Afterward, it strikes her that the house was “a kind of monstrous allegory of truth,” both in how we look at the world around us and in how we face the problem of writing:

This is the way things are, the place says. This is unmediated actuality, in all its multiplicity, randomness, inconsistency, redundancy, authenticity. Before the magisterial mess…the orderly houses that most of us live in seem meagre and lifeless—as, in the same way, the narratives called biographies pale and shrink in the face of the disorderly actuality that is a life…Each person who sits down to write faces not a blank page but his own vastly overfilled mind. The problem is to clear out most of what is in it, to fill huge plastic garbage bags with a confused jumble of things that have accreted there over the days, months, years of being alive and taking things in through the eyes and ears and heart. The goal is to make a space where a few ideas and images and feelings may be so arranged that the reader will want to linger a while among them, rather than to flee…But this task of housecleaning (of narrating) is not merely arduous; it is dangerous. There is the danger of throwing the wrong things out and keeping the wrong things in; there is the danger of throwing too much out and being left with too bare a house; there is the danger of throwing everything out.

Malcolm concludes: “Once one starts throwing out, it may become hard to stop. It may be better not to start. It may be better to hang onto everything…lest one be left with nothing.” Obviously, she hasn’t listened to her own advice, and we’re all the better for it. But that doesn’t mean that she—or the reader—has to be fine with the outcome.

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August 8, 2018 at 9:00 am

St. George and the Bulldozer

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On February 28, 1962, the poet W.H. Auden delivered a lecture at Mt. Holyoke College that has since been reprinted under the title “The Poet and the City.” Auden opens with the observation—which remains as true today as it was half a century ago—that a surprising number of people claim that they want to be writers. He continues with devastating precision:

Among these would-be writers, the majority have no marked literary gift. This in itself is not surprising; a marked gift for any occupation is not very common. What is surprising is that such a high percentage of those without any marked talent for any profession should think of writing as the solution. One would have expected that a certain number would imagine that they had a talent for medicine or engineering and so on, but this is not the case. In our age, if a young person is untalented, the odds are in favor of his imagining he wants to write.

Auden’s explanation is that capitalism has reduced the worker to a mere laborer on behalf of impersonal forces, which leads the ordinary individual to be drawn to the dream of being in control of one’s life. He concludes: “It is only natural, therefore, that the arts which cannot be rationalized in this way—the artist still remains personally responsible for what he makes—should fascinate those who, because they have no marked talent, are afraid, with good reason, that all they have to look forward to is a lifetime of meaningless labor. This fascination is not due to the nature of art itself, but to the way in which an artist works; he, and in our age, almost nobody else, is his own master.”

Of course, writers operate under severe constrains and limitations of their own, and Auden goes on to list four reasons why the writing life is especially difficult in the modern era. One is the loss of the belief that the universe is eternal, which undermines the notion that art is meant to be enduring; another is our doubt in the existence of objective phenomena, which destroys the conception of art as an accurate representation of reality; and the third is our fear that our culture will fail to last long enough for our work to be appreciated or understood after we’re gone. (Auden speaks here with an echo of science fiction: “Technology, with its ever accelerating transformation of man’s way of living, has made it impossible for us to imagine what life will be like even twenty years from now.”) But it’s his fourth reason that interests me the most. Auden calls it “the disappearance of the Public Realm as the sphere of revelatory personal deeds,” which he characterizes as a reversal of the assumptions of the ancient world:

To the Greeks the Private Realm was the sphere of life ruled by the necessity of sustaining life, and the Public Realm the sphere of freedom where a man could disclose himself to others. Today, the significance of the terms private and public has been reversed; public life is the necessary impersonal life, the place where a man fulfills his social function, and it is in his private life that he is free to be his personal self.

And Auden adds darkly: “In consequence the arts, literature in particular, have lost their traditional principal human subject, the man of action, the doer of public deeds.”

At first, this might seem like an overstatement, but Auden makes a convincing case. He begins by returning to the specter of technology, which looms menacingly over the entire lecture:

The advent of the machine has destroyed the direct relation between a man’s intention and his deed. If St. George meets the dragon face to face and plunges a spear into its heart, he may legitimately say “I slew the dragon,” but, if he drops a bomb on the dragon from an altitude of twenty thousand feet, though his intention—to slay it—is the same, his act consists in pressing a lever and it is the bomb, not St. George, that does the killing.

The same holds true of the public works and monuments of the past. If Pharaoh orders that the fens be drained, it’s a measure of his power over human beings that he can get ten thousand subjects to do his bidding. Today, the same project could be accomplished in six months by “a hundred men with bulldozers,” reducing it to nothing more than a feat of civil engineering, with most of the work performed by machines that aren’t motivated by loyalty or fear. (Auden notes with some alarm: “It is now possible to imagine a world in which the only human work on such projects will be done by a mere handful of persons who operate computers.”) And his next observation is the one that resonates the most: “It is extremely difficult today to use public figures as themes for poetry because the good or evil they do depends less upon their characters and intentions than upon the quantity of impersonal force at their disposal.”

Yet I don’t think this is entirely true, at least not right now, when character, intent, and the power of words seem more relevant than ever, even if they require some quantity of “impersonal force.” To illustrate his point, Auden observes that it would be difficult to write a good poem about Winston Churchill: “All attempts to write about persons or events, however important, to which the poet is not intimately related in a personal way are now doomed to failure.” But this intimate relationship, or its emotional equivalent, is exactly what our national politics have achieved. As Yascha Mounk writes in a recent New Yorker review of the book The Increasingly United States by Daniel J. Hopkins, the Democratic and Republican parties have turned into “mega-identities,” embodied by “a politics in which all Americans fancy themselves bit actors in the same great drama of state, cheering or jeering an identical cast of heroes and villains.” The logical culmination is a head of state who assumes the role of a producer or television star. Even if he or she were an artist of impeccable taste, Auden points out that the results would be chilling:

A society which was really like a good poem, embodying the aesthetic virtues of beauty, order, economy and subordination of detail to the whole, would be a nightmare of horror for, given the historical reality of actual men, such a society could only come into being through selective breeding, extermination of the physically and mentally unfit, absolute obedience to its Director, and a large slave class kept out of sight in cellars.

Total control is a writer’s dream, but a nightmare in reality. And we’d be better off if such impulses led to bad novels, rather than to what Auden calls the “romantic answer” to what we want to do with our lives: “I want to be an explorer, a racing motorist, a missionary, President of the United States.”

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July 5, 2018 at 8:18 am

Quote of the Day

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I never am a part of the thing till this moment [of writing]. It is a bit worrying that I so rarely feel even a momentary belonging. I suppose I have to dwindle it down to the palm of my hand. I would indeed rather spread myself out to its height and length.

Joan Murray, in a letter to W.H. Auden

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January 23, 2018 at 7:30 am

The homecoming king

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In my last year at college, I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out how to come back from the dead. I had decided to write my senior thesis about Amphiaraus, an obscure figure from Greek literature best known for a brief appearance in the eighth Pythian ode of Pindar. (When you’re majoring in a field that has been generating articles, term papers, and dissertations with monotonous regularity for centuries, you take your subjects wherever you can find them.) Amphiaraus was the legendary king of Argos, proverbial for his wisdom, who joined the doomed assault of the Seven Against Thebes, although he knew that it would end in tragedy. Because he was beloved by the gods, at the moment that he was about to die in battle, the earth opened up beneath him, swallowing him whole. Much of my thesis was devoted to describing his afterlife as an object of cult veneration, where he appears to have persisted as a chthonic oracle, delivering dreams to pilgrims at his sanctuary as they slept on the ground. He also occasionally returned in person, at least in literature—in Pindar’s ode, he’s evidently some kind of ghost or revenant, since he appears in a speaking role at a point in the narrative at which he should have been long dead. This is striking in itself, because in the ancient Greek conception of the underworld, most men and women survive only as shades, shadowy figures without any trace of memory or personality. In technical terms, when we die, we lose our noos, which can roughly be regarded as the part of the soul responsible for conscious thought. And the remarkable thing about Amphiaraus is that he seems to retain his noos even after his death, as an oracular hero who remains fully aware and capable of returning to our world when necessary.

As I tried to define what made Amphiaraus special, I went down a linguistic rabbit hole in which I was perhaps overly influenced by a curious book titled The Myth of Return in Early Greek Epic. Its argument, presented by the linguist Douglas Frame, is that the word noos, or “mind,” is connected to nostos, or “return,” the central theme of the Odyssey. (It’s where we get the word “nostalgia,” which combines nostos with algos, or “pain.”) The quality that allows Odysseus to make his way home to Ithaca is his intelligence—which, by extension, is also the attribute that enables Amiphiaraus to return from the dead. A rumor of this theory somehow reached John Updike, of all people, who wrote a story called “Cruise” that offered a portrait of a lecturer on a cruise ship that I’m still convinced was inspired by one of my professors, since he was literally the only other man in the world, besides Douglas Frame, who sounded like this:

His sallow triangular face was especially melancholy, lit from beneath by the dim lectern bulb. The end of the journey meant for him the return to his university—its rosy-cheeked students invincible in their ignorance, its demonic faculty politics, its clamorous demands for ever-higher degrees of political correctness and cultural diversity. “ΚΡΝΩ,” he wrote on the blackboard, pronouncing, “krino—to discern, to be able to distinguish the real from the unreal. To do this, we need noos, mind, consciousness.” He wrote, then, “ΝΟΟΣ.” His face illumined from underneath was as eerie as that of a jack-in-the-box or a prompter hissing lines to stymied thespians. “We need no-os,” he pronounced, scrabbling with his invisible chalk in a fury of insertion, “to achieve our nos-tos, our homecoming.” He stood aside to reveal the completed word: ΝΟΣΤΟΣ. In afterthought he rapidly rubbed out two of the letters, created ΠΟΝΤΟΣ, and added with a small sly smile, “After our crossing together of the sea, the pontos.”

In the end, I moved away from this line of reasoning, and I spent most of my thesis developing arguments based on readings of words like poikōlos and polēplokos, which described the quality of mind—a kind of flexibility and resourcefulness—that was necessary to achieve this return, whether to Ithaca or to the world of the living. Until recently, I hadn’t thought about this for years. Over the weekend, however, I read a wonderful profile in The New York Times Magazine by Wyatt Mason of the classicist Emily Wilson, who has published a new translation of the Odyssey. Much of the article is devoted to a discussion of the word polytropos, which appears in the very first line of the poem as a description of Odysseus himself. Wilson explains:

The prefix poly means “many” or “multiple.” Tropos means “turn.” “Many” or “multiple” could suggest that he’s much turned, as if he is the one who has been put in the situation of having been to Troy, and back, and all around, gods and goddesses and monsters turning him off the straight course that, ideally, he’d like to be on. Or, it could be that he’s this untrustworthy kind of guy who is always going to get out of any situation by turning it to his advantage. It could be that he’s the turner…So the question of whether he’s the turned or the turner: I played around with that a lot in terms of how much should I be explicit about going for one versus the other. I remember that being one of the big questions I had to start off with.

And it’s precisely this notion of slipperiness and changeability that I often saw in descriptions of Amphiaraus, who, like Odysseus, has affinities with the god Hermes—the crosser of borders, the conductor of souls, the trickster.

The same qualities, of course, also tend to be present in writers, poets, scholars, and all those who, in W.H. Auden’s words, “live by their wits.” This may be why translators of the Odyssey have been so preoccupied with polytropos, which stands as a signal at the beginning of the poem of the intelligence that you need to make it all the way to the end. As Mason writes:

You might be inclined to suppose that, over the course of nearly half a millennium, we must have reached a consensus on the English equivalent for an old Greek word, polytropos. But to consult Wilson’s sixty some predecessors, living and dead, is to find that consensus has been hard to come by. Chapman starts things off, in his version, with “many a way/Wound with his wisdom”; John Ogilby counters with the terser “prudent”; Thomas Hobbes evades the word, just calling Odysseus “the man.” Quite a range, and we’ve barely started.

Mason lists dozens of variants, including Alexander Pope’s “for wisdom’s various arts renown’d”; H.F. Cary’s “crafty”; William Sotheby’s “by long experience tried”; Theodore Buckley’s “full of resources”; the Rev. Lovelace Bigge-Wither’s “many-sided-man”; Roscoe Mongan’s “skilled in expedients”; and T.E. Lawrence’s “various-minded.” Perhaps for sentimental reasons, I’m partial to Lawrence’s version, which recalls my old favorites poikōlos and polēplokos in evoking a sort of visual variety or shiftiness, like the speckled scales of a snake. And Wilson? She clearly thought long and hard on the matter. And when I read her solution, I felt a shiver of recognition, as well as a strange pang of nostalgia for the student I used to be, and to whom I still sometimes dream of returning again: “Tell me about a complicated man.”

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November 6, 2017 at 8:44 am

The line on the blackboard

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I…told [Stephen Spender] that, when I was a student, I had heard T. S. Eliot lecture. After the lecture one of the students in the audience asked Eliot what he thought the most beautiful line in the English language was—an insane question, really, like asking for the largest number. Much to my amazement Eliot answered without the slightest hesitation, “But look, the morn in russet mantle clad / Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill.” I asked Spender what he though the most beautiful line in the English language was. He got up from his chair and in a firm hand wrote a line of Auden’s on the blackboard. He looked at it with an expression that I have never forgotten—sadness, wonder, regret, perhaps envy. He recited it slowly and then sat back down. There was total silence in the room. I thanked him, and my companion and I left the class.

I had not thought of all of this for many years, but recently, for some reason, it all came back to me, nearly. I remembered everything except the line that Spender wrote on the blackboard. All that I could remember for certain was that it had to do with the moon—somehow the moon…Perhaps I had saved the program of the conference with the line written down on it. I looked in the envelopes for 1981 and could find no trace of this trip. Then I had an idea—lunatic, lunar, perhaps. I would look through Auden’s collected poems and seek out every line having to do with the moon to see if it jogged my memory. One thing that struck me, once I started this task, was that there are surprisingly few references to the moon in these poems…All wonderful lines, but not what I remembered…

Then I got an idea. I would reread Spender’s Journals to see if he mentions a line in Auden’s poetry that refers to the moon. In the entry for the sixth of February 1975, I found this: “It would not be very difficult to imitate the late Auden. [He had died in 1973.] For in his late poetry there is a rather crotchety persona into whose carpet slippers some ambitious young man with a technique as accomplished could slip. But it would be very difficult to imitate the early Auden. ‘This lunar beauty / Has no history, / Is complete and early…'” This, I am sure of it now, is the line that Spender wrote on the blackboard that afternoon in 1981.

Jeremy Bernstein, “The Merely Very Good”

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October 8, 2017 at 7:30 am

The acid test

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I think drugs are interesting principally as chemical means of altering metabolism and thereby altering what we call reality, which I would define as a more or less constant scanning pattern.

—William S. Burroughs, to The Paris Review

On September 7, 1967, the editor John W. Campbell, who had just returned from the World Science Fiction Convention in New York, wrote to the author Poul Anderson about how fantasy—as typified by the works of J.R.R. Tolkien—seemed to be taking over the fandom. Campbell weighed the various reasons why one genre might be on the rise and the other on the decline, but he was particularly dismissive of one possible factor:

One I do not intend to yield to—the escape-from-harsh-reality motivation that underlies the LSD craze among the younger group in colleges…No need for learning a discipline, no need to recognize that “my opinion” and “truth” are in conflict…Which makes for happy little self-satisfaction. But unfortunately overlooks that the Universe’s opinion has a somewhat special place in that scheme of things.

A few weeks later, in response to a letter from a reader, Campbell agreed with the notion that there was no substitute for “experience” when it came to the effects of LSD, but added: “The statement applies equally, however, to taking heroin, becoming a quadriplegic, or committing suicide.” Campbell proposed that as an alternative to drugs, his correspondent try inducing anoxia, by breathing air from which most of the oxygen had been removed:

In just a minute or two, you’ll discover a vast increase in your mental abilities—a sureness of thought, a breadth of understanding, and a rapidity and sureness of reasoning you never achieved before…Of course your brilliant realizations and mighty discoveries somehow seem to misfire when you come down off that jag, and your judgment faculty gets back on the job. But it’s a great trip while it lasts!

It’s worth noting that while Campbell was pointedly uninterested in exploring drugs in the science fiction that he published, he wasn’t exactly puritanical. In addition to his own habitual use of cigarettes, benzedrine, and occasionally alcohol, he sampled marijuana and even “an African witch doctor drug” that one of his chemist friends was developing. He didn’t much care for pot, which made him “uncomfortable,” but he also had a take on the subject that might strike readers as surprising:

Marijuana serves to demonstrate [to teenagers] that the older generation is stupid, ignorant, hypocritical, and unwilling to learn anything. They do reject learning the simple facts about marijuana, and give violently emotional lectures on the Awful Evils of That Hideous Drug—without knowing the first things about it…Any intelligent teenager who’s experienced the effects of marijuana, and discussed it with friends, knows the average family doctor does not know what he’s talking about…Marijuana is a damn sight less dangerous than alcohol. It’s less addictive, less toxic, and less dangerous for a “high” driver to be high on marijuana than on alcohol. It is not an aphrodisiac, nor does it have alcohol’s tendency to anesthetize the censor mechanisms of the mind.

Campbell believed that the real problem with marijuana is that a teenager who learns to doubt what adults say on the subject is likely to become equally skeptical when it comes to cocaine, heroin, and LSD: “So long as parents and doctors deny the facts about marijuana, and insist on classing it with hard drugs, the kid who knows they’re wrong about marijuana feels they’re wrong about heroin…Marijuana can be legalized—and thus separated, as it must be, from the problem of the hard drugs.”

When it came to LSD, Campbell’s attitudes were more or less in line with those of the three other authors who have been on my mind these days. L. Ron Hubbard warned gravely against its use—LSD and PCP were the only drugs that disqualified potential applicants for the Sea Org—and he described his effects in a bulletin of which one follower recalled: “All the information came from one person who had taken LSD once. That was how he did his research.” Isaac Asimov doesn’t appear to have written on the topic at length, although he refers in passing in More Words of Science to “young people foolishly [beginning] to play games with their minds by taking LSD,” and he writes in his memoirs:

Most people, when I tell them [how I get ideas], are dreadfully disappointed. They would be far readier to believe that I had to use LSD or something like that so that ideas would come to me in an altered state of consciousness. If all one has to do is think, where’s the glamour?

Asimov concludes: “Try thinking. You’ll find it’s a lot harder than taking LSD.” This echoes Robert A. Heinlein, who wrote in a letter in 1967:

LSD and pot? Marijuana has been readily available to anyone who wanted it throughout my lifetime and apparently for centuries before I was born. LSD is new but the hippies didn’t develop it; they simply use it. But it seems to me that the outstanding objective fact about LSD (despite the claims of Leary and others) is that it is as much of a failure as other drugs in producing any results of any value other than to the user—i.e., I know of no work of art, essay, story, discovery, or anything else of value created as a result of LSD. When the acid-droppers start outdistancing the squares in any field, I’ll sit up and take notice. Until that day I’ll regard it just as I do all other euphoric drugs: a sterile, subjective, sensory pleasure holding considerable hazard to the user.

Aside from Hubbard, these writers objected to LSD primarily in its role as a kind of shortcut to enlightenment, leading to subjectively meaningful results that aren’t useful to anyone else. On the other side, you can set the testimony of such writers as Aldous Huxley and Robert Anton Wilson, not to mention Stewart Brand, Douglas Engelbart, and Steve Jobs, who believed that they had emerged from their experiences with valuable insights. I think it’s fairly obvious that both sides have a point, and that you get out of LSD exactly what you put into it. If you lack any creative skills, you aren’t likely to produce anything interesting to others, but if you’ve taken the trouble of cultivating those talents in the usual boring way, it can push you along unexpected lines of development. Whether these directions are different from the ones that you would have taken anyway is a separate question, and probably an unanswerable one. My own hunch is that the connection, for instance, between Silicon Valley and the psychedelic culture was mostly a question of timing: it wasn’t that these drugs produced unusually smart or unconventional people, but that many of the smart, unconventional people of that time and place happened to be taking drugs. Many of them regarded it as a turning point in their lives, but I’m inclined to agree with W.H. Auden said of transformative experiences in childhood:

The so-called traumatic experience is not an accident, but the opportunity for which the child has been patiently waiting—had it not occurred, it would have found another, equally trivial—in order to find a necessity and direction for its existence, in order that its life may become a serious matter.

At a moment of renewed interest in microdosing, at least among young professionals with the resources and security in their own social position to try it, it’s worth remembering that the evidence suggests that drugs pay off in visible ways only for people who have already put in the hard work of figuring out how to make and do interesting things. Norman Mailer compared it to borrowing on the future. And as Heinlein himself might have put it, there’s no such thing as a free Naked Lunch.

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April 27, 2017 at 9:11 am

Quote of the Day

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All those whose success in life depends neither upon a job which satisfies some specific and unchanging social need, like a farmer’s, nor, like a surgeon’s, upon some craft which he can be taught by others and improve by practice, but upon “inspiration,” the lucky hazard of ideas, live by their wits, a phrase which carries a slightly pejorative meaning. Every “original” genius, be he an artist or a scientist, has something a bit shady about him, like a gambler or madman.

W.H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand

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March 31, 2017 at 7:30 am

A mass of shadows

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W.B. Yeats

For a long time now, I’ve maintained a collection of typographical errors that found their way into finished poems. My favorite example has always been W.H. Auden’s “Journey to Iceland,” in which a printer’s error transformed the line “The poets have names for the sea” into “The ports have names for the sea.” As Auden later wrote to his friend Christopher Isherwood: “However, as so often before, the mistake seems better than the original idea, so I’ll leave it.” I’ve written about this incident at length elsewhere, because it’s such a memorable illustration of how an artist incorporates chance into the creative process. Recently, though, I realized that my account of the story is incomplete. There are actually three different versions of the line that were published in Auden’s lifetime: “And the ports have names for the sea,” “Every port has its name for the sea,” “And each port has a name for the sea.” What this means, crucially, is that Auden saw the misprint and liked the effect, but he didn’t stop there—he used it as an excuse to keep revising until he had a version that satisfied him, or at least that he didn’t feel like rewriting further. An accident can be a source of inspiration, but the true artist takes it as a starting point, rather than as an end in itself.

I got to thinking about this more deeply thanks to another misprint, which occurred in W.B. Yeats’s famous “Among School Children.” In describing the face of the woman he loves, which he sees as if superimposed on the young girl before him, he writes:

Her present image floats into the mind—
Did quattrocento finger fashion it
Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind
And took a mess of shadows for its meat?

In the original draft, Yeats wrote “a mass of shadows,” which evidently became “a mess of shadows” in the galley proofs. (It’s also worth noting that “a mass of shadows” persists in a few editions.) Yeats must have seen instinctively that mess was more interesting than mass: by evoking the image of the mess of pottage for which Esau sold his birthright, it ushers in a new train of associations that enrich the poem as a whole. The trivial exchange of one vowel for another is like the flap of the butterfly’s wing that leads to a metaphorical hurricane.

"Journey to Iceland" by W.H. Auden

In an essay in The Practice of Poetry, the poet Robin Behm uses this line to shed light on the act of revision, which she describes as a kind of assignment that the poet gives to himself to uncover the underlying idea. Behm writes:

Sometimes it feels you must be two writers: the one who originates the text and the one who discovers it into its achieved version…When Yeats, in “Among School Children,” exchanges the word mass for mess in his famous image of Maud Gonne’s aging face…the total imagination of the poem is affected, not just the local moment. Mess is the palimpsest word written over the erasure of mass; mass was Yeats’s way of getting to rewrite: it was his assignment.

Which gets at something important, I think, about why randomness—even in so humble a form as a typo—can be so rewarding. In theory, the poet in charge of every word on the page, but complete freedom has a way of freezing into helplessness: when you’re overwhelmed by possibilities, you become paralyzed. In many cases, the best way to force yourself into action is to give yourself an arbitrary assignment, as if you were conducting a private seminar for a class of one.

And a mistake goes one step further. A typographical error is like an assignment that you’ve received from the poem itself, or, if you want to get grandiose about it, from the universe. It’s often in the places where the poet surrenders control—only to reclaim it, as Auden does when he takes the accident as the catalyst for a rewrite—that the poem assumes its true, unimaginable shape. One of the themes of “Among School Children” is how little a mother or a teacher can foresee of what their children will become. That’s true of poetry, too. Writing is a form of parenthood that constantly confronts us with our limitations, but it’s only when the work resists and surprises us that it can emerge from its mass of shadows into its final version. Poems are just another form of what Yeats calls the “self-born mockers of man’s enterprise.” And as he unforgettably concludes:

O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

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November 17, 2016 at 9:28 am

Quote of the Day

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W.H. Auden

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

W.H. Auden, “September 1, 1939”

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November 10, 2016 at 7:30 am

The poet on the desert island

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W.H. Auden

Rhymes, meters, stanza forms, etc., are like servants. If the master is fair enough to win their affection and firm enough to command their respect, the result is an orderly happy household. If he is too tyrannical, they give notice; if he lacks authority, they become slovenly, impertinent, drunk, and dishonest.

The poet who writes “free” verse is like Robinson Crusoe on his desert island: he must do all his cooking, laundry, and darning for himself. In a few exceptional cases, this manly independence produces something original and impressive, but more often the result is squalor—dirty sheets on the unmade bed and empty bottles on the unswept floor.

W.H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand

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September 25, 2016 at 7:30 am

Why do poets make bad politicians?

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W.H. Auden

Poets are, by the nature of their interests and the nature of artistic fabrication, singularly ill-equipped to understand politics or economics. Their natural interest is in singular individuals and personal relations, while politics and economics are concerned with large numbers of people, hence with the human average (the poet is bored to death by the idea of the Common Man) and with impersonal, to a great extent involuntary, relations. The poet cannot understand the function of money in modern society because for him there is no relation between subjective value and market value; he may be paid ten pounds for a poem which he believes is very good and took him months to write, and a hundred pounds for a piece of journalism which costs him but a day’s work…

All poets adore explosions, thunderstorms, tornadoes, conflagrations, ruins, scenes of spectacular carnage. The poetic imagination is not at all a desirable quality in a statesman.

In a war or a revolution, a poet may do very well as a guerrilla fighter or a spy, but it is unlikely that he will make a good regular soldier, or, in peace time, a conscientious member of a parliamentary committee.

W.H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand

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December 19, 2015 at 7:30 am

Thousands of leaps

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Martha Graham

Becoming a Graham dancer was hard work. Graham believed that it took ten years to build a dancer (which fits with the ten-year rule for creative breakthroughs that I have described): “The body must be tempered by hard, definite technique—the science of dance movement—and the mind enriched by experience.” Students worked every day on “the torture,” becoming muscular and hardened in the process. After ten years a student could leave the ensemble and join a group of four. Graham commented that “it took years to become spontaneous and simple. Nijinsky took thousands of leaps before the memorable one.” She once added: “The difference between the artist and the non-artist is not a greater capacity for feeling. The secret is that the artist can objectify, can make apparent the feelings we all have.” (I am reminded of W.H. Auden’s advice to an aspiring poet: “Poems are made not of strong feelings but of words.”)

Howard Gardner, Creating Minds

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December 12, 2015 at 7:30 am

Solving for X

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W.H. Auden

According to the poet Robert Earl Hayden, W.H. Auden once said: “Writing a poem is like solving for X in an equation.” More recently, a similar analogy was employed by the journalist and podcaster Alex Blumberg, who explains:

I’ve developed a mathematical test to tell whether you’re on the right track. It’s called the “and what’s interesting” test. You simply tell someone about the story you’re doing, adhering to a very strict formula: “I’m doing a story about X. And what’s interesting about it is Y.” So for example, again, taking the homeless story, “I’m doing a story about a homeless guy who lived on the streets for 10 years, and what’s interesting is, he didn’t get off the streets until he got into a treatment program.” Wrong track. Solve for a different Y.

And while this might seem to make the art of poetry or storytelling feel unbearably dry, it’s really quite the opposite. As Jakob Einstein famously told his nephew Albert: “[Algebra is] a merry science. When the animal that we are hunting cannot be caught, we call it X temporarily and continue to hunt until it is bagged.”

Thinking of writing, or any creative endeavor, as a subcategory of this “merry science” clarifies many of the issues that confront the aspiring solver. The typical problem in mathematics or geometry consists of an unknown, some data, and a condition, and the same can be said of many of the narrative issues that a writer is compelled to address. When you’re first plotting out a story, particularly a novel, the number of individual decisions you have to make can seem overwhelming, but you usually have more information than you realize. Once you’ve spent even a modicum of time mulling over an idea, you wind up with at least an initial premise, a location, some primary characters, and a few of the major story beats—although, as I’ve noted before, many of these seemingly fundamental units are also the result of working backward from an earlier problem. When you line them all up, you generally find that they also imply other scenes or ideas: to get your characters from point A to point C, it doesn’t take a genius to see that you should pass through point B first, at least in your initial outline. (Point B often ends up being omitted in the rewrite, but it helps to lay it out blandly at first, if only in hopes that it generates some useful material.) And by the time you’ve laid all the obvious scenes from end to end, along with the connective tissue that they suggest, you often discover that you’ve got most of what you need. The hard part is solving for the remaining unknowns.

George Pólya

And you can’t do this until you’ve suitably arranged the pieces that you have, which can be easier said than done. Just as the first step in solving a linear equation is to get the variable by itself on one side, the unknown in any story can only be found once you’ve isolated it as much as possible from the surrounding elements. Hence the charts, graphs, and lists that writers produce in such quantities: once you’ve got everything down on paper in some kind of rough order, you start to see where the gaps exist. George Pólya, in his classic book How to Solve It, advises:

If there is a figure connected with the problem [the student] should draw a figure and point out on it the unknown and the data. If it is necessary to give names to these objects he should introduce suitable notation; devoting some attention to the appropriate choice of signs, he is obliged to consider the objects for which the signs have to be chosen.

And this last point is crucial. The outline isn’t the story, any more than an equation is the physical object that it represents, but by giving names or signs to the component parts, you can see through to the reality beneath for the first time.

In On Directing Film, David Mamet says much the same about identifying the beats of a story: “Here is a tool—choose your shots, beats, scenes, objectives, and always refer to them by the names you chose.” Once you’ve named the unknown, you can start to hunt for it more systematically, using some of the methods that Polya describes:

Look at the unknown. This is old advice; the corresponding Latin saying is: “respice finem.” That is, look at the end. Remember your aim…Focusing our attention on our aim and concentrating our will on our purpose, we think of ways and means to attain it. What are the means to this end? How can you attain your aim? How can you obtain a result of this kind? What causes could produce such a result? Where have you seen such a result produced? What do people usually do to obtain such a result? And try to think of a familiar problem having the same or a similar unknown. And try to think of a familiar theorem having the same or a similar conclusion.

Pólya compares this “same or similar unknown” to a stepping stone, and he adds drily: “The new unknown should be both accessible and useful but, in practice, we must often content ourselves with less.” It’s a system of successive approximations, or good hunches, converging at last on an answer that fits. And if we’re lucky, we’ll find that X, for once, marks the spot.

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October 14, 2015 at 9:40 am

What is poetry like?

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Vladimir Mayakovsky

Poetry is like mining for radium. The output an ounce, the labor a year.

Vladimir Mayakovsky

Poetry is like making a joke. If you get one word wrong at the end of a joke, you’ve lost the whole thing.

W.S. Merwin

Your teacher says that poetry is like an exquisite and towering pagoda that appears at the snap of the fingers or like the twelve towers of the five cities of the immortals that ephemerally exist at the edge of heaven. I do not agree. To use a metaphor, poetry is like building a house out of tiles, glazed bricks, wood, and stone—he must put them all together, one by one, on solid ground.

Shih Jun-chang

Wallace Stevens

Poetry is like prayer in that it is most effective in solitude and in the times of solitude, as, for example, in earliest morning.

Wallace Stevens

Poetry is like a panther: it delights the eye; but against any attempt to enslave it, it may wreak revenge.

Walter Kaufmann

Many a fair precept in poetry is like a seeming demonstration in the mathematics, very specious in the diagram, but failing in the mechanic operation.

John Dryden

Nicholson Baker

Poetry is like math or chess or music—it requires a slightly freaky misshapen brain, and those kinds of brains don’t last.

Nicholson Baker

Writing a poem is like getting a short-term contract from God. You get this one done and if you do a good job, then maybe another contract will come along.

David Bottoms

Writing poetry is like writing history—talent, learning, and understanding in suitable proportion.

Yuan Mei

P.D. James

Poetry is like religion: sometimes the vision is immediate and almost frightening in its intensity; sometimes it is reached with difficulty, giving intimations only, and those confused and partial.

P.D. James

Writing a poem is like solving for X in an equation.

—Attributed to W.H. Auden by Robert Earl Hayden

Poetry is like being alive twice.

Robert Hass

Quote of the Day

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W.H. Auden

[A poet] will never be able to say: “Tomorrow I will write a poem and, thanks to my training and experience, I already know I shall do a good job.” In the eyes of others a man is a poet if he has written one good poem. In his own he is only a poet at the moment when he is making his last revision of a new poem. The moment before, he was still only a potential poet; the moment after, he is a man who has ceased to write poetry, perhaps forever.

W.H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand

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April 10, 2014 at 7:30 am

My life as a quote hoarder

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Matsuo Basho

A few months ago, this blog quietly passed a milestone that I didn’t even notice at the time: I published my thousandth quote of the day. (In retrospect, I was happy to find that it was this quotation from Matsuo Bashō, which I love: “The haiku that reveals seventy to eighty percent of its subject is good. Those that reveal fifty to sixty percent, we never tire of.”) These daily quotes, like so much else on this blog, were intended to fill a specific role that quickly evolved into something unexpected. I initially conceived them as an easy recurring event that would allow me to post a smidgen of content on slow days when I didn’t feel like writing something substantial—that is, they were born out of sheer laziness. As regular readers know, however, this isn’t exactly how it turned out: for the last three years, on most weekdays, I’ve published both a quote and a full blog post. In short, what I originally meant to serve as a labor-saving device has almost doubled my workload, to the extent that there are days when I’ll spend just as much time tracking down a good quote, discarding dozens of possible alternatives, as I will writing the main post itself.

And as time goes on, the kind of quotes that I like become increasingly hard to find, largely because I’ve already used up so many good ones. It doesn’t help that I’m looking for a particular sort of quotation that considerably narrows my universe of options. When I look back at the quotes I’ve posted, a certain tone starts to emerge: they’re primarily quotes about creativity, writing, and the other arts, but I’m drawn specifically to practical advice, prickly admonitions, or passages that illustrate the aspects of the creative process that I find personally appealing—ingenuity, flexibility, and pragmatism. I don’t like blandly inspirational quotes about the joys of reading or writing, as much as I may agree with their sentiments. If you’re reading this now, you probably already love books and know that writing is a vitally important activity, so I’m looking for quotes that don’t just congratulate ourselves for having our priorities straight, but remind us that we’re here to get a job done. After a while, a lot of the famous quotes on the artist’s life start to feel like daily affirmations, and I’d rather have something on the order of Degas: “An artist must approach his work in the spirit of the criminal about to commit a crime.”

"Les Petits Rats" by Edgar Degas

It doesn’t hurt that I’ve always been a compulsive quote hoarder. In college, I kept a commonplace book of favorite passages from what I was reading, and although I’ve given up that habit, I’ve continued to collect quotations, mostly because they’re so useful. As Margaret Drabble once wrote—see what I did there?—much of the art of education consists of learning to think in quotations, or of assimilating the wisdom of others until it becomes part of your own, and the crucial thing is to pick the right sources. Like many writers, I’m also obsessed with epigraphs, and whenever I’m working on a new project, which is most of the time, I’m quietly assembling a list of possibilities. As I hope to discuss further in a future post, an epigraph is one of the most undervalued tools in a writer’s bag of tricks: it allows you to set the tone for the novel to come, provides a clue to point the reader’s attention in one direction or another, and offers one of the only permissible ways of explicitly laying out the story’s themes. Not surprisingly, then, I’m always on the hunt for good epigraphs, and I’ll sometimes keep a promising one in storage for years until I find a place for it. (The line from W.H. Auden that leads off City of Exiles falls into this category.)

These days, I maintain several text files on my laptop in which I compile quotations as I encounter them, although filling out this blog’s quota of quotes has often led me further afield. About a third of the quotes come organically from my own reading, and I can tell you that there’s nothing more satisfying than coming across the perfect quote for tomorrow’s blog post by chance. Another third or so are mined from a handful of valuable reference works that I’d probably be browsing through anyway, notably The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Quotations and The Harvest of a Quiet Eye. The last third originate from a range of miscellaneous sources, mostly online, although I’ve learned from experience to independently check anything I find on Wikiquote, particularly if it makes me feel especially warm and fuzzy—it’s often too good to be true. This also explains why I’ve increasingly culled quotes from such fields as architecture or computer science, to the point where I taught myself a bit of coding so I wouldn’t feel like quite such a poseur. The result, I’m happy to say, is as much of a self-portrait as the rest of this blog, assembled in a gradual collage, and whenever I revisit it, I’m often surprised by passages I’ve forgotten. This blog may not go on forever, but the quotes, at least, will remain, and I have a hunch that they’ll end up being the most lasting thing I’ve done here.

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January 14, 2014 at 9:30 am

How will you be remembered?

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The Sanders portrait of William Shakespeare

All artists are shaped by the times in which they live, but we don’t always appreciate how deeply their times can be shaped by them—especially once they’re no longer around. To take an obvious example, I don’t think even an educated nonspecialist reader would be able to name such playwrights as Fletcher, Beaumont, John Ford, or even Ben Jonson if they hadn’t lived at the same time as Shakespeare, who stands as the kind of overwhelming figure who brings an entire generation of fellow writers to our attention. (Marlowe, I suspect, is the only one who might be able to hold his own.) I’m not even sure if we’d be as interested in the earlier history of England, or even the Elizabethan age that the poet prudently avoided engaging in his own work, if Shakespeare had never existed. The presence of one major writer may be the only thing that keeps a century alive in our imaginations, and that writer’s identity can often come as a surprise. It’s probably true that we only remember such figures as Oliver Goldsmith and Colley Cibber because of their association with Samuel Johnson, but for a lot of readers, we only know Johnson himself through Boswell.

This is all the more striking in the case of a poet like Dante, thanks to whom countless historical figures—Farinata, Cavalcanti, Bertran de Born—still exist for us solely because they appear in a few lines of the Inferno. Dante, unlike Shakespeare, was aiming for this deliberately: he was keenly aware of how a passage in an epic poem can preserve a name forever, and I’d like to believe, along with Borges, that he wrote the entire Divine Comedy as a way of enshrining a few images of Beatrice Portinari. The earliest function of poetry, at least in its epic form, was to serve as a kind of cultural memory, and it worked; it’s no accident that the oldest historical figure whose name is reasonably known to us is Gilgamesh. The poem remains, even after the civilization and the petty territorial disputes that fueled its indignation have fallen away. To the extent that international readers care at all about the Gulephs and the Ghibellines, it’s because Dante was there at the time. And nothing could have come as a greater surprise to his contemporaries than the fact that they would continue to exist only in the work of a solitary exile.

Illustration by Gustave Doré for Dante's Inferno

Even stranger is the case of the diarist, who, unlike novelists, poets, and playwrights, writes in secret, but whose works can be just as lasting. Countless figures persist only as an offhand mention in the journals of Samuel Pepys, and most of them would be shocked by which details have been passed down to posterity. As W.H. Auden writes in A Certain World:

The historical reputation of a public figure is based upon a large number of known data, some favorable, some unfavorable. Consequently, a single derogatory remark in a contemporary memoir affects his reputation, for better or worse, very little. In the case of an obscure private individual, however, the single derogatory remark may damn him forever, because it is all we shall ever hear about him.

January 3, 1854. In the evening went to a party at Mr. Anfrere’s. Very slow—small rooms, piano out of tune, bad wine, and stupid people.—Benjamin John Armstrong

Poor Mr. Anfrere! No doubt he had many virtues, but to posterity he is simply an incompetent host.

And it’s interesting to see the same process at work in the artists around us. Some authors are deservedly known as chroniclers of their time: in the New Yorker piece I discussed yesterday, Claudia Roth Pierpont regrets that we won’t have a chance to hear Updike or Roth on the age of Obama, thanks respectively to death and retirement. Updike, in particular, was one of our great chroniclers of the everyday, and there are countless scraps of ephemera from the latter half of the twentieth century—advertisements, jingles, products, packages—that live on because they briefly passed through Rabbit’s consciousness. It’s another reason to regret the death of the daily comic strip, which, at its best, preserves this sort of material forever: if I’m aware of such disparate figures as Caspar Weinberger and Jessica Hahn, it’s because of my dogeared Bloom County collections. (The wonderful thing about movies is that they pick up all this incidental detail in the fly, so that time turns the movies of, say, Robert Altman into priceless works of reportage.) We all fight so hard to be remembered, and we think we have a good sense of our achievements, but really, if any memory of us persists at all, it’s likely to be in a form we can’t expect, in the work of someone whose name we’ve never heard.

Luca Brasi flubs his lines, or the joy of happy accidents

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Marlon Brando and Lenny Montana in The Godfather

During the troubled filming of The Godfather, Lenny Montana, the actor who played the enforcer Luca Brasi, kept blowing his lines. During his big speech with Don Corleone at the wedding—”And may their first child be a masculine child”—Montana, anxious about working with Brando for the first time, began to speak, hesitated, then started over again. It was a blown take, but Coppola liked the effect, which seemed to capture some of the character’s own nervousness. Instead of throwing the shot away, he kept it, and he simply inserted a new scene showing Brasi rehearsing his words just before the meeting. It was a happy accident of the sort that you’ll often find in the work of a director like Coppola, who is more open than most, almost to a fault, to the discoveries that can be made on the set. (A more dramatic example is the moment early in Apocalypse Now when Martin Sheen punches and breaks the mirror in his hotel room, which wasn’t scripted—Sheen cut up his hand pretty badly. And for more instances of how mischance can be incorporated into a film, please see this recent article by Mike D’Angelo of The A.V. Club, as well as the excellent comments, which inspired this post.)

You sometimes see these kinds of happy accidents in print as well, but they’re much less common. One example is this famous story of James Joyce, as told by Richard Ellimann:

Once or twice he dictated a bit of Finnegans Wake to [Samuel] Beckett, though dictation did not work very well for him; in the middle of one such session there was a knock at the door which Beckett didn’t hear. Joyce said, “Come in,” and Beckett wrote it down. Afterwards he read back what he had written and Joyce said, “What’s that ‘Come in?’” “Yes, you said that,” said Beckett. Joyce thought for a moment, then said, “Let it stand.”

Similarly, a chance misprint inspired W.H. Auden to change his line “The poets have names for the sea” to “The ports have names for the sea.” And it’s widely believed that one of the most famous lines in all of English poetry, “Brightness falls from the air,” was also the result of a typo: Nashe may have really written “Brightness falls from the hair,” which makes more sense in context, but is much less evocative.

Lenny Montana in The Godfather

Still, it isn’t hard to see why such accidents are more common in film than in print. A novelist or poet can always cross out a line or delete a mistyped word, but filmmaker is uniquely forced to live with every flubbed take or reading: once you’ve started shooting, there’s no going back, and particularly in the days before digital video, a permanent record exists of each mistake. As a result, you’re more inclined to think hard about whether or not you can use what you have, or if the error will require another costly camera setup. In some ways, all of film amounts to this kind of compromise. You never get quite the footage you want: no matter how carefully you’ve planned the shoot, when the time comes to edit, you’ll find that the actors are standing in the wrong place for one shot to cut cleanly to the next, or that you’re missing a crucial closeup that would clarify the meaning of the scene. It’s part of the craft of good directors—and editors—to cobble together something resembling their original intentions from material that always falls short. Every shot in a movie, in a sense, is a happy accident, and the examples I’ve mentioned above are only the most striking examples of a principle that governs the entire filmmaking process.

And it’s worth thinking about the ways in which artists in other media can learn to expose themselves to such forced serendipity. (I haven’t even mentioned the role it plays in such arts as painting, in which each decision starts to feel similarly irrevocable, at least once you’ve started to apply paint to canvas.) One approach, which I’ve tried in the planning stages of my own work, is to work in as permanent a form as possible: pen on paper, rather than pencil or computer, which means that every wrong turn or mistaken impulse lingers on after you’ve written it. A typewriter, I suspect, might play the same role, and I have a feeling that writers of a previous generation occasionally shaped their sentences to match a mistyped word, rather than going through the trouble of typing the page all over again. Writers are lucky: we have a set of tools of unmatched portability, flexibility, and privacy, and it means that we can deal with any errors at our leisure, at least until they see print. But with every gain, there’s also a loss: in particular, of the kind of intensity and focus that actors describe when real, expensive film is running through the camera. When so much is on the line, you’re more willing to find ways of working with what you’ve been given by chance. And that’s an attitude that every artist could use.

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October 8, 2013 at 8:12 am

The lost art of the commonplace book

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The author's commonplace book

Over the last few days, I’ve had occasion to mention W.H. Auden’s A Certain World, which I picked up on Friday at the Newberry Library Book Fair, but I don’t think I’ve fully explained the charms of this wonderful book. For those who haven’t heard of it, it’s Auden’s commonplace book—that is, an annotated personal anthology of quotations, excerpts from interesting works of fiction or nonfiction, and short notes and observations on subjects ranging from “Bands, Brass” to “Kilns” to “World, End of the.” In short, it’s like the best blog in the world in hardcover form, and it’s impossible to browse through it for more than a minute without having one’s eye caught by some new marvel. Here, for instance, is a quote from G.K. Chesterton:

A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales—because they find them romantic. In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him.

I’ve always been drawn to commonplace books, which provide both a valuable autobiographical portrait of the author and a mine of fascinating material—assuming, of course, that the compiler is someone with interesting tastes. In college, along with Auden’s collection, I browsed happily through the commonplace book of E.M. Forster and the marginalia of Samuel Coleridge, and one of my favorite bedside books is Hodgepodge by J. Bryan III. Bryan is an intriguing figure in his own right: he was a freelance author, journalist, and peripheral member of the Algonquin Round Table who published his own commonplace book in his eighties. It’s chattier and fluffier than Auden’s version, studded with amusing quotations and haphazardly verified facts (“The eggshells of all members of the hawk family are green inside”), and it’s probably the most charming book of its kind I know. I read it over again, in bits and pieces, every year or two, and if you’re the kind of person drawn to the oddments of a lifetime’s reading, you might want to pick up a used copy—it’s widely available online.

The author's commonplace book

Not surprisingly, I was inspired at an early age to put together a commonplace book of my own. My most ambitious effort, maintained throughout most of my freshman year in college, was an ordinary black sketchbook in which I copied down quotes from the books I was reading at the time, from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius to Boswell’s Life of Johnson, along with short journal entries. In the end, like most books of its kind, it met the same fate as the one described by Virginia Woolf:

Most of the pages are blank, it is true; but at the beginning we shall find a certain number very beautifully covered with a strikingly legible hand-writing. Here we have written down the names of great writers in their order of merit; here we have copied out fine passages from the classics; here are lists of books to be read; and here, most interesting of all, lists of books that have actually been read, as the reader testifies with some youthful vanity by a dash of red ink.

Every now and then, though, I’ll leaf through it, and I’m as much struck by the idealism and curiosity it expresses as for the quotations themselves. And although my Quotes of the Day here have served much of the same purpose, I can’t help feeling that such discoveries would live more happily in the pages of a physical journal.

Because in the end, a commonplace book is most valuable for the quality of mind it encourages. When you’re always on the lookout for interesting material, you read books with a collector’s eye, knowing that a passage that attracts your attention now may acquire additional meaning when set apart on its own or juxtaposed with something else. The best commonplace books generate a kind of collage effect, of the sort that we see in the works of Montaigne, Thomas Browne, or Robert Burton, in which the excerpts and commentary create a synergy that none of the individual pieces would possess. It’s no accident that these books are often the liveliest in print: they come very close to capturing how our minds really work, with chunks of memories and scraps of culture bound together with a thin tissue of personal reflection. For a writer or poet, it’s an essential tool, a way of preserving impressions and striking fragments that would otherwise be forgotten. It absorbs material from the world around you and makes it your own, in the most pleasurable way imaginable. Why not start one today?

Written by nevalalee

July 30, 2013 at 8:52 am

The sacred buddle of W.H. Auden

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W.H. Auden

Much of what I know about the writing of poetry, or, at least, the kind I am interested in writing, I discovered long before I took an interest in poetry itself.

Between the ages of six and twelve I spent a great many of my waking hours in the fabrication of a private secondary sacred world, the basic elements of which were (a) a limestone landscape mainly derived from the Pennine Moors in the North of England, and (b) an industry—lead mining…

[I]n constructing my private world, I discovered that, though this was a game, that is to say, something I was free to do or not as I chose, not a necessity like eating or sleeping, no game can be played without rules. A secondary world must be as much a world of law as the primary. One may be free to decide what these laws shall be, but laws there must be…

As I was planning my Platonic Idea of a concentrating mill, I ran into difficulties. I had to choose between two types of a certain machine for separating the slimes, called a buddle. One type I found more sacred or “beautiful,” but the other type was, as I knew from my reading, the more efficient. At this point I realized that it was my moral duty to sacrifice my aesthetic preference to reality or truth.

W.H. Auden, A Certain World

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July 28, 2013 at 9:50 am

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