Monday, July 12, 2010

Letters to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer, X

In our daily wading through the streams of ideas and language with which we seek familiarity in our chosen craft, there is invariably up there in the stream ahead of us the flashing metaphor of the tail of a dam-building beaver or a speckled trout, seeking a fly to finish off its lunch.  With luck, we catch full sight of these metaphorical notions, these ideas and excellent arrangements of words that, in combination, become the stories we write about.

Because we are writers and, by nature, curious to see how the other ladies and gents in the craft are doing, we read.  We read particular writers because their work has so many flashes of wording or idea.  In some cases our favoring these writers we read is so complex and demanding that we scarcely take the time to articulate what it is about their work that so beckons to us.  It is important to step out of--to continue the metaphor--the streams of our own language and time, going back into the past, going to other places as well.

Aha, I can already hear some of you young and middle-aged writers with a particular complaint:  I only have the one language.  It is not quite fair that you, because of your shall we call it generational access to other languages have an advantage.  You and your brother and sister geezers have heard middle-Eastern and perhaps Asian languages at one time or another.  And some of you, the complaint continues, actually have been instructed in Latin and Greek, making your wading streams and fishing holes and wine-dark seas all the more diverse.

All these arguments may hold some weight.  I did persist in my studies of Spanish from about grade five onward, and I did live in places where I picked up enough awareness of profanity to be able to render racial, social, and sexual insults in a number of tongues, but to make my point here, I'm going to speak of other writers, writers to the north of us and considerably to the east, both groups of which speak an English that is only a cousin to our English.  I start with my favorite, a man who wrote one of what I consider the most splendid, evocative lines that transcend his being English and me an American.  He is the poet, John Keats, dead since 1831.  The line of which I speak is from his poem "The Eve of St. Agnes."  It is, in fact, the third line of the poem:


 ST. AGNES’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was!
  The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
  The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass...

After the many times I have read the poem, by the time I reach that line, I have no doubt it is cold when, shortly, we meet a lonely herdsman, at his prayers and rosary, his fingers quite numb --quite in keeping with the other creatures of this vision of a dramatic moment.

I am similarly fond of the novels of my Canadian neighbor, Janette Winterson, whose writings about love reveal yet other dimensions of that remarkable state; as well I treasure the mordant wit of her fellow Canadian, Mordecai Richler, and the mischievous, rollicking possibilities of mocking solemnity that find their way in and about the works of Robertson Davies.

And true enough, writing in his native Australian English, the splendid poet Les Murray causes me to stop my reading and glance at the metaphoric stars he has cast in the metaphoric sky.

The urgency I cast upon you is that you not be satisfied with the mere recitation of your own language, rather that you look beyond the boundaries it has set for you, looking for words as hoary and wise as the old trout who has resisted being caught all these years.  There are words and phrases and rascally ideas hiding in the fifteenth century prose and ideations of Geoffrey Chaucer, words and phrases and visions that collide within the situations set before us by a remarkable twenty-first century short story writer, Deborah Eisenberg.   Those collisions of word and sound and nuance are the reasons why our stories must never become the literary equivalent of farm-raised fish; they must swim about in the free waters of risk.

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