Saturday, June 25, 2016

Hearing Voices Again

One of your earliest awarenesses of voice as a primary tool in storytelling came from a source you've long since considered your third university. This source was an icon of your growing-up years, reminding the octogenarian you of the teen-aged you with a haunting persistence. 


Even though a principal source of your income came from working as a page at a public library, you'd begun to nourish the possibility of a library of your own, the titles arranced according to the universal classification system known as the Dewey Decimal System.

With small, self-adhesive tabs affixed to the spines, the titles in your library were dutifully given their appropriate identity numbers. Absent enough shelves to accommodate all your books, many of your titles were arranged at floor level against wall space not occupied by bed or chair or desk. 

The notion of a library of your own came one afternoon in a branch of your third university, a used-book bookstore, a musty, delightful collection of titles you were not likely to find at the commodious and well-stocked main branch of the Beverly Hills Library, where you worked.

The voice of which you speak belonged then and, as such things go, still belongs to Samuel Langhorn Clemens, known by the pseudonym of Mark Twain. At twenty-five cents a copy, his books, in the red, buckram binding, were finding their way to your room and into the orfices and sensory apparatus available to a word-hungry teenager.  

Beyond the memorable openings of two of your favorite of his novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, there was a saying of his, a much-quoted aphorism, that caused you gales of laughter when you first heard it, then made you vow that some day, you would write something as accurate of the human condition and at the same time funny. Thus your lifelong association with Twain, his novels, his short tales, and This observation:"Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society."

Even though the Lawrence Clark Powell Library at UCLA represented to you an equivalent of the Taj Mahal and in fact caused you to begin arranging your books according to the Library of Congress cataloging system, you continued your path of self-education at used-book stores at some remove from your normal habits, including the monumental Acres of Books in Long Beach and, in later years, the sprawling wonder of Bart's Books in Ojai.

You of course heard the siren call of Ernest Hemingway's voice when you began working your way through his short stories and novels, followed in rapid succession by the works--especially the short stories--of John O'Hara, and then, thanks to used-book stores, the stories of Katherine Mansfield.

By this time, a passing remark from your sister, whom you adored--"If you're going to be a writer, then you're going to need to develop a style that lets people know it's you, doing the writing."--had taken hold of your reins and you were scribbling away in all directions in order to hear what you sounded like.

Having a writing instructor at UCLA who managed regular appearances in The New Yorker, as well as having had two titles published by Alfred Knopf, and a splendid exegesis of Pound's "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly" published by the University of California Press, you felt even more certain a career in the worlds of your choice awaited you and that a voice would find you. This very instructor, John J. Espey, surprised you by suggesting you take one of the survey courses in literature you felt least inclined to take:  The Age of Pope and Dryden.

To this day, you find yourself asking, "What could a twenty-year-old with no academic ambitions and, indeed, a growing passion for the voices of Hammett and Chandler, hope to find in The Age of Pope and Dryden?"

One answer, suitable for both, Satire. 

The first assignment for the study of Pope sent you to the used bookstore on Santa Monica Boulevard, where you found Pope's "Essay on Criticism," and a number of lines, first published in 1711, that spoke across the years to you:  "True ease in writing," Pope wrote, "comes from art, not chance/ As those move easiest who have learned to dance."

A man who could speak like that, within the constraints of the heroic couplet, and write a mock epic about someone snipping off a lock of a young lady's hair was, in the clearest possible terms, a man to be read--and heeded.

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