Another book in progress, Literary Matters

Writing, how to: Zeno, the third-century B.C. Greek, cited five qualities of good (more or less formal) speech and writing:

* Language faultless in grammar and free from “careless” vulgarity

* Lucidity – presenting thought so it’s easily understood

* Conciseness – using no more words than necessary

* Appropriateness – using a style akin to the subject

* At least semi-formality, avoiding colloquialism.

Reporting as art form: Henry James said it took imagination “of a very high order” to “extract importance” from events while remaining faithful to them, “free only to select and never to modify or add.”

Writing as medicinal: 18th-century cleric Laurence Sterne wrote in a “constant endeavor to fence against the infirmities of ill health,” he said in the dedication of his novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. He wanted to “beguile (the reader) of one moment’s pain,” since “every time a man smiles . . . it adds something to this Fragment of Life.”

Cutting: The first of Stephen King’s ten ways to better writing is to write less in revision. Yours becomes the incredible shrinking essay. And it’s better that way.

Hanging in there . . .

In “To Charles Cowden Clark,” John Keats, feeling uninspired and “not oversmitten” by what he has just written, adds, “Yet, as my hand was warm, I thought I’d better/ Trust to my feelings, and write you a letter.” He goes with the flow, trusting his warm (hot?) hand. Like the three-point-shooter, basketball’s unique practitioner of confidence and skill; make half of them, you lead the league. You have to be good and trust yourself.

What friends are for . . .

Keats wrote poetry after social outings, flushed with the joy of them, as in “On leaving some friends at an early hour”: “What a height my spirit is contending!/ ‘Tis not content so soon to be alone.”

Or leaving his friend Leigh Hunt’s cottage, walking five miles at night to his own lodgings: “I have many miles on foot to fare./ Yet feel I little of the cool, bleak air.”

Or in “To my brothers,” where Keats and his brother Tom, 17, sit at night in their lodgings, one composing, the other studying: “And while for rhymes I search around the poles,/ Your eyes are fixed, as in poetic sleep,/ Upon the lore so voluble and deep. . . . Many such eves of gently whispering noise/ May we together pass and calmly try/ What are this world’s true joys . . .” Hear, hear.

Not carved in stone? . . .

“Constant Revision” is a book title I am considering. About writing. Shakespeare’s plays were undergoing revision while performed by his troupe. Poetry of a century or two ago is considered in its various versions. Sometimes we prefer an earlier version. But things get revised all the time, even after they are in print. So why shouldn’t we scribblers have that approach to what we do: constant revision until we die.

There goes Nancy again . . .

Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford “like all writers, put entertainment first and exaggerated for effect,” says WSJ reviewer Florence King 4/29, reviewing The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh (Houghton Mifflin, $40). She exaggerates for effect, but the point’s made. Mitford tweaked Waugh about his Catholicism, comparing the resurrection of the body to “finding your motor car after a party” and marveling at how mourners say of the departed, “‘She must be in heaven now’ — as though she’d caught the 4:45.” Waugh called this “a fatuous intrusion” into a world she knew nothing of. Clever, though.

The death question . . .

A friend concerned about the noncommercial aspects of Blithe Spirit asked if I have gotten any work from it, meaning corporate work, which pays more than work for publication in most cases. (You should read Ben Jonson’s correspondence with his lordly patrons. “Drink to me only with thine eyes,” he told Celia, but he still had to live.) No work from it, I said, and he wondered what people will say when they bury me, implying they would not say much if I’d gotten no assignments from it.

Actually, it will little affect me one way or the other at that point, which he surely realizes, but like most people insufficiently. Indeed, even if by slip of lip, it’s strange to speak of point-of-death achievement in terms of work for hire. I love work for hire, but Blithe Spirit is the sort of thing you squeeze in before you die.

The night cometh, after all, when no man stirs, which I just made up. No woman either.

Now you see me, now you don’t . . .

Do not assume that I am rushing to beat a short deadline, though in the scheme of things we all labor under a short one. Neither the day nor the hour has been announced to me. I await the thief in the night like the rest of you.

Still, the uncovered manhole is out there. Ditto drive-by machine-gunning by drug-crazed hippies — the usual assortment of Sudden Happenings. Eternity lurks at every corner. Or as Hector says in Chapman’s Homer, in his goodbye to wife Hecuba before the final battle, “the solid heape of night.”

Well, when the solid heap of night o’ertakes me, will people bemoan my getting few or no assignments? Or will they happily recall the nonsense here displayed under guise of art and journalism, to name just two of many possible cover stories for all this?

The Shadow knows, but who else?

The source of our problems . . .

You’ve heard of blaming it all on television, especially when Elvis danced on Ed Sullivan.1 Or on Prohibition or the Reformation or the Edict of Constantine. Well I have found one who blames it on the Earl of Shaftesbury (1621-83), that well-known apostle of sentimentalism, which I define as the mood that makes one unable to understand a news story without “human interest” thrown in.

Sentimentalism is only half the problem, however. The other half is association-of-ideas, a philosophical doctrine from Hobbes and Locke and a hot item of discussion by 18th-century talk-show hosts.

The pinpointer of these seminal ailments is Yvor Winters (1900-68), a U.S. literary critic who shook up his Stanford students in the ’30s and ’40s, etc. with anti-Romanticism and would be strung up by students or other teachers if he tried it today.

Winters’ problem would be the primacy he gives reason — in poetry but one suspects therefore in all of life — over emotion. For him emotion is a deep pit, something faced as “the brink of darkness,” as he called his only short story, published the year his friend the poet Hart Crane jumped ship in mid-ocean without a lifejacket, 1932.

Crane, a tortured soul by any measure, ordered (and apparently ate) a big breakfast before taking the final leap of despair, a victim of what Winters identified as rampant emotionalism. What do you expect? Winters asked about Crane and any number of other mad poets, the 18th century’s Blake among them, who bought the primacy of feeling and scorned reason.

This was an idea “to break the minds of . . . men with sufficient talent to take the theory seriously.” One is reminded of Janis Joblin and other performers, tragic spirits, who give their all for chaos, saints “of the wrong religion,” as Winters identified Hart Crane.

The crime of sentimentalism . . .

This association of ideas idea seems to absolve the thinker of a need for coherence and unity, leaving him with nothing but emphasis — lots or less of it depending on the weather. In other words, your ideas are great, kid, even if they don’t hold water. They’re yours, aren’t they? And who am I to say you’re wrong? Etc.

Romantic poets — one of whom coined or made memorable the phrase “blithe spirit”

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