I’m meant to meet someone and talk about writing today. Let’s just take it as read that’s an opportunity for me to demonstrate just how ineloquent, how buffle-headed, how truly inane I can be. I may not be able to write myself into a corner–or at least I may be able to write myself in, but as a general rule, I can write myself back out…
Whereas talking, ha! Show me the corner and I’ll be in faster than you can say hobbledehoy.
And then we get down to what makes me tick as a writer…it’s not making money–if ever there was a joke, that’s it. And it’s not that I believe I’m cleverer than anyone else. Or that I have more of a ego. (Perhaps I do–though my loathing for the limelight would suggest otherwise…)
In so many ways it boils down to love of the English language. I love it. I love the writers who write in English: Shakespeare, Donne, Hopkins, H.D., Chrisopher Fry, Byron, Tom Stoppard…we have so many words that beg to be used, to be pronounced, to be held in the mouth like fine wine and tasted.
I’m not saying there aren’t writers in other languages about whom I’m not equally passionate: I have quite a thing for Pierre de Ronsard. And for Friedrich Ruckert too.
But where else than English could you have, “I caught this morning, morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin, in his riding…” And when I read that I just want to read it again, aloud, cherishing the sounds, the assonance, the alliteration, the way Hopkins has captured the smoothness of that falcon’s flight with his language. It’s like Waugh said about Venice, “drowning in honey, stingless…”
Now a little recitation of that may go down well enough with the beloved, late of a winter’s night, with a fire roaring in the hearth…but I’m not convinced it will cut it in the current commercial market.
But because that poetry, that love, is at the heart of my work, it puts me at a disadvantage when people start talking about cuts or changes or commercial deals…because when it comes down to it, I don’t care about all that. When the talk turns to the commercial market, in fact, you’ve lost me. I might be sitting there nodding (doing my best to look interested and perhaps even vaguely intelligent) but in fact, I’ve wandered off.
I probably shouldn’t admit all this. But in the face of the increasing determination to see books and writing as a commodity, one that is no different from a Barbie doll and her latest interchangeable wardrobe, I feel someone has to stand up for good writing. Someone has to say, it’s not the same thing.
Stacking ’em high, and selling ’em cheap is not enriching anyone’s life. It’s not uplifting, it’s not encouraging or inspiring, it’s not contributing to a better future. And good poetry, good writing does that. It makes us think, it makes us dwell in a better place mentally, it does, just as the American poet Wallace Stevens says of art–that its purpose is to create a cushion against the pressures of reality. And to that I say, yes and yes and yes.
And so as I go forward today to talk about some of this stuff, to talk about things like book trailers–which for all I think they might be unavoidable–makes me want to say, fine, but what about the written word? What about the beauty of the language for the language’s sake? Why should any of us labour to create that perfect sentence, that perfect fusion of sound and visceral reaction, and meaning, when it’s really only going to be a screenplay anyway?
And if that’s how we’re now selling books, how will anyone be able to tell the difference between a great or even good writer and the chap who knows a bit about making a sharp video? Which I daresay leads back to the question: Are we interested more in writing our books or selling them?
And when the discussion gets to that point today, you may be sure I shall be thinking those words written some 400 years ago, echoing them with my wonted mystification at the modern world: “Why is my verse so barren of new pride? So far from variation or quick change? Why with the time do I not cast aside to new-found methods and to compositions strange? Why write I still all one, ever the same…O, know, sweet love, I always write of you…”