Literary Credo…

Sometime ago, I attended a rather fascinating exhibition on the work of J.M.W Turner, called Turner and the Masters at the Tate Gallery in London.

Of course, I loved it.  Yes, I admit it, I’m a Turner-holic.  What can I say?

turnerBut there was this rather insightful comment about Turner’s study included in the programme notes, which encapsulated my own thinking about writing, but also set for me a new and ever-rising bar against which I must measure my work, and it was this–that he believed “the all-important lesson that artists were meant to aspire  to greatness by copying and trying to rival those masters who had come before…”

And it is in the spirit of that, that I bring this credo before you…I wrote it some time ago, yes, but to me today it seems truer than ever…It is a celebration of and a homage to the power of language.

Or, put another way–I believe poetry can teach you everything you need to know about writing.

We live in an age where there is this relentless drive to reduce everything to what is seen as its lean, mean, no-frills, efficient essence.  And everything else is viewed as non-essential.  Whether it’s extra letters in texting (why write ‘you’ when ‘u’ is so much quicker, easier and cheaper?) or the literary fondness for throwing out every adjective and adverb with the insistence that one only needs nouns and verbs, a few articles and the occasional pronoun.

Many people credit Ernest Hemingway with this stripped down literary approach, but I rather think Albert Camus is the true font of this school of writing.  Still, today, we find novels which are little more than extended screenplays–though without the skill and talent of the fine actors to breathe life and emotional depth into them.  These, I dare say, are meant to go with our minimalist kitchens, houses and gardens.

But, for me, at least in language, this minimalism ignores and discounts the many diamond facets of language’s impact.  Because language isn’t just about a word’s definition.

Every single word in our glorious English language is so more than that.  Every single word has sound, it has the length of its vowels and hence it has rhythm.  It carries with it centuries of connotation too.  And history.  It even has appearance on the page.  And all of these aspects, but particularly those first, are aspects which hit a reader viscerally, hence they are utterly vital to understand and employ.  Though, of course, all of these aspects are essential and should not ever be discounted.  But it’s these qualities combined that mean that ‘u’ is not a true substitute for ‘you’.  ‘Look’ is not the same, will never be the same, as ‘ogle’.


Think about it.  Words have drive.  Or they can convey lassitude.  They have assonance and dissonance.  They can be combined alliteratively so that the reader is quite simply swept away and, like the indrawing of Scylla and Charybdis, one cannot resist the strength and powerful motion of them.  And when we go to write our prose, we need to be aware of these various aspects of language, we need to engage with them, cherish them, love them, use them. And let them use us.

Now regardless of one’s view on Puritanism, on John Milton’s politics, religious views and piety, his views on women, or his even taste in clothes, this fellow could write.  He had a sense of assonance and alliteration which few have ever rivalled.  And with those tools, he gives his poetry such a sense of action and motion, that there’s no keeping up with him.  He takes what we might simplistically call the action verbs and he turns them into superheroes.  To be sure, my favourite is the famous:

“…Him, the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from th’ ethereal sky,
With hideous ruin and combustion, down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy th’ Omnipotent to arms.”

Just listen to that.  You can’t help but feel it.  You can’t help but respond.  He takes that already strong verb, hurl, and through combining it alliteratively with Him, headlong, th’ethereal, and hideous, through the assonance of those vowels he creates a thunderbolt of language.

You can’t help but be driven along with it.  And that is the power of the English language.  This is the bar against which we should be measuring ourselves.

Though if you prefer, you can have Camus’ version:  “God threw him out.  Today.  Perhaps yesterday.  I don’t know.”

Another fellow who had it right is obviously William Shakespeare.  And here, let me turn your attention to his ability to convey everything about a character through that individual’s speech.  Take Hotspur in Henry IV, Part I.  Now as we know, Shakespeare often delineated class by using prose for the lesser mortals, and blank verse for the aristos–which is a fairly straightforward device.

But when he gets to Hotspur, he excels himself.  Because Henry Percy is a hot-blooded, hot-headed man of action.  So Shakespeare writes him thus.  When the others, the courtiers, are dithering and considering and pondering and soliloquising (all Latinate roots on those words, please notice) over the plot to take the throne from Henry IV, note how Shakespeare writes Hotspur as basically bursting out of his doublet with vim and swashbuckling strength of purpose:

“…Say you so, say you so? I say
unto you again, you are a shallow cowardly hind, and
you lie. What a lack-brain is this! By the Lord,
our plot is a good plot as ever was laid; our
friends true and constant: a good plot, good
friends, and full of expectation; an excellent plot,
very good friends…”

Out of the fifty-eight words in that passage, all but nine are monosyllables.

Not only that, but in this passage Shakespeare restricts his vocabulary almost entirely to Anglo-Saxon derivations, which to an Anglo-Saxon audience, are words that are understood without a thought process–these words are learned from infancy.  We know what they mean and they hit us–literally punch us–in the gut.

(Winston Churchill was aware of this and used it to great effect when he wrote such lines as “blood, sweat, toil and tears…”)

And really, the above passage has so much drive with the staccato rhythm, so much emphasis, that it becomes nigh impossible to speak these lines without speeding up, without having those words tumbling out of the mouth.  Try it.  And in that, you now have Constable cloudsHotspur’s character–he speaks as his name is.  And in him, Shakespeare demonstrates just how great a master of language he is.

But Shakespeare also had another great knack which may be worth mentioning, and that was using the same word in its various shades of meaning, using one word, often as noun and verb, mirroring itself within the lines of his sonnets.  So he’s playing with sound and meaning all at once.  And always to astonishingly good effect, though perhaps never to such extent as in Sonnet 43:

“Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright,
How would thy shadow’s form form happy show
To the clear day with thy much clearer light,
When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so!”

And I always do think that if one can learn to write a sonnet, and write one well, then one can write anything.  And well.  For the sonnet form, with its demanding scheme of iambic pentameter and fourteen lines, demands such a disciplined skill, such a learning of the inherent rhythm of the language, such a mastery of the tools and craft of writing, that if you can say what you need to say in that format, well, then…you will have learned to listen and to write and to control your art.  And in turn be controlled by it.

And with that, may I turn your attention to another dear friend, and a contemporary of Shakespeare, John Donne–not just a great philosopher, not just a great lover and dean of St. Paul’s, all in one lifetime, but also a great, great poet.  When I think of him, and what I might say about him, frankly, my mind becomes blank.  Because he is, quite simply, great.  And I remain, though I read him often, in a state of awe.  And there is only one reason why he is not included on every syllabus of English literature, and that is that we have become afraid of true greatness.  Or perhaps of our own diminution in the face of it.

Because if you have any wish to ever write about love, the kind that is all-consuming or that which is platonic, lust, something between all of the above, you must look to him.  For no one else in any language has ever had the courage or honesty or genius to write about it so.  To write so close to the bone, that one can feel the ebbing of his blood.

Whether he is writing of grief:  “Language thou art too narrow, and too weak/To ease us now; great sorrow cannot speak…Sad hearts, the less they seem, the more they are…”

Or love:

“I scarce believe my love to be so pure
As I had thought it was,
Because it doth endure
Vicissitude, and season, as the grass ;
Methinks I lied all winter, when I swore
My love was infinite, if spring make it more.”

Or the physical embrace of love:  “Licence my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below…”

Or his most perfect, most sesqui-superlative, The Sunne Rising:

BUSY old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us ?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run ?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school-boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court-huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices ;
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

Thy beams so reverend, and strong
Why shouldst thou think ?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long.
If her eyes have not blinded thine,
Look, and to-morrow late tell me,
Whether both th’ Indias of spice and mine
Be where thou left’st them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, “All here in one bed lay.”

“She’s all states, and all princes I ;
Nothing else is ;
Princes do but play us ; compared to this,
All honour’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.
Thou, Sun, art half as happy as we,
In that the world’s contracted thus ;
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere ;
This bed thy center is, these walls thy sphere.”

Imagine that.  “Nothing else is.”  Those words conjure up a love so transcendent that one almost shudders and fears for its beauty, strength and power.  They reduce all things to mere dust before this so vital and consuming a force.  And it is by contrasting the somewhat flowery language of all that has gone before–the lassitudinous complaint of being woken from after-love–with this stark pronouncement that the emphasis is doubly given to these words:  ”Nothing else is.”

You wish to write of love, read John Donne, he will teach you how.  He will teach you what to feel, how to listen to it and how to wield the knife of your pen so close to your own heart that you will write greatly.

For always, always his poetry demands that we listen, feel the heartbeat of it, of him, rest our cheek against the beauty of his language, his thought, his effervescent love of language and rhythm and sound and let them seep, osmosis-like into our emotional bloodstream and transform us.  He engages our minds and our hearts so that we will never, as writers, shy away from that embrace of passion.

So, I believe, we must begin with poetry.

We must begin the journey the ancient Greeks knew through the hypnotising power of Homer’s formulaic poetry of war and nostalgia.  We must listen.  Lean our faces close against the warmth and power and grace of the words.  Or feel their cruel thrusts of pain.

Take them into our mouths, test them, try them as wine, hold them upon the tongue.  Taste and see, they are good.  Rejoice in them.  Embrace and use them well and let them embrace us and use us for their part.  And let the poets who used this, our great and glorious English language, who understood just how powerful and intimate and utterly beautiful it could be, guide the way.




Historical and/or literary digestion ~ Notes on writing

At the moment, I’m deeply immersed in reading eye-witness accounts of the Napoleonic campaigns, from the spring of 1813 through the autumn of that year, culminating in the battle to end all battles, the Battle of Leipzig.  Fought over three days in October, from the 16th to the 19th, and also known as the Battle of the Nations.  And it was fought, basically, by everyone–Russians, Austrians, Prussians, Swedes–against Napoleon and his Grande Armee.

And what these survivors are telling me is so much more poignant and truly horrifying than anything I could have imagined.  Nor is there any of the propaganda that has over the past two centuries skewed our vision of what they experienced in this War to end all wars. 

This is from Louis von Kaisenberg, who wrote to his father from Kassel on 18 February 1813, about the return of the survivors of the Russian invasion and about the terrible cost of Napoleon’s wars: 

When I recall the day on which we saw the troops march away from here in the glittering uniforms and all the freshness of youth, each man filled with hopes of winning fame and honour, and now!  We stared at the poor wretches, their heads and feet wrapped in tatters, the upper part of the body covered with rags of every possible material or else with straw matting.  Even hides, still full of dried blood, covered their nakedness. 

The expression in the pallid features was a terrible one, their eyes stared from their white, lined faces as if they could still see all the horrors which had lain in wait for them on the icy steppes of Russia; and their words sounded hollow and rough, as though cries of pain had made them hoarse.

Most of the poor devils could hardly drag themselves forward, so great was their exhaustion and sickness.  Their faces, blackened from the smoke of camp-fires, covered with weeks-old dirt from the roads, eaten away by every conceivable disease like gangrene, and gnawed by vermin, stared out of their rags with a ghostly expression…

Is it possible, dear father, that one human being can have such power in the world that he can bring all this hundred thousand-fold misfortune upon his fellow beings?  Will Almighty God not step in to remove this one man from the position in which he sits omnipotent?

But the remnants of the French Grande Armee were only the latest casualties of Napoleonic meglomania, for over the next several months, others were to write of what they were experiencing. 

(I have long wondered–though few historians ever talk about them–what of the civilian populations at this period?  Well, now I know the answers…)

General Antoine-Baudouin-Gisbert van Dedam van der Gelder, commanding a brigade under Napoleon wrote:

The French were to complain loudly when their allies deserted them during the famous days of Leipzig, but I venture to ask them whether they would tolerate humiliations and bad treatment from allies more powerful than themselves, and whether they would not turn against men who devastated their country, burning and plundering everything, beating and raping without redress being made and oblivious to every complaint.  Well!  That is what the Saxons and other Germans have been suffering for years…

Indeed!  There were even songs making the rounds in 1806, following the Battle of Jena.  The Prussian song went like this: 
Frau entfuhren,
Haus verlieren,
Nicht rasonnieren,
Und doch illuminieren:
Das ist doch zum krepieren.

(Marching troops, billeting, feeding, requisitioning, registration, wives abducted, householders evicted, and no argument allowed.) 

While the opposite side of the coin, as sung by the French troops during the plunder of Weimar:

Mettons le feu a toutes maisons! 
Venons a cinquante, cinq cent! 
Chiens, brigands, paysans,
Ouvrez donc la porte!  Panc! 

(Let’s drink, let’s burn, let’s rape!  Put to the torch all houses…Well, you get the gist…)

And this was what was still going on, even on the morning of 16 October, the first day of fighting in the Battle of Leipzig, as observed by a librarian in the town, Karl Egon Ebert:

That the immense crowd of people gathered in Leipzig could not fail to cause disorder and damage was to be foreseen; but that such devastation should occur could only have been imagined by someone who had already abandoned all faith in humanity. 

As the Army’s magazines were soon emptied, and no fresh supplies could be hoped for; and as storms howled dreadfully during these awful autumn days a great deal had to be excused on grounds of urgent need, whenever a soldier who had hardened his heart against all gentler feelings took food where he could find any and dragged away anything that could be used for burning so as to warm himself by the flames or to provide some sort of shelter against the violent weather. 

But when houses were deliberately pulled down, gardens maliciously destroyed, magnificent orchards either cut down or damaged quite needlessly, the villagers’ few remaining belongings stolen and destroyed by the French soldiers, and, finally, when during the early days such food as was found was ruined with devilish spite in the most wicked and shocking way–then even the most fanatical supporters of the French could say nothing except ‘That’s war!’

And what was Napoleon himself doing at this time? 

A medium-sized table from a farm-house was placed on the stubble field [on the Galgenberg–Gallows Hill] with a chair behind it.  Near by a huge watch-fire was blazing.  A map of the district had been nailed to the table because the weather was rough and stormy.  Most of the time Napoleon held, but seldom used, a small telescope–his sole instrument…

When Napoleon rode off to the battle, he looked sombre, withdrawn and somewhat rigid; but as soon as the first thunder of cannon sounded his taciturn face lit up.  He became talkative and animated, though his expression remained domineering and solemn, but not sullen…

On his walks he occasionally fell in with parties of wounded men, some of them in a pitiable condition.  As they were brought past him, he did not spare them a glance or move towards them:  the whole matter left him quite indifferent.

The statistics from this three-day battle make the situation even clearer.  Napoleon’s forces numbered 203,133 men and 738 guns.  The Allied forces were composed of 361,942 troops and 1,456 guns.

When the battle concluded and Napoleon and his French troops retreated in great disorder from the scene on the night of 18 October and well into the next day, 397 of his officers had been killed and 2,546 had been wounded. 

Among the other ranks, at least 43,500 had been killed or wounded; 8000 wounded were captured on the battlefields, and an additional 15,000 sick and wounded were taken captive from the Leipzig hospitals.  Another 15,000 unwounded officers and men were captured.  And 5,400 Saxons went over to the enemy.

However, over the next days, it became apparent that Napoleon had lost even more men through desertion–for of his 175,000-strong Grande Armee, he crossed the River Saale with fewer than 80,000 men.

The Allies fared far better, losing 1,792 officers and 51,982 men from a total of 361,942 men and 1,456 guns. 

(I know–that’s lots of numbers.  But at least one can gain a sense of the scale of this horrific battle from them…)

And it’s the combination of eye-watering statistics and painful first-hand accounts which are requiring the greatest philosophical digestion.  And this is due to a few things Shakespeare wrote–as highlighted recently by the historian, Simon Schama, when discussing how 400 years ago, Shakespeare (in an age of absolute monarchy!) was daring to address the issues of kingship, the burden of it, the responsibilities of it, the successes or failures of the man wearing a crown.  And it’s this that I’m most deeply pondering. 

For Shakespeare’s great military hero-monarch is Henry V.  And this is what he says on the eve of battle:

“Upon the King!  Let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children, and our sins, lay on the King!”
We must bear all. O hard condition,
Twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath
Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing! What infinite heart’s-ease
Must kings neglect that private men enjoy!
And what have kings that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?
And what are thou, thou idol Ceremony?
What kind of god art thou, that suffer’st more
Of mortal griefs than do thy worshippers?
What are thy rents? What are thy comings-in?
O Ceremony, show me but thy worth!

Here though is a bit of the letter, written by the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Army, General Schwarzenberg, to his wife, on the evening of the Battle of Leipzig.

When I look out of my window and see the countless watch-fires outstretched before me, and when I consider that I face the greatest military commander of our age, and one of the greatest of all time, a veritable emperor or battles, then, my dear Nani, I must admit that I feel my shoulders are too weak and will collapse under the gigantic task which weighs upon them. 

But when I gaze up at the stars, I recall that He who controls them has also marked out my course.  If it is His will that right shall prevail, and I hold our cause to be just that, then His wisdom will enlighten me and give me strength…

If all goes well, then I shall enjoy my life with you and the children, and we shall once again plant and tend our trees.

One war.  A myriad of different emotions and stories–so many of them dreadful beyond telling.  Yet Shakespeare managed, didn’t he?  He never shied from the truth, did Shakespeare?  Not even about war.  He didn’t prettify or softenthe edges–even though his audience included kings and queens who might not love his blistering honesty.

Yet, without hesitation, he delved into the darkest recesses of burdened souls and secretly breaking hearts, and always turned these explorations into a paradigm of literary and historical beauty–even a most terrible beauty that sears our minds even as we revel in its perfection. 

A thing to aim for surely.  And perhaps, this is my answer to a question that’s been kicked about recently on various fora–which writers influence you?  To whom do you return again and again to learn how to write?

Writing and talk…

spinningI’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…”