Monday, August 2, 2010

de trop

What about the all-consuming pleasure of reading something, really reading something, with no distractions? And the creative complexity of writing, making language flow from sentence to sentence, listening only to your inner voice?


-- Perri Klass, “Texting, Surfing, Studying”*


What about it?

I was taught writing by people who thought that writing was important. Some of them were writers themselves. They read and corrected my weekly theme on the assumption that how I said it mattered, almost more important than what I meant to say, because if I wrote with integrity, with reverence for language, I could not write lies.

One may write, and write, and be a scoundrel; and the world is full of scoundrels who think they write well. But their villainy is oft revealed in their crimes against language.

It took me twenty years to hear the famous music of the mother tongue. I pushed packages of meaning on a puzzle-board, assembled denotations in a plausible order, resolved equations by the prudent rules of syntax, hoping, hoping to project on the screen between writer and reader a style. It was like playing the piano with a wooden hand.

The ones who create language do not pursue syntax. Their observance is instrumental, and their transgressions birth the rules. The bard is the hardest of the Elizabethans to read because he doesn’t give a damn about diagrammable sentences. You have to hear him, because only in utterance do his leaps come down where they should.

When the ears of my ears were opened, I was reading middle-English alliterative poetry. A duckling bonds with the first creature he sees out of the shell, and I shall always think of the Pearl-Poet as my mother. I read ”Many birds bitterly on the bare twigs/Piteously piping for pain of the cold,” and for the first time I didn’t have to figure out the figures of speech. I was there. I heard the birds. I saw the twigs. I felt the cold. I was with Gawain, behind his eyes.

Hearing for the first time the percussion, feeling the sternum vibrate in sympathy, I could now distinguish other sections of the orchestra. Looking over the bard’s shoulder, I saw the staff and read the notes. I knew what he was up to. The earth moved with the beat of his lines, the alternation of stress and release that marks out our mighty mother tongue.

I now had privileges in the operating theatre where sentences are saved or lost. These scalpel verses, conjured in a scheme of consonant noises, exposed the sinews and the viscera of language. I could see the heart beat, the fibres twitch. Now I know the cadence of a sentence before its content. It doesn’t make me happy. It makes me fussy.

Look at my headline quotation. It’s good. But it’s not as good as it could be. There’s something de trop about it. Adjectives. Two of them. A curse on adjectives.

Do we have to tell you that reading is “all-consuming”? Or that writing is “creative”? If we do, you‘re not the kind of person for whom these lines are written. Banish those migrants, and read again. Is it not clearer? “But it doesn’t say what I mean,” the author might protest. No, I reply, it says something better. It says what you ought to have meant, what you would discover you meant if you pushed yourself harder.

This is my kind of ├ętude. Such are my scales and arpeggios. These are some of the rules.

If you get the sound right, it might make sense.

If you can omit a word without making nonsense, do so.

If you can omit a syllable without making nonsense, do so.

Sometimes nonsense in the short run makes best sense in the long run.

Too much explanation makes confusion.

Don’t ask permission, the reader always says no, better to apologize later, but you won’t have to.

When you wonder if you ought to say something, say it.

These are not always good rules of conduct. But they are good rules of writing. They’re good if you’re writing rather than texting. If you’re not playing the piano with a wooden hand.

*New York Times (October 13, 2009)

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