Cut to the chase

The question at the back of my mind (or which ought to have been there) is where these pithy bulletins fit in. The NYRB piece I mentioned gives a sampling of stylistic tics, such as Woolf’s “ecstatic tendency to set off adverbs in pairs” and Elizabeth Hardwick’s “love of trebling adjectives, and sometimes hitching an adverb to the last one, so that her prose appears to increase in precision exponentially in the short space of a sentence”. I’m not sure whether she minds because rhetoric is dishonest, persuasive beyond the merits of the thought it clothes, or if it is just that she thinks these are badly done. The conclusion of her essay though is that the “skillful cultivation of style” is a more apt device than “spectacular personhood”.

I don’t think my writing here plays the game of teasing self-revelation. Clearly, I have some sort of life of my own, and there are things in it that trouble me, but I don’t think the uninformed reader would get far trying to anatomise my actual person. And there are oodles of style, though it is not engaging. The purpose it serves is to build a bridge between my personal outrage, which is of no broader interest, and something that corresponds to it in the wider world, while avoiding Scylla and Charybdis: the confessional mode, and fogeyish pontification.

Poetry walks a similar tightrope. The words are a mask, but there is a “subject” behind them, that speaks to the readerly subject, whovever she may be, of things the muses can transmute into something held in common.

This morning, I read Berryman’s Dream Song 8 (q.v.) and couldn’t help but think of the unravelling of the senescent mind; but the language is portable, and must have had some other occasion in the poet’s own world. Knowing what it was probably wouldn’t in this case be particularly illuminating.


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