Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Truth & Delight

Among the least pleasant chores of a writing teacher: dissuading his students of the notion that what sounds good in a piece of writing is, necessarily, good. It's the part of my job that I most dread and dislike, the part where I'm forced to play bad cop opposite a dozen good cops who reply, "but I liked it!" Yes, yes, I say. I know you liked it. But it doesn't mean anything, and it's not true (which is why it means nothing).

Inexperienced writers, especially young ones, sacrifice meaning for effect. Sound and sense are divided—or anyway not faithfully joined. And so for them it's possible for something to "sound good" even when what is being said lacks rigor, precision, or truth.

Having once been a young writer myself, I was no exception to this rule. I fell in love with words not for their meanings but for their shapes and their sounds. Like all healthy young people, I was a sensualist, a glutton for whatever tickled and otherwise amused or delighted my senses, for things sharp, bold, bright, dazzling, smooth, saucy, bitter, sweet, for colors and smells and surfaces. I cared little about what lay hidden and invisible under the words, for their precise meanings and implications. The depths would come later; meaning could wait. Life offered too many sensual delights and pleasures on its surfaces to bother about hidden things.

This was how I felt, and I think it's not unusual for young people to feel this way. The words "truth" and "meaning" weigh too onerously on young hearts and minds. They imply drudgery, duty and grimness, and other things antithetical to youth, to pleasure and delight: i.e. no fun at all. What's the meaning of a song or a dance? What is rigorous or "true" about shapes, or colors? Life is all about experience, sensation. Those are the things that matter. Meaning is something ugly, dry, and dusty, a chalk board eraser thrown at you by the likewise dusty schoolmarm as you daydream, her smile pinched, her hair pulled into a severe bun.

I still remember the poems I wrote when I was in my early twenties, when I'd just started writing, verses aggressively void of meaning, but that tickled my senses with their word play and fancy rhythms. Sat upon the way vast upon deep beyond the tree wide and wind . . . That sort of stuff. I wrote oodles of it, tickled by the sound of my own voice (or what I then thought was my own voice; in fact a distorted echo of Hopkins and other poets). I remember at Bard College showing a sheaf of these poems to poet Robert Kelly, who back then weighed a good three-hundred and fifty pounds, so enormous he couldn't walk without a cane. He gave them a quick perusal and then pronounced, with a sigh, "I find your poems arbitrary in every way." He didn't give a damn what my poems sounded like. He didn't recognize anything in them apart from what they meant—or what they failed to mean. Back then I considered his verdict harsh, cruel, even. Now, thirty years later, I consider it just, and most generous. (I feel similarly toward Frank Conroy, who in a summer workshop threw a story of mine over his shoulder for using the word "preponderance.")

And now I find myself in the role of the "veteran" author insisting upon the very qualities that I myself resisted at your age, on "rigor" and "meaning" and "truth" and "authenticity." And I ask myself: do you really want to do this, Peter? Do you really want to devote your days to dampening the still-fresh-as-wet-paint enthusiasms of these talented young people with your fogey values? What good will come of it? Why not shut up and leave them to their fun?

Then I remind myself: these are not ordinary young people dabbling in their diaries. These are young people who want to learn to be good writers, young people serious about the craft of writing.

Let me put myself in their shoes. Let me ask myself, at their age, would I have preferred to wait, say, ten or fifteen years to discover the things that it would indeed take me ten or fifteen years to discover—namely that, though the immediate thrill of a sentence may be found in its texture, its shape, its sounds, still, that pleasure is transitory, lasting only as long as the sentence tickles us, as it takes to taste and swallow a bite of food, whereas the pleasure of meaning and significance and of the sentence's crucial contribution to the whole, to the singular effect of the entire work of art, will (hopefully) resonate—not just for a moment, but for hours or days, or, if the work is truly inspired, will lodge itself in the readers' mind for the rest of his or her life.

When we swallow food, we notice taste and texture first. But what stays with us is the substance, provided there is any substance. The poems I wrote in my youth were cotton candy; no sooner did you taste them than they disappeared. Like eating sweet air. Bob Kelly was right: they had no value. To be good for us, to have value and permanence, words need not be tasteless; words can both delight and mean at the same time. To be any good they must.
The grey warm evening of August had descended upon the city and a mild, warm air, a memory of summer, circulated in the streets. The streets shuttered for the repose of Sunday, swarmed with a gaily colored crowd. Like illumined pearls the lamps shone from the summits their tall poles upon the living texture below which, changing shape and hue unceasingly, sent up into the warm grey evening air an unchanging, unceasing murmur.
Meaning and sensual delight go hand in hand. But they won’t go hand in hand unless we exercise rigor, and resist mere seduction by surface effects.

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