Sunny Days in Heaven
Spiritual/Political/Philosophical Blog on the Nature of Truth and Falsehood and Heaven

Wednesday, December 31, 2003  

On good writing

I've begun re-reading the Lord of the Rings, and as I read the first few chapters, I was disappointed to find that the pleasure I had once taken in Tolkien's descriptions of place had evaporated.

I found the writing to be good, useful, but not much above ordinary. Finally, I came to the Old Forest and found this picture of the Withywindle: "there wound lazily a dark river of brown water, bordered with fallen willows, arched over with willows, blocked with fallen willows, and flecked with thousands of faded willow-leaves."

This is very nice, very picturesque indeed. An improvement, but not quite yet the cat's meow.

In the next chapter, though, we come to Goldberry rushing to welcome the hobbits: "and as she ran her gown rustled softly like the wind in the flowering borders of a river."

This matter of sight and sound takes a little work of the imagination, but it is well worth it, for I have sat along the American River, and heard the afternoon breeze coming down the channel, rushing through the tall grasses along the banks.

Tolkien nicely places flowers instead for a fine effect of color and gaiety. It also alludes to Wordsworth's anthology poem, Daffodils. A very jocose image.

But just as we see that the author has a delightful, lyrical skill, he comes along with this as Goldberry departs from the hobbits for the night: "The sound of her footsteps was like a stream falling gently away downhill over cool stones in the quiet of night."

This simile is too much and won't do. It demands impossibilities from the imagination while at the same time it tricks us with its melodious and mellifluous flow into thinking that the sentence has evocative meaning. It is a musical line, but essentially meaningless, for I have sat by many tumbling streams that carry away downhill over stones, and have never heard what he describes here.

The simile insists on a sequence of plashes with her receding footsteps, but streams don't plash their rocks in sequence, but all at once making for a rather continous white noise. Also "cool" stones is gratuitous. We don't care or need to know if the stones are cool or not since they only matter as objects which make a plashing sound of steps. But take away "cool" and the clause loses a certain rhythm. Thus it was added only for padding.

Nevertheless, we give Tolkien an E for effort. He's trying to make us see and hear, whereas modern poets and prosers often make no effort to be sensible.

It began with Ezra Pound's famous line from:

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Maybe these images mean something to you, but they have never formed a coherent picture in my mind.

One, I have never seen a wet, black bough. (I have seen black boughs only at night against the sky or moon. I have never encountered a tree with black bark.) But I can imagine a wet, black bough even though I have trouble imagining what quality of light I am seeing it under. A rainy day? A rainy night? I don't know.

If it's night, I can't see any petals upon it, can I? If it's day, I don't know if he means flower petals or leaf petals, or what color or shape they are (although they are supposed to resemble the apparition of faces - white, I assume.)

Pound uses very concrete words (except for one - apparitions) to build a metaphor. The individual words are strong and evocative, but taken all together - they don't really create an actual analog. In fact, Pound was praised for creating a kind of anti-image. Petals on a wet, black bough don't look at all like white faces in a crowd, but the jarring of the lines, the contrast and difficulty seemed so Japanese like haiku that the literati thought he'd pulled off a feat in English letters.

Multitudes followed in imitation. Sharp, vivid, strong words which don't actually mean or look like anything you know is real.

From my own poem, Atlantis, (scroll down)there is this series of images which I am very fond of:

The orange poppies of Atlantis spring
among the wild hillside wheat like cups
of elfin gold, dew catching hummingbird baths

That's pretty good stuff (and I do say so myself).

An amazing thing about Tolkien's LOTR, though, is that so many critics have pummeled it as silly, commercial fiction of low quality. How is it possible for anyone to read his prose and not find it bristling with real and startling beauties of language? And if his prose is beautifully wrought, isn't it more likely that there is great intelligence in all of the work, too?

Good writing in poetry or prose means that we should never write a line that can't be imagined, or strains at credulity. It may sound nice, look pretty, flow perfectly, but if it doesn't evoke an exact picture - it's worthless. Pound's image is very powerful, and so strong that it pushes aside any immediate objection. It's like someone suddenly shouting in your ear, but the sound made is not a known word. The noise itself gets your attention abruptly, same as when someone throws a bag of blue paint on a white canvas. LOOK!!!

But just because something is done with great force, it doesn't make it good.

One jazz musician (black, and why should I have to include that?) noted in talking to a rap artist that he was told that it was hard to create rap music. His reply was, "Just because something is hard to do doesn't make it good."

The same holds true for Letters. Finnegan's Wake, was probably a hard go for Joyce to maintain its dizzying wordplay over so many pages, but it still doesn't make it a great story well worth reading. In fact, Joyce's schtick with words is tiresome, boring, and unrewarding. There is no trick in Joyce that Shakespeare didn't use to better effect. Particularly in Hamlet. Whereas Hopkins' wordplay is highly rewarding in a number of his poems : "I caught this morning morning's minion, kingdom of the daylight dauphin, dapple dawn drawn falcon in his riding."

I just wrote that rote from memory. Once you learn it, it sticks with you like a nursery rhyme, even if it doesn't make immediate sense. Joyce gets quoted briefly from time to time, but it doesn't really amount to much, or evoke much.

posted by Mark Butterworth | 11:24 AM |