BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

A beautifully written book ...

One of the downsides of much of the reading that I do, and especially in the reading that I recently have been doing, is that the writing involved is functional, pedestrian, and bland. Of course, one would hardly demand “high art” out of a book focused on the job search, but the lack of beautifully composed prose in most of these came into harsh light of late, light emanating from A. (Alfred) Alvarez's The Writer's Voice. This was one of those books that I had picked up via's after-after-after-holiday sale for two bucks, and was picked (as I've mentioned at length previously) more on the basis of ”oh, this sounds like it might be interesting” rather than any particular focused intent on the book or its author.

Alvarez “is a poet, novelist, literary critic, anthologist, and author of many highly praised books” (according to the dust jacket), but I'd never encountered him previously. The book is based on a series of lectures that he presented at the New York Public Library in 2002 on “Finding a Voice”, “Listening”, and “The Cult of Personality and the Myth of the Artist”.

Again, the main take-away that I had from this was the quality of the prose, and as I read through the book I marked various pages which held “choice nuggets” exemplifying this. Rather than trying to summarize the gist of the three lectures, I'll attempt to string together these quotes to give you some sense of why I found this so special.

Interestingly, the book starts with, and eventually returns to, psychoanalysis, with Alvarez comparing the writer's search for “their voice” with an individual's inner struggles. He spends a goodly amount of time looking at Sigmund Freud, who he notes to have been unusually artistic in his literary output.
{Speaking of Freud:}
The mystery, of course, is that of the unconscious – how things we don't know about ourselves soak through like rising damp, changing what we think we know and how we behave.
Obviously, there's the poet's voice coming through here … phrases of the caliber of “soak through like rising damp” somehow missed the page in those Social Media books I've been reading! He sets up the psychological argument, and then back-tracks into literature, analyzing the various modes of different eras.
{Regarding Shakespeare:}
In one form or another, linguistic ostentation is the fuel that drives the play {Love's Labors Lost} forward and all parties are equally immodest. The difference is one of tone and manners – the courtier versus the pendant, elegance and edge versus braggadocio and vacuous circumlocution.
And, who of us has not been guilty of “vacuous circumlocution” at one time or another (albeit not necessarily labeled as such at the time)? Alvarez works his way through the years until reaching the modern era, and comes up with some choice bits about the difference between poetry and prose:
{Discussing Plath:}
No matter how many times you rewrite prose or how easily it seems to read when you are done with it, prose is never quite finished. There is always a word ill-chosen or out of place, a repetition you missed, an adjective that could be cut, a comma that should have been a semicolon – something to set your teeth on edge when you reread it later in cold print. Poems don't work like that. They are as intricate as the giant locks on a bank vault: each one of the dozens of tumblers has to click into place before the door will swing open.
That is superb, and every writer whose works have found their way into “cold print” can certainly identity with the frustrations outlined in this passage. This is part of an interesting discussion of modes of writing poetry, that of the “carver” and the “modeler”, and how Sylvia Plath started out as one but, in her last tragic burst of creativity, became the latter.

In the “listening” section, Alvarez reaches out into other areas, including popular music. The focus here is that, for a writer to find his or her “voice”, there must be readers out there who have developed the ability to actually “listen”.
{Analyzing Cole Porter's “I Get A Kick Out of You”:}
The stunning final image opens the door, as it were, onto the stunning melody, yet the lines that lead up to it are curiously slack and low-key – a chatty recitative, a deliberately nonchalant meander towards revelation, as if the singer were clearing his throat before he bursts into song.
One wonders how long the author spent crafting the line “a deliberately nonchalant meander towards revelation” which strikes my ear the way some morsel of exquisite culinary skill would hit my palate! Again, finding a book that speaks this way, quite by happenstance, has proven a most appreciated treat (and respite from the “business books” that I now find myself frequently the recipient of).

In the final lecture, he turns to the idea of the writer/artist in society (and changing notions of this role over time), and comes up with some rather arch observations. The following particularly got my attention, as it so closely parallels both my technique for writing back when I was producing 250 poems a year, and the reasons that I had to quit writing.
{Arguing against D.H. Lawrence:}
I myself believe that this is the exact opposite of the truth: you don't shed your sicknesses, you dredge them up in writing and thereby make them readily available to you, so that you find yourself living them out. Nature, that is, always imitates art, usually in a sloppy and exaggerated way.
“You find yourself living them out”, which for me was a NLP-like feedback loop of dredged-up anguish, dread, and angst that (by the act of “materializing” them as words on paper) fed back into my psyche as the “real” reality.

Anybody who writes, or appreciates writing would get a lot from The Writer's Voice, as well as those with an interest in psychiatry, cultural trends, and the history of literature. I can't recall a book that I quite so enjoyed reading for well-crafted passages like those quoted here. I would highly recommend this to all and sundry!

Despite it getting into my hands via a clearance sale, this does seem to still be in print. It's part of the Norton Lecture series, so I suspect that it has an audience in the academic market. However, the new/used guys have "like new" copies for as little as 1¢ (plus shipping), which might be your best bet if you're not up for parting with the $21.95 cover price. Not that this isn't worth that (even for a fairly slim volume), of course. Highly recommended!

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Tags: book review
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