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The Stir of the Words

September 24, 2016

“Not an extreme instance of Blackmurian prose, this passage nonetheless shows what I mean by a style not merely instrumental. Many of its epiphanies are gained only in writing and from among the accruing possibilities of the words, not messages to be delivered but possibilities waiting to be discovered just under the surface or aslant from it.”

“Blackmur is not dealing with ideas and trying to find words and sentences to deliver them; he stays alert to the possibilities disclosed in the stir of the words. The true decision arises between the words. Normally, the first law of language is thought to be necessity, and possibility is entertained only as a grace note. But Blackmur makes space in which the possibilities are tempted to occur.”

— Denis Donoghue, Ferocious Alphabets

I don’t spend much time writing, but I spend a great deal of time, every day, on expository interior monologues. I am good at it. Communicating to no one I communicate well, and I think I come up with some worthwhile content. I would be very pleased if I could simply enunciate those monologues in either speech or writing. But the frustrating truth is that the actual acts of speaking and writing, in their different ways, offer a degree of impedance, of friction, that wrecks the fluency of my purely mental production. In the case of speech this seems like pure loss, an actuality always lesser than the mind’s potential. But with writing the situation is different. On the one hand, even if I can’t get the fluency of thought transmitted directly through my keystrokes, I should be able, with a little extra work, to re-create that fluency in my prose, or something like it, something even better. On the other hand, in writing I find that the friction offers positive possibilities along with the stickiness and stutter, room for play and imagination, the chance to discover what language has to offer beyond a subservience to my intention. A fruitful confusion. If I were a disciplined writer, a purposeful writer, maybe even a paid writer, I might pursue the first option. But I am not.

So I was thrilled to read Donoghue’s discussion of the prose of the critic R. P. Blackmur, from which I pulled the two quotes above. That is the kind of writing that tempts me, that offers pleasure, unleashes energies within me, unlocks unsuspected passions. It’s the fun of it. Like with a lot of fun things, it can get weird, uncertain, risking embarrassment. But at least you get the experience. And sometimes it produces as a residue something worthwhile that could not have been achieved any other way.

I do often have a desire to go at things straight, to write instrumentally in service of an already conceived idea, not to be waylaid by the allure of words and their rhythms or stopped by a stray thought. But what a tedious chore that can be! I find the writing of simple business emails painful work with often inept results. Pro writers often affect a pose of stern discipline. The talk of “killing your darlings” and how “good writing is re-writing”. And maybe I would be willing to kill some darlings and sweat revisions if I were to get some tangible rewards from it. Money, love, glory, or a good hot meal. But not for nothing. The unremunerated must self-indulge.

But self-indulgence can have a rigor of its own.

Note: I don’t mean to imply anything at all about Blackmur here. I think I read some of his essays years ago. Donoghue makes me think I should check him out again. There is a wonderful portrait of the man written by Russell Fraser. It includes this anecdote from a student of his, the author Geoffrey Wolff:

Having completed a first novel, he went to Blackmur for sympathetic counsel. “Put it in your desk drawer,” Blackmur said. This, Wolff supposed, was the old Horatian chestnut. Leave the manuscript alone for a while, then come back to it fresh? “No,” Blackmur said, “that is not my advice to you. My advice is to put it in your desk drawer, lock your desk drawer, lose the key to your desk drawer. However, keys are sometimes found, returned to their owners. This could happen, so I would set fire to your desk.”



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