Tuesday, November 29, 2016

I Have to Know

One of the great advantages of life in Qu├ębec is that English is a minority language.

It is never the language you expect to hear automatically in stores or in hospitals, on buses or at protests, at voting centres or at police stations. Few of your neighbours can speak it well; many can hardly understand it.

As a result, in the places where you live and work and play, English can seem foreign.

For me, the beauty of this arrangement is that I, too, began to think of English as something that I hardly understood, and something I could barely use with competence. I began to see with clear eyes all the limitations, all the clumsiness, all the imprecision of my writing, and I realized that I would have to sit down and study the language I had once taken for granted.

I realized, too, that English is more than just a way to speak and read; English is a heritage. English is a gift that you can cherish or neglect, respect or abuse. If I neglect basic usage and grammar, if I speak without clarity, none of my neighbours will point this out, because none of my neighbours will know.

For that reason, I have to know. I have to learn. And I have to value what was given to me, because what I was given is not valued here.

-- Notes to myself, November 29, 2013.

Friday, October 28, 2016

A Blot of Parenthetic Night

ORAZIO: Sweet, did you like the feast?

ARMIDA: Methought, 'twas gay enough.

ORAZIO: Now, I did not.
'Twas dull: all men spoke slow and emptily.
Strange things were said by accident. Their tongues
Uttered wrong words: one fellow drank my death,
Meaning my health; another called for poison,
Instead of wine; and, as they spoke together,
Voices were heard, most loud, which no man owned:
There were more shadows too than there were men;
And all the air more dark and thick than night
Was heavy, as 'twere made of something more
Than living breaths. --

ARMIDA: Nay, you are ill, my lord:
'Tis merely melancholy.

ORAZIO: There were deep hollows
And pauses in their talk; and then, again,
On tale, and song, and jest, and laughter rang,
Like a fiend's gallop. By my ghost, 'tis strange.


ORAZIO: I'll speak again:
This rocky wall's great silence frightens me,
Like a dead giant's.
Methought I heard a sound: but all is still.
This empty silence is so deadly low,
The very stir and winging of my thoughts
Make audible my being: every sense
Aches from its depth with hunger.
The pulse of time is stopped, and night's blind sun
Sheds its black light, the ashes of noon's beams,
On this forgotten tower, whose ugly round,
Amid the fluency of brilliant morn,
Hoops in a blot of parenthetic night,
Like ink upon the crystal page of day,
Crossing its joy! But now some lamp awakes,
And, with the venom of a basilisk's wink,
Burns the dark winds. Who comes?

-- From "The Second Brother," in The Poetical Works of Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Vol II. J. M. Dent and Co. London, 1890.

Friday, October 21, 2016

What the Years Have Made

When I was child, I had friends my age, but I still preferred the company of adults. I recall visits where the children went off to play games, but I stayed at the dining room table or in the kitchen to hear what the adults had to say. And inevitably, at some point in the evening, what they had to say would trouble me.

Environmental catastophes. The terminal stupidity of domestic and foreign policy. Nuclear melt-downs -- remember Three Mile Island? Wars, wars, wars. The thermonuclear suicide of the human species. These adults discussed the topics as if they were discussing private matters that no one else around them seemed willing to mention, and I can recall the shift in mood, the hushed voices, that always preceded these frightening conversations.

Decades later, I have become such an adult.

Monday, October 17, 2016

What's New?

Nothing is old-fashioned if we meet it with a young perspective. A Jacobean tragedy, a Parnassian poem, a silent film, a late-Romantic symphony: for the right sort of mind, these are living discoveries, and they can often say more to us, in our midnight moods, than the voices of today.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Economy, Clarity, Force

I agree with Lucas, here, and would go further to say that style is what we need to express our own experience, our own imagery and ideas, with economy, clarity, and force. Modern styles might not allow us to be ourselves.

There are poets who can write vitally of, and in the style of, their own age; there remain others for whom it is equally essential to escape from it. Generations of critics have lost their heads and tempers squabbling which is right. Surely both. Surely it is understandable that a poet may wish to break away to some magic islet of his own, where he can feel himself monarch of all he surveys, because he shares it only with the dead. For they do not cramp our style as the living can. We can learn from them without fearing to become too imitatively like them; and the older the dead, the easier they are to elbow aside when we turn to write ourselves, as if their ghosts wore thinner and more shadowy with the years.

-- From Studies French and English, by F. L. Lucas.
Books For Libraries Press, New York, 1969 (Original publication, 1934).