Sunday, November 25, 2007


It's a sun-cold Sunday morning here in southern New Jersey, and the last few leaves are rapidly abandoning ship to huddle with their compatriots on the ground. But as it's Sunday, it's time for some quoteskimming.

On Word Choice in Writing

From Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing (which you can see inside at B&N but not at Amazon): "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can't allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative."

A word about the book: Priced at $14.95, it'd make a nice gift book for a writer. But if it's just the text content you're after, you should know that it's available for free over in the New York Times online archives: the book was originally published on July 16, 2001 as a column called "Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle" as part of a Writers on Writing feature. The book has only one or two sentences per page, and a bunch of cartoon-like ink drawings, which is how it fills a 96 page book.

On Fiction

As part of my Jane project reading, I found lovely quotes about her by Virginia Woolfe. So when I found a copy of A Room of One's Own at the store, I purchased it and brought it home. I definitely had to read an extract in one of my English literature classes in college, but I'm nearly certain I didn't read the whole thing (not that it's super-long, even). Last night, I read chapter one.

"Fiction here is likely to contain more truth than fact. . . . Lies will flow from my lips, but there may perhaps be some truth mixed up with them, it is for you to seek out this truth and to decide whether any part of it is worth keeping." Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own, Chapter One.

"Fiction must stick to facts, and the truer the facts the better the fiction—so we are told." Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own, Chapter One.

On Details

It is a curious fact that novelists have a way of making us believe that luncheon parties are invariably memorable for something very witty that was said, or for something very wise that was done. But they seldom spare a word for what was eaten. It is part of the novelist's convention not to mention soup and salmon and ducklings, as if soup and salmon and ducklings were of no importance whatsoever, as if nobody ever smoked a cigar or drank a glass of wine. Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own, Chapter One.

On what poetry is

"Literature is a state of culture, poetry is a state of grace, before and after culture." Juan Ramon Jimenez, winner of the 1956 Nobel Prize for Literature.

"Poetry, from the beginning, has always belonged to the people, to everybody everywhere. . . . Driving one night, driving from the mountains with my son Michael, then three, in the backseat, I looked back and saw him point to all the lighted homes scattered in the valley below and heard him say: 'Daddy, what are those? Stars on the ground?' . . . Poetry is a part of being human. Or, better put, to be human is to know how poetry means." Al Young, in an interview with The Bloomsbury Review.

On analyzing poetry

This is from an essay called "The Frontiers of Criticism" by T.S. Eliot, from On Poetry and Poets, which I discussed a bit the other day in a post called Some thoughts on literary criticism.

In discussing what was then a new type of literary criticism, which Eliot referred to as "the lemon-squeezer school of criticism", in which the critic "without reference to the author or to his other work, analyse[s] it stanza by stanza and line by line, and extract, squeeze, tease, press every drop of meaning out of it that one can", Eliot warned of the dangers of this type of criticism:

The first danger is that of assuming that there must be just one interpretation of the poem as a whole, that must be right. . . . The second danger — a danger into which I do not think any of the critics in the volume I have mentioned has fallen, but a danger to which the reader is exposed — is that of assuming that the interpretation of a poem, if valid, is necessarily an account of what the author consciously or unconsciously was trying to do. . . . And my third comment is, that . . . I shoud like to find out whether, after perusing the analysis, I should be able to enjoy the poem. For the nearly all the poems in the volume were poems that I had known and loved for many years; and after reading the analyses, I found I was slow to recover my previous feeling about the poems. It was as if someone had taken a machine to pieces and left me with the task of reassembling the parts.

As on Wednesday, I am again reminded of Billy Collins's "Introduction to Poetry", and his comments about students "beating [a poem] with a hose/to find out what it really means."

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