Posts Tagged ‘reading’

Trespassers W.

June 24, 2011

Riverwood – photograph by Liz Mathews

Let us trespass at once.  Literature is no one’s private ground; literature is common ground.  It is not cut up into nations; there are no wars there.  Let us trespass freely and fearlessly and find our own way for ourselves.  It is thus that English literature will survive… if commoners and outsiders like ourselves make that country our own country.

(Virginia Woolf, The Leaning Tower.)

This advice should seem more dated than it is.  When it was written, in 1940, Virginia Woolf envisaged a future (if there was a cultural future) in which ‘commoners’ would have such free access to library books and education that nothing but their own diffidence could keep them from trespassing on the hallowed ground of Eng.Lit. and claiming it as common land for the republic of readers.

In this mass trespass she imagined the canonical greats, Shakespeare et al, (‘if they could speak – and after all they can’) encouraging the rabble with cries of ‘Read me, read me for yourselves.’  ‘They do not mind if we get our accents wrong, or have to read with a crib in front of us’, she reassured the hitherto-excluded.  ‘We shall trample many flowers and bruise much ancient grass.’

It’s a kind of bashfulness, a feeling that it’s not for them, that still keeps some people – even those who are able to read and have access to reading materials – off the imagined grass.  Yet a voice like Woolf’s, a lawless encourager of the outsider, can lead us waltzing onto those forbidden lawns, picnicing, admiring the view, swimming in the lake. Fortunately, there are now – still – many writers and thinkers and fellow-readers who can help each other to travel this pleasant path.

The advice that we should ‘find our own way for ourselves’ is, in its context, perhaps a rebuttal of the elitist education which created a divide between in- and outsiders; a reassurance that we can do it independently. But it also serves as a warning against false maps; repetitive directions along the same old routes with unnecessary guides always asking for money. (The  financial exploitation of even the literature market contrasts sharply with Woolf’s hopeful prophecy of the future; ‘Money is no longer going to do our thinking for us’.)

To set against the excesses of commercialism are the many literary enterprises – small presses, independent publishers, book festivals, poems on the tube, radio programmes, blogs, local bookshops – that are latterday encouragers of reading without boundaries.  They exist perforce within the capitalist world, but not primarily to serve it;  in fact, they have a completely different priority, which is to spread the word.

This summer, I’m participating in one of the world’s biggest literary events, the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which is very exciting.  As well as reading from my own book, I’ll also be reading as part of the Amnesty Imprisoned Writers series; both events on Monday 15th August.  The festival takes place in the Charlotte Square Gardens in Edinburgh, and somehow the idea of all those writers and readers celebrating literature on the grass of a garden square reminds me irresistably of Virginia Woolf’s ‘trespass at once’, even if the trespassers are – on this occasion – welcome.

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What so wild as words are?

July 16, 2010

Light, air, cloud – photograph by Liz Mathews

‘…it is not so necessary to understand Greek as to understand poetry. It is necessary to take that dangerous leap through the air without the support of words which Shakespeare also asks of us. For words, when opposed to such a blast of meaning, must give out, must be blown astray, and only by collecting in companies convey the meaning which each one is separately too weak to express. Connecting them in a rapid flight of mind we know instantly and instinctively what they mean, but could not decant that meaning afresh into any other words. There is an ambiguity which is the mark of the highest poetry; we cannot know exactly what it means…. The meaning is just on the far side of language.’

On not knowing Greek, Virginia Woolf, (The Common Reader)

This description of reading – the rapid flight of mind, the dangerous leap through the air – seems to me the perfect definition of why great poetry works as it does, for the enthusiast. It’s also an evocation of what it describes; the exhilaration of that unsupported leap of faith, beyond meaning, to the place where the words in their companies gather together to give expression to the unsayable. This surrender to instinctive reading, far from being anathema to the writer, is a necessity for her as a poetry reader. It is the acknowledgement that in such writing there is an element beyond, something that can’t be analysed and given an academic gloss; a mystery that can be recognised but not explained.

The danger, of course, is that the leap may fail, that we will fall flat – and sometimes we do fall in flames. But it’s a risk worth taking; one that Woolf frequently asks of her readers. Even when a writer seems to have completely failed to write without individual words, to blast them into their companies, the attempt is exciting. Not even Shakespeare (nor Woolf) could always achieve it, but the wish to write that undecantable language is always evident, an ambition that demands much from the reader, but rewards us with flight, sometimes.

(At its simplest, it’s a willingness to glide which can work so well for the contemporary audience of Shakespeare. The unfamiliarity of some parts of the language – among passages which are known by heart to many – is rarely a problem in performance; the staging carries the audience beyond merely getting the gist of the sense, to the deeper apprehension of that instinctive understanding. This is a way to read the dramatic lyric, too, as the mind soars over the words.)

For writers who are not necessarily hoping to write ‘the highest poetry’, but do seek to use words sometimes in some of the ways Woolf describes, there is a paradox. So much can be learned from reading like this, from thinking deeply about the ways of language and the techniques of working with it. But then, there is that other, mysterious element; the thing that can’t be learnt at writing school, can’t be defined, coerced, bought, sold or even named – only hoped-for, awaited, recognised.

(‘What so wild as words are?’ Robert Browning, A Woman’s Last Word.)