Posts Tagged ‘Watermark’

The word is given a body…

May 2, 2011

The river’s mercy  – artist’s book by Liz Mathews (detail, text by Frances Bingham) – photograph by Liz Mathews

Let us then take for our starting point the statement that words are not useful.  This happily needs little proving, for we are all aware of it.  When we travel on the Tube, for example, when we wait on the platform for a train, there, hung up in front of us, on an illuminated signboard, are the words ‘Passing Russell Square’.  We look at those words; we repeat them; we try to impress that useful fact upon our minds; the next train will pass Russell Square.  We say over and over again as we pace, ‘Passing Russell Square, passing Russell Square’.  And then as we say them, the words shuffle and change, and we find ourselves saying ‘Passing away, saith the world, passing away… The leaves decay and fall, the vapours weep their burthen to the ground.  Man comes….’  And then we wake up and find ourselves at King’s Cross.

[…]

And it is the nature of words to mean many things… The word ‘passing’ suggested the transciency of things, the passing of time and changes of human life.  Then the word ‘Russell’ suggested the rustling of leaves and the skirt on the polished floor; also the ducal house of Bedford and half the history of England.  Finally the word ‘Square’ brings in the sight, the shape, of an actual square combined with some visual suggestion of the stark angularity of stucco.  Thus one sentence of the simplest kind rouses the imagination, the memory, the eye and the ear – all combine in reading it.

Virginia Woolf, Craftsmanship

(reprinted in The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 5, ed. Stuart. N. Clarke)

This response to words – their associations, the freight they carry, their powers of suggestion – is that of a very great reader, to whom words themselves are possessed of the strongest magic.  As a writer, Virginia Woolf was sometimes able to recreate this almost hallucinatory experience of the completed possibility of all words, in a far more subtle but even more intense fusion of imagination, memory and the senses.  As a traveller on the tube, her response to these ‘very rudimentary words’ evidently gave her a complexity of lived experience that few fellow-travellers can have enjoyed (or been inconvenienced by).

The act of reading had already become everyday; the rune, hieroglyph, alphabet – whatever form of letter transubstantiates into the word – no longer a mystery.  This was the inevitable side-effect of universal literacy (or the still-unachieved ideal of it), but Virgina Woolf did not expect this familiarity to bring with it a loss of wonder for other passengers, a lessening of the ‘diabolical power that words possess when… they come fresh from a human brain’.

(Nowadays, it is perhaps more difficult to retain this openness, in the  face of what Kathleen Raine decried as ‘a daily flood of words put to mean uses… words are worn thin with trivial use, emptied of meanings unknown to our materialist society…’  But the words themselves remain in their essential state, to be claimed by the determined reader, used by the imaginative writer.)

Virginia Woolf once wrote, of the speaking of Shakespeare, ‘the word is given a body as well as a soul’, and the making of words visible – written, in print, illuminated manuscript,  ancient calligraphy, contemporary artist’s book, or whatever strange mark-making process by which words are formed – is another re-creation, a kind of embodiment of the process wherein the word reaches from one to another mind, and transforms it, awakening memory, imagination, and the senses.

Every writer knows that their work can be enhanced by its presentation, or marred by it; emphasised by the open space around it, or lost in a babel of misprint and bad type.  Just occasionally we are lucky enough to see our words transfigured, not changed but released into their fullest potential, made visible in a work of art which is both a visual and intellectual reading, given bodies to match their souls.  When the words are reinvested with their original power in this way, it’s impossible not to read them with that creative intensity which carries one on to King’s Cross and far beyond.

Some of my work has, over the years, been honoured like this by Liz Mathews, whose artist’s books and other forms of lettered artwork give the words body and expose their soul.  Her forthcoming exhibition Watermark is at the Ice House Gallery in Holland Park, Kensington, from 7th-22nd May, 11am-7pm daily; it has some works in it based on my texts, as well as those of Virginia Woolf and other writers.

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