Posts Tagged ‘words’

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.

Secular cathedrals

January 19, 2011

London transport – photograph by Liz Mathews

Introducing the building, the architect of the British Library invokes the lost library of Alexandria, that potent symbol of the treasure house of knowledge destroyed by the Barbarians.  He describes the library as a secular cathedral, an almost sacred space.  (I only query the ‘almost’.)  By presenting this library as the antithesis of the Nazi book-burnings, he also identifies it as a champion of ‘the freedom and diversity of the human spirit’, which the books that it houses both embody and protect.

(The Nazis, of course, weren’t the only burners of books.  Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, which now seems so innocuous, was burnt in the cellars of Scotland Yard, the fate of banned British books.  However, there are now several first editions, which somehow escaped the flames, perpetually preserved in the British Library, which is some compensation.)

Although the Round Reading Room at the British Museum was much-beloved by the scholars who used it and mourned its passing, there’s a grandeur about the scale and scope of the ‘new’ Library that makes it – especially now – a contemporary wonder of the world.  (I went on one of the early reader’s induction courses, when the whole puzzling system was carefully explained to bemused researchers who were used to filling in request-cards to order books they’d looked up in a physical catalogue.  I’m not sure if they even do those tours now, since the technology is more familiar, but the ethos is similarly serious and helpful.)

There’s a persistent urban myth that the British Library is nuclear-proof, and that many people sought shelter there in the confusion after the London tube bombs.  Its enormous storage basements are fire- and flood-proof, and would certainly serve as a deep shelter just as well as the tube stations that were used during the Blitz.  But since a nuclear strike doesn’t leave anything to emerge to, whether the cellars would stand up to it seems like an academic point for any human shelterers.

The books might well survive, though.  Since the collection is of virtually everything ever published, it would give a strangely complete picture of our civilisation to later visitors from another planet; from the ‘things in books’ clothing’ that still get an ISBN to the most obscure specialist monograph, it’s all there.  Not to mention the treasures; the Lindisfarne Gospels, Magna Carta, original manuscripts by Jane Austen, the Brontes, Virginia Woolf, et al. The impression given to the theoretical aliens would be of a wonderful civilisation, a breadth of culture and expertise beyond imagining, an artistic achievement that indeed expresses the intense beauty of the world, as well as its darker aspects.

In this anti-intellectual country, so distrustful of the arts, so resistant to education, it seems extraordinary that such a magnificently unapologetic, vast library was ever created.  Now it’s there, it would be difficult to abolish it completely, but like all our other monuments of learning, its funds have already been cut.  There may be fees for some of the services in future, or entrance charges for exhibitions. But for now, it’s all free – reading rooms, permanent collection, temporary exhibitions.

The current exhibition there, Evolving English, is huge, diverse and fascinating.  My own favourite exhibit is the Elizabethan phrasebook for adventurers to the New World, complete with advice on behaviour to the local inhabitants, as well as pronunciation of their language. But the signage is also a highlight, from over yonder to down the apples and pears; somebody enjoyed doing that, and the visitors like it too.

A matter of luck

October 7, 2010

The view from the hill – photograph by Liz Mathews

For National Poetry Day, one of my own poems. I wrote Sicilian Avenue many years ago; it was awarded a York Poetry Prize by Michael Donaghy, in the early 1990’s.  At the ceremony, where all the prize poems were read, and cheques given out to the winners, he was extremely gracious. (He was also very patient when his audience seemed to prefer it when he played traditional Irish music on the tin whistle, rather than read his own work.)  

But although he was encouraging to me, as a young writer, indeed complimentary about the poem and ‘…the simplicity and intimacy of the narrative and great closure of the last line’, I was also aware that sentiment had played a part in all of his selections.  Not that he chose any poems that seemed to me to be unworthy, but they all had a particular reason to appeal to him.  Mine had that extra ingredient because it evoked a place he knew in London, and of which he was fond.  

(And after all, who would want to read a poem without bringing their own associations to the words, or aligning their own experiences to the work?  What an impossible task it would be to try and ‘judge’ between poems impartially, when the very existence of poetry is the opposite of a measurable or quantifiable state.) 

At the time, I felt slightly uncomfortable at this discovery. Now I realise that it’s merely the element of luck that’s always needed in the competitive process, but also makes that process almost meaningless, so far as grading a work of art ‘best’ or ‘unplaced’.  Inevitably, the results are a matter of the reader’s taste; sometimes one sort of writer is in luck, sometimes another.  I was fortunate that this poem appealed to such a poet.

Sicilian Avenue

Enthroned behind his ziggurats of glass

displaying haberdashery embalmed

aeons ago in the prevailing fashion,

the old boy contemplates an aspic realm;

muffled in solid brass, mahogany,

drawers uniformly filled, precisely labelled,

in copperplate by alphabet and size.

His memory’s heraldic, crested, striped

with regimental and collegiate colours;

he doesn’t seem to think that we’re procuring

old school ties for improper purposes

(although we look like just the kind of women

to ridicule continued tribal marking).

‘Old Carthusians pre-1924’

requires a tremulous ascent of steps,

courteously refusing proffered help.

Something about us prompts him to remark

that ‘Amy Johnson came to us, you know,

to get her aviation things.  Oh, yes,

we did Ladies’ Colonial Wear then’.

He recites, in an archive record’s crackle,

the inventory of pith-helmets and veils,

and canvas carrying-skirts, so necessary

to keep one’s distance from the naked shoulders

transporting one across malarial rivers…

Here Amy Johnson, in the changing-room

trying on cashmere combinations (men’s,

designed to conquer an imagined arctic

not keep a woman warm above cloud-level)

broke down and wept, late, after closing time.

Her tears still echo in his anxious voice

condemning ‘all the things they said about her’

despite her triumphs, in the newspapers.

He found the warmest styles, the smaller sizes,

wished her the best of luck for her next flight,

wrapped the heroic underwear she’d usurped,

shook hands in homage to their odd alliance –

and still he flies her unofficial colours,

a favour filed in his anarchic system

above the patronage of baronets.

Truth & Beauty

August 27, 2010

Setts and willow leaves – photograph by Liz Mathews

To tell the truth, or create beauty…’  This is, according to Virginia Woolf’s seminal discussion of language, the business of words.  She imagines a world in which words could be used in such a way that every book or newspaper she picked up would tell the truth or create beauty.

These truths are not only the literal truths of plain fact, but also the more obscure truths – subtle, fictional, nuanced truths which are truer than anything else, indeed nothing less than Rebecca West’s ‘subtler news [that] has to be whispered… the knowledge of reality’.  Picasso’s dictum that ‘Art is a lie that makes us realise truth’ is another attempt to express this mystery.

I think it’s interesting that Virginia Woolf specifically mentions newspapers as possible conduits of the use of words in this unusual way; presumably a mildly satirical comment on the lack of truth and beauty in the contemporary papers. But it’s also a good point as far as factual writing in good faith goes; for the urge to tell the truth, in terms of witnessing how things are and speaking of them, needn’t be in opposition to the creation of beauty – within the writing, at least.

As for creating beauty – so much more difficult than making hideousness – it must follow the telling of truth, it must be an act of creation.  Beyond that, there is no guidance except that beauty is not absolute but diverse; as multi-faceted and wild as the words themselves. 

It’s both challenge and encouragement to present-day writers that, in this little old-fashioned-sounding talk from so long ago, there was the stimulating suggestion that words might one day be put together in this modern way.

Our dear mother English

August 17, 2010

LESS NOISE PLEASE – photograph by Liz Mathews

Certain words – solace, grace, benediction – recur when people describe why certain works of art are precious to them.  Poetry is often invoked as a specific against the sorrows of life, and a part of its beauty; an expression of the otherwise unsayable and a way of approaching some sort of understanding of these things.  It is a better way of communicating certain thoughts than any other, even when we acknowledge the common fact that words carry a freight of association and variant meaning which weighs differently for each individual.  Obviously, our diversity of experience, not to mention the flexibility of meaning, makes even accepted language an approximate conveyer of ideas, at best.

Literature has always exploited this private language within everyone, both to portray misunderstanding or failure of communication, and also to say more, many things at once, or even opposing things simultaneously.  The exposure of the writer’s own associations of words, the translation out of the inner language, has created some of the most powerful writing ever.  The individual freight words carry, their differentness for each reader, is one of the writer’s greatest opportunities.

When I was working in a gallery, I had a difficult encounter with a Christian who would not accept that the words ‘heaven’, ‘blessing’ or ‘holy’ should be used in any other artistic context than a strictly Christian one (even though the artwork in question quoted a direct translation from classical Greek…).  Eventually we got to the stage where he said that it wasn’t appropriate for non-Christians to listen to a Mozart mass, apparently under the impression that the whole of Western art was his private patrimony, closed to all but a minority of the world.

To suggest that words are not the property of any sect, or forbidden to any other community, is hardly a radical statement.  But it’s complicated, in practice, by the holiness – if I may use the word – of certain words to certain people, in their own particular sense.  In this place where such rich possibilities of poetry lie, even as I insist on the validity of my own reading, I must acknowledge the possibility of other, different ones.

This causes problems for the writer not so much in these attempts to own words (a completely futile effort), but the kidnap of words for sullying uses.  There are a proliferation of dead contemporary jargons which diminish the richness of words, strip them of their associations, leave them without a homeland or a history.  (We all use these non-words in the sterile language of computers, for example, which once offered a truly Elizabethan opportunity to coin new words, but instead took a sinister delight in misusing old ones.) This is the opposite of the genuine secret tongues of trades and places, esoteric words or dialects whose words gradually enrich the common language.

Foreign imports, such as the borrowings the French try to exclude from their official speech, are also a vibrant sign of life that might as well be welcomed, since to police the immigration boundaries here is a doomed enterprise, a struggle against history.  Real slang, which is also part of the development of a language, can be incredibly useful to a writer – like the other specialist languages, especially when it tells its own story of place or background.  The disadvantage is that it freeze-frames at a certain period; in a skilled writer the catchphrases of their own era are marked, so that the later reader can understand their significance and laugh or wince as appropriate.  But if it isn’t a Jane Austen or George Eliot, it can be hard work to disentangle.

But it’s the blatant kidnap that makes real difficulties for a contemporary writer.  How can we use words purely, honestly, with faith in their power, (even in the knowledge of their diverse meanings), when they are taken in vain with such routine extremism?  Margarine called ‘pure’, drinks called ‘innocent’, tampons called ‘liberty’, shoes called ‘freedom’, all attempt to subvert the poetic use of language to commercial ends.  Unfortunately, everyone now understands that ‘home’ is a place on the computer, ‘family’ means a larger size, and ‘urban’ is a black version of something that is ‘beach’ when it’s flowery.  Imagine trying to write a poem, then deciding to avoid the word ‘word’ because a computer programme is called that.

But, in wanting to defend the joint stock of our common language against such corruptions, am I too making an attempt to own the words myself?  The only way forward, for a writer, is to make a resolution to speak one’s own language with all its personal associations, private messages, local words, idiosyncracies, embedded quotations, dialect usages, and all, while remaining open to other voices, whose words may differently weighted.  And then, to resist the rest.

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.)

Hearing Woolf

January 28, 2010

This ritual pilgrimage to the British Library is made several times a year, to hear Virginia Woolf. (It’s an easy enough journey there, along sacred bus routes, well worth it to receive the indulgences which are granted to those of us who seek literary benison.) Her delivery is, as always, faultless – though her voice comes from another country, posh beyond all King’s English, received pronounciation, BBC of the ’thirties. The accent is dated to a past which seems more distant than her writing, but the words are fresh as ever.

The talk Woolf gives is Craftsmanship, from a series of lectures called ‘Words fail me’; it’s a riff on English words and their use, history, magic. Even an excerpt gives some inkling of the variations played on the theme, the value of each note. Words live in the mind, not the dictionary (although you can catch them and sort them); they are utterly living. This is the incantatory moment where she takes flight; the words go out and about, on the streets, in company together, words belong to each other, it is their friendships and alliances which make them – sometimes – immortal. Here she approaches the heart of the mystery.

In the dim room, crammed with precious manuscripts, strangers stand tethered by headphones to their listening-posts, hearing the dead speak, seem to address the fellow-citizens of this library world directly. In the lit cabinets – bright pools or sun-shafts in this dark wood – are Shakespeare’s shopping-lists treasured for his pen-touch, the neat texts of Jane Austen no longer hidden from visitors, Aphra Benn’s scandalous scripts or a Bronte notebook, wild weather-stained. Here sometimes is the great carpet-patterned gospel, the scroll inscribed ‘A Keepsake from the Cloud Gallery’, the brush-holder which declares ‘The Pen before Everything’, or the great charter which the English think is nearly a constitution. Also, there is the battered antarctic journal over which I wept as a child, when its final entry For God’s sake look after our people seemed consistent with the ethos of the mahogany manuscript cases, the hush of the round reading-room.

When Woolf’s voice ceases, on ‘multitudinous seas incarnadine’ as an example of the perfect company of words, it’s hard not to recall her distaste for such self-publicity. As she walked home her ‘premonitory shivers and disgusts’ gradually gave way to the feeling of relief that ‘very few people had listened: the world much as usual’. She made a note not to repeat the folly of broadcasting, as she called it, and she never did. Yet she knew that as she read her piece to that anonymous audience of wireless-listeners, she spoke with ‘ease and emotion’, or fluency and enthusiasm, indeed passion. (It does not seem to have occurred to her to address anyone who was actually listening with anything less than a true statement of her private faith.)

Vita Sackville-West, who had recruited her, was an inveterate flasher of ideas on the air, though not so openly revealing of her creed. In fact, she was so persistent a broadcaster that she can still be heard on the radio quite regularly, listening to the nightingale with Ethel Smythe or recognising herself as Orlando. (I’ve even, by the wonders of BBC time-travel, had the pleasure of inhabiting the same programme with her, this century.) Perhaps Woolf deprecated this robust taste for self-exposure, which could only ever be partially truthful and sometimes became actually misleading. Doubtless she considered the unpleasant paradox that her own statements of belief could be construed as vulgar publicity.

Yet, when she had this opportunity to address an unusual audience, Woolf didn’t protect herself with any bland compromise, so her words hold good to another unseen audience. (A few more minutes of the talk can be heard these days on a British Library CD.) She reminds us that words are highly democratic, the ‘wildest freest most irresponsible of all things… irreclaimable vagabonds’ who make alliances with all kinds of foreigners and – full of echoes, memories and associations as they are – don’t like being pinned down to ‘useful’ meanings, for the passing of exams or the making of money. ‘They hate making money.’ What words like, she assures us, are people who think before they use them, and most importantly feel before they use them – in other words, people like her, impassioned and intoxicated by the possibilities of ‘our dear mother English’.

And so, for a’ that, an a’ that – like a grudged photograph allowed unwillingly which is the only extant likeness, snatched snap now treasured image – there her strange voice sounds. We can only be grateful for this one lapse on her part into sound. The survival of relics, after all, often suggests some discomfort on the part of the holy donor. A patron saint is usually chosen for some personal identification with the pilgrim; so this stolen ikon may protect us now, poor writers of the 21st century, as we try to differentiate between those tasks which contribute to the realities of working or thinking, and the demands of mere publicity.