Critique Between Friends

Just one more post from The Correspondence of Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume 2, before I move on to other things.

These two giants of literature, unkown to the general public in the 21st century (though Emerson has a following in American acedemia), regularly sent writings to the other, for reading and criticism. This wasn’t for critique, since these were published items. Emerson took over as publisher and editor of The Dial magazine, and sent each issue to him. Carlyle had some interesting thoughts about it:

“I love your Dial, and yet it is with a kind of shudder. You seem to me to be in danger of dividing yourselves from the Fact of this present Universe, in which alone, ugly as it is, can I find any anchorage, and soaring away after Ideas, Beliefs, Revelations, and such like,–into perilous altitudes, as I think; beyond the curve of perpetual frost, for one thing! I know not how to utter what impression you give me; take the above as some stamping of the fore-hoof. Surely I could wish you returned into your own poor nineteenth century.”

Well, that is heavy criticism, to say a good friend has his head so far in the clouds that his writing, and the publication he edits, lacks grounding in the current times. I’ve been active on some Internet writing boards where this type of criticism would cause a massive flame war. That is harsh criticism. How did Emerson respond?

“For the Dial and its sins, I have no defence to set up. We write as we can, and we know very little about it. If the direction of these speculations is to be deplored, it is yet a fact for literary history, that all the bright boys and girls in New England, quite ignorant of each other, take the world so, and come and make confession to father and mothers,–the boys that they do not wish to go into trade, the girls that they do not like morning calls and evening parties. They are all religious, but hate the churches; they reject all the ways of living of other men, but have none to offer in their stead. Perhaps, one of these days, a great Yankee shall come, who will easily do the unknown deed.”

Most interesting. Emerson acknowledges the criticism, seems to be somewhat in agreement with it, and then says he doesn’t care. They will go on writing as they do, for the writing is better than other activities they could do. If they are unconnected with the current age, so be it. Again, on some Internet writing boards, this rejection of criticism would be a call to fightin’.

But Emerson and Carlyle remained friends, and continued to write each other for thirty more years, seeing each other on two visits Emerson made to England. That is a kind of relationship I would like to have: to be able to be honest about another’s writing (and to be open to their honest criticism), to accept or reject it as best suits the author’s intentions for the piece, and to be friends for decades hence.

Flight of the Unwinged, Part 2: The Misuse of Poetry

Continuing from where I left off yesterday (and, for those who may have read that post before, as soon as I finish this post I’m going to edit something in there), I want to think about Carlyle’s comments as it relates to creative writing, especially poetry. Here is the essence of what Carlyle wrote.

– “Poetry” is a most suspicious affair for me at present!
– as if, when the lines had a jingle in them, a Nothing could be Something, and the point were gained!
– Let a man try to the very uttermost to speak what he means, before singing is had recourse to.
– “No, we cannot stand, or walk, or do any good whatever there; by God’s blessing, we will fly….”

By jingle I believe Carlyle refers to rhyme and meter. By “speak” and “singing” I believe he refers to the difference between prose and verse/poetry. Many people prefer to distinguish verse from poetry, with poetry being the greater writing. I’ve never done that, for to my way of thinking this is just bad/fair poetry and good/great poetry. It would seem to be semantics. I think Carlyle, by using the word “jingle”, means bad poetry, or verse. He is saying too many people who write poetry are writing bad poetry, with rhyme and meter (making it like a jingle) being the dominant or only devices to distinguish it from prose. Prose is the equivalent of speaking; [good/great] poetry in contrast is singing. But so many poets try singing before they can speak, try flying before they can stand, walk, or do any good whatever.

Poetry is the most difficult type of creative writing, its demands for excellence far exceeding those of prose. Yet so many people write poetry because they think it is easier. In cummings-esque style, they think ignoring punctuation, ignoring grammar, seemingling breaking lines at random, and not making sense is what poetry is made of.

Carlyle would disagree; I would too. Of course, I’ve been convince that more bad poetry is being written these days than ever before (some of it by me), but maybe that’s not the case. Carlyle seems to think most of what he saw was bad. Maybe it’s just easier to find it now. And maybe most of that slush-thaw poetry from the 1840s has simply disappeared, as much of what is written today will not be found 170 years from now.

The Flight of the Unwinged

I’m still finding nuggets to write about in The Correspondence of Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson Volume 2. Today the excerpt comes from a letter by Carlyle, on 17 November 1843. The text is somewhat difficult to understand; I had to read it several times. Here’s a somewhat lengthy quote from it.

But at bottom “Poetry” is a most suspicious affair for me at present! You cannot fancy the oceans of Twaddle that human Creatures emit upon me, in these times; as if, when the lines had a jingle in them, a Nothing could be Something, and the point were gained! It is becoming a horror to me,–as all speech without meaning more and more is. …Let a man try to the very uttermost to speak what he means, before singing is had recourse to. Singing, in our curt English speech, contrived expressly and almost exclusively for “despatch of business,” is terribly difficult. …If Channing will persist in melting such obdurate speech into music he shall have my true wishes,–my augury that it will take an enormous heat from him! Another…sends me a Progress-of-the-Species Periodical from New York. Ach Gott! These people and their affairs seem all “melting” rapidly enough, into thaw-slush or one knows not what. Considerable madness is visible in them…they say, “we cannot stand, or walk, or do any good whatever there; by God’s blessing, we will fly,–will not you?…And their flight, is as the flight of the unwinged,–of oxen endeavoring to fly with the “wings” of an ox!…I am terribly sick of that.”

I read this four or five times before it made sense to me. A little context will help. Emerson had sent Carlyle a book of poems by W.E. Channing, with a recommendation. Specifically, Emerson wrote, “Lately went Henry James to you….He carried a volume of poems from my friend and nearest neighbor, W. Ellery Channing, whereof give me, I pray you, the best opinion you can. I am determined he shall be a poet, and you must find him such.” Carlyle was not much for poetry, and yet he was bombarded by friends and others sending him things to read. What he saw of poetry tended to distress him. All of it was pretty much worthless in his mind–twaddle and thaw-slush, as he described in this letter. He says it seems that people think, just because the lines rhyme, Something can be made of Nothing. But Carlyle says the words must stand on their own, without the rhymes to prop them us.

Carlyle also seems to say that poetry is often mis-used, the equivalent of conducting business in song. Speak before you can sing, says Carlyle; write strong prose before you try poetry.

I am not really finished with this, but have run out of time. I’ll come back tomorrow and either edit this or make another post on the same topic.

Saved from Chaos

In the Thomas Carlyle quote I wrote about yesterday, he said that the ideas, once snatched from the ragged rank and dressed and drilled a little might have been saved from chaos. I love this expression, saved from chaos. I suspect, however, that the word use now is different than what Carlyle intended. I think of chaos as disorganization, things totally disconnected from each other, without any kind of order. That seems somewhat strong for what Carlyle was talking about.

Chaos describes my work areas. I have never been a neat person. My cubicle at work is a mess, and seems to be getting worse as the years go by. My writing desk in The Dungeon (as we call our downstairs computer room) is about as bad as my space at work, with piles of papers and stacks of folders and mounds of paid bills, all waiting, not to be snatched from a ragged rank, but rather to be put into a rank of any kind. Every so often I get a slight handle on things, then a couple or three days go by, and I look up and find a bigger mess than I had before. Part of it is never putting something away after it is taken off a shelf for a few minutes of reading or research. Part of it is difficulty getting to the unpleasant task of filing. Part of it is having things that seem more productive–until the piles become unmentionable.

Thursday night, spurred on by this thread at the Absolute Write forums, I established a Writing Ideas notebook. I planned how things are going to be filed in this notebook, and created a couple of dividers. A few pages have already been filed, and when I find the other twenty or so scattered between the house and the office and my portfolio, I will have a place to put them. At that time I will consider them already saved from chaos, though obviously dressing and drilling are still needed.

In other fits of organizational inspiration, I did the following in February:
1. I printed out a writing diary sheet, and actually filled it in for most days. I see it on the table next to me, with its last entry dated 26 Feb, so I have some work to do tonight.
2. Created a Correspondence/Miscellanies notebook for 2008. I have correspondence notebooks for pairs of earlier years, but none for this year. Now, when I send a letter or e-mail, or write a blog post or essay–something short, I have a place to immediately file them.
3. Having that notebook ready, I organized all my correspondence for February, and many of my miscellanies. I was amazed to see how many letters I had written, even with not including some of the minor ones. I was even more surprised to see how the miscellanies added up, again leaving out some of the inconsequential ones.

Thomas, thank you for your words, written 166 years ago; they have helped me immensely.

Many Things Passing Through My Head

I spent three posts on some words of Ralph Waldo Emerson; it’s only fair I spend some time on those of his receiving correspondant, Thomas Carlyle.

Emerson to Carlyle, 15 Aug 1842 – letter missing

Carlyle to Emerson, 29 Aug 1842

“Thanks for asking me to write you a word in the Dial. Had such a purpose struck me long ago, there have been many things passing through my head,–march-marching as they ever do, in long-drawn, scandalous Falstaff-regiments (a man ashamed to be seen passing through Coventry with such a set!)–some one of which, snatched out of the ragged rank, and dressed and drilled a little, might perhaps fitly have been saved from Chaos, and sent to the Dial. In the future we shall be on the lookout.”

Unfortunately Carlyle lost this letter of Emerson, but we get the picture. Emerson had taken over editorship of the Dial (which was the reason for his having difficulty getting to writing his chapter on poetry), and requested that Carlyle contribute something–for no compensation due to the magazine’s finances. You see Carlyle’s answer. He did eventually send something to Emerson to include.

I like what Carlyle says about the difficulty of capturing ideas and turning them into marketable copy. I don’t even pretend to understand the Falstaff reference, so let me simplify what Carlyle said: “…there have been many things passing through my head, march-marching as they ever do, in long-drawn…regiments…some one of which, snatched out of the ragged rank, and dressed and drilled a little, might perhaps fitly have been saved from Chaos….” This describes me to a tee. Now, don’t take me wrong, I am not comparing my feeble skills or finished product with the great Carlyle, but the ideas of something to write about go through my head faster that cars on the Interstate. Oh for a traffic jam that would slow them down! allowing me to look at and listen to one for a while, kick the tires and peer in the windows, and see if it might be a vehicle for publishing.

I love Carlyle’s metaphor: ideas marching like new military recruits–ragged, stretched out, undisciplined, headed to chaos. He recognizes that, given a purpose, he could have captured some of them and made them fit for publishing, but he didn’t. Was it the lack of a purpose? Maybe, but Carlyle was seldom without a writing project. As he wrote this letter, he was researching for a history of Oliver Cromwell and the Commonwealth era. He never quite wrote the history, though he did publish Cromwell’s letters and speeches, with elucidations. Also at this time he was working on his classic Past And Present, a treatise on what he saw as the sad state of affairs in the British Isles brought on by the Industrial Revolution. I started this book some years ago, but put it aside as being more difficult to grasp than I wanted at that time. So, maybe Carlyle did pull out of the ranks the ideas that seemed to be marching straightest, tallest, that showed the most promise for dressing and drilling.

Was it lack of desire that caused Carlyle not to do something with those many ideas, at least capture them in a notebook for possible training at a later date? Or was it because he saw, at the age of 47, that he had enough ideas already captured to take him the full distance to the end of his writing life? Sometimes I feel like that. If I found time to write every novel, every non-fiction book, every short story, every political essay, every historical-political newspaper column currently whirling through my head, and mix in a poem from time to time, and if I had no day job, no family responsibilities, no church responsibilities, no Savior to worship, I would have to live to 100, never slacking the pace or research, writing, revision, selling, and marketing to complete them all. Again, I’m no Carlyle, but I get his drift.

Oh to pluck a few more ideas from the ranks and begin to dress them and drill them and save them from Chaos.

A Few More Thoughts On Emerson’s Words

I want to make one more post on the words Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote to Thomas Carlyle in 1842. For convenience, here’s the quote.

“I had it fully in my heart to write at large leisure in noble mornings opened by prayer or readings from Plato or whomsoever else is dearest to the Morning Muse, a new chapter on Poetry, for which all readings, all studies, are but preparation; but now it is July, and my chapter is in rudest beginnings. Yet when I go out of doors in the summer night, and see how high the stars are, I am persuaded that there is time enough for all that I must do; and the good world manifests very little impatience.”

I find in these words much to apply to my own life. I’m not comparing my writings to his, nor my brain power to his, but I find much in his words to inform and inspire me. Consider these nuggets.

1. I had it in my heart to write pretty much sums up how I feel. This desire hit me relatively late in life compared to Emerson, who seems to have written essays from the moment his motor skills were sufficient to use a pen. But I have it in my heart now, and early enough in life that there is time enough for all that I must do. These umpteen ideas running through my head will hopefully each find their quiet time in turn, and turn into words on paper.

2. to write at leisure in mornings tells me that Emerson planned his day, and had a specific writing time. His output was perhaps not the most prolific among writers of his stature, but it is certainly some of the best. I could stand to emulate his habits: to write at a specific time, possibly in the morning when the mind is freshest; to write at leisure, by which I think he means at an unhurried pace, allowing the mind adequate to think before the hand moves the pen. Yet Emerson’s obligations, especially his recent assumption of the editorship of The Dial magazine, caused him to not have his leisurely writing time in noble mornings, and not prayers, nor Plato, nor anything else was helping him get his chapter written on poetry. How well I can relate to that! Though my interruptions are much more mundane, such as a day job, family responsibilities, and a thousand trappings of community. Oh that it would be an editorship that stunts my writing!

3. my chapter is in rudest beginnings tells me that Emerson had a realistic understanding of his skills and where his writing stood at any given time relative to what he knew the finished product should look like. By rudest beginning, I don’t know if he means barely started, or written but still subject to significant editing, or maybe just in outline form. No matter; I need to keep repeating Scavella’s Mantra: I’m not as good as I think I am.

4. the good world tells me something of Emerson’s overall outlook of life. The world was good, good enough to say so to his friend, good enough to write about. Emerson was optimistic about life, and I believe his writings reflect that. In comparison, his friend Carlyle was down right dour and pessimistic. He felt like the world was going downhill fast, and English civilization well past its zenith. Unfortunately, my outlook on this world is closer to Carlyle than to Emerson, and I’m sure my writing reflects that. I need to be able to say “the good world” and mean it. There is good in the world, but unfortunately the bad overwhelms it sometimes. Help me, Lord, to look for the good around me and let my outlook be atuned to that.

Soon I will give a quote from one of Carlyle’s letters, in which I find some inspiration and comfort.

The World Manifests Little Impatience

Today I’d like to look at the other part of Emerson’s statement to Carlyle: “Yet when I go out of doors in the summer night, and see how high the stars are, I am persuaded there is time enough for all that I must do; and the good world manifests very little impatience.

Even for a writer of the stature of Emerson, just in his early 40s when he wrote that, but already with a following for his lectures and essays, the world was not clamoring for his works to be rushed to print; no demand for accelerating the process. Emerson recognized that, and seems was not troubled by it. If there was time enough for all that he must do, the readership would be there when it was done.

So with me, so with me. The world is not clamoring for my work, either. Editors are not calling; agents are not filling my inbox with urgent e-mails–indeed, they are not begging me for partial manuscripts and proposals. Jon at work may be a little impatient for me to get back to writing my baseball novel, but most likely he’s being nice. My writing critique group, which I attend very rarely nowadays, may rave at my stuff and urge me to get it published, but they are hardly “the world.”

Tonight when I got home from church and took the day’s mail from the mailbox, I looked up at the clear, brilliant southern sky. Orion is still fully visible, signifying plenty of the current season left. The Hunter looked just like he did when I was in Boy Scouts and learning about constellations. Forty-five years and he hasn’t aged a bit. Yes, there is time enough, and the good world manifests little impatience for my work. I’ll deal with it.

Time enough for all that I must do

I have a new writing project, which I’m not going to write about here until I’m further along in it. This project has both stretched me thin and caused me to temporarily lay aside some other things I was working on or working up to.

I found a passage in Emerson’s writing applicable to this. I must first digress to tell about yesterday’s mundane activities. Part of this was foraging in used bookstores–just two, actually: the Friendly Bookstore in Rogers, run by the Friends of the Rogers Library, and the Salvation Army thrift store in Rogers. We also spent a pleasant hour at the Bentonville library, a new facility that has a coffee bar (I bought a large house blend) and plenty of space to simply browse and read at leisure. But I prate. At the Friendly Bookstore, I found three volumes I wanted. Two are somewhat inconsequential, but the third is a find: The Correspondence of Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume 2, printed in 1888. I have read both volumes 1 and 2 of this work, which is available in the public domain, specifically at Project Gutenberg, but there is something about having the words in your hand, rather than on the screen. The feel of the book, the care to protect its fragile condition, the sight of the browning pages, are all wonders when compared to pixels and plastic, electricity and fans, which are lost when the power ceases.

So of course I opened this book and began reading. Since this is volume 2 only, I had a distinct feeling of coming in on the middle of something. But Emerson, in his wisdom, rewarded me for being an interloper. After covering life’s business, he turned to his own writing and had this to say: “I had it fully in my heart to write at large leisure in noble mornings opened by prayer or readings from Plato or whomsoever else is dearest to the Morning Muse, a new chapter on Poetry, for which all readings, all studies, are but preparation; but now it is July, and my chapter is in rudest beginnings. Yet when I go out of doors in the summer night, and see how high the stars are, I am persuaded that there is time enough for all that I must do; and the good world manifests very little impatience.

So much to consider in these words, not the words of a well-worked lecture or chapter in a non-fiction book, but a simple letter to a friend, possibly not even proof-read as they were jotted down, possibly with no draft and revision. “There is time enough for all that I must do.” That is something I really need to learn. With this new project started and uncomplete projects dropped or delayed, I need to say this over and over again, and take it to heart. Fifty-six years are gone; who knows how many are ahead. There is time enough, time enough.

By the way, this Blogger software is messing up the line spacing whenever I use the quote feature, so I’m not going to use the quote feature for a while, not until I can figure out how to do it right.

Marvelling at the Old Time Authors

Spend any time in writer training, either in real life or on line, and you will hear some variation of this as the process for writing good material.

1. Write
2. Revise
3. Repeat step 2 until it is perfect.

Authors are encouraged to write as fast as they can. Get it down on paper (or on the screen). Don’t worry about the quality–that’s what revisions are for. When you finish the full piece, go back and revise, revise, revise and make it a quality product. Revise it some more to take out all your bad habits and enhance those good habits you don’t have yet. Revise some more. Perfect it. Edit it as many times as necessary to make it perfect. Almost everyone who teaches or coaches writers advocate this type of approach or something similar.

This is easy in the computer era. Successive revisions on a screen cost nothing but the electricity to run the machine, and it was probably running anyway. Occasional printouts have a cost of paper and toner, but printing fast-draft on re-used paper even reduces this cost. We have become a generation of writers who tend to write first and think later. Somehow out of this brain to fingers process we wind up with a finished product, hopefully a good piece–no, an excellent piece–no, a perfect piece.

My recent reading among writers of generations past has led me to think about how they approached writing. What about in the typewriter era, with all the cut and paste and re-typing? What about in the pre-typewriter era, when everything was written, and each revision meant a rewrite, at a time when ink and paper was more expensive than today? What about in ancient times, say at the time of Jesus Christ, when paper was papyrus, ink was soot mixed with water, and pens were quills or worse? Surely the ancients, and the moderately-distant past writers followed a different approach. They must have spent a lot more time forming the words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs in their heads–an inexpensive medium, those gray cells–before putting anything on paper.

When Emerson put these words on paper in 1834 with his own hand, how many drafts did he go through?

Believe then that the harp and ear are formed by one revolution of the wheel; that men are waiting to hear your epical song; and so be pleased to skip those excursive involved glees, and give us the simple air, without the volley of variations.

And, when Carlyle wrote this back the same year, did he think first and write later, or the other way around?

Poor Teufelsdrockh!–Creature of mischance, miscalculation, and thousand-fold obstruction! Here nevertheless he is, as you see; has struggled across the Stygian marshes, and now, as a stiched pamplet “for Friends” cannot be burnt or lost before his time.

These were just in letters between the two, and yet the writing is excellent, full of wit and wisdom, full of erudition. Such did not come from spilling their guts onto successive pieces of paper, but from churning words in the brain over a period of years. You might say these men are not typical of the writers of their day, but sit on the shoulders of all others. Perhaps so. But I wonder how much their process of writing (think, churn, write, revise, send) made them so.

My point? I don’t know that I have one; just pondering about how we have changed. I began a new writing project Sunday night (as if I’m not trying too many things now), and spent the time Sunday in reading for research and putting concepts on paper. I did a little of the same on Monday, then went to the computer and followed the write fast method, getting as much on disc as I could. When I read it tonight or tomorrow, will I see the makings of something good, or simple rot-gut?

Loving Books

I was not going to blog about this today, but I can’t pass it up.

Each morning I arrive at work about 7:00 AM. I don’t have to start until 8:00 AM (though I’m not really on the clock and can set my own hours), but I come in early to miss traffic. That hour becomes mine. I have devotions and a prayer, a somewhat brief time with God, but becoming more meaningful the longer the habit continues. I print out my diary sheet for the day then lay it aside. I tear yesterday off my Dilbert desk calendar and enjoy the new laugh. I check out one or two of the writing web sites I either review or participate in, and sometimes make a post (made two this morning). Then I pull out something to read. For over a year I read a letter in the exchange between Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thomas Carlyle. These two giants of literature would speak to me through their words.

Once I finished both volumes of those letters, I picked up again Life And Letters Of Lord Macaulay, Volume 1, by Sir George Otto Trevelyan, Macaulay’s nephew and literary executor. I found this book on Project Gutenberg, downloaded it, formatted it for printing, and printed it front and back. Several years ago I began reading it and read a good way through it, then laid it aside for Emerson and Carlyle. Now, without something new to read, I have picked it up again and read it for twenty to thirty minutes during “my” hour. Today I read (actually reading–I interupted it to make this post) his Feb 8, 1835 letter to Thomas F. Ellis. Macaulay was living in Calcutta, India, and was in the depths of despair, having learned in the previous month that his youngest sister had died in England. He makes this statement:

That I have not utterly sunk under this blow I owe chiefly to literature. What a blessing it is to love books as I love them;–to be able to converse with the dead, and to live amidst the unreal!

I thought that was an excellent observation, and pretty much sums up my feelings. Of course, for me it doesn’t have to be “literature” per se. A textbook, and engineering book, even popular novel will do just as well.

Now back to Macaulay, to see what he says to Ellis about Pindar and Homer.

Author | Engineer