Sunday, 17 April 2016

Rumi, Lincoln and Le Guin (and me?)

As with last week, I have struggled over writing this entry. There are so many things I would like to say and I want to say them all with the most elegant language possible. One revelation I have had in the last week is the use of that word elegant. I think it describes well what I think of as good writing, it encapsulates the words concise, beautiful and clear (though, perhaps it fails on the last) in a way which is less misleading than any of those words individually. I will not overuse it I hope, but this week I want to describe a few examples of what I think of as elegant language in writing.

This is the only included example of poetry and it is translated. The reason for this is that in some way I feel as though poetry is cheating. There is less context for poems and less other scaffolding hinging upon it doing its job, it makes it much easier to craft surprising and meaningful combinations of words. That in mind, I should justify this poem. What I like about it is that it provides (as poetry should) such a concise definition of some really important ideas. Actually though the main reason why I have included it and the reason why you should go and read it, is the final two lines which blow me away every time. I wont include them here because I think they are ruined out of context, but as a taster I'll include the first two lines.

Define and narrow me, you starve yourself of yourself.
Nail me down in a box of cold words, that box is your coffin.

The thing I really love about this is that it describes something which I think I know, that any time I put somebody in any sort of definitional box I am reducing them in my mind, and it gives it such a specific and clear explanation. The first line also provides something of a tease for the ending line (which, once again, I just love).

This is one of my favourite novels. It has a brilliant description of a truly anarchist society which made me imagine what that would be like far more completely than I had ever been able to before. I really got involved in thinking about both the good and the bad aspects of how that life would be. It also has some over descriptive passages which are one of the few things I like less about Le Guin. However the reason I'm bringing it up here is the following passage:

He looked up, and as he stepped off the ramp onto the level ground he stumbled and nearly fell. He thought of death, in that gap between the beginning of a step and its completion, and at the end of the step he stood on a new-earth.

Within the context of the book this works wonderfully, describing a moment where the protagonist steps from one society to another and when they leave the rocket from their planet to another. It is, in many ways, the crux on which the two halves of the novel balance. More than that though, there is something about the what it is phrased which touches me, even devoid of context. The thought of death at the beginning of a new venture is evocative, but more than that the occurrence of that thought in this briefest of moments, just a flash of the realisation of mortality, something about that is incredibly human to me.

I am sure that there have been more words written about this piece of writing than I will write in my lifetime. I doubt I have much to add except to say that in some ways it is clumsy and/or doesn't seem to scan that well. There is also an almost perverse element to the way that almost every phrase seems to be put together in a way which is unusual or not often used. Having said that, I love this, it speaks almost directly to the elegance which I so want to replicate and, in a couple of brief places, that elegance really lands for me. The first is talking about the dead soldiers they are honouring having given the “last full measure of devotion”, there is something about that line which speaks so clearly to a very keen compassion and gratitude for what the soldiers did. It chokes me up almost every time. The second line is the more obvious one (at least to Americans) “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. I think this is interesting because this represents almost the inception of a phrase which has been used rather a lot ever since. As a result I think to most modern Americans it means very little, their brains (as I talked about last week) will skip over it as though it isn't there, not really processing the meaning. However to me it speaks to clearly to this very deep aim and desire both of Lincoln and the founding fathers. It is so evocative and well rounded. There are other elements which I like a lot in the speech, but these two are the ones which stand out the most to me, both as being the main points Lincoln was getting across and as being the most emotionally weighty (perhaps then intentionally so).

It has been interesting writing this entry. It forced me to think a lot about what I appreciate in language and why and I daresay in a year or two I could revisit it and give very different answers. One thing that picking such grandiose examples has made me think about however is the fact that actually on the whole words which I might call elegant are not the most impressive. Actually I appreciate it just as much when it is only a small thing. In a fit of utter ego I wanted to finish by quoting an example of just this from a novel of mine I am currently editing. My protagonist is talking to a dragon in human form and says that she can't believe he is a dragon and he replies:

I can assure you, it should be believed,”

I don't often like my own writing, but something about that phrase jumped out at me despite it only being about a very trivial thing. I hope to create and encounter many more similar examples in the years ahead.

* - [For now I will leave this point hanging here as I think further explanation would detract from the point at hand. I do think it is defensible though.]

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