magically burst forth

January 19, 2020

Writing and reading are the only ways to find your voice. It won’t magically burst forth in your poems the next time you sit down to write, or the next, but little by little, as you become aware of more choices and begin to make them – consciously and unconsciously – your style will develop.

Dorianne Laux
The Poet’s Companion: A Guide To The Pleasures Of Writing Poetry

his world and no other

April 2, 2019

Every great or even every very good writer makes the world over according to his own specifications. It’s akin to style, what I’m talking about, but it isn’t style alone. It is the writer’s particular and unmistakable signature on everything he writes. It is his world and no other. This is one of the things that distinguishes one writer from another. Not talent. There’s plenty of that around. But a writer who has some special way of looking at things and who gives artistic expression to that way of looking: that writer may be around for a time.

Raymond Carver
On Writing

not like a circus trick

September 1, 2017

I have to write longhand, and no one can read my writing, I have to type my own manuscripts, because I’m going almost in a zigzag, across and then down. (I don’t write backwards, I’ve never been able to do that!) Fortunately, it’s not like a circus trick where, when they try to work out how they did it, they’re unable to do it. If I can’t see something enough, I shut my eyes and look at it, and I don’t feel I am writing – I’m there.

I used to throw away my holograph manuscripts after I’d typed them, but I’m keeping a lot of them now, because obviously, at 50, I’m starting to think, if anyone ever is interested in me after I’m dead, they can look and see, ‘My god, this woman was a maniac!’

Tanith Lee
Love, Death & Publishers
Locus Magazine April 1998

Should somebody penetrate the barbed-wire entanglement of my handwriting and read my Roughs , it would make little sense to him. He would find bewildering changes of time and place. The people would confound him with sudden new characteristics. Some would change their looks. Some would be whisked away without explanation. Some would put in a late appearance, yet be greeted by the rest as though they had been there from the beginning. He would find, this reader, traces of style followed by no style at all; pedestrian phrases, clichés, straight flat-footed reporting. Here a whole sequence of scenes complete and next some mingy skeleton stuff with a burst of apparently contemptuous hieroglyphs on the blank left-hand page beside it. Nor is the left-hand page reserved for “Exp” (meaning Expand, “X” (meaning Wrong), “//” (meaning much the same as “X” only more so) and “?” (meaning what it says). The left-hand page is likely to be a shambles, taking afterthought insertions for the right-hand page; paragraphs whose position may not be indicated at all. No; a reader would have no more fun with the Rough than the writer is having.

Pamela Frankau
Pen to Paper

I should be a writer

December 9, 2016


From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer. Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.

I was the middle child of three, but there was a gap of five years on either side, and I barely saw my father before I was eight. For this and other reasons I was somewhat lonely, and I soon developed disagreeable mannerisms which made me unpopular throughout my schooldays. I had the lonely child’s habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons, and I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued. I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life. Nevertheless the volume of serious — i.e. seriously intended — writing which I produced all through my childhood and boyhood would not amount to half a dozen pages. I wrote my first poem at the age of four or five, my mother taking it down to dictation. I cannot remember anything about it except that it was about a tiger and the tiger had ‘chair-like teeth’ — a good enough phrase, but I fancy the poem was a plagiarism of Blake’s ‘Tiger, Tiger’. At eleven, when the war or 1914-18 broke out, I wrote a patriotic poem which was printed in the local newspaper, as was another, two years later, on the death of Kitchener. From time to time, when I was a bit older, I wrote bad and usually unfinished ‘nature poems’ in the Georgian style. I also attempted a short story which was a ghastly failure. That was the total of the would-be serious work that I actually set down on paper during all those years.

However, throughout this time I did in a sense engage in literary activities. To begin with there was the made-to-order stuff which I produced quickly, easily and without much pleasure to myself. Apart from school work, I wrote vers d’occasion, semi-comic poems which I could turn out at what now seems to me astonishing speed — at fourteen I wrote a whole rhyming play, in imitation of Aristophanes, in about a week — and helped to edit a school magazines, both printed and in manuscript. These magazines were the most pitiful burlesque stuff that you could imagine, and I took far less trouble with them than I now would with the cheapest journalism. But side by side with all this, for fifteen years or more, I was carrying out a literary exercise of a quite different kind: this was the making up of a continuous ‘story’ about myself, a sort of diary existing only in the mind. I believe this is a common habit of children and adolescents. As a very small child I used to imagine that I was, say, Robin Hood, and picture myself as the hero of thrilling adventures, but quite soon my ‘story’ ceased to be narcissistic in a crude way and became more and more a mere description of what I was doing and the things I saw. For minutes at a time this kind of thing would be running through my head: ‘He pushed the door open and entered the room. A yellow beam of sunlight, filtering through the muslin curtains, slanted on to the table, where a match-box, half-open, lay beside the inkpot. With his right hand in his pocket he moved across to the window. Down in the street a tortoiseshell cat was chasing a dead leaf’, etc. etc. This habit continued until I was about twenty-five, right through my non-literary years. Although I had to search, and did search, for the right words, I seemed to be making this descriptive effort almost against my will, under a kind of compulsion from outside. The ‘story’ must, I suppose, have reflected the styles of the various writers I admired at different ages, but so far as I remember it always had the same meticulous descriptive quality.

George Orwell
Why I write


In her well-known poem, “Poetry,” Miss Moore begins, “I too, dislike it.” This line has been interpreted as ironic, as an attempt to disarm, or as evidence that she practices her art only half-seriously. Quite obviously, however, her reasoning is serious. She refers to a kind of poetry that is neither honest nor sincere but that has found fashionable approval by virtue of its very obscurity.

“Poetry” has had several incarnations. The last version, appearing in the Complete Poems of 1967, is four lines long, having been cut from a poem of thirty-eight lines that appeared in the Selected Poems of 1935 and the Collected Poems of 1951. This longer version, in turn, grew out of the original thirteen lines printed in Observations. The last revision was, I think, a mistake. For one thing, the poem of four lines is so brief that it invites misinterpretation. The words “dislike” and “contempt” overshadow the idea that poetry has also a place for the genuine and, without knowing the earlier versions, a reader might very well feel confused. What poetry is she referring to? All poetry? Some particular kind? It isn’t clear in the short version. In this case the concision itself results in a kind of obscurity.

The middle version is the one I like best. The thirteen lines in Observations are thin by comparison to the longer poem of 1935. The Observations version makes clear that Miss Moore is denigrating a particular kind of modern poetry in which intellectualization has led to incomprehensibility, but it does not, as the longer version does, seek to define what poetry ought to be. The longer 1935 version does this. It defines poems using Miss Moore’s well-known phrase “’imaginary gardens with real toads in them’” and poets as “’literalists of the imagination.’” Imagination is placed in opposition to intellection. The raw material for poetry abounds, it is everywhere, is anything, but it must be imaginatively grasped.

Imagination proceeds from a deeper source than intellection. When, in “Melanchthon,” Miss Moore speaks of the “beautiful element of unreason” underlying the poet’s tough hide, I think she is talking about the place where imagination grows. The “element” is genuine because it cannot be otherwise, its source mysterious, hidden under layers of the rational mind. Poetry, then, when it is genuine, is a collision of this private vision with the outside world. It is an imaginary garden full of real toads. This is thought that needs emphasis; I miss it in the four-line poem.

Perhaps Miss Moore felt that she was following her own advice on compression. One is reminded of the words “‘compression is the first grace of style’” that Miss Moore quotes from Democritus in her poem, “To a Snail.” “Contractility is a virtue” she says. What we find valuable in style is “the principle that is hid. The snail, because of its particular physical attributes, has its own “‘method of conclusions,’” its own “‘knowledge of principles’” just as the individual poet has a style determined by his own particularities determined especially by the hidden principle of his imagination. But in the final version of “Poetry” the virtue of compression has been carried too far. The hidden principle has been too well hidden.

Donald Hall
Marianne Moore: The Cage and the Animal