I live, at all times, for imaginative fiction; for ambivalence, not instruction. When language serves dogma, then literature is lost. I live also, and only, for excellence. My care is not for the cult of egalitarian mediocrity that is sweeping the world today, wherein even the critics are no longer qualified to differentiate, but for literature, which you may notice I have not defined. I would say that, because of its essential ambivalence, ‘literature’ is: words that provoke a response; that invite the reader or listener to partake of the creative act. There can be no one meaning for a text. Even that of the writer is a but an option.

Literature exists at every level of experience. It is inclusive, not exclusive. It embraces; it does not reduce, however simply it is expressed. The purpose of the storyteller is to relate the truth in a manner that is simple: to integrate without reduction; for it is rarely possible to declare the truth as it is, because the universe presents itself as a Mystery. We have to find parables; we have to tell stories to unriddle the world.

It is a paradox: yet one so important I must restate it. The job of a storyteller is to speak the truth; but what we feel most deeply cannot be spoken in words. At this level only images connect. And so story becomes symbol; and symbol is myth.

It is one of the main errors of historical and rational analysis to suppose that the ‘original form’ of myth can be separated from its miraculous elements. ‘Wonder is only the first glimpse of the start of philosophy,’ says Plato. Aristotle is more explicit: ‘The lover of myths, which are a compound of wonders, is, by his being in that very state, a lover of wisdom.’ Myth encapsulates the nearest approach to absolute that words can speak.

Alan Garner
Aback of Beyond

A Defence of Poetry

July 8, 2020

Every undamaged human being has two minds and a body. One mind is that of waking consciousness, the other is the occult mind of dreams, which we live in fully during sleep but which is also present as reverie when we’re awake. Neither mind is superior to the other outright; each rules in its own mode of consciousness. It is an echo of the European imperial era to think we have to translate the terms of our dream-life into the ‘rational’ terms of daylight thinking, with its two aspects of language and non-verbal design that are said to reflect the two hemispheres of the forebrain. All other mental faculties, imagination, conscience, intuition, the unconscious mind, are theoretical and inferred, and may be differently divided up in different cultures, but all can agree that we dream, and wake, and have a body. We can sense the body’s needs, its weight, its strength and balance, its health and rhythms and pain; most would agree, too, that our emotions at least start from there. All will agree that each of the three major states of our life can exist or seem to exist pretty independently. Sunbathing on the beach in a pure languor, we can be nearly oblivious of anything beyond the body’s pleasure; dreaming deeply, we can be lost to any memory of daylight consciousness; ever since Plato, we can ascribe an overweening superiority to our cerebration, and despise our dreams and our bodily limitations. None of these extremes is bad in itself, though pure thought is apt to be over-praised in some circles and awarded a primacy we are coming to see as illusory. None of our separated states is very creative, nor can a healthy human live too exclusively in any one of them. To try is illusion anyway: the others are working, perhaps only in a dimmed way, even when we leave them out of account. And they may be working quite powerfully. The sportsman soaring over a high bar may be quite inarticulate then and afterwards, but he isn’t pure body: thought and dream are there, planning, helping him to concentrate, helping his limbs to be elastic, to volatilise his belief in gravity and dream himself up and over his body’s experience of limits.

Looking inside myself, I detect that when I write a poem, I do so in a kind of trance which integrates my two minds with each other and with their master-servant my body. The impulse to write the poem may come from any of the three, and each makes its contribution to the trance of composing. Waking consciousness supplies words, most ideas and probably much of the poem’s design. Dream lends it its aspect of timelessness, and its aura of mystery and the supernal; I suspect that many of the more daring flights and connections of any poem, the ones the mind might resist were it not charmed to silence, are carried on the flying carpet of our dream-life! The body, in turn, supplies feeling and rhythm, the free-and-bound dance of the words and images and it also supplies the laws of breath which shall obtain in the work. A man with a deep barrel chest will, at least sometimes, write very long lines because he has the puff for it. All of these contributions fuse in a dazzling simultaneity, if one has come to the poem at the proper moment in its growth within oneself. Start writing it too early in its gestation, and it is liable to be a mess, confused and uncooked; too late and it may emerge overly cut-and-dried, like a programme.

Les Murray
A Defence of Poetry

fly like owls

July 5, 2020

Words should wander and meander. They should fly like owls and flicker like bats and slip like cats. They should murmur and scream and dance and sing.

David Almond
My Name is Mina

Someone needs to tell those tales. When the battles are fought and won and lost, when the pirates find their treasures and the dragons eat their foes for breakfast with a nice cup of Lapsang souchong, someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative. There’s magic in that. It’s in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in ways they can never predict. From the mundane to the profound. You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift. Your sister may be able to see the future, but you yourself can shape it, boy. Do not forget that… there are many kinds of magic, after all.

Erin Morgenstern
The Night Circus

Metaphor isn’t just decorative language. If it were, it wouldn’t scare us so much. . . . Colourful language threatens some people, who associate it, I think, with a kind of eroticism (playing with language in public = playing with yourself), and with extra expense (having to sense or feel more). I don’t share that opinion. Why reduce life to a monotone? Is that truer to the experience of being alive? I don’t think so. It robs us of life’s many textures. Language provides an abundance of words to keep us company on our travels. But we’re losing words at a reckless pace, the national vocabulary is shrinking. Most Americans use only several hundred words or so. Frugality has its place, but not in the larder of language. We rely on words to help us detail how we feel, what we once felt, what we can feel. When the blood drains out of language, one’s experience of life weakens and grows pale. It’s not simply a dumbing down, but a numbing.

Diane Ackerman
An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain

Poetry is ordinary language raised to the Nth power. Poetry is boned with ideas, nerved and blooded with emotions, all held together by the delicate, tough skin of words.

Paul Engle
Poetry Is Ordinary Language Raised to the Nth Power
New York Times – February 17th 1957

flow of words

March 28, 2020

She loved the way her flow of words enveloped them both, such fiery, burning, incandescent words.

P

All through our gliding journey, on this day as on so many others, a little song runs through my mind. I say song because it passes musically, but it is really just words, a thought that is neither strange nor complex. In fact, how strange it would be not to think it – not to have such music inside one’s head and body, on such an afternoon. What does it mean, say the words, that the earth is so beautiful? And what shall I do about it? What is the gift I should bring to the world? What is the life I should live?

Mary Oliver
Flow
Long Life

Reading, at least reading live authors, should be fun. The best kind of education, surely, is one which encourages delight, communicates enthusiasm. Certainly the best kind of readers are those who feel the delight and enthusiasm. I can’t say that I write for children, except in the case of picture book texts, but I love being published for them. Children aren’t a different species, they are us, a few decades ago. And perhaps the part of us that’s still there, underneath, unrecognised, powerful: the part that includes the imagination.

We – teachers, librarians, parents, authors – have a responsibility for the imagination of the child. I don’t mean we have to educate it – you can’t do that, any more than you can teach a butterfly how to fly. But you can help the imagination to develop properly, and to survive things that may threaten it: like the over-use of computers and everything I classify as SOS, Stuff on Screens. I do realize that the Age of the Screen has now replaced the Age of the Page. But on all those screens there are words, and in order to linger in the mind, words still require pages. We are in grave danger of forgetting the importance of the book.

Susan Cooper
Speech given to the Youth Libraries Group, 1990

We mostly understand ourselves through an endless series of stories told to ourselves by ourselves and others. The so-called facts of our individual words are highly coloured and arbitrary, facts that fit whatever fiction we have chosen to believe in. It is necessary to have a story, an alibi that gets us through the day, but what happens when the story becomes scripture? When we can no longer recognize anything outside our own reality?

We have to be careful not to live in a state of constant self-censorship, where whatever conflicts with our world view is dismissed or diluted until it ceases to be a bother. Struggling against the limitations we place on our minds is our own imaginative capacity, a recognition of an inner life often at odds with the internal figuring’s we spend so much energy supporting.

Jeanette Winterson
Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery