Archives for category: Writing

Via LitHub comes a meditation by Alexander Stern at Aeon on the meaning of words qua words. To my mind he’s treading soggy ground: figuring that the sound of words reflects their meaning seems a dicey proposition. One can perhaps imagine that words were first born in some sort of auditory relationship to the essence of the object or action described, but that’s surely all submerged in the mists of prehistory. Trying to mine this bit of the linguistic world sounds like a project along the lines of The Key to All Mythologies by Rev. Edward Casaubon. Maybe we can accept that words beginning in gl- — glisten, glint, glimmer, glow — sound like they might have something to do with light, but we are writing and thinking in English. What about, say, the Tagalog speaker?

Mr Stern claims “‘livre’ might mean book but it doesn’t mean it the way ‘book’ does.” He quotes Plato’s Cratylus as saying “Anyone who knows a thing’s name also knows the thing.” But Plato’s excuse would be that he was fixated on forms — would he have had one form for French book and another for English book? Naturally “the thing” as book inevitably carries a different load of meaning to an English speaker than it does to a French speaker. The resonance is probably even narrower: Scottish vs. English; or even a Scot who learned to read in Gullane vs. an otherwise located Scottish learner. As I wrote at Reading is good for you, to me the word “book” never fails to conjure up the image of David Livingstone, autodidacting away by candle light, accompanied by a special smell (no doubt the smell of the classroom in Gullane) dusty and comforting. When I think of livre, or even just “French book”, I tend to see the yellow jacketed Editions Garnier paperback of Madame Bovary which I bought in 1961 as a student in Grenoble. It came wrapped in an elegant if cheap second jacket advertising the bookstore. This has subsequently fragmented into acid-rich flakes annoyingly dusting my bookshelf — just this year actually. Of course I’d had French books before, but those I had at school were more English books in French than they were French books. No smell accompanies my Bovary memory. Maybe I should claim a madeleine/tisane combo. If I was a German would the word take me out into the beech woods?

It’s almost too obvious to mention that onomatopoeic words sound like their meaning; “Pop” = pop etc. They are after all meant to. But Mr Stern wants to go further: he wants to show us that meaning is prefigured in sound. Yet for all his Wittgensteinian quotation he doesn’t seem able to get this theory off the ground. Probably because there’s no real there there. When Adam named the horse, did he call it horse, cheval, Pferd, equus, άλογο, סוּס, or even 马? They can’t all be essentially redolent of horsiness, can they? Does the fact that the animal was no doubt named before it evolved into what we’d recognise as a horse nowadays, suggest a surfeit here of sound and fury? The smell of the stable or more narrowly of a horse’s mane, will flood the mind of a German at the mention of Pferd, while the self-same effect will be generated across the border by the sound cheval. The association is learned, not inherent in the word.

Places of Poetry is a website which aims to map England and Wales with local poetry created for the site. At each flag you’ll discover an appropriate poem. (They seem to have allowed a few outliers in southern Scotland.) You are invited to add your own poems until 4 October, when it’ll become read-only. The Guardian story, entitled “A unique and slightly mad effort” was linked to by Shelf Awareness for Readers on 2 August.

Here’s some of what the Places of Poetry organizers say about their project on their “About” page:

Places of Poetry is open to all readers and writers. It aims to use creative writing to prompt reflection on national and cultural identities in England and Wales, celebrating the diversity, heritage and personalities of place.

The site is open for writers to pin their poems to places from 31st May to 4 October 2019. It will then be closed for new poems but will remain available for readers. We welcome writers of all ages and backgrounds. We want to gather as many perspectives on the places and histories of England and Wales.

Events and activities will be staged at our heritage partner sites across England and Wales to promote the project and generate new writing. Each site will host a Places of Poetry poet-in-residence, and we will promote and document all events on our website and via social media (@placesofpoetry). Please follow us and help us spread the word.

The Places of Poetry is led by the renowned poet Paul Farley and the academic Andrew McRae. It is based at the universities of Exeter and Lancaster, and generously funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, The National Lottery Heritage Fund and Arts Council England. It is underpinned by national partnerships with the Ordnance Survey, The Poetry Society, and National Poetry Day.

Apparent idiocy is rather widely distributed among political figures — not of course that I would ever attribute such a quality to any individual politico.

It’s notable that one of the first acts of Jacob Rees-Mogg, consequent upon his appointment as Leader of the House of Commons by well-known sage Boris Johnson, is to distribute to staff a set of language instructions. The Guardian, in a piece entitled Comma Touch, goes to town on this. These directions, clearly vital to the future success of the United Kingdom, the land of Shakespeare let us never forget, include embargoes on the use of “hopefully”, “very”, “due to” and “ongoing”, as well as “equal”, “yourself”, “unacceptable”, “lot”, “got” and “I am pleased to learn”. Commas may not be used after “and”, and the use of “is” is rationed which is only right, isn’t it. We can all agree can’t we, that it is important that even if you are writing nonsense it should be well-written nonsense.

All males without a title are to be addressed as Esq. Mr Rees-Mogg will no doubt be after me to point out that he does in fact have a title and should therefore be addressed as the Right Honourable Jacob Rees-Mogg, M.P. thanks to the voters of North East Somerset.

In this time of crisis, brought on in large part by Jacob Rees-Mogg Esq. and his hardnosers, it is reassuring to know that our government has its priorities right so that we will be able to face our exit from Europe and the consequent breakup of the United Kingdom with a well-turned phrase or two. That Rees-Mogg’s behavior is a model which we should all aspire to ape is made obvious by this sentence from the article: “When standing for the Conservatives for the Central Fife seat in 1997, he took his nanny and his mother’s Mercedes out canvassing.” (He lost that one.)

Later: I should perhaps have noted that Rees-Mogg recently published a book, The Victorians, panned by reviewers in extreme terms, and notable for the smallness of its first week sale. Lit Hub provides a selection of reviews.

A couple of years back a law case was decided on the basis of the absence of a serial comma. Kelly Gurnett wrote about it at The Write Life, and the following year at The Researching Paralegal. (Thanks to Gordon Johnson for the reminder.) It does seem to me that in the case under discussion the Maine dairy drivers should indeed have received their overtime. The absence of a comma in the State law does tend to treat shipping and distribution as a single operation. In this case the Oxford comma would indeed have clarified the matter — if the legislators’ intention was to have shipping and distribution as separate activities. An expanded version of Kelly Gurnett’s example “I like cookies, and cake, and pizza, and ice cream” does however seem pretty conclusive to me. Take out the comma after pizza, and however odd you might consider such a taste, you are talking to someone who likes three things, pizza with ice cream, and cookies, and cake.

A comma (which is not present in some early versions of the text) provides the notorious focus for a long-lasting debate in America about the Second Amendment to the Constitution. “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” With or without that last comma this is still an oddly constructed sentence. Of course, in an ideal world, if you had drafted such a sentence you might well decide to redact it because of its potential for ambiguity, but political compromises of course are not usually carried out in ideally calm circumstances and often find their substance in a careful blurring of clarity.

Sir Roger Casement claimed that he was being hanged because of a comma. The relevant statute, dating from 1351, was translated from the Norman French, and reads “. . . if a Man do levy War against our Lord the King in his Realm, or be adherent to the King’s Enemies in his Realm, giving to them Aid and Comfort in the Realm, or elsewhere . . .” The comma near the end was held to make “or elsewhere” qualify all three of the “crimes” listed. Casement’s lawyers argued that it really only referred to the giving of Aid and Comfort, and that as his treason had taken place in Germany where he had encouraged Irish captives to resist British rule, the statute didn’t apply to his actions. The comma isn’t present in the French original (which may be seen in IP Drafts’ discussion of the case), and may just have been a stray mark or fold in the original translation, but of course who can know what the framers intended?

Maybe we should make a law that the serial comma may never be used in legal documents, or must always be used if you’d prefer that way round. Of course we’d have to go back and rewrite all out old non-compliant comma-ridden laws — and this would just raise the debate about whether the comma included things in or out in each instance we came across. The debate is never ending.

See also The Oxford comma.

Unsurprisingly having their first book turn into a wild success presents any author with a psychic burden. You can’t escape the thought that everyone expects you to write another bestseller. After all, you did it at first go: must be easy. Perhaps even more insidious is the sneaking thought that if that many people liked your book it must have been pretty good, maybe even brilliant.

Harper Lee notoriously disappeared into this bag. She did apparently have the plan to write a true crime book just like her buddy Truman Capote had done with In Cold Blood. But, although she had a sure-fire story and had amassed piles of material, she could never manage to get the story down on paper. NPR and The Guardian both tell the tale, all occasioned by the recent publication a book about Ms Lee’s writer’s block which includes an examination the crime in question, which does sound eminently writeable-about. Details of Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep may be found here.

Follow-up inhibition happens enough to make one wonder if it might not be better to have your success come later in life, if not posthumously! Finding a second nocturnal dog caused Mark Haddon a lot of grief. “Curious Incident was like a gold-plated ball and chain” he tells The Guardian. His latest, The Porpoise, is inspired by his recent heart surgery. F. Scott Fitzgerald is quoted in the New Yorker‘s article Blocked “premature success gives one an almost mystical conception of destiny as opposed to will power. . . . The man who arrives young believes that he exercises his will because his star is shining.” As they note this leaves the author with a problem when the star stops shining. Other stargazers have included J. D. Salinger (maybe), Ralph Ellison, Jeffrey Eugenides.

But suffering neglect can’t really be helpful for the young author either. At the very least, early success gives you the time to write, free from the need to earn your daily bread in the nine-to-five grind. Elizabeth Hardwick suggests “I don’t think getting older is good for the creative process. Writing is so hard. It’s the only time in your life when you have to think.” So get over it, and seize the day. Like everything it comes down to personality. Think of Anthony Trollope turning out his 1,000 words an hour from 5.30 till 8.30 every morning. His example suggests that determination is more important that inspiration. He recommends his method to all writers: “Let their work be to them as is his common work to the common laborer. No gigantic efforts will then be necessary. He need tie no wet towels round his brow, nor sit for thirty hours at his desk without moving,—as men have sat, or said that they have sat.”

I guess everyone now knows about the somewhat surprising purchase of Barnes & Noble by Elliott Management, a venture capital group who also rescued Waterstones in UK. Vulture provides a time-line history of Barnes and Noble, starting only from Len Riggio’s acquisition of the company in 1971, at which point it was already expanding beyond its Cooper Union origins.

Mike Shatzkin‘s not beating about any bushes: he doesn’t think James Daunt can pull off the same trick with Barnes & Noble as he appears to have done with Waterstones. Actually, I don’t really think it is quite the same trick he’s being asked to pull off. Waterstones was never a transatlantic clone of B&N. Which just means I don’t think the trick will work either, just more emphatically. It’s hard to see how the constantly changing inventory advocated by Mr Shatzkin could be organized in a physical bookstore let alone a collection of lots of stores. Workers would spend all their time opening cartons and packing books for return. Trying to reproduce conditions available online in a bricks-and-mortar environment is a Sisyphean task: which of course is just the problem.

I believe that we have lived through the era of the gigantic bookstore. A meteor killed the dinosaurs; the Amazon drowned the chains. That the warehouse store model did indeed work for books in a pre-internet age is indisputable. That lots of money can be made from books is shown by this weird article from The New Yorker, recounting an odd initiative by a Riggio literary charity funded by money earned during Barnes & Noble’s glory days. It took me quite a while to decide whether the article was fiction or non-fiction. I’m still not sure though I’m plumping for real. “The Strange Story of a Secret Literary Fellowship” is undoubtedly strange.

A number of writers were invited to turn up for a “’congress of writers’ that would teach skills and speak truth to power”. Who was organizing it and why was shrouded in mystery, but Daniel A. Gross agreed to try it out. In the end the thing he got out of the experience was this article for The New Yorker, not nothing of course. Buried in the middle of his article is the odd sentence, used as a pull quote by Jane Friedman in forwarding the link, “I wish someone had told me that early-career writers are the cheap gas on which much of the writing business runs.” Maybe I’m just too dumb to be an early-career writer (or too old) but I can’t figure out exactly what this means, and I doubt, if someone had muttered this cryptic warning to Mr Gross, things would have turned out any different. So he got $5,000 from the Riggio Foundation for turning up a few afternoons for “the pedagogy” after the fellowship program was cancelled, not the $10,000 promised at the outset, but I don’t see who in the writing business (if such a business really does exist) benefitted from his gas, which as far as I can tell wasn’t sold particularly cheaply, if indeed any product changed hands. It’s fascinating to know that there are people with money who think this sort of gathering does any good — I’m forced to believe they apparently do since nevertheless such programs do take place. There’s always something new.

Depending on how you cut it there have been 21 or 23 British poets laureate. It really got going when King James I (VI of Scotland) started paying a pension to Ben Jonson. Wikipedia tells us that Henry VII had a poet laureate too, a Frenchman named Bernard André. Richard I had a versificator regis, William the Pilgrim. And of course we can imagine wind-swept Ossian-like bards urging on the warriors in the real olden days. John Dryden was the first “Official” poet laureate.

The full list of semi-official and official laureates is:

  • Ben Jonson — 1619-37
  • Sir William Davenant — 1638-?
  • John Dryden — 1668-89
  • Thomas Shadwell — 1689-92
  • Nahum Tate — 1692-1715
  • Nicholas Rowe — 1715-18
  • Laurence Eusden — 1718-30
  • Colley Cibber — 1730-57
  • William Whitehead — 1757-85
  • Thomas Warton — 1785-90
  • Henry James Pye — 1790-1813
  • Robert Southey — 1813-43
  • William Wordsworth — 1843-50
  • Alfred Lord Tennyson — 1850-92
  • Alfred Austin — 1896-1913
  • Robert Bridges 1913-30
  • John Masefield — 1930-67
  • Cecil Day-Lewis — 1968-72
  • Sir John Betjeman — 1972-84
  • Ted Hughes — 1984-98
  • Andrew Motion — 1999-2009
  • Carol Ann Duffy — 2009-2019
  • Simon Armitage — 2019-

According to The Guardian Simon Armitage will receive an annual stipend of £5,750 plus the traditional butt of sack: 600-odd bottles of sherry. The ten-year tenure seems to be a relatively recent development — or the list would have to contain forty names — well maybe with some sort of gap for the Commonwealth. Is it odd that there are just two Sirs? I guess getting the office is considered enough of a reward for a mere writer. The eighteenth century in particular is distinguished by poets we rather ignore nowadays.

In The Guardian Andrew Motion has just written an article celebrating Mr Armitage’s appointment. In the course of this piece he tells us that the ten-year limit was something he insisted upon, which now appears to have become standard. I guess 6,000 bottles of sherry could be seen as sufficient.

See also Poets laureate (US).

Simon Armitage has been appointed the U.K.’s 21st poet laureate, succeeding Carol Ann Duffy. The position “has its roots in the 17th century, when Ben Jonson was granted a pension by King James I for his services to the crown,” the Guardian reported, noting that Armitage will receive an annual stipend of £5,750 (about $7,480), “along with the traditional butt of sack: 600-odd bottles of sherry.” His tenure will be a fixed term of 10 years. (From Shelf Awareness of May 14th, 2019.) The job doesn’t include any official duties but the incumbent is kind of expected to write something to mark any significant national occasion. Does this mean it will fall to Simon Armitage to memorialize Brexit, and the consequent breakup of the UK?

Simon Armitage could be said to project a sort of blokeish image. The people’s poet kind of thing, though he done plenty of “serious” stuff like translating PearlSir Gawain and the Green Knight, and The Death of King Arthur. “With his acute eye for modern life, Armitage is an updated version of Wordsworth’s ‘man talking to men.’” said the

Having started out as a probation officer in Manchester, he has been Professor of Poetry at the University of Sheffield, the University of Leeds, and the University of Oxford. He has written a couple of novels and a handful of non-fiction works. I fondly recall his Walking Home, an account of a walk down the Pennine Way from the Scottish Border to his home in south Yorkshire, during the course of which he supported himself by giving poetry readings in pubs along the way. Getting in out of the rain was perhaps a subsidiary motivation.

“Often, at night, solitude loses its soft power, and loneliness takes over. I am grateful for when solitude returns.” Donald Hall’s late productivity is notable. This video by Paul Szynol is published by The Atlantic.

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

The New Yorker published a longer article about Mr Hall’s burst of late creativity. Donald Hall died on June 23, 2018, at the age of 89.

The quotation at the head of this piece puts me in mind of Thomas Moore’s “Oft in the stilly night” sung here by the immortal John McCormack. (Don’t think there’s something wrong — there’s no image in this “video”. The sound’s enough! Perfection.)

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal”. We all know literary (or any other artistic) influence is essential to the development of art. Conscious or more often unconscious copying happens all the time. A hundred years ago people no doubt didn’t altogether approve of straight copying, but only rarely had to confront the evidence. If you are reading along in War and Peace, are you really going to check that tinkling bell by rushing off to read Evgeny Onegin all the way through to check on your suspicion that Tolstoy’s really quoting Pushkin? (This is a notional example. I’m not saying Tolstoy did, or did not quote Pushkin or anyone else.) But a digital world allows for word searches which can quickly bring such things to light. A special subset of this sort of search tool is plagiarism software systems, designed primarily to prevent students just copying and pasting in order to get to the required word count in their essays, and appear to have a solid grasp of the subject. I recently learned that many school pupils in Britain have to submit their essays with a plagiarism score attached. (I have not heard of publishers making this sort of demand of their authors, but who knows what goes on in the dark?) Now that it’s so easy to check the vocabulary and structure of any piece of writing, it’s not too surprising that lots of people are running this sort of check, and all sorts of “plagiarism” scandals can rise up to appall us.

Now it’s reached the top. Dennis McCarthy says he wouldn’t accuse Shakespeare of plagiarism after detecting an apparent source for bits of Shakespeare’s writing. The New York Times tells the tale. Plagiarism is a heavy charge, and you’d be crazy to level it at Shakespeare and expect not to be slammed by most of the academic community. So you decide to call it not plagiarism but creative influence.

Page from George North’s A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels which is claimed to be the source for some of the “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York” speech in Richard III. If they say so! Much seems to depend on the rarity of some of the words used and the order in which they occur.


Book Business links to a Guardian article on plagiarism. As the Helen Keller story illustrates having a good memory can be a burden. Of course having a poor memory can also be problematic as you fail to remember ever having read about this brilliant plot turn your muse is whispering into your ear.

See also Plagiarism, which contains a link to online plagiarism checkers.