Penman for Monday, Sept. 22, 2014
“THE CLARITY of Things” is the title of the new short story I finished a few weeks ago, which will soon be coming out in the Australian literary journal Westerly. The phrase has been ringing in my ears and suggested this piece about the value of clarity in prose—an element whose importance seems so obvious but which still escapes many writers, especially those who remain unsure of what it is exactly they want to produce.
I was thinking of this the other day as I was reading, with much delight, an old essay by the New York-based Luis Francia on Jose Garcia Villa, which begins thus: “Loved New Yorker cartoons. Hated its poetry. ‘Prose,’ he’d sniff.” The essay (in which I happily discovered that I shared with Villa not just a first name but an aversion to French food and cheese) went on to describe Villa’s fabled workshops, where he decried, Luis recalls, “the prose or narrative mentality. Anathema to the poet’s creed. He urged us not to read fiction, to purify ourselves, our poems, and have that lyric spirit fly unfettered.” There was, Villa and Francia agreed, too much bad prose going around, passing itself off as poetry.
It’s an admirable and entirely understandable stance, coming from a consummate aesthete like Villa. I don’t think there’s a real writer alive who won’t concede that, in the hierarchy of letters, poetry sits at the topmost tier; I often remind students too eager to proclaim themselves poets that there’s nothing harder to do well and easier to do badly than poetry. I’ve published a book of what I offer to be poems and I’ve won a couple of prizes for poetry, but I wouldn’t for one minute describe myself as a poet; I am not worthy.
That said, the writing of good and great prose—whether fiction or nonfiction—poses its own challenges, heedless of poetry’s demands for complexity, compactness, and layered meanings. For me, the charm of prose is precisely in its accessibility—or at least, in its seeming accessibility—and then, like stepping into a roomful of riches, in its delivery of even more than the view from the doorway may have suggested.
At its most basic, and also at its best, prose should be unflinchingly clear, which means it should be written with certainty and precision, if not efficiency, from physical description to philosophical musing. (I keep hearing the imaginary voice—ironically, he was a chronic stammerer—of W. Somerset Maugham, one of my early models, intoning in one of his treatises on writing: “Clarity, clarity, clarity!”) A blue sky should come off as blue, or shade into its proper variant; a crowded room should suffocate the reader. Clarity does not imply a singularity or inevitability of meaning, especially in fiction, which thrives on ambiguity; I don’t have to understand what I’m seeing, not right away, but I should know what I’m looking at—a wet street, an orange jacket, an old man’s face. Witness the prudish Miss Mijares in Kerima Polotan’s “The Virgin”: “Secret, short-lived thoughts flitted through her mind in the jeepneys she took to work when a man pressed down beside her and through her dress she felt the curve of his thigh”; she wished she were “in the movies, to sink into a seat as into an embrace, in the darkness with a hundred shadowy figures about her and high on the screen, a man kissing a woman’s mouth while her own fingers stole unconsciously to her unbruised lips.”
Some works, like popular songs, are best understood right away to be fully enjoyed.
On our flight to the US earlier this month, I gorged on the onboard entertainment, and dwelt in particular on an HBO documentary on the life and work of the lyricist-composer Stephen Sondheim, who reminded his audience that the difference between the poem and the song lyric is that the listener has to get the song on the spot, whereas the poem’s meaning can be teased out at leisure. (And sometimes meaning doesn’t matter as much as the music: try figuring out “Send in the Clowns.”)
Clarity often comes with concrete objects, but can be even more valuable when dealing with abstractions—ideas, feelings, complex notions often more surely grasped by the many-fingered poem. I’ve found that the most complex notions are best served by the simplest language. Clarity and simplicity are not always the same thing, but can’t be too far apart. There’s a much-quoted passage from C. S. Lewis’ The Four Loves that illustrates how simple words—with a few exceptions like “irredeemable”—can reach at the most complex of meanings:
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers of love is Hell.”
This also reminds us that good, clear writing begins with good, sharp thinking, which is perhaps the hardest task of all.