Writers and scholars on language, writing and creativity

…focus attention on selected aspects of the world as it is taken to be by other cognitive systems, and provide intricate and highly specialised perspectives from which to view them, crucially involving human interests and concerns even in the simplest cases

p. 125, Chomsky, Noam. 2000. Minimalist inquiries: The framework. In: Roger Martin, David Michaels & Juan Uriagereka (eds.), Step by step: Essays on minimalist syntax in honor of Howard Lasnik, 89–155. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

“It is not the object discovered that matters, but the light that falls on it.

Boris Pasternak

“…Never…bother with English grammar.”

R. L. Stevenson (from A. O’Hagan’s Essay on R. L. Stevenson and his Friends, Bournemouth)

 “One must draw everything one can from words, because it’s the one real treasure a true writer has. Big general ideas are in yesterday’s newspaper. If I like to take a word and turn it over to see its underside, shiny or dull or adorned with motley hues absent on its upperside, it’s not at all out of idle curiosity, one finds all sorts of curious things by studying the underside of a word – unexpected shadows of other words, harmonies between them, hidden beauties that suddenly reveal something beyond the word. Serious wordplay, as I have in mind, is neither a game of chance nor a mere embellishment of style. It’s a new verbal species that the marvelling author offers to the poor reader, who doesn’t want to look; to the good reader, who suddenly sees a completely new facet of an iridescent sentence.”

V. Nabokov (from an Interview with Bernard Pivot on Apostrophes)

 “Think about the place you love best: a house, a garden, anything you choose. See it first in your own mind, then, when you get home write a short description of it. …If you want me to see your gardens,…don’t, for pity’s sake, talk about “climbing roses” or “green, mossy lawns”. Tell me, if you like, that roses twined themselves around the apple trees and fell in showers from the branches. Never dare to tell me again anything about “green grass”. Tell me how the lawn was flecked with shadows.”

R. L. Stevenson (from A. O’Hagan’s Essay on R. L. Stevenson and his Friends, Bournemouth)

“Now and in times to be, I think it will pay for you to zero in on being precise with your language. Try to build and treat your vocabulary the way you are to treat your checking account. Pay every attention to it and try to increase your earnings. The purpose here is not to boost your bedroom eloquence or your professional success – although those, too, can be consequences – nor is it to turn you into parlour sophisticates. The purpose is to enable you to articulate yourself as fully and precisely as possible; in a word, the purpose is your balance. For the accumulation of things not spelled out, not properly articulated, may result in neurosis. On a daily basis, a lot is happening to one’s psyche; the mode of one’s expression, however, remains the same. Articulation lags behind experience. That does not go well with the psyche. Sentiments, nuances, thoughts, perceptions that remain nameless, unable to be voiced and dissatisfied with approximations, get pent up within an individual and may lead to a psychological explosion or implosion. To avoid that, one needn’t turn into a bookworm. One should simply acquire a dictionary and read it on the same daily basis – and, on and off, with books of poetry. Dictionaries, however, are of primary importance. There are a lot of them around; some of them even come with the magnifying glass. They are reasonably cheap. But even the most expensive among them cost far less than a visit to a psychiatrist. If you are going to visit, nevertheless, go with the symptoms of a dictionary junkie.”

Some Tips Joseph Brodsky; also in the Marginalian

“In anything fit to be called by the name of reading, the process itself should be absorbing and voluptuous; we should gloat over a book, be rapt clean out of ourselves, and rise from the perusal, our mind filled with the busiest, kaleidoscopic dance of images, incapable of sleep or of continuous thought. The words, if the book be eloquent, should run thenceforward in our ears like the noise of breakers, and the story, if it be a story, repeat itself in a thousand coloured pictures to the eye.”

R. L. Stevenson (A Gossip on Romance, Memories and Portraits)

“…I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are:

(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful business men – in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they abandon individual ambition – in many cases, indeed, they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all – and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.

(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.

(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

(iv) Political purpose – using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

An excerpt from George Orwell’s Why I Write

“…the double nature of poetry. On the one hand, poetry could be regarded as magical incantation, fundamentally a matter of sound and of the power of sound to bind our minds’ and bodies’ apprehensions within an acoustic complex. On the other hand, poetry is a matter of making wise and true meanings, of commanding our emotional assent by the intelligent disposition and inquisition of human experience. In fact, most poems – including Auden’s – constitute temporary stays against the confusion threatened by the mind’s inclination to accept both accounts of poetic function in spite of their potential mutual exclusiveness. But ‘confusion’ is probably far too strong a word, since Auden is able to make a resolving parable of the duality, assigning the beauty/magic part to Ariel and the truth/meaning part to Prospero and proposing that every poem, indeed every poet, embodies a dialogue between them. Ariel stands for poetry’s enchantment, our need to be bewitched: ‘We want a poem to be beautiful, that is to say, a verbal earthly paradise, a timeless world of pure play which gives us delight precisely because of its contrast to our historical existence.’ This want, of course, if fully indulged, would lead poetry into self-deception – hence the countervailing presence of Prospero, whose covenant is with ‘truth’ rather than ‘beauty’ – ‘and a poet cannot bring us any truth without introducing into his poetry the problematic, the painful, the disorderly, the ugly.’”

Seamus Heaney on poetic expression. The full article is here.

“And he uses words as the sea uses waves, to flow and beat, advance and retreat, rise and take a bow in disappearing. …words and material suit each other. The thought becomes poetry and the poetry illuminates the thought.”

Langston Hughes on James Baldwin’s writing. From Feb. 26, 1956  NYT Book Review; Hughes reviews Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son.”

“…these voices are used to record all the eddies and stagnancies of thought; though exercising a severe selection which makes the book a technical triumph, Mr. Joyce manages to give the effect of unedited human minds, drifting aimlessly along from one triviality to another, confused and diverted by memory, by sensation and by inhibition. It is, in short, perhaps the most faithful X-ray ever taken of the ordinary human consciousness.”

Edmund Wilson on Joyce’s portrayal of human consciousness. From the article.

The Concept of Language, with N. Chomsky

by UW Video (formerly UWTV), a video channel by the University of Washington.

The full interview is here.

Interviewer: How does language differ in the way that is used in the arts?

Chomsky: First of all, there is a variety of conventions – formal conventions that are humanly created but undoubtedly reflect our aesthetic capacity – they set a framework of rule, humanly imposed rule, within which people create. An extreme case: if you write a sonnet, you have to come pretty close to a fixed frame. This is an extreme case. The same is true of other literary conventions. Part of the human creative invention has been to create forms – aesthetic forms which are somehow either appealing to us or a challenge our intelligence… You work within them… After all, painting a painting on a piece of canvass that has a boundary – that is pretty recent in human history. That is a framework that itself determines the kind of art that you can produce. In the literary use of language, everything, from the structure of a novel to the metric character of a poetic form, is one or another human invention.  

Interviewer: Do you respond to poetry?

Chomsky: I… Sure… (If I have time to read it…)

Interviewer: Does it make you think differently? What goes on in your thought process?

Chomsky: It is a topic that has been discussed quite intelligently. For example, if you read, say, William Emson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, you get an intriguing account of why poetry makes you think. In part, because it is so compressed. And you only get hints; the reader has to impose a lot of structure…

Interviewer: You have to put your own self into it…

Chomsky: And, in part, because the formal structure itself imposes a challenge to the intelligence. If you are just trying to paint around randomly, it is not a work of art. When it is done within the framework of a humanly constructed system of rule, at least you have the prerequisites for the work of art; it still may not be. Whatever creativity is, and that is not understood, that has to be there too…

Robert Graves on creative process

The full interview is here.

Graves: …a cloud descends on you, you do not know what’s happening; then you suddenly realise that there is something, some problem of extreme importance that’s got to be solved, then you realise there is a poem around, and then, suddenly, two words or three words come to your mind and that gives a start, and then you write the poem, and it’s as though the poem has already been written, and you are trying to reconstitute it; you have got the poem as something already there; you have got to get back to the original, your original view of it, and so you work hard and hard to get it back to something near what it really is, was, would be…

Interviewer: Could it be compared to a mystical experience?

Graves: Of course, it is mystical…

Interviewer: Do you feel that you have succeeded at times in doing this, in getting this thing out?

Graves: When you find the poem, and you can’t do anything more to it, then you put it away.

Interviewer: But you keep on revising it?

Graves: It is easy to cheat yourself, and very often you think that you have written the poem that is alright and then after time you realise that in some slight way you have cheated…

Ocean Vuong on creativity and language

The full interview is here.

…I tell my students: your brain is probably telling you something important. It’s saying you’re not ready. Take that image with you. Go on a walk and live your life; and maybe something about your life – you pay attention to it – can show you how to write that thing. Don’t fight it. So much of our culture is bent on fighting – David and Goliath, wrestling the muse. We look at creation as a battleground. And I think it’s one of the greatest detriments to creativity is to see ourselves as participants in a war when it should be participants in creation.

…I was angry…I was tired…exhaustion…as a species…I think it is exhaustion and danger that creates creativity – how do I get out of here? how do I build this fish trap – it is always the question – that moment of innovating beyond your condition begins with fatigue, exhaustion and discontent…

I was raised by women who had only language [emphasis – Quotations]; and they talked forever; all they did was talk; they talked while they worked; they talked while they bathed you; they talked while they cooked for you; they talked while sitting, while walking; … My grandmother would say stuff like that: “You go down, you stir this pot until you chant five prayers to buddha”; and so the voice became a measurement of time; so I was always charged with it; …

They had nothing but their language…

From Mason, Bruce. “A FISSURE IN TIME THE ART OF VLADIMIR NABOKOV.” New Zealand Slavonic Journal, [Australia and New Zealand Slavists’ Association, New Zealand Slavonic Journal], 1969, pp. 1–16, http://www.jstor.org/stable/45278676.

I began my research by reading a lot of phenomenology in order to articulate the distinctions between how philosophers talk about wonder and how a literary critic or poet might approach the same questions. There are overlaps, of course, and there are differences. Here’s my brief take on a few of them. 

“Poems come out of wonder, not out of knowing,” wrote Lucille Clifton. As readers and writers of poems know, poetry’s origins are intrinsically wondrous. Philosophy links poetic wonder to knowledge acquisition (its uses as a teaching tool that stimulates further inquiry have been discussed throughout the ages). As Dennis Quinn summarizes: “Aristotle shows in that branch of logic which is called poetic that the poet fashions his story for the purpose of exciting wonder, and that the further effect of wonder is to excite inquiry.”[1] He continues by stating that most poets have been wonderers, and wonder is a chief effect of poetry.

But while philosophy’s approach to wonder aims to categorize and evaluate its examples, poetry’s power lies in its ability to provoke the sensation in the reader, inviting a foreign mind to experience the feeling in unexpected ways. How a poem accomplishes this feat depends on the particularities of its execution, a question that is entirely separate from philosophy’s efforts to catalogue wonder’s conditions (and the relative merits of their warranting) and distinguish it from its cousin states (marvel, astonishment, surprise). While these distinctions are fascinating in their own right, I have always been interested in evaluating poems for their capacity to capture and induce wonder, as well as in celebrating the luminous ingenuities poets devise in attempting to articulate what lies just beyond articulation.

The 16th century English philosopher Francis Bacon aptly called wonder a form of admiration (the Latin for wonder is admiratio)echoing his classical predecessors byarguing that “after wondering, men began to philosophize; when wonder ceases knowledge begins.”[2] Wonder, Bacon concluded, was merely “broken knowledge,” suggesting that anyone who had gone behind the curtain to glimpse how puppets work could no longer be enchanted by the effect.[3]

Poets, on the other hand, recognize that it is the quality and scope of the looking that informs a poem’s capacity for wonder: there is no “broken knowledge.” In his essay on the phenomenology of wonder, R.H. Hepburn debunks Bacon’s position, positing that our sensory responses to nature—a vividly blue ocean or a dazzling sheet of mountain ice—are undeterred by causal explicability. “It is not the genesis of the phenomenon that elicits the wonder, but the wonder itself,” he states, “color, sound, or combinations of impressions. There is no ‘going behind it.’”[4]

There is no going behind it, folks. 

Maya Popa Wonder Wednesday and the case against “broken knowledge”

‘First rule: do not use semi-colons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.’

Kurt Vonnegut, giving this advice to writers