Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Diving in

And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
T S Eliot
George Szirtes has skewered Jeremy Paxman; nicely, poetically, but firmly. He may be wriggling at this moment. In pinning Paxo to the wall, George has written with insight about poetry itself. I particularly liked this:
Poetry is as ancient as language itself, and the sense of the poetic precedes language. Animals could be charmed by music; mere drumming can heal the sick. The poetic even penetrates to football commentators who exclaim "Sheer poetry!" at a particularly wonderful moment. They tend not to exclaim "Sheer prose!" 
Ah yes, the beautiful game. A wonderful metaphor for artistry. Playwrights come out of it pretty well too. There is the "Theatre of Dreams", faking injury is "play acting", a match can be "high drama", a club plunging down through the leagues is "a Greek tragedy".

But what about us prose writers, especially those who get published by a respectable academic press? What do we get? A prosaic style of football, and that's it. Surely we can join in the fun. How about, "that goalless draw was as turgid as a Judith Butler paragraph!" No? Ah well, I suppose we will have to resign ourselves to playing in the Championship, whilst the poets and dramatists fight it out in the Champions' League.


George S said...

Prose enjoys (if that's the word) a peculiar status. We rarely think of the prosaic as inspiring, but we are equally wary of 'purple prose'. That may be because prose is regarded as an almost transparent medium in which the reader moves immediately beyond the words to things, events or ideas. Its job is sometimes assumed to be (like the typographer's) to get out of the way. It has a mechanicistic function as information and argument in that respect.

It's much more complex in practice of course. There's the case of Moliere's Bourgeois Gentilhomme who suddenly wonders whether he has been speaking prose all his life. We laigh at him because we instinctively know that prose is more than the words that come out of one's mouth in conversation. The aesthetics (or poetics) of prose lie in the area between overt function and the suggestive power that is generally the domain of poetry. That's what people think of as the writer's 'voice' I think.

But good story tellers know that a simple chain of one event following another is incomplete, and that the manner of telling is as important as its matter. Between Hemingway (say) and Henry James (say) there is considerable territory.

Much to my surprise I picked up a piece of TV crit by A A Gill the other day and I thought: this man can write! (Incidentally this was also the case with Nigella Lawson's journalism). Good prose writing on sport can also be terrific. I think chiefly of Stuart Barnes in The Times for whom it was sometimes worth getting the paper.

The Plump said...

Yes, good prose writing is not divorced from the aesthetics of language. Clarity of meaning is important, though some fiction relies on deception and ambiguity as well. But clarity without beauty is always unsatisfying.

Both purple prose and bad academic writing place the author ahead of the content. All you see is the style. There are some tremendous academic writers, but sometimes even interesting content has to hack and fight its way to the surface if the author is not adept at language. Part of the problem is that academics are either not trained to write or, if they are, to write badly. Often, they are not thinking about language and have a poor command of it. It isn't their main priority.They are an honest bunch on the whole, so it is only a few who use style to obscure banality.

Emotion lies at the heart of it. Good non-fiction conveys the author's enthusiasm, but it also involves moral judgement as much as scholarship. Writing is a moral act, a reflection on the human condition.

And really good sports writers convey affection and respect for a game and reveal its profundity. Of todays crop of journalists, I would never miss a column by David Conn on football finance and politics. This is investigative journalism at its best as it is informed by a conviction about what football should be and conveys complex shenanigans with great clarity and disgust. Then the very best are those who are much more than sports writers. C L R James' Beyond a Boundary is the finest book on sport that I have ever read and I love Geoffrey Moorhouse's essays on Rugby League.

The Plump said...

All of which is one way of saying thanks for a thoughtful comment on a mainly tongue-in-cheek piece of self-deprecation.

Anonymous said...

So what sort of sports play would be "positively Joycean?" It would have to be somewhat encyclopedic, i think. Or could an athlete on the field have a Proustian moment? Memories of goals past? Just curious.


The Plump said...

"All that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football" Albert Camus

Available on a t-shirt from here

And, of course, there is this