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· Pointed Takes on Style Delineated ·

· For the Mind's Ear: On the Harmonies of Style ·

This past week I've been something of a music teacher. I've been reminding students to use their ears more, and it's difficult work. Students are always inclined to use their eyes instead, reading left to right, as they've been taught, for key words at sentence starts — mostly sentence subjects, verbs, and connectors. Although these are all quite essential, I've in mind sentence ends rather, where the more subtle music of stylish prose resides.

In "The Harmony of Prose" from his book Style, F. L. Lucas focuses on the topic. He denotes it, musically speaking, in heard stresses. As Lucas claims, "the sound and rhythm of English prose seem to me matters where both writers and readers should trust not so much to rules as to their ears." He cites even Flaubert to the effect that "a good style must meet the needs of the respiration."

In illustrating as much, Lucas focuses on word order, "which concerns both rhythm and clarity alike. . . . Just as the art of war largely consists of deploying the strongest forces at the most important points, so the art of writing depends a good deal on putting the strongest words in the most important places." As Lucas claims, they are often at the end. To illustrate, he cites a short passage from Alexander Bain, revising it for better, more pointed stress. His improvements are marked in this F. L. Lucas, Style, New York: Collier, 1962, 212, 215, 231; 234 below.

Original
and
Revision

The Humour of Shakespeare has the richness of his genius, and follows his peculiarities. He did not lay himself out for pure Comedy, like Aristophanies; he was more nearly allied to the great tragedians of the classical world. . . . The genius of Rabalais supplies extravagant vituperation and ridicule in the wildest profusion; a moral purpose underlying. Coarse and brutal fun runs riot. . . . For Vituperation and Ridicule, Swift has few equals, and no superior. On rare occasion, he exemplifies Humour and, had his disposition been less savage and malignant, he would have done so much oftener.

The Humour of Shakespeare has the richness of his genius. He did not, like Arisophanes, lay himself out for pure Comedy; he was more nearly allied to the classic Tragedians. . . . The genius of Rabalais shows a wild extravagance of satire and ridicule, underlaid by moral purpose. His work is a riot of coarse and brutal fun. . . . In vituperation and ridicule none have surpasssed and few equalled Swift. But he rarely shows humour; he might indeed have done so oftener, had his temper been less savage and malignant.

Lucas's stresses give marked, italicized substance to Swift's famed dictum about "proper words in proper places," and with that in mind, consider an example I've just made, one adducing, on a separate page, the still subtler stresses of my own recent music teaching. Do enjoy.

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· Suspended Sentences ·

I read today that three-hundred-and-fifteen prisoners have been released from Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. With the aim of saving America's good name, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has of course engineered the event, perhaps also saving his own job. A clever move, it clearly suggests Rumsfeld's rising to do George W. Bush's political chores, trying also to save the President's own political life.

The news reminds me of a passage from Frank O'Connor's short story "Guests of the Nation." Set in Ireland during the First World War, the story deals with the fate of two British prisoners (Belcher and Hawkins) who are sacrificed to a sadly fateful political necessity. They are eliminated because, following word of the execution of Irish prisoners elsewhere, their captors can't excuse them from the terrible, bloody consequences of war. Despite their good efforts, they must go.

The particular passage that interests me is this:

It was a treat to see how Belcher got off with the Old woman of the house where we were staying. She was a great warrant to scold, and cranky even with us, but before ever she had a chance of giving our guests, as I may call them, a lick of her tongue, Belcher had made her his friend for life. She was breaking sticks, and Belcher, who hadn't been more than ten minutes in the house, jumped up from his seat and went over to her.

"Allow me, madam," he says, smiling his queer little smile, "please allow me"; and he takes the bloody hatchet. She was struck too paralytic to speak, and after that, Belcher would be at her heels, carrying a bucket, a basket, or a load of turf, as the case might be. As Noble said, he got into looking before she leapt, and hot water, or any little thing she wanted, Belcher would have it ready for her.

Now I don't mean to trivialize his story, but O'Connor's stylistic finesse is breathtaking. His larger intent notwithstanding, he has shifted — or so it seems to me — from objects initially listed in his fine penultimate sentence ("a bucket, a basket, or a load of turf") to the objective, substantive weight of "hot water" marked in his last. Reread and you'll maybe see his move!

What I ask is this: does anyone know the correct stylistic name for it — or perhaps, too, the political?

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· The Art of Solace ·

It's good, I tell my students, to have varied interests. Their advantage is clear: if you're ever fooled or frustrated by one, you can perhaps pursue another for support. Take, for instance, my own Seattle Mariners. They blew their annual opener yesterday by losing 10-5 against the Angels, so what I needed today was solace. And who should offer it but my stylish, poetry-writing daughter-in-law, whom you first read in Flight Song for Wren Marie. She also happens to be a very talented artist.

Last Friday night at her latest opening she drew many who declared, over wine and hors d'oeuvres, how she'd hit the artistic equivalent of a grand slam. She sold all but one of her new art works. But as the title of her show makes clear, "Solace" is in fact her larger interest, and I thought to say so here by sharing her "Artist's Statement":

My works [she writes] derive from the physical beauty of natural landscapes and/or the emotional landscapes of literature. They are intended to evoke a sense of those physical and emotional spaces — "windows" into transformative views.

 · Broken and Mended, 13 x 14, 2004 · The process of creating them is, in part, a meditation. Elements of watercolor, colored pencil, and fine papers are juxtaposed, cut or torn, layered and reworked. Seemingly disparate "bits" are assembled into a unified whole, much as glass tesseræ combine to form a mosaic, much as the snippets of one's existence are woven together and transformed to shape a life.

Perhaps somewhere between the luminous washes of color and the obsessive rigidity of the rectangular bits, one finds a balanced hush, a safe and quiet space of solace.

"Broken and Mended" is but a sample of her art, yet more to the point is the quiet substance of her style. Note how in three short paragraphs she moves deftly from a personal to impersonal vision, from "My works" to "one finds." Then focusing on elemental things inbetween, she gives precise meaning to the subtle use of the passive voice: "are intended," "are juxtaposed, cut or torn, layered and reworked," are assembled," "are woven." We feel wrapped in the warm embrace of truth and beauty, goodness, solace, and (perhaps) soul.

As I was saying, if baseball just doesn't work for you today, maybe give art a chance tomorrow.

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· My Half-Nietzschean Take on Brevity ·

"It takes less time to learn to write nobly," Friedrich Nietzsche once remarked, "than to learn to write lightly and straightforwardly."

Since writing my last post I've been thinking about Nietzsche's claim, especially since the ending of "We Hold these Truths" on the First-Person Plural took some time to write. For most of the week I tried, mercurially but methodically, as I sometimes tell students, to move my slippery adverbs and shifty pronouns into substantively significant, and still stylish, juxtapostion. Finally, I heeded President Lincoln's advice: "It is fitting and proper that we should do this," as you may have seen in my result.

But Saturday night I essayed another take on Lincoln's theme by trying out a friend's latest teaching trick: "Turn off the monitor," he tells his students. Indeed pointing to their keyboards alone, he suggests writing for a change blind — "in the dark!" "Well," I thought, "why not? Mine is but a Nietzschean variation on the keyboardist's sentence, 'Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country!' So go for it!"

Here's what I wrote in just four minutes:

Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country. We have the chance now to undertake the job the nation has prepared us for. It's hardly the time to do otherwise. What would the nation say if we were to renege on our duty? It's abundantly clear that if we don't take up the challenge now, we will succumb to the sad temptation to avoid forever that patriotic task for which we have so long been prepared. Mark my words: This is the day. This is the hour. This is the year. We can do no less than our ancestors have done already, dedicating our lives to bringing everyone the joys of freedom, the riches of enterprise, the pleasures of art, and the clear, honorable challenges of service. Now it is our turn. Rise up Men (and Women) of America! It's time to come to the aid of your . . .

"I'm on quite a roll," I thought. "In just minutes (just as my colleague suggested), 'I've found my voice' — 'fluid,' 'rounded,' 'full,' 'profound,' 'indeed maybe decisively brilliant.'"

"And darkly, fulsomely bathetic, too!" I had to confess.

But I remembered, then, Nietzsche's aptly personal, perfectly-styled ambition to craft his own famously difficult, light, straightforward prose:

It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what other men say in whole books — what other men do not say in whole books. Freidrich Nietzsche: Jon Winokur, ed., Writers on Writing, 2nd. ed., Philadelphia: Running Press, 1987, 23; above, 112.


And I remembered, too, my own recent post's quite analogous conclusion:

Properly speaking (sotto voce), it is our [my] challenge.

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· Some Simple Secrets of Longevity ·

I've always been a sucker for long sentences. This doesn't mean that I'm overly obsessed by them. Even short ones do have their place. I think I prefer them. You might, too.

But a long sentence — one able to rise to the complicated challenge of a new journey — merits clear regard if without sacrificing speed it happily sweeps us along over the last bumpy road toward home, like riding with John Wayne as he pulls into Dodge City, gets down, casually ambles over to get a bourbon, and says, "Howdy, boys. What do y'all do here for fun?" I mean old Texas tumbleweeds really do roll.

I got to thinking as much Thursday in view of the wide stretch of ocean reaching in long relief westward from the south-facing windows of my house. You might recall my description of my Thanksgiving dinner: "We're all a happily diverse bunch," I said, describing my guests at length. Stripped of add-ons, here's what I actually said — "We're all a happily diverse bunch, with Tom, Nancy, and Savvy; Seppo and Rick; Pirjo; Tracy with Katri, Brett and Kaycey; Smart and Soulful; Suave; Matt and Marsha; and Stylish."

Now in thinking about that sentence, I suddenly recalled the secret — grammatically — of its construction, this in a classic British sentence by Sir Herbert Read:

Sentences in their variety run from simplicity to complexity, a progression not necessarily reflected in length: a long sentence may be extremely simple in construction — indeed must be simple if it is to convey its sense easily. Quoted in Joseph M. Williams, Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, 7th ed., New York: Longman, 2002, 135.

What Read has in mind, really, is the stuffy old grammatical saw about simple, compound, and complex sentences, tempered by this helpful rhetorical tip, "Keep It Simple, Stupid."

I mean — returning to my Thanksgiving post — it turns on just five simple sentences, here ellipitcally stripped for easy reading:

We're expecting old friends and family for dinner.

We're all a happily diverse bunch.

This is nothing like the first Thanksgiving.

So is this report.

Do have a Happy Thanksgiving!

William Bradford had three others:

And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys.

Besides they had about a peck a meal a week to a person.

Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty.

Bradford's last sentence is but a fragment, of course, and brings me to the logical reason for today's post: to say happy birthday to my own older brother Styleshort, who turned seventy last Sunday.

He hasn't as yet made his own longevity disreputable by any untimely persistence in it.

And I hope I haven't either.

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· On Singular They ·

You know the problem: "Everyone has a right to their opinion." Arts & Letters Daily recently linked to an essay recording author Jjoan Ttabor Altieri's (really Joan Tabor Altieri's) gradual acceptance over thirty years of the singular pronoun "they." Everyone does, she thinks in Singular They: The Pronoun that Came in from the Cold, have a right to their opinion. Historically, I grant she's right.

But might Altieri agree that the here-analogical difference between "sense" and "reference" — or Sinn and Bedeutung as Gottlob Frege has taught generations of modern philosophers to think — also blunts her point? Let me explain.

It is true, of course, that "their" means everyone in the sense of a plural group, but might it be the case, too, that "everyone" still refers to the singular verb "has" as does the group's singular "opinion"? Although I grant such matters are trivial as matters grammatical, rhetorical, and logical always are, still, maybe they allow me to express yet another point.

It is that I will continue to remind my students that 1 ≠ 2. While I agree one should perhaps mark no more precision in English than our language allows, I am still allowed, as Frege reminds us — with respect to meaning and to reference — sometimes to be plural and sometimes singular.

Say, "Everyone has a right to an opinion."

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· Dem Bones — T. S. Eliot Style ·

 · T. S. Eliot · I just helped edit an essay, a med-school student's. It set me to thinking here, in a roundabout sort of way, of T. S. Eliot's famous "Four Quartets." A residency application essay in orthopedics, it captured in every phrase and sentence something of the leading theme in "Burnt Norton,"

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
and time future contained in time past

and of the closing point in "Little Gidding,"

A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything).

It took as its theme my son Suave's girlfriend's rearing aboard a 65-foot ketch, happily sailing on the theme, steadily, swiftly, and simply, through eight paragraphs toward "the challenges, the hard work, and the demands of excellent service" — "all three," Savvy says, "in my salty upbringing, possibly my genes, and probably my soul."

Having seen the essay take shape, I think Eliot's lines apply:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning. T. S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909 - 1950, New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1962, 117, 145, 144.

You might also try singing "Dem Bones" here.

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· The A & P of Style: Location, Location, Location ·

At a wedding reception recently, I chanced to converse with a young man studying to become a paramedic in Alaska. When told he needed an A & P course (Anatomy and Physiology II) unavailable at home, I remarked slyly that a radiologist friend's med-school teacher in Iowa City, Iowa, was seen last selling real estate in Washington. After smiling, he warmed to my point, that A & P had perfectly served my friend because, using X-ray, CAT, or MRI technology, his is an art of precise location.

In a way, if you think about it, so is style's. Adjusted to the real estate of sentences, the old slogan of "Location, Location, Location" nicely fits. After all, Jonathan Swift once defined style as "proper words in proper places," and the coordinating axes of grammar, rhetoric, and logic triply apply. Here, we might say, the larger "A & P" of style finds its proper dwelling, though I wouldn't want to get very Heideggerian about it — tomographically, geographically, or topologically.

Which is why I thought today to share a brief passage from the Scot Hugh Blair. You may recall him as the author of Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Letters (1783). Skilled in the craft of exacting stylistic analysis, Blair took special interest — in Lectures XX through XXIII — in the work of Joseph Addison. As I've already noted Addison, I thought today to focus on the last paragraph of Lecture XX, wherein Blair happily marks a contrast between Addison's two fine concluding sentences and a poorly-styled alternative. It's clearly a matter of location.

Noting Spectator #411, Blair observes Addison's happy ending:

I have in this paper, by way of introduction, settled the notion of those pleasures of the imagination, which are the subject of my present undertaking, and endeavored, by several considerations, to recommend to my readers the pursuit of those pleasures; I shall, in my next paper, examine the several sources from whence these pleasures are derived.

Then adding his analysis, Blair continues: · Hugh Blair ·

These two concluding sentences afford examples of the proper collocation of circumstances in a period. I formerly showed that it is often a matter of difficulty to dispose of them in such a manner as that they shall not embarrass the principal subject of the sentence. In the sentences before us, several of these incidental circumstances necessarily come in — By way of introduction — by several considerations — in this paper — in the next paper. All which are with great propriety managed by our author. It will be found, upon trial, that there were no other parts of the sentence, in which they could have been placed to equal advantage. Had he said, for instance, "I have settled the notion (rather, the meaning) of those pleasures of the imagination, which are the subject of my present undertaking, by way of introduction, in this paper, and endeavored to recommend the pursuit of those pleasures to my readers, by several considerations," we must be sensible that the sentence, thus clogged with circumstances in the wrong place, would neither have been so neat nor so clear, as it is by the present construction. Hugh Blair, Lecture XX, Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Letters, Edward P. J. Corbett, Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, 4th ed., New York: Oxford, 1999, 458-459.

Which helps me now to the ever-trivial moral of my story: to wit, that if you ever find yourself in the "wrong place," well, Move, Unclog Those Arteries, and, of course — if possible — Get Some Style.

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· Indirection in the King's Road: Edith Wharton on Henry James ·

Robert Frost once famously described a guide "who only has at heart your getting lost." But consider the reverse: a famous direction-seeker only losing his guide. That is my subject today, here prompted by a take on the firm, crisp, smooth, direct, easily flowing style of Edith Wharton engaged upon the mostly infirm, uncrisp, indirect, halting style of Henry James. I thought you might like the stylistic pairing.

My adjectives today come from Louis Auchincloss. Auchincloss finds Wharton "in full command of the style that was to make her prose as lucid and polished as any in American fiction," as he writes in Edith Wharton, A Woman in Her Time. "It is a firm, crisp, smooth, direct, easily flowing style, the perfect instrument of a clear, undazzled eye, an analytic mind, and a sense of humor alert to the least pretension." It's Wharton's humor I emphasize, one drawn colorfully from A Backward Glance (her autobiography, 1934), presented here with liberties she'd perhaps herself find amusing. Wharton's words are printed in Blue, Henry James's in Rust, and the guide's in Lost. Louis Auchincloss, Edith Wharton: A Woman in Her Time, New York: Viking, 1971, 58.

 · Edith Wharton ·

The most absurd of these episodes [Wharton and James getting lost while motoring in England] occurred on another rainy evening, when James and I chanced to arrive at Windsor long after dark. We must have been driven by a strange chauffeur — perhaps Cook was on holiday; at any rate, having fallen into the lazy habit of trusting him to know the way, I found myself at a loss to direct his substitute to the King's Road. While I was hesitating, and peering out into the darkness, James spied an ancient doddering man who had stopped in the rain to gaze at us. "Wait a moment, my dear — I'll ask him where we are"; and leaning out he signalled to the spectator.

"My good man, if you'll be good enough to come here, please; a little nearer — so," and as the man came up: "My friend, to put it to you in two words, this lady and I have just arrived here from Slough; that is to say, to be more strictly accurate, we have recently passed through Slough on our way here, having actually motored to Windsor from Rye, which was our point of departure; and the darkness having overtaken us, we should be much obliged if you would tell us where we now are in relation, say, to the High Street, which, as you of course know, leads to the Castle, after leaving on the left hand the turn down to the railway station."

I was not surprised to have this extraordinary appeal met by silence, and a dazed expression on the old wrinkled face at the window; nor to have James go on: "In short" (his invariable prelude to a fresh series of explanatory ramifications), "in short, my good man, what I want to put to you in a word is this: supposing we have already (as I have reason to think we have) driven past the turn down to the railway station (which, in that case, by the way, would probably not have been on our left hand, but on our right), where are we now in relation to . . . "

"Oh, please." I interrupted, feeling myself utterly unable to sit through another parenthesis, "do ask him where the King's Road is."

"Ah — ? The King's Road? Just so! Quite right! Can you, as a matter of fact, my good man, tell us where, in relation to our present position, the King's Road exactly is?"

"Ye're in it," said the aged face at the window. Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance (1934), Cleanth Brooks, R. W. B. Lewis, Robert Penn Warren, eds., American Literature: The Makers and the Making, Vol. II, New York, St. Martin's, 1973, 1622.

I hope you see the real advantages here, as the old cliché has it, of what's sometimes mistakenly called a "Cook's Holiday."

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· Toward a Definition of Style: Clarity, Emphasis, Tone, Rhythm ·

Jacques Barzun's The Modern Researcher (5th ed., with Henry F. Graff) includes a chapter — "Clear Sentences: Emphasis, Tone, and Rhythm" — defining the term Style. I've thought to quote two paragraphs to prepare the ground for an analysis of some successively revised sentences also included. Together, Barzun's several passages offer stylish words for some substantive reflection.

Everyone's mind [Barzun writes], however eager it may be for information, offers a certain resistance to the reception of somebody else's ideas. Before one can take them in, the shape, connection, and tendency of one's own ideas have to yield to those same features in the other person's. Accordingly, the writer must somehow induce in that other the willingness to receive the foreign matter. He does so with the aid of a great many devices which, when regularly used, are called the qualities of his speech or writing.

These qualities go by such names as: Clarity, Order. Logic, Ease, Unity, Coherence, Rhythm, Force, Simplicity, Naturalness, Grace, Wit, Movement. But these are not distinct things; they overlap and can reinforce or obscure one another, being but aspects of the single power called Style. Neither style nor any of its qualities can be aimed at separately. Nor are the pleasing characteristics of a writer's style laid on some preexisting surface the way sheathing and plaster are laid on the rough boards of a half-finished house. Rather, they are the by-product of an intense effort to make words work. By "making them work" we mean here reaching the mind of another and affecting it in such a way as to reproduce there our state of mind. Jacques Barzun and Henry F. Graff, The Modern Researcher, 5th ed., New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1992, 250-51; below, 253-55.

With these two paragraphs in view, I have thought to cite Barzun's revisions of a sentence analyzed successively in the clear interests of "Emphasis, Tone, and Rhythm." Only twelve words long, it marks a tightening vision — a movement of mind if not precisely towards Anatole France's single-minded goal of Clarity (D'abord la clarté, puis encore la clarté, et enfin la clarté: "First, clarity; then again clarity; and, finally, clarity"), then toward Barzun's more multi-valent definition of Style. For Barzun's aim is the difficult "inducement" of foreign matter, and his schoolbook example (drawn perhaps from his own education), of a domestic reflection of and on substance. In any case, below are his successive revisions, listed with his precise analyses blocked, truncated, and paraphrased for easy, intelligible reading.

Original Sentence: The wind blew across the desert where the corpse lay and whistled.

Analysis: The sentence is a howler, for we all laugh at how the short phrase "and whistled" makes the corpse whistle a sad, solo tune. Yet adding a comma after "lay" won't help, since we realize that our comma would just make the whistling but an afterthought. So the problem is, as Barzun explains, that "the parts that occur together in the world or in our mind" are not united.

Revision 1: The wind blew across the desert and whistled where the corpse lay.

Analysis: This is better, since the parts are so united, and our sentence is "no longer comic." But now, as Barzun says, the blowing wind seems to be "whistling" just near the corpse. So yet again.

Revision 2: The wind blew and whistled across the desert where the corpse lay.

Analysis: As Barzun now claims, "we have the limbs correctly distributed — no front leg is hitched on to the hindquarters." But say it aloud, he notes, and "it leaves the voice up in the air, and with the voice, the meaning, because the emphases are off beat." Simply, the stresses fall flat. So yet again.

Revision 3: The wind blew and whistled across the desert where lay the corpse.

Analysis: Now we've gone backwards since, in positioning the verb "lay" before the noun "corpse," we have learned that "to defy idiom is to lose force." As Barzun explains, "to sound natural we must stick to 'where the corpse lay.'" So yet again.

Revision 4: The corpse lay in the desert, across which the wind blew and whistled.

Analysis: This is evidently a new route in the desert, as Barzun notes, the product of some frustration — if perhaps the "best [draft] yet." We discover, though, that the stiffness of the "about which" suits "a description of scenery rather than that of a lonely death." So yet again.

Revision 5: The corpse lay in the desert, and over it the wind blew and whistled.

Analysis: This alternative is frankly "too weak for this gruesome vision," Barzun claims. As a compound sentence, it "separates what the eye and ear bring together in the mind. We have dismembered and reconstructed without success." So yet again.

Revision 6: Across the desert where the corpse lay, the wind blew and whistled.

Analysis: Finally, Barzun writes, a two-part periodic sentence gives our topics proper stress. Indeed, "its suspensive opening phrase does not monopolize the emphasis we associate with beginnings," and its "second part . . . completes its own meaning by finding a main subject and verb," with our desert wind whistling. We catch, so to speak "The Spirit of Style."

So what then of Substance? It is little more than the "real things" we have so much in mind today: the thematic words sadly reverberating in Iraq: "desert," "wind," and "corpse." Soon, of course, they'll be beyond anybody's proper "revision."

Clearly, this is the foreign matter others, and events, are "inducing" us to see.

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· On Parsing English Justice ·

Justice: The Hope of All Who Are Just. The Dread of All Who Wrong.

These few words appeared in the court I sat in Wednesday. They brought to mind an old writing maxim; you've heard it: "prefer active verbs." The injunction invites verbal action from stylish English writers. Indeed, the best handbooks repeat it, zealous E-primers fetishize it, and alert, really competent writers follow it — maybe more dutifully than religiously. I know I do.

But Wednesday, asked by a judge to be his appointed tool of local justice, I knew I was in trouble. For I'd hoped I couldn't be, and when I wasn't, I dreaded I'd in fact wronged someone. I felt an essential guilt weighing, metaphysically, on anyone standing before the old bar of English justice.

It wasn't a matter of identity politics. For I'd not been asked if I was rich or poor, liberal or conservative, gay or straight, or a host of other oppositions bedeviling thought today. All I'd been asked was one question: could I be just? The categories figuring in my oath — "facts," "truth," "evidence," "reason" — were all good metaphysical abstractions, but when taken from me by a "peremptory challenge," I felt myself then pleading at the bar. For I couldn't be a juror, since I'd been judged and, indeed, found wanting.

Although I've known that's crucial to our system, today I thought to pass the explanation on to a better writer, G. K. Chesterton. Since Chesterton became an English juror (and I just a reject), I thought you might like his Twelve Men. By the way, consider me Chesterton's "bicycle thief."

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· Compromising Style: Malcolm Cowley on Socspeak ·

I'm sure you've seen what I call compromising style. It follows from delivering what's wanted, not what's needed. The compromiser typically writes worse than he can, promising to go along — to get with the program: toeing someone else's line toward a presumed, predicted, pompously prescribed point. Although it necessarily marks a favored way to bureaucratic perdition, it does of course pay one's bills.

 · Malcolm Cowley ·

I got to thinking about all this Friday though prudence begs me skirt specific circumstances, but I thought to share the literary generics. And who should come to my aid but Malcolm Cowley, the literary chronicler of "The Lost Generation." From 1948 to 1985 Cowley regularly advised The Viking Press and, in 1956, wrote an impressively witty piece called "Sociological Habit Patterns in Linguistic Transmogrification." I thought to share it today. Although I can represent it only partially, it is an instructive tale of "compromising style."

I have a friend [Cowley begins] who started as a poet and then decided to take a postgraduate degree in sociology. For his doctoral dissertation he combined his two interests by writing on the social psychology of poets. He had visited poets by the dozen, asking each of them a graded series of questions, and his conclusions from the interviews were modest and useful, though reported in what seemed to me a barbarous jargon. After reading the dissertation I wrote and scolded him. "You have such a fine sense of the poet's craft," I said, "that you shouldn't have allowed the sociologists to seduce you into writing their professional slang — or at least that's my judgmental response to your role selection."

My friend didn't write to defend himself; he waited until we met again. Then dropping his voice, he said: "I knew my dissertation was bady written, but I had to get my degree. If I had written it in English, Professor Blank" — he mentioned a rather distinguished name — "would have rejected it. He would have said it was merely belletristic."

Perhaps it's well to recall that — as Robert Frost once said "belletristically" — "I was educated by degrees." What Frost really meant, etymologically, was, of course, "by degradation." You can bet Cowley knew the derivation. But I'm happy to report that Cowley himself turned to the grammatical rather than rhetorical implications of Socspeak, summarizing in his final paragraph the sort of "degradation" (or "transmogrification") grammar undergoes in Socspeak. It's a matter, you might note, of "conquered" parts of speech.

The whole sad situation leads me to dream of a vast allegorical painting called "The Triumph of the Nouns." It would depict a chariot of victory drawn by the other conquered parts of speech — the adverbs and adjectives still robust, if yoked and harnessed; the prepositions bloated and pale; the conjunctions tortured; the pronouns reduced to sexless skeletons; the verbs dichotomized and feebly tottering — while behind them, arrogant, overfed, roseate, spilling over the triumphal car, would be the company of nouns in Roman togas and Greek chitons, adorned with laurel branches and flowering hegemonies. Malcolm Cowley, 'Sociological Habit Patterns in Linguistic Transmogrification,' Reporter, Vol. 15, No. 4, September 20, 1956.


Today, alas, I feel "robust" enough — but a little "yoked and harnessed." I feel like a "February adjective" to an October post.

And tomorrow, I have jury duty.

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