Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Catechisms and Cliché : Fatuous Minds Think Alike or Finishing School for Versifiers (part 1)

I’m ashamed to admit I’ve taken agin a number of writers simply because, unknown to me, like Amundsen at the South Pole, they’ve trumped me by reaching the goal of our mutually contemplated journey first.

The harmless object of my ire is the poetess, Elizabeth Bishop, whose poem, First Lessons in Geography, reduced to ashes the bright ambitions I had when decades ago, at great personal cost, I first started to collect Pinnock’s early 19th Century Catechisms. If you are not familiar with Bishop’s ‘found poem’, then I should explain it’s practically a verbatim rendering of a page from Monteith’s Geographical Series, 1884, which as a pirated publication must have been a direct steal from Pinnock’s earlier works.

My purpose in pursuing Pinnock? Well, it was no different from Bishop’s in her pursuit of Monteith ... a love of a clarity of diction and directness in explaining the phenomena of this planet and our existence to a child. The page from my own collection reflects closely the language of Bishop’s Lesson VI and Lesson X, which I commend since my own efforts are now redundant.

Of course, this reduplicative thought calls into question the vaunted originality of acclaimed writers. Take Jane Austen’s most famous axiom. ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’

My contention is that, like Pinnock’s prose, Austen’s structure follows the formulaic assertion favoured by late 18th Century expositors. The Universal English Dictionary of 1792 contains any number of constructions precisely like this: ‘... universally acknowledged to have been the author of the Gospel ...’; ‘... universally allowed to be the best Harbour in Great Britain ...’ etc. In my Pinnock's Catechism of Poetry, a volume in his standard series of primers, you may read a truth ‘universally allowed’ that Milton excels all others.  No Janeite scholar, as far as I know, has yet suggested that the aphoristic cadences of Miss Austen's prose owe much to schoolroom textbooks.

So like Miss Bishop, Miss Austen stirs doubts as to the nature of true originality, and prompts the inner questioning that should torment any self-respecting writer who shrinks from short-changing readers with banalities.

And before I leave the subject of Miss Bishop, I cannot escape commenting on perhaps her most famous work, her villanelle, One Art.

Do other readers share my doubts when considering the concluding lines of the final quatrain?

                              the art of losing’s not too hard to master
                              though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Even the charm of Cameron Diaz when stumblingly reciting the piece in the movie, In Her Shoes (2005), cannot redeem the parenthetical padding of that clumsy antepenultimate metrical foot, which to me always seems as though it’s been desperately shoe-horned into a fit unsuited to it. Metrically, it seems like – as we English say in the demotic – like a cop out.

Postscript on Poetic Makeweights (December 6 2015)

For one solution to the One Art puzzle see my later post . . . .
Finishing School for Versifiers (part 2)
Finishing School for Versifiers (part 3)

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