Saturday 12 April 2008

Simon Turner - Writers' Journals and Plain Style: additional note

Further to my rather inconclusive comments earlier, I have managed to stumble upon a passage from Gerard Manley Hopkins' journals which illustrates my point about writers' journals: that they remain 'contemporary' in a manner which their poetry often fails to do. The passage is dated July 11th 1866:

"Oaks: the organisation of this tree is difficult. Speaking generally no doubt the determining planes are concentric, a system of brief contiguous and continuous tangents, whereas those of the cedar wd. roughly be called horizontals and those of the beech radiating but modified by droop and by a screw-set towards jutting points. But beyond this since the normal growth of the boughs is radiating and the leaves grow some way in there is of course a system of spoke-wise clubs of green - sleeve-pieces. And since the end shoots curl and carry young and scanty-leaf stars these clubs are tapered, and I have seen also the pieces in profile with chiselled outlines, the blocks thus made detached and lessening towards the end. However the star knot is the chief thing: it is whorled, whirled round, a little and this is what keeps up the illusion of the tree: the leaves are rounded inwards and figure out ball-knots."

The density of the writing here is familiar to anyone who has read and enjoyed Gerry's poetry, but what is remarkable in this passage is the degree to which it manages to evade the worst excesses of his verse. Yes, it is dense, but is dense in a manner which is more easily adaptable in a contemporary mode. This could well be a personal connection with little basis in any real textual evidence, but this reminds me of Peter Larkin's prose excursions into the woods: the density of description, the jostling of registers (Hopkins' writing in this passage is always moving towards scientific diction, but yet always holding back). Larkin is the more 'modern' of the two, obviously, but the journal places Hopkins far less obviously in his historical era than his poetry does.

The idea of the journal as a means of getting at poetic speed and vividness is by no means a new idea, either. Some of Ted Hughes' most valuable prose material relates to the composition of Moortown Diary, the poems in which were rescued from prose jottings the poet made on the spot as it were. They did not begin life as poems, and as such are released from the burden of finish and formal unity with which we often associate the poem, as opposed to prose. But the poems in Moortown Diary are by no means chopped up prose: they are poetry by virtue of the quickness of expression, the keenness and freshness of Hughes' eye and ear. They are poetry, that is, because of the energy underlying them, an energy more easily tapped because the poems were created before they were conceived of as poems. They might well prove to be his most important work, though I've no doubt I'll receive a barrage of complaints and counter-arguments for that one. If anyone's reading, of course...

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