The power of words (part III)

Jodi Harvey-Brown

"Here's what I mean by the miracle of language. When you're falling into a good book, exactly as you might fall into a dream, a little conduit opens, a passageway between a reader's heart and a writer's, a connection that transcends the barriers of continents and generations and even death. And here's the magic. You're different. You can never go back to being exactly the same person you were before you disappeared into that book."  - Anthony Doerr (All the Light We Cannot See)

Jodi Harvey-Brown

Jodi Harvey-Brown

"Reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism, and it’s a common turn of phrase to speak of getting lost in a book. But a book can also be where one finds oneself; and when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself."  - Rebecca Mead (My Life in Middlemarch)

Susan Hoerth

Justin Rowe

Justin Rowe

"I realize that people still read books now and some people actually love them, but in 1946 in the Village our feelings about books -- I’m talking about my friends and myself -- went beyond love. It was as if we didn’t know where we ended and books began. Books were our weather, our environment, our clothing. We didn’t simply read books; we became them. We took them into ourselves and made them into our histories. While it would be easy to say that we escaped into books, it might be truer to say that books escaped into us. Books were to us what drugs were to young men in the sixties.

"They showed us what was possible. We had been living with whatever was close at hand, whatever was given, and books took us great distances. We had known only domestic emotions and they showed us what happens to emotions when they are homeless. Books gave us balance -- the young are so unbalanced that anything can make them fall. Books steadied us; it was as if we carried a heavy bag of them in each hand and they kept us level. They gave us gravity."

- Anatole Broyard (Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir)

Su Blackwell

"Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness."  - Helen Keller (The Story of My Life)

"Books, for me, are a home. Books don't make a home -- they are one, in the sense that just as you do with a door, you open a book, and you go inside. Inside there is a different kind of time and space. There is warmth there too -- a hearth. I sit down with a book and I am warm."  - Jeanette Winterson (Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?)

2013_the_raven

"A book is more than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures; it is the dialogue it establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory. A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships." 
 - Jorge Luis Borges (Other Inquisitions)

"If literature truly possesses a mysterious power, I think perhaps it is precisely this: that one can read a book by a writer of a different time, a different country, a different race, a different language, and a different culture and there encounter a sensation that is one's very own."  - Yu Hua (China in Ten Words)

Book art by Mike Stiley 2

Book paintings by Mike Stilkey

Rachel Ashe

"I need words and print... I need print like an addict. I could live without it, perhaps. But I hope I never have to try."  -  Margaret Drabble

Cecilia Levy

Cecelia Levy

"Books may not change our suffering, books may not protect us from evil, books may not tell us what is good or what is beautiful, and they will certainly not shield us from the common fate of the grave. But books grant us myriad possibilities: the possibility of change, the possibility of illumination."  - Alberto Manguel (A History of Reading)

Louise Richardson

Su Blackwell

The book scuptures above are by Jodi Harvey-Brown, Susan Hoerth, Justin Rowe, Su Blackwell, Rachel Ashe, Cecilia Levy, and Louise Richardson. Run your cursor over the pictures for individual titles and credits.


The power of words (part II)

Acts of Love 5 by Ellen Bell

"She entered the story knowing she would emerge from it feeling she had been immersed in the lives of others, in plots that stretched back twenty years, her body full of sentences and moments, as if awaking from sleep with a heaviness caused by unremembered dreams."

- Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient)

"I wanted to crawl in between those black lines of print the way you crawl through a fence and go to sleep under that beautiful big green fig-tree."

- Sylvia Plath (The Bell Jar)

Act of Love 3 and Motherland 2 by Ellen Bell

"In the end, it is my belief, words are the only things that can construct a world that makes sense."

- Kate Atkinson (Behind the Scenes at the Museum)

Tree Stories by Ellen Bell

The images here are by Ellen Bell, an artist and writer based in Wales.

"I work directly with books, texts and paper ephemera to create drawings, installations and sculptures that pose questions rather than deliver answers about how we communicate within our familial and intimate relationships," she says. "The physicality of the books, the printed surface of the page and the design of the texts play an important role in the making of my work, as does the serendipity involved in the ‘finding’ of them – the musty smell, the grainy texture of the paper, the inconsistent heaviness of some of the type and the dated graphics of the book covers all play their part in seducing me into working with them."

Tree Stories detail"Words" by Anne Sexton was published in The Complete Poems, 1981; all rights reserved by the author's estate.


The language of fairy tales

The Raven Su Blackwell

The Frog Prince by Su Blackwell

From a discussion with Joanne Harris (author of Chocolat, etc.) in the current issue of  The Write Place at The Write Time:

"Traditionally, the role of fairy stories has been to articulate concepts too emotionally difficult or socially subversive to be treated in a more explicit way. Originally part of a matriarchal oral tradition, they became legitimized as a more patriarchal literary convention -- much in the same way that traditional magic (feminine) was later absorbed by the (primarily male) science of alchemy before shedding its magical elements altogether and becoming the science of chemistry.

"Elemental fears, subconscious desires, sexual taboos are all at the heart of the fairytale; initially intended for an adult, rather than a juvenile audience, enabling folk with bleak and often unhappy lives to come to terms with their monsters, both literal and metaphorical, as well as offering them the hope that sometimes those monsters could be overcome. Since then, much has been made of the deepening division between the literal and figurative view of fairytale (in the same way that the division between science and magic has now become definitive), but in my view, the basic need for these stories is as great as it ever was.

"Like our concept of the divine, which has expanded over 2000 years to fit an expanding world picture, our acceptance of the supernatural has changed -- at least, to a point -- although I would argue that even three hundred years ago, fairy tales were not intended to be taken entirely literally. Every age has its monsters, be they werewolves, vampires, terrorists, AIDS, crazed gunmen or pedophiles, and every age needs to believe in the ability of human beings to defeat monsters, change their lives and ultimately be saved by love.

"I would argue, furthermore, that every age has its magic, too -- although our concept of magic has adapted to fit a more rational world. We now have a need to rationalize our need to believe in magic, as our world picture and our understanding of possibility continues to expand. But as the science-pendulum begins to swing back -- with particle physics seemingly bringing us back ever closer to what once was called 'magic,' I think that the literal-figurative debate will become increasingly less relevant, as will the division between 'conventional literature' and the oral tradition. These stories speak to the irrational mind, and therein lies their power."

(I recommend reading the whole interview here.)

Sleeping Beauty by Su Blackwell

The Girl in the Wood by Su Blackwell

From a discussion with me in the same web journal a few years back:

"As with myths and folk tales, a good fantasy novel is literally spell-binding, using language to conjure up whole new worlds, or to invest our own with magic. The particular power of the fantasy novel comes from its link with the world's most ancient stories – and from the author's careful manipulation of mythic archetypes, story patterns, and symbols. A skillful writer of fantasy knows he or she must tell two stories at once: the surface tale, and a deeper story encoded within the tale's symbolic language. Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone (for example) is, on one level, simply an English boarding school novel with a bit of magic thrown in; but below that surface is a classic narrative of the Orphaned Hero archetype. This second, metaphorical story is the one that makes the novel's appeal so universal, speaking to all children (orphaned or not) who navigate the treacherous passage that lies between childhood and adulthood. I don't mean that children's fantasy should be didactic, with a subtext intended to inculcate moral lessons – heaven forbid! But the magical tropes of fantasy, rooted as they are in world mythology, come freighted with meaning on a metaphoric level. A responsible writer works with these symbols consciously and pays attention to both aspects of the story.

"Jane Yolen once wrote, 'Just as a child is born with a literal hole in his head, where the bones slowly close underneath the fragile shield of skin, so the child is born with a figurative hole in his heart. What slips in before it anneals shapes the man or woman into which that child will grow. Story is one of the most serious intruders into the heart.' I believe that those of us who write stories for children or young adults should remember how powerful stories can be -- and take responsibility for the moral tenor of whatever dreams or nightmares we're letting loose into the world. This is particularly true in fantasy, where the tools of our trade include the language, symbolism and archetypal energies of myth. These are ancient, subtle, potent things, and they work in mysterious ways."

Cinderella by Su Blackwell

The Wild Swans by Su Blackwell

And from Ursula K. Le Guin's classic essay “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie”  (1973):

"[Fantasy] is not anti-rational, but para-rational; not realistic but surrealistic, superrealistic, a heightening of reality. In Freud’s terminology, it employs primary not secondary process thinking. It employs archetypes which, as Jung warned us, are dangerous things.  Dragons are more dangerous, and a good deal commoner, than bears. Fantasy is nearer to poetry, to mysticism, and to insanity that naturalistic fiction is. And it is a real wilderness, and those who go there should not feel too safe. And their guides, the writers of fantasy, should take their responsibilities seriously."  

Your thoughts?

Out of Narnia by Su BlackwellThe sculptures here, of course, are by the UK artist Su Blackwell -- for no look at paper art this week would be complete without re-visiting her splendid work.  From top to bottom: "The Raven," "The Frog Prince," "Sleeping Beauty," "The Woman in the Wood," "Cinderella," "The Wild Swans," and "Out of Narnia." Jane's quote above comes from Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood.


A word on words

Susan Hannon

“There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.”  - Diane Setterfield (The Thirteeth Tale)

"'Some people say the best stories have no words….It is true that words drop away, and that the important things are left unsaid. The important things are learned in faces, in gestures, not in our locked tongues. The true things are too big or too small, or in any case always the wrong size to fit the template called language. I know that. But I know something else too….Turn down the daily noise and at first there is the relief of silence. And then, very quietly, as quiet as light, meaning returns. Words are the part of silence that can be spoken.” – Jeanette Winterson (Lighthousekeeping)

Harriet Popham

"Colorful language threatens some people, who associate it, I think, with a kind of eroticism (playing with language in public = playing with yourself), and with extra expense (having to sense or feel more). I don't share that opinion. Why reduce life to a monotone? Is that truer to the experience of being alive? I don't think so. It robs us of life's many textures. Language provides an abundance of words to keep us company on our travels. But we're losing words at a reckless pace, the national vocabulary is shrinking. Most Americans use only several hundred words or so. Frugality has its place, but not in the larder of language. We rely on words to help us detail how we feel, what we once felt, what we can feel. When the blood drains out of language, one's experience of life weakens and grows pale. It's not simply a dumbing down, but a numbing.” - Diane Ackerman (An Alchemy of the Mind)

“If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”  - Emily Dickinson (Selected Letters)

Raymond Queneau

"Personally I think that grammar is a way to attain Beauty. When you speak, or read, or write, you can tell if you've spoken or read or written a fine sentence. You can recognise a well-tuned phrase or an elegant style. But when you are applying the rules of grammar skilfully, you ascend to another level of the beauty of language. When you use grammar you peel back the layers, to see how it is all put together, to see it quite naked, in a way.” - Muriel Barbery (The Elegance of the Hedgehog)

"I once saw a small child go to an electric light switch as say, 'Mamma, can I open the light?' She was using the age-old language of exploration, the language of art." - Ezra Pound

Victoria Semykina 1

Victoria Semykina 2

"The struggle of literature is in fact a struggle to escape from the confines of language; it stretches out from the utmost limits of what can be said; what stirs literature is the call and attraction of what is not in the dictionary.” - Italo Calvino (The Literature Machine: Essays)

"Everything in writing begins with language. Language begins with listening."  - Jeanette Winterson

15th century book with paw prints

“As I train myself to cast off words, as I learn to erase word-thoughts, I begin to feel a new world rising up around me. The old world of houses, rooms, trees and streets shimmers, wavers and tears away, revealing another universe as startling as fire. We are shut off from the fullness of things. Words hide the world. They blur together elements that exist apart, or they break elements into pieces bind up the world, contract it into hard little pellets of perception. But the unbound world, the world behind the world – how fluid it is, how lovely and dangerous. At rare moments of clarity, I succeed in breaking through. Then I see. I see a place where nothing is known, because nothing is shaped in advance by words. There, nothing is hidden from me. There, every object presents itself entirely, with all its being. It's as if, looking at a house, you were able to see all four sides and both roof slopes. But then, there's no 'house,' no 'object,' no form that stops at a boundary, only a stream of manifold, precise, and nameless sensations, shifting into one another, pullulating, a fullness, a flow. Stripped of words, untamed, the universe pours in on me from every direction. I become what I see. I am earth, I am air. I amall. My eyes are suns. My hair streams among the galaxies.”
  - Stephen Millhauser (Dangerous Laughter)

"There is language going on out there -- the language of the wild. Roars, snorts, trumpets, squeals, whoops, and chirps all have meaning derived over eons of expression. We have yet to become fluent in the language -- and music -- of the wild.”  - Boyd Norton (Serengeti)

Jodi Harvey-Brown

"How monotonous our speaking becomes when we speak only to ourselves! And how insulting to the other beings -- to foraging black bears and twisted old cypresses -- that no longer sense us talking to them, but only about them, as though they were not present in our world….Small wonder that rivers and forests no longer compel our focus or our fierce devotion. For we walk about such entities only behind their backs, as though they were not participant in our lives. Yet if we no longer call out to the moon slipping between the clouds, or whisper to the spider setting the silken struts of her web, well, then the numerous powers of this world will no longer address us -- and if they still try, we will not likely hear them.”   - David Abram (Becoming Animal)

“Perhaps it is the language that chooses the writers it needs, making use of them so that each might express a tiny part of what it is.”  - José Saramago

Emma Taylor

Art above: A detail from a paper sculpture by Susan Hannon (US); "Narrative Dress" by Harriet Popham (UK); One Hundred Million Billion Poems" by Raymond Queneau (France, 1903-1976); "Ships" by Victoria Semykina (Russia & Italy); pawprints on a 15th century book, photographed by medieval historian Erik Kwakkel; "Bambi and His Mother" by Jodi Harvey-Brown (US), and "From With a Book" by Emma Taylor (UK).


The communion of the word

Book art 1

"A writer is, first and last, a reader. Who do you write for? Gertrude Stein was asked, and famously replied, 'Myself and strangers.' That self, the reader-self who is allied with strangers, may be a writer's better half, more detached, more trust-worthy, than the writing self who swaggers through a lifetime of prose. It is difficult -- and diminishing -- to separate the self who writes from the one who reads. Both acts belong to the communion of the word, which is a writer's life." 

 - Patricia Hampl (I Could Tell You Stories)

Book art 2

"As you read a book word by word and page by page, you participate in its creation, just as a cellist playing a Bach suite participates, note by note, in the creation, the coming-to-be, the existence, of the music. And, as you read and re-read, the book of course participates in the creation of you, your thoughts and feelings, the size and temper of your soul.”

 ― Ursula K. Le Guin

Book art 3

“I spent my life folded between the pages of books. In the absence of human relationships I formed bonds with paper characters. I lived love and loss through stories threaded in history; I experienced adolescence by association. My world is one interwoven web of words, stringing limb to limb, bone to sinew, thoughts and images all together. I am a being comprised of letters, a character created by sentences, a figment of imagination formed through fiction.” 

- Tahereh Mafi (Shatter Me)

Book art 4

From an interview with Richard Ford in The Paris Review:

Ford: "I want to write, partly at least, for the kind of reader I was when I was nineteen years old. I want to address that person because he or she is young enough that life is just beginning to seem a mystery which literature can address in surprising and pleasurable ways. When I was nineteen I began to read [William Faulkner's] Absalom, Absalom! slowly, slowly, page by patient page, since I was slightly dyslexic. I was working on the railroad, the Missouri-Pacific in Little Rock. I hadn’t been doing well in school, but I started reading. I don’t mean to say that reading altogether changed my life, but it certainly brought something into my life—possibility—that had not been there before."

Interviewer: "What was it about Absalom, Absalom!?"

Ford: "The language—a huge suffusing sea of wonderful words, made into beautiful, long paragraphs and put to the service of some great human conundrum it meant to console me about if not completely resolve. When I was old enough to think about myself as trying to be a writer, I always thought I would like to write a book and have it do that for someone else."

Yes.

Book art 5Images above: "Sequel" (and tree leaves from "Sequel") by UK artist Nicola Dale, book architecture by Dutch artist Frank Halmans, book sculpture by UK artist Emma Tayor, and details from "Proverbial Threads" by US artist Robbin Ami Silverberg.