The mnemonics of words

Scorhill

Following on from last week's discussion of the language of place, this week is devoted to Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane's extraordinary book on the subject:

"Ultra-fine description operates in Hebridean Gaelic place-names," writes Macfarlane, "as well as in descriptive nouns. In the 1990s an English linguist called Richard Cox moved to northern Lewis, taught himself Gaelic, and spent several years retrieving and recording place-names in the Carloway district of Lewis's west coast. Carloway contains thirteen townships and around five hundred people; it is fewer than sixty square miles in area. But Cox's magnificent resulting work, The Gaelic Place-Names of Carloway, Isle of Lewis: Their Structures and Significance (2002), runs to almost five hundred pages and details more than three thousand place-names. Its eleventh section, titled "The Onimasticon,' lists the hundreds of toponyms identifying 'natural features' of the landscape. Unsurprisingly for such a martime culture, there is a proliferation of names for coastal features -- narrows, currents, indentations, projections, ledges, reefs -- often of exceeptional specificity. Beirgh, for instance, a loanword from the Old Norse, refers to ' a promontory or point with a bare, usually vertical rock face and sometimes with a narrow neck to land,' while corran has the sense of 'rounded point,' derived from its common meaning of 'sickle.'

Dartmoor sheep

Scorhill

"There are more than twenty different terms for eminences and precipices," Macfarlane continues, "depending on the sharpness of the summit and the aspects of the slope. Sìthean, for example, deriving from sìth, 'a fairy hill or mound,' is a knoll or hillock possessing the qualities which were thought to Looking into the Faery Hill by Alan Leeconstitute desirable real estate for fairies -- being well-drained, for instance, with a distinctive rise, and crowned by green grass. Such qualities also fulfilled the requirements for a good sheiling site, and so almost all toponyms including the word sìthean indicates sheiling locations. Characterful personifications of place also abound: A' Ghùig, for instance, means 'the steep slope of a scowling expression.'

"Reading 'The Onomasticon,' you realize that Gaelic speakers of this landscape inhabit a terrain which is, in Proust's phrase, 'magnificently surcharged with names.' For centuries these place-names have spilled their poetry into everyday Hebridean life. They have anthologized local history, anecdote and myth, binding story to place. They have been functional -- operating as territory markers and ownership designators -- and they have also served as navigational aids. Until well into the 20th century, most inhabitants of the Western Isles did not use conventional paper maps, but relied instead on memory maps, learnt on the island and carried in the skull.

A tributary of the Teign

"These memory maps were facilitated by first-hand experience and were also -- as Finlay [MacLeod] put it -- 'lit by the mnemonics of words.' For their users, these place-names were necessary for getting from location to location, and for the purpose of guiding others to where they needed to go. It is for this reason that so many toponyms incorporate what is known in psychology and design as 'affordance' -- the quality of an environment or object that allows an individual to perform an action on, to or with it. So a bealach is a gap in a ridge or cliff which may be walked through, but the element beàrn or beul in a place-name suggests an opening that is unlikely to admit human passage, as in Am Beul Uisg, 'the gap from which the water gushes.'  Blàr a' Chalchain means 'the plain of stepping stones,' while Clach an Line means 'rock of the link,' indicating a place where boats can be safely tied up. To speak out a run of these names is therefore to create a story of travel-- an act of naming that is also an act of wayfinding.

Scorhill

"Angus MacMillan, a Lewisian, remembers being sent by his father seven miles across Brindled Moor to fetch a missing sheep spotted by someone the night before: 'Cùl Leac Ghlas ri taobh Sloc an Fhithich fos cionn Loch na Muilne.' 'Think of it,' writes MacMillan drily, 'as an early form of GPS: the Gaelic Positioning System.' "

Dartmoor sheep

Dartmoor cows

The history and significance of place-names in land-based societies is something that those of us writing mythic fiction would do well to bear in mind -- whether we're working with myth or folktales born from a specific landscape, or creating an imaginary one.

"Invented names are a quite good index of writers' interest in their instrument, language, and ability to place it," says Ursula Le Guin. "To make up a name of a person or place is to open the way to the world of the language the name belongs to. It's a gate to Elsewhere. How do they talk in Elsewhere? How do we find out how they talk?"

Perhaps by knowing the land they walk. Which begins with knowing our own.

Dartmoor sheep

Scorhill

Words: The passage by Robert Macfarlane is quoted f rom Landmarks  (Hamish Hamilton, 2015; Penguin Books, 2016). The passage by Ursula K. Le Guin is quoted from her essay "Inventing Languages," in Words Are My Matter (Small Beer Press, 2016). The poem in the picture captions is from The Bonniest Companie by Kathleen Jamie (Picador, 2015). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures:. There is a mismatch of words and photographs in this post, I'm afraid, for my own recent journey north took me only to the Isle of Skye and not to the Lewis moor. The photographs above are of our moor, Dartmoor, near Scorhill, a bronze age stone circle. The illustration is "Looking Into the Fairy Hill" by my friend & neighbor Alan Lee. It's from his now-classic book Faeries, with Brian Froud (Abrams, 1978); all rights reserved by the artist


Weather and words

Cuckoo's Nest by Cecelia Levy

Paper art by Celia Levy

From Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane:

"Before you become a writer you must first become a reader. Every hour spent reading is an hour spent learning to write; this continues to be true throughout a writer's life. The Living Mountain, Waterlog, The Peregrine, Arctic Dreams, My First Summer in the Sierra: these are the books that taught me how to write, but also the books that have taught me how to see...."

Thistle interior by Cecelia Levy

"Books, like landscapes, leave their marks in us. Sometimes these traces are so faint as to be imperceptible -- tiny shifts in the weather of the spirit that do not register on the usual instruments. Mostly these marks are temporary: we close a book, and for the next hour or two the world seems oddly brighter at its edges; or we are moved to a certain kindness or meaness that would otherwise have gone unexpressed. Certain books though, like certain landscapes, stay with us even when we have left them, changing not just our weathers but our climates. The word landmark is from is from the old English landmearc, meaning 'an object in the landscape which, by its conspicuousness, serves as a guide in the direction of one's course.' John Smith, writing in his 1627 Sea Grammar, gives us this definition: 'a Land-marke is any Mountaine, Rocke, Church, Wind-mill or the like, that the Pilot can now by comparing one by another see how they beare by the compasse.' Strong books and strong words can be landmarks in Smith's sense -- offering us both a means of establishing our location and of knowing how we 'beare by the compasse.' "

Acorn by Cecelia Levy

Homeward Bound by Cecelia Levy

The art today is by Swedish paper artist Cecelia Levy. Please visit her website to learn more about her work.

Paper art by Cecelia Levy

Cup by Cecelia LevyThe text above is quoted from Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane (Hamish Hamilton, 2015; Penguin Books, 2016), which I high recommend. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.


The unwritten landscape

Loch Snizort on the Isle of Skye, south-east of Lewis in the Inner Eebrides

In her beautiful essay "Isabella's Crag," Alice Starmore describes the relationship between language and place on the Lewis moor in the Outer Hebrides, and how fragile that relationship is in a rapidly changing world:

"Although too insignificant to be named on any map, Creagan Iseabal Mhartainn [Isabella's Crag] is a towering feature of the 'unwritten landscape' -- a rich vocabulary of geographical co-ordinates known, loved and spoken of by generations of the families who spent their summers in the crag's vicinity. Today, I count only a half a dozen people, myself included, who could name that crag and guide you to it. The youngest of us is sixty, so the future of the unwritten language is far shorter than its past: the acumulation of knowledge and respect that engendered it is now de-valued and close to being forgotten, like Isabella herself, for not even the half-dozen knows who she was or when she lived. Yet her modest crag stands as a paradigm for the whole Lewis moor: for its past, present and possible future.

Trees in the ruins of a blackhouse.

"Over my whole career," writes Starmore, "my greatest and most consistent artistic inspiration has stemmed from the childhood summers I spent on the Lewis moor during the 1950s and 1960s. For six weeks of each year of my childhood, my family moved from our usual home to the àirigh of our ancestral geàrraidh (pasture) on the moor just south of Stornoway. I belong to the very last Hebridean generation to take part in this traditional form of transhumance, for the practice had died out by the end of the 1960s.

"For centuries, the custom of transhumance in Lewis was an essential part of life in crofting villages, as arable land was limited. In order to provide enough fodder for the cattle to survive the winter and early spring, it was necessary to take them away to moorland pastures for the summer months so the village pastures could be harvested for winter feed.

An old croft house on Skye

"This was especially necessary in the Eye Peninsula, also known as the Point, where my family comes from. Point was a well-populated crofting area with virtually no hill grazing in the immediate district due to its peninsular situation. The summer hill grazing was on the far side of Stornoway, which involved a long march with the cattle through the town and then over hill and burn to the àirigh.

"In my parents' youth, the men, women and children and animals walked the many miles to their summer pastures, carrying all their essential foodstuffs, clothing and utensils. This was known as An Iomraich (The Flitting).

Blackhouse door

Spinning wheel

Crofting tools

"By the time I was a child, only the cattle and herders came on foot while we loaded all our chattels, including all domestic pets, in a small lorry hired for the day. We children perched on the top of the load like latter-day dustbowl Okies and headed off to glorious freedom and the joyful company of our little summer community.

"Each village tended to have its own geàrraidh and quite often they were named after the crofting village, such as Geàrraidh Shiadair (Shulishader's Pasture). Others were named after the original long-gone owner of the first àirigh. For example, Àirigh an t-Sagairt (the Priest's Sheiling) was still known long after priests had departed these Presbyterian shores. Many more were named after a feature of the landscape, such as Àirigh a' Chreagain (the Sheilings at the Crag), or sometimes even a measure of distance such as Àirigh Fad As (the Faraway Sheiling).

Ladder to the orchard

 "Place names were of great importance to us; as well as having a romance all of their own, they were a means of communicating where we were going or where we had been on our wanderings. My father would describe the journeys of his 1920s boyhood from Bayble in Point to the very furthest grazing at Loch Dubh nan Stearnag (the Black Loch of the Terns) in the heart of the Lewis moor. After walking twelve miles, they stopped to rest overnight at Àirigh na Beiste (the Animal Sheiling) before going through Àirigh Leitir (the Sheilings on the Slope) and then on to their own pasture called Àirigh Sgridhe at the foot of the Beinn a' Sgridhe in the Barvas Hills.

"My father's journey was epic by Lewis standards, and the pastures he passed through to get there were equivalent to the main towns on a road map. But the unwritten landscape held a treasury of terms with which to describe our journeys. My father could name every little feature he stopped at or passed by. Likewise, we children could tell our parents exactly where we were going, or where we had been."

Cows above Loch Snizort

"Knowing the landscape gave us the freedom of it. Our parents could get on with their day and trust that we would not get lost or drown in the vast network of lochs, burns and bogs that were all ours to explore....

Thistle

"We lived on the border between micro and macro -- our detailed observations were balanced against the broad sweep of the open moor. Constant unsupervised exploration, with no time restrictions, allowed our imaginations to run free. We observed facts of nature, but it was also easy to believe in kelpies and shape-shifters when walking the moor in the late evening."

Sheep by the loch

A sheep trots after the herd

Outdoor life on the summer pasture contributed "to an intimate knowledge of the place, its  history, and all the life within it. Though as a small child I was free of the cares of adults, it was obvious that everyone was very happy on the moor, and as the time approached to return home it was difficult not to be sad. Latterly, there were just three families on our pasture and none of us wanted to be the first or last to leave. We therefore tried to co-ordinate our flitting so that we would all leave on the same day. Alexina, the sky reader, gave voice to all our feelings about the geàrraidh when she admitted one day, when we were packing up to go, that she was extremely sad at the thought of 'fágáil an geàrraidh na aonar' (leaving the pasture in loneliness).

"To us it had a spirit, a heart and soul, just as we had ourselves."

The long road home

Highland cow

Words: The passage above is from "Isabella's Crag: Language, Landscape and Life on the Lewis Moor" by Alice Starmore (EarthLines magazine, May 2012); highly recommended. All rights reserved by the author.

Pictures:  These photographs are from my recent journey to the Isle of Skye, which is south-east of Lewis in the Inner Hebrides. You can see Alice Starmore's photographs of the Lewis moor here, from her lovely exhibition "Mamba."

Related posts: "The Enclosure of Childhood" and "Finding the Way to the Green."


A language of land and sea

The Fairy Glen 1

While thinking about the stories and language of place, I was reminded of the following passage from Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey by Madeleine Bunting. I read Bunting's book on my recent journey from Devon to the Isle of Skye, where it proved a fine introduction to a landscape steeped in Gaelic history, culture, and folklore.

"Every nation," she writes, "has its lost histories of what was destroyed or ignored to shape its narrative of unity so that it has the appearance of inevitability. The British Isles with their complex island geography have known various configurations of political power. Gaelic is a reminder of some of them: the multinational empires of Scandinavia, the expansion of Ireland, and the medieval Gaelic kingdom, the Lordship of the Isles, which lost mainland Scotland, and was ultimately suppressed by Edinburgh. The British state imposed centralization, and insisted on English-language education. Only the complex geography of islands and mountains ensured that Gaelic survived into the 21st century.

"What would be lost if Gaelic disappeared in the next century, I asked, when I visited hospitable [Lewis] islanders who pressed me with cups of tea and cake. There is a Gaelic word, cianalas, and it means a deep sense of homesickness and melancholy, I was told. The language of Gaelic offers insight into a pre-industrial world view, suggested Malcolm Maclean, a window on another culture lost in the rest of Britain. As with any language, it offers a way of seeing the world, which makes it precious. Gaelic's survival is a matter of cultural diversity, just as important as ecological diversity, he insisted. It is the accumulation of thousands of years of human ingenuity and resilience living in these island landscapes. It is a heritage of human intelligence shaped by place, a language of the land and sea, with a richness and precision to describe the tasks of agriculture and fishing. It is a language of community, offering concepts and expressions to capture the tightly knit interdependence required in this subsistence economy.

The Fairy Glen 2

The Fairy Glen 3

"Gaelic scholar Michael Newton points out how particular words describe the power of these relationships intertwined with place and community. For example, dúthchas is sometimes translated as 'heritage' or 'birthright,' but conveys a much richer idea of a collective claim on the land, continually reinforced and lived out through the shared management of the land. Dúthchas grounds land rights in communal daily habits and uses of the land. It is at variance with British concepts of individual private property and these land rights received no legal recognition and were relegated to cultural attitudes (as in many colonial contexts). Elements of dúthchas persist in crofting communities, where the grazing committees of the townships still manage the rights to common land and the cutting of peat banks on the moor. Crofting has always been dependent on plentiful labor and required co-operation with neighbors for many of the routine tasks, like peasant cultures across Europe, born out of the day-to-day survival in a difficult environment.

The Fairy Glen 4

"The strong connection to land and community means that 'people belong to places rather than places belong to people,' sums up Newton. It is an understanding of belonging which emphasizes relationships, of responsibilities as well as rights, and in return offers the security of a clear place in the world."

The Fairy Glen 5

Bunting also notes that "Gaelic's attentiveness to place is reflected in its topographical precision. It has a plentiful vocabulary to describe different forms of hill, peak or slope (beinn, stob, dún, cnoc, sròn), for example, and particular words to describe each of the stages of a river's course from its earliest rising down to its widest point as it enters the sea. Much of the landscape is understood in anthropomorphic terms, so the names of topographical features are often the same as those for parts of the body. It draws a visceral sense of connection between sinew, muscle and bone and the land. Gaelic poetry often attributes character and agency to landforms, so mountains might speak or be praised as if they were a chieftain; the Psalms (held in particular reverence in Gaelic culture) talk of landscape in a similar way, with phrases such as the 'hills run like a deer.' In both, the land is recognized as alive.

"Gaelic has a different sense of time, purpose and achievement. The ideal is to maintain an equilibrium, as a saying from South Uist expresses it: Eat bread and weave grass, and then this year shall be as thou wast last year. It is close to Hannah Arendt's definition of wisdom as a loving concern for the continuity of the world."

And, I would add, to the Dineh (Navajo) concept of hózhó, or Walking in Beauty.

Howard in the Fairy Glen

Lamb nursing in the Fairy Glen

Words:  The poem in the picture captions is by Kathleen Jamie, from the Scottish Poetry Library.  I highly recommend her poetry volumes, and her two gorgeous essay collections: Findings and Sightlines. The passage above is from Love of Country by Madeleine Bunting (Granta, 2016), also recommended. All rights to the prose and poetry in this post is reserved by the authors. Pictures: Sheep in the Fairy Glen, near Uist on the Isle of Skye. 


We are the words, we are the music

Stray sheep

Etchings by Bill Yardley

Last week we discussed Ursula K. Le Guin's "Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?" (an essay I recommend reading in full) -- examining the roles of experience and imagination in the creation of fiction.

There's one more passage I'd like to share. It begins with a quote by Virginia Woolf, from a letter to her friend Vita Sackville-West. "Sackville-West," Le Guin explains, "had been pontificating about finding the right word, Flaubert's mot juste, and agonizing very Frenchly about syle; and Woolf wrote back, very Englishly:

Sheep etching by Bill Yardley'As for the mot juste, you are quite wrong. Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can't use the wrong words. But on the other hand here I am sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can't dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it. But no doubt I shall think differently next year.'

Sheep and lamb, reunited.

"Woolf wrote that seventy-five years ago," notes Le Guin; "if she did think differently next year, she didn't tell anybody. She says it lightly, but she means it; this is profound. I have not found anything more profound, or more useful, about the source of story -- where ideas come from.

"Beneath memory and experience, beneath imagination and invention -- beneath words, as she says -- there are rhythms to which memory and imagination and words all move. The writer's job is to go down deep enough to begin to feel that rhythm, find it, move it, be moved by it, and let it move memory and imagination to find the words."

So simple. So true.

The gate to O'er Hill

Le Guin adds this at the close of the essay:

"Prose and poetry -- all art, music, dance -- rise from and move with the profound rhythms of our body, our being, and the body and the being of the world. Physicists read the universe as a great range of vibrations, of rhythms. Art follows and expresses those rhythms."

Sheep in the shade

Old stone wall

I'm reminded, in turn, of these words from Woolf's luminous essay "A Sketch of the Past":

“Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we -- I mean all human beings -- are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself."

A stream on the Commons

Hound and stream

Waiting

Words: Ursula K. Le Guin's "Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?" can be found in The World Spit Open (Tin House Books, 2014); it also appears, in an altered form, in Le Guin's essay collection The Wave in the Mind (Shambhala, 2004). Both books are recommended. The first Woolf quote can be found in The Letters of Vita Sackville West & Virginia Woolf, edited by Mitchell Alexander Leaska (Cleis Press, 2004); the second in Moments of Being (Mariner Books, 1985). 

Pictures: The etchings above are by Bill Yardley (1940-2012), an artist inspired by life on his Warwickshire farm.

All rights to the text & images above reserved by authors & artists, or their estates.


Finding the way, word by word

From At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald

From A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens & Eugene Onegin by Alexander Puskin

From "Memory and Imagination" by essayist & memoirist Patricia Hampl:

"Is it possible to convey the enormous degree of blankness, confusion, hunch, and uncertainty lurking in the act of writing? When I am the reader, not the writer, I too fall into the lovely illusion that the words before me, which read so inevitably, must also have been written exactly as they appear, rhythm and cadence, language and syntax, the powerful waves of the sentences laying themselves on the smooth beach of the page one after another faultlessly.

From The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle & To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolfe

"But here I sit before a yellow legal pad, and the long line of the preceding two paragraphs is a jumble of crossed-out lines, false starts, and confused order. A mess. The mess of my mind trying to figure out what it wants to say. This is a writer's frantic, grabby mind, not the poised mind of a reader waiting to be edified or entertained.

From Persuasion by Jane Austen & Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

"I think of the reader as a cat, endlessly fastidious, capable by turns of mordant indifference and riveted attention, luxurious, recumbent, ever poised. Whereas the writer is absolutely a dog, panting and moping, too eager for an affectionate scratch behind the ears, longing frantically after any old stick thrown in the distance.

Early versions of her stories, in letter form, by Beatrix Potter

"The blankness of a new page never fails to intrigue and terrify me. Sometimes, in fact, I think my habit of writing on long yellow sheets comes from an atavistic fear of the writer's stereotypic 'blank white page.' At least when I begin writing, my page has a wash of color on it, even if the absence of words must finally be faced on a yellow sheet as much as on a blank white one. We all have our ways of whistling in the dark."

From House of Mirth by Edith Wharton & Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

From The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

From Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake & The Two Towers by JRR Tolkien

Pictures: The manuscript pages here are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) For modern manuscripts & writers' notebooks, go here for a wonderful post on the subject by Jackie Morris.

Words: The passage above comes from an essay published in I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory by Patricia Hampl (WW Norton & Co., 1999); all rights reserved by the author.


The hunger for narrative

Arabian Nights by Edmund Dulac

In his great essay "The Power of Stories," Scott Russell Sanders explores ten primary reasons for telling and hearing stories. The first reason on his list is a simple one: Because they entertain us.

"Why else," he asks, "do we trade them so avidly, in myths and folktales, in poems and songs, movies and plays, novels and yarns, and countless other forms? Children tell stories spontaneously, exuberantly, even before they have enough words to fill out their sentences. Anyone who has made up a story for a child , or read one from a book, only to have the child beg for it again and again, night after night, knows that the need for story goes deep in us. Scheherazade kept a sultan from putting her to death by telling him stories, always breaking off in the middle of a plot at bedtime, leaving him eager for the next installment. You do not have to be a child or a bored sultan to hunger for stories, of course, nor a captive to be saved by them. We all hunger for narrative, from the simplest anecdote or joke to the most convoluted saga, as we hunger for bread or companionship or sunlight; and we all may be fed, and even restored, by a tale that speaks to our condition."

Arabian Nights by Edmund Dulac

Sanders goes on to note: "In all its guises, from words spoken and written to pictures and musical notes and mathmatical symbols, language is our distinguishing gift, our hallmark as a species. We delight in stories because they are a playground for language, an arena for exercising this extraordinary power. The spells and enchantments that figure in so many tales remind us of the ambiguous potency of words, for creating or destroying, for binding or setting free. Italo Calvino, a wizard of storytelling, described literature as '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.' Calvino's remark holds true, I believe, not just for the highfalutin modes we label as literature, but for every effort to make sense of our lives through narrative."

The full essay can be found in Sander's essay collection The Force Spirit, and is highly recommended.

Arabian Nights by Edmund Dulac

The art today is from a 1911 editon of The Stories of the Arabian Nights, illustrated by Edmund Dulac.

Arabian Nights by Edmund Dulac

Arabian Nights by Edmund Dulac

Arabian Nights by Edmund Dulac

Edmond Dulac was born and raised in Toulouse, France, where he spent two miserable years studying law before embracing art as his true vocation; he then studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Toulouse and the Académie Julien in Paris before moving to London in 1904. Obtaining his first illustration commission (for Charlotte Brontë's  Jane Eyre) at the age of 22, Dulac went on to become of one of the greatest book illustrators of his day, while also collaborating on various theatre projects (usually with his friends W. B. Yeats and Thomas Beecham) and becoming an expert in postage stamp design. He spent the rest of his life in England (changing the spelling of his name from Edmond to Edmund), became a British citizen in 1914, and continued to create his exquisite illustrations right up to his death in 1953.

Arabian Nights by Edmund Dulac

Arabian Night by Edmund Dulac

Arabian Nights by Edmund Dulac

Arabian Nights by Edmund DulacThe passage above is from "The Power of Stories" by Scott Russell Sanders, published in his essay collection The Force of Spirit (Beacon Press, 2000); all rights reserved by the author.


Writers and readers

Hillside 1

Mossy oak

"A book, properly written, is an invitation for a reader to enter: to join with the writer in a creative act: the act of reading. A novel, it has been said, is a mechanism for generating interpretations. If interpretation is limited to what the author 'meant,' the creative opportunity has been missed. Each reading should a unique meeting, leading to a new interpretation. Nor should the writer's duty end at the text.

"Writing is solitary and isolate, but only in execution. I work alone, in an empty room; yet that work, though solitary, is not private. Somewhere, in another place and another time, which will become another here and another now, there will be a communication with another mind. My duty is first to the text, because the writer is, by writing, above all making a claim for excellence. In working the language, as a farmer works the land, we seek to strengthen it against abuse, to protect it against decay, to encourage it towards growth. We hope to leave the language a little better for our writing; and that writing is achieved only in isolation. Yet, at the end, there is always somebody, an unknowable 'you,' whom I wish to reach."

- Alan Garner (The Voice That Thunders)

Hillside 3

Hillside 4

The Voice That Thunders by Alan Garner

"The writer, functioning in a magical medium, an abstract medium, does one half of the work, but the reader does the other. The reader's mind becomes the screen, the place, the era. To a large extent, readers create the world from words, they invent the reality they read. Reading therefore is a co-production between writer and reader. The simplicity of this tool is astounding. So little, yet out of it whole worlds, eras, characters, continents, people never encountered before, people you wouldn't care to sit next to on a train, planets that don't exist, places you've never visited, enigmatic fates, all  come to life in the mind, painted into existence by the reader's creative powers. In this way, the creativity of the write calls up the creativity of the reader. Reading is never passive."

- Ben Okri (A Way of Being Free)

Hillside 5

Hillside 6

Hillside 7

"I can't write without a reader. It's precisely like a kiss -- you can't do it alone."  - John Cheever (Christian Science Monitor, 1979)

Hillside 8

Hillside 9

''Books. They are lined up on shelves or stacked on a table. There they are wrapped up in their jackets, lines of neat print on nicely bound pages. They look like such orderly, static things. Then you, the reader come along. You open the book jacket, and it can be like opening the gates to an unknown city, or opening the lid of a treasure chest. You read the first word and you're off on a journey of exploration and discovery.''  -  David Almond

The Writer's Desk

Wildflowers


The magic of the writer's craft

Path to the woodland gate

For Day 3 of Ben Okri Week, some thoughts on the writing process from his essay "Newton's Child," with a walk through the Devon woods among bluebells, poppies, and other wildflowers. Tilly, once again, is the Animal Guide who leads us to Faerieland....

Woodland gate

"Some writing is forceful, ambitious, and immediate," says Okri, "it is all there, it is sensual. Another kind of writing appears simple, does not add up to much on the page, and performs no somersaults. We think one kind of writing is better, but we are sometimes wrong, and sometimes right. When they work, both kinds of writing are gifts, and both can be magical."

Woodland wall

Woodland wall with bluebells

"The best kind of books...have a delightful mystery about them. They inexplicably create powerful feelings, images, moods, worlds, and parallel narratives the farther away in time you are from the reading.  They grow in time. They keep re-creating themselves in your consciousness, they keep growing, they keep becoming other books, till they become part of your experience, like something lived, or dreamed, or loved, or suffered.

"Further encounters with such books make them more. There is no final point of understanding with books that live."

Woodland path with bluebells

"Their effects cannot be aspired to. And writers can never be altogether sure that they have indeed created this rare and living thing. For their mysterious effect can only be felt silently, in the secret chambers of consciousness, in the depths of sleep and forgetfulness, in states of being where the magic of the words can work unseen."

Wild poppies

Woodland bluebells

"The highest kind of writing -- which must not be confused with the most ambitious kind -- belongs to the realm of grace. Talent is part of it, certainly; a thorough understanding of the secret laws, absolutely. But finding the subject and theme which is in perfect harmony with your deepest nature, your forgotten selves, your hidden dreams, and the full unreasonated essence of your life -- now that cannot be reached through searching, nor can it be stumbled upon through ambition. That sort of serendipity comes upon you on a lucky day. It may emerge even out of misfortune or defeat. You may happen upon it without realizing that this is the work through which your whole life will sing. We should always be ready. We should always be humble. Creativity should always be a form of prayer."

Moss and bluebells

"You cannot write well when you have no feelings and no thoughts on the subject. Perhaps when we have to write to order the ill-used creative self, bored with the business of irrelevant and joyless tasks, will simply refuse to come alive when you really need it. You could call the business of developing faulty internal relations."

Woodland path

Among the bluebells

Bluebells

The Fairy Tree

"There is no need to panic. The intelligence that shaped the universe shaped you. There is an inner part of us, forever obscured, forever mysterious,  which is most alive during the process of composition. And that inner part, that inner glow, is timeless, and it functions beyond time. It drinks from deep waters. It has the stillness and the dance and the radiance of the firmament. When one is most absorbed in the act of creation one almost feels that one is wandering in the great corridors of all minds. Creativity makes us part of it all. "

Still life of wildflowers, coffee, and book

The bench beneath the plum treePhotographs above: A walk through the woods early yesterday morning; a still life of wildflowers, coffee, and book; and Tilly on the bench beneath the plum tree in the studio garden...posted on a day when rain drums on the studio's tin roof and keeps us quietly indoors. The poem in the picture captions come from Lisel Mueller's gorgeous collection of poetry The Private Life. Ben Okri's "Newton's Child" can be found in his essay collection A Way of Being Free, pictured above. A previous post also discusses the ways that good books unfold over time: "In praise of re-reading."


The love of poets

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Wood 2

From "While the World Sleeps" by Ben Okri (from A Way of Being Free):

"The world in which the poet lives does not necessarily yield up the poetic. In the hands of the poet, the world is resistant. It is only with the searching and the molding that the unyielding world becomes transformed in a new medium of song and metaphor.

"It is not surprising therefore that poets seem to be set against the world. The poet needs to be up at night when the world sleeps; needs to be up at dawn, before the world wakes; needs to dwell in odd corners, where Tao is said to reside; needs to exist in dark places, where spiders forge their webs in silence; near the gutters, where the undersides of our dreams fester. Poets need to live where others don't care to look, and they need to do this because if they don't they can't sing to us of all the secret and public domains of our lives."

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"The acknowledged legislators of the world take the world as given. They dislike mysteries, because mysteries cannot be coded, or legislated, and wonder cannot be made into law. And so these legislators police the accepted frontiers of things. Politicians, heads of state, kings, religious leaders, the rich and powerful -- they all fancy themselves the masters of this earthly kingdom. They speak to us of facts, policies, statistics, programs, abstract and severe moralities. But the dreams of the people are beyond them, and would trouble them. The harder realities of the people would alarm them. It is they who have curbed the poets' vision of reality. It is they who invoke the infamous 'poetic license' whenever they do not want to face the inescapable tragedy contained in, for example, Okibo's words, ' I have lived the oracle dry on the cradle of a new generation.' It is they who demand that poetry be partisan, that it take sides, usually their side; that it rises on the backs of causes and issues, their causes, their issues, whoever they may be.

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"Our lives have become narrow enough. Our dreams strain to widen them, to bring our waking consciousness the awareness of greater discoveries that lie just beyond the limits of our sight. We must not force our poets to limit the world any further. That is a crime against life itself. If a poet begins to speak only of narrow things, of things we can effortlessly digest and recognize, of things that do not disturb, frighten, stir, or annoy us, or make us restless for more, make us cry for greater justice, make us want to set sail and explore inklings murdered in our youths, if the poet sings only of our restricted angels and in restricted terms and in restricted language, then what hope is there for any of us in this world?"

Wood 6

"The antagonists of poetry cannot win. The world seems resistant but carries within it for ever the desire to be transformed into something higher. The world may seem unyielding but, like invisible forces in the air, it merely waits imagination and will to unloosen the magic within itself."

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"The poet as quantum physicist, as healer, as angel and demon of the world cannot afford to disdain the world, cannot feel superior to it any more than the scientist can feel superior to thunder, to mountains, or to the constellations. There are no superiorities of function, only ascendencies.

Wood 10

"Their love shows in the quality of their dreams and their works. The deeper poets feel, the deeper is their exploration. The more we want to reconnect, the more we would follow poets in their quest for impossible transformations. They measure the heroism of the consciousness of any age. It is true when they say that poets are never ahead of their times. It is only we who are far behind ours."

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Poets, aye, and also, I believe, the best of our mythic artists too.

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Wood 12Photographs: In the woods, and on the overgrown woodland boundary wall, at dawn on a chilly spring morning, with stitchwort, primroses, wild orchids, and bluebells. Searching for poetry "in the odd corners."