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Don Coles. Statement. In Position Papers: Statements on their craft by 37 Writers.

Statement. In Position Papers: Statements on their craft by 37 Writers

Philip Larkin writes somewhere of the sort of person who "will forever be surprising/ A hunger in himself to be more serious." I think there are many such persons; and I find this hunger (so often suppressed or unacknowledged by oneself, or mocked by others) very moving, as moving as anything I can think of. I believe also that for me at any rate this "hunger to be serious" fulfills itself with great difficulty, and seldom or not at all in the daily circs of life (one is either too rushed, or, as some unprogrammed encounter with seriousness looms, too inhibited, too embarrassed); but I know that writing allows me to draw close to it. For this I am grateful to writing, grateful that forms and traditions (for example, lyric poetry) exist within which I can stalk seriousness without needing to justify what I am doing.

It follows that a real life role for literature in our society is to enable readers to know that this seriousness-hunger which they have privately felt is not, after all, isolating, but is widely (if, again, and almost invariably, quietly) shared. And referring now to this symposium's query, the one that asks me to reflect on the principles affecting my approach to my own work, I can say that the same emphasis shows up here: if access to my own deeper seriousness is what my work allows me, is in fact what my work more or less continuously and reliably incites me towards, and if I value this movement and its accompanying partial-understandings, these intermittent slow-flaring lights in the dark, then it's natural that I should want my work to evoke (in addition to whatever else it may evoke) similar feelings in anyone who reads it.

Much follows from this, in terms of craft, in terms of theme, in terms of the audience I think I write for. Some of this relates to clarity, the need for, some to subtlety, the need for. "Write as though for a generation infinitely more subtle than your own," advised Stendhal. Good advice, up to a point, and I think of it often, for instance when I am deciding which way to take a given line or metaphor: towards a kind of transparency or towards some shadowier place, more demanding of a reader's involvement. In fact I suppose I really feel that there's no either-or here at all, that it is in the nature of good art to be subtle, just as it is an absolute of art to communicate, that is, to have some relationship to clarity. But there is a spurious form of subtlety abroad in the land which is damaging on all counts and is too seldom challenged on it, and which matters a very great deal, not because of the writers, the poets, perpetuating it — they should be laid aside and never thought on more — but because of the decent folk their witless works turn away every year by the thousand from the real experience of art. I'm speaking now of the alienation that an over-private vocabulary or an intimidating syntax/formal structure can cause, whether in the work of the latest, freshest-faced recruit out of an Olsenite open-field creative-writing workshop, or of some multi-published-and-awarded but equally hapless senior coterie-poet. I have no interest in poets who fail to take note of this danger (or who, if they note it, are either so inept or so insecure that they persevere in their convoluted indirections, their narcissism; it's very often the case, anyhow, that having pitiably little to say they're simply trusting in the opacity of their page to keep this barrenness from discovery). They harm us all: writers, readers; they keep us apart; they prevent our serious speakings and out serious listenings from coming together.

Enough of that. My point: clarity matters, subtlety matters, it is possible to be both demanding (of one's reader) and accessible, it is possible to speak suggestively and elusively and at the same time in a recognizably human voice. Not just possible, necessary. Or so I think.

Much more to be said about all this, of course. This seems to be what is closest to my mind at the moment.

July 1988
Cambridge, England

Don Coles's works copyright © to the author.

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