By the time I was twenty-one years old I’d begun to think of myself as something of an accomplished poet; what I lacked — among other things — was a recognizable, consistent voice for my poems. For the most part, American poets make this search for a voice automatically — it’s part of our native Yankee gift for marketing, this straining after a voice that will make one’s poetry sound utterly unlike the work of other poets and hence a unique commodity. It is something like the equivalent — to cite another Detroit effort in the same direction — of adding gigantic tail fins to our cars to make them distinctive. And like the tail fins, it’s a mistake. When I read my work loudly enough to myself, it was clear it wasn’t prose; that it was not poetry was clear to most everyone else. Fortunately, the voice of my poems was in a constant state of change. Years later I realized that developing a voice before you knew what you needed to say was pointless at best, self-defeating at worst. You could spend years trying to sound as lyrical as Edna St. Vincent Millay or Hart Crane only to discover you wanted to write poetry incendiary enough to burn down General Motors or the Pentagon.
The most important kernel of truth in Levine’s statement is this: before you knew what you needed to say. How do you know what you need to say? The answer is simple. Life teaches you what you need to say.
Levine goes on to describe what is most important in writing, whether you are writing poetry or fiction:
Some of us seemed to find who we were as poets and no doubt as people long before the others. I was not, in this regard, a quick study. One who arrived at both a sense of who he was and his poetic voice — and the absolutely right voice for his particular personality — long before I even knew what a “voice” was or how I would go about finding one or not finding one, was the Miles poet who seemed to me the most innocent as well as the most determined. Paul Petrie had such an original and seemingly natural way of going about his life that one could underestimate the power of his intellect and his emotions. Paul was a tall, spare, athletic man with a shock of dark hair and a very precise way of speaking . . . Paul seemed almost without an ego, and he made not the least effort to project a persona. He was simply who he was, a humble yet confident wordsmith.
Levine elucidates this claim by citing a verse Paul Petrie had written, and here it is:
Avoid the reeking herd,
Shun the polluted flock,
Live like that stoic bird,
The eagle of the rock.
And here is Levine’s comment on the verse: “This was actually what inspired him? My God, it was so familiar and clear, I could understand it! Could it be poetry?”
His point is that it is a waste of time to try on costumes unless you are an actor. Be yourself. And don’t worry about whether you are being yourself, because all you have to do is grow into it. Yourself, that is.
Likewise, you don’t need to tie your words into knots. Clear and comprehensible is what works. However, remember that clear does not mean ordinary. You want the precise word. You want the word that conveys exactly what you mean.
You cannot not grow into yourself. But you can fail to pay attention to what you are learning and thinking, and if you fail to do that, your work will also fail. Observe the world, but also observe and remember how you react to it.
The final author I am going to talk about is Neil Jordan. Some of you may remember his movie The Crying Game. It was a big hit in the United States. Jordan is Irish. He lives in Ireland, has a long list of movies he has directed, and also writes books. If you remember The Crying Game, you also remember the surprising — and mesmerizing and odd — conjunctions in it. In his work, we bump into unexpected sexual encounters, or there are twins who play tricks on us, which is to say that there is always something at least slightly strange, and this strangeness affects the reader deeply. Why? Because he hypnotizes us. No, he doesn’t make us walk into a wall or spill our life stories or do anything silly, but he rivets us to the book. We are fascinated, in the fullest definition of that word. This has always been true of his books. How does he pull it off? He assembles interesting casts of characters. He violates convention. And, maybe most significantly, he writes astonishingly beautiful prose. Prose that somehow wraps itself around the reader. Because the reader is enrapt, the reader cannot shake off the words that surround him. Or her. The reader is inside the book.
This was true even at the beginning of Jordan’s work. His first book, Nights in Tunisia: Stories, won both the Guardian Fiction Prize and the Somerset Maugham award. It was 1979 and he was in his 20s. From the beginning, he had a talent for describing characters almost viscerally. Here is the first sentence of the first story in Nights in Tunisia: “One white-hot Friday in June at some minutes after five o’clock a young builder’s laborer crossed an iron railway overpass, just off the Harrow Road.” The word “white-hot” immediately alerts us to what follows. It places us in the scene and at the same time alarms us, although we may not stop to register our alarm. In his next book, the novella titled The Dream of a Beast, is prefaced by a quotation from William Blake (who, now that I think of it, was surely an influence on Jordan) begins with this sentence: “When I came to notice it, it must have been going on for some time.” Instantly we ask: What is it? What on earth has been going on? Mystery is a vital part of all his work and has been so from his earliest writing days. The Dream of a Beast goes on to be ever more mysterious, and if you read it, you go on to finish it because this sense of mystery is as gripping as any popular thriller although it is miles away from being a popular thriller. He writes about “[s]mall hints in the organisation of the earth and air, the city.” Instead of tossing the book aside for being so strange, we find ourselves caught in what is strange, eager to read more.
The Dream of a Beast is one of my favorite books. It inspired me to write a story. It’s not that it led me to define a plot; on the contrary, it was the music of Jordan’s sentences that called up my story. I started writing in something like a daze. After a few paragraphs, I had to leave for a dentist appointment. When I returned home, I was still in the same daze — as if I’d been mesmerized — and completed my story. This was one of the oddest things that has ever happened to me, and I am grateful for it. Those of you who are reading this essay might want to read Jordan’s work; the same thing might happen to you, and if it doesn’t, you will have read some marvelous writing.
Can we call his work Kafkaesque? He certainly read Kafka. But Jordan’s mysteries are so precisely described, create such a detailed scene at every point, that they reach farther into our lives than Kafka could. Kafka shocks us into stillness; Jordan surprises us sneakily, making us want to read more.
“The dark had brushed all the gardens outside,” he writes. “Each lawn swam with what the rain had left and the cuttings of grass lay like moss upon the surface. I walked. I was watched only by the moon, which shone silver above me, swollen, as though it could contain any number of dreams.”
His sentences here are longer than most of those in Night in Tunisia. He has discovered that mystery enlivens the mind, makes it work. And it is the music his sentences make that lifts it up, up to a realm higher than mundane thrillers. And because of the music of these sentences, they linger in our minds far longer than any simple thriller does.
His fourth book, Shade, is a masterpiece. A woman who was brutally murdered by a mentally disordered veteran is the narrator of the book. Thus, we know from the beginning what the end will be. Remarkably, this does not detract us from a sense of suspense; in fact, I find the book suspenseful at every point.
A young girl with a lively imagination lives near the water. She has two friends more or less her age and the three play together throughout childhood. A fourth friend joins them when he movies into the girl’s house; he is her half-brother.
The author’s understanding of childhood is nothing short of miraculous. Maybe he draws on memory, or maybe it’s his use of detail that allows us to feel the characters’ childhood is real. And maybe he knows children because he has children. His children-characters recruit us quite quickly into to the book, buoyed by the Irish lilt in the author’s sentences and his characters’ complexity. For these characters, even in childhood, are complex, and the reader may hold his breath when the order of things, such as it is, changes into something different, as time always does.
The house was on a bend of the estuary of the river Boyne, close to where it entered the sea in a small delta of mudflats. There were unkempt gardens leading to the river’s tributary, over which a chestnut tree inclined, and her father attached two ropes to its sturdiest overhanging branch which he tied in turn to a small wooden swing. So Nina could swing, when the weather permitted, over the coal-black waters and glimpse the white caps of the waves on the ocean beyond, providing, that is, she swung high enough. There was a glasshouse to one side and a vegetable garden, the walls of which continued, along the roadside, to the banks of the river itself.
When we begin to write, our eagerness pushes us forward. We can’t wait to see the whole of what we have written. The difficulty is in writing everything that needs to be said in each sentence, paragraph, and scene. The paragraph above includes some information that will reveal its importance later in the novel. The reader quite naturally slows down to take in the paragraph, which is, co-equally, written with the patience only an older writer can achieve.
Shade will take you far away from the initial scenes to places that lie in wait. It would not be able to do this if the author were not patient and confident, confidence being that which makes it possible for the author to be patient.
We see that Jordan’s work has changed and expanded since the earlier works.
But his interest in deception and revelation, dark and light woven together, life inside and outside the norm, the one and the other, strengthens all his books and drafts all his readers into his books. The mystery consumes us and yet the mystery is simply life, earth and sky, sea and sand, female and male. What makes the mystery mysterious is his point of view, which is to say, his voice.
I say it again: voice is vision.
If you have not seen The Crying Game, get hold of a copy of the film. Without giving everything away, I’ll say that his grasp of humanity’s pain and separation has a lot to do with both his written and his cinematic work. He shed religion as he grew up, and his nonreligious views only make clearer the tenets of his heart, his acceptance of our entanglements and strivings, his comprehension of man’s plight. That’s what a grown-up novel does. That’s what Neil Jordan does. •
All images created by Emily Anderson.