A writer constantly risks his/her working mind on the page.
I just read a wonderful eleventh century book, The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu which has been beautifully translated by Royal Tylor, and I was amazed by the literary depth of knowledge presented from this old culture. As the anthropologists would identify this culture, it is a collectivistic culture. In such a culture the history, community experience, and language combine as the focal point of perception for each member of the culture, creating a lens by which to view a common reality. Consequently, one word in such a community based reality can carry expansive connotative meaning, and thus the language is heavier and presents a much deeper and broader breadth of meaning than that of an individualistic culture. We, of the United States, live in an individualistic culture where language has thin meaning.
In this eleventh century culture much of the communication was done via poetry. But to understand the messages of this poetry the collectivistic knowledge was needed, so, in effect, this culture propagated poetry as a multilayered message medium. Amazingly, each element—even outside of the actual written poem, and within, held elements of collectivistic meaning. The very type of paper, or not paper, on which the poem was written held cultural meaning: grey Korean paper, pink, white, red paper, quality of paper, or tree bark (what type of tree bark), or the poem tied to a tree branch, and many more elements of the message, all presented connotative elemental meaning in the poem’s message. This elemental construct was intertwined within the depth of literary allusion used in the language of the poem. So, therefore, to comprehend a poem the reader must have an expansive knowledge of literature, the history of literature, the cultural intrinsically relatedness of the literature, actual real-life ritual events, all of which were melded by literary allusions.
Even the style or plainness of the painted characters (letters) on the purposefully chosen medium added to the meaning (message) of the poem. The writer’s intent was presented by the care, style, or lack of care in the painted characters. The choice of language for the poem too added specific cultural allusion and connotative meaning.
This is amazing in comparison to our modern culture where the newspaper reading grade level is as low as fifth grade, but not higher than a ninth grade reading level. So what does that say to the modern writer who is trying to produce language art in a possibly dying medium? I propose that to be a writer, one must fully join the collectivistic culture of literature.
For one to become a language artist through this collectivistic literature culture, the apprentice writer would base this educational growth on three tenets: constant reading, constant language art practice, and the deep understanding of the human experience. All of these must be intertwined within a higher level intellect. W. E. Auden offers in The Dyer’s Hand this education for the apprentice writer:
In my daydream College for Bards, the curriculum would be as follows: (1) In addition to English, at least one ancient language, probably Greek or Hebrew, and two modern languages would be required. (2) Thousands of lines of poetry in these languages would be learned by heart. (3) The library would contain no books of literary criticism, and the only critical exercises required of students would be the writing of parodies. (4) Courses in prosody, rhetoric and comparative philology would be required of all students, and every student would have to select three courses out of courses in mathematics, natural history, geology, meteorology, archeology, mythology, liturgics, cooking,. (5) Every student would be required to look after a domestic animal and cultivate a garden plot.
So in this master writer’s mind the craft of writing is accepted as having been mastered prior to entering this proposed writers’ school. Mastery of the craft of writing is merely the knowing of how to place the kindling sticks by which the fire of the language art is ignited to create the visual, transitional art of literature. For as Alexander Pope so eloquently says in his poem, “Sound and Sense”: “True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, / As those move easiest who have learned to dance.”
Taking this basic knowledge as a part of the writer’s active brain, then, in our collectivistic literature culture, one must read, read, read the many masters to understand how they built their acknowledged language art. James Joyce, as interpreted by Joseph Campbell, offers the elements of what Joyce calls “True Art.” He suggests that true art is a static, enchanting moment for the viewer. This enchanting art has the harmony of part to part and parts to whole, creating a true rhythm of beauty. This artistic construction then could lead the viewer from the self (ego) to a level of consciousness called sublimeness. Much like in Pope’s metaphor one must read, read, read the masters as to see how they worked this harmonious dance of part to part and parts to whole in a comprehensive construct of language art/dance. In the human experience of life and art, language art is a surging river of power, flowing from creation to creation to creation to creation to you and your next true art creation.
This reading knowledge is then symbiotic with the knowledge of literary allusion and the recognition of human experience. Look at how Shakespeare’s “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” is still prevalent in our culture of fifth to ninth grade level newspaper readers. How long has it been since you’ve heard in a common dialogue quotes from Shakespeare’s fantastic tragedy: “Something’s rotten in Denmark,” “Nether borrower nor lender be,” “. . . the lady doth protest too much,” or the most powerful of all universally common human values, “To be, or not to be: that is the question.”
Universal Human Value is the center cord of the musical instrument of the harmonious rhythm of literature. When captured in language art it allows any human on earth to connect with the theme (message) and to recognize language art as the window/mirror of humanity. Can you, who wants to be a true language artist—to reach for the master’s level, join this collectivistic culture of literature—to learn beyond the self–to become focused in multifaceted literary allusions–to dance in the comprehensive language art of life? Can you climb into your craft and rise to crest a wave in the river of language art? Sapere Aude.