the workings of a writer’s mind (and from whence one gets fodder)

 

 

‘why I like the game of baseball’

 

My essay “Why I Like the Game of Baseball”

 

Roger W. Smith, “Baseball: An appréciation”

 

 

is, in my humble opinion, up there with some of the best writings done on the sport. It amounts to a sort of appréciation of the game.

And to anyone who accuses me of boasting, I would say: Show me a better piece.

It has not gotten much readership. I submitted it to a couple of journals for publication without success. Recently, I started to try to get it in the hands of some well known sportswriters.

I have proofread and polished it many times, and think I have perfected it. Yet today, an inspiration for a slight addition came to me in a “tactile” fashion.

 

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I was walking in a local park. A man and a boy who looked to be a teenager were engaged in a batting practice session, the coronavirus epidemic notwithstanding.

The boy could hit! There was a screen behind him. With each pitch, he coiled himself and swung, and would launch a ball into the air that seemed to get lost. I could sense the adult, who was pitching, sort of sucking his breath in in admiration. A kid in the outfield was giving chase.

The boy had a metal bat. It was so satisfying to hear the ping each time he connected.

Right then and there, I changed the following paragraph in my baseball essay, adding the words in italics:

A baseball. The ball itself. Holding one in your hand. Idly tossing it. The shininess and hardness. The stitching. The delight of boys in having a new, white, shiny, unscuffed ball. The crack of a wooden bat (or the ping of a metal one) connecting with a ball and sending a fly well past the infield.

An auditory experience — something experiential and non-verbal — led to this tweaking of my piece.

 

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Writers derive inspiration from all sorts of places: things thought about, read, conversation, experience, and minute observation.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   March 26, 2020

prefab titles (“Love in the time of coronavirus”)

 

 
The following op-ed was published in last week’s Washington Post:

“Love in the time of coronavirus”

By Galen Guengerich

The Washington Post

March 14, 2020

 

 

The op-ed is thoughtful and well written. The only problem I have with it is the TITLE.

The title alludes to the novel Love in the Time of Cholera (El amor en los tiempos del cólera) by Gabriel García Márquez.

Someone who hasn’t read the novel might suppose that it is about a love affair occurring in desperate times — specially, a time of plague. This is not true.

 

According to a Wikipedia entry:

García Márquez’s main notion is that lovesickness is literally an illness, a disease comparable to cholera. Florentino suffers from this just as he might suffer from any malady. At one point, he conflates his physical pain with his amorous pain when he vomits after eating flowers in order to imbibe Fermina’s scent. In the final chapter, the Captain’s declaration of metaphorical plague is another manifestation of this.

The term cholera as it is used in Spanish, cólera, can also denote passion or human rage and ire in its feminine form. (The English adjective choleric has the same meaning.) Considering this meaning, the title is a pun: cholera as the disease, and cholera as passion, which raises the central question of the book: is love helped or hindered by extreme passion? The two men can be contrasted as the extremes of passion: one having too much, one too little; the central question of which is more conducive to love and happiness becomes the specific, personal choice that Fermina faces through her life. Florentino’s passionate pursuit of nearly countless women stands in contrast to Urbino’s clinical discussion of male anatomy on their wedding night. Urbino’s eradication of cholera in the town takes on the additional symbolic meaning of ridding Fermina’s life of rage, but also the passion. It is this second meaning to the title that manifests itself in Florentino’s hatred for Urbino’s marriage to Fermina, as well as in the social strife and warfare that serves as a backdrop to the entire story.

 

So the analogy is false.

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I’m tired of this kind of headline. It is, a priori, trite.

Well, what about writers who use boiler plate phrases taken from the works of famous writers, such as He doth protest too much (Shakespeare) or It concentrates the mind wonderfully (Samuel Johnson)?

I think this is something different. Yes, he doth protest too much is a shopworn clause. But it means something. It has been found, often, to perfectly fit what someone wants to say. Why? Because of Shakespeare’s genius for expression. Ditto for concentrates the mind wonderfully, which shows Johnson’s genius for aphorism.

Love in the time of cholera does none of these things.

 
— Roger W. Smith

   March 2020

 

 

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Addendum:

 

Since the above referenced Washington Post article appeared, there has been a plague of articles published — in various newspapers and in The Nation — with the same title.

flawed premise; a weak lead

 

 

 

“At least Emperor Nero supposedly only fiddled while Rome burned; he didn’t tell the Romans that the fire was no big deal.”

 

— Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times, March 12 2020

 

 

 

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Yes, we get the point. But, a flawed premise and a weak lead.

That Nero fiddled during the Great Fire of Rome is merely a legend, not reported in ancient historical sources; and these sources differ about many aspects of Nero’s tyrannical reign. Kristof’s “supposedly” is required, but weakens an already weak lead.

 
— Roger W. Smith

   March 2020

sacrilege

 

1

2

 

Gloria in excelsis Deo
et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.

Glory to God in the highest.
and peace to his people on earth.

 

— “Gloria,” Beethoven, Mass in C Major; translation, Carnegie Hall program notes; performance by Orchestra of St. Luke’s, March 5, 2010

 

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NO — “to his people on earth” is deliberately wrong.

How can one — why would one — mistranslate unambiguous words from the Latin mass? It is

Glory to God in the highest.
and peace on earth to MEN OF GOOD WILL.

Men of good will is not a “generic” phrase. It means something. To men (yes, men) of good will.

Words have a literal meaning and a connotation. Here it is the literal meaning that is in question. In my mind, these beautiful words always have evoked the thought of a community of well-meaning people, of benevolent spirits. But the anonymous translator here (read, verbal axe-wielder) has substituted the anodyne “his people on earth,” e.g., earthlings. Presumably for the sake of political correctness. This strips the phrase of its meaning.

I am offended, deeply so, that someone would change the text of a beautiful mass by Beethoven, the text of the Latin mass which has existed for over four centuries.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   March 6, 2020

descriptive passages; active versus passive

 

“Use the active voice.”

— William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, Third Edition

 

I came across the following clause in Chapter XI of The Sun Also Rises, which I am currently reading: “There were cattle grazing back in the trees.”

As opposed to “Cattle were grazing back in the trees.”

I thought about Strunk and White’s dictum to use the active voice where there is a choice between active and passive. Ernest Hemingway was known for direct, vigorous writing. Why did he choose to use a passive construction? With a writer like Hemingway, you know it was a deliberate, conscious choice.

What I would say in regard to questions (choices) like this, is that it is often a matter of ear. Sometimes the passive voice is desirable, preferable. Hemingway was conveying the idea that cattle grazing on the side of a mountain was something perceived passively, so to speak, by the narrator. The cattle were there.

 

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Let’s look at the entire passage (from The Sun Also Rises).

The bus climbed steadily up the road. The country was barren and rocks stuck up through the clay. There was no grass beside the road. Looking back we could see the country spread out below. Far back the fields were squares of green and brown on the hillsides. Making the horizon were the brown mountains. They were strangely shaped. As we climbed higher the horizon kept changing. As the bus ground slowly up the road we could see other mountains coming up in the south. Then the road came over the crest, flattened out, and went into a forest. It was a forest of cork oaks, and the sun came through the trees in patches, and there were cattle grazing in back in the trees. We went through the forest and the road came out and turned along a rise of land, and out ahead of us was a rolling green plain, with dark mountains beyond it. These were not like the brown, heat-baked mountains we had left behind. These were wooded and there were clouds coming down from them. The green plain stretched off. It was cut by the fences and the white of the road showed through the trunks of a double line of trees that crossed the plain toward the north. As we came to the edge of the rise we saw the red roofs and while houses of Burguete ahead strung out on the plain. and away off on the shoulder of the first dark mountain was the gray metal-sheathed roof of the monastery of Roncesvalles.

This is a beautiful passage and an excellent example of descriptive prose (in a novel). Sometimes less is more, as readers of Hemingway well know. I was reminded of the visual and other arts (e.g., music) of Hemingway’s time. And, for example, of the woodcut prints of Utagawa Hiroshige.

Compare the following paragraphs from Book Two, Chapter V of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy:

It was thus that, strolling west along River Street on which were a number of other kinds of factories, and then north through a few other streets that held more factories–tinware, wickwire, a big vacuum carpet cleaning plant, a rug manufacturing company, and the like–that he came finally upon a miserable slum, the like of which, small as it was, he had not seen outside of Chicago or Kansas City. He was so irritated and depressed by the poverty and social angularity and crudeness of it–all spelling but one thing, social misery, to him–that he at once retraced his steps and recrossing the Mohawk by a bridge farther west soon found himself in an area which was very different indeed–a region once more of just such homes as he had been admiring before he left for the factory. And walking still farther south, he came upon that same wide and tree-lined avenue–which he had seen before–the exterior appearance of which alone identified it as the principal residence thoroughfare of Lycurgus. It was so very broad and well-paved and lined by such an arresting company of houses. At once he was very much alive to the personnel of this street, for it came to him immediately that it must be in this street very likely that his uncle Samuel lived. The houses were nearly all of French, Italian or English design, and excellent period copies at that, although he did not know it.

Impressed by their beauty and spaciousness, however, he walked along, now looking at one and another, and wondering which, if any, of these was occupied by his uncle, and deeply impressed by the significance of so much wealth. How superior and condescening his cousin Gilbert must feel, walking out of some such place as this in the morning.

Then pausing before one which, because of trees, walks, newly-groomed if bloomless flower beds, a large garage at the rear, a large fountain to the left of the house as he faced it, in the center of which was a boy holding a swan in his arms, and to the right of the house one lone cast iron stag pursued by some cast iron dogs, he felt especially impelled to admire, and charmed by the dignity of this place, which was a modified form of old English, he now inquired of a stranger who was passing–a middle-aged man of a rather shabby working type, “Whose house is that, mister?” and the man replied: “Why, that’s Samuel Griffiths’ residence. He’s the man who owns the big collar factory over the river.”

At once Clyde straightened up, as though dashed with cold water. His uncle’s! His residence! Then that was one of his automobiles standing before the garage at the rear there. And there was another visible through the open door of the garage.

 

Dreiser is not painting word-pictures, It’s all basically exposition. The ‘descriptive” details serve one purpose, and one purpose only.

River Street was in the poor part of town with factories and slums. Clyde’s uncle’s residence was in the rich section. He was “charmed by the dignity of this place [his uncle’s], which was a modified form of old English.” This tells us really nothing about what the place looked like. He made an inquiry of “a stranger who was passing–a middle-aged man of a rather shabby working type.” This could describe any number of working class men; it tells us nothingabout what the man looked like.

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   March 2020

with thanks to my brother Pete Smith for encouraging me to read some more Hemingway; and for pointing out stylistic differences between Hemingway and Dreiser

 

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Addendum:

 

To be fair, it should be noted that Strunk and White also say that the active versus passive rule “does not … mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.” But the examples they give of sentences where the passive is desirable are of academic-type writing, not of narration and pithy sentences such as one would see in fiction. They state:

The habitual use of the active voice … makes for forcible writing. This is true … in narrative concerned principally with action. …

They give as an example “Dead leaves covered the ground.” and state that “[W]hen a sentence is made stronger [through use of the active voice], it usually becomes shorter. Thus, brevity is a by-product of vigor.”

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Addendum:

 

In a recent post of mine

“a red cord thing”

“a red cord thing”

I wrote:

English is a marvelously fertile and flexible language, rich in nuance. New ways of saying things in non-formal speech are always being come up with.

The concluding clause was remarked upon by a reader of the post, who found it to be awkward. In response to a comment, in an exchange we had, I wrote:

I could have written something like “People are constantly coming up with new ways of saying things,” but I wanted to avoid there being a subject-actor, so the passive construction works. “New ways of saying things” is the subject of the sentence and is at the beginning, emphasizing this (new says of saying things), and “being come up with” is at the end (passive construction).

 

hiroshige_travellers_on_a_mountain_path_along_the_coast

a Hiroshige print

What is the difference between downtrodden and downcast?

 

 

In the courtroom, Weinstein, leaning over his walker, looked downtrodden after conferring with his lawyers about the developments. Later, in the hallway, the once-powerful movie producer shrugged and stayed silent as reporters shouted questions about the jury indications.

 

— “Harvey Weinstein jury suggests it’s deadlocked on two counts, unanimous on others in sexual assault case,” by Shayna Jacobs, The Washington Post, February 21, 2020

 

 

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downtrodden

oppressed or treated badly by people in power.

EXAMPLE: Christian churches had a custom of placing metal boxes outside their doors on this day to collect cash and gifts for the downtrodden.

 

downcast

low in spirit, dejected

 

 

The reporter should have used downcast.

 

 
— Roger W. Smith

   February 2020

 

The infinitve is infinite.

 

 

 

In a text I bought for my German course, Basic German: A Grammar and Workbook, 2nd Edition, by Heiner Schenke, Anna Miell, and Karen Seago, pg. 7, it says:

A verb with a personal ending — e.g., Woher kommst du? Ich wohne in Frankfurt, Woher kommst du? — is called a finite verb. This is in contrast to the infinitive form of verbs.

 

I never knew.

 
In other words, a verb when used with a subject and tense — we speak, they spoke, English is spoken — is finite, determinate; there is definite action, occurrence.

But, yes, Shakespeare can write to be or not to be, but to be is timeless, so to speak. But, I was satisfied — this refers to the past and an actual point on time, whether specified or not.

 

 

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I love learning new things. In the category of learning “I never knew that.” Something simple that should have been obvious, but that for me represents a discovery.

When you learn it, some fundamental that increases overall understanding is now part of your mental repertoire.

 

— Roger W. Smith

    February 2020

“a red cord thing”

 

 

Waiting for an elevator with me at 826 Broadway on February 13 last week there were two women who were chatting.

We were all going to a concert of medieval music in the Strand Bookstore’s rare book room. I had entered at the Strand’s main entrance next door, at 826 Broadway. I had bought a book that looked very interesting: Wordsworth’s Classical Undersong: Education, Rhetoric and Poetic Truth by Richard W. Clancey. The subject matter fits right in with the focus of this blog. I often find interesting books at the Strand by serendipity.

One of the women said to the other that (as I had experienced) she could not get to the Strand rare book room by entering at the store’s main entrance and walking up or taking the elevator from there to the third floor, as I had tried to do. (The nonfiction books on literature are in the basement, a usual first stop form  me.) She said to her interlocutor: “They have a red cord thing” blocking passage to the rare book room from the main store and that therefore she had recognized you had to take the elevator (as we were doing at that moment) next door.

That’s a redundancy, I thought to myself. I am always “proofreading” and “editing” people’s speech (including broadcasters’ and newspaper reporters’) whenever I detect what I am sure is a grammar error or infelicity of style.

Or is it redundant? I thought.

She could have said, as an English teacher would probably so correct a student’s sentence to: There was a red cord blocking the door. Or, A red cord was blocking the door.

But “red cord thing” actually conveys her meaning very well. For she wasn’t certain whether it was a cord (a piece of rope), a string, tape, or whatever. But something resembling a cord such as one sees in a rope line or tape blocking access to accident and crime scenes, something red, was blocking access.

Young women whom one constantly hears chatting on their cell phones often get made fun of by grammar snobs such as myself for using like constantly as an intensifier or qualifier. He seemed like about to go crazy; or, I saw a guy who was like riding a bike with no hands.

English is a marvelously fertile and flexible language, rich in nuance. New ways of saying things in non-formal speech are always being come up with. Such as the use (perhaps overuse) of the all-purpose like as an adverb, and many expressions that convey the meaning exactly, but who would of thought of them before they were invented, e.g., couch potato and soccer mom.

 

 

–Roger W. Smith

  February 2020

The mind yearns for completion.

 

A reader of one of my posts wrote to me that the essays of Johnson, Addison, and Steele “are well worth reading, … but their style is clearly dated.”

I wonder.

 

Reading some of Samuel Johnson’s miscellaneous writings today, I was thinking to myself (as I often do) how clearly written they are and how they provide models for good writing.

Yes, there are anachronisms in usage — certainly in spelling (as well as conventions in capitalization and hyphenation) — as well as vocabulary in Johnson’s writings, and in those of Addison and Steele, whose essays provided a model for Johnson’s.

Here is an example from one of Steele’s essays:

An Author, when he first appears in the World, is very apt to believe it has nothing to think of but his Performances. With a good Share of this Vanity in my Heart, I made it my Business these three Days to listen after my own Fame; and, as I have sometimes met with Circumstances which did not displease me, I have been encountered by others which gave me much Mortification. It is incredible to think how empty I have in this time observed some Part of the Species to be, what mere Blanks they are when they first come abroad in the Morning, how utterly they are at a Stand, until they are set a going by some Paragraph in a News-Paper: Such Persons are very acceptable to a young Author, for they desire no more (in anything) but to be new, to be agreeable. If I found Consolation among such, I was as much disquieted by the Incapacity of others. These are Mortals who have a certain Curiosity without Power of Reflection, and perused my Papers like Spectators rather than Readers.

But there is so little Pleasure in Enquiries that so nearly concern our selves (it being the worst Way in the World to Fame, to be too anxious about it), that upon the whole I resolv’d for the future to go on in my ordinary Way; and without too much Fear or Hope about the Business of Reputation, to be very careful of the Design of my Actions, but very negligent of the Consequences of them.

— Richard Steele, The Spectator No. 4, Monday, March 5, 1711

This seems to be a specimen of clear, straightforward, and plain good writing. Does such writing go out of fashion?

 

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In a different vein — but also, to provide a specimen from Johnson — here is a brief passage from a book review by Samuel Johnson from my reading today:

He [Joseph Warton] mentions, with great regard, [Alexander] Pope’s ode on solitude, written when he was but twelve years old, but omits to mention the poem on silence, composed, I think, as early, with much greater elegance of diction, music of numbers, extent of observation, and force of thought. [italics added]

— Samuel Johnson, review of Joseph Warton, An Essay on the Writings and Genius of Pope, Literary Magazine (1756)

The concluding sequence of four phrases is an example of why Johnson’s writings merit study on stylistic grounds. On account — in this example — of excellence of phrasing, parallelism, and how pleasing to the ear, how euphonious, such wording is.

One phrase follows another, forming an integrated whole. A thought or concept clearly and forcefully expressed. The words strike home.

The mind yearns for completion. In Johnson, this is usually achieved.

It is very much like a cluster of notes in music, when notes follow and build on those before, when they not only fit together, cohere, but provide a sense of resolution.

 

— Roger W. Smith

  February 9, 2020

how to make things admirably clear

 

 

Re:

 

“A Deal That Has Two Elections, Rather Than Mideast Peace, as Its Focus; The Israeli-Palestinian peace plan unveiled by President Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sounds more like a road map for their own futures than for the Middle East.”

by David E. Sanger

The New York Times. January 28, 2020

 

 

 

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My English teacher, Mr. Tighe, would be proud of a paper as well written as this. It exhibits masterful observance of the three core principles of expository writing: unity, coherence, and emphasis (meaning that the key points emerge clearly).

The details and quotes are stitched together with consummate skill. The organization and logic are impeccable, and the thrust of the piece is admirably clear.

I once wrote a reference book article on the British historian A. J. P. Taylor. It was approximately 2,600 words long. My former therapist, Dr. Ralph Colp, Jr., who was always eager to read my writings (he was a writer himself), said that there was not “a single wasted word” in the article. Without comparing myself to Mr. Sanger, I would say that the same is true of his piece.

This may seem like a routine job of reporting. It was written on the spot–at the moment. It could serve as a model for students of journalism and in English classes as well.

 

Roger W. Smith

   January 2020