Tag Archives: Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman: simplicity and complexity

 

 

“No one makes craft, carefully wrought, seem more casual than Walt Whitman.”

 

— Richard Rhodes, How to Write: Advice and Reflections (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1995), pg. 12

 

 

 

A former friend of mine, the poet Charles Pierre, made a comment to me — I wish I could remember exactly what he said — to the effect that Walt Whitman is actually very difficult. Difficult for the reader, that is. That he presents a level of difficulty that requires acute understanding of? I think Pierre would have said: an understanding of what Whitman is doing; of his poetic technique; of his originality, poetic genius, and ingenuity. That Whitman, who seems on the surface so simple, is not really simple.

And yet, I find Whitman to be easy to become acquainted with and comprehend without necessarily being (as in the case of myself) expert at poetry. I “got” his poetry almost right away.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   February 2019

the ABUSE of bad words

 

 

Pee. Shit. Fart. Fuck.

I recently went to a doctor for a checkup. He asked me how frequently I urinated. He cautioned me: “Don’t drink water in the evening and before you go to bed. If you don’t drink water, you won’t wake up so often during the night because you need to pee.”

He’s a professional. An MD. Couldn’t he have said urinate?

I used to see a therapist who was from an older generation. He was careful about language. He was a writer of books and articles about Charles Darwin. He wrote a book about Darwin’s medical history and an illness the latter suffered from for most of his life that was never diagnosed and may have been psychosomatic. He noted that Darwin often suffered from flatulence. That was the right word to use for the context.

 

 

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Now we have the “pee tape.”

As discussed in an op-ed piece in yesterday’s New York Times.

 

“Lordy, Is There a Tape?”

By Michelle Goldberg

Op-Ed

The New York Times

April 16, 2018

 

Whatever you think of the former F.B.I. director James Comey, he has started a long overdue national conversation about whether the pee tape is real.

“I don’t know whether the current president of the United States was with prostitutes peeing on each other in Moscow in 2013,” Comey said in his hotly anticipated interview with George Stephanopoulos on Sunday night. “It’s possible, but I don’t know.”

Comey was referring, of course, to a claim in the dossier about Donald Trump’s ties to Russia compiled by the British ex-spy Christopher Steele. While in Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant in 2013, Trump reserved the Ritz-Carlton’s presidential suite, where Barack and Michelle Obama had stayed previously. Citing multiple anonymous sources, Steele reported that Trump had prostitutes defile the bed where the Obamas slept by urinating on it, and that the Kremlin had recordings. …

Like Comey, none of us know what really happened at the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow, and we may never find out. As outlandish as the rumor is, however, the idea that Trump would shy away from good press out of principle is far more so. To seriously discuss this presidency, you have to open your mind to the truly obscene.

And so on.

 

 

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The whole discussion makes me feel uncomfortable. I am not interested in what happened in a hotel room in Moscow.

So does the use of words such as pee in connection with the President or, generally, in formal discourse.

The pungent Anglo-Saxon words we have in our language are an essential part of it. In private conversation, in situations that call for explicitness or frankness, sometimes (if not often) in literature, occasionally in public, such words are not inappropriate and are called for. They certainly shouldn’t be banned, any more than one should, say, try to pretend that parts of the human body do not exist. (Such non-evasiveness was steadfastly maintained by Walt Whitman over a century and a half ago.)

Such words can be effective in private or in public when used sometimes for emphasis or shock value. They can liven up a conversation. (At other times, they can deaden it.) Using pee or shit, say, in conversation where there is a familiar relationship already and politeness or restraint is not required; using fuck for emphasis at times. Salty sailor’s talk is not necessarily out of bounds.

But such words often become overused, or are used inappropriately in public or in the wrong contexts and situations when they are more likely than not to cause embarrassment or discomfort, and where a more polite (usually Latinate) alternative exists. And, their overuse can cheapen discourse, or deaden the impact of a potentially powerful word such as fuck, which one sometimes hears repeated over and over again to the point where it becomes annoying to the ear, just as a too loud, monotonous, second rate rock band can.

And some words — such as fart — can sometimes make you squirm, make one feel downright uncomfortable.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   April 18, 2018

Vocabulary: Building and Using One’s Own; The Delight of Same; Its Value to a Writer

 

 

‘vocabulary building’ – updated December 2018

 

 

The following are some exchanges about VOCABULARY (no less) that I have had recently, via email, with friends and relatives, with persons who share my interests, and with readers of my blog.

 

 
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Roger W. Smith, email to a relative (to whom I was writing about my habit of walking):

 

I just Googled peregrinations. It was absolutely right. I’m impressed with my own vocabulary! I rarely seem to use the wrong word. And you thought Muhammed Ali was boastful!

 
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Roger W. Smith, email to Thomas P. Riggio, a Theodore Dreiser scholar:

 

I love to learn new words. There is one in the article you sent me: mite. [The article was about a late nineteenth century chaplain who used to solicit money for the homeless in New York City.] It usually means an arachnid (a small one). But it also has another connotation, and is just the right word for the context in the article you sent me — it’s the perfect word here. Among the meanings of the word mite are a very small contribution or amount of money. I love when words are used with such precision, and when a writer nails it. It demonstrates the power a good vocabulary can invest in a writer.

 

 

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Roger W. Smith, email to Clare Bruyère, a scholar and friend who lives in France:

 

I have always been assiduous about vocabulary. People tell me I have an excellent one.

I was reading a 1971 article in The New York Times Book Review by Edward Dahlberg (d. 1977), an American novelist, essayist and autobiographer, the other day. He uses a slew of words unknown to me.

His vocabulary is impressive, to put it mildly. He used quite a few words I had never seen before, and others that I was only faintly acquainted with. And, he used them all absolutely correctly.

Words used by Dahlberg, all in the same article: “mulligrubs” (ill temper; colic; grumpiness); “slubbered” (performed in a slipshod fashion); “scatophagous” (said here of Rabelais; means habitually feeding on dung, e.g., a scatophagous beetle); “musky” (of or like musk, i.e., the odor of same; a musky perfume; connotation: pungent); “exsanguinous” (adjective; means destitute of blood or apparently so; synonym: bloodless); “the sherds in the Mount Sinai Desert” (a sherd, or more precisely, potsherd, is commonly a historic or prehistoric fragment of pottery, although the term is occasionally used to refer to fragments of stone and glass vessels, as well; occasionally, a piece of broken pottery may be referred to as a shard); “scribble addle words” (addle: adjective, archaic; means rotten; said of an egg); “scullion reviewers” (noun, archaic: a servant assigned the most menial kitchen tasks); “Shakespeare scholiasts” (a scholiast is a commentator on ancient or classical literature); “cully” (noun; British; archaic, informal: a man, friend); “our wormy, desiccated subway” (wormy: adjective; said of organic tissue; means infested with or eaten into by worms; or of wood or a wooden object, full of holes made by woodworm; when said of a person, means weak, abject, or revolting).

 

 
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Roger W. Smith, email to the Tim Robinson, editor of Penguin edition of J. M. Synge’s The Aran Islands:

 

Your introduction was so pithy and informative, so well researched and insightful. Your impressive vocabulary alone was worth the trip. I kept jotting down words and expressions such as immiserated, nucleate, impercipient, immiscible, detrital, excursus, “inanimate vastitude,” and so forth.

 
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email from a reader of this blog:
Frequently, the phrases you use make you sound pompous. A good example is the ironic “sans redundancy” comment in your email of yesterday. Is there something wrong with the word “without”?

 
my reply:

 

“Sans” was used playfully (as you realize). Using another word unexpectedly can sometimes enliven a piece, amuse the reader, perhaps help to keep the reader awake, and sometimes help to nail a point. Foreign words can often be used for effect, variation, to amuse the reader, or to keep him on his toes.

For example, “trottoir,” as you know, is the French word for sidewalk. Walt Whitman, who was not actually well versed in foreign languages, loved to use foreign words on occasion, mostly French ones. (“Trottoirs throng’d, vehicles, Broadway” is a line from Whitman’s poem “Mannahatta”.) He has been faulted for this. Some people can’t realize that one is not required to always say “sidewalk” when another word might be substituted. For various reasons, including a delight in language. The other day in a blog post, I asked, “are big words verboten in writing?” Obviously, I could have used prohibited. I was using the German equivalent playfully, with irony.

 
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email from a reader of this blog:

As for vocabulary, I don’t question your accuracy and knowledge, but sometimes question your choice. Why not “indigenous” instead of “autochthonous” in your Dreiser post? The two words mean essentially the same thing and your readers would have more easily gotten your point with the more commonly used word.

 

my reply:

I see your point, but one often strains to find the mot juste. Autochthonous was the best choice. There’s nothing wrong with challenging the reader. I love it when writers such as Edward Dahlberg challenge me and increase my stockpile of words. Simplicity is a virtue, but simplification because many or most readers haven’t encountered a word before is not necessarily required. William F. Buckley, Jr. could be pedantic and a showoff, but I actually liked the way he used big, arcane words. He used them well (as did Samuel Johnson two centuries earlier). Big words and arcane or archaic ones should not, a priori, be avoided; it depends on the context. Autochthonous was the perfect word to describe Dreiser. It takes years of reading and of looking up words to know and be able to use such not commonly used words when appropriate.
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email from a reader of this blog:

You often try to use inflated vocabulary words in your quest to dazzle.

 

 

My hypothetical response (I didn’t actually send it):

I do have an impressive vocabulary, now that you mention it. I use it well: a big word when called for, often a simple one.

 

 
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Roger W. Smith, email to two close acquaintances:

 

I ran across the word “portentous” in a book this evening.

 

portentous

adjective

1. of or like a portent

“portentous signs”

synonyms: ominous, warning, premonitory, threatening, menacing, ill-omened, foreboding, inauspicious, unfavorable

2. done in a pompously or overly solemn manner so as to impress.

“portentous moralizings; portentous dialogue”

synonyms: pompous, bombastic, self-important, pontifical, solemn, sonorous, grandiloquent

 

pretentious

adjective

1. attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc., than is actually possessed.

“a pretentious literary device”

synonyms: affected, ostentatious, showy

 

Portentous is more or less a new word for me. It’s hard to keep the two (portentous vs. pretentious) straight.

 

 
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How I Built a Good Vocabulary

 

Any language expert or English teacher will tell you: A good vocabulary is developed only by reading, not from conversation.

There is another obvious factor, which certainly pertains in my case: I have always assiduously looked up words. I began to cultivate the habit early and have never stopped, so that if I don’t look up a word, I feel a sense of something being neglected. My high school English teacher, Mr. Tighe, used to repeat the mantra: look up a word three times and it’s yours.

I still look up words conscientiously, including ones of which I may have a prior idea as to their meaning and those whose meaning I may be able to guess from the context. I want to nail their meaning down, be precise. (For a writer, this is invaluable.) And, then, I am interested in etymologies. I like to learn the origins of words. Doing so can help one remember what they mean. An example is juggernaut, meaning a huge, powerful, and overwhelming force or institution — it’s a word I learned long ago. An example of its use might be “The Trump juggernaut swept him into office.” The origin of juggernaut is fascinating. From an online etymological dictionary:

juggernaut: An idea, custom, fashion, etc., that demands either blind devotion or merciless sacrifice. A figurative use of Juggernaut, “a huge wagon bearing an image of the god Krishna,” especially that at the town of Puri, drawn annually in procession during which (apocryphally) devotees allowed themselves to be crushed under its wheels in sacrifice. [The word comes from Sanskrit.]

 

 

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Argot and Foreign Words; the King’s English

 

An ear for slang helps when it comes to vocabulary acquisition — it helps, say, to know what wannabe or gladhandler means — as well as a readiness to converse with others from different backgrounds, cultures, and of different ethnicities (including foreigners). Foreign languages have their own words that don’t translate (ennui, bête noir). And, of course, there are the fabulous Yiddish words, which I never heard in my native New England, words such as klutz, kvetsh, mentsh, meshuga, shlep, shlemiel, tchotchke, and yenta.

Foreign language study and knowledge, of course, help greatly, especially a knowledge of Greek and Latin. It was a commonplace when I was in high school that Latin would provide a good foundation for learning English words and their meanings, as well as a basis for the study of other languages (and of grammar). I found this to be true. I have always wished that I could have learned Greek.

It goes without saying that being a native English speaker (born, as was my case, to native English speakers) is a huge advantage. I grew up imbibing the King’s English like my mother’s milk.

 

 

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Vocabulary as a Tool on the Writer’s Workbench

 

Having an excellent vocabulary increases — exponentially as more and more new words are acquired — one’s mastery as a writer.

Vocabulary gives a writer power. Words assist and go along with complexity of thought.

It’s something akin to a composer mastering different modes and tonalities or scales, or, say, tone color, so that a piece can be scored for different instruments used for maximum effect at various places in the score. When is a particular chord appropriate? Which key? Considerations of timbre, pitch, tonality, resonance all require prior knowledge, familiarity. In the same manner, a writer has to be familiar with words beforehand and to have a store he or she can draw upon. It’s too late to start looking them up in a thesaurus; if one doesn’t already know them, one won’t feel comfortable using them.

As vocabulary increases, precision of thought increases. More subtle distinctions can be made. There are a zillion ways, for example, to say that someone is shifty and manipulative. Which is the right one? To repeat: vocabulary permits ever more subtle distinctions to be made. In describing people, situations, emotions, ideas, and so forth.

When writing, I don’t like to use words that I don’t already know. They have to already be in my quiver, my “word silo” (to mix metaphors). I do not make it a practice to seek, look up, a new (for me) word and then use it so as to (among other things) impress others with my vocabulary. But, I will admit that, lately, when I am searching for a word, I will look for synonyms on the internet. What’s the best way to say desperate? I may know that there’s a better word for my purposes, but I can’t think of it. It helps to see a list of alternative choices. But I won’t use a word that I don’t already know. I have to have a “comfort level” with the word in question.

In the case of autochthonous, which I used to describe Theodore Dreiser, the word came to mind, somehow. It was lodged in my brain. I wasn’t sure if I had used it correctly. I looked it up, and sure enough, it seemed like just the right word. Do you think before a composer sits down to write a piece, that, at that moment, he opens a music theory text or songbook to look for melodies, chords, or styles? Of course not. They’ve got to already be in his brain, so to speak. This requires extensive experience on the part of the composer with music as a listener (as a student, so to speak; as an active listener to the works of composers from various periods representing a wide variety of styles). The same thing is crucial in writing, namely, extensive reading on the part of the writer, and what goes with it: the assimilation not only of styles but also of words.

What I find is that, if the word is there somewhere, which is to say in my mental “word silo,” then fortuitous choices get made. You often chose words almost by instinct or gut feeling; you have the option of going back and checking later to (which I often do) to make sure you have used the word correctly. But, having words already there in your mental storehouse makes it a lot of fun to write, feeling very pleased with yourself when the right one pops into your head, and you, think, “Got it! That’s perfect.” It’s mentally pleasurable. It’s actually a matter of ear, just as is the case with composers. People think vocabulary is drudgery, something you have to learn by rote to get a good SAT score. Actually, words are very much part of the creative process — the writing process, that is — an essential ingredient.

We have all had the experience in conversation of sort of reaching for a word. It’s there somewhere; we want to grab it out of thin air. So we can nail a thought.

When one does so, there is a palpable sense of satisfaction; the opposite, frustration, is the case when the word eludes us. When it comes to colloquy, arguments, political debate, rejoinders, irony, sarcasm, and the like, vocabulary is a definite factor and can make or break the speaker or writer. If the expression rapier wit connotes sharpness, then a good vocabulary will sharpen the blade while a limited vocabulary will blunt it.

 

 

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Dictionaries

 

I have to have a dictionary at hand when I read. For years, I have kept replacing my dictionary due to its being battered, the spine broken and the cover torn from use. I would always buy the same one: Webster’s New World College Dictionary. It has clear, lucid, well written definitions and good etymologies. There are a lot of Americanisms. The dictionary provides sensitive guidance on usage, unlike the infamous Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1961).

My Webster’s New World contains entries for all the words I ever need to look up; there has hardly ever been an exception. I never cared for unabridged dictionaries or found them useful. I purchased one, The Random House Unabridged Dictionary, from a book club once and found that I almost never used it. It seemed to me that the dictionary’s bulk was a product of having all sorts of variant forms of the same word listed as separate entries and including entries for lots of technical and specialized vocabulary used in fields such as aeronautics or organic chemistry, say, that the ordinary reader would never need to look up. And, anyway, I much prefer the clear, well written definitions in Webster’s New World.

 

 
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Newspeak

 

 

Is a writer is obliged to always use the most common, simplest word?

No. Thank God such a rule isn’t enforced.

A point made by one of my readers to this effect — i.e., that the simpler, more common alternative should be chosen (see above) — has gotten me to think about the analogy with Newspeak. In George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, Newspeak is the official language of Oceania.

Syme, who is working on the Eleventh Edition of the Newspeak dictionary, tells Winston Smith:

It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take “good”, for instance. If you have a word like ‘good’, what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well–better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of ‘good’, what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like “excellent” and “splendid” and all the rest of them? ‘Plusgood’ covers the meaning, or ‘doubleplusgood’ if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already. but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words–in reality, only one word. Don’t you see the beauty of that, Winston?

(See fuller excerpt below.)

Note: I am not against the use of plain, simple, and common words a priori. The important thing, in my opinion, is that words be used correctly, and that they be used well. The key determinant is context. Variety, meaning that sometimes big words are used and at other times short, simple, and pithy ones, can enliven a piece of writing.

There’s another determinative factor here. What kind of writing are we talking about? An evocative piece about a walk in the woods? A prose poem? A piece of literary criticism? A philosophical tract? Vocabulary will vary accordingly. And, yes, a highfallutin word might spoil that descriptive piece about your nature walk.

 

 

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Vocabulary Is Built by Reading

 

I wish to note that I am not trying to emulate Noah Webster or compile a vocabulary primer. Almost all of the words and expressions I have learned over the past year or so were encountered in my recent reading. If you are inclined to say, that’s impressive, I would be inclined to respond by saying: proves my point: vocabulary is built by reading.

 

 
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Acquiring Vocab from the Greats

 

Different writers, ranging from Shakespeare to Charles Dickens and from Walt Whitman to Thomas Wolfe, have their favorite words — often arcane ones –which they will use repeatedly, and this will augment one’s vocabulary. (Plus, in the case of a great writer such as Shakespeare, their coinages.) It goes without saying that literature will broaden one’s vocabulary, from pithy, evocative words to high-flown abstract ones. Usually, these words will be used wisely and well, effectively.

And, then, different disciplines have their own vocabulary and buzzwords. An avid reader with wide ranging interests will pick up many words this way. This could include specialized words used in various professions and industries and in technical fields which often have a wider use. And, the reader who is not limited to deep reading in just one field (e.g., literature) but ranges far abroad (to, say, history or the social sciences, philosophy, the pure sciences, and so on) will acquire vocabulary which, needless to say, has a wide applicability and, in itself, can broaden knowledge.

 

 

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Concrete vs. Abstract

 

Many of the words I have looked up denote very specific things that one can visualize, e.g., berm, cladding, scantling. These words, because they are so specific, I find harder to remember, if, as is often the case, they refer to some observation I would not be inclined to make, for example, carpentry, a beach, building materials, and the like. Yet, they still intrigue me, especially their etymologies.

Maureen Dowd in a New York Times op ed piece used the word cratering to characterize Richard Nixon’s downfall. One would ordinarily think of crater, a concrete noun (a crater on the moon). But here she was using a verb which denotes a concept. I find it easier to remember the meaning of abstract words.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    August 2017

 

 

 
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Appendix:

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four; an excerpt from Part One, Chapter 5

 

 

“How is the Dictionary getting on?” said Winston, raising his voice to overcome the noise.

“Slowly,” said Syme. “I’m on the adjectives. It’s fascinating.”

He had brightened up immediately at the mention of Newspeak. He pushed his pannikin aside, took up his hunk of bread in one delicate hand and his cheese in the other, and leaned across the table so as to be able to speak without shouting.

“The Eleventh Edition is the definitive edition,” he said. “We’re getting the language into its final shape–the shape it’s going to have when nobody speaks anything else. When we’ve finished with it, people like you will have to learn it all over again. You think, I dare say, that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words–scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone. The Eleventh Edition won’t contain a single word that will become obsolete before the year 2050.’

He bit hungrily into his bread and swallowed a couple of mouthfuls, then continued speaking, with a sort of pedant’s passion. His thin dark face had become animated, his eyes had lost their mocking expression and grown almost dreamy.

“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take “good”, for instance. If you have a word like ‘good’, what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well–better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of ‘good’, what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like “excellent” and “splendid” and all the rest of them? ‘Plusgood’ covers the meaning, or ‘doubleplusgood’ if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already. but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words–in reality, only one word. Don’t you see the beauty of that, Winston? It was B.B.’s idea originally, of course,” he added as an afterthought.

A sort of vapid eagerness flitted across Winston’s face at the mention of Big Brother. Nevertheless Syme immediately detected a certain lack of enthusiasm.

“You haven’t a real appreciation of Newspeak, Winston,” he said almost sadly. “Even when you write it you’re still thinking in Oldspeak. I’ve read some of those pieces that you write in ‘The Times’ occasionally. They’re good enough, but they’re translations. In your heart you’d prefer to stick to Oldspeak, with all its vagueness and its useless shades of meaning. You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words. Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?”

Winston did know that, of course. He smiled, sympathetically he hoped, not trusting himself to speak. Syme bit off another fragment of the dark-coloured bread, chewed it briefly, and went on:

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. Already, in the Eleventh Edition, we’re not far from that point. But the process will still be continuing long after you and I are dead. Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there’s no reason or excuse for committing thoughtcrime. It’s merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. But in the end there won’t be any need even for that. The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect. Newspeak is Ingsoc and Ingsoc is Newspeak,” he added with a sort of mystical satisfaction. ‘Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?”

A Walt Whitman Letter; and, What Can Be Inferred from It about Letter Writing in General

 

 

Camden [NJ]

Friday noon, 26th Sept.

 

Dear son Pete,

Your letter of yesterday came this forenoon—that was a rather serious runaway of cars in the tunnel a week ago—& mighty lucky to get off as you all did—Pete I got a few lines from Parker Milburn—he told me you had a very bad sore on a finger of right hand—they are plaguey bad things—I am in hopes yours will partly make up in giving you a little resting spell. I sent you “the Children of the Abbey,” an old novel that used to be all the rage—did you get it? To-day here is a great turn out & dedication of the Masonic Temple in Philadelphia—it is truly a handsome & noble building. A rain last night here, & to-day is really perfect. The Camden free masons marched by here this morning, about 250, the finest collection of men I thought I ever saw, but poor music, all brass, a lot of fat young Dutchmen, blowing as if they would burst, & making a hell of a hullabaloo—

Pete I am about the same—may be a little improved in general strength—had bad spells a good deal all the earlier part of the week—some very bad—but feel better yesterday & to-day—I am making some calculations of the cool weather—think it may be favorable to me—did not go out any yesterday—shall try to get out this afternoon a couple of hours—I don’t know a soul here,—am entirely alone—sometimes sit alone & think, for two hours on a stretch—have not formed a single acquaintance here, any ways intimate—My sister-in-law is very kind in all housekeeping things, cooks what I want, has first-rate coffee for me & something nice in the morning, & keeps me a good bed & room—All of which is very acceptable—(then, for a fellow of my size, the friendly presence & magnetism needed, somehow, is not here—I do not run foul of any)—Still I generally keep up very good heart—still think I shall get well—When I have my bad spells, I wait for them to fade out—I have got a letter from Charley Towner—I am finishing this by the open window—still in the rooms where my mother died, with all the old familiar things—but all drawing to a close, as the new house is done, & I shall move on Monday.
Walt.

 
— Walt Whitman to Pete Doyle, 26 September 1873

 

 

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This letter was written when Whitman was living in Camden, New Jersey with his brother George Whitman, a Civil War veteran, and Walt’s sister-in-law Louisa Whitman, George Whitman’s wife.

Peter George (Pete) Doyle (1843-1907) was a great friend of Walt Whitman’s and a very important person in Whitman’s emotional life.

Though the details of Whitman’s sexuality remain murky, it appears and has been asserted by Whitman biographers that Whitman and Doyle were lovers. They met in Washington, DC in 1865 when Whitman was employed there as a civil servant and Doyle was employed as a horsecar conductor. Whitman was a regular passenger on Doyle’s car.

 

For an excellent biographical sketch of Peter Doyle, see

http://whitmanarchive.org/criticism/current/anc.00155.html

 

 

 

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Commentary:

 

I read the selected letters of Walt Whitman about 25 years ago. They were an eye opener for me.

I consider myself a very good letter writer. I got this from my family. Everyone — my parents and siblings; my maternal grandfather Ralph E. Handy; my uncle Roger H. Handy; my great-aunt Etta H. Handy; and others – seemed to know how to write a good letter. It was as if it were part of their genetic makeup.

I began writing letters at an early age – the first was one that I labored over, to my third grade teacher at the end of the school year in 1955, to wish her a happy retirement.

I learned early to have an awareness of things like audience (to whom was I writing); the required degree of formality; using personal details to bring the letter alive (what I was up to if, say, I was away during the summer and writing home); others whom I should mention as wanting to be remembered to; inside jokes and personal allusions (those that only the reader or readers would be likely to get, thereby establishing rapport and a baseline of familiarity); following conventions of respect and politeness where required; writing thank you notes; and so on.

Whitman’s letters reinforced and strengthened my awareness of the importance of all these elements of good letter writing. And, they corroborated what I already basically knew, but became acutely aware of thanks to Whitman:

the best letters are often not “literary”;

simplicity and directness are keys;

plain, homely, everyday details make a letter a live piece of human tissue instead of a bloodless specimen.

Walt Whitman’s letters are wonderful, eloquent, beautifully written. Yet, what is most notable about them – besides, and along with, their directness, lack of pretension, and sincerity — embodying all of these things – the chief thing — is their SIMPLICITY. He wrote great letters that are at the same time absolutely simple ones, so that it didn’t matter to whom he was writing, an unlettered person or an educated and/or literary minded one. It didn’t matter. He carried on a correspondence with Ralph Waldo Emerson; with English literati who admired his works; with his English admirer and would be lover Anne Gilchrist; with his mother; with his brothers George and Jeff; with his sister-in-law Martha Mitchell Whitman; with the streetcar conductor Pete Doyle; and with countless other persons familiar and not familiar to him, high and low.

Every letter of Whitman’s exhibits the qualities enumerated in the previous paragraph. He was not capable of writing otherwise. The letters lay bare his sincere, unaffected, warm and loving personality and show the joy he took from the ordinary things of life (a glorious day, a ride on an omnibus up or down Broadway; or a “capital beefsteak,” for example) — especially from human relationships. These things meant everything to him.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   January 2017

 

 

Roger W. Smith “my writing; a response to my critics”

 

 

‘my writing; a response to my critics

 

 

Downloadable Word document of this post is above.

 

 

 

In this post, I would like to consider and respond to criticisms of my writing which have been made by readers of this blog from time to time. In responding, I have used my own writing and writing of acknowledged masters as a basis for drawing conclusions about matters such as verbosity, big words versus little ones, simplicity versus complexity in style, supposed pomposity, when one is entitled to have an opinion, and so on. By explaining what I feel are legitimate reasons for writing the way I do, I hope to be able to shed some light on the writing process.

 

 

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You have stated, “concision is a desideratum in writing.” Sounds pompous. Using “desideratum” is not as clear as saying “concision is essential to good writing.”

I stated, responding to one my critics, “Concision is a desideratum in writing.” The critic pounced on this. He said it sounded pompous and that it would have been clearer if I had said, “Concision is essential to good writing.”

English happens to have lots of fancy Latinate words. There is nothing wrong with using them when appropriate. Connotation as well as tone is important here. Desideratum and essential mean essentially the same thing, but they are not exact equivalents. The connotation I was striving for was embodied by the choice of a word meaning something that a writer seeks to achieve, a sort of authorial ideal.

Saying that concision is essential would not convey my meaning as well, since I happen to feel that while concision usually is desirable, it is not always essential. This point has been made by composition theorists such as Brooks Landon, a professor of English at the University of Iowa, who has stated, in a series of lectures for the Great Courses series, that “in many cases, we need to add words to improve our writing … rather than trying to pare our writing down to some kind of telegraphic minimum.” In view of this, I am wary of saying, as a general proposition, that concision is essential to, is a sine qua non of, good writing.

Words should be used carefully, of course, and more often than not, the plainest word is the best. But not always. My critic, in his eagerness to “lay down the law” in Strunk and White fashion, did not perceive that there may have been a good reason for my using the “fancy” word desideratum.

In a novel by Louisa May Alcott, Work: A Story of Experience, the term “a porcine martyr” is used to describe a drowned pig. A barely educated woman character has been eagerly telling a story in which a pig which her husband was trying to get out of its pen was swept away by a deluge and drowned. Alcott’s use of the fancy phase is humorous — ironic; her wry authorial voice contrasts with the speaker’s raw narrative tone. The irony is clever and appropriate.

 

 

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Sometimes, your writing appears to be pompous and self centered. The pomposity comes through in the frequent use of highfalutin outmoded phrases, such as “as it were” (usually adding no apparent value to whatever you are saying); or “may I interject a comment here?” (as if the reader were in a conversation with you).

The critic objected to my writing, in one of my posts, “may I interject a comment here?” He felt as if I were guilty of being supercilious. What the critic fails to appreciate is that I want the reader to get the feeling that we are having a conversation.

A conversational tone and the use of “highfalutin outmoded phrases” do not necessarily amount to pomposity. And, a conversational tone is often (depending upon context) desirable.

The critic thinks that by affecting to directly address the reader I am guilty of pomposity or conceit. It is conceit of a sort, a rhetorical conceit — or, more precisely, a rhetorical device.

The best writers often adopt a conversational tone. This is to be desired and is not an indication of affectation or pomposity.

Consider the following complex sentence of mine, from my post “how to FAIL in business (small businesses, that is)”:

There is something edifying, would you not agree? (it’s a basic human need), about having one’s personhood recognized and about being so acknowledged in a business establishment.

Note the deliberately conversational tone.

Similarly, in my post “I am not the center of the universe,” I address the reader directly, in the second person, as follows:

Did you ever have an experience in the course of life, at a particular moment on a particular day — something seemingly inconsequential — that permanently altered your fundamental outlook on life?

The intent is to draw the reader in, to suggest that perhaps the reader may have had a similar experience, which would help or encourage him or her to “get” the piece.

One has the feeling, with the best writers, that you, the reader, are being privileged by having a conversation with the writer, or, to put it another way, that the writer is conversing with you, his or her interlocutor. There is no off-putting pretense or stuffiness. And, the writing seems to flow naturally the same way a good conversationalist or raconteur can keep his or her listener riveted. It is not surprising that the best writers have often been good conversationalists and, plain and simple, good communicators. “Good writing invites interaction,” in the words of Professor Dorsey Armstrong in her series of lectures “Analysis and Critique: How to Engage and Write about Anything” for The Great Courses.

I want the reader to be able to feel that he can share and follow my thoughts and thinking. So, when I say “may I interject a comment here?” or “did you ever have such an experience?” I am inviting the reader in, so to speak, drawing him or her in, as Walt Whitman did when he would write, for example, in his poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (addressing the reader in the second person), “Closer yet I approach you.”

And, in his great poem “Song of Myself,” Whitman says:

The boatmen and clam-diggers arose early and stopt for me,
I tuck’d my trowser-ends in my boots and went and had a good time;
You should have been with us that day round the chowder-kettle.

Again using the second person and increasing the power and impact of the poem and its message by addressing the reader directly, as if it would have been possible for the reader to share the experience with him. He invites readers, current and future, to join him, figuratively, using a rhetorical conceit by which he fuses his personality and enthusiasm with an imagined reader’s.

Talking to your audience is not equivalent to talking down to them.

The following is an example of Charles Dickens addressing the reader directly in a fashion which suggests that he and the reader are having an actual exchange:

It was on a fine Sunday morning in the Midsummer time and weather of eighteen hundred and forty-four, my good friend, when—don’t be alarmed; not when two travellers might have been observed slowly making their way over that picturesque and broken ground by which the first chapter of a ‘Middle Aged’ novel [by which reference Dickens meant to evoke the typical opening of a historical novel in the manner of one by Sir Walter Scott, in which the narrator/observer would be seen viewing things from a distant vantage point with respect to space and time] is usually attained; but when an English travelling-carriage of considerable proportions, fresh from the shady halls of the Pantechnicon near Belgrave-square, London, was observed (by a very small French soldier; for I saw him look at it) to issue from the gate of the Hotel Meurice in the Rue Rivoli at Paris [by which assertions Dickens styles himself as a narrator observing things, as a journalist would be, at close range]. — Charles Dickens, The Daily News (London), January 21, 1844

If Dickens can do it, why can’t I?

Here is an example from the opening paragraph of George Gissing’s novel Workers in the Dawn:

Walk with me, oh reader, into Whitecross Street. It is Saturday night, the market-night of the poor; also the one evening in the week in which the weary toilers of our great city can devote to ease and recreation the sweet assurance of a morrow unenslaved. Let us see how they spend this ‘Truce of God;’ our opportunities will be of the best in the district we are entering.

Note how Gissing deliberately, at the very beginning, adopts a conversational tone, addresses the reader directly, which works and draws the reader in.

 

 

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“By Jove” is an archaic word no other writer has used in a hundred years. You used it in the USA is the greatest country piece. The word “indeed” would have sufficed.

I used the expression “by Jove” in my post “the greatest country in the world.” The critic suggests the use of a more common word/expression and implies that I am putting on airs.

The word “indeed” could have sufficed, along with many other choices. The critic missed the point that words are used in context and must be taken that way. “By Jove” was used playfully by me for effect, not pompously. If you read the blog, you can see that I was almost making fun of myself, the jejune fellow with a new idea striking like a thunderbolt. In this context, “By Jove” is actually a better choice than the more neutral word indeed.

This is consistent with thoughts about writing that the composition theorist Richard A. Lanham expresses in his Style: An Anti-Textbook:

American pragmatism insists that words are for use, not enjoyment. … Surely we ought to move in the opposite direction from such moral earnestness, stressing not words as duty but words as play. …. “Speech in its essence,” Kenneth Burke tells us, “is not neutral”; it is full of feeling, attitude, emotion. Drain this out in the name of useful unmistakability and you end up with composition class prose, a dismal grayness.

 

 

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Why not “indigenous” instead of “autochthonous” in the Dreiser post? The two words mean essentially the same thing and your readers would have more easily gotten your point with the more commonly used word.

To the critic’s “Why not,” I would reply: Why?

Words should be used carefully, of course, and more often than not, the plainest word is the best. But not always. The use of arcane or highfalutin words is not necessarily a sin.

Big words and archaic ones should not, a priori, be avoided. It depends on the context. An example would be my use of autochthonous to describe Theodore Dreiser as a writer in my post “On Reading Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.” It’s the perfect word. It takes years of reading and of looking up words to know and be able when appropriate to use such words.

Words are not equivalent and cannot be substituted, as is the case with substitution in an equation, as the critic seems to think. This was made clear by George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four. In the novel, a language, Newspeak, is invented that is intended to replace English, getting rid of supposedly superfluous words, so that a word such as bad would be replaced with ungood and, “if you want a stronger version of ‘good,’ [the character Syme tells Winston Smith] what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like ‘excellent’ and ‘splendid’ and all the rest of them? ‘Plusgood’ covers the meaning, or ‘doubleplusgood’ if you want something stronger still.”

Similarly, consider a phrase from the New Testament (Matthew 7), as translated in The New English Bible: “do not throw your pearls to the pigs.” Do you think this is an improvement on The King James Version: “neither cast ye your pearls before swine”? I don’t. Yes, pigs and swine mean the same thing, and pigs is the commonly used word nowadays. But, the antiquated word sounds better, whereas the commonly used one makes the passage sound flat to the ear, if not idiotic, as if a rapper were saying it.

What my critic does not fully understand is that words are not only fun to use; they have an extra-literal dimension. It is not as if your journeyman writer is a sort of processor of words working on an assembly line, with the words being components or parts lined up on a “vocabulary conveyor belt” from which one selects words needed and slots them into the constituent piece (e.g., a sentence) in assembling the writer’s end product, a piece of prose. With the choice of words being dictated by some theoretical framework, so that the one chosen must be not only the closest fit conceptually but the most readily available. So that the writer selects the common word original because it is in the inventory, but is not allowed to deviate from “production constraints” and choose a less common word such as autochthonous.

The reality with the best writers, as they actually write, is that it is not a case of interchangeable parts. The writer should actually enjoy and exercise great freedom in choosing words. My ear told me that autochthonous was the right word. It is the one that came to me, and it fit perfectly.

 

 

 

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Frequently, the phrases you use make you sound pompous. A good example is the ironic “sans redundancy” comment in one of your emails. Is there something wrong with the word “without”?

What I said, in response to a critic’s remarks about supposed pomposity in my writing, was that I promised henceforth to write “sans pedantry.” The French word sans (without) was used playfully by me. Using another word than the usual one unexpectedly can sometimes enliven a piece, amuse the reader, perhaps help to keep him or her awake, and sometimes help to emphasize or make a point. The critic was tone deaf and completely missed the irony.

Note that great writers sometimes use foreign words for no apparent reason. For example, there is a famous soliloquy in Shakespeare’s As You Like It (Act II, Scene 7), where Shakespeare describes old age, the final stage of life, as “second childishness, and mere oblivion,— / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” It has been said that Shakespeare himself wasn’t perfect. Was he guilty of showing off when he used sans?

Walt Whitman used foreign words for novelty and effect. For example, in the line “Give me faces and streets! give me these phantoms incessant and endless along the trottoirs [French for sidewalks; italics added]!” in his poem “Give Me The Splendid Silent Sun.” And, in “Song of Myself,” Whitman wrote: “no dainty dolce affetuoso I,” using Italian terms. Should he be accused of affectation? After all, he could have said: “I am not an effete snob.”

As James Perrin Warren points out in his book Walt Whitman’s Language Experiment, Whitman in his poems used the following foreign borrowings: kosmos, debouch, Americanos, Libertad, programme, philosoph, finale, evangel-poem, en-masse, omnes, camerado, ma femme, ensemble, adobie, sierras, dolce affettuoso, vistas, and arriere.

And in Whitman’s poem “Song of the Open Road,” we find the line: Allons! whoever you are come travel with me! [italics added].

Here’s an example of me doing the same thing in one of my posts, “writers: walkers”: “I wrote that “walking, as is well known, is conducive to thinking and creativity, which is why so many writers and intellectuals have always been walkers.” And then said, “Por favor, read on!” I used the Spanish por favor (meaning please, or kindly) for no special reason other than variety. And, perhaps, to stimulate the reader, to wake him or her up!

 

 

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Your writing is laden with filler phrases such as “so to speak,” “say,” “as it were,” etc.

Qualifiers are not necessarily bad. They actually, quite often, serve a purpose, syntactically speaking.

As it were is neither pompous nor superfluous. It is a qualifier that conveys the idea that an assertion should be taken in a certain sense — not exactly or precisely — as, for example, in the clause they discussed areas that had been, as it were, pushed aside in previous discussions.

As it were means in a way, or in a certain sense, but not literally. It is used by a writer who wants to be less precise. (So to speak is an equivalent phrase which I also often use.) A writer uses as it were to make what is being stated less definite, to avoid absurdities in meaning if the statement were taken literally. An example would be the following statement by Henry David Thoreau in Walden: “I have, as it were, my own sun and moon and stars, and a little world all to myself.”

As it were is not a highfalutin, outmoded, or superfluous phrase.

Here are a few more examples of acknowledged masters using as it were:

“… I confess I once or twice fancied that I caught glimpses of bliss round the corner, as it were; but, before I could decide, the glimpses vanished, and I was very sure I was conceited coxcomb to think it for a moment.” — Louisa May Alcott, Work: A Story of Experience

“The things he invented were as real to [Balzac] as the things he knew, and his actual experience is overlaid with a thousand thicknesses, as it were, of imaginary experience.” — Henry James, “Honoré de Balzac,” in The Art of Criticism: Henry James on the Theory and the Practice of Fiction

“In general, one’s memories of any period must necessarily weaken as one moves away from it. One is constantly learning new facts, and old ones have to drop out to make way for them. … But it can also happen that one’s memories grow sharper after a long lapse of time, because one is looking at the past with fresh eyes and can isolate and, as it were, notice facts which previously existed undifferentiated among a mass of others.” — George Orwell, “Such, Such Were the Joys …”

“The most entertaining of these numbers have always been burlesques of bourgeois musical taste, which were the more charming for their being purged, as it were, of bitterness by the optimism of the final patriotic and military passages.” — Virgil Thomson, “Shostakovich’s Seventh,” New York Herald Tribune, October 18, 1942

And, in a book review of mine, published in The New York Sun, I wrote: “In true Johnsonian spirit, [the author] has mined every conceivable scrap of information about [the subject of his biography], bringing him as it were back to life.” Should my editor have blue-penciled “as it were”?

So to speak is another qualifier that I often use which the critics of my writing object to, finding it to be another filler phrase that amounts to padding. An example would be my post “I am not the center of the universe,” in which I wrote: “One should not assume that people one meets in public, so to speak, are that interested in or focused upon you.”

The same observations apply here.

Similarly, in a blog post of mine about Israel, “a better, stronger country?” I used the often overused filler phrase the fact that:

I have — politically naive as I am — been harboring a thought. As follows: That if Israel absorbed the population of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and became a true democracy, notwithstanding the fact that Arabs would predominate population-wise, something miraculous would happen.

The fact that seems to work here, notwithstanding the fact that (!) Strunk and White and my high school English teacher would not have hesitated to edit it out. It acts as a sort of “divider.” Sometimes the writer and reader need to be able to pause and “catch their breath.”

 

 

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My guess is that a high school English teacher would do a good bit of editing on some of your longer posts. Some of your posts could be shortened without losing context or texture or meaning.

I would tend to respond to this comment by saying: Shrinkage may or may not be desirable. It depends.

In his series of lectures for the Great Courses, “Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft,” Professor Brooks Landon says:

Unless the situation demands otherwise, sentences that convey more information are more effective than those that convey less. Sentences that anticipate and answer more questions that a reader might have are better than those that answer fewer questions. Sentences that bring ideas and images into clearer focus by adding more useful details and explanation are generally more effective than those that are less clearly focused and that offer fewer details. In practice, this means that I generally value longer sentences over shorter sentences as long as the length accomplishes some of those important goals I’ve just mentioned.

Many of us have been exposed over the years to the idea that effective writing is simple and direct, a term generally associated with Strunk and White’s legendary guidebook The Elements of Style, or we remember some of the slogans from that book, such as, “Omit needless words.” … [Stunk concluded] with this all important qualifier: “This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that he make every word tell.” [italics added] … Strunk’s concern is specifically with words and phrases that do not add propositions to the sentence [e.g., “owing to the fact that” instead of “since”].” …

[S]imple does not mean simplistic. Direct does not mean short. And, simple and direct does not mean that we should all write like Ernest Hemingway in a hurry. “Omit needless words” is great advice, but not when it gets reduced to the belief that shorter is always better, or that “needless” means any word without which the sentence can still make sense. …

Strunk and White do a great job of reminding us to avoid needless words, but they don’t begin to consider all of the ways in which more words might actually be needed. … [I]n many cases, we need to add words to improve our writing … rather than trying to pare our writing down to some kind of telegraphic minimum.

There is a pleasure, as the critic Kenneth Burke notes in his book on rhetoric Counter-Statement, in writing which “in all its smallest details … bristles with disclosures, contrasts, restatements with a difference, ellipses, images, aphorism, volume, sound-values, in short all that complex wealth of minutiae which in their line-for-line aspect we call style and in their broader outlines we call form.” What Charles Dickens calls “the indispensable necessity of varying the manner of narration as much as possible, and investing it with some little grace or other.” In other words, rich writing, showing a pleasure taken in using words. The opposite of a corporate memo studded with bullet points.

The goal of Newspeak, the language of the totalitarian state in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, was yo get rid of words. Doing so has the effect, as another rhetorician, Richard A. Lanham notes in his Style: An Anti-Textbook, of paring away not only words, but paring away “all sense of verbal play.” Paraphrasing the famous slogans of Nineteen Eighty-Four, I have a couple of my own:

We don’t all have to write like Hemingway.

Complexity of syntax is not forbidden.

The key is not amount of words or, necessarily, syntax. It’s clarity.

Consider the following sentence of mine from my post “how to FAIL in business (small businesses, that is)”:

There is something edifying, would you not agree? (it’s a basic human need), about having one’s personhood recognized and about being so acknowledged in a business establishment.

Or the following sentence from a post of mine about Israel, “a better, stronger country?”:

I have — politically naive as I am — been harboring a thought. As follows: That if Israel absorbed the population of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and became a true democracy, notwithstanding the fact that Arabs would predominate population-wise, something miraculous would happen. (I have a dream, one might say.)

From my recent post “Beethoven; nature,” about music and poetry devoted to pastoral themes:

With some difficultly, I was able to find and purchase a copy of this book length poem, which I am reading by fits and starts. It’s quite good. It conveys a sense, with Miltonic scope (Thomson’s work has echoes of the cadences of Paradise Lost), of the essence of the countryside in all its various guises and in its plenitude — the rhythms of work and daily life as the seasons change — and how they were experienced by people at the time, which is to say before the Industrial Revolution.

The last sentence may or may not be too long. Perhaps it could have been broken up, simplified. But, as Professor Brooks Landon says, we don’t have to always write (or ever write!) like Hemingway. Sometimes, long, convoluted sentences can be intriguing to read — just plain fun.

And from a published book review of mine:

[The author] has made excellent and creative use of miscellaneous source materials and personal reminiscences (O’Connor was notoriously averse to letter writing) to unearth details about O’Connor’s student days at Notre Dame, his early career as a radio announcer and writer, his Boston years and haunts, his newspaper experience (which included a stint as a television critic for the Boston Herald), the circle of literary friends he made at The Atlantic Monthly and Wellfleet on Cape Cod (where he spent his summers), and the writing process as O’Connor practiced and experienced it.

A long, convoluted sentence or two, but I think they work. And skillfully pack a lot of information, embed it, within a sentence.

Which raises the question: Does a long sentence necessarily mean convoluted syntax? It depends what you mean by convoluted. The above sentences of mine are convoluted, but they are clear. You will find this in the prose of many good writers whose sentences are dense and tightly packed with meaning — not diffuse, they are tightly constructed — but dense and complex. (See appendix.) Complexity in syntax can challenge and (yes) delight the reader. The good writer can do this without sacrificing clarity or becoming incomprehensible. The writing should be clear, not opaque. Or, as the composition theorist Richard A. Lanham puts it, clarity in writing means simple, not plain.

And here’s a passage from a book I have been reading:

The greatest defect in the SEASONS, respects the cast of its moral sentiments; but in this respect it is not the less adapted to the more numerous class of the readers of poetry. The Religion of the Seasons, is of that general kind which Nature’s self might teach to those who had no knowledge of the God of Revelation. It is a lofty and complacent sentiment, which plays upon the feelings like the ineffable power of solemn harmony, but has no reference to the quality of our belief, to the dispositions of the heart, or to the habitual tendency of the character; still less does it involve a devotional recognition of the revealed character of the Divine Being. But on this very account “the Seasons” was adapted to please at the time that Pope ruled the republic of taste, and to the same cause the poem is still indebted for at least some of its admirers. — John Sharpe, “Critical Observations”; introduction to James Thomson’s The Seasons, 1816 edition

Writing such as this consists of passages that are dense and packed with meaning. Should one require of such passages that they be written in telegraphic or perhaps even outline form, so that no one is confused and everyone gets the point or points?

George Orwell said, “Good prose should be transparent, like a window pane.” He achieves this. But does this mean that prose must be vitiated by overcutting?

 

 

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Your writing can be needlessly redundant.

Repetition can be effective. As Richard A. Lanham has observed, in his Style: An Anti-Textbook, “People, even literary people, … repeat things for the pleasure of repetition.” And, I would add, for emphasis.

In my post “thinking “too energetically,” I wrote as follows, about the writings of Ralph Colp Jr.:

They are all superb — superbly researched, crafted, and written. These include articles of his such as “Bitter Christmas: A Biographical Inquiry into the Life of Bartolomeo Vanzetti” and “Sacco’s Struggle for Sanity,” both published in The Nation.

Note the intentional, deliberate repetition by me of superb.

The following is a passage from my post “how to FAIL in business (small businesses, that is)”:

Some people have the human touch — in fact many, if not most, do, I would be inclined to say. One may not realize it, but I have found from personal experience that many service people in lower paying jobs actually enjoy being able to deliver and are eager for human interaction and reciprocity. I have found that, if I make it a point to ask how they are doing, or to thank them for the service — as I have been doing more frequently lately — they brighten up and let you know that they appreciate being appreciated and acknowledged. So, I will ask, for example, at the counter of a store or a restaurant, “how is your day going” or “how was your weekend?” And, if I can find something nice to say, truthfully, about good service, I try to do so. There is something very pleasant about being recognized at a business establishment.

I stopped briefly in a local restaurant the other day to purchase a takeout item. Two persons served me, one with respect to the item purchased and the other one being the cashier. They were all smiles and said, we haven’t seen you in a couple of days! Trivial perhaps and not uncommon, but it is remarkable how good such interactions can make one feel. Good business practice for them, but it’s more than that. It’s the pleasure of being able to share one’s common humanity with casual acquaintances, such as in this case. It helps to decrease feelings of alienation and the sense of powerlessness and insignificance that one often experiences when dealing with the business world, its advertisements, and its products.

The “good” businesspeople enjoy helping others, serving them, being able to ameliorate things for you while engaging in a business transaction. Knowing that they made you happy and gratified themselves at being thanked and appreciated. Feeling that being able to benefit mankind makes their life worthwhile. Showing their humanity.

There is repetition/redundancy here. I make a point that is more or less obvious, then make it again in different words, and restate it several times. To me this is not necessarily a bad thing. Because, in what was the peroration of the piece, I wanted to drive the key point home. Think of a concluding passage in a symphony, where the main theme comes back and often gets hammered home, so to speak.

Here is example of Walt Whitman using repetition:

I will not have in my writing any elegance or effect or originality to hang in the way between me and the rest like curtains. I will have nothing hang in the way, not the richest curtains. — Preface to Leaves of Grass

He uses repetition/restatement for emphasis.

 

 

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There is nothing wrong with arguing strongly to make one’s point, or using irony or highly critical language. But when it is embedded in a spirit of “I am the true intellectual and you (or they) are not” and when your conclusions are presented as definitive facts rather than opinions, and when your posts comment on how much smarter you are than the academics or editors you abhor, you come across as arrogant and positive.

When you are talking about others’ opinions in your blog, your strong feelings often come across as definitive conclusions rather than strong opinions, especially when you are talking about editors at the NY Times or academics with advanced agrees or other cohorts for whom you seem to have a special loathing. And sometimes you sound pompous and arrogant.

Opinions are just that. To express an opinion does not amount to arrogance. Even when one is being a contrarian.

Some people, it seems, don’t want or don’t feel that a writer is entitled to have an opinion about anything, with the possible exception of a cardiologist writing a book on heart disease, a psychiatrist a monograph on schizophrenia, or a geology professor writing a treatise on rock formations.

And that, if you should be so presumptuous or rash as to have one, you should begin (they seem to be saying) — wasting words and probably guaranteeing that few will read the piece — with a totally unnecessary introduction explaining (in the manner of someone writing advertising copy for a pharmaceutical company) that these are merely your personal thoughts which, you hope, will not unduly disturb anyone who happens to disagree and that you realize that some, if not many, readers will disagree, which (you hope they will realize that you realize) they are entitled to.

I let my thoughts take me where they may.

Consider George Orwell, whose essays are assigned to freshman composition students as models of excellence and clarity in writing, of burnished prose. Without fail, a strong opinion comes through, not only in Orwell’s essays and in short pieces such as his “Such, such were the joys …,” where he lays bare the injustices of the English boarding school system of the 1930’s, but also in novels such as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Keep the Aphrodista Flying, where (in the latter work) he calls attention to the pettiness of middle class sensibilities. Should Orwell have begun with a prologue asking the reader to excuse him should the latter be inclined to disagree or (heaven forbid) take offense? Didn’t our English teachers instruct us not to keep saying “In my opinion,” “I think,” etc. over and over again, since it should be evident to the reader that you are presenting your opinion.

 

 

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Sometimes, it sounds as if you consider yourself to be more knowledgeable than most people. Nothing wrong with having opinions, but sometimes it does sound like you are boastful or consider yourself intellectually a notch above “most people.” You appear to be talking down to your reader. As if you are the scholar expert and your reader should feel privileged to be learning from on high.

Sometimes, your style gives the impression that you are trying to impress your reader with your extensive vocabulary and depth and range of reading. This can get in the way of the point you are trying to make.

There are several criticisms (directed at my writing) embedded in these comments: bosting or showing off about what (allegedly) I regard as my superior knowledge, talking down to the reader, trying to impress the reader with my vocabulary and reading/scholarship. I will take them up all of a piece, so to speak.

Mustering all the learning one can is desirable.

I do, of course, draw, as is entirely appropriate, upon all the learning and knowledge I can muster. Would one counsel me to do otherwise? But, when I am unsure about something, or cannot claim to know it with certainty, I will say so. I do not pretend to experience or knowledge I don’t have. I make every effort I can to draw upon my experience, my reading, my learning (such as it is) and scholarship to flesh out and elucidate what I am saying, and to provide corroboration for my views.

I do think that when someone writes about something, such as literature and music, one should exhibit a modicum of intelligence and prior knowledge, as well as discernment, and a more than superficial knowledge. The writer should not just leap in midstream and go off half cocked.

Be that is it may, I have opinions that I am eager to share in the case of, say, music, one area of aesthetics I enjoy writing about, and even more so about literature, about which I know the most. I do not let the fact that I am not a musicologist or English professor stop me. Because, intuitively, or experientially, I may possibly have seen or perceived more than them.

What about polemical pieces? I have written quite a few, on everything from the criminal justice system to (occasionally) politics.

A polemic is an essay where you argue strongly for something, often an unpopular position rather than the majority one. It should be clear to any reader that I am expressing my opinions. All good writing arises from personal experience or reflection, and writing without a point of view is bland and uninteresting. I do quite often find that I strongly disagree with the opinions of many persons who are regarded as authorities or who hold positions in academia and journalism. What’s wrong with that? It’s called thinking for oneself.

Regarding the charge of trying to impress the reader with my extensive vocabulary, I can only speak from my own experience, as a reader. Many of the best essay writers in the English language use big, recherché words where called for, as well complex grammatical constructions, and write long, convoluted sentences. And yet, they are admirably clear. They take great pains to be so. There’s nothing wrong with challenging the reader. I love it when writers such as Samuel Johnson (to mention one of my favorite writers) challenge me and increase my stockpile of words. It seems to me that the only criterion to be taken into account is the following: Was the word used correctly; does it fit?

Pomposity is not true of me in person or of my writing. A better word for what my critic describes as arrogance might be invective. Invective used where appropriate. In certain posts, that is. I will use irony and invective to try and make a point when I feel that they are appropriate.

Some of my posts, such as my posts about Janette Sadik-Kahn’s plan to remake Fifth Avenue, about the “cultural misappropriation” movement, about the protest against the Emmet Till painting at the Whitney Museum of Art, about the call for destruction of politically incorrect statues and monuments, and about the Anthony Weiner prison sentence, are polemical. To make one’s point — arguing often with fierce “winds” of contrary, often entrenched opinion blowing back at oneself — irony and invective are not inappropriate. Think of Swift writing “A Modest Proposal,” Tom Paine “Common Sense,” or Zola “J’accuse!” The thing is not to be mealy mouthed. A good writer has to say something, assert it.

I do often find myself strongly in disagreement with politicians, policy wonks, social engineers, judges, prosecutors, etc. Writing under such conditions should have an edge. A writer has to be clear and make points forcefully; also, it is hoped that one’s writing will stimulate and provoke the reader to perhaps look at things with a fresh eye.

 

 

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You can be quite a good writer and have a decent memory, but your writing can be full of braggadocio and totally self-obsessed.

Self-centered (or, as the critic says, “self-obsessed”)? Because I use my own my own experience as fodder for my writings? A writer should not be afraid to write about himself or herself. Honestly. Braggadocio should not be a concern, as long as the writer is honest.

Any writer or writing instructor will tell the beginner: write about what you know best, beginning with your own experience. With yourself.

For some reason, the writings of Theodore Dreiser come to mind. Almost all of his writing drew, directly or indirectly, on his own personal experience.

Take his two autobiographical works, Newspaper Days (originally published as A Book About Myself) and Dawn. The books are notable for their candor, honesty.

For example, Dreiser talks about how he was eager to get a reporter job with a Chicago newspaper, with no experience — he had practically no hope. Then, he was given one or two spot assignments with one of the lesser daily papers and achieved a scoop that earned him immediate recognition. It makes a good story. Dreiser also tells about his personal insecurities and mistakes he made, such as quitting a reporter job with a respected newspaper in disgrace because he faked a theater review. The story about the scoop — it was about the 1892 presidential election — is well worth telling since it shows how Dreiser got a foot in the door as a reporter, leading to a short lived journalism career, and to his establishing a vocation as a writer.

In my autobiographical post “My Boyhood” and other posts of mine which are wholly or in part autobiographical, I discuss successes as well as failures. Personal successes and failures. Honestly. Showing my strengths, some of them noteworthy, as well as weaknesses. Almost all of them make good stories, and that’s what’s important. Examples: an exam I took in a high school history class in which I answered a question about Charles Dickens that no one else could, impressing the teacher; the time I did something similar in a college Spanish course; how I gave a lecture on Tolstoy in Russian from memory in a course at New York University when the professor thought I couldn’t do it and that I couldn’t have written the essay myself. (I noted, in my post: “To be honest, I myself was surprised that I could do it.”) I also discuss, in autobiographical posts and anecdotal material about myself, all kinds of mishaps and miscues in my early years. Embarrassing myself. Showing marked weaknesses in certain areas requiring aptitude or skill. And so on.

In the posts where I talk about my accomplishments and where I came of well, it is usually because there is a narrative interest to them. They reveal something about me, but they also make for good reading, since they are good stories.

 

 

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I have a preference for the writing style of the essays of E. B. White over the essays of Johnson or Addison or Steele. Their essays are well worth reading and every bit as valuable as White’s but their style is clearly dated.  [A middlebrow comment from someone whose exposure to English letters did not go much beyond college English courses.] Sometimes your style sounds dated.

E. B. White is no Joseph Addison or Samuel Johnson. Samuel Johnson outdated? One can’t use Addison or Johnson as examples because they’re out of date? Or Edmund Burke?

I am not a priori inclined to give much weight to the views of a “critic” who prefers E. B. White to Samuel Johnson.

The works of great writers don’t become obsolete, and they are the best models. To improve my writing, at this advanced stage in my writing, I find it much more worthwhile to read Samuel Johnson’s essays. Or those of other great prose writers, such as Burke, Hazlitt, Emerson, or Thoreau.

To repeat, my maxim is study the greats.  You can’t go wrong. You can’t do any better.

Why would anyone advise elsewise?

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    March 2018; updated August 2018

 

 

 

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Appendix: Examples

 

The following are some examples of writing in which the writer uses long sentences and/or complex syntax that challenges the reader without being obscure.

He was chosen again this Parliament to serve in the same place, and in the beginning of it declared himself very sharply and severely against those exorbitancies which had been most grievous to the State; for he was so rigid an observer of established laws and rules that he could not endure the least breach or deviation from them, and thought no mischief so intolerable as the presumption of ministers of state to break positive rules for reason of state, or judges to transgress known laws upon the title of conveniency or necessity; which made him so severe against the earl of Strafford and the lord Finch, contrary to his natural gentleness and temper: insomuch as they who did not know his composition to be as free from revenge as it was from pride, thought that the sharpness to the former might proceed from the memory of some unkindnesses, not without a mixture of injustice, from him towards his father.

— Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England (begun in 1641; published 1702-1704)

 

 

Among the many inconsistencies which folly produces, or infirmity suffers, in the human mind, there has often been observed a manifest and striking contrariety between the life of an author and his writings; and Milton, in a letter to a learned stranger, by whom he had been visited, with great reason congratulates himself upon the consciousness of being found equal to his own character, and having preserved, in a private and familiar interview, that reputation which his works had procured him.

— Samuel Johnson, “The difference between an author’s writings and his conversation” (Rambler no. 14; May 5, 1750)

 

When Persia was governed by the descendants of Sefi, a race of princes whose wanton cruelty often stained their divan, their table, and their bed, with the blood of their favourites, there is a saying recorded of a young nobleman, that he never departed from the sultan’s presence without satisfying himself whether his head was still on his shoulders. The experience of every day might almost justify the scepticism of Rustan. Yet the fatal sword, suspended above him by a single thread, seems not to have disturbed the slumbers, or interrupted the tranquillity, of the Persian. The monarch’s frown, he well knew, could level him with the dust; but the stroke of lightning or apoplexy might be equally fatal; and it was the part of a wise man to forget the inevitable calamities of human life in the enjoyment of the fleeting hour.

— Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776)