28th June 2013
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among the wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.
Here is the definition of "Touchstone," from the Oxford English Dictionary: A thing which serves to test the genuineness or value of anything.
The above lines from Dylan Thomas's poem "Fern Hill," are like a touchstone to me, because they distill everything down to that point of immersion, which is what art is about. It doesn't matter how you get there, but it matters that you go deep. It matters that you go down to the heart of the matter. From there you can move forward.
Something Paul Harding told our class last week has kept after me: when he was showing "Tinkers," to agents and publishers, the response he got was consistently, "No one wants to read such plotless, description laden, prose in this day and age." His answer? "Well, I do." He put his manuscript away, but never wavered, never felt the need to insert a car chase or a love scene for the sake of it. He didn't compromise his art, and he was rewarded for that.
I knew the truth of that already, but I needed to be reminded. When he signed my copy of Tinkers, he wrote among other things, "Go art!" a strangely unpoetic exhortation from such a poetic writer. But he is right: the art of writing is what we are about; we are the keepers of the mirror. In our craft or sullen art, exercised in the still night when only the moon rages.... another line from Dylan Thomas, but I can't keep my hands off that bloody stone:
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
Poetry is the neat single malt whisky; prose is the wine we drink with a meal. The key is the intoxication, and without it there is no art. (A footnote to the tradition among American writers which has confounded intoxication of the heart with intoxication of the body. Even Dylan Thomas fell prey to this.) The craft lies in creating the same intoxication in the viewer; the struggle is in trying to gauge what effect our mumblings in the night might invoke.
Being at a writer's conference brings home, too, the paradox facing the modern writer who is plunged willy nilly into what has become the industry of book marketing. The writer may no longer be sullen, for he is now the salesman, too. (Steinbeck and Faulkner, both winners of the Pulitzer and the Nobel prizes, but both sullen, met once and sat in awkward silence. It wasn't that they weren't interested, just that conversation wasn't their medium.) But for every class about the craft of writing, there is a panel of publishers and agents offering advice for the hawking of their wares.
So you buy and sell, just as Harding eventually did, but you have to keep going back to that stone you fondled in order to create it. When all is said and done, when the trumpets have fallen quiet and the fanfare ceased, you go back to your desk within the same four walls and you stare off into a middle distance where your art exists and asks to be given voice.
In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.