My lovely English teacher friend Sara bought me this whilst on a day trip to Salts Mills and their lovely book shop in Yorkshire. She said she thought I would really appreciate it, I enjoyed parts of it, unfortunately, however, I just don’t think I am clever enough for this book. I tried to read it once before, got stuck and gave up but now I have finally made it to the end, and it was largely worth it.
This is a selection of three essays on the art of writing by Alvarez a well-respected critic, the first is Finding a Voice, the second Listening and finally, The Cult of Personality and the Myth of the Artist. Of the three I found the final one much more accessible and would have to admit to not really understanding the others. The essays are backed up with reference to writers such as Plath, Donne, Shakespeare and Yeats amongst others.
There was a very interesting piece about the author Jean Rhys and her life as a part-time prostitute and alcoholic, and the heartbreaking passage about the death of her three-week old son in a hospital in Paris in the book Good Morning, Midnight. The most interesting part of this however, is Rhys´ life and how her neglect led to him getting pneumonia and how she was out partying whilst he was in hospital. Alvarez has used this as an example of how writers can rewrite reality and how she only wrote about things she had experience of. Although he later goes on to argue that an obsession with writers´ lives in order to analyse their work is unnecessary, although I enjoyed this more when he did this, as in this case.
One part I particularly enjoyed was his criticism of the Beat Generation, having just read and hated On the Road myself. He discusses how new radicalism changed during the ´50s from joining the Young Communist League to smoking dope;
“To the impartial observer outside the stoned circle, the most obvious feature of cannabis and LSD is that they constrict thought more than they expand the mind. Dope may make you feel good but it doesn’t do much for the conversation”
Anyone who has experienced this can probably confirm this observation, so a handy piece of advice for writers is probably not to write while you are off your head. He then contrasts Rhys and Ginsberg,
“It was as though all Jean Rhys’ worst nightmares had come true: instead of using their art to redeem the mess they had made of their lives, the Beats served the mess up uncooked and called it poetry.”
Alvarez´s observations on the myth of the artist were really interesting; he dispels the myth that in order to be a good writer you have to suffer for your art in the style of Sylvia Plath et al, and instead argues that you have to conclude that no poetry, no however fine, is worth the cost.
He uses a lovely example about the perfection of the written word – Yeats’s verse from Memory;
“One had a lovely face,
and two or three had charm,
but charm and face were in vain.
Because the mountain grass cannot keep the form where the mountain hare has lain.”
He finishes reminding us that “Work that is considered great now will not necessarily stand the test of time.” Bad art is always with us, and only history, will be our judge!”
A short, challenging, little book.