Monday, March 30, 2009

Gildersleeve on verse and prose

Basil Gildersleeve, the great and irritable classicist who became Johns Hopkins University’s first professor of Greek, said at the very beginning of his career—in 1854, when he was only twenty-three—that academic verse-making “stands, in a pedagogical point of view, far behind the exercise of writing prose, not so much on account of the disproportion in numbers between those who possess the faculty divine and those who do not, as because vapidity and inanity cannot conceal themselves so well on the plain ground of the pedestris oratio [pedestrian speech] as in the flight of an anser inter olores [goose among swans], nor loose syntax and careless construction shelter themselves behind the convenient plea of poetic license.”

This is no longer the case. For one thing, no one makes verses in English departments any longer. For another, creative writing has now made it possible for any kind of writing, both prose and the broken lines called “free verse,” both fiction and “creative non-fiction,” to conceal a writer’s inanity.


Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

"Irritable" seems an appropriate word. I wouldn't trespass on Gildersleeve's lawn even to win a bet - though I agree with him.

Writing with constrictions on from has only brought out the best in my writing and creativity (though I'm still HERE: "The easiest way to make a usually eight-syllable line pentameter is to add a single two-beat adjective." I laughed aloud when I read that line in your J.V. Cunningham post) and is why I admire Oulipo so much, though some of their constrictions seem to be means with no end (BUT I'm certainly not clever enough to write within a majority of the constrictions they use for fun.) :(

Reading cutesy, colloquial books is frustrating for me (I need to select better books, clearly) because I can talk to anyone to hear words strung together that way. When I read I want to be elevated.

Also, when I (eventually) write, I want to elevate... It'll be an uphill battle for the reasons you've mentioned. I have a paralyzing phobia of appearing vapid and inane (in writing especially) if only because I know that critics and readers with discerning tastes will rip into insipid and uninspired prose the way that I do when I read.

No amount of flowery perfume can overwhelm the offensive stench of bad writing.