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Early and Late

Penman for Monday, March 15, 2010




LAST WEEK I promised to share a few paragraphs from my first Palanca-prizewinning story,
Agcalan Point, which I saw again recently for the first time in 35 years. Im going to do this
not to praise myself, but precisely to show how artificial my voice was back then, and how its
changed since, by way of talking more generally about how writers and their words change over
time.

Here goes:

Approaching Ginbulanan harbor from the west, as it is the only entry the sea leaves open short
of tearing your craft apart with its sunken teeth, the traveler meets Agcalan.

From afar you perceive a decrepit Spanish fort more than a thousand feet above the bobbing
horizon, thickly overhung with clouds in the month of August. From that crown Agcalan plunges
madly downwards into jagged slivers of gray sandstone into the sea, carpeted by a fine silken
spray.

Treachery lurks but a fathom below; ships passing this point must have crews of redoubtable
courage. So far from the open sea, so near to landand there the danger lies, to founder on some
ill-anchored reef or be crushed against the immutable cheek of Agcalan.

Agcalan has always been there, and you have only seen it now. It has seen everything, and you
know nothing, a speck of flotsam in time and space, and you are overwhelmed. There is majesty
in the primeval, some godly attribute magnified by the prism of the transparent mind, and it is
here.

Now lets a do a little self-analysis.

Note the tone and setting of the story. It doesnt happen on a typical Tuesday on a city street. It
starts on the swell of the ocean, wrenching the reader from the familiar. We are introduced to a
decrepit Spanish fort, suggesting a bygone era, cloaking the piece in a mythic mist. This effect
is reinforced by words and phrases like thickly overhung, redoubtable courage, ill-
anchored, majesty in the primeval, godly attribute, and that last mouthful, the prism of the
transparent mind.

Those lines will probably get past or even be liked by an impressionable audience. But looking at
them now, as the 56-year old reader rather than the 21-year-old writer, I can sense a certain
stridency, a palpable anxiety to be taken seriously, which seems easiest to achieve with the use of
windy, resonant, polysyllabic words.

Its the bane of wet-eared writers, this notion that big words and foggy settings will get you far.
Its an understandable crutch, especially when you dont feel too confident about your material
or havent found it yet; a retreat into the romantic past provides a good excuse for mock-heroic
prose and a touch of melodrama. I find myself having to tell my students to unlearn this tendency
by, among others, asking them to throw their thesaurus away, especially when the only reason
they turn to it is to find a fancier word for something as basic as talk (expostulate?) or walk
(perambulate?).

For comparison, heres a scene from a story I published in 2002, when I was 48: Some Families,
Very Large:

Finally they emerged into a street with one side lit up like a carnival and smelling like flowers.
Boys Sammys age ran from one end of it to another, and men and women sat in chairs on the
sidewalk, smoking and chatting, scratching their ankles. Vendors sold fried bananas, jellied
drinks, and duck eggs on the street. It seemed incredibly alive, this nook of the city, and Sammy
soon understood why: it was a street of funeral parlors all in a row, and even Christmas saw no
let-up in business here.

Note how narrow my field of vision has become, and how much simpler the words are. Here I try
to get mileage not from my vocabulary nor from the exoticism of the setting, but from the irony
of the situationof how places of death can be so full of life, even and especially at
Christmastime.

Indeed this movement from the exotic to the familiar seems to be a trajectory that many writers
go through as they mature. Take a look at these lines from a poem titled Night Music written
by the British poet Philip Larkin (1922-1985) in 1945, when he was 23:

Only the sound
Long sibilant-muscled trees
Were lifting up, the black poplars.
And in their blazing solitude
The stars sang in their sockets through the night:
`Blow bright, blow bright
The coal of this unquickened world.'

Notice anything? Now heres Larkin again, 13 years later, in 1958, with Home Is So Sad:

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go

Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.

Not only has the language become radically simplified (note how all of the words in the first line
are of just one syllable); the imagery is now pointedly domestic. That vase, such a seemingly
plain phrase, carries tremendous referential power, implying some experience we dont know but
whose emotional significance we can infer, in a way that the coal of this unquickened world
just cant manage.

Such shifts in vocabulary are, I suggest, merely the ripples on the surface of the ocean. The real
changes occur much deeper, in the writers growing appreciation of the complexity of seemingly
simple acts, statements, and figures. The maturing writer realizes that verbal virtuosity is the
easiest and cheapest trick in the book, and that only with the genius of a Borges or a Nabokov
can big words regain and reassert their grand precision.

The change may not even be in the words but in the sensibility, which can be a subtler spoor to
track. I remember a professor of mine from graduate schoola tweed-jacketed, pipe-smoking
Shakespeare scholar named Russell Fraserwho gave us one of the most maddeningly difficult
final exams I ever came across. He gave us two blind passages from Shakespearecertifiably
obscure, nothing like To be or not to be or Friends, Romans, countrymenand asked us:
Which is early and which is late Shakespeare, and why? We had to argue our answers purely
on the basis of the text and what context we could generate from it, trying to imagine what an
aging bard would feel like, and how the weight of the years would convey itself in his words.

The next time you read works by the same author, look up their publication dates, and see if you
can sense any change in his or her language, outlook, or style. Come to think of it, I suppose
some of us actually get worse with time, but thats for another column.