Predecessors, et Cetera
What do you need to know to be a writer?
My first reaction to the question was, Do I know enough about anything to even be taking part in this conversation?
One of my favorite stories has to do with David Starr Jordan, the first president of Stanford University. Before he became a university president, he was an ichthyologist—he studied fishes. At first, as president of a new college, he made a point of knowing the names of all the students. But he soon gave it up because, he said, every time he learned the name of a student he forgot a fish. Because I’ve forgotten a lot of fishes, among many other things, that story somehow consoles me.
I’ll tell you another story that may shed some light on what a writer needs to know. Lately it was my good fortune to spend some time at Yaddo, a country hideaway with lots of evergreens and a chance to do some bird-watching. I’m not a genuine, certified bird-watcher—I don’t keep a life list—but ever since my Aunt Edith pointed out something lovely in a maple tree, when I was maybe four or five years old, and told me it was a rose-breasted grosbeak, knowing the names of birds has seemed a normal thing to do. At Yaddo there was said to be a pileated woodpecker, which alas I never saw. But I did see a fair number of nuthatches and tufted titmice, and lots of chickadees. Does anybody here not know chickadees? I’m not so sure about that as I might have been, because one day I was walking with one of the residents up there, a writer, and I said something about the chickadees, and he said, “Which are those?”
Well, that did give me pause. If the writer had been a poet, I think I might have said, “Man, you call yourself a poet and you don’t know chickadees?” But he wasn’t, and I didn’t. The truth no doubt was that for the kind of writing he did, he had no need to think about them. And I have to say further that living in New York City, I know people who are bemused by the notion that anybody should notice, to the extent of assigning it a name, a very small bird that says “Dee, dee, dee” and hangs around in winter. My best friend happens to be a native New Yorker, and he is vastly entertained by the existence of a thing called a tufted titmouse. But I don’t know that he is any more amused than I am by the language people in his profession—he’s a lawyer—use without any notion of how funny it sounds to somebody who isn’t. Take tortfeasor. I don’t know how lawyers can say it with a straight face. I once wrote a poem that ended with the word tortfeasor—it was about wild mushrooms, some of which can do harm, presumably without really meaning to, which is the case with most tortfeasors—and no editor would take it. Which I suppose must mean that knowledge of such a thing is not anything you need in order to be a writer—or to be a poet anyhow.
If you’re going to be a novelist, it appears to me that you need to know an awful lot. By the time I graduated from college, that’s what I thought I was going to be. I’d written poetry off and on, but I had no plans to write any more. And I did in fact write novels—three of them all told, none of which, luckily, ever got into print. I’m not sure now precisely when it was settled in my mind that a poet was what, after all, I was going to have to be. I do remember, though, when I realized I was never going to make it as a novelist. It was as I was reading Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. It’s set in California, where the first tremors of what’s in store for the rest of the country seem generally to occur. Pynchon seemed to have picked up those tremors, along with an awesome quantity of detail, some of it trivial, but none of it insignificant, about the way people were living out there. And I realized how hopelessly behind the times I was, and there didn’t seem to be much likelihood that I could ever catch up. You know what the Red Queen said to Alice about how in Looking-glass country you had to keep running just to stay in the same place? Well, that’s the way I felt. And it occurs to me that that may explain why so many writers of fiction nowadays have taken to setting their stories ahead—so as to have a certain amount of leeway before events catch up with them. Without that leeway, what is a writer to do—especially one who has a constitutional resistance to going so fast all the time? (That’’s why I stay out of airplanes whenever possible.) The answer is pretty clear: you start looking back. Some novelists do that. Poets all do it—I think—at least some of the time.
And here, in case anybody thought I’d never get to it, is where a college education comes in. Or at least that part of a college education generally referred to as the humanities. I think the most precious thing I brought away with me from four years at Grinnell was the beginning of a sense of—how shall I put it?—the livingness of the past. Only the beginning of that sense—but you have to begin somewhere, otherwise it’s hard to see how the world we live in can have any meaning, and if one cannot find meaning in the world, it seems to me that living in it at all is no more than just bearable. The chief eye-opener among the courses I took at Grinnell was one on the history of art, taught by a wonderful woman named Edith Sternfeld. One thing it meant to me was that when I got to Europe for the first time, I knew something of what to pay attention to, and occasionally even what to be startled by. I remember riding on a train through the south of France and suddenly realizing that a wild plant I’d seen through the window was an acanthus—a spiny, shiny plant with intricately cutout leaves, very beautiful in its spiny, shiny, intricate way; but what made me keep looking was realizing that from the time of the Greeks some version of that cut out leaf had gotten into the design of the capitals on Corinthian columns, and into painting as well. Once you’ve had it pointed out to you, that motif turns out to be everywhere. But it came from a wild plant. Is any of this important enough to have gotten so excited about? Who can say? For me, it’s the essence of what makes the world an interesting place—and I stress it because what I see from my own peculiar perspective, as a writer of poetry, is a conspiracy all around to stamp out the sense of living continuity, to stamp out singularity, to do away with everything that’s not a recognizable commodity, and in the process to make ordinary day-to-day living as boring as possible. That’s only my opinion, but if I didn’t hold it, I wouldn’t be a writer. Even if I weren’t a writer, unless I’d been totally anesthetized by the boringness of living in a world made up entirely of commodities, I hope I’d still be tuning in on the kind of experience I had a couple of days ago. On my way out here, I made a stopover in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where I’d been invited by a friend who knows the kind of thing I like taking notice of: he’d told me that though it was a little early in the season, just maybe—since that part of Pennsylvania happens to be on a migratory flyway—I’d hear the geese passing over on their way north. So there was a certain amount of banter about what my friend had halfway promised. But do you know what? I’d made my appearance, and we were just coming out into the snow—into the snow, mind you—and my friend said, "Listen!"—and there they were, the geese honking as they passed overhead! It was the first time I’d heard that sound, I think, since I was a child on the farm—but I’ve thought of it often, and I’ve watched geese in flight and tried to write about how they looked. And I suppose always in the back of my mind were the geese who were the chief mentors of the young Arthur in The Once and Future King. There is, by the way, another book of T. H. White’s, less well known, that I think I love even more: The Goshawk, about his experience as a would-be falconer. Is any of this important? It is if you agree with Wallace Stevens that the worst poverty is not to live in a physical world. I might paraphrase that and say that for me it would be a terrible deprivation to live in a world that took no notice of the migration of geese or of the ways of goshawks, falcons, kestrels...
Last summer I was in England, doing some of the little jobs a writer now and then gets to do, and the really high point, the greatest moment of that entire summer came during a weekend I spent on a farm in Dorset. One morning I came down to breakfast and found one of the teenage boys in the family with two kestrels (they’d been injured, and he was training them to hunt for themselves) perched on the back of a kitchen chair. To be that close to a wild bird of any kind is rare enough, but what made the occasion electric was that another name for kestrel is—the windhover.
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon . . .
Like the sight of the acanthus growing wild, the sight of those kestrels, those windhovers, was all the more precious because, years before, I’d discovered the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. I can’t be sure I’d ever have become a poet if I had never been introduced to his poems—but in any event I find it impossible to imagine the kind of poet I would have been if I hadn’t. It’s like imagining a world in which one’s own parents had never met.
What does a writer need to know? In one word, I’d say, predecessors. I don’t know why it is that things become more precious with the awareness that someone else has looked at them, thought about them, written about them. But so I find it to be. There is less originality than we think. There is also a vast amount of solitude. Writers need company. We all need it. It’s not the command of knowledge that matters finally, but the company. It’s the predecessors. As a writer, I don’t know where I’d be without them.