Words to the wise
An Irishwoman’s Diary on discovery, art and language
Vermeer’s ‘A Lady Writing’. “Someone can pluck something out of the ether because it is part of the experiment; what matters is that in art as in many other things, the call to precision is so high that in fact someone may not be satisfied with what is in the dictionary, any more than a painter is who invents a colour and then later on discovers it for herself in nature’s own spectrum while swimming far out from the shore.” Photograph: Alan Betson
A friend texted the following recently: “I was swimming today and saw a colour/light/texture I deeply know and realised that I make it all the time. Homecoming.”
She did not describe it exactly, but recognised everything about it in whatever quickened the mix of acrylic paints she usually works in. It made me wonder how often we have this reverse approach to realisation, that the things which we imagine are in a tube or a bottle, or the word that is in the dictionary, are actually to be stumbled on serendipitously by ourselves if we are free enough about it, that we either find them or invent them.
Sometimes they are never found in the tube, bottle or dictionary. Thirty-one years ago, David Marcus, editor of the now legendary “New Irish Writing” page in the Irish Press newspaper, questioned a word I’d used in a poem he intended to publish. What, he enquired with his usual courtesy, did “bristing” mean, because despite having searched several dictionaries it was not to be found.
My subject in the poem was the caves at Ballybunion beach, which I’d explored when the tide was out one afternoon during Listowel Writers’ Week in 1982. The colours on the rock of the cave walls glimmered in variations of colour caused by the refracted light from the tide some yards back. How could I describe that, I wondered, excited by a feeling I knew was an unformed yet definite urge to write about this mysterious place. Later, when I left the cave, I scribbled a few words on the back of an entry ticket to some literary event back in Listowel later that day. “Bristing” was one of them. I decided there and then that it would mean what I wanted it to mean, and if poetry was not the mother of invention then what was? David Marcus accepted the word choice and did not alter it. What I meant by it doesn’t really matter now, but what does is that someone can pluck something out of the ether because it is part of the experiment; what matters is that in art as in many other things, the call to precision is so high that in fact someone may not be satisfied with what is in the dictionary, any more than a painter is who invents a colour and then later on discovers it for herself in nature’s own spectrum while swimming far out from the shore.
The early painters experimented with colour, because they often had to make the paints themselves, as Vermeer did, and so there must have been variations, even if there was an agreed notion among some regarding the aesthetics of colour. It must surely be more elusive for a painter today to make the most original, unique or exact colour, almost because of the enormous range of tones and hues available. As for writers, especially after Caxton’s and Gutenberg’s respective printing presses created the social upheaval of the spread of literacy, they now found themselves within a situation in which the language had to be commonly agreed on if everybody was to understand it. Thus, you won’t find anybody nowadays writing about their “oxters”, meaning the armpit, as would have been the case in Northumbria in the 19th century. And travel changed everything too. Just as we travel around the world in our hundreds of thousands, in earlier centuries the privileged classes were travelling to Europe, especially to Italy, returning dizzy with new words, fashions and artefacts. Importantly, in Italy, language was being explored through poetry.
Suddenly, the wealthy were very keen to write some of that and see what would happen. If they could express ideas in a way that reflected sensitive feeling,and in language that was supposed to be “better”, than might the best of them not make a mark on the wall of more than personal vanity?
Today though, when writers puts pen to paper, they unconsciously kick against the formalised “purification” of language, the sometimes uninviting, sanctioned standards of communication that make many people speak as if they are at a permanent board meeting. Like my friend in the water, discovering a colour she had already used without knowing it was out there in the ocean, and like myself using the word “bristing” from a sense of necessity and belief in its rightness, it falls to us today to take the paint, and take the words, or whatever your tools are, and scumble them till they turn on their heads and the moment becomes original. And hope, that just as for the painter in the water who found her colour, it is purely a matter of: homecoming.