Tuesday, January 26, 2010

“...a scientist by early inclination...”

“...[So many] reasons, and many more relating the simile to its place in the Sonnet, must all combine to give the line its beauty,...not knowing which of them to hold most clearly in mind,....and the machinations of ambiguity are among the very roots of poetry” (Wm. Empson, in Seven Types of Ambiguity, on line 4 of Shakespeare’s 73rd Sonnet, quoted by Jonathan Raban, “Summer with Empson,” London Review of Books, 31:21, 5 Nov ‘09).
The first lesson Empson taught was to slow down drastically; to read at the level of the word, the phrase, the line; to listen, question, ponder, think. This was easy because his own writing enforced it. A single paragraph in Seven Types of Ambiguity was like a street closely punctuated with traffic-calming sleeping policemen: you had to study the relationship between one sentence and the next—and often one clause and the next—to see the logic that connected them, and if I tried to read them in my usual skimming style, I instantly lost the thread.

The second, more general lesson required one to greatly enlarge one’s understanding of what writing is and does (all writing, not just poetry; Empson illustrated his arguments with sentences from novels, book titles, newspaper headlines that had caught his eye and so on). On this, Empson was inexplicit except by inference, but as a fisherman, I saw it in angling terms. Every piece of writing was like a pond, sunlit, overhung by willows, with clustering water lilies, and, perhaps, the rippling circle made by a fish rising to snatch a dying fly. This much could be seen and appreciated by any passing hiker. But the true life of the pond lay below the surface, in deep water where only the attentive and experienced eye would detect the suspended cloud of midge larvae, the submarine shadow of the cruising pike, the exploding shoal of bug-eyed small fry. It was with the subaquatic life of literature that Empson—a scientist by early inclination, whose interest in science is a recurrent feature of his writing—was concerned.


Trying to understand the habitat in which we live requires an ability to read it—and not just in a loose metaphorical sense. Every inhabited landscape is a palimpsest, its original parchment nearly blackened with the cross-hatching of successive generations of authors, claiming the place as their own, and imposing their designs on it, as if their temporary interpretations would stand for ever.