Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Writer's Voice by Al Alvarez

I've always believed in the existence of a writer's 'voice', and was frankly amazed when I discovered that many writers don't. It seems a touch perverse to claim there's no such thing, when we all have our little foibles as writers and when it's often possible to spot a writer simply by examining an extract from their work. Some defend their opinion by calling it style instead. The writer's personal style, they insist. Yet what is that if not a 'voice'?

So it was good to find The Writer's Voice by Al Alvarez (Bloomsbury, 2005 edition) on the bookshelf in my local library this week, a book which practically begged me to take it home. 'For a writer, voice is a problem that never lets you go,' it declares succinctly on the inside cover, 'and I have thought about it for as long as I can remember - if for no other reason than that a writer doesn't properly begin until he has a voice of his own.'

Now that's more like it.

The poet, writer and critic Al Alvarez has been around the British literary scene for decades. He was - perhaps most famously - a friend of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath around the time of her tragic suicide, whilst working as poetry editor and critic for the Observer. He wrote an in-depth study of suicide called The Savage God which I have often re-read and taken inspiration from (sounds odd, I know, but just go with it). He also, very kindly, sent me a note when my first collection was published, praising one of my poems, a short piece called 'Sleep', one of those odd poems that arrive fully-formed in your head without you really understanding what it's about. So I've always had a bit of a soft spot for Alvarez.

After a quick flick-through, The Writer's Voice was tucked under my arm and taken home. I read it cover to cover the first night, dropping into bed at 4am with new aphorisms and kernels of literary wisdom detonating in my brain.

This is Alvarez:

On the authentic voice:
'[It] reveals itself in details the eye doesn't easily take in - in some unexpected hesitation or cunning adverb or barely audible inflection that makes you sit up and take notice.'
(Chapter Two, 'Listening', p. 75)

On the legacy of the Beat poets, which is:
'the belief that any old confession or self-revelation is intrinsically artistic because an artist ... is a public personality, a performer whose primary work of art is himself and whose ambition is to make himself known.'
(Chapter Three, 'The Cult of Personality and the Myth of the Artist', p. 107)

On criticism:
'True criticism ... comes without much theoretical baggage and with little to prove. In order to find out what's going on in a work of art, the critic must let go of his own sensibility and immerse himself in that of another writer, without theories and without preconceptions.'
(Chapter One, 'Finding a Voice', p. 10)

Naturally, the three quotations I've chosen highlight literary issues and theories which I already believed in prior to reading The Writer's Voice. So, as far as this particular reader is concerned, Alvarez is preaching to the converted. But I defy anyone, even those opposed to his rather stern views on current poetic practice, to find this book anything but a riveting read. Alvarez has a studied dryness of tone which, coupled with his fascinating anecdotes about the great and good of twentieth century literature, makes this book an absolute delight.

I shall have to return to The Writer's Voice in future blog posts. In particular, perhaps, with reference to that authentic voice which Alvarez describes, knowing it to be difficult at times to adopt, even frightening, but wholly unavoidable if a writer wishes to write genuinely. As he says, 'The authentic voice may not be the one you want to hear', reminding us that 'feelings ... are expressed less in imagery than in movement, in the inner rhythm of the language', which sounds very near to Mina Loy's famous dictum: 'Poetic rhythm, of which we have all heard so much, is the chart of a temperament.'

Having been thoroughly seduced by its easy intelligence and vividly illustrated insights into the 'why' rather than the usual 'how' of poetry, I need to take The Writer's Voice back to the library for others to enjoy, and buy my own copy. That way I can re-read it at leisure, and maybe even pull from it a few of those clever magical objects we all need occasionally in order to keep writing.


Rob said...

I read this when it came out and really enjoyed it.

Have you read "Night" by Alvarez? I'm not sure if it's still in print. It's a fascinating reflection on the changing conception we have of night (e.g. before and after electricity changed everything), of sleep, dreams, nightlife etc. Brilliantly written.

Jane Holland said...

No, that's not one I've come across yet. Thanks for recommending it though. Living in the deep countryside, it's surprising how much the slightest noise from across the valley at night - faint traces of music from someone's party, or tractors working in the darkness - can set me on edge. I'm not looking forward to living in a town again - which seems unavoidable now, due to this house move and our need to save for a mortgage. The light will keep me awake for weeks before I get used to it, and the constant nerve-grinding noise of neighbours and traffic etc ... horrific!