Prize Life, Praise Life
(FIrst published as the introduction to Award-Winning Australian Writing 2012)
Praise life with broken words
—Robert Adamson, “Via Negativa”
1. THE WELL-READ LIFE
Happiness is not all it’s cracked up to be.
A happy life would be good, of course, but a vivid, big, useful life, would be better, if you knew where to start: a life with range and scope, a life made handsome and honest by doubt and imagination, a life elevated and humbled at the same time by questioning everything, by trying and failing and trying again, by looking hard and deep and wide. “We are here to be curious,” writes Jim Harrison, “not to be consoled. The gift of the gods is consciousness.” And literature—reading it, making it, sharing it, prizing it—is a way, probably an indispensible way, of cultivating consciousness, that gift of the gods, and of practising curiosity. And of growing wise. If not always, at least never purely, happy.
There is a kind of happiness that depends on staying home and risking little and asking few hard questions of a life, of one’s self and society and times—the kind of big, old, difficult questions that literature asks. Very likely that kind of happiness will run on platitudes and shallow-rooted certainties, ill-considered, glibly uttered, unlettered, unexamined. A rich life, by contrast, is a life thoroughly lived—not always happy, probably not wealthy, but questing, wondering—and part of what makes the living thorough, and the life big will be a reading practice—and what one learns (about being and thinking and looking and feeling and saying and reading the rest of reality) through story and lyric.
“Life is a spell so exquisite,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “that everything conspires to break it.” Literature recasts the spell so easily broken by living—by everyday disappointments; by the banalities of commerce and pop music and talk-back and twitter; by perfecting too well too many of the little virtues (parsimony, cool, tact, ambition, savvy) and forgetting too well too many of the great ones (generosity, compassion, love, integrity, imagination). One reads to re-enchant, to re-awaken, one’s self, and one’s mind and one’s world. Literature—making it and reading it—is, says Jonathan Franzen, for being and becoming. Reading recasts life’s exquisite spell.
Exquisite is just the right adjective, of course. If you read a lot, as Dickinson did, you’ll know that exquisite doesn’t mean what the advertisers think it means: “gorgeous”. At least, if it has come to mean something so innocuous and superficial to many people, they dishonour the word by forgetting where it comes from and what it has meant for the longest time, which is something much richer (and more exquisite): “intense”, and not necessarily delightfully intense. Exquisite means “brought to a sharp point”; and it’s as likely to be dangerous, painful, even deathly, as pretty. Life is exquisite, not always happy, and literature remembers that. Literature writes life—including your own, if you read—back into its intensity. Its vividness and particularity, its danger and complexity and sharpness. Its holiness.
2. A MILLION AUTOBIOGRAPHIES
Not speaking now of myself—for I am eccentrically, rather than well, read: a well-read life is larger, lived as it is in a habitat of so many thousand other voices and lives and stories. It is slower and deeper, because reading takes time and trouble and engages nearly every part of one’s mind—waking and training aspects of our awareness we may not have know we had, and which we can then use not just on books but on ourselves and the world. Reading lets you read your life, not merely lead it. It teaches you to find the thread, to fathom the significance and remember the complexity, to discover the otherness, to intuit the music that orchestrates and loosely binds the episodes and fragments of which a story, like a life, is made.
Poetry, Wallace Stevens said, is a “blessed rage for order.”
Literature is a stay against chaos and madness, to which we would all of us surrender knowing how fast this all goes and how dead we seem to stay at the end of it; and reading’s surely a more robust and generous, health-giving stay against the madness of an unstoried existence than some of the others on offer: fundamentalism, hard drugs, suburban oblivion, overwork, cyber bullying, narcissism, facebook, various species of addiction. Literature lets you have, as Mark Strand puts it, the life you are denied because you’re too busy living; it forgives you for being human, because it lets you see the beauty, or at least the truth, of dilemmas and failings and aspirations and broken dreams and divided hearts like your own.
Literature makes metaphors and offers moments and plots in which, from a safe distance, we can begin to see ourselves and what our lives, our inner lives in particular, might mean. As I put it once in a poem, literature lets us “stand without guilt in the trouble we’re in.”
We can begin, through reading, to make some divine sense of the senselessness of everyday life, of one’s own pain and uncertainty, of the absurd miracle of existence, of the injustice too many people everywhere live within, of the wreck we are making of the rest of creation, of the brokenness of post-modern lives and of the ecosystems and weather regimes in which we live them. Each step you take, if you read (or write), each phrase you make, each thought you think, you perform in the company, you sing in the choir, of the poets and storytellers and their poems and stories, their images and metaphors and voicings, their personae and heroes and villains. This doesn’t always make living easier; but it makes it resonant; it makes a life multi-storied. You get to share your troubles and desires and despair. Your solitude becomes plural, as Rumi once put it. You get to be at once very deeply alone but never abandoned. You live with the voices of the best writing you have read; though your life is your own, even more your own because of your reading, there is not a sadness you will feel, a mistake you will make, a prize you will win, a heart you will break that has not been felt, made, won, and broken in poetry and story a thousand times. Poetry, someone said, and we could stretch this to story, says what all of us feel but few of us know how to say. Said well, pain and joy have meaning, even beauty; said well, in a poem or a story or an essay, your pain and joy have company.
Some people read to escape, I’m told. Some books are written, I suppose, for that purpose. Not very good ones, normally. But the best literature doesn’t take us away from ourselves; it leads us back to our selves. It carries us to the place where one ceases to be one’s mere self, one’s commercial or social self, one’s biography; it carries us across the line from self to Self, from loneliness to solitude, from privacy to common humanity, from certainty via uncertainty to being and becoming. Literature lets us, if we let it, get over our shallower selves; it frees us to participate in our own, and imaginatively everyone’s, deep and fraught humanness. Reading makes us real; it invites us into the otherness of other lives and of our own life; it lets the otherness in.
In his beautiful history of reading, Alberto Manguel, polymath, reader, talker, writer, quotes a friend, Canadian essayist Stan Persky: “for readers there must be a million autobiographies”. Readers get to live as many other lives as they read, each of them somehow the reader’s own: the lives we read about in essays and stories and hear in poet’s voices, in which we find “traces” of our own lives, versions of our own possible or sometime or other lives. Reading gives living context; it makes one plural in one’s singularity. In books we find the otherness in ourselves—in all of us.
3. I AM WHAT I READ
I tidied my studio last week. I’m writing a book, I’m in the middle of it, about the reading life—and that’s where these thoughts rise. But if it’s possible to have and read too few books, it’s also possible to have too many—to have too many stacked on and sprawling across one’s writing desk, anyway. A reading life needs to be managed like a love life or any other kind of life, especially a big life, thoroughly if untidily lived: the cluttered desk, beyond a certain point, clutters the mind. And the time came last week, at the end of a chapter, at the end of my tether, to put a few books back on shelves and to get out the broom and the vacuum. There’s more space now (for thinking and telling); there almost seems to be more time. And my desk is uncharacteristically tidy—almost exquisitely tidy. But I’m struck by what I left here, close by. A sample, not entirely random, but nonetheless true:
On my desk this morning, not entirely at random, but nonetheless within reach:
• A Story as Sharp as a Knife (a translation and anthropology of Haida myths by Robert Bringhurst)
• Wisdom & Metaphor (poet Jan Zwicky’s meditation on the power of story and the truthfulness of music)
• An Imaginary Life (David Malouf’s great novella)
• The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (casting their exquisite spell, spelling all kind of surprisingly sexy trouble)
• W H Auden: Collected Poems (“…for poetry makes nothing happen”—which is to say, literature makes a wise silence in which wisdom may arise)
• Hold Everything Dear (John Berger’s recent essay collection, whose title speaks to the work of literature)
• Collins Australian Dictionary
• The Best American Erotic Poems (sex)
• The Tibetan Book of the Dead (and death)
• My grandfather’s preaching bible (to remind me of my dissenting, plain-talking, hymning, social democratic stock)
• Teaching a Stone to Talk (Annie Dillard’s collection of essays, here to remind me to choose words as if they were loquacious stones)
• Other People’s Thoughts (a quirky anthology of quotations, collected by Simon Leys)
• The Little Virtues (Natalia Ginzburg’s book of essays from which I drew my critique of the meagerness of the values mainstream society prizes)
• Scar Tissue (powerfully titled, lyrically wise book of poems by one of my mentors, Charles Wright)
• Stray Birds (Rabindranath Tagore’s book of spiritually intelligent one-liners and because, like me, he knows the birds know the answers, or at least ask the right questions very prettily)
• The Big Sleep (Raymond Chandler’s poem of a detective novel)
• The Book of Longing (Lying underneath The Big Sleep, which lies underneath a recumbent Buddha, a small spiritual joke, of a kind I think Leonard Cohen would smile at indulgently).
We are what we read.
What one reads is who one is; what one reads is a large part of what one believes and has to say for one’s self. A large part of how one comes to know one’s self and the world. It is how one heals, if one ever heals—one’s self and maybe someone else.
So you can see, if you study my list, how much of what I’ve said here already is written under the influence of books at my elbows.
So be careful, but not too careful, what you read. Read wisely, maybe, and widely and well. And read slowly. Start here, with this anthology, and start anywhere, if you’re trying to get your reading life back. Start now, before you’re ready.
4. SPEAKING OF THE PLENTIFUL IMAGERY OF THE WORLD
The shape of a metaphor is the shape of wisdom. And what do poems and stories speak if not metaphors? What do they do if not tell the world slant?
The shape of a metaphor…: I’m paraphrasing Jan Zwicky, whose book, as you know, I have here, along with several of her books of poems, on my desk. This thought of hers is shapely and alluring and elusive, and she argues the case for it, lyrically and convincingly, in Wisdom & Metaphor. I want to borrow her line of thought here, though, for a minute, for it makes the case for reading at another level entirely. What you have to do to make meaning of a metaphor—to work from the story to the moral, to work from the simile to the thing itself, without reducing either—is what, and it’s a metaphor for what, a human mind “must do in order to be wise.” Wisdom isn’t the same thing as expertise or knowledge. It’s bigger, looser, more poetic; it’s a way of seeing, not a way of knowing for sure. It has more humanity in it. “Those who think metaphorically are enabled,” Zwicky goes on, “to think truly because the shape of their thinking echoes the shape of the world.” Think about that for a moment. What one sees is a lot less than all one gets—or might get if one slowed and wondered and practiced some curiosity. How things seem is not all that they are—it may not be what they are at all. To get at the way the whole thing—the Earth, its human and non-human cultures, politics, love, weather, sex, mind—works, one has to leap intelligently and imaginatively from how things look to what they are or might once have been or are on their way to becoming. One has to intuit the music for which one is given a note or two; one has to read the love in behind the acts of petulance and hunger; one has to work a little to find “a Heaven in a Wild Flower”, but it’s there.
The world trades, it evinces its truths, shapes itself, in metaphor, Zwicky suggests: each thing offers not itself, but an image of its truth, its many selves. Each thing in the world tells the truth but not the whole truth, and it tells its truth slant, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson. This is how poems and stories work, too, of course: they communicate metaphorically and indirectly and partially, leaving a reader to imagine the ecosystem of which they are the indicator species, the place for which they are a synecdoche. Stories and poems, therefore, participate, and involve readers, in the singing, the telling by the world of itself. As I say in The Little Read Writing Book, each sentence is an act of creation, and a piece of, creation. They speak the way the world speaks.
By steeping us in metaphor and teaching us to think poetically and asking us to read the world, and ourselves in it, as if it were a story, reading makes a reader wise—or wiser. And it helps a reader belong more deeply in a world that turns out to be much older and larger and stranger and wilder than who she thought till then she was.
5. WIN THE PRIZE; FORGET THE PRIZE
Prizes tell us what we prize. Literary awards value and honour literature, the whole literary endeavour, not just the works that win them.
The kinds of award that the fine pieces of work gathered in this anthology have won matter, of course, to the writers who win them, too—and, in a negative way, to the writers who didn’t win. Awards buy a writer writing time; they help you believe you can write; they set a writer’s name in bold; they italicise a poem or a short story or an essay; there’s a map, and they put you on it.
I’ve won prizes, and they’ve helped me in all these ways, and I’m grateful and somewhat astonished that these prizes have come my way, and I don’t believe I’m going to start giving them back. But not a single one of them has held my hand and helped me write a new poem. That work always falls to the writer, in her solitude, in his self-doubt. Faith in yourself is easier to sustain, for a while, in the wake of a prize. But that faith includes doubt, the same old doubt and some new doubt—that somehow you are a fraud and you’ll never write another piece as good—another piece at all—again. All faith should include doubt. Writing, like reading, is about soul making and becoming. And one is never there; one is at best always on the way.
I heard Andrew Motion—a poet who won a huge poetry prize quite early in his writing life, a prize that launched him and bought him two years of downtime—say recently that if you win a prize you should say thank you and know how lucky you’ve been and get on with writing the next poem or story as if you were the same writer who wrote what you wrote before anyone noticed. Prizes change nothing in that regard. In fact, they can get in the way. Wislawa Szymborska (another poet whose work I have standing—between John Berger and Charles Wright, for no particular reason—on my desk) won the Nobel Prize when she was still quite young, only a few books to her name, and it took her five years to write another poem.
The Montreal Prize, which came my way late last year—quite a big deal, though nowhere near as a big a deal as the prize Motion won, let alone the prize Szymborska won—dried up the ink in my pen for a month or more. But then some birds and some paintings found me, and I was away again, no longer the award-winning poet, just the man who needs to write to remember who he is, and to return in the right words the gift that the world is. But that prize also paid for half a year at the desk and opened some doors that would have remained shut to my poems, especially overseas, at least for a while. So I said thank you and moved on. I remembered pretty soon how to return to my desk, if I could find my desk, with a beginner’s mind; it’s not hard to remember how like your old self you still are when nearly every sentence still dies in the telling, when nearly every line falls way short of where it went and how well it went there in your head. One accepts the prize, and accepts that it is an acknowledgment of all the writing that is made, not only one’s own, and one gets on with failing again, and failing, if one can, better. It might have been otherwise, as Jane Kenyon says in a poem (yes, she’s on my desk, too) says; it’s a stroke of luck. Move on.
At the Melbourne Writers’ Festival where I heard Andrew Motion speak, a fellow poet was complaining about the extravagance of the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. I’d recently had the opportunity to see how distressingly far the Australia Council has got to stretch amounts of money that are unconscionably small (in a country wealthy enough to spend what we spend on athletics and fireworks) between publishing programs, festivals and book ideas of great merit. Most of what is new and risk-taking misses out. Small publishers, who often take the biggest artistic risks and punch well above their weight in literary prizes, are doomed by the inadequacy of funding to grow smaller, to gut their lists, to skimp on editorial and marketing processes already under-serviced. Literature in this rich and creative country suffers because we, which is to say, the Commonwealth, has it on a drip-feed. It is our own fault, we writers: we write on, regardless of how little help we get, of how little our writing earns us, because we cannot help it, and because we know that literature must be made because literature makes—or its poverty unmakes—us.
Anyway, my friend’s first thought was that we had to dump the PM’s Prize, that grand gesture, if we were to properly fund all writers. But even if the PM’s are worth $500, 000 each year, that doesn’t net you anything like the money we need to fill the black hole in the middle of our literary investment. Why start, anyway, by giving something away—specifically, prizes that make exactly the kind of fuss we should be making about literature? So, yes, it would be good if we prized literature off the record as well as on it—but let’s keep all the prizes, including the biggest. It’s not possible to have too many, and poor funding for publishers and writers in general isn’t really the opportunity cost.
Prizes are subjective, sure: this was one of my friend’s other difficulties. But they are not entirely or universally subjective. And they are no more suspect in this regard than the processes the Australia Council employs. Art refuses the judgment of the market. But very good people, sometimes even noble people, capable of transcending their tastes and prejudices, judge many of our prizes and sit on many of our assessment panels. Sometimes good stories and poems win; sometimes the best stories and poems win. Sometimes judges get it right. But even when they don’t, prizes have value because they prize literature; because they reward good writing, even if we will never all agree they award the best. Prizes value literature in a few of the languages—money, media, gold stickers—that speak across party lines; that cut through. Though they single only some work out and relegate the works that fail (the ones that fail that year, to win) to the obscurity they were in anyway, prizes send a message: this is still a society—despite appearances, despite itself, despite the lavish self-concern of too many of our wealthiest citizens—that rates the work that literature performs in our hearts and heads; this is still a society that knows it will keep on dying a little each day without the news that literature, if I may misquote William Carlos Williams, tells.
We need, in my view, prizes like the PM’s that say: literature matters THIS much. Yes, this much. All prizes, including that one, are much less about the winners than about literature. And we need all the other prizes, and more. They cost a wealthy society like ours next to nothing. We should all march on Capital Hill, we should do (almost) whatever it takes, to make Canberra double and treble the money, the risible amount, it spends, in the scheme of things, supporting writers and publishers. We should raise our voices to demand that governments value the civilizing, replenishing work that literature performs by spending more money on all writers, not just the few that win the prizes. (I heard Julia Gillard say at the Prime Minister’s Awards a couple of years ago that literature births and rebirths all the other arts, and much as I love music and film and dance and theatre, she’ll get no argument from me. But why is it then there is so little money to sustain small publishing houses who are publishing the poetry and the risk-taking, non-conforming prose that give oxygen to all the other literatures; why are grants for new and established writers so hard to come by?)
But let’s not start wishing any prizes away. Let’s learn to value them because they value and reward the literature we are all involved, we writers, in trying to make. The hard writing we do, as Wallace Stegner puts it, to make the reading easy; and, I would add, the living richer and wiser.
I’m not sure writers compete for prizes, as is often claimed. If there is a prize on offer, a writer might go for it. I’ve not once written work to win a prize. I think that may be a mistake. You write because you must; you write what you must—the work that only you can write. If, when you have it done, it seems to fit the terms and conditions of a competition, you might enter it. You use the deadline to get something finished; perhaps, even to get something started, though that has never happened for me. You finish a story or a poem with more care than you might have, sooner than you might have, because prizes are worth taking trouble over. In this way, prizes help us all raise our standards; they help keep literature working, and working harder. You enter, and you get on with the rest of your writing, with the rest of your writing, and you try not to wait. If you win, that’s great; if you don’t, then you got some new work finished, and you do something else with it. It’s hard to see who suffers. Oh, it stings a bit when you get overlooked, which you nearly always do, but writers are more practiced than nearly everyone at the art of rejection. You get on with it. You sit down to fail again, to fail again better, sometimes.
It doesn’t pay to be too pure about any of this. If there’s money and acknowledgment on offer, have a crack at them. If not, just write. There’s a small risk some writers will get too invested in prizes; some, I think, do. I guess you could end up wanting to win prizes more than wanting to write the best work you can. That may be an ignoble motive, and also a pretty high risk strategy, but if it gets those writers writing, if now and then it yields some work that matters, some good has come. And not only for those writers. We don’t always agree that the best poem won, but prizes don’t go to bad writing very often.
If there are prizes there, then, go for some. Use them, if you’re a writer, to keep you in a writing practice. Use them, if you’re a reader, to guide your reading, to help you sustain a reading practice. But remember: it’s not the sticker on the bottle that counts; it’s the wine. Don’t forget to drink it. And don’t forget to try some of the wine without the stickers.
Though they do way more literary good than harm, one should largely forget about prizes, though.
Write, instead—as the writers in this anthology have done—to make beauty, to make sense, to make prayer, to make love, to make play, to make the useful kind of trouble (unseating banality, unsettling orthodoxy) art is meant to make; to cry the miracle and peril of the world; to “praise life with broken words”, as Robert Adamson puts it in his great poem “Via Negativa”, included in this volume; to remind us what love feels like and that justice is hardly ever done and that that is nowhere near good enough; to lay some blame and take some responsibility; to heal one’s self and steep us all in the metaphors in which the real world speaks; to fathom somewhat the otherness, and to forgive the contradictions, in us all; to skewer hypocrisy; to speak for once the truth; to refuse and refute the diminished and diminishing discourses in which commerce and politics and too much scholarship are conducted; to renew and conserve language itself; to play the instrument one has been given, and play it well; to lead a few people, perhaps, back into the lives they had forgotten to lead; to save a life or two, starting with one’s own; to perpetuate and recharge the conversation literature carries on—about who we are, and what is real, and what counts, and what one can do to help.