Thursday, November 08, 2012

William Blake brought me face to face with my literary fundamentalism

Blake's poem The Tyger shows how the relationship between form and content can shape meaning – a lesson we should heed

William Blake
The plate that accompanied William Blake's The Tyger is central to the the famous poem's meaning. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

We are all here, reading and thinking and perusing the Guardian Books pages, because our lives are defined by letters, and by combinations of letters. Not just us, of course. We are no elite. Letters do that for almost everyone, but for those of us obsessed by literature, rather more so.

In the garden of his house in Connecticut, Philip Roth has a studio in which he writes. Pinned to the wall next to his desk he has put up a bunch of fair-sized individual letters: a "B", an "N", and so forth. They remind him, he says, when things get sticky and the pen refuses to engage with the paper, that it is, after all, only a matter of letters, and of putting letters together into words – nothing too intimidating about that – and then, which takes more nerve, putting those words together into sentences. That, as Roth's creation Nathan Zuckerman observes in Ghost Writer, is what a writer does:

I turn sentences around. That's my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and turn it around again.

I cannot recall – I only saw Roth's studio in the interview he gave with Kirsty Wark – what sort of letters Roth had affixed to his wall, what typeface they were in, and of what size. They were, if we accept such a category – "normal" letters – they were capitals, and might have been set in Times Roman, Baskerville, or even (which would have been rather fun) Bookman Old Style. They were certainly not in Gill Sans, Bauhaus, or Old English Text.

I rather doubt whether Roth would know much about such typefaces, or (if for some reason he did, since he knows about most things) whether he would much care. He would appear not to have been interested in how his books were set – as long as they looked nice and read clearly – and to my knowledge has not allowed finely printed limited editions of his work. His view of letters – in common with the majority of writers – is that they are utilitarian tools, and must not call attention to themselves, must not make a fuss.

Rick Gekoski's full piece at The Guardian 

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