Good Things


I am tired of cursing the Bishop
(Said Crazy Jane)
Nine books or nine hats
Would not make him a man.
I have found something worse
To meditate on.

Thus the wild Irishwoman who is the speaker in a series of Yeats’s poems. (This one is “Crazy Jane on the Mountain.”) The “worse” that Jane had in mind — at that moment, anyway — was the disloyalty of rulers. For me, at this moment, it would be the coronavirus, the language used to discuss it, and the people who use that language. I cursed them in last month’s Word Watch. I’ll probably do it again. But I’m tired of cursing. While we’re watching words, let’s watch some words that are good.

Often they are good because there aren’t very many of them. Here are the first lines of Yeats’s “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop”:

I met the Bishop on the road
And much said he and I.
“Those breasts are flat and fallen now;
Those veins must soon be dry.
Live in a heavenly mansion,
Not in some foul sty.”

“Fair and foul are near of kin
And fair needs foul,” I cried.
“My friends are gone, but that’s a truth
Nor grave nor bed denied.”

Those are the first ten lines of an 18-line poem. It’s an argument about a profound philosophical speculation that has appeared in all educated times and cultivated circles — the idea that a whole must be composed of opposites, that “fair” and “foul” are not simply moral judgments that may or may not be true, but metaphysical realities essential to the nature of the universe. Clearly, “much” could be “said” about the difference between this view and the Bishop’s, and about whether such oppositions are in fact “needed.” Yeats seizes the moment when the argument is most vivid, most personal, most urgent, and therefore most expressive; and represents only that.

I’m tired of cursing. While we’re watching words, let’s watch some words that are good.

He doesn’t say what road it happened on, or how both Jane and the Bishop — such different people — came together there. He doesn’t introduce the Bishop’s words with a conventional “the Bishop said.” There isn’t time for such things; time is running out: “Those veins must soon be dry.” There certainly isn’t time for the Bishop to remind his antagonist that “heavenly mansion” refers to a particular passage of Scripture (John 14:2). Yeats leaves that out, too; either readers know it or they don’t. But there is a point to his mentioning the road. It’s not a church; it’s not a town; there is no hierarchy on “the road.” Out there, the two opponents can just meet as old acquaintances and start banging away at each other — no preliminaries required. I should mention that of the 105 words in the poem, 93 are lowly monosyllables — 89%. Lincoln was a master of brevity, but his word count at Gettysburg was 278 words, 212 monosyllables — 76%.

A composition at the other end of the seriousness spectrum shows other ways in which you can make some things good by leaving out lots of other things. It’s “Buttons and Bows,” a song written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans and introduced by Bob Hope in the Western comedy The Paleface, where he sings it to Jane Russell.

East is east and west is west,
And the wrong one I have chose!
Let’s go where they keep on wearin’
Those frills and flowers and buttons and bows,
Rings and things and buttons and bows.

Don’t bury me in this prairEE;
Take me where the CEEment grows.
Let’s move down to some big town
Where they love a gal by the cut of her clothes,
And you’ll stand out in buttons and bows.

One reason why “take me where the CEEment grows” is funny is that no words are included to explain it; cement growing like grass is drolly presented as a familiar aspect of life in a civilized locale — didn’t you know? I also want to comment on “rings and things.” “Things” could have been replaced by some additional example of urban finery, but (recalling the executioner’s song in The Mikado) “it really doesn’t matter what you put upon the list”: from the comic character’s point of view it’s all just a blissful blur of wondrous things. And the close rhyme with “rings” comes in to emphasize his joyful lapse of focus.

Yeats leaves that out, too; either readers know it or they don’t.

Sometimes, if you do it quickly, you can give your words intensity by alluding to someone else’s words, so that the audience suddenly has two things coming its way. That’s what the Bishop does with the heavenly mansion — a serious reference by one serious work to another. You may also be able to increase the effect by altering the allusion, changing it from serious to not serious, or using it to project the personality of whoever comes up with the allusion — yourself or a character you create. And you can do it without adding many, or any, words.

In “Buttons and Bows, “Don’t bury me in this prairEE” alludes to “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie,” a lugubrious cowboy song that seems to have been recorded by everyone in the 20th century (including Johnny Cash). It’s not only lugubrious; it’s very verbose, so it’s funny to see it so quickly disposed of in “Buttons and Bows,” by a character who is distressed but not at all lugubrious.

Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Ballad of East and West” begins with the sonorous words “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, / Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat.” The first line became a solemn proverb. The version in “Buttons and Bows” is used to advance, very unsolemnly, a different idea from that of Kipling’s couplet — the idea that individual people can make judgments too, and change them if they’re wrong. Meanwhile, the ungrammatical “chose” reveals the real level of civilization of the character who seems to value civilized life so highly. All this, and no extra words.

It’s not only lugubrious; it’s very verbose, so it’s funny to see it so quickly disposed of in “Buttons and Bows."

Speaking of “twain,” Thomas Hardy wrote a great poem called “The Convergence of the Twain (Lines on the loss of the Titanic).” It’s full of gorgeous long words and phrases, fit to describe the costly, beautiful ship and her terrible repose beneath the North Atlantic. In the middle of the poem (which is not, however, very long) the poet pictures “dim moon-eyed fishes” coming to gaze at the wreck and its “gilded gear,” and asking, “What does this vaingloriousness down here?” This is the high poetic style, full of strange words and stranger scenes, a style that can easily develop into pomposity. That’s what any normal reader fears, when he gets to that line. But the poet answers the fish’s question, and his answer starts with the little interjection “well.”

Well: while was fashioning
This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything

Prepared a sinister mate
For her — so gaily great—
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.

And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too . . .

Till the Spinner of the Years
Said “Now!” And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.

I don’t need to comment on the startling intensity that comes from the sexual allusion (“consummation”), which is provided with no addition to the word count. But what enables this poem, which was in danger of becoming a stilted moral lecture (“vaingloriousness”), to keep its readers to its magnificent end? It’s that little word “well.”

“Well” is probably the least likely word that anyone would put in such a poem and at such a point. But with that syllable, the poet signals his desire to converse with his reader as one person with another, friend with friend: “You’re wondering what the answer is? Well, it’s like this.” “Well” is a trick that inspires confidence. It’s friendly, but it’s also self-assured: “I know this stuff, but if you’re curious, I can easily fill you in.”

What enables this poem, which was in danger of becoming a stilted moral lecture, to keep its readers to its magnificent end?

If you doubt — as I do — the truth of Hardy’s theory of fate (“the Immanent Will”), his easy self-assurance may make you feel for a moment that the theory must, after all, have something to be said for it, or he wouldn’t be so certain. You’re willing to let him continue, to make the most of his ideas. And he does make the most of them. But without that least of all words, “well,” he wouldn’t have much of a chance.

Something like this brief but decisive demonstration of the writer’s self-assurance used to appear rather often in America’s political documents. Consider the Declaration of Independence. Besides the arresting self-confidence of “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” there’s the sentence in which the Declaration introduces its evidence that the British government was attempting to establish a tyranny over America. The sentence says, “To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.” That little sentence does exactly what it’s meant to do. You can’t think of a way to change it so that it does its job better. There isn’t any way — and that is a pretty accurate test of a good sentence, short or long, in poetry or prose. Notice that “let facts be submitted to a candid world” isn’t just an introduction to evidence; it’s also a clever play on the sympathies of readers, who are flattered to be told they are “candid.”

But sentences don’t have to be short to be economical — to do everything you could expect them to do, with no extra words. In the tenth Federalist paper, James Madison writes about the importance of maintaining the diversity of states:

The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States. A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source. A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire State.

There are a lot of words in that passage, and the sentences are long, but look at how much significance Madison puts into every phrase. I’m not referring only to intellectual meaning but also to moral judgment and emotional intensity. Partisan politicians aren’t just “leaders”; they are “factious leaders,” and they don’t have “followings,” they spread “conflagrations.” Religious “sects” don’t just exert political influence; they “degenerate” into “political factions.” What we now call socialism isn’t just a movement; it’s a “rage” for “improper projects.” Then as now, to say that a pious political zealot is working on a “project” is a rebuke to his self-righteousness, implying that he is just like anyone else with a pet program or a cause rattling around in his head; and in the 18th century a “projector” was usually either a nut or a conman. But let’s say the worst and get it out of the way: these people have “projects,” which is bad, and the projects are “improper,” which is worse, but they may also be “wicked,” which is worst of all. They are spreaders of “maladies” that “taint” society. So much for them. Could you have put all this in briefer form?

“Never mind” and “Skip all that” should be at the top of every writer’s agenda, just above or below “So what?"

Here are three anecdotes about leaving words out.

The first is from James Boswell’s journal of his tour to the Hebrides with his friend Samuel Johnson, the great literary critic (1785). Here Dr. Johnson discusses the value of saying something short and not being embarrassed because you aren’t saying something long:

I love anecdotes. I fancy mankind may come, in time, to write all aphoristically, except in narrative; grow weary of preparation, and connection, and illustration, and all those arts by which a big book is made. If a man is to wait till he weaves anecdotes into a system, we may be long in getting them, and get but a few, in comparison of what we might get.

The second is from His Girl Friday, the funniest movie ever made. At the end, the corrupt and evil mayor (Clarence Kolb) is trying to suborn the newspaper editor (Cary Grant), who has the goods on him, by handing out some stale remarks familiar to politicians. He starts with “Now look here, Walter, you’re an intelligent man . . .” “Never mind that,” Grant says. Then a crime witness chimes in, beginning his story right from the beginning — and thus repeating all the errors that Homer tried to abolish 2,800 years ago, when he invented the method of starting a story in medias res. “Skip all that,” Grant tells him. Just right. I think that “Never mind” and “Skip all that” should be at the top of every writer’s agenda, just above or below “So what?" The film is only 92 minutes long.

The third comes from a TV comedy that I loved when I was a young child. It was called Private Secretary, and it starred the remarkable Ann Sothern. She played the chief assistant to Mr. Sands (Don Porter), a talent agent. In one episode it happened that either she or Vi, the girl in the outer office, had typed something wrong, perhaps a contract, leaving out the word “not.” Someone said, “But it’s only a not!”, to which Mr. Sands replied, “Suppose that Moses had left out all the nots?” The answer, of course, is that it would have made the Ten Commandments much more exciting.

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