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« A Passion for Poetry,… | Home | Gates, Doors, Animals… »

The Golden Mean of Writing

Monday 15 May 2017 at 8:22 pm.

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for May 4, 2017, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            If communication is the purpose of writing, whether communicating emotions or communicating ideas, then why are so many written pieces today nearly undecipherable? It seems to be both because of the intellectualization of the art/craft/science of writing and the dumbing-down of the written word.

            As a writer and a retired teacher of writing, I have often been pulled in two directions, -- one, by the Muse of “good” prose and the other by the Muse of “good” poetry.

            The Muse of “good“ prose stresses clarity, simplicity, and writing with a purpose. In writing my newspaper column, I want to inform and entertain my readers. If I confuse them, they won’t be informed, but annoyed instead. If they are annoyed, then it’s unlikely they will be entertained.

            When I write sermons, my purpose is to inform, to convince, and to move to action, -- and, being whimsical by nature, I can’t resist an attempt to entertain. The writers of the Bible used all sorts of devices to make the Word of God understandable, -- the parables of Jesus being a case in point. Being a dictionary nut, like me, and loving multi-syllabic words, can easily create a roadblock to communication. Sermon writers have to tell themselves that showing off their astonishing Latinate vocabulary and arsenal of theological jargon is not the purpose of writing (or preaching).

            On the other hand, simplicity should never be considered synonymous with an ignorant paucity of language. In my opinion, simplicity at its best is seen in the prose fiction of Ernest Hemingway. I admire Hemingway’s terse, simple, but powerful arrangement of words. Yet some British literary critics have written Hemingway off as a second-rate journalist. Hey, they’re stepping on my toes when they disparage journalists.

            The Muse of “good” poetry has always confused me. When Robert Frost first tried to publish his poems, editors rejected them as being too “earthy.” Frost’s simple, earthy poems often suggest something deeper than what you think you just read. No doubt that’s what led his friend, and literary critic, John Ciardi, to insist a poem must suggest more than it explicitly states.

            Some contemporary poets take this idea to the extreme of suggesting so much more than the poem explicitly states that reading some contemporary poetry requires the ability to decipher code.

            My brother was an engineer and wrote excellent technical reports with such clarity anyone could understand them. He hated poetry because he was convinced poetry’s objective was not only to confuse but also to embellish the confusion. He wanted technical reports to be clear, precise, and totally understandable.

            So did my father-in-law who was also an engineer. Shortly before he retired as Assistant Director of the Corps of Engineers in Galveston, he complained bitterly about the inability of newly-hired young engineers to write a good English sentence. However, unlike my brother, he had a certain appreciation of poetry, and his personal letters to us revealed a poetic flair, once describing the “witherings of the autumnal leaves.” His use of “witherings” involved the poetic license of using a functional shift.

            Not only was my father-in-law’s writing somewhat poetic, it was especially clear and simple and accurate; he said what he meant and meant what he said. There was never ambiguity or muddiness in what he wrote. Perhaps that is a reflection of the era during which he lived and was educated, an era when reading, writing and arithmetic were more important than self-image pampering. History has shown that each new era is often a reaction to the previous era, -- a good thing, because when extremes are allowed to continue forever and ever, the result is anarchy.

            I actually enjoy reading the seemingly chaotic, intentionally undisciplined prose writings of Gertrude Stein, but if you take what she was doing in writing to a farther extreme, it seems to me you have the prose of anarchy, and some contemporary writing has reached that point. In Stein, I find music in the poetry of her prose, and I find ideas. In some contemporary poems, I find rubbish.

            Maybe the concept of the Aristotelian Golden Mean should come into play here. Somewhere between two extremes lies the Golden Mean. Somewhere between crude, ignorant rubbish and wordy, over-intellectualization and “poetrification,” lies the point where good writing begins.  


Ray Spitzenberger serves as pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wallis, after retiring from Wharton County Junior College, where he taught English and speech and served as chairman of Communications and Fine Arts for many years.

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