When my daughter was learning to read, she used to spell the letters out phonetically. There was a gap before she ran them all together and shouted "red!" or "lip!" It was a lovely thing to watch and it makes me realise that I still do something similar.
Here is an extract from "A Mad Negro Soldier Confined At Munich" by Robert Lowell (the quote marks are in the original):
"We're all Americans, except the Doc,
a Kraut DP, who kneels and bathes my eye.
The boys who floored me, two black maniacs, try
to pat my hands. Rounds, rounds! Why punch the clock?
In Munich the zoo's rubble fumes with cats;
hoydens with air-guns prowl the Koenigsplatz,
and pink the pigeons on the mustard spire.
Who but my girl-friend set the town on fire?"
And so on. The thing that I like the most here is the word "fumes". What does it mean? Well, there is a blurriness, an insidiousness, to a moving cat and it can seem to smudge the horizon in much the same way that smoke does. There is also the suggestion of something violent, of lots of cats all churning together, but either way there was a moment's pause before I realised that this is what it meant (or that it was what I thought it meant) and, then, immediately afterwards, a moment when I had to put the two things together, the cats and the smoke, in order to see - to really see - those cats. By "making [them] strange", to paraphrase the Russian formalists, Lowell has enabled me to see them in an entirely new light. (This, quite apart from his lucid and eye-opening portrayal of madness.)
Or what about this? This is Jane Austen on Elizabeth Bennett, a woman in a society where "matrimony... was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want." In other words, you don't, if you know what's good for you, turn down a decent proposal of marriage. But this is exactly what Bennett does. When she realises that, despite this, Darcy is still interested in her, her thoughts develop in the following manner:
"...its impression on her was of a sort to be encouraged, as by no means unpleasing, though it could not be exactly defined. She respected, she esteemed, she was grateful to him, she felt a real interest in his welfare; and she only wanted to know how far she wished that welfare to depend upon herself, and how far it would be for the happiness of both that she should employ the power, which her fancy told her she still possessed, of bringing on the renewal of his addresses."
Elizabeth is weighing up how she feels. In a world in which women are all-but-powerless, her delicate qualifications seem brave and morally weighty; we respect her enormously because of the way that she insists, here, on the primacy of feeling. Austen has bridged a gap in our understanding – she has told us how her society works – and now we can judge Elizabeth's integrity.
Why am I quoting from these books? Well, because this sort of thing, it seems to me, is very important. We are all currently bombarded, or smothered, by images and words that are both crass and, essentially, meaningless. There's a flatness to so many cultural productions because, in order to sell themselves, they reflect back at you what they think you want. Where are the insights and observations that surprise us? That encourage us to look properly at the world and to ask those questions that we should always be encouraged to ask: What do I think about this? What do I feel about this?
In art, that's where. In proper art; art that's produced by people who are working hard to tell you exactly how the world looks to them. It's a paradox that never fails to give me pleasure: the more personal a work of art, the more universal it seems to be. We should all be writing, and creating other art forms, in the way the contributors in this edition do. This week, we have work by Hugo Williams, Pema Chödrön, Steve Shepherd, Noah Rasheta, Brandon Robshaw, Misha Lazarra, Julie-ann Rowell, Zita Izso, Agnes Marton, Maggie Sawkins, Claire Hughes, kaptainkristian, Sarah James, Gale Acuff, David Cooke, Louise Longson, Jennifer A. McGowan, Luigi Coppola, John Oughton, Suzanne Finch, Kate Kadleck and Arthur Russell. They are all thoughtful, intelligent and adept. I am, as I always am, proud to be featuring such a diverse and satisfying selection. Do, please, give it a bit of your time.