Life in words Metroplus

Making wordsmiths go wordless

It’s that time of the year when it’s wisest to hide from the virtual world, which is now a sea of red, determined to market everything from red-lettered toilet paper, to heart-shaped cuts of raw meat. Just when I was about to unplug though, sprung this little piece of advice that said, this Valentine’s, write your love a letter like the literary greats. A few clicks later, there I was tunnelling through the Internet’s treasure trove of love letters; slipping in and out of the lives of the authors I’ve loved.

From Keats asking his Fanny to “send him a Goodnight to put under his pillow”, to a wildly sensuous James Joyce overdoing the expletives, the letters tell of tenderness and commitment as much as they do of desperation and heartbreak. There’s an underlying thread though, that’s entirely unique to the missives of authors, and that’s their wonderment with love’s ability to render even the best of wordsmiths, wordless.

“I have become an idiot...That’s what love does to intelligent women. They cannot write letters anymore,” said Anais Nin, who spent decades writing secret letters to novelist Henry Miller. E.B. White, who gave us that Bible of sharp writing  The Elements of Style, pretends to be his dog Daisy to tell his wife just how happy he is about her pregnancy. “I know White so well that I always know what is the matter with him, and it always comes to the same thing — he gets thinking that nothing that he writes or says ever quite expresses his feeling, and he worries about his inarticulateness just the same as he does about his bowels, except it is worse...,” writes Daisy the Scottish terrier. Just a few decades earlier, novelist Vita Sackville West tells Virginia Woolf “I miss you” and then immediately drowns in the plainness of her words. “You, with all your undumb letters, would never write so elementary a phrase as that; perhaps you wouldn’t even feel it,” she woes. And then there are poets like Byron, who gloried in the simplicity of basic words to tell the deepest of loves. “Amor Mio” (My love) he penned at the back of a novel of his 18-year-old love Teresa who was then married to a 58-year-old count, in fear of whom Byron walked around with a sword. “In that word, beautiful in all languages, but most so in yours — Amor mio — is comprised my existence here and hereafter,” he wrote. Almost a century later, Vladimir Nabokov wrote a lifetime of letters to his wife Vera, who was his everything, from his stenographer to guardian, reportedly hiding a pistol in her purse to protect her husband. “I can’t tell you anything in words...Because with you one needs to talk wonderfully,” wrote Nabokov to Vera; yet his love for her shaped his very understanding of language itself: “I cannot write a word without hearing how you will pronounce it.”

It’s probably in the love letters between Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath though, that one read most about the power of words. Somewhere in the midst of Hughes’ writing about reading poets Yeats and Eliot and Blake and what he thinks of the English philosophers (“They make me foolishly angry”), he gives away the secret to writing well, love letters or otherwise, “Just write it off, in your own way,” he says, “and make it stand up off the page and jump about the room — then even if you’re writing about your Aunt Aegrotat’s animated carrots it will sell.”

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Printable version | Aug 8, 2020 3:44:17 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/making-wordsmiths-go-wordless/article6891043.ece

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