5-30-12: Ben and Fussell

I learned a few days ago that the oldest member of the Sky Spinner Support Team (see Gallery) was named Student of the Year (Boy) for the Advanced Language Arts classes in the 6th grade at his middle school. I couldn’t be more pleased. While I’m not entirely sure what Language Arts might be beyond reading and writing, I like the linkage of the two words since using language well requires art as well as craft. I also love the idea that this particular team member has been told by people other than his family that skills with language might approach the value of skills on the sports field.

This week I also came across the NYT obituary of the literary critic and public intellectual Paul Fussell. The two events have nothing at all to do with each other except for their general suggestion of the importance of language as the instrument we use to explore life. At the other end of a life span from the Student of the Year, Paul Fussell leaves behind a world whose ironic stance was shaped in part by his written understanding of World War I and its horrific trench warfare of attrition. In The Great War and Modern Memory, Fussell looked at war through the prism of the art and literature it fostered and recognized it had ceased to be romanticized. Though The Great War is a book I’ve read about rather than read, I assume that, in the interconnected way of things, its insights have affected what I’ve learned in studying literature and even some of my outlook as a writer.

The Fussell work that has affected me directly is a scholarly book, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form. It’s a small work, but it both introduced me to the forms that have been used for so much of our great literature and taught me about the rhythms of language in a formal way much like the manner in which I learned about the rhythms of music. It felt wholly new.

But, as a prose writer, the words from that book that have never left me are not about poetry but prose. Fussell writes, “… a writer of effective prose has mastered a general principle governing all events which occur in time, whether athletic contests, seductions, or sentences. The principle is that the middle of the event is the least interesting part, the beginning the next most interesting, and the end the most interesting.” I’ve thought about that observation and tested it, using it to solve questions of pacing and where to put the emphasis in writing. It is an excellent and useful rule of thumb. There certainly is drama—a quickening—as something begins (the declaration that a student has taken meaningful first steps in Language Arts), and even more drama when a thing ends (the finality of the announcement that the person has died who outlined the rule itself). Yet this is true as well: it is the long middle where real engagement and challenges exist and where exploration and persistence are required. To say that middle is less interesting is only to say that it is less heightened, less charged, not that it is less important. The span between the points that begin and end—that horizontal rather than vertical space—is what grants both beginning and end their true power.

I ponder this, here where I am in the middle, though far closer to Paul Fussell’s endpoint on the spectrum than to the excitement of a fine beginning. (Congratulations, Ben.)

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