Morsel: Spark

I don’t know anyone named Muriel, but I want to.  My primary association with the name is from reading Muriel Spark’s novel The Prime of Miss Jane Brodie, then seeing the film, made marvelous by the young Maggie Smith.  I’m also aware of a Tom Waits song with the name as title, a brand of cigar and a Salinger character who is first paramour, then wife to Seymour Glass, but recently someone gave me a quotation from the Scottish writer Spark that drove me to a little light research.  Among my most satisfying discoveries were that Muriel is, in angelology circles, the “patron” angel of June and that it’s also a variant on Mary.  But the real treasure is in its history going back to early Welsh: muir – sea + geal – bright.  So Muriel is sea-bright, or perhaps shining or sparkling.

So: Muriel Spark is Sparkling Spark, which brings me back to the quotation, which many seem to have heard but without knowing the source.  (Will Twitter’s Spark scholars bring the source out of the shadows?)  She wrote about her own ambitions as a writer, “I aim to startle as well as please.”

For some time now one of my essential equations for effective poetry has been from Horace, who said that art should delight and instruct.  Another is, I think, just rumor I’ve netted from of the wind: a poem should appeal viscerally, emotionally and intellectually.  Lately I’ve wondered if musically and rhetorically are different categories or if they are subsumed by the first three.  The wind of rumor and hearsay and unattributed advice is the wind I mean, but that bit of wisdom dovetails neatly with Eliot’s suggestion that a poem can be felt before it is understood.  And I’ve long been fond of the Horace, that “delight” echoed in Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” (“To such a deep delight ’twould win me”)  and then Robert Penn Warren (“Tell me a story of deep delight”), from “Audubon: A Vision.”

Now there’s something in that “startle as well as please” that seems necessary, too.  Many times I have wrought and wrestled with a poem whose tone, pace, imagery, figures, taste and pitch and shape are just not quite cooperating in a satisfactory manner, though my rational self has contributed all it can and insists that this should be working?  The necessary something I’m lacking need not shock or impress or bewilder, but startle.  I see that the term goes back to a Middle English word related to “start,” but I don’t agree that present usage implies, as the Mirriam Webster suggests, “not seriously.”  A startling moment can change your life.

Perhaps my new directive is somewhat at odds with Dickinson’s “dazzle gradually,” but it may be the last step completing a dazzlement.  William Stafford’s “Traveling through the Dark” comes to mind, especially that moment when the traveler/narrator says, as he pauses beside the dead doe on that dark and perilous Wilson River road, “I could hear the wilderness listen.”  Similar moments arise in Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” near the end of Dickey’s “The Heaven of Animals” with “that sovereign floating of joy,” the close of Cummings’ “[Buffalo Bill’s],” “Ariel,” “The Art of Losing” or any number of Dickinson poems.  Most any reader can supply a provocative list.

The quotation from Spark has really given me a second wind, rescued and refreshed me the way that crow shaking down “a dust of snow” onto Frost’s narrator has, saving a part of the “rued” day.  The quotation startled me, but did not alarm me.  It arrested me and redirected me and revived me, and it has something to do with delight and instruction, not just a little to do with visceral, emotional and intellectual impact.  I’m left to pursue the rest of my day’s journey with a renewed appetite to be startled, and to embrace what is revealed.

For a writer, it’s worth remembering that Frost wrote “no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”  Same goes for a startle.  Maybe there’s some comfort in this.  The process of revision is often subtle and shadowy, trial and error, catch as catch can.  It’s hard to be sure whether a two or three syllable word here keeps the line resonantly vernacular, whether a Latinate word there contributes or distracts.  But I think we know when our own choices startle us, and if we make it through a draft unstartled, it’s back to rubbing the wild sticks together, aiming to strike the startling spark.

About R.T. Smith

recent-meR. T. Smith has edited Shenandoah since 1995 and serves as Writer-in-Residence at Washington & Lee. His forthcoming books are Doves in Flight: 13 Fictions and Summoning Shades: New Poems, both due in 2017.


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One Response to Morsel: Spark

  1. John Looker says:

    I loved reading this (I have found the blog while researching ‘Shenandoah’ from over here in England).
    It was intriguing to learn about the name Muriel, and even more to discover that Muriel Spark aimed to ‘startle as well as please’ as a writer. But I’m prompted to comment by your recommendation that a poem should surprise or startle not only the reader but also its writer.
    As you say, the process of revision can be subtle and shadowy. I think you are absolutely right that the long slow struggle to catch something in revision can suddenly bring its moments of astonishment. It is not all done in the first flash of inspiration.
    Sadly, my own revisions can sometimes followed by sober reflection that the change will not do, that the startling amendment was in fact not so inspired after all!. In the end however, the combination of imagination and judgement seems to get one through – and the best moments of surprise are lasting ones. Well, that’s how it strikes me.
    So, a most stimulating piece to read. Thank you.

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