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Black Lamb

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Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.

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A turn for the verse

June 1st, 2003

BY GILLIAN WILCE

I have been doing anything rather than write this piece. The task of writing about an influential book ought to be a delight. And yet I have done the ironing, I have read a crime novel (by Ian Rankin — very enjoyable, but not a candidate), convictreadingI have looked up unnecessary and irrelevant sites on the Internet, played minesweeper and been out to stare at the river (very full and wide, very, very grey, and swept by little squalls of hailstones). I have read the small ads in the property section of The Evening Standard and I have done the quick crossword — every word of which put me in mind of a quotation or a book. For the problem is not lack but excess.

I can’t think of a single book that changed my life in an obvious way (except perhaps a psychology textbook, which led me to Jung, which led me to psychoanalysis, which led me to … – but that is another story, one which would probably have unfurled anyway from some beginning or other). On the other hand, I can’t imagine what a life without books would have been like. They are part of my fabric, just as they are of the fabric of this city.

Brooding, while going about town, on what I could possibly write here, I have been aware of Chaucer’s pilgrims gathering in Southwark at the Tabard and William Blake, naked in a tree, seeing visions in Lambeth, while William Wordsworth meditates on Westminster Bridge, Karl Marx labors over Das Kapital in the reading room of the British Museum, and, up in Hampstead, Keats scribbles gossipy letters spilling over with news, ideas, poetry.

Books can take so many forms and be and do so many things. My recent preference has been for diaries and memoirs and letters, writers just thinking aloud; several of these have become good companions over the past few years (Derek Jarman, for instance, Natalie Goldberg, the Barbara Kingsolver of High Tide in Tucson, Ursula Le Guin’s translation of the Tao).

Yet every time I try to think about books in relation to turning points in my life, it is, to my surprise, lines of verse that came to mind. So the book I would nominate as having most affected me would be one that does not exist. It would be an anthology of those poems that have spoken to me very particularly. It would not necessarily include the best of the authors’ work by litcrit. standards — or even the best of writers (there are a couple of rather poorly shaped poems by D.H. Lawrence that would have to be included).

Auden would definitely be there, and John Donne, and T.S. Eliot, whom I first read first in Bedford railway station, eighteen years old, a-jitter with nerves about the college interviews ahead, and yet bowled over by the Four Quartets. There would be swaths of Shakespeare and a handful of anonymous Elizabethan love ballads. Matthew Arnold’s “Buried Life” and Gerard Manley Hopkins’ amazing sonnets about despair would insist on their place, as would Louis MacNeice on the glorious “drunkenness of things being various.” There would probably be something from Sharon Olds or Mark Doty to remind me of hearing them both read in London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall and being fired again by the power of words, the utterly satisfying nature of certain combinations of sense and sound.

But if I were forced to choose only one actually existing book, then I would go for the raw materials. I would take the edition of Chambers Twentieth-Century Dictionary that my parents gave me when I went away to university, in which “A-bomb” and “pony-tail” appear in the updating supplement. We did not have a huge number of books at home (books were expensive and the public library provided ample food for the juvenile bookworm), but we were brought up to care about words, always to look up what we did not understand and to be precise about their meanings.

Battered but still sturdy, this dictionary remains a constant source of both word information and word intoxication. Open it anywhere. Did you know that “muckender” was a word for a handkerchief? Or that a “mucker” was originally a member of a Königsberg sect of dualistic theosophists? And what about the poetry lurking, waiting to be found, in “muck-heap,” “muckiness,” “muck-midden,” “muck-raking,” “muck-sweat,” “muck-worm”? •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Book Issue, Books and Authors, Wilce | Link to this Entry

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