Friday, October 5, 2012

Brevity & the Soul of Wit...a Lesson from Polonius

The aspiration: to write concisely, sparingly; where every single word fulfills a specific purpose; where the literary scalpel has been deployed to great effect, cutting out the fat and leaving only the lean meat of the novel. There are, of course, many writers who do this naturally (Hemmingway springing most immediately to mind), and others of us that labor at the task.

 Polonius (from Shakespeare's Hamlet) is depicted as a garrulous old windbag who, upon informing the King of Hamlet's madness,  pronounces the well-known adage that brevity is the soul of wit. The irony being, of course, that Polonius himself is hardly brief and without much wit to recommend himself.

I find among the pages of my best-loved books, the phrases that stay with me (and the ones that have become iconic for millions of others) are often the succinct ones; a few words coupled together that pack a punch far more powerful than might be expected: Call me Ishmael. In Melville's masterpiece of 630-odd pages, the opening line of three words is often the most famously cited and one that all remember. Not that verbal economy is always superior, but I think there is a place for it. Often these verbals clips are incredibly effective subsequent or previous to a longer phrase, perhaps it is the resultant rhythm that is created,  perhaps the dramatic effect is heightened by contrast.

I have also found myself returning again and again to poetry in quest of that sometimes elusive conciseness (as these blogs might testify I tend towards verbosity!) I have been re-reading haiku, that quintessential distillation of image and thought:

Like a ravaged sea
this bed.
Were I to smooth it,
the sleeve I  pressed to it
would float back moist with foam 

This particular haiku is by Lady Ise, one of Emperor Uda's favorites in the tenth-century Japanese court.

I think that is what I enjoy most about Shakespeare also is that while lengthy soliloquies are part and parcel of his tour-de-force, these marvelous passages are each comprised of succinctly gorgeous metaphors and analogies that are utilized to tremendous effect; Richard III Now is the winter of our discontent. What utterly enthralls me is how Shakespeare conveys so much in so few words - we lay the groundwork for Richard's brooding malevolence, his dissatisfaction with a world where he is little loved. And later in the play: A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse! Where Richard is prepared to relinquish all that he has schemed and plotted to obtain, in return for an exit strategy.

Anyway to bring this increasingly lengthy treatise to a conclusion (alas like Polonius I fear I must forfit wit) I think that the emphasis remains on the carefully-chosen word: regardless of sentence length, each word fulfills a powerful and useful function. These short phrases are like fireworks in the night, they illuminate the dark recesses of our mind in an explosion of color and light and are just as quickly extinguished, but their echo remains with us, their words continue to resonate precisely because they are expressed so concisely. They are more readily remembered. True to Shakespeare's consummate skill it is Polonius who serves as the ironic vehicle for such a message: brevity being the soul of wit.

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