Writing out of context

Years ago, someone on CBC radio mentioned an obscure literary contest, which I have never managed to identify, that awarded prizes for the most poetic and aesthetically pleasing non-fiction prose. What made this contest special was that the contestants were entirely unaware of the competition and their non-fiction work was usually the sort of grey literature of departmental reports or technical writing that no-one expects to be poetic, or even readable.

It was with this in mind that I started an irregular feature on this blog, before the great purge, and I have decided to bring it back.

For reasons that are likely connected to the peculiar wiring in my brain, and the fickle nature of my short-term memory, I occasionally come across a line or two in my reading that sticks, and tickles that aesthetic taste for well-turned prose. Often these sound better when taken out of their context. I think the first example I used was from Mark Musa’s editorial commentary on Dante’s Divine Comedy. In a note for Canto IX, Musa writes:

“Why Dante and Virgil, who have been circling always to the left, suddenly move off to the right remains a mystery; this will happen one other time in the inferno.”1

That is a mystery.

Jorge Luis Borges is probably my favourite writer. I like him for his effortless yet complex prose, even after passing through the filters of translation. I think anyone with a bookish slant would like Borges anyway, being the model for the blind librarian in Eco’s The Name of the Rose. I don’t think Borges had any problem with the colossal irony that he was totally blind when he became the National Librarian of Argentina. This is the stuff of his short stories anyway, the kind of themes that the Twilight Zone would have had trouble making believable.

Borges wrote a collection book reviews on famous authors, but these had his own take on a formulaic genre. They read like experiments or explorations. At one point, in his short review of Ulysses, Borges says of Joyce:

“His life, measured in place and time, will take up a mere few lines, which my ignorance will abbreviate further.”2

I have never read a more clever, and sympathetic, self-deprecating put-down.

I will add another example of out of context poetry, this time from Walter Pater, a controversial 19th century historian and critic. Pater had this to say about the origins of the Renaissance:

“Here and there, under rare and happy conditions, in Pointed architecture, in the doctrines of romantic love, in the poetry of Provence, the rude strength of the middle age turned to sweetness;”3

Yes, this is evolutionary history in its late-Victorian style. Pater still makes that judgement of the middle age as one of immature energy and crude action. But this is such a nice turn of phrase, it’s forgivable in isolation.


1- Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy Volume I: Inferno, Mark Musa, trans. and ed. (London: Penguin, 1984), 157.

2- Jorge Luis Borges, “Joyce’s Ulysses,” in, On Writing, Suzanne Jill Levine, ed. (London: Penguin, 2010), 12.

3- Walter Pater, Studies in the History of the Renaissance, Matthew Beaumont, ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 2010), 9.


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