Don’t kill your darlings

The source of the phrase ‘kill your darlings’ is the English writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who actually said more pointedly ‘murder your darlings’ in a lecture he gave at Cambridge University nearly a century ago. Quiller-Couch was the inspiration for the character of Rat in The Wind in the Willows. Rat is a loner, a dreamer who will never act out his dreams, and in fact is stricken with a fever when he comes too close to doing so. He is someone who may fantasise about becoming a pirate, but is happier having a picnic. He doesn’t like things to be too unpredictable, and doesn’t like his friends to be unpredictable either. And if a picnic can’t solve your personal crisis he’s at a complete loss. He does however possess an extensive personal armory for use when the proles get a bit restive.

For those of you who came in late, the phrase ‘kill your darlings’ has become a kind of shorthand instruction on how to write prose. There’s even an Australian lit journal by that name and an upcoming movie about Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs. Here’s what Quiller-Couch originally said:

To begin with, let me plead that you have been told of one or two things which Style is not; which have little or nothing to do with Style, though sometimes vulgarly mistaken for it. Style, for example, is not – can never be – extraneous Ornament. You remember, may be, the Persian lover whom I quoted to you out of Newman: how to convey his passion he sought a professional letter-writer and purchased a vocabulary charged with ornament, wherewith to attract the fair one as with a basket of jewels. Well, in this extraneous, professional, purchased ornamentation, you have something which Style is not: and if you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’

I don’t know about you, but I’m a bit over taking literary advice from high Edwardians, the actual darlings of whom shortly thereafter went and got themselves very thoroughly killed in enormous numbers on the fields of France and Belgium. In fact when Quiller-Couch published his lecture in 1916, that’s exactly what was happening, which gives a somewhat sinister context to his exhortation. I wonder if Wilfred Owen read it.

Writers have often been ready to give each other advice. I remember reading some a year or two back in a Fairfax paper – an Australian writer who sternly and virtuously exhorted the neophytes among us to eliminate all adverbs. That’s a big call, suddenly burning all the adverbs in the English language. Put your darlings to death, nuke all adverbs sounds a bit extreme. But O Great Writer, aren’t there any good adverbs or any darlings that deserve life? No. Kill them all. Purify the page. Destroy all monsters. God will know his own.

It’s as if writers secretly hate each other, or maintain themselves with dreams of fascist grandiosity. After all a novel can function as a kind of personal fiefdom where its creator has omnipotent control, and hatches, matches and despatches exactly as he or she wills. The novelist as Vladimir Putin: discuss.

When writers get together they often form hierarchies, set up gatekeepers and, not unusually, establish journals or competitions as a way of settling their differences. Or festivals. Which makes them sound remarkably like Kenneth Grahame’s Rat. We might dream about reconfiguring the narratives of the world, but really we’d rather have hyper-organised picnics – with admission fees. And no you can’t share my sandwiches. I copied them from a recipe by Arthur Quiller-Couch and they’re special. So get your own, you greedy ink-stained amateur. And remember not to use adverbs when you speak to me.


As I say an Edwardian aesthetic isn’t really my thing. What Quiller-Couch seemed to be arguing for was a masculine simplicity, the simplicity of the smoking room after dinner, something neat and spare with nothing left over, like a parquet floor. Ornamentation, I’m guessing, was regarded as feminine, decadent (‘Persian’) without the clean lines so pleasing to the masculine eye. It’s curious that Quiller-Couch used the noun ‘darlings’ a term then reserved for those masculine possessions: wives and children. England was at that time also host to a group of newly famous darlings, Wendy Darling and her two brothers Michael and Peter, in JM Barrie’s children’s story Peter Pan first published in 1911 after the earlier success of Barrie’s play. It was re-printed in a popular new edition in 1915, the year before the publication of Quiller-Couch’s lectures.

For writers to endorse the process of rewriting prose as an act of ruthless violence is extremely odd. It’s as though when one writer gives another their work to read, the knife comes out, which is a very strange response to a gift. I’ve been thinking that perhaps writers just don’t know how to listen to each other. It’s probably a difficult skill for people who prefer to spend their time talking to themselves, having omnipotent fantasies and mercilessly putting their darlings to death. Perhaps it’s worth asking what kinds of listening writers could discover if they tried. Special super-sensitive writers’ ears would not be required to do this either. Jacques Lacan criticised those psychotherapists who advocated for the cultivation of a ‘third ear’ in clinical practice. What’s the point of a third ear, said Lacan, when the two ears we have are already too many? Maybe, he said, we just need to become less deaf with the ears we already have.

Listening isn’t an act of intrusion. Nothing needs to be killed. Listening isn’t a search and destroy mission or a way of practising our literary topiary skills. What listening has the potential to be is a structural openness to the other, as we try to hear what is already there, not what we want to be there. It’s kind of dangerous, too. After all, if we let others speak with their own words ­– instead of with ours – who knows what they might come out with. Most likely it will be something we don’t want to hear, but critical to their way of being, something dear to them – a darling in fact. Listening to prose has nothing to do with what some writers think of as the craft or the wordsmithing. That can come later. It’s not brain surgery. It’s more like mucking about in the sandpit. Listening requires antenna, not knives.


It is the making of his or her own mind the writer engages in, which is why the process of writing can be so painful, building out of debris and found objects something contingent, and why every work of fiction verges on collapse. The work of imaginative prose you may be offered to read is the ruins of someone’s imagination, a heap of flotsam, of bones, of weird animal sounds snatched up and glued together any which way, stuck together as though they could make sense, like a song played backwards in which you think you can hear a secret message encased in a random collation of syllables.

In a long and fairly boring piece at the London Review of Books, the writer Iain Sinclair describes a recent meeting with the poet Gary Snyder. Sinclair says:

When I try to bring the practicalities of composition, the gossip of craft, into the conversation, Snyder misreads my questions or veers sharply away.

I met Gary Snyder once, and he woudn’t talk to me much either. But I suspect, in this case, it has more to do with the fact that Sinclair, who we learn can’t hear the difference between a frog and a bird, is making a lot of assumptions about what it means to be a writer. The ‘craft’ of writing seems like a topic for those who think writing prose has no political or ethical import. There isn’t any craft, sitting out there like a set of blueprints for an Edwardian escritoire. It’s not carpentry or leadlighting. There’s a lot of made up rules and assumptions and a lot of self-appointed experts who writers flock to like flies to jam, as well as a truckload of unexamined politics and ethical dilemmas that writers avoid like a contagion. The ‘craft’, about which Sinclair says he loves to gossip, is informed, shaped and completely saturated by a context of political and ethical choices.


Poets, as perhaps someone should tell Iain Sinclair, are a different kettle of fish, and the rules of writing either by Quiller-Couch or even George Orwell don’t really apply. But then poets are always a different kettle of fish. Or a fishy bunch of kettles. In fact, it’s arguable that poets are not actually writers at all, but really something else, something much more arcane. We should probably keep them in cages, like canaries, for their own safety. Orwell said that in a society with a fascist imperative, it’s the lyric poets among writers whose work is the last to be corrupted. It’s as though poets breathe a different atmosphere to other writers, a more ancient air. Maybe that’s true. As with the blues there’s probably always been poetry. The Chicago bluesman Jimmy Dawkins said that Black American blues grew out of the moaning of the slaves in the holds of the slave ships, which is a pretty amazing image. But as John Lee Hooker once remarked (and this doesn’t negate Jimmy Dawkins’ claim): ‘Blues has been here since the world was born.’ So I guess blues and poetry may have come out of the same egg.


Poets stand obliquely in a different relationship to words than everyone else, in a universe with a different physics where everyone has multiple quivering antennae and clusters of eyes and the gravity is twelve times heavier. When poets turn away from poetry and start writing essays, the result can often be exceedingly leaden but also kind of weird and naive, as though they’re giving an especially pious lecture and remembered to solemnly don their mortarboard but forgotten to put on their pants. For example, Wallace Stevens’ book of essays, The Necessary Angel, reads as if it’s been badly translated into Martian and then back into English. It’s like getting a rendering of ‘Pop goes the Weasel’ that reads ‘The small furry animal explodes’. When poets start writing novels (I’m looking at you Simon Armitage), it’s best to just walk quietly away and hope some kindly paramedics will clean up the blood-drenched mess and extract the poet from the wreck with the Jaws of Life.

I can’t imagine living with a poet, and I’ve never tried. It could well be like living with Stewie Griffin, if Stewie Griffin also had the temperament of Elton John but sang like Nina Simone. Clear boundaries would need to be drawn: Leave that essay alone dear, and go back to your cage and sing. Or I’ll have to blind you.

A poet might write you a love poem, but it’s not really for you. It’s really addressed to Poetry.

Anyway, where was I? Sorry, I got sidetracked when I probably should have been wrist-deep in the blood of my murdered offspring. Personally, I’m more interested in what I call ‘white-outs’ than darling slaughter. White-outs are the bits of my writing that my eye slides over without getting any adhesion. I think of them as white-outs because it’s as if they blend into the page itself, perfectly camouflaged. And there’s always a very peculiar and particular reason as to why something gets whited-out. ‘White-outs’ is a nice image for the structural realities we inhabit, where so much is still whited-out by old white guys, and for all the things we ourselves can’t see in our own experience: the ways we trap ourselves, our failure to take ourselves seriously, the violence we put up with or perpetuate, the dead relationships we hang on to (sometimes for the poetry).

The imperative to ‘kill your darlings’ of course ensures that no darlings will actually be killed. Nobody kills off their own darlings. It’s always other people’s darlings that get put to the sword. But what gets knifed may well be something that still hasn’t taken on its full shape, something potentially unsettling trying to make itself heard, a moaning from the hold where you keep your slaves.

I remember reading a piece about an Australian playwright who won a prize that gave him time with Edward Albee. Come to think about it, I may have read it at Overland. Anyway, Albee reportedly said: ‘It’s ridiculous spending 10 days together. I could give it to you in three short lines: “No. Absolutely Not. And go fuck yourself.” It’s all you need to know.’

That’s pretty good advice I think to give to the next person who invites you to kill your darlings: No. Absolutely not. And go fuck yourself. Maybe if one of Quiller-Couch’s undergraduates had said it to him before they got marched off to the Somme, we’d be having different conversations about writing today. It might also mean we’d have a literary journal called Go Fuck Yourself. That’d be something.

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

More by Stephen Wright ›

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  1. I had never thought of the Great War connection . That is so interesting.
    The other, equally loathsome, phrase is the injunction to ‘write what you know’. Wouldn’t be surprised if that was coined by someone equally sinister!

  2. Yeah, I’d guess that there’s a very interesting deconstruction that could be carried out on ‘Write what you know.’ It already sounds sinister without any context. I just find the whole history of writers giving advice to each other quite bizarre, and both illuminating and depressing. And of course it’s always the published giving advice to the unpublished, with the unpublished presumably keen to deify the the person giving the advice.

  3. Hi Stephen – interesting and provoking piece. I agree with much of what you say about so-called “craft” here, especially the kind that is just about Handy Hints for Authors. And I think what you say about the gendering/orientalism of ornamental language among the Edwardians is worth thinking about further, although I also suspect that a close look at the writings of the time would make the whole question fiendishly contradictory…

    However, I’m not at all sure what you mean by opposing poets to notions of craft. Or indeed, by the kind of mystification of poetry here. Poets are generally the nerds of linguistic craft. They might think there are more important aspects of language (the best certainly do) but it still matters enormously. As Celan said, craft is like hygiene, “the least you should expect”. Also, some poets end up writing exquisite prose. David Malouf being an example.

    I wanted to say in particular that you’re a bit unjustifiably hard on Iain Sinclair, another poet-turned-prose man. I agree that particular article isn’t among his most exciting work, but he has always been aligned with the very self-aware poetries of the English avant garde (poets like Jeremy Prynne and Doug Oliver et al) and was (is?) a poet himself. I can’t imagine anyone less likely to make lazy assumptions about writing. Perhaps, like Snyder, you’ve misunderstood what he meant by “the gossip of craft”.

    1. Sshhh…Alison, or you might end up in a cage with the canaries.

      Stephen, this is an interesting and thought-provoking piece, but it’s also pretty amusing/irritating in its ‘mystification’ – as Alison terms it – of poetry and poets.

      Surely ‘craft’ is vital to any writer – it’s not a matter of following ‘rules’ but attending to the materials at hand: words. Following that, the dubious distinction you seem to making between poets and prose writers is worth contesting I think – ultimately it comes back to the words. It’s all just writing.


        1. Hi Alison
          Thanks for your thoughtful response.
          And Hi Cam
          Actually my intention was not to mystify poetry but to politicise its lineage a bit. Did poetry, like the blues, arise from some expression of human suffering? And when the ur-humans got their heads and tongues around language did poetry very soon follow?
          I would imagine it did. Certainly early homo sapiens didn’t sit around writing novels. I think poetry has a different history than other writing, partly because it may have come first and also because it was oral. Also Orwell had a good point when he argued that poets were the last writers still standing when the fascist started getting in control, the journalists being the first to capitulate.
          I agree that poets can be the nerdiest when it comes to crafty discussions, (see Wallace Stevens as mentioned), but I think that being nerdy about one’s poetry is beside the point. That’s because being nerdy about poetic or literary craft is so boring and so decontextualised, and like a lot of literature de-politicised and transcendentalised.
          David Malouf is a novelist who sometimes writes poetry. That doesn’t make him a poet. Octavio Paz was a poet who sometimes essays. But that didn’t make him an essayist. Paz was a great poet I think, but reading his essays, even the Labyrinth of Solitude which I have read more times than I care to remember, I’m out in mind of opera singers trying to sing popular songs. It never works. Poetry can legitimately claim a longer lineage than novel writing and was widely spread. There’s something about it that is qualitatively different. It’s not ‘just writing.’

          1. Dunno…will have to think about that. I’m not sure I agree with much of what you’ve said, but I don’t have a legitimate argument in response (dopey me).

            Having said that, I think most people would cite Malouf as a significant Aus. poet, even if they don’t buy into his poetics.

          2. You don’t have to agree Cam. And I’m not trying to convince you. Either would be boring. I’m just trying to have a conversation.
            David Malouf is a ‘significant Australian poet’? Really? I had no idea. And what does that even mean?

          3. Sorry if this seems a bit arse-around, but the comments thread wouldn’t let me respond directly. Stephen, are you suggesting that Malouf isn’t a significant Australian poet? I don’t claim to be a great lover of his poetry but many folk are. Are you saying he’s a shithouse poet?

            If so, and I might be misrepresenting you here, who are you throwing up as goodins?


          4. I’m not suggesting anybody. I don’t really think that way. (When I said Paz was great, I didn’t mean he was Great, just that I liked him.) I’m just wondering how these things are decided and by who.

      1. It’s not really my business to interpose here however all parties seem to be oblivious of the text of the blog in respect of the point central to the craft of writing (regardless of form or text type): whether the craft is “just writing” or whether that craft is *just* (ethical) writing.

        1. I thought that was exactly my point, although I may not have articulated it very well. That the ethics/politics of the writing remain a matter of the writing. The words. And the craft involved.

          I should pull out of this, cos I aint no theory person…

      2. Hi Stephen – I’ve read all the prose books of Paz I can get my hands on, from Alternating Current on, and they have been very important to me. I just don’t understand what you mean here. And the essays of countless other poets, from Olson to HD, Sir Philip Sidney to Montale to Mandelstam, Baudelaire to Rilke to Brecht, and so on. Some are eccentric – HD, say, with her theories of the “overmind” – and, as is equally the case with essayists who not poets, some are better prose writers than others. Some are in fact brilliant (poetry, with its attention to minute detail, can be like high altitude training for prose). Poets often make very good art critics – viz Frank O’Hara or John Ashbery. It all depends on the poet; as in all collections of people, there are varying capacities.

        As for Malouf: he was recognised as a poet well before he was a novelist, and wrote lots. You should check out his large Selected (Collected?) Poems, which UQP published several years ago. I should think that writing poetry is what makes you a poet. Not being a special or peculiar human being.

        Poetry is a particular art, for sure, as is writing plays or novels. I’m not arguing about that. But I’m not so sure that you can draw a big black line defining it away from other writing: I can think of some novels that are as poetically charged as poems, and some poems that bear all the characteristics of prose. The line dissolves the more closely you look at it. One thing that struck me forcibly was reading that Yeats wrote his poems by roughing them out in prose first. Then he worked them into poems. I can’t think of a more “poetic” poet than Yeats, nor of a more mundane way of making poems: those inspired lines – and for all his bizarro politics, I’m very fond of Yeats’s poetry – are the result of the application of formidable crafting.

        I guess I should do some full disclosure here: I’m a poet who writes essays. And lots of prose. Strangely, all of these things occur simultaneously, although it’s not for me to say whether I’m an opera singer. Why, if a writer works in several different forms – as is very common throughout literature – is there this response that wants to enclose the writer in a single form? Why is “poet” considered an absolute category which must admit no others? If, like Malouf, the poet is successful as a novelist, the poet is now invalid; if he/she is best known as a poet, the prose must be considered a weird aberration. Frankly, it makes no sense, and there’s nothing in my own reading that bears that out.

        Re the politics of poetry: that’s much more complicated and I simply can’t address it here. When did it go away? Modernist poets, pace Orwell, have an uncomfortable history with fascism, as do many other writers of the time: not only Pound, but even poets like David Jones, who pre-world war had a brief flirtation with Mosley. The nerdiness of “style” in poetry has often been highly politicised, especially in the 20C. Mayakovsky was making a political point when he invented new rhymes in Russian poetry. What was Rimbaud doing when he broke the alexandrine? The LANGUAGE poets were all about undermining given semiotics with their slippages, and that was an openly political project. Iain Sinclair and other poets of the 70s, Prynne, Oliver, Alice Notley and so on, were and are absolutely aware of the political implications of language, in all its details (which is why I picked you up on Sinclair) and it fed explicitly into their poetics. The postwar poetry of people like Heiner Mueller or Enzensberger is precisely about “the slaves in the hold” of culture. Whatever you think of these various projects, and I can’t say I agree with the premises of all of them, you can’t deny that these poets thought very hard about the wider implications of their crafting: these questions are far from decontextualised.

        As I said earlier, I agree with you about handy hints stuff, but that’s about something else: marketing, usually. There is a whole ideology that goes with that: “branding” and so on. Attention to the details of craft in the hands of many poets, however, is about something else, and on the whole is about making explicit the hidden ideologies of language. Like what Cam said, “attending to the materials at hand”.

        Well, that all feels very partial, and is already too long…

        1. Hi Alison
          Ta for the engagement.
          I’m not sure where to start, so I’ll try the big picture first. As I said earlier, the purpose of the post is not really to establish whether or not poetry is this or that – though I’ll get back to that issue and your arguments. I’m just trying to find a way to posit the same question I always ask, that is always on my mind, which is ‘how is literature possible in these times?’ I think that the critical apparatus that writers use to engage with each other (and writers-as-editors) is often seriously compromised by assumptions as to what literature is for or how it is made. It’s not just about ‘handy hints’. There’s a whole vernacular of literary construction, often exemplified in the teaching of Creative Writing and other forms of exposition that shears literature of political meaning. And by ‘political’ I’m not referring to Pound’s fascism or whatever, but asking ‘what gets spoken and who gets to speak it.’ That is what literature is for me. It’s nothing special in itself. That’s the only question I’m really interested in. If I’m promoting anything it’s a provocation toward a kind of Lacanian listening. I think writers just don’t listen, their ears are just so plugged up with Literature.
          Your statement about poetry being high altitude training for prose is exactly the statement I’d expect from a poet who likes to fiddle with the somewhat moribund form of expression we call ‘the essay’. What does it actually mean? You seem to be privileging poetry in a different way from me, and in a way which I don’t subscribe to.
          I’m not trying to draw a line between literary forms, I’m trying to provoke questions about this whole weird enterprise called ‘literature.’ A lot of writers have tried to do that, but they are hereafter then incorporated into the history of literature, as though they were always inside it and not outside, trying to shout through a glass wall.
          As far as Paz and Malouf go we will just have to disagree. I have an old proof-readers copy of ‘Alternating Currents’ and Paz first piece ‘What does poetry name’ is just depressing. Definitely a man with his mortarboard on and no pants. ‘Labyrinth of Solitude’ is redeemed by the summary statement in the last few pages about love once being revolutionary and now positively dangerous, but when Paz pontificates he pontificates like no-one else. Malouf’s last novel ‘Ransom’ I would have composted if it hadn’t been a library book, but his first book of poems ‘Bicycle’ is quite fine. As a novelist I have no time for him. He has always seemed to me like Tim Winton’s slightly intellectualised uncle. His essay on happiness a while back said everything about David Malouf I couldn’t say myself.

          1. Hi again
            when the email of my comment came in I realised i’d forgotten to address the whole poets writing prose thing.
            I think that when we flit from one literary form to the other, today poetry, yesterday the essay etc we could really ask what on earth it is we think we are doing. I don’t believe that they are all ‘just writing’ by using different techniques. There’s no thing out there in the cosmos called ‘literature’ of which poetry etc are the expression. Poetry, essays, prose etc are completely different political forms with different histories and jumping from one to the other as versions of literature seems very problematic to me. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but perhaps the poets with the most integrity (Paz, Stevens) the poets who I think were really onto something as poets were the ones who have showed us exactly why it is so hard. If Paz can’t do it, you’re going to have to pretty superhuman to be able to do it yourself. You think Paz does it well, I think Paz does it horribly, and therein lies the seeds of our disagreement. If Paz can’t do it, as I believe, then why not? Is it a failure in him or something in the structural and political nature of the different forms that he underestimated?

          2. Well, I too was very disappointed with Ransom. But An Imaginary Life remains one of my favourite novels of all time. The point is not whether you are a great admirer of Malouf’s work, but whether he is a poet by virtue of writing poems, which seems to me to be unarguable. We’ll have to agree to disagree on Paz. However, Harold Bloom also pontificates like no one else, and nobody has suggested that’s because he’s a poet.

            Re the “high altitude” comment, I was making a simple point: that the concentrated attention entailed in writing poems is excellent practice for writing prose, which also requires attention to detail. That opens out past things like the usage of commas into an attention to the details of living. How is that hard to understand? Perhaps you are claiming that writing requires no skill, that “everyone is a writer”: (everyone literate, I guess you would have to mean here, since it does require the skills of reading and writing at the absolute base). But I don’t think that’s what you meant, or if you did, it’s not clear at all. I do think writing is a skill, among many other things. Yes, it is an ancient art, and has its roots in orality. But I don’t think oral poetry is any less skilful. Look at the wordbraiding of the Anglo-Saxons or African praise songs.

            I won’t take exception to your saying that I’m a poet “who likes to fiddle with the moribund form of the essay”, but it does make me wonder… Moribund how? For whom? How am I “fiddling”? Do I also “fiddle” with novels? Are these prose works more essentially fiddleable than prose by writers who are not poets? Why is a poet dealing with prose any different from any other writer dealing with prose?

            You’re ignoring the many examples of people who do attend to the details of writing in highly politically conscious ways. And you’re also shifting the goalposts. I too have impatiences with the whole construction of capital-L literature, although I also love literature. And I too have many questions about poetry. (They’re personal and difficult to articulate, and in any case I don’t want to talk about my own practice; it’s simply why I find these questions interesting). But I will say that the way the cultural machine eats up radical artists and spits them out as part of itself has been talked about forever, and is a different issue from what those writers, of whatever kind, are themselves doing. Maybe the answer is to pay attention to those writers, rather than to what is said about them.

            Again, I agree with you about many aspects of the present cultural machine, although I don’t think any of these questions are simple. And yes, writing is “nothing special”, which is to say, it’s no more (or less) special than anything else human beings make, from horse shoes to babies. I’m not sure how I’m privileging poetry in saying that it is, like other forms, a mode of writing. The reverse, surely? It was the very specialness you were drawing around poetry that initially made me post here… Also, listening goes both ways. And I’ve probably said more than enough on all of this.

          3. Sounds like this may have been a frustrating discussion for you Alison. I think at baseline we are talking about different constructs. Literature is obviously not just another human activity. Shoes and babies and books are qualitatively different things.
            Arguing that a poet is a poet because he or she writes poems kind of misses the point.
            Literature itself is a cultural machine and that’s something of a problem and the point of interest. I can’t see that I’m ignoring politically conscious writers. I just wonder what they look like.
            And I think the questions you are asking of yourself – “Moribund how? For whom? How am I “fiddling”? Do I also “fiddle” with novels? Are these prose works more essentially fiddleable than prose by writers who are not poets? Why is a poet dealing with prose any different from any other writer dealing with prose?” – are great questions.
            Harold Bloom is the Pontiff of Pontificators. What Paz can do in his poems is very cool I think, and often probably something outside of poetry, especially later. But that doesn’t excuse ‘Alternating Currents’. He was probably just having a bad day, and I don’t hold him to it.

          4. Hi Stephen – Yes, maybe a bit frustrating. On the one hand, you say you want to open things up for question. On the other, you seem to be insisting that your various categories are utterly hermetic and sealed off from each other. If literature isn’t a human activity – like any other human activity – then what is it? Yes, it’s specific to itself, but it’s also subject to all those human pressures, social, personal, political, etc etc etc. And I was asking you those questions, specifically.

          5. Morning Alison. I’m not sure how to be clearer that I don’t think that poetry and prose are not hermetically sealed from each other. But I think they are politically different modalities and this is something that could be thought about a little. Your ‘high altitude’ metaphor is starting to sound like something from The Book of Tea. Poetry-as-tea-ceremony. Which is fine as far as it goes, but seems to privilege poetry without politicising it. Despite your apparent agreements with me about writing advice and Literature as a culturally problematic construct, I think we are very far apart here. I don’t have the committment and interest in Literature that you do. Of the significant cultural developments of the past several hundred years, the Blues would rank very far above the Novel. Literature has been many things, but to me the products of fiction writers and of poets are starting to look increasingly like unconscious ways of dealing with and expressing one’s disturbed mental states, on a planet apparently about to catch fire consumed by economic systems that are so deranged and destructive that it’s difficult to describe. When a writer seems to be attuned to that idea, of literature as an involuntary symptom of unease and distress – say WG Sebald – something really special happens.
            Yes, I realise that your questions were for me specifically. But I couldn’t help thinking that you were asking them of yourself.

          6. High altitude training is from the sport of cycling. Poetry as act, if you like. But hey, it can be a tea ceremony if you wish. I’ve given many examples of how political awareness operates in poetry, but clearly, being Literature, you think they don’t count.

            Urgency. That’s why I started writing popular novels.

          7. There’s probably a lot more to discuss and sort Alison but a comments thread has its limitations. Thanks for taking the time for the conversation. I appreciate it.Perhaps we’ll be able to have a further conversation sometime and get to the bottom of things.

    2. Maybe I should have always stuck to plastering, since I was once good at that. There is a craft to it, and beyond that, an art. So, too, carpentry. Paz is awesome, yes, but I still don’t buy into the line you’re pursuing. But maybe I’m misreading??

      1. It’s all starting to get away from me a bit….mainly because the point of the post was really about something else. (As Dennis is pointing about) The section on poetry would easily be deleted by any editor who fancied themselves as a bit of a darling slaughterer. And the post would still read ok. But the poetry bit is there to illustrate my main point that writers could do well to think about different ways of listening to each other, ways that privilege the mistake or the messy edges or the slips – all the things that try to get said. There is something trying to be said in the paras I wrote on poetry and perhaps it could be listened to a bit differently, rather than in the poetry is/isn’t such-and-such. Maybe we could ask what are the slaves we keep in the hold? What horrible things does literature try to hide about itself? In what way does literture partake of the hypercapitalist, neoliberal enterprise? Every fiction writer leaves things unsaid, sweeps some things away. Perhaps poetry tries to make up language over and again to help it reveal its own blind spots. Perhaps all writing could do this. Really I couldn’t give a fuck about Great Literature. Who cares?

  4. Very literary of you, Stephen, on Higgs Boson Day.

    I’m in a library so I’ll adopt the Dedalus role and argue that Quiller-Couch saw himself as a MacBeth type and pinched his kyd idea from that play:

    He has no children. —All my pretty ones?
    Did you say all? —O hell-kite! —All?
    What, all my pretty chickens, and their dam,
    At one fell swoop?

    And contrary to what another poet believed, after a first murder there are other murders committed in the name of the first imbecilic murder.

  5. You know, I wrote a post on science-fiction and Ray Bradbury died. Then I wrote this and the basic fabric of the universe was discovered. Spooky huh? I think I’ll have to go lie down and contemplate the mystical poetic unknowableness of the universe.

    1. no need to do that and it may have been unhelpful and i’m sorry if it was but i think I was jokingly suggesting at the time that a kill your darlings is not the higgs bosun (god particle) of written expression and although all writing in english literature passes through and is slowed down by a shakespeare field shakespeare although a sticky mass is no higgs field and would get an A from me for pure language expression if abstracted from political critique but a B- for philisophico political ideas and content trapped as his elizabethan world view was between fortuna and a far from revolutionary divine providence

      1. It would be fascinating to know what WS would make of this discussion (even with, as you say Dennis, the problematic of being trapped in an Elizabethan time/space). I wonder what he’d make of Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital…

        And, I guess, as a further tangent – and not wanting to reignite the conversation above – it would be a wonderful thing to know what he would think about the interpretations, reinterpretations and (re)reinterpretations of the plays. A little Shakespeare fantasy…

        Thanks for the post, Stephen. These sort of pieces – even if somewhat contentious, or maybe because of that – are great for making one think. Even if, in my case at least, the thinking doesn’t rise to much.

        And Alison, ‘high-altitude high-tea’ would be something to see (or do).



        1. Cam, cut out the minimising of your thoughts dude. I’m always grateful for people’s comments and take them all seriously.
          We don’t have to agree with each other. The most interesting and real discussions are those where we don’t. It’s been an interesting conversation all round and I’m happy for things to be left unresolved, even suspended in disagreement.

        2. Yes, Cam, heed your own words of those who make the most noise the rich rewards – and if I’m addressing the Cameron Lowe of Text and Paratext: Ern Malley and the Function of the ‘Author’, who says you ain’t no theory person?

          1. Really? Is that so?
            ‘Oi just be a ‘umble plast’rer oi be. Oi don’t know nuthin’ abaht high-falutin’ theory an’ such-loike.’ Yeah right.

          2. Me, Dennis. And yes, I’ll heed my own words, although I’m not entirely sure what that poem has to do with much here.

            As to the Ern stuff, who knows? CL is probably a pretty common name, and Malley is a slippery little fella. For someone who never existed, Ern’s politics/craft are quite complex.

            But, as Stephen has suggested, these threads go awry, and I’m not helping here.

            Thanks again for the discussion,


  6. “…What listening has the potential to be is a structural openness to the other, as we try to hear what is already there, not what we want to be there. It’s kind of dangerous, too. After all, if we let others speak with their own words ­– instead of with ours – who knows what they might come out with…”

    I just wanted to posted this quote from your post Stephen, because to me this seemed like the main aha moment. The key.

    ‘Craft’ then might be a way of listening better in an open way, to the other-coming-into-being. I could see that deleting words, or fiddling with commas and adverbs etc, might be part of this open-practice. These days I get bored very quickly from books (which are much more non-fiction as we call them than fiction and/or novel forms). I mean, I read the first line or two, and then it’s lights out. I think I’m looking for something that hits me / excites me in terms of the grammar and style – not regardless of content but because the content is so damn important that the writing just has to re-write itself and the re-write its genre/s in the process. And this is something I am ‘waiting’ for in my own writing (waiting for this weirdness to appear somehow, in the act of drafting, re-drafting, trying stuff out etc etc).

    I would also like to observe that whilst questioning the sinister side of the talk of killing and murdering and darlings, you then hatch your own metaphor of caging and blinding the poet-who-dares-write-anything-else. So rather than murder it’s to be torture instead? What’s going on here?

    From the world of music, I would like to offer the terms ‘orchestration’ versus ‘instrumentation’. Orchestration is the craft of turning a musical idea (usually a melody, or gesture, or harmonic sequence itself, which exists apart from any materialisation of it) into a score to be played by various instruments, be it from an orchestra or otherwise. ‘Arranging’ is another term close to this — we arrange other people’s musical idea, and orchestrate our own, might be a simple way of putting it. Alternatively, instrumentation is not a craft, unless selecting the instruments one is going to work with in the first place is a craft (which it is no doubt). So we have some instruments, and then from this musical ideas follow, emerge. This is kind of like the modernist injunction for ‘truth-to-materials’ except there is not truth there to be found, just materials to work with… Flicking between different literary forms could be the work of orchestration: I am a writer, I have ideas, I express them in different forms/genres etc. Or it could be the work of instrumentation: I am here writing now listening to something other than is coming out in this particular way (oh how strange, it happens to turn out looking a bit like x or y).

    Are you trying to get at something like this distinction.

    BTW, this thing you keep asking about writing in our current age, which you diagnose as highly destructive, is making more sense to me… in that when I think about getting bored with books just because of their opening lines (and btw I do also flick through the whole document to catch other first lines of sections and paragraphs to make sure I’m not missing anything) and am I think actually thinking about what ideas would be so important right now that they are worth writing about right now (write now) (wright now). Becoming people that do more open, structural listening is part of this. Actually it’s a massive part if not the whole think in that love (living better, caring, dwelling on and in what’s important etc) could I think be described as actively and sensitively relating-to-the-other-coming-into-being. At whatever scale. My spouse and kids. The planet. This sentence. The whole text.

    1. Hi Luke
      Thanks for the structurally open listening. Yes the para you quote was the main point and the centrepiece and the heart and everything else. The stuff on poets in cages was a provocation of a sorts and an exemplar of something, which I’ll come back to later. Your questions will require a long answer I think. So here goes. First, Musicians and Instrumentation/Orchestration and then Weirdness and then Poets and Torture and Quiller-Couch.
      I’ve always admired musicians because they have a history of collaboration, which writers generally don’t. Writers largely have the myth of solitary genius (which of course is not true) which is an investment in a kind of omnipotence. Musicians and other artists have the genius thing too, but collaboration is much more part of the normal processes of creativity.
      Writers generally don’t collaborate. There are some exceptions, but generally we don’t. Editing is not collaboration. It could be, and sometimes it is, but generally it isn’t. And I’m guessing that when it is collaboration the editor isn’t acknowledged except in some gushing preface by the writer. I think there should be more collaboration and editors could be seen as collaborators which would change radically their current function as slashers and cut-and-pasters. I get pretty light and careful editing and sometimes inspirational editing on the Overland website, but even (or especially) when I don’t agree with it, I wish there was more time and space for dialogue, for collaboration.
      You know, I was thinking about how the Clash negotiated this. On their first four albums (really 5) all songs were credited to Strummer-Jones. On the last two albums (really 4) all songs were credited to ‘Clash.’ I don’t think that Joe and Mick had suddenly stopped writing songs, but I think two things happened; first, there was an act of political and personal generosity from them to the two other members of the band – if you don’t get songwriting credits on an album, you don’t get any money. Second, there was an acknowledgment that if Paul and Topper (bass and drums respectively) weren’t included as full participants then it wasn’t really the Clash. It was just Strummer and Jones and their backing band.

      This was an act of collaboration, and a political one, and I’d also guess what when it was acknowledged this way the actual songwriting partnership and dynamics did change. Writers and editors could do this. I could write something and give it to an editor and say, ‘Have a listen to this and have a play around with it.’ In other words I would be inviting him or her to listen IN an a structurally open and politicised way and dd something. Of course most publishers would then submit this to a third party for further ‘editing’ so we’d never get out of the circus ring, but I think collaboration is possible. At the moment what happens is exactly the opposite. Something is submitted to a publisher and if it is accepted, the knives come out. I had this experience recently with a piece that was important to me (not here I should add) and that the publisher praised highly and it was a strange and illuminating experience. If they loved it, why did I get back a heap of butchered…..stuff?
      When I write, as I said in the post, I’m looking for the things that get whited-out and I’m looking for the weirdness. It is almost impossible to see one’s own weirdness, one’s Otherness if you like. This is where collaboration could really come into its own. Of course editors might say, well we don’t have the time to do this or it’s too hard or they might object through other criteria. In other words, say, well nothing can change. This is of course crap. There’s nothing to stop publishers or editors tentatively exploring a new model of active and open and politicised collaboration. Even as an experiment, with a single writer. But it would require dialogue and active kinds of listening, which as you rightly remark, we could be extending into other areas of our lives anyway.
      Writing in different forms could be kind of comparable to instrumentation perhaps, and it’s an idea worth exploring, except that I am arguing that the poem and the essay and the novel are different political modalities and that this could be talked about a bit, and made explicit. I don’t think they are expressions of this general thing out there in the inner cosmos called ‘writing’. And one might flit from one to the other, but I think that when one is doing so one is engaging in a political act, which if not acknowledged misses something important and probably results in an impoverished poem, essay or novel. And some writers do explore this political boundary, but it seemd clear to me that when they do, they do it with great awareness and with some care.
      Also writers don’t generally like talking about the politics of what they do. It’s in bad taste. It’s really Art, which is beyond politics. So let’s talk about Craft. Let’s ‘gossip.’ This is boring and bullshit and really uninteresting to me.
      As far as he ‘poets in cages’ thing goes: I was struck by Orwell’s image of poets being the last to be gassed by the fumes of fascism, in other words a reversal of the canary-in-the-coalmine image. Poets also can be thought of as inhabiting a cage of form, of poetic structure, of metre or whatever. And I was aso having a go at the image of poets as fragile types singing away in garrets. I was also being provocative, and just seeing where a provocation could go if I suggested that poets needed to think about poetry as a cage, and writing forms as cages in which we are even more imprisoned when we go from one form to the other, without too much critical thought than if we just stayed within the confines of our own poetic or essayist or novelistic territories.
      More importantly I figured that the way to provoke some listening of the type I am advocating for was to insert a section that would normally be slashed to be bits, in other words make a spiky and odd space where something could be heard, something weird poking its head up and squeaking.
      I was also just making some jokes! Because I could!
      As far as your comment on Quiller-Couch goes, sure there are certain kinds of writing I object to. And like you, when I pick up a novel I read the first page, pick a couple of other half-pages at random and then make a decision then. About one in 50 gets through this filter. I object to literary ‘fine-writing’ of the type fostered by the whole American creative writing movement. I look for a weird, spiky, idiosyncratic vulnerability, or just something that surprises me. But that’s just my personal choices.
      As far as ‘literature’ goes, I think that it’s falling off a cliff, largely ebcause of the publishing and editing model we now have. You pick up a novel in a bookstore and it says ‘Poetic contemporary title’ by ‘An author’ and you think, ‘Oh, An Author wrote this’. Actually ‘An author,’ that solitary genius, wrote something which then went through the filter of corporate publishing which decided whether the author was marketable or not and then it was attacked with knives, often by several people then it was marketed, then it was reviewed by white male critics and it entered the machine of industrial distribution and so on.
      What has this to do with political dissent exactly?
      Ta for the questions Luke. Next time I should porbably consider surrounding the key points of a post with flashing sequinned stars, like the entrance to a disco, and add a a border of dancing ducks with hats, blowing bubbles. Or perhaps I should just be more direct and a lot clearer.

      1. Stephen, some responses to various things here:

        Interesting you contrast the desire for a dialogue of structured open listening, with the realities of editor-writer relationships. It’s true that music groups can be more disposed to collaborations, but not all musicians are collaborative and certainly there are relationships that can be hidden over – the music producer – band relationship is probably pretty much like the editor-writer thing, especially when dealing with those publishers/labels that care about market placement.

        You also said “I don’t think they [different writing forms] are expressions of this general thing out there in the inner cosmos called ‘writing’.” Yeah agreed. What I called ‘orchestration’ is the view that there is a cosmos/idea that can be differently express. As in: orchestrate ‘Happy Birthday’ for orchestra, ska band, jazz trio, church choir or whatever. Whereas ‘instrumentation’ might just mean that different instruments and forms exist out of which come different types of expression and creative play. Not sure if you got this point, or if I was being clear enough here.

        Re: jokes, well as I’ve said before I don’t have a sense of humour. So I missed that!

        Re: being more direct, clearer, highlighting the key point. Hard to know how much of you is joking here, but really we have just started to talk about craft! Meaning: what is the techniques of clarity, when one is dwelling in a story of urgency.

        I’m thinking now of the best experiences I had as phd student with various people who played supervisory roles. One was my primary supervisor, but I’m also thinking of my wife who probably had more open-conversations and listened to me more than another else during that time – probably still the case… and also I’m thinking of when I was performing supervisory roles, as supervisor but often as peer and colleague to many doing PhDs and Masters. ‘Supervisory’ is a pretty ugly word. I mean, more like listening friend, like the speech doctor in ‘The King’s Speech’. Such relationships were/are exciting because we talked about ideas, purposes, stories, compulsions and any discussion of chapters, paragraphs, words and indeed I like to get right into grammar, was about propelling a certain other/new (ie, “research insight”) into the world.

        Stephen, I know there is the extended (non PR) interview as a possible form of structured open dialogue, but what about re-surfacing the dialogue-via-letters. You know, when two people wrote back and forth for ages and then published this. These days we tend to have email and other stuff over letters but the same could work. Even these Overland comments are kind of like this…

        I mean: maybe you are really searching for a dialogue form, whereas you diagnose various dominant forms like the novel as increasingly monological forms (I’m echoing Bakhtin here if you notice…)

        1. Odd my reply to you got posted twice….
          Anyway. I’m not oblivious to the backyard politics of music collaboration, but I think that musicians have created opportunities and possibilities there that writers haven’t.
          Yes, I think it is dialogue that is critical, especially in a neoliberal hypercapitalist world where dialogue is not valued, partly because it is time-consuming and therefore more ‘expensive’ and partly because it can be disruptive. After all the only way to dialogue is without a pre-ordained outcome. Formats for extended dialogue are difficult to find now I think. A comments thread could be one, but dialogue often needs to clarify assumptions and a comments thread easily goes awry I’ve found because both parties are working on different assumptions or definitions.
          Before email I used to write a lot of letters and they were useful because of the time it took to write, send, receive and send. So whatever I look for in dialogue has to somehow remember in its structure that kind of space, one potentially disruptive and filled with so many other things that occur.
          As far as Craft goes, I think that it is contingent, which is why I said it doesn’t exist out there like blueprints for furniture. And perhaps what you call ‘craft’ I call ‘politics.’

          1. Or to put it another way: even blueprints for furniture are political.

            Aren’t we talking about the craft of politics (and, yo!, the politics of craft). Meaning that to be political is to participate in certain processes in certain ways (something we all do) and be be politically conscious is to be aware of this and thus any discussion of technique is a discussion of participation and thus politics…

  7. Stephen, I’d also like to proffer that you might agree with the spirit of Quiller-Couch’s comment “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press” if by ‘exceptionally fine writing’ he has in mind what these days might be covered under the banner of ”well crafted creative writing’ or ‘quality literature’.

    1. What Sir A Q-C meant, probably, wasn’t anything too sinister. it was – if you are more in love with yourself as a writer, than what you are saying, perhaps you should take a second look at yourself.

      Your references to the 1st WW are interesting – but given what is happening in the rest of the world that we are NOT doing anything about, we can hardly be smug.

  8. Are you sure you even had a point?

    Edwardian literature was not unadorned stream-lined masculinity. By today’s standards it was ornamental and over written. Q-C’s advice was taken by the Modernists of the 1920s and ’30s: Eliot, Pound, Waugh, Auden, and Hemingway. Their stripped down prose was a reaction to the massacre of WWI and the fine words of polticians who, in their view, caused it.

    And as for poets standing against totalitarianism, Auden and his friends who worshipped at the feet of Stalin in the 1930s were hardly taking a stand against mass murder, were they? And what about Pound?

    This piece was far more interesting for you to write than for anyone else to read. Congratulations. You proved Quller-Couch’s point.

  9. That’s a big call to make, that no-one else found the post interesting. I didn’t say that Edwardian style was unadorned, merely that that was what Q-C was advocating. As I said, no-one kills off their own darlings. But still, literature, Edwardian or otherwise has tended to be pretty masculine. And I’m pretty sure that I also didn’t say that poetry stands against totalitarianism. I was intrigued by Orwell’s claim about poetic style. What poets do with poetry is a different thing altogether.

  10. Dear Stephen et al.,

    Never mind the murders… how do you skim?
    When I do it, I bring fragilities. “Might this person delight me?” Invitations between worlds; the other’s othernesses. I filter texts if they white out ironies, the plural pulls of everything. Don’t cope with paradox-refusal, blindness to madnesses.
    Knowing my fragilities is itself a cultural product, my debt to Freud, de Sade and the Pre-Socratics doesn’t help. Those seem to be pretty much my usual suspects.
    Are my fragile conditions of collaboration with texts realistic or elitist? Are the blues a genre or in the weave of the universe?

  11. I think any collaboration with a text is fragile Mac. It’s very easy to think, as writers and readers often do, that fiction is really there, and has a transcendental value.
    As for the Blues; probably both are true.

  12. Some express themselves using literature, poems, writings as others express reality in reality. Some need to use analogies to express words and they end up with long novels. Authors of novels are so proud of their writings and have usualy one or a couple readers/fans.. The short sweet sayings are loved my millions. Short, direct and to the point is the reason for this. Society likes realism and things they can understand that make sense. With most novels, interest is lost or perhaps it was never there and the first line just got them hooked. Usually novelist write more than they need to becoming their only reader and will think about their novel and re-read it as it becomes their life, who they are, it is an accomplishment while society appreciates an author that cuts out the useless verbiage and doesn’t waist their time. A good author will always think about it’s reader before themselves. A good author will take 5 minutes to re-write a single phrase or saying making every word all the more powerful. Novelist usually have their own small fan base which will include their own ”friends” and ”family” as to the rest of the world nobody cares or has the time to care. How many times can you read the same novel while a simple phrase can be said and re-read over and over?? Thoughts put into words are appreciated however when written down and not spoken they need to have a reason or purpose otherwise it becomes ramblings that will be forgotten.

    1. I think every writer writes because of a secret reason that they can’t speak of. The interesting writers are those that understand that, and know there is something unspeakable about writing. The uninteresting writers are those who think everything can be explained, that the the novel can generate transcendent understanding.

  13. Understanding Of the easily understood. People write about useless things and never make it as a top seller. Nobody cares about secrets..secrets are lies. Interesting writers don’t build themselves up and justify their work. Interesting people shun spotlight and know that there is no such thing as an uninteresting writer. Posers will compliment their own work and slander others. Smart people don’t explain the obvious

  14. as a poet i agree with you…we are different, not only is the way we engage with language but the way we see, feel, think & exist. being a poet is more a philosophical position or mode of being then ‘the act of writing a poem’.
    anyone can write a poem… that doesn’t mean they are a poet.
    i am currently doing a Phd and I struggle to write in an academic register, it makes me feel like i am speaking another language.
    if i could write the whole thing in poems…. it would have been finished a year ago.

    1. I sympathise with you and your PhD dilemma. Academia privileges all sorts of ways of speaking. I guess you are acknowledging the difficulty of the task, which puts you in a much better position than the poet who doesn’t. And looking at poetry as a different knowledge or state or position is useful too, I think. At least you’re not under the mis-apprehension that you are a poet who can toss off innovative essays whenever they feel like it. That’s the perfect way to turn into Robert Graves and end up with a WTF? document like ‘The White Goddess’.
      And why can’t you just write the whole thesis in poems? The immemorial tradition of the service I suppose.

  15. A clinical psychologist by the name of Don Banister nailed it when he
    described Freud’s tripartite theory of the mind as a dark cellar, in
    which a well-bred spinster and a sex-crazed monkey grapple in combat,
    refereed by a nervous bank clerk.

    I could be wrong; but isn’t that the central dogma for just about
    everything that has been published in the last dickhead

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