Attributed to Horace from Maecenas in John Williams’ Augustus:
I decide to make a poem when I am compelled by some strong feeling to do so–but I wait until the feeling hardens into a resolve; then I conceive an end, as simple as I can make it, toward which that feeling might progress, though often I cannot see how it will do so. And then I compose my poem, using whatever means are at my command. I borrow from others if I have to–no matter. I invent if I have to–no matter. I use the language that I know, and I work within its limits. But the point is this: the end that I discover at last is not the end that I conceived at first. For every solution entails new choices, and every choice made poses new problems to which new solutions must be found, and so on and on. Deep in his heart, the poet is always surprised at where his poem has gone.
I was academically introduced to the concept of the “it” in Georg Buchner’s unfinished play Woyzeck, where a man is terrorized by a vague unnamed force which lays in wait for him in the bushes. I had no idea what this “it” was – a ghost, a demon or what – until it dawned on me over the years that it was, as simply as I can put it, a primal force so overwhelming that we must instead coddle ourselves with poor facsimiles such as sports, work and travel.
In other words, our consciousness is so puny and small-minded that instead of blossoming toward truth, justice and beauty, we drink and have sex. John Williams is succinct in his reflections on our futile struggles at the conclusion of Butcher’s Crossing: “You get born, and you nurse on lies, and you get weaned on lies, and you learn fancier lies in school. You live all of your life on lies, and then maybe when you’re ready to die, it comes to you — that there’s nothing, nothing but yourself and what you could have done. Only you ain’t done it, because the lies told you there was something else.”
It is hard to overstate the writing craft of John Williams; his narrative is clear and precise and his characters compelling while his ruminations on our place in this world are profoundly vertiginous. Butcher’s Crossing is the story of a group of men engaged in the slaughter of buffalo:
It came to him that he had turned away from the buffalo not because of a womanish nausea at blood and stench and spilling gut; it came to him that he had sickened and turned away because of his shock at seeing the buffalo, a few moments before proud and noble and full of the dignity of life, now stark and helpless, a length of inert meat, divested of itself, or his notion of itself, swinging grotesquely, mockingly before him. (151) Sometimes at night, crowded with the others in the close warm shelter of buffalo hide, he heard the wind, that often suddenly sprang up, whistle and moan around the corners of the shelter…at such times he felt a part of himself go outward into the dark, among the wind and snow and the featureless sky where he was whirled blindly through the world. (200)
One of the best things about the summer is it is a time to read. John Williams’ Stoner is a direct and provocative study of William Stoner, a farmer turned English professor, who follows his ideas and dreams through life’s relentless disappointments. It is, as they say, hard to put down.