Shop talk

Portrait of italian poet Dante Alighieri writing his Divina #23722894

The best writers have rarely revealed the workings of their workshop.

What I wouldn’t give to have a contemporary account of how the Iliad became the Iliad. I would pay good money for a tour of the backstage. For hundreds of years, scholars have spent their own money, time and brainpower of getting a peak behind the hood. The results have been positive, but always incomplete. The picture is never true to life. That’s what keeps scholarship going, for better or for worse.

Dante gave us the ultimate poem, but he left almost nothing about his modus operandi. The controversial Letter to Cangrande, which is the closest description of what the poet may have intended, remains hugely controversial. No two scholars agree that it was written by Dante himself, despite its ambitious internal claims.

We come close, but never close enough to settle the matter.

For all his gigantic output, Shakespeare didn’t give us an Ars Poetica, a guided tour of his own study. That’s for us to reconstruct, to patch together, and that’s never good enough.

We crave shop talk from the authors we admire. Nowadays, thankfully, we can sign up to masterclasses with the literary giants of our age. And we can hope for good interviews intended to look under the skin and reveal the tremulous hand and the restless mind. But even then we cannot ever hope to get as close enough as to glimpse the atoms moving the words and congealing the phrases into the images we feel transformed by.

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