The Wise World of Wordsworth

I have been re-reading the “Preface” to William Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads, because I’m preparing my syllabus for next year, and I think I’m going to include more things like this in my creative writing course, these foundational ideas in Western literature. Early in the piece, Wordsworth writes:

It is supposed, that by the act of writing verse an Author makes a formal engagement that he will gratify certain known habits of association; that he not only thus apprizes the Reader that certain classes of ideas and expressions will be found in his book, but that others will be carefully excluded.

Later, he goes on to extol the language of common people and the idea that poetry springs from careful reflection on exciting experiences, and also that the poet lives among ordinary people while also living above them at the same time.

My current project – other than grading short stories furiously – is this book on Alabama, the follow-up to my “Patchwork” project. Wordsworth’s ideas seem particularly appropriate to me right now, as I work on this book. That I have to focus expressly on certain ideas while clearly excluding others. That I have to live among my fellow Alabamians while also engaging them as someone with “more enthusiasm and tenderness” toward the place. That I have to take what I have seen and communicate it.

Sounds easy, but it isn’t. I am trying to elaborate on the Alabama I have seen, the place that I know. Like so many younger people here, I wanted to leave from the first inkling I had of culture, of a larger world outside. But I didn’t. I stayed and built a life here, occupying a narrow strip of space between a deeply conservative place and my progressive ideals. I have tried railing against it, and I have tried inundating myself in it. I have tried living in it while living above it. Now I am something akin to gorged with it. I feel about Alabama like a man who just eaten a huge feast and is now digesting it all while looking at the plundered remains that are left.

Although William Wordsworth was discussing the writing of poetry, his ideas translate to other works, too. Had creative nonfiction been around in the late 1700s, Wordsworth might have written that, too. (For that matter, his “Preface” is creative nonfiction, albeit a little verbose for our modern tastes.) Of his suggestions, I have gotten past two – having the experience and reflecting on it – now comes the writing, actually giving my readers those “certain classes of ideas and expressions” about my Alabama.

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