In the New York Times. First three graphs:
Oh, what the hell. Let’s go for it. Let us speak about great writing — not brilliant writing or clever writing or, most tempting of all, exquisite writing. Let us speak of Quixote writing, Lear and Deronda writing. Honor, heroism, decency, justice and “Ah, love, let us be true to one another” writing. Gaah! The very words are marzipan to the tongue.
And yet, at the end of the day — our own or days in general — what else do we seek from our books? The verities need not be expressed gently, unambiguously or in rhyming couplets, but it is the verities that make us know ourselves. And you can swoon your critical head off over Joyce’s bourgeois “Ulysses” and Robert Graves’s girl-crazy “Ulysses,” and still know in your acritical heart that neither holds a candle to the original wild sailor or even to Tennyson’s old salt, who strove, sought and found, and did not yield.
When I start thinking this way, I wonder if I’m just growing old, and tired of modernity. Yet even when modernity was young, I was dazzled more often by clarity than by calculated difficulty, and pleased simply by someone doing a far, far better thing. It is always thus. Whatever brief delights it provides, mere strangeness in poetry and prose eventually leaves us cold, especially when we suspect the writer is stretching for effect to avoid the actual life before his eyes. (As if people were not strange enough.) The difference between invention and imagination is the difference between Mr. Ed and Swift’s Houyhnhnms. One is a talking horse (of course); the other bears the burdens of civilization.