Second Covenant — The covenant with the conventions and the community of my chosen craft.
I can be briefer about this covenant, though it has required a lifelong attention.
The conventions of my craft are the forms and patterns of literature’s various genres. This covenant was established even before I knew it; I entered an apprenticeship of sorts when I, who read continually, became conscious of the words themselves, and loved what they could do, and started to question how they did it.
“Getting it right” in this case means making the words works as best they can. Making the poem a poem indeed—and besides that, a good one, too.
Sentences. Lines of verses, the sounds of those lines, the shape of many lines put together according to certain anticipations: sonnets, lyrics, hymns. Alliterations. Dialogue. Descriptions. Suspense. The episodic progress of a narrative. Stories. Novels. Each literary form has its definitions. Each has a history, through which the definitions have evolved and changed. These are the templates and the tools of my craft. Of course I should know them—even if I choose, in any particular story, to diverge from them. Of course, I should continue to read what they have been in the past so that the tools I have in hand are ever more various, ever more accurate.
So then, my covenant is as much with the authors who have gone before me as with the tools we use in common. T.S. Eliot, in his essay “Tradition and Individual Talent,” argues:
“Tradition. . . cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves. . . the historical sense. . . ; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence. . . . This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal, and of the timeless and the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional.”
But this second covenant must also embrace authors who are my contemporaries. We never do write in a vacuum of our making. At least I can’t. (Maybe a writer gets to do one major work this way; but after that he’ll be rewriting the same thing over and over.) Besides reading the material of his present age, I have established and maintained personal relationships with other writers—as friends, if possible; as colleagues busy about the same profession, certainly.
So I exchange communication regularly with authors like Wendell Berry, Eugene Peterson, the playwright Robert Schenkkan and Jim Leonard and Mark St. Germaine, film-script writers and producers David McFadzean and Matt Williams. Moreover, we meet and talk when we can, and sometimes read one another’s material. It is in the spontaneous interaction among artists (and, surely, artists of all the arts) that the spirit of any one writer is challenged, refreshed, revived, sustained. It is in such discussions that the work of a particular time-period gets its quality of kinship. And it has been this way throughout the history of literature, that artists talk with artists, argue, collaborate, criticize, disagree, imitate.
Next week I will look at the third covenant: the covenant with my audience. Until then. . .