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A letter horn Robert Finch Iwant to say a few words about John Hay's sentences, for I have always felt that his genuine claim to originality is as a stylist, not a thinker. Yet remarkably little has been said or written about his use of language, despite his wide esteem as a nature writer. Most tributes to him concentrate on his qualities as a human being, or his work as an environmental educator, or his visionary utterances in celebration and defense of the natural world—all deserving of much praise—but not on his literary achievement. John himself is partly responsible for this, for never have I known a writer so little interested in talking about the specifics of writing, of other writers in general, and of his own work in particular. In the twenty-odd years that we were neighbors, John and I took many walks and rides together, shared many meals, and yet I can count on one hand the number of times I was able to turn his conversation towards the nature of literature, and then only briefly. Though he has a deep love of literature (there is a portrait of Whitman over his desk in his study) he is impatient with, and has little interest in, the mechanics and strategies of literature. He feels it is what one says as a writer, not how one says it, that is important. Though this always frustrated the writing teacher in me, for whom mistaking content for form is a constant bete noir, he is, of course, right in the deepest sense. For if one can manage to say truly profound or complex or beautiful things, rather than things that have only the wordy trappings of profundity, complexity, or beauty, one must by necessity say them in a deeply artistic way. Like many original stylists, Hay has often been regarded as artless —or worse. Annie Dillard, one of Hay's great admirers, once exclaimed in exasperation to me, "How does he get away with it? His sentences are not even sentences!" It is true that there are some sentences of John Hay's that will not strictly parse grammatically, but Dillard was on to something more fundamental about his prose, some151 Ecotone: reimagining place thing fascinating that, in an academic world where English doctoral candidates scramble ever more desperately for some semblance of an original thesis topic, has not been given its due attention. Like the seventeenth -century visionary poet Thomas Traherne, whom John has always admired greatly, Hay seems to perceive the world with a radical innocence, at a level of apprehension that precedes words, yet he somehow manages to forge those perceptions into English sentences, but English sentences like those of no other writer I know, sentences that seem to come into the world trailing clouds of pre-linguistic glory. One fundamental characteristic of Haysian prose is that it contains a remarkable number of participles and gerunds. His thoughts, as expressed in sentences, are open-ended, verb-centered rather than noun centered, closing in motion rather than rest. Reading them, one has the sense of things unfinished, of ongoing and unfolding vision, moving ever outward to primal alliances and connections. This is uncomfortable to most readers, conditioned as we are to a close-ended view of the world, whatever our politics. But the sentences embody the man. John Hay has always sought to see further than he can see, to reach out to what he cannot touch, to write words that take us beyond where words can go, which, of course, has always been the task of poetry. 152 ...


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pp. 151-152
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