The sea, the sea

"Good people," writes Beth McDonough in this richly varied collection of writings, "sometimes bring our writing into places we hadn't contemplated, offering a responsibility, a burden or an opportunity, or likely a tight twist of all three."

By Aveek Sen
  • Published 21.04.17
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Caspar David Friedrich, On the Sailing Boat, 1819

THE VOYAGE OUT: AN ANTHOLOGY Edited by Kirsty Gunn and Gail Low, The Voyage Out, £12.99

"Good people," writes Beth McDonough in this richly varied collection of writings, "sometimes bring our writing into places we hadn't contemplated, offering a responsibility, a burden or an opportunity, or likely a tight twist of all three." This is both an unusual definition of goodness and a way of beginning to think about writing. McDonough's words - lucid, but with a twist - also provide a taste of the kind of pleasure afforded by this anthology of texts and images by thirty or so contributors, one of them being a collective of women based in Dundee. McDonough's piece is about the genesis of one of her poems about the sea; but before becoming a poet and reviewer, McDonough had studied silversmithing. That, too, is an indication of the openness to different modes of being and expression, ways of looking and moving beyond conventional disciplines and institutions, that The Voyage Out celebrates in a serious, quiet and untrendy manner.

The editors themselves - a writer of fiction and a teacher of book history - represent creative as well as academic work. So, the anthology brings together a wide range of individuals, from authors, artists, poets, historians, designers and publishers to an actor, a forensic scientist, a molecular biologist, an events manager and a sales and marketing officer. The result is a book full of a variety of ideas and sources of inspiration that is, at the same time, intellectually, imaginatively and emotionally integrated and coherent.

What runs like a thread through this book is the idea of a "thought experiment", seen literally as well as metaphorically as a voyage. This experiment starts with that simplest of questions "What if...?": "What if you linked the personal and the scholarly as complimentary modes? What if you inflected the essay or the short story with a lyric voice, colliding two different modes? What if you imagined the relevance and impact your research has on the ways you actually think and live? What if you let us know something of the fear, angst and also the sheer joy of starting out on a journey: the mystery of beginnings, the enigma of arrivals." That the editors - both of them teachers at the University of Dundee - think of such an approach to writing as a "grand game" is, in itself, a measure of how far writing has moved away within academia from its origins in human, and humane, risks, pleasures and compulsions. If one sent such an editorial brief to someone like John Keats, or to Virginia Woolf, he or she may have replied, "Of course! But wasn't writing of the best kind always all of these things, even when it seemed to come as naturally as the leaves to the trees?"

What comes with the novelty and thrill of a "great game" to teachers of writing and literature today was, not that long ago, part of the hard but normal business of making original literature for some of its greatest makers, most of whom had no access to academic learning and institutions in their own time. More often than not, the great and joyless games in the postmodern discourse industry are founded on protocols of exclusion rather than the pleasures of persuasion. Try writing lucidly, delightfully, eclectically or with feeling for an academic editor, publisher or reader, and the chances are that you will be dismissed, or condescended to, as a dilettante or belle-lettrist, or worst of all, as elitist.

Yet, wonderfully enough, it does not feel ironic that it is Virginia Woolf who happens to be the presiding genius of this fine anthology, the title of, and the beautiful epigraph to, which harks back to her debut novel of 1915. And their non-academic connection with real adventuring is further endorsed by the editors reminding us of the RRS Discovery, "that glorious rigged and sea-ready vessel with its high mast and narrow quarters that took Scott and Shackleton to Antarctica and is moored here at Dundee, looking for all the world as though it would take only a high wind and a breath of imagination for it to snap its rigging, and set off down the Tay again towards the wide open seas".

It would be unfair to reduce the many different registers and kinds of excellent writing in this volume to a league table of summaries. But the piece paradoxically called "Footnotes" by Chris Arthur epitomizes the voyagings imagined or accomplished in this collection. It begins with the very particular tenderness of the essayist kneading and caressing his infant daughter's feet. Then, through a series of extraordinary shifts of perspective and tone, including a meditation on the 800,000-year-old footprints recently discovered in Norfolk, it journeys towards the horizons of "the power and the powerlessness of love", moving magnificently yet humbly from the poignantly personal to nothing less than the imponderables of mortality and of time. Arthur's essay is in the tradition of great works of literature about the difficult pathos of paternal attachment and detachment - Tagore's "Kabuliwala", Mann's "Disorder and Early Sorrow" or Yeats's "A Prayer for my Daughter".

Not only does such a text realize the claims about the essay as a genre of writing made by Kim Kremer, editorial director of Notting Hill Editions ("a press with a single driving aim: to revive the art of the essay"), but it also lives up to the high challenge set by the poem, "Vessel", with which this anthology begins, written by its dedicatee, the late poet and critic, Jim Stewart: "why do you do what you do and point/ your minor ingenuity/ and small magnificence/ at an overwhelming light/ too great for you to look at,/ which will quietly absorb you/ if and when you arrive?" Essays and poems like these remind us, as Alison Donnell puts it in an account of her pursuit of Caribbean literature, of "what it is that literature does - it moves us". In every sense of 'move'.