So I don’t know how long this *titling posts with book references* thing is going to last, but up until further notice I will persist in doing so. Anyway, the above quote is central to the post – so it’s not just an irrelevant attempt to be pompous. I swear.
The quotation is taken from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which for one I found to be quite current, considering that two days ago would have marked the poet/playwright/author’s 161st birthday (wahoo!) – but also because I am so intrigued by this idea of ‘secrecy’ in literature at the minute. It exists everywhere in fiction. Poetry is riddled with it. And what would a Tennessee Williams play be without a little deceit poured in?
What I mean by ‘secrecy’ is everything the author doesn’t say. The things that are left out in words but so clear between the lines. The act, invaluable today in writing, of ‘showing and not telling’. It produces the most honest sort of literature and is so prevalent in the works of my favourite writers (my first Duffy mention—here goes nothing…); in Carol Ann Duffy’s poem, ‘You’, she maintains this thought of a person, a secret person, hidden by the pronoun ‘you’, without telling us anything about them. Instead, she expresses her love and devotion for the person with images; through metaphor, through rhyme, through phonology. She demonstrates her infatuation by showing us how the subject makes her feel with abstract imagery (‘Falling in love / is glamorous hell; the crouched, parched heart / like a tiger ready to kill’) but tells us nothing. We don’t know this person; we aren’t familiar with their features, their likes or dislikes, their habits – not even their name.
And that’s the best part.
Because Duffy shows us something extraordinary. The ‘you’ is universal. It is our concept of such a person that reveals itself in a reading of the poem. That person we have been infatuated with for weeks or months or years, who we have stayed up tirelessly until the early hours thinking about, who we have dreamt about – only to wake up the next day miserable that the dream wasn’t real. And yet it remains a secret. We will never tell anyone about this person. Just like Duffy, we will never bear the name of this person. Duffy’s speaker concludes, opening the bedroom door and observing her sleeping lover with: “There you are / on the bed, like a gift, like a touchable dream” – a touchable dream – I’ll leave that one there.
Shakespeare’s sonnets (particularly 57), Emily Dickinson in her letters to Susie Dickinson, and quite obviously, given the title, Oscar Wilde initially through Basil Hallward and by the end Dorian himself in The Picture of Dorian Gray, all toy with secrecy. In fact they thrive off of it. The texts become truer, more internal, when things are hidden. Small details, phrases, objects, images; all spun and woven quietly into a piece of literature whilst the bigger events take place. This applies to song lyrics just as much. I could go on for hours trying to discover what Robert Smith was actually trying to say about life and love in ‘Close to Me’ or instead study between the lines of Morrissey’s writing of ‘Handsome Devil’, prying over and over at the words to somehow manoeuvre around the maze of his darkest desires.
But I guess sometimes the delight exists in the ignorance of not being able to understand – because despite the research, the deep reading, the ruminating – you weren’t there at the desk with the creator at the time. All we can do as aspiring writers is continue the riddle by injecting our work with secrets of our own.