Fundamentally, all art consist of two and only two components, and those two components are subject matter and style.
Subject matter is The What.
Style is The How.
Style is the way in which an artist presents her or his subject. It is execution.
The following, for example, is Matthew James Taylor’s depiction of the human foot:
And here’s another sketch of a human foot but by a different artist:
Both drawings are done in charcoal, and in both drawings the subject matter is the same: a human foot. Both are also instantly recognizable as a human foot, but notice that these two drawings are distinctly different.
What accounts for such differences?
The answer is the artist’s style.
How the artist depicts her subject matter makes for the most profound differences in any artwork. This is as true for drawing as it is for painting, sculpting, music, dance, literature, theater, and every other legitimate art-form.
It’s been said that what an artist chooses to present divulges that artist’s view of the world, and how the artist presents it divulges the artist’s method of thought.
Choice of subject-matter discloses a worldview.
Style discloses a method of thinking.
Artistic style is rooted in our brain’s capacity to reason. Style is the result of our rational-conceptual apparatus.
Style is a distinctive, habitual mode of execution.
In literature, poetry exemplifies style most perfectly.
Because poetry is predominantly style.
Style is the most complicated component of any art — in part because there’s so much room for variation. In part also because style is deeply, intricately psychological, and human consciousness is arguably the most complex thing in the known universe.
Style for this very reason is also the most psychologically profound and revealing component in any artwork.
“The most interesting story is always the story of the writer’s style,” wrote Vladimir Nabokov.
A literary style can be prolix and jarring, and because of this difficult to remain focused upon:
I study and read. I bet I’ve read everything you read. Don’t think I haven’t. I consume libraries. I wear out spines and ROM-drives. I do things like get in a taxi and say, “The library, and step on it.” My instincts concerning syntax and mechanics are better than your own, I can tell, with all due respect. But it transcends the mechanics. I’m not a machine. I feel and believe. I have opinions. Some of them are interesting. I could, if you’d let me, talk and talk.
– David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
Or limpid and precise:
I recall one particular sunset. It lent an ember to my bicycle bell. Overhead, above the black music of telegraph wires, a number of long dark-violet clouds lined with flamingo pink hung motionless in a fan-shaped arrangement. It was dying, however, and everything else was darkening too. But just above the horizon, in a lucid turquoise space, beneath a black stratus, the eye found a vista that only a fool could mistake for the spare parts of this or any other sunset.
— Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory
Or poetic, tempo-like, hyper-evocative:
“I hate that dreadful hollow, behind the little wood.”
– Alfred Tennyson, Maud
Or sophisticated and strange, as Walter Pater’s unforgettable description of the Mona Lisa:
“She is older than the rocks among which she sits: like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave.”
Or philosophical and foundational:
“Reason is a faculty for the integration of knowledge which human beings possess.” — Baruch Spinoza, Ethics
Or panoramic in scope, sweeping:
I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills….
The sky was rarely more than pale blue or violet, with a profusion of mighty, weightless, ever-changing clouds towering up and sailing on it, but it has blue vigour in it, and at a short distance it painted the ranges of hills and the woods a fresh deep blue.
Between the river in the mellow English landscape and the African mountain ridge, ran the path of this life.
— Karen Blixen, Out of Africa
Or explosive in the passion and romance expressed:
“A wild dedication of yourselves
To undiscovered waters, undreamed shores.”
— William Shakespeare, The Tempest
Or life-affirming in both sentiment and also the style used to express it:
“I paint flowers so they will not die.”
― Frida Kahlo, The Diary of Frida Kahlo
Or aphoristic and inspiring:
“Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might.”
— Ecclesiastes, 9:10
Or depthless, trenchant:
“There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra
Or as clear as gin and unequivocal:
“Thinking is linked-up with language and vice-versa. Concepts are embodied in words. Language is a tool of thinking.”
— Ludwig von Mises, Human Action
Or unintelligibly jargon-filled and devoid of substance:
The work of the text is to literalize the signifiers of the first encounter, dismantling the ideal as an idol. In this literalization, the idolatrous deception of the first moment becomes readable. The ideal will reveal itself to be an idol. Step by step, the ideal is pursued by a devouring doppelganger, tearing apart all transcendence. This de-idealization follows the path of reification, or, to invoke Augustine, the path of carnalization of the spiritual. Rhetorically, this is effected through literalization. A Sentimental Education does little more than elaborate the progressive literalization of the Annunciation.
— Barbars Vinken, Flaubert Postsecular: Modernity Crossed Out
“And roots, if they are to bear fruits, must be kept well in the soil of the land.” — Pearl S. Buck, The Good Earth
Or the work of one whose ear is unerring:
Why is my verse so barren of new pride,
So far from variation or quick change?
Why with the time do I not glance aside
To new-found methods and to compounds strange?
Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keep invention in a noted weed,
That every word doth almost tell my name,
Showing their birth and where they did proceed?
O, know, sweet love, I always write of you,
And you and love are still my argument;
So all my best is dressing old words new,
Spending again what is already spent:
For as the sun is daily new and old,
So is my love still telling what is told.
— William Shakespeare, Sonnet 76
Or in the style of the great American novel:
“What was America in 1492 but a Loose-Fish?”
— Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Or in the style of the great American novel:
“Are you proud of yourself tonight that you have insulted a total stranger whose circumstances you know nothing about?”
— Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Or in the style of the great American novel:
“Horseblood or any blood a tremor ran that perilous architecture and the ponies stood rigid and quivering in the reddened sunrise and the desert under them hummed like a snaredrum.”
— Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
Or one-of-a-kind in imagination and precision of detail— stunningly, unforgettably so — and the acme of concision, yet stylistically clipped:
Dream After Nanook
Lived savage and simple, where teeth were tools.
Killed the caught fish, cracked his back in my jaws.
Harpooned the heavy seal, ate his steaming liver raw.
Wore walrus skin for boots and trousers. Made knives
of tusks. Carved the cow-seal out of her hide
with the horn of her husband.
Lived with the huskies, thick-furred as they.
Snarled with them over the same meat.
Paddled a kayak of skin, scooted sitting over the water.
Drove a skein of dogs over wide flats of snow.
Tore through the tearing wind with my whip.
Built a hive of snow-cubes from the white ground.
Set a square of ice for a window in the top.
Slid belly-down through the humped door hole.
Slept naked in the skins by the oily thighs
of wife and pup-curled children.
Rose when the ice-block lightened, tugged the chewed boots on.
Lived in a world of fur — fur ground — jags of ivory.
Lived blizzard-surrounded as a husky’s ruff.
Left game-traps under the glass teeth of ice.
Snared slick fish. Tasted their icy blood.
— May Swenson
Or poignant and filled with longing, but in the end fatalistic:
Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.
— Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Or swift and steady, almost ride-like and coasting in its stylistic rhythm —perhaps somewhat predictable in both meter and also rhyme, yet without ever forsaking a fraction of descriptive depth or depth-of-style, not at any time:
The Coming of the Autumn Cold
The late peach yields a subtle musk,
The arbor all alive with fume
More heady than a field at dusk
When clover scents diminished wind.
The walker’s foot has scarcely room
Upon the orchard path where skinned
And battered fruit has choked the grass.
The yield’s half down and half in air.
The plum drops pitch upon the ground,
And nostrils widen as they pass
The place where butternuts are found.
The wind shakes out the scent of pear
And pumpkins sweat a bitter oil.
But soon cold rain and frost come in
To press pure fragrance to the soil.
The riches of the air blow thin.
— Theodore Roethke
Or cinematic and flawless:
“There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo to the hills.”
— Alan Paton, Cry, The Beloved Country
Or sententious and pretentious:
“Nice people don’t necessarily fall in love with nice people.”
― Jonathan Franzen, Freedom
Or nonsensical and sententious and pretentious:
“Some infinities are bigger than other infinities.”
― John Green, The Fault in Our Stars
Or cynical and sententious and pretentious:
“You cannot protect yourself from sadness without protecting yourself from happiness.” ― Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything is illuminated
Or platitudinous and overratted and sententious and pretentious:
“I am as bad as the worst, but, thank God, I am as good as the best. ”
― Walt Whitman
He leans over and takes her hand. With the other he touches her face. “You are your best thing, Sethe. You are.” His holding fingers are holding hers.
“Something that is loved is never lost.”
― Toni Morrison, Beloved
“A screaming comes across the sky.” — Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow
Or soft and serene:
The roof of the hotel in the early morning, before the sun had come from behind the nearby mountainside, was a pleasant place for breakfast. The tables were set out along the edge of the terrace, overlooking the valley. In the garden below, the fig trees and high stocks of papyrus moved slightly in the fresh morning wind. Farther down were the larger trees where the storks had made their huge nests, and at the bottom of the slope was the river, running with thick red water. Port sat drinking his coffee, enjoying the rain-washed smell of the mountain air. Just below, the storks were teaching their young to fly. The ratchet-like croaking of the older birds was mingled with the shrill cries from the fluttering young ones.
— Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky
“You are never stronger than when you land on the other side of despair.”
― Zadie Smith, White Teeth
Or technician-like in style, crafted with the care of a clockmaker:
Look, stranger, on this island now
The leaping light for your delight discovers.
Stand stable here
And silent be,
That through the channels of the ear
May wander like a river
The swaying sound of the sea.
Here at a small field’s ending pause
Where the chalk wall falls to the foam and its tall ledges
Oppose the pluck
And knock of the tide,
And the shingle scrambles after the suck-
A gull lodges
A moment on its sheer side.
Far off like floating seeds the ships
Diverge on urgent voluntary errands,
And this full view
Indeed may enter
And move in memory as now these clouds do,
That pass the harbour mirror
And all the summer through the water saunter.
— W.H. Auden
Or of such lapidary craftsmanship, such stylistic lyricism that you lift your head after reading it and think it may be the essence of poetry herself:
After the Rain
The barbed-wire fences rust
As their cedar uprights blacken
After a night of rain.
Some early, innocent lust
Gets me outdoors to smell
The teasle, the pelted bracken,
The cold, mossed-over well,
Rank with its iron chain,
And takes me off for a stroll.
Wetness has taken over.
From drain and creeper twine
It’s runnelled and trenched and edged
A pebbled serpentine
Secretly, as though pledged
To attain a difficult goal
And join some important river.
The air is a smear of ashes
With a cool taste of coins.
Stiff among misty washes,
The trees are as black as wicks,
Silent, detached and old.
A pallor undermines
Some damp and swollen sticks.
The woods are rich with mould.
How even and pure this light!
All things stand on their own,
Equal and shadowless,
In a world gone pale and neuter,
Yet riddled with fresh delight.
The heart of every stone
Conceals a toad, and the grass
Shines with a douse of pewter.
Somewhere a branch rustles
With the life of squirrels or birds,
Some life that is quick and right.
This queer, delicious bareness,
This plain, uniform light,
In which both elms and thistles,
Grass, boulders, even words,
Speak for a Spartan fairness,
Might, as I think it over,
Speak in a form of signs,
If only one could know
All of its hidden tricks,
Saying that I must go
With a cool taste of coins
To join some important river,
Some damp and swollen Styx.
Yet what puzzles me the most
Is my unwavering taste
For these dim, weathery ghosts,
And how, from the very first,
An early, innocent lust
Delighted in such wastes,
Sought with a reckless thirst
A light so pure and just.
— Anthony Hecht
Or in a style irrepressibly optimistic, levelheaded, happy— a style worthy of America’s greatest short-story writer:
I went back over to the liquor shelf and took down a half-full fifth of Scotch. I brought my glass over and poured myself out — somewhat accidentally — at least four fingers of Scotch. I looked at the glass critically for a split second, and then, like a tried-and-true leading man in a Western movie, drank it off in one deadpan toss. A little piece of business, I might well mention, that I record here with a rather distinct shudder.
— J.D. Salinger, Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters
Or in a style irrepressibly optimistic, levelheaded, happy — a style worthy of America’s greatest short-story writer:
“The lonesomest thing in all the world is a soul when it is making ready to go on its mysterious, far journey.”
— O. Henry, The Last Leaf
Or ancient-sounding and mysterious, yet not menacing:
“I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.”
— Langston Hughes
Or ordinary by any standard:
“Nothing is so beautiful as Spring”
— Gerard Manley Hopkins, Spring
Or bursting open with the surprising suddenness of a Jack-in-the-Box:
“When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing.”
— Gerard Manley Hopkins, Spring
Or densely charged with the drama of suspense:
His hair was long. His abundant head of hair hung straight down to this shoulders. It had much gray mixed in and contrasted sharply with his eyes, which were set so deeply into his face that it was hard to tell what they were looking at. Like his body, his face was broad and thick. Clean-shaven, it bore no scars or moles. The features worked well together, producing a look of serenity and intelligence, but also something peculiar, out of the ordinary. Perhaps it was because the nose was too prominent, too fleshy. Because of it, the face was missing a certain balance, perhaps the root of what left the observer unsettled.
— Haruki Murakami, 1Q84
Or cliche and vapid:
“But the devil is in the details, so let me unpack all that.”
— Barack Obama
Or instantly engaging:
“He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.” — Rafael Sabatini, Scaramouche
Or crazy like a fox:
“I do not know who I dream I am.” — Fernando Pessoa
Or deliberately crazy like a fox:
“The only difference between myself and a madman is that I am not mad.”
— Salvador Dali
Or crazy like a crazy dipsomaniac with chronic katzenjammers, who more than occasionally nails the bullseye:
A Radio With Guts
It was on the 2nd floor on Coronado Street
I used to get drunk
and throw the radio through the window
while it was playing, and, of course,
it would break the glass in the window
and the radio would sit there on the roof
and I’d tell my woman,
“Ah, what a marvelous radio!”
The next morning I’d take the window
off the hinges
and carry it down the street
to the glass man
who would put in another pane.
I kept throwing that radio through the window
each time I got drunk
and it would sit there on the roof
a magic radio
a radio with guts …
— Charles Bukowski
Or not crazy at all but touching and heartbreaking in how stylistically real and yet otherwordly it reads:
Death of a Toad
A toad the power mower caught,
Chewed and clipped of a leg, with a hobbling hop has got
To the garden verge, and sanctuaried him
Under the cineraria leaves, in the shade
Of the ashen and heartshaped leaves, in a dim,
Low, and a final glade.
The rare original heartsblood goes,
Spends in the earthen hide, in the folds and wizenings, flows
In the gutters of the banked and staring eyes. He lies
As still as if he would return to stone,
And soundlessly attending, dies
Toward some deep monotone,
Toward misted and ebullient seas
And cooling shores, toward lost Amphibia’s emperies.
Day dwindles, drowning, and at length is gone
In the wide and antique eyes, which still appear
To watch, across the castrate lawn,
The haggard daylight steer.
— Richard Wilbur
Or all at once engrossing:
“On an exceptionally hot evening in early July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, towards K. bridge.”
— Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment
Or articulate to such an eloquent pitch, such a syntactically skillful degree, that it makes you throw your hands up in the air because the style, though painstaking and protracted in development, years and years in the making, is absolutely rarified and sewn together seamlessly:
“Slightly to the right and below them, below the gigantic red evening, whose reflection bled away in the deserted swimming pools scattered everywhere like so many mirages, lay the peace and sweetness of the town.”
— Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano
Or stylistically stupefying:
A final saffron-colored light lay upon the ceiling and the upper walls, tinged already with purple by the serrated palisade of Main Street high against the western sky. She watched it fade as the successive yawns of the shade consumed it. She watched the final light condense into the clock face, and the dial change from a round orifice in the darkness to a disc suspended in nothingness, the original chaos, and change in turn to a crystal ball holding in its still and cryptic depths the ordered chaos of the intricate and shadowy world upon whose scarred flanks the old wounds whirl onward at dizzy speed into darkness lurking with new disasters.
— William Faulkner, Sanctuary
Or surreal in its stylistic strangeness — “smacking of the divine,” as Keats described it — unmatched in poetic intensity:
“Come, sealing night,
Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day.”
— William Shakespeare, Macbeth
Or full of sound and fury, signifying nothing:
You are not thinking of finitude you are contemplating an apotheosis in which a temporary state of mind will become symmetrical above the flesh and aware both of itself and of the flesh it will not quite discard you will not even be dead and I temporary …
— William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
Or forever influential:
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
that struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
and then is heard no more. It is a tale
told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
— William Shakespeare, Macbeth
Or always new and fresh, no matter its chronologic age — a dateless style, even a full century past its publication date — over-imitated yet inimitable in its metric cadence and rhyme, a towering monument from the 20th century but immovable for all-time:
“Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky …”
— T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
Or like a busted clock, which, though neither accurate nor helpful nor of much stylistic value, is nonetheless right twice a day:
“There is no there there.” — Gertrude Stein on the city of Oakland
Or obviously at a glance among the greatest stylists in all human history, at only twenty-one-years-old:
Over every mountaintop
In every treetop
You scarcely feel
A breath of wind.
The little birds are hushed in the wood.
Wait: soon you too
Will be at peace.
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Über allen Gipfeln
Or obviously at a glance among the greatest stylists in all human history, even when forty-years-old:
Lo maggior don che Dio
per sua larghezza fesse creando,
e a la sua bontate più conformato,
e quel ch’e’ più apprezza,
fu de la volontà la libertate;
di che le creature intelligenti,
e tutte e sole, fuore e son dotate.
[“The greatest gift which God in His bounty bestowed in creating, and the most conformed to His own goodness and that which He most prizes, was the freedom of the will, with which the creatures that have intelligence, they all and they alone, were and are endowed.”]
— Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy
Or possessed of a thunderous proverb-like authority even in postmodern-modern times — a wise and witty voice of both reason and also style:
“Those who do not think for themselves do not think at all.”
— Oscar Wilde
Or pared to the bone and cleanly polished, even if clinically detached:
It was late April. It was the fourth week of the fifth month of the war and the woman, who did not always follow the rules, followed the rules. She gave the cat to the Greers next-door. She caught the chicken that had been running wild in the yard since the fall and snapped its neck beneath the handle of a broomstick. She plucked out the feathers and set the carcass into a pan of cold water in the sink.
— Julie Otsuka, When the Emperor was Divine
Or plain and to-the-purpose:
“Speak plain and to the purpose.”
— William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Or plain and to-the-purpose while also accurate historically:
“Portuguese musqueteers saved Ethiopia.”
— Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Or paradoxical and plain and to-the-purpose while also accurate historically:
“The Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.” — Voltaire
Or salient and instructive:
“First find the essential core of your message, and all the other words will fall into place around it.” — Cato
Or endearingly, delightfully, legitimately mad:
“The red and roundy sun.” —John Clare
Or fascinating, indomitable, muscular — yet filled with hemispheric sorrow:
Because their pride of nation leaps,
The august rivers where they yelled and died
Move with a blood that never sleeps.
Because their nature suffers the arrest
Of seed, their silence crowds us like a tide
And moves their mournful quest.
— Karl Shapiro, Red Indian
Or quite new, natural-sounding, gorgeous:
The trees sway darkly
along the black wall with its vines.
For shelter, a cat squeezes
between the steel bars over a window.
This is where the caretaker lives,
catty-corner to the cemetery,
with a door the color of stone.
— Nicholas Christopher, Outside Perpignan in Heavy Rain
Or restless and yearning, introspective and entirely real:
My youth? I hear it mostly in the long, volleying
Echoes of billiards in the pool halls where
I spent it all, extravagantly, believing
My delicate touch on a cue would last for years.
Outside the vineyards vanished under rain,
And the trees held still or seemed to hold their breath
When the men I worked with, pruning orchards, sang
Their lost songs.
— Larry Levis, The Poet at Seventeen
Or entirely fake — loaded with an empty mine-field, a war-zone invented and wholly imaginary but desperate to blow-up the human impulse to good-will and deliberately designed to sow disharmony and strife —intellectually manipulative, academically bankrupt, neologistical, psycho-tactical, littered with blank decoys and Kafka-traps and reeking with the unmistakable stench of specious reasoning:
“It is the nature of privilege to find ever deeper places to hide.”
— Elizabeth Spelman
Or upright, iron-like, good:
“I shall allow no man to belittle my soul by making me hate him.”
— Booker T. Washington
Or soaring on the wings of its spirit to stratospheric heights of levity:
“You are not judged by the height you have risen, but from the depths you have climbed.” — Fredrick Douglas
Or spellbinding at sentences one and two:
“In lower Manhattan there is an improbable point where Waverly Place intersects Waverly Place. It was there I met Veronica, on a snowy, windy night.” — Nicholas Christopher, Veronica
Or timeless and proleptic:
“There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.” — Victor Hugo, Les Miserables
Or sage in a fundamental way:
“When we blindly adopt a religion, a political system, a literary dogma, we become automatons.” — Anaïs Nin
Or breathtaking in its seductive whisper, understated and thus erotically charged — charged to such white-hot intensity that in three words you feel it may come gushing out into an ocean of eternal love:
“Stay,” she whispered.
— James Salter, Light Years
The mind, mind has mountains: cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May you who never hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.
— Gerard Manley Hopkins, No Worst — There Is None
Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?
Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.
— Gerard Manley Hopkins
Or unlike anyone else:
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing …
— Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Windhover
Or blue-collar, sweaty, but at the same time aristocratic:
From the top floor of the Tulsa hotel I gaze at the night beauty of the cracking-plant. Candlelit city of small gas flames by the thousands. Elsewhere are the white lights of the age, but here, like a millionaire who frowns on electricity, the opulence of flame. Descending on Rome from the air at night, a similar beauty: the weak Italian bulbs like faulty rheostats of yellowy outline the baroque curves of the Tiber, the semicircles of the monstrous Vatican, endless broken parabolas.
The cracking-plant is palatial. Those oil men in the silent elevator, like princes in their voices of natural volume.
— Karl Shapiro, The Cracking-Plant
Or nonconformist and renegade — fearless in the independence of its stylistic voice — and inexpressibly uplifting for this:
“I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow damned up in my soul. I do not belong to that sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal.”
— Zora Neale Hurston
Or in the style of the strangest novel ever written:
As pirates in the hot brine-shallows wading, make face-to-face their comber-hindered lunges, sun-blind, fly-agonied, and browed with pearls, so here the timbers leaned, moonlight misled and the rank spiderwebs impeded. It was necessary to ignore them — to ignore the spiderwebs as they tickled his face and fastened themselves about his mouth and eyes. To realize that although between the sword and the hand, the hand and the elbow, the elbow and the body, the silvery threads of spiderwebs hung like tropical festoons, and although the naked steel was as though delivered in its caul, that the limbs were free to move, as free as ever before, the speed of the swung cleaver would in no way be retarded. The secret was to ignore.
So Swelter moved forward, growing at each soft, deft pace more and more like something from the deeps were the gray twine weed coils the cycling sea-cow. Suddenly stepping into a shaft of moonlight he flamed in the network of threads. He appeared through a shimmering mesh. He was gossamer.
He concentrated his entire sentience on the killing. He banished all irrelevancies from his canalized mind. His great ham of a face was tickling as though aswarm with insects, but there was no room left in his brain to receive the messages which his nerve endings were presumably delivering. His brain was full. It was full of death.
— Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan
Or in the style of the strangest novel ever written:
I had a favorite young shagbark there
With ample dark jade leaves and a black, spare
Vermiculated trunk. The setting sun
Bronzed the black bark, around which, like undone
Garlands, the shadows of the foliage fell.
It is now stout and rough; it has done well.
White butterflies turn lavender as they
Pass through its shade where gently seems to sway
The phantom of my little daughter’s swing.
— Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
Or forever influential:
“The moon’s an arrant thief,
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun.”
— William Shakespeare, Timon of Athens
Or boring to the point of pasquinade:
Although scientists typically insist that their research is very exciting and adventurous when they talk to laymen and prospective students, the allure of this enthusiasm is too often lost in the predictable, stilted structure and language of their scientific publications. I present here, a top-10 list of recommendations for how to write consistently boring scientific publications. I then discuss why we should and how we could make these contributions more accessible and exciting.
— Kaj Sand-Jensen, How to Write Consistently Boring Scientific Literature
Or rather amusing:
“Hell is sitting on a hot stone reading your own scientific publications.”
— Erika Ursin, fish biologist
Or rather ridiculously amusing:
“Hamlet: written with the imagination of a drunken savage.”
Or rather stupidly amusing:
“You smell like you look like an explosion feels.”
— Anonymous woman, Old Spice commercial
Or rather outrageously amusing:
“We talk about our assholes, and we talk about our cocks, and we talk about who we fucked last night, or who we’re going to fuck tomorrow, or when we got drunk, or when we stuck a broom in our ass in the Hotel Ambassador in Prague — anybody tell one’s friends about that?” — Allen Ginsberg
Or beckoning with secrets — tragic intimations anticipated by the end:
Star Jasmine and old vines
Lay claim upon the ghosted land,
Then quiet pools whisper
Private childhood secrets.
— Maya Angelou, California Prodigal
Or intelligent and high above it all:
The Crucifix in the Filing Cabinet
Out of the drawer that rolls on hidden wheels
I drew a crucifix with beaded chain,
Still new and frightening looking and absurd.
I picked it up as one picks up a bird
And placed it on my palm. It formed a pile
Like a small mound of stones on which there stands
A tree crazy with age, and on the tree
Some ancient teacher hanging by his hands.
I found a velvet bag sewn by the Jews
For holy shawls in frontlets and soft thongs
That bind the arm at morning for great wrongs
Done in a Pharaoh’s time. The crucifix
I dropped down in the darkness of this pouch.
Thought tangled with thought and chain with chain,
Till time untie the dark with greedy look,
Crumble the cross and bleed the leathery vein.
— Karl Shapiro
Or dated just-detectably in the style of its grammar, but to this day the epitome of literary irony:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
— Jane Austin, Pride and Prejudice
Or undated in any way and to this day the paragon of stylistic irony:
“And of course all of you know everything.” — The Book of Job
Or oceanic in its calm, whether one is secular or non:
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.
He leadeth me beside still waters.
He resoreth my soul.
— Psalm 23
Or etched into memory as much for stylistic cleverness and rhyme as for its biographical depiction of the most famous man of his time:
“The poet Lord Byron: mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”
— Caroline Lamb
Or observed with eye-popping detail and then rendered in a style so vivid and clear that readers by the end may be reduced to tears:
The mule stood by the gate with blind marble eyes. He threw them a little dusty hay and sprinkled some cracked corn over it. The nanny-goat crowded the kid away from the corn. The mule whinnied and leaned against the sagging gate. Tayo reached in the coffee can and he held some corn under the quivering mule lips. When the corn was gone, the mule licked for the salt taste on his hand. The tongue was rough and wet, but it was also warm and precise across his fingers. He looked at the long white hairs growing out of the lips like antennas, and he got the choking in his throat again, and he cried for all of them.
— Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony
Or written with such stylistic mastery, the touch so delicate and mature, that readers know at once they’ve just read astounding words in an astounding style — one which will withstand forever all the ravages of passing time:
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from the hilly bourn.
Hedge-crickets sing, and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft,
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
— John Keats, To Autumn
Or written with such stylistic mastery, the touch so delicate and sure, that readers know at once they’ve just read astounding words in an astounding style — the greatest stylist the world has ever known — a style which will withstand forever all the ravages of passing time:
“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows.”
— William Shakespeare, Midsummer Nights’ Dream
Or unspeakably lovely, yet also somehow lorn:
A gull rides on the ripples of a dream,
White upon white, and then settles on a stone.
Across my lawn the soft-backed creatures come.
In the weak light they wander, each alone.
— Theodore Roethke, A Walk in Late Summer
Or uncanny and terrifying:
Pike, three inches long, perfect
Pike in all parts, green tigering the gold.
Killers from the egg: the malevolent aged grin.
They dance on the surface among the flies.
Or move, stunned by their own grandeur,
Over a bed of emerald, silhouette
Of submarine delicacy and horror.
A hundred feet long in their world.
In ponds, under the heat-struck lily pads –
Gloom of their stillness:
Logged on last year’s black leaves, watching upwards.
Or hung in an amber cavern of weeds
The jaws’ hooked clamp and fangs
Not to be changed at this date;
A life subdued to its instrument;
The gills kneading quietly, and the pectorals.
Three we kept behind glass,
Jungled in weed: three inches, four,
And four and a half: fed fry to them –
Suddenly there were two. Finally one
With a sag belly and the grin it was born with.
And indeed they spare nobody.
Two, six pounds each, over two foot long.
High and dry in the willow-herb –
One jammed past its gills down the other’s gullet:
The outside eye stared: as a vice locks –
The same iron in his eye
Though its film shrank in death.
A pond I fished, fifty yards across,
Whose lilies and muscular tench
Had outlasted every visible stone
Of the monastery that planted them –
Stilled legendary depth:
It was as deep as England. It held
Pike too immense to stir, so immense and old
That past nightfall I dared not cast
But silently cast and fished
With the hair frozen on my head
For what might move, for what eye might move.
The still splashes on the dark pond,
Owls hushing the floating woods
Frail on my ear against the dream
Darkness beneath night’s darkness had freed,
That rose slowly towards me, watching.
— Ted Hughes
Or fun and playful, for child and adult alike, because the depiction rings out entirely true — imbued with reality through-and-through — and yet maintaining from start to end the lightness-of-tone and metrical dance that only a great stylist would dare to chance:
Shark, with your mouth tucked under
That severs like a knife,
You leave no time for wonder
In your swift thrusting life.
You taste blood. It’s your brother’s
And at your side he flits.
But blood like any other’s.
You bite him into bits.
— Thom Gunn
Or sun-struck with a stylistic heat that positively sizzles:
Stunned heat of noon. In shade, tan, silken cows
hide in the thorned acacias. A butterfly staggers.
Stamping their hooves from thirst, small horses drowse
or whinny for water. On parched, ochre headlands, daggers
of agave bristle in primordial defense,
like a cornered monster backed up against the sea.
A mongoose charges dry grass and fades through a fence
faster than an afterthought. Dust rises easily.
— Derek Walcott
Or unclassifiable, impossible to analyze, even as you find yourself mesmerized:
French poetry that always crosses the front-lines and boundary-lines.
French poetry of rust carnations, lemniscates, figure 8’s.
French poetry of minutest print to be read with magnifying glass when snow first enters the rain with its wicked announcements of defeat.
French poetry of wood fires, marginal headaches, European winters, sixteen-millimeter surrealist films, winner of the double medallion.
French poetry of patriotic children, cats, castles crumbled to the ground, the sky beyond a shield of lead.
French poetry of the Statue of Liberty, Martinique jazz, Glorie, Vrai!
— Jean Rhys
Or eternal and rhapsodic — exalted, even, and prophetic, full of yearning in the writer’s wild drive and headlong stylistic attempt to capture and hold the magic of childhood, in all its inexorable impermanence, and which this writer indeed succeeds in capturing, grasping it bare-handed while it twists and thrashes and bucks — hoisting it to the world for a brief but dazzling moment, a silvery and immaculate gift, like a wild fish miraculously clutched from deep green keeps and raised into the bewildering light of day, before that living gift slips away, out the writer’s grip forever, and then glides again back through the silken jade guts of water, down, down, down into the immemorial deeps:
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.
And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace.
Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow-thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
— Dylan Thomas
Style can be all these things and innumerable other things as well — including innumerable combinations and cross-combinations of all these things — and of things yet unthought-of, undreamed-of and unwritten: things still unconceived.
Style is technique, and technique is personality, as Oscar wrote — and, as he so often was, Oscar is once more correct.
The fundamental fact of style is this:
Style is how the subject-matter is presented — style is execution — and the form and mode of that execution come from the profoundest parts of the human psyche. Style is a method of thinking.
Like plot — and, for that matter, like thought — style is developed through practice and through reading and through learning and even imitating the styles which move you most and which you most admire. I channel here, for instance, my dear Mr. Wilde — Mr. Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde.
Yet the most elemental stylistic fact of them all — the one I’ve waited until the very end to compile:
The clearer your thinking, the clearer your aesthetic style.