Out of the Past Journalism as the Poetry of Fact

Kay Boyle

I spent most of my adult working life as a journalist. Kay Boyle, prolific author of novels and short stories, once sent me a letter praising a piece I had written as “the poetry of fact.” Which led to this blogpost back in 2016.

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At the Chicago Sun-Times I watched some great wordsmiths up close. Roger Ebert wrote with an ease that seemed miraculous. His profiles flowed like swift streams. David Elliott was another. His reviews had the density of Hart Crane poems. (I exaggerate, but only a little.) And then there was the sportswriter John Schulian, whose graceful columns seemed like actual literature. You couldn’t be around writers like that without learning something.

But long before I got to Chicago, a transplanted Canadian by the name of Chris Braithwaite showed me how to be a reporter at a little country weekly he founded in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, The Chronicle. One thing I was never able to master, though, was his stone sober dedication to civic-minded small town journalism. I wasn’t much of a country boy, and I had a wandering eye. I read a lot of classic reportage — Hemingway’s early newspaper clips; columns by the British journalist James Cameron; collections by A.J. Liebling and Cyril Connolly; Graham Greene’s film critiques; Clive James’s television reviews; Orwell, of course, and George Bernard Shaw on music. It’s the kind of basic reading you’d expect from the wandering eye of a city boy.

Much later Kay Boyle gave me her novel Monday Night. She told me it was her favorite, and maybe it was. She was certainly proud of it. The fact that Dylan Thomas liked it couldn’t have hurt. (He wrote her: “I thought that was a very grand book indeed. … This is a fan letter. You haven’t got a greater admirer than me.”) Kay gave me the book when I was a working reporter because I had written a piece she particularly liked — it was about Jack Abbott — and she wanted me to know that she valued it as “the poetry of fact.” In Monday Night, one of the two main characters is a former veteran journalist, an expatriate American in Paris. He’s in a cab with a young friend, and he’s talking about himself. What he says is the opposite of what Hemingway said about the damage journalism can do to a writer.

Don’t let anyone tell you ever that newspaper work cramps a man’s style or ruins his talent or anything like that. I wouldn’t give up those years I had over here with the sheet in Paris even if it means a dozen published volumes behind me. I was figuring out just the other day that everything I’ve written in the years I’ve been here, everything that’s been set down in black and white over here and read by I don’t know how many people — if you took everything I’ve written for the paper over here and put it between covers it would absolutely, by proof, make more of a bookshelf than Hemingway’s and Sherwood Anderson’s stuff put together. Take Anderson, Bernie,” he said in the quiet, controlled, musing voice a book-reviewer uses when he writes, only faintly condescending, just faintly contemptuous of the work of other men. “What was Anderson after all but a newspaperman, or an advertising copy writer or something of that kind. Maybe that’s where the real genius is today, I mean literary genius. Writing for a lot of people is just as good as writing for only a few people, and it’s just as ree-foined, Bernie. Anyway, it comes down to the same thing in the end. If you’re dealing in words, you’re dealing in words, and that’s what counts. It doesn’t matter whether they’re big ones or little ones. It’s the experience acquired in doing that, and that’s what I’ve got a lot of. It’s writing things down, day after day, not just talking about it. As long as you’re stringing words together, that’s all that matters.

Kay was a lifelong friend of Samuel Beckett’s. She was for many years associated with little magazines of the avant-garde and is generally thought of (when she is thought of at all) as part of a more literary realm than newsprint. You wouldn’t have expected her to be such a fan of ink-stained wretches. I didn’t.

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