In 2012 I created a Twitter account in the name of William Empson (@williamempson), mostly in a fit of enthusiasm that his work should be seen by all (having spent some time at university writing about him). Not that his great reputation needs my promotion or care, but I feel generally that his poetry deserves as much esteem as his criticism enjoys. Like his prose, his poetry is idiosyncratic such that it has, now nearly a century from its composition, had to stand on its own or not at all; it is too knotty and esoteric to appeal to formalists, and too formal and often grand for the experimental to claim as their own. Helpfully, though, its concision and density favours the brevity of a tweet.
The god approached dissolves into the air
Thorns burn to a consistent ash, like man
A splendid cleanser for the frying pan
Say (she suspects) to sea Nile only brings
Delta and indecision, who instead
Far back up up country does enormous things.
I remember to have wept with a sense of the unnecessary
‘What is conceivable can happen too,’
Said Wittgenstein, who had not dreamt of you
And every morning that the afternoon
Treads in its wake, leaves me less heart to praise.
Tell me again about Europe and her pains,
Who’s tortured by the drought, who by the rains.
Make no escape because they flash and die,
Make no escape
build up your love,
Leave what you die for and be safe to die.
are perfect and compact, are beautiful and memorable in themselves. In fact, almost any line in Empson’s poetry is musical, thoughtful, surprising, forceful, ringing with strangeness and idiosyncrasy. Empson, at his best, seems to be writing in a language entirely of his own making, like English but thicker. You can feel your faculties being stretched away from you vertiginously. When in a poem of thirty or so lines, this can be almost overwhelming, in the sheer work it puts on your plate; when sliced into 140 characters, it’s chewy but palatable. To have these little interruptions into people’s timelines was, I hoped, a pleasant reminder of Empson’s work for those that know it and a prompt to explore further for those that didn’t.
Initially I studiously and laboriously typed these tweets out manually, and did so for a long while. A year or so ago I found I could automate the account from a macro running in a Google Sheet. With tweaks, this macro randomly selected from a corpus of possible tweets every four hours. This meant the only task was to grow the corpus.
I started with the archive of the tweets I’d entered manually, which were almost all lines from Empson’s poetry. Latterly, I added to this from his letters, with occasional passages from Seven Types of Ambiguity and elsewhere, although in his critical prose he rarely says something that will make sense within 140 characters. The letters were especially good, as they include Empson speaking with characteristic conversational frankness (e.g. “The jargon of modern literary criticism seems to me frightful nonsense”) and some contemporary detail (e.g. “my friends thought [I.A. Richards] absurd and regarded me as a source of comic anecdotes about my tutorials under him.”).
I had hoped to include more from his critical work, including the newly published The Face of the Buddha, as well as material I could glean from his biographies. With his first publication in decades, and the rediscovery of a lost manuscript at that, it is an exciting time for Empson fans. However, this week I got an email from Curtis Brown on behalf of his estate informing me that Empson’s family was “not comfortable” with the account. I’m not sure who I’ve upset, or indeed how, but I’m certainly contrite.
@williamempson has been closed down. It seemed the best thing to be up and go.