Earth receive two honored guests

Earth, receive an honoured guest:

William Yeats is laid to rest.

Let the Irish vessel lie

Emptied of its poetry.

W. H. Auden, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”

We lost two great writers recently: Elmore Leonard and Seamus Heaney. It would be hard to think of two celebrated contemporary writers whose styles differ more. American novelist Leonard wrote taught, stark, hard-boiled crime fiction that makes your heart race, while Irish poet Heaney wrote rich, sensory, densely layered poetry that makes you feel the peat between your teeth.

Full disclosure: I haven’t read Leonard’s novels yet, but his obituary in the New York Times makes me want to. His 10 rules of writing model his pithy style and tell you how to achieve it. “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip,” he advises, and, “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.”

I just broke one of Leonard’s rules by using a verb other than “said” to frame his quotations. But maybe that’s because at heart I’m a sucker for writing that sounds like writing, which is what Heaney gives us. In his defense, Heaney gives us writing that sounds like writing that sounds like “the squelch and slap / of soggy peat” and emits “the cold smell of potato mould.” His poetry is so richly sensory that it makes you aware of language as a thick loam that you can build mud castles with. Check out his poem, “Digging.”

As Leonard’s 10 rules and Heaney’s “Digging” show, one thing both writers have in common is a sense of humor. They are masters of their craft, and they have fun with it. Maybe that should be rule #11: Have fun with it.

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