'The rest is the madness of art'

July 05, 1994|By Stephen Vicchio

How wonderful is the human voice. It is the organ of the soul.

-! -- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

IT IS not an easy job editing this page. The job description should read something like this:

Wanted: editor with a reverence for the written word, and the sense and grace to say yes to the right pieces and the courage and gentleness to say no to the wrong ones. Applicant must have thick skin, somewhat repressed poetic sensibilities and an eye for the smallest of details. He or she must be able and willing to deal with some folks who can't write, while fervently believing they can, and, more important, with those who think they can't write but, with a little hand-holding, just might produce something later to be fastened with fruit-shaped magnets to the fronts of refrigerators all over town. The patience of Job and the judgment of Solomon would be helpful, though not required.

Since March 1979, four presidential administrations ago, first Gwinn Owens and then Mike Bowler have routinely performed these difficult tasks for the Other Voices page: selecting and editing 20 pieces a week, 80 a month, 960 a year, 14,640 in all, with periodic time off for good behavior.

Those 14,640 essays, poems and reviews were culled from 72,000 submissions, most of which can still be found in the Other Voices editor's somewhat cluttered office. Some of the winners came from an eloquent aluminum siding salesman with a love of the Orioles and a taste for whimsy; from academics of all flavors; and, in the early years, from an electrician and high school graduate who happened, when the spirit moved him, to write like James Joyce. His poetic and sometimes fierce submissions were always hastily typed on stationery that included his Maryland home improvement license number.

If I have learned anything in reading this page for these 15 years, it is that good writing, like love, flashes in a moment of moments, and flows when and where it will. Beautiful prose is like wild flowers: There's no telling where you might find them. We might expect an elegant poem from a Carmelite nun in Towson, or a lyrical piece on the changing of seasons from a local poet/priest. A pristine essay from a writing teacher in Timonium or a clear and cogent article on Lincoln by a history teacher who also happens to be a successful high school football coach: These came to this page as no great surprises. But then there were others: mothers writing on kitchen tables, a cab driver with a keen eye for character, an inmate poet, a former homeless woman who this fall travels to the University of Chicago with a huge fellowship.

For the past few years these Other Voices, along with Gilbert Sandler and the few columnists we have left, have been what has kept The Evening Sun from becoming the final edition of the morning Sun, or, still worse, a daily paper that might be delivered in a Potemkin village.

Today Mike Bowler steps down as the editor of this page. We lose a cigar-smoking anomaly: a man who knows that language is a solemn thing, something that grows out of life -- out of its agonies and ecstasies, its wants and its weariness.

If you have ever written for this page, you might lift a glass of beer this afternoon to the two former editors and the one who starts tomorrow, Marilyn McCraven. Perhaps the only real task of a good editor -- one embodied by the job description found above -- is to know a good writer when you see one. For the past 15 years, they have seen a lot of them, and then put them on this nTC page for the rest of us to see.

Henry James, in his autobiography, "Middle Years," aptly describes those who try regularly to put pen to paper, fingers to processor keys: "We work in the dark, we do what we can. We give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art."

Stephen Vicchio teaches philosophy at the College of Notre Dame.

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