Less is more

Chatting with some seminarians this week, about art and artists, and one remarkable artist in particular, I raised a point about “quitting while you’re ahead.” We could equally, I suppose, have been discussing Las Vegas, where persons disposed to gambling sometimes congregate, and where some have been known to continue betting even after — notwithstanding the odds — they have made handsome profits. Winning streaks do not last forever; nor losing streaks, although these latter can end in death.

As an avid, if incompetent watercolourist, I am perhaps over-familiar with this issue. It is a very rare thing when suddenly I discover that I have painted something that is “not half bad.” Pausing to thank the Holy Spirit for His assistance, I then reload the brush to make further improvements. They fail, badly. Soon I am trying to undo what I have done — a “reform of the reform” as it were — further advancing the metamorphosis of my once beautiful painting into a dog’s breakfast. What had seemed for a moment to be an unusually poetic depiction of winter light piercing an ice-fog in the Humber ravine, now more resembles a deluge, with shipwrecks, or perhaps they are discarded transit buses.

A talented poet of my once-acquaintance, once asked for my advice as an objective editor on a sequence he had written. My advice was, “remove all the last lines.” As the discussion extended to the rest of his works, my advice was enlarged to, “Remove the last line from every poem you have ever written; or the last stanza if the poem is long.” I should have quit while I was ahead.

In all the extravagance of his wordplay, I have noticed that Shakespeare knows when to stop. Marlowe often took things just that little bit farther, but not our Will. The most extraordinary scene has been developed and realized but then, “The rest is silence.”