November 12, 2012

The Use of Opposites: Some Thoughts on Writing

The use of opposites injects a tension and energy into writing.  It is incisive; immediately the writer penetrates deeply into the subject. Recently, I've been reading the work of two very different writers, Natalia Ginzburg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Natalia Ginzburg, the Italian essayist (1916-1991)  had a writer's voice so intimate and true, it felt she was inside:

When I write stories I am like someone who is in her own country, walking along streets that she has known since she was a child, between walls and trees that are hers. 

As I read her essay "He and I," I also walked along her streets as if they were my own.  Her marriage struck a balance between opposites. In contradiction, she loved; in cross moods, impassioned fights, broken plates, she had tenderness. She is so familiar. Her writing voice ignites images of the domestic. She had a tendency to write in comparison and contrast, like she did in this essay, "Worn Out Shoes" in her book The Little Virtues:

My shoes are worn-out, and the friend I live with for the moment also has worn-out shoes. When we are together we often talk about shoes. If I talk about the time when I shall be an old, famous writer, she immediately asks me “What shoes will you wear?” Then I say I shall have shoes of green suede with a big gold buckle on one side.  

The voice of Ginzburg is so personal and affectionate, yet it flexes with remarkable power. She is able to hold the most diverse and opposing thoughts within each sentence:

As soon as we see our dreams betrayed we realize that the intensest joys of our life have nothing to do with reality, and we are consumed with regret for the time when they glowed within us. And in this succession of hopes and regrets our life slips by.

And even as she wrote about herself, these opposing forces come in:

When I write something I usually think it is very important and that I am a very fine writer. I think this happens to everyone. But there is one corner of my mind in which I know very well what I am, which is a small, a very small writer. I swear I know it. But that doesn't matter much to me. Only, I don't want to think about names: I can see that if I am asked "a small writer like who?" it would sadden me to think of the names of other small writers. I prefer to think that no one has ever been like me, however small, however much a mosquito or a flea of a writer I may be. The important thing is to be convinced that this really is your vocation, your profession, something you will do all your life.  
In actuality, Ginzburg was a very big writer whose work continues to shine.  

The other writer, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, is not an essayist but a poet.  The Coney Island of the Mind and 29 other books of his have influenced American culture. He is one of the Beat Poets.  He is both a writer and a publisher, and he owns City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. His poem "I Am Waiting" is widely anthologized. Through this good poem, the use of opposites reveals his social and political consciousness:
Two Scavengers in a Truck, Two Beautiful People in a Mercedes
At the stoplight waiting for the light
nine a.m. downtown San Francisco
a bright yellow garbage truck
with two garbage men in red plastic blazers
standing on the back stoop
one on each side hanging on
and looking down into
an elegant open Mercedes
with an elegant couple in it
The man
in a hip three-piece linen suit
with shoulder-length blond hair and sunglassed
The young blond woman so casually coifed
with short skirt and coloured stockings
on the way to his architect's office
And the two scavengers up since four a.m.
grungy from their route
on the way home
The older of the two with grey iron hair
and hunched back
looking down like some
gargoyle Quasimodo
And the younger of the two
also with sunglasses and long hair
about the same age as the Mercedes driver
And both scavengers gazing down
as from a great distance
at the cool couple
as if they were watching some odourless TV ad
in which everything is always possible
And the very red light for an instant
holding all four close together
as if anything at all were possible
between them
across that small gulf
in the high sea
of this democracy.

These two writers were very powerful, and they provide us with beautiful work structured by opposites.


Ferlinghetti, Lawrence.  For more info, see and

Ginzburg, Natalia. The Little Virtues. c1962 Guilio Eunadi, edi s.p.a. and translation c1989 by Dick Davis. Arcade Publishing, New York.