Purple, I suggest, when it isn’t just showing off, is phrase-coining; an attempt to build longish units of language that more or less replicate sizable chunks of Being in much the same way as the hiss-crack-cuckoo words mimic a sound. There is language that plunges in, not too proud to steal a noise
from Mother Nature, and there is language that prides itself on the distance it keeps itself at. Then there is purple which, from quite a distance away,
plunges back into phenomena all over again, only to emerge with a bigger verbal ostentation. It is rather moving, this shift from parroting to abstraction, and
then back from abstraction into what might be called symphonic hyperbole. . .
I am suggesting that purple prose, ornate and elaborate as it sometimes is, reminds us of things we do ill to forget: the arbitrary, derivative, and
fictional nature of language; its unreliable relationship with phenomena; its kinship with paint and voodoo and gesture and wordless song; its sheer mystery;
its enormous distance from mathematics, photography, and the mouths of its pioneers; its affinities with pleasure and luxury, its capacity for hitting the
mind’s eye — the mind’s ear, the mind’s very membranes — with what isn’t there, with what is impossible and (until the very moment of its investiture in words)
unthinkable. Purple, after phrases coined by Horace and Macaulay, it may have always have to be called, but I would call it the style of extreme awareness.
– Paul West, “In Defense of Purple Prose“
As I’ve fully immersed myself back into the processes of writing, Paul
West’s old essay, “In Defense of Purple Prose,” has become something of a
manifesto. If I love writing, (and I suspect that I do) it is an affair matched
only by my disinclination ever to write clearly. Even when I was an aspiring
academic, I did all I could to feed my distaste for things I’d sneeringly describe
as didactic. To this day, I still tease my professorial friends who are
applauded for their articulate clarity. “Yes, your writing is very clear.
So clear as to be nearly invisible . . . if there at all.” This speaks, I
am aware, as much to my taste as it does to a certain unwarranted egotism on my
part, but it is neither a preference nor a fault I’m willing to part with just
And, yes, I know it is not for everyone: symphonies are expensive, hyperbole
distracting, and the word “purple” sounds vaguely intestinal. Substance has
more atomic weight behind it than does style; and if it doesn’t necessarily or
always pack as powerful a punch, it has traditionally attracted a larger
audience. And, yes, I’m fine with that. If nothing else, it gives stylists
something other to blame than bad stylings when they remain unread. (The best
deceptions begin at home — deceiver, deceive thyself – whether it be into
self-confidence or lack thereof, it really doesn’t matter. History has proven
either can be made to work quite well, thank you very much.)
So I continue, mazing my way through labyrinths of clauses and sub-clauses,
stacking metaphor onto metaphor until they fall into a mess or meaning,
interested more in the undulation of language than its utility. How to do
things with words? — Speak them and see. Count me in for the certain dingy
luster of a language that looks like the sickly sky before a hard rain. The color of
this language may be called purple, but I think it’s more autumnal than that: a
green pocked with red, neither of which shine so much as they dimly shimmer, and
in so shimmering, become not simply the sight but somehow too the sound of the
language worth seeking.
-- Brad J.