This small tract collects together three lectures given by Alvarez in New York in 2002. Although separate lectures, they run together here as continuous chapters, and there would be little sense in reading them as anything other than an article in their own right.
His first lecture, `Finding a Voice', describes the basic authorial skills expected today: an economy of words, good technique, specific imagery, directness, and authenticity. What Alvarez talks about here is his Modernist ideal of the writer as an artist, and he uses Plath's `The Moon and the Yew Tree', as his guide to perfection.
His second lecture, `Listening', describes the importance of allowing ones musicality to simmer through language's formal rules. Alvarez declares chaos and unpredictability to be as important as skill in itself, taking Alfred Brendel, Novalis and Einstein as telling sources here.
He concludes by emphasising the complicity of both skill and instinct in any true art. I thought Alvarez began to get self-defensive here; he inveighs against the Beat generation's reaction to (his ideal of) high Modernism, accusing them of ushering in a fake relationship between the poet, the work, and the audience. Apparently, today, we are all too scared of understanding art and so prefer to become absorbed in personalities, like Emin, splashed across tabloids.
Despite the elitist tones echoing round this book, Alvarez is good to his own word; he keeps away from both cliché and jargon, and strolls around his subject naturally, at ease with what he's saying whilst knowing he's saying it well. This is definitely worth a peruse.