Sunday, 23 October 2016

Linguistic psychopathology of poets and strangers

Poets are a clan, a secret society. One poet reading another will as likely trust them. But to prose readers, poets are strangers. An atmosphere of trust needs to be fostered by the poet otherwise the reader will just shut the door in the poet's face. Readers need to be convinced that the effort of reading will be repaid. A collection of poetry offers the poet an opportunity to develop a trusting relationship. The reader might come to assume that some poems share a persona, so assumptions can be made about the persona's gender, era, location, sexual orientation, etc - factors that complicate interpretation of poems when they're read in isolation. As readers continue reading, they might find shared understandings and shed suspicions of there being any Emperor's New Clothes. They might feel that they're getting to know the poet. Some poets (Sharon Olds maybe, or some Confessionalists) encourage or even require such an engagement by the reader, a commitment for richer and for poorer.

But suppose the poet seems untrustworthy? In real life when introduced to new people we sometimes encounter similar situations, meeting people who seem to be bad judges of character, whose opinions fly against evidence, who contradict themselves, who talk too much, who exaggerate, who are pretentious or incoherent. None of these traits of course is sufficient to sever all contact with the person - they may be interesting and likeable nonetheless. Even if they're not, you may have to interact with them - they may be new colleagues or in-laws; they may be sitting next to you on a long flight. You make allowances, even if the people are a little strange. Indeed, strange people are often rather interesting to people who read poetry, especially if their use of language is strange too.

Is all non-standard language poetic? Of course not. Indeed it's barely a meaningful question. And yet, within each domain of language use, a poetic element can be brought out. Perhaps it's easier to see the poetry when it's in an unusual context. Away from the familiar poetry patterns, rhymes, metaphors, and emotions, there's potential in recipes, adverts, specialist jargon, shopping lists and rants of the mad. This relocation (often removing the purpose from usually purposeful language) draws attention to the strangeness of language.

Any breaking of the word=world equivalence, any doubts raised on the transparency of language, can be considered poetic. The disruption may be minimal. For example, in one of her poems Jo Bell writes about "disappearing her toes in the sand". Making an intransitive verb into a transitive one in this way doesn't make the text harder to understand, but does make the text more likely to be considered a poem.

The most poetic non-standard language comes perhaps from people with mental disorders. In his 1911 book, Bleuler (who coined the term schitzophrenia) quoted this much-quoted passage that exhibits some non-standard traits - "I always liked geography. My last teacher in that subject was Professor August A. He was a man with black eyes. I also like black eyes. There are also blue eyes and grey eyes and other sorts, too. I have heard it said that snakes have green eyes. All people have eyes."

When people are in a manic phase their language is affected. There's likely to be

  • an increased use of pronouns and verbs at the expense of adjectives and prepositions. Speech is likely to be I-oriented
  • more circumstantial, anecdotal or random links between phrases
  • more discursive and verbose discourse. More loose ends.

These features can make a manic person more tedious to be with. The resulting isolation can worsen their problems. With high-functioning manics these features are no less tedious, but at least there are more compensations. Other non-standard personality features that affect language may also be present -

  • Quirks and idiosyncrasies
  • Disinhibition

This disinhibition (which makes it possible to say things that one wouldn't normally), coupled with the greater variety of links between ideas, aids creativity, so it's not surprising that there's a similarity between manic language and some styles of poetry. Those with borderline symptoms may be encouraged to be conventional, or (if writers) try to write a normal piece with a mad person as the main character. Alternatively, rather than change the writer to fit society, new surroundings can be found to suit the writer. The poetry world is one such world, confessionalism being a tempting style. The world of poetry offers opportunities to legitimize behaviour that would otherwise be considered anti-social or rude. If a person with mental problems adopts an existing role, other people to know how to interact with them, thus helping to socialise the troubled person. It's well known that poets have poetic license, so people expect non-PC or unconventional behaviour from people who identify as poets.

Because manics are more likely to be isolated or drugged nowadays, for many people it's something of a novelty to listen to a manic. Their words can superficially sound creative. However, you don't need to be with patients long to know that the illusion soon wears off.

There are of course huge differences between a reader-manicpoet relationship engendered when reading a collection, and the kind of relationship one might develop with (say) a manic stranger on a long plane flight -

  • In real life, stuck on a plane, one politely makes allowances. Quirks and idiosyncrasies (e.g. beginning each contribution with "Er ..." or "Well ...", for example) are filtered out in a way that we're not used to doing when we read (Christopher Smart's ‘My Cat Jeoffrey‘ being an exception)
  • One tends to become tolerant of exaggeration during casual conversation. One might be expecting Truth and Illumination from a poet.
  • Though it's tempting in a book to assume that the persona is the person, that's far from always true.
  • On a plane, one can't easily walk away. Once one's bought a book one tries to justify the time and money spent, especially if the book's been recommended, but one can always stop reading
  • The stranger may not realise that they're coming over as egotistical and demanding. If the poet doesn't realise, then presumably the publisher should. Gratuitously unconventional language and subject matter means that the listener/reader will need to work harder. There's an added elitism in the poem situation - only poetry readers with editing skills will be able to benefit comfortably from the text.

When I was in my 20s a friend I'd known since school began acting strangely. For a while he was institutionalised, then he went into shared accommodation - "care in the community". I often visited. I got to know his new friends. Having had a rather sheltered, scientific upbringing I was interested and stimulated by the company. The subject matter was new to me (some of it eventually got into a prizewinning story of mine) but it was more the uninhibited mix of subject matter (and of reality/fantasy, public/private) that struck me. I transcribed the odd monologue. A mutual friend made video recordings that (heavily sampled) have become minor cult hits on YouTube. At that time I hadn't met any people from the creative arts, and was impressed by the imagination exhibited by my friend's friends, free from society's pressure to conform. That said, I grew increasingly bored of their rambling monologues and the repetition. I see the same free association and lack of inhibition in some poetry. I wonder sometimes if people enjoy it for the same reasons I liked those monologues all those years ago - for the novelty, the unacademic unstuffiness, the escapism.

I have bursts of writing between quiet periods during which the excesses of my writing phases are pruned. The writing's not manic, but I'm aware that the re-writing may remove the spontaneity and freedom of association that made the original interesting. So I can sympathize with manic depressive writers who don't want to change a word of their first draft, even those writers who during their depressive phases feel like destroying their work. But on the whole I'm wary of literature that has too many of the traits of manic writing. Poetry and social discourse are very different contexts with different expectations and norms of behaviour. But it's this very difference that readers should remind themselves of. Readers don't have the duties and responsibilities that carers bear. I suggest that they

  • be cautious about the impact of novelty, disorganisation and disinhibition - text that's sexually explicit or non-PC might appear striking and original in a poetry context, but in a wider context it might be common
  • consider what's lacking as well as what's in surplus
  • wonder why they're being made to work harder than is necessary, and wonder whether it's fair
  • remember that they can cut their losses and stop reading. Nobody's present whose feelings will be hurt

Friday, 5 August 2016

Poetry Sales

Assessing "Poetry Sales" isn't easy. Firstly it's not always clear what counts as poetry. Secondly, publishers often aren't forthcoming about sales, which rarely reach 4 figures and are usually part of a long tail. Some publishers give print-run sizes rather than sales, and count review copies as sales. And books on school/university reading lists may receive special treatment. e-books and web-publishing have complicated matters even further. I'd contend that poetry's never been popular, and that poetry's more popular than ever. It all depends of course on what you mean by "poetry".


Was there ever, anywhere, a Golden Age of Poetry? Here are just a few of many candidates. I think fashion and lack of alternatives account for many of these highlights -

  • In pre-literate times, short and memorable passages were popular, often being set to music. I imagine that they spanned the literary spectrum, though I suspect that the equivalent of pop songs was by far the most popular type.
  • In Victorian times, many middle class parents felt they should have a poetry anthology on their shelves. Some evenings they may have taken turns to read poems out around the fire. A new book by Tennyson could sell 40,000 copies in weeks.
  • In 1965, the "International Poetry Incarnation" attracted 7,000 people to the Albert Hall.
  • Toyo Shibata was 92 when she started writing poetry; her first self-published collection of 42 poems has sold over 1.5 million copies in Japan since its publication in 2009.
  • 70 million global viewers watched dueling versifiers vie for a $1.3 million cash prize in Abu Dhabi’s hit reality show "Million’s Poet".
  • According to Publishers weekly, Rupi Kaur has sold nearly 500,000 poetry books.
  • According to The Academy of American Poets director Jen Benka, the Academy’s Poem-a-Day has over 300,000 readers.


More often we hear about sale flops. Some of these stories may be apocryphal, but they're fun anyway -

  • Edward Fitzgerald paid to have 250 copies of the Rubaiyat translation printed, intending to sell each for 5 shillings. Something like a total of six copies were sold. After a couple years, the bookseller put it on the remainder table. Asking price: one penny.
  • Of the 2,000 copies of the 1832 edition of Wordsworth's poems, less than 400 had been sold by Sept 1833.
  • James Joyce's "Chamber Music" was published 1907. By 1913, fewer than 200 copies out of 507 printed had been bought, many by Joyce.
  • Jorge Luis Borges used to carry round copies of his book of poems and stuff them in the overcoats of men who were having a shave or a haircut.
  • According to Nielsen Bookscan, not one of the shortlisted collections in the 2007 T.S. Eliot Prize for poetry had sold more than 1000 copies by 2008. "Hawks to Doves" by Alan Gillis had sold 39 copies.
  • Michael Juster's "Wilbur Award" winner, "The Secret Language of Women", has sold 400 copies in a decade - slightly above average for the series.
  • The best-selling single-author poetry book of 2011 in the US - "Horoscopes for the Dead" by Billy Collins - sold 18,406 copies.
  • According to The Guardian only 500 copies of Prynne's "Pearls That Were" were produced in England. On the plus side, in China a translation of it had sold more than 50,000 copies" by 2004.


In 1998-9 the UK Arts Council found that Faber published 90% of the contemporary poetry books that were bought. 67% of them were by Heaney, though his UK sales pale beside those of previous popular UK poets - Byron, Kipling, Betjeman, and Pam Ayres.

In The Guardian, 2013 it said that "total value of UK poetry sales has gone from £8.4m in 2009 to £6.7m last year", and that Salt (a publisher who had produces many single-author poetry books) found that sales had "a 50% drop over the last five years, half of which happened in the last 12 months"

But don't despair. Though most poetry books on middle-class shelves are unwanted presents ("Birthday Letters" is in many charity shops), I think quite a lot of poetry survives under other guises. A thoughtful passage can "go viral" nowadays, being read in hours more than a prize-winning poem is read in centuries. And song-writers shouldn't be underestimated. When Joni Mitchell began a track with "Blue, songs are like tattoos/ You know I've been to sea before" she was taking words seriously.

Attempts to widen the base of poetry have never been too successful in strictly poetry terms, especially those that use slogans like "Anyone can write". Perhaps the most recent successes are Dana Gioia's "The Big Read" and "Poetry Out Loud", which aim to increase appreciation of poetry. The current situation, where much worthwhile poetry isn't involved with establishment poetry (and might not even be called poetry) isn't the worst of all possible worlds. At least the writers don't have to make compromises.


  • In the Mapping contemporary poetry report, these were the top 10 (in terms of value) all-time UK poetry titles (Non-contemporary poetry excluded)
    Title and authorCopies sold
    1 Staying Alive (Astley (ed)) 90999
    2 The World's Wife (Duffy) 67590
    3 Collected Poems (Larkin)40696
    4 Beowulf: A New Translation 51694
    5 The Whitsun Weddings (Larkin) 42579
    6 Being Alive (Astley (ed)) 27292
    7 Birthday Letters (Hughes) 31227
    8 If I Don't Know (Cope) 30776
    9 New Selected Poems, 1966-87 (Heaney) 22775
    10 Collected Poems (Plath)16054
    Eliot, Duffy, Armitage, Cope, Hughes and Larkin dominate the top 50 (the only other people to break in are Paul McCartney, Plath and Astley). After the top 50, sales are in four figures - e.g. Don Paterson's "Landing Light" (67th in the charts) sold 4,258 copies.
  • "Official figures from Nielsen BookScan show a sharp decline in the overall UK poetry market in the last year. There was growth of around 13% in 2009, when the market was worth £8.4m, followed by small declines in 2010 and 2011, and then a major drop of 18.5% volume and 15.9% value in 2012, when the overall value of the market fell to £6.7m." (Guardian 2013)
  • "Over the past two years, according to BookScan, the three bestselling UK poetry titles have all been by Duffy – "The Christmas Truce" (38,181 copies sold), "The Bees" (29,716) and "The World's Wife" (19,933). The rest of the top 10 is made up of three anthologies, "The Odyssey", the Pam Ayres' "Classic Collection" – and two more Duffy collections. The collected Philip Larkin comes in 13th place (10,152), behind more anthologies, and Seamus Heaney's "Burial at Thebes" in 14th (9,253). Even a prize-winning poet such as Sharon Olds has sold only 7,399 copies of her collection "Stag's Leap", while John Burnside's "Black Cat Bone" sold 5,544 copies." (Guardian 2013)

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Minimalism - does absence make the art grow stronger?

Many factors go into the production of a story or poem. Sometimes (as in tear-jerkers, say, or porn) one of these dominates, perhaps to the detriment of other factors.

One person's excess is another's lack. An excess of emotion can viewed be a lack of control. An excess of randomness could be viewed as minimal order. I suspect that in literature the amounts of each factor are measured relative to prevailing literary norms, mindful of genre and context. Because so many factors can apply to texts, an absence may well not be noticed, though excesses might well be. However, readers are likely to notice a related cluster of absent features.

Definitions of literary minimalism

"Literary minimalism" is quite a common term, though people used to Minimalism in other arts may be surprised by its usage in literature. In art, Minimalism is associated with non-figurative works, but in literature the term seems to apply to more mimetic works where the minimal amount of literary gloss has been applied.

  • According to Wikipedia, "Minimalism in the arts began in post–World War II Western art, most strongly with American visual arts in the 1960s and early 1970s". "Literary minimalism is characterized by an economy with words and a focus on surface description". Raymond Carver, Ernest Hemingway, and Samuel Beckett are cited as examples.
  • Herzinger suggested that its 'salient characteristics' include - “equanimity of surface, ‘ordinary’ subjects, recalcitrant narrators and deadpan narratives, slightness of story, and characters who don’t think out loud.
  • Phil Greaney writes "I have translated these ‘salient characteristics’ into several more precise elements as they appear in minimalist writing: a reduced vocabulary; a shorter sentence; a reticence towards the expression of a character’s thoughts or feelings; unresolved, even slight narratives which reveal more than they resolve; the use of unadorned language and the rejection of hyperbole; a detached, even ‘absent’ narrator; a more abundant use of dialogue; fewer adjectives and, when used, not extravagant; showing, not telling as a primary means of communicating information; an interest in the accurate depiction of the everyday; and a focus upon the present tense".


In general the assumption is that the audience may need to work harder than usual to see the "artiness" of the work. The audience may need to be more sophisticated - "Artistic simplicity is more complex than artistic complexity for it arises via the simplification of the latter and against its backdrop or system" (Yury Lotman, "Analysis of the Poetic Text"). Fried saw this displacement of the viewer's experience from an aesthetic engagement within, to an event outside of the artwork as a failure of minimal art in general.

Realism, in a minimalist way or otherwise, is queried in The end of realist stories (Alex Gallix).

In "An Introduction to literary minimalism in the American short story" by Phil Greaney other criticisms are cited -

  • John Aldridge’s "Talents and Technicians: Literary Chic and the New Assembly-Line Fiction" reflects a concern that the minimalist approach was banal, trivial and inconsequential, privileging form over effect: ‘[Minimalism] suspends all aesthetic innovation in favour of parsing out the most mundane concerns of superficial life’.
  • The hostility to Minimalism culminated in 1989, when five critics convened on Minimalism, and under the heading ‘Throwing Dirt on the Grave of Minimalism’, declared that it was ‘dead'.

Variations on a theme

Dirty Realism tends to have more lurid content than traditional literary minimalism, but shares its stylistic traits.

The New Puritans group emerged in the year 2000 with a manifesto that included style issues - "We believe in textual simplicity and vow to avoid all devices of voice: rhetoric, authorial asides"; "In the name of clarity, we recognise the importance of temporal linearity and eschew flashbacks, dual temporal narratives and foreshadowing" but also content-related issues - "As faithful representation of the present, our texts will avoid all improbable or unknowable speculations on the past or the future"; "We are moralists, so all texts feature a recognisable ethical reality". The movement doesn't seem to have lasted long - see Are litblogs making writers risk-averse? (A Stevens).

Specialised Minimalism

The term "Literary minimalism" doesn't seem to have been applied to Concrete Poetry (where words' conventional meanings are reduced). Barthes in "Writing Degree Zero" had perhaps this notion in mind when me saw poetic literature existing only in the "absence of all signs", a medium that expressed new, previously non-existent thought or images by questioning or expunging conventional ones. Neither is "Literary minimalism" applied to Prose Poems (where a major poetry indicator, the line-break, is excluded), Haiku, or Found Texts (where the minimum of literary gloss is applied). And what about "The Red Wheelbarrow" or the Blue Mountain poets, or even Larkin?

What a work of art studiously avoids can form an outline, a negative space around what readers have to deduce. Particular absences may be significant -

  • "For (Pierre) Macherey, a work is tied to ideology not so much by what it says as by what it does not say. It is in the significant silences of a text, in its gaps and absences, that the presence of ideology can be most positively felt", Terry Eagleton, "Marxism and Literary Theory", p.34
  • "To understand a literary style, consider what it omits", Mason Cooley
  • "We tend to define our poets by that aspect of sensibility they actually must lack and strive towards", Jorie Graham, "Denver Quarterly", V 26, no 4
  • "The true artist may be best recognised by his acts of omission", Pater, "Appreciations with an Essay on Style", p.18.

Tactical Minimalism

By using more mundane language and situations, writers might be able to encourage readers to look deeper and wider for the aesthetic value, forcing them to re-calibrate their expectations so that they'll more alert to nuance. Displays of emotion can be all the more powerful for being understated or apparently repressed. However, like Art Minimalism, it can appear rather easy to do. What one reader might think is masterful restraint, another may see as a literary cop-out - the author avoiding the issue.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Poetry and precision

In poetry reviews and blurbs, the terms "precise" and "precision" are commonly seen though their use is often vague. They seem to be terms of praise hinting at 2 main concepts -

  • Accuracy - The ability to judge this rather depends on shared understandings and mimetic intent. Is Pound's "In a Station of the Metro" accurate? When Gerard Woodward writes "a toilet cistern refills like an old lady pouring tea" is he accurate? If you see a fuzzy painting of a landscape, it could be the result of the artist's lack of attention to detail or an accurate depiction of a foggy day. How is one supposed to know?
  • Economy - "Precise" often means "small" or "clipped". When an artist captures a face with a few brushstrokes we admire the precision. Economy in poetry tends to involve word-count rather than line-count. 10 words spread over 5 lines is more likely to be considered "precise" than a 10-word sentence. Neither is the time taken by the reader taken into account. If twice as many words mean that a reader understands in half the time, there's a case for saying that the longer version is more efficient, more economic, but it wouldn't be described as more precise.

"Precision" to me can apply to big or small things. There needs to be a small margin of error - if the thing were different even in a small way, the effect would be significant. This concept of "precise" isn't the one that's usually applied to poetry, especially when line-breaks are praised for their precision. I think the economy of the image, more than its exactness, is what provokes the use of "precision", which is why haiku, short Imagist poems and short-lined short stanzas are most likely to attracted accolades for precision. A single, well-aimed (preferably striking) image can be more effective than carpet bombing, and an image can be made to look more significant than it is by being isolated.

The easiest situations to claim that words are precise are where other media have trouble competing at all, or where words' power of reference and allusion (rather than expression) can be exploited. The leverage of a phrase like "remember that night under the bridge in York?" can be large if there are shared understandings or if preparations have been made earlier in the text. A single word or name can be the key to a store-room of memories.

But if one wishes to be precise, why restrict oneself to using words? Words often can't compete with other media. In his novel, "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius", Dave Eggers includes a floor-plan - a more precise way of describing the house-layout than words would be. And a photo of a delicately coloured rose is going to convey appearance faster and more accurately than words.

The mouth of Franz Hals' "Laughing Cavalier" is a smear of red highlighted with what looks like toothpaste. Close up you'd be hard pressed to say what the marks represented. By 1851 that style was out of date. Late one summer's evening, Millais rowed across a river to sketch the flowers on the far bank by lamplight. You'll see those impossibly detailed flowers in the Tate's "Ophelia". In contrast there's Picasso's drawings - bare lines on a white expanse - and Schiele's work where areas of untouched canvas compete with highly wrought flesh. Later still came hyper-realism, where painting aspires to photography.

When a poet writes "he rowed across the river to paint flowers", readers are trusted to fill in the details if they wish. It doesn't matter if they erroneously think that daffodils proliferate on the riverbanks. The poet's "flower" is that of a toddler's first doodle: a generic icon. If the writer says that the flowers are "yellow", we wonder why that feature is emphasised. Writers cannot mention without pointing, whether it's at objects or their secondary properties. Because of that, poets have to be as careful as pre-budget chancellors about what they say. Every word matters, but they don't tell the whole story. In contrast, painters cannot paint mere "flowers" - they have to be yellow, drooping, or windblown. Because there are always so many details, none can be singled out.

The world's becoming more graphic, less poetic - we are offered a choice of details to concentrate on rather than being trusted to fill them in. Any lack is a vacuum that must be filled: we have to know the history of each killer, interview those they knew at school, know in which beauty spot the body was buried. If we mistrust what we see our response is to zoom in. There are always more details to find, more trees to obscure our view of the woods. Yet we are scared to get away from it all. Walking in the countryside, we take along our binoculars, our mobile phones and Sunday papers. Even if we notice hosts of daffodils we would no longer describe them as golden - in truth they aren't. Yet facts are often no more than props for poets to feel their way into a poem, scaffolding. Like an actor's false nose, they are as much for the performer as the listener. Like experimental findings, they are useful only for what we can derive from them. We are becoming obsessed by the fine print and the appendices, forgetting the abstracts. Too many writers play safe by giving us everything on the principle that more is better, betraying a lack of self-confidence, an inability to select. The law of diminishing returns applies, further details becoming exhausting rather than exhaustive, obscuring rather than illuminating the original, squeezing the reader out of the text. Picasso was right when he said that it takes a master to know when to stop.

Art ranges from Pure Abstraction to hyper-realism. Poetry too has abstract forms (Schwitters' sound poetry for instance) but its range (excepting perhaps dialogue) doesn't extend to the reproduction of the real world. Poetry has to accept that it can present appearance little better than it can smells, that because the natural world has to be translated into words, all aspects of reality are equally available, equally distant. Poetry needs to combine the untouched abstraction of "flower" and "summer" with the selective power of adjectives, the pinpoint precision of quotation, and especially of proper nouns. The blanket-bombing of Millais is absent. Instead, details are pruned back to let the spaces speak, and lines define not just area but volume. Under magnification the phrases and words may look mundane or even careless but the pieces aren't meant to be observed in isolation. Each word is modified by its context. Meaning is distributed, oblivious to word boundaries and even the boundaries of the work. When a modern poet writes "golden daffodils" the extra meaning isn't discovered by zooming in on the individual words, but by panning out to take in Wordsworth's poem and our response to the Romantics. The measure of a poem's precision is not the amount of detail it contains, but how well it targets the factories of knowledge in the hinterlands of the reader's mind, where the details are best left.

When I began researching to complete this article I discovered (not for the first time) that Jim Murdoch had already dealt with the topic in more depth than I can manage. He too points out that people often meant "concise" when they use "precise". The term was perhaps imported into literature when there was a trend for borrowing from technology - Futurism, Bauhaus, etc - but without the extremism of Minimalism. He also quotes Marianne Moore's "What is more precise than precision? Illusion". Magritte's train coming out of the fire-place needn't be any more realistically depicted than it is. Too much detail would distract. I think that even fuzziness has its uses -

  • One way to make something into art is to remove its purpose. A potter makes a cup so that someone may drink from it. Take away that use and viewers will look for other types of meaning. An instruction manual or a recipe can have its purpose and detail blurred so that only the rhetoric remains.
  • A blurred image can be more potent than a "precise" one because the details may be irrelevant to the effect, and the audience can fill in details themselves if they need to, personalised. A dark object at night is more scary if you can't see that it's a bush rather than a hunched figure. A photograph of Christopher Lee playing Dracula may be more effective if blurred so that you can't identify the actor, only the identifying characteristics of Dracula.

And the content may not be the most significant aspect of an intricate passage. It's sometimes useful to give a sense of precision in order to vary the texture - sweeping from grand abstracts to miniaturist detail can be effective, like jerking a microscope slide into focus.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Truth to Materials and Heather McHugh

Woodcarvers use a natural material that has grain and knots. They could paint over their finished work, masking the irregularities. Alternatively, they could exploit them. A knot could become an eye. More often, the irregularities are used to create an independent source of interest. Artists might even choose a piece of wood with these effects in mind. Similarly, some painters don't mind their brushstrokes being obvious. Soutine for example didn't disguise the fact that his paintings were made of paint.

In the 1900s several architects and sculptors felt that the nature of the materials they worked with shouldn't be hidden. Henry Moore and others went further, claiming that certain materials suited certain purposes, that an art work should exhibit "Truth to Materials". The sculptor, Brancusi, believed that his art might "coax an image from within the material rather than forcing an image onto the materials".

In poetry the material is words. They have visual and sonic roots - letters and phonemes - so poets have two ways to demonstrate their truth to materials. Those two ways are related but not equivalent. Words with nearly the same letters often have nearly the same phonemes - "rough" and "tough" for example - though sometimes they don't - e.g. "rough" and "bough". Unless you're a crossword addict, words comprising the same letters aren't as strongly associated with each other as words that rhyme, but the option exists. An example is Jon Stone's "Mustard" where instead of each line ending in a rhyme they end with an anagram of "mustard".

Exploitation of these effects draws attention to the media. Just as varnish can accentuate the wood grain, so line-breaks can accentuate sounds. And as with wood, the effects can synchronize with the meaning or be largely independent of it ("The remarkable result of Valéry's treatment of sound and sense as consciously separated variables is that it allows the semantic components of the poem to take on structural value and the structural values of the poem to take part in a semantic or signifying action in turn" - "Paul Valéry and the Poetry of Voice", C. Crow, CUP, 1982, p.55).

On it points out that "The truth-to-materials doctrine appears as a consequence of technological development", and that there are connections to the Arts and Crafts movement - a reaction against mass (non-individualized) production. Devoting attention to the material at the expense of the content would tend towards the appearance of craft rather than art, which when backed up by doctrine might lead to unsuccessful works, especially if the audience is unfamiliar with that type of art. Just as people without an ear (or the ability to integrate sound and meaning) might think sound effects obtrusive, so people who struggle with wordplay might over-emphasise its relevance, hinting at methodological similarities to Jewish mysticism (the Kaballah), or the poet's apparent psychological obsession with form over substance.

Perhaps Concrete poetry exhibits Truth to Materials. I prefer the example of Heather McHugh (Paul Muldoon uses wordplay too, but I find McHugh's work more approachable, her aims more conventional). According to her poetry foundation bio her "work is noted for its rhetorical gestures, sharp puns and interest in the materials of language itself". In her work the words often retain a trace of their origins, pun and wordplay used to advance the poem. Here's part of her "Language Lesson 1976"

On the courts of Philadelphia
the rich prepare

to serve, to fault. The language is a game as well,
in which love can mean nothing,

doubletalk mean lie. I’m saying
doubletalk with me.

and here's the start of "Ghoti" (a word GB Shaw invented)

The gh comes from rough, the o from women's,
and the ti from unmentionables--presto:
there's the perfect English instance of

with fish. Our wish was for a better
revelation: for a correspondence

and yes, she's into anagrams - here's the start of her transliteration of Sonnet 23 (“As an unperfect actor on the stage”), where each line's an anagram of the original:


so e-agents can’t perfect an author.
His art (howbeit swapped shut) is his fire—

There are risks associated with this style. Once wordplay becomes a factor, readers may well think there's too much or too little of it. They might think it displaces (rather than augments) the content. Quite possibly they'll be distracted by the wordplay even if it augments. Flippancy is a common criticism; is it right to play with words when the poem's about a parent's death? One answer to that may be that the gulf between words and the world is so wide that any attempt to capture the notion of death in words is flippant, and exploiting the instability of language is mimetic.

McHugh (who had a poem in the New Yorker while a student) is not without her critics.

  • Hugh Seidman thought she sometimes "manipulates language to produce resonances of meaning without necessarily creating a psychological depth that might justify her insights and conclusions.".
  • Joshua Weiner (in The Boston Review) wrote that her "'will to be peculiar' (her own phrase for Dickinson) encourages a syntactic and semantic contraction into enigma; sometimes her jokes overkill. Such faults have developed among persistent strengths: in these formally distinctive, deeply felt, and intellectually challenging poems, McHugh has invented a style for herself that acknowledges the materials and contingencies of language without sacrificing poetry's primal resource in song."

She accepts that she is more sensitive to words than others are, possessing almost a type of synaesthesia. In an interview she said

  • You know, I never could tell things apart the way healthy people do. Meaning and means. Form and substance.
  • I was never very good at settling for any one sense of sense. So semantics became largely a matter of syntactics for me. Poems don’t make sense; they make senses.

My suspicion is that hers is the kind of cleverness that's currently unfashionable in the UK, where the voice is more important than the word. The academic voice isn't considered as revealing as the slightly deranged one.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Sound clusters

With the rise of isms (deconstructionism, eco-feminism, post-colonialism) in recent years, literary theorists have rather neglected sound effects, often quoting Saussure's view that the sounds of words are arbitrary.

But they're not. Onomatopoeia and various other factors influence the choice of which sounds are used in a word (see "The Sound of Poetry and the Poetry of Sound"). If isolated sounds aren't arbitrary, still less are the sounds of sentences and poetry whose patterns produce effects that isolated words can't. Derek Attridge in "Peculiar Language" calls them nonce-constellations, writing that "The operation of nonce-constellations is probably more significant than genuine phonesthemes in onomatopoeic effects", citing John Hollander.

The significance of these patterns is unclear. In "Choosing between sound and sense" I quote from people like Bunting for whom sound was a generator of meaning, and from people like Valéry for whom sound was important but independent of conventional meaning.

These effects are in addition to the regular patterns of stress, rhyme, etc., that are used in Formalist verse. With free verse these dispersive, irregular patterns are the only patterns left. We lack the vocabulary to describe them well, and I suspect they often go unnoticed (at least consciously) by readers, but critics often pick them out. Here's an extract by Ruth Padel where she describes an easily missed pattern in Michael Longley's "Ceasefire"

Achilles, the key name, appears in every stanza. Its central syllable is repeated in the first stanza ("until", "filled", "building", with a sideways echo in "curled" ...), reappears in the second, resonates in the third with "built" and "still" (plus an echo in "full"). and reaches a climax in "killer": bringing out the fact that "Achilles" has the sound of that word "kill" in his name

"Bellflowers, seldom seen now, stellar, trim" comes from "Talisman", by Peter Dale. In Agenda 33.1, W.G. Shepherd wrote about the phrase -

Note the triple statement of the el(l) sound counterpointed against the duple m; the narrowing of el(l)'s vowel to ee and i - boldly interrupted by recapitulation of ow; and the modulation of s through st to t

Here's part of a review by Forrest Gander of Jorie Graham's "The Scanning" (Boston Book Review, Summer 1997)

We hear first the echo of "kiss" in "its" and "mathematics". But even before those three notes are reinforced by "hiss", "missed," "distance," and "pianissimo," Graham introduces a counterpoint, the growling consonance of "glint," "gripped" and "glides" and the long o's of "show" and "over". Look how the word "show" recollects the second syllable of "harrowing" from the second line, and prepares our ears for the deep vowels in "pianissimo," "telephone,"


Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)

is described thus by David Trotter ("T.S. Eliot and Cinema", Modernism/Modernity 13.2 (2006))

The intensity of Prufrock's arousal produces or is produced by an intensification in the verse. By comparison with its sparse and evenly paced predecessor ("and white and bare"), the line describing the hair on the women's arms seems positively swollen: the echo of "lamplight" in "light brown hair" and the internal rhyme on "downed" and "brown" fill it from within with the sameness of sound, with emphasis (p.243)

This kind of criticism raises various issues

  • whether all the perceived patterns exist - they may be the result of selective highlighting in the text. "Lit. crit. has a very bad record for selective quotation and selectively quoting supporting evidence while excluding all contrary data points." [J.C.]
  • if these patterns exist, are they accidental (i.e. are they as likely to occur in non-literary language)? Texts (particularly literary ones) will have bunched patterns of sounds. For example, while writing, one's short-term memory will contain recent sounds which may encourage the further use of those sounds, thus leading to clumping (echolalia).

Computer programs might be used to help resolve these issues, though quite what output they should produce is unclear. A few years ago I wrote a program that counted fricatives, plosives, end-rhymes, etc. It did quite well at identifying sonnets but it couldn't report on sound clusters. It could begin to convert these sound patterns into graphics. The graph below was an early attempt, showing the concentration of I (the bottom surface), W and L (liquid) sounds in the 1st stanza of Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard".

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day
   The lowing herd wine slowly o'er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
   And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
a color-coded graph

The furthest edge represents line 1, the nearest edge (along the axis that runs from 0 to 10) represents line 4. Note the humps on the top surface at line 4, syllables 2 and 4 corresponding to 'leaves' and 'world' in the text. Note also the long ridges on the top surface along the 2nd and 6th syllable marks - indeed, many of the 'L' sounds fall on stressed syllables. But such pictures don't show a landscape which corresponds to how the sounds affect me. Perhaps the graphs should emphasise stress and end-rhyme more than they do.

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Creativity and writing

Are writers difficult to live with? In "Creative people's brains really do work differently" it says

Frank X. Barron found that "the common traits that people across all creative fields seemed to have in common were an openness to one’s inner life; a preference for complexity and ambiguity; an unusually high tolerance for disorder and disarray; the ability to extract order from chaos; independence; unconventionality; and a willingness to take risks." Barron wrote that the creative genius was “both more primitive and more cultured, more destructive and more constructive, occasionally crazier and yet adamantly saner, than the average person.”
It may be because they engage with the full spectrum of life—both the dark and the light—that writers score high on some of the characteristics that our society tends to associate with mental illness.

In my "Poetry, Madness, and Cure" article I look at how some mental illnesses may be confused with (or conducive to) creativity. The article about Barron's work tries to apply more recent theory to explain how these traits might be productive -

"The executive network helps us focus our imagination, blocking out external distractions and allowing us to tune in to our inner experience. The creative brain is particularly good at flexibly activating and deactivating these brain networks, which in most people are at odds with each other. In doing so, they are able to juggle seemingly contradictory modes of thought — cognitive and emotional, deliberate and spontaneous."

In my "Attention, Agility and Poetic Effects" article I try to incorporate the default mode network into explanations of how we interpret poetry. "The Organised Mind" by Daniel Levitin (Penguin, 2015) also mentions the executive network, pointing out that

"In many tasks, both creative and mundane, we must constantly go back and forth between work and evaluation, comparing the ideal image in our head with the work in front of us.
This constant back-and-forth is one of the most metabolism-consuming things that our brain can do. We step out of time, out of the moment, and survey the big picture. We like what we see or we don't, and then we go back to the task, either moving forward again, or backtracking to fix a conceptual or physical mistake" (p.174)

The limitations introduced by constraints needn't be viewed as obstacles. Often they help. In "Need to create? Get a-constraint!", lab experiments involving poetry are reported upon -

Consistently, these studies show that encountering an obstacle in one task can elicit a more global, Gestalt-like processing style that automatically carries over to unrelated tasks, leading people to broaden their perception, open up mental categories, and improve at integrating seemingly unrelated concepts.
And this returns us to poetic form. The artificial requirements of the sonnet are just another cognitive obstacle, a hurdle that compels the mind to think in a more holistic fashion. Unless poets are stumped by their art, unless they are forced to look beyond the obvious associations, they’ll never invent an original line.

Another concept oft-mentioned in this context is flow (or "being in the zone"). In "Flow states and creativity" it's defined as an

“optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.” It’s also a strange state of consciousness. In flow, concentration becomes so laser-focused that everything else falls away. Action and awareness merge. Our sense of self and our sense of self consciousness completely disappear. Time dilates—meaning it slows down (like the freeze frame of a car crash) or speeds up (and five hours pass by in five minutes). And throughout, all aspects of performance are incredibly heightened—and that includes creative performance.

In "The Organised Mind" by Daniel Levitin (Penguin, 2015) it says

"Creative people often arrange their lives to maximize the possibility that flow periods will occur, and to be able to stay in flow once they arrive there ... The singer and songwriter Neil Young ... pulls over to the side of the road, abruptly leaves dinner parties, and does whatever it takes to stay connected to the muse, to stay on task. If he ends up getting a reputation for being flaky, and not always being on time, it's the price to pay for being creative" (p.207)

I'm sure most writers develop ways to maximize the conditions for the emergence and exploitation of Flow. In his article in "Magma", "Poetry in Practice: Creative Flow", Mark McGuinness interviews some poets on how they deal with flow. He uses the word "muse", which is apt. I wouldn't be surprised if age-old advice about The Muse could be translated into Flow terminology.

  • Inducing visits by the Muse - Writers come to know what increases the chances but there's no guarantee. Early morning and long journeys often work for me. Having a standard place and time to work helps others. Rituals (or just habits) may do the trick. Avoid having to be aware of the time. Workshop exercises don't work for me.
  • Making the most of the visits - Coleridge's "Person from Porlock" is now a nuisance call. Reduce the risks of interruptions - no e-mail or phone.
    Your job or lifestyle may give you a chance to take a break whenever the mood takes you. If not, having a notepad handy may suffice. It helps if those around you understand why you sometimes retreat to somewhere quiet. It's no good them saying "The shopping will only take an hour. You'll have loads of time afterwards to write". It doesn't work like that.
    Experience will also help you decide what tasks to focus on when you're in the flow. Proof-reading probably isn't the best use of the opportunity.

See also