Saturday, 12 February 2005

Broken mirrors, flattened hierarchies

One model of personality proposes that a mental chairperson is in control, calling upon specialist sub-modules to fill in the details. An alternative suggested by Dening et al is that the chairperson is just another sub-module - a spokesperson or facililator - the various sub-modules able to initiate events and determine how decisions are to be made. This makes a personality more akin to a society where the status quo might be overturned by mass-revolt, media pressure or terrorism.

Poetry (moreso than prose) can be seen to exhibit both traits. Sometimes a presiding unified voice (if not of the poet then at least of a persona) marshals the imagery, but it's been suggested that "poetic effect [is] the peculiar effect of an utterance which achieves most of its relevance through a wide array of weak implicatures." [1]. This effect can be achieved by having many secondary meanings and by disrupting the usually foregrounded vehicles of sense (syntax, meaning, etc), making cracks so that the secondary effects can bubble up.

Secondary effects may develop a net of interconnections - leitmotifs. The idea of a decentralised network of ideas has been described by Deleuze and Guattari ('rhizomes') but of course goes back much further than that - "The governing principle of much Persian poetry is circular rather than linear; rather than a logically sequential progression, a poem is seen as a collection of stanzas interlinked by symbol and image - the links being patterns of likeness and unlikeness, of repetition and variation - which 'hover', as it were, around an unspoken centre" [2]. Montage and Collage are non-hierarchical ways of incorporating diverse fragments producing a multicentred work, as are list poems. Such poems aren't understood clause by clause but retrospectively

  • "Spatial Form (modernist poetics) gives unity to a literary work by a pattern of interconnected motifs that can only be perceived by 'reading over'" [3]
  • "Modern poetry asks its readers to suspend the process of individual reference temporarily until the entire pattern of internal references can be apprehended as a unity" [4]
Poetry as compared with prose tends to foreground sound. Forms have evolved which optimally use sound to disrupt syntax - "Verse is a mechanism by which we can create interpretative illusions suggesting profoundities of response and understanding which far exceed the engagement or research of the writer" [5]. Sound is only one of many features that can work this way - disruption can be visual, tonal, or a consequence of voice and mood shifts. In disrupted poems (as in societies) there may be an advertised hierarchical structure, but it's provisional and may exist more to aid the initial reading phase than to model the underlying conceptual structure. It may even be there to distract attention from where the real power resides.

Here's the last stanza from David Hart's "Then in the twentieth century" which came 2nd in the UK's 2002 National Poetry Competition.

Men quarrelled about scrolls found in pots near the Dead Sea, the library
at Norwich burned down, milk was pasteurised by law, I have four children,
all adult now, small islands became uninhabited, Harpo never spoke on film.

Sound isn't used as a disrupter. The line-breaks are unobtrusive too, especially given the previous stanzas which habituate us to their use. One might have expected a punch-line but there's no primary narrative, no explanation or explicit emotion. Phrases' spatial proximity suggests that there are connections. Sequence suggests causation. 6 main statements are connected by neutral commas, so we need to determine the structure ourselves - first local, provisional associations. Some connections are more straightforward than others, and some connections may not exist, though readers aren't to know. The scrolls tie in with the library (re-discovery/destruction of the past), and the "small islands" are something to do with the children. Milk (though it may relate to children) and Harpo don't fit in these constellations but illustrate the poem's wider themes - natural, everyday milk subject to bureaucratic law and modern technology; individuals having no voice in recorded history, though academic quarrels are preserved.

Only at the end of this piece can readers decide upon organisational principles. The visual layout and punctuation provide few clues, and the order of clauses is more designed to accentuate local juxtaposition than clarify global structure. Readers need to suspend interpretation longer and work harder.


  1. "Relevance", D.Sperber and D.Wilson, Blackwell, 1986, p.222
  2. Glyn Pursglove, Acumen 25, p.9
  3. "The Art of Fiction", Lodge, p.82
  4. "Spatial Form in Modern Literature", J. Frank, Sewanee Review, 1945
  5. John Constable, PN Review 159, V31.1 (2004), p.40.

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