Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Pragmatic approaches to difficult texts

likedon't like
understandmy good stuffmy bad stuff
don't understandBach?
"I don't get it" is a reaction I have when reading some works. I may still like them, so I could fill in the first column of the table on the right. I think there are pieces that I understand and (hence) don't like, but is it fair to dislike a piece that you don't understand? Would one dislike a piece merely because it's in a language you don't understand? And yet, in other situations "I don't like" versus "I don't understand" seems too artificial a distinction, a politically-correct attempt to blame oneself rather than the writer - is disliking always the result of failed (inappropriate) understanding? I doubt it.

Amongst the options when facing something you don't get are

  • Trying to understand it
  • Accepting that you won't be able to understand it - a blindspot
  • Believing that the work is bad because you don't understand it, though it may still be interesting
  • Pretending to like it (fortunately, you can say you like a piece without needed to convince people that you understand it)

I'll look at those options in more detail here, bringing together some articles I've posted elsewhere, mostly dealing with poetry.

Trying to understand

I don't suspend disbelief very willingly. I like to stay close to the text. If there's something I don't understand I don't like pretending it's not there, skimming over it until I find something I do understand. When evaluating a poem I don't edit away the inconvenient mysteries. I'm prepared to blame the poet, even call their bluff. Consequently I struggle with some poetry, and read books that attempt to explain it to me. Amongst the books that analyse poems are

Where these sometimes fail for me is even when they can decode a difficult phrase, they don't explain why a simpler phrase wasn't used instead, or why a more obvious interpretation is discounted.

I also read theory and articles, mostly to shake me out of my habits -

Occasionally I write articles to help me collect together what I've learnt

Then there's the poetry itself. Sometimes I just give up. Elsewhen I write about the problems I have with particular books, trying to provide details about where my gaps in understanding are. The posts below are amongst my most popular, as if readers enjoy watching me expose my ignorance -

I suspect some of my troubles are caused by my lack of awareness of factors that affected the poet, though becoming aware of these factors doesn't always solve everything

  • Maybe there are unknown aims that compromise my view of the poem. If I only see this drawing as a rabbit looking left I might criticise the execution, not realising that it's a duck looking right too. If I then notice the duck and point out that the duck's not very good either, the artist might respond by saying that accuracy of either image isn't the point. And they'd be right, but if accuracy doesn't matter one way or the other, the artist might just as well be more accurate in order to placate people who judge by measuring the realism. Or is the artist's technique lacking? (it's my drawing, and mine certainly is. Is this better?). A poem, like a picture, can do more than demonstrate an idea - it can also fulfil other aims. The criticisms of the piece might still be valid even if the critic missed the "main point" - why should the main point be the only one?
  • Maybe the poem's constrained by a form that's hard to notice (it's an acrostic, or an N+7 piece, for example).
  • Maybe the poem's a reaction to something - the poet's previous style, or a prevailing fashion. This might explain the poem (and its historical or personal importance), but doesn't justify its contemporary value as a poem. An old poem rebelling against end-rhyme loses much of its force nowadays. Besides, there are good and less good ways of reacting, however worthy the cause.


"You know I can't stand Shakespeare's plays, but yours are even worse" - Tolstoy to Chekhov

"Many accepted authors simply do not exist for me. Bertolt Brecht, William Faulkner, Albert Camus, many others, mean absolutely nothing to me" - Nabokov

The "I don't like it" vs "I don't get it" distinction is hard to assess. Which predispositions and situations make people say one rather than the other, and what motives and consequences might there be? It depends on the context.

  • Social situation - In the tutor/pupil situation perhaps it's easier for the tutor to say "I don't like it" and the pupil to say "I don't get it". In judges' reports you might not often see lines quoted that the judge admits to not understanding. Of course contestants are happy to accept that judges have preferences, but if they have unadvertised biases it's more awkward. Perhaps judges should be more upfront about their blindspots beforehand, or return the entry fees of poems that they feel unqualified to judge :-). As a ploy they might be prepared to say that a particular poem is "good of its type" but then dismiss that type for reasons they don't explain.
  • The Artist - it's easier to admit to blindspots about some artists than others. Stockhausen, Larkin, Prynne, and Olds are fair game. However a dislike or incomprehension of Neruda might be viewed with more suspicion. Perhaps there are poets for whom the only acceptable reason for disliking them is that you don't understand them - to know them is to love them, though they may be difficult to get to know. Shakespeare? Geoffrey Hill?

In practise the distinction might just be another way of saying something else - whether you'd bother re-reading the work, for example. Maybe "I don't get it" can mean "I don't like it but famous people do, so I'm inadequate".

There are some poets' work I find easy to like but hard to love (Glyn Maxwell maybe). There are poems I'd rather read about than read (Les Murray's maybe). If I understand and like a poem I may not agree with it (it may be a Political poem, for example) but that's a different matter.

Attitudes to Blindspots

I heard Philip Hensher (novelist and reviewer) being interviewed recently, saying that he didn't get Ian McEwan's work and hence didn't review it. I think he said he was happy to accept that people had blind spots - big ones even. But perhaps he doesn't really like McEwan's novels. Such meta-judgements are going to be error-prone though. I'm not keen on Olson. I'd go so far to say that I think he's more important than good, that I don't have a blindspot as far as he's concerned. Whereas I think there's more to Heaney than meets my eye.

Moreso than judges, magazine editors can afford to have blindspots - they're what give their magazines character. Practising writers perhaps have the most license. Even so there may be repercussions. Nabokov said - "[music] I regret to say, affects me merely as an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds". With the benefit of medical advances we'd tend to label this as a medical condition, a handicap. But Nabokov's admission didn't affect his work's reception. Larkin's dislike of modern jazz is treated more as a personality defect, though some people read aesthetic limitations into it. I prefer even "Frankie goes to Hollywood" to Mozart. Ok, so I like some JS Bach, Barber's Adagio, Bartok's quartets, but surely my statement exposes a lack of taste.

de gustibus non disputandum - but career poets had better not advertise too many of their poetry blindspots if they want to judge competitions, or if they don't want to discourage people coming to their workshops.

Covering up blindspots

Whether the blindspot's related to emotion, empathy or intellect there may be remedies. Firstly there may be an underlying perception problem - if you're totally colourblind you're not going to be able to respond to blue or even "blue". Readers won't see syllabics unless they count the syllables, and some readers don't listen to the sound of the words. Sometimes these perceptual deficits are due to inattention and can be remedied.

But the problems may lie deeper. Psychology tests nowadays can reveal all kinds of individual quirks in our visual and language processing. The effects show up in contrived laboratory conditions. In everyday life we manage to compensate for them - e.g. the face-blind pay more attention to gait, clothes, etc. It's not surprising that poetry would reveal individual differences in apprehension. I think my poetry appreciation is a patchwork of blindspots - from poem to poem or even from line to line. I approach texts with a mishmash of innate and learnt behaviours, but usually act as if the unevenness is all in the text.

Each of our eyes compensates for the blindspot of the other in most situations. How can one compensate for aesthetic blindspots? Give a computer enough examples of so-called good and bad art (in a limited field) and pattern-matching software can often judge future examples pretty well (though it may not be able to give explanations). You can train yourself in the same way - working by analogy and general principles. In poetry, where there's a wide range of tastes anyway, it's not too hard to bluff one's way through one genre or facet of poetry, especially if you've acquired credibility in other genres. Indeed, opinions by newcomers and outsiders might prove valuable. If I were to judge Mr World I might well make a less controversial decision than if I were judging Miss World - fewer hormones and idiosyncrasies get in the way, and I'd use more general principles and cliches/archetypes.

Learning from bad writing

I read small-press literary magazines, online writing forums and go to writers meetings. Not all that I read or see at those venues is publishable. Bad or not, I think there's much to be learnt from it. Equally I think one can sometimes learn much about a well-known writer by considering their less successful works, where their techniques, quirks and habits are sometimes laid bare.

Those who only read good work are leaving themselves vulnerable to charlatans, or to people who can imitate what sells. Bad work gives you a better appreciation of what is easy and hard to do, and helps you to calibrate your appreciation of supposedly better works. Bad work might be excellent in some respects - plot for example - but fatally flawed in another. It may be patchy - should a work be judged by its worst passages or its best? In "Reading like a writer" Francine Prose notes that "At lazy moments, F.Scott Fitzgerald could resort to strings of clichés".

Pretending to like a text

There are many reasons why people might say they like a poem, but if someone says they like a poem of yours, think twice before asking them why - it's likely to be embarrassing for both of you. The odds are that inter-personal expectations of behaviour affect what people say more than the desire for aesthetic authenticity. This isn't easy to prove, but if everyone who said they liked a poem read the book that the poem came from (or even bought it) the world would be a very different place.

How much does the public - or even poetry audiences - understand about poems? Maybe less than is generally assumed

  • Jon Stone wrote on his blog "I'm still not sure, when I look around at poetry audiences, how many really notice or care about texture or music, and how many are jonesing for their next hit of clarity"
  • Wayne Burrows in his Thumbscrew article suggests that "'Most people', quite simply, don’t know about poetry".
  • Housman wrote "I am convinced that most readers, when they think they are admiring poetry, are deceived by inability to analyse their sensations, and that they are really admiring, not the poetry of the passage before them, but something else in it, which they like better than poetry".
  • Harold Munro wrote "The public, as a whole, does not demand or appreciate the pure expression of beauty. Its cultured members expect to find in poetry, if anything, repose from material and nervous anxiety; an apt or chiselled phrase strokes the appetites and tickles the imagination. The more general public merely enjoys its platitudes and truisms jerked on to the understanding in line and rhyme; truth put into metre sounds overwhelmingly true".
  • In the Rialto they said that "During a recent research project into reading habits conducted at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, a cross-section of the public nominated poetry to be the most annoying category of book currently published .... after a sustained period of reading poems, thirty six complained of headaches or migraine, twenty-seven suffered indigestion, and two became argumentative resulting in violent exchange .... eighty-two of the hundred people tested did fall asleep for prolonged periods at some point during their reading of poetry"

If anything, I think that experienced poetry-readers (even reviewers and judges) have more reason to dissemble. If they don't understand/like something that for career, personal or reputation reasons they feel they should praise (e.g. Rilke's poems), what else can they do?

A combination of ambiguous statements and use of the Forer effect can effectively mask blind spots and inconvenient opinions (the Forer effect - used by fortune tellers - is when a person who's described in a phrase that could be applied to many people, think that it's especially applicable to themselves). How about "A sensitive, controlled writer"? Or a writer "with understated insight"? Suggesting that a work has "subtle irony" (or subtle anything, because "subtle" can mean "just a bit of") is safe, as is "deceptively deep" or "repays rereading". Then there are the unfalsifiable phrases that one might find in wine reviews - "muscular yet silky".

Can fakery be detected? It's not as simple as that. For a start, some people think that any use of the intellect rather than the heart is "faking it". Also one can begin by faking it then end up loving it. But if poets on R4's Saturday Review or BBC2's Review Night say that some Art Exhibition's "Extraordinary" (inarticulate gushing being a common enough strategy to cover ignorance) it would be interesting to see if they subsequently go to similar exhibitions. Maybe. Maybe eventually it's possible reach the stage when one can say (as amateurs also do) "I like all sorts of poetry as long as it's good" and be believed, but it's hard work.

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