Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Poetic leaps

Matthew Stewart pointed out on his blog that "the success of a poem often hinges on whether its pivotal syntactic leap makes to the other side of a semantic abyss". He went on to write that the connections "must be unexpected, revelatory and inevitable once made".

I've been interested for a while in such leaps. Here I'll mention a few of their uses and dangers.

Size of leap

When the reader makes a leap there's often satisfaction - like solving a riddle. Each simile or metaphor is a leap, which can vary in degree of difficulty.

  • When Amy Clampitt writes that a cheetah's lope "whips the petaled garden/ of her hide into a sandstorm", the reader needs to imagine what an accelerating cheetah might look like. All the clues are provided
  • When Joni Mitchell begins "Blue" with "Songs are like tattoos" the reader needs to work harder. The follow-up phrase "You know I've been to sea before" only partly helps.

Bronowski in "Science and Human Values" suggested that every act of imagination is the discovery of likenesses between two things which were thought unlike". To some extent the bigger the leap, the more the eventual pleasure. The risk of a big leap is that some readers won't be able to manage it. The leap may require readers to be more imaginative than when they merely identify likenesses, they may need to invent something new - "In Surrealist metaphor, two terms are juxtaposed so as to create a third which is more strangely potent than the sum of the parts ... The third term forces an equality of attention onto the originating terms", (Geoff Ward, in "Statutes of Liberty").

The size of the leap also affects the reader's sense of speed. Rapidly completing the gaps can be exhilarating, even if the leaps aren't unexpected.

Types of leap

Here are just a few -

  • The end-of-poem lift - A sudden leap out of the poem to the world is common as a conclusion. Also common at the end is a bigger than usual leap between 2 images (Larkin's "somewhere becoming rain"). Haiku typically end with a leap.
  • The turn/volta - Common in sonnets
  • Zoom-out - jumping outside the frame or context.
  • Inferences - Gaps may need to be leapt by making an inference. If someone replies to the query "Does Jack like porridge" by answering "All Scots like porridge!" it's reasonable (but not strictly logical) to assume that Jack is a Scot who likes porridge.
  • The stage dive - The poem hopes that the reader will offer support, otherwise the poet will fall flat on her/his face.
  • Description - When the argument or narrative stops and a scene or painting is being described, there may not be much significance to the order of the statements. Gaps may form between the statements. At the end of the description the reader will assemble the scene, having tolerated a localized lack of continuity on the understanding that it won't last long.
  • Conventional leaps - Readers will accept a phrase like "Years later" without feeling the need to plug the gap.
  • Conversational leaps - If you listen to someone having a conversation on a phone, you might be tempted to fill in the gaps. Some poems are similarly one-sided.
  • Unfillable leaps - It's natural for readers to seek a connection between successive images, but sometimes 2 images are just 2 images.

A few of these are situations where there's a shared understanding between 2 parties that makes their communication between each other difficult to understand for third parties. A context shared by the poem and the reader assists the readers efforts to leap more confidently.

Failed leaps

Any leap is likely to involve work. If the reward is nearby and guaranteed, readers are likely to make an investment. If sometimes they fail, little is lost. More problematic are the situations where gratification is delayed - readers may have to keep many loose ends in mind awaiting a final resolution. This might not happen until the end in poems that are more spatial than linear - see Linear/Spatial Form ("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" - J. Frank).

But what about passages like the following? - "down the chain/ let play with money/ ahead in/ undeclared war/ full employment/ keep the silver clean/ or die/ intrude into metaphor". It's the beginning of "allowed to complain" by Tom Raworth. Maybe given enough effort it could be conventionally resolved, but it could equally be a random cut-up. Looking upon the poem as a sequence of failed leaps is probably inappropriate.

Types of reader

It's impossible to make the leaps appropriately "unexpected, revelatory and inevitable" for all readers. Poets tackle that issue in various ways - by not caring about reader variation; by offering notes; by offering alternative ways of reading, etc.

When Disney animations were hand-made, the master artists drew the key frames (the "keys"), leaving assistants to complete the frames in between (a job they called "tweening"). If apprentice artists could tween, why not knowledgeable audiences? Poetry has such an audience. But there are consequences to sacking the tweeners -

  • Suppose people tween differently? As long as the distance between keys isn't large, there shouldn't be problems. The keys act as checkpoints so that people can resynchronise if they feel they need to
  • If the distances become too large, some readers might lose the narrative thread. Consequently there's a tendency for each key scene to become more self-contained, the keys becoming a series of disconnected tableaux - a triptych, a gallery.

A common way of tweening in literature is to supply a supportive context of backstory, motivations, or justifications - in short, telling rather than showing. The amount of this varies according to the style. In the TV series "The Wire" there's little "telling"; the writers decided that all sound had to be sourced - no voice-overs and no background mood music. All music had to come from a car radio, an open tenement window, etc. Some poetry has a similarly purist approach, using juxtaposed images to keep "telling" to a minimum. The risk is that such poetry becomes a game of charades, a dumbed-down mime-show. Complex arguments are difficult to show, concepts like fate harder still.

Sometimes the "telling" (the interpretation, the moral) is only at the end, though this is rather unfashionable nowadays. One way to convey the information without despoiling artistic purity is to employ metalepsis, making it hard to distinguish between the "show" and "tell" elements. A cinematic example would be for there to be a voice-over scene during which a character walks into the frame speaking the voice-over.

Another, more reader-friendly approach is that adopted by the Rupert annuals. The Rupert Bear stories began as a newspaper cartoon strip, but soon became better known for the annuals. The page layout supports several reading modes. Each page has the story title at the top. Beneath that there's a page subtitle. Young children can follow the pictures and get help filling the gaps. Each picture has a rhyming couplet beneath it - e.g. He meets Pauline, and straight away/ He tells her all he has to say. At the foot of the page is prose which fills in less obvious gaps - Rupert and Snuffy run towards the tent. Pauline is the first Guide he meets and he pours out his story. People can read the verse, the prose or both.

An entertaining exercise is to take a poem (by Larkin, say, The Whitsun Weddings) and give it the Rupert treatment, pictorialising the imagery (at 1.20pm on a sunny day, a quarter-full train with all its windows open leaves a city station), adding sub-titles to describe how none thought of "how their lives would all contain this hour". Trying the same exercise with Larkin's "Toads" would yield a very differently proportioned layout. I suspect that with some poets their poems would all have the same proportion of text to pictures.

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