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. Paul Stephenson is a poet who cares about his materials. In "Selfie with waterlillies" for example "Appeasement" begins with "I want to know swathe,/ want to bathe in swathe,/ I'd scythe swathes of grasses,/ no, better still, swathes of heather. Lithe, I'd scythe longest swathes loose".

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