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

1 comment:

  1. I found this most interesting.

    The effect of dementia (usually Alzheimers) on language (what the speaker does when words get lost) seems to me interesting in a similar way.

    But with dementia I do think what happens is creative: the speaker is making meaning out of such language as is available, so odd things happen but they are 'made' things.

    It's curious how interesting disruption can be -- so long as there's not too much of it. Perhaps there's an optimum balance between disruption and recognised pattern which is (or isn't) agreeable to read. I've just read Paul Kingsnorth's The Wake, which has also made me think hard about this ...