Monday, 8 July 2019


I've noticed sestinas creeping back into poetry collections. Apparently it's a trend that's been going on for a while. Melanie Seddon points out that "It is commonly believed that the sestina first appeared in southern France in the twelfth century, conceived by troubadour poets as a flamboyant display of skill ... The reappearance of a restrictive twelfth century form that had all but disappeared from common usage during the preceding centuries seems puzzling and at best unlikely. ... The sestina, however, is not a villanelle or pantoum; it makes no demands on the poet in terms of meter or rhyme or foot. Its requirements border on the mathematical and its prescriptions are mainly syntactical."

Stephen Burt emphasises this latter point - "Unlike the ... sonnet the ...structure of the sestina corresponds to no prominent process in human conversation or in the logic of discursive prose ... they require neither expertise with inherited meter nor facility with rhyme". He suggests that "Most contemporary sestinas descend, not from Bishop or Justice, but from the putatively anti-academic writings of the New York School poets, especially Ashbery and Kenneth Kock" and that its revival is more to do with a sense of language's inadequacy - "Young poets now tend not to believe that the poetry they publish in books and journals can disclose organic preverbal truths, invigorate broad movements for social justice ... When these ethical spiritual, political, and historical ambitions fall away, what is left is entertainment and craft or, to put it in another way, technique and fun ... The sestina thus fits a poetics of diminished, regretful, comic, self-skepticism."

Melanie Seddon shares that opinion - "as the interests of poets became focused on that of language itself, on its limitations and inadequacy in closing the gap between the individual and the outside world, the concept of language as an artificially constructed system ultimately freed the poet to choose whichever form she or he so pleased".

In 2013, "The Incredible Sestinas Anthology" came out, edited by Daniel Nester, with sestinas by John Ashbery, David Lehman, Matt Madden and Patricia Smith, etc. In a review Ben Yagoda wrote

  • "The modern revival probably started with Ezra Pound’s “Sestina: Altaforte” and W.H. Auden’s “Paysage Moralisé""
  • "As befits the postmodern world, there are quite a few self-conscious sestinas here: Dana Gioia’s “My Confessional Sestina” (which begins: “Let me confess. I’m sick of these sestinas/written by youngsters in poetry workshops")"

The Form

The sestina's traditionally used when meditating on a theme - not as repetitive as a villanelle, but sometimes as obsessive. There's a mood of fateful inevitability.

James Fenton in a Guardian article suggested that "it is not technically difficult to pull off. The awkwardness is in making it interesting. Two ways have been tried. One uses somewhat inconspicuous words, on which it is easy to improvise variations. ... The other approach takes very noticeable and characterful words, which tax the ingenuity of the poet, but which play to the distinctive strength of the form".

The repeated words are sometimes known as "teleutons". Marianne Shapiro in "Hieroglyph of Time" points out that "Sestina poets generally avoid using verbs or adjectives" for these words. Variety is introduced by

  • Using puns instead of repetition
  • Using a long word that ends with an end-word (e.g. "closing" used when the expected word is "sing")
  • Using a combination of the above two idea. James Merrill’s “Tomorrows” uses the numbers as his end words, varying so that for example “two” becomes “tu,” “Timbuctoo,” “to,” “into,” and “too.”
  • Using synonyms instead of repetition
  • Using anagrams instead of repetition - Jacques Jouet's Anagrammatic sestina (translated from French by Rachel Galvin) has end-words staple, spared, recaps, carets, ternes, and tinsel. "staple" for example reappears as petals, plates, as pelt, pastel, palest and pleats.
  • Repeating words at the start of lines rather than the end.
  • Using long lines to dilute the boredom induced by repetition.
  • Adjusting the strict end-word repetition pattern of 123456, 615243, 364125, 532614, 451362, 246531, (25)(43)(61).

The envoi, which is often epigramatic, is also known as the tornada. Sometimes in the envoi a significantly different word is substituted. There may be no envoi, or a one-line envoi. It's often suggested that poets should write the envoi first.

Modern Examples

Robert Hass in "A Little Book on Form" wrote that "For a form to which books on form give so much attention, there are remarkably few memorable poems in the English and American canon" (p.193). Many poets have tried, often only once.

Rather than assemble some classics, I've looked through books and magazines for examples, paying particular attention to relaxations of the rules. In general the deviations are minor, and the poems sag in the middle - sestinas often seem to me a stanza too long. The poems by Dom Bury, Marianne Morris, Meryl Pugh, and A.E. Stallings merit particular attention.

  • Patience Agbabi’s "Skins" ends with
    It’s past midnight. I’ll call a cab if you want me to.
    But your eyes know how to fit
    a condom like a second skin. Come on…
    (end-words - on, past, fit, eyes, to, skin using variations such as "hard-on", "passed", "Photofit", "ice", "tattoo", "ice")
  • Raymond Antrobus' "The Perseverance" ends slightly irregularly with
    I still hear popping in for a minute, see him disappear.
    We lose our fathers before we know it.
    I am still outside THE PERSEVERANCE, listening for the laughter
    (end-words - PERSEVERANCE, minute, before, father, disappear, laughter)
  • Dom Bury's The Opened Field won the 2018 National Poetry Competition, described by the judges as a "neutron star of a poem compressed inside the restraining machinery of a sestina ... The form is a perfect container for the interlinked themes". It ends with
    that what the land gives it must then learn
    to turn back into soil. One child, a name its task
    to steal. Five boys turn from an empty field.
    (end-words - task, turn, give, names, learn, field.)
  • Michael Donaghy's "Signifyin' Monkey" ends with
    It's easy. Look, he'd been her only trainer.
    Guard or no guard, he'd signed 'I'm lunch.'
    The blood! Of course they had to shoot the monkey.
    (end-words - lunch, guard, easy, train, sign, monkey)
  • Jonathan Edwards' "In John F. Kennedy International Airport" ends with
    'Our apologies again that Wales no longer exists.
    What an honour and surprise to serve you. Please, call me Lucille.
    Now I hope it's a pleasant flight, Mr First Minister, sir'
    (end-words - Lucille, surprised, sir, it, Wales, exists)
  • Josh Ekroy's "Guided Tour" ends with
    The English - do they like to take care of family?
    Shia is shamed, if they do not. Remove sandals,
    this Mosque wants it. Now we are one blood.
    (end-words - English, Shia, want, family, sandals, blood)
  • Janet Fisher's "A Life" ends with
    Caught, strip searched, head shaved, in a room without curtains.
    names, dates, on the tip of his tongue. Then they slammed the gate.
    And two people grieved a packet, the rest put it to one side.
    (end-words - shave, tongue, fate, curtains, packet, side, with variations like "certain", "pack it", etc)
  • John Foggin's "Falling apart" ends with
    It was stone enchanted him. Cold attitude, and snow.
    Cirrus had all his love. He forgot how soft was her skin.
    His fingers frosted white, he could never hold her, always let her fall.
    (end-words - love, nimbus, skin, letters, snow, fall, though "nimbus" becomes cloud and mists; letters becomes say)
  • Oli Hazzard's "Some Shadows" ends with
    squirming through the trees, impossibly light;
    And I turn to see that you, with a stuttering finger, still read
    The bill, through twitching lips that shadow words.
    (end-words - light, trees, mute, shadows, read, fingers. "mute" seems to have become "twitching lips" at the end)
  • Seamus Heaney's Two lorries ends with
    As you heft a load of dust that was Magherafelt,
    Then reappear from your lorry as my mother's
    Dreamboat coalman filmed in silk-white ashes.
    (end-words - ashes, lorry, coalman, mother, Magherafelt, load - though load become "lode", "lead", "payload", "explode")
  • Peter Howard's "The Fabric Torn" ends with
    Or could it be that what sails is your ghost?
    Do you know its intent? Under what sky?
    Will you next see the sun? Eating what dust?
    (end-words - dust, sails, sky, tent, ghost, sun)
  • Gwyneth Lewis' "Advice on Adultery" ends with
    Don't give up hope at the knowing looks.
    Get your own back, have a change of heart:
    Ignore the men, start sleeping with the wives.
    (end-words - wives, hope, heart, looks, back, men)
  • Kathryn Maris' "Darling, Would You Please Pick Up Those Books?" ends with
    you feel for me what you felt for her
    can't you say I'm better than that woman
    can't you get those books off the floor?
    (end-words - say, floor, feels, her, man, books)
  • Kim Moore's "How I Abandoned My Body To His Keeping" ends with
    that I carry. It cools in my mouth in the dark
    and the moon sails on overhead. You ask
    about birds, but all I can talk of is stones.
    (end-words - stone, it, asked, moon, dark, birds)
  • Marianne Morris's "Little Song War" ends with
    Beneath the tomb of public opinion forms the crust of your pie.
    Your pie, i.e. a kind of having no allegiance to anything,
    whether black, white, this creep or that one, kettle or pot.
    (end-words - pie, pot, kettle, black, white, creep. These are all used in the final line. "black" is sometimes used a second time in a stanza instead of "kettle")
  • Ilse Pedler's "The Importance of Air" ends with
    In the morning, the stockman gives the order to hold the cow
    and before she can turn, the calf is gone. Her udder swells, heavy
    with milk but he’ll be back to take her to the parlour before long.
    (end-words - long, order, heavy, gone, cow, milk)
  • Meryl Pugh's "3rd Person Beautiful" ends with
    She is a beautiful girl. She is a beautiful
    girl. She is a beautiful girl. She
    is a beautiful girl. She is a beautiful girl.
    The repeated words are "She", "is", "a", "beautiful", "beautiful", "girl". In 4 places there are wrong words at the ends of lines. These are crossed out.
  • Carole Satyamurti's "The Silence of the Lions" ends with
    there's no space for rebellion. At the waste ground,
    countdown to performace. From room to room
    children draw lessons from the afternoon.
    (end-words - afternoon, space, room, performance, ground, draw)
  • Hannah Silva's "Hello my friend" ends with
    Hello my dear friend there is no subject no winning numbers
    I am keeping you connected and I am following you,
    I've told you the good news and now await your urgent respond.
    (end-words - urgent, friend, following, connected, subject, news. The final "respond" - rather than "response" is irregular)
  • Kathryn Simmonds' "Sunday at the Skin Launderette" ends with
    a skin or rain ripples the darkening streets as water pours
    though gutters, pounding pavements clean, making
    everything a sort of new, while the work goes on inside.
    (end-words - side, clean, work, making, pour, skin. "side" becomes "outside", "beside". "clean becomes "lean". "pour" becomes "poor", "paw", "pauses", "pore")
  • A. E. Stallings' Like, use only "Like" as an end-word. It ends with
    But as you like, my friend. Yes, we’re alike,
    How we pronounce, say, lichen, and dislike
    Cancer and war. So like this page. Click Like.
  • George Szirtes' "Cryogenic: The Big Freeze" ends with
    Here is the model. Who knows about later?
    Poems do what they can not to freeze up.
    It's language that survives. O K spells OK.
    (end-words - OK, model, up, can, later, there - "there" becoming "that" at the end)
  • Lewis Turco's Obsession ends with
    I died again last night, my father dreamed.
    (end-words - again, dreamed, night, died, father, last)
  • Heidi Williamson's Mobius Strip ends with
    Make a heap of loops at home and see
    how the joins make countless starts and ends.
    And think of ‘now’ as home. You can’t go back.
    (end-words - home, ends, loop, see, join, back)

See also

Friday, 31 May 2019

A guide to diversity/inclusion for writers and editors

As if writing (or editing a literary journal) weren't hard enough already, diversity studies and political correctness have revealed other responsibilities. This document attempts to get editors and writers up to speed on some of the basic issues, starting with gender and race.


Even in situations where objective comparisons can be made, bias can easily creep in, so it's no surprise that in literature, where judgement's subjective and justifications needn't be expressed, that some disappointing statistics emerge. VIDA produce a breakdown of M/F ratios (Editors, Reviewers, Writers) in some major literary publications. In their summary for 2017 they point out that "The New York Review of Books had the most pronounced gender disparity of 2017’s VIDA Count, with only 23.3% of published writers who are women. Previously, the London Review of Books had exhibited the worst gender disparity, at 21.9% in 2016, with comparable numbers in prior years (23% in 2015, 22% in 2014, 21% in 2013)."

The statistics for reviewers are striking too. In Dave Coates' report he writes "Though female/NB critics review more or less evenly across genders, male critics are twice as likely to review other men (30.7% of all reviews) than women (16.5%). This disparity rises to three times as likely at The Guardian (37.8% to 10.4%), four times at PN Review (47.8% to 11.4%) and five times at Modern Poetry in Translation (30.1% to 5.5%)".

For centuries females have used male (or gender-neutral) names to bypass bias, though even having entries anonymised didn't always help - the subject matter gives the game away. If women tend to write about domestic/women's issues rather than Big Issues (as defined by WASPs), the male editors might still prefer the entries written by males.

To some extent, it works both ways - I know a male writer of romantic fiction who uses a gender-neutral name.


The 2011 UK Census reported that in England and Wales, 80% of the population were white British. Asian (Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, other) 'groups' made up 6.8% of the population; black groups 3.4%; Chinese groups 0.7%, Arab groups 0.4% and other groups 0.6%. People identifying as BAME comprised 12.9% of the total UK population (4.9% in Ireland!)

Literary representation falls way behind these statistics. Dave Coates reports that "Only 9.1% of all poems published in the data set were written by poets of colour, 1,819 of the total 19,993. Of these, 502 were published in a single magazine, Modern Poetry in Translation; without MPT, the total drops to 7.01%.

There are recent signs of catching up. A Trinidad writer won 2018 BBC short story award. The 2018 BBC Young Writers' Award was for a story about a young African poacher which was inspired by the author's early life living in Africa. The Winner of the 2019 Rathbones Folio Prize was Raymond Antrobus (deaf, had an alcoholic Jamaican father). The 2019 PBS Autumn Recommendations were Anthony Anaxagorou, Mary Jean Chan, Seni Seneviratne, Peter Sirr, Carmen Bugan, Dunya Mikhail and Manuel Forcano.

As with gender, the race statistics for reviewing are salutary. Dave Coates concludes that "i) poets of colour do not have access to a wide range of platforms for publication; ii) this exclusion is almost doubly true for critics of colour; iii) white male critics are the default at many publications, particularly those with male editors; iv) female/NB critics are asked to critique work by poets from a range of backgrounds in a way that men overwhelmingly are not."

Wendy Pratt, looking at the small press pamphlet publishing poetry world detected a "startling lack of diversity in the small press pamphlet publishing poetry world" suggesting that "it is in part because, as I’ve said, the arts are squeezed virtually to death and poetry is a niche market at the best of times. This means that less and less people are going into pamphlet publishing, which probably means that the same people have been running the same presses for a number of years, with no change to the dynamics."

The race ratios are very different in London (45% were White British) and amongst younger generations. If you live in London, you might expect much greater than 3% of poets to belong to black groups, but for the country as a whole, that ratio's about right.


Of late, the binary Male/Female and White/Black concepts have come to seem rather simplistic. Terminology has emerged - lots of it. Here's a selection.

  • BAME - Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic
  • LGBTQIA: Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, intersex and asexual populations and allies/alliances/associations.
  • cisgender (or cis): describes individuals whose gender identity and expression line up with their birth-assigned sex.
  • POC: An acronym standing for “person of color.”
  • D/deaf (Deaf is deaf from birth; deaf refers to those who become deaf)
  • Tokenism the practice recruiting a small number of people from under-represented groups in order to give the appearance of sexual, disabililty, or racial equality.

People "identify as" belonging to a classification. Famously, Rachel Dolezal, a white woman, identified as black. In their signatures, people may wish to point out how they'd like to be addressed - e.g. "Tim Love (he/him)".

Writing and identity politics

Perhaps as a reaction to Language poetry and theory (but most likely because of campaigns to get more people to write) identity poetry's on the rise. Rather than being a hidden presence in a poem, the poet can be the subject of the piece, involving self-expression, politics, and social analysis.

Such poetry isn't always popular. As Will Harris wrote on his blog, "Some people believe that the best writing ... should assume a “view from nowhere,” free of the constraints of identity, of background. The rise of identity politics is seen as having compromised the purer aesthetic criteria by which we once judged art, muddying the waters with moral and political concerns". The press pounces on special cases -

  • When Kei Miller won the Forward Prize for Poetry in 2014, every newspaper report foregrounded his identity. Either he was a “Jamaican poet” or just a “Jamaican”. The assumption in such reports was that Miller had won for extra-literary reasons, because of his race. Riley makes the same insinuations more explicitly when he says that recent “big prize-winning results” have ignored “aesthetic criteria” (quoted from Harris's blog)
  • After submitting his poem “The Bees, The Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve” forty times and each time receiving rejection, Michael Derrick Hudson, a 51 year old white poet, submitted his work under a new name: Yi-Fen Chou. Under Hudson’s new pen name, the poem was published by The Prairie Schooner and then later selected by the esteemed Native American writer Sherman Alexie for inclusion in the 2015 edition of the anthology Best of American Poetry.
  • The Nation magazine issued an apology for a poem it published by the poet Anders Carlson-Wee. Carlson-Wee is a white man who wrote the poem in so-called black vernacular. It is meant to be from the perspective of a homeless person begging for money. The poem caused a storm on social media, where it was labelled ‘ableist’ (he used the word ‘crippled’) and the poet was accused of donning ‘blackface’. The two poetry editors at the Nation who first accepted the poem for publication, Stephanie Burt and Carmen Giménez Smith, completely backed away from the work and published an apology, which they posted above Carlson-Wee’s poem. They said they had made ‘a serious mistake’, were sorry ‘for the pain we have caused to the many communities affected by this poem’, and planned to ‘earn the trust back’ of their readers (from Candice Holdsworth's article)

It's become all too easy to offend. As I quote in my offensive poetry article, a comedian said that "Today we’re all one clumsy joke away from public ruin."

What literature can do to help

Create specialist sites, competitions and publications - MsLexia is for women writers. Wasafiri aimed to "provide much needed literary and critical coverage of writers from African, Caribbean, Asian and Black British backgrounds", though they welcome "contributions from poets, fiction writers, academics and critics from all cultural backgrounds". Peepal Tree Press publishes work by Caribbean and Black British writers.

Raise awareness by promulgating best practise, collecting and disseminating statistics - how many main characters in short-listed works use a wheelchair? How many poetry editors of the major presses are WASP oxbridgers?

Create targeted schemes - In her article about the Ledbury emerging poetry critics programme, Sarah Howe writes about a project aiming to influence reviewing culture.

Encourage outreach - Poetry Week can be used to get into new places - NHS, etc. A poetry element can be piggy-backed onto events - Sports week, ME week, etc.

Encourage more balanced judging panels - ensuring fair representation is notoriously difficult - there are so many minorities to consider. Jackie Kay, a black lesbian mother who was adopted, ticked several boxes, making some people suggest tokenism when she was in panels. She's a professor now.

Attach Conditions to grants - Journals might claim that they can only publish what they get, but how hard are they trying to reach out to other communities?

  • Under the Radar's submission page says "We actively encourage and welcome diverse submissions, and would love to see more poetry submitted to Nine Arches Press from women, BAME, disabled and LGBTQ poets and those traditionally under-represented in poetry publishing."
    I don't think this statement need discourage anyone from submitting.
  • The Selkie's submission page says it's "committed to working with marginalised and/or underrepresented voices and will only accept work by/concerned with: individuals identifying as women; people of colour; minorities in predominantly white nations; refugees and first-generation immigrants; LGBTQIA+; those living with mental illness, or physical or other disabilities; those persecuted for their political or religious beliefs; victims of violence, or domestic or sexual abuse; and those without access to higher education degrees, living below the poverty line, or who are/have been homeless or incarcerated."
    This statement sounds more restrictive, though the acceptance of "work by/concerned with ... individuals identifying as women" lets many people in.

Magazines haven't all decided to adapt in the way that the above ones have. In a 2019 Acumen editorial it said "I feel that [the Arts Council] are diverging from the path which Acumen wishes to follow. This is to accept all poems on merit and not be influenced by gender, ethnicity, religion, fame or anything other than the value of the poem".


Issues such as "the long poem" and rhyming poetry seem unfashionable nowadays, overtaken by more pressing, life-affirming issues. Some positive discrimination helps redress the balance, and literature's subjective judgements can be used in underrepresented voices' favour. Outreach may initially encourage people to write who've barely written before, and whose work may lack the traditional signs of poetry. As part of this naivety they may also expect immediate publication and have trouble accepting or understanding traditional criticism, especially if the content means a lot to them. It's this stage which might cause editors and tutors most stress, After a while these newer writers may adapt.

Meanwhile, the poetry world's changing, become more accommodating. Reliable statistics aren't easily obtained - growth sectors like Performance poetry or YouTube poetry can too easily be neglected. Even in more traditional sectors though there are some signs of progress -

  • David Coates notes that "Poetry by women and NB folk has also improved substantially since the start of the data set. In 2012 the figure was at 41.3%, rising steadily to 48.6% in 2017."
  • Sarah Howe notes that "In the past decade, publishing and mentorship schemes targeting BAME poets and writers, new profile-raising festivals and readings, national prize winners and judging panels, as well as crucial cultural debates around race, gender and ethnicity, have dramatically improved the diversity of British poetry."

See Also

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Offensive poetry

Summer 2017's "Poetry Review" has a feature on poetry that causes offense, with articles by Kathryn Maris (Transgression and transcendence: poetry and provocation), Vahni Capaldeo (Punishable bodies: poetry on the offensive) and David Wheatley. Poems by Tony Hoagland ("The Change", etc), Frederick Sedel, Craig Raine ("Gatwick"), Bobby Parker, Alan Jenkins ("Heritage"), Shivanee Ramlochan, and Catullus are mentioned.


  • There's Dave Coates' On the Pale Sun of Toby Martinez de las Rivas. The poet's written a response. In issue 40 of "The Dark Horse" Rob A MacKenzie has an essay about the Martinez incident that's well worth reading.

  • According to the NY Times, Anders Carlson-Wee (white) wrote a poem in the voice of a homeless person begging for handouts, offering advice on how to play on the moral self-regard of passers-by by playing up, or even inventing, hardship. His attempt at black vernacular didn't go down well. The poem was published in "The Nation" who later apologized for it.

Here I'll try to check-list some factors that affect the severity of such incidents and their aftermath.


Was the poet aware that offense might be caused?

  • Perhaps they didn't realise - Times change, cultures have different outlooks. An unintended audience may come across the text. Words go through fashion changes. "Queer" is one example. It may now be "claimed" by gays, but in the old days it was insulting. Even now it may still be used insultingly.
  • Perhaps they realised, wanting (gratuitously?) to cause offense. Art has a history of wanting to shock. In her article Maris writes "Provocation for its own sake can be tedious. For me, however, the most exclusionary and dangerous poem is a boring one, the one that gives up on any hope of engagement. Provocation, for all its perils, for all its potential for failure, is an indication, at the very least, that the poet desires to make a connection." It can be a plea for freedom for speech.
  • Perhaps they knew, but thought they'd covered themselves sufficiently. There are various ways that deliberately offensive material might be excused -
    • The offensive matter may be included in order to attack it - e.g. putting the words into a villainous or stupid character's mouth, or a character who gets their comeuppance in the end.
    • It's Art, so anything goes - as long as it's good art, as long as "it has enough technical and imaginative conviction to transcend its transgression" (Maris)
    • Realism - it's sometimes argued that because "it really happened", that "you can't pretend it doesn't happen", swearing, violence, etc should be depicted.
    • It's erotica not pornography
    • The author belongs to the group they're offending
    Readers may be right in not accepting these excuses. The first of these in particular can be abused.


  • Is the target an individual or a group? Generalised mockery is risky (not all Poles are plumbers, not all Essex girls are "Essex girls", etc). Generalising about (or making fun of) professions seems less serious - you're allowed to mock IT staff and top executives.
  • Does the piece make fun of others' views or of innate characteristics? If fun is made of a trait that someone has little control over (race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, skin-colour) it's worse than mocking their views on (say) Brexit.
  • Is the target "fair game"? Satire defends itself this way. One can make fun of Trump's hair but not a fellow poet's, or baldies in general. You're allowed to mock racists, homophobes, etc.
  • Is the target unconcerned? If only third-parties care, perhaps no offense has been caused
  • Is the target defenceless? Is there a right of reply?
  • Is the offense widely broadcast?
  • Who has exposed the offense, and why? - Is there a witch-hunt? Is there an attempt to gain publicity? Has someone been rummaging through through old poems (by TS Eliot say, or Ted Hughes, or long forgotten juvenalia) until something's found? Is it cowardly of critics to condemn the words only of those who won't react by using sticks and stones. Surely there are far more influential, powerful people to criticise.


  • Is an apology enough? It wasn't for Salman Rushdie.
  • Should the offender's writings be avoided? Can a bad person write good poetry, or at least poetry that others can learn from? Did Pound's views on Fascism make "On the Metro" a bad poem?
  • Should writers self-censure? It's safer not to write poetry that could offend but how easy is it to do? For example, any piece that involves an abortion can cause offense, even if the woman suffers afterwards. Who should control a writer's work? Where should respect/tolerance for others' opinions end?


Similar issues affect comedy. Making bad taste jokes about 9/11 on 9/12 wouldn't have been wise. Even now, only Jews (if that) can joke about the holocaust. Any joke about dying can upset someone who's just received bad news. A joke that Ellen Degeneres made about piggy backing Usian Bolt so she could run faster was chastised on social media for evoking the memory of slavery.

Some comedians feel they're being forced underground. A US TV documentary, 'Can We Take A Joke?', suggested that comedians could be at the forefront of a battle against a new assault on free speech. The press-notes point out that “While people have always found something to be offended by, their ability to organize a groundswell of opposition to — and public censure of — their offender has never been more powerful. Today we’re all one clumsy joke away from public ruin.

I think comedians are more politically correct nowadays - more confessional and self-denegrating than before (safer options, used by poets too), with fewer mother-in-law and drunk Glaswegian jokes. I don't think it's harmed the quality of the comedy. It may have caused self-harm to some comedians.


We have a greater awareness of how prejudices develop and how they're sustained by minor aggressions, etc. We're more aware of the variations in people's sensitivity to bullying.

But as pointed out above, it's also easier nowadays to record a clumsy off-air aside, to react loudly even to accidental transgressions, to spread opinions virally before there's been a chance to correct misunderstandings. We read with others around (hence the issue about NSFW - "Not safe for work" - material). If you're applying for Arts Council grants you need to say clean. In the editorial of "The Dark Horse", issue 40, Gerry Cambridge writes "Poetry ... seems increasingly an arena governed and to some degree imperilled by thought-police ... The atmosphere is one of nervy compliance to the dictated mores of outraged opinion".

Thanks to social media, etc, sub-cultures, each with different moral outlooks, are more likely to have access to each other's output and opinions, and have more ways to complain about it.

So perhaps poets need to be more cautious nowadays, not least when exchanging views at the bar after a reading. At the start of some news items, viewers/listeners are warned that some of them may find the details disturbing. Perhaps some books might include the same warnings. On the bright side, constraints can aid creativity.

Friday, 30 November 2018

Emergence and literature

I wrote this after reading "Mind and Emergence" by Philip Clayton (OUP, 2004). Though emergence may seem to have little to do with literature it ties in with some other articles I've written ("Ingarden and the Sense of Resolution", "Literary Depth", etc).

What is Emergence?

I read little philosophy. Partly this is because even if it's clearly written (and Clayton's book is) I struggle to understand it, but there are problems of motivation too. In places Clayton contrasts the scientist's and philosopher's approaches. My instincts are clearly scientific - to get more data, to produce testable hypotheses, to wonder what the point of the theorising is given that whatever the conclusion, the next step is to collect more data. Definitions are ok though. Early in the book it's suggested that there are at least 3 main features of emergence -

  • Physicalism - it begins with observables
  • Novelty - "when aggregates of material particles attain an appropriate level of organisational complexity, genuinely novel properties emerge in these complex systems"
  • Irreducibility - Emergent properties are irreducible to, and unpredictable from, the lower-level phenomena from which they emerge.

If the novel properties are too novel, there's a risk of Dualism being argued for - the two layers are so different that communication between them becomes problematic, a ghost in the machine. Evolution is important in the discussions - it explains how the emergent features we witness could have come about gradually. Examples are in fossil records and existing life-forms.

There are different types of emergence. In some disciplines over 20 distinct layers have been identified. A general theory might be difficult to produce. Complexity theory may help to explain some of the anti-entropy features. Simple rules may generate complex, emergent outcomes - "game of life" and gliders; ant behaviour, etc.


  • quantum world -> classical world
  • particles -> viscosity
  • quarks -> cells -> brains - >thought

I'd add Letters -> Words -> Characters/Narrative -> Plot -> Moral

Weak/Strong emergence

How "real" are these upper levels? Are they just a convenience, a shorthand to make explanations less tedious? Strong emergence is when "downward causation" appears, when something in a higher level seems to acquire an independent existence with control over its surroundings - including its constituent parts. "Person" is a candidate for being the result of strong emergence. If a person sees a tiger (or is injected with adrenaline) their heart-rate will rise and they'll experience fear. That sequence of events goes through the layers in a bottom-up direction - a person is a bundle of cells, so a change in the cells is likely to percolate up. However, if a person dreams about a tiger their adrenaline level might also rise as the result of downward control.

Defining the layers

When does more become different? It's not always clear. Each layer may be defined by the appropriate way of it being studied - physics is a basis for chemistry which in turn leads to biology; each defining a layer. Phenomena in a layer are described with reference to that layer, and explained by reference to the layer below. John Holland suggested that different sciences occur at jumps of roughly three orders of magnitude. The layers may not be clearly defined. For example, there's no clear living/non-living divide.

The dependence of a layer on the previous one can be of several types, part-whole being perhaps the simplest. To describe these dependencies network theory is replacing hierarchies. Within a layer there may be a Game-theory association between components. In a predator/prey relationship there may be an oscillating balance - even though the predator eats the prey, with fewer prey there'll be fewer predators. Take this dynamic element away and you fail to describe the system. A Game-theory association is irreducible.


But the way that higher levels are generated from lower ones might not be simple. Suppose you're looking at a flat hologram of a person's head. There's an illusion of depth. If you focus on the nose, you're looking though two little regions of the flat hologram (one for each of your eyes). That's where the information about the nose is. If you move your head sideways and look at the nose again, you're looking at it through two different regions, so information about the nose must be there too. Unlike a painting, the hologram's representation isn't in a 1-to-1 relationship with the represented object. Where is the nose? It's everywhere on the surface. If you remove part of the surface, the nose will still be there, degraded.

Fanciful though this concept sounds, it's a theory of the way the universe is (the Holographic principle), solving otherwise intractable problems. The 3D world we see might be a projection of a holographic surface.


From a bundle of cells and behaviours, how do you get a person? Is a person any more than a mix of habits, tendencies and memories bound in a particular body? Suppose they have a leg amputated? Are they any less a person? Suppose they have advanced Alzheimers? Suppose they become "a different person" after a stroke?

Apparently consciousness didn't exist until relatively recently. Is consciousness such a special feature though? Some computers pass the Turing test with some people. People can become very attached to a pet or even a temperamental car - memories become associated with it. Sometimes self-awareness is used as a test of advanced consciousness. That's less clear cut than it used to be - the mirror test has been called into question recently, and some people seem more aware of themselves and others than others are. Crows pass the test but not mountain gorillas - perhaps it's a feature that's more useful for community animals; perhaps it's less of a crowning glory than we thought - "In Edelman's treatment, the increasing complexity of dynamic feedback and feed-forward loops just is awareness" (p.119)

Can any system sufficiently complex to model itself be considered conscious? Not necessarily, though it's interesting to note that a simulation may well have structural similarities to the real thing. This world appears to be hierarchically structured - complex structures become units of higher structures.

Whether or not people exist, they're a useful concept. If asked why X killed Y, an answer involving quantum effects is less likely to be successful than one involving concepts like betrayal.

Belief in God could be a side-effect (an overshoot) of belief in self, God being as real or unreal as its substrate, people.


Texts have several layers - letters, words, objects/scenes/characters, plot, moral. Each layer needs the substrate (without letters, no words) but has properties that the substrate lacks (letters don't have meaning, words do; words don't have guilt, characters do). Thinking in terms of layers helps elucidate some issues -

  • Especially in avant-garde work, it can be difficult to go up to the next level - in Finnegan's Wake for example, the step from letters to words can be problematic.
  • These layers can become mixed especially in avant-garde works though also in comedy - in cartoons, Jerry rubs out Tom as if he's the cartoonist.
  • Sometimes layers are bypassed - "pure poetry" bypasses middle layers.
  • Sometimes lower layers show through - in acrostics for example, the letters matter even after they've been composed into words.

This looks like a typical setting for emergence, though I don't think the concept of layers does it full justice - there's too much two-way interaction between the layers. A network model is more appropriate.

Readers easily create people from words - its what they've spent their lives doing without realising it - which is why it's useful to break the process down. In literature though, the lowest level isn't that of letters. Beneath is the author, who can also show through, producing metafiction. People who dislike metafiction often say that they don't like how it destroys the illusion, how it prevents immersion, but how real are the characters anyway? Would they (the putative author included) pass the Turing test?

Holograms have been used as an analogy for how meaning can emerge from a surface. Removing a sentence from a text might reduce the amount of detail about a character, but the character survives. And a sentence may contain information regarding more than one character.

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Quality versus Quantity

Some poets don't produce much. In 1988 Faber published Ian Hamilton's "Fifty Poems". This included just about all he'd previously had published, and six new poems. In the preface he wrote: "Fifty poems in twenty-five years: not much to show for half a lifetime, you might think". Amongst novelists, Harper Lee produced little. Their lack of volume didn't seem to hold their careers back.

In the "Bridport Prize anthology 2017" one poet's bio mentions a single success - being commended in the Ware poetry competition. For the author of the Flash winner the anthology appearance was their first published work. I suspect that however brilliant their Bridport pieces, these writers aren't going to break through unless they have worthwhile portfolios. For small-press writers I think quantity matters - it helps keep your name in circulation long enough for the right people to notice. The difference between a relatively well-known writer and an unknown one is not necessarily in the quality of their best pieces of work (an unknown's best piece may be superb) but in the quantity of good work produced.

Producing more will mean that your worst pieces will be worse than before, but can trying to write more lead to your best pieces suffering too? Perhaps. The easiest way to increase output is by lowering standards, by being less self-critical. If this policy is adopted uniformly, a writer's best work will suffer. But if self-criticism is reduced just long enough to release some new ideas, a return to harsh self-criticism afterwards can mould those ideas into something useful.

So there are grounds for believing that a writer's best work will be improved. In "Art & Fear", authors David Bales and Ted Orland describe a ceramics class in which half of the students were given an A for producing fifty pounds of pots, whereas the others were judged on quality, needing to turn in one—albeit perfect—piece. The best works came from the group being graded on quantity - "It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work - and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay."

I've often seen this experiment quoted. I'm unsure how generally true it is. Pots can't be re-edited - poems can. Photographers used to be encouraged to take many snaps, but now re-touching solves many problems. That said, just as you need the photos before you can use Photoshop, so you need first drafts before you can re-write, as Robert Lee Brewer points out. It's easier to improve a piece than start one from scratch. And you never know where a writing session will end up - you may sit down intending to write one poem and finish with a different one altogether. The important thing is to be in the right place when inspiration arrives.

So perhaps having more raw material helps. How can one write more? NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month) and NaNo (National Novel Writing Month) are initiatives to help improve the amount produced by writers. Books like "52: Write a Poem a Week. Start Now. Keep Going" by Jo Bell can help too.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Rewriting workshop

Congratulations! You've got further than many budding writers - you've actually written something. Pat yourself on the back. But you know there's more work ahead. How much more depends on you.

People have different attitudes to rewriting. For some people it's checking for typos and removing some superfluous words. That's certainly part of the task (often called "polishing"), and we'll do a few exercises on that topic, but that's the easy bit.

We'll also be looking at other changes we can make, and the inhibitions that stop us making them. A particular problem is over-familiarity with the text, and - let's be honest - boredom having to go over the same old stuff again and again.

I'll mostly talk about novels, though I'll mention other genres in passing. Any book on writing will be helpful when you're rewriting. I'll focus on the quick-fixes, throwing lots of suggestions at you, some of them contradictory. Just pick the ones that suit you!

During the re-write you may discover that your novel isn't ever going to work. I'll look at what to do in that situation too, because all is not lost.


What's the difference between writing and rewriting? For some people, a lot. When they write their first draft, they don't expect to change it much. Anthony Burgess worked that way. Other people are always re-writing.

  • "You write a script twice. The first time you pour out all your passion, anger, energy, and frustration. Then you go back and write it with your head" - Jimmy McGovern (TV scriptwriter)
  • "The first draft is like a romance, flowering and easy during its first few months until eventually the situation has to normalise, to settle. The second draft is like a marriage. The passion will not have evaporated but it’s now tempered by responsibility" - Ashley Stokes
  • "I write every paragraph four times - once to get my meaning down, once to put in anything I left out, once to take out everything that seems unnecessary, and once to make the whole thing sound as if I only just thought of it" - Marjorie Allingham
  • "The unconscious creates, the ego edits" - Stanley Kunitz

The hard part's knowing when to stop. Even publication doesn't stop people like W.H.Auden and Nobel winner Alice Munro wanting to change their work. Artists feel the same way. Apparently the Post-Impressionist Bonnard once persuaded his friend Édouard Vuillard to distract one of the guards in a museum while he touched up a work that had been completed years previously.

So let's re-write!

Exercise 1
Improve these
  • They are so gripped by the film, they're frozen in time and sit on the sofa like statues, absolutely still and hardly breathing (from a novel by Dawn French)
  • Eli was not quite seven years old when he discovered that he was different. But perhaps 'different' was not at the time, at least, the right word. For all that time, in most ways, he was a quite ordinary child, with the common traits, good and bad, and many in between, that ordinary little boys will have. But in one important respect he differed from the ordinary (the start of a short story by Salley Vickers)
  • In the not too distant future, college freshmen must all become aware of the fact that there is a need for them to make contact with an academic adviser concerning the matter of a major (from a prospectus)
  • I stepped out of the city and into the park. It was as simple as that.
    It was January, it was a foggy day in London town, I'd got off the Tube at Great Portland Street and come up and out into the dark of the day, I was on my way to an urgent meeting about funding. It was possible in the current climate that funding was going to be withdrawn so we were having to have an urgent meeting urgently to decide on the right kind of rhetoric. This would ensure the right developmental strategy which would in turn ensure that funding wouldn't conclude in this way at this time.
    (from a short story by Ali Smith)

Later exercises won't be so easy - chopping words out is far easier than deciding where words are missing and which words to insert. But at least chopping makes space.

Alternatives to DIY

Before we consider doing all the rewriting ourselves, let's consider alternatives. You could find a trusted person to swap drafts with. Alternatively there are commercial services. One example is They offer several options, amongst them Editing Services: Final Polish for £680 – £1020 which is, I presume, the going rate, and an indication of how much work is involved. So think hard before asking someone to look through your work as a favour.

Re-writers block

Writer's Block is when you're staring at an empty page and nothing happens. Re-writer's Block is when you stare at a full page and nothing happens.

Many of the factors involved with Writer's Block still apply to Re-writer's Block. Indeed, re-writing may itself be a form of Writer's Block, stopping you writing anything new. It can become an obsession - you can re-write for ever.

What factors particularly inhibit re-writing?

  • Fear of destroying the freshness of the original
  • Fear that you might realise it's all rubbish, that you've wasted your life
  • Fear of commitment, that there's no going back
  • Rewriting's boring
  • Not knowing where to start
  • Not knowing when to end
  • Not knowing what to change
  • Self-imposed restrictions - e.g. "write about what you know"; "but that's what actually happened!"; sticking to the same length, genre, era, age/gender of characters

Many of these are more "project management" than artistic issues. Let's see if we can remove some of these hindrances.

Have a plan

Don't be open-ended. Be focused. Don't fiddle about or tinker - that's a displacement mechanism.

  • If it's rubbish, dump it. What's worse than spending 5 years writing a rubbish novel? Answer: Spending 10 years writing it. So put it away in a drawer. With any luck you'll be able to publish it after you've had another novel published (the first two novels that Iain Banks wrote were published well after his breakthrough novel "The Wasp Factory" came out).
  • Focus your attention on the sections with the biggest pay-off - the start, the end, the crisis moment. Editors will do that, so you might as well too. Chekov suggested that you should write the beginning, middle, and end, then cut the beginning and the end. That sounds extreme, but it's worth at least underlining the first interesting sentence in your piece. If it's not near the beginning, have a good excuse ready.
    Ernest Hemingway went through 47 endings for "A Farewell to Arms" before settling on: "After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain." Scribner published an edition containing all of them.
    Exercise 2 - Beginnings
    Here are 2 beginnings of stories by James Runcie about Grantchester. The first is rather flat. The second is rather poetical. Swap the styles -
    • Sidney was uneasy. He knew that it was one of his principal duties as a priest to keep cheerful at all times and he liked to think that he was content with his lot in life, but the copy of The Times that he was reading one late April morning in 1963 carried a biblical quotation at the top of the Personal Column that gave him pause
      'Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you'

      ('Death by Water')
    • As the afternoon light faded over the village of Grantchester, the parishioners lit fires, drew curtains and bolted their doors against the dangers of darkness. The external blackness was a memento mori, a nocturnal harbinger of that sombre country from which no traveller returns. Canon Sidney Chambers, however, felt no fear. He liked a winter's night.
      It was the 8th of January 1955. The distant town of Cambridge looked almost two-dimensional under the moon's wily enchantment and the silhouettes of college buildings were etched against the darkening sky like illustrations for a children's fairytale.

      ('The Perils of the Night')
  • For novels especially, you needn't make all the changes as you go along - just make a list; e.g. - 'beef up X's character'; 'sort out lost-letter plot'; 'revise Chapter Six'; 'check geography of Manchester chapter' (Emma Darwin); 'research into what rubbish is dropped onto pavements'; 'find names of nail-varnish colours' (Tim Love).
  • How do you decide what needs changing? Read others' stories critically to practice finding problems, or go through a checklist of features a short story should have. Many checklists are online.
  • You could try to perfect your novel a chapter at a time, as if each one was a short story - see later.
  • Don't put yourself under pressure by presuming that each re-write will produce the next version of an ever-improving sequence. Some re-writes will be dead-ends or experiments - you might learn something from them, but mostly they're disposable.
  • Try to add variety to your rewriting sessions. Try to make them fun!
  • Get in the right mood - maybe start the day by revising the previous evening's work? Work in a different room when you revise? Use rituals?

Version Control

Amongst the inhibitors to change is the fear that you'll make things worse.

You can work in such a way that you can save all versions and compare old and new versions side by side. Knowing that you can go back to older versions helps make you more relaxed and radical about changing your current version. You're free to experiment.

There are other reasons for preserving versions. e.g for Flash, I try places which have limits of exactly 75, max 100, exactly 100, exactly 101, max 200, max 250, max 300, max 360, etc, so I have multiple versions of some pieces.

How do you do this? First, if your Word processor allows you to track changes and revisions, do that (the diagram in the right shows how versions of a program of mine budded and merged). Some versions of Office let you recover earlier drafts, some don't. Or you can use Overleaf, GoogleDocs, etc.


  • O wad some Power the giftie gie us, to see oursels as ithers see us! - Burns
  • editing is like sex. If you do it to yourself you can't really call it editing - Matthew Welton

Whatever your attitude to re-writes it can help to distance yourself from the text before attempting a re-write. By "distancing" I mean being more detached from the piece, as if it weren't yours, so you can see it as others see it and you're less inhibited about making changes. This distancing can be achieved by waiting, but if time is at a premium there are other options.

  • Samuel Beckett started writing in French to distance himself from his work.
  • "No passion in the world is greater than the passion to alter someone else's draft", said H.G. Wells. If you're that type of person, then pretend you're someone else when you read your piece.
  • Write a review of it, or a blurb.
  • Try printing it out in a different font, or reading it out, or recording it and playing it back.

Or you can alternate between small- and large-scale views.

Small scale

Re-writing your work is little like a surgeon operating on a loved one. It helps to be detached, to operate on the knee, not the person. Similarly, it helps to look at the details of your story one aspect at a time. While you're making these little changes, don't consider the effect on the piece as a whole - that will come later -

  • Look at sentence length and paragraph length to see if they're too samey.
  • Look at word frequency. Are you over-using "not", "still", "suddenly" or "but"?
  • Add imagery - don't worry about adding too much, you can always cut back later. E.g. "There was a man whistling, walking along holding a can of Skol ahead of himself. He was holding the can like a compass" (Ali Smith)
  • Look at each adjective and verb (change "red" to "crimson"; "walk" to "saunter"?)
  • If you want to look at each sentence in isolation, replace full-stops by new-lines, or go through your piece from back to front.
    Exercise 3 - Sentences
    (Print the start of a story out, one sentence per slip of paper. Give each person a slip and get them to read the story out. Now get each of them to rewrite the sentence. Get them to read the revised story out)
  • Look at each minor character in turn, listing all they do

Medium scale

These change the whole work, but only one feature of it. You can try something out as an experiment, to revive the story's freshness for you. Keeping the original, try

  • Changing the location
  • Changing the gender or age of a character. Making them visually-impaired, wheelchaired, very tall.
  • Changing the viewpoint
  • Changing the tense
  • Change the era (useful to solve the plot refutations involving the use of mobile phones, etc)
  • Halving the word-count (it's interesting to see what parts really matter to you)

Even if you abandon these versions, trying them out may give you ways to add detail to what you've taken for granted. For example

  • if you change the location to somewhere exotic you may mention the meals more. Why not mention meals in your original?
  • if you set it in an Arctic Research Station you ay find that the confinement intensifies emotions.

Large scale

Re-writing from scratch - produce a new draft of a chapter without looking at the old version! The differences between the versions might be revealing.

Outlining - block-out your piece to see if it flows and if the proportions are ok - e.g. A page about Jim. A line about Mary. A page about London. How Jim ended up in London.

Re-conceiving - Sometimes when you re-read a story you might realise that the crux of the story isn't what you'd originally intended. Perhaps a secondary character has become more interesting than the main one.

Re-structuring - Re-order chapters or sections. Are you starting too early? You can put an important chapter at start, as a prologue, or put chapters in reverse. Instead of strictly chronological ordering of chapters, you could use alternate chapters according to location or point-of-view. Such tricks aren't especially avant-garde -

  • Iain Banks' "Use of Weapons" has 2 narrative threads - one going forwards in time, one going backwards.
  • Two recent best-sellers ("The Miniaturist" by Jessie Burton and "Days without end" by Sebastian Barry) begin with funerals where the identity of the narrator doesn't become clear for pages, and the deceased's identity takes chapters to reveal (in "Days without end" we're told on p.62). Both first-chapters are flash-forwards.
  • "Chang and Eng" by Darin Strauss is framed by the death-bed scene (the final chapter's a repeat of the first). The chapters alternate between 2 storylines: 1811-1842, and 1842-1874, 1842 being the year Chang and Eng met their wives.

If you can't decide how to end a novel, why not include several options. Again, it's not avant-garde - in "Jane, Unlimited" (2017, it's YA) Kristin Cashore included 5 endings, each a different genre.

Novels and short stories

Maybe your novel could become some short stories. Maybe a part of a short story can immediately become a Flash piece. looks at how related short stories can be made into a novel and vice versa.

It's perhaps better to plan ahead if you're going to do this. One benefit of writing a novel as a set of short stories is that you can start sending the stories off long before you've completed the novel - parts of "A Visit from the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan appeared initially in The New Yorker and Harper's. Jill Widner has published (and won prizes for) several story-like chapters of her novel that she hasn't yet published. Doing this also helps with marketing - a story can be a teaser for the novel.


Here's a piece of mine that I've had published -


Suppose one person’s death could save the lives of many others by providing them with vital organs. Should the state intervene for the greater good?

In 2007 I wrote a story called “Going.” I entered it in a couple of competitions before deciding that no one wanted it. Its street market went into “Late” (published in By All Means), the tea flavours went into “Out” (Ink, Sweat and Tears), and the passage about hearing noises downstairs appeared in “Correspondence” (Necessary Fiction). None of those other stories were true, though “Going” was. Did I do the right thing?}

There are 2 things to learn from this - firstly, you can publish the story of your failure; secondly, it's a true story - those parts weren't wasted.

It's easy to flog dead horses, to work on a piece that you like but nobody else does. I've hung onto stories for years not realising that it's just one scene that I liked. You can cut your losses and recycle the bits (having of course saved the original version first). Pieces of dialogue, or even whole scenes can find new homes.

Bret Anthony Johnston’s "Half of What Atlee Rouse Knows About Horses" won the £30,000 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award for 2017. The author said it was in a “process of accrual” for a decade. He said he would be working on his novel and would get frustrated and leave it a while and write a little vignette about a horse. When he started to have enough of the vignettes and his character became a “backbone” to them, he spread them over the floor and called it a story.

I've not gone to that extreme, though I've had success sticking fragments together, putting ``* * *'' between them or numbering them.

Exercise 4 - A complete work
(Hand out a piece of Flash. Get them to identify the sections (3 of them?), turning points, weaknesses)

See also

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Gappy poetry

In "Tears in the fence" No.59 Spring 2014, Mark Goodwin's "Mind Will" begins with

wind th    rives in sky's grasp the   wind
ing of cloth pulls   the sky's hear   t open

and takes the p   ush of clouds & distant
land into the text   ure of corn's matt talk

Some of these gaps are between words, denoting a pause or break that's rather less than a line-break (they sometimes replace commas, or they're like the gaps in anglo-saxon verse). Poets not usually considered avant-garde sometimes use such gaps too - for example, Kim Moore's "Some People" (in "The Art of Falling") and Liz Berry's "Bird" (in "Black Country") use them. The gaps within words are more challenging. "In Tears in the Fence" (No. 65) Mark Goodwin writes about what he describes as his gappy poetry - "with the development of the gappy poetry there was never really an aim, not an an intention, certainly not to begin with. It was all about play". I can see that the gaps allow a little Joycean wordplay, bringing out new meanings. There's disruption too, stopping the reader using a standard novel-reading method of processing - letters rather than words need to be processed, and the 2nd line's "ing" will cause most readers to backtrack. In the 4th line, readers are likely to sense "text of [the] talk" and "corn stalk".

Having written the poetry, he later thought about the style -

  1. as I thought about it, and tried to analyse what I was doing, and no doubt also constructed reasons for what I was doing, I began to see, especially as most of my gappy poetry is concerned with landscape and place, that this gappy form has much to do with the way we continually attempt to read and reinterpret the layers of our worlds … and how we get from one layer of landscape to another, how we go over horizons, how we get from one valley to another. We go via gaps, gaps in hedges, or via a col, or pass, or gap between mountains. What is a path but a form of gap - a strip of place where material has been worn away
  2. words on the page are governed by the gaps … By re-arranging the gaps, and adding gaps, you are still left with the base-layer interpretation/score/material of the original poem (or landscape) before the procedure was imposed on it, but you also have a new surface that reveals, from a new angle, or point of view, or position of hearing, some of the pure sound or music of language detached from what we usually experience as familiar speech, and also you get sudden shifts in meaning, all generated by moving or adding space(s)
  3. Perhaps I can say that my gappy poems happen to be a particular pattern at a particular time, but that the gaps can lead on or rather invite another reader-maker to break the poem (or even world) down again, and re-map as they will


  1. gaps aren't necessarily a lack of something, they can be a means of going from one place to another (a corridor, an airlock) or a space waiting to be filled - he writes "I often approach writing poetry … much as a painter might approach a canvas, and also in some ways how a dancer might approach and proceed across a floor")
  2. gaps can destablize the readers' attempt to organise their sensory input into layers. It does so without making the original text inaccessible
  3. gaps offer the reader more interactive play between the parts

These aims aren't new of course.


  • Line-breaks - Much of what applies to using line-breaks also applies to gaps - if poetry is cut-up prose, then gappy poetry is cut-up poetry (see my The End of the Line for Modern Poetry article). Linebreaks have lost their power to disrupt, but gaps haven't. Rosmarie Waldrop wrote that "Perhaps the greatest challenge of the prose poem (as opposed to "flash fiction") is to compensate for the absence of the margin. I try to place the margin, the emptiness inside the text. I cultivate cuts, discontinuity, leaps, shifts of reference, etc. 'Gap gardening,' I have called it"
  • Mimetic expression - Olson proposed that nuances of breath and motion to be conveyed to the reader through typographical means. Gaps are an obvious means.
  • Negative space - rather than looking at the gaps, one can look at the clusters thus formed, and consider how the gaps create a framing effects - "Typographic isolation does not "emphasize"; it frames, rendering a familiar word or phrase momentarily unfamiliar ... Emphasis limits the range of possible meanings", Stephen Cushman, "William Carlos Williams and the Meanings of Measure", Yale, p.60
  • Clustering - words are in sentences, grouped into clauses determined by syntax. The freedom to move words around on the page provides a different way to create word clusters. The idea is similar to the use of phonemes - matching phonemes can be spread amongst words not connected by syntax - or how a realist painting can sometimes be viewed as an abstract - a "study in blue" where the blueness by chance belongs to various objects.
  • Disruption - In "Broken English" (Wesleyan Univ Press, 1993), Heather McHugh points out that "[Poetry] is a broken language from the beginning, brimming with non-words: all that white ... the making of lines is the breaking of lines ... All poetry is fragment: it is shaped by its breakages, at every turn ... The poem is not only a piece, like other pieces of art; it is a piece full of pieces".
    In informational prose, letters or sounds create words which in turn have meanings that a sentence organises into higher meanings (see my Ingarden and the Sense of Resolution article). Disruption of this mode of comprehension can remind people of the arbitrariness of spellings, classifications, etc. of course, it's not a new idea - e.g. "The radical indentations [in "Tintern Abbey"] let space into the verse column at irregular interval, signaling the abrupt discontinuities and shifts associated with the Romantic ode", Stephen Cushman, ("William Carlos Williams and the Meanings of Measure", Yale, p.57). But such disruption seems to me the moon/June, love/dove of modern poetry - easy to do, with a deadened effect through over-use.
    That said, Ralf Webb writes of Emily Berry's poems that "Several of these use “tabulation”; large blank spaces appear mid-line, as if the poems’ sutures had been ripped out, creating irregular, staccato, breathless rhythms, so that to read them is to enact and experience the urgency of the speaker’s appeals" showing how gaps can produce a different effect to that of line-breaks.


"Spacing in poetry is nothing to do with space and everything to do with time" wrote John Fuller in "Who Is Ozymandias? and other puzzles in poetry" (Chatto and Windus, 2011, p.22). When poetry is read out, it can be hard to hear where the line-breaks are. Nevertheless, poetry readings often successful, bringing into question the importance of the line-breaks. What about gaps?

Mark Goodwin wrote "Encountering my gappy poetry as a reader is of course completely different to encountering it as a listener, and not least because when performing the gappy poems to a live audience I tend to read the poems twice, in different ways: once honouring the gaps, reading in a very clipped style; and once reading the poem without honouring the gaps, and generally by reading in a more natural way. I've found that an audience that might be driven away by the appearance of the gappy poems on the page, once they've heard the two differing but connected musical versions of a gappy poem, well, they 'get' it. That's not a 'get it' so much to do with 'understanding', but rather they 'receive' the music"

I'd like more evidence, but it's an interesting observation.

Mind the gap?

End-rhymes add an effect, but usually at a cost. If gaps offer extra effects without consequences we'd all be using them (in the way that poets use line-breaks nowadays, there being nothing to lose). While we're at it we might as well use coloured text and multiple fonts - they too add meaning-laden features without destroying the original. But we don't.

When New Formalists write about the positive effects of rhyme they usually don't mention disadvantages. Similarly it's not surprising that those who promote gaps don't list their disadvantages -

  • they distract the reader from considering "meaning" (visual effects are often considered more superficial than "meaning")
  • the use of gimmicks (uncommon notation) can put readers off (gaps aren't common - they still seem rather quirky)
  • the use of apparently random devices can put readers off

Even some practitioners have doubts. In an interview Emily Berry says that "These spaces appeared initially as a way of indicating a kind of stutter or inability to speak/write except in a fragmented way (which is probably a textual representation of how I feel when trying to talk about emotions!). They started appearing in other poems I wrote, mainly the ones about dealing with absence and I guess you could also see them as symbolising the way in which someone’s absence can seem so physical. I don’t seem to be using them so much any more. I like the way they give you a bit more freedom in terms of line breaks, but they’re also quite annoying to work with, you end up spending ages deciding how many spaces a particular gap should be, which is not the greatest use of one’s time".

In "Tears in the fence" No.65 Mark Goodwin's "Mind Will" is quoted from -

wind     thrives in sky's tigh     t lipped pert
progress the winding     of cloth pulls heaped
eyes & speech     less beetles sky's heart open

which is different from the version I quoted earlier. Perhaps I've miss-typed.