Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Nothing to hide

"If what has happened in the one person were communicated directly to the other, all art would collapse, all the effects of art would disappear" - Paul Valery

With a pack of cards you can play bridge or patience, you can foretell futures, gamble, perform tricks, or build towers. Like card-playing, poetry is an overlapping range of pursuits but you never know when one turns into another. Asking for the wrong card you get the king of hearts. Well, in crosswords you do, the answer's 3 words - (4, 2, 6). "card" is the literal clue, and "wrong" is an indication that there's an anagram - in this case "Asking for the" mutates into "king of hearts".

Poetry also lets you take apart something that has meaning and re-assemble it into something new - a life into verse perhaps. It both transforms and projects so that others can see, like an item gran arranged family slides into. Here the whole phrase is the literal clue, and the answer's (5,7). "item gran" arranged is "magi tern", into which you slide "clan" (family) to get "magic lantern".

Some people take things apart without immediately recreating. They store the dissected pieces for easy retrieval - in dictionaries, in encyclopedias, or chronologically, or by theme - the sad episodes clumped together. Some people remember their lives as these fragments, shuffling and dealing them out so that no-one knows the whole truth. Their words are like the dummy hands of bridge - only part of the story.

But it takes more than that to be a writer. It's said that the blind have acute hearing, that Autistics observe people more thoroughly. What handicap do poets compensate for? Perhaps it's shyness, not wanting to reveal all, hiding behind words and disguises, depending upon the curiosity of others, being expert at flight rather than fight - flight from appearances, from self. Or perhaps they want to believe that things never die, they merely change. Transformation is a form of hiding more radical than disguise, a Willow Pattern of reversable changes where nothing's lost.

People with secretive personalities defer responses and seek matching environments to feel comfortable in. Literature provides an ideal setting, where there's profit to be had in delay: when several things are left in pieces you can mix them up - taking a nose from one person, a smile from another. Writers have perfected techniques of hiding and disguise, and where there are secrets there are discoveries. The moment of revelation is especially important in whodunnits, but sequences of lesser revelations drive many texts along. The writer needs a good excuse to hide the information otherwise readers will feel cheated or manipulated. The standard shared conventions of storytelling can be viewed as excuses for secrecy -

  • Point of View - once this is established, readers understand why they don't know what's happening elsewhere, or why they can't see inside other characters' heads
  • Narrative - If events can only be told in chronological order, there' s an excuse for not telling all straight away
  • Show/Tell - If only "showing" is allowed, explanation may have to be delayed.

Take for example a situation where a man's going to the kitchen. These conventions all might explain why we're not allowed to know his motivation until we're told that he raids the biscuit tin.

The trick as ever is to know which game you're playing and let others know too. Just as in some card games the dealer choose trumps, so the writer chooses the genre and the reader has to play along. The genre determines when it's acceptable to hide and when to seek, when to challenge and when to bluff, when to twist, and when to stick. At the end you may be amazed, penniless, or defeated but at the very least you'll be different. Must everything change? Grand works result (6,8).

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