Monday, 9 December 2013

Literary Unity

In Problems and poetics of the nonaristotelian novel, Leonard Orr writes "unity in literary works is an essential part of the concept of form, and it must be achieved both through the author's imagination and through the audience, assimilating all of the information, seeing the structure (the beginning, middle, and end), and in seeing that all of the parts serve to inform the whole". Aristotle is behind many of these ideas, and also perhaps behind the idea that the quality of a text can be judged by assessing its unity - the notion that in perfect texts everything is essential. But there have always been "baggy" texts (even Shakespeare's plays are often abridged). Novels in particular have asides, detours, and peripheral atmosphere-building material. More recently, methods have appeared that challenge more directly the classical notions of unity, (organic or otherwise) - "Collage, the art of reassembling fragments of pre-existing images in such a way as to form a new image, was the most important innovation in the art of the twentieth century" (Charles Simic).

So how accommodating should readers be nowadays about apparently superfluous material? If a stanza of a poem doesn't do anything, do you just skip over it or do you penalize it (or, analogously, when you mark a multiple choice quiz, should you penalise wrong answers)? Perhaps the material's there for other readers, not you. But suppose it affects your enjoyment of the rest of the poem? Maybe it's crass, sexist, derivative, etc. Would you ignore it then? Suppose instead of a bad or pointless stanza it's a questionable line, or word, or line-break?

Obviously, it depends. But on what? The proportion of the whole that's affected presumably, and the nature of the flaw. But also it depends on the type of work being read, the reader, and why they're reading. Some poets (Selima Hill?) tend to write uneven pieces. Others (Heaney?) don't. The perceived unevenness may be because the work is multi-style or polyphonic, the reader not equally at home with the various styles/voices. Some people (especially if they're judging) will judge a poem by its worst line. Others won't mind panning for gold, seeking rare and beautiful wonders. My impression is that

  • Non-narrative, discontinuous poems are more likely to be read with a pick'n'mix approach
  • If one line of a poem is much better than the rest, it's sometimes said to "be worth the admission fee alone", the rest of the poem excused

I don't see why readers should be more lenient with non-narrative pieces, and though I can understand why a good goal in a soccer match might justify going to an otherwise ordinary game, a poem's not a live event - it can be edited. Of course, you lose that process-over-product feel, but process, like product, can be synthesised.

Some discontinuous poems contain a 2-D constellation of quotable fragments. What should fill the gaps between them? Dead wood or padding? Or could some continuity been provided? Options include

  • Nothing - compacted fragments and nothing else
  • White space (to "let the images breath"; to provide space for fields to be generated between the poles)
  • Absorbent text that attempts to magnify/refract the effect of the powerful fragments
  • Text that attempts to provide continuity between the fragments (which may either amplify the fragments or mask their effect). For example, the fragments could be put into the mouth of a mad person, or be notebook extracts.
  • Text that's part of a different, continuous thread.

The reader's strategy can in time affect the poet's writing. If readers are going to ignore (rather than penalize) the bits they don't get, the poet's more likely to add more stanzas or more obscurity - after all, there's nothing to lose. I think the current fashion amongst frequent poetry readers is more indulgent than it was a decade or so ago. Perhaps the increasingly competent and voluminous output of creative writing students makes readers crave for something "a bit different".

Sometimes when another reader and I disagree over a poem, I've asked them about certain phrases only to find that the reader's ignored them rather than try (and fail) to incorporate them into their interpretation. I don't see any problem with a poem containing self-contradictions, but if the reader edits those contradictions away, something's surely wrong somewhere.

Sometimes a reader (for personal/professional reasons) wants to like a particular text. Fragmentary poetry gives such readers more scope to do this - nothing needs to be explained and anything in it might be vital to the poem as a whole, so nothing can safely be deleted. Parts might be there to provide a change of texture, or to make other parts seem, in comparison, lyrical.

Readers may search for a unity (a gestalt, a resolving interpretation) that isn't in the text. They may give up, using variations of the "there are only so many hours in the day" argument

  • "If the poet's not going to bother editing their work, I don't have time to do the editing for them"
  • "I don't trust the poet. If there are so many phrases that make little sense to me, maybe the effect of the other words is delusionary, luck, a mirage. Maybe the poet's trying to bluff me"

I don't mind unresolvable paradoxes. Nor am I against "hopeful monsters" as such though I sometime wonder whether they need to be published - why not learn from them and re-write? I'm less tolerant of padding (in the form of words or space) than many other readers are. Surplus words and line-breaks can make me wary of the other words and line-breaks that at first sight seemed effective. I begin to lose trust in the poet. Before long, the implicit reader-poet contract isn't worth the paper it's written on, so I start reading another book instead.

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