Thursday, 18 June 2015

A summary of my views about poetry


Reading poetry

Writing poetry

Monday, 1 June 2015

William Blake

I only recently found out that an original version of Blake's The Tyger is in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge - metres from where I work. It's one of the most anthologised poems. If The Tyger is the only poem of Blake's that you've read you might be surprised to learn that Blake's often considered a difficult poet. During his lifetime he had admirers but he also had detractors. When he died in 1827, the detractors won, and he fell into neglect for decades. Gilchrists' "Life of William Blake" published in 1863 gained admiration for Blake first from the Pre-Raphaelites then the wider reading community, but his mass-appeal was procured only by ignoring his later work, taking the pictures away from his early poems, and isolating his poems from each other. What remains is the Blake that most of us know.

When students study Blake in more depth, they discover that he intended the pictures and poems to be seen together. The pictures add new meanings to the words, and don't always support them. Moreover, when the poems from Songs of Innocence and Experience are read together, connections appear which undermine the apparent simplicity of the poems. Blake had many interests (the plight of exploited children in London, etc) that are there in the pictures, and once you see them in the pictures you begin to see them in the words. In his later work Blake invented a complex Mythology whose Gods were partly from existing Religions and partly based on his friends and enemies. Critics said that

  • he was mad - apparently Blake read a book about insanity to check if he was!
  • he could paint but he couldn't draw
  • he had good ideas but he couldn't execute them well

One of his friends, wanting to help him sell his work, suggested that he should concentrate on one thing at a time, but Blake wasn't like that. It wasn't that he flitted from subject to subject, more that he wanted to find connections between things.

Nowadays many of those earlier adverse reactions still persist. In the "The Cambridge Companion to William Blake" by Morris Eaves, it's suggested that students are offered 3 ways to cope with the difficulty of understanding Blake

  • Read his early poems. Ignore everything else
  • Look at his later pictures. Ignore everything else
  • Assume he's mad. Don't try to make sense of everything

Eaves goes on to say that "His defiance of the institutional structures of knowledge and the technological divisions that correspond to them resulted in unorthodox works that seemed ungainly if not ugly and shocking to his potential audience, who in their aversion have sometimes perceived a mind operating out of control"

I have a feeling that some writers today sympathise with Blake, especially those who are trying to combine pictures with words, or are resisting the lures of popularity. They'll face the same accusations that Blake faced. Blake's work is hard to analyse if you break it down into bits before trying to get a feel for the work as a whole. Northrop Frye (an important US literary critic) wrote that Blake "gives us so good an introduction to the nature and structure of poetic thought that, if one has any interest in the subject at all, one can hardly avoid exploiting him".

Genius? Madman?

  • Wordsworth said "There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott."
  • T.S. Eliot wrote in his essay on Blake that "the concentration resulting from a framework of mythology and theology and philosophy is one of the reasons why Dante is a classic and Blake only a poet of genius."

Decide for yourselves, but I suggest first you look at his works the way he meant them to be seen - not just words, and not just pictures.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Schrodinger's cat in literature

Schrödinger wrote: A cat is penned up in a steel chamber, along with the following device ...: in a Geiger counter, there is a tiny bit of radioactive substance, so small, that perhaps in the course of the hour one of the atoms decays, but also, with equal probability, perhaps none; if it happens, the counter tube discharges and through a relay releases a hammer that shatters a small flask of hydrocyanic acid. If one has left this entire system to itself for an hour, one would say that the cat still lives if meanwhile no atom has decayed. The psi-function of the entire system would express this by having in it the living and dead cat (pardon the expression) mixed or smeared out in equal parts.

I suspect that allusions in literature to Schrödinger's cat aren't always understood correctly. Why is that situation any different to these?

  • A soccer referee tosses a coin before a match, covers it, asks a captain to call heads or tails. Until the coin's revealed, nobody knows what it is.
  • A prisoner's locked in a dungeon and the key thrown away. Sooner or later they'll die, but we won't know when.

At the sub-atomic level, strange things happen. We can predict probabilities of where a particle is likely to be with great accuracy, but we don't know where it actually is until we look. So far, this sounds like the coin situation - 50% chance of heads, 50% chance of tails. The difference is that whereas in the coin situation the coin's state is fixed before it's revealed, in the subatomic case the possible states simultaneously exist until the moment of observation, at which point the particle suddenly decides where it will be.

This may sound odd, but we're prepared to accept it for sub-atomic particles because experiments support it. Time for some terminology

  • "superposition" - the simultaneous multiple states
  • "interference" - the effect of the states on each other (i.e. proof that the states exist). "an individual particle, such as a photon (light particles) can cross its own trajectory and interfere with the direction of its path" (from
  • "collapsing the probability function" - decision time
  • "The Copenhagen interpretation" - the idea that a system stops being a superposition of states and becomes a specific state when an observation takes place.

Suppose that instead of one particle there are several - a human-sized bundle of them in a room. Suppose that this bundle has the same indeterminacy as a single particle. We might be able to calculate probabilities of the person's position (50% likely to be in bed, say, and 50% looking out of the window). To us outside the room the person IS 50% in bed AND 50% at the window, but now that we have a sentient, self-conscious being instead of a sub-atomic particle we have difficulty putting ourselves in the situation of the person, who must surely be in only one place. However, being in one place would break one of the most successful theories ever.

Schrödinger's paradox has 2 extra features added to the scenario that I've sketched -

  • The stakes are raised. The indeterminacy concerns not position but life
  • Rather than saying that the cat behaves like a particle, its life depends directly on the behaviour of a particle. A machine translates probability from one scale to another.

Life and self-awareness are emergent qualities - ones that are hard to deduce, calculate or describe using the underlying concepts. The characters in these thought experiments may be self-consciousness, but what does that mean? At what precise moment is the cat dead? Maybe it could be revived?

The worldview of the people outside the box is hard to sustain (how can the cat in the box be both alive and dead?), but trying to imagine the worldview of the cat (or better still, a person) inside the box is harder still. One theoretical way out is multiverses - the idea that the universe splits into 2 with one copy having a live being and the other copy a dead one. But when does it split? Whenever an observation is made?

Translate the scenario from involving particles to involving thoughts, and the paradoxes disappear. Suppose someone's asked "Will you marry me?" They might have anticipated the question, knowing how they'd reply. That corresponds to the coin tossing situation. Alternatively, they may be uncertain, hoping they won't be asked. But the questioner insists on an immediate answer (they've just been offered a job abroad, maybe). Somehow, from the mess of conflicting thoughts, a single answer must be given. That corresponds more to the cat situation - the question forces a collapse of the probability function.

The idea's been used by several SF writers and some less illustrious poets, often for comic effect. The idea of large-scale superposition is I think the key feature of the concept. Examples used by writers may include

  • Replacing Death Row by cells like the cat's
  • Having more than one entity in the cell - perhaps all existing self-conscious entities except one - God.

Frayn's "Copenhagen" is considered a worthy artistic treatment of such issues.

The title of Heidi Williamson's poem "Schrodinger's pregnancy test" promises more superposition than the poem explicitly delivers. It begins with "For her, theoretical physics/ is a bird soaring next to a plane" ending with "All it takes/ is a broad mauve line in a window// for it to land, bang/ on her heart". Interestingly, a search online for "Schrodinger's pregnancy test" comes up with entries like that of naming the time between where the author describes what it's like to await the test results - "What makes this experience unique, compared to situations of waiting in unknown like waiting for results of a job application, is that the box of indeterminancy is located within your own body. That box that contains one truth and the experience of living with two, that is placed in the intimate space of your self.".

See also

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Art and literary narration

The Bayeux Tapestry is a famous example of how to display a narrative graphically. The method translates easily to prose (and movies). But there are other ways. Here I'll pursue a particular thread of narrative development in art from the medieval to the 20th century, showing how the various ways might be used in literature.

  • Simultanbild - In paintings like Hans Memling’s "Scenes from the Advent and Triumph of Christ" several scenes have been integrated into a single landscape. Typically, the main character appears several times. For example, if the life of Christ is being presented, there might be a landscape where Jesus appears with John the Baptist in a river that passes by a hill where he's on a cross, with cows walking down the hill to a stable where he's being born. Unless one already knows the story, one couldn't put the scenes in order.
  • Individual Scenes - The development of perspective and the new possibilities of oil paint led to a concentration on individual scenes. Key moments from a known narrative were presented, enriched by symbolism and allusion to past/future events - scenes with Jesus might have a carpenter's tool in the corner, and a three-legged stool represents the Trinity. In contrast with Simultanbild, Realism might be a desirable feature. Before long, the narrative element disappeared from the painting, leaving a still-life packed with symbolism.
    Some interiors include a window offering a view that's a picture within a picture, commenting in some way on the internal scene.
  • Triptychs - 3-part works allow rich individual scenes plus the possibility of narrative sequence as in the Bayeux Tapestry, though more often juxtaposition's used, with the main central panel usually dominating the theme (it's usually bigger). The number 3 seems more popular than (say) 2 or 5.
  • Cubism - Just as a Simultanbild deforms a narrative, reconstructing it so that some common features (e.g. a hill) are shared by scenes, so some types of cubism deforms an object by displaying several viewpoints, organising that so that some common features (e.g. the curve of a jaw-line) are shared by viewpoints. There's no attempt to depict narrative

All these methods can be used in literature to structure works. In some cases the analogues are straightforward and common, in others the results are rather avant-garde.

  • Simultanbild - Short story collections like Kate Atkinson's "Not the End of the World" include non-chronologically-ordered stories that share characters, scenes and props. Using the idea in a shorter text is more challenging. My "What to Believe" (unpublished) and "Muse" (Staple) texts switch between story threads (often one that's historically based, and the other more personal) that use the same props. The use of a known story as one of the threads helps readers navigate through the texts, though authors needn't make it easy for readers to reconstitute the order of the scenes.
  • Individual Scenes - The single scene painting reminds me of the type of short story based around a significant moment that uses flashbacks and backstories. Framed stories are a little like pictures within pictures.
  • Triptychs/Cubism - Maybe my Death and Deception is a triptych. My "Three Takes" (unpublished) is rather like a triptych. Or maybe it's cubist. The same event is recounted 3 times in 3 styles. Here in particular the linear nature of reading makes it difficult to reproduce the artistic effects - seeing a triptych, an observer is unlikely to start at the left-most panel. They're likely to start at the central panel, perhaps glancing at the side panels before studying the central panel more carefully.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Show and Tell - Waterman and Heaney

  • In "Tonight the Summer's Over" from Rory Waterman's "Tonight the Summer's Over", canoers see a heron burst from the bank and disappear round the bend. The canoers think "We were happy - weren't we - because each bend was blind". Having initially not seen the heron, the canoers continue their imprecise, indirect observations as they try to follow it -
    • sparrows and whatnot cheeped
    • cows ... watched us ignoring them
    • inverted willows shivered with river-weeds

    The final line (a generalisation of - and end-rhyme with - the initial reason for their happiness) is "We must pursue, and not expect to find" (which isn't the same as "take each day as it comes"). How inclusive you want the "we" to be is up to you.

    The poem's called "Navigating". Life is a river. Also the book can be read as autobiographical, full of surprises.

  • In "Digging" from Seamus Heaney's "Death of a Naturalist", the persona says "Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests; snug as a gun ... My father, digging ... To scatter new potatoes that we picked, Loving their cool hardness in our hands. ... Between my finger and my thumb The squat pen rests. I’ll dig with it". An extended metaphor has been created -
    The persona expresses admiration of his father's (and grandfather's) wielding of a spade. The soil might represent Ireland, history. The potatoes and words are being uncovered for others to enjoy. The initial gun turns finally into a pen. Maybe the forbears are literary rather than genetic.

They are both undeniably successful poems. And yet, if someone sagely told you that

  • "life is like a winding river; you never know what's going to happen next" or
  • "As my father digs up potatoes with a spade, so I write poetry with my pen"

would you wish them to elaborate? I'm not sure I would. I think aphorisms and similes benefit from brevity, and these two seem ok as they are. What's gained by showing as well as telling, by adding specifics to the generalities without removing the summarising aphorism? Why not just show? It would have been possible to exploit dramatic irony - the characters could have made remarks without appreciating their symbolism, the narrator not involved. Or juxtaposition could have been used to invite readers to make connections - this after all is poetry, and readers' minds will be primed to follow hints - in Reality and Symbols I say more about how symbolism and realism flicker.

Significantly though, these poems begin the books they're in (indeed, Heaney's "Selected Poems" also commences with it), and the books are early ones in the poets' careers. They act as prologues, introductions best viewed as compressed books rather than bloated sayings. Of the 2 poems, I prefer Waterman's because of what the details add. It may be father and son canoeing together. I'm puzzled by Heaney's gun - maybe he's referring to Ireland's past which he intends to dig up.

See also Michael Woods' piece about 'Digging'

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Literature, depersonalisation and derealisation


In real life we create characters, building them up from what we see and hear. Meeting someone online or by phone, we build their personality from their words. This tendency can be so strong that people involved in Turing testing sometimes can't believe that they've been interacting with a mere computer. The effect is even stronger when voices and images rather than text is involved. Animals have personalities, even plants and objects can become possessed. The characters we thus create can seem unified, independent of any particular physical act, leading people to talk of disembodied personalities, spirits and souls, of afterlife and Gods. On top of that we create self-images; we are self-conscious, and assume that others are too.

Once we've created characters, they can surprize us - "It's not like her to do that" we might say, or "It's so out of character". Some people have "more" character than others, they're "larger than life". Alzheimers sufferers seem to gradually lose their character, their self. People with severe autism and robotic behaviour are sometimes credited with having less character.

Writers are in the game of creating believable characters. Sometimes during the writing of a story they are totally immersed in a character (if the character's unpleasant, depressed, etc, this may have consequences). Actors bring characters to life even more strongly than readers do, telling the playwright when their character wouldn't say the scripted words, replacing them with their own.

Non-standard characterisation

This character-creating ability presumably evolved to help predict others' actions (self-consciousness perhaps being a by-product). It's rather complex and varied. We often present a different self-image depending on context (extrovert with friends and quiet with parents, for example). A few people (very few) develop multiple personalities each unaware of the others. More commonly, people experience depersonalisation, seeing others as actors, as dolls. They even see themselves as artificial. Depersonalisation (often associated with depression) can be viewed as a hitch in the character-creation faculty, the inability to see the ghost in the machine. Autism is described by some people as "person-blindness".


Depersonalisation can lead to derealisation where the world seems comprised of stage scenery or part of "The Matrix". The way we create an internal representation of the world is complex too, even more so if Quantum Mechanical notions of what is "really there" are included, so it's no wonder that our world-creating facility, like our characterising facility, breaks down sometimes. Agnosia is the term used to describe the inability to process sensory information, to identify objects ("At first I saw the front part. It looked like a fountain pen. Then it looked like a knife, it was so sharp but I thought it couldn't be a knife, it was green. Then I saw the spokes").


When we look at someone face on, then they turn their head to the side, we know it's the same person. When a quiet co-worker becomes an extrovert scene-stealer at late-night clubs, we know it's the same person. Creating a character from these parts requires memory, which is why there's a dementia connection. Without memory, our inability to create characters can lead to an inability to predict behaviours, causing anxiety and agitation.


Such is the strength of our character-creating instinct that writers don't usually have a hard time convincing the readers that the characters are real (indeed, fact can be stranger than fiction). Easiest is to copy a character (real or fictional) who people already believe in. Writers can make their work more effective by understanding how people create worlds, memories and characters, and how that process can vary. People with dementia often retain their habits and preferences (for particular colours of clothes, flavour of ice-cream, etc). Is that kind of detail sufficient in a novel to establish a character? It might be, especially for minor characters. A fully rounded character's behaviour needs to be reasonably predictable without being deterministic. It helps if they exhibit similar traits in various situations. People are a mix of the predictable and the surprising. The predictable features aid identification and empathy, making surprises possible. E.M. Forster wrote that "the test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way."

One can analyse the characters in a story as if they were people, or one can "depersonalize", viewing them as constructs and analysing how the writer tried to supply the building blocks. Writers might try to depict non-standard processing. There are several examples of novels where the main character's autistic (e.g. "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" by Mark Haddon). Sartre's "La Nausée" depicts bouts of Derealisation. As well as Existentialism, some other literary movements encourage such depictions. Some "Nouvelle Roman" texts focus on pre-processed perceptions - the reader needs to memorise the perceptions in order to create characters and objects, because the authors don't always do the integrating.

In The Fractured Self: Postmodernism and Depersonalization Disorder, Conor Michael Dawson points out that "Postmodernists began to reject identity as a psychologically whole entity, heightening Eliot’s “process of depersonalization” to morbid extremes". I think Eliot meant by "depersonalization" something more like "objectivity" or "detachment". The texts Dawson offers as examples are "In the Lake of the Woods" (Tim O’Brien), "The Vietnam in Me" (Tim O’Brien), "Fight Club" (C. Palahniuk) and "Black Swan" (a film by Darren Aronofsky). Elsewhere, Bernice Reuben's "A Five Year Sentence" is suggested. I've read/seen none of them.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Understanding Medbh McGuckian's poetry

CL Dallat studied Statistics & Operational Research at Queen's University Belfast" and writes about literature for the "Times Literary Supplement" and "Guardian". In "The North" No.47 (2011) he writes about Medbh McGuckian's book "The Flower Master" because it "stood out, when [he] was beginning to write, as something of a book of revelations". Especially given the author's background I was interested by several passages in his article, which I'll comment on here -

  1. There is a school of criticism that argues that some of the 'aboutness' of McGuckian's poetry ... is created ... by the reader, by multiple readers
    I think this school might be able to use statistics to support their assertions - e.g. if multiple readers recognise in each other the same signs of understanding (preferring the same poems, for example) there must be something in the poems. Even if there's little commonality of response, if many experienced readers have strong, positive responses to the poetry, it's almost by definition "good".
  2. I was probably - thirty years ago - already too wedded to notions of sense and conventional sensibility to allow much of that necessary surrender as a writer ... although I did learn, as a reader, about less subjective, less investigative, less forensic ways of ... experiencing certain poets' poems in a world in which our verses are too often expected to have a purpose
    I'm probably wedded to notions of sense and conventional sensibility, though I'm happy to attempt applying the aesthetics of painting and music to poetry. I agree that it might be easier for people from a science background to read (rather than write) this type of poetry. I'm puzzled about why he seems to group "subjective" with "investigative" and "forensic". A typo?
  3. the collection embraced sudden new subject matter and brought, to my attention at least, new ways of writing where texture can trump syntax, where connections outweigh meaning, and inevitably, therefore a new way of reading
    Both as reader and writer I think I've indulged in these "new ways". I've heard it called "Spatial Form" ("Spatial Form (modernist poetics) gives unity to a literary work by a pattern of interconnected motifs that can only be perceived by 'reading over'", "The Art of Fiction", Lodge). But in choosing what to print or read, what criteria come into play? Is it fair to ask?
  4. I feel the emotions, the flow, the accretion of detail, the underlying cultural shifts, the personal pain and dissatisfaction, but I didn't, even then, 'get it' in the way one solves a Muldoon poem ... And I still don't necessarily 'get it' and perhaps don't need to and don't want to. Just as I accept the 'aboutness' of a symphony. But it is the music itself that moves, that one 'understands.'
    That said, some music's more canonical, more often listened to, than others. I'm happy not to 'get it' (I think "understand" is often too vague a term) as long as I can appreciate it somehow. I feel some poems more than I feel some others. What critical vocabulary can I use to express this difference? I think McGuckian's poems have a rather calculated feel to them - the sonics aren't insistent, nor are there cascades of imagery. There are collages of interrelated phrases which I think can be mapped in the way that Dallat begins to do.
  5. its tiny animadversions each of which may be a casual passing choice or a door into several other parallel but geographically and historically distinct worlds, despite its inviting us to surrender to harmony and sound and scent and impressionistic blurring
    I feared as much. Parts of the poems might be random or not. Explore at your peril - there are blind alleys and wild goose-chases.

His comments about "Lychees" (which is quoted in full) point out much that I'd otherwise have missed. However, in the first sentence he writes "the string of cat's-eyes also mimics the coachman-antecedent's told rosary beads in terms of metrics, mathematics, string-theory, as it were" which rings alarm bells re point 1 above. And as usual when discussing such pieces, a few details have been extracted then joined in dot-to-dot fashion, ignoring the dots which would mess things up. One way of trying to "understand" a component (a resistor in a circuit; an organ of the body) is to remove it and observe the effect. If I remove the puzzling parts of "Lychees" nothing breaks or dies. I only sense improvement.

In Danger of becoming a poetess (Carrie Shipers, Michigan Feminist Studies) contains interesting passages too. I won't comment on them individually, but they offer further explanations of the supposed obscurity (the limits of language; the social context, private/public conflation, etc) -

  • Considering the density of images in many of McGuckian’s poems, as well as the syntactical impenetrability of sentences that steadfastly refuse to make recognizable sense, it is not surprising that many critics have sought to decipher her work by first asking whether her poems can best be understood as "private" or "public" interpretations of the larger world.
  • Repeatedly, she exploits the language of poetry to draw our attention to the potential of language as well as its limits ... the failure of poetry or poetic language to adequately communicate what is most in need of being said teaches us that poetry’s occasional inadequacies are not the same as abject failure
  • In much of McGuckian’s work, the very qualities that make it difficult to discern a poem’s meaning—or its allegiances—make it a viable method for communicating political concerns ... the “hidden” nature of McGuckian’s political concerns “may well be obligatory for a woman poet writing in a cultural environment in which myths of political and religious sacrifice and images of a suffering holy Virgin Mary or a militant Mother Ireland still loom large”
  • However, this more overtly feminist reading seems potentially suspect if we consider Leontia Flynn’s convincing argument that McGuckian is at best an unreliable source of explication of her own work
  • To dismiss McGuckian’s work, as have some critics, as merely difficult, or even merely beautiful, is to fail to acknowledge the essential truth about political poetry: the poetry of resistance is resistant not only to paradigms of power, but also to easy critical readings that seek to understand it through simplistic one-to-one correspondences.

The article ends by saying "In the world of McGuckian’s poems, poetry is dangerous precisely because of its refusal to speak directly; it is a weapon that cuts most deeply when we are most tempted to disregard its bladed edge". However, such refusal to speak is a double-edged sword, and some of the circumstantial evidence (page layouts, author's notes, etc) suggest to me that the poet's sometimes playing jester, which I don't mind.

I've written more about McGuickian on Padel, McGuickian and I