Friday, 21 August 2015

Poetry about poetry

In Hans Christian Anderson's story, "The poet who was born too late", previous poets have used up subjects. The poet goes to a fortune-teller who tells him to try her spectacles. He discovers that potatoes, bees, and passersby all have stories to tell. But when he takes the spectacles off he hears nothing. "Write about poetry and you'll be rich," the fortune-teller says.

"We very rarely publish a poem about poems ... There is a kind of self-absorption which is not very appealing" (Tom Clyde, editor of HU in 1995). This seems to be a common view amongst editors - I received the following on a rejection slip: "in the main I'm not interested in poems about poetry. Let the poem exemplify poetry by its technique & register, & be about something else". Poets and readers often distrust the genre too - "Above all, I am not concerned with poetry" (Wilfred Owen). I think that several factors are involved in this viewpoint

  • an over-reaction to the dreaded "sonnets about sonnets" fad of centuries ago
  • a trend away from "essay poems", especially if they have a didactic component
  • a feeling that people only write about poetry when they have run out of things to say
  • a lack of interest in technique, and a wish to hide devices
  • a wish that poetry could transcend words, escaping from the page into the real world.
  • a trend towards confessional poetry and the lyric

Edna Longley has said that every poem worth its salt is in part about poetry, but I see no harm in occasionally using poetry more blatantly as a subject, writing about what you know. Unlike "Custer" say, or a Biblical event, it's a subject with which an international readership might fairly be expected to be familiar (and be interested in). With so many styles, theories and schools of poetry around there is no shortage of subject matter. If nothing else, at least the poem might be educational.

The "anyone can write" tutors who tell pupils that they can write poetry about anything, anything at all, tend not to suggest that people write about poetry technique, though there's an increase in the amount of poetry about poetry workshops, and poetry about writing poetry (Ted Hughes' "The Thought Fox" for example).

In 2000 I produce 4 issues of Poetry about Poetry. I contributed Closure and started making a list of Poems about poetry.

Other resources

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Alice Munro - some notes

  • Perhaps I've underestimated the fantasy element in her work. After all, "My mother's dream" is in the 1st person where the narrator's initially unborn.
  • Perhaps I've too much of a New Crit attitude to writers' biographies. Perhaps "My mother's dream" should be read in a wider context. Munro had a child who lived for 14 hours. According to her daughter "[y]ears later she had a tombstone erected for Catherine in a cemetery in North Vancouver's Lynn Valley; she could no longer bear the thought of the baby being buried in an unmarked grave"
  • I've underestimated her artifice. I had trouble following "Something I've Been Meaning To Tell You". Apparently, Terms such as "modernism," "postmodernism" and "late-modernist" have proliferated within critics' writings in the attempt to capture and crystallise Munro's art. How "modern" is she? It's hard to tell
    • "She has a uniquely nonlinear method of reading other writers' stories: 'I can start reading them anywhere; from beginning to end, from end to beginning, from any point in between in either direction'"
    • "I didn’t last at [my first creative writing] job at all. I hated it, and even though I had no money, I quit. ... It was terrible. This was 1973. York was one of the more radical Canadian universities, yet my class was all male except for one girl who hardly got to speak. They were doing what was fashionable at the time, which had to do with being both incomprehensible and trite; they seemed intolerant of anything else." - I suspect I sometimes like supposedly "incomprehensible and trite" pieces.

Here's a summary of my reading about her. Follow the links to learn more

  • Alice Munro by Coral Ann Howells. I don't believe all that's in this book, but it's early days.
    • "Munro's stories encode a postmodern awareness of the strategies of fiction while at the same time deflecting the reader's attention away from such artifice through the domesticity of her language"
    • "If Munro takes risks to unsettle readers' expectations by showing us the limits of conventional plots of mystery and romance, she also takes the risk of showing unaccommodated moments of grace and insight which far exceed anything her characters or her readers might anticipate"
  • Reading Alice Munro in Italy edited by Gianfranca Balestra et al
  • Controlling the Uncontrollable by Ildiko de Papp Carrington. In this book some quotes by Munro about life are used to explain her style
    • "I want to write the story that will zero in and give you intense, but not connected, moments of experience. I guess that's the way I see life"
    • "I always realized that I had a different view of the world, ... one that would bring me into great trouble and ridicule if it were exposed. I learned very early to disguise everything, and perhaps the escape into making stories was necessary"
    • "We always spoke grammatically at home because my father and mother knew how to. But we knew we should speak ungrammatically outside so that people wouldn't be offended, or make fun of us"
    • "I feel that I am two rather different people, two very different women and so, perhaps, that's where I'm working from. That I would like to get them separate"
    I was interested to read that "Munro often revises her stories between their original publication in a periodical and the republication in a collection. For example, she frequently writes a story from both the third-person and first-person point of view before deciding which to use in the final version"

I've read several books by her, making notes -

Charles E. May's blog has extensive material on Alice Munro.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Poetic Voice

In Magma 52 Polly Clark wrote "Anyone who has taken a creative writing course knows about ‘voice’. This is the elusive, essential, treasured characteristic of a poem on the page, the one thing we must have, as a poet above all else. We talk about ‘finding our voice’ and we know when someone has found it and when they haven’t.". And in "The Writer's Voice" Al Alvarez wrote that "a writer doesn't properly begin until he has a voice of his own".

In pre-literate days, nobody experienced a poem without also hearing a voice and being in the presence of a speaker. However, by the time the New Critics had arrived, the inevitability of voice had gone. Paul de Man thought the tendency to seek a voice in lyric poetry "delusional". When people nowadays talk about poetic voice, I suspect several issues may become conflated -

  • Style - Poets used to have styles, but now that we're the offspring of Romantics and Confessionalists, modern readers seem to want to construct the person behind the words. Alvarez thought of style and voice as two very different things - he wrote that "in order to find his voice [a poet] must first have mastered style", but putative authenticity and distinctiveness seem to be what makes a style into a voice for him. For me, some styles associate easily with personality types and are more likely to be described as voices.
  • Therapy - Polly Clark points out that "Many of us became writers because we were silenced in some way, and the written self on the page speaks more authentically than we do as individuals". Once poets use poetry for self-exploration, their style will become more of a voice.
  • Authenticity - Eavan Boland considers it more essential than ever that poets should discover "a real voice, a true voice". Clarke also writes "A poet writing in their true voice can persuade you of anything, so authority is also an element". Believing that the poet's using their own voice removes some of the obstacles and distrust that hinder communication, encouraging the notion that the poet's speaking "from the heart". Of course, if a poet has more than one voice, authenticity is compromised.
  • Distinctiveness - It helps with marketing for the resulting voice to be easily identifiable, but that doesn't ensure quality.

Somewhere between the uniqueness of the person and the common currency of language, there's a negotiated voice. Some poets are like character actors, happy to explore different styles. They might do this via biographical poems, adopting historical personae. Other poets stick with what gave them their breakthrough role, in which case the person and the role are more easily confused with each other; as the person changes, the poetry-voice must change too, because a new voice can't be created.

How should that voice sound? I.e. how should a poet sound? The preferred type of persona is partly a matter of fashion. Over the years the prevailing voice has changed, some examples being -

  • Wise and all-knowing, controlled and thoughtful - Keats.
  • Colloquial - "Language and Creativity: the art of common talk" by Ronald Carter (Routledge, 2004) looks at the creativity of everyday speech. Examples include early Armitage.
  • Psychotic - one needn't be rational or stick to a single voice in a poem

I don't think that these types of characters were suddenly thought to be poetic in themselves, but they provided a platform for what was currently considered poetic - a voice was found that's "in character" for the desired style; a mouth to put the words in. The idea's not new -

  • "in order to write poetry, you must first invent a poet who will write it", Machado
  • "En somme, le Langage issu de la Voix, plutot que la Voix du Langage", Valery

The narrator's stance relative to the story is important too. The narrator can be -

  • a participant in the story
  • present, but only as an observer
  • completely outside the story

All of these can be used with a range of voices, though the first option is most common. Omniscience is an option too, though limited 1st-person PoV is most common when voice is an important feature.

The psychotic voice

When tangental, disjoint progress doesn't suit the aloof monologue of a voice like Wilbur's, another voice needs to be sought. Currently, with closure having low priority, surrealism always an option, and juxtaposition dominating over narrative, the psychotic character's useful.

I've had friends with severe mental problems. Their monologues had the strange connections, discontinuity and novelty that poetry sometimes has. I was impressed. Some of them wrote poetry. Lots of it. I sometimes helped to make it (in my opinion) publishable, trying not to edit out too much of the bi-polar quirks and affectations. In some ways their condition is only a more extreme version of the moods and bursts that many poets have. It's a matter of trying to balance surprise with control, individuality with communication.

Readers attracted to confessional poetry, unconventionality, or to reading about lifestyles they're unfamiliar with, can also be drawn to such texts, especially if they don't have schitzophrenic friends (or, as common nowadays, these friends are drugged). The novelty can soon wear off. One person's honesty is another's melodrama. Repetition can become unrestrained, and often there are simply too many words, too little control. There are complications regarding reviewing too - if one knows that the poet is (or even was) in therapy, it's difficult not to use kid gloves when commenting on their work. Also content can become too dominant - it's tempting to analyse the illness rather than the poem.

In 1911, Bleuler (who coined the term schitzophrenia) quoted this passage from a medical report -

I always liked geography. My last teacher in that subject was Professor August A. He was a man with black eyes. I also like black eyes. There are also blue eyes and grey eyes and other sorts, too. I have heard it said that snakes have green eyes. All people have eyes

Compare that with some extracts from Emily Berry's "Picnic" that involve eyes, rain and the sea

If you are not happy, the sea is not happy
...
Watching the sea is like watching something in pieces continually striving to be whole
...
The mood of the sea is catching
...
Its colour became the colour of my eyes and the salt made me cry oceans
...
I started to be able to see in the dark
It hurt my eyes
          My, yes, salty, wet, ocean-coloured eyes
...
When the rain came after the drought they said it was not good enough
It would not change things
It was the wrong rain
The rain came out of my eyes

The first line in the "Picnic" extract associates "sea" and the self, the self affecting the sea, preparing for the 2nd line. The 3rd and 4th lines suggest that the sea affects the self. Rain and tears are conflated. Towards the end there's a suggestion that some cathartic release was merely physical - "the wrong rain" - but who are "They"?

In the extract below, towards the end of the poem, self and sea, tears, rain, language and other people come together. Language is a mirror aiding self-reflection, but can a moving self ever be captured in words?

Who are you. Who are you. Who are you

Stop, language is crawling all over me
Sometimes if you stay still long enough you can make it go.
...
If a person standing still watched another person minutely moving
          would it seem after a while as if they were watching the sea?
I remember just one thing my mother said to me:
Never look at yourself in the mirror when you're crying

By embedding the language in the voice of a slightly confused individual, the poet has managed to use many fancy/clichéd similes without coming over as contrived.

Voice-centred poetry

Here is another passage from Emily Berry's "Picnic", where switches come thick and fast.

I like curved things
     Apples, peaches, the crest of a wave
We once agreed the apple was the only iconic fruit

I like it when I am writing a poem and I know that I am feeling something
To be poised and to invite contact
Or to appear to invite contact

Once the "voice" is presumed to require a persona to produce it, the reader might go a step further, reacting as if in the presence of the person in a social situation (on a bus maybe)

  • Line 1: The speaker is telling us about their likes, communicating well, though it's a rather odd predilection
  • Line 2: Perhaps realising that the first line might not be helpful, more details are provided; again, a good sign. However, the list of 2 similar objects then a very different one is rather odd
  • Line 3: Using the apple as a link, another person is introduced. After having previously drawn us in, an intellectual albeit interesting conclusion is reported. The speaker's straying off the topic
  • Line 4: The speaker's telling us about another of their likes, in another line that ends in "thing[s]", (as if a self-revelation needs to be balanced by an abstract concept). How does this interest relate to the previous one, which it's connected to by anaphora? Should we take the second phrase of this line to mean that the persona needs to write poetry so that they know that they're feeling something?
  • Line 5: "Poised" = balanced. "invite contact" = ready to engage with others. These are socially desirable goals.
  • Line 6: The difference between appearance and reality is again emphasized - others don't know the real feelings of the persona, who may only be pretending to be sociable. Again, having approached the reader, the persona withdraws, without asking for comments.

Poems like these exploit readers' conversational skills, using their reactions to the persona as the pivots that articulate the movement within a poem in preference to using their ear for music. Because discourse-based poems emulate speech, they tend not to use sound effects (regular ones, at least), using register changes instead. In "Poetry, voice, and discourse analysis" I look in more detail at how changes of intimacy, intensity and evaluative approach can be used to add dynamism to a poem.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Ali Smith - some notes

Without selecting her intentionally, I've managed to read many of her books. Here are my notes (some quite extensive) about them

Of these I liked "Artful" least (it fell uncomfortably between 2 stools), and preferred "There but for the" to "How to be both". I usually like her story collections. She's often been interviewed -

  • The Guardian, June 2015
  • New York Times, November 2014
  • Cafe Babel, January 2014
    This sense of en­counter, of open­ing up a lib­er­at­ing space, re­curs in Smith’s fic­tion; un­ex­pected (and frequently un­wanted) vis­i­tors are a re­peated, al­beit al­ways var­ied motif.
  • The Daily Beast, January, 2013
    What is the story behind the publication of your first book?
    I had a job, I got ill, I left the job to get better, and while I was getting better, I wrote some stories. I sent them to some publishers and the fifth one who replied said they'd take them. Then they went bankrupt. Then that bankrupt publisher got bought by a bigger firm.
  • The Stinging fly, 2013
  • The Quietus, November, 2012
    Form, Ali Smith says, “will tell you everything about where [a people] live and what shape they’re in".
    Artful is dizzyingly original but it is not, of course, without influence or precursors: the book stems, Smith says, “from a meeting of Atwood’s sublime examination of voice in literature, Negotiating With The Dead, Calvino’s Six Memos [for the Next Millennium], and Woolf’s A Room Of One’s Own,

Books and papers have been written about her -

  • In "Ali Smith: Contemporary Critical Perspectives" Luna Dolezal writes
    • "Ali Smith often tests and disrupts our notions of time, language, gender and social and narrative expectation. She plays with structure and multiple voices. 'There but for the' (2011) is written in four parts, entitled “There”, “but”, “for” and “the”. Each section begins mid-sentence, the section title being the first word: “There was once ...”; “But would a man ...” and so on. The Accidental (2005) has three parts: “The beginning”, “The middle” and “The end”. Each of the main characters is given their own space, within each part, to tell their story."
    • "Smith’s stories often feature wild-card characters whose unexpected and usually inexplicable actions disrupt the previously stable but often stagnant, unhappy worlds of the other characters. The arrival of such a character initiates the story (Amber in The Accidental, Miles in There but for the). This novel hinges on a disruptive impulse too but this time it’s a mother (Carol), at the heart of an engaged and lively family, who is the trickster and the world is changed by her departure"
    • "A preoccupation with surveillance is familiar territory to Smith’s readers."
    • "In Artful, Smith complains: “the main problem with writing anything at all is that it’s inevitably always linear – one word after another”. Inevitably and always are not concepts we expect from this writer and she doesn’t waste much time with them. In the structure of How to be both she immediately sets about undermining her own statement, while George’s nerdy preoccupation with grammar, accuracy and shifts in tense destabilise – and emphasise – time and narrative sequence in the novel. This is just one example of the many elements of Artful that are picked up and carried on by How to be both."
    • "A writer whose sense of narrative veers towards the discontinuous, Ali Smith often seem to pick up themes and images where previous work left off. They share ideas, but do different things with them. The links between Artful and How to be both are particularly strong: bereavement and a dusty ghost; discussions of art, time and form; a pastiche of quotes and cultural references; gender disruption; word play; the value of attention and close reading".
  • In "Ali Smith" edited By Monica Germanà and Emily Horton it says
    • "her ethical and political preoccupations offer insightful critiques of the contemporary condition, touching on topics as diverse as globalization and technology, consumererism and gender norms", p.1
    • "More recently, Smith's work has continued to display preoccupations with the lack of authenticity and the changing values of an increasingly globalizes twenty-first-century society ... while simultaneously, celebrating the redemptive power of language and self-fashioning", p.2
    • "fascination with liminal boundaries between reality and fiction, truth and lies", p.4
    • "language can manipulate people and their desire, but it can also, in its poetic function, fill the social vacuum left open by the postmodern condition, reasserting the importance of community and communication", p.7
    The book also mentions that her PhD was about Joyce, Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams, that people associate her with Scottish Gothic (Stephenson, Spark), that she says her influences include Carter, Calvino, Atwood, Brooke-Rose, Yeats, Woolf, Mansfield, and that readers sense a tension between Modernist and post-modernist tendencies.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

A summary of my views about poetry

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 http://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/quantum-interference)
  • "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