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

Monday, 8 December 2014

I.A. Richards' influence

Of all the theorists I find myself most in tune with I.A.Richards (1893-1979). He thought that there was nothing unique about aesthetic judgements and tried to ground judgement in psychology rather than aesthetics. He reacted against the bravura, impressionistic reviews of the times, and the Platonic aesthetics. For him, works of art didn't possess "Beauty" as a quality that artists tried to communicate to us with greater or lesser clarity. Rather, the works have effects on us - we see beauty in the works. In Wikipedia it says that

  • "modern reader-response criticism began in the 1960s and '70s ... Important predecessors were I. A. Richards ..." (Reader-response)
  • "The work[s] of English scholar I. A. Richards ... were important to the development of New Critical methodology" (New Criticism)

So Richards was the predecessor of both reader-response theory and New Criticism, which is interesting because in Wikipedia it also says that

  • "Reader-response criticism ... stands in total opposition to the theories of formalism and the New Criticism" (Reader-response)

Richards published Practical Criticism in 1930. It was ahead of its time and remains an interesting book. In it he analyses (rather judgementally, to modern eyes) differences between individuals' responses to poems which they studied without being aware of the author, context or biographical information. I can see how this experiment about reader response might easily lead to a NewCrit desire for more objectivity, seeking more evidence from deeper within the poem, wringing as much as possible from each word and space.

Reader-response theory

I think the basic idea of this is that each reader gives meaning to the text - i.e. to find "the" meaning of a text, you need to see what many people say about it. Each reader will interpret a book differently each time they read it (which can lead some reader-response theorists to adopt an extreme relativist position), but in practise there's a fair amount of agreement amongst readers, which is why we can sometimes get away with the idea that books have fixed meanings and values.

If a lot of people in positions of power or influence (competition judges, syllabus designers, anthologists, publishers, etc) say that a book is good, that's as good as you're going to get. There may be other groups of readers who think that the book is bad even after having read the justifications advanced by the first group (the reasons the first group give for a work being good may be the very reasons why the second group think the work is bad). Movie rating sites like Rotten Tomatoes have critics' and public's ratings to acknowledge this difference.

Splitting readers into only these 2 groups may be a fair way to assess the impact of (say) Joyce's "Ulysses". More generally there are many other reader communities whose members' views on certain works may be closely aligned with others in the group but very different from the opinions of those in other groups. For example rhyming poetry or stridently feminist novels may split the readership into "interpretative communities". Some texts might appeal to many types of readers (perhaps for different reasons), others may have niche appeal.

What I like about this reader-response approach is that it sounds largely descriptive and uncontroversial to me. The theory underlies (or even undermines) other theories, because theories derive from the views of individuals or particular communities with influence. One need only consider texts like "Satanic Verses" or once-famous writers who've passed into obscurity to see that concepts like "good" are at least to some extent relative, and contextual. The web has provided ways for more "interpretive communities" to develop.And I like how the approach respects the individuality of readings. How one interprets and combines those differing interpretations is more controversial.

Using psychology and sociology one can gain a better understanding of audience reactions. We're more aware than ever that films which used to scare audiences may now amuse us, that Art may become Kitsch, that work which might have been ground-breaking in its day may not even be considered as good nowadays, that "mainstream" is just another genre, that academics don't have the last word. There's been a resurgence in using experimental psychology to evaluate reader responses. The results of these psychology tests can be of use to writers. Less formally, workshop-based writing is aware of reader reaction.

New criticism

The New Critics in the USA studied texts closely, trying to filter out individual reactions, the authors' intentions, history and cultural contexts. Taken to the extreme, it led to boring analysis (or maybe deconstructionism), and the excluded themes (political, cultural, psychological) were just those that people became interested in during the 60s. It emphasized close reading (Richards' student, William Empson, read very closely), and treated poems as aesthetic objects detached from society. The critics' notions of objectivity seem rather subjective (even self-serving and elitist) nowadays. One might think that close reading is a useful (perhaps indispensable) first stage when analysing any text, but people often have little patience nowadays to delve at this level of analysis for long, preferring to look for purpose, voice and intent. Once they've decided what the text is about, they might then seek details to support their hypothesis.

Statistical text-analysis has been accelerated by developments in computing.

The common enemy

To me the two approaches aren't opposites. Ostensibly they both attempt to reduce the influence of any one ego. "the Richardsian method of language analysis - sense, tone, form, intention, attitude, irony - was developed in the 1920s to encounter obscurity, ambiguity and allusiveness. It also dealt with sentimentality, ‘sincerity’, stock responses and doctrine in poetry. ... The method aimed at clearing blockages in the communications of any writer, past or present. " (John Paul Russo (Poetry Nation, 1976, No.6).

The approaches have in common some enemies - biographic context, for example. They could both be considered unavoidable strategies when extracting meanings from texts. The main issue is which other approaches (if any) will be adopted too.

The Future

In our post-NewCrit, post-Reader-response (and post-Theory?) age how should readers engage with texts?

  • Form (always a concern for New Criticism) in poetry and prose needs to be analysed more carefully. For poetry, this may require analytical tools that can deal with the structures of modern poetry (psychology experiments to access the value of line-break, discourse analysis, etc)
  • Reviewers needn't fear to use statistics to derive evidence-based conclusions, nor should they hesitate to quote the opinions of others.
  • It should be assumed that writers know the tricks of the trade, that they choose phrases to affect readers rather than for mimetic reasons. Obscurity might be bluff, but as poker-players know, you shouldn't bluff too often - game theory can be applied. Empathy can be carefully engendered, sincerity synthesised. As in computer game design, realism may be sacrificed to improve the player experience. Readers can be flattered by making them think they're clever, that they're sensing something deep, almost beyond words.
  • The Web helps niches survive. A small, scattered group can more easily remain self-supporting, self-justifying. Site like Goodreads encourage multi-interpretations.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

"Reading your comics in Eype" by Chrissy Williams

I sometimes like a poem without having much of a clue why. Such was the case when I read a poem by Chrissy Williams in "The Rialto 81" (2014). What drew me into this piece was that there were parts I understood (and liked), and other parts whose meaning I knew I could look up. I've read her poems before. Some (e.g. from Adventures in Form) I don't like at all, whereas others (e.g from Flying into the bear) have a freshness that marks her out as a name to follow. I've heard her read - she reads well. I felt that there was enough overlap of our sensibilities to spend time on the poem.

Firstly then, is there a stable (perhaps imagined) world behind this poem? There is indeed a place in Dorset called Eype, and it has a beach. The events of the poem could easily belong to a single narrative without needing to change their order. There's a fixed viewpoint. In the title it says "your comics". Readers soon realise that "you" refers to the owner of the comics, though later it seems that "you" is the comic's author too. Perhaps 2 different people are being referred to, perhaps not. The poet's written up some thoughts about poetry and comics on the Rialto site, saying that her partner "writes (but does not draw) comics". Ah. Lines 3-4 refer to the comic -

You'd nudged it towards my rucksack with a grin
when I was trying to pack my bedroll up at midnight

What's the significance of the timing? I don't know, though Jesus said to Lazarus, "Get up, take your bedroll, start walking". If the comic is thought of as a message, a nudged hint, we need to know about the comic characters. I had to look up the names. Juggernaut is a Marvel Comics supervillain, a bit like The Hulk. Hope is a female superhero, "the first mutant to be born after the Decimation, an event in which the Scarlet Witch uses her reality-altering superpower to turn all but 198 of the world's mutants into regular, depowered humans. Hope Summers is an omega-level mutant with an ability of unspecified limits to manipulate and mimic the genes which are responsible for superhuman mutation". Juggernaut is unstoppable, exaggeratedly Male. Hope is an empathetic Female.

The persona, seeing dogs on the shore below ("the fisherman's line is being bothered by a mixed troupe of dogs") starts thinking about them - "is it just me who drags dogs into everything?", further encouraging the identification of the persona and poet. Perhaps "drags dogs into everything" is supposed to bring to mind "drags God into everything". The persona recalls how Superman's dog missed him when he went away. Is it this aspect of dogs that the persona drags in?

Dogs lead to Cats, then Children. After "[Superman] didn't want kids" there's a sudden switch - the persona changes the subject, feels cold, thinks "not yet, not yet" then there's

Please dogs, there's so much sea to write.
Today, I just want to listen to it.

Given that these lines end the poem, I think we're entitled to read much into them. Why plead with the dogs? The persona is "in an armchair", the "fisherman sits tending his line" - i.e. they're both sitting, both thinking about lines. The fisherman (symbol of Christ, of hope - the poet's half Italian, so may be familiar with catholic symbolism) is disturbed by a "mixed troupe of dogs" (a Juggernaut is a wagon carrying statues of Hindu gods. Note also that the poem's first line is "I see Juggernaut's foot stamp down on San Francisco" - St Francis liked animals). Why "troupe" rather than "pack"? I don't know. The dogs are stopping a catch - "fisherman tending lines - fish - sea" corresponds to "poet tending lines - words - world". But the dogs' noise is also disturbing a more direct contemplation of the world by the poet.

In the Rialto article one of the lessons deduced from the comic world is that "economy of line is paramount ... Comics are at their most successful when the maximum effect is produced by every line and unnecessary lines are eliminated". This poem seems to follow that guideline. I've needed to mention just about all its details, except for the mysterious purple light.