Thursday, 4 February 2016

Mind the gap (continuity and fragmentation)

In this article I'm looking at continuity and fragmentation, both in prose and poetry. The two properties co-exist in most texts, though their intensity and type might vary.


When a text seems fragmentary there are several points to consider. Firstly, is the text mimetic? Underneath the surface disruption is there a represented world? If so

  • At what level does the disruption occur? Are words disrupted (Finnegans Wake)? Are there discontinuities between sentences? Or are there ruptures only when a chapter ends (Sartre's "Le Sursis")?
  • What types of interference are there? - Grammatical? Tonal? Point-of-view? Visual? Sonic? Temporal (flashbacks, etc)? Narrational (flicking between story-lines)?
  • How easily is the underlying story reconstructed? Episodic pieces might have gaps that can't be confidently filled, but that might not cause problems as long as readers can join the dots.

The author may introduce disruption for several reasons

  • Employing the aesthetics of conciseness, omitting all non-essentials (and even a few continuity cues)
  • To make perception harder ("The technique of art is to make objects 'unfamiliar', to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception, because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged" - Shklovsky, "Art as Technique"
  • To pack more into the text at the cost of surface clarity (as in Ulysses, which uses most of the methods of disruption listed above)

By disrupting linearity authors may be attempting to produce a more realistic rendition of how they think we perceive the world. However, reading is a special type of perception. According to Charney and Johnson-Eilola "we always read linearly and sequentially even if (1) the text presents information in a non-chronological fashion, and (2) the reader chooses the order of that sequence ... readers of hypertexts process network texts in much the same way as they would a text in print; that is, they store information in hierarchies even if they are reading in a user-determined order ... since the mind cannot import textural structure directly into long-term memory, the resemblance of a hypertextual structure to long-term memory is irrelevant"

Non-mimetic texts

But maybe there is no underlying represented "reality" that can be pieced together. Once parataxis substantially replaces syntaxis "the dethronement of language and logic forms part of an essentially mystical attitude towards the basis of reality as being too complex and at the same time too unified, too much of one piece, to be validly expressed by the analytical means of orderly syntax and conceptual thought" (Martin Esslin, "The Theatre of the Absurd", 1962.)

It's been suggested that "poetic effect [is] the peculiar effect of an utterance which achieves most of its relevance through a wide array of weak implicatures." (D.Sperber and D.Wilson, "Relevance"). This effect can be achieved by having many secondary meanings and by disrupting the usually foregrounded vehicles of sense (syntax, meaning, etc), making cracks so that the secondary effects can bubble up.

Secondary effects may develop a net of interconnections - leitmotifs. The idea of a decentralised network of ideas has been described by Deleuze and Guattari ('rhizomes') but of course goes back much further than that - "The governing principle of much Persian poetry is circular rather than linear; rather than a logically sequential progression, a poem is seen as a collection of stanzas interlinked by symbol and image - the links being patterns of likeness and unlikeness, of repetition and variation - which 'hover', as it were, around an unspoken centre" (Glyn Pursglove, Acumen 25).

Montage and Collage are non-hierarchical ways of incorporating diverse fragments to produce a multicentred work, as are list poems. Gregory Ulmer described collage as "the single most revolutionary formal innovation in artistic representation to occur in our century". This may be because it cuts across the long-cherished Aristotelian notion of organic unity, where each component of a work is a necessary part of a whole. Max Ernst claimed that "Collage is a hypersensitive and rigorously exact instrument, a seismograph capable of registering the exact potentialities of human welfare in every epoch". In relation to poetry, David Antin remarked "for better or worse, 'modern' poetry in English has been committed to a principle of collage from the outset".

The rich mesh of association may well predominate over any particular fragment or pair of fragments. With collage in particular, use is made of the difference between the source/material of the fragment and the meaning in the context of the whole - the observer is expected to bob up and down between surface and depth. Poetry as compared with prose tends to foreground the media (i.e. it's more collage than montage). Forms have evolved which optimally use sound to disrupt syntax - "Verse is a mechanism by which we can create interpretative illusions suggesting profoundities of response and understanding which far exceed the engagement or research of the writer" (John Constable, PN Review 159).

Breaking up is hard to do

Whether by design or not, readers will seek connections. Juxtaposition happens in all texts. On a small scale juxtaposing can happen on a line and can be read as an implicit (though perhaps surreal) simile. "In Surrealist metaphor, two terms are juxtaposed so as to create a third which is more strangely potent than the sum of the parts ... The third term forces an equality of attention onto the originating terms", (Geoff Ward, "Statutes of Liberty"). If there is doubt, something novel may appear in this gap. Eliot and Pound spoke of "emotion" in this context, but more likely some surreal image or blend may appear.

Juxtaposed items may be similar in some ways (shared subject matter) and different in others (register, point-of-view). Sections and sentences can come alternately from 2 fields - in Henry Reed's 'The Naming of Parts' for example, the reported speech and internal thought alternate. 'Moby Dick' and 'USA' (Dos Passos) contain inserted non-fictional fragments. Found text can be inserted randomly into a poem, or fragments of different kinds of poems (rhymed and free-form) can be interspliced using a variation of Burroughs' cut-ups technique. Bakhtin's carnival and polyphony can come into play too.

In disrupted works there may be some narrative or an advertised hierarchical structure, but it's provisional and may exist more to aid the initial reading phase than to model the underlying conceptual structure. It may even be there to distract attention from where the real power resides ("The chief use of the 'meaning' of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be ... to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him", T.S. Eliot). Connections between parts may be more to do with surface than meaning - leitmotifs without a plot. In "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" there's a common theme. In "The Waste Land" the links are more tenuous. In other works fragments are only related in that they each mention a red dress, or an accordian, or have someone shouting "Damn". These latter relationships can seem gratuitious, leading to "washing line" pieces (where the only point of the connection is to have somewhere to hang the pieces from) but this is to devalue the surface, which in collage is more relevant than usual. Without narrative impetus or suspense "thematic interplay" can become the poor man's "conflict and dynamism", a "compare and contrast" task that requires too much from the reader and masks the authorial persona.

Getting together again

When given 2 phrases or parts, the assumptions readers might make to connect the parts (and fill in gaps) include

  • Temporal continuity. In
       "Goodbye", he said, rinsing his cup before putting it in the sink.
       The roads were busy that evening

    readers can fill the gap in (the character left the house and drove off?).
  • Causal connection. In
       "Does Dave like porridge?"
       "All Scots like porridge!"

    we can easily deduce that Dave is Scottish.
  • Common subject. The parts might belong to a group (a description for example) where order isn't especially important. Fragments might be interpreted as an incomplete whole; the Gestalt might easily be completed. Just as in a painting some standard details might be left unfinished or unpainted, so in a "show don't tell" narrative the reader might easily fill in the unspoken detail.

When we come to a fracture in a longer text (between paragraphs, chapters, etc) we still try to make a connection between the parts. The way we do this will vary according to the type of text we're reading, but typically I suspect we first assume that the text is jumping ahead in time or place, leaving a gap that will be filled in later. Then perhaps we might think it's a flashback, or a parallel storyline that will be revisited. Only as a last resort do we concede that there may be no causal connection or character continuity.

The nature and amount of continuity between juxtaposed items affects the dynamics of reading

  • Narrative continuity (but other types of continuity too) provides forward motion
  • Juxtaposition produces a suspension, saving the current detail (which can't yet be processed or interpreted) so it can be used later, inducing formal tension: "Spatial Form (modernist poetics) gives unity to a literary work by a pattern of interconnected motifs that can only be perceived by 'reading over'" (Lodge, "The Art of Fiction"); "Modern poetry asks its readers to suspend the process of individual reference temporarily until the entire pattern of internal references can be apprehended as a unity" ( Frank, "Spatial Form in Modern Literature")
  • Grouping implies a pause to gather and integrate descriptive detail (to look around). Unlike juxtaposition, the material in the group can be summarised - as a mood perhaps, or object; the raw components needn't be retained.


Here are some examples of contested continuity, showing the different levels at which disruption can occur, and how different types of continuity might cover the cracks.

  • A good woman
    This morning, as I gaze down from the window into the courtyard garden, the sight of the sprouting crocuses and fat daffodil shoots makes me long for the country. I pull on my boots and jacket and head for the Luxenbourg Garden. Hardly the country, but at least there will be the flowers I am so good at naming.

    On the way I pause at a travel agent's and look at posters. A cheetah lopes through long grass. A lion yawns regally, balancing himself on a tree-trunk. Masai-Mara, the pictures announce. Sunsets in Siam, reads the script above a group of men raking rice as white as snow in a peaceful paddy field. Golden beaches.

    By Lisa Appignanesi. An extract from a mainstream novel. It's a narrative, but there's little movement: two descriptions (during which the narrator is still and passively perceiving) are separated by brief action - it's almost a slide-show - Paris vs Africa.

  • Passing
    Down Dove Street, the silence is growing in the air like crystals; the foxes hate it, and they're straining their huge kite ears, but there's no sound at all but the slow, slow breathing of the city, and the feet and the drip and pat of raining. They bear left at the joke shop, where a reeking litter bin marks the corner. There's a dropped five pound note lying in a puddle, folded in the wet like cloth

    By Padrika Tarrant. An extract from a short story where continuity overrides fragmentation. The narrative is clear but not overwhelming. Take it away and you don't quite have a "sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table" (Lautreamont), but crystals, foxes, kites, rain, a joke shop, and a five pound note are forced into unnatural proximity. Metaphors, jokes and lists are other ways to bring disparate element together in prose, the narrative a stealth mechanism. In prose the interruptions can be naturally introduced by a person interrupting a stream-of-consciousness.

  • A Visit to Aunt Flo
    Kate is a red geranium and Mary Jo a marigold. But you are the stuff of which thistledown is made. Light and silky. Here and gone.

    You have a name, same as the others do. Only it doesn't stick so well. It gets dispersed. It gets blown away onto the rag-doll and takes root there. Ellen Jane is hugged to suffocation and then discarded in the toy-box. Her legs over her head, a consignment of brick dumped on her back.

    'Ellen, put your coat on'. Mumma holds it wide, its lining smooth as silk, a paler brown than the outer shell.

    You saw the coalman framed in the kitchen window carrying a sack. You saw the way his face looked. You picked up the pillow and you were the coalman carrying the sack.

    By Jane Woods (Writing Women 10/3). The start of some episodic prose. There's a mimetic interruption between paragraphs 2 and 3, then an interruption caused by a change of scene between 3 and 4. There's continuity within paragraph so perhaps readers will assume continuity between them. The text supports this reading, so the fragmentation shouldn't pose a problem for traditional readers.

  • Pisgah
    How a fox ran under my horse's legs one day out on the Ranges and I didn't dare shout View Halloo. I watched it run through the grass and away till my cousin Erica saw it and shouted.

    The father's photographs of his parents, dead in the year I was born, high on the wall above a shelf in the breakfast room.

    The changing light over the watercress beds at Sherrington.

    How I was ill and broke a fruit bowl, and when I confessed to my mother she smiled and soothed and I confessed some more and she still smiled and I went on confessing.

    By Simon Burt (New Writing 3) - There's fracture between paragraphs in this extract from several pages of similar prose. It's a montage (slide-show) of conventional stills and short narratives. The lack of over-arching narrative will trouble some readers.

  • Pirates appear only at transitional moments
    "Have you been jumping in & out
    of the dressing-up box?" asked
    Alice. Stereotyping doesn't help
    but talking about the actual
    experience usually does the trick.
    Under the placid surface of her
    life there was a dark undercurrent
    of fear. Have you ever used your
    mouth to make a percussive sound?

    By Steve Spense (Tears in the Fence 51) - There's fracture between sentences. This is the 1st stanza of a poem. As far as I can see, the line-breaks are procrustian (Procrustes would force his guests to fit into the beds he gave them) but they don't disrupt because they're so easily ignored. Sentences are intact, and could easily come from 4 different domains, but there are connections - pirates and dressing-up; therapy and exercises.

  • Inserting the Mirror
    To explore the nature of rain I opened the door because inside the workings of language clear vision is impossible. You think you see, but are only running your finger through public hair. The rain was heavy enough to fall into this narrow street and pull shreds of cloud down with it. I expected the drops to strike my skin like a keyboard. But I only got wet. When there is no resonance, are you more likely to catch a cold? Maybe it was the uniform appearance of the drops which made their application to philosophy so difficult even though the street was full of reflection.

    By Rosmarie Waldrop. There's fracture between phrases. This is part of a prose poem where the sentences are correct grammatically, but have semantic shifts. There's a continuity of theme, and even a progressive argument. Waldrop wrote that "Perhaps the greatest challenge of the prose poem (as opposed to 'flash fiction') is to compensate for the absence of the margin. I try to place the margin, the emptiness inside the text. I cultivate cuts, discontinuity, leaps, shifts of reference, etc. 'Gap gardening,' I have called it, and my main tool for it is collage"

  • Finnegans Wake
    That the fright of his light in tribalbalbutience hides aback in the doom of the balk of the deaf but that the height of his life from a bride's eye stammpunct is when a man that means a mountain barring his distance wades a lymph that plays the lazy winning she likes yet that pride that bogs the party begs the glory of a wake while the scheme is like your rumba round me garden, allatheses, with perhelps the prop of a prompt to them, was now or never in Etheria Deserta, as in Grander Suburbia, with Finnfannfawners, ruric or cospolite, for much or moment indispute.

    By James Joyce - There's fracture between letters though there's stylistic continuity. This is part of a novel where there may be an underlying (albeit dream) narrative.

  • Rich in Vitamin C
    Under her brow the snowy wing-case
          delivers truly the surprise
    of days which slide under sunlight
              past loose glass in the door
          into the reflection of honour spread
    through the incomplete, the trusted. So
          darkly the stain skips as a livery
    of your pause like an apple pip,
          the baltic loved one who sleeps.

    By J.H. Prynne - The start of a poem. Procrustian, ignorable line-breaks and indentation, but now the semantics are vulnerable. A "wing-case" (of a lady-bird for example) could be eyelid-shaped. A glance could surprise, or a blink could be the result of a surprise, but the syntactic sugar doesn't mend the semantic rupture for me.


But perhaps some fragments should remain disconnected, at least for a while

  • "At the outset, it is only liking, not understanding, that matters. Gaps in understanding ... are not only important, they are perhaps even welcome, like clearings in the woods, the better to allow the heart's rays to stream out without obstacle. The unlit shadows should remain obscure, which is the very condition of enchantment", Breton
  • "[Forrest-Thompson's] concept of suspended naturalisation - the resistance to that urge to 'reduce the strangeness' - undoubtedly owes its origins to Keats's concept of negative capability, 'when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason'".

Perhaps some fragments need to remain alien

  • "Just as an alien body falling into a supersaturated solution causes the precipitation of crystals, i.e., reveals the true structure of the dissolved substance, the "alien word" [citations, etc] by its incompatibility with the structure of the text activates that structure", Yury Lotman, "Analysis of the Poetic Text", Ardis, 1976, p.109

See also

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Poetic leaps

Matthew Stewart pointed out on his blog that "the success of a poem often hinges on whether its pivotal syntactic leap makes to the other side of a semantic abyss". He went on to write that the connections "must be unexpected, revelatory and inevitable once made".

I've been interested for a while in such leaps. Here I'll mention a few of their uses and dangers.

Size of leap

When the reader makes a leap there's often satisfaction - like solving a riddle. Each simile or metaphor is a leap, which can vary in degree of difficulty.

  • When Amy Clampitt writes that a cheetah's lope "whips the petaled garden/ of her hide into a sandstorm", the reader needs to imagine what an accelerating cheetah might look like. All the clues are provided
  • When Joni Mitchell begins "Blue" with "Songs are like tattoos" the reader needs to work harder. The follow-up phrase "You know I've been to sea before" only partly helps.

Bronowski in "Science and Human Values" suggested that every act of imagination is the discovery of likenesses between two things which were thought unlike". To some extent the bigger the leap, the more the eventual pleasure. The risk of a big leap is that some readers won't be able to manage it. The leap may require readers to be more imaginative than when they merely identify likenesses, they may need to invent something new - "In Surrealist metaphor, two terms are juxtaposed so as to create a third which is more strangely potent than the sum of the parts ... The third term forces an equality of attention onto the originating terms", (Geoff Ward, in "Statutes of Liberty").

The size of the leap also affects the reader's sense of speed. Rapidly completing the gaps can be exhilarating, even if the leaps aren't unexpected.

Types of leap

Here are just a few -

  • The end-of-poem lift - A sudden leap out of the poem to the world is common as a conclusion. Also common at the end is a bigger than usual leap between 2 images (Larkin's "somewhere becoming rain"). Haiku typically end with a leap.
  • The turn/volta - Common in sonnets
  • Zoom-out - jumping outside the frame or context.
  • Inferences - Gaps may need to be leapt by making an inference. If someone replies to the query "Does Jack like porridge" by answering "All Scots like porridge!" it's reasonable (but not strictly logical) to assume that Jack is a Scot who likes porridge.
  • The stage dive - The poem hopes that the reader will offer support, otherwise the poet will fall flat on her/his face.
  • Description - When the argument or narrative stops and a scene or painting is being described, there may not be much significance to the order of the statements. Gaps may form between the statements. At the end of the description the reader will assemble the scene, having tolerated a localized lack of continuity on the understanding that it won't last long.
  • Conventional leaps - Readers will accept a phrase like "Years later" without feeling the need to plug the gap.
  • Conversational leaps - If you listen to someone having a conversation on a phone, you might be tempted to fill in the gaps. Some poems are similarly one-sided.
  • Unfillable leaps - It's natural for readers to seek a connection between successive images, but sometimes 2 images are just 2 images.

A few of these are situations where there's a shared understanding between 2 parties that makes their communication between each other difficult to understand for third parties. A context shared by the poem and the reader assists the readers efforts to leap more confidently.

Failed leaps

Any leap is likely to involve work. If the reward is nearby and guaranteed, readers are likely to make an investment. If sometimes they fail, little is lost. More problematic are the situations where gratification is delayed - readers may have to keep many loose ends in mind awaiting a final resolution. This might not happen until the end in poems that are more spatial than linear - see Linear/Spatial Form ("modern poetry asks its readers to suspend the process of individual reference temporarily until the entire pattern of internal references can be apprehended as a unity" - J. Frank).

But what about passages like the following? - "down the chain/ let play with money/ ahead in/ undeclared war/ full employment/ keep the silver clean/ or die/ intrude into metaphor". It's the beginning of "allowed to complain" by Tom Raworth. Maybe given enough effort it could be conventionally resolved, but it could equally be a random cut-up. Looking upon the poem as a sequence of failed leaps is probably inappropriate.

Types of reader

It's impossible to make the leaps appropriately "unexpected, revelatory and inevitable" for all readers. Poets tackle that issue in various ways - by not caring about reader variation; by offering notes; by offering alternative ways of reading, etc.

When Disney animations were hand-made, the master artists drew the key frames (the "keys"), leaving assistants to complete the frames in between (a job they called "tweening"). If apprentice artists could tween, why not knowledgeable audiences? Poetry has such an audience. But there are consequences to sacking the tweeners -

  • Suppose people tween differently? As long as the distance between keys isn't large, there shouldn't be problems. The keys act as checkpoints so that people can resynchronise if they feel they need to
  • If the distances become too large, some readers might lose the narrative thread. Consequently there's a tendency for each key scene to become more self-contained, the keys becoming a series of disconnected tableaux - a triptych, a gallery.

A common way of tweening in literature is to supply a supportive context of backstory, motivations, or justifications - in short, telling rather than showing. The amount of this varies according to the style. In the TV series "The Wire" there's little "telling"; the writers decided that all sound had to be sourced - no voice-overs and no background mood music. All music had to come from a car radio, an open tenement window, etc. Some poetry has a similarly purist approach, using juxtaposed images to keep "telling" to a minimum. The risk is that such poetry becomes a game of charades, a dumbed-down mime-show. Complex arguments are difficult to show, concepts like fate harder still.

Sometimes the "telling" (the interpretation, the moral) is only at the end, though this is rather unfashionable nowadays. One way to convey the information without despoiling artistic purity is to employ metalepsis, making it hard to distinguish between the "show" and "tell" elements. A cinematic example would be for there to be a voice-over scene during which a character walks into the frame speaking the voice-over.

Another, more reader-friendly approach is that adopted by the Rupert annuals. The Rupert Bear stories began as a newspaper cartoon strip, but soon became better known for the annuals. The page layout supports several reading modes. Each page has the story title at the top. Beneath that there's a page subtitle. Young children can follow the pictures and get help filling the gaps. Each picture has a rhyming couplet beneath it - e.g. He meets Pauline, and straight away/ He tells her all he has to say. At the foot of the page is prose which fills in less obvious gaps - Rupert and Snuffy run towards the tent. Pauline is the first Guide he meets and he pours out his story. People can read the verse, the prose or both.

An entertaining exercise is to take a poem (by Larkin, say, The Whitsun Weddings) and give it the Rupert treatment, pictorialising the imagery (at 1.20pm on a sunny day, a quarter-full train with all its windows open leaves a city station), adding sub-titles to describe how none thought of "how their lives would all contain this hour". Trying the same exercise with Larkin's "Toads" would yield a very differently proportioned layout. I suspect that with some poets their poems would all have the same proportion of text to pictures.

Monday, 7 December 2015

"The Dinosaurs on other planets" by Danielle McLaughlin

"The Dinosaurs on other planets" by Danielle McLaughlin is the title story of her book. She's interviewed about it at

It interests me because it's a typical "New Yorker" story, the sort I alternate between wanting to write and trying to avoid. Neat or claustrophobic? Harmonized or predictable? I guess it depends on the type of reader you are and the mood you're in. If you like stories with organic unity, where everything contributes to the whole, then this story's for you. I think it's good. It certainly merits study, particularly regarding what it leaves out - for example, the past isn't info-dumped onto us.

It's 3rd person, from Kate's PoV. Here are the key pivots -

  • Kate (52) and Colman (70ish) live on a farm. They've slept in separate rooms for a year
  • Daughter Emer (25ish) with son Oisin (6) arrive at a day's notice from urban life, with someone called Pavel (50-ish)
  • Colman takes Oisin hunting. They return with a skull which Oisin thinks is a dinosaur's. They tell him that a meteorite killed the dinosaurs. They get out a poster of the solar system to show him where meteorites come from. He wonders about the Dinosaurs on other planets. Colman puts the skull in a bucket of bleach.
  • Kate and Colman share her bed to make room for the others. Next morning it's clear that Emer and Pavel have argued. Colman, Emer and Oison go off. Kate talks to Pavel. When everyone's back, Emer says she's going to Australia
  • That night after Kate tries but fails to have sex with Colman, she goes downstairs, finds that Pavel's been evicted from the bedroom. She decides against sex with him, instead taking the skull from the bleach, pouring the bleach away. She stares into the eye sockets of the skull.

These facts are combined with several sub-motifs that help bind the details together, make nothing appear incidental.

  • Unrolled paper - the poster; Pavel's architectural plans
  • Dead animals - The neighbors display dead crows to scare off birds; the skull; maggots; bees
  • Emer's brother John was cruel to bees, favoured by his parents according to Emer, and lives in Japan
  • Wind turbines - "like gods" says Pavin. Like bees, says Emer. They have red warning lights
  • Litter and junk - Colman's room; in the forest (which Pavel tries to tidy)
  • The contrast between the 2 couples - The older couple hear the younger ones have sex. Both couples involve an older man. The old male is fit, the younger male is lame
  • Art - a friend's show is the reason Emer's returned; Emer's paintings are on the walls; Kate looks in through the window of the house, sees "a series of family tableaux". Pavel takes photos.
  • Birds - alive, painted and dead
  • Stars - star-shaped biscuits; "a dazzling galaxy of stars" on the poster; "millions of them, the familiar constellations she had known since childhood" seen from the garden

Is there crisis and resolution? Who has changed during the course of the story? Kate seems stoic about her husband's sleeping arrangement. She misses her children. When she learns that Emer's leaving for Australia, she's sad, but no more so than previously. She cries in bed, which leads to sex attempts, then the skull episode. So has suppressed hope led to resignation?


  • What's the significance of the little creatures on the skull?
  • The bleaching is as much to whiten the skull as to clean it. Why?
  • What about the lathe?
  • What's the significance of the title? It helps make the reader look for symbols. Are Kate and Colman the dinosaurs? Birds are dinosaurs' closest descendants.
  • Why make a fuss about litter, and the fact that it's only at entrances?
  • The author's puzzled about some things too. In the New Yorker interview she says "It puzzles me a little, Colman’s withdrawal of physical affection — he does remain affectionate to her in other ways — and many rewrites later I’m still not entirely sure as to what lies behind that"

In an Irish Times review, Ethel Rohan suggests that Kate is initially "motivated by the need to reconnect with [Colman] and to enjoy a fuller sense of existence". That doesn't come through strongly for me. Kate doesn't yearn to travel, doesn't seem to have any interests, and the preparations she makes to empty Colman's bedroom could be (as she claims) to do with giving the grandson independence. That said, in the first paragraph there's "Colman!" she called, but he didn't hear.

Rohan makes several useful points that help address my queries -

  • The above skeletal breakdown suggests storytelling is formulaic and rife with a killing sameness. Unfortunately, that’s often true. However, the best storytellers have much more magic in their cloaks. Theme, for one. The theme of 'The Dinosaurs on Other Planets' is distance and everything McLaughlin puts into the story serves this singular, empathetic subject - I too am suspicious of the template. I can imagine it generating many stories. But I can see how thoroughly the theme of "distance" has permeated the imagery.
  • Kate tenderly observes her young grandson, Oisín, as he moves away from her and into the distance, likening him to a lamb and all its nuances to youth, fragility, sacrifice, and death: “The boy’s hair snagged as he squeezed beneath the barbed wire, and she knew that if she went to the ditch now she would find silky white strands left behind, like the locks of wool left by lambs.” - I missed this connection. The sheep's skull acquires greater significance, becoming both a symbol of death and of a grandson who's disappearing
  • The adults in the story, with varying degrees of complicity, also indulge the boy’s fantasy that dinosaurs exist on other planets. - I under-appreciated that aspect too, their differing openness to possibilities.
  • With this quote, I invite readers to exam (sic) and appreciate for themselves the various emotional and thematic layers: “Kate peered into the bucket. Little black things, flies or maggots, had already detached themselves from the skull and were floating loose. There was green around the eye sockets, and veins of mud grained deep in the bone... She looked at the skull and at the debris that had floated free of it, and something about it, the emptiness, the lifelessness, repulsed her, and suddenly she couldn’t bear the idea of the boy’s [Oisín’s] small hands touching it. - that doesn't really explain the emphasis placed on the little black things, etc. I think I'm oblivious to many of these layers. Perhaps the idea is that even flotsam is life, the mud/green clinging to the bone. Or is it simply that she doesn't want her grandson to have an empty life, or to die?


  • Pick details from a restricted palette of interconnecting motifs. Try not to use a motif just once.
  • Don't fill gaps in just for the sake of it. In this story we don't know the location, and though Kate misses her children, we discover little about them: John's barely mentioned, and Emer's defined as much by her liking/disliking of people (and vice versa) than any nuanced emotion.
  • KateColmanEmerOisinPavel
    Make readers interpret symbolically (perhaps by choosing a cryptic title). The story benefits from awareness of the orchestration of small details. There's only one big symbol with a standard meaning - the skull. The others are lesser, their meaning emerging as a consequence of what they link to in the course of the story. Once readers are receptive, they're likely to read meanings into statements. For example, when in the story a character says that there's Lego in Australia too so he needn't take any there, it's easy to interpret this as suggesting that lives can be built from scratch there. Regarding character there are also many interconnections. In the standard character grid, the reader can fill in something for each cell. Again, there's much data to take in. Each detail has to be stored by the reader because it's likely to be used later, linking to other details. This helps make the story appear dense
  • Can a story made of sub-motifs without a plot (or with a weak one) work? I hope so, because I've tried it.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Crisis? What crisis?

Story writers are often told to think in terms of tension leading to crisis and resolution. It's a natural tendency both in literature and elsewhere - a person's attention can't be endlessly ramped up, and leaving them in tension leads to dissatisfaction. Emotionally, the reader will be wanting to return to stability, homeostasis. If the writer ignores this, they're limiting their audience.

According to Robert McKee in "Story" the crisis is crucial - "How the protagonist chooses here gives us the most penetrating vision of his deep character, the ultimate expression of his humanity. / This scene reveals the story's most important value" (p.304). He suggests that the resulting resolution can have several uses -

  • to end the subplot
  • to show the after-effects of the climax
  • as a courtesy to the audience ("so the audience can catch its breath, gather its thoughts and leave the cinema with dignity") (p.314)

Intellectually too, readers can be left unsettled. A puzzle or riddle that lacks solution will leave some readers in an unsatisfied state. In "Language as Gameplay: toward a vocabulary for describing works of electronic literature" (EBR, 2012), Brian Kim Stefans lists and describes several types of crisis that go beyond McKee's plot-driven approach -

  • Crisis of ESCHATOLOGY – we are not sure where, in the standard narrative paradigm, poetic paradigm, or essayistic (syllogistic) paradigm, we are located nor can we, for the moment, imagine the end. I think a Sherlock Holmes story provides this. Readers are in no doubt of the genre or of the ontological status of the characters.
  • Crisis of SIGNIFICATION – something has occurred in our understanding of conventional relationships between word and thing. Magic realism comes to mind - readers need to decide whether the strange events are in a Fantasy world or whether they're hallucinations in The Real World. Or "The Matrix".
  • Crisis of SYMBOLISM – something seen to have a merely contingent value is seen to have a role in a symbolic universe. Perhaps the numbers in Peter Greenaway's "Painting by Numbers", or the Ring from Lord of the Rings, or the way that the sleigh in Citizen Kane changes meaning.
  • Crisis of SUBJECTIVITY – the narrative "I", whether of third or first person, has shifted. A realisation that the narrator's unreliable, or a robot.
  • Crisis of GENRE - "Cold Comfort Farm" maybe.
  • Crisis of MORALITY - A standard device, one where the reader can most easily identify with the main character.

Any of these can be intensified then resolved. Some of them need only be resolved for particularly insecure readers - many of us for example can read a story that doesn't resolve the moral indeterminacy it presents. The putative crisis could in fact be a permanent state.

Readers like to see how the crisis has caused the protagonist to change, but many of these crisis above are more to do with changes in the reader, how they cope with their crisis of understanding.

The realisation that there can be multiple crises offers possibilities that aren't often exploited.

  • Is it possible to have a chain of resolutions? After the Wizard of Oz's status changes, there's an avalanche of resolutions, but I suspect there are diminishing returns.
  • Do crises interfere with each other? Maybe it's possible for example to have a crisis of morality in something that hovers between farce and crime fiction, but again there are diminishing returns.

More fruitful perhaps is the idea of synchronised crises, or the idea of one of Stefans' more intellectual crises being used as an analogy for a more traditional, emotional one. For example, in a story where the main character's deciding whether to pick a fun-loving or reliable partner-to-be, a crisis of genre (comic or not?) may represent the life-choice.

In her story collection "Used to Be" Elizabeth Baines sometimes exploits the such analogies. Much as a reader might, after the first paragraph of a story, provisionally choose a template (one of the "seven basis plots" maybe), so a character may choose a role-model or a parent as a framework for their self. When the progress of the novel doesn't fit that framework, a decision needs to be made. The biggest decisions are those that require a change of template - Quest become Tragedy, or a father-figure's influence needs to be shaken off - narratology becomes tantamount to character analysis.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

"Remaking the Moon" by David Gaffney

The texts in David Gaffney's "The Half-Life of Songs" (Salt, 2010) though short, are clearly stories rather than belonging to a microgenre like anecdote or vignette - they have plots, locations, characters and usually a resolution. My favourite (and according to an interview in Flash Magazine, one of Gaffney's too) is "Remaking the Moon". Straight away with the initial words "Mason's house" we meet the story's only named character, and learn that it's his house rather than a home. Why is the protagonist's name Mason? Masons are makers of walls, but they're also a secretive society, and as we'll see, he's a loner. The house had "no borders of any kind ... so the local historians ... stared through his window at him". He decided to give the local historians something to stare at, playing to the audience. After years of this, someone knocked. Actually, it's a neighbour. Young. Female. Shy - 'No one has paused at my window for a long, long, time' she said. At his suggestion they assembled a jigsaw puzzle of the moon, making one of the onlooking historians happy - 'something had been added to him'. And there the story ends.

When there are fewer than 500 words to play with, inexperienced writers sometimes confuse writing Flash with playing the radio gameshow "Just a Minute", avoiding deviation, repetition or hesitation. In this piece though, the language isn't compressed - "eye" appears 4 times, and there are 6 uses of verbs to do with looking. Nevertheless every detail counts, often counting double, not only being interesting in itself, but also having structural and symbolic duties. Some provide humour - the scenes that Mason presents include lute playing, wrestling with a dummy and finally badger-stuffing. Other details are teasingly symbolic - the oglers "saunter off, trailing their fingers along his brickwork". Standard symbolism is exploited too - House (body), Window (eye, access), Moon (love, sadness), Jigsaw (solving) - but each is repurposed - the house isn't a home, the window is more for people to look in, the moon's a jigsaw, and all the jigsaw's pieces are the same.

Even the title's ready to mean more. It could be treated as a crossword clue - if you remake "the moon" you get "not home". But this isn't a simple puzzle story where readers tick off answers one by one. Why do all the jigsaw pieces look the same? Because then the jigsaw's easy to do? To emphasise that it's just a device they both exploit so that they can stay in each other's company? The historians "streamed" past on the way to sluice gates and flooded mines. Why all the water imagery? To illustrate two ways to deal with emotion - engineered control of the torrential versus subconscious stillness? I don't know. Part of the fun of the story is that there are aspects that don't quite fit, offering readers wiggle room. There's often a partial rationale - the taxidermist's plastic eyes littering the floor at the end contrast with all the earlier staring - but why do the couple make the jigsaw on the floor, kneeling amongst the sawdust and false eyes, rather than on a table?

I've not dealt with what to many readers is its the emotional armature. Gaffney says in the interview that this story's "about lonely people coming together and not really knowing what to do together, so they do a jigsaw". In a Guardian article he suggested that Flash writers should "place the denouement in the middle of the story", which is rather what happens here when the jigsaw comes out of the cupboard, but like the terrorist's 2nd bomb that goes off where crowds are fleeing from the 1st, there's another ending. In the same article he suggested that a Flash story's last line "should leave the reader with something which will continue to sound after the story has finished. It should not complete the story". Why did the final scene make that historian happy? Maybe most of the local historians thought that the jigsaw's just another piece of performance art put on for their entertainment. What did that one special historian lack? Something opposite to his role perhaps - something universal, forward-looking. The moon provides the universality, and the happiness of the couple bodes well for the future. Furthermore we're told the historian's "round-faced", a detail that can't be accidental. Perhaps he sees in the reconstructed moon his face reflected, entire.

Short though it is, the story doesn't seem lacking in any respect. It's defined by what's left out almost as much as by its contents. Nor have I by any means exhausted the piece. There's something for readers of various persuasions. And there are 54 other stories in the book.

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.