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.


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 differences between individuals' responses to poems (rather judgementally, to modern eyes) 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.

Thursday, 13 November 2014


Laughable aren't they. They come in several varieties. Let's deal first with the most easily identifiable -

  • Poetic words - these are the easiest to detect. Some people seem to think that words like "gossamer", "palimpsest", "lozenge", "lambent", "shimmering", etc have intrinsic beauty, or trigger poetic thoughts in the reader
  • Poetic things - everyone thinks rainbows are beautiful, so a poem that mentions them will be beautiful too
  • Form-driven rhyme - most famous poems rhyme, and rhyme is the most obvious feature of many old poems, so poems must rhyme at all costs, even if all you can think of to rhyme with "love" is "dove".

I suspect the problem with all of these is that the original reason for using these features has gone (or at least has become diluted). People are copying old tricks without asking themselves if they still work - all style, no substance. Even if there are still valid reasons, over-use can reduce the effectiveness of a trick. Other, less obvious features that have lost their force include certain types of

  • Imagery - some images are especially tempting to poets: how some things at night are more easily seen if not looked at directly; pebbles that look so beautiful in the water lose their beauty when dry; how you can see the darkness for a moment when you turn a light on in a dark room; how a pre-natal ultrasound scan resembles a radar screen
  • Linguistic constructions - "An abstract noun in the possessive case followed by an adjective and a concrete noun ... is a nineteenth century favorite ... In the twentieth century it was succeeded in favor by another phrase ... in which the first noun is usually concrete and the second abstract. Thus: 'the pale dawn of longing'", "Anatomy of Criticism", Northrop Frye.

As this latter quote suggests, it's partly a fashion issue - metaphors become dead metaphors, ugly becomes the new beautiful, and the young generation react against the devices of their elders. Wordsworth thought the poetic diction of eighteenth century writers artificial and unnatural - features that he thought should be avoided if possible (though note - artifice is welcomed by some other poets). Poe ("There is a distinct limit... to all works of literary art - the limit of a single sitting") and Pound ("To break the pentameter, that was the first heave"), The Movement and LangPo tried to cleanse the language of the tribe too.

Not all devices that are commonly used deserve to be described as "poeticisms". Over-use is in the eye of the beholder. People who read a lot of modern poetry may notice trends invisible to less avid readers. There are lists of common contemporary devices, amongst them being

Some of these devices (like beginning many lines with "Because", or writing poems that are a list of commands or instructions) are the result of standard workshop exercises and might be striking to readers who've not seen that trick before.

Some layouts are poeticisms too. Centred layouts (especially on coloured paper) are suspect. But if poeticisms are over-used devices, devices copied without thought or reason that hope to take a ride on the power of older poetry, then using regular boxes of text risks being a poeticism. When a "shape poem" is made of rectangular stanzas, you can see from the other side of the room that it's trying to look like a poem; you don't even need to read the words. When you read the words, the shape often makes no sense. It did in the olden days when people wrote in standard forms with a fixed number of syllables per line, but imitating appearance without the motivating cause isn't a good idea.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Winning story competitions

The Judges' PoV

Time - In 2014 the Bristol Story competition attracted over 2,500 entries. The Bridport receives over 6,000. If one person read all those stories it would take them several months. In practise the task is often shared, and not all the stories are read from start to finish, but it's still a lot of work, so judges will seek any excuse to reject a piece. Don't make it easy for them.

  • Easiest is to reject a piece because the author failed to follow the instructions. In my limited experience it's not unusual for 10% of entries to be eliminated for this reason.
  • Many other stories fail because the first and last paragraphs/pages aren't good enough. Not infrequently the judges only read that much of a story - in many cases they don't need to read any more than that.

Boredom - It's a relief to find something a bit different to relieve the grind of reading dozens of competent stories.

Reputation - Judges don't want to damage their own reputation (presumably they want to judge again). Equally the competition organisers want people to enter in subsequent years. So the choice of winners need to be convincing to the kind of people who enter such competitions.

Judges' Reports

Online reports often point out common subject matter (if you write about the death of old parents, expect competition from similar stories) and lack of a turn (or a change in the main character) as reasons for competent stories not winning prizes.

Your PoV

Judging is usually a two-stage process - a short-list is generated, then winners are chosen. In some ways it's similar to applying for a job - first you fill in the application form making sure that you don't make silly mistakes. The aim is to survive the first cull. Only if you get an interview can you begin to be individualistic.

Although the first prize is likely to go to a standard story, there's scope for diversity if there are several prizes, especially if an anthology is being produced. A variety of styles will enhance the judge's reputation and will encourage further entries in future years. So you might enter a piece aiming for the anthology rather than the first prize.

The judges are likely to be able to appreciate a wider range of styles than those they write in, but don't expect too much generosity if you send an avant-garde piece in.

Your story

The simple guidelines on how to write an effective short story apply, only moreso - an eye-catching title, a character one can empathise with, a paraphrasable plot, a single PoV. First-person narratives are recommended (in the "MsLexia" article, Jill Dawson is quoted as saying that "It’s no coincidence that the top prizewinning stories were all written in the first person"), adding at least one strange character helps, and you needn't fear that dramatic life events will appear melodramatic.

How many stories?

Given the chance element, perhaps it's worth entering more than one entry. In the "Writers Write" article Alex Keegan says "For most competitions I enter at least three stories, and so often it's my third-string, the one I perceive as weaker which brings home the bacon".

Where to send them

Two places to look for UK and some non-UK options are

Other articles

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Poetry, voice, and discourse analysis

"Language and Creativity: the art of common talk" by Ronald Carter (Routledge, 2004) analyses fragments of dialogue from various contexts to show how conversationalists are creative at a linguistic level - one example provided is

A: Yes, he must have a bob or two.
B: Whatever he does he makes money out of it, just like that.
C: Bob's your uncle.
B: He's quite a lot of money erm tied up in property and things. He's got a finger in all kinds of pies and houses and stuff

Carter points out that "the most frequent forms of linguistic creativity include: speaker displacement of fixedness, particularly of idioms and formulaic phrases; metaphor extension; morphological inventiveness; verbal play, punning and parody through overlapping forms and meanings; 'echoing' by repetition, including echoing by means of allusion and phonological echoes" (p.109).

This creativity performs many functions, amongst them "to give pleasure, to establish both harmony and convergence as well as disruption and critique, to express identities and to evoke alternative fictional worlds which are recreational and which recreate the familiar world in new ways" (p.82). It can be performative, competitive, figurative, space-filling, or for fun. Situations which are less concerned with information transfer (e.g. banter) give more scope for creativity. Often on "the surface and to the outsider (though not to the participants) there is much divergence, disconnection and incoherence. Beneath the surface there is, however, much convergence and coherence marked in a distinctive range of pattern-reinforcing linguistic features, especially repetition" (p.101), and that "how what is said is as significant, if not more so, than what is talked about" (p.105).

This "Common talk has continuities with and exists along clines [aka gradients] with forms that are valued by societies as art. The values which are attached to the art of common talk will vary according to context, time and place" (p.210). The author suggests that "Speakers also often wish to give a more affective contour to what they or others are saying. It is hypothesised here that there are three essential expressive options open to them: the expression of intimacy, the expression of intensity and the expression of evaluation" (p.117). All of these features tend to be increased in informal situations. Shifts along these dimensions are significant and often signposted - e.g. "proverbs appear at a discourse boundary, as if functioning to close down a conversation by summarising an attitude or by indicating a particular stance towards what has been said or to allow a smooth transition from one topic to another" (p.134).

I think we're alert (often subconsciously) to these nuances of register change - to how they're signalled and what their purpose is. At an appointment between a GP and a patient for example, a patient will react to the doctor's invitation to informality, seeing it perhaps as an indication that there's nothing seriously wrong. The GP on the other hand might be trying to extract a less inhibited description of the symptoms from the patient. Friends in discussion are also sensitive to the significance of these switches, or at least they sense the undercurrents that these shifts and switches create.

At a 2014 poetry workshop run with Emily Berry, Jack Underwood said he thought that poetry nowadays was more about voice and less about comparisons. He suggested that participants could try suppressing explicit narrative, using juxtaposition (of registers, tone, etc) to create distances for the reader to travel. The sample poems were mostly by Americans. Here are extracts from 2 of them

  • There are about 35,000 elk.

    But I should be studying for my exam.
    I wonder if Dean will celebrate with me tonight,
    assuming I pass. Finnish Literature

    really came alive in the 1860s.
    Here, in Cambridge Massachusetts,
    no one cares that I am a Finn.

    They've never even heard of Frans Eeemil Sillanpää,
    winner of the 1939 Nobel Prize in Literature.
    As a Finn, this infuriates me.
    ("I Am a Finn" by James Tate)
  • It's a travesty of hand-stitching, a decapitation.

    Whose cotton limb? It dangles from my thumb
    and forefinger. The universe slackens in its shadow
    ("Ruminations on 25mm of Cotton" by Heather Phillipson)

There are rapid changes of register (changes of intimacy, intensity and evaluation are evident). Both are presented as if from a single persona, but in general the distinction between this and polyphony isn't clear - polyphony can be flattened into monologue. In Eliot's notes for "The Wasteland" he writes "Tiresias, although a mere spectator and not indeed a 'character,' is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest. Just as the one-eyed merchant, seller of currants, melts into the Phoenician Sailor, and the latter is not wholly distinct from Ferdinand Prince of Naples, so all the women are one woman, and the two sexes meet in Tiresias. What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem". Sections of the Wasteland read as dialogue even if they're not, and vice versa - "Do/ You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember/ Nothing?"/ I remember/ Those are pearls that were his eyes./ "Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?"/ But/ O O O O that Shakesperian Rag—" or

Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the archduke’s,
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish?

There's little simile and narrative in these extracts. But need the interplay of registers be at the expense of narrative and form? In the past I think there are many type of poetry capable of exhibiting contrasting registers - the cubist idea of fusing different viewpoints and the use of collage are early 20th century discoveries, but the use of a Fool, a mad person or a cacophonous crowd to depict polyphony go back much further. Many have retained some kind of plot. And what about sound? Poets of many types have suggested that the form and sonics of their poems create a constantly changing, parallel effect to the meaning, that an even-handed dialogue is possible between sound and "meaning".

  • "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
  • "The sounds, acting together with the measure, are a kind of extended onomatopoeia - i.e., they imitate, not the sounds of an experience ... but the feeling of an experience, its emotional tone, its texture", Denise Levertov
  • "sound enacts meaning as much as designates something meant", Charles Bernstein
  • "sound in its due place is as much true as knowledge (and all that mere claptrap about information and learning). Rhyme is the public truth of language, sound paced out in the shared place", J.H. Prynne
  • "Bunting would say that you should hear the 'meaning' of the poetry purely in the sound ... Word patterns which may at first appear dense and complicated on the page become articulated and clarified, resonating across the poems' structure. The subtleties and echoes of language which hold a poem together are revealed by the process of sounding it", Richard Caddel
  • "The ear is satisfied when the metre is balanced and the rhyme struck, but the sentence is incomplete and the mind seeks its satisfaction in resolution of the sense... By the counterpoint - a kind of suspense - created between the arrangement of sounds and the construing of sense, a pace builds and a drama develops", Michael Schmidt
  • "The classic prejudice persists, however, that sound is secondary to meaning. The prejudice has been challenged by John Hollander, who, seeking to show the relation between sound and poetic meaning, discovers that sound pattern can play the role of an allegory or metaphor of the poem's content the role of sound in language becomes clear only when expression becomes artistic, so that language exceeds its purely representational function", Anca Rosu

Because discourse-based poems emulate speech, they tend not to use sound effects (regular ones, at least). These new-style poems exploit readers' conversational skills, using their reactions as the pivots that articulate the movement within a poem in preference to using their ear for music. The tasks performed in the past by sound can be simulated by register changes -

  • Particular sounds were thought to be invested with particular meaning (within the context of a particular poem, at least). For example an "oo" sound might signify sadness. In discourse-based poems there's a corresponding way to trigger emotion - for instance the switch to an impersonal standard phrase might denote cold-shouldering or distancing.
  • An earlier phrase can be alluded to by use of rhyme. In discourse-based poems, sudden formality might remind the reader of the previous formality, or use can be made of stand-up comedians'callbacks.

Older poems might be analysed by counting beats and identifying constellations of sounds. W.G. Shepherd for example, quoting "Bellflowers, seldom seen now, stellar, trim. by Peter Dale, remarked "Note the triple statement of the el(l) sound counterpointed against the duple m; the narrowing of el(l)'s vowel to ee and i - boldly interrupted by recapitulation of ow; and the modulation of s through st to t". I've seen descriptions of how discourse-based poems work using terms like "shifting planes", "tectonic plates colliding", "slippery", "tonal juxtapositions", "shimmering surfaces", etc. Narrative is compared to melody, and discourse-based poems to atonality. I think that one can be less impressionistic than this. The poems might be studied by

  • re-casting as a multi-voice poems.
  • identifying the direction and magnitude of each jump.