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Weblog :: Aesthetics
Journalism and the non-fiction novel 25.XII.2005 03:44
This week, I saw the excellent film Capote, which I would recommend solely on the strength of Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance, though the film is quite good in its own right. The film concerns the writing of In Cold Blood, Capote's famous 'non-fiction novel' about the murders of a Kansas family and its effect on the town - and the murderers. I'll admit I've not read the book, but its revolutionary insight is clearly demonstrated in the passages read in the film - it takes the very real events of the murders and describes them not in the clipped and dispassionate language of journalism but the fluid and beautiful one of literature. The images of the text are quite haunting, and it's easy to see why In Cold Blood catapulted Capote to fame: the combination of verisimilitude and art combined to make an astounding work.

The catch is that the only events that can be captured in a literary way are ones which are inherently literary; the events of In Cold Blood have full disclosure and a complete story arc, as real events so seldom do. In fact, Capote describes the repeated stays in the murderers' executions as a torture; they deprive his book of its necessary ending, and it is with great (though somewhat guilt-ridden) relief that he hears of their execution. Truman Capote's insight was to show the real world through the gorgeous, empathetic lens of literature, and it is this which made the book so resonant. Unfortunately, much modern journalism has followed a parallel course, not as an after-effect of In Cold Blood, but tapping into the same emotions. Today, however, the lens applied is not that of the great novel, but of the predictable page-turner, and events are not found to fit the moulds of literature, but forced into them. The lens through which we see is adjusted until it shows a specific type of picture.

I remember, in high school history, someone or other gave a presentation on 'film as the mirror of society.' Then, as now, I thought that any such suggestion was nonsense - if anything, film is a reflection of how society wants to see itself. Unfortunately, most people instinctively do see film in this way, to a greater or lesser extent - I can't count the number of social customs I've picked up from film and emulated, assuming somewhat subconsciously that this is how most people actually behave. This instinct, combined with the desire for reality to confirm views you already hold, has had a devastating effect on the media - people are so used to life being portrayed as it is on film, this is now how the news is displayed. In Cold Blood is an anomaly because Capote was able to discover the inherent literary nature of the murders, and understood the necessity to wait for that nature to be complete at the killers' executions. Today, however, the media, especially television news, work on viewers' assumptions that the story-like qualities are already there - and present the real world accordingly.

This all came to mind as I watched CNN today, finding its human-interest stories completely insufferable. The news pieces, despite being completely factual, bore so little relation to reality it was painful to watch. The most infuriating was the 'one year on' coverage of the tsunami - the lead piece was about the women who had had babies since the tsunami hit, demonstrating (apparently) that the Human Spirit had once again Triumphed over Adversity, and these women, imbued with hope, had decided to have children, proving once and for all that the forces of good in the world are the most powerful. The Asian tsunami, whose victims remain in horrific straits, is played in the US media like a disaster movie, with wonderfully redemptive stories of hope and compassion. This is done not just because people want the world to be this way, but because they really think it is - and will suffer no evidence to the contrary. The people wanted to believe and the media gave them what they wanted, and now its a vicious cycle that seems impossible to break. Keats may have written that 'truth is beauty, and beauty truth', but only rarely is truth such that beauty can be seen in it, and it takes a skilled hand to perform the feat. But people have come to expect beauty from truth - and our 'reliable' information sources have no qualms about feeding such a vision.

The most important facet of reality is that it is uncompromising. It does not bow to our hopes, or our fears, or our desires. It is faceless and detached, never benign or malicious but merely indifferent. Truth is not only imperfect, but elusive: it is effectively impossible to truly know the truth of a situation, even though most news organisation's presentations are instinctively dogmatic, events play out one way, just as in a film. In reality, one is left with the same feeling one gets after watching the excellent documentary Capturing the Friedmans - you've experienced the emotional turmoil of horrific accusations of child molestation, but are left with the kind of mystery of their truth that life almost always leaves. Yet films with their simple story arcs have brought us an expectation that most journalism emulates - that facts are relatively clean cut, and that stories are stories with beginnings and conclusions, characters, and progress, and human development. Life isn't like that - deep down, we all know it - but the news is.

The story is a universal human experience, shared by societies since prehistory, and its appeal is shared by the most complex of novels and the simplest of anecdotes. But life is so rarely like a story, because we are not given an omniscient narrator, nor an author painting a picture he wishes us to see. Life isn't always unpleasant - far from it - but it is usually untidy; but while the media will expose us to unpleasant events, it has no patience for complicated and ambiguous ones ones. The news has become like its own reality, sharing facts with the real world but not reflecting their nature. In Cold Blood was a non-fiction novel that brought out the inherent literary beauty of a single true event, and it remains a fine exercise in journalism, but the non-fiction novel of modern news does nothing of the sort: it compromises its truth for its vision, and it is not great literary works that provide the model, but the easy plotlines of modern film and fiction. To try to get the truth from the news is to try to compensate for the effects of the lens through which they insist we view it, and that is no easy task, if it is even a possible one. We've become so used to the styles and affectations of film in non-fiction that I find it hard to imagine the news without it - and perhaps media that portray the world as an ambiguous and complicated place could never find success. Nevertheless, we must recognise that the non-fiction novel is so rarely possible, and our efforts at conforming every real event into its mould leave us with things that are neither true nor beautiful, however much they fit into the paradigms we've become accustomed to accepting.
Venid a ver la sangre por las calles 29.III.2005 00:08





I'm explaining a few things, Pablo Neruda

show quote [+]

For modern society, meaning in art is a fickle and elusive thing; in fact, it can be so elusive that many have been inclined to deny its existence at all. Since the limits of physics and consciousness preclude us from ever knowing the mind of Shakespeare, many modernists and post-modernists give themselves carte blanche to interpret his plays as they please, and project their own meanings onto the works with little beyond their own whimsy as justification. At its essence, this is the project of decontextualisation, of removing a work of art from the circumstances in which it was created and examining it as if in a vaccuum. Here there can be no right or wrong, and belief is its own validation. This view is quite prevalent in our society's interpretation of art, at least at the popular level, but I think it is an incorrect one which robs art of much of its true meaning. I hope to illustrate this incorrectness by examining the above poem, and specifically one line within it, the last one, repeated: come and see the blood in the streets.

There is a relatively famous scene in the film Dead Poet's Society where the students rip out the page of the textbook containing the constructionist, analytical, fascist definition of poetry. The point is that the beauty and meaning of a poem are contained entirely within its words, and it is the act of reading that elicits them; poems are to be experienced, not to be studied. This is essentially the postmodern view of art: once written, the work is independent of its author; it is the reader and not the writer that ultimately determines its meaning. At the heart of this is the deconstructionist theory espoused by the likes of Derrida, which argues that wherever interpretation can be made, there meaning exists, i.e. the act of interpreting itself creates the meaning it elicits. I think the above poem is an apt illustration of the failure of such philosophies.

Let us first take the line in isolation: 'come and see the blood in the streets.' Its repetition, varied emphasis, and placement at the end of the poem clearly highlight it as the defining statement of the work as a whole. Even without the remainder of the poem, it calls up a powerful image, that of human ignorance and blindness to the tragedies of reality, especially those of the common man. Even without the preceding lines, we can see that Neruda is accusing us, and perhaps also himself, of isolating ourselves, turning away from the world's horror so that our eyes may be unsullied by them. The line invites us to descend to the level of those on the streets, who have no time for poetry, and see the way in which they live. Even this one line implies we could not walk away from the experience unchanged. All this can be taken from the line in isolation, and is typical of a modern interpretation, as would show in any English course. Yet more can be seen by examining the line in the context of the whole poem; that much should be obvious, and not even a postmodernist would deny it. However, the bulk of the poem's meaning must be gleaned from examining the author himself; and this is something postmodernism could not condone.

Pablo Neruda, with whose works you're all doubtless familiar, is a Chilean poet who, before writing this, was famed for his metaphysical and romantic poetry, whose subject matter was most often flowers and women. However, he travelled to Spain, and was exposed to the violent reality of the situation there, and determined that he could not keep writing the harmless abstractions that had defined his career and made him famous. This poem, which is entitled 'I'm explaining a few things,' is his admission that all his earlier work, while beautiful, is essentially worthless, because it affects none of the things he's realised truly matter in life, i.e. real human experience. The poem is not self-contained, and its importance would be lost without knowledge of the author, for more than a rejection of care for flowers and metaphysics, it is a rejection of the author himself, changed irreversibly. No reader, in isolation, could understand this; the poem's meaning exists in opposition to the writer.

The first stanza is an obvious allusion to his earlier poems about flowers, speaking of lilacs and 'poppy-petalled metaphysics.' The theme of flowers plays heavily in the poem, as it does in much of his previous work, and there can be no doubting their importance. However, the nature of the flowers here is not explored; they exist rather in the background, object not subject. In this they are victims, removed from consideration, but in the poem they are also objects of destruction: 'do you remember from under the ground my balconies on which the light of June drowned flowers in your mouth?' This stanza, dwelling largely on the subject of vegetation, gains its meaning also from without, from the beginning line of the stanza that follows it: 'one morning all that was burning.' But there, the flowers are doubly destroyed: consumed not only by the fire, but also subordinate victims as the focus shifts to human beings. Yet without Neruda's earlier works on flowers and metaphysics, the weight of their image could not be divined; the image would remain, yes, but it would be substantially weakened.

Another failure of the attempt to put the entirety of meaning in the hands of the reader is that it does not allow us to perceive meaning in absence. In isolation all absences are equal; only in context can they gain significance. Here, such a meaningful absence is that of references to women. Neruda's earlier romantic poetry was famed across the Spanish-speaking world, and women were, poetically, one of his passions. Here, however, you'll notice that no reference to a woman is made. In fact, all the exhortations and personal reminsicences are confined to men, Raúl, Rafael, Federico: 'brother, my brother!' Similarly, innocence is illustrated with children of unnamed gender. In isolation, such touches would be unnecessary; however, when meant to be contrasted with his earlier works, such absences are telling. There could be no clearer rejection of the earlier tradition of his work: how could we know that without examining the tradition itself? A postmodernist could only see these passages as expressions of his kinship with the men in Spain. We, however, can see that this kinship is newfound, and only now is he seeing those to whom he used to be blind. The most crucial of meanings appears only from the poem's external context.

Essentially, I wish to prove here that the study of literary tradition, of archetypes, of symbols, of legends and influences, and yes, of the authors themselves, is vital to the proper understanding of poetry. More fundamentally, however, I want to dismiss the ridiculous notion that the intentions of the author are irrelevant to the poem's meaning. Postmodernism holds that the artist creates something without fully understanding it: he is almost like another reader, interpreting as he creates but privy to no more information than his audience will be. This is the view that I think is ridiculous, and yet I think it has crept, somewhat surreptitiously, into mainstream theories of interpretation. I think in evaluating art, one has to examine the artist, and what he may have intended. While I agree that some associations and symbols may have been subconscious even for him, I do not believe he can be removed from the equation.

Most importantly, I think that in interpretation, there are right and wrong answers. I am not saying that there is a knowable, precise truth about all art; that's ludicrous. However, I don't think that our English classes' view that there are no wrong answers, and that all interpretations are a step forward in the skill, is correct (while this was most prevalent in high school, I've seen it in university too). The serpent is immediately recognised in any work as a symbol of deceit and temptation because that is our culture's archetype; we would be foolish to interpret it otherwise in the vast majority of cases. However, we seem to abandon this theory for the non-obvious, and validate any theory with a blanket relativism. Yet is it not likely that other symbols are as precisely defined as that of the serpent, if only we would take the time to gain the knowledge and do the research? How can we pretend that meaning exists only in the symbolism we possess, and not in that of the author and his society?

The above poem is an apt example because it cannot be properly interpreted without reference to a very specific body of work, namely the author's own, but there are many works which are left even more stripped by decontextualisation. A perfect example of this are the works of Eliot, but my own ignorance of literary tradition and symbolism does not permit me to undertake a proper analysis of any of his poems. Yet I know I am missing something, and over the coming years and decades of my life I hope to fill the voids in my knowledge. If we truly want to see the meaning and the beauty of a poem, and not merely look for catharsis and private meaning, we simply must study the world within which the poem was written, for it was the act of writing, not reading, that truly gave it life: reading only allowed that life to be seen anew. Such context can give worlds of meaning to single words or names like Icarus or Orpheus or Echo; it can allow a single line to convey an entire work, and sometimes an entire life and an entire culture. The art of poetry is the art of giving words meaning which they do not inherently contain, and this meaning comes from the world from which the words spring. Venid a ver la sangre por las calles. The meaning of a line in isolation can be exhausted in a mere paragraph. But, taken in the entirety of its existence, not deconstructed but looked on from above, so much more can be found, seen and appreciated. Come and see the blood in the streets.
The art of poetry 01.VIII.2004 23:42
Writing is inhibiting. Sighing, I sit, scribbling in ink
this pidgin script. I sing with nihilistic witticism
disciplining signs with trifling gimmicks – impish
hijinks which highlight stick sigils. Isn’t it glib?
Isn’t it chic? I fit childish insights within rigid limits,
writing shtick which might instill priggish misgiv-
ings in critics blind with hindsight. I dismiss nit-
picking criticism which flirts with philistinism. I
bitch; I kibitz – griping whilst criticizing dimwits,
sniping whilst indicting nitwits, dismissing simplis-
tic thinking, in which philippic wit is still illicit.

Poetry must be metred. I say this not merely to incense – if there remains anyone who can be incensed by a statement about poetry, and if anyone actually reads these essays, which is highly dubious – but because it is to be the central theme of this entire work, and is one which runs squarely counter to modern poetic tradition. It will be the overarching theme of this essay, and although numerous exceptions, redefinitions, and ambiguities will be appended to the statement, its spirit will remain throughout. Thus, even when the argument seems to veer toward a contradictory conclusion, it will always be no more than an elaboration of the meaning of this first point.

Poetry, like prose, must conform to language, because poetry is a linguistic art. All proper poetry can be written as prose, in single lines and paragraphs, without loss of meaning. That which distinguishes poetry from prose is this: poetry is more than prose. Poetry adds to prose other elements, beyond the mere meanings of words. Most often, this is the property of rhythm, or metre, although other phonetic elements, such as alliteration or rhyme, are often superimposed. Poetry is greater than prose because it utilises language to express its meaning at both a linguistic and phonetic level. Poetry which lacks the phonetic level is mere prose; it can be brilliant prose, but it is prose nonetheless, and the insertion of line-breaks is little more than the author’s admission that either the words or the reader will be inadequate to glean the proper emphases from the passage.

It seems that, today, most poetry is little more than prose with liberally applied line-breaks, the sole purpose of which seems to be to delineate the author’s wish to distinguish himself from the – well, more prosaic – works of those who elect to write simple prose. This is little more than a pretence, a lack of faith in the audience to correctly interpret the work unless they approach it in the guise of modern Poetry. The fallacy here is that in true poetry, the lines and stanzas served to facilitate the amateur’s recognition of the phonetic elements; they did not change or elucidate the poem’s meaning or interpretation. A scholar of poetry could recognise poetry just as well were a poem written in the format of a paragraph, as the metre would be naturally apparent to him. It was for the inexperienced, as we are, that the line breaks were used. This is not to take away from the works themselves; they can be brilliant, exquisite and singularly expressive. However, they are brilliant, exquisite, and expressive prose, not poetry. They would (or should, if they are properly written) lose none of their effect were they written as paragraphs in a novel. However, they pretend to be more than prose simply by way of their setting in print, and this is fallacious to the extreme. Blank space adds little meaning to writing.

Poetry, as mentioned above, adds to prose certain phonetic elements which enhance the language in which they are written, and add to it a mood that increases the power of the poem’s words: the urgency and gravitas of the trochee or dactyl, or the steady, consistent progress of the iamb. The effect of this element of poetry is the same as that of music, in that it adds phonetic elements to words which would, as prose, be confined to their meanings. This is not to say that poetry is necessarily ‘better’ than prose: its very nature makes it both more restrictive and more challenging, simultaneously more and less expressive. However, the added phonetics add a dimension of expression to poetry which has an unavoidable effect on the reader.

A wonderful example of this sort of poetry are the works of Tennyson. It is virtually impossible to read The Lady of Shalott without sensing some of the sing-song rhythm and melody with which the poet has imbued the poem. It is this element that gives the poem, its lasting and lyrical nature. Yes, the poem can be interpreted properly when simply read in silence, but it is when one reads it aloud that its power can truly be appreciated. When reading it one cannot help but sense the flow of the poem, its rhythm and its melody, that any interruption to the flow is immediately apparent and a source of much consternation. This is why it is important, when reading poetry, to preserve the intended stress and pronunciation; without them, the very poetry of the poem is reduced. In a poem such as The Lady of Shalott – as, indeed, in much of Tennyson’s poetry – the rhythm is so apparent that one cannot help but instinctively grasp the intended pronunciations. This is, in fact, the poem that got me interested in poetry in the first place – due to the dubious honour of its inclusion in an Agatha Christie title – and a mispronunciation such as the emphasis of the first syllable in Shalott cannot help but grate on the ears and take away from the poem’s lyricism.

Another poet who can be cited as an excellent example of the use of metre in the English language is one of my personal favourites, A.E. Housman. He is termed as very prosaic by many critics, as his poems do not seek to give sweeping pronouncements about universal absolutes, but rather with minute, insignificant, and often cynically interpreted details of contemporary life. However, his poems invariably conform rather rigidly to the Classical concept of metre and, to me, it is herein that lies his greatness. It is a hallmark of Housman’s poetry to begin as though writing a sweeping lyrical ode in the Classical style then to switch tone, countermand the romanticism of much poetry, as in my personal favourite poem, Stars, I have seen them fall, or to write a poem in a traditional style but in apposition to classical subject matter, as in the anti-war mimicry of a heroic epic in From Clee to heaven the beacon burns. Such effects would be relatively impossible without the addition of metre poetry: the metre points to a proud tradition whereas the words seek to ground the subjects of Classical poetry in reality. A poem such as Oh see how thick the goldcup flowers has two opening verses which could well form the beginning of a traditional ode to the purity and idealism of love, but it instead proceeds to counter such opinions while nonetheless maintaining the rhythm of an autonomous ballad. Housman uses phonetics and words to express opposing sentiments, and as such his poetry is elevated above the possibilities prose would have offered.

Poets such as Blake, Milton, Shakespeare and Frost, to name a desperately inadequate few, also brilliantly utilise the phonetic possibilities intrinsic capabilities of the English language. However, though all the poets discussed above used Classical metres in their works – who can forget the endless high school mentions of iambic pentameter lacking adequate explanation – it is not at all my intention to claim that all poetry consists of only iambs, dactyls, and trochees. There are multifarious other ways to add phonetics to mere prose, and I do not even pretend that they have all been conceived of already. There are many devices of poetry beyond the simple repetition of syllabic pattern. One of this is native to traditional Anglo-Saxon poetry (it was used in Beowulf) and is extremely effective: that of ignoring unstressed syllables, but maintaining a pattern of stressed ones. This is a technique which is, in fact, used in much modern music to create rhythm where the singers’ lyrical abilities were inadequate to craft the songs; however, it has also been in many truly great poems, and it is a rhythm that seems quite natural to speakers of the English language, as opposed to Classical metres, which are more suitable to the more diversely accented languages of Latin and Greek. For example, Gerald Manley Hopkins, who has been cited by many modern poets, including T.S. Eliot, as a major influence, used it in nearly all his poems, as he desired to return English poetry to its pre-Norman roots. The effectiveness of this is evident in his masterpiece, Spring and Fall, or perhaps more familiarly, in George Bowering’s Bones Along Her Body, possibly the only good poem ever featured on the TTC’s Poetry on the Way. This is great poetry even though it does not confirm to the Classical definition of metre because it conforms to the rules of prose, but adds to them considerably. Let it not be said of me that I wish to confine the definition of poetry merely to the manner of Ovid.

Many great poets have defied the traditions of metre with considerable success, and I do not pretend that anything which trespasses out from their rules is not poetry. Dante, for example, is commonly held to have written his Divine Comedy in three-line stanzas with lines of eleven syllables each, but often this rule was stretched through the addition or omission of a syllable or two. However, one of the foremost poets to not use traditional metrics is T.S. Eliot. At first glance, his poetry seems relatively devoid of form in the traditional sense – and yet, his poems have an undeniable rhythm, a flow of language that is extremely subtle and yet is detectable, if not definable, without study, as is true of all great poetry. In a poem such as The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock the metrics are fairly easy to detect, the verses are pattern and rhymes abound throughout the poem, and the same is true of his magnum opus, The Waste Land. However, a poem such as Gerontion, which is in my opinion one of his very best, and is quoted in the essay preceding this one, has no obviously detectable metre. Yet, one cannot escape the feeling that the words of the poem do flow phonetically along some undetected rule, intended by the poem but not perceived by myself, the reader. I have neither the poetic experience nor a sufficient knowledge of Eliot to be able to interpret the poem properly – and this was no doubt his intention, as he was famous for wanting to keep poetry out of the hands of undercommitted, undereducated, vulgar plebeians such as myself – but the feeling of poetry remains. It seems to me unavoidable, when reading Eliot, to gain an acute sense of one’s own ignorance, and an irresistible desire to read the literature of the world until every bit of his supremely educated incidental symbolism is understood. Perhaps the coming years will allow me a greater understanding of the poem's syntactic constructs, but for the moment it remains for me a wonderful example of proper poetry in the rejection of Classical metre, despite my poor understanding of it.

So far, I have merely discussed the rule of poetry, and poets whom I consider great within poetry, but have not mentioned a poet whom I reject, to one of whom we now come. E.E. Cummings is famous in his utter rejection of traditionalist poetic structure, grammar, and spatial configuration. I will focus here on one very famous poem, Cummings’ r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r, more commonly known as Grasshopper. The premise of the poem is that the letters and words of it, read in the only available logical sequence (largely left-to-right) result in the image of a grasshopper, facing right. This poem is considered a breakthrough in the poetics of spatial configuration and iconography, and all this may well be true with the exception of the use of the word ‘poetics.’ There may be much to be said for the art of visual symbolism, or even of the graphical representation of language, but such a poem has little to do with poetry. It lacks the intrinsic aspiration to beauty by use of language that all true literature represents, and it lacks both the linguistic elements of prose and any additional elements that might serve to elevate it to poetry. It can only be appreciated by its technical nature, and has all the beauty and subtlety of a technical manual. E.E. Cummings’ is hailed often as a pioneer in poetry, but he is more accurately a pioneer of typography, an art which is also related to language, but has not the expressiveness of poetry. A ‘poem’ such as r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r is exactly the sort of thing that undermines poetic tradition: visual gimmickry masquerading as proper poetry. It is considered poetry simply because modern society divides all writing into poetry and prose, and anything which is not the latter must also be the former. This is a ridiculous point of view: poetry is more exclusive than prose, and mere graphic wordplay is not an example of it. Is a word search, or a crossword, poetry simply by virtue of it not being prose? This seems a ludicrous proposition.

Gimmickry, however, has perhaps some place within poetry. Though most of my essays read as definitive pronouncements, I would like to spend a few paragraphs discussing a book on which I cannot divine my own opinion, this being Christian Bök’s Eunoia. Continuing in the tradition of Georges Perec, the book is divided into five chapters, each different in tone, and each utilising one vowel only in all its words. I have included one verse from this book at the beginning of this essay, partly because it is an effective discussion on literature and criticism, but partly also because it highlights my own ambivalence on the book’s subject. I have to admit, I was very impressed in reading the book, most of all by the narrative continuity of all the passages. Rarely does the reading feel like meaning is subordinate to the gimmick, except in the final chapter. ‘Chapter E’, a retelling of the Iliad, is particularly effective, and has a continuous flow that surprised and delighted me. However, I must ask myself whether this is true poetry. I am impressed, yes, but am I impressed as one who sees an astounding work of art, or as a child whose attention has been seized by a suddenly shiny trinket? How can I even tell?

Eunoia is an exercise in prose under the strictest of limitations. It is, in a way, an extension of the Classical concepts of strict metre, extended to even more rigid phonetic and topical limitations. Where Hellenistic and Latinate writers had specified metres which to use for certain kinds of literature, Bök imposes on himself much more extreme guidelines, the aforementioned use of only one vowel per passage, and the necessity for each chapter to describe certain scenes, such as a banquet and a nautical voyage. The question, however, is this: are the limitation placed so strict and contrived that they limit the expression of the writing to the point where it is no longer poetry? I do not, alas, have an answer to this. Eunoia is a fascinating exercise in the limits and possibilities of language, but where metrics enhance expression, the devices used here limit it instead. I admire the achievement of Eunoia, but I could not confidently put it in the pantheon of great poetry, nor even in that of all poetry. It is an enigma – as, I suppose, its author intended it to be – but it is not one for which I have an explanation. It is a wonderful highlight of the difficulty in defining poetry even if one has a guideline definition which one has adopted, as I do. Some works clearly lend themselves towards either inclusion or exclusion, acceptance or dismissal, but this one, I must say, confounds me. Perhaps, in several years, these paragraphs will be, to me, a source of considerable embarrassment.

A crucial example of modern non-poetry that get labelled as ‘poetry’ because of society’s ignorance is so-called ‘anagrammatic poetry’, which is to say poetry which rejects the rules of grammar. An example of this is rather pathetically appended to Eunoia to represent the semi-vowel ‘y’, and if any one considers this poetry, I am bemused and bewildered. It is little more (and this is true of much ‘poetry’ today) than a list of words which are somehow interrelated. This is all well and good, and it can, in fact, even be quite expressive. It is not, however, poetry. It is like much of modern art, a series of disjoint symbols, and it is left to the reader to link them to determine their meaning. They are the linguistic equivalent of a Rorschach test, and just as no one would argue that the inkblots themselves are works of art, so I would argue that such wordlists are not poetry either. They serve, perhaps, to illuminate the relative linguistics of the reader’s cognitive processes, but they have no beauty of their own, and they do not further the art of the language, and add nothing to what expressiveness could be achieved by prose and are, thus, not poetry.

The problem, as I see it, with poetry, and in fact with much of art as a whole, is that society no longer regards it as self-contained, but rather regards it, more than anything, in terms of its creator. Most amateur poets write poetry as a form of catharsis, which is all well and good, but it can only lead to true art by coincidence. Truly great poetry is written in service of the craft of poetry, not of the emotions of the author. However, this perception is not common throughout society: the best poetry is seen as that which best expresses the author’s ‘soul’ or emotional state. I think this view is fallacious; I consider poetry an art form, and as art, it must aspire to be beautiful. Contrary to Keats’ famous proposition, truth and beauty are not one and the same – in fact more often than not they are wildly disparate; the most beautiful things we have are our fantasies – and as such, the mere honest expression of emotion, however accurate, does not great poetry make.

Beautiful poetry must be crafted with the intended beauty in mind. Sometimes, yes, this beauty occurs from honest expression, but this is rare; truly great poetry has almost always been the result of an effort to create a beautiful work of art, not simply to express one’s emotions or make oneself feel better. Perhaps Catullus’ poems would not have been as great were it not for his consuming and unrequited love, but without his poetic training and instincts, they would have been no better than the laments of a lonely teenager. Most people now write poetry expecting greatness to come from only their honesty, but poetry, as painting or sculpture, is a carefully honed craft. When I write poetry – all of which is, incidentally, absolutely dreadful – I always aspire to create a thing of beauty, a work of art. I invariably fail, but without that attempt and that intention, the point of writing poetry would be missed. It may be valuable to oneself to write for the sake of catharsis, but it is not valuable to art, and as such I never write thus. Poetry should be beautiful independent of the emotional state of its author, and its words should be able to convey, properly read, the entirety of the message.

Modern poetry, it seems, is largely mired in a bog of avant-garde expression and rejection of traditionalism. When Housman wrote, the situation was somewhat similar, with his work dismissed as prosaic and unoriginal despite his status as Poet Laureate. I maintain that poetry must add to prose other elements beyond meaning; prose may be wonderfully expressive, but there is a magic to poetry, which can be perceived by being studied but shows hints of itself even to the uninitiated, which, to me makes it far more enjoyable, fascinating, and challenging forms. To me, poetry is the highest of art forms, taking language craft to its highest attainable levels and creating expressions of such singular beauty that it truly seems that they could not be expressed any other way. It is unfortunate that is such a widely ignored and maligned art form today, the domain mostly of amateurs with little appreciation or care for poetic tradition, and I can only hope it will one day regain its status as the most respected of all artistic professions.
Art, language, and beauty. 24.VI.2004 00:23
To see the world in a grain of sand,
And Heaven in a wildflower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

The aim of art – of all, art but especially of linguistic arts, of literature, of poetry – is to express something larger than the piece itself. All art aspires to this, in fact, aspires to this; it cannot help but do so. The skill of the artist is to be able to draw out from the audience certain associations from the artwork, to make them think of that which is not explicitly included in the work, but is included implicitly.

Ultimately, this is most true of the arts of language, simply because of nature itself. Language acts as a web, each word associated with dozens, even hundreds of other words, each signifying something else, the totality of the associations making up the primary word’s definitions. At its core, the art of language is to craft a sentence of these associations, and take their aggregate as a larger meaning. For every word in a sentence, or in a poem, or in a book, each word conjures the spectre of a thousand others, to varying degrees, and it is these which form the experience of the book.

This interpretation can be shown to lead to the varying traditions of literary criticisms. In classical criticism, appreciation of literature is directly linked to education. This school of thought assumes there is, at the apex of literary learning, a common language, a common set of interwoven associations, superior to any other, which can be taught to those willing to learn. The ultimate in language-craft, then, is to write in the way most reflective of these associations, and anyone who studies literature sufficiently will be able to arrive at the same conclusion. A common set of language can exist, which will lead to commonality of writing and commonality of interpretation.

This is, of course, to some degree true. Much of the body of literature is self-referential, and the ignorance of the foundations of literary tradition has led to much of the reduced literary appreciation in modern society. It is impossible to appreciate much of even Shakespeare’s work without being familiar with the thousands of years of literature which preceded him. A single word can refer to another passage in another book, or even the entirety of an epic and all associated with that. The title of a book or a character therein has a greater multiplicity of linguistic associations than almost any other word. Many of these remain engrained in our consciousness, and the meanings of authors who employ them are preserved: there are few unfamiliar with the symbolism of Adam and Eve as primeval humans. What, though, of Antigone, or of Ariadne? And what of noble Oedipus reduced to a mere Freudian metaphor from the once evocative name standing for virtue, self-sacrifice, and the ultimate futility thereof?

As associations of language die, so does our power of interpretation of the works that employ them. This is true not only of literature, but of painting and sculpture as well: how can one feel the power of Leda and the Swan, or Laocoön and his Sons, without knowing the stories from which they flow? However, it can not be said either that a commonality of associations could be arrived at: even those most familiar with these stories will have associations different from one another, and no amount of education nor study can remove these. There is a too great diversity of stimuli in the world for a truly common language to be shared between even two people, let alone an entire society, let alone divergent societies spanning millennia.

It is from this realisation that the post-modern tradition stems: that the reader is a part of the art as an integral as the writer, if not more so. This claim has a fairly reasonable foundation: upon reading a book, its totality of associations emerges from the reader, not the writer. It is therefore reasonable to assume, since each person has a language of associations different from that of any other, perception of art cannot but be an individual experience. It is therefore true that no opinions, no true criticisms, can exist of art, because there is no commonality, no correctness, on which criticisms could draw.

The fallacy in this argument can, again, be exposed through the examination of the nature of language itself. It has been said, and it is true, that language is individual, and cannot be identical for any two people. It is easy to postulate, from this, that language is utterly independent for each person, but this is not true either. If private language such as this existed, there could be no communication at all, yet it is obvious that communication of associations exists: how else could one follow directions, or comprehend the events of a story? Though language cannot be identical, it has to be similar for it to constitute a language all: it must carry a commonality of symbols and associations that have high (but not total) degrees of similarity. It is because language functions as a web of associations that two people make speak languages which are not identical, but are the same. Of the billions of associations in one’s mind, millions may be disparate, but the commonality is still overwhelming. Language is a societal phenomenon with individual inflection: its total definition is individual, but its general definition is common. Thus neither the classical nor the post-modern interpretation can be correct: the truth lies in between, with both learned associations and synthetic ones being indispensable.

It is in understanding this, and in failure to understand its implications, that much of the success and failure of modern art lies. The success, of course, lies in its popularity: modern has proven to be largely popular with those who are not mired in the traditional definitions of art, and it is natural that this should be so. This is because modern art is devoid of association by its own nature; it presents images that hold no common associations to society, and are vague enough that there is nothing with which they cannot be associated. Thus, the artistry lies entirely with the audience: their associations are the only ones projected onto the work, and none of the artists. The art would be equally beautiful if generated from the void, or even merely imagined, or independent of any society, simply because it is the viewer whose associations are presented. And it is for this reason that modern art succeeds: anyone approaching modern artwork openly will find it speaks to him, but only because he is speaking to himself.

Obviously enough, this vacuum is also the failure of modern art. Art is created, and the process and though of creation is integral to it. Modern art, being devoid of association, fails to even be an expression: it does not express anything greater than itself, because it itself is nothing. The expression is that of the audience, and only of the audience, and thus the art itself aspires to nothing or, at the very least, fails to achieve to any degree any aspirations it may have had. This sort of art is not interpreted, but merely projected upon. To praise its ‘artists’ is as to see a painting, then to praise the maker of the canvas itself for its beauty. The truly brilliant masterworks of art are ones which conjure a plethora of associated concepts with a minimum of expression, yet are never so incomprehensible as to force the audience to create the entirety of meaning. A wide and subtle web is woven by high art, as opposed to a coarse and small one, or none at all.

For the most part, art is created which speaks to a society’s natural associations: ones which are acquired by most of the potential audience simply by their experience, or by a commonality of education, as is the case with mythological reference. However, most ‘revolutions’ in art are said to occur when a new set of associations is introduced. This was the case, in painting, with Picasso or Dali, whose visuals were evocative enough to create associations as rich and multifarious as that of any renaissance work, yet had enough seeming familiarity, though one could never quite put one’s finger on it, that they were not devoid of interpretation. In literature, a perfect example of such an ambition that overleapt itself is that of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. Never has there been a book that so infuriatingly exposed the ignorance of its reader as compared to its writer. Yet, while being truly revolutionary in the scope of the evocation of its words, it fails in the respect that one cannot grasp even the majority of this association without happening to be James Joyce. The phonemic association, while instinctive to a degree in terms of cognate words, is utilised to a point where it cannot be grasped, and, with each word evoking so many others, it loses the natural associations of a sentence, that of one word with the words surrounding. While a revolution in terms of theoretical art, its impossibility of interpretation is the thing that has prevented it from being as celebrated as Ulysses, whose brilliance relies on both the learned associations of literary tradition and the synthetic associations of the natural stream of thought.

Yet the aspiration of Finnegan’s Wake is that which is purest to art, to express that which is immeasurable in something finite. This, too, is its failure, it expresses but fails to be interpreted because its web is so subtle, and so delicate, that to master some associations is to lose sight of, and break, others. While art must always aspire to that which is greater than itself, merely a quantity of expression is not the success of great art. There must be a balance of creation and interpretation, an understanding of the one’s own linguistic associations, of one’s society’s, and of one’s potential audience’s. Thus, through the power of certain words, which evoke untold thousands of others, can heaven in a wildflower be seen.