Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Rivers and aphorisms / poetry and verse: an essaylet

A very interesting PhD supervision today about aphorisms. The dissertation is already written and is being revised. It includes a large number of aphorisms made up by the candidate himself.

The first and major part of the thesis consists of trying to isolate and describe an aphorism because, as the candidate argues, many things are referred to as aphorisms when they are not precisely so. There are a number of very similar or related categories including precepts, maxims, sayings, gnomisms, apothegms, proverbs, idioms, mottoes, epigrams and so forth, from which the aphorism may be distinguished. Much effort goes into distinguishing. In the end all we seem to be able to say with certainty is that aphorisms are marked by brevity and disproportion between the saying and its import. This disproportion works, generally, because of the reference of the text to another, larger, more comprehensive text, whether that is literary or cultural. That is to say it conjures it.

But how does it do that conjuring? Isn't that the key question?

What, for instance, I ask, constitutes the journey between these various categories, and in what way does the journey to aphorism differ from the journey to a short lyrical poem? A short enigmatic poem by Blake might be instanced as possessing the power of and density - the sense of significance - of an aphorism, as might Jesus's suggestion that: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." (Matthew 19:24). Both would have a strong figurative basis. The poem is, of course, more metaphorical. metaphor, says Jakobson, is the essence of poetry. But it's the how of it that matters, surely? How do we get there? How does text lead us to context?

To put it very practically, on what basis would the candidate select his best aphorisms?

So we talk about such qualities as compression, synchronicity, elegance, wit, memorability, all of which may be required of poetry. But maybe synchronicity is less to be expected of an aphorism than of a lyric poem, which, Barthes tells us, is a single, indivisible signifier, that is to say an utterance chockful of synchronicity.

And what of the types of aphorism: the open, the closed, the witty, the 'philosophical'( yes, but what is it to be 'philosophical')? Now the candidate draws a line which divides into three (or more, for all we know). A class that subdivides into three at least.

It looks to me like a river with tributaries. But which of the tributaries is the river? Which bears the same name as the main river? Where is the source of our river? The Danube has at least two disputed sources as Claudio Magris writes. And what if the divisions were not tributaries but constituted a delta? So we have one original river which continues... where? And now it seems that it is a single body of water that is the subject, but a body to which we give various names as it divides. And if we only know one branch of the delta? Just one of the tributaries? Isn't that our condition, after all? Isn't that the language condition: names that offer the appearance of precision but are wholly dependent on interpretation and habit?


And that, I go on to suggest, is the trouble with the word poetry. How often have I been through this with writers of novels who say that they are actually writing poetry, it's just that it is in the form of prose? We spent an entire conference in India discussing this. And certainly there is an area of experience we may call poetry.

It is with that experience I sometimes begin new classes. I ask them what is meant by the expression 'poetry in motion' or 'sheer poetry'? Does it require an actual poem? Is poetry in motion a ballet dancer? Could it not be a canoeist, or even a boxer? Is there pure poetry in the perfect punch? In the addressing of an envelope? In washing dishes?

And most people say, yes, there is poetry in most things and it consists of X and Y and Z, only the proportions of X and Y and Z vary according to the field in which the 'poetry' is perceived to exist. Poetry, in this sense, is an effect, not a poem. A poem is a piece of writing that strives to produce a poetic effect. But that is not to ascribe any particular characteristics to a poem. The poem might as well be anything else. The term shifts mischievously from object to subject. And what is more, we might not agree on the effect. What seems sheer poetry to me might seem leaden prose to you. How then can I begin to describe a poem, the poem-object, to you?

I could perhaps describe an object that we could agree to call verse, because verse has certain definable components. There is not much subjectivity involved in the iambic pentameter, for instance. We can isolate the term: it exists independently of our apprehension. Ten syllables with - in the English system - an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one, five times in all, is an iambic pentameter. And so we can proceed with some degree of clarity. This is or is not an anapaest. This is, or is not, a rhyme. This is, or is not, a sonnet?

Well, yes, once we get to sonnets and ballads we are dealing with conventions, and conventions can be modified and altered until it no longer makes any sense to call a particular piece of verse a sonnet. There would probably have to be a very last position, some outpost of definition which would allow us to call a poem a sonnet when it does not appear to possess some critical number of the characteristics of a sonnet. I don't quite know where that last position is, nor would I be expected to know, only to assert. That last term, that moment before the sonnet loses all contact with sonnetness is like the image of "the last visible dog" that Russell Hoban referred to in his 'The Mouse and His Child', that is to say the last dog visible on a tin of dog food that shows a dog looking at a tin of dog food, that shows a dog... etc. etc. There is, somewhere, a last visible dog.

That seems hopeless. Nevertheless, I suggest, we would be capable of giving a generic definition of the category, sonnet, by simply adding the odd proviso. We would still have a dog, a sonnet, some notional object.

So let us say that a poem is a piece of verse that produces a range of effects that may be recognised as poetry. Recognised by whom? The 'best judges of the age'? The committee? Your sweet uncle Bertie? Who can tell. It will generally come down to the best judges on hand, those in whom you repose a certain conditional trust. You may not agree eve then. But you will, at least agree, that this is verse. Won't you?

So, I say, to the poetic novelist, let me talk about verse instead of poetry. Verse is what I write and you do not write. There are various existing descriptors of prose as there are of verse. Our words still mean something. The poetic effect? Well, let us discuss how it comes about in that piece of prose, weighing the X and the Y and the Z of it.

Does it matter? Yes, if you care at all for language, it does. It is, if you like, a question of integrity, without which nothing happens. Look, my very breath is poetry. It is just that you are not here to appreciate it. It's not verse though, not till I make it so.


Harry said...

Perhaps the reason 'poetry' has come to be the standard metaphor for beauty or grace in phrases like 'poetry in motion' is that we all use language all the time, largely in a banal and workmanlike way, so the experience of language which is beautiful or graceful has a kind of surprise to it.

Most people don't paint, or design buildings, or write music, but everyone talks and writes, so what better metaphor for unexpected beauty found in the everyday than poetry?

Using canvas and paints and oil and brushes and turpentine to produce a beautiful painting: well, that's an esoteric act of craftsmanship. Making beauty out of a bunch of words? That's a magic trick.

Andrew Shields said...

I've taken note of this post as a possible starting point for my verse-novels course next term!

The verse novel being, of course, a point where the conventional contemporary uses of poetry and prose rub up against each other.

George S said...

Hmm, yes, Harry, but the phrase is used by people who never read poetry, who probably think poetry itself is a clever but sissy kind of thing.

There is also the precise kind of beauty that is referred to as poetry - some mixture of ease and power and lightness (add your own). I wonder whether that is simply a synonym for beauty. Do you think it is?

The verse novel is still verse of course. I will be curious, Andrew, as to what your students will think differentiates a verse novel from a prose novel. Will it be values such as may be described by the word 'poetic'.

And is an epic poem the same as a novel in verse? (I don't think so.)

Might a good starting point be Byron's Don Juan? (Far more digressions than an ordinary novel could afford, unless you are Sterne - but then is Sterne really a novelist?) etc.

Mark Granier said...

Ausssie poet Philip Hodgin's long poem 'Dispossessed' (about a late 20th Century poor rural Australian family) qualifies, I believe, as a verse novel. Though the entire thing is written in strict blank verse, it accommodates vernacular/idiomatic speech and the narrative moves like a novel. Here's a sample, from near the beginning (about the birth of a calf):

Between them lay a groaning Friesian cow,
her head turned back as far as it would go
as if she were afraid of being attacked
by something from behind. Amanda poked
the torchlight down towards that area
and saw inside the blurry waterbag,
just where it poured unmoved out of the cow,
a pair of little ivory cloven hooves.
Her first impression was they looked like teeth.
‘Yep. Good. You stay beside her mate’, said Len
and headed for the far machinery shed,
his sloppy rubber boots producing one
more rhythmic sound to go with what was there:
the paddocks near them full of throbbing frogs,
the distant drumming of the poultry farm’s
big generator left on overnight,
and Beris making long low bhurr, bhurr. bhurrs.
The moon was nearly full. Amanda stared.
She knew that if you looked for long enough
you’d see that it had moved. Sometimes in school
she’d watch the clock until the minute hand
had changed position on the big white face.
But movement from the moon was trickier.
You needed something to compare it with –
if possible the branches of a tree,
or even fingers held in a salute.
She noticed how one side, the left hand side,
was bulging slightly further than the right
by just enough to make a difference,
and it reminded her how it had been
the same with Beris for the last few weeks,
the right hand flank just bigger than the left.

George S said...

Yes, and there is David Mason's excellent verse novel Ludlow. There are such things.

I am not so much concerned with distinguishing long poems from short ones (that is to say extended verse narrative from lyric poetry) as distinguishing verse from prose, and seeing whether that distinction offers us something more firm to hold on to than the idea of poetry, as detached from verse, does. I suspect it may do.

Ossian said...

Isn't it the case that the poetic may be found in good prose, and the prosaic in bad poetry? Then the poetic is independent of poetry and exists in prose as well.

However, unless the poetic is divorced entirely from words, it can only found in the work of Ronnie O'Sullivan, say, in a metaphorical sense, as lions may be found on a battlefield. Some might say that Ronnie O'Sullivan is poetry in motion at the snooker table. Here poetry is used as a metaphor for the graceful mastery displayed by Ronnie O'Sullivan, but the poetry is rather in the statement than in the snooker. Here poetry, which includes metaphors, is itself used as a metaphor. If you wanted to go aphorism hunting, you could say that poetry is sometimes a metaphor for itself.

If prose is necessary, I wonder if "prosaic" ought always to be pejorative? Then again, the poetic could conceivably be out of place - but that would hardly be possible unless really meaning florid, overblown, impractical or suchlike.

George S said...

"Isn't it the case that the poetic may be found in good prose, and the prosaic in bad poetry? Then the poetic is independent of poetry and exists in prose as well"

That is precisely the point of the post.

Interesting regarding the use of the word 'prosaic' as a pejorative. I think one might want certain people to be prosaic - doctors, juries, railways signalsmen, etc. You wouldn't want too much ambiguity there.

Realistic prose, according to the structuralists, moves along the horizontal line of syntax, diachronically, with minimal ambiguity, without, if you like, 'flights of fancy'. Some people like flights of fancy. I think the structuralists are right on this. Most of the time. In general.

Poet in Residence said...

I love the needle's eye poetry found in the prose of writers like Thomas Bernhard (Alte Meister, Holzfällen) and Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot). I'm trying to achieve a similar effect in my work in progress, a play 'Zeno and Alva'. The challenge, for example to reproduce the motifs (which in literature can be a pizzicato of sorts) at suitable intervals, almost in the same way as in opera music, is a wonderful stimulation, and sows its own seeds. Where they fall, stony ground or otherwise, is another matter.
I believe the original Camel's Needle is a geological feature. A narrow gap through which a camel can only pass with difficulty. I'm reminded of the Eye of Ireland in Dublin Bay. What can it see?

Andrew Shields said...

I wholly agree with you, George: Verse vs. prose is a much more helpful distinction than poetry vs. prose.

Even in the world of poetry, there are those for whom bad poems are just not poems, but if only good poems are poetry, then all sorts of problems crop up.

Andrew Shields said...

For the course, I'm teaching Anne Carson's "Autobiography of Red," Ciaran Carson's "For All We Know," Durs Grünbein's "Vom Schnee," and Christoph Ransmayr's "Der fliegende Berg."

C. Carson's book will raise the issue of "long poem (or sequence)" vs. "verse novel."

Since Ransmayr otherwise writes prose fiction, and to my knowledge has published no other texts organized in lines rather than paragraphs (i.e., no other verse), his book will raise the issue of "verse novel" vs. "prose novel."

George S said...

All things are possible in verse. I suspect Frost is at the back of the Paul Hodgin, Mark. He gets in most places. I reckon he is as influential a poet as Eliot or Pound. Coming out of Wordsworth.

The more I think of it the more I go for the prose v verse distinction.

It leaves the prose poem standing, of course. I have just received a book of very good prose poems from the Australian poet Alex Skovron. More to think about and talk about another time.

Mark Granier said...

That's true George, Frost certainly a possible influence, especially considering his own use of the vernacular in poems like 'Out, Out'.

I like your distinction: prose vs. verse, though, as you say, it does leave the prose poem standing. I've always thought 'prose poems' a misnomer, almost an oxymoron (like road-rivers). I thought I'd solved that problem by calling them 'para-poems', since the important difference is between stanza and paragraph. Apparently though, para poetry is already a recognised term/genre (which has nothing to do with prose poems). I had never heard of it before, and am still not sure exactly what it is.