Saturday, 26 February 2011

From Field to Form 2: Poetic v poetry




On one of my visits to India (where I am bound again in a fortnight), probably the third, I got into a disagreement with a very fine novelist, Allan Sealy, whose book Red I had just finished and very much enjoyed. Clearly it was not a straightforward novel, but was based around the various people who come to see a particular painting by Matisse. This is the Amazon 'product description':

Billed as an alphabet, and narrated by the nameless 'N', Red introduces us first to N's friend, Zach. In St Petersburg for a music festival, Zach encounters the red-headed Aline in the Matisse Room at the Hermitage and is immediately bewitched. The two fall in love as quickly as they fall into bed and it seems that nothing can keep them apart. But other characters also appear between the sheets: a gang of six black-shorted, grease-smeared, soot-smudged men, who take what they want, stealing money (and, on one occasion, a piece of art) from homes of the rich; a girl who tends pigs, and wants to keep what is hers; a workman whose wants are few, but with devastating consequences. Even aspects of N's own life are revealed: his awkward relationships with his teenage daughter and her American mother. As these stories overlap and entwine, Red is revealed as a vibrant, violent tale: a love story and a story about the love of art, about life imitating art, about the end of love -- and the end of life.

Allan insisted the book was poetry and that he was a poet. That seemed to me to stretch the terms poetry and poet too far, so we went at it hammer-and-tongs, albeit pizzicato, without resolution. I could see that there was a poetic conception to his novel and that it contained passages of writing that were poetic in the best sense of the word but I still did not find it in me to call the whole set of tales a poem or its author a poet.

I went away wondering whether the debate was usefully located, and began to formulate a definition of poetry in terms of verse. Verse was far easier to define than poetry. Verse was written and conceived in lines and played around with regular rhythms, or at the edges of them. One could talk quite concretely about versification. This is a line: this, on the other hand, is a sentence in a paragraph.

This was not to diminish either poetry or fiction. In the previous post I suggested that sport can offer moments of poetry, as can dance, and indeed almost anything else that invited observation in a particular way. I bore in mind, particularly, Robert Frost's view (one I had often repeated and instinctively put into practice) that the basic unit of the poem is the sentence. To interpret that in absolute terms is misleading and I tend to prefer the sense of counterpoint, where the music and nature of the sentence is played against the music and nature of the line, producing, at best, a kind of manageable, comprehensible, polyphony, one in which the mesmeric effect of rhythm and the whole range poetic devices, particularly metaphor, is brought into contact with syntax, that is to say the world of synecdoche and metonym, statement and information, much as it is - or so I reasoned and felt - in life as we listen to it.

Poetry then, to put it crudely, was verse and expectations of verse as played off against prose and expectations of prose, while prose (or story) was prose and expectations of prose, with elements absorbed from poetry.

In the Rooney post I tried to describe the form of the poetic in the move that ends with Rooney's goal. The movement there depended on certain given quantities and factors: the size of the pitch, the rules of the game, the notion of formations, the state of the pitch, the size of the crowd etc.

Talking of sporting analogies I think it was Frost, again, who said that writing free verse was like playing tennis without a net. That is not my view: what I am suggesting is that the idea of the net remains in place, that free verse has an understanding of the vestigeal iambic or trochaic (or any other metre) around which it hovers as if in acknowledgment.

But that means the net survives and is necessary: that rule is required to bring poetry-as-verse into being.

More next time.



6 comments:

litrefs said...

"Poetry then, to put it crudely, was verse and expectations of verse as played off against prose and expectations of prose, while prose (or story) was prose and expectations of prose, with elements absorbed from poetry" - which sounds right to me. My potted summary is that "poetic" can apply to more than words; that a poem needs to be textual but needn't be verse; that Eliot's hope that free-verse will be read against verse (with a ghostly net) is largely bygone; that free-verse took over the habitat where once aphorisms, parables, anecdotes etc roamed; that anecdote writers had to add line-breaks to their work to get it published; that free-verse hasn't had to face evolutionary pressures for a while (prose poems became too specialised - surrealist, Edson-style) and has become flabby; that a new generation of Flash Fiction writers are reclaiming territory (I think I could tweak Moth on
http://www.chester.ac.uk/sites/files/chester/sample_stories2-2.pdf to get it into poetry mags.); that poets are slow to realise this (especially mainstream UK poets, whose main outlets don't publish stories let alone Flash).
I think Timothy Steele talks of free verse as an interesting, failed experiment.

I'll end with more quotes from the kitty just in case they're unknown and of use

"Instead of treating verse as a by-product of prose, I suggest that verse is composed directly: that lines are the units of composition. Since lines are not linguistic units, they must be produced by other than the normal linguistic processes, and I will show that this is why lines take on 'poetic' characteristics", Nigel Fabb, "Why is Verse Poetry", PN Review, V36.1

"The terms poetry and prose are incorrectly opposed to each other. Verse is, properly, the contrary of prose ... and writing should be divided, not into poetry and prose, but into poetry and philosophy", Rev William Enfield, "Monthly Magazine", II (1796), p.453-6

"'poetry' is a genre, with fiction, drama, and the various nonfiction genres (autobiography, travelogue, epistles, journalism, and so forth), whereas 'verse' is a mode like prose, and again, any of the genres may be written in either of the modes", Turco

"Much confusion has been introduced into criticism by this contradistinction of Poetry and Prose, instead of the more philosophical one of Poetry and Matter of Fact, or Science", Wordsworth

Gwilym Williams said...

Frost is poetry. When you walk on it it crunches. Playing tennis without a net is not poetry. Playing tennis with an invisible net might be poetry. Walking on frost is poetry because it sounds like what we imagine poetry to sound like. It's music really. Poets can walk on frost some fine poets can even walk on water.
Poetry is when you are reading something and you suddenly realize that poetry has been going on, is an aspect of definition (from R S Thomas). R S Thomas is poet. A poet is a very different animal froma writer of verse.

George S said...

My potted summary is that "poetic" can apply to more than words; that a poem needs to be textual but needn't be verse

Yes, this is in effect what I am arguing.

...that free-verse took over the habitat where once aphorisms, parables, anecdotes etc roamed; that anecdote writers had to add line-breaks to their work to get it published; that free-verse hasn't had to face evolutionary pressures for a while (prose poems became too specialised - surrealist, Edson-style) and has become flabby...

Possibly, though I am not prepared to nod a simple assent to it. Partly because, I disagree with:

that Eliot's hope that free-verse will be read against verse (with a ghostly net) is largely bygone

I don't think that is 'bygone', Tim. I think there are reasons of various kinds - reasons I have yet to speculate about, though it may be that neuroscience might offer some clues to some of them - why lines, even in anecdotalists' verses, end in one place rather than another (see Fabb, above). In fact my argument depends to a great extent on coming to some understanding of what a line is.

My hunch is that Eliot's proposal is still valid. It is what I hear when I read students' work. Line units, such as the iambic pentameter are the heart of much of it. Sometimes I read a succession of phrases or cadences from the middle of one line through to the next few and realise that I have in fact been reading close approximations to pentameter, but the lines as written do not express that. This happens far too often to be a coincidence. The writers themselves don't realise that has happened. Their eyes are on the line but their ears are doing something else.

The Turco notion is roughly what I am exploring. The Enfield and Wordsworth tags, if reformulated in structuralist terms, simply bear out the notion that syntax, metonymy and synechdoche are appropriate devices for the conveying of information and linear thought, the and then of the story teller and the and so of the scientist, philosopher and all round rationalist.

George S said...

Poetry is when you are reading something and you suddenly realize that poetry has been going on, is an aspect of definition (from R S Thomas). R S Thomas is poet. A poet is a very different animal from a writer of verse.

In that case we should explain why most poetry is, and always has been, written or composed in verse, Gwilym. Tim offers one reason why Wayne Rooney is not a poet and why even Arsenal, on their best days, do not actually constitute a collective poetic being. He says that poetry requires a text. I sense a kind of straining or aspiration in what he writes, in that his view of anecdotalists and such people who seek publishability by chopping their anecdotes into lines suggests a certain scorn for such - that, in chopping their anecdotes into lines, they are indulging in some kind of pretence and that there must, therefore, be a true position that distinguishes between lines as used by a poet and lines as used by an anecdotalist. Am I getting that right, Tim?

And once we are at that point I might well ask 'tell me what kind of text is valid for poetry, and why text at all?'

I am looking to find a useful distinction between poetry and poetic effect. I am trying to save the words 'poetry' and 'poet' from becoming too much of a blur while maintaining the sense of poetic experience with or without a text.

The way I am going about it is through form. If nothing else, verse has the virtue of being definable in terms of poetic practice (written or oral text) and such terms involve concepts of prosody as much as of poetics.

Otherwise, why bother writing in lines at all?

litrefs said...

My hunch is that Eliot's proposal is still valid - It's my hope that it's still valid. It's just that I don't see proof that many people/poets agree.
I think there are reasons of various kinds ... why lines ... end in one place rather than another - agreed.
Sometimes I read a succession of phrases or cadences from the middle of one line through to the next few and realise that I have in fact been reading close approximations to pentameter - someone in a discussion said something like that. Lines their students liked the sound of tended to be iambic, though the students hadn't noticed.
there must, therefore, be a true position that distinguishes between lines as used by a poet and lines as used by an anecdotalist. - I think it's just that if I can't see a poetic reason for a line-break I begin to wonder if it's a marketing ploy. I use such ploys myself sometimes, to get stuff published that otherwise wouldn't be. You can call it "jumping through hoops" or you can call it "ironing out idiosyncrasies". Essentially it's making my stuff look more like published poetry.
I am looking to find a useful distinction between poetry and poetic effect. - I can only bite off a lesser question. What features of the text influence a reader's decision to categorise it as a poem? Some of these features (repetition, awareness of (and patterning of) underlying media, emotional effect) might be generalisable to non-text situations ("poetic" films, etc), but they're not necessary or sufficient conditions for poetic effect. More quotes, which I hope are relevant to this (I'm most sympathetic to the 2nd and 4th of these)
"Verbal art is experienced as aesthetic because it exploits to the full every option for making verbal behaviour difficult", Nigel Fabb

"Art's effect is due to the tension resulting from the clash of the collocation of elements of two (or more) systems [of interpretation]. This conflict has the function of breaking down automatism of perception and occurs simultaneously on the many levels of a work of art ... All levels may carry meaning", Yury Lotman

"in several ways, one of which is entirely specific to it, poetry contains repetitions in the signifier which thus work to foreground the signifier. This feature can stand as a definition of poetry", Antony Easthope

"poetic effect [is] the peculiar effect of an utterance which achieves most of its relevance through a wide array of weak implicatures.", - D.Sperber and D.Wilson, "Relevance"

Otherwise, why bother writing in lines at all? - "The poetic line seems highly problematic nowadays and it sometimes seems better to avoid it altogether", Frances Presley, "Poetry Review", V98.4, 2008

Gwilym Williams said...

Quite a while ago omebody gave me a present - a "poetry book". It was called "Some more of me pomes" or something like that. I think the author was Pam Ayres. I confess I never read it. I had the immediate impression that it couldn't be poetry. Why? Because it was too simplistic? Does that mean that poetry had to have high falutin' words. I think there is poetry in O: Henry's short stories. I read them and I like them. But the poetry book I just mentioned I really couldn't bring myself to read it. Why, really? It's a mystery I'll have to unravel.